Friday, May 03, 2013

Hong Kong

my first impression of the city was all apocalyptic urbanist delirium. i felt that city rush through my veins. i wanted to devour the city, i wanted to eat it whole. i wanted to squat in the corners of tube lit corridors and cackle with the pimps, i wanted to spit blood on the pavements and run wild on the sliding floors. i want to meet strangers in the park and have orgies into the dawn, i wanted to feel the prick of skyscraper needles in my veins, i wanted my flesh to be skewered on bamboo sticks and eaten by the whores, i wanted to swallow this city whole as i screamed.
 the global city madness begins as soon as you land. the skyscrapers of the new territories against the deep green lush mountains that rise from the sea. and then when you get off the bus at kowloon, the polylingual marketplace assaults you. the first language that you hear is the rush of hindi- touts pushing tacky visiting cards in your face for tiny rooms inside the labyrinth of corridors in chungking mansions or in one of the other hotels in the area. i loved in one of the buildings next to chungking mansions- another cross cultural melting pot- the lower floors with a shopping centre on two levels and then the courtyard building with multiple wings- and in each hotels that are spread across in tiny hired rooms networked together by a skilled manager. the hotel i lived in was managed by a bengali migrant- all the way from kolkata while the owner was nepali- an inversion of the usual relationship in india. the room was tiny- big enough only for a bed and some leg room- but there was a television and pink wallpaper that was not too stained. on the same floor thai women worked at tailoring for the a-suit-in-a-day shops that lined the tube lit corridors below.

that evening i went for a walk to the kowloon park and watched as men huddled in corners and hid under the shadows of the trees around the mosque.

 on the first day, i decided to explore hong kong island to the south, the star ferry crosses the bay with views of the skyscrapers in the distance. it was here that the complicated relationship hong kong has to the rest of the chinese landscape became apparent. tow opposing sets of banners faced each other off. on one side (and much more prominent) were those that protested against taiwan(?) for sending supporters of the neo-religious group the falun gong to hong kong. the group has been outlawed on the mainland- but not yet in hk which maintains its complicated relationship with the communist government in beijing. the banners are supported by a mainland government supported group. on the other side were banners that documented the atrocities of the chinese government  but were much smaller in nature. most people from hk seemed to walk by these nonchalantly- but the tourists read every word- yours truly included.

when you get off the star ferry on hong kong island the 3 dimensional city begins. covered skywalks zoom in and out of malls, crossing roads and parking lots, whizzing past the financial centre and the markets below. it was a holiday for the filipino women who work as caretakers in the rich chinese households and for them the city was the park. in the morning they began their day by setting up their temporary homes in the sky- cardboard boxes opened out to make beds and enclosures. their cell phones busy trying to make appointments with their friends from the nearby apartment complexes in the new territories where they spent the rest of the week. they carried their food in plastic bags, their entertainment in boom boxes and tablets loaded with music and movies and set up home under the watchful eyes of the security guards at the doors of the shopping malls. i was told that there is no real ‘public’ space in hong kong- as most of the space outside the building is owned by the buildings themselves- yet the urge to sell and to attract as many footfalls as possible within the buildings seems to have led to this unique form of appropriation of the ‘public realm’ and although both parties (i.e. the labour and the malls) seem to be wary of each other- they do realise that they depend on each other.

the morning walk was to concentrate on the early colony of hong kong to the west of the star ferry terminal with its markets, street-escalators and its housing complexes set into the hills- terrace flats with stair streets leading up. the western market building had been gentrified into a swanky shop for souvenirs- but the other markets- like the one for dry seafood or the wet market were reminiscent of the markets of so many chinese cities- red and gold in colour and smell of fresh fruit and fish. commerce comes in all kinds of forms in this city. the large malls that allow you to walk through- in spite of the security to the touristy markets where hong kong souvenirs and jade trinkets are sold like cat street market to the cheap stores catering to the migrant labour to the traditional chinese markets that line the lin wei east and west streets. they all sit over one another and it is easy to get lost in the maze. it has been almost  a month now and all i can remember is walking through a feverish rush of colours and light, bodies and textures.

it is a heady rush to ride the public escalators of the city. they rise past the markets and homes through the mid-levels and are used by locals and tourists alike. you can sneak into the back alleys where the stray cats snore or at the roof top terrace houses. at the top of one of the escalators you go past the green curls of the mosque and further up the expensive homes of the super rich in tall high rises- and as is common in these kinds of areas the streets are cleansed of the activities of the lower areas.

there are not that many historic buildings left in hong kong – and those that are have been transformed into more contemporary uses. the exceptions being the man mo temple and other religious buildings like the kwang fo ancestral hall and temple near the tung wah hospital for ancient chinese medicine (the first of its kind in hong kong-1872). the religious buildings are of the typical buddhist courtyard type. but the ancestral hall was on the first floor with these incredible spiralling incense cones that filled the interior of the buildings with a thick fragrant smoke.

other historic buildings are typical of a colonial city- a church, the police headquarters, the government centre, etc. surprisingly none of these have the monumental heaviness of the buildings of the raj in india- this- in spite of the fact that hong kong was under british rule until much later. i can only speculate that it might be because of the different places hong kong and india occupied in the minds of the colonists. while india was meant to be part of the british raj in perpetuity, hk was seen as an outpost to be delivered back to china and therefore not a place for heavy investment in institutional infrastructure. or maybe i am way off mark here.

of the historic buildings that i saw there was the former civil hospital nurses quarters with its monumental fa├žade preserved but gutted on the inside completely, the hong kong museum of medical sciences and the sun yat sen memorial museum, the diminutive wan chai post office to the east towards causeway; the legislative complex building on the public square and st john’s cathedral which was once converted to a club under japanese occupation and was later restored near the peak tramway which was under renovation.

the history of hong kong as an outpost for international exchange and intrigue was played out in one of my favourite books when i was growing up- john lecarre’s ‘the honourable schoolboy’. a lot of the action takes place in the foreign correspondents club which used to be besides the harbour. that building no longer exists today and the fcc has been moved into an old diary farm building in the city. this building straddles the contours of the hills and is surrounded by streets on all sides. one of the famous scenes in the lecarre book takes place in the men’s room and sure enough in the men’s room above the urinals is a photograph of the view from the earlier building marking the same view that inspired the book. the police headquarter complex sits opposite this building and seemed to be a collection of disparate buildings. later on my visit to the museum there was a model of this complex as a display.

most of the older residential fabric of the city has been replaced by newer swankier high rises now- but an area that still retains some of its heritage is the wing lee street development. the housing complex is in the middle of the street and stair network that forms the structure of the older city.
on a flattened portion of the hill on a narrow terrace a row of rcc frame structures that are being restored slowly and steadily. on the lower floor of the one the buildings was an exhibition that had these drawings about the history of the area and a detailed description of the restoration process. directly opposite the housing complex i saw yet another result of the hyper density of the city- a children’s park on the top floor of a market where wedding photographs were being taken.

in spite of the mad density of the city there were more traditional open spaces too. smaller pocket parks like the hollywood road park, or the hong kong zoo with its aviary and the hong kong park opposite.

wan chai seemed like a less hyperactive area- smaller street markets that separated the high commerce of causeway from the central district. at ‘times square’ a temporary memorial and museum was set up for gay honk kong star leslie cheung including posters of ‘happy together’ tow chinese men in each others arms in south america.

sometimes fragments of a shared history between the two colonial cities – bombay and hong kong pop up unexpectedly like the modi street or the ruttonjee hospital or the gurudwara where sikh families were playing with their kids.

i guess i cant end this part of the post without talking about the two iconic skyscrapers of the hong kong skyline. the bank of china building by i m pei- with its shard like spire rising from a neo-oriental base inspired it would seem by the turrets of the great wall of china that seems like to belongs to another building; and the honk kong and shanghai bank by norman foster. here too the structure is naked and exposed, but the lower floor is where the building becomes so much more than just another high rise- on holidays filipino works throng the spaces sitting on the floor making it a home for a day. escalators are supposed to rise from here into the atrium that’s at the heart of the building- but this has been closed off. unfortunately.

the next day i spent visiting mika and mo at the china university in hong kong set in the new territories. they had recently moved into a new building with an atrium in the middle and from the roof you could see the high rises and hills of the newer areas of hong kong. later i met johnson at his gallery in central and we went for a lovely lunch at the hong kong club with its shanghai deco trappings. art deco does have this ability to exoticize every location. a little like this blog?

later the skyline of hong kong performed with light and sound and the chatter of american tourists. a celebration of capital- in song and dance. lasers sliced through the evening sky as clouds caught their light. the skyscrapers danced. the music ranged from disneyfied chinese to american pomp. further down the streets the hand prints of hong kong film stars alongside propos for us to pose along with on the hong kong avenue of stars.

on the third day i explored the neighbourhood where i was living – kowloon island- reportedly one of the densest places in the world. the southern tip was the tourist trap. from one street where chanel and louis vuitton had their boutiques with people lining up outside for a look within, the other had the cheap motels like the mirador and the chungking mansions- third world shopping centres on the lower floors and labyrinth  / dungeon living spaces above. further north is the kowloon park (not to be confused with the kowloon city park- more about that later) with its sculpture gardens, mosque and avenue of comic book stars. on a sunday the pockets of gardens are full of migrant labour performing the rituals of a displaced community- traditional dances, food and chatter- even hip hop dance practice. in the middle of all of this you might find a tai chi or a kung fu performance. the community centre to the north of the park has a swimming pool where pools cascaded into one another and an exhibition centre where the new infrastructure being planned for the city was being promoted.

as you walk further up north towards the sham sui po district the dense market areas remind you of the history of hong kong as a port- seamen’s hostels, traditional markets- that were still opening when i went through, tourist markets like the jade market below the flyover or the goldfish market and the rehoused bird market; specialized markets for steel, clothes, etc. and naturally the swanky malls around the metro stations. the landscape gets more and more working class as you move towards the north.

this is a landscape of high apartment buildings and sudden fragments of older apartments that were crumbling or were demolished. in this compressed city activities are layered one over the other. on top of the buildings are informal roof top houses that make a courtyard at the centre for common use. these can be seen if you look closely at the edges of the buildings upstairs or are able to see the roofscape of the nearby buildings from the upper floors of the malls.

unlike taiwan, hong kong has a long history of state sponsored public housing. the shek kip mei area was a huge slum and was redeveloped in 1954 after a devastating fire. this is the first example of public housing in hong kong. the choice of architecture seems inspired by european modernism. very few of the older buildings are still present. one of the them is block 41 which is currently being conserved and being turned into a hostel of sorts. around this building are the typical blocks around courtyards of public housing projects around the world.

kowloon city has reached almost mythical dimensions in my imagination of hong kong- an old chinese city that lay in between a territory dispute between the chinese and the british governments became a haven for squatters and illegal activities. it was also a cheap place to live for many who came to hong kong. this complex was seen to be too dangerous in the 1980’s and was controversially demolished in 1993 and replaced by a park- the kowloon walled city park. only fragments of the rcc frame still remain but the other chinese government building as still been preserved and converted into a museum that traces the history of the walled city- from the initial chinese city to the squatters and their eventual eviction. the stories of the inhabitants and the plans of the houses along with a terrific section of the city is part of the park- the cleanliness and order of a monument to informality replaces the messiness of its reality. death replaces life.

but if you are in hong kong a place that is recommended by all the tourist guides is the top of the peak, even if you don’t enter the rather cramped and unnecessary terry farrel buildings there are fantastic views of the city from the peak. one evening i took a taxi up, avoiding the long lines at the tramway, and watched the sun set over the skyline watching the lights come on the distant high rises in the new territories and the docks in the distance. the spectacle of a city of capital- its madness, its horrors and thrills – from a distance – a celebration – and this time without background music.