Monday, May 30, 2011

A Week in the Life

Getting My Act Together

Wow, there's so little to tell after just a week. A lot of my time has been spent prepping the last of my Watson plans. I'm incredulous at the idea that there are only two months left and then I'll be back in the US after 13 months of exile.

Unfortunately I waited minutes too long to buy my ticket back to America. The prices suddenly doubled as you can see from the screen capture below. But most fortunately, it looks like I will coast out of the Watson having spent exactly the amount I was allotted. That's good because it would be too painful to be underbudget and have to give the money back.

I'm also working on the back and forth of attempting to go to Tibet. I originally thought I might return to Kyoto. Then the possibility of seeing a new place and the ever-alluring promise of altitude sickness tempted me to move inland. But just today I've discovered that Tibet is closed. There are expected protests in late June/early July and the Chinese government doesn't want foreigners witnessing unrest, so I may end up going back to Japan after all. It's all up in the air. But I'm all for the suspense and random changes in plans. It usually leads to exciting adventures.

A Previous Engagement

Last Saturday I went to two concerts. The first was in the afternoon and featured solos by the "young musicians" of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. They were all amazing virtuosos on their instruments and I managed to speak with three of them after the show. Two replied that they did this because they were good at it. It was a job, not who they were. The third, who was the only one who spoke Chinese with me, was very different. The best way I can describe her is "eagerly alive." When she talked about why she played music, an aura of passion radiated from her. I know it sounds all mimsy pimsy to say things like radiating an aura of passion, but even just reminiscing about being in her presence forces me into using such language. It was obvious that she did this because she loves the music, the culture, the history, and her role within it. We were getting along very well and she invited me to go to dinner with her afterward. I winced and she felt badly like she had totally overestimated the level to which we were getting along. I tried to explain, "No, it's just I have a. . a. . a. . a previous engagement." I didn't want to tell her that I was going to see a Maroon 5 concert since she had just bashed popular and rock music, but this covering of the truth came off as just generally deceptive. She thought I was lying to get out of eating with her. I tried to convince her otherwise, but she looked seriously bummed. I took down her email address, promised to arrange a meeting with her later, and headed off to see Maroon 5 with Tree's sister's ex-boyfriend, Jafi.

Jafi studied in England so his English is excellent. He's a classic fool for the ladies. He waited a year between high school and college for a girl. Then they broke up. After graduating university, he waited another year in England for Tree's sister, Mandy. He put his economics degree to good use, making his living performing diablo and Chinese juggling sticks for primary schools. Then he and Mandy too broke up. I asked him what he wanted to do next, and he said go to Japan. Why Japan? Japanese girls. . .

We met his friends (all female, of course) at the concert, the ticket for which cost more than all of my other concert tickets in Asia combined. I justified this by claiming that contrasting Westerner pop concerts in Asia with traditional concerts was necessary to get the full picture. Despite the pain in my wallet we had a blast mocking the crazy antics of the other concert goers juxtaposed with somber-faced security guards wearing red berets. Maybe it was just my sobriety amidst the boozed up fans, but it seemed like everyone else was dancing especially idiotically. I joined in, mocking them at first, but at some point my "dancing" became sincere.

The Marooned 5: Walking After Midnight

After the concert Jafi, his three friends and I went to eat at an area by his house and I tried a few local dishes which were supposedly spicy, but nothing in Hong Kong so far has seemed spicy after Singapore, though I've been told I might be getting the white man treatment. Damn you traveling Minnesotans ruining white-spice-tolerance reputations abroad!

After eating and chatting I tried to head home but the MTR, the subway, was already closed. I talked with an attendant for awhile and tried to figure out how to walk home. Hong Kong is totally walkable. It's a small place, but I keep accidentally taking really circuitous routes everywhere. This doesn't bother me because I have plenty of time and every time I walk from my apartment to the station I encounter new food stands and sights. But when it's after midnight and you are tired and afraid of being attacked by the Triad, it's kind of an issue. I kept walking past groups of Indian men who would silence their talk as I approached, eye me menacingly, and then burst out laughing after I passed. This happened at least 6 times. It was all thoroughly creepy as I thought about how long it would be before anyone realized I had been captured, tortured, and murdered. After 2 hours I finally found my way home and I now finally know the area. I'm saving so much time now! If only I had somewhere to rush off to. . .

Linguistic Barriers

This sign, especially with the picture, makes me think that cars should be afraid of pedestrians with superpowers and not the other way around. But I'm new here. Maybe that's the way they do in HK.

When I get food it's super awkward to guess which language to speak. People usually understand Mandarin, but depending on their age they may have been well educated in English. People educated before the British handover know English well. Then Mandarin became more important in education. Young people typically know English, but the ones who work in restaurants typically aren't very studious. I haven't copped out and gone to McDonalds (although for the first time I'm tempted because a value meal there is sometimes cheaper than food at more authentic places) but if a restaurant is called Tastes of Taiwan, Shanghai, or Beijing then I eat there knowing that they'll speak Mandarin. But this means I'm missing out on Cantonese cuisine!

Hong Kongers are the fattest Asians I've seen. I suppose it's possible they were subject to British rule for too long, But I prefer to think that Cantonese food must be awesome. Delicious things I've tried have included pan-fried noodles, rice noodles (河粉), seafood soups, deep fried fish balls, and congee (rice porridge) with a century egg for protein. All of the flavours [sic] of sauces are all vaguely familiar too, because Cantonese stuff it is usually the authentic variation of the food in American Chinese restaurants. It's like I'm tasting the real food instead of the shadow cast on the cave walls. Pictured above is another odd combo of a traditional junk for tourist in front of very modern skyscrapers.

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra: Blown out of Proportion

After getting a taste for the HKCO at the last Chinese concert (figuratively, not literally, I'm not a zombie!), I finally saw the full ensemble. I snapped this bad photo right of the empty stage right before being yelled at. Enjoy. On the floor of the stage, to the left of the blurry person, you can see the gehus. The HKCO instrumentation is very different than the orchestras of Singapore or Taiwan. Each of the three sections is made up of different variations of the same instrument family. This seems to be in an effort to create a theoretically elegant ensemble, but it loses something in the nitty gritty of reality.

For the bowed instruments, they have tried to emulate the string section of a Western orchestra. They use the entire huqin family for this. So for first violin they use gaohu, the screechy, higher-pitched cousin of the erhu which fits better as an occasional solo by the lead erhu player (like a picolo to a flute player) than as an entire section for the strings. The second violins are the erhu. The violas are the zhonghu and the cellos are gehus (an instrument with which I have previously expressed my beef). Finally they use the bigger version of the gehu, the diyingehu(低音革胡) as a double bass.

One interesting thing to note is that the HKCO has gone ecofriendly and no longer allows any of their instuments to be made of snake skin. They say they have found a synthetic substance that is just as good. I think it's great that they no longer have to kill a couple dozen pythons to make gehus, but I did notice that a few of their drums used by the percussionists looked like they were still made of snake skin. And after hearing the result, I think they have let their ideals lead them away from something that creates a better sound.

The plucked section had the entire ruan family. Of course there was the typical zhong ruan and da ruan but they also opted for the seldom used xiao (little) ruan instead of the much superior liuqin. There were also pipas, two guzheng (zithers) and two yangqin (hammered dulcimers), and one of the gaohu players jumped up from her seat for one piece to play a miked guqin.

Their wind section was truly bizarre. There were soprano, alto, tenor, and bass versions of both suona (Chinese oboe/trumpet) and guanzi (a double reed instrument with a short tube body). I'd never seen these variations before.

There were also three different types of flutes: bangdi (which I think should only used in operas because they‘re so shrill), qudi, and the xindi. Sometimes the xindi had problems blending when it played with the other flutes which I guess had something to do with its being the only flute without a bamboo membrane.

Finally there were the typical variations of sheng, which are the uber cool free reed mouth organs, pictured below.

Overall the concert was fine. There were old favorites and new compositions. It was the first time I'd seen gender neutral uniforms for any orchestra. The audience were small and old and nervously tried to help translate things the conductor said before I assured them that I could understand the guy's slow, deliberate speech. But to be honest, the HKCO was not up to the standard I expected. I know they are all excellent musicians, and there were terrific solos on the concertos: erhu, oboe, and violin, but the instrumentation of the orchestra is not as successful as I've seen elsewhere. I think a large amount of this had to do with the synthetic snakeskin instruments. They sounded too smooth, a little Western even, and this upset the balance of the compositions. And when the full, overly bloated wind section played, it totally blocks out the string section.

Walking on Waterfront

Later, while walking along the harbor front and enjoying a fish cake that I hoped wasn't made from a fish caught in the polluted Victoria Harbour whose vistas I was enjoying, I happened upon a middle school wind ensemble playing outdoors. They played stuff I played in high school. They were realllllly good. Way better than the cuddlefish cake.

My daily life in Hong Kong is maybe the best it's been anywhere. With the exception of how expensive everything is, stuff is also convenient. There are beautiful beaches, parks named after dead white people, delicious moderately spicy food, and plenty of concerts to see. I'm even going to suffer through some Chinese operas to see if I can acquire a taste for them.

It turns out that the Avenue of Stars is actually named after the celebrity hand prints in the sidewalk further down the avenue than I originally traveled. Don't tell my granny since it's bad luck, but I copied all of the other tourists and spent a happy hour comparing my hand size to famous celebrities like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Chow Yun Fat. Is this what people do in Hollywood outside of Grauman's Chinese Theater?

Hmm. . . I claimed to have little to report but this blog post has grown so long. Maybe I'm only capable of posting long blog posts and this more frequent method of blogging only waters down the content. Any strong feeling either way, faithful blog readers?


  1. Oh, like you Wisconsinites are known for your spicy cuisine.

  2. Not as humorous as some of your postings from the past but informative. Walking home alone at night sounds daunting and dangerous.
    I have found a place in Madison that serves bubble tea : )