Book Review: "Urban Diary: Doodling on City Edges"

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Set against the tightly-woven lines of a book cover are doodles in orange. A hand-drawn snapshot of the historic Pak Tin Estate occupies the upper-left corner. A lone plaque from the Tai Hang Fire Dragon team stands on the other side. An illustrated map of Lamma stretches across the spine of the book. If one looks closely enough, one could spot a bicycle laid across the hilly terrains of Lamma.

The bicycle belongs to the proud and upright Uncle Moon, veteran cyclist and seasoned lobbyist for more cycling trails in Hong Kong.

Uncle Moon is one of 18 interviewees in Chloe Lai’s latest Urban Diary, a book about the ongoing survival of alternate urban communities in Hong Kong. Turns out, the cover of Urban Diary also plays a game of hide-and-seek. The doodles in orange are a collage of figures drawn by the interviewees. Unearth the life stories behind the hidden communities documented in Urban Diary, and you unlock the many dreams, hopes and imagination behind these innocent-looking doodles.

Written in both English and Chinese, Chloe Lai and her team have put together a diary with images, drawings and life-stories aplenty. The book flows gently from story to story, with Lai occasionally adding her supplementary first-hand research. Videos and interactive versions of the interviews could also be found in Urban Diary’s online site (http://www.urbandiarist.com).  

The communities in Urban Diary – from Tai Hang to Peng Chau, from 30 Houses to hidden factory residences – are all defined in and against the city’s business-driven centers. Uncle Sai, for instance, organizes the annual Hungary Ghost (Yu Lan) Festival along 30 Houses, the former name for a neighborhood now dominated by the gourmet and wine-induced chatter of SoHo. Despite the drastic change in communal life in the 30 Houses area, the annual tradition of food offering, rice giving and Taoist procession persists. Through her observant and unassuming pen, Chloe Lai charts the survival of the Yu Lan Association community, which has lived through eviction orders and other challenges of urban renewal.

After the revolutionary passion of the Umbrella Movement, people from all sides of the political spectrum decry the need to “return to local communities”. With its patient account of the histories of communities, but also the dreams and desires of its people, Urban Diary offers a timely intervention, turning an empty political slogan into a concrete ethnography.

This effort is most apparent in the book’s account of the Tai Hang Fire Dragon tradition. Lai’s ethnography spans across different issues and generations. Natural Chu, the young female drum leader of the Fire Dragon team, yearns to become the first female dancer in the male-dominated tradition of Dragon Dancing. While she has moved out of Tai Hang, Natural’s sense of belonging remains rooted in the community. On the other hand, Fai Gor, the elderly master of Dragon Dancing, tackles the question of urban renewal and communal degeneration on a daily basis. Despite the altering faces of the community, Fai Gor remains confident in passing on the Dragon Dancing tradition.

Urban Diary strikes a perfect chord between tradition and innovation, history-telling and dream-making. The book flows easily from the preservation of traditions in Tai Hang into the dreams and desires of the city’s younger generations. Linus is an unconventional student who travels to Taiwan, acquiring the near-extinct craft of weaving from the indigenous Atayal tribe. Stephanie is an aspiring social entrepreneur who set up an initiative to conserve the silver-making skills in Kotagede, Central Java.

While the dreams and initiatives of the younger generation are less rooted in specific places and communities, they utilize their new-found flexibility to connect the dots across different locales. The mobility of Linus, Stephanie ad others demonstrate a markedly different idea of community. By mapping the constellation of dreams found in Hong Kong’s alternate communities, Urban Diary guides us through this dazzling doodle of the city’s sustainable future.  

We have come a long way since doodlers were first recognized as dunces and noodle-heads. From Leonardo da Vinci to Tagore, and from Plath to Clinton, doodlers are often people who think and act against the grain. Urban Diary is nothing less than a collage of doodles, stories and ideas that show us a different way of living. Perhaps more importantly, these ways of living coexist with the standard urban fabric, pushing and expanding the norm along the city’s edges and crevices. As Chloe Lai and her amazing team so convincingly shows, it is upon these meek simple dreams that big ideas are bred and sustained.