Tuesday, 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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Miniature Monuments

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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.

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Saturday, July 6th, 2013

The Nightless City

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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.”

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Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

The End of the Line

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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.

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Friday, June 14th, 2013

Exploring Mei Foo

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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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Monday, June 3rd, 2013

Rethinking Asia’s Public Spaces

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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.”

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Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

Hong Kong’s Silence on Noise Pollution

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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.

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Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Behind the Noise Map

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

If you read The Atlantic Cities, or follow our Twitter feed, you’ve probably seen Karl Sluismap 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.

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Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Blown Away

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Lately, Hong Kong has taken on the airs of a carnival gone wrong. In late April, as a damp wind blew and the sky loomed heavy, Florentijn Hofman’s giant rubber duck floated into Victoria Harbour, igniting a media frenzy — the South China Morning Post ran no fewer than 12 articles on the duck — and a general wagging of the tongues (one satirical article reported Hong Kong’s air pollution had given the duck “a cute respiratory infection”). And that was before the duck mysteriously deflated into a sad yellow puddle.

The duck was brought in by the Hong Kong Tourism Board in collaboration with Harbour City, a giant shopping mall, and its presence has been accompanied by a kind of consumer mania as people crowd together to snap photos and buy duck souvenirs. Not far away is a kind of intellectual counterpoint: Mobile M+: Inflation!, a contemporary art exhibition of inflatable vinyl sculptures that runs until June 9. Seven artists and designers from around the world contributed massive works that are being displayed on a rough patch of vacant land that will soon be transformed into a new city park, which itself will be part of the multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District.

“The idea for the exhibition came out of questions of what will be in that park,” says Pauline Yao, one of the curators at the forthcoming M+ museum of visual culture, which organized Inflation! “We’re interested in engaging with these questions around public art or art in public space, and to think about how normally public art tends to be sculpture-based, with certain assumptions about what is beautiful and pleasing.”

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Monday, April 29th, 2013

Les boules roses

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When the stretch of Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal’s Gay Village was pedestrianized for two and a half months in the summer of 2008, it was accompanied by a strange policy that forced the street’s bars and restaurants to serve only Labatt beer products on their outdoor terraces. Merchants were unhappy and for good reason: it was summer-long corporate takeover of public space. (I said as much when a journalist for the Globe and Mail called for my opinion — ah, my glory days as a local pundit.)

Things have mellowed out since then. The Labatt-only policy was scrapped and car-free summers are now a well-loved tradition in the Village. What’s especially remarkable is that, unlike Montreal’s other street fairs and festivals, which ban car traffic for a few days or weeks at a time, the Village pedestrianization lasts the entirety of the summer — day and night, rain and shine. I think it owes a big part of its success to artist Claude Cormier, who draped 200,000 pink baubles over the street in 2011. Les boules roses proved so popular they returned the following year, and they’re poised to make a comeback this year, too.

The pink balls work because they create a sense of enclosure. One of the problems pedestrian streets face, especially in a car-dependent North American society, is that they often feel empty and sapped of vitality. You don’t realize how much space cars take up until they’re gone; a street that seems narrow when it’s filled with traffic, like Ste. Catherine, suddenly feels vast when the asphalt is clear. The baubles counteract that by tricking the mind into thinking the space is smaller and busier than it actually is. Plus they’re fun. And, you know, gay.

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An Expat Childhood in 1930s Kowloon

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Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s

When Joyce Fitch lived in Hong Kong, rickshaws were a form of public transport, the only way to cross Victoria Harbour was by boat and there were about 1.5 million people living in the territory. Fitch was born in England and spent most of her youth and adolescence in Hong Kong, where she lived with her family on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s. I interviewed Fitch recently thanks to the English Schools Foundation’s Alumni News, and because it’s not often you hear first-hand about expatriate life in Kowloon before the war, I thought I’d post a portion of the transcript, which has been edited for clarity.

My father went out to China in 1920 as the captain of a ship for Butterfield and Swire, now Cathay Pacific. He was there trading up and down the coast, from Shanghai up to the Gorges and up to Tientsin. We were there in Shanghai for four years and then he was transferred down to Hong Kong. He was still working on the ship, going away and coming back.

We had rather a checkered family life but we managed. My brother was in England so we would have to go back there every so often. I went to the Kowloon British School near Austin Road — I travelled there by rickshaw — but I didn’t really have much time at school for any length of time. I was always coming back or forwards.

Because my father was away a lot, our life was a little bit different than other families. My mother played tennis and mahjong. I would come home and the [servant] boy would be there and I would have a meal. I was a rather solitary child and didn’t always have friends around to play. I was very independent and could walk around Kowloon all over the place and not feel at all restricted. I would go to dockyards and watch the men work.

We lived on Kimberley Road. The big houses there had gardens — Carnarvon Road too. Down where Carnarvon Road goes, there was a market garden, believe it or not. There weren’t many shops past St. Andrew’s [Church, on Nathan Road near Austin Road]. There was a sort of gap of houses and flats and maybe a few more shops further up Nathan Road, and then there was a theatre up there. I remember going to the pictures very often. It was just a very rural type area. Lots of gardens. I was really quite shocked when I went back to see it the next time. I think it was about 1970 that I went back first. I came back about three times — each time it surprised me more.

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Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Beach Life in the Winter

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Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, is known as a summertime destination — seafood, beaches, that kind of thing. Dozens of love hotels dot beachfront neighbourhoods like Gwangan and Haeundae, geared towards couples looking for a sultry oceanside tryst. But I was there in December, just as the city was sliding headlong into winter. Busan’s climate is much milder than that of Seoul, but it’s still chilly, and when a stiff wind blows in off the Sea of Japan, the beach is not the first destination that comes to mind.

Yet even on a windy winter evening, there are still people at the beach. That’s because, along with swimming and sunbathing, one of Busan’s favourite seaside activities is setting off fireworks — which is exactly what a few hardy people were doing on an otherwise quiet Friday night at Gwangalli Beach, the city’s most popular stretch of sand.

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Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

The House on Derby Road

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When property prices reach such outlandish heights as in Hong Kong, it creates some peculiar distortions in the local market. Whenever I walk around Kowloon Tong, a wealthy, low-rise neighbourhood not far from my apartment, I’m surprised by the number of derelict and seemingly abandoned houses.

Kowloon Tong was first developed as a garden suburb in the 1920s, with identical tile-roofed houses that strike me as vaguely Southeast Asian in appearance. By the 1950s, many of those houses were being demolished for larger, more modern villas and small apartment buildings, which in turn were redeveloped into luxury townhouses or even larger apartment buildings in the 1980s and later.

Despite the successive waves of redevelopment, there are always reminders of what was left behind. One such reminder can be found on Derby Road, an unassuming little street behind the Maryknoll Convent School. That’s where I came across a large abandoned house, early modern in appearance, with a staggered form that makes it look like it was sliced off the top of an Art Deco skyscraper. The house has two wings, one slightly larger than the other, and a walled, overgrown garden with two gates, one facing Derby Road and another facing Chester Road. On the Derby Road wall are old advertisements for Sprite and Kent cigarettes, with the faded name of a see doh — variety shop — written on the gate. It seems that, at some point in time, there was a small shop or hawker stall on the property.

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Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

What Sucks About Walking in Hong Kong

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I often get angry when I walk around Hong Kong. This is one of the most fascinating cities in the world to explore — densely layered, pulsing with energy — but it’s also one of the most frustrating because of all the ways the pedestrian experience is undermined and made unpleasant. In the city with the lowest car ownership rate in the developed world, pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens.

Designing Hong Kong recently launched an interesting new initiative called Missing Links, which is lobbying the government to improve pedestrian linkages around the city. One particularly egregious example is Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which runs parallel to the harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the past, crosswalks allowed pedestrians to easily walk to the waterfront, but a major traffic engineering project about 10 years ago removed all surface-level crossings and forced pedestrians into a confusing system of underground passageways. Walking through them is not much different from being a rat in a maze. To say it’s a dispiriting experience would be an understatement: if life is a series of tile-walled tunnels, I’ll take the next exit out, thank you very much.

This is just one example of what’s wrong in Hong Kong. What’s even more outrageous is the systematic denigration of pedestrians in the city’s entire network of streets. There are the legendarily narrow sidewalks, made even narrower by the presence of roadside fences that eat up valuable pedestrian space. When a sidewalk becomes overcrowded, it isn’t widened, it’s fenced in, the way the jam-packed sidewalk of Dundas Street was fenced in when too many people started walking in the street.

Crosswalks at major intersections are generally too narrow and surrounded by fences that create artificial choke points. Minor intersections have absolutely no provisions for pedestrians: no crosswalks, just a “Look Left” or “Look Right” sign painted on the asphalt. Pedestrians are meant to wait for oncoming vehicles, which always have the right of way unless there is a zebra crossing. And while there are zebra crossings here and there, usually in very quiet parts of town, in recent years they have become even more endangered than the animals for which they are named.

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