Preston hip: Disco beans

22 07 2014

With rents climbing in ever more fashionable (and fabulous) Fitzroy, the inner city hipster core of Melbourne has been expanding Northward. Its tentacles first reached to Clifton Hill and lesbian-favoured Northcote, then Thornbury (previously home to a great alt cinema, the Valhalla) and as far as the formerly working class Greek and Italian neighbourhood of Preston. Its a nice area, with the wandering Merri Creek (in which you can kayak) meandering through a sliver of pristine bushland amid quiet suburban streets. The shopping strip along High Street offers Greek cake shops, Italian delis and and more recently, organic cafes and funky retro stores. And interestingly, the local high school, which serves a large Koori population, offers the language choices of Italian and Woi Wurung, an indigenous Victorian language.

The suburb is also the surprising home of one of Melbourne’s more interesting Japanese establishments, Disco Beans. Started by Yuka, formerly singer of an Osaka noise band, the vegan cafe/art space/sometimes punk and noise band venue is a vibrant slice of cheerful DIY psychedelia in the Melbourne ‘burbs. It offers homemade decorations and tasty food to an eclectic clientele of Japanese housewives, Southern European locals, hipsters and – when I was there – the remnants of the pre-turn-of-the-century Aussie alt-pop band the Mavis’s, chowing down with various forty-somethings dressed straight from a rave in 1994.

I loved it so much I bought the T-shirt.

Melbourne style

16 07 2014

Melbourne must be the hispter capital of, to use the hackneyed and much-loved Australian phrase, “the southern hemisphere” (although Sao Paulo snorts loudly in the corner. But anyway…) The inner city suburbs of Fitzroy and Carlton, daubed with street art, are thick with near-parodic moustaches, ubiquitous sleeve tattoos and that Melbourne staple – skinny jeans.

Still, I’m not a hater.  I have never really understood the degree to which some people are so averse to hipsterdom – obscure music, good food and sharp fashion are, after all, fun. Good on them for having a go. Melbourne has always had alternative-leaning tastes, with its band scene, community press and radio, institution-status arthouse movie theatres and “op shop” fashions, so its no surprise that it has embraced the anti-mainstream (or cynics would say “new mainstream”) so avidly. Many of Melbourne’s hipster hangouts are, it is true, rather derivative. Rooftop cinemas, shipping crate bars, roller derby and bushy beards were all invented elsewhere. But the city has contributed at least two new hipster institutions to the world; one is a club night called “No Lights, No lycra” for self-conscious and reluctant dancers to spaz out in near total darkness ( there is now an outpost in Hong Kong among other cities) and the other is the jafflechute, a toasted sandwich which is ordered by text message and then arrives floating down on a parachute at a designated time and place. I was eager to try, but sadly, jafflechute’s originators have now packed up to export their concept to the Big Apple.

Goodbye to the aquarium of dreams

7 07 2014

It could be the end of the line for one of Bangkok’s most fantastical attractions. After reaching the English language blogosphere about a year ago, the bizarre fish pond in the ruins of the New World Department store hit critical mass online last week. In a short time, its image popped up on several major blogs and my Facebook news feed. The appeal of the site – a ruined department store, now flooded and teaming with tropical fish, swimming endlessly in circles in the dark past dripping escalators and old cosmetics counters – is deeply intuitive, a kind of dystopian Atlantis.

It even inspired one online artist to produce the piece above.

The fish had originally been introduced to the flooded basement of the department store to control mosquitos breeding in the dark, stagnant pool but without predators, they multiplied rapidly. But now with the spotlight suddenly shining brightly on its murky waters, the pond faces a new threat. Thai authorities have stepped up the barricade around the hulk of the New World building and announced that it could be demolished – finally, after a decade in ruin – within thirty days.

Report from my own not-very-successful expedition to see the fish here.


4 01 2014

Jakarta’s love affair with malls is startling. The airconditioning provides an obvious attraction, but even so the sheer scale of the city’s shopping centres is hard to explain. They are vaaaast. My favourite mall (although apparently it is not doing well and was never overly crowded) is FX, which features an odd pair of attractions – the world’s fastest indoor slide which plummets through the central atrium at the speed of eight floors in seven seconds (which I did) and the theatre where JKT48, the Indonesian offshoot of Japan’s pop monster AKB48, perform.

The girls slavishly follow the AKB48 model – they perform daily in their own theatre to create rapport with their fans – seemingly glasses-wearing geeky-looking Indonesian boys, much like their Japanese counterparts – and release the same songs as AKB48, but in Indonesian.


Mak Erot magic

4 01 2014

Mak Erot was a Javanese faith healer who died, supposedly at the age of 130, after a long career enlarging the penises of Jakarta’s men – or so many believe. She was famous for her penis enlargement clinic, located just off the main backpacker strip (coincidentally?) of Jalan Jaksa. Here men would come to have their length, diameter or hardness increased with a mixture of massage (ahem) or magical potions. The odd thing to me is not that she existed, but that she was so accepted. There seems little shame or embarrassment among Jakartans in discussing her services which were considered wholesome medical procedures. A pparently it was quite common for parents to take their teenage boys to her.

The clinic is still going, staffed by the great lady’s great-grandson.

Birds of a feather

12 09 2013

If you thought Hong Kong’s king of cats was weird, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Kitty-craziness is nothing new in Japan, home of the famous cat-cafes, where you can pay to spend to time in the company of kittens. But a new cafe is taking the concept in a different direction.

The “owl cafe” in Tokyo’s Kiba district offers a range of owl-shaped cookies and muffins as well as owls, parrots and a small eagle plus a range of alcoholic beverages featuring birds of prey on the label.

They also have a “bird hotel” to accomodate pets while their owners go on holiday (hopefully kept separately from the eagle).

Website (in Japanese) here.

More robot restaurant: the show

19 08 2013

Cats and King Kongs

19 08 2013

One morning I set out to do some light sightseeing in the fairly lowkey innercity neighbourhood of Sangenjaya. I had been there once before for one of my favourite Tokyo oddities which I had decided to see again – a giant statue of King Kong emerging from the roof of a convenience store, little girl in hand, to advertise a local gym.

Sure enough, it was still there (and very easy to find, just ten minutes walk up Chazawa-dori from the station’s North Exit, on the right hand side).

From Sangenjaya I transferred to the Setagaya line, a cute little tram which trundles through the nearby suburbs. It deposited me at Miyanosaka station adjacent to my next destination, the Gotokuji Cat Temple.

Gotokuji’s claim to fame is that it is the home of the maneki-neko, Japan’s famous beckoning cat good luck symbol. According to one story, a wealthy lord was sheltering under a tree when the temple when he saw a cat with paw raised, beckoning him. Gingerly, he stepped out towards the animal into the rain, when a massive bolt of lightning descended and hit the tree under which he had just been sheltering.

Today the temple is quiet but surprisingly impressive, surrounded by shady gardens ringing with shrill cicadas and the sinister cawing of crows. There is a beautiful old wooden pagoda, a monastery and a small separate cat shrine, with a multitude of maneki-neko cat effigies standing in rows.

All in all, the cat-cablecar-and-King-Kong excursion was an easy and interesting little morning trip.

Shin-Okubo to Shibuya: a West side story

19 08 2013

With time limited – I was basically in town for a long weekend – I pretty much confined myself to the South-Western part of central Tokyo’s Yamanote loop. I was staying in the immigrant neighbourhood of Shin-Okubo, an area I have always liked with its main street of Korean BBQ restaurants and sidestreets of halal butchers, Thai takeouts and love hotels.

Racist anti-korean grafitti in Shin-OKubo.

From here I could walk past rock bars (Urga, The Big Time), through the flashing neon heart of Kabukicho’s straight red light district, up a bamboo-lined path to the Golden Gai with its rabbit-warren of cute little drinking joints and through the grounds of the Hanozono-jinja shrine to Shinjuku itself. It took less than 30 minutes.

From here I hopped on the train to Shibuya. I wanted to chec out some of my old haunts. I browsed through the beautiful art books in Logos, the basement book store in the Parco department store (where once a guy had come up to me, recognising me from a Melbourne gay bar a year earlier – although we had not spoken) and then checked out Tower Records, a seven-storey, bright yellow behemoth like something out of a comic book, and the largest record store in the world with great world, Brazilian and Latin sections.

I wandered up Cat Street to check out rockabilly fashion boutique Pink Dragon – still there, still with its only-in-Tokyo “dragon museum” documenting the imaginary discovery of a dragon skeleton in Morocco complete with journals and doctored photographs. What this has to do with the 1950s bomber jackets the rest of the store sells, I have no idea.

Just around the corner, I dropped by Santastic the store for once red-hot manga illustrator Santa Inoue who created the super-cool, super-Tokyo “Tokyo Tribe” comics with their spin-off T-shirts, vinyl toys and CD soundtracks. I had wante to find his latest series “Dan Da Barbarian” which had proved unobtainable on the internet. It turns out the series so flopped so badly it was not even on sale in Inoue’s own shop.

I then looped through to Harajuku, crossing Omote-Sando to find Dog – a punk-chic basement of wildly-priced out there glam/goth/what-the-fuck fashions,apparently favoured by Lady Gaga when she is in town. Harajuku was still the same, the too-cool boutiques on the winding Ura-Harajuku sidestreets decked out with sticker grafitti, the crazy crowds of Takeshita-dori and LaForet, although the former Gap has now been transformed to a fairly bland shopping mall hidden inside a kind of giant, mirrored cave.

Satisfied with my circuit, I hopped back on the train to Shinjuku.

Staten Island trip

9 08 2013

The Staten Island ferry is one of the must-do New York tourist experiences, due to the views of the city skyline as you pull away from Manhattan and approach the Statue of Liberty.

Most tourists of course just turn right around, and go back again but I had decided to explore some of the island, the least “New York” part of New York with its patches of green woodland, weatherboard fishing village homes and solid New England brick. The island is home to a couple of intriguing oddities – among them the chillingly named “Fresh Kills” park built on a landfill site and something I wanted to explore, an eccentric museum of Tibetan art (one of two in New York, the other being the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in much more accessible Chelsea).

The museum was a a jolting 50 minute bus ride from the ferry terminal, passing through a surprisingly bad area. Expecting green pastoral suburbs, I was surprised to find myself passing through a gritty, all-black inner city ghetto until I remembered: weren’t the Wu-Tang Clan from Staten Island?

Soon though the bus moved on – all the black people got off (literally) and were replaced by tough-sounding, loud working-class folk as we trundled through to middle class and then finally wealthy suburbs. We were dropped off at a street of mock-Tudor mansions climbing up a little hill. Near the top we found the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art.

The museum was founded in the 1940s by the mysterious Jacques Marchais, a woman (despite her male moniker) who had been a Victorian child star on the stage before amassing an enormous interest in Tibetan art, which she exhibited in a blood red gallery in Manhattan decorated with leopard skins.

The eccentric benefactor had established her research and spirituality centre here in the peaceful environs of Staten Island where she maintained meditation cells (now abandoned and in decay), a collection of art pieces and one of the most extensive libraries of books (at that time) on Buddhism and Tibetan culture in the United States. You can still see these fascinating old 1930s titles on the shelves there today.

The collection fits all into a single room (where photography is not allowed) and includes a bowl made from a human skull, various intricate many-armed gods, boddhisatvas and fierce-faced ‘defenders of Buddhism’ as well as an intricate sand mandala.

Outside in a garden is a lotus pond, prayer wheels, a Buddha statue and the calming, resonant sounds of bells and windchimes. It is, all in all, quite an odd place.

After we left the museum we wanted to try another Staten Island ‘hotspot’ , a restaurant called Enotecta Maria which had recently come to prominence after being profile on NPR (National Public Radio). The restaurant employed a roster of Italian grandmothers who would each cook their own regional specialities on different days, (half a sheeps’ head baked in white wine, anyone?) It was full of local families, Danny Aiello types and their big, blustery wives and children, sharing plates and wine and the food was good – and the portions large.

But after the Tibetan art and Italian food, it was time to head back to Manhattan.

Heaven and Hell – in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side

6 08 2013

Bizarrely, my friends’ stay turned into quite a spiritually-themed weekend. They were staying in an apartment building owned by the Hare Krishnas. Right next door, and oddly juxtaposed, was the local Hells Angels headquarters plastered with unfriendly signs warning people not to sit on their bench and surveyed by not one, but five CCTV cameras. Every time we passed I tried to peek into the mysterious doorway but I never saw anything, and no-one seemed to come or go.

A few blocks away, I stumbled on Vector, a Satanist store (or possibly ironic art project?) It was closed all the time, and displayed only a suitably macabre collection of upside down crosses, and photographs of Charles Manson and Lindsay Lohan.

That night we decided to go out. I had scanned nonsensenyc, a weekly mailing list for strange and interesting New York events and we settled on a party called Thundergumbo described as:

It’s the last fundraiser for our Mutant Vehicle before Burning Man. With live performances by Big Volcano, High and Mighty Brass Band, the Brass Tacks, and on the decks: Golden Pony, Joro Boro, Barney Iller, and DJ Shakey. Also featuring: tenant/landlord operatic aerial battle by Lady Circus, our 6wd army truck will be parked outside as well, biblical decor, the Thunder Gumbo Lightning Cauldron, a 4-foot Handmade Moosehide Drum, your favorite scenes from the bible being re-enacted on the dance floor, create your own commandments, food, and get your picture taken on the cross. Costume suggestions: Adam and Steve, Goth Jesus, Stripper Virgin Mary, Roman emperors, fruitful multipliers, a pillar of salt, pairs of animals, and Kings versus Pharaohs.

The party was being held at The House of Yes, a warehouse space in a derelict-looking light industrial street. When we arrived a terrible band was playing and there were few people…we wondered if we had made a poor choice. But before long another, better band was up (featuring a lead singer dressed like a blonde Egyptian, a pencil thin druggy Goth violinist and a piano accordion) and people were streaming in: cute geek-chic Asian boys, loud Jewish groups, hipsters of various stripes, a few people in Biblical costumes, animals furs or flower garlands…
Bar-tenders blew glitter in your face when you bought a drink, and people were smoking indoors (the thrill of the underground!)

We went out to get some fresh air and to see the “mutant vehicle” and when we returned an Asian Eve was writhing impressively on a pole and the crowd was getting intense. Masterfully, while this had distracted the crowd’s attention, another spectacle made its ambush-attack. I noticed a blast of brass directly behind me and turned to find a procession snaking its way through the crowd, dancers dressed as crocodiles, a pink panther and frogs brushed by me with a full New Orleans marching band. They were making their way right through the pressing crowd behind a handwritten placard that said: “Noah’s Ark”.

As the band played beautiful and ecstatic horn music the ‘animals’ reached the stage proceeded to swing artfully on a flimsy-looking “boat” suspended above the crowd. It was surreal and disorienting: a hot sweaty chaos of smoky, glittery dancefloor shoving, sequined unicorns and alligators, dancers’ crotches and loud jazz music.

This was followed by fire-breathers, a guy who swallowed swords and pulled a tube from his mouth to his nose before throwing it in the audience and a set of deep house music.

We left smiling – a good night out.

So all in all a pretty Biblically themed weekend and that is even before the underworld of basement Cuban voodoo temples (of which more soon) and Wednesday’s upcoming “I’m fucking Jesus” gay party.  ;)

Hitler outcry cuts both ways

8 07 2013

A number of Western media outlets reported this week on an establishment in Bangkok called “Hitler Fried Chicken”, with a logo of the dictator. This predictably prompted a repeat of the outpourings of admonishment that have greeted other such ‘faux pas’ in Thailand in the past – like the Hitler mannequin at a store in Terminal 21 and a Chiang Mai school that held a Nazi dress-up day.

While the lack of sensitivity to the Holocaust in Thailand could certainly be addressed, the fact that the ‘Hitler’ store is in fact not even in Bangkok but the provincial city of Ubon indicates that the critics need to get their facts straight too.

The fish bowl

8 07 2013

An image from one of Bangkok’s “secret attractions”, the gloomy, flooded and fish-filled basement of a ruined department store, just off Khao San Road.  I visited a while ago but didn’t find a way in – but the Coconuts Bangkok website recently published this handy step-by-step guide and the haunting photograph above appeared in the Thai language Matichon tabloid paper. Slowly but surely, the word is getting out.

Hear no evil…or zinger burgers.

4 04 2013

A badge as worn by the staff at what is quite possibly the world’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken staffed entirely by the deaf, at the Times Square mall on Sukhumvit.

Bangkok Gotham: the Batcat museum

4 04 2013

Bangkok has a new attraction: Asia’s largest collection of Batman memorabilia – in fact, 50 thousand pieces of it – as well as Godzillas, Spidermans, Astroboys and other comic book characters, housed in the strangely-named Batcat Museum. The museum is located in the suburbs near Ramkamhaeng quite a distance from the city centre, but accessible fairly directly via the Khlong Saen Saep canalboat (above) to the Mall shopping complex in Bangkapi. Its a ten minute walk from there.

When I went though, the collection was sadly closed, although luckily I was still able to admire the murals by prominent Thai street artist Alexface on the building’s exterior.

R.I.P. Washington Square

1 01 2013

In my book, Bangkok Off the Grid, I talked about the district of Washington Square as “living on borrowed time”. The insular and shabby little bar cluster is (was) tucked right behind Sukhumvit’s main drag on a dead-end street but it seemed to belong to a different Bangkok entirely . Washington Square was a timewarp stuck in the Vietnam-era. It consisted of honky tonk bars for American old timers, haunted by CIA agents, “bargirls” who had seen better days and burnouts from ‘Nam as well as, surreally, the Iranian embassy. When I first stumbled into this shadowy neighbourhood I was amazed and intrigued. But I also wondered how much longer it could last  – on such a prime piece of real estate, literally in the shadow of the area’s newer glitzy towers.

Well, now I know. It couldn’t. I was only half-surprised, but still a little sad, to see that my article on the district was a swan-song. It has now disappeared. The bulldozers have moved in to tear down the bars and poky little apartment blocks – no doubt a shining new mall or tower is due to go up in their place soon.

Meanwhile, squatters (perhaps construction workers) have moved into some of the old shops amid the smashed-in bars and fields of rubble. I stumbled on to an overgrown shrine in one corner, stalked by feral cats and chirping flocks of sparrows and as the sun sank over the ruins, the hotel directly behind the district lit up with flashing strobe lights -something I had never noticed before, blocked as it was by the shadow of Washington Square.

Chiang Mai style – two odd museums

27 12 2012

There is no shortage of things to see and do in Chiang Mai – famous  and impressive temples and busy street markets (see below), numerous museums, dinner cruises on the Ping river, a popular modern zoo complete with pandas and another, nocturnal zoo called the Night Safari, (which was subject to an international controversy when it opened boasting  that every species seen in the park was available to eat at its restaurant . This policy was quickly rescinded after the ensuing outcry from conservationists.)

But as happens so often, it was the quirky less-publicised attractions that I enjoyed the most.


In a shady shed-like building in the gardens of Wat Ket Karam, Daisuke and I found ourselves the sole visitors to a dusty museum collection of elephant bones, swords, tattered old Thai flags and – most surprisingly – photographs of old time executions in Chiang Mai’s city square. I had read there was also a cabinet labelled simply ‘magical objects’ but this we could not find – although we did stumble on a cache of  more than a dozen dusty word processors. The temple itself was lovely with ornately carved, glass covered facades and yet unlike the more publicised attractions, there was hardly anyone there.


We also stumbled on this incredible collection of insects and geological samples, displayed alongside hippyish brightly coloured artwords of humans and insects (and elephants and dinosaurs) all living together in harmony. Placards expained the founder’s fascination with insects – especially mosquitoes – since contracting malaria as a child and pleaded for human respect and sympathy for our six-legged companions on the planet.

My favourite piece was a piece of wood which has been carved by termites (a sign claimed) into a replica of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’.

Weird building

27 12 2012

Daisuke and I noticed this intriguing building while riding in a tuk-tuk on the ring road around the old city moat near the Centralplaza shopping centre- what was it? We went back to find out. The building looked like a set from a horror movie, guarded by grimy snarling lions at its grafitti-covered  entrance, with stained glass windows illuminating a dim, dirty-looking lobby. Apparently we were not the first sightseers made curious – there were signs everywhere saying “no entry for tourist”.

Luckily enough though, the creepy building stands directly opposite one of the better-preserved parts of the old city wall, so clambering about on the turrets I was able to get some pictures of the bizarre bas-reliefs covering the building’s sides.

Streets of Taipei

30 10 2012


Taipei’s night markets are one of its trademarks – brightly lit and crowded, with cheap belts and Tshirts, fresh fruit and frying food. The mother of them all  is Shilin, a clogged-up, buzzing district packed with shoppers and occasional touches of the bizarre – I saw a man driving through the pressing crowds with a parrot perched jauntily on the handlebars of his motorbike, a shop selling penis-shaped sweets called “gaykes”, snakes, stalls for pigs blood cakes and frogs eggs desserts and a massage shop bizarrely titled “Museum of Alien Studies” offering ‘alien knife massages’.

My favourite thing though was the children crowded around garishly-lit fairground games like balloon darts or scooping goldfish out of plastic tubs. Many of the activities they were engaged in seemed wildly age-inappropriate. At one stall children were learning to gamble with mahjong tiles, while at the next they played with plastic mugs of fake beer. A few steps from that, stalls buzzed and banged with all manner of guns and bows and arrows before the piece de resistance of a small girl reaching for a bright blue bong in a ‘smoking paraphenalia’ store.


Discovering Sao Paulo

5 10 2012

Discovering Sao Paulo is an interesting expat blog I have just discovered. It details all kinds of quirky facts about South America’s biggest and baddest concrete jungle, a strange mutant metropolis that is constantly evolving in alarming and unexpected ways. The blog is a must for Paulista-philes (like me) with everything from pictures of the city’s riotous street art to reports of alien sounds emanating from UFOs over the city, a visit to a ballet school for the blind ( very “Sao Paulo” in its incorporation of two seemingly random elements) and a discussion of the notoriously violent city’s crime rates – and their recent spectacular improvement; the city’s murder rate is the purple line. Rudolph Giuliani, eat your heart out.

Plus there are amazing only-in-Sampa scenes like this – surfing through the inner city streets (in this landlocked metropolis) after flooding from a recent tropical storm.

In Tokyo

2 09 2012

The restaurant is actually called “Robot Restaurant”, in Kabukicho. A dinner and ‘show’ costs 4000 yen.

For Bangkok’s “robot restaurant” see here.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 407 other followers