Winter sun seeking in London

london sunset


The idea of sun seeking in London esp. in the winter sounds as mad as a hatter. Whenever I travel abroad and tell people that I live in London, they usually would grin and say something as follows: “Nice city but miserable weather” or “Is it foggy and rainy all the time?”. No matter how much I try to convince them otherwise, they would still look skeptical and doubtful as if I am taking them for a ride!

Since my words fail to convince the skeptics, I hope these photos taken within the last few weeks would do London/ London’s weather some justice! It is true that we would frequently experience grey and wet weather, but there are also days when the sky is blue, the air is crisp and the sun is shining bright.


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Like most Londoners or Brits, I also love to moan about the weather occasionally because that is our habit or an effective ice breaker as conversation starter. We simply cannot help it because our weather seems to play a key role in our lives for some bizarre reason. Yet despite our complaints, admittedly, I am rather fond of the English weather. I like the fact that it is unpredictable, relatively mild and it has four distinctive seasons. And I think many Brits would share my paradoxical view towards our weather.

I honestly believe that I would be bored of seeing the sun everyday if I were to live in somewhere like S.E.Asia when the weather is so predictable and lacks seasonal transitions. And when compared to other countries in the northern hemisphere, we are lucky that we rarely experience extreme conditions in summers and winters. Our heatwaves are usually temporary, and snow is a seldom seen sight in the south eastern and south western part of the UK. There are no significant earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and hurricanes; though storms, droughts and floods are becoming more frequent due to climate change.


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The joy of having unpredictable weather is that we would cherish the sun more after several gloomy and wet days. We would appreciate the rain after a few weeks of heatwave as it would clear the mucky and humid air. Perhaps it also enables us to be more receptive to changes, and accept that we can’t predict or control external factors… in weather and in life.


hampstead sunset


I am unashamed to admit that I am a London sun seeker esp. during the winter. To witness the wonders of sunsets is always an awe-inspiring moment for me. The winter sunset time in London is usually between 3-4pm, and remarkably I have witnessed many stunning sunsets against the backdrop of urban landscape or tree silhouette this winter. These evanescent moments not only enable me to appreciate the beauty of nature, but I also feel grateful to be alive to observe a natural phenomenon that we often take for granted. And for a change, being a ‘sun seeker’ or ‘sun worshiper’ is no longer an embarrassing term when it is used in this context.


Vintage shopping at Old Spitalfields market

spitalfield market



Since it is the shopping season (whether you enjoy it or not), I shall write about shopping… not Christmas but vintage shopping. My shopaholic days were over years ago, now I seldom go shopping unless it is necessary. Yet a few weeks back, I found myself spending hours rummaging around Old Spitalfields antiques and vintage market on a Thursday afternoon and I enjoyed every minute of it!

Even though part of my work role is to look for new designs and understanding current or forth coming trends, I also have a passion for vintage goods and designs. When I was still a student, my cousin and I hired a stall for in Camden stables market selling our mothers’ vintage 60s/70s clothing. It was my first market stall experience (I never thought that I would be doing it again so many years later), and it was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons; hence our market vendor days were over in just 2 weeks!


spitalfield vintage market


These days, vintage and antiques shopping in London is less fun because prices are much higher and genuine/ rare/ high quality goods are harder to come by. I used to go to Portobello Road market all the time when I was a student, but now the market has lost its charm and has become too touristy and overpriced. Even the rather quaint Camden Passage in Islington has become more upmarket and commercial (not to mention the fact that the government ruled against the Islington council to get rid of the antiques arcade for a Jack Wills fashion store back in 2009)!


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Spending an afternoon at the Old Spitalfields market brought back memories of my student days when I used to rummage around London’s quirky and fun vintage/ antiques markets where bargains could be found quite easily. But the danger of visiting market like this is that you may end up buying a bag (or few bags) full of stuff that you don’t really need or have room for! I tried to restrain myself but I still managed to part with most of the cash I had in my wallet! However, I was very pleased with my purchases and they are as follows: ‘Japanese graphic art book’ (£2), an unused vintage Belgian notebook (£1), ‘The Observer’s book of Furniture’ from the 60s (£4), ‘Our British trees and how to know them’, a 1907 hardback (£10) and a Japanese themed tin (£6), an addition to my existing tin box and toy collection. I especially love the illustrations found in the two vintage books on trees and furniture. Surprisingly, these random object and books brought me more satisfaction than a pair of new shoes or clothing, I guess the idiom: “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” applies well in this case.


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 Vintage items bought from the market


Besides the Old Spitalfields market, I recently stumbled upon a shop called Radio Days (87 Lower Marsh) in Waterloo late one evening (after 10pm to be precise). At first, I was attracted by the retro and fun window display, but when I stepped in, I thought I was transported to a different era. I was surprised that the shop was still opened so late, so I had a chat with the friendly owner, and it was then that I found out the shop had been opened since 1993. With Serge Gainsbourg‘s “Elisa” being played in the background, I thought to myself that the owner definitely has great taste! The shop is like an Aladdin’s cave, there are vintage household goods, bric-a-brac, old magazines, jewellery, and a back room full of clothing and accessories for men and women from the 1920s -1960s. It is a wonderful and unique shop full of characters, I shall have to spend more time here the next time I am in the area.


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Radio days in Waterloo


One amazing thing about London is that no matter how long you have lived here, you will always discover something ‘new’ in different parts of the city. I was in Holloway recently and I walked past a shop called D. & A. Binder (101 Holloway Road). The shop provides bespoke traditional furniture and shopfitting services, and even though the shop is not a vintage shop as such, I love the ambience, display and the range of vintage furniture and objects here. If I have the space or spare cash, I will bring the Astro boy pachinko machine back home!


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D & A Binder on Holloway Road


Our new retail stockist: Anthropologie


 The facade of Anthropologie store on Kings Road


We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with Anthropologie, one of America’s most popular retailers this autumn/winter. The company is our first major retail outlet, which is a big step forward for us. It is exciting to see Gongjang‘s eco balance monthly planners in Anthropologie’s inspiring and visually appealing stores across London, and we look forward to working with them again in the near future.

I used to shop at Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters when I was living in New York, and so I was familiar with the lifestyle and fashion brand before they opened their first London store on Regent Street in 2009. I just never thought that I would do business with the company one day!


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Kings Road’s Anthropologie store


Anthropolgie has four stores in central London including one in Westfield shopping mall. Their 10,000 square foot flagship store on Regent Street has three floors and an impressive 2,000 square foot vertical garden featuring 11,000 plants. The store is one of a kind on Regent Street, and I love the playful and quirky visual merchandising throughout the store. However, my favourite is their store on Kings Road located inside a beautifully restored Grade II listed former Antiquarius Antiques Centre. The 10,000 square ft space was originally a billiards hall in the 1830s offering an alternative to the pub for working men before it was turned into an antiques centre. I love exquisite original features like stained-glass windows and tile work on the facade, as well as the intricate ironwork inside the building. I think what differs Anthropologie from other high street stores are their unusual and eclectic pick of products (i.e. mixing vintage with contemporary designs and crafty products), and their efforts in creating unique shopping experiences in every store through their carefully planned layouts and highly creative visual merchandising.

Many high street stores complain about businesses being hit by shoppers buying more online, but if they are willing to invest more on visual merchandising and better services to enhance shoppers’ in-store experiences, then shoppers would still choose brick-and-mortar stores over the internet. We live in a highly competitive world today, and if stores/companies don’t step up their games and evolve with changing times, then it is inevitable that they will be pushed out of the market one day.


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Regent Street’s Anthropologie store


Gongjang’s Eco Balance monthly planner (in wine and grey) is available to purchase in Anthropologie’s London stores and online via the link here. The store has just opened a new branch in Marylebone, I shall look forward to visiting it soon.


Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace

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Blenheim Palace


For years, I have wanted to visit the 18th century Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill and home of the Dukes of Marlborough; and finally last weekend, my friend and I joined a group to visit this splendid Baroque palace in Oxfordshire. We also managed to see Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei‘s exhibition before it ends on 14th December.

The exhibition is the artist’s largest one in the U.K., showcasing more than 50 new and iconic artworks on display throughout the palace and its grounds. Interestingly, the Chinese connection is evident as the palace itself is filled with chinoiserie and Chinese porcelain pieces from the Qing Dynasty. It is a brave move for the new Blenheim art foundation to install contemporary art work by a provocative Chinese artist in such a historical setting, and the result is both compelling and puzzling.


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With no labels or information available, visitors walking through the historical rooms are confronted with art installations that probably make no sense to them. In the Red drawing room, the installation “He Xie 2012” composed of large pile of porcelain crabs covers most of the carpet in front of the fireplace. The crabs may look playful and intriguing (or mouth-watering to the Chinese tourists as they love eating crabs), but one would have to use a bit of imagination to understand the meaning behind them (apparently, they refer to censorship).

One interesting aspect of the exhibition is that some of the art pieces are quietly ‘hidden’ amongst the decorations and historical artifacts. i.e. the 17ft chandelier of glass crystals that resembles an upside down Christmas tree in the main hall and a pair of wooden handcuffs suggestively placed on the bed of Winston Churchill.


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The installation that seems most ‘at home’ is the “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold in the Grand Saloon. The well-known sculptural pieces are the artist’s reinterpretation of the legendary bronze zodiac head statues that once surrounded the fountain-clock at Yuanming Yuan (Old summer palace), a former imperial retreat that was burnt down by the British and French troops during the Opium war. It’s quite an irony to see these replicas being installed inside a British Palace after 154 years!


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We were very lucky with the weather because the rain stopped and the clouds cleared up as soon as we arrived, and we were blessed with blue sky and sunshine while we were at the palace. This allowed us to stroll in the beautiful garden and see the large outdoor installation “Bubble”, comprises rows of shiny blue porcelain bubbles that resemble the Chinese chess game of Go to me.

Unfortunately, due to time constraint we did not have enough time to cover the entire garden, which I am sure will look marvelous in the summer; hence, I will have to make another trip in the future just to visit the gardens alone.


Blenheim Palace




Manchester’s past & present


Bridgewater canal in Castlefield


Like human beings, all cities have their own characteristics, memories and energies. Having lived in several major cities at different stages of my life, I have come to realised that some cities’ energies and mine just don’t blend well (possibly to do with feng shui?). There are cities that I find inspiring and uplifting, yet there are some that I find depressing and draining. Whenever I am in a city, I’d like to play the role of an outsider (even in London), because it allows me to detach myself and observe the city and its people more objectively. I want to use my senses to perceive a city… the architecture, urban landscape, smell, pollution, colours, people’s facial expression, behaviour and fashion are all details that we can easily miss if we don’t pay attention to them.

Cities are constantly evolving, some of their histories may have been forgotten or be buried underground, but their intrinsic essence rarely changes over a short period of time or even after major disasters (e.g. New York). Most importantly though, it is the citizens who largely contribute to the collective energy of a city.


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Although Manchester’s city centre is vibrant and bustling, I regard the historical Castlefield as the ‘soul’ of the city. Not only this is the birth place of the city, it is also said to be the start of the industrial revolution because of the arrival of Bridgewater Canal, the world’s first industrial canal built in 1764, commissioned by by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater.

Since I was staying in the area, I decided to stroll along the canal in the morning. The vibe was calm and subdued, very different from the hustle and bustle vibe in the centre. I was fascinated by the varied styles of railway and foot bridges here, and while standing under them, I began to imagine when this place was full of activities and working people. I could sense the history here, many untold stories seemed to be hidden underneath these massive steel bridges and old warehouses.


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Another historical part of Greater Manchester is Salford on the other side of River Irwell. However, the area has suffered from high-levels of unemployment and social issues for decades, and even the recent regeneration scheme has had many setbacks. Wandering on the edge of Salford, I was surprised by the slightly rundown and quiet streets. Like Castlefield, there is a big contrast between this part of the city and the centre, but again, one could sense its historical past.

I was particularly intrigued by the facade of a historical-looking pub tucked away on a desolate back street called Eagle Inn (also known as The Lamp Oil). Later, I found out that the pub dates back to 1848 at its current site, and it is housed inside a Grade II listed building from 1903. In recent years, the pub was under-threat due to the regeneration of the area; luckily it was saved and the interior of the pub has since been restored, with the cottage next door being converted into a live music venue.


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The streets surrounding the pub look rather derelict, but I found them more interesting than the glossy buildings in the centre. These derelict sites tend to capture my imagination, they trigger my curiosity about the histories and stories behind them. I once read that people’s interests in derelict or abandoned places or ruins are related to our own mortality. Perhaps so. I think we are all subconsciously (or consciously) aware that whatever possessions we own will inevitably be destroyed, lost, disintegrated or be given away one day. These places remind us that nothing will last forever.


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Like humans, cities may experience prosperity and declines throughout their existence. Countless cities had been destroyed throughout history due to human destructions or natural disasters, yet many ancient cities have miraculously survived too. Cities are never static; buildings and roads are constantly being constructed or rebuilt, people come and go daily, and they all silently leave their visible or invisible imprints behind. Cities are fascinating because everything is man-made; and behind each creation, there is at least one human story to be told.

I have come across many cities that feel utterly ‘soulless’, but Manchester is certainly not one of them. And I believe it is the many human stories behind this city that make it special and enticing.


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 Street art in Manchester


36 hours in Manchester


The historical Castlefield is a conservation area


Whenever independent travelers arrive in an unfamiliar city, the first hurdle that they have to overcome is the initial disorientation stage. Although Manchester is much smaller than London in size, it was still a bit daunting arriving at a station full of busy commuters. Luckily, I found the free metroshuttle (fantastic idea) bus stop outside of the station and took advantage of these buses as much as I could during my stay! Yet I always find that the best way to see a city is on foot, which also helps me to find a sense of direction.

Since I only had about 36 hours in the city, I tried to squeeze in as much as I could before the museums and galleries close at 5pm. I also downloaded a few Manchester apps as guidance, but the one that I love is Manchester Time Machine (for iphone & ipad only). This app was developed by Manchester Metropolitan University featuring an extensive rare historical footage of Manchester from the North West Film Archive. Its GPS technology allows users to pinpoint a location and watch film relating to it. It is absolutely fascinating to see how the city looked from the past vs the present day. An impressive and innovative app!


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The site of a Roman fort in Castlefield


I was staying in Castlefield, a conservation area that is listed as the world’s first urban heritage park. This area is not only the birth place of Manchester, it is also home to the world’s first industrial canal built in 1764, and the world’s first railway station built in 1830. There is also the remains of a Roman fort founded in AD 79, and its name Mamucium eventually evolved into the name ‘Manchester’.



It is hard to miss the huge contrast between the old and the contemporary architecture in Manchester. Before the trip, I didn’t realise that contemporary architecture is so prominent in the city, and was surprise to see the diverse range of architectural styles within the city.


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Top right: The Art deco House of Fraser building (also known as the Kendal, Milne & Co. Building) was designed in by Louis David Blanc in 1938; Main: Aldine House/ Riverside was designed by Leach Rhodes Walker in 1967.


The regeneration of the city centre was a result of the IRA bombing in 1996. The centrepiece of the project was the glossy Urbis building (now the National Football museum) built in 2002 by a local architect Ian Simpson, who was also responsible for No.1 Deansgate, UK’s tallest residential block completed in the same year. It is impossible to miss the architect’s slightly imposing buildings while walking around the city esp. the Beetham Tower, which is the tallest skyscraper in Manchester completed in 2006.


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Top left & 2nd row: Manchester Civil Justice Centre; Top middle: No.1. Deansgate; Top right: Beetham Tower; 3rd & 5th left: Urbis/National Football Museum; 3rd middle & 4th row: 1 The Avenue


Personally, I am more fond of the distinctive and intriguing Manchester Civil Justice Centre designed by Australian architecture firm, Denton Corker Marshall in 2007. The building has received many awards for its sustainability credentials and innovative engineering design, and was shortlisted for the RIBA‘s Stirling Prize in 2008. Another interesting and award-winning building is The Avenue (for retail and business) designed by Sheppard Robson in 2010, situated next to the historical John Ryland Library.

Due to time constraint, I did not have time to visit Imperial War Museum North, which was designed by Polish architect Daniel Libeskind in 2002. It will certainly be on my list when I next visit the city.


Art & design exhibitions

Probably one of the must-see attractions in Manchester is the Manchester Art Gallery (free admission). Although the gallery is not huge, it would still take at least 2 hours to wander and enjoy the exhibitions. The current exhibitions include “The Sensory War 1914-2014” (until 22nd February 2015) and “AZ.andreazappa” (until 22nd March 2015), which showcases photographic dresses designed by by Manchester-based media and textile artist Andrea Zapp.


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Manchester Art Gallery – Top right: Antony Gormley’s sculpture; 2nd row right: Work by Banksy; 3rd row: Andrea Zappa’s exhibition; 4th left: Piccadilly Gardens (1954) by LS Lowry; 4th right: Work by Roy Lichtenstein; 5th row: The Sensory War 1914-2014; Bottom row: Kathe Kollwitz’s prints


“The Sensory War 1914-2014” is an excellent and thought-provoking exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War. The show examines how artists from 1914 onwards depicted the devastating impact of new military technologies utilised in a century of conflict beginning with the First World War. One of the most harrowing sections is a series of photographs showing disfigured or disabled soldiers returning home from war. I was particularly saddened by Nina Berman‘s “Marine wedding” and the tragic story of Marine Sgt. Tyler Ziegel.

Another section shows work created in the 1970s by the hibakusha, survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Many of the pieces are simple drawings, but they illustrate the horrors of war in the most direct manner. Yet my favourite at this exhibition is the profound prints created by German painter, printmaker, and sculptor Kathe Kollwitz. It is hard not to be touched by the sorrow, despair, suffering and humanity seen in her work, which addresses mortality, poverty and the fragility of life.


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 People’s History Museum


Another gem in the city is the People’s History Museum (free admission), the only museum in the country dedicated to the history of British working people in the last 200 years. The museum was refurbished and reopened in 2010, and it is situated in a Grade II listed building that used to be a hydraulic pumping station.

This is a fascinating museum full of historical objects, photographs, printed materials and documents about the struggle for equality and democracy of the working class people. The current exhibition, “A Land Fit For Heroes: War and the working class 1914-1918” (until 1st Feb 2015) examines how World War I changed society, radically altering the social, economic, cultural and political outlook of the British people. Although the subject matter of the exhibition and museum seems heavy, the curator have done a brilliant job in making the exhibits captivating, playful and yet informative at the same time.


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Museum of Science and Industry – Last 3 rows: 3D: Printing the future exhibition; Wellcome Image Awards 2014 exhibition & the industrial looking cafe


As I mentioned in the previous entry, Museum of Science and Industry (free admission) is a ‘dangerous’ place as it brought out my inner geekiness. I am sure I can a day here admiring the beautiful old machine tools and engines, which I am sure many would consider as rather odd. A few hours here is definitely not enough, and reluctantly I had to skip the Power Hall and the Air & Space Hall.

The extensive displays are divided into the following theme: Industry & Innovation, Science & Technology, Energy, Transport, People and Communications. The historical backdrop provides context for the displays, and at times, it made me feel as if I were transported back in time.

There are many exhibitions taking place at the moment including: “3D printing the future” (until 19th April) and “Wellcome Image Award 2014” (until 14th Dec). If you want to learn about Manchester’s industrial past, then do not miss this interesting and educational museum.


Shops & cafes

Since it is close to Christmas, there are many Christmas markets scattered in different parts of the centre. But the trendiest part of the city is the Northern Quarter, which is home to the creative industries, independent shops, cafes, restaurants and bars.

The one-stop craft and design shopping destination is the Manchester Craft and Design Centre (17 Oak St) housed inside a Victorian former fish and poultry market building. It is home to 30 resident artists & makers who design, create and make a variety of handmade products, from textiles and ceramics to pewter and paint. It was a joy for me to see the craft and design scene thriving outside of London and that local designers and makers are being supported by the local council.


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Top: Manchester Christmas markets; 2nd row: A window display of hats; 3rd and 4th rows: Manchester crafts and design centre; Bottom row: A building in the Northern Quarter


Not far from the centre is the Centre for Contemporary Chinese art (Market Buildings, 13 Thomas St), where you can find artworks by contemporary Chinese artists, but there is also a shop that sells books on contemporary Chinese art, as well as a range of jewellery, stationery and gifts designed by local Chinese artists and designers.


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Top left: Playhouse exhibition at Cornerhouse; Top middle, right & 2nd row: Fig and Sparrow; 3rd row: Jewellery at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art; 4th & 5th rows: Sugar Junction


Another cool design and craft shop in the area is Fig and Sparrow (20 Oldham Street); not only does it sells stationery and unusual homeware made by local designers, it also has a cafe offering locally-sourced coffee and handmade cakes.

I stumbled upon Sugar Junction tearoom (60 Tib Street) and was attracted by its retro but homey decor. I love their in-the-book menu, and when I saw the vintage cocktail & cake set, it got me quite excited! I ordered the courgette & lime cake with an expresso martini, it was nice but slightly too sweet for my palate (but then again, I don’t really have a sweet tooth). The place is cosy and very friendly, so I would highly recommend it especially if you have a sweet tooth!

Back in the centre, I also enjoyed relaxing at the bar/cafe inside Cornerhouse (70 Oxford Street), a centre for contemporary visual arts and independent film. The centre has three floors of art galleries, three cinemas, a bookshop and a cafe/bar. As a fan of the French director Jacques Tati, I was hoping to catch the centre’s final exhibition, “Playtime” (until 15th Mar 2015) before they move to a new location next year, but unfortunately, I was there a few days ahead of its opening! The exhibition is inspired by Tati’s 1967 comedy masterpiece Playtime, and like the film, nine artists use comedy, space and sound to encourage exploration and play in the galleries. It sounds like a fun and interactive exhibition, such a shame that I couldn’t see it before my departure.



Manchester at night


Overall, I was impressed by how much Manchester has changed over the years, and on the way back to London, I could stop thinking how over-inflated and over-rated London has become! But what touched me the most was the friendly people whom I encountered during my short stay. Over the past decade or so, London has transformed so much that it is almost unrecognisable. Not only it has become the most expensive place to live on the planet, it has also become one of least friendly cities (after Moscow and Paris). The Mayor can go on promoting London as the best place to live to rich foreign property investors, but I am not sure how long this can sustain before things come crushing down.

It is no wonder many Londoners are leaving the city to live elsewhere in the U.K. If you are one of those, then perhaps you can add the vibrant and friendly Manchester onto your list?