Wednesday, 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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Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Rising With the Sun

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Jet lag affects everyone differently, but I often hear stories of people waking up in the middle of the night, unable to return to sleep. For me, an inveterate night owl, the effect is to impose a schedule that most other people would consider normal: asleep before midnight, rising not long after the sun. That was the case on one trip to Vancouver, when I took advantage of rare early-morning wakefulness to grab a coffee and walk along English Bay.

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Sunday, 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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Tuesday, 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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Sunday, January 19th, 2014

The Quiet Modernist

“中環雨天繁忙時間交通 Rush Hour Traffic in Central on a Rainy Day” / 香港人流 Hong Kong Human Logistics / SML.20130326.7D.36557.BW

Jardine House (right). Photo by See-ming Lee

It’s late on a Monday afternoon and James Kinoshita is sitting at home in Hong Kong’s Sai Kung district with his son, Andrew. Overhead is a tile roof that slopes towards a garden of blooming azalea and bougainvillea; just beyond are the placid waters of Port Shelter. James bought the property in 1976 with his wife, Lana, when he was a partner with Palmer and Turner, Hong Kong’s oldest architecture firm, and Lana was a sought-after interior designer.

“It was a weekend home at first,” says James.

“A work in progress,” adds Andrew.

Needless to say, Sai Kung was a very different place in the 1970s. It was only a fraction as developed as today, though the Small House Policy had recently been enacted, leading to a spread of three-storey village houses across the district.

“I didn’t like the Spanish type of red tiles that all the houses had,” says James. “They didn’t look like Chinese village houses. So what I wanted to do was to have a pitched roof and use black tiles.”

Achieving that meant dealing with a building code designed to encourage the construction of identical boxes, not anything unique. There was a height restriction of 25 feet; no single floor of the house could be larger than 700 square feet. James solved the problem by building two houses and linking them together with a covered terrace.

James is no stranger to dealing with constraints. Though the public would be hard-pressed to recognize his name, the octogenarian architect was responsible for many of Hong Kong’s most famous buildings, including Jardine House, the Polytechnic University campus and the late (and often lamented) Hong Kong Hilton, most of which were built under tight deadlines that would shock many contemporary architects. In an era of starchitects, where every new building seems to be accompanied by pompous self-justification, James Kinoshita stands out as much for his modesty as his enduring modernist legacy.

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Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Value Creation

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If UABB Hong Kong was greeted by a storm of controversy, its counterpart in Shenzhen went off without a hitch. “Cocktails and happiness! No protest at all!” wrote one participating artist on Facebook.

This year, UABB Shenzhen — which bills itself as the “world’s only biennale dedicated exclusively to the themes of urbanism and urbanization” — is being held in the Shekou Industrial Zone, which was the first free-trade zone in China when it opened in 1979. Much of the action is concentrated in the Value Factory, a former glassworks that now houses installations, workshops, two cafés, a restaurant and a farm that will be harvested when the biennale closes at the end of February. Participants were told to “do almost nothing” to their spaces inside the factory, giving it a raw presence that pervades every aspect of the exhibition.

Like all of the land in the Shekou Industrial Zone, the Value Factory is owned by state-owned China Merchants Holdings, which is now transforming Shekou into a high-end office, entertainment and residential district. The company is also the primary sponsor of UABB Shenzhen. Curator Ole Bouman says he wanted to make the venue more than just the backdrop to a show. “The building becomes not just a protagonist of the biennale but of Shekou itself,” says curator Ole Bouman. He hopes to use the Value Factory as a wedge to insert art and culture into Shekou’s development. “The next chapter of Shekou can’t just be about revenue,” he says.

Just as in Hong Kong, though, critics see the Shenzhen biennale as a way to give a kind of cultural legitimacy to the property development machine. “There’s something about putting cultural events in factories and warehouses that are almost immediately appropriated,” says Shenzhen-based critic and curator Mary Ann O’Donnell. “There’s no room for critical engagement because it commodifies everything. This is clearly part of a massive upgrading and restructuring of Shekou that has as its goal a massive increase in property values.”

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Saturday, December 28th, 2013

One Day in Toronto

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It was so cold in Toronto this week that groundwater under the city froze solid, causing a rare “frost quake” — and earthquake-like boom following by trembling earth. But that was only a sideshow to the main event: a debilitating ice storm that cut power and pruned the city’s tree canopy by 20 percent. So maybe, just by way of diversion, it’s worth looking back to a gentler time of year. Last August, I was in Toronto for a weekend wedding. I made good use of the short time I had to roam the city. Here’s what I saw.

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Thursday, 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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Wednesday, 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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Tuesday, 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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Thursday, November 28th, 2013

Future Festivals

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Clockenflap 2012. Photo by Chris Lusher

Construction has only just begun on Hong Kong’s multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District, but the 100-acre waterfront site has already become the city’s most coveted venue for outdoor events, with a string of festivals set to take place over the next three weeks.

Among them are Clockenflap, a three-day music-and-arts festival with a mix of international performers like Four Tet and Cantopop musicians like Ellen Loo; BloHK Party, a hip hop and electronic music festival featuring Pharrell Williams; and Freespace, an eclectic weekend event that will pair local music with dance performances, films and an informal market where visitors can buy artisanal crafts, clothes and food.

The three events will set the tone for the future cultural district, about a third of which will be set aside for a park, the first phase of which is slated to open in early 2015. “These festivals are totally related to the future of the park,” says Louis Yu, executive director of West Kowloon’s performing arts program. “We haven’t hired an architect yet, so when the architect arrives, we will be able to tell [him or her] very specifically what kind of space we need to do what we are already doing.”

For event promoters, the site’s allure is hard to resist. “People were blown away by the actual piece of land, this open space right in the middle of the city,” says Clockenflap festival director Mike Hill. “Standing in front of a stage and being able to see the water and the skyline, it’s gold,” adds music director Justin Sweeting. “It’s what makes us unique.”

When it first launched in 2008, Clockenflap took place at Cyberport, a high-end residential and office district on Hong Kong Island, where it suffered from constant noise complaints. “We were asked to turn it down, which didn’t really make sense. So it was literally Google Maps trying to find a suitable piece of land,” says Hill. They were drawn to West Kowloon’s open space and waterfront location, along with its proximity to the MTR, and moved the festival there in 2011.

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Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Before Sandy

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The sun was burning through morning fog as I walked down Hoyt Street to the subway, the Williamsburg Savings Bank half-shrouded like in some imaginary Gotham. By the time I reached Beach 59th Street, the sky was a deep blue. It was late October, but it felt like summer. I took off my sweater and put it in my backpack.

It took more than an hour to get to the Rockaways. Train service over Jamaica Bay was suspended for track repairs, so anyone travelling past Rockaway Boulevard had to get off and transfer to a shuttle bus that rumbled at its own pace around the perimeter of JFK Airport. The detour seemed to put everyone off kilter. “No, I’m not on the subway, I’m on a bus,” said a woman on her cell phone, as if she couldn’t quite believe it.

Once the bus arrived at Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, we had to transfer again, this time to the orphaned stretch of A train that runs along the Rockaway Peninsula, a stubborn eleven-mile finger of land that juts into the Atlantic from the far reaches of Queens. I was there to meet my friend Rossana, who was studying a piece of vacant land along the Rockaway boardwalk for her master’s course in urban planning. She’d invited me to take part in a bike tour of the boardwalk that was being run by a few members of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, a community group that is trying to reconnect Rockaway residents to their waterfront.

We met at a former fire hall the Waterfront Alliance calls home. There’s a small community garden next door, and a group of teenagers were busy putting up decorations for a Halloween party that would be held that evening. Our group assembled — me, Rossana, her classmate Jon, two local teenagers, a man who said he worked for the city water department, “bringing down water from the Catskills,” and our guide, Mark Hoffacker — and we got on our beach cruisers and rode down a potholed Beach 59th Street to the boardwalk. The wooden planks of the boardwalk drummed a steady beat as we rode past grassy sand dunes. Hoffacker pointed to a fenced-off portion of the dunes, a refuge for migrating birds, and said people often trespassed there, leaving behind garbage. For several blocks, there was nothing but scrubland marked by broken strips of asphalt, along which beach bungalows had once stood. Hoffacker told us the vacant land was now used for dumping cars and refrigerators, though the problem wasn’t as bad as it used to be. (A magazine article from 1992 describes a “Third World” scene of decaying houses, mosquito-infested sloughs and dozens of mafia-run dump trucks unloading toxic waste.) In the distance, the elevated subway tracks loomed incongruously over the bush, its concrete arches streaked with rust.

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Notes from a Zhuhai Native

Zhuhai outskirts

Photo by Jonathan Shaw

Silu Zhang is a master’s student at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. She grew up 120 kilometres away in Zhuhai, a boomtown on the border with Macau. Zhuhai was one of the five special economic zones established by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. Since then, its population has grown from around 100,000 to more than 1.5 million.

Zhuhai is a city next to Macau. Under the policy of “one country, two systems,” Macau is capitalist, Zhuhai is socialist. In my education, it was emphasized a lot how different these two societies are and how great this policy is, the policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping the “general designer of Chinese reform and opening up.” Zhuhai is a quiet place, with beach, breeze and blue sky — people call it the City of Romance — while Macau is a flourishing city, with casino, luxury hotels and a high population density; people call it “Little Las Vegas.” Once, I made fun of a friend from Macau by saying she was “someone from the decaying capitalism,” and she looked at me strangely. Later she told me they seldom talked about the difference between the two systems and she never learned about it in school.

I grew up in the 1990s and witnessed Zhuhai changing. It is hard to say how it changed — I think I am so familiar with this place that I get lost. But here are some memories. The beach I used to play on is now being developed into some luxurious apartments; the area of my preschool has been reduced to make way for a wider road. More and more migrants are coming from all over the country and Mandarin is taking the place of Cantonese. The silent street where my father and I used to walk after dinner is now noisy, with loud broadcasts, open bars and shopping malls. Sometimes my father will still say, “When you were a kid, you walked in front of me and I just followed you. There were few people in the street, the light was dim, but I felt safe. I wouldn’t do that now.”

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Tuesday, 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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