Arran Street, Mongkok, Kowloon
Archive for May, 2009
I’d noticed it before, but the significance of the Democracy Wall, a bulletin board outside the University of Hong Kong’s main library, didn’t strike me until earlier this spring. When I first saw it, I thought its name was a wry reference to the brick wall that became a popular venue for dissent during 1978’s Beijing Spring, a brief period of political liberalization that occurred after the end of the Cultural Revolution in late 1976. But halfway through the school year’s second semester, I began to notice the ever-growing cluster of students who stared intently at the photos, essays and posters tacked neatly on the board. I took a closer look and realized that the Democracy Wall was more than just a reference to a short-lived burst of free expression in post-Mao China: it was a response to the June 4, 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square, which traumatized Hong Kong and left a lasting impression on the city’s consciousness.
Each spring, as the anniversary of the crackdown approaches, the Democracy Wall plays host to a lively debate between HKU students over whether the Chinese government’s response to the student protests was appropriate. It’s a debate that echoes a much larger political division in Hong Kong. The conservative establishment, led by the business elite, tends to emphasize China’s economic progress since 1989, implying that even if what happened at Tiananmen was terrible, there’s no need to dwell on the past. The liberal, pro-democracy opposition insists that the Chinese government needs to acknowledge what happened, admit that it was wrong and reverse its policy of suppressing information about the events. The debate at HKU was complicated by the fact that many students come from the mainland, where they were never taught about the massacre. Some are shocked to learn about what happened, but others, like their conservative Hong Kong counterparts, insist that it was justified.
Interest in Tiananmen has waned in recent years, but its impending twentieth anniversary has reignited passions, and June 4th is once again a major issue in Hong Kong. A yearly poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme found that 61 percent of Hong Kongers feel that the central government must reverse its position on the Tiananmen Square incident, compared to 49 percent last year. 69 percent feel that China “did the wrong thing” in suppressing the demonstrations. Considering all of this, then, it seems that Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s chief executive, did not have much of a feel for the public mood when he claimed in a meeting of the Legislative Council that most Hong Kong people want to forget about June 4th and move on. He probably wasn’t prepared for the wave of anger that then washed over him — consider My Little Airport’s hastily-made music video response, “Donald Tsang, Please Die.”
It’s 1905 in one of Shau Tau Kok’s small Hakka villages. A young couple has just been married. Now, the bride, wearing a veil, is being carried away to her new family-in-law’s house in an elaborately-carved wooden sedan chair—co kiau in Hakka—that been draped in a red sash to keep out evil spirits. Firecrackers greet her when she arrives, the insistence of their explosions signalling the start of a week-long celebration of the union of two families.
The beautiful Hakka sedan chair you see below, now housed in the Hong Kong Heritage Museum’s New Territories Heritage Hall, is over a century old but it still evokes the bittersweet feelings a young woman must have experienced on the day of her wedding, a mix of exhilaration and trepidation. It’s almost a shame that it is kept behind a plastic shield — we’ll never get to know what it feels like to sit inside.
Dusk over the Flower Market
Rooftop BBQ near Prince Edward
Over the rooftops of Sai Ying Pun
When it first launched, Urbania magazine had a pretty useless Flash-based website that replicated selected content from its print magazine. I’m glad to see it has embraced the full potential of the web. 14 “channels” of video, images and text add a new, more dynamic aspect to the quarterly magazine. One of my favourite features is the Urbania Minutes series of videos: one-minute vignettes of Montreal life.
Above is L’exil, rue Sainte-Catherine Est, a brief portrait of a Chinese dépanneur deliveryman in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. Despite the annoying synopsis, which exoticizes Chinese immigrants (“En quête d’une vie meilleure, désireux d’offrir un avenir à leurs enfants, les ressortissants de l’Empire du milieu sont prêts à trimer dur pour réaliser leur rêve. Travailler 18 heures par jour dans une buanderie ou un dépanneur, ce n’est qu’une manière d’acheter sa liberté”), it’s a worthwhile glimpse into both immigrant life and the peculiar tradition of dep delivery, which has disappeared from other parts of the city.
Le métro de Montréal s’éveille, below, is one of those always-interesting behind-the-scenes looks at something we take for granted. We see the metro come to life in all of its antiquated glory, a 1960s flashback that begs to be seen as an old episode of Batman or something.
As compelling as they might be, the famous photos of Boeing 747s swooping over densely-packed tenements as they approached Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport don’t give you a real sense of what it was actually like to see, hear and feel those planes from the street. The noise of a large plane coming in for landing was pretty incredible. What’s more amazing is how that noise became part of the everyday din of life in Kowloon City. The relocation of the airport in 1998 took away one source of the neighbourhood’s vitality, but for the people who live there, it must have been a welcome departure.
It occurred to my friends and I, as we were travelling in a convoy of taxis down a one-lane mountain road, that it was a bit odd that an afternoon of hiking would start with a ride in a cab. But Hong Kong is an odd place. With a remarkably few private vehicles for such a large city—less than one out of five people here own a car—taxis play a particularly important role in shuttling people around town. I can’t help but compare the culture of taxis here with that of Montreal, which also has an abundance of cabs, but whose approach to them is markedly different.
Hong Kong has more than 18,000 taxis, compared to Montreal’s 4,500, but this works out to the same per-capita ratio of about one taxi for every 400 people. (New York, by contrast, has one taxi for every 600 people, though this doesn’t reflect the fact that most cabs stay on Manhattan and neglect the outer boroughs.) In both cities, taxis are owned by a mix of companies and individuals; drivers work long hours, earn only modest wages and sometimes suffer from stress and neuroses caused by working long, solitary hours for oft-ungrateful customers. But the similarities end there.
The biggest difference is demographic. The vast majority of taxi drivers in Montreal are immigrants or ethnic minorities, just like in most other large North American cities. Many are Haitian. In Hong Kong, though, I doubt there are any non-Chinese cabbies. The way that taxis are regulated by the government differs sharply too. While cabs in both cities are licenced, Montreal takes a far more lax approach in determining the model, colour and livery of taxis — a taxi can be pretty much any type of vehicle, and most drivers opt for standard-issue Toyota Camrys. The only indication it’s a taxi is the sign on the roof.
In Hong Kong, by contrast, cabs are all customized Toyota Crowns, with red livery for taxis serving urban areas, green for those serving the New Territories and blue for cabs on Lantau Island. Like New York’s yellow cabs, they give a certain consistent hue to the streets, not to mention a certain sense of place. It’s always a mild surprise to go to Yuen Long or Tai Po and find that the taxis are green, such is the extent to which the colour red can be associated with traffic in Hong Kong.
Pokfulam Road is one of Hong Kong’s posher addresses, sweeping past the leafy hills and stunning ocean views on the west side of Hong Kong Island. But its origins are far more humble: Pokfulam starts as a narrow two-lane street, besieged by the noise and exhaust of buses labouring uphill in first gear, its postwar tenements coated in a thick layer of grime. Despite the picturesque way it snakes up the hill, the bus traffic makes it a particularly unpleasant street, which might explain the number of vacant businesses and derelict buildings along it. The corner building above, with a nice curve typical of 1950s and 60s tong lau, or “Chinese building,” once housed a skin doctor and a bakery, both long gone.
Last year, on June 10th, a sudden storm blew into Montreal with hurricane strength. It was brief but intense as fierce winds toppled trees across the city, including this one on Milton Street in the McGill Ghetto.
This is what makes ghost ads in Montreal more interesting than in most places: more than just a window into the past, they reveal the city’s linguistic geography, past and present. Here we have two examples of early-twentieth-century tobacco ads revealed by recent building demolitions. One, on east-end Masson Street in Rosemont, is in French. The other, on west-end Sherbrooke Street in NDG, is in English. It’s a pretty straightforward illustration of Montreal’s linguistic divisions, which exist to this day — you’re far more likely to hear English spoken in western NDG than French, and the opposite holds true in Rosemont.
Of course, there’s more than just linguistic history that can be gleaned from these old ads. Turret Cigarettes were produced by Imperial Tobacco in St. Henri, about four or five kilometres from the ad in NDG, and they were marketed as the poker-player’s cigarettes of choice. Enough boxes of Turret made you eligible to redeem a deck of playing cards from Imperial Tobacco’s warehouse in the present-day Gay Village — hence the seemingly cryptic slogan, “Save the Poker Hands.”
Old Chum, meanwhile, was a brand of pipe tobacco, also produced by Imperial, that was popular with the tobacco charities run by La Presse and The Gazette. The tobacco charities raised money to provide tobacco to Canadian soldiers fighting in the first world war. After troops complained of being given inferior tobacco, The Gazette commissioned Imperial to produce packages of Old Chum specifically for the troops. Smoking became a patriotic activity promoted by both the French and English press.
Ever since my first visit last year, the Jamia Mosque, located near the top of the Central-Mid Levels escalator, has had a special pull on me. Hidden behind its stone walls is a verdant respite from the noise and stress of Central. A stately wrought iron gate acts as a portal between a frenzied city and a quiet place of contemplation and spiritual release.
The mosque is a welcome diversion whenever I find myself riding up the escalator. I enjoy the well-worn appearance of its grounds, the songs of the birds in its trees and the particular coziness created by the wall of skyscrapers that surround it. It’s also a place I like to show visitors to Hong Kong, and on a pleasant evening last winter, I found myself sitting on a stone ledge next to the mosque with a couple of my friends from Montreal. As the sounds of the evening prayer drifted through the air, an old man with a beard and more than a few missing teeth came up to us and started talking about everything he could think of: politics, the weather, Islam, his childhood. He mentioned that he had grown up at the mosque and had witnessed the complete transformation of the neighbourhood around it from an airy collection of walk-up tenements to a dense, dizzying cluster of highrises. He said that there were many families that lived around the mosque, in haphazardly-built houses and an elegant, now-decrepit building once used to house travelling Muslims and Islamic scholars.
Unfortuantely, the old man dashed away before I could ask him for his name. The next time I saw him, he brushed me off, muttering under his breath. “Don’t bother him, he’s crazy,” said someone standing nearby. But my interest was piqued. I decided to make a documentary, with three of my classmates at the University of Hong Kong, about the mosque and the diverse community of people that worship and live there. People started moving in during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. They never left, and now 20 families call the mosque home.
Through the Gate is my first documentary. It offers a glimpse of life at the Jamia Mosque through the experiences of three people. Andy Putranto is an Indonesian grad student who sees the mosque as a home away from home. Leila Karchoud is a Tunisian woman who was drawn back to Islam when she moved to Hong Kong. Mustafa Mohammed was born and raised at the mosque. I’ve tried to use their stories to convey the atmosphere of the mosque and its significance as a place both sacred and secular.
When you combine Hong Kong’s notorious lack of space with the natural tendency of people in warm climes to prepare food outdoors, you get scenes like those above. In all but the poshest and most sanitized neighbourhoods, kitchen workers crouch over brightly-coloured plastic buckets, washing innards and greens. It might not be hygenic, but it gives Hong Kongers a more honest relationship with the food they’re eating; its ingredients and preparation become part of the public spectacle.
Trafficopter, a 1972 National Film Board documentary by Barrie Howells, isn’t especially insightful, but it is certainly stylish. Following the traffic reporter for a Montreal radio station as he soars above the morning rush hour in a small helicopter, it gazes down at a miniature city caught up in the interminable grind of daily commerce.
There are plenty of captivating images here, both of Montreal from above and some long-vanished places like the Montreal Star‘s newsroom. The last few minutes of the film, which depict the city smoking and steaming in the frigid air of a winter morning, are by far the most memorable. There’s also an interesting bit where the reporter mentions that the pollution he encounters flying over the city every day led to an infection in one of his lungs — a reminder that Montreal is probably a lot cleaner now than it was for most of its industrial history.
A nice companion piece to Trafficopter is this short clip from Luc Bourdon’s La mémoire des anges. Here, we see the Turcot Interchange shortly after its construction, images of its soaring concrete spans set to audio of mayor Jean Drapeau musing, in a very 1960s way, about the need for traffic to circulate freely.