Inside Swatow Plaza

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Swatow Plaza opened about five months ago on Boulevard St-Laurent in Montreal’s Chinatown. It took three years to build, but its biggest would-be tenants have yet to move in, such as the Japanese restaurant on the ground floor, and a Chinese restaurant at its very top.

In the meanwhile, small boutiques are occupying the first floor. The alleys are wide and shops are arranged in alcoves. My impression upon visiting on a Thursday night before Christmas was that the boutique area on the first floor had too many people behind the counter than people shopping. Being on a first floor when the second and ground floor didn’t have shops open added to the awkwardness.

Found: 1970s Hong Kong Tourist Association Official Guidebook

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1978 HK Tourism Association Official Guidebook
Hong Kong Tourism Association Official Guidebook (circa 1977)

Before leaving for Hong Kong, I brought with me this copy of an “official guidebook” distributed by the Hong Kong Tourist Association (香港旅遊協會), the precursor of the Hong Kong Tourism Board (香港旅遊發展局). My dad had given it to me some time ago when he was digging up his junk, and presumably picked it up when he and my mom got married in 1977, at the Lee Gardens Hotel, where the Manulife Plaza now stands (see map).

Flipping through it, I saw that the exchange rate was HK$4.70 for each US$1, compared with the HK$7.77 pegged rate today. It was during a short period of nine years when the Hong Kong dollar floated.

1978 HK Tourism Association Official Guidebook
Lee Gardens Hotel, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong (circa 1973)

Hong Kong Island in the 1970s
View of the Harbour in late 1973

1977 HK Tourism Association Official Guidebook
“Because only Pan Am fly the new Boeing 747SP”

Hong Kong Tourist Association Official Guidebook (1976-77)
Visit places like Tiger Balm Gardens in Tai Hang

And now the racier parts

Hong Kong Night Life
Hong Kong Night Life

Escort / call-girl ads in a 1970s HK Tourism Association Official Guidebook
54 D’Aguilar Street, that’s at the middle of today’s Lan Kwai Fong

Do I need to say that this is an official guidebook produced for and endorsed by a government-funded organisation?

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1970s camera advertisement
The Nikkormat EL was Nikon’s first electronic camera…

1970s camera advertisement
…but my dad was actually a fan of Minolta and had one similar to the one in this advert. On the right, Braun also made video cameras with sound…

1974-78 HK Tourism Association Official Guidebook
Wearing real fur in the 1970s was still very politically correct. I mean, look at this, it’s imported from Scandinavia!

The Dark Side

Kowloon in the 1970s
View of Kowloon in the 1970s

1974-77 HK Tourism Association Official Guidebook
“Public transport in the 80s.” The Cross-Harbour tunnel and the MTR were still just a project… Wikipedia has a clearer map of the first MTR line that would open in 1979 between Central (Chater) and Kwun Tong. Other retro station names: Waterloo (Yau Ma Tei) and Argyle (Mong Kok).

1974-77 HK Tourism Association Official Guidebook
Finally, we found that the publishers of the booklet, Kwun Tong based A-O-A Offset Press Limited is in business!

Qingyuan 清遠: Far and refreshing (1 of 2)

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(See part two, when we go to the Niuyuzui music festival outside Qingyuan…)

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Qingyuan 清遠, off Bei Men Jie

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Crossing over from the Shenzhen special economic zone

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Underwater bus

Qingyuan. A few weeks, we started off on a bus from Luohu, at the border with Hong Kong over in Shenzhen, on our 36-hour adventure to Qingyuan, a little town of 3-4 million people about 60 km north of Guangzhou. It was a 4.5-hour bus ride to start with.

We were planning to go to a rock music festival, in some national park 30 mins drive from Qingyuan. The Shanshui (because there was mountains and water at the said park) music festival in Niuyuzui was poorly documented, with almost no infos in English. But many, if not all, major names of the Beijing rock scene, like Carsick Cars and Hedgehog, along with many other ones from Guangzhou like Yufeimen and Zhaoze, came down to rock Niuyuzui, which is some kind of nature reserve run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

On the first day, we planned to catch some shows in the evening, once we got to Qingyuan, but Typhoon Conson (which directly hit the nearby province) totally disrupted our plans. Our bus ride became one of the most exciting ones I’ve ever taken in my life in the last 30 minutes or so, with rain literally putting our vehicle underwater. We arrived, met our friends who took the previous ride, and just decided to postpone music listening to the next evening.

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One of the nice things about Qingyuan was that it is in mainland China, and yet is not Shenzhen, Dongguan or Guangzhou. It is actually a relatively small city, not a gigantic sprawl, and where it is possible to take pleasant walks.

After giving up on the concert for Saturday night (there was a power outage at Niuyuzui from 7PM and on), we wandered the streets to find a place to sit down. We were staying in a pedestrian alleyway called Guojin (國金), right by the commercial street of Bei Men Jie (北門街 or North Gate Street). Walked, but did not buy. Things are probably not marginally cheaper than in Hong Kong’s street market, I assume.

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After getting some drinks and pastries at a corner bakery, we found Ali Baba’s cavern! It’s a liquor store, selling liquors in jars. The quantities were counted in kilos (for a few yuans per kilo), and the store owner would only put them for you in recycled 1 litre soft drink plastic containers (so bring your own cup). Our friend bought one black rice liquor (tasted like toasts, in my opinion), and a plum one. I was a bit absent-minded and forwent buying any.

I don’t have the address, but it was maybe 100-200m on the main road from the city’s main bridge, just off the city square/park. In Chinese, it’s called the Chongqing Three Gorges Liquor Store. In fact, the owner is a Chongqing-er, like one of the friends who came on the trip, and who was all happy to speak her own dialect in deep-down Guangdong province.

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We found a fruit store, bought some fruits, and then found a bar by the river, which showed WWE, offered 12 cans / 100 RMB “specials”, and which had dice and barbecue from the nearby store.

We ended the night searching and finding late night snacks (barbecue, of course), before rolling back in taxi to our hotel beds.

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Slipped under every door. Not my friend for the night.

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This was my friend for the night

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View from the balcony of Guojin hotel

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Hotel room, with a computer

On Sunday, we met after 1PM, and set off to find a way to reach our festival, along… the famous Qingyuan chicken…

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After going to the city’s new bus station (south of the river), we walked around for 15-20 minutes, before finding something that suited our tastes on one of the back streets. The place we went to was called the 水哥大牌档 (Brother Water Dai Pai Dong). We ordered chicken (from Qingyuan, so it tasted really really fresh), served with pepper and coriander. We also had fried beef with bitter melon, another light Chinese cucumber salad, and a mapo tofu…

Read part 2 of 2

Hua Qiang Bei (华强北) – Electronics market in Shenzhen

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Hua Qiang Bei - Electronics city in Shenzhen

Hua Qiang Bei - Electronics city in Shenzhen

We went to Shenzhen last weekend, to watch the game, eat some barbecue, and in my case, visit the electronics market, Hua Qiang Bei (华强北). Located in Central Shenzhen, right by the Metro station of the same name, Hua Qiang Bei is a commercial boulevard with almost a kilometre lined with two or three layers of multi-storied malls, mainly selling electronics, but also children goods and jewellery (like, each entire mall was themed). I was one day impressed with Sham Shui Po and Akihabara, but this is completely out of this world.

Laptops, cellphones, cell phone accessories, fake iPads (running Android, for about RMB600 or US$85), gadgets and all of the rest that has electric/electronic components in it could be found there. If you know that the Pearl River Delta region is currently the world’s factory, it is not at all surprising to find such a place in Shenzhen.

Because I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t buy anything, except a bunch of replacement batteries for my energy-leeching phone. You won’t find crazy deals, but you will find about anything to be found in electronics.

Will be back there with my renminbi later this year…

Viewshop, 1972 rue Ste-Catherine Ouest

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Viewshop, 1972 Rue Ste-Catherine Ouest, Montreal

Viewshop, 1972 Rue Ste-Catherine Ouest, Montreal

I know that I should stop amazing for these things, but I just can’t help it. These are photos of a new shop on rue Ste-Catherine Ouest in Montreal (near du Fort). It has been replacing the old Movieland (physical world video rental, what a backward business model) for at least the past month, I asked one of the clerks. It is basically borrowing from the concept of small shops within a big one that you see a lot over here in my corner of Asia.

Viewshop is like the little brother of the department store model. Most of the shop(s) belongs to its owners, but small open spaces within it are rented out to tenants, such as the Korean cosmetics booth (Korean brands like LaNeige are hugely popular all across China).

Some of the products sold in the shop are remarkably Chinese. They could be sold in some upscale-ish store in Shanghai or Hong Kong, I feel. On one side, it’s all clothing, all for women I think, and on the other, you would find various electronics gadgets (alarm clocks, USB cup heaters) and fancy stationery (an apple-shaped notepad?). Then, a small (bubble tea) café, and the cosmetics.

Yes, the owners are Chinese, after I asked, but wasn’t that already obvious? Yup, that is Montreal’s other Chinatown, far from Asian fonts clichés.

Une visite à la caserne de l’Armée populaire de libération à Hong Kong

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Un show militaire ? Pourquoi pas. On avait un dimanche après-midi de libre, et quoi de mieux que de passer le temps à voir des formations militaires, des gros guns et de la machinerie en couleur camouflage.

Depuis que les Britanniques sont repartis chez eux à la fin de juin 1997, ce sont les soldats de l’Armée populaire qui patrouillent à Hong Kong. Ils sont discrets, et on ne les voit jamais sauf quand c’est la Fête nationale ou ce genre de patentes. Celle-ci a des casernes vraiment un peu partout sur le territoire de Hong Kong. Comme les Chinois a fait fonctionner ses contacts, et s’est fait donner un billet pour se rendre à celle des Gallipoli Lines / San Wai (新圍) à Fanling dans les Nouveaux territoires, voir l’armée qui nous protège.

D’abord, il y avait foule à la caserne, en cette belle journée de passages nuageux, pas trop chaude (max 28℃), parfaite pour prendre des photos. Comme celle-ci:

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Je ne suis jamais allé à une journée portes ouvertes d’une quelconque armée de quelconque pays. Mon intérêt pour la chose militaire se limite généralement à StarCraft/WarCraft.

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C’est plutôt standard comme style de spectacle, avec des fanfares militaires, et des processions de véhicules militaires, explosions dans les airs. La session d’arts martiaux (shaolin) par nos p’tits gars de l’armée est probablement ce qu’il y a de plus « exotique », disons…

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C’est également le temps de rappeler aux gens les slogans du pouvoir central. “一國兩制” ou « Un pays, deux systèmes » est bien en vue sur cette banderole, et on en a parlé dans les messages diffusés pendant le spectacle.

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Finalement, les soldats, on s’imagine, sont des gars venant de d’autres parties du pays. Ils sont bien aimables côté photo, en posant sans broncher (tel des gardes britanniques, ceux avec les immenses couvre-chefs) avec les nombreux visiteurs, des familles et gens de tous âges.

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C’est quoi les 八一 ou 8/1 qu’on voit sur les chars et l’étoile communiste ? La réponse : l’armée populaire de libération a été fondée le 1er août 1927…

L’exercice militaire le plus songé a probablement été celui-ci:

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Le reste des photos ici : http://www.flickr.com/photos/smurfmatic/sets/72157623974245434/

Une vidéo de la fanfare :

Green Guangzhou

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It was my first time in Guangzhou, the “city of my ancestors”. Technically, it’s Shunde, now fused with Foshan, but that part of Shunde was closer to Foshan city centre. Since my mum’s family’s from Foshan (by pure luck, ’cause they met in Montreal), I don’t mind saying that Foshan is where my 乡 is.

Long short, noone unfamiliar with China ever knows Foshan (despite being a city of millions and millions). But they know the provincial capital, Guangzhou, just half an hour drive from there and known under its colonial name of Canton (thus the language spoken in the province).

This was my first time there, in Guangzhou, and I wasn’t with family either, all for a different experience. We wandered the streets of Guangzhou, but also especially its backstreets, what other friends call “slums”. They are hardly slums, but just old quarters houses, tucked in together and fed by narrow alleys.

However, we discovered how green Guangzhou actually is, which is to be expected in the old city, with little wholesale destruction of residential heritage like I’ve seen in my time in Beijing. It may happen in some other part of this expansive city, but not in the prime areas close to the river and old colonial city centre of the Shamian pseudo-Island.

We did so much walking around that it took the whole weekend. It was a pretty refreshing change from the rather sterile streets of Hong Kong, where greenery and urban arteries are like fire and water.

I am in lack of words, so here are photos on a map, for you to perhaps enjoy a similar trek in Guangzhou:

Lonely without you

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Causeway Bay on Lunar New Year
Causeway Bay near Times Square

Bowrington Road Market on Lunar New Year
Bowrington Road Market in Wan Chai

Wan Chai on Lunar New Year

Wan Chai on Lunar New Year
Johnston Road in Wan Chai

Southorn Playground on Lunar New Year
Southorn Playground in Wan Chai

Sunday afternoon at 5PM, in Causeway Bay and Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island. But where is everyone?

It’s of course Lunar New Year today, one of the few days in Hong Kong during the year where shops won’t take your business (they are even open as usual on January 1st).

Tai Hang 大坑: the hippy valley

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Tai Hang 大坑

Tai Hang 大坑

After spending part of my Sunday afternoon two weeks ago exploring Tin Hau and Fortress Hill, I set out to another area that was kind of a black hole to me on Hong Kong Island: the enclave of Tai Hang (大坑) near Victoria Park.

Previously, I only knew Tai Hang, as the name for Tai Hang Road, leading up to the mountain which forks into the “Tai Hang” drive (now with an opulent new development called The Legend). However, this does not represent Tai Hang proper, as the “real” Tai Hang is in fact a valley accessible by road only through Tung Lo Wan Road from the north side.

If you know the Hong Kong Central Library, then you can locate Tai Hang as being towards the mountain, a tad to the east. It’s out of everyone’s way, a 10-minute walk from Tin Hau MTR.

Tai Hang is perhaps also a remarkable spot because it is very slightly built-up, with relatively narrow streets and little traffic. From what I gather, listening to relatives who lived there, or people of my age living in nearby areas, many of the new businesses opened shop only in the past few years, with the neighborhood’s increasing gentrification. To the north of Tai Hang, closer to Tung Lo Wan Road, trendy bars go elbow-to-elbow with fashionable clothing stores and cute dessert houses.

As you walk further to the south, inside the valley, not only does it get darker (because of the taller nearby buildings on Tai Hang Road), but also the “interesting” businesses aforementioned tend to diminish, replaced with motor shops that service taxis and expensive vintage vehicles alike.

Continue reading “Tai Hang 大坑: the hippy valley”