Sunday, November 29, 2009

Culture vulture weekend

Ng Chin Pong's Nothing Compares --
on display on the Seaview Promenade
looking out towards Repulse Bay, Nam Wan
(South Bay) and their surrounding areas

Chris Rothermel's Capta Lux --
also on view today on the Seaview Promenade
as part of the Sculpture on Hong Kong Sea 2009

As this weekend winds to a close, I can only look back and note that it's been one of the more culture vulture weekends I've had in a while. For yesterday was spent visiting a museum (the Museum of Coastal Defence -- one of whose current special exhibitions is devoted to the Hong Kong Garrison of the People's Liberation Army) and the nearby Tam Kung Temple, then viewing a Hong Kong film classic (King Hu's The Valiant Ones) in the evening, while I am writing this blog after having returned from attending the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong's all Haydn concert earlier this evening.

Then there were the couple of hours or so spent checking out the one day (only) event that is/was Sculpture on Hong Kong Sea earlier today. If truth be told, the 30 works of art installed out in the open air by the scenic surroundings of the Seaview Promenade that stretches from Deep Water Bay to Repulse Bay over on the southern side of Hong Kong Island were of deeply varying quality -- with at least one being rather justifiably deemed as "shit" by one man whose comments to his companion were on the loud (and opiniated) side.

On a more positive note, I just as honestly think that there were some installations that really worked in me in terms of getting me to stop and appreciate them -- and actually be amazed by the creativity of the idea behind them as well as enjoy their visual effects. And as it so happens, I don't think it coincidental that these appeared to be the ones whose artists took to heart the project organizers' strong encouragement "to take into account the specific site and its surroundings, to make a piece that would enter in some sort of dialogue with the place..."

So thank you to the organizers and the participants of this art festival -- not least for giving me a good reason to finally set foot in Repulse Bay (which, for all of its physical beauty, I had been previously reluctant to because of its reputation for being where the snobby rich hang out and tourists go to gawk). And I do hope that there will be more days of art like this one to look forward to in the future.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Technology (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

In recent weeks, I've played host to visitors from Chicago, Vancouver and San Francisco -- none of whom I took hiking but, instead, had dinner and spend time with in the lively, pulsating urban Hong Kong hubs that are Central and Causeway Bay. Listening to their impressions of Asia's World City reminded me how surrounded by technology as well as fast-paced life often is here.

As an example, everyone's noticed that Hong Kong escalators looked to have been programmed to move faster than the rest of the world's! Gone unmentioned though, I guess because it's so super obvious, is how escalators are such a common and ubiquitous part of the Hong Kong urban landscape.

And, come to also think about it, video screens in public areas. Indeed, it was only when hunting in my photo archive for this week's Photo Hunt that I noticed that, with none of them having been the central intended subject, I nonetheless have quite a few photos of public areas where video screens prominently figure.

For the record, the photos above are taken inside (from top down):-
the enormous -- and yes, box-shaped -- Mega Box shopping mall in Kowloon Bay; an Airport Express train carriage (that, incidentally, also has wi-fi); and one of the tunnels connecting the MTR's Hong Kong and Central stations.

(And speaking of the MTR, I have to say that hardly a day goes by without my not being grateful for Hong Kong have great public transportation systems and technology! ;b)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Out and about in Hong Kong's rural north (Photo-essay)

In recent weeks, the temperature has gone down to levels that are ideal for hiking in Hong Kong once more. While this is a state of affairs I wholly welcome, it also makes me realize that I'm now twelve hikes behind in terms of documenting them in photo-essays -- something which is not helped by my most recent hiking photo-essay before this one having been put up over two months ago.

So without further ado, here's presenting a set of photos from a hike that I went on back in the first week of May(!) with two friends in an area accessible by green mini bus from Fanling that's closer to Shenzhen than Hong Kong's Central District or even Tsim Sha Tsui; the first part of which was along the short but interesting Hok Tau Country Trail that included a hike up a small hill and down through an area of organic farms, one of which was offering strawberry picking opportunities at the time that we visited...

This is Hong Kong? Yes, it is -- and every bit
as much as its concrete jungle bits, actually!

The flowers of what I believe is the big-leaved acacia
that's native to Australia but also
to be found
in the Hong Kong countryside

The stone stairs leading up (or down -- depending
on which direction you're approaching it) the hill

...yields views on one side that extend all the way to
what looks like the city of Shenzhen over on the other side

of the Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese border

...and rural Hong Kong, complete with organic farms,
over on the other side

A more close up view of part of that same landscape
-- one that most visitors to Hong Kong don't see

As the trail descended down the hill into an area
flanked by organic farms that use natural fertilizer,
smelt as well as saw things that emphasised
that we were very much
in the countryside! ;b

On the wilder side of the trail:
yet another beautiful flower my flower books

have not been able to help me identify
(but helpful reader
JimmiJames thinks is a bauhinia flower) ;(

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Twins (Hong Kong hills, not Canto-pop duo!)

The southern hill of The Twins
viewed from the kaito ferry enroute to Po Toi

View of Stanley (town and peninsula)
and surrounding bays from near the top
of that same hill earlier today!

I feel so tired I can hardly think or write straight. The reason? I went on a hike earlier today that included hikes up (and then down) the two Hong Kong Island hills known as the Twins. On paper and compared to other peaks in the Big Lychee, they're not that high -- with the northern Twin being only the 105th highest peak in the territory (at 363 meters) and the southern Twin being just the 93rd highest peak (at 386 meters). (Go here for a list of Hong Kong's highest mountains, peaks and hills.)

But the hike did involve two hills -- rather than just a single one -- and what people have estimated as being between 2,000 to 3,000 steps. And... well, just look at the photos above! (And yes, this is one of those cases where I feel that pictures do tell a story better than mere facts and words.)

So what else do I feel other than tired and somewhat achey? A sense of achievement, actually. And an "at last!" euphoria -- because I had first caught sight of the (northern peak of the) Twins more than two years ago and now have finally climbed what I have come to think for some time now as pretty intimidating hills! :)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Birds (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Years ago now, in what can seem a different lifetime, I lived and worked in Tanzania -- mainly in the urban areas of Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar Stone Town. However, I felt I couldn't leave that East African country with going on safari to -- and in -- some of its national parks at least once. And, so, towards the end of my stay there, I went with an Irish aid worker friend (with the very Irish first name of Fionnuala) on a tour of Lake Manyara, Serengeti and Tarangire National Parks (and, for good measure, also spent time in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area's Ngorongoro Crater and visited Olduvai Gorge).

As we toured the national parks, Fionnuala and I thrilled over the wild landscape and, of course, the spottings of animals such as giraffes, elephants, lions, cheetahs, zebras, hippopotamouses and wildebeests going about their life. Our Tanzanian safari guide-driver, however, only ever seemed excited whenever he spotted some rare -- i.e., not flamingos, of which there were hundreds at Lake Manyara and thousands at Ngorongoro Crater! -- birds! (To the extent where he would literally bring the four-wheel drive vehicle we were in to a skidding halt and shout out its name whenever he spotted some unusual feathered creature that caught his eye!!!)

While I don't think I ever achieve his level of excitement at spotting any avian animal, I nonetheless have to admit to being pretty happy at the photos of birds that I managed to take on my Korean visit last month. In particular, I like the ones that this Photo Hunt entry allows me to show off because: the photo at the top is of a sight that many fellow visitors to the Jongmyo Shrine that day passed but didn't notice as it was above eye-level for most; and the second is of the Korean magpie that I have subsequently learnt is seen as a symbol of Korean identity (even though it is found in other parts of Asia -- and sometimes also is called the Chinese magpie!). :)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Scared poles! ;D

I didn't know until my recent Korean visit that
the Koreans had totem poles a la native Americans!

Scared -- not once but thrice at least
(cf. the small as well as large print)! ;b

Teeheehee! Brian's story about a mix up between snakes and snacks over on the hot pot post's comments thread got me chuckling when I read it this morning. It also reminded me of a funny sign I saw at the Korean Folk Village at Yongin that prompted the following exchange between my mother and me:-

Me: "Scared? Why should the poles be scared?"

My mother: "Aiyah, they're not scared poles. They're sacred poles!"

And is it just me or do the faces on the poles look like they're in on the joke too? ;DDDDDD

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cheong Gye Cheon stream (Photo-essay #2)

Earlier today, I received an e-mail from a friend (and sometime visitor to this blog) in which he asked was Korea as good as I've been presenting it to be on the blog. In response, I told him that I wasn't planning to migrate there any time soon but would like to visit again before too long. For, in all honesty, if all of my vacations could be filled with experiences like walking on the walls of Hwaseong Fortress or along the banks of Cheong Gye Cheon stream, I really would be very happy indeed.

And on the subject of the latter, here's another photo-essay showing of what I saw while walking along the banks of that waterway whose rejuvenation truly is admirable indeed. (And yes, it did get me wishing that the Hong Kong authorities could be even half as respectful -- and inspired in their treatment -- of Victoria Harbour...):-

View of Seungyo, the eighth from the west of
23 bridges over the Cheong Gye Cheon stream --

not far from where we left off in my
previous photo-essay

Looking east towards Saebyeokdari --
two bridges east of Seungyo

Look below the surface and you will behold
lots of little fish swimming in the stream

The sun light creates patterns and shows
once more how beautiful nature can be

What look like round stones atop flat stones
actually are fat ducks sunning themselves --
and the orange colors on the water actually are
the reflections of an orange-colored structure nearby!

Just three pillars remain of the old
Cheonggye (highway) Overpass that previously
stood over
the Cheong Gye Cheon stream

The Naebu Expressway continues to pass over the
far eastern section of the Cheong Gye Cheon stream

For all this though, my abiding memories of the stream
is of it being an idyllic oasis in the urban jungle

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hot pot time again!

Beautifully red and raw mutton -- all ready
to be cooked in a hot pot, then eaten (nay, savored!)

A hot pot filled with my absolute favorite
hot pot ingredient -- sweet corn! --
as well as green vegetables and fried tofu

As I write this blog, the temperature's hovering at the 20 degree Celsius (~ 68 degrees Fahrenheit) mark. I realize that makes for balmy weather in places like Wisconsin (AKA the Siberia of America -- where I spent my college years) but in Hong Kong, it means that winter has finally come -- and this year around, come so suddenly that we effectively only had about two to three weeks of autumn!

While there may be people who might wish to argue whether it's now winter or still autumn in the Big Lychee, there's little doubt that 'tis the season once more to enjoy hot pot -- one of those dishes that I have come to identify as being quintissentially Hong Kong after seeing so many Hong Kong movies in which people are to be seen enjoying it.

More than incidentally, mutton -- considered as "heaty" by the Chinese -- is the meat of choice for quite a few people in winter here. And mutton really is pretty tasty when cooked in a hot pot. On the other hand, the other meat favored by some Hong Kongers is something I don't think I ever will develop much of a taste for; and not just because the creatures they come from -- snakes -- are among those whose appearance really does freak me out but, also, because the meat is invariably cooked with lots of horrible smelling herbs that supposedly are good for you but just make me want to run a mile away from it all! ;(

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Music (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

This week's Photo Hunt theme is one of those that long term Photo Hunters -- of which I guess I am one (and for the record, this is my 133rd Photo Hunt entry -- with the very first one being viewable here!) -- will recognize as having cropped up before. But no matter -- as this is one of those themes that can be captured by a camera in so many ways!

This time around, I'm shining a light on Chinese opera, particularly the Cantonese variant that predominates here in Hong Kong. A colorful costumed affair that can be performed indoors or outdoors, the kind of music that is associated with it is not for everyone but -- I have found -- can grow on you.

In any case, I have come to welcome learning more about it (via such as wonderfully detailed and large exhibits like those in the Hong Kong Museum of History and Hong Kong Heritage Museum) and taking in performances of the traditional Chinese art form, including at the recent Mid-Autumn Festival festivities in Victoria Park that included a lantern display and at the landmark Sunbeam Theatre.

(For the record, the first two photographs in this week's Photo Hunt entry -- including one that shows what the dressing room area of a Cantonese opera troupe can look like -- were taken inside the Hong Kong Museum of History while the third was taken at Victoria Park one special festival evening. Also, I really can't mention Chinese opera without also inserting the note that my favorite movie of all time happens to be the utterly sublime Peking Opera Blues!)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cheong Gye Cheon stream (Photo-essay)

Back in the summer of 2008, I read a TIME magazine article about a once polluted, then covered, stream in Seoul that had been close to miraculously rejuvenated and decided in a flash that some day, I would like to see it for myself.

On the fifth day of my Korean visit, I finally allowed myself to take a close to 6 kilometer stroll along the beautiful banks of Cheong Gye Cheon, the serene stream that flows right through central Seoul and whose present (since September 2005) incarnation spells a major victory for the environment and environmentalists. And, as I hope this photo essay (and at least one -- maybe two -- more to come) will show, it proved to be a real pleasure to walk along the banks of this urban waterway that has been radically transformed -- and in the process, may also have helped transform a city:-

Waterfall and skyscrapers near Cheonggye Plaza
at the western end (or should I say start?)
of the Cheong Gye Cheon stream

Artificial sprays of mist at the digital canvas section
create small but beautiful rainbows
-- like the one in the above photo

A small section of the large porcelain mural showing
the filial King Jeonjo visiting his father's tomb
in Suwon on his mother's 60th birthday in 1795

Flowers aplenty grow on the banks of the stream

And insects can be found in the vicinity too --
such as this dragonfly
sunning itself
on a green stalk
by the stream

A duck floating on a stream right in Seoul city center!

One of the cooler things about the stream
is how the banks on both sides of it
vary in height from section to section

Something really fortuitous: that
my mother's and my Korean visit was a time
when the autumn leaves ranged in color
from bright green to warm yellow, orange and red

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Military addendum

My initial impression of the area that lies north-west
of the distinctively shaped Kwun Yam Shan
(Goddess of Mercy Mountain) was that
it looked pretty idyllic as well as plain pretty...

But it turns out that just round the bend
is the largest military base in Hong Kong!

It's pure coincidence, I swear! That is, that just one day after I wrote about how one hardly notices the military presence in Hong Kong (in contrast to, say, Korea's Demilitarized Zone), I happened to go on a hike along the Kap Lung Forest Trail that ended up at a bus stop just outside the People's Liberation Army's Shek Kong Camp.

Local historian Jason Wordie made the following comments in his Streets: Exploring Kowloon (Hong Kong University Press, 2007:194) about the village nearby (which he prefers to spell as "Sek" without a "h"):-

A visit to Sek Kong Village these days feels dreadfully like ghosts come-a-haunting to those who knew it even a decade ago. Since the [H]andover, Sek Kong Village has not so much changed functions but entirely lost its reason for existence. [China's] People's Liberation Army, unlike the British Army in previous times, only come to Hong Kong for short periods and are not permitted to bring their families with them. Consequently, the dozens of empty married quarters and the school, hall and supermarket that serviced them are completely redundant -- and they look it!

After my visit there today, I can vouch for parts of the area feeling somewhat abandoned. But although I did see many buildings that appear to now be unoccupied and/or run-down, I also saw a couple walk out from the base past the sentry point in the second photo above to presumably get some fresh air and exercise as I waited for my bus. (Maybe they're married soldiers? Is this allowed in the PLA?) Also, as the bus I eventually boarded made its way past the base, still more military personnel made their appearance -- doing such 'regular' things as playing basketball as well as just rather casually walking from one destination to another.

Strange as it may seem, these military 'spottings' have actually now made me more curious about the PLA Garrison in Hong Kong than previously. So, hmmm, maybe I ought to go and check out the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence's on-going special exhibition on those troops before it closes then! ;b

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Veterans/The Military (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

In military terms, a demilitarized zone (DMZ) is where military activity is not permited. So it's somewhat ironic that the Korean Demilitarized Zone -- which I visited on my recent Korea vacation -- is one of the places in the world where I've most greatly felt as well as seen the military's frankly quite intimidating presence. (In contrast, contrary to the fears of many pre-1997 Handover, the Chinese military are pretty much close to invisible in Hong Kong post its being handed back to China by the British...!)

Miles before I got to the very center of the Korean DMZ in the form of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) -- where I got to briefly step on North Korean soil -- in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom, the military presence was already discernible in the form of such as regular sentry posts and miles of barbed wire posted along the sections of the Han River that acts as a natural border between South and North Korea (see the photo at the top of this Photo Hunt entry).

But it was upon getting into the DMZ itself that things really did start feeling rather hairy -- with the situation feeling pretty tense after we were issued a series of injunctions, including "don't point" (because your pointing hand resembles a gun from afar and the North Korean border guards might shoot you as a result) as well as "don't take photos in the area unless you are first given the okay to do so".

Re the two other photos in this entry: the middle photo is of the "Truce Village", with the blue huts containing such as the Military Armistic Commission (MAC) Conference Room -- where talks take place between representatives of the two Koreas -- being under United Nations jurisdiction and the gray hut to the side and large building in the background being North Korea's. And the final photo of this series of three is of a combat-ready South Korean soldier standing in the North Korean side of the actual MAC Conference Room. (The two sides take turns to man it, it seems.)

Incidentally, one of my favorite Korean films is entitled and revolves around the Joint Security Area. Containing moments of wonderful humanity along with painful division, angst and pathos, the 2000 film by Park Chan Wook is one that digs deep to provide audience with revelatory glimpses of the Korean psyche. And yes, I have to say that the film was largely behind my wanting to visit the JSA at some point in my life.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jongmyo Shrine and Jongmyo Jeryeak

Ancestral portrait housed in Jongmyo Shrine

The scene in the courtyard of the shrine's
Jeonjeon (Main Hall) during a performance
of royal shrine music

Part of the musical ensemble, including a drum
with the Sam-Taegeuk symbol on it, taking part in
the Jonmyo Jeryeak (royal shrine music) performance

On the first full day of my recent South Korea vacation, I visited one royal palace (in the form of the Hwaseong Haeng-gung) and a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site (in the form of Hwaseong Fortress). The next day, I visited not one but two more UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites. And even more impressively, at the first of the pair I visited in Seoul, I got to attend a concert of music that has been proclaimed by UNESCO as among the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity!

More specifically, the first attraction that day that my mother and I visited was Jongmyo Shrine, the Confucian shrine for Korea's Joseon Dynasty of royals. As we strolled around the expansive complex, we heard solemn-sounding music being played -- and assumed that it was piped about for atmospheric effect. But upon nearing the ancestral place of worship's Main Hall (Jeongjeon), we got to realizing that there was a live music ceremony, complete with performers in colorful costumed glory, taking place.

When Joseon Dynasty rulers reigned over Korea, the Jongmyo Jeryeak (royal shrine music) was performed as part of the Jongmyo Jerye, the royal ancestral rite in praise of the virtues of deceased kings. These days, however, that which dates back to the 15th century is occasionally played at Jongmyo Shrine for people -- Korean and otherwise -- to appreciate.

As pleasant as it was to stroll the grounds of the royal ancestral complex, it's also true enough that what made our visit to the historical site feel special was our chancing to witness the Jongmyo Jeryeak performance. And what made it feel all the more impressive was that there was a sense that the performers were seriously entering into the spirit of things -- and thus, years after the end of royal rule in Korea, still intent on solemnly honoring the spirits of those deceased whose shrine this is.