Archive for August, 2012

August 24th, 2012



Michael Leung’s “Good Morning” towels were a welcome sight. It was a scorching day on Fa Yuen Street, one of Hong Kong’s most popular street markets, and the energetic young product designer was inviting passersby to take part in a game at his market stall, Hoi Tung (“We’re open”). If you managed to use long wooden forks to hang the stall’s rags, socks, shirts and red lamps from ceiling hooks, and you did it under a minute, you were rewarded with one of the kitschy towels, a ubiquitous fixture of working-class Hong Kong life found in butcher’s shops, market stalls and around the shoulders of anyone burdened by summer sweat.

“It’s really about celebrating the street culture,” says Leung, who took time off from his rooftop farm and beekeeping projects to build the stall for Hawkerama, a one-day event that brought 16 artists and designers to Fa Yuen Street. They built stalls that ranged from homages to street culture, like Leung’s, to more conceptual installations like Kacey Wong’s Transform Bar, a market booth-cum-juice bar made from recycled wood and stacked with wheatgrass planters on sliding tracks, a nod to the flexible, space-saving storage systems used by market vendors, who are restricted to 1.1 sqm allotments by the Hong Kong government.

Those kinds of restrictions have multiplied since December, when a deadly fire ripped through Fa Yuen Street, killing nine people after it spread to nearby apartment buildings whose fire escapes were blocked. The government blamed the overcrowded street market and launched a crackdown on hawkers whose stalls spilled out of their allotment, ordering them to remove umbrellas, awnings and much of their goods. A new scheme was launched to reduce the number of street vendors; some government officials mused abou doing away with them entirely, or moving them to designated areas away from apartments and other shops.


August 24th, 2012

Even the Dead Live in High-Rises

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


Cemetery in Macau

Every time I take the bus through the Aberdeen Tunnel, emerging in Happy Valley outside Hong Kong’s oldest burial grounds, I marvel at the tombstones of the Catholic cemetery, jostling for space and attention beneath the gaze of a copper-domed mausoleum. The scene makes me think of the multitude of greystone Catholic religious structures in Montreal, but I’m also fascinated because it represents something so rare in Hong Kong: a real cemetery with distinct gravestones and tombs. It’s rare because, in death as in life, most people in Hong Kong live in anonymous high-rises.

If you think about it, cemeteries are an extraordinary waste of space, especially in a city like Hong Kong where space is the most precious commodity of all. In the 1980s, cemetery space ran out, people here stopped burying their dead; cremation became the norm, and urns were stored in vast columbaria. Now even columbarium space is at a premium. Devious landowners in the New Territories build illegal columbaria for desperate families; the government has even promoted the idea of burials at sea.


August 22nd, 2012

What is Street Food?

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


Robyn Eckhardt asks a deceptively simple question today on Eating Asia: what is street food? The answer seems obvious, because street food is food that is bought and consumed on the street. Pretzels? Okay. Noodle soups? Sure. Satay? Of course. But there’s more to it. Eckhart writes that, beyond location, the essence of street food comes from three crucial elements: “immediacy, proximity and specialization.”

It’s an interesting argument because it upends traditional notions of street food. Hong Kong’s dai pai dong are generally seen as street food, but when they serve two dozen tables with a menu of 50 dishes, they fail to meet any one of Eckhardt’s criteria. They’re outdoor restaurants more than anything else. By the same token, the hawker centres of Singapore and kopi tiam of Malaysia serve street food even if they are technically off-street food courts.

Last March, I found myself in Puerto Vallarta, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is where tequila and mariachi music come from. Vallarta is a balneario — a seaside resort town — and it was little more than an obscure fishing village until tourists began arriving in the middle of the twentieth century. But it’s a surprisingly pleasant place, without too much of the spring break tackiness associated with resorts like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas. It doesn’t take much effort to stray into neighbourhoods that feel pretty normal, and this being Mexico, normal means an abundance of street food. So much of what makes Mexican cuisine great — slow-cooked meats, hand-pressed tortillas, fresh herbs and condiments — lends itself to the immediacy, proximity and specialization of street food.


August 20th, 2012

Don’t Touch the Art


The scene plays out hundreds of times a day, like a sad rendition of Groundhog Day. With nowhere to sit, a weary passerby leans against the leg of Happy Man, the nine-metre-high sculpture by American sculptor Larry Bell that stands in front of the Langham Place shopping mall at the corner of Argyle and Portland in Mongkok. Or maybe it’s a kid who, inspired by the sculpture’s wild gestures, is making an attempt to clamber up its torso. Either way, a security guard walks over and tells them not to touch the sculpture. Five minutes later, this absurd charade repeats. Late at night, when the mall closes, metal barriers are set up around the sculpture to make sure it is not molested by any nocturnal delinquents.

If the goal is to protect the sculpture from corrosion, it’s a miserable failure, because the legs are already shiny from the touch of a thousand deviants. So what’s the point? I contacted the company that manages Langham Place for comment but didn’t receive a reply. My only guess is that situations like this boil down to Hong Kong’s busybody administrative culture, which combines a very Protestant aversion to pleasure (thanks, Britain!) with the Chinese fear of shame. Art is meant to be admired, not enjoyed, and if somebody were to damage the sculpture, that would be a terrible loss of face for Langham Place. So better to keep up the pretense of protecting the sculpture even if it’s actually an impossible endeavour.

Museum administrators around the world struggle with the idea of interactive art, and even installations that are meant to be played with, like Yoko Ono’s Play It By Trust, are kept off-limits by museum security. But that fear of interaction usually ends at museum doors. You can ride the lions of Trafalgar Square without worry; feel free to touch the foot of St. Peter when you visit the Vatican. But the Happy Man? God forbid.


August 12th, 2012


Posted in Europe, History, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Wait, that’s not an Olympic sport! Photo courtesy UK Department of Culture, Media, and Sport

Texted, tweeted, teasing browsers of a hundred “sneak preview” slideshows ─ in short, serving as the centerpiece of endless international speculation for weeks prior to its debut ─ the verdant green fields on which the curtain of the 2012 Olympics lifted may remain their opening ceremony’s most salient image. Director Danny Boyle’s show brought this rural idyll to life with braying livestock, maypole dancers, and tunic-swaddled peasants playing pickup games of cricket, their hushed reverie set to the hymn of Sir Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem,” the scored version of William Blake’s famous poem (often called by the same name) rung in by childrens’ choirs from several equally emerald-hued corners of the UK.

Boyle’s opening was a tear-jerking, if hushed, sonata of nationalist sentimentalism ─ and as such, better received in England than elsewhere. Where, the rest of the world impatiently wondered, was the mass, masked extravaganza of drumbeats and leotards that would be the West’s answer to the chest-beating martial pageantry intimidatingly performed four years earlier in Beijing?

Danny Boyle’s “Dark Satanic Mills”. Photo by Shimelle Laine.

Olympic ceremonies typically affect pomposity meant to impress the billion-member international audiences they attract. But London 2012 faced its most skeptical reception closest to home. The intimate, provincial tableau with which he began made clear that Boyle was preoccupied with cutting short this crisis from the beginning: to flatter the country with coded symbolism, to allow Britons to feel that the Games were being staged for them, first and foremost, and not as an alienating global spectacle bound up in their government’s pretensions.

Just as crucial to this effort were the contrasts that followed. Soot-spotted workers emerged, uprooting the stage’s saccharine storyland to install the billowing smokestacks and fiery forges of a steampunk industrial complex. To the beat of thundering drums (meant “to frighten people,” according to musicians who scored the segment), those hoping for a mass spectacle were mollified at last; the Arcadian Albion of placid pastureland had been displaced by a Dickensian dystopia.


August 2nd, 2012

Mongkok’s Rural Past

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf


Hong Kong remakes itself with such ruthless efficiency that few physical traces remain of its past. In many neighbourhoods, the only reminders of what came before are the names of streets. Take Mongkok for example. Today, this is one of the busiest and most crowded parts of Hong Kong, a shopping district, transport hub, industrial area and residential zone packed into one rather small patch of land. It has been that way for decades — this is how the New York Times described it in 1988:

In Mong Kok, space, any space, is special. Here, high-rise buildings are so close to one another they touch like row houses, and many of the apartments jammed inside are so small, families sleep on bunk beds stacked three and four high and keep their belongings in chests and baskets suspended from the ceiling.

In Mong Kok, the family pet is a goldfish or a tiny bird.

Mong Kok students often go to the waiting areas of Hong Kong’s busy Kai Tak Airport when they want a quiet place to study, and their parents check into hourly rate hotel rooms when they want privacy.

But Mongkok’s street names tell a different story. They speak of a more pastoral time, though one that was surely short-lived, since the area developed quickly after the Kowloon street grid was extended north from Yau Ma Tei. Above is a picture of Sai Yeung Choi Street — Watercress Street — which is lined by clothing stores and electronics shops, but which once ran through fields that presumably grew the bitter green vegetable.