Friday, December 1, 2017

Hong Kong is beautiful, especially on high visibility days

Panoramic view from Devil's Peak one day in late November

 Panoramic view from the edge of Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter

Some years ago, I happened to be in Hong Kong when the air pollution was so bad that I seriously wondered whether I could ever live here.  Making things worse was that this was back when smoking was still allowed in restaurants and bars in the territory; and at one old school Chinese restaurant that I was taken to by a family friend, the air was so smoke-filled and well nigh unbreathable that I actually got nauseous and had to stagger out of and leave the place midway through dinner!

Happily, Hong Kong enacted a smoking ban in indoor public spaces on January 1st, 2007; and four months after that happening, I moved to the Big Lychee.  Over the more than 10 years now that I've been here though, there still have been times when I've found myself in a nicotine smoke-filled bar since it seems that certain local bars are happy to flout the law and don't seem to have been shut down or otherwise heavily penalized for doing so.  Still, it does please me tremendously that there now is a wide choice of bars and restaurants for me to spend time in without inhaling second hand cigarette smoke and having the clothes I wear into them smell rank for days afterwards.  

Unhappily though, there still are days when the air pollution levels here have been on the dismal and even alarming side; often thanks in no small part to the north winds blowing polluted air from Mainland China over here (though it's not like there aren't such as coal-powered power stations, sulphur-emitting container ships and thousands of petrol- and diesel-fueled vehicles on this side of the Hong Kong-Mainland China border).  Often, the powers-that-be seek to pin the blame on typhoons for the hazy and smoggy conditions that regularly precede their arrival but what of those other days when the smog levels are high but there are no typhoons any where near Hong Kong?

As I've stated before on this blog: beautiful (blue) skies should not be uncommon sights in Hong Kong.  But because they can't be taken for granted in this part of the world, especially in the cooler months of the year, I've become one of those people who can get uncommonly happy when beautiful bright blue skies are seen over the Big Lychee -- as has been the case several times these past few weeks despite it now being officially autumn, if not winter here in Hong Kong!

Honestly though, when you see sights like those in the panoramic photos at the top of this blog post (which, more than by the way, can be enlarged by clicking on them), it can be difficult to stop oneself from beaming broadly and feeling like so much is right with the world.  Put another way: Hong Kong really is beautiful, especially on days with visibility so high -- since the air pollution's low -- that you can clearly see that it is so.  

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Brink looks good but can't rekindle my passion for Hong Kong movies (film review)

The first Hong Kong movie I've viewed in months

The Brink (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2017)
- Jonathan Li, director
- Starring: Max Zhang Jin, Shawn Yue, Wu Yue, Gordon Lam Ka Tung, Janice Man

Not so long ago, I'd get excited by the thought of a new Hong Kong movie opening in cinemas.  Heck, there was even a time when I'd regularly watch more Hong Kong films -- new as well as old -- than non-Hong Kong ones; and actually one year -- early on in my rediscovery of Hong Kong cinema -- that my cinematic consumption was restricted to the output of what was then the third largest film industry in the world!

In recent months though, my movie diet has been more likely to involve old Japanese movies (including Akira Kurosawa's amazing The Hidden Fortress and Setsuko Hara star vehicle The Ball at the Anjo House) and contemporary Hollywood offerings (among them, the very watchable The Big Sick).  In all honesty, the negative experience of viewing Paradox back in August actually put me off wanting to watch a new Hong Kong movie for a while.  And, in the end, I only got to deciding to check out The Brink because two friends had told me they thought it was markedly better than John Woo's latest film, Manhunt, which opened on the same day as this debut directorial offering from Jonathan Li.

Starring wushu athlete turned actor Max Zhang Jin (who previously caught the eye in supporting roles in the likes of Ip Man 3 and SPL II) as Sai Gau, a cop who employs highly unorthodox -- and violent -- ways to generally get his man, The Brink is a crime actioner that's heavy on the action and visual style but lightweight and suspect on the storytelling front.  Like its moody blue-tinted poster suggests, the focus is on atmospheric and aesthetic flourishes more so than actual plot and character development; with Sai Gau's rebellious nature visually spelt out via his having bleach-blonde hair that his superior officer (Gordon Lam Ka Tung) characterizes as more appropriate for a bad boy gangster than someone charged with upholding the law.   

Rivalling the movie's nominal hero for visual distinctiveness is Jiang Gui Cheng, a wild-haired fisherman turned gold smuggler who's essayed with large amounts of sullenness along with menace by Shawn Yue.  After his boss-mentor (Tai Bo) decides in favor of his son (Derek Tsang) taking over as head of the business rather than his much more capable number two, Jiang turns on the two and attracts the attention of Sai Gau, who gets to belatedly realizing that he may have bitten off more than he can chew by going after this villain with a distinctly ruthless streak with just the help of his much put-upon partner, A-de (Wu Yue).      

The increasingly rare Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese co-production that doesn't have a single scene which takes place in Mainland China, The Brink is to be applauded too for eschewing the usual settings in such as Central and Kwun Tong (the latter of which has become home to many film company offices in recent years) in favor of other, visually interesting locales.  Something else that's actually pretty innovative is its having a number of scenes that take place by, on and in the water -- which, when you come to think of it, makes real sense since Hong Kong does have miles and miles of coastline, hundreds of islands and jurisdiction over a not insubstantial amount of marine area.

In their enthusiasm to feature underwater action in the film, however, the makers of The Brink actually made what could have been pretty cool sequences feel over long and consequently seem less special.  Similarly, in over-emphasizing Sai Gau's dogged nature and Jiang's ruthlessness, these two potentially cool leading characters became too unlikeable for the viewer(s) to care for.   

Considering how much screentime Max Zhang and Shawn Yue get to shine in this movie, I honestly expected more and better from two actors who have shown in other works that they can be charismatic as well as generate far more empathy for their characters than was the case in The Brink.  Fans of Janice Man and Yasuaki Kurata will be even more disappointed, since their parts are pretty superfluous as well as distinctly one-dimensional, and serve very little purpose beyond adding unneccesary complications to the plot rather than actual substantial layers to the story.
My rating for this film: 6.0   

Monday, November 27, 2017

Hong Kong sky watch

Earlier this month, the sky was often so bright blue
that it looked almost unnaturally so!
These days though, it's more cloudy gray
but still eye-catching in its own way 
Many years ago, when I was still living in Philadelphia, I watched an enchanting Hong Kong movie called Chungking Express that brought to my attention the existence of such as the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator (or Travelor), whose very concept I had trouble wrapping my head around until I came over to the Big Lychee and rode on it.  Something else that struck me at the time as rather odd in the film was how quickly the clouds moved in a section of the cinematic offering where the camera had been trained upwards to showcase the sky along with buildings on whose tops appeared to be covered with various antennae and wires. 
Disinclined to think too much about the whys and wherefores of it, I just got to assuming that that section of film had been speeded up for artistic purposes.  And it was only after I moved to Hong Kong that I got to realizing that there really are days when the clouds do move pretty fast in the sky here in the part of the world whose local term for big winds (i.e., the Cantonese tai fung) has contributed the area's tropical cyclones being known as "typhoon".
Since moving to Hong Kong, I also find myself looking up at the sky far more than I fancy that I used to do so.  During many a hot summer's day, I tell myself to focus on how beautifully bright blue -- and cloudless -- the sky can be.  When part of me gets upset at how hellishly uncomfortable the heat can make one feel from as early as mid May and as late as mid October, I try to console myself by enjoying how brilliantly blue the sky above me is as well as how far one can clearly see during those times of the year when the winds blow in from the south.      
Sadly, when the temperatures drop to comfortable levels -- usually around late October -- is when the skies tend to turn considerably grayer as well as more cloudy, and there is a noticeable drop in the visibility levels.  But whereas gray skies and days can get me down if they are around for an extended period of time, there also are occasions when I fancy that they actually look beautiful in their own right, and even pleasantly dreamy.  
Take a recent afternoon when I was up on 546-meter-high Kwun Yam Shan, at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden. Yes, there were bits of blue in the sky but the predominant color was gray.  Yet I found the sky to be pretty spectacular looking, thanks to the many clouds floating about in it that threatened to block out much of the sun's light -- though it's also true enough that what sun rays that were let through really did help to brighten up things in a very visually pleasant way.  And yes, at times like that, you can't help but think that nature can be so very beautiful -- and that so much actually is still right with the world after all. ;b

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Interesting critters (including those of the human variety!) spotted while out hiking in Hong Kong (Photo-essay)

Unlike many a Sundays when I'm here in the Big Lychee, I didn't go out hiking today.  Instead, I actually ended up sleeping a good part of the afternoon away as it turns out that yesterday's beach clean-up on Cheung Chau -- and the associated hikes to and out of Tung Wan Tsai (Coral Beach) -- took more out of me than I realized was the case!

So here's going back into my photo archive to share images from a couple of hikes that I went on some time back: one up in the northern New Territories; and another down in the southeastern section of Hong Kong Island.  Since both involved going along trails I'd been on more than once before, I focused less on taking landscape shots and more on a variety of interesting critters I encountered along the way -- and yes, I include some of my fellow humans in the latter category! ;b

I often see bees and wasps getting attracted to flowers 
but less so ants like the solitary red one in the above picture...
In recent years, the monkeys -- that actually are not native to 
Hong Kong! -- have extended their considerable range to Tai Po Kau
A rare toad spotting in Hong Kong for me!  
Hairy caterpillar on a thin tree branch on Tai Tau Chau
 In the nearby waters, I spotted a swimmer complete with snorkel and 
wet suit that got me initially mistaking him for a dolphin or porpoise!
 Further out at sea, sailing enthusiasts 
took advantage of the blowing breeze
 That same afternoon appeared to be an ideal time for 
rock climbing as far as a number of folks were concerned!
And even though the waves were far from big over at Big Wave Bay,
there still were surfers out in the water under the lifeguard's gaze ;b

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Post Cheung Chau beach clean-up musings

Just a small percentage of the trash on Cheung Chau's
Beach clean-up in progress
 Still trash strewn but actually less so than a few hours previously!
I (still) like Cheung Chau a lot.  This even though, these days, I tend to associate it more with dirty beaches in need in tender loving care than the idyllic walks or hikes amidst photogenic scenery and seafood lunches that I've enjoyed in the past there but actually haven't been to the island for in a while.  
Instead, when I've been over to Cheung Chau these last couple of years, it's been to take part in beach clean-ups: once at Pak Tso Wan (AKA Italian Beach) down on the southwest section of the island but mainly at the even more out-of-the-way Tung Wan Tsai (AKA Coral Beach) over on the northeast section of Cheung Chau.  The one time that we held the beach clean-up at Pak Tso Wan, I had the surreal experience of seeing people opting to frolic about in its waters while the group I was with focused on picking up the trash that had been strewn about on the beach.  
Alternatively, I've never seen anyone going for a swim in the waters of Tung Wan Tsai.  I'd like to think that it's because anyone would find the large amounts of trash on its beach to be disturbingly off-putting.  But, if truth be told, I think it's more likely so that this particular beach really is off the beaten path for residents of, and visitors to, the island alike; this not least since getting there (and out of there) requires a bit of a hike up and down a small but steep hill.    
As I've pointed out to more than one person, Tung Wan Tsai's off-the-beaten-path location also makes it far more likely that the trash we see on its beach has been washed ashore rather than was dumped there by island residents.  And, actually, the type of rubbish strewn on its beaches also does strongly indicate that it's marine debris brought there by the currents -- and from as far away as Mainland Chinese waters (since quite a lot of the plastic waste, which includes cigarette lighters along with food containers, have Simplified Chinese writing on them and identifying marks that quite clearly indicate the product's origins having been Shenzhen).
This is not to say though that Hong Kongers can be totally let off the hook when it comes to polluting the waters and, associatedly, the beaches too.  And, strangely to my mind, it seems that one of those groups who would seem to stand to lose the most from Hong Kong's waters being badly polluted may well be among its worst polluters.  
For the record: I'm not making this allegation lightly.  Rather, when you consider that a high percentage of the trash found on Tung Wan Tsai is styrofoam of the sort that makes up the boxes that seafood gets transported in, I think it's safe to conclude that those who make their living fishing in Hong Kong's waters actually contribute quite a bit to this area's marine pollution.  And then there's the "ghost nets" that have washed ashore and been half buried in the sand or stuck on the rocks at the water's edge which -- I do thank goodness for small mercies -- thus are at least no longer in the water continuing to trap sea life long after they no longer have are of any use to any fishing folk.
In all honesty, I find it really perplexing that those who make their living from the sea seem to care so little about the health of the sea.  By the same token, it's rather frustrating that, thus far, all but one participant in the beach clean-ups I've taken part in on Cheung Chau has actually been a resident of the island (and that woman concerned is actually a native of Japan rather than a long-term local)!   
Looking on the bright side though: it's actually quite astonishing from how far away the beach clean-up participants have come.  Unexpectedly, I've made the acquaintance of tourists visiting from the USA, flight crew from Kazakhstan and exchange students from Germany by way of these beach clean-ups in Hong Kong.  And one also shouldn't scoff at the undertaking and sacrifice involved for people living as far away as Tuen Mun, Sheung Shui and Tseung Kwan O to get up early on a Saturday morning to make it to these beach clean-ups in a far corner of Cheung Chau! ;b     

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Still more light(s) in Hong Kong these nights thanks to the Lumieres light festival!

Kawaii art at Hong Kong's first ever light festival
Can you tell which installations are part of the light festival
and which are nightly fixtures in Hong Kong? ;b
Smoke, light and human movement combine to deliver a spectacle
If ever there was a place which seemed to have no need for a light festival, I would have figured that it'd be Hong Kong.  This is, after all, the territory where the world's largest permanent light and sound show takes place every night of the week, and which has so much light pollution that catching sight of even a single star in the night sky can seem like a miraculous achievement.

Yet among the official events conceived in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has been the three day -- or should it be night? -- Lumieres light festival!  Envisioned as a a way for people to "rediscover the city's heritage and architecture through the the medium of light", I suppose it does at least make more sense as a celebratory event than, say, the Death in Ancient Egypt special exhibition mounted at the Hong Kong Science Museum earlier in the year which also was somehow supposed to help lift up the spirits of Hong Kongers in the 20th year of Hong Kong's no longer being a British colony.
If nothing else, the mood among the not insubstantial number of folks strolling about and enjoying the light shows this evening did seem to be on the distinctly light and bright side.  That's how it felt anyway as I walked around Central -- which has the most Lumieres sites in place -- and over to Sheung Wan -- which has another two -- with a group out to get a bit of exercise and enjoy the light festival along with the wonderful weather that Hong Kong has been treated to this week!     
Quality wise, the installations appeared to be a mixed bag -- with a few being really eye-catching but some others being artistically underwhelming, even while I grant that they were conceptually ambitious.  For example, I thought it a cool idea to attempt to visually transform a heritage building -- specifically the former French Mission Building on Government Hill -- into what'd appear to be a giant fish tank full of goldfish but the execution didn't have as much of a "wow" effect as one would have thought.   
As it so happened, the route we took had us checking out what we later decided were the two best pieces in the festival first.  "The Anooki Shake Up Hong Kong" consists of a whimsical cartoon show whose two Inuit characters' playful antics were projected onto a side facade of the General Post Office building in Central that's set to be demolished in the near future while "E-Motion" is an artistic expression of Hong Kong's evolution that bathes one side of Hong Kong City Hall's High Block in light that forms beautiful patterns and images.

All in all though, I must admit to thinking that more often than not, officially sanctioned public art in Hong Kong (including Antony Gormley's series of naked sculptures installed in various parts of Hong Kong a couple of years ago) seems to lack the soul and emotional impact of many of the art and related installations created by supporters of the Umbrella Movement and exhibited at the various Occupy sites in 2014.  Perhaps it's because they don't have as pure an inspiration behind them? 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Okonomiyaki once more, this time Osaka's version of the delicious dish!

From what starts off looking pretty messy indeed...

...come some pretty tasty okonomiyaki!

And while it's true that the finished products don't look great,
the large prawns and generous slices of bacon within 
sure do help make them tasty!

All too soon, it was time to say au revoir to Japan.  And for the final meal of what had turned out to be a pretty gastronomically epic trip (that had included memorable oyster, uni, tai, anagomeshi and sushi meals), I decided to go for okonomiyaki at Momotarou, a respected Osaka specialist with a branch located conveniently within the LUCUA section of the Osaka Station complex.

Having had her first delicious taste of okonomiyaki in Hiroshima a few days previously, my mother had turned into a veritable okonomiyaki connoiseur: able not only to distinguish between the layered Hiroshima- and really mixed together Osaka-styles of this dish but having definite preferences as to which style she preferred more.  As for myself: I will readily admit to having been a greater fan of Hiroshima style okonomiyaki for some years now but, well, needs must and I actually do reckon that Momotarou's okonomiyaki, despite being Osaka-style okonomiyaki, still was pretty tasty as well as being incredibly substantial.

While my mother contented herself with a classic Osaka-style okonomiyaki, I elected to have a modanyaki: that is, an Osaka-style okonomiyaki that -- as with Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki -- came with an additional noodle component.  For some reason, I actually thought that it'd also be good for me to order a side dish of vegetables; only to belatedly discover that what had been listed as mixed vegetables on the restaurant's English menu actually also came with pork and squid and, frankly, could have been a pretty filling meal by itself!  

In retrospect, I'm sure that the waiter who took my order must have thought that I was a major glutton and I wish that he had told me that I had actually over-ordered.  But since the deed was done, I was determined to polish off what had been set in front of me -- and very nearly succeeded but had to give up with two or three bites to go because I truly felt like I would have burst if I had stuffed more okonomiyaki into my mouth and stomach!

Even while I manfully chowed down on my mammoth modanyaki and supposed  "vegetable side dish", I was thinking that the Osaka- and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (even the modern Osaka-style version that comes with noodles, like Hiroshima okonomiyaki) really are pretty different.  Among other things, whereas I think people are correct in describing Osaka-style okonomiyaki to be pancake-like, I reckon that Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is actually more like a savory layer cake than pancake.   

At the risk of upsetting fans of Osaka-style okonomiyaki, I also happen to think that the Hiroshima-style version of this dish is neater looking and consequently generally more visually more appealing.  At the same time though, I must admit to also thinking that about the one way in which Hiroshima-style okomiyaki could be aesthetically improved -- and maybe taste-wise too -- would be by having be topped by bonito flakes that the steam causes to "dance" about, as is the case with Osaka-style versions of this very Japanese offering! ;b