Archive for June, 2009

June 28th, 2009

In the Street, On the Bus

Posted in Canada, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Clown on Clark Street

Clark and Guilbeault on the Plateau

One dollar books

Cheap books on the Main

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June 28th, 2009

Goodbye Gutzlaff

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Politics, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Gutzlaff Street

Whenever you come across a particularly charming and surprising corner of Hong Kong, you can almost be sure that the Urban Renewal Authority has plans to do away with it. Although its official vision is “to create quality and vibrant urban living in Hong Kong,” most of its developments obliterate tight-knit communities and organic urban growth in favour of shopping malls, office developments and housing estates. Cynical Hong Kongers see the URA as a proxy for the big land developers that control this town; its projects are usually little more than land grabs for Hong Kong’s economic elite. Aside from displacing well-established neighbourhood social networks, they replace small-scale, independent businesses with corporate chain stores, which degrades the entrepreneurial spirit on which this city was built.

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June 28th, 2009

Some Weeds Grow in Brooklyn

Posted in Environment, United States by Christopher Szabla

I photographed this old (and perhaps abandoned) industrial building in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood just a few years ago. At the time, it was a captivating relic — almost entirely ensconced in graffiti, it was sprouting weeds that had either spilled onto the sidewalk, or had climbed up from the sidewalk onto it. The old orange car parked nearby added to the mystique; this was like a slice of 1970s New York.

That’s not entirely coincidental. Gowanus sometimes seems stuck in a time warp, a largely defunct swathe of industrial buildings dividing the homey brownstones of Carroll Gardens from the tony ones of Park Slope — neighborhoods that have been experiencing rapid change. Part of the reason the area is so moribund is its namesake Gowanus Canal, a brackish channel that has become the site of a raging local debate over whether it ought to be designated a Superfund site, allowing it to receive federal money for industrial cleanup.

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June 27th, 2009

The Ethics of Urban Documentary

Posted in Canada, Film, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Vancouver is many things, but perhaps most of all it is Terminal City, a place to which people escape. Movie stars and Cantopop celebrities flee there to escape the stress of their lives in Hollywood and Hong Kong; the less affluent find in Vancouver a place to get away from the constraints and conventions of society. Two films produced by the National Film Board of Canada look at some of the city’s more vulnerable people and their attempts to escape — and they also raise questions about the ethical obligations that documentarians (and, by extension, journalists and other members of the media) must confront when dealing with marginalized people.

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June 26th, 2009

Nam Cheong Street

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Nam Cheong Street, Shek Kip Mei

Nam Cheong Street leads from the working-class tenements of Sham Shui Po to the public housing estates of Shek Kip Mei. This short stretch, north of Tai Po Road, is a classic neighbourhood main street, with all of the essentials of Hong Kong life: a wet market, a supermarket, cha chaan teng, dispensaries and a seafood restaurant. There’s some dai pai dong and a branch of the Jockey Club nearby too, just to round things off.

June 25th, 2009

Now Showing: Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, Film, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf
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Josh Kim’s 2006 short, The Police Box

Where has Hong Kong gone? Once a world filmmaking capital, it has nearly vanished from the silver screen. Each year, far fewer feature films are made here than in cities such as Vancouver, Seoul and Tehran. What’s more, many recent Hong Kong movies, geared towards the lucrative mainland market, lack the local flavour that once made them so distinctive.

That’s something one of Hong Kong’s newest and most energetic film festivals hopes to change. After a one-year hiatus, I Shot Hong Kong is back, with a programme of 26 proudly local short films, music videos and documentaries.

“Hong Kong has lost its status as a premier filmmaking centre,” laments Craig Leeson, who helped found the festival in 2005. “In the late 1980s and early 90s, we were making 300 films a year here. From the start of 2001 until now, we’ve been making less than 50 a year. I think one of the reasons for that is that there’s no support for independent filmmakers or new talent. We’re not propagating filmmakers at the grass-roots level.”

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June 22nd, 2009

High Times

Posted in Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, United States by Christopher Szabla

Opening weekend for the High Line, Manhattan’s latest, most expensive new playground, is a mob scene: a line of cabs and SUVs blocks long throng the streets of the Meatpacking District, which, full for once, seem almost grateful to be receiving as much attention as they did when trucks filled with carcasses from somewhere west of the Hudson trundled down them without reproach from sleeping neighbors. Even still, these days, every Jersey plate throws looks of shock, scorn, and derision, even if it belongs to a Montclair family with 2.5 kids rather than a butcher shop in Paterson.

When the blood of slaughtered pigs still stained the streets of the Meatpacking District, the High Line park-in-the-sky was once just a dream of some urban eccentrics who liked nothing more than risking tetanus while strolling in the mangy weeds that had sprung up atop the abandoned railroad trestle that everyone thought was — it was the fashion to describe such places — a blight, a pox, a black cancer preventing the realization of the neighborhood’s bright, less bovine future.

Today, a line one hundred people deep winds its way under the railways southernmost supports, which carry the new park above to its blunt slice-off point, teetering slightly over Gansevoort Street. The whole affair — the carnival atmosphere, the families, the concessionaires (albeit servers of hangover huevos rather than cotton candy), even the fact that the High Line’s hip landscape designers have opted to retain (well, replicate) the old railway tracks atop the trestle (and the weeds, too, although they’ve acquired, like hipster hair, an air of carefully-planned carelessness) — all of this feels like the entrance to some spectacular theme park ride, and I half expect to see a sign forbidding anyone who isn’t this tall to ride (the extensive list of rules and regulations turns out to be much less interesting).

New Jersey looms ominously in the background

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June 18th, 2009

Look, Hope and Expect

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Road marking

Street markings are ubiquitous in Hong Kong, thanks to its British heritage, and pedestrians are urged to “Look Left” or “Look Right” at every crossing. But I was somewhat astonished to find out that the Chinese character used for this command (, pronounced mong in Cantonese) does not just mean “look” in a literal sense, it can also mean “hope” or “expect.”

Of course, as is always the case in Chinese, the word’s actual meaning depends entirely on context. But it’s awfully poetic in a figurative sense. What goes through your mind in that microsecond that passes when you turn your head to look at something? Trepidation, fear, longing, expectation, hope? And what happens when that brief moment of anticipation settles into the reality of what we see?

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June 18th, 2009

The Teenage City

Posted in Asia Pacific, Canada, Demographics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

“The thing to do on prom night 1998 was to take the rented limo up to the lookout on Mount-Royal after a soirée of underage bar-hopping to see the sun rise,” writes Alanah Heffez on Spacing Montreal. “We didn’t make it. Dizzy on newly-discovered drinks, my date and I watched the sun come up from the rooftop of a grocery store around the corner from home.”

The teenager’s city is one of escape, adventure and a constant search “for something to climb, for a hole in the fence, for an undiscovered place, a final frontier to push against,” she writes. Too old to play at home and shut out from other venues (movies get expensive and bars are for the pleasure of the 18-plus), teenagers begin to see the entire city as a playground. “If my experience was any indication, teenagers rely on public space more than almost any other demographic,” Alanah notes.

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June 16th, 2009

Pecha Kucha Comes to Hong Kong

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Pecha Kucha night, Hong Kong

Pecha Kucha night Hong Kong

Six minutes and 40 seconds is not a lot of time. It’s about how long it takes to ride the MTR from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui, or to heat up a frozen dinner in the microwave. But that’s all the time that 10 people will have to share their passion at the upcoming Pecha Kucha Night. A show-and-tell party for creative types, it’s being held at a bar in Exchange Square tomorrow — the fifth Pecha Kucha event in Hong Kong.

“I asked that people share some of their obsessions because that’s one thing that unites everyone,” says Oriana Reich, a graphic designer and branding consultant who curated the event. “They all have obsessions that drive their work and inspire them. I want people to bring their passion into it.”

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June 14th, 2009

The Last Hour of Old Kunming

Old Kunming

“There’s no way they can move us,” the shopkeeper said. “After three years, they’re still not done with Phase 1. How will they ever get to Phase 2?” He chuckled, pointing at the neighborhood-sized shopping center being erected one block away.

Such is the precarious state of Kunming’s old city. Of the ancient walled city, once four kilometers across, only a single cross-shaped area formed by Confucian Temple Street and Guanghua Street has escaped demolition to date. Yet this tiny area is a treasure trove of pre-1949 Chinese architecture, from wooden shop fronts and stone courtyards to a pair of prewar tenements called the “Sister Buildings” that bend gracefully to the curving streets. Amazingly, most of the shopkeeper’s neighbors have lived here for their entire lives; tea shops and little restaurants continue to do business even as squads of shovel-toting laborers dig up the streets to lay new gas lines.

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June 13th, 2009

Place d’Armes

Posted in Canada by Kate McDonnell

Place d'Armes

June 13th, 2009

Shenzhen Overpass

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Shenzhen footbridge

Hong Kong businesspeople and pro-Beijing politicians like to daydream about the day when Shenzhen and Hong Kong will be completely integrated, the border between them either gone or reduced to an anachronistic formality. For now, though, the two cities remain strikingly different despite their proximity and shared history. Shenzhen is brash, devious and seedy, but also vast and monumental, often aloof from its surroundings. Whereas Hong Kong has a well-entrenched local identity, Shenzhen is a seething melting pot of new migrants from throughout the country, making it in some ways the ur-city of modern China.

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June 9th, 2009

Acid Rain

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Police barrier in Mongkok

Part of Mongkok’s allure is the feeling you get that it teeters perpetually on the brink of chaos. There’s so much going on — and so much of it hidden away on the upper floors of dilapidated walkups, deep within labyrinthine commercial blocks or halfway down a narrow laneway — that any visitor to the neighbourhood is belittled and disoriented. Like a drug, the loss of control is unsettling yet strangely enticing. Nobody has a grip on what’s really happening in Mongkok; it lives by its own intangible rules.

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