September 29th, 2011
Though street art is not as pervasive in Hong Kong as it is in European and North American cities, it is very common in certain neighbourhoods. Sheung Wan is one of them. In the district’s many back lanes and quiet streets, just about every spare surface is covered with a tag, stencil or poster.
Last March, I wandered through the area and recorded some of what I saw. It’s very much a reflection of Hong Kong’s current state of mind. One of the pieces depicts a jasmine hawker selling jasmine flowers, a reference to both the Arab Spring and the response of Chinese activists to the increasingly harsh crackdown on mainland China intellectuals, human rights lawyers and dissidents. Another criticizes the Hong Kong government’s aloofness and unaccountability. One pokes fun at the ascendant Chinese art market, which has led to the concentration of major international galleries and auction houses in Hong Kong.
June 5th, 2011
On a bright summer day in 1996, Kate McDonnell was wandering through an alley in the eastern Plateau when she spotted the remnants of a hand-painted tobacco ad on the wall of an old triplex.
Fifteen years later, Kate ventured down the same alley and, sure enough, the ad was still there, a bit more faded than before but otherwise intact. Unfortunately, the bottom of the ad is now blocked by the tall wood fence of a terrace built on an adjacent garage.
April 26th, 2011
This week’s photo was taken in Shanghai by Damien Polegato.
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January 26th, 2011
Mongkok might be one of the world’s most crowded places, but sometimes all you need to do to escape is to make a right turn down a quiet alleyway. That’s what I discovered when I was walking from home to the Flower Market the other day. Instead of taking the usual route along Sai Yee Street, I ducked into the laneway that runs behind it and discovered a kind of parallel university of greenery, graffiti and informal living space.
One of the first things I encountered was a lean-to with a mattress, some newspaper and various other objects inside. It seems to have been built by a homeless person but I’m not sure if it’s still occupied. Taggers have been using its wood walls as a canvas.
November 17th, 2010
Beijing is not a good walking city. Its roads are too wide, its blocks too long — this is a city meant to be experienced on wheels, whether those of a bicycle or (increasingly) a compact sedan.
But as Christopher Szabla reminded us earlier this year, “Beijing is at least two cities”: the city beyond the Second Ring Road, with its new office blocks and apartment complexes, and the older city within it, made up of hutong alleyways and old, low-rise courtyard houses.
March 17th, 2010
Street art in Hong Kong tends to be limited to specific areas and the scene is dominated by a handful of very prolific artists, like Start from Zero and Graphic Airlines, who work mainly with posters, stencil art and stickers. In a few corners of town, though, it’s possible to find clusters of exuberantly traditional graffiti. One of these can be found along a laneway next to Mong Kok East Station on the former KCR (now East Rail) line. There’s a couple of Graphic Airlines paste-ups but mostly it’s stuff I don’t recognize, which is refreshing.
February 19th, 2010
Last year, after returning from Montreal, I posted about a Mile End alley with a strange name that doesn’t appear anywhere in the city’s official toponymical records. Nobody has yet come forward with an answer as to how Swiss Lane got its name, but one Flickr user, DubyDub2009, did a bit of extra research and found that Swiss Lane used to be even longer than it is today.
In a map dated 1949, Swiss Lane is shown running two blocks, from St. Dominique to de Gaspé. Today it runs only between St. Dom and Casgrain. At some point, probably in the 1950s, a small factory was built on the lane’s eastern half. But the street signs were never changed to reflect this fact, so the one sign of Swiss Lane’s existence still points towards the long-vanished eastern part of the alley.
December 21st, 2009
Suoyi Hutong, Beijing
There’s several different names in English for small, secondary streets that run between blocks or behind major roads. Alley and lane are the words most often used in North America, but there’s significant variation in the UK, where regional words like vennel, chare, wynd, twitten and jigger are common.
It’s a similar story in China. Just about every city has a lu (路), which is the word mostly commonly used to describe important roads. And even though there is a basic word for lane — xiang (巷) — there are also many regional variations. In Beijing, it’s hutong (衚衕); in Shanghai, it’s longtang (弄堂) and in Chengdu, it’s xiangzi (巷子).
I don’t know anything about the exact origins of these different words for alley, but I imagine they have roots in local languages and geography. In Guangzhou, for example, a common name for alley is tung jeun in Cantonese (衕津), which literally means “alley dock” and refers to a lane near the Pearl River. Nobody uses this word in Hong Kong, where two other words are used to refer to alleys: fong (坊) and lei (里), which is a Cantonese transliteration of the English word “lane.”
November 29th, 2009
Even after seven years of walking its streets, I’m still finding new things in Mile End, the neighbourhood I called home before I left Montreal. Back for a visit last month, I got around mostly by bike, which took me down streets on which I wouldn’t normally walk, like the quiet stretch of Casgrain in the old garment district. That’s where I spotted a laneway with an unusual name: Swiss Lane, according to the street sign, though “lane” has been patched over with white tape and the alley’s official name is now “ruelle Swiss.”
I can’t find any clues as to the origins of Swiss Lane’s name. The city’s otherwise comprehensive Répertoire historique des toponymes montréalais contains no reference to anything Swiss or Suisse. The only mention I can find in the Lovell’s Directory indicates that Swiss Lane was “not built upon.” (Its entry in the 1935 directory is found right under Swastika Avenue, which was apparently a lane off Ste. Famille Street.) So what’s the story behind Swiss Lane?
September 3rd, 2009
Unpaved alley, central NDG
Earlier this summer, Susan Semenak, a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, emailed me about a story she was doing on Montreal’s laneways. “I spent a large part of my childhood running around a grassy laneway behind 7th Ave. in LaSalle,” she wrote. “I love the other stories that laneways tell about a city.” She asked me some questions about my own memories of laneways, as well as my thoughts on what make them different from lanes in other cities, and she used some of what I told her in “Hidden Neighbourhoods,” a nice feature that was published early last month.
At the risk of being self-indulgent, I’ve decided to reproduce my long, rambling answer to her questions below.
May 7th, 2009
March 17th, 2009
I first passed by this paste-up late at night in Taipei’s Ximending district. When I happened to be nearby a couple of days later, I was doubly impressed: whoever made it knew that by placing it here, it would illuminated each afternoon by a thin sliver of light, a ready-made art space in an otherwise dark lane.
December 22nd, 2008
Electrical appliance store, Causeway Bay
Antique vendor, Sheung Wan
Last year, I wrote a bit about the informal shops and sales that spring up in some of Montreal’s laneways — a junk emporium, a record shop, a bicycle cooperative, just to name a few in Mile End. Here in Hong Kong, where commercial rents are among the most unaffordable in the world, these kinds of tiny, out-of-way shops are especially common. You’ll find locksmiths, barbers, cheap restaurants, mahjong tile vendors, even bookshops.
August 28th, 2008
Stanley Street between Ste. Catherine and de Maisonneuve