January 26th, 2014

Bring in the Year of the Horse

IMG_8663

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.)

More

July 16th, 2013

Private Paradise

01-gate

There was a time when Hong Kong was full of strange and wonderful private gardens. There was a Spanish-style garden built by a Catholic missionary on Seymour Road. In Tai Hang, the seven-storey pagoda of Tiger Balm Garden could be seen for miles around. When Sir Robert Hotung built a second house on the Peak, he surrounded it with a 116,000-square-foot garden built in a Chinese Renaissance style, complete with pagoda and colourful tilework.

Many of the world’s great parks began their lives as private gardens — the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris, the Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid — but few of Hong Kong’s private gardens have survived, let alone been given over to the public. Civic mindedness is not a common trait among the scions of Hong Kong’s landed class; many treat their family’s property as oversized ATMs. Tiger Balm Garden had in fact been open to the public for decades when Tiger Balm heir Sally Aw Sian sold it to Cheung Kong Development in 1998. It was demolished in 2004 and replaced by a wall of apartment blocks festooned with blinking LEDs. Hotung Gardens has always been private, though Hong Kong’s government made an effort to declare it a monument when its owner declared her ambition to demolish the estate; the preservation drive was deterred when she demanded no less than $7 billion in compensation.

Still, one of Hong Kong’s great private gardens has managed to survive. Dragon Garden was built as a weekend retreat by entrepreneur and philanthropist Lee Iu Cheung, and while it was nearly bulldozed for a tawdry high-end housing estate, it was saved from demolition when Lee’s son Shiu bought out the property from his siblings. Since then, granddaughter Cynthia has agitated for government support to restore the gardens, which I wrote about three years ago. As far as I know, the situation hasn’t changed — money is still tight, Cynthia is lobbying to reform Hong Kong’s heritage policy and the public can only visit the garden on special occasions.

More

February 27th, 2013

A City Without Streets

Tseung Kwan O

Not too long ago, on a particularly glorious Sunday afternoon — the kind of sunny but cool day that happens all too rarely in Hong Kong — I took the MTR out to Po Lam station in Tseung Kwan O. Leaving the station, I walked along a linear park built atop the MTR tracks, which led me to another path that meandered under a series of elevated highways and then down to the waterfront near Tseung Kwan O station, a couple of stops away from Po Lam.

Lots of people were out enjoying the afternoon. I passed by plenty of cyclists — kids with training wheels, lycra types on road bikes, middle-aged women on rusty beaters with groceries in the front basket. There were skateboarders, teenagers playing guitars, an old man playing the erhu, joggers, people pushing strollers, an old woman selling potato chips and Yakult on the side of the path. There was even a makeshift mosque set up beneath a highway flyover where Indonesian maids sat listening to a sermon broadcast over a crackly radio. It was the kind of diverse urban activity you find on a truly dynamic street.

But none of this was taking place on a street, or even in a real park. The paths where all this activity took place are entirely removed from the surrounding commercial and residential areas. Most of them are lined by rows of trees and shrubs, beyond which are fences, walls or embankments. The paths are not unpleasant, thanks to the greenery, but the heavy pedestrian traffic on that Sunday afternoon existed in a kind of void: a lot of people passing through nowhere to go nowhere in particular.

More

February 12th, 2012

Auto Invasion

Hong Kong Traffic

Photo by Charlotte Huang

Hong Kong’s not a big place, and with 28 million mainland Chinese visitors a year, it’s beginning to feel even more crowded than usual. The stress seems to have gotten to a lot of people. Over the past month, a handful of seemingly banal conflicts between Hongkongers and mainland tourists have been amplified beyond all proportion.

An argument over spilled noodles in the MTR somehow led to a Peking University professor calling Hong Kong people “dogs” and “bastards” who should speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese. An ill-advised remark by a Dolce & Gabbana security guard, who said that Hong Kong people are banned from taking photos of the shop but mainlanders aren’t, sparked an online firestorm and protests in the street. Mainland women who come to Hong Kong to have their babies delivered in local hospitals, thus ensuring Hong Kong residency for their children, were called “locusts” in a full-page printed in Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second-most-read newspaper.

Now, the latest source of controversy: a government plan to allow mainland Chinese visitors to bring their cars into Hong Kong, despite the mainland’s notoriously poor standards of driving and the perils of operating a left-hand-drive car on the opposite side of the road — not to mention Hong Kong’s worsening congestion and air pollution. Those are some of the concerns of the thousands of people who have pledged their support for various Facebook protests, which call for the government to scrap its scheme. They are being joined in their demands by a coalition of environmental groups, social activists and opposition political parties.

“Drivers don’t obey the rules on the mainland,” says Kay Lam, a columnist for Apple Daily, who started a Facebook group opposed to the scheme. “Why would they follow the rules here? One mistake could be fatal. When it comes to safety, there should be no compromises.”

The government’s plan is based on a 2010 agreement made with authorities in the mainland province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong. Starting next month, Hong Kong motorists will be able to apply for a limited number of cross-border driving permits. Later, Guangdong drivers may do the same, giving them a chance to bring their cars to Hong Kong. When I asked a spokeswoman for the Transport and Housing Bureau for details, I was told that “there is not yet a concrete timetable” and the specifics still need to be hammered out.

More

January 30th, 2012

Rebuilding the Market Economy

It used to be routine: wake up, walk to the wet market and buy the day’s fresh ingredients for dinner. Markets have always been a part of Hong Kong life, but these days, they are losing ground to supermarkets, whose numbers have grown exponentially over the past two decades.

Chain supermarkets Wellcome and Park’n’Shop now control more than 70 percent of the grocery sector, while the number of independent grocery stores and wet market stalls has declined by more than half since 1996. Tofu merchant Cheung Ching-loi says business at his stall in Tai Yuen Market declined by 60 percent over the past decade.

Other market vendors tell a similar story: fewer customers, quieter markets. In the government’s 102 public markets, one out of every seven stalls is vacant. The vacancy rate is similar in markets run by the Housing Authority and The Link Reit, a publicly-traded corporation that bought 96 markets from the government in 2005.

The situation became so bad at some markets they were simply shut down. Before it closed last year, the government-run Mong Kok Market was more than 60 percent empty. Vendors placed the blame not only on changing consumption habits, but on the market environment: wet, dirty, cluttered and poorly-ventilated.

That was certainly the case at Tai Yuen, which is located near the heart of the Tai Wo shopping district in the suburban town of Tai Po. Thirty years after its construction in 1980, half its stalls stood empty. Customers were so sparse that merchants took the afternoon as an opportunity to nap. There was no natural light, little ventilation and no air conditioning. The roof leaked when it rained.

More

January 21st, 2012

The Ghosts of Oil Street

Deserted building

Oil Street. Photo by Eric To

This story was originally published in the November 2010 edition of Muse, the new-defunct review of Hong Kong arts and culture.

It was a hot night when I sat inside the cluttered studios of the pirate radio station FM 101, six floors up inside an industrial building in Kwun Tong. I was speaking to one of the station’s founders, a rock musician named Leung Wing-lai, when the doorbell rang. Leung excused himself to go open the door. Three people walked in, including Ah Kok Wong, a composer who has been working with Kwun Tong’s artists to lobby the government against a new policy that made it easier for the owners of industrial units to convert their space into offices or hotels.

Wong told me about an Arts Development Council survey that was meant to determine exactly how many artists, musicians and other creative people are making use of industrial space. Unfortunately, few artists received the survey, so Wong and several others had taken to distributing it themselves. “I have my own studio, a band room and a studio used by the radio station, and we didn’t get copies at any of these places,” he said. If not enough artists completed the survey, he told me, the government would have no clear picture of the thousands of creative people that work in low-rent, run-down industrial buildings, and its new industrial “revitalization” policy would lead to unchecked property speculation, pushing out a huge chunk of Hong Kong’s artists, musicians and cultural organizations.

Leung returned to his seat. We talked about FM 101, which focuses mainly on arts, culture and music and was set up to protest against regulations that make it nearly impossible for a non-profit, community-based radio station to get a broadcast licence. A recent crackdown on the station’s fundraising efforts has forced its volunteers to pay for its operating expenses out of their own pocket, which has only been possible because the studio’s rent is low. “Without this kind of space, where would we go?” he asked.

More

November 18th, 2011

On the Waterfront: Kwun Tong, Ma On Shan

IMG_8048

Second in a series of three posts about Hong Kong’s waterfront. Read the first post here.

The Kwun Tong promenade opened last year on an industrial stretch of waterfront facing the runway of the old Kai Tak Airport. It’s very short — just 200 metres — but the plan is to continue expanding it until it joins whatever will be built along the waterfront of Kai Tak, which is on the verge of being redeveloped into a large residential and commercial area.

So far, what exists is promising. The design language takes its cues from the surrounding industrial blocks, with plenty of exposed steel that goes nicely with the wood boardwalk. Water vapour is released from vents inside the boardwalk, which is a nice cinematic touch, especially on a hazy winter day. On one end of the promenade is a sculpture inspired by the large bricks of paper that once occupied this stretch of waterfront, waiting to be loaded onto barges and shipped to China for recycling.

There isn’t much to do here but sit and admire the view. If the rest of the promenade turns out to be like this, it would be a problem. A whole kilometre of it would feel one-dimensional. But for the moment, it’s fine, because this is one of just a couple of places in East Kowloon where you can actually get close to the water.

More

November 8th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Bicycle Graveyards

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

Bicycle dump. Photo by Dickson Lee for the SCMP

Sai Kung’s bicycle graveyard is back and bigger than ever. Last Wednesday, dozens of bikes were seen piled atop one another on a stretch of government land in the suburban Hong Kong district.

It’s a symptom of a wider problem – an acute shortage of bicycle parking spaces and a government that seems unwilling to address the problem.

According to the last Travel Characteristics Survey, which was conducted in 2002, 15.2 percent of people in Hong Kong had a bicycle available for use. The Cycling Alliance estimates there are more than a million bikes throughout the city.

But the government provides only 41,440 public bicycle parking spots. As a result, many cyclists leave their bicycles attached to roadside fences where they risk being seized by the government. After the bikes are confiscated, there is no way for their owners to reclaim them.

The Sai Kung dump is one of several used by the government to store bicycles confiscated from public areas. They are eventually auctioned in bulk to scrap metal dealers. Last year, after the South China Morning Post ran a story about the practice, the Sai Kung dump was cleared. But now it has returned, with even more bikes than before. Cyclists are outraged.

“This is first and foremost a failure of the government to provide better cycling facilities,” says Hong Kong Cycling Alliance member Martin Turner. “We have a crying need for more bicycle parking but the response of the government is that bikes are a litter problem to be cleared away.”

More

October 12th, 2011

Land Reclamation — At What Cost?

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

Reclamation

Construction of a new underground highway built on the last bit of land reclamation permitted in Victoria Harbour

If you are reading this somewhere in Hong Kong, odds are you’re sitting on a piece of land that was once a part of the sea. Since 1851, more than 60 square kilometres of land has been reclaimed from Hong Kong’s waterways, an area greater than Kowloon and nearly as large as the whole of Hong Kong Island.

Most of that reclamation took place along the shores of Victoria Harbour. That practice will come to an end next year with the completion of reclamation for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, the last project permitted under the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, which was passed in 1996 after a rash of reclamation proposals left the public worried that Victoria Harbour would one day disappear under a mountain of landfill.

Land in Hong Kong remains scarce, however, and the government remains intent on keeping reclamation in its toolbox. “It is necessary to resume land production by reclamation of an appropriate scale outside the Victoria Harbour so as to provide land to sustain the social and economic development of Hong Kong in the long run,” said the Permanent Secretary for Development (Works), Wai Chi-sing, last May. The government is now conducting a study of possible reclamation sites. Public consultations will begin next month.

Though Hong Kong has been reclaiming land for the better part of two centuries, it is a markedly different city than it was a century or even a decade ago. These days, nearly every major infrastructure project meets with controversy. Opposition to major development projects is often fierce, as was the case with last year’s protests over the construction of the Express Rail to mainland China. In such a stormy atmosphere, is more land reclamation really feasible?

More

September 27th, 2011

Airing Your Laundry in Public

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

IMG_8239

IMG_8241

When I first came to Hong Kong, one of the most perplexing of park rules was “No hanging of laundry.” Surely that isn’t a problem, I thought. Do people really bring their wet laundry to the park to dry?

As it turns out, they do. Though most people here have a washing machine in their apartments, relatively few have dryers, and Hong Kong’s tiny apartments lack the outdoor space needed to effectively dry freshly-washed clothes. Some people take their laundry up to rooftop clotheslines; those who live in buildings without an accessible roof simply hang their clothes next to an open window, hoping they won’t get that awful damp smell that comes from taking too long to dry. Others take a different approach: they dry their laundry in public space, hanging it on sidewalk railings and chainlink fences.

This happens almost exclusively in public housing estates and working-class neighbourhoods, which is an important point to consider. Outdoor clothes-drying is seen by many of the world’s middle and upper classes to be distasteful and unsightly, from North America, where hundreds of communities ban the practice, to Hong Kong, where affluent people cling very tightly to symbols of affluence and class identity, perhaps because they are only a generation or two removed from poverty. Once, a middle-aged professional man I know was looking outside at a luxury apartment tower when he noticed that some apartments had clothes drying outside, on the building’s small balconies. “They’re rich but they still dry their clothes outside,” he said with evident distaste.

More

September 22nd, 2011

A Place for Bikes in the Heart of Hong Kong?

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

IMG_8274

Imagine it’s a beautiful autumn day in Hong Kong. The summer’s humidity has vanished and you’re out enjoying the fine weather, bicycling along Victoria Harbour. You pass the Star Ferry pier, the new government headquarters at Tamar, then Victoria Park, all the while gazing out at the jade green water.

That was the vision presented by a group of cycling advocates at the Harbourfront Commission on September 7th. The Hong Kong Cycling Alliance is urging the commission to include a 16-kilometre cycleway in its plans for a continuous public promenade along the shoreline of Victoria Harbour. Its members argue that cycling would enliven the waterfront while also creating an easy way to travel between its different nodes of activity.

“Cycling is the most convenient, efficient mode of transportation known to man — and it’s just right for the harbourfront, which we want to be peaceful and well-connected,” says Martin Turner, a member of the Cycling Alliance. “I can see a family going there and hiring bikes for an afternoon. And commuters won’t have to sit on a bus for 45 minutes at the start of the morning. They can get some fresh air and improve their health.”

Turner and other cycling advocates hope that giving bikes a place on the waterfront could encourage cycling not only as a recreational activity but as a convenient way to get around the city. That would bring Hong Kong into line with cities as diverse as Hangzhou, New York and Paris, where cycling has become increasingly popular — and where local governments enthusiastically promote it as a healthy, ecologically-friendly form of transport.

“Our goal is to make cycling a part of everyday life in Hong Kong,” says Cycling Alliance member Philip Heung. For that to happen, though, cycling advocates must face the mother of all obstacles: changing government policy, which does not consider bicycles a means of transportation, even as cycling appears to grow more popular in both the New Territories and the urban areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

More

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.

More

March 14th, 2011

A Walk Through Kam Tin

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

Sometime in the late tenth century, a Sung Dynasty bureaucrat named Tang Hon-fat left his hometown of Pak Sha Village in Jiangxi province atook a trip south, to the coast of Guangdong. When he passed through the lush valley now known as Kam Tin, he was so taken by its natural beauty and the friendliness of its peasant inhabitants, he decided to move his entire family there. They arrived, ancestral bones in tow, in 973.

If Tang were to pass through Kam Tin in 2011, he might be less impressed. The mountains are still as beautiful as always, but the banana trees and farm fields of the valley have mostly given way to a haphazard collecton of houses, shacks and junkyards, none built with particular care or concern for the surrounding landscape. And if the people of Kam Tin were once known for their generosity, they lost it at some point during the millenium of pirate raids, dynastic upheaval and British annexation that has passed since Tang Hon-fat’s arrival. Visitors to Kam Tin’s ancient walled villages are more likely to encounter a cranky old woman demanding an entry fee than they are to be greeted with smiles.

Still, Kam Tin is one of Hong Kong’s most intriguing places, both for its centuries of history (documented with flourish by Sung Hok-pang in a 1973 paper for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society) and its more recent development. In 1950, the Royal Air Force opened a base here, which housed a number of military families until the return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. (It was also used as a detention camp for Vietnamese refugees from the 1970s to 1992.) Today, the base is mostly disused, run by a single unit of the Peoples’ Liberation Army, whose soldiers are not allowed to leave the base. But the airfield still makes its presence felt through the large community of ex-Gurkhas — the Nepalese and Indian who formed their own regiments in the British Army — who have remained in the area.

More

March 3rd, 2011

In Hong Kong, Cleaner Water, Dirtier Air

Ronnie Wong’s swimming career began with a dive into Victoria Harbour. In 1968, the 16-year-old competitive swimmer joined hundreds of other men and women in a 1.5-kilometre race from the Star Ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui to Queen’s Pier in Central.

“The moment I jumped in the water, I didn’t care about anything, just to head towards City Hall as fast as I could,” says Wong. He won the race. He won the following two years as well.

But the race, which had been launched in 1912, soon came to an end. By 1978, the harbour had become so polluted that the race was cancelled. In its final decade, Wong remembers the swim was as much of an obstacle course as it was a race. “The water was so dirty you would bump into a dead chicken or a piece of wood,” he says.

Harbour pollution continued to worsen in the 1980s. In 1988, fewer than half the city’s beaches were clean enough to swim. Locally-raised fish and oysters were so toxic the public was warned not to eat them. The “fragrant harbour,” as Hong Kong is known in Chinese, became notorious for the sickening stench of its waters.

Recently, however, things have begun to change. In the mid-2000s, Wong, who competed twice at the Olympics and is now the secretary of the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association, went diving in the harbour’s waters and noticed they seemed cleaner than before. “Before, you couldn’t even see a few feet in front of you, but now you can see three to four metres away,” he says.

More