Wednesday, January 17, 2018

10 things I learnt about South Africa on my recent visit there

Cape Town's City Hall, from whose balcony Nelson Mandela addressed

A man tries selling hats and other pieces of clothing to 
the occupants of cars waiting for the traffic to get moving again
The closest I came to seeing big game in South Africa -- 
in the form of a sand sculpture on a beach strewn with kombu!

Ten South Africa trip observations (presented in no particular order):-

1) They weren't kidding when they described South Africa as the rainbow nation.  What I mean by this is that, in the few days that I was in that country, I saw and interacted with South Africans who can easily identified as Africans (i.e., "black"-skinned individuals) but also their fellow citizens with distinctly paler skin, whose ancestors hail from Europe, South Asia and Southeast Asia, and still others whose ancestors are a combination of the afore-mentioned peoples.

2) Some four years after he passed away, Nelson Mandela still looms large in South Africa.  It's not just that his portrait is on the country's Rand notes or even that there are buildings with his name or gigantic posters with his face on them.  It's not even that, despite not being a native of Cape Town, there are so many places in the area (like its City Hall or nearby Robben Island) where he is known to have left an imprint.  Rather, there is a distinct sense that, without Madiba, South Africa might not (still) be one country, never mind one that is no longer a pariah in the world.

3) Apartheid may have officially come to an end in 1991 but the country is still very much segregated, albeit officially via economic rather than "racial" lines.  In Cape Town and its surroundings, it appeared to be so that the well-off were largely "white" while the impoverished, including those who were visibly homeless and beggars, were predominantly "black".  And different areas of the city, be they historic neighborhoods, suburbs or "townships", remain identifiably "white" versus "colored" versus "black". 

4) Certain sections of Cape Town/South Africa feel much more "Western" than African.  It wasn't just that I saw and encountered a predominantly "white" crowd there but that the "feel" and "vibes" of the places was so very different from the parts of Africa I previously had been in (namely, Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia) and reminded me far more of those I've felt when in the USA or Australia, if not some place in Europe!

5) Statues and other monuments to figures associated with the colonial and Apartheid eras, such as Jan Smuts and Cecil Rhodes, still remain.  With regards to the latter: I must confess that up until recently, I had mainly associated him with the Rhodes Scholarships for post-graduate study at Oxford University whose recipients have included Americans and Malaysians as well as South Africans and Australians.  As for the latter: I actually knew him best for having worked for/with Winston Churchill for the Allies during World War II!

6) Artistically, these days, it seems that South Africans very much ally themselves with the rest of the continent -- or, at least, the Sub-Saharan section.  Both at the public South African National Gallery and the private Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Zeitz MOCAA), there was no segregation of art along national lines -- or, for that matter, "racial" ones -- and I found this approach both interesting and also refreshing.

7) When I was in the country, a report came out placing South Africa dead last in terms of true literacy out of the 50 territories surveyed.  It hammered home the fact that the well-educated and articulate individuals I spent my visit with are the exception to the rule rather than in the majority.  And it made me realize how isolated and different from their fellow citizens they often must feel as a result of this (rather than "just" because of their ethnicity or economic status alone).

8) South Africa is a really big country.  World maps don't really give a sense of how large it is as much as my learning that it's the ninth largest country of the second largest continent in the world, and actually the 25th largest country in the world.  And the sense of great distance is made all the more obvious there by it taking so long to travel from A to B there by car, never mind on foot as too many of its denizens have little choice but to go on since they're too poor to own a car and the public transportation there just isn't good or widely available enough for them to rely upon.

9) South Africa has lots of natural resources.  As a child, I had learnt in school about South Africa having gold and diamond mines galore.  On my visit to the country, I also saw how much food one can get from the sea (if you chose to eat it -- though it seems that such as oysters and abalone are more likely to be exported since there are more people who love to eat them living in far away lands than in South Africa itself) and tasted vegetables so sweet that I truly am shocked that the country's denizens don't seem to enjoy eating them!     

10) South Africa remains a country of so much promise and (potential) wealth.  Considering how spectacularly beautiful so much of it is, how fine its wines (and beers), etc., I'm surprised it's not as flooded by tourists as it currently is.  Also, I get the feeling that this is a country filled with people who would be able to do much if the fields in and on which they are being asked to compete were more level.  So here's hoping that they will be made to be so -- and not by things collectively going downhill but, rather, improvements being made more evenly and fairly all around.    

Monday, January 15, 2018

Penguins, guinea fowl and other birds spotted in South Africa! (Photo-essay)

"Did you go on safari?", an American friend asked me after he learnt that I had been in South Africa recently.  Since that's the Kiswahili word for "trip" or "journey", I technically had been -- but I knew what my friend actually was asking was whether I had gone on tour to see wild animals such as lions and elephants, so I answered in the negative.  

If anything, the closest I had been to visiting a place where wild animals are to be found was the local pond in Durbanville, a suburb of Cape Town where I spent a few days and nights since it's where my South African friend grew up and his mother still lives.  On my final morning in South Africa, we headed over to that idyllic space where a variety of birds make their home.  

At the same time though, there were three sites where I made wild creature spottings that I considered quite a bit more exciting: the waterfront by Kalky's, where I spotted a sea lion; the stretch of garden by my South African friends' maternal grandparents' house, where I spotted a flock of exotic looking guinea fowl; and, improbably, Robben Island, best known as a prison island but also home to penguins(!) and some 130 other species of birds!         

The kind of idyllic place many people would like 
to have in their neighborhood :)
A closer look at some of the ducks that have made
the pond their home

A bird whose long, thin legs I found particularly interesting
On the other hand, it was this bird's long neck
and thin body which intrigued! ;b
I've seen relatives of this heron over in various parts of 
Guinea fowl roaming about freely!
 Aren't the patterns on this bird's feathers pretty? 
Ultimately though, nothing can beat the sight of penguins
in the wild as far as I am concerned! :)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Stunning views from Siu Ma Shan on a super high visibility winter day

Not your usual view of Victoria Harbour :)

 Click on the above image to get a seriously impressive 
view of Hong Kong! :b 

This past Monday, it was gloomy and gray, with patches of rain coming down over the course of the day and the temperatures dropping dramatically down below the 10 degree Celsius mark after night fell.  Not only was going hiking out of the question but it felt like quite an effort to leave my apartment and head out for a dinner I had committed to going to weeks ago over in Prince Edward.   
Happily though, after a few depressingly cold and rainy days, the weather has perked up considerably.  And on Thursday morning, I enjoyed the kind of glorious view of the northern section of Hong Kong Island from across Victoria Harbour over in Tsim Sha Tsui that gets you realizing how absolutely beautiful Hong Kong is on a high visibility day.

Yesterday morning, I was back in the same area and enjoying that view that takes in that famous forest of skyscrapers but also green hills and mountains rising behind and above them.  A visitor from the USA standing next to them, visibly stunned, turned to tell me that he considered Hong Kong to have the two best harbor views in the world along with Sydney.  I, in turn, was moved to tell him that before I moved to the Big Lychee, whenever I visited Hong Kong, I'd make it a point to go over to the edge of Victoria Harbour over at Tsim Sha Tsui to drink in the views there at least once on each of my trips here.

But what I didn't have the heart to tell him is that Hong Kong, including Victoria Harbour and the land to its north and south, is so much more beautiful when viewed from the hills rather than closer to sea level.  On a related note: while the views from the northern section of Victoria Peak's circular path can be pretty stunning, I actually prefer the views to be had from less well known hilltops, including those of High West and Siu Ma Shan.  And the top of Siu Ma Shan (and that of nearby Mount Butler) was where I decided to take a Japanese friend on his first Hong Kong hike earlier today!

When I checked the visibility levels on the Hong Kong Observatory website this morning, the readings for Sai Wan Ho was 40 kilometers, so I figured we'd be getting pretty clear views on our hike.  Even so, I was unprepared for how much we had lucked out today -- in that today may well have been the very first time that I could see Lantau Island and also the mountain ranges by the Plover Cove Reservoir way up in the northeastern New Territories from up on Siu Ma Shan! 

Adding to how amazing and unusual this all was is that we're currently in the middle of winter, where the temperatures often can be ideal for hiking but the visibility levels less so.  All in all, today was close to being the perfect hiking day for me, with: temperatures that were cool enough so I didn't sweat like crazy yet warm enough so that I was fine wearing just two layers of clothing on my body along with a pair of long trousers to protect the bottom half of me; the kind of bright blue skies and high visibility I no longer take for granted; and the kind of hike company who could appreciate how beautiful Hong Kong can be like I do even after all these years. :)  

Friday, January 12, 2018

Two signs in South Africa that had me doing a double take! ;)

I bet this South African musician refuses to answer 
to ever be called by his personal name's diminutive ;b

Two surnames few would ever have imagined seeing
placed next to each other not so long ago!
When I was a secondary student in Penang, Malaysia, I had a math teacher who went by the title and name of Mr. Kok.  As luck would have it, after I moved on to boarding school in England, I had a P.E. teacher listed on the faculty roll as "Miss A. Chicken".  Cue major hilarity when I told my boarding schoolmates about Mr. Kok and our thinking how absolutely funny it would have been if Miss Chicken had met and then married Mr. Kok!
Looking back, it's pretty amazing that my schoolmates both in Malaysia and England and I never associated the name Kok with anything dirty but, instead, fixated on it sounding a lot like a domestic male bird.  In contrast, when I first heard about a South African musician by the name of Richard Cock, I have to admit to thinking immediately of the dirty word that also is the dimunitive form of his first name and which his surname also can be used to mean!  
And, actually, my very first reaction was to reckon that the friend who told me about there being a man by that name was pulling my leg -- only for me to get concrete proof of Mr. Cock's existence by way of our a sign posted up by the road that we were driving along announcing a concert in which he would feature while in Stellenbosch.   
Another sign I spotted in South Africa that had me doing a double take, albeit for very different reasons, was that which adorns the Mandela Rhodes Building.  Think about it: Nelson Mandela and Cecil Rhodes not only lived in different eras but represent such different political philosophies and ideals, with one being a commited imperialist and the other being pretty much the opposite!
At the same time though, they both were South Africans.  And it's pretty interesting to discover that the Mandela Rhodes Building -- which was built in 1902 -- was known as Rhodes House up until 2002, when it was gifted by its owners (De Beers) to the Mandela Rhodes Foundation which has its offices in this historical building.  
Co-established by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Rhodes Trust, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation awards scholarships to African students for post-graduate studies in universities in South Africa.  So, rather than it being a joke, the intertwining of the name Mandela and Rhodes in this existence actually turns out to stand for something very cool indeed! :)            

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

My efforts to get dietary diversity in South Africa, where meat is king!

Probably the most balanced single dish I ate in South Africa!
Strange as it may seem to (most) South Africans,
I actually generally prefer salads to burgers!!
Stranger still to them is the notion that this seaweed is 
actually edible, and can be deliciously so at that! ;D
Years ago when I was living in Tanzania, I attended a talk at the National Museum of Dar es Salaam given by a marine biologist friend, during which he told the audience that there was "free protein" on the area beaches, only to see them react with absolute horror upon their realizing that he was suggesting that people pick and eat the cockles found in the sand.  And further shocks ensued when the speaker pointed out that I had eaten cockles and I not only backed his claim but also told the people present that I enjoyed eating boiled cockles dipped in chili sauce.
Fast forward to my recent South African sojourn and my suggesting on more than one occasion to various local folks that the seaweed that was floating about in the ocean and washing ashore onto their beaches was not only edible but, actually, pretty delicious.  As with the Tanzanians and their reaction to the idea of cockles being an enjoyable delicacy, the South Africans I told about kombu were pretty skeptical about its being edible.  What's more, as my South African friend had warned me in advance, his countrymen and -women aren't big fans of seafood.  Hence my ending up having only one seafood meal in my more than one week there; and this despite the likes of oysters, abalone and yellowtail being found in the waters of South Africa!  
Similarly, despite the locally grown vegetables I tasted there being of generally high quality (with the onions and carrots being sweeter than those from pretty much every country I know bar for Japan), many a South African just don't eat as many vegetables as you'd think they would (and should)!  Instead, the culinary focus is very much on meat, particularly beef -- though I also did have the opportunity to try springbok meat at lunch one day and lamb chops were on offer along with (beef) steaks and boerewors at a couple of braai!
Although I do like eating meat,  I also do like eating vegetables a lot -- and make a point to consume at least four different types of vegetables and/or fruits daily as I think it helps make my diet more balanced.  Normally, this hasn't been much of a problem.  But it actually was turning out to be so in South Africa, particularly since for dietary purposes, I consider potatoes as carbs rather than vegetables of the kind that I think I should make sure I eat daily.  
So desperate was I to make sure that I had sufficient vegetable intake (and worried that I wasn't having a balanced diet) while there that I started ordering vegetarian dishes as mains at various meals near the end of my South Africa trip!  Thus it was that I found myself ordering a large garden salad while every other member of my party ordered burgers and chips at lunch one day, ordering a dish consisting of flatbread topped with cheese, tomatoes, onions and coriander on another occasion while my South African friend opted once more for a burger and chips, and -- well, I trust you get the picture.  

The heights of hilarious ludicruousness was reached one evening when I made a point to get a large onion to be grilled at a braai along with a large and diverse amount of meats.  Apparently, this was the first time the assembled South Africans -- all of them fully mature adults -- had ever witnessed something that was not meat being grilled at a braai!  While I expected to consume the entire grilled onion by myself, curiosity got the better of a few of the South Africans.  Even more unexpected was their actually liking the taste -- so much so that a couple of them have now taken to including onions among their braai essentials and even sent me photographic proof of this being so some days after my return to Hong Kong! :D

Monday, January 8, 2018

African art at the South African National Gallery and beyond (Photo-essay)

Amidst all the hype about Cape Town's still pretty new -- seeing as it only officially opened its doors to the public on September 22nd, 2017 -- Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (sometimes seemingly much more about the building in which it's housed more than anything else), it's worth remembering that there's lots of art to be found elsewhere within South Africa's "Mother City" and its surroundings.  

Chief among them for me is the South African National Gallery located in the same row of government buildings as De Tuynhuys (which is the office of the South African President) and the country's Houses of Parliament, and whose admission charges I reckon to be a major bargain (especially in comparison to those for Zeitz MOCAA and also when considering the quality of the artwork on show there).  But I also came across cool art works in seemingly unlikely places including in the main buildings of wine estates that I was brought to and also the Pan African Market whose three floors were filled to the brim with all manner of contemporary paintings along with traditional artefacts and handicrafts...

A statue of South African statesman Jan Smuts stands
in front of the South African National Gallery building
Ndebele art has pride of place in one of the museum's galleries
As at Zeitz MOCAA, the art on display at the South African 
National Gallery comes from all over the African continent
When exhibited in an anthropology museum, one will focus
on these objects' cultural import but when you see them in
an art gallery, your focus is on appreciating their beauty
Of course, this is not to say that art (such as this political 
cartoon by Derek Bauer that's part of an ongoing exhibition 
at the South African National Gallery) can't also communicate
And wow, is this art installation involving pass books and fire
at the Delaire Graff (wine) Estate ever so powerfully evocative!
Returning to the South African National Gallery:
I love this Mdolly's name/title as well as the object itself
On the subject of dollies: meet Ndbele Dolly, who I saw at 
the Pan African Museum and decided to take home! ;b

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A by-the-numbers-look at my 2017 movie viewing year

On the way to one of the many HKIFF (Hong Kong
International Film Festival) screenings I attended last year

Poster for one of the many excellent films from neither 
Hong Kong nor Hollywood that I viewed in 2017
Some of my best film memories of 2017 involve repeat viewings of movies I had previously been introduced to in years past.  Among these are the viewings of Akira Kurosawa's magnificent Seven Samurai (which I had first viewed at college in Wisconsin) and a restored version of Ann Hui's The Secret (which I had first viewed on a video cassette tape in the last years of the 20th century) on a wonderfully large screen in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's Grand Theatre, and a re-watch of Yasujiro Ozu's enchanting Late Autumn (which I had first viewed at the 2014 Hong Kong International Film Festival) in the company of four friends, three of them Japanese and one from South Africa.

Still, this is not to say that I didn't check out any noteworthy and notable films for the first time in 2017; and this despite my film viewing numbers having dropped considerably this past year from previous years (including 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006) for a number of reasons, including my having spent more time travelling outside Hong Kong than has been the case for a number of years, and 2017 possibly being the worst year in living memory for Hong Kong cinema in terms of the quality, if not quantity, of its movies produced.  I really do hope that things will improve for Hong Kong cinema in 2018.  As it is, I've not watched a Hong Kong movie since late November (and, for the record, viewed nine films from elsewhere in that time)!
1 -- The number of movies I viewed for the first time on home video last year!
2 -- The total number of Malaysian films I viewed in 2017 (with Ola Bola turning out to be my favorite Malaysian movie viewed in years and Mrs K proving to be pretty watchable too!)
5 -- The number of documentary features I viewed last year 
6 -- The number of animated films I viewed last year (including Loving Vincent (UK-Poland, 2017), the world's first fully painted feature film)

6 too -- The number of films (at least partly) set during World War II that I viewed in 2017 
8 -- The number of movies I viewed on board a plane last year (with the unusually high number being due to my having spent more hours on board planes in 2017 than I have had in years)
11 -- The number of black and white movies I viewed for the first time last year 
13 -- The number of films from Japan I viewed in 2017
19 -- The number of films I viewed at the 2017 Hong Kong International Film Festival
19 too! -- The number of films I viewed for the first time in 2017 that I'd rate as an 8.5 or above on the scale (with these being 29+1 (Hong Kong, 2017), A Man Escaped (France, 1956), A Night at the Opera (USA, 1935), A Poor Lover's Tears (Hong Kong, 1948), A Taxi Driver (South Korea, 2017), Black Code (Canada, 2016), Darling, Stay at Home (Hong Kong, 1968), Hidden Figures (USA, 2016), High and Low (Japan, 1963), Lion (Australia-UK-USA-India, 2016), Ma' Rosa (The Philippines, 2016), Moonlight (USA, 2016), On Body and Soul (Hungary, 2017), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (USA, 2017), Strangers on a Train (USA, 1951), The Big Sick (USA, 2017), The Hidden Fortress (Japan, 1958), The Rickshaw Man (Japan, 1958), Vampire Cleanup Department (Hong Kong, 2017)

20 -- The number of movies from the USA I viewed last year 
20 as well -- The number of bio-pics or non-documentary films based on real-life individuals and/or events that I viewed last year

21 -- The number of Hong Kong movies I viewed for the first time in 2017   

24 -- The number of different territories whose films I viewed in 2017 (i.e., Belgium, Canada, Chad, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Iran, Japan, Macau, Mainland China, Morocco, The Netherlands, The Philippines, Poland, Senegal, South Korea, Spain, Qatar, Taiwan, UK, USA, and the USSR)
27 -- The number of 2017 cinematic releases that I viewed in 2017
39 -- The number of films first released in their native territory or at a film festival in 2016 that I first viwed in 2017 
50 -- The number of non-Hong Kong movies I viewed for the first time in 2017    
71 -- The total number of films that I viewed for the first time last year
1925 -- The original year of release of Sergei Eisenstein's October, the oldest non-Hong Kong movie I viewed last year

1948 -- The original year of release of A Poor Lover's Tears, the oldest Hong Kong movie I viewed last year