Mixing shopping malls and transit centers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong demonstrates a very different model of shopping malls compared to the American suburban mall:

Hong Kong has more than 300 shopping centers, but most of the city’s malls don’t sit on asphalt parking lots; rather, they’re above subway stations or underneath skyscrapers. In my book “Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption,” I describe how some are connected to so many towers that they form megastructures—cities in and of themselves that can accommodate tens of thousands of people who live, work and play without ever going outside. Hong Kong also has the world’s tallest vertical malls—“mall skyscrapers” that rise up to 26 levels, with crisscrossing “expresators” that shoot shoppers high up into soaring atriums…

As convenient this urban form may be, it does come with strings attached. In the case of Union Square—as in many other podium-tower developments—the mall is deliberately placed at the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between all entry points into the structure and the residential, office and transit areas…

For millions of residents and pedestrians, then, entering commercialized areas becomes an inevitability, not a choice. It normalizes a culture of consumerism: Everyday life is played out on the terrain of the mall, and the private shopping atrium takes on the role of the public square. Because Hong Kong’s apartments are small—its summer climate hot and humid—the mall becomes a default gathering place. And why not? There’s plenty of space and the air-conditioning is free. And while you’re there, you might as well browse around the shops and spend some cash…

The Asian hyper-dense urban mall is also making an appearance in American cities. Miami has Brickell City Centre, a five-story mall in the heart of the city. Covering three city blocks, it’s topped by three high-rises (and was built by a Hong Kong developer). New York City is building a seven-story mall attached to two skyscrapers in Hudson Yards, America’s largest private development. The Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus—the centerpiece of the World Trade Center—has a mall with over 100 stores, with its white-ribbed atrium attracting an army of tourists taking pictures with selfie-sticks. Since the hub connects office buildings with train and subway stations, the stores are also “irrigated” by the 50,000 commuters who pass by each weekday.

American shopping malls tend to get a bad rap: they take up a lot of space with their endless parking lots, they often require a car in order to get to one, and are centers of consumerism. The Hong Kong malls eliminate two of these major issues: they are a more compact use of space and don’t require cars. Indeed, it is clever to combine mass transit space with a mall. However, these integrated malls may present even larger consumption issues since travelers have to go through these spaces rather than choose to go there. Isn’t this the complaint about gift stores in museums, zoos, or amusement parks where you finish an exhibit or ride and then have to go through the items for sale? And mass transit is supposed to be a public good so it may be a bit strange to mix it so closely with private profit-making. (I wonder if the transit facilities/authorities could take a cut of the sales in these transit malls and funnel more money into transit systems. Is this a way to fund necessary infrastructure maintenance and improvement in the United States?)

I’d love to see an analysis of how sales change when people are intentionally funneled through consumption spaces like this.

Sociologist proposed moving Hong Kong’s population to Northern Ireland

Recently declassified documents show conversations about one sociologist’s plans to move residents out of Hong Kong:

Newly-declassified documents released at the National Archives in Kew, west London reveal how senior civil servants reacted enthusiastically to proposals in 1983 from a University of Reading academic that a chunk of Ulster – between Coleraine and Londonderry – be turned into a new home for Hong Kong’s 5.5m citizens.

The proponents of the plan, which one Northern Ireland office official declared should be “taken seriously”, suggested the mass transportation of Cantonese speakers would have the dual advantage of boosting the Ulster economy while solving Britain’s dilemma over what to do with the millions of Hong Kong residents concerned they would have no future under Chinese rule…

When details of the scheme, floated by sociology professor Christie Davies, appeared in a Belfast newspaper in October 1983, they caught the eye of George Fergusson, an official in the Northern Ireland office…

The academic, who has subsequently specialised in studying the nature of comedy, said: “I am glad my sensible idea was taken seriously. It was humorous but deliberately ambiguous. My test of a good humorous satire is if a significant minority take it seriously.”

Perhaps this is more revealing of those who were excited about this plan – we can simply move millions of people to solve two political issues at once! – than of the one who made the proposal. Deliberately relocating millions of people halfway around the world sounds like it could lead to all sorts of unintended consequences. How in the world would something like this even be carried off?

Another issue is whether a city could be swiftly moved and replicated elsewhere. Diasporas are not unheard of but the settlements in the new locations can’t completely mirror the original location or scene. Modern Hong Kong was formed out of a unique social and political context as was Northern Ireland. Building a Northern Ireland version of Hong Kong (or a Canadian Atlantic version or a West African version) could turn out to be very interesting…

Cross-section of Hong Kong’s 50,000 residents in 290,000 square feet

Here is a detailed cross-section of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City which had some unbelievable population densities:

Though it was demolished over two decades ago, Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City is still emblematic of the kind of intense overcrowding usually seen in dystopian science fiction, so much so that to this day it inspires post-mortem maps, renderings in Lego, even Japanese arcades. At the height of its growth, the largely unsupervised encampment that the South China Morning Post once called “a lawless vacuum” where brothels and gambling hubs “operated with impunity” once crammed some 50,000 residents—all of them essentially squatters—into an area of about 290,000 square feet. Just before the complex was razed, a Japanese team created an amazingly detailed cross-section, recently turned up by Architizer and pictured in full below…

The complex comprised some 500 buildings, affording an average of about 40 square feet per person. In the center bloc pictured above, a resident tears down an interior wall with a pickaxe, while some kind of industrial kitchen operates in a room below…

Trash collects in-between buildings and electrical wiring snakes down the sides. In an alleyway, a man uses an umbrella to shield himself from a dripping water pipe…

The government managed to evict the residents of the Walled City in 1992, and it was leveled in 1993. The spot where it used to stand, not too far from Zaha Hadid’s Innovation Tower, has been turned into a park. Above, construction begins on the rooftop, in the middle of a panoply of T.V. antennae.

A reminder of some of the conditions people in expanding big cities face around the world due to a lack of resources and space. And still these cities continue to grow as there is a lack of opportunities elsewhere…

Photographing some of the densest housing on earth in Hong Kong

Check out a few photos of the dense high rises in Hong Kong:

As one of the most densely populated regions in the world, Hong Kong boasts not only the number one spot on Forbes’ list of escalating real estate markets, but also some of the most packed housing towers on Earth (at least one of which includes an honest-to-goodness 16.4-square-foot apartment). Captivated by these tightly crammed stacked cities, of sorts, German-born photographer Michael Wolf created tapestry-like shots of the residential buildings, cropping context to make the scope of each photo seem all the more mind-bending. In Hong Kong, architecture is “driven by function, not form and one tower block can only be distinguished from the next by the bold colour schemes of its façade,” he says, which means each piece in his Architecture of Density series, published earlier this year in a book by the same name, is pattern-driven and geometric; it’s so reminiscent of computer code that the human element nearly disappears altogether.

It would be interesting to see how people react to these pictures and these building designs. The headline to the story suggests these buildings are “sterile” but I could imagine other reactions: there is an order (and perhaps even some symmetry) to these structures; these buildings are stark and devoid of character; perhaps the buildings have to be this way to squeeze in so many people. Of course, these buildings don’t have to look this way; ornamentation doesn’t necessarily limit density. But, these buildings are the product of a particular era, context, and purpose.

Here is some more from the London School of Economics on Hong Kong’s density and the architecture and planning that has gone into it:

The urban area of Hong Kong has the highest population and employment density in the world. Measured at block level, some areas may have population densities of more than 400,000 people per square kilometre. As of 2011, there are seven million people for its 1,068 square kilometres (412 square miles) of land. However, more than 75 per cent of this land comprises no-built-up areas. The high concentration of people in just a few square kilometres is due partly to the fact that new town development did not take place until well into the 1970s and therefore most of the population (which had experienced a post-war boom in the 1950s) had to be accommodated in the main urban area along the waterfront of the Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong Island. The high price of land in Hong Kong also contributes to its high-density development…

Over the past few years, Hong Kong has developed the following planning, design and management measures to continue improving its high-rise living environments:

External environment of buildings
1) Better planning and design so that buildings are positioned further apart and have more open space;
2) Improved transport management by prioritising the development of mass transit and focusing on pedestrian movement in order to keep traffic congestion in check;
3) Creation of space by fully utilising the already-existing areas within buildings, such as roof tops and podiums, and transforming them into community and recreational spaces;
4) A trend towards large-scale property developments, which allows a greater consolidation of space in order to provide community facilities and ease of movement between locales;
5) The use of new building technology and materials to break the monotony of a district, while outdoor escalators facilitate the movement of pedestrians; and
6) Public education campaigns to encourage people to contribute to maintaining a clean environment.

All of this makes for quite a sight, even compared to the density of Manhattan.

Housing for the poor in Hong Kong

Like in many global cities, affordable housing is a big issue in Hong Kong:

Some 100,000 people in the former British colony live in what’s known as inadequate housing, according to the Society for Community Organization, a social welfare group. The category also includes apartments subdivided into tiny cubicles or filled with coffin-sized wood and metal sleeping compartments as well as rooftop shacks. They’re a grim counterpoint to the southern Chinese city’s renowned material affluence.

Forced by skyrocketing housing prices to live in cramped, dirty and unsafe conditions, their plight also highlights one of the biggest headaches facing Hong Kong’s unpopular Beijing-backed leader: growing public rage over the city’s housing crisis.

Leung Chun-ying took office as Hong Kong’s chief executive in July pledging to provide more affordable housing in a bid to cool the anger. Home prices rose 23 percent in the first 10 months of 2012 and have doubled since bottoming out in 2008 during the global financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund said in a report last month. Rents have followed a similar trajectory…

His comments mark a distinct shift from predecessor Donald Tsang, who ignored the problem. Legislators and activists, however, slammed Leung for a lack of measures to boost the supply in the short term. Some 210,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing, about double from 2006. About a third of Hong Kong’s 7.1 million population lives in public rental flats. When apartments bought with government subsidies are included, the figure rises to nearly half…

While cage homes, which sprang up in the 1950s to cater mostly to single men coming in from mainland China, are becoming rarer, other types of substandard housing such as cubicle apartments are growing as more families are pushed into poverty. Nearly 1.19 million people were living in poverty in the first half of last year, up from 1.15 million in 2011, according to the Hong Kong Council Of Social Services. There’s no official poverty line but it’s generally defined as half of the city’s median income of HK$12,000 ($1,550) a month.

While many cities face this issue (including long waiting lists for public housing in Chicago), the contrasts are stark in Hong Kong which boasts a world-class business district. Add this to lack of open space, leading to higher housing prices, and this is an issue that likely requires an ambitious plan over many years to even address part of this housing shortage.

The intersection of Chinese bridal couples asking for cash, Facebook, and protests

This could be a poster story for globalization: on Facebook, a Hong Kong bride asked for money from wedding attendees and this has attracted protestors to the wedding.

That’s the prospect facing one Hong Kong couple, who infuriated hundreds after the bride’s Nov. 2 Facebook post went viral.

“I’m not opening a charity….If you really only want to give me a HK$500 [US$65] cash gift, then don’t bother coming to my wedding,” she wrote earlier this month, according to an article Thursday in the Wall Street Journal China.

The bride’s identity and wedding venue were identified by social media users, and a protest was organized via Facebook. Nearly 1,000 have claimed they will attend.

A spokesperson for the hotel where the wedding will be held said they plan on honoring their contract with the couple.

Though giving newlyweds cash is a traditional Chinese custom, sociologist Ting Kwok-fai told The Wall Street Journal that Hong Kong weddings have grown increasingly extravagant in recent years. Engaged couples feel pressured to minimize the cost of the affair, he said, and in this case, the bride may be seeking to recoup some of the costs of the wedding.

Multiple social forces are coming together here in a new kind of way: traditional social norms, new technology and interaction on Facebook, and more public concerns about inequality and conspicuous consumption. This reminds me of the classic 1929 work of the Chicago School of sociology titled The Gold Coast and the Slum. While studying neighborhoods just north of the Loop in Chicago, Zorbaugh discussed the social interaction between some of the wealthiest Chicagoans and some of the poorest Chicagoans. While the two groups certainly knew about each other through walking in or passing through neighborhoods or reading news in the newspaper, there was little direct social interaction. For example, some of the wealthy socialite women tried to start aid groups to help these nearby poor neighborhoods but could not get much participation from the poor neighborhoods.

Today, some of these barriers are reduced because of Facebook and other technology. Again, there is likely not a whole of physical social interaction between those with a lot of money and those without. In Hong Kong, you can walk down Nathan Road in Kowloon and find the some of the world’s most exclusive brands. If you turn off the road several blocks to the west, you are among nondescript apartment complexes with little glitter or glamour. Yet, these new technologies allow for more awareness and more reactions which could then coalesce around social action. The socialite wedding announcement in the prestigious newspaper 50 years ago that would have drawn less attention has now turned into Facebook-announced weddings that can quickly become very public.

When a sociological survey about Hong Kong angers Chinese authorities

Politics can interfere with research studies and findings. For an example, here is a case of a sociological survey done in Hong Kong that has gotten the attention of Chinese authorities:

In December, a Hong Kong sociologist by the name of Robert Chung found himself at the center of a political storm. A study commissioned by Chung, director of opinion research at a leading university in the territory, discovered that the number of people who identify themselves primarily as citizens of Hong Kong was higher than it’s been for the past 10 years. The survey showed that the number of those who viewed themselves as Chinese had fallen to 16.6 percent. That’s a 12-year low and less than half of what it was three years ago.

Since then the territory’s communist press has launched a vicious attack on the pollster. “Political fraudster” and “a slave of dirty political money” are just two of the Cultural Revolution style epithets trotted out against Professor Chung. Hao Tiechuan, a Beijing official stationed in Hong Kong, called in local reporters to denounce Professor Chung’s work as “unscientific” and “illogical.”

Beijing, always wary of Hong Kong’s loyalty because of its colonial heritage, ratchets up the rhetoric even higher during “election” season. In March, 1200 mostly pro-Beijing loyalists will choose the next chief executive, and in September, Hong Kong citizens will go to the polls to choose 35 of 70 seats in the partially-democratic legislature. Last fall, pro-Beijing candidates won local district-level polls overwhelmingly, although an investigation has been opened into possible vote-rigging. Beijing’s attacks on Professor Chung– as well as on a so-called “Gang of Four” of prominent democracy advocates — may be calculated to keep the minions who choose the chief executive in line and dampen turnout by the solid majority of Hong Kong voters who favor progress toward full democracy.

Does this make complaints about academic freedom in the United States seem rather tame?

The attacks by the communist press are intriguing. First, “political fraudster” implies that the work is unscientific. Second, the charge of being  “a slave of dirty political money” suggests that the work is politically motivated and skewed. In both critiques, the attack is against the scientific credibility of the sociologist. The argument is that Chung has done poor research and the results shouldn’t be trusted. Furthermore, it suggests that Chung himself is not capable of good conducting good research.

These are serious charges for a sociologist. It is one thing to disagree with findings or about their interpretation or suggest that they should have used another method. It is another thing to claim that the researcher intentionally found certain results or can’t do good research. Yes, methodological errors are made occasionally (and sometimes fraudulently) but this cuts to the heart of sociology and the claim that we are searching for replicable and valid results. I hope Chang is able to show his proper use of sociological methods and is supported by others.