Archive for November, 2009

November 29th, 2009

The Mystery of Swiss Lane

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

Swiss Lane

Swiss Lane

Even after seven years of walking its streets, I’m still finding new things in Mile End, the neighbourhood I called home before I left Montreal. Back for a visit last month, I got around mostly by bike, which took me down streets on which I wouldn’t normally walk, like the quiet stretch of Casgrain in the old garment district. That’s where I spotted a laneway with an unusual name: Swiss Lane, according to the street sign, though “lane” has been patched over with white tape and the alley’s official name is now “ruelle Swiss.”

I can’t find any clues as to the origins of Swiss Lane’s name. The city’s otherwise comprehensive Répertoire historique des toponymes montréalais contains no reference to anything Swiss or Suisse. The only mention I can find in the Lovell’s Directory indicates that Swiss Lane was “not built upon.” (Its entry in the 1935 directory is found right under Swastika Avenue, which was apparently a lane off Ste. Famille Street.) So what’s the story behind Swiss Lane?

November 27th, 2009

A Door to Anywhere

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Every evening, Sai Yeung Choi Street becomes a parade of shoppers, street performers and promoters that lasts until after midnight. There are few other places in the world where you come into such close proximity with so many people, but contact is fleeting: a bumped elbow, a wayward glance, a shared moment while watching a busker.

Videographer Thomas Lee exploited Sai Yeung Choi Street’s ephemeral nature in his video “A Door to Anywhere,” pulling aside people to ask them a simple question: “If you had a door that opened to anywhere at all, where would you go?” It’s a cute conceit taken from Doraemon, the Japanese anime, where the “dokodemo door” allows its characters to be instantly transported anywhere.

The answers that Lee gets are funny, surprising and poignant. For a few seconds, we get a glimpse of who these strangers are, before they wave goodbye and disappear back into the crowd.

November 26th, 2009

Cheung Fun Fix

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food by Christopher DeWolf

Cheung fan or cheung fun or cheong fun


November 26th, 2009

Night on Cheung Chau

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food by Christopher DeWolf

Cheung Chau at night

We didn’t know what to expect. Faced with the novelty of an open Saturday night, my girlfriend Laine and I decided to go somewhere random. Why not Cheung Chau? We’d always enjoyed visiting the island during the day, when its bicycles, beaches and palates of drying fish are a rebuke to the city’s uptight rush. It might be just as fun at night, we reasoned.

So we headed to the Central Ferry Piers where we stocked up on good beer — a Paulaner Dunkelweizen, a Brooklyn Lager and a Yebisu, for the record — and caught the 9:30pm “Ordinary Ferry” at Pier 5. In this case, “ordinary” means you’ll get exactly what you’d expect from a ferry: a real boat that sloshes back and forth in the water, with a spot at the rear where you can sit outdoors and feel the wind in your hair. It takes 15 minutes longer than the hermetically-sealed icebox “Fast Ferry,” but it also costs half as much and is twice as much fun.

We arrived at the island a bit after 10pm. The lights on the harbourfront promenade twinkled like somebody’s forgotten Christmas decorations. As we disembarked the ferry and left the pier, I noticed that most of seafood restaurants along the Praya were already winding down for the night, but Laine pointed out something far more exciting: street food.


November 23rd, 2009

New Yorkers

Posted in Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

New York portrait

I’ve been keeping an eye on Flickr user sabotai‘s photos ever since he moved from Houston to New York earlier this year. He’s been taking advantage of his nice lenses and good street photography skills to take some engaging candid portraits of people on the street.

He’s done a pretty good job at representing all five boroughs, too: along with Manhattan, he’s got plenty of shots from Brooklyn and Queens, though his Bronx and Staten Island collections could use a little work.

New York portrait


November 23rd, 2009

Making of a Square

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, History, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Place Gérald-Godin

Place Gérald-Godin in 1979 and 2009. Compilation by Guillaume St-Jean

Over the past decade, Montreal has invested heavily in big-ticket squares and plazas, including the remarkable Place Jean-Paul Riopelle and redesigned Victoria Square, both completed in 2003, and the surprisingly successful Place des Festivals, which opened earlier this year. But some of the smaller new squares are just as impressive, perhaps doubly so for the fact that they’ve been perfectly integrated into the city’s life without any kind of the fuss or introspection demanded by their bigger counterparts.

Place Gérald-Godin is the best example of these small new squares. It sits just outside the sole entrance to Mont-Royal metro, one of the city’s busiest stations, and as a result it’s busy throughout the day. Until recently, however, it wasn’t so much a square as a patch of grass traversed by a couple of asphalt pathways. A building that housed a caisse populaire (and before that, a bicycle shop) occupied the corner of Berri and Mount Royal, next to the station, making the space in front feel like more like an afterthought than a real place.


November 19th, 2009

From Pasture to Projects

Posted in Architecture, History, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla
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Curious about what the building his great-great-grandfather lived in was like, ex-Brooklynite Zach van Schouwen was soon researching the history of his entire street. The result is “The Block,” a series pen-and-ink drawings of how the stretch of Eldridge Street, between Stanton and Rivington on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, looked in every year since 1795.

Eldridge turns out to be fairly typical of the neighborhood, which evolved from “Delancey’s Farm” to a series of tall, narrow tenements that start replacing the street’s small rowhouses in the 1850s. Fire escapes begin to appear, in accordance with law, in the 1920s and 30s. The block takes a downward turn just after World War II, when a number of tenements are gradually boarded up, torn down, and replaced with garages and storage facilities. In 1985, the entire block becomes occupied by a single housing project.


November 18th, 2009

Night on the Plateau

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf


Coloniale Avenue


November 17th, 2009

Hong Kong’s Rubbish Problem

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

Beach rubbish

Photo by Tommy Wong

Stroll along one of the many beaches that are not regularly cleaned by the government and one thing is clear: Hong Kong has a rubbish problem.

When Dermot Mayes arrived at a remote beach near Pui O for the Coastal Cleanup Challenge, a month-long event in which 6,500 volunteers scoured Hong Kong beaches for trash, he was appalled. “We found car doors, fire extinguishers, wheelbarrows, quite a lot of medical equipment, quite of a lot of syringes,” said the managing director of Nomura, a financial conglomerate. “I’ve spent a lot of time hiking around Hong Kong, especially the shoreline areas, and it’s always been a bugbear of mine that the beaches and countryside are really quite badly littered.”

Mayes and his teammates spent three hours cleaning up the beach, but they were left with the nagging realisation that, for all their hard work, they were only treating a symptom of a much greater problem. Every year, more and more trash is found in Hong Kong’s waters. Last year, 12,900 tonnes of waste were cleared from the waters around the city, nearly double the amount recovered in 1998, when just 6,750 tonnes were collected. Another 15,500 tonnes were removed from gazetted beaches, which are cleaned daily by the government.

Overall, the amount of waste produced by Hong Kong has grown by 2 to 3 per cent each year since 2005. If the amount of trash keeps increasing each year, Hong Kong will run out of space in its landfills within five years.


November 14th, 2009

Inner Mongolia’s Empty City

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Video by Christopher Szabla


Ordos 100 project architects wander the emptiness of Inner Mongolia. Photo by Flickr user mi schoner

In August, I came across an intriguing photo in Tokyo’s Mori Museum — a group of what appeared to be a group of urban sophisticates wandering, seemingly lost, in a desert landscape. The image was part of an exhibit on the work of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, but it wasn’t the photo itself that was on display: Ai was the “curator”, working along with hip Swiss architects Herzog & deMeuron, of a project called “Ordos 100,” and the wanderers were among one hundred architects, each selected to develop a villa in a development near a booming city called Ordos in China’s resource-rich Inner Mongolia, which is apparently gaining a reputation as “the Chinese Texas”.

Since the onset of the global recession, Ordos has come to resemble its Texas counterparts in more ways than one: a vast, hypermodern extension of the city sits almost completely empty. Ordos cannot fill the hundreds of rank-and-file apartments that were conceived and constructed while Ordos 100’s vanity villas have remained in the design stage.


November 13th, 2009

Montreal as a High School Musical

Posted in Canada, Music, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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I liked this song when I first heard it on CBC Radio 3, but when I saw its music video, I liked it even more. “Sweet Sixteen” by Think About Life is light, ironic dance-pop, and the video is similarly fun, especially in the stylized way it reflects the (hipster) Montreal landscape.

First there’s the giant “Ouvert 24 Hrs” sign in the background of the opening scene’s diner, then a poster-clad hydro pole set against a background video of a distinctly Montreal park (look at the benches!), a passing Hassid (who later makes an appearance at the final dance party) and, later, a cameo by Tong, a waiter at La Maison VIP, one of Chinatown’s best late-night eateries. I especially appreciate the detailed rendition of a Montreal bus, right down to the yellow stop-request wire and blue seats.

November 12th, 2009

Milton and Aylmer

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

Milton Street

After the sun sets, the corner of Milton and Aylmer is one of my favourite in Montreal, if only because the Victorian townhouse on the northeast side is so nicely-lit by the adjacent streetlamp.

November 12th, 2009

Asia’s Only Jewish Film Festival

Posted in Asia Pacific, Film, History, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Howard Elias

Howard Elias, founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival

There aren’t a lot of Jews in Hong Kong, but that hasn’t stopped the city from becoming the centre of Jewish life in Asia, with one of the continent’s oldest synagogues, an active community centre and the only Jewish film festival on this side of the world.

Hong Kong’s first Jews arrived with the British in 1842 — many had been trading in nearby Canton, now known as Guangzhou — and by the turn of the twentieth century, some of the territory’s most prominent families were Jewish, including the Kadoories and Sassoons, whose names have been enshrined in streets, hills and institutions across the city. (Andy Lau, arguably Hong Kong’s biggest pop star, lives in a mansion on Kadoorie Avenue.) One of Hong Kong’s early governors, Sir Matthew Nathan, was Jewish, and though he wasn’t local — Hong Kong was just one of his many stops in the imperial service — he did provide the community with a certain amount of official attention.

Despite a small influx of Jews from Shanghai, Harbin and Tianjin after the Japanese invasion of China, Hong Kong’s Jewish community remained tiny until quite recently; it numbered 200 in 1968 and 2,500 in 1998. Recently, though, more and more Jewish expatriates have been moving to Hong Kong, and the community numbers somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 — about the same size as the Jewish communities in Calgary, Frankfurt and pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Earlier this week, I interviewed Howard Elias, the Toronto-born founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, for CNNGo, where you can find a partial transcript of our conversation.

November 11th, 2009

Fall’s Last Flowers

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf