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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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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January 26th, 2014

Bring in the Year of the Horse

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

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

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

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January 19th, 2014

The Quiet Modernist

“中環雨天繁忙時間交通 Rush Hour Traffic in Central on a Rainy Day” / 香港人流 Hong Kong Human Logistics / SML.20130326.7D.36557.BW

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.

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December 19th, 2013

A City on Edge

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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.

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December 3rd, 2013

150 Years Ago in Hong Kong

L0055591 Hong Kong from Killots Island by John Tho

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).

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November 28th, 2013

Future Festivals

Clockenflap 2012

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.

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June 14th, 2013

Exploring Mei Foo

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

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About four and a half years ago, when my girlfriend Laine and I were hunting for our first apartment in Hong Kong, her parents suggested we look in Mei Foo. We refused to even consider it. “It would be like living in a parking garage,” I said. Laine agreed. Lately, though, I have started to rethink my assessment. Mei Foo still has the ambiance of a mid-century New York City housing project built on top of a highway offramp — think Stuyvesant Town without the trees — but there’s more to it than I initially thought.

Mei Foo Sun Chuen is located on the site of a former Mobil oil storage facility — its name means “Mobil New Estate” — on the far western edge of Kowloon, where the crowded factories and tenements of Lai Chi Kok gave way to scrubby green hills. Built between 1965 and 1978, it was Hong Kong’s first private housing estate. It is enormous: 99 towers containing 13,500 apartments, home to 70,000 people. And it’s hard to understate its historical importance; this wasn’t just a housing complex, it was the genesis of modern-day Hong Kong. Mei Foo is Hong Kong’s Levittown: a revolution in how the city was built, managed and perceived.

In the mid-1960s, most people in Hong Kong lived in four general types of housing: squalid wooden shanties built on hillsides, vulnerable to fire and landslides; overcrowded walkup tenements in old neighbourhoods like Wan Chai; one of the new public housing estates being built by the government; and for the privileged few, one of the standalone apartment towers mushrooming in the wealthier parts of town. For the growing middle class, Mei Foo provided an alternative: spacious, affordable and newly-built apartments in a relatively convenient location. Like many ascendant Hongkongers of the era, Laine’s parents bought their first apartment in Mei Foo; for people who grew up in decidedly modest circumstances, it was a foothold to a better life.

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May 29th, 2013

Behind the Noise Map

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

If you read The Atlantic Cities, or follow our Twitter feed, you’ve probably seen Karl Sluismap of the 40,412 noise complaints made last year in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful, richly-detailed effort to chart not only the geography of noise but more subtle variations in New York’s socio-economic landscape, like the fact that complaints about loud music from cars seem only to happen north of Central Park.

I’ve been working with the South China Morning Post to create a Hong Kong version of Sluis’ map for the past couple of weeks. It hasn’t gone so well. I’ll have more about that later, but in the meantime, here’s a quick interview I did with Sluis by email.

What came first, wanting to do a noise map or coming across New York’s open-source data on noise complaints?

As a freelance data visualization designer, I’m always on the lookout for that next great data set, so I was attracted first to NYC’s Open Data portal. Granted, a lot has already been made with the data released by the city of New York. I was perusing some of the less-popular data sets when I came across the 311 (NYC’s non-emergency information line) data set.

Wired Magazine had already made a visualization out of the same data some years ago, so I hardly wanted to repeat an existing project. What got me excited was the combination of geolocation data, time data, and, particularly, the metadata on what type of complaint had been filed. With such a rich data set, I knew the visualization would have legs.

New York’s an immense, incredible, rich place, and as a resident, I’m always curious to learn more.

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April 29th, 2013

An Expat Childhood in 1930s Kowloon

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

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Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s

When Joyce Fitch lived in Hong Kong, rickshaws were a form of public transport, the only way to cross Victoria Harbour was by boat and there were about 1.5 million people living in the territory. Fitch was born in England and spent most of her youth and adolescence in Hong Kong, where she lived with her family on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s. I interviewed Fitch recently thanks to the English Schools Foundation’s Alumni News, and because it’s not often you hear first-hand about expatriate life in Kowloon before the war, I thought I’d post a portion of the transcript, which has been edited for clarity.

My father went out to China in 1920 as the captain of a ship for Butterfield and Swire, now Cathay Pacific. He was there trading up and down the coast, from Shanghai up to the Gorges and up to Tientsin. We were there in Shanghai for four years and then he was transferred down to Hong Kong. He was still working on the ship, going away and coming back.

We had rather a checkered family life but we managed. My brother was in England so we would have to go back there every so often. I went to the Kowloon British School near Austin Road — I travelled there by rickshaw — but I didn’t really have much time at school for any length of time. I was always coming back or forwards.

Because my father was away a lot, our life was a little bit different than other families. My mother played tennis and mahjong. I would come home and the [servant] boy would be there and I would have a meal. I was a rather solitary child and didn’t always have friends around to play. I was very independent and could walk around Kowloon all over the place and not feel at all restricted. I would go to dockyards and watch the men work.

We lived on Kimberley Road. The big houses there had gardens — Carnarvon Road too. Down where Carnarvon Road goes, there was a market garden, believe it or not. There weren’t many shops past St. Andrew’s [Church, on Nathan Road near Austin Road]. There was a sort of gap of houses and flats and maybe a few more shops further up Nathan Road, and then there was a theatre up there. I remember going to the pictures very often. It was just a very rural type area. Lots of gardens. I was really quite shocked when I went back to see it the next time. I think it was about 1970 that I went back first. I came back about three times — each time it surprised me more.

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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.

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April 17th, 2013

What Sucks About Walking in Hong Kong

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

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I often get angry when I walk around Hong Kong. This is one of the most fascinating cities in the world to explore — densely layered, pulsing with energy — but it’s also one of the most frustrating because of all the ways the pedestrian experience is undermined and made unpleasant. In the city with the lowest car ownership rate in the developed world, pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens.

Designing Hong Kong recently launched an interesting new initiative called Missing Links, which is lobbying the government to improve pedestrian linkages around the city. One particularly egregious example is Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which runs parallel to the harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the past, crosswalks allowed pedestrians to easily walk to the waterfront, but a major traffic engineering project about 10 years ago removed all surface-level crossings and forced pedestrians into a confusing system of underground passageways. Walking through them is not much different from being a rat in a maze. To say it’s a dispiriting experience would be an understatement: if life is a series of tile-walled tunnels, I’ll take the next exit out, thank you very much.

This is just one example of what’s wrong in Hong Kong. What’s even more outrageous is the systematic denigration of pedestrians in the city’s entire network of streets. There are the legendarily narrow sidewalks, made even narrower by the presence of roadside fences that eat up valuable pedestrian space. When a sidewalk becomes overcrowded, it isn’t widened, it’s fenced in, the way the jam-packed sidewalk of Dundas Street was fenced in when too many people started walking in the street.

Crosswalks at major intersections are generally too narrow and surrounded by fences that create artificial choke points. Minor intersections have absolutely no provisions for pedestrians: no crosswalks, just a “Look Left” or “Look Right” sign painted on the asphalt. Pedestrians are meant to wait for oncoming vehicles, which always have the right of way unless there is a zebra crossing. And while there are zebra crossings here and there, usually in very quiet parts of town, in recent years they have become even more endangered than the animals for which they are named.

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February 20th, 2013

What’s Left of Industrial Hong Kong

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Industrial buildings in Chai Wan

China’s Pearl River Delta is often called the world’s factory floor, but 40 years ago, that title belonged to Hong Kong. In the 1970s, 22,000 factories and workshops furiously churned out everything from clothes to watches to jewellery. Then, when low wages and a newly-liberalised economy made mainland China an attractive prospect in the 1990s, business owners moved their factories across the border. Left behind were hundreds of now-quiet industrial buildings – and even more out-of-work men and women with skills in sewing, watchmaking, cobbling and other trades.

But that’s not the end of the story. In recent years, a small group of Hong Kong designers are building new brands on the remnants of the city’s industrial heritage and traditional craft skills. What is not yet clear, however, is whether this is the birth of a new generation of skilled and design-savvy craftspeople – or simply the last gasp of Hong Kong manufacturing.

When designers Kit Lee and Jeff Wan discovered that high rents were forcing a 40-year-old shoe workshop named Ming Kee to close, they bought the shop’s equipment and hired its shoemaking master, a 60-something man known affectionately as Uncle Kong. (“He’s a bit media shy,” says Lee, explaining that he doesn’t like to reveal too much about himself.) That was their first step towards Shoe Artistry, a brand that aims to reinvigorate Hong Kong’s tradition of bespoke shoemaking. Uncle Kong now makes shoes in a second-floor space above the busy Ladies Market, where Lee and Wan also hold public workshops. They eventually plan to move to a new studio in the PMQ design hub, which will open next year.

“Design and industry should work hand in hand,” says Lee, who used to source apparel from mainland Chinese factories for a company in Singapore. “Every year there are so many design students being churned out but without industry they have no connection to how things are made.” At the same time, she says, Hong Kong has lost touch with its own industrial skills. “Instead of always looking to China to get things made, why don’t we look at what Hong Kong has to offer?”

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February 8th, 2013

The Space Between Notes

Xiqu Centre

Rendering of the Xiqu Centre

Early December was a busy time for Bing Thom. First, there was his 72nd birthday, followed shortly by an announcement that the renowned Canadian architect had won the competition to design the new Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong, the first of 17 cultural venues to be built in the West Kowloon Cultural District. But Thom looks nothing but energised the day after the announcement, as he stands inside the cultural district’s offices.

“Have you seen the model?” he asks, bouncing over to a scale model to show off the 1,780-seat, US$350 million centre for Chinese opera that will begin construction this year. When it is completed at the end of 2015, the Xiqu Centre will contain a large theatre, a 280-seat teahouse, educational facilities for 200 students, retail spaces and a series of gardens. (A smaller theatre will be added later.) When Thom’s design was first unveiled, its undulating, translucent form caused quite a stir, earning comparisons to a lantern, a curtain being pulled open and even, in less polite corners of the internet, a certain part of the female anatomy.

“I’m trying to capture the soul and essence of what Cantonese opera is about while giving it a contemporary expression of ambiguity,” says Thom. “Even though it’s not physically moving, the quality of light, the seasonal changes and the changing of the gardens with different colours will give the building a moving quality.”

The Xiqu Centre is a sort of homecoming for Thom. Born in Hong Kong in 1940, he left with his family for Vancouver when he was ten years old. After studies in architecture at the University of British Columbia and University of California, Berkeley, he worked briefly for Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki before joining Arthur Erickson’s office in 1972, overseeing a number of major projects including the Roy Thomson concert hall in Toronto and the ambitious Robson Square civic centre project in Vancouver.

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