Where we were in 2016

2016 has been universally agreed upon as the worst. Yet in our own microcosms, it was transitory and oddly uneventful. As the world burnt, we quietly celebrated our one year anniversary. From opposite sides of the planet, we sought to understand, new and old places – and our places – in the context of a world on the brink of being forever changed. Even in its unrelenting last days, things remained as unclear as ever, and the only thing we learnt for certain? We had it oh so easy in 2015.

February

Box Hill Central, Melbourne, Australia
The suburban Chinese ghetto is more or less Australia as I first knew it. Growing up poor and first-generation, my little existence was mostly confined to this humdrum train station/bus terminal-cum-shopping centre in Melbourne’s east – commuting to and from school; pinching my nose around the meat vendors; being intimidated by the older kids at the McDonald’s. It’s only ever in retrospect that I think about the transgressions of growing up Asian in a traditionally white suburb slowly being appropriated by the Chinese during the height of Australia’s late ’90s/early ’00s Yellow Peril. This year, Chinese New Year festivities and the promise of food had lured me out here again. After more than ten years, there’s a new tram line and fancy restaurants and even a new residential skyscraper about to be built. The ads on the latter showing happy, young Chinese families (no doubt smiling about the Asianification of Australia) look like something out of Jia Zhangke’s 2015 film Mountains May Depart. That day, the red and yellow of that same McDonald’s I used to frequent looked all the more omniscient. It’s just a shame I was about ten years too early to the party. – Joanna Lee

April

Inamo, London, England
If I had to pinpoint a time and place I felt the unease of moving to a new city begin to subside, it would probably be this. We matched on a friend app, I asked her to dinner, and she gave me a grin so wide and a hug so tight when we finally saw each other for the first time in real life that I was at once startled and thrilled. Over sushi and a game of battleships on the interactive tables, I felt a sense of comfort and familiarity, as you would an old friend. We talked and talked, and three hours passed, the phones that had brought us together lying unattended in our bags for the whole time. I discovered she shared my sense of humour, and when she proceeded to add me on every single social media network (including LinkedIn) before I had even made it home, I knew it was meant to be, that I had found a friend who had just about the same level of no chill as me. – Kassy Cho

May

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Roxy Rocker, Taipei, Taiwan
It’s no Roxy 99, but I’ll make do. Admittedly, it’s nicer than 99 – cleaner, better laid-out – a Godfather Part II of the Taipei alternative night club scene, if you will. But I’m not really here to make comparisons; I came for that split second it always takes for my friend and I to realise that our favourite song is playing, when we both gasp and turn to each other with widened eyes before proceeding to break into dance, and the heart-to-hearts with an old friend, reminiscing on high school days and saying the thing you never could – the ones you only have when you’re drunk. Except we did all of this soberly, maybe it was something in the night, the familiarity of the city, the people, our being together in that moment. And at 4am, we’ll do as we always have, emerge from a dark basement to a hazy Taipei morning. – K

June

Rihanna at Wembley Stadium, London, England
It’s weird how vividly I remember this day despite how smashed off my face I was, the sparsely filled red seats, the colour of the stage lights, and that bleak, grey sky. Wandering aimlessly around the circumference of Wembley Stadium, we drowned our sorrows with a bottle of cheap rosé and stadium bangers. All we talked about was Brexit – David Cameron’s resignation, finding out friends or family had voted Leave, crying at our respective offices just earlier in the day – when all we wanted to do was forget. I took drunk selfies and even more drunken notes on my phone – I was here for work after all – and off tune belted out all the songs, everything but acknowledge that this Britain that I had just grown to call home could be so close-minded, and moreover, so racist. – K

August

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Setouchi Triennale, Seto Inland Sea, Japan
I maintain that the tiny island of Naoshima is the artsy Melbourne folks’ Bali. If partying on Kuta beach is a rite of passage for drunk Australians, then a photo with Yayoi Kusama’s giant yellow pumpkin may just be its equally derivative —yet ultimately obligatory— hipster sister. Yet sheepishly we make Naoshima, and the rest of the Seto Inland Sea, our first stop in Japan. It’s my second consecutive Setouchi Triennale, the contemporary art festival that’s held every three years across the small archipelago. Naoshima aside, it’s the smaller islands, some with populations of barely even 50, that retain a rural charm heightened by site-specific art (Teshima, for example, sees artist Tadanori Yokoo transform a traditional dwelling into a camp spectacle). Beyond the quaint bicycle-joyriding, wind-in-your-hair experience, it’s the art festival-circuit oddities, like Europeans agonising over an artist’s name (“I think it’s Korean”), or your sixty-something hostel owner bragging about being in an artist’s promo material, that make for some serious magic-realism. — J

September

Contact, Tokyo, Japan
Japan is a country that makes me crazy. The times I’ve been left stranded or lost in some of its most dizzying and complicated cities have made me pretty transfixed on the idea of travel perfection. Now, my third time in the country, I was armed with my own ten-page, Pokémon walkthrough-like pdf. But sometimes even travel-zillas still screw up. After a four-hour bus ride into Tokyo, we rushed into nightclub Contact to see DJs Eric Cloutier and Aoki Takamasa. Big names meant no passouts on discounted earlybird entry, and like lambs to slaughter, we jumped at the opportunity to be effectively imprisoned in a tiny smoke-filled basement dungeon with repetitive techno and overpriced drinks. Yet club purgatory was only the start of this long night; by the time we left at 3am, we realised that our hostel check-in was a fashionably late 8am. Deaf, drunk and tired, we sat in the Shibuya gutters with the rest of the Friday night debris (drunken salarymen, vomit and literal garbage), just waiting to be saved by daylight – something my perfectly hyperlinked and appendicised pdf never even prepared me for. — J

October

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“The Jungle”, Calais, France
Only a week after returning to London from New York, I somehow found myself sitting on the side of a deserted road outside a refugee camp in Calais, France. I wasn’t dressed nearly warm enough, and the sun was setting, the fog descending on the tiny port city. My first international reporting trip was, in fact, the very opposite of glamorous; there were no AirBnBs, no cars – or taxis or Ubers for that matter – and in my case, no press passes (hence the sitting on the side of the road next to an abandoned gas station), just a house in the mountains, a McDonalds, three young journalists speaking broken French and a pair of red shoes that ironically managed to save the day. Nothing could have prepared me for how difficult the trip was nor the glimpse at the devastating realities of life inside a refugee camp up close. – K

November

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Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, Australia
My boss and I stood there looking at the fresh-faced graduates, overwhelmed with the combined feelings of both inferiority and resentment; one of our exhibiting artists had just completed her MFA and we were there to help celebrate. Any optimism in the air would have been quickly quashed had anyone joined in on this bitch circle happening in the corner: as generally underpaid and unhappy arts workers, we almost immediately began commiserating over the state of our industry (dire) and our respective futures (also dire). I wondered if we were either stupid, unlucky, or untalented. Perhaps we’re simply ungrateful; after all, how can you even begin to complain when the gallery (read: the Institution) is feeding you free canapés and free-flow alcohol? — J

December

The Red Lion, London, England
On the last working day of the year, I was just a few streets up from where I had been exactly one year ago – handwriting a thank you card in a Starbucks after doing my first interview for my dream job. This summer, my dream had came true. And here I was, like every week since then, sitting in the pub that our office had claimed as our own and I had grown to love. I leant back a moment and took it all in: my British colleagues being stereotypically British and lamenting the literal dumpster fire of a year that was 2016, the warm, yellow room, Christmas in the air. Outside, shoppers scurry up and down Carnaby Street, the pink neon lights punctuated by the crisp night air. Content, slightly tipsy, I stood up to leave —
“You know, R. and I were trading a quiet DM about you.” A. had stopped talking and was looking up at me, drunkenly, slurring his words, “She said, ‘Do you remember when Kassy got us cards?’”
I paused for a second — “Did you keep it?”
He smiled, and I knew. I was right where I wanted to be. – K