Sunday, 31 March 2013

Paris Day 3 - Palace of Versailles and the Great Tourist Crowd

The Great Queue of Versailles. Nature Calls Put on Hold. Garçon, A Side Order of 2nd Hand Smoke Please!

 5 °C

Taking a train to Château de Versailles from Paris could be tricky because there're a few alternatives. This is what our Fraser staff's suggested. We took a train from Esplanade de la Défense to La Défense metro station on the 1st carriage and left at the closest exit. By the way, La Défense station is the 1st station on Line 1. As soon as we got through La Défense metro station's turnstile, we spotted a ticket counter for the Transilien ticket counter. The entrance to the train is just located right behind the ticket counter.

Versailles-Rive-Droite station
Versailles-Rive-Droite station
We got off at the Versailles-Rive-Droite station. We turned left after leaving station, passed a open-air food market, and arrived at the palace after some 5 mins walk.

Open air food market, Versailles, Paris
Open air food market

For readers who had read my Paris Day 2 diary got a dose of my highlights of how bad the crowd was during this Easter weekend. But this holiday season isn't over yet. None of the long queues outside the Louvre, or Notre-Dame prepared what we going to see in the Palace.

tourist crowd at Versailles at Easter weekend
Tourist crowd at the forecourt of the Palace of Versailles at Easter weekend
Let me just do a quick reckoning of the queue length for the Palace of Versailles. I counted that there were 8 ranks in the queue spans the length of the forecourt of the Palace between the 2 gates (I had to make some use of my queueing time somehow). Using google maps, the distance between the 2 gates is about 150m.

Therefore, the queue  = 8 x 150m = 1.2km = The Great Queue of Versailles.

Of course, this only shows crowd waiting to get in. This was afternoon, so there were already a lot of tourists got inside. You do the maths.

I guess it's true what people saying about how few European going to churches anymore.

I did warn Etta about the crowd in this Palace after what we saw in the last 2 days. She wanted to see the fountain show, which only staged on the weekend. She further added that with the Paris Pass that we bought yesterday (read the Paris Day 2 diary), we could skip the queue for the entry ticket. There was a queue of about 20 people lining at the ticket office just outside the Palace's gate. We certainly skipped that queue to jump straight to the 1.2km long queue for people who already got the Paris Pass. We the lucky lots lots!

Warning: The rest of this article is rated CGR (Children Guidance Recommended). It contains some mild offensive language, whinging sarcasm, bad puns and toilet humour. It's suitable only for person of age 21 and under (ok, 30 and under. I'm feeling generous). For the mature readers, childish guidance is recommended. Please consult your child if pain persists.

Here's interesting little trivia: do you know that the Palace didn't provide any toilet in the area between the gates where the tourists formed a history-making queue? Considering that Paris is the most visited city, and this is the most popular attraction in Paris (more crowded than Eiffel Tower), shouldn't they provide at least one toilet in this area? I also saw some nice long tourist queues for public toilets in Paris streets in the last 2 days.

I chanted to myself as I waited in the queue to avoid nature calls getting louder, "don't think about the fountain show!" Apparently, this theory don't hold water (don't wince, I did warn you).

When I finally got into the Palace after more than 2 hours, we went through 2 security gates. There was enough space to put in 5 such gates. Even with only 4 gates, it would half the waiting time. Ok, I could see that they may use this bottleneck to control the flow of traffic into the Palace. After all, the visitors already inside the Palace couldn't or wouldn't want to move as fast as the traffic at the security gates. I'll let this one slide (like water off a duck's back). "Don't think about water", I chanted to myself.

I haven't done with talking about the toilets just yet. Yes, my head is still in the gutter. After a movie, you usually see a rush of movie goers hitting the cinema toilets with that natural accumulation of nature calls that need to be answered urgently (they were put on hold - as well as on silent - during the movies). Well, our wait is longer than an average movie, and it was cold and windy. As soon as I passed through the security check point, I headed straight for the loo.

You've guessed it, there was a long queue for the toilets. You may think here's another good reason to be a man. Well, to some extent. I found out the reason why even men had to queue so long for toilets. There're only cubicles in this toilet. If it wasn't for the line of men, I thought I was queuing for the wrong toilet. No urinals for quickies. When I finally got inside and successful in holding my valve closed, I saw a couple of men watering the toilet wall with their garden hoses. Speaking of gutter, I thought it must be one of those toilets with shallow gutter that I may have missed. On 2nd thought, this is Palace of Versailles. So I looked as closely as I had never looked at men peeing in toilets before. Nope, there's no gutters. They were just doing their business at the wall. They couldn't hold the (nature) calls anymore. Can we blame them?

In short, coming to Paris during this silly season of Easter, you'll get the worst of both worlds: the cold weather of low season, and the crowd of peak season (ok, it's normally not this cold in April. I suspect it was specially arranged for me). With the concentration of tourists, especially indoor, the virus would thank you for providing a thriving environment for them to multiply and mutate their genetic materials. You don't want to get sick while travelling. I did come down with it. So avoid it like a Black Plague.

Ok, now that I have taken a piss out of Paris, let's make peace by saying something positive about Paris since my last visit a decade ago.

The government had banned indoor smoking in public venues. Yay! Many restaurants are typically quite crammed. Before the indoor smoking ban, I wasn't sure if I had French food or 2nd hand smoking. I was pretty sure I didn't order a 2nd hand smoking on the side (nor it was on the menu. I didn't look at the wine (or whine) menu, maybe it's in there). I was pretty fed up (while being fed).

Many countries had already done so more than 10 years ago. I don't know when the French government had started the ban, it certainly less than 10 years ago. Parisian love their smokes (tabac shops are everywhere). So it isn't surprising that they were later than many counties in introducing the ban. Most Parisian restaurants have outdoor area (they're famous for it) where smoking is allowed, so the smokers aren't robbed of their rights to have heart diseases.

While the government had banned outdoor public smoking, they're again slow in the introduction of smoke prevention measure. For example, no disgusting graphic images to turn off smokers have been printed on cigarette boxes yet like many other countries already have done so for many years.

Another thing I noticed is how friendlier the Parisian have become compared to my experience in my previous visit 10 years ago (I refer to Parisian working in the hospitality industry. What other Parisians we're going to meet?). Well, we said how rude the New Yorker were some 30 years ago, and Parisian 20 years ago, (and Beijingers today ? Maybe just the Beijing cabbies who are understandably very stressful with long working hours and bad traffic jams). While Aussies were being thought of as a friendly lot don't deserve that reputation anymore (maybe the survey was done in Sydney - an indication that Sydney has turned into a mega-city). That last conclusion comes from a Reader Digest's survey (so don't sue me).  Some might argue that being name called is better than being ignored.

When the whole world keeps telling the people of a city that they're rude, I guess they would like to prove the world wrong. I suspect the same logic applies to friendliness!

Ok, to be fair, I shouldn't be too critical about their toilets. They have came a long way. Once upon a time, there wasn't a single toilet in the Palace. The king, the queen and his relos simply did their beeswax into chamberpots.

The advice is simple, don't visit Paris (or Rome, or any European city for that matter during Easter weekend). Visit your local churches instead. You would find peace there. But if you're a masochist, travel Europe during Easter will get your kicks fulfilled. Well, go there 1 day after the Easter holiday would be more sensible.

It's needed to be said. I don't like to hold my peace or piss. Amen or Ay Man!

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Paris Day 2: Pont de Arts

Walking into Bridge of Love Locks Blindly.

5 °C

After the delicious lunch, Ada directed me to our next item on the itinerary: Le Panthéon. By the time we got there after some 10 mins walk later, we were greeted by a shut gate. I don't believe we were late. As it turned out, the building I was taken to wasn't the Panthéon, but in fact Institut de France. To an untrained eyes, they could easily mistaken for each other, especially if you aren't that familiar with either building. I didn't realise then, even though we had been to the Panthéon (mind you, that was 10 years ago).

Pantheon, Paris
source: the Traveling Pear under CC license

Institut de France
Not quite identical twins, but it's understandable that when you see Institut de France, you thought you have arrived at Pantheon, and considered fait accompli. Well, it wasn't so much the similarity of the 2 buildings that confused Etta, it was the similarity of the 2 directions: one is SE, and the other NE from Les Deux Magots. It's easy to confuse north with south. So we decided to stick around the place for awhile as it was already near dusk.

We strolled towards Pont des Arts bridge that spans across the Seine just in front of the Institut. I guess sometimes you got lost and found something unexpected. I've never heard of Pont de Arts, apparently, it's quite well known in France for its romantic associations - romantic attachments to be exact - with love locks.

Without the love padlocks, this is probably the least romantic bridge there is on the Seine. It's  in fact rather ugly with or without the locks. The bridge is franked with metal wired lattice that are used to built animal cages. I guess the bridge is deliberately designed that way so that locks could be easily affixed.

Love padlocks on Pont des Arts, Paris, France
Love padlocks on Pont des Arts
Bicycle chain lock bent into a heart shape

Love locks, Pont de Arts, Paris, France
Heart shaped pink love lock
Some locks are already rusting away
The government deemed it an eyesore and tried to remove it. If it isn't eyesores now to the romantics, it would be when they all become chunks of rusty metals. Many are already rusting away.

I first seen such 'tradition' of love padlocks was on a travelogue on TV about Huangshan in China. Last year when I visited Etta's dad in Woolongong, Australia. He took us to Mount Keira lookout, and there it was on the fencing are such love padlocks appeared. This gave me the impression that such practise is spreading from China to Australia like (put in your appropriate expression).

Initially thought they only appear on eco-tourist destinations. Pont des Arts proved my first impressions to be wrong. They're spreading everywhere (like European tourists in Paris on Easter Weekend), from nature to the city, from Asia to Europe, from mountain to the city. The next thing you know it, the gate to my door. Phew! There's only one love padlock there.

Paris Day 2: Les Deux Magots

Artists' Haunts of Yesterdays, Tourist Trap of Todays. 

If there's a tourist trap in Paris, it's called Les Deux Magots. I'm willingly (and arguably madly) fell into it like kid in a candy store (or a caffeine addict in a coffee shop). It's a cafe that was frequented by notable artists and philosophers in the early 20th century with luminaries like Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, etc.

If you've watched Midnight in Paris (2011), that's the cafe in question. I don't know if they use the actual cafe. But that's the cafe it's based on.

Les Deux Magot's, Paris, France

Apart from their associations, this is a cafe like every other. Well, except for the 2 large sculptures of seated Chinese Mandarins attached high on a pillar. The coffee shop's full name was taken from a popular play titled Les Deux Magots de la Chine (Two Figurines from China). They're actually considerably larger than figurine size. They're in fact, life-size.

saint-germain-des-pres Metro, Paris, France
Les Deux Magots is practically opposite the Metro's exit

My defense to Ada for coming here was that since we need to grab some (late) lunch, this was as good a place as any. And it locates only minutes walk from Saint-Germain-des-Prés metro, which is only a 3 stops from Cité metro on Line 4.  We ordered a club sandwich (that came with purple potato chips), and it turned out to be not too shabby. The coffee is a typical decent drop of French brew.

Club Sandwich at Les Deux Magot's, Paris, France

We would probably enjoy more if we were a couple of artistes. Well, we're just a couple of humble tourists.

Back to Food and Restaurant Reviews Page  

Paris Day 2 - Ile de la Cite

T'is the Silly Seasons. 

5 °C

We went to the Information Centre on Rue Saint-Honoré. We wanted to buy the Paris Pass so to skip the queues to museums, specifically Palace of Versailles. Well, we couldn't escape the queue in the Information Centre. This is to be expected during Easter weekend holiday (or as the French calls it, funny enough, 'Bank Holiday'). The queue for the Paris Pass was about ½ hour long.

As the Information Centre isn't far from the Louvre, we thought we just dropped in for some quick snaps snaps. The queue for the Louvre was much longer. All I really managed to take were photos of European weekend vacationers. Or as the Chinese calls it "people mountain people sea". Love the nature, but not the people. Nothing personal, people.

I guess this is the Easter weekend crowd despite being in the low season. We didn't plan to go in as we already visited it the last time (I wasn't impressed by the crowd then). Judging from the queue, it would be much more literally suffocating once you're inside.

The Louvre, Paris
The crowd to get inside the Louvre.
Some look rather maddening

The Louvre, Paris, France
Just in case you missed the crowd in the previous photo, here's from another depressing angle.

Venus, Louvre
2 goddesses (probably Venuses)
holding hands

arc de triomphe du carrousel, Paris, France
arc de triomphe du carrousel locates next to the Louvre.
Not to be confused with its bigger and more famous cousin
arc de triomphe du Etoile in Champs Elysee.
They both built at the same time.
Joan of Arc statue
Giddy up!
Joan of Arc's gilt statue, proudly mounted at the
intersection of Rue des Pyramides and Rue de Rivoli
We could order a Paris Pass while in Singapore, but the postage is killing the advantage if we only want a 3 Day Pass. As we headed back to the Tuileries Metro station, we passed a Chinese restaurant locates at the corner of Rue Saint-Honoré and Rue des Pyramides, not far from the statue of Joan of Arc.

The restaurant in question bears the quaint (to me, but common to French) name of Auberge des Trois Bonheurs ("Inn of the Three Joys") and Chinese name is 福祿壽 ("Fu Lu Shou"). I love French food as much as any Francophile (former or otherwise), but after days of chewing croissants, and baguettes, I decided to give my tired jaws a holiday. We were desperate for some homesick Chinese food (our homes are Singapore and Sydney, which have excellent Chinese cuisines. Especially Sydney, which has far better Chinese restaurants than Singapore). 

We ordered seafood noodle and a soup noodle. The soup noodle is ridiculous, and the stir-fry seafood noodle is passable.  

We spent the rest of the day sightseeing Île de la Cité. This is one area that worth a 2nd visit.

This is an island lies in the Seine. London has the Thames, Cairo has the Nile, and Paris has the Seine. It's pretty safe to say that cities that are older than 1 millennium grew out of rivers. Port cities like Sydney (in fact, all Australian capital cities), Los Angeles, San Francisco, Shanghai are upstarts because international maritime trade didn't really take off until the 16th century.

The island lies smack bang in the centre of Paris, which is encircled by ring-road that's appropriately called Bd Peripherique (Periphery Bvd). And not surprisingly, it's also the birth place of Paris. In fact, its archaeological remains of the ancient Paris is buried underground just in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral. We descended into Crypte Archéologique (Archeological Crypt) to visit the archaeological excavation revealing successive layers of the city.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
The magnificent cathedral and its flying buttresses
Of course, Notre-Dame is the star attraction on the isle. Nothing puts a holiday destination on the map quite like Hollywood today. Before movies came along, it was novels that caused tourists to flock to the place. In this case, Victor Hugo's. Especially his creation Quasimodo.

Unfortunately the queue outside the cathedral was only slightly shorter than the Louvre. T'is the Silly Seasons of Easter weekend.

Notre-Dame Cathedral wrote the book on flying buttresses. To be precise, the Notre-Dame often used as a classical example in architecture textbook when flying buttresses are cited. If I remember correctly from my 1st and my only year of architecture study where the students are required to buy the heavy tome of Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture. That and its close neighbour Saint Chapelle are cited for the illustration of flying buttress. 

La Sainte Chapelle (St Chapelle) was having a competition with its rival and neighbour Notre-Dame for the length of its queue, we decided not to waste time see who would win, there're many more fishes in the ocean (or tourist sights in the isle).
Conciergerie, Ile de la Cite, Paris, France
The queue outside La Conciergerie is losing the rivalries to the above 2 locations, we loved to lend a pity visit. The prison system in this place probably invented the systems of classes in hospitality industry from airline to hotels that if you can afford, you get better accommodation while the poorer folks get more basic setup.  I also learnt that many famous political prisoners passing through here including Queen Marie Antoinette, who stayed here before her head was dropped into the bucket to quench the rage of the Parisian mob. I really love her dress, Parisian fashion at its finest, revolutionary, and to die for.

We headed to Saint-Germain-des-Pres to have lunch at the famous Les Deux Magot's.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Paris Day 1 - La Defense, La Grande Arche, Eiffel Tower

Picasso's Architectural Fans. And his Thumb?

sunny4 °C 

I must be not only a weary bone traveller, but a truly jaded one. Not only I didn't get excited when Etta said we're going to Paris, I'm actually feeling it's bit of a drag. "Not again!" was my immediate reaction (it was an inner voice to spare hurt feeling). I remember I was over the moon when I got to visit Paris the last time some 10 years ago. Today, I'm very much heavily grounded about the prospect.

I couldn't believe I wasn't jumping for joy about going to Paris after only one visit. I'm not trying to be blasé about Paris. I used to reread The French Revolution 3 times (yeah, it's revolting). My love for France was so strong that I called myself Francis to reflect this. This name is a portmanteau of 'France' and 'is'. 'Francis ' also means 'Free', which I like, having inculcated by the spirit of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité (freedom is the 1st and foremost of the 3 mottos of the Revolution). This is a stronger declaration of love than tattoo your lover's name on your arm or derrière. In France, of course, I should be called 'François'. And that's what I told the Starbuck staff when they asked for my name).

My adolescent Francophilia isn't strong enough to rekindle my passion for this old flame. Maybe I'm just too promiscuous. Francophilia was my 1st love, and then I left her for Anglophilia and lately Sinophilia. All that passions have been spread so thin 3 ways. My love for France is fading to l'oeuf.  As China is my latest infatuation, France has no chance really. I'm not only promiscuous, I'm also fickle (is there other kind of promiscuity?). I'm hopping from one culture to another like a whore. Pardon moi, like a gigolo (even if it's a cultured one). To be fair, all the auto name calling is uncalled for, and more importantly misleading. I never got paid for all that hopping. It was done purely out of innocent love and fun. So, if you have a culture you want to sell it to me, go ahead, I'm very easy.

All is not lost, at least Etta seems to be thrilled. Ok, enough insider nonsense of my romantic liaison of my cultural quadrangular affairs. Ok, seriously, old age had cured my travel bug.

A driver from Fraser Suites drove us there. The driver remarked that the winter hasn't over. It should be well over 10°C while it was only 4°C. With wind chill, it felt like -2°C. The cold spell swept much of Europe this year.

There're 2 Fraser Suites in Paris. FS La Claridge is more centrally located in Champs-Élysées. The one I stay for this trip, FS Harmonie, is located in Esplanade de la Défense, just outside the NW periphery of Paris. It's in fact the newest Parisian business district.

For people like me who's going to rely on metro - my fave form of public transport - the closest one to FS Harmonie is Esplanade de La Défense station (or just Esplanade) on Line 1, and is less than 150m away.

Line 1 (the number suggests its importance) runs alongside most of the central part of the Seine in Paris, and so I can get to most of the sites/sights I want to see by hoping on and hoping off Line 1. While Line 1 hugs the north bank of the Seine, many of of the sites/sights in the south bank could easily be reached by getting off metro stops on Line 1, and walk cross the river. There're so many bridges span across the Seine that getting from one side of the riverbank to another is a breeze. In fact, walking across these gorgeous bridges is an experience in itself.

Line 1 also stops at Gare de Lyon, which is an important train station hub.

La Défense locates at the NW corner just outside the city's periphery. This is the closest thing Paris has for a CBD (even though it's outside Paris). This is of course a great idea. The city planner doesn't want skyscrapers to be built inside the historic city. There's very little doubt that the Franks spend a great deal of thoughts in planning their city.

Grand Arch
The Grand Arch
Esplanade de la Défense is one station from La Défense metro.

This Grand Arch is built in 1989 by president François (what a terrific name) Mitterand as part of the Bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution started in 1789. The Grand Arch is also a western extension of the Axe Historique (Historical Axis). More about the Historical Axis when I visit it in a few days.

We had breakfast in the plane at 7am. By noon, we were famish, and didn't want to take our time to look around for suitable grubs. Also we were newbie to the Grand(e) Arch(e) area. When we emerged out of the La Defense metro and into CNIT (Centre of New Industries and Technologies), we spotted a Macky and then the Newyorker, we decided to walk into the latter.

The lunch time crowd swamped the Newyorker. We were lucky to get a table with little waiting. We ordered the burger, and cappuccino. The burger tasted ok, not as juicy as we like. I don't usually like coleslaw, but I dug this in double time. I couldn't believe this was French coffee, but then it may simply be required to follow the American coffee standard in their franchises - weak. Perhaps, this is their reasoning: if they make it weak, those who want it stronger could order extra shot (you can't really charge for extra hot water to weaken a strong cuppa).

Several buildings in La Défense looked as if was designed by students of Picasso's Cubism Period. One such building is CNIT, and it's only a stone throw away from the Grand Arch.

CNIT building
Exterior of CNIT

Interior of CNIT
Interior of CNIT. Notice the ridged ceiling
Does it reminiscent of vaulted ceilings of Gothic cathedrals?
La Défense is named to commemorate the Franco-Prussia War. The defence of the French government then was half ass because it had less trouble with the invading Prussian than the revolution from within. This reminds me of Chiang Kai-Shek who was dreaded much more of the Chinese Communists than the invading Japanese. I wonder if CKS read about the history of Franco-Prussian War. He did coorperate with the CCP to fend off the Japanese, but only because his hands were forced. He was driven to Taiwan by the revolutionary. His worst fear was realised.

Scultpture in La Defense, Paris
"Le Pouce" or "The Thumb" sculpture locates between CNIT and the Grand Arch.
Does this thumb help artists gaining a correct proportion or hinder it?
Is this sculpture a thumbs-up or down?
Would the thumb stop traffic (for hitch-hikers)?
Is the rest of the dinosaur buried underground?
I planned to see the Axe Historique today, but end up spending time having lunch and grocery shopping in the malls around La Grande Arche. We had to do the Axis another time.

We already booked this Behind the Scene of Eiffel Tower tour, One of the reason we wanted to join this tour is because we could skip the line to head straight to Level 2 of Eiffel Tower. It turned out to be a wise decision having looked at the queue. The guide told us the people had to wait as long as an hour to go up, and the weather was quite cold on the day.

The Tower was supposed to be dismantled in 1909, but Gustave Eiffel saved it from the scrapyard. He convinced the government the importance of using the the Tower for military radiotelegraphy. This tour gave us some details of that history.

Eiffel Tower in sepia, Paris, France
Eiffel Tower in sepia
B&W Eiffel Tower and traffic sign

armed militia outside the Eiffel Tower
Soldiers armed with military hardware outside the Eiffel Tower.
Does it make tourists feel more secure or more nervous?

This month of the year is normally low season, but the Easter weekend made the tourist crowd swelled in number. Avoid this time if possible (we didn't really have much choice in the timing).

engine room of Eiffel Tower
engine room of Eiffel Tower - one of the place that the tour took us.
This is off limit to the usual pass holders.

The tour is informative about the lesser known aspects of the Tour Eiffel. I would have learnt more if I understood the tour guide's French accent better.

The Eiffel Tower lights up after dusk, which is of course occurs at different times at different seasons of the year. The Tower also has light shows or white lights that twinkle like a Xmas tree, which occurs on the hour for 10 mins until quite late (I think until 1am). So get your camera (or phones) ready for the twinkles. The Tower is winking at you.

Eiffel Tower lights up after dark

Eiffel Tower light show, Paris, France
Eiffel Tower light show occurs on the hour

Monday, 18 March 2013

2 Chinese Ancestral Festivals

This article explores another dimension to the Hungry Ghost Festival (Zhong Yuan Jie 中元節) that I wrote. Since the teaching of Confucius circa 500 BC (contemporary to Buddha), ancestral worship became a big part of Chinese culture. Before the 20th century, wealthy family would have a Ancestral Hall - a building that housed ancestral tablets, dedicated to the memories of their ancestors. In the early 20th century, instead of ancestral tablets, they have photos of the deceased of their love ones. Or maybe a photo in a little shrine at a corner of the house.

Chinese Cemetery
Chinese cemetary during Tomb Sweeping Festival
Hungry Ghost Festival is telling us that the spirits of the departed are coming back to haunt us, and so the living are reminded of them (for a month of the year). Their memories are refreshed, they haven't been forgotten. People think of superstition as chains and shackles, but the same chains could also be thought of as links and safeguard, connecting the past to the present, the dead to the living. The leash on a child is both a safeguard and a shackle. This festival is such a leash to the Chinese ancestors.

I guess if the Festival is done out of fear, it's superstition; if it's done out of respect, it's remembrance. And Chinese does have such a remembrance day for ancestors and it's a national holiday in China that is called Qing Ming Jie (Ching Ming in HK 清明節). It's also called Tomb Sweeping Day (because that's what they do), other names include Ancestors Day, Festival of Tending Graves, etc. Ching Ming (or Qing Ming in pinyin 清明节) literally means 'clear bright', so the day is also known as Clear Bright Day[1] in English. So Qing Ming is about brightness, the positive, and the yang, while Zhong Yuan Jie is about darkness, the negative, the ying.

So these two festivals is two opposite modalities of dealing with the same reality - death. One is motivated by the forces of fear and appeasement, and the other the forces of respect and commemoration. Oh yeah! I was finally able to make up something that make pieces of jigsaws fit!

There is further interesting points about these two polar opposite festivals:
Zhong Yuan Jie is born out of Buddhism's ideas of of reincarnation and suffering; while Qing Ming Jie is originated from Confucianism's idea(l) of social harmony. One is a spiritual religion and other is a humanistic philosophy.

One (Buddhism) is about the pessimism of life, seeking to avoid it and advocate sitting in a remote cave and looking inwards into one's navel; the other (Confucianism) is about the pragmatism of life, seeking to engage fully in it and and conduct with others in a society, and one is defined oneself with one's relationship with others.

Last but not least, since these two festivals are the opposites of ying and yang, inner and outer, darkness and brightness, closeness and openness, their co-existence in Chinese culture is the very essence of Taoism. Taoism is the glue that embraces all contradictions, paradoxes, polar opposites into one harmonious whole. Reality is always a bit messy. The truth is, the whole idea of hell and the deities have lots of Taoist elements in it. So the idea isn't as symmetrical as the Taiji 太極 symbol.

People may not adhere to Hungry Festival because of fear and appeasement, and observe Clear Bright Festival out of respect and remembrance. People might burn some laptops, ipods, hell banknotes, or mobile phones (hand phones for Singaporean, cell Phones for Yanks, mobile phone for Aussie) during Hungry Ghost Festival, this could be out of genuine loving care for their ancestors when they believe that their ancestors will receive and put these earthly materials to good use, while someone attending a Sweeping Tomb ceremony may just be going through the motion, or doing it out of a sense of grudging obligation. It's just all for a show. I guess the point is it isn't so much what you do, is why you do it. In keeping with technology, these days, many of the Chinese simply morn their ancestors online during Qingming Festival when they couldn't attend personally by setting up a mourning blog. The whole industry of e-graves, e-tombs, e-cemetaries spring up for this reason. An example is one called Heaven Cemetery[2]. It's the thoughts that count.

Despite their differences of the two festivals, they are both expression of filial respect, which plays an essential roles in the Chinese Confucian society as well as way of coping with death, and continuation.
[1] The day of the Clear Bright Festival is neither clear nor bright in China as it's fell in the wet season. A well known poem by Du Mu (803 - 852), captured and immortalised this dreary, melancholic atmosphere of the festival.


qīng míng shí jié yǔ fēn fēn
lù shàng xíng rén yù duàn hún
jiè wèn jiǔ jiā hé chù yǒu
mù tóng yáo zhǐ xìng huā cūn

I won't try to translate this poem into an English (I think it's undoable in general). I will only translate its meaning the best I can. I won't get into the details of the poetic nuances.
Rain drizzles in Qingming Festival,
pedestrians' spirits are broken.
When asked where wine can be found,
the young cowherd points to a distant Xinghua village.

"Xinghua" is Apricot Blossom.

I guess it captures the frustration, oppressive atmosphere of the festival: rain is raining on everyone's parade; pedestrians spirits are broken, not just by the event, but by the drizzled rains; when one tries to find some alcohol to drown one's sorrow, it's located at a far away village. Bugger! What's the symbol of apricot blossom? Does it have anything to contribute to the poem. I leave it up to you to ponder.

[2] In Chinese '9' puns with the word 'long', or in this case, meaning 'everlasting'.

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Chroma Key Filming

Another name for the day is the Moment of Truth, or the day that I've been working towards since I signed up for this amateur production.
Orang utan - Singapore Zoo
Orang utan - the spoke-ape of Singapore Zoo
Remember from my last posts, especially this one, where I mentioned Salesman 4 - my role - sells one of Singapore Zoo's unique service to public: Breakfast with Orang Utans.

Initially, we planned to shoot this scene live in the zoo. After writing in to get permission from the zoo for the shooting, we were asked to pay a sum of money that are far well above our group's budget, even though the money is going into a fund for the animal conservation cause.

So the solution to our problem would be to film my scene with chroma key technique. Better known to layman like me as the green screen shooting. Chroma key is a more accurate term because the backdrop doesn't have to be green. It could be any colour. Since most human don't have green body parts, green is generally safe to use. Blue, for example, isn't a good idea because some people have blue eyes. But among us Asian, blue screen is quite safe. If an actor has green hair (either because he/she has dyed hair or an ET decides to join our humble production for the unique experience on earth), we can use blue screen instead.

Chroma key is very useful techniques for situation that are impossible or implausible to shoot in real life. Take Forrest Gump as an example. In the shrimp boat scene, we can see Gary Sinise showing his legs with the missing lower parts. One solution is to saw off his lower legs, but I don't think his agent would agree to that (negotiation takes place between director and agent, usually not directly between actor and director. Besides, if his legs were to saw off, he won't get any role in the future that require legs. I know for a fact that his latest project require the use of his legs. I think most roles require legs. So cutting off his legs is cutting off his career). So one simplest - and the only solution that I can see with current technology - is the use of chroma keying.

He would be shot in front of a green screen with his lower legs covered in green paint/materials that matched the colour of green backdrop (most likely a green boot). And another shooting are done of an actual shrimp boat without the presence of any actor. The 2 filming are combined in post production. Any green area - including his lower legs - in the chroma key scene would be replaced by the shrimp boat scene. This gives the effect that his lower legs being missing.

Another obvious example could be found in Death Becomes Her (1992) where the hole in Goldie Hawn's stomach could be easily created with the same green screen magic. Simply shot her against the green screen with a round green cloth sewn onto her dress (or a dress with a green circle) at a location where the hole is supposed to be.

Both movies won Oscar in the category of Best Effects, Visual Effects. I suspect one of the memorable things about these 2 movies are their special effects.

Of course, both examples of the use of green screen above involving the removing of body parts: legs and stomach in this case. You can remove the whole body if you cover the whole actor in green, and becomes invisible as in such film as Hollow Man (2000) where Kevin Bacon plays the part, invisibly.

Sometimes, green screen can produce the opposite effect. I.e. it doesn't subtract, it adds. A clone of an actor, who plays a twin for example, could be achieved with chroma keying. The actor is first shot against the green screen, and then he's shot in an actual location where the 'twin' both going to appear the same time. Combine the two film clips in post production, and 2 images of the same actor appearing on our screen the same time. Piece of cake! (Or multiple pieces of cakes).

Many think of chroma keying is used for this kinda requirement that are impossible to carry out in real life. In fact, they're mostly done for a variety of reasons, and the top of that reason is to reduce cost, and ease of shooting (which ultimately translates into cost saving).

If you watch this youtube footage, most of the uses of green screen aren't for the dramatic or critical reasons such as those I pointed out in Forrest Gump, Death Becomes Her, or Hollow Man. In fact, most of the reasons for doing so is quite pedestrian (pun intended). Several of the pedestrian scenes in Ugly Betty in this youtube clip are just actors appearing in the sidewalks, walking and talking. Nothing really spectacular, and yet it's done for all kinds of valid reasons.

Chroma Key filmingAnd so we've decided to shoot my scene (and several others) using the green screen. If it's good enough for the much bigger budget productions, it's good enough for us.

This way we can create the illusion of being in the zoo without having me actually anywhere remotely close to the zoo.

We haven't decided exactly what the backdrop of this scene going to be. It could be either an actual scene outside the zoo (we consulted the legality of including film footage shot outside the zoo into our film. It's legit, and free) or some kind of animation. It seems likely that it's going to be animations.

With the latter choice, the backdrop couldn't be anything else but the green screen.

While the filming is long with lots of wait. As far as my previous experience of being an extra is concerned, the day's wait is a breeze when your set up a high expectation of a very long waiting time.

The waiting was made even breezier when you know most of the crew and cast well. Think of it as a weekend get together with your mates, then your time would pass rather quickly. Ok, I don't know them well. Maybe it's the writer in me talking, getting to know people is as much an enjoyable activity as shooting movies. And film making is such a elaborate collaborative enterprise that having the right rapport with other crew and cast makes the whole process smoother and more life enhancing. I'm not just here to make films, I'm here to make friends as well. They aren't mutually excusive. They should be mutually inclusive.

Anyone who isn't prepared for very long waits is a newbie to film making. Shooting and acting is a very tedious process. Don't let the glamour fool you. The glamour of movie making is as real as the illusion of chroma keying. Having said that, at the end of the day, I'm glad to be part of it. I couldn't imagine a better way to spend my weekend with creative activities and people, socialising, and in helping to produce a film.

Couldn't wait to see how it turns out in the final cut, and you know all that hard works, and commitment pays off.

And cut! That's a wrap for me.

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Sunday, 10 March 2013

Production Meeting

In addition to the acting role, I also volunteer for a technical role: camera assistant 2. I want to get an inside look of the all the mechanics of movie making from acting in front of the camera to the more technical aspects involved like shooting, green screen, audio, etc.

So in today's meeting I got to meet all other production team members from the cinematographer, costume to set designer. As this is an amateur production, some of us - like me for instance - are taking up more than 1 roles.

In terms of my acting role of Salesman 4, our screenwriter and executive producer Marie [1], leaves my role somewhat opens to interpretations. In the script, this Salesman 4 essentially sells Singapore Zoo to the TV audience.

In the acting session with Michael, one of the interpretation I considered was a TV naturalist personality like David Attenborough. So when it came to the decision in today's meeting what kind of costumes and props are required for my role, the question of who's this Salesman 4 is, exactly, came up.

The role title "Salesman 4" is less clear cut when comparing to role titles like "Doctor", "Priest", "News Caster", etc. The Salesman 4's role is to sell Singapore Zoo to the TV audience. But who's doing the selling? There're several possibilities: celebrity/spoke-person or employee of the Zoo, or some unrelated hired actor to do the TV commercial.

As a kid who grew up watching many of BBC's nature series narrated by the well known TV naturalist Attenborough, when it comes to portray the role of promoting Singapore Zoo, he immediately sprung to mind, naturally.

While thinking along the line of Attenborough, I suggested safari suits for Salesman 4. But after a some discussions, I realised that the zookeeper would be the most appropriate for the role. This time, I have the late Steve Irwin (of the Australian Zoo) in mind. Of course, without his energy level to match.

I found myself having an epiphany of the expression that "there's no small parts, just small actors". No, I'm not suggesting I'm a big actor. I'm not even suggesting what the phrase implies. That all roles are equally important. What I'm saying is that I found myself cares so much more than what I initially expected. I found myself argue vehemently what I believe the role should be. I found myself argue with such zeal about what the bit part should say and wear. After all, it's only a bit part in a 12 mins film. I definitely find the passion rather curious. Perhaps, the perfectionist in me has reared its ugly head (not that my own head is any more handsome. Nor I'm suggesting that I'm a many headed monster).

I'm looking forward to my shooting next week.

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[1] better known to her cult classic following fans for her role as Cleopatra Wong.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Gardens by the Bay

Feeling Tall and Reckless. Drunken on Rarefied Air, and Expensive Mineral Water.

semi-overcast 28 °C
Marina Bay Sands, view from Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Marina Bay Sands as seen from Gardens by the Bay
When Bill and Jamie visited me last August, he stayed in the Marina Bay Sands (they didn't gamble at all, but they used the roof-top infinity swimming pool a lot. Well, they're Aussies). His hotel room faces the Gardens by the Bay (GBTB) just immediate opposite. While it was already completed for barely over a month, going by the few visitors, I thought it was still in construction. But then Gardens are never crowded except maybe in special occasions.

Like the other casino in Macao that Sheldon Adelson built, GBTB was also built on reclaimed land. No, the Marina Bay Sands wasn't built on reclaimed land, nor GBTB built by Adelson. Let make that clear.

Marina Bay Sands as viewed from Gardens by the Bay
Another angle

I remember Bill commented at the hotel balcony that he can't see how they make money from the Gardens. Theme parks would more likely the tourist drawcards. I jokingly said that perhaps the Singapore's image was ruined by the casino, and the government is doing damage control, and the Gardens is just the thing to save its hard-earned, cultivated image of a clean and green city. A fraction of  the casino revenue would be more than cover the running of the Gardens. Revenue isn't the goal for GBTB.

Using Taoist Speak, there're just too much bad chi emanating from the casino, and a place with positive chi is needed to place nextdoor to restore the balance of positive and negative chi.

Speaking of Taoism, and fengshui and whatnot, the surfboard or boomerang on top of the Marina Bay Sands not only giving the casino hotel a unique architectural feature, without it, the 3 towers would look like 3 joss sticks. Few Chinese superstitious gamblers would gamble there. By the way, gamblers are superstitious by nature, Chinese or otherwise. Many Chinese gamblers know about how the old Lesboa's architecture in Macao looks like a birdcage with iron chains around it. Very bad fengshui for gamblers.

Sorry, I digress. While some of the structures - Cloud Forest and Flower Dome - look pleasing, it's a garden after all. The idea of visiting there didn't exactly appeal to me. Let's say it isn't my cup of tea.

Etta bought some cheap entrance tickets to the GBTB from Groupon, and it's expiring soon. Also, I have bought my Sony NEX-6 just last week, I'm itchy to take it out for a test drive before the upcoming overseas next month. So I have something looking forward to do in the Gardens.

The entrance to the Gardens is free, and the tickets - cost about $10 pax from Groupon - are for entrances to the 2 conservatories: Cloud Forrest and Flower Dome. While they both contain pretty flowers, they reinforced my reluctance. The Singapore Botanical Gardens does a better job. But then we're no there to see plants. We're here to see the artificial trees or supertrees.

Orchid, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Suspension bridge, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Supertrees, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Chinese garden, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Chinese garden, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Exhibit in the conservatory, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

We arrived around 4:30pm to avoid the hottest part of the day. There was some nice breezes as the Gardens are surrounded by water with the Bay at one side and the ocean at the other. It was in fact a perfect day. It had a bit of scatter cloud with nice breezes throw in.

Supertrees, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Supertrees structures

After quick tours of 2 the greenhouses, I went around taking photos of the various structures, especially the supertrees. As I photographed them, I had to say they grew on me. As the sun started to hug the horizon, the various nice juxtapositions and perspectives of these supertrees looked somehow inspiring. I could see how the design won an international competition held in 2006. While they supposed to look like trees, they look to me more like champaign glasses.

Skywalk suspended between Supertrees, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Skywalk suspended between the Supertrees structures
One of the attraction/highlight of the Gardens is a stroll on the OCBC Skyway. It's a skywalk suspended between the supertrees structures. My vertigo added cheap thrills to my skywalk.

The skywalk is quite steady, only if my nerves is as steady. The supertrees are as tall as 16 storey building, and the skywalk would be about 12 to 14 storey tall.

The entrance to the skywalk is $5 pax. The view from above, almost pricesless (small discount on vertigo).

Skywalk, Gardens By the Bay, Singaore
Skywalk at the weak-knee and eye level

Skywalk suspended between Supertrees, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Look! It's birds! It's ants! It's tourists!
One of the supertrees - the tallest - has a restaurant IndoChine at its top. Yep, all these structures aren't just standing there looking pretty. They actually serve some fucntions. They also serve as piers for the skybridge.

As the name suggests, the restaurant  serves Indochinese cuisine: Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Thai.

We know we're going to be charged with touristy prices, but we decided to splurge. There were some restaurants planted firmly on terra firma with more down-to-earth pricetags, but we decided to dine in a lofty style with soaring bill. We were feeling tall today after looking up at these supertrees all day, and walking in the air.

We ordered Bo Luc Lac (black peppered beef), springrolls, and lemon grass tiger prawns. They happened to be all Vietnamese.

Boc Luc Lac - the beef is a little bit chewy, and dry.  6.5/10.
Lemongrass tiger prawns - the prawns are spongy, not springy. Little too sour for my tastes. 6/10.
Springrolls - not bad, but nothing special to blog/write home about it. 7/10.

It came to $120 for 2 pax. I told you it's going to be a splurge (everything is cheap for the European tourists. Maybe Euro is overvalue?). The dishes are cheap comparing to the bottle of water that cost $18. Holy macro, you say. Holy water, you ask? No, just mineral water imported from Italy. May be it was blessed by the Pope, God only know (say it in Italian accent). Lucky Etta didn't spring me the price of water while I was drinking it. I could have choked. At the very least, I may have spit out $3 mouthful worth of water, springs from the finest spring of Italy.

The only consolation price is the admission to the roof of the restaurant and let me capture the aerial view of the Singaporean dusk just in time at 7:20 (As Singapore is located at the equator, its sunrise and sunset times are pretty much the same all year round, with plus or minus 15 mins variations).

Aerial view from the roof top of IndoChine restaurant at dusk, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Aerial view from the roof top of IndoChine restaurant at dusk. Marina Bay Sands on the left, and Singapore Flyer on the right.
If the Supertrees take your fancy at daytime, then you should stick around until after dusk. That's when the Supertrees shine, in more ways than one.

Light Up of Supertrees at night, Gardens By the Bay, Singapore
The atmospheric, dreamy light up of the Supertrees at night

After some free sumptuous after-dinner sunset photos, we came back to earth for the light and music show, which takes place at 7:45pm and runs for 10 mins (and again at 8:450).

Light and Music Show, Gardens By the Bay, Singapore
Light and Music Show

It may be the over-inhalation of rarefied air talking, or the over-the-top mineral water talking, it was quite an enjoyable day overall, despite my unhealthy bias against gardens (I'll let you in a little secret why I don't like gardens. I'm a hayfever sufferer. So it isn't so much I don't like flowers, flowers don't like me). Perhaps, my very low expectation makes this such a great experience.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

While we spent a total of 3½ hours (4:30 to 8:00pm), we spent most of our time in the Supertree Grove area, which makes up about 25% of the total area.

At the start, we hopped on a shuttle (costs $5 pax) that drove us around the place with recorded commentary to give the visitors a brief and quick run down of BBTB. Borrowing a Chinese expression, it's like "looking at flowers on a running horse" (="走馬看花"). It's needed to be modernised to "looking at flowers on a moving vehicle". Even the shuttle didn't cover the whole Gardens. To see it all (without riding a horse. I don't think it allows), you probably need a full day or several visits to do it justice. The best is to get off your high horse (sorry vehicle) and explore on foot.

In fact, I could see myself revisit this place. They're planning to put more stuff into GBTB. I'm looking forward to it. Believe or not!

The locals - especially families - would be blessed with such a place. Thumbs up, Singapore!

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