Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The foodie paradise that is Japan

As regular readers of this blog should know, I love to travel and also am partial to good plus interesting food. It thus shouldn't be too surprising that not only do I make it a point to sample the local cuisine during my travels but I sometimes feel more inclined as well to visit a particular place precisely because it is able to offer foodies like myself travel highlights in the form of sumptious delicacies and/or special dining experiences.

Thus it was that upon being furnished with an invitation to visit Japan -- the land of sushi, sashimi, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, Kobe beef, mentaiko, zaru soba, ramen, yakitori, okonomiyaki, mochi, etc., etc.! -- last August, I didn't need to think twice to emphatically answer with a "Yes, please!"

And this especially since on my one previous extended visit to the country (i.e., something besides a few hours spent on transit at Narita International Airport or even an overnight stay in that area necessitated by my having missed a connecting flight), a then 14-year-old moi had had the misfortune of having been on a group tour whose organizers worked on the premise that the people on it would prefer to have American rather than Japanese breakfasts and Chinese rather than Japanese food during the other meals...! :S

To be sure, however, I didn't go so far as to completely follow the example of the man and wife who looked to have not done much more than eat -- albeit diversely as well as deliciously! -- while in the Land of the Rising Sun (and whose account of doing so is a thing of literary beauty as far as I'm concerned!). Still, believe you me when I say that looking at one of that blogger's recommended eateries' sushi menu often gets me rueing my not doing so!

At the same time, it's certainly true enough that I did manage to have my share of wonderful meals this time around in Japan. And one of them -- which I previously listed as one of my highlights of 2006 -- was indeed the sublime 3650 Yen Omakase set at the deservedly famous Sushi Dai at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market.

For a similarly memorable dining experience, but one that's significantly more rarified, it's hard to beat the multi-course yuba and tofu kaiseki set meal(s) that my mother and I had over at the Dazaifu branch of the highly esteemed specialist Ume-no-hana chain. (It's not only that we were presented with hard-to-believe combinations like tofu and baked cheese or tofu topped with ikura (i.e., salmon roe or caviar) but, also, that the ultra-smooth plus delicate chawan mushi that we imbibed at that restaurant was by far the most delicious that we have ever tasted.)

Japan being the foodie's paradise that it is though, you don't actually have to go to a famous restaurant to have a wonderful culinary time. Indeed, one of my happiest food- (and drink-)related moments while in that East Asian land occured when I independently -- sans the advice of guide books or such -- discovered a thoroughly inviting izakaya while out wandering in downtown Kokura one evening.

(For the record: the Shirokiya that was a real pleasure to visit -- and which bears no relation to any of those "Shirokiya"s which appear when you do a Google search -- doesn't only possess the kind of multi-faceted plus extensive menu (see here for a mouth-watering example) along with friendly service that's associated with izakayas in general but also comes complete with imaginative decor -- think see-through plexiglass floor, under which are colored marbles along with white sand and pebbles -- and relaxing jazz music to add to the ambience. And all this for a reasonable price besides!)

Heck, come to think about it, you don't even have to visit an actual eaterie to have a fantastic foodie time! Rather, as a Metropolis writer advises, you can "[f]ind the best food in the world at Tokyo’s department store food halls". Or as a Japan Today headline succinctly has it: "Want to enjoy food? Try department store basements"!

A confession: I like exploring plus wandering around grocery stores and supermarkets, regardless of the country that I'm in. And I've been in my share of gigantic food stores (e.g., Cub Foods in Beloit, Wisconsin) and gourmet wonderlands (e.g., Harrods Food Halls in London, England). But Japan's depachika (short for
depaato-chika shokuhin uriba, which translates into English as "department store basement food-selling place"!) are up there with the best and most glorious of them.

And this not least because they are where one can go -- as I did one evening during my most recent, satisfying Japan trip -- and get yourself a take-away meal of: some flavorful mentaiko for starters; a multi-ingredient
Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki for the main course; and some fresh blueberries for dessert. All of which were washed down with tasty microbrew beer from the surrounding region that also were procured from the same depachika as that personalized dinner's food items... :b

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mobius and HKIFF news alerts

At the end of last month, I gave readers of this blog a sneak peek at my choices for the Mobius Home Video Forum's "Best of...2006" Poll. And starting from today, interested parties can go over here to take a look at the full poll results -- one which, rather surprisingly, had a far more mainstream look to it than in previous years -- and often quite thought-provoking write-ups of the other voters (who, I have to say, included fewer Asian Cinema discussion board frequenters than I would have liked).

Should you be the kind of film fan who is not just content to scan other people's viewing cum voting lists though, I'd recommend that you also make sure to start visiting -- if you haven't already -- the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) website as the program for this year's HKIFF is now up there. And while you're at it, perhaps give some pause towards considering whether you wouldn't like to head over to Hong Kong to personally check out some of that film festival's offerings.

If truth be told, post glancing rather briefly at the 2007 HKIFF's film program, I must admit to not being as wildly plus immediately excited with what's on offer at the 31st HKIFF as I was with the 30th. And this despite yet another Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia movie -- in this case, The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Kong, 1977); which, more than incidentally, is the actress' personal favorite of all the films which she's appeared in -- being one of the festival's featured offerings.

Still, this is not to say that this premiere film festival -- which will be on from 20th March to 11th April this year -- won't have such as its share of world, international and Asian (as well as local Hong Kong) premieres; among which will be world premieres of the latest efforts from directors Fruit Chan, Herman Yau and Lu Yue together with Asian premieres of new works by the diverse likes of Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe and Amir Muhammad.

Something else which the HKIFF organizers appear keen to boast about the 31st HKIFF having is a special screening of a stop motion animation version of Sergei Prokofiev's Peter & the Wolf to the musical accompaniment of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Then there's the pretty impressive fact that the HKIFF's program this year encompasses 23 days worth of screenings of some 300 films from over 52 countries around the globe.

From among this cinematic richness, here are five works which have already caught my fancy: Milkyway Image veteran Yau Nai-hoi's Asian Premiering Eye in the Sky (one of whose screenings has sold out its online bookings already!); master filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Go Master (ditto re one of its screenings having already sold out as far as the online option is concerned); the prolific Yoji Yamada's Love and Honour (which has but a single screening at the HKIFF!!); Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's Nanking documentary (for whose single screening online booking is no longer an option); and auteur Ann Hui's The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (yet another film whose single screening has already sold out as far as online bookings are concerned!!!).

And yes, I have very little doubt that I'd find other films of interest if or when I decide to more seriously plus thoroughly look through the 2007 HKIFF's program. Rather, the bigger question seems to be whether, even at this early date, I'd be able to get tickets to the screenings that I'll want to attend! ;S

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Views from a Tembeling River boat ride (photo-essay)

In September 2006, I paid a visit to
Malaysia's oldest national park. Established by the territory's British colonial administration in 1938, the then King George V National Park was renamed as Taman Negara (i.e., "National Park" in Bahasa Malaysia) shortly after Malaya, as Peninsula Malaysia was then called, achieved its political independence on 31st August, 1957.

With a total area of 4,343 square kilometers -- 2,477 square kilometers of which is in the state of Pahang, a further 1,043 in neighboring Kelantan and another 853 square kilometers in Terengganu -- Taman Negara also is Malaysia's largest national park.

What with nearly 75% of the country still being covered by forests and jungles (some 60% of which is virgin rainforest to boot) though, one doesn't have to get into Malaysia's national parks to catch sight of a whole lot of greenery. More specifically, as I hope will be evidenced from the photos below, the 3 hour boat trip up the Tembeling River (or, as per its name in Bahasa Malaysia, Sungai Tembeling), from the staging point at Kuala Tembeling to one of the official entrances to Taman Negara at Kuala Tahan, provided its share of verdant and interesting scenery.

The jetty at Kuala Tembeling foregrounded by
a twin of the narrow wooden boat
that I rode up the Tembeling River on

Yes indeedy re the Tembeling River water
very muddy brown in color!

However, as the boat winds it way up the river,
you'll find that there's plenty of more pleasant sights
to distract you from fixating on the murky water a line of water buffalo
slowly making their way along a river bank
to wherever they wanted to go

...or curiously colored rocks and geological formations

...or the layer upon layer of varied vegetation

...much of which provided this shutterbug
with plenty of camera-clicking
entertainment plus enjoyment

Friday, February 23, 2007

Top Ten 2006 Hong Kong movies

In recent years, I've gotten into the habit of writing up a Top 10 list of the year's Hong Kong movies for Hong Kong Cinema: View from the Brooklyn Bridge. (Go here for the 2001 list, here for that for 2002, here for the 2003 list, here for the 2004 equivalent and here for that for 2005.)

However, thus far this year, Brian, the site's webmaster, has been on the road for the most part. So he hasn't posted his or any other person's Top 10 list of 2006 Hong Kong films on the site (but has received and proceeded to post guest contributor Steve Barr's over on his "while on the road" blog.)

For all I know, he may yet do so. In the meantime though, in the wake of my having viewed my first 2007 Hong Kong film last week as well as having written a few weeks back already about my submissions for the Mobius Home Video Forum's "Best of..." 2006 movie poll , I figure that I might as well go ahead and post my Top 10 list of 2006 Hong Kong movies over here (and before the second month of 2007 comes to an end). So without any further ado...:-

1) Exiled
Johnnie To’s virtuoso quasi-sequel to the fan favorite that is The Mission (Hong Kong, 1999) is a filmic masterpiece that can stand alone full well on its own. Distinguished by bravura performances by actors at the top of their game (like Francis Ng and Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) as well as the kind of masterfully choreographed, enacted and lensed set-pieces that make film critics -- not just fan boys and girls -- drool, this cinematic offering is one of those that's truly a delight to watch unfold on a big screen.

2) My Name is Fame
The more I reflect on this deceptively modest film's merits, the more it rises up in my estimation. Hence my decision to place it at number two on this list even though I'm on the record as having awarded it only an 8.5 -- rather than three other movies' 9.0 -- on's 2006 (Hong Kong) Films Ratings list! And this on top of sticking to my earlier contention that this Lawrence Lau (AKA Lawrence Ah Mon)-helmed offering is "one of 2006’s better along with more admirable and well-meaning cinematic efforts."

3) Fearless
As can be seen by comments previously made by a few of this blog's readers, this action-infused historical bio-pic from director Ronnie Yu is by no means universally liked or admired. However, here's taking this opportunity to point to a suggestion made by a Twitch reviewer that the Jet Li starrer might be worth taking a second look at, particularly by way of a lengthier Director's Cut DVD version of the film. (This from someone who's yet to check out that particular DVD but has viewed the theatrically-released version of the film twice already!)

4) Election 2
Looking back at my Top 10 (Hong Kong) Films of 2005 list, I got to remembering that I had placed the first Election at the number two spot on it. Although I hadn't thought that 2006 had been all that good a year for Hong Kong cinema, seeing that Election 2 only is number four on the equivalent list for that year makes me think that maybe it wasn't too bad a year after all; this because, in all honesty, I found this 2006 offering from Johnnie To to offer more intellectually plus emotionally than the preceding gripping 2005 work which I had described as -- and still will maintain to be -- "a cinematic as well as technical masterwork."

5) Mcdull: The Alumni
An anomaly of sorts in the Mcdull universe in that it contains more live action than animation, this Samson Chiu-helmed offering is an altogether uneven hodge-podge of moods and genres as well as visual styles and filmic techniques. And if truth be told, when taken as a whole, it's hard to make a solid case for it being a cinematic gem. However, like the other Mcdull movies, it possesses some moments and scenes which are truly inspired, if not downright sublime. Then there's the plain fact of the matter that not since the made-for-charity The Banquet (1991) has there been a Hong Kong movie that's so star-studded and fun cameo-filled! ;b

6) Dog Bite Dog
Grim and gritty doesn't even begin to describe this nihilistic Soi Cheang effort which most definitely is not for the easily squeamish and/or faint of heart. For my part though, I genuinely appreciated as well as admired that -- in a move that probably didn't help it as far as the commercial side of things go -- this intense, Category III-rated crime drama -- which, more than incidentally, features Sam Lee's best acting in years and Edison Chen's best ever -- didn’t shirk from showing the brutality and inhumanity that it does.

7) 2 Become 1
One of those movies which gets me thinking "Only in Hong Kong..." Not because it contains any spectacular stunts and incredible martial arts action, mind. Rather, it's because I just can't imagine the likes of Hollywood thinking that a story centering on a woman who has breast cancer would make for an entertaining as well as engaging romantic dramedy. But the strange thing is that, in the hands of the people who are responsible for this 2006 Hong Kong movie (who include Johnnie To -- who is its producer -- as well as director Law Wing Cheong and co-scripter Ivy Ho), this Miriam Yeung and Richie Ren starrer actually did!

8) The Heavenly Kings
A confession: I've long had a soft spot for Daniel Wu. But even this admirer of "dear Daniel" (as I jokingly like to refer to him in honor of Hello Kitty's boyfriend) didn't realize that the acting star could have the ability to come up with a directorial debut which puts such as those of fellow "pretty boys" Stephen Fung and Nicholas Tse's firmly in the shade. And, in the process, produce the sort of cheeky mockumentary that takes on-target pot shots at himself and his friends along with the Hong Kong gutter press, the boy band phenomenon and the Cantopop industry as a whole as well as has the viewer(s) yearning for more.

9) Mr. 3 Minutes
This movie gets my additional vote for being the least likely to be on other people's Top 10 lists. This not least since I can't even find a positive review of it to link to! So what can I do besides admit that its being on my list probably attests to: a) my love for Hong Kong movies possibly bordering on the irrational; b) my really having been surprised to find that Ronald Cheng is capable of moving me to tears as well as making me laugh; and c) Cherrie Ying's sweet presence in a movie alone often can make it all worthwhile for me?! ;D

10) Isabella
The winner of a Silver Bear at last year's Berlin Film Festival, this surprisingly art-house style work from director Edmond Pang is visually impressive but maybe actually overly so -- to the extent that everything comes across as just a little bit more calculated than was necessary, never mind ideal. At the same time though, there's no disputing that this father-daughter drama works well as an evocative mood piece, and that is graced by unexpectedly strong performances from EEG starlet Isabella Leong and comedian cum character actor Chapman To.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Small world

Two examples of finger pianos

Back in the summer of 1989, a then seventeen-year-old Michael Chang became the French Open champion. Shortly afterwards, Switzerland's international airlines, Swiss Air, came out with an ad whose tag-line I found memorable: i.e., "You know that the world is getting smaller when an American named Chang is the French Open champion."

Although there are times when I am more likely to think that the world is still very big, it's true enough that there are days, like today and yesterday, when I do feel that the world can be quite small -- and inter-connected -- indeed.

For one thing, in the twenty hours or so since I wrote up my previous entry for this blog, I've been out to: dinner with two friends and fellow Chinese New Year celebrants who came over from Kuala Lumpur (which lies some 369 kilometers away) along with two others who are based here in Penang; lunch with an American friend who had spent much of the past few weeks in Sherman Oaks, California; and afternoon tea with a former colleague who will shortly be returning to Britain. For another, thanks to the wonder that is the internet, re-connected with an old English boarding schoolmate who I've not seen in years, if not decades!

Going further back into the past, I recall a day more than a decade ago when it occured to me with a vengeance that it really can be a small world; one which, among other things, saw me head out from my then place of residence in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the company of Eiko, a Japanese Embassy staffer cum Africophile friend, and two Tanzanians to the historic town of Bagamoyo some 75 kilometers up on the Tanzanian coast.

I'm not sure what it's like now but back then, the road from Dar es Salaam to Bagamoyo was not at all great. So, not only was it imperative that we use a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there but the 75 km journey took around 3 hours to complete. And any feeling that we had ended up in the back of beyond was accentuated when we got to Bagamoyo and it became pretty clear that my Japanese friend and I were the only non-Tanzanians for miles.

At the same time though, it wasn't as though we -- more specifically, Eiko -- didn't know anyone in that whose notoriety as a former slave port remains. In fact, one reason we had headed to Bagamoyo that day was because she wanted to visit a Tanzanian musician friend of hers who had his home there. So, after stopping first for lunch at a stall in the town's market, off we went to his place on the edge of the small plus sleepy town that resembles a village far more than many other towns.

Upon reaching the Zawose family residence though, we found only Hukwe's father and sons. For as it turns out (and we hadn't known until his father told us in person because, among other things, Tanzania in 1995-96 was not a place where phones were all that ubiquitous or reliably in service), Hukwe Zawose was away...touring in Scandinavia! :D

On a more sobering plus sad note: I recently learnt that Hukwe Zawose passed away on 30 December 2003 at his Bagamoyo home. However, when I think of him, I tend to recall happier times. In particular, that day in Bagamoyo when, after we belatedly learnt of his absence, his father and children seemed to take pity on us for having come so far in vain, so proceeded to treat us to an impromptu concert out there in their yard; one which showed that Hukwe was by no means the only talented musician in the Zawose family.

For the record: The late Hukwe Zawose once confided that "When I was a young man my voice was so sweet that people would often cry when I sang. " In that vein, here's taking the opportunity presented here to disclose that the beauty that came through when his father sang and accompanied himself on the izezs (traditional African violin), and his sons played the ilimba (finger piano), made me get all teary-eyed in appreciation on that unforgettable day out there in East Africa; one whose memories I've treasured for years now and am sure I'll continue to do so for some time to come.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How well traveled are you?

A short blog entry today (written as I wait for a couple of friends from Kuala Lumpur to come over and visit); and one inspired in part by another KL-based friend telling me just yesterday afternoon that a mutual friend of ours -- one who currently makes her home in Canada -- had visited this blog and told her that it seems to contain a lot of travel-related entries... ;)

How well traveled are you? For an answer to this question, try out the linked quiz that's courtesy of Blogthings, a site with a whole bunch of interesting quizzes -- including ones with themes like "What writer should you be?" (The answer I got? Joke writer!!), "How observant are you?", "How Machiavellan are you?", "What age do you act?", "What's your holiday stress level?" and even "What is your Star Wars horoscope?" and "Are you a Mac or a PC?" (Not user, mind, but computer itself!)!

And should anyone be interested, the following is the answer that I got:-

Your Travel Profile:

You Are Very Well Traveled in the United Kingdom (75%)
You Are Very Well Traveled in the Northeastern United States (71%)
You Are Well Traveled in Africa (50%)
You Are Somewhat Well Traveled in Canada (40%)
You Are Somewhat Well Traveled in Asia (38%)
You Are Somewhat Well Traveled in the Southern United States (38%)
You Are Somewhat Well Traveled in Western Europe (36%)
You Are Somewhat Well Traveled in the Western United States (32%)
You Are Somewhat Well Traveled in the Middle East (25%)
You Are Somewhat Well Traveled in the Midwestern United States (25%)
You Are Mostly Untraveled in New Zealand (17%)
You Are Mostly Untraveled in Australia (13%)
You Are Untraveled in Eastern Europe (0%)
You Are Untraveled in Latin America (0%)
You Are Untraveled in Scandinavia (0%)
You Are Untraveled in Southern Europe (0%)

All told, a quite accurate assessment to my mind, actually! :)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My childhood martial arts experiences

Some years ago when I was living in Philadelphia, an American I had recently befriended asked me what was Asian about me. Nowadays, I could point him to this blog to find out for himself. Back then, being the anthropological-minded person that I was (and, actually, still am), I regaled him with details about the kinship system and associated "naming" formalities which I adhered to.

However, if I had wanted to be stereotypical, I guess I could have easily told him "I know Karate". Which I do; having studied it for a few years in my youth. And is something that I've sometimes found that -- thanks in large part to the various Asian martial arts movies which have made their way into Western hands and the Western imagination-- many Westerners think is the case for pretty much every Asian who hails from a territory to the east of the Indian subcontinent!

Of course, the truth of the matter is that not everyone in East and Southeast Asia knows Karate. Heck, not everyone is an exponent of some form of martial arts! As it turns out though, my father is one of those Asians who has spent some years training in and practicing the martial arts; in particular, Karate.

This fact notwithstanding, my decision to study the Japanese martial arts form known as Karate was not one which was all that automatic. Instead, I was taken around to check out a few different martial arts forms, schools and styles before making my decision as to which I would go ahead and pursue. (Still, I must admit to having had next to no interest right from the start in such as Tai Chi (because I associated it with the elderly) and Judo (because that martial art's de-emphasis of punching and kicking made that which translates into English as "The Gentle Way" look "girly" to my untrained eyes)... ;S)

Although I used to enjoy going with my father to the dojo where he regularly trained one-on-one with a Karate black belt, I decided that what I wanted for myself was to train with others -- kinda like, you know, at the Shaolin Temple which featured in many a Chinese Kung Fu movie (e.g., Mainland China's Shaolin Temple and Hong Kong's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin)!

As it so happens, there's a Shaolin Kung Fu outpost over here in Penang. So, one evening, my father took me through the doors of what had looked on the outside like your conventional row house in the old part of George Town (Penang's capital city) and straight into a scene that looked like it had come out of the training sequence of a classic Kung Fu movie!

Perhaps an overactive imagination has made my memory of that occasion more colorful than it actually was. But the abiding impressions I have retained are of the place having been full of sweaty, hard-bodied male youths and manly men, most of them stripped to the waist and focused on improving their physical condition and martial artistic prowess.

Of all the training techniques that I was privileged to observe that evening, by far the most impressive -- but also most downright frightening looking if you're viewing it from the viewpoint of someone who is contemplating whether or not to subject yourself to it! -- was "the sand pan method" aimed at developing the Shaolin"iron fist" (or fabled "iron palm"?).

As the section on it on the official Penang Sao Lim (i.e., the Hokkien rendition of the Mandarin "Shaolin") Athletic Association website takes pain to caution, "this method is very unpleasant and destroys the nerves of the hands". So it would be understandable if those of you who haven't actually seen someone thrusting their hands into hot sand inside of a big and deep as well as broad-rimmed wok that's being heated by a charcoal fire don't believe that people actually do this kind of thing in real life.

But believe you me when I state that I truly did witness some men doing precisely that in order to toughen their hands, fists and forearms that night! And also be equally assured that after doing so, this then preteen female child emphatically -- and surely understandably? -- decided that Kung Fu was not for her!!!

At the same time though, I wasn't about to abandon my quest for a martial art that -- and school where -- I would like to learn. Hearing this, a Korean friend of an aunt of mine decided to introduce me to the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do and took me to a local Tae Kwon Do centre to watch a training session which I found to be pretty impressive. But for some reason that I no longer can remember, I didn't become a Tae Kwon Do student like Collecting Tokens' Alejna did.

Instead, I ended up at the Budokan Karate (an international school of Karate with Malaysian origins) classes that were held at the local YMCA (which appears to serve primarily as a hostel these days but, back when I was a kid, offered lots of extra-curricular courses, ranging from art classes to language lessons to, yes, Karate training sessions). And then, when the instructor decided to move the venue of his evening classes to a presumably low-rental charging local churchyard, I really did end up learning and practicing Karate while surrounded by the final resting places of more than one Christian individual!

Looking back now, it all can seem like a somewhat surreal part of my childhood. At the time though, my twice weekly Karate lessons, whether they took place at the YMCA or the grave-filled churchyard, seemed normal enough -- since I was by no means the only kid learning karate in Penang -- as well as regularly were the highlights of my weeks.

Even funnier was the fact that even while my parents and those of the other children who were taking Karate lessons along with me talked about how it seemed like taking those lessons had calmed us down (and we affirmed to our parents that we would regularly end our sessions with "breathing lessons" designed to instill calmness in us), the best part of the sessions as far we were concerned were those devoted to "free sparring": i.e., effectively chances for us to try out , in one-on-one pairings and bouts, the martial arts moves that we had learned on one another!

All in all, it's a wonder that none of us seemed to ever have gotten seriously hurt amidst all the hijinks. Sure, one time, someone actually sent me flying through the air with a punch. (In mitigation, the thrower of the punch was an adult who, to rub insult to injury as far as I was concerned, was told by the instructor that she shouldn't use her full power with me since, even though we wore the same colored belt (brown), I was still a child after all!)

And another time, I ended up with cracked ribs. (This time at the hands of a fellow child -- only he was male and a few years older than me!) But I generally felt that I usually gave as good as I got. And, in fact, once -- accidentally, of course! -- broke someone's tooth. (Fortunately, it was a milk tooth since she was my age and thus, at that time, a prepubescent!) As well as caused another girl to sprain her wrist... ;S

Nonetheless, and in all seriousness, it really did seem like fun was had by all for the most part! So, really, if I could turn back the clock or, even, was fit enough, yeah, I'd go back to taking those Karate lessons again in a jiffy... :b

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy Chinese New Year of the Pig to you! :)

This picture courtesy of Kickdefella,
and in honor of the
Bloggers United campaign

As I write this blog entry, Chinese New Year celebrations have already been in full swing for some hours now. For example, last night, I had a "steamboat" dinner with my parents and others. Also, even before midnight came along, fireworks were already being let off by high spirited Chinese New Year celebrants.

Then this morning, before I had even brushed my teeth(!), the sounds made by the drummers who are integral parts of Lion Dance troupes reverberated throughout our neighborhood. And before I had even finished drinking my morning cup of coffee, a stream of visitors -- including relatives from out of town -- started arriving at our abode. (Two other -- and related -- traditional Chinese New Year practices involve people taking turns having "open houses" and paying visits to the homes of family members and friends.)

At the moment, there appears to be a visiting lull (probably because it's lunch time!). So, while I have the opportunity to do so, here's wishing a Happy Chinese New Year of the Pig to one and all! And yeah, even if you're not ethnic Chinese, you can enter into the spirit of the festival by: a) wishing your loved ones good health, fortune and luck; b) eating lots; and c) being merry!! As well as, of course, doing such as wearing red and viewing a Chinese New Year movie (or more)!!! ;b

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Wannabe (Meme)

Over on his Cultural Snow blog, Tim Footman's written up an interesting post which lists seven things he's wanted to be together with seven occupational posts that he's held. At the end of it, he mused that "A meme beckons, methinks." And I have to say that I felt compelled to respond to his encouragement of "Off you go"!

So here's going ahead and offering up the following contributions to what I hope will be a fun and enduring round of blog-tag:-

Seven things I have wanted to be:

* Film festival programmer
* Travel writer
* Efficiency expert
* Newspaper columnist
* Fire fighter
* Professional footballer :o
* Professor of English (what I wrote in an essay as a 9 year old!)

Seven things I have been:

* English as a Second Language teaching aide & tutor
* Archaeology survey and excavation crew member
* Cultural anthropology instructor
* Museum consultant
* Television executive
* Tourism strategist
* Magazine research editor

And for those of you readers without blogs of your own: Here's inviting you to divulge what would be on your own lists over at this blog entry's Comments section! :)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

It'll be their year too! ;)

Mcmug remote control holder and associated themed MTR tickets

Mcmug storage box and McDull themed MTR tickets

Mcdull Octopus Card holder and associated themed MTR tickets

For three consecutive weeks last year, Hong Kong's fabulous Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation offered up a limited series of "Mcmug Introducing Local Snacks" MTR Souvenir Ticket Family Packs; each pack of which contained -- as pictured and detailed above -- two souvenir MTR tickets and one "plush premium" consisting of one item from a selection made up of an Octopus Card holder, storage box and remote control holder.

The popularity of these collectible items which were priced at HK$98 per pack can be seen in notice needing to be given that "Each person is limited to two sets per purchase". At the same time, however, the MTR didn't seem to think to make available a similar set of McDull themed collectibles (be these ticket sets, plushes or both) to usher in the upcoming Chinese New Year of the Pig. (Go here to see what they're offering up as festive collectibles instead.)

Still, this is not to say that there are no Mcdull and/or Mcmug themed items for sale by the MTR Corporation in 2007. Rather, this year, the Mcdull and Mcmug-themed MTR Corporation items of choice appear to be none other than Mcdull and Mcmug-themed Octopus Cards (which, for those who are interested, are priced at HK$138 each!)! Or, more precisely, Mcmug and Mcdull premium Octopus Card sets which come with "a special character adult Octopus Card" but also "an Octopus cardholder, a pouch strap and an ornament"!! :b

By now, those of this blog's readers who are largely in the dark as to who or what are Mcmug and Mcdull should, at the very least, have gathered that they're quite popular among Hong Kongers. Indeed, I might go so far as to suggest that Mcdull and Mcmug are to Hong Kong what Hello Kitty and Totoro are to Japan...

Still, I think it'd be best for me to back up a bit and briefly introduce these porcine characters to those who still have to be acquainted with them. So, in a sentence (or two!): Mcmug is a cartoon pig creation of Hong Konger Alice Mak (who's responsible for the graphics) and her husband, Brian Tse (who comes up with the stories), that made his first appearance in a Mingpao (a Hong Kong based, Chinese language weekly magazine) comic strip back in 1998.

As for Mcmug's dull distant cousin, Mcdull: Although he initially appeared as a supporting character in the Mcmug comic strip, Mcdull has gone on to become a star in his own right -- and even has, thus far, starred in three critically acclaimed plus commercially successful feature films. And for the record, the titles of this trio of choice cinematic offerings are: My Life as Mcdull (2001); Mcdull, Prince de la Bun (2004); and Mcdull: The Alumni (2006).

Now, if truth be told, since a lot of what I know about Hong Kong comes from the movies, I personally am far more familiar with Mcdull than Mcmug. From doing such as perusing Irenegarden's interesting flickr site, however, it's quite clear than Mcmug gets around and seems to have the kind of heritage proclivity that made him want to go and say goodbye to the old Star Ferry building in Central prior to its demolition. (E.g., see here and here.)

On a cheerier note, Mcmug and co. really do seem to have gotten themselves into a celebratory Chinese New Year spirit already. And should you need visual proof of this beyond the MTR collectibles, do go here and here -- thanks for the heads up re these and the Irenegarden images, sbk! :b -- for kawaii photos by carriechow showing Mcmug, Mcdull and their friends, Fai (the tortoise) and Goosie (who, despite its name, actually is a duck rather than a goose!), clad in traditional-looking plus red and gold-colored festive finery! :)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Traditional Chinese New Year practices (2)

(Continuing from yesterday...)

4) The eating of yee sang: A raw fish (preferably salmon these days) dish whose ingredients is meant to be tossed in the air and mixed up, yee sang (which literally translates as "fish toss"!) appears to be one of those Chinese dishes -- another of these is the simply delicious pork bone "tea" or soup known by its Hokkien name of bak kut teh -- that actually is indigeneous to Malaysia rather than China.

Although it's officially meant to be eaten only on the seventh day of Chinese New Year, Malaysians are likely to eat it any time during or even in the few weeks preceding the Chinese New Year period. Also, the use of the term Malaysians in the previous sentence is not accidental, as yee sang (a particularly large example of which can be seen here) is a halal dish that's enjoyed by many Malaysians who are not ethnic Chinese as well as those that are. :)

5) The eating of "steamboat" (AKA "hot pot"): Strictly speaking, this is a tradition that's observed on Chinese New Year eve rather than Chinese New Year itself. But, especially since my return to Malaysia, I've come to think of the gathering together of family -- and, in some cases, friends -- to eat this piping hot dish that has been described as the Chinese equivalent of fondue as the event that starts of each year's Chinese New Year celebrations.

At the same time, like the Singaporean blogger of Foodie Paradise, I have to admit to failing to understand the rationale behind eating "steamboat" in tropical or equatorial climes. (And this especially when my ancestors hail from a southern -- and consequently warm -- region of China.) Still, I can't help but find this culinary concoction which looks to have origins in a colder part of the world to be very tasty and thus worth sweating copiously for! ;)

6) The giving or receiving of lucky red packets (of money!): The traditional Chinese New Year practice that's dreaded by married folks -- especially those who are childless -- since tradition dictates that they are the givers, and looked forward to by young children and similarly unmarried individuals on account of their being the designated receivers! Re the former: This is so much so that some married couples have been known to go away and holiday in far away places where they're unlikely to meet their relatives, friends and/or other Chinese in order to avoid -- or at least minimize -- their festive ang pow giving! ;)

On a more serious note, the practice of giving ang pow (which literally translates as "red packets") in Hokkien -- and the similar sounding hong bao or lai see in Cantonese -- is fraught with superstition. For example, it's a major no-no to use old bank notes as well as to give odd numbered amounts of money. Consequently, it's not just the giver having given insufficient monetary sum that can be responsible for their incurring an ang pow receiver's ire during Chinese New Year!

7) Watching a Chinese New Year movie (Yes, really!): As many a Hong Kong film fan knows, certain movies are made which are not only timed to be screened during the Chinese New Year period but, also, adhere to certain Chinese New Year movie conventions. With regard to the latter: Suffice to say that Chinese New Year movies tend to be on the light(-hearted) , rib-tickling and star-studded side. ;)

In 2007, there appear to be three (made for) Chinese New Year movies jostling for attention and business. Twins Mission is an action-adventure-comedy starring -- you guessed it -- da Twins (i.e., Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi to the uninitated) along with Sammo Hung, Wu Jing and Yuen Wah.

And although it appears to be on the dark side for a bona fide Chinese New Year movie, Protege, a star-studded thriller directed by Derek Yee and starring Andy Lau, Louis Koo, Daniel Wu and -- yes, really! -- Anita Yuen, is scheduled for release during this Chinese New Year period. Still, the one film which actually will open in Malaysian cinemas on the first day of Chinese New Year itself is Lady Iron Chef, a cooking adventure movie(?) starring Charmaine Sheh and Hacken Lee.

As for those Hong Kong movie fans dwelling in territories with zero chance of these movies appearing in your local theatre: Please don't despair and gnash your teeth too much! Rather, should you wish to get into the Chinese New Year (movie-viewing) spirit, here's going ahead and letting you know that the following are festive cinematic gems of years past which I think are worth hunting down and viewing (and should you already have, re-viewing): Fantasia; Fat Choi Spirit; The Chinese Feast; Stephen Chow's King of Comedy; Now You See Love...Now You Don't; Wu Yen; and, last but by no means least, The Eagle Shooting Heroes! :)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Traditional Chinese New Year practices (1)

Red signs left on the ground that firecrackers had been
let off in the vicinity to celebrate Chinese New Year

Less than a week from now, it'll be Chinese New Year. More specifically, that which is 18th February 2007 according to the Roman calendar will be, for the Chinese,
the first day of the year 4705 as well as a New Year of the Pig (or, as it is increasingly known in Muslim majority Malaysia, Boar).

Weeks before, preparations for this festive occasion already kicked off in earnest. For example, Chinese New Year gift hampers and oranges (called kam in Hokkien, Cantonese and related Chinese dialects -- the same, give a tonal difference or two, as the word for "gold"; hence, to give oranges can sound like and symbolize the giving of gold) galore have arrived at our house.

Ditto with the commencement of a bout of the Chinese equivalent of "spring cleaning". This in part because it is considered bad luck to do any cleaning during the Chinese New Year period -- since the sweeping away of anything during this time is seen as symbolizing the "sweeping away" of wealth and luck. But also because one does like to have a clean abode to welcome visitors into during Chinese New Year! ;)

The days before Chinese New Year also are when politicians are apt to get all "fatherly" and issue bits of what they consider to be sage advice to the people. Hence my opening the newspaper this morning to find an article entreating young Malaysian Chinese to learn the meanings of traditional Chinese practices. And it's in the spirit of that piece that I've decided to dedicate today's blog entry towards detailing the following traditional Chinese New Year practices and their meanings:-

1) Chinese New Year greetings: Such is the hegemonic influence of Mandarin that these days, even non-Mandarin speakers are likely to wish each other Gong Xi Fa Cai, a phrase which effectively translates into English as "Wishing You Prosperity and Wealth". However, time was when I was more likely to hear the Cantonese Kung Hei Fat Choi (which actually possesses the same meaning as the popular Mandarin greeting) at the start of a new Chinese year.

Still, come next Sunday, I'm sure that I'll also hear the Hokkien equivalent of Keong Hee Huat Chai heartily issue at least from the mouths of older Penangites. (By the way, the preponderance of Hokkiens among the Filipino -- and Filipina -- Chinese can be seen not only by former President Corazon Aquino being ethnic Hokkien but also in the President of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, tending to issue Chinese New Year greetings in Hokkien.)

2) The wearing of red clothing: According to an ancient Chinese fable I learnt about years ago, a dragon which threatened a Chinese community was found to be scared of -- and eventually warded off -- by loud sounds and the color red. For this and other reasons, the Chinese have come to consider this vibrant color to symbolize good luck and prosperity. And, in turn, this why Chinese folks go ahead and clad themselves in red clothing during Chinese New Year.

On a personal note: I must admit that this is the one Chinese New Year custom which I 've always made a point to observe -- even when living in places (like deepest, darkest West Philadelphia!), where I was unlikely to come across (m)any other ethnic Chinese. At the same time though, I have to say that, unlike some other people, I have drawn -- and will continue to draw -- the line as far as wearing red underwear is concerned! ;D

3) The letting off of firecrackers or fireworks: Another traditional Chinese New Year custom designed to scare away evil creatures, spirits and bad fortune; in this case, one which, according to a Chinese news article, has "a nearly 2000-year history based on textual research." This fact not withstanding, there's been a firecracker ban in many parts of the world where Chinese people live -- including, for several years, some parts of Mainland China itself as well as my native Malaysia.

If truth be told, I can see both sides of the firecracker ban argument. This since I both enjoy fireworks displays, especially as a child, but also have had the rather scary experience of having a firecracker thrown out of a car in my direction by a thoughtless American Independence Day reveller. However, it seems that there's a way out in terms of allowing less dangerous fireworks (e.g., sparklers and similarly small novelties) to be used to herald in Chinese New Year. And that, indeed, is precisely what the authorities have gone ahead and done in this country...

(To be continued tomorrow on account of this already being quite a lengthy entry!)