BUILDING BLOCKS Looking back at my childhood, it makes complete sense that my life took this direction. I was always playing with Lego and creating small cities out of cardboard. My high school, in Holland, was a bit alternative in that they paid as much attention to how you performed in the school play as to what grades you got in Latin. The most important thing I learned there was that you can choose your path in life and you can follow your passion. I loved geography and I loved to travel, and that's exactly what I've done.
OUT WITH THE OLD From 1995 to 1996 I lived in Xiamen, a beautiful old trading port which had been designated as one of the four special economic zones. During that year, Xiamen grew more than a city in Holland might grow in a century. It was mind-boggling. There's a problem, though. In Europe, the old city centres are assumed to be important assets with great value but in Asia, old buildings are frequently torn down and replaced with cookie-cutter, glass-fronted skyscrapers. There's a strange irony in the fact that many Asians travel thousands of miles to experience Europe's cobbled streets and ancient town centres while seeming to place little value on their own architectural heritage. Witnessing this wholesale destruction is what inspired me to get involved with heritage preservation. Commercial developers go to great lengths to create places where people feel comfortable and where they want to spend time and money, but historical neighbourhoods already have that. There's a vibrancy which is difficult to replicate, so why try?
HONG KONG HERITAGE The Hong Kong government tends to see conservation and development as natural enemies, whereas I come from a background in which they are viewed as complementary. There are some notable exceptions, though. [Sheung Wan] is a perfect example of how a place can develop but still keep its character - that's why it's so popular. There is room for hope. The government has an excellent Heritage Revitalisation Scheme, which works to identify buildings to be preserved, upgraded and repurposed. Projects they've supported include the former police station in Tai O, which is now a boutique hotel, Mei Ho House - an old housing estate in Sham Shui Po which has been converted into a youth hostel - and the PMQ in Central. It's a great start, but it's being done on a very incidental basis. Heritage preservation is only truly meaningful if it's done as a cluster, for a whole street or neighbourhood.
SAVING YANGON Having completed heritage projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and various other countries, I'm now focusing on Yangon (in Myanmar). It's a unique place. It's like time stood still - it's literally a city in a time warp. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Yangon was the most wealthy and cosmopolitan city in Southeast Asia. That's reflected in the buildings; it's full of grand mansions built by rich merchants from Iran, Armenia, India, Malaysia, China and many other places. It's completely dilapidated now and they're on the brink of losing it. I'm working with the Yangon Heritage Trust, an NGO, in a consultancy role. Of course, everyone there wants to improve their living conditions; they want good sanitation and proper plumbing and air conditioning. The developers and residents see crumbling facades and think, "Let's get rid of it and build something new and shiny." What I do is to try to bring parties together to design a workable alternative whereby new life is injected into old buildings and residents can stay. Usually, the conservationists and the government are at loggerheads but, on this occasion, they're collaborating because, thankfully, the government sees the value of preserving the old city centre.
IDISCOVER ASIA With my team at Urban Discovery I've developed a series of apps called iDiscover City Walks. In Hong Kong, the app offers guided walks around Sheung Wan, Wan Chai, Sham Shui Po and Sai Kung. We also cover six cities in Indonesia, and we're developing two (walks) in Macau and one in Yangon. Heritage-themed walks usually focus on just the buildings. Our walks are about the intangible heritage - the soul of the neighbourhood and what's happening in the buildings. The app is aimed at people who don't speak Cantonese and is designed to make you feel like you're walking around with a local friend. As an outsider, I always felt too intimidated to eat in the local cafes and dai pai dongs. You have no idea what they're serving or what to order. With the app, you learn a bit about how the food is made, and the cultural context and etiquette. The cooks at one place we feature use a traditional bamboo stick to flatten the noodles, which gives them a superior consistency. We also introduce some unusual things like turtle jelly and snake wine. We like to encourage people to venture a little way outside their comfort zone, but never too far.
Download iDiscover City Walks for free in the App Store or at www.i-discoverasia.com