From Film House to Ghost House: 8 Former Embassies around the World

September 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

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SPOT – Taipei Film House

The latest issue of Travel and Leisure includes a “Definitive Guide to Taipei.” I guess I’m a little out of touch with the magazine’s regular readership, because I lived in Taipei for 10 years and I’ve only been to one of the hot spots that they listed. I’m not talking about the general areas. I’ve been to Daan, I just haven’t sipped tea at Cha Cha Thé. And I’ve spent time at Beitou, but I’ve never experienced the hot-spring spas at Villa 32.

One place I have been, though, was mentioned as a favorite by one of their “insiders.” Designer Chrystal Wang tells readers,

Catch a movie at Spot, a colonial-style mansion turned theater that shows indie and art-house films. The charming café next door is the perfect place for afternoon tea.

While Wang’s description is accurate, it’s somewhat incomplete. The building us much more than just “a colonial-style mansion.” It’s the former US embassy.

Built in the 1920s by the occupying Japanese, the building housed ambassadors until being closed in 1979, when the US severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Then, after being abandoned for nearly 20 years, the renovated structure reopened in 2002. Now the ambassador’s garage has become an 88-seat movie theater; the coat room is a gift shop; and the reception room is the C25 Coffee Shop.

The embassy in Taiwan is not the only one that has been given a new identity. Many structures around the globe have shed their diplomatic functions and have taken on new roles.

Here are seven:

The US embassy in Tehran

The site of the hostage crisis that began in 1979. The building is now an anti-US-themed museum.

The French Embassy in Tokyo

Scheduled for demolition in 2010, the former French embassy to Japan opened its doors to nearly 100 French and Japanese artists for a giant art exhibit, entitled “No Man’s Land.” Arstcape Japan reports that the installations included one room with every surface covered in clay, “manga-inspired paintings that juxtapose Japanese ultranationalist and grotesque horrorshow motifs,” and “surreal photos of hermit crabs.”

The Iraqi Embassy in Berlin

Abandoned since 1990 when East Germany became no more, the “Ghost Embassy” is open for anyone to wander through. The United Arab Emirates’ newspaper The National, reports that the rooms of the crumbling building are littered with broken glass and abandoned files. Owned by Germany but leased perpetually to Iraq, the property seems to belong to no one. Desolate and available, the embassy became the setting for a music video made by Irish composer Eutechnik (Brian Smith).

The Somali Embassy in Rome

In 2011, the dilapidated building was home to over 100 Somali refugees waiting to receive asylum status. The compound has been abandoned since the Somali government collapsed in the 1990s. “Rats are our neighbors,” Mohammed, one of the refugees, tells Radio Netherlands Worldwide. “No, our friend,” says Ibrahim.

The Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The Neo-Renaissance building is going to get an 8-story addition and will hold over 100 upscale condos. The Washington Post quotes the zoning commission as calling the finished product “a modernist ‘hyphen’ connecting the old with the new.” It will include six residences set aside at “affordable” rates for people who earn 80% or less of D.C.’s median income.

The Canadian High Commission in London

In 1961 the Canadian diplomatic mission moved into the former US embassy on Grosvenor Square, in London, naming it MacDonald House. The Canadians have since left, and last year, the Indian Lodha Group bought the seven-storey building for over half a billion dollars. Of the location, Abhishek Lodha, the group’s managing director, tells The Guardian, “1 Grosvenor Square is the best address in the world and we will create a world-class development which befits the status of this address.” The newspaper calls the planned residential project “another super-luxe enclave for the world’s super-rich.”

The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.

If you’re in the market for a move-in ready space that’s cat friendly, here are some of the salient points from an ad for the Historic Chinese Embassy Luxury Condos on 19th Street in D.C.

Price Range: $515,000 – $995,000
Sq Ft Range: 1,030 – 2,314 sq ft
Year Built: 1902
Style: Repurposed
Private Outdoor Space: Yes
Doorman/Concierge: No
Pets: Cats Only

(“T+L’s Definitive Guide to Taipei,” Travel and Leisure,” September 2014; “SPOT-Taipei Film House,” Taiwan Ministry of Culture; Alan Gleason, “No Man’s Land: Artists Amok in an Abandoned Embassy,” artscape Japan; David Crossland, “Iraq’s ‘Ghost Embassy’ in East Berlin,” The National, May 10, 2010; Angelo van Schaik, “120 Somalis Stuck in Former Embassy in Rome,” Radio Netherlands Worldwide, January 5, 2011; Christine MacDonald, “Developers to Convert Former Italian Embassy into Upscale Condos,” The Washington Post, February 5, 2014; Jennifer Rankin, “Indian Developer Pays 306m for Canadian High Commission Building,” The Guardian, November 29, 2013)

[photo: "The Spot aka the Taiwan Film House," by ctsnow, used under a Creative Commons license]

When I Was Eleven . . . No One Made a Movie about Me

September 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

6878794757_82b564e1a2_mWhen I was eleven . . . no one made a movie about me.

The same cannot be said of Jiter, Goh, Siham, Giorgi, Jack, Oliver, Billy, Obey, Remya, Rika, Vandana, Priya, Dagan, Sree Kutty, Sam, Sahin, Luca, Fang, Osama, Kim, Grace, and Sharif. They are the subjects of a documentary, filmed over a period of six years by Australian Genevieve Bailey, called I Am Eleven.  The children, all (of course) eleven years old, are from India, Thailand, Morocco, France, Bulgaria, England, the US, Australia, Japan, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, China, and the Czech Republic.

When I was eleven . . . I was trying to figure out the world. And I’d guess that the words that came out of my mouth were sometimes ridiculous and sometimes profound.

Sounds like these kids.

What about when you were eleven? Let everybody know at wheniwaseleven.com.

[photo: "Aluminium Tag Bingo Number 11," by Leo Reynolds, used under a Creative Commons license]

The City with the Most Cosmopolitan Skyline in the World—Gets an Update

July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

519MBW3HVQLIt’s the most globalized, most international, most architecturally inclusive city in the world. The fact that it’s fictional is irrelevant.

It’s Babe’s city, and it’s the setting for one of the best cross-cultural films ever made—Babe: Pig in the City. When Babe and Esme Hoggett travel from their English farm to big-city USA, it’s not just Europe and the Americas colliding. There’s all sorts of collisions between species as well, with—to name a few—humans, dogs, cats, apes, mice, a duck, and, of course, a pig.

A wide shot of Babe’s city shows a wonderfully crowded skyline of landmarks from around the world. There’s the Chrysler Building, Big Ben, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, Christ the Redeemer, and more, all brought together in one metropolis.

Babe’s city was first revealed in  1998, and now, years later, it looks as if several skyscrapers have been added to its horizon. Not only that, but Franklin Templeton Investments has joined the neighborhood. The evidence is the Franklin Templeton commercial “Global Perspective,” which shows the additions of Burj Khalifa, the Petronas Towers, London’s “Gherkin,” and the list goes on. Of course, development comes with a price, as it seems that several structures had to be razed to make room for the new arrivals (Christ the Redeemer’s outstretched arms are nowhere to be seen). Makes sense. Rarely do you have enough real estate available to put in your own Mount Fuji.

So where exactly is Babe’s city? Well, in the movie, it looks as if it’s on the East Coast. And in the commercial, we can narrow it down to an area above Ben Franklin’s left eye. If that doesn’t make sense, you’ll need to watch the ad—and while you’re at it, see how many landmarks you can identify.

Brian Stokle at Urban Life Signs has analyzed the Franklin Templeton commercial and shows some pretty good evidence that the city has been built up on Downtown Vancouver. But I’m not convinced. To my knowledge, Babe has never set foot in Canada. (Visit Stokle’s post, “World Skyline,” for a rundown of the landmarks in the commercial, as well as a shot-by-shot description and other “geeky analysis and research.”)

“Global Perspectives” has been around for a couple years, and I may have seen parts of it before, but it caught my eye two weekends ago when I saw Taipei 101 sporting Benjamin Franklin’s face. That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem: According to a recent China Post article, Franklin Templeton Investments occupies office space in the Taiwan skyscraper. No word yet on when Ben’s face will actually adorn the facade.

(Brian Stokle, “World Skyline,” Urban Life Signs, June 20, 2012; Ted Chen, “Chinese Company to Establish Office in 101,” The China Post, July 5, 2014)

Facebook Is, Like, a Big Deal

June 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

5133070639_e19172367b_mWelcome to the new Clearing Customs, with a new look, a new logo, and a new Facebook page!

I heard Facebook is getting kind of popular, so I thought it was about time this blog got on board. (Actually, I’ve been posting to Facebook on my personal site for some time, but now I’ve created facebook.com/clearingcustoms and will switch over completely soon.)

Your likes are appreciated.

8 Keys for Reaching the Facebook Masses

Facebook. It’s a big deal not just in the US, it’s a big deal all over the world . . . except in the four countries that, according to Mother Jones, currently are at least trying to block it: China, Iran, North Korea, and Vietnam.

The Guardian reports that at the end of 2013, there were 1.23 billion people in the world using Facebook, with 556 million of them getting it on the go, using smartphones and tablets to access the site every day.

Reaching all those people, and getting them to respond, doesn’t have to be hit or miss. According to a new study released by TrackMaven, there are 8 keys to Facebook success (and maybe they’ll help my blogging out, too):

1. Thursday is the most popular day for posting on Facebook, but posts on Sunday get the most interactions. (check)

2. 88% of posts include photos, and they garner 37% more interactions than posts without.

5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m (check, check, check, check, check)

3. 67.3% of entries are written at or below the 5th grade level, with the highest percentage (17.5) composed at a level comprehensible by an average first grader. Facebook is easy. Facebook is fun. Facebook is easy and fun. (got it)

4. About 94% of posts have 49 or fewer words, but posts with 80 or more words average twice as much engagement as those that are shorter. (already there)

5. Share is the most effective call-to-action word for garnering interactions, compared to pleaselike, and now. I thought I would share this with you, so please share it with others. Share and share alike, I always say. (done)

6. 84% of posts have no hashtags, but those that do get more audience engagement. #Seven #hashtags #is #the #most #effective. (#saynomore)

7. Likewise, for maximum interactions, seven exclamation points—That’s right!! Seven!!!—is the best number! (great!)

8. And, now, are you ready for the last one? Are you sure? OK, here it is: The best amount of question marks is—are you really ready?—nine. Can you believe it? Do you agree? Yes? No? Maybe? (could it be any easier?)

Hey, now that I know the secrets of Facebook, maybe I should take a look at that Twitter-thing.

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(Dana Liebelson, “MAP: Here Are the Countries That Block Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,” Mother Jones, March 28, 2014; Jemima Kiss, “Facebook’s 10th Birthday: From College Dorm to 1.23 Billion Users,” The Guardian, February 3, 2014; The Marketing Maven’s Guide to Facebook, TrackMaven, 2014)

[photo: "Like," by Adam Fagen, used under a Creative Commons license; illustration: "Facebook Like Button," by Patrick Nouhailler, used under a Creative Commons license]

An Upside Down Globe: The Wait Is Over, Now the Waiting Begins

April 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

6476736633_2787abca7b_zWhen I wrote “8 Maps and Globes That Will Change Your Perspective of the World,” I decried the lack of an upside-down globe and suggested that Bellerby & Co. Globemakers might be able to help out. Peter Bellerby read the post and commented, “An upside down globe was actually in future planning!” and added, “Pictures to come soon, just been working on finishing the design today!” Well, five months later, Mr. Bellerby, true to his word, announced in his blog “Exactly Why We Made an ‘Upside-Down Globe.’” He also included a link to an article from Al Jazeera America, “How the North Ended Up on Top of the Map.”

In this month’s issue of United Airlines’ Hemispheres Magazine, Chris Wright tells of his visit to Bellerby and Co., where he saw a bespoke upside-down globe, commissioned by a Brazilian law firm. Rotating and repositioning all the place names, says Mr. Bellerby, was “a challenge.”

Even trickier, perhaps, was coming to terms with the way the new world looks. “It’s crazy,” Bellerby says, his nose inches away from the upward-pointing Cape of Good Hope. Also, unless you approach the globe on your hands and knees, a lot of the interesting stuff is hidden away.

“There’s so much going on in the Northern Hemisphere,” says Bellerby, pointing to a barren expanse of blue. “Even the Antarctic, which is amazing, is just a lot of white.”

I had checked on Mr. Bellerby’s progress after a comment a few days ago from a reader named Lori: “I, too, have been searching for an upside-down globe! I am amazed that nobody has made one. The world is waiting for this.”

Well, Lori, the wait is over, because the upside-down globe is here, not just for a law firm in Brazil but for all of us.

Well, actually, for most of us, the wait continues. Take a look at “The Upside Down Curve,” and you’ll see that it’s an impressive—and expensive—piece of art. Even the base was “designed by the team who made the accommodation pods for the British Antarctic Survey” and is “brought to life by heritage technicians from Aston Martin.” So with its price of £14,950 ($25,000), I’ll still be waiting for quite some time . . . for the exchange rate to collapse or for a dramatic increase in my disposable income.

Mr. Bellerby tells Wright in his article, “The idea of selling a globe with a mistake is my biggest horror.” That must mean that his studio is filled with not-quite-perfect attempts at perfection. So if I could get just a small piece of a discarded upside-down gore, that would be enough for me. I would frame it and display it proudly. Oh, Mr. Bellerby, that would make the minutes go by more quickly as I anticipate a complete upheaval of the global economy or a million-dollar inheritance from the secret rich uncle I’ve never met.

I can dream, can’t I? And I can wait. And I can think.

When I originally wrote about an upside-down globe, I closed with the phrase, “It’s got me thinking.”

I’m still thinking. This time, I’m wondering what would happen if a typical globe and a reversed globe were placed side by side. Would the result be something like this?

(Chris Wright, “Up Is the New Down: A Master Globemaker Turns the World on Its Head,” Hemispheres, April 1, 2014)

[photo: "Untitled," by GraceOda, used under a Creative Commons license]

Peanut Butter and Nutella: A Tale of Two Spreads

April 15, 2014 § 3 Comments

6398248857_aefa147739_mA few days ago I was the only one in the house at lunch time and I couldn’t find the peanut butter to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

No peanut butter? Why, it seemed downright un-American. And not only that, but it was nothing less than a betrayal of my upbringing.

An American Staple

Writing in the Pacific Standard, Karina Martinez-Carter quotes Jon Krampner, author of Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food. “Peanut butter,” he says, “embodies the raw primordial heart of American childhood.”

PB&Js are so fundamental to our formative years that, according to the National Peanut Board, the average American will eat 1,500 before graduating from high school.

Peanut butter is part of what makes America America. Even those from outside our borders know it’s so.

While it’s not nearly so popular around the world, once people arrive in the US, they are pulled in by the gooey spread. After giving us another quotation from Krampner—“immigrant kids tend to take to it as a part of their Americanization process”—Martinez-Carter tells of her own experiences:

My father is a first-generation Mexican immigrant and my sister adopted from China, and our cupboard reliably contained a jar of peanut butter we dug into daily. Much like how my sister’s English as a Second Language class teacher screened the classic Disney movies for her kindergarten students to catch them up on cultural references, developing a taste for peanut butter is a component of the acculturation process in the U.S. It is sustenance for understanding America.

Peanuts have their own story to tell about immigrating to America. According to the National Peanut Board, Europeans first came across peanuts while exploring Brazil. Later, Spanish explorers brought peanuts back home from their excursions into the “new world.” From Spain, they were introduced to Asia and Africa. And finally, in the 1700s, Africans brought peanuts to what is now the US.

But it wasn’t until 1884 that Canadian Marcellus Gilmore Edson received a US patent for creating a peanut paste, which he used for making a type of peanut candy. In 1895, John Harvey Kellog invented his own version of peanut butter, a year after he and his brother invented corn flakes. And peanut butter got it’s public debut at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, when C. H. Sumner sold it at his concession stand.

Now, back to my can’t-find-the-peanut-butter dilemma. I’d already spread my jelly, and I had to eat. So I did what I had to do . . . and used Nutella instead.

The Hazelnut Alternative

6398251975_042c8b2e79_mThere it was, a jar of Nutella sitting where I thought the peanut butter should be. (Since we’re still unpacking from our move, there are a lot of things out of place.)

I don’t know where it had come from.

Well actually I do. It had come from all over the world.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD), Nutella is such a good example of the “global value chain” that the group used the chocolate-flavored hazelnut spread as a case study for one of its policy papers.

Here’s the globality of Nutella: Ferrero, the Italian company that produces Nutella, is headquartered in Germany. The ten factories that make Nutella are located in the European Union, Russia, Turkey, North America, South America, and Australia. As for the ingredients, a list with their origins includes

  • hazelnuts mainly from Turkey
  • palm oil from Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Brazil
  • cocoa mainly from Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Ecuador
  • sugar mainly from Europe
  • vanilla flavor from the Europe and the US

Put it all together and you have a product that’s sold in 75 countries. OECD even made a map to show Nutella’s main suppliers, factories, and main sales offices.

Invented by Pietro Ferrero in the 1940s, Nutella has become the self-proclaimed “number one spread in Europe.” And while it hasn’t yet become a major competitor to peanut butter in the US, it does have it’s devoted Stateside fans.

Take, for instance, the students of Columbia University. Last year, the Columbia Daily Spectator, the school’s newspaper, launched headlines around the country when it reported that in just the first week Nutella was added to the menu at two dining halls, students went through $5,000 worth of the spread. Dining Services said that students were consuming up to 100 pounds of Nutella daily. And by “consuming,” I mean eating it for meals and stealing jars to take home. It was what one student called “all you can eat, and all you can hide.”

If that rate held up, noted the Spectator, it would cost the dining halls $250,000 a year.

But, alas, the numbers didn’t quite hold up. Another article in the newspaper two days later reported that the first week’s Nutella demand actually cost Dining Services $2,500, not $5,000, and the amount quickly faded to $450 a week after that. But even with the revised numbers, that’s still a lot of hazelnut spread.

I guess I can see the appeal. Nutella isn’t necessarily my thing, but I’m sure I would have liked it when I was in college. My mother never let me eat chocolate frosting by the spoonful when I was growing up, but at college, with no Mom looking over my shoulder, I could have eaten all the frosting . . . uh . . . Nutella I’d wanted.

Well, my college days are now long behind me, and I have new voices in my ear (many of which sound a lot like Mom’s). I don’t think I’ll ever develop an extreme taste for Nutella. I do like a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, though. You really are what you eat, or at least you are what you ate when you were a kid. And I sure did eat a lot of PB&J sandwiches.

PB&Js. What a strange thing, my friend from Asia once told me. She had never seen one, but she’d heard about them. Why, she asked, would Americans want a sandwich made from peanuts, butter, and jelly. Strange indeed.

(Karina Martinez-Carter, “As American as Peanut Butter,” Pacific Standard, February 14, 2014; “Fun Facts,” National Peanut Board; “History,” Peanut Butter Lovers; Koen D. Backer and Sébastien Miroudot, “Mapping Global Value Chains,” OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 159, OECD Publishing,  2013; Cecilia Reyes, “Nutella in Ferris Booth Costs Dining $5,000 per Week, in Part Due to Dining Hall Thievery,” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 5, 2013; Finn Vigeland, “University Says Nutella Cost $2,500 in First Week, less than $500 After,” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 7, 2013)

[photos: "Jif Peanut Butter" and "Nutella," by Brian Cantoni, used under a Creative Commons license]

The World’s Largest Ships: Hauling Our Stuff around the Globe

March 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

I can still see the container delivering our furniture and household goods as it shuddered around the street corner on the back of a truck in our Taipei neighborhood. It looked so very, very big, and in a single moment, we had become the rich Americans that we didn’t want to be.

If we were to move to Taipei again, we’d plan on buying most things there, since, through the years, we ended up replacing most of what we took over anyway. But this isn’t a post about what was in our container. Rather it’s about the containers themselves. In fact, it’s about 18,000 of them.

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Triple-E vessel Majestic Mærsk visits Copenhagen

Containers look a lot smaller when they’re stacked up at a dock or on a ship—like multi-colored Lego blocks locked neatly together. And nowhere do they seem smaller than when they’re sitting atop a Triple-E.

18,000. That’s how many 20-foot containers that a Triple-E, the world’s largest ship, can hold. The Triple-E is class of container ships built in Korea by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering for the Danish company Maersk. When production is finished, there will be 20 of these giant ships in service.

Just how big is the Triple-E? It is 400 meters (nearly a quarter of a mile) long, 59 meters (194 feet) wide, and 73 meters (240 feet) tall. Not counting ballast and cargo, it weighs about 55,000 tons. According to The Telegraph, it has enough space to carry 36,000 cars or 111 million pairs of shoes. It’s too big for the Panama Canal and no US port is large enough to receive it.

While the Triple-E is the largest ship in service, it’s not the largest ever built. The Maersk website World’s Largest Ship states that that title goes to the Knock Nevis, a super tanker that measured 458 meters (1,500 feet) before it was scrapped in 2010. And the Triple-E won’t hold the “biggest” distinction for long. Scheduled to begin service in 2017, the Prelude is being built by Samsung Heavy Industries for Shell. This “ship” won’t travel under its own power but will be towed to a location off the coast of Australia where it will be anchored, serving as a “floating liquefied natural gas platform.” The Prelude will be 488 meters (1,600 feet) long and will weigh over 600,000 metric tons.

But for the next few years, the Triple-E will reign supreme. Here’s a clip from Discovery’s series on the ship.

And this video is a time lapse of the Triple-E being built.

And, oh yeah, remember that comparison to Legos? Here’s another time lapse. This one is of someone putting together Lego’s version of the Triple-E (which can be yours for $149.99)

(Paul Kendall, “The Biggest Ship in the World,” The Telegraph, July 30, 2013; “The World’s Largest Ship,” World’s Largest Ship (Maersk); “Shell’s Record-Breaking Prelude Takes to the Water,” BBC News, December 4, 2013)

[photo courtesy of Maersk]

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