June 14th, 2013

Exploring Mei Foo

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


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.


April 23rd, 2013

The House on Derby Road

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

Abandoned house

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.


July 20th, 2011

Collecting the Scraps of a Changing Shanghai

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Sue Anne Tay

There was no reason to have entered what looked like a dumpster north of Wangjiamatou Lu (王家码头路) which was located in Shanghai’s Old Town, or known better to some as the former walled city of Nanshi (literally ‘southern town’ (南市)) — until a small head in pigtails poked out from behind the rusty doors and stared at me with shiny eyes.

As I pushed past the entrance, I found myself in a cavernous warehouse where makeshift rooms lined upon the side, assembled from a variety of wooden doors, corrugated sheets and curtains.

The television was blaring in one room while two young girls were doing their homework. A man was napping next door and I could hear the clatter of mahjong tiles behind a closed door. Nearby, fresh vegetables were laid out on a table ready for dinner. Across was a small meeting area filled with loose, old furniture. More than two thirds of the space was filled with vast collections of wooden beams, metal scraps, steel rods, glass panes and bottles and much more.

Where there’s major demolition happening, be it of residential or old factory spaces, there are scrap collecting operations that follow. Whether it is the lone peasant picking through trash with a pushcart, or the scrap mogul with a fleet of rumbling trucks to transport high-valued materials to Zhejiang or Jiangsu provinces, the scrap business is an important livelihood for many.

That includes the massive number of migrants attracted to China’s largest city. At the last count, the “floating population” (流动人口) or migrants that spend less than six months at a time in Shanghai make up 37% of the city’s staggering population of 22.2 million. For many migrant workers and their children, home is where they can find rent-free or at least cheap rent space, be it in abandoned factories or makeshift rooms in half-demolished homes with minimal amenities and substandard hygiene. As such, temporary enclaves have emerged in scrap collection zones across Shanghai to house those who work in them.


June 30th, 2011

Tokyo’s Urban Bungalows

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf



One of the greatest surprises I encountered when I visited Tokyo last spring was how quiet the city became when you ventured away from the train stations. The above photos were taken less than 15 minutes by foot from Shinjuku, one of the world’s busiest transportation hubs and the centre of a huge business, entertainment and shopping district.

The bungalows I came across in central Tokyo reminded me a bit of the Japanese-era houses I found in Taipei neighbourhoods like Shida. But those parts of Taipei were intensively urbanized less than 50 years ago — Shinjuku has been a busy part of Tokyo since the Yamanote Line opened in 1885. Then again, multi-family dwellings didn’t become common in Japan until after World War II.

May 25th, 2011

Small Houses, Big Impact

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Fanling Wai

Sam Wan was 10 years old when his father, an officer in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, died in the line of duty. Reeling from his death, Wan’s family moved from their Tsim Sha Tsui apartment back to their ancestral village, Tai Po Tsai, where they owned a small tile-roofed house.

The year was 1966 and the village couldn’t have been more different from Kowloon. Situated on a small plateau beneath Razor Hill, about halfway between Clear Water Bay and Sai Kung Town, Tai Po Tsai was a centuries-old collection of ramshackle houses and farm fields. Almost everyone in the village was related to a common ancestor. Most of them made a modest living.

“The villagers were small-scale farmers — they grew rice and vegetables for sale in the market in Sai Kung,” recalls Wan. “Their income was not very good, so most of the male villagers went outside to work as sea crew members. Some went to England to work as labourers or in Chinese restaurants.”

But things were changing. Shaw Brothers had opened a film studio nearby in 1961 and many of the studio’s employees, including some future film stars, started renting houses in the village. Then, in 1972, a revolution: the government passed the Small House Policy, which gave each male villager and his descendants the right to build a 700 square foot house in the village, without having to pay a land premium or licence fee.


September 6th, 2010

Le Corbusier Died and Nobody Noticed

On August 27th, the forty-fifth anniversary of the death of Swiss architect Le Corbusier slipped by with nobody noticing. His legacy, however, lives on in cities around the world.

His idea was to make things better for people. Getting rid of substandard, unhealthy housing, and separating industry from residential areas was supposed to reform both cities and the people who lived in them. But nine decades after he began to expound his ideas, it is clear that his best-known solution to the problem, the “tower in the park” idea, has been a failure nearly everywhere except under special conditions.

Apartment towers for rich or upper middle class people seem to work reasonably well, but where corners were cut in construction and the poor were isolated in them, urban disaster has been nearly universal. Many such projects in the US lasted only a few decades before they were demolished.

The picture to the left was taken in 2005 in Shanghai, which was then razing low-rise traditional housing in order to build towers. The jury is still out on how well they will succeed, but recent rumbles of dissatisfaction have been heard as far away as North America.


June 21st, 2010

Cape Tin

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher Szabla

A row of numbered tin shacks in Blikkiesdorp. Photo from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

Nestled in a sun-kissed valley amid coastal mountains, pastel-hued, historic Cape Town is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful cities. So it’s long been a rude awakening for first time visitors expecting to arrive amid its sweeping vistas and colonial architecture that the N2, the highway stretching between the Cape Town’s airport and the city center, is lined by the handmade shacks that constitute the Joe Slovo informal settlement.

Nestled between the highway and the formal black townships established by the apartheid government on the Cape Flats, Joe Slovo was the result of the rapid population influx into South Africa’s cities since the end of racial discrimination in 1994 — and of the government’s inability to keep up with demand for housing, guaranteed as a right in South Africa’s progressive constitution.

In 2005, a fire that rapidly ate through Joe Slovo’s makeshift shacks left hundreds homeless. At the same time, the government began planning a permanent solution to the housing crisis that had produced the settlement, which was ironically named for Nelson Mandela’s first housing minister. Joe Slovo’s shacks were to be replaced by the N2 Gateway, a proper housing development. But first, Cape Town needed a place to put the refugees of the fire — and those whom it would eventually relocate to the N2 Gateway.

Enter Blikkiesdorp, officially the Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, and unofficially what translates from Afrikaans as, literally, “block village” — more often known as “Tin Can City” in English. Established in 2007, it was initially built to house another set of shack dwellers who had set up camp nearby — and it’s increasingly housing refugees from shack settlement and apartment evictions all across Cape Town. Enclosed by a thick concrete fence, constantly patrolled by vigilant police, its rows of numbered tin shacks have elicited comparisons to a concentration camp.


June 14th, 2010

Evening Paper

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

In April, I wrote about the Cheungs, who live in a condemned building in Kwun Tong. Years ago, they built shacks on their roofs and cage homes in their flat to rent to poor tenants. This photo was taken in the flat, which is still home to a few elderly people who live in the cages, which are really just metal bunk beds with mesh gates to protect against theft. The apartment is filthy and filled with decades of accumulated junk. At least the wraparound windows are nice.

April 23rd, 2010

Hong Kong Rooftops: Condemned

Forty years might not even be close to a lifetime for most people, but in Hong Kong, it’s enough to witness the birth and death of a neighbourhood.

In the mid-1960s, when Cheung Cheuk-kuen and his wife, Cheung Tsui-lin, moved into a flat on the top floor of a building in Kwun Tong, it was a typically bright, spacious place, newly built to accommodate Hong Kong’s postwar surge of population. Their life was comfortable; Mr. Cheung owned a restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the 1970s, though, the restaurant began to attract gang members and Cheung decided it had become unsafe. He sold it and decided to earn a living by renting out his flat to tenants. He built cage homes in the living room and wood houses on the roof.

Now the whole neighbourhood is condemned, waiting to be demolished for a HK$30-billion redevelopment of Kwun Tong’s town centre. The Cheungs, who are in their late 80s, are some of the only remaining residents in their building. Mrs. Cheung suffered a stroke and can longer walk, so she spends her days in a wheelchair on the roof. “It’s better to stay up here where there’s more room and fresh air,” says Mr. Cheung. The roof is surprisingly quiet; only the occasional horn and the rattle of passing MTR trains serve as reminders of the busy streets below.


January 26th, 2010

Green Experiments in Public Housing

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

Hong Kong’s public housing estates are going green. In recent years, the Housing Authority has been using its estates as laboratories for the latest green technologies, a move that could help reduce Hong Kong’s air pollution and encourage more sustainable building practices.

Some of the authority’s latest efforts can be seen in Yau Lai Estate, a newly-built housing estate in Yau Tong that opened last year. Standing near the estate’s main entrance are three green walls covered in a mix of grass and climbing plants. While the walls also serve a decorative purpose — the arrangement of red and green plants on one is based on a drawing of a fish made by Yau Tong schoolchildren — a study completed last November found that the greenery cooled temperatures on the walls’ exterior surface by up to 16 degrees. Temperatures on their interior surface dropped by 1.5 to 3.5 degrees.

If the green walls are adopted on a widespread basis, they could significantly reduce housing estates’ energy consumption by cutting air-conditioning costs, said the Housing Authority’s chief architect, Clifford Cheng Chiu-yeung. They would also help cool the outside ambient temperatures. That in turn would reduce Hong Kong’s urban heat island effect, which has been making summer weather even hotter and more unstable than normal.


January 13th, 2010

Bushwick Trailer Park

Posted in Interior Space, Society and Culture, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla

An indoor camper in Williamsburg. Photo by Johnny DeKam and Bree Edwards.

Having successively appropriated so much Middle American iconography — from trucker hats to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer — some north Brooklyn hipsters may have decided that their living space ought to reach the same heights of irony as their wardrobes. Enter the Nut Factory (video below), an exclusive trailer park for artists currently situated inside a warehouse in Bushwick, east of Williamsburg.

Like homesteaders following the route of the transcontinental railroad, hipsters began gentrifying parts of Bushwick along the L train when — depending on whom you ask — they were priced out of Williamsburg or began to find it too mainstream for their liking. So while the “frontier” of their settlement has technically pushed out as far as Ridgewood, in Queens, it’s concentrated mainly along the narrow corridor easily reached by the L, and vast swathes of industrial Bushwick still invite experiments in cheap housing.

Among them, the urban trailer park may be uniquely qualified to come of age.


November 19th, 2009

From Pasture to Projects

Posted in Architecture, History, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla
YouTube Preview Image

Curious about what the building his great-great-grandfather lived in was like, ex-Brooklynite Zach van Schouwen was soon researching the history of his entire street. The result is “The Block,” a series pen-and-ink drawings of how the stretch of Eldridge Street, between Stanton and Rivington on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, looked in every year since 1795.

Eldridge turns out to be fairly typical of the neighborhood, which evolved from “Delancey’s Farm” to a series of tall, narrow tenements that start replacing the street’s small rowhouses in the 1850s. Fire escapes begin to appear, in accordance with law, in the 1920s and 30s. The block takes a downward turn just after World War II, when a number of tenements are gradually boarded up, torn down, and replaced with garages and storage facilities. In 1985, the entire block becomes occupied by a single housing project.


September 6th, 2009

Living on the Edge

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Rooftop houses, Kwun Tong, Kowloon

Rooftop houses in Kwun Tong

By the end of this year, Hong Kong’s Buildings Department plans to finish clearing illegal rooftop structures from single-staircase buildings, marking the end of a clearance programme that began in 2001. But illegal rooftop communities continue to thrive, fed by a shortage of centrally located public housing and perennially high rents in the private sector.

Nine floors above Li Tak Street, in Tai Kok Tsui, more than 100 people live in haphazard shacks on the roof of a large block of flats.

Sam Fong, 23, who studies English at Polytechnic University and is an amateur photographer, moved to the rooftop two years ago, when he left Guangzhou to join his father, mother and sister in Hong Kong. They share a sheet-metal shack with small kitchen, living room and bedroom.

“Hong Kong is just like a jungle. You have to fight for your survival here,” said Fong, who recently started working part-time in a nearby supermarket. His father is a building concierge, his mother is a waitress and his sister works in a clothing store.

Because Fong, his mother and sister have not lived in Hong Kong for seven years, the family cannot apply for public housing, a common problem faced by poor immigrants.


April 3rd, 2009

Taipei’s Japanese Bungalows

Japanese bungalow

Japanese bungalow

At some point or another, most of Asia was occupied by the Japanese, usually with disastrous consequences. But Taiwan is a bit different. From 1895 to 1945, Taiwan was a full-fledged Japanese colony, a legacy that continues to manifest itself in many subtle aspects of Taiwanese culture. Not the least of this is the urban landscape of Taipei. It’s hard to pin down, exactly, but there’s something that makes it feel very different from mainland Chinese cities, and I’m willing to bet that much of this has to do with the way the city evolved during the Japanese period.

Japanese bungalows are one example of this. In the early twentieth century, low-slung wood cottages were built on the edges of Taipei. Somehow, even as the city expanded into its current bulky mass of low-rise apartment blocks, many of the cottages survived. They’re usually surrounded by concrete walls and sit amidst lush greenery; a bit of the old countryside left behind in the concrete and asphalt of Taipei. Peek over the walls and you’ll see an elegant but dilapidated house, its garden unkempt, windows dusty. Many of the houses seem abandoned but there are often scooters or cars parked in the yard, and sometimes laundry drying, which seems to suggest that some are still occupied, despite the dilapidation.