Friday, March 24, 2017

A fairly easy yet enjoyably scenic Hong Kong hike (Photo-essay)

Hong Kong's hiking community has been abuzz in recent days about an emergency call for help by two hikers stranded on a mountain leading to the death of a firefighter who was a member of the rescue team.  Questions have been asked regarding why the hikers went on such a difficult trail in less than ideal weather, how prepared they were for their endeavor, and what previous hiking experience they have had.  

As it so happens, there recently has been news coverage of a new breed of hikers in Hong Kong who seem less prepared and frankly less respectful of the environment (in more ways than one) than more experienced ones.  As I've often thought to myself (and also said aloud to my hiking companions), too many people don't seem to realize that they are out in the wild when they venture into Hong Kong's country parks and either overestimate their physical abilities or underestimate the demands that hiking can place on them.

On a related note: many inexperienced hikers look down on the easier trails when, in fact, they may better suit their ability levels -- and also can actually be pretty pleasant to trek along.  As an example, the path from Siu Sai Wan to Big Wave Bay via Pottinger Peak is one of those that doesn't require all that much effort, yet delivers much bang for your buck as far as scenic views go.  And it's also easy enough to add extra length and exertion to your outing by throwing in a walk from Big Wave Bay down to Shek O and Tai Tau Chau, like a friend and I did one unseasonably sunny and blue sky day a while back! ;b 

 Siu Sai Wan may not seem an obvious place to find
a trail head for a good hike but look, and ye shall find! ;b
On the Siu Sai Wan side of Pottinger Peak too is
a shrine where pots of tea wait to be drank :)

Not a resort facility or college but the Cape Collinson 
Correctional Institution for young male offenders! :O
Surfers abound at Big Wave Bay ;b
The waves don't seem that big but the surfers 
seem to enjoy them all the same :)
 Things were considerable quieter at Tai Tau Chau,
with more cool rock formations around than humans
Not the kind of scenery many people expect to find on an 
easy hike that began in an urban part of Hong Kong, right? ;b
A view of Shek O bathed in sunlight and looking 
pretty idyllic from Tai Tau Chau :)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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

A beautifully presented amuse-bouche 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

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

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Ballaké Sissoko's music and my African connections

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Musings on the value accorded street art in Hong Kong

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

Are they valued or not?

To judge by their treatment, sadly maybe not

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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