About four and a half years ago, when my girlfriend Laine and I were hunting for our first apartment in Hong Kong, her parents suggested we look in Mei Foo. We refused to even consider it. “It would be like living in a parking garage,” I said. Laine agreed. Lately, though, I have started to rethink my assessment. Mei Foo still has the ambiance of a mid-century New York City housing project built on top of a highway offramp — think Stuyvesant Town without the trees — but there’s more to it than I initially thought.
Mei Foo Sun Chuen is located on the site of a former Mobil oil storage facility — its name means “Mobil New Estate” — on the far western edge of Kowloon, where the crowded factories and tenements of Lai Chi Kok gave way to scrubby green hills. Built between 1965 and 1978, it was Hong Kong’s first private housing estate. It is enormous: 99 towers containing 13,500 apartments, home to 70,000 people. And it’s hard to understate its historical importance; this wasn’t just a housing complex, it was the genesis of modern-day Hong Kong. Mei Foo is Hong Kong’s Levittown: a revolution in how the city was built, managed and perceived.
In the mid-1960s, most people in Hong Kong lived in four general types of housing: squalid wooden shanties built on hillsides, vulnerable to fire and landslides; overcrowded walkup tenements in old neighbourhoods like Wan Chai; one of the new public housing estates being built by the government; and for the privileged few, one of the standalone apartment towers mushrooming in the wealthier parts of town. For the growing middle class, Mei Foo provided an alternative: spacious, affordable and newly-built apartments in a relatively convenient location. Like many ascendant Hongkongers of the era, Laine’s parents bought their first apartment in Mei Foo; for people who grew up in decidedly modest circumstances, it was a foothold to a better life.
When Joyce Fitch lived in Hong Kong, rickshaws were a form of public transport, the only way to cross Victoria Harbour was by boat and there were about 1.5 million people living in the territory. Fitch was born in England and spent most of her youth and adolescence in Hong Kong, where she lived with her family on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s. I interviewed Fitch recently thanks to the English Schools Foundation’s Alumni News, and because it’s not often you hear first-hand about expatriate life in Kowloon before the war, I thought I’d post a portion of the transcript, which has been edited for clarity.
My father went out to China in 1920 as the captain of a ship for Butterfield and Swire, now Cathay Pacific. He was there trading up and down the coast, from Shanghai up to the Gorges and up to Tientsin. We were there in Shanghai for four years and then he was transferred down to Hong Kong. He was still working on the ship, going away and coming back.
We had rather a checkered family life but we managed. My brother was in England so we would have to go back there every so often. I went to the Kowloon British School near Austin Road — I travelled there by rickshaw — but I didn’t really have much time at school for any length of time. I was always coming back or forwards.
Because my father was away a lot, our life was a little bit different than other families. My mother played tennis and mahjong. I would come home and the [servant] boy would be there and I would have a meal. I was a rather solitary child and didn’t always have friends around to play. I was very independent and could walk around Kowloon all over the place and not feel at all restricted. I would go to dockyards and watch the men work.
We lived on Kimberley Road. The big houses there had gardens — Carnarvon Road too. Down where Carnarvon Road goes, there was a market garden, believe it or not. There weren’t many shops past St. Andrew’s [Church, on Nathan Road near Austin Road]. There was a sort of gap of houses and flats and maybe a few more shops further up Nathan Road, and then there was a theatre up there. I remember going to the pictures very often. It was just a very rural type area. Lots of gardens. I was really quite shocked when I went back to see it the next time. I think it was about 1970 that I went back first. I came back about three times — each time it surprised me more.
When property prices reach such outlandish heights as in Hong Kong, it creates some peculiar distortions in the local market. Whenever I walk around Kowloon Tong, a wealthy, low-rise neighbourhood not far from my apartment, I’m surprised by the number of derelict and seemingly abandoned houses.
Kowloon Tong was first developed as a garden suburb in the 1920s, with identical tile-roofed houses that strike me as vaguely Southeast Asian in appearance. By the 1950s, many of those houses were being demolished for larger, more modern villas and small apartment buildings, which in turn were redeveloped into luxury townhouses or even larger apartment buildings in the 1980s and later.
Despite the successive waves of redevelopment, there are always reminders of what was left behind. One such reminder can be found on Derby Road, an unassuming little street behind the Maryknoll Convent School. That’s where I came across a large abandoned house, early modern in appearance, with a staggered form that makes it look like it was sliced off the top of an Art Deco skyscraper. The house has two wings, one slightly larger than the other, and a walled, overgrown garden with two gates, one facing Derby Road and another facing Chester Road. On the Derby Road wall are old advertisements for Sprite and Kent cigarettes, with the faded name of a see doh — variety shop — written on the gate. It seems that, at some point in time, there was a small shop or hawker stall on the property.
This story was originally published in 2010. See the postscript for an update.
In 1974, as a typhoon bears down on Hong Kong, a gangly twenty-seven-year-old Vietnam War reporter named Luke stands in the toilets of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Head ringing, hung over, he washes blood out of his mouth—he just fought in a brawl over a bar girl—and frantically tries to recall a juicy scoop his old Chinese landlord had let slip earlier that day. Suddenly, he remembers and storms into the bar, which is packed with journalists deep in their cups. Luke leaps straight onto a table, breaking several glasses and cracking his head on the ceiling. The room barely looks up.
So begins The Honourable Schoolboy, a 1977 Cold War spy novel by John le Carré. The book sealed the reputation of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club as a place of mischievousness, harebrained schemes and occasional sobriety. For sixty-one years, the FCC has served as a hangout for some of the world’s legendary reporters. Hugh van Es, the photographer who took the famous picture of Americans scrambling desperately into a helicopter during the evacuation of Saigon, was a regular until his death last year. His frequent barmate was Clare Hollingworth, the first reporter to break the news of the German invasion of Poland. (She had been driving along the Polish border when she noticed an ominous massing-up of Nazi troops.) Pushing one hundred, she still manages to drop in regularly.
The club has changed almost beyond recognition since the day Hollingworth joined. The big-game reporting, and the men who pursued it, are gone. When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, many foreign news organizations closed their Hong Kong bureaus and opened offices in Beijing instead. More recently, the collapse of traditional news media has taken its toll, eliminating correspondent jobs and killing some of Asia’s best English-language publications, like the muckraking Far Eastern Economic Review. These days, only business journalism and luxury lifestyle writing make money. Few well-established journalists practice the sort of broad-minded, general-interest reporting that was once the mainstay of good foreign correspondence.
Five years ago, New York-based architect Joel Sanders was renovating a downtown Manhattan penthouse when he ran into a problem. “There was a rooftop garden, and what we needed to figure out was how to connect it to the loft,” he says. “We decided to reverse Modernist convention. Instead of taking hard materials outside, we brought the outside in.”
Like a waterfall of greenery, the roof garden makes its way into the centre of the apartment through a skylit atrium, through which a runs a minimalist wood-and-metal staircase. The green space serves a dual function as both focal point and barrier, separating the public areas of the apartment—the kitchen and living room—from the bedrooms. Glass walls in the bathroom look out to lush foliage; bathing inside “is like being in a spa,” says Sanders. “We made living with nature part of the lifestyle of the apartment by literally weaving the indoor and outdoor spaces together.”
It’s a concept that scales up. Last year, Sanders and landscape architect Diana Balmori, who both teach at the Yale School of Architecture, published Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture, a new book that seeks to eliminate the “false dichotomy between architecture and landscape” – the idea that the built environment is somehow distinct from the natural one.
“What we need to do now, because of the imperative to face environmental issues today, is to see buildings and landscapes as always being interrelated to one another,” says Sanders by phone from Yale. “We need design buildings that are green, sustainable and tied into the environment, but which also spatially integrates the indoors and outdoors.”
Not too long ago, on a particularly glorious Sunday afternoon — the kind of sunny but cool day that happens all too rarely in Hong Kong — I took the MTR out to Po Lam station in Tseung Kwan O. Leaving the station, I walked along a linear park built atop the MTR tracks, which led me to another path that meandered under a series of elevated highways and then down to the waterfront near Tseung Kwan O station, a couple of stops away from Po Lam.
Lots of people were out enjoying the afternoon. I passed by plenty of cyclists — kids with training wheels, lycra types on road bikes, middle-aged women on rusty beaters with groceries in the front basket. There were skateboarders, teenagers playing guitars, an old man playing the erhu, joggers, people pushing strollers, an old woman selling potato chips and Yakult on the side of the path. There was even a makeshift mosque set up beneath a highway flyover where Indonesian maids sat listening to a sermon broadcast over a crackly radio. It was the kind of diverse urban activity you find on a truly dynamic street.
But none of this was taking place on a street, or even in a real park. The paths where all this activity took place are entirely removed from the surrounding commercial and residential areas. Most of them are lined by rows of trees and shrubs, beyond which are fences, walls or embankments. The paths are not unpleasant, thanks to the greenery, but the heavy pedestrian traffic on that Sunday afternoon existed in a kind of void: a lot of people passing through nowhere to go nowhere in particular.
Columnist Alan Fotheringham called it an “unending urinal wall.” That somehow filtered down to the Vancouver population as “the upside-down urinal” or the “great white urinal.” But the name-calling won’t last for much longer. Next year, the great white windowless box that dominates the corner of Robson and Granville will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a dramatic makeover for Nordstrom, its new tenant.
The box was built in 1973 for Eaton’s, the now-defunct department store chain, and it was designed by César Pelli, an architect known otherwise for corporate skyscrapers like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and One Canada Square in London. Its façade consists on large white marble panels and, to some extent, it really does look like the tile backsplash of some department store washroom.
There are plenty of reasons why it looks the way it does. Eaton’s was built as part of Pacific Centre, a large mall whose sentiment is suburban even if its location is not. Department stores at the time followed a strategy of making their stores difficult to navigate in order to trap customers, so it’s likely Eaton’s requested that the store have no windows. Pelli would have been happy to oblige, since he’s an awfully obliging architect — I mean, just look at his buildings. They aren’t exactly monuments to innovation.
Still, I’ve always had a soft spot for the white box. Its minimalism is clumsy and its presence is brutish. In other words, it is everything that Vancouver is not, so its overbearing, featureless presence serves as a nice foil to the glassy, earnestly humane architecture that surrounds it. Vancouver is “nice.” This building is not. Its obstinance is almost refreshing.
Hong Kong was not a healthy place in the late 19th century. For decades after the British founded the colony in 1842, the Chinese settlement of Sheung Wan struggled with overcrowding and chronic disease.
Things were especially bad in Tai Ping Shan, a hillside enclave of tenement houses packed with recent arrivals from mainland China. In 1881, the colonial government hired Oswald Chadwick, a British engineer, to conduct a survey of the district’s homes. He was alarmed by what he found. In some buildings, 80 tenants crammed into a single flat. People shared space with chickens and pigs. Drains were built haphazardly, so they clogged and became septic, toxic sludge leaking into the surrounding soil.
Chadwick was particularly appalled by the way human waste was handled. “As a general rule throughout Hong Kong, in accordance with time-honoured Chinese practice, human excreta are removed by hand, on what may be called the ‘pail’ system,” he wrote in his report, which was published in 1882. “Neither deodorisation or disinfection of any kind is attempted.”
By contrast, the homes in Hong Kong’s European districts were well-equipped with water closets attached to municipal drains. Such luxuries were not afforded to the fast-growing Chinese population, which was limited to cramped quarters like Tai Ping Shan because land use laws prohibited the expansion of tenement housing – a strategy used by the colonial government to keep the European and Chinese populations apart.
Public facilities were non-existent. Entrepreneurs took advantage of the situation by building public latrines—just 25 for a population of more than 100,000—from which they made a hefty profit by selling human excrement as fertilizer. “On the whole the existing latrines are offensive and a nuisance, both as to position and construction, and they are so crowded as to render improvements as to maintenance very difficult,” wrote Chadwick.
Last week, the Archives de la Ville de Montréal uploaded a short series of photos taken on August 25, 1969, around Ste. Catherine and Sherbrooke streets. I’m always a fan of vintage street photography, especially from the relatively recent past, but these struck a real chord with me for one reason: it was on that day, 33 years later, that I moved to Montreal.
I remember it more vividly than I remember any day last month. It was a typically hot and sunny late-summer day, a bit of haze in the air. After taking a taxi with my family to my new apartment in St. Henri, I set out for a walk that took me along Ste. Catherine Street from Crescent to St. Denis, then up past St. Louis Square and onto St. Laurent, before heading back downtown.
A friend once remarked that Montreal might be a city of 3.5 million people, but in the summer, “it feels like it has 10 million.” Coming from sleepy, suburban Calgary, Montreal’s summertime charge was electrifying. The city had yet to shrink with familiarity; it felt enormous. People, music, traffic — I passed through four separate street fairs on my walk.
I took plenty of photos that day. What strikes me, when I look back at them and compare them to the 1969 set, is how little has changed. The fashion is different and the neon has mostly disappeared, but Montreal’s essential character — a special kind of insouciance — remains intact.
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.
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.
If you live in Montreal, you’ll eventually be asked the question: “Which way is the underground city?” You will probably be walking along Ste. Catherine Street, the city’s main shopping artery, where H&M and Zara jostle for space with strip clubs and hot dog joints. Or maybe you will be making your way through the lunch-hour crowds at McGill metro, the city’s busiest subway station. Either way, some puzzled visitors clutching a free tourist map will ask you a question that you will find particularly difficult to answer. The best you can do is to point them to the entrance of the nearest shopping mall or metro station and explain, “It’s there, but it might not be what you imagine.”
One of the first things any tourist guide to Montreal tells you is that the city is home to a 32-kilometre network of shopping malls, office buildings, apartment towers, cultural centres, universities and civic institutions connected by subway lines and a sinuous network of underground passageways. On those brutal winter days when the the thermostat plunges below -20 degrees Celsius, you can go to work, watch a movie, buy a baguette, attend a concert, go skating, visit the library and finally return home, all without venturing outdoors. Somehow, though, the underground city has taken on levels of meaning outside Montreal that it never quite achieved at home. Tourists seem to picture a Willy Wonka wonderland of enterprising Oompa Loompas untouched by the light of day. Locals are nonplussed. For them, it’s a way to get from one place to another. When the journalist Fabien Deglise wrote a book about the underground city, he called it Montréal souterrain, sous le béton, le mythe. Underground Montreal: the Myth Beneath the Concrete.
Make no mistake, however: the underground city is more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, “underground city” is a bit of a misnomer, since many parts of the network exist above ground. It’s really an indoor city, a kind of interconnected, three-dimensional space. “Underground Montreal is an amalgam of grey tunnels and bright avenues, of escalators and indoor squares populated by fast food and shops of all types,” writes design critic Emmanuelle Vieira. “This city in successive layers is incoherent, imperfect, but it holds its own. It is the image of own own society: lively, diverse and creative, linked intimately with the culture of consumption.” It also the unlikely triumph of modernist ideals that long ago fell by the architectural wayside, only to now be reconsidered and—in some cases—rehabilitated.
Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong. Photos by dawvon.
Last night, as Chinese internet censors frantically banned words like “today” and “Tiananmen” from web searches and social media, 180,000 people gathered in Hong Kong to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the June 4th massacre. This is an annual ritual that has taken place ever since the first tanks rolled down Chang’an Avenue in Beijing. Its attendance has waxed and waned over the past two decades, but ever since the 20th anniversary of the massacre in 2009, a new generation of young Hongkongers, joined by a growing number of visitors from mainland China, have re-energized the vigil. This year, more people made their way to Victoria Park than ever before.
For many people in Hong Kong, the slaying of student demonstrators in Beijing destroyed any confidence they once had in China. It’s no coincidence that, in the five years following 1989, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to places like Canada and Australia, seeking insurance against the city’s impending transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China. Before 1997, people actually spoke with some seriousness about People’s Liberation Army tanks rolling down Queen’s Road. Reality turned out to be more benign. China’s economic boom and relatively hands-off approach to Hong Kong restored confidence in the mainland. With the exception of 2003, when opposition to proposed national security legislation led to a surge of attendance at the vigil, the memory of Tiananmen seemed to be growing less relevant by the year. By 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, Hong Kong seemed to be more committed to China than ever before.
Palermo was a surprise. I didn’t know what to expect, because the only images I had in my head were the Sicilian gangsters of early 20th century America and the assassination of Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III, which took place on the steps of the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s biggest opera house and one of Palermo’s greatest landmarks. In other words, I pictured the Mafia and little else. What I encountered was a city with great coffee, back alley markets and bustling streets relatively untouched by tourism and gentrification. Compared to the earnest orderliness of Munich, where I had spent a couple of days before going to Italy, Palermo has a certain grimy insouciance that I find endearing.
Palermo is Sicily’s largest city and also one of its oldest, having been founded by the Phoenicians more than 2,700 years ago. It sits in the island’s northeast, on a stretch of coastline punctuated by limestone mountains. They guard the city in every direction, their watchful stare visible from every major street. Palermo’s population nearly doubled in the 1950s and 60s, and much of the city is dominated by hastily-built apartment blocks that give it a shoddy, crowded appearance. The so-called “Sack of Palermo” obliterated much of the nearby countryside and led to the neglect of its historic centre, but it also gave the city a noisy vitality.