By James Chow

Protected: Hyde Park Speakers Corner

This afternoon I was on the tube trying to decide what to do.

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This happens to me quite often lately. I’m enjoying what is probably the last few months of freedom before working life properly kicks off after graduation in February next year.

In the past few Sundays (and some weekday afternoons) since I had moved to this city, I have been running around town a bit to meet friends, doing stuff and generally checking out the smaller things in London that I had not seen yet. Having purchased a travelpass meant I could take the underground as much as I wanted.

As I was approaching Hyde Park Corner, I suddenly realised that despite being a Toastmaster, I had not checked out the Speakers’ Corner! So I got off and wandered into the beautiful Hyde Park. Smile

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London Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner is the original and most well-known speakers’ corner in the world. Apparently even Karl Marx was a regular speaker here.

I’ve also heard that it is a famous icon for freedom of speech and expression. Anybody can turn up at any time and speak about any topic at all – even if it is offensive – and this right is guaranteed by English common law and the European Convention on Human Rights.

It was a Sunday afternoon with quite an autumn chill, but that did not stop the corner from being packed with people speaking and yelling and debating! Walking into the crowd felt like being in a mob!

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It was quite an interesting sight: random people were just pulling up stools, standing on them, and speaking. Good speakers attracted a huge buzzing crowd. Less proficient speakers had to be content with a few or no audience at all.

Because of freedom to talk about any topic the speaker had in mind, most, if not all, of the topics being spoken there were controversial ones.

The first speaker that I saw was a British Jew who was talking about how Muslims in the Arab world were responsible for the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Palestine.

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Naturally, this offended a number of Arab Muslim members of the audience who started accusing the Jews instead of being responsible.

The debate, while non-violent, became extremely emotionally-charged and soon degenerated into a religious spat with the Arabs accusing the Jews as arrogant, murderous, and ‘deserved to be killed by the Nazis’ and the speaker denouncing the Arabs as backward, barbaric and oppressive to women.

A few members of the audience who argued with the speaker were actually quite eloquent. This Arab Muslim girl, for example, had a relatively intellectual and fact-based debate with the speaker:

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Some other members of the audience, however, were not so calm. Many were highly agitated when the speaker accused Islam of being the cause of women oppression.

At one point, as the speaker took out a copy of the Quran to look up a passage, many Muslims demanded that the Jew turn over the copy and stop ‘desecrating’ it.

There were supporters of the speaker as well in the audience. Several times I was sure that violence was brewing but the people always managed to control themselves.

Whenever a member of the audience asked him not to talk about Islam, the speaker always, almost mechanically, yelled that Britain was a free and democratic country and it was his freedom to speak his mind.

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I really admired the Arab Muslims who, although clearly offended, were able to stay calm and restrain each other from overreacting. They formulated good counter-arguments and counter-questions that made the debate highly illuminating.

One person, however, got out of control and threw his food on the face of the speaker, and left, cursing. That’s not very good.

I took some random short videos of the debate and added in subtitles because people were just yelling here and there and it’s a little hard to listen clearly. It’s my first time adding subtitles so some might be wrong. Nyah-Nyah Viewers’ discretion advised.

(WARNING: contains content and language that may be highly offensive to some people. If you are sensitive to criticisms to religion, race or politics, you should probably just leave it.)

This was when I started thinking it was indeed a brutal business speaking at the Speakers’ Corner. You are speaking to a diverse group of people who have the right to interrupt you any time in any manner. On the other hand, the audience must be prepared to listen to hard talk and respond in a civilised manner as the speaker also has the right to speak.

I glanced around and noticed plain-clothes police patrolling the area. I’m quite sure that with the no holds barred debating style, some violence must have occurred in the past.

But of course, not all speakers were that controversial. Like this young schoolgirl:

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I arrived half-way through her speech which had something to do with her wanting to become a businesswoman in the future, capitalism, politics and making a change.

But even she was not spared from aggressive audiences who attacked her political view and accused her of being greedy and only wanting to make money. I noted that these arguments were highly hostile and not at all polite.

I think despite her very young age, she handled the aggressive situation very well and formulated well-structured responses and arguments.

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Of course, beside racial and political issues, religious speakers were everywhere.

There was this guy who was preaching the Gospel to a crowd of audience who kept contradicted and laughed at him. Although I must say, he wasn’t doing a terribly good job at addressing the criticisms posed to him. He usually responded with a passionate cry of Jesus is the way!

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The next Muslim speaker had a relatively soft voice, but I think he gave a reasonably rational speech arguing for the existence of God from an Islamic perspective. Of course, he too was not spared from critics. He was flanked by a group of devout Christians who relentlessly attacked his arguments.

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I don’t think any of the two were very good debaters. Here’s a short video of some random scenes with the two speakers:

I really loved how random this place was. Suddenly some guy would climb a fence or stand on a barrier and start yelling stuff. This guy below held on to some pole and started delivering a charismatic speech in I think Arabic, attracting a horde of Middle Easterners.

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After listening to four speeches, I was shocked to find that I had spent almost three hours at the speakers’ corner. I had intended to just check the place out for 20 minutes or so but ended up feeling like I could spend the whole day here.

This was a whole new level of public speaking. Although the speakers could hardly be called professional, they were very good in handling criticisms, or at least good in ignoring them. I must admit that I don’t think I’m willing to give a speech there in front of that ruthless mob of an audience. At least not yet!

Some day in the future, I’m sure I’ll develop the guts to stand on a stool and speak in Hyde Park. Just wait for it. Smile

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By James Chow

Protected: Final Trip to Bristol

Just returned from Bristol.

I believe this is the last of my series of short, 3-day trips to Bristol for now. Although I now live in another city, Bristol is still where I feel most at home in this country. It is sad that I will not be seeing it anymore in the near future.

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This is the only place where I’d never need to consult my GPS to get around. This is the place where my school, my friends, and my memories are. So many things have happened here.

This is the second time I’ve travelled here from London this week. I had been rather emotional and nostalgic last time, but I was determined to be less so this time. After all, I was going to stay with my best mates this time!

We went to Syndicate on the first night, which I felt was a very appropriate venue choice considering this was probably my last night out in Bristol. I had gone to Syndicate on my first night out in Bristol when I first arrived, and how appropriate that it should now be my last too.

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Armed with goody-goodies, we were determined to make it unforgettable. And what a night it was! Apart from the environment, it was very interesting to watch an Italian friend (not Giordano) hitting on a Chinese girl but failed. When the girl ended up dancing with another person in our group, he was livid and looked like he was ready to call up a bunch of mafiosos.

At 4am we were still all energetic and found a random place on Brandon Hill, sat down on the grass in darkness, and just chatted. We talked about so many things, some are stuff that we, despite being very close friends, had not talked about before.

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Despite sleeping at seven, I had to wake up at 12PM because I was going to have lunch with Allen and Helen, my former flatmates. I was quite looking forward to this as, apart from Cherry and Grace, I would have had personal, one-on-one farewell meals with each and every one of my flatmates.

My flatmates are exceptional people. We spent so much time cooking together, staying together, chatting together, playing together, worrying about our studies together… During our lunch we happily reminisced about the time at the beginning of the first term when we would all gather in the kitchen, switch off all the lights, and watch horror movies together…

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It was only then that I realised how much I liked my flatmates. I’d always enjoyed their company, but it was only that I realised I will miss them very much. Although we’d had quarrels and debates and gossips, it was so fun living with them. Now I can no longer wake up to the delightful smell of lunch, or CJ knocking on my door just to play Magic the Gathering.

I miss them. Even right now. I wonder if any of them feel the same way.Sad smile

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In the evening, I went to the Hippodrome with Jeehee to watch the musical theatre The Lion King. Bristol Hippodrome is one of the most famous theatres in Bristol and right smack in the city centre. It is just five minutes from where I lived and yet I had not visited it at all, so here’s my chance!

As I’ve mentioned in this blog, Disney’s Lion King has had an incredible impact in my childhood and some of Hans Zimmer’s most moving music is in it. I’d been itching to watch the musical since they started preparing for the Hippodrome performance back in July, and I am so happy that I finally made it – on my last day in Bristol!

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It was a really awesome performance but I didn’t really like the guy who played Scar in the show. He didn’t sound as evil and genius as the real Scar. In particular, I was a little disappointed with the Be Prepared song, which was my most anticipated song. But other than that it was all good, especially Simba! Open-mouthed smile

This was also to be our farewell show. Jeehee is staying back to do her Ph.D. in Bristol but she promised she would be my tour guide when I visit Seoul. She’d been an awesome flatmate and everyone in our flat agreed that above all, we would soooo miss her uber tempting, authentic Korean ramen, bulgogi and kimchi.

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That night, I caught up with Ameer and Giordano for some final beer at the White Hart. Giordano introduced a bunch of his Italian friends to us and we spent a long time bashing Berlusconi.

It was Thursday night at the White Hart, where £1 beer was served the whole night. The place was packed and lively as it had always been on Thursdays. But as the three of us finally sat down and relaxed a bit, I started feeling sad once more.

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I hated myself for feeling this. It had been an incredible three days with the people I held most dear in Bristol. And it was all supposed to end in cheers and laughter and celebration. Well it did, I successfully saw to it that I did not spoil the mood…

… But unlike them, deep inside, this wasn’t a regular night out for me.

This was the end.

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That night, Giordano went to bed earlier as he was to have an interview the next morning. Ameer and I stayed up to finish off the weed. It was just like the old days. Watching random movies, listening to really good music, and just chilling the night away.

Thinking back, although I had intermittently been moody in the past few days, they were awesome and absolutely fun. My student life is officially over now. But I am determined that the memories stay in perpetuity. My life in Bristol has been nothing short of perfect… I had everything I want from a student life.

… And I am damn happy with that.

At 5AM, Ameer started snoring on the couch. I felt the fatigue of the two sleepless nights weighing heavily on my shoulder. So I returned to my bed, switched off the lights, closed my eyes, and slept away my last night in the beautiful port city of Bristol.

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By James Chow

Protected: Library Nostalgia

Here I am: sitting in the usual seat, in the usual row, on the usual floor of the Arts and Social Sciences library, University of Bristol.

Head to the first floor, walk through the doorway, turn right and right again before the shelves, head forward until you reach the toilets, turn left, walk through the aisle, and you’ll see me: first seat of the row, always facing the brighter side – seat 115.

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This is the place where I camped whenever an assignment, exam or my dissertation demands attention. This is the place where I diligently wrote my economics notes, frantically did my past year accounting papers, and sleepily mulled over legal origin papers. This is the place of smiles, tears, stress, and relaxation.

Of course, I didn’t always get this very seat, but I couldn’t be far away. If I had company, then it would likely have been one of the group study rooms on the same floor.

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I must have spent hundreds of hours in the group study rooms fooling around, wasting time, and (sometimes) studying. Smile

This was also the main venue for my final exam revisions as well as discussion groups. Hours spent in rooms like these were either incredibly productive or absolutely wasted.

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This was also the place where we ‘illegally’ had several miserable dinners: cold and canned food from the nearby Cooperative Food! Miserable, indeed, but memorable. Smile

Today has been an exceptionally sentimental day for me. After being away for so long, i finally returned to this city where I was most familiar with. I had never liked going to the library and had always gone there for studies only; but today, I actually postponed a meet-up with friends just to be here. To sit around with my laptop at my usual spot. Not to do tutorials. Not to run regressions. But to think. To reminisce.

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Everything happened so quickly in the last week that I was here, a month ago. The dissertation deadline was a Monday, and the last day of our Winkworth House tenancy was on Friday.

That Monday was the last time I was actually in this library, punching holes on my dissertation report for binding in group study room 2 to meet the 3.30PM deadline.

That Friday was the last time I was in Bristol, wildly packing all the stuff in my room into large boxes in order to vacate the room by 6PM. By 9PM, I was out of the city.

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Perhaps it was because we had left so hurriedly, or due to the fact that I had been running around this campus so much since the beginning of my first term here, everything looked so… unreal. It was as though I could still see my footsteps everywhere; and I could still feel the sense of urgency whenever I walked on certain pathways. It was as though it was business as usual. A tutorial tomorrow and a deadline next week.

I simply cannot believe that this is probably the last night that I will ever spend in this library.

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I am so used to stubbornly siting here until the closing buzzer went off, or until 3am in the morning during 24-hour periods in the months leading to exams. Those were stressful times, but now that I look back at them, they were blissful times… that are gone forever.

Another venue where my sweat stains are everywhere is the MSc area – a special 24-hour study area for MSc students only. We would usually come here (if necessary) after the library closed at midnight, and continue doing our stuff. This was a particularly frequented area during the dissertation period.

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I was particularly struck by how much I missed the silent study room, in which we had countless hours of fun wasting time on Facebook games, food and chatting. This was also the place where the bulk of my dissertation was written.

We loved the MSc area very much: it was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; had free printing and reliable Wi-Fi; and a hot water machine for cup noodles!

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I can’t believe those good times are over. Crying face

Entering the MSc area from the backdoor after dark was normal practice. In fact, I was so used to doing it that I felt a sense of purpose as I walked into the room just now. As though I had something to print, or some regressions to run.

But in fact, no. I was there to say goodbye. The place in which I had laboured so much, laughed so much, stressed so much, and most of all: the place that I am going to miss so much… this was it!

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Walking a little further on Woodland Road was the language centre. I miss the microwave oven, and roast duck rice… and the pair of chopsticks.

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I spent quite some time just walking around alone tonight, retracing my footsteps. The roads and scenes were so awfully familiar, I had been seeing them for so long… but, I’m afraid, not for much longer.

I miss the cold walk home from the library at midnight. For some reason that walk was always freezing. But I managed to keep warm.

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I must be a nerd.

Because as I was walking down this street on my last night spent in the library, I didn’t miss the parties or drinking or getting high… I missed the library. And the long, icy, midnight walk home. I also miss the shy little wild foxes that slip out of sight whenever we noticed them.

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But most of all, I miss this tree…

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… and hot chicken wings. Smile

**********

It is ironic that the library closing buzzer just went off seconds ago… just as I finished this entry. The time now is 11.45PM. I will publish this entry, shut down my computer, pick up my bag, and walk out into the cold, midnight street…

… one last time.

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