Archive for July, 2011

July 28th, 2011

Why Is Hong Kong So Green?

Hung Bak

Hong Kong’s market booths are typically painted green

Why is Hong Kong so green?

The question came up a couple of months ago when I was having afternoon tea with my girlfriend, Laine, at Mido Café.

“If you had to pick a color to associate with Hong Kong, what would it be?” she asked, looking out the window at Temple Street hawkers setting up for the night.

“I dunno,” I said. “Red?”

“That’s what most people would say, right? But I think it’s green. Not just because of the hills or the trees, but because so many things in the city are painted green, like the street market stalls.”

It was an interesting observation. A few weeks later, I brought it up when I met Hulu Culture co-founder and old Hong Kong expert Simon Go for coffee — also, coincidentally, at Mido Café. He immediately perked up.

“I call this color ‘grassroots green,’” he said, gazing up at Mido’s 1950s-era metal window frames which were, of course, painted green. “The windows, the market stalls, the trams, the Star Ferry. It’s everywhere, in all of the most famous Hong Kong things.”

But why? Go didn’t know for sure. He speculated that the government required market stalls to be painted green as a measure of consistency. I got the same answer from the owner of a paint shop on Wellington Street, in the middle of Hong Kong’s oldest street market.

“The hawkers come here to buy their paint and they choose from a few different shades of green,” he said. “I think it has to do with government policy.”


July 27th, 2011

Urban Gulch: Edmonton’s Big River Valley

Posted in Canada by Karl Leung

There’s a long-standing rivalry out here on the Prairies. Beyond local football and hockey antagonisms, Calgarians and Edmontonians seem to have a lot of other beef with each other.

I am a native Calgarian, but I must admit the unspeakable: Edmonton is a beautiful place! It is, in fact, a walkable, friendly and interesting city to explore — a fine serving of urban living and the great outdoors.

As these photos attest, one exemplary feature of Edmonton’s urban and natural landscapes is the cavernous North Saskatchewan River valley, which carves a vast swath of parkland through concrete groves of modest apartment buildings crowding along its edge.


July 27th, 2011

The Slow Demise of Long Spring Lane

Posted in Asia Pacific by Sue Anne Tay

A little north of Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek, nestled behind the cacophony of Qipu Lu’s hectic wholesale clothing district, lies the entrance to Changchun “Long Spring” Lane (长春里). It is a crumbling longtang* (弄堂) marked by one of Shanghai’s ubiquitous brick archways, which lies under the lane’s name, chiseled in stone. And it has a very auspicious address: 858 Tanggu Lu. In Chinese, 858 is “ba wu ba” but sounds very close to “fa wo fa” as in “prosper I prosper”.

But for all its supposed good fortune, the lane has lately found itself less than prosperous. Residents of the front section of Long Spring Lane have moved out after agreeing to take government compensation for redevelopment plans, turning the main alleyway into a repository for rotting trash and festering vermin. Meanwhile, the once-lovely balcony overlooking the street was being slowly eaten away by termites and humidity.

The back portion of the longtang was still intact and home to a few families, but it was slowly emptying out, evidenced by the bricked-up shikumen**. 858 Tanggu Lu is increasingly surrounded by wide asphalt roads and warehouse-like offices. It’s unclear whether any future building will share the longtang’s encouraging address, but if it does, it will certainly promise prosperity of a different kind.


July 25th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Cooling Off

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Summer in the City

Street Play!

All of this week’s photos of kids cooling off with a fire hydrant were taken by Charles Le Brigand last Saturday in the Bronx, New York. See more of his photos here.


July 20th, 2011

Collecting the Scraps of a Changing Shanghai

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Sue Anne Tay

There was no reason to have entered what looked like a dumpster north of Wangjiamatou Lu (王家码头路) which was located in Shanghai’s Old Town, or known better to some as the former walled city of Nanshi (literally ‘southern town’ (南市)) — until a small head in pigtails poked out from behind the rusty doors and stared at me with shiny eyes.

As I pushed past the entrance, I found myself in a cavernous warehouse where makeshift rooms lined upon the side, assembled from a variety of wooden doors, corrugated sheets and curtains.

The television was blaring in one room while two young girls were doing their homework. A man was napping next door and I could hear the clatter of mahjong tiles behind a closed door. Nearby, fresh vegetables were laid out on a table ready for dinner. Across was a small meeting area filled with loose, old furniture. More than two thirds of the space was filled with vast collections of wooden beams, metal scraps, steel rods, glass panes and bottles and much more.

Where there’s major demolition happening, be it of residential or old factory spaces, there are scrap collecting operations that follow. Whether it is the lone peasant picking through trash with a pushcart, or the scrap mogul with a fleet of rumbling trucks to transport high-valued materials to Zhejiang or Jiangsu provinces, the scrap business is an important livelihood for many.

That includes the massive number of migrants attracted to China’s largest city. At the last count, the “floating population” (流动人口) or migrants that spend less than six months at a time in Shanghai make up 37% of the city’s staggering population of 22.2 million. For many migrant workers and their children, home is where they can find rent-free or at least cheap rent space, be it in abandoned factories or makeshift rooms in half-demolished homes with minimal amenities and substandard hygiene. As such, temporary enclaves have emerged in scrap collection zones across Shanghai to house those who work in them.


July 16th, 2011

Shanghai’s Seventh-Day Adventist Inn

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Sue Anne Tay

“No, I told you, you can’t go upstairs if you’re not a guest,” the teenage hotel desk clerk scowled at my camera.

Just then, a portly middle-aged man waddled up to the counter and interrupted me, “How much for a room for 3 hours?” Her suspicious eyes not leaving me, the desk clerk pointed to a board on the wall which indicated day and overnight rates.

As the man contemplated, I noted his lady friend seated on the couch, her long legs encased in a mini-skirt, examining her fingernails. Without missing a beat, he grunted, “I’ll take the small room.”

I couldn’t resist a quiet laugh. So there I was, in the tiny lobby of a budget inn watching a man preparing for some afternoon delight, in what was a former Seventh-day Adventist Church (沪北会堂).

It was hard to miss this handsome red-bricked building along Wujing Lu (武进路), close to Wusong Lu (吴淞路), with its Gothic-inspired equilateral arches yet built in a manner reminiscent of its times. It was the first church built by the Seventh-day Adventist in Shanghai in 1905 and later expanded in 1924 to its present two-storey, Settlement design.


July 15th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Canal Street

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Decay, Canal Street, Chinatown, New York City

Decaying building on Canal Street, Chinatown, New York City.
Photo by Vivienne Gucwa

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

July 10th, 2011

A City Without Ground


It’s a bright Sunday afternoon and Central is buzzing. Thousands of Filipino domestic workers gather with friends for a weekly picnic. Shoppers stream through the luxury shops of Chater House to the somewhat less posh confines of Worldwide House, where large boxes of gifts are being packed for shipment to the Philippines. Charity workers stop passersby to ask for donations.

Hong Kong is famous for this kind of vigorous streetlife — except in this case, none of it is happening on the street, but instead one or two stories above ground, on the network of footbridges and elevated open areas that link many of Central’s shopping malls and office towers.

It isn’t just happening in Central. In dozens of spots around the city, from Tsuen Wan to Tseung Kwan O, footbridges and underpasses are creating pedestrian networks that extend well beyond the traditional domain of the sidewalk and public square. In the words of one architect, Hong Kong has entered into a “condition of groundlessness,” in which the ground has become just one of many layers of public activity.

The phenomenon has become so pervasive that, in many parts of Hong Kong, vast networks of interconnected malls, office towers and residential buildings have become the main form of pedestrian passage. It is possible to walk from Pacific Place Three, on the western edge of Wan Chai, all the way to the Macau Ferry Terminal in Sheung Wan — a distance of more than two kilometres — without once setting foot at street level.


July 7th, 2011

Tokyo Vending Machines

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf


It’s a huge cliché, but how could I resist?


July 6th, 2011

Missing from Student Life: Politics

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

Democracy wall

University of Hong Kong Democracy Wall, 2009

When I first moved to Hong Kong three years ago, I was already accustomed to the particular quirks of local life, having spent around two and a half months exploring the city before I took the definitive flight from Canada. Getting used to life at the University of Hong Kong was another story.

No student bars, no lively campus media, no earnest political actions — student life in Hong Kong seemed remarkably dull compared to what I had gotten used to in Montreal. Travels around Asia suggested this was a uniquely Hong Kong problem, because the university campuses I visited in Taipei, Seoul, Beijing and Bangkok all had the kind of spark I normally associate with student life.

I don’t mean to be unfair to Hong Kong students. Some universities — the Chinese University in particular — have a strong activist tradition. But the atmosphere seems less concerned with intellectual engagement than with career advancement, and you’re far more likely to see a black-suited business student advertising a marketing conference than you are to see a fresh-faced, scruffy-haired animal-rights advocate promoting free vegan lunches next to the cafeteria.

What makes this especially perplexing is that, over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about Hong Kong’s so-called Post-80s Generation, a new wave of young political and cultural activists who are leading a campaign to make Hong Kong a more equitable, democratic and conscientious place. This generation certainly does exist — you saw it in the lively protests against the high-speed rail link to the mainland, in the movement to support Ai Wei Wei and again in the resurgent July 1st pro-democracy march — but it seems only to represent a small minority of young people in Hong Kong.

If anything, student apathy has reached new heights in Hong Kong, with student unions at three of the city’s seven universities unable to elect executive councils earlier this year. This spring, on assignment for the South China Morning Post, I went to one of Hong Kong’s newest schools, City University, to find out what was going on.


July 6th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Scenes from Tbilisi

Posted in Europe by Christopher DeWolf

Tbilisi Street

Tbilisi Street

All of this week’s photos were taken in Tbilisi, Georgia, by S_Peter.