April 19th, 2008
I wasn’t entirely sure where I was. I had just left the rambling lanes of the Taikang Road arts district and was wandering aimlessly through the streets of Shanghai’s former French Concession, each one buzzing with scooters, each lined by perfectly gnarled plane trees and odd, eclectic buildings. The blocks were long but broken by lanes, most of them crowded with hanging laundry, parked bicycles and potted plants. Security guards marked the entrance to each lane, but they seemed nonetheless open to the public, and passersby ambled past me and into the lanes without so much as a glance from the guard.
That’s when I came across a lane marked by an arch with a surprising inscription: “Cité Bourgogne, 1930.” (It really shouldn’t have surprised me, given the colonial history of the surrounding area, but it did.) Two young women stood at the entrance, chatting amiably. I decided that this Burgundian enclave was worth exploring, so I passed through the arch and down a narrow alley. I found myself in a compound of sorts, a small grid of laneways lined by tidy brick rowhouses. At the centre of it was a small square, ringed by houses filled with laundry lines, mostly empty except for a few wet shirts and a worn-looking Winnie the Pooh. Two middle-aged men sat at a table near the edge of the square, eyeing me with benign curiosity.
The Cité Bourgogne, it turns out, is an example of a distinctly Shanghainese form of housing, the shikumen, which takes its name (“stone gate”) from the archways that mark the entrance to each house and laneway. (Shikumen are also known as lilong, which literally means “laneway neighbourhood.”) Shikumen first arose in the nineteenth century when, fleeing the poverty and instability wrought by the Taiping Rebellion, thousands of country-dwellers flooded colonial Shanghai. Property developers scrambled to provide them with housing, and what was built resembled a cross between the traditional Chinese courtyard house and European rowhouses or mews houses.
April 19th, 2008
On a quiet, cold weekend in Griffintown, the looming skyscrapers of downtown can seem like an illusion, so incongruous a backdrop do they make to the empty streets and dormant industry.
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April 16th, 2008
Star Ferry terminal, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
West 34th Street near 8th Avenue, New York
Sinan Road near Taikang Road, Luwan, Shanghai
April 13th, 2008
Over the years I’ve heard people surmise it to be a temple, a mosque, an Orthodox church, even a synagogue. Familiar sight though it is in central Montreal, the first thing the huge domed building at Saint-Urbain and Saint-Viateur brings to mind is not the Roman Catholic church.
At the turn of the last century there was something of a migration of Irish-Canadian working people from their overcrowded Point St. Charles and Griffintown haunts north into Mile End. In 1902, the Catholic archbishop of Montreal, Mgr. Paul Bruchési, gave his approval for a new parish to be created. The first mass was said upstairs of a fire hall at Laurier and Saint-Denis that no longer exists. Their first small church building was on rue Boucher near there; it no longer exists either.
By 1914 the growing parish decided it needed something bigger and grander. In July of that year excavations began. Work stopped briefly when war broke out that autumn, but resumed in April 1915, and the church was ready to use by that December. The price tag was $232,000 and the church could hold 1400 people.
This information comes from a booklet published in 1927 when the parish was already 25 years old. The text describes, and images show, that the dome and the cap on the tower were both decorated with patterns, and the massive façade with the words Deo dicatum in honorem St. Michaeli and a smaller motto on a banner over the doors. Those flourishes are gone, but carved shamrocks are still part of the façade, a nod to the time when the parish was pretty well a monoculture, with priests called McGinnis, Fahey, McCrory, Walsh, O’Brien, Cooney and O’Conor and church wardens Keegan, Gorman, Dillon, McGee and Flood.
Also, unusually, there’s no mention of bells, and no evidence that the tower ever contained any: unlike most church towers it’s closed all the way to the top.
April 13th, 2008
Just off Stone Nullah Lane, in an old and quiet part of Wan Chai above the Queen’s Road, I came across this old advertisement on the side of an apartment building. Duk hau wai cheung tong yue, it reads — “Special Stomach Pills.”
April 11th, 2008
It was not exactly warm on the afternoon of January 24 as I stood at the corner of University and President Kennedy, waiting for a bus, shivering and sliding back and forth on the icy sidewalk.
April 10th, 2008
Peel Street, Montreal
I had travelled more than 15,000 kilometres only to stand, once again, at the corner of Peel and Wellington. Of course, it wasn’t the same Peel and Wellington as back home — with a shared colonial past, it shouldn’t be surprising to find some similar street names in both Montreal and Hong Kong.
In Montreal, Peel and Wellington finds itself in the heart of Griffintown, a neighbourhood that was once a centre of industry and working-class Irish life. In Hong Kong, it sits in the middle of a busy market district in Central, an area that was once part of Victoria City, Britain’s nineteenth-century foothold in South China. It seems somehow appropriate that, even halfway across the world from one another, Peel Street and Wellington Street intersect. Peel was named after Robert Peel, a Tory who first elected to Parliament in a “rotten borough” home to just 24 easily-bribed voters, and who served twice as Prime Minister, from 1834-35 and 1841-46. Wellington Street was named after Peel’s longtime ally, the Duke of Wellington, another two-time Prime Minister who served one of his terms immediately after Peel.
There are plenty of other names that will ring familiar to anyone who has spent time in a former outpost of the British Empire: Elgin, Dalhousie, Drake, Drummond, Granville, Argyle. Like shadows left behind by a passing giant, they testify to a kind of globalization that began before the term even existed.
Peel Street, Hong Kong
April 9th, 2008
After hours at the Price Chopper, Queen West
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April 8th, 2008
If these signs are any indication, Hong Kong pedestrians ought to be very scared.
April 7th, 2008
Although Canada has a monarch, Britain’s queen retains very little presence in Canadian culture. The kind of curiosity and adulation that inspired thousands of Montrealers to flood the streets when King George VI visited in 1939 has long since vanished. It’s a bit of a shock, then, to visit Bangkok and realize the exent to which the King of Thailand appears to be adored, with utmost earnesty, by the city’s inhabitants. Shrines to the king are found throughout the city, on streets and in shopping malls. Each Monday, many people in Bangkok—a significant minority, at least—wear yellow shirts in honour of the king.
Of course, it’s easy to forget that, as well-loved as Thailand’s king appears, he is protected by lèse majesté laws that are used to prosecute anyone who dares criticize any of Thailand’s royalty. This despite the fact that the king himself, an American-born, Swiss-educated man named Bhumibol Adulyadej, has admitted that “the king can do wrong,” and that “I must also be criticized.” Nonetheless, accusations of lèse majesté levied against Thailand’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, were among the motives behind the 2006 military coup against the country’s democratically-elected government.
Earlier this year, the king’s only sister died; shrines to her have been erected in the city’s metro stations. In one station, the shrine is accompanied by a book in which passersby can write their condolences. If only I could read Thai — what have people written?
April 7th, 2008
Sitting in front of his makeshift green stall on a particularly steep block of Peel Street, Ho Hung Hee could be mistaken for one of the many fruit vendors and junk dealers that work in the narrow back streets of Central, uphill from the offices and department stores of Hong Kong’s financial district and in the midst of a rapidly-gentrifying enclave of restaurants, bars and art galleries. Like the other vendors, Ho is old and withered, but his bright, expressive face, more youthful than you would expect for an 82-year-old, hints at the energy it takes to work long hours in the street. But the service he provides is unusual: he makes and repairs umbrellas.
Ho’s career began in an umbrella factory just after the Second World War. In 1948, he set out to start his own umbrella business, riding his bike around the city, offering his services. That’s when he met a grocery store owner who let him open a stall in front of his Peel Street store in exchange for helping him write receipts. While the grocery store is long gone, Ho and his umbrella stall remain, and he continues to receive free water and electricity from the adjacent business owners. Ho’s decades spent working with umbrellas have even led to a certain notoriety: in 1994, he won a Guiness World Record for making the world’s most expensive umbrella, crafted from American ox-hide and a century-old German umbrella frame Ho found at a construction site in 1982. He used the material to make two umbrellas, one of which he sold for $2,000. Ho donated the other one to the Hong Kong Museum of History — even after he was offered $5,000 for it.
Surrounded by a colourful mess of umbrellas, bags and old cookie tins full of tools, Ho works carefully, pulling at an umbrella’s wires with a pair of pliers. Behind him are newspaper articles and a laminated certificate of his Guiness World Record. Craftsmen like Ho are increasingly rare in Hong Kong, and especially in Central, where soaring rents are displacing decades-old businesses. More than rent, though, it’s age that threatens the neighbourhood’s traditional shops and businesses. Ho is about the same age as many of the other people who work in the tiny stalls on Peel and other nearby streets. Several years from now, when they die, there will be no one to take their place. A centuries-old tradition of street vending will disappear.
April 7th, 2008
Hong Kong is a noisy city. Part of it comes from the usual bustle of a large metropolis—roaring buses, roadwork, shops blasting music to attract customers—but part of it comes from a higher tolerance for noise than you would encounter in most of Europe or North America.
For instance, every crosswalk in Hong Kong makes a beeping sound to let blind pedestrians know whether it is safe to cross or not. With streetlights on nearly every corner, this means that the beeping is constant and ubiquitous. (Audible crosswalks in other cities don’t seem to be nearly as loud.) Video screens are another example: while they are common throughout the world, they are usually muted, but not in Asia, which means that newscasts, commercials and music videos are always being blasted at full volume on busy commercial streets.
I recorded these videos as part of a somewhat haphazard attempt to capture a bit of this soundscape. The first one was taken at a crosswalk next to Statue Square in Central; the second is a block-long walk down Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mongkok on a relatively quiet Monday night.
April 4th, 2008
Montreal’s marginal spaces seem to hold particular appeal for its artists. Last year, Karen Spencer decorated fences, laneways and parking lots with her oblique trilingual dreams; Julie Favreau and Caroline Dubois occupied a vacant storefront on Beaubien Street, turning an empty space into one of constant reinvention; and the artists of Dare-Dare took a forlorn corner of Mile End and made it into the centre of gravity for the city’s most interesting and innovative art. Now, the wayward Heather Utah has found herself in the area around the Falaise St. Jacques, where she has marked an entire corner the city with her “flags for a vengeance”: colourful quilts that mark an outpost of ambiguity, spontaneity and humanity in the rigidly-marked space of this drably suburban landscape.
Photos by Heather Utah; click here for the full set.
April 3rd, 2008
Building the new Shanghai.