Jim Chi-yung normally walks with a steady, deliberate pace, but on the grey afternoon of February 4th, he broke into an uncharacteristic sprint, running from his office at the University of Hong Kong to a friend’s waiting car. He was heading to Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon Tong, where the future of a tree was at stake.
Last year, Maryknoll had a decided to chop down a 20-metre-tall Norfolk Island Pine that leaned to the north and seeped resin from its trunk, giving the eerie impression that it was crying. The schoolgirls called it the Ghost Pine. Since it was planted in the late 1930s, it had become an emblem of Maryknoll, which is one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious private girls’ schools. The decision to fell the tree was met with a furious response from Maryknoll’s network of well-connected alumni, who called Jim for help. He helped publicize the case and after a flurry of media attention, the school backed off.
But in January, a crew of contractors dug a trench around the pine and severed most of its roots. The school declared that the tree could not be saved. Its felling was scheduled for February 5th. When he arrived on the afternoon of the 4th, he asked to look at the tree, but the school’s administrators refused. He looked worried. “Like a doctor who will use every effort trying to save a patient, immediate stabilization work can be imposed on the trunk instead of cutting the tree immediately,” he told reporters.
Before there was Gold Mountain — the promised land of North America — Chinese immigrants flocked to Southeast Asia, where they settled in countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Eventually, they came to dominate the regional economy, earning themselves scorn from some of the local native populations. 90 years ago, Thailand’s King Rama VI called them the “Jews of the East,” a sentiment that has been echoed more recently by political leaders in Malaysia, where Chinese make up more than a quarter of the population.
In the 1980s and 90s, some of these overseas Chinese began to move to Hong Kong, another step in generations of migrations across Asia. They make up the bulk of Hong Kong’s Thai population, which numbers around 30,000. Many Thai-Chinese are literate in Thai but not Chinese, and their culture is an interesting amalgam of Thai and Chinese traditions. A couple of months ago, I visited Hong Kong’s largest Thai neighbourhood in Kowloon City, where they are served by restaurants, grocery stores, karaoke bars and beauty parlours.
You can see the fruits of my visit on CNNGo or in the extended photo collection above.
Dès le petit matin, on traine et on blasphème : Marché Jean-Talon, le sourire éveillé par un soleil ardent. C’est déjà l’été : les fruits sont brûlants, alors que le minuscule café des Quatres Vents s’éveille d’une complaisance matinale.
Le vélo sous le bras, je défile sous les arcades. Le saumon parfume les allées rectilignes de ses exhalaisons chantoyantes. Les oranges déversent, d’un flot sans interruption, une effluve de la passionnante Méditerranée. Sicile de février: souvenir d’orangers et d’amandiers en fleurs.
Quatre coups du lourd mécanisme de ma bécane : allée des déchets, d’où les relents d’urine me perturbent, souvenir d’une nuit peuplée de quelques matous de ruelles récemment engraissés de nos immondices encore comestibles.
There’s nothing particularly special about this building. Built in the 1970s, it’s a highrise like any other, with a handful of small flats on each floor. None of the apartments have balconies; there is no club house or swimming pool; the only bit of shared space, beyond the dimly-lit concrete corridors, is the rooftop, which is divided into two narrow platforms on either side of the elevator’s machine room. Laundry lines crisscross the roof, but on a drizzly night, there are no clothes to be seen.
The view from here is attractive because of its ordinariness. Below is a brightly-lit football pitch, the sound of whistles and shouts echoing off the walls of surrounding buildings. To the south, apartment buildings jostle for space on the Mid-Levels, each trying to climb higher than the next in a quest for sea views. Exhausted, they pause for respite halfway up the dark, looming mass of Victoria Peak. To the east, IFC makes an appearance in the narrow gap between towers.
The glow of apartment windows stirs voyeuristic curiosity. In one, cool flourescents illuminate a dingy kitchen. Another window reveals a posh living room filled with art. Each is a portal into another Hong Kong, another set of lives, another set of stories.
Unfortunately, a decade of renewal and redevelopment have done away with some of the city’s most interesting signs. Farine Five Roses might have been saved, and the Guaranteed Milk Bottle restored (and re-graffiti-ed), but the signs that disappeared from the landscape include the St. James’ Church neon sign, the Warshaw sign and the magnificent Simcha’s sign (which you can see above in one of our title graphics).
In Baishizhou, five yuan will get you an hour of pool and a big bottle of strong beer. This is one of Shenzhen’s largest and liveliest urban villages. Pool is one of its favourite pasttimes.
The village is hard to navigate, with aimless roads and dark, foreboding alleyways, but I’ve come across a few outdoor pool halls in my wanderings there. My favourite is one that exists where an alley widens ever so slightly as it meets a larger street, a tributary joining its parent. It’s a simple operation, with a half-dozen tables and a beer cooler. The last time I went, with a few friends, the hours slipped by unexpectedly, and it was nearly 1am when we left, wandering back into streets that were only marginally quieter than when we arrived. Compared to Hong Kong, Shenzhen sleeps early, but this is not true of the villages — they stay awake all night.
In Shanghai’s French Concession…or la France profonde?
Since the first World’s Fair opened in London in 1851, the event has remade cities, bestowing lasting landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower and Space Needle, and introducing the styles, modes, and technologies that would come to dominate urban life: City Beautiful neoclassicism made its debut at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair was a celebration of the car as the transportation of the future.
It’s still unclear what the 2010 Shanghai Expo will do for the future of cities — even Shanghai itself. The fair’s theme, “Better City, Better Life,” points toward a focus on urbanization, but no single great idea has of yet emerged from the event. And while Shanghai has spruced itself up, it’s done so at a cost — including mass evictions — that hardly justifies the result: mostly stylistic hyperbole, including LED light strips attached to highway bridges.
Even the architecture of the fair’s pavilions is as hit-or-miss as it is temporary; most is slated to be swept away for another round of redevelopment soon after the fair closes in October. But Shanghai’s cityscape evinced cosmopolitan flair well before the world assembled Expo’s theme park of architectural amusements.
Of course, the city’s history may not have encompassed as many cultural traditions as there are token national pavilions at the fair. But because of its colonial past — it rose as a trading port divided into concessions ruled by the British, Americans, and French — Shanghai is filled with streetscapes that sometimes conjure the precise look and feel of London, Paris, or New York.
Here on Peng Chau, thirty-five minutes by ferry from Central, the city is but a distant memory, a row of skyscrapers on the horizon. I make my way through sleepy streets to the tallest building on the island, a seven-storey apartment block. It has no guards and no doors to prevent entry to its upper floors. I walk up past the sounds of children playing and dinners being cooked behind closed doors.
When I emerge onto the roof, stepping out into brilliant sunshine, I’m greeted by a sweeping view of the entire island. Village houses sweep up the surrounding hills like waves on a beach. I can see the ferry pier where I arrived, the French café near the main square, the beach lined by wooden fishing boats.
Hong Kong isn’t a very graceful city, but that’s the word I would use to describe its corner buildings, which meet a junction with smooth lines and subtle verve. Buildings with rounded corners are friendly and sensitive to their surroundings, like a courteous houseguest, and they bring to mind the beautiful corner buildings that define the landscapes of many Spanish cities.
The German photographer Michael Wolf has documented many of Hong Kong’s corner buildings in a series inspired by the relentless cycle of urban destruction and construction — most of will soon be redeveloped into tall, inelegant buildings with crude architecture and contempt for their surroundings.
DCorbeil | Noodles in West Downtown, Montreal (2010)
J’avance, j’arrive à ce qui semble être les confins de ce quartier.
Un dimanche soir pluvieux. Mi-printemps boueux, 23h42.
L’odeur est très désagréable, ça me prend au nez. Pas étonnant, un îlot complet à récemment été calciné. Quel gâchis ! De grands bâtiments aux arcades encore sensibles, qui tombe en ruine, qui semble prêt à tomber. Dans la rue, je suis désormais presque seul.
À l’intersection, une ample place. Métro Atwater : un immense forum, un cinéma gargantuesque et puéril.
Elle m’étonne : malgré que je sois si prêt du centre-ville, à un jet de pierre de la tourelle de la bourse, cet espace est vide. Vide. Et vide de sens.
Dans un angle de la ville qui semble vide de tout sens d’urbanité. Je suis déstabilisé.
Je retourne sur mes pas, je n’aime pas les limites. Sans pour autant éprouver le moindre désir à me voir traverser cet îlot à nouveau, incinéré, laissé pour compte, et où l’odeur de la poussière est si forte qu’elle me prend à la gorge. M’étouffe ! L’indigeste sentiment est d’autant plus fort lorsque je balaye ces vitrines, brisées, d’où émanent, d’un coup de bourrasque, ces souvenirs d’une nuit enflammée.