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From December last year to February this year, I was in Perth, Australia for the first time since 2019. It was nice to take a flight and enjoy airports and travel again.

I flew Shanghai-Hong Kong and Hong Kong-Perth so I had to finish watching the movie Drive My Car after the transfer. I probably wouldn’t have watched it if I’d known the screenplay was a mashup of two Murakami short stories but the thought did cross my mind that it had his characteristic cross of whimsy and stylization. I let myself be taken along for the ride and would have watched it again but the plane had already crossed the north-west coastline and there wasn’t the time before landing.

In the first few days after arriving there was catching up with family and friends as well as Covid finally catching up with me.

Christmas was subdued but once I was okay, I didn’t have to go too far out of my way to pass by places I’d lived in and other familiar streets.

This post is a collection of observations and thoughts mainly to do with the built environment. I won’t repeat things I’ve already said in other posts. One thing I noticed and appreciated was the abundance of birdlife.

Apart from the quality of the air and the blueness of the sky, it was good to see so many trees, even if they’re increasingly confined to municipality-owned land such as parks, open space, roadside verges and median strips. The part of town I stayed in is blessed with a large amount of open space for walkers, joggers, picnickers, dog walkers, horse riders and sportspeople. It’s appreciated but also taken for granted. It’s not something I’ve seen in other countries I’ve lived in. There’s also a lot of other open space such as median strips with significant trees and ample roadside verges between the road and the footpath. I’m not used to this either. It even seems a bit wasteful, especially when housing plots and the houses on them are becoming smaller and smaller. There’s a mismatch between the generosity of public space and the meagreness of private ownership.

Fewer large trees exist on new residential subdivisions because any special design adaptation would hinder the rate of building. And fewer large trees exist on newly subdivided blocks because there’s simply not the space. The past twenty years have seen many developments such as this next one where four houses have been built on land formerly occupied by one. Even though this site has a slope, a shared underground driveway and car park would destroy the illusion of houses that feel independent, if not detached. This is why 20% of the plot is used for a driveway rather than garden.

Here’s the process in motion. The photograph on the right is the rear of the five houses on the right side of the plot subdivisions up for sale. The sign says the agent speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s a nice place to live if you like a temperate climate and nearby open space. The Joondalup area further north has a large lake and is popular with Brits who can have a house with a swimming pool (but not much else) in the backyard, and also with Chinese who like being close to a lake.

Even in the garden centre, I didn’t see that many large plants or trees on sale and assumed this was because fewer people have large gardens anymore. The plants for sale were mostly for borders or to grow against fences.

I’d never seen a solar-powered garden owl before although an aunt of mine did have a small goldfish pond with a knome sitting on a rock.

I do like a bit of DIY. Despite not being particularly adept at it, the sense of achievement at wanting to do something and finding out that you can do it yourself is incredible. I’ve never paid anybody to assemble something from IKEA, although I’m sure they’d do it faster and probably better.

You see less lawn and grassed roadside verges and more gardens such as this formed by native plants surrounded by bark chips. It’s low maintenance, and though during summer it’s still watered in the evening every third day, it requires far less water. A variation involves plants surrounded by a layer of black plastic (to discourage weed growth) covered with large black or white pebbles. This was more popular in the 1970s.

Native plants don’t take kindly to being transplanted and so some initial care is needed. If one is going to hand-water, then a retractable garden hose is the business. I wish they’d existed when I was a kid.

For two nights, I was in the town of Busselton, a few hours from Perth by train and bus. The hotel was relaxed.

The train passed through farmland with a mix of agriculture and livestock and all this was new to me as the coastal town itself.

Australian country towns are like time capsules of architecture you don’t see any more in the cities. Most houses still have lawns. I saw many beds of roses and nostalgic shrubs.

Back in the city, seeing this sign cheered me up. It was good to see simple expedience and the urgency of information triumph over graphic design and design as branding. Sure, I’d have noticed the fancy new sign of some new establishment anyway and I may even have appreciated the cleverness of the name of the graphics of a logo but it wouldn’t have occurred to me how unnecessarily over-designed its was. This sign made me think what else could benefit from similar enlightenment.

New Objective Reality?

While in Perth, I bought Chinese science fiction writer Cixin LIU’s novels The Supernova Era which I finished in Busselton, and his The Three Body Problem trilogy [praised by Barack Obama] to read on the way back. I learned that Netflix has finished filming an English language version of The Three Body Problem. A 30-episode Chinese television adaptation of the first novel began in China on January 15.

Many pages later, I reached my familiar surroundings of Wenzhou, China by way of a transfer in Kuala Lumpur and a two-day stopover in Guangzhou, two places different again.

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