June 19th, 2014

A City Beyond Its Borders


Halfway through director Heiward Mak’s new short film, SAR², Eric Tsang takes a tumble in front of a propaganda sign in Shenzhen’s Qianhai new development zone. “Supported by Hong Kong, Serving the Mainland, Facing the World,” reads the billboard, reflecting the area’s goal of attracting 100,000 Hong Kong permanent residents to live and work there.

In the film, Tsang plays Lee To, a Hong Kong man who has retired to Qianhai, where he falls in love with Lady Cheung, played by Taiwanese actress Kelly Tien, a native Shenzhener whose oyster farming village was cleared for land reclamation. In one intimate scene, Cheung asks Lee if he misses living in Hong Kong. “I can’t really say,” he replies. “Hong Kong is not my home anymore.”

SAR² is a story of alienation and ambiguity: Lee and Cheung live in spacious, comfortable apartments, but they are surrounded by vast construction sites and cut off from their families. Their romance seems to be as much a salve for loneliness as it is based on any kind of mutual attraction. “They’re wondering, ‘What am I looking for?’” says Mak.

It’s a natural project for Mak, whose acclaimed 2008 debut, High Noon, dealt with a similar kind of rootlessness. And while her notoriety has so far been limited to Hong Kong, SAR² made its debut far from these shores, in Italy, where Hong Kong is participating in the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest and most venerable showcase of the built form. 65 countries have mounted exhibitions in the biennale, which runs from June 7 to November 22, along with hundreds of other shows and events taking place throughout the island city.


January 9th, 2012

Delving Brick Lane’s Layers

Posted in Europe, History, Society and Culture by Nicholas Olczak

Early on a Friday morning, London’s Brick Lane bustles with Bangladeshis heading to prayers at the local mosque. The women wear brightly coloured saris and the men don long pastel robes, looking striking as they stride along this worn English street.

A few hours later, they are gone and the feel of the street has completely changed. Now it is busy with hipsters with slicked over retro haircuts and skinny jeans. Like the stars of alternative music videos, people lounge on benches outside cafes dragging at roll ups and drinking cans of beer.

These are just two of the many different scenes that are staged every day on Brick Lane. The long, narrow London road gained its name because it was used to transport bricks from the outskirts of the city to building projects in the centre. It now sits hemmed in between some of London’s poorest neighborhoods and the sleek skyscrapers of the City, London’s financial district, from which it couldn’t be more different.

For me, Brick Lane epitomizes that mingling of different cultures and rich multilayered history that make London so special. Other cities claim to be very multicultural, but the way London mixes tastes and traditions feels different. Hong Kong has residents who hail from different countries — but they remain somewhat segregated. In London, a huge variety of people knock up against each other every day.

London’s development has also been distinctive. Instead of new buildings occupying greenfield sites, or replacing old ones outright, you get developments that build upon what’s beneath. History piles on top of history, like layers of fallen leaves. Brick Lane has witnessed a particularly impressive number of these strata. As the artists Gilbert and George, who live just off the street, once said, Brick Lane has been (and seen) “everything”.


December 5th, 2011

Catholic Shrines of Carroll Gardens

Posted in Art and Design, Demographics, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

At Court Street and Fourth Place is the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club’s Madonna Addolorata

Jesus has risen again on Brooklyn’s Wyckoff Street. His hand outstretched toward passersby, Christ silently sermonizes from a lightbox that both protects him from the elements and casts a holy aura around his colorfully-painted, ceramic torso. He’s also a home improvement with which the Joneses can’t keep up — the small stone statue next door (it looks a little like popular images of St. Francis of Assisi) is literally outshined and overshadowed by the devotionally double-padlocked shrine that’s built around him.

Wyckoff Street is technically in Cobble Hill, a largely gentrified slice of brownstone Brooklyn bordering tony Brooklyn Heights. Further south is Carroll Gardens, where awnings grow more metallic, siding more aluminum, and residents are more consistently old timers, many of them Italian. Carroll Gardens has seen its share of wealthier newcomers, too, but not to the extent of Cobble Hill.

The density of its shrines is a testament. Spreading out in Carroll Gardens’ unusually spacious front lawns (which give the neighborhood the second half of its name), boldly occupying prime real estate even on Court Street, one of the area’s main drags, Catholic iconography stands guard against the aesthetic imperatives of newcomers whose taste for prosciutto is more affected than acculturated.


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.


May 5th, 2011

Elected by Ethnoburbia

Posted in Canada, Maps, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Election results in Toronto in 2008 (top) and 2011 (bottom)
Red is Liberal, blue is Conservative, orange is NDP

Canada held its 41st federal election on Monday and the results have unleashed a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape. After two consecutive minority governments, the Conservatives have now won a majority. The left-wing NDP, a marginal party for much of its existence (it ran fifth for most of the 1990s), is now the Official Opposition.

Much attention is being paid to the massive surge of support for the NDP, especially in Quebec, where two decades of dominance by the Bloc fell victim to the “Orange Crush.” But Quebec is prone to political mood swings, and even as an NDP supporter, I’m sceptical that they will be able to maintain their current level of support until the next election. What I find especially remarkable about this election is the near-collapse of the Liberal Party — and the political rise of the ethnoburbs.

Take a look at electoral map of Greater Toronto. Red has given way to blue in virtually all of its fast-growing, immigrant-dominated, ethnically-diverse suburban areas. Losing these ridings is what pushed the Liberals to the edge of oblivion. “Of the 18 seats they gained in that region, 14 are more than 45 per cent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for the Conservatives,” notes the Globe and Mail.

In other words, the Canadian election was fought and won in ethnoburbia, the suburban immigrant enclaves first identified in 1997 by the geographer Wei Li. Ethnoburbs are socially and culturally self-contained, but unlike the urban ethnic enclaves of decades past, they are also prosperous and extensively connected to transnational networks. Their affluence and influence have given them enormous political leverage.


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.


August 11th, 2010

Haiphong Road’s Halal Meat Market

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

The wet market on Haiphong Road comes as a bit of a surprise, tucked as it is beneath a busy flyover that shudders with the weight of passing trucks. The crowds streaming along the road towards the shops on Canton Road pass it by without much thought. If a passerby were to wander in, though, he or she would be in for another surprise. Instead of the usual row of fishmongers and butchers selling every cut of pork cut imaginable, there is a small collection of halal butchers.

I’ve been to the market on a number of occasions, and each time, the butchers seem vaguely surprised to see me. They ask me where I am from. “Canada,” I reply, to which they usually tell me about a relative in Toronto or offer some platitude about the beautiful scenery. On my last visit, I asked one of the butchers, Asif, how long he had been working there. “More than twenty years,” he said. Born in Pakistan, he came to Hong Kong as a child and started working in the market when his father opened a shop there in the 1980s. “We don’t come from a family of butchers, so we had to watch others and learn from them,” he said.

I had always assumed that the market’s customers were mainly Pakistani from the surrounding neighbourhood, but it draws a more diverse crowd than that. “Indians will come and buy goat — they don’t eat beef — and cook it for breakfast,” Asif told me. “Chinese people come here too. They say our meat tastes better.” He gestured towards cuts of beef hanging from hooks above his stall. “In our country, beef is tough and goat is softer, but here, beef is very tender and goat is tough.” I asked why, but he shrugged.


June 12th, 2010

Mexican Bohemia: Chicago’s Pilsen

Posted in Architecture, Demographics, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

From the Loop, the Pink Line El bursts west, floating among the rooftops of a low-rise industrial district. As the city’s wall of downtown skyscrapers drifts away and the train enters an expanse of limitless sky, it’s as if the Pink Line is darting toward far more distant destinations than its terminus in neighboring Cicero. The slightly undulating horizontals of the warehouse roofs take on the characteristics of the rolling, arid Plains and desert beyond, stretching almost ceaselessly to the south and the west.

Stopping at 18th St., though, it’s more apparent the journey transports mentally further than it has physically; the Sears Tower still looms totemically, as it does over most of pancake-flat Chicago’s south and west sides. But something else has happened: the station is covered in a riot of color; art infuses every step and crevice. Alighting here, the rider descends this urban canvas into Pilsen: first settled by crafty vrais Bohemians, resettled by Mexicans and increasingly claimed again by bohemians of a different sort, Pilsen is a neighborhood where artistic traditions run deep.


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

French Expats, Here and There

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

World cup celebration

French football fans celebrate in 2006 on the Plateau Mont-Royal
Photo by Oliver Lavery

It’s been a long time coming, but the French — in the words of a shop manager on Mount Royal Avenue — “are taking over the Plateau!” French immigrants have been coming to Quebec for decades, but the past few years have seen an especially large influx. This year, Canada will issue 14,000 temporary visas to French people between the ages of 18 and 35, most of them on working holidays. Many choose to live in Montreal, and especially on the Plateau Mont-Royal, where French accents have become common enough to elicit half-joking exclamations like the one above. According to the French consulate, there could be as many as 100,000 French citizens living in Montreal.

In today’s La Presse, Émilie Côté takes a look at the growing community of young French émigrés on the Plateau. Many of the people she encountered say they want to stay in Montreal long-term, but finding permanent employment has been difficult. There’s also some lingering prejudice against “les maudits Français,” though some admit that the animosity could be well-deserved, considering that French people “have a chauvinistic streak” and are “notorious whiners.” In any case, the French influx is beginning to reshape the social fabric of the Plateau in some potentially fascinating ways.

Though Montreal is unique in that it is the only large, economically-developed French-speaking city outside Europe, it is not the only place with a growing French community. More and more French people are moving to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver; a number of American cities, including Boston, San Francisco and New York, have been popular destinations for quite some time now. According to the French magazine Les Echos, there are 210,000 French expatriates in Canada, 175,000 in the United States and 158,000 in the United Kingdom. But here’s a surprise: the country with the absolute largest number of French expats is China, with 252,000.


March 5th, 2010

The Shenzhen Flâneur

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

It’s easy to spot Mary Ann O’Donnell in a Shenzhen crowd. She’s the one wearing a pink-and-orange linen scarf and flowing dress. She’s also white — a rather rare sight in a wealthy city that is still off the radar of the roving crowd of expatriates that have settled in Shanghai and Beijing. Don’t let appearances deceive you, though, because O’Donnell knows Shenzhen better than just about everybody.

Armed with a camera and a notebook, O’Donnell roams the city’s streets, collecting stories and photos that sometimes posts on her blog, Shenzhen Noted. When she first moved to the city in 1995, it was just 15 years old, a shifty frontier town. Now it bears the veneer of global capitalism: giant malls that wouldn’t be out of place in Causeway Bay dot the landscape, in between luxurious housing estates and international chain hotels.

But Shenzhen is far more complicated than meets the eye. For all the new malls, the reality is that Shenzhen is still a city of villages populated by poor migrants who’ve arrived from across China for a shot at success. That’s the Shenzhen that fascinates O’Donnell.

I met her last month on a damp, chilly afternoon, in the western district of Nanshan. We strolled through a series of old country villages that had been absorbed into the fast-growing city.


January 21st, 2010

Inside the World’s Largest Human Migration

YouTube Preview Image

Last Saturday, I stumbled into Cinema du Parc after fighting a losing battle with some serious wind-chill. I found myself watching Lixin Fan’s documentary, Last Train Home, a jarring film that expertly chronicles the world’s largest human migration.

Every year, 130 million Chinese migrant workers attempt to make it back to their homes in rural China in time to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The last decade has seen China catapulted into a new economic reality as its GDP and infrastructure experience sustained and unprecedented growth. This has resulted in the dismantling of families in China’s poverty stricken countryside as younger members leave their homes for the city.

The film follows the lives of one family, the Zhangs, as they take part in this annual migration. The mother and father have gone to pursue jobs in Guangzhou and they have left behind their children and aging grandmother. Through the story of this family, Fan addresses the much bigger story of globalization and a country’s struggle between old values and new realities.


December 14th, 2009

A Hasidic Exodus from Park Avenue?

Posted in Canada, Demographics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Hasidic Jewish procession

The Montreal Gazette reported this weekend that the Hasidic community in Outremont and Mile End is suffering from a housing shortage. In 2002, there were about 4,200 Hasidim in the neighbourhood; today there are more than 6,000. Rising property values mean that many new Hasidic families are finding themselves priced out of their own Montreal heartland. Apparently, the hunt is on to find a new neighbourhood with suitable and affordable housing.

If the Hasidic community does move on, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a Jewish community has come and gone. The entire swath of city from Chinatown right up to Little Italy is littered with former synagogues that were abandoned when the original Jewish community moved west. But it wouldn’t be a good thing if the Hasidim leave.

First of all, a Hasidic exodus would be a disaster for Park Avenue’s economy. Hasidic Jews make up more than 25 percent of Outremont’s population, and even they have their own Yiddish bookstores and kosher eateries, they still rely on non-Hasidic businesses for everything else, like drugs, hardware, stationery and fresh fruits and vegetables. Most of those shops are on Park Avenue; imagine the impact if they lost a quarter of their business.


May 25th, 2009

Montreal in a Minute

Posted in Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation, Video by Christopher DeWolf

When it first launched, Urbania magazine had a pretty useless Flash-based website that replicated selected content from its print magazine. I’m glad to see it has embraced the full potential of the web. 14 “channels” of video, images and text add a new, more dynamic aspect to the quarterly magazine. One of my favourite features is the Urbania Minutes series of videos: one-minute vignettes of Montreal life.

Above is L’exil, rue Sainte-Catherine Est, a brief portrait of a Chinese dépanneur deliveryman in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. Despite the annoying synopsis, which exoticizes Chinese immigrants (“En quête d’une vie meilleure, désireux d’offrir un avenir à leurs enfants, les ressortissants de l’Empire du milieu sont prêts à trimer dur pour réaliser leur rêve. Travailler 18 heures par jour dans une buanderie ou un dépanneur, ce n’est qu’une manière d’acheter sa liberté”), it’s a worthwhile glimpse into both immigrant life and the peculiar tradition of dep delivery, which has disappeared from other parts of the city.

Le métro de Montréal s’éveille, below, is one of those always-interesting behind-the-scenes looks at something we take for granted. We see the metro come to life in all of its antiquated glory, a 1960s flashback that begs to be seen as an old episode of Batman or something.