Memories: Ocean Liners

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

One of the very unexpected features of backpacking around China in the late eighties and early nineties was how frequent I would end up booking a passage on an ocean liner. Just these words alone feel already unreasonably romantic and one would expect to only hear them in historic novels.

But China had – and probably still has – a network of ocean going vessels that ply their trade along the coast of the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, all the way from the beaches of Hainan Island near the Vietnamese coast to Hong Kong and from there on to Shanghai and up to Quingdao and ports north.

These ships are several times larger than the typical Yangtze River boat, with space for several hundred or even up to a thousand passengers. Many of them were built in the 1970s and 80s and back when I saw them at the very beginning of the modern Chinese tourist industry many of them were only infrequently maintained and the ships had a general air of neglect and of being understaffed.

The services were frequent, with daily or bi-weekly boats out of all the major ports and the ships were fast and the tickets were reasonable. They offered a welcome relief from a long series of overnight trains and crowded long-distance buses and the quiet days out on sea were great to just stretch out in the sun and read a book in happy solitude.

Food on the ships was included in the ticket price and the quality of the meals was hit and miss. On some of the “international” boats to and from Hong Kong there was at least a chance of a tasty dinner and reasonable western-style breakfast, but on the local boats the food was often incredibly basic with essentially the only item on the menu being  fried rice with egg.

Accommodation was also widely varied, from dormitory-style 10-bed rooms in the lower decks with no windows all the way to nicely wood-paneled two-bed private cabins on upper decks with large port holes and private bath rooms. It was impossible to figure out before going on board what the cabins would be like and after a while I usually splurged on cabins in the highest classes since the tickets were never that expensive to begin with anyway.

There are many vivid memories…

…in 1989 after the student uprising and a typhoon had marooned me with a few other travelers near Sanya at the southern tip of Hainan island, we were brought to Hong Kong on a huge passenger liner that had space for five or six hundred passengers. There were only about a dozen of us on the whole ship…

…on the same trip one evening while the ship was taking a long northward bound route along the Vietnamese coast, we had alternating groups of dolphins and flying fish accompany us for hours until the sun went down…

…being caught in the beginnings of a typhoon on a boat from Hong Kong to Shanghai, with towering waves slamming into the ship and rain sweeping across the decks. There were only very few of us who dared to appear for breakfast that morning…

…a dark, red sunset over the coastal hills of Fujian province, with the Yellow Sea all around us dotted with the brilliant lights of fishing boats, like glittering jewels on the gentle waves…

…arriving in Hong Kong harbor at night, with Kowloon and the island both lit up in a million neon lights…

…arriving in Shanghai in a dense fog one morning very early. The old colonial buildings along the waterfront, all dark and quiet, appearing one after another out of the fog like ghosts from a long forgotten time…


Where Every Bamboo Stalk Is Different

Katano near Osaka is one of those very typical small towns that surround the major cities in Japan – big enough to retain their status as an independent city, but too close to a major megalopolis to ever attract any of the spotlight.

We are here on a regular basis since we have family in town and I enjoy the charm of Katano, as it doesn’t even try very hard and just lives its own life in the shadow of a giant, full of small local businesses that have been owned by the same families for generations.

This year we spent a very pleasant afternoon in an unexpectedly beautiful and serene pocket at the edge of Katano, surrounded by low, green hills and framed on one side by the river – the Botanical Gardens of Osaka University.

Bamboo Path

It’s a working university garden, so there is semi-agricultural activity everywhere and the plants tend to be ordered by genome and type, but there is enough wild-growing vegetation across the hills of this large facility to forget its artificial background.

There are generous picknick spots with roofed seating areas and views of the surrounding landscape and the hills have a wide variety of micro-landscapes to make the plants from all over Asia feel at home here.

Springtime in Katano

We visited the gardens just at the end of the Cherry Blossom Season (caps intended as this is Japan!) and various cherry and plum trees were in full bloom in all shades from white to red, much to the delight of Luke who ran up and then tumbled down colorful slopes everywhere.

Hoshigaoka’s Secret

We found this place several years ago, unlikely enough only a few miles away from where my parents-in-law live near Osaka, and we’ve been back this year since it had left such a great impression on our first visit.

The Hoshigaoka Sewing School must have been closed many years ago but it was then reopened with seemingly little funding as a community center a while back.  Much of the grounds around the old school building have been left in a state of benevolent disrepair with only the most necessary repairs keeping the buildings intact.

The main building now houses an art gallery and several of the class rooms are again being used for regular craft classes, the corridor in front of the class rooms filled with the detritus of many past projects.

Hoshigaoka Sewing School

Behind the main building though is the secret attraction of Hoshigaoka – the Sewing Table Coffee House. It occupies a small shed next to a pottery class room in a semi-abandoned backyard, surrounded by tall grass, with some small hand-built tables and rickety little stools to sit outside.

The Cafe

Inside the cafe the atmosphere is calm and quiet, with a few tables and a counter at the window to sit, a table with art and books to look at and buy and the coffee counter where the owner of the cafe serves excellent coffee and cakes.

The Entrance

What made us come back was not just the great atmosphere and the coffee, but also the near endless photo opportunities. The buildings are filled inside and out with a wealth of objects of art and nature, with near-random piles of old, rusty tools next to stone sculptures, all overgrown with weeds and flowers. There are mossy goldfish ponds and wind chimes, artfully crafted lights next to bare light bulbs under spiderweb-encrusted ceiling beams.

Two Fans

It’s an endlessly fascinating place, a small island of tranquility in the far suburbs of busy Osaka that makes me want to come back for another visit every time I have to leave.


An End and a Beginning

Yesterday morning I got up an hour early at 5am and after some breakfast I loaded up my bike and pedaled through the still-dark Sausalito. Going south, following the waterfront and then the steep climb up Alexander Avenue to Highway 101 and the Golden Gate Bridge.

This was no ordinary morning and not my usual commute. In a few hours I expected to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour pass through the Golden Gate on the back of a Jumbo Jet. Great things were afoot and nothing could have stopped me from seeing this.

My plan led me all the way up along the southern end of the Marin Headlands with a short and very steep hike at the end to the top of Slackers Ridge, which is the first peak in the headlands that you see when you cross the bridge going north.

It promised to be a good day. Just as I arrived at the top the sun rose over the East Bay hills and the fog had never fully made it into the Bay.


I had a few hours before the Shuttle would arrive and while I was sitting there in the stubbly grass between low, wind-blown brush, I started thinking about what this means… “The last flight of the Shuttle era!” as it was announced in many newspapers.

Being a parent gives one a very different perspective on time. By spending all this time with a small baby and then a toddler growing up, it is possible to reach back further in your own memory of your childhood, nearly-forgotten distant shadows coming into sudden focus.

Luke is now two years old and I was two years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Too young for any memories, but I do remember standing in front of a TV with grown-ups all around talking about the moon – my guess is it was Apollo 16 or 17 when I was between four and five years old. So my relationship with Apollo – just missed it by a few years – is the same as Luke’s impression will be of the Space Shuttles.

This also means, that in a very meaningful way, the Space Shuttle is the defining feature of space exploration for my generation. Whatever comes next – manned missions to asteroids or Mars, both at least twenty years out – will be a symbol for my son’s generation. I may still be around to watch the Mars landings with Luke, but whoever steps on the red soil will be much closer to his age than mine.

So on this beautiful morning in September of 2012, Luke was still a little bit too young to hike to the top of Slackers Ridge. For him and his generation, the Space Shuttle will forever be a museum piece. Impossibly big and clumsy, with a certain unmistakeable 1970s style. Brute force pushing an airplane into space. More power than brains.

Space Shuttle Endeavour's Last Flight

For my generation this is a bittersweet moment, no doubt. We are the in-between generation, the Moon had already been done and Mars was just out of reach.

But we had to spend time in Earth orbit, working out the kinks in space travel, learning how to build complex structures in space. And look at it! The ISS is the real legacy of our generation – a real, full-featured, huge space station with a 6-person permanent crew, bristling with scientific instrumentation and robots. And in addition, robotics has advanced to astonishing levels with the recent Curiosity landing on Mars being an amazing showcase for what we can do now.

So it is time to move on. Time to say goodbye to the Shuttle. It was a good ride, and sometimes a scary and even deadly one. But we’ve learned a lot. And now the kids can figure out how to land on Mars.

Space Shuttle Endeavour's Last Flight

Spectrum at 30

Here’s my post for the 25th anniversary of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which still covers most of my feelings about that machine.

30 years is a ridiculously long time in our fast-moving age. But I still remember the tactile experience of typing long Basic listings into the little rubber keyboard of my 16k Spectrum.

I remember the joy of having color and sound in a small computer on my desk – something not even possible with the Commodore PETs at the school lab. The exhilaration of Jetpac and Arcadia, the brain-teasing frustration of The Hobbit.

I remember the glimpses of the future through ambitious programs like Vu-3D and Ant Attack. The long hours learning Z80 assembly language in front of a flickery TV set, compiling long hex listings from assembly by hand.

I remember when I had set up the Speccy for the first time, standing in front of it in the evening and trying to understand how vast 16Kbyte of RAM was compared to the 1K ZX81.

The same feeling six months later when I had it upgraded to 48Kbyte.

Watching sine waves being plotted across its expansive 256 x 192 pixels of screen real estate. Over and over again.

The cool feeling of selling my very own designed games on hand-copied tapes to other kids in school.

I remember listening to the sounds of programs loading from tape. Being able to recognize certain data patterns at 1500 Baud – knowing what was loading without even looking at the screen.

This little machine formed me as a programmer more than any university course later on and even today I identify as a Spectrum guy whenever the early 1980s come up in tech discussions.

For a whole generation of mostly European programmers, the Speccy was – and still is – the origin of their craft.

Around the World in 1936

A while ago I bought this item on eBay – it was essentially a random find that intrigued me. It is the guest list of the 1936 round-the-world trip of the S.S. President Monroe out of San Francisco. (link to full scan of all pages on Flickr)

The annotations on the actual guest list are original – whoever our traveler was, he or she marked some of the passengers. Dinner companions? Easy marks for Bridge games? Suspects? Spies?

This was probably the last year in the 1930s when a four-month trip around the world like this could be thought of as vacation. But tensions are already rising.

The day after the Monroe leaves San Francisco, the Olympic Games in Hitler-controlled Berlin begin, and near the end of the trip the Rome-Berlin Axis is formed.

Imagine the conversations on board.

These are the last people to see many of these places in colonial times. But from port to port, the old world is crumbling around them…

Infinite City

I recently finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s excellent “Infinite City” (Amazon), and for somebody like me who likes maps, history and San Francisco it was a pleasure throughout. If you love San Francisco, buy it now.

One of the main themes of the book is that every person has a very different mental map of the city they are living in, based on their daily habits and their experience of the place. This is certainly true and at the same time endlessly fascinating, and the book tries to explore this fact with a number of fresh and unusual maps of San Francisco accompanied by essays that take short, deep dives into the infinite fractal histories that make up the sum of the city.

The book is very inspiring to go back out into the different neighborhoods of San Francisco and to look at the place with new eyes, to try to discover some of the deeper networked layers of historical detritus that are often hidden by not much more than a thin skin of paint.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for a dozen years and still come to the city daily from across the Bay, and this book rang very true. It very much is a reflection of my own experience of the city as I explore it on long walks.

Of course most places where humans have lived for a while will build up fascinating histories and unique life stories, but San Francisco has always stood out for me – it is such a young city: In less than 200 years – after thousands of years as a relatively serene collection of fishing villages – San Francisco has seen incredible growth, heartbreaking disasters, booms and busts.

It is one of the most multicultural cities on Earth that has been gracefully draped across one of the most breathtaking landscapes of the American West, filled with a wild collection of unique personalities that transform every street corner and every bus ride into improv theater.

And you thought this is a book review, hm? Nope, just letting you know that if you haven’t been here in a while or have never been to San Francisco before, go there now. And if you live here, go take a walk!

Memories: On The Yangtze

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

In 1989, just weeks before the Chinese government breakdown on the Democracy movement, I bought passage on a Yangtze river boat from Shanghai to Chongqing – a distance of more than a thousand miles. For the next six days, life came to a near-standstill as the slow, steady rhythm of the boat’s progress brought me from the coast of the Yellow Sea to the foothills of the Himalayas. Here are some impressions of this trip.

The boat is white and green, the kind of appliance-green you see on old-fashioned fridges, with streaks of rust down its sides. It is a wide-bodied river boat with three passenger decks and multiple classes and it runs a regular service all the way from Shanghai to Chongqing and back.

There are two-bed cabins on the upper deck, which are mostly full of elderly men that look like Communist Party officials that had, a lifetime ago, personally participated in the Long March. Facing the bow of the boat is a first-class lounge with deep armchairs and small side tables and large windows to the front and the sides. The bridge of the boat is above the lounge.

The main deck consists of eight-bed cabins on each side of the boat with a central corridor and gangways on the outside, so each cabin of four bunk beds has two doors, one to the central corridor and one to the outside of the boat. The cabins have a small sink, two huge thermos bottles with hot water that are regularly filled by the staff and two small rotating fans under the ceiling that push the air around without any actual improvement of the air quality.

The main deck also houses the ship’s restaurant near the stern – an open-walled affair with a few seats and a microscopic kitchen that churns out a never-ending stream of styrofoam boxes with rice and spicy veggies.

The lower deck consists of several large dormitories with dozens of bunk beds and every space in between filled with random freight and luggage, from live chickens in wire cages to unwieldy car parts.

We – the only three foreigners on a boat with some two hundred passengers – are together in one of the 8-bed cabins, providing an exciting international flair to an otherwise boring boat ride to our five Chinese cabin mates.

You know that you have reached the Yangtze river when the choppy grey-blue water of the Pacific turns yellow. It’s a sudden, sharp separation of the two bodies of water – here, grey salt water; there, yellow river water. The boat passes the line without any measurable motion. It looks like you should feel a bump.

Other than that, there is no indication that we are now on the river, only a few hours after leaving Shanghai behind. There is no land in sight in any direction, the mouth of the Yangtze is dozens of miles wide, dotted with water craft of all descriptions.

After almost a day on the river we can now consistently see the southern shore to our left. The river is so wide, that we haven’t seen much of the the northern shore yet at all.

We will arrive in Nanjing, our first port of call on the river, in another hour and suddenly there is an air of excitement. Many passengers seem to be leaving us there, I’m wondering why they preferred the slow boat to the train, although a look at their huge amounts of luggage may be the answer.

The boat stops on average twice a day at various towns and cities along the Yangtze. It’s a loud and exciting spectacle, with passengers lining up along the gangway, many of them dragging their luggage along in preparation to leave the boat. Others have just come out to watch and maybe to buy food from the vendors along the shore.

The crew has been doing this for many years every day and the boat approaches the shore rapidly with short economical bursts from the massive engines in the stern. Ropes are thrown to the dock crew and tied down within seconds, the boat pushes against the row of old tires along the edge of the dock, a crunching sound, a quick burst from the horn and the engines shudder to a stop.

Passengers that have reached their destination leave the boat seconds after it is tied down, and a stream of new passengers is lining up to board. At the same time dozens of food vendors push against the side of the boat, praising their wares in high pitched yells. There are apples and oranges, fresh dumplings and packages of instant noodles, boiled eggs and fresh bread.

To buy their wares the passengers point at a specific item from their high vantage point on the boat, or maybe shout the name of what they want over the general din of the dock. The vendors will sign the price with their fingers and then lift a very long wooden pole with a cup to receive the money. Once the money is safe in their hands, they raise the goods in a small basket.

Many of the towns along the river are heavily industrialized, with large factories and chemical plants that are invariably topped by huge clouds of dark smoke. At one point, not far from Wuhan, we see a chemical plant crowned by smoke in nearly all the colors of the rainbow.

The Yangtze Gorges are very impressive, but the weather isn’t very good and the tops of the mountains to either side are often covered in heavy clouds. We get a few breathtaking glimpses of cliffs along the river that are easily half a kilometer high. Through the narrow passages the massive river runs fast and deep and the engines have to work hard to push the boat upstream.

Small towns are built into narrow, steep side valleys along this part of the river, with buildings that look like they were glued to bare rocks just above the Yangtze waters. Many of the buildings are ancient, with new, ugly concrete structures poking out here and there.

Chongqing is a huge, hectic metropolis cut into sections by the two massive rivers that merge in its center. It is a confusing city with steep hills and narrow, windy streets that follow the contours of the river valleys. The air is humid and sits heavy and merely semi-translucent over the river. Many of the buildings feel dark and everything seems to be dripping with moisture.

After a week on a small boat slowly trawling upstream, the street scenes feel frenetic with an unbound energy, a strange contrast to the brooding cityscape around us.

Kodak Duex

This is my latest vintage camera – the Kodak Duex.

The Kodak Duex is a very unusal 620-format camera with a helical telescoping lens cylinder made from bakelite, creating photos with a negative size of 6×4.5cm. It was only made for a very short time from 1940-42 at a cost of $6, approximately $167 in today’s money using the unskilled wage index.

The Duex is very simple with essentially no controls other than a B/I switch and the shutter, both of which are at the front of the lens assembly and are a little bit awkward to reach while looking through the viewfinder. The simple, spring-loaded shutter button has a lot of travel before the shutter fires, which makes it hard to get steady shots at the fixed 1/30th speed. There is no double-exposure protection.

The camera feels very different from most other Kodaks of the 1930s and 40s due to the lens mechanism and the materials used and it’s a rather rare camera nowadays since it was only made for two years during World War II and other than a low price had not much else going for it.

With modern eyes, the Duex has a certain late-Art-Deco charm all its own and the sturdiness and simplicity of its construction makes it an easy, carefree and light travel companion, something that can’t be said about many medium format cameras.

As with other 620 format cameras, it can still be used with re-rolled 120 film, since both film formats are the same size, only the spools are slightly different between them.

Like many of the simple 620 format cameras that Kodak made over the years, it can produce surprisingly good photos. Daylight photos generally came out a little soft in focus, with a mild camera shake due to the problematic placement of the shutter button being the main cause.

Here is a shot of the San Francisco Ferry Terminal in heavy fog taken with the Duex. The Doublet lens has the typical 1930s/40s era depth of field, which gives these photos their distinctive old-fashioned look.