October 22nd, 2014
What surprised me most was the silence. Here I was, standing on what is normally an eight-lane funnel of angry traffic, and the only sounds I could hear were footsteps and the soft murmur of voices. Free of diesel exhaust, the briny scent of the harbour lingered in the air, and a warm breeze ruffled the nylon shells of tents laid out in tidy rows along the sides of the road.
I’ve been away from Hong Kong for six weeks. It seemed like a good time to get away, as the muggy heat of summer dragged on interminably, but two weeks after my departure, a student strike was met with tear gas and suddenly the city was occupied. This wasn’t just Occupy Central, the campaign of civil disobedience that had been promised for a year if Beijing and the local government failed to institute reforms that would allow free elections for Chief Executive in 2017. That campaign had become more of a bogeyman than anything else, a cudgel wielded by autocratic, unaccountable leaders whose box of governance tools consists of fear and intimidation and little else. I had doubts it would even happen. Instead, a much larger and more unwieldy phenomenon occurred: students and their supporters erected barricades in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, effectively wresting control of these important neighbourhoods from the government and placing them in the hands of a loosely affiliated band of citizens.
If you’ve been following the news, you know what happened next: a remarkably peaceful occupation was later attacked by bands of organized thugs, who beat protesters and destroyed their shelters as police shamefully stood by. The next day, protesters rebuilt their encampments and carried on. Each time the occupation seems to be waning, something comes along to jolt it back to life, be it triad attacks, police bullying or the spectacularly tone-deaf leadership of Chief Executive CY Leung, a Beijing puppet who recently told international media that Hong Kong can’t have real democracy because it would give too much power to the city’s many poor people.
April 14th, 2014
I can still remember the ssiat hotteok in Busan: moist, thick pancakes stuffed with brown sugar, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, as if a French crêpe had voyaged to America, eaten too many Krispy Kremes and stumbled head-first into a Korean dry goods shop. It was the perfect salve for the early winter chill.
In Seomyeon, a busy shopping and nightlife hub that is the closest thing Busan has to a centre, there were two hotteok stalls on the street behind a large department store. One had a perpetual line of customers, evidently because it had been featured in magazines and on TV — there was a small screen fixed to the side of the stall playing clips of food show hosts eagerly snacking on the pancake. Immediately adjacent was another stall, which never seemed to have any customers. I first tried the popular one and then, feeling sorry for the competitor, I returned the next day to try it out, too. I’m sorry to say, there was a reason for the lines. As much as I want to support the underdog, its hotteok was just not up to stuff. Not bad, just underwhelming — somehow less plump and flavoursome as the stall next door.
In a way, that’s kind of how I felt about Busan. Maybe it was the time of year — early winter, when the sun sets early and everyone is shell-shocked by the first signs of chill — or maybe it was just the contrast to Seoul, which is such a huge and dynamic city it makes everywhere else in Korea seem shoddy and sleepy. It doesn’t help that Busan is a nebulous sprawl that flows along shorelines and in mountain valleys, never acquiring enough mass in any one place to feel as big as its size should allow. More than 3.5 million people live in Busan, but they are spread out across 767 square kilometres, a slightly larger area than Seoul’s 10 million people.
Busan is nevertheless a very likable city. It is much less formal and inhibited than Seoul, and one of the ways this manifests itself is in its street life. Much of the city is low-slung and quiet, but the busy parts are filled with street vendors selling hotteok and much, much more: egg pudding, spicy rice cake, fresh fruit, or best of all, outdoor restaurants run by middle-aged women with permed hair, who gruffly serve you soup and bowls of rice.
February 24th, 2014
It didn’t look like much at first. “Just a bit of snow,” I thought as I gazed at the thick, heavy flakes settling onto the street outside. But Tokyo doesn’t get a lot of snow in the first place, and I should have realized from the way it was sticking to the willow tree outside — or the excited news coverage on TV, whose live-on-scene reporters stood in front of struggling commuters, snow piling up on their sodden heads — that this wasn’t going to be a light dusting. This was snow day snow.
We walked to the metro, plastic umbrella struggling against the wind, passing by grimacing cyclists and buses with chained-up tires thudding ominously down the street. By the time we arrived in Harajuku, half an hour later, the city was already in blizzard shutdown mode. Service on a growing number of train lines was suspended; there was hardly any traffic on the streets. As we passed down one back alley, a car got stuck in a snowy gutter and its driver rushed out and used his hands to dig out snow from beneath one of the tires. “Mondai nai, arigato” — “Don’t worry about it” — he said when we offered to help push the car, so we trudged on down the street, the sound of fruitlessly spinning wheels receding behind us.
Later that evening, as the sun set and we made our way down Meiji Dori to the heart of Shibuya, shops began to close early. Cars rolled past with a muffled crunch; people giggled and smiled as they made their way through snowbanks. Here’s the thing about snow: it makes even the biggest city in the world a very small place indeed. There was a sense of common purpose, a temporary breach in the anonymity of the streets. Grown men and women threw snowballs at one another in front of shuttered department stores. A week later, when Tokyo was blanked with another record-breaking snowfall, people were spotted skiing around Shibuya.
February 12th, 2014
The week I moved to Hong Kong, I went to the Peak. It’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re a first-time visitor or recent arrival to the city: take the tram, bus or (if you’re a little more savvy) minibus up to the cluster of shopping malls that has risen from what was once a retreat for British colonials yearning for the mists and cool winds of home. The view from the Peak is exactly what you expect it to be, because it’s the view that has become the photographic flag-bearer for Hong Kong: a porcupine’s back of skyscrapers riven by the churning waters of Victoria Harbour, mountains rising and falling in all directions. It’s the scene that accompanies news reports on Hong Kong’s stock market, or the latest worries about swine flu. On particularly smoggy days an obscured version of the view is used to bemoan Hong Kong’s chronic air pollution.
It was not smoggy when I visited the Peak. In fact, it was one of those brilliant late-August days when an ocean breeze clears the sky. It would have been possible to see all the way to China, if it weren’t for the mountains on the horizon; in Hong Kong, views are never limitless. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the city lights flickered to life and the harbour glowed turquoise, its surface criss-crossed by barges and ferries that looked from the Peak’s elevation like so many toys. From below, you can always spot the Peak lookout because it seems to sparkle – the result of hundreds of camera flashes igniting at any given time.
As tourists gathered around, cameras chirping and flashing, I turned and walked to a less popular lookout, this one facing west, where the green hills of the Pok Fu Lam Country Park roll towards the East Lamma Channel. That was where I encountered another set of photographers, only this time they weren’t interested in the view – they were taking photos of two young women, one dressed in a short black shirt and low-cut teal top, blonde hair extensions forming curls around her cleavage; the other was dressed like a schoolboy, with an electric blue wig matching the lapels on her uniform. They pranced around the lookout, the blonde girl caressing the blue-haired one, who played indifferent to her advances. The whole performance was being documented by a half-dozen men dressed in jeans and t-shirts, their hands clutching professional-grade Nikons mounted with flashes and reflectors.
January 26th, 2014
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.)
December 28th, 2013
It was so cold in Toronto this week that groundwater under the city froze solid, causing a rare “frost quake” — and earthquake-like boom following by trembling earth. But that was only a sideshow to the main event: a debilitating ice storm that cut power and pruned the city’s tree canopy by 20 percent. So maybe, just by way of diversion, it’s worth looking back to a gentler time of year. Last August, I was in Toronto for a weekend wedding. I made good use of the short time I had to roam the city. Here’s what I saw.
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September 29th, 2013
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.
June 18th, 2013
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.
June 14th, 2013
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.
April 29th, 2013
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.
April 28th, 2013
Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, is known as a summertime destination — seafood, beaches, that kind of thing. Dozens of love hotels dot beachfront neighbourhoods like Gwangan and Haeundae, geared towards couples looking for a sultry oceanside tryst. But I was there in December, just as the city was sliding headlong into winter. Busan’s climate is much milder than that of Seoul, but it’s still chilly, and when a stiff wind blows in off the Sea of Japan, the beach is not the first destination that comes to mind.
Yet even on a windy winter evening, there are still people at the beach. That’s because, along with swimming and sunbathing, one of Busan’s favourite seaside activities is setting off fireworks — which is exactly what a few hardy people were doing on an otherwise quiet Friday night at Gwangalli Beach, the city’s most popular stretch of sand.
March 28th, 2013
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.
March 26th, 2013
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.