Category: Design & culture

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 […]

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 [pictured below second right] 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 [pictured below, far right], 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 ( and Aceh-based writer Doel CP Allisah (

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. “It makes it very hard to get the feelings and experiences of ordinary people back then” said critic Nurhady Sirimorok (below right, with Professor Melani Budianta). “We writers have to really use our imagination to tell history from the bottom up.”

Most Indonesians at the festival said that they feel a little undernourished, but free to write. But others, who still vividly recall the brutality of ’98 and before, spoke of self censorship and of covert intimidation by state agents. As one academic pointed out, Bali newspapers were full that week of the murder of local journalist A.A. Narendra Prabangsa, who was abducted and killed this year while reporting on corruption connected to a regent.

Yet the festival prompted some liberal outpourings. Well-heeled literary lunchers at the Alila Ubud saw the rousing performance in Bahasa by Cok Sawitri of her short story Womb, which is about women sterilizing themselves as an act of political protest. At another such event author Laksmi Pamuntjak read from her upcoming novel The Blue Widow, which translates characters from Hindu myth into the New Order years – her warrior becomes a dissident medical student – and puts them on Buru island, a notorious tropical gulag for political prisoners.

This gulag is where one of Indonesia’s most celebrated dissident writers, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer (who many believe was Asia’s best contender for a Nobel), wrote his epic ‘Buru quartet’ about the oppressive cocktail of Javanese feudalism, Dutch colonialism, militarism and communism that makes up Indonesia’s history. At a lunch Sirimok described the covert operation it once took just to get a ‘Pram’ novel, and of the bittersweet feeling he gets now seeing the books, on the shelves but passed over by young Indonesians who prefer modern tales of horror and romance.

As such, despite some glitches and the feeling of it having sprawled a little large for its organisers, Ubud’s lit fest injected as much vital discussion into the town as it did tourist dollars. “Indonesia is not used to a society full of critics,” Sirimok commented, “and when you don’t read critics what can you learn from? We need a culture of polyphonic voices.” This much has been ensured.

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A Great Dame

  September 2010, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Veteran British actress Jane Seymour shares about life beyond Bond, her run-ins with Cantonese cuss words, and her recent renown as a Hollywood ‘cougar’ Guys and dolls I started out with a speech impediment and flat feet – I had to practice my Rs and […]


September 2010, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Veteran British actress Jane Seymour shares about life beyond Bond, her run-ins with Cantonese cuss words, and her recent renown as a Hollywood ‘cougar’

Guys and dolls

I started out with a speech impediment and flat feet – I had to practice my Rs and take dance lessons. I ended up dancing with the Kirov Ballet at Covent Garden, hurt myself and became an actress by default. I started with a James Bond movie at 20 and I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. I finished that and went into theatre and shocked the newspapers, who kept saying I’d failed miserably because I was now being paid 12 pounds a week playing Nora in Ibsen’s Doll House instead of being a movie star… I just felt that I had a lot to learn, and I didn’t really want to run three paces behind a man with a gun, wearing short skirts. It wasn’t really what I had in mind.

Sense and scandal
I’ve been fortunate to have had a really varied career: East of Eden, obviously; Wedding Crashers is huge right now, so I’ve got a whole new younger generation who know me as ‘Kitty Kat’; and then there’s those who know me as a Bond Girl. That was a million years ago. I’ve played Maria Callas, Marie Antoinette – a lot of period work. I even made a move about the boat people in Hong Kong, shot in Penang. It’s called the Keys to Freedom.  I actually had to learn Cantonese overnight. They got this young Cantonese Hong Kong actor and he said, they want you to curse in the most horrible way possible at the woman who runs the whorehouse (in the scene). I said well, can you translate it for me into English? And he said, no, there are words in Cantonese that the English haven’t even discovered – but trust me, this will have an impact! So I learned this thing and then the next day all the people there on set went Oooh! And then I tried a bit of it in a Chinese restaurant about a year later in England and they went Oooh!

Long runs

Nineteen years ago I started [the TV series Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman] and it ran for seven years; it’s in 98 countries and still plays every day in America and France. Apparently it plays in China too. Somewhere in Time is huge everywhere. It’s the longest running movie in the history of Hong Kong cinema – a year and a half! In fact it was so crazy that when it came out and it ran for over a year  I came out it here at the invitation of Sir Run Run Shaw who sat me next to him just because he had to check me out and ask, why this movie?! People watched it fifteen, twenty times. Chris Reeve was my closest friend in the world after making that movie. I’m very involved with the Christopher Reeve Foundation and people with disabilities, in fact we’ve ramped our whole house. Thanks to Chris we met some extraordinary people with disabilities.

Art and advocacy
To help organizations that don’t have a voice is an extraordinary thing, and that only comes from having had some success in my artistic ventures. It has been a huge privilege, being able to pass a message or advocate for global water rights, or work for the American Red Cross in Africa. I’ve been supporting this programme, My Day for RA, because one of my best friends and the woman who told me how to paint developed rheumatoid arthritis and we didn’t know what it was at the time. She’s a health nut, but all of sudden she was with me one day and her feet blew up like balloons, and her hands too. She was in so much pain, she couldn’t pick anything up, she couldn’t dress herself.  They didn’t test her for RA until she came to them having looked on the Internet, and they got her on Enbrel, and she now can paint, has a life. But I’ve met a lot of RA patients now who didn’t get treatment in time.

Cougar du Jour
The good news is that for some reason [film producers] don’t think I look my age. I’m 60 in February. The bad news is that I can’t really play 40 because there’s plenty of 40-years-old who like to play 40. So they meet me and say, well she can’t really play the grandmother…  But I am playing inappropriate older women. Cougar du Jour!  My husband had to request that we lighten up on the cougar work, however I think it’s wonderful. I have girlfriends who are cougars, and I just play one, which is a lot safer. I can be happily married, have six children and just embarrass myself.  Sometimes I think I’m the only one who hasn’t had all the plastic surgery done – well I haven’t had the facelift anyway – and I keep thinking, do I, don’t I, do I, don’t I?  Maybe I should – like the British actresses, Judie Dench and Maggie Smith – just nab all those roles with my natural wrinkles.

I also have girlfriends with big duck lips. Why, when you’re health conscious, would you inject botulism in your face?  And as an actress, why would you paralyze the only part of your body that can show emotion? We made a movie once about Fanny Kemble –an English actress in the 1800s who married an American slave owner. We have a scene where I was with a Canadian actress, and these slaves are hanging from a tree, on fire – they were real stuntmen.  I’m like, tears pouring down my face, and this woman’s there, and she’s a great actress, but… nothing moved! And while we’ve still got these poor guys in flames, my husband (the director) yells ‘Cut! Please show me some emotion!’ And I said,’ James she can’t! She’s injected herself with something!’ So you know, they put out the guys…

Heart to hearth
I have dual citizenship. We live in Malibu; we don’t have a home in England any more. We had a beautiful home in Bath, over a thousand years old. We had it for 26 years and it’s the love of my life, but the expense of keeping a manor house… it came to the point where I had to say goodbye. I love going back to England and a huge part of me will always be British, but there’s something really exciting about living in America. It really is the melting pot of the world.

I have six kids and my children were raised there. It’s quite funny, parents often contribute to helping in the classroom. They got me to mark some papers – which wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I’m quite a determined ‘A type’ personality, and when I discovered that every single one of them had made the same mistake I realized that I had cracked a curious problem in the American system.  I was putting red circles around ‘flavour’, ‘favourite’ – all the ‘ours’. Then they very kindly said, you may go now! Please go and be an actress and leave us with the education.

One of the kids has suddenly become a rock musician. He’s been discovered by the head of Warner Brothers – he’s fourteen. We’re incredibly excited. I’ve come up with a new word : I’m a ‘Modie’, a mother and a roadie.

Cash and credit
My husband is a director and we produce movies. I just finished a film I really love called Love Wedding Marriage, with Mandy Moore, shot in New Orleans. We did Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash one. He was on Dr. Quinn back when nobody cared about Johnny Cash, and my husband James Keach directed him, and we became very good friends, June, John and I. Johnny said, one day someone’s going to make a story of my life and I don’t trust anyone in the world, but I trust you; what do you think story should be? So James went on tour with him, as did I, and came back to Johnny and said, it’s about redemption – about coming back from hell in a belief in a higher power and the love of a good woman. We named my twin sons after their godfathers, one Johnny and one Kris, for Christopher Reeve.

We have another [film] coming out later this year called Waiting for Forever that stars Rachel Bilson. I love finding the scripts, working on them to make them better, getting great writers to come in and do rewrites. The casting and the editing is all done at the house too so I can see how you can turn really good movie into a great movie just by moving scenes around. It’s fascinating as an actress to be on the other side. It gives you a huge advantage when you’re acting because you know what they need.

Seeing the light
I’ve had three near death experience. One time, I was in Madrid making a movie playing Maria Callas and I got bronchitis.  They sent in a hotel doctor, but the nurse who injected me hit an artery and I got anaphylactic shock. They resuscitated me, but I’d left my body and saw what was going on, and realized at that point I wanted to live. I saw the white light and tunnel and everything, and I said please, put me back in my body; I want to raise my children, not waste any time in my life and help other people. People say why do you do some much and I say well, when you’ve actually almost not been here anymore you have a completely different perspective on everything.

Dutch courage
My mother (pictured below) was from Holland; she lived in Indonesia from the time she was 20 in a tea plantation, and was incarcerated for three and a half years in World War II, in three camps. I took her back there about 20 years ago and she was able to tell her story. That’s what the whole Open Heart [project] is.  She said, darling when life’s tough and you think some things are insurmountable, go out and help someone else. And when she was in the camps and they had no food, medicines, nothing, she said ‘I nursed until the end of the war. I nursed all these people who were dying, and all these men they brought in with dysentery, and I laid them out and tried to talk to them and caress them and help them, and that’s the only reason I was able to stay sane’.  She said when times are tough, help someone else – it’ll help you. And that’s always been my mantra. And then I came up with this little squiggle which became the Open Heart [symbol], which has almost become a whole philosophy in America. After 911 my prayer was that somehow as the world becomes smaller we can open our hearts to our humanity, and be in the present moment, and be open and receptive to other people’s ideas and culture. I had one necklace made for myself, from my painting, and when I did Dancing with the Stars I was wearing it, and met the people from Kay Jewelers and they loved the symbolism. I said well as long as we can have a foundation and help people with it.

Quiet creations
I paint for a living and I raise a lot of money with my art. I love to be creative; it really doesn’t matter if it’s walking around the garden picking vegetables and coming up with some great meal, or picking flowers and painting them and making a flower arrangement, or creating a role, or being on the other side of the camera helping create a film. Now I also design home furnishings and we actually make them right there in Mainland China; they do amazing work.
I don’t do anything that the press tend get terribly excited about. It’s like: she’s happily married and has six children and they seem to be well behaved, end of story – next! She’s wearing that outfit this week, oh, that’s of interest! And her hair’s still the same – how boring, she hasn’t even coloured it differently!  But Dancing with the Stars was fun. As far as America’s concerned right now, that is my claim to fame. Forget that I’ve won awards for acting or whatever, or the OBE. No – Dancing with the Stars!

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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 in the 1980s, as legend has it, as an untrained art-school dropout in London, welding bits of scrap metal into furniture. Despite a string of commercial successes, he has managed to keep his work fresh, blending a feel for solid craft with a curiosity about technology and the unexpected ways it can be used.

His knack for showmanship hasn’t hurt either, and whether giving away chairs for free in Trafalgar Square, or custom making them from molten plastic on stage, Dixon has always been able to command a good headline, at home and abroad. His aesthetic services to the empire haven’t gone unrecognised: along with various product design awards, Dixon received an OBE in 2000.

Yet Dixon has found it hard to relax completely into his successes. While most top names in product design hold contracts with a handful of different firms and collect the royalties, he has found the model uncomfortably limiting. Since leaving the helm of British homeware store Habitat, the designer has been striving to build a platform for his work on his terms. Now, under the umbrella of his Design Research Group, Dixon has his main furniture and lighting label, Tom Dixon, and part owns small interiors arm, the Design Research Studio and modernist Finnish furniture manufacturer Artek.

Although he lists about 400 regular clients in 52 countries, none has a direct say in what he designs or how his work is produced or distributed. “It’s more like a fashion brand in that way – and a unique model in the design industry,” he says. “Very few people are doing what I’m doing, weirdly.”

But the creative responsibility weighs heavier this way. The pace of change is faster and the competition is growing rapidly. Thanks to digital technology, products can be made more cheaply, in smaller quantities, and closer to home. So just as aspiring writers can self-publish their books online, young designers can now make a sketch on their computer, convert it into a digital file and find a local factory to send it for production. It’s a concept that Dixon explored in his latest furniture and lighting line, Industry.

“This is from a factory that makes filters and the mesh on speakers in cars,” the designer says, gesturing to a suspended geometric lampshade in sheet metal, punctured with delicate patterns; it can be flat packed to the size of a paperback book. “It’s from a digitally controlled printing process, so if I wanted to make a hundred of them in a floral pattern, or with a different geometry I could do it easily; you just send off the file and you know what you’re going to get back. Product design now is about finding places that do techniques that haven’t been used before in domestic goods. Made-to-measure products are becoming a lot more possible and it’s fascinating in terms of industry.”

This has led him to wonder why design innovation hasn’t yet exploded on the mainland, where turning a blueprint into product is cheap and relatively easy. Dixon travels often to the mainland to have things made and to visit vendors such as Design Republic in Shanghai, and he still marvels at the speed and ease of production.

Tazmania Ballroom, for instance, features fittings that he could never have had affordably made in Britain, he says, like the heavy brass pool tables that can be winched into the ceiling to create dance space. “You’d imagine that Chinese designers would have developed a clear aesthetic and their own consumer brands by now that are recognised over the world, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet. But I’m sure it will. All of the tools are at their disposal right here.”

As his own boss Dixon has allowed himself to take on a range of low-yield passion projects. He works with artisans in developing countries, helping find ways for them to preserve their skills and compete with cheap industry. One project with the British Council in Jaipur, India, inspired Beat, his popular series of hand-beaten brass lamp shades.

His Finnish connection has prompted a different kind of deliberation. Artek is apparently considered a national treasure by the Finns, who are protective of its reputation and its designs. Some of its furniture mainstays haven’t changed since the company was founded by architect Alvar Aalto in the 1930s and it has had Dixon thinking hard about notions of legacy and longevity. His latest preoccupation is creating items he can sell with a 1,000-year guarantee.

In the meantime his interior projects are allowing him a little more room to play, while pushing his British design agenda even further. The Design Research Studio fashionably reworked the language of stuffy members’ clubs for London’s Shoreditch House a few years ago, sending design ripples globally, and the Tazmania Ballroom is likely to inspire tributes to its mischievous mix of study, pool hall and James Bond-style bling. Trendy young Hongkongers may not find moss on their walls this summer, but they may still be served chips on the side of their whiskey sodas. It seems Dixon’s services to Britain’s global street cred remain secure.

Young at art

For a man who assembled “the Kitchen Chair” in his early years from random, welded metal objects, Tom Dixon’s body of work has grown in sophistication, although it can’t perhaps be called completely grown-up. Below are some of his landmark designs, most of which put a hefty dose of fun back into function.

1988: Dixon’s slender, avant-garde S-chair is put into production by Cappellini, bringing good posture to the masses.
1989: With its iron wire frame, in orange or white, the Pylon chair takes an architectural approach to sitting.
1991: The Bird chair presents an unusual combination of rocking chair and chaise longue.
1994: The multifunctional light/seat Jack Light proves that British manufacturing is still affordable.
1997: Jack comes stacked under Dixon ‘s former company, Eurolounge, before making a comeback, solo once more, earlier this year under the Tom Dixon label.
2001: First produced on demand and on stage at furniture shows, the Fresh Fat chair (below) brings a new glamour to extruded plastic.
2004: Launched during an “anti-design kick”, the best-selling Mirror Ball is a failed attempt to create something that has no identity of its own.
2007: Beat vessels become Dixon’s tribute to tradition, with each hand made by craftsmen in northern India.
2010: Easily flat-packed and made from discarded wood, Offcut is an exercise in eco-consciousness.
2010: Void lamp is designed in patriotic reference to Olympic medals.

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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 […]

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.

[See Gafencu LP for the original PDF feature]

STA Luang Prabang pix

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. Near the night market the Blue Lagoon Cafe & Restaurant comes highly recommended by staff at Phou Vao. “International and Laos cuisine and Swiss management – good cuisine and atmosphere,” notes resident manager Denis Simonne, also extolling the virtues of the traditional Laotian menu at the 3 Nagas.

During my own explorations I dined on steamed fish with coconut at the Coleur Cafe, a small elegant bistro that offers, ‘cocktails et jazz’, and perused a pretty good wine list from the roof terrace of the Samsara Restaurant and Gallery. These small places make it easy to avoid the casual pizza joints that, though atmospheric, offer pretty generic food on the main strip. Down by the Nam Khan riverside things get a bit more local. Fruit shakes vendors set up shop, and I tried alfresco Laotian options like bamboo salad for as little as U$1. Low bottomed fishing boats drift by on one side, ladies on bicycles coast by on the other, bundled up against the sun. Being there at its off peak hottest and least busy was like vacationing on a stunning, high budget movie set peopled by a small cast of convincing extras.

Though tuk tuks and taxis hover semi-discreetly, the old quarter is easily explored on foot. It’s a skinny peninsular, less than a kilometre square, and lies at the confluence of two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. The main thoroughfare, Xiang Thong is a postcard worthy street lined with shophouse-restaurants and small hotels, and I wandered the length of it in about fifteen minutes. Early mornings see it come alive at six am for takbat; a gliding procession of brightly-clad novice monks receiving alms. Sleepy eyed travelers mingle with residents and are usually rewarded with hypnotic, technicoloured photographs – splashes of bright orange against the dusty pink hues of a morning sky. I chose a respectful, effortless distance for my takbat experience:  reclining on my balcony, a steaming cup of Lao coffee in hand.

The heat of the afternoon sends all but the tuk tuk drivers scurrying for shade on Xiang Thong. A favourite refuge of mine, JoMa, is a Canadian-owned organic bakery that blasts coffee tinged air-conditioning. Its pastries are flaky and delicious, the owners often around for a chat, and upstairs the Mulberries boutiqu showcases a range of free trade, floaty clothes and accessories worth a peruse.

Few can leave Luang Prabang with luggage that weighs the same. As night falls and the stupa on the small, forested Phou Si (“sacred hill”) provides the perfect perch for sunset groupies, part of Xiang Thong gets cordoned off to traffic below. Merchants pour in, a few in traditional garb, and it quickly becomes awash with night market produce; a swimming, shimmering landscape of gleaming silk swatches, bed spreads, lamps and handmade toys. I picked up a pair of patchwork style slippers for as little as a US$1.50, or 15,000 kip.

Although many of the villages in the north are known for their skill at weaving, finding a great piece of silk or cotton in the markets can be a challenge. One on afternoon ramble I came across a large three storey shophouse with an unpronounceable name, filled with beautiful textiles at surprisingly steep prices.  One of the co-founders is a British photographer, Joanna Smith, who had set up Ockpoptok with a Lao weaver friend to help provide a sustainable link between the more remote, impoverished villages, and tourist demand. The shop works with the Lao women’s union and development agencies to help training villagers in product design. “They may be expensive,” she remarked as I balked at the US$100 price tag of a small aquamarine wall hanging, “but they’re nothing like the quality or workmanship of the stuff in the night markets.” Regular exhibitions at Ockpoptok take visitors into the technicalities and cultural significance of Laotian weaving, making use of Smith’s photography skills.

Travellers with extra time tend to head for the hills, and Xiang Thong supports a number of adventure travel companies. I took a day trip with Tiger Trails, which specialises in small, eco-adventure excursions through hill tribe villages and beyond. It was one of the firm’s easier options – a relaxed ramble through dry bristling hillsides, visits to a few obliging Kamu villages with their stilted houses and piglet armies, and a kayak trip down the Mekong. The day was neither super taxing or incredibly thrilling, but it was pleasant, and the villagers seemed happy to have our small group around. The company is a co-operative effort with the hill tribes, Markus Peschke, its German owner had explained, and the warmth in the smiles we were met with led me to believe him.

Most Tiger Trail excursions involve a meal or a few nights stay at its luxury eco lodge, the Lao Spirit Resort, which sits across the river from the elephant camp, and I spent a memorable meal in the open air restaurant, being eyed by the establishment’s tame owl and listening to enthusiastic pop song renditions by the Mahouts, rising above the rush of the water.

Those that look can find more to Luang Prabang than its old wat-heavy hub, but most visitors choose to miss the typical urban sprawl of its suburbs, with their basic business hotels, utilitarian shop fronts and motorbike traffic. Many Laotians feel certain impatience at the pristine preservation of the downtown area, and the building codes that thwart their thirst for progress. They are just coming across the twenty first century and it must be infuriating to be told that the past is much more in fashion. Still, as someone from a city that has chosen commercialism over its cultural assets at every turn, I find myself glancing around Luang Prabang, and whispering a quick word of thanks to UNESCO.


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The China Challenge

Prestige, Hong Kong, October 2009

US-trained designer Lyndon Neri had a hard time getting used to the mainland, but now he’s revelling in the challenges.

Though passion is imperative in any good designer, it can be taken too far. This is something Lyndon Neri learned on the day he accidentally collapsed his own lungs. “I wasn’t well and I hadn’t slept for three days straight. So I spent two days in hospital then went straight back into studying again,” chuckles the designer of his breakdown at Harvard. “It probably wasn’t the best approach.”

Back then the man who would later co-found the Neri and Hu Design and Research Office in Shanghai had been throwing himself full tilt into his thesis, about a pocket of a Californian Chinatown in which first-generation customs were still perfectly preserved. It was a critique mostly, but one that Neri felt he could give because he’d grown up somewhere not so different about 8,000 miles away.

As a boy Neri had found the Chinese Diaspora in Cebu, in the Philippines as conservative as it was watertight. “They hold on there to the China that they knew, much more than in Thailand or Singapore,” he says. “As kids we played with toys that people my age haven’t seen except in history books! But the problem is that it doesn’t evolve with the rest of the country.” Though friends commended his father for running such a Chinese household overseas, Neri knew even then that it wasn’t ideal.

The experience has led him to helm emotional explorations into ideas of ‘Chineseness’, much of it through design. He and his wife and work partner Rossana Hu may tap into tradition for their products or interiors, but they try to elevate or excavate below simple cliché. This is also thanks to an old Neri matriarch, still vocal at 99 years old. “My grandfather was a poet, but she was our family intellectual,” he says fondly, of his grandmother. “She would talk to me about the authenticity of a place, how you shouldn’t repeat history but interpret it. She says arts and crafts must be preserved, but if you continue to do new things that are copies, that is no different from somewhere like Disneyland.”

Neri mentions a big hotel the studio is working on in Xian right now: it comes with three hundred and fifty rooms, a tight deadline and the temptation to throw something easy and beautiful together; but instead the designers have been burying into history books and they’ve bought replica terracotta warriors and the armour they wore, “not to mimic them, but to try to understand the nature of the material and why they used it.”  The detail in the armour will be translated into a feature wall in the lobby. This kind of thinking pervades NHDRO design, no matter the size of the project.

But the pair’s affinity with China hasn’t always been so strong. He went to the States from the Philippines at 15, and she moved there from Taiwan. Traveling to the mainland, as a design associate with Michael Graves and later as a family, had its setbacks. Neri wasn’t crazy about the hygiene and the pollution, and he struggled with what he calls the ‘prolonged let’s-talk-about-it’ business approach. “In my first two or three years I was a straight-talking Chinese American and I was just not getting anything done; people were stalling me,” he remembers. “I was working on Three on the Bund as principal for Michael Graves and I realized that to make a significant difference it’s not how fluent your language is, and it’s not how much history or cultural knowledge you have. If you don’t understand the heart of the people there’s no way of communicating”.

The decision to move to China at all was a tough one. The pair left family members, good schools, clean air and prestigious jobs, but the problems they saw in China began to weigh heavy. “Every time I talked to my grandmother she would say, ‘look at yourself in the mirror: you look and you are Chinese,’ and she was right; inscribed on my back it says Made in China!” says Neri. “I love the food, I know the culture, I know the traditions and I raise my kids like Chinese. I could continue to criticise or I could do something about it, and all of a sudden I looked at things differently.” He began to see potential where he had once just seen shortcomings; the buildings that could be better and the café tables on the sidewalk that could one day be romantic, like in Paris, rather than simply unsanitary.

And so came Design Republic. In 2003, masquerading as a stylishly raw design emporium, the studio launched the place with education at its core. It sells their products and lines from Jasper Morrison, Frank Gehry, Isamu Noguchi and the like, but it also pulls in priceless modern design classics from around the world and presents them in exhibitions. Neri gives tours to students about once a month, and other designers make their own pilgrimages to see products that changed the history of their craft. “If we don’t bring these things to Chinese designers they will forever look at them from magazines” says Neri, “and they’ll look and say ‘that’s easy to do’ without understanding that what Jean Prive did with plywood in the 1920s was nothing less than a cultural breakthrough.”

And though the studio itself deals largely in luxury projects and high end products, Neri’s biggest lesson has perhaps been seeing this for the opportunity that it is, and understanding that in China, change happens from the top down and victory comes in many forms. Whether this is by sneaking a museum or a few sculptures in among the boutiques in an exclusive shopping complex, or fostering more time and tolerance among officials for slow, thoughtful design, he’s content, these days, with the manageable triumphs.

“I could be arrogant, but the reality is that this generation of designers is not going to be that great. We ourselves are not going to be that great,” he says cheerfully. “We’re just paving the way.” It looks like his lungs are safe for now.

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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 affair.The minerals dissolved in geothermal springs are widely thought to have significant health benefits, and many cultures, from Roman to Maori have celebrated the restorative powers of a good, volcanic soak. Maladies from warts to wrinkles are supposed to be soothed by a dip, and though science may raise its proverbial eyebrow few doctors will dispute the good a hot bath can do for circulation, or muscular pain. Sophisticated complexes will feature water of varying temperatures and ph levels to keep everyone happy, however each district will vary.
With twenty or so semi dormant volcanoes hemming in Taipei’s northern edges, its forested vistas seethe with wispy puffs of steam. Hikers will rarely set off without a towel and hot spring resorts dot the region.  But for a steamy, laid back mini break under an hour from the city – and a pilgrimage to the roots of Taiwanese hot spring culture –Xin or New Beitou is the place to go.

‘Steamy’ was once the operative word for the town, which for some years after the Japanese became known as the place to procure many drinks and a lady for the night, particularly for US servicemen. However this has been a mixed blessing. While other Taipei spa towns have a polished, developed feel to them Xin Beitou’s revival came later, and it has a charmingly hodge-podge mix of old and new, in which old invariably seems to win. The place is walkable and very green, its roads hopelessly twisty, and public space is still hallowed. “That park was designed by the Japanese” says Tony Wang, director of Sweetme Hot Spring Resorts, pointing at a green in which old men played checkers, and locals splashed around barefoot in an adjacent stream. “It’s hardly been changed at all.”

The park is just a short walk from Xin Beitou MRT station, and a push through the usual gaggle of chain stores and past a rocky stream will bring visitors to the town’s oldest bathhouse. Longnaitang sits crouched, thatched and whitewashed in a light cloud of sulfur-scented fog, and Mr Lee on reception will happily chat about the area, his family home for five generations. As he speaks the sound of vigorous slapping keeps steady pace behind a curtain. Some kind of massage service? “No, they do that to themselves!” he said. “It’s part of the bathing tradition.”

For those that worry about the perils of onsen etiquette, the local council has put out an A4 sheet of ‘prohibitions and matters for attention’ in English, which Mr Lee keeps to hand. Many of the rules – such as, do not take pets into the baths and stay away if you have an infectious disease – are common sense, but it is worth noting that there should be a fifteen minute immersion max, and that a full body wash is expected before entering. Other potential pitfalls, such as whether to be clothed or not, or how best to brandish your little wenquan towel will usually come from other local bathers, happy to show newbies the ropes. Still, if being nude with an egg-smelling roomful of strangers pushes your pleasure threshold to the max, alternatives beckon.

Not far along Beitou’s steep, narrow alleyways, flanked by little houses are two old bastions of its hot spring history, with baths of the communal and in-room variety. Both catered to the Japanese military and ruling elite in its early-century heyday, and many a kamikaze pilot took their last dip here. The I-Tsun has been in the So family since the Japanese left, and both building and hostesses are ageing but gracefully hospitable. I-Tsun’s interiors are a fascinating mix of eras; architectural Kyoto-style detailing in wood and stone from the turn of the century, curtain and sofa fabrics that have hung on since the late eighties. Further up the hills, Whispering Pines Inn is more polished with Koi Carp ponds and tatami rooms, though still rather dated. At night the sounds of traditional nakashi bands waft up from its popular function rooms below, bolstered by electronic keyboard. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the renditions of ‘Please Release Me’ for salary man’s karaoke, rather than, as we were told rather severely, professionals charging NT$2,000 an hour.

Xin Beitou does have its modern side. McDonalds , Mos Burger, swish real estate offices and brash new hotels suggest that once the economy picks up again, the town’s landscape could see further changes. But where a few Las Vegas-inspired options let the side down, there are also those that offer affordable weekends away in tasteful three and four star comfort. Hotels such as Pacific Wellness and Spa Club and SweetMe Hot Spring Resort combine decent breakfast buffets with sleek design and modern hot spa complexes covering entire floors.

One place in particular has dramatically hoisted Xin Beitou’s chic credentials. Villa 32 was built by Taiwanese millionaire Chiu Ming-hung on a secluded side of town’s primordial Geothermal Valley; a steaming pond and popular tourist site. It was designed as a luxurious guesthouse but Chiu later spent years and millions of Taiwanese dollars converting it into a boutique hotel. He kept many of the personal touches of a wealthy home. Sleek, modernist hot spring complexes lie under century-old camphor and maple trees, and the villa’s five suites – three split-level in a European style and two with tatami mats, fusuma doors, both with sweeping private spas – are served by around 70 staff. The place rivals Taipei’s top luxury hotels, but for those unable to book a room, the Italian restaurant offers a fine lunch.

Diversions tend to be limited in Xin Beitou, but there are hiking trails, a museum of hot spring history and another of indigenous crafts, as well as modest night-market dining adventures to pull visitors out of the bath. Flitting in and out of Taipei is also easy from here. However once the pace of life has got you in Xin Beitou, it can be reluctant to let go. You’d be far better advised to lay back, give in, and sample the joys of a holiday in hot water.


Getting there and where to stay:

The drive to Xin Beitou takes around eighty minutes from Tauyuan International Airport, thirty minutes from Taipei’s main train station, and less by MRT, the user-friendly Tapei metro system.

The I-tsun Hotel
1 40 Wen Chuan Road, (02) 2891 2121-3

Pacific Wellness Spa & Club
No 1, Quiyan Rd, (02) 2893-1668

SweetMe Hotspring Resort
No 224 Guangming Rd (02) 2898 4505

Whispering Pine Inn
No.21, You Ya Rd, (02) 2895 1531

Villa 32
32 Zongshan Road, (02) 6611-888



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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 […]

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 hasn’t always come with champagne. Its roots in Central Asia – Persia around 600BC it is guessed – suggest a sport played among horse-hardy villagers, with its past incarnations using the carcasses of goats and the heads of men. However during its move through Tibet and India, and into the British Empire (where it was largely used to train Calvary) it was successfully refined, and ‘the Sport of Kings’ emerged in all its present Mumm-quaffing glory.  Prince Charles and his brood play it, as did the Sultan of Brunei, and many a deal in the Middle East has been eased along by a chukker or two. With Polo’s role of honour ranging from Dukes to CFOs, it seems only fitting that it be poised to hit one of the world’s fastest growing elites.

“As prestige goes, it’s only really matched by having your own Formula One team” says Steve Wyatt, the man who made both China’s first international polo tournament, and its home – Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club – a reality. He founded the club six months ago on a development belonging to his partner, millionaire tycoon Qin Fu Li, where it complements a marina and a golf club, all encased in rosy, faux-Mediterranean architecture. The site between Hangzhou and Shanghai has it within easy reach of a rich, restless client base, and it nurtures a small but enthusiastic team of Chinese Polo players in-training.

Still, as impressive as the sport is, even Wyatt –  a keen player –will admit that polo is only 10% of time spent on a horse; most of the club’s 300 or so members have taken the less-active ‘social’ membership. When considering polo for his Nine Dragons property, Li, who’s among the top fifty in China’s Hurun Rich List, had foreseen a powerful new social niche for those in China’s top tier; one that would have been unthinkable just ten years earlier.  “In the future we can see polo attracting a lot of leaders from other countries like Britain or the Middle East,” he says from behind acres of desk in his forty-third floor Shanghai office. “Not long ago the Japanese Prime Minister played tennis with the Chinese premier during a visit, and it was a very good chance for them to nurture their relations. My suggestion is that if Prince Charles can come to Nine Dragons Hill and play polo, ties between our countries can develop and bilateral trade will develop further!”

Wyatt also stresses the global power of the polo network, or as he also terms it, the ‘family’. “It’s a small community anywhere in the world, usually of successful business leaders.  If you have an international handicap you’re automatically welcomed into the circle in exclusive club X in country Y,” he says. “Several times I’ve just turned up; somebody will be out exercising the horses, you’ll get chatting to them over a coffee and then you find out that they’re running the Hermes fashion house or something like that.” He picked a good example. Patrick Guerrand – Hermes, director of Hermes International, does indeed play Polo. He also owns The Polo Club du Domaine de Chantilly, France’s premier club.

This expansion into China is all part of an emerging global trend. As the rich grow richer and ever-fond of seclusion, high end villas, marinas, golf and equestrian clubs are being rolled into mega watt, gated leisure packages –like the impending Culu Culu in Argentina (a country that harbours the highest concentration of skilled players) or Apes Hill in Barbados. For wealthy Chinese, time in the saddle can map the way into an airtight world of wealth, heritage and high culture overseas.

However these are early days, and it hasn’t been easy to start a club from scratch in a country with little horsemanship in its modern history. Polo circles have the bar set high, and quality control is Wyatt’s major worry. He and Li brought in fourteen thoroughbred polo ponies from Australia, Pellegrini from a club in Thailand and the deftest of Mongolia’s young horse hands, as well as a clubhouse furnished with antlers and polished leather. But the key, he says, was in peaking the interest of the right men. “The point is, you only get one chance to create a first impression, so it’s important that you have people who are of the kind that you’d expect to be gentleman players or patrons,” he explains.

He found his gentlemen – three of them at least – on the race track. Ferrari racers have just the right combination of wealth and personality, Wyatt decided, plus an essential competitive streak. His idea was to train them up for participation in a pioneering international championship at the club that could rally the local elite.  The three, Larry Lin, Michael Wang and Tony Wang are a group of chairmen, managing directors at the very top of their professional game. The club’s fourth Ambassador Team player is Brian Xu, whose company Shanghai Marco Stationery is responsible for manufacturing a vast proportion of the world’s pencils. He had come across the sport during a stint in Santa Barbara and was keen to get back in the saddle.

From little or almost no equestrian experience, the four men found themselves in front of a 3,000 strong crowd ten weeks later, on two newly inaugurated polo fields recently pulled from the sea. Each man was placed in a team with some of the world’s top polo contenders, including international championship winners, a former national team captain and the reigning world champion elephant polo player, James Manclark. A landmark exhibition match also took place between new, mostly overseas-trained teams from Shanghai and Beijing.

As aficionados will probably note, a real appreciation of the sport can’t be honed in a year; and polo’s frilly spectator culture is as big as the sport itself. “We spent a while beforehand with PR getting the message out there about what polo is,” remembers Wyatt. “We did an etiquette day for ladies with sponsorship from a hat manufacturer. Champagne flowed. It was a way of talking about Garden Party – how to look and be the part. Those not dressed appropriately on the first day – by third day they’d all got it.”

Tournament sponsorship came from Royal Salute Whisky, with its brand ambassador, the 13th Duke of Argyll rambunctiously present along with other hues of European nobility. The Royal Salute Cup came from HRH Queen Elizabeth’s jeweler, Richard Fox. Divots were gleefully trodden in, luxury cars test driven, best hat competitions held and an extravagant gala dinner hosted among the Renoirs and Degas of a fine art fair at Shanghai’s Exhibition Centre (a horse and carriage were also craned in specially); all hooking a local upper crust which, until then had thought golf, or sailing, as good as it got.

Wyatt is determined that the next event raise the bar higher and he’s keen to expand his Ambassadors team among the business elite. Another generation of new players has signed up for the club’s intensive tournament skills course, one of few in the world (for where clubs in other countries are jealously protective, here there’s a well directed push – provided you have the right credentials). “I don’t know if polo will happen in the next Olympics, but the next World Cup…” Wyatt pauses, “well, it would be awesome to have a Chinese national team there.”

He’s not alone with his ambitions and there are a few other small polo operations in China now, though allegedly none with thoroughbred polo ponies. Li also has grand plans for the property as a whole, and speaks with a gleam in his eye of an intricate Disney-meets-Sea-World-meets-Monaco kind of sprawl that aims to rival Macau as a mini-break destination down south. But for now, the ponies must just get themselves through one very chilly winter, warmed perhaps by the knowledge that being a pioneer has never been easy.


The Rule of the Game

Polo teams generally consist of four players, each on a horse, with a game split into six or eight chukkers (or chukkas) of seven minutes each. There are breaks of three minutes between each chukker, plus a five-minute half time. The aim is to get the ball through the opponent’s goal using a long mallet. Goal posts are 24 feet apart, and an outdoor polo field is roughly the size of ten football pitches. Since the safety of the polo ponies (which are actually horses) is primary, penalties are given for reckless play and riders must take care not to bodily intercept the ball. Despite this, games are fast paced, tremendously strenuous and often aggressive.











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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 floor tiles or a vintage piece of iron work is beginning to be understood – especially in a city like Hong Kong, where floor plans are cookie cutter and product brands are limited. Unlike antique ornamentation, salvage brings personality deeper into the fabric of your home.

Hong Kong artist Stanley Wong has explored the layers of personal meaning in materials by making installations out of refuse, but in Hong Kong bar and restaurants The Pawn and The Press Room he brought this philosophy into play as a designer. In the vintage club-style Pawn he used timber from old ship decks in floors and walls, and flattened out rice bags for wallpaper. “Of course, people here are not really used to it (but) there’s a more sentimental, sensational feeling,” he says.  “To me, salvaged materials not only provide a different look, but more important (are) the emotion and stories behind… and the sense of environmental friendliness”.

The environmental factor is key to the popularity of salvage among designers; the luxury market might be resilient to reuse but the green revolution has made the idea more marketable.  Raefer Wallis of A00 Architecture was responsible for shaping the look of young ‘carbon neutral’ hotel, URBN, in Shanghai (pictured above), founded by entrepreneurs Jules Kwan and Scott Barrack. “URBN is not about salvaged mahogany and old suitcases… it is about making the best use of available local resources,” stresses the designer, who with Kwan, spent days cycling around old expo sites and tiny shops on the hunt for resources to use in the building. A hefty dose of local character comes from the wall of battered leather suitcases stacked high in the hotel reception, and rooms are enveloped in brick and old mahogany from demolished hutongs. Most of the suitcases were barely recognizeable when they were first unearthed, he notes; they needed hours of cleaning and polishing.

Bringing these old materials into a home takes creativity as well as elbow grease. Jennifer Newton of Hong Kong-based interior design studio Newton Concepts, spends many a weekend sifting through old wood at reclamation yards, like the one near Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, and these find their way into her clients’ homes in various forms. “I use a lot of wood reclaimed from old railway sleepers in Bali and Java, and a lot of old oolong wood and iron wood used in shipyards and I’ll make it into table tops – coffee tables and dining tables – because it has so much character to it,” she explains. “You can also use big slate tiles as coffee tables, or reuse old Chinese windows either as windows or you can make them into mirrors.”

In one recent apartment redesign, Newton lined structural ceiling beams with worn elm panels from China, giving the home a strong earthy kick. But she advises against using old wood for flooring because each piece needs to be cut evenly, sanded down and treated for small holes. Flooring shops in western cities have such materials ready-prepared at a price, but she knows of no such option here.
In fact in this part of the world the road to good architectural salvage can be long and tiresome, though this journey itself brings a narrative to your interior. Designers speak of glamour-less trawls through wreckage yards and hours spent tracking down hole-in-the-wall stores in Beijing for a small pile of vintage tiles. Wallis finds his resources in little shops around Chinese demolition sites, where the former DVD or underwear-selling tenants have been replaced by salvage vendors in spaces “with a makeshift door and lock on the front, and maybe a hanging light bulb or two.” Kwan, thanks to a tip-off, found his suitcases in a dusty unnumbered warehouse outside of Shanghai.

In Hong Kong success can sometimes be had in the wood vendors along Wan Chai’s Lockhart Road, or in Cat Street shops in Sheung Wan, which stock smaller items such as wall sconces, light fitting and door knobs.  Newton has started to sell old pieces at her store on Elgin Street because of the gap in the market, though she has also sourced some wood through Mix Creation Ltd in Central (tel: 2307 0273). A few furniture vendors, such as David Ng’s Matchit ( on Star Street or Chen Mi Ji ( are good starting points for custom-made furniture pieces with age and character.

Character doesn’t come cheaply though. One Hong Kong designer impetuously shelled out HK$4,000 for a large plank of shipyard wood in a LockhartRroad shop; the piece is now mounted and spot-lit in his conference room, coveted by most of his clients, and according to him, worth it. Higher grade salvage, like teak from old houses in Indonesia or stained glass windows from churches in Europe, can command extremely high prices. However in Asia, at the source (mainly demolition sites) many pieces are in danger of being thrown away or chopped up, and bargains can be found.  “Typically they show up in the neighborhood where they are sourced,” notes Wallis. “Moving them any further isn’t worth it. Finding them requires a bike or scooter… or better yet walking. You miss these little places when trying to hunt them down with a car.”

For those that like to cheat, technology and cheap manual labour on the Mainland can add a century to a design scheme, courtesy of a good contractor.  “You say, I want this with a cracked lacquer screen and show them a picture,” says a designer at hospitality giant, Hirsch Bedner Associates. “They paint it, fracture it, repaint it and process, and when they’re done it looks 110 years older. You do get some strange looks when you first ask, though – the concept is not completely understood!” There are also DIY options: aged paint finisher can work wonders on mouldings.

However many designers can’t bring themselves to go faux. Alexi Robinson worked with top British designer Tom Dixon on Shoreditch House, one of London’s latest hipster members’ clubs, with a warehouse aesthetic that inspired the Pawn (and countless other interiors the world over). She has been hired by the Press Room Group to do a restaurant in Hong Kong. “Would I fake it? I don’t think I could; I believe in the honesty of a material,” she says.  “It might not be the most practical or economically sensible advice to homeowners because the technology for certain effects is now very convincing, but to build a narrative within the space, to create a feeling of true comfort I think you’ve got to believe in the authenticity of the materials you’re using.”

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Stay Overnight in a Turkish Mansion

May 14, 2009, Time Magazine

“Make yourself at home” may be a refrain heard in guesthouses the world over, but it takes on new meaning when it comes from one of your host country’s wealthiest families — and when your temporary “home” is their mansion. The Buyukkusoglu family, who made their fortune in the automotive industry, converted their 48,400-sq-ft (4,500 sq m) modern manor house in Bodrum, Turkey, on the edge of the Aegean Sea into a 12-suite hotel, and in 2007 opened it to paying guests as the Casa Dell’Arte.

“We wanted the hotel to still feel like a house, and to be very social,” says owner Fatos Buyukkusoglu, who led the hotel’s design team and lives in a smaller house on the property. “We designed a lot of inner courtyards and spaces where guests can come together — at the dinner table, in the lounge or by the pool.” Meals are taken at a 14-seat dining table, on the terrace, or on various sculptural bits of lawn furniture, and each night guests gather by the fireplace in the reading room or on the sofa in the lounge.

The hotel is also a way for the family to share their vast contemporary Turkish art collection, which is regularly refreshed by their gallery in Istanbul. The walls are adorned with pieces by Turkish artists such as abstract masters Devrim Erbil and Adnan Coker, as well as works by international artists including Colombian sculptor and painter Fernando Botero. And next door is the Casa Dell’Arte Art Village, an equally chic 38-suite hotel with in-house artists who run free painting and sculpture workshops for guests — just in case looking at all that great art inspires you to create some of your own.

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Basic Instincts

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, March 27, 2009

Keeping it simple is the order of the day as people seek comfort in uncertain times

The opening of high-end serviced apartments in Sheung Wan last month saw a rare aesthetic for Hong Kong: the Yin’s 42 studios offer glimpses of brickwork, flashes of exposed piping, and baths carved out of stone blocks. This kind of warehouse-hip has been run-of-the-mill in other cities for years, yet in Hong Kong it has always struggled, and usually drowned, under heaps of suede, crystal and polished wood. Still, Philip Liao of design firm Liao and Partners thought that now might be the time to give it a go – albeit with a sanitized and slightly Zen-like twist. “I just read in a fashion magazine that power pin stripes and opulence are a little out,” he laughs. “This raw, more honest kind of living is not timed for this ‘tsunami’ but tastes are changing. Even very well paid young execs don’t necessarily want to live in a palace any more”.

Could the economic crisis have Hong Kong design paring down, aesthetically? The past fifteen years here have been a parade of unrestrained decadence: in the textures and the technology we’ve been choosing for our homes, and in the restaurants and bars we hang out in. But it appears that for some people these choices are either no longer sustainable or are being seen as less tasteful, and designers have started to respond to a different mindset. If you’ve got it, flaunt it? Not so much anymore.
“If you have it right now, probably you don’t want to show it – and if you had it, you don’t want to be reminded that you had it,” wryly observes Hernan Zanghellini, of the Hong Kong-based Zanghellini Holt Architects. “It’ll be about the simple pleasures for the next few years.”

But think modest, not minimalist. It is actually more expensive to do a flat ceiling, a high-gloss surface or a seamless piece of furniture than it is to produce something ornate. “Clients say it’s harder to make simple designs industrially because it’s harder to get the details right,” concurs Hong Kong-based product designer Danny Fang. “Flaws show up more clearly.” So although people may feel that simpler surroundings have more virtue, trends are unlikely to go too bare. What the crunch might do, says Fang, is make people more picky about quality, and less fond of disposable products; design buffs will be looking for longevity.

“When you have troubles it’s the old friend you turn to, not the trendy person you met two days ago,” opines Zanghellini, who sees us heading towards old, familiar comforts. This means more natural wood and more burnished metals – highly polished chrome and steel will be out, bronze and copper will be in – but still all in the spirit of temperance. The new collection from Hong Kong design brand Ovo reflects the move towards a simpler life: OVO Eszentials: eminent sensation will combine warm, cheering colour with smooth, sculptural forms. “When the economy is good, when people have a lot of spare money to spent, they may look for something a bit showier,” says directo Ed Ng “however [now], they may relax a bit on some of the fine details and materials.”

This paring down is already a common thread for cosmopolitan hubs, at home and at play. As one London design writer put it in a recent barometer-style table: while restaurants, pre-crunch, meant “angry telly (TV) chefs, faux-French food, rising cloches, Michelin stars, great expense”, post-crunch will bring “wood burning ovens, refectory tables and no reservations”.

In Hong Kong this has already happened, as character-heavy cubbies are replacing illusions of grandeur. English pub-style venues have mushroomed, with their polished woods and comforting leather. The Press Room restaurant won designer and artist Stanley Wong a Design for Asia Silver award last year for its classic combination of warm brick, vintage tile and wood, and restaurants like Zanghelini & Holt’s new BLT in Ocean Terminal are walking a line between distinguished and homey. The hodgepodge of used and ‘faux-used’ furniture, retro light fittings and aged wood at The Pawn in Wanchai, also by Stanley Wong, has given it a fashionable, popular old club vibe.

Materials salvaged from old buildings are now more commonly used by designers (though they do not come cheaply), as is reconditioned furniture. The tolerance for eclecticism, or as one friend put it, ‘beachcomber chic’, is rising as Hong Kong homeowners are showing a new willingness to trawl sites like AsiaXpat for secondhand pieces. All the mixing and matching has people embracing their creative streaks. The last big depression saw new technology and cold, sleek industry celebrated; this one looks set to be warmer.

At the London Design Festival last September all eyes were on craft, particularly at the mydeco design boutique, which showcased unique home-made products. Here Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek presented his handcrafted furniture out of scrap wood, and Lisa Whatmough showed her brand, Squint (pictured), which grew up around antique textiles she had collected. Similar gems were to be seen at the Milan Furniture Fair, such as the embroidered upholstered furniture line My Beautiful Backside by Ango-Indian designer team Doshi Levien for Moroso. Reports from the Maison and Objet fair in Paris last month were of soft, vintage colours in nostalgic prints and dusky faded hues: delicate pinks, pale yellows and duck egg blues, and of furniture that’s heavy and reassuring; the kind that looks as if it will last through this crunch and the next.

As that comfort factor starts to take hold (the sale of cookies have reportedly soared over the last year), designers like Whatmough are choosing to give consumers emotional engagement with products, and a feeling of sanctuary rather than new technology. Even at the high end, craft is coming back. “When we look for exclusive product, it is hard for us to go into big, mass produced collections which require huge design resource and tooling costs,” creative director of London’s the Conran Shop, Polly Dickens has explained. “So we turn to craft and produce things hand-made in small qualities with a unique signature.”

This may be disconcerting for Asian consumers, who have often associated old products and materials with poverty, but a recent change in sensibility has seen businesses and home owners more ready to accept earthier textures in among the gloss. “Compared to five years ago people’s tastes have become more cultivated,” says Federico Masin, a Venetian architect and designer based in Hong Kong. “They realise comfort or luxury has more than one face; textures and rough materials are more accepted.”
But then others aren’t so sure. “We are all figuring out the new order,” joked Jane Chang, whose Wanchai store, Flea + Cents stocks retro design goods. “Right now lifestyle gurus are taking about calm and basic styles, but I don’t think it will stay like that for long. Hong Kong people like whatever’s new.”

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