Friday, 31 March 2017

24 hours in Bangkok by Augusta Anthony

If you, like me, have friends who took a year to ‘find themselves’ before university then the title “24 hours in Bangkok” may well conjure up some unfavourable images.  In my head, Bangkok was a sin city of Ping Pong shows and Lady Boys, packed into seedy bars on the Khao San Road and best epitomised by scenes from ‘The Beach’.  So as we planned our Christmas trip around Thailand, I was keen to keep our time there to a minimum: 24 hours to be precise.

We arrived from the beaches of the Andaman Sea and an incredibly chilled Christmas swinging from the hammocks of our beachside bungalows.  Dumping our bags at the hostel, we set off in scorching heat to the Jim Thompson House.  Not your average first port of call in the Thai capital, the museum houses the furniture and art collection of an American entrepreneur who mysteriously disappeared in the late 1960s.  It’s an architectural and design gem with an excellent cafe to boot.  Already, Bangkok was defying my expectations.
From there we hopped on the water bus and sped along an offshoot of the Chao Praya, for the princely sum of 5 pence, to arrive at the Grand Palace.  There we were greeted by thousands of mourners, all in full black despite the glorious sunshine, paying their respects to the late King Bhumibol.  

It was a strangely humbling moment to see and a privileged glimpse into the depth of Thai cultural sentiment.  Too often Thailand seems to be synonymous with Full Moon Parties, scamming Tuk Tuk drivers and Brits abroad.  Watching the mourners felt like a peek behind the tourist facade and into a deeply rich nation imbibed by its history as one of few Southeast Asian countries not to fall under colonial control.  

That evening we did, I admit, brave the Khao San Road and indulge in a bucket or two of G&Ts.  The experience was far less heady than I had anticipated and a shadow of the iniquitous ‘Pub Street’ (Pham Ngu Lao) in Ho Chi Minh City.

But the real highlight of my 24 hours was an early morning trip to MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the following day.  With a flight looming, I set off in an Uber to the outskirts of Bangkok.  Now, Bangkok traffic is perhaps best described as cacophonic.  A discordant symphony of hot pink taxis, Tuk Tuks, songthaews and precarious bikes laden with street food all wind through the chaotic streets and creep slowly onto an eternally gridlocked toll road.   The gallery is an enormous white structure set just off this highway and after forty minutes of horn honking and hair raising lane shifts, I was beginning to see my outing as a bit of a pilgrimage.  

This feeling continued as I entered the gallery, its first visitor of the day, and encountered the vastness of its five floors.  I wandered the gallery in complete awe.  Much of the collection plays with Western tropes but much also exposes traditional Thai art forms.  It’s a celebration of both artistic lineage and the mind-bending trends of cutting edge contemporary art. In one installation, you enter a dark corridor strewn with small lights that echo the night sky.  By the time you’ve wrapped your head around the fact that the walls are actually velvet, you’re spat out into a perfectly white space - picture, if you can, one of those movie scenes where a character wakes up in a hospital bed, blinking to dizzying light.  I stood there for five minutes, staring in all directions, before I realised I was in a something spherical, which turned out to be an egg.  It’s as weird as it sounds and the experience is as extraordinary as the rest of the gallery.  

I rejoined the gang for our fifteenth Pad Thai of the week in an adorable restaurant hidden behind Pratunam market.  From there it was time for the airport again and on to Chiang Mai for elephant bathing and temples galore.

Bangkok had surprised me.  It remains a backpacker’s mecca and a place where anything goes but it is also burgeoning with millennial creativity.  It took almost no effort to scratch beneath the gap year veneer and experience a dynamic Asian city, bursting with history and ready for the future.  

Monday, 6 March 2017

Urban Farms: A Trip to Rooftop Republic by Oscar Ponton

Image result for rooftop republic fringe club

As Chinese New Year draws to an end and semester two unfolds here in Hong Kong, my campus garden continues to grow little by little with Spring, and increased humidity, just around the corner. Having set up the garden last semester on my post secondary campus, I have formed a tight knit group of gardening students who have helped me to create a small but sustainable green space on campus for both students and staff to enjoy.

Spurred on by my recent research into the area of urban gardening in Hong Kong, I decided to get in contact with some of the enterprises most established in the urban farming scene to try and organise a group visit with my students. I was quickly put in touch with Rooftop Republic, an urban gardening venture formed only two years ago but with over 20 farms set up so far, who invited the students and I to visit one of their most famous rooftop gardens in Central at the Fringe Club.

It proved to be a wonderful excursion for us, as we met Michelle Hong, one of the founding members of the social enterprise who gave us a tour of the garden and explained the key concepts and frameworks behind the venture. The company essentially specializes in providing professional services to set up and maintain farms for businesses and clients across Hong Kong life, whilst equally encouraging people to get involved with growing their own produce and promoting sustainable living. They consist of a team of experts in farm design and installation, permaculture, and farm management, as Michelle was able to give us invaluable advice on how to improve different aspects of our own gardening club, which had begun to feel rather small scale by this point.

With the garden placed on top of the prestigious Fringe Club in Central, a well-known not-for profits arts space and organisation which also doubles up as a restaurant, we were right in the heart of Hong Kong’s cultural core. The garden’s main use was to provide fresh vegetables for the restaurant downstairs, yet a large amount of the company’s food harvests also goes towards local food banks like Feeding Hong Kong as a communal gesture. They also use this garden to host regular urban gardening workshops for those with little to no experience, aiming to use urban gardening as a tool for transformative change at a social and educational level.

Gardens like this essentially demonstrate how the growing realities of food security and organic farming can be realised and sustainably managed within an urban setting. All it needs is a little care and communal investment for such green spaces to take off, and the students and I were suitably thrilled to have visited such a productive and stable urban garden environment.

Following on from our last trip, we have been invited to visit one of their largest gardens in Tung Chung in the coming weeks, to get a glimpse of how larger scale farming works in an organic and sustainable setting. Talks are also in place to organise an urban gardening event with Chatteris in April, to increase CNET’s eco-awareness and try to encourage more of us to set up our own gardens on campus. As our understanding of urban farming develops, our gardening club continues to grow, and hopefully we will be able to apply these practices to the garden in the coming months to help leave a sustainable mark in the future.

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Myself with the students and Michelle Hong at the Fringe Club garden

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Wet Market by Oliver McKinley

If you venture deep into Kowloon and stray further and further off the beaten path you will maybe find your way into Shek Kip Mei where you can find a building of delight, of wonder, of fear and of wide eyed amazement. It is the Shek Kip Mei Commercial Centre and it is straight out of the 1950’s brutalist playbook, bristling with purpose and utility. It is one of many wet markets which are peppered throughout Hong Kong where you can buy all and sundry.

Here you can find pretty much any vegetable, animal or mineral. There are things I have bought- strange fruits, weird vegetables, suspicious baked items- of which I am absolutely clueless about. There are fruit both fragrant and exotic. The poet, Tony Harrison was, apparently, able to find Kumquats in Leeds and Newcastle, where and how I do not know, as the bitter sweet fruit for his middle age but here they are found in beautiful abundance.

Eggs in ridiculous variety, which since the descriptions are in Cantonese, I do not appreciate. Though I think I can see duck egg blue among the hen’s brown. There are salted numbers too, and other ovoid shapes coated in sawdust, which are the dreaded thousand year egg with its white transformed into brown jelly.

Further up the aisle, and I can never work out the floorplan for the market, you will find the butchers, without any refrigeration, skillfully carving up the carcasses or perhaps blow torching the hairs off a pig’s head. In another section you will find a cluster of fishmongers selling fish, alive and dead as well as all manner of shellfish. There are beautiful clams, a beautiful mossy green which when cooked turn a fantastic pink. There are lobsters, and crabs and all other sorts of marine and aquatic life including frogs.

It is all, as David Dickinson would say, cheap as chips. I suspect that the traders are inflating their price for me, though they also point at the sign and smile and it is so very cheap. The eggs are 10 dollars for ten, though you do have to bring your own tray otherwise, and as I have learnt to my own misfortune, they come in a bag. Mushrooms in fine fettle are likewise priced and all the wonderful verdant shades of the brassica family are there for a fistful of dollars.  

The smell is strong, not just at the butchers and fishmongers but throughout the whole market.  At times it can feel like entering a film set for a bygone age, with the red bakelite lights, and the tremendous noise all around but it is wicked fun. There amongst the Chinese grannies, with their floral blouses and trollies and knitted hats you will find me struggling to buy supper. I never venture in and leave without a smile.

Sports Day by Fiona McGregor

The 14th of February was a very special day in the North Point Methodist Primary School calendar. Not because the students, and teachers, were waiting to give or receive that special love letter. No, this was Sports Day. A highly anticipated event where the whole school joins together and spends the day at Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground.

Now, I think I need to clarify the term ‘Sports Day’ and what it means to a Hong Kong primary school, compared to expectations for a primary school sports day in the UK. Firstly, there was no egg and spoon race. I know, tragic. It also did not include a sack race, three-legged race or even a celebratory cheap choc-ice to finish.

Sports day in Hong Kong is comprised of events like the 100m sprint, 200m sprint, 4x100m, long jump and a very competitive bean bag toss. Even the youngest students got a chance to take part in these events which was nothing short of adorable. The day started with a walk-a-thon where every student and their parents, walked around the athletics track, as a way to fundraise for the school, while a few chosen students lined the track and did a synchronised warm up routine. The students were all extremely excited for the races to begin and to have a day away from the classroom.

Selected students leading the synchronised warm up.
My role for the day was to stand at the finish line and judge who placed in the top four in the different races. It was a really sunny, if slightly windy, day and it was fun watching everyone compete and cheering them on from the line. Everyone was in good spirits, despite some very close finishes and some rather dramatic injuries. One poor student face-planted mid race and had to be taken to the waiting first aider who suspected a fractured elbow. Ouch!

The very last race of the day was the Teacher's’ Race, which was a relay race with students, teachers and parents making up each team. Unfortunately, my team did not win, there was a baton exchanging issue, which I am still not bitter about and it was a good time nonetheless.

My highlight for the day was watching the sports day chants. Each class had to perform a chant in front of the whole school, and there were prizes awarded in each year group. There were obviously different expectations for these chants, with the lower primary performing in Cantonese while the older students had to chant in English. I had spent many weeks prior to the event changing lyrics of popular English-speaking songs and recording them so that the students could listen and practice at home.
The songs included ‘ABC’ by the Jackson Five, ‘500 Miles’ by the Proclaimers, ‘Sugar’ by Maroon 5 and ‘Drag Me Down’ by One Direction. I think my proudest achievement as a Scot was watching class 6B sing, ‘I will run 500 miles and I will run 500 more, just to be the class that ran one thousand miles to win that gold medal.’ It was really funny. Accompanying these chants were full routines with pom-poms and everything, as each class pulled out all the stops in the hope of winning.
Whatever age group you work with in Chatteris, the work schedule is always peppered with fun and sometimes unusual events such as this. It can provide a good opportunity for comparison with the school culture that you experienced growing up in the UK, and also to learn more about the school environment in Hong Kong.