July 31st, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part III

This is the final installment in a three-part series on preservation and urban transformation in Beijing’s hutongs.

Half a kilometre from Tiananmen Square, an unexpected aroma wafts through the Beijing hutongs: fresh-roasted coffee. The source of that smell is just as surprising. Housed in a two-storey structure that was at various times a government-run printing house and a public bath, Soloist Coffee opened in September, part of a new wave of design-led businesses that have opened in Dashilar, one of Beijing’s oldest yet most overlooked neighbourhoods.

“The interior is a tribute back to the industrial age and craftsmen era,” says the coffee shop’s owner, designer and barista, Ma Kaimin, who sourced wood furniture from around the world to create a space that resembles a cross between a factory studio and an old-fashioned schoolhouse, with exposed brick walls, terrazzo flooring and vintage glass light fixtures. The coffee is just as thoughtful, with robust, acidic house blend that Ma describes as having a “nutty hint of orange and aromatic herbs” – a rare feat in a city without much of a coffee culture.

This might sound like the preamble to a familiar story of gentrification: old neighbourhood falls on hard times, attracts forward-thinking entrepreneurs, only to become a high-rent destination that destroys much of the original charm. But Dashilar’s transformation could well prove to be different, part of a deliberate effort by Beijing designers to revitalise the area in a sensitive way. If it succeeds, it would be a remarkable achievement in a city with a poor track record when it comes to preserving its old neighbourhoods.

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July 7th, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part II

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When I arrived in Beijing on the third day of the Chinese New Year, I was expecting the city to be quiet, and it was, except on Nanluoguxiang, a long alleyway near the Drum and Bell Towers that is lined by small shops, cafés and restaurants. Nanluoguxiang was busy — swarming with people, in fact. On my previous two trips to Beijing, in 2009 and 2010, it hadn’t been nearly as crowded. I chalked it up to the holiday.

When I returned to Beijing last month, though, I found Nanluoguxiang just as busy. Not only that, but many of the independent shops I remembered from my first visits were gone, replaced by chain bubble tea outlets and souvenir stores. Dozens of hawkers had set up camp along the street, most of them selling useless tchotchkes with blinking LED lights. It is still a charming street, but it has clearly made a leap from eccentricity to mass-market tourism. There’s even a Starbucks.

(Quick aside: the Nanluoguxiang Starbucks had the lowest food safety rating I saw in Beijing — a “C”. I can’t decide whether that is funny or terrifying, considering the standards in most Beijing kitchens.)

In some ways, it’s hard to begrudge Nanluoguxiang’s success when the alternative is demolition and redevelopment, which has been the case for so many other Beijing hutongs. In China, the normal process of gentrification is thrown out of whack by the sheer scale of everything: you can either go upmarket, which means really upmarket — Maserati dealers and that sort of thing — or mass market, which means an unceasing crush of weekend tourists and trinket vendors. The period of being a pleasantly polished enclave, which lasts for years or even decades in the life-cycle of North American and European neighbourhoods, is astoundingly short in Beijing.

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May 22nd, 2014

New Life in Old Beijing, Part I

Great Leap Brewery in Doujiao Hutong

It’s the third day of the Chinese New Year and Beijing is taking a break. Traffic has unjammed itself, department stores are shuttered and bursts of fireworks cut through the cold, dry air. As my taxi passes over the Second Ring Road, the streets are quiet until the Gulou comes into view. It’s an imposing, 727-year-old tower with vermillion walls and sweeping rooflines. Originally built to house a collection of drums, it now serves mainly as a riposte to the concrete tower blocks that have come to dominate much of Beijing. This neighbourhood is different, consisting of low-slung, grey-walled courtyard houses arranged along alleyways known as hutongs.

I climb out of the taxi and cross the street, plunging myself into a crowd of hawkers selling sugar-glazed fruits and barbecued eggplant. Families pass by, gawking at quirky designer t-shirts hanging in shop windows; a cyclist rings his bell as he negotiates around a group of friends. I am standing on Nanluoguxiang, a narrow row of shops and cafés that cuts through some of Beijing’s oldest hutongs. On this otherwise quiet February night, it seems like the whole city has come here to shop, snack and stroll.

“When you walk through the hutongs, it’s a nice atmosphere, an interesting mix of tourists and Beijing people who have been living there since childhood,” says Michel Sutyadi, a German-Chinese designer who runs NLGX, a lifestyle brand inspired by Nanluoguxiang.

Beijing might be the capital of the world’s most populous nation, a sprawling city of 20 million with a centuries-long history, known to the rest of the world for its vastness, off-the-charts smog and the blow-out bash that was the 2008 Olympics. Look past the vastness of the Forbidden City and the traffic-choked ring roads, however, and you’ll find the surprising truth about this northern capital: Beijing is a disarmingly down-to-earth place, where imposing boulevards give way to back streets filled with bicycle peddlers, ancient courtyard houses and endless small discoveries.

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October 8th, 2013

Taipei’s Urban Regeneration

景觀第一排

Treasure Hill. Photo by Wunkai

It’s a scorchingly hot afternoon in Taipei and cicadas are buzzing loudly outside the Treasure Hill Temple. A man in cycling gear stops to take a swig of water before turning towards the temple’s statue of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. He clasps his hands and bows three times, paying his respects.

A few metres away, Travis Hung stands watching. “This temple was built a few hundred years ago in the Qing Dynasty,” he tells me. “It used to be one of the most important temples around Taipei.” When the Japanese took over Taiwan in 1895, they deemed the hilly area around the temple to have exceptionally good water and banned development. For years, only six families lived nearby. Then came the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalists who placed Taiwan under martial law after fleeing from mainland China in 1949. More than 200 ex-soldiers and their families flocked to Treasure Hill, where they built houses and small farms, creating a unique rural community just a stone’s throw away from central Taipei.

Today, Treasure Hill is an altogether different kind of settlement, home to 14 artist studios, exhibition and performance spaces, a café and a youth hostel, along with a handful of longtime residents who maintain the same tile-roofed houses and small patches of farmland they built after 1949. “This is a special place,” says Hung, who works for the non-profit foundation that manages the village.

Treasure Hill is just one part of a cultural renaissance that has swept through Taipei, turning neglected urban spaces into design studios, music halls, craft workshops and independent shops. The Songshan Creative and Cultural Park brings art and design into a former tobacco factory; Huashan Creative Park is former distillery that is now a popular destination for music fans and arts and craft lovers; the Taipei Cinema Park screens films outdoors.

“We are facing competition from China, globalization, climate change, a low birth rate,” says Lin Yu-hsiu, a section chief at the Urban Regeneration Office, which transforms vacant buildings into creative spaces. “We have to think about how to move forward, but in a wiser way than before. We want a better life.”

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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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July 20th, 2012

Hawker City

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Not long ago, I was wandering around Kwun Tong trying to find an Indonesian restaurant. I arrived outside its front door only to find the shutter drawn, with a notice from the Urban Renewal Authority announcing that the property had been acquired for redevelopment. Then I looked around: nearly every storefront on the street was the same. I took my phone out and looked for another nearby restaurant on OpenRice — the local equivalent of Yelp — and walked a few blocks away to find it. Same story.

Built in the 1950s as Hong Kong’s first suburban New Town, Kwun Tong is a gritty, thriving working-class neighbourhood with a short but colourful history. This was Hong Kong’s industrial heartland, where the plastic flowers and fluorescent toys that earned the city its first fortune were made. It was home to Hong Kong’s longest-running Communist cinema, a legacy of the days when the political opposition in Hong Kong was made up not of liberal democrats but leftist revolutionaries. When I first visited the tight web of streets around Man Yee Square in 2005, they throbbed with red minibuses, neon pawn shop signs, old men playing chess, teenagers with plastic bags full of street market clothes.

Soon it will all be gone. Most of the shops have closed, the apartments vacated, the streets quieter than they have been in 50 years. The buildings will follow suit to make way for a HK$20 billion redevelopment project spearheaded by the URA, which will transform Kwun Tong’s town centre into a glossy shopping and business hub for East Kowloon. Plans call for a series of malls and highrises connected by gardens and plazas. It’s the kind of tabula rasa urban renewal that was common in Europe and North American until it fell out of favour in the 1980s. It looks like it will be a disaster.

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April 16th, 2012

Another Hole in Montreal’s Heart

The lower Main

The lower Main in 1997. Photo by Kate McDonnell

One of the defining features of Montreal’s cityscape is the abundance of vacant lots. Weedy, gravelly blocks of land, they can be seen in every neighbourhood, in some areas on every street, delineated by rows of misshapen concrete blocks, like boulders left behind by the retreat of urban development. (The concrete blocks, required by municipal law, serve to prevent illegal dumping.) Ten years ago, as the real estate market boomed, many of the lots were transformed into new apartment buildings and hotels. Streetcorners defined by the absence of buildings were reworked into the urban fabric.

Despite the progress, however, new vacant lots are still being created. Part of the reason is the alarming tendency for Montreal buildings to burn down. But mostly it comes down to a lack of foresight by City Hill and a far too cosy relationship between politicians and developers. It’s never hard to find an example. Here’s a recent one: the block of St-Laurent between Ste-Catherine and René-Lévesque.

For decades, this stretch of the lower Main was seedy but lively, and it embodied the schizoid character of Montreal’s downtown core. Under the elegant gaze of the Monument National marched a procession of strip clubs, peep shows, restaurants and dive bars, as including some venerable institutions: Canada’s oldest Middle Eastern grocery store, founded in 1903; the Montreal Pool Room, which had served classic Montreal-style hot dogs since 1912; and Café Cléopâtre, a classic strip club with a flair for the burlesque. It was grimy and past its prime, but it worked in that typically ragtag Montreal way. It was a place where you could get a steamed hot dog, attend Pecha Kucha Night, spend your change on a peep show, buy some smoked paprika and stumble out of a Club Soda concert at midnight — whatever.

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March 30th, 2011

Gentrification or Redevelopment?

Light from a new fashion boutique floods an alley
near Blake Garden, Hong Kong

Alan Lo Yeung-kit is an unlikely critic of urban renewal. Three of his successful restaurants — Classified, Press Room and The Pawn — are located in Urban Renewal Authority projects in Sheung Wan and Wan Chai.

Critics have accused his businesses of taking part in the kind of URA-style renewal that is destroying the character of Hong Kong’s old neighbourhoods. But Lo is no fan of bulldozer redevelopment. “Our whole approach to urban renewal needs to be rethought,” he said.

Lo said he has come up with an alternative model for urban renewal, one that is both profitable and preservation-based. Last year, he and partner Darrin Woo founded a new design and development firm, Blake’s, that was inspired by the old neighbourhood around Blake Garden in Sheung Wan. The firm’s first project took a mid-century tong lau at 226 Hollywood Road and converted it into four luxury apartments. The units sold out soon after they went on sale in November, fetching more than HK$25 million apiece.

“It’s about getting out of the box-standard big-developer approach and making something that fits the neighbourhood,” says Lo. “The vision is to rethink an old, slightly sleepy neighbourhood with respect for what has been in the district for a long time, and without having to knock things down.”

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February 1st, 2011

“There is Nothing Here”

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.

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January 26th, 2011

La rue Charlotte, à l’ombre de la Main

Posted in Canada, History, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

Rongeurs attendant la fin: rue Charlotte, Montréal

Alors que j’arpente les rues étroites et organiques de la cité coloniale, au sud du quartier latin, je me surprend à escalader lentement la douce pente de la basse-ville jusqu’au tragique Boulevard René-Lévesque – horrible et bruyant – que je trouve en pleine transformation. Tout près, des dizaines de tours d’habitation, modernes. Au loin, ces hautes barres vitrées où s’empilent les bureaux, s’effaçant par ce mélange étrange de lumière jaunâtre et de fumée mécanique : le centre des affaires, que je devine, avec son mouvement et sa confusion.

Je décide d’accélérer le pas et de me retrouver dans un dédale de petites rues rectilignes, agglutinées comme elles le sont, entre les principales artères qui dessinent la carte de Montréal : Saint-Catherine, Sherbrooke, Maisonneuve et René-Lévesque. Puis coincées étrangement entre la cohue estudiantine du Quartier Latin et l’ex Red-Light District que forme la Main – le boulevard Saint-Laurent – et ses théâtres et autres cabarets plus ou moins douteux.

Je sais que bientôt nous ferons table rase de cette zone – comme déjà nous l’avons fait dans les années ’60 en construisant à peine à deux pas l’immense complexe des habitations Jeanne-Mance – pour en faire un lien moderne, propret et sécuritaire et reliant enfin ce nouveau grand ensemble urbain que doit devenir le Quartier des Spectacles.

J’emprunte l’étroite et unique rue Charlotte, microcosme de cette mutation.

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January 20th, 2011

Notre-Dame and Griffintown: 1930-2010

Posted in Architecture, Canada, History by Daniel Corbeil

Notre Dame St West, circa 1930-2010

What happened here ? This used to be the north end of Griffintown, right next to the business center of Montreal.

À Montréal, au cours des années 1950 et 1960, notamment suite au rapport Dozois, on identifie des dizaines de quartiers qualifiés d’insalubres, vus comme irrécupérables, et où les taudis menacent la santé publique. Puis ont les rase, un par un, pour faire place à des projets d’ensemble, comme les Habitations Jeanne-Mance ou encore la tour de Radio-Canada, dans l’Est.

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January 16th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong: A Bitter Taste

Toy dai pai dong model in the G.O.D. Street Culture Gallery

When six dai pai dong vanished from Hong Kong’s Central district last year, fans of wok hei street food were worried that the street food stalls had disappeared for good.

Now they’re back, shiner than ever after five months of renovations. New gas lines, sewers and electric cables have been installed, and the old green dai pai dong stalls have given way to custom-built stainless steel booths.

Dai pai dong are an emblem of Hong Kong street food; their names literally mean “big plate stall,” referring to the special licence plates issued for the stalls in the 1950s. New change of rules by the government allows dai pai dong licences to be passed down to the owner’s offspring, meaning that, for the first time since the 1970s, dai pai dong can outlive their licence holders.

But dai pai dong owners are far from happy. They say the renovation process was hampered by red tape and bureaucratic indifference, leaving them penniless and seething with anger.

“I’m very frustrated,” said the owner of Yue Hing, a Stanley Street tea stall, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Ah Fei. “The government dropped the ball and now we’re suffering because of it. It shouldn’t have had to be like this.”

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November 1st, 2010

255 Years Ago Today: The Lisbon Earthquake

On this morning 255 years ago, Lisbon was one of the richest cities in the world. Wealth had been flowing in from Portugal’s colonies ever since the great wave of Portuguese exploration began in the 1400s. A new palace and opera house had recently been completed, and the 300,000 or so residents were observing one of the biggest feasts of the church calendar, All Saints Day.

Then disaster struck in the form of a massive earthquake, estimated to be about 9 on the Richter scale of intensity (by comparison, February’s Chilean quake measured 8.8 while Haiti’s one a month earlier was 7.2). Fires and a tsunami followed, and by the time fires had burned themselves out, the waterfront and much of the sumptuous new construction was gone.

But the city was rebuilt quickly, under the guidance of a man who was, in effect, probably the greatest urbanist of his day, the Marquês de Pombal. Evidence of his leadership can be seen still in the lovely centre of Lisbon.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, a portion of London’s centre was rebuilt along lines suggested by Christopher Wren. In the early part of the 1700s, Turin had also been expanded beyond the city walls, following plans which featured squares and streets laid on grids. Pombal, acting as the king’s right hand man, and his engineers looked to both these major changes in urban structure for ideas, but in the end forged ahead to plan a new city center that was the largest urban reconstruction project ever undertaken until Napoleon III hired Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to remake Paris more than 100 years later.

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October 24th, 2010

The Last Walled Village

Two and a half years ago, my girlfriend and I were walking through a housing estate near Kowloon City when we happened upon something completely unexpected: a walled village. At first glance, we actually thought it was an old shantytown, surrounded as it was by street hawkers, outdoor barbers and houses made of sheet metal. But as we walked around its periphery, we came across a gatehouse, beyond which was an alley lined by small, tile-roofed houses. At the end was a temple.

“This whole place is going to be gone soon,” warned a village resident as we walked through the gate, towards the temple. In turned out we were standing in Nga Tsin Wai, the last walled village in Kowloon. In 2007, the Urban Renewal Authority decided to tear most of it down and replace it with two apartment towers and a heritage-themed park which will incorporate the temple, an ancestral hall and a few village houses.

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