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Making scents: saviours of the incense tree

Agarwood feature Credit Nico Zurcher (26)

South China Morning Post Magazine, 9 Mar 2014. The heady fragrance of agarwood gave Hong Kong its name, but it has become so valuable its source is under threat. As Jo Baker discovers, though, there are those for whom the incense tree is worth more than money. Ho Pui-han makes her way along the fringes of a country path, through a patch of trampled undergrowth and then points to a deep gash at the base of a tree. "You can see where they've cut the wood as a test," says the conservationist. "They'll be back in a month to check and, if it's the right tree, they'll just chop it down and carry it across the border." Close to extinction in the mainland and internationally protected as a species, Hong Kong's dwindling stands of Aquilaria sinensis, commonly called the incense tree, have become a ... Read the full article

It’s Slow Time

South China Morning Post, 8 December, 2013. Heavy hitters meeting at a Thai eco-resort seek to avert environmental catastrophe by targeting and changing the mindsets of the world's most powerful people and companies, writes Jo Baker The night is clear and black, the stars are close and the voice of Johan Rockstrom echoes around the open-air cinema of a luxury Thai resort as he describes the world's impending demise. Reclining in the shadows with pre-dinner cocktails, a motley crew of problem-solvers listens. And as the leading sustainability scientist gets to a key part of his speech - on rainfall patterns - it feels as if the Earth has decided to make a point. Without warning, the heavens open. "I was just about to get to the good news," the Swede says, as his audience runs for cover. It may have chosen one ... Read the full article

Thrills and Kills: Interview with Frederick Forsyth

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South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker. AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was... interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”   Fans ... Read the full article

Bruce Lee and the enduring jeet kune do spirit

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South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee's siblings reminisce about their famous brother's life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports Hard bodies abound. At the annual One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit, big names, tight muscles and a whole lot of spin are building an air of promise laced with testosterone. The most highly billed appearances, however, are those of a pair who are not part of the fight club here at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands resort. As the first day of talks wind down, a convention room fills and falls quiet for two unassuming figures in their autumn years. Neither compete, but they are happy to spin some eagerly received yarns about a long-dead fighting legend. "Bruce was way ahead of his time in martial ... Read the full article

Master of the House: Architect Wang Shu

Discovery Magazine, May 2012.  Chinese architect and Pritzker winner Wang Shu may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay He calls his studio ‘Amateur Architecture’. His work is anything but. This year, China’s Wang Shu was lifted from the relative quiet of his small practice in Hangzhou by a heavyweight panel of his peers, hailed as a “virtuoso” and presented with architecture’s equivalent to an Academy Award: a Pritzker. And yet just as Hollywood has its naysayers and anti-heroes, the Chinese architect is emerging as a kind of anti-designer.  “Design is an amateur activity. Life is more important,” he has said. “The Amateur Architecture studio is a purely personal architecture studio; it should not even be referred to as an architect’s office.” The likelihood of him accepting ‘starchitect’ status and all the ... Read the full article

No Woman’s Land: a new book recalls the frontline experiences of female reporters

UN Women, 2 May 2012 “I have never thought of myself as a female journalist. I think of myself as a journalist full-stop.” So says award-winning Egyptian reporter, Shahira Amin, in a new book on frontline reporting by female correspondents, supported by UN Women. “No Woman’s Land”, released this spring by the International News Safety Initiative, compiled by Hannah Storm and Helena Williams, features the voices of over 30 journalists as they recall episodes of harrowing assault and inspirational bravery in contexts from conflict to civil unrest. The reflections were collected shortly after the violent sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan by a crowd of men as she reported from Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. Logan, who wrote the foreward to the book, has been credited for voicing concerns that many female reporters have formerly suppressed, out of fear for ... Read the full article

Duality Check

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South China Morning Post, 15 December 2011   Pakistani artist Rashid Rana continues to court controversy while hurdling cultural boundaries   Rashid Rana does not exactly mind being labeled a Pakistani artist, but he does wonder whether the tag does justice to the larger themes in his works. "A critic friend of mine has written that my art speaks a global language, but with an accent,” he grins. “I like that better.” Considered one of his country’s top contemporary artists, Rana’s work has appeared in an impressive string of international shows, spanning the Musee Guimet in Paris to New York’s Asia Society. His Hong Kong debut, Translation/Transliterations, showcases his use of a distinct digital aesthetic to play with cultural motifs and social scenarios on one level, and study abstract visual ideas on another. Yet it is Rana’s satirical bite, along with his love of ... Read the full article

Bridging the East-West design divide – in London

Zhou Lu

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 16 November 2011 China’s Diaspora designers face stiff competition in the UK, but offer hope for development despite trouble shaking off the Made-in-China tag In a trendy industrial space bordering a West London canal, an eclectic series of objects sit on podiums, amid coffee drinkers and creative-types at work. Among them are a ceramic Chihuahua in a neckerchief, labeled as a home accessory; a delicate, extraterrestrial-looking table poised as if for lift-off; a panel of architectural designs for a Buddhist temple in the heart of London; and a stool in mint-green metal entitled, fantastically, the ‘Silent Farter’. These are just a few recent offerings from London’s Chinese Diaspora designers, and they signal a growing creative confidence amid a challenging landscape. “The Made-in-China tag has brought some difficulty to Chinese designers trying to work in the UK or ... Read the full article

Architecture Week

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Find my full series of articles written for this US-based publication here, including on Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid in China, Norman Foster's Beijing Terminal 3, China's emerging generation of architects, Alaska's Museum of the North (also covered for TIME), and Berlin's Grand Central Station.

The arts are a traveller’s window into the heart of San Francisco

South China Morning Post, August 2012. San Francisco has always had an acute sense of the frontier, and this can be said for its arts scene as well as for its gung-ho economy. As a gold rush town, it was unusually cosmopolitan. In the mid-1800s it hosted up to 37 foreign consuls and boasted newspapers and theatre productions in at least five languages. By the time Mark Twain turned up in the 1860s, the city was a blur of bohemian activity, with strip after strip of saloons, boarding houses, dance halls, brothels and theatres. During the next century, this bohemia fell victim to industry and the power of the American puritans; it is no coincidence that its architecture is so frothily Victorian. But its role as an artistic frontier somehow survived and 'heading west' has brought out the best in many writers ... Read the full article

Hit the Ground Running

Bottle School, The Philippines

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011 A humanitarian design group is redefining crisis response across the globe, writes Jo Baker. Twelve years ago a designer caught in a disaster zone might have been at rather a loss at how to pitch in; but when the quakes hit Japan last month it took very little time for the architects to rally. There were readymade chapters in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with access to a global network of nearly 5,000 volunteer design professionals, a template for crisis response, and an online bank of designs, all relevant to post-crisis reconstruction and free for the download. And joining all these dots was the only international humanitarian-oriented organization to have pioneered design as a tool to fight disaster: Architecture for Humanity (AFH). Throughout the last month AFH has been working to link ... Read the full article

Crisis by design

Extended interview, March 2011 Architect, eternal optimist and founder of a now-formidable humanitarian relief organization, Cameron Sinclair chats about the transition from design to development guru, the politics of humanitarian intervention, and sending architects into many of the decade’s biggest disaster zones. “The idea of designing without ego …” When we won (the grant) from TED we were a 60, 000 dollar organisation, now we’re closer to 6 million; that’s in four or five years. It wasn’t TED that made us explode, though it really gave us awareness and projected our methodology to other people; the idea of designing without ego, sharing openly, using adaptation as opposed to repetition, which was a really big shift: saying, different neighbourhoods have different issues, adapt the building to that. The thing that really made us explode was just prior to TED, when ... Read the full article

English Countryside Goes Rock-’N’-Roll

TIME Magazine, 10 Mar 2011 . Implausible as it may seem, holiday accommodation in rural England isn't limited to twee little cottages, somber stately homes and drafty old castles with terrible plumbing. Travelers who would rather not bed down in architectural museums can now instead stay in some living architecture — or perhaps that should be Living Architecture, the brainchild of Swiss broadcaster and writer Alain de Botton. It's a nonprofit initiative to plant contemporary holiday chalets throughout the country, each designed by a different cutting-edge studio. Three were completed last year. The metallic Balancing Barn levitates over a Suffolk nature reserve. The Dune House struts asymmetrically on a popular stretch of Suffolk beach. The fashionably minimalist Shingle House stands alone and austere on a windswept Kent promontory. Each ... Read the full article

Between the lines

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South China Morning Post, 1 November , 2009 Bali has become home base for the pan-Asian literati With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown almost to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of poetry, paint and drama for decades. But where this reputation had always been more of a well kept secret or a nice surprise, it is now official: bottled, capped and priced for the greater good each October, as the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Now for four days every autumn the town’s venues – its museums, restaurants, bars and yoga studios – become host to professional wordsmiths and their fans as they grapple with literary themes over thick Bali-grown coffee. Sound good? Well it is, mostly. With its ... Read the full article

The World’s Forgotten

‘The World's Forgotten', Asia Sentinel Hong Kong, 19 April 2010, reprinted as an Op-ed in the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia Millions of detainees across the globe remain in filthy, crowded and unsanitary prisons (See online version here) As the UN's top investigator into torture and punishment prepares to end his term later this year, he has focused on a group people whom he has long called the globe's "most vulnerable" to discrimination and to neglect. Detainees, says Dr Manfred Nowak, have become the world's forgotten. The theme has become central to the Austrian professor's six-year tenure, and in the most recent session of the Human Rights Council this March he strongly reiterated his call for a new convention to protect them. Where other forms of discrimination are strongly represented in global social movements, the plight of those considered "criminal" tends ... Read the full article

Man on a mission for women’s justice

 March 8, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong   Nasir Aslam Zahid has led the struggle for equal rights in Pakistan, where women remain in chains. But the former judge vows to fight on. For a free man, Nasir Aslam Zahid spends a lot of time in jail. “It does sometimes baffle callers,” says the Pakistani in clipped, wry tones, at the Asian Legal Resources Centre in Hong Kong. “Most of my phone calls these days are taken from prison.” The former chief justice runs LAO, a legal aid organization based out of Central Prison Karachi, which helps women and children incarcerated across his home province, Sindh. These days he is more worried about the renovation of toilets, administering of medicine and arranging of bail than passing judgments, but both roles  have exposed him to the glut of problems facing women in his ... Read the full article

Northern Light – a visit to Laos’ Luang Prabang

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Gafencu Magazine, September 2007.  If you’re a fool for the leafy, romantic streets of Hanoi, the faded colonial architecture of Phnom Penh or Hoi An and the religious drama of Chiang Mai’s old wats, you’ll be equally beguiled by this lesser known cultural cache, nestled into Laos’ northern mountains. Arriving in the late afternoon, Luang Prabang lies gleaming serenely in the dying sunlight, its ochre spires, old wooden shop houses and leafy, somnolent roads cast in a tangerine glow. Therapeutic chants rumble on the breeze from a monastery across the road. It’s the closest thing to a civic pick-me-up you’ll ever experience. Luang Prabang’s change in status from remote outpost to burgeoning tourist mecca has been relatively swift since a modern airport was finished in 1998, and this culturally rich northwestern town is most easily reached from Bangkok or even Ho Chi Minh City. This convenient option has lately transformed Laos’ former royal and religious capital of around 22,000 into a ... Read the full article

The Great Land Grab

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 7 October 2008: SCMP land grab (PDF) 15,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights. In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed. “See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as we stand on the steps of the new ... Read the full article

Full Steam

October 2008, Discovery Magazine, China Jo Baker takes the waters in Taipei   The air was dark and tinged with cool, old trees struck dramatic poses against the night sky and below them, a near-naked elderly man waxed lyrical about the stars. “This is a good place,” he said, a blue towel twisted jauntily around his head. “Out in the open air with the stars, the moon. It’s a very good way to relax.” The scene was a hopping Friday night at a Taiwanese public hot springs; the place, a sleepy town called Xin Beitou, just north of Taipei. When the Japanese gave up Taiwan after World War II they left a number of lingering legacies, among them great sushi and a penchant for orderly queues. But their ... Read the full article

Pakistan’s Persecuted Minority

Asia Sentinel , Hong Kong, 30 September 2009; also carried in the World Politics Review Ahmadis face serious danger and death, some of it possibly fomented by the government Last month Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari observed the country's National Minority Day by calling minority groups "a sacred trust for Pakistan" and lamenting the 'extremist elements' responsible for their insecurity in the country. But his words fell flat for Pakistan's Ahmadis, for whom a fresh surge of hostile incidents, some linked to the state itself, is capping decades of persecution. The issue was taken up this month by Iqbal Haider, the co-chair of NGO, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: "Ahmadis are the worst victims of such discrimination and deprivation, mainly because they refuse to regard themselves as non- Muslims," he said to Daily Dawn's political magazine, the Herald. "The ... Read the full article