>Geese and Swans: Urban Planning in Cultural Context

>I went to hear a lecture on the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) movement.  This is a movement that is focused on transmitting knowledge on the planning elements that lead to creating successful public spaces and community.  For example, if public spaces have 10 different uses, then the chances of them being filled and vibrant are much higher than if the spaces are single purposes uses–and always include food!

The discussion that followed the lecture was quite interesting, because it involved trying to contextualize this movement into the Hong Kong experience.  Several planners and many geography and urban planning students were present and it was clear that the desire for more public space in Hong Kong is very strong.  Some of the challenges they described were the lack of democracy–what incentive was there for the government to respond to the popular will–and the overarching conflict between land values and public space with high land values always trumping the need for public space.

But one problem, I have to admit, I just would have not thought about.  Not too long ago, a public space was created with a nice pond with geese and swans.  Water is always a great draw in any culture, and who doesn’t like to take their children to feed the ducks and swans?  The geese and swans disappeared overnight.  I leave the rest of the story up to your imagination and the question of who was feeding whom.


>A Region of Migrants

>Hong Kong and the adjacent region of China is a land of immigrants.  In 1949 the population of Hong Kong was one million.  Today it is over seven million.  This means that almost everyone is from somewhere else.  But this “elsewhere” is not often talked about.  The migration into Hong Kong often involved fleeing poverty, war, and political oppression.  One of my friends told me that her father, as a teenager, fled with some siblings.  They had to swim across a rive and then crawl under a train and hold on in order to get across the border.  Her father saw at least one of his siblings drowned along the way.  You always get the sense in Hong Kong that people are trying to keep their options open because you never know what will happen.  If you can, send your children abroad to study and make sure they learn English.  Go abroad for awhile so you can get residency and maybe a passport from someplace else.  In many ways they represent the Chinese people in general who have migrated to all parts of the world in search of opportunity and stability.
Shenzhen, the industrial region across the border, had a population of 300,000 in 1979.  That is 300,000 people spread across quite a wide expanse of territory–2000 square kilometers (in comparison to less than 800 square kilometers of NYC).  Thirty years later, Shenzhen had more than fourteen million.  And the average age of the population was 27.  It has gone from farming villages to global industrial part in this time period.  If you own any manufactured object in the U.S. at least parts of it probably comes from Shenzhen.  One faculty I visited was making a great variety of plastic molded pieces from plastic pellets from Saudia Arabia for the U.S. market.  The transformation of the Pearl River Delta into this industrial area has involved the movement of manufacturing from the U.S. to Hong Kong to the region around Shenzhen.  It moved across the border to Shenzhen when the Chinese government began to set up Special Administrative Regions where the investment and “the market” was allowed to reign.  This was the first of these regions.  As manufacturing has migrated across borders, those places left behind have had to adjust their economy.  Hong Kong has become largely a service-economy.

A very small factory I visited–many have more than a quarter of a million workers who live in dormatories
Plastic pellets from Saudia Arabia

Deng Xiaoping, who established the “open” regions of China

Shenzhen is the border town equivalent to a Mexican border town.  You can take the train from Hong Kong to the border–10 miles from where I live–and walk across the border to an enormous “mall.”  I’ve been there once and never want to go back.  It is like walking into a maze with people trying to pull you aside and into shops.

A U.S. consulate employee decided to go visit the mall with some co-workers to so some shopping.  They all had diplomatic passports so they had to go through a special line at the border.  By the time they got to the mall all the shops had closed–the word came from the border that U.S. officials were coming and believe me, there is nothing authentic in the mall, but everything is name-brand.  I think you get the picture. 

If that was all I had ever seen of Shenzhen I would have been left with a very dismal picture indeed.  But Shenzhen must change itself into a place from which actual new ideas come.  It can no longer exist as the low-wage manufacturing center of the world–air pollution is terrible;  wages have begun to rise;  other areas of the world are now becoming competitive when it comes to low wages.  Shenzhen is trying to become a “cool” city, drawing the educated and innovative young.

Shenzhen, city Center
Shenzhen, Worker Housing in front
Shenzhen, communist work unit from past
Border area of Shenzhen
Shenzhen at night in border region

 One recent newspaper headline (SCMP) on the region read:  “Days of Manufacturing Glory Appear to be Over.”  Factories are moving inland.  Orders are down because of the global recession.  Another headline read (SCMP):  “Shenzhen seas seriously polluted.”  The articles says that only 38 percent of the coastal waters off the city were found to be clean.  Contamination comes from sewage, inorganic nitrogen and phosphates, and heavy metals. I’ve seen fish farms in these waters.

And whenever I start to feel self-righteous, I remind myself that I have relatively clean air and water at home–accomplished over the last forty years–primarily because I buy my manufactured goods from Shenzhen.

>Culture or personality or both?

>Hong Kong is complex because it has British citizens working in Hong Kong, some of whom might have grown up there.  It has Chinese residents–either from Hong Kong or from elsewhere.  It has American and Europeans, many of whom have lived in Asia for a very long time or not.  And it has Chinese residents who have spent a great deal of time abroad.  Sorting out culture and personality are challenging.

I was at a dinner with many colleagues recently and a Chinese colleague said of another Chinese colleague–“He still scares me.”  Now I know there is some controversy over this person and their management style, but much of it is lost on me since I don’t know the language.

My response to my colleague was to say that he did not scare me, but I found him to be direct, and that maybe I was also too direct at times due to my American culture.  “Oh, no. You aren’t too direct, but are quite polite and kind in your approach,” she assured me.  This was interesting because several Americans have told me in the past that I am too direct and short in my emails!

She then turned and pointed to an American who we work with and said, “She doesn’t seem very American.”  Well, I had to agree.  I had problems communicating with this American because I had expectations of directness that were never met and I chalked it up to her spending years working in Asia.  For example, when something didn’t go well on a project, the phrase that she used was, “but nobody is to take the blame.”  Now that is obtuse! Does this mean that we didn’t do something wrong–it was the outside party?  Or does it mean that we did make a mistake but we don’t want to admit it or take the blame for it?  Or is it that one person–perhaps the person who made the statement, or someone else–messed up, but we wouldn’t want to point it out?

Is it culture, or personality?  I have another Chinese colleague who I have always found to be very direct.  Yet, she is very prudent and careful in how she approaches problems-solving within the institution.  She is very careful to not cause others to lose face, etc.

I don’t know that I have come to any conclusions on the issue of culture or personality when it comes to communication styles  I do know that I’ve given up on cultural stereotypes as being helpful.  I think it is much easier and effective to just figure out what will work in a particular situation and context with the particular actors involved.  This kind of cultural flexibility is useful no matter where you are!

Hong Kong is a good place for challenging stereotypes because of the diversity of the population and the complexity of their experiences.

>Acculturation and Bus Routes

>Recently I was talking to a friend who is a Hong Kong native.  We discussed going to see a tombolo (if you don’t know what one is, look it up!) near Sai Kung in the New Territories.
     “Great!”  I said.  “We can take the 92 bus from Diamond Hill, right?”
 She looked at me with something of a surprise that I should know this bus route.  Our conversation soon turned to our lunch plans–a Thai restaurant in Kowloon City.  She mentioned that she thought that there was a mini bus that went there.
    “Yes.” I said.  “The 25M from Kowloon Tong.  But it is the bus terminal behind the mall, not in the mall.”
Now her surprise turned to amazement.  “So you know where it leaves from??!!”

Knowing bus routes is a measure of acculturation.  We no longer even pay attention along the routes–we know where we are going and board the buses like natives.  We even get on bus routes that we don’t know, assuming they will end up someplace that we will know.

The number 2A goes to Whampoa Gardens from Kowloon Tong. You can find the Japanese department store in a ship there, or have very spicy noodles.

The number E22 is the express bus that you pick up at the top of the hill that goes to the airport.  But I’ve learned that it is also the best route to the cable car that ascends to the Big Buddha–much faster and more direct than taking the MTR with 3 changes.

Bus 9 from Shau Kei Wan MTR stop takes you up to the Dragon Back trail on Hong Kong Island.

Now if you want to have an interesting day, just take the E22 to Tung Chung City Center on Lantou Island near the cable car.  Catch the #11 that goes over the mountains to the village of Tai O with its stilt houses.  From Tai O take the #21 up to the Big Buddha (but it doesn’t come often).  And then come back down from the mountain via the cable car and pick up the E22 home.  An alternative is to just take the #23 from Tung Chung directly up to the Big Buddha.

And The Peak–you’ve got to take the double decker #15 to The Peak.




>Religion: Space and Time


Several months ago I heard a lecture on religion in China by John Lagerway, a world renowned scholar on the topic. One of his comments has stayed with me—that religion is about space and time.  I have continued to think about this comment and its application and meaning in different cultural contexts.  In my cultural geography class, when we covered the topic of cultural ecology, I often used the example of Andean cultures whose yearly rituals matched the growing cycles, but also involved walking through the ecological zones that were important to their existence—space and time.
I’ve recently read a memoir by Wenguang Huang called The Little Red Guard.  In the telling of the story, it is clear that Huang is attempting to come to some understanding of his father and grandmother.  The story is about his father, a good communist citizen, and his “obsession” with living up to his commitment to bury his widowed mother next to her husband in a rural village some distance away, against the communist government’s requirement that everyone be cremated.  Huang’s grandmother obsesses on this as well, needing to have her body buried in this particular place in order to be re-united with her husband and be recognized. It is the connection to the family line also.  Huang tells of his growing up years, when his father spends all his money and attention on ensuring this will happen when his mother dies.  A coffin is secretly constructed by several carpenters and for years Huang has to sleep next to it.  At another stage, several tailors are paid to make several traditional sets of clothes for the grandmother to be worn on her death. Local officials had to be nurtured because of their potential role in allowing for the use of vehicles for the transportation of the body.  Relatives in the village had to be visited and given gifts and money to ensure that nothing happened to the grave site and that all would be well at that end.  All of this was done at great risk and sacrifice, in contradiction to everything Huang and his siblings were taught in school and by official government rhetoric.  This effort went on for years, as the grandmother lived on. 
In the end, Huang’s father died first, and the grandmother was finally buried next to the father.  But the family remained unsettled.  When finally Huang and his siblings try to bring closure, many years later, they work to move the remains to the village.  But in the midst of these efforts, the relatives in the local village sell the right to a developer to build on the burial site of the grandfather.  Though an alternative ritual eventually brings some closure, the story continues to haunt me because it illustrates how Communism, no matter how hard it tried, could not stop the religious impulse related to time and space, but capitalism seemed to have no problem obliterating it.    

>Attentiveness to the Details of Nature


When my older daughter was in grade school, she got a pet turtle.  One day I found her crying in her room.  When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that, unlike a cat, the turtle did not even care when she came home from school and went to see him.

This led to me wonder about the value of the relationship to her, when there was an unresponsive creature on the other end.  At the time I was reading different authors on the feminist theory of ethics called Care Theory.  This helped me think about the ethical value of attentiveness to the “other.”  My daughter over time became attentive to the turtle–she saw how he hibernated in the winter;  she went and got live minnows for him to eat when he started to look lethargic, enriching his environment.  She learned about turtles through being attentive to one turtle and more attentive to natural processes around her.  It was out of this experience that I decided to focus on identifying birds when we lived in New Zealand–it was a way of intensifying our attentiveness.

The balance between human and natural landscapes affects attentiveness to detail in the natural world.  Geographers and artists alike have noted that when nature was threatening–such as the Europe in the times of the development of fairy tales–paintings show little detail and nature is writ large as a fearful place with creatures that can easily overpower humans (and especially human children).  The Puritans, early European settlers to New England in North America, even believed that individuals would revert to savagery is they lived outside the human settlements.  Thus everyone was required to live near the town center.  As the balance between humans and nature changed, we began to pay more attention to the details of nature and paintings began to show individual leaves, flowers, etc.

 When I was in New Zealand recently I had discussions with people about whether the overpowering presence of nature–mountains and oceans with a low human population–meant that people took nature for granted.  Or did they need something dramatic to catch their attention? This would explain why it was difficult for some people involved in the restoration of native plants to Sanctuary Park to envision that change taking place.  It was too subtle to draw their attention in comparison to the landscapes and scenes around them.  They could not see the details of the changes in process.

Hong Kong, of course, is in great contrast to New Zealand.  Human landscapes dominate.  Individuals nurture plants in pots in their homes and the flower market is very important.  Older men bring their birds in their cages to the park to hang on poles so that they can get fresh air and commune with their wild cousins.
 It was in this context–Hong Kong–that a blooming tree caught my eye this morning as I looked out my bedroom window.  I ended up taking a walk and looking for these particular trees along the way, enjoying the color against the background of human landscapes. The development of attentiveness to growing things around us enriches our lives and allows us to develop our ability to care for each other and the places around us.

I once met someone who had a tortoise and said that whenever he was depressed, she would put him in the shower and turn on the water and flash the lights to give him some excitement. I’ve been thinking about getting a tortoise so I can try this out.

>Hong Kong as a Sauna

>It is May and Hong Kong is now a sauna.  I have been working at accepting this as they way life will be up until the time I leave at the end of June.  A cold front will not be coming through.  It will not cool off in the evening.

My apartment used to the be the place of calm after facing the crowds of the city.  But no more.  Everyone has individual room air conditioners that have two or three settings–“low” shoots cold air;  “medium” blasts cold air;  “high” is a monsoon of cold air.  And of course, the noise is constant.  So you have a choice of being in a sauna, or being in an environment like a cold airplane with constant noise in the background.

I have tried everything to get around this.  I try turning on the bedroom air conditioner and then blowing the cool air into the living room–it can’t keep up with the humidity.  When I sleep, I’ve tried to cool the room off and then turn on the fan.  It doesn’t work. And of course, when you get up in the morning and open the bedroom door you walk into the sauna.

And then there is the problem with my laptop computer.  It is a midlatitude laptop computer that thrives on cooler temperatures and low humidity.  In order to keep it from crashing I have to have the air conditioning on and a fan blowing on it to keep it cool.  Have you ever tried to skype with a room air conditioner and a fan blowing on your computer?

I have never thought of the serenity prayer applying to climate, but I find myself mumbling regularly:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

>Stretching of Faith; Restoring of Nature

>Evangelical churches are unlikely places for finding environmental movements.  I had the privilege this past week of spending six days with Lifezone Church in Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.  I went there to explore their congregation’s journey in their struggle to understand what God is asking of them in relation to restoration of a small piece of nature.  In Evangelical circles we actually don’t call this an “environmental” movement, but rather the “Creation Care” movement.  “Creation Care” recognizes that God is the creator and sustainer of all.  And rather than separate nature from humans, Creation Care requires that we work with God in restoring wholeness in relationships amongst humans, nature, and God wherever we can.  As the Evangelical Environmental Network (www.creationcare.org) states–It’s about Life!

A decade or so ago, a member of Lifezone church had a vision from God centered around a piece of land just inside the boundaries of the city.  The church had miraculously sold a previous piece of property for an incredible increase in value in its search for a new space and Keith Hunt, with not long to live, had a vision for this piece of land.  It had been in pasture and he envisioned it restored to native bush, where tourists and local people could come encounter God through his creation.  At the flat-topped center of this restored bush, where an organic kiwi orchard now sits, would be a community center that welcomed the community and served as a meeting place for the church. Keith did not live long after the purchase of the land, but those that caught this vision still talk about it as if it was yesterday.  One called it an experience of being baptized in the Spirit when first hearing the vision.  And those that God moved still feel the burden and responsibility of their stewardship obligations over this small piece of God’s Creation.  

Much has happened since this initial purchase of land.  The crash of 2008 meant that the city did not grow out like the church anticipated.  Several pastors have come and gone and much of the membership of the congregation is now new with little knowledge of this history.  In the meantime, those original “holders” of the vision have worked with Kuaka New Zealand, an educational and travel organization, and the local government to plant 40,000 native trees.  Student volunteers from around the world have planted.  My own students planted one hillside when I organized a 2 week class on sustainability in the Bay of Plenty, working with Kuaka New Zealand.  We covered our carbon footprint by planting in what is now called Sanctuary Park (www.sanctuarypark.org.nz)  While the church struggled, God went ahead of them, restoring Sanctuary Park through extensive community and global engagement.

Lifezone Church has recently purchased land and buildings in a warehouse district of Tauranga for its site.  This has initiated a new round of discussions about Sanctuary Park and its purpose and relationship to   congregation’s mission.  This may seem to be a conversation that is coming a bit late in the process, but I think not.  Last year, when we planted with my class, it was difficult to envision the restored habitat at Sanctuary Park.  One year later, when I visited, I could only say “It is finished!”  The biggest part of the labor is complete.  After a wet summer, finally the vision becomes real.  The berries are on the trees planted earlier, beginning to draw the birds.  The water route is clear for the endangered White Bait fish to come up the stream and spawn in the wetland.

And as the vision becomes real, so does its connection to the mission of Lifezone Church.  An Evangelical church that gives 25% of its budget to missions and evangelism is finding that the Bible asks them to incorporate God’s Good Earth into their vision of Shalom and Salvation.  Will Sanctuary Park become a place for tourists to encounter God?  Will it be a place for quit reflection?  The future is open as the Church grows toward developing a vision for this former pastureland.

And in it all, I can’t help but believe that God is doing a greater work than just restoring one small piece of his creation to health.

           Some of the earliest plantings

 Restored wetland for White Bait –right;  Most recent plantings–left

Pasture on left with restored area growing on right

Neighbors hillsides


 Trees grown to the point where berries are now coming–a major draw for native birds