October 29th, 2008
Since I now live in Hong Kong, I might as well get to know the local music scene. My Little Airport, an indie band that does slight and amusing twee-pop ditties, is one of my favourite local acts. The simplicity of their music and lyrics belies a wry and irreverent take on life in Hong Kong.
“Romance in Kowloon Tong” (浪漫九龍塘) is a song off their most recent album. Kowloon Tong is one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest areas, but tucked in between the expensive international schools and luxurious villas are secretive hotels, where people with money take their other significant others for a bit of love-by-the-hour. “I want to sing you a song / about me and you went to Kowloon Tong / we have to be very strong / if we want to do something very wrong,” goes the song’s English chorus. Its music video is especially adorable.
I took a walk through Kowloon Tong not too long ago. It’s a bit of a strange experience to suddenly leave the noise of Mongkok, pass under the KCR tracks and emerge into a suburban enclave of pastel-coloured walls and broad vistas. The love hotels make it even more bizarre: as posh as they are, they very concept is kind of hilarious, especially after you walk past a few and notice all of the luxury cars parked in front, their licence plates concealed by special little signs or curtains.
October 29th, 2008
October 29th, 2008
When I look at old maps of Montreal, I marvel at how entire neighbourhoods have vanished and streets renamed. What’s interesting about old maps of Hong Kong, by contrast, isn’t what has disappeared, but what has appeared. The above map, which dates back to 1915, is recognizable in its depiction of Hong Kong, Kowloon and Victoria Harbour, but upon closer examination, you you realize just how the shape of the city has changed since then.
On the Hong Kong side of the harbour, Causeway Bay is just that — a bay — and most of present-day Wan Chai still hasn’t been reclaimed from the harbour. Kowloon side, the changes are even more dramatic. Hung Hom is separated from Tsim Sha Tsui by a bay that has since been filled it; looking at Hung Hom’s position on the shore gives you an idea of why this older neighbourhood exists in the first place. Similarly, it’s interesting to see now-landlocked Yau Ma Tei as a waterfront district.
Perhaps the most revealing thing about this map, though, is the way it demonstrates how harbour reclamation was already well underway by 1915. Causeway Bay and most of the Kowloon waterfront had already been dramatically reshaped by landfill. Connaught Road, running west from Admiralty to Sai Ying Pun, was once a waterfront promenade, but it became an inland road in 1889 when the adjacent water was filled. That wasn’t Hong Kong’s first major reclamation project; a few decades earlier, the waterfront ran along present-day Des Voeux Road.
October 27th, 2008
Quiet, grey autumn days in Mile End
October 23rd, 2008
I’ve always had a certain fondness for Boston. It was the first truly large city I visited, the first place that was effortlessly cosmopolitan, the first place that buzzed in an important-seeming way that was absent in the isolated and suburban city where I grew up. I was properly obsessed with it. I visited about once a year in the late 1990s, but even when I wasn’t there, I studied maps, poured over photos, read the Boston Globe and online discussion forums. Eventually, those regular visits stopped, and my fascination with Boston began to wane.
Last November, I sped down Vermont highways in a rented Toyota Matrix, on an impulsive road trip that brought me back to Boston for the first time in eight years. I was curious to see how the Boston of my memory stacked up to the Boston I would experience that late-autumn weekend. On a particularly chilly Friday evening, I wandered from Allston to Downtown Crossing and back again. Everything seemed vaguely familiar but strangely foreign. Maybe it was six years of living in Montreal, or maybe it was the rapid gentrification and upscaling that had occurred since 1999, but Boston seemed to have lost a certain big-city edge. It felt tame, relaxed, maybe even a little provincial.
My biggest problem was that nearly every inch of grime, disorder and unpredictability had been scrubbed out of large parts of the central city. There was some left around Chinatown, the edges of the South End, in Central Square, around Allston, but much of Boston seemed to have become similar to the park that replaced the old Central Artery: pretty but kind of a void.
It was a relief, then, to come across the Haymarket, which was as messy and lively as I remembered it. Here, just beyond the souvenir stands of Faneuil Hall and the Quincy Market, is a real street market — a wet market, as you’d call it in Hong Kong — selling fruit, vegetables and meat. It draws an eclectic and varied group of shoppers that stand in contrast to the more homogeneous tourist crowd nearby. It was here, more than anywhere else I visited on my brief return to Boston, that I got a feel of the city I remembered so fondly.
More Haymarket photos here.
October 20th, 2008
Street art in the lanes of Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
October 15th, 2008
In Hong Kong, every day is laundry day. I’m not sure why so many people wash their clothes every single day — do they really own that many shirts? do they sweat a lot? — but you can see evidence of it as you walk around: endless amounts of undergarments, shirts, pants and pillowcases dangling from clotheslines high above the streets, on rooftops and balconies. Even the most sober of buildings — schools, mosques, churches — have little domestic corners where laundry hangs.
It’s especially noticeable in outlying areas. In the month or so that I’ve stayed in Tai Po Tsai, a small village on the Sai Kung Peninsula, there hasn’t been a single day that the people across the lane from me have not been drying something or another. A quick peek out the kitchen window reveals some bras, boxers, towels and some white, pink and blue button-down shirts. Down the way, the old women who maintain the village’s garbage collection area also maintain a perpetual collection of freshly-laundered clothes drying just beyond the many bins of festering trash.
Earlier this week, I found myself on the tenth floor of the Hong Kong Art Centre, where the Hong Kong Art School has its student gallery. The current exhibition involves projects in which students were told to “hijack” public space — to reclaim it, examine it, critique it. One of the more successful interventions came from one student who turned a public tennis court into an outdoor laundry room: the line on which the net normally hangs was converted into a clothesline.
The irony is that this artistic statement is drawn directly from everyday life: in particularly cramped housing estates and poorer neighbourhoods, some people actually do use playing courts to dry their clothes. It’s prevalent enough that a “no laundry” logo is often included on official signs outlining the many things that are prohibited in Hong Kong’s parks.
In the popular imagination, the sight of laundry drying outdoors evokes images both pastoral (sweet-smelling bedsheets fluttering in the country breeze) and urban (rows of white undershirts hanging limply over a narrow Italian street). It is a symbol of class, an ecological statement, an object of nostalgia. But more than anything it is practical.
Many of Hong Kong’s new housing estates do as much as possible to prevent their inhabitants from hanging clothes outdoors. The motivation for doing so must be the same as that behind laws that prohibit clotheslines in many North American suburbs. Maybe it’s the invasion of the mundane and ordinary into spaces designated for other, more highly-esteemed things — sport, architecture, whatever — that give some people such disdain for the sight of laundry drying outdoors.
October 13th, 2008
Underpass in Ahuntsic
October 13th, 2008
Restaurant with papered-over sign
Michelin Man, rest in peace
Posters for theatre productions and “karaoke” parlours
October 8th, 2008
I’ve already left Montreal, but I still walk down Park Avenue in my mind. I start at Van Horne, the symbolic last street before the Canadian Pacific Railway overpass and the industrial area to the north. On the long block southward to Bernard, I pass a new Hasidic synagogue, a laundromat with Spanish signs owned by an Indian family, Greek social clubs, a mysterious bar called Club Sahara, a cluttered radio-parts shop, and several more hard-to-define stores that survive from year to year despite having no apparent customers.
I was only on the street for five years, but my life on Park Avenue is inseparable from my life in Montreal. I spent the bulk of my time in its shops, its apartments, its restaurants, venturing onto its sidestreets the way a fi sh swims up a river’s tributary. Park Avenue was born in 1883, when a broad road was built along the eastern side of the newly-opened Mount Royal Park, leading north into what was then Montreal’s suburban fringe. Twenty years later, in 1903, the Number 80 streetcar began rumbling up the avenue, past a burgeoning collection of triplexes and apartment buildings, many of them capped by fanciful cornices and decorative elements that often included maple leaves and beavers. Banks, those imposing anchors of middle-class prosperity, stood at nearly every corner.
Initially, middle-class English, Irish and French Canadians called Park home, along with a growing number of Jews. After World War II, however, many of those original inhabitants left for newer, more suburban neighbourhoods, and were replaced by a mix of Greeks, Portuguese, Italians, Chinese and Hasidic Jews. Residential portions of the street became progressively more commercial as carpet shops and souvlaki joints opened on the ground floors of apartment blocks.
After thriving in the 1970s and 80s—one of its nicknames was apparently “Double Park Avenue”—Park fell on hard times in the early 1990s. The Rialto, a gorgeous cinema whose façade was modeled on Garnier’s opera house in Paris, closed down. In the depths of the mid-90s recession, nearly a quarter of all retail spaces on the street were vacant, and drugs and petty crime became a problem. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that the street revived.
October 7th, 2008
In the Hopewell Centre on Queen’s Road East, there’s an “observation lift” take takes you from the 17th floor lobby (the building stands next to a hill so steep that it has street-level entrances at the first and 17th floors) up to a miniature lobby on the 56th floor. It’s actually just a glorified glass elevator, but hey, if you’re in the Hopewell Centre and you have five minutes to spare…
October 7th, 2008
An Obama sign in Plymouth…
…and a McCain rejoinder
Several days ago, American presidential candidate John McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign in the state of Michigan, and I breathed a sigh of relief. But he also announced that he was canceling a planned event in Plymouth, my hometown, and I was a little disappointed; I’ve been working, on and off, on the Obama campaign here since mid-July, and it would have been very interesting to see the opposition candidate stumping on what I think of as my turf, perhaps only a few blocks from my family’s home.
I grew up in Plymouth, so I think of the town as my turf without a second of hesitation, though I’m constantly reminded that, politically at least, it really isn’t. My neighbors, whose great grandparents actually built the house in which I live, recently picked up a McCain sign (pictured) and stumped it right along the property line, as if it were thumbing its nose at the Obama sign I put in our front yard three weeks ago.
October 5th, 2008
Various alleys in Montreal
October 5th, 2008
It often seems like the subway is treated as a metaphor for urban life in general. When we’re immersed in the optimism of economic expansion, it represents progress and vitality. In more troubled times, it becomes a symbol of crime, danger, aggression and alienation.
Last winter, while browsing the shelves in Stephen Welch’s bookstore on St. Viateur Street, I came across Michael Brooks’ book, Subway City: Riding the Trains, Reading New York, in which he weaves the history of the New York subway’s development with the history of public attitude towards it. His point is that how people feel about the subway has always been as important as the actual operation of the subway itself.
I had this in mind when I saw Songs and Dances of the Inanimate World, a 1985 National Film Board piece by Pierre Hébert, Robert Lepage and René Lussier. Through animation, still photography and drawings, the film serves as a portrait of the Montreal metro, but it’s not a very flattering one, dwelling on the alienation and inhumanity of the underground. It’s fascinating to watch but I find the message a bit tiresome.
By virtue of where I lived, I only rode the metro occasionally in Montreal, getting around mainly by bus, foot or bike. Here in Hong Kong, though, I’m a regular subway commuter. On most days it’s monotonous, and on particularly bad days it’s insufferably hostile, but it always affords me a chance to consider the people I normally pass by on the street without thinking twice about. Last week, as I rode the MTR in the late afternoon, I considered how the teenage schoolkids heading home infused the train with a nervous hormonal energy. Another day, I watched, bemused, as a little white girl climbed up one of the support poles as if she was on the monkey bars. Her dad smiled but the middle-aged Chinese ladies across the aisle shot dagger looks, as if to ask, “How could he possibly allow that?”
Songs and Dances‘s French synopsis describes it as a “metaphorical and expressive representation” of the “rapports d’agressivité” — aggressive relations — in the metro. But are they really aggressive relations — or just the superficial indifference of urban life?