Archive for April, 2011

April 30th, 2011

In Defence of Street Art

Ai Wei Wei projection graffiti, Hong Kong. Photo by Cpak Ming

This month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles opened a new exhibition on the history of street art and graffiti, the first such show at a major American museum. It has been greeted by controversy. One of the curators has been accused of having a commercial conflict of interest and street artists have accused the museum of censoring one of the graffiti murals it commissioned.

The exhibition has also suffered from broad-based attacks on its very subject matter. Last week, City Journal published a lengthy attack by Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald, whose argument against the show can be summarized as follows: graffiti is a cancer that destroys cities, yet it has been embraced by hypocritical cultural elites who rarely suffer the consequence of is damage. She seems utterly offended that a major art museum would consider mounting a show dedicated to vandalism.

Leaving aside a minute the fact that the Manhattan Institute is a think tank that promotes “greater economic choice and individual responsibility” — a euphemism for the neo-liberal policies that have dismantled social programs and financial regulations and ushered in an era of economic instability and a growing wealth gap — MacDonald’s piece is worth considering because it makes use of so many of the most common arguments against street art. To start, she trots out that tired old workhorse, the broken-windows theory, which suggests that any instance of neglect or disrepair in an urban neighbourhood will lead to higher crime rates and a breakdown of social order. MacDonald uses it to illustrate graffiti’s effect on cities:


April 28th, 2011

The Mysterious Origins of Hong Kong Cuisine

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

Hong Kong-style pastries for sale in Mongkok

Every day for more than 60 years, the ovens of the Mido Café have churned out dozens of crispy pineapple buns for breakfast tea. Better known by their Chinese name, bolo bau, pineapple buns are the most emblematic of Hong Kong snacks: light, fluffy and filling, with sweet, crunchy crust on top.

But when Mido’s third-generation owner, 59-year-old Wong Sing-fan, is asked where the bolo bau comes from, she looks nonplussed. “It’s from the British,” she says hesitantly, before adding, “They have them in England, right?”

Hong Kong-style cuisine, known for its peculiar marriage of Western and Chinese tastes, is perhaps the city’s most beloved contribution to the world, Cantopop aside. Local staples like bolo bau, milk tea and macaroni soup have followed Hong Kong people wherever they go, from the suburbs of Vancouver to the streets of Shanghai. But for all their notoriety, the origins of these pastries, drinks and dishes are unclear.

“It’s a bit of a mystery,” says Lingnan University historian Lau Chi-pang while nibbling on an egg tart at Honolulu Café in Wan Chai. “Some of us scholars are very interested in knowing where they came from, but it’s quite tricky because their origins are not documented. Basically, we have no idea where to start.”

A large part of the problem is that few bakers or cooks in the past bothered to write down their original recipes. That is especially true in the case of popular cuisine meant for everyday dining. With no food-obsessed TV shows or websites like OpenRice to document their creation, the story of how most dishes came to be has been lost to the fog of time.


April 26th, 2011

Photo of the Week: There Will Be Light

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

And there will be a light...

This week’s photo was taken in Shanghai by Damien Polegato.

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

April 25th, 2011

Marching for Ai Wei Wei

Ai Wei Wei has become a cause célèbre in Hong Kong since his arrest by mainland Chinese authorities on April 3rd. In the week since I wrote about “Chin Tangerine“, who covered the city with “Who’s Afraid of Ai Wei Wei?” graffiti, artists have rallied to Ai’s support with a blizzard of interventions, homages and protests. Their efforts have ensured that Ai’s plight has remained on the front page for weeks.

You could see that effect at work on Saturday afternoon, when a group of artists organized a protest march in support of Ai. Hong Kong is a city with an engrained protest culture — people here observe the July 1st handover holiday by taking to the streets — but most protests are a mishmash of interest groups, each with its own cause or grievance. Saturday’s march, by contrast, was clear in its message: Ai Wei Wei has been unjustly detained and he should be freed. Even though its attendance was less than 2,000 — a somewhat small protest by Hong Kong standards — it was the biggest story of the weekend.

The march was more spectacular than any Hong Kong protest I have seen. Installation artist Kacey Wong built a large “grass mud horse” out of wood and wool, a reference to a popular meme that mocks government censorship in mainland China. (A grass mud horse is a mythical creature whose name sounds like “fuck your mother” in Mandarin.) River crabs — another swipe at Chinese censorship — made an appearance. Somebody made a large paper worm called the White Terror Bug.


April 18th, 2011

Europe Through the Eyes of Others

Posted in Europe by Daniel Corbeil





April 18th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Sweet Smoke

Posted in Europe, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

chips of plutionium are twinkeling in every lung (kate bush)

This week’s photo reminds me of the waves of sweet, musky tobacco smoke I sometimes encounter when walking down the street — an experience that is becoming increasingly rare. It was taken in Freiburg, Germany, by Flickr user vaquey.

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

April 17th, 2011

Music for the Kinetic Metropolis

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Every so often a musician comes along that captures the mood of a city, or at least a certain subset of its time and population. George Gershwin’s compositions embodied the bittersweet optimism of the striver’s New York; more recently, LCD Soundsystem evokes the disaffection felt in the gentrified, Bloomberg-era city. And what better represents the angst and aimlessness of 1990s Montreal than the melodramatic nihilism of Godspeed You Black Emperor?

If anyone can be said to capture the zeigeist of Hong Kong in the early 2010s, it’s Choi Sai-ho, the experimental electronic musician and video artist who I profiled last year for CNNGo. His frenetic music feeds on Hong Kong’s relentless entrepreneurial drive, something that created created remarkable wealth in the 1970s and 80s but which lost its purpose after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. Hong Kong today is a hamster in a cage, spinning furiously with nowhere to go. The desire for constant advancement and enrichment has been perverted into a kind of civic OCD that, if left untreated, could leave the city utterly debilitated. Already the signs are there, including a yawning wealth gap that is growing larger every year.


April 16th, 2011

Who’s Afraid of Ai Wei Wei?

At three o’clock on Wednesday morning, the air beneath the Central Mid-Levels Escalator became thick with the fumes of spray paint as a young university student left a message on the escalator’s pillars: “Who’s afraid of Ai Wei Wei?”

Over the past week, the student, nicknamed Chin, has blitzed some of Hong Kong’s most high-profile locations with the message and hand-cut stencil portraits of Ai, the Beijing-based artist and activist who was arrested on April 3rd while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong.

Now Chin is on the run from the Hong Kong police’s Regional Crime Unit, which normally investigates serious crimes like rape and murder. She risks being charged with criminal damage, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail. But she says she remains unbowed.

“It will be worth it if just one person sees what I’ve done and asks themselves, ‘Why should Ai Wei Wei be silenced?’’” she said.

“What I’m doing is not random tagging. I expected there to be an investigation at some point, especially since there is a political message here. If I am arrested, I have trust in the Hong Kong legal system that my case can be heard fairly. In the worst case scenario, I know that I might have to pay a fine and go to jail, and I’m prepared for that.”


April 12th, 2011

Hanoi’s Sunflower Youth

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Public Space, Society and Culture by Patrick Donovan

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

There’s something different going on next to Saint Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi. This is a popular gathering place for middle-class youth, but they’re not sitting around drinking beer like the kids in the old city. Nor are these western-influenced young Vietnamese sitting around drinking tall mochachino lattés.

Hanoi, Vietnam


April 11th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Portlandia

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Red Dreds

Thai Pasta

Walking in Front of Boards


April 11th, 2011

How Canada Votes, Street by Street

Posted in Canada, Demographics, Maps, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Election signs in Calgary, 2006

Canada is in the midst of yet another federal election, one that will, if the current trends hold steady, result in a third minority government for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. It’s a pretty dismal state of affairs. But even the most delicious truffle looks like a turd, so things might still turn out well, especially if Canadians finally wake up and grow tired of having a petty tyrant as prime minister.

In the meantime, my friend Cedric Sam has created a pretty good way to kill time: Google Maps of 2008 federal election results based on data from each and every polling station in the country. Since each polling station serves no more than a few hundred voters, the level of detail is extraordinarily precise, especially in dense urban areas. You can check it out at the website of the Montreal newspaper La Presse, which has published the maps in English.

Sometimes the maps can be surprising. Who knew that the well-heeled streets of Outremont held so many NDP supporters, while the immigrant-dominated, working-class north end of Côte des Neiges was so heavily Liberal? Other times, it looks exactly the way you would expect: in Edmonton Strathcona, the densely-populated streets around Whyte Avenue and the University of Alberta voted NDP, while more suburban areas to the south and east voted Conservative. (The NDP won in both Outremont and Edmonton Strathcona.)

2008 results in Outremont, Montreal


April 10th, 2011

In Sicily, Between Now and Eternity / 9

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

Vie di Ortigia, Siracusa

Après mon passage à San Giovanni alle Catacombe, j’explore la zone, repère quelques commerces où je peux faire mes courses. Et puis je m’arrête dans un bar, histoire d’apprécier un caffè en ce milieu d’après-midi chargé par la chaleur. Il n’est pas difficile de trouver une bonne place, un bistro pointant à chaque vingt mètres. Avec la densité des tours, des milliers de gens doivent bien vivre ici, à Neapolis.

D’ailleurs, alors que je m’apprête à reprendre la route, le brouhaha des voitures, des passants et des criards se fait sentir avec intensité. C’est vrai que la pause du déjeuner vient de terminer et que chacun se retrouve dans son va-et-vient routinier et nonchalant. Sauf moi, qui n’a certainement pas le plaisir d’obéir à une routine, de respecter un horaire. D’avoir ne serait-ce qu’une raison pour me mouvoir.

Je décide malgré tout de descendre enfin vers la vieille ville. Tout d’abords, je me trouve à traverser ces quartiers toujours aussi denses, mais dont les maisons s’écrasent de plus en plus, parfois n’ayant qu’un seul étage. À l’occasion, elles ressemblent presque à des entrepôts, tant leurs façades sont minimalistes, si ce n’était d’une frise élégante ou d’une porte légèrement ouvragée. Un baroque pour les pauvres, j’imagine.

Et puis soudainement la ville reprend sa forme monumentale, à Umbertina, et on devine une époque où ces rues étaient plus chics, plus roses. Comme une longue prose, dont la beauté éternelle est assourdie par le passage du temps. Et puis, ces couleurs, lavées par il me semble par une pluie forte et longue, au travers des trois derniers siècles. Puisque Siracusa fêtera bientôt ses trois millénaires d’histoire, ces ilots de vieillesse n’en sont pourtant qu’un témoignage récent.

Voilà ce pont à franchir : de l’autre côté, se découvre enfin Ortigia.


April 10th, 2011

The Masked Metropolis

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

Why do so many Japanese people wear masks? The question became stuck in my mind almost as soon as I arrived in Tokyo late last month. Everywhere I went, on the streets and in trains, nearly half of the people around me were wearing surgical masks.

I already knew part of the answer: people wear masks when they are sick. That’s the case for many people in Hong Kong, and even in Vancouver and Toronto, especially after the SARS outbreak of 2003. But that didn’t seem to explain why such a huge percentage of people in Tokyo wore masks. Was half the population really suffering from colds? It seemed unlikely. Did people think that the masks could filter out radiation, which everyone worried would float down from Fukushima? That seemed unlikelier still.


April 7th, 2011

An Alternate Map of Manhattan

Posted in History, Maps, United States by Christopher Szabla

The original, ca. 1800 Mangin-Goerck Plan (top) and part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, as engraved by William Bridges

Last month, New York celebrated the bicentennial of one of its most iconic works of engineering and urban design — Manhattan’s grid. The 1811 street layout was officially known as the Commissioners’ Plan, but its execution is really owed to John Randel, Jr., the plan’s chief surveyor and engineer, who endured — and persevered through — endless legal and physical challenges to imprinting his vision on what was, north of the burgeoning city, a wild, hilly, watery island.

Randel’s difficult (and often amusing) travails have been widely recounted elsewhere: he was, among other things, pelted with vegetables and even arrested for trespass in the course of carrying out the Commissioners’ scheme, which involved seizing property and, in the course of leveling hillsides, leaving some houses stranded on bluffs along his new avenues. The New York Times has a colorful story about him as part of a larger feature celebrating the grid — which, the paper proclaimed, had easily stood the test of time.

But what if Randel had encountered more propertyholders like Henry Brevoot? His obstinant refusal to part with his estate means that, to this day, you can’t walk the length of 11th Street uninterrupted — it doesn’t run between Broadway and Fourth Ave. Or what if the considerable engineering challenges his project faced — eight million cubic yards of dirt had to be moved from the future west side to fill in the valleys of the future east — simply couldn’t be overcome, either physically or financially?

There’s been plenty of aimless speculation over centuries as to what Manhattan would look like sans grid. Among the more tongue-in-cheek illustrations were Charles-Antoine Perrault and Alex Wallach’s views of what the island would look like if crisscrossed not by its grid, but by Paris’ medieval streets and strident boulevards. Cutting and pasting the Left Bank from one Google Earth grid to another didn’t exactly make for a perfect fit, but the idea that a gridless Manhattan may have developed in a similarly piecemeal, haphazard fashion — as it had, with farmers subdividing their land into individual, poorly meshing grids, until 1811 — makes sense.

But there was at least one serious master plan for Manhattan that predated the Commissioners’. Surviving in only a few rare maps (themselves mostly reproductions), it demonstrates that, had the Commissioners’ Plan not prevailed, New York could have been a considerably different place today.