Hong Kong

What if the Old General Post Office still stood in Hong Kong today?

When discussing Hong Kong’s architectural history, the name of one building pops up again and again; the General Post Office built in 1911 on the corner of Pedder Street and Des Voeux Road Central. When I first saw photos of those soaring porticos topped by proud jutting balconies, I was smitten, and fervently wished I could have seen this beauty before she met the business end of a wrecking ball in 1976. 

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by the Hong Kong Economic Times, along with Gary Yeung, founder of Urban Sketchers Hong Kong. In the shadows of the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science, an Edwardian gem tucked on the slopes of Mid-Levels, Hong Kong island, we chatted about the passions of Urban Sketchers and the role the group plays in society. 

Declared a Monument in 1990, the Old Pathological Institute was revitalized and repurposed as The Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science in 1996.

Among the questions asked of us was our opinion on the way Hong Kong has preserved old buildings. That really got me thinking. I had just returned from the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Singapore, and must say that I was generally impressed by how the city state had managed to strike a balance between retaining some of their beautiful heritage buildings amidst the construction of shiny, futuristic towers of steel and glass. 

Ask citizens in any country, and I’m pretty sure some will vociferously declare that precious few old buildings have been saved, while an equally vocal lot will pronounce the opposite. I’m sure it’s impossible to please everyone, and that every country walks the tightrope between conservation and change in the name of progress. 

I’m not naive. Both are necessary, and every situation needs careful consideration. I just really wish that more of these truly wonderful, iconic buildings had been preserved here in Hong Kong.

I've always wondered what the Old General Post Office would look like if it still stood today.

Every time I pass the bustling street corner that once boasted the old GPO, I still wonder what it would be like if she was still around. I bet Hong Kong would be so proud of her, which inspired me to create this mashup of urban sketching and fantasy, based on the location today and historic photographs. Hopefully, any old beauties still remaining in the city will meet better fates.

The Kam Fung Cafe

Tucked in a corner of Spring Garden Lane in Wanchai, sits a little old-style Hong Kong cafe called Kam Fung. It's well-known among the locals, and tourists throng it too, guidebooks in hand.

The house specialities!

The house specialities!

The place is famous for its milk tea, chicken pies and pineapple buns (which ironically, contain no pineapple at all). Other pastries tease passers-by through the glass shelves behind the owner manning the cash register, but the pies are the main draw, and it isn't unusual to see two queues in front of the cafe; one for seating and another for takeaway.

My better half and I often cannot resist popping in for a snack when we're in the area. She loves the butter-crusted pies. They're savory and sweet all at once, crumbling and melting in the mouth. Paired with the house specialty, cold milk tea, it's a little piece of heaven! 

Milk tea is a Hong Kong cafe must-have, and this place serves arguably the best. The quality is highly consistent and that very dependability brings regulars back again and again. The tea is made, then chilled for hours so that when you order it cold, the waiter takes a little tank of it out of the fridge by the door, and pours it for you without having to dilute the flavor with ice. (If you want it hot, it's whipped up fresh in the kitchen.) On a hot summer's day, it's amazing!

Seating is limited; a mix of 2 and 4-person booths and little round tables. Turnover is usually quick as people often wolf down their orders and head out the door. When it's peak time, sharing tables is a norm, tight though that can be. People are used to it however, and amiably wiggle a few millimeters left or right to make room for a newcomer to the table.

We usually make it a point to bring visiting friends here so they get a taste of old Hong Kong, and many fall for those famous pies too. I did this sketch after meeting a friend who had become a recent pie-convert.

There's more to show and more to sketch though, so I'll visit again another time and maybe fuel my sketches with another pie.

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Chinese Opera at the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre

"Should I sketch from here to here, or here to there?" Always a dilemma.

"Should I sketch from here to here, or here to there?" Always a dilemma.

It was drizzling, pretty windy and the mercury dropped like a stone in the afternoon, but we were determined to stick it out, and about 10 of us got together at various overlapping times, at the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre to sketch.

The theatre this year was designed by architect Raymond Fung, and was erected in 3 weeks by craftsmen who built the structure by strapping thousands of bamboo poles together without the use of nails. Most often seen as scaffolding encasing skyscrapers under construction, the use of bamboo is huge in Hong Kong and parts of China, as the material is strong, light and versatile. It helps that it's also fast-growing and thus sustainable! 

The 800-seat Theatre this year was built to house performances of Chinese Opera for a month, coinciding with the Chinese New Year celebrations. Now, I have to admit that I've never been a fan of this music. I had seen bits of performances as an ignorant kid, and the fact that only older generations appreciated it, made it instantly repellant to me then. Too many years of clubbing in my youth had also fried some circuitry in my ears, and loud, high notes now result in a horrible ringing that often hurts. (I always have a set of ear plugs in my bag at all times, just in case things get too loud.) 

When I heard about the Theatre this year, I thought it might be time to reshape my cultural ignorance of this art form. Images I had seen on the internet looked fascinating, and the trigger was seeing a sketch of Serge Raif Chehab, on the Urban Sketchers Hong Kong Facebook page, who had gone for a performance just the weekend before. Learning that the Theatre would be dismantled after the final performance on the 8-9 February also compelled me to go.

I have a bunch of sketcher friends who are always game to go anywhere and draw, so getting the posse together this time was quick as well. A quick call on social media, virtual hands raising in approval, and we were on. At one time, we must have made a funny sight. There were four of us to begin with, and we huddled under our individual umbrellas, seated on the cold ground or perched on stools we'd brought, all sketching in a row. The security guard of the property frowned at us every now and then, as if she was afraid we would move off the pavement and into the middle of the driveway.

When it began raining, I had to stop using my iPad, so I went analog and pulled out my sketchbook (yes I have those too). My 4-color Muji pen was really handy for rendering the entrance to the Bamboo Theatre compound.

When it began raining, I had to stop using my iPad, so I went analog and pulled out my sketchbook (yes I have those too). My 4-color Muji pen was really handy for rendering the entrance to the Bamboo Theatre compound.

The barricades to the main entrance would only be moved when the Theatre compound opened at 3pm. We shuffled from foot to foot with the small crowd gathered in eager anticipation. Most comprised of the elderly. One particular duo caught my eye and proved irresistible to sketch.

This duo really caught my eye because one looked so glum and the other was bubbling with excitement. I tried to sketch them quickly so they wouldn’t be too self-conscious. The glum lady caught on to me seconds after I began and guided her friend away, so I had to work from memory and glances at details whenever possible.

This duo really caught my eye because one looked so glum and the other was bubbling with excitement. I tried to sketch them quickly so they wouldn’t be too self-conscious. The glum lady caught on to me seconds after I began and guided her friend away, so I had to work from memory and glances at details whenever possible.

We sketched in the waning light, sometimes hopping around to loosen cramped muscles, or to simply warm up. Nobody anticipated the cold front moving in so quickly, and bundled up though many of us were, the wind still cut through on occasion. Fortunately, the organizers had a food court on site, providing a constant source of hot meals and drinks.

As light left the sky, winking lights came on on the Bamboo Theatre. The dropping temperature made for cramped fingers, but I managed to sketch this before they went numb.

As light left the sky, winking lights came on on the Bamboo Theatre. The dropping temperature made for cramped fingers, but I managed to sketch this before they went numb.

A few of us had also purchased tickets and stayed to watch the show. We didn't have much light where we were sitting, and in the dark interior, I saw 5 sketchbooks out with heads bowed diligently over them; probably also a vain attempt to see clearly! I had my iPad, and turned it down to its dimmest setting, concentrating on trying to capture the performers instead of the impressive bamboo structure.

The show that night featured rising stars in the Chinese Operatic world, none of whom I knew, nor would I recognize, if I bumped into them on the street. The makeup was pretty heavy. I watched, amused, and yes, entertained. I didn't understand a thing as there were no English subtitles, but emotion is universal and I knew angst and broken hearts when I saw them on stage. (Music has evolved in such varied directions on this gigantic planet! How do people develop their different tastes? What makes one person decide, "…nah, don’t like that. Let’s try it this way,” allowing a whole genre to spring forth?)

I don't think I’ll be buying the CDs, but I had a great time, and as often happens, the remaining sketchers got together after everything was over for a much-needed hot meal and more fascinating chats about sketching, creativity, the secrets of the universe...and of course, what to sketch next!

Happy Chinese New Year

Every year, about a week before the lunar calendar says it's time for Chinese New Year, Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, undergoes a transformation. Within a few short days, bamboo frames and flapping tarpaulin walls become a colorful tent city filled with blossoms and fragrance. 

Bustling, booming and blooming! The annual Lunar New Year Flower Market is one of the best places to get a feel for Chinese New Year festivities.

Bustling, booming and blooming! The annual Lunar New Year Flower Market is one of the best places to get a feel for Chinese New Year festivities.

On opening day of the Flower Market, the crowd pours in. Jubilant anticipation of festive cheer translates into ringing cash registers as people purchase flowers of all kinds, bearing all manner of auspicious names, to brighten up their homes. Apart from flower vendors bursting with bloom, locals and tourists alike also push past seasoned vendors, as well as young entrepreneurs from schools and colleges, out to make some seasonal income from the happy crowd. Stuffed toys of all kinds and gimmicky gadgets jostle with gaudy golden spinning wheels that promise to turn one's fortune around. Pounding drums, enthusiastic screaming vendors, squealing children and the chatter of thousands of excited voices all contribute to the buzzing atmosphere.

Here's a close-up so you see some of the details more clearly.

Here's a close-up so you see some of the details more clearly.

With each passing day, the crowd grows in size and volume, reaching fever pitch on the final day, New Year's eve, when happy revellers shuffle along together, ever on the lookout for heavily discounted merchandise. Competing vendors can be heard shouting the latest bargains well into the crack of dawn, when it's time for all to pack up and catch a few hours of sleep before it's time to awake and begin several days of festivities. If you didn't catch it this time, mark your calendar for next year and join the fun!

Update:

I was contacted by Florence Morin, the Editor-in-Chief, of Le Petit Journal, a French online magazine, who requested permission to use my sketch. I was delighted of course! The text of this article was translated into french and published on 1 February. Here's the link: http://www.lepetitjournal.com/hong-kong/accueil/hong-kong-urban-sketchers/176261-urban-sketchers-hong-kong-le-flower-market-de-victoria-park-causeway-bay 

A Sunday with Classics

"Where shall we sketch next?” is something that comes up a lot in conversation.

I've lived in Hong Kong for a little over three years, so I know some areas, but recently fell in with a group of friends who also love exploring all the fascinating nooks and crannies of the city through sketching. We'd just sketched at Tai O, a fishing village on stilts, two weeks before, and after the New Year weekend, began discussing new options. A few of us have an informal agreement that we will sketch outdoors regularly in 2014.

Someone proposed we sketch in the city this time. The Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, a 3-storey Edwardian style building in the Mid-Levels was brought up, Google Images were then quickly glanced at, and plans firmed up.

12Jan14-RRT-YMCA.JPG

Our meeting spot was the Chinese YMCA, another heritage building a short walk away from the Museum. We were to meet at 9:30am but I was early, so I unfolded my handy little stool, whipped out my iPad and started sketching. Other sketchers began showing up and before long, a little group was huddled in corners over their media, perched on ledges, leaning on bannisters and concentrating on the subject before us. 

12Jan14-RRT-HK MedSc Museum.JPG

Once done with the YMCA, I made for the Museum, our primary target for the day, and found it closed. I’d been there before and wasn’t planning to go in anyway, so I found an interesting angle outside and started on Sketch No.2 of the day.

Stomachs rumbling, we ducked into a little local shop for a hasty lunch before exploring Cat Street, known for its antiques. Its formal name is Upper Lascar Road. I’m not sure where the cats came from. With no vehicular access, the narrow lane housed shops and stalls presenting hundreds of little details to peruse. 

12Jan14-RRT-CatSt CloseUp.JPG

A trio of Chinese porcelain figures posing regally struck me as a good starting point, so I planted myself comfortably and began. In front of us, a lady running her stall told us off in a most unladylike manner that she did not want either herself or her stall to be immortalized in any drawing. What a missed opportunity, lady! ;-) 

12Jan14-RRT-Cat St.JPG

Two more sketches and it was time to go. There's a lot more I could do though, and I suspect I will soon be back.