Thursday, September 30, 2010

Charming Mainz (Photo-essay)

Before my trip to Germany this past July, the one town I very much wanted to visit was Heidelberg (home to a romantic ruined castle and famed for its Student Prince association). But while my German friend did promise that we would go there when I visited her, she seemed far more enthusiastic about my also going with her to Mainz -- and, in fact, determined for me that the last couple days and nights of my German vacation would be spent in the Rhineland-Palatinate's state capital.

Looking back, I think it made for a very nice holiday that visits to those two places effectively acted as the bookends of my holidays. For not only did Heidelberg live up to its high reputation but Mainz turned out to be a charming surprise of a town for this visitor to Germany -- as the following photo-essay hopefully can help show:-

Undeterred by my getting churched out a few days
earlier in Speyer, almost the first attraction
my German friend insisted we checked out in Mainz
was the church of St Stephen's up on a hill

To be fair though, the church's Chagall stained glass
choir windows really are something to behold

Also, the walk to and from St Stephen's church
back into the town center allowed me to
come across beautiful streets like this one

Coming across charming public artworks like this one
strengthed further my sense that Mainz is
one of those cities that rewards the leisure walker

Turn a corner within the Alt Stadt (Old Town) and
you are likely to come across a sight like the above

The ornamental Renaissance market fountain
in Mainz's market square dates back to 1526

Just a stone's throw away is a stand-alone pillar/column
and a row of picturesque market houses whose lower floors
now house commercial establishments including cafes

...and right across that row of market houses is -- yep,
you guessed it! -- another major religious establishment
in the form of St Martin's Cathedral (aka the Mainzer Dom)

To be continued (but of course!)... :)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Birthday weekend

Another beautiful day for hiking in Hong Kong...
even if one that admittedly was on the hot side!

Sunset over Tolo Harbour and the surrounding area
-- viewed earlier today from Sam Mun Tsai New Village

What a great weekend it has been (a shock Arsenal home loss notwithstanding)! And I say this not only because it's my birthday weekend but, rather, because so many of the wonderful experiences I hadn't been especially planned to celebrate my birthday. Put another way: many of the activities I undertook this weekend are ones I regularly undertake on weekends in Hong Kong. (Hence my often regularly telling people that I live for weekends here in the Big Lychee!)

Indeed, my weekend celebrations this weekend actually began in earnest later than normal since, rather than take in a show or movie (or meet up with a friend or more for dinner at a restaurant) on Friday after work, I opted to spend a quiet evening at home. And I was actually still slowly waking up when a friend phoned late on Saturday morning to suggest that we have lunch together.

Nonetheless, I still ended up having time to not only have a leisurely as well as delicious lunch on Saturday but also check out a fun exhibition featuring the works of Liu Bolin at the Galerie du Monde in Central and, in the evening, take in a City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong concert whose featured soloist was the amazing virtuoso percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie (whose two solo encores were simply jaw-droppingly incredible). And although I went to bed last night thinking the concert would be the highlight of this weekend, I went on a hike earlier today in the North East New Territories that may well top the experience of hearing Dame Evelyn Glennie doing such as coaxing ethereal sounds out of a vibraphone that got me thinking of pipe organ music in a cathedral...

Since the Ma Shi Chau Nature Trail only officially begins after one walks across the tombolo connecting Ma Shi Chau to Yim Tsin Tsai, one has to actually do some trekking (official estimates are half an hour but what with the many stops to take photos and such, my regular hiking companion and I took closer to an hour) to get there from the nearest bus or green minibus stop to that designated Special Area of Hong Kong. But no big deal -- especially because that pre-nature trail trek turned out to be through some really interesting locales, including a fishing village and up a hill that afforded scenic views galore.

Then after we finally got on it, the hike on the official nature trail definitely yielded its share of beautiful and interesting sights -- including of some of the oldest rocks (i.e., up to 280 million years) in the Big Lychee. Still, what with the walking surface including sad and mud, sections of the hike being along an overgrown path and our having to double back at the end of the trail, my regular hiking companion and I decided to take up the offer by a fisherwoman to head back to near the start of the pre-hike on her motorized sampan. (This not least since by that time, we had ended being on Ma Shi Chau for quite a bit more time than we had thought we would be -- suffice to say that there was a lot that caught our eye and want to photograph!)

After arriving back near Sam Mun Tsai New Village, my regular hiking companion and I decided to toast our great day with a beer each while hanging out a wooden pier watching the sun set before heading to Tai Po town for dinner. And hopefully it will not be tempting fate too much to state that I really will be a happy person if a lot more weekends could be spent like this one has been... :)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Natural (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

In view of my spending a considerable amount of my leisure time in Hong Kong out hiking in its countryside (and giving my shutterbug tendencies free rein while doing so), it's only natural that I have tons of shots to choose from for this week's Photo Hunt. At the same time though, I also can't resist offering up a snap that was not taken while out hiking. And in fact, I was far up in the air on an aeroplane when I took the top-most photo in this blog entry -- with multiple layers of clouds, some of which I think you will agree can appear like far away mountain ranges at first glance!

With regards to the other photos: I know of people who hike primarily for exercise -- and consequently don't only have a tendency to move about at a pace that leaves me literally gasping but also don't bring such things as cameras with them on their hikes. My regular hiking companion and I, on the other hand, knew that we had found each other's ideal hiking partner when, while out hiking with a large group one day, we noticed the other often stopping to not only take photos but also pause to just admire views and smell the roses.

Especially when one is living -- and hiking -- in a part of the world where, alas, there are days when the skies aren't always as bright blue as one would like but, instead, misty, foggy or even downright smoggy, I think it's good to train oneself to focus on -- and appreciate -- the small things and bits of natural beauty than get offered up (rather than just fixate on grand vistas or the lack thereof). In this way, I've come to not only enjoy the sight of a whole variety of colorful wild flowers but also Hong Kong's wildlife (though it's also true enough that, given a choice, I would like to steer clear of feral dogs and monkeys and any kind of snake, especially since the territory has its share of dangerous land and highly venomous water snakes!).

Indeed, with some hikes, we look back and consider having spotted -- and successfully photographed! -- a certain beautiful butterfly, big spider or unusual lizard to have been the highlight of the day. At other times, a particularly scenic vista is indeed what makes our day. In any case, it's rare -- indeed, I'd go so far it has yet to happen -- that a day out hiking has been a complete bust. Put another way: hiking in Hong Kong offers up plenty of natural highs -- and so much so that I really would highly recommend it as an activity to physically able visitors and residents alike. :)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Not just a movie

The mikveh's still water-filled underground immersion pool
stands as testimony to the Medieval existence of Jews in Speyer
-- and as a memorial to what once was but has been lost

Earlier this evening, I watched The Legend of The Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Directed by Andrew Lau and starring -- and, not incidentally, action directed by -- Donnie Yen, it imagines that Chen Zhen, the fictitious disciple of real life Chinese martial arts sifu Hua Yuanjia, did not die in a hail in Japanese bullets as depicted in Fist of Fury (which starred Bruce Lee as Chen Zhen) or opt for a non-racist path like in Fist of Legend (which had Jet Li portraying the Chinese hero).

Instead, the hero -- essayed by a Donnie Yen clearly trying to channel Bruce Lee (to the point that he also dons a Kato-style costume at certain points in the film as well as utters animal-like screams associated with the late martial arts superstar and choreographs certain scenes to make the viewer recall those in Fist of Fury) -- in this 2010 Hong Kong-Mainland China collaboration lives on to do such as go to France and Belgium to take part in the First World War (something that some 140,000 Chinese men really did do) and then return to China (in particular, Shanghai) to oppose Japanese forces willing to do whatever it takes to take over China.

As I remarked to a friend shortly after exiting from the screening, the film is really embarrassingly juvenile. Beyond that (and this is why I feel compelled to write this entry that is not at all like the usual, more positive thought-filled ones that I try to offer up on this blog): even while at times I found myself entertained by it in a stupid superhero movie kind of way, at other points in the movie, I just couldn't get past being really shocked and downright appalled at how so very racist it is -- with tirades against foreigners (i.e., non-Chinese in China) in general that literally ends, in one instance, with a "fuck you" utterance, but, most overwhelmingly, in its portrayal of the Japanese as just plain evil murderers, torturers and rapists.

So much so that, so very ironically, when Chen Zhen proclaimed several times in the movie that "The Chinese are not the sick men of Asia", my reaction was that if this work is to be taken at all seriously, actually, the Chinese are sick -- mentally and psychologically, even if not physically. For only sick people would feel such a strong need to continue to assert one's health (and, by extension, cultural dominance and moral high ground) at a time when their country is clearly perceived by most of the world to be on the economic and general global ascendancy.

And lest there be any doubt: for the record, I am not Japanese. But this veritable contemporary anti-Japanese strain in popular nationalist Chinese cinema really is getting very hard to swallow and digest. So much so that -- and no, I really cannot accept the "it's just a movie" line of thinking and consequently think it's not an over-reaction to feel this way -- I felt moved to recall and share the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller's First They Came below:-

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialist
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

(And should anyone wonder about the 4.5 rating I gave to The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen in the Most recently viewed movies section of this blog, it's because, like I said, it entertained as a movie but I cannot rate it high(er) due to its (makers') racism and my consequently feeling bad -- guilty even -- for having even enjoyed any part of this film that actually was technically well-made and has its share of the sort of professionally-choreographed, enacted and shot fight scenes that usually would get my adrenaline pumping in a good way.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Strolling in Schloss Schwetzingen's gardens (Photo-essay)

As I write this blog entry, it's the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, people are wandering about the streets of Hong Kong, lanterns (including those in the shape of Hello Kitty) in hand, and the fire dragon is out parading in Tai Hang. But rather than venture out and take in those traditional festive sights, I -- who number among the few people who will have to go to work tomorrow (even though it's a public holiday) -- am going to take it easy and hang out in the relative quiet of my apartment.

More specifically, here's going ahead and casting my thoughts back a few weeks and to another continent in order to compose this follow-up to the first Schwetzingen photo-essay I put up a little more than a week ago. Even more specifically, this time around, I'm going to focus on showing some of the sights that can be enjoyed by way of strolling about in Schloss Schwetzingen's beautifully designed and well-maintained Baroque gardens:-

Like the 'mosque' shown in the earlier photo-essay,
this Roman-style Minerva temple is not what one would
necessarily expect to see in a garden of a German schloss

An even more unexpected surprise discovery
was an aviary complete with live birds but also
water-spouting bird statues galore

A more close-up shot of three of the bird statues
perched way above eye level

The Temple of Apollo is an even more lavish edifice
to be found in the gardens of a mere Palatinate Elector

View of the ceiling and upper portion of the statue
of the God Apollo housed within the small 'temple'

Schloss Schwetzingen's garden appear to bear testimony
to the power of culture over nature (as well as of
extravagant aristocratic tendencies that I definitely could see
making the poor wanting to overthrow them!)

Centuries on, however, I'm glad that the gardens still exist
and now are open to the public to enjoy (for a small fee)

And I'm also glad that even though it rained early in the day,
the skies did eventually clear so that my German friend and I
were able to better appreciate the schloss' gardens that,
ultimately, I consider the highlight of my visit to Schwetzingen :)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A stair- and step-filled Sunday

An uphill portion of the Fung Hang Family Walk that --
contrary to remarks on the Nature Touch website --
I don't think is suitable for "everyone" (e.g., my mother)

The seemingly neverending flight of steps that
-- hallelujah! -- turned out to be the final flight
before one got to the summit of Wu Tip Shan

Earlier today, my regular hiking companion threatened to kill me for only the second time in all the time that I've gone hiking with her. The first time was close to a year ago now when midway through our hike on Po Toi island, we were confronted with a rather formidable hill to climb on a super sunny, blue sky day. This time around, it was when we were hiking a hill -- Fanling's Wu Tip Shan --which I had mistakenly thought was closer to being a hillock than a mountain -- as an addendum to the hike we had gone on earlier in the day along the Fung Hang Family Walk and then back to the 56K Green Minibus terminus at Luk Keng.

Although the Fung Hang Family Walk had its share of stairs and steps, the truth of the matter is that, even on a super humid and officially designated Very Hot Weather Warning day, it was a little too easy for my regular hiking companion and I. Coupled with the low visibility this muggy day that made it so that we had to focus on taking photos of plants and insects rather than scenic vistas, the hike could be said to leave us wanting more... (even though it's also true enough that we actually were happy to be able to be out hiking again today after last weekend's forced hiking hiatus).

So, my regular hiking companion readily agreed to my suggestion as our minibus neared its Fanling terminus to hike up Wu Tip Shan -- whose Chinese name can translate into either Butterfly Hill or Mountain since the Chinese language doesn't differentiate between hill and mountain (in the same way that -- linguistic alert! -- it also doesn't differentiate between mouse and rat (with both being referred to as "lo shu" in Cantonese), rabbit and hare (with both being referred to as "toh" in Hokkien) and goat and sheep (with both being referred to as "yeung" in Cantonese).

While I wouldn't go so far as to say "big mistake!", the truth of the matter is that Wu Tip Shan turned out to be higher than either of us had thought it would be. Consequently, we got much more of a workout climbing it than we had anticipated!

Still, a lot of sweating (and cursing) later, we did manage to get to the top of the hill... which, admittedly, does not rank among the top 130 hills, mountains and peaks of Hong Kong. Nonetheless, believe you me, there definitely was a sense of achievement upon ascending to its peak! And this even though we saw quite a number of far older (but still obviously fit) people coming down as well as going up it along the way... ;b

Saturday, September 18, 2010

School (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Especially if one were to count my years at graduate school, I am one of those people who spent far too many years in (educational!) institutions. And maybe that's why in recent years, I've generally shied away from taking photos of any of them even though they are very much part of the Hong Kong landscape. (As an example, I walk past a school daily on the way to and from the nearest MTR station to where I live.)

So rather than offer up photos of schools for humans as my entry for this week's Photo Hunt, here instead are shots of a school of fish spotted swimming in the waters of Tai Tam Upper Reservoir. (Incidentally, these photos were taken on the same hike as that during which I caught sight of some (other) interesting Hong Kong wildlife. And for those who are wondering, yes, one is allowed -- after getting a license and outside of the spawning season -- to fish in Hong Kong's reservoirs.)

As for why the two fish photos above look quite different: the upper shot was of them swimming about rather calmly while the one below shows the frenzy and pandemonium that comes about after somebody -- not me! -- threw chunks of bread into the water. I wish I could also have captured the surprisingly loud sound of the fish urgently thrashing about in their contest to get themselves some bits of the food as that was really quite something along with the very sight. Suffice to say that it got me thinking that a school of excited fish can be as scary a sight and sound as that of a school of excited, squealing children! ;)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Big breakfast - German style!

The regular breakfast spread laid out
at my German friend's abode

"Where are the food pictures?" queried A Pessimist is Never Disappointed's Glenn on the comments thread for the blog entry before this one. The short answer to that question is that I actually didn't take that many photos of food in Germany -- not because I didn't enjoy the food I ate in that country but, because, well... the culture vulture and beer geeks part of me prevailed over such as the foodie part of me on my German holiday.

Put another way: rather than make pilgrimages to famous restaurants in Germany, I often preferred to make a beeline for famed museums... and brauhauses and biergartens. Furthermore, to make more time for those visits, my German friend and I ended up having lunch in one museum cafe and the majority of the rest of our meals in brauhauses and biergartens. (More than incidentally, my German friend -- who doesn't actually drink beer but knows full well about my love of beer -- told me near the end of my visit that she reckoned that she had been in more brauhauses and biergartens in the one and half weeks that I visited then she had been in the previous fifteen years of her life!)

Yet another reason for my relative disinterest in eating while out touring was that we would regularly start the day with a big -- I'd even say huge -- breakfast: one that invariably included a selection of amazingly textured and substantial slices and/or rolls of bread, creamy butter, various spreads (including, at her home, home-made strawberry jam), cuts of cold meat (including yummy -- and surprisingly bargain-priced -- prosciutto) and cheese (I particularly loved a brie-like German soft cheese that had mushrooms embedded in it), cold fish options and also fresh fruits (such as gooseberries, red currants and strawberries) in season and, if one wanted, muesli!

More on the bread: One morning, my German friend told me we had the option of having a ten minute breakfast before rushing to catch an early train or taking a later train and thus having time for a more leisurely breakfast. My reply was that there really wasn't much choice as far as I was concerned -- since the bread we had for breakfast was so thick and substantial that I needed a few minutes to chew each mouthful of bread before I could safely swallow it! (Not that I'm complaining, mind -- in fact, I'd stress that it's actually the opposite since I think that German bread really is so very wonderful! ;b )

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Schwetzingen's Schloss and sights (Photo-essay #1)

*Sob*! As I write this entry, my previous German photo-essay had attracted a grand total of zero comments on the blog itself.* But since I've received a few e-mail and verbal comments about it, I'm going to go ahead with putting up more German-themed photo-essays because, frankly, I did take quite a few photos in Germany that I think are worth sharing... including the following taken at Schwetzingen -- officially a town with a palace-like castle but a place that felt more like a garden suburb of Mannheim than anything else:-

It may look like Disneyland but this is the real deal
-- i.e., a picturesque historic German town

Public sculpture close to Schloss Schwetzingen
that helps trumpet the town's proud claim
to being
the asparagus capital of the world

Also on the main street, on the way from the town railway station
to Schloss Schwetzingen, can be seen this elaborate coat of arms

Its other attractions aside, there's little doubt that
Schloss Schwetzingen -- and its vast and beautiful garden
make up the town's main cultural draw

Even though it rained at times during the day,
my German friend and I couldn't help but
a good deal of time strolling about the palace gardens

Among the palace's more elaborate follies
was a Turkish style mosque front of which the far-from-camera-shy
Puppet Ponyo could not resist
having a photo taken

An unexpected sight inside the folly:
sayings written in Arabic script as well as German!

To be continued... like it or not! (*And there is hope since -- yay, yay! -- I just noticed a (first) comment by gweipo on that German photo-essay! :b )

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Evergreen Classic at the Hong Kong Museum of History

Qipaos (AKA cheongsams) are the subject of
the Hong Kong Museum of History's
The Evergreen Classic special exhibition

Short videos, including a 15 minute montage of film clips
featuring qipao-wearing actresses of yesteryear
(like Zhou Xuan ), added considerably to the exhibition experience

Another short video showcased qipao-attired Miss Hong Kong
contestants (including, from 1983, a certain Maggie Cheung)

Hong Kong's weather forecasters sure were right: this weekend has turned out to be a thoroughly rain-soaked one indeed here in the Big Lychee. So rather than go hiking in the rain or sulk in my apartment, I spent a good part of this afternoon doing something I had suggested in my Things to do in Hong Kong when it rains blog entry (which, more than incidentally, appears to be one of the all time most popular posts on this blog!): i.e., spend time in a museum.

More specifically, I followed in duriandave's footsteps and finally checked out -- on the second last day before it closes -- the Hong Kong Museum of History's special exhibition on the art of the qipao (cheongsam). And although there is no way that I'm even half the qipao (cheongsam) fan that he is, I found so much in there to capture my attention that almost before I knew it, I had spent some three hours going through the exhibition that features: display upon display of qipao (cheongsam) from different eras, including individual examples worn by -- and belonging to -- the likes of Josephine Siao Fong Fong, Nansun Shi and the wife of the Nobel prize-winning physicist Charles Kao; historical photos of qipao-wearers including Eileen Chang and Soong Ching Ling; and short video compilations of such as scenes of qipao-clad actresses and Miss Hong Kong pageants.

As one might expect, the movie montage most captured this filmophile's attention -- but I was by no means the only person who stopped to enjoy the moving images beamed onto a blank white wall. In addition, the Miss Hong Kong contest video could not but also amuse as well as appeal -- since among the Miss Hong Kong contestants highlighted were Michelle Monique Reis (Miss Hong Kong, 1988) and Anita Yuen Wing Yee (Miss Hong Kong, 1990).

As for the actual physical examples of qipao on display: I have to say that while I am grateful to the museum authorities to allow photography (even flash photography!) inside the exhibition but it actually was almost excruciating to find so many of the dresses not behind glass, yet still be literally untouchable. For while the ex-museum professional part of me definitely does understand the reason for this decision (one word: conservation), other parts of me were so tempted to feel some of the qipao because in addition in coming in an amazing range of styles, colors and shades, they also were made from a variety of textiles that looked like they would have been so very different to the touch!

Rest assured though that I did adhere to the rules -- and didn't see anyone not obey them while I was there! (And from the latter observation, I think one can surmise that Hong Kong museum goers are quite a bit better behaved than many a Hong Kong cinema goer... so, there may be hope yet for that less well-behaved group, we hope!)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Anniversary (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

When I saw anniversary listed as the Photo Hunt theme for this September 11th, I of course could not help but think of events that took place on the eastern seaboard of the USA nine years ago today. Let's face it -- there's no two ways about it: For many people, especially those who are American and/or were residing in the US then and/or now, 9/11 conjures up horrific images of terrible destruction and tragic deaths.

Looking at this day in history (via a Wikipedia entry), September 11th is one marked by many events -- good as well as bad and sad. Among other things, Stephen Foster's Oh! Susanna was first performed on this day in 1847, O. Henry was born on September 11, 1862, D. H. Lawrence was born on this day in 1885, and the World Wildlife Fund officially came into being 49 years ago today.

Yet, it can often seem like we tend to remember sad anniversaries more than happy ones. Even with regards to the Hong Kong entertainment world, every April 1st since 2003, I (and many other fans of Hong Kong cinema and pop music) don't need much reminding -- but are given ample reminders via the likes of HMV -- that the beautiful, amazing talent that was Leslie Cheung decided to prematurely end his life that day. Alternatively, even I needed to be told that 2009 was the 100th anniversary of my favorite cinema in the world. (Or was it? Because there appears to be some dispute as to its exact beginning date!)

In any event, I hope it will not offend anyone for me to suggest we pause at some point today to remember the tragedy that humanity can inflict on its own members but then move on and continue to live our lives -- because it is through the very act of living (and appreciating our doing so) that we honor those whose lives were cut unnecessarily short and show our defiance against those who don't want us to do so.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cologne's charms beyond its cathedral and museums (Photo-essay)

If not for the lack of crowds in Hirschhorn and Speyer, I would not have visited Cologne. This is because, after witnessing my genuine surprise -- shock, even -- at how few people we encountered on the streets of that picturesque village and historic town, my German friend and I decided that my holiday in her home country should include a couple of days spent in a large city. And we figured that Cologne, the fourth largest city in Germany with a population of close to 1 million, fitted that bill as well as had certain attractions that would appeal to the culture vulture within us.

As I trust that my most recent photo-essay showed, I was very impressed indeed by Cologne's cathedral. Additionally, I trust that a read of this entry about German museums visited will provide proof that I consider at least one of the city's museums to be, along with the cathedral, to be among the country's -- not just city's -- great cultural jewels. But there's quite a bit more to Cologne than its awe-inspiring cathedral and superb museums... and I hope that the following photo-essay will help give a taste of its other charms:-

A cable car ride across the Rhine
may be worth taking for sheer novelty alone

But what really seals its worth to me
are the scenic views to be had from the cable car

If other cities in the world were as green...

In the shadow of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and
close to the Rathaus (City Hall), archaeologists
are uncovering additional layers of Cologne's history

A look up while strolling along a city street yielded up
this interesting (post-)modern architectural vision

Also back in central Cologne, I encountered evidence
that Hello Kitty is not without fans in Germany! ;)

The fresh kolsch of Cologne was so very tasty
that, if memory serves me right, I had
1.4 liters of it in the space of just one day!

A measure of how very good the kolsch was:
even Puppet Ponyo found it hard to resist
checking out a glass of the drink! ;D