Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hiking sometimes without phone reception but always with a map (Photo-essay)

One gray day some time ago, two friends and I went on a Shing Mun Valley hike that took us around the main Shing Mun Reservoir.  Since the route is circular and also pretty obvious, in that one's going along the banks of the reservoir, quite a few people decided to go on it without carrying a map with them -- only to realize that they had no idea of how far they had gone and had left to go, and end up doing such as asking passersby who actually had bothered to carry maps with them (like yours truly) for directions and, in the case of one couple who looked so pathetic and exhausted, being given water and food by charitable souls (like one of my hiking buddies)!

In all honesty, it often amazes me how many people go hiking in Hong Kong without maps and sufficient water, and sometimes also without proper shoes on.  It's like they think that hiking in the Big Lychee's country parks are the same as going for a stroll in the territory's urban parks!  But not only are Hong Kong's country parks home to wild animals (some of them scarily ferocious) but there's no phone reception in significant swathes of them -- including, as I found out on this particular hike, along some of the sections of this 9.5-kilometer-long trail, including those where the paths are paved...

The water level was high in the reservoir 
the day that we hiked around it
 
 At the same time, it looked like it had been a long while
since there had been any run off from it
 
Fern fronds aplenty, and looking distinctly alien to my mind! ;)
 
So cool that I reckon they deserve a close-up shot :b
 
A number of streams flow into the reservoir
 
A tropical looking scene in this sub-tropical part of the world
 
Shing Mun Reservoir's particularly known for the 
paperbark trees that grow on its western banks
 
 Not content with following designated trails, some hikers opt to 
try out riskier routes -- and, in the process, meet with accidents :S

Monday, September 18, 2017

Boys with their remote-controlled toys in Hong Kong

A man having fun with his remote-controlled toy boat
 
 Spotted from a bus: a youth waiting to cross the road 
with his remote-controlled truck ;b

Still more "boys" with their toys -- this time
ascending a hill out in the countryside! :)

As I was walking by Victoria Park's Model Boat Pool a few weeks ago, I got to wondering whether, in this era where hobby drones look to have become the remote-controlled toys of choice, that particular park facility -- which, at 954 square meters in size, is several times larger than the average Hong Kong apartment -- was still actually being utilized.  So of course the next time I passed by there, I discovered not just one fellow but two guys (who probably are some 40 years apart in age, and didn't act like they knew each other) remotely manoeuvering their model boats at considerable speed through the waters of that model boat pool!

Probably because of the considerable noise those model boats made as they roared around, the toys and their owners had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers.  And while it can seem on the strange side for people to be so transfixed by this, I must admit to finding it all quite hypnotic myself too after I stopped to survey the scene and got to fixating on watching the boats racing round and round the pool!

In contrast, whenever I've come across people with remote-controlled cars and trucks, it tends to be the hobbyists who attract me more than their toys.  Sometimes content to be on their own, there also are others among them who prefer to meet up and indulge in their passions with like-minded folks: who range in age from young fellows who look like they're still in secondary school all the way to white-haired retiree-types; but who, without exception thus far, have uniformly been of the male persuasion! 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A visit to Kowloon Masjid on the mosque's Open Day

The shoe-strewn entrance to Kowloon Masjid 
during the mosque's Open Day :)
 
Freely accessible areas this afternoon 
included the main prayer hall
 
 The spacious room can accomodate
up to 1,000 worshippers at a time
 
Equipment set up for prayer time
 
While taking an American visitor around Central a few months back, I was asked whether there are any Muslims in Hong Kong.  If that fellow had stayed in a hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui (like many of his fellow tourists), chances are higher that he'd have known that this is indeed the case since one of that area's most prominent landmarks is the largest of the Big Lychee's six mosques.
 
Situated next to Kowloon Park over on Nathan Road, Kowloon Masjid (AKA Kowloon Mosque) opened for prayers on Friday, May 11, 1984.  Replacing an older mosque on the Kowloon Peninsula that had been a place of Muslim worship for over 80 years before it was demolished, this newer, larger structure also houses an Islamic Centre and its facilities include separate madrasah for boys and girls, three prayer halls (which can accomodate a total of 3,500 worshippers at a time), a kitchen, offices for its staff and a community hall.

For a few hours this afternoon, the lower two floors of the Kowloon Masjid were made accessible to the non-Muslims as well as Muslims alike.  On the ground floor (in British English but first floor in American English), things were on the festive side this Open Day.  To be sure, the central area was given to a speaker delivering a talk about Islam in Cantonese and exhibits on such as "The Books of Allah", "Pillars of Islam", "Articles of Faith" and "25 Prophets of Allah Mentioned in the Quran".  But there also were rooms where women could try wearing hijab and men could put on Arabic attire, and corners where people could sample halal food and get their names written out in Arabic calligraphy.
 
On the first floor (in British English but second floor in American English) can be found the mosque's main prayer hall.  I must admit to being surprised to be assured, when I asked, that I was free to go check it out and that I wouldn't need to put on a gown or veil in order to go in.  And I also appreciated being informed that the Arabic writing at the prayer hall's entrance spells out the Islamic greeting of Assalamu Alaikum (which translates into English as "Peace Be With You".
 
Inside the prayer hall, I saw a man praying and other men sitting about, individually and in groups.  I also noticed a sign asking people to not sleep in the space -- and I suppose that might be tempting to some because the carpet that covers the entire floor is really nice and soft and, despite my suspecting that the prayer hall isn't air-conditioned, it actually felt airy and cool in the high ceilinged space.  

For all of its size, this prayer hall may well have been the most modest-looking of all the mosques I've been into (which thus far have been limited to ones in Istanbul -- whose Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Suleymaniye Mosque really can take the breath away with their beauty and grandeur -- and Malaysia, including the royal mosque in Kuala Kangsar).  At the same time though, I felt a serenity about the place that was really comfortable and comforting -- and imagine that Kowloon Masjid is a mosque that Muslims in Hong Kong are happy to visit, worship in, and can feel at ease. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Ola Bola shows that unity is strength for Malaysia (film review)

From Malaysia with love :)
 
Ola Bola (Malaysia, 2016)
- Chiu Keng Guan, director
- Starring: J.C. Chee, Saran Kumar, Bront Palarae, Luqman Hafiz, Eric Teng, Marianne Tan
 
After Yasmin Ahmad passed away in July 2009, at the age of just 51 years, and while in the prime of her filmmaking career, I expected her friend, Ho Yuhang (who had served as the assistant director for her debut-making Rabun (aka My Failing Eyesight) and guest starred in that film and Mukhsin), to take up her mantle: not in terms of producing quality Malaysian movies but also films that felt truly Malaysian.  While he has done the former, there's a better case -- with bi-cultural romance The Journey (2014) and now the multi-cultural, multi-lingual Ola Bola -- to be made for Chiu Keng Guan being Yasmin's true spiritual successor.         
 
A nostalgic sports movie inspired by the 1980 Malaysian national football team, its main characters are not named Soh Chin Aun, R. Aramugam, James Wong, etcetera -- but they share enough identifying traits with those Malaysian sports legends to enable those of us who are familiar with these footballing personalities to easily figure out who's modelled after whom.  Largely set in an era when the Malaysian national team were able to beat the likes of South Korea (in competitive matches!) and Arsenal (albeit in just a friendly game but, frankly, unthinkable these days), it's bookended by contemporary scenes featuring young but ambitious TV journalist (Marianne Tan) getting tasked by her boss to do a story about a team of unlikely heroes seeking Olympic glory.
 
Beautifully lensed (by Chin Tin Chang) and well edited (by Gwyneth Lee), Ola Bola's footballing scenes -- particular those pertaining to the climactic football match -- are the absolute highlights of this pretty entertaining show.  At the same time, it's clear right from the start that director Chiu Keng Guan had greater ambitions for his film, which possesses strong pedagogic and serious dramatic elements along with ample sporting action and comedic hijinks.
 
"You will believe again" was the campaign tagline for the movie.  Even if unspoken, it's pretty obvious that there's an advancing of the idea that "unity is strength" (bersekutu bertambah mutu, as per Malaysia's national motto) -- for the country, on the football pitch and also in life.  And in retrospect, it's amazing that there could be formed a band of brothers -- supported and cheered on by female and male family members -- whose representatives included members of the country's three largest ethnic groups and from states in both East as well as West Malaysia.

Tan Pik Yee and Chan Yoke Yeng's script can be clunky at times but even while my head was shaking over how overly melo-dramatic and tugging at the patriotic heartstrings some sections of it was, I found my heart threatening to burst and my eyes welling up with tears.  The stories of the likes of  hot-headed captain in Chow Kwok Keung (J.C. Chee) -- so dedicated to his national team (and his dream) that he turned down a move to play for a professional club in England -- and goalkeeper Muthu Kumar (Saran Kumar) -- who clashes heads with his father when he effectively prioritizes football and country over livelihood and family -- can sometimes seem exaggerated, and yet they feel like they contain enough truth to resonate.  
 
Also, in view of it being an impossible "ask" to provide three-dimensional portraits of all of the members of the team, it's truly to the filmmakers' credit that one comes away with distinct impressions of a number of the players: including Eric from Sabah (Eric Teng), the talented -- but also hard-working -- Ali (Luqman Hafidz) and even seemingly perennial benchwarmer Chai (Lim Jiang Wen).  And on an aesthetic note: his Sanjeet Singh character may not have had all that many lines but Haris Zainuddin definitely left an impression by way of his good looks!
 
In addition, while radio commentator Rahman (Bront Palarae) appears for much of Ola Bola to have been included into the film mainly for comic relief, I do love how there's a narrative payoff involving him.  Similarly, I appreciated the emotional connection made between fact and fiction by way of a cool cameo near the end of this movie which actually would be a good choice to view this Malaysia Day and other Malaysia Days to come. :) 
 
My rating for the film: 7.5 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Sights and sounds while bicycling along two Hong Kong rivers

Riding along the Lam Tsuen River

A boat with egret on the Lam Tsuen River

 The floating restaurant on the Shing Mun River Channel

When hiking in Hong Kong, it's a fairly common occurrence to catch sight of -- and even have to cross -- a hill stream or more.  On the other hand, it's not usual to find oneself walking along the banks of an actual river as well as crossing over it; this not least because there are way fewer actual rivers in Hong Kong than small streams, many of which are not considered significant enough to be named

On my most recent bike ride here in the Big Lychee though, I found myself cycling on the banks of not one but two Hong Kong rivers!  Having got on my (rented) bicycle just outside Tai Po Market MTR station, I found myself riding for a bit along the Lam Tsuen River which flows through Tai Po town from the northern slopes of Tai Mo Shan (Hong Kong's highest mountain) down into Tolo Harbour.  And on the home stretch of the approximately 15 kilometer length bike ride, I was cycling on one side of the Shing Mun River Channel (which was artificially reclaimed from the shallow sea and enables the Shing Mun River to flow into Sha Tin Hoi, a cove which opens into Tolo Harbour).

While biking along the Lam Tsuen River, I got to thinking that the scenery I was passing was distinctively New Territories; in that even though Tai Po is a large town, there still is a rural feel to it.  This is a place, after all, where egrets are familiar sights along its river banks and also feel comfortable doing such as perching on the roof of a boat moored in the river!

In contrast, parts of Sha Tin -- which, in reality, is a New Town in the New Territories, like Tai Po -- that I passed through on the same bicycle ride felt like it had culturally become part of Mainland China.  For starters, there's a bridge there which looks like it came out of a Chinese painting.  Then there's a floating restaurant housed in a structure that brought to (my) mind the Beijing Summer Palace's Marble Boat

In addition, there's it being so that there are spots by the riverside which have become de facto outdoor karaoke sites for those whose preferred music is sappy Mandopop!  Furthermore, situated far away enough from the karaoke enthusiasts were erhu players doing their own particular musical thang!  And if this doesn't already sound cacophonous to you, throw in the reality of there being a number of bicyclists in Hong Kong who like to go about with portable music players blasting Cantonese opera.  (And for the record: there are indeed hikers in Hong Kong with similar Cantonese opera-listening passions!) ;D

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Thoughts on biking in Hong Kong

Bicycles (and bike paths) abound in parts of the New Territories
 
Ditto on a number of the Outlying Islands
 
On my most recent trip back to Penang this past July, I met up with a childhood friend with whom I had spent many happy times.  At one point, we got to regaling her son with stories of how we liked to bike up a nearby hill; or, rather, gritted our teeth and rode up the hill in order that we could ride down it as fast as we could!  
 
As an adult, however, the thought of riding up steep hills seems too much of a challenge -- or, at least, bother.  Which is probably why it was years before I decided to take my first ever bicycle ride in Hong Kong.  In all honesty though, I've enjoyed myself tremendously each time I've gone biking in the Big Lychee; even on outings when the weather has been less than perfect and I ended up getting rained on.  And despite Hong Kong having more than its fair share of hills, the (officially designated) bike paths I've been on (all of which are in the New Territories) have actually all been on the flat side as well as paved.
 
Of course if I wanted to go bicycling on more hilly terrain, there are a number of places that I can do so, including in some of Hong Kong's country parks.  If truth be told though, I reckon some of those  trails designated for mountain bike riding are on the dangerous -- if not downright insane -- side.  I think here of the mountain bike paths along the Dragon's Back and Chi Ma Wan Peninsula: both of which I think are far more suitable for hiking than biking, especially since there are sections where if you veer off to the side, it will result in a pretty sheer drop down a high hill -- and, in the case of the latter, possibly down into the sea too!     
 
Instead, should I stretch my Hong Kong cycling boundaries, it'll more likely be in such as the car-less -- and, perhaps not coincidentally, bicycle aplenty -- islands such as Cheung Chau, Peng Chau and Lamma.  Mind you, should I do so, I intend to stick to the less hilly sections of the island -- unlike a Mainland Chinese tourist that the beach clean-up team I was with that day were shocked as well as surprised to see attempt to haul one of those tuk tuk-type contraptions up a pretty steep, even if not super high, hill -- only to abandon his attempt part way (but still a far longer way up already than we expected to encounter such a vehicle)! ;b 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sushi Tsubomi serves up beauty but less so taste

A nice-looking plate of sashimi

The impressive-looking dining space

One of the prettiest chopstick holders I've ever seen!

Thanks to Daimaru (Hong Kong's first Japanese department store, and the chain's first overseas branch), Matsuzakaya, Mitsukoshi and Sogo having established branches in the area, Hong Kongers have long associated Causeway Bay with things Japan.  These days, however, the focus tends to be Japanese food, with eateries specializing in fare from the Land of the Rising Sun abounding in the area.

Among the newest of them (open just some two and half months today) is Sushi Tsubomi.  Not your average sushi-ya, it's also not your traditional sushi-ya; as one can probably tell from its executive chef (Michael Chan, a native Hong Konger) having formerly worked at Nobu and being known for making "creative sushi".  In addition, the restaurant's interior design is unlike any (other) high-end sushi-ya I've ever been to -- which has been as intimate in feel as this one is large and airy.

Thanks to my being the first customer of the day, I did get served by Michael -- who also prepared the sashimi platter I ordered (instead of my more usual sushi).  An aesthetic delight, it contained more than the eight different kinds of sashimi it was supposed to; with hamachi (yellowtail), kohada (gizzard shad), seared isaki (striped pigfish), uni (sea urchin), botan ebi (Botan shrimp), akami (regular tuna) and what looked like chuu-toro (medium fatty tuna) but tasted like fine o-toro (fatty tuna) in the mix.     

When he served me the sashimi, Michael informed that all the seafood served came from Japan, and that he wished the fish were fattier than is normally the case this time of the year.  In retrospect, I wonder if he was effectively apologizing (or just plain letting me know in advance) that the sashimi would not be as delicious tasting as it was good looking -- because, if truth be told, that's what I found to be the case (with the notable exception of the pieces of toro).   

Don't get me wrong: my sashimi lunch at Sushi Tsubomi wasn't at all bad.  But I also didn't experience any moments of ecstacy, even while eating the uni and, yes, the toro too.  And yes, the raw seafood did indeed taste fresh -- but, in this case, it may have all been too fresh; since true master sushi chefs are known to age (some of) their offerings for a few days to get the particular taste and texture that they want.  

These kind of thoughts get me wondering: have I passed into the realm of sushi snob?  And this also since, upon my seeing a few guests being ushered into what appeared to be the restaurant's private room, I got to wondering who would want to sit and eat there -- rather than directly in front of the sushi chef (and preferably the most senior one in the establishment)?!

It's strange: by the standards of many people, Sushi Tsubomi would be a high-end dining establishment.  With great views out of the 22nd floor restaurant's windows and an overall decor that seems to scream out that it's expensive, it's definitely not lacking bling.  

For me though, there are tell-tale signs that it's not quite up there in the dining stakes.  For one thing, size matters -- but in the case of high-end sushi-ya, it's usually the case that small is better.  In addition, while the availability of a private room and a drinks menu whose sake/nihonshu section only consists of junmai daiginjo may impress some people, those elements indicate to me that this restaurant is not actually targetting true lovers of sushi and sashimi.  In short: Sushi Tsubomi may wow some people but it actually doesn't do it for me. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

From Pak Kung Au down to Mui Wo, where delectable dining options await! (Photo-essay)

The South Lantau Country Trail officially has its trailhead at a junction on Nam Shan -- which also is the point where the Lantau Trail's boring Stage 1 (which many hikers choose to skip) segues into the more interesting and challenging Stage 2 (which leads hikers up to and then down Sunset Peak) -- and ends down at the Tong Fuk Catchwater some 10.3 kilometers over to the west.  But although I've ventured along the section of this official Hong Kong hiking trail between Pak Kung Au and Nam Shan several times, I've only been once on the section of this trail to the west of Pak Kung Au (during which I ended up tramping all the way down to Pui O) and, actually, have never hiked the whole trail in one go.

Another preference of mine with regards to the South Lantau Country Trail is to opt to go in the reverse direction from how one is officially supposed to do.  One reason for this is that this means that I'm going downhill rather than uphill for much of the hike.  More importantly though is that going in this alternative direction means that I (and my hiking friend(s), for this is one of those trails that I would very much prefer not to go on alone -- and definitely not when the hill streams are on the full side) will end up in Mui Wo, where a number of really good dining options (including Wah Kee, the China Beach Club and Bahce Turkish Restaurant) are to be found! ;b

On a gray day, the large rock lodged along the trail looks to be 
brooding and contemplating whether to roll down to the water's edge!
 
The kind of scenery few people expect to come across 
in Hong Kong, and which always gets me thinking of Scotland!
 
Along with the Lung Mun Country Trail, this official hiking route
may well pass by the most hill streams I know 
 
 And yes, when the water is on the full side, one needs to be
careful when going over or around them -- as slipping
and falling off a mountain becomes a distinct possibility!

It's not just me who reckons this tree's bark
looks like it's been painted on, right? ;b
 
A mysterious stone building near an archway for 
the Lantau Trail over at Nam Shan

In Lantau, feral cows often act like they own the roads
(buses and other vehicles, be damned!)! ;D
 
The kind of food that can be found in Mui Wo, and which 
I will happily -- and can completely -- devour post-hike! ;b

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sunset shots and wedding photography at Kennedy Town's Instagram Pier

Waiting for the sun to set 
 
Also fun to watch were the antics of a couple 
there to take wedding photos and their photographer!
 
Another romantic couple spotted at Instagram Pier!
 
Earlier this evening, a friend and I went on a stroll to -- and to take sunset photos at -- Kennedy Town's Western District Public Cargo Working Area (aka Instagram Pier).  Also there were the usual suspects: joggers, people out walking their dog (as featured in Pang Ho Cheung's Love Off the Cuff), fishing enthusiasts, fellow shutterbugs, and pairs of lovebirds.
 
On previous visits to this open space which is photogenic and also tends to be on the breezy side (something that's really welcoming on summer evenings), I had seen hobbyists with their drones and also at least one person with a remote-controlled toy fire engine that came complete with flashing lights and a siren that sounded amazingly like those of actual fire trucks.  This time around, none of those folks were around but attracted similar attention and amusement were a couple obviously there to take wedding photos and another couple that probably were doing the same thing despite the female of the pair being dressed in a reddish purple get-up rather than the conventional bridal white.
 
Considering that I've seen bridal couples in far more remote parts of Hong Kong (including Cape d'Aguilar, Pak Tam Chung, the High Island section of the Hong Kong Geopark and Nam Sang Wai), I guess it shouldn't be all that surprising to find that Instagram Pier also is favored by some bridal couples (and/or their photographers) -- and particularly around sunset, when this waterfront area is probably at its most visually attractive. 
 
To be sure though, the popularity of this spot -- which has become more accessible than before since the extension of the MTR's Island Line to Kennedy Town in December 2014 -- means that the duos concerned have to do the posing in full view of scores of people.  Still, if this hasn't stopped people doing such as getting wet from the surf over at Shek O Beach while dressed in their wedding outfits, to ensure that they get memorable photos for their wedding album (and videos or slideshows?), this definitely isn't going to stop others from striking ultra-romantic poses in front of gawking others at this pretty harborfront locale! ;b

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Everyday sights and occurrences in the world's foremost skyscraper city

A pretty common sign in Hong Kong
 
Work going on way up high above the ground!
 
Years ago, I read about how a sure way to tell that someone is a visitor to -- rather than resident of -- New York City is that those who don't live in the Big Apple invariably look up at the tops of the city's skyscrapers they're passing by when they walk through and along the manmade canyons that many of its streets resemble.  But even though I've lived in Hong Kong for some 10 years now and the Big Lychee actually has even more high-rise buildings than the Big Apple (and is the city with the most skyscrapers in the world by a long chalk), I still find myself gazing (up) at quite a number of the tall buildings to be found in the city I'm happy to call home.  

For all of my love of old buildings (including in Hong Kong as well as elsewhere), I also am able to appreciate the design and such of many a skyscraper; with Sir Norman Foster's 44-storey-high HSBC Main Building in Central being a firm favorite to look at and also for its cultural elements (which include such as feng shui principles having been adhered to).  And rather than advise people to not look up when walking around Hong Kong, I often remind visitors to the city to not forget to look up every once in a while: so that they can better appreciate how multi-level a place it really is, and also thereby not miss out on seeing some interesting sights like they might otherwise do!    

In addition to the high-rise structures themselves, there's the interesting establishments that often are to be found on the upper floors (rather than just at ground-floor level, like is often the case in Western and/or lower level towns and cities).  Also often fun check out too is the bamboo scaffolding and nylon netting covering buildings that make them resemble the artistic work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.  And then there are the daredevil workmen and -women who dangle on the bamboo scaffolding or metal gondola from way up high.  

Earlier this week, I passed a small sealed off area by a tall building that had a sign with the words "Caution" and "Overhead work in progress" in it.  Reflexively, I glanced up to look at the overhead work in progress and found myself having to look way, way upwards before I could spot any signs of work taking place.  And when I finally did, I got to gasping at the sight of workers on a gondola suspended very close to the top of an over 40-storey-high structure!
 
I expect that the fellows working several hundred feet up in the air find their work situation to be everyday and commonplace.  But for someone with a fear of heights like myself (who is the rare Hong Kong resident who's never lived in accomodation higher than eight floors up in the city), I really am in awe of those folks -- be they window cleaners, repairmen, painters or what-have-you! -- who are able to work where they do, never mind do the work that they do.    

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Bits of offal that I find delicious!

A delicious bowl of beef offal and rice noodle soup ;b

A yummy plate of egg noodles topped with 
pig's liver, kidneys, and two kinds of vegetables :b

"Try it first, then I'll tell you what it is."  That's what I remember my mother telling me quite a bit when I was a child.  In retrospect, I realize that it wasn't so much that she was tricking me into eating such as various kinds of offal or exotic foods such as sea cucumber, harsmar and the item euphemestically known as bird's nest as she was teaching me that, when you approach such things without prejudice, you might find that they can actually taste good!   

Growing up in Penang, I actually came to consider pig's kidneys (particularly those served up at my favorite noodle and congee shop over in Perak Lane) and chicken giblets (despite my actually having no idea what part of the animal they actually were) as special treats the way that some other children might think of Gummy bears and Creme Eggs.  And I think I can safely say that over the course of my Malaysian childhood, I was introduced to far more different kinds of food (and edible animal parts) than many other kids living in other parts of the world.  

At the same time, it took living in Tanzania to give me an appreciation for liver, which Tanzanians consider to be a more prestigious food item than regular meat (though less so than nundu (cow hump that seems to be pure fat and thus even worse for you than bacon!)).  In all honesty, I found liver just about edible -- but no great shakes in the taste category -- before my two year stint in that East African country but got my opinion changed so much after being served it so often there that these days, I actually go out of my way to order and eat it, including at one of my favorite eateries in Sham Shui Po and also whenever I go for yakitori, be it in Hong Kong or Japan. 

As I think it can be easily imagined, the Land of the Rising Sun (and shirako, fugu and sushi) is a country where I've not only tried a whole bunch of foods for the first time but also have grown to passionately love quite a number of previously unfamiliar delicacies.  Among these is chicken "tail" (or, less euphemistically, butt), which I never fail to order if I find it on a yakitori-ya's menu.

Disappointingly, this isn't often in yakitori-ya in Hong Kong (even ones that supposedly specialize in nose-to-tail cooking like Yardbird).  On the other hand, yakitori-ya in Japan sometimes don't only serve chicken ass but distinguish between -- and offer up both -- the male butt (bonjiri) and female (misaki), with the owner of the internationally-renowned Toritama chain (who I've had the good fortune to dine together and chat with twice; once at Sake Bar Ginn and another time at Uehara!) telling me that he considered misaki to bonjiri!

Meanwhile, if I had to name a food item that I've come to appreciate far more after moving to Hong Kong: cow's stomach would probably be it.  And like the Japanese do with chicken butt, Hong Kongers distinguish between different cow's stomachs: with the omasum being considered more of a treat than the other sections, which can be found making up part of offal snacks sold at casual outlets as well as are usually included in a general bowl of offal and noodles in soup at various beef noodle specialists around town! ;b

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Generous bartenders and sizeable food portions at Employees Only's Hong Kong outpost

Lots of empty/emptied glasses late in the evening 
at the bar over at Employees Only...

 ...but no hangover the morning after thanks to having also 
consumed quite a bit of food and drank lots of water on the night! ;b

Are there more cocktail bars now in Hong Kong than British-style pubs?  This would seem a ridiculous question to ask back when Hong Kong was a British Crown colony and probably even 10 years after the Handover.  But in view of the number of cocktail bars that have opened -- and which I've been to -- in the past few years (and the number of (in)famous taprooms which have shut down over the same period), I think there's a strong possibility that representatives of this particular type of drinking establishment -- and high end ones at that -- are not only the rage but where the majority of money is spent for alcoholic tipple here in the Big Lychee!

Among the most talked about new bars established this summer is the Hong Kong outpost of New York City-based Employees Only.  Located smackdab in Lan Kwai Fong but possessing signage so discreet that it actually isn't all that easy to spot (and thereby makes it feel like you have to be "in the know" to get in), this establishment with a distinctively New York feel also has a dining room but the evening that I went there with a friend, that space was close to empty whereas the bar area was pretty hopping.  

In addition, unlike many other cocktail bars I've been to, it actually has a food menu that looks less like a bar menu than one that wouldn't disgrace an actual restaurant; which pleased my friend and I a great deal since, more than once now, we've had to reluctantly leave a bar after a couple of drinks in search of food to fill our stomachs before we called it a night (with at least one cocktail bar we've been to -- J. Boroski, I'm naming you! -- not even having complimentary peanuts, pretzels or chips to help soak up the alcohol!).

As it so happened, the charcuterie and cheese board that we ordered was pleasingly generous in size as well as delicious; with it being much appreciated that the extra bread we got was actually complimentary, since there's many an establishment here in Hong Kong that would be charge for that.  Even more surprising was how liberal the bartenders were with dispensing free drinks; with my friend and I being given a total of four free shots each (two of amaro (Averna and Montenegro), and two of rum (including 7-year-old Angostura)) along with a sample of the fruity house alcoholic slushy in addition to getting "comped" one each of the three cocktails we each had on the night!

While it's true that I'm not a complete stranger to getting free drinks, it's usually only happened after I've become a regular at the particular bar, have a friend who is a friend of the bar owner or -- this has happened a couple of times, actually -- shocked a bartender into realizing that I know he hadn't actually prepared my cocktail with adequate care.  So what happened there??

The friend I was with reasoned that the folks at Employees Only are being particularly friendly and welcoming in order in the first few months of the bar's operation to win over  support and have people spreading good word of mouth about it.  This may be true -- and if it is, hey, it's working because I'm doing my bit to give them free and good publicity by writing positively about them on this blog!  (And for the record: yes, the cocktails I had were pretty good; and yes, I would indeed be happy to go there again for drinks and dinner! ;b)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Belated appreciation for Our Time Will Come (film review)

Our Time Will Come's poster brings to mind
that of old school propaganda movies :(

Our Time Will Come (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2017)
-- Ann Hui, director
-- Starring: Zhou Xun, Eddie Peng, Deanie Ip, Wallace Huo, Nagase Masatoshi, Ivana Wong

Awarded a world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival (where it was originally slated to be the fest opener, only to be bumped from that prestige slot by another, more bombastic World War II drama) and lumbered with a publicity poster in Hong Kong that recalled those of Communist Chinese propaganda movies, Ann Hui's Our Time Will Come under-performed at the box office of the filmmaker's home city earlier this year.  

Having turned down an invitation to a preview screening, I was planning to give this cinematic offering -- whose local release was time to be within a week of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the (glorious -- not!) Motherland -- a miss.  And I definitely would have done so if I hadn't heard good word of mouth about it from a couple of trusted sources who hastened to assure me that this offering actually possesses the effective understatedness found in Ann Hui's The Way We Are and A Simple Life (rather than the melodrama and sudden shifts in emotions that characterized some of her past period films).      

Set in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, Our Time Will Come revolves around folks who would have led ordinary lives in peacetime but chose to do their bit for their people in wartime, even after the British surrendered control of the territory to the Japanese on December 25th, 1941.  Mainland Chinese superstar actress Zhou Xun plays Lan, a literature-loving teacher without a job after her school ceased operations in those troubled times.  Living in town with her mother, Mrs Fong (Deanie Ip), and a couple of refugee lodgers from the Mainland, she gets recruited by charismatic guerilla leader "Blackie" Lau (Eddie Peng) for what's referred to in the film's English subtitles as the Dongjiang guerilla unit and written up as the East River Column in Chan Sui Jeung's book on these resistance fighters.   

Initially tasked with doing such as helping print and distribute information pamphlets in the dark of night, the physically diminuitive Fong Lan soon rises to head the guerillas' Urban Detachment.  Although the notion of a female a senior field position in the resistance can come across as like an "only in a movie" development, it actually was a historical fact.  And it does indeed add so much more power to what is shown happening in the film when it's realized -- as I did post reading Chan Sui Jeung's East River Column: Hong Kong Guerrilas in the Second World War and After book, something I was inspired to do post viewing Our Time Will Come -- that the people portrayed in the movie by the likes of Zhou Xun and Eddie Peng really did exist in real life.  

Ann Hui's admirable attempt to shine a light on a (still) little known part of Hong Kong history is one that acknowledges the contributions and sacrifice of such as the villagers who sheltered the resistance fighters, the pharmacist who tended to the wounded, and the civilians (young and old, female and male) who acted as couriers delivering messages as well as supplies and other material necessities rather than just those who engaged in armed combat.  In addition, there are the double agents; with Fong Lan's fiancé, Kam Wing (Wallace Huo), playing a particularly dangerous game by spending large amounts of time in the company of the Japanese, notably military commander Yamaguchi (Nagase Masatochi), in order to come by important information for the resistance.

Rather than spend a good portion on the film's budget on explosive action scenes, Ann Hui appears to have prioritized Our Time Will Come having a large cast filled with faces familiar to fans of Hong Kong cinema.  In return, the likes of Ivana Wong (who I actually found well nigh impossible in her super unglamorous part!), Sam Lee, Nina Paw Hee Ching, Stanley Fong, Kingdom Yuen King Tan and Babyjohn Choi do much more than one might expect -- given the small size of many of their parts -- with the roles they are given and, in so doing, add color and life to the proceedings.  And, almost needless to say, the film's lead actresses and actors do commendable jobs (even while being at times distractingly dubbed in the Cantonese version of the movie). 

About the only significant mis-step made by the director appears to be the decision to have present-day scenes bookend the film, and are compounded by having an all too recognizable -- and too, well, un-ordinary -- Tony Leung Kar Fai playing an elderly man who had taken part in the war effort as a young boy.  To be sure, I can see the idea behind them being to show connections existing between what took place during the Second World War and the present day.  However, those scenes in which he is being interviewed (with the behind-the-camera interviewer played by Ann Hui herself) had the effect of taking viewers out of the movie; not least because they were inexplicably shot in black and white, unlike the rest of the film.

My rating for the film: 8.0