Sunday, September 30, 2012

Neil R. Smith, 1954 - 2012

Neil R. Smith , 1954 - 2012

The sudden death of Neil Smith, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geographat the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, comes as a shock, and Neil’s premature departure was never expected. A great loss to all those who fought for a better world.

I’ve only had a couple of brief encounters with him at academic gatherings - the first one at the Revanchist Urbanism workshop at the University of Newcastle in 2006 where he was an invited speaker, and the second time at the Asia-Pacific Network for Housing Research conference in Hong Kong in December 2011. While I haven't had the chance to talk to him in length (and sadly never will...), I’ve always kept his writings close to me. They will surely continue to be with me for much longer.

Thank you Neil for what you left behind to be shared amongst us.

Friday, September 07, 2012

'Outdoor Couple', Deptford Market

An outdoor wall painting that always captures my eyes, and makes me smile. This can be found about 300 metres to the north from the junction between New Cross Road and Deptford High Street.
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Saturday, September 01, 2012

Tokyo and the Roppongi Hills

My last trip to Tokyo was in late December 2010, about three months before the earthquake and the leakage of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plants. I haven't been able to return since then, and if I do, it would be interesting to compare the atmosphere of the city with what I felt during my last trip, though it is probable that I may not notice any major difference. Even if there are changes, I would expect such things in Japan would tend to be more subtle, not distinctive enough for occasional visitors like myself to notice.

In any case, at that time, I spent about four nights in Tokyo, meeting up with friends that I had missed for long. I also aimed to spend the day time to explore the city as much as possible, taking pictures of various places. Whenever I visit a new city, one of the first things that I do is to look for a tall building, if not the tallest, which may have an observation area that presents a bird's eye view of the whole city. In Tokyo, my recommendations would go to two places. One of them is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building complex, which has twin towers that offer a free access to top-floor lounge areas.

Mori Tower

The other place, which I pay particular attention to in this posting, is the Roppongi Hills. It accommodates Mori Tower (see figure on the left), which provides an observation deck known as Tokyo City View on the 52nd floor. Mori Tower also has an outdoor roof deck on the 54th floor, which is sometimes closed at the time of severe weather conditions. According to various sources, the Roppongi district used to be home to many entertainment venues including night clubs for many years before it experienced a downturn at the time of Japan's bubble burst in the early 1990s. After having been a rugged, rough place for years, the district has gone through a marked transformation (Roman Cybriwsky's Roppongi Crossing seems like a good guide to the understanding of these changes). Major mix-use developments such as the Roppongi Hills (where Mori Tower occupies the centre stage) and the Tokyo Midtown have come to provide upscale residential flats and commercial and recreational facilities, catering for the needs of the affluent and tourists.

In particular, the Roppongi Hills development was spearheaded by Minoru Mori, a real estate tycoon who was ranked the 683rd richest person in the Forbe's The World's Billionnaires list (as of March 2012). Unfortunately, Minoru Mori passed away at the age of 77 in March 2012. His younger brother Akira Mori is another real estate tycoon, ranked 6th richest person in Japan and the 314th in the world according to the Forbes. Both brothers inherited the wealth from their father, Taikichiro Mori, who happened to be the world's richest at the beginning of the 1990s.

The Roppongi Hills development happened to be one of the largest private-led urban redevelopment projects. The building complex stood on a 11-hectare site, which used to be owned by about 500 individual landowners. The compiled images from Google Earth attached below show the landscape of the site before and after the project (the while line indicates an approximate boundary of the site). The redevelopment plan started with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's designation of the site as 'redevelopment inducement area' in November 1986, and it took more than 14 years before the Ownership Transfer Plan was approved, signalling the conclusion of ownership-related negotiations (or disputes?) with individual landowners. The majority of these owners were said to have received a piece of properties, either office or a flat in the complex, in return for their land ownership rights. As the dates above show, it was under the reign of Taikichiro Mori when the redevelopment plan was initiated. It seemed that Taikichiro Mori was very tactful (=controversial?) with his acquisition of the site. Buying small parcels discreetly and moving in his own employees to become active community members was the strategy he used (see his obituary in The New York Times). Upon the death of Taikichiro Mori in January 1993, the redevelopment project continued under the leadership of Minoru Mori. The construction work commenced in April 2000, and it required full three years to complete the construction, resulting in a mix-use building complex with a total floor space of about 760000 square metres (see the company site for more details on the development history)

Minoru Mori was well-known for his promotion of 'vertical garden cities', advocating the vertical assemblage of various urban functions instead of horizontal expansion, resonating Le Corbusier's The Radiant City. Googling also reveals another British-born architect Chris Abel as having preached the same expression, but it is not clear if the two interacted with each other, sharing the views. In any case, the web site of Mori Building Co., Ltd has a concise explanation (pasted below) of what they consider as the guiding principle of constructing a 'vertical garden city':

"By assembling land that has been subdivided into small parcels into a large block and then consolidating building needs in high-rise structures while exploiting man-made foundations and underground space, this approach can free a vast amount of open space at the ground level.
Through 'vertical' land development that makes intelligent use of ultrahigh-rise structures as well as underground space, we can create a 'compact city' that enhances the efficiency of urban infrastructure, such as rail transportation and road systems, while systematically integrating diverse urban functions, including work, residence/living, entertainment, education, and commercial/retail."

Model of Roppongi Hills

The Roppongi Hills marked the revival of certain parts of Tokyo's downtown areas, signalling the new phase of the city's investments in real estate after the dramatic fall of the industry at the time of the 1990s bubble burst. It is nevertheless questionable if the same principle could have applied to building a similar complex with diverse functions but accommodating not as wealthy clients as the Roppongi Hills have come to possess. No matter how the site is packaged as providing art, culture and entertainment with a rich array of shopping facilities and office functions, it nonetheless presents an aura of an 'gated residential enclave' for the Japan's rich and professional expats, if not the richest (Goldman Sachs is one of the major business occupants in Mori Tower), and of a highly commodified, luxurious space for the middle- and upper-class consumers.

I only had enough time to wander around the indoor Tokyo City View to take some pictures of Tokyo downtown in one late afternoon. While Tokyo is a dense (both population- and building-wise) metropolitan place, some districts do stand out with a concentration of skyscrapers as seen in the first picture below, which shows Shibuya and Shinjuku districts viewed from Mori Tower. The views from the Tokyo City View are quite stunning, including the view of Mountain Fuji in the distance. If my memory is correct, the access to the Tokyo City View requires one to pay for admissions to the Mori Art Museum. It is definitely worth a visit if you would like to grasp the urban scale of Tokyo.

View from Mori Tower towards Shibuya and Shinjuku Districts
View of Tokyo downtown and Mountain Fuji in the distant

Monday, August 27, 2012

Morning dance in an inner-city square, Xining, China

Xining is the provincial capital of Qinghai province in western China. Located at an high altitude (about 2,200 metres above sea level), the city is one of the most populous cities in the western region, having about 2.2 million residents by 2010. I had a chance to stay there for about one week as part of my field research in September 2008. Among the many aspects of the city that caught my eyes during my stay, it was very interesting to see people of all ages and gender doing what appears to be a routine morning dancing exercise. Rotating a series of gestures and going around slowly in a circle, they all seemed to be quite well accustomed to the beats and melody, while not a single persons seemed to be hesistant about their moves. I understand Chinese people are often seen early in the morning or (if in summer) late in the evening, indulging themselves in various group exercises such as Tai Chi and quite often, classic waltz, and I have seen many with my own eyes, but not to this scale. The entire plaza was filled with a number of small circles, repeating the same dance moves, and this was at around 8.30 am in the morning. It was actually quite enjoyable watching them, and made me feel like dancing (though didn't have the nerve to join in…). The plaza was one of the results of the city's urban redevelopment projects in order to change the look of the city and attract more tourists, and apparently, the local citizens were ready to 'occupy' the space and spell out their own way of appropriating urban space.

Location: Xining, Qinghai Province, China (
Date: 20 September 2008
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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Urbanised Village and its Struggle to Survive


Urbanised villages in China refer to former rural villages that have been engulfed by urban expansion. Having lost farmlands, villagers invest heavily in dwellings to gain rental income from migrant tenants. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in China’s Pearl River Delta region. These villages struggle to resist impending threats of demolition, though they give in eventually one after another, as is the case seen in this picture.

(originally submitted to LSE Photo Prize 2012 competition and shortlisted)

Location: Xian Village, Guangzhou, China
Date: December 2011
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Absorbed in her Study, Xining, China


While families in China struggle to provide education for their children, girls are more likely to fall behind boys in terms of receiving fair opportunities. While roadworks were going on in the entire section of this busy street located in the central district of Qinghai’s provincial capital Xining, this girl show how much she was determined and willing to commit to her study.

(originally submitted to LSE Photo Prize 2012)

Location: Xining, China
Date: September 2008
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Child and Bamboo Stick


In this neighbourhood located in central Guangzhou, China, tensions are heightened due to impending demolition and residents' displacement. For most local residents, continuing their lives after displacement becomes a real struggle, but for now, the child’s major concern is to get the paper-roll back on the ground.

(originally submitted to LSE Photo Prize 2012)

Location: Liwan District, Guangzhou, China
Date: September 2009
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Charlton House, London

여름방학기간이라 학교에 가지 않을 때 가끔 오후 시간을 보내는 곳. 옛날 지역영주가 거처하던, 자코뱅 Jacobean (제임스 6세 통치 당시, 16세기말 - 17세기 초) 스타일 건축물이다. 19세기 중반에 발간된 것으로 보이는 어느 책에 소개된 스케치와 오늘날 사진을 대비해 보면 약간의 차이를 보이지만 잘 보존된 것을 알 수 있다. 좀 더 최근에 지어진 것으로 보이는 건물 오른쪽 부속건물에는 도서관이 있는데, 종종 무료 음악회가 열리곤 한다. 낮1시라 동네 노인들이 주로 오는 듯한데, 지역주민들에게 의미있는 문화행사인 듯 하다. 본 건물에는 까페가 있으며, 일본어를 가르치는 학교가 자리잡고 있기도 하다. 

Charlton House in London as shown in a book published in 1858, and how it looks today. It's a lovely local gem. The bottom image from 1858 comes from,_Kent.jpg#

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Call for Petition: Stop the Jeju Naval Base Construction in South Korea

I've received a recent call for participation in a petition to stop the 'unlawful and illegitimate' construction of a naval base in Jeju Island, and hope that you may also consider signing this petition. This is organised by the National Association of Professors for Democracy in Korea (, a pro-democracy organisation that was established in the late 1980s in the midst of Korea's democratisation movement and has more than 1000 members.

Signing period is from today until April 11th. Please send international signatures to:, stating your name, nationality, occupation and e-mail address.

You may also find the following web pages useful if you want to read more about the case:

Stop the Jeju Naval Base Construction:
An Urgent Call for Global Support to Restore Justice in South Korea and
Preserve Peace in East Asia

         Despite sustained protests by local citizens and increasing international criticism, the South Korean Government and its Navy have recently begun blasting parts of a treasured world-heritage site on Jeju Island in South Korea in order to proceed with the construction of a naval base, a military project that also threatens peace in the wider East Asian region. The naval base construction has set off popular turmoil in response to its destructive blasting of the Gureombi coastline, located at a site of exceptional historical and geological significance in Jeju, which is recognized globally for its exquisite natural beauty and unique biodiversity. Each time an explosive blast detonates at Gureombi, the South Korean Government and Navy betray their fundamental responsibility of environmental stewardship with ruthlessness and dishonesty, which have infuriated Korean citizens, drawing further condemnation from concerned observers all over the world.

         The South Korean Administration under President Lee Myung-Bak has acted unlawfully and illegitimately by proceeding with this naval base construction despite Gureombi’s inclusion in the “Absolute Preservation Zone,” an area strictly protected from development by South Korean legal regulations. The Lee Administration has attempted to justify the construction by ostensibly removing Gureombi from the Absolute Preservation Zone, but this exclusion occurred without due process and against the wishes of a majority of Jeju residents and other Korean citizens.  The Lee Administration has also tried to garner support by claiming it would develop the area into an attractive military-civilian tourist port, but a technical assessment of the plans for the naval base exposed serious flaws in the design that gives the lie to the government’s claims. Nevertheless, the Lee Administration continues to deny the existence of such design problems in a deliberate attempt to deceive the public and to downplay the enormous damage it is inflicting on both the natural environment and the regional conditions for peace.

         There is every reason to believe that the South Korean government is building this base in collaboration with the U.S. government and military, given the Mutual Defense Treaty whereby "the Republic of Korea grants, and the United States of America accepts, the right to dispose United States land, air and sea forces in and about the territory of the Republic of Korea as determined by mutual agreement."  If constructed, the naval base will be used to project U.S. power in the region, especially as part of a strategy to contain China, in alliance with Japan.

             Where there are weapons, there are killing and war. The construction of the Jeju naval base cannot help but disrupt the military balance in the region, exacerbating existing tensions, and greatly increasing the possibility of war, one that could quickly engulf the entire region and perhaps the world.

         The shores and coastline at Gureombi comprise a celebrated ecological preservation zone and scenic tourist destination, where people from throughout East Asia and the world can together appreciate the extraordinary beauty of the natural environment. Although UNESCO designated Jeju Island in 2002 as a Biosphere Reserve, the island has a fragile ecology where flora and fauna still face the danger of extinction. The South Korean government also declared Jeju as a Natural Heritage Protection Zone, a measure authorized by the Cultural Heritage Administration. In October 2004, Jeju Island was designated as an Absolute Preservation Zone by the South Korean Government, which prohibited any development or other changes that would alter the landscape. Furthermore, the Gureombi seashore is critically important to the islanders because that area includes several Yongcheonsu springs. These springs provide a precious source of water essential to the livelihood of Jeju residents, who face an insufficient water supply due to the island’s volcanic terrain.

         Recognizing the urgent need to preserve the island’s natural environment, Jeju residents and people throughout Korea have been united in resisting the naval base, demanding that its construction be stopped immediately. These protesters have faced harsh suppression by the Lee Administration, which has mobilized special military forces to unleash outrageously violent assaults and attacks on the resisters. The South Korean government is therefore implicated in these brutal acts that represent grossly excessive police force and human-rights violations. In further abuses of power, members of the Lee Myung-Bak Administration have threatened criminal charges and administrative penalties against local Jeju officials who tried to defend the interests of island residents, while the South Korean government also pressured the Technical Assessment Committee to alter its projections so that falsified data would put the naval-base construction plans in a more favorable light.

         The Korean people granted President Lee Myung-Bak only a 5-year period of governance, not the transcendental privilege to do anything he wishes, particularly when those actions will leave a legacy of irreversible environmental damage and military instability. The naval-base construction will not only irrevocably destroy the beautiful ecology of Jeju but also dangerously undermine the peace of East Asia.

         Recognizing the many critical interests at stake -- the invaluable asset of Jeju Island’s natural ecology and biodiversity; the importance of upholding the rule of law and the rights of Jeju residents and other Koreans; and the necessity to protect peace in East Asia and the world -- concerned citizens from all over the world urgently demand the following:

1. The Lee Myung-Bak Administration must immediately cease the illegitimate and illegal construction of the naval base in Jeju Island.

2. We call for South Korean Congressional and Special Prosecutor investigations to probe the serious accusations of fraud and human-rights violations that have been widely alleged against members of the Lee Myung-Bak Administration in connection with the naval-base construction.

3. The Governor of Jeju Province, Woo Geunmin, must take all necessary administrative actions to impede the naval-base construction, such as the cancellation of permits that were unlawfully secured to proceed with the project.

4. The U.S. government and military must acknowledge their support for and involvement in the construction of the Jeju naval base and end their militaristic policies, which threaten the peace in East Asia and the world.

5. The Japanese government must not collaborate in constructing the Jeju naval base, which threatens the peace and security of its own people, and must abandon its militarist orientation.

 6. Conscientious citizens of the U. S., Japan, Germany, Canada, and other nations must actively mobilize their peace movements to demand the stoppage of the Jeju naval base construction, which threatens the peace of the world.

Concerned citizens from all over the world who are committed to peace and the preservation of nature

April 2012

Signing period: From today until April 11th
Please send international signatures to:

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Winter Landscape at Greenwich Park, London

On 5 February 2012, we had the first snow in this winter, and couldn't help but stroll around the snow-covered Greenwich Park to make the most out of the day. Not surprisingly, the park was full of couples holding each other in arms and quite naturally, families with kids whose parents towed a sledge, eagerly approaching slopes for the snow-ride. Approaching the Royal Observatory from a distance, we came across with this magnificent scene with people dotted around in all forms and posture, enjoying this snowy Sunday afternoon with their loved ones. It reminded me of a scene from a painting that I must have seen in the past - I couldn't figure out which one it was, but later, I realise this sense of 'deja vu' would have originated from having come across with one of Brueghel's winter landscape paintings. In any case, it was one of the most beautiful days that will be engrained in my heart for many years to come.

ps. Another friend of mine pointed out Lowry's paintings, which also presented some striking resemblance to how the people are pictured.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road, Hong Kong

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Last month in December 2011, I paid another research trip to Hong Kong. Due to my short stay, I was not able to visit many places nor meet  friends as much as I hoped for. One place that I happened to pass by was Chungking Mansions, which is one of the unique landmarks in Hong Kong. First opened in 1961 as a trendy living place for the relatively affluent at the time, it is located on Nathan Road, Kowloon, not too far from the waterfront. The following note was actually prepared when I paid an earlier visit back in May 2011, accompanied by a colleague of mine Surajit who now teaches in Abu Dhabi University. (Hence, my thanks to him for the informative discussion at the time)

Its first two storeys are used as malls accommodating various stores (currently dominated by south asian restaurants, electronics/gadget shops and DVDs), and other upper floors are residential. The building complex has five towers, and I hear each tower has 18 floors: other than the ground floor, lifts take people up to the 16th floor, and there is yet another 17th floor which is not reached by the lift system. The rooftop has connection to other towers so that people in the tower's middle section can be evacuated more easily in case of fire.

Over time, the affluent moved out to the island side or other more luxurious places, and succession took place, with South Asians filling in the vacancies. Many floors nowadays accommodate cheap guesthouses for backpackers or others who require lower-end accommodations. Initially, malls were filled with textile-related shops, gradually replaced by electronic stores, mostly specialised in mobile phones. My colleague Surajit who took me there last May 2011 says one researcher estimated that about 30 percent of mobile phones in sub-Saharan region come through Chungking Mansions shops. Perhaps they operate as middlemen, while the manufacturing is done in mainland China. Malls also have numerous South Asian restaurants and corner shops.

The mansion is also home to many asylum seekers, who claim asylum and wait here until the process is complete. Surajit says the asylum application is sent to the UNHCR Sub-office at Hong Kong, and when failed, another application can be submitted to the Hong Kong Governnent, but I will have to check about the exact process at a later date.

It is speculated that many mobile phones sold in the mansion shops are thought to be fakes with different grades and quality. Also, when I took a picture of shops and traders inside the mansion on the ground floor, the sales people were shouting, apparently complaining at me. I was told that many people working there are having issues in one way or another, which make them less comfortable with their pictures taken.

Though the building seems deteriorating, it has not been subject to definite plans for redevelopment. One likely reason was the presence of a large number of individual property owners in association, whose number is thought be more than 700. This makes it difficult to implement redevelopment as potential developers who would want to pursue this have to strike 700 individual deals with owners. This situation may change, as the building is now more than 50 years old, and the Hong Kong government has eased the regulation for compulsory purchase early in 2010. The relaxed regulation allows a developer to apply for a Compulsory Sale Order if it owns not less than 80 percent of the undivided shares. However, it may also be the case that the task of the area's redevelopment is beyond any one developer's scope, and may require a collected effort by a consortium.

In any case, the socio-cultural and economic significance of the building complex warrants a closer follow-up in the next few years, if not a decade.

ps. If anyone wants to know more about the history of Chungking Mansions, the following two sources appear to be worth pursuing. One is a PhD thesis by my colleague Surajit mentioned earlier.

ps2. Also, thanks to Surajit above who supplied me with this information, there is an award-winning student documentary (15 minute running time) that presents a well-documented ethnography of Chungking Mansions. It's a good example of how visual images can combine with an in-depth study of a place to provide an insight into 'otherness', crossing the boundary to transform oneself from an outsider to an insider.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

2012년, 드러내기

정신없이 보내던 지난 몇년
수많은 여행, 방문, 만남, 그리고 기록.
그 많은 것들이 쌓이다 보니 이젠 주체하기 힘들어진다.

내 안의 차곡차곡 모여지는 웅얼거림
정제된 외침을 지향하다 보니
웅얼거림이 이젠 작은 함성이 되어
비난이 되어버렸다

하나씩, 하나씩 덜어내자
그 소리들에 이름 붙여주고
옷을 입히고, 관계 맺어주자
설익은 모습이더라도 싹을 틔워줘야겠다

2012년 첫날.
무언가 신년계획이라고 하기엔 뭐하지만
아무튼, 나름 결심으로 다짐해본다

Beijing in November 2002

오래전 찍었던 사진 정리하다 올린다. 베이징 4환 순환도로, Xiaoying 근처. 2002년 11월 겨울 초입

The picture below was taken near the northern section of the 4th ring road. Somewhere around Xiaoying in Beijing, China. Taken in November 2002

2002년 겨울 초 베이징에 머물렀었다. 그 당시에도 빠른 속도로 변해 가는 중국 베이징... 그 변화폭은 마치 88년 올림픽을 앞둔 서울을 연상케 했다... 아니 그 보다 더 압축적이다... 늘어가는 자가용 보유율 따라 마차도 점점 사라져 간다. 그래도 처음 볼 때는 마냥 신기 @.@

당시, 마차의 사용이 줄면 이 말의 (당나귀인가...?) 지친 삶도 좀 편해질까 의문스러웠다. 결론은, '아니다. 마차 사용 안하면 말은 생을 마감한다... 중국 말도 예외는 아니다' 지금도 이 생각은 유효하다.