Archive for May, 2011

May 31st, 2011

Rooftop Dystopia

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Two years ago, I spent a lot of time exploring the rooftop squatter villages that spread across the city like mushrooms on a tree stump. There’s an eerie feeling that comes over you as you walk through these settlements. Weeds poke through cracks in concrete walls; birds chirp and cicadas whir in the hot summer sun. It’s as though you’re in an isolated country village, except when you look down, water pipes run along the path in front of you, and when you look to the side, you see a forest of highrises. The nearest street is ten stories below.

Inspired by this very feeling, a young German filmmaker named Marco Sparmberg has created Squattertown, a new mini-series based on a dystopian vision of Hong Kong. In this parallel universe, the wealth gap has grown so large, a vast underclass is forced to live in a ramshackle, parallel city that exists above the heads of the affluent. Threatened by this sprawling rooftop shantytown, the wealthy from below send up a thug to terrorize the leader of the roof society.

It’s what Sparmberg calls a “Dim Sum Western,” a new genre that draws from the genre-redefining syncretism of two hallmark film movements: the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s.

The scenario is fantasy, but like any good allegory, it’s not too far removed from reality.

“I was trying to tackle the issue of property developers trying to push out people by any means, especially those people in rooftop housing,” said Sparmberg when I met him on the roof of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. Last fall, he spent two months scouting rooftops that would be good for shooting. He found most of them on buildings slated for redevelopment by property developers and the Urban Renewal Authority.


May 30th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Oakland

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Wayne Place, Oakland, CA

Wayne Place, Oakland, California. Photo by Cory Young

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

May 29th, 2011

La douce saison du printemps

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf


I’ll be returning to Montreal for a visit in late July — the same hot, humid time of year I left for Hong Kong three years ago. Though I’m happy to be going back, I wish I could be there for those first exuberant days of spring and early summer, before seasonal amnesia sets in and everyone takes the warm weather for granted.

Springtime Mount Royal


May 25th, 2011

Small Houses, Big Impact

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

Fanling Wai

Sam Wan was 10 years old when his father, an officer in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, died in the line of duty. Reeling from his death, Wan’s family moved from their Tsim Sha Tsui apartment back to their ancestral village, Tai Po Tsai, where they owned a small tile-roofed house.

The year was 1966 and the village couldn’t have been more different from Kowloon. Situated on a small plateau beneath Razor Hill, about halfway between Clear Water Bay and Sai Kung Town, Tai Po Tsai was a centuries-old collection of ramshackle houses and farm fields. Almost everyone in the village was related to a common ancestor. Most of them made a modest living.

“The villagers were small-scale farmers — they grew rice and vegetables for sale in the market in Sai Kung,” recalls Wan. “Their income was not very good, so most of the male villagers went outside to work as sea crew members. Some went to England to work as labourers or in Chinese restaurants.”

But things were changing. Shaw Brothers had opened a film studio nearby in 1961 and many of the studio’s employees, including some future film stars, started renting houses in the village. Then, in 1972, a revolution: the government passed the Small House Policy, which gave each male villager and his descendants the right to build a 700 square foot house in the village, without having to pay a land premium or licence fee.


May 23rd, 2011

Photos of the Week: Instant India

Posted in Art and Design, South Asia by Christopher DeWolf

Varanasi. Polaroid on canvas (2011) by Lionel Muñoz

Varanasi. Polaroid with 669 film (2011) by Lionel Muñoz

Kerala. Polaroid with expired 669 film (2011) by Lionel Muñoz


May 22nd, 2011

A Citadel of Colonial Power — For Sale

Central Government Offices

Later this year, when Hong Kong’s government moves its headquarters to a glassy new building next to Victoria Harbour, it will leave behind the leafy hill it has called home since the 1840s. Rather than conserve the hill for public use, however, the government wants to sell half of it to developers, who plan to tear it up for a new shopping mall and 32-storey office tower.

“This hill belongs to the public and it should stay public,” says heritage activist Katty Law, who is part of a spirited coalition of groups that oppose the plan.

Over the past few months, a litany of groups have come out against the government’s plan, including the pan-democratic political parties, designers, environmental activists, architects, historians and congregants from St. John’s Cathedral, which is located on the hill.

Even feng shui masters think it’s a bad idea. One master, who is also a registered architect, told the South China Morning Post that the new office tower would block the site’s chi, which comes from the balance between Government House, at the top of the hill, and the three 1950s-era office blocks immediately below.

The government’s rationale for the redevelopment plan is straightforward: there’s a shortage of Grade A office space in Central and the new office tower would provide 28,500 square meters of it. The project is essential “to maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness,” a spokeswoman for the Development Bureau told me.


May 21st, 2011

A Day in Petaling Jaya

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf


Kuala Lumpur is a city that settles into its streets like a comfortable pair of jeans. Hawker stalls and coffee shops spread out on the pavement, where a vast range of people — old, young, Indian, Malay, Chinese, immigrant — eat delicious food on folding tables and bright plastic stools.

But the irony is that, despite this vibrant, informal streetlife, Kuala Lumpur is a resolutely suburban place. Its neighbourhoods sprawl for miles, connected only tenuously by sidewalks and public transit. Without a car, the Klang Valley, as the whole metropolitan region is known, can be a very alienating place.

We didn’t have a car when we visited KL last September, but we did make an effort to venture out beyond the small city centre and into the suburbs beyond. One day, we took the train out to Petaling Jaya, a large suburb just west of the city proper, where we walked and took taxis to get a sense of what everyday life in the Malaysian capital is like.


May 17th, 2011

Tokyo Bicycles in Twelve Frames

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Photos of Tokyo cyclists taken in March 2011.





May 16th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Reflections in Transit

Posted in Canada, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Ghost train

“Ghost train,” Vancouver, c_c_clason


May 6th, 2011

A Walk Through the Bairro Português

Jane Jacobs died five years ago and fans of cities and the celebrated, iconclastic urbanist have been remembering her contribution with walks through neighborhoods around the world since 2007.

This coming weekend, May 7 and 8, enthusiastic city lovers in more than 150 cities around the world, from Toronto to São Paulo, will lead Jane’s Walks. The free tours are given by volunteers who love their cities, and want to share their secrets and pleasures. Check out the website for a walk near you.

The above picture of the Parc du Portugal in Montreal’s Plateau district, which was saved from urban renewal by Portuguese immigrants who restored the small houses in the working class area with love, sweat and community financing. It will be the starting point for the walk I’ll be leading, beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday (in English) and Sunday (in French).

Each bench in the park is decorated with ceramic tiles by Quebec artists of Portuguese origin. The first bench sits on the east side of the Main, near Bagg Street. It commemorates Dom Diniz (1261-1325), the poet monarch of the young kingdom which had just shaken off several centuries of Muslim rule.

From there the series passes through the centuries as it follows St. Lawrence north. Portugal’s bard Luís de Camões (c 1524-1580) is represented with “E se mais mondo houverá, lá chegara”–“if there were another world, they would have found it.” Fitting words from the author of an epic about how the Portuguese led Europeans in the exploration of the world.


May 5th, 2011

Elected by Ethnoburbia

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

Election results in Toronto in 2008 (top) and 2011 (bottom)
Red is Liberal, blue is Conservative, orange is NDP

Canada held its 41st federal election on Monday and the results have unleashed a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape. After two consecutive minority governments, the Conservatives have now won a majority. The left-wing NDP, a marginal party for much of its existence (it ran fifth for most of the 1990s), is now the Official Opposition.

Much attention is being paid to the massive surge of support for the NDP, especially in Quebec, where two decades of dominance by the Bloc fell victim to the “Orange Crush.” But Quebec is prone to political mood swings, and even as an NDP supporter, I’m sceptical that they will be able to maintain their current level of support until the next election. What I find especially remarkable about this election is the near-collapse of the Liberal Party — and the political rise of the ethnoburbs.

Take a look at electoral map of Greater Toronto. Red has given way to blue in virtually all of its fast-growing, immigrant-dominated, ethnically-diverse suburban areas. Losing these ridings is what pushed the Liberals to the edge of oblivion. “Of the 18 seats they gained in that region, 14 are more than 45 per cent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for the Conservatives,” notes the Globe and Mail.

In other words, the Canadian election was fought and won in ethnoburbia, the suburban immigrant enclaves first identified in 1997 by the geographer Wei Li. Ethnoburbs are socially and culturally self-contained, but unlike the urban ethnic enclaves of decades past, they are also prosperous and extensively connected to transnational networks. Their affluence and influence have given them enormous political leverage.


May 5th, 2011

Street Furniture in Guangzhou

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


I’ve written a bit about the discarded furniture phenomenon in Hong Kong, where people make up for a lack of quality street furniture by putting household chairs in the street for people to use.

It turns out Hong Kong has got nothing on Guangzhou. In that city’s ancient Liwan District, where leafy, winding streets are lined by family-run wholesale businesses, just about every shop has a jumble of tables and chairs outside. They’re used for meals, boisterous card games and, in the middle of the afternoon, a kind of furtive siesta. (Unlike in southern Europe, most businesses in southeastern Asia don’t close in the afternoon — workers just sleep on the job.)

There’s a remarkable variety of furniture found in the streets. Disassembled sofas are common, along with beat-up lounge chairs and plain dining room chairs. But there are also some beautiful wicker recliners and elegant wooden chairs. After all, when you spend your days sitting the street, you’d better do it with style.


May 3rd, 2011

Photos of the Week: Mailboxes

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf


Hong Kong mailboxes by Hamachi & Toro


Taipei mailboxes by Poagao

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

May 1st, 2011


Posted in Europe, Latin America, South Asia, Video by Christopher Szabla
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Megatransecting Mexico City

In 1999, American biologist J. Michael Fay set out on a project to map and survey the vegetation of Africa’s entire Congo River basin. Heavily promoted by National Geographic as “The Megatransect,” Fay’s feat involved 455 days of walking across 3,200 miles of largely untamed territory. Biologists had actually been using the term “transect” to describe such surveys since the late 19th century, but Fay’s epic-scale journey brought it widespread public recognition. In 2004 and 2005, he and Geographic extended the brand by conducting a “Megaflyover” of Africa, taking photos every 20 seconds during a 60,000 mile plus journey in a small bush plane.

Legendary as the natural surveys of explorer-biologists like Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt are, expeditions like theirs — and Fay’s — are increasingly rare now that most of “the field” has been crossed and recrossed. Geographers have turned their attention toward changes, rather than gaps, in maps of the earth’s surface — particularly those with less than natural causes. So it’s unsurprising that they have become fixated on the sites of the most intense human population growth and activity — cities. By 2008, urban centers contained, for the first time, over half the world’s people.

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A long, long walk through London