Archive for August, 2010

August 31st, 2010

Shek O in the Off Season

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Shek O is a seaside village on the southeast corner of Hong Kong Island. It’s home to one of Hong Kong’s most popular beaches, which gives it a holiday atmosphere in the summer, when thousands of people flock there from across the city to sunbathe, swim, barbecue and drink. In the cooler months, though, it’s a lot quieter, and it returns to its wintertime existence as a picturesque hamlet of commuters and beach bums.

I don’t know much about the history of Shek O, but photos from the 1950s and 70s show that it was even smaller then that it is today, so there might not be a lot of history to know about. In some ways, it’s a typical Hong Kong village, with narrow lanes and small houses clustered around a temple dedicated to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. But the beachside location has given it an atmosphere that evokes coastal California: there’s a surf shop, a pizzeria that wouldn’t be out of place in Venice Beach and a laid-back beach bar that plays reggae music.

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August 29th, 2010

A Day Around the Yamanote Line

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture, Transportation by Christopher Szabla

JR Yamanote Line at Ueno Station

Tokyo doesn’t really have a single discernible center. Most of the metropolis’ characteristic clusters of lighted advertisements and overloaded sidewalks — Akihabara, Ikebukuro, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno, and (at Tokyo Station) Ginza — are strung together along the circular Yamanote Line, a Japan Railways loop that calls at the city’s busiest nodes. This necklace of light and activity effectively constitutes Tokyo’s peculiarly polycentric core.

Early morning, Akihabara

Midday in Ameyoko, Ueno

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August 28th, 2010

(Subsidized) Cheap Eats in Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Tai Po Market Cooked Food Centre. Photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The decor consists of handwritten menus and beer posters taped to the wall, the lighting is a harsh fluorescent glare and there’s a constant din from the kitchen. No matter: it’s Saturday night and the Bowrington Road Cooked Food Centre is packed.

At one table, a family shares a steamed fish and a bottle of wine. At another, a group of middle-aged men down large bottles of beer while playing a noisy game of dice. When one of the players notices some other diners observing the game, he holds up his beer and offers them a toast.

Tucked inside the top floors of neighbourhood wet markets, invisible from the street, Hong Kong’s cooked food centres are an odd cross between a shopping mall food court and a streetside dai pai dong. And despite their clinical-sounding names, many of them have become destinations for hearty, boisterous and affordable meals.

“Going to a cooked food centre is about the whole experience,” says Jason BonVivant, a food critic who writes for several local publications, as well as the food website OpenRice. (He insisted on being keeping his identity concealed to preserve his anonymity as a critic.) Though it’s “loud, not particularly clean and a bit uncomfortable,” the attraction is the combination of good food and a lively, informal atmosphere, he says.

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August 27th, 2010

When the Streets Were Swept by Hand

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

In most cities of the developed world, mechanical street sweepers are a fact of life. Even New York’s carless commuters are fluent in strategies to use on “alternate-side parking days,” when the scheduled passing of a street sweeper forces all of a block’s parked cars to one side of the street. It’s easy to forget that, before these behemoth, motorized sponges began scrubbing the streets en masse, even the widest boulevards were cleaned by hand. This street sweeper in 1910 New York would have his work cut out for him after his beat — Fifth Avenue — was considerably widened that year. Although the mechanical sweeper had debuted in 1840s Manchester, it took nearly a century to catch on almost everywhere else.

Of course, street cleaners — some wielding handmade brooms — are a common sight in the poorer countries of the so-called Global South. But old photos of individual sweepers toiling to keep dry the rain-soaked streets of currently presently, hypermodern Tokyo come as a bit of a shock. The photo above, from the collection of the Dutch Naational Archief, is dated “circa 1930,” though some commenters think it might have been taken even later, perhaps in the immediate postwar era. Almost nothing here is recognizable as contemporary Tokyo — except maybe the electronics store in the background. Many of the street sweepers are wearing conical hats typical of agricultural field laborers, and some are even sporting a mino, a traditional form of raincoat made from straw.

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August 27th, 2010

Summer Streets

Posted in Canada, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Ste. Catherine Street. Photo by Kate McDonnell

Two years ago, when Ste. Catherine Street in the Gay Village was pedestrianized for the summer, it was organized like a festival, with a corporate monopoly on outdoor beer sales and over-the-top decoration (and not in a fabulous way, just in a tacky commercial one). Even worse, the Village is not the liveliest place on weekday afternoons, so the street felt a bit forlorn before the sun went down.

But the enjoyment of experiencing a street free of cars outweighed all of the drawbacks. The Village’s summertime pedestrianization was successful enough that it has continued for the two summers since.

Now it has spread to other streets. This year, for the first time, St. Paul Street in Old Montreal was closed to traffic, something that should have been done a long time ago. Despite being one of the narrowest commercial streets in the city, and despite the tourist crowds that throng it all summer long, most of the space on St. Paul was taken up by cars. Walking along it meant a choice of squeezing past fanny-packed day-trippers on the narrow sidewalk or dodging cars on the street.

St. Paul Street. Photo by Kate McDonnell

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August 25th, 2010

Small-Town Shanghai: Who’s Left?

You don’t have to wander too far from Shanghai to find interesting small towns, that is, ones that have not converted into tourist villages of Disneyland proportions.

An hour-long bus ride from Longyang metro stop on Line 2, deep into Pudong, we found ourselves in the town of Dayuan in Nanhui.

Towns in China have developed with a banal similarity common in suburban America. The same fading welcome signboards, the same layout of buildings, shops and houses populate next to the highway – all of it, engulfed in swirling road dust. There is nothing particularly outstanding about Dayuan town but there was plenty to explore once you push into the interior.

The dynamic of urban and suburban sprawl applies aptly when you compare metropolitan Shanghai and suburban towns like Dayuan. In the town’s older neighborhoods, you see a mix of elderly and children with a conspicuous absence of the robust working age group of 18 to 25 year olds. The young and mobile have migrated to the cities in search of more interesting work and that bit of excitement.

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August 24th, 2010

Writing on the Streets

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

It was late on a chilly March afternoon as I wandered through a small plaza near Houhai Lake in Beijing. The air was struggling to stay above freezing and I shivered in my spring jacket. Looking down, I noticed some Chinese characters drawn in water on the plaza’s grey paving stones. Whoever drew them was long gone; the cool air had kept them from evaporating.

I’d heard about water calligraphy before, but this was the first time I had seen it for myself. It’s a form of art that draws beauty from the ephemeral: like spoken words, these characters vanish into the air, their meaning lost to time and memory. It also says something about the futility of control. No matter how much you master your technique, no matter how well you squeeze these words into the form you want them to take, you are left with the same empty patch of stone you started with.

I’ve never heard of anyone doing water calligraphy in Hong Kong. For some reason, people here are much more inhibited in the way they use public space. Go to an open space in any given Chinese city and you’ll see a far greater range of activities than in a comparable place in Hong Kong. Go to Shenzhen’s Civic Square on a nice Sunday afternoon, for instance, and you’ll find people driving electric race cars, playing instruments, flying kites, riding bikes, doing water calligraphy, singing and dancing. There’s irony in the fact that people behave far more exuberantly in an authoritarian state than in an ostensibly free city.

That said, I did come across something in Hong Kong that reminded me of water calligraphy. In Man Ming Lane, just behind Exit C of the Yau Ma Tei MTR station, someone used white chalk to write a lengthy screed on the redbrick sidewalk. I saw it late one night and, since I live only 15 minutes away by foot, I returned the next day to photograph it. But most of the chalk had already been worn off and it was impossible to read most of what had been written.

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August 23rd, 2010

Macau Art Space: Ox Warehouse

Tucked away next to the slopes of the Colina de Mong-Há, halfway between the dog-racing track and the Red Market, the Ox Warehouse doesn’t call much attention to itself. But inside the slightly ramshackle quarters of this former cattle depot is one of the avant-garde spaces that are nurturing the arts in Macau.

Frank Lei Loi-fan has run the space since it opened in 2003. “At the time there wasn’t much going on,” he says. Few organizations existed to support Macau artists and not many artists were working full-time, especially not in the realm of contemporary art. So the Ox Warehouse began organizing exchanges between Macau and overseas artists. “Before, the Portuguese just had official galleries in the centre of town that showed artists who weren’t local,” he says. “Now we see that young people want to organize their own activities, ones that are closer to our local culture in Macau. Macau has a lot of people who like to take photos or to draw, but they needed to branch out and learn to absorb knowledge and experience from others.”

Macau’s art scene has always been fluid, with many artists coming from Portugal and other European countries, while local Chinese artists leave Macau to study overseas or on the mainland. After studying journalism, Lei moved to France, where he studied film and photography. When he returned, he first resisted joining an arts organization. “There’s too many cultural associations in Macau and they exist only to ask for money,” he says. But he realized that, without something to support local talent, Macau’s art scene would never develop.

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August 23rd, 2010

Two Cities’ Scale Models

Virtual World: The future of China’s largest city is on bombastic display at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre

Set in the seclusion of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, well inside the largest of New York’s outer boroughs, the Queens Museum of Art doesn’t attract the same blockbuster number of international visitors as the megamuseums and power galleries of Manhattan. That hardly means it fails to draw from cosmopolitan sources — in a borough as diverse as Queens, appealing to the local population means displaying art that speaks to many points of origin. But the museum is best known for a work of very local significance: the Panorama of the City of New York, a vast scale model of the five boroughs built on Robert Moses’ orders for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Despite an occasional lack of updates — including one twenty-some year gap — the Panorama has been kept fairly timely. Though the last comprehensive upgrade took place in 1992, sponsors can now adopt buildings and ensure the accuracy of a given plot on the map. There are some exceptions where updates are off limits; the museum preferred the World Trade Center towers remain standing rather than represent Ground Zero (they will be replaced when the new site’s new towers are completed). But by and large, the model is a decent representation of the city — precise enough to use for mapping geodata.

Last year, urban planner and artist Damon Rich did just that, taking advantage of the Panorama to detail the extent of home foreclosures in New York. Reasoning that, for many New Yorkers, the foreclosure crisis appeared to be something taking place in far-flung Sunbelt suburbs, his aim was to bring the extent of the national real estate debacle home to a city that didn’t yet seem to realize the problem had reached its front stoop.

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August 18th, 2010

Memories of Mercier: Montreal’s East End

Posted in Canada, Fiction, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

DCORBEIL | Flou, (Montréal 2010)

Métro Mont-Royal, une fin d’après-midi de la mi-août. L’été est sur sa lancée finale : température clémente, soirée légère à la brise appaisante. Mont-Royal-Berri-Langelier : j’embarque dans le ventre de fer pour un tour de ville paresseux. À l’autre boût de Montréal, mon frère et sa femme m’attendent, impatients et heureux.

Un moment calme, entre les pièces musicales, alors que le train me baladent, pataud et bougonneux.

Langelier : je débarque en vitesse du métro, faisant un large pas au sortir du serpent. Je sens sa mécanique chaude, lourde : les muscles de la bête, fatigués, par quarante années d’aller-retour incessants au travers de Montréal. Une seconde passe alors que je ferme les yeux. Un odeur. Une sensation : le premier pas dans mon passé. Les familiarités se font percevoir dans un mouvement léger et discret, alors que j’arrive difficilement à pressentir ces éléments qui marquent le temps et créent une distorsion dans mes émotions.

Je grimpe à pieds larges les marches bétonnées de la station. Elle n’a rien de différent, il me semble, par rapport à ce quelle était il y a vingt ans de ça. Pourtant, quelques choses est légèrement altéré: un peu plus sale, un peu plus inquiétante. Ce bitume qui s’effrite, ridé et perceptible, le long de ces plafonds gris et uniformes.

Une vieille dame de l’Est de Montréal.

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August 18th, 2010

Mosque Street’s Other Name

In contrast to the bland apartment buildings on its south side, the northern side of Mosque Street is lined by a crumbling stone wall and vegetation spilling over from the lush grounds of the Jamia Mosque. If you peek over the wall, there’s a nice view of the mosque, which is the oldest in Hong Kong. It’s a surprisingly rustic scene in the Central Mid-Levels, a neighbourhood that has obliterated most traces of its 170-year history.

Another throwback is Mosque Street’s name. Though perfectly straightforward in English, it’s a lot more complicated in Chinese. While the proper standard Chinese name for mosque is 清真寺 (ching tsam tsi), or回教廟 (wui gaau miu) in Cantonese, Mosque Street’s Chinese name uses the expression 摩羅廟 (mo lo miu), which derives from mo lo cha, an old and derogatory term for South Asians.

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August 18th, 2010

Jacques Cartier Bridge Building

Posted in Architecture, Canada by Patrick Donovan

Jacques Cartier Bridge Building

My award for the most underlooked gem in Montreal goes to the Jacques Cartier Bridge Building. Built around 1930, it looks like an art deco take on a Moroccan kasbah. The windows are laid out under arches, in straight lines of narrow arrow slits, and some in diagonals. There are even traditional rub el hizb, or Islamic eight-pointed stars, around the circular windows at the top of the four corner towers. All of this is enlivened by the fact that building supports the bridge itself and twisting flyovers jut out from all sides, creating some dramatic panoramas at its base.

Bridge Building

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August 17th, 2010

Dusk in Dongzhimen

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Public Space by Christopher Szabla

Three subway lines, two major expressways, and countless buses converge on Dongzhimen, at the northeastern corner of Beijing’s historic core. At the end of the workday, that makes this transfer point one of the busiest in the city, a whirlwind of streaming throngs.

Beijingers usually point their tastebuds toward Dongzhimen to visit Guijie, one of the Chinese capital’s most popular dining destinations, which is not far away. On sweaty summer days, though, the crowds rushing through Dongzhimen aren’t usually in the mood for that street’s famous Mongolian hot pot. Nor do the marble-clad, air-conditioned malls nearby seem to attract many seeking temporarily relief from the heat. The refreshment of choice is, instead, fresh fruit, and street carts converge on the area toward dusk to provide, dishing out heaps of the city’s famously excellent watermelon and other juicy snacks to homebound commuters.

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August 15th, 2010

The Gutting of Gulou

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Politics by Christopher Szabla

Cranes, viewed from the 13th century Gulou, or Drum Tower, build the new Beijing

The view from Beijing’s Gulou, or Drum Tower, is dominated by the labyrinth of threadlike lanes — the city’s famous hutongs — spreading in all directions, filling in the superblocks formed by the city’s broad, rectilinear avenues. Gulou, built in the 13th century by the Mongol Yuan dynasty, is one of Beijing’s most popular — if not immediately recognizable — attractions, drawing thousands of visitors each year. The resulting crush of tour buses making their way into the drowsy, low-slung square outside the landmark may seem incongruous with the humble hutongs, but the area profits immensely. The square is lined with bars popular with both Beijingers and the Lonely Planet set, and rickshaw tours of the environs take off in all directions.

As a result, the neighborhood, also known as Gulou, has gentrified just enough to make it a good example of how the hutongs might prosper if preserved. Such slow, organic improvements to city life don’t seem to have impressed local government officials, though. The entire Gulou area is set to be demolished and “restored” with historicist buildings that will, allegedly, evoke the look and feel of Ming-era Beijing. This facelift will be for the supposed benefit of tourists alone; the neighborhood’s businesses will be purged, and its residents moved elsewhere.

The widespread eradication of Beijing’s hutongs has been well-documented for several years, and criticized as vehemently by locals as outsiders. Civil society opposition to the demolitions is now formally organized; in 2003, opponents of this form of destructive form of urban renewal founded the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. But mere attempts to gain detailed information about the government’s plans for Gulou have proven as fruitless as any to limit or stop the neighborhood’s destruction.

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