Archive for March, 2011

March 31st, 2011

The Star Ferry’s Long Farewell

Hong Kong people aren’t very sentimental, but when Chan Tsu-wing told me about his life as a coxswain, I noticed a certain wistfulness creep into in his words.

“I love my job — it gives me the best view of the city,” he said while piloting the 45-year-old Silver Star across Victoria Harbour. He waved a hand across the view of emerald water bracketed by skyscrapers and mountains. “Look at this. This is the best place in the world.”

Chan has crossed the harbour thousands of times in his 27-year career with the Star Ferry, shuttling generations of commuters and tourists between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, witnessing the city’s stranglehold on the harbour grow tighter every year.

When Chan first joined the Star Ferry in 1984, Victoria Harbour was nearly half a mile wider than it is today. Over the next two decades of his career, the water grew rougher and more polluted. Marine life all but vanished. Chan told me that he used to see dolphins in the harbour, but no more.

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March 30th, 2011

Gentrification or Redevelopment?

Light from a new fashion boutique floods an alley
near Blake Garden, Hong Kong

Alan Lo Yeung-kit is an unlikely critic of urban renewal. Three of his successful restaurants — Classified, Press Room and The Pawn — are located in Urban Renewal Authority projects in Sheung Wan and Wan Chai.

Critics have accused his businesses of taking part in the kind of URA-style renewal that is destroying the character of Hong Kong’s old neighbourhoods. But Lo is no fan of bulldozer redevelopment. “Our whole approach to urban renewal needs to be rethought,” he said.

Lo said he has come up with an alternative model for urban renewal, one that is both profitable and preservation-based. Last year, he and partner Darrin Woo founded a new design and development firm, Blake’s, that was inspired by the old neighbourhood around Blake Garden in Sheung Wan. The firm’s first project took a mid-century tong lau at 226 Hollywood Road and converted it into four luxury apartments. The units sold out soon after they went on sale in November, fetching more than HK$25 million apiece.

“It’s about getting out of the box-standard big-developer approach and making something that fits the neighbourhood,” says Lo. “The vision is to rethink an old, slightly sleepy neighbourhood with respect for what has been in the district for a long time, and without having to knock things down.”

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March 29th, 2011

Cairo’s Taxi Revolution

Photos by Peter Morgan (top), and MatHelium (bottom)

Hop in any cab in any city of the world and you’re likely to be treated to lively political commentary. That’s especially true in autocratic regimes, where the availability of other spaces in which random strangers can meet and speak openly has often been severely curtailed. Cairo’s sprawling cityscape, for example — segregated swathes of sumptuous subdivisions and mudbrick shantytowns each stretching out into the desert — rendered such common ground rare.

Despite the vastness of Egypt’s capital, car ownership is a relative extravagance, and the growing but incomplete mass transit system barely reaches even a fraction of the population, making taxis among the most vital forms of transport. At any given moment, the city’s classic, black-and-white cabs form a huge percentage of the vehicles trapped in Cairo’s notorious traffic. According to Greater Cairo’s General Transportation Authority, over 50,000 were registered in the city in 2005. Unofficially, the number is around 80,000 (for comparison’s sake, New York and London have around 15k each).

Most are third-hand Yugos, Ladas, or other now-obscure brands imported decades ago from the Eastern Bloc, their drivers often chasing down, often to the exclusion of keeping their eyes on the road, any potential fare they can find. And yet, despite their general reputation for unpredictability, Cairo taxis’ regimented color scheme is also what grants the capital’s sometimes chaotic streets any sense of uniformity and order. But it wasn’t until I was leaving the country that I pieced together their deeper political significance — with the help of Khaled al-Khamissi’s then newly-translated book, Taxi.

Enroute out of Egypt, at 35,000 feet, I became absorbed in al-Khamissi’s chronicle of taxicab confessions — the book is a compilation of the thoughts he’d gathered from the drivers who plied the streets down on the ground that was receding far behind and beneath me. Many began to replay in my mind when Egypt’s historic protests began in January. For all the debate over how and whether social media stimulated the Egyptian Revolution, much less attention has been paid to the urban social networks that reached many more Egyptians than Facebook. Like honeybees, Cairo’s taxis didn’t just collect the fares that were their drivers’ sustenance; they also cross-pollinate ideas — helping to gather and spread political dissent.

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March 28th, 2011

Photo of the Week: 4am

Posted in Art and Design, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

how things look from up above and down below at 4am - blurry

This week’s photo — a diptych — comes courtesy of Montreal photographer Jeanine Caron.

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

March 23rd, 2011

In Sicily, Between Now and Eternity / 8

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

J’apprend que j’ai atteint, au crépuscule de cette épuisante journée à longer le fleuve Anapo et cette route qui serpente à ses côtés, la cité de Belvedere, qui culmine au sommet d’une colline et dévoile un large panorama de la Sicile orientale. Déjà, le cours d’eau historique disparait au loin vers le rivage, devenant par moment une simple coulée puis un large ruisseau, pour finalement se jeter dans la mer, non sans offrir aux yeux des riverains le spectacle des plants de papyrus, les derniers d’Europe dit-on par ici.

Et puis cet îlot que je vois à la limite de mon horizon, assis sur une mer azure, est bel et bien Ortigia, coeur historique de Siracusa, où j’ai l’espoir de trouver un débouché à ma situation si précaire.

Je cherche désespérément où passer cette nuit à venir, tant mes jambes me font mal.

Il y a ce bar, à la sortie de la cité, dans lequel j’entre et consomme sobrement un petit café amer dilué par une mousse épaisse. Il est un peu passé vingt heures et l’unique autre client est un vieillard mal habillé, au pentalon taché de rouille. Un fermier. Le barrista, petit et gros, me dévisage un peu en épongant le petit comptoir de bois. Je suis arrivé dans un village de fous furieux. Cette nuit, on me prendra vraisemblablement par le califourchon, on me goudonnera et puis on me plumera avec des restes de poulets.

Amer, je reprend chemin le long de la via Siracusa et après une vingtaine de minutes, je prend une traverse et bute sur une colline où s’étire la forme d’une vieille forteresse, qui semble antique. Une espèce de château, d’où partent des murs de pierres en direction de la mer. L’affiche informative annonce le Castello Eurialo.

C’est à l’abri de ces ruines que je décide de passer la nuit.

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March 21st, 2011

Photos of the Week: Well Seated

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

This week’s photos were taken in Taipei and Neihu by Poagao, a writer, photographer and filmmaker who immigrated to Taiwan from the United States in the 1980s. Check out his Flickr photostream.

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

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March 20th, 2011

Public Service Murals in Suzhou

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Sue Anne Tay

After spotting a series of public service mosaics around Shanghai’s old alleys, I’ve been keeping my eye out for similar posters on out-of-town trips.

My latest trip to Suzhou had been fruitful. I spotted this row of lovely painted murals while strolling through a quiet lane parallel to the busy Shiquan Street (十全街), which emphasized hygienic habits like picking up litter and washing your hands after meals.

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March 18th, 2011

Same Same But Different

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Earlier this month I found myself in Macau for an afternoon, waiting for my girlfriend to pick up her Macau identity card from a local government office. I wandered up to the small streets just below the Fortaleza do Monte, an old military fort, and happened across a trio of terraces lined by mid-twentieth-century buildings. Each row of buildings was identical, but the presence of their inhabitants was seen in the façade of every individual apartment.

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March 18th, 2011

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Sarah Carr

I couldn’t quite glimpse Hosni Mubarak from my balcony in Garden City, but simply knowing that his portrait was nearby made me unable to shake the sensation of being watched. Not exactly towering over, but nudged by its rooftop mechanicals above the rooflines of the neighborhood’s decadently decomposing 19th century apartment houses was its home, the khaki hulk of the Ministry of Social Solidarity — more Orwellian in name than purpose. Mounted on its façade, the multistory banner depicting the longtime Egyptian president — slumping, casually, in shades — was what really gave the place its authority. I never encountered a more affirming symbol of Mubarak’s power than his pose on that photo: the longstanding ruler was so calm, collected, comfortable.

Dictators survive by avoiding blame and instilling awe. Both served Mubarak well. Russian peasants were said to have hated the czar’s officials — who constantly interfered in their daily lives — but to have loved the distant czar, whom they imagined, were he in touch, would ultimately set their lives right. Perhaps that’s why it was relatively hard to find, in Cairo, many more of the trappings — monuments, murals, political paraphanelia — that mark personally invested, ideologically rigid, and, hence, vulnerable regimes. It’s possible that, walking through Bolshevik Petrograd or late Maoist Beijing, you could have somehow put the omnipresent slogans and statues out of your mind, but in Cairo there seemed to be far less need.

True, Mubarak’s visage still gazed out from many posters, murals, and portraits, but their relatively low degree of frequency reflected the fact that his regime was more of a shadowy, bandit kleptocracy than a mass-murderous personality cult. Every classroom in Egypt apparently had an image of the president mounted on its wall, but they must have only made the president appear as a fixed, unresponsive certainty of daily life, or else an image that would recede in memories as quickly as algebra and playground fights. Many of the old posters were already fading by themselves. The bridges, streets, and stations named after the former president made him seem like a figure from distant history rather than someone who could be held to the consent of the governed.

By refraining from stuffing itself into Egyptians’ fields of vision, the regime also ensured it did not become a default excuse for the sometimes crumbling condition of the country or its inhabitants’ stagnant fortunes. That few, casual images of Mubarak produced — such as the one that hung from the ministry — spoke volumes about his removal from the people. As the revolution that broke out in January helped attest, they made the old ruler seem out of touch. Their isolation, for the longest time, made him seem untouchable.

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March 16th, 2011

In Sicily, Between Now and Eternity / 7

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

Vista di Carlentini con l’Etna

Je suis assis maladroitement dans ce lourd camion et rigole avec Alessandro qui a eu très peur de m’aplatir. Du haut de son corps gigantesque et large, il impose sa présence comme un orage en été. D’ailleurs, son rire grave me rappel le tonnerre.

Derrière nous, une cargaison composée de caisses d’oranges de Lentini. Alessandro est livreur, camionneur, et travail fièrement à son propre profit. Depuis des générations, sa famille entretient une campagne sur les collines lentinoises : son grand- père a même participer aux fouilles archéologiques des années 1950, gardant pour lui quelques trouvailles antiques. Rien ne m’étonne, chaque famille sicilienne semblant conserver des morceaux de la Mania Grecia, la Grande Grèce, aux cotés d’une pierre volcanique de l’Etna, tout en cuisinant des plats d’inspiration arabo-normands et s’offrant l’exubérance d’une décoration baroque.

Le cocktail sicilien.

Il me propose de me déposer à Sortino, sa prochaine étape. Si je lui donne un coup de main, il me paiera volontiers. Aussi, si je le souhaite, je peux l’accompagner jusqu’à Palazzolo Acreide, Buscemi ou Scicli, prochaines étapes de sa distribution. Toutes des villes dont j’ignore la localisation, le propos et les attraits.

Alessandro est un homme curieux et qui s’informe sur mes origines et ce qu’il nomme le style de vie nordique. D’ailleurs, il démontre une grande ouverture d’esprit et m’explique fièrement qu’il a une tante à Toronto et une autre à New York. Les siciliens sont partout.

Nous empruntons un chemin tortueux, comme toutes les routes qui serpentent autour de Lentini. Bientôt, la ville n’est plus qu’un vague souvenir où flotte le parfum des agrumes. Partout ces sommets rocheux où poussent des parcelles de vie, des fleurs dans la pierre. Les campagnes et les fermes se distribuent largement aux pieds et sur le corps de ces parois massives. Ici et là, des maisons en ruine, abandonnées ainsi, parfois intactes comme si leurs occupants venaient à peine de disparaitre.

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March 15th, 2011

Public Service Mosaics in Shanghai

Ruihua Lane (瑞华坊) is one of the many old alleys in Shanghai’s Luwan District (卢湾区), but it’s distinguished by its wonderful display of visual public service announcements made up entirely of large mosaic tiles.

Though slightly fading, the posters, in good Party-like slogan fashion, reminded the lane’s former residents of behaviors that went along with a civilized society: protecting the environment (绿化美化,保护环境), maintaining neighborly and familial harmony (邻里团结,家庭和睦) (with the classic two grandparents-two parents-one child family structure), keeping law and order (遵纪守法,遵纪秩序), helping others (in the footsteps of the exemplary revolutionary hero Lei Feng, 学习雷锋,助人为乐)  and promoting the belief in science to combat superstitions (普及科学破除迷). The cartoons were simply drawn, in a style made to resemble that of a young child, but effective.

When asked, an older resident walking his dog said the mosaics were put up sometime in early 2000s. But why here on Ruihua Lane, and not anywhere else?

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March 14th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Up and Up

Posted in Art and Design, United States by Christopher DeWolf

We’ve got Twitter, a Facebook page and now — the latest addition to our relentlessly-expanding social media empire — a Flickr group.

Actually, the Flickr group has been around for a long time, but in recent years it has fallen into a kind of decrepitude. We’ve decided to revive it. Every Monday, we will post an outstanding photo added to the group in the preceding seven days.

This week’s photo was taken in Midtown Manhattan by Flickr user sabotai.

Want to see your work here? Add it to the group.

March 14th, 2011

A Walk Through Kam Tin

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

Sometime in the late tenth century, a Sung Dynasty bureaucrat named Tang Hon-fat left his hometown of Pak Sha Village in Jiangxi province atook a trip south, to the coast of Guangdong. When he passed through the lush valley now known as Kam Tin, he was so taken by its natural beauty and the friendliness of its peasant inhabitants, he decided to move his entire family there. They arrived, ancestral bones in tow, in 973.

If Tang were to pass through Kam Tin in 2011, he might be less impressed. The mountains are still as beautiful as always, but the banana trees and farm fields of the valley have mostly given way to a haphazard collecton of houses, shacks and junkyards, none built with particular care or concern for the surrounding landscape. And if the people of Kam Tin were once known for their generosity, they lost it at some point during the millenium of pirate raids, dynastic upheaval and British annexation that has passed since Tang Hon-fat’s arrival. Visitors to Kam Tin’s ancient walled villages are more likely to encounter a cranky old woman demanding an entry fee than they are to be greeted with smiles.

Still, Kam Tin is one of Hong Kong’s most intriguing places, both for its centuries of history (documented with flourish by Sung Hok-pang in a 1973 paper for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society) and its more recent development. In 1950, the Royal Air Force opened a base here, which housed a number of military families until the return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. (It was also used as a detention camp for Vietnamese refugees from the 1970s to 1992.) Today, the base is mostly disused, run by a single unit of the Peoples’ Liberation Army, whose soldiers are not allowed to leave the base. But the airfield still makes its presence felt through the large community of ex-Gurkhas — the Nepalese and Indian who formed their own regiments in the British Army — who have remained in the area.

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March 10th, 2011

In Sicily, Between Now and Eternity / 6

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

Traversant Lentini pour une dernière fois, je constate à quel point elle peut être un mélange explosif où les contraires se voisinent et se méprisent. Quelques constructions d’allure moderne au milieu d’une foret de pierres, en ruine. Ces pauvres dans la rue qui regardent passer les Mercedes, BMW et autres Maserati. Ce chien mort, qui se laisse bouffer par les insectes.

Et puis cette religieuse, en fond de cinéma art-déco. Ces arbres qui ont soiffent, ces fous qui lavent la rue Garibaldi à grand jets d’eau. Ces places publiques, clôturées, voir barricadées. Et puis moi, blanc comme neige sous un soleil en feu, le sac lourd sur le dos, le vent au visage. Les pensées ailleurs.

J’atteint rapidement la Piazza Umberto, où je lance poliment mes salutations à cette façade baroque malade et ceinturée de remparts métalliques. Je prend le temps d’arrêter au bar Navarria, le meilleur en ville dit-on, pour savourer un dernier caffè. Onpouvait déjà voir un bar à cet angle sur les cartes postales du 19e siècle, sur une rue à peu près identique, accommodant les mêmes clients aux visages longs, à la barbe élégante.

Cette foule me regarde boire lentement le meilleur café en ville, le grand sac noir posé à mes pieds. Je suis un peu triste; ces gens sont entourés de leurs frères et sœurs, amis, paroisses. Ils sont nourris par le peuple qu’ils nourrissent à leur tour. Ces un mécanisme complexe où chacun prend sa place, à défaut de quoi la machine ne fonctionne pas, et chacun accepte que la place en haut de la pyramide est limitée. Pourvu que le soleil rayonne, que la mer ronronne, que les matchs de foot raisonnent. Le café sera toujours aussi noir, les oranges sucrées. S’ils ont tout ca, c’est que Dieu veille sur eux. Et si rien ne change, c’est pour le mieux.

Tout bouger pour que rien ne change.

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