Saturday, October 31, 2009

Posh wine companies pop up in Hong Kong


Photo by Michael Chung/The 8th Estate Winery
October 31, 2009

HONG KONG — When the Hong Kong government eliminated a 40 percent tax on wine last year, oenophiles, importers, retailers and entrepreneurs popped open the bubbly. Then they quickly got down to business.

Auction houses rushed to hold multimillion-dollar sales. Neighborhood wine shops, classes, tastings and workshops appeared where there had been none before. Jeannie Cho Lee, a Master of Wine, is releasing her first book, “Asian Palate,” here next month.

And two major wine expositions were organized, with two more on the way: The Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair in the coming week and Vinexpo Asia-Pacific next spring.

Give this city a 40 percent price cut, and it runs with it.

Wine imports soared 80 percent in the 12 months after the tax was dropped, in February 2008, to a total of 3.2 billion Hong Kong dollars, or about $400 million, according to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. As a comparison, mainland China, with a population of 1.3 billion, imported $184 million worth of wine in 2007, though that number is expected to grow.

Although some of these enterprises might find success elusive because of the hard economic times or the sudden saturation of the market, the heightened interest in wine is palpable.

Two new companies in particular are taking novel approaches to wine-related services here.

At the top end of the market is Sarment, which started a custom sommelier service in Hong Kong and London in May.

A quirkier enterprise is The 8th Estate Winery, which is not going to let a little inconvenience — the fact that Hong Kong has little arable land and no vineyards — get in its way. Using imported flash-frozen grapes, it presses, ferments, ages and bottles its own wines in a Hong Kong high-rise. It opened for business in December 2008, and most of its wines are becoming ready now.

Sarment offers round-the-clock, individual access to top sommeliers to a small number of clients. It offered 25 memberships this year, of which 18 have been reserved, and is planning to have no more than 450. There is a membership fee of £50,000, or $83,000, plus a £12,000 annual fee.

The service employs four sommeliers, all of whom have worked at restaurants with two- or three-star Michelin ratings.

“It’s very much one-on-one service,” said Niels Sherry, the company’s managing director, during a trip to Hong Kong from London, where he is based. “Our sommelier will visit you in your home, look at your cellar and make suggestions. If someone was in a restaurant and couldn’t decide between the ’95 and the ’96, he could text one of our experts.”

“Some people are going to enjoy pulling out their phone and saying, ‘I’m going to call my sommelier!’ Others will be more discreet,” he said.

While limited in number, the clientele varies greatly.

“Some clients have thousands of bottles. Another has just finished a new house and has no bottles. He wants us to help him start from scratch,” Mr. Sherry said. “We have older, experienced collectors, as well as newer wine lovers, especially from China and Russia.”

Philippe Messy, a sommelier based in London and one of Sarment’s co-founders, said he wanted to push clients past “just Lafite-Rothschild and Pétrus.”

“We learn about your tastes and requirements, and then we challenge you,” said Mr. Messy, who was also visiting Hong Kong.

He also said the service could help oenophiles, particularly in burgeoning markets like Hong Kong, from getting carried away by the frenzy of buying and selling.

“We see bottles going for auction here in Hong Kong, selling for three times the estimated price,” Mr. Messy said. He added that Sarment was able to secure hard-to-find bottles directly from winemakers and collectors all over the world.

But the company does not allow its employees to sell wines or to charge a commission on any sale. “We are not wine merchants,” said Richard Green, managing director for Asia. “We’re unbiased.”

Mr. Sherry said one client was recently offered a bottle of Louis XII Black Pearl cognac for €60,000. A Sarment sommelier advised that it was worth far less, and the deal fell through.

The bottles at a recent tasting at The 8th Estate, named in part because eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture, were significantly less expensive, averaging about 250 Hong Kong dollars, or $30.

Its 2007 vintage, made of grapes from Washington State, yielded whites, reds and dessert wines. The 2008 grapes were mostly from Italy. The company is looking at Australian harvests for future vintages.

Dozens of visitors, mostly from Hong Kong and wielding digital cameras, milled around rooms filled with oak barrels and lit with chandeliers.

Lysanne Tusar, a director at the winery, said that most of its initial sales had been of the finished product. Customers liked the novelty of having a wine made in the urban center of Hong Kong.

But their goal is to sell custom wines to serious wine lovers by the barrel. The price of a barrel, which yields at least 280 bottles, starts at 66,000 Hong Kong dollars.

“With the advice of our winemaker, you can create your own,” Ms. Tusar said. “You can mix varietals, you can customize your own label. It’s very popular with corporations, weddings or as an anniversary gift.”

Their grapes are shipped to a 1,100-square-meter, or 12,000-square-foot, warehouse in Hong Kong, where they are thawed, fermented, pressed, fermented again and aged in oak barrels from 6 to 30 months.

Representatives from The 8th Estate and Sarment said they had started planning their companies even before the wine tax was scrapped.

“We already felt, several years ago, that Hong Kong would be a good opportunity,” Mr. Sherry said.

Friday, October 30, 2009

China's iPhones, sans WiFi

I can't believe the mainland Chinese version of iPhone is stripped of Wifi.

Seriously. What's the point of an iPhone if you can't check your email or find directions when you're out? Or download apps while sitting at a cafe? Why buy a half-dysfunctional iPhone? (Except maybe for face).

‘‘There’s going to be a perception that the phone they have is dumbed down from the one that somebody has in California,’’ said Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA China, a Beijing-based technology research firm, told The AP. ‘‘We’ve seen before that Chinese consumers don’t like to be treated like second-class citizens.’’

Of course they don't. Who likes be treated like a second-class citizen?

It's not clear whether this is censorship, or just some sneaky business-related move -- maybe so companies can charge Chinese more for data charges?

According to BDA, WiFi on Chinese iPhones had been "temporarily banned by Beijing, which was promoting a rival Chinese system." By the time the ban was relaxed in May, iPhone production had already begun. A spokesman at China Unicom said that, hopefully, the next batch would be Wifi enabled.

Does that last paragraph make sense? A reverted ban? A rival Chinese system? Does it take six-months to make an iPhone? Anwyay, potential iPhone buyers in China should take note.

As with banned books imported from Hong Kong or banned movies available as pirated DVDs -- there are 1.5 million-2 million black market iPhones in China. I presume these actually work.
As a friend in China said. "Oh, my husband's had a black market iPhone since the beginning."
****
In other China media news, Beijing is accusing someone else of censorship: Google.

There's a complex controversy over the search engine, the copyright of book excerpts and authors' rights. I won't go into all the details here.

People's Daily, an official state paper, wrote an article that was very critical of Google. Then it accused Google of banning the story online. Allegedly, if you search for People's Daily via Google, you get a warning saying the site contains software that could harm computers.

An unidentified People’s Daily official told AP that it was ‘‘maliciously blocked by Google.’’ Hmm. Glass houses and all that.

In Hong Kong, I tried www.google.com, google.com.hk and www.google.cn using the terms "people's daily article google copyright." It works fine. The first item on all three searches is... People's Daily! Here's a link to the article in English. And another in Chinese.

Following logically, if there's a blockage, it's not coming from Google, but from the Great Firewall of China.

Who knows? Maybe it was a technical glitch. I'm just glad I don't live somewhere where I'm always looking over my shoulder online.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Death and doom in the hellhole known as AfPak

There's a scene in the T.V. show, "Nurse Jackie", in which the main character sits in a corridor with a doctor, as a patient screams in horrific pain in the background.
Nurse Jackie ignores it. She rubs her nose wearily and says something like, "I've gotta get something to eat." (She's played by Edie Falco, who also portrayed the wife of mobster Tony Soprano. That's one tough actress.)
Some critic (at The New Yorker?) pointed out this scene for its callousness. Once doctors and nurses are off duty, the critic said, they don't care about patients anymore.
***
I took a different tact, maybe because I work in a newsroom. Jackie is a dedicated nurse who bullies irresponsible doctors and is sympathetic to patients and their families. But death and illness are her daily reality. She can't cryinto her hands every time there's a car crash victim.

At work, we also deal with death and destruction, though not as directly, obviously, as war correspondents or medical staff. But we consume an awful lot of miserable stories and graphic photos, including those too gory to put into our newspaper. (We hold back on the worst of the dead bodies).
Here's a typical conversation.
"Is that Afghan bombing story ready yet?"
"Yes, but it's 1000 words, not 800."
"Is that the pizza guy at the door?"
Today was particularly bad. I was eating Chinese food at my desk and monitoring the news wire. Here's what popped up

KABUL (AP) — Gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed a guest house used by U.N. staff in the heart of the Afghan capital early Wednesday, killing 12 people — including six U.N. staff — officials said. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — A car bomb tore through a crowded market in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing 57 people hours after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in the country to show American support for its campaign against Islamist militants.

On and on. Endless stories and photos, updating every few minutes with more and more dead. (I'm sure the numbers will be even higher by the time I hit the 7post button)

If you spied on us working, you'd think we didn't care. ("Any photos out of Peshawar ? Hmmm, just something that looks like it's on fire. I'm making some tea. Want some?")

Of course we do care, probably more than most people, which is why we do this work in the first place.
Anyway, I have to get back to it. A colleague half-joked today that we should build a giant fence around AfPak and let them sort out their own problems. There seems to be no end to the terrorism, war, violence, botched elections and internal conflicts in that part of the world, so we might as well just contain it.

Vacation planning

You might be asking yourself: How much time off is there, exactly, at Joyceyland?
Well, more time off than usual, since I'm trying to burn off my "unpaid leave" days. While Marc had no such cut, he also has accumulated holidays to burn before he loses them.
This is so typical for Hong Kong. You work like mad, then you rush to use up all the days you've accrued.
Our complex work scheduling means that some days are hard to take off.
That was part of the reason for the Staycation. (More time to burn + less money to spend + awkward scheduling = staying at home)

But that's over now. Medical check-ups are done. Cat has been taken to the vet. iPhone has been purchased. Bookshelves have been organized. Used items have been donated. Paperwork is caught up on. (Hopefully, MPF statements will finally be sent to the right place.) Short circuit in living room has been fixed. Designer-y laundry hamper has been installed. What else? Broken egg timer has been replaced. Hmmm. Much longer and I would have been sorting the potpourri by color.

I think another Staycation will drive us mad, so I've been vacation planning.

I wanted to treat Marc to a trip to Cairns, Australia, since he's never seen the Great Barrier Reef. (My parents took me and my brother years ago).
Cathay Pacific Holidays has some packages for four nights, six days (because one night is spent on the plane) with direct flights, good hotels, including breakfast, transfers, insurance, etc, for about HK $7,000-ish (or a bit under U.S. $1,000).
But the timing is not quite right. We're just a couple days too squeezed for a major trip.

So I'll probably book us for 3-4 days instead in Phuket, Thailand, which is a 3.5-hour direct flight.
It's obviously cheaper than Australia. Cathay has packages with direct flights and nice resort-y hotels starting in the HK $4,000 (U.S. $500) range, including breakfasts, transfers, etc.
Has anyone been to the Evason Phuket and Six Senses Spa? I'm leaning in that direction because it's not near Patong or Phuket town. (We've old, grumpy and have been to Phuket enough times that we no longer feel the need to buy beads from a souvenir stall, get fake tattoos or trawl local bars.) It's on a quiet bit in the southeast, so we're told. In the past, we've stayed at the Sheraton Laguna, which is nice, but in a giant hotel-complex kind of way.

I'm a big sucker for eco-friendly, health-orientated places, which Evason seems to be.
I was checking out their three-day detox program, which isn't too expensive. (HK $2,000 for meals for three days, plus yoga and a spa treatment). But it seems to be a bit, well, much.
I have a stressful job. Do I really want someone dragging me to exercise class at 7:30 a.m.? Do I really want those clay-type healthy shakes instead of meals? The detox program schedule is so packed, I'll probably not see Marc until it's time for my evening clear-broth meal.

What do you guys think? Any input is appreciated.
BTW. This vacation will officially put Operation Trench Coat off till at least December. I do splurge, but I limit myself to one splurge per paycheck.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On a lighter note....

... happy anniversary to us!

Marc the Metrosexual and I just celebrated three years of marriage -- during which time we got evicted by a nasty landlord, bought our first home, learned the delights of being in debt, and acquired Hugo the Cat. Phew.

Since we both worked late on the actual date of our anniversary, we celebrated last week, during our staycation. Marc treated me to Champagne and a meal at Robuchon at the Mandarin. Yesterday, on the day, he bought me roses in orange, my favorite color.

I got him, uh, a laundry hamper.

Listen. It's a really nice laundry hamper from Indigo, one of those fancy designer-y stores in the Prince's Building. He pointed it out earlier on one of our household shopping trips. And it has a lid so houseguests who need to use the toilet don't have to look at our dirty underwear sitting in a basket.

I realize "laundry hamper" doesn't have quite the same ring as "French fine dining and roses."

In every couple, there's usually one romantic and one practical person. You can take a wild guess at which one I am.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Best and worst countries for journalists

Every year, Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) releases its Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries on how easy it is for the news media to do their job reporting the facts.

As expected, small, liberal, Western European nations came out on top. All of Scandinavia -- Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway -- tied with Ireland for #1. (That says, not much news happens in Scandinavia).

The highest ranked Asian nation was Japan at #17.

Britain and the United States tied at #20, which is imperfect, but still pretty good. (My native Canada slides in right in front of them, at #19).

The Obama administration has made improvements. The U.S. was 20 places lower -- at #40 -- under Bush. Part of the problem with U.S. coverage is the physical danger of covering conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration put more pressure on journalists (for example, discouraging them from showing bodies of dead American soldiers), but that's all over now.

Reporters Without Borders wasn't particularly kind to its home nation of France, which got a #43. Hong Kong got a middling #48.

What's interesting is the bottom.

#175 goes to the absolute worst place on Earth to be a journalist: Eritrea, a tiny African nation that nobody's ever heard of. Maybe because nobody is allowed to report on it?

Also down there are North Korea, Iran and Myanmar, aka Burma -- the sorts of rogue states that seem to be constantly mired in poverty, unrest, crazed totalitarian leadership and military rule.

Even I -- as a critic of the way mainland media is handled -- is surprised at how far down China is. It's #168, putting it in the bottom 10 along with much smaller, more marginalized countries.

I expected more from an economic superpower that keeps talking about taking its place at the Big Boy's table. I mean, it ranked lower than Vietnam, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Rwanda... you get the picture.

According to this ranking, an Iraqi journalist has a better chance of reporting accurately on the Iraq war than a mainland Chinese journalist has of writing critically about banned topics there. Does this sound right to you?
****
How did China get this abysmal showing? Let's look at the main questions in the survey, which is sent to journalists, media experts and researchers.
(My own comments are in brackets).
Are there....

1. Direct attacks on journalists, as in physical assaults or imprisonment? (Witness the beating of Hong Kong reporters in Xinjiang, and writers in prison or under house arrest).

2. Indirect attacks, as in a lack of access to information?

3. Censorship or self-censorship?

4. State monopolies that control TV or other media? (Hello CCTV and Xinhua.)

5. Limits on licenses or distribution? (China licenses all publications and broadcasters. Individual journalists need special papers to work. No major foreign newspaper -- not even the South China Morning Post -- can print and distribute freely in the mainland. Some copies are allowed to subscribers or five-star hotels. But forget about finding the IHT, with a critical story of China on its front page, at a normal newsstand.)

6. Filters on online content? (I don't think I need to explain "The Great Firewall of China" to regular Joyceyland readers.)

7. Improper use of fines and legal punishment?

I like the fact that it specified "improper." Clearly, journalists should be punished when they actually do something wrong -- hate speech, child pornography, libel, plagarism, etc. Sorry to state the obvious.
****
Still, something doesn't sit right with me. Afghanistan, for example, which ranked a bit higher than China. Journalists are kidnapped by the Taliban there and sometimes killed. As bad as China may be, terrorist groups don't kidnap and kill correspondents there. I'm going to do some research, and come back to this in another post.

My Wish List - The Classic Trench

Wish list


The above is from a blogging trick I shamelessly stole from A High WASP.
Polyvore, which lets you e-shop, blog and create fashion collages at the same time, is the last thing I needed to discover at 2 am. No wonder I'm not asleep.
****
I've been looking for a classic, beige trench coat for a very long time -- online, in stores, everywhere.
Here's what I've found.

Zara -- HK $700 / U.S. $85. Material is meh. Only size left in beige is XL.

** Addendum Marks & Spencer -- At HK $1,400 / U.S. $175, the M&S trench is cheaper than Cour Carre and much better quality. You can fit a sweater under it and it will keep you dry in the rain. No nonsense. Sturdy, as LPC might say. M&S had two single-breasted designs, one in a thick canvas and one in a water-proof fabric, both classic beige. While I'm considered heavy by Hong Kong standards, I'm not quite sturdy enough for M&S. Even the smallest size (a U.K. size 12 or U.S. size 8) had crazy long arms and bagged at the torso. I looked like a little old English lady waiting for the bus in the rain. But it might be a good choice for someone with longer limbs and broader shoulders.

Cour Carre -- HK $2,500 / U.S. $320. Why is this so expensive for a local label in my local suburban mall? The L just barely fits (fabric pulls at the buttons). Marc the Metrosexual disproves of what he calls the "tissue." Salesgirl says material is "not necessarily" water-resistant, thereby defeating the whole point of a trench. Salesgirl also recommends wearing "nothing underneath it" if it's too tight. I guess it would fit better, but then I'd be a flasher.

Agnes B -- HK $5,000 / U.S. $650. The S is just a tiny bit loose, which is good both for the fit and my ego. (See? I'm not considered obese everywhere in the world). I pulled it over a dress and cardi and the fabric fell perfectly -- did not puck or pull where it might have been tight, did not blouse out where it might have been loose. Water-resistant. Nice shopguy said they could make minor alterations for a perfect fit. He reserved the last S for me, for three days, without asking a deposit. Great service.

Karen Millen -- HK $5,000 / U.S. $650. I fell in love with this brand when I was in England. Trench-like coat was gorgeous, but made from some heavy felt-like material. Super soft, thick and cozy... but I live on a tropical island.

Burberry -- HK $12,000 / U.S. $1,500. To help me in my quest, Marc the Metrosexual stopped by, but was frightened away by the price tag. Seriously -- that's equal to an entire year's worth of property tax.
That said, this is probably the best trench in the world -- in terms of design, rain protection, quality and durability. (The one in the above photo is Burberry)
When Marc was just starting work in Paris, his father bought him a Hugo Boss trench. More than 20 years later, Marc still has it and wears it. It looks great. If I got a Burberry, I'd keep it until my retirement years.

What to do?

****
A photo slideshow of trench coats is here, thanks to my dad.
Meanwhile, David Biddlecombe sent in a Slate photo essay of artsy black and white images of trench coats, mostly from Paris and New York in the 1950s-1970s, with a few style icons thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My new iPhone -- is HK the cheapest in the world?

I bought my phone today at 3G.
My 16 GB iPhone 2GS cost me HK $1,180 (U.S. $150), but only if I signed a two-year contract with 3G. I paid HK $3,500 (or U.S. $450) in advance, which will be spread over 2 years worth of phone bills.
(The way they market this is by saying that the phone costs more than HK $4,000, and that the HK $3,500 is a "rebate").

My basic monthly charge is HK $248 (U.S. $32). But thanks to my downpayment, it will be discounted to HK $103 (U.S. $13) and includes unlimited wifi. It will be less than what I was paying for my bare-bones One2Free service, which had no online stuff at all.

There are small charges -- tunnel fees, etc. -- and conditions about how many minutes I can use in-network or out-of-network. I won't get into the details here.

Since most of my waking hours are either in the office or at home, I've never come close to using all the time on any mobile plan. I don't travel alot. I would only use the iPhone Internet or email while commuting, or if I need to contact someone while reporting. I'm not one of those people who constantly, obsessively checks their phones. (If I were, though, some of these extra charges could turn around and bite me in the arse).

I do call mom and dad alot in Melbourne, though. So I signed up for 3G's "1966" discount IDD, which will allow me to make unlimited calls to my parents in Australia for HK $48 (U.S. $8) a month. That's way better than "1718," which was my old One2Free discount long-distance plan.

It's often said that Hong Kong is one of the cheapest major cities in the world for electronics and mobile phone services. Can my overseas readers tell me if these prices on on par with what you would pay?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Taiwan's dark history in "Prince of Tears"














The New York Times

Mining Taiwan's Darker History

“Prince of Tears,” the latest film by the Hong Kong-based director Yonfan (who goes by one name), turns that telling of the story on its head. It is the first major movie in 20 years to explore the “White Terror” that followed Taiwan’s separation from China in 1949. In Taiwan, the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, staged anti-Communist witch hunts that killed thousands.

The gorgeously crafted film, set in the 1950s, refers only obliquely to larger politics. Instead, it focuses on daily life in a remote Taiwanese village where anyone — a schoolteacher, a housewife, a soldier — could commit a political faux pas and be sent to the execution squad.

The project originated with the real-life story of the actress Chiao Chiao, a longtime friend and collaborator of Yonfan, whom she met in Hong Kong when she was a starlet there from the ’60s to the ’80s. The actress, who uses only her surname, grew up in Taiwan, but hid her childhood memories of the White Terror for years until she found a confidant in Yonfan, who also grew up in Taiwan in the 1950s. Several years ago, they decided to make a film based on her memories.

“I never spoke of my past until I found someone I trusted,” Chiao Chiao said of Yonfan. “I was so young when it happened and children back then were not allowed to ask questions.”

The film opens with a scene of a perfect-looking family in Taiwan: a handsome air force pilot, his pretty, doting wife and their two girls.

But, after Kafkaesque political complications, the parents are dragged off and the father is killed in a field. As the executioners fire their shots, his daughters hide in the tall grass in a desperate attempt to get one last glimpse of him.

“It begins like a fairy tale, with this beautiful family playing music in the woods,” Yonfan said. “But it’s actually a black fairy tale set during the White Terror.”

The younger sister — the character representing Chiao Chiao — is sent to live with an eerie and physically scarred government agent nicknamed Uncle Ding, whom she suspects is the informer who turned in her father. In a strange turn of events, her mother is released from a prison camp and — under pressure to resume a normal family life and support her girls — gives into advances by Uncle Ding, whom she marries.

“My father really did play the accordion,” Chiao Chiao said in an interview, referring to the idyllic opening scene in which he serenades his daughters. “I remember my mother going away and coming back. I remember being separated from my sister and being sent to live with Uncle Ding in a warehouse. My mother really did remarry. She’s still in Taiwan today and 88 years old.”

While speaking, Chiao Chiao flipped through an album of old family photos and dabbed at her eyes. She had declined to be interviewed during the 2009 Venice Film Festival last month, where “Prince of Tears” had its premiere and was well received, because she found it too difficult.

“Of course there are changes to some details, and my memory is sketchy; but Yonfan captured those feelings,” she said.

In addition to Venice, “Prince of Tears,” which is currently beginning its release in Hong Kong and Taiwan, has also been screened on the festival circuit in Toronto and at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea, which runs through Friday. It has also been chosen as Hong Kong’s submission for the Academy Awards for best foreign language film.

At his Hong Kong studio, Yonfan traced a finger over the elaborate model of the set he built for the film, which included an entire village with homes and a school.

“I didn’t need a historic researcher,” said Yonfan. “This was my childhood — the traditional clothes, the handmade food. I remember visiting friends’ homes where relatives had disappeared for seemingly no reason.”

“Prince of Tears” veers between the dreamlike and the nightmarish. The village is painted in exaggerated, almost surreal colors — whether it’s the neon yellow of the killing field, or the electric-blue portrait of Chiang Kai-shek that looms over the village.

While the film is a creative work, and not a documentary, close attention was paid to re-create the sights and sounds of 1950s rural Taiwan.

Yonfan’s crew moved to Taiwan for several months to film the movie on location and hired all the extras locally.

As for the principal actors, Asian moviegoers may recognize a few names: Kenneth Tsang, a veteran Hong Kong actor, plays a cold-hearted Nationalist general, while the Taiwanese actress Terri Kwan is his doomed trophy wife. Chiao Chiao makes a cameo appearance as a prison interrogator.

But many of the cast members are relatively new Taiwanese names, like Joseph Chan, who plays a pilot, and Fan Chih-wei, who plays Uncle Ding.

Zhu Xuan, a Beijing native who had been working in Hong Kong television, has her big-screen debut in the film as Chiao Chiao’s mother, who had fled from the mainland to Taiwan.

“When I heard her voice, her accent, it was perfect,” Chiao Chiao said.

The assistant directors auditioned more than 1,000 rural schoolchildren before they chose Yan Xin-Rou and Cai Pei-Han to play the sisters.

“We wanted kids who were village-y, not professionals,” Yonfan said.

There are parts of “Prince of Tears” that leave the viewer guessing and some of the subplots are never explained.

Yonfan said he did this on purpose, as the tale is told from the perspective of the children, who don’t quite grasp the adult conflicts and motivations going on.

The “Prince of Tears” premiere in Venice coincided with the 20th anniversary of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “City of Sadness,” which is the last major film to portray Taiwan’s White Terror.

“Martial law was only lifted in 1987,” said Yonfan, when asked why the subject had been neglected for so long. “After that people wanted lighter films — comedies, romances, kung-fu flicks.”

“This period of history is a scar on the Kuomintang,” he added, referring to the Nationalist Party that regained power in Taiwan, after the Democratic Party lost the 2008 elections.

Yonfan waited until after the vote to release the film. “I didn’t want it to be used as a political vehicle for any party,” he said. “It’s not a film about correcting a political injustice; it’s a film about human frailty.”

The making of the film, and the real lives of the characters that inspired it, are tightly interwoven. In the film, Uncle Ding escorts his friend, the pilot, to his death. After the execution, the agent gets down on his knees and burns paper offerings to the man he felt he had betrayed. After making the film, Yonfan went back to the field where Chiao Chiao’s father is thought have been buried. With him were Chiao Chaio’s sister and Joseph Chang, the actor who played the pilot. “We burned paper offerings,” Yonfan said. “And we prayed to the heavens.”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chinese history, digitized

The sad thing is that I'm working on a Sunday. And I started this morning, which an unnatural time of day for the nocturnal Joycey creature.

The happy thing is that I get to come across interesting little news items like this, from The Associated Press.

One of the most extensive collections of rare Chinese books outside China will be freely available as Harvard University has agreed to digitize the titles.
Representatives from the Harvard College Library and the National Library of China signed to digitize more than 51,000 volumes in the Harvard collection. Some are more than 1,000 years old.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I like Obama... but the Nobel Peace Prize?


I really do like him. He broke an enormous barrier becoming the first black president, after 40-odd white U.S. leaders.
The crazy right-wingers who claim that Obama engaged in "reverse racism" to win (the election, the Nobel Peace Prize) are proof of exactly how much discrimination and ignorance he had to overcome. (Check out the FOX News comment boards).
I don't agree with everything Obama has done. Nor do I think all his plans are going to work.
But he's done an awful lot very quickly. You've got to give it to him. He's been dealing with problems right left and center
Since he became president in January, he

* made it easier to file suits on job discrimination if, say, a woman is paid way less than male colleagues (5 days into term)
* gave 4 million more child health insurance (10 days)
* helped orchestrate a $787 billion emergency economic aid package (1 month)
* did away with a stupid Bush-era law limiting stem cell research (2 months)
* set a timetable for the pullout of U.S. troops in Iraq (2 months)
* reached out to the Muslim world with a New Year message to Iranians, a speech in Turkey, and a talk at Cairo University (3 to 6 months)
* appointed only the third female justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court (5 months)
* published a far-reaching health care plan that is still being debated (7 months)
* announced new environmental restrictions (9 months)

That's not bad. But does that make him a Nobel Peace Prize winner?
Generally the prize goes to people who created major change in the world; have been working on peace for decades; and, in many cases, risked their own lives.
I'm thinking Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela. Or joint prizes given for environmental or aid work.
Obama has been in power for less than a year.
Couldn't the Academy have waited? Surely, further into his four-year first term, he will have to confront a major situation that threatens world peace. We can see how he does then.
****
I'm not unhappy, just surprised.
The award might do two things.
1. Among far-right-wing Americans, it adds to the conspiracy theory that the international community / media are "in love" with Obama, and will lavish him with undeserved praise. And there will only be more sore-loser, bitter complaining. (See Hongkie Town: Bad manners.) Maybe some of FOX's commentators heads will explode on air, which would at least be entertaining. No, they won't give their own president a second to shine.
2. Among Obama's fans, it raises expectations to even higher levels -- and they are already ridiculously high.
He offered such hope in the beginning that everyone -- blacks, hispanics, businesspeople, homeowners, single moms, gay men, scientists, educators, environmentalists, Middle East negotiators, etc -- thought Obama could magically fix their problems.
I remember discussing his inauguration with an American friend. "Why is he telling Americans they have to work harder?" she complained. "Isn't that just blaming people for being lazy? Why doesn't he just fix the economy?"
I countered that "work harder" was just one of those catch phrases. Plus, Americans did have to work hard for a good economy. It wasn't magic.
I'm worried Obama's bubble will be inflated so much that, inevitably, it will burst. And the world will realize he's a mere mortal, after all.
I am genuinely happy for him. I just hope people won't be disappointed when he can't solve all the problems of the world.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Random Hong Kong observances



* I was on the MTR and a mainlander elbowed me in the forehead. Hard. THIS is why I waste my hard-earned cash on taxis.
He was chatting with his girlfriend in Putonghua, but said "sorry" in English.
"Oh! Solly!"
Whenever I tell mainlanders to push over on the escalator, or stop cutting in front of me in line at the supermarket, I always tell them in Cantonese, they always respond "Solly" in English, and then return to their normal conversation in Putonghua.
It's amazing that this city can master at least the basics of three languages, but can't learn how to walk straight or queue properly at the grocery store.

* A mainland woman was carrying a very young baby onto a crowded, rocking MTR train. Unlike Hong Kong couples -- who have every kind of modern baby accroutement -- this woman had no stroller or even a sling carrier. Baby was maybe a few weeks old and just wrapped in a blanket.
Nobody gave her a seat, which is strange, since Hong Kongers are usually polite about helping the elderly, disabled, pregnant, or people with babies. I think it comes down to mainland prejudice. She had a loud mainland voice, clashing hairclips, and a bad perm. Her partner, an equally loud elderly man, was wearing mis-matching, ill-fitting clothes, but flashy designer shades, as if he walked straight from the rice paddies to the Versace shop.
U.S. Chinese immigrants used to get huffy about Americans looking down on them as F.O.B. (fresh off the boat). But honestly, we're not better ourselves.

* The trash can that doubles as our building complex's "smoking section" has turned into the Official Gweilo Meeting Spot.
With 2,000 households -- maybe 8,000 residents? -- it's amazing how few smokers there are. And how few gweilos. I'd be surprised if it's 1%.
None of the Asian women (not the housewives, office ladies, grannies or amahs) are going to be caught dead smoking in public. The Asian men are probably too henpecked to smoke, or only do so when they manage to escape to the karaoke. There are a couple of young hipster-types, but it's pretty hard to look cool smoking in your ironic trucker's cap -- when you're living with your folks, in a pink-and-green immaculate building complex, next to a manicured shrubbery.
Tonight, Marc the Metrosexual's Brit smoking friend was "too trashed to walk" and leaning on him for support. He was being loud and exuberant, and giving shaky-thumbs up as Marc tried to entertain him with the iPhone London Tube map.
Some old Chinese lady walked by and looked "frightened."
Imagine that! Crazy, scary, chain-smoking, drunken gweilos, taking over the neighborhood!

* I was in the doctor's waiting room when a man entered, in a cheap business suit and large briefcase. He would have been an odd patient, as I was at the gynocologist.
Then I realized what he was: A door-to-door medical supplies salesman.
The nurses tried to shoo him away, but in that passive Asian way that doesn't really work.
Vendor: Can I just put some samples here?
Nurse: O.K. One. If it makes you go away.
Vendor: (Scattering a dozen bottles all over the cramped counter). Here. Have a bunch! They're free!
Nurse: We don't really need...
Vendor: Give them to your friends!
Nurse: I don't think my friends wants sterilizing wash.
Vendor: I've worked with Dr. Wong before.
Nurse: Really? Dr. Wong knows you?
Vendor: Well, no.

I really, really hope my doctor is not sourcing supplies from the flipping Willy Loman of the medical industry.

* Given how much more expensive "gourmet" grocery stores are, they could do a better job. I got tuna maki rolls from Three-Sixty, and they hadn't even sliced the tuna property -- there were hard, stringy bits inside every piece. Now, I'm not asking for Unkai's fatty tuna roll -- which is the single best bite of sushi I've ever had. I just want a lunch I can eat in the office without having to spit bits of fish scale or whatever out into a tissue.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Blogging News




Aside from the earthshattering news that Joyceyland has moved, here are some other developments in the blogosphere.
*****
Marc's cousin Amaury and his lovely wife Fabienne have a fabulous blog detailing their motorcycle trip from France to Senegal, called Paris Dakar Bamako a Moto.
We're not so close to Marc's extended family in France, but we are to these two. They even came to our Hong Kong wedding.
Amaury runs his own bike company and is also a professional competitive motorcycle racer who travels around the world. (He competed in the Macau Grand Prix). Fabienne is a full-time working mom with two boys.
So it puts us all to shame that they can A) Find the time and energy to undertake a physically grueling journey and B) Do it in the name of a charity that helps poor African schoolkids.
Right. Will stop complaining about not having time to run to the Park N Shop.
***
Pavan Shamdasani -- who worked as an intern at HK Magazine a million years ago when I was editor there -- has a blog with his various clips, called Pav Writes.
I remember Pavan when he first applied for that job. He was 17, if I remember correctly, and still in high school. I initially said no; I didn't want to babysit some kid.
He insisted on meeting me and came in with a big pile of writing. I can't remember what exactly -- definitely a movie script, some school stuff, sample reviews he wrote for fun.
I let him come on board. What changed my mind?
This kid obviously just sat down and read and read, and wrote and wrote. He had that knack, that knee-jerk reaction to write. He got it -- that succeeding has almost nothing to do with having a huge vocabulary or perfect style, but the discipline to just sit your butt down at the keyboard and work.
He later got a journalism degree from NYU, faithfully came back to HK Mag for internships, then ended up as an editor there himself. Coincidentally, I think he managed interns for a while, the way I did.
He left HK recently, but already seems to have picked up a music writing gig at Time Magazine.
He has two pieces out: one on American-Jewish-Taiwanese singer Alisa Galper, and another on some Japanese outfit called the Vamps.
Alisa, in turn, has her own blog here, written from Taiwan. Fumie and other bamboo-loving blog-readers should note that there is a giant photo of her as the backdrop and that she's cute.
****
This isn't really new news, since it happend a while ago, but Hemlock has moved URLs to http://biglychee.com.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Joyceyland -- Moving House


This is what my kitchen used to look like.

I hate people who complain about a situation, but don't do anything to solve it -- and that includes myself.

I'd been whinging about the stupid MSN Windows Live Spaces blogging interface thingie since, well, since I started using it. Nobody could leave a comment unless they had a Hotmail address. The fonts changed madly for no reason. Yesterday, the hits counter was down for a full 24 hours. Plus, Gweipo kept sending me her grievances about it. And why would I want to upset her?

There were a few reasons I didn't switch over at first. I didn't know how I'd transfer all my archives. (Judging from the fact that Hemlock didn't, I'm guessing it's a pretty hard thing to do). I didn't want to lose whatever momentum I had in building up traffic, links and loyal readers. But, number one on the list, I was so busy with work, other writing and other things that I never felt I had time.

By coincidence, last night, Marc the Metrosexual asked if I would set up a blog for him. (He wants to start, too). And when I saw how much easier Blogger was to use, I moved over. That was all the impetus I needed. So here I am.

It'll take some time to get the layout I want, figure out how this works, and to transfer my whole blog roll, etc.

Maybe I'll throw myself a little blogosphere housewarming party.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hong Kong -- it just sucks the money out of you.

Marc and I sometimes joke that the upside of not having time off is that we don't have time to spend money.

I had a typical Saturday morning / afternoon off. I didn't even treat myself to music / book / clothing shopping, or taxis. It was just lunch, errands and MTR. And it cost me over HK $1,200.

Took by brother and sister-in-law to brunch at the FCC* -- $260
Filled up my Octopus card -- $100
Toiletries and pharmacuticals at Mannings and Fanda -- $300
Groceries and wine for dinner tonight at CitySuper -- $325
Box of Nespresso coffee tablets to use in the machine at work -- $260 **

* Which is still way cheaper than other Central brunch places like my beloved Post 97
** Such is the sorry state of our industry that newsrooms no longer fuel their staff with free caffeine.

I believe this is called "displacement." What I'm really worried about are big things, like the mortgage, renovation, or what will happen to my job / expenses if, God willing, I ever become a mom.
Practically speaking, $1,200 is not much compared to how much other things cost. (E.g. I just got a $3,000 bill for property tax, and a $2,000 bill for building management fee). But the brain doesn't want to think about big things like that, so it focuses on "Wow, this CitySuper U.S. beef is really overpriced."

Perhaps this post is just writer's block, or procrastination. It's already 4:30 p.m. and I have not written a single word of an article I promised myself I would finish today. So, instead, I blog my boring shopping list for the world to see.
****

Lalala. I found a great deal the other day. E and I went on a pre-work shopping date to check out the new Jil Sander line at Uniqlo, a shop I'd never been to. It was a crazy mob scene and totally worth it. E got a shirt, and I got a short, grey skirt for only HK $149! Yay!

Funny thing is, when I socialize with my co-workers, it's often shopping related. A few weeks ago, another colleague and I went down to Apleichau so she could look for furniture. It took all my willpower to turn down some amazingly discounted shiny, orange, high-heeled sandals from Jimmy Choo and a Moschino Cheap & Chic "sexy secretary" dress, which was originally about a million dollars, down to $3,000.

Do I really need a $3,000 silk dress when my office is 90% chinos and short-sleeved polos? (Who am I kidding? 90% jeans and free T-shirts from a yogurt shop?) No. Sigh.
Right. Back to work.
Bye-bye Joyceyland blog for today.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tourist attraction: Bannned Chinese books

Here's my latest for the IHT/NYT.

In Hong Kong, One Holiday and Lots of Book Sales


Books, some of which are banned in mainland China, at the Causeway Bay Book Shop in Hong Kong.

By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU
Published: September 29, 2009

HONG KONG — To prepare for the National Day holiday, retailers here have been stocking up on merchandise like designer bags, gold jewelry — and banned books.

Big downtown bookstores and airport kiosks alike carry paperbacks detailing the latest gossip about Communist Party cadres. More serious fare can be found at the city’s tiny “upstairs” political bookstores tucked above ground-floor storefronts. Inside are stacks of books on the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 and almost everything else Beijing does not want people reading.

Twelve years after Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese rule, the territory retains many freedoms unknown in mainland China, an arrangement called “one country, two systems.” In particular, political writings censored in the mainland circulate widely here, and they are hot souvenirs among the nearly 17 million mainland tourists who visit here every year.

“The more mainland customers we had, the more we realized that they wanted things they couldn’t get back home,” said Lai Pok, a staff member at the People’s Recreation Community bookstore, which shares its abbreviation with the People’s Republic of China. “Now we specialize in Hong Kong-published books that are banned on the mainland. The business is better.”

Next to a promotional poster of “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang” — detailing the political struggles leading up to the Tiananmen Square crackdown — were tubs of imported Japanese baby formula, a popular tourist buy after the scandal over Chinese melamine-tainted dairy products last year. Mainland tourists can also exchange currency, check their e-mail and sip a caramel mocha latte.

At the nearby Causeway Bay Bookstore, Lam Wing-kee was unloading new titles on President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders.

“We probably get two new titles a week, mostly political, and mostly from Hong Kong publishers,” said Mr. Lam, who has been running his shop for almost 15 years.

When asked to point out a book that was banned in mainland China, Mr. Lam paused and plucked a slim volume out of a large selection.

“Here,” he said with a laugh. “It’s the only one in that pile that is actually allowed.”

Still, even given Hong Kong’s legal freedoms, the publishing industry feels some limitations that filter through from the mainland.

The publisher of the Chinese-language edition of the Zhao secret journal, New Century Press, ran into difficulties recently with another controversial book, “Chinese Civilization Revisited,” by Xiao Jiansheng, a newspaper editor in Hunan Province. The book retells Chinese history from a modern perspective, emphasizing democracy and pluralism.

According to New Century’s editor, the rights activist Bao Pu, the book was originally to be published last year by the Social Science Academic Press, which is based on the mainland and affiliated with the state Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The manuscript was edited, the cover was designed and it was being advertised online. Then it was pulled.

In August, Mr. Bao and the author discussed publishing it in Hong Kong instead, and they agreed on a release date just before the National Day holiday. Less than a month ago, Mr. Bao said, he got a telephone call from Mr. Xiao.

“He was under some pressure from the authorities,” Mr. Bao said.

A government official went to the offices of the newspaper where Mr. Xiao worked, and his boss spoke to him about the issue as well. Mr. Xiao was warned that Mr. Bao was using him to “ruin National Day celebrations.”

“It’s true that I wanted to get the book out before Oct. 1,” Mr. Bao said. “But it wasn’t to crush National Day celebrations. As a businessman, I simply timed it to when there would be the most buyers in town.

“It’s strange, as a Hong Kong publisher, to be in the same sort of situation that a mainland publisher might be in,” he said. “We’re under similar pressure because I don’t want the author to get into trouble.”

The two men finally decided to go forward with publishing anyway. The book came out on Friday.

Mr. Bao has had considerable experience with mainland pressures. His father, Bao Tong, who was one of Mr. Zhao’s top aides, has been under police surveillance for years. Beijing tightly controls whether Bao Pu is given visas to visit his family on the mainland.

One of the bigger players in the industry is Mirror Books, which was founded in Canada in 1991 and is now based in the United States. Mirror has published more than 200 volumes on Chinese politics and history.

Its creator, Ho Pin, a Hunan Province native who once worked for Chinese state media, said, “Our books are the most popular secret reading materials in China.

“If the Chinese government bans a book,” he said, in a telephone interview from New York, “it’s like they’re informing all of their officials that Mirror has another new title worth reading.”

The mainland authorities, he said, “aren’t going to fine or arrest an individual” caught with a banned book. “The worst that would happen is that the book will be confiscated,” he said, “and it’s probably because the customs staff want to read it themselves.”