December turning into January marks the start of a new year, and I’ve been thinking of how to mark this transition this time round. While the year 2020 is likely to be remembered as a difficult year due to the COVID-19 pandemic (which continues into 2021), I would like to bid farewell to 2020 by sharing my memories with those dearest colleagues who recently passed away. Like the passing of late Sylvia Chant, I have been struggling to come to terms with their untimely passing. Before the arrival of a new teaching term that’s certain to be hectic due to escalated COVID-19 pressure, I would like to remember them in this blog, sharing some of my fond memories to thank them and pay tribute to my dearest colleagues and mentors, Anne Haila, Ray Forrest, Ronan Paddison, and Won-soon Park.

Anne Haila (1953 – 2019)

Anne was Academy Professor at the University of Helsinki, and passed away on 21 September 2019. Her obituary can be found here and here.

It’s a little blurry but I think I met Anne in person for the first time in the International Workshop on Urban Redevelopment in East Asian Cities held at Hong Kong Baptist University in May 2009. Anne had a keen interest in Asian urbanisation and the role of land and land rents in urban political economy, and she was a frequent visitor to Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore. I remember Anne commenting wryly that she needed to escape to Southeast Asia during the long winter of Finland. But, as noted below, Asia was like a second home to her in intellectual terms as well.

Subsequent to the above Hong Kong workshop, I hosted her research seminar talk in my department in February 2010, where she gave an insightful talk that built on her IJURR paper, The Market as the New Emperor. In May 2011, in another workshop on urban utopianism held at the Hong Kong Baptist University, I remember Anne’s provocative intervention towards the end of the plenary: While most workshop participants were venting their frustration about the state in Asia and calling for distancing away from the state power, Anne was questioning if progressive changes could be made without engaging with the state. To some extent, she was at the time playing a devil’s advocate, but her ‘state question’ called for the need of a more profound debate on the nature of the Asian state and state in general, the historical formation of its power, and how the state is to be thought of in a strategic relational perspective, to quote Bob Jessop’s conceptualisation.

Anne Haila on the right in May 2011, Hong Kong

She is the author of Urban Land Rent: Singapore as a Property State, a book that can be marked as the culmination of Anne’s scholarship on land and land rent. What I also liked about this book is how Anne was making use of Singapore as an entry point for her generalisation about urban land rent. As she put it herself in the preface to her book, “Singapore is the protagonist of my story. It is a case and a comparison, but it also…enables me to generalise. My generalisations concern land, property and land rent” (p.xxiii).

Anne kindly invited me to give a series of lectures in a summer school course she convened at the University of Helsinki in August 2013, which ended with a fond memory of having a farewell dinner, where she also gave me a copy of a crime novel entitled Purge that was written by a Finnish writer, Sofi Oksanen. Reading crime novels, I learnt, was one of her fond hobbies.

The last time I met her was in Leiden, the Netherlands, in July 2019, where we both attended the ICAS conference at the Leiden University and had a chance to catch up over a brief lunch. She was fondly telling me about her recent comparative work on urban land tenure and alternatives, which involved extensive fieldwork in select Asian cities. We discussed the possibility of a joint symposium that would bring her research team and my British Academy project team together in 2020. I am very sorry that this couldn’t happen and am saddened profoundly that I won’t be able to see her again. She was a great mentor, having always supported me during the time of my academic career advancement, and I still miss her a lot.

Ray Forrest (1951 – 2020)

Ray was Research Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and prior to this, worked at Bristol University and then City University of Hong Kong. Ray passed away on 16 January 2020. His obituary can be found here and here.

The first time I met Ray in person was in an International workshop on public housing held in Beijing in July 2004. He was also my PhD examiner, and after the viva, stayed as mentor who had kindly supported me throughout the time that I was transforming from an early career to a mid-career scholar. Ray’s book, Selling the Welfare State (1988), was a classic that was influential in my own doctoral work on the controversial role of the state in supporting low-income housing. So was his study on neighbourhoods, especially set in Asian contexts, making use of Hong Kong as his entry point. He was also a key figure in establishing the Asia-Pacific Network for Housing Research, and the APNHR conferences in Seoul (2007), Beijing (2010) and Hong Kong (2011) were the occasions that allowed me to catch up with him.

When I was making a frequent visit to Hong Kong due to my project in Guangzhou between 2009 and 2011, one of the pleasing moments was to meet up with Ray for a pint of beer near Star Ferry pier on the Kowloon side or have a dim sum lunch near his university (at the time, City University of Hong Kong). He was always witty and generous with his time, despite being on high demand for his time.

The last encounter in person was in June 2016, when I was invited to a workshop he organised. Entitled From Chicago to Shenzhen: The City One Hundred Years On, the workshop was an inspirational one, with a diverse group of critical researchers from different parts of the world coming together to discuss how the Western centric understanding of city and urbanism could be de-centred, demonstrated the ways in which Ray operated academically. The picture below reminds me of a fond memory from the workshop, when Ray was hosting a workshop dinner in a remote fishing village north of Hong Kong. It’s sad that Ray is no longer in Hong Kong, although I am sure his legacy will be felt by many therein and in wider Asia.

Ray Forrest, second from right (also featured here includes, from right to left, Jan Nijman, Xuefei Ren, Fulong Wu and Bart Wissink), June 2016

Ronan Paddison (1945 – 2019)

Ronan was Professor Emeritus of the University of Glasgow, and editor of the Urban Studies journal when he passed away on 8 July 2019. His obituary can be found here and here.

I first met Ronan in late September 2009 when he and his wife were visiting Guangzhou, where I was conducting fieldwork on the impact of Guangzhou Asian Games on local neighbourhoods. As editor-in-chief of the Urban Studies journal, he was, I learnt at the time, meeting up with China scholars during his exploratory visit to China. It marked the beginning of the Urban Studies journal’s development of China Strategy in subsequent years, which successfully led to the journal’s substantial expansion of both readership and authorship basis in China.

Ronan was also very supportive when the book Planetary Gentrification was published, kindly making arrangements and chairing an authors-meet-critics session in 2016 annual conference of RGS-IBG in London (see below)

When the board meetings of the Urban Studies Foundation were held in Glasgow, it was great pleasure to see Ronan over a pint of beer in the usual pub near the University of Glasgow and hear his wisdom. He was such an influential figure in the discipline and also for the operation of the journal and the Foundation. He’d be dearly missed.

Won-soon Park (1956 – 2020)

Last but not least, Won-soon. He was a human rights lawyer, who devoted his later life to philanthropy, civic activism and politics. He was the longest-serving mayor of Seoul from 2011 until he sadly passed away on 9 July 2020.

Won-soon was a well-known figure in Korean politics and social movements, having defended many political activists and led a number of influential campaigns to fight corruption and defend democracy. When I met him in person for the first time in 2007, he was leading a think tank, The Hope Institute, which he founded in 2006 to put forward innovative social initiatives. I vividly remember the first meeting in his office in central Seoul, when he was introducing himself as ‘social designer’, a title that he proudly used and resonated among many people at the time. I was then preparing a return to London, about to quit the company I was working for after my PhD, and Won-soon suggested creating a UK-based network that collaborates with the Hope Institute. During the next two years of my life in the UK, this network was something that absorbed a good deal of my time.

Won-soon was also closely connected with the LSE, having earned his diploma in International Law in 1991. Perhaps partly for this reason, he returned to LSE for a few months as visiting fellow, and I was happy to host him in my department in the spring of 2010. Won-soon almost gave a public lecture at the LSE in June 2015, which was being prepared at LSE to coincide with his visit to London, but cancelled due to the outbreak of MERS outbreak in Korea in 2015.

When he was in London in 2010 for the visiting fellowship, it was a pleasure of mine to organise a talk by him for Korean students, where Won-soon shared his life and vision about the Hope Institute as well as his views about the then regressive Korean politics. The dinner we had with attending students in a casual Indian restaurant on the Strand was memorable (see the images below from April 2010).

It was during the time of his visiting fellowship that I got to learn a little more about his working style first hand. He was busying himself almost everyday, hardly resting. He visited various places and institutions to observe and interview, meticulously recording what he learnt. Like a clockwork, after a long day of interviews and site visits, he returned to the department office in the evening to type up what he had handwritten, as if he was a doctoral student doing fieldwork. The stories he collected turned into a book about social enterprise and innovation, which got published in March 2011, within less than a year from his return to Korea. Although he was an activist and social reformer, he was also a critical researcher and intellect indeed.

It was great pleasure to meet him from time to time during the past few years, be the meeting in his residence in Seoul, or in a London pub or on LSE campus when he paid a visit to London (images below from August 2013, left, and May 2019, right). He was always eager to talk about various initiatives he was introducing as mayor, and to hear about new ideas.

He cared much about his beloved family and the people around him. Although he eventually found himself in the myriad of real politics, he was a man of principle but also a delicate person who had good faith in people that he worked with. It profoundly saddens me to think that he is not around anymore.

Anne, Ray, Ronan and Won-soon, rest in peace.