Category: Design & culture

Dalian Wonder

March 2009, Silkroad Magazine, China

A colourful past has created a bright future for this cosmopolitan city

“You won’t find much of China in Dalian,” one foreign resident recently observed over coffee, and he has a point. At one time Russian, another Japanese and with a host of names and identities in its recent past, Dalian is as famous today for its female ‘mounties’ on horseback and its links with Canon and Mitsubishi, as it is its excellent sea food.  But on one of its famously clear days in one of the many squares, watching couples parade and old men practice water calligraphy, Dalian can also be the best of China. Many agree, and it has been voted one of the most livable cities in the country.

Dalian’s appeal comes from its modern history, since it has little by way of ancient architecture or artistic heritage. Before the various occupations it was a fishing village. Instead there’s good weather, a dazzling coastline, a string of manicured beaches and a surprising connection to the cultures in its past. Quirky Russian and Japanese accents are found used in modern buildings here and visitors from both countries come thick and fast; the Russians to warm up and the Southern Chinese to cool down. Dalian is booming too, with a good handful of five star hotels, a thriving port and a software park that is gaining global recognition for IT.

Things to See

Though the retro cable cars and gentle hills have had Dalian likened to San Francisco, this is a coastal town with Chinese characteristics: expect magnificent squares and a neatly sculpted coast. A trip to Zhongshan Square is to see pigeons flock and citizens exercise under the sedate gaze of grand stone buildings (all disappointingly, banks).  Friendship Square at night lights up like a big snow globe, and Xinghai Square – as the largest square in East Asia – is the pride of the town.  It has a prime position by the sea and boasts seafood restaurants, a beach nearby and a very young castle, which is currently a museum of shells, but is slated for hotel development. Xinghai can also kick off the coastal drive (about 100RMB in a taxi), which winds past a number of beaches, viewing pagodas, themed wedding studios and the working harbor in the east.  Pause for a snack with the well-heeled at Tiger Beach – where attractive holiday homes cluster – or continue on to Hai Zhi Yun Park, where reality can warp.  Here you’ll find real deer mingling with plastic versions, and sculpted sea creatures protruding out of the cliff. Try out the binoculars at the park’s ramshackle tea house (Magic Slope Tea House, tel: 13998412649). There are also a number of zoos in the area, and a large Jinshi Golf Club (www.dalianjinshigolf.com) at the Golden Pebble Beach National Resort, 40km from town.

Where to Shop

Top fashion brands nest at Parkland (1 Jiefang Street), where you’ll find  your Escadas, Ermenegildo Zegnas and English speaking staff at Starbucks. For more of an adventure, Victory Plaza is a labyrinthine underground mall just outside of Dalian train station, with everything from shoes to souvenirs. Olympic Square is your bet for electronics, DVDs and other gadgets – and for a haggling match, especially towards the end of the day. For something a bit hip and quirky, check out a few of the small fashion stores along Xiangqian Road which leads off of Friendship Square. X-ite (Xian Qian Jie tel: 82808705) has edgy male fashion in line with Diesel, with labels from France, Japan and the US. Among the specialist tea houses in town, Middle Centre Tea House or Xong Xin Wu (16-18 Liu Lin Street, tel 8282 1000) is a dusty treasure with a good range.

Where to eat and drink

Dalian is well known for its seafood – particularly its sea cucumber – but it has yet to build the kind of coastal restaurant strip that you’d expect.  Those in the know will head downtown to Wan Bao (Jie Fang Road, tel: 0411 8881 2888) – a large marble wonder with a procession of fish tanks – or to Tian Tian Yu Gang  (45 Tongtai Street, tel: 0411 8454 9111). The latter has a rather elegant branch called Seafood Gourmet (543 Binhai West Road, tel: 0411 8477 0099) near Xingang Square, with around ten large private rooms. Also in the square area is the fresh, upscale La Gauche De Malin Restaurant and Lounge (527-1 Binhai West Road, tel: 0411 8480 3188), with everything from steaks to salmon, and a buffet that could rival your five star hotel.  La Riviera (68 Renmin Lu, tel: 0411 3963 3899) and Café Igosso (45 Nanshan Rd, tel 0411 8265 6453) are the people’s choice for a top European meal, the former a grand affair, the latter more of a bistro. Be boggled by the beer choices at the comfy Strollers (tel: 0411 8269-8293), or go Bavarian at the Kempinski’s Paulaner  Brauhaus (92 Jiefang Road, tel: 0411 8259 6666).

Where to stay

The Kempinski Hotel Dalian (92 Jiefang Road, tel: 04 11 8359 8888, www.kempinski-dalian.com) is central, modern and sleek and comes complete with an Arabian themed spa, a pool and a variety of upscale restaurants, and a new Chocotheke patisserie. The immediate area features plenty of shopping, and a good selection of bars and restaurants. Closer to the port and the railway station, Hotel Nikko Dalian (123, Chang Jiang Road, tel: 411 82529999 , www.nikkodalian.com.cn) has 372 bright, modern rooms and suites with harbour views, plus a selection of one to four bedroom long-stay apartments. Many expats choose to stay at the efficiently-run Somerset Harbour Court Apartments (55 Renmin Road, tel: 86-411 8899 1888, www.somerset.com) for something a little more long term. If you fancy a night by the sea shore, the Dalian Regent Hotel (12 Hutan St, tel: 0411-2892811, not related to the Regent group) is a well trodden three star establishment along the Beihei Rd route and sees a lot of honeymooning traffic.

Best Coffee in Town:

E xpats are fond of the All’s Well and Starbucks chain affairs but you are guaranteed a good cup at Isiyaki Café (35 Wuwu St, tel: 0411 8273 4550) – though being Japanese-run, your cup will likely be rather delicate, with flowers on it. Expect pages of options from Cuban to Charcoal Roasted.

Insider’s Guide

Wen Jing runs Dalian’s only Jazz establishment, Blossom Jazz Club.

Favourite Restaurant: Shanghai City (29 Wuhui Road, Tel: 0411 88228888), next to the Labour Park. I like Shanghainese food and here it’s healthy and not so spicy.
Favourite Bar:  Blossom Jazz Club (50 Kunming Street, tel: 0411 8280 0878), my own of course! I love foreign cultures and after a big trip abroad I decided to open this place – the first jazz club in Liaoning province.
Favourite buildings: All the old buildings around Zhongshan Square, they are old and special. From above the round shape and the eight entrances symbolize good fortune.
Favourite way to relax: I go to the Shangri-La spa every Saturday. It’s comfortable and has highly skilled staff that were trained overseas.
Favourite view: Beihei Lu, the road along the coast, is clean and beautiful.
Favourite place to take visitors: To my bar. I think it stands for the level of Dalian culture and many international people meet here.

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To the Manor Born

Perspective Magazine, Hong Kong, December 2008
Along the Aegean coast an intriguing new boutique hotel seeks to celebrate and reinvigorate traditional Anatolian-style architecture with a contemporary twist and a healthy injection of Turkish art

When the world “homey” is used to describe a hotel it rarely applies to anything bigger than a few thousand square metres; very few people, after all, can call a manor house home. But for the non-mansion dwellers among us there are hotels like Casa Dell’Arte on the Aegean coast.

When the world ‘homey’ is used to describe a hotel it rarely applies to anything bigger than a few thousand square metres; very few people, after all, can call a manor house home. But for the non-mansion dwellers among us there are hotels like Casa Dell’Arte, on the Aegean coast.

Preserving a sense of ‘home’ was the main design aim of the Büyükkuşoğlus, a prestigious family with a prime piece of ocean-side real estate in Bodrum, Turkey’s answer to San Tropez. The 4.500sq m all-suite hotel was inspired by the family’s former holiday home, and though very large and very decadent, the place feels charmingly  ‘lived in’.

“We wanted the hotel to still feel like a house, and to be very social,” says matriarch Fatoş Büyükkuşoğlu, who led a group of young architects on the design, and who 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”.

The hotel is largely made of local stone and is hewn with courtyards. It’s a modern take on the Anatolian style, a Greek-Armenian mix that was common before the formation of the Turkish republic. The family has its roots in Anatolia, and on a trip there a few years ago Büyükkuşoğlu had been upset to see old Kayseri houses being knocked down. Her decision to give them new life gave the Casa an extra layer of history. A charming mix of century old relief work – a slab here, a gargoyle there – with angular modern architecture lends the building textural and cultural accents.

The hotel stretches down to the coast in a series of linear spaces, all linked by a view of the sea. Guests enter the property at the front by way of a grand 200-year old front door (from Edirne, the old Ottoman capital) and check in with a glimpse of ocean; the view hurdles a classic courtyard pool, a series of open chambers, a large living room and a lawn on the way down.

Though the property is sizeable, the family settled on just twelve suites. As the name suggests, Casa Dell’Arte was designed so that the Büyükkuşoğlus could share a portion of their 300-piece-strong art collection, and each suite displays four or five well-sized canvases. The paintings are by modern Turkish artists such as Devrim Erbil and Anan Coker, and they inject colour into an otherwise crisp cream and white landscape. Light retro furniture adds a little chic, with glam accents from the odd animal skin rug. Each room has been named after a sign in the zodiac but the references are subtle, in most just a sparkling blue optical fibre panel in the ceiling that loosely mimics the constellations.

The Casa’s common areas are large enough to find privacy in: a beautiful outdoor pool with a covered art gallery each side, a series of small ante chambers with lone love seats, sculptures or book shelves, and, at the end of the house three connected spaces overlooking the lawn. The double height dining room and the two large day rooms all subscribe to Fatos Büyükkuşoğlu’s home vision, and they blend the very old and ornate with the new and modern. “I like old pieces,” said Ms Buyukkusoglu, “but modern design is much more comfortable so we selected very ergonomic furniture and combined it with antiques”. This sees items such as a contemporary beige couch and plate glass coffee table feature together with display cabinets from the 18th century France. A modern dark wood dining table supports antique candelabras; rare old religious frescoes from Russia perch above a salvaged Anatolian fireplace. “In Turkey this mixing is common,” says Büyükkuşoğlu. “People inherit old antiques, but they like to use them in interiors that are modern and comfortable.”

Out on the lawn white furniture pieces, alone and in pairs, are scattered like statuary, while the terrace provides a good spot for an ocean-view cocktail at sundown. In this place – part house, part hotel, part museum – guests tend to socialize much more, there’s an unmistakable pull out of the suites and into the rest of the house. In fact it’s hard not to throw your bags down, put your feet up and move in.

Spurred on by the success of the hotel yet loathe to extend it, the Büyükkuşoğlus have created another hospitality concept next door. The Casa Dell’Arte Village opened this summer with 38 suites, with plenty of art, a stylish ocean view pool and a free program of art workshops with in-house artists. The design concept is similarly eclectic, but it can’t help but pale slightly next to the original. There really is no place like home, when it’s a mansion.

 

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Playground Attraction

July 2008, Gafencu Men Magazine, China Dubai is the fastest growing city on earth, and as the strategic financial centre the Middle East it is becoming a playground for the very, very rich There is a frission of guilty pleasure to be had from heading to one of the earth’s hottest, driest places to ski, […]

July 2008, Gafencu Men Magazine, China

Dubai is the fastest growing city on earth, and as the strategic financial centre the Middle East it is becoming a playground for the very, very rich

There is a frission of guilty pleasure to be had from heading to one of the earth’s hottest, driest places to ski, swim and indulge in climate-controlled shopping sprees, and it is one that this year prompted around seven million to pack light and head to Dubai. This small nation of 1.3 million people will soon have forty mega-malls, 7 new theme parks and over 530 hotels to its name, not to mention a pulsating new club scene and a penchant for luxury sporting events. And with that kind of party laid on – well, it would be downright rude not to show up.

Back in the early sixties, when Dubai had one hotel and a lot of sand, there were few who could have looked at the old trading port and camel herding turf and thought: “chi-CHING”. But oil – oil changes everything, and after its discovery the emirate turned itself into a thriving commercial hub. It got its World Trade Centre in 1979, a beautiful 39-storey testament to modern Islamic architecture, then a lucrative free trade zone was established, with more to follow in the 90s under the new crown prince: starry-eyed, business-savvy General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Now, tap ‘Dubai’ into Google news and you won’t just find pages on the new airport (the world’s largest when completed) or the latest height report from the Burj Dubai (629m); you’ll get camels going for US$2.7 million in beauty contests, the chance to buy an island the shape of Switzerland and CEOs boasting of a “Disneyland on steroids”.

As a record breaker Dubai ticks a lot of boxes (largest pair of chopsticks? Look no farther), but it’s also competing quite seriously as a business destination. It is the commercial capital of the seven United Arab Emirates, and though the old industries –pearls and oil – have dwindled they’ve been happily replaced by financial services, manufacturing and top tier sports championships from horse racing to power boating, placing it firmly on the international circuit, with a running supply of the world’s rich and famous. Freehold property developments like The Palm Jumeirah and Arabian Ranches have done the same, but they tempt more than just the nouveau riche trying to keep up with the Beckhams. Property rushes in the earlier part of the decade reduced would-be investors to fisticuffs as they fought to get their deposits down.

In Dubai business and pleasure are locked in an amorous clinch. Mega malls, theme parks and hotel projects push ever farther out into the desert, and stretches of bare sandy road are littered with billboards boasting of that area’s future as a theme park or residential oasis. It may make life tough for taxi drivers (the city layout changes more often than Paris Hilton’s arm candy) and for an abused migrant workforce that continually crops up, overworked and underpaid, in the news, but for those born to shop, the emirate’s arms open very wide.

Dubai residents are very proud of their malls, which are formidable in size and assortment with wares that are tax-free. While the Burj Dubai aims to outdo Minneapolis’ record-breaking Mall of America in girth when complete this year, the Mall of Dubai is the biggest the UAE has to offer right now, and is the only mall in which shoppers can hit indoor ski slopes between sprees [pictured above]. Each giant has its own character: Deira City Centre is best for local people watching and international high street chains; Wafi City serves up Diors and Pradas; Souk Madinat’s outlets are smaller and more boutique.

For those expecting the musty pandemonium of Morocco’s souks Dubai may be a welcome relief – the covered shopping alleyways are easy to negotiate and the same can be said for the prices. They can also give the best blend of both worlds, local and tourist, with goods that range from delicate pashminas, silver and henna kits, to rosewood furniture, saffron and kitchen implements.

For the retail weary there are other kinds of action to be had, and the water parks and pristine, waveless beaches make it a worthy family destination. Fresh water may be scarce but there are at least ten golf clubs, all with courses designed by the best in the business, from Greg Norman to Robert Trent Jones II. Thrill seekers hit the sand dunes and wadi (dry river beds), either by board or full pelt in 4X4s, and many tour companies venture briefly into neighbouring emirate Sharjah, where the colour of the sand deepens from pale ash blonde to a spicy orange, and belly dancers serenade diners over Arabian barbeque as the sun dips.Desert hotels such as Bab Al Shams capitalize on the ‘desert castaway’ vibe with infinity pools among sand dunes and cocktails on floor cushions. Adrenaline can run as high as the prices at the Nad al Sheba’s Dubai Racing Club, especially during the world’s richest horseracing event, the World Cup, in March. The annual calendar sees everything from the PGA Dubai Desert Golf Classic to the Dubai Open Tennis Championship.

This emirate is the most cosmopolitan of the seven and it is free from many of the restrictions of Muslim law in neighbouring Sharjah, Ajman or even the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi. Laws governing alcohol intake have relaxed  (though officially just for non-Muslims) and there’s a high tolerance for western clothing and customs, which has helped fashion one of the hottest party scenes in the Middle East. “The scene has completely changed,” says Sadiq Saboowala, whose family has run a gold jewelery business in town for more than two decades. “Five years ago it was calmer, more about visiting sheesha bars and having long meals. With the new wave of foreigners the party venues have boomed, bars are getting much bigger – in every sense,”

Sheesha is still imbibed, but the venues carry an extra layer of glitz. There are at least 300 hotels in Dubai and each has a bar or two vying for the attention of the young and the wealthy. Expect plush interiors, ample VIP provisions, top name DJs and six liter bottles of Dom Perignon that can run to about 31,000 dirhams. A nightlife milestone was hit when Grosvenor House bagged the rights to Paris’ uber trendy Buddha Bar in 2005, and another was reached soon after, when Naomi Campbell chose to throw down a couple of million US dollars on her 38th birthday at the Burj Al Arab. Though there’s no particular district for clubs and bars, The Madinat Jumeirah and the Dubai Marina boast a good, upscale gauntlet, as does Le Meridien Mina Seyahi, with its popular beach-side lounge, Barasti, an Italian restaurant that gets its beat on after midnight.

However this is still a Muslim land, where calls to prayer waft across rooftops and public displays of affection can cause alarm. Women in the black abbaya are a familiar sight, whether melting mysteriously into doorways or shopping for shoes in H&M, and in souks and boardrooms across town the men, in airy white dishdasha, are their photo negatives. For resident Muslims, drinking alcohol in hotels or at home can be a challenge.

The contrast of sky with sand and gleaming architecture makes outdoor Dubai seem attractive, but the heat does not – temperatures can hit the high forties. Bus stops are air conditioned pods, car park spaces have their own umbrellas and beaches are free from all but the hardiest of sun worshippers during the day. Using this to their benefit, hotels have evolved into self-contained wonderlands with entertainment, food and boutique wares making it even harder for their guests to leave.

The Jumeirah Group is one of Dubai’s main hotel players. Three of its properties – the family friendly Jumierah Beach Hotel, the traditionally themed Madinat Jumeirah, and the showy, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab – are connected by golf buggy taxi routes and guests hop between the three. Striking a pose out in front of Jumeirah Beach, ‘the Sail’ plays home to many of the city’s wealthiest visitors, including many guests of the Maktoum monarchy, who reportedly put up house guests there. Its glitzy innards may be a little too fabulous for some – there’s a lot of gold – but people watching is at its best – you’ll never quite know who’ll be stepping into your elevator. Though public tours were discontinued, many waft through on their way to restaurant Al Muntaha on the 27th floor, with its 360 degree sweep, and cocktail mixology platters that move between tables.

Other exclusive temporary addresses around town include the recently-opened Raffles Dubai next to the Wafi City mall and the One and Only Royal Mirage Hotel, with its Givenchy Spa. It’s worth visiting at least one spa or salon in town for an Arabian-style pamper, and the Givenchy hammam has a menu of Moroccan massages, black soap scrubs and rose clay facials. H20 in the Emirates Towers Hotel is a men-only destination for grooming that ranges from spray tanning to a flotation tank.

Friday brunch is the highlight of many a week here – Friday being the day of rest – and bookings should be made for those who plan to eat out between ten and three pm. “[Brunch is] very much similar here to other countries,” says Atinirmal Pagarani, a resident who works in real estate. “It does get beautiful during winters when the sun’s not so strong and everyone’s sipping beer, smoking Shisha and tucking into great food beside the beach.” Dubai’s hotels have really brought its culinary scene up to speed, with offerings such as Verre in the Hilton Dubai, a Gordon Ramsey affair with a seven course taster menu that’s consistently rated one of the best eats in the city. Few are a muted as Verre, however, and perusing the showy décor in many restaurants is as much fun as surfing their menus.

Since the temperature drops at night, many spots make full use of roofs and terraces. Bastakiya Nights, in the old town district combines flavours of the region with low tables, torch light and a vat of open-air rooftop ambience – the stars shine brightly over Dubai. Middle Eastern cuisine is aromatic and deftly spiced, and delicacies such as Quozi – a whole roasted lamb with nuts on a bed of rice – are bolstered by tasty staples, from hummous and baba ghanoush to wara einab, stuffed vine leaves.

At pedestrian level modest Lebanese and Indian joints are popular for a cheap meal, especially in places like Dhiyafa Street, which closes to traffic at night – but Iranian grub can be sampled at the Radisson’s Shabestan, and the tagines are rated at the Shangri-La’s courtyard restaurant, Marrakesh. The seafood in Dubai shouldn’t be overlooked – the gulfs are a source of red snapper, lobster, rock cod and crab. But those wanting to be even closer to the water should try dinner on the dhows that cruise the still waters of the creek.

Dubai has been described as having all the culture of a casino, which should perhaps be expected – the place has sprung up from almost nothing into a bewildering ethnic mosaic. Flavours of Arabia can be sampled at hotels and through arranged tours though, and these often involve falconry, belly dancing and desert barbeques. Dubai’s monarchy also keeps it firmly tied to its history:  back in the 1800s when a branch of the Bani Yas tribe settled at the mouth of a shallow coastal creek it was led by the Maktoum family. The Maktoum empire now owns and develops much of the emirate (known in many circles as ‘Dubai Inc’) and it is responsible for a series of ornate, peacock-strewn palaces, as well as Dubai’s liberal, capitalist credentials.

Find the Dubai museum in the Al Fahidi Fort, which dates back to the early 1700s and offers dioramas, artifacts, and swallows that blanket the sky come dusk. Other cultural interludes take place in the Jumeirah Mosque – the only one that welcomes curious sightseers (in twice-weekly tours), or the Sheikh Mohamed Centre for Cultural Understanding, with its walking tours and Arabic lessons. Some high culture meanwhile can be tracked down at the traditionally-styled Bastakiya village, complete with wind towers, narrow lanes and contemporary galleries. The white-washed Majlis Gallery is just one of these and hosts a mix of contemporary art and local crafts.  Culture buffs should perhaps consider a cultural excursion to the strict but historically-loaded Sharjah, just a twenty minute drive away in good traffic.

It may not have the texture or the depth of the world’s older cities, but Dubai has unique appeal as a  twenty first century product in which money, both silly and serious, calls the shots and where almost anything is possible. For those that seek excess it has the goods, and for the rest it offers countless chances to gawp and marvel, before making the most of that age-old vacation tripartite: sun, shopping and sand. Because some things never change.

 

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Bay City Rollin’

April 2008, Gafencu Men Magazine, China
Times may be tighter, but the Bay City is still rolling in it

Of all San Francisco’s incarnations, the one most loved in Asia is its face from the 1990s – a thrilling time when the dot-com boom made a millionaire a minute and the city’s more bohemian, beatnik impulses were buried deep.  “There were parties every single night and they were always totally over the top” remembers Charlotte Milan, who runs a luxury travel and wine public relations firm there, C.Milan Communications.  “People were bringing in dance troupes from Israel, doing shot after shot of caviar and it was like: how much can we have? How much, how much?”

Ten years later and the brashness has gone. The Bay Area remains one of the most expensive places to be in The States with real estate prices scandalously high, a third of its households on six figure salaries and at least forty of America’s 400 richest people calling it home, according to Forbes. But: “9/11 hit San Francisco hard,” admits Milan, who grew up in the city and watches the current market dip with a nervous eye.
Now the wealthy lay low. Stretch limos have been replaced by town cars and parties are toned well down. Whether this is contrite humility or old-money smugness it’s hard to tell, but one thing is for sure: taking a fortune to San Francisco doesn’t mean you’ll know where to spend it well.

However, it’s hard to go completely wrong with word class attractions on your itinerary. You’ve got your Golden Gate Bridge – perhaps by helicopter – and a box at the Giants’ game. There are private dinners to be had at Alcatraz and a few satisfyingly expensive restaurants bordering Union Square or down at Fisherman’s Wharf, where the blues buskers growl and the sea lions honk. Hotels have also returned to the city after a ten year hiatus, and the Intercontinental broke out its 550 rooms last month (the largest in town). “San Francisco is having a great year with citywide conventions, as the city has over 900,000 rooms booked for the year. We are opening at a perfect time,” says Gail Gerber, its director of sales and marketing. The St Regis, brought new luxury highs to town a few years ago, and has expanded to include serviced apartments.

But though most local luxury lies behind the ornate front doors of the Presidio and Pacific Heights, there is one way you can still catch the elite in the act of excess.  “I think you see wealth in the way people spend here; the wines that they buy, the frequency that they dine out,” muses Milan. “Most people I know eat out five nights a week – and we’re not talking not curry or burritos.”

There is no denying that San Francisco has become a haven for foodies. The rigorous Michelin Red Guide hit Northern California in 06 (its only other US guide is for New York), and the latest edition features 34 starred restaurants. Much of the fresh, creative spontaneity of Californian cuisine comes from innovators in the Bay Area, which has amorously embraced the Slow Food movement; a return to regional traditions and home cooking from local, sustainably grown ingredients. And though some of the better established restaurants like The Dining Room and Michael Mina might be in your guide book, think ‘when in Rome’ and get the insiders’ edge at Chowhound or Yelp.com. This is a city that knows many of its chefs by name and tracks their moves, alliances and departures through local food columns that read better than an episode of the West Wing.

One to watch right now is Spruce. Tucked into Presidio Heights and serving modern American cuisine, it does a good line in organic produce and naturally raised meats as well as running an in-house charcuterie program. Getting a table here involves serious forethought and a fat wallet. Entrepreneur Bruce Lange, former treasurer at Oracle, takes his clients to Acquerello, which serves top grade Italian cuisine in ornate surroundings. “There was a time period where restaurants were designing main rooms in order to be loud, probably because they thought a loud restaurant gave out a happening vibe,” he says. “Acquarello is as good as it gets in terms of quiet places to take clients, or a date, since requirements for both can overlap! It’s more intimate and the food there is excellent.”

Chez Panisse and Tosca Café are Lange’s two other choices for a memorable meal; the former, run by Alice Waters is about 30 minutes out of town in Berkley.  Waters was one of the few who spearheaded the Californian food revolution and her menus are legendary. Tosca is an unpretentious spot in town where you’re most likely to rub shoulders with an off-duty George Lucas or Nicholas Cage, if you make it into their back room. ‘It’s understated but very San Francisco,” Lange notes. “A great place to have an Irish coffee.”
Riding the crest of the foodie wave, opened literally weeks ago, Le Club comes courtesy of Todd Traina, a film-producing member of a key San Francisco socialite family. This is actually the closest you’ll get to a members’ club here; a town disdainful of waiting lists and pricey memberships. It looks like an elegant penthouse and feels like a ticket straight into a Traina home. It’s that cliquey, intimate angle that makes those that live in San Francisco love it, and those that visit, frustrated.

The Franciscan’s passion for dining out is matched only by its zeal for dining in and the Ferry Building Farmers Market is a waterside whirl of activity four days a week, when it brings Northern California’s best organic food growers to the city. Hit up the award winning Cowgirls Creamery for cheese, sample heirloom tomatoes, batches of fresh pressed Olive oil, crates of wine, and cured meats, and while you’re chomping, find out about how the food is grown and why it tastes so darn good.

Weekend nights out can be quiet here, and there’s a marked difference to the perma-neon of New York. The best bars and clubs the city has to offer – many in the Castro, the town’s gay district – close no later than two, with its revelers planning to be up with the sun and out biking, hiking or road tripping for as long as the weekend will stretch. Post-work week nights and Sunday brunches tend to be more local and lively.

The best of both San Francisco’s shopping and its arts scene is in its small, grass roots offerings. To many an Asian shopper’s horror, there are few malls. “All the streets have their own personalities,” says Susan Lange, COO of Hexagon Financial.  “Westfield Mall is okay if you’re looking for the Armanis and Hermes, but Filmore Street is more unique, with its San Francisco-based companies. Sacramento Street has a lot of unique designer shops and clothing shops.”  Likewise there are few large museums. Though the de Young and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are top notch, a better feel for the city can be had in small venues like Varnish, an art gallery and cocktail bar downtown, or at the scruffy Make Out Room in the Mission district which hosts Writers with Drinks, a monthly, often raucous display of literary prowess.

But perhaps the best thing about this town is the ease with which you can leave it and arrive somewhere equally fabulous within hours, whether the spa at the Half Moon Bay Ritz Carlton, or the Redwood-fringed hiking paths in Muir Wood. Unlike much of Asia, where the farther out of town you travel, the more humble the dining options get, it takes skill to get far from San Francisco without bumping into two or three nationally renowned eateries, with quail on the menu and a cellar full of top vintages.

Hitting wine country increases your chances of this mightily. The French Laundry in Napa Valley is the only restaurant to win three Michelin stars in the region, but 23 others in its stratosphere have earned their right to sparkle.

For wine country bed-rest the Cliff Lede Vineyards’ Poetry Inn in Napa or Le Mars Hotel in Sonoma are ultra-decadent, though many wineries offer rooms along with courses in wine blending, cooking or mushroom foraging – plus all the wine you can spit. Head there in the fall, when the landscape turns rust red and guests get messily involved in the harvesting.  If pitching in isn’t your thing however, Owl Ridge Wineries has launched Sonoma Grapemasters, a custom-crush program that allows enthusiasts to crush, blend and bottle in private, under the guidance of the facility’s winemaker, for about $8,000 a barrel (24 cases). San Francisco’s first urban winery, Foggy Bridge, will open in the Presidio this summer.

And finally, if you’re really looking to lighten that wallet, there’s always golf.  “If you play golf and you’re looking to spend serious dosh, Casa Palmero at Pebble Beach is one of the premier locations in the world, with spectacular scenery,” says Bruce Lange, whose peers in the finance industry entertain many of the world’s wealthiest men there. “But you have to book a room to play”. And if anything is a metaphor for living it up in San Francisco, there you have it. In this town you’re either 100% in, or you’re out. Spare the effort and you’ll find your nose pressed up against the window, searching desperately for anyone without a digicam and a fanny pack.  Throw yourself in there and you’ll never want to leave.

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One Night in Hong Kong

December 13, 2007, Time Magazine

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

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

Bowie Yau Sze-lai, sales associate
Hong Kong city life is pretty diverse, so your night should be too. I’d start out in Kowloon with a glass of wine at Felix, tel: (852) 2315 3188. It’s a beautiful bar that overlooks the harbor from the 28th floor of Hong Kong’s oldest hotel, the Peninsula. After drinks, head to Hong Kong island and the colorful shopping district of Causeway Bay. This place is very busy most evenings, mostly with a younger crowd looking for the latest fashions and accessories. Try the Island Beverly Centre or Lee Theatre Plaza for a good and affordable range.

For refueling, try one of the little hole-in-the-wall joints in Causeway Bay, like Red Pepper, tel: (852) 2577 3811. It’s where I go to for family-style service and amazing Sichuan food. After dinner, you can mix it up a little at my favorite local pub, The Barn, tel: (852) 2504 3987. Go for some loud music and even louder dice games. It’s a little rough and ready, but it’s the real Hong Kong.

Eddis Tang, salsa instructor
At the start of the evening, I would take the Star Ferry from Tsimshatsui to Central. Along the way you can enjoy fantastic views from lots of different angles. You could then ride the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak for dinner. Try Pearl on the Peak, tel: (852) 2849 5123. It’s a famous restaurant with 360-degree views and modern Australian cuisine. The seafood is very good. After that, California, tel: (852) 2521 1345, in Lan Kwai Fong is a good spot for drinks and people-watching, especially if you sit outside. The Lan Kwai Fong area is famous for its bar life.

There is a good salsa scene in Hong Kong, but it starts late. Club CiXi, tel: (852) 2286 0333, has just opened after big renovations. Club 97, tel: (852) 2810 9333, has a great vibe, though it’s small and easy to crash into people. Some nights there are live drums accompanying the music, and everyone squeezes onto the dance floor.

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Happy Families

October 4, 2007, Time Magazine

Sequestered on a hill about a 40-minute drive from Chiang Mai, Proud Phu Fah doesn’t attract young urbanites so much as families and others looking for a quiet puff of Thai mountain air. Yet that’s not to say that the hotel lacks contemporary style. The first clue to its existence comes on a bare, green stretch of road in the Mae Rim Valley, where a small sign beckons: HIP HOTEL AND RESTAURANT. The next is a gate in an isolated grassy lay-by, where soft jazz pipes from the trees. “We wanted to try a new concept,” says co-owner Siriphen Siwanarak, who left a design job in Bangkok to build the place with her husband. “When guests arrive they see this gate first, then follow the stream, and suddenly they’re open to the panorama and the mountain view, like a surprise.”

Nine whimsical chalets are set into the lush vegetation, all individually decorated with four-poster beds and terraces looking onto a stream. The live-in owners encourage back-to-basics relaxation: cycling, cooking classes with local ingredients and impromptu arts-and-crafts sessions on the lawn. “A lot of families come here for the relaxed style and open space,” says Siwanarak. Handily enough, the valley below is known for its gamut of child-friendly activities, from a monkey school to an orchid farm, go-karting track and, a little further north, the famous Elephant Nature Park sanctuary. For more details see www.proudphufah.com.

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New Architects of China

ArchWeek Image

Architecture Week, USA, September 19, 2007,

But while firms from around the world are delightedly helping China push its design boundaries, the country’s own young architects may be the most interesting to watch. On the Edge: Ten Architects from China, edited by Ian Luna with Thomas Tsang, is the first English-language anthology to place them firmly in the spotlight.

The learning curve for these young, hip studios has been a steep one. Though the nation can boast a rich aesthetic heritage, Mao’s Cultural Revolution put pay to any form of modern exploration in the field. It also left most of the older architectural masterpieces in tatters. Design students in the 1980s and ’90s had no creative role models and little contemporary Chinese design to draw from, leaving them with something akin to a blank canvas.

A number of searing questions came with it. Should architects continue to draw from the West, from Russia, and from the past, or could a new language of their own be created? What exactly is “Chineseness”? What does modernity mean, and what role should preservation play in the way forward?

These issues of identity and ideology are shaping the nation’s urban fabric, and some remarkably fresh projects are rising out of the debate. With this anthology, Luna aimed to offer a brief slice of political context, an understanding of the sector’s greater challenges, and a good look at how the industry’s more formidable minds are choosing to respond.

Yung Ho Chang is one of China’s most influential modern architects, and the studio he cofounded with Lu Lijia — Atelier Feichang Jianzhu — was the country’s first ever private practice. He returned from the United States in the 1990s to pursue work that, as the editors describe, “opposes mega with mini, re-emphasizing a humane and harmonious scale.” China was booming at an alarming rate, and Chang aimed to counteract the tendency of developers toward the big, the brash, and the brutal.

One project in Beijing’s central business district, the Pingod Sales Center, called for the transformation of a heating plant into a modern art space and sales office. Choosing to keeping the old brick shell, Chang and his team inserted a flared steel grille structure into one side of the facade and a series of brightly colored translucent doorways into the other. Inside, skylights light a huge, warehouse-sized room. The changes were playful, yet hip enough for an urban art space. They also carried the studio’s signature sensitivity for the past.

Chang, who now heads the architecture department at MIT, also wrote the introduction to On The Edge. “Architecture is one of the few disciplines,” he notes, “in which returnees (including this author) are plying influential roles along with the home-growns. Translation still needs to be done, since the locally schooled architects are not confined by the definitions in the original languages and are free to interpret and invent.”

One of these homegrown talents, Xu Tiantian of DnA Beijing, is among the few Chinese female architects to helm a studio. The book showcases her firm’s Songzhuang Art Center, built just last year. It serves around 700 artists, experimenting with the idea of a contemporary “painters village” — formerly small, self-run sets of cooperatives outside the jurisdiction of the government. The center was commissioned when the authorities started to recognize the value held internationally by the local art scene.

The building offers 27,000 square feet (2,500 square meters) of flexible gallery space within a bold, brick-clad structure that floats on a glass base. For Xu it was important to design something that would remain useful throughout the area’s likely growth. “The program has current and future users with different needs and views,” she explains. “While the urban context grows and its function program alters… the building develops as well.” Xu and her team aspire to architecture that can reflect China’s uniqueness, by neither rebuilding traditional symbols nor, as she puts it, “relocating a modern architecture from Berlin to Beijing.”

Ai Weiwei hoisted his international profile with Beijing National Stadium, well known as the “Bird’s Nest,” a collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron that is nearing completion. At home and in Asia, however, Ai has long been known as one of the continent’s more rebellious geniuses. The book dubs him “a prince among China’s reigning enfants terribles.”

Styling himself as a conceptual artist, Ai’s designs tend to rail against the country’s sociopolitical mechanisms, often with a satirical, or at least emotionally provocative, edge. He named his studio FAKE Design. Among his projects in the anthology is Nine Boxes, Beijing, a barbed response to the capital’s growing set of high-end gated communities. The pages show a clutch of living “boxes” clad in galvanized steel sheeting. Ai is also known for Yiwu Riverbank Park, an almost surreal, geometrically stark landscape of indigenous granite. The park was dedicated to his poet father, who was humiliated at the hands of China’s reeducators.

Alongside Shenzhen’s Urbanus, Shanghai’s MADA s.p.a.m., and a clutch of other studios, both emerging and established, Luna chose to include a few Hong Kong firms in his collection. As an architecturally conservative city, Hong Kong unwittingly exports much of its design talent across the border. There designers find greater professional freedom, while going home at night or on weekends to a cosmopolitan financial hub. This does give rise to a few questions, however — namely, whether the territory’s architects and their work can be characterized as Chinese.

“I think the starting point of our designs are very much Chinese, or to do with Chinese sensibilities,” says Rocco Yim, founding principal of Hong Kong’s Rocco Design Architects. “But I think our techniques, the use of materials, the spatial manipulation is influenced from difference sources.”

Yim points to a residential project featured in the book alongside a couple of his firm’s more extravagant civic designs. The Jiu Jian Tang Villa in Shanghai combines traditional and modern international elements, fitting the lifestyle of an extended Chinese family but still allowing the family to feel fashionably current. The villa is positioned around two courtyards in an almost conventional composition, balancing privacy with integration. The architecture is unabashedly modernist, however, replete with glass and aluminum, lashings of natural light, and angular water features.

On the whole, Luna’s anthology takes a clear-cut snapshot of China’s contemporary design scene in its ambitious fledgling stage, showcasing projects that would get far too little international attention otherwise. The book should be enjoyed while such a compact view is still possible. As China’s architects sprint to keep up with the evolving demands of their countrymen, keeping up with the architects themselves may prove to be just as hard. One imagines that a similar book project in ten years will be less straightforward.

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Higher Education

July 16, 2007, Time Magazine

It’s a common problem. You book a trip, fail to pick up a phrase book and before you know it you’re shaking hands, toasting — or wildly gesticulating — in your destination, wishing you had mastered just a couple of phrases of the local language. Since 2005, travelers on selected flights of Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and half a dozen other carriers have been avoiding this problem with Berlitz World Traveler courses, available on personal video screens. Now other airlines are following suit — this year, Continental, KLM and Air France began offering the onboard language-tuition program, which teaches the basics of up to 23 languages in 21 languages. So should you be from Brazil and need to brush up on your Tamil, or from Vietnam and require a few phrases of Arabic, a course option will have it covered. The lessons are structured by theme — numbers, dates, words and dialogue — and there are tests and games to keep you entertained. Passengers who complete a course may even get a certificate. Now that’s surely a better use of your time than watching a Friends episode you’ve seen three times already.

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A Time to Reap

South China Morning Post, August 2006

For a long time Siem Reap has been little more than a launching pad into Angkor, a dusty frontier town of fumes and lurking potholes, of children with large eyes and speedy fingers. Very few tourists tend to leave with tales of overwhelming warmth, applauding the local hospitality. This may have something to do with its messy economics. As part of the country’s second poorest province the town offers a great escape for farmers tired of battling with the local scrub land. But the faster they flood in, the faster chain hotels and tour operators tend to funnel tourist dollars out, leaving what amounts to a money vacuum. In it, Siem Reap has become defined by its most successful bread winners – kids – those big eyes and speedy fingers commanding a notorious (and damn near inescapable) sympathy tax.

Yet supported by a new initiative by the IFC, local and foreign businesses have started to take all this on board, and the town is doing a slow pirouette towards self-sustainability. Visit Siem Reap now, even fleetingly, and its not hard to find a fine hotel, cooking class or lingerie line that takes your custom, puts it to excellent use, and leaves you feeling rather Angelina Jolie in the process. It’s all about knowing where to look.

Hotel de la Paix

What you get: The town’s newest five-star is owned by Bed Management, the group behind Bangkok’s ultra hip Bed Supperclub. It offers a cool mix of Khmer chic and modern technology, with an i-pod music system in every room, a suitably glamourous swimming pool and a three-storey spa.

What you give to:  The hotel promotes a program of donations and visits, ranging from orphanage support to rice sponsorship. Its Arts Lounge showcases work by Khmer artisans, while back in the kitchen the head chef promotes seasonal Khmer food (supporting local farmers) and sends off old cooking oil to an eco-organization to fuel a local project. For a higher karma rating, nearby sister hotel Shinta Mani is a beautiful four star option that operates a hospitality training school NGO, and can organize volunteer work for guests. www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com http://www.shintamani.com  http://www.biodieselcambodia.com

Le Tigre de Papier

What you get:  A cosy bar-restaurant that nestles into a strip of rambunctious eat ‘n greet venues. It also offers a popular Khmer cooking class that has students exploring the market, before cooking and feasting on a banquet for eight. Alternatively try its second floor boutique. The lingerie line – Shenga – is the first of its kind in Cambodia, being 100% pure silk with designs available off shelf and bespoke.

What you give to: Nearly 50% of the US$10 cooking course fee and 100% of its glossy cook book price goes to Sala Bai, a hospitality training school for young Cambodians. The lingerie brand is fair trade and partners with a variety of textile NGOs. It works directly with underprivileged seamstresses in the area, keeps to a monthly production maximum of just 80 sets, and to top it all off uses hand-made recycled paper bags! www.shenga.angkorw.com (855)1226 811

Krousar Thmey

What you get: After a day spent grappling with ancient blocks of stone and elusive vista points, there’s nothing like a full body massage. Conveniently situated on the route back from Angkor into town, Krousar Thmey has 12 professionally trained, sight-impaired masseurs on hand to pummel you back into action. It also offers a little education on the side by way of its exhibition hall – which features a series of slightly rustic display boards on Cambodian geography, crafts, village life and its eco-environment.

What you give to: Krousar Thmey is a nation-wide Cambodian-run organization with its fingers in many a humanitarian pie. It supports huge numbers of underprivileged children with schemes from outreach and protection to vocational training, and was the first NGO to implement education for blind and deaf kids. Also try Seeing Hands 4, another massage parlour run by the blind and open later at night. www.krousar-thmey.org Seeing Hands:(855)12786894

Sala Bai and CVSG Training Restaurants

What you get: A cracking meal, prepared with real verve. Sala Bai is a fairly sophisticated affair in the town centre that serves Asian and Western dishes, with a menu that changes daily and a range of French wines. CVSG (Cambodia Village Support Group) across the river is a more rustic operation with a simple Khmer menu and super-keen (if not always correct) service.

What you give to: Both are NGOs and free training schools for young Cambodians at risk. Sala Bai operates a small hotel on the side and is supported by Agir Pour Le Cambodge, while CVSG is Japanese-run and includes a number of community projects, including an orphanage. The staff at both relish the chance for a good chat, so it’s a great way to find out more about the area.  www.geocities.jp/cvsgjapan/katudou.html (in Japanese) Tel:(855)63760472  www.salabai.com

Artisan d’Angkor

What you get: An airy boutique stocked with locally crafted goodies, from silk scarves and throws to sculptures in wood and stone. The quality is high, and items combine traditional Khmer techniques with modern design elements. You can also visit its working silk farm 16km outside town (tours in English, French and Japanese), and the boutique café, opposite Angkor Wat.

What you give to: The initiative was started to make sustainable work for promising young Cambodians in their home villages – while promoting up market Cambodian workmanship. It also managed to pioneer a nation-wide social policy that assures staff reasonable wages and welfare benefits. www.artisansdangkor.com

BOX OUT

Also keep an eye out for:

Earth Walkers: Started by a group of concerned Norwegian graduates, the group operates a friendly fund-raising guesthouse, places volunteers and supports countless local charities. It recently took a football team of orphaned boys to the Norway Cup. www.ewfund.org

Osmose: A small eco-conscious tour agency that funds a preservation project at the Tonle Sap Lake. Visit a flooded forest, a floating village and learn about local flora and fauna. http://jinja.apsara.org/osmose/oSmoSe_online.swf

The Life and Hope Association: To see the street kids on their best behaviour (give or take a few piggyback rides) contact this school and outreach program run by an exceptional local wat. For a more rambunctious welcome, volunteer a few hours or days to its more informal Green Gecko morning school nearby. www.watdamnak.org http://www.hugabub.com/pl/greengecko/27/1

Cambodia Landmine Museum: Run by Aki Ra, an eccentric yet very committed local luminary, this offers a delightfully ramshackle stash of wartime memorabilia. Ra himself was a child soldier and donations go to a relief fund for landmine victims, mine education and training. http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org

Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals: Every Saturday evening at 7:15 hospital Jayavarman VIII holds a free Bach concert by an eccentric Swiss cellist and doctor, known as Beatocello. The musician also chats about the health situation in Cambodia, and the hospitals’ work. www.beatocello.com

 

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