Non-fiction in brief: “Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption”, edited by Stefan Al; “Upbeat: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq” by Paul McAlindin

Two new non-fiction titles.

Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption, Stefan Al (ed) (Hong Kong University Press, August 2016; University of Hawai'i Press, October 2016);
Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption, Stefan Al (ed) (Hong Kong University Press, August 2016; University of Hawai’i Press, October 2016);

Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption, edited by Stefan Al

The colorful and positive book serves and feels much like a sequel to Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook by Adam Frampton, Jonathan D Solomon and Clara Wong with whom it shares at least one contributor.

Mall City is a collection of short essays followed by a mall-by-mall gallery of photos and diagrams. Hong Kong’s proliferating malls are usually derided by the chattering classes, but Al and his contributors find much to admire. In his introduction, Al notes that “with about one mall per square mile, [Hong Kong] is the world’s mall-densest place.” He then goes on to describe the integrated “mall city” and is complimentary about how well the Hong Kong implementations are engineered. He notes at “at best, Hong Kong mall cities are vibrant, diverse, and interconnected developments contributing to the public realm.”

One result, he says, is that “shopping is seamless in Hong Kong.” One may or may not think that desirable, but contributor David Grahame Shane notes that

 

Hong Kong stands out as an important ecological model because of its emphasis on public transportation linked to high-rise residential and commercial developments… As a result, Hong Kong’s per capita energy consumption is among the lowest for any city in the world.

 

Hong Kong has already proven a model for urban development in China and might prove a model for elsewhere. Shane concludes that “Hong Kong undoubtedly has great lessons to teach to the developing cities of the world.”

Mall City is a book of considerably more general interest than its apparently academic origins and purpose would indicate. And Hong Kong readers might in particular find it illuminating to see the arguments why something so generally disdained is actually one of the city’s strengths and a possible model worthy of emulation.

 

Upbeat: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, Paul McAlindin ( Sandstone Press, August 2016)
Upbeat: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, Paul McAlindin ( Sandstone Press, August 2016)

Upbeat: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul McAlindin

In October 2008, Paul MacAlindin saw a headline in a Glasgow newspaper that read “Search for UK maestro to help create an orchestra in Iraq”—a 17-year old pianist, Zuhal Sultan, wanted help in setting up a national youth orchestra in the war-torn country. MacAlindin made the call. By 2013, the newly-formed National Youth Orchestra of Iraq was playing in Aix-en-Provence, after previous tours to Britain and Germany.

Whether this was a heroic effort depends on how one defines heroic. Certainly, other than a surfeit of enthusiasm and will, there was little to suggest that project would be anything other sisyphean. It was inherently political: a decision was made to base the exercise in Sulaymaniyah, in Kurdistan, partly because it was relatively stable, and partly because the city already hosted the Kurdish String Orchestra. The resulting mixed Kurdish-Arab orchestra became a proxy for the promise and problems of the entire country.

A great story. But the book itself could have used some more forceful editing. MacAlindin namechecks rather a lot, quotes lengthy e-mails verbatim and includes considerable tangential detail as well as some problematical generalizations, such as “Individual Arabs blow themselves up, but individual Kurds do not.” In case we didn’t get it the first time, he repeats the point some two-dozen pages later. Kurds, furthermore, are “Etruscan” in appearance, more “delicate” than Arabs and are “rather like the Hobbits of the Middle East.”

But MacAlindin is a conductor rather than a writer; one should perhaps not expect him to wield the pen as proficiently as the baton.

“Upbeat” though the book is, MacAlindin is—to his credit—also aware of some of the overtones of having foreigners run and essentially fund a Middle Eastern orchestra, although he rails against the perhaps not unexpected antagonism that his efforts on occasion engendered from the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. But it was either accept the contradictions or not do it. MacAlindin did it; one imagines that a considerable number of musicians are grateful he did.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.