A Journal of the Plague Year Day 54

Monday 11th May 2020

I’ve been checking out some Internet. All fucking day. Still armchair travelling, still in China.

Anyhoo, a welcome getaway from the bickering and racism online, the looks on the street recently, as always. Hot on the trail of yesterday’s rabbit hole into Chinese design I’ve been delving into photography fora from the glorious motherland. And ohmigaaahd there’s so much.

I look at the pics of the Chinese cities, so different from the way the West surmises them, as poor, polluted and cowed, and feel it- pride. Nationalistic, state-posturing pride as an underdog against a more belligerent power. This is worrying.

First off, the journey: the usual big three most people have seen. Shanghai (the world’s most built-up city), population 30m:

And it’s not just skyscrapers, Shanghai’s old buildings (mostly the shikumen housing and longtang lanes that it spent decades bulldozing but is now restoring) cover an area almost the City of Paris. SH also has a millennium aged Old City, one of three, plus two colonial districts:



Next on the list, to the capital Beijing (pop 22 million), the world’s largest ceremonial centre, and world’s largest pre-industrial city back in the 19th. A terrible place to lump a capital -freezing in winter, boiling in summer, courting sand storms in Spring and smog year round. Another mistake early on: choosing the American freeway-style system to move its inhabitants around -now ridden with 6 giant ringroads and endless traffic, unlike say Shanghai or Guangzhou.

Nowadays it’s cleaned up, planting its Great Green Wall against the Gobi (and Hebei’s factories), banning 5 million cars, growing the world’s biggest, busiest metro system, with Shanghai hot on its tails. Today powered by tourism, the world’s largest bureaucratic sector, and China’s silicon valley. Plus the world’s premier creative industries, notably Beijing’s shock art that has ruled the roost for two decades, and the highest amount of start-ups anywhere. World, world, worlds.



And finally, Hong Kong, the world’s most skyscrapered, and densest city. The ‘mouth of the dragon’, or as Shanghaier’s who are the ‘head’ prefer: the arse end. HK stands out from the Mainland in its older, decaying buildings among the glitzy skyscrapers -here people own the land and prove it harder to revamp and rebuild. Also there’s hardly anything old left despite, due to the lack of space. But what a space.

HK is also China’s most economically divided, unequal city -the world’s freest place to do business where only 20% pay minimal tax, in a social experiment that both UK and China would never have dared back home. The populace enjoys some of the world’s highest ‘average’ wages yet 75 percent are working class (for urban China that’s the opposite, 70% being middle class), and 1/5 being desperately poor where a good chunk struggle to even feed themselves. This is in short the world’s most capitalist spot, and contrasting with the socialism next door.

But still a jaw-dropping hive of activity, hustle and bustle, and prone to giving the finger to the regime.

The scope best appreciated from afar, it’s all about the lookout points.



Then there are the megacities, larger than NYC that most peeps haven’t even heard of.

Shenzhen, the world’s most highrise nexus currently adding on the equivalent of NYC in the next few years. This is the planet’s hardware capital, now vying with Beijing and California to become the software one too. Over one third of Silicon Valley tech is already sourcing from here.

In the ’80s a fishing village of 30,000 before becoming Communist China’s first Special Economic Zone and a byword for sweatshop labour -now ballooned to 12 million and reinvented as a sparkling arriviste with some of the highest standards of living in the country, though still part of a greater whole…

Plans for the 60m needle top spire added to the 599m/ 1,965ft Ping’An tower, once slated to be the 2nd tallest in the world (now 4th), were shelved in a big spat with the airport, due to the possibility of planes whacking into it. By adhering to local law it misses out on becoming a 600m ‘megatall’ by 90cm. Tis twice the height of the Eiffel Tower.



Guangzhou -centre of the world’s new largest city as of 2015, with 41 million people -Shenzhen anchors the other end. An ancient city of 2,200 years and colonial metropolis but with very little to show for it. Long a cheap parody of HK it’s pretending that part of its history never happened, notably swankier and more eco-conscious these days than her eidolon with endless new green projects, including the 3rd largest metro system, soon to be the first.

It’s plush new centre has a vast ceremonial axis of parkland, under which all the public and private transport is buried, and sided with supertalls (buildings over 300m/1000ft), which in turn lines up with a ceremonial tomb-temple complex on one of the city’s hills. At either end sit 2,000ft tall towers and some stadia, one of them floating. I mean, she had a lot to prove but gaaaahd…



Then the second tier cities. Chongqing, a city of 17m on one of the most tortured urban sites – a confluence of two major rivers and three mountain ranges, riddled with bridges, tunnels, cable cars, zip lines, monorails and caverns. Trains going in and out of clifftop buildings, some of the world’s largest, tallest bridges, that kinda thing. This is China’s most dramatic city: ugly, beautiful, epic, and often the visitor’s favourite.

She debuted on the world stage as the world’s largest city about a decade ago, before they worked out her 35 million inhabitants were in several cities in a catchment the size of Austria. Anyhoo, for the high drama, this is what many people think of when envisaging modern China, grandiose, tawdry, sultry, Bladerunner-y.



Chengdu, China’s hipster centrum, and the country’s coolest cat of urban tribes, start-ups, 200,000 teahouses, street style, laid back vibes, a UNESCO protected Culinary site and home to an entertainment and leisure complex that’s the world’s largest building. Oh and panda’s, it’s big on touting the fuckers everywhere you look, from crawling up the sides of skyscrapers to airplane livery -the place you’ll have to fly into if you wanna see any in their natural habitat.

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Nanjing, the historic former capital, riddled with history. It’s surrounded by the world’s largest city walls, imperial tombs, former palaces and endless temples among the skyscrapers. It lost out to nearby Shanghai in the city stakes, and whatever you do, don’t just don’t mention the war.

Ancient city walls and temples in Nanjing, China

 

Qingdao, the seaside resort and attached German colonial old town. Site of the water events during the 2008 Olympics it operates a colonial building code, as well as several marinas and a whole load of beer related branding to lure the nation’s drunks. Breweries (notably Tsingtao, the national favourite), festivals, biergartens, all thanks to the mitteleuropan legacy. Coastal walks and beaches complete the picture, that periodically have to organise mass clean-ups -one such PR disaster the algal bloom just before the Olympics.

However, the authorities worked out an ingenious way to fight back millions of tonnes of nature: by putting a price on the collections for bio fuel, food supplements and fertiliser. An army of ‘do-gooders’ picked it clean within days.

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Hangzhou, the country’s richest, most livable city long touted as the most beautiful but destroyed in the 1800s, having been the worlds largest too (along with 600 cities it was wrecked in history’s nastiest civil war, and second bloodiest conflict, taking out 30m lives and sending China into decline). Still its heart remains a classical landscape of water, hills and pagodas, and China’s biggest tourist attraction; for decades it banned all highrises. It’s high standards run completely with its reputation.

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Suzhou, China’s most beautiful city (note the massive Old City behind), famed for its classical gardens, Venetian canals, sweet food and a white-walled, blue-roofed vernacular. Again one of the country’s richest, and merging into Shanghai with booming growth. The spantastic, supertall gateway btw, soon to be lined with an avenue of skyscrapers, was fast-dubbed the ‘Big Trousers’.

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Changsha, birthplace of Mao. Kind of left out in the economic rise (still staunchly hardliner and sulking), and one of the dowdiest places to avoid, its recent economic debut has meant it missed out on a legion of scabby highrises and illegal slum-building from the 90s and noughties. It’s now one of the shiniest of the cities, and seems to operate on a flat-roofed vernacular. Now has several supertalls and one monster taller than the Petronas towers. They say Mao would be turning in his grave.

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And even the smaller, third tier cities.

Harbin, a cold northern metropolis famed for the world’s largest ice festival, and once belonging to Russia now one of the capitals of Chinas northeastern rustbelt. Having seen a fast decline in heavy industry, it’s tranformed into tourism (Chinese seeing Russia, Russians seeing China) carmaking, trade and gargantuan museum construction.

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Jinan – as above, suffering a crash in light industry to take on a bit of everything else, notably hi tech and servicing an industry of 200,000 students. Trying desperately to shrug off its lower tiered status with swanky new projects and worrying debt, and the shadow that it is and always will be, a wallflower.

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Guiyang, long the capital of China’s poorest province this multicultural, minority-heavy city appears to have leapfrogged the decades of manufacturing and trade straight into hi-tech. It’s now home to most of China’s Fortune 500 and centre of a tech boom that’s won it accolades as the city most likely to watch and invest in. It’s also infamous for its copycat twin towers- from the World Trade Center to an unlikely pair of Empire State buildings, plus some IFC’s from Hong Kong, why not. For all its classy gloss, there’s always that louche, nouveau riche uncle still elbowing in on every grand plan.

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Shaoxing, a reputation once preceded this place as an elegant footnote in history for its timeless poetry, writing, tea, wine, bridges, ducks and the arts -just the reality was an obnoxious centre of decay, pollution and manufacturing. Nowadays it’s shirked off that rep to become more in keeping with its tradition, but still overshadowed by Hangzhou who it lost the regional capital to, and Chaozhou with its preserved buildings and Old Town. Instead it’s become a halfway house of livability and historic restoration, and an examplar to healthy competition, even as the underling.

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I could go on, with over 100 cities over 1 million (by some counts 160 – by comparison US has 20), and each of them ploughing the taxes into making them livable, eco-friendly and not just highrise or bombastic. Where even the poor areas have an epic urban scale and ‘Bladerunner’ aesthetic (founded on Ridley’s Scott experience of Tokyo/ HK nightlife), though heavily threatened. The urban cacophony is fast disappearing, before a sanitised revision. The lair of the famous Chinese street life, where your days were traditionally lived out in public.

Chongqing

Shanghai, catch em while you can.

https://www.designboom.com/architecture/shanghai-streets-cody-ellingham-captures-intricate-lane-houses-05-27-2019/

Hong Kong

Beijing

Shenzhen, and it’s last remaining ‘urban village’- illegally built neighbourhoods put up in the 80s and 90s, and now seeking heritage protection.

Oh and one last thing THIS CITY that has recently been in the news. Home to 11-19 million, a confluence of three seperate cities on different banks of the river, and now home to several of the world’s largest bridges (plus the biggest lightshow every night). Do click:

Wuhan

The metropolis is adversely now featuring highly as the place most Chinese want to visit post-lockdown, intrigued by the constant news and its hardy citizens. However, highly unlikely for foreign visitors, should they ever even return to China, once the world’s fastest growing market for inbound tourists (4th in the world behind the US). It now looks remote that many outsiders will ever see or experience these cities (let alone its multitudinous landscapes) other than through some clickbaiting media lens.

 

Well, after all that, how buoyant. A breath of fresh air from my lockdown barrage of US films, talk shows, TikToks, vids, reality TV and news news news, all becoming redolent of a Western society I’m excluded from no matter how I identify.

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I think a part of me is falling into the nationalism trap. It’s all so comforting when facing a world that’s otherwise against you, redlining you as forever an outsider and rechalking these past few months. You fall into the welcoming arms of a culture that looks like you.

And this is precisely the same trap as anyone else. All those toads, all those hawks, all those okay-boomers, all those Karens, you’ll likely find their equivalent anywhere else, China included. If I filled this thread with the greatest hits of the West (read: White): London, Rome, Paris, NYC, Sydney, Vienna and started celebrating how perfect Westernism all was, even their imperfections, it would surely strike a different tone.

And should it?

I think nationalism and patriotism share a fine line between them, and that dallies with inculcating prejudice. Perhaps one needs to have a sense of victimhood to feel it, and defend it. Question is, who has the upper hand?

I think universality should override both sides. We can fully appreciate the beauty of one place without that meaning you have to shirk the rest, or put it in competition. It doesn’t have to be the clash of civilisations, they long pointed at the Islamic world, but now increasingly looking further.

I’ll finish on an in-betweener from both spheres of influence. Where east meets west.

(Bulent Kilic/Getty Images)

Yesterday

Tomorrow

The Olympicked Chalice

Who wants to win the Olympics?

That moment when your host city beams to the world its assertions of civilisation, finds its cultural identity out of a globalised melting pot, celebrates its diversity, reminds us of its historical achievements, and wheels out its mystery celebs. All in a lovely package of inclusiveness, modern thinking, and children. Lots of children – alone, in groups, singing, dancing, being disabled; smiling for months till their cute little faces wrinkle preternaturally for the rest of their lives.

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www.dailyrepublic.com

But squint again and behind those dazzling teeth and choreographed lightshows is a helluva lot of worry. Will that vast stage behold an architectural and community legacy? Or be a money sucking, windblown embarrassment for decades to come? Will the computers work the show faultlessly, or mechanical breakdown create an epic, global case of schadenfreude? Will we spend too much, drawing negative criticism by the tax indentured populace, or too little, drawing the dubbing of an ‘austerity Olympics’? Or worse – spending loads but having nothing to wow with despite.

Will terrorism raise its underlying head, or freak accidents mar the history? Will corruption claim millions, or worse, be publicly found out to have claimed millions? Will the Olympic spirit die beneath the spotlights?

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^Helen Sharman and the Olympic flame, World Universiade 1991. Helen is from Slough.

In short the Olympics is like sitting a difficult exam or a lesson in complex public speaking, but with the world watching (and all of history), where every fault is indelible, will cost millions, and draw waves of unabashed laughter and criticism, with people paid to heckle. A merciless stage. Even beforehand the vast roving interest of the world, not unlike the Great Eye of Sauron, will beam down at your preparations, go through your friends list (and ex-friends) launching investigations, reading your old diary and spending a good few hours chortling at your fat photos, or sharing the bit where you admitted to stealing a Boyzone mag off Chantelle Norris.

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It is in short a poisoned chalice, your chance to shine, and fall, all over youtube. And it’ll cost you in crippling loans, cancelled holidays, stress, and psychiatrists for the foreseeable future no matter the outcome.

The turning point can be attributed to Athens 2004. Beforehand the huge burning eye of the world’s press was more or less politely unbecoming, or too bored to really pay attention until the big day, with a flurry of activity  before everyone sodded off again. But their own chance to shine came with the increasing spotlight on the delayed construction of the Olympic venues as the big day came ever closer. Olympic Committees arrived to study the progress, or lack of, and came away tutting with some stern words on taking it all away, and never investing in olive oil again.

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www.rediff.com

Like a countdown, the papers could get more and more clicks with every update, wallowing in the Greek mess of infrastructure woes, bureaucratic red tape, lazy work ethic and employment rights (the much frowned upon opportunity to strike). Ignoring the fact Greeks work the longest hours in the West, were one of the poorest members of the EU, and have a damned right to have rights (what with the birth of democracy and all that), it was all too sordid and sardonic not to shake ones head or roll our cultural eyes. Even after they completed on time, launched a highly artistic, emotive and epic opening ceremony that’s the template for every one after, and went more or less without global incident or stage blooper (except the bit where the marathon runner from Brazil got rugby tackled by a mad Irish priest, and lost his lead). Still the effortlessly gorgeous conversion of the national stadium by Santiago Calatrava has been the most beautiful yet devised and a testament for decades to come- a lesson in geometry, natural lines and low cost.

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athens-olympic-stadium

www.greece.com

Yet we cannot bring ourselves to ignore the perceived ruination of a nation. The Olympic legacy, costing 10,000 Euros of upkeep a week for some buildings to lie vacant, sun-stunned and overgrown. The Handball Arena is now littered with UNHCR tents as use for a refugee camp, while the iconic diving pools lie empty. Or rather we prefer to look at that and ignore the other legacies (such as a highway network, a sparkling new metro and airport etc). Also to look at Greece’s current debt crisis, and put the blame on the elaborate staging, rather than the cook-the-books routine that we all partook in pre-Crisis. To this day news still report on the weed grown facilities looking much like the Classical ruins a metro ride away, despite that countdown long having finished. They will also report unfailingly on libertine passengers not paying on that new metro route.

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www.dailymail.co.uk

Then came Beijing 2008, China’s much heralded coming out party with all the fanfare and billions to invest on her make up. And if you thought Greece went through a PR disaster before her debut, China went through a real test of fire, complete with flamethrowers and paparazzi fast on her Jimmy Choo heels. The year according to Chinese astrology would not be a good one from the outset, despite 8 being the number of choice for luck. The Olympic mascots – the Fuwa, or good luck dolls symbolising the ancient Chinese elements of Water, Earth, Fire, Wood and Air- rather became sinister, cursed symbols of disaster that year. The Five Horsemen:

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Jingjing the Earth panda, native to Sichuan province, was quickly associated with the devastating earthquake that Spring that wiped out 90,000 lives there. Nini the Air swallow, who looks like a kite, was portent of doom to a highly embarrassing train crash, that killed 40 on the country’s much lauded new HSR (High Speed Rail) network – in Weifang, the ‘kite city’. Yingying the Tibetan Wood antelope saw in the biggest wave of protest and race riots in Tibet since occupation, while Watery Beibei the South Chinese sturgeon, saw in flooding in South China that killed 150 and displaced a whopping 1.5 million. All that remained was Huanhuan the Olympic Fire torch cutey and the protests that dogged him throughout the world, so much so they effectively banned foreign flame routes from thereon. China was literally introducing herself to each member state with a round of publicity to her (in)human rights record; and the Fuwa would forever be known as ‘wuwa’ or witch-dolls after.

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agnesngoy.blogspot.com

As for PR, Beijing did indeed wow the world with a glorious, elaborately staged opening ceremony that gave a soft touch to totalitarian synchronisation, and became the benchmark for all that followed. But even that soon drew criticism. ‘Live’ footage of the fireworks marking out 29 huge footprints across the city to the stadium was widely reported as being faked, thanks to the noticeable onscreen graphics (in reality the fireworks did go off but couldn’t be filmed from above due to danger to the choppers). The insectoid little girl singing the national anthem was found not only to have been miming, but mouthing along to another not-as-sweetie’s voice after a politburo member deemed the vocals substandard (though the girl in Sydney’s previous ceremony, and the norm for all the others, would have been guilty of the same).

Kent News & Pictures Ltd/(01622) 755133

Video Grab/Kent News & Pictures Ltd

They did go off, capitalist dogs:

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Further controversy followed when it was revealed some members of China’s 56 minority groups showing off national dress were Han Chinese, and not the stated ethnicity (though bear in mind ‘colour-blind casting’ was employed in every ceremony since, from London’s Victorian opening theme to Rio’s historical journey of race). For all China’s trump and glory, it became obvious her  detractors would not be missing a beat from the get go.

The Olympics was indeed an overall success: the capital cleaned up and laced herself with state of the art infrastructure, the weather held off, and a memorable Games as could possibly be was beamed to the largest ever global audience of 5 billion. But it also heralded the officialisation of an anti-Chinese rhetoric in the world’s media that continued after the poppers ended. After that mixed year Beijing’s leading Google association became tied to ‘pollution’, rather than being an ancient capital of the world’s biggest population or richest country. Beijing was smog, China was totalitarianism, and its economic rise one to fear, or belittle; its culture aping, uncivilised and enchained. That looked funny and talked funny. It wasn’t the ‘lifting of the sky’ of a billion people on some far off horizon, more a inviting your bling-bedecked Auntie Shazza to a Tuscan wedding.

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When London’s turn was up, envisaged protests to Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War to its extensive colonial er, legacy saw its Olympic torch route kept strictly within the host nation for the first time. It was initially dubbed the Austerity Olympics to be held during the global financial crisis  -London would be the first city to hold it a third time, but both times before were after the world wars and had effectively defaulted there for minimalised costs. The original plans were billed far lower, despite increasing realisation this would be a last once-in-a-lifetime chance to hold a fully fledged Olympic thingy, rather than yet another bare bones offering involving a big pie to go round and some spirited bunting.

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Luckily, it appears the politicians ‘forgot’ to include tax, inflation, infrastructure or contingency funds in their public bid. Nevertheless local protest to the increasing cost of the Games began to garner as the plans began to balloon. Then someone went out and bought a really big bell. In the end it worked out as the second most expensive after Beijing, climbing from initial budgets of under $4 billion to a $15 billion whopper (not including infrastructure).

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In the run up to the opening, more criticism – and laughs – came, thicker, leaner, faster. The beds to gangly athletes in the Olympic Village were found to be too short. Northern drivers, bussed in by private firms and refusing to use newfangled technologies such as er, satnav, were lost for hours trying to transport athletes from the airport, as their captives launched their ordeal on social media.

The worst fiasco came when the world’s largest private security firm, G4S, completely failed to deliver for such a sensitive, highly scaled event, with the army stepping in at the 11th hour to cover the shortfalls. The firm had seen its personnel requirements doubled to 23,000- and subsequently demanded a payrise from £7.3 million to £60 million, half of which it spent on its gold leafed, water-walking management and only £2.8 million on the extra recruitment, to utter ineffect.

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http://www.theguardian.com

A further show of unbridled commercialisation at the expense of Olympic spirit came when viewers noticed the legions of empty seats at many events, despite all tickets having sold out. They were of course the large amount given over to sponsors and associated members, who never bothered to attend, or spent their time at the bar watching footie or dancing like fat twats in suits.

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A final pluck at the strings came with another instance of breakdown. A clock froze during the fencing at the start of the Games, which lead to Shin A Lam unfairly losing a medal, made worse by the decision to uphold the result despite the cause being mechanical failure. It not only exposed the Olympic flaws, but its embarrassing propriety when they muttered painfully to the South Koreans that one has to pay to have an appeal considered. The view of a lone player sitting on an emptied stage, to half an hour of a visibly slow-clapping crowd (to leave the arena means you accept the decision), leaves an imprint.

shin a lam

All in all London did manage to pull off an inordinately successful campaign – the Opening Ceremony – the first section especially- was one of the most memorable of all time, the Games went off without further hitch, and the PR armies of gurning volunteers, an array of citywide cultural events and fun facilities meant it was one of the most enjoyable ever. The legacy of mixed use buildings, and a deprived district now becoming a polished hub ensured no international follow-ups. They even turned a marginal profit thanks to £1 billion of the contingency fund not being needed, and the following year London became the world’s most visited city. As a sign of its confidence, even in the closing ceremony, they included a poignant shot of Shin A Lam sitting in silence as her world burned. Like the Opening Ceremony, it showed not just the rosy image of revision, but the blood, sweat and tears also.

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In reality the legacy  was a mixed one. For all the much lauded intentions, much of which won London the Games in the first place, they have not been the complete success as widely reported. The route to the Olympic Park remains from day one, as through the city’s largest shopping mall, a festival of money parting and commercialisation; as apt today as it has ever been. The stadium itself was intended to be downscaled and kept for athletics, but the unjustified cost to keep it running led to a complete renege on that idea. And at further cost – adversely dismantling the permanent features while keeping the temporary ones, to the tune of $1 billion, to change it into a football arena as first proposed. FFS.

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The legacy of turning a nation to sports – the ‘Singapore Promise’ to “Inspire a generation” was neither fulfilled. The heartrendingly humble video they played at the bidding, of children from all over Britain and the world seeing the Games and one day becoming Olympians, thus underlying the importance of investment in public sport, does not seem to have transpired. Public facilities across the country have closed, school budgets have been axed and sports participation is dramatically down (people playing sport once a week, shrinking by over 200,000 every six months), despite £325 million invested in getting their dimpled arses off the sofa each year by the state quango.

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At the end of the day London was a success and an English apple of the eye, but behind closed doors not as amazing as trumpeted. The city does have a legacy, just not so much the one it promised about you know, not staring at the fridge, and changing society n crap. More about lining the pockets of investors and landlords, and fulfilling that raison d’etre of sticking two fingers up at the French.

Neither do the Winter Olympics escape, especially if it’s a non-Western country. Although Western countries do get noticeable concessions. Vancouver 2010 garnered its fair share of critique even before it started  following the tragic death of 21 year old Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia a few days into practice. Following  driver error he hit a steel support pole that should have been protected, on a luge track that was 12% faster than its intended limit. Also marring preparations was opposition from certain First Nations members, advocates to the colonial record of one of the major sponsors – the Hudson Bay Company, the repeated vandalism of the Olympic flame, and the plight of the low-income families displaced by the building projects, none of which were beautiful thanks to budget. These were little reported outside national papers, though the British press did castigate the games as overly nationalistic, in a purported attempt at embellishing London’s follow up.

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Vancouver’s opening ceremony heavily featured mechanical failure in a rather sketchy opening show – overall beautiful, alluding to the virginal nature of the First Nations plus a mesmeric song by KD Lang, but also involving an er, stand up comedy sketch, Donald Sutherland as the be-all and end-all of Canadian fame, and a malfunctioning arm of the Olympic flame that denied the opportunity for LeMay Doan to light it. But never mind that, and don’t worry too much about the Georgian unpronounceable either – they gave his family $10,000 to renovate their house in a ‘goodwill gesture’, and Canada’s a nice, civilised Western country anyway, like Britain or Australia. Sydney was great, that was the bestest games ever before all this controversy began (just don’t mention the bribes during the bidding process).

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However, Sochi 2014 in Russia truly marked the shining benchmark of public(ised) criticism, the El Dorado for reporters from rival trade blocs the world over. The world’s most exorbitantly spent-on Olympics, costing $51 billion (tick), in a non-Western (tick) populace that can ill afford it (tick), under a charmless dictator-in-all-but-name (tick), with problems with democracy (tick), a lack of gay rights (tick), garnering accordant social media campaign (tick), in a place more famed for its palm trees and the warmest location yet devised (tick). And an unimaginable amount of graft with billions siphoned off to fellow cronies and friends of Putin (tick). Oh and unfinished buildings in the run-up (tick). And of course, a questionable legacy, with which the story can still be milked for decades to come (tick). Let’s just entirely ignore how great, artistic and well organised the show actually was in the end…

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Oh Russia, you glorious summit for cultural disdain, you embellished standard of socio-economic disaster, you God’s gift to dash-cam Youtube, you. Oh mystical horizon of fur-lined intrigue and chemical factories, how we have missed you. When one of your Olympic rings failed to bloom in the Opening ceremony our collective hearts swilled with drunken love, and bloomed with laughter. Oh the mirth, uniting peoples the world over, in Olympic based spirit. Add to that the cherry on top of the current doping scandal banning much of the team, and replacing medals all the way back to 2014 – and you’ve got the best ever tally won by a single country, now being taken down by a rung or three. Thank you so much. We feel so much better for ourselves.

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Now Rio, you seductress of the south. With your teeming, drug fueled favelas, high profile kidnappings and police shootings. Where to turn the world’s eye – the blinding inequality? Racial politics? High homicide rate and petty crime? The nationwide protests at rising costs and price hikes? The indentured former terrorist / torture victim/ President being impeached? The deepening recession, crumbling the dreams of much of the Developing World? The bacterial gardens of the Guanabara Bay? The unfinished construction? And full circle to Olympic Committee threats to take the Games elsewhere (and never to hold it in a Developing country again)? So much to choose from, so little airtime.

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Okay, the ceremony went without a hitch – though there was that little girl, now summarily executed, talking the whole time behind the first Oympic Laureate making his speech. It was evocative, emotive, fun and held its message for a Green Games, plus it’s amazing, eco-friendly Olympic cauldron shining like a gorgeous, mirrored beacon. And the marathon man who got rugby tackled by that Irish priest in Athens 2004, and who lost his winning medal as a result, got to light the flame. Heart warming. Classy like.

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But then one of the Olympic pools just turned fart-smelling GREEN, inexplicably so, so wa-hey! We’re back on.

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What can we expect from Tokyo 2020? The Japanese are a nice bunch, they’re the sweetest, most polite of peoples, eminently civilised and welcoming, economically great, with a winning allure (food, arts, media) and defining popular culture. Low inequality, high social justice, low crime, high environmentalism. Bullet trains, geishas, anime, Michelin stars, forest cover, zen, bamboo, shrines, cherry blossom, sushi, cat cafes, bunny islands. What could possibly go wrong?

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Well the whales, the war, the yakuza, the comfort women, the weirdness. The suicide rate, the groping, the live food, the history textbooks, the depopulation, the porn, the radiation, the homogeneity, the ageing, the Senkaku Islands. Actually this is gonna be fantastic! It may be a time to put down arms, but to take up more civilised, cultured weaponry instead, from social media to trade wars, hacking to drones.

akira.gif

It’s a telling sign their inital logo already got sued by Belgian designer Olivier Debie, forcing a later redrawing:

olovie

 

As we all know the Olympics has traditionally been the time when we all lay down arms and the world stops fighting for the duration of the Games (except in er, WWI, and er, II, and er, every war after that). But anyhoo it’s the thought that counts. The Games are apolitical, yeah. No, I mean no. It’s not a forum to bring up injustice, failure, a few billion dollars, prejudice or scorn. Nosiree.

It’s just our media are increasingly finding the Olympics as a useful tool to promote our  own rhetoric, and the superiority of whatever is the regional demagogue du jour. Start off with a good kilo of global audience, add 100g of competition, 100g of emotion, a generous sprinkling of national pride (hell just throw the damn box in), and feed it through a tight nozzle of media interpretation. In hindsight Hitler’s attempt at making the 1936 Olympics a [failed] promotion of his political ideals was a masterstroke so to speak. We’re just here for the mutherfucking cake.

1936

So just think, one day… one day… America just might get it again. Another misty, headline grabbing land  ripe with opportunity, hegemony and questionable choices. And what a seasoned gift to the world that would be, inspiring generations of tabloid stories, internet forums and culture bloggers, long in the running. We, as a global community, can once again, dare to dream.

eofw

 

Got to the end? Do comment.

What would you think would happen if your country were picked to host the Olympics? What would your city do well or not so well?

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is the World’s Greatest City?

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Dubious question, and one that is contentious to say the least. In the past entire Thucydidean wars were declared over economic competition, trade, hegemony, religion, and culture for that title; today they are argued over endlessly  in annual criteria-based league tables, internet fora and in everything from Trip Advisor to The New Statesman. So why all the fuss? The title breeds geopolitical influence, soft power, tourist bucks and social media tags. Cities are that great coral reef of experience, impervious yet every growing and changing. They stand testament to our lives and livelihoods, our myriad cultures and collective consciousness– with the idea of a single pre-eminent city imbedding itself as a bedrock to contemporary society. A city is, if you like, a crystallisation of culture; the greatest city is the greatest place in humanity.

bjjjwww.johnlake.co.nz

Urban agglomerations are that great marker of history – touchstones of experience where entire eras become marked by their reign, from ancient Rome to Victorian London, Angkor to Edo – with surprising ‘entries’ that stand testament to time (if not in physicality), such as former world’s largest – the million+ boat city of Ayutthaya, Thailand to the present day hamlet of Gurganj, Turkmenistan, a glorious Silk Route nexus before it succumbed to history’s single bloodiest massacre under the Mongols.

ayuth

gurg

There are many criteria, or handfuls of monikers that can lay claim to the single greatest hit. Richest city? That would be Tokyo, followed by NYC, LA and Seoul by total city economy, to er, Oslo or Zurich per capita.  Most influential city? well that could be anyone’s guess – NYC, London, Seoul get bandied about a lot with the youthful limelight, whilst Beijing, Brussels and Washington DC have the largest bureaucratic sectors. And LA might have something to say about global entertainment.

estoniaeurovision-addict.blogspot.com

Most beautiful city? Once again, the arguments range on everyone’s tastes as collectively supportive for Rome or as individualised to Brasilia. Sydney, Sana’a, Venice, Havana, Fez… the list would be endless. Many would agree the most beautiful megacity would be the complex elegance of Paris, but that would discount the myriad voices calling up the canyonscapes of NYC, the natural wonders of Rio, the futurism of Shanghai or the glorious, pluralist mix that is Istanbul/ London /Beijing/ Singapore. Moreover, how many actually visited, and how many base their opinions from received sources?

paree.jpgblogs.ft.com

ital

yem

Well the proof is in those voting with their feet some say – the most visited city, a rotation between Hong Kong, Bangkok, London, Paris and Singapore for international visitors, might be good indicators. But even with this seemingly narrowly defined criteria – based on numbers of overnighting foreign visitors – doubt still creeps through. Paris only counts its centre in the league (take that EuroDisney!), while Hong Kong is heavily skewed by the large amount of travelers coming in from over-the-border China, essentially the same country.

-And what about those domestic travelers? Are their views not as valid? Places like Kyoto and Orlando see in over 50 million visitors each year, double the top spot of the international-only league, while Shanghai, the freak, welcomed a whopping 70 million during 2010’s Expo year.

rioowww.telegraph.co.uk

Ratings? Well Kyoto, Charleston, Florence, Siem Reap, and Rome are all up there (Leisure and Travel Awards), as are London, Marrakesh, Istanbul, Paris, and Hanoi (Trip Advisor). Sun kissed, party mad Beirut makes sporadic appearances near the top depending on its security situation, whilst several places are as much loathed as glorified (ahem, Dubai, Macau, Seoul we’re looking at you). It’s pretty obvious there are too many cooks – whether they be trumpeting the Michelin stars of Tokyo or the street food of Tbilisi.

Beirut Residents Continue to Flock to Southern Neighborhoods

Beirut, http://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/2007/daily-life/spencer-platt

Plus there’s Quality of Life. The Nordic, Canadian, Oceanian cities doing swimmingly, but the perennial winners being a rostrum between Vienna, Munich, Auckland and Vancouver according to Mercer (39 scoring factors including political, economic, environmental, personal safety, health, education, transportation and other public services) with nods toward Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Toronto for the larger cities, and a whole 37 places before the first megacity over 10 million (Paris) shows her pretty head.

vienna

Vienna, travelaway.me

Meanwhile, Monocle magazine puts a megacity right up there, climbing from 5th to 1st was Tokyo (due to its ‘defining paradox of heart-stopping size and concurrent feeling of peace and quiet’), but recently usurped by Copenhagen, with Vienna, Melbourne, Munich and Berlin (a rise of 11 places since ‘after dark’ living was taken into account) worthy of mention. It’s 22 metrics include several that look at housing and the cost of living, from the price of a three-bed pad to the cost of a glass of wine and decent lunch, plus access to the outdoors, with notable upsets when seasonal changes and ambience were taken into account in 2010 (Copenhagen, maelstrom of wintry existentialism, still managed to buck the trend).

copenCopenhagen, exithamster.wordpress.com

But then there are those places with the x factor, the je ne sais quoi regardless of manicured lawns and the price of middle class, middle aged lattes. We must bear in mind cities function in the mind as well as body, that they are a cumulative, inclusive experience. The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s not just how pretty or rich or even popular you are.

Some pics to finish off with:

indJodhpur, www.theatlantic.com

issTel Aviv, www.allphotobangkok.com

lonnn.jpgLondon dalstonsuperstore.com

hanoiHanoi www.gettingstamped.com

ind

05 People Second Place Photo and caption by Yasmin Mund / National Geographic Travel

Jaipur, India

Continued next post…. The World’s Most Diverse City