Archive for December, 2010

December 28th, 2010

Meet the Plumber King

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

Last summer I wrote about the Plumber King, who writes advertisements for his plumbing services in unusual corners of Hong Kong. Contractors usually promote themselves by scrawling their name, number and occupation on utility boxes or lampposts. But Kui Wong, as the King is known in Cantonese, carefully paints his ads in back alleys, street markets, bollards and on retaining walls.

I liked the idea of a mysterious, eccentric plumber who painted the city at night, but curiosity got the best of me. Earlier this month, I called the Plumber King — whose name is actually Mr. Tong — and asked him to come to my apartment to fix a broken toilet. Truth be told, he tried to overcharge me, so I ended up paying a consultation fee and sent him on his way. But he was a genuinely nice guy and we chatted a bit about his graffiti.

Here, in his own words, is Kui Wong, the Plumber King.

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December 25th, 2010

It’s Not Christmas Without Inflatable Snowmen

One of my favourite Montreal traditions is the annual onslaught of Christmas kitsch. The official decorations are actually pretty tasteful — the elegant tree at Place Ville-Marie, the demure little wreaths installed on lampposts — so to compensate, people buy the tackiest decorations they can find and install them on balconies and in front yards with all the zeal of a deranged elf. Once, walking along Prince Arthur a few weeks before Christmas, I was started by an animatronic snowman that suddenly started flailing its arms and belting out holiday tunes.

Luckily for me, Hong Kong is crazy about Christmas, and the day after Halloween, the city starts decking itself out in candy canes and tinsel. Inflatable decorations aren’t quite as popular as they are in Montreal, and Christmas decor tends to be more flamboyantly big-budget than in Canada, but local district councils compensate with their own low-budget decorations at neighbourhood streetcorners. In 2008, a few months after I moved to Hong Kong, I was very happy to come across a gang of blow-up snowmen and Santa-hatted pandas at an intersection near my apartment. A bit of home in a faraway place.

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December 22nd, 2010

Hong Kong Rooftops: You Are Being Watched

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Last month, I paid a visit to Hong Kong Reader, a great independent bookstore on the seventh floor of a building in Mongkok. Before I entered the shop, though, I gazed up the stairwell and wondered whether there was an interesting view from the roof. I climbed an extra few floors and emerged onto a rubbish-filled rooftop with a view of only the surrounding buildings and billboards.

On the roof next door, somebody had left a pile of rose petals to dry in the sun. (A romantic gesture?) I took a few photos, gazed at my reflection in the mirrored windows of an office tower across the street — and noticed, out of the corner of my eye, two men staring at me from an even higher rooftop a few buildings away.

Startled, I looked up. One man took a drag on his cigarette. They continued to stare. I wondered what they were doing up there and my mind flashed to the climax from Infernal Affairs when Tony Leung sneaks up on Andy Lau with a gun. A bit unnerved, I ducked back into the stairwell and went down to the bookstore.

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December 17th, 2010

Cabbage Season in Beijing

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Beijing, 1994:

Mountains of Chinese cabbage — 396 million pounds by the reckoning of the Beijing authorities — began advancing on the capital this month, as one of old Beijing’s agricultural rhythms persists against the onslaught of modern supermarkets and glitzy shopping centers that have sprouted here.

Rough-hewn peasants who have been sleeping with their crops for weeks in a 100-mile arc of farmland outside Beijing have converged for the annual ritual of selling what was once a survival crop for many Chinese.

They come in trucks, horse-drawn carts and pedal-powered three-wheelers, all straining under billowing loads of cabbage that within the space of a week fill acres of sidewalks and alleyway space.”

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December 15th, 2010

A Contemplative Evening in Villa Freud

Posted in Latin America, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Of the two habits in which Argentines surely lead the world — psychotherapy and plastic surgery — it seems peculiar that the first, rather than the second, would boast a dedicated neighborhood in Buenos Aires. After all, the point of cosmetic surgery is to be seen, whereas therapy is a much more private affair. Maybe the answer lies in the sheer prevalence of Argentines in treatment — the country boasts the highest number of psychiatrists per capita on earth, and when documentary filmmakers surveyed Porteños (citizens of Buenos Aires) on their psychoanalytic habits, most were not ashamed to admit they’d spent time on a shrink’s couch.

Or it could just be a matter of convenient real estate. Villa Freud, BA’s psychoanalytic district, began to coalesce in the 70s, when social anxiety — perhaps related to the country’s ongoing military dictatorship, or ever-present economic woes — spiked. Doctors eagerly sought out cheap space near the Recoleta homes of their wealthy clients, and found it mostly around Palermo’s ovular Plaza Güemes. It didn’t hurt that the area looked appropriately Viennese, with the twin gothic spires of Our Lady of Guadeloupe dominating the cafe-ringed square.

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December 14th, 2010

Fighting Food Inflation in Shanghai

While their boats were moored along the Huangpu River, southwest of the Bund, Shanghai’s Shangchuan Huiguan (商船会馆), or Merchant Shipping Hall, accommodated traders both wheeling and dealing and seeking to rest for the night.

While the Hall itself is authorized for preservation, all the surrounding living quarters have fallen to the wrecking ball. A family from Anhui currently lives on the site, responsible for organizing the razing. On my last trip, I noticed many plots of vegetables surrounding the Hall, on what had been rubble only months ago. Any leftover vegetables were laid out to dry in various parts of the house.

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December 12th, 2010

A Bend in the Road

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Castle Peak Road, Sham Tseng, Hong Kong

December 12th, 2010

History Hidden in Corporate Archives


Hung Hom and Whampoa in the 1970s.
Photo courtesy Hong Kong Heritage Project

If Hong Kong’s businesses don’t stop throwing away their records, a vital part of the city’s history will be lost forever, a group of archivists and historians warn.

Every day, millions of documents are produced by Hong Kong’s companies, but only a few have set up archives to catalogue and process important material. By failing to do so, they could be costing themselves dearly in lost corporate knowledge — and doing untold damage to the study of Hong Kong history, which already struggles with a lack of well-preserved material.

“Corporations have played such an important role in Hong Kong’s development that, in a way, corporate records are even more important to social and business history than the government’s archives,” said Lingnan University historian Lau Chi-pang.

“The Hong Kong of 2010 isn’t do different from the Hong Kong of 1890, because it’s still ruled by corporate oligarchies,” said University of Hong Kong head archivist Stacy Gould. “That’s why it’s so important for businesses to establish archives.”

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December 9th, 2010

Modernism Debauched

Villa Besnus in 1922 and 2010.
Photo compilation by Laurent David Ruamps

In 1922, Le Corbusier was hired by a man named George Besnus to build a new house in the Paris suburb of Vaucresson. It was the architect’s first chance to put the Purist ideals he had been toying with to practice: an architecture stripped of its excesses, made as clean, clear and efficient as possible. The house was meant as a statement, from the gracefully rounded edges of its balcony to the bathroom, which was placed in the centre of the building, allowing for an uninterrupted flow of interior space.

As you can see in the photo compilation above, though, Le Corbusier’s original design has been altered beyond recognition. Gone are the carefully-considered proportions, the clean contrast with scrubby surroundings. A four-sided roof replaced the original flat one and shops were built in the house’s front garden. It now looks like a slightly more modern version of the petit bourgeois houses that surround it, which is ironic, considering that Le Corbusier’s Modernist villa predates them by at least several years. In a way, knowing that those fuddy-duddy traditional houses were built during the emergence of Modernism makes you all the more sympathetic to Le Corbusier’s ideals. You can see very clearly what he was working against.

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December 9th, 2010

Judaism with a Hong Kong Flavour

Rabbi Asher Oser opens the heavy doors to Ohel Leah and steps inside, pausing for a moment to consider its vaulted ceiling, intricate woodwork and marble floors. As the door closes behind him, the sound of traffic fades, replaced by the quietude of Hong Kong’s oldest synagogue.

“It’s a building of such history and gravitas, but if you walk in here on a Saturday morning, there are kids running around and it’s full of life,” he says. “It’s the kind of contradiction that I love. And I think what Judaism does is it tries to make sense of those contradictions.”

Less than two months ago, Oser arrived in Hong Kong to lead Ohel Leah, a Jewish Modern Orthodox congregation that is nearly as old as Hong Kong itself. He is still finding his feet. Walking towards the Torah ark, where the synagogue’s sacred scrolls are kept, he finds it padlocked. “I don’t actually have the key,” he says with a chuckle.

But Oser, who was born in Australia, educated in Canada and most recently served as the rabbi for a congregation in Providence, Rhode Island, is already enraptured by his new community in Hong Kong. “There are few Jews here, and it’s a transient place, yet there are deep roots,” he says.

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December 8th, 2010

Street Signs and Street Art

Posted in Art and Design, Latin America by Christopher Szabla

San Telmo, Buenos Aires

Palermo, Buenos Aires

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December 7th, 2010

Tokyo Serenity: Naka-Meguro

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Whether surfacing, globetrotting, or merely in transit, it’s best never fully to trust the travel section. Take Tokyo, where over the last few years a number of writers have labored to portray the southwestern neighborhood of Naka-Meguro as tragically hip.

Descending from Naka-Meguro’s elevated subway station into a quotidian landscape of utilitarian shops and services, though, “hipness” wasn’t the first thing I felt washing over me. If anything stuck out, it was the neighborhood’s anomalous politics: I’d arrived on the eve of Japan’s historic 2009 election, when the Liberal Democratic Party lost its majority for only the second time in history — but had clearly retained much of its popularity in Naka-Meguro.

Parked in front of the station was a minivan mounted with speakers, blaring the slogans of an LDP candidate busy shaking hands with voters on the sidewalk below. Further into the neighborhood, posters confirmed that Naka-Meguro’s constituency was either an LDP redoubt or at least one of its targets. It meant a substantial number of people here were clinging with uncommon sympathy to the party most associated with Japan’s elite establishment. “Hip” seemed increasingly far from the right word to describe the place.

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December 7th, 2010

Sleepy West End Afternoons

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

Sometimes Toronto impresses with the precocious energy of a metropolis on the make. Sometimes, if you walk down the right streets at the right time of day, it’s just a sleepy old town in Southern Ontario.

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December 6th, 2010

Online Shopping in the MTR


The Internet meets the MTR: trying on a jacket bought online.
Photos by Oliver Tsang for the South China Morning Post

Nobody seemed alarmed by the sight of two 17-year-old boys playing with guns in the Hong Kong MTR. It was early Wednesday evening at Prince Edward Station and Kelvin Cheung was inspecting a pistol he had arranged to buy from Simon Lee.

“It’s for war games,” Cheung explained as he pulled the trigger on an empty semi-automatic air-powered handgun. He has been playing war games for six months, he said, and he found Lee on Uwants, an online marketplace. After confirming the sale online, they arranged to meet at Prince Edward to finish the transaction. Cheung paid HK$300 for the gun, which he said would have cost HK$570 in a retail store.

“This is my first time buying from Simon, but I actually have two other purchases I’m going to pick up in the station tonight,” said Cheung.

As the rush hour crowds thickened, about fifty other people milled around the edges of the station’s fare-paid zone, most of them waiting to pick up goods they had ordered online. Cash changed hands; so did makeup kits, concert tickets, cameras and bags full of clothing.

In most parts of the world, online shopping is a straightforward process: find what you want, enter your credit card information and have it shipped to your home. Not so in Hong Kong, where analysts describe the online retail market as “underdeveloped” and consumers have long been sceptical of buying things online.

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