Sunday, December 31, 2006

A by-the-numbers look at my 2006 movie viewing year

A scene from Moon Over Malaya
-- the oldest Hong Kong movie I viewed in 2006

The woman who remains my favorite actress
-- despite her not having appeared in a movie
for some 12 years now

0 -- The number of "new" (i.e., never previously viewed) Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia movies which I viewed in 2006. :(

1 -- The total number of movies I viewed this year that were from India (Where is Home? (release date not known)), Poland (My Nikifor (2004)), Russia (Night Watch (2005)), South Africa (Forgiveness (2004)), and Thailand (Invisible Waves (2006)).

2 -- The total number of movies produced by Celestial Pictures which I viewed this year. (And should anyone wonder, they were the less heralded Stowaway (2001) along with the much more heralded Perhaps Love (2005).)

2 -- The number of movies with Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia in the cast which I managed to view on the big screen in 2006. (For the record, both Police Story (1985) and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) screened at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.)

7 -- The total number of Malaysian movies (feature-length and short films) which I viewed this year.

8 -- The number of Hong Kong movies viewed in 2006 which were sequels or spawned sequels. (Some examples: Visible Secret 2, Long Arm of the Law III and The Eye 10.)

11 -- The number of Hong Kong movies that I first viewed in 2006 which I'd give at least an 8.5 out of 10 (i.e., more than very good!) rating to. And for the record, they are (in viewed order -- and with the year of release in parentheses): Moonlight in Tokyo (2005); Project A (1984); Fearless (2006), McDull: The Alumni (2006); Let's Be Happy (1959); Nomad (1982); The 14 Amazons (1972); Election 2 (2006); My Name is Fame (2006); Exiled (2006); and Bullet in the Head (1990).

16 -- The number of different territories whose films I viewed this year.

18 -- The total number of Japanese movies I viewed in 2006.

18 -- The number of movies from somewhere other than Hong Kong that I first viewed in 2006 that I'd give at least an 8.5 out of 10 rating to. They are (in viewed order -- and with the country (or countries) and year of release in parentheses): Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Japan, 2003); Saving Face (U.S.A., 2004); Brokeback Mountain (U.S.A., 2005); V for Vendetta (U.S.A.-U.K., 2006); The School of Rock (U.S.A., 2003); Princess Raccoon (Japan, 2005); Hostel (U.S.A., 2005); Welcome to Dongmakgol (South Korea, 2005); Forgiveness (South Africa, 2004); Joyeux Noel (France, 2005); Nana (Japan, 2005); Kamikaze Girls (Japan, 2004); The Road to Guantanamo (U.K., 2006); Always -- Sunset on Third Street (Japan, 2005); Rain Dogs (Malaysia, 2006); Still Life (Mainland China, 2006); The Host (South Korea, 2006); and Ugetsu (Japan, 1953). (And yeah, they are a rather eclectic bunch! ;b)

24 -- The total number of movies from the U.S.A. which I viewed in 2006.

27 -- The total number of 2006 Hong Kong films I viewed this year.

52 -- The number of movies (mainly feature-length offerings but also including a few short films) viewed on the big screen -- or, at least, DVD projection (as opposed to a TV screen) -- this year. (N.B. This number doesn't contain re-watches!)

64 -- The number of movies which have Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia in their cast that I've viewed to date. (And should you wonder, she's credited in Akiko Tetsuya's authoritative The Last Star of the East: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia and Her Films as having appeared in 101 films altogether.)

88 -- the number of films I viewed this year which have at least one main female character; with some of the more obvious -- I mean, just read their titles! -- being The Ambitious Kung Fu Girl (Hong Kong, 1981), Calendar Girls (U.K., 2003), The Female Prince (Hong Kong, 1963), Kamikaze Girls (Japan, 2004), My Mother is a Belly Dancer (Hong Kong, 2006) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (South Korea, 2005). ;)

102 -- The total number of Hong Kong movies I viewed this year.

107 -- The total number of Shaw Brothers productions which I've viewed since their re-release by Celestial Pictures.

174 -- The total number of feature-length films I viewed for the first time in 2006. (A number which, incidentally, I know is down from last year.)

1950 -- The original release date of Liu Hulan, a propaganda-type movie from Mainland China about a real-life Communist martyr killed by members of the Kuomintang when she was but 15 years of age which happens to be the oldest movie I viewed this year.

1957 -- The original release date of Moon Over Malaya, the Kong Ngee production starring Patrick Tse Yin, Nam Hung and Patsy Kar Ling which is the oldest Hong Kong movie I viewed in 2006.

n.k. (not known) -- The number of films which I re-watched in 2006 (but I'm thinking that the total's pretty high; and, yeah, you can bet that a lot of them star Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia...!). ;)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

10 highlights of my 2006

From the heavenly
(The front of the catalogue of the museum exhibition
which makes my 2006 highlights list)... earthly delights
(Expect to have to wait for a bit before getting into
the eatery where I had my best breakfast of 2006)

Before anything else: yes, the following is my attempt at a "Best of 2006" list. And yes, I'd imagine that it's probably more eclectic than most. (In other words: Like this blog in general, it doesn't stick to a single subject). And should you wonder: no, I really didn't outright plan for it to be this way. But as I got to thinking -- and trying to remember what I can -- about this year that soon will draw to a close, especially its good bits, I found my mind tending to want to roam all over the place and calling up this particular collection of diverse fond memories that I figure would be worth noting down:-

1) Best book:
Former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (Penguin Books, 2006). More than just "food porn" (though there's most certainly plenty of that to be had within its pages!), this tome that got me wishing I could be as good a writer as its author also contains thought-provoking reflections on such as how, in putting on various physical disguises, she not only outwardly changed personalities but caused different inner-selves to emerge. Still, there's no hiding that there's plenty of descriptions of epicurean feasts in there which got me salivating and, worse, my stomach growling!

2) Best breakfast (heck, meal, period!):
The 3,800 Yen (~US$32 or RM113) omakase (trans., "entrusts" ; but in culinary terms, think of it as"chef's choice" -- i.e., the customer leaves it up to the chef to pick the selection he considers to be the best) sushi breakfast I had at Sushi Dai, widely touted as the best sushi-ya (trans., specialist sushi eatery) in Tokyo's famous Tsukiji Fish Market, was worth every single Yen that it cost. A tip for those who plan to follow in my footsteps: Make sure you get there as early as you can; and not necessarily to beat the crowds but, rather, in order to get the really fresh seafood that makes up such a major plus integral part of the sushi meal! :b

3) Best Fear Factor-type experience:
The canopy walk at Taman Negara, Malaysia's oldest national park, has one walking 25 to 40 meters above ground (i.e., at tree-top level) for 450 meters along a series of rope-and-plank bridges that sway from right to left and back again with every step that you take! Although it may seem like so to those with a fear of heights, I personally found the experience to be way more fun and less frightening than one might think that it would be!! :)

4) Best film:
Whoooh. You know this one was difficult to name (since I did watch quite a number of movies this year)! So I'm going to cheat a little and divide this category into Hong Kong and non-Hong Kong sections. Anyways, for my choice of Hong Kong movie, I'm going to go all the way back to 1972 for The 14 Amazons while the film that gets my vote as the best non-Hong Kong movie I viewed this year is Always -- Sunset on Third Street (Japan, 2005).

5) Best film festival:
Granted that the 2006 Hong Kong International Film Festival was the one film festival I attended this year which -- unlike the so-called film festivals which are held over here in Malaysia -- really was true to its name. However, when its non-film viewing highlights alone included such as a Mobius Home Video Forum Asian Cinema Discussion Board get-together at a local microbrew pub, my getting to mingle with luminaries like Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai, Shu Kei and David Bordwell at a book launch and one's finding oneself seated in the same row and just a few seats away from Michelle Yeoh at the screening of influential filmmaker Patrick Tam's Nomad... (N.B. For those who missed it: I've already written about my 2006 HKIFF viewing experiences over at Hong Kong Cinema: View from the Brooklyn Bridge.)

6) Best museum:
The Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan. An absolute "must go and see" for fans of the works of -- and people behind -- Studio Ghibli but also anyone who would like to see and experience an example par excellence of a well-designed and -constructed, child-friendly and fun but also educational plus enlightening museological institution.

7) Best museum exhibition:
The multi-room as well as -piece Yokoyama Taikan exhibition which ran from 30th July to 3rd September at the Fukuoka Art Museum. No matter that the exhibition notes and audio commentary services were only available in Japanese. Just one look at the absolutely stunning masterpieces on display and even someone with as little knowledge of Japanese art as myself knew that I had fortuitously stumbled onto a comprehensive retrospective of the works of one of Japanese art's grand masters.

8) Best sporting experience:
Real Madrid 0, Arsenal 1. Yes, sad but true: the best sporting experience of 2006 for me was not one which saw me out on a playing field but, rather, watching other people in sporting action; and not even live in the flesh but only "live" on television. Still, such is the power of sports -- as well as television -- that watching Arsenal beat Real Madrid in an UEFA Champions League match at the Spanish club's magnificent Bernabeu Stadium home by way of an inspired Thierry Henry goal made for an experience that filled me with great joy at the close but also had me almost expiring from tension at times during the game itself!

9) Best "the world is my oyster" day:
AKA the day back in April during which a travel companion and I made extensive use of Hong Kong's multitude of fantastic public transportation options. More specifically, our itinerary that day had us starting out by taking a train from the Jordan MTR station to the last stop on the Tsuen Wan line, then a minibus from near the Tsuen Wan MTR station to the Yuen Yuen Institute and another back into town a couple of hours later, and a third across to Kennedy Town over on Hong Kong Island, then a tram to Central, followed by a train from the Central MTR station back to Jordan. As such, over the course of a single day, not only had we set foot on Hong Kong Island as well as in Kowloon and the New Territories but we also been on two trains which, taken together, had stopped at every single station along the MTR's Tsuen Wan line!

10) Best walking tour:
I must admit to having been tempted to immodestly name one of the tours around George Town's "inner city" which I've taken people -- including fellow Penangites as well as visitors from Australia and elsewhere -- on as the winner of this category! (Note to my readers: Feel free to let me should you ever head over to Penang and seek to engage a guide for either a food or heritage tour... ;) )

However, I've decided to go ahead and give some much deserved credit to the affable Mr. Joao Novikoff Sales of the extremely welcoming Macau Government Tourist Office who took me on a walking tour of the historic center of Macau, an area that's deservedly on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee's highly prestigious World Heritage List. (And more than by the way, I'm not doing this just because Joao turned out to be a fellow Gooner either! ;b)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Golden Gweilo

(A book which is alternatively entitled Golden Boy:
A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood in the U.S.A.)

'Your son's more Chinese than a coolie. He'll have a bloody pole and a rattan hat next. Is this what you want?'

'Yes!' my mother replied emphatically. 'It is just what I want. I want a child who knows the world, knows the value of people whatever their race or rank and can appreciate what he sees.' She picked up her evening bag: it was black with silver beads sewn on to it. 'What I don't want is a boring, narrow-minded bigot with a drink problem [like you/my husband].'

As the late Martin Booth (who started writing this book after he had been, to use his words, "diagnosed with the nastiest type of brain tumour around" and died in February 2004, shortly after completing the manuscript) was to show full well in, and through, that which the New York Times' has described as "a grand adventure, seen through a boy's eyes but remembered by a novelist with a sensualist's appreciation of sights", his beloved mother managed to get her wish in spades.

Initially, I had feared that it would not be thus; and this not least when the Englishman wrote that the first Chinese individual who he met after landing in Hong Kong on 2nd June, 1952, was called Ah Choo; a state of affairs which -- not too surprisingly -- prompted the then not yet eight-year-old future writer to collapse "into paroxysms of laughter" -- and this even before "this diminuitive alien stranger called Sneeze" spoke in the kind of fractured English that turned the announcement that "Your bath is ready" into "You bafu w'eddy".

Alternatively put: I wouldn't have been all that surprised if the author of a book entitled Gweilo -- a Cantonese slang term which Mr. Booth knew, and proceeded to point out in his tome, "translates literally into as ghost (or pale) fellow" -- had gone on to, like so many other Westerners before him, paint a portrait of Chinese people that was on the disparaging and/or exoticizing (or, to use a particular term for this with regards to East Asians, Orientalizing (or Orientalist)) side.

And this especially since there seemed ample grist for that mill if he had indeed sought to go along that particular path. For young Martin Booth was in Hong Kong at a time when: there weren't only still rickshaw pullers on the streets but ones, at that, who were invariably addicted to opium; the Kowloon Walled City was still extant, inhabited, and apparently ruled by Triads; squatter settlements full of refugees from China and other unfortunate folk abounded; and, as is recounted in Gweilo (and I myself was warned about prior to my first trip to the then British crown colony), seemingly every Hong Konger had few qualms about "throwing their garbage out of the window into the street. Without looking first. From some way up"!

Rather than disparage the foreign, however, the golden-haired boy that was Martin Booth almost invariably chose to, to borrow a phrase from the TIME magazine review of this actually very charming work, "delight in the new." In doing so, he was applying a sage piece of advice to food given to him on his first day in Hong Kong in a more general manner than the adult individual who had tendered that piece probably ever could imagine the then young child would. In any event, that passage in the book seems worth quoting; so here it is:-

'So long as you are in Hong Kong, whenever someone offers you something to eat, accept it. That's being polite. If you don't find it to your fancy, don't have any more. But...always try it. No matter what. Besides...Hong Kong is the best place in the world to eat'!

As far as food was concerned, this led young Master Booth -- or, as the increasingly fluent Cantonese speaker would often introduce himself to other Cantonese speakers, "Mah Tin" (trans., horse, electric => "electric horse" in Cantonese!) -- to not only discover the wonders that are Coca Cola, prawns and salad cream in Hong Kong but, also, the grapefruit-like fruit known as pomelo and sticks of sugarcane plus more distinctively Chinese delights like 100 (or as they're sometimes called -- 1,000) year old eggs, Chinese tea and other culinary offerings that were to be had at neighborhood dai pai dong (street-side cooked-food stalls).

And as far non-culinary experiences go: Well, let's just say that they -- which take in a few years spent living in various sections of Kowloon as well as up on The Peak -- are colorful and interesting enough to have thoroughly merited a book; and one, at that, which deserves to be read -- and thoroughly enjoyed -- by far more than just the author's children.

Moreover, it seems to me that -- and if this strikes readers as rather Asian, so be it! -- reading this enthralling work will honor the memory as well as memories of a man who's very much worth honoring. And, also, honor the memory of Hong Kong itself along with Martin Booth's mother, an English woman named Joyce who realized even back in the early 1950s that:

We [-- that is, the British --] do not own Hong Kong. It's a crown colony. We merely administer it. A hundred and something years ago, we stole this land from the Chinese.

Yet, at the same time, loved Hong Kong as Martin Booth did. And in the latter's case, enough so that he could state in his final book -- and those who read it can whole-heartedly believe -- that:

If the truth be told, I never left Hong Kong, its streets and hillsides, wooded valleys, myriad islands and deserted shores with which I was closely acquainted as a curious, sometimes devious, not unadventurous and streetwise seven-year-old...Hong Kong was my home, was where I spent my formative years, is where my roots are, is where I grew up.

And, one gets the definite sense, felt extraordinarily grateful plus blessed that this happened to be so.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Macau photo-essay

Macau! Say the name of this former Portuguese enclave to a Hong Kong film fan -- especially one who's never ever stepped foot in the Pearl River Delta locale -- and chances are that (s)he is going to think of it as a major Sin City -- or, as one Hong Kong movie title has it: City of Desire -- that's crawling with Triads (cf. crime dramas like Young and Dangerous 1 and 2, The Longest Nite plus Exiled) and whose casinos attract gamblers galore (cf. such as the under-rated The Gambler's Story as well as the better known gambling movies).

To say the least, Hong Kong film-makers have not often gone out of their way to show this heritage-rich territory -- one whose historic center was inscribed on to UNESCO's World Heritage list in July 2005 -- in the best of light. Nonetheless, in cinematic offerings like Soul, Where a Good Man Goes, Marooned and Isabella, Macau's physical beauty does manage to shine through. And I hope that this also is the case with regards to the following selection of photographs which I took on a visit there in April of this year:-

A flight of stairs which should strike
those who have viewed Isabella as pretty familiar :b

Wave-patterned mosaic paving
that's found in the Macau city center
-- and meant to remind the Macanese
of their sea-going heritage

A building located on the very picturesque
Largo do Senado (trans. Senado Square)

Inside a Macanese church
(Sadly, I can't remember which!)

Spiral joss sticks galore at the historic A-Ma Temple
provide proof positive that
Macau has
its share of practicing Buddhists and Taoists

Part of the A-Ma Temple in the foreground, and
a newer landmark, the Macau Tower, in the distance

Panoramic view from a choice vantage point

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Language and laughter

Yesterday, a piece by one of The Guardian's regular bloggers got me thinking seriously about language and linguistic issues (particularly the value of multi-lingualism versus mono-lingualism). Perhaps in reaction to all that serious thought, I've spent quite a bit of time since recalling linguistic experiences and situations which got me smiling, if not laughing. And since I've not previously written on this subject on this blog, I figure I might as well go ahead and share some of them with you today:-

1) Japan, 1982: Some twenty-four years ago, I paid my first visit to the Land of the Rising Sun in the company of a cousin and an uncle. Early on during the trip, our Japanese guide, who was familiar with Malaysians and Bahasa Malaysia (trans., "the language of Malaysia") cautioned us against uttering the Bahasa Malaysia words for ring and bowl while in Japan.

Our curiosity piqued, we couldn't help but enquire why. Turns out that cincin (pronounced as "chin-chin") just happens to be the word for the male reproductive organ in Japanese while mangkuk ("mung-koek"), in turn, is the Japanese word for the female reproductive organ! So just imagine what would happen, for example, if a Malaysian man were to go up to a Japanese individual and tell the said individual that "I've lost my cincin"!!!

2) Malaysia, sometime in the early 1980s: I had a friend over here in Penang who went off to boarding school in England a few years before me. Although she would return to Malaysia during the longer school holidays, it was pretty obvious from year to year that her Bahasa Malaysia was deteriorating as surely her English was improving.

Of course, she will forever maintain that the incident I'm going to detail here was merely caused by a slip of a tongue rather than any actual significant decline in her Bahasa Malaysia language skills. However, what is beyond doubt is that, one day, when trying to order a coconut drink, she asked a startled waiter not for kelapa (the Bahasa Malaysia word for "coconut") but, instead, kepala (that is, the Bahasa Malaysia word for the "head" -- as in "...of a person") ! :D

3) Tanzania, 1995: Having recently arrived in that East African country, a rather nervous moi went one morning to meet with the head of one of the institutions that I was looking to be attached to during my stay there. Upon my arrival at the guarded entrance to the institution, and anxious to be polite and ingratiate myself, I decided to speak in Kiswahili, the national language of Tanzania (along with neighboring Kenya), rather than English.

Stuttering a little, I uttered what I thought was the Kiswahili equivalent of "I would like to see Mr. Mbago"; only for the guard at the gate to look stunned and then very amused by what he had heard. For, as it turns out, instead of saying "Naomba kuona Bwana Mbago", I had said "Naomba -- and then because of a stutter and a bit of a pronounciation -- kununua Bwana -- again, another small (right?) slip -- Mboga."

In doing so, I thus stated in Kiswahili: "I would like to buy Mr. Vegetable"! (Needless to say, this story soon spread around the institution and thus it came to be that many of the hapless man's underlings got to wickedly plus delightedly calling Bwana Mboga behind his back...) ;(

4) Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2005 (or maybe a year earlier): A couple of pieces of contextualizing information are in order before telling this joke. Firstly, Cantonese is a tonal language; so shifts in tone change a word's meaning. Secondly, Kuala Lumpur is a city where a lot of Cantonese is spoken. Consequently, even a non-native Cantonese language speaker like myself is liable to feel obliged to try to speak some Cantonese while there.

Okay, now on with the story: which had me trying to order some chicken giblets to go with my rice and yummy sticky (caramel-like sauce slathered) char siew (Chinese roast pork) at a local eatery on one occasion. Only, when I said "kai kan", I got the tone of the second word wrong -- resulting in my apparently ordering "unnatural sex with a prostitute" (also partly on account of kai (i.e., "chicken") being the Cantonese slang term for "prostitute" as well as being the actual word for a type of feathered fowl)!!!

5) Zimbabwe, 1995: Having saved the longest -- and maybe best -- story for last...After close to a year in Tanzania, I decided that I should reward myself. So off I went to Zimbabwe -- the land of Great Zimbabwe as well as Mosi-oa-Tunya (AKA Victoria Falls); and one which was considerably more prosperous and less troubled then than it sadly is these days -- for a one-week vacation.

For the Great Zimbabwe leg of my visit, I was met at nearby Masvingo airport by a local guide who, shortly after we met, asked me where I was from. At that point in my stay in Africa, I was pretty tired of people not knowing where Malaysia is (or, for that matter, sometimes, what Malaysia was). So I told him that I had come from Tanzania -- something which was partly true since I had gone over to Zimbabwe from Tanzania.

Looking at me, of course my guide laughed. But he stopped laughing when he spoke a few words of Kiswahili to me and I replied back in Kiswahili (a language that I really don't think you can live in Tanzania without knowing some words of and which I had studied for two years before going to Tanzania in 1995).

Then, earnestly, he told me that he had been one of those Zimbabweans who had been a freedom fighter against Ian Smith's Rhodesian regime and trained in Tanzania, where he had learnt some Kiswahili. However, he hadn't had a chance to use his Kiswahili in years. So, he asked, could we speak in Kiswahili rather than English?

These days, I have to admit, my Kiswahili is no longer all that good. Back in 1995 though, I could accede to that Zimbabwean man's request. And so it was that we happily chatted in Kiswahili for the few days that he was my guide.

To bring the story towards its close: All too soon, the time came for us to part. Although he didn't have to, my guide escorted me all the way into the departure area of Masvingo's tiny airport whereupon we bade our formal farewells to each other. Then he took his leave. However, on his way out of the airport, another Zimbabwean man went up to my guide and spoke a few words to him that caused him to roar with laughter and return to where I stood to share the joke with me.

For, as it turned out, the other Zimbabwean man had seen and heard my guide and I conversing in Kiswahili, then proceeded to say to his fellow Zimbabwean -- no doubt on account of my physical features and the improbability of someone with them knowing an African language -- as he passed by: "I didn't know that you could speak Japanese..."!! :DD

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

My first visit to Africa

In the summer of 1986, I visited Kenya -- and Africa -- for the first time.       At boarding school in England, one of my best friends had been a Kenyan Indian named Shivani. Together with two other good gal pals, Stacey (whose family then resided in Zimbabwe) and Anne (who had come from Lesotho by way of Uganda -- since her Ugandan doctor father was working for the United Nations in Lesotho), they gave me my first invaluable lessons about Africa, a continent which I didn't previously know much about -- and, if truth be told, hadn't cared to know that much about.

Just from meeting them (not least since Stacey's "white" and Anne was part Jamaican by way of her mother), I got to realizing that Africa is not as ethnically plus culturally homogenous as some might think. Additionally, from a whole series of conversations which took place over the course of our time at school in England, this trio taught me that, despite my hailing from a different continent as well as culture vis a vis them, we actually had a lot in common. (For example, call it coincidental but we all had attended Convent schools in our respective countries; and this despite not of a single one of us being of the Catholic faith!)

Every once in a while, however, something would be said which would make me say "but I didn't know that!" Almost inevitably as well as invariably, there'd be a shrug of the shoulders and a matter-of-fact assertion from one of the trio that "Anyone's who been to Africa knows that!"; at which point, I would have to remind my good friends that, well, this particular individual had (hitherto) never been to Africa!

In retrospect, it therefore seemed but a matter of time before one of them would tell me to go visit Africa. Only the bonus was that when that suggestion finally got made, it came with an invitation to spend time and stay with Shivani's family in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
Almost needless to say, I jumped at the chance to make my maiden trip to Kenya and the African continent. Also, that I saw lots of novel and interesting sights plus had perhaps more than my fair share of new and wondrous experiences while there. Some of these merit independent blog entries of their own and will be recounted at a later date.

For today though, I'm going to start off by pointing out that soon after landing in Kenya, I saw my wild African animals. And if memory serves me right, the route we took from Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport to Shivani's family home actually passed through Nairobi National Park, a bona fide national park that's home to such as giraffes, zebras plus lions and lionesses despite being located just seven kilometres from the center of Kenya's capital city!

Some further ideas of what I got to see and experience over the course of my first visit to Kenya may be ascertained by my stating that they include: a day trip to the natural wonder that is the Rift Valley and locales within it like the banks of scenic Lake Naivasha; another day trip to the Karen Blixen Museum/House in the Ngong Hills, a locale made famous by Karen Blixen (AKA Isaak Dinesen) being the author of Out of Africa who was portrayed by Meryll Streep in the Hollywood movie of the same name; and a multi-day safari (the evocative Kiswahili word for "journey") as far north as the Samburu Game Reserve that also took in an overnight stay at Treetops, the wildlife lodge made famous by being where the young Princess Elizabeth woke up one morning to discover that she was now Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other territories.

At the same time though, I wish to underscore that many other of my other Kenyan experiences were less exotic, even if often no less interesting or fun for their being so. For example, part of the 1986 football (soccer) World Cup Finals were played when I was in Kenya. And gripped by "World Cup Fever", I spent several hours playing "one-v-one" football with Shivani's brother in the garden of the Nairobi house that we were staying in on that visit! 

Something else that I think is very much worth mentioning is how, often times, many a Kenyan found me as exotic as I found them. Actually, judging by the behaviour and reactions of some of them, I'd say that they found me more exotic than I found them! As proof plus illustration of this, let me recount what happened when I went to visit the National Museum of Kenya with Shivani and her brother.

To set the scene first though, here's pointing out that in my entire time in Kenya (during this and subsequent visits), I only ever saw one other East Asian person in that East African country. Therefore, I most definitely was the only East Asian person at the National Museum of Kenya during my visit to that museological facility.

At least initially, however, I ignored this fact as I went around the museum. Indeed, I did what I usually do in museums: focus on the exhibits and to such an extent that I am liable to get lost in thought in front of them. This time around though, when I "came back to earth", so to speak, I discovered that a circle of Kenyan schoolchildren had formed around -- and that those kids (who my friends later told me were from out of town and "up country") were gazing intently at -- me.

Alternatively put: I had become one of the exhibits in the museum! Something which my mischievous Kenyan friends -- who had moved to a far corner of the room and were now giggling as though there were no tomorrow -- were no doubt aware of and greatly enjoying! ;DDD

Monday, December 18, 2006

Book sale report and -inspired musings

Yesterday my day began and ended earlier than usual. Although the former had been planned, the latter hadn't -- and, in fact, I had thought that I'd be in a mood to blog a bit after dinner. But since I wasn't, there was no new daily entry on this blog for the first time in -- count 'em! -- sixteen days.

All of this is but a prelude to reporting that: yes, I was over at the Little Penang Street Market this past Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. And for the first time since this monthly event's inception on 30th July of this year, I wasn't there to just buy but, instead, also sell and work!

More specifically, as previously announced on this blog, my mission was to try to find new homes for some 170 of my books (to, among other things, make room on my shelves for others). Although I didn't do so for all -- or even half -- of them, I did state earlier that I'd consider the used book sale a success if I managed to sell at least a quarter of the books I brought there. Consequently, it's with some amount of happiness and relief that I'm reporting that a total of forty-six books ended being bought by twenty-five separate buyers! :)

Now, some of you might be thinking that forty-six books sold over some nine hours isn't much at all. However, when it's realized/learnt that surveys conducted in 1996 and again in 2005 have found that the average Malaysian supposedly only reads a grand total of two books per year (or less than three hours a week), that conclusion probably will undergo some revision.

Indeed, you then might go so far as to share the view espoused by my dear mother -- who was there to support me for the bulk of those nine hours spent out in the hot and humid outdoors yesterday but would be the first to admit that she's hardly a voracious reader of books herself (even though she does religiously read the newspapers every day) -- that I probably managed to sell more books yesterday than many bookstores in Malaysia over a typical business day!

To put it mildly: It would seem that Malaysia lacks a reading culture. Yet something else which my mother and I discussed and agreed about was that it may well be so that those reported statistics of a mere two books per year (or just seven pages a days) are as high -- yes, high! -- as they are because there are a few Malaysians who do read a lot!

A case in point: I'd estimate that I read about ten new books a month on average. Alternatively put, this is 118 more a year than the average Malaysian! Then there's the unrepentant local bibliophile who came and bought five books from me yesterday despite -- this according to a story I heard -- being allowed by his similarly Penangite wife to have only five hundred books in their house at any one time, so has taken to storing extra books in other people's homes and even his car boot (or, as Americans know it: the trunk) as well as his office!!

That gentleman apart though, I feel obliged to report that my best customers -- both in terms of sheer numbers of books bought but also their inclination to indulge in book talk before and while making their selections -- looked to be non-Malaysians: i.e., foreign tourists or permanent residents. Another observation that can be safely made is that quite a few of the Malaysians who patronised my stall yesterday were people who were buying for others (e.g., mostly mothers buying for their children but also one aunt for a nephew).

Frankly, I don't think this bodes well for the future of book reading in Malaysia. For if one were to summarize the conclusions that could be made from those observations, it would be that: firstly, bibliophilia -- heck, even a basic reading culture -- is largely foreign to Malaysians; secondly, reading is an activity that seems to be pushed on younger people rather than be one which people find it in themselves to readily initiate; and thirdly, reading is something that's seen as good for you (like eating your vegetables) but, because of this, it may not be looked upon as a fun activity at all!

In closing, I'll additionally relate its being so that many of the local folks who came to check out the selection of my stall expressed quite a bit of incredulousness when, in answer to their questions, I'd tell them that: a) yes, I had read all these books and, consequently, could tell them about each book if they wanted me to; and b) all of these books didn't come directly from my bookstore -- not least because I don't have one! -- but, instead, my personal library. In short, it was like they just couldn't believe that a single person really could have read, never mind owned, "so many" (i.e., just 170!) books!

So just imagine what would have happened if I had told them that I find much joy in reading books...Although I guess that would have been a bit rich to them and particularly hard to understand, coming -- as it would have yesterday -- from someone who was out to sell (some of) her books to them. ;S

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Where the best egg tarts are?

A few years back, Hong Kong put in a bid to host the Asian Games. (The latest edition of which has just come to a close in Doha, Qatar.) This action was accorded satirical coverage in My Life as McDull, the 2001 animated film which won the hearts of local Hong Kong audiences and also the FIPRESCI ((Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) Prize for Young Asian Cinema at the 2002 Hong Kong International Film Festival; with a memorable movie moment coming out of the suggestion that Hong Kong's official slogan for its Asian Games bid being "Hong Kong, One Big Egg Tart"!

Why "One Big Egg Tart"? Considering that the titular McDull in that wonderful movie is a piglet who can be on the obsessed side when it comes to food, the logical retort may well be "Why not?!" After all, Hong Kong is a place where (good) food is accorded great import. And if there were a culinary item which symbolizes local tastes and "The Fragrant Harbour" itself, the egg tart -- specifically the Hong Kong version that's referred to in Cantonese as daan tart -- would be a top contender for that accolade (along with such as char siu (trans., barbecued pork), curried yee tan (trans. fish balls), char siu pau (trans. barbecued pork buns) and wonton (a traditional Chinese dumpling).

On a personal note, I've taken to making it a point to partake of at least one daan tart on each of my recent visits to Hong Kong. This is not least because I belatedly discovered that egg tarts in Hong Kong truly can be heavenly since, unlike in such places as Penang (which, yes, is a food haven but alas, is not tops as far as Cantonese dishes are concerned!), Hong Kong purveyors of egg tarts appear to make it a point to serve this flaky, egg-custardy pastry hot -- or, at least, heated -- and, somehow, this can make all the difference in the world!

For a time, I used to get my egg tarts from the Wing Wah Restaurant in Lock Road, Tsim Sha Tsui ("TST" for short). This was in large part out of convenience because I tended to stay in hotels located in TST and it became routine to pop out in the morning to get a couple of daan tarts and a copy of the South China Morning Post before heading back to enjoy both of them in my hotel room.

Also, since egg tarts are a regular dim sum offering, I often couldn't pass up the chance to try some of these pastries -- which, incidentally, are theorized to be either Chinese adoptions of English custard tarts or inspired by English fruit tarts and, as such, might be considered to be British colonial legacies! -- at whichever restaurant I went out to for dim sum -- or, as Hong Kongers prefer to call the meal: yum cha (trans., drink tea!) -- in Hong Kong.

(Should anyone wonder, I love going to the Luk Yu Tea House in Central to yum cha as well as for other meals; but only if it's with someone who is a regular customer there and therefore able to melt the notoriously crusty waitstaff there. Otherwise, I tend to head for the friendlier Serenade Restaurant which, thanks to its location on the southern side of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, also has the bonus of boasting panoramic views of the northern section of Hong Kong Island.)

After trying out the HK$2 egg tarts at a modest bakery (whose name I didn't commit to memory!) on Public Square Street in Yau Ma Tei that I had often passed on my way to and from the Broadway Cinematheque on my most recent visit to Hong Kong -- and finding them to be absolutely melt-in-your-mouth delicious -- though, I got to wondering whether one simply can't go wrong with regards to finding good daan tarts in Hong Kong!

Even if this were the case, however, post having tasted an egg tart from the famous Tai Cheong Bakery in Central's Lyndhurst Terrace, I feel obliged to report that there does appear to be a place that truly is tops when it comes to daan tarts. And yes, it's that establishment which counts among fans of its egg tarts the last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten (now Baron Patten of Barnes but, apparently, someone who will forever be known to most Hong Kongers as "Fatty Pang"!). (And the Wikipedia entry for Chris Patten which I've linked to in this paragraph notwithstanding, is now back in Lyndhurst Terrace -- albeit on the other side of the street from where the original store stood.)

How good -- nay, great -- are Tai Cheong Bakery's egg tarts? I realize that my tastes are subjective and all but I'd venture to opine that even while they cost HK$1 more than the ones at that bakery on Public Square Street, they're most definitely worth every penny. Additionally, here's letting you know that when I was eating -- nay, scarfing down! -- the daan tart (while standing outside the store -- sad but true: I couldn't wait any longer once I had it in my hot little hands!), I apparently had such an ecstatic look on my face that my companion with me on that occasion told me that I looked like I was having an orgasm (or, at the very least, about to have one)! ;D

Friday, December 15, 2006

Inspirational words to try to live by

One of the books one of my favorite professors
-- and teacher of life lessons -- has written

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, I was an undergraduate student at Beloit College. While at that small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, U.S.A., I double majored in anthropology and art history (and minored in museum studies).

Although I very much enjoyed my art history classes, particular those which were taught by the utterly charismatic Prof. Debra Mancoff who actually bestowed upon me the honor of an acknowledgement in her The Arthurian Revival in Victorian Art, even Debra knew and accepted that anthropology really was my primary love.

And within the field of anthropology itself, my intellectual inclinations and aspirations tended towards the socio-cultural sub-field of anthropology. At the same time though, what with Beloit's anthropology department -- at least when I was there -- being a four sub-field department, I was required to also take some classes in the other sub-fields.

During two out of the four years that I was at Beloit, the then five person department was very fortunate to have as its physical/biological anthropology representative a professor by the name of Karen Strier. Karen arrived at Beloit from Harvard University where she had been a lecturer and also received her Ph.D. The Harvard mystique aside, she -- whose research focus was/is the Muriqui monkeys of Brazil -- also had a glamorous aura around her due to her having been featured in an issue of National Geographic Magazine.

At the same time though, those of us who had the privilege of being Karen's students can attest to her possessing a lot of substance as well as style. Two other things that made many, if not all, of us warm to her as an instructor and person were that: a) she was adapt at weaving life lessons into the physical/biological anthropology ones; and b) she had a sense of humor -- that she often would turn on herself -- which showed even when she was going about imparting knowledge and wisdom.

Thus it was "so Karen" to tell the following inspirational but also funny story -- one that I've made a point to in turn relate to my students, and many others, whenever the opportunity arises -- during the last lecture of the The Human Animal ( i.e., Beloit's more interesting(!) name for the Introduction to Physical/Biological Anthropology) course that she taught in the Fall 1987 semester:-

(N.B. I'm going to write it as though she's telling the story. Obviously, I can't vouch for the accuracy of every single word. But, believe me when I tell you that, close to nineteen years on, I still definitely remember many of the details as well as overall message.)

I had been running around all day in the (Brazilian) jungle, fruitlessly chasing after the Muriqui. I was exhausted and feeling frustrated because I hadn't managed to do much productive research. Hell, I hadn't even gotten any clear views of the monkeys. So I stopped and asked myself: "Karen, why are you doing what you're doing?"

I then proceeded to tell myself: "There are only three reasons why you should be doing what you're doing. The first is that you're making lots of money. But Karen, you're not making lots of money! The second reason is that you're doing great things for humanity. But Karen, you're not doing great things for humanity! The third reason is that you're doing it because you love it. Karen, you had better be loving it!!!"

Looking back, I know I've not always adhered to the advice that Karen imparted to me and the rest of her students that day. However, I remember it and do try to live by it more often than not. So, even though I doubt that she'll be reading this blog anytime soon, I would like to be on the record somewhere as saying (or writing): Thank you, Karen, for those inspirational words, your anthropology and life lessons, the memories, and so much more besides... :)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A material culturalist but not truly materialistic?

Two material possessions that this not very materialistic
person nonetheless likes possessing... ;S

Sometimes, I find myself wishing that I could live like a
Maasai. By this, I don't mean that I wish I could own and/or herd cows, live in an abode that's constructed out of cow dung and mud, have both one or both my bottom front teeth removed during infancy or -- perish the thought! -- have clitoridectomy performed on me at puberty! Rather, what I wish is that I could be as unmaterialistic and physically unencumbered as those who lead a truly nomadic existence.

Before I go any further here, I should point out that I'm the person who, once, when I told a businessman friend of mine that one of my anthropological sub-specializations was "material culture", got him laughing -- because, he told me, I'm the person who's the least interested in material culture (or, at least, its accumulation) that he knew. And it's true enough that to this day, I don't have stuff like a car, house or even a designer dress item to call my own. (Indeed, my computer probably is the single most expensive thing that I actually paid for and possess!)

Alternatively, since returning to live and work in Malaysia some three and a half years ago now, I've joined the ranks of those folks who don't just own a mobile (AKA cellular) phone but also have come to think of it as well nigh indispensable. Then there's it being so that, over the years, I've accumulated what quite a few people who've seen them reckon are pretty formidable sized collections of books, videos and...stuffed toys.

With regards to the books: Suffice to say that I started reading at a very early age -- and by the age of 5 years, was already reading entire books that didn't contain a single illustration -- and proceeded to amass a book collection not long afterwards. But lest there continue to be any doubts regarding the size of this collection, howzabout if I point out that before I reached full teenhood, my parents went ahead and constructed an extension to the family house so that I would have a little book room (i.e., a room to house my books -- and mine alone)?

Over the years, as I've moved from one living quarter to another, and sometimes also one continent as well as country to another, I've often found cause to rue my book acquiring tendencies. Alternatively put: One paperback novel may be light and small enough to fit into a jacket -- or even trouser -- pocket but a box of them can feel like they cumulatively weigh a ton! Furthermore, unlike such as clothes, they're not foldable and, consequently, often prove pretty bulky.

As I've realized full well, the last also applies to videos; at least, those which are in the form of VHS tapes. In part because of this being the case (and, also, because I feared that too many of my VHS tapes would develop fungus trouble in equatorial Malaysia), I ended up giving away at least two thirds of the VHS tape portion of my video collection prior to returning to my native land. And substituting or replacing many of my VHS tapes with DVDs (or, when they weren't available in that superior format, VCDs).

More than incidentally, I really only started accumulating videos after I came to the realization that I was taking out certain ones -- i.e.,
Supercop (yes, I first knew Police Story III: Supercop by way of its English dubbed version) and Wing Chun -- so frequently from the video rental store that it made more economic sense to buy copies of my own. Still, this accumulative practice only exponentially increased after I began experiencing difficulties with finding copies to rent of movies that I wanted to watch as a result of the depth of my Hong Kong movie enthusiasm and knowledge noticeably exceeding that of owners and workers of many a video rental outlet!

As for the stuffed toys: In my defence, I truly have been given the majority of that which I now possess (and this includes all of the Hello Kitty plushes plus cushions that I own!)! At the same time, I must admit to having personally purchased my Winki Pinki stuffed cushion and, also, three Totoros (including one which is two feet tall and wide, and another that's battery-operated to come across as though it's sleeping and snoring)!! ;b

And before anyone asks: No, this adult female has no intentions whatsoever
of parting with her stuffed toy collection just yet; and this especially so with regards to its Sanrio and Studio Ghibli representatives! However, I sure do miss the days when I could safely and conveniently trade VHS tapes, VCDs and DVDs with others (many of whom I had never met in person but, instead, only on-line).

As for my willingness to part with part(s) of my book collection: Funny, you should ask...for the inspiration for today's blog entry stems from my deciding plus making preparations to dispense with -- or try anyways to do so! -- some 170 of my books by way of operating a second hand book stall at this Sunday's
Little Penang Street Market! So to those of you readers who reside in Penang and are looking to buy some reading materials on the cheap: See you at my stall this Sunday? :)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Music and memories

Elephants supposedly never forget. Humans, on the other hand, seem to forget more than they remember -- that is, except when we really wish to forget something! Thank goodness then for all manner of mnemonic devices and those joggers of memories that, for me, include ones which are musical in nature.

Looking through my music CD and -- yes, I still have some of these! -- cassette tape collections, I find that certain songs, entire albums or names of singers can get me pretty quickly strolling down Memory Lane.

For instance, as I compose this entry, I'm listening to Mary-Chapin Carpenter's Come On Come On album and, even as part of my mind remains in front of the computer over here in Penang, another part has gone rushing back to the time that a university colleague and I went on a road trip to temporarily get away from it all.

(A good indicator of our pre-excursion mood can be discerned from the song from Ms. Carpenter's repertoire that I've come to associate with that road trip being The Bug and its chorus including lines like "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug...sometimes you're the Louisville Slugger, sometimes you're the ball; sometimes it all comes together, sometimes you're gonna lose it all"!)

As it so happens, the road trip -- which started in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and went all the way down south to bucolic Beaufort, South Carolina, before reversing directions and heading back from whence we originally came -- turned out to be just what our temporarily hurting psyches needed.

Consequently, I came to have good plus fond memories of it and many of the places we visited along the way; which included interesting towns like Annapolis, Maryland -- the state capital that's also home to the United States Naval Academy, New Bern, North Carolina -- the birthplace of Pepsi Cola, Wilmington, North Carolina -- birthplace of basketball legend, Michael Jordan, Georgetown, South Carolina -- home to a Rice Museum (which I, of course, visited!) and historic Charleston, South Carolina -- where we went to watch a military parade at The Citadel (i.e., the Military College of South Carolina), as well as those areas of North Carolina's enchanting Outer Banks where the Wright Brothers made their first flights and an entire 16th century colony seemingly disappeared into thin air (and legend).

Then there's the music I associate with particular people as well as the times spent with them...A confession: This is particularly true with regards to songs and singers which certain ex-significant others introduced me to. (For some reason, I seemed to attract men who have a greater love for music than I do...and whose reaction, upon finding out how limited my listening range is, is to make me tapes of songs they feel I should be acquainted with!)

So, while I do think it's best to not "out" my benefactors, here's going ahead and thanking them as a group for having introduced me to -- and taught me to appreciate -- such as the music of George Winston, Elvis Costello and various Malian Divas. :b

Certain other music, meanwhile, take me back to particular times and places as well as bring to mind particular people (and I don't just mean the music makers). More often than not, it's because they are when, where and from whom I was first acquainted with those sounds and songs.

For example, I can clearly recall close to twenty years on that the first time I heard the music of Cat Stevens, it was the summer of 1988, I was in the American Southwest (attending archaeological field school) and the fellow who I primarily associate with it was a then archaeological graduate student called Rock (though, in fact, his personal names were -- and very much reflecting his being a Texan -- Bradley Joe! :b).

Recounting one of those occasions that if you hadn't been there, you'd think "only happens in the movies": One hot afternoon, after a long work day, tempers flared among some of the more hot-headed plus -blooded archaeological crew members. For a moment (or more), it looked like a fight might actually break out. Then Rock went into his van (which served as his mobile home), opened all of its doors and proceeded to blast the soothing mellow music of Mr. Stevens out of it. Quick as a flash, the mood changed and soon, the same fellows who had looked like they had been intent on a bout of fisticuffs, if not wrestling, started swaying to the music, then dancing and laughing with one another!

So guess what (and who) I'm often reminded of whenever I hear the tune and lyrics of If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out...! And yes, it did thrill me to no end when I discovered that that inspirational song also features in the cult classic that's Harold and Maude (and, in fact, was -- together with the similarly superb Don't Be Shy -- written expressly for that movie). :)