July 27th, 2012

Tourist Trapped

A Mainland Chinese tourist shops in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo from AFP

Sindart was as much a fixture of Nathan Road as the double-decker buses that trundle up the street day and night. For more than 50 years, the tiny shop, tucked beneath an apartment building stairwell, sold handmade slippers embroidered with colourful motifs: peacock features, panda cubs, flowers and goldfish. It witnessed the 1967 riots, the boom years of the 1980s and the handover in 1997, all while serving a steady stream of enthusiastic customers.

But even such a venerable institution was not immune to the vagaries of local real estate. “We had the same landlords for 50 years — two generations in the same family,” says Billy Wong, who joined the business five years ago to help his uncle, owner Chung Kau. Last year, the landlords told Chung and Wong they wanted to use the space for themselves. They gave them one month to leave.

It turned out the landlords hadn’t been honest. Soon after Sindart was forced to leave, the stairwell space came back on the market. “I called the real estate broker listed on the ‘for rent’ sign and asked how much they wanted,” says Wong. “They told me no less than HK$40,000 per month. We never paid more than HK$4,000.” The space is now occupied by a currency exchange counter.

Retail rents are soaring all across Hong Kong. International chains have launched bidding wars for prime shop spaces in neighbourhoods like Causeway Bay, where American fashion chain Forever 21 is paying HK$11 million per month for a space on Jardine’s Bazaar. Spanish retailer Zara is reportedly keen to rent a space on Percival Street that costs HK$5 million per month; the previous tenant paid HK$880,000. On average, Causeway Bay rents have increased 50 percent over the past two years.

Retail analysts say there is one culprit: tourists from mainland China. “What’s driving the change in the retail landscape in Hong Kong is obviously mainland Chinese shoppers,” said property researcher Adrian Ngan on Bloomberg TV last month. “There’s a lot of them and they are spending a lot of money.”

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January 26th, 2011

The Pearl River Megalopolis

Shenzhen from above

“China to create largest mega city in the world with 42 million people,” announced a breathless headline in Sunday’s Telegraph, detailing plans to combine the cities of Guangdong province’s Pearl River Delta (PRD) into a massive urban conurbation. “Over the next six years, around 150 major infrastructure projects will mesh the transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks of the nine cities together, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan,” the British newspaper reported, noting that the new megalopolis would be “26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.”

The news generated quite a bit of chatter as it circled around the Internet, much of it predicated on the mistaken assumption that China would be building an entirely new city of 42 million. “What about all the cities already constructed but still empty?” wrote one commenter on CNNGo in reference to the master-planned, never-lived-in city of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia. “Time to beef up security on the Hong Kong border,” tweeted a former Hong Kong resident.

The reality is less exciting. The PRD is already home to more than 42 million people and it already functions as a megalopolis with an economy worth a little under US$300 billion (about the same as the metropolitan areas of Shanghai, Boston, San Francisco and Milan). The billions of dollars in new infrastructure will complement an already well-developed network of highways, railways and waterways. In fact, the concept of a huge megalopolis tied together by roads and rail is nothing new: the Taiheyo Belt in Japan is an interconnected urban area of 80 million people linked by shikumen trains running every few minutes. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington form a mostly interconnected urban region of more than 50 million people.

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December 12th, 2010

History Hidden in Corporate Archives


Hung Hom and Whampoa in the 1970s.
Photo courtesy Hong Kong Heritage Project

If Hong Kong’s businesses don’t stop throwing away their records, a vital part of the city’s history will be lost forever, a group of archivists and historians warn.

Every day, millions of documents are produced by Hong Kong’s companies, but only a few have set up archives to catalogue and process important material. By failing to do so, they could be costing themselves dearly in lost corporate knowledge — and doing untold damage to the study of Hong Kong history, which already struggles with a lack of well-preserved material.

“Corporations have played such an important role in Hong Kong’s development that, in a way, corporate records are even more important to social and business history than the government’s archives,” said Lingnan University historian Lau Chi-pang.

“The Hong Kong of 2010 isn’t do different from the Hong Kong of 1890, because it’s still ruled by corporate oligarchies,” said University of Hong Kong head archivist Stacy Gould. “That’s why it’s so important for businesses to establish archives.”

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August 7th, 2010

How to Lose a Sense of Place

You can’t touch the sculpture in front of Langham Place. It’s a nice bronze piece by Larry Bell, and it looks great from a distance, but if people touched it, their oily hands would ruin the metal. So there’s a security guard stationed out front, all day, every day, to make sure nobody crawls onto the sculpture’s tree-like limbs, which, most cruel of all, seem to invite you to climb them, or at least lean on them.

Since it opened five years ago, Langham Place has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in Mongkok. Its 700-foot office tower, capped by a glowing dome, can be seen from throughout the city, including my kitchen and bedroom windows, where I take strange comfort in its constant presence. The mall underneath is home to an independent radio station and a huge, unforgettable atrium ringed by outdoor café terraces. The last adjective I would use to describe Langham Place is “bland,” which can’t be said for most malls.

The way Langham Place treats the streets around it is another story. The entire complex occupies two narrow city blocks, connected by large enclosed footbridges above street level. One block is home to the office tower and shopping mall; the other contains a luxury hotel, minibus terminus and community centre. As you’d expect from such large buildings sandwiched onto such small blocks, the effect is that of a tunnel — you’re walking down the street past buildings of varying height and suddenly the sun disappears, the wind blows harder and you’re surrounded by huge, featureless walls. Whereas the interior of the mall is memorable and engaging, its exterior is a triumph of commercial gigantism.

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June 8th, 2010

Deps and 7-Eleven

Street food outside 7-Eleven, Phetchaburi, Bangkok

Dépanneurs — the Montreal convenience stores that are a favourite topic of mine — are big in the news lately with the publication of a new book by Judith Lussier, Sacré dépanneur! The latest contribution to the spate of media coverage is a profile by Montreal Gazette reporter Jeff Heinrich of Joe Zhou, who owns a dep on the Plateau’s Duluth Street.

Clocking in at 2,600 words, Heinrich’s piece is the longest newspaper feature on deps I’ve ever read, and he puts the length to great effect with detailed descriptions of Zhou and his clientele. Zhou is a former electrical engineer from China who obtained a second engineering degree in Montreal, only to find himself shut out of the job market because he had no Canadian work experience. (It’s surely a common story among dep owners, many of whom left comfortable middle-class lives in China, only to work 60 hours a week running a shop in Montreal.) To get by, he ended up going into the convenience store business with a Chinese acquaintance.

Zhou’s dep is a crossroads for the entire neighbourhood. It’s the kind of romantic general store that has died out in many parts of the world. “In Quebec, a dépanneur is a kind of community,” he tells Heinrich. “People are friends here. They know you, they talk to you like you’re a member of the family. They tell you about their daughter, their son, their neighbours, their neighbourhood — you always learn something. We communicate. Around here, I know everybody. When my customers come here, I know what they want.”

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March 2nd, 2010

The Future of Canadian Cities

In 2008, Carmine Starnino, poet and now editor of Maisonneuve magazine, asked me to write an essay on the future of Canadian cities for an issue of Canadian Notes and Queries he was guest-editing. Here’s what I came up with.

Some days, on the corner of Clark and de la Gauchetière in Montreal, you’ll find a fortune teller who can read your fate in English, French, Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s a very non-specific kind of fate, which is usually the case with fortune tellers, but I sometimes wonder what he would have to say about larger subjects—like the city that surrounds him, for instance. What will it, and others like it across the country, look like in a generation? I’m no fortune teller, but here are three trends I think might influence the shape of our cities in the near future.

1. Edible cities

I never thought much about my family’s backyard when growing up in Calgary. Wide and shallow, its grassy expanse was eventually surrendered to our two dogs, who used it as their toilet. We were far from exceptional, and what still strikes me when I drive through Canadian suburbs is the sheer amount of empty grass. It’s always seemed like an egregious waste of space.

But things are starting to change. Small efforts are being made to introduce small-scale agriculture and locally-grown food into Canadian cities. Green roofs and backyard gardens have emerged in Vancouver; food co-ops in Toronto. In Montreal, the Minimum-Cost Housing Group has been busy finding ways to marry food production with urban life.

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February 7th, 2010

The Slow Death of Hawker Stalls

Mr. and Mrs. Wong have sold electrical appliances — lightbulbs, wiring, batteries and that sort of thing — from a green wooden stall on Aberdeen Street for more than 50 years. I met then when I was working on a CNNGo story about the gentrifying neighbourhood in Central now known as Noho, which is short for “North of Hollywood Road.”

Over the past five years, Noho has become a destination for art galleries, wine bars and trendy restaurants. In 2007, it was featured in the New York Times’ “Surfacing” column, which declared it a “cooler alternative to the nearby, expatriate-dominated Soho,” the trendy neighbourhood just up the hill. For Noho’s old restaurants, the neighbourhood’s sudden popularity has been a boon. People line up around the block to eat at the 90-year-old Kau Kee beef brisket noodle shop and Sing Heung Yuen, a classic dai pai dong.

But for the Wongs, business is terrible. “We’re lucky to make a few hundred dollars a day,” Mrs. Wong told me. She complained about the incessant traffic on Aberdeen Street, which is just two lanes wide but has become, over the years, a funnel for northbound traffic. The neighbourhood’s gentrification hasn’t helped, either: a few years ago, the block of apartments across the street from the Wongs was razed and replaced by a boutique hotel full of tourists who are certainly not interested in buying lightbulbs.

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December 14th, 2009

A Hasidic Exodus from Park Avenue?

Posted in Canada, Demographics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Hasidic Jewish procession

The Montreal Gazette reported this weekend that the Hasidic community in Outremont and Mile End is suffering from a housing shortage. In 2002, there were about 4,200 Hasidim in the neighbourhood; today there are more than 6,000. Rising property values mean that many new Hasidic families are finding themselves priced out of their own Montreal heartland. Apparently, the hunt is on to find a new neighbourhood with suitable and affordable housing.

If the Hasidic community does move on, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a Jewish community has come and gone. The entire swath of city from Chinatown right up to Little Italy is littered with former synagogues that were abandoned when the original Jewish community moved west. But it wouldn’t be a good thing if the Hasidim leave.

First of all, a Hasidic exodus would be a disaster for Park Avenue’s economy. Hasidic Jews make up more than 25 percent of Outremont’s population, and even they have their own Yiddish bookstores and kosher eateries, they still rely on non-Hasidic businesses for everything else, like drugs, hardware, stationery and fresh fruits and vegetables. Most of those shops are on Park Avenue; imagine the impact if they lost a quarter of their business.

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June 28th, 2009

Goodbye Gutzlaff

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Politics, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Gutzlaff Street

Whenever you come across a particularly charming and surprising corner of Hong Kong, you can almost be sure that the Urban Renewal Authority has plans to do away with it. Although its official vision is “to create quality and vibrant urban living in Hong Kong,” most of its developments obliterate tight-knit communities and organic urban growth in favour of shopping malls, office developments and housing estates. Cynical Hong Kongers see the URA as a proxy for the big land developers that control this town; its projects are usually little more than land grabs for Hong Kong’s economic elite. Aside from displacing well-established neighbourhood social networks, they replace small-scale, independent businesses with corporate chain stores, which degrades the entrepreneurial spirit on which this city was built.

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June 25th, 2009

Now Showing: Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, Film, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf
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Josh Kim’s 2006 short, The Police Box

Where has Hong Kong gone? Once a world filmmaking capital, it has nearly vanished from the silver screen. Each year, far fewer feature films are made here than in cities such as Vancouver, Seoul and Tehran. What’s more, many recent Hong Kong movies, geared towards the lucrative mainland market, lack the local flavour that once made them so distinctive.

That’s something one of Hong Kong’s newest and most energetic film festivals hopes to change. After a one-year hiatus, I Shot Hong Kong is back, with a programme of 26 proudly local short films, music videos and documentaries.

“Hong Kong has lost its status as a premier filmmaking centre,” laments Craig Leeson, who helped found the festival in 2005. “In the late 1980s and early 90s, we were making 300 films a year here. From the start of 2001 until now, we’ve been making less than 50 a year. I think one of the reasons for that is that there’s no support for independent filmmakers or new talent. We’re not propagating filmmakers at the grass-roots level.”

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May 4th, 2009

Temporary Stores Thrive as Others Fade

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Temporary store

Temporary store in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo by K.Y. Cheng

There’s no mistaking the scene on Jordan Road: people are hunting for bargains. In the hollowed-out remains of an old clothing store, the faded words “In Fashion” still visible above the entrance, a motley crowd looks through boxes of discount Crocs sandals and kitschy plastic jewellery. In the corner, a man hawks vacuum-sealed plastic containers, his amplified voice competing for attention with the shop’s other employees, whose sales pitches are also broadcast through loudspeakers.

The miniature bazaar, which has no name, is the creation of Peter Hui, a 32-year-old entrepreneur who moved to Hong Kong from Fujian in 1996. A little over a decade ago, during the Asian financial crisis, he was working as a door-to-door watch salesman when he noticed temporary variety stores being opened in vacant retail spaces.

“The economy was quite bad and businesses were not very profitable, but we saw some people with these outlet stores and thought, ah yes, that’s a good concept,” said Hui. “Selling things for cheaper, no renovation fees, low expenses and temporary leases. That’s all good for making a profit.”

Hui and his company, Price Killer Shop Group, now own 10 temporary stores around the city. In a way, he embodies Hong Kong’s entrepreneurial energy, which manages to find expression even in the midst of an economic downturn. Even as the recession deepens and consumers dig ever deeper into their pockets, there is money to be made, and discount temporary stores like Hui’s are becoming more and more common.

Until now, the city’s retail market seemed to be doing well in spite of the ongoing financial crisis. Sales grew in November, December and January, but recently-unveiled governments statistics show a precipitous drop in February, with sales down 12.6 percent from 2008. Even considering the “New Year effect”—last year’s Lunar New Year fell in February, boosting retail sales in that month—retail is still down by a significant amount.

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April 28th, 2009

Dépanneurs Beyond the Beer Ads

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Dépanneur

I’ve long been fascinated by dépanneurs, the ubiquitous Montreal convenience store that are usually owner-operated and ramshackle in appearance. They’re an integral part of life in Montreal—most people visit them at least once or twice a day for beer, milk, lotto tickets, cigarettes or a snack—and they occupy a vital place in the social and economic spheres of a neighbourhood. More than that, however, they are a microcosm of much broader trends, including immigration policies and the Quebec government’s attempt to protect homegrown retail.

Dépanneurs are subject to a heavier regulatory load than convenience stores in other parts of North America. Cigarette taxes are high, beer is subject to a minimum price of $2.73 per litre and alcohol cannot be sold after 11pm, for example. There is justification behind these regulations: cigarette taxes line government pockets and ostensibly dissuade people from smoking; minimum beer prices prevent supermarkets from undercutting dépanneurs and laws on store opening hours are meant to protect small retailers from chains. Although the continued abundance of survival of dépanneurs in Montreal is a direct result of government intervention in the retail sector—the law on beer prices is one of many designed to protect neighbourhood deps from supermarkets—some laws and regulations have unintended consequences.

Here’s one example: international cigarette smuggling. As cigarette taxes have risen, Mohawk entrepreneurs have taken advantage of their special right to unrestricted cross-border trade and movement to import large amounts of Mohawk-made cigarettes from the United States to Canada, which are then sold illegally to non-natives through shops on reserves and in Montreal dépanneurs, some of which sell black-market cigarettes despite the risk of harsh penalties. Some brands of American-made Mohawk cigarettes have become so popular that counterfeit versions are now being made on reserves in Quebec.

Similarly, immigration policies have had an unintended impact on Montreal’s dépanneurs. Many professionals who immigrate to Canada from overseas face high barriers to entry into the workforce. Dépanneurs are a popular alternative to menial labour, since they are relatively inexpensive to buy and offer a decent living in exchange for long hours of monotonous, solitary work. The vast majority of Montreal dépanneurs are now run by immigrants, most of them recent arrivals from Asia, which has led to increased competition among deps, but more innovation, too. In immigrant-rich neighbourhoods, many deps now double as ethnic supermarkets, selling Indian spices and Chinese vegetables alongside Quebec beer.

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April 8th, 2009

The Multinational Ding-Ding

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Hong Kong tram

The ding-ding, Hong Kong’s 105-year-old tramway is now a multinational asset. Yesterday, local conglomerate Whalf Holdings sold 50 percent of its shares in Hongkong Tramways to the French transportation company Veolia, which retains the option to buy the remaining half. “Operating the light rail system in Hong Kong will give us the knowledge and expertise in mainland China. That’s strategically why we chose to start in Hong Kong,” said the head of Veolia’s new Chinese division. While I’m not sure that’s a very good strategy (what does running a century-old British-style tramway in Hong Kong teach you about operating modern light rail in, say, Chongqing?), it does raise some questions about the future of a beloved piece of Hong Kong transport.

So far, Veolia has promised not to make any changes to the tramway’s current operations. Although they are much slower than the MTR, trams remain extremely popular, largely because they cost just $2 (about 30 Canadian cents) to ride. I’m willing to bet that the experience of rattling through the canyons of Wan Chai or North Point, wind rushing through open windows, has something to do with it too. After all, the tram is the very opposite of the sleek, air-conditioned MTR, and it can often be more enjoyable to ride than the loud, dingy buses that serve local routes on the Hong Kong side of the harbour. Hongkong Tramways makes about $150 million from fares, which hasn’t changed for several years, but the revenue from advertising on trams and tram stations has increased from $20 million to $50 million since 2004. Even considering the poor state of the economy, it seems almost inevitable that advertising will play an ever more prominent part in the tramway’s operation.

While there may not be any changes to the current tram line, Veolia will spearhead a proposal to run a spur line along the newly-reclaimed Central waterfront, from the Star Ferry pier to the convention centre in Wan Chai. It’s a great idea, one that could help offset the decline in Star Ferry ridership and give the public better access to waterfront open space. The only problem is that the guiding principle behind the new line would be nostalgia: the rolling stock would consist of custom-made replicas of the various types of trams that have served Hong Kong through the decades. In other words, instead of a proper, serious tram line along the waterfront, we’d have a tram better-suited to running a loop around the perimeter of Hong Kong Disneyland. I can easily envision a Peak Tram-style line that caters to tourists and charges far more than any normal transit user would be willing to pay. Hong Kong’s tramway is nostalgic enough; any new investment should be focused on making it more efficient and useful to the public.

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April 5th, 2009

Recession City

Posted in Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

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Anti-capitalist street art, SoHo, New York

It’s a Saturday evening and the Boston subway is packed. The train is stalled on the platform at Downtown Crossing station, and the car has been filling up for nearly thirty minutes. Tensions are rising. One new arrival finds me slumped in my seat, impatient:

“Aw, look at this!” he announces to the train. “This guy can go wherever he wants, but can I go to his neighborhood? I’m not hating on him. I don’t know anything about him. I’m just saying, I’m angry, and I want to take it out. I want to do something to him. Because times have changed. It’s gonna be like the new 70s.” He is middle-aged, black, bedraggled, carrying a dusty briefcase. He looks like he is struggling, but not destitute. As he begins to be surrounded by more impoverished riders – and more affluent targets – he finishes his rant, asks for the time, and starts wondering, incessantly, when the train will move again.

Cities by their very nature are points of attraction for dense masses of people, compelling exchange, activism, and interaction. But when the world starts to become unpleasant, cities begin to manifest the dark side of these normally positive activities. The shimmering skyline becomes a symbol of excess; public spaces become fora for unrest rather than green lungs or safety valves; begging, crime, protest, and selfishness become more rude, more common, more crude.

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