On Monday the 18th of January, Saatchi & Saatchi announced a Facebook-based PR challenge for internship hopefuls applying to their summer scholarship scheme. The challenge was, “Create a new Facebook group. The objective is to get as many people as possible to join your group. The top 50% of all the groups will go through to the next round.”

Soon, over 800 groups had sprung up and the avid creators were busy encouraging their digitally-connected friends to join, spread the word and thereby help them into an internship with lashings of industry kudos to boot. One participant in the competition, Tiffany Philippou, saw the brief the day it was released. Within 36 hours, she had started Secret London – a group which prompts its members to share their top tips on where to eat, drink, gather, relax, explore and be inspired in the nation’s sprawling metropolis. Having graduated from Bristol University only last year, Philippou had returned to her home city feeling suddenly out of the loop. London changes so frequently that that’s hardly surprising, but the idea struck her that other people would want to find and share things about London in order to make it a more accessible place to live in, visit or come back to.

Philippou says she has always been interested in working in PR but added that the Saatchi & Saatchi brief offered a moment of spontaneous creativity: “because they promoted it on Facebook, it was right at the forefront of your mind. It wasn’t just for people who knew they wanted to work in public relations – it was all a bit ‘just go for a challenge’ – I think most people are doing it for that reason.”

“I spent the first day thinking if I’m going to do it then I’ve got to have something good,” she added, “and it was on the Tuesday that I thought of Secret London. By the afternoon I had made the group and started to invite my friends.”

“What secrets are going to be left if they all get posted on this group??”
In just over two weeks, the initial trickle of interested acquaintances has boomed to well over 150,000 members and, although not actually the most popular of the Saatchi & Saatchi-motivated ideas (see the leader-board here), Secret London is notable in being almost entirely a product of its members’ contributions and their enthusiasm for the simple, original concept of publicising hidden places in an often overwhelming urban world.

While some suggestions are little more than cheeky plugs for pre-advertised gigs and pub nights, the majority of contributions take the form of exciting revelations about unassuming nature reserves tucked away behind tube stations, or bewitchingly quaint restaurants, or sightings of Banksy graffiti. And some of the most compelling ideas have come from those who fully interact with the concept of telling ‘secrets’ with others. Some contributions are worded like true personal confessions – places or things which someone has been enjoying individually for years, but which they now want to make known to the world.

Some have criticised the potential for a mass exposé of London’s best bits. “What secrets are going to be left if they all get posted on this group??” despaired one onlooker. But Philippou commented, “the whole point of the group is for people to share their city because this is about a community where people want to engage and exchange. I think that’s a good thing.”

The group has also inspired users to contribute in ways which Philippou didn’t expect. Almost from the very beginning, users have been adding their photographs of London to the group’s gallery. There are more than 4,000 snaps in the collection now and while the tone varies wildly (from architectural portraits by Timothy Soar to spoofs), all the photographs share a common purpose in capturing some supposedly iconic or recognisable snippet of the capital city. One member pointed out that most of the images don’t have any people in them – a paradoxical characteristic, given the density of London’s huge population. But is it so surprising? One general theme of Secret London could be described as a desire to humanise and personalise the urban sprawl into more manageable and intimate places or experiences within it. The photographs rise to the challenge by presenting us with strikingly lonely viewpoints. They depict objects and spaces apparently only appreciated by the wily photographer – secret snaps of the uncanny and unsung in a city quickly bored of tourism’s clichés and hotspots.

And there have been valiant attempts to encourage a real pulling apart of London’s constituent materials. Urban exploring is a phenomenon which sees curious inhabitants of cities and towns break into abandoned warehouses, factories and even asylums in order to connect with somewhere that has now become defunct and its history forgotten. A handful of urban explorers have suggested that Secret London members investigate cordoned-off parts of the London Underground or other tunnel networks as well as disused buildings in and around the capital.

Ian Shillito is a paranormal enthusiast, author and haunted and hidden tours operator in London. He is another example of someone who has contributed to Secret London as well as taken inspiration from it. He said that interest in the underground life of the city has been growing recently, perhaps as a symptom of international events: “What tends to happen is that in history, spikes of interest in the paranormal and the clandestine often coincide with wars and catastrophes. With the state of the world as it is today, people have been affected by disasters and it’s clearly evident in how they behave.”

“Half the fun was exploring somewhere at night with the lights off”
Shillito’s tours play on people’s interest in mystery and enigma on all levels. “People get to come into places at night-time when they’re not meant to be there,” he said, “We did the cabinet war-rooms last year, but half the fun was simply exploring somewhere with the lights off. You get to go places where the public don’t go.”

Cities have always stimulated that dual sense of fascination and association that makes them so beguiling. Interpretations of urban environments have fluctuated over the years, but right now (and that’s what we’re about, after all) there is a burgeoning interest in exploring them in greater public depth, in sharing their intricacies more openly than ever before and reclaiming ground which once felt impersonal and dominating. Secret London, by the virtue of how its members have responded to it, has become an expression of that. Some have already quoted that famous quip by Samuel Johnson: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” and they seem to be determined to prove him right in new ways.

Tiffany Philippou says that, originally, she had never expected the group to achieve the astronomical popularity that it has, but now she’s ready to take the concept to a new level.

“The first stage of the plans is that we’re looking for help from people to make the project grow. The group has always been led by its popularity and its members so what I want is to get people giving their suggestions for a dedicated website. We want to know what they think the site should look like and what they want on it. It has to be done the way they want – I’ll be leaving a lot of control to current members. For instance, I’m also beginning a design-a-logo competition which will be based on our original concept.”

Any ideas, Philippou said, can be contributed to a new discussion thread in the original group.

It’s only logical that the process should retain its democratic roots. It’s more interesting and more vibrant that way. And it’s certainly a refreshing departure from well-worn guidebook ‘tip-offs’ that usually end up being far less exciting than they sounded. It’s secrets, after all, which are really worth knowing.

UPDATE: A mere two weeks have passed since I wrote this article and Secret London has become a world-wide phenomenon, morphing into an entrepreneurial wonder-story and spawning a beautifully intuitive new website. It’s not even one full month since the original Facebook group was created. But, er, don’t tell anyone. 16/02/2010.

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At the end of January pictures and videos of Beijing’s chocolate theme-park, Chocolate Wonderland, were beamed around the world by international broadcasters and bloggers. The theme-park itself is an enormously extravagant statement which belies a culture waking up to the delights of chocolate’s textures and flavours – and re-interpreting them with flamboyant creativity.

But the mouth-watering and eye-dazzling displays at Chocolate Wonderland (composed, by the way, of more than 80,000 tons of the stuff) are grandly symbolic expressions of China’s burgeoning love-affair with chocolate. SHN has been taking a closer look in an effort to gauge the real significance of the trend.

The manifestation of chocolate in China (and everywhere else in the world) can roughly be split into two very different categories: haute cuisine applications of cocoa in restaurants; and everyday chocolate consumption courtesy of well-known brands like Hershey’s or Cadbury’s. The latter, chocolate as confectionary, is where big business is to be made, but traditionally the Chinese have rejected Western conceptions of chocolate, preferring fruit or bean-based ‘sweets’ and failing to reallyget all of the ceremonial indulgence and chocolate-spoilery that we’re familiar with. One native Chinese blogger I contacted responded with the party-popping one-liner, “Chocolate isn’t my favourite as it pleases my mouth and not my health.” But it’s a fair point that in a nation whose cuisine has traditionally been extremely health-conscious, chocolate will unsurprisingly be seen by some as a contaminating innovation.

“it pleases my mouth and not my health”

Reports and comments from interviewees suggest that chocolate is holding its own in China’s big, cosmopolitan cities, however. Beijing, Hong Kong and, in particular, the ultra-fashionable districts of Shanghai have all played host to Western chocolate producers’ launch campaigns and PR gimmicks in the last year or two. Maybe the most outrageous is ‘Hershey’s Shanghai’ – billed as “the sweetest place on earth,” its website promises us that the “giant Hershey’s kiss-shaped entry is to become a Shanghai landmark” and coldly forebodes: “you will be greeted by giant Hershey’s and Kiss product characters.” Quips aside, Hershey’s Shanghai has, actually, become a bit of a landmark, and succeeds in appealing to that metropolitan Chinese curiosity for Western pop-culture while simultaneously explaining the intricacies of chocolate production – introducing visitors to the taste and identity of Hershey’s brands. A clever ploy. Another hugely global chocolate firm, Godiva, last month announced their plans to open more stores in the country, in the wake of their inaugural outlet which is based, like their rival Hershey’s, in Shanghai.

The title of this article – a “chocolate revolution” is perhaps a little misleading. Chocolate isn’t flooding into China all at once. Its introduction has been a steady development, though the trend has certainly been picking up speed this year and last. Pippa Lamb, a student at university in England, told me, “Chinese people still tend to prefer savoury snacks to sweet ones – nuts, crackers, dumplings – and the trend of chocolate consumption in mainland China still seems to be pretty low. I’ve come across Cadbury and Nestle bars out there, but they seem to be of a lower quality.”

But Lamb, whose up-bringing frequently brought her into contact with Western food culture, finds some die-hard Chinese delicacies a little too hard to swallow: “In many top Chinese restaurants the dessert menu still only rarely features chocolate, given the traditional preference for fruit, red bean based desserts or sweet meats. I remember one time I was at a restaurant launch party and popped what looked like a small foil-wrapped chocolate into my mouth only to discover it was meat.”

“you could say that we’re proselytising chocolate in all of these countries”

But some of the most forward-thinking Chinese restaurants and chefs are just now starting to climb on the cocoa-bean bandwagon, ditching the gritty red beans of yesteryear. Robert Harrison is the gourmet business manager at Barry Callebaut, officially the world’s largest chocolate company. Callebaut have their sights set on China, like many other big manufacturers, but Harrison’s company-backed role as organiser of the World Chocolate Masters championships for chocolatiers (that was a mouthful) has given him insight into the most artistic and extravagant applications of chocolate from all four corners of the globe. He says that in the past three years there has been a noticeable increase and improvement in the chocolatiering talent spewing out of Asian countries. 2009’s winner, indeed, was Japanese.

“There’s been a huge transformation,” commented Harrison, “The Japanese have always been extraordinarily different. They have an approach that merges culinary skills with a fantastic awareness of how something can be converted into a piece of art. China and the rest of Asia are adopting some of those principles too, now. These countries are all showing a trend for aping European styles in different ways – one of those ways is the consumption of chocolate.”

Harrison added that Barry Callebaut actively sought inspiration from its dialogue with chocolatiers around the world, and that the company had learned a lot recently about Asian markets. “We’re the biggest chocolate producer in the world and I suppose you could say that we’re effectively proselytising chocolate in all of these countries. The more people around the world who see these fantastic craftsmen, the more people want to eat chocolate. It’s a virtuous circle for us.”

A clear example of Chinese fascination with finely-tuned Western traditions in action is the success of ‘Pralinor,’ a five-year-old ex-pat business in Shanghai which sells hand-crafted chocolates and markets itself on having Belgian roots and heaps of “family tradition.” El Idrissi Mehdi, the owner Pralinor’s owner, was keen to point out the difficulties of breaking into a new market: “high-end chocolate from Belgium is growing more slowly than store-bought confectionary and mainstream products. A lot of people are talking about chocolate booming in China, but it’s not that simple.”

Mehdi explained that he has been tasked with becoming one of chocolate’s evangelists: “You have to really introduce the product. They’re not familiar with it so effectively you have to sell an item and do a miniature presentation at the same time, explaining what it is, why this type of chocolate is more expensive and so on. We knew it would be like that because it’s a new market. At the end of the day, you either wait until the market is full of brands and try and fight with them or you go in now and be prepared to do a lot of teaching.”

In what other ways might you come across the fruits of all this creativity on a night out in Shanghai or Beijing? Sandy Ley, who maintains the excellent ‘Phat in Shanghai’ blogon local cuisine, said, “A lot of local Chinese are eating at international restaurants and indulging in desserts like chocolate lava cakes – a staple on the Western dessert menu. So you really see how the Chinese palate is adapting to include foreign flavours like chocolate.” On chocolate fusion experiments, Ley added, “I have heard of a dish at Whampoa Club that involves chocolate and ribs! Sounds delicious.”
We found a picture of the dish, and also one of ‘meat floss’ rolls coated in egg and drizzled with chocolate sauce (see image at top right) which was somewhat less appealing, but nonetheless evidence that colloquial experimentation is taking hold.

As you can see, China is revelling in all kinds of exposure to chocolate. Surveying the multitudinous incarnations of it like we’ve just done shows a culture intrigued by what other cultures have to offer it – a nation developing a real sweet tooth and ravenous for creativity and ideas. But more than anything you see a culture which is prepared, commercially and ideologically, to experiment and innovate with its own identity in an attempt to be original and traditional at once. China’s excitement over chocolate represents its society at its most curious and most inspired – and it tells us a lot about how people interact and share new experiences in our globalised age. Life has certainly become rather like a box of chocolates.

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“I’m inspired by what’s ugly,” explains Magda Sayeg, on the telephone from her house in Austin, Texas, “I’m inspired by things that are unpleasant to look at or which we ignore. I kind of feel like I do what I do with the mindset that I’m regenerating respect for something.”

Several years ago, Sayeg had the idea of wrapping dilapidated buildings and nondescript street-signs in vibrantly colourful wreaths of knitted wool. She was part of a movement that has come to be known as ‘yarn-bombing.’ Best described as ‘knitted graffiti,’ the phenomenon has since been well documented in the press, and the days of a trend which operated under a shadow of secretive quirkiness are now over. Fellow leading yarn-bombers, Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain released an instructive guide to yarn-bombing earlier in the autumn and Sayeg tells me that she’s working on her own book on the subject, due to land on bookshop shelves in October 2010.

“The fact that the movement has become so recognised that there’s an audience demanding a book and that publishing companies are asking me for proposals blows my mind,” comments Sayeg, “that this whole thing is making a connection with other people all over the world is incredible.”

Sayeg’s vivacious personality and energetic enthusiasm for yarn bombing are immediately palpable. She speaks quickly, positively and when she talks about her personal contributions to the movement, it’s with as much fervour as when she gives her opinion on anyone else’s efforts. Her book, she explains, is intended to be a visual induction into the world of yarn-bombing as well as a collection of some of the best knitted ‘tags’ that Sayeg has come across. “It’s not really a DIY book,” she reasons, “I’m taking more of a curatorial approach by showing my own work and exploring how this style of graffiti has become something that other people do and are just as passionate about in other parts of the world. There’ll be lots and lots of pictures.”

“knitting has become more extravagant and political”
About six months ago, Sayeg took a decision – which she describes as “a little scary” – to make yarn-bombing her full-time occupation. Since then she’s travelled the world with her ever-busy knitting needles and has frequently been asked to create installations at landmarks or yarn-bomb the venues of special events. In July she was part of a special exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra, Australia, where Sayeg and local volunteers draped the formal columns at the front of the gallery in lengths of coloured wool – and then there was the Fashion Week show at The Standard Hotel in New York where sleekly-designed aluminium bollards outside the building were adorned with sock-like yarn-bombs. “In such a highly-designed part of the city, it provided really great contrast,” Sayeg comments.

But the movement’s roots are anything but purely mischievous. As well as being something done “to beautify your own world” (Sayeg), yarn bombing can act as a political statement and Sayeg adds that encouraging people to make of yarn bombing what they will has resulted in those kind of statements coming out. “I think that the knitting has become more extravagant and more political. People have put their own twists on it. Graffiti and knitting are kind of opposites – you don’t think of knitting in hate or to make a point about something, but having that as your context can let you put your own flavour on it.”
Sayeg’s limitless energy is apparent from her bulging diary of upcoming appearances and events. “There’s talk of me doing some stuff at Art Basel, but that’s next week so I’m not sure if I can make it. I’ve been thinking about doing something at the Tate Modern in Britain before the end of the year but even if that doesn’t happen, next year I want to do something at SXSW (the South By Southwest conference) and I’ll definitely be doing a downtown show at the Austin SouthFirst Arts Festival. For that I’ll basically be covering some extremely large things in yarn.”

For now though, her book is a priority. She explains that she’s still collecting submissions from fellow yarn bombers around the world. If any of our readers want to contribute by sending nice hi-res photographs of their woolly creations to Sayeg by the 31st December, all they need to do is click on this link to find out how.

“From the photos I receive I really want to get a sense of the identity of where the people are from or what they’re trying to do with yarn-bombing that’s special,” she says, “I really want this to be a pretty picture book.”

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