Archive for September, 2011

September 30th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Late-Night Faces

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space by Christopher DeWolf

Bangs girl & "ロリータ”

Found at a whiskey bar in Tokyo, reading “Lolita”

Chef & Sake

Restaurant chef seen through sake bottles, Tokyo

Both of this week’s photos were taken by Clinton Watkins.

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

September 29th, 2011

Réaménager la ville avec de simples idées : Petite Italie, Montréal

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Public Space by Daniel Corbeil

Alors que les débats sont parfois lourds dans l’administration municipale lorsque vient le moment de voter des budgets d’aménagement, l’on constate qu’en quelques années, Montréal a réussi à altérer l’image de plusieurs de ses rues commerciales avec des idées simples et peu dispendieuses.

Après avoir passé les derniers mois à débattre et à préparer des projets de réaménagement de l’espace urbain et des rues de Montréal, nous avons constaté que trois éléments ont eu un impact réel sur la qualité de nos rues, à savoir l’implantation de terrasses sur les trottoirs (qui créées des milieux de vie animés), la multiplication des plantes et autres éléments de végétalisation de l’emprise (la plupart des éléments étant temporaires et versatiles) ainsi que le changement culturel chez les montréalais, à savoir le raisonnement selon lequel désormais on ne peut plus accepter que la rue soit un simple axe de circulation des biens et personnes.

Ici quelques exemples de la rue Dante, qui semble désormais un petit jardin en pleine ville et où les terrasses et plantes rappellent finalement la douceur de la Méditerranée…

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September 29th, 2011

Seen in Sheung Wan

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

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Though street art is not as pervasive in Hong Kong as it is in European and North American cities, it is very common in certain neighbourhoods. Sheung Wan is one of them. In the district’s many back lanes and quiet streets, just about every spare surface is covered with a tag, stencil or poster.

Last March, I wandered through the area and recorded some of what I saw. It’s very much a reflection of Hong Kong’s current state of mind. One of the pieces depicts a jasmine hawker selling jasmine flowers, a reference to both the Arab Spring and the response of Chinese activists to the increasingly harsh crackdown on mainland China intellectuals, human rights lawyers and dissidents. Another criticizes the Hong Kong government’s aloofness and unaccountability. One pokes fun at the ascendant Chinese art market, which has led to the concentration of major international galleries and auction houses in Hong Kong.

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September 27th, 2011

Airing Your Laundry in Public

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

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When I first came to Hong Kong, one of the most perplexing of park rules was “No hanging of laundry.” Surely that isn’t a problem, I thought. Do people really bring their wet laundry to the park to dry?

As it turns out, they do. Though most people here have a washing machine in their apartments, relatively few have dryers, and Hong Kong’s tiny apartments lack the outdoor space needed to effectively dry freshly-washed clothes. Some people take their laundry up to rooftop clotheslines; those who live in buildings without an accessible roof simply hang their clothes next to an open window, hoping they won’t get that awful damp smell that comes from taking too long to dry. Others take a different approach: they dry their laundry in public space, hanging it on sidewalk railings and chainlink fences.

This happens almost exclusively in public housing estates and working-class neighbourhoods, which is an important point to consider. Outdoor clothes-drying is seen by many of the world’s middle and upper classes to be distasteful and unsightly, from North America, where hundreds of communities ban the practice, to Hong Kong, where affluent people cling very tightly to symbols of affluence and class identity, perhaps because they are only a generation or two removed from poverty. Once, a middle-aged professional man I know was looking outside at a luxury apartment tower when he noticed that some apartments had clothes drying outside, on the building’s small balconies. “They’re rich but they still dry their clothes outside,” he said with evident distaste.

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September 25th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Striped

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Stripped

West 56th and 8th Avenue, New York. Photo by Simon Garnier.

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

September 22nd, 2011

A Place for Bikes in the Heart of Hong Kong?

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

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Imagine it’s a beautiful autumn day in Hong Kong. The summer’s humidity has vanished and you’re out enjoying the fine weather, bicycling along Victoria Harbour. You pass the Star Ferry pier, the new government headquarters at Tamar, then Victoria Park, all the while gazing out at the jade green water.

That was the vision presented by a group of cycling advocates at the Harbourfront Commission on September 7th. The Hong Kong Cycling Alliance is urging the commission to include a 16-kilometre cycleway in its plans for a continuous public promenade along the shoreline of Victoria Harbour. Its members argue that cycling would enliven the waterfront while also creating an easy way to travel between its different nodes of activity.

“Cycling is the most convenient, efficient mode of transportation known to man — and it’s just right for the harbourfront, which we want to be peaceful and well-connected,” says Martin Turner, a member of the Cycling Alliance. “I can see a family going there and hiring bikes for an afternoon. And commuters won’t have to sit on a bus for 45 minutes at the start of the morning. They can get some fresh air and improve their health.”

Turner and other cycling advocates hope that giving bikes a place on the waterfront could encourage cycling not only as a recreational activity but as a convenient way to get around the city. That would bring Hong Kong into line with cities as diverse as Hangzhou, New York and Paris, where cycling has become increasingly popular — and where local governments enthusiastically promote it as a healthy, ecologically-friendly form of transport.

“Our goal is to make cycling a part of everyday life in Hong Kong,” says Cycling Alliance member Philip Heung. For that to happen, though, cycling advocates must face the mother of all obstacles: changing government policy, which does not consider bicycles a means of transportation, even as cycling appears to grow more popular in both the New Territories and the urban areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

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September 15th, 2011

Tokyo, Two Weeks After the Earthquake

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

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March 2011

I arrive in Tokyo on a clear, crisp afternoon. As my train makes brisk progress from Narita Airport to the city centre, I stare out the window at the country fields giving way to suburbia and then a densely crammed cityscape. The city seems calm. Kids run freely through an asphalt schoolyard. Uniformed boys play softball in a neighbourhood field. Men stand next to the muddy banks of a river, hitting golf balls into the water.

I’ve come here to see how Japan’s capital is bearing up under what has been described as the worst disaster to hit the country since World War II. Two weeks ago, on March 11th, an earthquake stirred up a tsunami that rushed towards the country’s northeast coast. Thirty minutes later, 30-metre waves crushed towns as far as ten kilometres inland. Fishing boats were dropped on top of three-storey buildings. Thousands of people were swept out to sea amidst churning rubble. When the sun set three hours later, tens of thousands were dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.

As I write this, another disaster brews. Damaged by the earthquake and flooded by the tsunami, emergency generators at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant failed, causing the cooling system to malfunction. Reactors overheated; a meltdown seemed imminent. Spooked, foreign bankers, English teachers, and even journalists have fled Tokyo en masse. Radioactivity has since been found in vegetables, milk and tap water. Shipping companies are avoiding the port after Fukushima was revealed to be spewing contamination into the sea.

Skyscrapers loom, and, with them, the unknown. Friends are surprised I’m even here. If international headlines are to be believed, the world’s largest city, with 35 million people and an economy 40 percent larger than Canada’s, is on the verge of becoming the next Chernobyl.

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September 15th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Flyover

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation, United States by Christopher DeWolf

underneath the flyover

Bangkok. Photo by Jonathan Newman

Chicago. Photo by GXM

Tokyo. Photo by Corentin Walravens

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

September 11th, 2011

September 11th Street

Posted in History, Latin America, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Between Avenidas Juramento and Olazábal, Calle 11 de Setiembre — September 11th Street — is one of the most beautiful in the upscale Buenos Aires barrio of Belgrano. Its trees arch over the rooflines of multistory apartment buildings, meeting above the middle of the street to form a cavernous, emerald archway that resembles the nave of a cathedral. No wonder visitors to Buenos Aires’ tiny Chinatown, along the congested stretch of Calle Arribeños one block north, often choose to float back to the Subte station on Avenida Cabildo via this pretty street with an improbably weighty name.

The stuff of rote history lessons — caudillos, dates, and battles — makes up many Buenos Aires toponyms, but in this corner of Argentina’s capital, they seem especially heavy with historical references. The next streets south are named 3 de Febrero (the date of a victory in battle over Spanish forces during the Argentine War of Independence) and Calle O’Higgins (for Bernardo O’Higgins, liberator and national hero of Chile). Nearby Calle Cuba, a once surely neutral name, now invites little but political and historical associations. Intersecting each is Calle Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But September 11th Street stands out among them as the most pregnant with meaning. In Latin America, as critics of US foreign policy pointed out in the years after September 11, 2001, the date held sinister connotations long before the attacks: on that day in 1973, a CIA-sponsored coup toppled the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, ushering in Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. That’s not been forgotten in neighboring Argentina, even if Buenos Aires has its own reasons to recall September 11th — a date of significance more than once in the city’s past.

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September 10th, 2011

The Sounds of Hong Kong

Posted in Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Street performer on Sai Yeung Choi Street, Mongkok

Hong Kong is rich in visual symbols: a glittering skyline, red market lamps, green trams. But when you close your eyes and think of Hong Kong, what do you hear? That’s what Lawal Marafa, a professor of geography at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is trying to figure out by studying Hong Kong’s soundscape.

Together with another CUHK professor, Lam Kin-che, Marafa is trying to chart Hong Kong’s sounds and identify those that people like the most, with the goal of making the city a more tolerable place to live. It all comes down to the issue of noise pollution: the cacophony of roaring buses, endless jackhammering and mobile phone chatter that seems to dominate so much of Hong Kong. Instead of trying to make everything quieter, Marafa hopes that particularly pleasant sounds can be isolated and used to design better parks and urban spaces.

He points to Diamond Hill’s Nan Lian Garden as an example of how sound can be used to mask noise. Located next to Lung Chung Road, one of Kowloon’s busiest thoroughfares, the Tang Dynasty-style garden makes abundant use of fountains and waterfalls to fight the din of traffic. Even though the environment is still loud, says Marafa, the sound of rushing water puts people at ease, whereas the sound of traffic stresses them out.

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September 10th, 2011

Photos of the Week: False Moon, Real Moon

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Canada, Environment, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Tribute in Light: Red Hook Brooklyn

“Tribute in Light,” a September 11th memorial, seen from Brooklyn.
Photo by Chris Arnade

It’s almost Mid-Autumn Festival here in Hong Kong, a time of year when people gather outside to light lanterns and stare up at the full harvest moon. As with all Chinese festivals, there’s a story behind it — in this case, a woman is said to have swallowed a pill of immortality and found herself stranded on the moon, which happens to be home to a rabbit — but mainly it’s an excuse for families to play outdoors at a time when they’d normally be watching TV at home.

Mid-Autumn always reminds me of another story, which comes from the Logo Cities project a few years back. Late on a winter night, a young man was out in downtown Montreal when he remarked upon an exceptionally low-hanging moon, only to realize a second later that it was actually the corporate logo on the top of the Complexe Desjardins. The same thing happened to me when I was in Montreal earlier this summer — “Wow, the moon is low tonight,” I thought. There’s something about the white and green colours of the logo that is surprisingly lunar.

There’s always a lot of talk about the way that urban light pollution obscures the night sky. Looking up at night, I’m lucky to see a few stars, but at this latitude, I should be able to see the entire sweep of the Milky Way. Instead, there’s the moon — and all the artificial sources of light that serve as false moons. Sometimes, when the sky is exceptionally hazy, the sun is so weak that it, too, begins to resemble the moon, small and weak enough to stare at with the naked eye.

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September 8th, 2011

Brooklyn’s Fractured Faces

Posted in Art and Design, Politics, United States by Christopher Szabla

Know which leafy block to turn down off the numbered avenues of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, squint past the bright spots of sun and deep shadows dappling the ground late into a summer day, and you can puzzle them together — a series of portraits, “ghostly apparitions” as the New York Times called them — spanning the steps of front stoops of the brownstones lining a short span of Bergen Street.

This is an improbable venue for a public protest against the wildly expensive and potentially transformational real estate development several blocks north, let alone a global art sensation, yet the photos on Bergen Street manage to be part, nevertheless, of both. They’re intended as a demonstration of solidarity with immigrant shop owners, the subjects of the portraits, whose businesses, local residents fear, are in danger of displacement in the wake of the Atlantic Yards project, an effort to develop several blocks wedged between Park Slope and the adjacent neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights into a basketball arena surrounded by skyscraping office buildings and condo towers.

But the portraits have drawn more attention as a prominent local iteration of “Inside Out,” a worldwide participatory street art project orchestrated by JR, a seminonymous French photographer who rocketed to Banksy-level fame for his work, which began as a guerilla effort to bring portraits of marginalized suburban youth to the affluent streets of central Paris and grew to include pasting “supercolossal” photo portraits covering the roofs and walls of largely impoverished urban neighborhoods from China to Kenya to Brazil.

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September 7th, 2011

Chinese Gods, Good Fortune and a Waterfall

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It was the perfect setting for a picnic. Under the shade of a few trees, next to the sloshing waves of the East Lamma Channel, we set down a blanket, some wine and some snacks and spent an afternoon watching the ships pass by. What more could we ask for?

How about a waterfall? Oh, and some World War II ruins. And a resting spot for Chinese gods. And to be able to get there from Causeway Bay in less than twenty minutes.

Not only does Waterfall Bay have all of this, it’s one of the most peaceful places you can go without venturing more than five minutes from the nearest bus stop, Wellcome or 7-Eleven.

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September 2nd, 2011

Measuring Hong Kong’s Cultural Heartbeat

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

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2010 was a good year for Muse magazine. Three years after its launch, its mix of long features, short fiction and cultural criticism had earned it respect as one of Hong Kong’s most insightful cultural journals. It was sponsoring public lectures, film screenings and a search for Hong Kong’s up-and-coming cultural talents. In September, it made its first real foray into the digital world by launching an iPad edition.

So it came as a surprise when publisher Frank Proctor announced, at the end of the year, that the December edition would be Muse’s last.

“I didn’t see it coming,” says Leo Lee Ou-fan, a scholar of modern Chinese literature who wrote a regular column for Muse. “Muse had become Hong Kong’s representative to the outside world, but the sad part is that right at the point where it was being noticed, Frank couldn’t afford to continue.”

Three months later, another well-respected magazine, C for Culture, published its last issue. Both magazines had suffered from the same simple fate: they ran out of money. Loyal readers and cultural observers were left wondering: does Hong Kong have what it takes to support lively coverage of the arts? And without that coverage, can Hong Kong ever develop a mature artistic and intellectual culture?

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