Hong Kong’s prewar buildings number in the hundreds, yet the few of them that remain continue to be knocked down for mediocre new development. This photo compilation by Lee Chi-man is one of the clearest examples I’ve seen. Just a few years ago (the top photo appears to have been taken in 2003, during the SARS crisis), the northwest corner of Un Chau and Pei Ho streets in Sham Shui Po was occupied by a ramshackle but typically elegant example of early twentieth century Hong Kong architecture. Like many buildings built before World War II, it was in poor condition, but it stood its ground with remarkable grace. It had enormous potential for restoration.
Archive for August, 2009
Maguire Meadow. Photo from imagine (le) mile-end
I found myself in Kennedy Town yesterday evening, my hair still dripping from swimming at a nearby pool as I walked towards the waterfront, beer in hand. At the small promenade built next to a bus loop, the smell of diesel fumes in the air, I stopped to admire the violet hues of the sunset. But I didn’t stay there — I pressed on to a far nicer part of the waterfront.
By day, the shipping yard that stretches from Kennedy Town to the wholesale food market at Shek Tong Tsui, on the western end of Hong Kong Island, whirs with industrial purpose, as forklifts dart about and shipping containers are unloaded by boat. By night, it becomes a playground for people who live nearby. As I walked along the water last night, I saw kids riding their bikes, old men fishing, middle-aged women stretching and power walking. As the evening wore on, couples emerged, strolling hand in hand. Nobody seemed to mind the signs warned against unauthorized entry.
It reminded me of the Maguire Meadow, a large open field in the old garment district of Mile End, Montreal, which is slated for redevelopment in the coming years. Lately, people have been gardening on the field and using it for neighbourhood gatherings; over the years, it has acquired an impressive collection of flora and fauna, including walnut trees and the squirrels they feed. At the moment, redevelopment plans call for a new road to be built through the meadow, which has elicited quite a bit of protest.
In Douglas Young‘s new book, My HK, the designer/entrepreneur — responsible for the Hong Kong Design Museum I wrote about earlier this year — gives special praise to the kitschy patterned tiles that became popular in postwar Hong Kong. They’re cheap, easy to clean, well-suited to Hong Kong’s humid climate and they liven up what could otherwise be drab and monotone. I also like them for the way they liven up the straight lines and plain surfaces of Hong Kong’s early modern architecture.
New York City is filled with all kinds of different people from all over the world. Everybody knows that, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting in the eyes of a visitor. What better way to get a look at people than on the subway?
Riding the NYC subway lines 4, 5 or 6 up and down Manhattan, from Wall Street up to Union Square then on to Grand Central, or taking the ‘L’ over to Brooklyn is as pleasurable to me as being above ground visiting the sites we are all supposed to see when you go to New York. The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the Statue of Liberty are all great places, but frankly, I’m over them. It’s the people of New York I want to see.
Shop gates in Tai Ping Shan, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
Mount Royal Avenue, Montreal
Franck Chambrun seems to have rediscovered my photos. After painting several of them in 2007, he has done the same over the past few weeks, though with a distinct shift in style. Whereas his earlier paintings distilled the streetlife depicted in my photos to its bare essence of form and colour, his new works seem to read the city’s thoughts and emotions. Maybe it’s my own personal bias, but his paintings seem to have a greater impact when you see them in conjunction with the photos on which they were based; you get to peek inside the artist’s own mind, seeing what he saw.
A Montreal heatwave is a funny thing. It’s really quite mild by any global standard — the media usually start braying about a canicule after just three days of temperatures above 30 degrees — but it has a real effect on this mostly air-con-free city. The normally languid pace of life becomes even slower and stickier as everyone indulges in the short-lived burst of heat and humidity. Terrasses fill up well into the night and the city hums with idle conversation and the nocturnal buzz of insects.
My first experience of urban exploration came thanks to an abandoned steel foundry on St. Ambroise St. in St. Henri, on which there was still a piece of 1995 referendum-era graffiti urging us to vote “Oui.” My girlfriend and I walked around the building, exploring some of the more easily accessible areas on the ground floor.
Just as we were about to leave, two kids from the neighbourhood came up to us. “Do you want to see something cool?” they asked. We followed them to a steel garage door that had been pried open, squeezing ourselves underneath and into a dark building.
The boys ran up a staircase to the left. Upstairs was a large room, brightly lit by the setting sun, filled with huge piles of debris, toilets and empty bottles. “GOGGLE AREA,” read a sign hanging crookedly from the ceiling. “Wear your safety goggles. Portez vos lunettes de sûreté.” As I looked around, flipping through the pages of 1980s fashion magazines that were sitting in a pile on the floor, the two boys started picking up bottles and smashing them on the ground.
Park and Bernard
Since Google Street View has yet to arrive in Canada, the next best thing is the bird’s eye view feature offered by Bing, Microsoft’s ripoff/competitor/alternative to Google. Since the first thing one tends to do with these things is to find one’s home, my first instinct was to check out all of the different places I lived in Montreal. I started with my apartment on Park Avenue near Bernard, where I lived for four years. I’ve written enough about the apartment, street and neighbourhood that I probably don’t need to say anything more.
Park and Fairmount
Few things are as contentious and politically charged as the names of where we live, so it’s not surprising to see toponymy back in Montreal’s political spotlight, three years after the Park Avenue/Parc Avenue/avenue du Parc debacle. Earlier this week, a variety of nationalist groups began to advocate the renaming of Amherst Street, ostensibly because its namesake, Jeffrey Amherst, an officer of the British Army who helped conquer Quebec in 1760, advocated the genocide of North America’s native peoples.
Fair enough, I guess. There has long been a movement to give Lionel Groulx the boot from the St. Henri metro station that bears his name because of what he thought and said about Jews. Thing is, in the case of both Amherst and Groulx, as much as their beliefs and actions would be unacceptable today, they were in keeping with the general attitudes of their time. Groulx was far from the only anti-Semite in pre-WWII Canada; Amherst was not the only military leader who engaged in despicable tactics to win a war.
Besides, plenty of other unsettling people whose names have been enshrined in the landscape. If we want to get rid of all of the skeletons in our toponymical closet, we have a lot of cleaning to do, starting with Christopher Columbus (genocidal imperialist), René Lévesque (lethal drunk-driver), Maurice Duplessis (corrupt autocrat) and Saint Zotique (he wasn’t even a saint!).
Cheung Chau is one of my favourite bits of Hong Kong, but only recently have I strayed outside of its warren of small streets between the beach and harbour and up into the hill just south of town. Earlier this summer, after climbing up a long set of stairs at the end of a narrow lane, I was surprised to come across a long, winding footpath, lined by comfortable-looking houses with large balconies and lush gardens, called the Peak Road. It seemed like a deliberate reference the Hong Kong’s more famous Victoria Peak, the one where houses sell for tens of millions of dollars and the colonial elite built an exclusive hideaway for itself in the days of British control.
It’s got nothing on Il fait beau dans l’métro, but this 1985 TV spot certainly ranks up there in the pantheon of kitschy transit ads. What kind of bugs me about it is that the metro is taking this very fashionable couple from their living room to a restaurant and a swimming pool, yet they choose to get off and hop on a bus driven by some creepy moustachioed uncle with a twangy accent. What gives?