Language and the struggle to feel at home

Born and raised in Hong Kong, I’ve been brought up speaking Cantonese and writing traditional Chinese. And with my dad being Taiwanese, I became fluent in Mandarin too. It was only until my teenage years when English overtook Mandarin, or even Cantonese, as my most spoken language. Recent debates on “Mother-tongue” have led me to this reflection. 

The beauty of language is how it clings onto things, people, events, and somehow when you recall them, you do so in that language. Because of this, and because I grew up learning two Chinese languages (Cantonese and Mandarin), I will always think of my Taiwanese grandma as nai nai (奶奶)and my Cantonese grandma as por por(婆婆). Lovely tender braised pork served over a bowl of rice from a road side cart will always be lu rou fan (滷肉飯), and delicate little translucent prawn dumplings will always be har gao (蝦餃). And then of course, there are things and people and events that I have lived through since my time in London, or even since I have started speaking English predominantly. Sometimes, the rhetoric of languages, or perhaps my lack of vocabulary, would render me speechless when attempting to translate something that just wouldn’t. I can only compare things from one culture to another, hoping to get the texture, taste, smell, or feeling across just the way I hope to, but I suspect there would’ve been a few failed attempts at the very least.

My Chinese has definitely deteriorated throughout my teenage years. Words or characters I was using daily have now become phantom or unfamiliar. Their shadows now live in a dusted crevice in my mind, and to recall them takes immense effort of mental rummaging. I still keep up with Chinese news and documentaries as much as I can, but I have lost touch with the ever changing local culture. Despite my ability to read the news or to communicate fluently in Cantonese, my way of speaking is now tinged with a time that has passed, a twang of something other, almost like I am a foreigner speaking my own mother-tongue. It seems unfair that we have to trade fluency in one language with that in another. English, being such a complex and confusing language as it is, has taken me years to get to this level of adequacy, but I am still by no means fluent. I have trained myself to think of tenses, sentence structure, and word order when I write, but when speaking, I know I make mistakes – with plurality, tenses, … grammatical systems that don’t exist, or are more forgiving in spoken Chinese. I am constantly searching for the right word to express myself – a struggle I didn’t use to have when speaking Cantonese, but recently have surfaced there too.

Language is used by many to define who they are, and sometimes the better you speak it, the more accepted you are in a particular culture or society. I wonder sometimes if my constant fight with the two languages means I am no longer part of, but rather an outsider to both societies that I either used to be part of, or long to be accepted into. And maybe this is me – fraying at the seams of the crossroads of English and Chinese, the struggle to feel competent, be accurate, but most importantly, the struggle to feel at home.


Design for the public good – shouldn’t we all?

IMG_3010Last Tuesday, the RIBA hosted an inspiring evening talk on what it means to design for the public good. In recent years, we saw the rise of the private sector (particularly private developers) in fulfilling ever increasing housing numbers.

The pressure on housing, and the desire for economic growth have resulted in a deregulated construction sector. At the same time, the amount of influence the professional has, especially the architect, has diminished with the introduction of different consultants, project managers, and administrators. Public Practice also conveniently points out that fewer and fewer architects now work in the public sector, as private developers have dominated the market. Events like the Grenfell fire highlight the desperate need for good design in the public sector, but how can we address the tragedy without overcoming the challenges within the industry first?

The talk invites us to question the current built environment, and learn from practitioners who work in the public/private boundary, and innovate within the system. An important point was raised on the common conflation of public and state, when actually the line between public and private have blurred in recent years, with more and more private practices working in the public realm. By engaging more directly with local authorities, architects and urban designers from the private sector are improving local planning and design under Public Practice. Ultimately, more support from the professions and a sustainable funding model are needed for local authorities to meet growing housing demands with well-conceived designs.

Other issues raised concerned the alternative ways to devolve responsibility, encourage creativity, and incentivise culture and policy change. The importance of the common (infrastructure, resources) has been stressed as infrastructure often increases public value, and subsequently private value. Design should be strategic and well-planned, and it should involve communities as much as professionals, simply because the built environment shapes everyone’s life. Overall, this talk has brought together interesting topics that have been discussed in different circles within the industry. Hopefully it will spark a renewed interest in designing for the public good from not only architects but other sectors as well.

There was a similar event that addressed issues around co-production vs. consultation, which ended with interesting questions on the distribution of agency amongst various actors, and new ways to interest communities to participate in design. 


Thesis – Civil society, post-politics, public engagement.

The end of my Masters course is soon arriving, and I am now undertaking my thesis research. My research will focus on the role of civil society groups in facilitating public participation in policy making in the post-political city. The thesis will draw on three main strands of existing academic debate: 

  1. The post-political city — Swyngedouw, Rancière
  2. Civil society — Gramsci, Gellner
  3. (The tyranny of) Public participation, democracy

To situate it in the real world, I will examine the public consultation process for the draft London Plan as my main case study, revealing the relationship between state and civil society through three built environment organisations. 

At the moment I am planning my data collection processes, will keep posting updates here.





London Plan 2018 – what’s next?

(A delayed update: My short piece about the draft London Plan’s urban greening strategy has been published on the CIBSE journal in February.)

Next steps:

Although the consultation period is now over, I am still studying the London Plan for my Master’s thesis. My main interests surround public participation, ‘democratic’ policy making, and the role of civil society. If you have submitted a response to the draft London Plan consultation (either as an individual or as part of an organisation/ company/ institution), I would very much like to hear from you. I am especially interested in community-led organisations and professional industry groups. Please leave me a comment on the post here, or get in touch with me via Twitter, email or LinkedIn. 


London Plan 2018

Currently having the pleasure to study the draft London Plan for CIBSE. More updates to follow but this is a snippet of a short article I wrote for the next issue of the CIBSE Journal

“The draft London Plan sees more stringent guidelines for some issues, but generally lacks clarity for most. The separation of ‘green infrastructure’ and ‘sustainable infrastructure’ hints at a somewhat blinkered approach to environmental issues that require integrated and strategic planning. At the moment, it is not apparent how the wider benefits of green infrastructure are being accounted for in relation to the city’s well-being, and more importantly overall sustainability.”

If you want to contribute to the next London Plan, don’t forget to put up a response before 2nd March, 2018!



 Human Flow (2017) 

Human Flow (2017) 

However arbitrary or significant the 31st of December is to you, it seems fitting nonetheless to do a bit of reflection. For me, 2017 has been a year of change, of new experiences, and of new knowledge. 2017 makes me think of the world we live in, how volatile, but how resilient. At the same time, I am more aware of how little I know, how small I am.

Yesterday I went to see Human Flow by Ai Wei Wei, a documentary about the refugee crisis and mass migration that is taking place in all corners of the world. Couple of things that shocked me:

  1.  The scale of the crisis. The number of people being displaced because of war, various forms of persecution, and climate change is unprecedented. 
  2. Not okay for animals but okay for humans? There is a scene where a displaced tiger appears stranded in one of the refugee camps. Like many others, this camp was dilapidated, unhygienic, and over crowded. Authorities deemed this place unsuitable and unhealthy for the tiger, and it was swiftly removed from the camp after gaining permission from multiple government departments.
  3. Why are people still migrating? Why does the root problem still exist? More reflection, less snap decisions. More thought and consideration is needed. 
  4. They are just like us. It is important to remind ourselves that a lot of these refugees used to be middle-class city dwellers with the most up-to-date technology and high education qualifications. Imagine what it would be like if you get thrown into a situation where you had to camp outdoors indefinitely, trek unforgiving landscapes because your country was being bombed, and despite all that, still face constant rejection that makes you question humanity itself?
  5. Climate change is making places on earth literally unliveable. People are having to abandon their all to move somewhere they can survive. Climate change is real and we need to acknowledge that


2017 has taught me what it takes to treat another like a human. It also taught me the importance of self-reflection. Why are things the way they are? Why am I thinking or feeling the way I am? What can I do about it? Why does it keep happening?

In 2018, I hope we learn to listen more and speak less. I hope we find more similarities amongst us than differences. Lastly, I hope more people, including myself, can be part of the solution, not the problem.


Happy new year.


Saving the rainforest one tree at a time

“We are building a social movement to reverse rainforest deforestation by crowdsourcing an ‘Army of Davids’ from the 125 million farmers living in the rainforests of Central America.” AltForest: Rainforest Microfarm Accelerator.

I was sitting amongst architects, designers, ecologists, journalists, with a pink drink in my hand, and a screen in front of me which said: Think like A Rainforest. The room had been buzzing with people squeezing past each other in the tight open space, politely saying, “excuse me”, to get to someone from the opposite corner of the space. After brief exchanges with a well-traveled teacher and a Brazilian physiotherapist, the presentation began. 

Mike Hands, the ecologist and founder of AltForest and the Inga Foundation, introduced us to his years of research on the tropical rainforest, which eventually lead him to Costa Rica and Honduras for trials. An impassioned scholar, he relentlessly questioned previous research done on slash and burn farming, a destructive practice which leaves soil sterile and unusable for farming. His attention was drawn particularly to the application of phosphate in order to regenerate or stimulate soil and plant growth. It was his discovery of the use of rock phosphate that started his incredible journey till now. Disregarding warning and doubtful findings from his predecessors, he put his faith in the Inga tree, an indigenous species of the rainforest. With rock phosphate, he planted the Inga in alleys, creating space in between each alley for other crops to grow – cash crops or food crops. These crops benefit from being under the shade of the Inga, and the nutrients its fallen leaves give out as they decay. The fall leaves also form a layer of mulch which protects the other crops from extreme weather and nutrient leaching. 

Long story short, Mike’s research and farming techniques have successfully transformed the lives of 40 families so far in South America. Not only are the farmers now able to grow their own food, have firewood for warmth and fuel, they can also start to live in sustainable symbiosis with the rainforest once again thriving around them. 

The panel discussion which followed the presentation was quick and sharp, raising questions regarding scaleability, risks, investment models, and management structure. There were a few dubious figures provided by the team which suggest that they simply haven’t got enough data to generate a believable, let alone an accurate forecast of their future performance. They simply need more funding to expand and carry out more trials in other continents to develop the Inga-equivalent farming technique over there.

In the end, I was left with a lot more knowledge of the tropical rainforest, but many more questions as well. AltForest is an example of success bred from local knowledge paired with Mike’s passion and expertise. However, to sustain such an operation would require international support and government-implemented state infrastructure. 

In the meantime, more of us need to be aware of the Rainforest Microfarm Accelerator, and even more need to start working with the planet, not against it. Appreciate what we have, and strive to protect it with all we’ve got. 

(For anyone who is interested in similar ingenious solutions that tackle climate change, this book was recommended by a panelist, and I’m looking forward to reading it.)


 AltForest - Rainforest Microfarm Accelerator

AltForest – Rainforest Microfarm Accelerator