Construction in Hong Kong

Construction crews

Out the window of my tiny Hong Kong hotel the scaffolding rises. In a wonderful match, my room is at exactly the height of the top-most floor of the buildings being built in front of this Hotel Ibis in North Point. The last time I was here, in December, the construction did not reach my room, topping out several floors below. Now I have a front row seat to the working day of a Hong Kong construction crew. They are busy today, a Saturday, having started at seven am. The buildings, a set of apartment towers along the bay, are already twenty plus stories tall, cased in the green netting so common to construction sites here. Like most their scaffolding is all bamboo, the tops of it poking out of the netting like a strange headless forest.

In the United States, in San Francisco, this would be amazing. Fifty to a hundred people that I can see, three cranes, and everything surrounded by bamboo. Here, like most of Asia, it’s just how buildings go up. Flexible, light, and resilient, the bamboo moves with the wind, though not enough to notice without tedious observation. Beyond the construction site from me lies the harbor, full of sailboats and tugboats moving past. Across the water lies the old airport, now a cruise ship terminal, and a large collection of working ships, dredgers, short haulers, and barges. Beyond that high rises stretch to the mountains. The sky is blue, though brown on the horizon just over the mountains. For Hong Kong it is a cold eighteen degrees C.

These apartments are the second phase of a project, and their identical siblings sit completed just up the road. They will block most of the wonderful views of this incredibly reasonably priced hotel, which is sad but to be expected. Nothing lasts forever, especially not budget hotel rooms in Hong Kong with full harbor views. Better to enjoy, and move on, like this construction crew. I wonder where they are from, how far they had to travel to be here at seven am on a Saturday in early March. Are they locals, or from the mainland? From a hundred yards away at twenty three storeys up they look local, and stay busy. There are few smoke breaks, few idle minutes. That isn’t to say they’re always moving, like all construction crews they wait for materials, for the crane, and have meetings to discuss the next stage at various points through out the day. Unlike Japan they wear no uniforms, instead mostly t-shirts, jeans, and hard hats. It’s a pleasant look, an almost American look. If Americans stood twenty three stories up on bamboo. If Americans built a half dozen apartment blocks at a time, in a city already full of them.

In some ways Hong Kong represents so much of my struggle with the United States, and I can’t help but see the echoes of San Francisco in the bay and mountains. That overlapping view defines much of my thinking, and the frequent bounces from one to the other reinforce the symmetry while highlighting the differences. I am here again for the weekend, sick at the end of a week spent in country, Shenzhen Dongguan Zhuhai and back in a loop of vans and trains and ferries that has given my throat little time to heal. These two days, then, are a break, a peaceful moment with a view. Breaks like this at the end of trips, as I’ve written before, are something I’ve learned, a way to come home relaxed instead of exhausted. A way to return, happy, to San Francisco and my cat.

Been there twenty years

“Do you remember Saturday Coffee,” our conversation begins. We do, the small cafe on Yongjia Lu that served coffee and warm sandwiches, two blocks from our last apartment in Shanghai. It was open just over a year and then disappeared. A couple’s dream of entrepreneurship hindered by the rising rents and limited clientele. Most of the time we had the place to ourselves, could get coffee and two sandwiches without any wait, which was part of the appeal. Mostly though we liked the owners, and their sandwiches. We liked living two blocks from a cafe in Shanghai.

These are the brief memories of an urban area. In San Francisco we reminisce about Hotei, our favorite Sunset ramen spot in two thousand ten, since closed. For two years we would walk the ten blocks through the early evening fog to have ramen, to be welcomed by the staff accustomed to our routine, and to enjoy the peace of Sunday before the week began. When it closed, in two thousand fourteen, Hotei joined Saturday coffee in our memories, places to be discussed nostalgically.

So much of living is about watching things end, about remembering restaurants no longer open, friends who have moved away. Rare then are the places that have endured, the corner pub, the tiny burger joint. Rare is the other side of these conversations, the acknowledgement of survival, more commonly said with reverence.

“It’s been there twenty years,” he says about the corner store. The owners are friendly, part of the neighborhood. They provide booze to the homeless and coffee to the construction crews, milk to the forgetful and egg sandwiches to the hungover. As neighborhood staples go they’re a highlight in an area that has for so long been neglected by the city. Building this reputation has taken years of opening early and closing late, of hosing off the street outside, of brushing up the trash and adapting the stock to suite the neighbors. Recently the coffee has improved, a nod to the younger generation moving in. They still play KQED and know the baseball scores.

Like Ebisu, Jenny’s Burgers, and the Little Shamrock in the inner sunset, the places that have survived are special too, even though discussing them usually involves commenting on the current state of the city rather than remembering the idealized version of our memories. Saturday Coffee, Boona 2, and a dozen other of my favorite places in Shanghai have shut in the decade since I moved away. More impressive, then, are the places that endure, the woman still cooking noodles on Wuxing Lu, Bar Constellation and People’s Seven, because they have become part of the tapestry of Shanghai by surviving.

The trick to discovering cities is to remember that they are constantly changing, that of course the things we love will disappear. Restaurants shut and neighborhoods turn over not because things are getting worse but because nothing lasts forever. We should celebrate having had those sandwiches, having lived near that bar, and tell tall tales about our luck.

And we should continue to explore, to grow and to discover. Living in a city is a gift. It is lucky to be somewhere that is alive, growing and evolving, to be somewhere that pushes us to do the same.

Places I slept, 2017

The year ending feels very long, in ways both big and small. For the first time since two thousand nine both of us were able to take time off this year, to figure out what to do next, where to live, and what to aim for. These processes aren’t finished yet and will shape much of twenty eighteen and beyond. The last time we had such freedom, in the spring of two thousand nine, we interviewed cities on the west coast of the US, certain that we wanted to be close to the Pacific. We still do, though much else has changed. The feeling of freedom is rare and wonderful, and will dominate all memories of twenty seventeen.

Eight years seems like a full phase, and the present moment somewhat of a shared opportunity. Many of our friends are likewise contemplating what’s next in their lives. Some are moving, are looking to move, or have just done so. Others are taking professional risks, or debating them. For reasons both mundane and political, twenty seventeen felt like a year of shifts, of small detachments and new freedom. Unlike twenty sixteen, which ended in despair, there is hope to be found, if we look hard, if we are willing to work and to dream. We are.

It’s always good to remember the past years gifts as well as it’s themes. Looking back mostly I remember friendship and the distances traveled in service of. We saw Seth in Bangkok in February and in Seattle in December. Jeff in Los Angeles in January, New York in November, and Seattle in December. Mitch in LA in January and Arizona in March. Lucas and Kristin in Portland and San Francisco. Bobert on both US coasts. Mel, Dray, Tori, and so many others in San Francisco.

This list is neither comprehensive nor designed as such. Rather it’s a reminder, for myself. The friendships we keep travel well, and we should never fear for their endurance. They are what supports us in hard times and what we build on in good. In the tough years we work together to survive, all investing in smaller circles when larger ones feel fruitless.

Yet in twenty seventeen professional circles felt more rewarding than ever as well. We met inspirational people and were able to support others for what seemed like the first time, though it was not. Understanding, at last, the value of a professional network feels both strangely liberating and humbling. Once again I grow up slowly.

Lastly, to those reading, thanks for your time. Writing hasn’t been as easy the last two years, but it is still the most rewarding activity, a way to feel better at the end than at the beginning.

With that, here is my list of places slept, the longest ever without question due to fifteen different camp sites on the Grand Canyon over sixteen days this past July and August. That trip was a gift, and turning thirty eight en route felt lucky. On other fronts I saw new parts of southern China, a lot more of Hong Kong, and more of the US west coast than in most years. As always, travel is a gift, and I’m more comfortable with this rate now.

San Francisco, CA
Humen, Dongguan, China
Baiyun, Guangzhou, China
Macau
Futian, Shenzhen, China
Santa Monica, CA
Lumphini, Bangkok, Thailand
Bang Rak, Bangkok, Thailand
Along the 5, CA
Mesa, AZ
Malibu, CA
Portland, OR
Sha tin, Hong Kong
Bao’an, Shenzhen, China
Shaoguan, China
Kowloon, Hong Kong
Bodega Bay, CA
Ft Collins, CO
Walden, CO
Flagstaff, AZ
15 different campsites along the Grand Canyon, AZ
Davis, CA
Gilroy, CA
Rio Linda, CA
Zhuhai, China
Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Cherry Hill, NJ
Brooklyn, NY
North Point, Hong Kong
Ashland, OR
Seattle, WA
Astoria, OR

My count of places swam reached thirteen in 2017, but I will not publish them this year. Instead I will begin a new list, that of cities biked. This list comes thanks to the worldwide expansion of bike share and my growing certainty that cars are not meant for urban areas. I hope for more in twenty eighteen.

San Francisco, CA
Shenzhen, China
Fort Collins, CO
Seattle, WA
Portland, OR

As for Mr. Squish, he too has been traveling. I write this from Portland, where he is lying below the coffee table in the sun in our friend’s house, completely relaxed after a week on the road. A useful skill, for a cat. His list for 2017 is below.

San Francisco, CA
Fort Collins, CO
Ashland, OR
Portland, OR
Seattle, WA
Astoria, OR

The patio at Deer Creek

On the river

For three weeks we drift down the Colorado. The Grand Canyon is so large as to take hours to approach by car. Finding the flat space at Lees Ferry where we launch our boats feels very random, and I wonder how the first explorers managed. So many miles of walking or riding to reach this place, and so hidden from view. How many ridges had they crested looking for a way to the river before discovering this one?

Our days are nothing like theirs must have been. Our route is well planned and food precisely proportioned. We cook in crews and camp at spots long favored by the elders of our group. We stop for hikes to waterfalls that pour into the canyon, and stand in them, letting the cleaner, warmer water wash and refresh. It is a hundred and ten degrees in Arizona in August, and we are often in the sun.

Mostly a passenger, I spend some part of every day with my feet up and my hat over my eyes, watching a narrow sliver of river and sky without a care. It is peaceful, to be rowed, though less so to row, and several of our party eat ravenously every day. I manage to read three books, mostly in the quiet hours after camp is made, on nights when I am not responsible for the cooking. It’s a beautiful scene, to look up from one’s book and see the canyon walls rise high into the distance, or to see the river wind away into the sunset. For three weeks any conversation can be interrupted by “wow, look at that,” and everyone will. Condors, mountain sheep, hawks, herons, and frogs cause these exclamations, as do waterfalls, landslide evidence, and the cliffs themselves as we wind through one tope of rock into another of a far earlier era.

So often the canyon reveals beauty in hidden spots. These side hikes, hidden caverns, or waterfalls are a surprise, the beauty of place that is invisible from without. The grandeur, the huge vistas and towering walls that sprawl across the horizon is overwhelming and an excellent reminder of real scale. These giant vistas have been photographed though, and can be seen in some sense from the rim, from above. The small canyons, etched by water in oddly smooth curves, with pools in between small waterfalls, that can be swam in or sat beneath, are impossible to discover any other way. They can only be found from the river.

And so for three weeks these small discoveries keep us climbing, hiking, and sweating, up hills and over cliffs, looking for another beautiful spot that takes work to find.

 

My new Vanmoof bicycle

Commuting lives

Years ago I wrote about my commute, on electric scooter through the neighborhoods of Shanghai.

Once again I have a similar commute, by bicycle in downtown San Francisco. It is hard to overstate what an accomplishment this is in the United States in twenty seventeen.

As Mobike overtakes the Asian cities I love, San Francisco is still caught in the death throws of the private automobile. It’s common to hear conversations about autonomous vehicles, electric bicycles, or other means of transportation, and yet so much travel, so much of commuting life relies on the private car, even if employed via an app or treated as a shared resource.

For the past few years I’ve ridden Bart & biked to work, a lengthy combination made friendly by a wonderful bike shop in Fruitvale that housed my bike on weekday evenings. Now though I am finally free, able to bike or walk, Bart or bus as I feel the need. No option takes more than twenty minutes, door to door. It’s a glorious release, a freedom I haven’t felt since Shanghai, since those scooter rides through neighborhoods I still know well and still think of often.

And so my thought these last few weeks, made happy by this gift of geography: “How much of our life is really our commute?”

Not where we work, but how we get there. Not who we work with, but who we travel along side. Not how much we are paid, but how much we pay to arrive at the office.

How much of our lives are we spending in transit, and how does it leave us?

This is the question that resonates as I pedal home down Howard Street, a decade after slipping quietly down Yongjia Lu on my electric scooter.

Free.