Show me your type: London

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The Granary building, home to Central St Marins’ new campus


For those of us who have lived in London long enough would remember what Kings Cross used to be like: seedy! Now after much investment has been poured into the area, it is barely recognisable especially north of Kings Cross and St Pancras stations.

Not far from the Regent’s canal is the Granary building, which has been restored by Stanton Williams Architects and is now the new home of Central St Martin’s College. Currently, there is a typographic exhibition in the atrium of this site, Show me your type.


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Show me your type is a project about typography and cities, providing a creative platform for designers to showcase their talents and explore cities from a different perspective. Designers can submit the typographical representation of a city via their website, so far they have already visited New York, Moscow, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Berlin and Istanbul etc.


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Here in London, 80 posters have been selected and being displayed behind some large windows in an a vast and spacious space. Not surprisingly, the most common colour combination is blue, white and red, with some very British visual motifs including Big Ben, the Queen and the double decker bus. Although there are many interesting work ( I especially like the different shades of pantone grey by Dina El Khouri), many are also quite predictable and not as ‘adventurous’ as they could be.

The website is now accepting animated GIFS for their next city, Tokyo, which sounds quite exciting. Can’t wait to see the results of that!


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Show Us Your Type will exhibit in the atrium windows of Central Saint Martins Granary Building at 1 Granary Square, N1C 4AA until 12 September. Free admission.


Traditional Chinese paper cuts

As promised, I shall continue to ‘show off’ my vintage collection… and this time, it is traditional Chinese paper cuts that I collected when I was young. As a child, I loved to draw, cut, fold ( origami) and build ( lego). Of course my cutting technique was hardly refined, but I loved folding colourful square paper into smaller squares and then cutting triangles, squares, circles and other patterns on it… The most thrilling moment was when I finally unfolded the paper to see my new symmetrical creations! Would kids these days be thrilled by this? I am not so sure.


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Paper cuts from Yangchow/ Yangzhou


Paper cutting is a traditional folk art/ craft that originated in China, and eventually spread to other parts of Asia and the rest of the world. Its history could trace back to the invention of paper introduced by Cai Lun ( 50-121 AD). And in 2009, it was recognised and listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Paper cuts are traditionally used for religious and ceremonial purposes ( such as funerals and weddings), and as decorations during festivals such as Chinese New Year. Red paper is often used with Chinese characters that represent good luck, joy, health and hope.


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Paper cuts from Yangchow/ Yangzhou


Traditionally, the patterns are either first drawn or carved by free hand, and then engraved by knives. The styles and characteristics of the patterns/ designs vary a lot in different regions whilst sharing similar/ common themes. Most of the time, the designs are symmetrical but the ones pictured here are all asymmetrical.

The first two sets seen here are from the southeastern city of Yangchow ( now renamed as Yangzhou), which is said to be one of the earliest regions to adopt paper cutting as folk art. A folk arts and crafts agency was set up in 1955 to revive the neglected art and skills, and in 2007, a Chinese paper cut museum also opened in the city, showing the importance of paper cut in the region.


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 Paper cuts from Nantung


The third set consists of 6 designs of chrysanthemum and it is from Nantung/ Natong. I had to be extra careful when I tried to photograph these designs made of thin rice paper because they are so delicate. I could see that they were all hand-cut with great skills and patience, a shake in the hand would ruin everything.

The last set, which has a very different style from the others is from the Northeastern county of Yuhsien ( now renamed as Yuxian) in the Hebei province. Dating back to the Ming Dynasty, paper-cutting of Yuxian is especially well-known for its colourful and vivid asymmetrical designs of Chinese opera characters, insects, animals and rural life. The designs shown here are inspired by the mythical Chinese creature, qilin.

Since 2010, the county has been hosting an annual paper cutting art festival and opened its first paper cut museum in 2011, exhibiting over 1200 pieces of art work from across the country. The county is now home to more than 30,000 paper cutting artists and craftsmen, and their work are being sold worldwide generating more than 3% of the country’s GDP!


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Paper cuts from Yuhsien/ Yuxian


If you are interested in learning more about traditional Chinese paper cutting, there is more information via the following links: The art of Chinese paper cutting and Chinese Traditional arts and crafts.



The act of killing

I was aware of all the positive reviews on the documentary, “The act of killing” ( directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by Werner Herzog) when it was released here about 2 months ago, but with the subject matter and the heat wave ( yes, I am blaming the sunny weather), I was not ready to take on the ‘challenge’ yet.

As predicted, after spending almost three hours watching the director’s cut, I left the cinema feeling quite numb. This has to be the most powerful and haunting documentary that I have seen in years, but it was also very hard to sit through. It is disturbing, shocking, ironic, dark, surreal and very intelligent. Like Sang Penari/ The Dancer ( a milder take on the subject) which I saw and wrote about in June, it focues on the dark history of Indonesia’s political past, the “30 September Movement” in 1965, where more than half to two and a half million suspected Communists ( many of whom were ethnic Chinese) were slaughtered across Indonesia ordered by the military.

I shall not write about storyline nor the characters in the documentary, to me, this documentary is essentially about human beings and their conflicts between conscience and ego. How far can one go to bury one’s conscience in order to protect the ego? We constantly see the main characters switching from feeling remorse to justifying their own actions, which also shows how conflicted they are deep in their subconscious mind.



This documentary is very important both for the relatives of the victims and for those who carried out the massacre. As of today, no one has been arrested nor punished for what had happened. And although this documentary does not offer a proper reconciliation, it does reveal the other side of the story and provides an opportunity for the executioners to reflect on their own actions. As we see at the end of the documentary, it was like a ‘remedy’ for Mr Congo ( the main character) to play a victim in his own film, when afterwards he claimed that he finally understood how the victims felt.


Alternative guide to the universe exhibition

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I went to see the Alternative guide to the universe exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last month but I haven’t had the chance to write about it. Since it is closing on Sunday, I want to write about it before it ends.

The art shown at this vast exhibition is usually considered as ‘outsider art’, and like the “Souzou: outsider art from Japan” at the Wellcome Collection a few months ago ( see my earlier post), the work here is original, captivating but more ‘technical’.

I have seen American artist/ architect, Paul Laffoley‘s work several times before at exhibitions in Paris, and his work never ceases to amaze me. His mystical/ scienticfic/ psychedelic paintings might look very New Agey but they are complex and quite mind-blowing esp. the ones on consciousness. His work needs to be studied very carefully, but unfortunately, I never get enough time to do so at these exhibitions.

It would be hard to forget French artist ( a deaf and illiterate orphan), Marcel Storr‘s room full of architectural pencil/ coloured pen drawings of a post-nuclear holocaust Paris. The work is simply jaw-dropping.

One slightly bizarre but fascinating work is the robot created by Chinese farmer/ inventor, Wu Yulu ( a video link) who has been making robots from scraps for years.

Another personal favourite at the show is the work created by sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez or Jean Baptiste from Congo. His colourful, futuristic and surreal architectural models look like a combination of Gaudi and Stalinist architecture ( with a hint of Dubai and Las Vegas feel to it), but with more soul, imagination and passion.

If you have not seen this exhibition yet, go and allow yourself plenty of time to be ‘blown away’ by the art work shown at this exhibition…


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Within the same building is a new exhibition by the traveling museum, Museum of everything ( I loved the one curated by Sir Peter Blake in 2010, it was one of the best exhibitions that I have visited in recent years). This time, the focus is on Indian artist/ sculptor, Sri Nek Chand Saini and sculptures from his rock garden ( Kingdom of unknown Gods and Goddesses) in Chandigarh made of scraps and recycled materials.

The photographs of the garden from the website look astonishing… I will have to add this to one of my ‘must-see’ destinations in the future.


Marina Abramovic Institute

Previously, I have written about performance artist, Marina Abramovic‘s documentary, “The Artist Is Present”. Now the NY-based artist is pledging on Kickstarter for backers to contribute towards her latest, ambitious and ground-breaking project, Marina Abramovic Institute.

The buzz lately has been mostly about the fundraising video featuring Lady Gaga naked practicing the performance artist’s method in nature. This, of course is guaranteed to delight many Gaga fans, but many are also rolling their eyes calling it ‘bizarre’ and ‘pretentious’. Whether the fundraising videos are pretentious or not is beside the point, at least they gained the publicity needed for the project.

MAI aims to foster collaboration between art, science, technology, and spirituality within one space, which will be designed by renowned architects Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The visitors/ participants will ‘devote’ six hours of their time ( and possessions) in exchange for an experience that will possibly be sensationally, emotionally and spiritually rewarding. It all sounds very intriguing, and if the project succeeds, potentially it may change the way we interact with art in the future.

There is still one week left to back this project ( click on the kickstarter link above) , and you can watch the video here to judge for yourself:


Natural and eco-friendly: Charcoal

Unlike other e-tailers, I rarely promote our products on this blog, but this time, I feel the need to write a bit more about charcoal and our newly launched product, Sumi eco KuKKu shoe deodorisers made from recycled charcoal paper. This is our second eco-friendly charcoal product from Japan, after Chikuno cube, launched last year.




So why charcoal? The truth is charcoal has been used in Asia esp. Japan for thousands of years, and in recent years, it is frequently being sold and used a natural water filter, air purifier, dehumidifier and deodoriser ( some Japanese also like to place it in their beer). This is because charcoal has many tiny cavities, creating a massive surface area which can attach different substances ( like mould, moisture, odour, particulates and chemicals in the air and water) to their walls, then release them later. Studies show that one gram of charcoal has a surface area of about 250 m2. Some other scientific studies have also discovered that charcoal made from bamboo can even absorb electromagnetic waves from TV, computers and mobile phones.

What about the problem of mass deforestation? Actually many of the charcoal products are made from bamboo, the fastest growing plant on the planet. The Chikuno cube we carry is made of bamboo charcoal, and when we were showing our products at the East London design show last December, many visitors were intrigued by its appearance due to the microscopic honeycomb structure. I was even told by a visitor that she has one at home and it works wonders for her, which was encouraging to know.


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I came across Sumi eco KuKKu shoe deodoriser online a few months ago and thought it is a very unique product. Not only it is natural and eco-friendly ( because it is made from industrial waste and recycled pulp), it also looks fun and most importantly, it is a functional product. I was lucky to have made some important business contacts while I was at the gift fair in Tokyo earlier in the year, and thanks to the help of Susumu-san, I was able to negotiate a deal with the manufacturer, Sanyo Paper Co., Ltd., a sustainable paper manufacturer in Japan. Originally I was told that the products are only for promotional purposes and are not for sale, but luckily, Susumu-san managed to persuade them to do a trial with us.

The world’s natural resource scarcity is becoming more apparent and alarming, we can no longer turn a blind eye to how we consume and live esp. in the developed world. Whether we are consumers, retailers/ e-tailers, manufacturers and designers, we all have responsibilities to protect the environment we live in. Although not all our products are eco-friendly, we always pay attention to the material used and manufacturing processes, and we will continue to support companies or designers that are trying to make a positive impact on our planet.


Vintage Japanese & Chinese bookmarks

This month, I would like to ‘show-off’ some of my vintage stationery collection from both my childhood and travels. Even though I have loved stationery since I was a child, I never thought that I would be selling stationery one day, so life is really full of surprises sometimes!

Recently I found a bag full of vintage bookmarks in my drawer, all the Japanese ones were bought during my travels with my family to Japan when I was young, so they have sentimental values to me. These vintage Japanese bookmarks range from souvenir style ( i.e. Mount Fuji and Tokyo Tower) to the more traditional ones, but my favourites are the fairy tale/ folklore ones with storylines and characters… I have not seen these types of bookmarks around in Japan these days, so they are really quite special.


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Unlike the Japanese bookmarks, most of the Chinese ( the Communist style) vintage bookmarks were discovered accidentally when I was visiting a Japanese designer friend living in Shanghai about 12 years ago. We stumbled upon a vintage toys stall at a touristy market in the city when the vendours were packing up to leave. Since we showed a lot of interest in the vintage toys, the passionate owner invited us to his narrow house behind the stall. After we greeted his wife, he told us to follow him up to his attic via a narrow set of wooden staircase where he revealed his ‘treasure’… an amazing collection of vintage toys, collectible memorabilia, old photographs of Shanghai, vintage stationery, adverts and packaging. My friend and I thought we had discovered Aladdin’s cave! We spent the next hour or two ramaging through his collection and ended up leaving with a bag full of stuff that most people would regard as ‘junk’. Among the ‘junk’ are these bookmarks that trace an important era in the Chinese history that was long gone… I doubt the small stall is still there now ( assuming that he has moved onto a more profitable venture), I am just glad to have discovered these seemingly unimportant bookmarks that reveal how life used to be in China only a few decades earlier.


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Summer colours in London

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The month-long heat wave in London finally came to an end, apparently we will be experiencing more typical British summer weather ( which means cooler temperature with a mix of rain, clouds and sun) in the next few weeks.

During the heat wave, I took the opportunity to take some photos of the city when I was out and about, capturing a very different London. Bright, colourful and vibrant, it is far from the gloomy and grey London that we are used to. All the outdoor restaurants, cafes, parks, gardens, theatres were full, whereas cinemas, shops and art galleries were quieter than usual.


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As much as I love the warm and sunny weather, I noticed many plants in parks and gardens withering ( including my poor Asiatic lilies on the balcony) because of the heat and lack of rain, which I am sure was a concern for all gardeners. Like always, good times don’t last forever, and even though summer is not officially over yet, I guess we can start reminiscing on one of the best summers we have had for years… I enjoyed it while it lasted, and I hope I won’t have to wait another seven years before I can use my electric fan again!


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Retreat aftermath


Stunning scenery from the train journey between Edinburgh and Newcastle


It has been about 5 days since I returned from Scotland, and I am still feeling slightly disorientated ( which seems to always happen after a week-long retreat).

I remember on the day of departure, some retreat friends and I had some spare time and decided to grab a quick lunch in Edinburgh city centre before taking the train/ plane back home. This turned out to be a discomforting experience because it was the opening day of the Edinburgh festival and the city was completely packed! Not only did we have to fight our way through the crowds with our baggages, I was also highly sensitive to the noise level, people’s facial expressions and even the colours of passerby’s clothing ( I found it hard to adjust to the sharp bright colours after seeing mostly ‘green’ all week)!

The train ride back was not much better either, the air-conditioning unit broke down in many of the coaches ( including mine), so it was like sitting in a sauna… but for 4 1/2 hours! The toilets were blocked and the staff were grumpy, the only consolation was the beautiful scenery outside of the window esp. the from Edinburgh to Newcastle. I felt like I was being ‘tested’ after a mindful retreat… I had to tell myself: Welcome back to reality!




Back at my desk, I am aware of the emails that I need to reply to, the office supplies I need to order, and the large amount of preparation that I need to work on for the upcoming new collection and Christmas season. Despite feeling positive and energised after the retreat, I was feeling slightly overwhelmed as well. Images of the retreat, people, the loch and its surroundings kept popping into my head, and eventually I had to leave my desk to meditate for a while.

From my past experiences, I knew I would be feeling more emotional and sensitive after the retreat, but perhaps it is not so negative in my case. Since I decided to start this business, it has been an extremely ‘lonely’ experience, even with the support from people around me ( and sometimes from strangers), often I am unable to express my frustration and anxieties to others. I love what I do and am grateful that I am able to pursue my dream, but I cannot say that it has been an easy journey. The most difficult part is to find a balance, whether it is between commercial and conceptual options or work and life, there are so many decisions that have to be made and most of time, it’s about taking risks. Even as I am writing this, I find myself feeling ‘exposed’ as I have no idea who will read this and I am not used to being so ‘public’. Often I am wondering how much of ‘me’ should be exposed and how much should be kept private? Where do I draw the line?

I think the retreat has allowed me to reflect, feel vulnerable… and perhaps slow down a little. In life, often we are so focused on the destination that we forget to enjoy the journey, and even if the journey is not always pleasant, it is best to sit through it with awareness rather than trying to run away from it. I know that there is nowhere for me to run to, work still needs to be done and decisions still need to be made, but the best thing that I can do is to take it one step at a time… slowly and mindfully.

Like a miracle, once I became aware of this, I woke up this morning with many positive news relating to work ( and more support from strangers and new friends) all within a day! Is this the result of all the positive energy generated during the retreat? I would like to think so.


Summer retreat in Scotland

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Top left and right: Dhanakosa; Main: Loch voil


What is your ideal summer holiday? Sun and beach? Doing eurorail across Europe? Or adventures in South America? After spending three months traveling and working in Asia earlier in the year, I felt the need to give myself some ‘me’ time and space, and to get away from the city, work and responsibilities.

I realised that it has been almost 1 1/2 year since I have been on a meditation retreat, and I felt that it was time to do one again. I didn’t want to travel out of U.K. and wanted to combine it with some hiking, so this easily limited my options to only a few places…

Finally, I opted for Dhanakosa, a remote Buddhist meditation retreat centre located in an idyllic setting by Loch Voil in Scotland. I was slightly concerned about the indirect travel routes at the beginning, but then I decided to leave a day early to get to the ‘biggest’ nearby town, Stirling to do some sightseeing before the retreat. Actually Stirling is hardly a big town, it was easy to walk around and I ended up spending hours exploring the historical Stirling castle and nearby sites on the day of arrival.


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Top left: The Erskine monument in Stirling; top right: Stirling castle; bottom left: Kings knot garden; bottom right: Wallace monument


Getting to Dhanakosa was slightly easier than I thought ( even though I had to take 2 buses and a taxi ride from Stirling), and I was completely taken by the scenery as I was traveling towards the retreat centre. Upon arrival, I felt so joyful because of the stunning surroundings and location of the retreat. Instinctively, I just knew this retreat would be a special one. And I was right.


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For many people, a media-free week might sound like a daunting idea, but for me, it was exactly what I needed. No tweets, posts, texts, emails, phone calls, TV, radio, newspaper and music… just nature and a group of strangers.

Now back home in front of my computer, words fail to describe my feelings… contentment, joyful, grateful, peaceful, relaxed, reflective, energised… is it possible to feel all of the above at the same time?




In the last few years, I have been to various types of retreats (mostly gardening ones) and I have learned not to compare my experiences because each one was unique, largely due to my state of mind at the time. However, I would say that this was probably the most fun and relaxing retreat that I have ever been to. Even though I noticed my mind constantly being distracted during the meditation sessions, it would immediately calm down when I was out in nature. Observing nature allowed my mind to rest, and standing by the loch alone, I could feel the sun, hear the wind, birds, insects, which all made me feel immensely peaceful.


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On this retreat, we experienced the typical Scottish weather while we were out hiking, showers, sun and heavy rain… we were completely drenched one afternoon, and even my 5000 mm waterproof jacket and leather hiking boots could not save me from being completely soaked from head to toe!




Aside from the beauty of nature, what touched me most was the group of strangers whom I spent the week with. There was so much laughter, joy and harmony, and because we knew it was an experience that could never be repeated, we all cherished the time spent together.

For those of you who were at this retreat ( if you ever get to read this), I want to thank you all ( especially the retreat leaders and team members) for giving me one of the best summer ‘holidays’ that I could ever wish for!