Archive for December, 2008
In common law countries, when a local government wants to clear away a house or neighbourhood for large-scale development, it need only expropriate the property, toss its owner some compensation and call it a day. That sort of thing has been more difficult in China, which shored up private property rights in 2007, making it harder for the government to simply evict people from their homes. But that doesn’t stop it from engaging in more creative means to an end.
Not long ago, a friend forwarded me this video posted on Danwei, a site that covers Chinese media and urban life. It was apparently shot last October in Shenyang, the capital of the northeastern Liaoning province, in a neighbourhood that is slowly being cleared away for new development. In order to pressure the remaining residents to accept compensation for their homes, a 24/7 loudspeaker blasts propaganda reminding them of all the reasons why they should take the money and go.
Left, the Main between Duluth and Rachel in 1988; right, the former Laurier Cinema, now a bookstore, in 1988. Below, posters on a brick wall in 1996
Getting around in winter is a challenge wherever it snows. Montreal, after a few predictable glitches following the first couple of storms, usually does a pretty good job in making walking and, increasingly, biking possible. Skiing, too: the cross country trail on Mount Royal now takes off from the intersection of Pine and Park, and winds up to the carriage road, laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted 130 years ago. That’s part of the skyline in the background, but it doesn’t look to me like the guy on skis is going to work!
Season’s greetings to all from someone who doesn’t ski or bike but who loves to walk.
Bench at Times Square. Photo by Ox Lee
It was a balmy, late March evening in Hong Kong. Times Square, tourist hot-spot and the island city’s largest shopping mall, thronged as usual with people basking in the artificial daylight of the surrounding billboards and video screens. But something was different.
I looked closely: the “railings” that normally stood in the square—awkwardly-shaped seats designed to give people the illusion that they had a place to rest, but so uncomfortable that few bothered to sit in them—had been replaced by real benches. The “No Lingering” signs normally seen on the square’s flower planters now had a friendlier message: “Love the Plants.”
Although the open area around Times Square is legally considered public space, it is privately managed by the shopping mall’s owners, who will rent it out to promotional events and commercial activities for up to $19,000 CAD per day. Security guards often shoo away undesirables, such as the Indonesian and Filipina domestic workers who gather in Hong Kong’s parks and squares every weekend.
But in public debates about these practices, questions emerged about whether the mall’s management actually had the right to exert this level of control over its open space. Turns out it didn’t. When Times Square was first proposed in 1987, the government awarded its developers extra density in exchange for the construction of a plaza that would be used exclusively for public, non-commercial activities. After Times Square opened, the government failed to enforce those requirements. This essentially gave the mall’s management free reign to do with the space as it wished, a situation that ended only when Hong Kong’s media broke the story at the beginning of last year. In March, angry citizens staged a protest, demanding access to Times Square. The following week, it was goodbye uncomfortable railings disappeared, hello “Love the Plants.”
The Times Square controversy is part of a much greater debate raging over Hong Kong’s public spaces, the redevelopment of old neighbourhoods, loss of heritage and the health of the city’s cultural life.
1970s-era restaurant sign, Queen’s Road West, Sai Ying Pun
Electrical appliance store, Causeway Bay
Antique vendor, Sheung Wan
Last year, I wrote a bit about the informal shops and sales that spring up in some of Montreal’s laneways — a junk emporium, a record shop, a bicycle cooperative, just to name a few in Mile End. Here in Hong Kong, where commercial rents are among the most unaffordable in the world, these kinds of tiny, out-of-way shops are especially common. You’ll find locksmiths, barbers, cheap restaurants, mahjong tile vendors, even bookshops.
Taipei is a surprising city. There’s a fine line between ugly haphazardness and charming idiosyncrasy; for the most part, the Taiwanese capital seems to land on the latter side. Its broad boulevards would be bland and overwhelming if it weren’t for the arcaded sidewalks filled with parked scooters. The rambling lanes that run between those boulevards are lined for the most part with architecturally uninspiring apartment buildings, but the abundance of potted plants, hidden café terraces and dilapidated wooden bungalows more than make up for that. In theory, Taipei has everything going against it, but it gets so many small things right that it’s actually a pretty remarkable place.
These bollards are just one example of what I mean. Many people have a love-hate relationship with bollards: on one hand, they’re often ugly and overzealously implemented, but on the other, they keep cars out of pedestrian space. (In any case, they’re a lot nicer than the hideous grey fences that Hong Kong uses to segregate pedestrian and vehicular traffic.) Only rarely do they exceed their immediate purpose, which is why I like the bollards just outside Ximen metro station, in which images of historical streetscenes are embedded. Over on busy Yongkang Street, meanwhile, chubby concrete bollards add to the street both a place to sit and something a bit more unexpected.
It’s fun to see Jean-Paul Riopelle, now considered to have been of Canada’s foremost artists, described as a “young abstract painter” in Les Canadiens errants, a 1956 National Film Board documentary. He describes the open atmosphere of Paris as being particularly conducive to the creation of art. Implicitly, of course, he is referring to the atmosphere back home in Quebec, which was decidedly hostile to any sort of innovative thinking. In 1948, when Riopelle joined fifteen other artists and intellectuals in publishing the Refus global, a manifesto against the conservative Quebec establishment of the era, he was essentially chased out of town. He moved to Paris in 1949 and he continued to split his time between France and Canada until the 1990s.
Canada has always been a country of immigrants but what isn’t as widely known is that it has been, for just as long, a country of emigrants. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigration and a high birth rate were the only things preventing Canada from losing population as hundreds of thousands of people left for better economic prospects in the United States. Throughout its history, many of its luminaries have found it more worthwhile to live abroad — Mordecai Richler in London, Leonard Cohen in Greece, Mavis Gallant and Anne Hébert in Paris, just to name a few. Even today, an estimated two million Canadians live outside of Canada.
What interests me about this is how the expatriate experience has informed the Canadian identity. Unfortunately, the film above doesn’t really offer much in that regard, dwelling mainly on the surface of why such talented people decided to leave Canada for Paris and London. Unlike immigrants, who leave their countries to join family abroad or to pursue better educational or economic opportunities elsewhere, expats tend to come from positions of relative privilege. For them, moving abroad is a lifestyle choice more than anything else. That has been my experience in Hong Kong, at least, and from what what I can glean in Les Canadiens errants, it was true in 1950s Europe, too.
Looking south towards Jordan, Tsim Sha Tsui and Hong Kong Island
Looking west towards the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter
Looking north towards Mongkok
Refugees on a Sham Shui Po rooftop. Photo from
In the past, Roy Chipowoaminga walked the streets of Hong Kong as a tourist. In August, he was sleeping on them. Penniless and far from home, he found a bench in Admiralty and stayed there for a month.
“My biggest hope is to be able to go back home,” said Chipowoaminga, a 31-year-old asylum-seeker whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “But it’s unlikely that the situation in Zimbabwe will improve anytime soon.”
It has been nearly a year and a half since Chipowoaminga left his job as a banker in Harare to live, without family or any source of income, in Hong Kong. He had been doing financial work for the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe’s beleaguered opposition party, he said, when he was threatened with arrest by agents from President Robert Mugabe’s notoriously oppressive government. In recent years, as Zimbabwe has plunged into economic and social chaos, members of the opposition have been detained, tortured and killed. Chipowoaminga took no chances.
Now, he is one of the roughly 2,000 refugee claimants in Hong Kong, a territory that offers asylum-seekers no clear rights, no system to process their claims and almost no chance to stay, even if they are granted refugee status.
With the exception of cases involving torture, which are handled by the Hong Kong government, applications for asylum made in Hong Kong are dealt with by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, an international organization responsible for dealing with refugees worldwide. Most refugee advocates agree that it is not well-equipped to deal with Hong Kong’s refugee situation. The waiting time for decisions can be more than a year, for instance, and it offers no financial aid to refugee claimants. If their claim is denied, they are given no specific reason and offered only a limited chance to appeal.
According to information provided by the Hong Kong Immigration Department, the UNHCR processed 4443 refugee claims between 2005 and 2007, more than half of them in 2007 alone. Only 182 were accepted.