"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
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.