A brief return to Toronto

Toronto, Canada
Toronto is one of my favorite cities in the world, not because of traveling, but that it is probably the best city I’ve ever lived in. As a university student, I spent several years in Canada’s biggest city, and this came after many visits as a kid and teenager to see my grandma and other relatives there. Toronto is clean, safe, and prosperous, which makes it seem boring, but it’s also very diverse and multicultural. You can meet and interact with people from all over the world, whether it’s the Caribbean or Asia or the Middle East or Africa. Almost half of its population was born overseas, which is more than New York City or London. Anyways, since graduating from university and coming to Asia, I hadn’t been back to Toronto until last year.

While I saw some of my relatives and visited my grandmother’s grave (she passed away in my final year), I also spent time walking around downtown and checking out some sights. It was a strange feeling playing tourist in a place you’ve lived in for years but it was also pleasant. The time went by fast even though I spent five full days in total there as I balanced family visits and travel.

Toronto was as pleasant as before, but it seemed to have gotten more upscale and has more shiny buildings and skyscrapers. It even has a new, fast train between its Pearson airport and downtown that is just as modern and convenient as any airport train in Asia. Of course, its subway system is still rather modest (trains were newer but the lines were the same and the new card system was a bit inefficient), but as they say, some things never change.
CN Tower, Toronto, Canada
The CN Tower was the world’s tallest structure and tower up until 2007 and 2009, respectively. Having been
up the CN Tower several times when I was younger, I didn’t bother to this time
Toronto, Canada
Ripley’s Aquarium, next to the CN Tower, did not exist when I was in Toronto.
Toronto, Canada
Chinatown mural
Toronto, Canada
Union Station, Toronto’s main train station and airport train terminus, and the CN Tower
Toronto, Canada
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
Royal Ontario Museum and its “Crystal” front extension
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
The ROM was just as fascinating as when I last visited, sometime in the early 2000s!
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada Toronto, Canada
Nathan Phillip’s Square, featuring the two curved buildings of City Hall
Toronto, Canada
Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre stands out on Yonge Street (Toronto’s main downtown street
but which actually runs 56 km from Toronto to Lake Simcoe)
Toronto, Canada
Another shot of Union Station and the CN Tower at night
Eaton Centre, Toronto, Canada
Eaton Centre, iconic downtown shopping centre
Toronto, Canada
Massey Hall, one of Toronto’s most well-known arts performance venues, which was built in 1894

Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.

Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).

Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.

Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.

The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.
As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.

While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.

I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.

As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.

Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.

I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

Bleak outlook for the generation of 20- and 30-somethings

Vice has this crazy read about the current generation of British 20- and 3o-somethings, who just don’t and can’t stop partying and living like teenagers. Basically, for many of these people, life has gotten comfortable enough to the extent that people don’t have any meaningful purpose due to a lack of significant responsibilities like marriage, parenting and owning a home that our parents went through at the same age. As a result, a lot of people spent a lot of time partying and getting drunk and wasted, in other words, living like they did as teenagers and university students.

But it’s not all their fault because decent jobs are scarce while home prices have risen so much that most working- and middle-class young folks find it hard to buy their own home. I’m not British, and neither does my life resemble the worst parts of the article, but I can feel some sympathy. The problem is especially bad in London where a lot of “endies” – employed with no disposable income or savings – struggle to save money, especially to buy a home. Though one could wonder why young people in other parts of the Western world like the US, Canada or say, Western Europe aren’t engaging in the same kind of drunken antics frequently as well, despite facing similar problems of skyrocketing home prices, comfortable lives, and delayed marriages and birth rates.

The problems, socially though not behaviorally, exist in East Asia too, specifically Hong Kong and Taiwan with regards to the low levels of marriage (which includes myself as I’m single), births, and home ownership due to skyrocketing home prices. Japan also has this problem, and back in 2012, I came upon an FT article that described this problem with young people’s lack of ambition and chances.
In HK, the problem is especially acute because home prices are among the, if not the highest in the world and many of these homes are so tiny (and these aren’t even cheap). Affordable and public housing is sparse and a significant number of new developments are luxury apartments. A lot of young people are living with their parents, even young married couples working decent jobs like the couple mentioned in this article, incidentally about HKers escaping rising home prices by immigrating to Taiwan.

Yet home prices in Taiwan are not cheap for young Taiwanese either. The problem is especially serious in Taipei where rising home prices mean many young, middle-class people can’t afford homes and have been forced to rent or move out to surrounding areas. The recent local election saw the ruling KMT lose municipalities across Taiwan including Taipei due to problems like inequality and out-of-reach home prices (and what many perceive as a focus on boosting China economic ties that only benefit local tycoons while unable to benefit most people).
Incidentally I missed this news way back in August, but it’s an interesting development that mainlanders have been buying homes and property in Taiwan since 2002, mainly through Taiwanese middlemen or shell corporations set up in other places like Hong Kong. Hell, there’s even an apartment project in Tamsui that was built by a mainland developer (through its Singapore associate company). Allowing more mainland buyers in Taiwan to buy homes would also push prices up, or rather push developers to build more luxury apartments like Hong Kong, since these mainland buyers are mostly wealthy.

In Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, things are tough too when it comes to buying apartments (condominiums). So tough that for many 30-something couples, the main way they’re able to afford homes is the “Bank of Mom and Dad” – money from parents.
Frankly, this could be applied to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. While I’ve yet to see articles that explicitly state this, I know from talking to people and family that many parents in East Asia pay for their children’s homes or at least pay off the deposit.

At the same time, it’s not as if young people can be spared all blame. There are other factors too such as that with the development of technology and materialism, there are so much more things to spend money on such as vacations, electronic devices and services. And as such, it’s harder to save up money and most young people don’t develop this habit.
In some countries like the US, this is exacerbated by a situation where things like say, health care and tuition are getting higher while clothes and electronic devices like TVs and computers are getting cheaper.
The problem is less so in East Asia, especially in Taiwan where health insurance is nationwide and extremely affordable.

This trend of home prices rising way beyond the reach of young, educated workers seems to be prevalent across the world, from the UK to Canada to East Asia to even China. And while it hardly gets mentioned, I’m certain housing markets and economies face a looming crisis down the road as societies age, birthrates drop, and 20- and 30-somethings are unable to continue buying homes at the same rate as their parents and grandparents.

Hopefully the future will not be as bleak for current 20- and 30-somethings in Asia like how the Vice article suggests it is in the UK.

India’s second carrier and Toronto’s mayoral ‘show’

China might have one major aircraft carrier, but India now has two, though one is over 50 years old. However, India is building a new one which will come into service in 2017. India is clearly building up its navy which is shaping up to have blue-water (ocean) capabilities, and which in the past lagged behind its army and air force. India isn’t the only Asian nation that is making waves (pardon the pun) recently with its navy. Just a few months ago in August, Japan unveiled a massive destroyer which has a large flat deck that allows it to carry helicopters – a so-called helicopter destroyer or rather helicopter carrier/mini-carrier in disguise.

In something that seems more like a bad comedy movie than reality, Canada’s largest city Toronto has moved into the international spotlight as it remains locked in a tense state of affairs with its ranting, raving, cracksmoking, football-coaching mayor Rob Ford. So much so, the Toronto Star has a complete section “devoted” to him. All the hilarity and smirking aside, it’s unfortunate that this has happened to Toronto, which is a very fine city, and that Rob Ford has turned into this. He was a city councilor when I was in university, and he had a reputation for being outspoken and frugal, especially in hardly using up his office budget which every councilor gets, presumably because he thought it was extravagant and unnecessary. It’s good to be a straightalker when it comes to talking about policies and helping the city, but another to be going on about beating up people, smoking illegal drugs, or even oral sex (not exaggerating).

In sad news, the World’s Biggest Bookstore will close next February. This giant bookstore, which fully occupies a 3-story, former theater in Toronto’s downtown near the landmark Eaton Center, was a favorite place of mine to go to whenever I went downtown. The store was chockfull of novels, nonfiction, comics, magazines and it was a good place to browse and read in. Its great location is precisely what will see it close down since the building is being sold off to a property developer, no doubt to be converted into something much more meaningful such as a 5-star hotel, restaurants or office building.

A little Toronto reading

Came across this blog post on Toronto FC that gives an interesting take of the city and its decline and rise. It’s too bad that Toronto FC’s onfield “achievements” have been in complete contrast to its rabid fan support, one of the league’s best. It’s kind of like the Maple Leafs, the NHL’s most famous franchise but which has endured 5 or 6 straight non-playoff seasons, which is sad. I’m hoping next MLS season, Toronto FC will get better.

The tough streets of …

When I studied in Toronto, I volunteered with a homeless youth outreach team for a couple of years and several summers. What Light Patrol does is go out onto the streets and expressways of the city weekday nights in a giant red mobile home (they also have a small camper van) and visit homeless and poor people, letting them come onboard and serving them food, hot drinks as well as clothes and minor medical and cosmetic supplies. It was a really eye-opening and humbling experience, seeing the destitution and bleakness involving young people in one of Canada’s and the world’s most prosperous cities. It was also a rewarding experience, not trying to be vain or anything, in serving with the staff and other volunteers to interact with those people and help them in various ways. This is a fine piece about Light Patrol, showing how it came about and describing what it does.

I know I said young people above, but our street friends as we referred to them, were actually a mix of ages, backgrounds and circumstances, though the majority were usually less than 25. There were teenagers, 20 and 30-somethings, seniors and people aged in between. You had youngsters who had run away from home or had been on the streets for less than a year, the odd number of older teens or 20-somethings who were just drifting around the country for the summer playing at being homeless, the street vets, from 20-something to 50-something, some of whom had spent decades homeless or living in shelters, and then there were those who lived in cheap subsidised housing and were jobless and struggling to pay for food and other necessities (needless to say many of them had  addictions to alcohol or drugs or the like). The thing about Light Patrol is that in “prowling” the streets and expressways and parks at night, the type of people they helped weren’t mostly the kinds of people who lived in shelters. Whether young or middle-aged or even old (living on the streets really ages you so people look and have health similar to those much older than they really are), many folks simply hated being confined inside a building, not to mention harboring a strong dislike and suspicion towards authority and rules and regulations. Not exactly a practical attitude to life, I know, but it’s a little more understandable if you knew the circumstances and experiences of some of these guys.

The reasons for these people being on the streets aren’t really surprising. There was a small minority of people who were on the streets due to a kind of recklessness and daredevil attitude, but for the vast majority, there was a lot of horror stories and tragedies involved. Whether it was being abused or neglected by alcoholic step-parents or growing up bouncing around from foster home to foster home or being sexually harassed by a parent or growing up on reservations surrounded by alcoholism, suicides and physical abuse, our street friends certainly had some terrible circumstances that they wanted to escape from.