Archive for February, 2009

February 25th, 2009

Public Square Street

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Public Square Street

In the six short blocks between Nathan Road and Ferry Street, Public Square Street ties together all of the seedy, entertaining and historic elements that makes Yau Ma Tei so intriguing.

Temples of a different sort

You wouldn’t know it today, thanks to the West Kowloon land reclamation, but Yau Ma Tei began life as a waterfront fishing village. Tanka fishermen docked their boats along the sandy shoreline, which was later transformed into a typhoon shelter filled with floating restaurants run by “boat people” who lived on the water. With their livelihoods dependent on the ocean, villagers felt the need to honour Tin Hau, the goddess of seafarers, so a large and ornate temple was built here in 1876.

Across the street is another temple, this one culinary: Mido Café, one of the oldest operating cha chaan teng left in Hong Kong. While the food is classic Hong Kong-style Western—milk tea, bolo buns, macaroni soup—it’s the mid-century décor and gorgeous corner location that make this place worth a visit. Sit downstairs and watch neighbourhood old folks take their morning tea, or find a place upstairs and watch the street below from the vintage green-framed wraparound windows.

Play in the dark

The night market might have taken its name from Temple Street, but Public Square Street is where it got started. Yung Shu Tau, a leafy plaza in front of the temple whose name literally means “the head of banyan,” was for decades the bustling heart of Yau Ma Tei, and it was here that a night market first emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, the square bisects Temple Street, and in the evening it fills up with Cantonese opera performers, ethnic trinket vendors and stalls selling sex toys.

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February 23rd, 2009

Blue Dusk

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

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View towards Kowloon from the Peak

February 21st, 2009

Migrant Worker Seeks Love

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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I’ve always had a thing for Sexy Beijing, Danwei‘s offbeat, good-natured sendup of the HBO television series Sex and the City. Its host, Anna Sophie Loewenberg, explores some of Beijing’s social and culture issues through the guise of a funnier, more awkward and self-effacing Carrie Bradshaw. Its treatment is decidedly lightweight but, like a lot of supposedly light fare, it touches on some pretty fundamental truths in an entertaining way. In the latest installment, Loewenberg quizzes some of Beijing’s many migrant workers on their love lives; their responses are often quite candid. It’s a nice peek into the lives of the “floating population.”

February 19th, 2009

Stencil Art in Taipei

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

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February 19th, 2009

Bring Your Own Bike Lane

Posted in Art and Design, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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I’ve never had much use for bike lanes. While I appreciate them in certain situations — like when they let you ride legally against the flow of traffic — they generally strike me as a half-measure that lull both drivers and cyclists into complacency. They give the illusion of safety when they are in some ways more dangerous than ordinary street riding. Bike lanes have their place in the city, but they’re less important than developing a universal cycling culture and a street environment that is safe for cyclists in any situation.

But what if you were to bring your own bike lane? “Instead of adapting cycling to established bike lanes, the bike lane should adapt to the cyclists,” write the guys behind the Light Lane, a laser-based safety light that projects the image of a bike lane onto the street behind a moving bicycle. “Our system projects a crisply defined virtual bike lane onto pavement, using a laser, providing the driver with a familiar boundary to avoid. With a wider margin of safety, bikers will regain their confidence to ride at night, making the bike a more viable commuting alternative.”

It’s a nice idea, one that enshrines the notion that a bike is an equal partner in traffic, not just a toy that can be relegated to a handful of recreational paths and bike lanes. For now, though, it remains just that—an idea—and even if the concept is workable, I’m not sure how effective it would be. Something tells me it isn’t so easy to make a lightweight, high-powered laser that can be visible even on rough and uneven pavement. But please, feel free to prove me wrong.

February 17th, 2009

Crossing Williamsburg Bridge

Posted in Architecture, United States by Christopher Szabla

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The long, arching pathways that carry bicycles and pedestrians over the Williamsburg Bridge feel like New York’s version of the torii leading to Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari shrine: solemn, still, enclosed, and blaring with bold, repetitive red. While the Williamsburg Bridge is not populated by spirits, it speaks — whether in traces of graffiti or in anthropomorphic street art — to lonely passersby.

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February 17th, 2009

The Nervous System

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

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I’ve always had a thing for overhead wires. People tend to complain about their unsightliness, especially in cities where they are abundant, like Toronto. But they add a gritty, functional dimension to the streetscape. If roads are the city’s veins, wires are the nerves, carrying the electrical currents, telephone signals and other bits of power and information that make urban life possible.

Even Toronto’s mess of hydro lines, telephone cables and streetcar wires can’t compare to the overhead wires of Saigon, where they are so numerous, so thick and so tangled they sometimes come close to blotting out the sky. It can often be a bit nerve-wracking to walk underneath them; if you aren’t worrying about a wire snapping loose and hitting you in the head, you’re dodging cables that have already snapped loose and are hanging dangerously close to the ground.

To be fair, this phenomenon is not unique to Saigon. It’s common in the cities of other developing countries, which don’t have the resources or will to effectively regulate the installation of utility lines. (Manila, another city famous for its abundance of overhead wires, has recently made an effort to bring some order to the chaos.) I have a hard time imagining Saigon without the wires, though — it would be as strange and empty as if it had no motorcycles, another defining aspect of the city.

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February 14th, 2009

South Wall Road

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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There’s no need to catch a flight to Bangkok for fresh lemongrass, mango sticky rice and fruit you’ve never seen before. South Wall Road, which runs for just two blocks between Prince Edward Road and Kowloon Walled City Park, is the pulsing heart of Hong Kong’s Thai community, packed with restaurants, grocery stores and beauty salons.

Sweet and spicy and sour

Follow your nose and listen to the growling of your stomach: this is a place to eat. Your first stop should be the takeaway restaurant at the corner of South Wall Road and Nga Tsin Wai Road, where you can grab typical Thai street meat. Insist on having the spices and herbs in your dish ground up with the large wooden penis that sits on the counter.

A Thai dessert shop and a handful of sit-down joints round out South Wall Road’s restaurant offerings. But it’s the half-dozen grocery stores that really make this street worth visiting. Under the watchful stare of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, browse around for chilis, curry powders, fresh herbs and imported food. In the back of one shop, there’s even a sofa and a giant TV. Sit down with some fluorescent-coloured Thai sweets and watch a cheesy soap opera.

Blend your cultures

Next to the Thai flags, king’s portraits and Thai Buddhist shrines that festoon the shops on South Wall Road are the same Chinese ancestral altars you find in many Hong Kong homes and businesses. From the 17th to the 20th centuries, generations of Chinese workers settled in Thailand, where many adopted Thai names and assimilated into Thai culture. In more recent decades, however, some of those Thai-Chinese have moved to Hong Kong.

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February 11th, 2009

Cambridge, Temporarily

Posted in Architecture, United States by Siqi Zhu

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Kendall Square now…

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Kendall Square as it could be?

One of the beautiful things about an academic planning exercise is that you can indulge in a little flight of fancy. A recent exercise at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design let people imagine a temporary urban intervention in one of Cambridge’s famous squares.

A “square”, in Boston parlance, really just refers to an intersection between two streets, and fittingly, many of them do look like an afterthought. Kendall Square, home to MIT, is one example: when JFK decided it was going to be the headquarters of the US’ future space program, the entire area was cleared of its population. While that didn’t quite pan out, the area gradually became filled with high-tech spin-offs from nearby MIT. That, however, didn’t prevent Kendall Square from being filled with 70s campus-style architecture, which lent it a creepy extermination camp vibe quite at odds with homey (if a little staid) Cambridge.

The following is a little blurb about the proposal:

Kendall Square on a winter evening is bleak, empty, but also potentially atmospheric. Reminiscent of the menacing and enigmatic cityscape in Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings, there is a psychological tension to this empty space that we seek to exploit in the installation Phantom City.

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February 11th, 2009

On Commuter Trains, Ice and Lawsuits

Posted in Canada, Politics, Transportation by Sam Imberman

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Hell hath no fury like a commuter train rider scorned! Citing persistent hits to his work schedule and quality of life due to persistently late commuter trains, Yves Boyer (and his lawyer Normand Painchaud) have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Agence métropolitaine de transport. Boyer is asking for a judgment of $65 million. Hardly pocket change.

I’m not sure what grounds Boyer is suing on. This article in La Presse cites a laundry list of grievances, but no particular offence. A CBC article notes that Boyer’s quality of life was severely compromised; frankly, I didn’t know that quality of life was grounds for a lawsuit. But here we are: Boyer demands $1000 for all negatively impacted riders, on top of a rebate of 30% on all monthly tickets purchased since December 2007. The incredible logistics of disbursing the sum are apparently left as an exercise for the imagination.

The obvious question is this one: if one is to make the leap of faith that all delayed or cancelled rides should be refunded in full, well, were 30% of rides between December 1, 2007 and February 1, 2009 affected? I suspect that they weren’t. And even if one takes the broader view that riders deserve refunds for more than delayed rides but also for what La Presse describes as “les problèmes mécaniques de toutes sortes, des erreurs ou des bris d’aiguillage et la désuétude générale du matériel roulant, inconfortable et mal chauffé,” is 30% a reasonable sum? Using this year’s transit pass price, Mr. Boyer pays $119 per month for his zone 4 TRAM pass that he uses to board at Pincourt every day. So he is billing the AMT about $2428.

To make it to a judgment, this suit must be vetted by the Quebec Superior Court. I hope it doesn’t make it that far. Though if it does, I’m sure that riders of the perennially late, bunched, and overcrowded 535 STM bus down du Parc and Côte-des-Neiges will be ecstatic to know that after all their duress, the light at the end of the tunnel might one day come in the form of a fat check from the STM, pending the successful completion of someone’s class-action lawsuit.

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February 9th, 2009

Montreal by Bus: Is Your Route Legible?

Posted in Canada, Transportation by Sam Imberman

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Photo by Kurt Raschke

To refresh you: in my last article, I talked about the names of bus lines, and how they can be used to help transit users navigate the city. I mentioned, among other things, that buses might be named for the paths that they follow or their end points, and that the strategy varied between different cities. I finished by raising the case of the 104 “Cavendish” bus, which I described as having four segments, only one of which actually is Cavendish Street. The point was that it is hard for users who aren’t in the know to predict the path that this bus is going to take.

Now, it may be that the only people who ride the Cavendish bus are in the know. Although this bus starts at the Atwater Metro station, it quickly peels off of downtown, running more or less along the western extremity of the prewar West End. The people who take the 104 most likely do so frequently, and probably don’t need to be reminded every day of where it goes. And we all know about Côte-St-Luc’s burgeoning tourism scene – you know, alcohol flowing in the water and all that . . .

So for the sake of this article, I’ll need to ask your indulgence. If the STM were to implement my suggestions on real bus lines, they would probably do well to start with busier routes, routes which carry more tourists, and routes which run between key points in the city but aren’t marked as such. In other words, the routes where more navigational help could do more good. The only reason that I’ve chosen the 104 is that it exemplifies many of the problems I’ve observed. I’ll enumerate these problems here, and then I’ll try to solve them to the best of my ability.

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February 8th, 2009

Scooter’s Eye View

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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February 8th, 2009

Cumberland Road

Posted in Asia Pacific, History by Christopher DeWolf

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Just ten minutes from Mongkok, Cumberland Road feels as if you’ve left Hong Kong altogether. Running north from Boundary Street into the heart of Kowloon Tong, this low-slung street is lined mostly by squat pastel-coloured villas. With its mountain views and looming trees, this could be a particularly well-off part of Los Angeles – except for the odd mix of love hotels, pricy daycares and Chinese temples, that is.

In the mood for love

Kowloon Tong was first developed in the 1930s and 40s, when Kowloon’s wealthiest found it a dandy place to build mansions for themselves. Many are styled in the breezy Art Moderne architecture that was popular at the time.

Over the years, many of those imposing villas have been converted into hotels where the moneyed classes park their Benzes for an afternoon of illicit love. They’re easy to spot; just walk up Cumberland Road and look for the signs. Essex Lodge, Romance Hotel – you get the picture.

If you’re there at peak hours, in the late afternoon or evening, peek beyond the hotels’ front gates at the rows of luxury cars parked in the courtyard. Look closely: their licence plates are discreetly concealed by well-placed signposts or curtains, the better to keep paparazzi or angry spouses from finding out who just checked in.

Kowloon Tong soundtrack

Earlier this year, local indie act My Little Airport released 浪漫九龍塘 (“Romance in Kowloon Tong”), a song about naughty trysts. “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 chorus.

Repent for your sins

Cumberland Road isn’t just about love hotels. There are also a few Chinese temples along the street, but they aren’t your ordinary incense-filled halls of worship – with high walls, elaborate gates and gold-plated roofs, these are downright swanky.

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February 7th, 2009

Morning Coffee: Coffee on Demand

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Coffee is a big part of the social life of Saigon, a city that somehow manages to be both languid and relentlessly energetic in nearly equal measure. Hundreds of cafés and coffee stands dot the city: relaxed neighbourhood hangouts with a few plastic seats out front to watch the city go by; leafy park cafés where middle-aged women chat and men bring birdcages; multistoried cafés with elaborate fountains and gardens, oases hidden in unremarkable lanes. But even when there isn’t a café, it’s still easy to get coffee.

On a warm afternoon earlier this week, a few friends and I found ourselves in a small park in District 1, just around the corner from the Notre-Dame Basilica and Saigon’s tourist hub. Not long after we sat down, a woman came up to us and asked us if we wanted any coffee. We ordered three cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) and one black iced coffee. About five minutes later, a man on a motorbike arrived with the coffees in a wire tray and the woman brought them to us. We paid 26,000 dong (about $1.80) for the four drinks.

Somehow, the fact that the coffee woman was wearing a Parasuco t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Montréal, Québec, Canada” made the candy-sweet coffee even more delicious.