Monday, February 27, 2012

Buddhism exhibit at new Asia Society center

The new center. All photos courtesy of the Asia Society Hong Kong

Asia Society center opens in Hong Kong
International Herald Tribune / The New York Times 
February 22, 2012

HONG KONG — Traffic was diverted and uniformed guards were on patrol as several hundred guests got a private preview of Asia Society’s fortress-like Hong Kong headquarters earlier this month.
Heads of government and culture made their way around the New York organization’s largest overseas outpost — a new compound that combines minimalist modern structures with a restored 19th-century British Army explosives magazine.
The 1.3-hectare, or 3.2-acre, space opened after a decade of planning and construction, with care taken to preserve both the colonial-era buildings and a long-neglected wooded area above a busy commercial district. A sleek walkway suspended over the tree canopy was designed to zigzag around an indigenous bat population. New glassed-in halls were set amid ancient banyan trees, their roots growing into stone walls.
Asia Society has long had overseas centers and offices — Hong Kong’s was the first to open in 1990 — but it has never before built a foreign facility of this size or significance. The building in Hong Kong, and another new facility in Houston, which is scheduled to open this spring, each cost about $50 million.
“It allows for a kind of pan-Asian discussion,” said Melissa Chiu, Asia Society’s museum director, who had flown in from New York. “We’re looking for a sort of parity, with New York and Hong Kong as our two major hubs. It signals a new chapter in building new partnerships between the U.S. and Asia.”
Dr. Melissa Chiu

Last weekend the center staged the premiere of a commissioned work by the Hong Kong composer Aenon Loo, accompanied by a video by Silas Fong, a local artist.
The opening exhibition is “Transforming Minds: Buddhism in Art,” a modest but well-curated show tracing the religion’s past and present. It matches 13 artifacts from the Rockefeller Collection of Asian Art with six contemporary works.
The pieces, which range from a pair of marble Chinese bodhisattvas from 570 A.D. to an 18th-century Korean scroll, were chosen to track the evolution of Buddhism and, in particular, how its symbols and beliefs crossed cultural and national boundaries.
One gem is a deceptively simple 8th-century Thai bronze sculpture of Maitreya, a young bodhisattva chosen to become a future Buddha. It shows a boyish, almost pre-adolescent slender figure with the elegance of a young David.
“This work is of perfect proportions,” said Alice Wong, a gallery official. “It strikes the perfect balance of showing a body that is both in action and at rest.”
 Two views of the Thai sculpture. A kind, and knowledgeable, reader notified me that the sculptor was probably Khmer.

The most beautiful face in the exhibition is carved of volcanic rock and belongs, unfortunately, to one of the many Buddhist sculptures that had their heads or hands hacked off long ago, probably by invaders or looters. What is left of this 9th-century Indonesian work reflects an Asian ideal — a serene round face, closed lotus-petal-shaped eyes, voluptuous nose and lips, and long earlobes.
A favorite among visitors was “Amida Nyorai,” a delicate Japanese cypress wood carving from the 13th century with a hint of gold plating on the draped robes and light-colored crystals decorating Buddha’s head. Most arresting were the black crystals beneath his heavy lids. They were hard to see clearly at first, but when they caught the light, they gave off the liquid luminosity of real eyes.
“This is the first time that this very rare work has traveled outside New York since it became part of the collection,” Ms. Wong said. “It is also very fragile because it is hollow, and might have once been full of relics. The staff holding it broke out in a sweat, literally, when they unpacked it and set it down here.”
The Buddha’s relative small size and light weight meant it was probably moved from place to place. “War was raging through Japan at the time,” Ms. Wong said. “Perhaps this Buddha was the last thing shoguns saw as they awaited death.” 

 The Japanese Buddha is in the foreground.

“Transforming Minds” is unusual in its mix of old and new religious works.
The contemporary installations, though set off at a respectful distance, were shown in the same spaces as the artifacts.
The Chinese artist Zhang Huan created two rather eerie Buddha heads from ashes left over from the burning of incense at a Shanghai temple. The former New York resident also made the “Long Island Buddha,” looking much like a giant copper head that had fallen from the sky and sunk halfway into the ground, that is displayed in an outdoor courtyard. 

"Long Island Buddha"

“Lotus Sound,” by the Thai artist Montien Boonma (1953-2000), casts back to early Buddhism, when Buddha was often represented by a simple symbol, like a hand or a tree, instead of a human figure.
Here, he used everyday objects: lotus petals covered in gold leaf float above 473 black terra cotta bells arranged in a semicircular wall. The bells were glued together for this show, but they were not for the original installations in the 1990s, when they were stacked precariously to symbolize man’s fragility.
“When it was shown in Brisbane, someone really did touch it and made it topple over,” said Dominique Chan, the assistant gallery manager. “Boonma, a former Thai monk, was not bothered. His view was, ‘if it falls over, we’ll rebuild it.”’ 

"Lotus Sound"

The strongest contemporary work was the only one to use an ancient artifact. For “Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space Baby),” the Korean-American artist Michael Joo took a regal 2nd- or 3rd-century Gandharan Buddha from the Rockefeller collection and surrounded its head with a halo of 50 surveillance cameras. The sculpture, from what is now a region of the India-Pakistan border, is set in a large, dark room lined with more than 90 mirrors and 10 TV screens. The Buddha’s handsome face, clouded by wires, lenses and cables, is only clearly seen when it flashes on the monitors. Visitors are confronted with endless reflections of themselves juxtaposed with images of the Buddha, breaking down the barrier between the worshiper and the worshiped. 

 “Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space Baby)”
“On one hand, we focus on new scholarship in the traditional arts. On the other hand, we’re seeking cutting-edge ideas about the contemporary arts. And sometimes, we do that in the same show,” said Ms. Chiu, who curated the exhibition. “Some may see contemporary art as a disruption from the past; but it can also have a connection to the past.”
Wong Chiu-chan, a Hong Kong resident, attended one of the first public tours of the galleries and seemed to prefer the historic artifacts. “It’s not often that you see such a collection of fine pieces here in Hong Kong,” he said.
Images of Buddha are not often controversial, but there are sensitivities about whether he is portrayed respectfully.
Although he said he was not particularly religious, Mr. Wong was unsettled by Mr. Joo’s digitized work.
“It makes me feel uncomfortable to see the Buddha’s face obstructed by wires and television cameras,” he said.
Asia Society in New York is not known for backing away from debate, and its Web site includes criticism on topics like Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate who is currently jailed in China.
“I curated a show on the Cultural Revolution in 2008, and we recently showed 200 photos by Ai Weiwei,” Ms. Chiu said, referring to the Chinese artist who was detained for more than two months last year. “We’ve never shied away from topical subjects. But I do believe that, while operating in different environments, you have to be culturally sensitive.”
“So far,” she said, “we haven’t had any issues in Hong Kong. It’s a very open community.”
“Transforming Minds: Buddhism in Art.” Asia Society Hong Kong Center, 9 Justice Dr., Admiralty, Until May 20.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Michelle Yeoh in "The Lady"

Back at work, just in time to write for the new I.H.T.  blog, Rendezvous, which I rather like. I'm glad the paper is doing more stuff in blog form.
Here's my first piece for them.Sorry for the late posting -- the first few weeks of being a full-time working mom have been a bit crazy.

Photo by Kin Cheung / The Associated Press
February 8, 2012, 9:34 pm

Perfect Timing for ‘The Lady’

HONG KONG — There’s one thing you can say about the Asian release of “The Lady,” the new film about Aung San Suu Kyi — they got the timing right.
The film, which chronicles the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s decades-long struggle with the Myanmar junta, opened in Hong Kong on Thursday, three days after my colleague Steven Lee Myers reported that the authorities would allow her to run for Parliament in April elections.
The Asian run for “The Lady” comes after showings on the festival circuit and a limited release in the West. The film is expected to draw greater attention in this region, of course, where the news is closer to home.
The early Twitter response from viewers in Thailand has been nearly euphoric.
The actress Michelle Yeoh and the director Luc Besson started their Asia publicity tour with an event last week in Bangkok, joined by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. “The Lady” was filmed largely in Thailand, near the Myanmar border, since the crew was not allowed into the country. Reuters reported, however, that some of the scenes were shot secretly inside Myanmar by pro-democracy activists.
In Hong Kong, Ms. Yeoh and Mr. Besson held a news conference before attending a fundraiser for Amnesty International last Friday. It was pretty glamorous stuff for a human rights event, with Champagne and women in fur stoles.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Ms. Yeoh, the Malaysian-born star who began her movie career in Hong Kong action films. She addressed journalists in Cantonese and English, peppered with bits of Burmese she had learned for the film.
“This was the role of a lifetime,” she said.

The trailer for “The Lady,” a new film about the Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
When filming began in 2010, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was still under arrest — she spent most of the last two decades in prison or under house arrest — but her detention order was lifted while the movie was being shot. Only recently has the new government in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, initiated a series of democratic reforms such as the release of hundreds of political prisoners, including members of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party.
“We had no sign that she would get out,” Mr. Besson said.
On the set in Thailand, the film crew built a replica of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, complete with its signature red gates.
“One day, we were shooting Michelle at the red door, waiting for her people,” Mr. Besson said. “Then I went back to the hotel and saw the same thing. I thought, ‘Who stole my footage?’ It took me a minute to realize it was CNN.”
“Kim was with us at the time,” Ms. Yeoh said, referring to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s younger son. “He hadn’t seen his mum for years. We were like a little family gone mad.”
Ms. Yeoh met Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon in December 2010, but she was blocked from entering Myanmar during a trip there in June of last year.
“The Lady” is expected to hit more U.S. screens in the spring. It will be released in Singapore and Taiwan in March, though there is no word on whether it will be shown in mainland China, a close political and economic ally of Myanmar. Not unexpectedly, the film is banned in Myanmar.
When a Hong Kong journalist asked about rumors that the pirated DVD version was already available in Myanmar, Mr. Besson responded that that would be “excellent news.”
“Anywhere in the world where they don’t have access to cinema, I’m happy about this,” he added, referring to pirated videos. “I’d be happy if Burma broke all the records for piracy.”
“You look pretty free to me,” Mr. Besson said when asked about the state of democracy in Hong Kong. “You’ve got your crazy hairdos. You all have TVs, Internet, phones, iPads. You know what freedom is.
“I was in Burma a year ago, and if you had the Herald Tribune in your arm, you’d go to jail. Enjoy your freedom.”

Monday, February 20, 2012

Any Tokyo-based freelancers out there...

... with excellent written English and travel writing experience looking for work?
Drop me a line. Actually, drop me a cv.
Sorry for the lack of details. It's a job I heard about through the grapevine, though I don't think it's been publicly posted yet, so I don't want to say too much. But I can put you in contact with my contact.

Monday, February 13, 2012

I.H.T. job opening

A little inside scoop -- it seems like we're hiring more editors in the Hong Kong office. Like right this minute.
Since the job has been posted publicly, you can just go here for details. The official contact is
Feel free to contact me if you questions about what it's like to work here.
But if you're a total stranger and just want to apply, please send your formal application to the above address. As I've said before, I have nothing to do with hiring. I'm just a particularly helpful person when it comes to fellow journalists.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Strange confluences of my life

After five months of maternity leave, I went back to work last week. And, like many new working moms, I feel like I inhabit two worlds.
My experience might be more extreme, because of the negative nature of most news. So, after almost half a year of thinking about positive things -- cute babies, stuffed animals, playground visits  -- I'm  spending eight hours a day reading about war, famine, debt and political infighting.
Chloe is happiest early in the day, when I go get her out of her crib.  I feed her, change her and play with her before the helper arrives and I start my own day. I love my mornings with her.
Then I go to work and worry about which rebel group is staging an attack where, whether people have decided to set themselves fire, or how many people have frozen to death in Europe.
After that, I go home and listen to nursery rhymes. (Even when the music is off, they are stuck in my head, and I find myself humming "Fre-re Jac-ques, Fre-re Jac-ques" or the "ABC" song incessantly).
This is how my brain is operating: Republican primary. Winky Tinky, the gay Teletubby. Fighting in Syria. Pureed peas vs. apple sauce. Upcoming Myanmar elections. Bedtime story book choice.
The other day, I was surfing through the wire photos and thought, "You know what? President Bashar al-Assad of Syria looks kinda like Bert from Sesame Street. Or, maybe like Beaker from the Muppets."
That's when I take a little break to clear my head.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Kind Hong Kongers, Idiot Friend

Actually, my friend is no idiot. But he's been absentminded recently. And he doesn't even have the excuse of having just had a baby.
Several weeks ago, I got a call from his mobile, and was surprised to hear the voice of an elderly  man. It turns out my friend dropped his cellphone in a Mongkok mall. A kindly security guard picked it up, smartly called the last number called, and found me. Since I live (kinda) in the area, I went to pick his cellphone up for him. The security guard could easily have pocketed it and resold it.
Then this same friend left his backpack in a Discovery Bay Pacific Coffee Co. He got on the ferry before he realized what had happened. So he had to go all the way to Central and then wait for the return boat. When he called PCC to look for it, he got connected to another branch (how many PCCs are there in Disco Bay?) The waitress was so nice, she actually walked  to the other branch, located his bag, and returned to tell him it was there. All his possessions were there when he returned -- nothing stolen.
I love New York City. But -- let's be honest -- there's no chance that strangers would return phones and wallets with the same frequency that they do in Hong Kong. I still remember the time I asked a friend to hold my bag  at a Starbuck's on the Upper East Side while I went to the toilet. When I got back, a whole bunch of people had their stuff stolen in a hold-up. The police arrived late, took a few notes, but never did anything.
Of course, things get stolen in Hong Kong, too. Several years ago, I had my wallet taken out of my purse on Christmas Eve in a packed CitySuper in IFC. Though that was also my stupidity -- I left my bag wide open on an unwatched trolley in a crowd of people who were suspiciously hanging out in the supermarket with no groceries in hand. So, yeah. The honesty of Hong Kong people sometimes makes us complacent. (I'm much more careful with my possessions when I'm overseas. I get a little lazy here).
Still, for every bad incident I've had in Hong Kong, I can name a half-dozen good ones. Twice, I've had bags or wallets turned into a police station after I'd left them behind -- once in a taxi, once in a cha chaan teng.
For those outside Hong Kong (or inside), what's it like in your city?
In particular, I've been hearing specifically about Apple-related thievery. Two friends had iPhones stolen at airports in China. One friend had a MacBook taken out of his bag in Hong Kong. (He also said that the thief managed to go to the IFC Apple shop and have the thing repaired and wiped clean -- and he's pretty upset about what he calls their lack of security, since the MacBook was registered under his name, and the staff didn't bother asking for ID. But that's a tale for another blog post).
My phone-losing, bag-abandoning friend should really try to get more sleep before he loses something else... If there's one element that seems to link all Hong Kongers, it's that everyone seems to be perpetually tired.