"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
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…)