Thursday, August 16, 2018

Less than positive experiences in the second most-visited country in the world

Artistic depiction of a smelly habit

Allergens and allergy medication abounded
in Spain this spring!

Not the kind of conditions I expected to encounter
in the main airport of a first world country's capital city

Earlier this month, a heatwave hit Spain that was so bad that it claimed the lives of several people.  Even before this news came along, I had known not to visit this country -- which attracted 82 million visitors last year, making it the second most-visited country in the world -- in the hot summer months.  If only I had known that springtime also is not an ideal time to visit the parts of Spain that I did; this because spring is prime hay fever season and Andalucia and the central areas of the country (where, say, Madrid is situated) regularly have high olive, plane tree and grass pollen counts!    

As it was, my allergies kicked in pretty early on in my May Spain trip and my eyes were all watery, my nose all itchy and runny, and I was sneezing so badly that in the middle of my visit to the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, I developed a nosebleed which I feared that I would not be able to stem for a time!  With no fever having developed, I figured (correctly) that I had hay fever: for the first time in a decade and a half (because, ironically, I don't react as badly to the air pollution in Hong Kong!); and which was made worse by so many people -- women as well as men -- smoking like chimneys in the streets, while strolling about or when seated in the outdoor sitting areas of cafes and restaurants.

Things did not get better after my German friend and I left Madrid and headed over to Andalucia, with an antihistamine spray I got in the Spanish capital not helping much at all.  Fortunately, things vastly improved -- and pretty quickly too! -- after I got some 24-hour anti-allergy tables from a pharmacy in Sevilla a few blessed hours before our visit to the city's Real Alcazar.  Sadly, that was the same day that my German friend came down with a bacterial infection (whose symptoms included red eye and prolonged bouts of coughing) which I managed to stave off when I was in Spain but then was overcome with a couple of days after I got back to Hong Kong!

Partly because of our health problems, my German friend and I weren't able to enjoy our vacation and appreciate Spain as much as we would have liked to do so.  At the same time though, there were aspects of our trip and things about the country that I honestly think that, even if we were in the best of health throughout, we would not have been happy with.

Among them are the over-crowdedness of certain attractions and parts of the towns and cities we visited.  With regards to this: Cordoba was by far the worst; and so off-putting were my experiences there that I ended up opting not to go to the even more celebrated Toledo, which had actually been top on my list of places (along with Granada's Alhambra) to visit in Spain prior to my trip.  And things were not helped by many of the super crowded spaces -- including Madrid's Puerta del Sol -- often feeling like prime petty crime (specifically pickpocketing) territory.     

A note on Spain and pickpocketing: before our trip, both my German friend and I had heard horror stories about and got warnings to watch out for it from various people.  And while walking on a street near the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía on my final day in the country, after I felt pressure on my backpack and quickly spun around to see what was going on, I saw a woman with a large plastic bag walking quickly away from me -- and feel pretty certain that she had been planning to steal stuff from me!   

Continuing with the tales of theft: on my plane out of Madrid later that day, the two women seated in my row (who, suspiciously, were the only other Asians on the aircraft!) told me about their backpacks having been slashed and stuff having been taken from them while they were walking along the Camino de Santiago!  And they too had heard stories of other fellow travellers having been victims of pickpockets and were inclined to conclude that tourists are specifically targeted by Spanish petty criminals.

Living as I currently do in a part of the world where one's personal safety and security tends to be assumed as a matter of course (so much so that I feel perfectly able to be out late at night), it can be quite unsettling as well as disheartening to feel obliged to be on one's guard against being taken advantage of by others.  Also rather upsetting was my seeing as many beggars on the streets in Spain, particularly Madrid, and also the buskers and itinerant street hawkers who seemed far more like panhandlers than bona fide entertainers or vendors.                 

I had read about the Spanish financial crisis but thought that the country was on the road to recovery.  In my short time in Spain, however, I saw plenty of signs that quite a few people and institutions remain financially strapped and economically troubled, and my general impression is that this is a country whose glory days are way past and is a shadow of what it used to be (and may still perceive itself to still be, especially vis a vis countries located in others of the world's continents).

For these reasons, among others (that I don't want to go into, at least not in this post), I actually came away from my Spain trip thinking that it will be my final as well as first visit to the country.  And this despite my having seen some really amazingly beautiful sights (created by Muslims and pagans as well as Christians who lived centuries before) in various cities and also my having tasted a variety of dishes that got me thinking that Spanish food may well have become my favorite European cuisine. :S  

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Positively reacting to snowy sights in Spain this past May!

Snow on the mountains visible from Madrid's Palacio Real!
 Lots of snow visible too on the Sierra Nevada range when viewed 
from atop the Alcazaba's main tower at Granada's Alhambra
Still more snow visible on the peaks of mountains -- 
this time from a viewpoint by Segovia's Roman Aqueduct 
Growing up, as I did, as a small child in a country situated very close to the Equator, the closest thing to snow that I saw or touched in real life was the frost in the freezer section of the refrigerator.  Little did I know then that there would come a time in my life when I would see snow so regularly and in such great quantities that I would get sick and tired of seeing that cold white stuff and decide that if I never ever saw snow again, that would be fine by me.   For as it turned out, I ended up spending four years attending college in a part of the US known to many as "the Siberia of America", where winter comes with the Halloween Ghost and leaves with the Easter Bunny!  
The first winter that I was in Wisconsin, I was happy and excited when the first snow fell.  But it kept on snowing and snowing and snowing for a number of months.  And long before spring finally came along, I not only got fed up of seeing so much the cold, white stuff on the ground and roofs of buildings and such but also being asked whether I was happy and/or excited at the sight of the snow.  (With regards to the latter: I took to responding in a world-weary tone: "No, because I'm an Eskimo"; which apparently was so convincing that it prompted many of the questioners to apologize for having mistaken me for, well, someone from warmer climes who wasn't used to seeing snow!)

After garduating from Beloit and moving to Philadelphia, I continued to see snow regularly each winter.  And while there was far less of it in that part of the country, the authorities seemed to be far less able to deal with it -- with the result that roads were often more hazardous in winter and the snow often didn't get cleared for days and, consequently, often turned gray with dirt or yellow as a result of many a dog in the neighborhood getting walked out to pee on it!

In Spain this past May, I found myself viewing snow-capped mountains on a number of occasions, one of which happened to be the Old World's Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Rather than be alarmed or annoyed by those snowy sights, I found them to be pleasingly picturesque.  Consequently, I've now amended my "not ever wanting to see snow again" stance to one where I do think it rather pleasant to catch sight of the white stuff every once in a while, albeit from a distance, and without having to set foot on it and feel the icy cold temperatures that are required for it to stay for a time on the ground. ;b

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Cheung Chau charms... even in the hot summer months!

View from a table at a seafood restaurant on Cheung Chau
View stretching from Cheung Chau's Tung Wan Beach
over the water to Lamma and Hong Kong Island 
Late afternoon Cheung Chau Wan panorama
Before I came to call Hong Kong home, I used to happily visit the Big Lychee in the summer as well as the cooler months of the year.  This was something that puzzled a Hong Kong-based friend of the family who actually took to spending as much time as she could away from this part of the world during the hottest times of the year.
Since pretty much every territory that I care to visit also is pretty hot during this time of the year, I've not followed suit and, instead, tend to stay put in Hong Kong in the summer.  With each additional year that I spend in the Big Lychee, however, it does seem like my tolerance for the summer heat and humidity has been decreasing.  Indeed, I've found it to be more and more of a challenge to drag myself out to go hiking in the summer -- and, after a battle with my conscience, decided to temporarily put the Cheung Chau beach clean-ups I organize on hiatus until the end of next month (when the heat will feel more manageable than it has been in recent months).  
Rather than stop going to Cheung Chau outright though, I've still been averaging a visit a month to it this summer.  This is because this Outlying Island remains one of my favorite places in Hong Kong to bring friends visiting from abroad along with expat friends who haven't explored the Big Lychee as much as I have; this not least since it really does have a pretty cool combination of colorful culture (think such as the Bun Festival and related Piu Sik), nice scenery, tasty eats and -- if you don't go on a busy Sunday or public holiday -- laidback atmosphere.
Happily, the people I've introduced to Cheung Chau in recent months seem to all have been charmed by it too.  An old college friend from the US took tons of photos on the island while her son jumped into the water off Tung Wan beach without much invitation and probably would have stayed there the whole afternoon if given the option to do so!  On another visit, an expat South African friend and I enjoyed a seafood lunch, a stroll in the hot afternoon sun and drinks to combat the heat at an old beach bar with idyllic views that also was a big hit with a family from the Netherlands (or, more accurately, the parents -- as the teenaged son found the ginger ale ordered too, well, gingery!).
Just 35 minutes away from Central by fast ferry (and about 50 minutes by "ordinary" ferry), Cheung Chau really can seem a world apart from the skyscraper city that many people mistakenly think that Hong Kong entirely is.  On my most recent visit to the island, I even got to noticing that there's at least one single storey building there -- a rare (and precious) sight indeed in the Big Lychee! ;b  

Saturday, August 11, 2018

My 10 favorite movies (for the moment?)

A screenshot from one of my 10 favorite movies
-- this one a 1986 offering from Hong Kong :b

A screenshot from another of my 10 favorite movies 
-- this one a 1992 offering from Japan :)

For the past 10 days, I've been posting images related to my ten favorite movies on my Facebook account timeline.  (Yes, I finally joined about a year ago; and no, I don't go by YTSL there.)  Opting to go with screenshots rather than movie posters, it was intriguing to see whether my choices of movies could be identified by others; this particularly since I decided to also go with the "no explanation needed" part of this meme that a friend had nominated me to take part in.

Pretty much right off the bat, there were six films that I absolutely knew that I'd be including in my list while a number of other movies completed for the remaining four slots and my finding it quite difficult to limit my choices to just 10 in the end!  With the caveat that these are my 10 (current) favorite movies (rather than the 10 best films I've ever seen), here's going ahead and sharing my list here:-

Peking Opera Blues (Hong Kong, 1986)
Ashes of Time (Hong Kong, 1994)
He's a Woman, She's a Man (Hong Kong, 1994)
Here's to the Young Lady (Japan, 1949)
Chariots of Fire (Britain, 1981)
Mukhsin (Malaysia, 2006) 
The American President (U.S.A., 1995)
Swordsman II (Hong Kong, 1992)
Porco Rosso (Japan, 1992) 
Under the Moonlight (Iran, 2001)

As those who know me will know full well, I could easily have named just Hong Kong movies for this list -- and I know that if I had done so, not all of them would have had cross-dressing women in them!  Also, yes, I actually consider it rather admirable that I only had three films starring the great Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia (aka Lam Ching Ha) and one starring Setsuko Hara -- that wasn't directed by Yazujiro Ozu to boot! -- in the mix.

While I will continue to adher to the meme's "no explanation needed" directive, I'd like to share the following observations I made about my selections over the course of my compiling my 10 favorite movies list (and do welcome comments about them):-

1) Six countries are represented in the list.  Of these, I've lived in four of them, visited another more than 20 times now, and have never set foot in the last (but am indeed interested in doing so at some point);  

2) 57 years divides the years of release of the oldest film in the list and the newest (which is 12 years old already this year).  And half of my 10 favorites having originally release dates in the 1990s, the last decade of the 20th century appears to be my favorite cinematic decade; with the 1980s coming closest in this particular "race".

3) I definitely do have a proclivity for films with strong female characters, if not female protagonists.  At the same time, a lack of major female characters won't put me off a movie if there are other things about it that I like/love and can relate to.  And while people are inclined to assume otherwise, there actual are films out there that give females plenty of (quality) screentime even while they are directed by males!

4) I am reliant on subtitles to help me understand the majority of my 10 favorite movies.  I really do feel that my movie diet would be so much more poorer if I just stuck to watching films in languages I can understand -- and especially so if I limited myself to watching movies from my home country.

5) Over the years (and decades), I've viewed a number of films I rate really highly but found so traumatic that I don't feel like I want to ever watch them again.  Some of them would make my "top 10" list but since I took "favorite movies" to mean movies I'd happily watch more than once (and have indeed done so for the vast majority of them), those weren't included -- and I think that thinking has played a part in my having zero war films in the mix and quite a few more romance-themed offerings than I thought there would be! ;D

Friday, August 10, 2018

Anguish and disquiet at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

One can see works by Joan Miró...

...and Salvador Dali, among many others

Many visitors to Madrid only pick one museum to visit -- and when they do, it invariably will be the very large artistic treasure house that is the Museo Nacional del Prado.  It seems that there also visitors to the Spanish capital who leave without setting foot in a single museum there.  I, on the other hand, spent time in four of Madrid's museums: the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Borenemisza on my first full day in the country; the Museo Arqueológico Nacional on the day that I returned to the city from an Andalucian sojourn; the Prado (where photographs are not allowed to be taken, like with the Palacio Real and El Escorial); and, on my final day in Spain, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.   

Located in the museum neighborhood where the Prado and the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Borenemisza are to be found, Spain's national museum of 20th century art is quite the attraction itself; thanks in no small part to it being the home of Pablo Picasso's iconic Guernica.  And the historical as well as artistic significance of this mural-sized oil painting created in reaction to the bombing of a Basque village by warplanes from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War should be clear to visitors to the museum which has devoted eight rooms (by my count) to showcasing the work and providing information as to the politico-historical context in which it was created.    

No photography of any sort is allowed in that suite of rooms, and I find it understandable because the mood in there is much more like that found at war monuments rather than conventional art museums.  But contrary to the insistence of one over-zealous museum guard that I had the bad fortune to encounter, it's actually allowed in the rest of the public galleries of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.  

Among the other works that caught my eye in this museological institution are very dark  works by Goya (some of which really graphically document human atrocities), and those by Miro and Dali that were rendered in a very different style from that which has come to be associated with them along with others that are far more recognizably works by those two artists.  If truth be told though, fewer art works really impressed me at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía than I thought would be the case for an art museum that does have a number of works by famous non-Spanish artists (e.g., Francis Bacon, Alexander Calder and Rene Magritte) as well as Spanish ones.

Something else I found rather troubling was that even while the exterior of the museum's buildings looked pretty stunning, there were literally were cracks in the floor tiles and some of the tiles even had come loose.  Put another way: I came away from my visit to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía with a sense that Spain's decade-long economic woes have affected its artistic legacy as well as the individuals out begging and turning to crimes such as pickpocketing on the streets in the neighborhood in which it's located; and, almost needless to say, I found this more troubling than some of the frankly pretty disquieting art on display in the museum.

All in all, my visit to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía didn't leave me feeling as good as I expected and would have liked.  Having said that, when its main treasure is a work that is effectively a primal cry of anguish, I guess it stands to reason that this is a museum where beauty is secondary to expression and emotion, negative as well as positive.       

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Unusual critter sightings on a hot summer's day in Hong Kong

Two caterpillars in one photo!

Four butterflies attracted to the same flowering plant!!

Just one moth in this photo -- but it appears to be a rare one! :b

It was very hot once again today; so much so that part of me was tempted to spend the entire day in air-conditioned comfort in my apartment.  But I told myself I needed to get some more exercise in this week.  So off I went in the afternoon for a hike that began at Victoria Gap and got me down and over to Pok Fu Lam via the Hong Kong Trail rather than the shorter option that makes use of Pok Fu Lam Reservoir Road

Soon after I left the tourist-infested section of The Peak, my mood began to lift; this even though, once more this summer, I found the temperature up there to be higher than I would expect, considering it being several hundred meters above sea level and, really unusually, I didn't spot as many interesting non-human critters about than I normally do when hiking in the area.  

To be sure, I do wish that more of the people walking on Lugard Road could do so without feeling compelled to raise their voices to an annoyingly high volume when communicating with their companions and none would feel that they could smoke freely and spread cancerous vapors about them.  Still, I also was soothed to a considerable degree by the surrounding greenery and the bird song that occasionally filled the air (and could be surprisingly loud considering how small some of the birds responsible for them are!).

My spirit soared even higher late in the hike when I came across a bush whose flowers were proving attractive to a number of butterflies.  Members of the Nymphalidae Danainae sub-family were particularly well represented: with my spotting Glassy Tigers, Blue Tigers and Common Tigers flitting about the area.  From the looks of it, they seem to like hanging out together; with, in one case, four members of this sub-family deciding to literally hang about on the same flowering plant while leaving its neighbors well alone!

Just when I was thinking that the sight of that quartet of butterflies was the hike's visual highlight, I caught sight of a smaller winged creature which I've come to realize is a moth despite being colorful like a butterfly.  While it's hardly rare to spot moths while out hiking in Hong Kong, it really was the very first time that I saw this particular species of white, red and black colored moth!

After looking for a photo of a member of that species in vain on the pretty extensive Hong Kong Moths website, I've got to thinking that it must be a pretty rare one.  However, thanks to Andrew Hardacre's HK Moths Photo Gallery, I got to figuring out that the moth I spotted this afternoon is a Utetheisa lotrix (aka salt-and-pepper moth) with quite a wide geographical range.  

So bang went my hope that I had discovered a new species of insect.  Nonetheless, I'm excited enough that after some eleven years of hiking in Hong Kong, I'm still able to come across interesting critters in the wild which I had previously never set my eyes on and didn't know existed! :)    

Saturday, August 4, 2018

House of the Rising Sons shines a light on The Wynners (Film review)

A movie about The Wynners! :)
House of the Rising Sons (Hong Kong, 2018)
- Anthony Chan Yau, director, co-scriptwriter (along with Pang Mei Fung) and co-producer (with five others)
- Starring: Carlos Chan, Ng Hok Him, Eugene Chan, Lam Yiu Sing, Tan Yu Tian

When a group of young men got together back in 1970s to make music in an upstairs room of an old Hong Kong shophouse, I'm sure they harbored dreams of becoming professional pop musicians some day.  On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that the quintet who went on to become known as The Wynners (after initially performing as The Loosers!) never imagined that they'd still have active careers and a strong fanbase in the second decade of the 21st century, and that a film about them -- directed and co-scripted by one of the band members, no less -- would not only go on to be released in Hong Kong cinemas but actually have its world premiere at a prestigious New York film festival!
A nostalgic ode to their youth, shared love of music and enduring friendship, House of the Rising Sons obviously is targeted to the fans of The Wynners but still can entertain those who can't tell lead vocalist Alan Tam from co-lead vocalist, rythm guitar and keyboardist Kenny Bee (both of whom have starred in a good number of movies) or know anything about bassist Danny Yip, lead guitarist Bennett Pang or drummer Anthony Chan.  And although the actual Wynners do appear in the movie, they are portrayed by others for the bulk of this biopic which focuses on how they got together and the travails they underwent together and individually before achieving success -- and, in the case of two of the group, mega stardom -- which, ironically, threatened their happiness for a time.
In view of his having such a major role behind the scenes of this movie, it's admirably non-egoistical of Anthony Chan to have the young actor who plays him (Ng Hok Him) to not be at the center of the movie.  At the same time though, I must admit to finding his character to be among the more interesting; with, in contrast, the likes of Bennett Pang (essayed by Carlos Chan and referred to as Ah Kin in the movie) seeming to be more defined at times by his relationship to others, notably his tailor father (played by Simon Yam), than memorable in his own right, and my childhood favorite Wynner, Kenny Bee (portrayed by Tan Yu Tian), coming across early on more like a broody caricature than a flesh and blood individual.
As for the actor who portrayed Danny Yip: I found Lam Yiu Sing to visually resemble the real Alan Tam more than the actor who played him (Eugene Tang), and so much so that it would actually distract!  Still, I have a feeling that many other viewers of this film would have found themselves being driven up the wall even more by the many times that The Animals' House of the Rising Sun is played in House of the Rising Sons -- and wouldn't be surprised if the frequency is higher even than the number of times California Dreaming can be heard playing in Chungking Express!   
Such quibbles aside, this evocative movie is one of those Hong Kong cinematic offerings which makes up for its abundance of cheese and lack of polish by having a lot of heart and the kind of moving sincerity that will get you tearing up in a good way.  Its colorful and detailed depiction of 1970s and 1980s Hong Kong, as well as the lives of the working-class youth who risked the wrath of their fathers to pursue their dreams, also helps make for an enjoyable movie.
I'm not sure if House of the Rising Sons strikes a chord with the younger generation of Hong Kong movie viewers.  But for this old stager, the film had plenty of movie magic and star dust -- not only courtesy of the actual members that this offering works as a worthy tribute to but also a number of beloved familiar faces in the supporting cast, including the likes of the reigning doyen among Chinese-language actresses, Kara Hui Ying Hung, and Elaine Kam (who seems to have played a mother in movies since forever; what with her also having played the mother in 1997's The Soong Sisters, starring Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, Vivian Wu and Michelle Yeoh!).  

My rating for this film: 7.0