February 12th, 2014
The week I moved to Hong Kong, I went to the Peak. It’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re a first-time visitor or recent arrival to the city: take the tram, bus or (if you’re a little more savvy) minibus up to the cluster of shopping malls that has risen from what was once a retreat for British colonials yearning for the mists and cool winds of home. The view from the Peak is exactly what you expect it to be, because it’s the view that has become the photographic flag-bearer for Hong Kong: a porcupine’s back of skyscrapers riven by the churning waters of Victoria Harbour, mountains rising and falling in all directions. It’s the scene that accompanies news reports on Hong Kong’s stock market, or the latest worries about swine flu. On particularly smoggy days an obscured version of the view is used to bemoan Hong Kong’s chronic air pollution.
It was not smoggy when I visited the Peak. In fact, it was one of those brilliant late-August days when an ocean breeze clears the sky. It would have been possible to see all the way to China, if it weren’t for the mountains on the horizon; in Hong Kong, views are never limitless. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the city lights flickered to life and the harbour glowed turquoise, its surface criss-crossed by barges and ferries that looked from the Peak’s elevation like so many toys. From below, you can always spot the Peak lookout because it seems to sparkle – the result of hundreds of camera flashes igniting at any given time.
As tourists gathered around, cameras chirping and flashing, I turned and walked to a less popular lookout, this one facing west, where the green hills of the Pok Fu Lam Country Park roll towards the East Lamma Channel. That was where I encountered another set of photographers, only this time they weren’t interested in the view – they were taking photos of two young women, one dressed in a short black shirt and low-cut teal top, blonde hair extensions forming curls around her cleavage; the other was dressed like a schoolboy, with an electric blue wig matching the lapels on her uniform. They pranced around the lookout, the blonde girl caressing the blue-haired one, who played indifferent to her advances. The whole performance was being documented by a half-dozen men dressed in jeans and t-shirts, their hands clutching professional-grade Nikons mounted with flashes and reflectors.
January 26th, 2014
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.)
January 21st, 2014
Richard Florida strides across the stage in a sharply tailored suit, his voice rising and falling with the cadence of a preacher or a motivational speaker. “Every little boy and girl, every one of your sons and daughters, every one of your grandkids, each and every human being has a deep reservoir of creativity,” he proclaims, waving his arm towards a rapt audience. “It’s our font of economic growth, and in contrast to oil or iron or coal, it’s inexhaustible, because it comes from all of us.”
It’s Business of Design Week (BODW) and Florida is speaking to a full house at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Several hundred designers, business people and students are in attendance, along with a handful of Hong Kong government officials. Florida’s power of attraction has been well cultivated. After publishing The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002, the American academic transformed himself into one of the world’s most influential urban thinkers. When he isn’t running the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, he travels the world to spread his message that creativity is the fuel of the new economy, and the new economy is driven by a so-called “creative class,” which consists of everyone from artists to designers to scientists and lawyers — anyone whose work is based primarily on knowledge.
“Creativity is our core economic resource,” says Florida. “It’s what each and every one of us has. The key to our future is not that we can build an economy based on a creative elite, it’s to stoke that creative furnace that lies deep within every single individual.”
Much of Florida’s empirical work is centred around a series of indices that evaluate each city’s potential to attract creative workers. Most important are what Florida calls the “three Ts”: talent, technology and tolerance. Creative cities possess a highly-skilled or educated workforce, the technological infrastructure to support innovation and a tolerant culture that encourages diversity. (One of Florida’s most famous measures for tolerance is the “gay index,” which examines the size of a city’s gay population as a proxy for social acceptance.) If cities build the kind of diverse, densely-populated and varied urban environment that creative types enjoy — Lower Manhattan is one of Florida’s favourite examples — they can propel themselves to the fore of the new creative economy.
January 19th, 2014
Jardine House (right). Photo by See-ming Lee
It’s late on a Monday afternoon and James Kinoshita is sitting at home in Hong Kong’s Sai Kung district with his son, Andrew. Overhead is a tile roof that slopes towards a garden of blooming azalea and bougainvillea; just beyond are the placid waters of Port Shelter. James bought the property in 1976 with his wife, Lana, when he was a partner with Palmer and Turner, Hong Kong’s oldest architecture firm, and Lana was a sought-after interior designer.
“It was a weekend home at first,” says James.
“A work in progress,” adds Andrew.
Needless to say, Sai Kung was a very different place in the 1970s. It was only a fraction as developed as today, though the Small House Policy had recently been enacted, leading to a spread of three-storey village houses across the district.
“I didn’t like the Spanish type of red tiles that all the houses had,” says James. “They didn’t look like Chinese village houses. So what I wanted to do was to have a pitched roof and use black tiles.”
Achieving that meant dealing with a building code designed to encourage the construction of identical boxes, not anything unique. There was a height restriction of 25 feet; no single floor of the house could be larger than 700 square feet. James solved the problem by building two houses and linking them together with a covered terrace.
James is no stranger to dealing with constraints. Though the public would be hard-pressed to recognize his name, the octogenarian architect was responsible for many of Hong Kong’s most famous buildings, including Jardine House, the Polytechnic University campus and the late (and often lamented) Hong Kong Hilton, most of which were built under tight deadlines that would shock many contemporary architects. In an era of starchitects, where every new building seems to be accompanied by pompous self-justification, James Kinoshita stands out as much for his modesty as his enduring modernist legacy.
December 19th, 2013
Protest at the opening of UABB. Photo by Espen Cook
Last week in Kwun Tong, Kacey Wong stood inside a burnt wood cocoon, explaining the concept behind his painstakingly hand-made installation. “I wanted to create a place where people could meet quietly and have a greater understanding of what’s going on,” he said. To access the space, visitors must duck inside one of two small entrances and make their way to an intimate inner chamber filled with tree trunks; embedded in each tree are books of history and political philosophy that span the ideological spectrum. Wong charred the wood to represent the social and political conflict that now grips Hong Kong. “Fire is a process of transformation,” he said. “It changes material, but if you’re not careful you get burned.”
It was an apt metaphor. Outside the cocoon, the opening ceremony of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) had broken down into chaos after Chief Executive CY Leung arrived to give a closed-door speech. Residents from the surrounding neighbourhood, outraged by the government’s plan to turn Kowloon East into a new central business district, gathered to protest. Banners were unfurled from the highway overhead; “Don’t bulldoze our culture,” read one. Police and security guards clamped down, shutting off access to the exhibition, preventing some of the biennale’s curators and exhibitors from accessing their work. “It’s ridiculous – they won’t even let us into our own exhibition,” fumed one designer.
This is the fourth edition of UABB, which takes place every two years in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It is normally a sedate, academic exploration of the issues facing cities around the world. This year, however, the biennale finds itself caught in a maelstrom of controversy over the so-called CBD2 project, which the government hopes will transform Kwun Tong, Kowloon Bay and Kai Tak into a high-value business district, but which critics say will kill one of Hong Kong’s largest creative communities by making the area unaffordable for the small creative enterprises that now call it home. The question for the biennale, which opens this weekend and runs until February 23, is whether it can provide a space for dialogue – or whether it will exacerbate tensions that have already reached the boiling point.
December 3rd, 2013
Victoria Peak seen from Kellett Island
Last week, an exhibition of images by 19th century Scottish photographer John Thomson opened at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, including 22 photos of Hong Kong in the 1860s that have never been exhibited here before. I’ve written a story about the photos and their journey to Hong Kong for the Wall Street Journal, which you can read here.
The photos are remarkable not only because they are rare — photography was still in its infancy — but also because, despite the technological handicap, Thomson was able to create some very engaging landscapes and portraits. When I spoke with curator Betty Yao, she told me her initial attraction to Thomson’s work came from his sensitive images of women in China, whether a rich Manchu girl or a Cantonese boatwoman. But his images of everyday urban life are just as striking, capturing as they do a Hong Kong that is recognizable only in its broadest outlines. Below, a selection of images; you can see more here, and if you happen to be in Hong Kong sometime before February 16, it’s well worth a trip to the Maritime Museum to see the rest of the collection, which also includes some very intriguing photos of the cities once known as Canton (Guangzhou), Swatow (Shantou) and Amoy (Xiamen).
November 28th, 2013
Clockenflap 2012. Photo by Chris Lusher
Construction has only just begun on Hong Kong’s multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District, but the 100-acre waterfront site has already become the city’s most coveted venue for outdoor events, with a string of festivals set to take place over the next three weeks.
Among them are Clockenflap, a three-day music-and-arts festival with a mix of international performers like Four Tet and Cantopop musicians like Ellen Loo; BloHK Party, a hip hop and electronic music festival featuring Pharrell Williams; and Freespace, an eclectic weekend event that will pair local music with dance performances, films and an informal market where visitors can buy artisanal crafts, clothes and food.
The three events will set the tone for the future cultural district, about a third of which will be set aside for a park, the first phase of which is slated to open in early 2015. “These festivals are totally related to the future of the park,” says Louis Yu, executive director of West Kowloon’s performing arts program. “We haven’t hired an architect yet, so when the architect arrives, we will be able to tell [him or her] very specifically what kind of space we need to do what we are already doing.”
For event promoters, the site’s allure is hard to resist. “People were blown away by the actual piece of land, this open space right in the middle of the city,” says Clockenflap festival director Mike Hill. “Standing in front of a stage and being able to see the water and the skyline, it’s gold,” adds music director Justin Sweeting. “It’s what makes us unique.”
When it first launched in 2008, Clockenflap took place at Cyberport, a high-end residential and office district on Hong Kong Island, where it suffered from constant noise complaints. “We were asked to turn it down, which didn’t really make sense. So it was literally Google Maps trying to find a suitable piece of land,” says Hill. They were drawn to West Kowloon’s open space and waterfront location, along with its proximity to the MTR, and moved the festival there in 2011.
October 6th, 2013
The photos I posted last week of Hong Kong’s hilly streets reminded me of a conversation I had more than a year ago with Melissa Cate Christ, who works at the University of Hong Kong’s architecture school. Christ is leading an investigation into the many public staircases and “ladder streets” on the north side of Hong Kong Island, where these attempts to negotiate an unforgiving landscape are often the only remaining signs of Hong Kong as it once existed. Many of these steps predate the buildings around them by decades, if not a century; they’re Hong Kong’s last tangible connection to the city of Victorian balustrades and tile-roofed tenements that once existed on these shores.
Officially speaking, however, most of these steps do not exist. As far as the government is concerned, a set of century-old granite steps is no different than an ordinary concrete footpath. There hasn’t been any comprehensive effort made on the part of Hong Kong’s administrators to understand how all of these ladder streets and staircases work in the urban context — how people use them and how they affect neighbourhood mobility, not to mention their historical value. The consequences of that are misguided projects like the proposed Pound Lane escalator, which would install a very expensive and intrusive piece of machinery on a quiet street, encouraging redevelopment and destroying trees and historic walls in the process.
So Christ and her students are doing what the government has not. Earlier this year, they launched a website, Stair Culture, that was accompanied by an exhibition of maps, photos and proposed interventions that would improve the pedestrian environment of Hong Kong’s hilly streets and provide an alternative to the Pound Land escalator. Christ has also been mapping all of the steps from Wan Chai to Pok Fu Lam, which serves to highlight just how vertical Hong Kong is. When she started making her map, Christ was using satellite imagery on Google Maps to find stairs, but she told me recently that the government has started marking steps on a separate layer in the digital versions its official maps, which suggests that it may be taking Christ’s lead and paying more attention to Hong Kong’s steps after all.
September 30th, 2013
Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen
In an unassuming shed next to an elevated highway, Hong Kong’s wood-framed trams are being rebuilt one by one. “They’re icons of the city,” says Emmanuel Vivant, the man overseeing the renewal. Four years ago, Vivant was part of the team that acquired Hong Kong Tramways for Veolia Transport, a French conglomerate that runs dozens of railways, tram systems and bus lines around the world. “What we saw was a lot of room for improvement,” he says.
Hong Kong’s tram network dates back to 1903, when tracks were laid from Kennedy Town in the west to Causeway Bay in the east. Less than a decade later, passenger demand was so strong, double-decker trams were introduced. Though Hong Kong has changed beyond measure in the past hundred years, the trams have remained a constant; there is no better way to see the city than from the front seat on the top deck, windows open to the clamoring streets below.
The tram remains popular, with 230,000 riders every day and an affectionate Cantonese nickname: ding ding. But its acquisition in 1974 by local conglomerate Wharf Holdings led to a long decline. Dedicated tram lanes were given over to cars. Tracks were poorly maintained, lengthening travel times so much that taking a tram across Hong Kong Island is often slower than riding a bicycle. The Millenium Tram, launched in 2000 in an effort to renew the rolling stock, was a widely-scorned flop.
“For us, the Millenium Tram was a warning sign that we had to be very careful in handling the icon,” says Vivant. “They looked too modern, too new, too much like a bus. People in Hong Kong really like their trams, so we decided we had to keep their heritage.”
After buying the tramway, Veolia launched a consultation exercise to find out what passengers wanted from their trams. The first discovery was that most passengers thought the windows should stay open; one of the biggest complaints about the Millenium trams was that the front windows were sealed shut. Passengers also had a soft spot for the trams’ wood frames, which the Millenium trams had discarded with little sense of nostalgia.
September 29th, 2013
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.
August 30th, 2013
Hong Kong isn’t an easy city to navigate. That’s because so much of it exists out of sight: above your head, under your feet, around the corner in a dingy shopping mall. It’s what architect Jonathan Solomon calls a three-dimensional city. “There are all these attempts to map Hong Kong, but most of them are useless,” he says. Maps show streets, others depict shopping malls, but none chart the way Hong Kong’s intricate networks of private and public spaces are linked together by roads, tunnels, footbridges, escalators and lifts. “There’s no record of all the exciting stuff that happens in these spaces.”
Solomon rectifies that situation in Cities Without Ground, an unorthodox guidebook to Hong Kong he published last year with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton. Inside its 128 pages is a brief history of Hong Kong’s “condition of groundlessness,” starting with the dramatic, hilly topography that enabled the growth of a vertical city, followed by the popularity of footbridges as a means to connect buildings on different levels and finally the development of vast above- and below-ground pedestrian networks. Most of the book consists not of text but of vivid illustrations dissecting the warren of subways and skybridges, shopping malls and public plazas that make up many parts of Hong Kong.
“There’s an alternative spatial logic in Hong Kong and in order to expose that, we had to reveal something invisible,” says Solomon. “These maps are not meant to be used as wayfinding devices, but I personally find them quite useful as a way of understanding how Hong Kong works.” The maps are as much a document of Hong Kong’s psychogeography as they are of its physical space. Labels include not only the names of buildings and shops, but also human landmarks like “lunching legislators” and the “permanent democracy protest” outside the government headquarters, and “family graduation photoshoots” and a “birdwatching meeting point” in Hong Kong Park.
Cities Without Ground also includes heat maps that chart the range in temperature between different types of buildings: the higher the rents, the frostier the air conditioning. The quality of climate control becomes a quick way to gage the prestige of a given shopping mall. “The network occurs on both the high and the low ends of the economy,” says Solomon. “People talk about Central as one big high-end mall, but if you look at Tsuen Wan, the form is very similar, but it’s all very quotidian middle-class stuff, like hair salons and 7-Eleven and fast food.”
August 29th, 2013
Like a fever dream or a David Lynch film, Wun Dun begins with a journey into the unknown. Push through an unmarked door into what appears to be a bathroom, where an elderly attendant spritzes you with cologne. Squeeze past him, stumble down a flight of stairs and emerge into an uncanny, neon-lit bar that dwells in the subconscious of Hong Kong’s identity.
Open for a week last May during the inaugural edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, Wun Dun was the brainchild of Adrian Wong, the fourth artist selected by the Absolut Art Bureau to create an ephemeral art bar. Like most of Wong’s work, Wun Dun was a carefully choreographed performance that marries the mundane with the surreal: in this case, the visual language of everyday Hong Kong spaces mashed up into something at once recognizable and alien. “The interior unites so many disparate threads of Hong Kong design culture,” writes art critic Robin Peckham, “the feeling is akin to taking high tea in a grimy dive bar, or pounding shots at a truckstop breakfast counter.”
It started, in a sense, with nothing. “Wun Dun is the Taoist concept of the formless state of the universe before things came into existence,” says Wong. Confucianism took the concept even further by imagining that chaos as a “singing, dancing, orifice-less sac” who was struck by lightning, transforming it into the world as it exists today. “It reminded me of this sort of formless state of Hong Kong,” said Wong. “Its long colonial history sets up a situation where the real history of objects, forms, styles, tastes and cuisines are so mixed up and misdirected, they lose their point of reference. I wanted to create a primordial Hong Kong.”
July 16th, 2013
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.
July 16th, 2013
It is hard to overstate the extent to which neon has shaped Hong Kong’s landscape, its streets awash in hues of red, yellow, green and blue, not to mention the way the city is perceived abroad. Bolstered by memories of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, both of which were inspired by Hong Kong, Japanese artist Takahiro Iwasaki set out to recreate the city’s neon lights despite never having set foot in the city. Scouring the internet for images, he used brightly-colored string to create tiny versions of neon signs like those of Yue Hwa Chinese Products and Luk Fuk Jewellery.
The work is the latest installment in Out of Disorder, an ongoing series of miniature sculptures made from everyday objects: a city carved into a roll of duct tape, electricity towers that rise from toothbrush bristles, construction cranes perched atop books. “It started when I was studying in the UK,” says Iwasaki. “I was as poor as a church mouse and I had no money to buy materials.” So he began making sculptures with whatever he could find: empty boxes, twigs, socks. “I had to go barefoot,” he recalls.
Each sculpture takes about two days to complete. Iwasaki’s work has been praised not only for its craftsmanship but its sense of the uncanny: the disorienting sensation of seeing monumental objects reduced in size and made from such quotidian materials. The effect is enhanced all the more by Iwasaki’s choice of utilitarian subjects that blend into the background of urban life. “We take them for granted, but if you change the point of view, it becomes something poetic,” he says.