Archive for October, 2010

October 31st, 2010

Halloween in a City of Ghosts

There’s something undeniably creepy about Nam Koo Terrace, an abandoned red-brick mansion on Ship Street in Wan Chai. Nearly seventy years ago, the house was used as a military brothel during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, and the ghosts of so-called “comfort women” are said to haunt the house today.

In 2003, a group of teenagers made headlines when they snuck into the mansion and became so distraught they had to be hospitalized.

But when Wong Sau-ping takes ghost-seekers on a tour of Wan Chai, it’s not Nam Koo Terrace that scares them the most — it’s the hill behind it.

“There’s a place in the woods where people say a woman hanged herself,” she said. “When we went to investigate, we found a big urn, and nearby is a shrine where people perform rituals to chase ghosts away.”

Sometimes people become so scared they feel ill and leave the tour, she said. “Ghost stories let you imagine what happened — we can’t actually show you the ghost, so you have to fill in the blanks yourself.”

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October 29th, 2010

Mongkok Sunset

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Sunset over Mongkok, Kowloon, Hong Kong
October 25th, 2010

Un descans a Barcelona

Posted in Europe, Public Space by Daniel Corbeil

La vieille femme et l’homme, Graçia

Débordement, Rambla de Raval

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October 24th, 2010

Obsolete Modernism

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

You can see the Pekeliling Flats from the platform of the Titiwangsa monorail station, just north of Kuala Lumpur’s city centre. The grounds between each apartment block are unkempt; the flats themselves look ransacked, with doors knocked out of their frames. Though the flats haven’t been abandoned for very long, they are already being reclaimed by tropical vegetation creeping out of cracks and up from the ground. They’ll be demolished next year, according to the Sun, one of KL’s daily English newspapers.

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October 24th, 2010

The Last Walled Village

Two and a half years ago, my girlfriend and I were walking through a housing estate near Kowloon City when we happened upon something completely unexpected: a walled village. At first glance, we actually thought it was an old shantytown, surrounded as it was by street hawkers, outdoor barbers and houses made of sheet metal. But as we walked around its periphery, we came across a gatehouse, beyond which was an alley lined by small, tile-roofed houses. At the end was a temple.

“This whole place is going to be gone soon,” warned a village resident as we walked through the gate, towards the temple. In turned out we were standing in Nga Tsin Wai, the last walled village in Kowloon. In 2007, the Urban Renewal Authority decided to tear most of it down and replace it with two apartment towers and a heritage-themed park which will incorporate the temple, an ancestral hall and a few village houses.

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October 22nd, 2010

A Walk Through San Lorenzo di Roma

Aux portes de Rome

Un quartier singulier. La seule zone de Rome bombardée, lors de la deuxième guerre.

Quatre mille bombes ; trois mille victimes, dont le souvenir flotte toujours autour de ces rues.

Ces quelques rues, un kilomètre carré tout au plus, où se regroupe la Rome révolutionnaire.

Malgré tout, ce qui choque le visiteur, ce sont ces milliers de mètres de graffitis.

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October 22nd, 2010

Wood and Rock

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

St. John’s shouldn’t be much of a city — it’s a hundred thousand people clinging to the coast of a rocky island. But, when I visited in 2001, I discovered a likable sprawl of weatherworn wood houses, bars and more all-night restaurants than a town of this size deserves to have.

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October 21st, 2010

What is Venice’s Future?

Abbiamo un futuro ? Venice (2010)

Venice is an extraordinary city — as long as you love old architecture and incredible landscapes of ancient houses and canals going out to sea. But it is also overcrowded by tourists. Is it still possible to actually live in such a city? Does Venice still belong to the Venetians?

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October 20th, 2010

Seen and Unseen: Street View Meets Brazil

Posted in Latin America, Maps, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla


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A colorful crossing in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

Google Street View has landed in Brazil, and its timing is probably no accident: it’s a momentous point in the country’s history. Latin America’s sleeping giant seems, at last, to be climbing into its proper place in the global pecking order: it’s an increasingly assertive diplomatic force that’s put the B in the rising “BRIC” countries and wooed the world to become the future site of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. All that means Brazil will be the focus of intense scrutiny over the next decade, no more so than in its cities, whose violent reputation might be the most jarring objection to the narrative that the country’s trajectory is is headed nowhere but up.

Such is the bilious stereotype of Brazil’s urban barrios that even intrepid street photographers often refrain from unsheathing their SLRs even a block or two from the most upscale streets or highly visited tourist attractions. For virtual investigators, armchair travelers and Firefox flaneurs alike, that opens up a lot of virgin territory to explore via Street View. Take one of Brazil’s most celebrated neighborhoods, Rio’s Ipanema. It’s renown worldwide for its beach scene, but also boasts largely blocks of rarely-documented inland avenues.

I’d pointed my browser only a few blocks from the the virtual beach, on a digitized representation of Rua Visc. de Paraja, when I made my first Brazilian Street View discovery: colorfully pink and blue intersections, which look like tropicalized versions of the scramble crossings common to the busiest corners of Tokyo. Coming across these flamingo-hued florescent bursts helped convince me that Street View might be as adept at validating positive stereotypes of a colorful, festive Brazil as it is said to have been in disproving negative ones faced by other societies — like South Africa, where Street View was also unveiled in time for a World Cup — which the media similarly allows to appear locked in a desperate struggle with urban violence and destitution.

But it’s important not to take a too-naive view of Street View, which, like any recording or imaging technology, inevitably somewhat distorts its subject. Street View’s format — static images taken from a slightly elevated perspective in the middle of the street, make it easier to disregard some of the country’s most persistent urban problems. That’s likely true for many of the developing countries increasingly cruised by Google’s cars. Via Street View, it’s simply easier to stroll (or rather, scroll) through what might otherwise be unease-inducing neighborhoods filled with less than friendly sights, sounds, and smells — and the often distinct impression of being unwelcome. For these very same reasons, though, the technology helps virtual visitors ignore or deny evidence of the root issues that lead to such shocking material and social divides.

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October 20th, 2010

Say Goodbye to Old Hong Kong

Old buildings bought for redevelopment are displayed in the window of an acquisition company office on Victory Avenue in Ho Man Tin

There goes the neighbourhood. A new government policy on compulsory sales in old buildings has led to a property gold rush in Hong Kong’s older districts, putting homeowners on guard and worrying many that well-established communities will be uprooted and destroyed.

Before April, acquisition companies working for developers had to buy 90 percent of a building’s units before they could force the remaining owners to sell. Now the government has lowered that threshold to 80 percent for buildings more than 50 years old.

The impact can be felt in places like Ho Man Tin, where up to 20 buildings in the few blocks just east of the MTR’s East Rail Line are now targeted for redevelopment. About half are being acquired by Richfield Realty, a company whose controversial acquisition methods include the hanging of large red banners over targeted buildings, a tactic that many homeowners say creates an atmosphere of intimidation.

“We’re very angry and upset to see those banners all over the place — it’s like a cancer that’s spreading throughout the city,” said Kobe Ho, a bookstore manager who lives on Waterloo Road in Ho Man Tin. Some of her friends in the neighbourhood have already been displaced by Richfield’s acquisitions.

“The new legislation has really sped up the process of urban renewal in Hong Kong,” said Wong Ho-yin, a member of the Minority Owners’ Alliance Against Compulsory Sales, which works with homeowners who do not want to leave their homes. “But urban renewal has so many negative effects, in terms of urban planning, social networks and protecting the rights of homeowners. It’s bad enough with the Urban Renewal Authority, but when the private sector gets involved, things are even worse.”

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October 19th, 2010

A Walk Through Chow Kit

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Chow Kit is one of the few remnants of the tin mining town that Kuala Lumpur used to be. It’s a scruffy collection of shophouses surrounding a big, sloppy street market, where the area’s diverse mix of residents — including a large community of Indonesian immigrants — come to shop.

Still, though the market is lively, you get the sense that Chow Kit is a suit that’s been worn too many times; its fabric is starting to wear thin. It might have been because I visited the day after a holiday, at the tail end of Hari Raya — the local celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, when people traditionally return to their hometowns — but the whole neighbourhood felt a bit bedraggled, its best days gone by, vulnerable to the glossy malls and highrises marching in from every direction.

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October 19th, 2010

Kaffee Time in Vienna

Posted in Europe, Food, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

Hubertys Bräu, Josefstadt, Vienna

Vienna, Austria: Here, cafés are a part of a culture that respects small moments shared with the city. No one will rush you, since you are a guest, and then they will serve you as long as you wish, even if unwanted, while you discuss and read the news, as they used to do a century ago — or while you blog on your Mac, as we do today.

Innere Stadt

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October 18th, 2010

How to Clean Hong Kong’s Toxic Air

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf


While Hong Kong’s air is significantly cleaner than cities in mainland China, its roadside air pollution is more than five times worse than other major cities like New York

Hong Kong’s roadside air pollution hit record-high levels last month, with new data from the Environmental Protection Department showing that pollution at roadside monitoring stations reached “very high” levels for 9.5 percent of the time in July, August and September. The previous record, set in 2004, was 8.2 percent.

The findings have added to growing alarm about the impact of roadside air pollution. Even as Hong Kong’s overall air quality improves, pollution in the streets is getting worse. But unlike other environmental problems, like climate change, environmentalists say there are a number of straightforward ways of dealing with roadside air pollution, by implementing stricter emission controls and reducing the amount of traffic on the streets.

“When the streets in Central are pedestrianized on Sundays, the air quality is fine, but on normal working days, it keeps getting worse,” says Hung Wing-tat, an associate professor of civil engineering at the Polytechnic University and a director of the Conservancy Association, a green group that has been lobbying the government for more action on air pollution.

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October 17th, 2010

A Small Space in Europe

Posted in Europe, Interior Space by Daniel Corbeil

Laundry in an old basement, Jena (2010)