Space is poetry & rhythm
Cheng: I observe my city through my own life. My interest in the city is not only physical. The installation art pieces I create may be physical objects, but I want them to say something beyond that. How do you look at cities through your academic training?
Hai: It’s like building a model. Three-dimensional perspective is the most important thing. Let’s not talk about beauty for the moment, but what kind of feeling space can elicit in people.
What do architectural designs try to bring out within the confines of the physical? I remember a book I really liked called The Poetics of Space. Space, it said, moves people. It is actually like poetry in space and structure. For example, the feeling of opening up at the end of a narrow passageway.
To some extent, other than dealing with tangible objects, our training in the past has always been about creating feelings through space. For instance, there is a pretty interesting guy named Jean Nouvel. He enjoys movies and sees architecture like movie sets. When viewed at a certain angle, his buildings have a somewhat cinematic quality to them which leads the viewer inside, where they will find even more surprisingly dramatic things. That is to say, architects will steal ideas from different realms – especially from literature – and then clash them together, subvert the context, and create something new. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but quite often it is about trying new things. I have seen many architects enter other realms to look for ideas.
Fong: This has a lot to do with the relationship between a person and his activities within that space. With The Poetics of Space in mind, it is like the sense of serenity while reading poetry or getting lost in a poem. When we were kids, those literati swirled our heads around when we were reading poems. That is the linear motion of poetry and it has been flowing all the time.
Hai: You are right. For instance, there is a staircase with a bookshelf immediately behind it. You could say that one is walking right next to the books. The movement of the body while walking creates a dynamic relationship with the books. One can pull out a book, open it, turn around and read it while sitting on the stairs.
Fong: This is very important inside a library. It has a lot to do with ergonomics and space, but it also subverts the latter. What was just a passageway has now been turned into a temporary rest area, a very special space to appreciate or read a book, just because of human action and the fact that the books are right there. Ideas like these are what architects like to explore and play with. Hong Kong is an exception – you can’t do this and you can’t do that. In other countries with less paternalistic management, these ideas are more commonplace.
Fong: French sociologist Lefebvre wrote a book called Production of Space. He said that whether a place has a rhythm of life (he specialises in rhythm analysis in the United States) is determined by the combination of people, locales, time and energy. This sense of rhythm is to locate oneself inside this space in order to form a relationship with the space and the people there. This is the process of creating a community. The birth of a community will in turn draw people to care about the place as a resident and not as a user. The aforementioned staircase, leads you to do certain things, and your activity in turns shapes it into a space for reading, especially if the staircase is made of warmer materials such as wood and brick rather than steel and glass. German philosopher Walter Benjamin used kneading clay as an example – you transfer your own warmth and the lines on your hand onto the clay. Thinking along these lines, I really like the feel of wood. If a lot of people use a certain piece of wood or a wooden table, the shape of it will change. Touching it is like being in contact with all those who have been there before.
Hai: Moreover, the colour of wood darkens with use. It is steeped in history – you have never met nor have you touched this person physically, and yet you make some kind of indirect connection through this object. Therefore you are right: physicality is very important to an architect.
Fong: That is why I am very disappointed with the selection of a lot of materials. It tends to be lazy. Ease of care comes first, and therefore steel is used for the railings of staircases. The government does not use cast-iron doors or wooden doors but stainless steel ones. I find this very lazy, and it makes the whole space so cold that deprives you of any feeling. When it gets old, people just throw it out. However, if it were a wooden or iron one, the rust becomes the growth you share with that place. When it ages before your eyes and you age with it, there is a sentiment as a result of a construct through the material and the space. That is to say, the material causes the construct of space, and when people and the environment bond together, there is a thickness…
Hai: That reminds me of Billie Tsien, an American-Chinese architect who has built a wall inside a building in India. You know that copper cutlery used for Indian food? If you look closely, you will find grooves on them. He knocked a pattern into the wall using the same technique. It is just that simple. It is a beautiful piece with lighting – not because it is luxurious, but because it is thoughtful.
Cheng: In June of 2012 I went to Singapore, a place I had not visited for more than a decade. My friends there brought me to some tourist attractions. But where were the people? There were so few people in the streets. This caused me to think, ‘why don’t people in Hong Kong like to stay at home? Do they really need to loiter in the streets?’ Perhaps it’s because…
Hai: Someone once told me that Hong Kong people like to loiter in the street because their homes are too small.
Cheng: Definitely. Especially for the young people – when they cannot stand their parents, they would rather hang around outside. There’s nowhere for them to hide, since not everybody can have their own room.
Fong: But hanging around in the street is not what it used to be. In the old days, you could find everything on the street, be it a bowl of cart noodles to all kinds of items from street vendors. But living in Tseung Kwan O, I really don’t want to go outside because there is nothing out there. It doesn’t even feel like a street.
Cheng: That is why everybody goes to Mong Kok.
Fong: But Mong Kok is not fun anymore. There are only jewellery stores, pharmacies and watch boutiques. These aren’t any places to just wander into. When I lived in Wan Chai, I would go home and change after school, then walk around to grab a bite, look around or play some arcade games. These are what you need in life. It was a lot of fun. However, the community facilities in Tseung Kwan O, Tung Chung and Tin Shui Wai are all the same. There is nothing to do other than living under the flyover.
Hai: I feel that mechanical reproduction is the cause of boredom in our lives. Say, why does everything look the same? Because the workload is greater if one does not follow an accepted specification. Hong Kong is such a bustling city. Economic benefit is taken into consideration for a lot of matters. Specialisation and mass production are inevitable. The consequence is a lack of variety. All that is left is ‘copy-and-paste’. Mechanical reproduction makes our lives increasingly boring.
Fong: And increasingly smooth. Gothic art, like those gothic cathedrals, has a certain rough texture to it. There is feeling in the coarseness.
Fong: Modern steel doors and conventional wooden doors are as different as night and day. There is no architecture, but only specimens. Someone defined architecture as buildings with ornaments. We have lost the ornaments.
Hai: Yes, you are right. A lot of things are specialised. The extra cost of doing something different turns people away.
Fong: And so we have lost craftsmanship.
Opening a difficult book on the city
Cheng: How do you look at cities in terms of literature and cultural studies?
Fong: Personally, I read cities like books. Walking, for instance, is like going from line to line on a page. The process of walking is like opening a book. The humanity, community and history are all there, hidden within the symbols.
Hai: And the dark side as well.
Fong: Hmm… opening that up gradually as one trods along. But these are in fact small paths, not the main thoroughfare. The main road is a boring straight without any variations.
Cheng: You get to the end of the highway in no time.
Fong: An American named Jane Jacobs wrote a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She said small paths and shops are what good community life is made of. Local stores in particular are where tips and gossip are collected. Corner shops, especially, are where people gather and chat. Hong Kong is the same, where corner sshops are for mahjong playing and chatting.
This is how feelings are nurtured. Walking through a city is like reading a book. The shops record the change and development of a community. There is this statement in the middle of Xi Xi’s novel My City: ‘There are things in this city gradually fading away, slowly disappearing’. We are too fast in many ways…
Hai: A Polish contemporary musician who performs classical music goes for very slow music, just like church music. The idea is to allow every note the time to fade away naturally. As a result, his music is extremely slow. But it brings a sense of serenity and calm as if you were in a church.
Fong: This is like strolling in a city. When we slow down, the past will come back to us through what we see, smell and touch.
Cheng: Hong Kong is not good for strolling. The streets are narrow with too much traffic and people.
Fong: People cannot walk at street level. There are only shopping malls.
Cheng: Footbridges only. Very boring and goal-oriented.
Hai: There is nothing to stimulate the senses in the process. In short, one simply walks. There is nothing else but walking. But if you walk in Wan Chai, a lot of things can happen.
Cheng: Central, Sheung Wan, Wan Chai and…
Fong: The back streets, like those behind Queen’s Road… not Hennessy Road, I think.
Hai: Hennessy Road is all about cars. There is nothing other than buying cars. Not Hennessy Road but Gloucester Road. Those are not good for walking.
Fong: But I really like the small streets. Like what you were talking about – a turn on a narrow path opens up a totally different scene. I think streets that turn make people happy because you cannot tell what will happen after the turn.
Hai: Or like you have said, if there is a store on the street where people mingle, then from another vantage point some of these shops have character. We will associate this street with the shops. This will give you the feeling like ‘ah, I’m back’.
Cheng: Yes, in fact there are many streets like this in big cities such as Paris, New York, London…
Hai: It does not mean you have to buy a lot of expensive brand names. Simply because, say, if I go to Chun Yuen Street, I will associate it with the famous Golden Phoenix where eggrolls can be found.
Cheng: Assume we are in Jordan. There is a Yue Hwa.
Fong: Hence, landmarks. Correct?
Hai: It is a landmark, but not in an architectural sense.
Cheng: Right, it is about living.
Hai: Community landmarks.
Cheng: Community living.
Hai: Frequently, developers claim they are creating a ‘landmark’. Every architect claims his oddball design is a ‘landmark’. But what makes a building a landmark is not only its unusual design, but what is planned for the inside. We always tell the owners that a great exterior is useless if they don’t have a plan for the inside.
Fong: It has to have a relationship with the location.
Fong: For example, the Water Cube was built for the Beijing Olympics, but it has nothing to do with its surroundings. Well, this… it is a landmark. Yet instead of hanging around, you would probably leave once you have finished looking at it. Life in this place has been stripped away by the Water Cube. The entire community is finished.
Hai: I think people in Hong Kong are accustomed to how tiny this community and this society have always been. We like to have a place like Beverly Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui which you have to access through a narrow alleyway. This shopping centre in this particular location has become a well-known landmark. It is an oddball sort of a place selling funky stuff, not to mention tattoo services.
Fong: Landmarks simply cannot be artificially created.
Fong: But now everything is artificially created and that is why the city has become so dull.
Hai: That is definitely not a landmark. Nothing is up to standard. Yet in reality it has become a landmark.
Cheng: Like what has been said before, we read a city like an open book. This book of Hong Kong still has some interesting things in it, though parts of it are not so good.
Fong: What about it is not good to look at?
Cheng: Like what you two have said before, one flip and you are done.
Fong: Then it is no longer a book.
Hai: Unfortunately there are many who do not look at it this way. Those people would think it does not look good only because they have flipped it open to Portland Street. Man, these are no good!
Fong: This is what the Hong Kong government does not want to see.
Hai: Like flipping open to Ladies’ Street and you will see a mess. This is what some people do not want to see. Portland Street, on the other hand, is a pretty interesting ecosystem.
Cheng: I grew up in Yau Ma Tei and I think Portland Street, Shanghai Street, Reclamation Street and Temple Street are all fun in their own way.
Hai: I used to like Reclamation Street because of all the unusual kitchen utensils there. The ones we use to cook with every day are very common, but Reclamation Street has the most unusual things. For instance, every stove has a reason why it has to be in a particular way, and why some are described as only suitable for Hong Kong-style cafes (cha chan ting). I love to go there just to look at all the utensils. Fascinating stuff.
Fong: But everything would be different if these streets became Mega Box in Kowloon Bay. Be it for political or economical reasons or government planning, confining everything in one box is not the same as having it on the streets.
Hai: Is it the result of being obsessed with efficiency?
Fong: Exactly, easy to manage comes first.
Hai: There has got to be a little dirt, a little excess and a little something totally unnecessary to make things interesting.
Fong: The middle class is very mysophobic. But if everything is spotless, highly efficient and precise, it will be very boring.
Cheng: I once lived in a complex for a short time, and it was very comfortable. Yet I really hated being in the lift. We lived in the same place but we were strangers to one another.
Hai: Right. That is a pretty bad feeling.
Cheng: I never developed a sense of belonging there even though it was very comfortable. I was like… ‘why am I here?’
Hai: I do not like this feeling either. My wife has been saying we should move because we are in a 30-something year-old building, one of those which do without a clubhouse or anything. But what I enjoy is exactly the neighbourliness you were talking about. I know my neighbours well. Their kids come over and play with my son all the time.
Cheng: Good neighbours are hard to come by.
Hai: There was a city planner in Britain called Bill Hillier. He had a theory called space syntax. He said that vertical residences are not suitable for the working class. The long corridors of Hong Kong’s So Uk Estate immediately came to my mind. Working class people need to look out for one another. You take care of my son today and I watch over your stove the next – that kind of thing. This is all out of necessity. Vertical residences are for people who are very independent, who do not need to be in touch with others at all. I am not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg in Hong Kong – is it because some people do not need others and thus move into vertical residences, or is it because we no longer need one another after we have moved into these high-rises? But the situation in a high-rise development is quite common in Hong Kong. It is not far-fetched to say that no-one in the entire building knows anyone else there because there just isn’t the need to.
Fong: Because one just uses the space.
Hai: Especially… those who live in the Sorrento development. They do not need to know anyone. I live in my own space. Why would I want to know you? Some may even think that it is better for others to know nothing about them.
Cheng: They will only get acquainted with those they want to know.
Fong: If that’s the case, all the relationships are very functional, and that’s the feeling I have toward the middle class. They will sell their place if the property price has appreciated. They are users, not residents. They have no desire to build any relationship with the place and will simply sell their flats when the prices get high. Look at those names. They are so superficial. It’s all about being seen as ‘classy’. These people live in a set, not a home. This is exactly how the communists think. They want packaging and good-looking things. The entire society is a spectacle to impress others.
Hai: Even as a spectacle, it is still very shallow. Unlike in England where people will ask: ‘Where do you live?’ ‘In which estate?’ ‘Oh, that’s from the 17th century’. That is a very different spectacle.
Fong: What we have now is a fake 17th century lifestyle. This is consumerism. There is no depth, so we pretend. Void of content, typical for a parvenu.
Cheng: I do not think property developers think like communists. On the contrary, their modus operandi is extremely capitalistic. They find something showy, because they know people look for larger-than-life and impressive things. They just magnify it. Now everything is named ‘Imperial’…
Fong: Therefore all these places have luxury but no life. These are show flats, and there are show flats in every district.
Cheng: We have talked about being mechanical, repetitive… I still think this is the problem of Babel in the Bible. Tracing it further back, Cain even built a city and named it after his son, Enoch. City, in fact, is very human. It seems that this behaviour has risen to a height that we have never seen before. The need for more is insatiable.
Fong: The metaphor of Babel is very meaningful.
Cheng: This is the main focus of my research. Looking back though, what the Bible said was a distant past, but even to this day the phenomenon has never ceased.
Fong: This is the greed of capitalism. In the biblical perspective, it may be human pride.
Cheng: Like Burj Khalifa of our time, it is truly twisted.
Fong: The entire thing is perverted, and not only because of its height, but if interpreted sexually, it is a masculine expression. The structure is a penis impaling the body of the mother. The land is country and it is feminine because of its purpose of nurturing life.
Cheng: If the owner is female, would she think the same way?
Fong: If this is the fact, it is very disturbing. This woman must have the mind of a man. Think about this. The same can be said about the United States, a very masculine society. After the twin towers were destroyed, Bush announced immediately that he would go into war in God’s name, all actually for the sake of pride. He was like one who had just been castrated and lost his phallic power. He felt the need to send his troops to tell others that he still possessed that power. Cities in the Mainland are the same. Every city is the same.
Cheng: True. Buildings on the Mainland are very tall these days.
Fong: Every city is trying to build the tallest building, as if they are trying to tell us that they possess the economic power, the phallic power. They want to prove their power through visual expressions. Actually, only those who are not really powerful need to prove themselves able. Those who are able need no proof.
Cheng: This I feel is a little different in Hong Kong. To some extent, there is a functional and practical need to build skyscrapers here.
Fong: To me, though, in this kind of environment, people develop desires. The environment will trigger a psychological phenomenon.
Cheng: This is capitalism.
Fong: Every city has its own characteristics and lifestyle that we need to respect. Just like Shanghai has her own Shanghainese lifestyle. However, if everywhere becomes like Pudong, it will be very boring. The lifestyle of Puxi is a lot closer to Shanghai. But Pudong has no alleys (hutong) and balconies. This is not the lifestyle of common folk.
Cheng: It won’t, because they are all seeking to be urbanised. I went to Beijing a few years ago and it felt very unfamiliar. The third time I went there I felt it had lost its character.
Hai: Let me share this with you. Have you ever been to Chengdu? For a while I had to travel back and forth from Chengdu for work. Chengdu is a new city, but it was actually the ancient capital of Shu back in the Three Kingdoms period, so it has history. Yet all the buildings you find there are new. Their style and quality are good in the context of modern architecture, and it even feels more like Singapore than Hong Kong. That tells you how good the construction quality is. But it also feels very odd. You begin to ask yourself if you really are in Chengdu. Where are the buildings from the Three Kingdoms period? All gone. Perhaps there was no sense of preservation of historical artifacts, so they were all destroyed. Now they are regretting it, of course, but it is too late. What I want to say is, no matter how well modern architecture is done, planning the development of a city like this makes things really bland and boring. I consider software to be even more crucial than hardware.
Cheng: This is also the problem found in a competitive society. In terms of fluidity, my view is that living in the city inevitably ties us to capitalism. Capitalism encourages consumption, so much so that even social strata and luxury itself are consumable. Houses have become a commodity, easily exchangeable and no longer a residence. This has become a unifying force dominating our lives. Transportation, vacation, travel and leisure are all under its influence. If we do not want to be controlled by it, then stop consuming when it is possible, although that might be a little extreme. But life is still full of choices beyond consumption, such as hiking.
Fong: Uniformed and complanate[compliant???].
Cheng: Not three-dimensional and diverse.
Fong: Technology is one of the culprits of making things two-dimensional. Not everything is on a screen for swiping. I think this is a very bad movement because this kind of contact does not respect the objects.
Everything comes and goes too fast and we do not treasure them. Information can be found by searching on the internet instead of a painstaking search in the library and treasuring it when found. The process allows a tactile relationship with the objects which is not the same as reading a book separated by a pane of glass. Reading a book is to actually touch the book, hear the sound of a page being turned, feel the sensation when our fingers touch the page. The relationship between things and people has now changed with the intervention of technology. Back in our generation we still used all five senses. Now it is eye-dominated.
Cheng: A tangible book has memory. You may remember whom you read it with; there may be a bookmark in between the pages. You don’t get that on Kindle.
Fong: The way this generation gets to know the world is very shallow.
Cheng: They do not observe but rely on being visually stimulated.
Fong: The word ‘gaze’ is spot on – controlled by the eyes, being very self-centred. Gazing is very masculine. Listening is far more humble. To gaze is to challenge and be complacent.
The death of street culture
Cheng: The journey of life is magnificent, but we are losing this lustre. Flyovers can take you directly from A-to-B, resulting in only destinations. There are times when I enjoy the convenience, but frankly it’s no fun. I don’t like the new towns like Tseung Kwan O and Tin Shui Wai. Although there are not many flyovers in the latter, the roads there seem to go on forever, and there are only schools and housing developments en route. They look all the same. I used to be afraid of Taikoo Shing as well. I had school friends who lived there and I dared not go there. For someone growing up in Yau Ma Tei, Taikoo Shing is like a maze. I really could not make head or tail of it. Streets that turn corners, like reading a book, are fabulous.
Fong: Every turn has its charm. But there are only straight roads in Tin Shui Wai and Tseung Kwan O.
Hai: You can see your destination from miles away.
Cheng: It seems nearby, but…
Fong: There is absolutely nothing else but walking. Blank.
Hai: I remember when I was a freshman at university – majoring in architecture. We studied the urban planning of cities, and Paris was a place we looked into every now and then.
Fong: Instead of being straight, a street that has twists and turns – a rhythm.
Cheng: Because the streets have lost the shops, they have lost the power to create their own distinctiveness. Even Sham Shui Po has its own set-up – that is, the shops and people’s lives… Every district could have its own culture, but this is not the case with our new towns. Why? Because they were developed at the peak of our economic development. We began to develop new towns when our economy matured.
Hai: Very uniform. There are always problems with uniformity.
Fong: The designs were all very lazy. No heart was put into them. A few sketches, and then loads of people were settled in them…
Cheng: Are street level shops the key here?
Fong: There is a similar ice-cold feeling in the large residential developments around Olympic Station. There is nothing much to see. It may even be life-threatening at night. That deserted sensation…
Cheng: And very little walking is on the ground. The MTR is directly connected to the shopping malls. Actually the MTR is worth talking about. Many big residential developments are connected to MTR stations.
Fong: This is a very arbitrary design.
Hai: It is convenient. Very convenient, like cutting away all the excess.
Fong: Randomly slapping together some buildings and roads, and call it a ‘community’.
Cheng: Combined with that ice-cold feeling, it’s the perfect match.
Fong: It is ice-cold in all directions, both vertical and horizontal.
Cheng: It has to do with people movement, which I will talk a little more about later. Assuming I live in Olympic and work in Central or Sheung Wan, I would never even need to walk on ground level. Starting from the MTR station, going underground, up onto the bridge, and follow along, and then… well, I’m there.
Fong: This does not respect people. Taking a view from above, people look just like ants walking in formation.
Cheng: Basically, people only look at the electronic gadgets in their hands, paying no attention to their surroundings. They do not even greet others next to them.
Fong: But in your own living zones, one can come and go from anywhere. It is possible to get lost, which is something exciting.
Cheng: That’s street culture.
Hai: There used to be people selling newspapers. It seems that they had their own territory. You don’t see this much anymore.
Fong: Street vendors were selling fishballs and egg waffles. That was a lot of fun.
Cheng: You definitely won’t find that in the new districts. There won’t be any business there. You can still find newsstands in the old districts, but not in the new ones. It simply lacks people movement there. People do not walk by.
Hai: I think everything starts with ease of management in mind. Everything has been polished. The rough edges have been sanded down and it becomes exceedingly boring. I think people in Hong Kong equate convenience with excellence.
建築設計在物質的限制裏要帶出什麼東西呢？記得以前我有一本很喜歡的書《空間詩學》（The Poetics of Space），它說到空間如何令人有一種感動的感覺。那就像空間結構裏的詩，例如通過一條很窄的通道，突然豁然開朗。
方：法國社會學家列斐伏爾（Lefebvre）有一本書叫Production of Space。他說，一個地方有rhythm of life的原因──他在美國做的是rhythm analysis──其實是人、地方和時間，還有能量，幾種元素組合在一起，令生活有節奏感。這種節奏感就是把自己置於空間裏，跟空間建立關係、跟人建立關係，而這個過程就是社區的誕生。這種社區的誕生會令人愛惜這個地方，因為你是一個居民，不是用戶。至於建築的形態，用之前提及的樓梯為例，因為那個地方促成你去做一些事，而你自己的活動影響那個地方的氣場，令它成為一個讀書的地方；尤其是當那裏有一些較為溫暖的物料，像是木和磚，而不是鋼和玻璃等。 德國哲學家Walter Benjamin（班雅明）有一個搓泥的例子，就是你會把自己的熱力和手紋傳遞到陶瓷裏。從這方面去想的話，其實我很喜歡木的感覺，因為要是有許多人用那塊木，又或是那張枱，它就會因為那些人的使用，令其形態也有所不同。而觸摸的感覺就像是和前人接觸。
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方：有位美國人叫Jane Jacobs（珍．雅各），她寫過一本書叫《美國大城市的生與死》（The Death and Life of Great American Cities）。她說一個社區讓人生活得很好，是因為有很多小路，以及有很多小的店舖，尤其「士多」是一個很重要的蒐集情報的地方。如果舖位是在角落的話，那就是人們會來聚集、聊天的地方。香港也是如此，人們會在「士多」打麻將和談天。
解：以前英國有一個做城市規劃的人Bill Hillier，他有個研究學說叫space syntax，就是空間也有自己的句法。他曾經說過，直立式的住宅是很不適合低下階層的。我立即聯想到香港蘇屋邨的長走廊，因為低下階層的人很需要大家守望相助，就是有時候你幫我照顧兒子，有時候我幫你看一下爐火的那種關係，大家有互相幫忙的必要。而直立式適合一些很獨立的人，完全不需要跟別人有任何接觸。我不知道香港是先有雞還是先有蛋，究竟是人們沒有需要所以才住直立式，還是因為住直立式才令人不再需要這些事物。但屋苑的那種情況在香港是挺平常的，就是說整棟大廈的人互不認識，因為沒有需要。
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方：假如這樣就很可怕，那位女性有很雄性的思維。想想看，美國也是如此 ── 一個很雄性的社會，雙子塔一同被毀後，布殊立刻宣告，要以上帝之名打仗。其實只是為了一口氣而已，像是被人閹掉了一般，失去了自己的陽具(phallic power)，他馬上要派兵告訴別人自己仍有那種力量。中國內地也是如此，每個城市都是一樣的。
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