December 9th, 2010

Judaism with a Hong Kong Flavour

Rabbi Asher Oser opens the heavy doors to Ohel Leah and steps inside, pausing for a moment to consider its vaulted ceiling, intricate woodwork and marble floors. As the door closes behind him, the sound of traffic fades, replaced by the quietude of Hong Kong’s oldest synagogue.

“It’s a building of such history and gravitas, but if you walk in here on a Saturday morning, there are kids running around and it’s full of life,” he says. “It’s the kind of contradiction that I love. And I think what Judaism does is it tries to make sense of those contradictions.”

Less than two months ago, Oser arrived in Hong Kong to lead Ohel Leah, a Jewish Modern Orthodox congregation that is nearly as old as Hong Kong itself. He is still finding his feet. Walking towards the Torah ark, where the synagogue’s sacred scrolls are kept, he finds it padlocked. “I don’t actually have the key,” he says with a chuckle.

But Oser, who was born in Australia, educated in Canada and most recently served as the rabbi for a congregation in Providence, Rhode Island, is already enraptured by his new community in Hong Kong. “There are few Jews here, and it’s a transient place, yet there are deep roots,” he says.


October 3rd, 2010

A Window into Kuala Lumpur

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

Two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were celebrating Malaysia’s national holiday at a street party in Bangsar, an upscale neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur. We had just walked there along broken sidewalks, the sun beating down on us — Kuala Lumpur is not the most pedestrian-friendly place — and we were in desperate need of a drink, so we popped into a bar and ordered a couple of beers. We found ourselves in the midst of a panel discussion about what it means to be Malaysian. “Are we a nation or a collection of peoples?” asked the moderator, an earnest young journalist of Indian descent.

One of the speakers, a young half-Chinese, half-Indian man dressed in a traditional Malay outfit (with the addition of red heart-shaped sunglasses) gave a witty and entertaining presentation about the ambiguities of national identity. His delivery was upbeat, but his message was serious and thoughtful: Malaysia could hardly be described as a true nation, he said — otherwise the government would not have to invest so much in convincing everyone that there is such a thing as “1Malaysia” — but it is also more than the sum of its Malay, Chinese and Indian parts. Like Canada, which is also prone to existential crises and frequent periods of self-doubt, Malaysia is a country that exists in a perpetual state of in-betweenness.

This lingered in my mind for the six days we spent wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, a city that few travellers spend much time in and even many Malaysians seem to dislike. For all its importance as an economic and administrative hub, KL doesn’t present itself on a platter like Penang, the darling of Malaysia’s tourism industry. It’s a sprawling, disjointed place that makes casual exploration difficult, but I enjoyed its unpretentiousness and the way it opened a window into Malaysia’s cultural complexities.


September 27th, 2010

Mapping Segregation

Posted in Demographics, Maps, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Four decades have passed since the end of formal racial segregation in the United States, but as anyone can tell you, informal segregation remains a part of everyday life in many areas of the country. That becomes especially clear when you look at Eric Fischer‘s new maps of race and ethnicity in major American cities. In each of these new maps, one dot represents 25 people, and each dot’s colour represents a racial or ethnic group as defined by the US Census: non-Hispanic white is red, black is blue, Hispanic is orange and Asian is green.

Every city in the world is divided along some lines, be they ethnic, linguistic or economic, but what is shocking about Fischer’s maps is how many American cities remain starkly divided according to race. Just look at Detroit, where 8 Mile Road is visible not only as the border between city and suburbs but as the line of demarcation between black and white.

(Along with ethnicity, the maps also illustrate population density — the more densely-populated an area, the more opaque it appears on the map. What surprises me about the Detroit map, along with the starkness of the city’s racial divide, is how the city proper remains just as dense as the suburbs, despite massive depopulation.)


August 18th, 2010

Mosque Street’s Other Name

In contrast to the bland apartment buildings on its south side, the northern side of Mosque Street is lined by a crumbling stone wall and vegetation spilling over from the lush grounds of the Jamia Mosque. If you peek over the wall, there’s a nice view of the mosque, which is the oldest in Hong Kong. It’s a surprisingly rustic scene in the Central Mid-Levels, a neighbourhood that has obliterated most traces of its 170-year history.

Another throwback is Mosque Street’s name. Though perfectly straightforward in English, it’s a lot more complicated in Chinese. While the proper standard Chinese name for mosque is 清真寺 (ching tsam tsi), or回教廟 (wui gaau miu) in Cantonese, Mosque Street’s Chinese name uses the expression 摩羅廟 (mo lo miu), which derives from mo lo cha, an old and derogatory term for South Asians.


May 27th, 2010

Hong Kong’s Little Thailand

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Before there was Gold Mountain — the promised land of North America — Chinese immigrants flocked to Southeast Asia, where they settled in countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Eventually, they came to dominate the regional economy, earning themselves scorn from some of the local native populations. 90 years ago, Thailand’s King Rama VI called them the “Jews of the East,” a sentiment that has been echoed more recently by political leaders in Malaysia, where Chinese make up more than a quarter of the population.

In the 1980s and 90s, some of these overseas Chinese began to move to Hong Kong, another step in generations of migrations across Asia. They make up the bulk of Hong Kong’s Thai population, which numbers around 30,000. Many Thai-Chinese are literate in Thai but not Chinese, and their culture is an interesting amalgam of Thai and Chinese traditions. A couple of months ago, I visited Hong Kong’s largest Thai neighbourhood in Kowloon City, where they are served by restaurants, grocery stores, karaoke bars and beauty parlours.

You can see the fruits of my visit on CNNGo or in the extended photo collection above.

March 15th, 2010

De l’Abitibi à Hong Kong

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Canada, Music, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Samian in Hong Kong

Franco-Algonquin hip hop is the last thing I expected to encounter in Hong Kong, but that’s exactly what I heard this past weekend at the former Central Married Police Quarters, which has suddenly become the most interesting cultural space in town. Over the past month, the Heritage X Art X Design festival and the Indie Ones series of concerts have used the space to great effect, transforming its concrete courtyard into a fake lawn (in contrast to the beach created by November’s Detour festival) set in front of a bamboo stage illuminated by red market lamps.

Samian is the son of a French-Canadian father and an Algonquin mother; he grew up on a native reserve in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, about 800 kilometres northwest of Montreal. He started rapping when he was a teenager, first in French, and later — after he met the influential hip hop crew Loco Locass — in Algonquin.

Samian took the stage on Saturday in a performance that was energetic but marred by poor sound, which was mainly because the organizers had to muffle the vocals after the police got a slew of noise complaints from nearby luxury apartment towers. (“At least in Quebec we have until 10pm before we have to keep quiet,” Samian’s DJ said to me after the show.) The crowd responded enthusiastically even though most of the people there didn’t speak French.


December 10th, 2009

MC Yan in the Street

Posted in Asia Pacific, Music, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Last week, I posted a video by Thomas Lee in which he asked passers-by on Sai Yeung Choi Street where they would go if they could open a door to anywhere. Now he’s back with another great video, this time a (well-subtitled) Cantonese-language rap by MC Yan, whom you might remember as the founder of Radio Dada and one of the first Chinese rappers.

I helped produce this video (though I can’t claim much credit — after introducing him to MC Yan and participating in a brainstorming session, nearly all of the work was done by Thomas). What struck me from the beginning was how passionate MC Yan is about Hong Kong, despite the cynicism that defines his lyrics. He’s genuinely fascinated by this place, rooted to it not only by birth but by a desire to improve it, and the way he expresses that is through unrelenting criticism of Hong Kong’s government and leaders.

In the video, he takes us on a tour of three important parts of Hong Kong — Causeway Bay, Central and West Kowloon — drawing inspiration from the social, political and cultural geography of each.

November 12th, 2009

Asia’s Only Jewish Film Festival

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

Howard Elias

Howard Elias, founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival

There aren’t a lot of Jews in Hong Kong, but that hasn’t stopped the city from becoming the centre of Jewish life in Asia, with one of the continent’s oldest synagogues, an active community centre and the only Jewish film festival on this side of the world.

Hong Kong’s first Jews arrived with the British in 1842 — many had been trading in nearby Canton, now known as Guangzhou — and by the turn of the twentieth century, some of the territory’s most prominent families were Jewish, including the Kadoories and Sassoons, whose names have been enshrined in streets, hills and institutions across the city. (Andy Lau, arguably Hong Kong’s biggest pop star, lives in a mansion on Kadoorie Avenue.) One of Hong Kong’s early governors, Sir Matthew Nathan, was Jewish, and though he wasn’t local — Hong Kong was just one of his many stops in the imperial service — he did provide the community with a certain amount of official attention.

Despite a small influx of Jews from Shanghai, Harbin and Tianjin after the Japanese invasion of China, Hong Kong’s Jewish community remained tiny until quite recently; it numbered 200 in 1968 and 2,500 in 1998. Recently, though, more and more Jewish expatriates have been moving to Hong Kong, and the community numbers somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 — about the same size as the Jewish communities in Calgary, Frankfurt and pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Earlier this week, I interviewed Howard Elias, the Toronto-born founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, for CNNGo, where you can find a partial transcript of our conversation.

September 10th, 2009

A City on Screen and in Paint

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Film, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Chow Chun Fai

Infernal Affairs, “I want my identity back”
Enamel paint on canvas, 100cm(H) x 150cm(W), 2007

Hong Kong’s story is one best told on screen, through dihn ying, electric shadows. For decades, it was one of the world’s film capitals, and it was through film that Hong Kong projected itself onto the world with action films and comedies that, beyond their mass appeal, explored the deeper corners of Hong Kong’s psyche.

Since 2006, Chow Chun Fai, one of Hong Kong’s most interesting artists, has reproduced stills from more than 100 movies, complete with English and Chinese subtitles. Each painting captures a small truth about Hong Kong’s culture and identity; together, they form a sweeping and surprisingly nuanced narrative of the city’s history from the 1970s to the present day.

Earlier this summer, I paid a visit to Chow’s airy studio in Fotan, an industrial district in the New Territories. As I sat beneath his fastidiously-organized collection of books, Chow made me coffee and we talked about art, Hong Kong and a show in which he reproduced Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting.” What really interested me, though, was his film series. Below is a short and lightly edited excerpt from our hour-long conversation.


May 13th, 2009

Through the Gate

Ever since my first visit last year, the Jamia Mosque, located near the top of the Central-Mid Levels escalator, has had a special pull on me. Hidden behind its stone walls is a verdant respite from the noise and stress of Central. A stately wrought iron gate acts as a portal between a frenzied city and a quiet place of contemplation and spiritual release.

The mosque is a welcome diversion whenever I find myself riding up the escalator. I enjoy the well-worn appearance of its grounds, the songs of the birds in its trees and the particular coziness created by the wall of skyscrapers that surround it. It’s also a place I like to show visitors to Hong Kong, and on a pleasant evening last winter, I found myself sitting on a stone ledge next to the mosque with a couple of my friends from Montreal. As the sounds of the evening prayer drifted through the air, an old man with a beard and more than a few missing teeth came up to us and started talking about everything he could think of: politics, the weather, Islam, his childhood. He mentioned that he had grown up at the mosque and had witnessed the complete transformation of the neighbourhood around it from an airy collection of walk-up tenements to a dense, dizzying cluster of highrises. He said that there were many families that lived around the mosque, in haphazardly-built houses and an elegant, now-decrepit building once used to house travelling Muslims and Islamic scholars.

Unfortuantely, the old man dashed away before I could ask him for his name. The next time I saw him, he brushed me off, muttering under his breath. “Don’t bother him, he’s crazy,” said someone standing nearby. But my interest was piqued. I decided to make a documentary, with three of my classmates at the University of Hong Kong, about the mosque and the diverse community of people that worship and live there. People started moving in during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. They never left, and now 20 families call the mosque home.

Through the Gate is my first documentary. It offers a glimpse of life at the Jamia Mosque through the experiences of three people. Andy Putranto is an Indonesian grad student who sees the mosque as a home away from home. Leila Karchoud is a Tunisian woman who was drawn back to Islam when she moved to Hong Kong. Mustafa Mohammed was born and raised at the mosque. I’ve tried to use their stories to convey the atmosphere of the mosque and its significance as a place both sacred and secular.

April 2nd, 2009

Preserving the King’s Legacy

Star Ferry King of Kowloon

One of the last remains of Tsang Tsou Choi’s work, now protected by a special coating and latex screen

During his lifetime, the King of Kowloon was seen by the Hong Kong government as little more than a nuisance. But that was before the Star Ferry incident raised public awareness about identity, culture and heritage issues. So in 2007, after the King—also known as Tsang Tsou Choi, the oldest graffiti writer in the world—passed away, the government promised to do everything it could to preserve what was left of his distinctive graffiti.

Turns out the government isn’t capable of doing much. Although it was quick to spray a protective coating on a prominent piece of Tsang’s work at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry pier, the South China Morning Post reveals that many other pieces, especially those near Tsang’s home in Kwun Tong, remain unprotected and vulnerable to decay and vandalism. (The SCMP article is locked behind a paywall, but you can see a short slideshow they produced about the remains of Tsang’s work, which I’ve embedded below.) Lau Kin Wai, an artist and friend of Tsang, hopes to draw attention to the matter by holding a protest this weekend at the Star Ferry pier.

In the Legislative Council, opposition lawmaker Alan Leong has made a fuss about the preservation of Tsang’s graffiti, which prompted a sheepish response from the Home Affairs Bureau yesterday. Maybe, it said, the government would simply take some photos of Tsang’s graffiti, rather than preserve its actual physical remains. If you forget that the government is trying to tiptoe around its own promise, that the remaining works would be protected after Tsang died, its position almost makes sense. Graffiti is, after all, a inherently ephemeral form of art. It isn’t meant to last. In most cases, I’d hesitate before throwing my support behind a government effort to preserve a piece of graffiti.

But this is a special case. Tsang was unique: he was making political statements, not artistic ones, and his graffiti stands alone for its distinctive form of Chinese calligraphy. Preserving his work will keep his spirit in the streets. Besides, Hong Kong doesn’t have a rich tradition of graffiti. Just a few neighbourhoods have street art of any note and none of it is particularly inventive or cutting-edge. By making a deliberate effort to include Tsang’s graffiti in the canon of Hong Kong heritage, the government will demonstrate that street art and public political statements remain a vital part of the city’s identity.


June 16th, 2008

The Case for Greektown

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s attempt to rename Park Avenue two years ago was a turning point in the street’s history. When that controversy emerged, a number of the street’s Greek merchants were already asking the city to create a Hellenic Quarter similar to Little Italy or Chinatown. The city spent $15,000 on a feasibility study that suggests emphasizing Park Ave.’s Greek-yet-multicultural character could be a boon to business. This spring, the city invested $50,000 in new banners, benches, garbage cans and bike racks there. The city says it will announce the next phase of the quarter’s development in two weeks. Chris Karidogiannis, executive secretary of the Park Ave. Merchants’ Association, is one of the project’s main proponents.

What is the Hellenic Quarter concept?

The idea started in the early ’90s, but it didn’t really develop until the past couple of years. We were trying to find a way to re-imagine Park Ave. commercially. We were looking for a way to bypass certain negative things the city has done that have really damaged the viability of our businesses – like the bus lanes, high property taxes and, most recently, exorbitant parking meter rates. Like it or not, this past generation of Park Ave. has been very Greek. It hasn’t always been Greek, but for the past 30 years it’s been known as the Greek area, and we thought that we should officialize it and create something a little more touristy, like Petite Italie or Chinatown.

What would this entail?

We’ve been working closely on developing a concept that’s similar to Little Italy. Fortunately for the merchants there, they had a mayor that was really into the concept, Pierre Bourque, and who invested $9 million into it. Now you cannot even rent a spot there and business has gone up 50 per cent over the last eight years.

What do you think of the city’s efforts for Park Ave.?

The city spent $20,000 on 32 new banners. They’re visible but discreet at the same time. I know the city wants the project to happen but they don’t want to ruffle any feathers at all. As you can see, on the banners there’s an Asian child with a Greek flag right under her. They’re trying to show the multiculturalism of the area, the roots of which are Greek. That’s what I think they’re trying to accomplish, anyway.

Park Ave. is Greek, but it’s also very multicultural. Why should one of its communities be privileged over others?

Little Italy is as Italian as Park Ave. is Greek – not a lot of Italians still live in that area but a majority of businesses and properties are still owned by them. We’ve been working on this for four years and we haven’t had anyone who has come up with another idea or who has said that they don’t want it because it’s Greek. We want this to be a gift to the Hellenic community in general, but hopefully it will benefit the businesses, as well. We were worried about the scale of the project at first, since it goes from Van Horne down to Mount Royal, but then we visited the Danforth in Toronto (that city’s Greektown centres around Danforth Ave.) and it’s just as wide and just as long and it’s 10 times as busy. There’s unlimited potential.


May 18th, 2008

Rebranding Park Avenue


The first banner was incongruous enough: “Avenue du Parc,” it read in a vaguely Hellenic font, set to a pale blue background. Underneath was the logo of the City of Montreal. Then, a couple of days later, I noticed other banners, these ones much more inscrutable: each featured a portrait of someone that was pulled up in the lower left corner, like a page being turned, to reveal part of a Greek flag. The city still seemed to be in the process of installing of them, and as far as I could see, there were only two kinds of portraits, one of a thirtyish man of Southern European appearance and another of a little Asian girl — not usually the kind of person you imagine when you think of someone Greek.

Earlier this year, the city announced that it would spend $50,000 to polish Park Avenue and emphasize its Greek heritage. Flowers would be planted, more benches installed and banners erected. I guess this is the fruit of those efforts (and dollars). Unfortunately, they reek of compromise — the worst kind of compromise that is unsatisfying and underwhelming to everyone involved. For years, Park Avenue’s Greek merchants have pushed to have the street declared a Greektown or “Quartier hellenique” that would have the same symbolic value for Montreal’s many Greeks as Little Italy does for its Italians and Chinatown for its Chinese. More importantly, the merchants reason, it would be an opportunity to consolidate their resources, promote the street and draw more outside shoppers.

After a brief spate of investment in what might be called “ethnic infrastructure” — former mayor Pierre Bourque’s administration invested heavily in sprucing up Chinatown and Little Italy, and it built new community-themed parks like Portugal Park on the Plateau and Athena Square in Park Ex — the city has shied away from recognizing the city’s ethnic and cultural communities in any significant manner. The idea for a Quartier hellenique on Park Avenue is just one of several ethnic theme districts that have been proposed by shopowners in recent years. In the area around Jean Talon and St. Denis, where dozens of Vietnamese-owned businesses are located, one merchant has advocated the creation of a “Vietnamville.” North African businesspeople on Jean Talon east of St. Michel are now pressing for the creation of a “Petit Maghreb.” Each of these movements has been met with the same indifference from city officials.

In 2006 and 2007, though, mayor Gérald Tremblay’s attempt to rename Park Avenue angered so many people that his administration is still cleaning the muck off its face. City Hall must have felt that it had political capital to regain among those who had protested loudly against the name change, so it committed itself to investing more heavily in Park Avenue. Many took that to mean than it would finally support the creation of the Quartier hellenique but, as the $50,000 it has decided to invest in flowers and benches indicates, it is simply not willing to go that far.



April 24th, 2008

A City’s Former Self

Posted in Canada, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf


Pierre Burton, the journalist, author and historian, once remarked of Calgary, “The two blocks between the Palliser Hotel and The Bay is the only part of the city that resembles its former self.” While that’s not altogether true (there are parts of town, like Inglewood and Ramsay, that retain the feel of a small prairie town) the area around First Street SW is probably the only part of Calgary with any real historical presence. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is one of the few parts of town with much urban vitality, too.