In this journal:
- discussion of racial preference in romantic relationships;
- site of 2019 Christchurch mass shooting;
- a squid bigger than a school bus.
New Zealand is known for a lot of things, but its cities are definitely not on the top of the list. I am here to remind all of those who forgot about Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch that these are some of the most fantastic places to visit and live. If you are interested in the context of this journal, please refer to the introduction section of New Zealand 2019.
New Zealand has a clear distinction between its cities. Auckland is the main gateway as well as the economic center; Wellington is the political capital and the center of the country; Christchurch serves as the major hub of the vast expanse of South Island. Each serves a different role in the country, and each feels completely different. So let’s go check out what it is like when millions of kiwis come together as a whole. You will not be disappointed.
The largest city of New Zealand, Auckland, might as well represent the country on the world stage. This is especially true in the frequent flyer world I somehow ended up in. Auckland has the country’s biggest airport, and flying is the only practical way of getting to these islands, as the other options are a week of ship ride, and maybe a decade’s swim. The city is easy to get to, has a world-class skyline, and an easygoing reputation. All frequent flyers adore this place because just getting here means long hours of flying from most other places, and that means a ton of miles and a sense of being lost. But do not get fooled by its apparent isolation, and sometimes blatant omission, on most world maps. Nearly a third of the kiwi population lives in this bustling world city, filled to the brink with all kinds of international influences. No matter where you are from, you are going to feel at home in this city at the edge of the world.
As the largest of the bunch, Auckland has everything one can ever need. A crowded, clean, popular, and extremely safe downtown means that it never sleeps. You can chill in a cafe well past dinner time, and dive into an underground izakaya opened by two Japanese immigrants; after a few pre-drinks, you and your newly-made friends depart together for some fun in a pub crawl well past midnight, just to be surrounded by people jogging around the city’s lush gardens before sunrise. Shake off your bias against cities for their garbage, crime, expensive monotone life or anything else: Auckland is the opposite of that.
My days in Los Angeles had trained me pretty well: avoid downtowns, as they are mere buildings with an extra spice called violence. Gang wars and street crimes have taken over as the synonym of “downtown LA”, but I had to force that conditioned opinion out of myself as I sheepishly wandered in the streets of Auckland. Firstly, it was spotlessly clean, with no garbage dumps or rats dragging pizzas down sewage holes. I felt safe as well, since everyone except me seemed to have somewhere to go, and something to do. There were way fewer homeless persons on the streets aggressively shaking down passers-by. At night, my hostel located on the top floor of a downtown building was surprisingly quiet, as the city’s night entertainment is rather condensed. To make matters even better, most restaurants and supermarkets are also relatively cheap, unlike many “immigrant paradise” cities such as Sydney or Vancouver.
What moved me the most, however, was the sense of home. Even though I had never been to New Zealand before, I felt like I belong right here. This can be partially attributed to the fact that New Zealand does not have a very strong national culture, unlike USA with the raucous chants, or France with their wine and dine, or Argentina’s passion and dance. New Zealand, besides the Maori culture that weaves the undertone of the country, is more of a cultural blank slate for any outsider to project onto. However, the crucial part that made me feel comfortable in New Zealand as a whole, and especially Auckland, is the fact that people do not seem to differentiate “us” and “them”. Everyone I met was so welcoming, warm, and accepting. I had never met any rude kiwi, ever, a statement that I struggle to apply onto any other country. Maybe because of the strong Maori influence over the past few centuries, white people living in New Zealand seem to always know they are just immigrants as well, fully respecting any visitor as an equal. In North America, and in a lot of places in Europe, I would be given stares or questions such as “where are you really from?”, not to mention other continents. However, here in kiwi-land, I was only greeted with:”Hope you are doing great!” and “Woah I did not realize you are just visiting!”
I think this is what makes me feel at home, as Auckland looks virtually the same look as my hometown Vancouver, but has my ideal type of people. My love for New Zealanders began way before my first time setting foot on this tiny piece of land. When I began traveling, my naivete made me blieve that I would find a girl similar in mindset, and we would set off on a flight towards sunset together. Oh boy was I wrong, and you have been reading about those dark jokes about me being single ever since on this blog. It turned out, unbeknownst to my limited mind, Asian guys like me are not particularly desirable among most cultures. I initially dismissed the lack of romantic interests because I was a boring person with glasses, or probably because of my strange obsession with calculating miles per cent on any given flight, or due to the fact that I do not party very well, but after a few years of roaming around the globe, I soon found myself full of friends who proclaimed me as a “super interesting world traveler” who is “engaging in almost any social situation”. That made me wonder why I was still alone, and definitely it was not by my choice. Sometimes I bitterly wrote down these journals complaining about my bachelor status, because I got so frustrated with the lack of female companionship that I had nowhere else to vent. Yeah, if you are a long time reader on this blog, you know those cringey lines that you somehow stuck through. Those ones. However, what hit the hardest was when I was flat out told by a random girl, whose background should not be divulged, that I was so interesting and funny that she wished I was white, as a hint that she would be totally digging me if my skintone was different.
That was when it shook me: partially my race was to blame. That prompted me into investigating, as I did not believe it was the case, nor did I want to believe it: because if it was true, then I had no solution to my problem as most female travelers I encounter during journeys are not of East Asian origins. I perused my entire Facebook friend list, and found overwhelming data among my peers in North America. Out of my 600 online friends, around 40% of my non-single Asian female friends were dating someone not from her race, and there were only 2 pairs I could find was an Asian male dating someone white, one of which is a gay couple. So the disparity demonstrates an overwhelming bias against Asian men, but maybe my data was coincidental or skewed. As a result, I asked a few of my friends from Europe and USA to do the same, and the result was a total of 63 pairs of Asian-female-white-male couple versus 2 Asian-male-white-female counterparts. I dug deeper, and found myself struggling to find Asian male romantic interests in non-Asian movies, books, TV-shows, or any other popular western media. Even on Pornhub, it is very difficult to find Asian male stars in non-Asian adult movies, as the tag AMWF(Asian Men Western Female) is a fringe fetishized category usually met with large scales of downvotes. It seemed like Asian males are widely regarded as non-manly, and favored heavily against males of other races in romantic scenarios. My world was crumbling, as someone who grew up with exclusively Chinese and had seen his first white person in real life at the age of 13, I never had to worry about my race blocking a potential girlfriend, but my skin had just been added onto the rapsheet of my problems.
Eventually, I stumbled upon some explanations and rationalizations about the issue on a few documentaries made by MTV and the Daily Show. That rabbithole led me back to New Zealand. As I was overwhelmed with sadness, and an intrinsic hatred to my race, I sobbed to myself in shower wishing that I could be born a different race, black, hispanic, or white. I wanted to shed by skin and ditch my own stupid Asian name, and suddenly come out with “game”. Yes, I may still have the personal problems and that crazy mindset of calculating airfares’ worth, but at least I would have hope in not being alone. It would be better to die now than knowing that I will die in 60 years alone. But when I was at the lowest of the lowest, the rabbithole led me to something unexpected. I discovered that the only non-Asian major celebrity in the world who was currently in a relationship with an Asian boyfriend was from New Zealand.
When I realized Lorde (yes the one who wants to be your ruler) had a boyfriend who was like me, tall, bispectacled, and Asian, I was shocked. I thought nobody could love people like me, and the hate comments getting hundreds of likes underneath every of Lorde’s paparazzi article confirmed so. Yet among those people laughing about his race, his looks and his conjured-up impotency, I could always find people from New Zealand defending their native star. That got me really intrigued, and further personal investigation led me to believe that such negative stigma does not exist in New Zealand, or is extremely minor. If you fire up any dating app in North America or Europe, be prepared to see “No Asian” as a tag underneath girls’ profiles, and data from OKCupid shows Asian men getting the least amount of likes by a wide margin, with their female counterparts getting the most. Here in New Zealand, people are treated like they are individuals, and romantic interests are not judged mostly on race or tags, as some of my kiwi friends confirmed smaller differentiation between Asian male and female dating successes.
That is my first impression of the country of New Zealand, besides its universal postcard-pristine photos. That fondness was fragile, as I never had the opportunity to personally visit due to fears of it being false, until now. However, after walking in a few districts in Auckland during different times, I can confirm it is true. I did see quite a few couples of different ethnicities, but the disparity among male and female East Asians, Maori, African kiwis, and South Asians are smaller than anywhere else I had seen. It seems like in New Zealand, people like each other because of their personalities and rarely about ethnicities, and that makes me happy. Even though I may still walk to lonely road for years, or maybe decades, to come, at least I know there are some places that will not discredit my merits, my achievements, my aspirations and my desperate attempts at humor due to my facial features and skin tone. Even if I die alone, I shall rest in peace.
This can definitely be partially accredited by the education kiwis get. Everyone has to learn Maori at school, a powerful reminder that white is just as foreign to this land as anyone else, and a crucial lesson to accept who you are as well as who others are. This likely resulted in a far less xenophobic and racially discriminatory population. Some radical liberals tend to say not being romantically interested in a certain group of people base on skin color is racism, but I always find it difficult to agree. I’d like to believe if that girl wished I was white, then it is a preference, malformed by the media she consumed while growing up. We only see male white actors, and recently, a few black actors, portray the romantic interests in films, consequently few girls associate us Asian males romantically. As a result, you see the common tag of “no Asians” on girls’ tinder profiles and the the fact that some Asian girls raised in the west I talked to are only interested in non-Asian guys. (Yes, it happens.) It is a cultural phenomenon widespread across western world which I was placed into, regardless of who was the receptionist, white, Latino, and even Asian ourselves, so I do not want to shove it under the dirty “racist bigotry” rug.
However, recently, I can see the situation slowly ameliorate. A few Asian actors have been slowly gaining grounds as they gain more prominent roles, and the advent of K-pop, J-pop and other globalized media had somehow made others aware of the Asian male dilemma, albeit our image is sometimes contorted due to biased portrayal. I have certainly felt more comfortable towards myself as well, after years of working towards a better self-image despite years of harsh reproach handed down from my parents and culture. And here in New Zealand, seeing that people exactly like me are not stigmatized and shunned, makes me full of hope. It is not about me being single or alone; it is about the world still not accepting each other. If our love cannot even break through the shallow confines of unfounded bias towards Asian males, then everything else will not. Alas, we as a group form a surprisingly small composition of population in North America and Europe, so I sometimes understand the fact that Asians are not typically brought up in conversations. However, in the end, my discussion would not bring anything to the table, and the only way for me to move forward is to acknowledge my situation and work out of it. There is no use wallowing in injustice, and I have been fixing a lot of my personal problems and improving my image as a desirable person. Just a year ago, this topic would have been too painful for me to even bring up here in the blog, but now, I can say that I have jumped out of the hoop, and ready to be judged by the world. Now let’s focus back on the very topic of this beautiful city, shall we?
My comfortable days in Auckland included a ferry to Devonport. There is a large volcano sitting at the entrance of the bay called North Head. An ancient sacred site of the local Maori iwi, this hill is home to an entire defense system built in the 20th century, including the above Armstrong disappearing gun. It uses the recoil of the shell fired to sit back down into the hidden turret, not exposing the location of the gun as easily. Another full system of tunnels were created, forging an entire labyrinth underneath the seemingly green hill. Nowadays, it is just a park where local residents come to walk their dogs, and where local misfits congregate to smoke subterranean joints.
Another much more famous vantage point of the city is Mt.Eden, also known as Maungawhau, a 650-ft volcano cone that last erupted 28000 years ago, forming the rolling hills of nowadays Auckland. Its sides have been quarried away to build the earliest houses and public buildings of Auckland during 19th century, but now its peak is the most popular tourist spot in town. It is significantly taller than all the modern buildings just a few blocks away, dwarfing those human creations even with a gigantic crator at the top, named as Te Ipu-a-Mataaho, after a Maori deity that guards the hidden secrets of Earth. A platform sits at the top, signaling a successful climb, and few know that the very platform was built by dozens of Maori men and an elephant gifted by Nepal to the Duke of Edinburgh!
The story goes as the following: Duke of Edinburgh was on his way to finish his Navy tour in Auckland, and he was gifted a young elephant called Tom on the way in Nepal. He found out Tom was happy to work with the humans, so during his time in Auckland, the elephant was a well-received guest in the city while working his butts off at the summit here for beer and candy. Tom eventually spent the last few years of his life in Dublin, where he died at the young age of 12, probably from those candies he consumed. Now, a memorial is dedicated to him in Dublin zoo, and his remains were put on exhibition there.
Lastly, the green space to explore in the city center is its largest one, Auckland Domain. It is another of the dozen of volcanos on the undulating plains of the city. The big hill has been converted into a serene garden space, a park, community center, as well as a museum space. The first place I encountered during my hilly walk were the Domain Wintergardens, a series of greenhouses used to house more tropical plants that cannot tolerate the cold winters of New Zealand.
Most of the plants inside are flowers of the other side of the world, but there are also quite a lot of carnivorous plants. I am not exactly sure what is the correlation between kiwis and their love of plants that are not vegetarian, because this will not be the only carnivorous greenhouse you are going to see in this journal. Maybe that is because New Zealand has developed this phenomenon the scientists call island tameness, causing all animals to lose their fangs, teeth, venom and other defensive measures, so the kiwis got jealous of the Australians on the other side of the Tasman Sea with their man-eating-crocodiles, crocodile-eating-spiders, spider-eating-frogs, and everything in between.
Additionally, I also witnessed a blooming broad leafed epiphyllum, a small flower of an immensely sweet scent that only opens for 1 day before withering. As a result, in Chinese sayings, the blooming of epiphyllum is used to describe something extremely fragile and ephemeral, and this is one of the items listed on my bucket list. The gardens of the greenhouses also include a fernery, used to house every single type of tern endemic to New Zealand. These islands are homes of ferns, as they are extremely widespread and serve as an important source of food for most animals living here. The national symbol of New Zealand is the silver-back fern, as you can find virtually everywhere kiwi-related: their passports, their sport teams, and their souvenirs.
At the very peak of the plinth, you will find Auckland’s premier museum, fully named as Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. This is one of the most important museums in the nation, as it has the longest history of collecting Maori and local objects in New Zealand. You can find detailed recount of the geological activities that formed Auckland we know and love today, and there is a large atrium dedicated to those kiwis who lost their lives in the world wars. However, the part most interesting to me and I think to you, my reader, is the first floor grand entrance hallway. This is the place where they display some Maori cultural artifacts that you cannot see anywhere else.
This is the original storage house used by Te Pokiha, a local tribe chief, during 1870s. The carvings are the peak of Maori carving work, and displays Te Pokiha’s genealogy. The top features the legendary Tama-te-Kapua, who allegedly breached the waters around the Bay of Plenty for the establishment of this tribe, called Ngati Pikiao. And below you see another example of local craftsmanship. This is a gateway object called waharoa, used to guard the entrance of a pa, a battle-ready village-fortress hybrid. The post, originally from Rotorua region, is filled with the image of a certain ancestor named Tiki. Maoris believe that the use of ancestors can ward off bad spirits and intimidate incoming invaders, as wars broke out between different tribes almost on a weekly basis.
There is also a natural history section of the museum, showcasing the unique fauna that lives in the region, and New Zealand as a whole. The gigantic moa you see above is the largest bird that had ever grazed the land here, filling up a niche role in the ecosystem as large grazing mammals do not exist in the entire New Zealand. Sadly, the arrival of Maori a few centuries ago quickly spelled doom for the large flightless bird that is basically a walking steak warehouse, and they were hunted to extinction within 100 years. Now, only skeletons remain, and you can see its gigantic size compared to my reflection in the display case.
After a few days of pleasant strolls in the metropolis, it was time for me to move on south, to the nation’s capital, Wellington. I hopped on a quick bus ride to the airport, and was whisked to the small capital.
Wellington is a peculiar city. Like many other compromise capitals such as Washington D.C. and Canberra, it is meant to be an artificially created central point of the country. However, in the case of New Zealand, Wellington’s existence is almost necessitated.
The fact that New Zealand is made of two islands of near-identical size makes it mandatory to set up a capital right at where North Island meets South Island: right here in Fitzroy Bay. This is the only politically appeasing solution to both sides, and thus, Wellington was born. The city commands 420000 people, sizable in New Zealand, but super cute in comparison to my Chinese hometown of 25000000. As a result, you are not going to find tall buildings and night discos rumbling on all night. This is a city mostly built for workers and offices, and not for entertainment or natural features.
One interesting feature of the location is that because Cook Strait is a narrow 20-km strip of sea between the rolling hills of North Island and the mighty southern Alps of South Island. Strong wind that blows unchecked over the Pacific Ocean suddenly is funneled by the mountains into this narrow tunnel, creating some of the windiest climates one can ever imagine. Besides Iceland, Wellington is definitely unchallenged in its windiness, way beyond Chicago or any other self-proclaimed windy city. It has gotten so bad that the city welcome sign is decorated as if the letters are being blown off!
One of the consequences of this constantly strong wind is the fact that Wellington Airport is consistently pulling off hard landings, and the fact that it is surrounded by water is not helping either. I climbed up the local Mt. Victoria, and checked out the view towards the other side of downtown. Here, planes coming in would be right at my eye level, bopping up and down, struggling to land as smoothly as possible while battling the gusts created by the mountains and the wind funnel.
Back down in the windy Wellington Bay, the crane ship Hikitia still quietly sits at the harbour, waiting for her next assignment. This remarkable ship is capable of lifting items more than its own weight, and has been doing so in New Zealand’s construction sites, cargo unloading bays, and demolition tasks since 1920s. After numerous rounds of refurbishment, she is still remarkably capable and carried out her latest assignment in the construction of an apartment complex by the sea in 2013. Not too far from Hikitia, you can find the Water Whirler. This posthumously realized active sculpture is a vision by New Zealand artist Len Lye, and can supposedly spout water once activated. However, according to some profanity-laced graffiti nearby, it has never worked.
Just by the wharf, I found the small monument dedicated to Paddy the Wanderer. He was a loyal pooch who lost his young owner to pneumonia, and ever since then, he had been going near the docks to cheer up the folks during Great Depression. He was well loved by the workers and seafarers, while the taxi drivers and tram operators let him ride for free. He even had a knack for sailing, stowed himself in the cargo holds of various ships and sailed around New Zealand a few times, reaching Australia on some occasions. One time, he even flew on a seaplane! When Paddy passed away due to old age in 1939, the entire Wellington came out to mourn him, accompanied by a long line of black taxis. He eventually got to live on as the name of this memorial fountain serving all humans and canines alike.
Another intriguing point of interest is an animated clock in the Old Bank Arcade. It is a large unassuming ball that only opens up during each strike of the hour, and then a tiny stage show would commence inside the sphere, accompanied by narration and music. The story told includes the history of Wellington, and how a ship managed to ran aground near the harbor, and eventually its discovery as the old bank was being changed into this current mall. It was quite bizarre to be a lone watcher of this hourly parade in the empty mall as other people were busy hurrying around trying to close down their shops. The ship is still on display in the mall, while the old bank’s security vault still guards one of the innermost sections of the shops.
My last stop of the first day was the sector of the city where all governmental buildings congregate. The supreme court, neo-classical Parliament House, and the above executive branch building called “the beehive” sat together, with the last one being the most controversial architecture in the city. The top of this strange 1980s’ creation houses the prime minister’s office, as well as his or her cabinet, thus, the leaders of New Zealand gained a much less glamorous name compared to “the White House” or “Downing Street”, “the Beehive”.
One the next sunny day, I hopped onto the famous Wellington Cable Car by turning off the main thoroughfare in downtown, into the famous little alleyway called Cable Car Lane. From there, a quick ride took me up to the famous backyard of Wellington on the hill, where I had a magnificent view over the urban backdrop and the sea. What shocked me the most is that the cable car is actually unlike many of its touristy counterparts, as it serves as an integral part of the city public transportation system. There is a school halfway through the slopes, and a community called Kelburn at the top, so many students ride up and down the cable car for their daily commute, and many old ladies use this option to get back home from a shopping spree downtown. As a result, there are three stops between the termini in Cable Car Lane and the peak. The line has proudly served the local Wellingtoners since 1902, and is the last remaining funicular railway in the country. If you want to see more funiculars in action, you can check out my journals about Colombia, Chile, and Germany, all of which have a long list of surviving funicular railways.
From the top, it is a pleasant stroll to a whole list of interesting places, such as Wellington Botanical Garden. It houses hundreds of kinds of flora endemic to the region, as well as an entire collection of vegetation from all over the world that can survive in the windy hills, ranging from Japanese maple to South African shrubbery. A few minutes from the vast garden grounds, you can find a beautiful greenhouse, where it housed a lot of carnivorous plants, as well as tropical fruits. This is Lady Norwood Begonia House, in which one can sit down and slowly sip coffee, while staring out of the glass dome into the rose fields.
After riding back down the hills, another bus whisked me to the most famous place in Wellington: Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary. This is one of the most impressive natural preservation projects I have ever witnessed. At just a few blocks from the Wellington suburbs, this place is the first ever island sanctuary in an urban environment, as it uses kilometers upon kilometers of wire fence to enclose an entire mountain valley.
The problem with New Zealand ecosystems is the lack of predators for millions of years completely nullified the need for defenses, and the birds flourished as well as diversified into a variety of unique species, some completely losing their ability to fly. This made the introduction of land mammals such as rats and stoats particularly devastating, as birds that originally numbered in millions were defenseless against those fierce scavangers, quickly dwindling to mere thousands tucked away on remote islands. Zealandia created a fully-sealed fense around the original water catchment area of Wellington resevoir, designed specifically to keep mammals out. The passionate environmentalists introduced a lot of species long gone on mainland back to the sanctuary in 2004, and ever since, the birds have been flourishing inside.
Nowadays, you can find many New Zealand’s unique birds inside this park. Once you hand out your bag for mandatory inspection, and clean up your footwear, you are welcomed to step inside the double-gated entrance and see some birds not found on mainland New Zealand for nearly 2 centuries. Besides the relatively common tui birds with their large white throat protrusion, I managed to find the elusive takahe. This is a kind of bird thought to have gone extinct due to habitat loss, stoat predation, and competition from deer. They are also the largest surviving flightless bird in New Zealand. These secretive birds were eventually found in a remote valley in fjordland on South Island, and introduced here to establish a colony. With less than 400 in total even after decades of preservation, this large iridescent chicken is still the rarest bird species in the country.
Dozens of trails criss-cross the valley full of birds, and I gladly walked a vast majority of them, passing the upper dam that blocks the resevoir water further up in the valley. Eventually, after a re-examination that I did not take any biological material out of the park, I took the bus back down to the waterfront, where I would enter the last point of interest on my Wellington journey: Te Papa Museum.
This is the national museum of the country, which housed a myriad of collections ranging from animal specimens for natural history to letters written during numerous wars. Then there is a section dedicated to the unique geography and geology of New Zealand, and of course, do not forget the local Maori exhibition. Every display comes in two languages, Maori and English, and I found a unique section dedicated to a topic I am very familiar with: Battle of Crete. During WWII, Hitler attempted to open a new front by invading Greece from the south, and it began with the southernmost island, Crete. I have detailed the gruesome reality during my Heraklion visit on Crete, and you can see more artifacts there. Kiwis and Australians were the ones defending the island, and the New Zealand soldiers were able to repel every single arial attack, before capitulating due to a cowardly commander. The waves upon waves of German paratroopers forced the allied forces to eventually give up Crete, while the defiant locals carried on fighting. Of the 16720 kiwis sent there, nearly 300 died, while 600 were wounded, and over 1600 were taken as prisoners.
Another unique item is a Mitsubishi Navy Type Zero Aircraft, Model 22 of A6M3, which is the fastest ever built. Zero was virtually unrivaled in air during early years of WWII, as its maneuverability, speed, armament, and range are all way beyond contemporary allied fighters. In fact, the Japanese engineering was so advance that Zero never lost its edge in the war, with its downfall attributed to the lack of production during later years, causing replacement issues. This is partially because Zero is the preferred type of aircraft used by Shinbu members, who filled this kind of aircraft to the brink with explosive and commit kamikaze on allied ships. However, nothing scared me more than what I am about to show you.
What you are seeing is the only colossal squid specimen humans have ever obtained. Caught by a New Zealand fishing boat, this dying mollusk weighed half a ton, with tentacles as long as a minivan. Not only are its eyes the size of footballs, its suction cups have hooks that can rotate, as well as a sharp beak that can chew through human skulls like butter. If this is not the source of krakens, then I am not sure what it can be.
After a nice walk by Wellington Bay, I begrudingly returned to the windy airport, as my flight to Christchurch was about to depart. Next stop: New Zealand’s southern capital, where life has not been kind to these kind people.
Christchurch is more of a very very big town than an actual city, and you are about to see why. My first day in this quiet place began with a stroll in the city center, and quickly I started realizing this would be completely different than what I had seen before.
The entire city has no highrises, and there is barely any cluster of buildings. All my eyes could see are gaps between small houses, spanning as far as the horizons. There are many empty plots of land, some sitting among developed malls, urban shopping streets, and office houses, and if it is not turned into a parking lot, you will find it surrounded by construction fences. In some ways, Christchurch felt like a city being planned, like Astana, rather than organically grown along the banks of Avon River, and this is clearly for a reason.
Christchurch, for a city named after the Lord and Savior himself, had quite an unfortunate recent history. On a quiet night in September, 2010, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the region, Canterbury; people rushed out into the streets as their buildings lowly crumbled into dust. Miraculously, nobody died from this 4:30am disaster. However, just six months later, as people were busy rebuilding for a better future, another 6.4 magnitude earthquake shook straight from the suburbs, becoming the most violent earthquake to ever take place right at an urban area. This earthquake virtually demolished the city, leaving 182 dead, and 1/3 of the buildings in rubbles. This is the famous Canterbury Earthquakes, one that will never be forgotten by the local townspeople.
Among the 182 dead, 115 are from the collapse of one single building: the CTV Building. Besides the handful of staff working in the Canterbury Television and a few patients in a clinic, the vast majority of those who perished in this tragedy are foreign exchange students learning English in an ESL school, including 70 Japanese students. Most people who were in the building were unfortunately suffocated by the large debris, but a handful were burnt alive as a fire broke out after the building collapse. A few bodies were charred so badly that no single trace of DNA could be found, making identification impossible. However, it was not all coincidence that this particular building killed so many. It turned out that the engineer who designed the building had stolen a friend’s degree and had no experience in designing multi-story buildings at all, leading to the structure of the CTV Building relatively unsound. Additionally, the building was inspected multiple times after the initial shock in September, yet the city inspectors declared it safe. Despite this damning conclusion from the investigative team, nobody received jail time. Nowadays, only a small memorial sits at the corner of this sadness-filled-parking lot, with photos of those smiling faces slowly fading away.
Right across from the plot where CTV used to stand, another empty plot featured a relatively special memorial to all those who lost their lives in the tragic earthquake. This plot, which ironically used to be 185 square meters of grass, now houses 185 solemn, empty white chairs. Each is completely different, varying from baby carriages to car seats, to bar stools and sofa beds, all the way to swivel chairs as well as kids’ play stands. A small board nearby invited me to sit down in one of these white chairs, and contemplate about a life that could have been lived while sitting in it. I only started crying when I began reading what others wrote in the visitors’ note. A Japanese visitor said she lost her boyfriend in the tragedy, and she thought all of those chairs could be his, but now, he is no more…
Another prominent symbol of the earthquake is the ruins of Christchurch Basilica. It used to be the epicenter of activities in the city, but now it has been reduced to a beautiful pile of irrecognizable concrete. The first earthquake did only surface damage to the structure, but the second one leveled the gorgeous belltowers, as well as making the dome cave in. Now, the only major beauty that you can still see is the unique neo-classical roof, covered with tiles in the style of local Maori gathering places. The church continues to serve as a religious symbol even after the trembles, as the Mary statue somehow turned 180 degrees during the disaster, now looking out of the shattered window into the heavens.
A transitional church for the one destroyed in the disaster, the Cardboard Cathedral is actually literally built with some cardboard. A concrete slab as well as a handful of shipping containers serve as the foundation of this unique religious building, and each beam that supports the room is partially made of reinforced cardboard, allowing light to filter through each gap. Instead of rose panels, the church’s facade features triangular glass, and this entire church can house 700 worshippers under one roof. This is one of the first buildings to open during the reconstruction effort, and is generally seen as a herald of recovery for Christchurch.
The church is not the only thing that served as support during times of hardship. People desperately needed supplies after they were chased away from their homes by the angry Earth, and all the shops as well as malls were not standing any more. The solution came a few months after the disaster: the only surviving department store Ballantynes set up the world’s only pop-up mall in the middle of the city, called Re:START. All 29 shops and a cafe were made of shipping containers, and served as the hub of local life for the years before everything else was slowly rebuilt. This two-block lifeline continued to serve the devastated locals until recently, when it gloriously retired. I paid homage to this strange existance during my walk, and gladly found a few leftover traces of it.
When a city is only damaged in a small fraction of places, it is easy to mobilize the majority of population to aid the ones who have suffered. However, the larger the scale is, the more people need help while fewer people can provide resources. As a result, for destruction as widespread as Christchurch, the restoration effort is especially slow, especially for a country as farflung as New Zealand, which is virtually half way around the globe from a large majority of population centers. When I visited in mid-2019, 8 years after the original shake, it was still evident that Christchurch needed more time. Besides the church still in ruins, much like the one in Port-au-Prince, construction could be seen in every corner. This also gives the city a chance at rebirth, as new urban landscapes and public spaces can be created as the organically grown industrial areas were demolished. I was happy to see the city officials took up this opportunity and created an entire park with walkways all along the Avon River, which is absolutely gorgeous on this sunny afternoon.
During my days here in the city, I found it to be strangely quiet. In China, if there is a new development area, it would be equally filled to the brink with construction machinery as well as heavy-duty dump trucks, but it would also be so raucous that one cannot help but wonder if they are doing some sort of terraforming. Here in Christchurch, all the construction sites moved slowly, with minimal disturbances to the cyclists and swans by the river, as if they were treading carefully not to infringe upon the tranquil life of this town-city.
Sadly, the tragic recent history of Christchurch does not end here. As you may have surmised, the one incident fresh in our memory that made the city notorious is not mother nature’s wrath, but probably the only thing more disastrous than that: human stupidity. On March 15th, 2019, a lone shooter murdered 51 people and wounded 49 during the Friday Prayer at Al Noor Mosque in cold blood. The suspect, an Australian who shall remain nameless and condemned for eternity, had been planning the attack for years, and had a clear motive, a succinct execution plan, and a premeditated strategy. For years, he had been drinking the white-supremacy cool-aid, believing that the non-whites were coming to take the land that belonged to white Europeans, and he especially hated Muslims for the supposed “Islamification” of Europe, buying into the theory that Ottoman Empire had been planning its revenge since the middle ages.
As long as I lived, I believed that traveling can be a release of hatred towards the unknown, as I am convinced that not knowing anyone from a nation is the root of xenophobia. When my grandparents first met one of my black friends, they were extremely scared, but after a few minutes of chatter, they told me:”woah, black people are just like us!” As a result, I would love to see other people embark on journeys to unknown, as travel is the best cure for the root of racism, ignorance. However, this criminal is well-traveled, as he had visited numerous countries in Europe and Asia during his younger years, and had been in close contact with many far-right white supremacy groups in Austria, France, and Germany. It seemed like that modern connections allowed people to harbor bigotry even in front of stark contrast to their beliefs, and I may need to amend my ideology on travel and mind accordingly.
But I promise you, it will be all good things in this journal from here on. Christchurch is a strong city, inhabited by some of the nicest people I have ever seen, and it is as diverse as it has ever been despite all the hardships. I popped down the main road and paid a visit to the most famous location in the city: Christchurch Botanic Gardens.
The park is a gigantic open green space hugged by Avon River on three sides, sitting smack in the center of Christchurch. It is completely free and overflowing with flowers on this happy spring day. Children were chasing butterflies in the grassy fields, while dogs frolicked in the muddy riverbanks. A group of ducklings were fiercely paddling their little webbed feet, trying to keep up with their mother, while the daffodils were blooming like there was no tomorrow. Now this is what I call a proper city park for relaxation. In China, sometimes a park is literally a ring of plastic running paths located on top of a shopping mall, which is crowded by old ladies dancing to strange patiotic music, little children sitting in the corner swiping on phones, and vendors desparately trying to sell out their leftover fidget spinners.
I spent literally hours in the park, which is comprised of a large lawn, a greenhouse(featuring carnivorous plants of course), gigantic forests full of a carpet of daffodils, a magnolia garden, a water garden, and a relaxed cafe. The water in Avon River is unrealistically calm and clear, allowing people to rent small boats at the boat shed and paddle to their hearts’ content.
Right next to the main entrance of the botanical gardens, I found the other city landmark: Canterbury Museum. It is established by German born New Zealand explorer Julius Haast, whose name is the origin of the region of Haast as seen in the South Island journal. This Gothic Revival building was built during his time, and survived the earthquakes virtually unscathed. Inside, a huge collection of local natural history and human records can be found, and I gladly joined the hourly guided tour, offered free by staffs. It turned out that as it was such a lazy spring day, I was the only person on the tour, so I got a free private guided tour of the museum! Yay!
What interested me the most, however, are the leftover items of Antarctic explorers, my hero Earnest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott. Both Amundsen and Scott chose the port of Lyttleton just a few kilometers from the museum as their departure point towards Antarctica, and have left quite a mark here in the city. Coincidentally, Christchurch is still the hub of all Antarctic flights for USA, NATO, and many countries in the Commonwealth. If you are going to visit Antarctica, especially McMurdo Station, you have to leave from Christchurch. USA also has its Antarctic Program command here at the airport.
The story between Scott and Amundsen is a tragic yet heroic one. If you need more information and context, I highly recommend you take a read of my journals about Antarctica, as I documented their rivalry and other interesting history of the mysterious continent as I traveled to the edge of the world. Scott and Amundsen both wanted to be the first to reach south pole, not only for the glory of their mother nations, United Kingdom and Norway, but also for the first spot of the last of important points of our planet. Both started with confidence and determination, and they arrived at their respective starting point after leaving Christchurch around the same time in 1912, yet the outcome for both of them would be drastically different.
The above is the first vehicle to ever be used in Antarctica, a 4-stroke, 2 cylinder tractor that produced a whopping 9 horsepower. It was used by the Scott team as their secret weapon to reach Antarctica sooner than Amundsen’s Norwegian team. However, the machine constantly broke down, and when it worked, it traveled at a snail’s pace slower than normal walking. As a result, it had to be dragged by humans before finally being abandoned. Meanwhile, on the other hand of the race, Amundsen used trusty Greenland dogs, which he simply slaughtered for food when they needed fewer and fewer to pull the sleds. Yes, he fed the dogs to the dogs, and eventually ate the rest, but it worked. After 2 weeks of relatively easy sledding and skiing, and I assume a lot of dog meat, Amundsen eventually reached the South Pole first. Seeing no British flag in sight after making sure he was at the right place using latitude measurements, he planted a Norwegian flag at the Southernmost point of the world, and left a note for Scott, telling him
to take the fat L there is no better rival than the Brits.
For Scott, the journey was much more arduous. Having to ski through unforgiving terrain and traversing the dry Antarctic Plateau, he and his group of friends reached the pole as the Norwegian flag appeared in their field of vision. Devastated by the fact that Amundsen had already taken their coveted title, they became disillusioned. After a quick photo and reading Norwegian’s note, they began their long trek back to Loserville. The morale was so low that they lost their way to their planned large depot of food, called One Ton Depot, hidden somewhere on the way. In one of those neverending snowstorms, they circled the approximate region for days, looking for the signs of their supplies as they began to run dry themselves. Eventually, each teammate succumbed to hypothermia, stripping off their clothes and walked into the whiteness. Scott, right before he perished in his tent waist deep in snow, wrote the last words on his journal:
For God’s sake, look after our people.Robert Scott
The museum also has a surprisingly large Chinese wing, which featured a lot of very high quality artifacts seemingly way beyond the caliber of this regional institution. However, this is all thanks to one person, Rewi Alley, whose incredible story I will disclose in the South Island journal. Once I was back out in the sunshine, I continued down the small streets to my final stop in town: Christchurch Art Gallery.
The museum is full of interesting pieces of classical and contemporary art. However, it has only been this since 2015, as it served as the Civil Defense Headquarters after the first major earthquake in 2010, and continued doing so after the second one in 2011. Despite the strcture being specifically designed to counteract the destructive forces of the earthquake, via adding a concrete raft slide underneath the entire museum, it still suffered minor damage during the second catastrophe. So you can see the destructive forces of the seismic waves when it happens so close to the epicenter. Now, in the lobby of the newly-renovated museum, you can find an interesting modern piece created by British-Kiwi artist Bill Culbert called Bebop, named after the long-lost original recipient’s name scribbled atop a furniture set he purchased from a flea market in Oran, Algeria, and that set of chairs are included in the piece.
After I perused the interesting displays, some of which interactive, I slowly walked out of the museum. This is the last of all cities in New Zealand, as every other place in the country are towns and villages.
These gorgeous cities of New Zealand are nothing short of impeccable. These are some of the most beautiful, spotless, and modern cities I have ever seen. Not to mention that the inhabitants are always so welcoming and friendly, unlike many arrogant city dwellers I have encountered in many other places. Auckland is metropolitan yet its green is so rich, and its blue so pure. The international food selection available is astounding, and the lava fields create a gorgeous vantage point at Mt. Eden. Wellington is a windy capital full of cheap eats, good views, walkable roads, and a wildlife sanctuary literally in the city! What else could you want when you can see country’s rarest bird in the wild just a few blocks down the road? Looking south, Christchurch has been struck down multiple times, but she stood back up each and every time, stronger than before. The water in Avon River is as clear as ever, the flowers in botanical garden as vibrant as ever. Those scattered memorials and monuments used to mark the spots of tears, but now they are battlescars worn with pride.
They say impeccability is the attribute of god, and if that is true, then I have only one conclusion to draw. These cities of New Zealand are a part of a mighty deity, because they are truly the best living places I have ever seen. I could have absolutely lived in any of these three given the chance, with their affordability, friendliness, natural attractions, and infrastructure. If the cities are already this beautiful, you will find it hard to believe how gorgeous the rest of the country is, on both north and south island.
-=ForeverYoung|New Zealand 2019=-