Tuesday 22 April 2014

Semaphore, South Australia by the sea.

Semaphore is a suburb of Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. There are many lovely seaside settlements in this state, but Semaphore is my favourite. Originally inhabited by the Kaurna Aboriginal people, the area was first surveyed for sale in 1849 and by 1856, an official government signal station had been set up at the corner of Semaphore Road (the main drag) and the Esplanade. Maritime pilots had to live within one mile of the station and each had a personal flag which was used to summon him when a ship required a pilot - hence the name. 

Semaphore grew in importance with the establishment of a telegraph and post office in 1856, whilst a time ball tower was built adjacent to the signal station in 1875. Before the invention of wireless signals, all main ports had these towers. Every day at 1pm, the black ball dropped form the top of the tower, letting ships know it was time to rate their chronometers. This was replaced by wireless technology in 1932  but since restoration in the 1990's the ball again drops daily at 1pm. The tower is an important Semaphore landmark and is often used as backdrop for wedding photographs,

The Time Ball Tower
So why do I like Semaphore so much? I like the relaxed, slightly sleepy feel of the place with its well preserved elegant architecture dating from the mid and late nineteenth century as well as a couple of gems form the 1920's. And although Semaphore is a relatively small place, you can get just about everything you need here. Semaphore Road has dozens of cafes and restaurants where locals and visitors gather to pass the time over anything from coffee and cakes to Indian, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Thai and several other cuisines. There is also a cinema, a library and lots of shops!

My favourite cafe is Swedish Tarts. Be assured the name relates to items baked on the premises and nothing else. It is a busy but friendly cafe with a large menu that has a Scandinavian flavour. My favourite dish here is the excellent warm halloumi salad with sun dried tomatoes and crisp lettuce. There is also a big choice of cakes. The best in my well informed opinion is the Swedish custard tart with its thin pastry and cinnamon topping. Delicious. The only thing missing is wi-fi…coming soon perhaps?

Swedish Tarts
On the subject of wi-fi, there are two free places (that I know of) on Semaphore Road - the Whipped bake bar cafe (great hot chocolate here!) and the very friendly library at number 14. The library is open seven days a week and is located in the former Mechanics Institute which opened in 1884. Over the years this building has been the town hall, a theatre, an Ozone cinema and a concert venue before opening as a library in 1993. Good to see the building reverting to its original purpose - free access to books and learning for the local community! One part of the former cinema is now an ice-cream shop - Take 2 Ice Creamery (note the movie reference!). The cappuccino ice cream is great and even better with a scoop of vanilla, and you can get Greek coffee here too. Like many of the Semaphore businesses, Take 2 Ice Creamery is a family run affair and an extremely friendly one too - this week they are giving tiny easter eggs to children who visit.

Semaphore also has a really good music shop - Mr. V Music at 115 Semaphore Road. Mr V has been selling vinyl and CDs both new and second hand in Semaphore for nine years. The store has a wide range of musical styles but is particularly strong in world music. This is not surprising as Mr. V. sells at the WOMAD world music festival, but it was a pleasant surprise to see some of my favourites including Dijvan Gasparyan, on the racks, whilst there are also smaller but good selections of jazz, blues and other genres. I treated myself to the a five disc collection by the Modern Jazz Quartet for a mere 25 dollars and was very tempted by a number of other items. Might have to go back before I leave Australia!

I also like Add Character at number 42 Semaphore Road. This is a great little shop that sells high quality household items, books, stationery, children's clothes and toys and lots of other cool stuff. Established by two teachers, Add Character draws on their experiences of traveling through Asia as well as offering items produced by local artists. There is always something new and interesting to see and there is always a warm welcome for customers.

The Odeon Star
Many of Semaphore's buildings date from the nineteenth century, but there are also a few interesting examples of 1920's and 1930's architecture. The Odeon Star Cinema at 65 Semaphore Road was built in 1920 as the Wondergraph Picture Palace and a matinee was shown every Saturday for the princely sum of threepence. It was renamed the Odeon Star in 1952 until it closed in 1976 at a time when many cinemas were closing. Happily, the upper auditorium reopened in 1991 with a second hand store on the lower floor until 1997, when after renovation, the lower floor reverted to film. I especially like the Odeon at night when the sign is lit and can be seen along the main road.

The Carousel
Maris Palais
The vintage carousel on the Esplanade dates from 1928 and is the largest in Australia. The horses were carved by Melbourne craftsmen and the carousel was one of the first to be driven by an electrical lift motor rather than being steam driven. A little further along the Esplanade, the Maris Palais was built in 1922 and originally comprised a brach kiosk, bathing pavilion and a large ballroom. It was renovated in the 1990's and serves as a restaurant as well as hosting various functions. There are two more buildings that catch my eye in Semaphore - the deco style Mogas petrol station and the 1938 dated building that currently houses a large homeward shop close to the Esplanade.

Perhaps Semaphore's best attraction is the lovely, wide, clean beach and the jetty. Both attract many thousands of visitors every year but it is still possible to find some quiet time to stroll along the shore almost to the Outer Harbour, stopping off at Largs for refreshment! Semaphore - South Australia by the sea.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Yvette Johansson - live at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club

My current travels in Australia brought me to Melbourne just in time to catch Yvette Johansson's appearance at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club. And what a treat that turned out to be! Supremely elegant in a wrap over top and long black skirt, she took am enthusiastic audience through two sets of well loved jazz standards and some of her own compositions.

I had not been familiar with her work before the concert but she won me over with her opening number, a velvety reading of - Give Me The Simple Life, made famous by Ella Fitzgerald and written by Rube Bloom. She went on to give us Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing), an uptempo version of Love Me Or Leave Me, made famous by Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole's Let There Be Love. On the latter number she displayed her talent for improvisation, adding some humorous words of her own…Let there be oysters (and other crustaceans!) under the sea

These were great song choices and everyone loves standards but Yvette put her own stamp on them. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in Bill Loughborough's Better Than Anything where she added several verses of her own…better than pizza on Lygon…better than brunch on Brunswick…better than sun dried tomatoes - giving the song a real Melbourne stamp. Effortlessly at ease with her standing room only audience who had turned out on a cold Good Friday evening, she chatted about falling in love, her preference for cold weather and this week's eclipse leading us into a cool version of Moonglow. Her own compositions were equally engaging. I especially liked Half A Dozen Daffodils and Sophia Loren whilst Alaska, her plea for love in a cold climate, was also well received. Clearly influenced by Ella, Billie and the other greats, there is also a touch of Stacey Kent about our Yvette with her rich, velvety and very clear delivery. 

Ms. Johansson was ably supported by talented trio - drummer Gideon Markus, pianist Joe Ruberto and bass player (and club owner) Michael Tortoni. Ruberto was particularly outstanding and injected some nice Latin touches into some of the numbers. The evening was rounded off with Bobby Hebb's Sunny (the second time I have heard this performed live in recent weeks) and she left us wanting more. A great evening at a great little club. Yvette performs regularly at Bennetts so Melbourne jazz fans really have no excuse not to catch her! 

Monday 14 April 2014

Australian Art Deco - Glenelg and Port Adelaide

Adelaide City Centre has a number of fine art deco buildings, which will be the subject of another post, but the city's many suburbs are also home to some wonderful examples of this style. I first visited Glenelg and Port Adelaide five years ago and went back last week to have another look.

Glenelg is a thriving seaside town, a short drive from Adelaide. The main thoroughfare - Jetty Road - has many bars and cafes, some good book stores and some independent shops. It also has one of Glenelg's best and most intact examples of art deco. The florist shop at number 97 was built some time between 1935 and 1940, originally as a dentist's consulting room with residential space above. It is hard to miss this lovely building as it occupies a corner space on the junction of Jetty Road and Gordon Street. Architect Alexander Henry Smerdon's clever design interacts with both streets, an advantage for the current retail use of the premises. Especially striking are the blue and white contrast details above the cantilevered awning with the "fan" showing a key deco motif to approaching pedestrians. Fantastic!

97 Jetty Road, Glenelg, built circa 1935. Architect - Alexander Henry Smerdon.
Detail, 97 Jetty Road.
I have not been able to find out much about Mr. Smerdon, except that according to the Court reports in the December 19th 1940 edition of the Advertiser newspaper, that he was successful in a claim for 60 pounds for work completed on two maisonettes for cafe owners Tom Chaouis and Con Gotjaminis. I wonder what interesting story lay behind this dispute?

Rather more scandalous than the unpaid architect's bill is the fact that since I was last here, just a few years ago, another landmark art deco building, the Ozone Cinema, which formerly stood at 119 Jetty Road has been demolished to make way for a modern shopping centre. The cinema was designed by F. Kenneth Milne and was opened by the then mayor in 1937. It had 2000 seats and its opening feature was the Janet Gaynor and Frederic March version of A Star Is Born. Facilities included a special smoking lounge for ladies, a crying room from which up to 25 mothers and babies could enjoy the film, a telephone box and an open fire! Although many of the interior features had been lost over the years I understand that the cinema had a local heritage listing but this does not seem to have been enough to protect it. The owner of one of the Jetty Road shops told me that local people had opposed the demolition. 

Former fire station, Glenelg, 1930. Architect unknown.

Detail, former fire station, Glenelg.
On a more positive note, the former fire station at 26 Gordon Road, just off Jetty Road, is still standing and is now operating as a gallery. Built in 1930, it is an attractive white painted structure with various deco features including references to the "rule of three". glass bricks, and a double recess on the building's facade. No details of the architect seem to be available as is the situation for the wonderful "Shoreham" apartment block on South Esplanade, facing directly on to the beach. The external areas of the block have been neglected and several of the beautiful balconies are crumbling. This is a building that would be at home in Tel Aviv or even Miami with its receding balconies, glazed curves and classic blue stripe against the white facade. Let's hope that restoration work takes place before this building deteriorates further.

Shoreham, Glenelg. Details unknown.
Detail, Shoreham.
Port Adelaide also boasts some art deco treasures. Whilst it is less affluent than Glenelg it has a number of attractions including national aviation and railway museums, a number of cafes and restaurants, an Aboriginal arts organisation and the riverfront area.

Port Adelaide Council Chamber and Town Hall on Vincent Street was built from 1939 to 1940. It was designed by architect Chris Smith, a prolific exponent of the deco style. Partially hidden from view by some attractive mature trees, it has several classic deco features including a beautiful curved balcony, fluted parapet, curved side windows, glass bricks and geometric patterns on the original glass doors. The town hall complex includes the former Savings Bank of South Australia which was built in 1935. The architect is not known. A more recent addition to the rear of the building has been designed sympathetically to complement the original.

Smith was an interesting character. Despite having no formal architectural training, five of his buildings are listed in the Royal Australian Institute of Architecture's list of significant twentieth century architecture in South Australia. As well as designing a number of cinemas, he was also a film fan and  at one point ran a film  distribution business with his brother. On the day I visited Glenelg, I also visited the small seaside suburb of Brighton  which is home to another Smith building - the Municipal Offices and Council Chamber, completed in 1937 amidst controversy and ratepayer protests at the expenditure  of funds. Miserable lot they must have been.

Council Chamber and Town Hall, Port Adelaide, 1939-40. Architect - Chris Smith.
Detail - Council Chamber and Town Hall, Port Adelaide.
Municipal Offices and Council Chamber, Brighton, 1937. Architect - Chris Smith.
Back to Port Adelaide and the delightful former South Australian Harbors Board building. The original building was demolished in the 1930's and the current structure was completed in 1934. It is currently vacant having recently been used by Oxfam and before that it was a Coca-Cola Museum (!) and the offices of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. I like the dramatic entrance with the brightly coloured layered archway that leads to a stepped summit, topped by a flagpole. This spot would be great for a good cafe…any takers?

Former Harbors Board Building, Port Adelaide, built 1934. Architect unknown. 
The Freemasons movement underwent rapid development in South Australia in the 1920's and 1930's and this is evidenced by the large number of masonic lodges dating from this period. Port Adelaide has a particularly large Masonic Centre on Commercial Road. Designed by architect (and mason) Charles Walter Rutt, it was completed in 1928 and is striking for its "Egyptian revival" style that includes lotus bud columns, tapered windows and various decorative Egyptian motifs. It has two facades, both with faux towers at either end and a number of masonic symbols on the Commercial Road side and over the entrance in Dale Road. It appears to be in excellent physical condition. There are a number of shops beneath the lodge, including the Better World Arts, Aboriginal arts project. Rutt also designed the Adelaide Oval cricket ground and is described on the University of South Australia's architects database as a "lover of fine cars".

Dale Road entrance, Port Adelaide Masonic Centre, 1928. Architect - Walter Rutt.

Detail - Port Adelaide Masonic Centre.

Port Adelaide Masonic Centre.
There are many more examples of art deco in and around Adelaide and I hope to be able to visit these before my trip ends. More posts to come.

Monday 7 April 2014

Picture Post 25 - The Ohel Leah Synagogue and the Jews of Hong Kong

The Ohel Leah synagogue in Hong Kong is one of the island's most beautiful heritage buildings. I managed a quick peak on a recent stopover in Hong Kong, gaining access after a searching discussion with non-Jewish guards that would have put security at Ben Gurion airport into the shade! Still, safe is good and a few minutes of questions was more than made up for by the stunning interior of this building which was completed in 1902 and funded by the great Bahgdadi Jewish family - the Sassoons who also made their mark in Shanghai.

The Ohel Leah synagogue
Jews first came to Hong Kong after the island was ceded to the British after the Opium Wars of 1839-42. The British free trade policy attracted merchants from across the world including Jewish traders from Iraq and India. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the community had developed enough to need a permanent synagogue. Most of the Hong Kong Jews were Sephardim and the Sassoons, being the equivalent of Sephardi royalty stepped forward to purchase a piece of land above the city on Robinson Road for this purpose. They presented both the land and the building to the Hong Kong Jewish community,  naming the  synagogue after Leah Gubbay, the mother of the three Sassoons who funded it.

The synagogue was designed by architects Leigh and Orange in baroque style. The original design featured a red brick exterior with white detailing and an internal layout in the Sephardi style. Just three years after the synagogue opened, in 1905, another great Baghdadi dynasty - the Kadoorie family, funded the building of a Jewish Recreation Club on the synagogue grounds. The club had a large hall, restaurant, bar, library and billiards room as well as tennis courts and a view over the harbour. It is hard to picture how idyllic this setting must have been back then due to the blocks of flats that tower over the synagogue and which restrict the views from the site. But this is still an impressive building which is loved and cherished by its community and which more than holds its own with the ubiquitous tower blocks that are now its neighbours.

During the Second World War, the island was occupied by the Japanese. Many local Jews were interned in prisoner of war camps and the recreation club was totally destroyed. The synagogue was requisitioned by the Japanese but suffered little damage and the Torah scrolls were smuggled out and safely hidden until the end of the War. In 1949, the Kadoorie family again financed the building of a new Recreation Club on the site of its predecessor. The community expanded in the following decade as many Jewish families that had formerly resided in mainland China fled to Hong Kong. This was the beginning of the island's economic transformation and the area around the synagogue became an extremely desirable location with many houses and blocks of flats being built. The scale of building in the area resulted in the weakening of the granite retaining wall between the synagogue and Robinson Road to the extent that by 1980 the Hong Kong government required the Jewish community to stabilise the entire length of the wall. This was eventually funded through the sale of part of the site and the consequent loss of the Recreation Club. Two tower blocks were built on the sold land and the developer stabilised the retaining wall, assuring the future of the synagogue.

Work to restore the building took place in 1997 and 1998, including restoration of the stained glass windows, shutters, doors and carved benches. New tiered seating was added to the women's gallery as well as better lighting and air conditioning, whilst the bimah was moved to improve acoustics. The success of the restoration was marked by UNESCO selecting the synagogue for the Outstanding Project Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in the Asia-Pacific region in 2000. The synagogue remains at the centre of the Hong Kong Jewish community with over 200 families registered as members. As well as religious services, community members are able to use the Jewish day school, a kosher supermarket, meat and dairy restaurants, indoor swimming pool and meeting rooms in the Community Centre built into the adjoining high rise. 

The Ohel Leah synagogue is an oasis of calm in one of the most densely populated places on earth. The   cream coloured exterior and the contrasting green of the grounds give visitors an idea of what this part of Hong Kong was like at the beginning of the twentieth century before the advent of the ubiquitous high rise blocks that dominate the landscape here. The Sassoon family left their mark on many of the world's great cities but their contribution here in Hong Kong is something very special and one which serves a still thriving community. The highlight of my short stay in Hong Kong, this is a much recommended place to visit, but remember to bring your passport for the guards or better still, call ahead to make an appointment to make sure of seeing inside.

Friday 4 April 2014

Nate Wong - Jazz in Hong Kong

Whenever I travel I try to find some live jazz to go and enjoy. Last week, I had just one night in Hong Kong on my way to Australia and luckily it coincided with an appearance of the Nate Wong Trio at the Fringe Club in Hong Kong's Soho. 

The Hong Kong born drummer teamed up with Teriver Cheung on guitar and a keyboard player whose name I unfortunately missed. (Sorry!), to lead us through a number of jazz standards including Ellington's Take the A Train, Sunny made famous by Bobby Hebb and the Johnny Rivers' penned Bring it on Home, as well as some of his own own compositions. These classics gave Wong a chance to demonstrate his versatility on the drums with some great solos and good interplay with his colleagues. Teriver Cheung was also excellent with his understated approach on guitar.

The gig was billed as the worldwide launch of Wong's new jazz trio and was attended by a range of Hong Kong arty types, friends, fans and family and the occasional traveler - like me. The trio also performed some of Wong's own compositions which included pieces he performed on the melodica, which I can best describe as a keyboard with a  mouthpiece and which gave a bluesy feel to the evening. My own favourite of the evening was his rendition of the Nat King Cole classic - A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Lovely. All of the pieces were well received by an enthusiastic audience.

Nate told the audience that he had only just flown in from the States, that the trio had only met each other a few hours before the gig and that there had been no chance to rehearse. If that's the case then I would advise readers to go along to his next gig at the Fringe on April 26th when he will be joined by veteran Hong Kong jazzer Ted Lo on keyboards and Ecuadorian guitarist Daniel Toledo. Hong Kong jazz fans should not miss this opportunity to see a rising star perform in his home town. 

The Fringe is a great venue where a variety of arts programmes take place. It is also a lovely heritage building dating from 1913, restored in recent years and the recipient of an important award for its sensitive restoration. Oh…and there's a good cafe too!