Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cook Up a Storm plays better as a Chinese New Year movie than one geared to tickle the taste buds (film review)

Movie advertising that comes complete with 
a cutout figure of its star that you can pose with ;D
 
Cook Up a Storm (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2017)
- Raymond Yip, director
- Starring: Nicholas Tse, Jung Yong Hwa, Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Ge You, Bai Bing 
 
As this movie drew to a close, its stars faced the camera and cheerily heaped Chinese New Year greetings on their audience: something I found rather strange since it was released closer to Valentine's Day than the 15th, never mind the 1st, day of Chinese New Year here in Hong Kong (and, from what I understand, Mainland China too).  But upon discovering that Cook Up a Storm was originally intended to be a Chinese New Year movie (only to have its release date postponed by distributors unduly spooked by the seasonal competition), a lot about the film ended up making a lot more sense.
 
Chief among these is why it is that family and community matters so much to the film's lead character, a motherless fellow whose father (Anthony Wong Chau Sang) effectively abandoned him early on in his life.  Raised by his father's cook buddy (Ge You), whose eponymous Seven eatery functions more or less as the neighborhood canteen/hangout, Sky Ko (played as an adult by Nicholas Tse) grows up to become a super talented cook who's happy to dish up traditionally prepared Chinese food that satisfies the tastes and appetites of the denizens of Spring Avenue -- from Helena Law Lan's grandmotherly character all the way down to a couple of extremely well-fed dogs -- on the one hand, but also gets much out of triumphing in televised cooking competitions on the other.  
 
Quite a bit has been made of South Korean singer-actor Jung Yong Hwa also starring in this Hong Kong-Mainland China co-production.  But while it certainly is so that the CNBLUE lead vocalist adds no small amount of eye candy to the movie, his dramatic impact is considerably weakened by his being noticeably dubbed when speaking English as well as Cantonese, and his character most definitely being subsidiary to the main plot arc.
 
To be sure, early on in the offering, it does seem like Cook Up a Storm is meant to primarily involve a series of culinary contests between Sky and Paul Anh, the three Michelin star Korean-Chinese chef played by Jung Yong Hwa who favors innovative Western cooking techniques over old school Chinese methods.  And this especially after Paul and his assistant, Mayo (Bai Bing), are hired to run a super fancy new restaurant located right on the other side of Spring Avenue from the long established but also far less pretentious Seven.      

But the further along we go in the movie (whose Hong Kong roots are apparent in such as a sub-plot involving unethical property developers seeking to replace old neighborhood fixtures with flashier as well as taller buildings), the more it becomes apparent that Sky and Paul are destined to be culinary brothers-in-arms who are more intent on proving their worth to people they want to swallow their insults than anything else.  And Cook Up a Storm's climactic -- and best -- moments involve Sky facing up to, and interacting with, someone who's left quite a bit more impact on his life than Paul had.
 
Revealingly, although food was involved in that scene, its presentation left a lump in my throat but failed to get my stomach growling.  Actually, if truth be told, none of the often visually impressive gastronomic concoctions in Cook Up a Storm made this foodie all that hungry!  In trying to understand why this was the case, I've come to the conclusion that too often, insufficient time was devoted to showing the food actually being prepared.  Even more crucially, there were too few occasions in the movie when people were shown actually tasting as well as genuinely savoring the dishes set before them!  
 
My rating for this film: 7.0

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The siren call of Hong Kong's outdoors melts away fears, and is hard to resist! (Photo-essay)

Earlier this week, it was reported that a mother and daughter duo had been robbed while out hiking in the Sai Kung area, and that the week before, a woman had been robbed while she was out on the Eagle's Nest Nature Trail in Lion's Rock Country Park.  But rather than feel that I should think twice from now onwards about venturing into the Hong Kong countryside with just one female hiking buddy or on my own, I tend towards the view that muggings are so rare in Hong Kong -- in urban as well as rural areas -- and so much of the territory is so very scenic that, especially on a beautiful weather day, it's just so very hard to resist the siren call of the Hong Kong wild! 

Actually, one of my hiker friends told me about her and another woman having been mugged while up at the top of Mount Butler some years back (when the likelihood of "illegal immigrants"/Putonghua speaking criminals preying on hikers seemed to be at their peak).  So I know that things like this are not impossible.  Still, I must admit that I've generally had a greater fear of falling down hills and from the side of a narrow mountain path as well as being bitten by a poisonous snake or stung by hornets while out in the wilds of Hong Kong than being robbed by a fellow human.   

Maybe I've been lulled into a false sense of security since I imagine that I don't look like the kind of person a potential mugger would target (in that I don't wear fashionable and expensive-looking gear, and have a stick with me when I go hiking).  I also reckon that I tend to be more aware of my surroundings than some others (particularly those fitness fanatics who seem super focused on their heart rates and not much else).  In any case, especially after looking at the following photos, can you blame me for wanting to venture out into the Hong Kong countryside?  And for the record: yes, I was with just one female friend on the hike where I took these snaps! ;S

A glorious view that people who have gone up the first bit of
Section 3 of the Maclehose Trail will be familiar with :b

I, for one, can't resist turning back every once in a while
to look at the views that get revealed the higher up the trail I go :)

That afternoon's clouds were quite something too!

 The top of the hill's a pretty cool spot 
to take a selfie/group photo ;)

 But rather than pause up on that hill, my friend and I opted 
to keep on following the path that led us higher up still!

Even while we still had a ways to go before the hike's end, 
one can get a sense of accomplishment when looking back at 
a scene like that and know that one's already gone along it :)

 Views like this get me thinking that this part of the 
Maclehose Trail may well be one of my favorite
sections of trail in all of Hong Kong :)

 Rather than follow Section 3 of the Maclehose Trail to its end
we opted to end our hike at Lady Maclehose Holiday Village 
(where this armored personnel carrier can be found on display!)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Dorrance Dance's ETM: Double Down is tap dancing and more

Advertising for the second Hong Kong 
Arts Festival program I've attended this year
 
Thanks to my having viewed clips of them performing in the original That's Entertainment! and its follow-up films when I was a child, visions of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers come to mind whenever I think of tap dancing.  But as American company Dorrance Dance showed this evening, with their Hong Kong Arts Festival performance of ETM: Double Down, tap dancing can be so very different from the classic, elegant tuxedoes and ballgown images which Astaire and Rogers conjured up.
 
Created by Dorrance Dance's artistic director Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young, this program has sections that get you thinking that the tap dancers have turned their bodies into musical instruments as well as others where their bodies and movements express a variety of emotions including physical lust, romantic rejection, exuberant energy and sheer, uninhibited joy.  
 
Also featured in this 11-performer show are breakdancing moves (courtesy of Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie), what I'd describe as voice music -- as they are songs without words (courtesy of vocalist Aaron Marcellus) and live music performances (including drumming by Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young, bass and guitar playing by Gregory Richardson, and piano work by Donovan Dorrance).
 
Quite a bit has been made of ETM: Double Down making use of something called "electronic tap boards", which Nicholas Van Young has likened to electronic drum triggers operated by the dancers' feet.  These devices feature prominently in the work right from the get go but, if truth be told, I think I was far more impressed by the sounds the tap dancers made when there was nothing between their shoes and the stage floor -- and I think that the greater floor space also allowed them more freedom of movement and, accordingly, expression too.  

While many of the dances come across as abstract, one particular section can be easily read as being about two male lovers and the times when they don't get along as well as those others when they're very much in synch.  And although there may not have been a specific message imparted by his doing so, I really enjoyed seeing how lean and lanky Warren Craft -- who must be the rare tap dancer who's also trained in ballet -- appeared to utilize his whole body (including his shoulders) to maximize the volume of his tapping!
 
Their costumes may have been on the utilitarian and gray side but this dance company's performance was anything but!  While the tap dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers often looked like a more percussive version of ballroom dancing, Dorrance Dance's version shows very clearly that it was -- as Michelle Dorrance said in her Artist Statement -- America's first street dance, and is a colorful dance form that can be totally in tune with the contemporary world. :)        

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fired daily, but never in anger: the Jardines Noonday Gun

Have any of these cannons ever been fired in anger?
 
The (in)famous Jardines Noonday Gun that gets fired daily!
 
"Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."  Thus goes a line in a Noel Coward song that I learnt about decades ago as a child growing up in Malaysia, one of the many former British colonies whose achieving of dependence brought the sun down on an empire which used to be so vast that at any time of the 24 day, at least one part of it would be seeing daylight

Another line in that very same song -- which was first performed back in 1931 -- states that "In Hong Kong, they strike a gong and fire off a noonday gun."  And while the gong has been replaced by a shiny brass bell, the three-pound gun nearby is indeed still fired at noon each day (as well as at midnight each New Year's Eve since 1946)!   

Many years ago, the Hong (that's still going strong) known as Jardine Matheson had its main offices and warehouses in the area of Hong Kong that's now part of Causeway Bay, and also maintained its own gun battery and detachment of guards there.  And at some point down the road, it became custom to give a gun salute to the head of the trading house whenever he sailed into or out of the company port there.
 
One day, the story goes, a senior British naval officer became annoyed as well as appalled when witnessing this practice which, as far as he was concerned, should only be reserved for military commanders.  He therefore slapped Jardines with a penalty involving their being required to fire their gun at noon every day for perpetuity!
 
Although I've passed by -- or taken friends to have a look at -- the Jardines Noonday Gun site several times before, I had never witnessed the actual daily ceremony which involves a Jardines employee ringing the bell and firing the gun before until yesterday.  Having arranged to meet a friend for lunch in Causeway Bay at 12.15pm, I realized that I had time to finally see the famous gun minus its usual protective cover and in action.     

Upon getting to its location by the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter (and, actually, just meters away from the floating Tin Hau temple that's well known among locals but far less of an international tourist attraction), I found quite the international crowd (which included native English, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean speakers) assembled there to witness what's actually quite a modest ceremony, albeit one involving a gun that can make a pretty loud noise.  
 
One nice bonus is that after the Noonday Gun is fired, the public is allowed into the area where it has been installed -- which happens to be the first plot of land to be sold by public auction in Hong Kong, and purhcased by Jardines back in 1841!  While quite a few people went ahead and snapped selfies or had others take photos of them with the gun, I was content enough to enjoy the rare experience of standing and walking about a bit on non-reclaimed land right by Victoria Harbour! ;b

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A floating Tin Hau temple in a Hong Kong typhoon shelter

Most, if not all, Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong -- like  
this one at Lei Yue Mun -- are located close to the sea
 
But it's the rare Tin Hau temple that actually floats on the water,
 
Long before I moved to Hong Kong, I had heard of Temple Street (or Miu Kai, in Cantonese) -- thanks in large part to movies with titles like Queen of Temple Street and The Prince of Temple Street, as well as the Temple Street Night Market which these days is largely a tourist trap but which looked like it'd be a really cool place to visit in Derek Yee's C'est la Vie, Mon Cheri.  
 
But it wasn't until my second visit to Hong Kong (back in the summer of 2000) that I got to realizing that -- duh! -- this Yau Ma Tei street got its name from a major temple complex in the area, whose central building is dedicated to Hong Kong's most popular goddess.
 
In the years since, I've come to know of the existence of a whole bunch of temples dedicated to the Taoist Goddess of the Sea (or Heavenly Queen, which her Cantonese monicker translates as), including the Tai Miu (big temple) over at Joss House Bay, others on Po Toi and Tap Mun, and in the area of Hong Kong Island that's come to be known as Tin Hau after her.  And although a good number of them are no longer located near the sea (or body of water, such as Victoria Harbour), I've learnt that the vast majority of them actually originally were.
 
Far more unusual than the Tin Hau temples found by the sea or further inland though is a Tin Hau temple that's actually located on a boat moored at the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter.  Home to a statue of the goddess that's believed to have been rescued from destruction during the Cultural Revolution in Mainland China, it's not been relocated elsewhere despite work on the Central-Wan Chai Bypass taking place pretty much all around it because the people in the area want it to remain where it is.     
 
Even though few fishermen and other folks call the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter home any more (and the largest Tin Hau temple on Hong Kong Island lies within walking distance from it), this floating temple reputedly still remains a popular place of worship.  And seemingly perenially festooned as it is with flags, it makes for quite the lively sight; with its continued existence adding color to Hong Kong's local cultural scene as far as the likes of me are concerned. :)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A satisfying meal at an indoor dai pai dong

Indoor dai pai dong dining at a cooked food center!
 
Chiu Chow-style oyster pancake
 
Sea snails in sauce as spicy as it looks! ;b
 
"Let's go eat at a dai pai dong", I suggested to a friend one winter evening.  But rather than dine at one located out in the open air, we headed over to a stall in the bustling cooked food center section of her neighborhood Municipal Services Building that almost looked too "authentic" to be true and got me wondering for a moment or two if I had stepped straight into a Hong Kong movie! 
 
The very well patronized eatery that we dined at that evening doesn't have an English name and neither does it have an English menu.  But even if its picture menu isn't as extensive as its Chinese one, it does list the highlights -- which both my native Hong Konger friend and I found intriguing and ample enough to satisfy us.
 
Happy to find Chiu Chow as well as Cantonese specialties on the menu, my friend set her heart on ordering the Chiu Chow style oyster pancake -- which was fine by me as I like that dish too.  And when our order came to the table, we knew we had made the right choice as it really was very tasty -- with the stir fried eggy bits being alternately fluffy and crispy, and the overall dish feeling far less greasy than lesser versions.                      
 
We also enjoyed my choice for the evening: sea snails in spicy sauce which actually wasn't as burning hot as I feared it would be but still definitely had a fiery kick.  In retrospect, part of me wishes that I had dipped some of my share of the oyster pancake into that sauce.  (Actually, an even better option would have been to bring the bottle of Maggi Chilli Sauce that represents a taste of home for me, and which I think goes great with fried things, be it chicken, fries or eggs!  And no, I don't think the folks operating this unpretentious eatery would have been upset if I had poured some of that sauce onto one of their dishes!) 
 
In addition, since both the other dishes we ordered can appear more "snacky" than filling, we also decided to get a plate of mixed vegetables and bowls of white rice -- to make sure our stomachs would be full but also that the meal would feel more balanced.  As it turned out though, we struggled to finish all the food, however tasty so much of it actually was, because the portions dished out actually were far more generous than we expected!   
 
Leaving the cooked food center using a different route from the one that we had used to get there, we saw that seating for the stall had flowed out into an adjacent outdoor space.  So we could have dined outdoors at that dai pai dong after all!  
 
Considering though that even indoors, the temperature was so low that pretty much every diner there had kept their jacket or coat on, perhaps it was for the best that we had gone for the indoor dining option.  And even while there were a few smokers in our midst (despite there officially having been a ban on smoking in eateries for some years now), there actually was sufficient ventilation to make it so that my clothes and hair actually didn't smell of cigarette smoke or, for that matter, strong cooking aromas post dining there! 

Monday, February 20, 2017

The optimal dai pai dong dining season

Where I like to eat on a cool evening :)

It may not look it from the photo but Leaf Dessert
is actually a pretty popular dai pai dong! ;) 
  
February is the coldest month of the year.  That's something I was told during my first winter at boarding school in England decades ago -- and whenever I've lived in a place with four distinct seasons, it has indeed felt this way for the most part.

But whereas I would spent February eagerly awaiting warmer weather to arrive when I lived in Britain and the USA, I often find myself hoping that spring won't come too soon here in Hong Kong.  One reason is that I tend to associate the spring with way too many super rainy days here in the Big Lychee.  For another, Asian winter foods (including Cantonese clay pot rice and laap mei) may well be my favorite seasonal foods of all!

Furthermore, although outdoor dai pai dong like Sing Heung Yuen are open all year round, they really are far more comfortable to dine at in cool -- even cold -- rather than hot weather.  Consequently, I'm more likely to feel up for frequenting them in the cooler months (though it's true enough that even when it's boiling, I still am liable to get cravings for that Gough Street dai pai dong's tomato soup!). 

Another reason to prefer eating at dai pai dong in winter is that cockroaches and their ilk seem far less active out on the streets of Hong Kong in cold and dry weather than during hot and humid evenings!  Hence my being more likely to have dinner at such as Sing Kee, the dai pai dong on Stanley Street whose offerings are famed for their wok hei, and which has featured in such as the Hong Kong episode of The Hairy Bikers' Asian Adventure TV show (as well as is located in the same dai pai dong-rich area in Central where Faye Wong's character bumped into Tony Leung Chiu Wai's in Chungking Express), during the cooler and colder months of the year.

Incidentally, the last time I ate at Sing Kee, I found myself sharing a table with a woman who told me she was a dancer who would be performing at this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival.  And some time ago when I was eating at Sing Heung Yuen, there was quite the commotion when superstar singer-actor Eason Chan appeared on the scene (and indicated, from the way he interacted with the dai pai dong's staff, that he's a regular patron of theirs)! 
 
So to those who turn up their nose at the suggestion of dining at a dai pai dong: now you know what you're missing -- the possibility of celebrity encounters and/or interesting dining companions along with some actually pretty tasty food in atmospheric dining conditions that I actually consider attractive, particularly during those times of the year when the very act of sitting in non-air-conditioned space won't get one feeling over-heated as well as sweating profusely! ;b   

Sunday, February 19, 2017

An enjoyable Sai Kung Peninsula outing with a good friend

The water was clearer than the sky in Sham Chung this afternoon

...but a few hardy butterflies -- like this furry looking specimen -- 
braved the cooler, less sunny conditions to remain alive and active! 

The beautiful spell of weather Hong Kong has enjoyed in recent days came to an end literally overnight last night.  Yesterday, visibility was as high as 45 kilometers over in Sai Wan Ho.  Today, I don't think it exceeded 15 kilometers anywhere; and I experienced more rainfall -- and definitely way more misty and overcast conditions -- than caught sight of bright sunlight for much of the day.

Fortunately, it only started pouring in Sai Kung town (where I had gone for a Thai dinner featuring a tasty sour and spicy squid salad, rich beef green curry and fragrant white rice) just before I got on a green minibus out of there, and way after a friend and I hadn't only finished hiking and gone on a boat ride earlier in the day.  

But even while brighter weather would have added welcome color to the surroundings that we passed through on our trek from Pak Sha O to Sham Chung as well as the boat ride from Sham Chung to Wong Shek Pier, we were grateful enough for the temperature remaining pleasant, and it being warm enough for some butterflies to continue flitting about (even while cool enough for me to figure that the snakes that had awoken from their winter slumber in recent weeks had gone back into hibernation).

Something else that I really appreciated on today's excursion was the company of the woman who had been my regular hiking companion until she left for Canada a few years back.  Although I wondered whether it'd be the case when we had first said our goodbyes, she has indeed returned to Hong Kong a couple of times since, and we've found time to hang out -- and even go on hikes together on her too short trips back to the Big Lychee.     

This afternoon, I was reminded again how we share a love for nature, photography while hiking, and what another friend has described as "non-competitive hiking".  In addition, I also do like it being the case that, once she overcame her horror at piling back the calories during post-hike dinners (with the aid of my explanation/justification to her that "we hike in order to eat, not in order to lose weight!"), we got to thoroughly enjoying our post-hike meals and actually consider our outings incomplete without them! ;b    

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Mari-Cha Lion in Hong Kong

Advertising on a Hong Kong tram for the 
 
A view from the Asia Society's roof garden that takes in
Lion Rock as well as the Hong Kong Cultural Centre
 
Say the word "lion" in Hong Kong and the word "rock" tends to come to mind since to many people, since Lion Rock is the territory's most iconic Kowloon hill, and the one that the "can do" spirit that Hong Kongers (have) possessed for decades has been named after.  But this past month has since another prominent lion temporarily take up residence in town -- on the Hong Kong Island side of Victoria Harbour, over at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center in Admiralty.  
 
The mysterious Mari-Cha Lion was originally thought to date from Spain but recent research undertaken on this large leonine sculpture leans towards it having been cast in the mid-11th to -12 century in a region of southern Italy ruled at the time by the Normans.  Decorated with Arabic engravings by its Spanish Muslim creators, this rare beast is further rendered unusual by the presence inside it of a vase-shaped vessel, made of the same type of bronze as the rest of the figure and thought to be the mechanism that made it an "acoustic automata" which could roar like a living lion!
 
As amazing as this precious work of art is though, it can't be the sole subject of one whole show.  Rather, the Asia Society put up a selection of other leonine creations on display along with it for the Roaring Guardians: The Mari-Cha Lion with Asian Traditional and Contemporary Art exhibition which explores the religious, imperial and vernacular significance of the lion symbol in various parts of Asia, including India, Tibet, ancient China, contemporary Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore (whose Malay name of Singapura, more than incidentally, means "lion city") and Japan.
 
Running the gamut from contemporary art works to artefacts considerably more ancient than the medieval Mari-Cha Lion itself, I personally found some of the most impressive to be the small but oh so detailed copper alloy figurines from India of Vishnu (the Hindu god of preservation, who takes the form of a lion in his Narasimha "man-lion" incarnation), Parvati (the Hindu goddess of fertility, love and devotion, whose Durga avatar has a leonine connection) and her husband Lord Shiva (the supreme being who creates, protects and transforms the universe for Hindus).  And while I must admit to generally placing greater value on the older items on display, I also found myself intrigued by the miniature "lion's masks" creations by Vietnamese artist Vu Dan Tan out of recycled sweets' boxes along with other mundane elements such as paper, ink and goauche.
 
While looking at those items in particular, I found myself wishing I had brought my reading glasses along to the Asia Society!  Alternatively, the curator in me thought, it really would have helped for them to have provided magnifying lenses or similarly low-tech but helpful devices along with the informative complimentary audio recordings supplied at the information desk.  
 
Something else that the (occasional) museum consultant part of me found myself somewhat perplexed and irked by was how low a level many of the works and the text panels had been placed!  Curiosity actually ended up compelling me to enquire at the information desk if the exhibition's principal curators were on the short side.  Over the course of our discussion, the suggestion was made that the low height choice may have been made because the exhibition had been expected to attract many school parties.  But if this really had been the case, surely steps could have been made (literally and metaphorically) to accomodate both regular sized adults as well as children?     
 
Still, the above-mentioned exhibition design gripes aside, I actually did feel the exhibition was one I'm glad to have catch here in Hong Kong.  I'd even go so far as to say that the sight of the extraordinary Mari-Cha Lion alone was worth the price of admission, except that it'd be faint praise in this case since no entrance fees were charged for this pretty interesting exhibition! ;b  

Friday, February 17, 2017

On High West and Lung Fu Shan (Photo-essay)

Despite its name making it sound otherwise, Hong Kong Island's High West isn't as high as a number of other Hong Kong.  Topping out at 494 meters above sea level, it's only the 53rd highest peak in the Big Lychee (with number one ranked Tai Mo Shan standing quite a bit higher at 957 meters).  

Still, I reckon you can get some of the most stupendous views in Hong Kong from the top of High West.  And on one of my hikes up it (that also ended up including a stop at 253-meter-high Lung Fu Shan on the way down to a bus stop just above the upper reaches of Kennedy Town), I couldn't resist taking panoramic as well as regular photos from up there (all of which can be enlarged -- and their views consequently better appreciated -- by clicking on them)... ;) 

On this hike, bugs like this colorful true bug,
were eye-catching along with scenic views ;)
 
The top of High West on a beautiful blue sky day :)
 
Looking north and east-wards from the top of
this western Hong Kong Island hill

Looking west from High West (with Lamma Island, Hei Ling Chau
Peng Chau and Lantau Island visible in the distance)
 
 Another bug spotted along the way -- 
this one with pretty wings and hairy legs!
 
The view from some 250 meters lower down is considered 
interesting enough to merit an explanatory view compass 
 
A view of Pok Fu Lam -- with its large Christian cemeteries
-- and still largely green Mount Davis
 
 Red flowers abound on Lung Fu Shan
(also known as Hill Above Belcher's) :)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

An evening with Sascha Goetzel and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra

The Hong Kong Arts Festival program I attended this evening
 
There were a surprising amount of empty seats for the performance I attended at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's Concert Hall this evening.  Perhaps, since the publicity for the Hong Kong Arts Festival generally has the dates for its 45th edition as being February 16th to March 18th of this year, many people didn't realize that tonight's concert was actually part of this annual mega arts affair -- and, in fact, the festival opener!
 
Another possibility is that the prospect of seeing and hearing conductor Sascha Goetzel and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra perform didn't sufficiently excite people.  I know at least one classical music fan who told me she's only willing to pay the amount that Hong Kong Arts Festival concerts usually command to see and hear better known musicians, and one lover of things Turkish who told me she'd prefer to go for something more culturally Turkish than a Western classical music concert predominantly featuring works by non Turkish composers.   
 
In any event, I think it's their loss to not have attended tonight's concert and my gain to have done so for there were some interesting and just plain enjoyable music on offer from this young orchestra whose artistic director and principal conductor hails from the land of Mozart and Johann Strauss (the elder and younger) but looks to be predominantly composed of Turkish musicians.  And before even one beat of music was played, I got an inkling that things would be different from usual from the seating arrangements of the orchestra. 
 
For where I regularly expect to see the cellists and double bassists, I saw second violins instead.  Also, where I normally expect to see the second violinists, I saw viola players and double bassists. And where I normally expect to see the viola players, I saw the cellists.  Oh, and I noticed too that there was a larger complement of percussionists in the orchestra than is usually the case -- and the percussionists really did have quite prominent roles throughout the program, including for the very last piece, where two of these musicians who usually are placed in the back row were assigned seats right in front of the conductor!
 
The orchestra got things going with a lively rendition of Turkish composer Ferit Tüzün's Capriccio a la Turque, an orchestral piece essentially inspired by Turkish folk tunes and combined rhythms which was over too quickly as far as I was concerned.  Next up was Scottish composer James MacMillan's Violin Concerto, whose dedicatee, Russian-born Belgian violinist Vadim Repin, actually was tonight's featured soloist!  The impression I got was that it's a rather unorthodox piece that is challenging to play, and also listen to -- with the vast majority of the concert audience being far more appreciative of the encore work that Repin chose than the MacMillan's concerto which possessed sequences of dissonant music as well as ones that I actually found pretty electric!
 
After the interval, the orchestra performed what has come to be its signature piece.  Its melodic and often mesmerizing rendition of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "exotic" Scheherazade was a step above what had come before, and made all the more different -- in a good, creative way! -- by way of the Arabic qanun and Turkish oud being employed along with the musical instruments that normally feature in a Western classical music orchestral work.  Still, from the way the musicians looked -- relaxed, with big smiles on their faces -- when they performed the encore work (whose title I sadly failed to catch, though I did hear maestro Goetzel describe as being a quintessential piece of Turkish music), they had saved the best for last -- and I must say this peppy piece really was a great way to conclude the evening's program.
 
Music-wise, I think this concert was a lovely way to start off this latest edition of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.  I just hope that Sascha Goetze and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra get the audience they deserve for their second concert here in Hong Kong (that's scheduled for tomorrow): one that's ultimately as appreciative as this evening's but bigger and better behaved (in that some people clapped at the wrong time a couple of times tonight, quite a number dozed off during the slower and quieter parts of the concert, etc.)! ;S

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Uncommon ways to enjoy Valentine's Day :)

Standing tall as a singleton on Valentine's Day 2017!
 
This is not least since being single contributes quite a bit
to my feeling free as bird on beautiful days like today :)
 
Before anything else: the photos at the top of this blog post were taken this afternoon as I made my way to my favorite roast goose place for dinner after a thoroughly enjoyable Cloudy Hill hike excursion that I went on with a friend.  At that point in the day, I was on my own as my hiking buddy had hurried home earlier to celebrate the Feast of Saint Valentine with her husband.  But, in all honesty, I didn't much mind since I still was on a high after a very satisfying hike in wonderful weather -- complete with super high visibility and bright blue skies -- during which I had seen Cloudy Hill totally minus cloud cover -- something which, as its name implies, is actually a pretty uncommon state of affairs! 
 
And to think that I would have missed out on this if my original plan for this evening had gone ahead: that is, I had proposed to a good but platonic friend of the opposite sex that we have an anti-Valentine's Day dinner at Uehara.  But since the restaurant turned out to be already fully booked for tonight when I called to make a reservation a couple of weeks ago, we'll "just" be treating ourselves to another omakase dinner there this Thursday instead of this evening!
 
Should it not be clear: here's confirming that I'm so not a fan of this particular holiday and have been known to organize anti-Valentine's Day "dates" with one or more platonic friends, many -- but by no means all (since I've discovered there are married people who don't care for this day too!) -- of whom are fellow singletons.  Among the more memorable of these was the time a few years back when a whole bunch of us went out for a hotpot dinner, reasoning that this kind of dining is extremely unromantic since it's communal and tends to leave diners (particularly their hair and clothes) smelling quite strongly of whatever they had chosen to eat that evening!  
 
And even though there were years in the past when I was in a relationship when February 14th came along, by far my favorite Valentine's Day ever was the one that took place during my final year at boarding school in England.  Early on in the morning, many of us had been filled with dread by the thought of not receiving any Valentine cards; a humiliation that would be very public since the teacher on duty would hand out the mail to students over breakfast in the school dining hall.  
 
But when the time came for the post to be handed out, I ended up being far from empty handed... since my four best friends at school (three of whom were female and one male) had sent me Valentine cards!  As it so happened, I had done the same for them -- and they had also done the same for one another.  That all this had not been collectively planned made it all the sweeter; with the icing on that day's cake coming from various other students having cast us looks of envy, not knowing -- or maybe even caring! -- that the Valentine cards we had received (and sent) had all been to people we loved for their friendship rather than something else altogether! :)       

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Yuppie Fantasia 3 delivers laughs and also life lessons (film review)

Do there look like there are any yuppies in the picture? ;)

The Yuppie Fantasia 3 (Hong Kong, 2017)
- Lawrence Cheng, director, co-scriptwriter (along with Silver Hau and Skipper Cheng), etc.
- Starring: Lawrence Cheng, Chrissie Chau, Larine Tang, Babyjohn Choi

One of the things I like to do every Chinese New Year is to check out at least one Chinese New Year movie, preferably a family-oriented comedy-drama like one of the All's Well, Ends Well series of offerings or a cameo-filled feel good blockbuster like one of the I Love Hong Kong films which I'd love to see more of.  And given a choice, I'd go for a more Hong Kong-oriented offering than a Mainland China-Hong Kong co-production, never mind an entirely Mainland China effort.  

So even though one of this year's Chinese New Year films was produced by Tsui Hark and directed Stephen Chow, I was less excited about checking out this movie with Mainland Chinese vibes -- and primarily Mainland Chinese cast -- than the less heralded and smaller budget, but definitely more local Hong Kong, The Yuppie Fantasia 3.  And this even though I actually hadn't been all that impressed by the original The Yuppie Fantasia which was first released back in 1989 and consequently never got to watching its all-but-in-name sequel, Brief Encounter in Shinjuku, even though I own a DVD of that 1990 work (which currently is back at my parents' home in Penang along with a large chunk of my home video collection)!     

As in the older films, Lawrence Cheng plays Leung Foon, whose love for his wife Ann (Carol "Do Do" Cheng) did not stop the couple from not seeing eye to eye, to the extent that Ann decided to go away one day with their then eight-year-old daughter and vanish from his life.  Now no longer a yuppie, really, Leung Foon's become the well-paid go-to-guy for a ruthless business magnate (Anthony Chan) who won't let dignity or morals get in the way of his getting an assigned job done.

On the surface, there's not much left of the old Leung Foon left in this more professionally successful version.  But through his relations with his secretary-lover (Chrissie Chau), old friends (with Manfred Wong and Peter Lai reprising their old The Yuppie Fantasia supporting roles) and the now 21-year-old daughter (Larine Tang) who unexpectedly appears at his doorstep one day carrying an urn with her late mother's ashes, Leung Foon shows himself to be the precisely the kind of man that important women in his life consider worth caring as well as a friend indeed after all these years.  

Considering how many roles he undertook for this production, it's actually pretty amazing that director-co-scriptwriter-lead actor Lawrence Cheng actually was so good at all of them.  Among his chief assets appears to be his being generous enough to ensure that his co-stars (including fresh-faced Babyjohn Choi, playing Leung Foon's daughter's love interest) have scenes in which they get to shine as well as being able enough to get the most out of his cast (including himself).    

One of the reasons why I was willing to give The Yuppie Fantasia 3 a try though was that the previous film before it that Lawrence Cheng directed and scripted was the surprisingly good Break Up 100, which showed that Chrissie Chau -- who was its lead actress and also teams up with this Hong Kong cinema veteran in this 2017 movie -- really does have other assets besides her big (by local standards) breasts!  And Lawrence Cheng does indeed get Chrissie Chau to showcase her talents once more in this offering which, like 2014's Golden Chickensss and 2015's 12 Golden Ducks, has its risque moments but nonetheless works as a Chinese New Year movie that can be (largely) enjoyed with the family!

Lest it not be clear: The Yuppie Fantasia 3 is primarily a comedy with several laugh-out loud moments even while also possessing dramatic themes and at least one scene that got my tears welling up.  It's also a tale of redemption, for a man who often had looked upon as a loser, and latterly despised by his business associates as a dirty rat.  Additionally, while the more cynical among its viewers may see it as a wish-fulfilmment fantasy, my own feeling is that an older, more experienced and wiser entertainment industry veteran at this production's helm is actually assuring us that, more often than we realize, we can change our life paths for the better, especially when we feel there are people in our lives worth doing it for. 

My rating for this film: 7.5

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Yet another Luk Wu Plateau hike with sighting surprises!

The Hong Kong wildflowers I most like spotting 
around this time of the year :)
 
Not the easiest plateau to get up to!
 
Small wonder then that this cow didn't make it completely 
up there, though it really did go up way further than 
I'd expect any member of its species to ;D
 
Around this time of the year, I look forward to catching sight of a bell-shaped pinkish white flower that only blooms in winter, and for a short time at that.  All in all, Chinese New Year no longer seems quite complete any more without my spotting some Chinese New Year flowers on a Chinese New Year (period) hike or two.  And their presence can even brighten up a disappointingly misty festive day's hike up one of Hong Kong's highest peaks!    

But although I did make a point to look out for them during the hikes post beach clean-up in Lantau on the first day of Chinese New Year, on the Keung Shan Country Trail (on the second day of this Chinese New Year) and last Sunday in Tai Tam Country Park (on the ninth day of this Chinese New Year), I didn't catch sight of a single one of these special seasonal flowers on any of those days -- or, for that matter, any of the first 15 days of this Chinese New Year of the Fire Rooster.  So imagine my surprise and joy to spot a number of trees bearing whole bunches of these particular wildflowers while hiking today, the 16th day into the new Chinese calendar year!

In retrospect, I guess the recent bout of cold(er) weather -- following the hottest January on record -- may have finally got these flowers to decide it was indeed time to reveal themselves.  Then there's the matter of my tramps along the relatively short -- at less than 5 kilometers in length, but so hilly that its estimated time of completion is 3 hours -- but still pretty satisfying Luk Wu Country Trail seeming to offer up at least one interesting sight each time I've been on it. 

For the record: the first time I went on this Sai Kung East Country Park trail that leads up to and then down the beautifully rugged Luk Wu Plateau, my hiking buddy that day and I caught sight of the dried up skin shed by a snake on the floor of a ruined as well as long abandoned village dwelling.  Then, on a return visit to the area with two other friends, a seasonal waterfall dramatically revealed itself, as did what remains the largest lizard I've spotted in the wild!    

This time around, not only did my hiking companion for today and I spot so many trees bearing Chinese New Year flowers, with each successive one seeming to have more than the previous one we came across on the trail, but we also unexpectedly came across a cow that looked to have been the only one of its herd to have decided to venture at least a couple of hundred meters above sea level.  Happily, its climb did not appear to have been in vain as it looked to have found a small shady, grassy space to peacefully lie on for a time; and not even the sudden appearance of humans excitedly clicking their cameras out of it seemed to bother it much at all. ;b