May 22nd, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part I

Great Leap Brewery in Doujiao Hutong

It’s the third day of the Chinese New Year and Beijing is taking a break. Traffic has unjammed itself, department stores are shuttered and bursts of fireworks cut through the cold, dry air. As my taxi passes over the Second Ring Road, the streets are quiet until the Gulou comes into view. It’s an imposing, 727-year-old tower with vermillion walls and sweeping rooflines. Originally built to house a collection of drums, it now serves mainly as a riposte to the concrete tower blocks that have come to dominate much of Beijing. This neighbourhood is different, consisting of low-slung, grey-walled courtyard houses arranged along alleyways known as hutongs.

I climb out of the taxi and cross the street, plunging myself into a crowd of hawkers selling sugar-glazed fruits and barbecued eggplant. Families pass by, gawking at quirky designer t-shirts hanging in shop windows; a cyclist rings his bell as he negotiates around a group of friends. I am standing on Nanluoguxiang, a narrow row of shops and cafés that cuts through some of Beijing’s oldest hutongs. On this otherwise quiet February night, it seems like the whole city has come here to shop, snack and stroll.

“When you walk through the hutongs, it’s a nice atmosphere, an interesting mix of tourists and Beijing people who have been living there since childhood,” says Michel Sutyadi, a German-Chinese designer who runs NLGX, a lifestyle brand inspired by Nanluoguxiang.

Beijing might be the capital of the world’s most populous nation, a sprawling city of 20 million with a centuries-long history, known to the rest of the world for its vastness, off-the-charts smog and the blow-out bash that was the 2008 Olympics. Look past the vastness of the Forbidden City and the traffic-choked ring roads, however, and you’ll find the surprising truth about this northern capital: Beijing is a disarmingly down-to-earth place, where imposing boulevards give way to back streets filled with bicycle peddlers, ancient courtyard houses and endless small discoveries.

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April 14th, 2014

Street Food in Busan

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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I can still remember the ssiat hotteok in Busan: moist, thick pancakes stuffed with brown sugar, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, as if a French crêpe had voyaged to America, eaten too many Krispy Kremes and stumbled head-first into a Korean dry goods shop. It was the perfect salve for the early winter chill.

In Seomyeon, a busy shopping and nightlife hub that is the closest thing Busan has to a centre, there were two hotteok stalls on the street behind a large department store. One had a perpetual line of customers, evidently because it had been featured in magazines and on TV — there was a small screen fixed to the side of the stall playing clips of food show hosts eagerly snacking on the pancake. Immediately adjacent was another stall, which never seemed to have any customers. I first tried the popular one and then, feeling sorry for the competitor, I returned the next day to try it out, too. I’m sorry to say, there was a reason for the lines. As much as I want to support the underdog, its hotteok was just not up to stuff. Not bad, just underwhelming — somehow less plump and flavoursome as the stall next door.

In a way, that’s kind of how I felt about Busan. Maybe it was the time of year — early winter, when the sun sets early and everyone is shell-shocked by the first signs of chill — or maybe it was just the contrast to Seoul, which is such a huge and dynamic city it makes everywhere else in Korea seem shoddy and sleepy. It doesn’t help that Busan is a nebulous sprawl that flows along shorelines and in mountain valleys, never acquiring enough mass in any one place to feel as big as its size should allow. More than 3.5 million people live in Busan, but they are spread out across 767 square kilometres, a slightly larger area than Seoul’s 10 million people.

Busan is nevertheless a very likable city. It is much less formal and inhibited than Seoul, and one of the ways this manifests itself is in its street life. Much of the city is low-slung and quiet, but the busy parts are filled with street vendors selling hotteok and much, much more: egg pudding, spicy rice cake, fresh fruit, or best of all, outdoor restaurants run by middle-aged women with permed hair, who gruffly serve you soup and bowls of rice.

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February 24th, 2014

Tokyo in the Snow

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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It didn’t look like much at first. “Just a bit of snow,” I thought as I gazed at the thick, heavy flakes settling onto the street outside. But Tokyo doesn’t get a lot of snow in the first place, and I should have realized from the way it was sticking to the willow tree outside — or the excited news coverage on TV, whose live-on-scene reporters stood in front of struggling commuters, snow piling up on their sodden heads — that this wasn’t going to be a light dusting. This was snow day snow.

We walked to the metro, plastic umbrella struggling against the wind, passing by grimacing cyclists and buses with chained-up tires thudding ominously down the street. By the time we arrived in Harajuku, half an hour later, the city was already in blizzard shutdown mode. Service on a growing number of train lines was suspended; there was hardly any traffic on the streets. As we passed down one back alley, a car got stuck in a snowy gutter and its driver rushed out and used his hands to dig out snow from beneath one of the tires. “Mondai nai, arigato” — “Don’t worry about it” — he said when we offered to help push the car, so we trudged on down the street, the sound of fruitlessly spinning wheels receding behind us.

Later that evening, as the sun set and we made our way down Meiji Dori to the heart of Shibuya, shops began to close early. Cars rolled past with a muffled crunch; people giggled and smiled as they made their way through snowbanks. Here’s the thing about snow: it makes even the biggest city in the world a very small place indeed. There was a sense of common purpose, a temporary breach in the anonymity of the streets. Grown men and women threw snowballs at one another in front of shuttered department stores. A week later, when Tokyo was blanked with another record-breaking snowfall, people were spotted skiing around Shibuya.

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February 11th, 2014

Rising With the Sun

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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

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January 26th, 2014

Bring in the Year of the Horse

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Two weeks before Chinese New Year, the floor creaks as Sunny Yim walks through the bamboo theatre he has helped build. A few of his wiry colleagues stand on a platform, making adjustments to the lattice of bamboo rods that is holding this cavernous structure aloft, but the work is mostly done. Yim, a compact man with a ruddy face, looks up at the vast ceiling with satisfaction. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, since I was 15,” he says. “I only build theatres. This is my passion.”

Soon, the theatre will be filled with chairs, red lanterns and the wail of Cantonese opera as 800 people converge to celebrate the new lunar year. Chinese New Year is a time for traditions, even in aggressively modern Hong Kong: families reunite for dinner and lunch, freshly-swept homes are filled with exuberant bouquets, the crash and clamour of lion dances herald good luck in the months to come. Bamboo theatres, strangely enough, have never been part of New Year festivities, at least not in the city centre. But this is a new tradition, the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, that was launched to great success in 2012. Its first edition featured five days of opera, films and art. This year, the festivities will last for nearly a month. “We’ve moved the theatre next to the waterfront,” says Louis Yu, performance director for the West Kowloon Cultural District. The schedule is more packed than ever: not just Cantonese opera, but 10 of its counterparts from across China’s cultural spectrum, plus free screenings of Chinese opera films.

Hong Kong is never more alive than in the weeks before the new year, which culminates in a frenzy of all-night activity on New Year’s Eve, which this year falls on January 30. On the old stone steps of Ladder Street, under the spindly vines of a banyan tree, neighbourhood residents ask for good-luck banners penned by a calligrapher. Kung hei fat choi is the classic message — “Wishing you prosperity” — but there are plenty of others, too, like Yat fan fong shun (“May everything go smoothly”). In Victoria Park and a handful of other spots around the city, round-the-clock new year fairs are stocked with novelty gifts, many inspired by the coming year’s zodiac sign. (Expect a lot of cute horses this time around.)

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December 28th, 2013

One Day in Toronto

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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

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October 8th, 2013

Taipei’s Urban Regeneration

景觀第一排

Treasure Hill. Photo by Wunkai

It’s a scorchingly hot afternoon in Taipei and cicadas are buzzing loudly outside the Treasure Hill Temple. A man in cycling gear stops to take a swig of water before turning towards the temple’s statue of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. He clasps his hands and bows three times, paying his respects.

A few metres away, Travis Hung stands watching. “This temple was built a few hundred years ago in the Qing Dynasty,” he tells me. “It used to be one of the most important temples around Taipei.” When the Japanese took over Taiwan in 1895, they deemed the hilly area around the temple to have exceptionally good water and banned development. For years, only six families lived nearby. Then came the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalists who placed Taiwan under martial law after fleeing from mainland China in 1949. More than 200 ex-soldiers and their families flocked to Treasure Hill, where they built houses and small farms, creating a unique rural community just a stone’s throw away from central Taipei.

Today, Treasure Hill is an altogether different kind of settlement, home to 14 artist studios, exhibition and performance spaces, a café and a youth hostel, along with a handful of longtime residents who maintain the same tile-roofed houses and small patches of farmland they built after 1949. “This is a special place,” says Hung, who works for the non-profit foundation that manages the village.

Treasure Hill is just one part of a cultural renaissance that has swept through Taipei, turning neglected urban spaces into design studios, music halls, craft workshops and independent shops. The Songshan Creative and Cultural Park brings art and design into a former tobacco factory; Huashan Creative Park is former distillery that is now a popular destination for music fans and arts and craft lovers; the Taipei Cinema Park screens films outdoors.

“We are facing competition from China, globalization, climate change, a low birth rate,” says Lin Yu-hsiu, a section chief at the Urban Regeneration Office, which transforms vacant buildings into creative spaces. “We have to think about how to move forward, but in a wiser way than before. We want a better life.”

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September 29th, 2013

Elevations

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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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.

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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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July 6th, 2013

The Nightless City

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Film, Maps, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf
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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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June 18th, 2013

The End of the Line

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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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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June 14th, 2013

Exploring Mei Foo

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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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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April 28th, 2013

Beach Life in the Winter

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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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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April 23rd, 2013

The House on Derby Road

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

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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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