‘Paradise is where I am.’
Happy New Year!
As 2022 unfolds before us, there’s a feeling of newness and possibility in the air. While nothing is certain about the next 12 months, we can say that we’re grateful to be here and healthy, and that slow really is the way to go.
We hope you enjoy this edition of being and ease into the year ahead with all of the self-compassion and good feels.
As always, thank you for your support!
Cover image: Dragon's Back, being
Cover quote: Erling Kagge
G O O D S T U F F
Listen (and laugh)
Everything is Alive is a podcast that centres around interviews with inanimate objects. Unscripted and hilarious, each episode hears the detailed life story of an item, from a sock (‘Sal is a sock. He’s had a good life, but it feels like something’s missing’) to a vending machine (‘Vinny has been through a lot, and a lot has been through Vinny’). The perfect salve for any post-holiday January blues.
Happily, the amount of vegan and plant-based bakeries is on the rise in Hong Kong. One of our favourites is Ovule, a small spot in Sham Shui Po owned by private vegan dining group Sow Vegan. The bakery offers a rolling menu of delectable treats, such as passionfruit croissants (we can confirm: amazing), cinnamon rolls (also amazing), and classic palmiers (you guessed it…). The bakery also sometimes makes an appearance as a pop-up in stores such as Slowood.
Headspace isn’t just a guided meditation app; the company also offers uplifting, informative videos on its YouTube channel. We’re particularly fond of the Life Cycles playlist. Each video (around four-minutes long) introduces the processes and habits of one of Earth's natural wonders, from jellyfish to dandelions, and uses them as simple, useful lessons for living our best lives. For example, “A Year with a Maple Tree” teaches impermanence, while “The Adaptive Nature of the Hermit Crab” shows us how to roll with shifts and changes.
N O T E S O N
Ancient civilisations understood something we’re only now starting to grasp — plants are medicine. For thousands of years, plants were the only form of medicine available. Through experimentation, our ancestors discovered myriad ways to use them in order to maintain wellness. One such way was through extracting their essential oils. Ancient and indigenous cultures recognised the wide-ranging benefits of these potent, plant-born powerhouses, and both invented and built on ways to extract, distil, and use them. As well as being utilised medicinally, they were also used in spiritual matters (e.g., in embalming the dead in Egypt) and cosmetics (e.g., in perfume-making by the Greeks).
It wasn’t until the late 1920s that the modern concept of aromatherapy emerged, pioneered in France by chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, who first coined the term in an article. Other notable figures in the growth of modern aromatherapy were Jean Valnet, a military surgeon who used essential oils to treat wounded soldiers, and Marguerite Maury, an Austrian biochemist.
Aromatherapy is known as a holistic therapy, meaning that it deals with the whole being (mind, body, and spirit), but this sometimes fuels the misconception that essential oils only work in a general or indeterminate way. In fact, they're used to treat specific conditions, from acne to athlete’s foot, as well as improve overall wellbeing.
In recent years, thanks to the rising interest in natural wellness, aromatherapy (especially DIY-style) has grown in popularity. For a simple yet comprehensive guide to using essential oils, we like Aromatherapy by Louise Robinson.
A L B U M S F O R W H E N E V E R
“All The Good Ones”
“Sheila Can Do It”
You may know Weezer as the cult alternative band of the late-90s-early ‘00s, all quirky vibes and nerd rock. But last year the band offered up something a little different: a tribute to ‘80s metal and arena rock bands (specifically, through the album’s title, Van Halen). Van Weezer is a 10-track record with epic guitar solos and catchy riffs a-plenty. The throwback-style anthems are an upbeat, poppy, and undeniably ‘Weezer’ take on ‘80s rock.
Fun fact: one of the album’s tunes, “Sheila Can Do It”, was written by frontman Rivers Cuomo back in 1996 when he was studying at Harvard, and it featured on the band’s record Pinkerton that same year.
There are many possible ways to describe this album but perhaps the most fitting is: bloody great fun.
D I V E I N
Places With Books
In Hong Kong, places with books are places of abundance, activity, even revelry. It’s no surprise then, that Hongkongers browse the spines at all and any times of the day; from one-hour lunch breaks, needing respite from screens, to post-dinner strolls, seeking some kind of intellectual dessert. When it comes to places with books, it seems we can't get enough.
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Chain bookshops in Hong Kong have a certain gravitas. Perhaps it’s down to their spates of space — something hard to come by in Hong Kong in general. Or maybe it’s the wide selection of books; how you can feel sated, maybe even overwhelmed, by the offerings in the Psychology section alone. Many of these shops also provide something additional to reading material — gifts, tea, stationary — creating a fuller shopping experience for those who want it (and giving independent brands a place to sell their wares). Despite their reputation, chains aren't necessarily charmless; the sample copy of The Book of Answers in Eslite (TST) is falling apart at the seams from frequent use. Placing a palm on top of the book, asking a burning question, and then opening to the page that feels right is a casually intimate ritual for many who visit this bustling branch.
This kind of shop offers plentiful paradoxes, all hinged on your purpose: speed and shortcuts, submergence and serenity, side-tracks and segues. They are equally as good for dawdling or distractedly perusing as for securing exactly what you want.
Then there are independent or small chain bookshops selling new reads in an understated, casual manner, a world away from in-store escalators and ambient lighting. They perch inconspicuously between everyday businesses on everyday streets, and typically sell a mix of Chinese and English books. These humble merchants stand as a kind of monument of deference to the past, reminding us that there was a time not so long ago when all shops were like this very shop, that this is what we were reared on.
And finally, there are the second-hand bookshops (which make up a large portion of our independent bookshops, the two having become somewhat mutually exclusive over the last few years). Usually found down unsuspecting alleyways or up narrow stairwells, they are intimate, both in square footage and atmosphere. They have an air of having no airs; they’re honest and imperfect, making them the ideal refuge for days when you can’t stomach the modern world and the corporate city, the busy streets and the futility of it all (we’ve all been there).
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Central Public Library is the biggest library in Hong Kong (and thus the flagship). Covering 100,000 square feet and serving as the Hong Kong Public Libraries HQ, it is a behemoth in terms of capacity and resources. If you wanted further proof of its supremacy: the arch-shaped doorway on top of the front facade of the building represents the Gate to Knowledge. While the happening vibe of bookstores can't be found here, the myriad facilities, ample space, and bountiful natural light set it apart from most libraries in H.K. (and many abroad). From 09.30, perhaps even earlier, people queue outside the front doors with itchy feet and frequent watch-checks like bargain hunters on the eve of Black Friday. After the doors open and the lines files into the foyer, each person splits off like an energised molecule, darting towards the escalators or the lifts in a bid to secure the most sought-after working spot or that day's global newspapers.
Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter how big or fancy or flagship a library is. What matters is that it exists. Libraries are arms wide open. They say, you are welcome, and no one is looking at you. You do not need to worry about your footwear or your employment status or your credit score. You do not need to borrow whatever you touch or interact with anyone if you don’t want to or sit appropriately on the chairs (a regular sight in Hong Kong libraries is older folks snoozing, half-propped up, on cushioned benches and in armless chairs). Libraries, with their silence and space, can facilitate whatever mood you’re tuned into when you walk through the doors, extending to you newness or oldness, physical pages or screens, work or play (or, yes, sleep).
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Places to buy or borrow books aren’t the only places to find books.
Artful stacks can be found in restaurants and cafés, too — thick, leather-bound volumes in bistros with dim lights and maroon-coloured chairs; mismatched sizes and shades in coffee shops with minimal furniture and an artsy vibe. These books are usually meant to be aesthetically pleasing and add to the theme of the business, but their presence does more than that. Books being somewhere books usually aren’t seems to conjure a sense of comfort, especially in the way they’re displayed, often as they might be at home — on a shelf with other ornaments, in a pile by an armchair. They add a touch of intimacy and homeliness to the outside world of customers, cash registers, and chef whites.
But are they meant to be touched? If we can reach it, can we read it? Hopefully the answer is yes, that the comfort they bring extends beyond their existence and presentation, although we confess: we are yet to find out.
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I visited Swindon Books on Lock Road the day before it closed its doors for good. It had been around since 1918 (‘an institution’, people called it on Twitter), and there was a sadness imbued in the bustle. The landline phone was bleating, the books were piled and strewn across tables in no particular order, the queue never fully diminished, and there was a consistent ringing of the till. During my slow, purposeful wander around the shop, I tried to imbibe the energy of it, a familiar friend I would no longer be able to visit, a place I had counted on for calm and consistency. There is something sad about a bookshop closing, sadder perhaps than any other kind of shop. Is it because they offer a place of peace? Is it because they bring out the best in humankind — curiosity, openness, enthusiasm (and a willingness to spend money on something in a physical shop)? Is it because they feel precious now, like rare gems we must hold onto? Perhaps it is all of the above.
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We are not the only ones acquainted with, fascinated by, and thankful for places with books — if the number of non-fiction works published about book dwellings is anything to go by. In My Bookstore, as the tagline says, ‘writers celebrate their favourite places to browse, read, and shop’. The Library by Susan Orlean explores the 1986 fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Library, looking at not only the events and the aftermath but also the role libraries play in our lives. In 84, Charing Cross Road, American writer Helene Hanff’s friendship with the owner of a London bookshop (as well as notes about shop life and the books that passed through) is recounted in their letters.
Places with books are not just buildings or storage shells. They inspire ideas, shape lives, and have stories of their own — just like their inhabitants.
R E A D S F O R W H E N E V E R
Stories of the Sahara — Sanmao
Known as the ‘desert writer’, Sanmao was an influential figure in women’s travel. Born in Chongqing in the ‘40s, Sanmao (known as Echo in English) travelled to more than 50 countries in her lifetime, but it was the Sahara (which she crossed in the ‘70s) that brought her a wider audience. Sanmao wrote about her experience in newspaper columns that later became Stories of the Sahara. This collection provides an unflinching glimpse into her life in small colonial town El Aaiún, home to Spanish, Moroccan, and Sahwari people. Sanmao, who often faced the most terrifying and surprising iterations of humanity, fully embraced life on the Western Sahara. She was one of the most free-spirited, fearless female travel writers there ever was. We’re not being hyperbolic, either: Echo is a popular name for Chinese women whose mothers grew up reading Sanmao’s work or who themselves were inspired were by her story.
R O O T S
While we may think of the word idiot as fairly harmless today, its roots aren’t so benign. Idiot came from the ancient Greek idiōtēs, which meant ‘private person’ or ‘layperson’. In ancient Rome, this was a big deal: being a private person (idiōta) meant you didn’t discuss and debate things publicly as was the norm, and thus must be uninterested, incapable, or ignorant. In late Latin, the definition became more explicit: ‘uneducated or ignorant person’. This continued through Old French (idiote) and into English, with the meaning eventually expanding to mean someone ‘mentally deficient’ and ‘incapable of ordinary reasoning’.