Friday, January 19, 2018

10 highlights of my 2017 year


Did you know you can get this close to
 
One of many sunsets I enjoyed photographing from 
my new favorite sunset photography spot in Hong Kong :)
 
I did a lot of travelling outside of Hong Kong in 2017.  I made three trips back to Penang and made one more visit to Japan this past year.  I also visited Indonesia and South Africa for the first time ever in 2017.  Oh, and I spent the better part of a day in Macau last year too.  I guess it stands to reason then that many of the highlights of my 2017 involved experiences that occured outside of the Big Lychee.  
 
At the same time though, I want to make clear that my love for Hong Kong remains pretty strong -- and it remains the best place that I've lived in by a long chalk to my mind.  In addition, I think it says a lot that Hong Kong has always figured in all of the annual highlights lists that I've compiled since beginning this blog: including this current one as well as those for 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 all the way back to 2006 (the year before I moved to this part of the world).

1) Best book: As a lover of crime novels, I'm no stranger to being transfixed by a veritable page-turner that causes me to stay awake far beyond my supposed bedtime.  But it's far less often that a non-fiction work will feel so hard to put down that it will literally cause me to lose sleep.  Trevor Noah's Born a Crime is that one of those very rare works.  The absolutely gripping story of his childhood and coming of age in South Africa, it also is a wonderfully loving tribute to his mother.  Parts of it made me laugh (as one might expect of a book written by a famous comedian) but other parts made me cry and touched me so very much.   

2) Best concert: Last September, I heard and saw the very talented pianist, Yuja Wang, performing live with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.  I also was in the audience for the orchestra's very fun Musical Ping Pong concert in June.  But my absolute favorite concert that I got to attend in 2017 took place earlier still in the year and featured another bravura performance by my favorite classical musician for some years now, violinist Ning Feng.  Amazingly, I managed to get two front row seats for a friend and myself for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra's Jaap & Ning Feng concert in April and had an unimpeded view of the guest soloist at work that left me in absolute awe of his nimble figures and absolute mastery of his instrument of choice.

3) Best drive: Very early on during my visit to South Africa, I got to realizing that it is a jaw-droppingly beautiful land.  My first full day in the country began with a visit to a stunning beach and included a scenic car ride along Chapman's Drive that had me "oo-ing" and "aah-ing" for much of the way.  Amazingly though, a few days later, I was driven along another stretch of coastal road that I actually think offered up far more stunning views.  And yes, I thank my lucky stars that I was in a passenger seat when we went along Clarence Drive because that way, I really got to admire the spectacular scenery that kept on revealing itself in front of as well as on either side of the car I was in for miles and miles!        

4) Best exhibition: Most of Macau's visitors go their to gamble at its casinos.  I, on the other hand, am more likely to spend time there wandering around its historic center and sampling its very culinary offerings.  This past year though, the primary attraction for me in Macau was Our Sanrio Times, a mega-exhibition geared towards fans of Hello Kitty and other luminaries in the Sanrio stable, including my first Sanrio love, Winkipinki -- and anyone who doubts that I was genuinely thrilled by what I saw there really should have been there to hear the excited squeals that inadvertently emanated from me more than once over the course of the two hours or so that I spent at this kawaii event!       

5) Best film: I viewed 71 new films for the first time in 2017 but the highpoint of my movie-going year actually involved viewing a 1954 film that I saw for the first time as an undergraduate at Beloit College.  I knew the first time I saw it that Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was a bona fide classic but I feel that I actually appreciate and love it so much more on my second viewing: decades later and on a much bigger screen than previously.  Put it another way: this epic work doesn't seem to only have stood the test of time but its greatness may become more apparent the older it is -- or the older and more mature its viewer becomes!

6) Best hike: Not counting the mini-hikes to and out of Cheung Chau's Tung Wan Tsai (Coral Beach) as part of my monthly beach clean-up efforts, I went on a total of 24 hikes last year in Hong Kong.  Of these, my favorite has to be that undertaken one beautiful day in April and involving my going along a trail that I hitherto hadn't realized existed, part of which was on an old military road way up in the northern New Territories.  Seeing that part of the route had my group passing through a section marked off in the relevant Countryside Map as a firing range, it seems like we were dicing with danger that afternoon!  So I'm not sure if I should or will venture to -- and through -- that scenic area again but, if truth be told, I'm glad to have done so at least once now!                

7) Best place to be at high and low tide: For my first ever visit to Japan's sacred island of Miyajima, I made sure to be at Itsukushima Shrine when high tide came along and was duly rewarded with some pretty incredible sights.  Without really planning to, I also happened to be in the area when the tide was so low that I was able to walk up to the shrine's great Torii, observe that there were oysters on it and actually touch it with my hands.  In doing so, I felt blessed for the second time that day; with the first having been at high tide when I totally "got" why Miyajima has long been ranked among the top three scenic places of Japan (nihon sankei).    

8) Best place for Golden Hour and sunset photography: Back in May 2015, I visited Matsue and found that sunset photography is a major thing there.  Inspired by what I saw there, I actively sought out prime sunset photography spots in Hong Kong upon my return -- and found a couple over on the western side of Hong Kong Island.  Still, while the Sai Wan Swimming Shed and Kennedy Town's Western District Public Cargo Area (aka Instagram Pier) certainly do have their fans, my personal favorite actually is further to the east: over at Lei Yue Mun, particularly in the vicinity of its Tin Hau Temple; with the photos I've taken there, particularly one hot June day last year, showing why this is.        

9) Best museum: The Osaka Museum of History was never high on my list of museums to visit in Japan.  Neither was it high on my list of Osaka attractions to check out.  But one super rainy day in Osaka last October, I decided to head over to that not particularly famous museological establishment and came away completely bowled over by the artistry of its exhibit designers and creativity of its curators in fashioning beautiful and interesting exhibits despite not having all that many ancient and historical artefacts to work with and display.  Highly recommended as a place to visit even on fine weather days, it truly is a museophile's delight! 

10) Best UNESCO World Heritage Site: I visited seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in four different countries in 2017.  Japan's Itsukushima Shrine was pretty amazing and a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial can't be anything but a seriously moving experience, as is a visit to South Africa's Robben Island.  Meanwhile, it says a lot that I always feel like I find something new to admire whenever I visit Macau's Historic Center -- and I will always feel a special connection with George Town because, well, it's my home state's capital city!  Still, it's the Indonesian UNESCO World Heritage sites of Prambanan and Borobudur which really took my breath away -- and the ancient Buddhist monument of Borobudur where I happily spent several hours, including ones that were early enough in the day for me to see the sunrise from what felt at the time like the top of the world! :)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

10 things I learnt about South Africa on my recent visit there

Cape Town's City Hall, from whose balcony Nelson Mandela addressed

A man tries selling hats and other pieces of clothing to 
the occupants of cars waiting for the traffic to get moving again
 
The closest I came to seeing big game in South Africa -- 
in the form of a sand sculpture on a beach strewn with kombu!

Ten South Africa trip observations (presented in no particular order):-

1) They weren't kidding when they described South Africa as the rainbow nation.  What I mean by this is that, in the few days that I was in that country, I saw and interacted with South Africans who can easily identified as Africans (i.e., "black"-skinned individuals) but also their fellow citizens with distinctly paler skin, whose ancestors hail from Europe, South Asia and Southeast Asia, and still others whose ancestors are a combination of the afore-mentioned peoples.

2) Some four years after he passed away, Nelson Mandela still looms large in South Africa.  It's not just that his portrait is on the country's Rand notes or even that there are buildings with his name or gigantic posters with his face on them.  It's not even that, despite not being a native of Cape Town, there are so many places in the area (like its City Hall or nearby Robben Island) where he is known to have left an imprint.  Rather, there is a distinct sense that, without Madiba, South Africa might not (still) be one country, never mind one that is no longer a pariah in the world.

3) Apartheid may have officially come to an end in 1991 but the country is still very much segregated, albeit officially via economic rather than "racial" lines.  In Cape Town and its surroundings, it appeared to be so that the well-off were largely "white" while the impoverished, including those who were visibly homeless and beggars, were predominantly "black".  And different areas of the city, be they historic neighborhoods, suburbs or "townships", remain identifiably "white" versus "colored" versus "black". 

4) Certain sections of Cape Town/South Africa feel much more "Western" than African.  It wasn't just that I saw and encountered a predominantly "white" crowd there but that the "feel" and "vibes" of the places was so very different from the parts of Africa I previously had been in (namely, Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia) and reminded me far more of those I've felt when in the USA or Australia, if not some place in Europe!

5) Statues and other monuments to figures associated with the colonial and Apartheid eras, such as Jan Smuts and Cecil Rhodes, still remain.  With regards to the latter: I must confess that up until recently, I had mainly associated him with the Rhodes Scholarships for post-graduate study at Oxford University whose recipients have included Americans and Malaysians as well as South Africans and Australians.  As for the latter: I actually knew him best for having worked for/with Winston Churchill for the Allies during World War II!

6) Artistically, these days, it seems that South Africans very much ally themselves with the rest of the continent -- or, at least, the Sub-Saharan section.  Both at the public South African National Gallery and the private Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Zeitz MOCAA), there was no segregation of art along national lines -- or, for that matter, "racial" ones -- and I found this approach both interesting and also refreshing.

7) When I was in the country, a report came out placing South Africa dead last in terms of true literacy out of the 50 territories surveyed.  It hammered home the fact that the well-educated and articulate individuals I spent my visit with are the exception to the rule rather than in the majority.  And it made me realize how isolated and different from their fellow citizens they often must feel as a result of this (rather than "just" because of their ethnicity or economic status alone).

8) South Africa is a really big country.  World maps don't really give a sense of how large it is as much as my learning that it's the ninth largest country of the second largest continent in the world, and actually the 25th largest country in the world.  And the sense of great distance is made all the more obvious there by it taking so long to travel from A to B there by car, never mind on foot as too many of its denizens have little choice but to go on since they're too poor to own a car and the public transportation there just isn't good or widely available enough for them to rely upon.

9) South Africa has lots of natural resources.  As a child, I had learnt in school about South Africa having gold and diamond mines galore.  On my visit to the country, I also saw how much food one can get from the sea (if you chose to eat it -- though it seems that such as oysters and abalone are more likely to be exported since there are more people who love to eat them living in far away lands than in South Africa itself) and tasted vegetables so sweet that I truly am shocked that the country's denizens don't seem to enjoy eating them!     

10) South Africa remains a country of so much promise and (potential) wealth.  Considering how spectacularly beautiful so much of it is, how fine its wines (and beers), etc., I'm surprised it's not as flooded by tourists as it currently is.  Also, I get the feeling that this is a country filled with people who would be able to do much if the fields in and on which they are being asked to compete were more level.  So here's hoping that they will be made to be so -- and not by things collectively going downhill but, rather, improvements being made more evenly and fairly all around.    

Monday, January 15, 2018

Penguins, guinea fowl and other birds spotted in South Africa! (Photo-essay)

"Did you go on safari?", an American friend asked me after he learnt that I had been in South Africa recently.  Since that's the Kiswahili word for "trip" or "journey", I technically had been -- but I knew what my friend actually was asking was whether I had gone on tour to see wild animals such as lions and elephants, so I answered in the negative.  

If anything, the closest I had been to visiting a place where wild animals are to be found was the local pond in Durbanville, a suburb of Cape Town where I spent a few days and nights since it's where my South African friend grew up and his mother still lives.  On my final morning in South Africa, we headed over to that idyllic space where a variety of birds make their home.  

At the same time though, there were three sites where I made wild creature spottings that I considered quite a bit more exciting: the waterfront by Kalky's, where I spotted a sea lion; the stretch of garden by my South African friends' maternal grandparents' house, where I spotted a flock of exotic looking guinea fowl; and, improbably, Robben Island, best known as a prison island but also home to penguins(!) and some 130 other species of birds!         

The kind of idyllic place many people would like 
to have in their neighborhood :)
 
A closer look at some of the ducks that have made
the pond their home

A bird whose long, thin legs I found particularly interesting
 
On the other hand, it was this bird's long neck
and thin body which intrigued! ;b
 
I've seen relatives of this heron over in various parts of 
 
Guinea fowl roaming about freely!
 
 Aren't the patterns on this bird's feathers pretty? 
 
Ultimately though, nothing can beat the sight of penguins
in the wild as far as I am concerned! :)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Stunning views from Siu Ma Shan on a super high visibility winter day

Not your usual view of Victoria Harbour :)

 Click on the above image to get a seriously impressive 
view of Hong Kong! :b 

This past Monday, it was gloomy and gray, with patches of rain coming down over the course of the day and the temperatures dropping dramatically down below the 10 degree Celsius mark after night fell.  Not only was going hiking out of the question but it felt like quite an effort to leave my apartment and head out for a dinner I had committed to going to weeks ago over in Prince Edward.   
Happily though, after a few depressingly cold and rainy days, the weather has perked up considerably.  And on Thursday morning, I enjoyed the kind of glorious view of the northern section of Hong Kong Island from across Victoria Harbour over in Tsim Sha Tsui that gets you realizing how absolutely beautiful Hong Kong is on a high visibility day.

Yesterday morning, I was back in the same area and enjoying that view that takes in that famous forest of skyscrapers but also green hills and mountains rising behind and above them.  A visitor from the USA standing next to them, visibly stunned, turned to tell me that he considered Hong Kong to have the two best harbor views in the world along with Sydney.  I, in turn, was moved to tell him that before I moved to the Big Lychee, whenever I visited Hong Kong, I'd make it a point to go over to the edge of Victoria Harbour over at Tsim Sha Tsui to drink in the views there at least once on each of my trips here.

But what I didn't have the heart to tell him is that Hong Kong, including Victoria Harbour and the land to its north and south, is so much more beautiful when viewed from the hills rather than closer to sea level.  On a related note: while the views from the northern section of Victoria Peak's circular path can be pretty stunning, I actually prefer the views to be had from less well known hilltops, including those of High West and Siu Ma Shan.  And the top of Siu Ma Shan (and that of nearby Mount Butler) was where I decided to take a Japanese friend on his first Hong Kong hike earlier today!

When I checked the visibility levels on the Hong Kong Observatory website this morning, the readings for Sai Wan Ho was 40 kilometers, so I figured we'd be getting pretty clear views on our hike.  Even so, I was unprepared for how much we had lucked out today -- in that today may well have been the very first time that I could see Lantau Island and also the mountain ranges by the Plover Cove Reservoir way up in the northeastern New Territories from up on Siu Ma Shan! 

Adding to how amazing and unusual this all was is that we're currently in the middle of winter, where the temperatures often can be ideal for hiking but the visibility levels less so.  All in all, today was close to being the perfect hiking day for me, with: temperatures that were cool enough so I didn't sweat like crazy yet warm enough so that I was fine wearing just two layers of clothing on my body along with a pair of long trousers to protect the bottom half of me; the kind of bright blue skies and high visibility I no longer take for granted; and the kind of hike company who could appreciate how beautiful Hong Kong can be like I do even after all these years. :)  

Friday, January 12, 2018

Two signs in South Africa that had me doing a double take! ;)

I bet this South African musician refuses to answer 
to ever be called by his personal name's diminutive ;b

Two surnames few would ever have imagined seeing
placed next to each other not so long ago!
 
When I was a secondary student in Penang, Malaysia, I had a math teacher who went by the title and name of Mr. Kok.  As luck would have it, after I moved on to boarding school in England, I had a P.E. teacher listed on the faculty roll as "Miss A. Chicken".  Cue major hilarity when I told my boarding schoolmates about Mr. Kok and our thinking how absolutely funny it would have been if Miss Chicken had met and then married Mr. Kok!
 
Looking back, it's pretty amazing that my schoolmates both in Malaysia and England and I never associated the name Kok with anything dirty but, instead, fixated on it sounding a lot like a domestic male bird.  In contrast, when I first heard about a South African musician by the name of Richard Cock, I have to admit to thinking immediately of the dirty word that also is the dimunitive form of his first name and which his surname also can be used to mean!  
 
And, actually, my very first reaction was to reckon that the friend who told me about there being a man by that name was pulling my leg -- only for me to get concrete proof of Mr. Cock's existence by way of our a sign posted up by the road that we were driving along announcing a concert in which he would feature while in Stellenbosch.   
 
Another sign I spotted in South Africa that had me doing a double take, albeit for very different reasons, was that which adorns the Mandela Rhodes Building.  Think about it: Nelson Mandela and Cecil Rhodes not only lived in different eras but represent such different political philosophies and ideals, with one being a commited imperialist and the other being pretty much the opposite!
 
At the same time though, they both were South Africans.  And it's pretty interesting to discover that the Mandela Rhodes Building -- which was built in 1902 -- was known as Rhodes House up until 2002, when it was gifted by its owners (De Beers) to the Mandela Rhodes Foundation which has its offices in this historical building.  
 
Co-established by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Rhodes Trust, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation awards scholarships to African students for post-graduate studies in universities in South Africa.  So, rather than it being a joke, the intertwining of the name Mandela and Rhodes in this existence actually turns out to stand for something very cool indeed! :)            

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

My efforts to get dietary diversity in South Africa, where meat is king!

Probably the most balanced single dish I ate in South Africa!
 
Strange as it may seem to (most) South Africans,
I actually generally prefer salads to burgers!!
 
Stranger still to them is the notion that this seaweed is 
actually edible, and can be deliciously so at that! ;D
 
Years ago when I was living in Tanzania, I attended a talk at the National Museum of Dar es Salaam given by a marine biologist friend, during which he told the audience that there was "free protein" on the area beaches, only to see them react with absolute horror upon their realizing that he was suggesting that people pick and eat the cockles found in the sand.  And further shocks ensued when the speaker pointed out that I had eaten cockles and I not only backed his claim but also told the people present that I enjoyed eating boiled cockles dipped in chili sauce.
 
Fast forward to my recent South African sojourn and my suggesting on more than one occasion to various local folks that the seaweed that was floating about in the ocean and washing ashore onto their beaches was not only edible but, actually, pretty delicious.  As with the Tanzanians and their reaction to the idea of cockles being an enjoyable delicacy, the South Africans I told about kombu were pretty skeptical about its being edible.  What's more, as my South African friend had warned me in advance, his countrymen and -women aren't big fans of seafood.  Hence my ending up having only one seafood meal in my more than one week there; and this despite the likes of oysters, abalone and yellowtail being found in the waters of South Africa!  
 
Similarly, despite the locally grown vegetables I tasted there being of generally high quality (with the onions and carrots being sweeter than those from pretty much every country I know bar for Japan), many a South African just don't eat as many vegetables as you'd think they would (and should)!  Instead, the culinary focus is very much on meat, particularly beef -- though I also did have the opportunity to try springbok meat at lunch one day and lamb chops were on offer along with (beef) steaks and boerewors at a couple of braai!
 
Although I do like eating meat,  I also do like eating vegetables a lot -- and make a point to consume at least four different types of vegetables and/or fruits daily as I think it helps make my diet more balanced.  Normally, this hasn't been much of a problem.  But it actually was turning out to be so in South Africa, particularly since for dietary purposes, I consider potatoes as carbs rather than vegetables of the kind that I think I should make sure I eat daily.  
 
So desperate was I to make sure that I had sufficient vegetable intake (and worried that I wasn't having a balanced diet) while there that I started ordering vegetarian dishes as mains at various meals near the end of my South Africa trip!  Thus it was that I found myself ordering a large garden salad while every other member of my party ordered burgers and chips at lunch one day, ordering a dish consisting of flatbread topped with cheese, tomatoes, onions and coriander on another occasion while my South African friend opted once more for a burger and chips, and -- well, I trust you get the picture.  

The heights of hilarious ludicruousness was reached one evening when I made a point to get a large onion to be grilled at a braai along with a large and diverse amount of meats.  Apparently, this was the first time the assembled South Africans -- all of them fully mature adults -- had ever witnessed something that was not meat being grilled at a braai!  While I expected to consume the entire grilled onion by myself, curiosity got the better of a few of the South Africans.  Even more unexpected was their actually liking the taste -- so much so that a couple of them have now taken to including onions among their braai essentials and even sent me photographic proof of this being so some days after my return to Hong Kong! :D

Monday, January 8, 2018

African art at the South African National Gallery and beyond (Photo-essay)

Amidst all the hype about Cape Town's still pretty new -- seeing as it only officially opened its doors to the public on September 22nd, 2017 -- Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (sometimes seemingly much more about the building in which it's housed more than anything else), it's worth remembering that there's lots of art to be found elsewhere within South Africa's "Mother City" and its surroundings.  

Chief among them for me is the South African National Gallery located in the same row of government buildings as De Tuynhuys (which is the office of the South African President) and the country's Houses of Parliament, and whose admission charges I reckon to be a major bargain (especially in comparison to those for Zeitz MOCAA and also when considering the quality of the artwork on show there).  But I also came across cool art works in seemingly unlikely places including in the main buildings of wine estates that I was brought to and also the Pan African Market whose three floors were filled to the brim with all manner of contemporary paintings along with traditional artefacts and handicrafts...

A statue of South African statesman Jan Smuts stands
in front of the South African National Gallery building
 
Ndebele art has pride of place in one of the museum's galleries
 
As at Zeitz MOCAA, the art on display at the South African 
National Gallery comes from all over the African continent
 
When exhibited in an anthropology museum, one will focus
on these objects' cultural import but when you see them in
an art gallery, your focus is on appreciating their beauty
 
Of course, this is not to say that art (such as this political 
cartoon by Derek Bauer that's part of an ongoing exhibition 
at the South African National Gallery) can't also communicate
 
And wow, is this art installation involving pass books and fire
at the Delaire Graff (wine) Estate ever so powerfully evocative!
 
Returning to the South African National Gallery:
I love this Mdolly's name/title as well as the object itself
 
On the subject of dollies: meet Ndbele Dolly, who I saw at 
the Pan African Museum and decided to take home! ;b