November 11th, 2012

Meet the Fig Tree

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

It’s a fun exercise to think of how long it would take for reclaim our cities if humanity were to disappear overnight. How many months until Dubai is returned to the desert? How many hurricanes until New Orleans becomes part of the Gulf?

Here in Hong Kong, nature’s plan is well underway. In a city entombed in concrete, it’s easy to forget just how fertile the surrounding land is, until you remember that this is a place where century-old banyan trees grow from the cracks in stone walls. The same scenario occurs in many smaller instances: tile roofs taken over by grass; shrubs sprouting from broken drainpipes.

There’s a particularly derelict building at 23 Temple Street. After a similarly-aged building in Hung Hom collapsed two years ago, emergency scaffolding was installed to hoist up its concrete balconies and it has been there ever since. But there is a benefit to such dilapidation: there’s a fig tree growing on the building’s roof. I can only guess that it came into being the same way as any other tree, seeds deposited by wayward birds, but in this case it grows so perfectly — protruding right from the middle of an old concrete shed — you’d almost think it was planted deliberately.

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October 25th, 2012

Design for Hong Kong

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Sometimes it seems as though everyone knows Michael Leung — even the owner of a Kwun Tong dai pai dong, who chats amiably with the young designer as he sits down for lunch. “We made a zine about him,” Leung explains later. “He’s really proud of it.”

Scratch the surface of Hong Kong’s creative scene and you’re bound to come across something that Leung is involved in. There’s HK Honey, the urban beekeeping project he founded two years ago; Shanghai Street Studios, which runs art, design and cultural initiatives in Yau Ma Tei; HK Farm, an experiment in rooftop agriculture; 2 Years Ahead, a publishing and furniture-building project.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover Leung’s freelance work or his teaching at the Polytechnic University’s School of Design, where he will lecture on “design for the Asian lifestyle” in November.

“I think all the projects are so related, it’s almost like they’re the same thing,” says Leung, settling into a wicker chair on the roof of the Easy-Pack Industrial Building in Kwun Tong, where he maintains an organic farm and apiary with the help of photographer Glenn Eugen Ellingsen and archivist Matthew Edmondson. “I’ll do a food-safety project and I won’t know whether to put it in HK Honey or HK Farm.”

Leung is 28, with a shaved head and photogenic features. On a blustery day in late September he is dressed in grey shorts, worn pink slip-ons and a Ngau Tau Kok graphic t-shirt made by his friends at Start from Zero, the street art crew whose studio is just down the street.

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September 19th, 2012

Regrowth or Replacement?

HK Farm. Photo by Glenn Eugen Ellingsen

Sweating in the bright Mediterranean sun, Glenn Eugen Ellingsen surveyed a little bit of Hong Kong in Venice. “It’s meant to be very organic,” he said, pointing to an array of wood planters, metal racks, video screens and exposed electrical wires.

Ellingsen is one of the founders of HK Farm, an urban agriculture project on the roof of a factory building in Kwun Tong, and he had spent the week sourcing herbs and soil in order to recreate his farm in Venice. He turned his gaze over to a half-dozen wood planters brimming with rosemary, basil and sage. “They’re similar to what we have on the roof in Hong Kong, just a bit narrower,” he said.

It was the opening day of the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s most prestigious showcase of architecture and urban design, which runs until Novermber 25. In true Hong Kong style, workers were scrambling to finish the exhibition on time, arranging architectural models and painting display cases green — the same colour as Hong Kong’s street market stalls.

The choice of colour was no accident. This year’s biennale is dedicated to “Common Ground,” a theme meant to shift focus away from big-name architects to more grassroots initiatives. Hong Kong’s exhibition, “Inter Cities/Intra Cities: Ghostwriting the Future,” focuses on the future of Kowloon East, a vast swath of city that is home to 600,000 people, Hong Kong’s last remaining factories, a burgeoning office hub and the city’s biggest creative cluster, with hundreds of musicians, designers and artists.

It also includes the former Kai Tak Airport, which is now being redeveloped with housing, offices and a huge cruise ship terminal and exhibition centre designed by Sir Norman Foster. The airport’s redevelopment will be used as a catalyst to transform Kowloon East into the so-called “CBD2” — a new office district that will provide an alternative to the high-priced business hubs of Hong Kong Island.

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February 23rd, 2012

A Creature on the Roof

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Wan Chai Visual Archive

You can see a lot of unauthorized structures on the rooftops of Wan Chai — sheet metal canopies, rusted chain-link fences, hand-built wooden shacks — but none of them quite looks like KAPKAR, a new sculpture by Dutch artist Frank Havermans, which was installed last week on the roof of the Wan Chai Visual Archive.

“It’s a metal creature that refers to rooftop structures, signboards and those hawker stalls you see around the city,” says Havermans, standing on the roof. “They’re really haphazardly built, without any notions of design, but together they’re amazing. It’s a very Hong Kong thing.”

Havermans’ description of KAPKAR as a “creature” is apt; it looks like a suspension bridge on the prowl. Made of iron by the Sunny and Sons metal shop, just around the corner from the Archive, it has four legs and a spine held up by steel cables. Its snout is a retractable aluminum, glow-in-the-dark signboard — shaped exactly like the Archive’s floorplan — that hangs precariously over the street.

KAPKAR as it was being installed by crane.
Photo courtesy Wan Chai Visual Archive

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December 24th, 2011

Real-Life SimCity

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

The aroma of wood smoke is not one of the things I expected to smell when I moved to a new apartment on the 35th floor, but there’s a rooftop barbecue restaurant just down the street from my building and the smell often floats upwards. When I sit on my balcony, I can watch little clumps of people around the fires, grilling fishballs and pork chops.

In Montreal, I always thought it was better to be close to the street. Why sequester yourself in a high-rise, buffeted by northern winds, when you could be close to neighbours and the street and your local dep, which is always well-stocked with beer? As much as I could appreciate a good view, being able to watch alley cats make their nightly inspections seemed somehow more important.

In too many parts of Hong Kong, though, proximity to the street does not confer many real pleasures. The traffic is noisier, the pollution more irritating, the sunlight so very fleeting. In the absence of a true convivial streetlife, life on a low floor is not a matter of engagement with your surroundings, just a feat of endurance.

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December 6th, 2011

Pigeon Keepers of Bushwick

Posted in Environment, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Sunset on Goodwins Roof 2:  Bushwick Brooklyn

If you’ve been following our Photos of the Week, you’ve probably seen the work of Chris Arnade, a New York-based photographer who creates particularly lovely images. Arnade has a particularly good eye for urban characters.

Last week, he emailed me about a series he has been working on about men who raise pigeons on the rooftops of Brooklyn. “A real urban sport that is dying out as gentrification pushes into the outer boroughs,” he explained. Arnade agreed to share his photos and commentary with us below.

Building and Pigeons: Bushwick Brooklyn

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June 15th, 2011

Green Wall, Green Roof

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

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Perhaps not quite what you’d expect.

May 31st, 2011

Rooftop Dystopia

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Two years ago, I spent a lot of time exploring the rooftop squatter villages that spread across the city like mushrooms on a tree stump. There’s an eerie feeling that comes over you as you walk through these settlements. Weeds poke through cracks in concrete walls; birds chirp and cicadas whir in the hot summer sun. It’s as though you’re in an isolated country village, except when you look down, water pipes run along the path in front of you, and when you look to the side, you see a forest of highrises. The nearest street is ten stories below.

Inspired by this very feeling, a young German filmmaker named Marco Sparmberg has created Squattertown, a new mini-series based on a dystopian vision of Hong Kong. In this parallel universe, the wealth gap has grown so large, a vast underclass is forced to live in a ramshackle, parallel city that exists above the heads of the affluent. Threatened by this sprawling rooftop shantytown, the wealthy from below send up a thug to terrorize the leader of the roof society.

It’s what Sparmberg calls a “Dim Sum Western,” a new genre that draws from the genre-redefining syncretism of two hallmark film movements: the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s.

The scenario is fantasy, but like any good allegory, it’s not too far removed from reality.

“I was trying to tackle the issue of property developers trying to push out people by any means, especially those people in rooftop housing,” said Sparmberg when I met him on the roof of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. Last fall, he spent two months scouting rooftops that would be good for shooting. He found most of them on buildings slated for redevelopment by property developers and the Urban Renewal Authority.

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February 10th, 2011

Bees in the City

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

Photo by Nelson Chan

It’s late on a sunny morning and Michael Leung is skulking around on the roof of an old factory building, tending to the potted flowers that feed his hungry workers: an army of 30,000 bees.

“Right now this roof is just used for smoking, but eventually we want to cover at least half of it with beehives,” he says, gathering dead plants that he was too busy to water while participating in the Detour art and design festival last December.

The hives are housed in three wooden boxes, each with a small entrance giving bees access inside. As hundreds bees pour out of the boxes, new bees arrive with bundles of pollen tucked under their appendages.

“Look,” says Leung. “Some of the pollen is yellow, some is orange.” He looked around at the surrounding walls and rooftops. His withered plants were the only green things in sight. “I’m not sure where they’re getting it. Maybe it’s one of the parks nearby.”

Leung, a 27-year-old product designer, is an unlikely beekeeper. For one thing, he didn’t know anything about bees more than a year ago. “I used to be really scared of them,” he says. Now he is the brain behind HK Honey, a new project that aims to promote local food and urban agriculture by uniting Hong Kong beekeepers and designers.

“It’s unclear where our food actually comes from,” says Leung. “The goal is to introduce local food through a creative medium.”

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January 8th, 2011

What’s Left of the Kowloon Walled City

Earlier this week, the urban issues magazine Next American City tweeted a link to an illustrated cross-section of the Kowloon Walled City, the world’s greatest informal settlement. It gives you a good idea of just how intense the level of human activity within the city was: one room a factory, the next a bedroom, the next a restaurant, all of it linked by an unplanned panoply of staircases, bridges and alleyways.

It has been nearly 18 years since the last piece of the Walled City was torn down by the Hong Kong government. Interest in the city has only magnified since then; there are books, documentaries, websites and discussion forum threads about its architecture, how it came to be and what it was like living inside. (This forum thread in particular is worth looking at — with 330 posts since 2004, it’s as complete a repository of information as you’ll find online.)

By the time it met its demise, the Walled City was an interconnected group of buildings, some up to 16 stories in height, that was home to 33,000 people. It covered an area of just 6.5 acres, making it the most densely-populated place on earth. Long notorious for its brothels and drug dens, it was also home to unlicenced dental clinics, small factories, restaurants and hundreds of ordinary working-class families, most of them recent migrants from mainland China. The entire city was built by hand, without a master plan: a shantytown in highrise form.

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December 22nd, 2010

Hong Kong Rooftops: You Are Being Watched

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Last month, I paid a visit to Hong Kong Reader, a great independent bookstore on the seventh floor of a building in Mongkok. Before I entered the shop, though, I gazed up the stairwell and wondered whether there was an interesting view from the roof. I climbed an extra few floors and emerged onto a rubbish-filled rooftop with a view of only the surrounding buildings and billboards.

On the roof next door, somebody had left a pile of rose petals to dry in the sun. (A romantic gesture?) I took a few photos, gazed at my reflection in the mirrored windows of an office tower across the street — and noticed, out of the corner of my eye, two men staring at me from an even higher rooftop a few buildings away.

Startled, I looked up. One man took a drag on his cigarette. They continued to stare. I wondered what they were doing up there and my mind flashed to the climax from Infernal Affairs when Tony Leung sneaks up on Andy Lau with a gun. A bit unnerved, I ducked back into the stairwell and went down to the bookstore.

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July 19th, 2010

The View from Above

Posted in Canada, Film, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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Part of the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window was the way it acknowledged voyeurism as part of urban life. In the city, we’re always being watched and we’re always watching others, be it on the street, from across a café or on the web, through street photography.

I’d be lying if I said that the thrill of spying on others wasn’t part of the reason why I like rooftops. The exchange of glances on the street is replaced by a position that gives you a privileged view of everything around. I’ve never seen anything particularly exciting from a roof — it’s not like I bring a pair of binoculars — but I do enjoy catching the occasional glimpse into the normally sheltered world of somebody’s private life. Not too long ago, while hanging out on a friend’s rooftop, I was able to catch part of a World Cup game being watched on a large high-definition TV in the building next door.

Obviously I’m not alone. Peepers, a new film by Montreal’s Automatic Vaudeville Studios, takes the idea of rooftop voyeurism and builds a movie around it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m happy to see some of the rooftops I know and love featured in the trailer. At least one of the scenes looks like was filmed on the rooftop where writer/actor Mark Slutsky lives — a rooftop my friends and I have snuck up to many times.

July 15th, 2010

Game On

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Soccer game seen from the roof of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre

July 2nd, 2010

Hong Kong Rooftops: The Pawn

Above, 1980s. Below, 2010. Compilation by Lee Chi-man

The fact that a row of prewar shophouses still stands on Johnston Road suggests we’ve entered a new chapter in Hong Kong’s history of urban development. Originally housing the century-old Woo Cheong Pawn Shop and other neighbourhood businesses, the shophouses were bought by the Urban Renewal Authority and incorporated into a property development that included the construction of a luxury apartment tower.

Now the buildings contain a high-end restaurant and café known as The Pawn, which takes its name from the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, one of the building’s former tenants. Designed by Stanley Wong, its interior is a British colonial mash-up, with a menu to match (think English ale and fried pig’s ears).

Over the past year, I’ve interviewed dozens of people about things related to heritage, and The Pawn keeps cropping up as an example of how buildings shouldn’t be preserved. It’s historic preservation for the highest bidder — the shell of an old building maintained and converted into something with the veneer of history. The ultimate irony is that the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop is still around; it was forced to move down the street to make way for The Pawn.

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