Wah Luen is the cheapest building in Fotan, an out-of-the-way industrial district near Shatin. Since the early 2000s, it has become the epicentre of an artists’ colony populated largely by graduates of the nearby Chinese University. About 100 artists live and work in the area, most of them in high-ceilinged studios in the Wah Luen Centre, a brooding hulk of a building whose floors are always slippery from sausage factories.
On the building’s large, bleak rooftop, which is crisscrossed by rusty pipes and pockmarked by mysterious caged enclosures, it becomes clear just how odd the Wah Luen’s setting really is — an outpost of industry surrounded, rather improbably, by verdant hills. Standing towards the hills, your field of vision is occupied by greenery and small village houses, but your ears ring with the sound of distant machinery and the beep-beep-beep of delivery trucks backing out of loading bays.
Occasionally, there are reminders of the building’s newfound artistic vocation. The last time I visited, on a sullen grey afternoon, a pile of cement bricks had been cryptically arranged like a miniature Stonehenge. I’m not sure if it was the work of one of Wah Luen’s resident artists or a wistful elevator mechanic. Who knows.
Chaotic, polluted, the cradle of Cantonese culture — these were some of the ways I had heard Guangzhou described before I visited last month. Reality was a bit different. It wasn’t chaotic at all; in fact, it was rather calm and orderly for a Chinese city. It was also less Cantonese than I expected. Cantonese is still the language of the majority, and this is reflected in subway announcements and TV commercials on outdoor video screens, but Mandarin has become the lingua franca in large parts of the city and some areas, like around Sun Yat-sen University or the in the orderly streets of Tianhe district, suffer from a generic “anywhere, China” feel, a kind of placelessness.
The one thing that was true to my expectations was the pollution, which blankets the city in a near-constant grey haze. Despite the air quality, though, I was amazed at how green Guangzhou is. Trees take pride of place in many of the city’s streets; apartment balconies are filled with potted plants; elevated expressways are covered with vines. It seems that, unlike Hong Kong, Guangzhou never dispensed with greenery as it urbanized. The warm, humid climate certainly helps: dilapidated buildings are covered in moss and plants grow out of cracks in the stone or cement. Nature, it seems, is keeping pace with Guangzhou’s incredible economic growth.
Twenty years ago, when film producer Amy Chin was looking for a new office, she came across a 1,500-square-foot flat in an old shophouse in the Mong Kok Flower Market. She fell in love as soon as she saw the 12-foot ceilings, balcony and huge, enclosed verandah. “This place is very good for creative people because of the ambiance,” she said. “We work late, until three or four in the morning, when the flower hawkers come out. The air is so fresh.”
Over the years, some of the biggest names in Hong Kong film joined Chin: John Woo Yu-sen shared an office with her until he moved to Los Angeles, film director Fruit Chan Gor leased the flat upstairs, Chow Yun-fat’s agency moved in and Ann Hui On-wah used one of the building’s flats to film a movie. Chin credits her landlord, a retired civil engineer, for keeping the building in good shape while keeping rents low. “He’s done a better job of taking care of this property than the government ever could,” she said. “The reason I can keep on making movies is because of this place.”
Now her building is one of 10 shophouses that will be renovated by the Urban Renewal Authority. The buildings, which were built in the 1930s by the Belgian construction company Crédit Foncier d’Extrème Orient, were originally targeted at middle-class homeowners, with amenities like private bathrooms that were unusual in other shophouses. Today, the buildings contain a mix of flower shops on the ground level and businesses and residential flats on the upper floors.
There are many easy things in life, but selling flowers, apparently, isn’t one of them. For more than 30 years, Cheung Yuk-hing and his family have run a flower stall in a laneway near Mong Kok’s Flower Market Road, selling peonies, orange trees and other plants they grow in a New Territories orchard. The hours are long, profit margins low and the family faces a constant battle with hawker control officers who regularly fine them for putting their plants on the sidewalk.
“We were the first to put our plants out in the streets, before there were so many other flower shops. Now everyone does it,” said Cheung, who was fined several thousand dollars during the run-up to the Lunar New Year.
Business in the Flower Market has been tough for years as competition between vendors has increased and rents have soared. Now its merchants have something else to worry about: an Urban Renewal Authority plan to renovate Flower Market Road and a row of prewar apartment buildings on Prince Edward Road West. Some merchants worry that, once the renovations are complete, rents will increase even more and the market’s small businesses will be pushed out.
“It won’t help us,” said Wing Chiu, whose family has done business on Flower Market Road for 10 years. “The people who come buy flowers are locals, but this plan is just for the tourists. Business is already lower than before and this won’t do anything to bring in new customers.”
Last night I attended Time Out magazine’s showcase of Hong Kong indie bands and my ears are still ringing. There weren’t many surprises — A Roller Control was excellent as usual, as was Chochukmo — with one exception: Choi Sai Ho, a one-man audio-visual electronic act whose frenetic music and jittery on-stage personality embody Hong Kong more than any other act I’ve seen.
Choi, dressed in a white button-down shirt, jumped wildly around on stage like a Hong Kong office worker unleashed from the burdens of his day job — awkward but endearing. Several songs were complemented by videos in which the features of Hong Kong’s cityscape — its trams, anonymous apartment towers and highways — jerk around in tune to the music. One representative piece is “Violin Cityscape” for which Choi plays ordinary, acoustic violin against looped electronic sounds. In another video, “The Educators,” Choi reduces Hong Kong to a maddening abstraction. “Weird Mind,” meanwhile, takes a (relatively) more conventional approach to the same themes.
I was looking forward to spending three days in Toronto last year: good food, fun times with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, aimless autumnal wandering. Instead I was waylaid by a terrible cold I developed on the train from Montreal. I spent much of my time drowning my miseries in the city’s cafés — about five over the course of the weekend, if I recall correctly.
It turns out that drinking lots of milky, caffeinated beverages is the last thing you want to do when you have a horrible respiratory infection. (Also a no-no: hanging out in public places and spreading your germs.) Even if it didn’t make me feel better, though, I appreciated Toronto’s café aesthetic, which seems to lead towards messy spaces with rickety furniture, limited signage and casual, almost indifferent service.
Forty years might not even be close to a lifetime for most people, but in Hong Kong, it’s enough to witness the birth and death of a neighbourhood.
In the mid-1960s, when Cheung Cheuk-kuen and his wife, Cheung Tsui-lin, moved into a flat on the top floor of a building in Kwun Tong, it was a typically bright, spacious place, newly built to accommodate Hong Kong’s postwar surge of population. Their life was comfortable; Mr. Cheung owned a restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the 1970s, though, the restaurant began to attract gang members and Cheung decided it had become unsafe. He sold it and decided to earn a living by renting out his flat to tenants. He built cage homes in the living room and wood houses on the roof.
Now the whole neighbourhood is condemned, waiting to be demolished for a HK$30-billion redevelopment of Kwun Tong’s town centre. The Cheungs, who are in their late 80s, are some of the only remaining residents in their building. Mrs. Cheung suffered a stroke and can longer walk, so she spends her days in a wheelchair on the roof. “It’s better to stay up here where there’s more room and fresh air,” says Mr. Cheung. The roof is surprisingly quiet; only the occasional horn and the rattle of passing MTR trains serve as reminders of the busy streets below.
The following essay appears in the April 2010 issue of Muse, a Hong Kong arts and culture magazine. The same issue also contains my feature-length profile on Hong Kong’s “tree professor,” Jim Chi-yung. The magazine can be found at major bookstores throughout the city.
In my neighbourhood, I know exactly what language to speak. At Jean-Coutu (the drugstore), Nouveau Palais (the corner diner) and Première Moisson (the upscale bakery), it’s French. At Zoubris (the copy shop), Cheskie (the Jewish bakery) and Club Social (the Italian café), it’s English.
But in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, on the other side of town, I’m lost. I know the neighbourhood is mostly English-speaking, but I don’t want to offend anyone. So before walking into the clothing store, I decide to take the safe route and speak French. Turns out it was the right decision. The owner was francophone.
Nothing is simple when it comes to language in Montreal. The city’s history has made it one of the most linguistically contested places in the world, but far from being a hindrance, it gives it the kind of powerful creative charge that can only come from cultural friction.
When I returned to Montreal last fall, I spent much of my time riding around the city on Bixi bikes, which was the closest I’ve ever felt to complete freedom in a very long time: a bike, a city and nothing holding me back from just riding around aimlessly. It gave me a chance to cover more ground than I ever would have if I had stuck to my own two feet.
I came across this new public square at the corner of McGill and Wellington near the Old Port. When I left Montreal, it was still under construction and there were few indications of how it would turn out. (Considering Montreal’s excellent track record of recent square-building, though, my hopes were high). I wasn’t disappointed. Instead of paving over the entire square, or covering it unimaginatively with turf, wild grass was planted, similar to what was done with the median of Morgan Avenue in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.
Montreal is a windy city and wild grass like this looks particularly romantic when it is blowing in a breeze. It softens the square and defines the space without making it feel cloistered, which would have been the case if shrubs had been planted, or overly precious, which would have been the case with flowers. It’s also looks vaguely rural, which works strangely well with the industrial modernism of the condos that have been built next to the square — a subtle evocation of the weedy decay that characterized the neighbourhood just 10 years ago.
Eddie Lui looks out from atop the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, leaning on a cane, contemplating the scene before him. He waves his hand out towards the old housing estates of Shek Kip Mei, their pale yellow paint dulled by the grey skies and damp air.
“This is a space where you can really communicate with the vicinity,” he says. “You can see the evolution of public housing and the surrounding area. It shows you how we came into being.”
It has been a year and a half since the abandoned factory building on Pak Tin Street was converted into the JCCAC, a collection of artists’ studios, art galleries, cafés and performance spaces. Lui, the centre’s executive director, led the transformation. Though its location has been criticized as out-of-the-way by some members of the Central-focused art crowd, the JCCAC is beginning to forge a relationship with its neighbours in Shek Kip Mei. In the afternoon, old men read newspapers in the centre’s atrium and teenagers head up to the roof after school.
The roof is central to Lui’s plans for the JCCAC. He has covered part of it in a layer of hardy plants that help insulate the building. Two stages have been built on the roof, used for theatrical performances and rehersals. The centre’s artists have held a barbecue party on the roof. There are even plans to use it for film screenings. “We could show experimental movies or something like that,” says Lui, pointing to an open space that he says could fit about 70 people.
By day, the Western District Public Cargo Working Area is a sun-bleached strip of forklifts, barges and rusty containers. By night, it’s another world. People from across Hong Kong’s Western District sneak into the cargo area to ride their bikes, fish, barbecue, sit by the water and chat with friends. Security guards watch the activity benignly until the end of their shifts, when they head home and leave the gates ajar so that people can wander in.
The cargo area stretches all the way from Kennedy Town to the wholesale food market in Shek Tong Tsui, where a long pier extends out into Victoria Harbour. If you wander to the end of the pier, you’ll be immersed in the sound of Hokkien being spoken: this is where the neighborhood’s large community of Fujianese immigrants likes to hang out. “When it gets really hot in the summer, we come here because there’s always a breeze,” says one woman, Mrs Lin, who moved to Hong Kong 15 years ago. “We just sit around and speak our own language. It’s a good place.”
I’ve passed through the cargo working area a few times, always surprised by the amount of activity in such an unlikely place. Not all Public Cargo Working Areas in Hong Kong are like this — I’ve passed by the one nearest to me and it’s a ghost town at night — so I think the popularity of the one in Western must be a factor of its proximity to lots of apartments as well as the lax security. Last fall, I returned to the cargo area with a camera and audio recorder for CNNGo. Above is what I got.
The tong lau on Russell Street, across from Times Square, is not in the best shape. Walking upstairs from the street, I pass a bookstore and a hair salon; after the third floor, the shops give way to apartments and the stairwell becomes filled with rubbish, its tiles stained by years of grime. By the time I reach the top, I have to step over piles of construction debris just to get outside.
But I’m here precisely because this building has been overlooked: its roof is now covered in graffiti. Compared to many other cities around the world, graffiti and street art are still fairly uncommon in Hong Kong, and rooftops like this give artists a kind of sketch pad on which to practice away from the eyes of the public. There are lots of tags, but also some work by the city’s best-known street artists, Graphic Airlines — whose chubby-faced characters are now as common in galleries as they are on the street — and Start from Zero, whose preferred media include stickers and wheatpaste.
There’s more up here than just graffiti. From here, I can peer behind the giant billboards that face Times Square; I’m surprised to see they are propped up by bamboo scaffolding. I would have expected something more elaborate and permanent, but perhaps bamboo allows the billboard to be easily dismantled in case the market for luxury watches and designer handbags collapses. It seems a fitting irony: the city’s corporate advertising is supported by traditional craftsmanship, its presence as fleeting and ephemeral as graffiti that is painted over or worn away by the sun.