Archive for the History category

April 30th, 2015

Street Art Finds a Scene in Hong Kong

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Hopare working in Sheung Wan.
This photo and all others from HK Walls

Night falls over Stanley Market and a small crowd of people gather in a back lane, staring at the pristine aluminium of a drawn shop shutter. One of them is 4Get, a prolific street artist who travelled here from his home in Tuen Mun to cover the shutter in paint. Someone asked him what his idea for the mural was. He looked at the shutter and took a drag on a cigarette. “I’m planning,” he says. “I’m thinking about it right now.”

This wasn’t a covert bombing; the mural was commissioned by Print House, a custom screen-printing t-shirt shop, in collaboration with HK Walls, a group that connects street artists with Hong Kong’s willing walls. In March, HK Walls will held its second annual street art festival in Sheung Wan, with live graffiti writing and mural painting by around 20 local and international street artists. As 4Get worked on the Print House mural, the group watching hoped it would convince Stanley shopowners to stage another edition of the festival in the South Side neighbourhood.

“There’s a lot of really bad work on the shutters here, a lot of tagging, and people just don’t care,” says Print House’s owner, Hughie Doherty, who grew up in Stanley and still lives nearby. “I’m hoping this will open up a lot more for HK Walls working in Stanley. People could come at night and walk through this public gallery. Stanley needs something now. It used to be really cool.”

Hong Kong never had much of a street art culture compared to cities in North America and Europe, but things are changing, thanks to organisations like HK Walls, an influx of expat artists and the attention generated by international artists like Space Invader, whose bombarded the city with video game-inspired tilework last year, only to have much of it quickly removed by the government.

“In the past four years, it’s taken off,” says Stern Rockwell, a veteran graffiti writer from New York who moved to Hong Kong five years ago. Hong Kong is riding on the tail of a global wave in street art that began in 1970s New York and exploded in popularity with the internet, as photos of works from the streets of New York, London and Berlin were circulated around the world. Some of the most famous artists in the world are now street artists; Banksy is virtually a household name. It’s also big business: in January, a replica of one of the Space Invader pieces removed by the government, a kung fu fighting dog modelled on the 1970s cartoon character Hong Kong Phooey, was auctioned by Sotheby’s for HK$1.96 million.

None of that seemed possible when Rockwell was growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. He was fascinated by the graffiti that covered the subway. “I asked my mom, ‘How did they do that?’” he recalls. By the time he reached high school, he was joining other graffiti writers in the Park Slope subway layup. “Some nights you could catch 100 cars parked on the tracks,” he says.

A lot of graffiti writers at the time wanted to be “all city,” meaning they had bombed all 34 of the city’s subway lines, but Rockwell’s interest expanded to other kinds of art and design. He eventually studied apparel design and worked for brands like Cartier and Fendi. Those early escapades into subway layups had proved fortuitous – New York’s crack epidemic in the 1980s and 90s made the city a rough place. “People were dying, people were getting locked up,” says Rockwell. “I was poor but I was able to make a living doing graffiti. It saved my life.”

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March 30th, 2015

A Revolution in Place

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It has been more than four months since Occupy Hong Kong’s pro-democracy encampments were cleared away, but the Umbrella Revolution continues to evolve. More than a protest in favour of genuine universal suffrage, the 79-day occupation sparked a “revolution in public consciousness.” Among the notions being overturned: Hong Kong’s neoliberal approach to managing the urban environment, which has for so long deprived the city of genuine public space.

I was away for the first three weeks of Occupy, and by the time I returned to Hong Kong, the occupied areas had become entrenched. When I first visited the Admiralty site, located on a normally traffic-clogged highway called Harcourt Road, I was astonished to see it had become a self-organized tent city. Volunteer carpenters used scrap furniture and bamboo rods to create staircases across highway barriers. One traffic lane was occupied by a makeshift study centre, complete with desks and generator-powered lights, that was always filled with teenagers and university students hunched over their books. A library emerged near the entrance to the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s equivalent of a parliament, with donated bookshelves filled with pop culture magazines and works of political philosophy. Art was everywhere. There were portraits of activists and cartoons denouncing Hong Kong’s chief executive, CY Leung (whom activists see as a puppet of Beijing). The area around a wood sculpture of a man holding a yellow umbrella came to be known as Umbrella Square. Nearby, a curving concrete staircase was covered in messages of multi-coloured Post-It messages of support; it was called the Lennon Wall, after the late Liverpudlian peacenik.

If Admiralty was personified by middle-class students and office workers, Mongkok was their chain-smoking, van-driving cousin. The atmosphere was edgier than Admiralty but in many ways more vital, because the neighbourhood is such a crossroads of different people. There were always lively discussions and passersby reading the posters that had been affixed to every surface. (Mainland Chinese tourists always seemed especially curious.) The Mongkok site extended down Nathan Road, a major artery that had been liberated from the diesel fumes that normally cloud its air. There was a makeshift altar to Kwan Yu, the Chinese god of war, which attracted worshippers who planted fresh incense throughout the day. Just a few metres away, a group of Catholic protesters had built a shrine that came to be known as St. Francis’ Chapel on the Street. There was an ad hoc library and a space for nightly film screenings.

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March 3rd, 2015

Hong Kong’s Problem with Heritage

Hong Kong Kowloon Station 3rd August 1981

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.

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February 15th, 2015

Inside Victoria Prison

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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.

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December 27th, 2014

The Biggest Country Village in the World

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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.

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July 31st, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part III

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.

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May 22nd, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part I

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.

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March 20th, 2014

Neon Gets Its Due

Bus stop reflection

For decades, neon has defined Hong Kong’s cityscape, bathing its skyscraper canyons in rainbow hues that have provided a memorable backdrop to films like Chungking Express
and The World of Suzie Wong – and inspiration for classics such as Blade Runner.

But Hong Kong’s neon signs are starting to vanish, which has prompted the city’s future museum of visual culture, M+, to launch an online exhibition dedicated to the city’s neon heritage. Mobile M+: NeonSigns.HK goes live today and will be continuously updated over the next three months.

“These signs are starting to disappear quickly, and as the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” says M+ architecture and design curator Aric Chen. “What we can do is help people appreciate the value of neon signs.”

That is a situation M+ hopes to redress. NeonSigns.HK includes a video documentary about neon signmaking, a crowd-sourced map of neon signs and contributions from cultural luminaries like photographer Wing Shya and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. There will also be a series of real-world events over the next three months, including nighttime bus tours, workshops and self-guided audio journeys through Hong Kong’s neon landscape.

Chen says the catalyst for NeonSigns.HK was the iconic cow-shaped neon sign outside Sammy’s Kitchen, a family-run steakhouse on Queen’s Road West. Though the sign has loomed over the street since 1977, its removal was ordered last year after the government’s Buildings Department found it contravened local building codes.

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December 3rd, 2013

150 Years Ago in Hong Kong

L0055591 Hong Kong from Killots Island by John Tho

Victoria Peak seen from Kellett Island

Last week, an exhibition of images by 19th century Scottish photographer John Thomson opened at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, including 22 photos of Hong Kong in the 1860s that have never been exhibited here before. I’ve written a story about the photos and their journey to Hong Kong for the Wall Street Journal, which you can read here.

The photos are remarkable not only because they are rare — photography was still in its infancy — but also because, despite the technological handicap, Thomson was able to create some very engaging landscapes and portraits. When I spoke with curator Betty Yao, she told me her initial attraction to Thomson’s work came from his sensitive images of women in China, whether a rich Manchu girl or a Cantonese boatwoman. But his images of everyday urban life are just as striking, capturing as they do a Hong Kong that is recognizable only in its broadest outlines. Below, a selection of images; you can see more here, and if you happen to be in Hong Kong sometime before February 16, it’s well worth a trip to the Maritime Museum to see the rest of the collection, which also includes some very intriguing photos of the cities once known as Canton (Guangzhou), Swatow (Shantou) and Amoy (Xiamen).

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October 8th, 2013

Taipei’s Urban Regeneration

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Treasure Hill. Photo by Wunkai

It’s a scorchingly hot afternoon in Taipei and cicadas are buzzing loudly outside the Treasure Hill Temple. A man in cycling gear stops to take a swig of water before turning towards the temple’s statue of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. He clasps his hands and bows three times, paying his respects.

A few metres away, Travis Hung stands watching. “This temple was built a few hundred years ago in the Qing Dynasty,” he tells me. “It used to be one of the most important temples around Taipei.” When the Japanese took over Taiwan in 1895, they deemed the hilly area around the temple to have exceptionally good water and banned development. For years, only six families lived nearby. Then came the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalists who placed Taiwan under martial law after fleeing from mainland China in 1949. More than 200 ex-soldiers and their families flocked to Treasure Hill, where they built houses and small farms, creating a unique rural community just a stone’s throw away from central Taipei.

Today, Treasure Hill is an altogether different kind of settlement, home to 14 artist studios, exhibition and performance spaces, a café and a youth hostel, along with a handful of longtime residents who maintain the same tile-roofed houses and small patches of farmland they built after 1949. “This is a special place,” says Hung, who works for the non-profit foundation that manages the village.

Treasure Hill is just one part of a cultural renaissance that has swept through Taipei, turning neglected urban spaces into design studios, music halls, craft workshops and independent shops. The Songshan Creative and Cultural Park brings art and design into a former tobacco factory; Huashan Creative Park is former distillery that is now a popular destination for music fans and arts and craft lovers; the Taipei Cinema Park screens films outdoors.

“We are facing competition from China, globalization, climate change, a low birth rate,” says Lin Yu-hsiu, a section chief at the Urban Regeneration Office, which transforms vacant buildings into creative spaces. “We have to think about how to move forward, but in a wiser way than before. We want a better life.”

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August 30th, 2013

Talking About Cities Without Ground

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Hong Kong isn’t an easy city to navigate. That’s because so much of it exists out of sight: above your head, under your feet, around the corner in a dingy shopping mall. It’s what architect Jonathan Solomon calls a three-dimensional city. “There are all these attempts to map Hong Kong, but most of them are useless,” he says. Maps show streets, others depict shopping malls, but none chart the way Hong Kong’s intricate networks of private and public spaces are linked together by roads, tunnels, footbridges, escalators and lifts. “There’s no record of all the exciting stuff that happens in these spaces.”

Solomon rectifies that situation in Cities Without Ground, an unorthodox guidebook to Hong Kong he published last year with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton. Inside its 128 pages is a brief history of Hong Kong’s “condition of groundlessness,” starting with the dramatic, hilly topography that enabled the growth of a vertical city, followed by the popularity of footbridges as a means to connect buildings on different levels and finally the development of vast above- and below-ground pedestrian networks. Most of the book consists not of text but of vivid illustrations dissecting the warren of subways and skybridges, shopping malls and public plazas that make up many parts of Hong Kong.

“There’s an alternative spatial logic in Hong Kong and in order to expose that, we had to reveal something invisible,” says Solomon. “These maps are not meant to be used as wayfinding devices, but I personally find them quite useful as a way of understanding how Hong Kong works.” The maps are as much a document of Hong Kong’s psychogeography as they are of its physical space. Labels include not only the names of buildings and shops, but also human landmarks like “lunching legislators” and the “permanent democracy protest” outside the government headquarters, and “family graduation photoshoots” and a “birdwatching meeting point” in Hong Kong Park.

Cities Without Ground also includes heat maps that chart the range in temperature between different types of buildings: the higher the rents, the frostier the air conditioning. The quality of climate control becomes a quick way to gage the prestige of a given shopping mall. “The network occurs on both the high and the low ends of the economy,” says Solomon. “People talk about Central as one big high-end mall, but if you look at Tsuen Wan, the form is very similar, but it’s all very quotidian middle-class stuff, like hair salons and 7-Eleven and fast food.”

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August 29th, 2013

Primordial Hong Kong

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Like a fever dream or a David Lynch film, Wun Dun begins with a journey into the unknown. Push through an unmarked door into what appears to be a bathroom, where an elderly attendant spritzes you with cologne. Squeeze past him, stumble down a flight of stairs and emerge into an uncanny, neon-lit bar that dwells in the subconscious of Hong Kong’s identity.

Open for a week last May during the inaugural edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, Wun Dun was the brainchild of Adrian Wong, the fourth artist selected by the Absolut Art Bureau to create an ephemeral art bar. Like most of Wong’s work, Wun Dun was a carefully choreographed performance that marries the mundane with the surreal: in this case, the visual language of everyday Hong Kong spaces mashed up into something at once recognizable and alien. “The interior unites so many disparate threads of Hong Kong design culture,” writes art critic Robin Peckham, “the feeling is akin to taking high tea in a grimy dive bar, or pounding shots at a truckstop breakfast counter.”

It started, in a sense, with nothing. “Wun Dun is the Taoist concept of the formless state of the universe before things came into existence,” says Wong. Confucianism took the concept even further by imagining that chaos as a “singing, dancing, orifice-less sac” who was struck by lightning, transforming it into the world as it exists today. “It reminded me of this sort of formless state of Hong Kong,” said Wong. “Its long colonial history sets up a situation where the real history of objects, forms, styles, tastes and cuisines are so mixed up and misdirected, they lose their point of reference. I wanted to create a primordial Hong Kong.”

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July 16th, 2013

Private Paradise

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There was a time when Hong Kong was full of strange and wonderful private gardens. There was a Spanish-style garden built by a Catholic missionary on Seymour Road. In Tai Hang, the seven-storey pagoda of Tiger Balm Garden could be seen for miles around. When Sir Robert Hotung built a second house on the Peak, he surrounded it with a 116,000-square-foot garden built in a Chinese Renaissance style, complete with pagoda and colourful tilework.

Many of the world’s great parks began their lives as private gardens — the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris, the Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid — but few of Hong Kong’s private gardens have survived, let alone been given over to the public. Civic mindedness is not a common trait among the scions of Hong Kong’s landed class; many treat their family’s property as oversized ATMs. Tiger Balm Garden had in fact been open to the public for decades when Tiger Balm heir Sally Aw Sian sold it to Cheung Kong Development in 1998. It was demolished in 2004 and replaced by a wall of apartment blocks festooned with blinking LEDs. Hotung Gardens has always been private, though Hong Kong’s government made an effort to declare it a monument when its owner declared her ambition to demolish the estate; the preservation drive was deterred when she demanded no less than $7 billion in compensation.

Still, one of Hong Kong’s great private gardens has managed to survive. Dragon Garden was built as a weekend retreat by entrepreneur and philanthropist Lee Iu Cheung, and while it was nearly bulldozed for a tawdry high-end housing estate, it was saved from demolition when Lee’s son Shiu bought out the property from his siblings. Since then, granddaughter Cynthia has agitated for government support to restore the gardens, which I wrote about three years ago. As far as I know, the situation hasn’t changed — money is still tight, Cynthia is lobbying to reform Hong Kong’s heritage policy and the public can only visit the garden on special occasions.

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June 14th, 2013

Exploring Mei Foo

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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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.

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