Monday, June 22, 2009

Tuen Mun, A city contained...

Image of a rusted container with a 'Transamerica Leasing' leasing logo on it.
Dear Gentle Reader,

The Korean War was active from 1950 to 1953, but, it never really ended.

An armistice was signed in 1953 though peace was never declared.

Further, North Korea recently declared its withdrawal from that armistice on May 27, 2009.

But, this article is not about a home for peace, or war, on the Korean Peninsula, or anything on the Korean Peninsula.

It's not even about the Korean War, except tangentially.

This post is tangentially about the Korean War as the Korean War saw the first great growth of metalized containerisation for shipping.

The USA found that metal containers, instead of wood, once standardized, were harder to destroy, more difficult to pilfer from, and quicker to load, unload and transport.

With these insights, CONEX, the CONtainer EXpress project of the USA's Department of Defense, began and thus the Korean War marks the dawn of modern containerisation (as opposed to the twilight of (wooden) transport containerization which started in the late eighteenth century; it was a long twilight, baby).

Nineteen years after the start of CONEX, 1972, in turn, saw the dawn of containerisation in international, civil (as opposed to military) trade in Hong Kong.

In 1972, the first dedicated container ship to arrive in Hong Kong, the Tokyo Bay, docked in Kwai Chung.

By 1975/1976, container cargo was already accounting for 51% of the total dead weight tonnage of cargo exported or imported in the world (today more than 90% of non-bulk cargo is shipped via containers).

By 1980, Hong Kong had eclipsed Osaka, Japan, to become the third largest container port in the world.

By 1987, Hong Kong had eclipsed both Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and New York, USA, to become the number one container port in the world.

Of course, when those containers aren't being shipped out, they sit empty.


And land is not cheap in Hong Kong, as your humble scribe found out when looking for a container for his life, and the belongings of the Hero and the Heroine.

Image of stacked, empty containers in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong.Containers that are not filled with goods to be shipped frequently end up in Tuen Mun, a suburb city of a half million people outside of Hong Kong.

Tuen Mun started off its days as defensive gate city (channel gate is what Tuen Mun translates to).

Tuen Mun formed a defensive channel to stop foreign threats; not that it was ever effective against non-Chinese threats, like the British...

But, now, all threats to Tuen Mun are contained...

For, you see, Tuen Mun is where many of the unused shipping containers sit.

Recently, China's export trade has dropped by over 26% in dollar terms. That represents a lot of containers.

This means that the number of containers sitting idle has grown...

Second image of stacked, empty containers in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong.
So, some are used in novel ways.

Like this lovely house,

Image of a house made of containers.
with a carport, and a covered garage/workshop (the landscaping, admittedly, leaves much to be desired, but it is low maintenance).

Image of a carport and garage made of containers.
Some structures, of course are more downmarket.

Image of a container rancher with room to grow, for a growing family, and space for a dovecote for those avian fanciers...

Image of a container shack/hunting blind (in Tuen Mun). A fixer-upper in need of some TLC, but perfect, already, for back-to-nature unabomber types...Some structures are almost hillbilly market (or hillybilly, as the Heroine likes to say).

While others are more mid-market.

Image of a two-story walk-up container unit with shade and a back yard (in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong). Perfect for growing families. Must be seen to be believed.
The flip side of reduced trade is, apparently, increased housing.

And I have long thought that much housing, in Hong Kong, is simply containerization of people.

Now, in Tuen Mun, my suspicions have been confirmed.



Speaking of containers, and Tuen Mun, my mysterious scholarly Buddhist reader (but never commentator?) in California would likely not forgive me if I didn't mention Pui To.

And, having seen the tools that Buddhism reserves to use against its enemies (go back into the archives...) ...I want to stay on the right side of Buddhists...


The great Buddhist missionary, Pui To, arrived in Tuen Mun in 428 AD in his own drinking cup, transformed into a vessel for travelling the drink (the waterways of the Pearl River Delta).

(In comparison, I drink and travel, or travel and drink, but rarely do I travel my drink. Your humble scribe is so déclassé...)

Pui To, however, did more than experiment with containers (drinking cups) and their efficacy as travelling objects.

Pui To, as a very devout Buddhist, would go to the local markets, buy live fish destined for the kitchens, and release those same live fish back into the water.

Further, the fish that never made it back to their watery homes, the dead ones, well, Pui To would inter these fish in specially constructed mausoleums... ...architectural containers to hold and memorialize the dead. (Why? Because Buddhists generally respect all life as sacred.)

So, Tuen Mun has not only had a long history, but has had a long relationship with containers transformed.


Teresa said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Chris. I liked your pictures and descriptions of the various container homes on the Tuen Mun market. (You should be a real estate salesman, you could probably make a killing selling swamp land in Florida to the occupants of Chung King mansions...)

I find it interesting that your hillybilly style home looks very much like the container homes out in the high desert of California between Joshua Tree National Park and Victorville. I always wondered how those inhabitants were able to stand the large swings in desert temperature while living in a metal container. I wonder how the Tuen Mun inhabitants can stand the tropical heat day after day in a metal box. But they are roomier than some of the apartments I visited in Kowloon in the 80s, so I guess they must like them.

I also enjoyed the history about Pui To and his unique method of travel.

Your code-switching between containerisation and containerization was fun, too. Are you North American or Brit???


Cloudia said...

A wonderful post, unique as you are, chris. I always wanted to build a home of shipping containers. Now I live on the ship (container).

Love your posts!

Comfort Spiral

debra said...

Interesting post, Chris. I have heard about containers being used as houses but had not seen them. The scale of the stack of them is astounding.

Richard Wells said...

Who knew shipping containers could be so fascinating. I've seen people living in abandoned boxcars, some spiffed up, but nothing to the level of a split level container. I guess the downturn is nothing to be afraid of, after all.

Pui To had too much time on his hands.

murat11 said...

More marvels, Mr. Pepys (truth be told, the eloquence is grander here). I feared at first that we were headed down a drear path, but the opening lines were just the morning tonic - Wake up, Gentle Readers! Truly, you have the poet's eye, finding treasure not only in what is stored, but the storage itself.

Dug the Pui To mausoleums, even if he was in his cups...

Travis Erwin said...

Funny post. Glad to know there are hillbilly the world over. Means I could feel at home anywhere.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear All,

I'm not feeling so well today, but I am delighted to see the commentary.

It warms the hillybilly subcockles of my heart, the cockles, and even the overhanging cockle eaves.

I took my Dad and the Heroine to Tai Long beach the other day out in Sai Kung Country Park and there were protestations about the heat, the humidity and the inclination.

The inclination to reside in a container, in this heat, must be economy induced, although, Teresa, you will note the affixed air conditioning on some of those units.

I am in the process of some art pieces from one container I partially salvaged and I can tell you that the insulation consists of more than a Brahmsian finger-reach on the piano...

As to the code-switching, Teresa, you have me. I am both. Of course, self-labeling as a Brit means that it is a passport of convenience. No Englishman would label himself as anything but that, and Scots, Welsh, and (Northern) Irish are similarly choosy...

Cloudia, you are a bit of a modern day Pui To, living in your container, and preserving the lives of fishies through your photos to give them e-immortality for e-vermore...

Debra, the stack is stunning, and the back fill of containers needing to be stored, and storied, is astonishing...

Richard: Pui To had an awful lot of time on his hands; eternity, as he was exceedingly devout. Arhat quality, almost...

Murat, You are exceedingly kind. And it is good to be in our cups, for a while, but only Bukowski could manage it day in day out... I'd like to say "and look where it got him", though, of course, it got him everywhere and everyone...

Travis, and hillybillies too!

Tschuess all,

Heidelweiss said...

I've seen homes built out of containers here. The difference being that people here spend hundreds of thousands of dollars insulating them to make them livable (and yet still "green"?). I shudder to think of a summer in Utah spent in an uninsulated container. I'd only do it if I had a container pool as well. Really fascinating post.

Sepiru Chris said...

Hello Heidelweiss,

Container pool... I think you are channelling Pui To (and, as Tuen Mun is channel gate, that makes sense).

Green containers?

Sounds odd, but, they probably are if you take into account the thermodynamics of reusing the steel rather than re-melting it... That would be my guess, at least, as to the justification for that claim...