Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hiking sometimes without phone reception but always with a map (Photo-essay)

One gray day some time ago, two friends and I went on a Shing Mun Valley hike that took us around the main Shing Mun Reservoir.  Since the route is circular and also pretty obvious, in that one's going along the banks of the reservoir, quite a few people decided to go on it without carrying a map with them -- only to realize that they had no idea of how far they had gone and had left to go, and end up doing such as asking passersby who actually had bothered to carry maps with them (like yours truly) for directions and, in the case of one couple who looked so pathetic and exhausted, being given water and food by charitable souls (like one of my hiking buddies)!

In all honesty, it often amazes me how many people go hiking in Hong Kong without maps and sufficient water, and sometimes also without proper shoes on.  It's like they think that hiking in the Big Lychee's country parks are the same as going for a stroll in the territory's urban parks!  But not only are Hong Kong's country parks home to wild animals (some of them scarily ferocious) but there's no phone reception in significant swathes of them -- including, as I found out on this particular hike, along some of the sections of this 9.5-kilometer-long trail, including those where the paths are paved...

The water level was high in the reservoir 
the day that we hiked around it
 
 At the same time, it looked like it had been a long while
since there had been any run off from it
 
Fern fronds aplenty, and looking distinctly alien to my mind! ;)
 
So cool that I reckon they deserve a close-up shot :b
 
A number of streams flow into the reservoir
 
A tropical looking scene in this sub-tropical part of the world
 
Shing Mun Reservoir's particularly known for the 
paperbark trees that grow on its western banks
 
 Not content with following designated trails, some hikers opt to 
try out riskier routes -- and, in the process, meet with accidents :S

Monday, September 18, 2017

Boys with their remote-controlled toys in Hong Kong

A man having fun with his remote-controlled toy boat
 
 Spotted from a bus: a youth waiting to cross the road 
with his remote-controlled truck ;b

Still more "boys" with their toys -- this time
ascending a hill out in the countryside! :)

As I was walking by Victoria Park's Model Boat Pool a few weeks ago, I got to wondering whether, in this era where hobby drones look to have become the remote-controlled toys of choice, that particular park facility -- which, at 954 square meters in size, is several times larger than the average Hong Kong apartment -- was still actually being utilized.  So of course the next time I passed by there, I discovered not just one fellow but two guys (who probably are some 40 years apart in age, and didn't act like they knew each other) remotely manoeuvering their model boats at considerable speed through the waters of that model boat pool!

Probably because of the considerable noise those model boats made as they roared around, the toys and their owners had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers.  And while it can seem on the strange side for people to be so transfixed by this, I must admit to finding it all quite hypnotic myself too after I stopped to survey the scene and got to fixating on watching the boats racing round and round the pool!

In contrast, whenever I've come across people with remote-controlled cars and trucks, it tends to be the hobbyists who attract me more than their toys.  Sometimes content to be on their own, there also are others among them who prefer to meet up and indulge in their passions with like-minded folks: who range in age from young fellows who look like they're still in secondary school all the way to white-haired retiree-types; but who, without exception thus far, have uniformly been of the male persuasion! 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A visit to Kowloon Masjid on the mosque's Open Day

The shoe-strewn entrance to Kowloon Masjid 
during the mosque's Open Day :)
 
Freely accessible areas this afternoon 
included the main prayer hall
 
 The spacious room can accomodate
up to 1,000 worshippers at a time
 
Equipment set up for prayer time
 
While taking an American visitor around Central a few months back, I was asked whether there are any Muslims in Hong Kong.  If that fellow had stayed in a hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui (like many of his fellow tourists), chances are higher that he'd have known that this is indeed the case since one of that area's most prominent landmarks is the largest of the Big Lychee's six mosques.
 
Situated next to Kowloon Park over on Nathan Road, Kowloon Masjid (AKA Kowloon Mosque) opened for prayers on Friday, May 11, 1984.  Replacing an older mosque on the Kowloon Peninsula that had been a place of Muslim worship for over 80 years before it was demolished, this newer, larger structure also houses an Islamic Centre and its facilities include separate madrasah for boys and girls, three prayer halls (which can accomodate a total of 3,500 worshippers at a time), a kitchen, offices for its staff and a community hall.

For a few hours this afternoon, the lower two floors of the Kowloon Masjid were made accessible to the non-Muslims as well as Muslims alike.  On the ground floor (in British English but first floor in American English), things were on the festive side this Open Day.  To be sure, the central area was given to a speaker delivering a talk about Islam in Cantonese and exhibits on such as "The Books of Allah", "Pillars of Islam", "Articles of Faith" and "25 Prophets of Allah Mentioned in the Quran".  But there also were rooms where women could try wearing hijab and men could put on Arabic attire, and corners where people could sample halal food and get their names written out in Arabic calligraphy.
 
On the first floor (in British English but second floor in American English) can be found the mosque's main prayer hall.  I must admit to being surprised to be assured, when I asked, that I was free to go check it out and that I wouldn't need to put on a gown or veil in order to go in.  And I also appreciated being informed that the Arabic writing at the prayer hall's entrance spells out the Islamic greeting of Assalamu Alaikum (which translates into English as "Peace Be With You".
 
Inside the prayer hall, I saw a man praying and other men sitting about, individually and in groups.  I also noticed a sign asking people to not sleep in the space -- and I suppose that might be tempting to some because the carpet that covers the entire floor is really nice and soft and, despite my suspecting that the prayer hall isn't air-conditioned, it actually felt airy and cool in the high ceilinged space.  

For all of its size, this prayer hall may well have been the most modest-looking of all the mosques I've been into (which thus far have been limited to ones in Istanbul -- whose Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Suleymaniye Mosque really can take the breath away with their beauty and grandeur -- and Malaysia, including the royal mosque in Kuala Kangsar).  At the same time though, I felt a serenity about the place that was really comfortable and comforting -- and imagine that Kowloon Masjid is a mosque that Muslims in Hong Kong are happy to visit, worship in, and can feel at ease. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Ola Bola shows that unity is strength for Malaysia (film review)

From Malaysia with love :)
 
Ola Bola (Malaysia, 2016)
- Chiu Keng Guan, director
- Starring: J.C. Chee, Saran Kumar, Bront Palarae, Luqman Hafiz, Eric Teng, Marianne Tan
 
After Yasmin Ahmad passed away in July 2009, at the age of just 51 years, and while in the prime of her filmmaking career, I expected her friend, Ho Yuhang (who had served as the assistant director for her debut-making Rabun (aka My Failing Eyesight) and guest starred in that film and Mukhsin), to take up her mantle: not in terms of producing quality Malaysian movies but also films that felt truly Malaysian.  While he has done the former, there's a better case -- with bi-cultural romance The Journey (2014) and now the multi-cultural, multi-lingual Ola Bola -- to be made for Chiu Keng Guan being Yasmin's true spiritual successor.         
 
A nostalgic sports movie inspired by the 1980 Malaysian national football team, its main characters are not named Soh Chin Aun, R. Aramugam, James Wong, etcetera -- but they share enough identifying traits with those Malaysian sports legends to enable those of us who are familiar with these footballing personalities to easily figure out who's modelled after whom.  Largely set in an era when the Malaysian national team were able to beat the likes of South Korea (in competitive matches!) and Arsenal (albeit in just a friendly game but, frankly, unthinkable these days), it's bookended by contemporary scenes featuring young but ambitious TV journalist (Marianne Tan) getting tasked by her boss to do a story about a team of unlikely heroes seeking Olympic glory.
 
Beautifully lensed (by Chin Tin Chang) and well edited (by Gwyneth Lee), Ola Bola's footballing scenes -- particular those pertaining to the climactic football match -- are the absolute highlights of this pretty entertaining show.  At the same time, it's clear right from the start that director Chiu Keng Guan had greater ambitions for his film, which possesses strong pedagogic and serious dramatic elements along with ample sporting action and comedic hijinks.
 
"You will believe again" was the campaign tagline for the movie.  Even if unspoken, it's pretty obvious that there's an advancing of the idea that "unity is strength" (bersekutu bertambah mutu, as per Malaysia's national motto) -- for the country, on the football pitch and also in life.  And in retrospect, it's amazing that there could be formed a band of brothers -- supported and cheered on by female and male family members -- whose representatives included members of the country's three largest ethnic groups and from states in both East as well as West Malaysia.

Tan Pik Yee and Chan Yoke Yeng's script can be clunky at times but even while my head was shaking over how overly melo-dramatic and tugging at the patriotic heartstrings some sections of it was, I found my heart threatening to burst and my eyes welling up with tears.  The stories of the likes of  hot-headed captain in Chow Kwok Keung (J.C. Chee) -- so dedicated to his national team (and his dream) that he turned down a move to play for a professional club in England -- and goalkeeper Muthu Kumar (Saran Kumar) -- who clashes heads with his father when he effectively prioritizes football and country over livelihood and family -- can sometimes seem exaggerated, and yet they feel like they contain enough truth to resonate.  
 
Also, in view of it being an impossible "ask" to provide three-dimensional portraits of all of the members of the team, it's truly to the filmmakers' credit that one comes away with distinct impressions of a number of the players: including Eric from Sabah (Eric Teng), the talented -- but also hard-working -- Ali (Luqman Hafidz) and even seemingly perennial benchwarmer Chai (Lim Jiang Wen).  And on an aesthetic note: his Sanjeet Singh character may not have had all that many lines but Haris Zainuddin definitely left an impression by way of his good looks!
 
In addition, while radio commentator Rahman (Bront Palarae) appears for much of Ola Bola to have been included into the film mainly for comic relief, I do love how there's a narrative payoff involving him.  Similarly, I appreciated the emotional connection made between fact and fiction by way of a cool cameo near the end of this movie which actually would be a good choice to view this Malaysia Day and other Malaysia Days to come. :) 
 
My rating for the film: 7.5 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Sights and sounds while bicycling along two Hong Kong rivers

Riding along the Lam Tsuen River

A boat with egret on the Lam Tsuen River

 The floating restaurant on the Shing Mun River Channel

When hiking in Hong Kong, it's a fairly common occurrence to catch sight of -- and even have to cross -- a hill stream or more.  On the other hand, it's not usual to find oneself walking along the banks of an actual river as well as crossing over it; this not least because there are way fewer actual rivers in Hong Kong than small streams, many of which are not considered significant enough to be named

On my most recent bike ride here in the Big Lychee though, I found myself cycling on the banks of not one but two Hong Kong rivers!  Having got on my (rented) bicycle just outside Tai Po Market MTR station, I found myself riding for a bit along the Lam Tsuen River which flows through Tai Po town from the northern slopes of Tai Mo Shan (Hong Kong's highest mountain) down into Tolo Harbour.  And on the home stretch of the approximately 15 kilometer length bike ride, I was cycling on one side of the Shing Mun River Channel (which was artificially reclaimed from the shallow sea and enables the Shing Mun River to flow into Sha Tin Hoi, a cove which opens into Tolo Harbour).

While biking along the Lam Tsuen River, I got to thinking that the scenery I was passing was distinctively New Territories; in that even though Tai Po is a large town, there still is a rural feel to it.  This is a place, after all, where egrets are familiar sights along its river banks and also feel comfortable doing such as perching on the roof of a boat moored in the river!

In contrast, parts of Sha Tin -- which, in reality, is a New Town in the New Territories, like Tai Po -- that I passed through on the same bicycle ride felt like it had culturally become part of Mainland China.  For starters, there's a bridge there which looks like it came out of a Chinese painting.  Then there's a floating restaurant housed in a structure that brought to (my) mind the Beijing Summer Palace's Marble Boat

In addition, there's it being so that there are spots by the riverside which have become de facto outdoor karaoke sites for those whose preferred music is sappy Mandopop!  Furthermore, situated far away enough from the karaoke enthusiasts were erhu players doing their own particular musical thang!  And if this doesn't already sound cacophonous to you, throw in the reality of there being a number of bicyclists in Hong Kong who like to go about with portable music players blasting Cantonese opera.  (And for the record: there are indeed hikers in Hong Kong with similar Cantonese opera-listening passions!) ;D

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Thoughts on biking in Hong Kong

Bicycles (and bike paths) abound in parts of the New Territories
 
Ditto on a number of the Outlying Islands
 
On my most recent trip back to Penang this past July, I met up with a childhood friend with whom I had spent many happy times.  At one point, we got to regaling her son with stories of how we liked to bike up a nearby hill; or, rather, gritted our teeth and rode up the hill in order that we could ride down it as fast as we could!  
 
As an adult, however, the thought of riding up steep hills seems too much of a challenge -- or, at least, bother.  Which is probably why it was years before I decided to take my first ever bicycle ride in Hong Kong.  In all honesty though, I've enjoyed myself tremendously each time I've gone biking in the Big Lychee; even on outings when the weather has been less than perfect and I ended up getting rained on.  And despite Hong Kong having more than its fair share of hills, the (officially designated) bike paths I've been on (all of which are in the New Territories) have actually all been on the flat side as well as paved.
 
Of course if I wanted to go bicycling on more hilly terrain, there are a number of places that I can do so, including in some of Hong Kong's country parks.  If truth be told though, I reckon some of those  trails designated for mountain bike riding are on the dangerous -- if not downright insane -- side.  I think here of the mountain bike paths along the Dragon's Back and Chi Ma Wan Peninsula: both of which I think are far more suitable for hiking than biking, especially since there are sections where if you veer off to the side, it will result in a pretty sheer drop down a high hill -- and, in the case of the latter, possibly down into the sea too!     
 
Instead, should I stretch my Hong Kong cycling boundaries, it'll more likely be in such as the car-less -- and, perhaps not coincidentally, bicycle aplenty -- islands such as Cheung Chau, Peng Chau and Lamma.  Mind you, should I do so, I intend to stick to the less hilly sections of the island -- unlike a Mainland Chinese tourist that the beach clean-up team I was with that day were shocked as well as surprised to see attempt to haul one of those tuk tuk-type contraptions up a pretty steep, even if not super high, hill -- only to abandon his attempt part way (but still a far longer way up already than we expected to encounter such a vehicle)! ;b 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sushi Tsubomi serves up beauty but less so taste

A nice-looking plate of sashimi

The impressive-looking dining space

One of the prettiest chopstick holders I've ever seen!

Thanks to Daimaru (Hong Kong's first Japanese department store, and the chain's first overseas branch), Matsuzakaya, Mitsukoshi and Sogo having established branches in the area, Hong Kongers have long associated Causeway Bay with things Japan.  These days, however, the focus tends to be Japanese food, with eateries specializing in fare from the Land of the Rising Sun abounding in the area.

Among the newest of them (open just some two and half months today) is Sushi Tsubomi.  Not your average sushi-ya, it's also not your traditional sushi-ya; as one can probably tell from its executive chef (Michael Chan, a native Hong Konger) having formerly worked at Nobu and being known for making "creative sushi".  In addition, the restaurant's interior design is unlike any (other) high-end sushi-ya I've ever been to -- which has been as intimate in feel as this one is large and airy.

Thanks to my being the first customer of the day, I did get served by Michael -- who also prepared the sashimi platter I ordered (instead of my more usual sushi).  An aesthetic delight, it contained more than the eight different kinds of sashimi it was supposed to; with hamachi (yellowtail), kohada (gizzard shad), seared isaki (striped pigfish), uni (sea urchin), botan ebi (Botan shrimp), akami (regular tuna) and what looked like chuu-toro (medium fatty tuna) but tasted like fine o-toro (fatty tuna) in the mix.     

When he served me the sashimi, Michael informed that all the seafood served came from Japan, and that he wished the fish were fattier than is normally the case this time of the year.  In retrospect, I wonder if he was effectively apologizing (or just plain letting me know in advance) that the sashimi would not be as delicious tasting as it was good looking -- because, if truth be told, that's what I found to be the case (with the notable exception of the pieces of toro).   

Don't get me wrong: my sashimi lunch at Sushi Tsubomi wasn't at all bad.  But I also didn't experience any moments of ecstacy, even while eating the uni and, yes, the toro too.  And yes, the raw seafood did indeed taste fresh -- but, in this case, it may have all been too fresh; since true master sushi chefs are known to age (some of) their offerings for a few days to get the particular taste and texture that they want.  

These kind of thoughts get me wondering: have I passed into the realm of sushi snob?  And this also since, upon my seeing a few guests being ushered into what appeared to be the restaurant's private room, I got to wondering who would want to sit and eat there -- rather than directly in front of the sushi chef (and preferably the most senior one in the establishment)?!

It's strange: by the standards of many people, Sushi Tsubomi would be a high-end dining establishment.  With great views out of the 22nd floor restaurant's windows and an overall decor that seems to scream out that it's expensive, it's definitely not lacking bling.  

For me though, there are tell-tale signs that it's not quite up there in the dining stakes.  For one thing, size matters -- but in the case of high-end sushi-ya, it's usually the case that small is better.  In addition, while the availability of a private room and a drinks menu whose sake/nihonshu section only consists of junmai daiginjo may impress some people, those elements indicate to me that this restaurant is not actually targetting true lovers of sushi and sashimi.  In short: Sushi Tsubomi may wow some people but it actually doesn't do it for me.