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Kaitak River, Hong Kong

A flowing traces underneath

Field notes#

by Alessandro Carboni – 05.11.2011


31 hours and 45 minutes just went by. I’m travelling to Hong Kong and just a few hours away from arrival. I can not get any sleep, perhaps the noise of the engines or the continuous coming and going of my neighbour. Time passes slowly and I count the hours and minutes that move from west to east and from Assemini to Hong Kong. Cagliari-Elmas Airport, Milan Malpensa, London Heathrow and finally, after about 35 hours of travel, I find myself once again in Hong Kong. The first sensation is always the same: density. Why Hong Kong fascinates me so much? Perhaps because it is an immense human landscape, a city overrun by moving bodies that flow like the water of a river in flood. As the plane lands in Hong Kong, I keep thinking about the morphology of the city: the big malls that penetrate the corridors and arrive directly in the elevators of the houses, small shops, family run restaurants, the gaps left by the demolished villages and the space occupied by the usual buildings, spaces even so smaller and compressed inhabited by the local resistance that does not understand who the enemy to fight is, whether manufacturers who buy the space or the government who sells it to them.

Once out from the airport, I arrive in the city passing opposite the industrial port of Hong Kong. The images from the window move very fast, it’s almost evening. The blue of the sky, the sunset and the lights of the cranes, light up the containers that are loaded on yet another ship ready to sail to who knows where. The route of the big boats to the Pacific? Or towards the Mediterranean via the Indian Ocean? The damp and mist make the image blurry and it reminds me of the long discussions with Alessandro Chessa, a physicist and expert in network theory of Cagliari, with which I started the project Complex Body Network. Entering into the meshes of the city, I think about human behaviour from its internal complexity and interaction of bodies with each other and with urban spaces. The residence in Hong Kong seems to me an excellent research opportunity: an entire city as an experimental laboratory to visualise and test my ideas. I walk through the city in the direction of San Po Kong. Waiting for me, Prof. Wallace Chang Ping Hung Director of the Urban Place Unit and Professor of the Department of Architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who I’ve known for several years, because he is the initiator and promoter of Kaitak River Project and with whom I still actively collaborate since 2008. Our relationship has been consolidated over the years, not only from a professional point of view but also from a human one, becoming good friends. After greetings and hugs, we go to eat dim sum in a very good local restaurant.The Kaitak river is located beyond the Nga Tsin Wai Village, in the area known as New Kowloon, south of Wong Tai Sin and Diamond Hill, and north of the old Kai Tak International Airport. San Po Kong is surrounded by Choi Hung Road and Prince Edward Road. In the same area I developed the project What Burns Never Returns in 2008 and Optimised System of City Paths in 2009. I’m on the tenth floor of the Wah Hing Industrial Maison, it is morning and it’s quite warm. From the windows of the study I can see the river Kaitak and with my eyes I try to orientate myself through the buildings, not understanding exactly where I am. I decide to get down and go for an exploration of the urban space and while I wait for the elevator, I listen to the noises coming from the other floors. The building is still partly used for manufacturing and in fact in some floors you can hear a loud fracas. The main activity is textile but some spaces are dedicated to the storage of materials, others as simple offices. I go down to the ground floor until the building internal courtyard and from the 4 entrances, which overlook the adjacent streets, I see trucks constantly coming and going that load and unload fabrics, rice, plastic, etc… From the exit D of the building you can go directly to the industrial area, from the exit A instead you have access to the shopping streets. I decide to make a wide detour, I choose exit A, and I find myself in Tai Yau Street. Immersed in the flow, I follow the bodies that walk to the right. The rhythm is punctuated by the constant sound of traffic lights that regulate the movement of pedestrians. The sidewalk is a long chain of shops, restaurants and other commercial activities.

I walk accompanied by a thick paste of odours, vapours of boiling water and cooking food, and after Tseuk Luk Street I head for the river Kaitak: on my right a little elementary school and further up a jewellery that became famous for a daring robbery that happened recently where the robbers broke through the windows using a car. During the walks, occasionally, I do some field recordings: I choose a few points where the sound is very rich in details and variations. The sound is very physical, it invades the space and because of its constant presence in the urban space, it becomes paradoxically imperceptible. Re-listening to the tracks afterwards has been very useful to understand and recreate my feelings on the urban space in San Po Kong. I hear the altered rhythm of the traffic light that determines the flow of cars and pedestrians. I see, across the river, on my right, a constantly crowded pedestrian bridge; opposite, large buildings constructed in less than a year; since I last visited this area, builders have been able to pull up so much concrete that looking towards Diamond Hill, I cannot longer see the mountain that previously used to be visible from this point!Before walking along the river I decide to continue with the recordings, but this time inside the Tai Shing Street Market, where I immediately notice, just before the entrance, that it is possible to listen to the overlapping of various sound levels: the street, the market, the people. Inside I move between the benches, observing the endless qualities of fish, vegetables and other dried foods. Morning is the time of the ladies: it is funny to see them pushing, like sumo wrestlers, to buy the freshest food. After a quite large round, I decide not to stop the recording and to walk towards the other exit; so I find myself in front of the river, along the south-east corner of the old Kaitak Airport, where I am overwhelmed by an incredible soundscape of birds. I walk along the river and I constantly hear the deafening noise of the city. The urban landscape around is incredibly dense and fast flowing in the river, it looks like it is digging, or rather drawing a smooth curve that breaks the urban grid. I observe and in the meanwhile re-emerge the details and the information I had collected in previous residences here in Hong Kong. I recall the words of the inhabitants of Nga Tsin Wai Village, who last year told me that the Kaitak River was built by the Japanese during the occupation in WWII; that the river was actually a canal for the collection of rain waters for the districts of Kowloon, San Po Kong, Diamond Hill, Chi Wan Shan, Wong Tai Sin and Kowloon City. Now I walk and observe people around me: I pause particularly on older people who continue to watch the river and the water flowing underneath: they stop for a few moments, as if there was something important, and then keep going. Why? I try to give myself some answers, but clearly without coming up to any conclusion. In the following days I integrate my previously accumulated knowledge with new information: the help of Prof. Wallace proves to be very valuable: Mr. Ho has been contacted for an interview, according to Prof. Wallace he is a living dictionary of the history of the area.

I was curious to deepen and dig into the history of the area and understand the relationships between the various information that I had in my hands. Mr Ho is over 70 years old and has very long moustache. We meet at the Culture Factory, in front of a large aerial photo of the area that allows us to visualise the words and stories of Mr. Ho in the urban area of San Po Kong. I collect the information, digging into the urban fabric of the present. Little by little, the memories of the past emerge, making a continuous shift of temporal planes: The emerged information “float”, as if they were inside a cloud and the forgotten stories, but present in the urban fabric, come to life. According to Mr. Ho, the history of the area can be divided into 3 phases: the village, the airport and the industry. San Po Kong, in Cantonese means “new Po Kong” or new village. Using a long bamboo stick, Mr. Ho indicates the extension. He says that the village was created by the Lam family, probably originally from the Fujian province, and then demolished to make way for the current Wong Tai Sin police station adjacent to the Kaitak River: what remains today is only the name of the street, Po Kong Village Road. The name of this family is not new to me, I certainly encountered it in my previous research in 2009. In fact Mr. Ho continues to tell me that, not only the family Lam founded the historic Tin Hau Temple in Joss, but it is one of the largest companies in the salt trade. Before the development of Kai Tak Airport, most of the urban area was cultivated and was rich in rivers and estuaries that arrived to the sea, passing from the hills to the north of Kowloon Bay. In 1916, the area south of today’s San Po Kong was drained by Ho Kai and Au Tak and turned into gardens. The drainage, completed in two phases in 1920 and 1927, became known as Kai Tak. The company did not have the capital to complete the project and the left side of the area, so that most of the land was never used. The Hong Kong government decided to repurchase the land for the Royal Air Force and the future Kai Tak Aerodrome. At the end of 1930, the airport was greatly expanded up to taking the entire San Po Kong. Clear Water Bay Road, part of the current Choi Hung Road, had been built around the airport. During the Japanese occupation, many villages surrounding San Po Kong were demolished for further expansion of the airport. Mr. Ho does not remember how many, but he tells me of the famous 13 villages of Kowloon and Po Kong was one of them. He also tells me of the alliance between them and the battles against the demolition. Some parts of the airport are still visible in the north area of San Po Kong and in what remains of Tai Hom Village, demolished in the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in 1940, for the expansion of Kai Tak Airport.

Mr Ho continues to show me the major urban areas on the map. In 1958 the airport was moved in the south from Po Kong to Kowloon Bay: Prince Edward Road East will be completed at this time. Po Kong is transformed into San Po Kong: literally, the New Po Kong, the new industrial area of manufacturing firms. Mr Ho continues his story, until he talks about the riots of 1967 and tells they actually began in San Po Kong, after the protests of some workers of a factory of artificial flowers. The clashes spread throughout the city, lasted for months and caused several deaths. Mr Ho tells me that despite the clashes were terrible, they proved useful for the change in working conditions. Later, after 1980, thanks to the convenient investment conditions proposed by China, many manufacturing companies in San Po Kong relocated elsewhere. After a long period of closure, many buildings were turned into offices, storage spaces and work spaces for artists. Mr Ho’s information seem to be very valuable. I continue to accumulate material and I like to see the emerging details autonomously, slowly piecing together. The research does not move in a two-dimensional plane, but rather it creates a three dimensional space in which the information seem to move like particles of a gas. I wander through the urban space, alternating my explorations around the Kaitak River with interviews, readings, field recordings, photos, videos. I observe the surrounding spaces, looking in the theoretical materials that I collected the precise references in the space and the people who every day lived in the river. Then I contact Prof. Wallace for yet another chat and he tells me that, until recently, the river was called by the local community “The rainbow river”. I do not know why, but I immediately think about the artificial flowers factory, the clashes etc.Prof. Wallace tells me that since the 60s and 70s the river is used as a dump of the manufacturing industry. The liquid waste produced by processing and the colouring of clothes are directly dumped in the river and for this reason it is possible to see strange coloured spots in it. These go to mix with the sewage of illegal homes that have started to spread over San Po Kong, in particular around the Tai Hom village. Seriously polluted, the river releases unpleasant odours, so much that it’s been renamed Smelly river. Prof. Wallace continues telling me that in the last 20 years the government has invested significant resources in building sewage treatment plants to improve the hygienic conditions throughout the urban area of Kowloon. Although the water conditions have incredibly improved, the change seems imperceptible by the community: the water is still green and the smell still a constant annoyance. He tells me that the community wanted to cover and seal the river with concrete! In the ’90s, thanks to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), the river radically changed. They thought to let flow into the river, not only rainwater but also the wastewater from homes. After being purified, treated and cleaned for about a week, the water is released and brought together into the river. Since 2005, the canal water quality has improved, and the indices of water quality from six monitoring stations are classified as “good” or “excellent”. Under this condition, the terms of flow improvement and quality have been incredible and the lower part of the river has recreated and recovered its natural habitat and fish and birds have started to settle there. In September 2007, Prof. Wallace and his other collaborators from the CUHK renamed the canal “Kaitak River.” .

Finally, Prof. Wallace tells me that the community, after the incredible transformation, stopped calling it Smelly river and began to call it with the name of Kaitak River. The story recounted by Prof. Wallace is incredible! Now I understand why people continuously watch the water of the river: they too can not believe it. The river has become visible again. Kaitak river has become something else and it created a new dimension between the urban and the natural. In the lower part near Nga Tsin Wai Village the water is incredibly clean and the presence of birds and fish confirms its quality. A little further on I meet some local residents who are fishing. I can not believe it! I stop for a while to hear the sound of the rushing river, but the surrounding noise is so strong that it’s not possible to hear it. I use my audio recorder to make a short field recording. I raise the recording volume up to 97% and I can hear the sound of running water. While I try to capture the sound of the river, several people come down from the houses with a fishing pole heading towards its banks. It is now 5pm and I keep walking. Beyond Choi Hung Road I find myself back in the industrial area, but this time in a very narrow residential slice. In addition to the architecture of the 50s, I am fascinated by the flow of people who continue to move in different parts of the district. It creates strange passages towards the river and towards a small square where there is a Jockey Club. The square is completely overrun by people who are reading a newspaper on the latest predictions of the horse races. On one corner of the square there is a small restaurant that serve delicious noodles for only 10HKD. Proceeding into the flow, I continue with the recordings which this time I accompany with photos and drawings. I arrive in Tai Yau Street. Precisely in this street, in 1967, the most serious clashes happened. While I walk through it, I re-project, on the urban space, the images, sounds and moments of the revolt. I remember the stories of Fatima, the mother of Ho Ying, a friend from Hong Kong who now lives in London. Fatima tells me some of her childhood memories in relation to the production of plastic flowers in the years of the revolt. The production had become a social phenomenon that went beyond the spaces of the factory itself. Fatima said that in order to meet the market demands, the production of flowers was also entrusted to the families of the workers. Even she and her family spent a entire days assembling flowers in the house. Other people of the same generation as Fatima, still keep this memory alive. After a few hundred metres, beyond an industrial building, but near the residential area, suddenly appears Mikiki: a brand new shopping centre. I go in with the spirit of the traveller, but unfortunately there is not much to explore: empty shops, sales attendants by the door waiting for the next customer, a light and soothing music that never leave me. I decide to continue and finish my short trip to San Po Kong in Diamond Hill tube station. To arrive at the station, one needs to cross an area called “the forest”. Here once stood the Tai Hom Village, demolished in different stages, first by the Japanese to expand the airport and then by the government due to crime and hygiene problems. For about 10 years the forest remained completely inaccessible so much that nature, in its wildest dimension, has reclaimed the spaces creating an actual natural oasis in the middle of the city. I witness a typical example of a third landscape.

The urban web, the information overlap. There is an immediate correspondence between the reality that I have before my eyes and the information I have gathered and continue to accumulate. It’s like simultaneously living in two spaces: the inside leaking outside and the outside penetrating into the inside: a strange geography that flows into a single territory, in my body. A strange map made of perceptions and data, just like when you walk in a path. The data and perceptions are starting to find a certain linearity. I begin to find coherence between them and to “align” all information, fragments and materials that I have collected until now. I try to write on small pieces of paper (about 150) any information that I found, for example: Riots of 1967 in San Po Kong; the sound of the river is imperceptible; microphone recording level at 97%; families make artificial flowers in their homes; Tai Hom Village forest. At first I try to organise them by theme (river, buildings, people, etc.) in a second moment instead, I decided to divide them by events (for example: river transformation; riots; fishing). Each material is infinite, I could dig them for years. I’m interested in the conceptual and linear coherence among all the fragments and I continue with the organisation of the materials by writing on each piece of paper the full description on one side, one or two keywords maximum on the other side. I imagine each fragment as a knot on a net. Once consistency among all the materials is found, I try to develop a unique concept that could be linearly developed, as a concatenation of events. At the same time, I notice that every fragment has some filaments that refer to the details of other fragments: for example the fact that the river was polluted is linked in part to the textile industries; textile industries produced both plastic flowers and clothes; the transformation of working conditions followed the improved hygienic conditions; the transformation of the water has regenerated the river, creating a new natural environment; waste water have been cleaned, etc… The attempt is to come up with a new map based on the relationships between information. A net that can be walked like a real city. The image of the fishermen in the river struck me very much. The same event can be read at different levels: ecology, culture, community, etc.. Everything is very clear: the line of relations between the materials that I created gives me the opportunity to have a solid base on which to create new ideas and interpretations of San Po Kong. I plan to create a urban action that has a continuity with the materials I’ve collected. I do not intend to change its nature, but only to create a short circuit. It must be an invisible action, camouflaged and should not alter the urban dynamics around the river. One morning, with the help of my assistant Holing, I go to Sham Shui Po, Apliu Street market to buy a fishing rod, since the best way to understand the phenomenon of fishermen around the river is to restore the same action of fishing. But I absolutely do not want to catch any fish: rather I am determined to capture something different, the sound of the river. I’ve already tried to record from the bridge over the river, but unfortunately the sound is very low. I buy two fishing rods, very cheap, two karaoke model microphones and an endless series of balloons. The expenses do not exceed 300HKD (less than €30). I go back home, I try to set up my kit to capture the sound of the river. Thanks to the balloons I can immerse the microphones in the water without risking to damage them. I do the first tests using a bucket of water: after inserting a microphone into a balloon, I take the line of the fishing rod and tie the microphone. With the reel of the fishing rod I can easily control the ascent and descent of the microphone. Subsequently, after purchasing electric cables, I set up two audio cables of about 20m each, that get connected to my recorder. The next day I begin the first experiments.

I ask for some help to Holing and Mary Jane, a performer from Hong Kong. When I arrive at the river to test the kit, I want to be sure to pass almost unnoticed by passers-by and fishermen. I absolutely have to keep in line with the existing fishing phenomenon and mimicking the urban space. Once arrived at the river, I spend some minutes to watch the fishermen, their position and their actions. I open the kit and after setting the various parts, headphones, microphone protected by the balloon, the wires on the recorder, I tie everything to the fishing rod. One rod has the microphone for the right audio channel and one for the left audio channel. After a few seconds, a woman passing by us stops and tells us that the point we chose to fish in is not good. We have to move a few meters ahead. My action begins to work, because so far no one noticed that instead of the hook and bait, I tied a microphone to my fishing rod. Positioned like a true river fisherman, I let go the line in the reel to allow the microphone to slowly descend to the water surface. First the sound is captured on the surface and when the microphone goes into the water, it becomes grim as it is recorded underwater. Then, I invite passers-by to listen to the sound of the river through the recorder’s headphones, thanks to the long cable the headphones can easily be passed to more people. Parallel to these work stages, I tried to summarise and simplify a working method that I have shared and taught within the Kai Tak River Project – Green Corridor Public Education Project promoted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Department of Architecture. In the two weeks of residence I have developed a series of training workshops for students of the Department of Visual Arts, of the Department of Architecture of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and for twenty teachers of primary and secondary schools that operate along the River Kaitak, Wong Tai Sin and San Po Kong. I called the course “Methodology as Performance Practice: an interdisciplinary workshop on creativity and research strategies.” Through discussion and practical exercises, I shared my method of research with the teachers trying to guide the participants inside the creative mechanisms that lead to the creation of a work starting from the analysis of urban space.

The transformation of the Kaitak River becomes a metaphor for a process: the redevelopment of the river has inevitably triggered the rediscovery of a natural landscape that seemed lost. Above all it shows that sustainable design based on ecological values is first and foremost a social and cultural transformation. The San Po Kong exploration ends laying the ground for the next stage of work in Hong Kong in 2012.

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