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Shing Mun River, Hong Kong

In the vertical layers of Tai Wai

Text and photo by Alessandro Carboni

realised within Library – SoundPocket,  Hong Kong

with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute and the General Consulate of Italy in Hong Kong.

Published on

I am in the district of Tai Wai, at the exit of the MTR station.  The flow of the passengers is constant. This is usually a good sign, which tells me that Tai Wai is not a residential area which typically concentrates people’s mobility flow in just two moments: in the morning and in the evening when people go to and come back from work, it is in fact 11:10 in the morning, and Tai Wai quite lively. I observe the space around me, I orient myself, I look around and try to find the right direction towards the river.

Before I begin my exploration I need to organise the material, in order to do this I need a surface where to place my bag and get ready for the exploration: I’ve brought the Canon camera, a Zoom audio recorder and binaural microphones, which are fantastic microphones I recently bought which I hope will allow for a better recording for earphones monitoring.

After preparing the material and buying a set of AA batteries, I start my exploration. I try to orient myself by observing the horizon, trying to find a clue to direct me towards the river. On my left, in the distance, I can see an elevated area, I suppose it is the right direction and I start walking. With a slow pace, I read every centimeter of space around me: on my left there are restaurants and real estates agencies offering fabulous and luxurious apartments on the banks of the Shing Mun river. On the other side, the railroad tracks constantly invaded by trains that go to China or Kowloon, Hong Kong. After a few hundreds metres I get to a bridge. From here I observe the urban landscape which spreads over several layers: the green mountains in the distance filtered by fog caused by high humidity, the buildings built on the lower parts of the mountain, the buildings of the district, the railroad, the road and finally, in front of me, the river which is right under my feet and below the ground level. Each layer is interconnected to the other, on one side by the flow of the bodies who are constantly moving, on the other side by grey color of the clouds which, today more than the usual, given the foggy day, creates a sort of visual patina across the entire landscape.

On both sides of the river there are cycle lanes that connect most of the Shing Mun river. The bed of the river, which is quite wide, is completely covered with concrete. There is no water flowing, well actually, to be honest, a small stream flows in the centre, in a central hollow that runs longitudinally across the whole river. The concrete is streaked, an antique dark grey.

I see traces of oily sludge that marked, inscribed and carved the stream as an aluminium plate. The cracks give way to weed and streaked moss with a very dark colour like oil stains on the asphalt.

I’m standing still at the centre of the bridge. I keep observing the river trying to outline its sinusoidal shape. Because of the concrete the river is been immobilised, it can no longer change its course, open and close, expand and contract like a living entity. The river does not actually exist. What I see is only an image, the projection of a body that has disappeared: an absence.

The sky is still leaden, in the middle of the river a white bird slowly spreads its winds and takes off. On my left, a football pitch, also made of concrete. I walk some stairs to the entrance of the pitch. I walk towards the centre and the sound of the trees become increasingly louder. The wind and the leaves move through a sort of innate co-ordination. I stop and start recording. Just as if I entered a different dimension, you know those space-time doors, sound transform the space around me, suddenly becoming colourful. The shapes take on another dimension, the trees become swarms, singing birds are like the echo of water drops inside a cave. They also are the screams, the singing, a marked and punctual rhythm. I keep walking and stop by the centre of the pitch, closing my eyes for a moment. Two old men, sitting on a bench not far from me, in silence, listen, perhaps with me, the symphony of the overlapping sonic layers. The pitch becomes the acoustic chamber, the resonance box of urban space. I hear: a fast moving train from left to right, the rhythm of the birds top left, the distant trees, the footsteps of someone walks by with plastic bags, another train, cars, a slowing down bicycle.

I open my eyes, I walk entering the space and the sonic layers the have become increasingly clearer and perfectly distinct. I follow the river to the left, calibrating my every step trying not to go too fast. The sound I hear is accompanied by the acrid smell that emanates from the little water that slowly flows on the river bed.

After about 500 metres I get to a crossroads. A huge road junction where roads and walkways meet from various directions. A vertical stratification of urban elements that generate a complex image which is difficult to read clearly. I need time to understand, I stop and listen again.

From the river to the streets, from flower-beds to walkways, concrete is everywhere. It covers the ground in layers and creates paths where everything flows. Cars, water, people, singing birds move fast from one layer to the next, from a sidewalk to the next, from a tree to a road, from the river to a lamppost. I try to recompose the image: the subway, the river, the sidewalks, the street, the railings, the trees, the first flyover, the second and the third flyover. It is like watching a Gothic cathedral, a sonic monument that rises vertically. A sonic plot of independent elements that interpenetrate each other in a unique three-dimensional and transparent image. The grave sound, low pitched, of the movement of the buses from right to left. The high pitch of the singing birds camouflaged between the concrete and the leaves. The sound of the leaves blowing in the wind, rolling bicycles and the footsteps of some accidental passer-by visitor. I keep recording also trying to gather as much information as possible together with micro sound variations. In this stretch, light becomes even darker. The flyovers look like the giant redwood forests of the north. The grey concrete becomes incredibly dark and the trees in the backlight look like iron spires that have little to do with natural elements. Light is very dim, like that which penetrates into the large cathedral windows. The verticality is monumental, disconcerting.

I leave the junction and slowly keep walking towards the mountain realising that the river is increasingly non-existent. The route changes direction, it is modelled by the course of the valley and a curve begins. Precisely at this point I discover a small temple nestled between large trees, the flyover pillars and granite. Cracks, the roots break through the stone creating rifts from which weed emerges. Here there are some small camouflaged statutes. I keep walking while observing the miniatures embedded in the roots and the flyover structures that still accompany me in my journey. A hundred metres ahead, I cross another pedestrian bridge which leads me straight to another residential agglomerate. The bridge is not just a simple passage that takes me from one point of the river to another, but it is a rough-edged object that encompasses the river. A white lacquered structure. A series of rusty pipes run throughout the entire structure. The drops of rust create an interesting pattern, a mosaic of lines between the tiles and all along the vertical wall. Pavement, river and bridge show a continuity of chromatic color and material. Along the bridge there are faded yellow benches occupied by old women with small children. Spaces are empty, thus the sound of shouted words, or simply spoken, reverberate between between the edges and the walls of the concrete structures. The piping network becomes increasingly more intricate, up to becoming a labyrinth that climbs up the vertical walls of the buildings. The arcades, however, are a good place to listen to the reverberation of the voices. They penetrate like an anthill tunnel inside the buildings. I follow one, listening to a muffled sound: a big fan, a very low frequency that hangs in the air throughout my visit inside the buildings. I explore the stairs, the entrance, the exit, the shops, the post office and back outside. Now the yellow benches are populated by card players. Small groups of elderly people laugh and talk about who knows what. I sit close enough to be able to listen to their voices in the distance. I lean on the railing observing the river that is not there, that widening of concrete with a small line of water that slowly flows. A child walks by himself and his mother scolds him loudly. I keep walking towards the mountain, now more visible and closer. The singing of the birds continues to accompany me among the trees that become increasingly more massive and their roots more intricate and visible on the surface. I arrive at yet another pedestrian bridge. This time it is the last, beyond this one there is only the mountain. The cycle lane and the pavement disappear completely. Now I can finally step on the earth, dry leaves and carob fallen from a large tree. My steps create a new layer of sound that adds to the birdsong and to the sound of the leaves moved by the wind. In fact the wind is very strong in this point, probably because the morphology of the mountain allows it to be channelled from several points of of the valley. In fact, many people hung their clothes along the bridge to dry. T-shirts, trousers, sheets wave briskly on the rusty railing.

I position myself in the centre of the railing in order to observe the route that I have walked thus far. It is an incredible perspective flight of about two kilometres. Leaving the bridge I continue my journey through the path that becomes increasingly narrower and less travelled. Now, the traces of the urban area are almost completely rarefied. The path gets narrower further away from the river that penetrates even deeper into the mountain. The vegetation is more dense and impenetrable. Now I observe the river from above, still covered with concrete, which at some point, after a narrow bending, stops. At the end of the river, several turbines connect some pipes that rise almost vertically to the mountain. They penetrate the vegetation, blending in becoming an integral part of the landscape. I try to keep going as well, following the pipes, but everything seems to disappear in the vegetation. The path seems liquefied. I no longer have references to follow. The river disappear to reappear who knows in which part of the mountain. I am at point zero, the starting point which also marks the end of my exploration of Tai Wai.

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