Saturday, April 30, 2011

Royal Wedding -- The Dress!

Ben Stansall, AFP/Getty Images

I knew the dress was a winner when it instantly caused a wave of bridal regret. (The best fashion always inspires envy).
My first thought was
why didn't I chose a dress like that on my wedding day?
Kate Middleton's dress was much plainer than I had expected, and I loved its simple, elegant lines. It worked because the focus went straight to her face, and not to distracting bustles, rosettes and ruffles. The barely-there veil and the modest floral bouquet -- held casually, as if the bride had just picked it on the way over -- added a feeling of ease to an incredibly formal ceremony.
That particular shape -- the bustier top and flared skirt -- is the hands-down best design for creating the illusion of a small waist.
I usually don't like sleeves on wedding gowns, since they tend to look heavy, dowdy and matronly; but the lightness of the lace, plus the tasteful V-neck, showed just enough skin for it to look pretty and fresh.
I heard somewhere that she did her own make-up. Part of me doubts that is true. Any celebrity would at least have a professional touch-up. Plus, the make-up needed to stand up to TV lights is different than regular make-up. Still, the idea is nice. The cosmetics were lightly and naturally done, and she didn't give in that temptation -- so common in Asia -- to plaster her skin over to some unnaturally white tone and then paint pink cheeks, red lips and blue eye-lids on.
I also liked that her hair was down. In retrospect, I wish I kept some of my hair down, since I rather like my long, thick black locks.
Instead, my make-up / hairdresses (two cute but tipsy Swedish girls) scraped it back into a harsh up-do and said, "Wow! She looks like a geisha!" The back of my hair was actually quite amazing -- an elaborate design of loops and scrolls. But scraping the hair back actually makes your face look much rounder in photographs, whereas having hair down around around the neck is more flattering. Kate's half-up, half-down do is perfect.
I didn't want to go down the local Hong Kong path of having a rented wedding dress, but I didn't want to buy some expensive, pouffy concoction either.
So I ended up with something that wasn't even specifically a wedding gown. It was a plain cream-colored satin sheath from Seibu meant as a normal evening gown. It was very simple -- except for a few gathers at the waist, it was tight and went straight down to the floor with no embellishment.

God knows why my 4 million wedding photos are not on this laptop. All I can find right now is this snapshot of me and my family.

You can see how deliberately plain my outfit it. My Mom, in her wisdom, told me to wipe off the dramatic eyebrows the make-up girls had drawn on me, and I look very natural. I kept my jewelry to a single strand of pearls. I noticed that Kate had no necklace at all.
I'm still glad I chose something minimal but, looking back, a slightly fuller skirt would probably have made my waist look better. (I'm not the thinnest person). And maybe it would have been wise to have some light cover on my less-than-perfect upper arms.
Kate's design is also a bit more reliable. My dress, which had neither sleeves nor straps, could easily have fallen down or out-of-place. Thank god for boning, and breasts. A less-endowed Asian girl may have had an embarrassing accident while bending over to sign the papers...
Initially, I wanted to get married with some quirky hat / floral hair arrangement. I've always dreamt of a lifestyle that would allow me to wear strange things on my head.
My Dad wisely said he'd prefer a veil. And so I got a long one similar to Kate's. (In a burst of indulgence, I booked mine at Harrod's and had a friend bring it back to me from London).
Dad was right.

The only really flashy part of Kate's outfit was the length of the train. But, given the pomp of the ceremony, I think it works well. At least she didn't need an entire gaggle of maidens cavorting after her to try to keep her train under control.
What a huge difference to the 1980s extravaganza worn by Princess Diana.
I always loved Princess Di and was mesmerized by her wedding as a 7-year-old. But you have to admit that she looks a little like she's being attacked by a giant cream puff.

For wedding style and etiquette tips, go to the Privilege blog.
For IHT fashion critic Suzy Menkes's take, go here. (Why her columns are always so buried on is beyond me. I had to go to Google to find it!) She writes:

The choice made by Kate Middleton was picture perfect — a stylish, streamlined ivory-and-white satin dress with a lightly-padded corset and manageable train (as long as her sister Pippa, in a streak of white silk, was there to navigate).

The triumph of this wedding dress was that it appeared at first restrained and simple. But there was a shiver of emotion on viewing the history and heritage sewn as a pattern into the lace. It was an organic meld of England’s Tudor’s rose, Scotland’s thistle, Ireland’s shamrock and the daffodil of Wales — an echo of the decoration on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation gown in 1953.

Delicate sewing hands (washed every hour to keep the dress pristine), were found in the Royal School of Needlework, based at Hampton Court Palace and chosen to create a reprise of the history of arts and crafts.

Amusingly, here's a photo slideshow of all the silly hats. Those crazy Brits.

The bride was flawlessly tasteful. But guests like Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie were a little more out there. Let's say they get points for creativity.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We're hiring an amah

I bought this handy book by a Hong Kong lady years before I ever thought I'd hire an actual helper. It has pretty good tips for anyone running a household.

After 12 years here, I'm finally doing that very Hong Kong thing and hiring a domestic helper from the Philippines.
Right now, Marc the Metrosexual and I have a part-time lady who comes every Monday afternoon when we're at work.
For a four-hour shift, she does the heavy lifting -- she keeps the wood floors pretty, scrubs the bathroom, and irons a basketful of clothes. She also does a quick tidying up before she goes, which has a nice psychological effect: It's comforting coming home every Monday night knowing that the place will smell faintly of lemon / pine cleaner, and seeing the garbage and recycling bins empty, the dishes back in the cupboard, and the bedsheets pulled perfectly crisply smooth, like in a hotel room. I know that's just surface cleaning -- taking out the trash and putting away dishes doesn't take very long -- but it feels good to be pampered.

Marc and I have always done our own groceries, cooking, washing up, laundry, errands, etc. Plus Hugo Care, which Marc mostly does -- I must give credit where it's due. Having a fluffy house cat means almost daily vacuuming, plus twice-daily litter scooping and plenty of watering and feeding, to maintain Hugo's hefty frame.

He didn't grow to be big, round, and shiny-coated without some effort. He gets both wet food (in the plastic dish) and dry food every night.

Recently, we've been feeling bogged down by it. Maybe it's our jobs. Marc, who is on an early shift these days, is often in bed when I'm finishing my dinner after an evening shift -- though I don't do that as much as I used to. Plus, I sometimes work Sundays and public holidays, like the Easter break. When we get a rare Saturday or Sunday off together -- especially when the weather's nice -- we get kinda grumpy when we have to spend it at TASTE debating why Tide laundry detergent is so damn expensive here, or waiting for the Watson's Water guy to clean our dispenser tank, instead of sitting out on a terrace eating brunch.

We're not so old, but when you get to your mid-30s and early-40s you start looking for more comfort, like vacationing in a nice hotel instead of staying in a youth hostel.

Mostly I think it's a change of lifestyle. In my younger, single life, I lived in a small bachelorette pad downtown and ate almost all of my meals out unless I decided to cook for fun, say, for a dinner party. I'd grab Starbucks in the morning, take-out for lunch and was almost always out at some bar or something for dinner -- or, home with a cheap rice box. I didn't care that my bathroom ceiling was caving in and the air con rattled all night, since I was just a renter who moved all the time. My housework consisted of trips to the dry cleaner and the odd scrub-down when the place got grubby.

Now, I eat as many home-cooked meals as possible, including most breakfasts and dinners, and even packed lunches when I'm not too lazy. This is great for both health and finances, but two or three meals a day requires much more grocery shopping, cleaning and dishes. (They just closed our local Park N Shop, which does not help).

Also, we're homeowners now. We're happy about this, but there is more upkeep. In the last few months, the gas oven started leaking and had to be replaced and the bathroom exhaust broke. The curtains molded in the Hong Kong spring damp and have to be unhooked and lugged down to the cleaners. Speaking of damp, we threw out 15 liters of water -- or 1.5 loads -- from the dehumidifier yesterday. Some clothes I hung up to dry were still clammy 24 hours later. And I've barely started my next task, which is having the last of the old clunky air cons that came with this place replaced with a new, energy-saving one.

I realize that to any of my readers in the West, this probably sounds pretty whiny, or, at the very least, like a big justification (which is it). Helpers are so prohibitively expensive overseas that friends who make more money that I do in, say, London, don't have full-time help. When I was growing up in Connecticut -- not the poorest corner of the U.S. -- it was a given that even lawyers, bankers or their well-dressed wives would walk the dogs, buy groceries or pick up the kids from school.

I am not one of the many Hong Kongers -- or relatively well-off people all across Asia -- who think that having a full-time servant is some sort of God-given right. That is one of the less-attractive parts of our culture. I remember having two friends over for dinner -- not spoiled tai-tais, but hard-working, full-time professional women -- who were appalled that I would have to do the dishes after they left. Both them grew up in the West sans house help, actually, but have been so accustomed to life here that they can't imagine putting detergent on a sponge.

Because many richer Asians think that help is a right -- and not the luxury and privilege that it really is -- some treat their amahs (or "ayi", if you're from the Mainland) pretty badly. It's a given that someone from a poor country will live in your home and be at your beck and call, day and night, six days a week, for HK $4,000 (US $500) a month, plus use of a single bed in a spare room.

Even people who are nice to their amahs -- who pay them more than the minimum, whogive them defined work shifts like normal employees instead of endless toil -- have unrealistic expectations. I was listening to a friend complain that some poor girl who grew up in a Godforsaken village screwed up a dinner party because the food wasn't perfectly cooked, and didn't know the difference between a red and white wine glass. I didn't say anything but I was thinking "If you want to show off a fancy dinner party, either cook it yourself or spend the money on a professional caterer."

There are good-hearted exceptions, of course, but in general, I find that the local Hong Kong Chinese, especially women, are harsher on "servants" than expats or overseas Chinese. I cringe when I hear of people working these girls to the bone. I know of older Chinese ladies who set "traps" for their amahs -- like hiding cash in the pockets of dirty laundry to see if they can "catch" the amahs in the act of stealing. Or "fining" girls if they, say, leave an ironing mark on a dress -- even though the employer spends more on a shopping spree that the amah makes in months. This is the way you treat an indentured servant, not an employee. Thank God the I.H.T. doesn't fine me every time I make a typo.

In the case of one distant family friend, the poor amah was denied her own room and regular days off, and has to do all the housework and childcare while the stay-at-home mother sleeps late every morning.

I didn't grow up poor, but I didn't grow up rich and with help either. I was asked repeatedly (a bit incredulously) at the Hong Kong helper agency if this really was my first amah. My parents, an engineer and a housewife, never had house help and still don't, though they could afford it. My brother and his wife never did either until they had a baby and needed the childcare. We're a pretty self-sufficient family.

With this push-and-pull inside me, choosing and hiring an amah was quite an adventure. I'll post more on that later. But technically, I'm supposed to be working on an article this afternoon!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Film Noir, Hong Kong-Style

Here's another one of my mini posts for The New York Times' InTransit blog.

April 21, 2011, 6:00 am

Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-wai's 1988 film
Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-wai’s 1988 film “As Tears Go By.”

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

France and Hong Kong are both known for art-house films stuffed with sex, crime, violence and dark humor. These two cinema traditions come together in June for Noir, a retrospective of 27 films that is part of Le French May, a major annual cultural festival held in Hong Kong that runs this year through June 23.

Noir runs from June 3 to 26 at the Palace IFC in Central and the Broadway Cinemateque in Yaumatei, for those who want to be a littler closer to “the dark side” — a nickname for the Kowloon area — of Hong Kong.

The French director Jacques Audiard will be in town for the gala opening with “A Prophet,” his 2009 film about a young North African immigrant in a French prison (it won the Grand Prix at Cannes). He will also show “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” his 2004 film about a brutal thug who wants to become a concert pianist.

Meanwhile, the blood-splattered Hong Kong segment was curated by the filmmaker Johnnie To — though, perhaps out of modesty, he didn’t include any of his own movies. His selection includes two iconic triad love stories from the ’80s: Wong Kar-wai’s “As Tears Go By” (1988), starring a young Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau; and John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” (1986) with Chow Yun-Fat and the late Leslie Cheung.

Le French May also includes concerts, opera, dance, theater and art exhibitions.


Here are some more photos

Leslie Cheung in "A Better Tomorrow."

And Leslie again. He's so young here. I still can't believe he killed himself by jumping off the Mandarin Oriental.

And, to be fair to the French contingent -- it is a joint festival -- a shot from "A Prophet."
Side note: It's hard to write short, especially when you like the subject matter and have a lot to say. I have to discipline myself to keeping under the 200-250 word limit when I send in InTransit submissions. But, other than that, these posts are way easier than proper, full-length articles.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Spring has sprung -- it's beautiful outside

Maybe my poor eyes are getting accustomed to Hong Kong's smog-filled skies. But I've found the last few weeks really pleasant, despite the fact that we will probably never achieve the brilliant blues of the Canadian and New England springs I grew up with. Temperatures have been in the low 20s C, or the 70s F.

I've been lugging my lazy arse out for morning walks before work, so I don't sit around for the rest of the day gazing out the office window like some sort of trapped bird. No excuse not to kick myself out of bed for some exercise, as I don't work particularly early.

When we first bought in West Kowloon three years ago, I complained that we had moved into one of those monotonous high-rise housing complexes owned by a faceless conglomerate with pet-hating fascists employed as security guards. I had always envisioned that the first home I bought would be a historic fixer-upper, with character, individuality and a little outdoor space, but those are rare and expensive in Hong Kong unless you're willing to live far on the outskirts, making our work commutes impossible.

But now, I'm seeing the up side of being in a complex. There are lovely gardens both on the ground floor and the mezzanine. They aren't vast grassy lawns like in the West, but manicured gardens with a meandering walkway. The flowers are in bloom and, since it's elevated one level above traffic, it smells nice. Ladies in black Hakka hats (leung mao) water and trim hedges. And if you can turn your ear off to the occasional, inevitable, drilling, you can hear birdsong. It's not big enough to do a run, or any real cardio work, but it suffices for a reasonable walk if I do 3 or 4 loops between the 10 buildings.

Considering that I live among about 2,000 other households (That's right. Six flats per floor x 40-odd floors x 9 towers) or about 8,000 other people, the gardens are oddly empty. There are never more than a few elderly grandmas or a few kids on the playground with their Filipina amahs. Otherwise, it's just people rushing from the walkway to the mall / MTR to their homes.

After all, Hong Kong yummy mummies wouldn't risk making their skin even a tiny shade darker by exposure to the outdoors, thereby ruining the effects of their Shisheido whitening cream. Hong Kong daddies mostly work 27 hours a day with no time for the outdoors. Meanwhile, the kids spend all day either in the "math tutorial school" in the adjoining sunless mall or in the air-conditioned confines of the indoor playroom.

What is it about this city that makes people hate the outdoors?

On the sidewalk outside our office, I see women walking around with giant umbrellas even though it's overcast. This is because they think it is
"sai," or "too glaring." On a temperate, blue-skied day last week, as we were making that glorious turn onto the highway with the great views of the harbour and the skyline, I remarked on the nice weather to my cabbie. "Huh. Sai," he huffed. This is the only city in the world that hates both sun and the rain.

When the spring weather changed (well, "changed," relatively speaking in a place with very moderate weather), everyone complained. One night, when it was, say, 20C (or 68F) my cabbie complained of the cold -- dressed in a long-sleeved gray shirt with a fleece vest but, of course, with the energy-sucking air con blasting. Outside, everyone was wearing jackets and windbreakers.

The next day was about 25C and the same cabbie complained that it was too hot. He set the air con to even-more blasting until I complained. What will make these people happy?

The same goes for the office building management. All year round, they wear heavy jackets indoors while blasting the air con, even in empty places off hours. (When I get off between 9 pm and 11pm, it's always freezing in the giant, abandoned lobbies).

Any normal non-Hong Kong person would say, "Why don't you ask them to turn it down?" Marc the Metrosexual addressed this in a blog post called Cold Habits Die Hard.

It's because Hong Kongers -- in a crazily environmentally damaging superstition -- believe that without air con, you will suffocate and die.

If I call the office building management to complain -- and it's cold enough in here that my burly American and Canadian guy colleagues feel cold, too -- they will do ANYTHING not to turn off the air con. They will lie and tell me they have no control over the machine, for example.

Once, they went behind my back and told the local office manager that they had to refuse me when I was working one of my lonely (and cold) Sunday morning shifts in the winter because, "If the nice lady passed out and died in the office alone, we'd be responsible."

But I'm getting off track now. After 12 years in Hong Kong, and 6 years fighting this particular office management, I've given up. So I bring sweaters to work in the tropical summer and just try to conserve at home. Maybe there's nothing I can do from keeping Hong Kong from destroying itself environmentally.

As for me personally, I'm vowing to take more walks to help me get over the stress, and lack of logic, in Hong Kong life.

And maybe when we work long enough and save enough to pay off the mortgage and retire, we can move somewhere where people can appreciate good weather when they see it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bo Innovation photo contest

I like this photo of a Mongkok wet market. I took it for a story I wanted to do for the IHT / NYT that, for various reasons, never ran. (Just consider this blog the Times' slush pile). But I don't think it'd qualify for the below photo contest, as it features a far more-famous chef than Alvin Leung. That's Alain Ducasse staring at that raw hunk of pork!


There are some great Hong Kong-based photographers on the blogroll to the right. There are pros like Christie Johnston, who has worked with me at the IHT; FotoPiggie, who used to work with me at the SCMP; and Alex Hofford, co-author of the Man and Shark book.
Then there's the artist Elizabeth Briel, Webs of Significance, and Mister Bijou, whose blog entries are like mini photography poems. Jason Bon Vivant has some great food pix. So does
Back on the Boat, though he hasn't blogged for months.
The reason I'm bringing this up (aside from the excuse to give some link-love to my blogging friends) is because there's a photo contest that might interest some of you.

Alvin "Demon Chef" Leung of Bo Innovation is working on a book about both his cooking and Hong Kong in general.
He's holding a contest for local amateur photographers to send in their best shots of the city.
"I am inspired by the scene, the pace, the pollution, traffic, everything here," he says. "My art/food book with essentially be a thank you note to the city."
Photographers whose works are used will win dinner for two at Bo (which easily comes to HK $3,000), plus a copy of the book and credit inside.

He is looking for images in these categories:
1. Mongkok wholesale fruit market after midnight. (I often see glimpses on this late-night action on my cab home to West Kowloon.)
2. Hakka life in the New Territories. (That's where the Joyceyland roots are!)
3. A cha chaang teng.
4. Har mi (dried shrimp) drying in Tai O or any outer islands.
5. Suckling pig being served at a Chinese wedding. (It's too bad still photography can't capture the little trumpet music they play during the suckling pig procession.)
6. Oyster production in Lau Fau Shan.
7. Claypot being cooked, served or eaten on Temple Street at night.
8. Street beggars.
9. Fresh lotus leaves in a pond.
10. Couples showing public displays of affection at the beach.
11. Dim sum restaurant.
12. Incense at a temple.
13. Wild pigeons.
14. Snakes in a snake soup shop.
15. Pandas at Ocean Park.
16. Seafood restaurant or market in Lei Yue Mun.
17. Group hot-pot.
18. Smelly tofu stand.

Send photos to with your name, address, telephone number and the category. Each photographer can send three images per category, though you can enter as many categories as you want.
Deadline is June 1.
There is fine print about file formats, original work, copyrights, etc. But I'm not going to repeat it all here.
For more info, go to or contact Andrew Sun at And if you do, tell him Joyce formerly of the SCMP says hi!

Friday, April 8, 2011

I was wrong about that fat, naked Chinese man named Ai Weiwei

Remember this guy?
I blogged about him in November when the authorities tore down Ai Weiwei's new art studio in Shanghai -- even though it had been approved by a government official and was located in an area zoned for, well, new art studios.
I'd laughed that the government's explanation was obviously trumped up. I stand by that.
But I'd also dismissed that any serious trouble would come to Ai. He was a patriotic co-designer of the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium. He was a New York-educated international art rock-star. He was a status symbol for Beijing at that time -- not too long ago, just 2008 -- when it was trying to look all worldly and cultured and civilized.
Sure, Ai was briefly under house arrest and prevented from attending a party, but I wasn't concerned. I wrote that he'd get out and go zooming off to yet another fabulous gallery opening in London or New York. Sure, he pissed off the authorities by investigating the deaths of schoolchildren during the Sichuan earthquake -- but he's the kind of guy who can get away with being a bit outspoken.
I was wrong.
On Sunday, Ai was taken by the border police while trying to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and he hasn't been seen or heard from since.
(Note: A group I work with was considering inviting him to speak at a Hong Kong event. Obviously, that won't happen now. For readers not from this area -- Mainland China and Hong Kong have separate borders and immigration control. Writers, editors, publishers and other "sensitive" people are often blocked from coming here.)

Ai's disappearance brought on international curiosity, then condemnation, which seemed to take China by surprise.
Why does this keep happening? It's no longer the Soviet-era, pre-Internet age. Did they think this guy had no staff, no friends and no family who would contact a foreign journalist or rights group? Do they think they can still "disappear" prominent people, and nobody will notice? Even his mom's miserable hand-written "missing person" flyer has gone viral.

China finally mentioned the case on Thursday because it felt pushed to the wall by international criticism. (I dislike it when people go on about "Western" criticism. People in Hong Kong and other parts of the non-Western world have opinions on this, too)

As expected, they fumbled their delayed response so badly that you wonder how gullible the government thinks we all are.

* They made their usual defensive comment about "foreign interference," though their sole statement was made via the Foreign Ministry and the story has hardly popped up in the domestic press. Clearly, their huffing and puffing is for the outside world's benefit.

* A Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “This has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression.” All this comment does is reinforce the idea that this
is about human rights and freedom, otherwise you don't have to say it. Nobody comes out and says that when it's a corrupt official or coal mine explosion.

* The police fail to follow even basic procedure by not saying where he is jailed, not allowing him to contact a lawyer or his family, and not saying what he's charged with, except that it's vaguely a "suspected economic crime."

* "Suspected economic crime" sounds about as trumped up as "art studio zoning violation." What does that mean? Embezzlement? Tax fraud? That's rather suspicious during a month of crackdown on writers, thinkers and dissidents across the country. Given the context, does anyone think that, by total coincidence, someone found something awry with his tax forms this week?

* There is a lack of clarity over whether he has been formally charged with a crime - The New York Times wrote a correction because it implied in one article that he had, and another that he hadn't. (According to the China Digital Times, Xinhua wrote a one-line report on Ai only to delete it within the hour. So even the official state media seems confused). Of course these things are hard to fact-check. It's not like you can call the Communist Party Jailed Dissident and Censorship Hotline.
Reuters has a great piece of journalism that includes quotes from Ai's family. They reached Ai's dear old, flyer-making mom, Gao Ying, who said, "If he's not released, this will be the start of a long struggle.. They still haven't notified us why he was taken or where he is."

They also contacted his older sister, Gao Ge, who said, "The economic crimes report is absurd, because the way he was taken and then disappeared shows it's nothing of the sort...
This is more like a crime gang's behavior than a country with laws."

Speaking of laws, the government spokesperson keeps saying stuff like "China has laws." This is what they always say when pesky foreigners criticize them. Of course China has laws. But repeating that sentence doesn't mean that the laws are always good or always fairly applied. They haven't even said what law he's broken.


More from the blogosphere:

Global Voices Online translates Chinese-language Tweets from prominent Chinese cultural figures discussing Ai into English. Oh, and even more translated Twitter here.

Evan Oznos, one of my favorite writers from my favorite magazine, was quick as a bunny in getting a good post up. (I'm still undecided whether The New Yorker's China correspondent is as cute as Stephen Colbert).

Ulaca's two cents includes quotes by Ai and a video of the artist's interview with Dan Rather, which is posted on Facebook.

The British-Born Chinese blog rounds up coverage, mostly from U.K. sources.

The Financial Times has an opinion piece about the Chinese leadership's psychological state, though it's behind a paywall. It writes:

"This is a government that has budgeted billions to turn itself into a global leader in soft power... Yet it also ignores its own laws and arrests some of its bravest advocates of gradual legal reform, as well as its most renowned modern artist....

"The explanation lies in the chronic insecurity that pervades modern Chinese society, after 30 years of breakneck economic and social reform.

"Many of the most ardent patriots and angry nationalists hold foreign passports, and send their children abroad for a western education and an offshore haven if things turn ugly at home."


I often come in contact with people and companies -- dealers, galleries, auction houses -- who make a pretty penny trading in politically sensitive Chinese art, particularly stuff from the '90s that doesn't get anyone in trouble anymore. This stuff sells for millions. It will be interesting to see if anyone from that rarified world says anything.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Memoir (or Is It?) of Sex and Opium

By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU / International Herald Tribune-New York Times, March 31, 2011.

HONG KONG — There are things we know about Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, 2nd Baronet, of England: He was one of few Europeans to live among the Chinese in the early 20th century, and his writings greatly influenced the way the West saw Peking. Then there are fuzzier facts, like his claim that he had affairs with both Oscar Wilde and the Empress Dowager Cixi.

At the peak of his career, Backhouse was a respected expert in the field of Orientalism. He worked for The Times of London as a researcher and translator, and his books on China were best sellers. Two works he wrote with the British journalist J.O.P. Bland, “Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking” (1914) and “China Under the Empress Dowager” (1910), shaped 20th-century views of the empress. But some of his sources and claims have since been proved fraudulent (he was roundly criticized after it was discovered that a diary he quoted turned out be a forgery), and historians are divided on the significance of his contribution to Western understanding of Chinese life — and whether it is significant at all.

Next week, two Hong Kong companies will release English and Chinese versions of a previously unpublished manuscript by Backhouse that purports to be a memoir. The sexually explicit “Décadence Mandchoue,” written in 1943, when Backhouse was 70 and dying, recounts his time as a young man as he explored Peking’s gay haunts and what he described as wanton practices within the Imperial Court.

Set largely from 1898 to 1908, the book starts in the ironically named House of Chaste Pleasures, where princes and other high-ranked officials buy the services of young men.

The memoir will primarily be distributed in Hong Kong, with a limited number of copies also available in the United States and Europe, but not widely in mainland China. Beijing has not explicitly banned the book, but the publishers are reluctant to do battle with censors.

Bao Pu, the head of New Century Press, which is publishing the Chinese translation, said there had been an attempt to contact mainland publishers.

“They were all fascinated, but they would have to cut out of the sex parts, and that’s a third of the book,” he said.

Backhouse (who claimed his name was pronounced “Bacchus”), however, is a footnote in history. The real figure of historical interest in “Décadence” is the Empress Dowager Cixi, the de facto ruler of the Middle Kingdom for 47 years.

According to Backhouse, he met the aging empress after he helped restore looted works to her palace. He was then called in for a private audience, during which the empress complained about the barbaric behaviors of foreign diplomats.

While there is documentation linking Backhouse to political life in Beijing, it is not known whether he actually returned treasure or had this conversation.

What seems really far-fetched is an alleged affair that began when Backhouse — or the Backhouse-like character in this book — was washed and perfumed by eunuchs and called up to the 69-year-old Empress’s bedchambers to perform like a slave girl in a harem. According to his manuscript, the liaison lasted until the Empress’s death in 1908 at the age of 73.

“Décadence Mandchoe” was written several months before Backhouse died. His Swiss physician, Reinhard Hoeppli, commissioned the memoir, but then never published it.

The manuscript was eventually passed to the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who also chose not to publish. Instead, Trevor-Roper wrote his own biography, “Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse” (1976), which cast Backhouse as a fraud and which has, until now, been the last word on him.

Backhouse’s original texts from 1943 gathered dust on a shelf at the Bodleian library in Oxford until Derek Sandhaus, the chief editor of Earnshaw Books, which is producing the English-language edition of “Décadence,” found them while researching another book.

“There are two reasons the manuscript was never published,” Mr. Bao of New Century Press said. “The first is that Trevor-Roper destroyed his reputation. The second is because of the greasy paragraphs about sex.”

Trevor-Roper had called Backhouse’s memoirs “worthless historic documents,” as well as snobbish and pornographic.

In the first paragraph, Backhouse manages to drop in Shakespeare, Wilde and Verlaine. He is a writer who will never say “rickshaw” if “charrette chinoise” will do. The famously multilingual author uses a mish-mash of French, Latin and Chinese, rendering a few parts hard to read, even if one has a background in those languages.

As for its historical merit, even the new publishers admit that the book may not be entirely true. Instead, they say, its value comes in its details of that era.

“These descriptions are historically significant because these accounts are not found in other sources,” Mr. Sandhaus said. “While there may be some inconsistencies, it is fundamentally based on fact. Even if he didn’t experience everything personally, this book may have been a way for him to relay things he had heard.”

“No Chinese living then paid much attention to, or bothered to document, the details of daily life — certainly not like an outsider living among them,” Mr. Bao added. “On the other hand, no Westerner lived quite in Backhouse’s situation.”

Bret Hinsch, a history professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan and the author of “Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China,” added that documents about gay life in that period were scarce.

“Compared to Japan, where there are hundreds of books documenting homosexuality at this time, there’s very little such material from China,” he said. “Writing personally about sex was seen as improper, even shameful, especially if one was describing an emotional dependence with the socially inferior, which is what these relationships were between rich patrons and the young opera singers who worked at these places.”

Ultimately, “Décadence” does not clear up confusion over whether anything Backhouse wrote was believable.

“It’s not an easy book to classify,” Mr. Sandhaus admitted. “Is it autobiography, fiction or non-fiction?”

The same question could be asked of most of Backhouse’s work. When he was writing, there was little information about China available in the West. Backhouse, who was fluent in Mandarin, Manchurian, Mongolian and Japanese, had a certain amount of clout — and it was almost impossible for his readers to verify his claims.

The critical modern reader would probably see “Décadence” as a fictionized memoir, with accurate details drawn from real life, but an outrageous plot. Backhouse knew full well European stereotypes of China — as an exotic, and erotic, fantasy world of empresses and opium smoke — and he gave his readers exactly what they wanted.

“Why were Westerners so willing to believe these outrageous stories?” Mr. Hinsch said. “Would anyone believe a Chinese guy who said he went to England and had sex with Queen Victoria?”


A rather creepy pic (in my opinion) of the old guy:

Photo by S. Vargassoff, 1943. Copyright Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Zao Wou-ki: Chinese Master, Modern Brush

Here's a story that is out in today's (Friday's) IHT.
The Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-ki met his wife, May, during a trip to Hong Kong in 1958. Image from Archives Zao Wou-ki, Paris and de Sarthe Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU / International Herald Tribune-New York Times, Apr. 1, 2011

HONG KONG — As Chinese collectors continue to buy back their heritage, attention has turned to Zao Wou-ki, a 20th-century master who has lived in France since fleeing China the year before Mao’s 1949 revolution.

Part of the interest is driven by the rarity of Mr. Zao’s works. Now 90, he has long stopped producing new pieces, and most of his best paintings were purchased decades ago by Western collectors who have been loath to part with them.

Pascal de Sarthe, who has been dealing in Zao works for about 15 years, had to ask longtime clients for loans to cobble together 10 Zao paintings for the debut of his new gallery, de Sarthe Fine Art, in Hong Kong last month. The night before the opening, only three were left unsold.

“It’s nearly impossible for a gallery to put together a show like this,” said Mr. de Sarthe, a French-born dealer who was based in the United States before his recent move to Asia. “Demand is very strong. Once collectors have them, they keep them.” The show, “Zao Wou-ki Paintings: 1950s-1960s,” will be on view at the gallery through April 29.

More Zao works will be showcased at Sotheby’s spring sale in Hong Kong on April 4. Originally, the auction house was offering five paintings from what is referred to as Mr. Zao’s “Paul Klee period,” between 1950 and 1955, when Mr. Zao was greatly influenced by the works of the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. The paintings have been in the hands of a private American collection for a half-century. Sotheby’s recently announced that it had increased the offering to 13, including oils, ink-and-watercolor works and a lithograph print from European and Asian collections, as well as from the Redfern Gallery in London.

“He’s the only Chinese artist whose name you will find in books about Western modern art,” said David Clarke, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s department of fine arts. “He was one of the most significant figures in post-1945 European abstraction. Zao Wou-ki played a greater part in Western artistic modernism than any other Chinese artist.”

Mr. Zao’s combination of Western abstraction and Chinese elements, like calligraphic brush strokes, was unusual during that era. “Western artists of that time were looking to East Asian art and philosophy for inspiration, but Zao was able to draw on it more directly because of his cultural heritage,” Prof. Clarke said. “Artists in mainland China at that time could not even begin to experiment with international modernist styles, of course, but in Paris he was well-placed to do so.”

The de Sarthe show tracks Mr. Zao’s evolution through the 1950s and ’60s. Two of the earlier pieces, “Bateaux au Port” (1952) and “Corrida” (1953), are still clearly figurative, showing the sketched outlines of sailing ships and bullfighting. These are also from Mr. Zao’s “Klee period.”

Corrida, 1953. Image from de Sarthe Fine Arts.

Mr. de Sarthe has one of four known surviving paintings that Mr. Zao created on his 1958 trip to Hong Kong, then a British colony, marking his first return to a Chinese city since his departure in 1948. He did not set foot again in mainland China until 1972. The untitled canvas is covered in thick layers of red, from bright poppy shades to deep crimson. There are rough black marks that look like the primitive ideograms that would later form Chinese characters, though they are far from actual words. In the background, one might see the vague outline of the Middle Kingdom.

Untitled work from Zao's Hong Kong trip. Image from de Sarthe Fine Art.

Most of the pieces offered by Sotheby’s are also from the earlier part of Mr. Zao’s life.

Sylvie Chen, Sotheby’s senior director of 20th-century Chinese art, picked out “Nu et Tapis Jaune” (1953) as an example. According to Ms. Chen, who was speaking from Taipei during a traveling preview exhibition of Mr. Zao’s works there, the oil of a nude woman standing against a yellow carpet recalls a more realistic style he used when he was based in Hangzhou, before he left for France.

"Nu et Tapis Jaune" (1953). Image from Sotheby's Hong Kong.

“He revisited portraiture in his early years in Paris,” she said. “It is a very rare offering and it is the first time a work such as this has been seen at auction.” It is estimated at 2 million to 3.1 million Hong Kong dollars, or about $250,000 to $400,000.

Ms. Chen added that many of the sketches and smaller works that Mr. Zao created in China were later destroyed during the political turmoil of the 1960s, making earlier pieces scarcer still.

Other top-priced works include abstract landscapes: The shimmering, vertical “Pins Landais” (1955), inspired by the pines of the Landes region in southwest France, is estimated at 3.2 million to 4 million Hong Kong dollars. The autumn-hued “4.1.62” (1962) is the most expensive work on offer, estimated at 4 million to 6 million Hong Kong dollars.

“4.1.62” (1962). Image from Sotheby's Hong Kong.

According to Ms. Chen, Mr. Zao’s works only came onto the auction market in the 1990s, with more pieces becoming available around 2003.

“Zao’s early exhibitions were held in Europe and America, therefore the majority of his earlier works were bought by collectors there,” she said. “Asian buyers began to take an interest in the 1990s.”

“Generally speaking, collectors from Europe, America and Asia are more interested in his pre-1970 work, whereas newly emerging collectors from China seem more interested in the post-1970 period,” Ms. Chen said.

Last year, all 17 of the Zao works offered during Christie’s spring sales surpassed the auction house’s estimates, fetching a total of 323.3 million Hong Kong dollars.

The de Sarthe gallery joins a parade of new foreign-run galleries in Hong Kong’s Central district that specialize in blue-chip modern and contemporary artists. In the last year and a half, Ben Brown of London, Larry Gagosian of New York and Edouard Malingue of Paris have opened galleries. But de Sarthe is the first to open with a significant show by an Asian artist.

Mr. de Sarthe, whose next show will feature the glossy pop photography of David LaChapelle, said he did not distinguish between Western and Eastern artists. His goal, he said, was to bring top-end works that would otherwise be hard to find in Hong Kong.

“He was never prolific,” Mr. de Sarthe said of Mr. Zao. “There may be more Picassos in the market than Zaos.”

Sotheby’s 20th Century Chinese Art sale
takes place April 4; ‘‘Zao Wou-ki Paintings: 1950s-1960s’’ is at de Sarthe Fine Art through April 29.