Thursday, March 23, 2017

Death notes and more at Art Basel -- Hong Kong 2017

A scene from this year's Art Basel -- Hong Kong! 

A Picasso and a Murakami in the frame
A still view of Mr.'s spirit-filled video work
Art imitating movie, and reflecting life?

"People don't look like they're having much fun." That was the verdict of an artist friend I met earlier today at the fifth edition of Art Basel -- Hong Kong, Asia's premier modern and contemporary art fair -- and probably its largest too.  

When viewed in the context of this event being big business for the 242 galleries from 34 territories taking part, there concurrently being many monied art collectors out there seeking to make good financial investments as well as "just" buy a piece of art because it happens to aesthetically speaks to them and a good number of the show's visitors being uniformed school students who were there for educational purposes, it makes sense that the atmosphere about the place was on the serious side.  In addition, I don't think it's solely my own bias that made it so that a large percentage of the works on display at the fair this year that I found to be of note were by dead people, had to do with death, or both!  

Among the famous and also now very dead artists with a number of works featured in this year's Art Basel -- Hong Kong were Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Francis Bacon (1909-1992), and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997).  Two other deceased individuals whose arts works I ended up standing for minutes in front of were Abbas Kiarostami (whose films I admire as much as his photographs) and Irene Chou (whose expressive ink paintings I'm somewhat embarassed to admit that I hadn't previously been familiar with).    

Then there's the fact of Chinese artist Shen Shaomin's Summit, the installation work which look to have caused the greatest stir at this year's Art Basel -- Hong Kong, consisting of life-size sculptures of four dead dictators lying in state in plexiglass coffins and the now dead -- but still alive, when the piece was completed (in 2015) -- Fidel Castro lying on a hospital bed near them!  

In addition, perhaps my single favorite booth at the fair was that of Japanese gallery Kaikai Kiki: which, somewhat surprisingly, more prominently featured works by the artist known as Mr. rather than parent company founder Takashi Murakami (who was well represented elsewhere in the show).  The initial impression was of bright colors, and kawaii and anime elements predominating the area.  But venture deeper into the booth and one will find a mesmerizing video work featuring unearthly music... and what look to be illustrations of spirits at home in a cemetery!     

The somber frame of mind that came from viewing these works and also such as Ben Quilty's pieces documenting the Syrian refugee crisis may also have caused me to see darker meanings in certain works.  In this light, Chow Chun Fai's The Midnight After, Our City Changed Irrevocably looks to be a lament for what Hong Kong's (already) lost.  And the yellow umbrellas seen dotting the landscape in Bulgarian-born Christo's The Umbrellas (Project for Japan and USA) got me wistfully recalling a now past time when yellow umbrellas abounded in peaceful protest areas here in the Big Lychee. 

Still, lest it be thought otherwise, here's stating for the record that I did enjoy the six hours or so that I spent at Art Basel -- Hong Kong today as well as get much intellectually from the experience.  Also, for the record, there were works by living artists (including the now 80-year-old Frank Stella and 52-year-old Anila Quayyum Agha) that caught my eye at the art fair.  And I hope that come next year, there'll be new works by them to enjoy along with what look to be increasingly strong representation of works by my old favorites! ;b

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lunching at Hong Kong's three Michelin star L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

A beautifully presented amuse-bouche 

A main course that looks like a work of art ;b

Mashed potatoes that look like butter, and 
butter that looks like pastry!

"Exceptional cuisine, worth a journey."  That's what the three stars awarded by the Michelin Guide are meant to denote of a restaurant.  And as of 2017, there are just six dining establishments in Hong Kong -- out of an estimated total of over 15,000 in the territory -- that have been deemed worthy of such praise by the inspectors for France's Michelin company that began producing guides for their home country in 1900 but only since 2009 for this part of the world.

Much referenced and cited, the Hong Kong Michelin guide also is fairly controversial; with some of its picks and exclusions being heatedly disputed in local foodie circles, and Michelin-starred chefs often involving themselves in these discussions too.  But while the common consensus over the years has been that the Michelin inspectors seem to not be the best of judges when it comes to restaurants dishing up Asian fare, it does seem to be generally agreed that they're pretty much right on the money with regards to their assessments of those dining establishments that serve Western food. 

Consequently, my expectations were high indeed when I went and had lunch last week at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, the only French restaurant in Hong Kong with three Michelin stars since 2014 -- and, for good measure, a place in the Asia's 50 Top Tables list.  In a nutshell: I was expecting deliciousness galore throughout (along with the kind of professional service that would add to the impeccability of the overall experience)! 

Although I was having it in a French restaurant in Hong Kong, my thoughts early on during the meal drifted to Germany as I dug into some of the most satisfying bread I've eaten outside of those I've enjoyed on my visits to Deutschland, and saw the green asparagus that was the center-piece of the enticing amuse bouche and ate the tender white asparagus (with foie gras rolls and iberico ham) that I chose as my appetizer since, thanks to a visit to the Rhenish town of Schwetzingen, I had learnt that that spring vegetable is a much looked-forward-to seasonal delicacy.  At the same time, I also was floating in the clouds a bit because the food really was tasting pretty heavenly.    

Unexpectedly, however, I got brought down to earth by a bouillon so overly peppery that my first spoonful of it actually caused me to have a coughing fit!  And while the chunks of foie gras and meat, the small whole white mushooms and slices of celery that were in the soup were delicious enough, I was shocked at how bitter the brussel sprouts -- a favorite vegetable of mine that even preparers of boarding school dinners previously hadn't been able to ruin for me! -- included in the mix were.

Fortunately, things did improve after the disappointing soup course.  If I were absolutely critical, I'd feel obliged to report that the saddle of lamb served for my main course was not as easy to cut as I would have liked.  On the other hand, I have zero complaints about the accompanying vegetables (which included flavorful green asparagus and baby potatoes along with the famous Robuchon creamy mashed potatoes).  Indeed, all the vegetables -- bar for the puzzlingly sub-par brussel sprouts -- served during the meal were so wonderfully prepared that I now understand why this restaurant feels comfortable to offer a vegetarian lunch option priced at over HK$1,000 (or over US$130)!

A dessert of ultra smooth chocolate, creamy ice cream and flavorful pear compote followed, with the meal drawing to a close after a generous selection of petit fours was laid out before us.  Free to linger, the friend I was with and I leisurely drank cups of tea (that were needed after the rich food we had had) while continuing to enjoy each other's company as well as the welcoming ambience of this fine dining establishment which, to judge from our observations that day, is a favorite place for people to have their birthday meals.   

Upon leaving the restaurant, we were moved to immediately assess our dining experience.  While L'Atalier de Joël Robuchon received the unequivocal approval of my friend, I have to admit to not being as thoroughly impressed.  In all honesty, I feel that I've eaten better meals -- including lunches -- in some other restaurants here in Hong Kong, including at fellow three Michelin star-rated Lung King Heen, and zero Michelin star The Chairman, Uehara and Godenya.  At the same time though, I can see why the Michelin guide inspectors would find this dining establishment to my liking; something I still can't quite understand with regards to the also three Michelin star-rated Bo Innovation!   

Monday, March 20, 2017

The lure and allure of the world's most kawaii supermarket!

Yes, Hong Kong is currently playing host to a
One of the cashier's desks at a supermarket where the sheer act
of grocery shopping will feel kawaii for some and hell for others!
Devoted fans of Hello Kitty would have known to expect
to see (Hello Kitty-fied) apples at this supermarket... ;b
It's taken more than a month but I finally bowed to the inevitable earlier today and paid a visit to the world's first Hello Kitty pop-up supermarket, which opened in Hong Kong on February 12th (and will stay Hello Kitty-fied through to the end of May), and which I received advance word about -- including from various well-meaning friends -- weeks before it opened its doors for business. 
As I made clear in a post on this very blog some years back, I'm not a fan of Hello Kitty edibles.  Hence my not having keen originally to visit a Hello Kitty-fied supermarket, much the way that I've not been attracted at all to go to the Hello Kitty-themed dim sum restaurant in Kowloon or the Hello Kitty Secret Garden cafe in Tai Hang (though it's true enough that I couldn't resist snapping some photos of its kawaii exterior when I passed by the latter a while back).
Truly though, the publicity for this Hello Kitty pop-up supermarket has felt pretty relentless; with advertising for it emblazoned not just on more than one tram but also buses and even mini-buses for weeks now.  And slowly but surely, the thought seeped into my mind that I could always just go and enjoy the sight of the supermarket's decor and more than 250 items on sale (including sushi and apples as well as candy, cookies and expectedly sweet stuff) that bear Kitty-chan's visage without making a purchase.
As it turned out though, I ended up not leaving empty-handed.  For, as I discovered during my visit, there are kawaii -- but also useful! -- Hello Kitty-themed kitchenware on sale there as well non-Hello Kitty-themed groceries, including the kind of edibles from Japan that I do like to consume.  And one of those items each are what I came away with from my first and still maybe last trip to the world's first -- but probably not last -- Hello Kitty pop-up supermarket! ;b

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Ballaké Sissoko's music and my African connections

The concert program for the Hong Kong 
Arts Festival's World Music Weekend
A little more than a month ago, I attended the opening concert of this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival one day before the 2017 edition of the fest officially got going if the listed dates are to be believed.  So it seemed appropriate enough that I'd attend one of the three concerts collectively billed as making up the World Music Weekend taking place today despite the final day of the annual mega performing arts feast officially having been yesterday!
Kora player Ballaké Sissoko is by no means the first Malian musician I've heard performing.  Some two decades ago now, a friend from Mali introduced me to the music of his country by playing me cassette tapes of performances by such talents as songstress Oumou Sangaré.  And, in fact, Sissoko's not even the first Malian musician I've seen and heard live; what with my having been there when Tuareg band Tinariwen wowed the audience at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2012!
While listening to Sissoko playing on his 21-string harp-like instrument (whose sounds I personally associate more with that made by the guitar), I couldn't help but get to thinking about my friend, his countryman.  The rippling sounds that flowed from Sissoko's kora also brought to mind the lyrical music I heard in Timbuktu, Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako's affecting portrayal of Mali under the rule of foreign jihadists whose list of haram activities included music-making, however innocent and beautiful -- and made me feel ever so glad that the West African country is once more largely rid of those overly-puritanical religious extremists.  
In addition, even though it's over on the other side of the African continent, one of Sissoko's sets got me thinking back to my time in Zanzibar all those years ago.  In particular, his music triggered memories of many an evening spent hanging out with friends on that Tanzanian island; not so much because it was like the music that got played on those occasions when we decided to just listen in silence rather than -- as we were more often to do -- lay back, gossip and laugh a lot but, actually, because it actually got me thinking of night-time in Africa itself.
Here's the thing: even when one lived in an urban area in that part of the world, one still would be able to see lots of stars twinkling in the black sky and have the air filled more with the sounds of people talking, sometimes singing, and going about mundane activities than hear such as vehicles moving around or other machines being operated.  And somehow, that African night scene was what Ballaké Sissoko's music conjured up in my mind -- to the extent that even when my eyes were physically wide open, it at times seemed like I was seeing something else other than the interior of the auditorium I was seated, and he was performing, in this afternoon!
All in all, it was quite the hypnotic experience; one which I'd love to hear if it was shared by others at this afternoon's concert.  This much I do know though: after the performance's conclusion, there was much clamoring by audience members for CDs of Sissoko's evocative music.  And, in light of my experience at the concert, it made sense to find that among those for sale was one with the title Musique de Nuit

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Musings on the value accorded street art in Hong Kong

What price having street art, not just colorful paint, 
on to the walls of buildings in Hong Kong?

Are they valued or not?

To judge by their treatment, sadly maybe not

The fourth Hong Kong Walls festival was launched earlier today in Wong Chuk Hang, a part of Hong Kong which is much easier for to get to for those who don't live in the area on account of the establishment of the MTR's South Island Line late last year.  After work is completed on all the murals, I plan to go check out the street art; like what I did with the Hong Kong Walls creations at Sham Shui Po last year.     

Even one year on, the street art still on display over in that particular area of west Kowloon is quite the treat to view as far as I'm concerned.  At the same time though, I get the feeling that they've never been able to capture the heart of local residents and foreign tourists in the way that many of those found in Penang's heritage enclave have done.

For one thing, I've never seen that many people on the hunt for them when I've been in Sham Shui Po (to do such as eat at a favorite noodle restaurant, shop at a street market or get an umbrella repaired).  For another, some of the street art really doesn't look to have been treated with much respect at all, with advertising and such having been stuck onto them as well as pretty mundane items being placed close enough to spoil the pictures. 

As an example: as of two weeks or so ago, the daruma mural by Japanese graffiti artist Suiko has had a handbill stuck on part of it and a drinks machine erected next to it.  And lest anyone think that these are specifically anti-Japanese actions, here's pointing out that I found that a similar fate had befallen a portrait of local entertainment legend Leslie Cheung I spotted in a nearby alley.

Thank goodness then for some of the Sham Shui Po street art to be way too high to be easily disfigured or defaced.  In particular, Spanish artist Okuda's 3D-looking "Rainbow Thief" -- which covers several floors of an old apartment building -- is still looking very good indeed.  Indeed, I'd venture to say that it's one of those creations that really has added color and class to a section of Hong Kong that's often maligned and under-valued in the collective imagination.  

Friday, March 17, 2017

Imaginatively named flora and eye-catching presentations galore at the 2017 Hong Kong Flower Show! (Photo-essay)

There are a number of annual events in the Hong Kong cultural calendar that I try not to miss.  Even before I moved to the Big Lychee, I already would make it a point to attend the Hong Kong International Film Festival (which is getting off to a later start than usual this year -- and for which I got tickets for 18 screenings just this morning!).  But other events that I've added to my "must check out" list over the years include the Hong Kong Arts Festival, the mega art fair now known as Art Basel -- Hong Kong, the lunar new year flower market, and the Hong Kong Flower Show.

With this year's edition having got going when I was away in Penang, I was glad to find it still going on upon my return -- and, in fact, runs through to this Sunday.  In fact, so eager was I to go check it out that I went over to Causeway Bay one afternoon despite it actually still being on the drizzly side -- and was rewarded with the rain stopping altogether less than hour an hour into what turned out to be a visit there of more than two hours (which I only put to a halt because I was getting hungry but didn't fancy paying over the odds for mediocre looking food within its grounds)! 

Did the person who created this floral arrangement
know something the rest of us didn't? ;O

Talk about being prepared... including to
be the object of attention while doing your job! ;b

Speaking of eye-catching: this Meteor Shower rose sure is :)

It may not be as visually attractive as others but
its Dragon's Tongue name sure is evocative!

The combination of the artificial and the natural
sometimes can make for a pretty picture :)

What's the Hong Kong Flower Show without 
some whimsical creatures?!

A great composition with a charming fake --
but non-floral -- puppy peeking out at people ;)

I must say though that the one mega floral arrangement that got me 
gasping in surprise, and almost disbelief, was this -- whose centerpiece 
was a mother and child figure around which white smoke billowed! ;O

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Penang site with a significant role in Chinese history and at least one Hong Kong movie

Sun Yat Sen looms large in the history of 
this Penang heritage building...

...for in addition to having been a local merchant's home, 
it also was the Chinese revolutionary's Penang base!

Last week, I returned to the site of my first encounter with a Chinese movie star.  Rather than it being here in Hong Kong, it actually was back in Penang; at a location which actually is far more well known for the part it played in Chinese history than in a Chinese film.

Built around 1880 as a merchant's home, the long row house at 120 Armenian Street served for a time as the home of the Penang Philomathic Union, a reading club which was a cover for the underground movement led by Dr Sun Yat Sen, the Chinese revolutionary who had a major hand in overthrowing the Qing dynasty and establishing the Republic of China (which continues to this day in Taiwan).  

In 1910, Dr Sun moved the Southeast Asian headquarters of his Tongmenghui party to Penang.  After setting up residence as well as his political homebase in this townhouse, he also went on to establish, publish and print copies of the Kwong Wah Yit Poh newspaper -- which remains in operation to this day and is the world's oldest Chinese newspaper -- at 120 Armenian Street.   

Now home to a Sun Yat Sen Museum, art imitated life when the historic building served as a location for Road to Dawn, a 2007 historical drama directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Derek Chiu and starring Taiwanese actor Winston Chao as Dr. Sun Yat Sen.  As it so happens, the house's owner cum custodian of the Sun Yat Sen Museum was (and is) a friend of mine.  And when she asked me if I'd like to go with her to meet Winston Chao at 120 Armenian Street, I of course jumped at the chance to do so!

Unbeknownst to my friend, years before I became a "born again" Hong Kong movie fan when living in Philadelphia, I had seen Winston Chao star in Ang Lee's entertaining The Wedding Banquet (1993) and also had seen him in Ang Lee's sublime Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994).  But I had to come associate him with Sun Yat Sen after seeing Chao playing the Chinese historical personality in Mabel Cheung's The Soong Sisters (1997) -- and, as it turned out, have subsequently seen the actor also portray Dr. Sun in another film (1911) as well as Road to Dawn.

After moving to Hong Kong, I viewed another Hong Kong movie about the 1911 uprising.  Directed by Derek Chiu, 72 Martyrs had its theatrical release during the 100 year anniversary of a key revolt which took place in Guangzhou but in which a number of Penangites and other overseas Chinese played significant parts.  

I must admit: it felt rather strange to watch a Hong Kong movie in Hong Kong with scenes set in Penang and featuring characters from there.  It had happened before (with such as Moonlight in Malaya).  But I think in the case of 72 Martyrs (and also, Road to Dawn, which I ended up watching in a Hong Kong cinema years after I had left Penang), there was more emotion involved because I was watching what actually were important events in Chinese history being shown having taken place in my home state!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Alcohol-free and vegetarian meals aplenty in Penang!

Puppet Ponyo presided over our table at 
It may not look it but the kacang botol (winged bean) salad
was the spiciest of the dishes on this table!
One of my favorite snacks/desserts when back in Penang :)
The evening after I returned to Hong Kong from my most recent trip back to Penang found me once more spending time with friends at Sake Bar Ginn.  As it so happened, the previous time that I had drank any alcohol prior to that occasion also happened to be at Sake Bar Ginn a few days before my eight day Penang trip.  Put another way: I didn't drink anything alcoholic while back in Penang this time; and despite there being a particular watering hole there that I do like, it really didn't take much effort to be alcohol free while there! 
As I explained to my fairly incredulous friends at the sake bar that I've come to think of as a cross between the eponymous establishments in TV series Cheers and the Midnight Diner movies for me: I prefer to drink during meals rather than outside of them but I also tend to steer clear of alcoholic beverages when eating spicy food -- and as it so happens, a lot of my favorite Penang foods are on the spicy side.  Consequently, my drinks of choice at meal times in Penang tend to be non-alcoholic concoctions like rose syrup with lime and ice or various fruit juices.     
Something else that I noticed this time around is that I really do tend to eat a lot more fruits and vegetables when I'm back in Penang; and this even when it's not durian season!  As it so happens, I had a few vegetarian meals on this recent trip, including a banana leaf rice lunch, an ethnic Chinese fried noodle dish known as "cheap mee" because it's traditionally one of the cheapest dishes on offer in Penang and has mee (egg noodles) as its main ingredient, and a large order of the distinctly Malaysian fruit salad-prawn paste combination known as rojak.  And in addition to the many glasses of fruit juice that I drank on this recent trip, I also once again enjoyed eating more than one portion of coconut jelly as well as the flesh of the fruit that serves as its container.
More than incidentally, I also love drinking coconut water but won't drink coconut milk and was horrified to discover while living in the West that people there actually drink the latter liquid and have it as ingredients of alcoholic cocktails such as piña coladas!  Something else that shocked me -- and would similarly shock my brother years later when he went to boarding school in England -- was that quite a few people we knew in England (and, in my case, the USA too) had no idea that coconut water existed, since the coconuts found in their parts of the world didn't have any clear liquids inside of them because they already were old and dry! 

So frustrated, in fact, was my brother when trying to convince his boarding schoolmates of the existence of coconut water that he told us more than once that he wished he could bring a young, clear liquid-filled coconut, with him back to England from Penang.  Adding to his vexation was his schoolmates also not believing that coconuts were anything but brown and hairy on the outside, and -- what with it being the days before the internet came along -- his having great difficulty finding pictures of green young coconuts to show them! ;b

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Meditations on cruise ships and their impact

The kind of cruise ship that's hard to miss!

The Ovation of the Seas dwarfs most other cruise ships I've seen 
to date, and much of its surroundings when docked at Penang's port!

As astounding a sight to me was that there were not one 
but three cruise ships in port in Penang that day :O

You know a cruise ship is big when it can get mistaken for an apartment building.  And while it's true enough that the error occured when it was viewed from a distance and partially obscured by existing structures, it's also the case that the vessel in question spotted docked at Penang's Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal last week happens to be the sixth largest cruise ship currently in existence!

With a maximum capacity of 4,905 passengers (and goodness know how many crew members), the Ovation of the Seas is, the kind of mega cruise ship I'd expect to see visiting Hong Kong -- the most visited city in the world -- but not so much Penang, where tourism is a big deal but still not that mega as far as overall numbers go.  So imagine my amazement when I saw that Royal Caribbean vessel in port in Penang that day and also two other cruise ships at the same time!

If truth be told, I hadn't realized that my home state had the port facilities to deal with such a mega cruise ship.  In addition, while I can see certain government officials -- particularly those who think big is better and that anything record-breaking would be a good thing -- would welcome cruise ships docking in droves in Penang, one only has to see the recent furor over the prospect of some 10,000 cruise ship passengers visiting Penang in a single day to realize that this is not something that all the locals are ecstatic about.

Back in the summer of 2015, my mother and I enjoyed cruising about the Norwegian coast on the Hurtigruten's MS Richard With.  But I truly believe that one big reason why we had such a great time in Norway was because that vessel was not a mega cruise ship (or, for that matter, a conventional cruise ship featuring all manner of bells and whistles in terms of facilities).  

Because the MS Richard With is not a super size ship, it could sail into fjords like the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Geirangerfjord and even narrower Trollfjord (where it was actually able to admirably execute an 180 degree turn) that larger vessels could not.  Consequently, the likes of my mother and I got to see far more amazing scenery than if we had been on a bigger cruise ship, like quite a few of those we saw in Norway and heaved a sigh of relief that we were not passengers on.  

Something else I noticed while in Norway was that certain smaller towns that the MS Richard With docked at would feel way too overwhelmed by a larger number of visitors suddenly descending upon them in more or less one fell swoop.  All in all, I could imagine locals getting stressed out, including those assigned to service the visitors, and the visitors also coming away feeling with a less than optimal touristic experience courtesy, among other things, of the town they were visiting ending up having more tourists than locals at the time of their visit!

Going even further back in time: decades ago when I was living in Zanzibar, a senior government official told me that while they were happy that cruise lines were putting this storied Indian Ocean isle on their itinerary, it was imperative that they made it so that passengers of cruise ships docking at its port would have time -- and consider it worth their time -- to venture further away from the port area than they thus far had been doing.  More specifically, he said that for it to be worth Zanzibar's while to host those cruise ships, the passengers needed to be visiting, dining out at and otherwise patronizing more local than foreign-run establishments.  Otherwise, Zanzibaris would only have the hassle that came with the increased traffic and such but not the benefits.

I often have thought about that wise Zanzibar official's words when contemplating many a regular Hong Konger's dislike of, and disdain for, the millions of visitors from Mainland China that pour into the Fragrant Harbour annually.  And I definitely hope that tourist arrivals in Penang can be handled more responsibly and intelligently than it observably has been in Hong Kong.  In the latter case, I think spacing out cruise ship visits would be a step in the right direction.  Otherwise, as we have seen too often, too much of a good thing can make it become unpopular, unwanted, despised and just outright bad. :S              

Monday, March 13, 2017

Unusual critter spottings in Penang Strait!

Not the kind of creature one expects to see 
swimming in the waters off George Town! :O
Ditto re this other exotic creature whose colors get me
thinking of the Penang flag (and Tanzania's too, actually)! 

Decades ago, when my family took the ferry from Penang Island over to the West Malaysian mainland (or vice versa), I'd go stand on the side while the ferry in motion and eagerly scan the waters for jellyfish and other interesting looking aquatic life as well as take in the panoramic views that unfolded before me.  On no occasion that I can remember, however, did I ever catch sight of the kind of creatures that I did while standing on the shore meters away from the George Town ferry pier on my most recent trip back to my home state.
While I've seen monitor lizards before (including in Bangkok's Lumpini Park and intruding into the garden of my family home in Penang!), I'd never seen them swimming in the waters of Penang Strait.  Even weirder was that the area where I spotted this large reptile which can easily be mistaken for a crocodile when it's in swimming mode is pretty built up and urban, with a mainly concretized waterfront just meters away from the Tanjung City Marina and Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal!
Then, as I was calming down after the shock of spotting that rather scary looking lizard in a part of Penang where I didn't expect to see any wild creatures casually roaming about, I actually spotted what to my mind was an even more unusual critter in the nearby waters: one whose species I even am unsure about.  For while my initial impression was that it was some colorful kind of squid, my aunt, who was with me at the time, is pretty adamant that it's actually particularly sharp nosed fish!
I realize that my photo of it is not the sharpest -- and it doesn't help that the waters of Penang Strait is not among the clearest out there.  But I'd be grateful to those readers who click on the image near the top of this blog post to get an enlarged view of the creature -- and truly grateful to whoever can actually positively ascertain what it in fact is!  So... any takers?  I do hope so! :b 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Penang changes!

Quite a bit of traffic on the First Penang Bridge
A much less busy scene over on the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah 
Bridge (which locals prefer to refer to as the Second Penang Bridge!)
Penang never changes -- or, at least, doesn't change much.  That's the sentiment I'd often heard voiced by visitors (especially those from Singapore) but also a fair few local Penangites over the years.  But to judge from the changes I noticed on my most recent visit back to my home state, I have to opine that that's no longer the case, if ever it really was so.  
For example, I remember being incredulous when an old family friend visiting from Singapore remark on how clean Penang's streets were back when both he and I visited my home state last July; this because, my impressions of them in the past was that they often were less pristine than I would have liked.  But while the waters off Penang Island still can leave a lot to be desired, I must admit to thinking on my most recent visit there (from which I just returned yesterday) that it really is true that Penang's streets actually do look pretty good these days, with no noticeable piles or even scraps of rubbish on them -- and, for good measure, quite a few buildings (including regular houses and heritage establishments as well as such as mosques, temples and churches) looking like they've been recently given new coats of paint.
Other positive developments I've noticed this time around include more public buses in service, better equiped bus stops (which now have bus schedules posted on them), and a welcome increase not only in the number of tourists to Penang but, also, more visitors who are happy to explore the street art-rich heritage zone of George Town on foot.  As for new structures: It may have opened to the public back on March 1st, 2014, but the Second Penang Bridge still looks pretty new as well as intimidatingly long (at 24 kilometers in length).  And although it's been some three years since it became operational, it was only on this March 2017 return to Penang that I went on it!

From the looks of it, the Second Penang Bridge has yet to win the affections of local folks.  For one thing, the toll for it costs more than for the First Penang Bridge.  For another, as the friend who drove me along it complained, it's actually quite boring to go along it because, unlike the older bridge connecting Penang Island to the West Malaysian mainland, its higher walls have helped ensure that sights are few and far between on the side!
For my part though, I'm actually in awe of people now having so many choices of route to take between Penang Island and the rest of West Malaysia since, for much of the time that I lived in Penang, there wasn't even a single bridge that connected Penang Island to the part of Penang state that was on the mainland and beyond!  Instead, if one didn't fly out of the airport at Bayan Lepas (on the southeastern side of Penang Island), one only had the option of taking the ferry over to Butterworth.     
In point of fact, construction work on the First Penang Bridge wasn't completed until after I had left Penang to go to boarding school in England.  So I actually haven't even been on that older bridge all that often, never mind this newer one.  But to judge from the amount of traffic along the former, it really is old hat for many folks.  And it actually is funny for me to realize -- and yes, it makes me feel pretty aged -- that for quite a number of Penangites, there never has been a time in their life when there never was a bridge connecting Penang Island to the rest of West Malaysia! ;b  

Friday, March 3, 2017

David Suzuki in Hong Kong

The view from just outside the lecture hall where he spoke :)
This afternoon, a friend and I went along with a number of others to hear an energetic 81-year-old man who had flown over from Canada speak passionately about our planet and our species.  David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and environmental activist.  Considered by his countrymen (and women) to be one of the greatest Canadians ever, he is an eloquent speaker who is unafraid to admit when he doesn't know the answer to a question and bold enough to show righteous anger against people he considers to not have the most helpful frame of mind.
Early on in his lecture, Dr Suzuki spoke about how the Earth is shaping up to warm up faster this century than it has ever done before, many species of animals and plants having gone extinct in recent years, of coral reefs dying, and of how, as water warms up, it expands, which means that so much land will be underwater before too long.  Still, rather than overly worry about the fate of the planet, he's actually quite confident that the Earth will be around for a long time to come.
Instead, it's the human race that he's concerned about.  More specifically, he reckons that, the way we are going, humanity may become extinct before this century draws to a close!  What's more, he hastened to point out, he's not alone in harboring such thoughts; with the similarly eminent likes of Britain's Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, estimating humanity's survival past the 21st century as just 50:50!       
To hear David Suzuki speak, it should be obvious to pretty much anyone with a functioning brain and sufficient education that what humans need are clean air, clean water, healthy food, and healthy soil (for plants that we eat, and also the animals we eat, to grow).  So why is it that humans seem so willing to pollute the air, water, soil and even food that's produced?  (More than by the way, doesn't it say a great deal that he was told by people to make sure to drink bottled water -- like that placed on his lectern -- when he's in Hong Kong?) 

One of the reasons stems from it being so that somewhere along the line, we've become programmed to prioritize the accumulation of wealth and status above everything, even our individual health, that of other people, and that of the planet as a whole.  We've also come to think of humans as being distinct from nature, as surely not an animal as well as not a plant. 
But the truth of the matter is that human existence is actually predicated on the health and wellbeing of the environment as well as other people.  And, as he's had to point out to people: the fact of the matter is that humans actually are animals too, with all that that implies. (More than incidentally: it really is true that one of the three core anthropology courses I took at my alma mater was entitled The Human Animal, after having been known in older, more sexist times as "Man, the Animal"!) 

Something Dr Suzuki also marked out as pretty ironic is how humans seem to not think too much about adversely impacting nature, yet seem to think that human creations, such as the dismal science whose English name comes from the Latin word for "household management", have immutable laws.  Maybe even more so than politicians, economists (and CEOs of such as oil companies) are the environmental activist's enemy.  If only, he lamented, he could get economists to emphasize the "eco" that's in economy as well as ecology!
Even some hours on, I'm not sure whether I should have come away from David Suzuki's lecture feeling heartened or depressed.  On the one hand, he totally acknowledges that getting most humans, particularly adults, to change their mindset into one that prioritizes the Earth rather than their own selves, companies and/or groups, is pretty difficult, sometimes seemingly well nigh impossible.  On the other hand, he also believes that the knowledge to save the planet and humanity is actually already out there, and completely implementable if the will to do so exists.      
If he were to be selfish, he could actually afford to not care since, in noting his age, the projected extinction of the human species will only occur decades after his death.  And, actually, the same applies for many of the people who were in the lecture hall this afternoon.  At the same time though, some of the secondary students in the audience could concievably expect to still be alive when the end of the 21st century comes along.  And I hope that it won't be too late to save humankind by the time they come of age, never mind the generation or two that will come after them.  

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Critter spotting on Hong Kong Island! (Photo-essay)

Prior to my having caught the hiking bug in Hong Kong, I didn't know what stink bugs looked like -- forget the kind of position that comes naturally to them when they engage in procreation!  -- or that creatures such as skinks and lantern bugs existed.  Heck, I didn't even know that the Big Lychee is home to so many kinds of snakes, some of which are at home in the water and quite a few of which are poisonous, as well as truly large spiders whose leg span may be wider than my face and frogs that make sounds so large that they can be mistaken for construction work noise!

Among the more amazing things about Hong Kong to me is how rich is this territory's biodiversity.  Close to 300 hikes on, I still feel that it's completely likely that I'll spot a bug or some other critter that I've never ever seen before on my next outing in one of Hong Kong's 24 country parks and/or 11 designated "special areas", or even green spaces outside of their boundaries such as the Bowen Road Path.  After all, here's a sample of the wildlife (some of which I still can't put a name to!) that I managed to see, and photograph, in the space of less than two weeks, and all without leaving Hong Kong Island:-

Yup, more procreating bugs! ;b

Did you know there's such a thing as crane flies,
and they (can) look like the critter in the above picture?

A stink bug with what looks like a dead caterpillar in its mouth ;S

A sea horse (logo) spotting! (Sorry, I couldn't resist including 
this view of part of Ocean Park from the carnivorous stink bug hike!)

Yes, there are squirrels in Hong Kong! ;b

As strange as it may sound, there are Hong Kongers who disregard
signs like this to feed wild boars, not just stray cats and wild monkeys! :O

Black kites in flight always strike me as a magnificent sight :)

Two for the price of one: a bird on a perch,
and the dragonfly that photobombed my shot! ;b