Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fresh and Artificial (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

Is this what people -- besides NCAA basketball fans, that is! :b -- mean by March madness?  Weather-wise, this March has been a mixed bag of a month -- with the early part feeling like winter just wasn't ready to end and the latter part having days that make one think that summer is truly fast approaching. Visually, the first couple of weeks or so were filled with gray sun-less days, making the days that the sun not only finally peeped through the clouds but actually shone in earnest feel like a miraculous boon.

Fortunately, a few of those beautiful late March days have been days when I'm free to be out and about (rather than on days when I'm stuck in an office building for the most part). Even more fortunately, I was able to go check out this year's edition of the Hong Kong Flower Show on a day when blue skies and sunshine helped bring out the best in the fresh flowers on splendid display at Victoria Park.

As regular visitors to this blog know, I like photographing flowers growing in the wilds of Hong Kong (and get excited when I do such as spot the seasonal Chinese New Year flower). And while I don't much care to take photos of flowers in domestic and cultivated settings, I couldn't help but join other photo bugs in taking out my camera and click away at what really is a pretty massive as well as visually attractive flower show.

Also, as luck would have it (since I don't tend to look too far ahead to check out what theme combinations Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts conjure up), the displays that tended to catch my fancy at Victoria Park that day were ones involving fresh flowers (and related items like grasses) artificially arranged and artistically shaped into such as a globe -- that came complete with a sailing ship that made numerous circular journeys around it throughout the day -- and dragon! (Those wanting to see photos of floral totem poles, penguins and more can go check out a blogging mama's Hong Kong Flower Show visit entry over here!) :b

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Look and Postcard at the 2012 HK International Film Festival

 In case anyone wondered, I book my HKIFF tickets
in advance and get them sent to me by snail mail :)

The Look (Germany-France, 2011)
- From the Galas programme
- Angelina Maccarone, director
- Starring Charlotte Rampling

More than two decades ago now, I found myself waiting in a queue behind a tall and strikingly poised lady at a counter of a branch of Habitat.  Having recently viewed Paris by Night and also seen Charlotte Rampling perform in David Hare's The Secret Rapture at the National Theatre, I easily recognized the actress even though she identified herself as "Mrs. Jarre" when picking up the package that was there waiting for her. (Rampling was then married to composer-musician Jean-Michel Jarre.)         

Although I can easily identify her to this day and admire those of her works that I've viewed, I actually haven't checked out all that many of Charlotte Rampling's films nor know that much about her (beyond such basics as her having been a model as well as an actress, and being the rare Englishwoman who can speak French like a native Frenchwoman).  So I welcomed the opportunity to find out more the actress -- and presumably also the human being that she is -- that came by way of The Look, a documentary by German filmmaker Angelina Maccarone that is a biographical study of Charlotte Rampling.

Eschewing a chronological structure and instead favoring "chapters" with themes like "age", "demons" and "beauty", The Look is not a conventional biographical film structurally and in other ways.  Relying a lot on conversations that Rampling has with the director (who's never seen in the film but whose voice it is we presumably hear from behind the camera asking the actress questions and prompting her to elaborate on certain points) and others who also appear in the film (including photographer Peter Lindbergh, Rampling's actor-director son Barnaby Southcombe and artist-photographer Juergen Teller), it often feels like what gets revealed is very much at Rampling's discretion -- even while also feeling quite a bit more revealing than one might expect, given such circumstances.

The Look also makes good use of salient clips from a number of Rampling's films.  I have to admit to not having viewed any of the works that the clips were selected from -- though it's also true that I've heard of a few of them (most notably The Verdict -- which I didn't realized she had appeared in... -- and Georgy Girl). At the same time, it's also true enough that I came away from viewing this documentary feeling that I wanted to check out some of these (other) films -- less so the nightmarish looking The Night Porter and more so the comedic Max, Mon Amour -- that well illustrate how unconventional this fascinating actress' choices of work often has been. 

Judging from the questions asked by audience members after the screening (at which Angelina Maccarone -- but, alas, not Charlotte Rampling -- was present), I was somewhere in the middle in terms of what viewers knew about the actress going into a viewing of this documentary.  It also was my impression that The Look works better the more you already know about the actress -- or, at least, her considerable body of work. 

At the same time though, I wasn't so lost that I lost interest in the film -- never mind its subject.  Indeed, I actually did find the film as well as its subject to be fascinating -- not least because I found myself wondering which among my favorite ethnic Chinese actress would ever deign to reveal as much of herself in a documentary.  (My guess: probably only Maggie Cheung Man Yuk -- who, maybe not coincidentally, also was once married to a Frenchman! ;b) 

My rating for the film: 7.5

Postcard (Japan, 2011) 
- From the Master Class programme
- Kaneto Shindo, director
- Starring Etsushi Toyokawa, Shinobu Otake, Naomasa Musaka, Akira Emoto and Mitsuko Baisho

Kaneto Shindo celebrated his 99th birthday last year.  At one year short of a century, he wasn't content to just relax but, instead, set about making an anti-war film that went on to win the Tokyo International Film Festival's Special Jury Prize.  

Set during the Second World War -- at a stage when it was becoming apparent that Japan was not faring well -- and its aftermath, Postcard tells the story of a man (played by Etsushi Toyokawa) who the fates allowed to live even while condemning 94 of his comrades in arms.  It's a story that strongly resonates with the director -- because, as he divulged at a press conference for the film, it's one that's based on his own personal experience.

Postcard also tells the story of a woman (portrayed by Shinobu Otake) that the man was asked by one of his comrades (essayed by Noamasa Musaka) to go and see, should the comrade not survive the mission he had been assigned to by way of the drawing of lots by their superior officers. Somehow, the man delays doing as his ill-fated comrade requested -- and by the time he goes to her home, she already has been twice (rather than "just" once) widowed, and also seen the demise of her impoverished in-laws with whom she lived in a rustic rural abode (that lacked piped water, electricity and many other practical amenities).

Although it was the man who had been made to serve in the military (albeit, it seemed, pretty much entirely as a cleaner than a fighter), it is the woman who looks to have had the harder life. Relied upon by her sickly father-in-law and fragile mother-in-law to labor in the fields as well as keep house and generally manage the household in the absence of their two sons (both of whom get conscripted with much fanfare and consequent tragedy), she manages to bear the burden admirably well for the most part.  Clearly though, the burdens and the tragedies she experiences clearly can't help but take their toll.

A friend who I attended the HKIFF screening of Postcard with found the woman's bouts of loud wailing and over-emotional behavior off-putting. I, on the other hand, found them understandable -- even while admittedly not what one usually expects to see in a drama about Japanese people. The infusion of some absurd(ist) moments into a film whose subjects are definitely not to be laughed at also might be disconcerting for some.  

For my part, however, I felt that these elements helped emphasize what I think is Kaneto Shindo's message: that life can be absurd as well as tragic -- and still will go on, even under terrible, trying circumstances.  And as it goes on, even the most ill-fated actually may find redemption, a second chance for happiness and many other kinds of good that in one's darkest days, one will have real difficulty believing can come along... and sometimes just right around the corner too.

My rating for this film: 8

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Venturing deep(er) into Plover Cove Country Park (Photo-essay)

For those looking forward to more 2012 HKIFF movie reviews: there will be more of those soon, I promise! But after my recent text laden blog post (and a day of work that involved a lot of writing), I'm in the mood for a picture laden entry. So here's continuing to document the same Northeastern Hong Kong hike that passed through both inhabited and abandoned villages early on -- but now with a photo-essay of a section during which the main sights to be had tended to be natural in nature... albeit with a couple of human-made and -posted signs thrown in for a laugh! ;b

Check out the poor falling figure looking like
it's diving
at an angle into flash food waters!

The day my friends and I passed through the area though,
there were little fear of any flash flooding taking place there!

Another warning sign found in the low lying area

Yes, I could imagine waters overflowing into this
flattish space in wetter seasons -- so it's best
venture into the area when it's dry (which

winter almost always is in Hong Kong)

Wouldn't you agree that the purple tinge
of the geology in the area really adds

to the beauty of the natural landscape?

The area where Plover Cove Country Park meets
Yan Chau Tong Marine Park is where I can't resist
pausing for a bit to drink in the beautiful scenery

The scenic hamlet of Sam A Tsuen is home to a
few eateries (including a
teahouse with
bookable beds for the night if one so wishes!)

Our simple but delicious lunch at Fook Lee Teahouse that day

To be continued... for yes, I did take a lot of photos on this 15 kilometer long hike! ;b

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A culinary documentary and crazy comedy viewed on successive evenings at the 2012 HKIFF

Even in the online age, some people still like
to check the film fest schedule on hard copy

at the HKIFF screening venues

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (Germany, 2011)
- From the Reality Bites programme
- Gereon Wetzel, director
- Starring Ferran Adria, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, Eugeni da Diego, Aitor Lozano

For many foodies, El Bulli was the culinary equivalent of Mecca for Muslims -- a not easy to get to, far away place (in this case, a restaurant located in the Catalonian countryside, near the town of Roses, population around 20,000) which one aspired to go to some day. Alas, a visit to that much lauded dining establishment whose head chef, Ferran Adria, has been awarded a record 26 Michelin stars will forever remain but a dream for most of us as El Bulli closed down in July of last year.

So perhaps the closest we can get to achieving that dream is by way of viewing El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, German filmmaker Gereon Wetzel's reverential documentary showing how Ferran Adria and his team go about conceiving dishes, deciding what will get on the El Bulli menu and then preparing the meals that were shown in the film to comprise 35 dishes (but a friend who has visited told me also has, depending on the year and season, go up to 50!)!

Before going into the evening screening of the film I attended, I had made sure that I had eaten and was feeling on the full side. This is because more than once (including after viewing Oxhide II at the 2010 Hong Kong International Film Festival), I had come out of a film screening featuring cooking scenes feeling extremely hungry and in need of physical nourishment! (Also as evidenced by my account of eating grilled blowfish sperm, I can get massively fixated on certain foods I saw being consumed with great relish in movies!)

Still, it came as a bit of a surprise that viewing El Bulli: Cooking in Progress actually left me with a more satiated feeling than ready appetite for food. Perhaps this was because the documentary not only contains so many scenes of not only undoubtedly delicious (as well as interesting) dishes being prepared -- and a photographic catalog of the 35 dishes served at a single dinner -- but quite a few shots as well of people (particularly Ferran Adria) tasting and consuming a lot and real variety of edibles.

Actually, it might also be because, as Ferran Adria observed at one point in the film, that particular year's menu featured a lot of liquids -- because I actually came out of the screening feeling like I wanted something nice, cool and liquid to have flowing down my throat! (In particular, I really was intrigued -- and wished that I could have tried -- the savory dish that included ice in it, another culinary creation that was shaped to resemble a frozen rose (that I could imagine being thirst-quenching as well as refreshing), and the cocktail that was made by mixing nut (peanut? hazelnut?) oil with water!

More than anything else, however, I came away from viewing this documentary homage to El Bulli feeling very impressed by the attention to detail and creative strivings of its team of chefs (with Ferran Adria's right hand man, Oriol Castro, coming across as particularly dedicated). And even while viewing this film can go some way to providing reasons why and how it came to be that the restaurant actually operated at a loss for the past 10 years or so, it also shows that the lack of financial profits were the result of an admirable striving for culinary originality and mastery -- the likes of which few, if any other, other chefs think of going for, never mind actually put into practice.

My rating for this film: 8

Go! Boys' School Drama Club (Japan, 2011)
- From the I See It My Way programme
- Tsutomu Hanabusa, director
- Starring Aoi Nakamura, Sosuke Ikematsu, Keisuke tomita, Kazuma Kawahara, Naofumi Kaneko and Yu Inaba

In searching for reviews of this 2011 film from Tsutomu Hanabusa, I discovered that there aren't too many about -- at least not in a language with Romanized script. If this is a sign that this creative and fun comedy set in a Japanese boys high school and revolving around a group of Theater Club members hasn't been seen much, then that's really a crying shame -- because, in all honesty, I reckon that this is a work that has much to offer to audiences, in Asia and beyond.

To judge from the reactions of the audience at its HKIFF screening last night, Go! Boys' School Drama Club also is the kind of movie that's optimally viewed in the company of others. Because while it's cool to be able to enjoy a film on one's own, it really can make for a great experience to be in a large audience who are uniformly laughing out loud in enjoyment when taking in the kind of feel-good movie that's set in a world in which there are few, if any, really heartlessly bad and cruel people (a la Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea).

As an aside, I find it interesting -- and also somewhat surprising -- that in my years of attending the Hong Kong International Film Festival, it's not been works from Hong Kong but, Japan, that seem to have provoked the most positive and enthusiastic responses from HKIFF audiences. (I think particularly here of my experiences viewing Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust at the 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival, Fine, Totally Fine at the 2008 Hong Kong International Film Festival and now Go! Boys School Drama Club last night.)

In addition to the three mentioned movies all being from Japan, they also do share a certain inventive zaniness -- the kind that produces wildly slapstick moments whose goofiness only adds to, rather detracts from, their being entertainingly inspired. Tsutomu Hanabusa appears to explicitly recognize this in his comedy -- by having his protagonists be labelled baka (idiots) and loudly proclaimed to be so, by people who turn out to be their admirers and fans (as opposed to critics or detractors), and the protagonists themselves.

In a movie about schoolboys with a passion for theater, it makes sense for two particularly crazy-amazing scenes in the film to involve their performing of a couple of plays. Hopefully without revealing too much, the first of these involves their staging of a theatrical version of the famous Japanese legend of the Peach Boy (Momotaro) -- during which it is belatedly realized, mid-performance, that the jock turned theater club member with a key part in the dramatics doesn't actually know how the story is supposed to go! -- while the second is a production of American author O Henry's The Last Leaf in a way that few people could ever have imagined, never mind think could actually turn out to be effectively moving even while also be largely and incredibly hilarious!

Something else that I also really loved about this movie is how each of the protagonists is very defined and distinct in personality. Granted that theirs may be deemed too one-dimensional but I do appreciate that they're easy to identify by personality as well as physical appearance. And all fun to watch too.

So take a bow, theater club leader Genki (good-looking Aoi Nakamura), brainiac Koji (often super earnest appearing Sosuke Ikematsu), increasingly visible Uedo (the almost feminine Keisuke Tomita), narcissistic Joe (Naofumi Kaneko does not have a prominent mole on his face in real life but his character in this movie does!), tough guy Tamura (Kazuma Kawahara goes bleached blonde for this part) and dumb jock Hashimoto (sporty looking Yu Inaba) -- and girl crazed teacher/club advisor Kanda (Tetsuro Ikeda) too!!! :)))

My rating for this film: 9

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The 2012 Hong Kong International Film Festival has begun!

Three out of four of Beautiful 2012's directors
greet the audience at the film's world premiere

Its official site may state that the 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival began on March 21st and will end on April 5th but the truth of the matter is that there the first HKIFF screening took place on March 20th and -- the last time I checked -- additional screenings have been announced that will extend the film festival to April 9th. On a personal note, the first of the 16 screenings I have tickets for took place on the evening of March 22nd and the final one -- for now -- will take place on April 6th.

And for those who're wondering: 16 screenings is actually on the low side for me -- and yes, I have to admit to not feeling as excited as usual about the Hong Kong International Film Festival's offerings... this not least because there appear to be noticeably fewer than usual Hong Kong films being screened at the festival this year.

Ironically enough, there are quite a few more Hong Kong movies than usual currently having commercial runs in the longer cinemas. So I guess that's where I'll go to get some of my Hong Kong movie "fix" -- whereas I'll be putting the accent on "international" rather than "Hong Kong" as far as the 2012 Hong Kong International Film Festival is concerned... ;b

Beautiful 2012 (South Korea-Taiwan-Mainland China-Hong Kong, 2012)
- From the Gala Premieres programme

- Kim Tae-yong, Tsai Ming Liang, Gu Changwei and Ann Hui, directors

- Starring Gong Hyo-jin, Park Hui-soon, Lee Kang-sheng, Yan Lianke, Yang Weiwei, Francis Ng and Jade Leung

Two years ago,
the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society commissioned a quartet of short films from filmmakers Herman Yau, Clara Law, Heiward Mak and Fruit Chan -- all of them identifiably Hong Kong filmmakers (although Clara Law was actually born in Macau and now is based in Australia) -- and screened them in one go as Quattro Hong Kong. Last year, they internationalized things with Quattro Hong Kong 2's filmmakers hailing from the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand in addition to Hong Kong -- even if all the short films in the anthology actually were filmed in Hong Kong.

This year, the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society have commissioned another quartet of "micro films" -- but since two of these works don't take place in Hong Kong, they couldn't name this set Quattro Hong Kong 3. Instead, what we have is Beautiful 2012 -- four films whose filmmakers presumably were directed to present their own visions of what is "beautiful" and ended up producing four works that can appear to be more studies in contrast than ones obviously connected by a single theme.

Based on physical appearances, Korean director Kim Tae-yong appears to be the youngest of Beautiful 2012's four filmmakers. I'm not sure if this was a factor in his having taken the fewest risks and coming up with the most conventional of this anthology's quartet but that's how I'd describe his You Are More Than Beautiful. At the same time, this does not mean that this bittersweet comedy-drama revolving around a young man, the young woman he hired to pretend to be his girlfriend in front of his father and his elderly, sickly father didn't have some interesting and quirky touches that I could appreciate. Still, even while it did generally entertain and was fairly successful at tugging at my heartstrings, I have to say that this offering left me wishing there had been more "oomph" to it than was the case.

While Tsai Ming Liang's Walker most definitely was original in its vision and execution, "oomph" is not exactly what I'd describe this dialogue-less offering that also happens to have the longest running time of the quartet of Beautiful 2012 as having. In his opening remarks, director Tsai talked about how he'd like Hong Kongers to not walk about so quickly and, instead, slow down. While there's little chance that that ever will happen, I guess that this work whose protagonist is filmed moving ever so excruciatingly slowly in various parts of Hong Kong represents his personal effort to get Hong Kongers to be(come) more contemplative for a time. Judging from the reactions of his film's audience, however, he seems to have only succeeded in getting people to fall asleep (as was the case with the person seating to the right of me -- a certain fellow blogger who I'm leaving to "out" himself re this!), become bored and twitchy (moi) or react in some other negative manner!

Like Tsai's work, Gu Changwei's Long Tou left me puzzled as to what particular "beautiful" elements or aspects of life they were highlighting. With characters such as a middle-aged woman in which she remembers how as a child, she and her friends came across aborted fetuses in a field and proceeded to hit them with sticks for fun, a man with a gun and a troubled female who turns to drugs to help her release some of her sorrows, this work seems like it wants to make statements about many things but never quite succeeds due to it generally feeling too oblique and also disjointed.

So three quarters into my viewing of Beautiful 2012, my verdict ran along the lines of: acceptable even if not revelatory (You Are More Than Beautiful), over-indulgent and over-staying its welcome (Walker) and thought-provoking... but I'm not quite sure what to think about it as a film (Long Tou). In short: not all that satisfying! Consequently, it really came as a major relief that the fourth film of the quartet turned out to be the best of the lot by far -- one that had a story that was involving, actors who performed well, and a director who thoroughly succeeded in touching my heart, and leaving me with a lump in my throat and a little bit teary-eyed.

Ann Hui's My Way centers on a middle aged man (Francis Ng) who wants to be a woman. He's moved out of his family home and is about to undergo a sex-change operation. While he has supportive friends, his wife (Jade Leung) is not among them -- at least not initially. Early on, the general mood tends towards awkwardness (on his part), anger (on the part of his wife) and sadness (on both parts). But after he wakes up in a hospital room with a woman -- as opposed to a male -- room-mate, the ensuing scenes tend towards the positive -- and are downright moving, beautifully so even.

My rating for the films: Kim Tae-yong's 7, Tsai Ming Liang's 4, Gu Changwei's 5.5 and Ann Hui's 9 -> averaging out to around 6.5

Spicy and Shoes (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

Before I moved to the Big Lychee, I watched the Hong Kong episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations -- and salivated over some of the food he ate on that show. So it should come as no surprise that after I moved to Hong Kong, I determined to track down some of the eateries featured on that food and travel program, and eat at them myself!

Of these, two of them have become favorite eating spots that I've returned to over and over again -- in contrast to another that I doubt that I'll be returning to any time soon because I found the food there to only be so-so and the atmosphere way too raucous for my liking. But although there are people who might find the vibe at Tung Po Seafood Restaurant, located in Java Road's no frills Cooked Food Centre (or Market), too boisterous as well as casual for my liking, this particular eatery suits me fine -- and enough to do such as have a birthday dinner there!

Seeing as it serves up largely Cantonese food (along with a smattering of "original" and/or fusion dishes), most of what I eat at Tung Po isn't all that spicy. As it so happens, however, my favorite dish there -- which I almost always order whenever I go eat there -- is the spiciest of the ones I've ever eaten at that location!

Depending on the evening, the bamboo or razor clams in black bean and chili sauce can either be "regular" bamboo or razor clams (which, frankly, are pretty good already -- and a step up in quality from "regular" -- smaller and more circular shaped -- clams) or the extra large bamboo or razor clams (which are way longer, better at absorbing the sauce and absolutely superb!). (See the first and second photos at the top of this entry for both Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts to visually compare them.)

Pretty much every evening there however, owner-maitre d'-general everything Robby Cheung will be in attendance -- and wearing his customised white rubber wellies to boot! A dynamic extrovert, so much of Robby, including his trademark coif as well as those statement-making rubber shoes, screams "personality". All the same, it did come as a bit of a surprise for me to learn that he's a former actor (whose role in Little Cheung got him a Hong Kong Film Awards Best Supporting Actor nomination). But, well, that's just one of those fun parts of living in the Movie Mecca that Hong Kong really still can be to me! :)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A hike that passed through villages -- some still inhabited, others abandoned long ago (Photo-essay)

The first Chinese New Year that I spent in Hong Kong, I went hiking on the very first day of the year along a 10.5 kilometer trail that took two friends and me on a route that began in the northeastern New Territories village of Wu Kau Tang and took us eastwards to the small hamlet of Sam A Tsuen before circling back to Wu Kau Tang and ending up near Bride's Pool. And so pleasant was that excursion that it left me wanting to revisit and explore more of the area -- particularly the walled village of Lai Chi Wo that's famed for its well preserved state and fung shui wood.

As it so happened, it was over another Chinese New Year period that I ended up venturing again into that area -- and once more with two friends, albeit different ones from the ones I had hiked there with back in 2008. And once again, I found that part of the Big Lychee yielded many interesting sights -- including in the form of abandoned as well as still inhabited villages, and structures ruined and unruined, rather than more usual natural attractions that I've come to expect to see when out hiking in Hong Kong...

River mouth dragon (god?) shrine
by a stream
near Wu Kau Tang

The kind of rural landscape that looks like it's
a different age as well as far further from
urban Hong Kong than it actually is ;)

I wonder what caused the inhabitants of the village
of Kau Tam Tso to leave without taking
many belongings including ancestral portraits,
televisions and other home furnishings?

Signs of recent, even if temporary, inhabitation adds
to the largely abandoned village's air of mystery

Perhaps this sign found a bit further along the trail helps
explain the signs of human habitation to be found
in (previously) abandoned villages in the area...

Near Ha Miu Tin, we came across ruins of buildings
which we overheard being described by a local hiker

as having been used to incarcerate people by
the Japanese
during World War II

Tomatoes growing wild now near the ruins

Could these buildings really have held prisoners previously?

To be continued...! :b

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Gunther's Frog in greater Mui Wo

Photo of a small animal more easily heard than seen

The same male frog displaying -- by inflating --
its vocal sac while making a loud call

Some time back, I saw great frog pics over at sbk's Pictures, Thoughts and Comments and got to realizing that even while I had spotted a variety of animals since moving to Hong Kong, I actually had not caught sight -- and thus taken any photos -- of frogs. Funnily enough, it was while in visiting Okinawa's Churaumi Aqarium with her and another friend that I took my first photo -- of frogs... and, as it so happens, yes, they really were doing what comes naturally -- like many a butterfly and other insects (including dragonflies and stink bugs) I've similarly caught in action!

But because that photo of the frogs was taken in an artificial setting, with a plate of glass separating me from the creatures in question, I still pined to spot and snap shots of some frogs in the wild. So I'm really happy to be able to report that I finally managed to do so today -- though it's also true enough that greater Mui Wo (where I took the photos) would not qualify in the eyes of many people as being quite "wild"!

As my mother (who's visiting Hong Kong once more) and I were strolling around the rural space this afternoon, we passed by an area where loud sounds were emanating from both sides of the country lane that we were on. Whereas my mother initially thought the sounds were the result of construction work in the area, I thought it sounded natural. But instead of the pigs or dogs that I was suspecting were the animals making the sounds, it turns out that those sounds emanated from far smaller -- and consequently difficult to spot -- creatures.

Indeed, so hard were they to spot that although several creatures were responsible for the cacophony were heard, I only managed to catch sight of one of them -- and only because I noticed some ripples in the shallow water it was in. With the help of Google, I've ascertained that what I saw -- and consequently took a couple of snaps of -- was a frog (and not a toad), and one of over 20 species of frogs that are native to Hong Kong.

Gunther's Frog is a species of frog that's widespread (in central and southern China, and also Vietnam) -- and consequently apparently pretty common in Hong Kong. So in the great frog scheme of things, it actually not all that special. However, my sighting of it feels special to me -- because it was my first ever sighting of a frog in the Big Lychee. And it's in celebration of this event that I've put up this entry -- one that comes complete with a link to a Youtube video clip that captures it's bark-like (mating) call. ;b

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Play and Creative (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

Hello Kitty haters -- look away! For yes, my entry for Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts this week is going to focus on the kawaii cat -- and, in particular, sights seen and photos taken during a pilgrimage I made to Sanrio Puroland last fall.

Located in the self designated "Hello Kitty's Town" of Tama, Sanrio Puroland is a place where cuteness overload and incredible commercialism meet -- and to such an extent that it can sensorily overwhelm and temporarily disconcert even the likes of this admitted admirer of the furry feline (who once wrote a four page cover article on Kitty Chan).

Thus it was that I found myself walking about in a veritable daze for the first hour or so. But after I allowed myself time to circle around the complex not once but twice (the second time more slowly so that I had more time to pause and take it all in), I got to noticing not just the at times overly cutesy and commercial elements at play in the place but, also, its enjoyably playful and creative touches.

Something else I noticed about Sanrio Puroland is that even while much of it appears to have been designed for children, it generally ends up being more of a giant play area for adults. (For proof, I'll point out that the photos I took at the place have way more adults than children in them.) Also, while the lesser shows at the Wisdom Tree Stage looked to specifically target the younger set, the grand Believe show is replete with creative elements and thus capable of enthralling adult Hello Kitty fans as well as less critical kids -- and, indeed, played a key role in leaving me with warm and fuzzy feelings about my Sanrio Puroland experience as a whole. :)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Views of another side of Hong Kong

Rich and not so wealthy living not that far apart
(especially as the crow flies) on the
south eastern side of Hong Kong Island

Squatter type homes and way more expensive housing
also located not too far away from each other --
this time over in the Discovery Bay area of Lantau

As regular visitors to this blog may have noticed, I generally try to highlight the more positive and/or fun parts of life on it. Every once in a while, however, I do feel obliged to share my thoughts about less happy times and aspects (e.g., here and here). This time around, my impetus for writing this blog entry stems from two incidents that happened back to back this morning while I was waiting for the bus I regularly take to work.

The first involved my observing an old man scrounging about for useful scrap from a rubbish receptacle nearby -- in broad daylight on the side of a busy street full of pedestrians as well as vehicles passing by. After he did so, he looked up and -- perhaps it's my imagination but I thought the expression on his face was one that showed that he definitely wished that he wasn't reduced to having doing this but, at the same time, was one that defiantly dared anyone to stop him from doing so and, also, from disapproving of his doing so.

Seeing that man, his actions and the look he gave out to the world at large prompted me to comment to a colleague who was waiting alongside me for the same bus that it really made me so sad that so many older people are obliged to scrounge about for scrap to get by here in Hong Kong -- a place with the world's fastest growing millionaire population (at least according to a June 2011 Wall Street Journal blog post) and 527,000 millionaires out of a population of around 7 million (as reported last month) but, also, a major wealth gap that is increasingly a cause of serious concern.

Her response really shocked me -- even more so, actually, than my witnessing the older man's scavenging activities. For she really did seem sincere in her stated belief that some of these older Hong Kongers who are too often seen going about scrounging in rubbish receptacles are doing this not to help make ends meet but, rather, because it's something to do to keep them from being bored!

After hearing her comments, I am moved me to wonder if she knows that there are still people in Hong Kong 2012 whose economic circumstances make it so that they have to live on the street or in caged homes or seriously ramshackled dwellings. On the one hand, I find myself thinking that people surely can't not know that there are poor people who are finding it hard to live and grow old in comfort and with dignity here. But on the other, I also truly have met people over the course of my life who can be blind to -- not just callous about -- the poverty that exists in their midst or just around the corner or next bend.

To be sure, it is extremely rare to see people dressed in rags in Hong Kong the way that I have seen people doing so in Tanzania. And I've not heard any real life tales of people having starved to death -- although if they could do so in Japan earlier this year, there surely is the possibility of there people doing so here too in "Asia's World City". Still, just because it's less visible or extreme, it does not mean that there are no poor people here -- only many of the poor, including the elderly among them, actually still feel they should be doing something to earn some money as opposed to "just" begging from strangers, relatives, the government or some other wealthier source.

The willingness to work even in one's old age is something one has to admire even while also thinking should not be considered a necessity. And should anyone wonder, yes, I do make contributions to charitable organizations like the Society for Community Organization (SOCO) and the Salvation Army. Also, yes, I really do wish and hope that society -- including Hong Kong's -- can become more economically equal and also more caring in the future than it currently is.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

More Wilson Trail Section 3 sights and observations (Photo-essay)

More than one friend and visitor to this blog has asked me: how many photos do you take on a single hike? In the case of the one I went on that took me along most of Section 3 of the Wilson Trail (i.e., my regular hiking companion and I elected to start our hike from Yau Tong rather than Lam Tin MTR station and thus shaved off a kilometer or so from the beginning), the answer is close to 80 snapshots!

In my "defence", I'll point out that we did go on a detour to the top of Devil's Peak to check out the redoubt there. But both by way of my previous photo-essay and now also this one, I trust that I'll be able to show that there's really quite a few interesting sights as well as scenic views to be had when going along this section of one of Hong Kong's four official "long trails"... :b

Some two thirds into the trail, it's not the views that
one's attention but, instead, a shrine containing
a whole series of
curious sculptures made by
a local man by the name of Lee Chun Bor

Is this sculpture supposed to be
a super red Sun Yat Sen?

Yes, Mr Lee really did put up a whole lot
of interesting sculptures in the area!

Although most of his sculptures are of humans, he also
has some animal subjects -- including this large snake!

One of the more surreal trails I've hiked in Hong Kong
also required to cross more than one fairly major road
and be extra eagle eyed in order to spot its signs...

Perhaps one reason for the signage along this section
of the Wilson Trail being not as good as Hong Kong hikers
are used to is that it is one of the rare hiking trails actually
located outside the borders of
Hong Kong's country parks

Sign pointing to a little bit of Hawaii in Hong Kong?!

Some color courtesy of a grove of ivory coral trees
located very close to the end -- finally! ;b --
of the 9.3 kilometer long trail

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Remembering March 11, 2011 one year on

Signs of damage from the March 2011 earthquake
were visible during my visit to Japan last fall

But so was evidence of parts of Japan that
have managed to survive more than one disaster

..and signs of life and the ability to (still) enjoy,
appreciate and make good what the fates
have decided to bestow
upon us

One year ago today, Japan suffered a terrible series of calamities. A major earthquake lasting 6 minutes and measuring 9.0 magnitude on the Richter scale is catastrophic enough on its own but it was preceded by a number of large foreshocks, followed by hundreds of aftershocks and was "only" one of 78 earthquakes that occurred on that one day alone. If this wasn't already disastrous enough, the largest earthquake to ever hit Japan also unleashed powerfully destructive tsunami and the tsunami, in turn, caused a number of nuclear accidents, including major damage -- including meltdowns at three reactors -- at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex.

The damage numbers are staggering: 15,853 people dead, 3,282 people still missing and a financial costs and losses to the tune of 16.9 trillion (i.e., 16,900,000,000,000) yen. Then there's the unquantifiable amounts of psychic loss, grief, sorrow, fear, distrust and other negative emotions unleashed by the disastrous events.

Half a year after what has come to be known as the Japan 3/11 disaster, I decided to pay another visit to the East Asian country where I had already spent a number of great vacation days. One of my reasons for wanting to do so was to do my bit to help boost the country's economy and tourism industry. Another was that, purely and simply, I was pretty confident that a visit to Japan would result in yet more happy days and good memories of good times spent in a part of the world that some in other parts of the world view negatively for various reasons but I really do tend to predominantly associate with a lot of positive aspects and elements.

As anyone who has read my blog entries about that vacation (such as this one) will know, I did indeed have a great time. To be sure, there were times when I got to thinking about the events of March 31, 2011 -- including when I visited the Rikuguen Garden in Tokyo and saw signs of earthquake damage there, and on the last night of my vacation when a minor earthquake caused my regular hotel bed to momentarily feel like it had turned into a water bed. For the most part, however, I really was able to put thoughts of disaster out of my mind and focus on happier things and events.

Then there were the times when I was given reminders that Japan, whose society and culture is famous for finding beauty in the transient (such as cherry blossoms), also is a country that has proved remarkably resilient in the face of many, not just one, major disaster. For example, when visiting Kamakura, I of course went to see the Kamakura Daibutsu -- and when face to face with it, could not help but marvel at the sight of the 13th century bronze statue of the Buddha that has withstood a large storm that blew down the hall in which it was housed, a typhoon that destroyed another hall that had been built to shelter it, a tsunami that washed away yet another hall constructed to house it and survived an earthquake which destroyed its base but left its body undamaged.

Something that also left me feeling very touched was how it was that a number of Japanese people whom I met and got into conversations with while there seemed so uncommonly happy and grateful upon learning that I was a foreigner who had decided to holiday in Japan -- and by so doing, was effectively demonstrating my faith in their country. "Thank you for your support," more than one of them told me. To which I wanted to say in return, "Thank you for hosting me, Japan" -- and, more importantly, Nihon, gambatte kudasai!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Symbolic and Power (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

In the last six months or so, thanks to the convenience that has come with having been issued a one-year multiple visits Japan visa, I have paid two visits to the Land of the Rising Sun. In early 2012, two friends living elsewhere in the world and I got together for an Okinawa rendezvous. A few months before, I had gone on my own to Tokyo and points nearby, including the sacred space(s) of Nikko.

The city of Nikko is the gateway to an area of considerable natural beauty, much of which lies within the borders of Nikko National Park. On this visit, however, my focus was checking out cultural sights -- with the Toshugu Shrine that is Nikko's most famous attraction being on the very top of my "must see" list.

Built as a mausoleum for the second head of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Hidetada, for his super powerful father, Ieyasu, whose last will and testament expressed his desire to be enshrined and rest forever in Nikko to serve as a guardian of Japan, and further expanded in the reign the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, the Toshugu Shrine was a building project that involved the construction by 4,540,000 people of 35 buildings (many of them lavishly decorated) in 17 months at a cost whose contemporary equivalent has been estimated as amounting to 40 billion yen.

Some four centuries on, there is no doubting the symbolic power of the place, then and now. And there also is little doubting that the Toshogu Shrine stands as testimony to the power, symbolic and otherwise, possessed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, especially during the rule of the first three men who headed it.

For those who think that the actual tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu looks on the modest side, do consider that what's visible in the photo at the very top of today's entry for both Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts lies in a physically elevated area deep within the shrine grounds -- and that to get to it, one first must climb a number of steps as well as pass by many other structures (all of them undoubtedly worked on by master craftsmen) like the ones in this entry's two middle photos.

So no wonder Puppet Ponyo looks on the bewildered and overwhelmed side there -- and this even though at that point of our visit, we hadn't even been through the middle compound of that pretty sizable shrine! ;O