June 25th is Anthony Bourdain’s birthday. And this June, we’re reminded of his memory, as it’s one year since his passing in 2018.
While Bourdain was alive, I regretfully was never an avid watcher of his show. But I tuned in here and there, always finding value, insight, and shared experience from his remarks and travels. He was an idiosyncratic cultural commentator, focusing on what brought us together rather than what drew us apart. Bourdain crossed boundaries, and found beauty in the localism and rich heritage inherent in the world’s small towns, urban centers, and remote areas. In the year since his passing, I learned just how much I missed.
Much has been eloquently written and said about Bourdain since his death. As The New Yorker put it (thanks Twitter for pointing me to this piece and quote), “Bourdain felt like your brother, your rad uncle, your impossibly cool dad—your realest, smartest friend, who wandered outside after beers at the local one night and ended up in front of some TV cameras and decided to stay there.” Zero Point Fiction also did an excellent artist profile podcast.
One moment of Bourdain’s work particularly inspired me, and made me feel that we were kindred spirits (I’m sure he had that effect on many viewers through many different moments). In the last season of Parts Unknown, Bourdain had an episode centered on Hong Kong.
Bourdain opens the episode with the theme song from ‘In the Mood for Love’ and says:
“All of us, when we travel, look at the places we go, the things we see, through different eyes. And how we see them is shaped by our previous lives—the books we’ve read, the films we’ve seen, the baggage we carry.”
He then explains that the films of Wong Kar-Wai—director of such films as ‘Chungking Express’ and ‘In the Mood for Love’—forever influenced his perception of Hong Kong. While I’ve never been to Hong Kong, I can surely say that when I step foot there, those films will be in my mind guiding my steps.
‘In the Mood for Love’ is one of my favorite films, and knowing that Bourdain loved that film made me feel immediately closer to his sense of life and art. One of the episode’s most touching moments is when Bourdain is sitting with an owner of a dai pai dong (outdoor food stall), talking about city cuisine, and they learn that they both love Wong Kar-Wai’s films. Upon realizing that they share a particular admiration for ‘In the Mood for Love,’ the duo shakes hands, acknowledging a mutual respect and admiration that crosses cultural boundaries.
Bourdain spends much of the episode examining how rapid developments are changing the city’s landscape and cultural milieu. The lure of the new charges into new territory, sometimes forgetting to value what is already there.
Memories are important drivers of our personal narratives, and when we can visit the structures and spaces that shaped those memories, it is much easier to feel a stronger connection to your past. That is why there is such a concern for the preservation of historical landmarks, during either peacetime or conflict, as marks of what once was bind us with past humankind and interlinks our global experience. The organic character of the shared spaces that color our daily lives should elicit a similar concern and deference. I love to explore unfamiliar areas on foot—stumbling upon places that have helped to draw a local culture is enriching beyond words. I hope we can preserve that wonder.
For the episode, Bourdain recruits Wong Kar-Wai’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle has been living in Hong Kong for most of his career, and throughout the episode Doyle explores how the city has informed his artistic process. Asia Argento, Italian actress and Bourdain’s then girlfriend, directed the episode.
This episode is not only about Hong Kong, but about art, culture, and our common humanity. Bourdain had the gift of unearthing profound truths from immersing himself in a destination of his choosing. We’re lucky we got to go along for the ride. It’s up to us to try to live with the spirit that Anthony Bourdain tried to share.