Saturday, February 6, 2016

Getting into the Chinese New Year spirit in Hong Kong

Guess which animal in the Chinese zodiac's
year is coming up... ;b 

Monkeys galore at the Chinese New Year flower market
...and one giant prawn?! ;O

Maybe Hong Kongers' love of food accounts for that 
giant prawn, and the current great popularity of Gudetama? ;b

 
And yes, there are flowers for sale at the Chinese New Year
flower markets (as well as lots of other stuff)! :)

A little less than a couple of weeks ago, an American friend of mine who moved to Hong Kong less than a year ago asked me whether there'd be Chinese New Year decorations about town the way there was/is for Christmas and the Western New Year.  When I met again earlier this week, she had seen enough to know that this most definitely the case, and actually on a wider and larger scale.  

And this despite her not having even dared to venture into Victoria Park to check out the Chinese New Year Flower Market (post finding the crowd to be "insane" already during last year's Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo)!  On the other hand, despite my usually not ending up buying anything there, I still do make a point to spend time checking out what's on offer at this festive market -- because, if nothing else, it can be a photographer's delight and an occasion where one feels able to tap into the festive zeitgeist.

As is to be expected, the non-flower half of the market is dominated this year by monkey-themed items -- plushies, decorative items, clothing and the like.  In addition, Gudetama is very much the Sanrio character of the moment -- even though Hello Kitty is (of course!) still pretty well represented at this festive fair.     

This being the time where people are inclined to be generous, political parties have stalls at the Chinese New Year flower market and are hoping for donations along with various charities.  It may seem to be against the festive mood to see a stall reminding people of the events of June 4th, 1989, and others effectively trading on the unpopularity of the individual known as 689 but I, for one, am heartened to see Hong Kongers continuing to exercise their rights to publicly rememember what happened in Beijing in the summer of 1989, voice dissent against their political rulers -- and, particularly this year, sell books that are allowed to be published and sold here (but are banned over in Mainland China).

On the subject of Mainland China: Years ago, a Beijing-born friend of mine told me that many contemporary Mainland Chinese don't have knowledge of Chinese New Year customs and traditions observed by many ethnic Chinese people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and further afield.  This is due in no small part to it being so that during the Cultural Revolution, such cultural knowledge and practices were banned and suppressed.  Consequently, now, when they are allowed again, many people don't know such as who's supposed to give red packets (lai see), who's supposed to receive them, how to politely hand them over, how to politely accept them and such.  

To be sure, some Chinese New Year customs and practices are couched with superstition and can seem illogical, even ridiculous.  Still, there's a difference between knowing about something and deciding against enacting it versus not doing something because you have been deprived of the knowledge of customs and traditions that have been handed down multiple generations of people who you're supposed to feel strong cultural connections with.  

Also, some of these festive customs actually are fun -- and help reinforce ties with others.  And, sure, it can feel painful to give at times but there are times too when it's wonderful to do so: which is why one of the Chinese New Year practices I heartily endorse involves donating to a charity like the Society for Community Organization (SOCO) or Food Angel at this time of the year.

In view of the 2016 Chinese New Year period being predicted to be on the cold side weather-wise, I'm thinking that it threatens to be unpleasant for those who are homeless and/or unable to warm themselves with such as heavy coats and blankets.  So please spare a thought for these folks -- and if you are so inclined, please donate to a worthwhile charity as part of your festive commemorations and celebrations!

Friday, February 5, 2016

A conversation in -- and about -- Amsterdam's over 600-year-old Nieuwe Kerk ("New Church")

Not the kind of sight that you'd expect to see
inside a church, right?

whose name people now sadly tend to 

Another interior view of Amsterdam's Nieuwe Kerk

On my final day in the Netherlands, I went into the church which is considered to be the most important in the country -- despite it no longer being used for regular religious services.  Amsterdam's Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) -- which actually isn't all that new since it was built in the 15th century -- still is where Dutch royal investiture ceremonies and weddings take place.  However, it is more regularly used these days as a venue for organ recitals and major exhibitions, like the Rome: Emperor Constantine's Dream which showcases a number of ancient Roman artistic treasures and tells the story of the 4th century ruler who looked to have been the Roman Empire's first Christian emperor.

Visually, it often seemed quite weird to see Roman sculptures, mosaics and and such being exhibited in consecrated space which also happens to be the final resting place of many Dutch personages, including a number of the country's naval heroes.  Still, I suppose there's a Christian link there in that the historical figure at the center of this exhibition has been credited with playing a major part in turning multi-cultural Rome from a multi-religious imperial capital into the center of papal power.  

Incidentally, after I took the first two photos at the top of this blog post, a big but friendly security guard came up to tell me that photography actually wasn't allowed in the area of the church where the Rome: Emperor Constantine's Dream exhibition had been set up.  When I told him that that wasn't what the person I had bought my exhibition entry ticket from had told me, he sighed and said that this wasn't the case with all exhibitions at the church but it seemed that the Italians were more concerned about copyright and such then many others.

After I asked him if it was okay for me to take photos of the church building itself (in and outside the exhibition area), he sensed -- rightly -- that I was interested in the Nieuwe Kerk itself as well as the exhibition of Roman treasures currently taking place within the church, and got very friendly.  It turns out that he's quite the fan of this Late Gothic church located on Dam Square, next to the Royal Palace, and considers it one of the highlights of his life to have had a chance of playing on the larger of the church's two organs -- an instrument built in 1655 that's so large that it takes up the church's entire west wall!

Popping up every now and then to continue our conversation as I went about checking out the exhibition, I also learnt from my new friend that the Protestant Church of the Netherlands actually doesn't have all that many adherents these days (just 9 percent of the population, according to the CIA's World Factbook; with 42 percent of Dutch people saying they have no religion).  Consequently, many churches no longer hold services; and such as Amsterdam's 800-year-old Oude Kerk (Old Church) as well as its Neiuwe Kerk are more likely to serve as exhibition venues than function solely as places for people to go to pray.

Over the course of our discussion, I told him of my experiences the previous day in Haarlem, which included finding its Protestant Grote Kerk (Great Church) closed to the public but at least one Roman Catholic church being open for service.  My new friend -- who had previously revealed that he's a Roman Catholic -- confirmed that, if they are not hosting such as exhibitions, Dutch protestant churches only open on Sundays, unlike Catholic ones.  This, he and I agreed, is a pity -- especially with regards to the older churches whose architecture and interior decor we often find interesting and sometimes downright beautiful!     

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Interesting -- and, in some cases, surreal -- Haarlem sights (Photo-essay)

The lunar new year is just four days away but my thoughts this evening are more about the time my German friend and I spent in Haarlem this past January 1st.  What with the first day of each year in the Gregorian calendar being a public holiday in the Netherlands, I knew that many tourist attractions, including Haarlem's Franz Hals Museum, would be closed that day.  Still, I honestly didn't expect that even the city's tourist information center and many of its churches (including its Grote Kerk (Great Church)) would not be open too -- and, also, that there would be few people out in the streets and public spaces that day!   

In retrospect, particularly given the experiences I've had in sections of Germany and Norway where I sometimes felt like I was walking through a ghost town or Potemkin village, I shouldn't have been all that surprised to find the streets of Haarlem so bereft of people that day.  Also, to judge from the craziness of the previous evening (where, among other things, people let off so many loud fireworks at different points in the night that it sometimes seemed as though the Netherlands was under attack), I wouldn't be at all surprised if the majority of Dutch folks were nursing massive hangovers the day after!       

Still, having made the short train trip to Haarlem from Amsterdam, my German friend and I decided that we might as well stroll about and see what we could of the capital of the province of North Holland -- and the city after which New York City's Harlem was named.  And what with there being beautiful blue skies and pleasant temperatures that New Year's Day, we did manage to have a rather pleasant time in what must be the quietest city I've ever been in as well as one which did offer up some pretty interesting -- and, in some cases, surreal -- sights... ;b

two local heroes of the 16th century Siege of Haarlem,
stand in the square in front of Haarlem's central train station

The Ten Boom family home (above the family watch shop)
where there existed a "hiding place" for Jews and
resistance members during World War II

The Grote Kerk's bell tower looms large over the city,
and the church's bell can be heard striking time from far away

 Puppet Ponyo looking somewhat perplexed at 
not being able to get into the church -- and, also
by the lack of people about in Haarlem's city center!

 Would you believe that this souvenir shop was open 
but completely deserted -- as in, its staff as well as 
customers were no where in sight?! :O

Signs of some people having had quite the blast 
in the area the previous night/evening/day!

The largest cross-mouthed Miffy I've ever seen 
peers out of a ground floor window of a Haarlem house! :O

Probably most surreal of all: would you believe that
this Santa Claus-decorated building is a brothel (and 
that it's situated within a stone's throw of a church)??!! 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Musings on Amsterdam's Tropenmuseum

Within the walls of this 19th century building is
a forward-viewing anthropology museum
 
The Tropenmuseum is home to thousands of
interesting objects displayed in eye-catching ways
 
The cultures and society of the former Dutch East Indies
(present-day Indonesia) is the subject of much attention in this museum
 
On the last day of 2015, I decided to pay a visit to the Tropenmuseum, one of Europe's leading ethnographic museums and also one of Amsterdam's largest museological institutions.  My original plan was to spend much of the day within its walls but upon getting there, I learnt that the museum was closing early that day on account of it being New Year's Eve (something that appeared to be very widespread practice in the Netherlands).  
 
Consequently, as with the Rijkmuseum, I ended up having to forego checking out a good part of the museum because of time constraints -- yet, at the same time, came away feeling that this is one museological establishment that's filled to the brim with interesting objects and treasures galore.  Also, like at the Netherlands' premier art museum, my visiting strategy at the Tropenmuseum involved targeting specific exhibition areas rather than trying to run about all over the place to see a bit in each and every one of the museum's galleries!
 
At the Tropenmuseum, I first went through The Sixties, a special exhibition about the 1960s which runs through to March 13th.  Taking the view that it was the era "when globalization as we know it first appeared", this idea and theme is developed, explored and presented using items from the worlds of fashion, music, architecture, photography and more.  And within this overall subject umbrella, cool mini-stories are told about such Dara Puspita, Indonesia's first female pop/rock band, and how the kaftan was transformed in the 1960s from the traditional garb of Arab males to a type of clothing worn by females in many different parts of the world, including Elizabeth Taylor and at least one female member of the Dutch royal family.  
 
On the next floor up in the museum, I made for the galleries containing artefacts collected in what was then the Dutch East Indies and other parts of Southeast Asia.  As might be expected, this is a large and extensive collection indeed.  But while I appreciate the Tropenmuseum's acknowledgement of the impact of Dutch colonialism on the peoples, societies and cultures of the former Dutch East Indies -- and also the museum itself, I must admit to wondering at times, while looking at such as a number of sculptures from Borobudur and items that looked to been removed from people's graves and tombs, if this institution's management has thought about doing such as repatriating some of the artefacts in their collection back to Indonesia?
 
On the Tropenmuseum's top floor, I prioritized visiting the Africa galleries but ended up also checking out Western Asia and North Africa sections, and spending time in the gallery focusing on the World of Music after finding that I actually had more time to look at things in the museum than I had initially realized!  If truth be told, I found the Africa section of the Tropenmuseum somewhat disappointing; not least because there weren't as many objects from Tanzania on display as I had hoped.  
 
On the other hand, I found the museum's Western Asia and North Africa sections really applaudable, particularly for its highlighting the commonalities that Islam has with Christianity and Judaism.  (We're talking, after all, about three religions which all are monotheistic and venerate the likes of Abraham/Ibrahim, Moses/Musa and Jacob/Yaakub.)  In addition, I found the section devoted to legendary Egyptian entertainer Umm Kulthum really cool -- and one of the instances where multimedia truly augmented the quality of the museological experience.      
 
On a further multimedia note: I can see why in this day and age, museums feel that they need to supplement the more traditional forms of display with ones that include audio, video and interactive components.  However, if the latter are not kept maintained, they can so easily malfunction and even breakdown.  Such was the case with some of the equipment in the exhibition areas of the Tropenmuseum.  And at times like this, one is inclined to think that the older modes of display may well still be the better ones after all!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Fantastic(al) imagery abounds at The Hague's Escher in Het Palais!

 A super detailed depiction of an Italian landscape
by a famous 20th century Dutch artist

Which birds can you see -- the white ones, red ones, or both? ;b

One of M.C. Escher's more recognizable works

Decades ago, when I was a primary school student in Penang, Malaysia, I was introduced to the impossible world of M.C. Escher via books on, and filled with images of, his fantastic(al) works.  In the years since, I've roamed through the exhibition areas of what must be hundreds of art museums and galleries in four different continents.  Yet, as far as I can recall, it wasn't until I paid a visit to Escher in Het Paleis, over in The Hague, that I saw a work by this 20th century Dutch graphic artist on display on the wall of a museum, never mind got to be in a museum showcasing his work!

The second of the art museums in the city that's the seat of Dutch government that my German friend and I visited on our daytrip to The Hague, Escher in Het Paleis is located within walking distance of the Mauritshuis which we spent a few hours in earlier that day.  Housed in the Lange Voorhout Palace which was used as a royal residence for a time, including by Queen Emma (who is the subject of a mini-exhibition within its walls), the museum has been accused of displaying replicas rather than actual original works by Escher -- but to be honest, I don't think many of the visitors to this popular museum care all that much if that's indeed the case as, original or replica, the remarkable images on display have a capacity to mesmerize!

Like his fellow Dutch master artist Vincent van Gogh, Escher spent time abroad -- in his case, in Italy and Switzerland, particularly -- and was inspired to develop his particular, easily recognizable artistic style outside of his native land (in Escher's case, when he first visited the 14th century Moorish castle in Granada, Spain, known as the Alhambra in 1922).  Unlike van Gogh, however, Escher achieved commercial success and widespread recognition in his lifetime -- though it can often seem like he's respected far more by mathematicians than those in the fine arts world!

Still, it's not impossible for the non-mathematically inclined -- like myself! -- to be fascinated by Escher's art works.  We're talking, after all, of works filled with interesting optical illusions that have birds turning into fish (and vice versa), never-ending staircases, buildings filled with impossible spaces, two hands holding pencils drawing each other, and so many other incredibly imaginative images! 

How many artists' works can get you rubbing your eyes in disbelief, filled with wonder, and also sometimes breaking out into a smile at the sheer ingenuity -- and, surely, also sense on fun? -- on display?  I'd wager very few -- but the creations of Maurits Cornelius Escher, the star student of a Dutch Jewish artist who perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, are among those who do so for me.   

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Hague's grand old Mauritshuis

Within this lovely 17th century mansion can be found 

Some art works, like Paulus Potter's The Young Bull,
attract attention by way of their sheer size

 Others, like this Rembrandt self-portrait, catch the eye 
through their sheer quality and/or the fame of their artist

Before I went to the Netherlands last December -- indeed, I'd go so far as to say as because I knew about it via Oeke Hoogendijk's informative documentary about the Rijksmuseum that I viewed at the 2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival -- I had heard about that wonderful Amsterdam art museum's recent reopening after being closed for renovation for what turned out to be a decade.  However, it wasn't until I started researching in earnest in advance of my Netherlands trip that I learnt that another grand old Dutch museum -- this one located over in The Hague -- also had recently been reopened again after a major refurbishment.

Even without knowing about this development, however, I figured that the Mauritshuis was one place that my German friend and I could not leave off the agenda the day that we went over to The Hague!  Easily reached by foot from the city's main train station, this particular art museum is situated in the heart of The Hague, next to the Dutch Parliament buildings and bordered by a moat-like manmade lake on two of its sides.  Named for the historic mansion's original owner, John Maurice, prince of Nassau-Siegen and -- for several years -- the Dutch governor of Brazil, the building was bought by the state in 1820 for the purpose of housing the Royal Cabinet of Paintings and opened to the public two years lat

Although there are a few sculptures and decorative art pieces to be found inside the Maurithuis, the museum that also bears the name is primarily known for its paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters of the Dutch Golden Age.  Like at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, the illustrious likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael and Franz Hals are represented here; with Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, and Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring among the collection's most famous masterpieces.  

It also was at this intimate-feeling museum in The Hague that I was re-acquainted -- via their works -- with Hans Holbein (the Younger) and Anthony van Dyck: two continental artists known as much -- if not more -- for their paintings of English monarchs and aristocrats than their own countrymen (and -women); a number of whose works I'd seen hanging in various museums and stately homes in England (where, it might be said, my art historical leanings and education began some decades ago).  

At the risk of sounding facetious, I very much doubt that those noble individuals who sat for their paintings by such master artists ever imagined that their portraits would one day hang on the walls of a museological institution that also prominently features a monumental painting of a young bull -- but such is indeed the case over at the Mauritshuis!

On a visitor note: I found it interesting that whereas such as the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum over in Amsterdam had attracted a number of mainland Chinese visitors (of a decidedly different type -- and caliber? -- of those who head over to Hong Kong these days), the majority of Asian visitors to the Mauritshuis looked to hail from Japan.  

On a related note: there did noticeably appear to be fewer tourists about in The Hague in general than over in Amsterdam.  This being said, my German friend and I noticed that at the Mauritshuis, as with the Rijksmuseum, long queues formed to await entry into the museum(s) in the afternoon -- whereas when we got there in the morning, these institutions actually appeared pretty empty of other people! ;b

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A hike with more than one Boa Vista

a different angle than one normally sees it

 Panoramic view from Boa Vista (and yes, you can click
on the image to view an enlarged version of it) :)

With temperatures having risen to significantly more comfortable levels today from last Sunday and even earlier in the week, my regular hiking buddies declared themselves ready and willing to venture into the Hong Kong countryside this afternoon with me; and this even though today's weather forecast included mention of "rain patches".

As it so happened, not a single drop of rain fell on us on our Tai Tam Country Park hike which took us from Quarry Bay to the Tai Tam Reservoirs via Mount Parker Road and Boa Vista.  And so warm did I feel from my exertions that early on during the hike, I decided that I could take off my sweatshirt and just do with a single T-shirt layer (though it's also true enough that later on in the afternoon, I not only put that sweater back on but also added a windcheater to the clothing equation)!       

Then there were the ultra windy conditions we encountered a couple of times during the hike. The first time around, my two friends and I could hear that we were approaching an open area minutes before we actually got there!  Then when we stood atop Boa Vista, the wind blew so strongly that the smallest of us said afterwards she thought she was going to get blown off that 260-meter-high hill -- and I swear that after I put my backpack down on the ground, I saw it being moved by the gusts of wind we encountered up on that exposed hilltop!

Despite the strong winds that we encountered while up there, my friends and I were in agreement that being atop Boa Vista, from where commanding panoramic views are to be had, was the highpoint of today's hike.  And because the trail up the hill isn't signposted (like with High West, another Hong Kong Island hill from atop which stupendous views also are to be had), there's the bonus of feeling like you've been let in on a wonderful secret when you find out about it!

Incidentally, I learnt today that the Chinese name of Boa Vista (which means "Good View" in Portuguese) translates into English as "wild boar trail" and am moved to wonder whether the person who did the translating heard "boar" instead of "boa" when told the hill's "English" name!  If so, this might explain why so few people think of going up Boa Vista and the section of unpaved trail on the southern side of Mount Parker that looks to have been given the same name as the nearby hill.

Of course another possibility is that the Chinese name for Boa Vista attests to it being a place where wild boars are to be found.  In which case I have to say that I'm really glad that we didn't spot any this afternoon -- because wild boars on top of strong winds would have made for a far too scary situation for me to deal with atop that hill! ;(