"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City


eighteen. digesting Bangkok.
arr. 3.15, Ko Tao 3.20-3.26, solo Bangkok 3.27…
think food, think pink, think flowing waters of teeming browns and grays. think a city full of yellow polo shirts, bearing ‘I love the King’ stenciled over bunny rabbits. think 7-11s and sidewalks-turned-noodle stalls at night. think larger-than-life elevated expressways, underneath which buffets charge $1.50 for a pile of spicy lunch. think ‘endings,’ where the skytrain aborts abruptly, like the once watery sois (lanes) which serviced now-paved canals. perhaps water once had a logic here; its concrete counterparts leave me confused.

my Bangkok blog is long overdue, in part thanks to a fortuitous overlap with Ivan and a long-awaited visit from JC (whose much-needed planning eyes were no less dazed by the map of this visually cacophonous city), plus a trip down to Ko Tao (diving-mecca island extraordinaire: band camp - tuba + scuba). now I’m back and solitary again, left to my devices to seek a/c air and a logic to the way this city moves. Mumbai and Hong Kong, although vastly different, both had a legibility to them which here continues to evade me.

getting around … the Chao Praya river continues to be a viable means of transit for the western n-s length of the city, as does the pungent frothy water of the east-west Saen Saep canal which connects Pratunam and beyond (e) to Banglampu (w). auto traffic is horrendous; extremely cheap, ultra frigid taxis ($2 for most areas within the city) provide a respite from the oven-air but sometimes serve more as a way to pass the time in goose-bumped comfort than an efficient means of getting from here-to-there. buses present the same road-bound challenge, tuk tuks slightly better for their helter-skelter ability to violate the center line and weave in and out of traffic. nonetheless, water and rail transit are often the better options.

unfortunately, a significant section of the central city is left untouched by these north-south linescapes, the historical western city and its multitudes of wats (temples) served well by the river, and the glitzy shine of Bangkok’s eastern mall-filled spread inextricably linked to the skytrain and metro lines. the national rail lines begin and end in Bangkok and could provide the infrastructural basis for serving this nether zone but as yet, these lines only provide a verdant swath alongside which older residential neighborhoods remain. a transit map of the city thus reads as a west-east timeline in section, a fossilized record of urban growth: river, national rail, skytrain, metro. a perusal of the royal transportation planning department’s website boasts a dozen maps for future metro extension, but given that existing systems seem barely completed (as per the eerie, abandoned pillars of the unfinished southeastern expressway) these proposals seem at best a distant dream.

whether because of this transportation melee or perhaps responsible for it, experiencing a sense of Bangkok’s ‘zones,’ complete with character and discernable transitions, demands more reliance on maps and labels than in the past 2 cities I have visited. I described it to JC as a city being comprised of a multiplicity of smaller-scaled sections, repeated over and over, rather than a city with a cohesive spatial narrative. a typical section might be road, sidewalk-cum-thicket of sidewalk eateries (especially at night once shop-fronts close), storefronts below 3-4 storey residential blocks, and beyond this a network of neighborhood homes. at any point, however, without seeming reason, this texture might be disrupted by a horrendous high-rise, placed without apparent rhyme or reason. a drink at one of Bangkok’s skybars (in the state tower or the banyan tree hotel) is a must, if only to look out on the city below and realize that the disorientation on the ground level is no misperception. towers rise willy-nilly throughout the city, which lacks a cohesive corporate core. as frustrating though as this indigestible panorama is to navigate, perhaps it provides a sort of liberation from this city being easily comprehended and thus seamlessly consumed and objectified by the likes of me.

3.28 Thewet – Phayathai (BTS skytrain) – Saen Saep (Canal)
the transit spines do become an organizing force, for better or worse, yet even this effect is short-lived and can abruptly ends without warning. a long delightful morning walk from Thewet through Dusit’s planned parkland left me cooled and happy from the government-sponsored sprinkler system. Si Ayuthaya’s long perspective view leads westward down a tree-lined sidewalk and eastward to a lone tower in the Sukhumvit area. the ‘red cross’ fair at Dusit’s royal plaza has resulted in a horde of temporary retail stores sequestering the sidewalk and the edge of the busy street for real-estate, leaving pedestrians squeezed between ‘storefronts’ and speeding cars. (I had seen this ‘borrowing’ on a previous walk with JC, in which a row of old wooden houses had simply put up a metal barricade along the street to claim their own residential ‘alley,’ replete with plantings 2ft. away from the major thoroughfare).

further east…crossing and then following the national railroad tracks just past Dusit was revealing; here the east-west line joins the north-south, creating a triangular neighborhood that feels lost in time. a jungle of green grows up around railside shacks, which give way to better-built one-room bungalows which all lead to an odd circular reservoir-cum-neighborhood plaza in the middle of this triangle. although this area is bounded by three railroad tracks plus two major roads to the east (the ground-level Rama VI and the elevated Phayathai Expressway), within it is quiet and car-free, recalling Mumbai’s Kotachiwadi hamlet. the area just outside the plaza & beneath the overpass serves as the local restaurant sector, with 3 or 4 foodstalls set up on the sidewalk in the shade of the concrete mammoth.

following the east-west rail for a kilometer or so reveals more humble, trackside residential neighborhoods. in a surprising gesture of civic consideration, however, the railway boasts a slightly elevated concrete walkway along either side, complete with benches and the occasional garbage bin. this zone not only provides a place to walk but also creates a small buffer zone between the tracks and the houses and restaurants that line it. at one such restaurant I had lunch, stepping off the walkway and into a shady, crowded tent where the shirt-tie-skirt lunch-hour crew from 2 blocks away chooses the local vibe and cheaper prices over their more sterile company cafeterias. this rail-line neighborhood ends a few hundred meters further to the east, when it hits the skytrain overpass + station + requisite shopping area. looking back along this longitudinal swath from the vantage point of the Phayathai skytrain station I am struck by the long, anomalous line of vegetation I have just left, the low-rise traditional homes hidden below, the sporadic white towers to either side rising incongruously.

skytrain to National Stadium stop … where I survive the brunt of afternoon heat inside the massive MBK shopping center. disoriented, suddenly I am (almost) back in Shenzhen’s Luoho Commercial City, or upon the market streets of Mumbai. the MBK is a vertical interior escalator’ed mini-city of cheap clothing stalls, cell-phone goods, accessories, rip-off brand-names. the hawking is less aggressive here, tourist-shoppers more scantily clad and more willing to sport Mohawks and tattoos, reminding me once again that Bangkok is THE budget travel enclave of Southeast Asia and perhaps of the world [* see below]. this followed by a stroll to a different world in the Jim Thompson house, 2 blocks away and alongside the Saen Saep. Thompson, a trained mid-century American architect, created an oasis of traditional rural Thai architecture which he tastefully filled with Thai and Chinese antiques (mostly porcelains, Buddhist sculpture, and wooden furniture pieces). the brainchild behind Jim Thompson silk products, he was responsible for creating the world market for these gorgeous fabrics. at the age of 61 he mysteriously disappeared while traveling in Malaysia, and remains something of a quirky cult-figure for artsy residents and expats. not surprisingly, the brightly-lit retail shop is the most noticeable part of the current complex, inside which I overheard an older woman say to her husband regarding the scarves, “this is just like the stuff you can buy in India!” perhaps not quite, but close enough to make one once again feel part of a global traveling entourage whose tastes local retailers astutely discern and cater to.

the canal ride back to the Banglampu area was turbulent, fast and fearsome, if only for the inadvertent splashing of the unwilling passengers (self included). the canal is only 35’ish feet wide, the chop ferociously slamming back and forth between the retaining walls. the boat is narrow, with a lip upon which fearless fare collectors walk up and down, their vulnerable bodies cloaked from head to toe in heavy shirts and pants and hats. what a job – these folks were young and fit and seemed like university students trying to make a few extra baht. the work – or rather, the smells and the prospect of being tossed into this opaque-stew-called-water, made waiting tables feel like pure idle.

[* in retrospect: the MBK’s spectacle is nothing compared to the two-lane street of Khao San road, which I had been variously warned about by fellow travelers. JC and I stayed there our first few days in Bangkok, and realized with a disturbed laugh that it was meta³: the hippy-tourist scene here is so pronounced that it has become an attraction for locals, who sometimes become temporary girlfriends, and in aloof observance, JC and i, tourists ourselves, watched all this. I’m sure there were other travelers watching us in our noticeably over-25 conservative garb. Khao San is such an extreme nexus of ‘independent’ travel it has turned it into a packaged parody, where now it is difficult to actually arrange anything independently. combo transit + lodging packages for the independent traveler are so ubiquitous that many of us seem to have ceased to arrange anything for ourselves, even though in reality this is still quite easy to do as a visit to rail station ticket booth will reveal. in parallel, searching out your own store or restaurant can occasionally be challenge, as some drivers and pedestrians are too happy to recommend a better route or a better establishment. this renders the line between subtle hawking and friendly advice so freakishly thin that it challenges one’s own limits of skepticism to the core. ]


seventeen. the fragmented whole & the walk vs. the ride
Hong Kong draws to a close with gray days that threaten rain. my last afternoon and evening out on the town were somehow a quintessential cross-section of Hong Kong as I have experienced it: flying back from Shenzhen on the KCR rail and watching the city emerge, suddenly and sporadically as the dictates of topography allow; climbing the grungy stairs to the 3rd floor of the Mansion back in Tsim Sha Tsui for a nostalgic meal of Indian food (how good it was to eat with my hands!); walking through a shiny shopping mall in the by-now HK trademark juxtaposition of circulation and consumption in order access the water’s edge ‘Avenue of Stars’ for the 8 p.m. nightly spectacle. here, for 15 minutes every evening, the tourism board sponsors an ‘ooh-aah’ fest of song and light starring all the major buildings across the water in the financial district. god knows what the electricity bill for this is -- green lasers, Hollywood spotlights, neon facades pulsing and blinking in rhythm to the musak – it’s the first tourist thing to do in Hong Kong, and I could not resist making it my last. walking from here to the Starr ferry pier to return to HKI (where I’ve been house-sitting for a good friend) I passed a panoply of plasticized cotton-candy and photo stalls; it smelled like a carnival. my last ferry ride was poignant and quiet. it has been one of favorite things about Hong Kong: for $.25 and 7 minutes the stunning, mobile view of this city on the harbor and commuting are tourism are all compressed into one functional, breathtaking, and affordable experience. then a bumpy loud tram ride back to the Pok Fu Lam area to sleep in an immaculately designed and furnished apartment (complete with professional Lavazza espresso maker) where from the bed I can look out the window and see 2 twenty-storey towers rising above me.

Mumbai & Hong Kong reflected…looking back over my hand-drawn territorial tracks of Mumbai and Hong Kong, I am surprised by what I see: every footstep/rail segment/busride in Mumbai was a veritable whirlwind of disaster and delight, from the minutae of avoiding the human waste on certain sidewalks to the trepidatious wanderings into unplanned alleys nestled between barely standing shacks to the windswept liberation of climbing to meet the orange flag of a temple on a hill. nothing was a blur because everything was hard won, and thus my sense is that I got beneath the grit of that city more than I did Hong Kong. however, my drawing of Hong Kong is thick with lines -- the train tracks, bus roads, tram lines, & footsteps in some areas so tangled as to be barely decipherable. compared to Mumbai’s scattered and sparse longitudes, one would think that my experience of Hong Kong had been more dense than that of Mumbai.

considering this disparity of cognitive construct and visual evidence, I realize that much of it has to do with the amount of walking, and the amount of getting ‘lost’ I allowed myself in the two cities. in Mumbai if I was not on train I was usually on foot, buses being inefficient in traffic, difficult to decipher, and not as networked and ubiquitous. moreover, being on a train in Mumbai still allows a vivid interface with and sensual experience of the passing city due to the aboveground nature of the system, the permeable compartments, and the violation of the trains’ right-of-way. in contrast, it is effortless in Hong Kong to emerge from the MTR and immediately find a city bus or mini bus or tram going in a direction you feel inclined to go. major stations have a transit interchange area, usually beneath, adjacent to, or a stone’s throw from the rail station, and which serves as the terminus for many routes. the average station has a collection of bus-stops immediately outside its exits, which are usually along a major artery and thus coincide seamlessly with road-based modes. it is strangely difficult to walk too far in Hong Kong; development is nodal, and sometimes broken by topography or long stretches of pedestrian-unfriendly territory. in Mumbai, everything is pedestrian unfriendly in a sense, so everything is paradoxically walkable. here the difference between that which is walkable and that which is fenced or cordoned off or so roundabout or broken by terrain is stark, creating a more stringent dichotomy between the walked & wandered city and the ridden & routed city.

undoubtedly too, the modal configurations account for some of the ‘constrained extensiveness’ vs. the ‘thick narrowness’ of how I’ve known Hong Kong and Mumbai. everything in HK is sealed (save for ferries and trams), and the trains, when above ground, are often well-walled-off or elevated above the city fabric, creating a second, third, fourth layer of experiential distance between viewer/sensor & city. this separation between linescape and adjacent urban mesh also has its advantages though; above-ground noise pollution is minimized, and railway/highway right of ways can find unlikely uses such as parks or promenades.
for me, Hong Kong has been a seamless yet erratic choose-my-own-adventure of navigability which has made me very aware of the particularity of the idiosyncratic slices i've drawn through the city. in contrast, i always felt that Mumbai was navigating me; I was much more at the mercy of the city, and thus, felt more led by an inevitable urgency to simply navigate space.

sixteen. t/here city.
journeys 3.8 to 3.13

satellite Hong Kong : Shenzhen (3.13) and Shek-O (3.11)
these two excursions could not be more different…
Shenzhen…i'll begin with most recent memory first (or does one day even count as a memory? when traveling, the notion of the ‘recent past’ becomes a flimsy thing as new stimulations are constantly edging out the barely-passed)… the sign at the rail station a few footsteps into mainland China says it all: right arrow “TO HONG KONG,” left arrow “TO SHOPPING.” the Lo Wu KCR East Rail terminus is 50 meters inside Hong Kong; throngs of people are funneled and sorted across the border (HK resident, mainland resident, foreigner, business pass), many wheeling sizable parcels in both directions. the lights are dimmer on the mainland, the a/c less arctic, and the smell of cigarette smoke a tangible reminder that Hong Kong’s recent (Jan ‘07) smoking ban has been complete, swift, and pervasive. no pictures allowed at the border (although here’s a snapshot anyway: a lonely hillside graveyard in Hong Kong and the backside of the Luohu Commercial City on the mainland, each on opposite banks of a dinghy canal). “no u-turns” either. in this odd linguistic oversight somehow the twilight-zone nature of Shenzhen at the border is nonetheless captured. in the Luohu Commercial City, women grab your arm, sometimes tenaciously, and suddenly I’m back in India. now it’s “missi, manicure manicure” rather than “madame, pashmina shawl?” and the bravado of the grab would never happen from the men in Mumbai.

from here an it is an easy Metro ride to the SEG Electronics Center, another windowless twilight zone where 3 hours of price-comparing leaves me with a bargain 160G HDD & an MP3 player at a fraction of HK’s cost. I walked the 2 miles back to the border along Shennan Zhonglu, which I’ve unofficially dubbed the electro Champs-Elysees of Shenzhen. the avenue is so wide, the sidewalks hardly less so, the perspectives so infinite you feel like you’re in Renaissance Italy cum the Forbidden City cum the Future Nowhere city. Haussman would be proud. the land is flat, yielding pastel-hued, fully glazed office towers that stand here and there in random non-relation to each other, their operable windows leaving cute (no other word to describe it) checkerboard indications of occupation on the 34th floor. biycyles share the sidewalks, as do enormous trees; stairs all have roller ramps for pushing bikes or carts up and down (often resulting in odd rise/run stair ratio). despite the odd lack of character of the city as a whole, there are some real pockets of design splendor: a narrow verdant park between two low-lying overpasses, a sidewalk park created by a series of simple raised curves, a stepped depression leading down into the basement level of a shopping mall that generates a relaxing, multi-leveled circulatory public space.

on another note entirely, Shek-O is a small village on the southern tip of the southeastern finger of Hong Kong Island. a bus which only runs on Sundays and holidays leaves from the IFC transit interchange in Central and takes 40 minutes to go east towards Shau Kwei Wan and then south up and over central HKI’s undeveloped mountainous terrain before careening down towards the coast. the busride itself is worthwhile; on the second floor of a double decker, zooming along the eastern expressway which hovers over the water between North Point and Causeway Bay is nothing short of a breathtaking blurring of land, road, sky, & water. climbing over the island as the towers recede below and give way to a thicket of dense green is a vertiginous reminder of this island’s inherent inspiration for architectural acrobatics.

once in Shek-O…while a genuine tenor of local life remains, similar to Galle, Sri Lanka, the pristine and pastoral real-estate is appreciated by several whose out-of-scale mansions hug the hillside on the eastern edge of town, adjacent to the unlikely velveteen sprawl of a golf-course. a strange dichotomy exists here, between the village proper, which retains its 3 foot wide alleys and low-slung roofs, the luxury cars of day-trippers, and the cabs waiting to ferry expats and their visitors back to downtown HK. the allure is genuine and understandable: the dark-blue waves are pristine, the beach bleached and combed, the boulders and cliffs a subdued shade of orange, and the smattering of modernist homes weathered enough to feel appropriate.

performed Hong Kong, unorchestrated Hong Kong
Disneyland line, Tin Shui Wai, Kam Sheung (3.8)
water walk along north HKI (3.9)
Shek Kip Mei & Sha Tin (3.12)
from the top floor of One Peking Rd. in Kowloon, Phillipe Stark’s aqua bar plays loud music amidst faint whisps of (dry-ice) smoke and serves a mean martini. the stylishly manicured can watch the distant lights of a tidy, well-ordered city. if one were to draw a web connecting the ‘stars’ of HK attractions, this tower-top bar would be a small node, as would the nearby ‘Avenue of the Stars’ (see above blog). HK’s Disneyland on distant Lantau island, near the airport, would be another; it has to be, its only raison d’etre being itself. it is situated in what feels to be the middle of nowhere, accessible by its very own MTR rail line which boasts Disney railcars replete with Mickey Mouse windows, velvet seats, and bronze statues of Disney characters housed in glass cases. and then there are the unseens that make official Hong Kong so well-groomed: the way on Sundays and at night, when everyone is shopping or resting, palm trees are planted in busy medians, escalators are fixed, sidewalks mended by tired men in hard hats.

typically, however, the planned and the informal, although rarely hybridized, are not so starkly separated. what I anticipated to be an overly-planned and sterile new town out at Tin Shui Wai on the KCR West Rail revealed a surprising amount of ground-level activity taking place between the cruciform vertical developments. the playgrounds, badminton courts, chess tables and nooks and crannies of the Grandeur Terrace’s courtyards were in lively use on a Thursday afternoon, and the light rail system (i.e. tram) that loops around to the various tower communities allows a human scaled and human speed mode of convenient public transit linking the otherwise isolated blocks to each other and to the KCR rail station (and thus to the rest of Kowloon and HKI). at Kam Sheung station, a different form altogether was evident; Kam Sheung has retained a 3-storey (max) single-family home cum village typology due to government property grants to male heads of households. the station, which stands apart from the neighborhood, has an expanse of ground-level parking where a large group of Tai Chi practitioners enjoyed the borrowed light of the station. at Sha Tin, one of HK’s first new town developments back in the 1950’s, an audacious pedestrian UNDERPASS snakes below a highway OVERPASS and above a ground-level thoroughfare in what looks like a Maya-generated swoop. also here I saw an unusual typology: indoor market stalls housed on the ground floor of a residential tower. at Shek Kip Mei, a half-dozen scales, uses, and eras are evident in one 360 degree panorama taken from an overpass (see photo). even in heavily shopped Mong Kok, in the morning temporary newspaper stalls utilize the sidewalk space in front of stores which have yet to open, using the metal storefront gates as their backdrop.

walking along the northern waterfront of HKI reveals another zone of ambiguity, where men squeeze around fences to sit quietly and fish over in the Sheung Wan area, and one is finally allowed to be close to the water of the harbor which is the gem of this city (excepting ferry rides). for such a stunning stretch of site, the water’s edge is surprisingly under-usurped for tourism and shopping -- although this is changing as I write: new plans for the central infill + development are underway. this condition might in part be due to the continuing functionality of marine transport in the form of cross-harbor and long-distance ferries, which keep the immediate water’s edge near terminals more of a thoroughfare for connecting transit modes. high speed roads are pushed out towards the water’s edge as well, sometimes even surpassing the edge in an elevated addition (such as the eastern expressway). beneath this stretch of road traditional & colorful Chinese junks are moored next to their gleaming white yacht counterparts, and the fence is utilized as a wall for shacks which organize small-scale boat tours. out here a giddy couple had enough privacy to drink and smoke in peace. the planning and infrastructure museum, in the City Hall, is along a little visited stretch of waterfront near Wan Chai; it is simultaneously so well-done and informative, yet disturbing. video game screens allow vistors to play ‘redeveloper’ in an urban Hong Kong neighborhood, replacing condemned buildings with your choice of ‘open space, commercial, residential, or transit’ development at the touch of a button. further along, SOM’s convention center juts out into the Harbor and has such a convoluted, roundabout approach that its monumental ‘I am here’ becomes a comic quest of ‘I see you but how the hell do I get there?’

still, the overriding sense that the government has a heavy hand in the development of spaces for everyday life is not unfounded. the MTR and KCR corporations are given government land to develop in the immediate vicinity of rail stations, resulting in the station cum shopping mall cum tower project phenomenon so evident at Po Lam and the IFC. none of this is a secret; the IFC yields an enormous MTR logo on one of its facades, and an MTR sponsored advertising screen sports Madonna prancing about promoting her new fashion line at the very-recently opened H & M store nearby. signs posted in the Metro advertise MTR’s new co-campaign with the HK medical association to keep the population healthy; a purported 8000 footsteps a day keep the doctor away, and $2 fare saver machines are placed at various locations around the city (listed with their respective number of footsteps from a train station) to promote longer-distance pedestrian movement. surely the effect is positive, but given the desire to avert roadway traffic congestion and maximize rail use, the campaign’s sincerity seems questionable.

not that government cannot be well-intentioned; I have yet to fully figure out the generosity with which the informal Sunday Filipina picnic convention that takes place all over the streets, sidewalks, and walkways of Central and Causeway Bay is treated by the powers-that-be. this past Sunday I got a better glimpse of the extent of this phenomena; some roads actually close for the event, and numerous security guards are posted here and there to keep certain thoroughfares picnicker-free. in one such area, outside the IFC, where tables are set-up for ‘legitimate’ purchasers of IFC food, a guard came and told me to remove my bag from the back of my chair so as to avoid theft. (I still don’t get the sense that bag snatching is a huge problem here; perhaps this pre-emption is why, although I tend to think that warnings and public service campaigns are more revelatory of what IS rather than what COULD BE…)


random hello...just got a letter from my parents who have joined the information age in order to read my blog. so this entry is for them : hi bo & yako. thank you for keeping up with me, for getting onto the computer to read about me, for dealing with my logistical loose ends, and for giving me our family's travel bug! here in hong kong i think of you both living down in repulse bay, when mom was just my age, getting tailored dresses made in vibrant colors of raw silk. while our family doesn't have many conventional traditions, i find myself wanting to follow in your footsteps of living a dynamic, nomadic life in diverse places around the globe. maybe i too will end up in hong kong for awhile, if i am only so lucky...love to you both, hello to anyone else reading, and thank you for taking the time with my words.

p.s. this photo is retrogressive, one of my last days in Mumbai in a park near the 'World Trade Center' tower, which is near the waterfront. the white thing in the background is a huge piece of styrofoam that these boys were playing with like an airplane as it caught the occasional gust of wind. eventually it got stuck in a tree...


fifteen. interchange city.
multiple mini-derives 3.4 -3.7
I cannot keep up with Hong Kong, its movements so quick and seamlessly provided by the most fluid and unlikely of interchanges: this is the city of elevation, where one can move from transit interchange to apartment front door without ever crossing a stopwalk, without ever touching the street. I thought my mini-derive the other day might be an anomaly but more explorations have proven me wrong.

In Hong Kong I have also found friends, first through an old college connection (Jason) who is now teaching architecture at HKU, and by proxy, a GSD studio here doing a joint studio with HKU. Having a pseudo social life has been a blessing and a curse, providing insights into everyday expat life after 8pm, and also tearing me away from my hole-in-the-wall room which, although lacking many amenities, still boasts a free & seamless internet connection (albeit for those rare guests who happen to be traveling with a wireless laptop…). The Mansion has recently been overflowing, due to a jewelry convention that has brought numerous traders from Africa and the Philippines.

The transit here is so layered, yet not necessarily hierarchical, such a vast difference from Mumbai in which the rail line provides such a vital and primary spine, not replicated by any other mode. The MTR (metro) largely services the Kowloon side, its operation on Hong Kong Island limited to the northern coastal stretch where urban development is pinched by the mountains to the south and the water to the north. Its configuration of 5 lines (+ airport express) run in two elegant loops in opposite directions, with plenty of interchange stations yet without much of BART’s wasteful overlap. The stations themselves are, in contrast to Mumbai (again), an exercise in physical and social regulation: rails and turnstiles prescribe flow direction, glass walls with automatic doors completely separate the void of the track from the platform and provide an odd fish-bowl effect for the glowing advertisements against the track tunnel. Beyond the spatial, numerous public health messages abound urging citizens to lead good lives: anti-domestic violence videos, LED screens that tell people to sleep well and eat right, signs in the immaculate train compartments that urge ‘having a heart’ by giving up your seat to those more needy.

Most stations boast, at a minimum, some combination of a Maxim’s cake shop, health-tea stores (to fight ‘urban fatigue’), 7-11’s, internet terminals, and DHL stores, while other stations meld seamlessly with large shopping malls, which in turn, flow directly into high-rise residential tower blocks connected by walkways. (Such is the case with Po Lam, the terminus of the purple line, and a flagrant example of station-oriented development). Buses, of which there are three types (large city buses, green & red mini-buses, the latter of which are haleable like a cab and run on less-predetermined routes than the green buses), are efficient and sometimes redundant with MTR routes. They careen like mad-banshees along narrow streets. The fleet of red, shiny cabs are affordable for short distances (first 2 km) and less so thereafter, reflecting downtown HKI & southern Kowloon’s compact nature. The historical double-decker trams, which run primarily east-west along northern HKI, are not as susceptible to traffic but are generally slow due to their numerous stops. Still, their double-decker height and their operable windows (compared to the city bus’ hermetically sealed a/c capsules) make them more viscerally pleasurable to ride, and make them entertaining design objects; they are rentable for a private “party on a tram!,” (see hktramways.com), as are boats in Victoria Harbor. According to Jason, owning a car here is for the well-funded, as vehicles, registration, and parking are twice as expensive as in other countries (ex.US); the presence of private vehicles is notably lacking.

Getting around is a breeze for some, a nightmare for others. Those who live in the Mid-Levels just south and 250’ up from the financial district have the luxury of riding the escalator DOWN in the morning, until 10:15, when the escalator switches direction and begins to climb again for the rest of the day and evening. Meanwhile, the largely Filipina population of housekeepers climb part of the way and then hang out on the adjacent stairs until the switch, when they can continue the steep remainder of their journey to the Mid-Levels where they work. I witnessed the switch the other day; it is enacted manually as two men block off each section of escalator and signal the direction change. This city is also a nightmare for the physically challenged. There are so many steps, sometimes only one or two steep, rounding a sidewalk corner, for example, or three or four leading to a public restroom (of which there are many, thank god), that the sight of a wheelchair-bound person in public is an anomaly. The one woman I have seen was on the MTR -- an elderly lady being wheeled by her granddaughter, who lovingly had her hands on her grandmother’s shoulders during the duration of their rail ride. Something about the gesture was so honest and vulnerable I had to turn away.

The transit interchanges are un-divorceable from Hong Kong’s negotiation of the global and the local, as in the case of the IFC mall/Hong Kong MTR station, and the Kowloon MTR station, both of which are nodes of a dispersed airport system: in both stations travelers using the Airport Express train can utilize ‘early check-in’ (complete with baggage check) at any one of a dozen airline counters that flank the station. At Hong Kong Station, Pelli’s sparkly IFC mall (‘International Finance Center’) looms directly above this mini-airport cum train station cum bus terminal, with glass walls allowing direct visual connection between the shopping corridor and the departure lobby. On Sunday afternoons, just outside of and running the length of the IFC elevated walkway to the south, hordes of Filipina female picnickers snack and talk the day away in groups, sometimes building their own temporary structures out of cardboard boxes or movable barricades covered in sheets and blankets. This phenomenon is not limited to the walkways, but extends to the ground-level pavilions beneath elevated buildings such as Foster’s HCSB building. At midnight on my way home, the remains of the day – trash, cardboard, etc. -- were being dutifully cleaned by public employees.

In contrast to the IFC’s pristine white anonymity, varying levels of ‘Chineseness’ are articulated as one moves further and further away from this central area. The Shun Tak center, a few hundred meters’ (elevated) walk to the west and along the waterfront, is another gargantuan mall but one whose escalators are covered with the reds, golds, and blacks of elaborate Chinese decoration. Here a hallway full of bright chrysanthemums provided a photographic backdrop for an earnest, old couple whose daughter was taking their picture, another heart-squeezing moment in an otherwise efficient system of movement, consumption, and banking in this part of the city. Likewise, the walkway that leads out of the Shun Tak is lined with a faux black-iron wrought handrail, red columns, and connects over to the more ‘traditional’ Sheung Wan area that is overflowing with traditional Chinese dry-good stores (shark fins, coiled snake-skins, abalone, squids, herbs – an olfactory experience that is hard to describe). It is misleading though to think that ‘traditional’ means informal mom n’ pop as far as this industry is concerned; large cargo trucks pull up in front of these brightly lit stores and unload boxes upon boxes of dry goods, no doubt shipped from distant and fertile parts of the mainland and involving unimaginable sums of money.

This is also de Certeau’s city, not just of towers but of elevated & distant urban views provided by the topography. THE tourist thing to do is to take the tram up to Victoria peak, which hovers above downtown HKI, and from there enjoy the glittering city stacked silently below, like an urban forest. The silence is eerily noticeable, especially coming from India, where the din of horns and voices is incessant and inescapable. At the peak is a shiny two-mall complex and a smattering of luxury homes which face out over the panorama of buildings, harbor, and distant Kowloon towers. Multiple restaurants (the cheapest of which is Burger King), clothing stores, and other tourist-traps (such as Madame Trusseau’s wax museum), integrate the view of the city below with the elevated spectacle of this peak-top amusement park. Still, a healthy handful of beautiful trails lead up and down the peak in all directions, through tranquil green forest whose lushness & proximity to downtown surpass Portland, OR. Even the double-decker buses and trams provide a novel and intimately elevated experience of the roads here, removed one-storey from the hubbub of street life and traffic. The second storey is always full before the first, and perhaps is Hong Kong’s sensual (but distant) parallel to hanging out of the train in Mumbai. In a city so well-configured, it is these expressions of playful pleasures that become most captivating.


fourteen. Hong Kong.
2.26 evening arrival + some...
vertical city. cascading city. glittery city. topo city. tower city. indoor city. shopping city. spider-web city. multi-modal city. constructed-nature city. platform city. jungle gym city. border city. seamless city. tumbling city. sectional city. stitched city.

post-India culture shock upon arrival at the airport: it was the most seamless airport experience imaginable. every couple hundred feet yields an accurate ‘you are here’ map. soon after leaving immigration the tourist office awaits tucked in a corner on the way to the exit, a hundred glossy pamphlets, 4 or 5 of which alone are dedicated to getting from the airport to the city. backlit displays of the various transport options and their interchange locations within the airport are placed anywhere you must make a decision as to whether to turn left, right, or go straight, and transit information desks sell you your first, of what will be many, Hong Kong purchases: the indispensable Octopus Card. the Card is Hong Kong’s end all-be all to efficient inter-modal public transit, which, 'they' recognize, will also include the quick-stop purchases at 7-11, McDonalds, Starbucks, and elsewhere. the wallet-sized, on-loan Card changes the speed of the city, turning it from stop-go series of queues, ticket machines and ticket counters into a seamless flow of beeping electronic turnstiles. it can even be linked to a credit card, although there is a $1000 max stored value ($128 USD). out of regional train, metro, bus, tram, ferry, and taxi, the only mode for which the card cannot be used is taxi.

the Card epitomizes the blurring of boundaries between shopping and going somewhere, a relationship more formally evident in the downtown financial district where elevated “All Weather Shopping Links” create an above-terranian web of walkways that run between, and then straight through, spotless exorbitant malls. I followed this link the other day, from near the Star Ferry Terminal, and my feet didn’t touch the street/sidewalk level for a full 20 minutes – sans stopping/window shopping.

getting back to arrival in this city…i took an air-conditioned, double-decker, LED-displaying, bilingual bus from the airport to the Chungking Mansion in Kowloon (the southern tip of the New Territories peninsula), where I am staying in a 5x7 ft. room. my sole window opens into a lightwell which provides a constant 6am level of daylight, and just outside and echoing through the shaft I sometimes hear a woman laughing exuberantly, the occasional coo'ing pigeon, and late-night cell-phone conversations in a language I do not recognize. if I’m here around lunchtime I am also privy to a massive waft of pungent wok-fried, garlicky food.

built in the 1960’s and by now a calico shade of dilapidated grey-green, the Mansion is a global village and an institution unto itself, providing the inspiration for Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (which in turn provided the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s career). the ground floor opens onto the neon lights of busy Nathan Rd. and inside is a maze of cell-phone stores, Indian food stalls, money-changers, internet outlets, cheap clothiers, mini-marts & more. above the first two floors, the apparent monolith is divided into 5 separate towers accessed by their respective elevator cores, and filled with guesthouses up to the 16th floor. fancier guesthouses will occupy a full floor or two, while the average guesthouse is small enough to consist of one or two 50 ft corridors. some are empty and cater to the occasional lone backpacker, while others serve as ‘home’ for the multi-nationalitied population that lives here. Lonely Planet gives the whole Mansion a fairly reserved ‘go at your own risk’ kind of review but I’ve found it to be evocative, relatively safe, and one of the cheaper purchases in the entire city (literally: some HK coffee shops charge 60% of my daily room rate for a cappuccino). in the morning, if I feel 'home'sick for Mumbai’s noisy scents I elevator downstairs and grab a chai and samosa for a quarter, sometimes finishing breakfast before I’m back in my room -- the elevator works as well as Wurster’s…

Hong Kong, in general, is compact and multi-faceted, only 15% developable and of that 15%, 250% developed. it is life above ground: Kowloon’s suburban towers rise like zipped-up needles into the often-hazy sky, and commuters meander up-the-hill on Hong Kong island from the flats of the waterside financial district into the vertiginous Mid-Levels via the World’s Longest Escalator (800m). Topographically, Hong Kong makes San Francisco feel like Kansas, and architecture studio like an exercise in conservatism. the city is a sectional puzzle of multi-leveled walkways, used corners, open ground-level facades, staircase-sidewalks, escalator-streets, 30 degree-slope parks, barely discernable ground-level reveals, inhabitable terraces, hovering roads, violated solids and saturated voids. today I saw an elevated highway gouge through a car-park with adjacent library (in same building); yesterday I found the Haiphong market building whose western wall had disappeared and grown into the space under an overpass where fruits, vegetables, decapitated cow-heads, and hungry noodle-slurpers gathered. depending on the width and vehicle traffic between towering buildings street life develops accordingly; at Knutsford Terrace 25 feet allows outdoor patio drinking, on Li Yuen East & West, 20 feet allows cramped clothing stalls and single lane pedestrian traffic, along the Escalator route this means the escalator overpass, two lanes of stairs (one for through traffic, one for adjacent shop-front pools and eddies), etc…many parts of the city strike me as being interior, such is the ratio between building width and street height, coupled with the tangled mass of signs that protrude perpendicularly over the sidewalk and street, between 15 to 35 feet up, and the open storefronts which spill light and sometimes music onto the sidewalk. in multi-leveled institutions such as malls, hotels, or even McD’s, stairs serve as both direct entry and sectional transition from street into building.

in certain areas of the financial district on Hong Kong Island the global corporate population brought in by the banking industry is so palpable and has such ramifications in the service sector it is dislocating. the yoga studios, glossy gyms, organic cafes, and suit n’ tie bars patronized by waifer thin wanna-be-models recreate a Hong Kong life away from Home for those here who can afford the inflated prices of these once-adopted / now-indigenous institutions. many bars & restaurants in Central and elsewhere cater solely to the expat & tourist population; I’ve watched Cantonese couples take intimidated glances at verbose, English-written menus & turn away muttering, perplexed. this division between from here-not from here is a cursory observation & assumption, I realize, but the collective effects of the expat enclaves are powerful enough to warrant initial comment and further examination.