There are two types of architectural birdcages in Macau: casinos and balconies. One of this southern Chinese city’s most famous casinos, the gloriously kitschy Lisboa, could coop up a giant parrot, and across town, a massive aviary greets visitors at the city’s newest gambling complex, in the Four Seasons Hotel. This is the only place in China where gambling is legal—in 2006, revenues surpassed those of Las Vegas—but unlike in nearby Hong Kong, traditional aesthetics are not yet lost. It doesn’t take long to wander away from the casinos into crowded streets that double as living rooms; amid the Portuguese street signs and droopy banyan trees, you’ll see dozens of balconies and windowsills, each enclosed by iron grates. The bars are a precaution against burglary, but the effect is a jumble of human-sized birdcages above the street, with potted plants and laundry instead of seed trays and perches.
Those balconies are a large reason why, despite the flashing casino lights on the horizon, Macau continues to feel lived-in and down-to-earth. They’re a bridge between the private and the public, inviting domestic activity into the street and social life into the home. If the city is a stage, the balcony is just that—the balcony, a spot for observing drama and, as with the two old men in The Muppets, occasionally participating in it.
And balconies are unique in every city. In Vancouver’s West End, where apartment buildings nestle into lush greenery, they are for quiet post-dinner conversation and solitary reading. Neighbours are glimpsed, voyeuristically, but interaction is rare. In the coastal Indian city of Chennai, by contrast, teenagers flirt “across floors and across blocks,” reports The Hindu, prompting mothers to warn their daughters against spending too much time on the balcony. Of course, there are few cities so passionate about its balconies as Montreal, where, as memories of the long winter melt with the snow, summer brings the whole city outside. Almost every evening from May until October, the murmur of conversation and clinking of beer bottles drifts down from overhead.
Things are different in Hong Kong, where I now live. Here, across the Pearl River Delta from Macau, summers are muggy, and for decades balconies had the all-important task of providing ventilation to sweltering apartments. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both British colonial tenements and tong lau—literally “Chinese building”—were graced with spacious balconies and large, recessed verandas.
But in the 1960s and seventies, air conditioning became more popular, and rampant pollution poisoned the local climate. Many balconies became enclosed, acting as storage space, full of washbasins, clothes and cupboards; others vanished altogether in new high-rise constructions that seemed bent on maximum isolation. Even window sizes decreased during this time as people retreated into climate-controlled, artificially-lit interiors. Ironically, the carbon emitted by all those roaring air conditioners will make summer even hotter, but as elsewhere, such environmental realities don’t seem to register. Balconies have made a comeback in some of Hong Kong’s most recently-built towers, but they’re small and impractical, mere fashionable afterthoughts.
If balconies have faded in Hong Kong, in mainland Taiwan they are being reinvented. Last year, a group of young designers and architects called City Yeast published a book about Taipei’s diverse balconies, which I stumbled across while browsing through a 24-hour bookstore near the Chang Kai-Shek Memorial. “Balconies seldom appear as they are shown in the blueprint,” reads one of the book’s passages. “Clothes sway in the wind. The brooms and the cardboard boxes tell stories of another lifestyle behind the grille.”
“The balcony in Taiwan is very special,” says Agua Chou, a graphic designer and one of City Yeast’s founders. “There are many different kinds, even in the same building. But lots of people don’t use the balcony area—they stand inside with the windows closed and don’t talk with their neighbours.” For those who do use it, she adds, it’s a purely functional space. “People just put their stuff out there, like clothes. Others use it like a greenhouse. Some also use it as a pet house and put animals there. With iron gates, the balcony looks just like a zoo—everyone is closed in like an animal.”
There are an estimated 2,621,441 balconies in Taipei, and City Yeast hopes to persuade the residents and architects of Taiwan’s capital to envision them as more than just storage space, Chou tells me. “Once people take part in the theatre of the balcony,” she says, “others can see and do the same.” In City Yeast’s vision, Taipei’s iron grilles would stay, but in a more liveable, enticing form. The city’s balconies—like those in Macau—would be birdcages, at last, with birds.
This article appears in the latest issue of Maisonneuve.
Tags: Balconies, Hong Kong, Macau, Taipei