Tag Archives: Urban Design

Visits: Hong Kong

13 Jan

A little over two months ago, we went to Hong Kong for the first time. One of our best friends, R., was there for work and, given that she had already visited Shanghai last year (and inaugurated our first flat with us), we thought we’d make the trip this time.

I had heard a lot of great things about Hong Kong from friends in London but the most enthusiastic ones, by far, certainly are our fellow Shanghainese residents. They praised Honk Kong’s shopping offer like it was paradise and spoke a lot about some small streets with independent shops and art galleries. Following their advice, we went to these places but not being a big fan of malls or a shopaholic (mind you I do have occasional shopping sprees), I actually was quite disappointed by all of this.

As my father said to me, I may be a bit blasée. Having spent 10 years in Europe, it might be true. By contrast, our friends in Shanghai, who have spent many years in mainland China, do crave that European feel which is after all closer to our cultural background, whether we come from Europe or the Middle East. I thought about it again and actually realised that I liked Hong Kong, just not for the reasons everybody in Shanghai seem to worship it. Here is why.

First, I absolutely loved the view of both the sea and high mountains in the backdrop of the city and its skyscrapers. I cannot stress this enough. I think coming from Beirut, the visual connection with the mountains from probably anywhere on the coast and the sense of altitude and topography is very important to us. So Hong Kong reminded me of that. I was always annoyed at the flatness of Paris and London and now of Shanghai. You can’t see beyond the buildings, this eternal flatness can feel claustrophobic…

Going from Kowloon to Hong Kong island

View of Hong Kong island with the mountains in the back

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Second and still in connection with those mountains, their dense and lush vegetation holds the promise of nature beyond and it just makes you want to cross them and see what’s out there. We met with a Lebanese friend who has been living in Hong Kong for 7 or 8 years and who doesn’t intend to go anywhere else. She confirmed to me that 70% of Hong Kong’s territory is nature and there are great treks to be made through the mountains and jungle to reach beautiful small creeks with lovely beaches and a shack serving fresh seafood and fish. It sounds lovely to have this so easily accessible, instead of having to plan a trip out of it. That’s when I felt quite jealous…

Third, I thought the urban experience of Hong Kong was such a weird trip. The city is extremely dense, particularly on the island of Hong Kong, and it feels like every square centimetre has been exploited. It’s a mix of New York, Asia and London, with the double-deckers and the driving on the left side of the road.

A bit of New York

A bit of New York

A bit of London

A bit of London

Asia

Asia

The local Leicester Square

The local equivalent of Leicester Square

A bit of British debauchery

A bit of British debauchery

Also, because of its density, roads are very narrow and in a considerable part of the centre, pedestrian mobility is ensured by seemingly endless elevated walkways, totally segregated from the street. Even if we were fairly efficient in terms of our route (J. and I are very good at reading maps and directing ourselves), we still had to go through malls to carry on and get where we wanted. We were eventually able to reach ground and street level to get to another segregated outdoor path to reach the tram station, which takes you to the Peak, where you can enjoy a plunging view of the city.

Starting on the elevated walkway

Starting on the elevated walkway

Looking at the street level

Looking at the street level

Carrying on

Carrying on

IMG_2445

Walking to the Peak tram station

Walking to the Peak tram station

On the tram

On the tram after about 30 minutes queuing

IMG_2507

Fourth, J. and I thought the Kowloon part on the other side of Honk Kong island was actually quite nice. Yes, it is more local but it has its charm and, in spite of the crowds, it feels more spacious and human, less utopian. Less walk-ways everywhere around. If you have dinner on top of any sky-scrapers there, you’ll have an amazing view of the other side. But there are also little gems to be discovered, such as the world’s most affordable 1 star Michelin restaurant, which, much to my disappointed, we couldn’t enjoy as we got there too late and the queue was too long for me not to miss my plane back.

Dinner at Hutong on Kownloon

Dinner at Hutong in Kowloon

Strolling in Kownloon

Strolling in Kowloon

Tim Ho Wan - cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

Tim Ho Wan – cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

So here we are. Hong Kong: been there, done that. Off the check-list. I’m not saying that there isn’t a whole lot more to discover or that it’s not interesting. But given how much of Asia and the Far East we still have to discover, I’d rather use my money to go to a new destination.

Visits: Běijīng

6 May

When my parents confirmed they were coming to visit, I immediately asked them whether they would like to go to Beijing. I probably have some affection for the Chinese capital because it’s the first (and only) place I went to when I visited China for the first time. I was so excited to be there and have such good memories of it that I sort of kept the enthusiasm for it. Also, to be fair, it would be a pity for anyone to come to China on holiday and not visit Beijing. It’s filled with absolutely grandiose historic places, the sort you will only find in a few places on earth like the Pyramids or Luxor in Egypt or Versailles in France.

I won’t go over every single visit we did, because I can’t describe them and you’ll need to go and see it for yourself one day. I’ll just say it’s impressive and fascinating even though the pictures below probably don’t do these places justice.

Part of the Summer Palace

Brides by the annex of the Forbidden City

The Great Wall

Apart from the abundance and monumentality of historic places, the trip was interesting because it made me realise how different Beijing and Shanghai are. Some differences couldn’t be more obvious but there’s more than meets the eye. As a city, Beijing is monumental in every single way. Not just because of its historic monuments, but the scale of everything is just not human and reminds you of the power game that’s always existed between China and other countries. China’s got land, people and can mobilise both, don’t you ever forget it. Beijing is there to remind you of that. Tiananmen Square is massive, the roads are gigantic and difficult to cross and the basic unit of distance is certainly not the meter but the kilometre. My father chose a hotel which was central and therefore close to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the lakes Houhai and Beihai. We thought we’d go for a quick afternoon walk on the day we arrived. We walked for about an hour and even I got fed up and decided we’d take a cab to get to Lake Houhai. It makes Shanghai, which is a bigger city (23 million vs. 16 for Beijing) feel very human. In spite of its flaws, it certainly is more pedestrian-friendly. Here are two pictures but again, it’s really difficult to give a sense of scale of Beijing within a frame.

Tiananmen Square

The Beijing Opera House

Culturally, oddly enough Beijing is definitely more happening than Shanghai. You would’ve thought that being the seat of power of a controlling regime, artists would go elsewhere. But no, the cultural scene is located here. When I visited in 2004, the 798 Art District was still an underground place, now it’s become a bit too commercialised for my taste, but still has a few good things to see. I’ve read somewhere that there is a sort of ambivalence of the government towards artists. The fact that some Chinese artists are doing so well abroad is a source of marketing (and income) for the country, but at the same time the government doesn’t want it to get out of hand. So there’s both encouragement and restraint.

798 Art District

Installation by Palestinian artist Bashir Makhoul

From an expat’s perspective, I have often found that foreigners who have lived in both cities tend to prefer either Beijing or Shanghai, but rarely like both. Shanghai is definitely a yuppie kind of place, very entrepreneurial, very wealthy, sophisticated and show-off. Beijing, despite its aggressive urban environment and climate (very very dry and very very very polluted), I am told, is a calmer, more settled place. People are warmer and it appears that there is a better integration between Chinese people and foreigners. And those who have lived in Beijing speak about it with a lot of fondness.

On the way to the airport to fly back to Shanghai, I have to admit that I felt really grateful to have ended up in Shanghai rather than Beijing. The pollution and traffic really got to me after four days only. I am nonetheless very curious. Next time I visit Beijing, it’ll be to get a resident’s perspective and understand what it is that makes this city so endearing.

Visits: Nánjīng

17 Apr

Until early April, the only places I had been to in China were Beijing (and surrounding tourist sites: the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs) and Shanghai. It looks like spring is the season of bank holidays in China too, gracing those who work with long weekends and making my weekdays a bit less lonesome.

With some friends, we decided to go explore Nanjing which is about an hour and a half to the northeast of Shanghai. We woke up early and headed there with the fast train that goes all the way to Beijing. According to our research and guides, there are few things to see in Nanjing. After all, it was the southern capital* for a few centuries and dynasties. The trip was all in all very interesting but unfortunately not for the reasons we had anticipated.

Various sources will point you to a few places. Although we haven’t visited all of them, if you should go to one, it is the Ming Tombs. Yes as in Beijing, Nanjing’s got its own version of it. In many ways, they are similar to those outside Beijing, only perhaps smaller. But the site is beautiful, especially with all the plum trees in full bloom (which entitled us to a discount on entry tickets – plum tree festival or something), the buildings are impressive and the promenade from one tomb to the other very pleasant. Like for many historic sites in China, there is no available explanation on the site and you have to put up with aberrant things like a kids’ entertainment park within the premises of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But hey, it’s China and compared to what we saw before, it isn’t such an eyesore.

At the Ming Tombs

Golden tiles, colour of the emperors

That’s for the must. What you should by all means avoid is the Purple Mountain. It may have been an important site at some point, but now it’s just an attraction park for Nanjing’s inhabitants to escape the city and picnic or play cards. Thankfully, we took the cable car all the way to the top and back down (our initial plan was to walk) and then strolled from absurdity to absurdity, i.e. bad modern structures and sculptures supposedly spiritual or reminiscent of important people. The only thing we got out of it was probably some fresh air for our soiled Shanghai dwellers’ lungs.

At the Purple Mountain

The ex-neo White Cloud...

Back in town, the Linggu Temple is not really worth your while. It now feels more like a roundabout than a Buddhist Temple set in a park. Clearly we didn’t have the time to see everything, there are a few museums and other spots to check out.

That’s for the bad stuff. I’m not trying to undermine Nanjing or its heritage, but I can’t help complain about creating fake heritage sites and not emphasising properly (through information or design) those sites that are of true importance.

Now what I found of real interest is that Nanjing is actually a lively and pleasant city. At the moment, it has “only” 8 million inhabitants but clearly the authorities are foreseeing massive expansion of urban areas. We arrived at the southern train station which is in the middle of nowhere. However, it is surrounded by construction sites and I’m sure in a couple of years or so a whole neighbourhood will have emerged out of the ground. Another thing about the station, it is ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE. It must be the size of two football pitches. You could organise the Athletics Championship in that station.

The arrival hall at the station

The pick-up area

Heading back to Shanghai

The departure hall

Access to the platform

Also the fast train’s tracks to Nanjing are elevated along the whole journey. It makes you realise that the level of investment in infrastructure from the government is phenomenal. I guess that’s where most of the money is going, along with defence, given that taxpayers pay high taxes but don’t really benefit from any social or economic security.

* nán = south, jīng= capital; běi = north … Běijīng = northern capital

Visits: 2010 Expo Site / Shibo Gōngyuan

12 Apr

I don’t know who reads this blog, besides my friends and family, but if there are any foreign residents of Shanghai or prospective visitors, this may be of interest to you. I’ve recently had two friends and my parents visiting and, with the lovely weather and warm temperatures back, I’ve started venturing around town again and beyond. This post and the next ones are about the places I’ve been to but also provide useful advice as to how not to waste your time.

Here’s my advice: if you don’t want to waste your time, do not go to the Shanghai 2010 World Exhibition Site (or Shibo Gōngyuan, i.e. park in Chinese). Really do not bother. Although I was very eager to see it, I felt a little bit suspicious about the whole expedition when I couldn’t find any clear information on the net or in any guidebooks about the site, what is still out there, if it is open to the public or freely accessible. To answer, to the exception of the China Pavilion – which is a beautiful and impressive building but one you can’t visit unless there is some event taking place- there’s the “Expo Axis” (also not accessible) and the rest is largely a wasteland. You have to walk a lot with a few other stranded tourists and equally stranded souvenir sellers only to end up in the “Mercedes-Benz Arena” mall, containing an ice rink, a few restaurants and a cinema but largely empty on a Monday morning. It does however offer a 360 degree viewing platform on the 6th floor, which confirms that there is not much to see in spite of our perseverance. Amongst the few still erect structures are: the apparently much spoken about and quite popular Saudi Arabia Pavilion known as the Moon Boat (I personally failed to see the interest of this building from outside at least) and the non-descript Qatar Pavilion and another Saudi building.

See for yourselves…

The China Pavilion - by architect He Jingtang also director of the Architectural Academy of the South China University of Technology

There are 56 beams, representing the 56 ethnic groups of China

The Expo Axis

Looking north

Looking west, with the Moon Boat

Looking southwest, with a pavilion being dismantled and the Chinese pavilion

The Qatari Pavilion and a big dump

After telling our disappointment to a friend and long resident of Shanghai, he told us that he thought the Expo was disappointing when it was ongoing and all the pavilions were above ground. However what he found quite good is the side event about cities. As you may know the theme of the Exhibition was “Better city, better life” and there were mini-pavilions about cities and how they are working towards improving the quality of urban life through design, transport, green spaces, sustainability, etc. I don’t know what are the plans for the Expo site, but that’s certainly some food for thought… You can still visit some of those pavilions. They are located across the Expo site, in Puxi. I haven’t been yet and as for the main site, I can’t find any clear information. I will go at some point and hopefully it won’t be a waste of time.

From China to Shanghai

20 Dec

This post is long, long overdue. It’s about a walk I did over a month ago now. I’ve been turning and tossing over it. There are so many things to say that I could write at least four posts about this single day. In fact this is a second post as the “Sun day, laundry day” one was just one element of that day. Anyhow, I have written about it now but have had to filter quite a bit. Other aspects of the walk will inevitably come up in future posts. In the meantime, I hope this makes some sense and conveys at least in part my enthusiasm and the progression from the point of departure to the end destination.

So a while back now, I went on a long walk from our flat on Tai Xing Lu eastwards along Suzhou Creek, the small river running west to east and leading to the Bund and the bigger River Huangpu, both of which I was going to see for the first time. Around that time, we had just moved into our flat and had been too busy flat hunting, getting everything we needed for our new home and taking care of administrative paperwork. So even after two or three weeks, we had never seen the Bund (i.e. river embankment), which is usually the first place newcomers to Shanghai rush to.

My itinerary (overlaid on the Lonely Planet map)

The walk was really great. It took me through all sorts of places and showed me another face of Shanghai than what you would see along Nanjing Road or Huaihai Road and their numerous shopping centres filled with Western brands or the French Concession and its very pleasant, sort of westernish or Parisianish atmosphere.

Following the southern bank of Suzhou Creek was not a continuous path. There are few areas where you can follow the waterfront but inevitably, at many points, particularly where you have bridges, you have to get off it, back on a main road or through a popular neighbourhood to be able to get back to it. Although, I did find it annoying at times, it gave a great insight into life nearby.

It started off with streets near my place which were quiet, mainly filled with drying laundry and some activity. It got busier and busier once I had crossed Changdu Road (the internal highway running north to south). Lots of shops around, many people sitting on their low stools or chairs on the pavement and getting on with various activities. Buzzing traffic everywhere, odd looks directed at me. I was one of the very few non-Chinese people to walk around there. Living conditions also seemed to decline compared to neighbourhoods further west. Everything seemed lower, tighter, denser and messier, and sometimes just simply dirtier.

The way “Chinese” neighbourhoods are organised in Shanghai is like a big block defined by main roads. On the external sides of the block, facing the main roads, are the commercial activities; generally tiny shops and workshops. These long stretches are then broken up by more or less tiny alleyways from which people access their homes. From my observation, it looks like residents only go inside to sleep and maybe eat. I never dare to venture into the heart of neighbourhood. Shanghainese are not very forthcoming so, despite my strong curiosity, I feel it would be a bit too invasive to do it.

Continuing further east, the urban character changed again from local Chinese to colonial. Buildings got taller and newer again and there were gradually more and more non-residential historic buildings, starting with industrial ones and ending up with smarter ones. It started up after Middle Sichuan Road, with the 1929 factory, then the renovated old boathouse and church a bit further along. You could then feel you were arriving to the Bund, with the massive Art Deco-meets-Brutalism Broadway Mansions Hotel first looming in the horizon and the bottle opener and the Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong.

I have no clue what this is...

The old boathouse to the left and church

The Broadway Mansions Hotel and the Russian Consulate (in white), with Pujian Hotel (Astor House) behind it

Arriving on the Bund after this walk was probably even more impressive than had I gone through another route. By then, I had seen so many different layers and textures of Shanghai that everything about the Bund and the river seemed grander. Being on the Bund on a glorious day with 1930s, Art Deco Shanghai to the west and the wide Huangpu River and Pudong to the east is not overrated! The western bank shows that Shanghai was leading the regional economy in the early 20th century. Despite what I’ve said in my previous post about Pudong itself (that, on its own, it’s a reductive aspect of the city), the view of Pudong from the Bund is quite extraordinary. I think the fact that it is situated on a natural curve of the eastern bank amplifies its effect.

I guess you have to see it for yourself but hopefully I haven’t ruined the surprise and may even tempt you into following the same route some time…

Where Suzhou Creek and the Huangpu meet

The People's Memorial at the northern end of the Bund

Characterising Shanghai

14 Dec

As a seven-week old resident of Shanghai, I have to say that I find the city very different from the way it is portrayed in Europe. There, Shanghai equals Pudong, which is the newly developed area on the eastern bank of the River Huangpu. It’s about 10 to 15 years old. The Chinese are mainly to blame. Pudong was (and still is I suppose) their way of saying this is what China is now; modern, economically vibrant and competing with the rest of the developed world.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the city is in fact much more diverse and complex that this simplistic message, especially in terms of its skyline and history. Granted there are plenty of tall buildings and their number keeps increasing, but there also are lots of low rises, mostly in the French Concession but elsewhere too. Likewise, Pudong, impressive though it is from the Bund, feels like a big international showcase. There’s a mega-giant mall, an aquarium, iconic architecture and many offices separated by giant avenues, but the core of the activities and what makes Shanghai one of the most exciting cities to live in or to visit still happens in Puxi (the western side of the Huangpu). This is where historic Shanghai developed and, again, as the Chinese do, we have to recognise that this history does not date back very far. Compared to Beijing, which is millennia old, Shanghai really started developing 150 to 200 years back, but it constitutes one of the key places where the history of 20th century China was shaped. The main protagonists, Mao notwithstanding (I visited his house two weeks ago), all lived in Shanghai at one point and many crucial decisions were made here. Similarly, the power struggle with Europeans also started here and then spread elsewhere.

So there you go, it’s full of paradoxes but it’s fascinating. The extremes constantly juxtapose one another and in a way are quite aggressive, to the eye and to the people. Tall buildings are adjacent to low rises; gated compounds sit next to popular neighbourhoods; historic buildings and residential areas face the internal ring roads; if you like walking as much as I do or just have no other choice, you are bound to cross those same ring roads very often; and with all the money spent on Pudong and other iconic landmarks, some people still can’t afford a bicycle and have to use their own body power to drag their overloaded karts. Yet I am surprised that the city is so safe; that street life, domestic and modest, has not been dampened by the brutalising development process and that Shanghainese, except for the impatient behaviour typical to all big city dwellers, are so stoical and rather friendly when spoken to. In other places, they would just be annoyed if not aggressive towards high-income earners and foreigners.

Two of the best known buildings of Pudong

View from one of the apartments I visited

View from another apartment - this felt especially indecent as this neighbourhood looked particularly insalubrious

This guy manoeuvred his kart from the rear

People playing cards - very common

My favourite street so far - the west side of Fengxian Road

Playing badminton on Fengxian Road

%d bloggers like this: