My girlfriend sometimes says she could never live in a city without hills. I can see what she means. A city with varied topography is never quite the same from one day to the next; hills open up views that change with the passing light and weather. Not to mention their effect on a city’s built form, creating wrinkles that can never be smoothed out, undoing even the best-laid plans. Some of the most interesting parts of Hong Kong are also its hilliest; the streets uphill from Central and Sheung Wan are a haphazard assembly of mismatched buildings, century-old retaining walls and unexpected constructions that try their best to make do in less than ideal conditions.
As a corollary to last week’s post about street food in Canada, I thought I’d look at how it’s done in Bangkok, where food vendors can be found on every street at just about every hour of the day. Though it suffers from capital city syndrome, which means the food isn’t quite as good as you’d find in more provincial cities like Chiang Mai — “What’s served on the city’s streets does not generally dazzle, and you really have to pick and choose carefully,” writes Robyn Eckhart on Eating Asia — it’s an impressive spread if you consider numbers alone. There must be tens of thousands of food hawkers in Bangkok, which puts the 27 recently licenced by Montreal into perspective.
Like many small entrepreneurs in Bangkok, street food vendors occupy a grey zone between formal and informal, legal and illegal. Unlike in Chinese cities, where street vending is entirely illegal and hawkers risk being fined (or worse) by the notorious chengguan, Bangkok makes allowances for vendors by setting aside certain areas for hawking at certain times of day. It’s a humane approach that has allowed a diverse range of vendors to flourish, most of them focusing on just one or two specialties — satay, beef noodles, roast meats, durian, fruit juices.
So far, there’s nobody shunting them into food courts, like in Hong Kong or Singapore, and there’s no committee of culinary experts who vet every menu for healthiness or cultural value, like in Canada. As Eckhart writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Street food is diffuse and hyper-local by its very nature. So there can be no one-size-fits-all formula for the growth and change of its cultures.” And Bangkok, with its countless varieties of street stalls — from quasi-permanent stalls to itinerant pushcarts — embodies that principle very nicely.
It was one of my most memorable meals in Canada: fried, profoundly sweet local beets; a spicy stir-fried mélange of brussel sprouts and cauliflower; and British Columbia haddock served with naan and rice in a coconut curry. And it all came from a truck — actually, two trucks, to be precise, Le Tigre and Vij’s Railway Express, both of which were parked in a vacant lot just off Vancouver’s False Creek, where around 20 food stalls assemble each Sunday for the Food Cart Fest.
It was one of those impossibly clear, sunny days that make BC summers so spectacular, and as I sat on a curb, plastic fork plunging into styrofoam container, I thought about how improbable these trucks really were. Like most Canadian cities, street food in Vancouver was for years limited to precooked sausages reheated on a barbecue. Serviceable enough, but this was food to fill your belly, not stimulate your appetite, the unfortunate byproduct of health regulations that saw sodium-packed, industrially-processed cylinders of beef as somehow safer than freshly-prepared meats and vegetables. Then came the first sign of innovation, in 2007, when recent Japanese transplant Noriki Tamura began serving seaweed-laden hot dogs at his Burrard Street stall, Japadog. At the time, Vancouver had 120 street food carts, all of which were restricted to selling hot dogs, ice cream and soft drinks. Japadog pushed the limits of that regime as far as they would go. In 2010, they finally gave way. Following in the footsteps of the gourmet food truck boom in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Vancouver opened its streets to a panoply of delights normally reserved for bricks-and-mortar restaurants: Taiwanese pork belly sliders, fresh Pacific seafood, Australian meat pies.
I spent most of the past month in Canada, travelling not quite from coast to coast, but at least from the Georgia Strait to the shores of the St. Lawrence. (“What are you, on a fucking grand tour of Canada?” asked Steve Welch when I walked into his bookstore last week.) Food trucks followed me wherever I went. In Parksville, a small beach town on Vancouver Island, I passed by a wood-fired pizza truck. I got a milkshake from the dubiously-named Mr. Soft and Delight in downtown Toronto. And I scouted out the new fleet of food trucks that are cruising the streets of Montreal, the first time in 66 years that street food has been allowed in the city.
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.”
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.”
The Devonian Gardens in 2007. Photo by norrix
The Devonian Gardens were a wonderland. Located on the top floor of the TD Centre mall in downtown Calgary, the gardens were a fully-enclosed greenhouse of tropical plants and — best of all for a kid — a million nooks and crannies to explore. It seemed like every path led to something fascinating: a hidden alcove surrounded by palms, a wood-framed playground teeming with children, a pond filled with turtles and goldfish, ringed by little coin-operated dispensers that spat out fish food instead of candy. There was an outdoor terrace, too, and in the winter it was exhilarating to emerge from the warm, soupy air of the gardens into the stingingly dry cold.
Built in the late 1970s and donated to the City of Calgary by the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, the gardens were operated as an indoor public park, open without restriction for most of the day. It was a popular spot for office workers to eat their lunch, munching on sandwiches as nannies and mothers pushed their babies down the brick paths. Men gathered in the afternoon to play chess near the gardens’ front entrance. There were more than 135 species of plants, many of them tropical, and in a dry prairie city that is brown for most of the year, the gardens felt almost surreal in their lushness, a feeling enhanced by the contrast between the jungly vegetation and the banal artificiality of the design: brown bricks, brown metal railings, faux stone waterfalls that looked like they came from the set of a cheap dinosaur movie.
Five years ago, on a February trip to Calgary, I made a point to walk through the Devonian Gardens when I spent an afternoon photographing the Plus-15 network of interconnected second-floor spaces that spans most of the downtown area. I had no idea it would be the last time I saw the gardens in their original state. Shortly after my visit, TD Centre and two adjacent malls closed for a years-long renovation that included a makeover for the gardens. When they reopened last summer, it became clear that it was much more than a makeover: it was a complete gutting of everything that had made the gardens special.
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.
It is hard to overstate the extent to which neon has shaped Hong Kong’s landscape, its streets awash in hues of red, yellow, green and blue, not to mention the way the city is perceived abroad. Bolstered by memories of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, both of which were inspired by Hong Kong, Japanese artist Takahiro Iwasaki set out to recreate the city’s neon lights despite never having set foot in the city. Scouring the internet for images, he used brightly-colored string to create tiny versions of neon signs like those of Yue Hwa Chinese Products and Luk Fuk Jewellery.
The work is the latest installment in Out of Disorder, an ongoing series of miniature sculptures made from everyday objects: a city carved into a roll of duct tape, electricity towers that rise from toothbrush bristles, construction cranes perched atop books. “It started when I was studying in the UK,” says Iwasaki. “I was as poor as a church mouse and I had no money to buy materials.” So he began making sculptures with whatever he could find: empty boxes, twigs, socks. “I had to go barefoot,” he recalls.
Each sculpture takes about two days to complete. Iwasaki’s work has been praised not only for its craftsmanship but its sense of the uncanny: the disorienting sensation of seeing monumental objects reduced in size and made from such quotidian materials. The effect is enhanced all the more by Iwasaki’s choice of utilitarian subjects that blend into the background of urban life. “We take them for granted, but if you change the point of view, it becomes something poetic,” he says.
Most people use Google Street View for directions; Yuichiro Tamura uses it to make movies. “I became interested in Street View’s images because they’re very anonymous,” says the 36-year-old Berlin-based Japanese artist. Never before has there been such an extensive and dispassionate repository of world scenes. “Nobody knows who takes them, and they aren’t shooting [the landscape] – they’re scanning it,” he says.
Bit by bit, Tamura captured screenshots from Street View and painstakingly compiled them in Final Cut Pro, eventually producing a 10-minute video that depicts a road trip through Nebraska, Chiba, Alaska, Portugal and Marseille. He called it Nightless, alluding to the fact that all of Street View’s images were recorded during the day, and narrated the first half in thickly-accented English; the second half features a soundtrack culled from various corners of YouTube, like a car stereo scanning radio frequencies.
That was in 2010; Tamura has since made 10 more versions of Nightless, and his goal is to eventually make a feature-length film. His most recent work took him to Hong Kong, where he created a new Nightless video for Tokyo gallery Yuka Tsuruno. “In the past versions, I chose random images, but this time, I visited for 10 days and I researched the history of Hong Kong,” he says. He also made platinum prints of Hong Kong screenshots, which were exhibited in wooden frames engraved with internet search terms by Buddhist funerary carvers. “Google Street View images are temporary—there are only a few months or a year before they change it—but platinum prints last 200 or 300 years. I’m interested in how it restores narrative to the image.”
The end of the line is only the beginning — something we wrote about in 2011. That was especially true at On Nut, the eastern terminus of the Bangkok BTS SkyTrain until a recent extension. Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis, but the trains only took you to the edge of the central city. After that, a bus, or a motorcycle taxi, or a tuk tuk ride or a long walk, as the case may be.
On Nut is located near the Phra Khanong Canal, a murky body of water that meanders past Buddhist temples and clusters of timber houses, but its character is defined by the never-ending stream of traffic along Sukhumvit Road. On one site of the station is a Tesco hypermarket, where you can buy cotton pyjamas, durian and cheap Thai rice liquor, and on the other is a night market, which sells more or less the same things but with far more ambiance.
Grab a curry at the night market — then it’s time to wait for the bus, to continue your journey past the end of the line into the endless Bangkok sprawl.
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.
Talking over dim sum at a busy Wan Chai restaurant, it doesn’t take much prompting for Christopher Law to reel off the failures of Hong Kong’s public spaces. “No matter how small the space is, they try to fence it off,” he says, taking of sip of pu-erh tea. “All the public seating is extremely awkward. And because of maintenance, they use these pink toilet tiles everywhere.”
It’s a subject Law, the director of international architectural practice Oval Partnership, knows well. He points out there are more than 80 small parks and plazas scattered throughout Wan Chai District, but many are so poorly designed they may as well not exist — one “sitting out area” on Queen’s Road East consists of two benches and a patch of concrete surrounded by a tall fence. Recently, though, Law and his firm got a chance to reshape a constellation of public open spaces around Star Street, a quietly fashionable corner of Wan Chai.
“They’re places where you can read a book, eat your rice box or sandwich, have a nap,” says Law. “Most of the public spaces in Hong Kong aren’t designed for that diversity of uses — all those activities are limited or actively discouraged. We wanted to encourage them.”
Hong Kong isn’t the only city in Asia where designers are casting a critical eye over the quality of public space. All over the region, cities ambushed by decades of rapid growth are taking a step back and reconsidering their perfunctory parks, streets and plazas — though in some cases, architects must butt heads against arcane policies, design standards and intransigent officials in order to make a difference.
One of the best-known and most dramatic of these overhauls took place in Seoul, where an ancient waterway known as Cheonggyecheon, long entombed in concrete and covered by an elevated expressway, was reborn in 2005 as a 8.4-kilometre-long stream lined by a promenade and native vegetation. That was one of the inspirations for last year’s transformation of a fenced-off waterway in Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park into a focal point for the surrounding community.
The crux of the project was the conversion of the Kallang River from concrete drainage channel into a natural stream. “Before, there was no relation to the water — it was the backside of the neighbourhood,” says Tobias Baur, a landscape architect with Atelier Dreiseitl, which oversaw the project. “The problem was that it was a concrete channel completely barred to the residents. It was dangerous for people because the water was very fast and it was a dead zone for vegetation. It was a non-usable space.”
Sogo Junction in Causeway Bay, where ambient noise levels can reach 118 decibels. Photo by James Shandlon
After Karl Sluis’ richly-detailed map of New York City noise complaints was featured on The Atlantic Cities, my editor at the South China Morning Post got in touch about making a similar map for Hong Kong.
Hong Kong can be an intensely noisy place: roaring buses, skull-shattering pile-driving, incessant jackhammers, video billboards set to max volume. Ambient noise levels in Causeway Bay can reach 118 decibels — equivalent to sandblasting or a rock concert. Paradoxically, the noisiness of everyday life here seems to have made people less tolerant of things like outdoor concerts, which are always plagued by noise complaints. Just as Sluis did in New York, mapping those noise complaints would provide insight into Hong Kong’s geography of noise.
But we failed. That’s because every attempt I made to extract precise data on noise complaints from the Hong Kong government were met by obfuscation and outright refusal. Not only does this point to the government’s lack of transparency, it raises questions about how seriously it is committed to handling Hong Kong’s noise problem.
The problem is that, when it comes to noise, the government just doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. “There are not any comprehensive and detailed noise pollution surveys and studies in Hong Kong,” says Yip Yan-yan, chief operating officer of think tank Civic Exchange. The only way to reduce noise pollution is to analyse it — and to make those findings available to the public.
If you read The Atlantic Cities, or follow our Twitter feed, you’ve probably seen Karl Sluis‘ map of the 40,412 noise complaints made last year in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful, richly-detailed effort to chart not only the geography of noise but more subtle variations in New York’s socio-economic landscape, like the fact that complaints about loud music from cars seem only to happen north of Central Park.
I’ve been working with the South China Morning Post to create a Hong Kong version of Sluis’ map for the past couple of weeks. It hasn’t gone so well. I’ll have more about that later, but in the meantime, here’s a quick interview I did with Sluis by email.
What came first, wanting to do a noise map or coming across New York’s open-source data on noise complaints?
As a freelance data visualization designer, I’m always on the lookout for that next great data set, so I was attracted first to NYC’s Open Data portal. Granted, a lot has already been made with the data released by the city of New York. I was perusing some of the less-popular data sets when I came across the 311 (NYC’s non-emergency information line) data set.
Wired Magazine had already made a visualization out of the same data some years ago, so I hardly wanted to repeat an existing project. What got me excited was the combination of geolocation data, time data, and, particularly, the metadata on what type of complaint had been filed. With such a rich data set, I knew the visualization would have legs.
New York’s an immense, incredible, rich place, and as a resident, I’m always curious to learn more.