Hong Kong's 'Greasy Spoons'

Serving up a rarely changing menu of quirky Canto-European treats, the much-loved cha chaan teng is at the heart of the city's cultural identity.


WITH A FIFTH WAVE of the Covid-19 pandemic washing over Hong Kong, all restaurants in the city have been ordered to pull down their shutters by 6pm. Daytime business in the city’s cha chaan tengs has mostly remained brisk, however. The quirky, no-nonsense cafes have long served up affordable staples to busy people needing to get in, chow down and get out in a hurry.

The cha chaan teng — or “tea restaurant” — is the Hong Kong equivalent of the “greasy spoon” cafe, or perhaps the American diner. Frequented by everyone from tough construction workers and sharp-suited bankers to slumming celebs craving the cheap dishes they were brought up on, cha chaan tengs offer a rarely changing menu of what has been called “soy sauce Western food”: lowbrow, sometimes bizarre but always comforting East-West hybrid fare that fuses the thriftier ends of the culinary traditions of two very different worlds.

Modest but popular cha chaan teng dishes include fried eggs and spam in macaroni soup, sweet-pastry chicken pies, Hong Kong-style spaghetti bolognese and baked pork chop rice (a not-so-secret ingredient often used in the latter two: ketchup), often washed down with strong black tea enriched with canned evaporated milk.

All are delivered superfast by cranky, harried staff in stark, egalitarian surroundings. Think Formica tables and foldout stools, bathroom-tiled walls and retina-searing strip lighting.

TO UNDERSTAND THE origins of the cha chaan teng one must look to when Hong Kong was under British colonial rule. In the years after the Second World War and with revolution in China, refugees flooded into the territory seeking respite from conflict and poverty. Between 1945 and 1951 alone, Hong Kong’s population swelled from 600,000 to more than two million.

The menu preferences of Mayfair and Manchester had long been available in Britain’s far-east possessions, but the full-service European restaurants serving up such treats were prohibitively expensive for most Chinese.

While life was tough for many in Hong Kong, there was, however, work with a burgeoning manufacturing industry, notably in textiles and toys and other plastic goods — and the opportunity for social mobility. Many profitable China businesses — and their cash — had also fled cities such as Shanghai to continue operating from the more stable British outpost.

 

“Western food became popular first with the wealthy Chinese and then eventually with the poor, who saw it as something exotic, although not necessarily delicious”
Susan Jung, food and drinks editor, South China Morning Post

 

By the late 1950s, with incomes rising and tastes becoming more adventurous, Hong Kong’s working-class diet became increasingly influenced by European customs.

“Western food became popular first with the wealthy Chinese and then eventually with the poor, who saw it as something exotic, although not necessarily delicious,” says Susan Jung, food and drinks editor at Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper, and who has covered the local dining scene for more than 25 years.

Milk was occasionally added to tea, Jung says, sometimes to be accompanied by cakes, sandwiches and other foreign confections. And so the cha chaan teng was born, characterised by Canto-European concoctions that have variously been described as eccentric, weird, even trashy.

“The food they serve is certainly unique and much of it came about through British colonisation, when they brought ingredients, cooking methods — such as baking — and dishes that the local Chinese were unfamiliar with,” says Jung.

Such dishes common to pretty much every cha chaan teng today include satay beef macaroni, curry-sauce chicken wings with crinkle-cut chips, fish chowder and fluffy scrambled egg sandwiches — always using the cheapest white bread and often with the crusts neatly cut off, as with English afternoon tea.

“British custard tarts changed to Chinese egg tarts,” says Jung, adding that Borscht, the vegetable soup initially introduced to China by anti-communist Russians fleeing revolution in their homeland for Shanghai in the early 20th century, and then to Hong Kong with revolution in China, remains popular in cha chaan teng. “But now the red tinge in the soup comes from tomato, not beetroot.”

WHEN ANTHONY BOURDAIN swooped into town to shoot an episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown in 2018, the New Yorker and his crew dropped by China Cafe, a family-run cha chaan teng first opened in the densely populated neighbourhood of Mong Kong in 1964.

Bourdain went for the noodles with spam and fried eggs in soup, and the sai do si, or “western toast”. Preparation of this artery-clogging delight, Jung explains, can vary greatly with the cha chaan teng. “Usually it’s two slices of cheap white sandwich bread layered with peanut butter, then dipped in egg and fried,” she says. “It’s then topped with butter, golden syrup and sometimes condensed milk.”

Bourdain also sampled a pineapple bun — a cheap cha chaan teng snack that, Jung reveals, actually contains no pineapple. “It’s an unfilled bun with a sugary, crumbly topping that is supposed to be scored in a pattern that resembles the markings of a pineapple, but many places don’t bother with that anymore,” she says. “It’s especially delicious when you have the pineapple bun split in half, with a thick slab of cool butter inside. It goes wonderfully with hot or cold milk tea, depending on the weather.”

And when youthful Hong Kong democracy campaigner Joshua Wong was interviewed for the Financial Times’ regular “Lunch with the FT” slot, with Hong Kong’s anti-Beijing protests about to reach their dramatic peak in November 2019, it was no surprise that the PR-savvy activist pulled up a plastic stool at Tak Yu Cha Chaan Teng — a popular-with-the-people cafe hidden away in a down-and–dirty Wanchai backstreet.

Wong coupled his fried rice with a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea, which is a silky and aromatic cha chaan teng specialty. “As you can probably figure out from the price of a cup [usually US$2-3], the tea leaves aren’t the best quality, so preparation is very important in making a good milk tea,” says Jung, explaining that the Hong Kong drink is brewed strong and filtered several times — often through a long, stocking-like strainer — to make it smoother.

“Smoothness is the most important part of good milk tea. It shouldn’t be coarse or astringent,” she adds. “It’s served with evaporated milk, which also smooths out the tea and makes it richer than it would be with fresh milk.”

 

Yuenyeung means mandarin duck in Cantonese … The fact that the male duck and the female duck are so different in appearance is supposedly echoed in the harmonious mixing of the tea and the coffee

 

Peculiar drinks are central to the cha chaan teng experience, says Jung. Other popular beverages include yuenyeung, an acquired-taste concoction made from two-parts milk tea and one-part black coffee. Yuenyeung means mandarin duck in Cantonese, the bird being a symbol of conjugal love in Chinese culture. The fact that the male duck and the female duck are so different in appearance is supposedly echoed in the harmonious mixing of the tea and the coffee.

Then there’s hot Coca-Cola with lemon and ginger, and hot water with raw egg and sugar, and 7-Up with lemon slices marinated in salt (good for a sore throat, apparently). And Horlicks, and Ovaltine, and a mix of Horlicks and Ovaltine. And hot Ribena with lemon, and cream soda with milk, and “red bean ice” — a signature cha chaan teng drink contrived from sweetened red beans, evaporated milk, vanilla ice cream and crushed ice.

WITH THE LOCAL Cantonese cuisine also native to nearby Macau and China’s neighbouring Guangdong province, the cha chaan teng is arguably Hong Kong’s only unique dining experience. Though there are now such cafes in the Chinatowns of Singapore, Bangkok and other Southeast Asian cities, as well as in Canada, the US and the UK (any place where Hong Kongers converge in numbers, in fact), the reliable cha chaan teng is at the heart of the city’s singular cultural identity.

Travellers to Hong Kong frequently make a beeline for the most iconic cha chaan teng, with Instagram-favoured Mido Cafe in Kowloon’s Yau Ma Tei neighbourhood perhaps the most popular, its unaffected, retro interior pretty much unchanged since the 1950s. Now, however, like so much of what makes Hong Kong special, the cha chaan teng is in retreat, with numbers gradually declining as a result of climbing rents over the past decade (China Cafe shut up shop in December 2019).

As early as 2007, in fact, Hong Kong lawmaker Choy So Yuk saw a need to preserve the city’s cha chaan tengs, proposing to the local legislative council that the cafes be put forward for inclusion on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Her proposal came about after a Hong Kong poll found that seven out of 10 Hong Kong people believed their favourite cafes did not enjoy the recognition they deserved. “Even many mainland [Chinese] tourists do not know cha chaan teng,” Choy said at the time.

They will, however, have likely seen them many times before on screen. Very few Hong Kong movies or TV dramas are without at least one scene shot in a cha chaan teng, with Mido Cafe providing a nostalgic backdrop in outings ranging from Wong Kar-wai’s seminal Days of Being Wild to the brilliantly named Revolving Doors of Vengeance.

China Cafe, meanwhile, proved a moody location for Johnnie To-directed action flicks PTU, Election and Fulltime Killer, as well as for gooey romance Endless Love and zesty comedy Once Upon a Time in Triad Society.

But in the end, the cha chaan teng was not added to the UN’s illustrious list, perhaps because of its humble, proletarian and decidedly unglamorous nature.

“Why would the United Nations care about this place?” shrugs office worker Tony, over a rushed breakfast of processed ham and fried egg noodle soup, a cup of steaming milk tea at his elbow, at a bustling eatery on the edge of Hong Kong’s high-rise financial district. “It’s just another cha chaan teng. Hong Kong still has hundreds of them.” ◉

This story ran on the BBC Travel website in March 2022.

Lion Rock Spirit

Hong Kong has long been defined by its 'can do' attitude, and the collective determination of its people to better their lives — sometimes against seemingly insurmountable odds.


MANY SOCIETIES FLATTER themselves with tales of a core value supposedly in their DNA. The British have their so-called “Blitz Spirit”, a teeth-gritted resolve said to have been shared by the people during the Germany’s intensive bombing campaign of World War II. Americans, meanwhile, are always keen for personal improvement, as promised by the “American Dream”.

On the other side of the planet, many of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million people also take pride in an intangible quality that they claim as their own. The “Lion Rock Spirit” — which describes their collective determination to better their lives against seemingly insurmountable odds — is, believers say, hardwired in the Asian city.

After all, many older Hong Kongers — or their parents, at least — arrived in the tiny territory on China’s southern periphery as refugees with nothing, fleeing from turmoil in mainland China between the 1930s and ’60s, when Hong Kong was still a British colony. It was their resilience and hard work, they insist, that transformed their city into a global financial centre in just one generation.

“We all had to work hard back then,” says an 80-something gent (“call me Chan”) smoking a Double Happiness cigarette under a no-smoking sign, as he watches an impromptu basketball game in the concreted play area and the light fades over his sprawling public housing estate .“If you did not you would go hungry, your children would be hungry. Everyone was working hard for their future.”

‘THE LION ROCK SPIRIT was a common belief in my parent’s generation,” says Bryony Hardy-Wong, 43, whose mother and father arrived from mainland China in the 1960s, and who was brought up on a similar housing estate. “Most of them were from humble background. What they believed was to work hard, and then they could win the opportunities to climb up the social ladder.”

Hardy-Wong, who works as a communications manager in the city, cites the case of local tycoon Li Ka-shing, who arrived with his family in the ’40s, fleeing war and living in extremely humble circumstances in their exile. The death of Li’s father from tuberculosis meant he was forced to leave school at 15, working 16 hours a day in a plastics trading company.

Now retired and in his 90s, Li is believed to be the wealthiest person in Hong Kong — a go-getting metropolis with a GDP per capita on par with that of Germany. Li’s assets, according to Forbes magazine, top US$35 billion. “Li Ka-shing is always a role model for the older generation,” Hardy-Wong says.

A SPECIAL ADMINISTRATIVE REGION of China since 1997, hilly Hong Kong comprises three distinct areas: Hong Kong island; the Kowloon peninsula, just across the busy waters of Victoria Harbour; and the largely rural New Territories that mainly stretch between Kowloon and China proper.

Kowloon means “nine dragons” in Cantonese, denoting a 13th-century Chinese emperor and a procession of eight hills cutting between the peninsula and the New Territories. Lion Rock is one of those hills, its 495-metre peak topped by a huge and distinctive granite outcrop that in silhouette from Kowloon really does resemble a crouching lion.

The lives of refugees from mainland China in Hong Kong had always been tough, but between 1945 and 1951 — firstly with China’s civil war raging and eventually with the 1949 victory of Mao Zedong’s Red Army and its revolutionary aftermath — the city’s population more than tripled, from about 600,000 to more than 2 million.

The influx of so many desperate people into the British colony resulted in a severe housing shortage, with hundreds of thousands squeezing into ramshackle squatter communities on Kowloon hillsides. There they struggled to survive in squalid conditions, suffering from hunger and malnutrition, poor sanitation and disease outbreaks, as well as extreme competition for work, low pay and exploitation by bosses.

The squatter huts were largely made of discarded wood and other waste materials, and residents cooked on open fires. Accidental conflagrations, then, were another threat, but the colonial administration largely turned a blind eye, perhaps believing the refugees would return to China sooner or later. Then, on Christmas Day, 1953, a fire raged through Kowloon’s Shek Kip Mei squatter area, making 53,000 people homeless overnight.

 

By 1972, an ambitious public housing programme promised that affordable homes would be created for 1.8 million citizens, or about 45 per cent of the entire population at that time

 

To its credit, the previously languorous administration acted swiftly, distributing food and other necessities, and constructing shelter homes. A plan was made to clear the squatter areas and a fund was established for the construction of resettlement buildings — forerunners of the subsidised public housing estates that for decades made the Hong Kong government the world’s biggest landlord.

By 1972, an ambitious public housing programme promised that affordable homes would be created for 1.8 million citizens, or about 45 per cent of the entire population at that time. This would be achieved through the building of new towns in the New Territories and many high-rise estates in Kowloon, including those in Wong Tai Sin, Tsz Wan Shan and Wang Tau Hom that sit directly beneath Lion Rock.

STARTING IN 1974, the hardscrabble lives of the underprivileged of this part of Kowloon were dramatised in an emotive TV series called Below the Lion Rock, which ran over five series on government-run channel RTHK.

The series tackled the hard socio-political realities of the changing times — everything from rampant corruption, drugs and gambling addiction to the struggles of ex-cons and the disabled — with true-to-life characters ranging from a street hawker and a civil servant to a reporter and a fireman. The button-pushing drama resonated with the downtrodden and the working class.

According to Helena Wu, assistant professor of Hong Kong studies at Canada’s University of British Columbia, writing in her 2020 book The Hangover after the Handover: Places, Things and Cultural Icons in Hong Kong, “it was reported in 1974 that only 1% of the local population had never watched the show”.

The programme became even more popular in 1979, boosted by a sentimental new theme song — also called Below the Lion Rock — performed by much-loved Canto-pop crooner Roman Tam. The roughly translated lyrics, in part, read: Of one mind in pursuit of our dream / All discord set aside / With one heart on the same bright quest / Fearless and valiant inside / Hand in hand to the ends of the earth / Rough terrain no respite / Side by side we overcome ills / As the Hong Kong story we write.

 

[Financial secretary Anthony Leung] used the song to evoke nostalgic reminiscences of Hong Kong’s economic success created by an uncomplaining, perseverant and diligent people who supported each other”
Dr Maggie Leung, University of Hong Kong

 

However, while the 1970s ditty might now be considered the unofficial anthem of the city, for most people the Lion Rock Spirit is a 21st-century phenomenon.

“The song became part of the collective consciousness of the mass from 2002, when the then financial secretary Anthony Leung cited the song’s lyrics in his budget address,” explains Dr Maggie Leung, a lecturer in Hong Kong studies at the University of Hong Kong.

With the city’s economy badly battered by the financial crisis and the Sars epidemic at the time, and in an appeal to citizens to support his budget, the academic says the financial secretary “used the song to evoke nostalgic reminiscences of Hong Kong’s economic success created by an uncomplaining, perseverant and diligent people who supported each other”.

Since then, other politicians have used the track whenever they have felt a need to raise morale in Hong Kong. Also in 2002, Zhu Rongji, then the premier of China, included Below the Lion Rock lyrics in a speech promising economic support for Hong Kong. In 2013, with political discontent increasingly bubbling locally, the government incorporated the tune into a “Hong Kong Our Home” community cohesion campaign.

However, while these exhortations may have appealed to more senior citizens (perhaps remembering the bad old days with a time-twisted wistfulness), many in the younger generation have since deployed the Lion Rock Spirit to ends that are directly opposed to those of the established order.

This was most dramatically demonstrated when political activists climbed the rock to make a bold demand for universal suffrage during the pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” protests of 2014, and when thousands of their torch-carrying comrades enacted a brilliant gesture from its summit during the more confrontational anti-government demonstrations that engulfed the city in 2019.

‘THE HANGING OF A gigantic banner during the Umbrella Movement in 2014 … as well as the forming of the glistening human chain to the top in the 2019 protest, are evidence of the symbolic significance of Lion Rock,” says Maggie Leung.

“We think the spirit of Lion Rock isn’t just about money,” one of the anonymous youngsters behind the banner said in video footage the group shared of the 2014 stunt, adding: “This kind of fighting against injustice, strength in the face of troubles, is the true Lion Rock Spirit.”

Hong Kong was economically transformed between the 1950s and the ’80s, and there can be no doubt that the industry of a determined working class played a significant role. But experts agree that there were multiple reasons for the city’s rapid development — everything from free education in the British colony and the rule of law to a large workforce in a compact location with rapidly improving infrastructure, as well as the many advantages of being the gateway to a mainland China that was about to open up to the world and institute economic reforms.

And today, while the life priorities of the working class will be much the same as for their parents and grandparents in tough times, few young adults will have watched any of the 15-minute, black-and-white early episodes of Below the Lion Rock. What’s more, the dramatic growth of Hong Kong’s middle class in recent decades means the Lion Rock Spirit has mutated to become something new.

With many of today’s young adults having been through higher education, and with the financial support of their parents, “the 1970s concept of Lion Rock Spirit is no longer applicable” in Hong Kong and “the socio-economic situation has changed”, says Hardy-Wong, while one core concept has stayed the same.

In essence, the lyrics of the Below the Lion Rock theme say that while there will always be struggles in life, the people of Hong Kong can make their lives better by pushing their differences aside and being supportive of each other. Everyone is, after all, in the same boat, and that solidarity still holds for many.

“The conventional good professions such as doctor and lawyer are no longer the careers [the younger generation] pursue,” says Hardy-Wong. “Therefore, the Lion Rock Spirit is used more for social context now, especially after the social movement in 2019, when the people shared the same values, eager to voice their opinions and demands, to strive for a just and equal society.”

This story ran on the BBC Travel website in May 2022.

Stairways to Heaven

The Hani people have hacked rice terraces out of mountains in south-west China for more than 1,000 years. Today the terraces stack up over some 160 square kilometres to create one of the most mind-blowing landscapes on Earth.


IT IS OFTEN SAID that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space. It’s not true, of course; the crumbling, frequently overgrown structure is mostly no wider than a country road. But if the unaided human eye really can spot some of Earth’s engineered marvels from low orbit, then in China they must surely include the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces.

Hacked from mountains in the country’s south-western Yunnan province, the sprawling terraces — hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of them — stack up over more than 160 square kilometres to create one of the most spectacular and jaw-dropping landscapes on the planet.

What’s more, through the massive, multi-generational, landscape-engineering project that created the staircase-like terraces, refined through trial and error over more than a 1,000 years, the local Hani people — one of China’s 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities — have harnessed the local ecosystem for the benefit of the entire community.

“SINCE ANCIENT TIMES, Hani people have built ditches and canals to divert spring water from mountains and forests to irrigate terraced fields,” says A Xiaoying, a Yunnan-based guide of some six years with specialist tour company China Highlights. “The amount of ditches required has been huge, needing a great deal of manpower and material resources, which individuals or villages could not afford independently.”

Essentially, says A, the rice terraces are an inspiring example of an entire community working symbiotically with nature, with land use arranged by elevation into distinct ecological zones.

Rainfall and moisture from dense mountain fog are collected in forested catchment areas high on the slopes, recharging ground water; spring water is channelled to irrigate the terraces; pooled water evaporates to form clouds; and clouds gather to shed rain on the high forests. The hydrologic cycle then repeats ad infinitum.

 

“There is water flowing through the engineered landscape all the time. Most other terrace systems elsewhere in the world don’t have that”
Jim Goodman, author of Yunnan: China South of the Clouds

 

“The Hani people have always lived in harmony with nature, forming a living environment with forests on the top, villages in the middle, terraces lower down and water systems such as rivers running through, thus creating a unique ecosystem of ‘four elements’ — forests, villages, terraces and water systems,” says A, who goes by the name Murphy when she is guiding overseas tourists in the region.

This strategy offers sustainable benefits not only in rice cultivation, but also in everything from timber, vegetable and fruit production to duck breeding, fish farming and the gathering of herbs employed in traditional medicines. The terraces are, effectively, the Hani’s year-round larder.

“There is water flowing through the engineered landscape all the time,” says American ethnographer Jim Goodman, author of Yunnan: China South of the Clouds, a popular guidebook to the province, who has decades of experience interacting with the area’s tribal peoples. “Most other terrace systems elsewhere in the world don’t have that. So in the winter months, outside of the rice-growing season, the Hani terraces are still useful as a place for fish and frogs, for snails, for good things that the Hani can eat.”

IT IS BELIEVED THAT the Hani arrived in the Ailao mountains, close to Yunnan’s modern border with Vietnam, around the third century CE, having migrated south from the harsh, barren and unforgiving Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. They were so enamoured by what they found there — fertile land, mild climate, plentiful rainfall — they chose to put down roots.

With more than 80 villages served by the terraces today, water is the commodity that’s not only crucial for Hani survival, but for community cohesion, too. Equality of supply, says Goodman, is the starting point of the group’s success.

“The Hani have engineered the landscape democratically, using a system of channels, dividers and dykes to ensure that the water moves through the space fairly,” he says. “Every village has an official ‘water guardian’, who ensures that the water is distributed evenly. The family whose land is at the bottom of the terrace gets the same water as whoever is at the top.”

Viewed from any lofty vantage point, the asymmetrical terraces — some as big as playing fields, others no larger than a casually thrown bedsheet, and all clearly defined by dark, curving walls of compacted mud — slot together like a colossal jigsaw puzzle. In winter and spring, the terraces fill with water to reflect the sky, each then resembling a lozenge-like panel in a mighty, swirling stained-glass window.

Hani farmers began carving the terraces out of the mountains during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), with their distinctive use of land noted in handed-down accounts. The terraces have been tended ever since, climbing from riverbank locations at less than 500 metres above sea level to cloud-shrouded heights of more than 1,800m, and on inclines as steep as 70 degrees. The oft-abused description “stairways to heaven” is most apt here.

EVEN MORE IMPRESSIVE, perhaps, is that the terraces have always been carved out by hand, and that the construction methods used today are the same as those of the Hani’s ancestors.

“You can’t mechanise the terraces,” says Goodman. “You can’t use tractors or other machines because of their shape and location. And they’re often knee-deep with water. So the Hani are still using buffalo or doing the hard work by hand, using the same picks and hoes and hand tools that they’ve used for hundreds of years.”

The Hani’s gargantuan engineering marvel-cum-abstract artwork was largely hidden from the rest of the world for centuries, but gradually being extended with each planting season. A rare outsider account came in the 1890s, when Prince Henri of Orléans led a French expedition from Vietnam to Yunnan, searching for the source of the Irrawaddy river that bisects Burma.

“The hillsides here were covered two-thirds of their height with rice fields, rising in regular terraces, over which water trickled in a series of cascades that glittered like glass in the sun,” Henri wrote, adding, “This method of irrigation was quite a work of art, all the embankments being thrown up by hand or stomped by foot.”

 

“There are terraces everywhere, steeper than stairways, long, but as narrow as they are high, the mountains about them mirrored in new rice fields”
Prolific 1920s writer Harry A Franck, in his Roving Through Southern China

 

In the early 1920s, American Harry A Franck — one of the foremost travel writers of the time — also slipped into Yunnan from Vietnam, watching from the window as his train chugged through the rugged landscape along the French-built, narrow-gauge railway. “There are terraces everywhere, steeper than stairways, long, but as narrow as they are high, the mountains about them mirrored in new rice fields,” Franck gushed in his book Roving Through Southern China (1925).

But then, kicking off in the 1930s, with China’s long war with Japan, followed by civil war and revolution and the shuttering of the newly communist country behind the so-called “bamboo curtain”, the mountainous region became off limits for foreigners, only reopening in the ’80s.

NOBODY PAID MUCH attention until the 2000s, with the arrival of new tarmac roads and a local authority determined to get the terraces highlighted on Unesco’s World Heritage List. (This was finally achieved in 2013, the UN agency stating: “The resilient land management system of the rice terraces demonstrates extraordinary harmony between people and their environment, both visually and ecologically.”)

In the past decade, keeping such a topographical oddity under wraps has been impossible, of course, with well-heeled photography enthusiasts — mostly from China’s affluent cities — converging on the flooded terraces during China’s Lunar New Year holiday in late January or early February, there to capture mind-blowing scenes in megapixels — and then to flood social media with them.

Though the terraces shimmer a vibrant emerald in the summer growing season (the local micro-climate supports just one rice crop a year, if an abundant one), the landscape is at its most photogenic from November to late April, when the waterlogged terraces become natural mirrors that glow in shades of indigo and tangerine, in gold, turquoise and magenta, with every sunrise and sunset. Farmers and water buffalo occasionally lumber by in pleasing silhouette.

THE HANI VILLAGES are also postcard-perfect, their squat, ochre-hued houses of adobe and stone topped with mushroom-like thatched roofs. Thumping great black pigs and accompanying farrows of cute piglets roam freely, always accompanied by a reassuring soundtrack of gurgling streams and tinkling irrigation channels.

Yuanyang county, the home of the terraces, has a population of some 370,000 people, with almost 90 per cent coming from tribal groups. Come bustling market days in villages such as Shengcun, the Hani are joined by their Miao, Yao, Dai, Zhuang and Yi neighbours to trade and attend to regional business, to eat and drink, gossip and smoke their distinctive, elongated bamboo pipes, the women often decked out in colourful and embroidered tribal costumes and chunky silver jewellery.

Wander 200 metres from Shengcun in any direction, however, and the frantic buying and selling of the market is easily forgotten. Hike the meandering trails through the terraces — or even along their mud walls if nimble on your feet — and you will be absolutely alone.

In a time of shrinking natural resources globally, Goodman says the Hani can give the world lessons in land management — as well as in how to achieve harmony between mankind and the environment.

“They are proud of what they’ve achieved, and because of that they are a confident people, confident in who they are and in their lifestyle,” he says. “They accomplished something marvelous that has held firm for possibly 1,300 years.

“Show them a photo you took, of Hani people dressed up in their traditional clothes, with their fancy jewellery and whatnot, and they’ll shrug. Show them a picture of the rice terraces and you’ll get a big smile and a thumbs-up.”


This story ran on the BBC Travel website in October 2021.

Solid Gone Fishing

On a day of sport fishing off the Micronesian island of Saipan, the seasickness is forgotten once the mahi-mahi start to bite. And all wraps up on a five-star gastronomic high.


“The dolphin was cold and a leprous grey-white now in the starlight and the old man skinned one side of him while he held his right foot on the fish’s head. Then he turned him over and skinned the other side and cut each side off from the head to the tail.”

 

TUCKED UP IN MY hotel bed, with a Pacific breeze wafting in to ripple the lace curtains, Hemingway’s passage in The Old Man and the Sea makes me squirm.

The writer’s grizzled Cuban fisherman, crouching in splintered skiff, digs a knife deep into Flipper’s flank. Flesh slides from the blade like shavings of a ripe mango, warm mammalian blood dripping down a brambly chin.

Twelve hours later, fishing off the Micronesian island of Saipan, our tattooed boat hand Stacey grabs the line with a leather-gloved hand and wrenches the day’s first hapless dolphin from the spray. Mechanical and detached behind wraparound Oakley shades, he plops it into the boat’s insulated catch box.

The dolphin flip-flops around for a minute or so like … well, like a fish out of water, before it gives up the fight and dies. Triumphant, we crack open more beers. Dinner is in the can.

Our first “dolphin” is not a real dolphin at all, of course, but a mere fish. Dolphin is the name used in the Caribbean for what the rest of the world calls a mahi-mahi, or sometimes a dorado. And if a fish is just a vegetable with gills, then a freshly line-hooked mahi-mahi is organically farmed Tuscan asparagus with a melted pecorino cheese and crispy herb dip.

And it tastes even better when you caught it yourself.

SAIPAN IS THE LARGEST of the Northern Mariana Islands, a United States commonwealth in the Western Pacific. Its palm-fringed beaches, affordable scuba-diving and water-sports, and year-round summer climes make it the go-to destination with young Japanese, who view sunny Saipan as akin to Hawaii, but less than half the distance from Tokyo, and so cheaper. South Koreans are also catching on to the island.

Fishing is another draw, with the potential for torpedo-like barracuda and tuna, even massive marlin and swordfish, and we had set out from the island’s Smiling Cove Marina that morning skittish with anticipation. The wind was up and cuddly clouds raced across a cerulean sky, the ocean as transparent as a drunk’s excuse.

As Connie II edged into the open sea, romantic tales of big men made small by the power of the sea crashed through our brains like tsunamis. We daydreamed of going mano a mano with creatures of the deep — of handsome, purple-hued marlin erupting from the abyss, thrashing scythe-like tails and rapier bills in final, futile acts of defiance. Just like in the glossy brochures, just like in a Hemingway yarn.

But the truth soon dawned on us puffy land-lubbers — unless you catch something massive on the double, deep-sea fishing just makes you sunburnt, drunk and wish you were someplace else. It also makes you throw up. Violently.

OUR BRIEF WAS to troll near the surface with plastic, squid-shaped lures attached to 500-pound breaking strength monofilament line. The lures seem to come in a rainbow of colours, including lavender, blue neon, fucsia and tequila sunrise.

As well as dandy squid, many pelagic denizens of the deep like to dine on flying fish, so we were on the lookout for those, along with bleached patches of loose sargasso weed and profiteering sea birds that swoop down on small fry terrified to the surface by the submarine equivalent of the school bully. The skipper studied a sonar rig in the hope of bouncing upon the odd leviathan truant.

My recently purchased book on fish, which I’d decided to rename The Combat Fisherman’s Big Fish-o-Pedia, was not much help. Its “where found” section only advising that marlin live “offshore”. But there was no time for swotting.

After just 20 minutes of cruising, we arrived at the fishing grounds, where we slowed to about five knots, which amplified the wave action and had us all shaking with nausea. Stacy had fixed up our gear en route and four fibre-glass poles flipped back from the perimeter rail, two of the taut lines held clear of our wake by creaking outriggers. Another brace of rods flanked the fighting chair, a wooden swivel-mounted affair bolted to the aft deck.

AND NOW, AFTER an hour of lolling around in circles, we are all decidedly green around the gills. Sloping off to try and throw up proves tricky with four bored people milling around a tub just 10 metres long, but I retire to the sardine-can head in as dignified a manner as possible.

A frantic thump, thump, thumping on the toilet door starts just as the second wave of convulsions is kicking in. By the time my puking has subsided, fellow fisherman Ivan has lost his breakfast over the side.

According to the skipper, a boatload of suffering Koreans can be a potent weapon in the deep-sea fisherman’s armoury, and he insists that a greasy slick of regurgitated kimchi can work the undersea kingdom into a let’s-storm-the-palace feeding frenzy.

Though Ivan is from Hong Kong, and he enjoyed an omelette as his morning meal, his titanic hurl into the Pacific seems to have worked a similar trick. From then on, the bites come thick and fast.

WHEN A MAHI-MAHI hits a colourful fake squid it hits it hard and at about 50 knots, and line fairly sizzles off the reel. Shouts go up, rookies panic and old hands sit back to enjoy the resulting chaos.

It is my turn so I stumble across the sun-bleached deck, feet apart and struggling to stay upright, and lunge for the hot seat. Stacy shoves the activated rod into the holding cup at my crotch and orders me to “pump, pump, pump”.

The 10-pounder at the end of the line stands little chance against such powerful tackle, but it’s important not to give the beast slack lest it throws the hook. So I pump and pump and pump and the battle is over in seconds.

 

The mahi-mahi is an ugly pug with a head shaped like an axe and a wide, Jagger-esque mouth packed with tiny razor blades

 

The Big Fish-o-Pedia says “the dolphin, family coryphaenidae, is a vivid blue-green in colour, fading to yellow on the sides. Its iridescent body may flash purple, chartreuse and other colours.”

In reality, the mahi-mahi is an ugly pug with a head shaped like an axe and a wide, Jagger-esque mouth packed with tiny razor blades, hence the need to get it boxed away and clear of fingers sharpish, lest a celebratory high five become a less than cheerful four or a miserable three.

Within two hours we have subdued eight of the critters, plus five small but perfectly bullet-shaped tuna. The day’s “big one” — a mahi-mahi that the skipper estimates at perhaps 30 pounds — proves to be, after a few minutes of spirited fight, the one that got away. Honest.

WITH CONNIE II SKIPPING back to the marina, I consider throwing the Big Fish-o-Pedia into her milky stern wave, but further reading and it feels fine to learn that we have avoided the ocean’s unattractive porgies, sheepsheads, weakfish, hagfish, grunts and snooks.

As is the way in Saipan’s fishing circle, we get to keep our two largest fish for the table. The remainder of our catch will be commandeered by the boat’s captain to be sold. Sport fishing is the preferred fish-harvesting method for the island’s hotels, so nothing goes to waste, though it does prove expensive for the amateur fisherman. At £300 for a three-hour trip — excluding beer — our catch cost us about £15 a pound, twice the price of fresh Scottish salmon steak in Sainsbury’s.

And once back on dry land, we photograph our catch before bagging up a brace of mahi-mahi and packing them in ice and off for Teppanyaki, Saipan’s best Japanese restaurant, at the sprawling, beachside Hyatt Regency.

Huddled around its open grill that evening, we sink cold Sapporo beers and Ivan enthrals anyone who’ll listen with his “20 minutes to eat breakfast, 20 seconds to lose breakfast” tale. The garrulous chef holds aloft the most impressive of our rainbow-hued mahi-mahi to whoops and cheers, before sending it back to the kitchen to be cleaned for the table. Enjoying the applause, he juggles eggs and catches them in his hat.

Though the aquatic treat we are about to eat may have chowed down on Ivan’s disgorged omelette, we are famished after the long day of fishing, drinking and puking, but gratefully not for long.

Mahi-mahi sashimi, mahi-mahi marinated in coconut milk and baked in a banana leaf, mahi-mahi fried rice … the fishy dishes kept coming until we start to feel unwell all over again. And we thank Neptune that the big one got away.


This travel tale ran way back, in the 1990s — in one of the Australian men's mags, as I remember.

A Book Tour of Kabul

With the Afghan capital beginning to show signs that decades of war and suffering may at last be over, a book from the 1970s recalls the magical oasis city it once was — and might be again.


Note to reader: This story dates from 2005. Now, some 16 years later, with the withdrawal of US and Nato troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban back in power, any kind of Kabul renaissance appears unlikely, to say the least.


IN A NATION WHERE about 80 per cent of the people are illiterate, Shah Muhammad Rais understands the power of words. Wedged into the floor-to-ceiling shelves of his Shah M Book Co’s little and curious shop in central Kabul, there are enough volumes on Afghanistan’s intriguing capital, on its romanticised culture of proud warrior tribes and recent decades of conflict and strife, to fill a library.

There are treatises on the fundamentalist Taliban that subjugated this war-torn Islamic nation before being ousted by the US military just three years ago. There are tomes on the poetic Dari language, on swashbuckling kings, on intricate ceramics and exquisite carpets. And there are scores of bandwagon-jumping books rush-released in recent years — Afghanistan: Unveiled rubs up against Afghanistan: Lifting the Veil, which chafes against Unveiled: Voices of the Women of Afghanistan.

One book worth searching out is An Historical Guide to Kabul, first published in the early 1970s, when high-grade but extremely cheap hashish made the oasis city an unmissable stopover on the hippy trail.

Nancy Hatch Dupree’s sparkling account of the Afghanistan capital tells of music and dancing and rooftop supper clubs. Of bars, pizza parlours and Ariana Afghan Airlines flights from London, Paris and Rome to “a fast-growing city where tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars, of wide avenues filled with colourful, flowing turbans, gaily striped chapans, mini-skirted schoolgirls, a multitude of handsome faces and streams of whizzing traffic”.

And it makes you want to cry for missing the party.

TODAY, IN 2005, the traffic has certainly returned. It rarely whizzes. Some avenues are wide, yes, but all are rutted, potholed and lined by open sewers.

Streets are usually gridlocked with farting, clapped-out Toyota Corollas (no longer wanted in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran), the occasional donkey-drawn cart overloaded with crates of Pepsi, and the shimmering new Toyota Landcruisers favoured by personnel at the more than 2,000 aid groups now operating in the country. Locals snigger as the chunky, gas-guzzling, tinted-windowed vehicles pass by, calling them “bullet magnets”.

Bruise-eyed street urchins flit between the cars to sell the Kabul Weekly newspaper for a dollar. Cover price of the tri-lingual tabloid (Dari, Pashto, English) is just five Afghanis, or about 10 cents. Most of the kids are orphans.

 

The battered national carrier Ariana — jokingly referred to as ‘Inshallah Airlines’ — currently flies as far as Frankfurt thanks to donations of reconditioned planes from India and other supportive nations

 

Like many Afghans, the children are, as Hatch Dupree wrote more than 30 years ago, also striking in appearance. It is believed that the troops of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, who conquered the region in the 4th century BC, added to the local gene pool of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmens, Nuristanis and other tribes. It is common to meet Afghans with pale eyes, aquiline noses and fair skins.

The battered national carrier Ariana — jokingly referred to as “Inshallah Airlines” — currently flies as far as Frankfurt thanks to donations of reconditioned planes from India and other supportive nations. But though laminated pictures of scantily clad Bollywood babes decorate shop windows, there are no mini-skirts turning heads on Kabul’s streets.

Women still cover up under black chadors and headscarves in public, and far more blue-shrouded, ghost-like figures glide through the city in head-to-toe burkas than the “unveiled” literary set would care to admit. Even female beggars plying Chicken Street — original hangout of 1970s hippy travellers — don eye-hiding burkas. Their bird-like calls for “baksheesh” strain through the billowing garments’ dehumanising facial grills.

CHICKEN STREET HAS regained some of its freewheeling charm, however, to once again be lined with ramshackle shops selling lapis lazuli chess sets, muskets and daggers inlaid with mother of pearl, rough-hewn glassware from Herat and musty sheepskin coats of the likes last seen on Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

Flat, woollen pakol hats — as worn by the “Lion of Panjshir”, a guerrilla fighter who led Northern Alliance against the Taliban — are big sellers at $10 for four. The hats are labelled “In the Memory of Afghans’ Proud Militant Ahmad Shah Massoud Shaheed”, who was the victim of two suicide bombers disguised as journalists just days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York. Massoud remains revered in Kabul, and portraits of the late general — looking part Che Guevara, part Bob Marley — hang from municipal buildings and rear-view mirrors all over town.

“Cities like Kabul change a little every day,” Dupree wrote back in the ’70s, when spaced-out visitors would spend days lazing in Chicken Street’s steamy teashops. Today, Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide (co-authored by a former BBC journalist and the first guidebook to the capital in over 20 years) advises that visitors do not linger due to potential attacks in an area where $30 “war rugs” feature tanks, AK-47s, fighter jets and grenades, as well as words such as “WAR ON TERROR” and “ROUT OF TALEBAN”, woven into their patterns.

Dupree could never have imagined the extreme changes that Kabul would undergo with 23 years of conflict, starting when Soviet tanks rumbled into the Hindu Kush in 1979 and continuing through a blood-soaked civil war and the rule of the medieval, black-turbaned Talibs. Thirty years ago, enchanting Kabul was blessed with sparkling fountains, elegant civic squares and stately monuments that have since been reduced to rubble or, if lucky, are now pockmarked with bullet scars.

IN RAIS’S SHOP there are books on Greco-Buddhist relics from the days of Alexander that Afghans will never see again, snatched from the national museum and destroyed by the Taliban as idolatrous, or smuggled out of the country and flogged to private collectors overseas.

It is believed about 75 per cent of the museum’s exhibits were stolen or destroyed. As a depressing replacement of sorts, Kabul now has the Omar Mine Museum, which displays 51 of the 53 types of explosives recently deployed in Afghanistan, including the cluster bombs used to devastating effect by the US in its Operation Enduring Freedom.

The bookshop displays books on the cultivation of traditional Afghan gardens, once renowned for their fragrant rose beds and fertile apricot, pear and pomegranate orchards. Dupree’s guide describes the terraced Bagh-e-Babur Garden, named after the first Moghul emperor, Zahir-ed-Din Mohammad Babur Shah, who established a kingdom in Afghanistan in 1504.

In that garden in the ’70s, “magnificent stands of chinar trees shade reservoirs situated behind the mosque and above the tombs, and a profusion of sweet smelling wild rose, jasmine and other fragrant shrubs cover the mountain side”. During the civil war, opposing warlords controlled high ground surrounding the garden, and it frequently became a battleground.

Trees escaping destruction were chopped down by Kabulis and used for firewood in the frigid winters. In fact, massive deforestation and subsequent soil erosion across Kabul has resulted in a brume of airborne dust that cloaks the city in a semi-opaque haze.

IF HISTORY HAS NOT been kind to Kabul, geography has been generous. The winding road up to ravaged King Nadir Shah’s Mausoleum — its catacombs the final resting place for 19th and 20th-century Afghan monarchs — is flanked by the rusting, skeletal remains of armoured cars and military transports, and paint-flaking DC-10s ripped in half by mortar shells.

But the view from the top is magnificent, revealing a sprawling, ochre-hued city ringed by mountains — craggy and lavender-tinged at Kabul’s perimeter, and imposing and snow-dusted to the distant west and north.

From this optimistic vantage point, atop a low hill called Tapa Maranjan in the centre of the city, a chaotic game of football can be seen taking place in the distant sports stadium where the Taliban stoned adulterers to death and amputated the hands of thieves. High above the dust and traffic, laughing children in spotless shalwar kameezes skip across wasteland once riddled with landmines. Hundreds of colourful kites dart and swoop in a clear blue sky.

Under the killjoy Talibs, kite flying — along with dancing, music, movies and TV — was illegal.

THOUGH THE PACE of Kabul’s revitalisation is dawdling, it is underway. The city’s golf course, established in 1967 and once popular with diplomats, has reopened. Caddies double as bodyguards. The Hyatt hotel chain has broken ground on a five-star property set to open in 2007. The Aga Khan Foundation has committed to restoring Bagh-e-Babur Garden and other historical monuments to their former glory.

And while our newspapers bombard with terrifying reports of bombings and rampaging mobs, hospitality to outsiders comes as naturally to the average Kabuli as drinking sweet tea and breathing dusty air. In short, in this city of fierce contradictions and massive change, we should not believe everything we read. And book-loving Rais would agree.

Although he has been given the pseudonym Sultan Khan, Rais is the unwitting subject of international bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul, and he is furious at what he has called Norwegian author Asne Seierstad’s “lies and distortions”. Rais aggressively claims her “low and salacious” book defames and completely misunderstands his brutalised but defiantly unbowed country and its complex and tradition-bound culture.

The Bookseller of Kabul is, ironically, perhaps the only book about Afghanistan that will never grace the Shah M Book Co’s busy shelves. ◉


This travel story ran in Vancouver’s The Georgia Straight magazine in December 2005.

Gelato University

To make Italy's favourite treat like an old-school artisan, culinary entrepreneurs head to beautiful Bologna and the Carpigiani Gelato University.


HOME TO EUROPE’S FIRST university and a magnet for nicknames, the enchanting city of Bologna is affectionately referred to in Italy as la dotta, or “the learned one”. It has also been dubbed la grassa — “the fat one” — in recognition of the local appetite for eating well. Bologna, then, is the ideal place to get an education in Italy’s favourite feel-good treat.

The University of Bologna was established in 1088. Almost 1,000 years later, in 2003, the Carpigiani Gelato University flung open its doors to become the world’s foremost school for learning how to make quality gelato like an old-school Italian artisan. I’ve signed up for the first module in its month-long ‘Become a Gelatiere’ training programme.

Over five days I will sample more frozen dessert than in the previous five years, swooning over vanilla, hazelnut, coffee, chocolate, almond, milk stracciatella (think chocolate chip, but better), pistachio and even tiramisu gelato, and melting for sorbets of orange, strawberry, banana, pineapple, raspberry and kibana (that’s kiwi and banana).

In a dozen or so cases, under the tutelage of a bona fide Italian gelato master, I’ll rustle up the stuff myself. Sweet!

CARPIGIANI GELATO UNIVERSITY is located on an industrial estate just outside Bologna, which is the capital of the affluent northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. Students quickly lose any romantic ideas they might have gleaned from glossy gastronomy magazines. Nobody at the Gelato University rolls out recipes on the dreamy, sun-kissed verandas of lovingly restored farmhouses, all the while sipping on a fruity Barolo and nibbling on bruschetta.

This is not a cookery course held amongst the fragrant olive groves of rural Tuscany. In stark contrast, the intensive Carpigiani curriculum is taught in a classroom and a laboratory, and the students are would-be gelato entrepreneurs from across the globe. My class of 14 includes citizens of Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Honduras, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, the UK and the US, thereby covering every continent except Antarctica.

The age range spans more than three decades with the youngest being 25-year-old Indonesian Tiffany and the most mature being Othman, 58. Backgrounds are also varied — while Othman is a veteran Saudi Arabian Airlines pilot who took voluntary redundancy in 2012, Los Angeles-based TJ is a former nurse and an occasional stand-up comedian.

ALL THE STUDENTS have a common goal, however: to start their own gelato businesses. Should their dreams come true, coming years will see gelaterias popping up in Tel Aviv and Sao Paulo, from Singapore and Melbourne to Cairo and Berlin. Tiffany aims to open in Bali, while Othman plans three shops in Jeddah.

Our teacher is gelato master Stefano Tarquinio, and day by day he gradually divulges the secrets of perfect gelato taste and structure. He instructs us in how to balance sugars, on pasteurisation and thermal-shock techniques, and explains why air content affects flavour intensity. The chemistry and mathematics involved are a surprise and a calculator proves essential.

But the first thing we learn about gelato is never, ever to call it ice cream. When created by artisanal methods, effervescent Tarquinio insists, gelato is “healthy emotional food” with a significantly lower fat content than the mass-produced confection.

THE DAYS OF STUDY are long but most evenings classmates get together to explore Bologna, meeting at its moody and magnificent 15th-century Piazza Maggiore, then wandering the centro storico — old city — in search of a bustling pizzeria or a traditional osteria for an evening aperitivo (the preferred Bologna tipple being a gaudy-orange Aperol spritz) and a feed.

As well as la dotta and la grassa, Bologna is also called la rossa — “the red one” — and the centro storico’s architecture has an unrelenting palette of terracotta and cinnamon, of dusty pinks and burnt oranges, with many buildings dating back to the Renaissance or earlier. (La rossa also refers Bologna’s left-wing political leanings ­— perhaps odd considering that it is one of the wealthiest cities in Italy.)

 

According to the university’s director, Kaori Ito, a hunger for quality gelato is growing internationally and it now caters to about 7,000 students a year

 

It never takes long to seek out a suitable eatery — Bologna is one of the best cities in all Italy for dining out and renowned for egg-based pastas such as tagliatelle, tortellini, pappardelle and cappelletti, as well as excellent mortadella and prosciutto, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. It’s also the home of Bolognese sauce, although surprisingly the local ragu is generally made without tomatoes and always paired with tagliatelle — never spaghetti.

Evenings invariably conclude with a stroll through Bologna’s famous porticos in search of — of course — gelato. The city boasts about 40 kilometres of the covered walkways that provide shelter from blazing sunshine in summer and snow in winter. Top-quality gelaterias are easy to find — Bologna has more than 300, or at least one for every 1,000 or so residents.

ACCORDING TO THE UNIVERSITY’S director, Kaori Ito, a hunger for quality gelato is growing internationally and it now caters to about 7,000 students a year. Though my lessons are conducted in English, courses are also held in Italian, French, Spanish, German and other languages. In January, classes were taught in Bologna for the first time in Mandarin Chinese, attracting new students from Taipei, Shanghai and Beijing.

What’s more, Ito says, gelato — in Italy at least — has proven recession-proof, with the economic crisis of recent years actually resulting in more students signing up than ever before.

“People started looking at their lives, their jobs, and started looking for a change,” she says, adding that more than a few students are free spirits that want out of the rat race. “Many have just decided to follow their dreams.”


An edit of this travel story ran in Post Magazine in 2014. Download PDF.

 

I wrote further gelato-business articles for Traveller and Good Food in Australia, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, Toronto Star in Canada and Sands Style, which was the magazine of the Las Vegas Sands casino group in the United States. 


Fake News

At Thailand's Museum of Counterfeit Goods, this shamed writer learns that buying knock-off clothing and pirated movies can be a matter of life and death.


IT HAD BEEN A TYPICAL evening’s stroll along Bangkok’s bustling Sukhumvit Road, among the ramshackle street stalls that line that tourist-magnet thoroughfare. I bagged one knock-off Fred Perry polo shirt in navy blue and a pirated DVD copy of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but both purchases proved disappointing.

The shirt, once tried on back at my hotel, appeared to have been made not from breathable cotton but from itchy polyester — hardly ideal for the sticky Thai climate — and the Hollywood blockbuster had been dubbed into Russian. I cursed the waste of 10 bucks on shoddy merchandise.

By the following afternoon, that remorse had morphed into full-blown guilt, when Clemence Gautier, an intellectual-property consultant with law firm Tilleke & Gibbins, took me on a tour of Bangkok’s Museum of Counterfeit Goods.

Covering 1,000 square feet and — with its polished wooden floors, shimmering glass display cases and subdued lighting — incongruously chic, the museum is incorporated into the firm’s offices on the 26th floor of the riverside Supalai Grand Tower. It is an Aladdin’s cave of thousands of illicit products, from fake designer handbags and spurious chewing gum to sham champagne.

ACCORDING TO GAUTIER, stallholders on Sukhumvit are not the main beneficiaries of dodgy transactions like mine. Criminal gangs are behind Asia’s black market in fake goods, and misguided shoppers like me are inadvertently supporting child labour, human trafficking and other nefarious practices by buying them.

The directness of Gautier’s revelations is sobering. “Money spent on counterfeits is easy profit for criminal organisations,” the soft-spoken French native says, “and supports other activities like prostitution and drugs.”

Gautier stands in front of a large wall of contraband streetwear. Lacoste, Adidas, Kappa, DKNY — all the labels and logos that are so prevalent on Sukhumvit, as well as in Bangkok’s backpacker ghetto of Khaosan Road and in neon-drenched Patpong market, are on display. And there, in the top left corner, a bootleg Fred Perry shirt hangs accusingly in violent pink.

“In countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, very often it’s kids involved in the manufacturing,” Gautier says. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s just a T-shirt, and it’s no real harm,’ but we try to explain where the money is going. What if a 10-year-old girl is working every day to make those T-shirts?”

ESTABLISHED IN 1890, Tilleke & Gibbins is Thailand’s oldest law firm. It got involved in intellectual property law in the early 1980s, and by 1989 the company had stockpiled so many phoney bags, items of clothing and sunglasses as evidence in its IP cases that a senior partner decided they could do a valuable public service by putting them on display.

In today’s troubled economic times, the role of the appointment-only museum is arguably growing in importance as consumers worldwide become desperate for bargains. Security experts with Hong Kong–based consultancy Asia Risk recently estimated that international trade in counterfeit goods could rise to nearly US$1 trillion in 2009. The business has long exceeded the value of the global narcotics trade.

 

“North African radical fundamentalist groups in Europe, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah all derive income from counterfeiting. This crime has the potential to become the preferred source of funding for terrorists”
Interpol officer John Newton, as quoted in The Times

 

As early as 2005, in fact, high-end fashion houses such as Burberry and Louis Vuitton were warning that profits from cheap reproductions of their desirable goods might be used to fund terrorist organisations. Many people were sceptical about alarm bells emanating from such well-heeled manufacturers until Interpol backed up the claims.

“North African radical fundamentalist groups in Europe, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah all derive income from counterfeiting,” John Newton, an Interpol officer specialising in IP crime, told the UK’s Times newspaper. “This crime has the potential to become the preferred source of funding for terrorists.”

The most surprising thing about Bangkok’s Museum of Counterfeit Goods, however, is the sheer diversity of its exhibits. Any visitor to the Thai capital will be familiar with the knock-off Rolex and Tag Heuer watches, the G-Star jeans and the Nike sneakers. But rip-off shampoo and candy? Toothpaste that might have been cobbled together in a grubby lab on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City? Ballpoint pens? Staples?

For a moment my guilt dissipates and I wonder why I’ve sacrificed an afternoon to a museum showcasing things to be found in any stationery store. (I could, after all, be at Bangkok’s Siriraj Medical Museum, where the preserved corpse of Thailand’s most notorious serial killer and cannibal is on display, as well as a deformed human testicle that is 45cm in diameter.)

But a skip through the counterfeit museum offers more than macabre trivia. In many cases, the global trade in fakes is a matter of life and death. Fake pharmaceutical drugs — their active ingredients either missing or present in insufficient volumes to be effective — are proving increasingly difficult to discern by IP investigators.

“The technology used to copy holograms [on drug packaging] is so good now that manufacturers have to change them all the time,” Gautier says. “It’s difficult to stay in front.”

GAUTIER ALSO EXPLAINS that product counterfeiting, as with legitimate industries, is frequently determined by geography, with some countries having developed expertise in certain products. Cambodia, for instance, is to knock-off name-brand cigarettes what Belgium is to quality chocolates. Malaysia pumps out pirated DVD movies faster than the Scots can sink single malts.

And China? Secreted factories across China are copying just about everything you can imagine, says Gautier. “If there’s money to be made, there’s not much that people will not to try to copy these days.”

While I am heading back to the hotel in a cab, one of Bangkok’s countless motorbike taxis weaves erratically through the traffic. A young woman rides side-saddle behind the bike’s pilot, and I flinch at the potential for tragedy: there was a complete scooter on display in the museum, and Gautier told me that every single component — tires, brakes, fuel tank and all — had been manufactured on the sly.

As my taxi veers east onto Sukhumvit Road, the street traders are busy erecting their stalls for another evening of commerce. But me? Tonight I’ll hole up in the hotel. I’ll chuck that Fred Perry in the bin, order a pizza (is it possible to fake a pizza?) and catch a flick on HBO. Shopping is just too scary.


This 'Postcard From Bangkok' ran in Time in June 2009.

News from Tartary

In 1935, the brother of James Bond author Ian Fleming made a 3,500-mile overland trek along the Silk Road from Peking to Kashmir. His memoir of the journey is a masterclass in English understatement.


POPULAR CULTURE IS awash with tales of bumbling Brits getting into scrapes abroad. But decades before Michael Palin set off “across the Andes by frog” in television’s Ripping Yarns, and the “shagging wagon” of the Inbetweeners conked out in the Aussie outback, Peter Fleming — raffish big brother of James Bond author Ian — set off on a 3,500-mile road trip from Peking to India.

His resulting News from Tartary has been celebrated/blamed for cementing the literary template for the amateurish adventurer from Albion ever since, crazy-paving the way for the self-effacing, accessible style of travel writing embraced by everyone from Eric Newby and honorary Brit Bill Bryson to Geoff Dyer.

In 1935, when 28-year-old Fleming and his resourceful companion, the Swiss adventurer Ella “Kini” Maillart, set off on their journey, the region of Tartary — as he writes — was “not strictly a geographical term, any more than Christendom”. Tartary referred to the sprawling expanse of terra firma that today would encompass northern China, Mongolia and central Asia, and often idealised as the ancient “Silk Road”.

With specialist gear only amounting to “a rook rifle, six bottles of brandy and Macaulay’s History of England”, the odd couple’s epic, seven-month trek was the antithesis of the “scientific”, data-collating expeditions of the Victorians — with their huge retinues and masses of equipment. The 1930s, after all, was the finger-clicking jazz age and improvisation would be the duo’s watchword.

As a special correspondent of The Times in the ’30s, Eton and Oxford-educated Fleming explains in the book’s preface that there were two reasons for the journey. With Tartary essentially a no-go area due to political turmoil and banditry, and a black hole for news, he was to gather intelligence for his employer. The second reason was simply “that we should enjoy it”.

But while Fleming’s writing is peppered with disarming, Wodehouse-like asides, News From Tartary is in the main a controlled exercise in thin-lipped English understatement. If travel scribbling inherently leans towards exaggeration, here the hyperbole lurks in the author’s sustained belittling of hardships the couple face and their achievement. If Fleming boasts, it’s of his inadequacies and failings.

THE WRITER MAKES a stand early in the text, explaining that while he and Maillart differed “widely in character and temperament, we had one thing in common”.

“We were united by an abhorrence of the false values placed on what can most conveniently be referred to by its trade-name of adventure … we were repelled by the modern tendency to exaggerate, romanticize, and at last cheapen out of recognition the ends of the earth and the deeds done in their vicinity.”

That’s not to say the going proved easy. By train, overloaded truck, wheezing bus, hunched horses, injured camels and occasionally on blistered foot, Fleming and Maillart attack some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, crossing the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts and Himalayan passes, suffering ferocious snow and sandstorms, as well as extremes of heat and cold.

Along the way they encounter exotic Mongol princes, Tibetan lamas and Tungan caravans, and gather insights into now-vanished ways of nomadic life, all against a turbulent political backdrop, with the Chinese communists in regular skirmishes with the ruling nationalists, Japan occupying Manchuria and exiled white Russians roaming the land searching for a new home.

 

The prince of Dzun ought “to be a romantic figure, a true-blue, boot-and-saddle, hawk-on-wrist scion of the house of Chinghis Khan, with flashing eyes and a proud, distant manner and a habit of getting silhouetted on skylines. But God, not Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, made the Prince”
Peter Fleming

 

I have travelled much of the route taken by Fleming — by air-conditioned Land Rover — and can attest to the vast scale and utter bleakness of much of the landscape. Fleming conveys the near-hallucinatory monotony — “the world around us jigged liquidly in a haze” — and the simple but utter bliss of arrival, as when their caravan reaches the oasis of Cherchen in the Taklamakan.

“Wonder and joy fell on us … Trees lined the path, which threaded a patchwork of neat little fields of hemp and rice and barley. Men of gentle appearance in white robes lent on their mattocks to watch us pass … hands were pressed, beards stroked, curious glances thrown at us. Everywhere water ran musically in the irrigation channels.”

But on the whole Fleming — who, in his earlier travel account Brazilian Adventure (1933), described São Paulo as “like Reading, only much farther away” — remains aloof and insouciant. Even his putdowns are muted.

On meeting with the Mongolian prince of Dzun, he opines that the grassland royal ought “to be a romantic figure, a true-blue, boot-and-saddle, hawk-on-wrist scion of the house of Chinghis Khan, with flashing eyes and a proud, distant manner and a habit of getting silhouetted on skylines. But God, not Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, made the Prince.”

Ultimately, News From Tartary will appeal to the armchair traveller unimpressed by the over-saturated colours and opinions of Instagram and influencers, and nostalgic for the subtler era of the gentleman explorer.

Though Fleming married the actress Celia “Brief Encounter” Johnson, served in Greece and India during World War II, was awarded an OBE and many believe was Ian’s model for 007, he described himself as “the brother to which nothing ever happens”. ◉


This is the original, slightly longer version of a review that ran in The Times in December 2020. 

Cooking with Poo

Saiyuud 'Poo' Diwong, a home-taught cook working out of Bangkok's biggest slum, captured hearts with her inspiring story and quirky book of recipes. After a fire threatened to destroy everything, she's back in business with a new cookery school.


IN 2012, THE WORLD’S media gleefully reported that a Thai cookbook — in competition with Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World and A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel — had won an international prize for the oddest book title of the year.

The giggle-inducing Cooking with Poo was the work of Saiyuud Diwong, who is better known by her nickname — which is short for Chompoo, or “rose apple”, in Thai — and a long-time resident of Klong Toey, the largest and most notorious slum in Bangkok.

At the time, Poo had been running an unpretentious cooking school in Klong Toey for only a few years. The result of the book’s triumph — and all the subsequent publicity — was swift.

THOUGH POO’S MODEST operation was already popular, employing slum neighbours and proving a model of positivity in a bleak landscape of poverty and despair, suddenly she was being feted by gastronomy’s great and good.

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver shared the cover of Cooking With Poo on Instagram and the book became a quirky Christmas stocking-filler worldwide. Media tours of Australia and the UK followed — with Poo energetically knocking up a massaman curry with Oliver for TV cameras — and the curious pounded a beat to ramshackle Klong Toey in increasing numbers. Five-star reviews piled up on TripAdvisor.

Then, in August last year, disaster stuck: a fire started in a nearby home reduced Poo’s immediate neighbourhood to ashes. Her cooking school had gone up in smoke. But you can’t keep a self-proclaimed “superwoman” down — and now, after a rebuild and refit, the unlikely culinary entrepreneur is back in business.

Cooking With Poo: Number Two, anyone?

 

“Life was hard work — 12 hours a day. I’d start work at 5am every day, no holiday. A lot of people in my area did the same”
Saiyuud ‘Poo’ Diwong

 

A Cooking with Poo class starts with a tour of Klong Toey’s labyrinthine outdoor market. On the Thursday that I join a class, Noi and Tai, two of Poo’s team of helpers, lead 10 new students through aisles jammed tight with mountains of young coconuts and mangos, overflowing bamboo baskets of holy basil, mint and coriander, writhing catfish and monster eels, decapitated frogs, waxy pig heads and so much more, all at rock-bottom prices.

Grinning ear to ear, Poo is waiting outside her school when we arrive, welcoming us into a single room of perhaps 250 square feet. Walls are painted a pleasing lime green and photos and posters of Thai dishes and beaches decorate the space. The atmosphere is more cash-strapped kindergarten than international school of learning.

Poo remembers life before she opened the school, when she sold food to neighbours from her home in the slum, making just Bt200 (then about US$7) a day. “Life was hard work — 12 hours a day,” she says. “I’d start work at 5am every day, no holiday. A lot of people in my area did the same.”

One of Poo’s regular customers was Anji Barker, an Australian aid worker. When soaring produce prices saw Poo struggle to make a living, Barker suggested she open a cooking school. After an intensive effort to learn English (“Back then I could only say ‘yes, okay, no, thank you’”), Poo managed to rustle up a successful business.

THE “VERY QUICK, very easy” dishes on Poo’s menu lean towards the street-food end of the culinary spectrum, with different dishes made each day of the week. Options include coconut chicken soup, green papaya salad and minced duck with lemongrass. Today we will attack three Thai staples: spicy beef salad, pad thai noodles with prawns, and green chicken curry.

Decked out in aprons emblazoned with the words “I cooked with POO and I liked it”, we get to work on the beef salad, chopping lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and spring onions just so. Poo strolls among her charges, offering an encouraging thumbs up here and a useful tip or two there. “If you don’t like spicy, slice the chillies bigger,” she advises. “For me, I use five chillies, but for you, maybe just one.”

Poo’s signature recipe of smiles and banter continues through the pad thai (“put the bean sprouts in later if you like crunchy”; “cut the spring onions bigger — nice colour”). She is accustomed to foreign visitors’ preference for a healthier approach than what’s typical in the slum, and she avoids oil, products with colourings (such as the yellow tofu popular in pad thai) and sugar as much as possible. “Thai people loooove sugar,” she says, laughing.

POO’S HEALTHY APPROACH extends to the green curry, and she rejects ready-made solutions for the from-scratch approach, crushing galangal, lime rind, chilli, lemongrass, garlic and onion into a kryptonite-green paste with a pestle and mortar.

“When I was young and cooking with my mother, I hated the pestle and mortar,” she says, lifting a T-shirt sleeve to flash a meaty bicep. “It was one kilo, so now I have very big muscles. It’s good exercise. Makes a woman a superwoman!”

The four hours of the class rush by and end with most students purchasing the now-famous Cooking with Poo book, and maybe an apron or a T-shirt. And before waving goodbye, Poo shrugs when asked about the fire that nearly tore up her recipe for success.

“The bad luck is gone; the good luck is back,” she says, smiling yet again. “We can have a holiday, we can have a long weekend, plus we are helping others in the slum. We can put money in the bank, and together we have hope and sweet dreams. I’m very proud.”


This story ran in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post in April 2015. The operation has grown to become Cooking with Poo & Friends. Price and booking via cookingwithpoo.com.

Bletchley Park

Britain's legendary cipher school, hidden away on the Buckinghamshire country estate where Alan Turing's genius helped cut short the Second World War, is no longer a secret.


“FILMING AT BLETCHLEY Park was amazing,” actor Benedict Cumberbatch said of his leading role in Oscar-nominated blockbuster The Imitation Game. Based on the true-life story of mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing, the new film recalls Britain’s race against time to decipher German military communications during World War II.

“You really feel like you’re playing slightly with ghosts.”

Secreted away on the edge of London satellite town Milton Keynes, the low-key country estate of Bletchley Park pulled in close to 200,000 visitors last year [note: 2014], buoyed by a multi-million-pound refurb and the star power of Cumberbatch and co-star Keira Knightley.

On a crisp and windless winter’s morning, however, all is placid and hushed. While the manicured lawns are inviting, their wooden picnic tables sit empty under a crystal-blue sky.

A school outing of tousle-haired children marches by in — fittingly — binary file and a lone coot weaves amongst the grey-brown rushes of the grounds’ centrepiece lake. The chimneys and oxidised-copper roof turret of the Victorian mansion house opposite, the wartime headquarters of the British Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), are reflected in the dark water.

It is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of what was achieved here.

HISTORIANS HAVE ESTIMATED that the Bletchley Park codebreakers may have shortened the war by two years, possibly saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

What the estate’s duty manager, Dr Joel Greenberg, calls the “truly industrialised” level of military snooping achieved at Bletchley had been made possible by the purchase of the 22-hectare site by the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, for £6,000 in 1938. Here, Turing and many other tweedy, brilliant but frequently eccentric mathematicians, chess wizards and puzzle-solving prodigies would pit their wits against the most complicated coding methods ever devised.

“By the end of the war, the facility employed about 10,500 people,” says Greenberg. By then the codebreakers of GC&CS were processing tens of thousands of covert Nazi messages every day. “There were 8,500 working on the site on a day-to-day basis, and several thousand at surrounding out-stations within commuting distance, all working on a three eight-hour shift system.”

Most astonishingly of all, their world-changing accomplishment remained a closely guarded secret for decades, only becoming public knowledge in the 1970s as wartime documents were gradually declassified.

All Bletchley Park staff had signed the Official Secrets Act and were not permitted to speak of their work, even after the war, Greenberg says. Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, called them “the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled”.

TURING’S CUMBERSOME, CLACKING and complex Bombe contraption famously helped to read messages encrypted by Germany’s Enigma cipher system, which had originally been invented at the end of World War I. By 1939 the Enigma machine had been adapted so that it could be configured in 150 million, million, million different ways (the current probability of winning first prize in the Mark Six lottery, by comparison, is 14 million to one).

And to make life even trickier, each Enigma machine was reconfigured at midnight, so any discovery made in the previous 24 hours at Bletchley was rendered useless, and every day the quest would start again.

 

“It was like working in a factory: they had a specific tasks to do, and the vast majority had no idea about what they were actually doing”
Bletchley Park duty manager Dr Joel Greenberg

 

Much of the laborious and profoundly stressful intelligence-gathering — real lives were at stake and minutes counted — took place in swiftly thrown-up huts (“Glorified garden sheds,” according to Bletchley Park chief executive Iain Standen), a number of which have been restored thanks to an £8-million British National Lottery-funded grant.

With their utilitarian, no-frills interiors and bare wooden floors, the huts now look and feel as bleak as they would have done in the 1940s (I can vouch that they are mighty chilly in November). Bakelite phones, “Careless Talk” signs, double-breasted coats and fedoras hanging from racks, and overflowing ashtrays and cups of tea on desks attest to a day-to-day grind that must have been anything but glamorous.

“They were brought here for a specific job,” Greenberg says of the average wartime worker at Bletchley. Also the author of a biography of code-breaker Gordon Welchman, who made improvements to Turing’s Bombe, Greenberg says many Bletchley employees would have been ignorant of the importance of their work. “It was like working in a factory: they had a specific tasks to do, and the vast majority had no idea about what they were actually doing.”

Away from the huts, Bletchley Park’s brick-built Block B houses the main collection of exhibits relating to code-breaking efforts, including the world’s only fully operational Bombe rebuild and a life-size statue of Turing — brooding over an Enigma machine — created by British sculptor Stephen Kettle from half a million stacked slithers of grey slate.

As well as German communications, Bletchley Park was also involved in Japanese code breaking. (Initially, the GC&CS’s Far East Combined Bureau, tasked with intercepting and cracking Japanese naval codes, had operated out of Hong Kong, before moving to Singapore in 1939, and further afield with the Japanese advance.)

This was originally carried out at Hut 7 at Bletchley, but in 1943 Japanese operations were heavily expanded, becoming nicknamed “the Burma Road” after the 700-mile allied supply line from China to Burma.

As well as a Tirpitz Enigma machine, designed for carrying messages between Germany and Japan, exhibits in Block B include Japanese-language flash cards and exercise books used by Bletchley Park staff charged with mastering basic Japanese-language skills in mere weeks, and a Japanese flag that likely belonged to a kamikaze soldier.

Messages handwritten on the flag include, “I’m sure we will win”, “Loyalty and courage”, “Let’s beat America and England” and “At least I shall kill one enemy for the emperor”.

ESSENTIALLY A HISTORICAL thriller-cum-biopic, The Imitation Game focuses on the troubled genius of Turing, whose short life ended tragically. Prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts — then still criminalised in the UK — he accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison and died in 1954, at the age of 41, from cyanide poisoning. His death was recorded as suicide.

The full story of Bletchley, however, is the tale of thousands of diverse people, some surely brilliant and others less so. And though their day-to-day work would have been demanding, Greenberg says it was not all algebra and gloom.

At the height of their code-breaking exertions, Bletchley Park hosted its own drama group staging productions such as Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the tennis court would have seen a steady flow of white-togged fitness fanatics, there was a popular chess club (naturally) and a billiard room, as well as a Scottish dancing society. With most staff in their early 20s, romances would have blossomed, Greenberg says, though perhaps fittingly furtively.

“To work where these people breathed, lived, loved, worked, struggled, kept secrets, were quietly, stoically heroic,” an admiring Cumberbatch concluded, “was overwhelming.”


A cut-back version of this travel story ran in Post Magazine in February 2015, timed for the release of The Imitation Game. Download PDF.

Dead Poets Society

Oscar Wilde's 'holiest place in Rome' is the final resting place of romantic poets Keats and Shelley, as well as the author of 'The World of Suzie Wong' and a sexpot actress who angered the Pope.


LOW-BUDGET MOVIE The Trip to Italy was an unlikely indie sleeper hit this year, largely thanks to its two stars’ quick-fire impersonations of Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins and other silver-screen notables.

The mockumentary’s central conceit sees semi-fictionalised versions of British comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon flaunting their skills for mimicry while on a road trip of the culture-rich Mediterranean nation.

Along the way, Coogan and Brydon retrace the “Grand Tour” steps of English Romantic poets of the early 19th-century, so when they get to Rome it’s a given that the funny men will steer their Mini Cooper — a nod to Caine’s 1969 caper The Italian Job — towards the Eternal City’s Cimitero Acattolico, its “Non-Catholic Cemetery”.

NICKNAMED THE “ENGLISH Cemetery” and one of Rome’s most fascinating yet off-beat attractions, the Cimitero Acattolico dates back to the early 18th century, when Pope Clement XI allowed England’s Stuart court in exile to bury its dead on a patch of wasteland. Over time it became final resting place of Protestants, Buddhists, Confucians, Jews, Zoroastrians and non-believers from across the world. It’s arguably the most beautiful boneyard on the planet.

The Trip to Italy in its movie form is an abridgement of a six-part, three-hour BBC television series, but they still had 108 minutes to play with. Why, then, do Coogan and Brydon not visit the cimitero’s most revered poet in residence?

And how, when wandering among its graves, do they miss godsend opportunities to impersonate hell-raising thespian Peter O’Toole, Britain’s buffoon of the bawdy Benny Hill and the mighty Orson Welles?

INSULATED FROM SNARLY traffic by a soundproofing section of the Aurelian Walls that were thrown up between 271AD and 275AD to enclose the seven hills of ancient Rome, the Cimitero Acattolico is serene and sylvan. Birdsong wafts from its cypress, umbrella-pine and pomegranate trees, manicured hedges fringe lovely gardens of roses, hydrangeas and azaleas, and daisies speckle the lawns.

Though the cemetery is twitching with life, it’s the dead that attract visitors. The burial ground is packed with perished painters, sculptors, philosophers, actors and authors — testament to the pull that Rome has long exerted on creative types. Inscriptions on tombs can be found in English, Chinese, French, German, Lithuanian, Russian, Greek, Bulgarian, Japanese and other languages.

 

“The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place”
Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

On entering the cemetery in The Trip to Italy, Brydon recites Percy Bysshe Shelley (in the orotund voice of Hopkins, to spiky Coogan’s annoyance) and the duo climb the terraced plots to where that poet’s ashes were inurned after he drowned off Tuscany in 1822, at the age of 29. Shelley’s modest gravestone bears lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange.”

The words quoted by Brydon, however, are from Shelley’s Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, whose grave is a shrine to cemetery visitors, but which The Trip to Italy strangely avoids.

That memorial to Keats, who succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 25, just four months after arriving in Italy in 1821, does not bear his name, simply stating, “This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET.” It also features a couplet chosen by Keats, who considered himself a failed wordsmith and so not worth remembering: “Here lies One/Whose Name was writ in Water.”

MANY THOUGHT OTHERWISE, of course. Ruminating on Keats’ final resting place before his own passing, Shelley wrote, “The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”

Oscar Wilde, who travelled to Italy as a young man in 1877, shunned the Vatican to declare Keats’s gravesite “the holiest place in Rome”.

It’s certainly one of the Italian capital’s most quirky diversions, and likely that Coogan and Brydon would have explored. If so they might have stumbled upon the grave of Gregory Corso (1930-2001), youngest of the Beat Generation writers of the 1950s that included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Just steps away rests English actress Belinda Lee (1935-1961), who performed alongside comi-salacious Hill. Typecast in her brief career as a sex kitten, Lee’s torrid affair with a Roman aristocrat caused such a scandal that the Pope intervened.

Long-time Rome resident Richard Mason (1919-1997), British author of The World of Suzie Wong, is also buried here. His grave is inscribed with words from a go-with-the-flow Japanese proverb: “Though on the sign it is written: ‘Don’t pluck these blossoms’ — it is useless again the wind, which cannot read.”

THEN THERE ARE the two airmen who bought the farm when their plane clipped a tree at Rome Aerodrome in 1919. One of their passengers, bound for Cairo, was TE Lawrence, who survived with a fractured shoulder and cracked ribs. O’Toole later played the starring role in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia.

And when Coogan and Brydon pose for photos in the Cimitero Acattolico, they do so in front of one of its most haunting graves: that of American Emelyn Story, who popped her clogs in 1895 at the age of 74. The Angel Of Grief that dominates the burial chamber was designed by her husband, sculptor William W Story.

The couple’s apartment in Rome’s chic Palazzo Barberini had been unofficial clubhouse for overseas writers, musicians and artists in the second half of the 19th century, and is recalled in Henry James’s 1903 biography William Wetmore Story and His Friends.

Finally, when The Trip to Italy crew packed up cameras to head home, they would have passed the grave of Generale Nicola Chiari. Little is known of Chiari (1922-1998), who is believed to have been a customs officer from Naples.

He was likely a classic-movie buff, too, with an irrepressible sense of fun. The inscription on Chiari’s headstone is a last-gasp salute to Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. It reads, “ROSEBUD. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?” ◉


This travel story ran in Post Magazine in 2014, following up The Trip to Italy. Download PDF.

Rome's Doll Hospital

For more than 60 years, a devoted Italian family has been nursing broken dolls back to health from their creepy shop in Rome. As their neighbourhood gentrifies, the proprietor wonders how much longer the tradition will survive.


ROME BOASTS MANY attractions with disturbing histories, from the blood-soaked Colosseum to the skeleton-filled Capuchin Crypt. And on a cobbled alleyway in one of the city’s most fashionable neighbourhoods, a small shop window offers another seemingly gruesome glimpse into the Italian capital’s past.

Behind the dust-dulled glass, unblinking eyes stare from decapitated heads. Severed arms, legs, hands and feet hang in bunches from rusty nails. This little shop of horrors, known locally as l’Ospedale delle Bambole, or “the Hospital of the Dolls”, was established by the Squatriti family more than six decades ago.

Body parts have been accumulating there ever since.

CRACKED PAINT PEELS from the weathered window frame of the “hospital”. Inside, Federico Squatriti, 52, and his 82-year-old mother, Gelsomina, continue a family tradition of nursing broken antique dolls back to health, and paint-spattered walls, cobwebbed shelves and busy workbenches are cluttered with fractured figurines, wounded toy soldiers and mangled puppets.

“It has always been owned by our family, so we haven’t changed anything,” says Federico of his cramped and fascinating atelier, which has become a macabre and offbeat tourist attraction in recent years. The ramshackle workshop — a halfway house for refugees from the most sinister of fairy tales — sits just a stroll from the sparkly Gucci, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana boutiques on Rome’s swanky Via dei Condotti.

“It looks like an old-fashioned shop because it is an old-fashioned shop,” Squatriti says. “It’s looked the same since the beginning.”

He takes a fading black-and-white photograph, taken in the 1970s, from a shelf. “This picture is more than 30 years old,” he says. “This is my father, when he was still alive, and my mother. Look how many things there were, all scattered everywhere. This is how we work every day, with so many beautiful objects all around us.”

HAILING FROM NAPLES, Federico’s grandfather, Vincenzo Squatriti, was an actor with the respected La Scarpetta theatre company in the 1950s. Under the stage name Enzo Petito, he later worked alongside silver-screen legends Gina Lollobrigida and Marcello Mastroianni, and even had a minor role as a gun-store owner in Sergio Leone’s classic 1966 spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Before that, in the wretched years following World War II, Vincenzo’s wife, Concetta, decided acting to be too unstable a profession for her family’s future. “My grandmother urged her children to learn a craft because acting didn’t make much money after the war,” Squatriti says.

 

Though struggling with rising materials costs and crippling rent in one of Rome’s once working-class but now gentrified and touristy neighbourhoods, Federico Squatriti is reluctant to turn away new patients

 

In 1953, Concetta opened Restauri Artistici Squatriti (Artistic Restorations Squatriti) in Rome with her two sons: Federico’s father Mario and his uncle Renato. “Since then all my family has worked here,” Squatriti says of their tiny workplace, which covers about 150 square feet. The still air is acrid with enamel, glue and solvents. “My grandmother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, my cousins, my mother and myself.”

Squatriti cannot remember when he joined the family business. “We lived in an apartment upstairs, and when I was young and returned from school, I would drop by to say ‘hi’ to my dad, my grandma and my uncle,” he remembers.

“I don’t recall exactly when one of them first said, ‘Federico, please help with this.’ I started out by returning restored items to customers, then I would be sent off to buy materials, and little by little I ended up working here too.”

THE SQUATRITI BUSINESS initially survived by restoring ceramic, tortoiseshell, metal, ivory, wooden and mosaic heirlooms damaged during the war for Rome’s aristocracy — the only people who could afford such a luxury at the time. Dolls came later.

Historically, the earliest dolls date back to ancient Egypt, Greece and, indeed, Rome (Roman rag dolls have been found dating back to about 300BC). Their heyday arrived in the 19th century, and the bodies of European dolls at that time were roughly hewn from leather, wood or papier-mâché, and hidden under fanciful costumes of lace, silk and taffeta. Their heads, however, were increasingly made from delicate porcelain and starting to look creepily real, with detailed eyelashes, beauty spots, even wrinkles.

 

“The best solution is to work well and work long enough. It’s something you do for your customers, not just for money”
Federico Squatriti

 

They were no longer children’s playthings but collectors’ items for the moneyed elite. Squatriti lifts one such doll’s head from a shelf, cups it in a hand and brushes away generations of dust.

“It’s more than 100 years old,” he says of the antique, which is inscribed with the year 1902. Many items in the shop are unclaimed toys of children long grown old or passed away, he adds. Some have been there for decades and will likely never be reclaimed. “We started to restore dolls’ heads because they required the same methods as other porcelain items,” Squatriti says.

TODAY, UP TO 1,000 period pieces — plates, vases, statuettes and more, as well as many dolls — are looked after every year at the Restauri Artistici Squatriti workshop, and Federico Squatriti, like any dedicated family doctor, feels a profound responsibility for his clients’ wellbeing. Though struggling with rising materials costs and crippling rent in one of Rome’s once working-class but now gentrified and touristy neighbourhoods, he is reluctant to turn away new patients.

“If I wanted to work only seven or eight hours a day, I would need to charge more, but then fewer people could afford to restore their dolls and their antiques,” Squatriti says. Dozens of cold, creepily human-looking eyes appear to watch as he speaks.

“The best solution is to work well and work long enough. It’s something you do for your customers, not just for money. It’s satisfying for me, at the end of the day, to say to myself, ‘I’ve worked for 11 hours, the result came out beautifully, and I managed to do it for a reasonable price.’

“The people are happy and I am happy. It’s all beautiful!”


This ran in Post Magazine (PDF) in 2015. The pictures were published that year in Mail Online and Panorama magazine in Italy, and later in online photography magazine Life Force. The Guardian chose one picture for its globally sourced 'Photo Highlights of the Day' in April 2015. 

Carnival of Carnage

Every year on the Thai island, hundreds of Chinese spirit mediums — known as 'horses of the gods' — perform extreme acts of self-mutilation, piercing their faces with swords, golf clubs, umbrellas, even handguns.


NESTLING OFF THAILAND’S west coast, the popular holiday island of Phuket has a permanent population of some 500,000 people, and its beaches, agreeable turquoise waters and welcoming hotels and villas pull in five million tourists a year.

Phuket is also home to more than 2,000 Chinese spirit mediums who, their believers believe, have a supernatural ability to connect with the great beyond.

Every year, to gain spiritual merit, they undergo ceremonial self-mutilation during Phuket’s annual Vegetarian Festival, which the world’s tabloid newspapers have variously called the “carnival of carnage”, a “bazaar of the bizarre” and the “gala of gore”.

THE VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL runs for nine days starting on the first day of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This year it ran from September 27 through October 5, and on every one of those days Phuket’s spirit mediums, known locally as mah song, or “horses of the gods”, publicly slashed at themselves with swords and cutlasses and axes.

Some hacked at their tongues with serrated saws, blood dribbling down bare chests to leave great gobs of coagulating crimson gunk in the streets. And many more mah song underwent ritual piercing of their cheeks with skewers and knives.

And with golf clubs, badminton racquets and umbrellas; with handguns and with power drills; with motorcycle exhaust pipes and assorted automotive spare parts; with bunches of flowers, bunches of green bananas, with table legs and butcher’s hooks and musical instruments and with rows of glued-together dominos.

One gent thought it a good look to scar himself for life by puncturing his face with a radio-controlled model helicopter.

THE ORIGINS OF the festival are unclear. What is known is that Phuket was once a thriving centre for tin mining and many Chinese migrants worked there in the early 19th century (people of Chinese ancestry comprise a large proportion of Phuket’s population to this day). They lived in jungle conditions. Malaria and other tropical maladies were rife.

Sometime around 1825, a travelling opera troupe arrived from China to perform for the miners, but the musicians soon became sick with fever. Deeply superstitious, the troupe prayed to their gods and stuck to a vegetarian diet to honour them. When the sickness afflicting the troupe disappeared, the miners wondered how they had survived.

Ritual vegetarianism had been their saviour, the minstrels replied, and the festival has been held ever since, with Phuket’s Chinese community observing a 10-day vegetarian diet for purposes of spiritual cleansing.

HUMAN BUTCHERY WAS added much later, with mah song entering trances to be perforated on shrine grounds before joining lengthy processions through Phuket’s streets. Recent decades have seen mah song driven to ever greater extremes of mutilation, seemingly simply to stand out from the crowd.

Though the merit-making piercings should only make use of weapons mentioned in Chinese legends (swords and bladed staffs, for instance), it’s significantly easier to get your face in newspapers with the mischievous misuse of a ukulele, or a couple of ukuleles, or a bicycle pump, or an entire bicycle.

This year, one festival organiser called for Chinese shrines taking part — Phuket has about 40 shrines — to issue identity cards to mah song. Prasert Fakthongphol, president of Phuket Shrine Association, told the Phuket Gazette newspaper that this would “preserve the integrity of the spirit-medium community” and deter “fakes”. Such identity cards would feature each mah song’s name and photograph, and details of the god that possesses him or her.

 

Terrified at the thought of his coming suffering, the 27-year-old hacked the tongue out of a pig’s head … and wedged the cold organ into his mouth

 

Charlatans have, indeed, occasionally popped up in Phuket. In 2006, woodcarver Paitoon Khopwej was to join a procession. Terrified at the thought of his coming suffering, the 27-year-old hacked the tongue out of a pig’s head, skewered it with a sword and a saw blade, and wedged the cold organ into his mouth.

When his deception was discovered, Paitoon was beaten bloody by an angry mob, and elders at one shrine filed a complaint with police. The chastened woodcutter eventually served 15 days in Baan Bang Jo jail for “deceiving the public”.

THOUGH A BURLY, impressively tattooed fisherman stumbling through a torrential downpour with a ceremonial dagger or a significant chunk of a palm tree rammed through his filleted face makes for an arresting photograph, it is difficult to speak with the mah song during the festival. Not only are their vandalised mouths often spilling over with gore and saliva, but they are also clearly off with the fairies.

On day six of the festival this year, with one of its largest street processions just over, one young man shelters at a stall outside Phuket Town’s Jui Tui temple. The stall-holder punts polystyrene trays of mango and sticky rice for Bt30 (less than a dollar).

The young man is not interested in food, however. His lacerated and swollen face is held together with medical plasters, and he sucks gingerly on a Krong Thip cigarette (though officially, mah song are not permitted to smoke during the festival). He is not in the best of spirits.

Asked how it feels to wander across Phuket for three hours in a monsoon with a sword stuck through his face, he says he “cannot remember”. And how does the gloomy penitent feel now? “Tired,” he answers, dazed.

And with that, and without a goodbye, he stumbles away to be washed clean in the rain. ◉


Versions ran as a travel story in Post Magazine and as a photo essay in That’s Shanghai, way back in 2011. Download PDFs.

Venice in Winter

Poet Joseph Brodsky picked the perfect season in which to fall in love with Venice. Every winter, the Queen of the Adriatic becomes a hazy, horde-free watercolour. And you’ll have no trouble getting a seat at Harry’s Bar.


NOBEL LAUREATE JOSEPH Brodsky adored Venice. So much so that, starting in the early 1970s, he dropped in on the Italian lagoon city every year for 17 years, enigmatically describing his buoyant Eden as being “like Greta Garbo swimming”.

It was a place where, the Russian poet said, he could all but disappear, becoming “a small moving dot in that gigantic watercolour”.

Brodsky added, “I would never come here in summer, not even at gunpoint.”

ADMIRED FOR CENTURIES for its prosperity, political stability and can-do swagger, the Republic of Venice was historically nicknamed la Serenissima, or “the most serene”. Today, with more than 20 million visitors schlepping up and down its narrow alleyways and over its arched bridges each year, applauding Venice for tranquillity is like commending Hong Kong as a travel bargain.

Usually stuffed to the gills (the perfect phrase — Venice is shaped, after all, like a fat fish), the watery wonderland is currently in crisis. Barely a month goes by without the remaining Venetians (there are now fewer than 50,000 permanent residents — about the same number as after the Great Plague of 1348) protesting at the shoddy treatment of their unique and fragile hometown.

In September of this year, Venetians dressed as pirates took to small boats to confront the leviathan-like cruise ships that disgorge bovine hordes day after day. Weeks later, they lugged suitcases across town to symbolise how high prices were forcing them to leave.

While Venice’s glitzy film festival celebrates the city, concerned directors now make doom-laden documentaries about the place — critically acclaimed The Venice Syndrome has been described as a “portrait of a city in the process of destroying itself”.

In short, visit Venice in the early 21st century and you might head home not only with Venetian-glassware souvenirs more likely fired in Suzhou than Murano, but also weighed down by guilt.

THE REPROACH-FREE trick, of course, is to do like Brodsky: alight on Venice in winter, there to be greeted only by “the smell of freezing seaweed”, which he declared synonymous with “utter happiness”. And what better guidebook than Watermark, Brodsky’s petite yet poignant paean to the strained Queen of the Adriatic.

Watermark won’t tell you which chichi boutique hotel overlooking the Grand Canal is currently in with the luxe-loving crowd, but it does describe how “in winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china tea set were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-grey sky.

“You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.”

Brodsky would always visit Venice in December. This less-accomplished writer prefers January (any time, in fact, between New Year and the witless pantomime that is Carnevale). This is when Venice exhales, scrubs off the fake tan and reveals itself.

Without the crowds, suddenly Venice is romantic, magical, mysterious — all that you hoped for. And Venice in January is at its most affordable, with room rates halved — at least — from high season.

BUT WHAT TO SEE in winter that cannot be appreciated in summer? Well, just about everything made visible by the sun: Venice’s weakened and hazy January light has a pleasingly cinematic quality (think Nicholas Roeg’s spooky and dread-filled 1973 film Don’t Look Now). Fog rolls in, edges blur, buildings disappear, and sea and sky merge.

“On days like this,” Brodsky wrote, “the city indeed acquires a porcelain aspect, what with all its zinc-covered cupolas resembling teapots or upturned cups, and the tilted profile of campaniles clinking like abandoned spoons and melting in the sky.”

 

Stumble upon St Mark’s Square in reality-dissolving fog and the brain fails to compute: ‘This can’t be St Marks; where are the people?’

 

Like light, sound also becomes puzzling in winter (footsteps bounce and echo and amplify) and getting lost — a common entertainment at any time of the year in labyrinthine Venice — takes on a mind-bending new twist.

Stumble upon St Mark’s Square in reality-dissolving fog and the brain fails to compute: “This can’t be St Mark’s; where are the people?”.

And how many of us, when visiting Venice in summer, have quickly given up on the lovely idea of sinking bellinis like Ernest Hemingway — or chowing down on Scampi Thermidor alla Cipriani like fellow writer Jan Morris (her fave Venetian dish, apparently) — at Harry’s Bar because the landmark eatery was too (and here’s that perfect phrase again) stuffed to the gills?

Pop along in January and you’ll get a top-dollar table by the window.

What’s more, the hole-in-the-wall bàcari (taverns serving up Venetian-style tapas called cicchetti) favoured by rough-and-ready stallholders from Rialto Market also suddenly have space for an outsider or two.

Believed to be the oldest bàcaro in Venice, cramped Cantina Do Mori dates back to 1462. Casanova was a regular, they say. Try the vinegar-marinated anchovies, the creamed cod and the house speciality of francobollo (“postage stamp”) sandwiches.

SPEAKING OF CASANOVA, the legendary lover was addicted — or so the legend has it — to hot chocolate. The indulgent Venetian variety of the supposed aphrodisiac that’s served at Caffè Florian (established 1720), just off St Mark’s, is richer than you’ll find anywhere else and welcome when a pale and bone-chilling wind roars down from the Dolomites.

And then there’s the vexing acqua alta (literally, the “high water” and common in winter), when tides become cruel, canals overflow and St Mark’s can be knee-deep.

Not to worry: simply buy yourself a stripy scarf to fend off the chill (yes, there is now an official gondolier-clothing shop, approved by the Gondoliers of Venice Association, right next to Rialto Bridge) and splash along to bookshop Libreria Acqua Alta to browse the second-hand volumes piled high in bathtubs and row-boats to protect them from floods.

The offbeat store is, of course, the perfect place to grab your copy of Watermark, there to ponder Brodsky’s view that Venice should be seen as a living, breathing town with a working future.

“This city doesn’t qualify to be a museum,” the Russian insisted, “being itself a work of art, the greatest masterpiece our species produced. You don’t revive a painting, let alone a statue. You leave them alone, you guard them against vandals, whose hordes may include yourself.” ◉


This travel story ran in Post Magazine in 2016. Download PDF.

Kashgar

Once a welcoming oasis where East met West on the Silk Road, China’s exotic desert city of Kashgar still thrives on trade and ancient traditions. Stand in its way at your peril.


“BOISH! BOISH! BOISH!” Hear that yelled refrain in Kashgar and unless you’re okay with being trampled by belligerent bullocks, steely-eyed goats or even a Bactrian camel or two, you had better take notice.

When local herders, cattle drivers and market traders bellow “Boish! Boish! Boish!” they really do mean it. They are “Coming Through!”

Kashgar is the western-most city in China, sitting immediately east of the snow-capped Pamir mountains and the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan borders, and on the edge of the forbidding Taklamakan desert. It was once a welcoming oasis where Silk Road traders would rest on overland odysseys between China, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Memories of the last jingle-jangling camel caravans to kick back in Kashgar have, of course, long been lost to the sands of time. Today, an immense statue of Mao Zedong looms over People’s Square in Kashgar’s modernised centre, and the city has largely succumbed to concrete, losing much of its romantic allure.

But adventurous travellers will discover that dusty pockets of mud-brick dwellings, handed-down callings and ancient ways remain. One is Kashgar’s riotous livestock market, which takes place every Sunday and transports the visitor back in time.

EVEN BEFORE SUNRISE, dirt tracks north of town are busy with farmers, shepherds and cattle dealers travelling on foot, on motor-trikes, ass-drawn carts and any makeshift conveyance that might get animals to market. Fine desert dust kicked up by the braying, neighing livestock fills the dry air with a choking smoke, and parched voices rasp through the haze. “Boish! Boish! Boish!

 

By 10am, the entire area is transformed into a vast open-air beast bazaar. Prices are argued over, deals are made and hands are slapped together noisily, shaken theatrically

 

Trading begins even before market is reached. Sheep are shorn in the shade of poplar trees that have been planted tightly along all roads to fend off the encroaching Taklamakan. A tall and flinty old gent checks a stallion’s teeth beside an irrigation ditch while robust men haul stubborn cattle from the platforms of pick-up trucks. Potential buyers test-ride unruly horses, whipping at their hides with olive branches.

By 10am, the entire area is transformed into a vast open-air beast bazaar. Prices are argued over, deals are made and hands are slapped together noisily, shaken theatrically. Brick-like wads of red banknotes are pulled from pockets. And always that frenzied cry. “Boish! Boish! Boish!

WITH AN OFFICIAL population of just 350,000, Kashgar is the urban home of China’s Turkic-descended Uighur minority people, whose language and customs owe more to nearby Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and even Afghanistan than most of the People’s Republic.

The Muslim Uighur men have a penchant for facial hair, the women wear scarves or veils in public, and all have a taste for aromatic mutton kebabs and chewy flat bread, which are up for grabs in every restaurant and on every street corner. Many shop signs are decorated with Arabic script.

Kashgar has embraced the push and shove of international trade for millennia, in fact. When Marco Polo passed through in the 13th century he noted, “The inhabitants live by trade and industry … [Kashgar] is the starting point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world.”

And with Polo’s observation in mind, we have employed the services of Ablimit Ghopor, an affable Uighur gent who goes by the English handle Elvis (“I wanted a name that would make me sound more famous than something like John,” he says). His choice of moniker seems to have done the trick — Elvis is the king of Kashgar’s professional guides. He is also a Uighur-music aficionado, the go-to guy for Xinjiang carpets and an all-round expert on his city.

ELVIS LEADS THE way on a whistle-stop tour of the labyrinthine quarter immediately south of Kashgar’s lemon-hued Id Kah Mosque, arguably the largest Muslim place of worship in all China, accommodating up to 8,000 worshippers at a time. Uighur handicrafts flourish in this compact district, including the fashioning by hand of rugs and tapestries, of embroidered hats and distinctive pocket knives adorned with coloured-glass beads.

Perhaps Polo experienced the hubbub on Kumudai’erwazha Road, a single street in the old part of town where the wheels of cottage industry spin rapidly. In the Aysahan Musical Instrument Factory, a family business that’s been operating for six generations, proprietor Ablimit Aysahan Hajim is putting finishing touches to a long-necked, five-string tambour (a mandolin-like instrument with a long narrow neck and a bulbous half-pear-shaped body). His teenage son strums a smaller seven-string rawap adorned with grey snakeskin.

 

The driver, who sits atop, not inside, his jalopy, is bellowing at the top of his lungs. ‘Boish! Boish! Boish!’ Everyone grabs their stuff and darts for doorways and alleyways

 

Just across the way, four generations of another Uighur family squat on the pavement outside their workshop. They hammer and polish peculiar copper pots used in the preparation of delicious Uighur ice cream. “You put the pot in half of a wooden barrel filled with ice,” Elvis explains. “The milk goes inside the pot, maybe with some nuts, dried apricot pieces and honey, and then you just keep stirring.”

Suddenly a three-wheeled vehicle approaches at speed. An automotive Frankenstein’s monster seemingly stitched together from assorted spare parts and hope, the contraption is piled high with kettles, woks and more pots. It belches diesel funk.

The driver, who sits atop, not inside, his jalopy, is bellowing at the top of his lungs. “Boish! Boish! Boish!” Everyone grabs their stuff and darts for doorways and alleyways.

KASHGAR ALSO HAS a substantial Han Chinese population, of course, and that group’s tastes and traditions are part and parcel of the modern-day Kashgar experience. Jade from desert cities such as Hotan, southeast of Kashgar, has historically been abundant in the region. Hotan’s white “mutton-fat” jade is the most precious in China, in fact.

Elvis, through boyish charm and gentle determination, manages to gain us access to a couple of backstreet jade workshops where more affordable pieces are being crafted. In one cramped, windowless and dimly lit room, its walls coated with a film of jade dust so fine that it clings to the clothes like icing sugar, six young Han artisans are hunched over benches.

One of them is helpful twenty-something Lanny, from Fujian province on the opposite side of the country, who carves intricate animal motifs onto a thumb-sized chunk of pale-green stone. The piece will take her two days to complete, she says cheerfully, and will sell on the street for perhaps Rmb2,000 (then about US$320).

And as the light begins to fail, and with our mini-tour complete, we finish up in the steamy and seen-better-days Ostangboyi Teahouse, joining a languid gathering of elderly Uighur gents sipping rose tea on the balcony. It is a scene surely unchanged in centuries.

In the street below, nimble pedlars, balancing baskets of braided deep-fried dough on their heads, weave expertly through the jostling crowds. Another hectic day of trade and industry is coming to a close in Kashgar, and a now-familiar cry rings out all around as Elvis refills our teacups. “Boish! Boish! Boish!” ◉


I cannot recall where this story ran. It was written in 2012, when redevelopment of Kashgar's old town was already underway but far from complete, and before the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping decided to incarcerate huge numbers of Uighurs in 're-education' camps.

The Village that Lost Jesus's Foreskin

Dramatically perched on a sheer-sided outcrop of volcanic rock just an hour's drive from Rome, the medieval village of Calcata looks like the setting for a disturbing fairy tale, with all the eccentric characters in residence.


IMAGINE ALL THE casinos of Las Vegas suddenly bolted shut. How would Siem Reap fair if Angkor Wat was not just down the road. And what would become of Niagara Falls (the city) without Niagara Falls (the falls)?

Imagine, then, Calcata’s dilemma when the parish priest, one gloomy day in 1983, announced that the foreskin of Jesus Christ, which he had kept in a shoebox at the back of his wardrobe, had “vanished”.

The santissimo prepuzio, the “blessed foreskin”, had drawn pilgrims to the ancient Italian village for centuries, and the fate of the holy relic remains a mystery to this day. Calcata, however, shrugged off losing our planet’s weirdest visitor attraction — the only scrap of the son of God’s flesh conceivably left on Earth before his ascent to Heaven.

Though the hill-top hamlet, located just 50 kilometres north of Rome, had long been a spiritual stopover for the devout, by the early ’80s it was well on its way to reinvention anyway. In the years before it mislaid the miraculous membrane, the community had embraced all things new age, welcoming bohemians and hippies, artists, musicians and kooks.

Outsiders were now calling Calcata il paese di fricchettoni, or “the village of freaks”.

THE DRIVE FROM ROME today is uneventful until we round a green-canopied bend to discover a scene straight out of Game of Thrones. Perched on a sheer-sided stump of volcanic rock that rises 40 metres from a forested river valley, Calcata’s tightly packed disarray of medieval houses and cave dwellings appears to have burst from the land itself.

If a trio of flame-spitting dragons were to flap overhead, nobody would be too surprised.

Entrance to the fortress-like village is via an arched stone gate and a narrow passageway, meaning no cars inside. The fortified track zigs and then zags and the story of Calcata and the redeemer’s foreskin begins here — in the 16th century, in a dank cave-cum-barn halfway up the cobbled incline.

According to folklore, a German mercenary, wounded during the 1527 Sack of Rome, was captured near Calcata and imprisoned in the cave. The solder’s swag contained a silver reliquary that he hid under cattle dung and straw, and was unable to recover before his release and subsequent death from his injuries.

The reliquary was only discovered 30 years later, but it placed Calcata firmly on the path of righteousness.

THE PASSAGEWAY OPENS today on to a compact, sun-bleached piazza that — this being a Saturday afternoon — buzzes with day-trippers from the Italian capital.

Market stalls punt cracked-turquoise and coral jewellery, leather plague-doctor masks and flower-child trinkets. A two-man band tunes up and teens scoff pizza slices and gelato on the stone steps of the Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, from which the relic would be paraded each year on January 1, the Day of the Holy Circumcision.

Children scuttle and chuckle around sculptures of Etruscan thrones in the square. The muscular artworks were coaxed from the same volcanic tufo stone on which Calcata sits so dramatically, and their creator — portly artist Costantino Morosin — mingles like the village’s unofficial mayor, his long grey hair pulled into a topknot.

Meanwhile, someone, somewhere, is torturing O Sole Mio on a trumpet, and though I cannot get a signal on my phone, I can buy a “teleportation hat” — and a werewolf mask, and “horror teeth” — in the magic shop.

THERE ARE NO hotels in the village but I’ve booked a sight-unseen room in a private home through Calcata’s suitably lo-fi website. The owner calls her cliff-edge dwelling L’Isola Che Non C’era, or “The Island That Wasn’t There” (it’s the house just right of centre in the opening photograph).

L’Isola has three for-rent bedrooms, including the “Room of the Witch Nilde” (with faux cobwebs and dollar-shop Halloween decor) and the “Refuge of Tinkerbell and Peter Pan” (brighter, with woodland murals).

Disconcertingly, I’ve been allocated the “Room of the Fairy Nimir”, which has a crude painting of a winged, raven-haired and ample-bosomed sylph hanging over the bed.

 

Think of the appalling Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or the vengeful Pied Piper of legend, luring youngsters away from their families, never to be seen again

 

In 2007, the New York Times announced that Calcata “may be the grooviest village in Italy”. After dark, however, when the city dwellers have tootled home, there is something satisfyingly creepy about this languorous corner of Lazio.

With only about 60 permanent residents (including a kohl-eyed sexagenarian Egyptologist who lives in a cave with her crows — and many believe to be a witch), Calcata is like a film set for a disturbing fairy tale.

Think of the appalling Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or the vengeful Pied Piper of legend, luring youngsters away from their families, never to be seen again. The truth is nearly as strange: once upon a time, Calcata’s residents did disappear — and not just the children, but all of them!

CALCATA’S 20TH-CENTURY reinvention began with the devastating Messina earthquake that claimed at least 75,000 lives in 1908. In the decades that followed, communities across Italy were surveyed for their vulnerability to destructive acts of God and Calcata was deemed unsafe in 1935. A new town, Calcata Nuova, would be built nearby and the village demolished.

New housing was not actually ready until the late 1960s, and abandoned Calcata Vecchia (“Old Calcata”) quickly attracted the interest of the counterculture, with hippies and slackers squatting in empty properties before purchasing them for a song. When the condemnation order was lifted, the new residents — both Italian and from around the world — held sway over their very own bohemian village.

 

“I’m amazed at the people who are drawn here. I don’t think anyone is normal — we’re all crazy, or at least different”
American resident Pancho Garrison

 

Calcata is humming again come the Sunday afternoon, another batch of visitors browsing its quirky galleries and dining in the handful of restaurants. One popular eatery is Grotta dei Germogli (“Sprout Cave”) run by 66-year-old Pancho Garrison, a sprightly and sprite-like former dancer from Texas who arrived in Rome in 1976 and “kept falling in love”. He discovered Calcata in the early 1980s.

Garrison believes the village — which through the years “has been called the village of artists, of druggies, of sex fiends, you name it”, he says — inspires creativity and attracts only a certain type of character. The pre-Roman Faliscans used the hilltop as a sacred ritual site for a reason, the American argues, and a mysterious force emanates from the volcanic stump.

“There’s a unique, very strange energy here,” says Garrison, who serves offbeat Italian-inspired fusion dishes in his restaurant. “The ancients would not live in Calcata. It was a place of worship. I’m amazed at the people who are drawn here. I don’t think anyone is normal — we’re all crazy, or at least different. The people here want a place where their craziness can come out.”

DUTCH PUPPET MAKER Marijcke van der Maden, who is also in her 60s and made Calcata her home in the early ’80s, is the driving force behind Calcata’s non-profit cultural centre, Il Granarone, which is based in the village’s restored 17th-century granary and today holds jazz concerts, jam sessions and theatrical and literary events. While she enjoys living in Calcata for its human scale (“like my puppets”), she says it is not for everyone.

“They come, they fall in love with Calcata and move in,” she says of occasional newcomers, “but things quickly become too complicated. We recognise quickly the kind of people who will stay and who will leave within six months.”

One of Calcata’s most flamboyant personalities must be 70-something Italian actor Gianni Macchia, whose coffee shop-cum-bar is a shrine to … well, to Gianni Macchia, its interior a dense collage of photographs, newspaper cuttings and mementos of a career in racy B-movies such as Confessions of Emanuelle, Love Me, Baby, Love Me!, When Love is Lust and A Wrong Way to Love.

Macchia, on this day, is shooting in Rome, but that’s okay because in the time it takes to down a double espresso I’ve seen quite enough of him. There he is with Bianca Jagger; there he is on a motorbike; and stripped to the waist; and grappling with a female co-star in the rain; wearing only a codpiece; sometimes wearing nothing at all …

Which brings us back — kind of, in a way — to the foreskin.

WHEN THE PRIEST announced in 1983 that the relic was gone, he declared that “sacrilegious thieves have taken it from my home”, but the popular belief is that the santissimo prepuzio was secreted away to the Vatican.

Though the relic remained in Calcata for most of the 20th century, Pope Leo XIII — fearing it would inspire “an irreverent curiosity” — had announced as early as 1900 that anyone who spoke or wrote of it would face excommunication. In Calcata, at least, he was ignored.

Today, however, perhaps the strangest thing about the missing foreskin is not that nobody here seems to have even a clue about its whereabouts, but that nobody appears to care. Resilient Calcata has moved on.

Heading back to L’isola Che Non C’era, I buy wine from a sweet but doddery old gent who, from his hole-in-the-wall shop just off the piazza, refills empty bottles from a large polyethylene canister, smashing in new stoppers with his mallet.

Come evening, the cheap wine will do its trick, a full moon will illuminate the valley and the missing off-cut of Christ will be forgotten.

In the Room of the Fairy Nimir, l sleep soundly under the gaze of a schoolboy-fantasy female, content that such a joyfully odd place as Calcata exists. And all is well with the cosmos. ◉


This travel story ran in Post Magazine, October 2016. Download PDF.

Italy's Fab Five

The seaside villages of the Cinque Terre are among the most photogenic in Italy. Get the selfies in the bag sharpish, saving time for hiking, snorkelling, shopping, the freshest seafood and, naturally, artisanal gelato.


FROM CHINA’S THREE Kingdoms to the Seven Hills of Rome, prefix any group of kindred landmarks with a number and something magical happens, conjuring up visions of ancient realms cloaked in wonder.

While the villages of Cinque Terre — or “Five Lands” — are likely less sensational than the Fourteen Flames of Valyria (volcanoes, apparently, in Game of Thrones), they are such clichés of what Italian fishing communities should look like as to appear otherworldly.

Dotted along the Italian Riviera, the sweeping crescent of rugged coastline in the northwest of Liguria, each seaside settlement is a higgledy-piggledy confusion of houses in weathered apricot, shell pink, marigold and other sunny colours, all contrasting pleasantly with the Ligurian Sea’s iridescent blue.

Collectively designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, the villages are the cobble-stoned stuff of chocolate boxes, of jigsaw puzzles and screensavers. And Manarola is the most ravishing of the bunch, its jumble of buildings springing from anthracite-grey rock and cascading down a steep cliff face as if in a proto-cubist Cezanne painting.

OUR EXPLORATION OF the Cinque Terre begins not in Manarola, however, but in La Spezia, the naval town immediately to the southeast. Listed in order from La Spezia, the five villages are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, and each has its own personality and pull for the outdoors enthusiast, the foodie and the beach bum.

There is no vehicular access to quattro of the cinque (coaches can drop off within walking distance), so, as a rule, no cars inside. The centuries-tested way of moving between the settlements is via hillside walking trails that snake through gnarly vineyards and terraced lemon and olive groves, all bound by dry-stone walls.

 

Rowboats and kayaks crowd the slipway and a nonchalant old-timer with a greying explosion of candyfloss hair tends a skiff beneath signs for ‘boat tours’ and ‘boats for rent’ and ‘snorkelling and scuba tours’ in English and Chinese

 

Some trails can be closed due to rockfalls but each village — surprisingly, considering their compact size — has a railway station and the Cinque Terre Express tunnels through between La Spezia and Levanto to the north. Hops between one community and the next take about five minutes.

So, from La Spezia, our first stop is RIOMAGGIORE, which quickly gives the impression of a working fishing village, its stone slipway hemmed in by tall, slender dwellings that create a manmade canyon.

Rowboats and kayaks crowd the slipway and a nonchalant old-timer with a greying explosion of candyfloss hair tends a skiff beneath signs for “boat tours” and “boats for rent” and “snorkelling and scuba tours” in English and Chinese. His pricey Persol sunglasses suggest good business — tourism has long ousted fishing and winemaking as the primary source of income in the Cinque Terre.

Beyond the headland, Riomaggiore’s La Fossola beach is stony, small and deserted, but the day’s early birds throw down towels on a shelf of stratified black rock, thrust and tilted upwards by violent subterranean gurgling long, long ago. The youngsters launch themselves into the clear water, whooping like gibbons.

THE VIA DELL’AMORE — the “way of love”, a cliff-hugging coastal trail heading north from Riomaggiore — has been closed in recent years but hopefully will reopen for 2019. If not, go back to the train station for a short ride to MANAROLA, the topsy-turvy but postcard-perfect inspiration for a zillion Instagram moments. Many of Cinque Terre’s most alluring snapshots are of Manarola, below which boats bob in a dinky harbour.

Word has it that a house-proud fisherman once looked back to shore from such a boat and could not tell his home from the others. Deciding his abode should stand out, he painted it a distinctive colour. His idea caught on (Carlo’s house became the honey-hued one, Paolo plumped for lilac, Luca’s was a muted ginger, etc) and today’s eye-catching gallimaufry is the result.

Visit Manarola later in a day — or stay a night — and you will see the buildings change colour with the angle of the sun. As early evening turns to dusk, rose becomes coral pink and then vermillion; lemon transmutes to old gold via primrose and amber.

The coastal path is the place to capture Manarola’s best side in megapixels, but today a small crowd mills at the most photo-friendly spot: a glamorous, loved-up couple — matching in white linen, tanned as orange as oranges — hogs the site, gazing dreamily into the distance for stick-mounted iPhone selfies.

NEXT UP COMES CORNIGLIA, the cutest (population: less then 300) and least visited of the villages due its perch on a high promontory, with more than 350 steps to climb from station and jetty. Many Cinque Terre visitors bypass Corniglia completely, though it is believed to date back to Roman times and so arguably (and they do argue on this point) the most ancient of the settlements.

A treat among Corniglia’s handful of eateries is Alberto Gelateria, where the daring go for a basil-flavoured gelato. It’s an acquired taste, and the Miele di Corniglia concoction, imbued with local honey, is a sweeter and safer bet.

EARLY AFTERNOON AND VERNAZZA, by contrast, is pumping. Founded in the opening years of the 11th century as a fortified village to protect settlers from pirates, its focal point is the seafront Piazza Marconi, flanked on one side by the 14th-century Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia and high on the other by the 15th-century Castle Doria.

Dwellings here are grander than in the villages called upon earlier — though many have fallen into genteel disrepair — and many balconies zing with bougainvillea and jazzy geraniums.

There are also galleries, restaurants and cafes, and hole-in-wall shops fussy with artworks and ceramics, fridge magnets, handmade lemon soap, jars of pesto (the sauce being a Ligurian invention) and bottles of limoncino (the local variation on limoncello, the lemon-based liqueur commonly associated with the Amalfi Coast, in Italy’s south).

Entering Vernazza from the train station, a massive wall poster illustrates how, on October 25, 2011, the village suffered flooding and landslides that buried it under four metres of mud and turned the main street of Via Roma into a raging river, resulting in more than €100 million worth of damage and the deaths of three locals. The toll would likely have been higher if the disaster had occurred in summer.

IN THE HIGH SEASON, from June to August, the Cinque Terre can be crowded. Though the entire region has fewer than 5,000 residents, it draws upwards of 2.5 million visitors a year. Local authorities are exploring ways (entrance tickets; turnstiles at village gates?) to reduce numbers (they have been threatening this for years). Until then, dodge the mob by dropping by in spring or autumn.

Vernazza is ideal for an al fresco bite. (A trivial aside: though “al fresco” equates with “outside” in respect to dining, it literally means “in the chill” in Italian, which is slang for “in jail”.) Local specialities include trofie pasta, traditionally made from chestnut or wheat flour, and torte di verdure, which are vegetable pies stuffed with artichoke, potato, leek, zucchini and parmesan.

 

A popular dish is cotolette di acciuga, or anchovies stuffed with a breadcrumb-based filling and then fried. Gulf of La Spezia mussels are also nationally renowned

 

Seafood is on every Cinque Terre menu, the area’s anchovies being celebrated throughout Italy. A popular dish is cotolette di acciuga, or anchovies stuffed with a breadcrumb-based filling and then fried. Gulf of La Spezia mussels are also nationally renowned.

Those crowds can make lunchtime tables hard to come by, however. For a meal on the move, you’ll notice many visitors stabbing long wooden skewers into cono di fritto misto, which are big paper cones crammed with fried calamari, prawns, anchovies and chunks of white fish.

AND FINALLY, NO trip to the Cinque Terre would be complete without taking to water. Complementing the Cinque Terre Express, shiny ferries ply the coast for much of the year. The dash from Vernazza to MONTEROSSO AL MARE, the largest and most northerly of the villages, takes 10 minutes.

With its French Riviera-esque atmosphere, Monterosso is also the least quaint of the five (with a seaside car park), its boardwalk lined with swanky hotels and restaurants, and lively bars and pizza joints. But it also has a long, sandy beach — its daytime USP. In that oh-so-Italian way, the beach is privately run and regimented, and you will need to shell out about €20 for a brolly and two sun-loungers.

And when the sun finally retires for the day, most visitors head for one of Monterosso’s seafront hangouts for an aperitivo and people watching.

As appears to be their wont, the white-clad, selfie-chasing duo have nabbed a prime spot, there to share an antipasti ai frutti di mare — a platter of mixed “fruits of the sea” — accompanied by glasses of the local plonk, which is a dry white coaxed from the bosco, albarola and vermentino grapes of the surrounding hills.

With the lights of anchovy boats freckling the horizon, and with their photos likely uploaded and busy influencing, the couple have put their phones away. Now they gaze only at each other, like a pair of moony swans. ◉


This travel story ran in Post Magazine in 2019. Download PDF.

Stockholm: The Light Fantastic

The elegant Swedish capital shines brightly with Scandi-cool — both on the long, lazy days of summer and when the winter sun barely rises.


DESPITE THE RECENT and cowardly terror attack on Stockholm and opportunistic scaremongering from its far right, Sweden remains a bastion of openness and tolerance; of crisply designed homeware, of safe if boring cars and shiny pop tunes.

That’s true even with the popularity of Nordic Noir, the stripped-back crime-fiction phenomenon that has grabbed the world by the meatballs, stabbed it in the gut and left it bleeding in the showers.

But long before Nordic Noir there was “Nordic Light”, the fleeting, subdued, horizon-skimming sunlight on winter days — and near endless sun come summer — experienced by Europe’s most northerly nations. Only a tiny percentage of the planet’s population lives under Nordic Light, yet a perfunctory google reveals the phrase has been appropriated globally.

The Swedish capital Stockholm is home to a Nordic Light Hotel, a Nordic Light DJ-booking agency and a Nordic Light alliance of female barbershop singers. In neighbouring Norway, you’ll discover a Nordic Light photography festival and a Nordic Light fish-oil supplement rich in Omega-3.

Further afield, Montreal-based jeweller Maison Birks flogs a Nordic Light solitaire diamond engagement ring. There’s a so-named office complex in Budapest, a real-estate company in Cape Town. A Nordic Light oil tanker plies our oceans.

View of Riddarholmskyrkan (Riddarholm Church) on Riddarholmen islet. Photo: Gary Jones

IN SHORT, NORDIC light has long inspired creatives, big business and branding bods, and there is also so much joy in light for visitors to Stockholm, with the cliff-edge coastal walking path of Monteliusvägen delivering cracking views of the city centre.

Take a few snaps there, zoom into an image and read the words on an electronic dance music-festival poster 300 metres away. In a moment of shocking clarity you’ll know two things: one, your fancy digi-camera can see better than you can; two, Stockholm is among the least-polluted cities on the planet.

 

“In that city, with all its industry and population, the moment you step out of your hotel, the salmon leap out of the water to greet you”
Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky

 

Like Venice, Stockholm is built on water. The city fans out across 14 islands where massive Lake Mälaren meets the marrow-chilling Baltic. But while Venice is hemmed-in, fussy and stuck in its past, Stockholm is big-skied, understated and progressive.

In Watermark, Joseph Brodsky’s 1992 paean to Venice, the Russian author (who had nabbed a Nobel Prize in Literature in the Swedish capital five years earlier), pondered how the Queen of the Adriatic might clean up its festering lagoon. “I’d call Sweden and ask the Stockholm municipality for advice,” Brodsky wrote. “In that city, with all its industry and population, the moment you step out of your hotel, the salmon leap out of the water to greet you.”

Essentially, forward-looking Stockholm is the anti-Venice. That’s not to say the Scandinavian city sprang up yesterday: Gamla Stan (the “Old Town”) dates to the 13th century. With cobbled streets and colourful old merchants’ houses, it is one of the best-preserved medieval city centres anywhere, like a whimsical set from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But what Stockholm does so well is combine the long-in-tooth with the tousle-haired, the traditional with the contemporary.

Ferries and “hop-on, hop-off” sightseeing boats make shuttling around Stockholm a treat. From Gamla Stan it’s a 10-minute ride to Djurgården, a green island in the city centre of woodlands, galleries, an amusement park and museums, including the substantial Nordiska Museet, or Nordic Museum.

Founded in 1873, it chronicles the evolution of Swedish life from the 16th century to the present day through fashion and jewellery, furniture and interiors and more. Its temporary but current Nordic Light exhibition (“about how light shapes us and how we shape light”, reads the blurb) covers a century in home lighting.

THE FERRY DROPS off near the compact and kitsch Abba: The Museum that’s stuffed with the pop-tastic foursome’s spangly costumes, gold records and memorabilia. There’s a phone that only the Abba members know the number to (so if it rings, take a chance and answer — you could end up harmonising with Agnetha, Björn, Benny or Frida). An automated “Benny’s Piano” is linked to one in his home. It plays when he plays, they say.

On the nearby island of Skeppsholmen, Moderna Museet is a brilliantly curated modern-art museum, its permanent collection spanning everything from the gleeful nuttiness of dada to pop art, with career-defining works by Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, Duchamp and Rauschenberg.

Attached is the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design. A left-field highlight in the product-design section is “Heavy Metal”, the world’s first 3D-printed guitar, its aluminium body an interweaved fabrication of roses and barbed wire.

And while the ferries are fab and much of central Stockholm a doddle to reach on foot, another enjoyable way to flit about town is via the Tunnelbana metro system, described as the “the world’s longest art gallery”.

More than 90 of its 100 stations have been decorated with paintings, sculptures and installations since the 1950s. Part of an egalitarian effort to bring art into the public arena, subterranean creations broach subjects as diverse as women’s rights, the Olympic movement, technological innovation and the environment.

THE METRO UNFURLS from T-Centralen Station (there’s an entrance opposite the Nordic Light Hotel). In 1975, artist Per Olof Ultvedt adorned the blue line’s upper level with silhouettes of the workers who built the station. One level lower, platforms are garnished with bold vine and flower motifs.

The rough-hewn bedrock of many stations carved out in the ’70s was finished with sprayed concrete. Detractors said they looked like hell — literally — and this is especially true at Solna Centrum, where Anders Åberg and Karl-Olav Bjork’s damning depiction of industrial pollution features green spruce stretching for a kilometre beneath a fiery, blood-red sky.

The T-bana will take you to Södermalm island, just south of the city centre. Fotografiska, a world-class photography exhibition venue housed in a redbrick former customs house built in 1906, sits on the northern shore. With 2,500 sqm of display space, Fotografiska has held major retrospectives of such shutterbug luminaries as Annie Leibovitz, David LaChapelle and Robert Mapplethorpe. The word photography, by the way, derived from Greek roots, means “drawing with light”.

BUT SÖDERMALM HAS a dark side: much of novelist Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium trilogy was set on the island, fictional home to dragon-tattooed Lisbeth Salander and bulldog journalist Mikael Blomqvist.

Stockholm City Museum’s Millennium Walking Tour Map shines light on the locations that fired Larsson’s imagination, and Nordic Noir fans start out on the steep, cobbled streets of the picturesque Mariaberget neighbourhood (just beside the aforementioned Monteliusvägen walking path), where Blomkvist’s apartment looks out on Riddarfjärden bay.

They might then mosey on to Kvarnen, the 100-year-old beer hall where Salander hangs with her rock-chick lover Miriam Wu, and Mellqvist Kaffebar, often visited by the coffee-quaffing journo in print, and Larsson in reality, before the 50-year-old writer died of a heart attack in 2004.

Once a blue-collar neighbourhood but increasingly hipster-friendly, Södermalm is great for a creative bite or a craft beer, catching a live band or perusing independent galleries and vintage stores.

For a one-stop-shop retail solution, however, head back to the city centre and Nordiska Kompaniet, Sweden’s most venerable department store, founded in 1902, that’s housed in an imposing art nouveau structure conceived to rival the great shopping destinations of Paris and London.

In the basement, Design House Stockholm is the place to grab your slice of the minimalist Scandinavian design aesthetic (and don’t fret if you leave gift buying until the last minute ­— there’s an outlet at the long-haul Terminal 5 at Arlanda Airport).

There, in a luminous grotto of silvery-white walls and blonde pine, you’ll find furniture pieces and kitchenware, textiles, apparel and, of course, imaginative lighting.

A big seller is the modern-classic Block Lamp by Finnish designer Harri Koskinen, in which a single light source is encased in a brick of glass. Another is a folding candelabra by Sweden’s Jonas Grundell.

The name that designer gave to his creation? Go on. Take an enlightened guess. ◉


Published in luxury-lifestyle magazine Prestige in 2017. Download PDF.