Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cook Up a Storm plays better as a Chinese New Year movie than one geared to tickle the taste buds (film review)

Movie advertising that comes complete with 
a cutout figure of its star that you can pose with ;D
Cook Up a Storm (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2017)
- Raymond Yip, director
- Starring: Nicholas Tse, Jung Yong Hwa, Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Ge You, Bai Bing 
As this movie drew to a close, its stars faced the camera and cheerily heaped Chinese New Year greetings on their audience: something I found rather strange since it was released closer to Valentine's Day than the 15th, never mind the 1st, day of Chinese New Year here in Hong Kong (and, from what I understand, Mainland China too).  But upon discovering that Cook Up a Storm was originally intended to be a Chinese New Year movie (only to have its release date postponed by distributors unduly spooked by the seasonal competition), a lot about the film ended up making a lot more sense.
Chief among these is why it is that family and community matters so much to the film's lead character, a motherless fellow whose father (Anthony Wong Chau Sang) effectively abandoned him early on in his life.  Raised by his father's cook buddy (Ge You), whose eponymous Seven eatery functions more or less as the neighborhood canteen/hangout, Sky Ko (played as an adult by Nicholas Tse) grows up to become a super talented cook who's happy to dish up traditionally prepared Chinese food that satisfies the tastes and appetites of the denizens of Spring Avenue -- from Helena Law Lan's grandmotherly character all the way down to a couple of extremely well-fed dogs -- on the one hand, but also gets much out of triumphing in televised cooking competitions on the other.  
Quite a bit has been made of South Korean singer-actor Jung Yong Hwa also starring in this Hong Kong-Mainland China co-production.  But while it certainly is so that the CNBLUE lead vocalist adds no small amount of eye candy to the movie, his dramatic impact is considerably weakened by his being noticeably dubbed when speaking English as well as Cantonese, and his character most definitely being subsidiary to the main plot arc.
To be sure, early on in the offering, it does seem like Cook Up a Storm is meant to primarily involve a series of culinary contests between Sky and Paul Anh, the three Michelin star Korean-Chinese chef played by Jung Yong Hwa who favors innovative Western cooking techniques over old school Chinese methods.  And this especially after Paul and his assistant, Mayo (Bai Bing), are hired to run a super fancy new restaurant located right on the other side of Spring Avenue from the long established but also far less pretentious Seven.      

But the further along we go in the movie (whose Hong Kong roots are apparent in such as a sub-plot involving unethical property developers seeking to replace old neighborhood fixtures with flashier as well as taller buildings), the more it becomes apparent that Sky and Paul are destined to be culinary brothers-in-arms who are more intent on proving their worth to people they want to swallow their insults than anything else.  And Cook Up a Storm's climactic -- and best -- moments involve Sky facing up to, and interacting with, someone who's left quite a bit more impact on his life than Paul had.
Revealingly, although food was involved in that scene, its presentation left a lump in my throat but failed to get my stomach growling.  Actually, if truth be told, none of the often visually impressive gastronomic concoctions in Cook Up a Storm made this foodie all that hungry!  In trying to understand why this was the case, I've come to the conclusion that too often, insufficient time was devoted to showing the food actually being prepared.  Even more crucially, there were too few occasions in the movie when people were shown actually tasting as well as genuinely savoring the dishes set before them!  
My rating for this film: 7.0

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The siren call of Hong Kong's outdoors melts away fears, and is hard to resist! (Photo-essay)

Earlier this week, it was reported that a mother and daughter duo had been robbed while out hiking in the Sai Kung area, and that the week before, a woman had been robbed while she was out on the Eagle's Nest Nature Trail in Lion's Rock Country Park.  But rather than feel that I should think twice from now onwards about venturing into the Hong Kong countryside with just one female hiking buddy or on my own, I tend towards the view that muggings are so rare in Hong Kong -- in urban as well as rural areas -- and so much of the territory is so very scenic that, especially on a beautiful weather day, it's just so very hard to resist the siren call of the Hong Kong wild! 

Actually, one of my hiker friends told me about her and another woman having been mugged while up at the top of Mount Butler some years back (when the likelihood of "illegal immigrants"/Putonghua speaking criminals preying on hikers seemed to be at their peak).  So I know that things like this are not impossible.  Still, I must admit that I've generally had a greater fear of falling down hills and from the side of a narrow mountain path as well as being bitten by a poisonous snake or stung by hornets while out in the wilds of Hong Kong than being robbed by a fellow human.   

Maybe I've been lulled into a false sense of security since I imagine that I don't look like the kind of person a potential mugger would target (in that I don't wear fashionable and expensive-looking gear, and have a stick with me when I go hiking).  I also reckon that I tend to be more aware of my surroundings than some others (particularly those fitness fanatics who seem super focused on their heart rates and not much else).  In any case, especially after looking at the following photos, can you blame me for wanting to venture out into the Hong Kong countryside?  And for the record: yes, I was with just one female friend on the hike where I took these snaps! ;S

A glorious view that people who have gone up the first bit of
Section 3 of the Maclehose Trail will be familiar with :b

I, for one, can't resist turning back every once in a while
to look at the views that get revealed the higher up the trail I go :)

That afternoon's clouds were quite something too!

 The top of the hill's a pretty cool spot 
to take a selfie/group photo ;)

 But rather than pause up on that hill, my friend and I opted 
to keep on following the path that led us higher up still!

Even while we still had a ways to go before the hike's end, 
one can get a sense of accomplishment when looking back at 
a scene like that and know that one's already gone along it :)

 Views like this get me thinking that this part of the 
Maclehose Trail may well be one of my favorite
sections of trail in all of Hong Kong :)

 Rather than follow Section 3 of the Maclehose Trail to its end
we opted to end our hike at Lady Maclehose Holiday Village 
(where this armored personnel carrier can be found on display!)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Dorrance Dance's ETM: Double Down is tap dancing and more

Advertising for the second Hong Kong 
Arts Festival program I've attended this year
Thanks to my having viewed clips of them performing in the original That's Entertainment! and its follow-up films when I was a child, visions of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers come to mind whenever I think of tap dancing.  But as American company Dorrance Dance showed this evening, with their Hong Kong Arts Festival performance of ETM: Double Down, tap dancing can be so very different from the classic, elegant tuxedoes and ballgown images which Astaire and Rogers conjured up.
Created by Dorrance Dance's artistic director Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young, this program has sections that get you thinking that the tap dancers have turned their bodies into musical instruments as well as others where their bodies and movements express a variety of emotions including physical lust, romantic rejection, exuberant energy and sheer, uninhibited joy.  
Also featured in this 11-performer show are breakdancing moves (courtesy of Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie), what I'd describe as voice music -- as they are songs without words (courtesy of vocalist Aaron Marcellus) and live music performances (including drumming by Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young, bass and guitar playing by Gregory Richardson, and piano work by Donovan Dorrance).
Quite a bit has been made of ETM: Double Down making use of something called "electronic tap boards", which Nicholas Van Young has likened to electronic drum triggers operated by the dancers' feet.  These devices feature prominently in the work right from the get go but, if truth be told, I think I was far more impressed by the sounds the tap dancers made when there was nothing between their shoes and the stage floor -- and I think that the greater floor space also allowed them more freedom of movement and, accordingly, expression too.  

While many of the dances come across as abstract, one particular section can be easily read as being about two male lovers and the times when they don't get along as well as those others when they're very much in synch.  And although there may not have been a specific message imparted by his doing so, I really enjoyed seeing how lean and lanky Warren Craft -- who must be the rare tap dancer who's also trained in ballet -- appeared to utilize his whole body (including his shoulders) to maximize the volume of his tapping!
Their costumes may have been on the utilitarian and gray side but this dance company's performance was anything but!  While the tap dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers often looked like a more percussive version of ballroom dancing, Dorrance Dance's version shows very clearly that it was -- as Michelle Dorrance said in her Artist Statement -- America's first street dance, and is a colorful dance form that can be totally in tune with the contemporary world. :)        

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fired daily, but never in anger: the Jardines Noonday Gun

Have any of these cannons ever been fired in anger?
The (in)famous Jardines Noonday Gun that gets fired daily!
"Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."  Thus goes a line in a Noel Coward song that I learnt about decades ago as a child growing up in Malaysia, one of the many former British colonies whose achieving of dependence brought the sun down on an empire which used to be so vast that at any time of the 24 day, at least one part of it would be seeing daylight

Another line in that very same song -- which was first performed back in 1931 -- states that "In Hong Kong, they strike a gong and fire off a noonday gun."  And while the gong has been replaced by a shiny brass bell, the three-pound gun nearby is indeed still fired at noon each day (as well as at midnight each New Year's Eve since 1946)!   

Many years ago, the Hong (that's still going strong) known as Jardine Matheson had its main offices and warehouses in the area of Hong Kong that's now part of Causeway Bay, and also maintained its own gun battery and detachment of guards there.  And at some point down the road, it became custom to give a gun salute to the head of the trading house whenever he sailed into or out of the company port there.
One day, the story goes, a senior British naval officer became annoyed as well as appalled when witnessing this practice which, as far as he was concerned, should only be reserved for military commanders.  He therefore slapped Jardines with a penalty involving their being required to fire their gun at noon every day for perpetuity!
Although I've passed by -- or taken friends to have a look at -- the Jardines Noonday Gun site several times before, I had never witnessed the actual daily ceremony which involves a Jardines employee ringing the bell and firing the gun before until yesterday.  Having arranged to meet a friend for lunch in Causeway Bay at 12.15pm, I realized that I had time to finally see the famous gun minus its usual protective cover and in action.     

Upon getting to its location by the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter (and, actually, just meters away from the floating Tin Hau temple that's well known among locals but far less of an international tourist attraction), I found quite the international crowd (which included native English, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean speakers) assembled there to witness what's actually quite a modest ceremony, albeit one involving a gun that can make a pretty loud noise.  
One nice bonus is that after the Noonday Gun is fired, the public is allowed into the area where it has been installed -- which happens to be the first plot of land to be sold by public auction in Hong Kong, and purhcased by Jardines back in 1841!  While quite a few people went ahead and snapped selfies or had others take photos of them with the gun, I was content enough to enjoy the rare experience of standing and walking about a bit on non-reclaimed land right by Victoria Harbour! ;b

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A floating Tin Hau temple in a Hong Kong typhoon shelter

Most, if not all, Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong -- like  
this one at Lei Yue Mun -- are located close to the sea
But it's the rare Tin Hau temple that actually floats on the water,
Long before I moved to Hong Kong, I had heard of Temple Street (or Miu Kai, in Cantonese) -- thanks in large part to movies with titles like Queen of Temple Street and The Prince of Temple Street, as well as the Temple Street Night Market which these days is largely a tourist trap but which looked like it'd be a really cool place to visit in Derek Yee's C'est la Vie, Mon Cheri.  
But it wasn't until my second visit to Hong Kong (back in the summer of 2000) that I got to realizing that -- duh! -- this Yau Ma Tei street got its name from a major temple complex in the area, whose central building is dedicated to Hong Kong's most popular goddess.
In the years since, I've come to know of the existence of a whole bunch of temples dedicated to the Taoist Goddess of the Sea (or Heavenly Queen, which her Cantonese monicker translates as), including the Tai Miu (big temple) over at Joss House Bay, others on Po Toi and Tap Mun, and in the area of Hong Kong Island that's come to be known as Tin Hau after her.  And although a good number of them are no longer located near the sea (or body of water, such as Victoria Harbour), I've learnt that the vast majority of them actually originally were.
Far more unusual than the Tin Hau temples found by the sea or further inland though is a Tin Hau temple that's actually located on a boat moored at the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter.  Home to a statue of the goddess that's believed to have been rescued from destruction during the Cultural Revolution in Mainland China, it's not been relocated elsewhere despite work on the Central-Wan Chai Bypass taking place pretty much all around it because the people in the area want it to remain where it is.     
Even though few fishermen and other folks call the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter home any more (and the largest Tin Hau temple on Hong Kong Island lies within walking distance from it), this floating temple reputedly still remains a popular place of worship.  And seemingly perenially festooned as it is with flags, it makes for quite the lively sight; with its continued existence adding color to Hong Kong's local cultural scene as far as the likes of me are concerned. :)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A satisfying meal at an indoor dai pai dong

Indoor dai pai dong dining at a cooked food center!
Chiu Chow-style oyster pancake
Sea snails in sauce as spicy as it looks! ;b
"Let's go eat at a dai pai dong", I suggested to a friend one winter evening.  But rather than dine at one located out in the open air, we headed over to a stall in the bustling cooked food center section of her neighborhood Municipal Services Building that almost looked too "authentic" to be true and got me wondering for a moment or two if I had stepped straight into a Hong Kong movie! 
The very well patronized eatery that we dined at that evening doesn't have an English name and neither does it have an English menu.  But even if its picture menu isn't as extensive as its Chinese one, it does list the highlights -- which both my native Hong Konger friend and I found intriguing and ample enough to satisfy us.
Happy to find Chiu Chow as well as Cantonese specialties on the menu, my friend set her heart on ordering the Chiu Chow style oyster pancake -- which was fine by me as I like that dish too.  And when our order came to the table, we knew we had made the right choice as it really was very tasty -- with the stir fried eggy bits being alternately fluffy and crispy, and the overall dish feeling far less greasy than lesser versions.                      
We also enjoyed my choice for the evening: sea snails in spicy sauce which actually wasn't as burning hot as I feared it would be but still definitely had a fiery kick.  In retrospect, part of me wishes that I had dipped some of my share of the oyster pancake into that sauce.  (Actually, an even better option would have been to bring the bottle of Maggi Chilli Sauce that represents a taste of home for me, and which I think goes great with fried things, be it chicken, fries or eggs!  And no, I don't think the folks operating this unpretentious eatery would have been upset if I had poured some of that sauce onto one of their dishes!) 
In addition, since both the other dishes we ordered can appear more "snacky" than filling, we also decided to get a plate of mixed vegetables and bowls of white rice -- to make sure our stomachs would be full but also that the meal would feel more balanced.  As it turned out though, we struggled to finish all the food, however tasty so much of it actually was, because the portions dished out actually were far more generous than we expected!   
Leaving the cooked food center using a different route from the one that we had used to get there, we saw that seating for the stall had flowed out into an adjacent outdoor space.  So we could have dined outdoors at that dai pai dong after all!  
Considering though that even indoors, the temperature was so low that pretty much every diner there had kept their jacket or coat on, perhaps it was for the best that we had gone for the indoor dining option.  And even while there were a few smokers in our midst (despite there officially having been a ban on smoking in eateries for some years now), there actually was sufficient ventilation to make it so that my clothes and hair actually didn't smell of cigarette smoke or, for that matter, strong cooking aromas post dining there! 

Monday, February 20, 2017

The optimal dai pai dong dining season

Where I like to eat on a cool evening :)

It may not look it from the photo but Leaf Dessert
is actually a pretty popular dai pai dong! ;) 
February is the coldest month of the year.  That's something I was told during my first winter at boarding school in England decades ago -- and whenever I've lived in a place with four distinct seasons, it has indeed felt this way for the most part.

But whereas I would spent February eagerly awaiting warmer weather to arrive when I lived in Britain and the USA, I often find myself hoping that spring won't come too soon here in Hong Kong.  One reason is that I tend to associate the spring with way too many super rainy days here in the Big Lychee.  For another, Asian winter foods (including Cantonese clay pot rice and laap mei) may well be my favorite seasonal foods of all!

Furthermore, although outdoor dai pai dong like Sing Heung Yuen are open all year round, they really are far more comfortable to dine at in cool -- even cold -- rather than hot weather.  Consequently, I'm more likely to feel up for frequenting them in the cooler months (though it's true enough that even when it's boiling, I still am liable to get cravings for that Gough Street dai pai dong's tomato soup!). 

Another reason to prefer eating at dai pai dong in winter is that cockroaches and their ilk seem far less active out on the streets of Hong Kong in cold and dry weather than during hot and humid evenings!  Hence my being more likely to have dinner at such as Sing Kee, the dai pai dong on Stanley Street whose offerings are famed for their wok hei, and which has featured in such as the Hong Kong episode of The Hairy Bikers' Asian Adventure TV show (as well as is located in the same dai pai dong-rich area in Central where Faye Wong's character bumped into Tony Leung Chiu Wai's in Chungking Express), during the cooler and colder months of the year.

Incidentally, the last time I ate at Sing Kee, I found myself sharing a table with a woman who told me she was a dancer who would be performing at this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival.  And some time ago when I was eating at Sing Heung Yuen, there was quite the commotion when superstar singer-actor Eason Chan appeared on the scene (and indicated, from the way he interacted with the dai pai dong's staff, that he's a regular patron of theirs)! 
So to those who turn up their nose at the suggestion of dining at a dai pai dong: now you know what you're missing -- the possibility of celebrity encounters and/or interesting dining companions along with some actually pretty tasty food in atmospheric dining conditions that I actually consider attractive, particularly during those times of the year when the very act of sitting in non-air-conditioned space won't get one feeling over-heated as well as sweating profusely! ;b