“Contrast” this was what Chris and I dubbed our attempts to do things differently and not simply stick to the things we knew and liked while we were in Hong Kong. We spent 25 days in Sheung Wan then decided to mix up our HK experience by moving to another neighborhood four subway stops away. At the bottom of Happy Valley, Wan Chai is a very wet neighborhood steeped in liveliness. In the past it was nick-named Hong Kong’s red light district. I wouldn’t have guessed from my experiences there, but I was not out and about late into the night. Not every image in this post was taken in Wan Chai, some are from nearby places like Aberdeen and Central that we walked to during our contrast stint in Wan Chai.
Fioravanti is a couture clothing store and studio in Beacon Hill where Mia Fioravanti and her daughter Wysdom design and sew pieces meant to endure. “I am not interested in trends.” Says Mia. “I think it’s important to be on some sort of trend so that your stuff is relevant and modern and someone will want to wear it. The thing about us is, we are much more interested in something that lasts. That is one thing I have always tried to stay true to.” Their studio is filled with pieces that have a timelessness about them, from classic sleeveless black dresses to sheer navy ponchos and impeccable white button-downs. The duo will soon be moving to a space down the street on Beacon Ave. where they will quadruple their space. “We are looking to create more of a lifestyle store rather than just clothing, so we are going to have other people’s work, we’re going to have events, and I’m looking for artists, photographers, people like that who want to do shows. I have three people slated to do shows and art openings once a month, so it’s going to be a much more dimensional kind of place.” Mia Fioravanti taught herself to sew at age 8. Daughter to a father who ran a woolen mill in the Midwest, Fioravanti was introduced to the family business lifestyle at a young age. “I went to art school and was doing graphic design and advertising, and I hated it so I went back to sewing.” While working with a dry cleaner in Denver, Fioravanti brushed up on her sewing skills, then spent a year apprenticing with a woman from Russia who specialized in couture. With intermittent careers as a stylist and a Waldorf teacher, Fioravanti is now running her business on Beacon Hill with her daughter Wysdom, who graduated in May with a bachelors degree in technical design.
“As far as fashion goes, that’s kind of a funny word to define, but I feel that I’ve always been a dress maker. I’ve always done lots of couture work, that’s my background – making everything kind of hand made and now we have a manufacturer who’s doing some of the work and we’re doing some of the work.
I don’t know where we’re heading with all of that but we kind of pride ourselves on being part of slow fashion and slow clothing, kind of similar to slow food, we want to do creative work, but we also have a baseline. We have a line of clothing and then from there we’re doing some one-of-a kind pieces, or three-of-a kind.” Wysdom grew up around design and sewing then went on to study the more technical side of the craft. “I’m trying to get experience but I’m also leading the technical part because she [Mia] is not very technical. That’s a challenge, because I don’t know everything, I just know a little bit. Coming straight from school and jumping into this business is pretty major, but it has allowed me to do so much. Working with pattern making, making things from scratch and seeing something finished that I made the pattern for, is pretty amazing.”
Mia freely expresses the benefits of working with someone who has a different background than herself. “I’m not interested in doing this by myself anymore. At one time I was like, ‘I’ll just do it all’, and it just doesn’t work. There has to be collaboration. I feel like when Wysdom came along it was right on time because I don’t know how much longer I would have been able to sustain it by myself. We have a really great team effort going on here, and it’s been really great having a person coming right out of school who has fresh perspectives and fresh ideas, and is from a different generation, you know, it’s very important.” The Fioravantis are quite the creative household. Their oldest daughter Julia is an artist as well and often models the Fioravanti line. Their closeness as a family and common ground as artists eliminates the need to sugar coat their opinions about one another’s work. Wysdom says of working with her mother, “She has more super creative craziness sometime and I’m more of the editor. I say no a lot, and it works because we’re family so we can be honest. We care about each other’s feeling but we get over things really quickly.”
Likewise, Mia says Wysdom often makes their work stay true to the idea. “I feel like I’m being parented sometimes, but it’s okay, because Wysdom’s got a lot of grounding and I don’t, so this way we stay on track. It’s good to have someone really different from you who holds you accountable.”
The Fioravanti’s shared reverence for the combination of good design and artistic sensibility shows in their work. “When you’re coming from a design point of view rather than a trend point of view, that is a guiding principle, so, no matter what you do, it is relevant if you’re coming from a good design and understanding the artistic composition. Composition is composition. There are rules to it and if you master them and you understand them, then you can break the rules and start making your own.” Watching the two work together in their studio, it seems that Wysdom may be teaching her mother new rules, but that Mia is undoubtedly passing on the invaluable artistry of a lifetime of dressmaking.
In Shenzhen, there is Dongmen Market and then there is OLD Dongmen Market, which is where we went in search of some eats, knowing we would find much more than that. Every stall on this loopy street had a personality of it’s own. Some were entire families, others young male duos listening to electronic base beats acting unapologetically affectionate towards one another the way I’ve often seen male friends do in cultures other than my own. It felt as if a part of the scene was shutting down, giving way to another more nightly domain. There were still the outliers, a late night dentist with windows open to the bustling streets, a man collecting remnants of lettuce from the days sale, and kids playing in the dimly lit streets. I had some of the best garlic roasted eggplant I’ve had in my life while watching life in Dongmen unfold around me.
I went to Dafen Village in search of the the highly regarded Oil Painting replicas that have been done there since the 90’s. I did not find them. Walking up and down multiple streets half heartedly looking for the painters, my attention was stolen by the lives unfolding around me. I watched a group of women playing mahjong, which for all I know is some kind of complex Chinese dominoes, was momentarily involved in a game of pool and explored what is technically a suburb of Shenzhen, but bared no resemblance the suburbs I have known in the United States. The streets were occupied by their residents, people spending time together outside of their seemingly cramped homes.
Shenzhen is a place of industry. With Skyscrapers going up around you and electronic markets occupying 10+ floors of some of the already existing ones, the place is nearly vibrating. It is far easier to find yourself at the top of a 40+ floor edifice in Shenzhen than in Hong Kong. No one seemed to care what I did, so I made it to the top of both skyscrapers I attempted to ride up. Just outside the main stretch of the city was a verdant park rich with bamboo and grassy areas. I crossed a small urban stream into a ‘village’ on the edge of the park that felt like a small town packed into a dozen 10+ story buildings that gushed with signs of life, clothes hanging from every window, toys littering the courtyards. The variation of lifestyle in Shenzhen was more apparent than anywhere else I’ve travelled to. It was immensely interesting, and I can’t wait to go back.
Mui Wo is a small village on the less developed Eastern side of Lantau Island. You take a 40 minute ferry from Central Hong Kong, and debark in a small windy fishing town. We stopped at a seaside market where we chose our own fish to be fried and 10 minutes later we were eating fish, prawns, and fried eggplant, and washing it down with cold Tsingtao. We hiked up in to the mountains, passing a rather unusual graveyard, multiple racks of fire beating sticks, and many tropical plants that reminded me of Hawaii.
The walk back to the ferry led us though the main part of town which seemed desolate in a way after Hong Kong, in the way that a seasonal town is in the off season. There were fancy-ish three story houses mixed in with dilapidated shacks and overgrown banana trees. Perhaps for no other reason than my growing up in a small beach town on a tropical island, something about Lantau felt not barren, but warmly familiar to me.
If you take a bus towards Shek-O, the semi-fancy beach town on the South East side of Hong Kong Island, you will pass numerous signs for small villages dotting the windy coastal road. These signs ignited my curiosity, so I jumped off the bus a few stops before Shek-O and made my way down a steep incline to the tiny village of Lan Nai Wan Tsuen.
An irrigation trail lining the coast led me past abandoned homes covered in Banyan roots and meagre spray paint. The only other people I saw was a group of men working for the irrigation dept. fixing a pipe and an elderly couple watching over the town temple – the only well-preserved building to speak of.
There were signs of a life left behind, surf boards and kayaks decaying beside the cracked cement docks, small buildings being taken over by Mangrove, the mattresses still inside the rooms. The place seemed to have been abandoned in an instant, yet a few simple houses across the bay were clearly still occupied – dogs on the roof, smoke coming from the backyard, and a flourishing garden irrigated by the nearby stream.
Last week I caught the MTR into Sham Shui Po on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong to take pictures of a rather unique neighborhood. I focused on photographing people at work in their tiny spaces that appear unsystematic to the untrained eye, however I have no doubt that there is a highly organized map in the minds of the shopkeepers and handymen that affords them their efficiency. Though I speak no Cantonese, the men and women in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood did not shy away from my camera. They often waved or offered a simple smile, as did I, then I was on my way. I plan to return to this neighborhood with a method of communication that allows me to ask them the questions that arose in my mind as I watched them work.
Until a few months ago I had been a vegetarian for about 14 years. Upon coming to Hong Kong I have eaten things like steamed pork buns, Yakatori chicken, and various dumplings I was sometimes unsure of the content of.. Being in a place where these things are a part of the culture, the way of life pulsing around me, I feel more okay with consuming it than I have before. Every street I walk down here has flesh hanging in some window, maybe an entire goose, maybe fish swimming in a tiny tank. People live in tiny apartments here. They eat out. They eat in parks, they eat together. These are the markets, as vibrant and social a step as any. The wet markets are loud and colorful, and they go well into the night as the city does.
Right now I am living in a part of Hong Kong called Sheung Wan. It is very international, semi-dense, and highly multicultural. In the past week I have explored Central and Kowloon quite a bit and I have been happily inundated with the sights, scents, and sounds of the city. The people have been kind, the streets shockingly clean, and the air warm and humid. It is a place of activity. No one stands still. Interrupting the flow in a public place by being on your phone is called “phubbing” or “phubbering”. Still, people move politely despite the denseness that everyone talks about when referring to Hong Kong. I still feel that I have my space.