There is one voice chiming along this city’s busy roads well over a hundred years. You may have taken it for granted because it has always been here ever since you were born. Listen hard and listen appreciatively for the “ding-ding” bell of trams.
In service since 1904, trams are one of the earliest forms of public transport in the metropolis. They run along the northern coast of Hong Kong Island, offering the cheapest mode of public transport on the island. Trams in Hong Kong have not only been a form of commuter transport for 113 years, but also a major tourist attraction and one of the most environmentally friendly ways of travelling in Hong Kong. They have been very much a part of the Hong Kong culture, landscape, and even soundscape. As a time-honoured tradition, tram drivers use a double bell to warn pedestrians of the vehicles’ approach. The constant noisy chiming along the way led the locals dub them “Ding Ding”, highlighting the distinctiveness of their auditory aspect. Compared with the car horn sound modern vehicles are using, trams’ ding ding sound, while performing the same function of warn pedestrians of the vehicle’s approach, is much less harsh and stressful to the ears. It gives rise to the question whether alternatives to car horns can be adopted to make the city sound more pleasant. In fact, researchers in Seoul have found that car horns resembling duck quacks was a better idea: they would still manage to alert people while being less irritating.
To you and many people, it must have seemed strange and incongruous to see the slow, clunky, old-fashioned tram “ding-ding” its way through the fast-paced, highly-urbanized Hong Kong. Its “ding-ding” sound alerts passers-by to the tram’s coming and tells a story of extraordinary survival through the development of modern public transport, including a vast MTR system, with a perseverance not unlike Hong Kong people.
Reference: If it quacks like a duck … will a car horn be less annoying?
A prominent landmark on Hong Kong Island, the International Finance Centre (branded as “ifc”) stands proudly at the Central waterfront. The complex comprises some of the most exclusive office space in Hong Kong, the prestigious Four Seasons Hotel, as well as a leading destination for high-end shopping: ifc mall.
During busy hours when people hurry to arrive at offices and hurry back home after work, the sound of fast-paced walking and high heels clicking on floor are especially prominent. We may all hear classical music playing at a mall but seldom do we listen to it. Yet when we do listen, the background music at ifc is not constantly heard. It may get uneven when background music is heard louder at some spots while not at all perceivable at other locations. It may not matter much as reported by mall-goers of what they perceive within their awareness. However, little noticed as it may, it may sound glaring when the classical music at the background clashes with music of entirely different genres from some stores, such as the rock music played by a Hi-Fi store in the mall.
There may be other aspects of the sonic environment in neglect. The sound of trolleys clashing at Citysuper contrasts glaringly with the relative quiet of the cosmetic stores nearby. The passages in ifc are wider compared to a lot of shopping malls in Hong Kong, hence intensifying the reflection of sound. Pleasant sound magnified will contribute to the likeability of ifc’s sonic environment; unwanted sound amplified will reinforce its undesirability.
Do you think ifc’s soundscape lives up to its expectations of being a high-end mall?
Original campus of Queen’s College and rebuilt in the 50s as Police Married Quarters, PMQ (元創方) in Central is now a hub for creative and design industries. Geographically, although PMQ is only 3 minutes away from the entertainment zone SoHo, music from bars and restaurants is blocked by the buildings along Aberdeen Street and PMQ is tucked away from the hustle and bustle. Architecturally, it exemplifies the modern style commonly found after World War II, characterised by a functional and pragmatic approach on elevations and interior layout, with minimum decoration. Its semi-open design has set PMQ apart from most malls in Hong Kong.
An inclusive soundscape – The semi-open setting of PMQ enables natural ventilation as well as the penetration of sounds from the surroundings. While wind (instead of air conditioning) caresses your hair, it carries with it sounds wafting from different locations inside and near PMQ: traffic sound from Aberdeen Street where PMQ is situated, sound of kitchen utensils clashing from a cooking studio, shrieks of a coffee machine in motion from a café, and laughs of children from a design studio.
Incorporating nature – PMQ introduces natural sounds into the complex by including a small garden named Plateau, harmonising man-made sounds mentioned above. Plateau on the 4th floor is perhaps the most outstanding feature of PMQ. They are landscaped open spaces which connect the two main blocks of PMQ. The greenery space has created a natural habitat for birds and insects, bringing liveliness and diverseness to the sonic environment.
PMQ’s semi-open design enables sound to reach a wider audience. Sounds heard from different spots tell a different story. Each sound perceived promises an experience for you to discover. Contextualising sounds make our experiences of PMQ more complete.
A melting pot of Eastern and Western characteristics, Hong Kong is thronged with restaurants gratifying your palate with a diversity of flavours. The unlimited variety of food in every class has given Hong Kong the reputable labels of “Gourmet Paradise” and “World’s Fair of Food”. With Chinese being the most predominant cultural group in Hong Kong, Chinese food forms the backbone of dine-out scenes. Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong are adored by locals and tourists alike.
Everyone having been to a Chinese restaurant must have noted how loud and noisy the place can be. Yum Cha is usually a happy and boisterous occasion, when family and friends gather to sip tea and eat dim sum. It has been measured that the noise level at various Chinese Restaurants ranged from 66.4 to 79.7 dB(A). It is the mingled sound of eating utensils colliding, food being chewed and devoured, diners’ hearty laughs and animated chatting, and announcement of dishes being served. Although it is hardly gentle to the ears, people usually stay long in a Chinese restaurant. Being noisy accords with most people’s conceptions or expectations of Chinese restaurants and diners usually get used to the volume after some time.
Imagine the restaurant noise is much cut down, how do you think the Chinese dining experience will be altered?
Reference: “A Comparative Study of Noise Levels in Hong Kong” by Environmental Protection Department
Victoria Harbour is perhaps one of the most often featured landmarks of Hong Kong in postcards. Long famous for its spectacular views, the harbour is a major tourist attraction of Hong Kong. There is no better way to take in Hong Kong’s iconic harbour sights by boarding the Star Ferry
Ferrying Since 1888 – The Star Ferry is a passenger ferry service operator founded in 1888. Its principal routes carry passengers across Victoria Harbour, between Central in Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. Its ferry crossings at Victoria Harbour are acclaimed as an important part of the commute system between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, and essential journeys for visitors. The National Geographic Traveler named the ferry crossing as one of 50 places of a lifetime. The ferry ride is also well known as one of the world’s best value-for-money sightseeing trips.
Sounds of the Star Ferry – Serving Hong Kong for more than a century, sounds belonging to and characteristic of the Star Ferry is as familiar to the locals as home: the loud bell sounds announcing the drop of the upper and lower gangways, the rush of passengers when boarding, sounds of bow wave and engine amid the sea waves, the two-inch-thick mooring rope tightening around the bollard, the rush of passengers when unboarding. Sailing back and forth across Victoria Harbour carrying over 70,000 passengers a day, sounds of the Star Ferry are the rhythm of the city’s daily life and a soundmark of Hong Kong. They signify the dawn of a new day for this city and the homeward bound when the day ends, the city retiring to rest.
Before the demolition of the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier in 2006, honking of the Star Ferry went hand in hand with the bell chiming of the pier’s clock tower, together constituting the soundscape of the waterfront. Now, only the sounds of the Star Ferry made it through history. While the Star Ferry bridges the distance across Victoria Harbour every day, its sounds bridge the century gap of Hong Kong then and now. Car honking is always considered an urban nuisance but with the honking of the Star Ferry, it is recalled with fondness by the locals who deem it special and iconic. It begs the question what makes a sound a soundmark; what makes a sound endearing to a city.
While some people prefer buying groceries in the clean, comfortable and standardized supermarkets, many locals in Hong Kong venture into the outdoor, loud and vibrant wet markets because the prices are lower and the quality is higher.
A wet market (街市) is where fresh meat and produce are sold, distinguished from dry markets which sell durable goods such as cloth and electronics. Wet markets frequented by the locals are situated at Graham Street in Central, Tai Po Hui, Chun Yeung Street (春秧街) in North Point, and Bowrington Road in Wan Chai, to name but a few. You will find stalls selling a cornucopia of goods ranging from poultry, live fish, fresh meat, to fruits and vegetables.
Thriving Since Colonization – Wet markets have long been a feature of Hong Kong life. Before the British arrived in the 19th century, markets took place once or twice a week in towns like Tai Po. After colonization, daily street markets began to emerge. As Hong Kong Tourism Board put it, “Hong Kong’s multitude of wet markets are windows into a vivid and timeless world of food shopping that refuses to be extinguished by modern supermarkets.” Thus, sounds characteristic and distinctive of wet markets are soundmarks of Hong Kong.
At the Height of Activity – A wet market in full swing would make a spectacular soundscape because it is clamourous and overwhelming, if not raucous and chaotic. It is a sensory excess with a long list of actions taking place, for example, vendors of different stalls hollering, hawking their products; butchers chopping meat; vendors gutting and scaling fish; vendors and customers bargaining; shoppers bustling about looking for the best deal. More than anything, human voices are a prominent component in the sonic environment of a wet market. You may even notice a pattern in sounds heard at the wet markets at different times of the day. You may find domestic helpers engrossed in fast-paced chatting in the mornings and vendors crying out reduced prices at night when they are about to close their stalls. More often than not, a busy wet market is as much a visual feast as auditory overload.
Indoor Wet Markets – Some wet markets have retreated indoors into government-operated market buildings. Plans to redevelop have moved stalls indoors. A well-known example of indoor wet markets is Kowloon City Market which has as many as 581 stalls. While some indoor wet markets have air-conditioning, some mimic supermarkets and broadcast sales announcements. With the wet market being enclosed instead of exposed outdoors, what do you think would happen to its soundscape?
For anyone who has walked the streets in the vicinity of Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier, have you ever noticed the granite tower in red bricks overlooking the Victoria Harbour? If you have, have you ever wondered why you never heard the clocks on the tower ring?
Chiming Since 1921 – The history of Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower goes back a long way. It was erected in 1915 as part of the Kowloon Station on the Kowloon-Canton Railway. Built in the Edwardian Classical Revival style, the clock tower is 44 metres high and surmounted by a 7-metre lightning rod, with a clock on each side of the structure. The clocks on each face of the tower have run ever since 1921 except during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in World War II which left marks of combat on the tower building. Chiming of the station clocks verbalized a standard indication of time to both passengers and railway staff.
The Muted Tower – With a new terminus station opened in Hung Hom in 1975, Kowloon Station was demolished in 1977 with the exception of the Clock Tower. Hence, the Clock Tower is all that remains of the old Kowloon station, greeting visitors and travellers ashore today as it were half a century ago. However, with the demolition of the Kowloon Station, the huge bell inside the Clock Tower tolls no more and has been put on display.
The fate of the muted tower can perhaps be compared with its Central counterpart. Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier was built in 1957 in Central and a Clock Tower was added to it to make the pier more balanced and practical. The clock was a gift from Sir John Henry Keswick, an influential Scottish businessman in Hong Kong, who had received the clock from the Prince of Belgium. The chimes of the clock at Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier marked every quarter-hour since the pier’s inauguration in 1957, till the midnight on 12th November 2006 before the pier’s demolition. Videos taken by the public to record the clock tower’s last chimes show the historical and cultural weight sound can carry and that the public care about the preservation of iconic sounds of the city. It would be a good idea if the citizens can preserve sounds using a systematic means such as a sound map denoting where the sound was and how a location used to sound like. While the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower is at least still standing, the Clock Tower in Central is completely wiped off and erased. Preservation of its sound will add to the completeness of record we have of the Clock Tower which no longer exists.
A Declared Monument – Despite the social and economic upheavals that transformed Hong Kong in the past century, the tower is the only constant and one of Hong Kong’s oldest landmarks. In recognition of its historical and cultural value, the tower has been listed as a declared monument in Hong Kong since 2000. While the physical architecture and old photos of the clock tower live on, the sound of the clock bell does not, making the Clock Tower an excellent example of a disappeared soundmark. Preservation of the monument should go further than the visual aspect and the tower serves a standing example of the importance of sound archives.
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