Chief Executive Donald Tsang is telling us to develop Hong Kong’s creative industries. But not everyone can join a band, start a graphic design firm or curate an art show. If you’ve got enough talent and a penchant for risk, there is one thing you can do: become a street artist.
To find out how, I spoke to two of Hong Kong’s two most prolific crews of street artists, Start From Zero and Graphic Airlines, whose posters and stickers can be seen all over town. Start from Zero specializes in stencil-based images that represent artistic freedom and new beginnings. Graphic Airlines is known for a range of odd cartoonish characters — monsters, mutant bunnies and especially a band of chubby-faced people that represent the Hong Kong everyman.
“Hong Kong people are so busy, we don’t have time to slow down and think about life,” says Vi, one of Graphic Airlines’ two members. “Street art gives us a chance to think about something other than making money, investing in property or the stock market.”
Here’s how you can work to way to street art stardom.
Phuket’s Chinatown is well past its prime, consisting mainly of old shophouses that seem not to have been touched, inside or out, for the better part of a century. It isn’t even that overtly Chinese anymore. What gives away its cultural background are the Chinese altars mounted in the sidewalk arcades around the neighbourhood. The pineapples and bright flowers laid as offerings speak of Thai influence, but the overall design of the altars belies the Hokkien origin of Phuket’s Chinese immigrants. In other parts of Thailand, most Chinese people are Cantonese or Chiu Chow, who seem to prefer far simpler, more conservative altars, like those in Hong Kong.
Kate McDonnell points the way to a promotional magazine published in 1964 to attract tourists to Montreal. It’s partly a snapshot of Montreal in the mid-60s, but also in large part an example of how the city was being branded and its image constructed in the years leading up to Expo 67.
The text is bilingual, but the English articles are often a perfunctory approximation of the French versions. There’s feature stories on the Museum of Fine Arts (“a bustling community centre for Montreal’s two cultures”), the booming business district (“the driving force of all Canada”) and the artificial islands being created for Expo (“the raising from the waters of new land in Man’s world”). Everything is written in a smart but unwaveringly optimistic language that comes across today as quaint and naive.
In 1964, Montreal was still on the cusp of modernity, its metro system under construction, its iconic skyscrapers still being dusted off. While a number of articles trade in the “France in North America” cliché that has served Montreal’s tourism industry since the birth of modern tourism, there’s more focus on the brute commercial and industrial marvels of a city that was still in its economic prime. In today’s tourist literature, the romantic French clichés remain, but any talk about train building and highway construction has been replaced by fuzzier praise for the city’s creativity and innovation in music or design.
Ce mois de mars. Incroyable par sa fraicheur, déroutant par sa chaleur inopinée. Frébilité perceptible. Émotions intenses.
Je parcours le campus de l’Université McGill, en plein coeur du centre des affaires de Montréal, à la recherche d’une place apaisante où lire ce journal pris à la course aux portes du métro. J’adore ces petits endroits, le jardin généreux, où il est possible de se promener sans empressement, avec pour seul objectif la détente et l’évasion.
McGill est un Éden, downtown Montreal, comprimé entre les tours cristallines des avenues et les broussailles en pente du Mont-Royal. Architecture variée. Élégance victorienne. Châtelets aux tourelles inusitées. La visite de l’université me donne toujours un petit frisson nostalgique, le regard en balade sur cette grisaille burinée d’abondantes formes fantaisistes.
Jeunes en rut. Ethnies au garde-à-vous. Le printemps s’annonce précoce, les regards sont alertes. Je me retire de la foule compacte et repère une place mi-ombre, d’où il est facilement possible de jouir de la scène agitée tout en respectant mon rôle de spectateur.
Hong Kong’s vertical urbanity was already taking shape by the mid-1960s, but as this 1966 aerial photo of Wan Chai shows, it still retained a bit of its earlier Southeast Asian character with rows of pitched-roof shophouses. The older parts of Guangzhou, Macau, Taipei and Bangkok still look like this today.
Earlier this week, in a Kwun Tong industrial building, three young people sat in a smoky studio talking about art, family and music. Every so often, they took a break and played a song from My Little Airport, an independent band known for its twee sound and ironic lyrics. After an hour and fifteen minutes — fifteen minutes longer than scheduled — they came out of the studio to make way for the next hosts.
All in all, a fairly ordinary night at Hong Kong’s newest radio station, FM 101, which launched last autumn and broadcasts both on the web and the FM dial. That wasn’t the case a week earlier.
On March 4th, police and officials from the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) forced their way into the studio and seized $20,000 worth of transmitting equipment. FM 101 is a pirate radio station that broadcasts without a licence, which means its hosts and guests run the risk of hefty fines and even jail time. The station’s founders say they are deliberately circumventing Hong Kong’s broadcast laws in an attempt to force the government to open the airwaves to small, non-profit radio stations.
“All I want is a place to play indie music,” said Leung Wing-lai, 28, a musician and one of the station’s founders. “It’s absurd that this is illegal.”
The layers of irony in Nantou can be hard to appreciate. Here is a town that reigned supreme over the surrounding lands for hundreds of years; when China lost the first Opium Wars, it was here that British emissaries met Chinese officials to claim the nearby island of Hong Kong.
Later, as a result of Hong Kong’s prosperity as a British colony, the Kowloon-Canton Railway was built, bypassing Nantou and passing instead through the nearby town of Shenzhen. Nantou faded into obscurity. In the 1980s, after Shenzhen was declared a free-market Special Economic Zone, it was absorbed into the city’s urban sprawl. By the early 2000s, it had become just another urban village packed with migrants from every corner of rural China.
But Nantou was still littered with historic buildings dating back to its days as the economic and political capital of the surrounding prefecture, so Shenzhen’s officials decided to build a history museum and restore some of the old landmarks, which included the yamen where Hong Kong was signed away, temples, clan houses and 600-year-old fortifications. Unfortunately, nobody was interested, so the restored buildings were boarded up.
We’re in an age when every other person is a wannabe Walker Evans, and every single object and person in the city is a potential subject for self-reflective urban photography. (You know, the kind you sometimes see here.) Washington, DC artist Alexa Meade takes that situation to its logical extreme by turning her photo subjects into living, breathing acrylic paintings.
In one of her works, she paints a man and sends him into the buses and metro stations of DC, where he stands out like, well, the subject of a painting that somehow jumped out of the frame and began walking around. Though I’m not sure Meade meant to comment on street photography, this particular work delivers a giant wink to the genre by turning her subject into the romantic, photogenic everyman that he was destined to become.
Guy-Concordia Station : 18h37. Il y à cette foule touffue, opaque, qui me traverse sans même me voir. Je suis là, pourtant, à multiplier les clichés de cette cohue fébrile et qui s’agglutine, comme le mercure qui se déverse sur le sol. Une tâche métallique, au reflet d’un soleil au bord du crépuscule.
Concordia University, un nom qui résonne et qui rebondit, de sa longueur et de son élan, le long des parois académiques de ces pavillons de verre éclaté. Mille milliers de ces étudiants qui piétinent et qui vocifèrent dans tous les sens. Étourdissement, asphyxie. Un tourbillon humanoïde.
Street art in Hong Kong tends to be limited to specific areas and the scene is dominated by a handful of very prolific artists, like Start from Zero and Graphic Airlines, who work mainly with posters, stencil art and stickers. In a few corners of town, though, it’s possible to find clusters of exuberantly traditional graffiti. One of these can be found along a laneway next to Mong Kok East Station on the former KCR (now East Rail) line. There’s a couple of Graphic Airlines paste-ups but mostly it’s stuff I don’t recognize, which is refreshing.
Franco-Algonquin hip hop is the last thing I expected to encounter in Hong Kong, but that’s exactly what I heard this past weekend at the former Central Married Police Quarters, which has suddenly become the most interesting cultural space in town. Over the past month, the Heritage X Art X Design festival and the Indie Ones series of concerts have used the space to great effect, transforming its concrete courtyard into a fake lawn (in contrast to the beach created by November’s Detour festival) set in front of a bamboo stage illuminated by red market lamps.
Samian is the son of a French-Canadian father and an Algonquin mother; he grew up on a native reserve in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, about 800 kilometres northwest of Montreal. He started rapping when he was a teenager, first in French, and later — after he met the influential hip hop crew Loco Locass — in Algonquin.
Samian took the stage on Saturday in a performance that was energetic but marred by poor sound, which was mainly because the organizers had to muffle the vocals after the police got a slew of noise complaints from nearby luxury apartment towers. (“At least in Quebec we have until 10pm before we have to keep quiet,” Samian’s DJ said to me after the show.) The crowd responded enthusiastically even though most of the people there didn’t speak French.
French football fans celebrate in 2006 on the Plateau Mont-Royal
Photo by Oliver Lavery
It’s been a long time coming, but the French — in the words of a shop manager on Mount Royal Avenue — “are taking over the Plateau!” French immigrants have been coming to Quebec for decades, but the past few years have seen an especially large influx. This year, Canada will issue 14,000 temporary visas to French people between the ages of 18 and 35, most of them on working holidays. Many choose to live in Montreal, and especially on the Plateau Mont-Royal, where French accents have become common enough to elicit half-joking exclamations like the one above. According to the French consulate, there could be as many as 100,000 French citizens living in Montreal.
In today’s La Presse, Émilie Côté takes a look at the growing community of young French émigrés on the Plateau. Many of the people she encountered say they want to stay in Montreal long-term, but finding permanent employment has been difficult. There’s also some lingering prejudice against “les maudits Français,” though some admit that the animosity could be well-deserved, considering that French people “have a chauvinistic streak” and are “notorious whiners.” In any case, the French influx is beginning to reshape the social fabric of the Plateau in some potentially fascinating ways.
Though Montreal is unique in that it is the only large, economically-developed French-speaking city outside Europe, it is not the only place with a growing French community. More and more French people are moving to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver; a number of American cities, including Boston, San Francisco and New York, have been popular destinations for quite some time now. According to the French magazine Les Echos, there are 210,000 French expatriates in Canada, 175,000 in the United States and 158,000 in the United Kingdom. But here’s a surprise: the country with the absolute largest number of French expats is China, with 252,000.
When Google Street View was finally launched in Canada last fall, I was nearly ecstatic, since it let me revisit familiar old places I hadn’t seen in awhile, like my favourite Montreal streetcorners and memorable places from my life. Now Street View is available for Hong Kong, too. Though you’d think it wouldn’t be interesting wandering virtually through the places I frequent in real life, it’s actually quite satisfying to see them from the point of view of a 20-foot giant. There’s also great views from places I normally wouldn’t visit, like remote rural villages and elevated expressways. Plus, for those with a bent for the sensational and slightly pervy, there’s plenty of fun things to see.