Panel 4. Mobile Margins, Mobile Worlds

Legless Birds and Toneless Chirps: Avian Creatures in Hong Kong's Urban Imaginations

Fiona Law, Comparative Literature, University of Hong Kong

In the Asian concrete jungle known as Hong Kong, birds are seldom seen and heard but always around. While thousands of migratory waterbirds visit the northwestern part of the city as their way station and wintering site along their yearly long journey, hundreds of yellow-crested cockatoos find the same city as permanent residence where they breed and thrive among indigenous avian populations. Human beings have to either raise their heads, peeping through the skyscrapers, or traverse into the wetlands in order to visually perceive these avian creatures. Otherwise, birds remain as “disappeared” species among these urban dwellers whose sense of place is interestingly juxtaposed with the winged placeslessness. At the same time, urban imaginations about birds are paradoxically related to both ephemerality and fixation. Their seemingly ethereal presence is rendered as fragmented, distanced, proximate, intimate, and alienated all at once. In this paper, various cultural imaginary of avian creatures in Hong Kong will be explored through a socio-historical lens: for example, when caged songbirds are carried by mid-aged men to morning teahouse every day, unforeseen avian flu also struck the city and forbade close contact between humans and chicken. Through investigating the representations of birds in cinema, literature, and everyday cultural experience, this paper also attempts to examine how the postcolonial city identifies and expresses its in-between-ness via that of the feathered ones, and how the avian creatures offer an aspiration of freedom, mobility, and rootedness that people in this city yearn for with empowerment or in vain.

 

 

Migration at the Limit: Mobile Birds Exploring the Edges of Life

Andrew Whitehouse, Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen, UK

This paper explores bird migration as a way of thinking through the limits of life in the environmental crisis. Many birds are migratory. These migratory habits are normally understood as a response to the variable seasonalities of the world, or sometimes to extreme conditions. As such, migration as a practical response by birds to the changeable circumstances of the world enables an exploration of ongoing life and its limits. New developments in monitoring and tracking birds have enabled researchers to learn more about their migrations, particularly changing strategies and routes in the face of environmental change. Migration also gathers together different places that birds use on their journeying, with changes in one place, such as shifting seasonalities and food availability, having knock-on effects in others, such as where the birds breed. Migration also provides a way to think about the challenges of a bird’s life and the limits of its existence. Migrating birds often find themselves off-course or ‘out-of-place’, but these novel situations offer potential for new understandings of life, both for birds and humans. This paper explores these themes through a series of preliminary case studies: Barnacle and Brent Geese in Europe and Japan; endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers migrating between Siberia and southeast Asia; and Yellow-browed Warblers shifting their migration routes from Asia to Europe via fleeting stopovers on exposed Scottish headlands.

Savage Magpies: Conceptualising the ‘New World’ through the Beak of a Toucan

Alex Lawrence, Faculty of Medieval & Modern Languages, University of Oxford, UK

Aesthetically attractive, yet bizarrely formed, and with an impossible beak, the toucans of South America captivated the imagination of European navigators exploring the ‘New World’ in the sixteenth century. Travel writers, such as André Thevet, Jean de Léry and Fernández de Oviedo evoked intricate descriptions of the bird within the context of its natural environment and the native societies with which it frequently co-habited in Brazil. Returning to European shores, such accounts inspired a multitude of successive representations in both written and non-written accounts, from the natural-historical compendia of Conrad Gesner (who dubbed it ‘savage magpie’), to the Paradise Landscape painting of Rubens and Breughel. Toucan beaks, pelts and feathers were shipped across oceans and borders, and passed into the hands of merchants, naturalists and princes. Placed into courtly collections and curiosity cabinets in Europe, these objects became markers of personal wealth and political influence at a time of the large-scale re-imagining of the extent of the known world. Through such transferences, toucans became symbolic of the spaces at the edges of the world map and fundamental to understandings of the natural world found therein. But how did this process come about? How did these representations evolve and change over time? How was the bird ultimately recuperated by the European cultural-geographical imagination in the early modern period? This paper explores the first few steps in a long narrative of human-toucan relations, from the ‘unknown’ bird of Pierre Belon, to the iconic mascot of Guinness stout in the 1930s.