Archive for September, 2013

Korea, the yin and yang.
Seoul and Hwaseong Haenggung.
(September 2013)

Monday, September 30th, 2013

The concept of yin-yang is used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world and yet interrelate to one another.

That perfectly describes Korea.

It’s therefore no wonder that the Korean flag uses yin-yang to symbolise balance within the country and its people.

Black and white, night and day, male and female, red and green, old and new.

Opposites is what South Korea is all about, especially when you consider the difference between the North and South.

Seoul is also a city of contrasts. You often see an old Korean palace, from the 17th Century, set against a backdrop of a towering steel and glass skyscraper.

It’s hard to find a rubbish bin yet the streets are free from litter.

We arrived as the Mid-Autumn Festival was in full swing in the streets around our hotel in the Insadong area. The Hotel Sunbee is well located and close to the palaces, restaurants, bars and the Metro.

On our first full day we took the ‘Hop-on-hop-off’ bus tour to get a good perspective of the city. It rained in the late afternoon so we didn’t do too much ‘hopping off’. On the two occasions that we did get off the bus we visited Gyeongbokgung Palace, first built in 1395 and then reconstructed in 1867, and Gwanghwamun Gate and stood beneath the impressive statue of King Sejong the Great, 1397-1450. At Gyeongbokgung Palace we bought a ‘Combination Ticket’ which gave us access to five sites.

The following day we visited Jongmyo Shrine, built in 1394 and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. We arrived just in time for the English guided tour. From there we walked along Cheonggyecheon or ‘The Stream’, an artery of life set below the madness of the city streets.

Contemporary architecture is a feature of Seoul and there is no better example than the new City Hall. This is literarily ‘New Wave’ architecture and when you see it set against the Old City Hall you can see how well the old and new complement each other.

More yin-yang.

Later that afternoon we arrived at Deokstgung, one of the Five Grand Palaces built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. This time, we were just in time, for the changing of the guard, a colorful display of  command shouting, drum pounding and band marching. The palace was a little more subdued with beautifully crafted traditional Korean architecture and and a quaint, western inspired, pavilion designed by a Russian architect at the turn of the last century.

The following morning we had a guided tour arranged and visited the Korean Folk Village at Hwaseong Haenggung and then travelled a few minutes down the road to Suwon Hwaseong Fortress.

The Korean Folk Village is as much a film set as a museum as many of the famous Korean historical dramas are shot here.

It’s also a great place to bring bus loads of Korean school kids for an outing. There were hundreds of them, all in their brightly coloured uniforms, having a wonderful time. When it came to lunchtime they all sat in neat rows and quietly ate their meal.

The Fortress was built to protect the main city and originally ran for kilometers around it, now there is only a small section remaining.

The next day we visited the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage site and also built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Unfortunately it rained again and we had to shelter under the very wide eaves of the garden buildings as we moved around. It continued raining as we moved from the garden to the palace but at least there was a bit more shelter there.

We went to find a shopping mall but instead discovered Seoul Central Railway Station built in 1927 and with many similarities to Flinders Street Station, built 73 years earlier. Inside we discovered an avant-garde typographic exhibition, ‘Typojanchi 2013’, with three floors of exhibits covering 50 years of experimental typography.

On our final morning, after a stuff up with our hotel transfer we managed to get to Yongsan Station with just a minute to spare, for our high speed train ride to Jeonju in the south west.

But even that had its upside.

Hong Kong hasn’t lost its charm. (September 2013)

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

The last time I was in ‘Honkers’ was back in 1979 and the Brits still owned the place.

Despite the change of landlord the number plates are still very British and the currency is still the Hong Kong Dollar.

Neon signs are now bigger and brighter and with the change in technology there’s now a giant plasma TV on every corner.

The Mid-Autumn Festival provided us with even more lights.

We went to Victoria Park where thousands queued patiently to visit the ‘Rising Moon.’ This 10 meter high light sculpture was made from recycled water bottles and changed colour to the rhythm of the accompanying music.

There have always been sky scrapers in Hong Kong, especially the apartment blocks that cling bravely to the coastline along the harbor. Now there are a few more larger ones showing off the Chinese love of stunning contemporary architecture. Unfortunately these have been built at the expense of the old Colonial buildings, that are now even harder to find.

The people are as friendly as ever and always willing to redirect a lost tourist. While most of the ‘Hard Yakka’ is still done by hand.

Transport is even more efficient now, with the introduction of the Octopus Card – it’s a Myki that actually works. The Star Ferry hasn’t changed since 1979, in fact I think that the same boats are still operating and run by the same old salty staff.

The taxi service is also a relic from last century and runs entirely with a fleet of Toyota Crown Comforts, again straight from the 1970s.

We did the usual Star Ferry crossing from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and took the tram up to Victoria Peak. Here we did notice a change, the tram has been upgraded and the tourist centre on Victoria Peak, Peak Towers, is now a new chrome and glass complex. It was refurbished in 2006 and offers 360 degree views around the island.

As part of our ‘Rediscovering Hong Kong Adventure’ we walked around the Sheung Wan district. This is one of the oldest parts of the island and where the British first settled. There we found the Man Mo Temple, built in 1847 and, unfortunately for us, undergoing major renovations. Even here bamboo is still the preferred material for scaffolding.

On our final day we did the ‘Family Walk’ on Lamma Island from Yung Shue Wan to Sok Kwu Wan. Sadly the power station was our constant companion on the climb out of Yung Shue Wan.

The biggest change however was in the number of signs telling you what and what not to do. They were everywhere, on the beaches, parks, streets, monuments and transport, warning you of the dire consequences of running foul of the local authorities.

However, in their own charming way, the residents of Hong Kong managed to ignore them all.


The church and I don’t normally agree.

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

I am an agnostic and it’s my belief that a dogmatic adherence to religion has been one of the biggest encumbrances to human harmony since faith became organised.

However this poster, hanging on the facade of St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, struck a chord.

It’s a direct reaction to the politicisation of refugees seeking asylum in Australia.

Both sides of politics, in an attempt to win favor with the electorate, have demonised people escaping the horrors of war, famine and persecution.

They aren’t criminals, they are just people trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) reports that there are currently 45 million refugees worldwide. This year people arriving in Australia, to claim asylum, rose to 15,800 people. That, according to UNHCR, is about 3% of the total asylum claims made in the industrialised world.

The politicised fear of immigrants in Australia isn’t new.

The Chinese were welcomed in the gold fields in the 1850s, until the gold ran out, and then they were sent packing. In the late 1940s the Ten Quid Poms, although sponsored by the government, were despised by the average Aussie, who believed they would take their jobs. Then there were the original ‘Boat People’ – the refugees from the Vietnam War who came here in the late 1970s.

With the civil war in Syria and sectarian violence in Egypt, the flood of refugees will continue.

It’s about time both sides of politics developed a bipartisan policy to welcome these people rather than ostracise them.

I agree, Australia can do better than this.