Keywords: cityness, civilization, public life, urban archipelago
Chun-Yeung Street, an old street market, always serves as a “city in the city. It is undoubtedly the most active public space in North Point, making a contrast to those so-called public spaces elsewhere, where people’s behaviours are highly regulated. Through a close observation of the history of public life and the street itself, this article will demonstrate how vernacular streets become containers for cityness, and argue that the future city could only be re-framed on a series of such featured “islands”, forming a new urban “archipelago”. Therefore, Chun Yeung Street is a real city within a fake city. (99 words)
1.The fall of public life and city
People may feel quite embarrassed when participating in the modern public life: it is difficult to talk with strangers, or join collective activities. It seems plausible that we are getting more public spaces and the public life/the city is alive, but actually, they are declining, as the city is becoming just a homogeneous entity.
In this article, I would re-examine the history of public life briefly, and then take Chun Yeung Street as a case, to question the role of the shopping spaces, the transport spaces (infrastructure), the “public” spaces as well as the city block spaces. And finally, I will argue that, the vernacular streets are containers for the real cityness, which cannot be seen as places under-civilizing, and the future city will be re-framed or re-organized not through the modern architectures, but by a series of “islands”—the vernacular streets— where the real public life or the real cityness is preserved.
2.The origin of public life
Public space and public life have existed since the ancient times, before the formation of large cities. At that time, there were only hundreds of people in the city of Rome, and they spent almost all of their time in public spaces, mainly the plazas. They talked, debated, and even fought in public spaces, taking these as the most important part of their life. There was a clear division between public and private that, only those essential for living happened in the private domain, like sleeping, eating and making crafts. However, the public sphere offered an eternal and free world where people could enjoy themselves without any difficulty. Though conflicts existed at the same time, it was still clear that, it was the communications on the plazas that helped to form the first public man, thus, helped people to transmit information, know each other better, and form the city as a whole. On the other side, those who could not talk there, most of whom were slaves, lost not only the ability to get information, but also the rights to the public life.
Public life changed when a large number of people flowed into the city. Before they moved in, it was easy for people to identify others by observing the appearance, or just by talking, as people were used to succeed their family’s business and have their dressing codes. However, it was difficult to do so after the population boom, as most people came into the city alone without their families, and would take new business, which meant others could hardly know the class he was in or his job by simply observing his appearance. Therefore, people changed their way of talking that, they used an ornamental language instead of being honest.
Since then, it has become difficult for people to recognize or identify others on the streets, which means, the city was full of strangers, which is also the main feature of the modern cities. Then, the change in population brought people into the question of how to communicate with strangers and how to perform in a world full of strangers.
Together with the Industrial Revolution happened in the 19th century, this kind of changes leaded to the struggle that, on one hand, people were always trying to identify others and to communicate in order to get as much as possible information, but on the other hand, they did not have a clear identification even for themselves1, as they were always playacting in the public sphere, therefore, they finally came to a balance of passively participate in the public life, but actively keep their existence in it.
The concept of “the world is a stage” became to a reality in the 18th century that, people playacted in daily life almost as the same as the actors on stages. 2 The real world got mixed with a virtual world, which we could still see hints in modern life today.
We can find the concepts of “playacting” and “playing” of public life from that time. According to the Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, people are actually playing since being. They are playing games when debating, conquering, fighting, gambling, competing, composing a poem, or wooing. 3 It was quite evident that, people were also playing games when they joining the public life: they tried to conceal themselves, but at the same time tried to identify the others; they played a role of poor people when buying goods, in order to save money as much as possible; they sometimes suspended the will to identify others, in order to get more information; and most of the time, they dressed differently in homes and in the public spaces, not according to their own identities, but to show the one they would like others to know, in order to start a dialogue. This kind of playacting and playing constituted the main part of public life at that time.
It has changed little since the 19th century for the public life that, people just felt more and more unconfident about identification, both of others and themselves, and had more fear of participating in public life, thus, they developed the right of “not being disturbed” and “keeping silent” 4, which is seen as a symbol of civilization by modern people today.
The division between private and public domain has also become more evident in the recent 100 years. Though it was also clear in the ancient Rome time, it is apparent that, people spend more time in the private domain today, where they see the private places as “nature”, and they can identify themselves as well as others clearly.
It is an age of the death of public life. However, we still have the chance to change, and vernacular streets are among the places where the opportunity lies.
3.How people built public space and their public life today
Modern planning has failed in many cities. When crisis raised in cities, planners are always trying to solve that through a planning of the whole city. We should realize that, the population is decreasing in many large cities in developed countries, which means we could no longer plan a big city as it was planned before; and for the cities in developing countries, though still expanding and with an increasing population, they are actually declining at the same time, as the public life, the cornerstone of a city, is being broken down by its expanding.
Though the situation is opposite in the two categories of cities, it is an indisputable fact that, people in all modern cities are losing the real public life even though they are getting more spaces due to the planning of dedicated public space system. The government together with the capital is always trying to plan the public life in the city, taking all public spaces under their regulations, making it weaponized, and monitoring everyone on either the dedicated public spaces or the street markets.
Below is a diagram showing the conditions of several typical public spaces on the Hong Kong Island.
Fig.1 Analysis of the typical public spaces on the Hong Kong Island (Source: WEN Fan/M.arch studio)
Based on this diagram, we can easily find that, in order to keep a better order in the public spaces, people established a lot of regulations, in the name of “the right of not being disturbed” and “the right of keeping silent”, which are seen as the symbols of civilization by modern people.
Fig.2 Regulations for public spaces (Source: WEN Fan)
However, it is quite paradoxical that, when people do not talk, debate, or just talk with ones they can identify or are familiar with, what’s the difference between the so-called public space and private space? It then becomes to be an extension of private domain for the public space, as people do not need to be identified by others, hence they can dress themselves in whatever, and they can ignore all the other people as they have the right of “not being disturbed”. They can also talk about whatever they want, as they would only start a conversation with their friends. They do not need to playact anymore, as they are just behaving as the same as in homes when in public spaces.
It is even more interesting when we look into the shopping malls, which are often seen as public spaces. In the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution happened, people invented another mode of selling, which was the precursor of the modern supermarket that, all goods were labelled with their prices, with no bargaining. 5 The reason for the invention was that, with the Industrial Revolution, batch production became possible. Therefore, shops began to feature small profits but quick turnover and had many loyal clients, making more profits in total. This kind of tradition continues to happen in today’s supermarkets and shopping malls. People do not need to perform as poor people in order to get a lower price, as the prices are always fixed for everyone, which means, they do not need to help others identify themselves in order to start a dialogue; and they even do not need to talk when buying the goods that, they can behave as if they were at home. Hence, the so-called public spaces are just the overlapped areas of different private domains.
Fig.3 Commodities with price labels
However, we will find it quite different when we look into the public spaces on Chun Yeung Street, which means, we may have the opportunity to re-examine our city and find the public life back here.
4.The Chun Yeung Street case
4.1 The brief history of Chun Yeung Street
The history of Chun Yeung Street could date back to 100 years ago, when thousands of people from Fujian Province went to work in the South Seas region. At that time, there was not any reclamation in the north point area, which was just called as Tsat Tsz Mui harbour. The Fujian people would arrive here before going to their destinations, as this was a transfer station at that time. In the year of 1930, an overseas Chinese merchant named “Kwok Chun Yeung” planned to build a sugar plant in Hong Kong, and then got the permission to reclaim. However, due to the dropping down of the price of sugar, he changed his mind and built some residential buildings and shops here. Later, the street was named as “Chun Yeung Street” in memory of this merchant. 6
Fig.4 Chun Yeung Street in 1950s
Following that, more and more Fujian people came to Hong Kong, and settled down here, forming their own community. People who arrived here earlier opened shops selling goods from both Fujian and Southeast Asia, and then their relatives came to work and live with them. Gradually, they formed a city in the city, where people spoke only Fujian dialect, and knew each other well.
Later, due to the unstable political situations in mainland China, many people from Shanghai also arrived here, joining the community. But it was still a relatively separated world from the other part of city.
A new tramway was built here for the trams to turn round in 1953 7, and since then, trams and cars together with the people appeared on the street at the same time, which is still the only space for such a situation to happen in Hong Kong.
Fig.5 Chun Yeung Street in 2013
Today, more people flow into this area, which are Filipinos, as well as Indians. The street is worthy of the name of “city in the city”, no matter it is a Fujian City, a Shanghai City or an Indian City.
4.2 Hidden hints in the public life in Chun Yeung Street
Apparently, the public life in Chun Yeung Street is different from that in the other areas in Hong Kong, particularly from that in the so-called public spaces like parks and shopping malls.
Undoubtedly, as for the Fujian people, Shanghai people as well as the other foreign people, they all had a clear identification, not only the dressing code, the language, but also the similar poor living conditions. Therefore, it is easy for them to start a conversation on the streets. And they do help each other, in order to keep the community stable and alive.
When compared with the several phases in the history of public life, it is apparently more similar with that happened in the 18th century: people do not perform as free as those in the ancient Rome, but also know a little about the others, which means they could start a dialogue based on that. Therefore, they achieve a balance of participating in the public life that, they are playacting in the public sphere (they play a role when in the public), but still keep a relatively short distance.
4.2.1 The bargaining
People sell goods here just like those before the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution. 8 They just label their goods with the price of a single unit, which is different from that in the supermarkets, where all the goods are divided into small packages, with the total price labelled. This makes a difference in how people buying and communicating in the public domain.
In the modern supermarkets or shopping malls, people can hardly bargain as the price is always fixed. Then, they lose the opportunity to playact, which means they do not need to play a role, or help the seller to identify themselves, to start a conversation. They can finish shopping without talking to anyone.
While on the Chun Yeung Street, people can ask for any amount they want, and then the seller will tell the total price. They can then decide whether they need more or less, depending on the price. And sometimes, as there are only two or three sellers in most shops, who are most possibly the relatives of the shop keeper, they can ask for a discount. Therefore, people come to buy daily goods on Chun Yeung Street not only because the unit prices are lower here, but also for the possibility of bargaining, which means, they have the opportunity to playact, instead of being a silent man.
Fig.6 People buying food on Chun Yeung Street
Fig.7 People buying clothes on Chun Yeung Street
When people begin to bargain, they start playacting. As it is an essential to help others know “who you are” for starting a conversation. It is quite similar with the situation in the 18th century that, people try to play a role to help identify themselves 9: they speak Fujianese, they talk about their hometowns, or they can speak Cantonese with a clear Indian accent, which may also help others to know he/she is from India, to start a conversation.
Moreover, the price will fluctuate depending on how familiar the seller is with the buyer. People can often buy goods with better quality but lower price from their familiar sellers, hence, they will try to participate as much as possible in the public life, even if they are playacting all the time.
Therefore, by doing so, they not only get a lower price, keep the public life alive, but also have questioned how shopping can be part of real public life.
4.2.2 The tramway
The tramway is a special feature of Chun Yeung Street. It has not changed people’s life much, but implies and questions a lot that, who has the rights to roads.
It is obvious that people have been building more and more infrastructure in order to flow smoothly in the city, since the formation of large cities. And since then, it has become to be an end-to-end experience for people to live in a city. Moreover, those infrastructure have split cities into fragmented pieces, doing a great harm to the public life.
However, the situation is opposite on Chun Yeung Street that, people, instead of cars or trams, maintain their dominance of the road. Cars or trams have to yield to the people when they are on the street, and people can do whatever they want on the road, when the cars or trams are not there. As you can easily see even today, people hang the washing, dry their food, or just sit and chat on the road.
Fig.8 People living with tramways on Chun Yeung Street
We have another great example which is still happening not far away. Though being declared as an illegal activity, the Occupy Central still demonstrates a lot about who can have the rights to the roads, as well as to the city’s public spaces. Apparently, from the perspective of rights to the infrastructure/city/public space, the Occupy Central implies more than the Occupy Wall Street, which occupied only a private owned public space, with the permission from the owner.
In the Occupy Central activity, people took up the spaces of several roads, and formed self-organized communities, where they read, debated, played, demonstrated, and lived together. It was difficult for people to imagine what it would be once the roads were dominated by people instead of cars, before this activity. And from then on, people have realized that, they have lost many spaces that should have been allocated to them, for such a long time.
Fig.9 People walking on the roads in Occupy Central movement
Therefore, people could argue here that, they should have the rights to the public spaces in the city, particularly those that have been dominated by cars for centuries.
Actually, when looking back to the original image of street life shown in paintings like the “Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival”, we can easily find that streets are always the best places for public life to happen. However, we should also realize that it is impossible to go back to the time with no cars or trams. Then the case of Chun Yeung Street has questioned the role of roads and demonstrated to us what would happen when people keep the dominance of roads but still live with cars/trams at the same time.
4.2.3 The quarrelling
Inevitably, people will quarrel with others sometimes when they participate in public life. This kind of quarrelling is quite common on Chun Yeung Street as well as on the ancient Rome plazas. Sometimes, people quarrelled for others’ occupation of space, and sometimes, they just quarrel for tiny things. The most important thing here is not their quarrelling itself, but their ability to keep a balance that, they will chat or drink with each other after their quarrelling.
However, in order to keep an effective and efficient operation of the whole society, modern people establish a lot of regulations on themselves, most of which are trying to limit or suppress the conflicts among people. This kind of regulations do help them keep a stable society, but at the same time, drive people away from the public domain. It means communicating with people having different values for public life, thus, quarrelling, from another perspective, is a kind of communicating of values.
We could hardly see much quarrelling in the other areas, which people may see as civilized. While, we could also hardly see much public life in those areas, as people try to conceal themselves, in order to not break the laws, and keep away from any conflicts.
Similar with what’s happening on Chun Yeung Street, the newly invented public spaces in mainland China cities also imply a lot about the meaning of quarrelling to public life. Take Shenzhen as a typical example, where the government has planned a lot of public spaces for years. Ironically, it is not until these years that people started to use some of the planned public spaces in an informal way.
Fig.10 People occupied the pedestrian spaces for dancing in Shenzhen
Most of the public spaces in Shenzhen are believed not to be planned for dancing, but people dance in the spaces everyday these years, due to the popularization of Plaza Dance, a kind of collective activity by tens to hundreds of people. Furthermore, people even discovered a lot of spaces which were not designed as public spaces, like the space in front of a residential area, or the pedestrian spaces.
These spaces then became a superexcellent public space for people to communicate. People from surrounding areas will join the dancing regularly, attracting more and more people to participate in. By doing this, they are playacting like the men in the cafés of 18th century, who suspended the will to know who they were talking with, in order to get as much as possible information 10. Here, they gather and talk without a concern of the identities of others, in order to join the game, and keep a healthy body. They are just playing the role when they are on the dancing, and will change to another role when they leave.
Quarrels happen frequently since their dancing, as the neighbours always feel the background music as a noise 11, which has disturbed their daily life deeply, particularly when the people even dance from the morning to the evening. However, interestingly, due to the lack of good management of spaces from the government or the developers, people have to quarrel time after time, and finally come to a compromise that the dancers agree to turn down the volume, and the neighbours stop to report to the police. 12
Fig.11 People demonstrating their objection to noise from dancing music
Apparently, this kind of quarrels have not intensified the conflicts among people, but helped to form the new public life, without the planning or regulating from the government.
Here, in Chun Yeung Street, it questions the role of quarreling, which is always seen as the opposite of civilization, and questions the role of regulated public spaces.
4.2.4 The strangers
Undeniably, people have clearer identities on Chun Yeung Street, which has helped them to start a conversation. Let us see how people identify others by their “roles” on the street: people can identify the others through his accent, knowing whether he is from Fujian or India; people can identify the others through his appearance: as most people working there dress themselves according to what they do, then it becomes easy for others to know whether he is a porter, a shop keeper, or a driver; people can also easily identify others by their lifestyles, as people with different backgrounds will have different living customs.
Interestingly, as they can better identify others in detail, they spend less time in playing a role, which could explain even a newcomer is able to identify most of the people there.
When it becomes easier for people to identify others, even just for one side, there comes more possibility to start a conversation. When we entered the back alley just beside the Chun Yeung Street, where many shop assistants do washing and preparing there, it is of no difficulty for us to ask what they are doing, what is that for, or where they come from. In return, they will also talk with you about their gambling in last night, their sons who are also studying in architecture, or their secret of success in making preserved Sichuan pickle. They know they have shown you a clear identity, whether it is a playacting or not, then they have the will to know who you are; for you, you will also be happy to talk with them, as you’ve known who they are.
Fig.12 a local resident making preserved pickle, who is happy to be captured by strangers’ cameras
(Source: WEN Fan)
Fig.13 a local resident telling strangers how to burn the hair from pig’s feet
(Source: WEN Fan)
Fig.14 a local resident talking with strangers about her son who is also studying architecture
(Source: WEN Fan)
The situation is quite different when you enter the shopping malls or the Sun Yat-Sen memorial park. You will feel difficult to have a free conversation with people walking there, as you are strangers to both sides, and people will not be willing to talk much if they can hardly know who you are.
Fig.15 people in the Sun Yat Sen memorial park, enjoying their private worlds in a public space
The difference is that, when you enter the Chun Yeung Street, you are the only stranger, and the local people can quickly distinguish you as a stranger from outside, just like the Italians who could easily distinguish the Chinese entering their community in the 18th century. However, the city is not like a community where most of the people have identified each other, but a world full of strangers, since the population boom in cities.
Apparently, it is not because the people living in Chun Yeung Street have a special personality that they are more willing to show their identities. The attitudes towards strangers resulted from the scale of “community”, if we see the city as a large community. Then the Chun Yeung Street has actually questioned about the organization of city.
Plato has perceived the ideal society as a city-state of no more than 20,000 people. 13 It is partially supported here, by the fact that the city is going to lose its public life due to the population boom. We can make another reference here to help understand. In the 1970s, O.M.Ungers and Rem Koolhaas raised up their proposal of “”. The main hypothesis of this project was that the process of the de-population happened at that time, as well as the urban crisis could be then turned into a new opportunity for the city, thus, a composition of different architectural “islands”. 14
Fig.16 the City in the City - Berlin: A Green Archipelago
It was actually about a failure of planning happened in history, when the city of Berlin was in ruins caused by the destruction of war, mixed with its political intensity as the “capital” of the Cold War, and the decreasing population finally leaded to the impossibility of planning the urban. Therefore, Ungers and Koolhaas, the architects, tried to turn it into a site where the city no longer relied on planning, but was formed as a composition of architectural artifacts, turning the crisis itself into a very project of the architecture of the city 15, which was, similar to Koolhaas’s Manhattan, the city (unity) was re-framed not by the neutral grid, but by the identities from each plot (island) 16.
Based on the theory of “archipelago”, together with the conditions of Chun Yeung Street, I will argue that, a modern city with millions of people, should be an archipelago constituted by a lot of small-scale islands like the Chun Yeung Street, each of which has its own public life, instead of a homogeneous large-scale urban environment.
Fig.17 Rem Koolhaas. The City of the Captive Globe, New York, 1972
However, it is not criticizing on the grid system. According to Koolhaas, the grid itself is quite neutral, as each of its blocks has the potential to be a featured “island”, through vertical growing 17. While, the fact is that, we are fulfilling all the blocks with the same ingredients, which then come together to constitute the whole homogeneous city.
Here, the Chun Yeung Street has questioned and helped us to rethink about the scale of public life in a modern city.
Through several observations of the bargaining, the living with trams, the quarreling, as well as the attitudes towards strangers on Chun Yeung Street, we are actually trying to question the shopping spaces, the road spaces (the infrastructure), the fake “public” spaces, and the block spaces in the modern city: why the shopping spaces are driving us to keep silent; why the road spaces are always dominated by cars; why the “public” spaces are regulated heavily; and why the city is not good enough for strangers to start a conversation.
People may think the other areas are more civilized, while the Chun Yeung Street is still in its civilizing process. Then I will argue here, civilization does not necessarily lead to a development of culture, on the contrary, it is those seen as uncivilized behaviours, such as bargaining, occupying the roads, quarrelling, as well as “disturbing” others that have helped to form the public life of city, and conserve our culture, while the so-called civilization will only lead to a dehumanization.
Hence, I would like to make a further argument that, it is the vernacular streets like Chun Yeung Street that have helped kept the cityness of the city, formed the framework of the public life in the city, and become the only opportunities to re-frame the modern city. The future city will be organized not through its shopping malls, residential buildings or infrastructure, but though a series of “islands” where the real cityness exists.
Therefore, Chun Yeung Street is a city within the city, a real city within a fake city.
Fig.18 the City in the City – Berlin: A Green Archipelago 2013 Lars Müller publishers, Zürich.
- Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Knopf, 1977. 127.
- Ibid., p. 109.
- Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. 2.
- Ibid. 1, p. 3.
- Ibid. 1, p. 141.
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- Ibid. 1, p. 142.
- Ibid. 1, p. 110.
- Ibid. 1, p. 80.
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- Smitha, Frank E. "Plato the Essentialist." Macrohistory and World Timeline. January 1, 2010. Accessed December 14, 2014. http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/phil10.htm.
- Florian Hertweck, Sébastien Marot, The City in the City: Berlin : A Green Archipelago. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2013. 5.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- Bernd Evers, Thoenes Christof, and Kunstbibliothek. Architectural Theory: From the Renaissance to the Present. Köln: Taschen, 2006. 815.
- Ibid., p. 817.
- Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Knopf, 1977.
- Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
- Florian Hertweck, Sébastien Marot, The City in the City: Berlin : A Green Archipelago. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2013.
- Pier Vittorio Aureli, the Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.
- Rem Koolhaas, S M L XL, New York: Monacelli Press, 1998.
- Kwok Yan-chi Jackie, The Production of space in Hong Kong, Hong Kong: Crabs Company Ltd, 1998.
- Li Jun Long, A centenary date with Hong Kong tramways, Hong Kong: Tramric Product & Design, 2012.
- Shelton, Barrie, The making of Hong Kong: from vertical to volumetric, New York: Routledge, 2011.
- Annie Yau, From Chun Yeung street, North Point, Hong Kong: RTHK, 2012.