September 22nd, 2010

An Afternoon in Taipa

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

Macau is selling its soul to the gods of gambling but there are still places to admire the city as it once was. One of those places, surprisingly enough, is the old village of Taipa, just a poker chip’s throw away from the grotesqueries of Cotai, the reclaimed land now home to casinos like the Venetian and the City of Dreams.

Most of Taipa consists of fairly anonymous apartment towers, but the village at its heart is a likable mess of ramshackle Portuguese houses, sleepy streets and small businesses. The tourists that venture here tend to stick to the main commercial district, where they line up to buy Macau-style pastries and pork chop buns. Walk a block away from the bakeries and you’ll find yourself immersed in a quiet kind of life that might soon disappear from Macau altogether.

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August 15th, 2010

Rethinking Urban Renewal in Hong Kong

This is a feature story that was originally published in the July 2010 edition of Muse magazine. The photos accompanying this article were taken around the Graham Street Market in Central.

Standing in the soggy heat of a late spring afternoon, Katty Law reflected on the irony that it took a movie a mere two months to do what she has been fighting to achieve for two years. “We’ve been talking about Wing Lee Street for so long,” she said, looking up at a rusted balcony on this sleepy street in Sheung Wan. “But we couldn’t convince the government to save the whole street.”

That was before the makers of Echoes of the Rainbow picked the street — with its single row of tong laus built just before and after World War II — as the perfect backdrop for their weepy drama about a shoemaker’s family in 1960s Hong Kong. After the movie won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, dozens of photographers, schoolchildren and sightseers started visiting the narrow street, recording the details of an urban scene that has become nearly extinct in Hong Kong. As the crowd of pilgrims grew, heritage advocates raised their voices and a group of architects, engineers and urban planners joined in, urging the URA to preserve all of the buildings on Wing Lee Street.

Government officials were listening. In a surprise announcement, the Secretary for Development, Carrie Lam, announced that Wing Lee Street would be withdrawn from the urban renewal site. For Law, co-founder of the Central and Western District Concern Group, the announcement was only a temporary respite from the overall battle to persuade the government to rethink its entire approach to urban design. Her aim is to get the government to encourage development that is sensitive to the environment, that enhances the city’s streetlife and sense of community and that respects Hong Kong’s history and heritage. “Right now, developers can do whatever they want, and they’re facilitated by the government. We need planning controls,” she said.

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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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July 21st, 2010

Saving an Historic Site — Then What?

When Cynthia Lee Hong-yee found out that her family planned to sell her grandfather’s private garden to developers, she returned from the United States to take photos of the lush greenery and eclectic Western-influenced Chinese architecture.

“I was capturing some of the details and I realized I just couldn’t capture Dragon Garden’s greatness,” she said. “It has to be experienced.”

She realized the garden needed to be saved — and it was up to her to do it. After a contentious battle with the relatives who owned the garden, Lee managed to persuade her uncle, Lee Shiu, to save it from redevelopment by purchasing it from his brothers and nephews for HK$100 million. The plan, after that, was to donate the garden to the government, which would then open it to the public.

That was in 2006. Since then, the garden, which is located on the shores of the Rambler Channel just west of Sham Tseng, has sat in limbo, free from the threat of demolition but with no concrete plans to restore it and open it to the public. The Lees’ original offer to donate the garden was rebuffed by the government. It later changed tack and said it could take over the site, but would not guarantee how it would be used in the future.

As Hong Kong debates how best to preserve its heritage, the case of Dragon Garden poses a question that has proved surprisingly hard to answer: once you’ve saved an historic site, what do you do with it?

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April 4th, 2010

The View from West Kowloon

The biennale of architecture and urbanism that took place in West Kowloon earlier this year was underfunded and underattended, but it was also an example of what shape Hong Kong’s future “cultural district” could take. The official plans call for museums, concert halls, public squares and other well-defined, well-regulated spaces, but what the biennale showed was that the most successful and imaginative uses of space are often those that are planned the least. By scattering installations along a waterfront promenade and using an overgrown vacant lot for artistic interventions, film screenings, forums and outdoor concerts, the biennale created its own ad-hoc cultural district, one that was far more thought-provoking than any government-imposed cultural centre could ever be.

Alas, big buildings make for better photo-ops than scruffy fields, so West Kowloon will eventually be dug up and turned into something more respectable. This summer, Sir Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaus and local architect Rocco Yim will unveil three new proposals for the district. Originally, the cultural district was conceived as a tourist attraction, but after it was revealed to be little more than a property-development boondoggle — a single property developer would be given the multi-billion-dollar contract to build the whole thing — it was sent back to the drawing board in 2006. Since then, it has ignited a wide-ranging discussion on the state of the arts in Hong Kong; whatever happens now, it seems clear that public pressure is on the government to ensure that the cultural district exists for the benefit of Hong Kong people, not just for property developers and the businesses that profit from tourism.

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January 11th, 2010

The Old Mid-Levels

Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels has always been a wealthy place, home first to the city’s Western elite and then to a broader mix of local and expatriate professionals. Its narrow, hilly streets were once lined by mansions, rowhouses and lowrise apartment blocks, but that has gradually given way to a kind of vertical suburbia where giant apartment towers sit atop parking garage podiums that face the street with blank walls and driveways.

These hostile, extravagant constructions make the Mid-Levels an unpleasant place to walk around, despite the overall quietude and the abundance of greenery. But there are still a handful of streets that retain a pleasant human scale. These are streets where pedestrians are greeted by big windows, balconies, rough-cut stone walls and small shops, not over-the-top fountains, hotel-style lobbies and massive driveways.

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December 27th, 2009

Tongren Road’s Last Stand

Tongren Road

This is a collection of pictures of the last night the infamous Tongren Road strip was open and functioning.

Tongren Road runs right through the commercial heart of the Jing An district in Shanghai. A very small strip (like half a block) of this road was one of many red light districts that are scattered through out the city. What made this particular strip interesting was that it existed for a quite a long time surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in Shanghai and China. On December 17th, this notorious half a block was shut down in preparation for the Expo in 2010. There is also a billion-plus-dollar development going up right across the street. The new Kerry Center office complex and a Shangri-La hotel will open in two years.

While I don’t normally frequent areas like these, I have to admit that I always had a soft spot for Tongren Road. It was its long-lasting grittiness and sleaziness amongst the immediate gentrification that surrounded it that made it unique.

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December 23rd, 2009

A/C/City

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

Air conditioning units

Air conditioning is a bit like a narcotic: once it claws its way into your life, you begin changing yourself to accommodate its demands. When air conditioning became common in Hong Kong, it changed the very fabric of the city, shrinking windows, destroying verandahs, turning streets into dripping, humming corridors meant to serve the useful space, which moved indoors.

In the past, Hong Kong architecture emphasized shade and ventilation, with arcaded sidewalks and large windows. The new architecture of A/C turned its back on these traditional ways of coping with a hot climate, eventually creating a city that struggles with a severe urban heat island effect and wall-like buildings that block the wind and trap pollution.

December 23rd, 2009

Hong Kong’s Wild West

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

West Kowloon

Last Sunday, Clara Lee and her nine-year-old daughter Hoi-ching were wandering through the craggy grass and gnarly trees that make up the West Kowloon site of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture.

“It’s big here!” exclaimed Hoi-ching. “I don’t often go to the countryside.”

“Actually,” said her mother, “this is not the countryside. We’re in the city.”

Hoi-ching looked up, perplexed. “But it feels like the country.”

She could be excused for being mistaken. After it was created from landfill fifteen years ago, parts of West Kowloon were developed with malls and highrises, while a narrow strip of waterfront was recently converted into a public park and promenade. But most of it was simply fenced off and left fallow; land reclaimed from the sea was gradually reclaimed by nature. With the totems of Hong Kong finance soaring at either end of the site, it’s an odd experience to wander along a dirt road past wild grass, untamed shrubs and the sound of crickets buzzing in the sun.

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December 3rd, 2009

Historical Sleuthing

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

Streamline moderne infill

Photo by David Bellis

The best way to learn about a city is to simply wander the streets: eventually, something will catch your attention, like an odd-looking cornice or the way a road curves, and you’ll ask yourself why it is the way it is. Idle curiosity is how I began my research on Montreal’s street signs and Hong Kong’s rooftops. For David Bellis, who runs the Hong Kong heritage website Gwulo, it was an architectural flourish that led him to wonder about three streets in Causeway Bay.

Halfway between the shopping hubs of Times Square and Sogo, on the corner of Yun Ping and Lan Fong roads, is a smart-looking, vaguely Art Deco building that serves as a hotel. At first glance, it seems to be an older postwar building that was recently restored; its architecture is in the same half-Deco, half-Modernist style that was popular here in the 1950s. This structure, though, is particularly sleek and not as utilitarian as most, with clean lines that curve gracefully around the building’s corner edge.

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October 2nd, 2009

Too Dirty to Swim

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

Lido Beach, Tsuen Wan

Lido Beach

Tsuen Wan, west of Kowloon, is known more as an industrial and commercial hub than as a seaside getaway. But until the early 1990s, the district’s seven sandy beaches, which stretch out along the Rambler Channel, were among the most popular in Hong Kong. As pollution from raw sewage worsened in the 1990s and 2000s, however, the beaches was closed for swimming.

Now, thanks to sewage improvement works, they may finally reopen within two years. Officials say water quality at the beaches is improving after work to channel and treat the waste, and they could be fit for use again by the summer of 2011.

The HK$1 billion scheme, which began early this decade, includes new trunk and branch sewers and a treatment plant at Sham Tseng, which was one of the first in Hong Kong to disinfect waste through ultraviolet radiation.

“Twenty years ago there were no sewage treatment facilities, no sewage works whatsoever in the area,” said Elvis Au Wai-kwong, assistant director of the Environmental Protection Department’s water policy division. “But the population of the area around the beaches increased by 42 per cent after 1996, from 26,000 to around 37,000.”

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July 9th, 2009

The Son’s House: Hong Kong’s Plexes

Village house, Tai Po

Ding uk in Kam Sham Village, Tai Po

I never thought I’d find a triplex in Hong Kong but it turns out there’s thousands of them. While Montreal’s triplexes were mostly built in the early twentieth century, the ones in Hong Kong, known in Cantonese as ding uk, are actually fairly recent.

While ding uk are usually called “village houses” in English, this isn’t a very precise translation: the term actually means “sons’ houses.” They’re a product of a 1972 law that allows the first-born sons of Hong Kong’s indigenous families to build a house in their ancestral villages without having to pay for the land. There are hundreds of such villages in the New Territories of Hong Kong, which were granted special rights, including a certain degree of self-determination, when they were annexed by Britain in 1898. In order to regulate the demand for housing, the law limited ding uk to three stories in height and 2,100 square feet of floor space.

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June 1st, 2009

Where High Rises Grow from Rice Paddies

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment by Sam Massie

Chandeliers in Guzhen

Urbanphoto is pleased to welcome our newest contributor, Sam Massie, who is en route to Kunming, Yunnan, where he is starting a new job with a Chinese NGO. He will blog about urban spaces in southwestern China.

Ever wonder where chandeliers come from? The answer is usually Guzhen, a city in China’s Guangdong province that produces 60% of the world’s light fixtures. It isn’t just one or two factories; the entire city is devoted to the sale and production of lights. Riding a taxi through Guzhen, I passed block after block of eight-story buildings, the storefronts of which glittered with the light of thousand of lamps and chandeliers. As we pulled onto the highway, my cab driver remarked lazily: “This area was farmland three years ago.” I him whether he preferred living in the old countryside or the new city. He replied that he preferred living in the countryside because the air was less polluted, and because it was quieter.

The cab driver could have been talking about any town in the Pearl River Delta. This region, which includes the cities of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, contains hundreds of specialized factory towns that churn out manufactured goods for export to every continent. Rapid growth in exports has in turn led to similarly rapid urbanization. But “urban growth” or “sprawl” don’t even begin to describe the scale of the change underway — it’s as though the entire Pearl River region is going from countryside to big-city overnight.

For the whole duration of the three-hour cab ride, I saw waves of pink-tile houses erupting from rice paddies, the concrete posts of unfinished highway overpasses looming overhead, and forests of 30-story high-rises sprouting near every intersection. This phenomenon is best described as in-situ urbanization: it occurs without center or direction, with no visible line between city and countryside, and no urban center driving outward expansion. Every village is sprouting high rises.

Guzhen bridge construction

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