Red is for Luck


Lucky Red (Photo M. Germana)

Lucky Red (Photo M. Germana)

Italian and Chinese people may have many cultural differences – not least the argument over who invented spaghetti/noodles. But they do share their preference for red to welcome the new year under good auspices: Italians have red underwear on to attract good luck, as they toast in the New Year’s Eve; the Chinese also wear red for good luck during their New Year’s Celebrations.

Red Lanterns (Photo M. Germana)

Red Lanterns (Photo M. Germana)

Bright red objects – toys, ornaments, and lanterns, of course – decorate the streets of Chinatown in the two weeks leading up to the beginning of the New Lunar Year. This year, it fell on 31 January, though the main events in London happened on Sunday 2 February.

This is the Year of the Horse. According to Feng Shui specialist Raymond Lo, this is the year when people will tend to stick more to their principles. Good news? Well, it depends, of course, entirely, on your principles!

'Chinatown Gate' (Photo M. Germana)

‘Chinatown Gate’ (Photo M. Germana)

For me, it was an opportunity to apply one of my (Western) New Year’s resolutions: get the camera out more and write more! So here we are.

London’s Chinatown is always a cornucopia of colour and scent. On the first Sunday in February it exceeded itself. The smell of sweet and sour sauces oozed out the restaurants, luring more people to queue for a table at one of the many eateries on Gerrard, Rupert and Wardour Street. We didn’t want to waste any time eating, so just grabbed a couple of sweet buns from a bakery. The streets were very crowded, and, being a small person, it was sometimes difficult for me to see what was going on. I took advantage on my travelling companion’s sturdy shoulders a couple of times to take some of the shots of the Lion Dance.

Lion Dancer (Photo M. Germana)

Lion Dancer (Photo M. Germana)

A particular variation of this performance, the cai-qing (“plucking the greens”) involving dancers or – more specifically on New Year’s Day – martial art performers – takes place on the streets of Chinatown on the day of the celebrations. Two performers under an elaborate costume danced around the streets, bouncing, jumping, and shaking their booties. The lion gets particularly frisky at the sight of green lettuce hanging from shop entrances.

Hanging Lettuce (Photo M. Germana)

Hanging Lettuce (Photo M. Germana)

It’s good luck for the business if the lion successfully plucks it. It’s good luck for the lion, too, as attached to the leafy bunch of greens is also a red envelope containing more precious kinds of leaves for the performers.

Red envelopes containing “lucky money” are also, apparently, handed out by friends and family to children, who will find them under their pillows, and single people, to wish them good luck with their romantic lives in the new year. Well, may the year of the horse be a year full of love, then, and, a little money, which never does any harm!

What I like about Chinese New Year is the way that all things Chinese seem to spread well beyond the boundaries marked by the Gates of Chinatown.

Chinese Trafalgar Square (Photo M. Germana)

Chinese Trafalgar Square (Photo M. Germana)

The major performances, in fact, took place in Trafalgar Square, where large crowds converged, throughout the day, to watch circus acrobats and traditional Chinese dances. One wonders what Lord Nelson would have made of all this; he certainly had a good vantage point to watch the festivities from.

It was a good day out and, whatever people may think of the failures of multiculturalism in Britain, it did feel like the whole world had turned up to this party.

Multicultural Chinese new Year (Photo M. Germana)

Multicultural Chinese New Year (Photo M. Germana)

Does size matter?


The Shard I (Photo M. Germana)

The latest addition to London’s skyline, The Shard, officially opened a few weeks ago. The launch involved a laser display, which, I was lucky enough to watch from the comfortable surroundings of a rooftop terrace near St. Paul’s Cathedral. I was in the company of some Chinese visitors who kindly threw an impromptu party to watch the christening of the new iconic building from the vantage point of their roof terrace.

The thing about The Shard is its size. At 309.6m in height, it is by far the tallest building in London, dwarfing the previous record-holder, Canary Wharf, by about 75m. As Richard Godwin observed in The Evening Standard, The Shard may be the stuff of science fiction:

You have to turn to fiction to convey its true majesty, and George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth from 1984 does the job better than any marketing bumf. The building is “an enormous pyramidal structure …soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air”. Admittedly, The Shard does not have slogans such as “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” and “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” written on its gleaming carapace. However, at 309 metres, it is almost exactly the same height. It too is visible from almost everywhere in the city.

London Tallest Buildings

The new addition to the capital’s cityscape is in fact the tallest building in Europe. Impressed? Think again: when you take a less Eurocentric look at the world’s tallest buildings, our new glass tower is only the 59th tallest building in the world, almost one third shorter than the tallest, the Burj Khalifa, which stands 828 metres high in the heart of Dubai.

The Shard and the others

Contemporary urban design is still obsessed by the same ambition that drove medieval engineers and architects to defy the limits of their human world and elevate their churches as high as possible. In an act of worship that revealed also the desire to play god, the imposing designs of Gothic churches would force any worshipper to reflect on their smallness, not only in relation to the Almighty, but also, perhaps, in relation to the architect and, most importantly, the Church who funded the project.

St. Paul’s Dome (Photo M. Germana)

In the 21st Century it is banks that acquire the most majestic structures and the symbolism in relation to the power that capitalism holds over our lives doesn’t really need further analysis.

Still, I’m not convinced that size is the be all and end all of contemporary urban architecture. There is certainly something spectacularly breath-taking about height and perhaps nobody summarised this better than the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke, who drew attention to the strange influence of pain, fear and even horror on our ability to experience pleasure:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

In the arts the sublime is frequently associated with dramatic scenery, Alpine peaks, glaciers, waterfalls. But the concept transfers well to the man-made heights of modern cityscapes. Indeed Burke focuses on the complexity of the human mind, which is moved much more strongly by an object designed to raise pain and pleasure simultaneously:

It seems, then, necessary towards moving the passions of people advanced in life to any considerable degree, that the objects designed for that purpose, besides their being in some measure new, should be capable of exciting pain or pleasure from other causes.

Perhaps we like big buildings because they remind us that, despite our relative smallness in relation to the universe’s infinity, we are able to defy our own limits and reach, higher and higher. Or perhaps it is not about size after all. Maybe we enjoy being surprised, or shocked even, by a design that challenges our expectations of what a building should look like.

What I particularly like about the City of London is the seamless continuity that characterises its architecture. More so than in other European cities, avant-garde designs rub shoulders with some of the oldest buildings in London. The proximity of the church of St. Andrew Undershaft to 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘The Gherkin’) is a classic example.

The Gherkin and St Andrew Undershaft (Photo M. Germana)

Interestingly, the name of the church makes a reference to its diminutive size compared to a may pole structure that would have towered over it:

Like many of the City’s churches, there is the business of the strange name. The shaft that the church was under was, in medieval times, an adjacent may pole, which by all accounts was huge, possibly taller than the church tower.

(Mike Paterson, London Historians’ Blog)

Maybe size does matter after all. I remember a witty anecdote from the guide who led my very first ‘Duck Tour‘ through London a few years ago. Apparently,

Sir Norman Foster had his first inspiration for his Bishopsgate tower whilst in the bath.

Fnar fnar.  Though considerably smaller than Sir Foster’s jewel, this small church has withstood  more than any recent piece of architecture in the City; Like St. Paul’s, it remained standing after the Blitz (1940-41). But unlike the Cathedral, St. Andrew Undershaft predates the Great Fire of London (1666) and, more recently, suffered an IRA bomb attack (1992).

Do you like The Shard?

Do you have another favourite building in London? Europe? The rest of the world?

Post any comments and links to images below!

Th Shard II (Photo M. Germana)

First Things First


It’s time to bid 2011 farewell, and formulate those good resolutions. Even if they rarely make it past the end of January…

'Fireworks 2011' (Photo M. Germana)

I plan to keep on writing, travelling, and writing about travelling… and I can’t wait to start filming my bike journeys with my new camera (Santa was far too generous with me this year)!

But today it’s all about the cusp, the space between the tail end of the old year and the undistinguished features of the unborn 2012.

Time slips fast through our fingers and the gap gets narrower and narrower as we get ready in our party frocks for fireworks and candle-lit dinners to welcome the new kid on the block.

It’s the Olympic year; in millions they will travel to London to watch the games and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a leap year. An extra day of work. An extra night’s sleep. An extra night out. An unexpected (!) marriage proposal, perhaps.

Whatever our dreams may be for 2012, let’s work on them, and make this baby a happy one.

This is the last post of the year. If there is anything to learn from the memorable events of 2011, it’s the power of sharing that this medium has given us.

So, to mark the beginning of the new year I would like to invite everyone to contribute to ‘My Notebook’. Over the next 24 hours, wherever you are, leave a comment, sharing, if you like, the first scene you saw in 2012. It could be the bubbles in your champagne flute, or the hand of your own watch making 2012 happen. A street party. Your back garden. Whatever it is, share it in your words!

Happy New Year.

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