On 17 June last year, a Monday, Toronto was gearing up for a big day. Its biggest day in the eyes of many. The Toronto Raptors basketball team had triumphed in the nba conference against the odds, to become the first non-American team to win the sport’s biggest professional prize.
And the team was coming home for its victory parade. The city had been glued to every dribble of its team’s triumphant march to the top – in homes, in an official fan zone known as “Jurassic Park”, in bars, cafés and even bookshops that had set up screening nights for Raptors games. Many restaurants bore gold-and-white stickers in their windows with the words “Ka’wine and Dine”, a promise and a plea to the team’s then star, American Kawhi Leonard, that he could eat for free if he promised to stay in Toronto at season’s end.
Will Kitchens, my colleague at monocle’s Toronto bureau, is a basketball fan. I am not. But I’ll happily hop on a bandwagon, with no shame and little apology, as it rolls into town. So off we set into the blazing June sun to take our spots along the parade route. We were just two faces in a crowd of two million (almost half of Toronto’s entire population) who had snuck out of work or school to witness their heroes return. It’s a team that, unlike the city’s other, big-ticket sports clubs, actually looks like the city itself in terms of race, heritage and economic class. Toronto is the only big city in the world where more than half of us who live here – 52 per cent according to the last census – were born elsewhere.
I’m sure I’m not the only person in Toronto who misses that day. The city, for me, is sometimes hamstrung by an aloofness, an uncertainty about its identity; it’s a place where you fend for yourself, where there is sometimes a polite distance between you and your neighbour.
“We were just two faces in a crowd of two million (almost half of Toronto’s entire population)”
But not on parade day last year. And not now. In the five years or so that I’ve called the city home, I’ve found that it’s in a collective moment that Toronto is at its best. We’re not standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers in the streets right now as we were on that Monday in June. The shops, cafés and bookshops are closed for now. But as the signs in their windows – replacing the gold-and-white stickers of a year ago – say, we are all in this together.
New York is known as the city that never sleeps. But that isn’t true at the moment. The city might not be out cold but it’s in a deeply dormant state. Manhattan is deserted as the cultural offerings that make the city so lively have shut down.
New York has always had narcotic properties for some (and it has never been a case of sitting on the fence: you are either a lover or a hater). What gets you is the buzz of business, the sense that something extraordinary or unusual could happen to you, even as the city has become more elite, and the notion that great success – whether social or financial – is just around the corner. To see that stifled in recent weeks is hard but it’s also completely clear to me that this city will bounce back. And while the current situation is unprecedented, the Big Apple has weathered blizzards before, from September 11 to Hurricane Sandy.
So what do I want to see return? Normality, of course. From a personal viewpoint, I want to be cycling into Manhattan, seeing a film at Nitehawk cinema and going to the Studio 54 exhibition at Brooklyn Museum that was due to open in March. But more than that, I want to see the city imperfectly humming as before. I want to see the curry houses of Jackson Heights full again, the Russians and Ukrainians of Brighton Beach strutting their stuff on the boardwalk as the weather warms and the West Village bars and restaurants heaving. I think I might even want to see the tourists come back. When everything does return to normal, I’m certain there will be one hell of a party.
Why do I care? Because New York is a flawed but great city: a place you sometimes long to leave but always miss when you’re not there. And it has somehow managed to capture my heart.
Hong Kong and I became official last June – a good eight months before coronavirus came along to test us. Our status changed from casual to committed during the pro-democracy protests. That’s when I went all in, finally acknowledging, after five years, that Hong Kong is my home and not a temporary stopover before I head back to London.
I remember the exact moment it happened. I had just been reporting on Monocle 24 radio. Presenter Markus Hippi had been talking to me live from the broadcasting studio in Midori House while I was watching ordinary citizens being tear-gassed by riot police and seeking shelter in a high-end shopping mall. When I got back to my apartment, I left the lights off and stared out of the window. Tears came to my eyes for the first time in more than a decade. (OK, they weren’t actual tears but I almost cried. You can take the boy out of the UK but his stiff upper lip remains.)
What I had just seen on the streets that night forced me to acknowledge how much I cared about what happens to this city – my city. Standing alone in the dark, I realised that I was no longer a spectator.
Coronavirus has changed everything except how I feel about my city. No jitters, no second thoughts, no question of leaving town and heading back to London, where I now feel like a tourist. Hong Kong is where I “head back” to these days and it’s the only city where I get that warm and fuzzy homecoming feeling.I’m usually coming back from a reporting trip somewhere in Asia. Somehow it’s always nighttime and I’m sitting on the back seat of a red taxi, driving into the city from the airport. As soon as I see the busy dockyard I sit up and gaze out of the window. There’s a romance to the red lights on the cranes and the stacks of shipping containers.
I am writing this aboard a plane as I fly back from Indonesia to Hong Kong, where I’ll have to begin two weeks of mandatory home quarantine. It will be dark when I get back and I intend to appreciate the vista on my journey, knowing that I might not get to see it for at least another few months. To say that I’m looking forward to leaving Hong Kong again might sound like an odd way to end a love letter to my city but it’s the only way I will get to feel the pleasure of coming back home.
The spring sun should be a moment of promise; a hint of things to come. The blossom on the trees would normally be a sign of renewal coming around the seasonal corner. But not this year. London’s energy is dimmed; there is melancholy on the breeze. People ask each other, how can this be happening? How can the small things that bind them to this complicated city have vanished so quickly?
You live in a city to be among crowds, to be surprised and entertained, to fall in love and to make your name. But all of this and more is on hold. In museums, Rothkos and Turners hang on gallery walls with nobody there to stare or glare; restaurants normally rammed stand empty, chairs piled on tables; DJ booths maintain a monastic silence – nobody will be meeting the love of their life in this bar tonight.
London has been burnt, bombed and bruised many times in its history and every time it has bounced back; taken the rubble of adversity and made it into something better and brighter. This time it’s not a war to fear but a virus, yet the social distancing required to quell its progress eats at the city and its very meaning. And it’s hard to live with the fact that nobody knows when the demand to stand far away from friends, neighbours and colleagues will lift.
But when this is all over. Ah, then, I want to wait in a busy restaurant queue. I want to sit in the dark in a packed theatre; squeeze into a Tube carriage filled with late-night revellers; hang out all day in a café; walk among Londoners; embrace my friends. London has been the backdrop to my life. Its streets hold my stories – and my hopes. Oh, London, I hate what you are going through but please don’t let this beat you. We need you back very soon.
Tokyo and I have shared the best times over the years: exhilarating late nights, outrageously good meals, many, many laughs and a thousand small acts of kindness. We’ve had some dark days too; I’m thinking of the grim period after the triple earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown of 2011 when Tokyo dimmed, both literally and metaphorically, as the lights were turned down in a collective bid to save electricity. I remember wondering then whether the city would ever regain its joie de vivre.
I was reminded of those stressful times when we got the sudden, shocking news on a Thursday in late February that all schools were to close from the following week. It was a wake-up call: this was no longer something happening in the distance. Weeks on, the closure of schools has become the new normal. Tokyo has not experienced the lockdown that other cities have endured: restaurants and shops have mostly stayed open, even if they have shorter hours and fewer patrons. Masks are standard attire and hand sanitiser ubiquitous.
The limitations on public behaviour have been expressed in the most Japanese way – schools were “requested” to close, people asked to “refrain” from their usual cherry-blossom picnics. More direct orders have been deemed unnecessary. Working for the good of the group is both a Japanese trope and a reality of life here. The custom of bowing comes into its own in these contact-free times and masks were already common as people routinely wear them to avoid passing colds on to others.
There is a wistful feeling with the Tokyo 2020 flags still fluttering, even though the Olympics have been postponed. The city was ready to host the world: finishing touches were being put on the National Stadium, new hotels were opening and volunteers were being trained in their thousands. As I write, the blossoms are out, the spring sun is shining and Tokyo is looking at its absolute best.
The experience of 2011 taught me a few things about the resilience and thoughtfulness of Tokyo’s citizens; their stoicism and lack of self-pity. The city did indeed recover its energy, a unique mix of civility and possibility. I think back to a conversation I had a few years ago with the centenarian owner of a Tokyo coffee shop who could still recall with clarity the earthquake in 1923 that reduced swathes of the capital (and his family home) to rubble. The city bounced back from that catastrophe only to be incinerated in 1945. It recovered from that too. Tokyo is a city with longevity on its side and it will come through these challenges, just as it has before.
Photographers: Jimi Chiu, Shin Miura, Fuminari Yoshitsugu