September 30th, 2013
Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen
In an unassuming shed next to an elevated highway, Hong Kong’s wood-framed trams are being rebuilt one by one. “They’re icons of the city,” says Emmanuel Vivant, the man overseeing the renewal. Four years ago, Vivant was part of the team that acquired Hong Kong Tramways for Veolia Transport, a French conglomerate that runs dozens of railways, tram systems and bus lines around the world. “What we saw was a lot of room for improvement,” he says.
Hong Kong’s tram network dates back to 1903, when tracks were laid from Kennedy Town in the west to Causeway Bay in the east. Less than a decade later, passenger demand was so strong, double-decker trams were introduced. Though Hong Kong has changed beyond measure in the past hundred years, the trams have remained a constant; there is no better way to see the city than from the front seat on the top deck, windows open to the clamoring streets below.
The tram remains popular, with 230,000 riders every day and an affectionate Cantonese nickname: ding ding. But its acquisition in 1974 by local conglomerate Wharf Holdings led to a long decline. Dedicated tram lanes were given over to cars. Tracks were poorly maintained, lengthening travel times so much that taking a tram across Hong Kong Island is often slower than riding a bicycle. The Millennium Tram, launched in 2000 in an effort to renew the rolling stock, was a widely-scorned flop.
“For us, the Millennium Tram was a warning sign that we had to be very careful in handling the icon,” says Vivant. “They looked too modern, too new, too much like a bus. People in Hong Kong really like their trams, so we decided we had to keep their heritage.”
After buying the tramway, Veolia launched a consultation exercise to find out what passengers wanted from their trams. The first discovery was that most passengers thought the windows should stay open; one of the biggest complaints about the Millennium trams was that the front windows were sealed shut. Passengers also had a soft spot for the trams’ wood frames, which the Millennium trams had discarded with little sense of nostalgia.
September 29th, 2013
My girlfriend sometimes says she could never live in a city without hills. I can see what she means. A city with varied topography is never quite the same from one day to the next; hills open up views that change with the passing light and weather. Not to mention their effect on a city’s built form, creating wrinkles that can never be smoothed out, undoing even the best-laid plans. Some of the most interesting parts of Hong Kong are also its hilliest; the streets uphill from Central and Sheung Wan are a haphazard assembly of mismatched buildings, century-old retaining walls and unexpected constructions that try their best to make do in less than ideal conditions.
September 24th, 2013
As a corollary to last week’s post about street food in Canada, I thought I’d look at how it’s done in Bangkok, where food vendors can be found on every street at just about every hour of the day. Though it suffers from capital city syndrome, which means the food isn’t quite as good as you’d find in more provincial cities like Chiang Mai — “What’s served on the city’s streets does not generally dazzle, and you really have to pick and choose carefully,” writes Robyn Eckhart on Eating Asia — it’s an impressive spread if you consider numbers alone. There must be tens of thousands of food hawkers in Bangkok, which puts the 27 recently licenced by Montreal into perspective.
Like many small entrepreneurs in Bangkok, street food vendors occupy a grey zone between formal and informal, legal and illegal. Unlike in Chinese cities, where street vending is entirely illegal and hawkers risk being fined (or worse) by the notorious chengguan, Bangkok makes allowances for vendors by setting aside certain areas for hawking at certain times of day. It’s a humane approach that has allowed a diverse range of vendors to flourish, most of them focusing on just one or two specialties — satay, beef noodles, roast meats, durian, fruit juices.
So far, there’s nobody shunting them into food courts, like in Hong Kong or Singapore, and there’s no committee of culinary experts who vet every menu for healthiness or cultural value, like in Canada. As Eckhart writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Street food is diffuse and hyper-local by its very nature. So there can be no one-size-fits-all formula for the growth and change of its cultures.” And Bangkok, with its countless varieties of street stalls — from quasi-permanent stalls to itinerant pushcarts — embodies that principle very nicely.
September 18th, 2013
It was one of my most memorable meals in Canada: fried, profoundly sweet local beets; a spicy stir-fried mélange of brussel sprouts and cauliflower; and British Columbia haddock served with naan and rice in a coconut curry. And it all came from a truck — actually, two trucks, to be precise, Le Tigre and Vij’s Railway Express, both of which were parked in a vacant lot just off Vancouver’s False Creek, where around 20 food stalls assemble each Sunday for the Food Cart Fest.
It was one of those impossibly clear, sunny days that make BC summers so spectacular, and as I sat on a curb, plastic fork plunging into styrofoam container, I thought about how improbable these trucks really were. Like most Canadian cities, street food in Vancouver was for years limited to precooked sausages reheated on a barbecue. Serviceable enough, but this was food to fill your belly, not stimulate your appetite, the unfortunate byproduct of health regulations that saw sodium-packed, industrially-processed cylinders of beef as somehow safer than freshly-prepared meats and vegetables. Then came the first sign of innovation, in 2007, when recent Japanese transplant Noriki Tamura began serving seaweed-laden hot dogs at his Burrard Street stall, Japadog. At the time, Vancouver had 120 street food carts, all of which were restricted to selling hot dogs, ice cream and soft drinks. Japadog pushed the limits of that regime as far as they would go. In 2010, they finally gave way. Following in the footsteps of the gourmet food truck boom in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Vancouver opened its streets to a panoply of delights normally reserved for bricks-and-mortar restaurants: Taiwanese pork belly sliders, fresh Pacific seafood, Australian meat pies.
I spent most of the past month in Canada, travelling not quite from coast to coast, but at least from the Georgia Strait to the shores of the St. Lawrence. (“What are you, on a fucking grand tour of Canada?” asked Steve Welch when I walked into his bookstore last week.) Food trucks followed me wherever I went. In Parksville, a small beach town on Vancouver Island, I passed by a wood-fired pizza truck. I got a milkshake from the dubiously-named Mr. Soft and Delight in downtown Toronto. And I scouted out the new fleet of food trucks that are cruising the streets of Montreal, the first time in 66 years that street food has been allowed in the city.