The Nikah

Hello dear reader,

Today, I am sharing “The Nikah” which was originally published and featured in the March 2019 issue of Sunspot Literary Journal. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Tears rolled down my powdered face, dampening my makeshift lavender headscarf. I bit my lower lip and cried without making a sound. I could have said no to Gökhan and walked away from the nikah, the Islamic wedding ceremony—but my conditioning would not allow it. Growing up in a Taiwanese family, the concept of “losing face” was ingrained in me. I understood how unforgivable it was to humiliate someone in public. I felt compelled to submit to the conditioning that I have willfully fought against my whole life, to maintain my future husband’s honor in front of his entire clan. But the obligation to compromise my integrity, whether it was real or imaginary, was crushing me. I hated having to pretend to believe in something to please my future mother-in-law.

Gökhan’s mother was a gregarious Turkish woman. Short and squat in stature, she was the matriarch of the family. She had moved to Denmark with her husband in the ’70s, and all her children had been born and raised there. However, she held onto the customs from the old country and behaved very much like a traditional Turkish wife and mother. I never saw her without her headscarf, even in the middle of summer. Gökhan’s father, on the other hand, had adapted to Denmark. He was a quiet man with a handsome, honest face. He owned a grocery store in the neighborhood, and when he found out that I loved strawberries, he’d bring some back from his store every day during my visit. He was the type who would go with the flow and let his wife take care of all the traditions and rituals.

I had just arrived in Denmark a week earlier and had met Gökhan’s family for the first time. We slept in separate beds because his mother thought it was improper for us sleep together until we perform the nikah.

            That summer, Gökhan and I were in-between places—we had just left Dubai and in the autumn moved to Bahrain where I would start a new job. My new employers instructed me to move to Bahrain alone, or marry Gökhan so I could sponsor his dependent visa. Since we did not want to break up, we decided to elope in Canada. We made a pitstop in Copenhagen on our way to Vancouver to see his parents before we legalized our union.

Even though Gökhan’s mother and I did not speak the same language, I wanted her to like me. I understood that the nikah was pivotal to his pious mother. I was not against it, but I also did not want to give her the impression that I was willing to convert to Islam. I am proudly secular, which caused major friction when Gökhan and I first started dating.

“If you want to be with me, and be accepted by my family, you will need to convert,” he said—it was the only time I remember Gökhan being adamant about anything.

“No.” I stared at him as if he had warped into a goat. Converting to Islam was unthinkable. Being secular is my mode in life, and I was not willing to change it.

He explained that all I had to do was to pretend, to do it for a show, which was what he had done his whole life. I still refused. He called me spoiled, stubborn and selfish. I cried but persisted. It was a battle of wills that lasted the whole day.

“If you love me, you will accept me for who I am,” I argued, my eyes blazing. “You wouldn’t ask me to compromise my integrity.”

Eventually, I broke him down with a combination of persistence and tears. “You won’t need to convert,” he said, hugging me. “I will talk to my mother.”  

It was no surprise that Gökhan yielded—I was the girl who always had her way. “Don’t smoke in the mall,” Mama used to glare at me when I was on my way out of the house when I was in high school, “someone might see you.”

You don’t want me smoking in the mall? I did just that with abandon. Don’t want me dating white guys? I did, just to make you cringe. Oh, you would disown me if I got a tattoo? I did, just to test you.

Gökhan was right: I was spoiled. Mama relented, and Gökhan did too.

My initial experience with Islam was when I moved to Dubai for my first job as a librarian, about ten months before meeting Gökhan. My first impression was that it was strict and conservative. I had to abandon wearing skirts to work because it was indecent to show my knees. The religion forbade many things that I enjoyed, such as alcohol and pork. During Ramadan, even non-Muslims could not have a sip of water in public. However, I kept an open mind. I wanted to be involved with my future husband’s traditions.

When Gökhan told me about nikah, I knew nothing about it. He described it as an engagement to tell Allah that he, Gökhan, had chosen me, Kayo, to be his wife. That did not sound awful—it seemed like a symbolic ceremony. I agreed that I was willing to take part in the nikah, as long as I did not have to convert to Islam. He talked to his mother who agreed that I would not have to. Overjoyed that her son would no longer live in sin, she invited the whole extended family, prepared an elaborate spread, and summoned the prestigious imam, a religious leader, who would officiate the ceremony.

I had no idea what I signed up for.

On the day of the nikah, I was in the center of the room wearing an ivory, ankle-length, cotton maxi dress with grey embroidered flowers at the hem. I’d bought the dress a few days before because it was long and covered my legs. However, the top portion was too revealing for Islamic taste, so I wore a grey cardigan, buttoned-up all the way, which hid my tattooed arm and immodest cleavage.

Gökhan’s three aunts were fussing around me, trying to pin a lavender pashmina over my head as a temporary headscarf. His little sisters, aged 11 and 13, whose room had turned into a bridal dressing room, stole curious glances at me. When I returned their stares with grins, they gasped, turned their heads and looked away. His boisterous aunts laughed and chatted in a combination of Turkish and Danish. They clamored and made animated gestures with their hands and clapped as they giggled over some anecdote I couldn’t understand. I stood amid this commotion with a dumb smile on my face and nodded my head as Gökhan’s only English-speaking aunt asked me if I was doing okay. Despite the chaos in the room, a part of me was having fun, soaking up his aunts’ contagious excitement. I felt euphoric and found myself smiling more as time passed. I was putting the finishing touches on my makeup when Gökhan poked his head in the room, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute in the next room?” he asked in a quiet voice, avoiding my eyes, his thick, dark brows furrowed.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

***

How did I, my mother’s rebellious and stubborn daughter, ended up participating in nikah with a Danish-Turkish guy she had only dated for less than a year? The truth was that the defiant teenager who continually stretched boundaries and pushed her mother’s buttons found herself a lost and scared 26-year-old woman in the Middle East.

I was born in Japan to Taiwanese parents and grew up just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. I always prided myself on being an adaptable third-culture kid—I was fearless and foolish. Fresh out of graduate school, I moved to Dubai to start my first job as a librarian, even though I would not have been able to find the city on an atlas. 

When I first got on the transport bus to the terminal of the Dubai International Airport, I burst into tears—the warm and humid air tinged with dust reminded me how far away I was from home. Homesickness was only one of the many challenges I faced in Dubai. For the first month, I tried to get an internet connection in my apartment to stay in touch with my faraway family and friends. I spent all my free time going to Etisalat, the national internet provider. Each time, I spoke to an indifferent woman at the counter who wore a black headscarf and emitted an intense frankincense perfume. Each time, she told me, “two weeks, in’shallah.” Each time, I left the building defeated and depressed. Before I knew any better, I was convinced that ‘in’shallah’ meant ‘go away.’ It took over two months for me to have an internet connection at home.

On the weekends, I would roam around the city wide-eyed, trying to absorb this strange, desert landscape filled with glitzy shopping malls and imposing skyscrapers surrounded by endless construction sites. As I walked by in my short-sleeve t-shirt and knee-length skirt, South Asian workers gawked at me with their unblinking, saucer eyes. I ran away to divert their gaze. I was confused, misunderstood, and isolated from everything and everyone I knew.

Within days of arriving in Dubai, I cried on the phone to Mama. After three days of crying, Mama broke down and came for a visit. She cooked for me, helped me settle into my new apartment, and we explored the city together. We shopped in the souk, went dune bashing in the desert, and had afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab. However, after she left, I was even more homesick and lonely, which drove me to go out to meet new people. Eventually, I made friends with other expatriates, young women close to my age who had also moved to Dubai for their careers. But they did not ease my sense of alone-ness. What I wanted was someone to come home to and wake up next to every morning. Someone who would understand me, someone to go on adventures with, someone who would take me away from this loneliness and despair. After dating Gökhan for a few months, I thought he could be that person.

The truth is, my definition of a good relationship was simplistic and naive. I did not know a thing about a healthy relationship—as a teenager, I watched my parents struggle with their marriage. At the tender age of fifteen, I found out that Baba, my father, had been cheating on Mama.

Baba was a travel guide and was often away from home. At this time, Mama was in her mid-30’s, but she dressed and acted like a much older woman— a dedicated mother whose husband was away for long periods. Since Mama spent her days cleaning and cooking, she paid little attention to her appearance. Her clothing of choice consisted of dowdy, faded sweatsuits. Her world revolved around Baba, my younger brother Davis, and me.

Before school one morning, I was eating my eggs sitting on the high stool next to the kitchen counter when I heard Mama scream Baba’s name. I am not sure what business Mama had poking around Baba’s black nylon side bag— maybe she was putting something in there, or perhaps she was looking for something for him— either way, she pulled out a love letter in Baba’s handwriting, addressed to another woman. 

Mama lost her mind with this discovery. She wanted answers. She needed reassurance. She demanded Baba to explain himself. He could not. He ran out of the door with his luggage to catch a flight and left behind Mama who had turned into a wailing mess. I do not remember how I got to school that day.

After school, I found Mama standing disheveled in the middle of the kitchen, wearing her frumpy, pale pink cotton nightgown even though it was three o’clock in the afternoon. With tears streaming down her face, she wailed and screamed that she wanted to die. She clutched a crumpled-up letter in one hand and with her other hand, made slashing gestures with a kitchen knife as if she was going to slit her wrist. I was terrified.

Several days later, I came home, and the house was silent. Before this whole fiasco, Mama always had a snack ready by the time I came back from school, like a brothy bowl of Taiwanese-style beef brisket noodle soup, savory braised pork with rice, or flavorful soy-sauce marinated chicken wings. But that day, when I wandered into the kitchen, she wasn’t there. She was not at her usual station in front of the stove, engulfed in tantalizing steam coming out of a bubbling pot that she was stirring, telling me that my snack would be ready soon.

The eerie stillness was a stark contrast to what had happened in the kitchen only a few days before. I began to search the house to make sure Mama had not hurt herself. At the entrance to my parents’ room, I held my breath, turned the doorknob, pushed open the door and tip-toed inside. I entered the room inundated with the stale, feminine odor of unwashed hair—the scent of desperate sadness. Mama was asleep and snoring loudly even though it was the middle of the afternoon. Her jet-black hair matted on the cream-colored pillowcase. Her usually smooth forehead crinkled with despair—even in her sleep, she was in agony. On the nightstand, I saw bottles of pills. Sleeping pills, seductive, secret sleeping pills that promised peace and a pain-free slumber. I picked up a bottle and rattled it—it was almost empty. I gathered every bottle in sight and took them. I rushed into my bedroom and threw them in the bottom drawer of my nightstand where I had stashed all the knives in the house a few days earlier.

At an impressionable age, I learned that my parents were not gods—they are flawed human beings. Watching my mother’s meltdown caused by my father’s infidelity, I discovered the dire consequences of being emotionally dependent on a spouse. I told myself back then that I would never want to be in her position. I would never allow my love for a man to turn into ammunition that he could use to maim me. I also learned the importance for a woman to be financially independent—with no economic means, Mama could not leave Baba even if she wanted to. She was an old-school, conventional Asian housewife who had never worked a day outside of her home.

During this dark time, I was overwhelmed and did not know how to process my conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I was angry. How could Baba betray Mama when she dedicated her whole life to us? At the same time, as a Daddy’s Girl, I was confused. Baba was indulgent, showering me with his affection and bringing me trinkets from his trips. When I needed help with my chemistry homework, he was attentive and patient. He was also a fun-loving father who took me and Davis snowboarding on the weekends. I knew he loved Davis and me, but his affair broke Mama’s heart and spirit. I did not understand how such an amazing father could be such a shitty husband.

I developed unhealthy relationship patterns around this time—I worried about men cheating on me or leaving me, but I also desperately dreaded being alone. My strategy was to become infatuated with a person and charm him with attention—the goal was to have him fall hopelessly in love with me, so he would not cheat or leave. At the same time, because I never wanted to be dependent on a man for my financial well-being, I moved around for my education and career. I never stuck around for anybody.

On the surface, I seemed accomplished and strong, but underneath, I was insecure and lonely. The tough girl who smoked and defied her mother was just a façade. Since having my first boyfriend at seventeen, I had not been single for more than a few months at a time. Like a rabbit chased by an unknown assailant, I dashed from one man to the next, looking for someone to validate me, to calm the nagging, neurotic voice inside my head: I would never find someone who would love me because I am always “too” something. I am too fat. I am too emotional but also too ambitious. I am too crazy, too free-spirited. I talk too fast, think too much, and has too many feelings. I am too strong-willed, and at the same time, too needy. Over and over again, this voice whispered to me throughout my relationships. With every failed relationship, it confirmed that I was unlovable.

When I met Gökhan, the nagging voice subsided. We connected on OkCupid and hit it off. He was living in Copenhagen and seemed like a reliable and attentive man. He was cute too, with wavy, dark brown hair, deep-set mahogany eyes, a straight nose, and a thoughtful demeanor. He quieted my anxiety with his patient, soothing voice. We fell asleep talking to each other on Skype many nights. I felt safe having him in my life.

The start of our relationship was a sweet and romantic internet fairy tale that spanned continents. After chatting online for three months, we met in person in Istanbul. On our second night together, Gökhan and I climbed several flights of creaky stairs to reach the rooftop of one of the budget hotels in the Old City. Opening the door to the terrace, the twilight before sunrise greeted us. Gökhan draped a blanket around me when he saw me shivering in the chilly, pre-dawn gust. Then, groping his way in the darkness, he led me to the shabby lounge on the far side of the terrace. We shuffled in our flip-flops, trying to suppress our giddiness. I looked up, enchanted by the constellation above me. As my gaze followed the horizon, I saw the flickering white lights from the boats and ferries dotting the Bosphorus, the strait that functions as a border between Asia and Europe. The twilight was misty, making it hard to see where the sky ended and the Bosphorus began. Over the railing of the terrace were the muted shadows of the shops, homes, and hotels of Old City, peacefully asleep. All around us, the shutters were drawn, the lights dimmed, and it was quiet. We sat bundled up on the lounge in the blanket. I was snuggling up next to a man whom, days before, I had only seen on a computer screen. He bent down and planted a kiss on my lips.

“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Ash hadu an la ilaha illal lah…” the muezzin called out the first stanza of the haunting and melodic adhan at the crack of dawn to remind all Muslims it was time for the opening prayer of the day. My eyes flew open. To my surprise, my surroundings had transformed. Twilight had receded, and in its place, the sun emerged. The first pink and orange rays illuminated the sky, chasing away the stars. I rubbed my eyes as the sunshine warmed my face inviting me to crawl out of the warmth of Gökhan’s arms. At dawn, the Bosphorus was no longer shrouded in a mysterious mist– it was bustling with ferries and ships moving back and forth between Asia and Europe. The city below was no longer sleeping; it was buzzing with horns and chatter as people arose from their beds to begin a new day. I was in awe of Istanbul’s transformations between night and day. Looking at Gökhan’s handsome face on this brand-new day, I kissed him before we headed back to our room. I was happy and in love.

***

Less than a year later, we faced a conundrum.

I followed Gökhan out of the room and closed the door as his aunts and sisters giggled behind us. We entered the next room, which was his parents’ bedroom and he sat me down on the edge of the bed. Averting my quizzical eyes, Gökhan said, “When the imam asked me what your religion was, I couldn’t tell him that you didn’t have one. So, I told him that you were a Buddhist. He said since you are of the Book—neither Christian nor Jewish, you would need to convert.”

             His words took a few moments to sink in. Once I understood the gravity of the situation, I started to panic. Did he know this was going to happen before talking me into the nikah?

“This is not part of the deal,” I shouted, shaking my head. The pins keeping my lavender headscarf in place pricked my scalp. “You promised that I didn’t have to convert if I go through the nikah!” I glared at him; my gaze was accusatory.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know,” he muttered, “You don’t need to go through with it if you don’t want to. It’s completely up to you.”

Is it up to me? No, it’s not up to me! I started to cry. Gökhan looked at me with his thoughtful eyes. He handed me a tissue. I dabbed my eyes, blew my nose, and shed more tears. I looked up and saw myself in his mother’s vanity mirror. The rebellious teenager inside me mocked my puffy face and smeared make-up—but I could not stop crying. Gökhan fidgeted next to me, occasionally patting me on the shoulder and repeating the phrase, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

Don’t you fucking understand? I shouted inside my head. From now on, we can never be truly happy together. If I don’t convert, your mother is going to hate me forever, and I am going to feel lousy making you choose between her and me. If I do convert, I will resent you for as long as I live. I kept my head bowed because I could not stand looking at the helpless expression on his face. I could not utter a word because if I tried verbalized my feelings, I would start wailing. The teenaged me would have walked out of the door without looking back. She was, however, overpowered by the decent Taiwanese daughter who did not want her future husband to lose face.

Looking back, I realized that I put myself in this messy situation on an impulse and deeply rooted fear. I was in love with the idea of being in love. I also loved having an exotic boyfriend who had grown up in a set of cultures that were vastly unlike mine. I bragged to friends that between the two of us, we had four passports. At the same time, it was my fear of being alone that drove me to this irrational decision to go through with nikah. Knowing what I know now, I should have walked away—coercion and compromised integrity are not a good foundation for marriage. However, as a third culture kid, I have been crossing borders and adapting to different cultures my whole life. I thought I was ready to cross a new one with Gökhan.

I was wrong.

I wept for an eternity, shed enough tears to fill the Bosphorous. The girl with a cigarette dangling between her fingers, dated white boys and covered herself in tattoos had turned into Gökhan’s bewildered bride. On the other side of the door, the imam was waiting for me to change my wicked, wayward ways and Gökhan’s entire clan was expecting us to profess our undying love and commitment to each other. I cried and cried like a lost child. I did not know how to get out of this mess.

Out of nowhere, Gökhan’s father walked into the room. He was smiling. He closed the door behind him and started laughing. I gave him a look of bafflement as he spoke rapidly in Turkish. He paused and nodded his head. Gökhan looked at me and interpreted what his father had said, “My dad said you are taking this whole thing way too seriously.” 

His father grinned at me, said a few more words and nodded again. Gökhan translated, “He said it’s totally fine if you don’t want to go through with it. But you could also put on a show by pretending to convert, which would make everybody happy.”

I stared at his father, shocked that he had just asked me to go out there and tell a lie in front of the whole family. He chuckled, nodded at Gökhan again and left without saying another word. What his father wanted me to do was what he had done, and what Gökhan had done his whole life: pretend and go through the motions to make peace. I felt defeated and exhausted. I forced my gaze back to Gökhan. Oh, what I would do just to make this awful situation go away!

 After taking a couple of deep breaths, I asked Gökhan to fetch my makeup bag from the next room. I cleaned my face with fresh tissue and wiped away the black smudge under my eyes. When Gökhan returned, I smeared a thick layer of foundation and powdered my face. Then, I applied a sparkly lilac eyeshadow that matched my lavender headscarf. Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I grinned. My eyes were still puffy; my smile looked pathetic but convincing enough to those who did not know me. I smiled again and knew that my mask was secure. I reached for Gökhan’s hand and led him out of the room.

Sadly, Mama’s rebellious Canadian daughter did not have big enough guns to fight the rebellion in Denmark. After all, I was only one young woman trying to keep my integrity abreast in the face of a conservative, cultural tidal wave.

I followed the imam, who told me to repeat the Shahada, the Arabic script that would declare me a Muslim. “La ilaha illa Allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allah,” which translates to “I testify that there is no other God but Allah, and Muhammad is God’s messenger.” The imam said it slowly, pausing after every few syllables to allow time for me to mimic the foreign sounds. Afterward, I signed a piece of paper that the imam had prepared. Shortly after, he declared us husband and wife. 

From that day, I resented Gökhan. I never forgave him for putting me through a conversion.

Our union did not last long. Four months after we arrived in Bahrain, the Arab Spring broke out. A series of protests swept across the Arab world. In Bahrain, the government cracked down on the demonstrations, which created an environment of fear and uncertainty. The turmoil made it difficult for Gökhan to find work. A year and a half later, when he finally secured a job in Dubai, our marriage crumbled. Instead of following him, I got a job in Hong Kong to be closer to my parents in Taiwan. We broke up.

Many years later, I found the lavender headscarf in my wardrobe. I am still in Hong Kong, but now married to a wonderful man who loves and accepts me just the way I am. Though painful, I learned so much from wearing the headscarf that day, like communicating expectations, and accepting the people I love for who they are, instead of trying to change them.  Even though going through nikah and living in Bahrain was challenging, I would not trade that experience for anything else. Without it, I would not have learned how to be in a loving and equal partnership. Taking one last look at the headscarf, I put it in the trash bin. I have come a long way— the girl who smoked in the mall has grown up and learned how to love herself. I now know that I am strong enough to be the person that I have become.

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The Forgotten 30 Houses

Originally published in Photography is Art, Issue 12, December 2018, pp. 118-125.  Photography by Johnny Gin

The original emerald windows are one of the unique features of tong lau from the post-war era. They give us a glimpse of Hong Kong’s past.

Tucked behind the trendy restaurants and bars on Staunton Street in the Central District of Hong Kong is a piece of history the rest of the city has forgotten. I climbed several sets of steep steps behind the Police Married Quarters (PMQ) to find a quiet, shaded neighbourhood of low-rise buildings, “tong lau,” arrayed around a network of granite steps, airy terraces, narrow lanes, ancient trees, and quaint little shops. Tong lau –literally “Chinese buildings” –were built in the late 19th century to the 1960’s. They were used as tenement housing in southern China, Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, 30 Houses is a charming neighbourhood that is only accessible by foot. The area’s core is Shing Wong Street, named after the guardian god of cities whose temple once stood on the current site of the PMQ. There are tong lau on both sides of Shing Wong Street, most being two or three storeys tall. Facing Staunton Street stands a taller grey building. Between Staunton Street and Caine Street are many small lanes that consist of tong lau and vacant lots. Once upon a time, tong lau stood in these lots. The ground floors were used as storefronts for print shops and other small businesses while the shop owners and their families lived in the upper floors.

Folding gates made with corrugated iron emblazoned with floral patterns is a common feature of tong lau in the 30 Houses neighbourhood.

The name “30 Houses” likely originates from an earlier 19th-century development destroyed by bombing during World War II. After the war, the government and local landowners redeveloped the area, and it became a vibrant working-class neighbourhood. Over the years though, the tong lau were torn down to make room for modern high-rises. As these new residential developments sprung up in the area, the “kai fong,” the neighbourhood residents started to move away.

I learned about this alluring and nostalgic area from Katty Law, a neighbourhood activist serving as the convenor of the Central and Western Concern Group. As a kai fong, she grew up on Caine Road and has watched her home neighbourhood transform.

“I’ve lived in the neighbourhood for over 40 years,” Ms. Law mused. “When I was young, there used to be a lively street market on Staunton Street. Now people see little trace of it.”

Not only are the original grocery shops, and dai pai dong, traditional open-air food stalls, have gone years ago, many of the remaining tong lau have also become dilapidated shells of their former glory. The Hong Kong Urban Renewal Authority (URA) has been planning to tear down the tong lau to build luxury apartments. But 30 Houses isn’t just any neighbourhood: with 19th-century layout and building orientation and early 20th-century architectural style and construction techniques it represents something unique in the city. The tong lau are rare examples of the post-war urban residential neighbourhoods built between 1948 to 1958. They make a striking contrast with the surrounding high rises, built in the more recent years. Once these historic structures are destroyed, a part of Hong Kong will be lost forever.

Human memory is faulty and ephemeral; it only remembers what the eye sees. Once a building is gone, it fades away and eventually disappears from the collective consciousness. Fortunately, photography has been a medium to document and preserve buildings and communities in the brink of disappearance. In 1967, American photographer Danny Lyon made images to give testament to the transformation of lower Manhattan. He was able to record the process of turning an abandoned mid-19th-century working district of markets, warehouses, showrooms, and hotels, to complex high-rises that eventually became the heart of the financial district, where the World Trade Center once stood. Lyon’s work was turned into The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1969), which seized the rare moments before the disappearance of a neighbourhood.

The curved balconies of 88-90 Staunton Street can be seen while climbing the steps on Shing Wong Street. They add to the structure’s old-timey charms.

Johnny Gin is a Hong Kong-based photographer. His interest in buildings, and specifically, how the built environment and vernacular landscapes inform the identity of a city led him to photograph the 30 Houses area.

Gin’s lenses captured various stages of development and decay in the area. Wing Lee Street, made famous by the 2010 film, Echoes of the Rainbow is one of the few to have escaped demolition. The tong lau on this street have been restored by their owners but are missing many of their original details, such as emerald iron balcony fences, matching window frames, and folding gates made with corrugated iron emblazoned with the name of businesses.  They now look uniform, stripped away of the eccentricities that made them intriguing.

Behind the tong lau on Wing Lee Street is a massive retaining wall—another marker of Hong Kong history. Since the original City of Victoria –the colonial name for Hong Kong –sits on a steep slope, 19th-century engineers dug an “L” shape onto the side of the hill to clear flat land to build on. On the long end, they used locally sourced granite to construct a sturdy retaining wall, matching the flagstones on the neighboorhood’s stairways. Trees have sprung up in the gaps in the wall, their unruly roots stretched out like spider webs across the wall, leading locals to call them “wall trees.” (石牆樹)

Wah In Fong West is a narrow street, one side facing a row of tong lau across from a stairway. This arrangement reflects the original orientation and plot size of first and second-generation tong lau in the Tai Ping Shan area, a densely populated zone struck by the plague of 1894. Nowadays, it is the only remaining two-storey tong lau built alongside the granite steps in Old Central. Tragically, these unique homes are among the most deteriorated structures in the 30 Houses area. Their facades obscured in bamboo scaffold and mesh, the upper floors are barely perceptible from the street. Even so, remnants of their past are still evident: the emerald balconies with their original plant holders and the storefront signs mark what once was a print shop near the top of the alley.

This concrete building features the ventilation shafts in the staircases, providing airflow in the hot and humid summers.

My favourite building in the area is the imposing four-storey concrete building at 88-90 Staunton Street. Rusty metal gates obscure the store sign, but the ground floor might have been a “Cha chaan teng,” a traditional café that served affordable Hong Kong style western food. I imagine this is where the kai fong gathered for breakfast before work. One of its most striking features, common in neighbourhood buildings, are the long vertical ventilation shafts carved at the front of the building. These provide much-needed airflow through the staircases, especially during the hot and humid summer months. Rounded balconies, visible from the Shing Wong Street steps, add to the old-timey charm.

The best-preserved tong lau can be found on Shing Wong Street, three-story structure split through the middle with ventilation shafts. The owners kept all of their original features through recent restorations, including balcony railings, window fixtures, and folding iron gates. Storefronts occupy ground floors, while upper levels are reserved for rental properties.

As a long-time resident of Hong Kong, I probably walked by this hidden architectural wonder hundreds of times on my way to the bars and restaurants in the area. However, the tong lau, sitting halfway up the hill, are very easy to miss. They have been tucked away, decaying while their surrounding areas develop rapidly. With photographic evidence created by Gin, it is easy to see that though the tong lau are in a terrible and potentially dangerous condition, they embody the passing of time and tell the stories of Old Hong Kong.  Even though they can be seen as an eyesore to those who don’t understand their history, there is a potential to restore and repurpose these old tong lau and turn them into social housing that Hong Kong desperate needs, artists’ residences to allow creative pursuits, and retail spaces to attract tourists. Ms. Law and her group are advocating to preserve them as part of Hong Kong’s history.

“It is so important to keep the original character of these buildings, as they are a culmination of history,” Ms. Law said, “Perhaps Shing Wong, the guardian god of the city, is protecting our area. After all, the buildings still stand today.”

Notes:This text is based on the research done by Katty Law, Charlton Cheung, and Sjoerd Hoeksta for the Central and Western Concern Group.

The author has read The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time by Joel Smith (Princeton University Art Museum, 2011) to learn about Danny Lyon’s work in The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1967).

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Fancy but Faux? The Instagram Libraries of China

By Kayo Chang Black

HONG KONG— In the recent years, China has been building some of the most ambitious libraries in the world—and the country needs them. As of 2016, China has 3,153 public libraries for a population of 1.38 billion. To put it in perspective, the U.S. has 9,082 libraries as of 2015, serving a population of 325.7 million.

Public libraries in China

Source: https://0-www.statista.com.library.scad.edu/statistics/226455/number-of-public-libraries-in-china/ from Statista, May 6, 2018

When Tianjin Binhai Library opened its doors in 2017, it was every book lover’s dream come true—at 33,700 square meters and five levels, there is enough shelf space for 1.2 million books.  The library has also become one of the most coveted Instagram locations—thousands of visitors flock to the library to take a selfie in its gorgeous atrium lined with millions of books.

A library user at the atrium of Tianjin Binhai Library, April 18, 2018. (Personal Picture/ Leslie Montgomery)

The images of this fantastic library piqued Leslie Montgomery‘s curiosity. Leslie is a Hong Kong-based photographer, videographer the driving force behind DesignAsia – a documentary series that follows designers and artists and their creative pursuits. The images of the Tianjin Binhai Library inspired Leslie to not only visit that library but to also explore other architecturally-interesting libraries in China. In the fall of 2017, she visited LiYuan Library, Mulan Weichang Visitor Center, and finally, Tianjin Binhai Library.

Like many, Leslie has a soft spot for libraries. She used to spend her afternoons in her local public library after school to wait for her mother to finish work. However, she didn’t think about the roles of libraries before her trip. “For me, it started purely on a visual and aesthetic level.” She said, “Libraries were like the medium and then behind that, it was just architecture.”

Leslie’s adventure started in Beijing. She traveled for 1.5 hours north to Jiaojiehecun. LiYuan library is nestled in the lush hills, and it looks like a contemporary version of the wooden house made by one of the Three Little Pigs—the outer wall of the building consisted of thousands of individual twigs.

LiYuan Library from the outside, April 10, 2018. (Personal Photo/Leslie Montgomery)

Inside, bookcases line the walls, and there are blocks of bookshelves throughout the library too. They function as storage for books and steps for users to reach for a book on a higher shelf. Even though there are no chairs in the library, the multi-layer bookshelves created cozy nooks and spaces for people to curl up with a book.

Interior of LiYuan Library, April 10, 2018 (DesignAsia/Leslie Montgomery)

Then, Leslie went to Inner Mongolia in the northeast of Heibei province to visit the library of Mulan Weichang Visitor Center. Historically, emperors held their autumn hunting festival on this stunning landscape where the grassland ends and the sky begins.

The welcome committee of Mulan Weichang Visitor Center, April 14. (Personal Photo/Leslie Montgomery)

The visitor center is made of locally sourced materials such as stones, used wood beams, and rattan—it is also shaped like the yurt, which is the traditional housing in the region.

The core of the building is the lobby, which is where the library is located. Inside, it is bright, with lots of natural light from the dome-light ceiling windows.

The library portion of the Mulan Weichang Visitor Center, April 13, 2018. (Personal Photo/Leslie Montgomery)

While Leslie was in awe of the design of each and every one of them, she questioned whether or not they are “real” libraries. She ponders about the role of these libraries.

Many visitors of Tianjin Binhai Library felt the same way. To their dismay, they found out that the millions of books in the atrium are not real —they are painted.

Are these new libraries in China just fancy buildings with books in them? What purpose do they serve?

Agnieszka Gorgon is a librarian whose 12 years career spans across Dubai and Toronto. In the clip below, she discusses the role of public libraries in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Interview with Agnieszka Gorgon, April 29, 2018. (Personal —Video/Kayo Chang Black)

Public libraries have always served their community. What about these fancy libraries in China?

As Agnieszka stated, one of the core functions of public libraries is to connect with the community and to educate and inform the community. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) is a non-profit organization that provides best practices guidelines for libraries around the world. According to the Statement of Libraries and Development, libraries provide a vital role in providing equal access to information for all, as well as giving their communities opportunities to learn and empower them to self-develop.

However, the designers were not thinking about helping users when they design the libraries. For example, Li Yuan Library opened its door to the public in 2011. Its designer, Li Xiaodong, an architect and a professor at Tsinghua University, created the perfect space and filled it with books. In an interview, Mr. Li said he intended to create a tourist attraction for the village, a place busy Beijingers can escape to on the weekend.

Interview with Li Xiaodong, April 10, 2018. (DesignAsia/Leslie Montgomery)

While the library is an ideal place to read, are there any plans to update their book collection and develop programs for the local residents? “I don’t think they’re really focusing on the books or the literature,” Leslie said about the collection of books in the libraries, “[Mulan Weichang Visitor Center and Library in Mongolia] rely on donations for books so you can imagine you know what their collection is like. These spaces are beautiful, and people take pride in these spaces. But as libraries, they really need to invest in what they’re putting inside.“

On the surface, these libraries are extraordinary and architectural wonders. However, without investing in their collections and programming, they are mere eye candy, for visitors to come in, snap a photo for their social media and leave.

“[After visiting the libraries] I feel like maybe the libraries were more built as pieces of architecture. However, to make them attractive, they need to give the buildings some meaning. Libraries are perfect for providing a meaning—they are wholesome, make people feel welcomed and it’s a place of learning.”

While it is a good sign that the number of libraries is increasing in China, there is so much potential for these libraries to be more than mere photo-ops. With more care and funding, they can transform their communities, while still serving as a tourist attraction.

 

 

 

 

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Tying The Knot On All Hallows’ Eve

With the rustling of fallen leaves under my feet and the smell of roasted pumpkin in the air, I have always anticipated Halloween: the candies, the parties, and most of all, the costumes. Dressing up was always my favorite part. I’d spend months planning the perfect costume. Two years ago, I decided to blend my two loves by marrying the man of my dreams on Halloween.

Baz Luhrman’s film, The Great Gatsby, made me dream in art deco: the flowy frocks, the bling-bling headdresses, and the never-ending party. I fell in love with the romantic-yet-somber aesthetics of leather driving gloves, and matte vintage flasks in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. I adored the idea of neurotic vampires, Adam and Eve, who collected ancient books and expensive guitars. The star-crossed lovers traveled around the world to be with each other, despite their undead circumstances.

My heritage inspired my wedding, too. As a Taiwanese Canadian woman, I always wanted a Chinese-style wedding dress, slim-fitting silk qipao with a Mandarin collar.

The Art deco style wedding party.

Janet Wong, a SCAD alumna, seamlessly assembled my ideas and eclectic sensibilities. She created the perfect dress for my three flower girls and myself.

“It’s black!” Mom gasped on my wedding day when she saw the dress. Well, it’s not quite black—it’s a shimmery, silvery black. A full-length dress with a Mandarin collar that cinches at the waist, embellished with delicate silver and black sequins in a zigzag pattern.

I commissioned a headpiece from Debbi Harrison Bond, an accessory designer. She used vintage glass rhinestones to craft my Daisy Buchanan-inspired sparkler. My nails were shellacked black dusted with gold glitter at the tips. To my art deco sapphire and diamond engagement ring, we added a simple white gold wedding band.

Art deco style headdress.

My three flower girls, the adorable sisters, were dressed in the innocent, timeless aesthetic of The Great Gatsby. They had ivory silk tops embroidered with traditional Chinese patterns of fish, Phoenix, and dragons. To complement my dress, their ensembles featured Mandarin collars. Each dress had a different gauzy, sweet, vanilla tutu. They wore little flower hairbands and golden ballerina flats.

My adorable flower girls.

My talented husband created my wedding bouquet of white tiger lilies and cheerful orange daisies wrapped in regal black-silk ribbon. I wore my mom’s double-strand pearls, matching earrings and glistening dark-grey shoes given to me by my friend, the mother of the flower girls.

My love and I.

After the ceremony, it was time for the costume party. Even my mom had a good time. Once the sheer top layer of my dress was removed, a knee-length dress was revealed underneath. Traditionally, Chinese brides change into three outfits during the wedding reception, but I didn’t want that for myself. My shorter dress gave me the freedom to move about, socialize and dance. My groom and I were vampires, joined together by eternity against all the odds.

Photography by Nikki Li and Ann Chih

This article originally appeared in The Manor.

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Dive-chic bars in Wan Chai

In this great city of Hong Kong, there are endless options of brunches during the weekend, great deals during happy hour, and amazing new restaurants opening all the time. However, if you want to have a nibble and a drink somewhere low-key, and at the same time, friendly to your wallet, check out the following dive-chic bars in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay:

Tai Lung Fung
Surrounded by old movie posters and vintage toys from the 60’s, walking into this dimly lit, red-hued bar is like travelling back in time. With a tasty cocktail made by one of the many lovely bar staff, you will feel nostalgic for the romantic yesteryear of old Hong Kong. It’s the perfect place to hang out with some friends over skewers and drinks.

Tai Lung Fung, 5 Hing Wan Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, p. 25720055, 灣仔慶雲街5號

Thaiwan
This up-and-coming favourite on the calmer side of Ship Street looks like a hip Taipei bar with its exposed concrete walls and a corrugated sheet metal bar painted in a brilliant red. The delightful décor displaying Taiwanese and Thai traditional ornaments reflect the quirky sensibilities of Erik, from Taiwan and Debbie, from Thailand. This husband-and-wife team along with their brother Alex, run this casual and cozy bar. They have a well-curated beer selection that you can enjoy with the best Taiwanese sausages and Thai snacks in town.

Thaiwan, Shop 3, G/F, Greatmany Centre, 31 Ship Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, p. 37096595, 灣仔船街31號智群商業中心地下3號舖

Shack Tapazaka
An exposed, black-iron clad exterior gives Shack Tapazaka a cool vibe. They have a nice selection of gins, whiskies and sake that you can sample with some edamame, grilled chicken skewers and other Japanese snacks. If you are worried about having bad breath on a date, do not panic. This bar offers mouthwash in the loo to ensure that you are always minty fresh.

Shack Tapazaka, G/F, 1-1A Yiu Wa Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, p. 25556058, 銅鑼灣耀華街1-1A號地下

Moonshine & the Po’Boys
Illuminated by lamps made from colourful mason jars and accented by eclectic Mardis Gras beads, Moonshine & the Po’Boys is tucked away on Sun Street. Try their mouth-watering delicacies from New Orleans, such as swamp gator nuggets and shrimp & grits, and wash them down with a feisty cocktail made with bacon flavoured bourbon.

Moonshine & the Po’Boys, G/F, 4 Sun Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong,  p. 27762668, 灣仔日街4號地下

Cinta-J Restaurant & Lounge
Near the heart of Lockhart Road, Cinta-J is special like no other. The tables, booths, and the seating style is reminiscent of an American style diner. However, with kitschy paintings collected from different parts of Asia gracing its walls, the place looks a Denny’s that has gone rogue. At night, the stage lights up the whole place and their house band plays dancey tunes. In addition to their standard selection of drinks, they serve a diverse selection of delicious snacks from different parts of Asia, which is the perfect way to cap off an evening of fun.

Cinta-J Restaurant & Lounge, Shop G-4, Malaysia Bldg, 69 Jaffe Rd., Wan Chai, Hong Kong, p. 25296622 / 25294183, 灣仔謝斐道69號馬來西亞大廈地下

Wan Chai is only one of the many neighbourhoods in Hong Kong. Check out awesome places to hang out in Sheung Wan and Mong Kok.

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