Adventures in Hong Kong: Chinese Surveyors, Basement Food Courts, Mongkok Police Station, and Kowloon Walled City Park

Recently TEAM FIRE visited Hong Kong, a foggy grey city that for the most part, of which many parts smelled a lot like fried fish and stinky tofu shops, and other parts looked like they came out of some part of Grand Theft Auto (like the very generic sounding “harbour city”). It was generally a leisurely exploration, in which we mostly meandered around parts of Tsim Sha Tsui, occassionally wandered up to Mong Kok, crossed the waters on the train or ferry to eat lots of egg tarts near Central/Soho. Here are a couple of the highlights:

Chinese Surveyor Markings


This being the first chinese country I have ever gone to, I am delighted to report that construction workers / land surveyors / civil engineers in HK sometimes actually use chinese characters in their markings on the ground! Here is one exemplary example that seems to be saying “400 BAMBOO”, spotted near the waterfront along Tsim Sha Tsui.

All Shopping Malls Have Food Courts in their Basement Floor

Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade
It was near lunch time when we encountered the “400 BAMBOO” marking above along Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, but we were already starving, and there were bleak prospects for finding cheap roadside food places in that area. Not far from that point, I saw what appeared to be a mall-type departmental store in the distance. Despite never having been to any buildings from that chain, I felt compelled to make a beeline for it. And I was gratified that my hunch had been correct – that here in HK they also had the convention of installing a food court at the lowest basement level (much to G’s amazement). I realised that this is something so predictable in Singapore that I instinctively expect every shopping mall and multistorey department store to have a food court at either at the very top roof level or the bottom basement floor (or sometimes even on both!). Can anyone explain why this convention is as such?

Unfortunately, we could not find any vegetarian options at the aforementioned food court. The only “vegetarian” dish there was not really vegetarian either. This was to be the running theme throughout our food adventures through Hong Kong. To be affixed with the puzzled stares of random food sellers and waiters scratching their heads in confusion and muttering in chinese, “WHAT??? YOU DON’T WANT MEAT OR FISH? HOW ABOUT THIS LITTLE MICROSCOPIC PRAWN ON TOP OF THIS VEGETABLE? OR THIS FISHCAKE??? I MEAN, THAT’S NOT MEAT, RIGHT??!”


Speaking of vegetarian options, for any vegetarians or vegans visiting HK, I’d recommend Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (功德林上海素食) at located at the 7th floor of 1881 Heritage (1 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui). Even people who eat anything and everything will find this restaurant very fascinating; its menu has hundreds of items, and we went back twice and ordered completely different things but everything we tried there was really exciting and exceptional. I think a lot of the best vegetarian restaurants are like a lot like food/flavour labs; forced by necessity to innovate in order to compete with the maddening hordes of meat dishes (especially in Asia where seafood and the use of ground prawn paste as an seasoning ingredient is virtually ubiquitous). Above is a picture of their classic Cold Shanghainese Noodle with seven sauces from Kung Tak Lam.

Mong Kok Police Station



According to the Guinness Book of Records, Mongkok (旺角) is apparently the most densely populated place in the world. Just north of the Tsim Sha Tsui area, this was certainly the most crowded area we saw in Hong Kong. The one thing in my mind was: WHY IS EVERYONE ON THE STREETS INSTEAD OF BEING AT WORK? Were a lot of these people standing around Mongkok also tourists like we were? (There sure were a lot of PRC tourists) I mean, population density could refer to towerblocks with more cramped dwellings than usual, like perhaps due to buildings housing “cage people”, but the roads themselves were indeed crazy.


Of course, for all you aficionados of Category III Anthony Wong type films, a trip to Mongkok would not be complete with a souvenir photo outside the Mongkok Police Station…

Kowloon Walled City Park


We visited the site of the Kowloon Walled City (九龍寨城), which was completely demolished by 1994 and replaced by some sort of a landscaped park. From documentaries I had watched in the past, the idea of a “vertical urban village” built out of super-dense city of interwoven high-rise tenements that had developed without real foundations and without centralised authority was of mythic proportions.

List of things you can’t do at the Kowloon Walled City Park
Sad to say the park that has replaced it was not in its best condition when we visited it, thus making it feel slightly like the Kowloon Walled City’s demolition was all for naught; like an administrative exercise that had cleaned it up but left it with a gaping, unoccupied hole.


This is a picture that I had taken on the way to the park – a mossy stone with the words “Kowloon Walled City”, with a huge crack over the word “city”. I wondered if this crack over the word city was intentional, so I set about looking for other pictures of this particular stone plaque to see if it had been cracked in other photos.

Stone Plaque – Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2006)

Stone plaque of "Kowloon Walled City"

Stone Plaque – Image Credit: asianfiercetiger (2011)

I didn’t actually find any other pictures of that particular stone I had seen, but whilst searching on Wikipedia and Flickr I did find a picture of a different stone plaque with a crack over the exact same word – right over the word 城 (”city”)! The above pictures are of the main stone plaque by the South Gate. I like how it hasn’t been moved in all this time although in all possibility these fragments might not have been cemented down to the ground.

Because of this, I think the cracks on both stone plaques are very much intentional: maybe a bit like how when chinese graves are exhumed, the gravestones must be broken into pieces so as to symbolise that whatever the stone once stood for is no longer there… A symbolic memorial for a broken city.

Here is the first of a great four-part documentary on the Kowloon Walled City:

A Meeting with a Land Surveyor

This weekend I was very fortunate to meet Mr KL Loh, a land surveyor who has been working for over 40 years in land surveying (and an avid collector of Killifish and moss expert!). He was very kind to invite me over to his house, and to tell me more about his work as a land surveyor, and we also looked through the symbols I’ve been collecting for the last few years. (Many thanks to Mr Loh and his family for having me over – and Caleb for introducing us in the first place!)

It was really really amazing to finally speak with a real land surveyor and to hear it directly from someone who makes official, practical marks which are being used in actual architectural and civil engineering projects in Singapore and we had many many urban stories or anecdotes to share and talk about. I will slowly process it all and write more about it in time to come.

It appears that most of what I have been collecting is not always “survey markers” but also a lot of informal civil engineering markers. True survey markers always have a plate and a reference number. The number is stored inside a big database known as the Integrated Land Information Service and anyone can retrieve information from this service (such as property titles, boundary plans, cadastral maps, control points) for a small fee.

This is the cover plate for what would be a real control point made by a land surveyor.

On INLIS, this is a list of information that is provided:

a. Property Title Information comprising title, ownership, encumbrances, last transaction information and Land Encroachment Details
b. Property Ownership Information
c. Property Title Information – Estate and Land Description
d. Property Title Information – Encumbrances Information
e. Property Title Information with Cadastral Map
f. Historical Information which lists instruments and caveats lodged against a title or unregistered land after it has been computerised
g. Caveat Index Information which lists caveats lodged and still affecting an unregistered land
h. Land Information – Lot Particulars
i. Land Information – Lot History
j. Encroachment Boundary Plan
k. Certified Plan
l. Strata Certified Plan
m. Registrar of Title Plan
n. Road Line Plan
o. Horizontal Control Point & Vertical Control Point
p. Image of HDB Leases
q. Image of HDB Instruments
r. Image of Private Property Instruments
s. Image of Index to Land Book
t. Image of Index to Caveat Book
u. Image of Private Property Deeds

Available Graphical Information (as listed on INLIS):

• Cadastral Map
• Property Title Information with Cadastral Map
• Road Line Plan
• Horizontal Control Point & Vertical Control Point



Trimble CU Controller

Some of the interesting things I learnt were that (1) the control points are also sometimes on turf and i have only collected ones on pavements but surveyed points sometimes aren’t always on concrete pavements or roads, and (2) the control points have the potential to go missing – KL said that many control points were made much more quickly in modern times, and as a result some of them would disappear after a few years. So when surveyors returned to look for them after many years (or when looking for other control points listed on INLIS) these points might have disappeared (soil movement might also cause their position to shift!). Apparently in the old days some of the control points were marked out with granite blocks and they were laid into the turf/ground with more time and care; a few still exist in older places such as Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and possibly Bukit Brown.

With regards to blocks that stick out on grassy turf… having read a book on LTA Guidelines recently, I have also realized that there is also much more to learn about those boxes and pipes we sometimes see on roads. I have frequently wondered why sometimes pavements have little metal boxes sticking out and it appears they are not all the same! Those little boxes or tubes serve very different purposes in monitoring different things. Here are diagrams of what some things that stick out from roads might be:

Pneumatic Piezometer




Water Standpipe


More significantly, for my work, it seems the variance in shapes and drawing depends a lot on the individual surveyor/clerk of works who is drawing it on the ground – whether for his own reference, or for his company to be able to recognise the mark. As many of these marks aren’t official survey marks, the person drawing it for their temporary reference while working on a civil engineering or road project could technically take any “artistic” liberties with it and draw almost anything so as to make the marking recognisable to himself during the duration of the project.

Empty Chairs on Sungei Road

The day before, I took a walk from my house to the Immigrations building to collect my passport. It was long and lovely and although I did not intend to, I ended up having to do this trip twice because I forgot to bring my old passport on the first trip.

However, as a result of this oversight, on my walks I observed a female construction worker/surveyor doing some measurements and annotating on the ground with a correction pen and had a leisurely walk home again from Lavender to Little India. There are many new markers on the ground that have only just appeared in the last day, and surveyors can actually be seen everywhere. The trail is hot!

All the annotations refer to C935, sometimes also represented with a LJH which stands for Leighton-John Holland, a joint venture between two Australian rail building companies. You can see plastic road dividers being sloppily sprayed with the initials LJH all around the Sungei Road area, and many large objects around the area such as the electronic traffic diversion signs are also labeled with C935.

Later that night after Korean classes, I walked home from Bugis to Jalan Besar/Little India. The Victoria Street Wholesale Market was already being demolished, and with the shops taken out of the buildings, you could see the huge bricks which had been used to construct it in the first place. It is funny because my memories of it are less as a market but rather as a night time playground, walking around its empty but fishy corridors and imagining all the dried produce stored within.

The compressed and cramped roads of Sungei Road are still active even at night. As always, the chairs have been stashed on the posts of the very fences that were used to keep the people out from the empty grass and on the pavements. It is a funny thing when there is a market place but the place is fenced off to the people such that people are only allowed on the roads – and yet one can see how the people have also fought back so much to keep this space in spite of everything.

And there used to be fewer chairs before they dug up half of the road – I remember this clearly as we used to “borrow” a few of these chairs and sit on them at night so being able to find the chairs was crucial – but for some reason the number of empty chairs seem to have suddenly multiplied recently. As I walked past late at night, a group of old men were still sitting and talking in the middle of Sungei Road. Were they trading old stories or talking of new ones, or keeping an eye on the street? Its hard to tell, but this is visibly a major transitional phase for Sungei Road. I just hope that it remains full of life even after they construct the new station in the middle of the Thieves Market…

March 2012: Open Urbanism, Yangtze Scribbler, DTL Numbering System

This blog which was previously named “Techno Power Hobby Time” is now being renamed “Open Urbanism”, because I suppose that reflects my interest in open source as well as urban environments more accurately. (And why had it been given that name in the past? Because of some old “TECHNO POWER” button I had worn on my hoodie since the 2006 Singapore Biennale. And I don’t know where it is right now….)

I guess I view technology as the (incidental) “medium”, rather than it being the “work” itself. Whereas others might use technology to their advantage to seamlessly show something or some idea such that the technology becomes invisible, I realise that I do quite the opposite instead – I often try to break down the technical process into tiny little manageable bits that in the end reveal all of the magical and oft hidden process in technology. I suppose its my silly way of figuring out things.

So actually, my obsession with diy/programming has developed largely from my inability to find a collaborator who can handle the more technical portions of my work for me while I do what I think I still do best – the conceptualisation, the writing, and the mapping. Having very little math or science foundation to fall back on, these desultory meanderings into programming or electronics subsequently occupy a lot of headspace as I take time to figure things out, but still they are not to be mistaken for the crux of what I am truly interested in…


Yangtze Scribbler

Tan Pin Pin made a short film on my collection of graffiti signs in the Yangtze Stairwell (and its accidental discovery elsewhere in Bugis as well), and its now online at the Singapore Memory project showcase. (Thanks so much for bringing it to a wider audience, Pin Pin!) We saw it screened at the Singapore Memory Project roadshow in Toa Payoh (one of the oldest and most mature Housing Board estates in Singapore), where it was also screened alongside Wee Li Lin’s Singapore Cowboy. The titular character himself, Matthew from Matthew and the Mandarins came down to perform his golden hit. “Singapore Cowboy, where do i belong…….”

I was seated next to a 79 year old nurse who suddenly started talking to me half way through the preamble of a moderately long speech made by the MP for Toa Payoh/Minister of Defence. “I don’t like Matthew Tan,” she frowned, “No, I never really liked Matthew Tan.” “But… you’ve come to see his performance…?” I asked. She then said, “Well, I don’t like Matthew Tan, but my husband did. He listened to it so much, he even bought the CD. He would have been 85 now… He died 9 years ago….”

Later, she said she had been living in Toa Payoh for 39 years, when it was mostly still a swamp, and she had to take a pirate taxi to work at the hospital each day (she also went up on stage where they gave out movie tickets to the various denizens of Toa Payoh who would recount their tales). She asked me to come down to her church’s Easter festival. She pointed at my hair, “You don’t have to tell me your name, I can remember how you look like!”

“Crack Monitors” and the DTL3 numbering system

A common sight here is this C9XX number that is commonly seen on pavements, old shophouses, walls, and small electrical boxes that have been popping up everywhere. A friend mentioned seeing these “crack monitors” in my area near the Downtown Line construction, something quite similar to this photo i took back in November. The prefix in the stick always has something saying “C9XX”.



Some years back I had already realised that these numbers which appear everywhere, especially on the old buildings, are actually for measuring the cracks growing in the old buildings around the Downtown Line construction sites. When I was working in my old job around South Bridge Road back in 2009, we would walk from our office to the main office at Robinson Road in order to pick up a brief, and we’d pass through the Telok Ayer area with the numerous old shophouses next to the green-fenced construction site. The fivefooways were festooned with these mystical numbers and stickers with barcodes and plastic markers over the cracks. One day after having casually observed them for a number of weeks and gaily reading them out to my colleague while walking past them, I suddenly had the epiphany that the numbers switched from C908 to C909 when I crossed “Cross Street”. Dashing from shophouse to shophouse on both sides of the street, I realised that the numbers plotted out an area that was delineated by Cross Street, and that the numbers weren’t just random C numbers, but that they actually reflected the zone or station that they were “zoned” under. It turned out that C908 was the project number for the soon-to-be-constructed Cross Street Station, and C909 was the project number for Chinatown Station.



Since then I have collected countless sets of C9– numbers. I suppose this one is the most straightforward system I have figured out so far.

Here is a spreadsheet I’ve made so far on the number system used for the DTL3 Contracts. These are the newest ones to be built, fully underground, with target completion in 2017. When I have more time I will compile a list for DTL2/DTL1 stations as well. All data was found by scouring LTA press releases and other publicly available press announcements on whom they awarded contracts to. In the end I also happened to collate data on the amount being spent on the various stations, so I have included it in as well:


No. DTL Number Name Detail To be constructed by Contract Value
1 DTL3 C922 Expo Interchange (Circle Line) Samsung C&T Corporation US$171.5M
2 DTL3 C923 Upper Changi Samsung C&T Corporation S$256.98 million
3 DTL3 C923A Tunnel Tunnels Between Tampines East and Upper Changi Stations Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Co. Ltd S$91.13 million
4 DTL3 C925 Tampines East GS Engineering & Construction Corp. US$174M
5 DTL3 C925A Tampines Interchange (East West Line) KTC Civil Engineering & Construction Pte Ltd US$98.7M
6 DTL3 C926 Tampines West Cooperativa Muratori & Cementisti – C.M.C di Ravenna US$185M
7 DTL3 C927 Bedok Reservoir Cooperativa Muratori & Cementisti – C.M.C di Ravenna US$160.3M
8 DTL3 C928 Bedok Town Park Sato Kogyo (S) Pte Ltd S$268.68M
9 DTL3 C929 Kaki Bukit China State Construction Engineering Corporation Limited US$76M
10 DTL3 C929A Tunnel Tunnels Between Ubi and Kaki Bukit Stations Nishimatsu Construction Co. Ltd S$211.7M
11 DTL3 C930 Ubi SK Engineering & Construction Co. Ltd S$161.71M
12 DTL3 C931 MacPherson Interchange (Circle Line) Hyundai Engineering & Construction Co., Ltd S$188 million
13 DTL3 C932 Mattar Sato Kogyo (S) Pte Ltd S$199.85M
14 DTL3 C932A Kallang Bahru China State Construction Engineering Corporation Limited US$99M
15 DTL3 C933 Bendemeer Penta-Ocean Construction Co., Ltd S$215.24 million
16 DTL3 C935 Sungei Road (Jalan Besar) Leighton Offshore Pte Ltd/John Holland Pty Ltd (Singapore Branch) JV US$139.1M
17 DTL3 C936 Bencoolen Sato Kogyo (S) Pte Ltd S$177.58 million
18 DTL3 C937 River Valley GS Engineering & Construction Corp. US$212.5M

Does anyone have any clue why there is no C934 contract? And why is Kallang Bahru station given a number C932A, when all the other A numbers refer to tunnels instead?

(And for those concerned with the situation with Sungei Road Station (C935), I read on tunnelingjournal the following statement: “Under the contract, the joint venture will construct the new Sungei Road Station, a four-level station box with a platform, mezzanine, concourse and linkway, along with comprehensive civil, structural, architectural, plumbing, drainage, landscaping and reinstatement works… Twin tunnels approximately 770m in length between Sungei Road Station and Bencoolen Station will be constructed…”)

DIY Renovations

Recently I have been crazy about diy work again. I installed two layers of curtains and reupholstered a chair on my own. One day I would like to build my own house from scratch. I would really love to understand every single part of urban construction from the ground up, because I am strange like that. Here are some notes (mostly for my own record) on my recent DIY efforts:

1. Drilling into brick/masonry

It really makes a difference if you buy a brand new masonry drill bit. If you are having problems drilling into a brick wall and it simply won’t give, don’t despair and don’t panic, just go out and buy a new masonry drill bit and see if this helps. This should be the shiny metal one. After some despairing and calling up people to ask if I should be taking half an hour to drill one hole, I found out that a new drill bit will work significantly better than using any old one (obviously). Also, the black ones are for wood and should not be confused for use with bricks/concrete/masonry, and remember to turn on HAMMERMODE on your drill.

2. Building an IKEA Expedit bookcase on your own within in one hour

Yes! I built this within one hour on my own, the one-man team of DBBD. If you google, you might read horror stories online about groups of people taking hours to construct this and having an awful time. The key to building this as fast as you can is actually to hammer all the wooden pegs in until the sound of your hammering changes – this will be when the wooden pegs have been hammered in as deep as they will go. If they aren’t hammered in properly on each step of the way, it will be hard to continue adding on new boards. The rest of the construction is otherwise straightforward, but it will probably require at least three small people to lift this up when you’re done, as its pretty damn heavy.

3. Reupholstering a chair

It was easier than I expected. I bought cloth, foam sheets, and staple-gunned everything together within about 2-3 hours, including disassembly and reassembly of chair. On hindsight I would say: Pick a sturdier material like canvas (and not cotton as I have done, silly me). And everything really needs to be pulled tight or else you get a lumpy chair. Lumpy cotton cloud chair…

Curbside Markings – Penhas Road


Spotted on Penhas Road while walking from Kallang to Little India! It should be easy to figure out the meaning behind this set of bright red spray paint lines and dots which I found on a curb along Penhas Road – which also seems to have been newly re-tarred. When this road is re-tarred or fixed some time in the future, I wonder if the curb markings will outlive these current road markings and carpark lots measurements?









Yangtze Scribbler – Spotted again

Today while walking home from Arab Street, I walked through the route by the muslim cemetery along Victoria Lane. I saw a electrical box from across the road, next to the cemetery. These boxes are everywhere, but for some reason, I can’t explain, but I was attracted to look behind this particular box.


I don’t know why, but it was facing the cemetery and such a peaceful scene, that I imagined that it was the spot I’d imagine you’d hide a secret message, so I took a peek….


For some reason my odd hunch had been absolutely right. I was shocked. The back of this box was covered in a huge symbol by the Yangtze Scribbler. Completely… unreal. I think all the hair stood up on the back of my neck.



Flickr Set: More images of the Yangtze Scribbler