Thursday, September 30, 2010

Giant photo festival in Shanxi Province

My story on the Pingyao International Photography Festival is out in today's International Herald Tribune, where they also ran a few of my photos. (I always think things look better laid out in print). There were no pix on the online version, though -- which is too bad, because the whole thing was pretty bizarre looking.
I'll post more images on Joyceyland when I have time over the weekend.


PINGYAO, CHINA — With 2,200 photographers, the Pingyao International Photography Festival may be the largest event of its kind in the world. It is certainly the grittiest.

Ma Xiaobo, a Sichuan nature photographer, huddled under a tree next to his prints, which were covered in rain-soaked plastic sheeting. Showing wildlife shots in an outdoor setting might have seemed like a good idea until a storm hit and everyone else ran for cover.

Even the indoor exhibitors were not entirely safe, as some of the abandoned factories used as temporary art spaces no longer had roofs. Plastic tarps strung between rusted ceiling beams flapped violently in the wind. Inside, Ouyang Xingkai displayed large, richly colored, almost painterly portraits of village life in Hunan. A staff member wiped them off after drizzle came through a broken window.

This ancient walled city in Shanxi Province was an unlikely place for a massive art show. But PIP, as the event is nicknamed, gained increased international attention in its 10th-anniversary edition, which ended Saturday.

Contributions by 2,200 photographers, including more than 200 from overseas, were shown in venues all over the city, including old factories, warehouses, temples, a historic magistrate’s office and whatever outside walls people could find.

While Pingyao’s population, less than a half-million, is a small fraction of Beijing’s, the juxtaposition of disused industrial spaces and contemporary art called to mind the early days of the capital’s 798 district, a factory area that has grown into a fine-arts hub.

The setting was fitting, since much of the work from China documented down-and-dirty daily life. Pingyao’s walled old city is a Unesco World Heritage site, but the area’s industrial present often overshadows crumbling vestiges of the past. The environmental-themed works were particularly poignant, set in an area that is choked with coal dust.

“They wanted to choose somewhere with history,” Bai Xiaomei, the festival’s public relations director and a Shanxi native, said when asked why organizers would pick this location. “This has always been a special destination for photographers.”

The venue created some fascinating contexts. At the Brazilian group exhibit, two Chinese workers in fluorescent orange jumpsuits and hardhats stood transfixed in front of a photo by Michael Ende, showing a needle being injected into a prostitute’s naked breast.

Tiago Santana, one of the Brazilian photographers, was on his first visit to China, but he wasn’t put off by the difficult conditions in Pingyao. He even knew to bring waterproof, laminated prints because he once showed his works in an abandoned supermarket in his home state, Ceará.

“It was in ruins — it didn’t even have a roof,” he said of the supermarket. “It was empty during the day, and used by drug dealers and prostitutes at night. We just threw images onto the walls.”

It was also the first trip for Rebecca Dagnall, a photographer from Perth, Australia, who used modern-day photos to create post-Impressionist landscapes in the tradition of Australia’s 19th-century Heidelberg Art School. Her dreamy landscapes, with people canoeing or children playing outside, are based on daily life in her country’s outer suburbs.

“I love the space — all these old buildings,” Ms. Dagnall said. “If it wasn’t for this festival, I may never have come to China.”

The exhibits from other countries were generally better curated and of higher quality, probably because of their limited number. They added variety and a broader international view to a festival that was overwhelmingly Chinese-themed.

Jonas Merian, a Swiss photographer, documented Bangladeshi life, while Franck Vogel of France showed striking black-and-white portraits of albino people in Tanzania. Moises Saman, a photojournalist whose work frequently appears in The New York Times, covered the consequences of the 2009 drought in Iraq.

The sizable Taiwan section was refreshingly quirky. There were several talented photographers who had turned Asian landscapes into almost abstract creations.

The mainland Chinese contingent was huge, with tens of thousands of photos. Editing that down to something more selective would have been nearly impossible and besides the point, anyway.

PIP seemed to take a “come one, come all” approach to domestic work and included students and others who might not be able to get their work in a museum or a big-city gallery.

The majority of the Chinese works was done in a documentary or journalistic style, like “Thirty Years of Chinese Life” by Wang Fuchun, who is originally from Harbin, in China’s far northeast.

Some images were noteworthy because of rarity of their subject matters, like images of Siberian tigers by Viman Vivien Chong, a Hong Kong environmentalist.

Tucked away in a group show were Pu Yan’s portraits of ethnic minorities living on the border of Yunnan Province and Myanmar. He sat patiently at a small table and explained how he had used a large-format film camera to create panoramic black-and-white images that had a lovely, misty quality.

It was his first year showing at PIP, and he said the highlight was being able to reach viewers from outside China. “A Frenchman came and said he liked my work,” Mr. Pu said. “Maybe, someday, I’ll be invited to France.”

Not all the works were documentary. There were more innovative pieces at a former cotton factory complex. One of the best Chinese shows was curated by Mo Yi, an artist originally from Tibet. He chose works mostly by women, including images of plastic dolls; a noisy video showing life inside a factory; and pictures of broken pieces of furniture, which fit in well with the crumbling walls of the venue. Eerie images, shot with a red filter, were suspended in pools of murky water. Perhaps the thinking was that, if you’re going to show in a venue that’s dripping wet, you might as well go all the way.

Since PIP is a state-financed event, there were few overt political statements. While there was no overriding creative or curatorial theme, the festival did have “confidence and strength” as a slogan. That theme was supported by the presence of uniformed military guards and a rousing anthem that played from a loudspeaker in the main exhibition area. The temples, in particular, had more patriotic works: glossy, color photos portraying scenes from the Beijing Olympics, the Shanghai World Expo, and the sorts of smiling airline attendants and quaint village folk found on tourist brochures.

Aside from a few corporate sponsors like Epson (which also offered printers for sale at the festival) and Audi (whose exhibited artwork clearly featured Audi products), the Pingyao event was distinctly noncommercial. In fact, with its dirt floors dotted with cigarette butts, it was downright grubby, and a world away from the auctions, galleries and museums of Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong. There wasn’t a Champagne flute or cocktail dress in sight.

Still, there was a party atmosphere on the night of the gala presentation as crowds rushed to the South Gate of Pingyao to watch endless rounds of fireworks go off just outside the ancient barricades.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Job offer

This is an informal job posting.
The Hong Kong Human Rights Press Awards, which I help organize, is looking for a coordinator.
This is a contract position that runs from November / December to April.

* Fluent in spoken English and Cantonese.
* Capable of working in written English and Chinese. (You will be dealing with English- and Chinese-language newspapers, magazines and other media.)
* Able to work well with others.
* Able to organize events and work independently
* Willing to do administrative tasks
* Interested in journalism, media and / or rights issues

We will pay a lump sum for the contract, though it can divided into a couple of payments, if you wish.
It's reasonable pay for the amount of work -- better than what alot of fresh grads get as interns and cub reporters -- though not extravagant. We are, after all, a non-profit organization.

Your job is to organize
* a photo exhibit in December
* a journalism competition
* an awards luncheon in April, including a guest speaker

Work load
Some weeks feel like full-time, but others are relaxed and feel part-time. The work sort of comes in waves:
Here is what it might look like: Busy before the December photo exhibit; quiet through Christmas and New Year's; and busy again from February to April.
Some of our past coordinators have done this in conjunction with other part-time or freelance work.

You are expected to show up for meetings (every several weeks), judging panels (3-4 in all) and the events themselves (obviously).
Other than that, it's flexible and you can determine your own schedule, so long as you get it all done.
If you are lucky enough to have a home office near downtown, you can work there.
Most past coordinators worked in the Foreign Correspondents Club (which you will have access to) and find it very comfortable.

This is perfect for
* a freelancer who wants to supplement his / her work
* a new grad in journalism / politics looking to start his / her career

The most important thing is that this person has to be organized and independent.
Everyone else working on this project is a volunteer -- and busy with their full-time jobs -- so nobody will hold your hand.
I'm not particularly fussed about educational requirements. But I am looking for some amount of work experience -- even if you were in charge of something like a student newspaper or student government. I would like someone quick, decisive and self-reliant.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Blogroll updated -- finally!

I've finally updated my blog list. What a pain in the butt.
I tried to copy it over from my old Joyceyland URL, but it just gave me the blog names. So I had to re-look-up all your URLS, then input them one at a time into my new blog roll.
I totally forgot how many good English-language blogs there are in Hong Kong. The only nice part about doing this tedious task is coming to the realization that we really have something of a blogging community here.
Before I get all cheesy, let me leave you with a cynical New Yorker cartoon


A chance meeting & a photo blog

A shot from the very weird Pingyao photo festival. My story on it should be out in the IHT on Thursday.

I was standing -- quite miserabley I may add -- at the Shenzhen Bay bus station en route from Shanxi to Kowloon, when a man tapped me on the shoulder.
By chance, it was a photographer I had worked with years ago at the South China Morning Post.
He had actually spotted me at the Pingyao International Photography Festival, which we had both attended. He saw me leaning in through a window, in the rain, taking pictures of a lecture. But he wasn't sure if it was me, and then lost me in the crowd.
He finally caught up with me at the bus station.
What a coincidence.
I always liked the Post photographers -- all down-to-earth local guys who, frankly, knew the metro news better than some of the reporters.
We exchanged our contacts and it turns out that he's a blogger, too, though the site is mostly in Chinese.
You can check out Dustin Shum's works at Fotopiggie.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Overheard at the salon: Spoiled tai-tais

I don't go to the salon often -- maybe 3 or 4 times a year -- but when I do go, I chose to an expensive one in Central.
Today, I decided to do something different and put a soft wave in my naturally poker-straight hair.
I had no idea how long waving hair takes. I damned myself for not bringing my laptop -- I could have gotten 2 hours of writing done instead of reading inane fashion magazines over and over.

So I amused myself by talking to the staff, who told me great tales about the tai tais (a Hong Kong slang term for rich men's wives who don't work themselves) who were clients.
One woman had grown up having her hair set -- alongside her mother -- a few times a week. That was a Hong Kong tradition left over from the colonial era that has all but died away. But this woman still does it because she doesn't know how to wash her own hair.
Seriously, putting the shampoo in, washing it out, then repeating with the conditioner -- that's too much for her to handle during a shower. She absolutely needs to lie down on one of those salon chairs and have her head massaged by a professional.
Another woman, the staff said, claimed that she did not know how to cut her own fingernails.

Lisa from the Privilege blog left a comment on my Shanxi Province post about how Shanghai and Pingyao were so very different.
Now I'm thinking of how the very rich in Hong Kong are so very different from... well, absolutely everyone.
I'm going to bet that even the very rich in America -- Bill Gates's wife, Hollywood actresses, Oprah Winfrey -- are capable of washing their hair in the shower or working a nail clipper.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ancient, dusty Pingyao, Shanxi Province

My room at the Yide Hotel in Pingyao. It was very pretty, very quiet, clean, and as renovated as it could possibly be, given that it was in a centuries-old building. It had air con, heat, a small flat-screen TV and a private shower. I forgive the fact that the toilet was wonky -- I doubt ancient China was known for its plumbing. Thankfully, I like really hard beds.
It cost about US $50 a night without breakfast.

The courtyard made up for everything. I don't know if you can see, but there's a person sitting outside with a laptop, taking advantage of WiFi that didn't quite work in the rooms. I love that juxtaposition.

Evening street scene.

Old woman buying these flat breads with a red bean-sesame-peanut-y sweet paste inside. I got one, too, for RMB 2, though I wonder if they charged me more because I was a tourist. (Not that I mind. It's not like I'm going to stoop to bargaining over 30 US cents).

A "traffic jam", relatively speaking, by Pingyao standards.

The old part of Pingyao (and, really, the only part worth visiting) is one of the best preserved historic walled cities in China and is a Unesco Heritage Site. It's too bad it's so polluted. You can smell and feel the coal dust everywhere.

Home Sweet Home -- Tackling the Bookshelf

Home is where your cat is.

I woke up with Hugo the Cat purring beside me. I made myself a pot of good coffee and some lemon-butter pancakes. I took a long, hot shower and wrapped myself in a fluffy towel (from Tequila Kola no less!) And I thought that my home feels better than any hotel.
Certainly better than anywhere in Shanxi Province, where I just got in from last night.

I find Mainland travel exhausting -- all the pushing, shoving, yelling, arguing, bargaining. All the mental energy of being vexed when people shamelessly cut in front of you in line, or are rude, or try to overcharge you or rip you off. It's not really the physical discomfort (though there is that), it's that bad feeling in your stomach that you have to be constantly on guard for someone taking advantage of you. I'm not saying that all Mainland Chinese are terrible -- I met some lovely, generous people in Shanxi -- but there is something about the broader environment that is really unpleasant.

The place I was was not particularly easy to get to. To come home, I left my hotel at 2:30 pm, got to the airport at 4, took off at 6, landed in Shenzhen at 8:30, took a bus to the immigration checkpoint at 9:30, took another bus that arrived in Kowloon at 10:30, and was home at 11. (I know some people transit via Shenzhen to save money -- I don't recommend it. I would have happily paid for a direct flight if any existed).

Both body and brain are tired, so I spent the morning on dumb housekeeping -- catching up on emails (the Internet connection was patchy where I was), making phone calls, doing laundry, clearing my desk of paper. I have a story to write, but I will finish it tomorrow. I got a surprisingly good draft together just sitting around my hotel room. (Not much to do after dinner in Shanxi, especially if you are a woman travelling alone.)

Instead, I decided to tackle the ever-growing paper monster in our living room. Marc the Metrosexual bought this quaint rattan basket for magazines and such. He probably thought I'd put a few decorative Vogues in there. Ha! It's grown into a newspaper / magazine / journal mountain that threatens to topple over and smash into the houseplant at any moment.

Then there's what Marc so euphemistically calls our "biblioteque." In fact, it's just two IKEA Billy bookcases. We've resorted to stuffing books here, there and anywhere -- even sideways on top of other books. So I've decided to do a culling. It's a nice fantasy that I can have a "library" where I can keep every book I've ever read and loved -- but unless I win the Mark Six and move into a mansion, it's not happening. As regular Joyceyland readers can probably tell, I read alot.

Hmmm. Sometimes, I cull my clothes and give pieces that don't quite fit right, or are somehow unflattering, to charity. (I don't give very old, broken or stained clothes -- I think that's insulting). I don't have much problem letting go of clothes. But I have such a strong emotional attachments to books that it really is a task for me. I've put them into mental categories.

Books I Keep Because They Were Childhood Favorites
"Watership Down" by Richard Adams, for example, will never go, even though my dog-earred, yellowed copy is falling to bits.

Can't-Possibly-Throw-Away Authors
Kazuo Ishiguro, Norman Mailer, Ian McEwan, David Sedaris.

Can't Possibly-Throw-Away Favorite Reads
Doris Lessing's "On Cats", Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall", Joyce Carol Oates' "Blonde", Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited."
* By the way, "Wolf Hall" is an excellent, fast-paced, colorful read -- never mind that it's an extremely long history of Tudor England. If you're looking for something, I highly recommend it.

So what can I get rid of?
Books I Should Really Read But Haven't Yet
Like Naipaul's collected essays on "The Writer and The World." I know it sounds really worthy. I know that a highly literate friend kindly gave it to me as a gift. But if it's been neglected for 5 years, does it really have a chance now?

Books That Were Written By Friends / Interviewees And I'm Too Polite to Throw Away.

Books That Speak To My Yet-Unfulfilled Future Goals
Someday, I say, I'm going to take all those Mandarin textbooks and memorize them. Then I'm going to study that technical book on improving my photography. And when I get in great shape, I'm going to need that book with illustrations on stretching exercises for every sport known to man.

Books I Only Keep Because They Make Me Look Good And A Little Part Of Me Is Still A Book Snob
OK. I admit it. While I admire their skill, I just don't really enjoy Salman Rushdie or J.M. Coetzee. I thought I liked Kundera when I was going through my artsy-Bohemian phase in university -- but do I any more? Does that make me a bad, illiterate person? Are there book snobs out there raising their eyebrows at me?
Maybe you're asking yourself -- what kind of idiot throws out the Kundera to make room for Stephen King horror novels? Well, when I'm bored or can't sleep, I'm much more likely to reread "The Shining" than "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
Of course, rereading "The Shining" does nothing to help me fall back asleep -- in fact, it keeps me terrified and wide awake all night.
So, maybe some slow-paced, contemplative Kundera would be better after all.

My project of the day.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Obnoxiousness report: Kowloon taxi stand

Ulaca and Foamie often gripe, rather precisely, about drivers who anger them.
I'm not posh enough to be able to complain about driving in Hong Kong, since I'm more of an Octopus card-and-taxi girl.
But I would like to give special mention to the [Mom -- cover your eyes] arsewipe in a dark business suit who tried to cut in front of both me and an elderly Chinese woman at the taxi stand outside Olympic 1 in Kowloon at about 5:45 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 17.

The taxi stand is clearly marked. He came up from behind and stood a little further down from, doing a trick I call the Taxi Stand Cut-off -- like, if he's really not part of the queue, he can cut it.
When the first cab came for the old lady, the arsewipe started waving his arms aggressively and went for the door.
"Pai dui!" I yelled at him. ("Get in line!")
He relented for the old woman, but only because he was caught out. The old lady gave him a dirty look.
This being Hong Kong, another taxi came by immediately, and then he tried again. Seriously -- did he think that the person who just yelled at him was going to let him cut?
"Pai dui!" I yelled. Actually, there was a third taxi right behind. As he got into that last one, he gave me a terrible look. It was the look-equivalent to being given the finger.
As soon as I sat down in the taxi, I started ranting about obnoxious Hong Kongers . My cabbie happily chimed in. "How could a young man try to screw an old woman? How much time was he going to save? Five seconds? It's inhuman."
"What do you think?," I asked. "Hong Konger or Mainlander?"
"Hong Kong real estate agent," my cabbie said. "I can smell it on 'em."
There is a caveat to this rant. Hong Kong people are still WAAAAY more polite that those on the Mainland.
In Hong Kong, a guy cutting in line is surprising, upsetting, rare and worth blogging about. On the Mainland, so many people cut in line that it's hardly worth noting.
We live in a city where people still move to make space for the elderly on the MTR, thank God. How long our manners will last with waves of new migrants and, uh, different manners? I don't know.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I got a love blog-post!

Image from the Photo Dictionary.

How long have I been waiting for a love letter? Probably since the first time I heard that such things existed.
But who writes love letters these days?
I remember my first high school boyfriend, a hockey player.
"Why can't you write me a love poem?" I demanded.
"Um," he said.
The next day, he handed me a hand-scrawled paper with a section of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
It's a significant poem. It gave us the phrase "Water, water, everywhere,/ Nor any drop to drink." It is also where we get the symbol of an albatross as a burden on one's life.
I appreciated the effort, but I can't say it was the most romantic poem.

Goodness knows, I've asked for love poems and letters over the years. In response, boyfriends have send me letters and emails. Back in the old days, I would get snail mail (in a nice handwritten envelope!) when my boyfriend or I were apart. Some had flirty language. Some ended with a kiss or a show of affection. But a love letter? A real declare-my-undying-love-for- you love letter? I don't know.

Today, I got my first love letter. In this modern age, I guess it's technically a love blog post. I'll take what I can get.

I'll put the English version here -- and I have to give it to my husband for writing in a second language, which is really tough. The French version is posted on Marc's World, his blog. Isn't it fitting that a Montreal girl should get a bilingual love letter?
Why is have to come to some kind of challenge to express myself? Perhaps, I not been expressive person from all this years, now is about time to share the following message.
Cannot express enough how wonderful my wife are. For the overall time spend together that mean from December 2002 onward. Sharing is what the wedding is all about, from the day-to-day life to all traveling from India to Canada or Laos and good time. I just can recall how much Joyce as been my first supporter and the most supportive person. For any challenges faces Joyce as always been here and closed to me. I just want to say how much I appreciate and how much I love you, simply as that.
Well, awww. And it's not even Valentine's Day. I'm really touched.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I haven't forgotten you, dear blogger

A Quebec stop sign. The funny thing is that in France proper, the stop signs say Stop.

"Arret" before anyone comes complaining to me that they are no longer on my blog roll.
I got halfway through updating it on my new site, It's a total pain in the arse, since I have to input the URLs one by one -- and I just got too tired.
So I'm going to finish my glass of rose and go to bed. Hopefully, it'll be all set soon.

Moving! Hello, new site. Good-bye, blog roll.

Photo from Time Out New York, which ran an all-important article on who's cuter -- UPS guy or FedEx guy? I don't get the whole UPS guy fetish, which I think is distinctly American. Most real UPS guys look like tubby, middle-aged dudes with mustaches and ill-fitting brown jumpsuits. Anyway, I'm on a tangent now. The photo was to illustrate the idea of moving -- which is what I've just done.

As you might have guessed, I followed Ulaca and Gweipo's fine advice and moved from a Blogger / Blogspot domain to my own. I never knew it was so easily. (Speaking of my two blogging friends, their new homes are at and
As happened with them, my blog roll disappeared into the ether. I will try to cobble together another one later this week.
Part of the reason I'm doing this is because I want to see if Joyceyland would attract any mainland Chinese readers, and I couldn't tell before because the Great Firewall was blocking Blogger.
So, if there are any new mainland friends visiting here -- welcome to Joyceyland.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Trimming the fat off of writing

Photo courtesy of Buck-Eye Wrestling. Writers often talk about wrestling a difficult piece to the ground, especially when they are trying to finish, edit or rewrite something. The analogy is apt. Rewriting often feels like this...
An old memory came to mind. My high school friend Ben was on the wrestling team. Before weigh-ins, he would carry an empty Coke can around with him all day and spit into it. He did this even in class.
This was totally disgusting to me (and any other teenage girl).
He was trying to "make weight," something that wrestlers do to just barely squeak down into a lower weight class, so they have a competitive advantage.
There are other techniques: running in a hot shower, jogging in a rubber suit, or sitting in a sauna / steam bath and not drinking any water. If you Google "making weight," you will find some desperate efforts, like getting a last minute haircut to lose a few more ounces.
The wrestler doesn't actually get any thinner doing this -- it's impossible to lose any real fat in a few days. All he does is create the illusion of being thinner by being starved, dehydrated (and balder?) He is artificially taking his weight down. As soon as weigh-in is over, he'll drink, eat and put on some weight.
Why am I thinking of this? I'm not even a good dieter or gym-goer. I can't even turn down a cookie.
Because a writer, particularly a professional journalist, often has to trim the fat off of writing to hit a precise assigned word count.
Usually, this is a good thing. When you are immersed in a piece -- particularly one you've been researching for a while -- there is a big temptation to get wrapped up in the minutae of the topic and put too much in. If you are personally interested in the subject, it's even easier to ramble on.
Each time I go through a piece, I weed out repetitive or useless information, and I make the language crisper and sharper. (The key to being a good writer is the ability to be your own editor).
Newspaper editors refer to badly written pieces as "saggy" and well-written pieces as "tight." We want our language muscular and efficient, clean and concise.
But sometimes, I've cut all I've want to. Then, I start playing tricks to get the word count down without actually taking out any information. I start mashing sentences together, or taking out spare words, like "however," "but," even "that" or "which." Soon, parts get hard to read, because it's TOO squashed down.
That's why you sometimes get sentences in newspapers that read "Writer Joyce Lau, 36, said Saturday she was working badly." When this is much better: "Joyce Lau, a 36-year-old writer, said that she was working badly on Saturday night."

It's almost 11pm.
I'm working on a story I really like. That's part of the problem. If it was a crap story, it would be easy to cut. It's also a rather complex story that requires alot of background.
I knew the draft I submitted at 1,700 words would be way too long. (If I didn't have a good and years-long relationship with this particular editor, I never would have dared turn in so much).
I hoped and prayed that, by some fluke, the IHT just happened to have a 1,700 word hole to fill in its layout.
No luck. This sympathetic editor said she liked the piece, but she needed it at 1,200.
I've hacked it down to 1,500. So 300 words to go. Maybe 200. If I send it in at 1,300, she might not kill me. Hmm. How about 1,350?
Writers should follow what I call the 10%-20% rule -- you can go about 10%-20% over or under word count, but no more.
So.... I'm stuck. (That's why I'm blogging so much. It's so much easier to write here -- with no rules or and nobody to please.)
I guess I can't call this writer's block. In fact, it's the opposite of writer's block -- since I have too much desire to write. Maybe this is editor's block?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Foodie blog update

Marc the Metrosexual and I were invited to a lovely dinner by one of the creative minds behind Things Asian, a travel-arts-writing website that also has a book publishing arm. There, we met two other Hong Kong-based bloggers:
There's James -- who, like me, grew up in an Asian-American immigrant household before moving here -- and who has a gorgeously designed foodie blog called Back on the Boat. (He makes me ashamed to be using the totally un-designed free Blogger format.)
He reviews the dinner we met at, which was at the Yin Yang restaurant in Wanchai and featured a giant conch shell.
Then there's the fashion blogger behind Anize, who recently moved from New York.
Speaking of Hong Kong foodies online, there is a new boutique company called Foreign Devil that is selling cool, rare microbrewery beers. It's a part of the foodie world I knew little nothing about until I met these guys and tasted some of their stuff. There are beers that are bitter like coffee, and others that taste of delicious sour cherry. Who knew?
I'm not a big beer drinker, but some of those bottles were amazing -- as complex and as interesting as wine. It also reminded me that, when I was in university in Montreal, I, too, drank microbrewery beers (Boreal rousse was my drink) and looked down on the watery, mass-produced, corporate stuff that most college students chug. (I'm talking to you, Molson).
One of its owners is my friend Hong Blog. You can catch a picture of him here on this China Daily feature, where he looks all buff and tough-guy hauling cases of beer.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Should I trust Chinese airlines?

I've been travelling a tad bit more to China recently, which is a good thing. Partly, this is because my work schedule has loosened up.
I've booked two trips for the next two months. Tickets and hotel rooms have been hard to come by, partly because of the Mid-Autumn Festival holiday, and partly because of the end of the Shanghai Expo.
Though it seems, these days, China flights are always packed, thanks to the healthy economy and increasing business and cultural ties with the rest of the world. (And, I presume, a limitation of flights that probably favor Mainland carriers. I've heard that this is why HK-SH, HK-BJ flights are so uniformly pricey -- though I could be wrong).

The question is: Do I trust Mainland Chinese airlines?
An hour after I had my travel agent issue an e-ticket on a Chinese domestic airline, I came across this Associated Press item written from Shanghai:

Chinese officials found that 200 pilots falsified their flying histories, according to a report published Monday that cited the head of the civil aviation administration.

The results of 2008-2009 investigations showed that airlines desperate for staff were hiring pilots whose resumes had been faked, China Business News cited Li Jiaxiang, head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, as telling a recent teleconference.

The report comes as the agency investigates safety measures nationwide after an Aug. 24 Henan Airlines crash that killed 42 people in Heilongjiang province.

A staff member who answered the phone at Shenzhen Airlines, which reportedly had 103 of the pilots with faked work histories on the payroll, said he had no idea about the report. Shenzhen Airlines is the parent company of Henan Airlines.

China’s aviation industry has expanded rapidly in recent years and regulators have struggled to keep up. Regions are eager to develop tourism and other industries to catch up with the country’s economic boom."
I know that crashes happen all over the world -- sometimes, it's just a terrible freak accident. Even if the pilot is experienced and safety checks are done, once in a while, things go wrong.

But, in China's case, one presumes that officials KNEW they were doing something wrong by allowing hundreds of unqualified pilots to be flying thousands of people around. What makes it worse is that it was deliberate -- almost malicious. If it wasn't the Heilongjiang crash, it would have been somewhere else.

With all the new money in China -- and all the money being poured into showy infrastructure projects and god knows what -- why didn't some of it go to making sure that people who handle giant, potentially dangerous planes get the training they need?

While this is worrying, I don't think it's enough for me to cancel my China travel. Many routes simply aren't carried by Cathay and Dragonair. And I can't avoid an entire nation just because of air safety worries. Still, this is not happy news.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Who are you?


No, I don't mean that in some existential way. Joyceyland is not that deep. I mean, who are my readers?
My CluterMaps thingie just hit a round number of 20,000 visitors since I moved domains, so I thought it would be a good time to take stock.

My readers come from:

Hong Kong -- 38%
United States -- 25%
The Fallen Anglo Empire (i.e. Australia, Canada, Britain) -- 15%
Thailand and Singapore -- 2%

As for the remaining 20%, the country-by-country breakdown is too small to be statistically significant.

Hong Kong makes sense, since that's what I write about most, and that's where I get the most cross-linkage with other blogs. The most traffic comes from Gweipo and Ulaca. I really appreciate what seems to be a small but loyal coterie of regular commenters from Hong Kong. It's funny that we probably know more about each other than many friends in the "real", non-virtual world. I mean, my "real" friends and colleagues don't know that I fried chicken last night for dinner!

The U.S. number is high -- even though I don't write about it much -- because America has such a HUGE online presence in the English-speaking world. Whenever I do a random Goggle blog search on anything -- general topics like recipes, horse riding, world news, fashion, cute boys -- 90% of the time, I end up at an American blog.

My only wish is that I had more China readers. It's frustrating because I know they can't come because of some outside, government force -- not because they are simply uninterested. In fact, I have no idea whether Chinese readers would be interested at all in Joyceyland, but there is no way to find out unless the Great Firewall comes down. (I think some would be, though. Most mainland Chinese seem to be curious about Hong Kong or overseas Chinese life.)

So far, I've registered 15 visitors from China, which is 0.075% of the total. I think some others come in through proxies (which, I suspect, are registered simply as "Asia-Pacific" instead of "China") but it is still a very small number. I can't recall getting even a single comment from a Mainland China reader who identifies himself / herself as such. Very occasionally, when I touch on Chinese political issues like censorship, I will get some nasty message that I presume comes from a Chinese nationalist. But the hateful messages are almost almost sent to me personally (not posted here) or posted anonymously. So I have no idea who that person is, or even if he/she has an "online identity." Isn't it always true that bullies are usually cowards?

Anyway, I don't think the number of Mainland readers is very high. You have to be VERY dedicated to use a proxy just to casually read a personal blog like mine. Plus, if no Mainland blog can link to me -- then how would people find me unless Joyceyland just happens to come up on a search engine search?

Speaking of which, the most popular search engine search leading to Joyceyland involves the one post where I showed a scantily clad Jillian Michaels. By far.

I don't know how HOW many people are out there looking for pictures of "The Biggest Loser" workout queen, but there are alot. So, in the interest of shameless hit-boosting (as Ulaca has already accused me of) here's another.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Not-really-buttermilk, not-really-that-fried chicken

I'm sure that headline is going to give a heart attack to any American cooking traditionalist.
I secretly hope no Southern woman is going to read this post and hate me for destroying her cuisine. (I don't mean you, Lipstick. I'm sure you're very forgiving).
Once upon a time, someone in the American South came up with a wonderful recipe for buttermilk fried chicken, with a lovely, crackling, crispy deep-fried skin.
Then, some city slickers named Dean & Deluca in New York did a modern version of this American classic and printed it in their cookbook -- which I've had for a decade. (It's the cookbook I go to most often).
Then, some clueless home chef in Hong Kong screws it up even more.
It's more difficult to get buttermilk outside North America. (Despite its fattening-sounding name, it's actually quite low-fat. It's made from the residue leftover from butter-making. But, like Quebec cheese curds, it's not commonly found in places like Hong Kong, which has no local cheese or butter production. Nor does it seem popular in Europe -- Marc the Metrosexual had never heard of it.)
Buttermilk is slightly sour and thick. Replacing it with plain yogurt works fine. So maybe I should call this "yogurt fried chicken."
The original recipe calls for deep-frying in a ton of oil, or even shortening. I found one very old Southern recipe that advises home cooks to melt an entire pound of lard and then add a stick of butter!
Dean & Deluca reduce that to less than an inch of oil in the pan.
I go one step further and pan-fry it with maybe a 1/4 inch of oil -- though I keep the crispiness of the buttermilk-flour coating.

Joycey's Not-Really-Buttermilk, Not-Really-That-Fried Chicken
Serves 4.

8 chicken pieces -- I like whole legs
chili flakes (or chili powder, or paprika, or whatever other spice suits you)
1 small container plain yogurt
2 big spoonfuls minced garlic (I used the Chinese garlic that is minced and in water, because I'm lazy)
1 lemon, sliced
cooking oil

1. Salt chicken legs.
2. Combine yogurt, lemon, chili and garlic in a big bowl.
3. Cover chicken pieces in yogurt sauce and set aside, preferably for a few hours or even overnight.
4. Pour flour into a large bowl.
5. Dredge chicken pieces in flour (taking care to remove lemon slices or globs of buttermilk) and set aside on a wire rack for a few minutes.
6. Heat up a little oil in a heavy pan that can also be put in the oven. If you're using meat with skin (like legs), you only need enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan, so the chicken doesn't stick.
7. Fry the chicken skin-side down first -- about 10 minutes per side, until the outside is browned and crispy.
8. If your chicken is done, dry on paper towels to soak up extra oil.
9. If it's not done (like mine, which was still pink inside), finish it in a medium-hot oven (150 Celsius or 300 Fahrenheit).

Or, if like most Hong Kongers, you don't have an oven, you can put it in the microwave for a few minutes.
I did that tonight, and it surprisingly didn't ruin the skin like I thought it would. If you're a busy working person, the microwave is mighty convenient, even if it goes against tradition.
We had this with boiled new potatoes (with a little butter and sea salt), steamed broccoli and white wine.
Random thought: Over the years, I have adapted many American, Canadian (and sometimes European) recipes to fit Hong Kong's local products and small Hong Kong kitchens. My early years here, I had no real oven, and yet I found creative ways to make desserts and other dishes. (I once roasted a stuffed quail in a toaster oven).
I also find myself simplifying and shortening recipes -- partly because most Hong Kongers don't have the kitchen space / equipment to make a 23-step recipe, and partly because we're all busy working.
I generally use less oil and cream than the recipes originally call for.
My desserts are less tooth-achingly sweet than their original versions.
And I probably have a heavier hand when it comes to flavorings.
That said, I don't think my results are like the "Hong Kong-ified" or "Chinese-ified" Western food you often find here. That's because I was actually born and raised in North America, and I don't think you ever lose that feel for the food you grew up with.
I was thinking of writing a cookbook called something like "Western Food for Eastern Kitchens" or somesuch. What do you guys think?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The story of the cheongsam

Before and after: The Qing Dynasty qipao (top, National Museum of China) evolved into the modern cheongsam (bottom, Hong Kong Information Services Dept).

History of a Dress, Chinese Style

HONG KONG — All students of fashion know how the 20th century transformed women’s clothing in the West. Corsets were loosened, hemlines rose, and designers like Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent famously dressed ladies in trousers and tuxedo jackets.

Less documented was a similar fashion overhaul in China, which is now the subject of an exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History. “The Evergreen Classic: Transformation of the Qipao,” showing until Sept. 13, is a beautifully presented, and sometimes humorous, display of 280 Chinese gowns created over the last 130 years. The exhibition is augmented by photographs and commentary showing how the bulky Qing Dynasty robe — which covered everything but a woman’s face and hands — altered and shrank until it became the slinky “cheongsam” worn today, while retaining the gown’s distinctive diagonal lines. Unlike the Western dress, which has a vertical construction, the qipao follows the flow of wrapped fabric.

“We wanted to highlight the qipao’s role in history, and how it came to have greater meaning,” said Terence Cheung, assistant curator of the Museum of History. “The dress changed with the times.”

The exhibit’s earliest examples, Manchu gowns from the late 19th century, are the most striking. These elaborate creations adorn wide racks in glass cases, not mannequins, to better display their swaths of heavily embroidered silk. Even a gown tagged as being “smart casual” had exquisite peonies and butterflies hand-sewn onto a crimson backdrop.

The photographs include images from inside the Forbidden City in Beijing before the fall of the emperors. One undated portrait shows the stern Empress Cixi surrounded by ladies of the court, while a snapshot captures their more modestly dressed servants. Across the Pacific — and a world away in terms of modernity — Sun Yat-sen, a founding father of Republican China, poses for a 1901 family picture in Honolulu, with the men in Western suits and bow ties, and the women in traditional qipao.

The photos give a good sense of the silhouette that was fashionable in the imperial court. Extremely thin women and teenage girls wore heavy, multi-layered garments and enormous headpieces that looked precariously balanced on their tiny necks. (One comment from several spectators was that the collars on the qipaos looked impossibly small). The women wearing this rather voluminous combination were perched on top of unnaturally tiny and painfully bound feet.

Each section of the exhibit, which is divided by historical era, is prefaced with a quote from a 1943 book, “Chinese Life and Fashions,” by the Chinese novelist Eileen Chang. She describes the female models of this period as being “pleasantly unobtrusive, one of the most desirable qualities in a woman.”

Change came with the fall of imperial China, which ushered in the Republican period (1912-49), as well as reforms and more education for women. Smart young women began wearing what was called “civilized attire” at the time.

Yet another Sun Yat-sen family picture, from 1912, features young women in wide trousers and high heels, though still paired with loose Chinese-styled tops. A 1916 photo from an elite Christian school in Beijing shows schoolgirls in pleated knee-length skirts and jaunty short jackets with sleeves pushed up the elbows — outfits that would have been considered revealing several decades earlier.

In the 1920s, the original qipao, the long Manchurian gown, re-emerged. Long gowns were in style again, only this time without the layers underneath. The wide bodice was slimmed down to a more natural A-line, making for a more comfortable garment. Paradoxically, these long gowns reflected a period style of men’s clothing. According to the exhibition, that women could also wear them was seen as a step toward equality.

The show becomes much more fun around the time of the Jazz Age, with the advent of the Chinese pop culture aesthetic. Hong Kong calendars and Shanghai advertisements made good use of pretty girls in the tighter, shorter modern “cheongsam” (or “long shirt”) that evolved from the qipao. Posters made from free picture cards given away with cigarettes showed qipao-clad girls fishing or playing tennis.

“There were new elements in the 1950s, like tapered waists, or darts at the bust and waist,” Mr. Cheung said. “The qipao merged with Western dress. In the early 1970s, with the introduction of the miniskirt, there were some very short qipao.”

“In the 1960s, many more Hong Kong women started to do professional work in offices, and those who were from the middle class and upper class wore qipao to work,” Mr. Cheung added. “These were different from the flowery, fussy qipao of the past. They were simple and convenient, with modern zippers and press studs that were easier than the old flower buttons.”

Earlier in the 20th century, Chinese women innovatively added foreign influences. High-collared, Chinese silk gowns were paired with stockings, pumps, cardigans, fur stoles. Women styled their hair in marcelled waves.

Dresses from the 1930s and 1940s had slits up the side, both to free up movement and to show a little leg. By the 1960s, the cheongsam was oozing with sex appeal, as evidenced by an iconic photo of two women in Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s red light district, in dresses so tight that the viewer can glimpse the outline of their undergarments from behind.

One of the most eye-catching rooms is the one with dozens of 1950s and ’60s dresses in every color imaginable, displayed on mannequins in a wide arc. With no glass separating the viewer from the garment, it feels like walking into an amazing retro clothing boutique.

The section dedicated to the 1970s and ’80s starts getting campy. A video shows the “cheongsam competition” of the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant, complete with blue eye shadow, feathered hairdos and a young Maggie Cheung. (She came in second.)

In the 1980s and ’90s, the dress picked up flourishes that, arguably, never should have been added to a Chinese gown, like shoulder pads and ruffles.

The last part of the exhibit celebrates the modern cheongsam and includes the lovely red and gold outfit worn by the Beijing Olympic hostesses in 2008. Of note is a Blanc de Chine gown with flowers in a diagonal pattern to show off the qipao’s distinctive structure. But some pieces by local young designers had so many embellishments that it was hard to discern any Chinese roots at all.

There were a few obvious gaps in this history of the qipao. Missing was Suzie Wong, the fictional Hong Kong hooker with the heart of gold. She was, for better or worse, one of the best-known wearers of the cheongsam. It would have also been nice to see segments on Shanghai Tang and Vivienne Tam, the two brands that have done the most for spreading the popularity of the Chinese dress internationally.

But the greatest omission is that of a catalog, although the museum is considering publishing one at the end of the year. The gowns and the archival materials came from a wide range of collections, both public and private. Given the effort it must have taken to assemble this exhibition, plus the rarity of comprehensive shows dedicated to Chinese fashion history, it would be a shame if there is no final document of it.