Archive for the Society and Culture category

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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July 23rd, 2014

Hong Kong’s Guerrilla Gardeners

It’s not easy to find the Mango King. “Do you want to go the safe way? Or the quick way?” asks Michael Leung, a designer and urban farming advocate, as we walk past the wholesale fruit market in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district, halfway up the Kowloon Peninsula. We opt for the quick way, which takes us through a tangled web of highway off-ramps and access roads. Two decades ago, this area was open water, but land reclamation and infrastructure works have turned it into an uninviting no-man’s-land next to one of Hong Kong’s most crowded neighborhoods.

Somewhere in this mess of traffic is a leftover parcel of land that has been turned into an illegal farm.

“We call him the Mango King because he loves mangoes so much,” Leung says after we dodge an oncoming taxi. “He’s a real urban farmer, making maximum use of space that would otherwise go unnoticed. He has 700 square feet of sweet potatoes, 45 papaya trees, five mango trees, three banana trees, two lychee trees. It’s amazing.”

Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, famous for its skyscraper canyons and gritty, neon-lit streets. But most of its 1,100-square-kilometre territory is actually undeveloped — country parks alone account for more than half of the city’s land area. Instead of fostering a close connection between city-dwellers and nature, though, the opposite has happened: Hong Kong today is a city largely devoid of greenery, surrounded by an often spectacular procession of green mountains and craggy shorelines.

The city’s disconnect with nature has broad implications. In the early 1990s, a full third of Hong Kong’s fruits and vegetables were produced locally in the New Territories, the hinterland that stretches from urban Kowloon to the border with mainland China. Today, that number has plummeted to 2.3 percent, with nearly everything imported from mainland China and beyond: apples from the United States, kiwis from Italy, oranges from South Africa. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in local organic agriculture among young people born in the 1980s and 90s, but with a steady supply of cheap, imported produce arriving daily in Hong Kong’s port, changing the attitudes of the broader populace has been a struggle.

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July 7th, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part II

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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.

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June 19th, 2014

A City Beyond Its Borders

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Halfway through director Heiward Mak’s new short film, SAR², Eric Tsang takes a tumble in front of a propaganda sign in Shenzhen’s Qianhai new development zone. “Supported by Hong Kong, Serving the Mainland, Facing the World,” reads the billboard, reflecting the area’s goal of attracting 100,000 Hong Kong permanent residents to live and work there.

In the film, Tsang plays Lee To, a Hong Kong man who has retired to Qianhai, where he falls in love with Lady Cheung, played by Taiwanese actress Kelly Tien, a native Shenzhener whose oyster farming village was cleared for land reclamation. In one intimate scene, Cheung asks Lee if he misses living in Hong Kong. “I can’t really say,” he replies. “Hong Kong is not my home anymore.”

SAR² is a story of alienation and ambiguity: Lee and Cheung live in spacious, comfortable apartments, but they are surrounded by vast construction sites and cut off from their families. Their romance seems to be as much a salve for loneliness as it is based on any kind of mutual attraction. “They’re wondering, ‘What am I looking for?’” says Mak.

It’s a natural project for Mak, whose acclaimed 2008 debut, High Noon, dealt with a similar kind of rootlessness. And while her notoriety has so far been limited to Hong Kong, SAR² made its debut far from these shores, in Italy, where Hong Kong is participating in the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest and most venerable showcase of the built form. 65 countries have mounted exhibitions in the biennale, which runs from June 7 to November 22, along with hundreds of other shows and events taking place throughout the island city.

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May 26th, 2014

The City Without Light

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Two weeks ago, as Hong Kong was swept under the tide of bacchanalia known as Art Week — basically a non-stop stream of parties and other well-lubricated events revolving around Art Basel Hong Kong — something remarkable happened to the city’s tallest building. Normally, the 484-metre-tall International Commerce Centre is illuminated by an unceasingly kitschy programme of LED animations, including (I kid you not) a cloud shaped like a teddy bear. But on a hot and very humid Thursday evening, the LED display suddenly began pulsating, as if representing the rhythm of the city’s heartbeat.

It was actually the work of Carsten Nicolai, a German artist commissioned by Art Basel to transform the ICC into what must have been the world’s largest piece of art. Standing on the roof of Central Ferry Pier 4, surrounded by three-metre-high LED panels and replicas of the King of Kowloon’s graffiti, Nicolai created a remarkable, hypnotic show of light and sound called α (alpha) pulse. The effect was enhanced by a mobile phone app that synced up with the tower’s pulse, turning an ordinary handheld device into a cryptic beacon. It was an interesting way of translating the enormity of the ICC into something more approachable. “Artwork should have a human scale,” Nicolai said the next day, in a conversation with German curator Nicholaus Hirsch. “It should not be too monumental.”

Nicolai’s starting point for α (alpha) pulse was the relationship between light, sound and the human experience of the city. “Our body is defined by a pulse,” he said, and this is literally affected by sound and light: “These three elements can synchronize. Our body is always adjusting to the environment.”

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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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April 28th, 2014

Design for All

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Sendai Mediatheque. Photo by Tomio Ohashi

The building started shaking at 2:46pm. Books tumbled off shelves, magazine racks teetered and ceiling panels swayed violently back and forth like a drunk trying to reclaim his balance. This was the scene in a YouTube video recorded the seventh floor of the Sendai Mediatheque on March 11, when an extraordinarily powerful earthquake shook the Tohoku region of Japan.

What makes the video remarkable is just how little happens: in one of the worst tremors in recent history, the Mediatheque did not collapse. In fact, it suffered only a few broken windows, ceiling panels and rooftop solar panels – and this despite a seemingly precarious design of transparent walls and open floor plans. “This is the kind of architecture that critics of modernism like to call risky and unreliable,” wrote architecture critic Ana Louise Huxtable, after the earthquake. “When flaws appear, schadenfreude follows.”

But the Mediatheque’s architect, Toyo Ito, is no ordinary modernist. While the the winner of the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize shares the heroic vocabulary of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, he is using that architectural language to very different ends, and the Sendai Mediatheque, which was completed in 2001, is a prime example of his more humanist philosophy.

“After it was completed, people took care of the building and allowed it to evolve. It was never a finished project,” Ito told me when I met him last December. The building’s unique structure, which is based on tree-like trunks rather than traditional support columns, allows for an exceptionally flexible and permeable interior. (Not to mention one that is particularly resistant to earthquakes, too.) “Especially after the earthquake, it became even more of a place for people to gather,” said Ito. “The staff started holding a lot of events. It has really made me proud to see how people are using it.”

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March 31st, 2014

Casting New Light on Architecture

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Rendering of M+

In Hong Kong, a city with an increasingly toxic political atmosphere, where the future looks uncertain and just about every small endeavour is greeted by controversy, M+ is one of the few bright spots on the horizon. That’s not to say the 60,000-square-metre, HK$5 billion museum of visual culture has enjoyed a smooth ride; there has been grumbling about its entirely foreign cast of curators, its aloofness when faced with the political sniping of the local art scene and its ability to work with a budget that seems increasingly inadequate, given rising construction costs. But this is Hong Kong’s best chance at seizing its moment in the cultural spotlight, when the art market is booming and global attention is shifting away from the West – and, so far, M+ has been striking the right notes as it composes its identity as a fresh-thinking, innovative institution.

That was in evidence in its recent architecture exhibition, Building M+, a showcase of the museum’s future home and a sneak peek at its growing architecture collection. Hosted last January at Artistree, a cavernous exhibition space in the bowels of corporate Taikoo Place, the show greeted visitors with a procession of models depicting the six finalists in the international competition for the museum’s design. These were followed by a large scale model of the winner, by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, which came in for ribbing because of its stark, tombstone-like form. But it is clearly the best of a sorry bunch; somehow, despite the talent involved in the competition—including Toyo Ito, Renzo Piano, Shigeru Ban, Snøhetta and SANAA—most entries were haphazard and even goofy, with little regard for the interdisciplinary focus of M+, which aims to bridge art, architecture, design and film. (One of the designs actually consisted of boxes stacked upon one another like Lego pieces, as if to emphasize the difference between these different fields.) Though unexciting, the winning design at least offers the museum programmatic flexibility. “They won because they understood the importance of creating dialogue between these different platforms for culture instead of just compartmentalizing everything,” says museum director Lars Nittve.

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March 25th, 2014

The Best Tram in the World

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As the tram lurched past the dried seafood shops of Des Voeux Road, a cool breeze passing through its open windows, passengers were served a round of cocktails. “Do you reckon this is the best tram in the world at the moment?” asked one woman sipping an Old Fashioned. “I think so,” replied another.

Needless to say, this was no ordinary tram journey. For ten days last December, four of Hong Kong’s double-decker trams were made over for Detour, an annual art and design festival. One tram was converted into a classroom; another was transformed into a giant camera obscura; a maintenance tram became a mobile radio station and concert venue. The fourth was the Eatery tram, whose teak-framed upper deck was fashioned into a sleek dining hall, blond wood and brass railings bracketed by strips of soft LED lights.

“To make the space feel bigger, we removed all hand holds and rails that obstructed the line of vision, made all the tables and benches out of light-colored pine, painted the walls and ceilings white and put in light-colored wood veneer flooring,” says Billy Potts, who designed the interior with partners Albert Tong, Cara To and Sjors van Buyten.

Detour tram

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February 12th, 2014

The Seedy and the Debased

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The week I moved to Hong Kong, I went to the Peak. It’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re a first-time visitor or recent arrival to the city: take the tram, bus or (if you’re a little more savvy) minibus up to the cluster of shopping malls that has risen from what was once a retreat for British colonials yearning for the mists and cool winds of home. The view from the Peak is exactly what you expect it to be, because it’s the view that has become the photographic flag-bearer for Hong Kong: a porcupine’s back of skyscrapers riven by the churning waters of Victoria Harbour, mountains rising and falling in all directions. It’s the scene that accompanies news reports on Hong Kong’s stock market, or the latest worries about swine flu. On particularly smoggy days an obscured version of the view is used to bemoan Hong Kong’s chronic air pollution.

It was not smoggy when I visited the Peak. In fact, it was one of those brilliant late-August days when an ocean breeze clears the sky. It would have been possible to see all the way to China, if it weren’t for the mountains on the horizon; in Hong Kong, views are never limitless. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the city lights flickered to life and the harbour glowed turquoise, its surface criss-crossed by barges and ferries that looked from the Peak’s elevation like so many toys. From below, you can always spot the Peak lookout because it seems to sparkle – the result of hundreds of camera flashes igniting at any given time.

As tourists gathered around, cameras chirping and flashing, I turned and walked to a less popular lookout, this one facing west, where the green hills of the Pok Fu Lam Country Park roll towards the East Lamma Channel. That was where I encountered another set of photographers, only this time they weren’t interested in the view – they were taking photos of two young women, one dressed in a short black shirt and low-cut teal top, blonde hair extensions forming curls around her cleavage; the other was dressed like a schoolboy, with an electric blue wig matching the lapels on her uniform. They pranced around the lookout, the blonde girl caressing the blue-haired one, who played indifferent to her advances. The whole performance was being documented by a half-dozen men dressed in jeans and t-shirts, their hands clutching professional-grade Nikons mounted with flashes and reflectors.

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January 26th, 2014

Bring in the Year of the Horse

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Two weeks before Chinese New Year, the floor creaks as Sunny Yim walks through the bamboo theatre he has helped build. A few of his wiry colleagues stand on a platform, making adjustments to the lattice of bamboo rods that is holding this cavernous structure aloft, but the work is mostly done. Yim, a compact man with a ruddy face, looks up at the vast ceiling with satisfaction. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, since I was 15,” he says. “I only build theatres. This is my passion.”

Soon, the theatre will be filled with chairs, red lanterns and the wail of Cantonese opera as 800 people converge to celebrate the new lunar year. Chinese New Year is a time for traditions, even in aggressively modern Hong Kong: families reunite for dinner and lunch, freshly-swept homes are filled with exuberant bouquets, the crash and clamour of lion dances herald good luck in the months to come. Bamboo theatres, strangely enough, have never been part of New Year festivities, at least not in the city centre. But this is a new tradition, the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, that was launched to great success in 2012. Its first edition featured five days of opera, films and art. This year, the festivities will last for nearly a month. “We’ve moved the theatre next to the waterfront,” says Louis Yu, performance director for the West Kowloon Cultural District. The schedule is more packed than ever: not just Cantonese opera, but 10 of its counterparts from across China’s cultural spectrum, plus free screenings of Chinese opera films.

Hong Kong is never more alive than in the weeks before the new year, which culminates in a frenzy of all-night activity on New Year’s Eve, which this year falls on January 30. On the old stone steps of Ladder Street, under the spindly vines of a banyan tree, neighbourhood residents ask for good-luck banners penned by a calligrapher. Kung hei fat choi is the classic message — “Wishing you prosperity” — but there are plenty of others, too, like Yat fan fong shun (“May everything go smoothly”). In Victoria Park and a handful of other spots around the city, round-the-clock new year fairs are stocked with novelty gifts, many inspired by the coming year’s zodiac sign. (Expect a lot of cute horses this time around.)

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January 21st, 2014

The Florida Pitch

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Richard Florida strides across the stage in a sharply tailored suit, his voice rising and falling with the cadence of a preacher or a motivational speaker. “Every little boy and girl, every one of your sons and daughters, every one of your grandkids, each and every human being has a deep reservoir of creativity,” he proclaims, waving his arm towards a rapt audience. “It’s our font of economic growth, and in contrast to oil or iron or coal, it’s inexhaustible, because it comes from all of us.”

It’s Business of Design Week (BODW) and Florida is speaking to a full house at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Several hundred designers, business people and students are in attendance, along with a handful of Hong Kong government officials. Florida’s power of attraction has been well cultivated. After publishing The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002, the American academic transformed himself into one of the world’s most influential urban thinkers. When he isn’t running the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, he travels the world to spread his message that creativity is the fuel of the new economy, and the new economy is driven by a so-called “creative class,” which consists of everyone from artists to designers to scientists and lawyers — anyone whose work is based primarily on knowledge.

“Creativity is our core economic resource,” says Florida. “It’s what each and every one of us has. The key to our future is not that we can build an economy based on a creative elite, it’s to stoke that creative furnace that lies deep within every single individual.”

Much of Florida’s empirical work is centred around a series of indices that evaluate each city’s potential to attract creative workers. Most important are what Florida calls the “three Ts”: talent, technology and tolerance. Creative cities possess a highly-skilled or educated workforce, the technological infrastructure to support innovation and a tolerant culture that encourages diversity. (One of Florida’s most famous measures for tolerance is the “gay index,” which examines the size of a city’s gay population as a proxy for social acceptance.) If cities build the kind of diverse, densely-populated and varied urban environment that creative types enjoy — Lower Manhattan is one of Florida’s favourite examples — they can propel themselves to the fore of the new creative economy.

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December 19th, 2013

A City on Edge

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Protest at the opening of UABB. Photo by Espen Cook

Last week in Kwun Tong, Kacey Wong stood inside a burnt wood cocoon, explaining the concept behind his painstakingly hand-made installation. “I wanted to create a place where people could meet quietly and have a greater understanding of what’s going on,” he said. To access the space, visitors must duck inside one of two small entrances and make their way to an intimate inner chamber filled with tree trunks; embedded in each tree are books of history and political philosophy that span the ideological spectrum. Wong charred the wood to represent the social and political conflict that now grips Hong Kong. “Fire is a process of transformation,” he said. “It changes material, but if you’re not careful you get burned.”

It was an apt metaphor. Outside the cocoon, the opening ceremony of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) had broken down into chaos after Chief Executive CY Leung arrived to give a closed-door speech. Residents from the surrounding neighbourhood, outraged by the government’s plan to turn Kowloon East into a new central business district, gathered to protest. Banners were unfurled from the highway overhead; “Don’t bulldoze our culture,” read one. Police and security guards clamped down, shutting off access to the exhibition, preventing some of the biennale’s curators and exhibitors from accessing their work. “It’s ridiculous – they won’t even let us into our own exhibition,” fumed one designer.

This is the fourth edition of UABB, which takes place every two years in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It is normally a sedate, academic exploration of the issues facing cities around the world. This year, however, the biennale finds itself caught in a maelstrom of controversy over the so-called CBD2 project, which the government hopes will transform Kwun Tong, Kowloon Bay and Kai Tak into a high-value business district, but which critics say will kill one of Hong Kong’s largest creative communities by making the area unaffordable for the small creative enterprises that now call it home. The question for the biennale, which opens this weekend and runs until February 23, is whether it can provide a space for dialogue – or whether it will exacerbate tensions that have already reached the boiling point.

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December 18th, 2013

The Last Days of 5 Pointz

5 ptz, Long Island City, New York, 2013.

Even if you don’t follow street art or hip hop, you might have heard the news: 5 Pointz is dead. Technically, the old warehouse in Long Island City is still standing — though it is slated for redevelopment — but its essence as an art space was stripped away in the early hours of November 19, when 20 years worth of graffiti was covered with white paint. Since 1993, 5 Pointz has been a mecca for artists and graffiti writers from around the world. Inside, 200 artists worked in subsidized studios, while the exterior of the building became an enormous canvas for just about every kind of street art you can imagine, from throw ups to paste ups to elaborate murals.

The building was sold to property developer David Wolkoff, and in August, the New York City Planning Commission approved its demolition. Though the new development will include low-cost housing and a “curated” space for graffiti — along with 1,000 condominiums — the 5 Pointz community has been vigorously fighting against it. The whitewashing was the developer’s attempt to make a point: we own this space now, not you, so fuck off. When I first heard what had happened, I was reminded of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and while that might seem like an extreme comparison, the two actions come from the same wellspring of contempt for cultural difference.

Not long after the whitewashing, I was emailed by Eric Lau, a New York-based designer and photographer. He wanted to share with me some photos he had taken at the last hip hop battle that occurred at 5 Pointz. The photos were taken on black and white film. Here’s a lightly edited version of what he told me about his experience.

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