Not an election sign, but much more amusing
I arrived in Montreal just in time for the most exciting municipal election campaign in decades. All at once, a bit too early for Halloween, all of City Hall’s skeletons fell out of the closet, with revelations that construction contracts are rigged and accusations that the municipal government works primarily around a system of bribes and kickbacks. From what I saw, though, this year’s campaign posters are not nearly so dramatic.
I recently sat down to write an article about the municipal elections. I started reading up about the candidates, browsed their pages, explored some of the Montreal blogs. And the more I read the more depressed I became, to the point that the only way I was able to regain sanity was through a marathon session of SimCity 4, in which I decided to regain the trust of my simulated citizens by installing a tramway on my own personal Côte-des-Neiges Boulevard. Believe you me, I fixed transportation for a generation, and it’s all totally sustainable.
See, I like SimCity. By now it’s an old game, but it’s still a classic. As the benevolent mayor of a few hundred thousand simulated yous and mes, I can flex my muscles and do whatever I like. A housing project in my way? Bring in the bulldozers. I’ve installed add-on packs for everything you can think of: elevated trains, pedestrian malls, depressed freeways. In my town of Saint-Sam-sur-Richelieu, or whatever the current mayoral endeavour is called, there are no elections to speak of—but if I’m reeling from the strain of low mayoral ratings, I can always just build a few landmarks. I drop Statue of Liberty here; a Petronas Tower there.
The basement of a shopping mall is the last place you’d expect to find the stirrings of a revolution, but that’s exactly what is happening in a tiny studio on the bottom floor of Langham Place. For the past year, Radio Dada has been dishing up indie music and irreverent discussion about Hong Kong arts and culture. Not only is this volunteer-run operation Hong Kong’s only independent radio station, its internet-based approach finally breaks free of the shackles that bind Hong Kong’s airwaves.
“Radio Dada is an experiment on how to build a radio station in Hong Kong,” says rapper and graffiti writer MC Yan, who is also the station’s musical director. “People are surprised that we do it without any money. But it’s not about money. It’s about freedom. Hong Kong is full of self-censorship, it’s way worse than in China. People here have no guts and no balls. We’re here to fix that.”
Despite Hong Kong’s reputation as a bastion of free expression, it’s actually illegal to run an independent radio station here. Only three radio stations — two of them commercial, one run by the government — are allowed to broadcast over the air. Nobody else has succeeded in getting a broadcast licence. In 2005, when a band of pro-democracy activists started a pirate station, Citizens’ Radio, that broadcast weekly political commentary, their offices were raided by police.
Tourists usually head to the Avenue of Stars to get their fix of Hong Kong’s famous skyline. But there’s an infinitely more rewarding alternative just a couple of kilometres to the west. Well off the sightseer’s radar and overlooked even by most locals, the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade offers an incomparable 360-degree view of Victoria Harbour and the dizzying skyscrapers that flank it.
In a way, West Kowloon is the culmination of a hundred-year trend in Hong Kong history: land reclamation. Much of the modern-day city is built on soil dumped into the harbour, but none of the past landfill projects compare to the vast scale of West Kowloon, which replaced several square kilometres of water with highways, railroads, malls, offices and apartment towers. There’s so much new land, in fact, that people are still trying to figure out what to do with all of it. That’s why, for the time being at least, a large swath of it remains vacant and undeveloped.
Nature has already made its introduction and much of the vacant land is covered in small trees and craggy brush. With waves crashing on one side and the hissing of cicadas on the other, the West Kowloon waterfront feels like an obscure bit of country shoreline — except for that panoramic view of Hong Kong’s glossy skyline, of course.
Los Angeles’s spin on the Art Walk serves more than just the obvious purposes of promoting foot traffic and celebrating art in the flatland of mini malls and gas guzzlers. The monthly spectacle constitutes a larger urban project: the gentrification and “revitalization” of Downtown LA.
Since Antonio Villaraigosa’s first term in office, the LA mayor has worked with the City Council in redeveloping the desolate city center with a billion-dollar makeover. In recent decades Downtown has devolved from a bustling business hub to a destitute ghost town, where by day careerists flood the skyscraper landscape and by night rush to their suburban pockets leaving a nocturnal community of itinerants. The homeless population in Downtown LA alone exceeded 30,000 in 2004.
Today, the district lies in continual renovation and the lines blur between skid row and Gallery Row. Million-dollar lofts overlook boulevards dotted by sleeping bags and cardboard boxes. There is literally no street in the 5-square-mile area without an old warehouse or hotel from the Roaring Twenties converted into contemporary, luxury residence.
Sometimes good things do come from the pages of Lonely Planet. Normally (in Southeast Asia, at least), visiting one of the bars or restaurants recommended in its pages will lead you to a place filled Lonely Planet readers of the most insufferable sort. Bo(ok)hemian is not one of those places. Despite its goofy name, it’s a nicely ramshackle hangout in the oldest part of Phuket, stocked with used Thai books and local art. The coffee is great, too, and cheap.
It was a quiet evening when I visited late last month. Most of the nearby shops had already closed for the day. Two Thai twentysomethings sat at a table on the sidewalk, eyes fixed on a white Macbook, while a Chinese couple looked through the books. Gig posters and indie CDs were on display near the cafe’s entrance. I couldn’t help but think that Bo(ok)hemian represented another face of globalization, the kind described in Andrew Potter’s book The Rebel Sell: a localized version of the same indie culture that can be found in Mile End, the Lower East Side and Kensington Market.
I came across this guy in Phuket’s Chinatown, a quiet, crumbling reminder of the days when Phuket made its fortune from tin mining, not tourism. He might seem deep in thought but in reality he had just been picking his ear and was looking at the product of his excavations. We’re allowed to tell little lies in our photos, right?
Before I left Montreal, my geography geek friend Sam Imberman organized an event for all of the other geography geeks he knew. He called it “Shots and Corners.” For three hours, we walked through Little Italy, Outremont, Mile End and the Plateau to visit everyone’s favourite streetcorners.
We honoured each corner with a toast and a shot of various types of liquor. My corner was the intersection of Groll Avenue and the laneway between Esplanade and Jeanne-Mance, which I picked partly because I like the way it looks and partly because I’m the kind of annoying person who has a preference for the obscure. (My drink, in case you’re curious, was gin.)
Former camillienne in St. Louis Square
Montreal owes much to two twentieth-century strongmen/mayors: Camillien Houde and Jean Drapeau. Drapeau gave us sleek Modernism, expressways and artificial islands, but Houde was a more populist kind of guy who made his mark with public markets and, just as importantly, public toilets.
Washrooms were opened in prominent locations throughout the city, such as Phillips Square, where they were built underground and were accessed by two broad sets of granite stairs. In Viger, Dominion and Cabot squares, the toilets were housed in adorable stone kiosks with big windows and copper roofs.
Tsuen Wan, west of Kowloon, is known more as an industrial and commercial hub than as a seaside getaway. But until the early 1990s, the district’s seven sandy beaches, which stretch out along the Rambler Channel, were among the most popular in Hong Kong. As pollution from raw sewage worsened in the 1990s and 2000s, however, the beaches was closed for swimming.
Now, thanks to sewage improvement works, they may finally reopen within two years. Officials say water quality at the beaches is improving after work to channel and treat the waste, and they could be fit for use again by the summer of 2011.
The HK$1 billion scheme, which began early this decade, includes new trunk and branch sewers and a treatment plant at Sham Tseng, which was one of the first in Hong Kong to disinfect waste through ultraviolet radiation.
“Twenty years ago there were no sewage treatment facilities, no sewage works whatsoever in the area,” said Elvis Au Wai-kwong, assistant director of the Environmental Protection Department’s water policy division. “But the population of the area around the beaches increased by 42 per cent after 1996, from 26,000 to around 37,000.”