Mai Po Marshes: A Natural Symphony of Bird Cries

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated and densely built cities in the world. Its high density of skyscrapers has even earned Hong Kong the name of a concrete jungle. It is also a city that never sleeps because of its vibrant nightlife. Hong Kong may sometimes give you headaches because of its constant car horns and human voices. It is time we get away to the tranquil nature – Mai Po Marshes.

Mai Po Marshes (米埔濕地) is a nature reserve located near Yuen Long in Hong Kong. A haven for migratory waterbirds, the 380-heactare marshes and mudflats are where around 90,000 birds take refuge every winter. Furthermore, the reserve is home to a host of wildlife including birds of over 400 species, butterflies of over 100 species, crabs, shrimps, mammals, reptiles, and plants of over 250 species. 49 species of birds that inhabit the reserve are of global conservation concern including the black-faced spoonbill (黑面琵鷺). Spring and autumn are the best time for bird-watching. Visitors will hear calls and shrieks of birds in every direction as they forage for food and feed themselves on fish, shrimps and crabs. Mai Po Marshes showcases Hong Kong’s biodiversity and its auditory aspect, i.e. natural bird sounds, can be regarded as a soundmark of Hong Kong.

We may contrast the natural bird sounds with those in the bird market at Yuen Po Street (園圃街) in Mong Kok where nearly 100 stalls are set up to sell caged birds, often of bird types such as parrot, lovebird and Chinese hwamei (畫眉). How would they sound different from their free, uncaged counterparts in Mai Po Marshes? Maybe it has struck some people that while the bird sounds heard in the bird market may be more singsong, mellow and tamed, bird sounds in Mai Po Marshes are an integral, seamless part of the wild nature. Does it seem a fair assessment to you or do you think the assessment is heavily influenced by the landscape accompanying the bird sounds?

Do you hear the ice cream coming?

Do you like a big, sumptuous scoop of ice cream? Does the sight of ice-cream excite you? If you love ice cream, Mobile Softee (雪糕車) knows how to thrill you not only visually, but auditorily as well through pairing ice cream with cute music-box style melody. The 47-year-old brand has become part of the collective memory of many Hong Kongers. In fact, its symbolic and cultural significance is so great it can be said to have been a soundmark of Hong Kong.

Mobile Softee is an ice cream vendor in Hong Kong. It all started when Ho Ging-yuen (何敬源) and two of his friends imported the idea of an ice-cream truck from England by gaining a franchise in 1970 from Mister Softee, a United States-based ice cream truck franchisor. Ho selected the Blue Danube composed by Johann Strauss II as the theme song for their 14 ice-cream trucks out of all song choices provided by Mister Softee for no other reason than that the sweet tune rang most familiar to Ho.

Mobile Softee’s distinct ice cream trucks painted in red, white, and blue ran all over Hong Kong while playing the Blue Danube tune loud on their speakers. They lingered near schools and train stations on weekdays and at tourist spots such as the Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui on weekends. People always hear a Mobile Softee before seeing it. Once your ears catch the classic and well-known tune of the waltz music, it grows on you and stimulates your brain with enticing images of ice-cream, making you want to buy it even before seeing it. The Blue Danube tune is like a tantalizing beckoning, guiding and drawing people to its source and the product, a siren song for every ice-cream lover.

Not only is Mobile Softee one of the earliest precursors of food trucks in Hong Kong, it is also one of the few sellers that tap into people’s hunger through hearing. Its attempt to evoke the deliciousness of ice cream through music is a clever marketing strategy. It succeeded to be ear-catching in a memorable way and has made a name for itself. However, is Mobile Softee’s sweet music welcomed by everyone? When vehicle sound is coupled with music, do they go well together or on the contrary, make the surrounding soundscape noisier or chaotic? For people who would just like to enjoy the ice-cream in quiet, Mobile Softee’s music may ring less than peaceful to their ears. Whether the Blue Danube evokes whatever Mobile Softee aims to evoke, be it happiness or a craving for ice-cream, depends after all on the hearer, his or her mood or other personal factors, pointing to the subjectiveness of soundscape.

The Century-Old Rattle of “Ding-Ding” Trams

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?

What is a sound map?

You may have used maps or Google Maps when navigating in places you are not unfamiliar with. Has it occurred to you how very visual those maps are, that they are merely visual representation of areas? Have you imagined a different kind of maps that feature not the visual aspect of the environment but the auditory?

A sound map uses map to represent the soundscape or soundmark of locations. Its objective is to represent a specific environment using its soundscape as primary references as opposed to visual cues. Sound maps are created by associating landscape (streets in a city, train stations, stores, pathways, factories, oil pumps, etc.) and soundscapes. Sound maps do not have to be large in scale, nor do the sounds represented have to be symbolic. It can simply be a map representing the sonic environment of your home in which the tap water can be heard running in kitchen and washroom, the washing machine droning in the living room, while the television blasting in the bedroom.

Crowdsourcing is usually the method of collecting data for sound mapping. Since people perceive the same sonic environment differently, crowdsourcing allows participants to contribute each of their own responses and piece together a sound map with diversity. Considering that sound is transient in nature and that various types of sound can be heard over time at the same spot, crowdsourcing enables the development of a comprehensive and detailed sound map by listeners’ collective effort.

Sound maps are in many ways the most effective auditory archive of an environment. The creation of sound maps encourages people to visit a particular location in person in order to experience the actual sonic environment and afterwards chip in and share their own observations. Also, sound maps enable users to re-experience the environment with focus on its sonic elements. So if you want a certain sound replayed without having to drop by a certain place, you may refer to the sound map of the location which enables access of its soundscape at all times simply with your electronic devices

What is a soundmark?

Is there any sound that reminds you of a particular place? For example, does the ding ding sound of trams remind you of Hong Kong? Would you think of London when you hear Big Ben chimes? If they do, those iconic sounds are soundmarks.

Derived from “landmark”, soundmark is a term used in Soundscape Studies to refer to a sound which is unique to an area or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community. A soundmark is highly symbolic because it evokes immediate association to the location upon being heard. Soundmarks, therefore, are of cultural and historical significance and merit preservation and protection.

Soundmark is not only a term found in Soundscape Studies. It has made its way into marketing and brand differentiation. Some luxury automobile brands develop their own engineering sounds in order to differentiate themselves from their peers and to give users a sense of superiority. Hence, soundmark gives characteristics to a place or a product. With uniqueness and individuality being much sought after by modern society, can you foresee how soundmark will develop in the near future?


The Century-Old Rhythm of The City’s Daily Life

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.

Hong Kong Wet Markets: A Sensory Excess

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?

The Clocks That Rang No More

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.

More on Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier: