Archive for September, 2008
Panos 2013: “a collaborative project that takes the work of artists from around the world, in the form of fake road signs, and turns the streets of Lyon, France into an enormous gallery without walls.” Hmm. Sounds vaguely familiar. Maybe that’s because it seems to draw from the same way of thinking about cities as so many other arts interventions, which seek to disrupt the flow of daily life in order to draw attention to it.
In this case, the signs that work best are those that take their cues from their setting and those that critique the content of ordinary road signs. The English artist Tim Fishlock contributed an upside-down bus, which looks like a cute cartoon face but also suggests some kind of upheaval to the natural order of traffic. Naoshii, from Japan, took the classic “do not enter” sign and turned it into a window. Swiss-American Grotesk, with his sign reading “Sous les pavés, la plage,” manages to evoke the 1968 student riots in Paris as well as Paris Plage (or maybe just the state of riverside public space in general).
Photos courtesy Panos 2013
I normally despise anything that forces pedestrians to go out of their way for the sake of motorized traffic. But since Hong Kong is such a crowded, multi-layered city, it feels less of a hassle to walk up to a footbridge or duck into a tunnel to cross the street.
By Hong Kong standards, the wetmarket on Haiphong Road is pretty bare-bones. It’s small, with no more than twenty vendors, and it’s housed in an awfully makeshift structure that sits under and around a highway overpass. (Indeed, it’s officially known as a “temporary market,” although it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.) Step inside, however, and you’ll discover a half-dozen halal butchers that serve the city’s sizable Pakistani community.
Haiphong Road, which runs between Canton Road and Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, is one of my favourite streets in Hong Kong. On one side, the relentless bustle of a typical TST street; on the other, a row of giant, timeless banyan trees.
Buying fruit on Electric Road in North Point
Moving to another city halfway around the world requires a few adjustments. You need to get used to a new language, new scenery, new ways of perceiving and doing things. Some level of homesickness is inevitable. While some overseas Canadians miss Twizzlers and Coffee Crisp, though, what I find myself missing is far less tangible: my neighbourhood. I miss being able to feel part of a community that is rooted in the streets and buildings around me. I miss knowing all of the shortcuts to get where I need to go, seeing familiar characters on the street, knowing the (both mundane and salacious) details about the shopowners on my block.
This kind of neighbourhood life certainly exists in Hong Kong — and in abundance. When I wander around some of the neighbourhoods near the University of Hong Kong, like Sheung Wan or Sai Ying Pun, I get a bit of that Mile End feeling, especially when I’m with someone who lives there and they run into people they know on the street. For the time being, though, I’m stuck in a state of semi-transience, floating between apartments and commuting for endless kilometres by bus, minibus and MTR. I look forward to the day when I can finally settle in a part of Hong Kong that I can get to know from the ground up.
Even then, though, a large part of the Hong Kong experience has to do with anonymity and mobility, two things that don’t lend themselves well to a real neighbourhood feeling. Much of what does exist is either high-priced (as in the expat enclave around the Central-Mid Levels escalator), based on ethnicity (as in the South Asian and African communities in Tsim Sha Tsui, or the Indonesian, Thai and Filipina maids that gather on Sundays) or decidedly old school, revolving around the fading lives of geriatrics. Most of the people you see hanging out in the street or in any given neighbourhood square are ancient, which seems to suggest that younger generations see such activities as being somehow beneath them.
Nobody wants a nosy neighbour, and the ability to pass unnoticed is one of the great pleasures of urban life, but a strong sense of community participation and neighbourhood identity is what lead people to invest themselves in the well-being of their city. Earlier this week, a feature in the South China Morning Post looked at new shops that have become anchors of neighbourhood life. If the SCMP is to be believed, they’re bucking the trend of a city quickly losing a sense of itself.
My friends always swore by Café Pi. I never really shared their opinion (its food isn’t great and neither is its coffee) but I could at least appreciate it, since Pi’s customers are an odd mix of students and chess players, all of whom pack into the café’s jarring red-and-black confines until they are kicked out at midnight — closing time. The chess players, nearly all men, are impossible to categorize by appearance or origin, but they all share the same seriousness and the same intensity. This becomes obvious a couple of times a year, during the St. Laurent street fair, when Pi spills out into the street.
I always wonder about the street cleaners I see around Hong Kong, small and weathered by sun and age, who sweep the pavement with coarse straw brooms. Their wide-rimmed hats, like the kind traditionally seen on Tanka “boat people,” seem oddly anachronistic next to their reflective safety vests and surgical masks. Who are they? Where do they live? How did they find themselves on a path that led to days and nights spent brushing the gutters free of debris?
I wonder if anyone thought the same when they saw Paul Tomkowicz, a Polish immigrant who worked as a street railway switchman fifty-five years ago. In the bitter air of midwinter Winnipeg, his job was to clear and defrost the city’s frozen streetcar tracks. In a beautifully-shot 1952 National Film Board documentary, we observe him as he works, silently, to clear the tracks, his ghostly frozen breath illuminated by the kerosene lamp he keeps at his feet.
It seems a lonely, anonymous life, but Tomkowicz doesn’t seem to mind it too much. He seems resigned to it more than anything, if only because the alternative, for him at least, would have been far worse. “Winnipeg’s alright,” he says. “In Winnipeg, you can go in the street, daytime, nighttime, nobody bothers you. My sister wrote me from my village in Poland. The soldiers came in the night. Murdered 29 people. My brother. My brother’s wife. Why’d they do that?”
Hong Kong is a hard-working city. You can tell as much by looking at the numbers: people here work an average of 47 hours per week, which is about ten hours more than people in Canada and twelve hours more than many people in France. What that means in real terms is that Hong Kong is always busy, often frantically so, as people rush around doing whatever it is they do. But working so hard makes you tired — and when you’re tired, you sleep. So keep that in mind when you’re wandering around and come across someone dozing off in an unlikely place and uncomfortable position.
The Galéries Lafayette in Paris still is a gorgeous retail space
As with so many things having to do with taste in the 19th century, the French generally get the credit for inventing the department store: the Parisian pioneer Au bon marché adopted the formula in 1852, just at the beginning of the massive transformation of the city under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann and Napoléon III. In his novel The Ladies’ Delight (Au bonheur des dames), Emile Zola tells the story of its beginning from the point of view of a plucky young woman from the provinces who is captivated by the bustle and exuberance of the new form of selling things.
She defends the high-volume, quick turnover approach to her uncle who is forced out of business by the department store. “You probably are more competent than me, “ she says at one point, betraying a modesty that Zola seemed to admire, “but I’ll say what I’m thinking …prices, rather than be set as they were before, by 50 businesses, are set today by four or five, and they’re lower, thanks to the power of the capital and the strength of their clientele. It’s so much better for the public, that’s all.“ Reading that is like hearing an apologist for Wal-Mart (although it should be noted that Zola says Au bon marché provided health care for its staff while Wal-Mart had to be pressured into doing that more than a century later) which perhaps shows again that there’s nothing new under the sun. At any rate, the Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker adapted—or maybe reinvented—the form in the 1870s in his home town. His success inspired much imitation. By the late 19th century big cities in the US and Canada each had one or more department stores that were not just places for buying but places where everyone went.
Coffee break next to the Central-Mid Levels Escalator, Hong Kong
A block of Vancouver Specials. Photo by Jason Vanderhill
It usually takes a generation or two for maligned building styles to win new appreciation — or even any sort of appreciation at all. That’s certainly the case with the Vancouver Special, a ubiquitous type of house that has long been considered an eyesore for its bland features and repetitive nature. But its practicality has made it popular with generations of immigrants who have used them as stepping stones into homeownership. Now, finally, it seems to be earning a sort of grudging respect, if not outright admiration.
I like to think that the Special is a West Coast equivalent of Montreal’s plex; both emerged at a time when strict building codes tried to mitigate the impact of large population booms. In Montreal’s case, those codes were meant to improve living standards in a city where much of the population lived in dark, toilet-less apartments. In Vancouver, however, zoning laws were biased in favour of detached single-family homes in an attempt to maintain the city’s suburban character. The Special, with its shallow pitched roof and large front balcony, gave the appearance of being a single-family home, but its ground floor was designed to include an extra flat that could be rented out, a nice way for the upstairs owners to subsidize their mortgage.
Aesthetically, it’s hard to find many redeeming qualities in the Special—it is gangly and awkward, like a teenager after a growth spurt—but its simplicity, functionality and accessibility are earning it newfound respect. After all, cities need these kinds of houses. They’re residential workhorses, easy to build, easy to modify and well-suited to the diverse needs of a growing population.
In the most recent issue of Savfaire, a Vancouver-based zine, Keith Higgins writes about his obsession with photographing Vancouver Specials; he has shot at least 1,400. He’s at a loss as to why he started taking photos of them but he hints at their populist appeal and the way they reflect, like the famous Levittown houses, the people who have lived in them over the years. Each one of the Specials he photographs (in a style deliberately reminiscent of MLS listings and freebie real estate magazines) is fundamentally similar, but each reflects years of decades of occupancy in a way that more precious or more refined houses do not.
In most of Hong Kong, buying fish for dinner involves a trip to the neighbourhood wet market, or maybe to the seafood aisle in a slightly more sanitary supermarket. But in Sai Kung, an old fishing port in the midst of one of Hong Kong’s more verdant corners, many head straight for the source: the sea. Every evening, next to the minibus terminus and a few metres down from the strip of waterfront restaurants, dozens of people flock to a public pier where they look down at a handful of seafood vendors selling fish from their boats, tied to the wooden pillars of the pier, where the water swells with every passing boat. Questions are asked, prices are quoted and the vendors pass up buckets of fish to customers with the help of a long metal rod.