Cars as a dreadful and beautiful part of our lives

After an overnight stop in Seoul, my flight arrived in Paris early afternoon yesterday local time. I'm here for three nights on the way to Kent, England, where I will spend most of May staying with my sister.

The view from my Paris airbnb

I came to my airbnb, a tiny maid's room on the top floor of a building near the Luxembourg Gardens on the left bank. Then I went walking for a couple of hours to familiarise myself with the surroundings, as I usually do when I arrive in a new location.

The most interesting attraction I came upon was Autophoto, a new photography exhibition at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art. It was, as The Guardian put it, about 'how photographers fell in love with cars'. Or, as the Foundation's website says, the car's reshaping our landscape and radically altering our conception of space and time.

It was the most captivating photography exhibition I can recall visiting, perhaps with the exception of the 'selfies' of the American photographer Cindi Sherman in Wellington in January.

Autophoto exhibition at Fondation Cartier pour lart contemporain

I thought of my father, who never showed any interest in art. But he loved cars. In 1923 his family was the first in his north-east Victorian district to acquire a car. We still have the blanket that was bought to insulate the family from its draughtiness.

He would identify periods of his life by the particular car he or his family owned at the time. In a way, I do the same. I am not exactly anti-car, but I got rid of my last car in 2012 and now consider not owning a car as part of my identity. I sometimes wonder what my father would have made of that.

It occurred to me that this would have been the perfect art exhibition for him, although what would have interested me is unlikely to have been a highlight for him.

The exhibit I liked most was a very literal rendering of the exhibition's theme of cars merging with the landscape. It was from the 1990 visit to New Zealand of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose three works appeared to be pieces of dark abstract art, despite my description of them as 'literal'.

Hiroshi Sugimotos On the Beach 007 011 001 1990

Sugimoto explained: 'One day I came across an unusual cluster of things strewn over a beautiful beach. Vaguely familiar looking, they turned out to be hundreds of car parts... Someone must have junked a whole fleet of cars there... The sight of crafted objects rotting away is at once dreadful and beautiful.'

That summed up for me the impact of the car on our society, and Sugimoto's works were a perfect complement to the more photogenic works in the exhibition, which I enjoyed as well.

A Trump strike on North Korea

Yesterday I was with the travel agent collecting my e-ticket for travel to Europe in two weeks from now. I'm flying Korean Air, with an overnight stop in Seoul.

Curious to see his response, I showed him the 'Trump poised to strike N Korea' headline that I'd just noticed on my phone app. I asked him to tell me what happens to my flight if Trump does strike North Korea. He was understandably evasive.

Trump poised to strike North Korea Headline

The truth is that I'm not really worried about the flight being cancelled or even coming to grief. What will be will be. Even in these circumstances, it's probably true that I'm more likely to die in a road accident some other time than in a plane falling from the sky or missiles hitting Seoul on 26 or 27 April.

But I do fear for the people of South Korea and Japan who are without the options I have. They are the ones who will really suffer because of Trump's choice to use military rather than diplomatic means to solve political conflict.

Undeniably there's method to Trump's madness. It will play well at home among those who are deluded enough to believe he's just honouring his election promise to 'make America great again'. But talk about evil empires!

US Military Presence in the Pacific

When I was in King Street Newtown on Saturday afternoon, I saw a man with a Japanese face walking the street carrying a sandwich board promoting peace. Some people averted their gaze because he was just an eccentric elderly man making a futile gesture. I'm pleased that I was able to look him in the eye and nod and smile supportively.

Momentarily I wondered what it would take for him to have conferred upon him the coolness and respect associated with the legendary Arthur Stace. Stace was the reformed alcoholic who walked the streets of Sydney for 35 years spreading his message by chalking the word 'Eternity' on the footpaths in his distinctive script.

Years after his death he became a cultural icon. His message featured in the 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony and it lit up the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of New Year celebrations that year.

Eternity Sydney Harbour Bridge NYE 2000

The question is how you lift Australia and the world out of its complacency and start a mass movement for peace. We are now are a crossroads, which I think is evidenced by the feeble and unconvincing nature of Malcolm Turnbull's endorsement of Trump's cruise missile strike on Syria following Assad's acid attack on his own people.

Does Australia really have that much to lose by remaining silent on this (like New Zealand)? Or even adopt a critical posture and advocate directing resources towards diplomacy rather than building the war machine. The possibility is open.

Learning the other side of the story at the National Museum

While in Canberra on Sunday, I visited the National Museum of Australia as part of my resolve to see as many of the national capital's cultural institutions as I can while my six month NSW country train pass remains valid.

Often I visit a place and only learn about its significance afterwards. There are many stories of Australia's past contained in the Museum but I must have missed the story of the Museum itself, in particular that of its building and location.

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The Museum was established by an Act of Parliament in 1980 but did not have a permanent home until the current purpose built facility was opened in 2001. It is located on the Acton Peninsula near the Australian National University. The site was previously the location of the Royal Canberra Hospital, which was demolished in tragic circumstances in 1997.

These involved a failed implosion that accidently killed one spectator and injured nine others. Large pieces of debris were unintentionally projected towards onlookers positioned 500 metres away on the opposite shore of the Lake. This was a location unwittingly considered safe by the ACT Government, which had encouraged Canberrans to come out to bid farewell to the hospital.

Yesterday I walked past a cream brick building that I imagined would have been part of the hospital. I guessed that it was retained as a memorial to the hospital. I noticed a sign indicating that it was now the Museum's Administration Annexe.

National Museum of Australia Admin Annexe

Most people regard mid 20th century cream brick buildings as eyesores and are quite pleased to see them demolished. But I very much like them and regard them as important examples of our built environment heritage. I thought that it made a fitting historical counterpoint to the spectacular modern architecture of the other Museum buildings.

Inside the main building, I found that I was able to connect with a number of the hundreds of stories contained in the exhibits. One that comes to mind is that of the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, which begins at the town of Wiluna and takes a route north to the Kimberley.

I visited Wiluna after I drove across the Nullabor in 2003. I recall that I would have loved to have travelled through the Western Desert along the Canning Stock Route in my Hyundai hatch back, which I had driven to that point from the east coast. But common sense got the better of me and I spent an hour or so in the town before proceeding along the straight dirt road to Meekatharra.

It was only yesterday that I learned of the surveyor Alfred Canning's poor treatment of Aboriginal guides following his appointment to the stock route project in 1906. He was criticised for his inhumane practice of using chains to deprive them of their liberty, effectively using them as slaves.

The legacy of Alfred Canning

This led to a Royal Commission, which saw Canning exonerated after the Lord Mayor of Perth appeared as a witness on his behalf. The cook who made the complaint was dismissed. White Australians still celebrate Canning as the pioneering surveyor who plotted the Rabbit Proof Fence. It is good to know the other side of his story.

It was the exhibits involving indigenous Australians that I found most engaging because they unlocked for me the perspective on history that I was denied when I first learned Australian history at primary school. These included the furphy that Tasmania's Aboriginal population was completely wiped out.

The desire to live in a foreign country

While I was in Malaysia last month I was in email contact with a friend back in Australia. He told me about the retirement visa which the Malaysian Government offers to foreigners to bring investment into the country.

You buy a property to live in and deposit an amount of money in a Malaysian bank. In return you get a ten year extendable visa and an exotic lifestyle at less than one third of the cost of living in Australia.

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On the whole I enjoy living in Sydney and did not seriously consider moving to Malaysia. However I think there is a lot to be said for spending time in another culture to give you a greater sense of perspective on your own.

A major formative experience for me was living in the Philippines for three months in 1983-84. Until that point, I had considered Australia and Australians to be God's gift to the Asia Pacific region and the world.

But I came away thinking of Filipinos as the most gracious and loving people on earth. I really wanted to make my permanent home there. I'd lost interest in Australia and its people, whom I now regarded as gauche and self-opinionated in comparison to Filipinos.

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15 years later, I spent two years living in Rome. In many people's minds, a dream existence. I loved my work and my colleagues and the friends I made. But when I had to choose between the offer of a job in Australia or extending my two year initial appointment in Rome, I leapt at the opportunity to return home. Perhaps somewhere in my unconscious, I wanted the exotic to remain exotic. It seemed that life for me in another culture had a use by date.

However my desire to live elsewhere tends to resurface. After I quickly dismissed thoughts of retiring to Malaysia, I felt attracted to the idea of spending more than a few days in a foreign country. So last week I made a gesture in that direction when I booked an August flight to Tokyo, together with the most basic Airbnb apartment I could find. I will be living simply for five weeks in one spot in the city's inner western suburbs, a world away from my usual home in Sydney's inner west.

Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum Kochi

There will be challenges. Furniture too close to the floor for what our culture regards as comfort. Having to use a squat toilet every day. But also pleasures. No inhouse bathroom, which means regular visits to the sento. There's also not much of a kitchen, so I expect to be a regular patron at the ramen noodle bars in my vicinity.

Friends think I'm a bit odd to seek out such a rustic existence in an unfamiliar setting. They may have a point. But time spent in the thrall of another culture's bare essentials offers the possibility of new experience for those of us in the later stages of our lives.

My Muslim prayer cap

Somehow I get the daily email alerts from the Body and Soul website, which contain the Murdoch tabloids’ syndicated articles on personal wellbeing. Today’s headline – ‘Can you really catch up on lost sleep?’ – is relevant to me at this moment.

A day after returning to Sydney, my body clock is still on Malaysian time. The time difference is only three hours, but my body wants to go to sleep at 2:00 am rather than the usual 11:00 pm. Daylight wakes me hours before my body is ready. My Fitbit tells me I slept for only 6 hours and 4 minutes and I lack the energy and brainpower I need to face the day.

Re-entry into my own world in Sydney also requires a few cultural adjustments. The most interesting I’m facing is how to regard the beautiful knitted Muslim prayer cap that I have ended up with.

I bought it from the shop at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. It was intended as a gift for my friend at home, but he diplomatically rejected it because he has brown skin and said he feared being branded a Muslim and becoming an object of hate and fear in these troubled times.

My white skin makes it easier for me to wear the cap without attracting unwanted attention, so it’s more likely that I will feel comfortable wearing it.

As far as street wear in Newtown is concerned, exotic is the norm, so I’m fine on that score. But I need to go into it a bit more deeply to decide whether it’s really proper for me to wear it.

As a Catholic, I ask myself how I feel when I see people with a tattoo depicting the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

It is possible that the wearer of the tattoo is making a religious faith statement. But given the generation of most tattoo wearers, I would guess that it is unlikely that they are Catholics with a devotion to the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.


Therefore I can conclude that they have appropriated an element of my religious culture to make their own statement of cultural identity.

Do I resent that, or am I flattered? Personally I am flattered because they are giving articles of my religion their own form of cultural validation. They probably don’t accept much Catholic doctrine (not that I accept it all). But they’re conferring on my faith a certain degree of coolness, and I like that.

I ask myself what kind of cultural statement I am making in wearing the Muslim prayer cap. I would say that it is, in equal measure, a love of the exotic, and a (hopefully not misplaced) wish to express solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters in these hostile times.

I look forward to wearing it in the street, in exotic Newtown and in the shopping centre of a seriously Muslim suburb such as Auburn, to test the vibe.

A view of the Royal Commission from the End of the World

Yesterday I caught a bus to the End of the World. It was not exactly how I usually imagine the end of the world. More heaven on earth than hell on earth.

It took the form of a large open air seafood restaurant named the End of the World. It was at Teluk Bahang, near a fishing village in the relatively remote north western corner of the island of Penang. The original restaurant has been destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and subsequently rebuilt and relocated to higher ground.

I selected my live red snapper from the fish tank and had it served to me steamed Hong Kong style, with garlic, ginger, light soy sauce and rice wine. But my thoughts turned to the hell on earth experience of the victims of child sexual abuse in Australia and the justice that could be around the corner for them.

As I enjoyed my snapper, five of Australia’s Catholic archbishops were fronting the Royal Commission in Sydney. I was thinking of the brief conversation I’d had with a friend in Sydney on Sunday, hours before my departure for Malaysia. My friend is a mental health professional who has counselled many victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

He was angry with Archbishop Fisher after reading a long interview with him in the previous week’s Sunday Telegraph. The thrust of the interview was contained in the archbishop’s description of the sexual abuse crisis as a ‘kick in the guts’ for the non-offending majority of good priests. The archbishop said they had felt ‘contaminated, betrayed and demoralised by the paedophiles in the church’.

My friend was dismayed that the archbishop appeared to have minimised the suffering of the victims.

Upon reading the interview, my reaction was to be stunned at Archbishop Fisher’s apparent discounting of an underlying reality I thought the Church was gradually coming to accept. That is the argument that child sexual abuse is primarily a product of the culture of the Church, rather than numbers of rogue priests and brothers. But his message in the interview was that the priests who had ‘given their all’ had been ‘tarred with this brush’ that belonged to those who had physically carried out the abuse.

I was surprised that the archbishop would say these things publicly, even if this is what he thought privately. It was as if he had not learned from the public outcry that followed his infamous advice to parents of victims (the Fosters) during World Youth Day 2008 when he suggested they should get over it and not ‘dwell crankily on old wounds’.

However when he was before the Royal Commission yesterday, Archbishop Fisher did describe the Church’s response to victims as ‘criminal negligence’. He admitted that allegations were covered up in the past to protect the Church’s reputation.

My hope is that the Catholic Church will emerge from the Royal Commission contrite and not triumphant. In the Sunday Telegraph interview, Archbishop Fisher was still expressing pride in the Church’s role in building the social welfare infrastructure of Australia through its schools for the poor, its orphanages and hospitals ‘where there were none’. To me, it appears the Church was unwittingly constructing breeding grounds for child abuse for which it must now take responsibility.

In my view, Vatican II’s vision of a ‘pilgrim church in need of redemption’ must be realised. The Church’s theologians could take the Church’s doctrine of ‘social sin’ as the basis for admitting that the whole Church, including the ‘good’ priests and laity, should take responsibility for the abuse.

My final thought is prompted by the archbishop’s admission of criminal negligence, and it may or may not be too far-fetched. It is that child sexual abuse is a crime against humanity, and on that basis it could be fitting to take the Australian Catholic Church to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in order to secure ultimate justice for victims.

 

Penang's city of museums

When I’m travelling, I always enjoy visits to museums. It’s true to say that I’m spoiled for choice here in Penang, as history is very much at the core of the identity of the locals.

The list includes the Penang 3D Trick Art Museum, two separate camera museums, the Made in Penang Interactive Museum, the new Colonial Penang Museum, the War Museum, Toy Museum, Sun Yat-sen Museum, Penang Islamic Museum, Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum, the iBox Museum of Glass, and more.

Some of them would have to be gimmicks to amuse tourists. Others would be intended for a niche clientele. Or perhaps they are just the private owners’ labour of love.

The restaurant I discovered by chance on Monday – ZhengHe - had its own museum and art gallery upstairs, and I found going upstairs for a visit a very satisfying after dinner activity.

The restaurant’s building is itself a very well maintained museum piece. It spans four interconnected shops that would have been built in the 19th century. The staircase I ascended was built without any nails with original merbau wood.

I met the owner, and he is obviously very proud of the museum and must spend a lot of money keeping it in such condition. It is a pity that I was the only diner, and it was empty the following night when I walked past, despite good reviews on TripAdvisor.

Yesterday I went to the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery, which was established in 1821 and houses many state treasures including furniture, jewellery and costumes.

It is supposed to be one of the best presented museums in the country, but it was weighted in favour of the stories of the elites and dominated by ‘old wares’ and tableau presentations. It just seemed ‘old’. Not the modern ‘interpretation centre’ style of museum that I find it easier to engage with.

Cultural heritage in living cities

Yesterday I was talking to a local retired civil servant who had come to take one of my fellow hotel guests sightseeing on the other side of the island. He now lives off his pension and enjoys doing part time work in hotels to keep himself occupied.

He told me that the grand 75 year old hotel he has been working in most recently is shutting down for good next week. The building is too big and neglected to be viable as a hotel without major investment.

He said there were no plans for the building but was confident that heritage laws would protect it from demolition. When I talked to him about my hotel – Hutton Lodge - he mentioned that there had been an attempt a few years ago to burn it down for the insurance windfall.

The hotel is one of George Town’s few remaining colonial style bungalows. Fortunately it has been restored and redecorated – simply - and is now quite profitable as budget accommodation. It has a breezy interior with original architectural features intact, and I would have no hesitation in staying here again if I returned to Penang.

Later, I was thinking about urban regeneration as I walked along Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian), which – like The Rocks in Sydney – is frequented mainly by tourists. It is very presentable, with even footpaths and restored and freshly painted buildings. The owner of the tiny café I visited said that nearly all his customers were tourists, whom he liked because they were polite and friendly.

At the end of Armenian Street is the office building of George Town World Heritage Incorporated, an advisory resource that employs professionals with backgrounds in fields including urban planning, architecture, conservation and heritage.

It is described as an independent company, although its Board of Directors is made up of government officials and politicians. Arguably that is how it should be. I would guess that the measure of their success will lie in how incorrupt they manage to be. There are exhibits on the ground floor depicting the types of architecture and methods of conservation.

Its focus is more on preservation than urban regeneration, but I was thinking that the two need to go hand in hand if the result is to be a living city rather than merely a tourist attraction or a museum.

I was reminded of an urban planning exhibition I visited when I was in Medellin, Colombia, in 2015. It was called ‘Piso Piloto. Medellin-Barcelona’ and was about renewing cities, specifically those two.

The focus was on public housing, including both architecture, art and design, and the social dimension in particular. They did not use the word ‘heritage’. But importantly, for me, they had integrated an aspect of regeneration and renovation of existing spaces.

In George Town, it seemed to me that it was all about preservation without a social dimension. That suggests that they need to work to ensure they do not end up with a large street museum rather than a living city that caters for the needs of its own population in addition to the desires of tourists.

Should Penang sanitise its past?

After taking an overnight flight from Sydney and transiting at Kuala Lumpur for four hours, I arrived in Penang at 8:00 am yesterday.

I told the bus driver that I wanted to go to Penang. He obviously gets it regularly from tourists, but laughed and was intent on correcting me. I was already in Penang – the name of the island - and headed for George Town, the island’s city that is Malaysia’s second largest and one of Southeast Asia’s most famous cultural and gastronomic hubs.


Within George Town, I am staying in a historic no frills bungalow hotel on the edge of the 108 hectare World Heritage zone, which was inscribed in 2008. UNESCO recognised the city for its 'unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia'. George Town contains one of the largest collections of pre-World War II buildings in Southeast Asia and is considered an architectural treasure.

That description leads me to expect the kind of picture perfect vistas that we associate with many urban precincts in Europe. But my first impression was that George Town is just as dilapidated and functional as Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City and many of the other Asian cities I’ve visited, complete with the odours of an inadequate sewerage system.

I enjoyed my day long ‘discovery walk’ along the broken and uneven and obstructed footpaths. There’s a lot to see, but what stood out for me was an attraction much less grand than most. It is the historic photographic display and memory collection point on the ground floor of the Star newspaper building.

In particular I liked the ‘What’s your Penang story?’ corner where visitors were invited to type a letter to share their experience of Penang. I don’t know how many people have actually typed their story, but I appreciate the symbolism of publicly holding up the value of listening to and recording people’s stories. Until they see a display like this, many people think that nobody wants to know about their past.

I’ve long been interested in ways of preserving the past, since I did my Applied History postgraduate degree at the UTS Sydney in the 1990s. Coincidentally, on Sunday I was talking to a member of an oral history collection group that had a stand at a fair in Newtown in Sydney. He is currently doing a postgrad degree in history at UTS.

Understandably Penang will want to capitalise on its World Heritage site status. I noticed many of the hundreds of restaurants in the city use heritage as a selling point. My photo depicts promotion of ‘Penang Tradisional Famouse Food’ and ‘Dessert Old Time Delight Shop’.

I like this. But I suspect that commercial reality will probably see the transformation of the heritage zone into a sanitised theme park so that tourists will visit in large numbers and generate renewed wealth for the city.

That will probably mean the creation of even footpaths and the elimination of sewerage odours. These enhancements will make for a more comfortable visitor experience, but I think it will also be a less authentic representation of Penang’s past.

Travellers who hand their wallet to strangers

Last night we were having a conversation about naïve travellers. The kind of person who is not particularly seasoned as a traveller and doesn’t think much of the Australian Government travel warnings on the DFAT website.

These people have the best time. They’re wide-eyed and fully immersed in the experience of discovering new and strange things. They’re not constantly on guard. They don’t miss out on experiences because they’re too busy exercising a high degree of caution.

It is obvious that this type of traveller is statistically more likely to come to grief. It goes without saying that it is highly irresponsible of me to disparage the travel warnings. I am tempting fate and potentially leading others into danger.

But we need perspective.

If DFAT says ‘don’t travel within 10 kilometres of the Iraq border’, I can accept that. But I will baulk at advice to stay away from political demonstrations. That’s where I’m likely to discover what really matters to the citizens of the country I’m visiting.

I am thinking of a beautiful travel vignette I read a few months ago on the ABC Open website. It was from Oliver Jacques, a young Sydney writer who had been backpacking through Iran for three weeks.

I was intrigued by the title: ‘The Persian woman who wanted my wallet’. He begins: ‘The woman in the lime green hijab leaned across into the men’s section of the crowded bus and told me to give her my wallet.'

He speculates that DFAT must have a warning about handing over your wallet to strangers in developing countries. But he’s clearly glad that he didn’t follow it.

What transpires is on one level just another of the dozens of intercultural exchanges you have every day when you visit these countries. But it was one of the most affecting travel stories I’d read in a long time.

He took a calculated risk and was richly rewarded.