My girlfriend sometimes says she could never live in a city without hills. I can see what she means. A city with varied topography is never quite the same from one day to the next; hills open up views that change with the passing light and weather. Not to mention their effect on a city’s built form, creating wrinkles that can never be smoothed out, undoing even the best-laid plans. Some of the most interesting parts of Hong Kong are also its hilliest; the streets uphill from Central and Sheung Wan are a haphazard assembly of mismatched buildings, century-old retaining walls and unexpected constructions that try their best to make do in less than ideal conditions.
The end of the line is only the beginning — something we wrote about in 2011. That was especially true at On Nut, the eastern terminus of the Bangkok BTS SkyTrain until a recent extension. Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis, but the trains only took you to the edge of the central city. After that, a bus, or a motorcycle taxi, or a tuk tuk ride or a long walk, as the case may be.
On Nut is located near the Phra Khanong Canal, a murky body of water that meanders past Buddhist temples and clusters of timber houses, but its character is defined by the never-ending stream of traffic along Sukhumvit Road. On one site of the station is a Tesco hypermarket, where you can buy cotton pyjamas, durian and cheap Thai rice liquor, and on the other is a night market, which sells more or less the same things but with far more ambiance.
Grab a curry at the night market — then it’s time to wait for the bus, to continue your journey past the end of the line into the endless Bangkok sprawl.
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.
When the stretch of Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal’s Gay Village was pedestrianized for two and a half months in the summer of 2008, it was accompanied by a strange policy that forced the street’s bars and restaurants to serve only Labatt beer products on their outdoor terraces. Merchants were unhappy and for good reason: it was summer-long corporate takeover of public space. (I said as much when a journalist for the Globe and Mail called for my opinion — ah, my glory days as a local pundit.)
Things have mellowed out since then. The Labatt-only policy was scrapped and car-free summers are now a well-loved tradition in the Village. What’s especially remarkable is that, unlike Montreal’s other street fairs and festivals, which ban car traffic for a few days or weeks at a time, the Village pedestrianization lasts the entirety of the summer — day and night, rain and shine. I think it owes a big part of its success to artist Claude Cormier, who draped 200,000 pink baubles over the street in 2011. Les boules roses proved so popular they returned the following year, and they’re poised to make a comeback this year, too.
The pink balls work because they create a sense of enclosure. One of the problems pedestrian streets face, especially in a car-dependent North American society, is that they often feel empty and sapped of vitality. You don’t realize how much space cars take up until they’re gone; a street that seems narrow when it’s filled with traffic, like Ste. Catherine, suddenly feels vast when the asphalt is clear. The baubles counteract that by tricking the mind into thinking the space is smaller and busier than it actually is. Plus they’re fun. And, you know, gay.
Walking the length of Vancouver’s Seawall is a lesson in design fads and fashions. The Stanley Park stretch dates back to 1914 and is elegant in its simplicity; a rough-hewn stone wall threads its way around the park’s craggy shoreline, rainforest on one side and cool Pacific waters on the other. Near Granville Island, the path takes on a late-70s look with brick paving, timber planters and suburban landscaping, a trend that continued into the 1990s, with some variations — square-cut timber gave way to painted steel tubes as the material of choice for benches and railings, and the pine trees of the 70s were usurped by a 90s love of palms, which matched the SoCal architecture that was fashionable at the time.
By the time the late 2000s rolled around, fashions had changed yet again, and this is reflected in the newest stretch of the Seawall, which runs along the southeast side of False Creek next to the Olympic Village. The materials used are at once rustic yet contemporary: cool materials like concrete, granite and steel juxtaposed with warm timber. Natural shorelines were preserved rather than obliterated, wild grasses are abundant and there is generally a more diverse array of spatial experiences than on the more rigid parts of the Seawall: paved plazas, boardwalks, pebble beaches, piers jutting into the water. (The entire Seawall is documented on Google Street View, so feel free to take a virtual bike ride to see if you agree with my impressions.)
It’s that depth of experience that sets the newest part of the Seawall apart from its predecessors. It is not simply a space meant for enjoying the view; it’s a space that encourages active participation. There are lounge chairs, a seemingly unregulated community garden and — most interesting of all — there’s Habitat Island. This spit of scrubby offshore land is accessible only at low tide via a pebble beach. The last time I visited, on a sunny spring day, the island was filled with people: teenagers rummaging through the bush, some people smoking pot, others drinking beer, families examining the aquatic life of tidal pools. It’s a lovely, unmanicured island, its wildness made all the more striking by the wall of glassy condominium towers across the water.
Human life and natural life are often seen to be at odds, so the points where they intersect — urban beaches, wall trees, overgrown vacant lots — feel wonderfully transgressive. Cities are such regulated environments that the intrusion of a self-governing natural element is disruptive and thrilling.
That’s especially true around this time of year, when cherry blossoms begin to bloom. In Japan, this occasion is used an excuse to throw hanami parties under the blossoms, and similar gatherings occur elsewhere in the world. When I was in Vancouver last spring, there was a sakura festival outside the Burrard Street SkyTrain station, with music and bento boxes that people held up to the flowers and photographed. Elsewhere in the city, small crowds gathered around particularly attractive blossoms to take photos.
These sakura spaces are ephemeral in the extreme: one week they’re there, the next they’re gone. The area outside Burrard station is a pretty unremarkable place, a sunken concrete plaza where office workers eat their sandwiches before returning to another slog in the cubicle. But for two weeks each spring, the arrival of the cherry blossoms transforms it into somewhere almost magical, a feather-ceilinged outdoor room that people go out of their way to visit.
One of the first lessons of walking in Hong Kong: maps are your enemy. In a city with such dramatic topography, where private and public spaces blend together almost seamlessly, the best routes are not the most obvious.
Take for example the 20-minute walk from the cafés of Star Street to the shops of Queen’s Road Central. Follow the directions offered by Google Maps and you’ll head straight along the Queensway, a flat and easy route but not a very nice one, since you will be accompanied along the way by the noise and exhaust of roaring traffic, without any trees to shelter you from the sun. Far more interesting is a route that takes you through Pacific Place, Hong Kong Park, Citibank Plaza and Government Hill. Sounds complicated, but in practice it is an easy journey that passes through a shopping arcade designed by Thomas Heatherwick, a leafy park forged from the remnants of a British military base and one of Hong Kong’s most historically important clusters of architecture. I’m willing to bet that, on a hot summer day, this route — which combines stretches of indoor air conditioning with leafy green space — is about five degrees cooler than walking alongside the cars and buses of Queensway.
When I first met with Jonathan Solomon, one of the authors of Cities Without Ground, a book that maps Hong Kong’s intricate networks of three-dimensional private-public passageways, he made a very interesting observation: on Hong Kong Island, the ground doesn’t really exist. Solid though it may seem, the ground beneath our feet has been shaped and transplanted like so much spare modelling clay — and that’s just the natural stuff, not including the artificial ground like rooftop public parks. While cities like New York “worship the ground,” as Solomon put it, the very concept of what “ground level” is in Hong Kong is a bit shifty.
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.
Bobo-Dioulasso. Photo : Matthew Bradley
Il est commun maintenant de dire d’une ville qu’elle est à l’échelle humaine. Il s’agit plutôt d’un compliment, généralement, mais a-t-on déjà vu une ville à l’échelle animale ?
Je réponds oui, et j’y ai vécu un court instant. Il s’agit de Bobo-Dioulasso, une ville du Burkina Faso, petite en terme de population, environ 500 000, mais élastique en terme de distance. Comme les bâtiments sont pour la plupart courts sur pattes, rarement deux étages, exceptionnellement trois étages ou plus, les distances s’étirent. D’ailleurs dit-on, peu de Bobolais marchent leur ville, préférant le vélo, la moto et exceptionnellement l’auto. Le curieux réalise rapidement que c’est faux et que plusieurs de ces citoyens n’ont d’autres choix que d’user leurs sandales sur l’ocre et le goudron.
Ici la ville se marie à la campagne : l’urbain n’est pas certain de son identité. Du reste, comme le Burkinabé en général est massivement campagnard, on s’étonne moins qu’il amène sa campagne en ville. D’abord, sauf exception des grandes avenues, la plupart des routes sont en terre. Ensuite, il n’est pas nécessaire de faciliter la vie aux visiteurs par des repères clairs basés sur les bonnes pratiques en matière de circulation routière et donc comme à la campagne, les points de références visuels sont les seuls aides (pont, courbe, mosquée, gare, rond-point, maquis, etc.). Et enfin, rare sont les Bobolais capables de lire une carte, donc inutile de prendre se raccourci.
Seats of imperial power are often regarded with a certain reverence — they provoke admiration, astonishment, even fear. That’s certainly the case in New Delhi, where British colonialists built a series of massive, belittling monuments to their rule, or in Washington, DC, where the Mall is increasingly seen by its National Park Service administrators not as a civic gathering place but as a kind of “semi-sacred site of national, secular religion.”
Ancient Rome wasn’t like that. One of the points underlined in Mary Beard’s review of Clare Holleran’s new book Shopping in Ancient Rome is “the ubiquity of buying and selling in Roman towns and cities beyond designated shops or markets, or in areas where you might not quite expect it.” That includes the Forum, which was “buzzing with trade as much as with law and politics,” but also “some of the very grandest buildings in Rome,” which “were built specially to accommodate retail alongside their ceremonial function.”
The Temple of Castor included a series of bars and shops built right into its podium, which evidence suggests included, at some point, a shoemaker’s shop and a barber-cum-dentist’s shop (“as we can tell from the large number of extracted teeth found in its drain”). “The religious and ceremonial life of the temple obviously went on against a backdrop of ravens squawking, cobblers hammering and the screams of those having their teeth pulled,” writes Beard.
There’s a similar (though much tamer) scene on the edge of the Wufenpu clothing market in the east end of Taipei, where a row of hawker stalls is integrated into a Chinese temple. A number of stalls serve food and they use the interior courtyard of the temple as a dining area. As I munched on minced-pork noodles beneath red lanterns and a list of temple donors pasted on the wall, a couple of old men set off a string of firecrackers behind me. None of the other diners paid much heed. A man walked his dog through the courtyard.
When the Hong Kong public was invited to choose a master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District, they were met by ambitious presentations from each of the proposals. The most sophisticated pitch of all came from Norman Foster’s office, which provided seductively realistic renderings of their City Park concept, which included grassy meadows overlooking Victoria Harbour, replete with picnickers, kids kicking around a ball and kite-flyers.
This provided no shortage of amusement to cynics: “As if it would ever look like that — Hongkongers don’t like sitting on the grass!” That’s something I heard more than once. After all, this is a city where people won’t sit on a concrete step without first protecting themselves with a sheet of newspaper, and where putting a handbag on the floor is tantamount to licking crumbs off the linoleum.
But Foster’s plan won for a reason, and it wasn’t just the slick sales pitch. Public behaviour in Hong Kong is strictly regimented by design and regulation, but this is a deeply informal city at its heart — shopping malls may be popular, but even tycoons have a soft spot for dai pai dongs. You could see this last weekend at the Freespace Festival, a music, art and dance event on the waterfront of the future cultural district. There were people on the grass — and not just sitting, but also sleeping, playing games, picnicking and playing music.
Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, au coeur du dédale du vieux coeur greco-romain napoliain.
Assis à la terrasse du Gran Caffè Napolis, un mouvement soudain de vie me surprend par son intensité. C’est vrai que les cloches sonnent l’arrivée de la longue pause de la mi-journée.
De nombreux ménestrels nouveau genre envahissent un bon cinquième de la place et chantent une sorte de trame sonore vaguement inspirée par les différentes cultures qui ont tour à tour choisies de faire de Napoli leur capitale. Et ils sont nombreux à avoir rêver de posséder la baie légendaire, des grecs aux bourdons d’Espagne, en passant par les romains et les normands. Même Napoléon a savourer les lumières de Campanie. De toutes ces cultures, je crois que la cité est demeurer la Neapolis héllénistique de ses origines.
We’re happy to introduce our newest contributor, Yin Khvat. Yin was born in Manchester in the UK and has lived in Australia for the last six years. She is currently on a short stay in Taiwan and has a particular interest in Cambodia.
Photo by Bo Nielsen
A woman is selling green coconuts off the back of her motorbike on the dusty street. With a scythe, she deftly chips the head of the coconut into a point, then guillotines the tip to reveal the sweet juice and tender white flesh inside. Next to her, a barber has set up on the pavement, his shop made up only of bare necessities: a mirror and chair. Young men in makeshift stalls, with car parts hung up on tarpaulin walls, observe you languidly as you watch them, curiosity returned for curiosity. On the corner, policemen in blue on their motorbikes look a little seedy, restricted in their uniforms, smoking cigarettes and surveying the traffic.
This is a typical street scene in Phnom Penh: a living, breathing cross-section of life in the Cambodian capital. Some look at this and see disorder, or a blight on the city’s beauty. Others see freedom, vibrancy, and the right of everyone — including the poor — to make a living. The city council has attempted to “reorganise” these small stalls — sometimes known as “romantic stallss” — believing they are messy or unhygienic. But for the time being, at least, it seems their efforts have not succeeded. Phnom Penh remains a capital city where the poorer sections of society can sell and provide services as the market demands, without the need to lease expensive commercial space.
But the stalls are part of a bigger social fabric, one which appears to define the Cambodian way of life. You see it not only in streets lined with people selling their wares, but also every afternoon and evening along the banks of the Tonle Sap River and Chaktomuk — the “four faces” where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet. On Sisowath Quay, especially, people spend their free time sitting, walking and dancing with friends and family. They enjoy each other’s company under their city’s skies. Take one of the popular boat trips down the river and it is another episode of this same documentary, in which the delineation between viewer and object is blurred. You are watching them as they are watching you. The social interaction is thrilling, an essential element in a society where social integration is the outcome, binding people together and folding lives in on each other.
No doubt the warm weather and dense population contribute to this phenomenon, as does the economic devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge and the civil wars through the 1970s and 1980s, from which Cambodia is only now recovering. But what of the social legacy? When I asked how people here can be so warm after the horrors they have faced, I have been told that many Cambodians “live and let live.” That many adhere to Buddhist teachings that there is good and bad in all of us, and that forgiveness is part of living. Many Cambodians want to put those years behind them.
And so perhaps what we get is something I can’t help feel is unique to Phnom Penh. This is city that is unafraid, welcoming, generous and open-hearted. Tourists don’t need to be invited into the homes of Cambodians to interact with real people, or to get a good taste of life here, of what Cambodians do and how they live their lives. This society has a transparent, wonderful, communal feel — even after what it suffered just a generation ago.