The walled city of Kowloon

Today Boing Boing linked to a Dark Roasted Blend feature on three 20th century Asian urban ruins: Hashima Island (or “Battleship Island”) in Japan; the legendary futuristic resort that never quite was, San Zhi, in Taiwan; and perhaps the ultimate unnatural disaster: the walled city of Kowloon.

From this angle, it’s a SimCity player’s worst nightmare. (Or perhaps just a dystopian arcology.) But the reality of the place was (since it no longer exists) beyond anything I could dream up. Wikipedia offers a good overview, but essentially, due to some quirks of history (followed by a period of domination by crime syndicates), this 6.5-acre portion of Kowloon (adjacent to Hong Kong) was, for much of the 20th century, almost entirely unregulated and unpoliced by either the British or the Chinese. Over time it was built up into a giant, dense maze of shops, factories and apartments (not to mention brothels and opium dens), with (in some parts, at least) stunningly squalid living conditions and as many as 50,000 residents.

Eventually the entire thing was leveled in the early 1990s and converted into a park, but the bizarre history remains… told best, perhaps, in a German documentary that is available in its entirety in four parts on YouTube. I don’t speak German, but it’s fascinating to watch even with no sound. And so, here it is…

I was surprised by some of the street-level exterior shots at how colorful and almost seemingly normal (if still insanely dense) the place seemed, but then the camera turned down one of the dark, narrow passageways leading into the heart of the walled city. It was amazing to see these alleys wind left and right (and up and down), fetid water dripping from above, rats’ nests of electrical wiring and water pipes leading off in every direction (not to mention, well, rats’ nests), and then, suddenly, an open doorway leading into a blindingly lit, miniature factory cranking out wonton wrappers or woven fabric or… whatever. I cannot comprehend how this place hadn’t burned down already years earlier, taking most of its residents with it (since there was nothing even remotely resembling a fire escape in the completely unregulated, ad hoc construction).

There’s only one thing in my experience that in any way prepared me for what I saw here: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Maybe with a bit of Blade Runner thrown in for good measure.

I’m struck by the sheer chaos of this place. It’s jarring to see the elements of a modern structure — electricity, running water, modern building materials, and other technology — assembled with no overall plan, no regulation. In some ways it’s surprising that it’s as orderly — as functional — as it is. In a strange way it’s a testament to the human spirit. Populated largely by refugees, outlaws, and the forgotten (or those the outside world would just as soon forget), it’s amazing how industrious and ambitious (or at least resilient) most of its residents remain despite their living conditions.

Tiny apartments, I expected. Unsanitary markets, I expected. Even the forest of TV antennas and clotheslines on the rooftops didn’t surprise me. All manner of crime wouldn’t surprise me. The thing that totally shocked me about this place was the proliferation of industry in it. There are factories making food; factories making plastics; factories making clothes; metalworks. I can only imagine the miserable heat and stench inside most of these spaces.

And then, a school.

And a church.

As I mentioned, I don’t speak German, but I’m able to pick up enough cognates to make some sense of the narration. Certainly I know what das labyrinth means. And yet, the more I see, and the more I become desensitized to the squalor of the alleyways, the more surprisingly familiar, surprisingly unsuprising, the interiors of the homes and the businesses seem. Everything is incomprehensibly crowded and cluttered, but it’s unmistakably human. But the marginal comforts of home can’t make up for the suffering of the old man lying in a pile of blankets in an alleyway, next to a dead rat, or the profound resignation on many of the silent, pensive faces.

The rooftop, and the courtyard deep inside the heart of the labyrinth, offer a rare glimpse of sunshine, and they make me wonder how often, if ever, the residents of the walled city would venture forth from their anarchic, cyberpunk quasi-prison. Many people in the walled city were (somewhat ironically) there to escape punishment, but most, presumably, had committed no crime. But were they free to leave? Were they stigmatized (or worse) if they dared venture out into the rest of Hong Kong? Answers to these questions may lie in the narration, which I regret I do not understand better.

Unlicensed, unregulated dentists and doctors. When I think of places like this, and practitioners like them, I typically think of unscrupulous hucksters and grotesque, unpunished malpractice. But seeing it in action, after all I’ve seen already, I have a different take. Sure, it may not be approved by the medical establishment, and there may be no recourse for patients who have been treated improperly, but it’s still a practice undertaken with care and effort, genuinely striving to relieve suffering. At least, it can be that.

As evening settles in, a shopkeeper sweeps trash from the alley outside her door. And I realize as my somewhat voyeuristic, entirely vicarious journey into the walled city comes to an end, and as much as I may lay misguided sympathy upon its former residents as I objectify and dehumanize their experience, that they are (or were) real people too, living a life in some ways unimaginably different from my own, and yet in other, deeper ways, strikingly similar. They have families, they work, they eat (even if much of it is stuff I’m too afraid to touch), they create, they perform. Who am I to judge their way of being, especially when I know so little about it, or how it came to be?

But there is one thing in the lives of the former residents of the now disappeared walled city of Kowloon with which I absolutely can relate: its absence.

For all of its wild, chaotic life, its teeming throngs of residents, engaged in every activity imaginable in human existence, all within the space of a few acres, now it is all gone. Open space. Air. And a park.

I can relate to this because it reminds me of a strange place in my own past: Wahlstrom Hall. While no walled city of Kowloon, Walhstrom Hall was quite possibly the strangest, most chaotically architected dormitory in the history of American colleges. I lived there for four years. And now it is gone, leveled just like the walled city, replaced with little more than grass and air. I can’t say that my quadrennium in Wahlstrom really gives me any insight into life in Kowloon’s walled city, but it certainly does contribute to my strange affinity towards this incomparably strange place in Hong Kong that once was, and is no more.

Note: If you’d like a more informed opinion on the Kowloon walled city, here’s a post from a blogger whose dad lived there for 14 years. There’s also an excellent (if somewhat antiquated in its design… and regrettable use of Papyrus font) website devoted to the history of Kowloon Walled City with informative articles and a number of photographs.

On electronics and “e-waste”

Burning electronics in ChinaI am a certified electronics aficionado. There’s a MacBook and an iPhone sitting on the desk in front of me, along with an external USB hard drive and a pair of computer speakers; on the adjacent desk, a USB turntable, cassette deck*, and two USB MIDI keyboard controllers. In the drawers of the desk are a mountain of cables, another USB hard drive, an iPod touch, a Bluetooth mouse, a remote control, and about 50 alkaline batteries of all different sizes. Also in the room are an LCD TV, an XBOX 360 and its attendant controllers (including Rock Band instrument controllers), an older laptop computer, a really old Macintosh SE, more cords and miscellaneous accessories, and of course a slew of digital media: more CDs, DVDs and game discs than I can count. (Oh yeah, there are also a couple hundred video game cartridges for the likes of the Atari 2600 and NES.)

I won’t be getting rid of any of this stuff in the immediate future, but someday it will be disposed of. And what of it then?

I don’t think I’ve thrown away any electronics in decades (although I will confess I rarely make the effort to recycle batteries). I know I have never recycled electronics — I don’t even know how I’d go about it. But when an electronic gadget outlives its usefulness for me, I do my best to dispose of it in a productive way: I give it to someone else, or I sell it at a garage sale or on eBay.

But back to the matter of recycling: what exactly happens with electronic gadgets when you recycle them? As is becoming increasingly well-known, most of them get packed up in giant shipping crates and sent across the ocean to places like China, India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa. What happens then is mostly ignored by the rest of the world… out of sight, out of mind. Except it’s still there.

As this iFixit article describes, the “e-waste” ends up in impoverished communities where everyone, including children, works to break down the equipment and harvest valuable metals — copper and gold, mostly, at an average value of about $6 per device — from it by whatever means are available. This usually means burning, which releases toxic fumes into the air; and once the copper and gold are out, the rest is simply dumped, cluttering the landscape and leaving more toxic heavy metals (lead and mercury, especially) to seep into groundwater, further contaminating the environment in which these people live.

So, what are we to do? I’m not much of an activist: I don’t think protests get you very far. When there’s money to be made in something, it’s pretty easy for the makers of that money to ignore the ravings of the hippies picketing outside their doors. But if you want to be a conscientious consumer of electronics, the best thing you can do is to take actions that will prevent your gadgets from winding up in one of those China-bound shipping crates.

I’m not saying “don’t recycle your electronics,” although I suppose I am saying “don’t recycle your electronics if you don’t know where they’re going to end up.” The best thing you can do, I think, is probably what I’ve been doing all along anyway: keep the gadgets, or find someone else who wants them when you’re done with them. Ensure that they’ll get a maximum lifetime of use before they’re disposed of. (And by that time maybe you’ll think of them as collectibles and keep them in your personal electronics museum, like I’ve done with my Mac SE and the Atari 2600.)

Of course, there’s another solution, though it’s one I find a bit hard to swallow: don’t buy the stuff in the first place.

* Regarding the cassette deck: I’m proud to say that it’s something I recently acquired by salvaging it from a “free” pile at a neighbor’s curb after a garage sale.

“Fake Steve Jobs” on the true cost of Chinese manufacturing

I often complain about how just about everything is made in China these days. It’s about the exploitation of workers for the sake of cheaper goods. Well, in case you didn’t hear about it, a worker at the Chinese factory that makes iPhones committed suicide recently because he lost a prototype fourth-generation iPhone. And why did he commit suicide over this? Because he was apparently being tortured by his employers (Foxconn) over it. Presumably because this is the kind of mistake that might cost Foxconn their lucrative contract with Apple.

What was that factory worker’s life worth? Less than Foxconn’s iPhone manufacturing contract? Less than Apple’s potentially stolen trade secrets?

“Fake Steve Jobs” has posted a blog entry on the matter. If you’ve never read his blog before, the tone may be a bit shocking to you, but cut through the parody and there are a couple of paragraphs here that are probably the best critique ever of our reliance on cheap Chinese labor to manufacture the high-tech, low-cost devices we consume so voraciously:

Well, this is the world we are living in. These are the people we are dealing with. This is how we have to deal with them. We can’t make these products in the United States. Nobody could afford to buy them if we did. And, frankly, the quality would be about half what we get out of China. But these guys play rough. They really do. They are not nice people. And, though we talk a good game about how we insist on workers being treated with dignity, blah blah blah, well, I mean, come on. Have you ever been to China? We have. We’ve been to China. We know what goes on there. We know how they open your mail, and listen to your phone calls, and let their factories pollute like crazy and exploit workers, all in the name of progress. And we turn a blind eye to it. We let them know when we’re coming to visit, and they give us a tour and put on a little show of how great things are, and how wonderful the dorm life is, and afterward we pretend to keep an eye on them — but it’s all theater. It is. We know it. What’s more, you know it. Everyone knows it.

We all know that there’s no fucking way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused — what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.

I’ve read plenty about the conditions in Chinese factories, enough to make me want to never buy anything that says “Made in China” on the label. But, honestly, that’s getting nearly impossible these days. It’s not just about being too cheap to buy the more expensive version of the product made somewhere else with better labor laws; it’s that in many cases there is no other option that wasn’t also made in China.

Apple products present the biggest dilemma for me personally. I’ve been a Mac-o-phile for over 15 years. I’ve staked my livelihood around work that depends integrally on things Apple makes, and they’re all made in China. And Apple’s not alone — as far as I know, all of the major computer companies contract out their manufacturing to Chinese firms. I suppose I could build my own PCs and switch to Linux, but even then, it would be hard to find all of the necessary components that go into a computer, with a “nothing-made-in-China” restriction.

So, for me, in many cases, boycotting Chinese-made goods is simply impossible. But I do what I can. If there’s another option, I’ll take it. I’m willing to pay more if I have to. And even though I’m writing this on an Apple computer that was manufactured in one of these same Chinese factories, perhaps speaking out on the matter is some small penance for my complicity in what’s going on.

There’s more on the story from Gizmodo and, as usual, I learned about it all from Daring Fireball.

Made in China? Here’s how…

I frequently rail against how seemingly everything that’s for sale these days is made in China, often under harsh conditions and occasionally, as we’ve seen recently with the Thomas the Tank Engine debacle, containing toxic chemicals.

This giant industrial complex China has created is generally a mystery to most Americans. So many things we own are produced there, yet we know almost nothing about it.

Enter Edward Burtynsky, and his photo gallery of an inside look at Chinese industry, published today by Wired.

It’s here…

My new iBook arrived today! I am very excited about it… although my enthusiasm has somewhat been tainted by the whole China thing.

I knew Apple was “assembling” many of their products, such as the iPods, in China now, although I had previously assumed they were still “assembling” the computers in Mexico. It was just seeing “SHANGHAI CN” as the origination locale on the FedEx tracking site that did it for me. I realize they ship custom-built Macs direct from the factory, but for some reason I hadn’t put together that that meant FedEx would be receiving the package in China and delivering it two-day to my house.

I’m not entirely sure why this is bothering me as much as it is; I guess it’s just that I usually have some (illusory) distance from the fact that the things I am buying are being produced by what might as well be considered slave labor.

I guess I buy into the illusion Apple no doubt intends to engender in its customers that their computers are being assembled at a hippie love-in at Haight-Ashbury. (Why else would they boldly print “Designed by Apple in California” on a card you are forced to look at as you’re taking the computer from the box, while relegating “Assembled in China” to 3-point type on the undercarriage?)

Sure the blueprints are coming from California, but c’mon Steve, it’s time to crank down the reality distortion field: Apple computers are MADE IN CHINA. It’s not just that Chinese products still carry the no-longer-accurate stigma of poor quality. China is a vacuum sucking up manufacturing jobs not just from the United States, but also from the countries like Mexico that had previously taken manufacturing jobs from the U.S.

Now I’m not draping myself in the flag here. I’m not about protectionism. But there are a host of problems that go along with choosing to move your operations to a place like China, and by buying the products of those operations, I’m buying into that choice, like it or not.

So… it’s a bittersweet day for me. I can’t help thinking about those workers in Apple’s factory in Shanghai, and wondering what their lives are like.

Learn How to Use Your Chopsticks

Now, before we get started, I just want to say, China has a rich cultural heritage and is full of intelligent, creative people. China had gunpowder when Europeans were still hitting each other over the heads with sticks. China had paper when the Greeks were still drawing geometric shapes in the sand… with sticks. But long after Europeans started eating with forks and knives, the Chinese were… well, still using sticks.

But I’m not even here to make fun of chopsticks. I like eating Chinese and Japanese food with chopsticks. It makes the experience more authentic, and it is humbling to see how incompetent I am with these, while someone like Daniel LaRusso can catch a fly with them.

Anyway, as I said, I like to try my “nice Chinese food with chopsticks.” I think you see where I’m going with this.

For years, one of the delights of going to a Chinese restaurant has been that unmistakable red chopsticks pack with the incomprehensibly mangled English instructions. This perennial favorite is dying off, sadly. Most of the time now, you either get chopsticks wrapped in plastic, or in the updated, white-paper version of this, with (mostly) proper spelling and grammar.

So it was with much delight last December that I asked for a set of chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and received the classic red wrapper. I saved it, and here it is…

Now let’s have a look at the details:

I have no idea what the Chinese characters on the front of the package say, but if they are in fact a pictographic depiction of something, it appears that in the first frame, a man is gingerly approaching some kind of dragon/serpent creature. Next, he leans in for a kiss. The two get into a tussle (is the dragon giving him a spanking?), and in the end the dragon has donned a sombrero and is patting the guy on the bum as he walks away.

I like how this starts off. It seems to suggest that every Chinese restaurant is simply called “Chinese Restaurant.” And then the misspellings begin. “Glonous”? Well, it’s fairly obvious what’s happened here: Someone apparently gave the typesetter some handwritten text, and the typesetter, unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet, sometimes mistook letter combinations for other letters. Either that, or they were just relying on some early OCR software.

OK… now where did I leave my thurnb? And how do I tuk and hcld something under it?

This is the definitive step… these words are so deeply ingrained in my subconscious that I almost call these devices “chcosticks” when I ask for them in a restaurant.

Yes indeed, with the tirst and second chopsticks in place, now you can pick up anything… used Kleenex, condoms, Michael Jackson’s prosthetic nose… what is that, anyway?

By the way, the restaurant in Stevens Point is called Chef Chu’s. It’s attached to the Best Western Royale hotel, and I give it very high marks! I didn’t have much hope for quality at a Chinese restaurant in central Wisconsin, attached to a Best Western and newly opened in a former Country Kitchen-esque restaurant space, but the food was actually quite good… a very nice hot-and-sour soup, excellent potstickers, and a very tasty moo goo gai pan with big pieces of fresh vegetables and tender chicken.

Oh yeah, and vintage chopsticks!