March 30th, 2015

A Revolution in Place

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It has been more than four months since Occupy Hong Kong’s pro-democracy encampments were cleared away, but the Umbrella Revolution continues to evolve. More than a protest in favour of genuine universal suffrage, the 79-day occupation sparked a “revolution in public consciousness.” Among the notions being overturned: Hong Kong’s neoliberal approach to managing the urban environment, which has for so long deprived the city of genuine public space.

I was away for the first three weeks of Occupy, and by the time I returned to Hong Kong, the occupied areas had become entrenched. When I first visited the Admiralty site, located on a normally traffic-clogged highway called Harcourt Road, I was astonished to see it had become a self-organized tent city. Volunteer carpenters used scrap furniture and bamboo rods to create staircases across highway barriers. One traffic lane was occupied by a makeshift study centre, complete with desks and generator-powered lights, that was always filled with teenagers and university students hunched over their books. A library emerged near the entrance to the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s equivalent of a parliament, with donated bookshelves filled with pop culture magazines and works of political philosophy. Art was everywhere. There were portraits of activists and cartoons denouncing Hong Kong’s chief executive, CY Leung (whom activists see as a puppet of Beijing). The area around a wood sculpture of a man holding a yellow umbrella came to be known as Umbrella Square. Nearby, a curving concrete staircase was covered in messages of multi-coloured Post-It messages of support; it was called the Lennon Wall, after the late Liverpudlian peacenik.

If Admiralty was personified by middle-class students and office workers, Mongkok was their chain-smoking, van-driving cousin. The atmosphere was edgier than Admiralty but in many ways more vital, because the neighbourhood is such a crossroads of different people. There were always lively discussions and passersby reading the posters that had been affixed to every surface. (Mainland Chinese tourists always seemed especially curious.) The Mongkok site extended down Nathan Road, a major artery that had been liberated from the diesel fumes that normally cloud its air. There was a makeshift altar to Kwan Yu, the Chinese god of war, which attracted worshippers who planted fresh incense throughout the day. Just a few metres away, a group of Catholic protesters had built a shrine that came to be known as St. Francis’ Chapel on the Street. There was an ad hoc library and a space for nightly film screenings.

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March 3rd, 2015

Hong Kong’s Problem with Heritage

Hong Kong Kowloon Station 3rd August 1981

Kowloon Station, 1981.
Photo by Loose Grip 99

It’s one of those mid-summer days when it seems impossible to escape the heat, so it comes as a relief to step into the air-conditioned room that houses Sparkle! Can We Live (Together), an oddly-named exhibition that explores the relationship between artists and the communities in which they live. It’s interesting stuff, especially the documentation of art collective Woofer Ten and designer Michael Leung’s work with urban farmers around Yau Ma Tei. But my attention is also drawn to the venue of the exhibition: the original headquarters of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, built in 1908. Last year, it was carefully renovated and converted into Oi!, a community art centre whose name is a goofy reference to its location on Oil Street.

Oi! is one of many historic buildings that have been converted into cultural venues in recent years. It’s a remarkable turn of events, because for most of its history, Hong Kong never cared much for its past. There were no lessons in Hong Kong history at school, no concern for the origins of local delicacies like pineapple buns and milk tea. And there was certainly no care for the old stone buildings that thronged the shores of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, their mouldy façades and fussy balustrades seen as little more than impediments to property development – property being the only surefire way to become rich in this city with such little soil and so much sea.

Of course, Hong Kong is no longer the grab-and-dash frontier it once was. With maturity comes hindsight and a sense of regret. Last year, I had lunch with a well-to-do businessman with a lifelong passion for architecture. “When I was a boy I used to stare up at the old post office,” he said, recalling the Victorian pile of ornate stonework that once stood on Pottinger Street. “Then Li Ka-shing fucked it up.” World Wide House rose in its place, remarkably unremarkable in appearance, notable only for the Filipino shopping arcade that occupies its lower floors. The fact that it evoked such passion in an otherwise even-tempered businessman says a lot about the long-suppressed emotions that have recently come to surface.

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February 15th, 2015

Inside Victoria Prison

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I’ve been seeing a lot of old Hong Kong photos lately. There was the John Thomson exhibition I wrote about last year, along with an even larger show of historic photography at the Museum of History. HSBC has just unveiled a new historical exhibition in the public space beneath its headquarters. Even Nick DeWolf’s photos, which we wrote about four years ago, are back and once again making the rounds on the web.

What’s shocking about all of these old photos is just how much Hong Kong has changed. Not only have the stone shophouses and handsome colonial buildings disappeared from the landscape, there have been some enormous landmark structures that seemingly vanished without a trace. The Peak Hotel was a cascading pile of Victorian masonry that was destroyed by fire in 1938; a bland shopping mall now occupies the same site. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception once featured a Gothic clock tower that was ignominiously demolished to make way for an access road. The Taikoo Sugar Refinery once loomed over Quarry Bay; Causeway Bay was once an industrial neighbourhood, as was Hung Hom, with its dockyards and brick power station; all of this is gone, visible only in archives and the odd street name.

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January 28th, 2015

How to Live in a Shoebox

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

Hong Kong Flat

Photo by Michali K

What’s wrong with a typical Hong Kong apartment? Lots. Not only is the average apartment just 450 square feet in size, it is loaded with features that make it less, rather than more, liveable. There are bay windows, tiny rooms, odd layouts, unusably small balconies and a complete lack of storage space.

And the problems go even deeper than that, according to architect Dylan Baker-Rice, who runs local studio Affect-T. Thin concrete walls, poorly-sealed windows and exterior tile cladding mean Hong Kong apartments are poorly suited to the city’s climate. “A lot of people suffer from mould and mildew, water leaking in,” he says. “They have to rely on air conditioning because it just too hot and damp inside, and then they’re just breathing recycled air. I think all of these things together mean indoor air quality is quite low in Hong Kong.”

Why do these problems exist? And how can they be dealt with? “It’s all about money,” says Keith Chan, director of interior design firm Hintegro, with specialises in home renovations. That’s true in both senses: developers save money by downloading maintenance and customisation costs onto homeowners.

Architect Jason Carlow says this is the result of an unholy union between cost-cutting, profit-hungry developers and an extremely strict building code that imposes many requirements on flat design, but also gives developers a discount on the gross floor area (GFA) of the development if they include certain features. “Because of the high land values, more than any other city, the built environment of Hong Kong is a direct reflection of the building codes of that time,” says Carlow.

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October 24th, 2014

The City That Built Norman Foster

HSBC under construction

The HSBC Building under construction

It was a typically busy morning at Chek Lap Kok. Thousands of passengers swarmed beneath the vast sweep of the airport’s white roof, duty free bags in hand, squirming children in tow. The line for Starbucks inched ever longer. Yet a cool tranquility reigned over the terminal. That was especially true inside the first class section inside Cathay Pacific’s Wing lounge, where besuited travellers rested against a Carrara marble bar, gazing out to a row of jets sitting idle on the apron. Beyond that, the mountains of Lantau rose against a grey sky.

When the airport first opened, Cathay’s flagship lounge was one of the boldest and most intriguing in the world, with an unapologetically minimalist design by British architect John Pawson – one far removed from the wood panelling and grandfatherly armchairs of most airport lounges. Fifteen years of wear and tear meant it needed an overhaul, and the architecture firm Cathay chose to oversee the redesign was a natural fit: Foster and Partners, the same practice responsible for the airport itself, which opened in 1998. “The airport looks fresher and more modern than many airports built in the last five years,” says Cathay executive Toby Smith, who oversees the airline’s product offerings.

Airports are some of the most loathed spaces in the world: crowded, confusing and beset by increasingly onerous security restrictions that make them feel like some unholy cross between a shopping mall and a prison. But even after a decade and a half of intense use—nearly 60 million people passed through last year—Chek Lap Kok is praised for its durability and, even more importantly, its usability. “It’s absolutely efficient,” says architect Eric Schuldenfrei, who travels frequently for work and conferences. “Even aesthetically, the airport feels light, and the materials are good, so it won’t age badly.”

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October 22nd, 2014

The Urban Space of Occupied Hong Kong

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What surprised me most was the silence. Here I was, standing on what is normally an eight-lane funnel of angry traffic, and the only sounds I could hear were footsteps and the soft murmur of voices. Free of diesel exhaust, the briny scent of the harbour lingered in the air, and a warm breeze ruffled the nylon shells of tents laid out in tidy rows along the sides of the road.

I’ve been away from Hong Kong for six weeks. It seemed like a good time to get away, as the muggy heat of summer dragged on interminably, but two weeks after my departure, a student strike was met with tear gas and suddenly the city was occupied. This wasn’t just Occupy Central, the campaign of civil disobedience that had been promised for a year if Beijing and the local government failed to institute reforms that would allow free elections for Chief Executive in 2017. That campaign had become more of a bogeyman than anything else, a cudgel wielded by autocratic, unaccountable leaders whose box of governance tools consists of fear and intimidation and little else. I had doubts it would even happen. Instead, a much larger and more unwieldy phenomenon occurred: students and their supporters erected barricades in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, effectively wresting control of these important neighbourhoods from the government and placing them in the hands of a loosely affiliated band of citizens.

If you’ve been following the news, you know what happened next: a remarkably peaceful occupation was later attacked by bands of organized thugs, who beat protesters and destroyed their shelters as police shamefully stood by. The next day, protesters rebuilt their encampments and carried on. Each time the occupation seems to be waning, something comes along to jolt it back to life, be it triad attacks, police bullying or the spectacularly tone-deaf leadership of Chief Executive CY Leung, a Beijing puppet who recently told international media that Hong Kong can’t have real democracy because it would give too much power to the city’s many poor people.

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August 30th, 2014

Asia at the Venice Biennale

It was a hot afternoon as a crowd gathered in the courtyard of Hong Kong’s pavilion at the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest and arguably most important architectural event. They were there to discuss Asia’s role in the exhibition – and it didn’t take long for someone to say what was on everyone’s mind. “I counted the number of countries from Asia participating in the biennale, and there are six countries out of sixty-five,” said Dongwoo Yim, one of the contributors to Korea’s pavilion. “It’s not a lot.”

Of course, the picture is more complicated than that. Asia might be underrepresented in some ways, but it has certainly not been ignored. Korea, under the curatorship of Minsuk Cho, won the Golden Lion for best national exhibition, with a thoughtful examination of modernism on both sides of the 38th parallel – and how North and South resemble each other more than one might think. That followed Japan’s award for best pavilion in the 2012 biennale, for an exhibition curated by Toyo Ito that documented reconstruction efforts after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Still, it is hard to deny that Asia’s presence at the biennale is felt much less strongly than its demographic and economic weight would suggest. “The pendulum has swung from West to East,” says architect Ivan Fu, who curated the Hong Kong exhibition along with Alvin Yip and Doreen Liu. “Asia is emerging. It’s the way forward. But the Asian participation [in the biennale] is quite scattered.”

This latest edition of the biennale, which opened in early July and runs until November 22, is the most anticipated in years. Iconoclastic architect Rem Koolhaas agreed to curate the show on the condition that he be given two years to prepare, instead of the usual six months, and he vowed to shift the focus away from individual “starchitects” to the fundamentals of architecture. 65 countries are participating and there are dozens of satellite exhibitions and other events, including film screenings and dance performances.

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July 23rd, 2014

Hong Kong’s Guerrilla Gardeners

It’s not easy to find the Mango King. “Do you want to go the safe way? Or the quick way?” asks Michael Leung, a designer and urban farming advocate, as we walk past the wholesale fruit market in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district, halfway up the Kowloon Peninsula. We opt for the quick way, which takes us through a tangled web of highway off-ramps and access roads. Two decades ago, this area was open water, but land reclamation and infrastructure works have turned it into an uninviting no-man’s-land next to one of Hong Kong’s most crowded neighborhoods.

Somewhere in this mess of traffic is a leftover parcel of land that has been turned into an illegal farm.

“We call him the Mango King because he loves mangoes so much,” Leung says after we dodge an oncoming taxi. “He’s a real urban farmer, making maximum use of space that would otherwise go unnoticed. He has 700 square feet of sweet potatoes, 45 papaya trees, five mango trees, three banana trees, two lychee trees. It’s amazing.”

Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, famous for its skyscraper canyons and gritty, neon-lit streets. But most of its 1,100-square-kilometre territory is actually undeveloped — country parks alone account for more than half of the city’s land area. Instead of fostering a close connection between city-dwellers and nature, though, the opposite has happened: Hong Kong today is a city largely devoid of greenery, surrounded by an often spectacular procession of green mountains and craggy shorelines.

The city’s disconnect with nature has broad implications. In the early 1990s, a full third of Hong Kong’s fruits and vegetables were produced locally in the New Territories, the hinterland that stretches from urban Kowloon to the border with mainland China. Today, that number has plummeted to 2.3 percent, with nearly everything imported from mainland China and beyond: apples from the United States, kiwis from Italy, oranges from South Africa. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in local organic agriculture among young people born in the 1980s and 90s, but with a steady supply of cheap, imported produce arriving daily in Hong Kong’s port, changing the attitudes of the broader populace has been a struggle.

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June 19th, 2014

A City Beyond Its Borders

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Halfway through director Heiward Mak’s new short film, SAR², Eric Tsang takes a tumble in front of a propaganda sign in Shenzhen’s Qianhai new development zone. “Supported by Hong Kong, Serving the Mainland, Facing the World,” reads the billboard, reflecting the area’s goal of attracting 100,000 Hong Kong permanent residents to live and work there.

In the film, Tsang plays Lee To, a Hong Kong man who has retired to Qianhai, where he falls in love with Lady Cheung, played by Taiwanese actress Kelly Tien, a native Shenzhener whose oyster farming village was cleared for land reclamation. In one intimate scene, Cheung asks Lee if he misses living in Hong Kong. “I can’t really say,” he replies. “Hong Kong is not my home anymore.”

SAR² is a story of alienation and ambiguity: Lee and Cheung live in spacious, comfortable apartments, but they are surrounded by vast construction sites and cut off from their families. Their romance seems to be as much a salve for loneliness as it is based on any kind of mutual attraction. “They’re wondering, ‘What am I looking for?’” says Mak.

It’s a natural project for Mak, whose acclaimed 2008 debut, High Noon, dealt with a similar kind of rootlessness. And while her notoriety has so far been limited to Hong Kong, SAR² made its debut far from these shores, in Italy, where Hong Kong is participating in the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest and most venerable showcase of the built form. 65 countries have mounted exhibitions in the biennale, which runs from June 7 to November 22, along with hundreds of other shows and events taking place throughout the island city.

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May 26th, 2014

The City Without Light

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Two weeks ago, as Hong Kong was swept under the tide of bacchanalia known as Art Week — basically a non-stop stream of parties and other well-lubricated events revolving around Art Basel Hong Kong — something remarkable happened to the city’s tallest building. Normally, the 484-metre-tall International Commerce Centre is illuminated by an unceasingly kitschy programme of LED animations, including (I kid you not) a cloud shaped like a teddy bear. But on a hot and very humid Thursday evening, the LED display suddenly began pulsating, as if representing the rhythm of the city’s heartbeat.

It was actually the work of Carsten Nicolai, a German artist commissioned by Art Basel to transform the ICC into what must have been the world’s largest piece of art. Standing on the roof of Central Ferry Pier 4, surrounded by three-metre-high LED panels and replicas of the King of Kowloon’s graffiti, Nicolai created a remarkable, hypnotic show of light and sound called α (alpha) pulse. The effect was enhanced by a mobile phone app that synced up with the tower’s pulse, turning an ordinary handheld device into a cryptic beacon. It was an interesting way of translating the enormity of the ICC into something more approachable. “Artwork should have a human scale,” Nicolai said the next day, in a conversation with German curator Nicholaus Hirsch. “It should not be too monumental.”

Nicolai’s starting point for α (alpha) pulse was the relationship between light, sound and the human experience of the city. “Our body is defined by a pulse,” he said, and this is literally affected by sound and light: “These three elements can synchronize. Our body is always adjusting to the environment.”

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April 14th, 2014

A Police Dormitory Reborn as a Design Hub

Hong Kong’s design scene is thriving, but like many of this city’s creative endeavours, it exists beyond the spotlight, in old factory buildings and back alley studios. That could soon change. After two years of renovations, the former Police Married Quarters on Aberdeen Street has been reborn as PMQ, a design hub that aims to raise the public profile of local design by giving designers more opportunities to build their own brands.

“It’s a project that nobody has done before,” says William To, the PMQ’s creative director, who is also project director at the Hong Kong Design Centre. “It will attract all sorts of designers from different disciplines to come and interact with each other and the public.”

Built in 1951 to house police officers and their families, the PMQ now contains 130 design studios, along with shops, restaurants, a library, exhibition space, a rooftop garden and outdoor gathering areas. When it is fully open next month, it will contain a mixture of well-known brands like Vivienne Tam alongside up-and-comers such as Hoiming, a leatherworking studio.

Studio spaces are small — about 450 square feet — but To says the goal is to foster a community, not to create an office complex. Spacious open-air corridors in front of each unit will be used for exhibitions and pop-up events; there will be a co-working space and units for overseas designers-in-residence; and tenants must keep their doors open to the public between 1pm and 8pm every day.

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March 31st, 2014

Casting New Light on Architecture

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Rendering of M+

In Hong Kong, a city with an increasingly toxic political atmosphere, where the future looks uncertain and just about every small endeavour is greeted by controversy, M+ is one of the few bright spots on the horizon. That’s not to say the 60,000-square-metre, HK$5 billion museum of visual culture has enjoyed a smooth ride; there has been grumbling about its entirely foreign cast of curators, its aloofness when faced with the political sniping of the local art scene and its ability to work with a budget that seems increasingly inadequate, given rising construction costs. But this is Hong Kong’s best chance at seizing its moment in the cultural spotlight, when the art market is booming and global attention is shifting away from the West – and, so far, M+ has been striking the right notes as it composes its identity as a fresh-thinking, innovative institution.

That was in evidence in its recent architecture exhibition, Building M+, a showcase of the museum’s future home and a sneak peek at its growing architecture collection. Hosted last January at Artistree, a cavernous exhibition space in the bowels of corporate Taikoo Place, the show greeted visitors with a procession of models depicting the six finalists in the international competition for the museum’s design. These were followed by a large scale model of the winner, by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, which came in for ribbing because of its stark, tombstone-like form. But it is clearly the best of a sorry bunch; somehow, despite the talent involved in the competition—including Toyo Ito, Renzo Piano, Shigeru Ban, Snøhetta and SANAA—most entries were haphazard and even goofy, with little regard for the interdisciplinary focus of M+, which aims to bridge art, architecture, design and film. (One of the designs actually consisted of boxes stacked upon one another like Lego pieces, as if to emphasize the difference between these different fields.) Though unexciting, the winning design at least offers the museum programmatic flexibility. “They won because they understood the importance of creating dialogue between these different platforms for culture instead of just compartmentalizing everything,” says museum director Lars Nittve.

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March 25th, 2014

The Best Tram in the World

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As the tram lurched past the dried seafood shops of Des Voeux Road, a cool breeze passing through its open windows, passengers were served a round of cocktails. “Do you reckon this is the best tram in the world at the moment?” asked one woman sipping an Old Fashioned. “I think so,” replied another.

Needless to say, this was no ordinary tram journey. For ten days last December, four of Hong Kong’s double-decker trams were made over for Detour, an annual art and design festival. One tram was converted into a classroom; another was transformed into a giant camera obscura; a maintenance tram became a mobile radio station and concert venue. The fourth was the Eatery tram, whose teak-framed upper deck was fashioned into a sleek dining hall, blond wood and brass railings bracketed by strips of soft LED lights.

“To make the space feel bigger, we removed all hand holds and rails that obstructed the line of vision, made all the tables and benches out of light-colored pine, painted the walls and ceilings white and put in light-colored wood veneer flooring,” says Billy Potts, who designed the interior with partners Albert Tong, Cara To and Sjors van Buyten.

Detour tram

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March 20th, 2014

Neon Gets Its Due

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For decades, neon has defined Hong Kong’s cityscape, bathing its skyscraper canyons in rainbow hues that have provided a memorable backdrop to films like Chungking Express
and The World of Suzie Wong – and inspiration for classics such as Blade Runner.

But Hong Kong’s neon signs are starting to vanish, which has prompted the city’s future museum of visual culture, M+, to launch an online exhibition dedicated to the city’s neon heritage. Mobile M+: NeonSigns.HK goes live today and will be continuously updated over the next three months.

“These signs are starting to disappear quickly, and as the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” says M+ architecture and design curator Aric Chen. “What we can do is help people appreciate the value of neon signs.”

That is a situation M+ hopes to redress. NeonSigns.HK includes a video documentary about neon signmaking, a crowd-sourced map of neon signs and contributions from cultural luminaries like photographer Wing Shya and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. There will also be a series of real-world events over the next three months, including nighttime bus tours, workshops and self-guided audio journeys through Hong Kong’s neon landscape.

Chen says the catalyst for NeonSigns.HK was the iconic cow-shaped neon sign outside Sammy’s Kitchen, a family-run steakhouse on Queen’s Road West. Though the sign has loomed over the street since 1977, its removal was ordered last year after the government’s Buildings Department found it contravened local building codes.

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