Last week, an exhibition of images by 19th century Scottish photographer John Thomson opened at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, including 22 photos of Hong Kong in the 1860s that have never been exhibited here before. I’ve written a story about the photos and their journey to Hong Kong for the Wall Street Journal, which you can read here.
The photos are remarkable not only because they are rare — photography was still in its infancy — but also because, despite the technological handicap, Thomson was able to create some very engaging landscapes and portraits. When I spoke with curator Betty Yao, she told me her initial attraction to Thomson’s work came from his sensitive images of women in China, whether a rich Manchu girl or a Cantonese boatwoman. But his images of everyday urban life are just as striking, capturing as they do a Hong Kong that is recognizable only in its broadest outlines. Below, a selection of images; you can see more here, and if you happen to be in Hong Kong sometime before February 16, it’s well worth a trip to the Maritime Museum to see the rest of the collection, which also includes some very intriguing photos of the cities once known as Canton (Guangzhou), Swatow (Shantou) and Amoy (Xiamen).
When Joyce Fitch lived in Hong Kong, rickshaws were a form of public transport, the only way to cross Victoria Harbour was by boat and there were about 1.5 million people living in the territory. Fitch was born in England and spent most of her youth and adolescence in Hong Kong, where she lived with her family on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s. I interviewed Fitch recently thanks to the English Schools Foundation’s Alumni News, and because it’s not often you hear first-hand about expatriate life in Kowloon before the war, I thought I’d post a portion of the transcript, which has been edited for clarity.
My father went out to China in 1920 as the captain of a ship for Butterfield and Swire, now Cathay Pacific. He was there trading up and down the coast, from Shanghai up to the Gorges and up to Tientsin. We were there in Shanghai for four years and then he was transferred down to Hong Kong. He was still working on the ship, going away and coming back.
We had rather a checkered family life but we managed. My brother was in England so we would have to go back there every so often. I went to the Kowloon British School near Austin Road — I travelled there by rickshaw — but I didn’t really have much time at school for any length of time. I was always coming back or forwards.
Because my father was away a lot, our life was a little bit different than other families. My mother played tennis and mahjong. I would come home and the [servant] boy would be there and I would have a meal. I was a rather solitary child and didn’t always have friends around to play. I was very independent and could walk around Kowloon all over the place and not feel at all restricted. I would go to dockyards and watch the men work.
We lived on Kimberley Road. The big houses there had gardens — Carnarvon Road too. Down where Carnarvon Road goes, there was a market garden, believe it or not. There weren’t many shops past St. Andrew’s [Church, on Nathan Road near Austin Road]. There was a sort of gap of houses and flats and maybe a few more shops further up Nathan Road, and then there was a theatre up there. I remember going to the pictures very often. It was just a very rural type area. Lots of gardens. I was really quite shocked when I went back to see it the next time. I think it was about 1970 that I went back first. I came back about three times — each time it surprised me more.
Last week, the Archives de la Ville de Montréal uploaded a short series of photos taken on August 25, 1969, around Ste. Catherine and Sherbrooke streets. I’m always a fan of vintage street photography, especially from the relatively recent past, but these struck a real chord with me for one reason: it was on that day, 33 years later, that I moved to Montreal.
I remember it more vividly than I remember any day last month. It was a typically hot and sunny late-summer day, a bit of haze in the air. After taking a taxi with my family to my new apartment in St. Henri, I set out for a walk that took me along Ste. Catherine Street from Crescent to St. Denis, then up past St. Louis Square and onto St. Laurent, before heading back downtown.
A friend once remarked that Montreal might be a city of 3.5 million people, but in the summer, “it feels like it has 10 million.” Coming from sleepy, suburban Calgary, Montreal’s summertime charge was electrifying. The city had yet to shrink with familiarity; it felt enormous. People, music, traffic — I passed through four separate street fairs on my walk.
I took plenty of photos that day. What strikes me, when I look back at them and compare them to the 1969 set, is how little has changed. The fashion is different and the neon has mostly disappeared, but Montreal’s essential character — a special kind of insouciance — remains intact.
Before Greece erupted into riots against austerity measures, before the sit-ins that convulsed public squares across Spain, long before 2011′s tumultuous protests against world financial systems began “kicking off everywhere“, things had long since kicked off in Argentina. The 2001 protests that gripped the country during its madcap financial crisis offered a sort of preview of what was to come to Europe and — to a lesser, tamer extent — North America, ten years later. So, too, many writers have claimed, did it appear to offer lessons for the future of crisis-battered debtor nations.
The paint-splattered walls of central Buenos Aires, at least, still seem alive with the spirit of the dramatic standoffs that convulsed the Argentine capital over a decade ago, when they famously forced President Fernando de la Rúa to flee from the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, by helicopter. In the streets that border and radiate from the Plaza de Mayo, the country’s nexus of power, graffiti suffused with the economic themes that resonated in 2001 continues, after regular rounds of angry demonstrations, to climb the walls of even the most stately banks and government office buildings. Not even the Cabildo, a historic landmark that was the center of colonial government in the city, is spared; its freshly-restored facade is one of protest graffiti artists’ favorite targets.
Long after still-frequent demonstrations recede, the remaining graffiti renders the heart of the city redolent with palpable, present anger. The visual contrasts — incensed slogans set against the neighborhood’s slickly-suited crowds of commuters and imperious, alabaster edifices — suggest something akin to Occupy Wall Street, but the effect, particularly in its semipermanence, is far more intimidating than anything recent New York protests managed to muster. It’s as if militant slogans only slightly less charged than those that have crawled onto facades of cities linked to the uprisings of the Arab Spring had suddenly appeared in an environment that looks more like Washington or Whitehall.
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”.
Alfred Bohn arrived in Montreal from a small town in Germany fifty-three years ago. He lived with his wife Hannelore in an apartment on Clark Street just above Prince Arthur, next to two other European couples. The six of them used to spent their free time wandering around the city, taking photos of their new home.
Bohns is now 78. Over the past four months, he has dredged up more than a hundred photos taken between 1958 and 60 and posted them on Flickr. Many were scanned from colour 35mm Kodachrome slides. Developing the slides back in the late 50s cost Bohns no small portion of the two dollars he earned every day working at a hatmaking shop on Mayor Street.
“We’d spend our days walking and walking because we didn’t have cars and we all lived in the same area and we all had empty jobs,” Bohns tells Kristian Gravenor, who has a brief but detailed account of Bohns’ adventures in photography at OpenFile.
Four years ago, on my way home in the aftermath of a tremendous December blizzard, I found myself wandering through Snowdon, a neighbourhood in Montreal’s west end. Trudging past waist-high snowbanks, I noticed stairs leading up to some kind of apartment courtyard. Curious, I ventured in and found an odd collection of shops: a tailor, a Chinese hair salon, a Korean driving school.
Snowdon is a bit of an odd area, amorphous both in form and character, caught between different places without having much sense of place of its own. The main commercial strip on Queen Mary Road is a jumble of Jamaican hairdressers and kosher restaurants, Filipino churches and Chinese groceries. The long, straight sidestreets, unkempt like a grandfather who forgot to comb his hair, are lined by hydro poles, humble duplexes and brick apartment buildings. St. Joseph’s Oratory stares watchfully at the neighbourhood from the east.
One of the reasons for this sense of confusion is the Décarie Expressway, which bullied its way through the heart of Snowdon in the late 1960s, cutting it in half and replacing a lively streetcar terminus with a sunken six-lane autoroute. Though many of the neighbourhood’s icons survived — the Snowdon Theatre, the Snowdon Deli, the sign atop the old Reitmans department store — and were even joined by a metro station in 1985, Snowdon became one of those places that you pass through on your way to somewhere else; just another exit on the highway.
Still, Snowdon’s sense of place never vanished, it just became more obscure. After I came across the strange apartment building courtyard, I posted some photos on Spacing Montreal and urged Snowdon residents to share their experiences of the neighbourhood. The response was underwhelming; just two replies. Then something unexpected happened. Over the next four years, more than 30 people weighed in with their own detailed memories of Snowdon through the years. The most recent response was posted just a few days ago. The comment thread has become, in the words of Spacing’s Alanah Heffez, “a lively reunion among people whose experiences have overlapped in space if not necessarily in time.”
It’s always easy to depict a city’s changes through the broadest of strokes. Buildings fall so that others may rise; new roads are built; shops come and go. But the most important transformations are often the most subtle.
On a bright summer day in 1996, Kate McDonnell was wandering through an alley in the eastern Plateau when she spotted the remnants of a hand-painted tobacco ad on the wall of an old triplex.
Fifteen years later, Kate ventured down the same alley and, sure enough, the ad was still there, a bit more faded than before but otherwise intact. Unfortunately, the bottom of the ad is now blocked by the tall wood fence of a terrace built on an adjacent garage.
The Montreal metro being built under de Maisonneuve, early 1960s
For a long time, the boulevard de Maisonneuve was one of my least favourite streets in Montreal. It was built in the 1960s by linking and widening four distinct streets: de Montigny, Burnside, St. Luc and Western. The final product was a Frankenstein’s monster of crudely-stitched appendages and half-healed wounds.
In the east end of downtown, near Place des Arts, the street curved through a landscape of parking lots and weedy terrains vagues. Further west, it sliced through blocks of greystones and apartment houses, creating a sad streetscape of crudely amputated buildings. Although the metro runs underneath, de Maisonneuve’s primary objective has always been to funnel cars through the city centre, and it was never very pleasant to walk along its narrow sidewalks. The push for automotive supremacy went so far that the road was tunnelled straight through the lobby of an apartment building whose owner refused to sell to the city.
Then, in the mid 2000s, things began to change. The real estate market awoke from a decade-long slumber and new apartment towers rose along the central stretch of de Maisonneuve. The city widened sidewalks and planted trees. Further east, in the Quartier des Spectacles, the 1960s-era curve was straightened, slowing traffic and creating space for some whimsical new public spaces. The renovation of Norman Bethune Square near Concordia University gave the western stretch of de Maisonneuve a prominent facelift. In 2008, a lane of traffic was taken from cars and given to bikes, which immediately gave the hodgepodge street the kind of singular identity it had always lacked.
The original, ca. 1800 Mangin-Goerck Plan (top) and part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, as engraved by William Bridges
Last month, New York celebrated the bicentennial of one of its most iconic works of engineering and urban design — Manhattan’s grid. The 1811 street layout was officially known as the Commissioners’ Plan, but its execution is really owed to John Randel, Jr., the plan’s chief surveyor and engineer, who endured — and persevered through — endless legal and physical challenges to imprinting his vision on what was, north of the burgeoning city, a wild, hilly, watery island.
Randel’s difficult (and often amusing) travails have been widely recounted elsewhere: he was, among other things, pelted with vegetables and even arrested for trespass in the course of carrying out the Commissioners’ scheme, which involved seizing property and, in the course of leveling hillsides, leaving some houses stranded on bluffs along his new avenues. The New York Times has a colorful story about him as part of a larger feature celebrating the grid — which, the paper proclaimed, had easily stood the test of time.
But what if Randel had encountered more propertyholders like Henry Brevoot? His obstinant refusal to part with his estate means that, to this day, you can’t walk the length of 11th Street uninterrupted — it doesn’t run between Broadway and Fourth Ave. Or what if the considerable engineering challenges his project faced — eight million cubic yards of dirt had to be moved from the future west side to fill in the valleys of the future east — simply couldn’t be overcome, either physically or financially?
There’s been plenty of aimless speculation over centuries as to what Manhattan would look like sans grid. Among the more tongue-in-cheek illustrations were Charles-Antoine Perrault and Alex Wallach’s views of what the island would look like if crisscrossed not by its grid, but by Paris’ medieval streets and strident boulevards. Cutting and pasting the Left Bank from one Google Earth grid to another didn’t exactly make for a perfect fit, but the idea that a gridless Manhattan may have developed in a similarly piecemeal, haphazard fashion — as it had, with farmers subdividing their land into individual, poorly meshing grids, until 1811 — makes sense.
But there was at least one serious master plan for Manhattan that predated the Commissioners’. Surviving in only a few rare maps (themselves mostly reproductions), it demonstrates that, had the Commissioners’ Plan not prevailed, New York could have been a considerably different place today.
You’ve probably heard the term “voodoo economics” before. Famously used by George H.W. Bush to denounce Ronald Reagan’s theory of trickle-down wealth when the two were vying head-to-head for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, they never again escaped the elder Bush’s lips after he became Reagan’s running mate in that year’s general election. The former’s subsequent silence and the latter’s historic victory ensured that voodoo economics would reign unchallenged throughout the 80s, fueling a period remembered for overall prosperity — but an alarmingly huge income gap.
It’s no coincidence that the 80s were also the period when the word “gentrification” began to play a major role in US public discourse. So did “yuppies”, who became the subject of routine social satire during the decade. Less well documented, though, are the earlier, murkier beginnings of postwar gentrification, well before the tipping point that brought the concept into mass consciousness. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as white flight continued hollowing out American city centers, the first gentrifiers were also taking their initial, cautious steps into what is now some of the most coveted real estate in the country.
Director Hal Ashby’s first film, a 1970 comedy called The Landlord, marks the period well. The protagonist is Elgar Enders, a dandy-suited suburban WASP who lives off his parents’ money — the original trust fund kid. His plan to buy a ghetto tenement, evict its tenants, and transform it into into his new mansion seems rebellious and eccentric, though it’s no less whimsical than the change of tastes that brought mass gentrification to similar Brooklyn neighborhoods (the movie was filmed in a now unrecognizably destitute Park Slope) in the 80s and 90s. In fact, Enders’ scheme might have been prophetic — in the last decade, the mansionization of New York apartment buildings has become a small trend.
Then-and-now impresario Lee Chi-man uploaded this compilation the other day. It depicts Shin Wong Street as seen from Hollywood Road, in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district, in 1969 and 2011. Lee accompanied the image with a short, poignant inscription, in Chinese, which Laine Tam took the liberty of translating:
When I was taking this picture, people passing by kept giving me weird looks. They peeked at me and then looked at where I was pointing my lens.
It’s true, this road is empty, a charmless building on the side. There are no worthy reasons to press the shutter at this spot, yet I’m here crouching. Passers-by are probably thinking, “What is this man photographing?”
What I really want to show them is the scenery from 1969, to let them know that the scene really was worth capturing then, not only for photography, but for sketching, or as a background of a movie, an art film…
But today, there is nothing here. I’m crouching on the sidewalk, framing my shot. I knew everyone thought I was a low taste long yau. I… understand.