July 27th, 2012
A Mainland Chinese tourist shops in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo from AFP
Sindart was as much a fixture of Nathan Road as the double-decker buses that trundle up the street day and night. For more than 50 years, the tiny shop, tucked beneath an apartment building stairwell, sold handmade slippers embroidered with colourful motifs: peacock features, panda cubs, flowers and goldfish. It witnessed the 1967 riots, the boom years of the 1980s and the handover in 1997, all while serving a steady stream of enthusiastic customers.
But even such a venerable institution was not immune to the vagaries of local real estate. “We had the same landlords for 50 years — two generations in the same family,” says Billy Wong, who joined the business five years ago to help his uncle, owner Chung Kau. Last year, the landlords told Chung and Wong they wanted to use the space for themselves. They gave them one month to leave.
It turned out the landlords hadn’t been honest. Soon after Sindart was forced to leave, the stairwell space came back on the market. “I called the real estate broker listed on the ‘for rent’ sign and asked how much they wanted,” says Wong. “They told me no less than HK$40,000 per month. We never paid more than HK$4,000.” The space is now occupied by a currency exchange counter.
Retail rents are soaring all across Hong Kong. International chains have launched bidding wars for prime shop spaces in neighbourhoods like Causeway Bay, where American fashion chain Forever 21 is paying HK$11 million per month for a space on Jardine’s Bazaar. Spanish retailer Zara is reportedly keen to rent a space on Percival Street that costs HK$5 million per month; the previous tenant paid HK$880,000. On average, Causeway Bay rents have increased 50 percent over the past two years.
Retail analysts say there is one culprit: tourists from mainland China. “What’s driving the change in the retail landscape in Hong Kong is obviously mainland Chinese shoppers,” said property researcher Adrian Ngan on Bloomberg TV last month. “There’s a lot of them and they are spending a lot of money.”
July 22nd, 2012
Toronto, November 2011
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July 20th, 2012
Not long ago, I was wandering around Kwun Tong trying to find an Indonesian restaurant. I arrived outside its front door only to find the shutter drawn, with a notice from the Urban Renewal Authority announcing that the property had been acquired for redevelopment. Then I looked around: nearly every storefront on the street was the same. I took my phone out and looked for another nearby restaurant on OpenRice — the local equivalent of Yelp — and walked a few blocks away to find it. Same story.
Built in the 1950s as Hong Kong’s first suburban New Town, Kwun Tong is a gritty, thriving working-class neighbourhood with a short but colourful history. This was Hong Kong’s industrial heartland, where the plastic flowers and fluorescent toys that earned the city its first fortune were made. It was home to Hong Kong’s longest-running Communist cinema, a legacy of the days when the political opposition in Hong Kong was made up not of liberal democrats but leftist revolutionaries. When I first visited the tight web of streets around Man Yee Square in 2005, they throbbed with red minibuses, neon pawn shop signs, old men playing chess, teenagers with plastic bags full of street market clothes.
Soon it will all be gone. Most of the shops have closed, the apartments vacated, the streets quieter than they have been in 50 years. The buildings will follow suit to make way for a HK$20 billion redevelopment project spearheaded by the URA, which will transform Kwun Tong’s town centre into a glossy shopping and business hub for East Kowloon. Plans call for a series of malls and highrises connected by gardens and plazas. It’s the kind of tabula rasa urban renewal that was common in Europe and North American until it fell out of favour in the 1980s. It looks like it will be a disaster.
July 10th, 2012
Treasure Hill, Taipei. Photo by the Kozy Shack
When Chou Yu-jui was growing up near Yongkang Street, an old part of Taipei near two of the city’s universities, it was a quiet neighbourhood of wooden Japanese cottages, small shops and back alleys filled with potted plants. Ten years ago, it started to change. Small cafés, boutiques and bakeries opened and lent the area an eclectic charm.
“It’s interesting, because you have a lot of shops that sell things you won’t find in a department store,” says Chou, an industrial designer who specialises in products made from recycled and sustainable materials.
Last October, Chou was leading a group of foreign designers on a tour around Yongkang Street and nearby Treasure Hill, an old squatter’s village that has been transformed into an art district. Similar tours were happening around the design shops of Zhongshan, inside the Red House creative centre and at the wholesale market around the Taipei Rear Train Station, where industrial designers hunt for raw materials.
The message from the tours was clear: Taipei’s creative scene is not only alive and well, it’s changing the very face of the city. The transformation began just over a decade ago and has accelerated in recent years. In 2007, a century-old public market known as the Red House was renovated to include a theatre, music venue and retail space for emerging local designers. 2010 saw the conversion of Treasure Hill, an informal village once threatened by demolition, into a collection of exhibition spaces and studios. Most recently, an old tobacco factory was restored and reopened last year as Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, home to the Taiwan Design Museum and the focal point of the 2011 World Design Expo — a coming-of-age event for Taiwan’s design industry.
The new creative spaces have been accompanied by the growing involvement of artists and designers in Taipei’s urban life, especially the informal city of night markets, street hawkers and illegal structures that thrives in the Taiwanese capital, something the Finnish urbanist Marco Casagrande described as the Instant City, in contrast to the Official City.
July 6th, 2012
Porto. The city was called Portus in imperial times, and all of Portugal now bears its name.
A merchant city with an urban fabric that sometimes seems to break down, metamorphosing. A medieval Cathedral that overlooks a hill that seems to be inhabited by darkness and fear. Some prostitutes, few tourists.
In February 2012, Porto is calm. I arrive a few thousand years after the founding of Portus. Stereotypes give me a biased view, in broad strokes, of the city of port wine.
It was the end of a day, wandering through the ancient city, when I discovered, through a great iron arch, an endless landscape. I crossed the Moorish wall and passed sweet-smelling orange trees. And then the winding river appeared. And then these warehouses, which roost in the cliff, dangerously hanging over the Douro. A landscape dominated by an octagonal monastery from the Renaissance.
Porto defeated me. I fell in love.
July 2nd, 2012
Photo by Engin Kurutepe
For an intercontinental journey, F.’s directions were fairly straightforward. “Head to Eminönü,” she’d said, introducing a thicket of tongue-challenging Turkish umlauts. “Take a ferry to Kadiköy. I’ll meet you there, on the Asian side.” The Asian side: nowhere else in the world can you pass between continents without so much as leaving city limits — at least nowhere that “continents” are as well demarcated as they are in Istanbul, where the two landmasses are cleaved by the heaving tidal cavity of the Bosphorus. Here, the divide has not only been bridged — twice — but, where it hasn’t, the opposite continent is a mere twenty minute commute by ferry.
The simple crossing is almost too easy a metaphor for the way Istanbul overcomes preconceived cultural chasms with the same sprezzatura that other places seem to uphold them. On the other side of the Mediterranan, Tangier, in Morocco, can feel like a world away from Algeciras, in Spain, but Kadiköy, Turkey’s gateway to Asia, is a neighborhood that feels practically Scandinavian in its cleanliness and order. And on Istanbul’s European side, boisterous streets spill from the Grand Bazaar to the Egyptian Market. It’s not to consign this part of the city to Orientalist stereotype to note that the hustle there — and dress — can sometimes seem more Kabul than Copenhagen. It is to say that the city’s contrasts — when and if they ever are clear — are rarely found how and where you might imagine them.
Ideas, though, are powerful things, and neither rational understanding that continents were mere constructs nor anticlimactic Kadiköy do much to stymie my sense of wonder at the quick transcontinental crossing. “It’s my first time in Asia,” I tell F., as we began driving away from the ferry terminal and out along Bağdat Caddesi, Champs-Élysées of the Asian side, which juts arrow-straight to the east — in the direction of its namesake, in Iraq. She had asked us to join her here to show off this side of the city — her part of town. The way the city easily scrambles stereotypes has long led outsiders to consider Istanbul a cliché of “East meets West,” a checkpoint between civilizations, but it was the center, not the frontier, of F.’s life. She had no idea why I found suddenly being at a different end of it so remarkable.