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cities and density and doing my civic duty
mom walk
As a follow-up to my last post, i was thinking about cities and population density.

Let's start this by pointing out i really am a city nerd.

I am 39 years old and i have only exercised my political franchise once in my life. This is largely because there are only two elections in my life that i have ever been eligible to vote in: the 2014 EU elections (i didn't register in time) and the 2016 Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg local council elections (i voted for a minor party that picked up 0.3% of the vote). All the rest of my life my country of residence has not allowed me to vote in elections at any level.

However, voting in 2016 was not my first engagement with civic duty.

The year was 2005, and my new friend slash fuckbuddy slash partner (i'm not sure what we were yet) was finishing up her social work degree. She thought i was a flop for not being more engaged in Australian politics, so she signed me up for a series of workshops and conferences that the council organized to get feedback from residents on future urban development. I think she was surprised that i ended up far more into it than her. Or perhaps she knew it was my thing all along.

At the time the model city of the world was Vancouver. A lot of urban planning experts gave presentations about it and helped facilitate group discussions around how we thought we could apply those learnings in Brisbane. I was a passionate advocate of high-rise development like in downtown Vancouver, although that was less popular amongst other participants who thought "Queenslanders" (wooden stilt houses) were part of the local culture and shouldn't be replaced across the board. We talked a lot on pros and cons, brainstormed and voted and actively participated in fucking democracy. Something we all agreed on was that the major infrastructure investment should be in busways and greenways over tunnels and bridges. It was surprising and pleasing to see such a diverse bunch - at least as far as age and ethnicity goes - all prioritize public transport, cycling and walking over private internal combustion vehicles.

The big thing coming out of the sessions was that collectively we favored the idea of a building a city of "urban villages". In that context, we were using "urban village" to describe multi-storey developments clustered around a public transit hub with commercial on the lower floors and residential on the upper floors. I.e. something a lot like the Hong Kong new towns. Then radiating out between the patchwork of hubs, the density would decrease to allow some of those traditional single-family homes to remain.

The plan was called CityShape 2026 and it was controversial because it would require the rezoning of formerly low density residential areas to execute. It's almost 15 years later now and i haven't been back to Brisbane, so i'm not sure if any of it got made into policy. There was an epic flood that destroyed half the city a few years after i left, which seems like a good opportunity to rebuild properly, though i'm not sure the people who lost their houses would see it that way. I'm skeptical now, but back then i was optimistic. I really thought as residents we could have an impact on the future of our city - have it become the green utopia so many of us wanted.

Here in Shenzhen the dream has almost come true for me. I mean, Shenzhen is a goddamn disaster. It's China, so entire neighborhoods are marked for demolition on a whim. They rip up the roads every two weeks, recover them and then rip them up again like it's Lego bricks and not poured concrete. But, on the other hand, subways are going in everywhere, and around those metro stations you do get clusters of mixed-use development just like in the Hong Kong new towns. There aren't really any single-family homes because that would be ridiculous, but there are plenty of rickety tenements and dank alleys that form part of Shenzhen's local culture. The good news is that the council recently recognized these areas as an important part of the city and have put a halt on demolitions.

Anyway, this brings me back to the topic of density. You remember when the government blocked Wikipedia and i was really upset because i spend so much time on it? One of the things i like to read is city pages. Australian cities like Brisbane are drawn to include a lot of empty hinterland, which makes it difficult to get a feel for the real population density from the formal statistics. That's true in much of China too, but the PRD is fairly unique in that the whole goddamn region is so tightly packed that density metrics "feel" just about right.

According to wiki, Hong Kong has 7.5 million people and a density around 7000 per square kilometer. Shenzhen has 13 million people and a comparable density, officially. Unofficially we have 20 million. In any case Hong Kong has more greenspace than Shenzhen, so they have these stupidly tall pencil-thin skyscrapers, whereas we have more prefab tower blocks and miles and miles of tenements.

When i was in the UK i saw that London has about 8 million people and 5600 per square kilometer, which feels weird because London doesn't feel dense at all. But then, maybe it doesn't have much greenspace either. I guess density statistics can be misleading, because the densest "city" in America is only 4 blocks long and it's in New Jersey. It's literally just a handful of tower blocks and a council chamber.

But then i think about how many similarly tall tower blocks i pass every day on the way to work and it makes me ponder what the real density is around me. I am about 11km from work. If i imagine a "tunnel" of 500m to my left and right, and taking the city average of 7000 people per square kilometer, i should pass 77,000 people on my commute. Except i know that a larger section of my ride is past 20+ storey towers and not 7 storey tenements, so it could be double.

Jesus, 150,000 people and there still isn't a decent coffee shop on that route. Fucking China! But seriously. To service those tens of thousands of people there are department stores and fast food outlets and fancy restaurants and schools and gyms and everything else. I could get pretty much everything i need in that north-to-south tunnel of my commute, but fortunately i don't have to because the city stretches out 80km from east-to-west - not just 1km - and there's another 20km north of my house. So there are at least a handful of places to get good, cheap coffee.

It sort of feels amazing that we don't spend all day tripping over each other, but i guess humans don't need much space. I remember reading Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem series and at one point a character mentions that you could fit the entire population of the Earth into Shanghai, if we all just stood holding hands.

So, i kinda think this idea that racists like to haul out about how the Earth is over-populated and poor people in third world countries should stop having children is garbage. I live in a relatively dense city and there is still a lot of room to breathe. There are trees, there are flowers, there are birds. It's not a Garden of Eden, but it's far from a concrete box packed with flesh.

Somewhere inside of me is still that little optimist, the one who read Kim Stanley Robinson as a kid and still believes that humans one day will stop being awful and selfish and self-destructive. Urbanization will continue and billions of us will live in green cities, walking and biking and zooming around on electric vehicles. We will all live in urban villages. The suburbs will be demolished and replaced with farms. Rural towns and far-flung ranches will be handed back to the buffalo...

I won't live to see it, i guess. But that's a future that does excite me. Mass global urbanization. Complete destruction of borders and nationalities. Huge expanses of our planet rewilded. Maybe the future will look more like a network of glittering city states.

Maybe for some of us we're already back to the city state era, seeing as non-citizens like me are disenfranchised on every level above the city anyway.


Here is a cyberpunky photo of my new haircut. My hairdresser used one of those magical filters on his phone to turn me into an anime character.

town mouse and country mouse 🐭
mom walk
Coming back to China this time felt less comfortable than last time. I arrived in Taiwan over 2 years ago and so far have only left Greater China for about a week to get my passport stamped and then another week for the work thing just gone.

Going to Toronto - and Windsor - i felt quite alienated. Toronto was as diverse as i remember, but far less walkable than i remember, even downtown. There were loud and stinky internal combustion vehicles everywhere, and every restaurant was meat and dairy fucking central. Windsor, being a small town slash lily white suburb of Detroit (depending on your point of view) was worse. So much guitar music. So much gluttony. It was a culture shock and i was happy to get back to China.

On this recent trip to the UK, London was meh, but Glasgow and Edinburgh felt like places i could get to like. Lots of vegan food. Cheap beer. House music. Mountains. Parks. Apartments. And freedom.

I mean, the kind of freedom that you don't have in mainland China.

Every newspaper is still blocked. It's not just the newspapers. Most image hosts have been blocked too, so a lot of blogs that do come through don't have pictures any more. Various free shell accounts and other technical sites that could be used to bypass the Great Firewall... gone. Especially with major protests happening just across the bay, coming back to a total internet blackout felt cripplingly repressive.

It didn't help that the coolest, greenest section of my work commute was destroyed while i was away. All the trees have been ripped up and concrete barriers erected. Even if they're just replacing the woodland shrubs with a "high class" manicured greenway, it's still fucked. Every wild thing here is just a prelude to a goddamn bulldozer. No one will handcuff themselves to a tree to protest road construction in Shenzhen. Or if they did they'd just be arrested and sent to a re-education camp.

The trees were gone and no one cried but me.

On the other hand, the lifestyle in the urban villages often makes China feel more free than cities in the west. At night the streets overflow with people. Old ladies dancing to techno music. Old men singing karaoke. Street vendors, many of whom surely don't have permits. People drinking beer and gambling and playing cards or chess. A couple of shops near my house haul pool tables out on the sidewalk and show costume dramas. Kids kick soccer balls around the temple courtyard. Fruit vendors brandish machetes and hack up melons and pineapples and whatever other goodies you desire. There is a sense of community. It's nice to be surrounded by thousands of strangers reclaiming the streets.

I've been thinking a lot about what i like in China, and this is it. The urban villages. The city life. It's what attracted me to this country - i wanted to experience the rapid and unprecedented urbanization first-hand. It's everything i imagined. If you are a city nerd, Shenzhen is truly incredible. It may not have all the cultural perks of European cities (notably vegan food or western-style pubs and nightclubs), but the convenience is unparalleled. Buses go everywhere, and they are all electric. Cheap eats. Share bikes. Mobile payments. Fully furnished rental apartments. Overnight or same-day shipping of anything you could possibly imagine. Fuck. It's great.

This week i got in a frustrating conversation with someone on a comment thread. They lived in upstate New York, and they were trying to make a point that nobody really wants to live in big cities, they only move there because of work. They claimed that literally every aspect of life in the big city was equalled or bettered in small towns. Apparently not only do small towns have superior access to nature, they also have world-class art, theater, food and music.

Which is, of course, ridiculous. I have lived in small towns. It is true that there can be fantastic restaurants in small towns. Some small towns have thriving arts scenes. But come on.

I tried to explain that people in cities don't just want access to one good restaurant, they want a dozen, and they want to be able to walk to each one. I told them that from my house i can not only bike to museums and markets and stadiums and theaters, but also to nature parks with hours-long trails. I said that many people in cities do not drive a car and never learned how. I pointed out that there is a lot more to the entertainment scene than just country music and classic rock, and that for some people finding a club that plays exactly their brand of quirky underground music is exactly why they moved to the city in the first place.

The guy continued to insist that there was a wealth of similar entertainment options in small towns, but admitted that perhaps cities were the right place for the small percentage of people who enjoy going to nightclubs and getting mugged.

Which is when i realized the guy was so out of touch it wasn't worth continuing the conversation. I sometimes forget how many rural people believe that cities are dangerous places. That was one of the most surprising questions people asked me when i was traveling across the US on routes that Greyhound has since canceled due to lack of ridership. For some reason, many rural folk are convinced that just walking around in the city you will get attacked, or that your house will be broken into while you are sleeping, or something. They seem terrified of other people.

Another thing they don't get is that city people don't have a problem sharing stuff.

A separate thread on the article featured some other country guy asking how anyone could have a hobby in the city, because there's no room to set up a proper workshop. Nevermind the fact that plenty of hobbies don't require a workshop, this guy couldn't conceive that there might be such a thing as a shared workshop. It was as alien as the idea that - given the choice - people would choose not to own a car. One guy was convinced that as soon as a person earns enough, they will always buy a private vehicle. As if carshare hasn't been a thing for decades. Or, you know, taxis. Still, to some it seems incomprehensible that millions of people happily spend their entire lives never once getting behind the wheel of an automobile.

I also found myself defending the fact that there are people in the world who legitimately prefer to rent. It was exhausting.

Then, at work, i had to do it again. The Chinese government - like many others - has a tax break/savings scheme for home ownership, which annoys me because i think the government should be building free houses for the proletariat instead of propping up the banking industry and property developers by encouraging the petite bourgeoisie to buy. Payroll thought they were doing me a favor by offering to sign me up for the "benefit", but why would i ever? All that money and paperwork just to own a chunk of masonry stuck in one spot that now needs regular maintainance? God, no. Renting is freedom. Growing up my family always rented. It's not because we were poor and couldn't afford a house, it's not some wacky cult thing, it's just how some people live.

Anyway, i am glad for LiveJournal because here i get to read the stories of people who own houses and live in small towns and other places around the world that are nothing like where i live. I hope it helps me to understand those lifestyles a little better. I don't ever want to become like those country folk who just point blank refuse to believe that anyone different to them could exist.

As for me, i am thinking more and more that i am a city kid. As much as i enjoy visiting small towns, and sometimes i daydream about life in a trailer out in the middle of Saskatchewan... in reality i think i'd miss the convenience. I'd miss the anonymity. I'd miss the freedom. I'd definitely miss being able to walk everywhere. I'll just look at country life through the window of LJ photo posts.

Well, the photo posts that aren't hosted on sites blocked by the Great Firewall. Sigh.

when i was a bairn
mom walk
I arrived at the Glasgow bus station early Sunday morning. The city was dead, but i found a crossroads with a trio of fast food restaurants that were still serving drunks and other stranded travelers. I picked up a bagel and coffee and pondered my next steps.

Glasgow is the last place i lived in Europe during the Cold War. We had just left the army so for the first time i was attending a civvie school and hanging out with kids who had grown up in the same place their whole lives. I remember living in fear of the headmaster's belt. I remember football and The Beano and crisps and Jet Set Willy. I remember my parents expressing concern i might be gay because i was too close to one of my friends. It hardly mattered since any friendships i made were lost when we were whisked off to New Zealand, via nan's in Essex and grandpa's in Hong Kong.

Another thing i remember from Glasgow is Pollok Park, and specifically hating it. I hated it because my dad scared me there once.

Mom and dad both loved going out in nature. One trick my dad pulled to try entertain us kids while hiking was to spin fairytales. Dad spent his boarding school years reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons & Dragons, and he saw being a father as an opportunity to become the ultimate DM/storyteller. He still does it today - makes up fantastic stories to explain away everyday things he doesn't know the answer to. He totally deadpans it, and sometimes i think he even ends up believing his own myths. It's kind of charming.

Except when it scars you. Pollok Park is a weird fucking place anyway. It's got a terrifying old mansion and thick beds of dead leaves and ominous mounds of earth and hollowed out trunks. It also has highland cattle and Clydesdale horses and other freakishly oversized animals. Dad took great delight in telling us about the goblins in the woods and trolls under the bridges. At one point on a typically gray day he suggested i take a walk down a lonely path, then he looped around and jumped out from a tunnel to scare the living daylights out of me.

I think i found that tunnel on Sunday, under a bridge opposite a golf course. It was tiny and not scary in the slightest.

The park is still ultra fucking weird, though. The trees in the old growth woods are as oppressive as they ever were, although there is a mountain bike trail there now. There are still odd little corners of the place decorated with tiny doors and houses for pixies and gnomes. A hedge festooned with bright colored flowers and punctuated by paths that lead nowhere. This is a place of my nightmares, but also a place of my childhood, a place instantly conjured up in my mind every time i hear a Cure song.

I made it out of the park unscarred and walked through suburban Glasgow till i came across a coffee shop that was open. I will spill the name here because it was by far the best fancy meal i ate in my whole time in the UK - Cafe Strange Brew. I got their take on beans on toast, which was a vegan option. The sourdough toast was chewy and crunchy and just right. The beans were a mix of British-style baked beans and American-style chili sin carne. The vegan cheese was melted just like real cheese. It was topped with cilantro, cress and chimichurri. I went all-out with avocado smash and vegan sausage on the side. The staff were amazing. Top joint.

After breakfast i walked back down to the river, via a few more parks and tenements. At one point i smelled that rusty bitter aroma i have always associated with train tracks, even though most train tracks don't smell like that at all. Perhaps it was always just the smell of an old pedestrian bridge in Glasgow. I felt at home.

After checking into a hotel, i did some clothes shopping. I wanted to buy some large sized clothes and very quickly found a much-needed replacement bra and a couple of tank tops. I hope that will last me till next time i am visiting a country with big people. I broke my vegan thing by enjoying fish and chips at an "upscale" chippy. By "upscale" i mean that people could make bookings and order wine, although the food was not elevated in the slightest. Why mess with perfection? Dinner was served in soggy cardboard. I finished the night at a student pub where pints of Tennent's were just over 3 pound.


Monday morning i was due in Edinburgh for work. I had set my alarms, but somehow still slept through and groggily got on the 8:30am train. I remember as a kid we drove through Edinburgh at some point, but i am not sure we ever really visited the town. I was surprised to find it has steep hills and cobbled streets and tons of ye olde buildings. Every shop is a tourist trap. It's utterly hideous.

Work was work. Monday night we went out for rooftop drinks at some brew pub for IPA-drinking hipsters and tourists. Did you know Edinburgh has a castle? It does. People go to rooftop bars to take photos of it. I lamented the lack of 3 pound Tennent's.

The next morning i walked as far away from the tourists as possible to try find something that didn't suck. I finally found the kind of cafe i remember from my youf. The operative letter here is "e" (as opposed to "é"). The menu is sausage on a roll. Lorne on a roll. Black pudding on a roll. Haggis on a roll. Bacon on a roll. You get the idea. You can also buy crisps or various sweets and fudges that sit behind the counter alongside pickled onions and egg sandwiches cut in triangles. I got a vegan lorne on a roll - with brown sauce - and cheerfully chomped it out of a paper bag on the way to work. (Things have progressed somewhat since the 80s. They also had a real espresso machine to make my mandatory morning Americano.)

After work i climbed a nearby mountain. Edinburgh also has a naked mountain in the city, one without a castle on the top. It looks very tall and imposing from the bottom, but because the weather is so fucking cold it only takes about 20 minutes to climb and you don't really break a sweat like you do climbing equivalently steep trails here in southern China. It's a good mountain, despite the crowds. I found a quiet corner amidst the heather and thistles and breathed the fresh air and took selfies.

Descending the mountain i resolved to get a curry, but the first couple of restaurants i found were closed. Then i found a pub. Not a London pub full of wankers in suits standing up and drinking 6 pound pints. A proper pub with people in high-vis vests and tracksuits sitting down and watching football. I got my 3 pound Tennent's and played some tunes on the jukebox. My greatest hit was Alison Moyet - All Cried Out, which got an approving singalong from the chaps at the bar who probably hadn't heard it in 30 years. I went next door to the chippy and took my second vegan holiday by getting sausage and chips. The sausages were battered and deep fried because of course they were. The chips were thick and soft. Everything was doused in brown sauce and vinegar and wrapped up in paper. It was divine.


The next morning as i traveled with my hangover to the airport and got a ploughman's sandwich and Irn Bru out of a vending machine, i got a flash of what my life would have been like if we had stayed in Scotland. I would still wear sneakers and a hoodie all the time, but i'd wear tracksuit pants instead of jeans. I'd probably have a shaved head and listen to drum'n'bass or hardcore. I would definitely be fatter and whiter and speak with an accent completely impenetrable to foreigners. I would go to the pub and drink Tennent's and eat chips and finally make a choice between Celtic and Rangers. I think i would still climb mountains, but i'd wear a bobble hat instead of a bandana. Bizarro me.

Coming back to China was a shock. While i was away the government cracked the fuck down on the internet and now almost all foreign newspapers are blocked, most notably The Guardian, which i (used to) read daily. Hong Kong is erupting in protests and the censors are aggressively wiping away any mention of it here. But people still know about it via word of mouth and they are worried. They are also angry at America for warmongering and annoyed that Shenzhen specifically is being targeted with the attack on Huawei and threatened moves against other major local employers. The mood is tense, but what are you going to do? I can leave if things get hot, but a billion other people can't.

I don't plan on leaving any time soon, but one thing this trip has done is reopen the UK as a place i wouldn't mind returning to. Brexit remains a fucking debacle, but i didn't meet any (open) Brexiteers on my trip there, and that makes me feel less embarrassed to be British-on-paper. Maybe i am still a little British-at-heart too. Life there did feel vaguely familiar and comfortable. Especially Scotland. Good food. Cheap beer. Mountains. Not bad.

i like to be beside the seaside
mom walk
The two things i knew about Brighton were that Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) lives there, and that it's featured in a song from an old adventure game that starts "I remember my childhood in Brighton / when dear old dad would bounce me on 'is knee..." When benicek mentioned he lived nearby, i figured it might be a good opportunity to explore a new town.

A bit of internet research said it was a resort town that had seen better days, and is now a bit hippie-ish and a bit gay. Sounds good. I took the train down and checked into my hotel. The hotel clerk suggested a pub which - surprise, surprise - was standing room only. I am not really a fan of busy places, especially not to eat, so i walked along the seafront looking for a restaraunt.

It seems it's not just London that shuts down after 8. Of course there are still pubs open, but the kitchens close up. If you want food in the evening, the only places are pizza parlors.

More on that later.

The point is, i failed very hard to find any food. In desperation i went to a Caribbean restaurant where the only vegetarian things were chickpea curry and sides. I ordered greens and plantain, expecting something like collard greens and a bowl of chips. Instead i got what seemed to be canned spinach with bell peppers and a bowl of microwaved banana slices. I was upset, and resolved that Brighton was shite.

Fortunately i found a gay bar to turn my opinion around. There were lots of gay bars, but none seemed particularly hopping. This one had lesbian bouncers with mohawks, which seemed promising. It turned out to be a cabaret. The main performer was a proper, old-fashioned British drag queen who could sing. She sang Abba, Olivia Newton John and assorted show tunes. She introduced a blue-eyed babe in a bow-tie who belted out some jazz standards and played the straight (ha!) man to her bawdy jokes. It was excellent. I felt like i was at gay Butlins.

I drank a lot of snakebites. Later on they opened a downstairs nightclub where i danced for a bit, but they didn't turn on the sub-woofer so even several pints down it was difficult to get into the pop-y stuff the DJ was playing. I walked home in bitterly cold rain and wind.


Yesterday i woke with a hangover, dropped my clothes in a washing machine and met up with benicek for breakfast. We wandered around Brighton, had a few drinks, sat on the boardwalk, got sunburnt and tried to solve the problems of the world. It was great.

Around 4pm we both headed back up north. When i saw the cost of a train to Scotland, i decided to take an 11pm bus instead. That left me a few hours in London to walk around and get dinner.

That was a whole nother mission in itself. I forgot my most hated thing of looking for food in Europe. Fucking Italian food. I hate Italian food. I swear there must be 10 times as many Italian restaurants in Europe as there are all other cuisines put together.

I walked for a long time. I walked through one of the most hideous places i have ever walked through anywhere in the world. Every single fucking car on the road was a Ferrari. Well, most of them were Ferraris. The other ones were Porsches or Jaguars or Bentleys. It was disgusting. I don't know what the neighborhood is, but i hope i never have to go there again. There were next to no restaurants, and the few that were there had foie gras and duck confit and all that nonsense. Also, Italian food. So much Italian food. Worst suburb ever.

I was almost in tears by this point. I saw a McDonalds on the map so went there in the hope the area around it would be less upper class. It wasn't, not really. I went to a "Chinese" restaurant, but the whole menu was English and seemed like the Monty Python spam sketch except with sweet and sour sauce.

Eventually i found a few normal restaurants on top of South Kensington station. I ducked into a Singaporean hole-in-the-wall. I don't know if the place even had a name. Half the menu was written in blue pen and stuck on the wall. Cash only. I was tempted to get roti canai or nasi lemak or char kway teow, but stuck to my guns. I ordered plain fried noodle with bean sprouts, and a side dish of choy sum (aka "caixin" in the mainland). I drenched the noods in chili oil and tossed in the garlic-y greens and proceeded to have the best meal so far in London. Objectively it may not have been especially good, but i was appalled at the wealth around me and just eating some humble noodles with greens and drinking a pot of jasmine tea brought me back down to Earth.

After dinner i walked down to Battersea park, which is the best greenspace i have found so far in London. I just stayed on the waterfront, but it was quiet and relaxing. Not in a ghost town way, but in a peaceful way. A few joggers. Squirrels. Birds. Some people were canoodling and getting high on the hill next to the pagoda. I sat on the grass too and watched the sun go down.


The coach ride was rough. I was lucky to have a free seat next to me, but even with my feet up it was very cramped and very cold. Everyone was going through the same thing, though. Suffering together somehow makes it bearable. We stumbled out bleary-eyed in Glasgow before 7am. Yeah, Sunday morning 7am when absolutely nothing was open, not even the train station. I ended up walking around for 4-5 hours, but i will write more about that later.

One thing i will say is just a follow-up to my note on London's quaintness. Glasgow is an order of magnitude smaller in population, but getting off the bus it immediately felt like a bigger city to me. I now wonder if it's the architecture and urban layout that flicks the switch in my head. London feels to me like a tiny village that just keeps on going. Throwing up a few palaces or skyscrapers doesn't balance out the miles of rickety shopfronts and higgledy-piggledly row houses and chimneys made from flower pots. The whole city gives the impression if you looked at it the wrong way it'd fall apart. Glasgow features large buildings made of stone. Wide roads. It's big and it's tough. Even with no one around besides a few Sunday morning drunks and homeless people, it felt like i had finally arrived somewhere with a bit of presence.

midnight thoughts on London
mom walk
It's not midnight. It's almost 2am. I shall be a wreck tomorrow. Apologies in advance, benicek. Brunch is polite people's way of saying "hungover breakfast at lunch time", right?

Let's rewind to my days in London. My last entry was first impressions, jetlagged and just arrived. I am still jetlagged, but since then i spent three days going to work in Bloomsbury district and walking all around the city. I took notes.

Tuesday night a couple of colleagues and i walked southish to see what we could see. We ended somewhere around South Bank, which is perhaps a less well-known London district, but you could describe it as the place where people go to take photos of the more famous tourist destinations on the north side of the river.

Then we went more south, around some rail lines, till it felt like we were trapped in a depressing row of council housing. We were looking for somewhere to eat. The pubs were still very expensive. It felt oddly like the houses were too wretched for their location...


Everything is so small. The buildings are small. The space between different neighborhoods is short. The famously big things are small, notably the London Eye and Trafalgar Square and "Big" Ben.

Admittedly Big Ben is currently just a concrete spike covered in canvas with the original clockface on the side. I guess they are rebuilding it.

Does everything feel small because in mainland China everything is wide and expansive, or does everything feel small because when i was last here i was a child?

London i don't think was ever really a place we visited much. Only to catch a plane. I don't have any childhood memories of it beyond knowing we did do the tourist stuff at some point.

And yet i feel more at home than i expected. Much more. People are polite and helpful. I can speak English everywhere, even if the people around me are speaking Spanish or German or French. I "get it".

There are some things i don't get.

The pubs are odd. Unlike on the continent, there is a massive rush from 5.30pm to 7.30pm. During that block, everywhere is shoulder-to-shoulder, standing room only. Then after 8 they empty out completely. (It's still light after 8, by the way.) It's a very strange feeling for people to be gone home so early. The shops aren't open past 5 or 6 either. My Iberian colleagues in town for the same training as me were similarly surprised, and they confirmed it. The city really is a ghost town in the evening.

There are also a lot of people in suits. So many suits. Some people wear suits in Shenzhen, but i figure they must be Hong Kongers or bankers. (Is that redundant?) In Berlin noone wears suits or they'd be laughed out of the room. My colleagues teased me over my visceral negative reaction.

"They're not assholes, they're just going to work to earn money to feed their families."

"Yeah, families full of suit-wearing assholes."

Suits aside, it is nice to be in a country again where people are bigger and taller like me, and where women wear sleeveless tops. China and the continent are upside-down countries. People tend to wear short bottoms and long tops. I feel like England and the colonies are the other way around, which is how i prefer to dress too.


Dear lord, we went out for dinner Thursday night and a vegan thali cost 18 pounds. In Toronto thalis were the cheapest canteen-style South Asian food you could get. Like 5 bucks, if that. London is eye-wateringly expensive, even for things that really shouldn't be.

The thing is... as a software developer on a business trip with a 25 pound per day food budget (or 35 pound if i had stayed in a hotel that didn't include breakfast), it doesn't feel unmanageable. And the London coppers appear to do a "great" job keeping the riff-raff out of the rich areas. Which is probably all of the areas i visited. So, as a business traveler, the place feels welcoming and affordable.

But if i had to pay for it out of my own pocket, i would shit bricks.

That's how it starts, though, innit? Businesses have money to burn and write all the expenses off as a tax deduction anyway, meanwhile regular people can't live any more.

The locals i talked to said the areas round my work were always rich so whatevs. They say the real gentrification is in the east end, which i didn't visit at all.

I probably missed out on the "real" London. But it was a business trip, so i didn't expect to see much anyway.


This afternoon i walked to the train station to take the train down to Brighton. I'll write more about this place later, but fuck. I remember leaving London. The row houses. The chimneys. The bricks. The hills. Snippets of early memories.

I remember walking St James park too. Thistles. Holly. Foxglove. Daisies. All these plants that are completely unremarkable to locals... but when you lived in other countries where they are rare or non-existent, it's a nostalgic smack in the face to see them all again.

There's a lot of London that is clearly different. Like, skyscrapers and Starbucks. But the general vibe felt the same, although much quainter and quieter than it had been in my head.

I was surprised how much i didn't hate it.

I have more to reflect on, but that will be an entry i should do less drunk.

things i have learned about the mother land
mom walk
London is very expensive.

The underground looks exactly the same as it did last century. And possibly the century before that. There is no phone service down there.

There are hardly any people. It's like a ghost town. That might be because i am in a ghost towny area, although all the street names sound familiar and famous. The few people around all seem to be speaking Spanish instead of English, which is peculiar.

I missed menus with proper vegan options. I also missed pubs. I had a curry and two pints.

On that, I don't know how to order at an English pub and am unsure if i was supposed to tip. I tipped like an American just in case, which probably means i spectacularly overtipped, but i didn't want to seem like an ass. Although, admittedly, when Americans come to Europe and overtip that's exactly what they seem like, so...

Dear lord. That ridiculously large plug. That feels even more antiquated than the pound sterling and driving on the wrong side of the road.

Pro tip: if you buy a plug converter from a normal-sized plug to a ridiculous-sized plug from Tescos because it's the only place open at 9pm, it doesn't work. I checked the fine print and apparently it works "for UK shavers and tooth brushes only". I have no idea how they managed to create a plug converter that fits normal-sized plugs but does not actually work unless your device is British. It seems like practical joke aimed at Europeans, North Americans, Chinese and visitors from pretty much every other country in the world that has normal-sized plugs.

No piece of electronics i own is charging right now.

Tomorrow i have to go to work. I am utterly exhausted. Good night.

note to self
mom walk
I want to write a little checklist of things to do in the UK.

In England
- Eat a vege sausage or anything with brown sauce from a roadside stand
- Buy chips wrapped in newspaper and eat them by the sea
- Go to a pub
- Cross a fence using a stile
- Get stung by a nettle
- Pick some brambles, if they're in season
- Throw a custard pie in the face of a Brexiteer

In Scotland
- Eat porridge
- Drink Irn Bru
- Wander around Glasgow and see if i remember anything

I have to wake up stupidly early tomorrow and take a taxi to Shekou. Ferry to Hong Kong. Long plane to Helsinki. Short plane to London. Let's go.

getting into the UK feeling
mom walk
I have to gush about NXT UK, which is finally finding its feet.

NXT UK started a year or two back presumably as WWE's attempt to stretch its tendrils into parts of the world where there isn't already an established professional wrestling brand. Europe had plenty of indie promotions, but they took a hit when WWE hoovered up some of their best talent to appear on the weekly TV show. Like the American version of NXT, these shows are taped in batches and then edited together as episodic storylines to air over the following month.

The best thing to happen to NXT UK has been to add wrestlers who aren't from the UK.

The first power duo to pop up in NXT UK was Marcel Barthel (Germany) and Fabian Aichner (Südtirol, Italy). Barthel is picturebook übermensch - jacked, blonde, clean-cut and fond of militaristic taunts. Aichner was dopey Eurotrash when he appeared on the American brand, but since he moved to the UK he has leaned into the neo-fascist thing and now struts around in slick black trunks with a mean look on his face.

Here comes the inevitable Brexit shoehorn.

You can tell that the writers tried to leverage Brexit to generate heel heat. Barthel's trunks have a German flag and Aichner's trunks have an Italian flag, but they both have prominent EU flags. The presenters briefly flirted with calling the tag team "European Union". Fortunately for the forces of good, wrestling fans are nowhere near as obnoxiously conservative as the human trash running the WWE, so trying to sell the EU as evil flopped. Fortunately for the writers, Barthel and Aichner were doing a great job of being arrogant and looking sinister regardless of the flags on their trunks, so everyone hates them anyway.

Then WALTER arrived. Yes, his name is all capitals. He is a giant from Austria who wears a fucking Schutzstaffel coat. But everybody loved him because he is big and bad and kicks people in the face with DAS BOOT.

Let me just pause to say wrestling is amazing.

Anyway, WALTER ends up beating former UK champ Pete "The Bruiserweight" Dunne, who is a scrappy, long-haired lad who looks and acts exactly like the bully who stole your lunch money. Of course everyone loves him because he's a working class hero. For a moment it seemed like WALTER and Dunne would have a gentlemanly feud... Until "European Union" arrived and put the beatdown on Dunne. Then WALTER, Barthel and Aichner reunited. In German indie wrestling circles, the three of them were part of a stable called Ringkampf, but here in WWE they are... Imperium! I guess Axis would have been too on-the-nose.

The good news is that having a trio of German-speaking baddies means there is now a reason for Dunne to team back up with Moustache Mountain - aka Trent Seven and Tyler "Big Strong Boy" Bate. The three of them together are British Strong Style and their war with the Imperium will likely be epic.

While all of this is going on, there is another trio of baddies called Gallus, which is apparently Scottish slang for confident. Joe Coffey, Mark Coffey and Wolfgang are all big ugly Glasgow boys who talk tough and fight rough. They never really broke through as the heels they were supposed to be because they aren't as spectacularly detestable as Zack "Liverpool's Number One" Gibson and James Drake (aka tag team champs the Grizzled Young Veterans) or Jordan "The Irish Ace" Devlin.

And then NXT UK filmed in Glasgow.

The last few weeks of Glasgow shows have been the reboot this brand deserved. This is the first time they are filming in Scotland. The crowds are less rowdy than the English, and they don't sing any of the fun supporter songs, but they sure do get behind the local boys. You can tell in the first taping that Gallus was a bit thrown off by suddenly being goodies. They weren't sure how to cut a promo where people would cheer every time they said something offensive. (Contrast with "Liverpool's Number One" who is so hateable that even in Liverpool everyone took off their shoes and jeered him.) But by this third or fourth taping, you can see they are just embracing the fact they are heroes north of the border. I think they will have a much better time being bruisers who face in Scotland and heel in England.

But there's more. Kassius fucking Ohno. The dopiest jobber of NXT. They could never figure out a storyline for Ohno because his name is ridiculous and he looks like a big teddybear. His sole job in America was to lose to whichever new signing WWE enticed over from Japan or Mexico. Then he moved to the UK.

It's amazing how a wrestler can go from being completely unremarkable to a top guy just by tweaking the gimmick. Now, instead of being the guy who loses to all the indie talent, he is the douchey American who cuts promos about how he knows all about the "true" European wrestling, how he understands the "authentic" British style, and he is here to show actual Europeans how it's done. He is exactly like that very fucking annoying brand of weeaboo who thinks they get the local thing even more than the locals do. And everyone (rightfully) hates him.

It's brilliant. He is such a wanker. Last episode he wrestled Jack "The Gentleman" Gallagher, a Mancunian so white he's almost transparent. Gallagher looks and fights like he has been teleported out of 19th century England, and it was genius booking against Ohno. The match is the best wrestling match i've seen all year. I want to watch it again. They wriggled and twisted in the "British" style for the better part of 15 minutes, with Ohno painfully trying to show off how he's not just a big dumb American and can do all the technical tricks the Europeans do. And then in the end he snapped and won by being the big dumb American we all know he is.

Fantastic storytelling.

Hey, in a few days i leave for England. I won't be doing any wrestling, but i'd happily wear an EU flag on my bum.

500 calories
mom walk
Last week i commuted every day to my new job by bike. It's a little over an hour each way. Originally i thought commuting for that long would annoy me, but it turns out to be just the opposite.

I remember when i switched from taking the subway to walking to work in Berlin. They closed two subway stations along my route because the Formula E was in town, so i decided to start walking instead, and then i didn't stop. Rain, snow, morning, night, i walked. It took about 45 minutes each way.

There was a point about 30 minutes into the walk home where something would flick in my brain. The thinking about work starts to fall away. You get into this strange rhythm. The doses are up, the music gets louder, the lights swirl faster, and the chap who freaks out just hasn't passed the acid test.

It happens now too. Right up the top of Keyuan Rd, i hang a right and glide down the slight incline parallel to the Beijing to Hong Kong freeway. I am under trees. There is no one around. Everything is wet and green and fragrant. The lights blur and the wheels hiss and i am free.

Most of the ride i need to pay attention. Either i am on the road and watching out for cars, or i am on the sidewalk and watching out for pedestrians, or i am BMXing across some construction site watching out for holes. But in the gaps i am free!

The first week it was very hot and unseasonably sunny. This week it is back to the normal South China summer: very hot and torrential rain. Yesterday i jumped on a share bike which had the front and back brakes reversed, accidentally locked up the front wheel and stacked it hard. I came into the office covered in blood and muck. At lunch i hadn't dried out much, but i felt slightly better. On the way to get noodles a fucking asshole in an internal combustion vehicle zoomed past and showered me from head to toe in mud from a puddle they did not slow down to ford. I was pissed.

Soggy and pissed.

This morning i could not even see to the other side of the road the rain was so heavy, so i took the subway in. I still got drenched just getting to the station.

I felt guilty, skipping the full ride. I looked up on the internet how much exercise i was forgoing.

The internet says cycling burns about 700 calories an hour. I don't really believe that holds true for urban biking where you spend a decent amount of time stopped at red lights or threading your way around pedestrians, but let's be optimistic and pretend it's 500. That's 1000 calories a day i should be burning more than i did when i was not working. That's a lot of energy.

I should be skinny, damnit!

Alas, my jeans are tight when i sit and my shorts barely close even standing. I look fairly slim from a distance, but it seems i have been growing a belly over the past two years. Ignoring the interlude of my previous job, at my first job here in Shenzhen the bike commute was about 30 minutes each way. So burning only 500 calories a day i am slowly getting fat.

And, guys, i don't eat that much. Breakfast is just a piece of fruit or congee or something. I drink coffee, black with nothing. Lunch is usually noodles, in a serving size that is half what they give you in rich countries. Dinner is two small dishes of peanuts/tofu and some fresh veg with noodles or bread. I also tend to drink about a half liter of sweet tea. Sometimes a few beers. I can't cut down on much.

This means i need that extra hour of biking every day just to stop the slide.

Getting old sucks.

Anyway, i need to become a bad ass motherfucker who bikes two hours a day even in a typhoon. Consequently i have ordered a faboo poncho slash raincoat thingy on Taobao. I found some cute little transparent booties too, which would have been helpful yesterday given my shoes are still well waterlogged, but i am thinking i might switch to flip-flops for the ride instead.

We'll see.

Whatever happens i need to make up that 500 a day.

Of course all those plans will go to shit next week when i get on an airplane to the land of deep-fried Mars bars and Irn-Bru.

To quote a message from a former colleague: "I have been relaxing and eating too much today [...] I shall try to lose weight tomorrow."

dry update
mom walk
I would like to write an entry about share bikes and anarchy in the PRC. But that may come on the weekend. I know you all are on tenterhooks to hear about my first week at work.

It was quite good. Not quite good in the British sense, but actually quite good. Although most jobs have a honeymoon period, my last one absolutely did not, so this was refreshing. It was essentially exactly what i expected after working at that other European tech company of equivalent size and renown. I am hoping being better prepared for the company culture will help me to not get to the end of my rope after a year and explode on the VP of Engineering like a milkshake on everyone's favorite Brexiteer.

I may yet get the chance to toss a custard pie in the face of a Brexiteer because i am going to England. Work wants me to attend a boot camp in London and an onboarding in our Edinburgh HQ, so i will be doing a lightning visit to the mother country in just over a week.

I haven't been to the UK since Rick Astley was Top of the Pops. Although it would be nice to spend a bit of time exploring some of my earliest memories around Essex and Kent, i don't really have the time. Right now my plan is three days working in London, Saturday in Brighton, overnight bus, Sunday in Glasgow, then two days working in Edinburgh before flying back here. 9 days out of China, all up.

It will be exhausting.

My biggest fear is that i will not be able to pay for anything. My EU bank account is empty, and it seems i lost my Canadian credit card at some point. I haven't taken my wallet out of my bag in months. I pay for absolutely everything with my phone now. Presumably in Europe i will need to use cash or card again, except i am not sure how to get cash or use my card when my only card is Chinese.

I might need to buy some foreign currency before i leave, which is hilarious, because it sounds exactly like the kind of thing people did back when Rick Astley was at number one.

Whatever. I'll figure it out. Maybe i can find a shop where the largest clothes aren't two sizes smaller than me. I could use a new bra and some tanks. Simple living is nice and all, but a lot of my clothes are over 5 years old and literally threadbare.

I got 芹菜香干 (qín cài xiāng gān) for dinner, which is one of my vegan faves. Translated it means "Chinese celery and fragrant dried tofu". It's basically just baby celery and hard tofu fried in chili and garlic and ginger. Exactly like something i would make at home, and thankfully cheap and delicious from a greasy spoon near my house.

Getting lunch in Rich China is terrible. Even the chains that allegedly serve humble or rustic food charge at least twice as much as actual mom'n'pop places, and the flavor is insipid. They can't even jazz it up for you because it's just teenagers who don't know how to cook and don't give a shit anyway. The sad thing is that my colleagues like it. They look down on the kinds of joints where i usually eat. "You shouldn't eat at those places. They're not clean."

It's depressing how middle class people are exactly the same everywhere in the world.

Anyway. I got my "dirty" low class dinner and i feel good. Time to finish flash cards, drink a couple low class beers and then crash.