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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Cosplaygrounds in Akihabara, and the Animism of Roleplay

I have got to come right out and admit this: I am no Cosplay fanatic, and find the whole phenomenon just a little bit twisted, a little bit strange. Then again, I am not really one to get into the spirit at fancy dress parties, I am the guy who spoils it by coming clad in regular clothes. I have no interest in roleplaying games, and uniforms rarely feature in my sexual fantasies. That said, I do enjoy peoplewatching and documenting subcultures, and for six years I lived up the road from Akihabara, which is pretty much the Mecca of the Cosplay universe (as well as the Gomorrah and the Babylon, depending on how you look at it). The following post records some discoveries I made in those six years with regards to Cosplay and all the Cosplay venues and shops and institutions in the Akihabara Electric Town. For those who don't know, Cosplay (コスプレ) means "Costume Play", and basically involves dressing up as characters from your favorite anime movie, manga cartoon, video game, or the lead singer of your favorite band, etc. That treasure trove of wisdom, Wikipedia, claims that "in Japan, cosplay as a hobby is usually an end unto itself." I would add that in Japan all hobbies are ends unto themselves, for they are in fact Zen practices designed to initiate satori or selfrealization, but that is another issue! Let's stick to the topic at hand, shall we? Wikipedia continues: "Likeminded people gather to see other costumes, show off their own elaborate handmade creations, take lots of pictures, and possibly participate in best costume contests." I don't go in for it myself, but I do like peoplewatching, and subculturespotting, so I am often at the sidelines of these events, taking notes and snapping photos. When friends come from overseas to visit me, they always want to see some Cosplay. I escort them to Tokyo's Harajuku, which every Sunday is rammed with Cosplay enthusiasts. Some of the get-ups there have to be seen to be believed, they are so detailed, so elaborate, and so deviant!

Along with Harajuku, Akihabara is a popular Cosplay haunt, especially on weekends. The Electric Town is blessed with a large number of dedicated fancy dress cafes, department stores and galleries. The waitresses at such cafes are dressed as video game and anime characters, or maids. In any almost any big Akihabara department store you will find a Cosplay floor which will put your hometown's fancy dress shop to shame. Along with costumes, dolls are perennially popular with shoppers. Last year, at the height of my Akihabara research project, I discovered a creche of almost lifesized dolls inside the Laox Asobit C department store, all of them sporting fully movable limbs, and staring out impassively at the crowds, like deities at a temple. One of them was a maid (of course), another a high school girl with innocent eyes and a raunchily high-cut dress. Some of the others were anime characters or tennis players, or maybe a blend of both. They weren't particularly cheap, the average doll costing around ¥600,000 (US$6000, give or take.) I started thinking: what kind of guy would buy a US$6000 doll? Since that time it dawned on me: the Japanese love affair with dolls/costumes/roleplay is more than just a consumerist fad, or a bit of fun -- there is something mystical in it, something which emanates from the heart of Japanese spirituality. Spend a bit of time in Japan and you will realize that dolls of all kinds (and I'd include robots in this) enjoy an honorable status. In my opinion, this veneration of the doll, and the incredible attention to detail which goes into making them, is in fact a religious expression. It is an animist thing, a Shinto thing. It is no exaggeration to say that many Japanese believe there is a god in everything -- trees, rocks, rivers... why not dolls as well? Dolls are alive, and they have a roughly human form, so it is no wonder that they are given so much respect, and so much devotion. Like dolls, costumes are also alive, imbued with lifeforce, and offer those who put them on an almost magical power... the ability to become another person, to channel fictional characters, to converse with the spirits just like a Mongolian Shaman in a trance. When a Shaman goes into a trance, the ego disappears, and emptiness clears the mind. The devotee finds that his or her essential emptiness is mirrored in the essential emptiness of the Universe, and attains Enlightenment. That is my theory at least!

Maniac High outside the Ishimaru Department store in Akihabara Anyway, enough ranting... I promised myself that I wouldn't rant! Last month I found myself back in Akihabara with my man Dennis the Menace (aka Maniac High), kind of getting carried along in his wake. Dennis (pictured, on the left) was there for a TV job, a program about foreigners enjoying themselves in the Electric Town. Since I happened to be there, the camera crew hauled me in front of the camera and bombarded me with questions. "What are the things you like about Japan and Japanese culture?" they asked me. I burst out automatically: "Cosplay!" It garnered the laugh I anticipated, and I got a few seconds of fame on TV... a few seconds of fun, but nowhere long enough time to discuss my more esoteric ideas on the matter. Anyway, would Japanese viewers really want to listen to some random foreigner espousing his bizarre theory on the Shinto/Buddhist origins of Cosplay, and/or the animist worship of dolls? I doubt it. Gaijin are supposed to be genki and rambunctious, but not too deep. Better to dumb it down, I thought to myself, and not confuse anyone, otherwise I might offend someone! The film crew finished their "interview" with me, then they escorted Dennis to a premise upstairs to have his ears cleaned by a pair of young maids. He was dressed for the part, in a Fire Department shirt, and a police cap, and unlike me he was on his way to being paid. I scurried on through the cold drizzle and rain to Shinjuku, where I pretended to be Mickey Mouse on the telephone for a few hours, to earn my daily bread. Japan is a strange country, that is for sure... everyone is playing a role, and nobody is quite the person you expect to them to be! That's what makes it so fascinating.

Here follows some Cosplay shops, venues, cafes and attractions in Akihabara and other parts of Tokyo like Shibuya, which I have noticed on previous jaunts around town. It's not an exhaustive list by any means, and I may add to it as time goes by:

Cosmate: 千代田区外神田1-8-3 野水ビル5.
5th Floor Nomizu Building, 1-8-3 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3526 5043. Web: http://www.cosmate.net. Map: http://www.cosmate.net/akihabara.htm.
If high school girls in panties and leotards do it for you, then this is your place! If you are thinking of starting your own maid cafe and need uniforms for your staff, have a look at Cosmate's range. As far as I know, there are three outlets in Tokyo -- the address and phone number listed above belongs to the head store, in Soto Kanda. From the rather gruff reception which awaited me when I tried to enter one of the shops last year, they don't care too much for tourists walking in off the street just to check out the merchandise. This place is for serious fetishists only... whether young females or dirty old men, I am not quite sure!
That said, you don't even have to visit the store to buy that leotard or maid outfit -- you can order straight off their website! Which might be just as well, for schoolgirls (or dirty old men) too embarrassed to lug those stretch enamel sailor leotards up to the counter! I am not sure if they deliver overseas, but you could always try your luck, ne!

Cospa Shop Akihabara: 千代田区外神田3-15-5ジーストア・アキバ2F.
Off Chou Dori (Akihabara's main street), 2nd Floor Jiisutoa Akiba Building, near Akihabara Station, 3-15-5 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3770 3383. Web: http://www.cospa.com/cospaguide/englishguide.html.
This is actually a funky little shop, funky in the way that only Japanese junk and collectible shops can be -- full of quirky and cute little products. This is on the second floor of the Jiisutoa Building, which also hosts the legendary Cure Maid Cafe (see a review of that place further below.) Basically the whole building seems to be given over to models of some kind, maids, or maid costumes. On this floor are the maid costumes. The last time I was there, a couple of Japanese girls were appraising the maid and high school costumes, swooning and exclaiming: "Kawaii!" ("So cute!") There were a range of Samurai style swords at the back of the store, mugs and T-shirts printed with weird anime scenes and slogans -- one of the shirts showed two maids at work, one with distinctive anime blue hair, and the title: "Here are our maids. They are only 13-years-old." Bizarre. Might make a cool sarcastic gift for the folks back home though...
Last April, on a walk through Akihabara, I was handed a document called Cospa Catalog for Girls... if anyone wants to buy it, send me 50 cents by PayPal and its yours! The catalog listed some charming items such as a traditional style Japanese folding fan emblazoned with manga -- a cool fashion item indeed for humid summers in Berlin or New York, and selling for ¥1800. There were also "book covers" and mugs based on the Kyo kara Maoh series (¥1000 and ¥800 Yen respectively), high school uniforms with an anime twist, book markers, neckties, uniforms based on those worn in Gakuen Heaven: Boy's Love Hyper, and plenty of other stuff. Hit the official Cospa website link above to see the latest goods on sale!
As well as Akihabara, there are other Cospa stores around Japan... they even have one inside Narita Airport! Over at Shibuya there is a branch in the Hagihara Building (5-3 Maruyamamachi, Shibuya Ward. Phone: (03) 3770-3383.) Shibuya is of course the coolest part of Tokyo when it comes to extreme fashion. If you come here for a browse and it is a weekend (especially Sunday), make sure you head up to Yoyogi Park at Harajuku to see all the Cosplay chicks, hanging out on the walkway near the dancing Rockabillies.

Cosplay Academy Cave: 台東区池之端1-1-2.
Basement floor Usudamu Kouji building, 1-1-2 Ikenohata, Taito Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3834 5018. Web: http://web.archive.org/web/20061106171550/http://www.cosplay-academy.com/.
When I used to go to Akihabara every day last year researching shops and venues for Vertical Streamline Implosion Crowded World Vagabondic, I managed to collect a lot of souvenirs from pretty girls in high school uniforms. They are everywhere in Akihabara of course, handing out flyers and packets of tissues and other goodies, and posing for/with you in photographs if you ask them nicely enough. Anyway, this packet of tissues I was bequeathed was adorned with two anime schoolgirls complete with big blue eyes and purple hair, and was advertising this new open! establishment called Cosplay Academy CAVE. I never actually made it there, but if the address is anything to go by, the CAVE must be down in Ueno near the pond.

Cure Maid Cafe: 千代田区外神田3-15-5ジーストア・アキバ6F.
Off Chou Dori, 6th Floor Jiisutoa Akiba Building, near Akihabara Station, 3-15-5 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 32583161. Web: http://www.curemaid.jp.
Waitresses at this maid cafe go by the names Pudding or Chocolate. As with other cafes, the establishment runs a website where customers and waitresses can chat. According to the manager: "We get nearly 1,000 page visitors a day, which is unbelievable for a restaurant."
Unlike some other cafes, the maids here are elegant rather than sexy... some would even say dour. Sometimes they get up and perform classical music. Items on the menu include pasta for ¥800, sandwiches for ¥500, and beer at ¥500 per glass. You can also buy sets of cards featuring what else but lots of manga style portraits of maids, and there are some pretty expensive but highly detailed maid dolls on sale for like ¥8000 Yen.


Jupiter Akiba Clothes Shop: 千代田区外神田3-14-6 恵光ビル6階.
6th Floor Ekou Building, 3-16-6 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3252 2918. Web: http://jupiter-akiba.jp/.
When you see a place in Akihabara which advertises itself as a "clothes shop" you better sit up and take note -- it probably ain't just an ordinary clothes shop. Nothing in Akihabara is ordinary, mundane, or purely utilitarian. While Jupiter Akihaba, situated on the sixth floor of a tower overlooking Chuo Dori, proclaims itself to be a clothes store, it is really a Cosplay joint. A Cosplay heaven, if you will. There is a weird range of costumes and uniforms here. Mannequins of SS officers in full death regalia stand alongside flight attendants and maids and high school girls. Nice touch that...

Laox Asobit C: 千代田区外神田1-15-18.
1-15-18 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 5298 3581. Web: http://asobitcity.laox.co.jp/.
Laox is a Japanese chain with numerous stores in the Akihabara precinct. This particular store is devoted to the universe of Japanese anime and manga. The "C" in the name means "character", and "Asobit" is a play on words combining the Japanese for play (asobi) and the bit from bits and bytes fame. In the basement you will find the adult publications such as comics, novels (literary and adult-themed novels as well as books based on games), magazines and gachapon. This is truly adults' only territory -- people under 18 will not be allowed down the stairs or out of the lift. Things are a bit more familyminded on the first floor, which is dedicated to trading figures, miniatures, collectible sets, fancy characters and character-based publications and DVDs. The second floor is filled with new character figurines, Gundam plastic models, paints, and related publications and DVDs. The third floor is called the "Anime Character Floor" and features the likes of Microman, Pokemon, Transformers, Zoids, and American toys. There are also goodies for the girls. On the fourth floor, meanwhile, you will find special effects and heroes like Masked Rider, Godzilla, Ultraman and their ilk filling the shelves.
The highlight of the building, in my opinion, is the fifth floor. This is where (as I described in lurid detail somewhere above) I stumbled upon a row of lifesized anime dolls and maids with US$6000 price tags. The floor also includes blister figures and smaller dolls, as well as plenty of costumes.
2013 UPDATE: I have heard it said that Laox is trying to penetrate the Cosplay and Akiba scene in China, which I would like to explore at some point in the future, seeing as though I will be moving there next year! Stay tuned for my reports... they will be coming!


M's Shop: 千代田区外神田1-15-13太平堂ビルB1-6F.
Seven floors of fun inside the Pacific Hall Building, 1-15-13 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3252 6166. Web: http://www.ms-online.co.jp.
This prominent building, easily visible from the Yamanote line south of Akihabara Station, is a huge sex goods emporium. I am not game enough to take photos inside but it is pretty interesting, and confirms my suspicions regarding the kinky side of Japan!
Cheap Bastard pointed out on his guide (mostly dedicated to porn): "This is a four-floor store that sells all sorts of pornographic shit. Funny, I didn't see any hentai manga, although they did have hentai anime. Anyhow, this used to be where a video store called Rocket Soft once lived, although that's not why I've included it in this guide. No, I've included it because of the surreal experience I had there. The store opened recently (recently meaning way back in May, damn I've been lazy about updating this section), and being a Curious Bastard I decided to see what was what. It was after working hours, so I found myself in a store full of young and middle-aged businessmen poring over, well, porn. This whole scene of salarymen earnestly scrutinizing various dildos, whips, riding crops, panties, and other accessories quite frankly scared the beejezus out of me. Having visited each floor briefly, I quickly departed this palatial proprietor of pr0n."
It should be noted that it is not only men who get into the costumes and sex aids at M's Shop. The adult convenience store manages to sell a lot of sexy costumes to girls. "When a girl tries one on, often she asks us to take a photo of her," a store PR guy said. "There are too many customers like that, and our walls are plastered with their photos."
Another unique shop in Akihabara is the so-called video box that features gorgeous rooms and a big collection of animation and adult video tapes. "Even diehard fans will never get bored," said a salesperson for one such place, Hanataro.



Do you want to learn more about Cosplay? Angel Cosplay is a good place for girls interested in dressing up. The Good Angel herself, has this to say about Cosplay beginners: "It's really hard to put yourself out there to cosplay for the first time. Find a character that's a lot like yourself and try to get some of your friends to cosplay with you. Cosplaying in groups helps if you're nervous about cosplaying. Just go out and have a good time! There will always be people out there who say mean things but do not ever let them get you down. Be happy and have a great time! ^_^."

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Greenland's Vikings, Victims of Climate Change

I have been reading a lot lately about the vanished Vikings of Greenland, how they just disappeared from the history books in the Middle Ages, never to be heard of again. I have been thinking a lot about them recently, those Europeans who for a couple of centuries eked out a civilization on the edge of the Arctic, trading in walrus ivory, worshipping in churches... they seemed to be flourishing and then one day they went MIA like the crew of the Marie Celeste, or those jet fighters swallowed by the Bermuda Triangle. It is worth pointing out at this point that I am in fact Australian, and thus hail from another European colony which was transplanted with all things Christian and European onto a barren, alien land, and left there to fend for itself. The Australian experiment worked, however -- the Greenland experiment didn't (at least not for the Vikings LOL!) Interestingly enough, Climate Change was the major culprit in the Greenland Vikings' demise -- not the Anthropogenic Global Warming we are (apparently) confronting now, but rather the Global Cooling of the Middle Ages (whose cause is still a matter of conjecture). Southern Greenland, once as verdant as its name suggests, presently chilled, then got snowploughed beneath a slowmotion avalanche of ice. The Vikings were snapfreezed out of existence; their neighbors the Inuit, who had migrated into the region at about the same time, somehow managed to adapt, and survived. Perhaps a similar fate awaits Australia in the future -- the white civilization which has ruled the roost for 200+ years will be forced to retreat from waves of heat and drought and searing fire, and the longsuffering Aborigines will crawl out from the margins to repossess their beloved homeland. History has a strange way of working like that. You never can really tell who is going to win the race, and revolutions are all too frequent. Gods hold grudges, and patiently plot their revenge. The laws of physics cannot be ignored, and neither can the science of Symbolic Exchange. Thus we have been warned! Thus we will be warmed.


Greenland is on the path to independence from its colonial master Denmark, and now has its own flag and a new name, Kalaallit Nunaat
Anything can happen in life, and history is full of sudden reversals. Global Warming could well be just a beat-up, the latest strain of the Armaggedonist virus whose DNA was identified in the Year 2000 bug, SARS and the Bird Flu Epidemic, and which has consistently frightened more people than it has actually harmed (infecting them not through physical germs but rather exposure to sensationalist reports on TV and the like.) I believe these hysterias are in fact media viruses, and mark a mutation of the virus from the physical world in which it has proliferated for billions of years, into the Baudrillardian mediaswamp we humans now inhabit. We're going to have a lot more media viruses in the future, that's my theory at least! Some people just love to think the world is about to end, and indeed such a deathwish is built into the mythology of the capitalist system itself. How it works is like this: somewhere in the "real" world (eg, China, Vietnam, Africa, anywhere Third World) a new virus arises in animals and kills a handful of people, triggering a pandemic alert. The media, ever hungry for a good scare story, jumps on to the case, and proclaims that the end of the world is nigh. What WHO fears is that the virus will jump the species barrier, but actually a more profound evolutionary leap is taking place: the virus is becoming digital. Panic takes on a life of its own, and becomes viral... this is how the pandemic spreads, this is what gives it energy. There's a run on flu vaccines... everyone on the streets of East Asian megacities are suddenly wearing surgical masks. Little do the masses know that it's too late, they are already infected! Their masks aren't protecting anyone, they are in fact amplifying the fear, broadcasting the infection! The best response would actually be to chill out, and ignore the doom. Or at least maintain a skeptical distance. That's what I would do, but then someone would accuse me of being irresponsible...

Look, what I am trying to say is this: Climate Change could be real, and could well be hype... but the extinction of the Greenland Vikings is a historical fact, and I find myself strangely haunted by their disappearance. Recently I thought to myself: imagine if the colonies had survived and the fjords of Greenland were now sprinkled with colorful, asymmetrical cafes and bulging nightclubs and bars; imagine if every young Greenlander today dreamed of being a poet or an anarchist or an artist or a rock musician? In other words, what if Greenland had developed into a New Iceland or a somewhat edgier, more tribal take on the Faroe Islands? Wouldn't that have been awesome, wouldn't that have been totally cool? Not politically correct to contemplate, but an interesting thought experiment nonetheless. I must confess though that Inuit Greenland has turned out pretty swinging in its own way, and the music scene is just as vibrant there as it is in Iceland, from what I hear. Nonetheless, I can't help myself from thinking: imagine if the Vikings had survived, imagine what Greenland would be like today? And I wonder: maybe the green days of Greenland are on their way back, after a long bitter winter? Spring is dawning in the Far North of the planet, and the Day of the Inuit is arrived. How I'd love to be part of it somehow. If I had any money, that is where I would be investing it! 

Monday, April 9, 2007

Contemplating My New Apartment

I attended a Soka Gakkai gathering this morning, and once it was finished Kobayashi-sensei (小林先生) invited me to inspect one of the apartments inside his newly constructed mansion, out in the backblocks of Shinozaki. Umesh joined me for the ride, and like myself he seemed pleased by the place, although he muddied the mood somewhat by categorizing it as a "room". It might well be just the size of a typical room in Nepal, but in my opinion there is a whole house condensed into that apartment, and a whole world of seductive pleasures. It is a monument to Japanese miniaturization, cunningly contrived, every square centimetre exploited for all it can yield, and then some. They need to do that in Japan, of course, because there is not much space. They need to be creative. Umesh doesn't get that, evidently.

Anyway, upon returning to Liberty House I sent this repot to my Mum and Dad, a glowing report you might say, complete with choice photos:

I went to have a look at my new apartment today and I was amazed by what I saw. It is one of the best apartments I have seen in Japan, brand new and already set up with high tech fixtures like airconditioning and climate control, a computerised bathroom, walk-in wardrobe, and so on. It doesn't seem like anyone has lived here before -- it all looks so new and clean. And it is only costing me $150 a week -- I don't think you could rent a brand new 3-room apartment in Sydney for $150 a week. But since my boss is the owner of the apartment block, I think he is giving me a substantial discount.


High-tech features, and a little cupboardy thing in the genkan (Japan, 2007)
There is no furniture but I don't need a bed, since I usually sleep on the floor these days Japanese style (but it might be hard on a wooden floor.)


Micro-kitchen, tucked into a corner (Japan, 2007)
I already have a TV and computer and from what my boss was saying, it sounds like Internet and cable TV is free at his apartment.


Pristine kitchen sink, and a green tiled wall (Japan, 2007)

 I was planning to buy a fridge but I think my boss said he could lend me one of his.


I have been dreaming of an airconditioner since I first moved to Japan, and I might soon have one! (Japan, 2007)

The only thing I need is a washing machine but right next to the apartment block, there are a whole bunch of washing machines on the street -- you can take your clothes there, put in some money, and wash your clothes right there on the street. I am also sure I saw some fridges sitting on the street when I was walking back to the train station, and some other furniture which people had thrown away.


Nifty little walk-in wardrobe (Japan, 2007)

All in all the new apartment is about 100 times better than the place I live now, and a big step forward. Even though I would rather be in Vietnam -- I feel like going back down later in the year to check things out. But at least I have a secure home in Japan to come back to.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Hue Noodle Soup

A couple of days ago I found myself with a lot of hours to kill inside Hồ Chí Minh City Airport, and to pass the time I bought a little book on sale there called The Cuisine Of Viet Nam (Nourishing a Culture). A nourishing little book it turned out to be, indeed -- it got me through the layover at Tân Sơn Nhất, and provided me ample food for thought, regarding the rich world of Vietnamese cuisine. One essay in the collection, written by Nguyệt Biều, concerned the spicy relative of phở -- Bún bò Huế (otherwise known as Huế noodle soup.) I did not know this until I read this book, but Huế is the food capital of Vietnam, and represents the culinary perfection of the nation. It is to Vietnam, perhaps, what Kyoto is to Japan, or Yogyakarta is to Indonesia. It is the soul of the nation. Nguyệt writes:
If one had to pick a single food which is reminiscent of Huế, it would be rice noodle soup with beef and pork. Huế residents prefer to buy their bún bò from street vendors, rather than in restaurants. Street vendors carry soft, thin white noodles (bún) and slices of beef (bò) and pork with them in two bamboo baskets hanging from a pole balanced across their shoulders. 
Consumers eat this noodle dish on the sidewalk, squatting on small stools right next to a pot of boiling broth. The intense fragrance rising from the pot is the greatest advertisement for this dish.
Most street vendors in Huế come from villages outside the city such as Thủy An, Phát Lát, and Vạn Vạn. In these villages, each household has one or two street vendors. Selling rice noodles is both a way of earning a living and of carrying on a family or village culinary tradition. In the morning vendors sell to regular customers, usually in small side streets or alleys. When lunchtime is almost over, they stop selling and shop for the ingredients for the next day. 
Street vendors carry one pot of broth that they can put on a portable charcoal stove, to be heated immediately. Another pot contains additional ingredients such as stewed pig trotters, grilled ground pork, beef and pork tendon, grilled crab, pig and duck blood, and thin slices of beef. On the other side of the bamboo pole is a container of fresh rice noodles and seasonings like onions, scallions, chili peppers, fish sauce, bean sprouts, banana flowers and diced lettuce. Finally, the baskets contain bowls, spoons, chopsticks, a basin for washing, napkins, toothpicks, a tank of green ginger tea, and a few stools: truly a moveable feast. 
Bún bò Huế is completely unpretentious. Its charm lies solely in its fragrance. According to the women who sell rice noodles at Bến Ngự Market, the broth must be delicious above all else: clear in colour with a balance between the salty and sweet flavours of stewed beef bones, pork bones, and chicken.
Vendors tailor each bowl to the customers' desires. In the winter, customers sit next to the red-hot stove and the boiling broth, covering their bowls with their hands, slurping the broth, skewering the noodles with their chopsticks, and biting into pieces of meat. Even food connoisseurs in Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City admit to a love of bún bò Huế, especially when it is served in Huế.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Food, Fashion and Fetish in Newtown, the Swinging Soul of Sydney

Every major city in the world has a neighborhood where all of the local personality and lifeforce gets channeled, concentrated laser beam style, then finally ignited into a sun which is singular and eccentric, but also radiantly representative of the metropolitan ethos as a whole. Some cities, of course, have more than one such neighborhood -- in Tokyo there are for example at least two places where the Japanness of Japan gets pushed to its logical extreme, and beyond: one is the anime antnest of Akihabara, the other the Cosplay chickland of Harajuku, by Yoyogi Park. Some cities (eg, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Amsterdam) are so far ahead of the times it is hard to find a precinct inside them which isn't progressive or kooky cool. Sydney, the capital of the south Pacific, is endowed with only one world-class Bohemia (in my opinion), but it is a brilliant Bohemia nonetheless. The place is called Newtown, and it was recently dubbed "Sydney's most creatively well endowed suburb" by the counterculture Sydney City Hub newspaper. For as long as I can remember, it has long been one of the food, fashion and fetish focal points of the city. The amazing thing is, Newtown is not reflected on any tourist/traveler radars, as far as I can see. Then again, the places which fly under the radar are usually the best places to explore, so perhaps it is fitting that Newtown remains a dark star, known only to the locals. If your aim is to get a feel for the gritty reality of modern Australian life, don't go to Darling Harbour or the Opera House, those places don't live. Newtown is the place to visit, it has a soul, and epitomizes the Australian personality! It won't disappoint you, I promise. I'll stake my reputation on that. Unlike other famous parts of Sydney (for example Bondi Beach), the ocean exerts little influence here. Instead, as in Melbourne, people turn to the streets for their entertainment. Restaurants, shops and pubs are the principal methods of diversion. You can shop for vintage clothes, or see a hard rock band, or have hot wax poured on your nipples at an S&M haunt. All the bands in Australia have names starting with the article "the", it has become something of a cliché. I've never really understood why.

Nonetheless: one thing you have got to keep in mind is that while Newtown is by far the most Bohemian district of Sydney, it is different from Bohemian communities elsewhere in the world. This is Australia after all, and the Australian personality still shines through -- perhaps even more blindingly than out in the Burbs. Along with Darwin, this is one of the last surviving outposts of the classic Aussie larrikin. Instead of openly rebelling against the basic Australian personality, as you might expect, Newtown folks caricature it, camp it up, and basically push that personality to its logical extreme, in the process transcending it. Take the issue of fashion, for example. Australians have always been decidedly daggy dressers, and many honestly don't give a damn how they look ("it is fashionable not to be fashionable," my mate Garnet Mae once complained). In rebelling against this, you might expect the subcultures of the inner-city to go the other way, and embrace European style haute couture, to prove they have more taste than the slobs out in the suburbs. That is indeed what happens, in some quarters (like Surry Hills). The Bohemians of Newtown, however, prefer the natural look -- sans shirt, bare feet, the potency of body odor. Whatever gets you closer to Mother Earth, that's what they go for. Now in an already laid-back society, one might think this is a strange way for a supposedly contrarian subculture to express its sartorial instincts. Like the anime addicts of Akihabara, like the Cosplay chicks of Harajuku, the Newtownians knows that the really contrarian way to rebel is not to oppose diametrically, but to mimic to the point of excess. Not just to ridicule, but to take ownership of the dominant culture, and live it the way it was supposed to be lived, before it got corrupted by The Man. Like the urban tribes of Tokyo, the Bohemians of Newtown know this is how you win the culture wars, this is how the real jihad should be waged. Once you stop attacking the dominant culture and start appropriating it, with a gleam in your eye which suggests you were never against it to begin with, the rules of the game are abruptly changed. You cease being silly freaks on the margins, bereft of influence and power, and recast yourselves as true disciples, the Guardians of the Way. Your way is not the alternative but in fact the Only Way: the Tokyo way, the Japanese way, the Australian way, whatever the paradigm that you are seeking to overthrow. In short, you subvert the system from within, by becoming the system, wearing it like an old coat. Or a pair of faded board shorts, if you happen to live in Newtown.


"I have a dream": Martin Luther King tribute in Newtown (Australia, 2007)
Earlier this month I was down in Sydney for a few days, catching up with old friends, and staying with the aforementioned Garnet Mae, slumlord and director of such no-budget movies as Meat Pie (the one in which a guy with a penchant for kitchen appliances goes too far, loses his organ, and requires an urgent transplant!) I used to run with Garnet back in our uni days, and he introduced me to a lot of Sydney's prized jewels, Newtown among them. This was impressive, as we went to university at Bathurst, 200 kilometers to the west. We had plenty of breaks, however, and I used to enjoy cruising around Sydney with Garnet and his crew on spare weekends, sneaking into concerts, jumping the back fence into raves and festivals, getting into general mischief. One weekend we traveled all the way from Bathurst to Newtown to visit The Kastle, which was becoming infamous back then. I don't know why they called it The Kastle. The Dungeon would have been more apt a name. Sinister looking entrance -- just an anonymous door on a graffiti-splattered backstreet. Kind of looked like an abandoned warehouse. Enter inside and suddenly it was warm and there were tonnes of guys with thick mustaches wearing black leather, dark techno on the decks (this being the early 1990s!), and girls in latex and fishnet stockings. I was expecting it to be a nightclub, but it was more a theater... a theater of cruelty to be precise. Name your vice, it was here: bondage, submission, punishment, BDSM. We were there with our Bathurst bro Stu Ridley and his girlfriend Fiona, and possibly our flatmate Katja, who had accompanied us on the long ride in the car, over the mountains. We were there mostly out of curiosity, but I suspected Stu might have had more questionable motivations. He seemed to be in too much of a hurry to get his shirt off out on the dancefloor, waving his hands in the air, sweat flying out from his orange hair. From time to time the music stopped and a little performance was put on by the staff, a tableau in our midst: there was a shirtless man strapped to a rack as a Dominatrix flexed her whip, waving its strands over his nostrils menacingly, or possibly a guy and two girls engaged in a threeway kiss. It might have been a freak show for Fiona, for Katja, and for Garnet and I, but Stu seemed to be taking an earnest interest in proceedings. He was getting into it a little too much, methought. Suddenly I realized: wasn't it his idea that we came here tonight? Somewhere in the early hours, quite a few drinks later, the music paused one last time and the curtains rose on the final act: a spot of candle wax play. This time around, they put out a call for volunteers. I dug myself back into the crowd ever so slightly, concerned someone might nominate me for the role. I needn't have worried; standing next to me, Stu stuck his hand up, and submitted gleefully for the ordeal. They strapped him up to the rig, handcuffed him, and fitted him with a blindfold. The crowd was going nuts, gay couples nodding their approval, Fiona looking a little embarrassed (or was that pride in her eyes?) A domme stepped forward, and with a theatrical flourish commenced dripping hot wax all over Stu's chest. He grimaced in pain, but there was still a smile on his lips. Where did that come from? I wondered. Who was that for? Looking back on it all, it seems obvious this moment marked a turning point in his life. The beginning of his descent, in fact. If only I could have predicted it at the time!

That was 1993, 14 years ago. I don't know if the Kastle is still around, or what Stu Ridley is doing these days. I'm walking on King Street, the spine of Newtown, whiling away some hours while Garnet is at work, hustling customers on the phone. It's a grey day; the sun is struggling to break through the clouds. At 305 King Street, I stop to admire an iconic piece of street art: the Martin Luther King mural painted by the anarchistic Unmitigated Audacity Productions in the early 1990s. Not quite Banksy, but it is as good as it gets in Sydney. I don't know if the Gothic typeface is appropriate, but it would probably make for a good tattoo. It's about lunch time, and I am feeling peckish. There is certainly no shortage of culinary choices in this vicinity, with Thai eateries, Turkish pide joints, and even an African restaurant all within spitting range. I am actually hankering for Bondi-style Portuguese chicken, which I find at Oporto, on the adjacent Enmore Road, the other side of the railway tracks. I know it's fast food, but I don't care. It's soul food to me, and you can't find anything like it in Japan. I eat a burger and chips, as the wind blows garbage around in a nearby parking lot, and diners watch sport on an in-restaurant TV. I would love to sit and chill, but I have things to do. Hunger satiated, I return to King Street, to take a walk on the wild side.


One of Sydney's entertainment icons, the Sandringham Hotel, at 387 King Street (Australia, 2007)
Newtown is packed with entertainment venues, among them the Bank Hotel, the Coopers Arms Hotel (221 King Street), the Enmore Theatre (52 Enmore Road), the Dendy Cinema, and the Sandringham Hotel (387 King Street). If you want find out what is happening in Newtown, click the Newtown Precinct Page for details. In a newspaper article quoted on the page, Pam Walker writes:
Newtown has long been home to large numbers of visual artists and writers. In the 80s it was the hub of independent music with many a band paying its dues in pubs like the Sandringham. 
Now the area has become the cradle for the performing arts, actively nurturing young playrights, actors and dancers. So exactly what is about Newtown that attracts the creatively endowed? 
The Enmore Theatre's Greg Khoury says that the suburb's artistic leanings go back a long way. In fact, Newtown has thrived since its inception as an artistic outpost to Sydney in the late 19th Century. 

It is too early in the day for a drink, so I walk on, past the pubs. Me being me, I decide to check out the herbal shops. I'm looking for a legal way to get stoned. It's been so long, and I always associate Sydney with smoking a bong. I go inside one business, and locate a pack of dubious goodies called "Tribal Trance", or something similar. The proprietor assures me it will do the trick, but I am not convinced. These synthetic marijuana products are always rubbish, in my experience. Still, I have money in my wallet from my new job in Japan, so I figure it should be worth a try! I buy a bag for AUS$20. And I think to myself: Why is everything in Australia so expensive these days?


U-Turn Recycled Fashion, at 2 Enmore Road, Newtown (Australia, 2007)
Along with herbal shops and their New Age cousins, there are plenty of fashion retailers in Newtown. Suitably enough, many of them specialize in the vintage/recycled/classic end of the market. As I discussed above: appropriate the dominant paradigm, and wear it like an old recycled frock. That's how the game should be played! Some of the boutiques to be found include Kita Vintage Clothing (Shop 2503 King Street), and the local outlet of U-Turn Recycled Fashion (2 Enmore Road).


Exclusive Vintage Clothing, at 383 King Street, Newtown (Australia, 2007)
Just a U-turn around the corner from U-Turn, back on King Street, sits one of the landmarks of the Sydney vintage clothing scene: Exclusive Vintage Clothing (383 King Street). As the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported in 2004: 
Sydney's hunger for vintage and secondhand clothes has fuelled a 15 per cent profit surge for the Salvation Army's retail stores in the last 12 months. 
The workers hit the clearing house floor, sorting the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of clothing that arrive each year. 
The best clothes are sent to the Salvation Army's inner city stores - in Darlinghurst, Glebe and Bondi Junction - where prices and turnover are higher.
Meanwhile each morning, between 20 and 30 wholesale buyers wait for up to an hour outside the Salvation Army's Minchinbury and St Peters factories. They buy damaged or stained clothes which are then cleaned up and sold at marked-up prices at the Paddington, Glebe and Bondi markets or in commercial second-hand stores in Surry Hills and Newtown...

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Friday, March 9, 2007

I'm Back in 'Nam (and Man this Place Has Changed!)

Well, I am back in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- and after roaming the streets for a couple of hours this afternoon taking in the sites and sights, I have to proclaim: "Man, this place sure has changed, I don't even recognize it!" I had an amazing day which saw me shrug off my Tomomian gloom somewhere over the East China Sea, and then cure my fear of flying on my Vietnam Airlines bird, listening to cheesy pop. Over the past couple of years I have grown a little paranoid about air travel, even though I know how safe it is and all. Every time we hit turbulence on the way to Mumbai or Reykjavík on recent trips I have clutched the armrests stiffly, my heart pounding. It was kind of stupid, but that was how I was. It was a primal fear, irreconcilable to logic. Ever since I read that Naomi Campbell enjoyed flying because that was the only time she could really chill out, I have been keen to kick my paranoia. And it all ended today. In fact, I enjoyed the flight so much I wanted to stay up there in the sky all day, just "cloud surfing", as my old friend Matt Tumbers would have dubbed it. I had certainly hit the jackpot at Narita this morning by scoring a whole row of seats to myself, and this allowed me to slump lazily against the window shortly after takeoff and stretch out, bathed in warm sunshine (it's always sunny up there once you punch through the cloud cover!) It was all very comfortable and just like Naomi claimed, you do really feel removed from the problems of the world when you're at 30,000 feet. If I was rich and had my own jet I would spend my life just cruising the clouds, drinking champagne and dropping in at cool cities which I dig, following the party circuit -- but I guess if I did that people would brand me an enviroterrorist, and shun me. Whatever... it was a very pleasant flight and even when we hit a batch of turbulence over The Philippines I just shrugged it off, and sank back into soothing sleep.


Safe on the ground and looking for the bus, at Tan Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam, 2007)
But now I am back on the ground in Vietnam and after months of romantic strife in Japan, I find myself with a date lined up for the weekend (more about that later!) One of the first things which struck me as I deplaned (apart from the humidity of course), was the irrefutable evidence of how much Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) has changed over the past 10 years, since I was last here. When I first visited as a young innocent in 1995, this city was so primitive and crazy I hid like a mouse in my hotel for the first night, too scared to even venture outside. Whenever you dined at a restaurant in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district back in those days, you would get mobbed by throngs of postcard salesmen/women/children, beggars, shoe-shiners and all kinds of scammers. You couldn't walk around the block without attracting a retinue of cyclo drivers and taxi touts, or be chased by a gang of streetkids, some of them wielding rocks. The cyclo drivers and taxi touts and assorted hawkers are still here of course and they are still out in force, but the difference is these days they take no for an answer. Unlike in the Vietnam of 1995 -- and unlike present day India. Tell them you don't want to go on their city tour/buy their postcards/get your shoes shined, and they will accept that -- they won't complain or abuse you or follow you around the rest of the day, attempting to pull off the long hustle. I like that. Perhaps that is a sign that Vietnam has become richer as a nation -- or perhaps the millions of backpackers and travelers who have shuffled through the place since 1995 have educated the Vietnamese on international street business etiquette. If someone wants or needs to buy something, they will buy it. Abusing the customer or stalking them around town all day (as what happened to me in India in 2005) never gets you the sale -- it only pisses everyone off. Surely I am not alone in thinking that!


The streets of Ho Chi Minh City are just as congested as they have always been, but they look a bit more upmarket these days (Vietnam, 2007)
Apart from the evolution in tout and street hustler behavior, the skyline of HCMC has also evolved -- upwards. Particularly in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district and the downtown area, this city is starting to resemble a little Singapore. I have got a photo back in my bedroom in Japan of me drinking with a European woman (maybe Swiss) and an Asian-American guy in a bar at the corner of Phạm Ngũ Lão Street and Đề Thám Street in the middle of 1995, during my first timid tour of duty. That bar is gone -- it has been turned into a Japanese Lotteria hamburger restaurant. The yellow wall you can see in the background of that photo is also history -- it has been knocked down or whatever and replaced by a beautiful green park. On humid nights lovers and African guest workers can be seen frolicking in the park, hemmed in on both sides by streams of swarming motorbikes. What a cool place HCMC is becoming!

As soon as I had found a hotel in Phạm Ngũ Lão and had dropped my bags off there, I was keen to challenge Saigon's famous dining scene. I didn't have any particular destination in mind, I just started walking. The first place that caught my eye was the Trung Nguyên Cafe, situated on a busy intersection opposite the Van Canh restaurant (perhaps it was on the corner of Nguyễn Thái Học Street and Trần Hưng Đạo Avenue -- anyway, it was in that basic ballpark.) I ordered deep fried beef and a Tiger. I flirted with the cute waitress as she tried to squat a fly which kept bothering my food ("You're never going to catch it -- those flies have eyes in the backs of their heads!" I implored.) Nearby me, what looked to be a Singaporean family purveyed the extensive selection of Vietnamese coffee beans on display, in a glass cabinet as I recall.


Deep fried beef and a Tiger beer, at a Nguyen Trung Cafe in District 1 of HCMC (Vietnam, 2007)
I didn't know this at the time, but it turns out that Trung Nguyên Coffee is actually one of the big coffee companies in Vietnam, and that their cafe chain is Vietnam's answer to Starbucks! As Greenspun family has reported:
Capitalizing on an emerging, affluent middle-class and the simple attractions of aromatic coffee, 31-year-old entrepreneur Dang Le Nguyen Vu has successfully launched Vietnam's first nationwide franchise. 
Call it Starbucks, Vietnam-style. 
Over the past four years, Vu's chain of Trung Nguyen cafes has grown to more than 400 outlets in all of Vietnam's provinces, from the busy Ho Chi Minh City to rural of Sapa on the northern border. In Vietnamese, Trung Nguyen means "Central Highlands", an area famous for its coffee, and Vu now wants to spread the reputation of his coffee label well beyond Vietnam's borders. 
'I want to have the Vietnamese brand name of Trung Nguyen well known in the world. Our coffee is good. There's no reason we can't do it.."
I didn't know this at the time, but apparently Trung Nguyên Cafe is a good place to sample one of the best coffee brews in the world -- the notorious Vietnamese weasel shit coffee. Anyway, I really love Vietnamese coffee but I was scared of sampling the wares today, because strong caffeine tends to give me migraines. More about this disturbing handicap of mine later! The beef dish was great nonetheless and I hope to return to the cafe later, to see if I can get some of that weasel shit brew! And possibly even hit on the waitress, if she's there again!
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