Other Writing

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 chalet sleeps eight or nine people, is fitted with designer amenities — Miele appliances, REN skin-care products and Peter Reed linen…

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Between the lines

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 old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown 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.

As the brainchild of an Australian local business owner and her Indonesian husband, the festival was born to regenerate tourism after the bombings, and six years on is doing so, while becoming a who’s who of Asian (and Pacific) literati: this year saw Pakistani journalists and novelists Mohammed Hanif and Fatima Bhutto, India’s Vikas Swarup, who wrote Q&A (better known by its screen title, Slumdog Millionaire), and Singapore’s Shamini Flint, author of the irreverent Inspector Singh Investigates series, among nearly 100 other poets, journalists and literary critics from across the continent and beyond. It also bagged itself a Nobel Laureate; Nigerian novelist and playwright Wole Soyinka.

To a backdrop of free events – a couple of play readings, a poetry slam night and book launches – day pass holders were offered a tight schedule of writer’s panels, many of them lightly academic and vaguely instructional. In a seminar called ‘Make ‘em Laugh’, un-comically early on a Sunday morning, British-Kashmiri novelist Hari Kunzru  observed that good humour writing follows the pace of a good joke; it’s all about a well drawn out punch line. Black Canadian writer Dany Laferriere , author of How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (and whose twelfth novel gave rise to the 2005 movie, Heading South), explained the pitfalls of choosing a scandalous book title: very few talk about your content. Yet he is unrepentant and his latest book will be called I am a Japanese Writer, despite the best efforts of the Japanese consulate to make him change his mind (due to concerns, he says, that he’ll obliterate real Japanese writers on Google).

With writers like Bhutto and Soyinka in town, the content was also often political. Though most of the festival-goers were from Australia the panel perspectives were gratifyingly Asian, and African. US President Barack Obama received a drubbing in a panel called Writing in the New World; Obama and Dissent, with Bhutto (niece of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) reminding writers of their responsibility to stay critical. She was joined by Antony Loewenstein, an Australian writer whose book My Israel Question robustly tells fellows Jews that ‘it’s time to stop living like its 1948’. Loewenstein also appeared on a panel on blogging, alongside Singaporean gay activist and writer Ng Yi-Sheng (lastboy.blogspot.com) and Aceh-based writer Doel CP Allisah (doelcpallisah.blogspot.com).

Soyinka, who spent nearly two years in solitary confinement for his activism and first wrote his poems there on toilet paper, spoke at length on the concept of forgiveness. As strident and satirical as his works tend to be, he noted that writing is about understanding the choices people make to survive, and that how, although atrocities are and will always be ‘part and parcel of our very existence’, literature can play a part in reconciliation.

Many of the writers present have explored critical Asian themes in their novels; Mohammed Hanif (pictured above, third right), a BBC reporter and one-time Pakistani air force recruit, has written the mostly comic A Case of Exploding Mangos about the life and times of Zia–ul-Haq, a dictator who put Pakistan on a massive ‘Islamisation’ drive that it struggles with today. Former lawyer Shamini Flint has had her Inspector Singh investigating a case of marital injustice in Malaysia, caught between its Shariah law and the penal code, and says that Singh will next be sent to Cambodia to uncover a mystery with a Khmer Rouge undertow. Vikas Swarup, who reportedly wrote Q&A in two months while his family were away for the summer (to many a fellow panelist’s annoyance) has followed it up with murder-mystery Six Suspects, another look at Indian caste and corruption.

However possibly the greatest value held by the festival was its introduction to visiting readers of good under-exposed Indonesian writing, and its political backdrop. A number of the panels were bi-lingual and the festival organizers worked closely with Indonesian critics and journalists to join emerging local writers with old hands, like firebrand Seno Gumira Ajidarma, known for his work on East Timor, and Cok Sawitri, an outspoken lesbian poet, novelist and playwright.

Many of them lamented the reluctance of Indonesians still, to look into the brutality of General Suharto’s three-decade New Order regime, in which books were burned, activists were ‘disappeared’ and secret agents mingled in the hallways of universities. They also complained about the lack of accurate records of the time.

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 old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers…

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A Brit Above

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 25 June 2010
British designer Tom Dixon brings his glam rock style to Hong Kong

It isn’t often a designer has to rein in his vision for Hong Kong’s high-end club scene. Yet as Tom Dixon surveys his latest landscape, he has a few lingering regrets. Tazmania Ballroom in SoHo, the latest nightclub from the creators of Dragon-i, already boasts geometric wall buttresses, clustered globular chandeliers and brass pool tables, with imitation book shelves in white plaster that give it an ironic scholarly tone. Yet, “I was thinking water dripping down granite, and moss on the walls”, Dixon laments. “And there was going to be a small fish and chip shop. But there wasn’t enough room.” It’s a unique notion of high style – and one that may well have had Hong Kong hipsters faltering a little in their skinny jeans.

But that’s kind of the idea. Dixon has been cheerfully pushing the boundaries of British style since he was first discovered…

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A Luang Prabang guide

For Smart Travel Asia, written in 2007, regularly updated.

First you have to get to Laos. Then you can enjoy the incredible temples, the charm, shopping, and laid-back lifestyle, not to mention some fine Luang Prabang boutique hotels.

THERE IS a reason why Luang Prabang remains the town that time forgot. It’s bloody hard to get to. Snuggled well in the treacherously undulating northwest of Laos it was, until recently, served by just two alarming modes of travel. The first was Lao Airlines – a carrier essentially blacklisted by the US Embassy, the UN, and other companies that prefer their employees whole. The second was a punishing ten-hour bus journey from the capital Vientiane, at the mercy of bandits, and a million sharp turns. Yet the lure of gilded spires, saffron robes and cobblestones was strong, and still the travel pilgrims prevailed.

So things are different now. In 1998 a fancy modern airport was constructed 2km from town, and a few years later Bangkok Airways,…

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Northern Light – a visit to Laos’ Luang Prabang

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 beacon for discerning travellers and overworked vacationers.



Laos’ communist government only opened the country to tourism in the early nineties, its hesitancy explained, perhaps, by the fact that during the 1960s, more bombs were dropped on the tiny country by the US than were used in World War II. Laos also spent time

under the French in the early 1900s. Although Vientiane has sprung up and sprawled out as capitals do, the rest of the country is remarkably undeveloped and the north remains particularly elusive. Hill tribes here are less in touch with the outside world, and tigers can still be spotted in its topmost reaches.

Some reports speak of a place of captivating charm and fantastically intact heritage, evidenced by buildings such as The Royal Palace (now a museum), which was built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and his family. One of the reasons UNESCO intervened here in 1995 is because of the town planning structure, which dates back to medieval times, something seen in only a handful of places. Tiny neighbourhoods make up the whole, each arranged around a wat and a pond.

There are about 34 wats – one for every occasion. Wat Saen is keeper of the monastery’s racing boats and one of the most striking, the small, quaint Wat Pa Khe, houses an impression of Buddha’s footprint. The heavily gilded Wat Xieng Thong is the most popular complex, and showcases a beautiful mosaic of the tree of life, along with the royals’ old golden funeral carriage.  All are breathtakingly beautiful, but feel real and active. Younger monks carry out cleaning chores, others bend over Sanskrit texts in shady corners. Many will stop what they’re doing to shyly practise their English.

As old as the place may be, it has learned how to shape up for the twenty-first century traveller. After Luang Prabang Airport was installed, intrepid pilgrims were overtaken by the more sophisticated traveller. Its restaurants, hotels and spas have upgraded accordingly (under the beady eye of UNESCO) and today the city is the master of the double act. It may ooze antiquated charm on the surface, but contemporary Asian interiors and fine culinary adventures lie within.

Two of the five star options that greet the Luang Prabang visitor are literally palatial. In 1992 Villa Santi – a former royal mansion – became one of the first high end hotels in Northern Laos, and though small it’s still one of the grandest. Swathes of polished rosewood give the place an old world smell and the stately dining room makes dressing for dinner a distinct possibility. The Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel channels glamour from the more recent past. Laos’ last royal Prime Minister used to live here and it’s a light, breezy affair with a large lush garden and a classic 50s-style pool. Wide verandas and an Angsana spa lure guests out from their rooms, and the place achieves a secluded feel, though it’s just a stone’s throw from the action.

More modern still is La Residence Phou Vou, slightly out of the hub, on a hill. I’d heard about the hotel’s spectacular sunset perch, and, gin fizz in hand at the bar, was not disappointed. The only step up would have been the view from the infinity pool. This spa hotel – under the luxury Oriental Express brand – was not renovated from royalty, but it pretty much serves it, depending on your definition of the word. Both the King of Cambodia and Mick Jagger have stayed here.

Much of Luang Prabang’s charm lies in its scale though, and I have always preferred my history in bite-sized chunks. The short walk between the main street and the riverbanks turns up a variety of converted boutique hotels, all looking to put a little hip into heritage.  My favourite The Apsara does this with industrial concrete floors and the driest martinis in town, while The 3 Nagas – near the banks of the Nam Khan - goes for a more minimalist approach.  Just a quick search turns up a handful of similarly well-situated gems.

All of these boast excellent dining options. Lao cuisine may not have travelled far but it is appreciated for its distinct flavours: spicy, savory and often loaded with raw, fresh herbs and galangal. You’re also rarely far from crisp white table cloths and a decent wine cellar:  the French did not have a hand in this country for nothing. Over the past ten years the international and fusion scene here has matured, and a few independent restaurants in particular offer an exhilarating experience for a fraction of the price you’d pay in Paris, or Hong Kong. L’Elephant Restaurant Francais is at the top of its game. Under French management, the place is all wood panelling, modest chandeliers and lazy ceiling fans, and offers a menu du chasseur, often featuring game from the surrounding forests. Consider wildboar in a Luang Prabang chanterelle sauce or crème brûlée with coconut.

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…

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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 best loved hand-me-down is the onsen (in Japanese) or wenquan (Putonghua). The Japanese have been dunking themselves in steaming, therapeutic mountain ponds for centuries, and developments in ex-colonial towns like Beitou are long-standing tributes to this love…

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Polo Returns to China

March 2008, Prestige Magazine, Hong Kong

Jo Baker delves into the Middle Kingdom’s new highlife on horseback

Download original: Prestige Polo

A line of Australia’s finest polo ponies fidget unhappily in their stalls, one picking moodily at the stable planks with his well-bred teeth. China is in the throes of its worst winter in fifty years, and it’s not only the people here that are suffering. “They don’t really like being inside,” says Romiro Pellegrini, a young vet and skillful Polo player from Argentina. “They’re athletes. They want to be out playing, and this snow just gets them down.”

The ponies of China’s new Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club may well be dreaming of last October; three days in which man and horse tussled on a field of verdant grass to a backdrop of fizzing champagne, hats of architectural daring and delicate wahs of enthusiasm. Shanghai’s elite were learning how to do ‘garden party’ and in the process, sporting history was being made.

Polo…

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Love is in the wear

 

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, April 24, 2009
Architecture with a lived-in touch is winning hearts

When architect Bill Bensley was asked to design a hotel in Phuket not long after the tsunami, he found himself wanting to give it a deeper layer of meaning. That layer was found by his team of Thai and Indonesian designers at salvage auctions in the area, where they bought driftwood and other bits of wreckage wrought by the giant wave, and incorporated them into the hotel, Indigo Pearl. “We picked up a whole lot of materials and in various innovative ways reused them, in the structure, in sculptures,” he recalls. The hotel, which also uses a lot of old tin in tribute to the area’s tin mining history, has received rave reviews for its vision and its sensitivity.

Using architectural salvage like this is a great way to bring emotional resonance to a space. Though Asian consumers tend to love the look and smell of the brand spanking new, the virtue of an old door, scuffed…

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One Night in Hong Kong

December 13, 2007, Time Magazine

Frank Sun, restaurateur and architect
Have a drink at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s Captain’s Bar, tel: (852) 2825 4006. It has a lot of history. Then take a walk from there to Sheung Wan — a very different side of old Hong Kong and one that is rapidly disappearing. You can visit shops that still make traditional sausages and sell dried seafood.

After that, take the tram all the way to North Point. On the third floor of the market at 99 Java Road you’ll find the Tung Po seafood restaurant, tel: (852) 2880 9399. Ask for the owner Robby, or his partner Larry. Tell him you would like to order dishes Frank likes to eat. When you’ve finished dinner, take a cab back to the SoHo (“South of Hollywood Road”) district, and go to the funkiest bar in Hong Kong, Feather Boa, tel: (852) 2857 2586. The place is always crowded and you will most likely have to elbow your way inside, but it is without doubt one of the most interesting places to be in Hong…

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Safe as houses

June 29, 2007, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Architect Cameron Sinclair is on a mission to save the world, one design at a time

Cameron Sinclair is a man who values his sleep. As he maneuvers between a new baby, a travel schedule so frenetic he has a ‘Where is Cameron’ web page and a battle against shoddy housing worldwide, he’s seen it go from an enjoyable day-capper to quite the luxury.

“In the next two generations we’re going to double the number of buildings on earth now,” the 33 year-old tells me from his Sausalito home, while struggling to sedate a grumpy infant. “One in three people at that time will be living in slum settlements – UN statistics. The places booming are China, Brazil, India, but this growth is in their bottom 40% so it’s really time to respond to those needs.”

Many have heard of Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter’s global NGO, which flutters similar statistics at its fingertips. Yet other than a healthy mutual respect the affiliation…

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