Archive for the Heritage and Preservation category
July 25th, 2016
Artwork by Samson Young, based on a World War II journal entry
When there is a bomb scare in Hong Kong, it usually doesn’t have anything to do with modern-day terrorism. It’s more often a reminder of World War II. In February 2014, construction workers in Happy Valley unearthed an unexploded 2,000-pound American bomb that had been dropped on Hong Kong during the final days of its occupation by the Japanese. Police superintendent Jimmy Yuen arrived to find a potentially disastrous situation: the bomb was surrounded by a hotel, schools, a hospital and a Sikh temple. Moving it was out of the question; so was a controlled explosion, because the bomb was so powerful. Yuen and his team decided they would need to create two small holes in the bomb so they could defuse it. They worked through the night, carefully cutting through the bomb’s shell, stopping whenever their equipment made the surface too hot. They finally succeeded after nine hours of work, defusing the bomb just in time for the morning rush hour.
Though its size was unparalleled, this was hardly the only World War II bomb discovered in Hong Kong. In 2015 alone, police discovered four unexploded grenades, three Japanese bombs, a mortar and 54 rounds of ammunition in the country parks that surround the city’s residential areas. Another bomb discovered by construction workers in Victoria Park—the city’s largest urban green space—took three days of preparation to destroy in a controlled explosion.
Hong Kong is a city that constantly remakes itself: in many parts of town, each plot of land has been redeveloped three, four or even five times over the past century. The frenzied street markets and glossy shopping malls don’t offer many opportunities to reflect on the past, let alone the time in 1941 when Hong Kong was the site of an intense battle between Allied forces and Japanese invaders. Like the bombs, the history of the war has long been ignored and forgotten – but it is finally coming back to the surface.
February 9th, 2016
There’s a piece of Hong Kong in Shenzhen – or to be more precise, 44 pieces of it. Hong Kong Typology, an exhibit by Swiss architects Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), features scale models of Hong Kong’s most typical buildings. Tong lau, pencil towers, cruciform apartment blocks – it’s like a collection of puzzle pieces you can put together to build the city.
“It’s really the toolbox of Hong Kong,” says Christ. “When you see the models there it captures an essential part of the city.”
Each of the models was made in Hong Kong and shipped to Shenzhen. They are meant to represent the anonymous bulk of the city’s buildings, the unglamorous backdrop to the city’s more recognisable attractions. Visitors may spot some familiar structures, like the rounded, wedding-cake balconies of the 1950s-era Mido Café in Yau Ma Tei, most of the models inspire a sense of vague déjà-vu: they’re familiar but hard to place.
September 29th, 2015
The Tung Fat Building seemed like the perfect opportunity for Victoria Allan to venture into property development. The nine-storey, 1960s-era building was a classic example of Hong Kong’s postwar tong lau tenements, known for their minimalist Streamline Moderne architecture, and it occupied a prime spot on the waterfront of fast-gentrifying Kennedy Town. But Allan, who runs upscale real estate agency Habitat Property, had no idea just how difficult her venture would prove. Renovating the Tung Fat turned into a decade-long ordeal – though one that has paid off handsomely, in design terms if not yet financially.
“I could see there was a real need in the market for something more unique, an older space that had been really well renovated,” says Allan. She was so taken with the nine-storey, 1960s-era walkup building, she intended to live there when the renovation was complete. Now that the project is complete, however, she won’t be among the first tenants. “I got married, had two kids. The process took that long. To be honest I was probably a bit naïve.”
All told, it took ten years to renovate the Tung Fat – five to acquire each of the building’s individually-owned units and another five to renovate according to the strict standards of Hong Kong’s Buildings Department. “Most people redevelop the site, so they’re not used to people who want to renovate and upgrade it,” says Allan. She made around 20 separate submissions to the department, some for major additions like a lift, others for minor changes like plumbing works.
What complicated things was that, like many older buildings in Hong Kong, the Tung Fat had been subjected to decades of illegal modifications, and the Buildings Department insisted that Allan restore the building to its original state before proceeding with any changes. That led to some Kafkaesque situations like installing a useless wheelchair ramp that had to be demolished: according to the original building plan, the footpath out front was several inches lower than it is today, so even though it had been raised over the years, the Buildings Department would not re-survey it until a ramp had been built to meet modern-day access codes.
July 13th, 2015
Bologna has extraordinary light. This is thanks not only to buildings painted in rich hues of red and orange, but to the city’s 45 kilometres of sidewalk arcades, which filter the sun into geometric shadows and turn sidewalks into softly glowing chambers. These arcades are not simply beautiful: they are a profoundly democratic innovation that enshrine the notion that streets should be comfortable, accessible gathering places.
Sidewalk arcades are better known in Bologna as porticoes. They first emerged more than 1,000 years ago, but their construction was made mandatory in 1288, when civic leaders recognized their usefulness to the public. Bologna is hardly unique in this regard, as sidewalk arcades became common, either by law or by habit, in cities around the world. In prewar Hong Kong, virtually every sidewalk was sheltered by porticoes — as was the case in Guangzhou, Taipei, Singapore and every other hot, rainy southeast Asian city.
What is curious is why they disappeared so quickly in the 20th century. Even in Bologna, they grow thin on the outskirts of the city – a building here or there, but nothing on the scale of the historic centre. At least they’ve been well preserved in the core.
July 6th, 2015
Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg
The skies threatened rain, but the streets in Braamfontein were buzzing. On De Beer Street, crowds spilled out of the ground-floor bar of the Bannister, a hotel with retro 60s signage. Across the street, the scene was even more intense at the Neighbourgoods Market, which every Saturday transforms a parking garage into the most fashionable spot in Johannesburg. Downstairs, a crowd danced to a raucous jazz band. Upstairs: cocktails, street food and clothes made by local designers.
This was not the South Africa I had been warned about by people fed on a steady drip of news stories about violence, corruption and urban decay. Johannesburg in particular has been the subject of countless sensational stories about crime and abandonment, but my visit to the city revealed something far more compelling: rebirth. For all its troubles, Johannesburg felt like a city on the up and up, a place with the hustle and energy of a great metropolis in the making. What wasn’t clear was how widely the fruits of its renaissance will be spread.
In Braamfontein, I wander into Dokter and Misses, a design studio run by Katy Taplin and Adriaan Hugo. The ground floor is a slick showroom for their colourful, eclectic furniture, most of which is made in a large workshop downstairs. “When we started here about five years ago, there was almost nothing,” said Taplin. “Then the market opened up and the critical mass started. Bars, students, cool kids, then the Nike and Puma pop-ups. It’s a spirit of creativity and expression that’s going on here.”
June 23rd, 2015
Other architects have tried and failed. For 18 years, the site at the corner of Wangfujing and Wusi streets has seen 30 proposals come and go, each bedevilled by the height restrictions and commercial pressures that come from being one of the last major building sites in close proximity to Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Now, finally, a success: the Guardian Art Center, designed by German-born, Beijing-based architect Ole Scheeren for 22-year-old auction house China Guardian. Construction is already underway on the 34-metre-high complex, which will house an auction house, exhibition space, educational facilities, a hotel and restaurants.
“It’s the largest and most radical re-insertion of the art scene back into the centre of Beijing,” says the building’s architect, Ole Scheeren, as he sips tea on a visit to Hong Kong. “Everything has migrated out to 798 [Art Zone] in this suburban exodus. Refocusing it in the very centre could be very exciting for the city itself.”
This is Scheeren’s second major project in Beijing, the first being the controversial CCTV headquarters he designed with Rem Koolhaas while working at OMA. That was what brought him to the Chinese capital more than 12 years ago, but in 2010, Scheeren parted ways with OMA, founding Buro Ole Scheeren. Since then, the practice has steadily built a diverse portfolio of projects ranging in scale from skyscrapers to artist’s studios.
Guiding all of these projects is a desire to tinker with conventional building forms and typologies. “We’re in the role to challenge our clients, not only to supply architecture,” says Scheeren. In the Guardian project, he has designed a building that reconciles its disparate surroundings: centuries-old hutong alleys on one side and blocky commercial architecture on the other, not to mention the Stalinist chinoiserie of NAMOC, the National Art Museum of China, which sits nearby.
“What I really wanted to think about was how the project could address and maybe even resolve this ever-lasting tension between history and modernity,” says Scheeren. “How could you build in an historic context without being historicising? How could you be radically contemporary without neglecting the layers of history and meaning in a site?”
June 3rd, 2015
Last month, when Space Invader was looking for friendly walls to mount his tile-based art, the French street artist found an enthusiastic response in a place far from the galleries and graffiti of Sheung Wan: Sham Shui Po. “The reception was really good,” says Lauren Every-Wortman, a curator at the HOCA Foundation, which sponsored Space Invader’s most recent trip to Hong Kong.
Stanley Siu was one of those who invited the street artist to work on his building’s façade. “It’s the biggest piece he’s done in Hong Kong so far,” he boasts. Sieu recently moved the art gallery he runs with two friends, 100 Square Feet, to a first-floor space above the teeming Apliu Street market. “I sent him a picture of the exterior and he said, ‘Wow.’ He liked Apliu Street.”
Space Invader isn’t the only one enthusiastic about Sham Shui Po. Ask many Hongkongers about the neighbourhood and they’ll tell you it’s a good place to shop for electronics – but be sure to watch your bag. These days, however, a new generation of creative entrepreneurs are finding the working-class Kowloon neighbourhood is a haven of low rents and friendly neighbours.
That’s especially true in the textile district south of Nam Cheong Street, where many wholesale shops have been forced out of business as their source factories flee the Pearl River Delta for cheaper pastures. Some holdouts have been replaced by new businesses run by young designers that have banded together to help promote the neighbourhood in a newsletter and on social media.
“This whole fabric district is turning into something special,” says Michael Tam, the owner of Sausalito, a coffee shop that opened in the heart of the fabric district last November. “You can really feel it’s almost a second coming.”
March 3rd, 2015
Kowloon Station, 1981.
Photo by Loose Grip 99
It’s one of those mid-summer days when it seems impossible to escape the heat, so it comes as a relief to step into the air-conditioned room that houses Sparkle! Can We Live (Together), an oddly-named exhibition that explores the relationship between artists and the communities in which they live. It’s interesting stuff, especially the documentation of art collective Woofer Ten and designer Michael Leung’s work with urban farmers around Yau Ma Tei. But my attention is also drawn to the venue of the exhibition: the original headquarters of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, built in 1908. Last year, it was carefully renovated and converted into Oi!, a community art centre whose name is a goofy reference to its location on Oil Street.
Oi! is one of many historic buildings that have been converted into cultural venues in recent years. It’s a remarkable turn of events, because for most of its history, Hong Kong never cared much for its past. There were no lessons in Hong Kong history at school, no concern for the origins of local delicacies like pineapple buns and milk tea. And there was certainly no care for the old stone buildings that thronged the shores of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, their mouldy façades and fussy balustrades seen as little more than impediments to property development – property being the only surefire way to become rich in this city with such little soil and so much sea.
Of course, Hong Kong is no longer the grab-and-dash frontier it once was. With maturity comes hindsight and a sense of regret. Last year, I had lunch with a well-to-do businessman with a lifelong passion for architecture. “When I was a boy I used to stare up at the old post office,” he said, recalling the Victorian pile of ornate stonework that once stood on Pottinger Street. “Then Li Ka-shing fucked it up.” World Wide House rose in its place, remarkably unremarkable in appearance, notable only for the Filipino shopping arcade that occupies its lower floors. The fact that it evoked such passion in an otherwise even-tempered businessman says a lot about the long-suppressed emotions that have recently come to surface.
February 15th, 2015
I’ve been seeing a lot of old Hong Kong photos lately. There was the John Thomson exhibition I wrote about last year, along with an even larger show of historic photography at the Museum of History. HSBC has just unveiled a new historical exhibition in the public space beneath its headquarters. Even Nick DeWolf’s photos, which we wrote about four years ago, are back and once again making the rounds on the web.
What’s shocking about all of these old photos is just how much Hong Kong has changed. Not only have the stone shophouses and handsome colonial buildings disappeared from the landscape, there have been some enormous landmark structures that seemingly vanished without a trace. The Peak Hotel was a cascading pile of Victorian masonry that was destroyed by fire in 1938; a bland shopping mall now occupies the same site. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception once featured a Gothic clock tower that was ignominiously demolished to make way for an access road. The Taikoo Sugar Refinery once loomed over Quarry Bay; Causeway Bay was once an industrial neighbourhood, as was Hung Hom, with its dockyards and brick power station; all of this is gone, visible only in archives and the odd street name.
December 27th, 2014
My first visit to Baishizhou was a bit surreal. I had already visited Shenzhen a number of times — the sprawling Chinese city is just 40 kilometres and a border crossing away from my home in Hong Kong. But my previous visits had been spent along the city’s vast boulevards and shopping malls, and in the outdoor barbecue restaurants of Xiangmihu, a low-slung entertainment complex where raucous groups of friends consumed lamb by the kilogram and Tsingtao beer by the case.
Baishizhou was different. Walking north from the Holiday Plaza shopping mall and the Windows of the World theme park — which boasts a one-third scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, looming incongruously over a European Bar Street plucked from the centre of Munich — the streets grew narrower and busier, the buildings more densely packed. Stray spaniels skittered away from electric scooters; steam rose from the carts of street vendors hawking sugarcane, skewered meat and sugar-glazed fruit. A young Muslim man with a white skullcap and a wispy moustache stood next to a steaming pot, stretching a thick piece of dough until it broke into a loose skein of noodles.
Making my way through a series of dark, busy alleyways, I arrived in a concrete plaza, where a group of women huddled over an open well, washing clothes. Behind them was a video arcade; in front, an assembly of pool tables lit by overhead fluorescent tubes, young men hunched over their cues, cigarettes dangling from their lips, tall bottles of Snow beer resting on the ground.
July 31st, 2014
This is the final installment in a three-part series on preservation and urban transformation in Beijing’s hutongs.
Half a kilometre from Tiananmen Square, an unexpected aroma wafts through the Beijing hutongs: fresh-roasted coffee. The source of that smell is just as surprising. Housed in a two-storey structure that was at various times a government-run printing house and a public bath, Soloist Coffee opened in September, part of a new wave of design-led businesses that have opened in Dashilar, one of Beijing’s oldest yet most overlooked neighbourhoods.
“The interior is a tribute back to the industrial age and craftsmen era,” says the coffee shop’s owner, designer and barista, Ma Kaimin, who sourced wood furniture from around the world to create a space that resembles a cross between a factory studio and an old-fashioned schoolhouse, with exposed brick walls, terrazzo flooring and vintage glass light fixtures. The coffee is just as thoughtful, with robust, acidic house blend that Ma describes as having a “nutty hint of orange and aromatic herbs” – a rare feat in a city without much of a coffee culture.
This might sound like the preamble to a familiar story of gentrification: old neighbourhood falls on hard times, attracts forward-thinking entrepreneurs, only to become a high-rent destination that destroys much of the original charm. But Dashilar’s transformation could well prove to be different, part of a deliberate effort by Beijing designers to revitalise the area in a sensitive way. If it succeeds, it would be a remarkable achievement in a city with a poor track record when it comes to preserving its old neighbourhoods.
July 7th, 2014
When I arrived in Beijing on the third day of the Chinese New Year, I was expecting the city to be quiet, and it was, except on Nanluoguxiang, a long alleyway near the Drum and Bell Towers that is lined by small shops, cafés and restaurants. Nanluoguxiang was busy — swarming with people, in fact. On my previous two trips to Beijing, in 2009 and 2010, it hadn’t been nearly as crowded. I chalked it up to the holiday.
When I returned to Beijing last month, though, I found Nanluoguxiang just as busy. Not only that, but many of the independent shops I remembered from my first visits were gone, replaced by chain bubble tea outlets and souvenir stores. Dozens of hawkers had set up camp along the street, most of them selling useless tchotchkes with blinking LED lights. It is still a charming street, but it has clearly made a leap from eccentricity to mass-market tourism. There’s even a Starbucks.
(Quick aside: the Nanluoguxiang Starbucks had the lowest food safety rating I saw in Beijing — a “C”. I can’t decide whether that is funny or terrifying, considering the standards in most Beijing kitchens.)
In some ways, it’s hard to begrudge Nanluoguxiang’s success when the alternative is demolition and redevelopment, which has been the case for so many other Beijing hutongs. In China, the normal process of gentrification is thrown out of whack by the sheer scale of everything: you can either go upmarket, which means really upmarket — Maserati dealers and that sort of thing — or mass market, which means an unceasing crush of weekend tourists and trinket vendors. The period of being a pleasantly polished enclave, which lasts for years or even decades in the life-cycle of North American and European neighbourhoods, is astoundingly short in Beijing.
May 22nd, 2014
Great Leap Brewery in Doujiao Hutong
It’s the third day of the Chinese New Year and Beijing is taking a break. Traffic has unjammed itself, department stores are shuttered and bursts of fireworks cut through the cold, dry air. As my taxi passes over the Second Ring Road, the streets are quiet until the Gulou comes into view. It’s an imposing, 727-year-old tower with vermillion walls and sweeping rooflines. Originally built to house a collection of drums, it now serves mainly as a riposte to the concrete tower blocks that have come to dominate much of Beijing. This neighbourhood is different, consisting of low-slung, grey-walled courtyard houses arranged along alleyways known as hutongs.
I climb out of the taxi and cross the street, plunging myself into a crowd of hawkers selling sugar-glazed fruits and barbecued eggplant. Families pass by, gawking at quirky designer t-shirts hanging in shop windows; a cyclist rings his bell as he negotiates around a group of friends. I am standing on Nanluoguxiang, a narrow row of shops and cafés that cuts through some of Beijing’s oldest hutongs. On this otherwise quiet February night, it seems like the whole city has come here to shop, snack and stroll.
“When you walk through the hutongs, it’s a nice atmosphere, an interesting mix of tourists and Beijing people who have been living there since childhood,” says Michel Sutyadi, a German-Chinese designer who runs NLGX, a lifestyle brand inspired by Nanluoguxiang.
Beijing might be the capital of the world’s most populous nation, a sprawling city of 20 million with a centuries-long history, known to the rest of the world for its vastness, off-the-charts smog and the blow-out bash that was the 2008 Olympics. Look past the vastness of the Forbidden City and the traffic-choked ring roads, however, and you’ll find the surprising truth about this northern capital: Beijing is a disarmingly down-to-earth place, where imposing boulevards give way to back streets filled with bicycle peddlers, ancient courtyard houses and endless small discoveries.
April 14th, 2014
Hong Kong’s design scene is thriving, but like many of this city’s creative endeavours, it exists beyond the spotlight, in old factory buildings and back alley studios. That could soon change. After two years of renovations, the former Police Married Quarters on Aberdeen Street has been reborn as PMQ, a design hub that aims to raise the public profile of local design by giving designers more opportunities to build their own brands.
“It’s a project that nobody has done before,” says William To, the PMQ’s creative director, who is also project director at the Hong Kong Design Centre. “It will attract all sorts of designers from different disciplines to come and interact with each other and the public.”
Built in 1951 to house police officers and their families, the PMQ now contains 130 design studios, along with shops, restaurants, a library, exhibition space, a rooftop garden and outdoor gathering areas. When it is fully open next month, it will contain a mixture of well-known brands like Vivienne Tam alongside up-and-comers such as Hoiming, a leatherworking studio.
Studio spaces are small — about 450 square feet — but To says the goal is to foster a community, not to create an office complex. Spacious open-air corridors in front of each unit will be used for exhibitions and pop-up events; there will be a co-working space and units for overseas designers-in-residence; and tenants must keep their doors open to the public between 1pm and 8pm every day.