Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Episode 7: The Hong Kong Special

I've spent my time in Hong Kong all for different reasons. The first time, I flew into Hong Kong late and took the ferry to Macau the following day. I was able to stay at my cousin Jeannie and her family's place. The second time was a couple weeks later. Her husband Mark showed me around the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood in Kowloon, Hong Kong, opposite of the Central district of Hong Kong Island. My goal: a camera.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

Hong Kong is known for sourcing camera equipment to professionals and amateurs alike. So I did my research on the interwebs. A couple of places had good reviews. Instead of going a couple days to every camera shop in Hong Kong, Mark and I decided to stay in Tsim Sha Tsui as there are plenty of reputable stores there. We eventually found Tin Cheung Camera- it had relocated from the street shop to the third floor of the mall on the same block. Walking into the shop was like walking into the local Bentley, Rolls Royce, or Ferrari dealership. Leica, Canon, Nikon, 35mm, medium format, DSLRs, college education price tag lenses, you name it. Camera heaven.

Yu's Camera was second on the list and after wandering around, we finally found it. The camera I was hunting for was an old model and my timing couldn't have been better. Stores like Fortress (the equivalent of Target) even said it was discontinued and I'd have to go to secondhand shops. The owner Alan had reduced the price only a couple days ago. Judging by my research, it was the cheapest one could find in Hong Kong. Armed with the pride of my findings, I made sure and walked away from the deal and eventually bought my new Lumix GF2. Mark acted as my Cantonese interpreter and Alan even knew some Tagalog. With the deal, I was able to afford a tripod, case and UV filter as well at Tin Chueng. With my limited exposure to camera shops, I would recommend his shop over any place in Hong Kong.

Yu's Camera
Take the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Tsim Sha Tsui exit D2.
Up the escalator, turn left, cross the street.
The 3rd or 4th shop to the left, inside the walk-through building.
Monday - Saturday: 10:00am - 7:40pm
Sunday - Sunday: 10:00am - 2:00pm

Dim Sum: cheap and only served for lunch.
The next time I came back to Hong Kong was with the rest of the group. Dim Sum was on the menu for lunch then went around Hong Kong Park. There we saw ancient Chinese stamps that are used similar to wax seals back in the day. Then there was a museum of teaware that explained everything from the traditional Chinese tea ceremony, to different kinds of tea and preparation. Later that night, we caught the tram up to The Peak where all the tourists go to see the entirety of the Hong Kong skyline and Kowloon. We were to catch the "light show" at 20:00 that night, though fog rolled in and made our way down, waiting much like a ride in Disneyland down the Peak. I was to escort the group to the ferry terminal to depart from Kowloon but found out the last ferry was 22:30 and we were almost an hour late. So they took a taxi back while I stayed at Mark and Jeannie's. I felt terrible since I knew my way around. It was a whole fiasco but we all made it to our destinations eventually.

The Peak
The next day I was able to sleep in a little bit and we had sushi for lunch. My favorite are the spider hand rolls, made of soft crab, rice, seaweed and some sort of delectable special sauce. New sushi I tried were swordfish, some seasoned octopus, beef (I know I gave up meat, but it was offered to me!) and a variety of seared, seasoned, and fresh sushi.

Spider Handroll & Matcha Tea
Deep-fried Oyster & Seasoned Octopus

Swordfish & yet another cup of Matcha

What I like most about Hong Kong is that it's gigantic. What would be considered "downtown"- Central & Tsim Sha Tsui is relatively small, but Hong Kong Island, plus Kowloon, Lantau, the Outlying Islands, and the New Territories make up the country of Hong Kong. Next time, I'll bike and hike around Lantau and the New Territories and report back on my adventures.

Until next time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Episode 6: Bach, Bruckner, Strauss, and Pickett

It was only the second weekend in Macau when Daniel Harding and the Bavarian Radio Symphony held back-to-back sold out concerts to conclude the Hong Kong Arts Festival. A fully German program of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert one night, and Mahler and Bruckner the night after. A couple seats were to be had at the tune of $880 HKD ($140 USD).

I didn't go. That Saturday night, instead of throwing down an equivalent of Franklin and two Jacksons in Asia, I went to a free concert of the Macao Orchestra. Since I had no idea of the professionality of the organization, I went to a concert anyway. Little did I know Macau financially supports the arts. The church was packed full. It was at St. Dominic's Church in the heart of Senado Square, known to the locals as San Malo, in the old Portugese side of the Macau Peninsula.

Cathedrals in Sound
Saturday, 3 March 2012, 20:00
St. Dominic's Church

Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major
    • Allegro moderato
    • Adagio (Sehr Feierlich und sehr langsam)
    • Scherzo (Sehr schnell)
    • Finale (Bewegt, doch nicht schnell)
Liu Jia, Conductor

The church looked like any of the other churches of what I'd imagine a Portuguese church would look like. Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring was properly played in the Catholic church. Or was it improperly, since Bach was Lutheran? It was far too little an olive oil and vinaigrette salad appetizer for the Bruckner 7 Filet Mignon entrée but I couldn't complain on a free concert and the previously filling Portuguese dinner, a stew of beans, beef or pork, and steamed vegetables & potatoes.
Portuguese Feijoada. Favorite dish so far.
Bruckner has little stake in my musical intellect. Having only read about his symphonic music, listening to his choral music over the summer is top-shelf VSOP brandy. Anything comes with time and tonight was the night to savor my first Bruckner Symphony. Many compare Bruckner to Mahler, even to the point of idol worship. At first it was cool, but then everyone jumped on the train. Don't get me wrong, I still absolutely admire his music as much as the no. 1 Mahler fan, though I don't like to proclaim it. Having said that, if one were to compare Mahler with Bruckner, it would be through their common denominators: their symphonies. 

To put some perspective on Bruckner:

1) He lived 1824-1896 which places him almost identically to Brahms; and he is very much Brahmsian. All his symphonies are classically 4 movements and end much like all of Brahms' Symphonies- all ending tutti in one thunderous chord. Therefore, it'd be unrealistic to compare Mahler and Bruckner as musical twins simply because of their age difference. But people like to do that.

2) The man wrote 9 symphonies just like Mahler. He despised what is now dubbed "Symphony No. 0." So he we technically wrote 10. Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde was a symphonic tone poem so Mahler too wrote 10, with sketches of an "11th." So much for the curse of the ninth

After listening to the first movement, I wasn't totally impressed. It left me with a sense of formulaic symphonic sounds much like Brahms, but leaner and more grand, hinting to having some Wagnerian influence. After every climax, the music would dissolve into quiet contemplation.  It was only after the subsequent movements did I see the genius that is Bruckner. His great climaxes are probably the most impressive of any composer, not because of the sheer force of sound that Bruckner attains, but the silence that follows. It was almost as if the air was on fire, then a wash of languid water afterwards. The acoustics of St. Dominic's Church only allowed the music to breathe like a fine wine.

If you haven't given a listen to Bruckner, I would not recommend his symphonies right away, but give his choral music, which are, if not all, sacred in nature and not to mention shorter than the marathon symphonies. His Tantum Ergo (WAB 42), Salvum Fac Populum Tuum (WAB 40), and Ave Maria (WAB 6) are my favorite of his masterwork gems.

The second time to Hong Kong a week later, I got off the rocky ferry boat into the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong and met my Cousin Mark. We wandered to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Lonely Planet says "the virtually windowless, sky-jump-shaped Cultural Centre clad in pink ceramic tiles is an aesthetic horror... an eyesore." I'd say when judged purely as architectural perspective, sure it is not in any way appealing. But inside, great art is made and experienced, with the capacity for a metropolitan city- a 2,085 seat concert hall, a Grand Theatre that can hold 1,750, and a studio theatre for 535.

As I was meandering around the foyer area, I became aware through the numerous posters marketing the 2011/2 season and that pianist Marc André Hamlin was giving a solo recital that night with an orchestra-piano programme the following night featuring the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan's music director, Shao-Chia Liu.

Mr. Hamelin is a superb pianist. Despite being extremely stage right, facing Hamelin's back the entirety of the concert, I was thirsty for the Hong Kong music culture. Frank, like any Frank that I have heard, reminds me a bit of Brahms. Having only known of his Chorale, Prelude, and Fugue, and the Frank Quintet, it was bliss to listen to balanced orchestration. Bruckner's was apprehensively bursting at the seams. The Symphonic Variations reminded me a bit of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Photo: courtesy of Dr. Rochester
(and a nice review too!)
The Piano Wizard
Saturday, 9 March 2012, 20:00, 
RAVEL: La Valse
FRANK: Symphonic Variations
STRAUSS: Burleske
LUTOSLAWSKI: Concerto for Orchestra

Richard Strauss' Burleske was written when he was 21, dedicated to pianist Hans von Bülow. He said that it was "Lisztian" and "unplayable." It was renamed to its present title and rededicated and played by Eugen d'Albert, with Strauss as conductor. It's a show piece and quite impressive. It has it's delicate and grand moments and shines through and through as a late-romantic German piece of art. And impressive for Hamelin to do an Asian tour all with different programs!

Lastly, a word of my piano teacher, Dr. John Pickett. He has been my closest mentor. For the past five years, He taught me how to play well, believed in my talent and nurtured me to my fullest potential. His playing is true to the score. The most memorable of his performances has surely been his most recent in February, Liszt's Sonata in B Minor Sonata. There's nothing like hearing a performance live, and this was the first time I had heard it in person. What a taxing piece! It is the most epic sonata (if not of the whole entire solo repertoire) known to my intellect. It is based on Goethe's telling of the epic tale of Faust selling his soul to Mephistopheles for limitless power.
Some musical things I've learned from him:
    • The music printed is simply what's written on the page. Do that and your interpretation will never fail you. The human part is the music that comes from you- mind and heart.
    • All you need to do is to play 1) accurately & 2) in time.
    • Play to the bottom of the keybed.
    • Dynamics are a sign of intelligence. Pedaling is a sign of good manners.
    • Feel the pulse, interpret the rhythm. 
Until next time. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Episode 5: Macanese Culture

I like culture in every aspect of the word- the experience, the interactions, mannerisms, traditions, language, history, food, and lifestyle. I base my passions on those aspects, but more importantly, my life choices and belief system, a few of which I'll share with you today.

One being tea. As many people drink coffee, I have never acquired an addiction for the coffee bean, only for espresso & crème brûlée, and americanos & scones. I love loose leaf teas. If I could choose another career path, I would be an herbologist and run a tea house.

In the midst of a melting pot of Chinese, Portuguese, Filipinos, and English (the minority here!) here, I've garnered some insight on culture. But first a crash course on the history of Macau for some perspective (bear with me, or skip to Art & Architecture):
  • History:
    • Macau, as printed by the official tourist map, is a total of 11.4 sq. mi., built up of the Macau Peninsula, Taipa, and Coloane. There's an artificial reclaimed area which I assume has basically been filled in with dirt that connects the islands of Taipa and Coloane, called Cotai. It's where the newest casinos have been built and more are moving in.
    • The locals tell me that in the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of China, namely Hong Kong and Macau, money goes in to Macau and out of Hong Kong. And that's what this place is. It's a tourist mecca for people to spend their money. It's definitely noticeable with all the casinos and new residential high rises popping up. More on that later. If you have money, come to Macau, go shopping, go gambling, go get souvenirs and eat of the plethora of cuisines available.
    • Macau is in some ways like America, a melting pot of cultures. There's a ton of people, to the tune of 546,200. Cantonese, Chinese, Portugese, Filipino (there's about 11,000 of them!) and others all have a stake on this small island. 
  • Art & Architecture:
    • The most lavish of buildings are the casinos, and rightly so if one would want to spend money. It almost makes me sick at the sight of them- the artificial grandeur of neo-X architecture, the extra large everything. The doors are massive, the automated water fountain shows, the bubble of luxurious watches, designer this and that, when one can go right next door and see the living conditions of the lower class. The city is definitely a magnificent sight at night seeing the lit up casinos towering over the city. 
The Venetian
The Grand Lisboa
Chihuly Glasswork at the Galaxy
    • The churches have a humble stake in the city compared to the casinos, their architecture and the stories they tell I find much more intriguing than gambling a couple of dollars at a slot machine. There are services in Cantonese, Mandarin, Portugese, Filipino and English. It goes to show the melting pot of languages regularly used in this country. And I thought English and Spanish masses were more than enough! The main things to notice is of course the architecture, and the statues, usually having one of the church's patron saint, of the Virgin Mary (and many iterations of Her) and baby Jesus, and adult Jesus, and extra ones at each corner.
The Ruins of St. Paul, Macau Peninsula
Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, Coloane Village
St. Joseph's Chapel and Seminary
St. Francis Xavier's Humerus 
    • The Buddhist/Taoist temples are even smaller, full of incense and fresh fruit. All the ones I've been to are naturally lighted or not at all. The incense burnt are usually in three, symbolizing the three main elements that make up the world: wind, fire, and water. All businesses alike usually have a small altar/shrine next to their shop which I presume is for good fortune and a successful business. And the Banyan trees are everywhere! They're elegant and add much beauty to the city. It is said that the Buddha achieved enlightenment by meditating under a banyan tree.
A Banyan Tree
Sam Seng Temple, Coloane Village
    Na Tcha Temple
    I wish I could grow a mustache and beard like them.
    • High-rise apartments are a common sight, not enough to make one claustrophobic like I felt in Hong Kong, but the difference between commercial and residential is more pronounced than the States, maybe because they all look the same. The washers are tiny, and the dryers are non-existent so clothes are hung out to dry. I was told only five to ten years ago, that most of the residential buildings didn't exist on Taipa. They aren't that nice looking and are out of place. But they make the country look a lot bigger than it really is. 
This is in Taipa, the newest metropolitan area. The southern island, Coloane, is starting to be built upon. 
New one's being built. It's seems like the highest demand of the city.
  • Mannerisms:
    • Locals like to spit. Hacking and phlegm and all. It's an interesting observation that would seem highly offensive back at home.
    • Having my own cubicle, the office culture is a measure of work and play. I feel sometimes us Westerners have a much more fun than them, but I also do not understand Cantonese. They offer us food almost every day like dried mangoes, pastries, rice cakes filled with anything from custard to meat, and, my favorite, dumplings.
    • The students are well-behaved and are polite. Not a day goes by where I get a half a dozen "Good morning/afternoon, Mr. Gus" from these tiny tots.

As I've explored almost all of Macau in two weeks, Hong Kong is my next conquest. This guy biked around Hong Kong in 8 days with a mountain bike. I hope to do the same with Maia, my trusty bicycle. Maia, an earth goddess of Greek mythology, is the eldest daughter of  Atlas and Pleione. She symbolizes growth and is the mother of Hermes, the herald of the gods to mortals. He is the patron of boundaries and the travelers that cross them, and of commerce.

Until next time.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Beasts of Coloane

Today is International Women's Day. Go females! Hou Kong School had the day off because of it. National holiday I guess. As I am not of the estrogen-dominant type, I decided to do something in light of being a male. The two females were MIA due to sickness from all the little kiddies being sick. The male counterparts and their immune systems are living separately, healthily, and were ready for another adventure. Since it was our day off, what would be better than go to the Panda Pavillion in Coloane?

Two pandas were gifted to Macau after their inception into China. Way past my budget, I decide to go anyway (it's $10MOP ($1.30USD)). You won't see any pictures of pandas but eventually you will. The reason for this is complicated- Jesse takes the bus, gets lost and I take my bike and get lost. Hurdle #1. I wait and see the free stuff, a.k.a. everything but the pandas-
Well, fake pandas
And amusing cartons and cans in vending machines. Note the "Pocart Sweat." Curious.
Jesse's nowhere to be found so I wander for an hour then find out there's a road that goes uphill, switchbacks and all. Perfect for a cyclist! What a beast of a hill. Hurdle #2. I get to the top maybe twenty minutes later to find a temple; was not expecting that. 
The entrance to A-Ma Cultural Village. The fog and silence added to the sacred space. 
Dragons doing crazy things
Semi-dragons doing crazy things

Inside. What a place.
It was straight from Kung Fu Panda where Po is trying to get in the walled village to see the Furious Five. If it was Buddhist/Taoist I don't know, but Oscar (a Filipino English teacher at Hou Kong) tells me the temples are a combination of both. I'm set on finding a devout follower or monk that's willing to share some of their stories first hand. Below's a video of one of the rooms with statues that represent each year-
1988 statue- the Year of the Earth Dragon.
2012 is the Water Dragon and a different statue.
This is the luckiest of the Chinese Zodiacs.
Can't touch this.
1994- Year of the Dog.
My brother was born December 1993.
He's a monkey. Oops.
1960- Year of the Pig
Dad's statue
1954- Year of the Horse.
Mom's statue.
It's most definitely the coolest place I've been to in Macau. After being completely mesmerized by the serenity of the place, I head down the hill. Before I know it, my 35 pound bike, plus myself and cargo is not enough for my cantilever brakes to handle. I tumble over a concrete barrier (hurdle, if you will) and thankfully not over a cliff. Hurdle #3. I assess the damage of the bike, of course. The body heals itself. Everything turns out fine and I proceed more cautiously down the steep hill.
The bike is ok! Except for a bend in the right side handlebar.
Alto de Coloane  = 1, Gus = 0
Jesse ended up seeing the Pandas, of which I'll eventually see. We played frisbee back at home and prepared lesson plans for the coming week. The day ended Panda-less for me, with a bruised body, and a humbled spirit. Though I was able to Skype Mom for the first time since I left home. And this is how we spent Women's Day.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Episode 4: Food for Thought

My adventure begins! I'm sitting in a Hong Kong Taxi on my way to the ferry port that'll take me to Macau. I will be living on Taipa, the middle island of the three islands that make up Macau, since the primary (elementary) school is there.

Leading up to the flight, many people were clamoring to see me off so I decided to have a send off soirée of wine and cheese and the Alien quadrilogy marathon, courtesy of Jared. This only lasted two movies. I was of course rushing to pack and finished around two in the morning, mainly because of not knowing how to pack up my bicycle. The bike is equipped with S&S couplers at the top and down tubes:

These allow the bike to be taken apart and fit into the airline limit of 62 linear inches. My roll aboard duffle was my other check-in and my backpack and messenger bag. The weekend was spent at a church retreat so I was exhausted from being a group leader, on top of packing, but I left the USA spiritually fulfilled. Before I left, I listened to the Commendatore scene from Mozart's Don Giovanni while having breakfast at the airport. The opera embodies themes of fate, the supernatural, morality and life's pleasures. In the scene the Commendatore, killed by Don Giovanni, comes back to life from a statue to accept the taunting invitation to dine with him ("Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m'invitasti"). I first heard about this scene when my dad mentioned it to me for a Halloween Concert piece. It only setup my theme of food the rest of my trip.

My flight to Hong Kong was on enormous blur. I couldn't sleep for more than an hour at a time, but the in flight experience was great! If you ever fly to Asia, fly Asiana. Their service is the best I've seen. Since I was on my way to Korea, it was only natural to try the onboard cuisine. I had tea of course, which suspiciously tasted like Lipton, and Makgeolli, the traditional rice wine that's sweet & fruity though not as strong as sake. We were served two meals, grilled beef tenderloin steak with burgundy sauce and pasta with mixed seafood, both including a hot cloth before and desert after. We even ate with metal silverware! 

I was able to watch just about 4 movies on my 12 hour flight to Incheon. As I browsed the available movies on my personal screen, I came upon a Alfred Hitchcock movie which my piano colleague Jeremy only recommended to me a couple days ago, Rear Window. It's refreshing watching a quality movie, when actors had decent talent and the plot development developed maturely, without the flash of special effects. Then Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 50/50, and Cowboys and Aliens all of which were good movies of which the last one I fell asleep to.

To be without a phone since is refreshing in a new environment. I was able to take in surroundings and be in the present moment without being distracted with technology. The people out there with Apple products have an advantage of staying in touch with me because of iMessage and FaceTime from my iPad. As I was buying my ferry ticket, I was shuffling around my boarding pass, luggage, and passport for identification, and after I had ordered an americano from a Starbucks, I found my passport nowhere to be seen. I spent 15 minutes looking for my passport and eventually found it in the till in the Starbucks; I must have dropped it or left it at the counter when ordering my coffee. Once that whole ordeal was taken care of, I ended up missing my ferry and had to buy a new one with a small fee. I guess it's all part of the adventure which, so far has been far more interesting than I expected. Buying a ticket in itself was a lot more trouble than I thought, all because of me, first buying a ticket to Macau and not Taipa, then missing the ferry and going back to ticketing to exchange my ticket.

I stayed with my cousin once removed and her family, who lives in Hong Kong. They took me to a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop after dropping off my stuff. Though nothing special, the company I was with, coupled with having soup, noodles and wontons (all embodying my ideal comfort food) was the best meal I had yet. They lived in the 31st floor of a residential district there. It was amazing going past high rises after high rises, imagining the density of people commuting and traveling around this Canton region. On a side note, Cantonese has 13 different tones, compared to Mandarin's 4-6 and my cousin said that there is no Cantonese dictionary because the language changes every year.

Losing a day was interesting. I essentially didn't get to celebrate Marsi Gras, or, in the liturgical calendar Fat Tuesday. Considering my environment for the next four months, I'm giving up meat for Lent. I've wanted to do this for a while but 1) wasn't in the ideal area in land-locked Ellensburg to have an active seafood diet and 2) it's expensive. But hey, I'm in a different country and it would not be unreasonable to allow myself to be a pescatarian until Easter. The seafood is cheaper than beef and pork here! I read there's a huge procession every first Saturday of Lent in the Portugese area of Macau. Hopefully I can make it.

A couple insights I've had so far, in no particular order:
1) I read an article in the Seattle Times talking about Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with God. God has a divine plan and, as humans with free will, can choose to be in line or out of line with it. In light of fundamentalists and extremists, the people who claim their actions are in line with God's will leaves no room for compromise, whether it is subjectively right or wrong. In Lincoln's time, he said that slavery was wrong but did not deny if God agreed with him. I'm conservative at heart, but it goes to show the ignorance of some public figures, especially for the upcoming U.S. elections, that their way is God's way and the only way. And that separating, not alienating, church and state, under Lincoln's terms, is valid to that extent.

2) The Apple craze in China is in full swing. The most interesting was my cousin's husband who was fascinated with my 5 year old, plastic first-generation white MacBook, circa 2007, which they said still has a high resale value. They are upper middle class and said that Hong Kong people are addicted to owning the latest and greatest.  It made me realize some things I have taken for granted- a college education, a laptop, and the ability to travel, among others. My niece is also the cutest thing:

3) I'm ok at doing simple math, musically simple math. The simple conversion rate of 7-8 HKD to 1 USD seems a lot more difficult to my mind than I thought it was. On the plus side, I am able to us my taxi wallet for it's intended purpose- to ride taxis, and utilizing the double currency slots which felt useless when I first got it in the 7th grade.

Until next time.