Monday, 31 October 2011

Siem Reap Day 2 - Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom

The Monkey King. The Leper King. Monkey Mind. The Monkey Do's and the Monkey Don'ts


It was a sunny day, but not unbearably hot. It' only 3 to 4 degrees above an almost perfect walking temperature.

national flag of CambodiaOur 1st stop of the day was the much anticipated (for almost a decade) of the UNESCO listed Angkor Wat. The largest temple complex in the world. Like everything else, nothing could be popularised quite the way Hollywood was able to. Angkor Wat is no exception. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) did a much better job in spreading the good words than UNESCO ever could (also, think the Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) does similar promo for the nearby tourist site in Thailand). My mate Lan told me that while she visited in 2002, the tour guide gave her blow by blow account where the film was shot. Much to her frustration, she never watched the movie.
Apart from its famous outline of the main temple that appears on the Cambodian national flag, are the various bas-reliefs along the temple walls. The wall depicted 8 different themes/stories/mythologies as described by this website.
The best bas-reliefs (and not just my own opinion), at least from the preservation point of view, is the Battle of Lanka. This part shows the scenes of Khmer's version of Hindu Epic Ramayana where the monkey-army battles with the demon king Ravana.
Monkeys seem to feature strongly in Asian culture and mythology. Hindu has Hanuman, Chinese has Sun Wukong (孫悟空), and the Japanese has Three Wise Monkeys that are well known in the West. One could easily argue that the Sun Wukong - aka Monkey King - the most interesting, lovable and central character in the Chinese literature classics Journey to the West, would likely be inspired by Hanuman. After all, the story was about a Chinese monk's pilgrimage to India to obtain the Buddhist Scriptures. And when Buddhism continued to spread eastwards to Japan, the monkey character went along for the ride as it had done for the Chinese Classic (only in the opposite direction). Monkey - the central character in Journey to the West - symbolises spiritual progress from our busy, restless lives towards peaceful enlightenment. This is shown by the fact that Sun Wukong in the early part of the story turns the Heavenly Order upside down in Havoc in Heaven where he demanded to be called "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven" (齊天大聖). At the end of the story, he has become an obedient, calm, well adjusted members of the pilgrimage - a team player. In Zen Buddhism, the restless mind is often called Monkey Mind.
An eureka moment zapped me as I'm typing this why Journey to the West is THE Chinese classics. This story - or accurately the central character Monkey - captures and resonates with the 3 Chinese cultural System of Thoughts - Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The changing, mercurial nature of the Monkey reflects the Taoist philosophy, the obedient Monkey represents Confucianism, and the spiritual progress implies Buddhism. In fact, while it's a story about Buddhist pilgrimage, the allegory of the story is at its very heart, very Confucian. Play nice, be a team player, don't be a rabble rouser, know your place. This is the central messages of the story. The core of Confucianism.
Sorry I digress. I think it's more than Hindu influence that the Monkey lore arose in China. Monkey is 1 of the 12 Chinese zodiac, which predates the Chinese classics by centuries. Even the original Hanuman begs the questions, why monkey? Here's my theory, the monkey is the product of the marriage of 2 things - animism and the widespread of monkeys in Asia. Many temples I had gone to in Asia, I run into these animated creatures. Batu Caves in KL, temples (the names escapes me) in Bali, etc. The question is, which comes 1st? Monkey or the temple? Do Hindus deliberate build temples where many monkeys dwell? Or do the clever simian would come to the temple because they are being fed (and never mind being revered)? Who know? It's of those eternal chicken or the egg question.
 Back to the bas-reliefs of the Battle of Lanka in Angkor Wat. The Japanese 3 Wise Monkeys are found in a temple, so they're monk monkeys. That's why they need to follow don'ts. Don't do this, don't do that. The monkeys in this bas-reliefs are warrior monkeys. They don't don't do. They do.
The monk monkeys have commandments, the army monkeys have mottos. So instead of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil"; they have "bite your leg off, bite your torso off, bite your head off". All these MA-rated action-pack battle scenes are meticulously and lovingly carved on the wall. Yum! Fingers lickin' good!  Do warn the kids not to monkey see, monkey do.
Angkor Wat, CambodiaMoneky, Battle of Lanka, Angkor Wat

bas-relief, Monkey army, Anglor Wat

(Click on photos for full size. Better still right-click, open new window)

Angkor Thom is only 1.7km north of Angkor Thom. Close enough to walk, which was what we did. Just like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is surrounded by a moat. And both sites are connected via causeways. This causeway is more memorable than the Angkor Wat's, franked by large sculptures of devas on the left and asuras on the right.

Bayon, Angkor ThomWe made our 1st stop in Angkor Thom to Bayon. This is a very richly decorated temples that would be described as baroque style of the Khmer architecture.

The wall on the eastern gallery has a mixture of mythology, every life scenes, and history.

On the historical front, this relief on the left depicts a battle marching scene. 2 types of soldiers could be seen. The one marches in the front has buns on their tops, and some have goatee. Anyone who has seen the entombed warriors knows that these are Chinese soldiers. And it is.

The Khmer soldiers who marches in the back have no buns in their hairs, have very long ears, and are clean shaven. (Ancient Chinese didn't cut their hair their whole life. Cutting their hair or any part of their body is a symbol of unfilial disrespect to their parents because these things are endowed from their parents).  It's too small to make out in this photo, I could tell you that the Khmer soldiers are barefoot (the individual toes and digits were exquisitely carved. Click on the photo to look at it in full size) while the Chinese soldiers wear army boots. The uniforms and facial features of the 2 groups are also quite distinct. One Chinese soldier - the closest to the horse - carrying  a gong. It was customary for Chinese troop to bang on gong during battle to spur morale, also used as commands communication tool.

In the watch towers of the Great wall of China, smoke signals were used as communication tool (like American Indian). In the midst of battle, setting up a campfire smell of laid back attitude to life (let's smoke a peace pipe, and become friends). The gong is much more appropriate signalling tool. It sounds more like an urgent Kill! Kill! Kill!

The mounted military general (I assume) would be Chinese, judging from his hair bun, goatee, uniform and facial feature. In short, the carving details are meticulous and very well preserved.

The battle scene shows that the Chinese fought side by side with the Khmer against the neighbouring army of the Kingdom of Champa (in present day central and part of southern Vietnam). In a way, history has not changed much . Vietnam isn't in such a friendly term with PRC today (much worse off in the last 3 decades. A border war sparked off between PRC and Vietnam in 1979), while the most important political figure of modern Cambodia - Norodom Sihanouk - had a close career-long ties with China. In fact, he died in a Beijing hospital in 2012.

Actually there's 1 more Chinese connection to Cambodia. Possibly the most important one. During the Yuan dynasty in year 1296, a Chinese envoy by name, travel bug by game, called Zhou Daguan (周達觀) came to Chenla (真臘), what Cambodia was called by the Chinese then. After returning to China, he wrote a travel guide titled Chenla: The Manners and Customs (真臘風土記). The book - travel blog wasn't available yet - became an instant bestseller in China (don't know for how long), and it was soon forgotten. Some 500 years later, Henri Mohot stumbled upon that book. It was believed by some that it was the reading of that travel guide (French translated version, of course) that he decided to explore Cambodia.

Our driver cum tour guide from the villa (read my previous diary "Siem Reap Day 1") took us to Banteay Srei before the lunch break. This temple is notable for its small size. What it loses in size, it gains in its generous intricate and rich decorations. It's also known among tourists as "Citadel of Women" or "Citadel of Beauty" for its tiny size and delicate charm when compares to its grander cousins like Bayon or Angkor Wat.

It's built using red sandstone, which is something Aussies (at least Sydneysider) know all too well as construction materials. Many of Sydney public buildings were made out of this stuff that gives it the red hue (Sydney sandstone is less red because of its lower iron content). Bricks and laterite also used in the temple. As both of these are red, they masquerade themselves reasonably well.

Banteay Srei, Sieam Reap, doorwayBantey Srei, Siem Reap, window

The walls surrounding the window and doorway are constructed with porous, coarse laterite material while the door and window frames, as well as window posts are made out of much smoother building materials like sandstone. Many of the buildings and sculptures in Sukhoithai and Ayutthaya in Thailand are also constructed with laterite, which seems to be common in Indochina (and hot and wet tropical areas in general). The window posts are so symmetrical and precise that it tempts one to think that these ancient craftsmen may have some kind of rotary tools.

We made our way to Ta Prohm after a Khmer lunch at a local restaurant (we insisted to the tour guide that we only wanted Khmer dishes for lunch). Because Bantay Srei is 37km from Siem Reap, the tour guide arranged to give us a siesta nap after lunch while we were driven back to Siem Reap.

Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, CambodiaTa Prohm was built in the similar rich baroque style as Bayon we visited this morning. But the most well known feature, in fact its tourist draw-card, is the many instances of banyan trees devouring buildings. The kind that you see in documentary like Life After People where nature reclaims her dominion over the human creations like architecture in the early stage.

All man-made objects in Siem Reap were devoured by the jungle at different stages of digestion by Mother Earth after they were abandon. Most of this devouring trees had been cleared away (for the benefits of tourists). Some, like Ta Prohm, are more extensive into the digestion process, and so the process of restoration are still on going today. At least, it still not totally merged with the jungle. You wouldn't have the chance to see those.

Another even more important reason for its popularity is, well you've guessed, Tomb Raider. And for this reason, it had been given the showbiz name "Tomb Raider Temple" (remember "James Bond Rock" in Phuket, Thailand?).

As we headed back, we retraced the our route through Angkor Thom, where we stopped for Terrace of the Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King. Why didn't we stop there when we were there this morning? Perhaps because this 2 sites were considered minor by our tour guide, and priority were given to the other sites. And only stopped here on our way back if we still had time.

While it's sandwiched between the end of low season (read high temperature), the and the start of peak season (read mild temperature), the weather could be unsettled as one would expect. We were lucky to have a sunny, yet reasonably mild day. The tourist crowd was small. Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm were somewhat busier, but still not getting to shoulder to shoulder density, which according to our tour guide would be the case during Dec, and Jan.

The distance between our villa and Angkor Wat/Angkor Thom isn't far. It would only takes 15 to 20 mins if the road condition was good, now took 35 mins. There was flooding in this area for a few months that coincided with the flood in Bangkok that made headlines (even though the two are unrelated. At least not on the same river system). The flood led to the significant water damage that left many large and deep potholes on the road.

Except for Banteay Srei, most of the temples in Siem Reap are either within walking or cycling distance. This lead to many tourists doing sightseeing on bikes if the weather is fine. According to my tour guide, the weather in Dec and Jan is in the early 20°C. With the very good exchange rate and low labour costs, Siem Reap is a great weekend getaway, especially if you're living nearby.

Giving all these attractive factors, I'm thinking of coming back here some day to look at other temples. According to our tour guide, there're as many as 700 temples in Siem Reap alone!!! We seen less than 10 today (albeit the most well known). I'm not sure if the figures are correct. But then the Angkor period spans from 6th to 16th century. With devoted effort, you could build a hell lot of temples in 10 centuries.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Siem Reap Day 1 - Sojourn Boutique Villa, Old Market

Cured Travel Bug got Dragged to See World UNESCO site. Villa Dejavu. Travelling the Middle Way. Feet for Fish. Fish for House cat.

semi-overcast 30 °C
Had been wanting to see Angkor Wat for ages. It's even got included in my Bucket List (The phrase "Bucket List" should be said in a loud, booming voice with many echoes. Preferably accompanied by 2 files of trumpeters blaring their horns). Atta had been dragging her feet when it comes to Angkor Wat. In last few years, bugs that I got from my travels had wearing down me of my travel bug. To the point that I'm so low in travel bug count that I need a fresh transfusion just to keep me interested. It's only then that she said, "Let's go to Siem Reap".

She knows my desire for travelling had been buried deep underground like the tombs of 13 Ming Dynasty Emperors (明十三陵) near Beijing. Like the dead emperors, I'm only wished to be visited, not visiting others (and visits to my place is free). What's more, discounting her business trips to Istanbul, Jakarta, Doha and Bangkok this year (of which I didn't go), we already toured Taiwan during Chinese New Year, and joined a 3 weeks Baltic cruise just a few months ago. Boy, I feel tired just recounting it. I opposed to this trip vehemently. Man, she has definitely suffered from a bad case of Severe and Acute Travelling Bug Syndrome (aka SATBS, unrelated to SARS). As she was born in HK (birth place of SARS and one of PRC's 2 SARs), she must have contracted SATBS there from birth. I'm very much cured of this incurable disease.

I jumped up and down screaming "No more for this year!" (I should have also dropped onto the floor and kicked like a kid in tantrums for a good measure, but I feared that I hurt my hip performing this childish act. A damaged hip is really bad for travelling, and future tantrums if I so wich to perform this ritual again). I said to her with my Bruce Lee's (1940 - 1973) trademarked finger pointing pose, "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry!" while imitating the voice of Bill Bixby (1934 - 1993), who played "The Incredible Hulk" (1978 - 1982). Between my busy acts of celebrity impressions and limited Stanislavski's method acting, I heard that we should take advantage of the Frequent Flyers Miles before it lapsed in November. The Krisflyer points were only enough to cover us to fly to Cambodia (or is it Kampuchea?). I may not multitask very well. But I heard her between my Oscar winning impromptu performance. And finally, to win me completely over, she said the 2 little magic words, "3 days". It's only for 3 days. She made the gesture that saying both 'ok' and '3'. So I replied with the same gesture (in my mind, my gesture to her involved 2 fingers. 'V' sign for victory. What were you thinking? Get your head out of the gutter. Would ya?).

On the plane, she dropped the bomb on me (nobody on the plane got hurt but me) that we didn't really have to use the points after all. It didn't expire. Somehow. Uhmmm...."after all", "somehow". Interesting choice of words. when it comes to this matter, she's so creative. Never mind, it's only for 3 days. I told meself, I can handle 3 days. Finger cross. Touch wood. Pray to god (I'm agnostic. But desperate times call for desperate measure. I would convert to any god who can do me a solid). I chanted to myself, "3 more days" like voters chanted "4 more years" in election campaign but without the enthusiasm. I chanted repeatedly amid the loud drones of jet engines. I hope one of the gods can hear me. I guess they can. I hope they can. Be positive, they can! Hullaleyah!!! Call me Lucky!

Sojourn Villa, Siem Reap, CambodiaWe stayed in Sojourn Villa for the 3-day trip. This reminds me of Villa Sungei in Bali we visited about 4 years ago. Everything. If you followed my hyperlinks to these 2 villas and look at the photos, you'll know what I mean. The overall vibes of the 2 places has so much similarities in its tropical idyllic charms - the tropical flora, featured strongly in frangipini and palms, swimming pool, and the surrounding bungalows (or villas), right down to the cats. More about the cats later. Not to mention the Buddhist-Hindu religious decors dotted around the Villas. Both of these villas nestled in their local villages, instead of the town centre. Even the typical Hindu morning food offering that left outside our porch is the same.

Speaking of this Bali Hindu's tradition, this reminds me of something quite interesting - you may find it dead boring - between Bali, Indonesia and India. The single most touristy iconic image of India is Taj Mahal. It's a UNESCO heritage site. It's a Islamic architecture, a mosque, in a predominant Hindu country. While the single most touristy iconic image of Indonesia is Borobudur. It's a UNESCO heritage site. It's a Hindu architecture, a temple, in a predominant Muslim country. Many Hindu images of Bali too make into covers of Indonesia travel brochures. And not just tourist brochures, but many other product/service brochures. Did you find it interesting or dead boring? You don't care! I see.

Ok, back to Siem Reap. The similarities between the 2 villas are more than just on the surface - i.e. scenery, decor, and architecture. They also provide similar services.

You have 3 ways to do sightseeing. You can join a packaged tour and give yourself minimum hassles, and minimum flexibility. You go where the tour group goes, you get up when they tell you to, etc. On the other hand, you can go for the DIY option where you have maximum hassles, and maximum flexibility. Or you can go the middle way. This is where the villas concept comes in. This is where they shine. The villa provides you with a driver for a whole day, and suggests some itineraries for the typical sights. You can either follow their suggestion to the letters, or design your own itineraries, just tell your driver to take you there. The most likely scenario would be what we had done - we took up some of their suggestions (which is usually a good suggestion anyway), but we also have some specific things we like to do that's not been suggested. The time is of course flexible. They even provide us lunch.

One more similarity. Both of these villas are run by Aussies. I don't know if these concepts are invented by the Aussies or not, but these concepts can only work if the labour cost of the country is quite low. Since the driver they provide are for the whole day, and the villa is located in a local village, thus away from anywhere a touristy. Your own personal driver becomes very convenient, almost essential. I couldn't imagine I can afford this kind of chauffeuring service even in country like Thailand. And so it didn't come as a surprise that Siem Reap has something similar to Bali. We took up this package. The damage of this package is $200 USD per night for us. Of course, price is subjected to changes. Would imagine this costs more in peak season.

By the way, peak season is in December when the weather here is quite mild and pleasant. The weather in the months of June to August are insufferably hot and humid, as we were told by the tour guide. In the start of November, we've arrived just at the very beginning of the Peak Season. It's sandwiched between perfect and miserable weather. We hoped for the best. Actually, this time isn't so bad as the tourist numbers are quite low. In Peak Season, you get the good weather, but also the crowds.

I did enjoy my previous 2 trips to Bali, so I imagine, I would also enjoy this trip with this similar setup.

Angkor Wat at dusk, Siem ReapIt was about 2:45PM when we arrived at the villa. The immediate itinerary that they suggested was a sunset picnic outside - not a sightseeing tour of - Angkor Wat. We get the sightseeing tour tomorrow.
After unpacking and down a honey tasting welcome drink, we made our way to the picnic around at 5:15PM. We turned the corner around the moat and from our car windows we saw Angkor Wat in the distant bathed in the warm golden glow of the sunset. Temples in Angkor face West, which in Hindu religion meaning death. When a Chinese says somebody is going to the Western Sky (="xi tian"=西天[1]), it means someone is going to meet the Maker.

Monk at the causeway of Angkor Wat, Sien Reap, Cambodia
Monk at the causeway of Angkor Wat

I was quite anxious to take the photo of Angkor Wat in the magic hours. As we parked our car, and walked to the moat side where we stayed for picnic, the cloud made their way to blanket out the sun just in time. Not a minute too late. Any keen photographer knows the difference of any scene between sunset and cloudy condition is like heaven and earth (ok, rainbow and mud). The sun never returned. The lazy bugger knocked off for the day while we were there. Better luck next time, if there's a next time.

Old Market, Siem Reap, CambodiaAfter the picnic, we were driven to the Old Market in the town centre and bought a guide book for $4, which we bargained down from $6 USD. We weren't trying to save 2 bucks. We simply respect the tradition. When in Rome you wear a revealing tunic, but when in Siem Reap, you haggle until the cows (or bucks) come home.

I only did some light research on the net (by light, I mean on a laptop), and never bought a guidebook for this trip (only 3 days, why bother?). So we thought we brought "The Treasures of Angkor Wat", published by White Star (I imagine it would cost about 30 AUD/SGD in Australia/Singapore). The guidebook is 2 years old (is brand new condition and still in shrink wrap). It didn't really matter. This isn't one of those guidebook that's big on facts and figures, and low on photos like "Lonely Planets". This one is all about gorgeous glossy photos and some maps. It's like postcards on the cheap. Perfect as a souvenir, and so doesn't matter if it's published this year or 5 years ago.

The town centre is dotted with quite a few street stalls with signs of Dr. Fish around. They're essentially businesses based on Doctor Fish. Their business consists of an aquarium with fishes that eat your feet. I didn't see too many pedi-daredevils. But it wasn't the Peak Season. Also, this fishy pedicure is one of those new fashion like Kindle ebook reader, it isn't quite caught on yet.

Doctor Fish stand, Sieam Reap, CambodiaWhen we returned, the sun had set, and on my way to back to our rooms/bungalow, I nearly stepped on a frog. They're so small and cute (no bigger than my thumb), and so they could be very easily stepped on and got squashed if you don't look where you're walking. They come out during, before or after a rain. Like most Aussies, they love wetness and outdoor.

After a repose, we dined at the Villa's restaurant. Just like the restaurant in Villa Sungei in Bali, the restaurant in this villa is also a alfresco dining. That is, it has ceiling, but no walls. Because it's open, the house cat - or should I say Cat of the House - came to dine with us with no RSVP. We certainly didn't mind this uninvited guest because it was such a pretty cute pussy. We fed it with our 3 course square meal.

Yep, you've guessed it, this unofficial itinerary is also identical to that of Villa Sungei. We fed their cat as an after dinner activity. Now you know what I meant when I said that the similarities of the 2 villas are right down to the house cat.

The 1 difference between these 2 villas is the bathroom. In Villa Sungei, the bathroom is what I would call an alfresco shower. Alfresco shower isn't as good a concept as alfresco dining. In fact, the 2 enclosures are reversed. In alfresco restaurant, there's ceiling, but no walls. In alfresco shower, there're walls, but no ceiling. So how are we going to have a shower when it's raining? Also, in the morning, we found all kinda of dead leaves and creepy crawlies took over our washing basins. The bathroom in Sojourn Villa is good. It's totally enclosed as bathroom is supposed to. Private. It has several very large windows so that you can get that feeling of being outside (if that's your thing), but without the downside of actually being outside. Just draw the blind if you don't like to feel connected to the outdoor when you doing your private things. Leave the blind up if you're way too proud of your body. No problemo.

No, I don't believe they're operated by the same Aussie.

Yes, I'm reasonably proud of my body. But I close the blinds anyway. I don't want anyone goes blind after seeing me naked.

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[1]   西天 = "Western Sky" is translated into English as "Western Paradise". Time again and again, they interpret rather than translate. Another example, 中国="Zhong gou" was interpreted as "Middle Kingdom", once again the term should be translated as "Middle Country". This interpretation annoyed me to no end. I guess the English speakers aren't dumb to interpret meaning from literal translation. So smart-alecky translator has to become interpreter.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Shittingly Good Cup of Birthday Coffee

Another check for my bucket list. Vietnamese Drip Coffee. Maid in Singapore. Feast for your Eyes. And other wacky themed Food Fares.

sunny 29 °C

Ada said she would take me for a cup of cat-poop coffee (貓屎咖啡) for my birth day this year. You've guessed it, this is what HK locals' slang for Civet coffee, aka Kopi Luwak (This name sounds like local coffee because both Indonesian an Malaysian language use the word 'kopi' for coffee).

I heard about this coffee in a documentary on TV in Sydney some 6 or 7 years ago, but never actually thought about sampling it. So where did Ada got the idea from? A few weeks ago, while we had Vietnamese coffee at Trung Nguyen Coffee in Liang Court, Dan told us that he had a cup of Civet coffee in North Sydney. I was a little bit surprise because Dan has only lived in Sydney for about 2 years while I lived there for more than 30, and what's more, I was a keener coffee drinker than he is. Yet I had never heard about the coffee shop. Maybe they just opened in the last 2 years while we were out of the country. Maybe I'm just out of touch. Nah, I couldn't even convinced myself of that.

Actually the reason she suggested it was because when I was asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, I said, half jokingly, I wanted to cross out an item on my bucket list. My list is a typical boring list that contains mostly of places to stare at, foods to chow down, drinks to suck, people to annoy make peace with, movies to pirate watch, books to steal read. Well, forget about the last item. I heard rumours that books are on its way out. Well, on Feb 16 this year, Borders Group - the 2nd largest bookshop in USA - filed for Chapter 11, and closed the book, so to speak. That's no rumours.

Borders Bookstore, Singapore
Bye bye now
I've been to this shop a number of times, but only to drink coffee. Like I said, this worm now find books hard to swallow because of my bad eyesight.

Besides, meself and my hands are tired of reading books with a magnifying glass (but I do like the idea of looking like an old fashioned snoop - Sherlock Holm et al. Very cool). Let me change it to audio books to listen (not that my hearing are much better than my vision, but turn on the volume is a snappy job). Nah...forgetting about all forms of books, may they be paper, audio, Kindle or virtual reality (still waiting) or read by Miss Jackie Collins (if I can afford it). My book worm days are over. Here comes my blog WORM (Write Once, Read Many) days. I'll just watch movies that based on those books. I'm still waiting for Hollywood to make "A Man in Full" by Tom Wolf as the dust on the book thickens (so to speak).

Wha? You haven't got a list like this? Congrat! You haven't spent too much time dwelling on the spectre of death. Don't worry, you will warm up to the idea one day, or I should say many sleepless nights.

Different men have their unique approaches to dealing with mid-life crisis - some hook up with young girls half their age; some get onto a Harley (for the first time); some get spanking new toupees or treat themselves with (or get treated by) Ashley & Martin; some go for cattle drives. Me? I just want to try something that combine my love for cat and coffee - 2 birds with 1 stone. Each to his own. Just don't pooh-pooh it before you try it.

I dropped this cat poo coffee into my list since I watched the documentary. I smiled when I watched "The Bucket List" (2007). When Carter, played by Morgan Freeman, heard the story about how Kopi Luwak is produced, he laughed so hard that he crosses off "laugh till I cry" from his bucket list (odd that Carter has that as an item. On the 1 hand, I must have countless laugh-till-I-cry moments in my younger days. Countless. On the other hand, I find it quite a tall order that someone his age - late 50s, early 60s - can laugh till he cries). You can imagine that how funny is that scene would be to me (even though the Kopi Luwak explanation wasn't as funny to me as it's to Carter). No I didn't cry when I laughed at that scene as I heard it several times before (quite a tall order at my age, may be it's just me).

When I asked Ada if she knows a coffee shop that sells it (we only here in Singapore for 2 years). She said, "no idea". Since this coffee is produced in the islands of Indonesia, I would have no doubt that the (affluent) neighbouring countries like Australia, and Singapore would have coffee shops that sell these exorbitantly priced drop of brew. In a mere minutes of googling, we pinned down Blue Mountain Coffee on Level 3 of 131 @ Sommerset.

The Kopi Luwak costs 26.9 SGD (about 30 bucks after adding service charge and tax). Excluding Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the Kopi Luwak is free of charge with an order of entrée and pasta. And we ordered a (spicy) seafood pasta (of your choice, we picked penne), and for entrée, a rosemary chicken. Actually both are not bad, and they came to a total of 28 SGD (including and cheaper than a cup of Kopi Luwak).

The Kopi Luwak is stronger and more fragrant than your average coffee beans, and left a nice bitter after taste. Not too crappy shabby. Truth be told, I would prefer my regular cappuccino than kopi Luwak even if money is no object. Like I said before, I have cheap taste, except for vino (probably because I'm not a drinker). Still, you should try it once, if you haven't. If anything, you can tell your grand kids - if you're so lucky - that their granny drunk coffee that came out of a cat's ass (of course, you need to keep the story PG rated, and make it educational). They should get a kick out of the story and you get a kick out of their laughter. Win-win. I'm not so lucky, so I just tell it to my virtual kids like you.

With that weekdays promotion, I wouldn't mind returning to this Blue Mountain Coffee, not just for its food, it also has quite a number of 'exotic' coffee on their menus ranging from Brazilian, Kenyan, Java to Ethiopian. These coffees are more reasonably priced.

If you're a keen coffee drinker and while you're in Singapore, you can also check out Trung Nguyen coffee at Liang Court Shopping Centre (right next to Clark Quay - a Singaporean tourist spot). I go there whenever I have an itch to walk down the memory lane. When I arrived Sydney some 30 odd years ago, having grew up on Vietnamese coffee beans, I found the Sydney coffee quite sour. After some 30 years of drinking those stuff, I now find the Vietnamese coffee quite bitter. But I enjoy that whole dripping nostalgia that I grew up with. And that coffee shop is usually quiet for a nice quiet cuppa.

But if you have a thing for cosplay, especially the Japanese type, while you're shopping for IT & electronics in Funan, you might want to rest for feet (but keep your eyes busy) in Cawaii Koohii Maid Café. The waitresses who serve you are dressed in maid costumes - the type that could commonly be found in the streets of Harajuku, Tokyo during weekends, or in Japanese Manga. It looks as if it's a Japanese franchise, but in fact a Singapore concept theme café, and is totally maid in Singapore. Singapore (and HK) is into Japanese youth culture of cosplay, anime and manga (HK has a thriving comic industry. I grew up on them in Saigon. Sat on the sidewalks of Saigon (former Ho-Chi-Minh City), reading their comics from the street stalls. It's much cheaper to read them there. Or left me with more money to read more). This cultural interests can be seen by the annual Toy, Game and Comic and similar conventions that are held here in Singapore. Café with this sort of theme is naturally grown out of this Japanese adoring sub-culture. For the fans of Japanese anime/manga/cosplay, I guess this café is a mecca for the Singaporean pilgrimage.

They serve UCC coffee - a Japanese coffee brand. Their canned coffee could be found in Daiso - a $2 Japanese shop in Singapore - in Vivo City. Although their taste is ok, but it's typically too weak for me, having grown up in Vietnam, and Sydney, Australia with the strong cuppa that made by Southern Europeans, Singapore's coffee is typically too weak for me. So do ask for a double shot if you're partial for strong drop. But if UCC coffee isn't your cup of tea, the Japanese manga maids who serve you might provide you with some nice eye candies and more to your tastes. If red and pink aren't your favourite colour, then this whole café is an eyesore. Singaporean gals - Singaporean in general - are a reserved bunch. The waitresses who work here are more open than those in your average Singaporean cafes.

What is the deal with cafes like Starbucks asking for your name when ordering coffee? I'm only there for coffee, not making friends. I usually give them 'Jesus' as my name. It usually gives them pause. Unless I'm in a Mexican Starbucks, in that case, when 'Jesus' is called, many people may think their coffee order is ready. To avoid confusion, they need to say "you're Jesus 3" when there're 2 Jesuses ordered coffees before you. Not an uncommon occurrence. So you end up with something like, "3 lattes for Jesus 1", "1 cappuccino for Jesus 2" being called in Mexican Starbucks's.

So what is it that the Mexicans like to name their kids 'Jesus' (and call their babies "Babies Jesus") while the English speakers would only use the names of Jesus disciples? This gives me pause. Perhaps because the English speakers use 'Jesus' as a swear word. For example, when somebody says to you, "Jesus! you're so sacrilegious!", it doesn't mean your name is 'Jesus'. Say if your name is 'Peter', then they SHOULD say something like, "Jesus! Peter! you're so sacrilegious!" to avoid confusion. If your name is 'Jesus', it's not hard to see how confusing things can get. You may have to say, "Jesus Jesus! you're so sacrilegious!" to clear things up.

Another example, when somebody in a coffee shop yells out, "Jesus, this coffee tastes like shit!", you wouldn't want to think somebody is talking you when they curse. It could be quite unnerving, especially when you didn't make the coffee.

Don't the Mexicans curse 'Jesus'? I don't know. One thing I do know, IF they curse, it sounds more like "Herr Shoes". Bless you! Gesundheit!

Speaking of theme café, you can check out the hospital themed restaurant "The Clinic" in Clark Quay.
I've never been there. When my brother James and Mary visited me, I suggested to go to this restaurant, but they think it's ridiculous (not in so many words). I can't blame them, I too, am too old to get excited about novelties.

Singapore - Ok Asia - seems to attract all kinda fun, and wacky themed cafes ,and restaurants:
Hospital theme,
Rainforest theme,
Mao theme,
Blindness theme,
There used to be a ghost theme restaurant, but had since closed down. Maybe diners are scared shitless to return to eat. The rainforest theme doesn't seem too wacky.
Maybe I visit one of these in my next birthday...not! Actually I don't mind Hunan food that they serve in the Mao theme restaurant (Hunan is Mao's birth place), if they're as good as other Human restaurant I tried before.

As for the visually impaired restaurant, I'll give it a pass, I don't wish shoving food accidentally into my nose. Especially when I'm hungry, this is a slow way to fill my stomach.

Ok, just in case you think I'm 70 years old, I'd like to clear up that I'm under 50. I just feel like 150.
Happy 150th birthday to me!!!

Ah yes. This post is written under the influence of caffeine.

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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Globalisation of Hollywood - Part 4 (Movie Making)

Extra! Extra! Read all about it !

sunny 18 °C
Globalisation isn't just affecting the themes of Hollywood movies, but the movies making itself. Increasingly, Hollywood studios are quick to make movies abroad. When Fox Studios Australia opened in Sydney in 1998, Hollywood movie producers were coming to town, and was a bonanza to the local movie industry. The relative low production costs and the talented tech-heads and artists was a prime reason for the decision to open a studio here. (In the 1980s to 1990s, the AUD to USD exchange rate was quite low. At some stage 1 AUD = 0.65 USD). Also, remember the owner of Fox Studios, Rupert Murdoch, is an Aussie (he became a naturalised US citizen in 1985). The multicultural population , and the city skylines are also some of the crucial reasons why some films are made in Australia rather than elsewhere. "The Matrix" was the first big budget movie made here making use of the multicultural population. It's a fun experience to watch a movie where you recognise all the backdrops. You can play the game of "Guess where this place is?" while watching the movie, thus creating a distraction and noisy environment that would ruin your viewing pleasure.

Many Hollywood blockbusters were made in this studio since "The Matrix". When I wasn't working as as movie extra, I also came to the Fox Studio for movies, and a couple of my fave restaurants are also here. Eastern European countries may successfully steal some business from Sydney because of their lower labour costs. One thing they lack is the large multicultural population, which serves as extras. Films with global theme, hence with international cast, is the future trend. I guess the Eastern European can have a market niche in producing movies like "Troy" and "Alexander The Great" where the cast of thousands are all Europeans.

"Superman Returns" was shot in Sydney in 2005 where yours truly worked as a film extra. Superman, or more correctly, Clark Kent works and lives in Metropolis, which is based on NY City in the 1930's as the comic was first appeared. This picture was made in Sydney for two reasons (based on my educated guesses) :

1. the multicultural population of Sydney - as multicultural as NY City - provides the film studio a large pool of multicultural talented movie extras like myself to draw from (ok, maybe just the multicultural bit, and not the talented bit).

2. to provide a backdrop that redolent of Metropolis, you need to have a city with inter-war architecture - i.e. art deco buildings. One of the locations that I was involved in the 2nd day shooting of "Superman Returns" was on York Street. The section of York Street between Market and Jamison Streets was condoned off for filming. There're more concentration of art deco building here than anywhere in Sydney. So for people who are art deco fans - I'm one of them - and if you're in Sydney, this is where you should visit. Martin Place also has some nice art deco buildings, and guess what, this is another shoot location for the film.

York St, Sydney, making movie

This is York Street near King St corner. Notice the concentrations of art deco buildings that flank York St (turn your eyes to the right side of the photo). Notice also the time stamp "17 6:19". It was taken at 6:19AM. We were already there before 6AM. And it's 17 of July, it means winter and was a particular cold winter morning. Notice too how everyone either have their hands in their pockets or holding their hands together to keep themselves warm. I was under dressed, and I froze my butts off. Hard work, moving making.

Superman Returns film locatin shoot.jpg

The extras playing the Metropolis Police are having a break. Actually, we don't have breaks. Or to put it another way, for the extras, most of the times are breaks, standing around and waiting for the technical people to set up their equipments like cameras, lighting, etc. It's usually a long wait.

Makeup artists would walk around checking if our faces are too shiny, and applied powder to it (so you can't use the excuse "I like to powder my face" to leave the scene). My oily face meant that this extra needs extra dry powder. The agency suggested that we should bring along a book to pass the time. I did meet some very colourful people, playing as extras. Of course, all these extras have day jobs. They're here for the experience. Australia is too small a market to work as full time extra. If you live in California, things might be different. The Metropolis taxi is a typical NY yellow cab. Sydney taxis don't look like this. This photo can easily passed as a typical street scene in NY City.

Superman Returns, Metropolis bank

This is "International Bank of Metropolis" during the shooting. Normally, this is St. George bank branch locating at the corner of York and Barrack Streets. A sydney local will able to tell from the bits of red and white that exposed behind the green prop sign that this is the familiar St George Bank logo. Notice, too, the red colour in the awning above the door. If this is indeed International Bank of Metropolis, it should be painted green instead. Of course, no audience in their right mind is going to notice things like that.

Superman Returns, Metropolis vehicle lincense plate

The Metropolis license plate. This car belongs to a fellow extra Nikki. Unlike Clark Kent who works in Daily Planet and moonlighting as Superhero who saves the planet, Nikki is Japanese-Aussie who works for an employment agency by week day, and moonlighting as a movie extra by weekend. He told me that this extra was paid extra for having his car included in the shooting scene. I didn't know that. Wouldn't you rather park your car here and got paid than park outside and paying the local council? He told me that he had been in the extras business to make extra money for almost 12 years. Only an old hand in the business gets this kinda privileges. He said he also appeared in one of the TV commercials for a Japanese brand  air-conditioner Daiken. I didn't recognise him because he had his glasses on. When he removed his glasses. I screamed, "So desu ne! Clarku Kento!" Ok, can't help but to dramatise a real event. This is show biz. I made up the bits about the glasses. Everything else I said about him was true.

Superman Returns, Metropolis pub or bar

Like St George Bank, this Irish pub, whose name escapes me, had been disguised as "Jimy Quong" pub for this shooting. If you can squint your eyes hard enough, you'll be able to spot the fine print that says, "the last Chinese in metropolis". For the natives, to find out the real name of this pub, just stroll down to the Occidental Hotel right next door. This is an actual Sydney hotel without disguise. They didn't disguise the sign probably because it does have the look and feel of a Metropolis business shop sign. In fact, if you look at this logo closely (if you can't, you can see it on their own website here). Its logo looks a little bit like the the logo in the license plate above (buildings inside a circle). Imagine that. Even the name The Occidental has a inter-war feel to it. Weird, isn't it? This hotel is made for this movie. This pub and hotel is located at the corner of York and Erskine Streets.

Superman Returns location camera crew
Did I mention filming is hard yakka?

Superman Return shoot location

An actual scene in the movie with a traffic mayhem. A camera was suspended on a cable (shows up faintly on the top of the photo) above the street is zipping from one end to another. The camera captured the view of what Superman sees as he flies over York St (sorry, I mean a street in Metropolis). Everyone you see in this photo are, of course, extras.

I was told that the number of extras working on that day was over 400 strong. The award wage (Aussie legal term for minimum wage) for a film extra was $21.50 AUD at the time. The clock started ticking at 6AM, and we didn't clock off until 7PM. Yep, a long day in the 'office'. Three meals were included. We shot a total of about 5 scenes, which lasted no more than 5 minutes in the feature, If at all). You do the maths. And we were probably the lowest expense items.

When the movie came out, I tried to spot the dot that is me. I didn't expect to see my face appears on the screen at a dimension of 8m x 6m, but I did expect to see my tiny fruit of my labour in the form of a fleeting speck on the screen. Well I didn't really spot it. Etta said I had been completely cut out of the picture. Ummm...Maybe it's there, we just need a magnifying glass for the job. Elementary, my dear Watson. Elementary.

For people who want to organise themselves "The superman Returns" tour, this entry should offer some idea. For people who wants to see art deco buildings in Sydney, you should now know where to go.

Oh, also, for the art-deco fan, a green skyscraper opposite Sydney Townhall on George Street (Bathurst St corner) is built in the late 1990's from memory. I guess unlike the art-deco buildings in York Street, and Martin Place, which were built in the inter-war period, this one is a, I guess what you would call, a retro art-deco tower. I found it quite fetching. Judge it yourself.

Monday, 7 February 2011

HK Day 2: Kowloon Park

Where Islam Meets Consumerism. Where Green Oasis Meets Concrete Jungle. Where Wild Life Meets Shoppers.

sunny 24 °C

While Ada looked for her shoes in Parklane Shopping Arcade, I decided to take a trip to the Kowloon Park right behind it. I went there a couple of times 2 years ago and enjoyed it. It's quiet on the weekdays that provides an green oasis in the midst of hectic Tsimshatsui. The aviary and bird park also gives you something to watch while you do your relaxing stroll. Today falls on the weekend, and the park took on a different character. It becomes very lively with crowds, and you can watch people and birds alike (or people who feed birds).

Kowloon Park, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong

Most of the crowds gathered here were Indonesian domestic workers. Like the Pinoy maids, the Indonesian counterparts gather on the weekend with their fellow country folks in parks, and sidewalks. Working far away from your homeland, the sense of isolation could be eased in the companies of your own people. I can relate to their experiences. Been there, done that. Not as maids, but as somebody who led his life away from the  world he grew up in at a young age (describing me in the 3rd person would distance my pain and makes it more bearable. I don't feel so bad anymore. Sorry, he doesn't feel so bad anymore).

Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong
Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre

Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong
Pigeons like dome

This park is a logical gathering place for the Indonesian expats because it locates right behind the biggest mosque in Kowloon (I think the biggest in HK, and I think the Pinoy tend to concentrate in HK Island, especially around the Statue Square in Central). Looking at some of the shopping bags, I guess they prayed, then shopped, then had lunch break at the park, more praying, perhaps more shopping before the day ends. An interesting alternating material and spiritual cycle being so conveniently set up with Fairlane Shopping Arcade locates next to Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre.

Indonesian workers relaxing in Kowloon Park, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong
Indonesian maids relaxing in Kowloon Park

Common shelduck, Kowloon Park, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong
Common Shelduck (Tadorna Tadorna)
You ain't see double. There's only 1 duck, just with 2 names. Many panda with names like that: Jia jia, Xin Xin, etc.

The busy dizzying shop signs all trying to vie for your attention and business.

Shop signs, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong Shop signs, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong
Shop signs, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong Shop signs, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong

Since this is the 2nd day of Chinese New Year, most of the people you see on the streets of Tsimshatsui are Indo and Pinoy domestic workers, and tourists. Of course Tsimshatsui is always filled with non-locals, but with Chinese New Year where locals aren't out doing shopping, but visiting each other, the foreigners are made up almost 90% of Tsimshatsui's faces in the streets (despite the fact that Kowloon is the most densely populated place on earth).

Just as I'm about to call a day, at the stair connecting the Parklane Arcade and Kowloon Park, a dragon dancing troupe appears. Lion dancing is usually a common sight during Chinese New Year in Chinese communities across the world, but dragon dancing isn't as commonly seen. I've seen lion dancing a few dozens of times, but dragon dancing only twice, including this time. I was lucky, I guess. Dragon dancing is less dangerous and strenuous than lion dancing, but far more people to wield it.

Dragon dancing, Kowloon Park, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong
Dragon dancing

Dragon dancing, Kowloon Park, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong Dragon dancing, Kowloon Park, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong Dragon dancing, Kowloon Park, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong

These days the biggest tourist group in HK is of course Chinese Mainlanders. Since HK has always somewhat a chaotic place, but with this additional Chinese tourists, the chaos has just increased 2 folds.

Oh, did I mention admission to Kowloon Park is free?

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

HK - Day 4 - Hawaii-Five-O, The Fed & China

Cold War Demonised Dragon. More Ironies & Myths than You can Poke a Stick at. The Myth of Made-In-China Busted

 sunny 23 °C                       

I got back to the hotel while Atta continued her shopping (in this shoppers' paradise. Yep, she was in her heaven). By day 10 of travelling, my weary body had reached the end of its tether. Bought a coffee and some egg tarts to bring back to the hotel. Flopped my heavy body onto the bed, turned on the idiot box, and I was graced by the presence of the sideburns, wide square jawed Jack Lord. It was playing the peppy Hawaii-Five-O theme song. Flashes of collage of images of giant surfs, hip swaying hula girl, etc that capture the essence of Hawaii. If you take Jack Lord out of the picture, this opening sequence makes great promotional materials for Hawaii tourism authority. I remember I enjoyed this series when it was originally aired. The theme music was so upbeat...bub bub bah bah bah...bub bub bah bah bah...

You know you're old when you're far more interested what's coming out of the tube than spending times outside the hotel exploring. I prefer armchair travelling now (and it transported me to Hawaii, and the intrigue of international espionage). This is my heaven.

Let me just skip to the premise of this episode (this looked like an episode that was made before the late 1960s or early 1970s judging from picture quality, fashion, technology, acting, directing, etc).
Five-O's car was stopped dramatically by a couple of high ranking military uniforms (Colonel if memory serves). He was hushed into a meeting room, and was greeted by what I guess would be some CIA analyst (not important what he actually is). He explained to Five-O in dramatic fashion that the fate of the free world is rest in what they do in Hawaii. There're nuclear, and biological weapons. But these were taboo in modern warfare. What they now facing with is the economic weapon. That is, somebody is going to counterfeit US currency, flood the market with it, and cause the downfall of the US economy due to its effect of resulting rampant inflation. They went on further that there were many counterfeiting rackets before, but it hadn't been successful because the forgeries were not perfect, and were able to be detected. Until now. Somebody has finally able to produce perfect plates, and successfully produce different serial numbers. What's more they've cracked the code of the serial numbers. That somebody who is capable of all these is....drum roll please...PRC! The Russian comrades were also in cohorts, of course! This episode followed in the footstep of the long tradition of demonetisation of the commies in Hollywood during the Cold War Era.

This premise is interesting not just because of its many historical inaccuracies, and the delicious ironies in so many levels in view of what's happening in the world's economies right now.
In the Great Recession of 2008, in order to re-inflate the deflation, Big Ben (aka Ben Bernanke) decided to print money like there is no tomorrow. He's also called Helicopter Ben for this reason. It's as if he's throwing money onto America from a helicopter like confetti. The Fed dignifies this money printing by calling it Quantitative Easing, while some people call it counterfeiting of the American Dollars. Although the term 'counterfeiting' isn't entirely correct in the strictest technical sense, but the term is correct in its economic effects, and spirit, which is what matter.

While the Fed fires up all the cylinders of its money printing machine, flooding the US economy with trillion of dollars, PRC is asking the Fed to stop printing. Why? Because PRC is Uncle Sam's biggest creditor by being the biggest owners of US IOUs. So when the Fed prints money, it devalues US currency, and thus the value of the IOUs that China owns. These money printing also led to large amount of hot money flowing into the Chinese economy (and other emerging economies), creating bubbles - the type that created the Great Recession in USA in the first place.

In this episode of H5O, it accuses PRC in the devaluation of US currency by money printing. The reality in the last 2 years was that it was PRC who had been trying to stop the US government in devaluation their own currency. With US dollar being the fiat currency, this causes inflation in commodity and food prices around the world, leading to social unrest, and political instability everywhere. The fate of the free world is in peril, indeed[2]. Only it's Uncle Sam who is doing this. To put it another way, it isn't Chinese printing of US dollars that the US government has problem with, it's WHEN. If the Chinese has been doing counterfeiting in the last two years, Helicopter Ben should send the Chinese a thank-you note for doing their job and save them a bundle.
Ironic, isn't it?

The Fed is using a tool that would destroy USA economy (as espoused by the CIA analyst in this episode H5O) to save it. Ironic, isn't it?

USA accused China for currency manipulation while it's keeping its currency low by QE[3]. Ironic, isn't it? Or is it more like the pot calling the kettle black?

You want more irony?

If you look at GDP per capita in 2010, USA ranks 101, and China ranks 91. In other words, Chinese per capita income is lower than that of Thailand or Jamaica. To put it another way, the average Chinese is poorer than an average Thai or Jamaican. In fact, the Chinese are almost twice as poor as a Costa Rica. To the Yanks, Costa Rican are pretty poor. Here's the irony, these very poor Chinese is the biggest American creditor. In fact, the biggest creditor in history. This is like the household of blue collar workers and/or rural farmers lends truckful of money to the white collar middle class household. How is it possible? Well, the poor family with 4 times the size saves a lots while the middle class family spends like there's no tomorrow. Actually, they spend tomorrow's money like there's no tomorrow. The white collar family is a slave to the credit cards, while the blue collar workers/farmers household hardly use their credit cards.

Ok, this is Hollywood, and accuracy isn't their forte. Well, factual accuracies are indeed not what they interested the most, but demonising of their Cold War ideological enemy is. When you demonise somebody, facts usually get in the way. So just ignore them. Remember that H5O was made during the height of the Cold War (actual near the end of the Cold War, but Hollywood didn't see it coming. In fact, very few saw it coming).

Here are a few historical inaccuracies that this episode conveniently overlooked:
1. PRC simply didn't have the kinda technical ability that this episode accuses it had in the 1970's. Not even close.
2. PRC in this period was simply too busy destroying themselves in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Their own economy had collapsed (not caused by money printing). They didn't have the time or money or in fact interest to cause a collapse in the US economy. PRC is very much an isolationist in nature. It shut itself up for some 3 decades, and opened its door only 30 years ago. Even then, it didn't want to engage in global politics. Only in the last 10 years that it has been reluctantly engaging in global affairs because of pressure from the West, especially USA. More importantly, because China is now much more - about 10 times more - well-off than it used to be. It's thus making more sense for the PRC to get their nose into other people's business.
3. Despite being both communist countries, USSR and PRC had split up, and political tensions existed between them. It would be unlikely for them to gang up on the US economy. In fact, in the late 1970's, the diplomatic relationship between USA and PRC is far better than that of PRC and USSR (until Gorbachev popped up).

Hollywood has no respect for facts, which is ok for small things. The above 3 historical facts are no small potato. You can't just ignore these. It's equivalent of saying UK is a communist country in an episode of H5O, for example. But ignored it, Hollywood did, and it could because of the ignorance caused by the total information blackout from China before 1980s when PRC kept its door tightly shut. For the masses, this ignorance would probably persist for another few decades going from what I read in the net. There's an information/perception gap about China. No doubt the gap is wider before the Internet era. Surprisingly the gap is still quite big in the Internet age. I guess China is changing faster than the internet. If there's one thing can move faster than the internet, it's China (Dubai is the only other place that's moving as fast as China, but their size is too small to have any significant impact on the world. Dubai is similar to a typical China's 2nd tier cities, and China has 20 of such cities, and counting. Of course, China's 1st tier cities are larger than their 2nd tier cities).

Information/perception gap persists because of confirmation bias. Racists gravitate towards racism websites instead of websites that show opposite views (e.g. anti-racism websites). Otherwise, they wouldn't be racists. Or if they're, they may change their views, or at least, wouldn't be so sure about themselves. A bit of confusion can do a world of good.

This episode of H5O shows yet another example of the typical Cold War mentality that the PRC were busily plotting and scheming (along with USSR) to bring down USA, maybe the world. Ironically, it was USSR who finally brought down itself. Nobody foresaw it.

For those who's interested in reading more example of Hollywood's commendable effort on the Cold War demonising of Commies, you can read more in my previous post.

You want more irony? I'm glad you ask.

With the Great Recession of 2008, USA becomes increasingly socialistic by all the bailouts of failed large multi-nationals from banks, mortgage companies to automakers, while PRC - a socialist system - on the other becoming more and more capitalistic.

Jack Lord also appeared in "Dr. No" (1958), and this happened to be one of the Bond film in the habitual spirit of Cold War demonising of PRC (and former USSR), not in the least dissimilar to this episode of H5O at all. And Jack Lord played a CIA agent. Oh my Jack Lord! Funny that.
Yep, Uncle Sam does have a history of Sinophobia. If you're a movie buff, you can check out this history of Sinophobia in my previous series of posts "Globalisation of Hollywood", dated 31-05-2010. Especially the one titled "Globalisation of Hollywood - Part 2 (Sinicisation)".
You can't say we don't live in an interesting times...that means ironies galore.


[1] If you look at the list from Wikipedia, you can see that the 9 countries whose per capita values higher than USA are either small countries or small population, or both. This makes USA ranks number 1 in GDP per capita in a large country. Of course this figure is a slap in the face for poor folks in America, which there're many. While they can be considered the richest (large) country in the world, and yet, they also have many people live in poverty. This is yet another irony, isn't it? How come? It's because of the income disparity. The 1% richest American own something like 40% of the wealth, and leaving only 60% of wealth to be divided among 99% of the population.

[2] In fact, social and political turmoil could be seen everywhere since 2008. In between this episode of H5O was fresh breaking news about the chaos in Egypt. People took to the streets. This Arab Spring may not be caused by the financial crisis, but certainly triggered by it (the way that WW2 wasn't caused by the the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand but triggered by it). The CIA analyst in H5O is right, only it isn't caused by the PRC, but the accuser. Ironic, isn't it?

[3]  It's interesting parallel that H5O accused China of printing US currency, and today US government accuse PRC as a currency manipulator. More to the point, US government is demanding PRC to appreciate the RMB for the purpose of reducing US trade deficit. Does it work? What is the economic rationale behind it?

Here's the theory. If Chinese goods are more expensive, thus less competitive, US consumers will buy less. US trade deficit against China will be narrowed. Chinese goods will be more expensive if RMB appreciates, providing everything is being equal. Well everything is NOT being equal. When RMB appreciates, the costs to basic components that make Chinese goods will be lower.
US politicians asking another country to appreciate their currencies in order to reduce US deficit isn't new. They did it to the Japanese in 1985 in signing the Plaza Accord. The Yen appreciated something like 100%. Arguably this led to the Japanese asset bubble, and the lost decade. Did it help to reduce USA trade deficit against Japan? Not really.

Now the US government is pulling out the same old bag of tricks again (haven't been out shopping for new ones). And the US pollies are selling the idea again (can't really say 'again' if it has never stopped). They ask PRC to appreciate their currencies won't really create jobs (or reduce trade deficit), but it DOES make the pollies LOOK LIKE they're doing something useful to the US economy. It's called the art of "looking busy without actually doing anything".

Of course, PRC is now WANTING to appreciate their currencies in order to fight imported inflation (partly due to Fed's printing of money). Not because USA asks them.

So to make China's goods less competitive, costs to make Chinese goods has to be raised. This can be achieved if all the exporting countries to China that make goods to be re-exported to USA like Japan will need to appreciate their currencies as well. The question is, will all these countries do this just to reduce US trade deficit with China? Should they? Will Japanese going to kowtow to USA again, this time? Well, they were never asked, this time. China is now the new Japan, at least politically. In fact, Japan has been busily depreciating their currencies, but USA never complains, and it's obviously why for so many reasons.

US can ask all these countries to solve its unemployment problems. Use China as scapegoat for domestic politics. Why not? It's much easy to finger point than solving an actual thorny problem of economic restructure.

In fact, if you read this article, you'll realise the US trade deficit against China is much smaller than it really appears. So the whole forcing-China-to-appreciate-its-currency-to-reduce-US-trade-deficit is all a smoke screen conjured up by US pollies to divert the voters' attention away from thorny problems that should be dealt with. Either this, or the government think tank is leaking juices (nope, I don't think so. The tank is fine).

Consumers sees the Made-In-China stamp because China is the last country in the chain of the making a product. And in the final process they put a Made-in-China stamp. That's the stamp people see. But if you open up all your made-in-China products like iPhone, TVs, etc - which consumers almost never do - you'll see hundreds of microchips with stamps like Made-in-USA, Made-in-Japan, etc. How many of these are made in China? Almost none. Don't take my words for it, open up your TV or whatever electronics that has a made-in-China stamp. The more accurate stamp would be Assembled-in-China-but-actually-Made-in-mostly-Japan-and-USA-and-other-Hi-Tech-Exporting-Countries. Ok, this stamp is a bit long, and that's why they don't put it there.

Next time when you hear somebody say how crappy Chinese products are, please explain this myth to them. That Chinese don't make them, they only put them together, and their final product is only as good as their components - the weakest links, the bottle necks.

Here's another US-China trade deficit perspective. Let's now assume that RMB appreciation will solve the problem of US trade deficit against China by ignoring what I just said, just for the sake of argument. That is assuming that the Chinese goods are actually more expensive, and thus less competitive, US importers would simply buy from other countries that sell cheaper goods. So instead of a large deficit with China, USA will spread this deficit over several countries. Indeed, USA does have trade deficits with many countries other than China. It's just much easier to point out one big target as scapegoat than many small ones. It's easier in a political speech to denounce one country than several. Furthermore, it makes the politicians looks so much better to demonise a large country than small ones.

Would the politician take the troubles to explain all these? You bloody wish! They can't reveal the secrets of their trades. They can't break their codes. Dream on mate!

This concludes yet another episode of "Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed".

Please kindly substitute 'magic' with 'politic'. Now you see it, and now you...
You can trust me....I'm a doctor blogger....

Soon, the world will be under MY control! MUAHAHAHA - *cough* *retch*

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Taiwan - Day 6 - Taipei National Palace Museum

The Devil is in the Details. Devilishly Clever

semi-overcast 22 °C

If there's a good reason to visit Taiwan, our destination this morning would be it. It contains some of he finest cultural artefacts that epitomise the pinnacle of Chinese arts and crafts that are found nowhere else in the world. Not even in China. Of course, you know I'm talking about the National Palace Museum (NPM) that housed some - in fact most - of the Chinese national heirlooms when CKS (Chiang Kai-Sek) took with him when he fled to Taiwan. KMT may lose the country, but at least they got to keep this consolation prize of this priceless national cultural jewels. All is not lost.

Except for those who have zero interest in Chinese culture, anyone who takes only a casual interest shouldn't miss this museum while in Taipei. Most of the artefacts here will leave you with a mouthful of with oohs and aahs, and a small percentage will leave you speechless, dumbfounded by their sheer skills, and artistry.

Here're some of my favourites in my must-see list that I'm aware of long before this trip. So I made a special effort to seek them out (by the way, no photography is allowed. You can keep your bags and cameras in the cloak room).

All the headings in the following exhibits are hyperlinks to the artefacts pages in the official website.

Along the Road on Qingming Festival
This painting Can be found on the ground floor. This is probably the most famous painting in Chinese history. The West called it the Chinese "Mona Lisa", which is quite silly. There's nothing common between the two, except for their fame. For one thing, one is in the portrait orientation, while the other is in the landscape orientation. See? no similarity!

Painted in the Song Dynasty (circa 12th century). Its dimension is 24.8 cm × 528.7 cm showing detailed daily activities in Kaifeng (開封, while in TW, use the Taiwanese Chinese writing), then the ancient capital city of the Song Dynasty (and 6 other ancient dynasties). You can buy the various reproductions from the souvenir shop if you lucky enough to own a house with a long enough wall to hang it. Alternatively, buy a smaller scroll.

China Pavilion in the Shanghai World Expo showed this famous painting with a small twist. The people engaging in their daily activities (and animals) in this painting came alive with movements, thanks to computer animation. No, I didn't get to see this animated version if you read my entries on Shanghai Expo, you know I had never set foot into the China Pavilion. I'd seen it a few times on TV. Quite an interesting effect especially after you have familiar with the original static version. The digital version in fact shows this scene from dawn to dusk.

Jade Cabbage
This piece is located in Hall 302 on 3F. The hall is almost devoted to this sculpture and only a few others in it. The special quality of this object d'art lies not just in its technical skills - as impressive as this is - but in the ingenuity of the jade sculptor to turn this piece of low quality jade and its impurities and flaws into its features. The jade piece is part green and part white. This is considered not pure and therefore, not so valuable. But the sculptor had the genius to carve this stone into a Chinese cabbage (pok choy to some of you), which has white stems and green leaves, making full use of these two colours in their right places in the jade. Different imperfections and impurities of the jades were also eliminated or hidden by the shapes of the final piece. If you look closely at the exquisitely carved leaf foliage, you will spot an insect resting on the leaves. The insect is a grasshopper, which is of course, green. Admire its delicate features like legs, and antennae.

This is a bit like Blair Witch Project the movie, where the innovative use of the handheld jerky camera works that are viewed as amateurish in general turns into strength in the movie. This are two examples of how artists turn trash into treasures. Or to put it more elegantly, but less accurately, transmuting lead into gold.

NPM puts a spot light on this one sculpture, literally and figuratively speaking. A casual browse in the souvenir shop will confirm this from the many incarnations of plastic reproductions of this star piece, and on the cover feature of the NPM guidebook.

Meat Shape Stone
Nearby is this piece of stone that if I didn't see it in a museum, I swear it was a piece fatty pork (not the type of meat I like to eat though, but quite a feast for my eyes). Like the Jadeite Chinese cabbage above, the texture of the stone lends itself to what its final shape would be.

Walnut and Olive Pit
Most of my must-see objects are located in Hall 304. A walnut is carved into an elaborate art piece, something reminds me of a Faberge egg, except it's much smaller. The display case next to it contains a boat that was carved from a olive kernel, which is smaller than my thumb.  If you look at this photo, it's quite unbelievable that it's smaller than a thumb (what big is an olive pit?). It was elaborately carved with several windows, doors, 8 people and a table in it! The magnifying glass fail to shed too much light into this miniature boat as it has something like a x2 magnification. There's a large poster just outside the hall, which reveals a bit more of the details of this mini Tom Thumb sculpture. Tom Thumb won't be able to get into this boat. He's too big for the boat.

Miniature sculpture has a long tradition in Chinese art, especially in Guangzhou province. In Jan 2009, we visited Atta's dad in Guangzhou, he took us to Baomo Garden ("宝墨园"), built in the late Qing dynasty. This garden is located in Panyu (番禺) district of Guangzhou where her dad lives, and is very popular with locals (the Garden, not her dad's place). A young girl has a stall that offered to carve your name on a grain of rice. She did it in a jiffy 3 minutes, and then put the carved rice into a liquid capsule that supposed to keep it for many years to come. I had my full name carved on the rice grain for a fee of a grand total of 10 Yuans (about $1.3 SGD/AUD) included labour and parts. When asked, she told us she had taken 3 years of training in the "Art of the Rice" (her stall's name).


It's a tough job. Look closely at her fingers - they're full of cuts and calluses, never mind the tan (Chinese prefer fair skin).

Oh, the not so well known artisan, who crafted the famous olive pit of the boat of the famous poet Su Dongpo was in fact a Guangzhou local worked in the Qing imperial court. All the olive pits came from olive trees that were locally grown in Guangdong.

The same miniature arts are now adapted to the Chinese industrialisation to produce miniaturised electronics, soldering microchips onto circuit boards with the same nimble, deft hands to create iPhones, iPads, Canon DSLR cameras, etc. So every time you buy these consumer products, spare a thought to those (usually young female) hands - not unlike the girl who carved my name onto a grain of rice - that charge only a small sums for making such amazing electronic appliances. Most of these factories are located in the Special Economic Zones of Shenzhen, which isn't far from Guangzhou, situated somewhere between here and HK.

Concentric Ivory Balls
According to the audio guide, some ancients believed that this piece was materialised by the devil because no human is capable of such creation. The craft was made with witchcraft. It consists of 21 intricately carved spheres one inside of another, and freely rotate, all 21 concentric balls were carved from a SINGLE piece of ivory. Archaeologists have now cracked the mystery of how the Egyptian pyramid was built without resorting to explanation of anti gravity devices supplied by ETs. All you need is a very long ramp that they built alongside the pyramid. But nobody on earth has yet been able to supply a satisfactory answer on how this 'Demonic Spheres' (my nickname for it) were made. In Winston Churchill's words, "It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma", and repeat this saying 6 more times to get the 21 layers of mind-boggling puzzles. For now, let's stick with the explanation that it's either made by demons, or ETs (not necessary the same ones who made the Egyptian pyramids).

All these silly resorts to ETs is indications that we under-estimate our ancestors' ability. Way under. They maybe technologically[1] behind us, but they made up for this with innovation, resourcefulness, and brilliance. Their superstitions also made us think that they were feeble minded. While the Roman invented things like concrete, built amazing structures, organised huge armies, etc, but still made their nation altering decision by looking into the entrails of birds. They were anything but dumb. Look at Pythagoras's Theorem, this isn't the work of the devil or ET, but our ingenious ancestors. To me, many of the ancient mathematical discoveries were as 'impossible' as the buildings of pyramids, and yet nobody say they're helped by the aliens. The building of The Great Wall of China is just as impressive, but since their buildings were recorded, no flight of the fancy were necessary - in fact allowed - to explain its creation. If they weren't recorded, you can let your imagination run wild.
Next to the Demonic Spheres is another exquisitely engraved Chinese food basket or stacked 'lunch boxes'. Although it's not as baffling as its neighbouring piece, but its mastery of the craft is sublimely stunning.

I didn't spend too much time on gawking in the painting and calligraphy galleries. I do enjoy looking at them, but I don't have the breadth and depth of knowledge to truly appreciate them (never mind the cultural refinement and sensitivity). With limited time, and even more limited supply of energy, I spent most of my time on 3F, looking at artefacts that I guess would be best described as 3D. I like 3D arts as I lack the depth in understanding the 2D painting and calligraphy (if you know what I mean). If you're in the minority who admire Chinese paintings and calligraphy, then you're in luck, as those galleries are usually much more empty.

I'm always interested in learning about the evolution of Chinese China (where it has bored the name of the country) that traces from primitive ceramic, celadon, to reach a peak of porcelain of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Unlike painting and calligraphy, ceramic objects aren't just functional, but it embodies the accomplishments in arts, science and technology. And what's more many ceramic pieces contain both paintings and calligraphy, no wonder why ceramics earn such well deserved popularity.

One impression I have left while walking out of the NPM is that there are very few materials that the ancient Chinese didn't use to make their arts from the humble bamboo, gourd, wood, to the traditional bronzes, clay, paper, to precious gems like jade and ivory, and the more exotic like walnut and olive pit.

These artefacts I highlighted are jaw-dropping, and eye-popping, but most of the collections in this museum would be able to wow you sufficiently with their command of the skills and ingenuity of the ancient Chinese artisans. Some of these skills, unfortunately, lost in time. Like the arts in creating the Demonic Spheres leaving us with many question marks floating above our head, but also leave us for more respects for the ancients.

I only spent 3/4 of a day in this museum. Not all the 70,000 items are on displayed any one time. The different artefacts are rotated regularly, although I think the must-see list I mentioned are permanent display items because of their popularity. To see them all, one may have to spend about 30 years, as I was told. Well, my return ticket is for tomorrow. So I needed to end the museum trip 3/4 of day instead of 30 years.

[1]  Are the ancients so technologically primitive? What about the Parthian battery discovered in modern day Iraq that dated circa 250BC to 250AD? The fun thing is to speculate what it was for? Powering a toy monkey? What about the technology of coating copper swords with chromium oxide to avoid rusting. These swords were found in the tomb of Qin Emperor in Xi'an (alongside the terracotta warriors) and were made circa 200 BC? Was rust-free when they were unearthed. This technology was 'discovered' or 'invented' in USA in the 1930's. Ancient Greek invented an analogue computer circa 150BC, and a vending machine circa 1BC, and various steam engines. The ancients were quite technologically advanced. I think they just didn't have a big enough population to support these technological inventions.