Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hong Kong (and HKIFF), here I come! :)

Love Massacre (Hong Kong, 1981)
-- a film shot mainly in the U.S.A. that I've long wanted
(but hitherto have been unable) to view with English subtitles!

Early tomorrow morning, I'll be heading off to Hong Kong. Not permanently, mind; rather, it's just for a little more than a week. And should you wonder: yes, indeedy, re the plan being to devote a significant portion of this upcoming visit to attending screenings at the 31st Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) and courtesy of the related Restored Treasures program at the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA)... :b

Additionally, since I trust that there are no stalkers among you(!) plus, at the same time, know that there are a few people out there who are interested in my choice of films to go view, here's going ahead and providing details (i.e., date, time, venue and movie title) of my planned film-going schedule over the next few days:-

Friday, 30th March:-
5:30 p.m. -- HK City Hall -- Nanking (U.S.A., 2006)

Saturday, 31st March:-
10:30 a.m. -- HK City Hall -- The Bimo Records (Mainland China, 2006)
3 p.m. -- HK City Hall -- After This Our Exile (Hong Kong, 2006)
6 p.m. -- HK City Hall -- Undercover (Hong Kong, 2007)

Sunday, 1st April:-
10:30 a.m. -- HK Science Museum -- Love Conquers All (Malaysia, 2006)
5 p.m. -- HKFA -- Four Moods (Taiwan, 1970)
8 p.m. -- HKFA -- Love Massacre (Hong Kong, 1981)

Monday, 2nd April:-
3 p.m. -- HK Space Museum -- One Way Street on a Turntable (Hong Kong, 2006)
9:30 p.m. -- UA Langham Place -- Half Moon (Iran & Iraq, 2006)

Tuesday, 3rd April:-
2 p.m. -- HK Science Museum -- Before the Flood (Mainland China, 2004)
7 p.m. -- HK Cultural Centre -- The Go Master (Mainland China, 2006)

Wednesday, 4th April:-
11:30 a.m. -- HK Science Museum -- Walk In (Hong Kong, 1997)
5 p.m. -- UA Langham Place -- Sway (Japan, 2006)
9:30 p.m. -- HK Cultural Centre -- I Don't Want To Sleep Alone (Malaysia & Taiwan, 2006)

Thursday, 5th April:-
5 p.m. -- HKFA -- Cold Blade (Hong Kong, 1970)
9 p.m. -- HK Cultural Centre -- Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust (Japan, 2007)

All in all, a very noticeably Asia-heavy selection. But diverse in other ways in that there are a few documentaries along with 'indie', art-house plus more commercially-inclined fiction films in the mix. And some older works -- two of which (i.e., Love Massacre and Walk In) I've previously viewed, though not yet on a big screen -- along with many new ones.

Also, yes, the plan is indeed to view sixteen movies over a one week period. Some of you might think that this is crazy; others of you might think that it's not enough! Me? I'm hoping that it will prove to be neither too many or few movies and, instead, just nice. Furthermore, that none -- or, if not that, than only just a few -- of the films I've elected to see will truly disappoint.

Additionally, as far as this blog is concerned, I'm thinking that the chances are high that there won't be any new posts until after I return to Penang two Fridays from now. Rest assured though that the blog will stay open during this period that I'm away, and that I'll probably check it periodically to view and respond to your posted comments, etc. As well, here's your chance to more thoroughly look to see what's already on the rest of it...!

So until the next time... :)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Cheers to beers!

"Beer is the drink of the moment", it was announced in The Guardian today. In fact, according to a survey by international marketing analysts AC Nielsen, beer is now officially "the most popular beverage on the planet"!

That English newspaper's article which caught this beer geek's eye goes on to discuss the state and status of that popular tipple in China (where there are some 850 different breweries); the Czech Republic (whose denizens drink more beer per head than their German neighbors); the U.S.A. (which now has more than 1,300 microbreweries); India (whose first commercial brewery was established in the 1820s); and South America (where Aztecs and Mayans made beer long before the arrival of the Europeans).

And it proceeded to cause me to raise at least one eyebrow when its British author, Roger Protz, who edits the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)'s Good Beer Guide, went on and named the Goose Island IPA brewed by Chicago's Goose Island Beer Company as that which "just may be the best beer in the world."

Stepping back a bit for some perspective: The fact that American microbrews are capable of brewing some fine beers is not news to me. But the best beer in the whole wide world? And yes, it's true enough that I've not tasted the afore-nominated beer. Nonetheless, I would have expected that to be brewed in either one of the countries whose traditional beer styles I most admire, and have influenced the American microbrews I most like (e.g., the North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Russian Stout or Celis White): i.e., Britain or Belgium.

Starting first with Belgium: This, after all, is a country whose national tourist authority trumpets the fact that it is home to "over 450 varieties of beer and "almost as many beer styles". And while I had the misfortune of having visited Belgium before I became a beer geek, I also was lucky enough to reside for some years in a city -- Philadelphia, the legendary City of Brotherly Shove -- which had a very good Belgian eatery in Monk's Cafe which prided itself on being a "beer emporium" as well as restaurant.

Consequently, I've been introduced to such beery delights as the agreeable white (or wheat) beers whose brewing tradition inspired Celis White, heavenly Trappist ales (e.g., those from Chimay like the 8 percent alcohol level Chimay Tripel) and those famously strong beers (e.g., the smooth and sweet but also dangerously alcoholic Duvel). And then there's -- but of course! -- those exotic as well as fruity lambics like Lindemans Frambroise Lambic that, at the risk of being accused of beer blasphemy, bring to mind champagne more than most other types of beers.

Still (and yes, you can chalk it down to my general Anglophilia!), I have to say that my own preference is for the beers of Britain. More specifically, my absolute tipples of choice would include such as the peculiarly named but flavorful Old Speckled Hen (that I've been ecstatic to find on draft in at least one British-style pub over here in Malaysia) or the dreamy Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout (which, alas, I haven't seen available anywhere in my home country).

Then there are those dark and full provincial English beers known as Milds; malty libations that, as their style's name implies, are low on alcoholic content despite being dark in color and, therefore, in the popular imagination, supposedly stronger in terms of alcoholic "kick". Unfortunately associated with "old men in flat caps" in some parts of Britain, they're virtually unknown in others and generally not to be found outside of that country.

In point of fact, I can recall more than one occasion when I asked the bartender at a London pub whether they served Mild, only to get a return query as to whether I was, in fact, asking for "light" beer. Should you be a beer geek (or even -- pun intended! -- mildly interested in trying out a different kind of beer) though, here's encouraging you -- should you find yourself in England at somewhere in the future -- to look out for and sample this tasty variety of beer that, after imbibing a pint or more of, you, too, might decide was worth seeking out after all. :)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Some more Beijing "must see"s

A couple of days ago, I wrote a longer than originally intended blog entry about Beijing's Forbidden City. This time around, it's my intention to devote the better part of this post to discussing a few other "must see"s that lie within the capital city of the People's Republic of China. However, it would be remiss of me to not also mention a particular famous portal that actually is part of the Forbidden City and, in fact, is the main entrance to it.

Tiananmen (trans. "Gate of Heavenly Peace"), as it is so named, is the traditional front as well as southern most entrance into the Forbidden City. Originally built in 1417, the 34.7 meter high, 62.7 meter long and 27.25 meter wide structure -- which comes complete with such as a rostrum, terracing, a glaze tile-roofed gate tower, five watch towers and five entrances of its own -- is easily recognized these days by way of having a giant portrait of Mao Zedong hanging just above its central door.

Chairman Mao officially announced the founding of the People's Republic of China from atop Tiananmen's rostrum on 1st October, 1949. In 1988, this same rostrum was opened to the public. Consequently, visitors to Beijing are free to scale the 67 steps that lead up there -- or rather, they are able to do so after paying an admission charge that varies by season! -- to take in the panoramic views that await them of both the rest of the Forbidden City to the north, and the now infamous square that shares the gate's name to the south.

Tiananmen Square. There's no denying that the world's largest public square, one that the Frommer's Beijing guide factually describes as "the size of 90 Amerian football fields (40 hectares/99 acres), with 300,000", is inextricably linked in the minds of many people around the world -- myself included -- with the tragic events that took place there and around its vicinity on 4th June, 1989.

And it was with a sense of pilgrimage of sorts that I made my way to that public space in the center of Beijing. At the risk of sounding like I'm making light of things, however, upon stepping onto that site, the fact of the matter is that what you become more immediately aware of are the place's physical attributes rather than historical associations. For Tiananmen Square really is big in a way that you can only truly understand when you go there and see it for yourself.

Moving on and further afield: Another monumental attraction which visitors to Beijing must make room for in their itineraries is the Summer Palace. Or, rather, I should say two monumental attractions -- as there actually are two Summer Palaces to speak of: i.e., the still extant Yihe Yuan (which was first built in 1750, largely destroyed in 1860, then restored on its original foundations in 1886); and the ruined Yuan Ming Yuan (work on which began in 1707 but which was greatly expanded later on, only to be largely destroyed by foreign invaders in 1860 and then had its decimation more or less completed in 1900) .

As can be gathered by its being known in English as the Summer Palace, the Yihe Yuan which is located in what is now a suburb of Beijing was used as a summer residence cum retreat by imperial Chinese rulers. At the same time though, the fact that its Chinese name translates into English as "Garden of Nurtured Harmony" (or, alternatively, "Garden for Maintaining Health and Harmony) should clue people in to the bulk of the Summer Palace's 294 hectares (726.5 acres) being taken up by garden -- or, rather, park -- space rather than actual buildings per se.

And if truth be told, aside from three notable exceptions (i.e., the triple-tiered, stand-alone China Opera Theatre that was a favorite of the Dowager Empress Cixi; the picture-festooned 700 meters (approx. 795 yards) in length covered walkway known as the Long Corridor; and the beautiful 17 Arch Bridge that has 544 stone carved lions along its railings), the structures in the Summer Palace were far less impressive than its lakes -- notably Kunming Lake, on which one can go boating -- and the exquisite garden-within-a-garden that is the Garden of Harmonious Interests.

In view of its original buildings being no more, it's even more so that the Yuan Ming Yuan is to be primarily enjoyed these days as a park rather than anything else. To be sure, the historically minded might wish to think of it -- or, to be more precise -- its destruction as "a vivid symbol of foreign aggression and humiliation". However, a visit to that whose Chinese name translates as the Garden of Perfection and Light will confirm that, these days, many people, including many residents of China itself, treat its confines as a set of scenic outdoor spaces to stroll around and have picnics in.

On a lighter note: Individuals who have viewed Mabel Cheung's The Soong Sisters will find the labyrinthic structure variously known as Wanhua Zhen (trans. "10,000-Flower Maze") or Huanghua Zhen (trans. "Yellow-Flower Maze") that lies within the Yuan Ming Yuan to be a surprisingly familiar sight. ("Surprising" since that particular scene in the movie in which the maze appears was not supposed to have taken place in Beijing!)

Asian film fans also might like to know that the Summer Palace figures in more than one cinematic work directed by the late Li Han Hsiang. Furthermore, they may recognize that the gate which Yu Shu Lien, the character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon played by Michelle Yeoh, passed through into Beijing in that movie is the still-in- existence Qian Men (trans. Front Gate) which is located on the south side of none other than Tiananmen Square... ;)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The glory that is Beijing's Forbidden City

A friend of mine who regularly reads this blog recently e-mailed to tell me that she's visiting Mainland China with a tour group next month. I'm not sure how many days she'll spend in
Beijing but, already, since the entire tour -- which will also take in Shanghai, Suzhou and Xian, among other locales -- will only take up two weeks, I know that her time in the "Northern Capital" (which is what Beijing's name translates from Mandarin into) just won't feel enough.

Not that I'm the greatest Beijing travel expert out there by any means. In fact, I've only ever been to, and in, Beijing -- and Mainland China itself! -- once thus far in my life! Nevertheless, if nothing else, that single one-and-a-half week visit got me realizing how much there is to see and do in that city which is already pretty huge and spread out but still looks to be ever growing.

And this even if you didn't venture out on a side trip to the Great Wall of China. Something which it really would be a great pity to miss out on -- and this especially since it would be a major case of "so close, yet so far" as, at its most conveniently accessible from Beijing (i.e., Juyong Guan), this lengthy structure is less than 60 kilometers (i.e., a mere 37 miles or so) away from Beijing -- but, simultaneously, an outing that would take up, at the very least, a fairly full day on your itinerary.

Then there's the monumental behemoth in the center of Beijing itself that requires at least a day's visit to do it justice. And yes, I know that guided tours regularly allocate just half a day (or even no more than three hours) to a visit to the Forbidden City. But look at the images at the top of this blog entry and just you try to tell me that you think half a day would be enough to spend in what is, after all, the largest and most completely preserved palatial architecture group in the world!

For make no mistake: The Forbidden City is a city, not a single palace. Heck, even the term "palace complex" doesn't quite do it justice. After all, and here I quote from a Beijing photobook entitled Overlooking Beijing which serves as a great souvenir of my September 2004 visit to the city, this former imperial residence "occupies an area of 720,000 square meters [around 864,000 square yards for those whose countries haven't converted to the metric system] with 80 palaces containing over 9,000 bays of rooms"!

In all honesty, the sheer size -- never mind the grandeur -- of the Forbidden City took my breath away. And this from someone who had previously visited other grand imperial and royal residences like England's Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace, France's Palace of Versailles and Chateau de Fontainebleau, Austria's Schloss Schoenbrunn, Istanbul's Topkapi and Dolmabahce Palaces, etc., etc.

Still, should you need more proof of the Forbidden City's ability to awe and impress, here's what popular travel authority Frommer's has to say about it on its website: "despite the flood of superlatives and exaggerated statistics that inevitably go into its description, it is impervious to an excess of hype, and it is large and compelling enough to draw repeat visits from even the most jaded travelers. Make more time for it than you think you'll need."

This is especially so if you venture beyond the well-trodden and crowded central areas of the complex that are dominated by the fancifully named Halls of Great (or Supreme) Harmony, Middle (or Complete) Harmony and Preserving Harmony; and where such amazing pieces of material culture as a single stone that weighs more than 200 tons and has been elaborately carved with dragons, stylized clouds, equally stylized waves and interlocking lotus flowers are to be found.

In particular, I'd highly recommend that visitors to the Forbidden City not pass up the opportunity to venture into both its Western and Eastern Axes (the latter of which requires an extra 10 Yuan worth of entrance costs on top of the basic 40 or 60 Yuan (depending on the season) admission fee for the general Palace Museum but truly is 10 Yuan that's worth paying).

Incidentally, more than one Beijing guidebook that I've looked at has cautioned that the Western Axis is in a state of heavy disrepair. However, many of the buildings in that part of the Forbidden City appeared to already have been restored -- or, at least, worked on -- when I visited back in September 2004.

Consequently, I was able to get quite a bit out of my explorations of such as the historically significant Hall of Mental Cultivation as well as the Six Western Palaces, one of which -- the Palace of Gathering Elegance -- is particularly notorious for having been the actual residence for several years of the Empress Dowager Cixi.

For all this though, I'd still say that the Eastern Axis is my favorite part of the Forbidden City. For one thing, perhaps in large part because of that extra 10 Yuan charge, it's the least crowded -- and consequently also the quietest -- section of the Forbidden City.

For another, it's where certain of the imperial residence turned museum's more incredible artefacts -- including large pieces of painstakingly sculpted jade (one of which weighs an incredible 1.07 tons!), antique artwork and imperial jewelry, not to mention the famous Nine Dragons Screen which dates back to the reign of Emperor Qianlong -- are housed.

To sum up what I've been trying to say all along in one single concluding paragraph: No visit to Mainland China, never mind Beijing, will feel complete without a tour of the Forbidden City. At the same time, no visit to the Forbidden City will feel complete without also taking in its Western section and, particularly, Eastern Axis along with the complex's central areas. Consequently, you really ought to spend at least one day there in order to be able to sufficiently take in and appreciate the wonder of it all.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Death becomes them

Macau's Santa Casa da Misericordia
(AKA Holy House of Mercy)

The neo-classical building on Senado Square houses
a charitable establishment founded by Macau's first bishop,

and that clergyman's skull as well as cross too!

Something that I didn't mention yesterday but will today is that while sorting through my photographic collection, I came across but didn't pick the above two photographs to include in my latest Macau photo-essay.

To elaborate a little further on their subject matter: Founded in 1569, the Holy House of Mercy is the oldest Western charity in all of China. It also has the distinction of having set up China's first ever Western-styled hospital. Still active to this day, the organization additionally currently operates a cancer clinic along with homes for the aged, invalids and the blind.

More to the point with regards to their choice as pictorial anchors for today's entry: The mid-18th century building which is home to this charitable religious establishment also houses the skull of its founder, a Portuguese prelate named Dom Melchior Nunes Carneiro Leitão, S.J. And at the risk of sounding rather facetious, that skull was what got me thinking of one of the more...interesting -- and, if truth be told, surprisingly amusing! ;b -- books in my library, and that the tome might make for a novel subject for a blog entry!

Compiled by British lexicographer Jonathon Green, Famous Last Words: The Ultimate Dictionary of Quotations is a fascinating collection of the last words of some 2,200 dead people; many -- if not most -- of them famous personages. Deathbed complaints, philosophical parting words, gallows humor, fond farewells, sad goodbyes and more get representation in what may well be the ultimate book of lists.

For those who don't feel that all this is too macabre and bizarre, do read on for a taste of the book's contents by way of the following diverse selection of a baker's dozen worth of memorable parting utterances which caught my eye and imagination:-

I can't sleep. (Sir James M. Barrie)

Take away those pillows -- I shall need them no more. (Lewis Carroll -- real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

I believe we must adjourn the meeting to some other place. (Adam Smith)

A little while and I will be gone from among you. Whither I cannot tell. From nowhere we come, into nowhere we go. What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the light. It is the breath of the buffalo in the wintertime. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. (Isapwo Muksika Crowfoot)

Mozart! (Gustav Mahler)

This side is roasted enough, turn up, oh tyrant great, assay whether roasted or raw thou thinkest the better meat (Saint Lawrence -- a 3rd century Christian martyr who was roasted -- yes, roasted! -- to death)

Let my epitaph be: Here lies Joseph, who was unsuccessful in all his undertakings. (Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor)

I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone. (Edith Cavell)

Peace, struggle, save China. (Sun Yat-Sen)

I am not in the least afraid to die. (Charles Darwin)

I desire to go to hell and not to heaven. In the former place I shall enjoy the company of Popes, Kings and the Princes, while in the latter are only beggars, monks and apostles. (Niccolo Macchiavelli)

So little done, so much to do. (Alexander Graham Bell)

Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough. (Karl Marx)

And on that final note...! ;)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Another Macau photo-essay

A few months back, I selected seven photographs that I took in Macau last April to show to this blog's visitors. Earlier today, after going through the collection of photos that I took during my most recent visit to that which, like Hong Kong, is now a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, I decided -- and hope you'll agree ;) -- that there are seven more photographs that look to be worthy of your interest.

As was the case before, I trust that the selected images will confirm that Macau is one of those parts of the world that's blessed with a rich architectural heritage. At the same time, what really should stand out this time around is the interesting blend of Eastern and Western cultural components that are to be found there, and sometimes within a single photograph and/or piece of material culture too! :)

An example of West meets East in Macau:
The Moorish Barracks
were designed by an Italian architect
and served as the accomodations of a military regiment from Goa

Example number two:
Only in Macau are the names of buildings
marked out in Chinese and Portuguese! :b

Macau additionally is where stained glass windows
are to be found in a former residence
of a prominent 19th century Chinese businessman
(in this case, the
Lou Kau Mansion) well as in the former Portuguese enclave's
many Roman Catholic churches (and one cathedral)

The physically imposing Our Lady of Penha Church
sits prominently atop Penha Hill
on the southern end of the Macau Peninsula

Further down the southern tip of the Macau Peninsula
lies the picturesque A-Ma Temple complex
from whose interior space this shot was taken

Statuette of the Taoist goddess A Ma
for which Macau itself
as well as its oldest place of worship is named

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

David Bordwell and the cinema of Hong Kong

The 1st Asian Film Awards were held last night in Hong Kong. When going through the list of winners, the reader will see the name of David Bordwell nestled there among the likes of The Host (Best Film), Jia Zhangke (Best Director; for Still Life), Song Kang-ho (Best Actor; for The Host) and Josephine Siao Fong-Fong (winner of the "outstanding contribution to Asian cinema" award).

David Bordwell, for those who don't yet know this, is a highly respected film scholar whose books include the very readable as well as enlightening Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Harvard University Press, 2000).

An American academic who is an Emeritus Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he endeared himself to me and many other Hong Kong film fans with such accounts as the following which detail how he came to write that book which is one of my major bibliographic references with regards to Hong Kong cinema:-

In fall 1973 I had started teaching at the University of Wisconsin, and one night soon afterward I went to see Five Fingers of Death paired with The Chinese Connection in the dilapidated Majestic Theatre. Soon afterward I saw Enter the Dragon. These movies shook me up. A few years later in Richmond, Virginia I saw Bruce Lee's Game of Death, a film of such surpassing oddness that I screened it for my film theory class. At the same time, during trips to Europe, I caught up with King Hu's exhilarating masterworks.

During the 1980s, while writing about Hollywood cinema and film theory and the films of Yasujiro Ozu, I checked in on Hong Kong cinema occasionally. I caught a Jackie Chan here, a Tsui Hark there, and cable TV yielded up oddities like Shaolin Kung-Fu Mystagogue. The films appealed to me as "pure cinema," popular fare which, like American Westerns and gangster movies of the 1930s, seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the kinetics of movies...

In the early 1990s I dived in, not least because these movies aroused my students' passion in a way that I had not seen for a long time. I began booking Hong Kong films for my courses, subscribing to the fanzines, picking up videotapes and laserdiscs. [Additionally]…video access to Hong Kong film, as well as massive retrospectives undertaken in New York and Chicago, had convinced me that this was a popular cinema of great vigor. When I gained a semester leave in spring of 1995, I decided that it was time to visit the Festival.

..[T]he trip began to change my life. Through the Festival I met Li Cheuk-to, Athena Tsui, Stephen Teo, Shu Kei, Michael Campi, and many others who have become firm friends. I also saw a selection of recent films, a retrospective of postwar movies, and a sample of what was playing at the moment. At the first Hong Kong Critics Society award ceremony I met Ann Hui, Wong Kar-wai, and other filmmakers. I managed to slip into the Hong Kong Film Awards…At the show I snapped photos and got autographs of stars and directors I admired. During my three weeks' stay I lived in a fan's paradise. I even ate at Chungking Mansions.

I don't know if I wrote this book because I kept going back, or if I wrote this book because it would justify going back…[P]erhaps out of stubborn naivete, I thought that I had something original to say about the movies produced in this tiny corner of Asia. I thought that I could explore this cinema not as an expression of local society, nor as part of the history of Chinese culture, but as an example of how popular cinema can produce movies that are beautiful.

(From pages x and xi of Planet Hong Kong (but also to be found online over here); with parts that I chose to emphasize in bold.)

On a personal note: Two years ago, I attended the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) for the first time myself. After a screening of Tang Shu Shuen's China Behind at the Hong Kong Film Archive, I had the privilege of being introduced to Professor Bordwell.

Astonishingly, it turned out that David -- as I've come to feel able to call him during subsequent meetings -- actually knew of me (from reading my posts at the Mobius Home Video Forum's Asian Cinema discussion board). Even more amusingly, as we walked together to the Sai Wan Ho MTR station, he started making some points to me about the seminal film we had just viewed, only to stop when I laughingly informed him that, actually, I had effectively heard them before by way of my having read them in my copy of Planet Hong Kong! ;D

Returning to the present: David Bordwell's not only currently back in Hong Kong but since this past Monday, he's also been blogging about his experiences there! Asian film fans should make a beeline for his blog. However due warning is hereby given that his enthusiastic posts will make you wish that you were there doing such as attending HKIFF screenings right now too! ;)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Five favorite restaurants

As more than one person has observed before me, eating is one of life's pleasures. And seeing that I'm not a particularly good cook, I've done my fair share of dining out. Consequently, I figured that it might make for an interesting blog entry for me to write about five of my favorite restaurants.

Before presenting the list, however, here's putting a trio of caveats on the table. To begin with, the reason that there are no restaurants serving Malaysian food on the list is because I believe that the best Malaysian food is to be found at no-frills street and other "hawker" stalls or kopi tiam (trans., "coffee shops").

Next, as far as actual restaurants go, my tastes do tend to lean towards the budget to middle-range in terms of prices (albeit relative to others in the same city). And thirdly, for an eatery to qualify as a favorite restaurant, I've had to have eaten more than once -- and over a fairly lengthy period of time -- there as well as, more often than not, feel some sense of personal connection to them.

As a follow up to that last point: This is why although in my travels, I've partaken of some amazing meals at certain dining outlets, I've not considered those restaurants because, due to such as time constraints, I only ate just once at them. Also, should any confirmation be needed: Yes, that indeed is why such as the wonderful Sushi Dai of Tsukiji -- whose virtues I extolled elsewhere on this blog -- does not figure in the list that now follows (in alphabetical order):-

1) Dahlak (West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.): A confession: I've yet to set foot in Ethiopia or Eritrea and I've only ever eaten Ethiopian and Eritrean food in the U.S.A. However, I've had Ethiopian and Eritrean food at more than one restaurant in New York as well as Philadelphia, plus home-made by an Eritrean friend of mine, and still my sense is that the best food from the Horn of Africa region that I've ever had was to be found at the West Philly restaurant that I had the good fortune to live only a few blocks away from for a time!

Also, even while I wouldn't go so far as to assert that it's "the ultimate in spicy cookery", I would agree with those who are of the opinion that Ethiopian and Eritrean food is absolutely delicious as well as a wonderfully comforting type food. Two other things that characterize the cuisine: It's finger food of a substantial variety; and it really is fun to eat -- as well as is meant to be eaten -- communally.

Something else to bear in mind is that the spongey bread that is
injera might get mistaken by the uninitiated for a a napkin or tablecloth because of how it looks! However, those who have had that which is to Ethiopian and Eritrean food what rice is to many Asian cuisines will know that it's great at soaking up gravy, stews and sauces as well as for wrapping bite portions of meat and other foods around... :b

2) Domenico's Pizza and Restaurant (Beloit, Wisconsin, U.S.A.): Granted that this may be a highly sentimental choice as Domenico's was named for its co-owner, Domenico Ferrara; a fellow who, among other things, happened to be my favorite soccer (association football) coach along with the guy who led the Beloit College women's soccer team that I was on to the Wisconsin State championship! However, I can truthfully state that I ate a whole lot of Sunday dinners and other meals over at this much loved Italian restaurant during my four years as a Beloit College undergraduate, and enjoyed all of them immensely.

In particular, my favorite memories involving this eatery include all the pizzas "with everything and extra anchovies" that a group of us comprising a couple of anthropology department faculty, some students and the then director of the
Beloit College Museums would regularly gather -- as the self-named "anchovy pizza club" (membership offered only to anchovy lovers!) -- to devour together during my senior year at that small liberal arts college! :)

3) Isarabi Tei (Penang, Malaysia): The restaurant that I currently patronize more frequently than any other -- and one which I reckon is better by a country mile than any of the many other Japanese restaurants that are to be found on Penang island. Blessed by having a dedicatedly "hands-on" owner at its helm, this Chow Thye Road locale also stands out by way of its having a majorly extensive culinary selection that includes a lot of offerings which can't be found on other restaurants' more limited menus.

Alternatively put: Isaribi Tei is the place in Penang to go for such as tender beef tataki, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, the quintessential Japanese dish that is natto, and thick chunks of saba (trans., "mackerel") sushi as well as the more well known items like Omega 3-rich salmon sushi, golden tempura moriawase and the sweetish sukiyaki.

At the same time, this eatery also happens to be the rare -- singular even? -- Japanese restaurant that not only serves green tea flavored ice cream but also such as blackcurrant and even blue cheese(!) and wasabi(!!) flavored ice cream for dessert. And slices of sinfully creamy cheesecake besides -- which, like the ice cream, is personally made by the restaurant's owner! ;b

4) Porters English Restaurant (London, England): I realize that there are many people out there who don't think there's such a thing as delicious English food, and especially outside of breakfast fare. I also know of others who claim that there isn't any good English food to be found in London (as opposed to the provinces)! To which I'd like to counter-suggest that such critics have never been to this Covent Garden establishment and sampled such as its very tasty lamb and apricot pie.

And should they have room in their stomachs after having one of the main courses, they also ought to try one of the desserts -- called "puddings" on Porters' very traditional English menu: e.g., the immensely substantial Spotted Dick (As it says on the menu: "Not what you might be thinking!"); or the satisfying fruit-and-nut combo that is apple, blackberry and hazelnut crumble. (And for those who have never tried it: believe you me when I say that crumbles are so much more superior to mere dessert-style pies!)

5) Todai (various, including in the Greater Los Angeles area, California, U.S.A., and over in Hong Kong): Somewhat ironically, the most expensive restaurant on this list is that which is a chain, and one which is best known for its buffets at that. But what buffets they are! Succinctly put: I've never seen such an amazing all-you-can-eat spread of sushi, other seafood and desserts as at Todai.

To be sure, I've only ever been to one branch of this rather upscale restaurant chain. Still, each time that I did so -- i.e., on all three of the occasions that I went to spent the Christmas period out on the West coast with friends (one of whom is behind the extraordinary labor of love that is the Michelle Yeoh Web Theatre), it proved to be the foodie highlight of my visit there! Also, one does get the distinct feeling from reading such as the remarks on this discussion forum thread that this still expanding restaurant chain most definitely has its share of avid fans... ;)

(N.B. This post has been submitted to engtech//'s Five Things contest)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Stuffed rats and Totoros

My Studio Ghibli
-- and yes, it's primarily a Totoro! -- collection

Remember when I named stuffed animal plushes as being among the ten things that make me happy? And proceeded to provide photographic and other proof, at regular intervals, of my Hello Kitty adoration (here, here, and here)? Well, now here's presenting some photographic evidence of my Totoro love... ;D

And in the event that you don't know who or what are Totoro (and need some further information to figure out which is O-Totoro, Chuu-Totoro and/or Chibi-Totoro), I suggest that you: a) check out the absolutely sublime film that is My Neighbor Totoro (AKA Tonari No Totoro) post haste; and also b) make use of the relevant links that I've included in this here post.

This way, you won't -- unlike at least one aunt of mine as well as a less short-sighted friend of the family -- mistake the gray O-Totoro (even those large and...ahem...unofficial replicas of that which I like to affectionately call "the big gray thing" that I have in my collection) for a giant rat! ;(

Additionally, if you would like to see what actual stuffed rat plushes look like, I really don't think that I can do better than direct you to this post over at collecting tokens. And should you really want to know where Alejna got her stuffed rats from, scroll down to that entry's comments section or learn from me here that the answer is -- can you believe it? -- Ikea!!! :DDDDD

Friday, March 16, 2007

Five favorite crime fiction writers

Blame Enid Blyton. After all, she not only played a big part in making me the bookworm that I am but also -- by way of being the woman behind the Secret Seven, Famous Five, Five Find-Outers and Dog, and a fair few other series featuring intrepid child detectives -- was the first writer of crime stories that I came across.

Put another way: Enid Blyton books may no longer be a staple of my bibliographic diet. However, I think that extremely prolific plus popular author's due some credit for making me the fan of crime fiction -- a genre which I've been surprised to latterly learn is female dominated in terms of both authors and readers -- that I remain to this day.

At the same time though, I have to say that she doesn't make my current list of five most favorite crime fiction writers. Rather, these are (in order of personal discovery):-

1) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: An admission to which the more foul-mouthed might exclaim, "No shit, Sherlock!" ;D More seriously though, I realize that this looks to be an unimaginative choice. Still, the truth of the matter is that, while still in my early teens, I got myself a copy of The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes and proceeded to race through every single one of the four novels and fifty-six short stories in it which had Sherlock Holmes as its protagonist.

Also, to make up for my general unimaginative choice, I'm going to name the not particularly well-known The Adventure of the Lion's Mane along with A Scandal in Bohemia as my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories in that hefty 1,122 page paperback book which weighs -- yes, I really did go and weigh it just now! -- in the region of 2 pounds or 1 kilograms! ;b

2) Elizabeth George: It was not until many years later that I would come to be as gripped by, and care for, a crime series' characters the way I had with Sir Arthur's Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. But in -- and through -- works like A Suitable Vengeance, Payment in Blood and Deception On His Mind, Elizabeth George got me all engrossed and enthralled by the lives, works and loves of the likes of Scotland Yarder Thomas Lynley (AKA the Earl of Asherton); his lady love, Lady Helen Clyde; detective Barbara Havers; and Barbara's little friend, Khalidah Hadiyyah.

...which is why her thirteenth novel, With No One As Witness is so painful to read. Succinctly put: one of my favorite characters in this series is shot dead in the book. Yet, even as the incident ellicited reactions of shock and horror from me, it didn't cause me to stop reading the story. And yes, I'll give Elizabeth George at least one more chance to redeem herself in the form of her latest work: that which is entitled -- and do not click on the title if you don't wish to see spoilers for the preceding book! -- What Came Before He Shot Her.

3) Tess Gerritsen: Another crime fiction writer whose characters I love. In this case, the trio of characters in question are Boston medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles, police detective Jane Rizzoli and Jane's FBI agent husband, Gabriel Dean. (More than by the way, Tess Gerritsen has a revelatory post on her fun-to-read blog -- one which makes her come across as a really nice and unpretentious individual -- in which she acknowledges that "Maura Isles is me"!)

More specifically, what I appreciate about the Jane Rizzoli/Maura Isles series is that its two main characters really have not only generally grown increasingly three-dimensional but also developed in increasingly intriguing ways over the course of the six books that I've read thus far. In particular, Jane Rizzoli has latterly become warmer -- and I'd even say mature -- by way of her now being married and a parent. At the same time, however, she's by no means lost the feisty and even fiery edge that helps her be the capable policewoman -- along with wife and mother -- and interesting character that she is.

4) Linda Fairstein: At a time when I was waiting impatiently for Tess Gerritsen to come up with a new crime novel, I first turned to the books of Patricia Cornwell for respite. However, the further along I went into her Kay Scarpetta series, the more irritated I became with her main characters' destructive plus depressive tendencies. Consequently, I was initially a bit hesitant to check out the works of Linda Fairstein because they seemed to feature similar main characters to Cornwell's (i.e., a financially well-off female crime professional and a proudly un-PC male cop).

However, just two books into the Alex (short for Alexandra) Cooper series, I realized that I had read at least one chapter (specifically, Chapter 28 of Likely To Die) that was unlike anything that Cornwell had written: one which was heart-warming and the perfect coda to a work that had seen its sex crimes prosecutor being involved in the investigation of a disturbing as well as messy murder case. And from then on, I was hooked!

5) Lisa See: Before anything else, here's sending out heartfelt thanks to regular reader Mikael for recommending this Asian-American author's crime novels to me. (See the comments section of this blog entry!) Additionally, here's reporting that in the wake of his doing so, I've managed to track down -- and proceeded to thoroughly enjoy reading -- two of them in the form of Dragon Bones and The Interior.

Alas, though, re my search for the first book out of just three so far which center on Liu Hulan, Inspector at China's Ministry of Public Security, and American lawyer David Stark having thus far been in vain. However, trust me when I say that I've by no means given up hope on getting my hands on a copy of Flower Net.

Also, that I really would look forward to spending more hours with my nose in any new addition to this series whose Chinese settings are often much less exoticized than -- even while as interesting as -- the books' blurbs can make them sound. (So, Ms. See, in the unlikely event that you're reading this, please write more of these crime novels, and ASAP, will you?!) :)

(N.B. This post has been submitted to engtech//'s Five Things contest)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Beauty in nature (Photo-essay)

Now for something different: namely, a selection of close-up photographs I took of things that grow in my father's garden over here in Penang coupled with some quotes and sayings which I've taken from this page for gardeners.

And should anyone wonder what prompted this attempt at some photographic artistry on my part, I'd hazard to suggest that the beautiful and/or creative images I've seen over at Life in Still Mode -- and on the photography pages of a pity i'm an aquarius and just me (the latter of whose lomography examples I particularly like) -- played a big part in inspiring me towards being more experimental plus artistic with my camera than I usually am wont to be.

Though, of course, some credit also has to go to the aesthetic wonder that is nature itself! ;b

If you truly love Nature,
you will find beauty everywhere.

-- Vincent Van Gogh like the perfume of a rose:
you can smell it and that is all.
W. Somerset Maugham

Is it wholly fantastic to admit the possibility
that Nature herself
strove toward what we call beauty?
-- Joseph Wood Krutch

In the end, color combinations
come down to our personal preferences,

which we must discover through observation and experiment.
-- Montagu Don

Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.

Confronted with the vision of a beautiful garden,
we see something beautiful about ourselves.

-- Jeff Cox

You do not need to know anything about a plant
to know that it is beautiful.
-- Montagu Don