Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve

While the illegal smoky noisy New Year's fireworks slowly begin, like a thunderstorm building off in the distance, scaring the catshit out of The Yellow Emperor, I watch a Netflix-acquired DVD, Mysterious China: Holy Mountain, a spiritual travelogue I stumbled across in my recent queue update, about Wudangshan and Taoism.  It's like watching Hawaii 5-0. (I guess; I never do that, really.)  But Wudang... Hey, I know that temple, I've been on that peak, up those stairs.That's the tea shop...the medicine shop! I've hugged that hermit, and he's hugged me.  (I broke his chair and he gave me dates.) The video convinces me that the one Taoist art I really would like to acquire is Tai Chi sword.  You see women doing that a lot.  Why might that be?

Peppered with a lot of elegant Wudang Taoist qigong and kungfu performances in exquisite settings, the video ends with an astonishing display of contortion by an attractive guy who looks just like Nicholas Tse doing things with his joints and feet that seem impossible and un-Taoist-ly unnatural, but suggesting that Chinese acrobatics started on Wudang Mountain.  Forget that head-butting brick-breaking karate-style stuff the Shaolin guys do; can you put your right foot behind your left ear while balancing on your index fingers?

But I shouldn't be so callous.  I am inspired to return to Wudang. As the video concludes,  "Once you have been exposed the magic of Wudang Mountain and immersed yourself in The Way, the spirit of Taoism will stay in your heart forever."

In the meantime, I return to episode 39 of 51 of Emperor of the Sea and fantasize about a little sword play with Song Il-guk as Yum Moon (at this point in the drama named Yum Jang...but still Yummy).  Not a bad way to spend New Year's Eve.
Yum Whoever

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve 2011

I should be wrapping presents, but I've gotten lost in updating of my Netflix queue.  Despite the furor over the DVD/streaming cost differentials and changes, it's still a pretty cool service. I never had Netflix until I got my iPad, which came preloaded with the App.  I didn't find a lot to add to my queue among the new releases, but the Chinese region offerings are overwhelming, both DVD and streaming.

I put a Wudangshan documentary in the queue, then I realized I'd gone over the edge when this screamed "Queue me, queue me!":

Star Appeal...Chinese filmmaker Cui Zien directs this gay-themed sci-fi drama about Xiao Bo, a bisexual man who discovers a stranger by the roadside, naked and claiming to be from Mars.  In Mandarin.

It's only got a 1.7 member rating, about as low as I've seen, but really, how can I pass it up?  I've never seen a Chinese gay-themed sci-fi movie.  I think I have to move this one up to No. 1.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Spirit?

I think I'm beginning to get it!

Kim Jong-il
I always thought white was the color for funereal things in Asia, but I guess the North Koreans see it more like a wedding?  Oh's that Communist Red.

Looks like a sleeping Santa!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fried Fast Food on a Full Moon

Not a good idea!  I should know better -- I do know better -- but something about the holiday season makes judgement fly out the window like a lot of reindeer on a mission, driven by a rotund guy in a funny hat shouldering a big bag of Jack in the Box...and I don't mean the archaic toys. My digestion last night was eclipsed even more profoundly than the actual eclipse of the night before, of which I did manage to catch the waning portion at 4:30 a.m.  It can't be that cold if I can stand naked on the lanai in the moonlight without shivering, although I didn't linger that long.

Last night I should have left my warm bed to sit upright while contemplating the full moon, trying a Moon Cream Meditation that was demonstrated last spring in Wudang, but I was tormented restless with excess stomach acid and vivid dreams, if I really was asleep, of Dickensian England and medieval Korea.  I'd just finished the 8th and final episode of Bleak House, Dickens's tale of an interminable lawsuit which pretty much consumes all the plaintiffs up to the point where the final will is discovered.  Simultaneously discovered is that the lawyers have consumed the estate, so there's nothing left to distribute anyway. The adaptation does have a positive, if not completely happy, ending (and reminds me that there is one last element in my father's estate, latent over five years, which could possibly pay for a trip to China...Resolution for Year of Dragon: must call lawyer.)  I don't think I could have endured actually reading Bleak House; the screenplay with the marvelous late Denholm Elliot and Diana Rigg, was compelling and sufficient, though I could tell there was probably a lot left out in the 8-hour 1985 BBC rendering: quantity, if not quality. (Dickens was a paid-by-the-word writer...where do I get a gig like that?) 

I thought I might try another piece from the BBC collection, but The Pickwick Papers failed to grab me; I succumbed to revisiting a favorite Korean drama, Emperor of the Sea.  I needed a Song Il-guk fix and though he doesn't appear until the fourth Korean hour of the 51-episode drama, when he does, it's worth it.  Just as savvy as Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow, but more sinister, and less Keith Richards grubby, not BBC but KBS, the Pirate of the Yellow Sea may see me through the holidays, even though a new Korean Drama, a birthday present, waits to be opened up.

Song Il-guk as the delectable Yum Moon
How ironic to recall on this morning after serious lunar events and indigestion that SIG's character is named Yum Moon!

Monday, December 05, 2011

They Say It's Your Birthday

And it came and went, with a little help from my friends.  Although that's probably the wrong song.  This is the right one. This is the first birthday I have experienced where I have not prematurely rounded up my age to get used to it, to exploit it, in the coming year.  No, this one was a little more hesitant, the year of rabbit can continue a little longer for me before the dragon arrives; then I will acknowledge reality.  I celebrated less than I contemplated the aging process.  Birthdays are milestones, but meaningless really, except in that they give an opportunity to review one's progress and destiny.  Are we older AND wiser?  If the Taoist is actually returning to childlike innocence, immortal fetuses and all that, I only hope I can achieve it while maintaining control of bladder and bowels.

I spent my day in a fog, really, getting ready for acquisition of the Christmas tree -- my actual birthday present.  As I predicted, this year we scored a perfectly satisficing one in less than three minutes at the lot at Ala Moana Shopping Center.  These are not decisions that should require agonizing dithering. The next decision was equally easy: an party-of-two afternoon in both of our downtown Irish pubs, literally across the street from one another.

The day after the day, I tested my new all-region DVD player which failed to play my gift from my friendly Chinatown DVD vendor, Andy Lau's Future X-Cops, (what was she thinking?) which seems to coded be for a region beyond the Milky Way.  Perhaps just as well: I was bleary-eyed after finally completing Jewel in the Palace, a popular Korean drama about cooking and medicine, with some restrained romantic and political intrigue with an uncharacteristically happy ending.  My own trusty laptop has suffered--I hope sustained--a logic board failure, so I was using the Wizard's older one to access  His Mac drops signals and has some display issues, but I finally can say I have enjoyed this 54-episode classic of K-D. (That's 54 Korean hours, which are just about 60 minutes, more or less.) Since starting it some months ago, I see by my own reckoning, I have watched at least 40 other films and several Chinese series. Why can't I speak fluent Mandarin yet?  But the DVD player did let me enjoy a strange double feature:  The Magic Blade, a 1976 Shaw Brothers classic, and Chen Kaige's Together.  Still I can't get the haunting theme from Jewel in the Palace out of my mind.  Here is the same theme, in the "sad" mode.

I don't know why anyone would waste time with reality TV or the sitcom trash available on your standard cable lineup, when you could enjoy this:

Handsome and beautiful characters, engaging plots, scenery, costumes and soundtracks.  And that's just the historical stuff!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

March on Washington

Despite a very full schedule of conference presentations in Washington, I did manage to see some sights, some of which will never be seen again.

It was nearly a full moon my first evening in town.
Yeah, that little white speck in the middle right.  It was crisp and cool, with the smell and color of autumn leaves, something I hadn't experienced for a long time.  My cheeks were rosy and tingly. And dry. Still, a nice evening for a walkabout.

I strolled down to K Street, which was under occupation.

It all looked like any homeless campout in Hawaii, except for the creative take on the D.C. license plate (which actually reads "Taxation Without Representation."  I didn't know that.)  It all would have seemed utterly ordinary except for the police on watch.
I wanted to get close enough to photograph the really interesting thing, a police horse with a really huge head, patiently waiting in his van to be useful.  My friend R noted, "You wouldn't want THAT charging at you."  (Later, back at my hotel, I watched an episode of Frasier, in which he and Niles buy their Dad's beloved but pastured police mount as a birthday gift. It's sad.  They're both too old to do much of anything.)

Just below K street was the Treasury Department:
And the White House:
Everything was very benign.  It seemed like there should have
There could have been. But even the newspaper office was dark and quiet. There in the outdoor atrium, another monument to the obsolete: a Merganthaler Linotype that had been used to set most of the important hot-lead stories of the past.
I fingered the Linotype's "etaoin shrdlu" keyboard, which summoned a security guard out of the inner lobby. "Oh sorry, sorry," I said, "but this is SO cool."  "What is it?" she asked.  I wound up giving a little lecture on the history of printing and journalism, there in the outer lobby of the Washington Post, inspiring her to be even more protective of the artifact.  Oddly, when I emailed the photo of it back home to my husband, he told me he and our son had just an hour before been having a discussion about Linotypes.  The synchronicities of this trip were beginning to weird me out.
In its bizarre and complicated mechanical presence, I was thinking of the Linotype and the real freedom and power it represented in its time before offset printing, desktop publishing, email, blogs and Twitter. I once composed headlines on a Ludlow, its little letterpress cousin; I still have raw lead blocks and type I set from those days; I use them as paperweights to hold my Chinese painting paper in place on the table.
The Linotype was still on my mind the next day when I stumbled into the Laogai Museum, a little monument to the lack of a free press and expression, a sort of Chinese Holocaust Memorial.  (I've never been to that place, having grown up in a time all too aware of the Holocaust.  I don't need to see all the photos and shoes and eyeglasses to remember the horror.)  But the Laogai...I hope my Visa statement for a book I bought there doesn't hinder my visa application for my next China trip.  I probably should have paid cash.)
It took me two Harps to sober up at my new local on Dupont Circle where I also enjoyed some French onion soup and shepherd's pie.

If you get bored in Washington, there's something wrong with you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Marching Out of Atlanta

Three days of torture by Powerpoint in Atlanta was sufficient that I began to relate to General Sherman.
Burn This City...Now!
I don't know what he would have thought of ATL's big ants, but they certainly convinced me to march out of my hotel early, to get to the airport to make sure I didn't miss a delayed flight.
Sherman's Army Ants
Alas, no Red Carpet Club in Delta's hub. But I did find a nice R&B & fried chicken bar, albeit a little ersatz, owned by Budweiser, decorated with fascinating memorabilia of the early days of R&B and soul music. Sort of Hard Rock Cafe, but small and black and in an airport concourse. No ants, just record albums and flyers of Dinah Washington and Etta James performances and photos of blind Delta blues men. I was enchanted by the photo of a disc jockey who seemed to be watching me as I fortified myself with some meaty wings and brew for my pending foodless flight to D.C. (indirectly via Chicago).
Alley Pat
I thought the DJ might have been the bartender in earlier days; the bartender told me if it was him he'd own the place, not work there, and he told me the DJ's name which I promptly forgot. It's Alley Pat. I've learned a great deal of interesting stuff while tracking it down. Now pushing 90, he was one of the originals for WERD, the first African-American-owned and operated radio station in the country.

The bartender was friendly and talkative, and posed under Alley's picture for me.
Not Alley Pat
I arrived in D.C. very late with some of the leftover Atlanta wings for a snack, and then went to the hotel bar for a nightcap.  The bartender got me my G&T and then said, "Didn't you used to work at XYZ Corp. in Hawaii?" Why, was R, a great guy I worked with at XYZ more than 20 years ago.  Not someone I think about frequently, but remember fondly.  Curiously, I actually had been thinking of him just a few days before I left on this trip.  "Wonder what ever happened to R, where did he go?" And there he was.
My friend R
My G&T was on the house, and after R's shift ended, we went to the hotel bar next door and did serious damage to a couple bottles of fine chardonnay.  This answered my question, "What do bartenders do after they leave the bar?"  They go out for drinks.

And at least I was out of Atlanta and in the company of a friend.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hail Atlanta!**

Recently home from an exhausting business (with some pleasure) trip to the Mainland. It started out very mapped, laid out, itineraries through no less than seven major cities between Honolulu and Atlanta, but despite effortless packing and wrapping up of last minute details, I still felt as if on a treadmill, a little too lockstep for fun. Still, it was a beautiful flight east, with no seat mates, not even row mates. Flying away from the sunset, I caught the last glint of the day's sunlight on the port wing.  I  should mention it was Halloween.

Then the trick or treating began.  A departure delay due to "mechanical problems" put us in late at LAX, missing a connecting flight to Atlanta via Cleveland.  (The flight attendants wondered why I wasn't on the Houston to Atlanta run. "You should do that," they said.  From now on, I will book my flights through the cabin crew not based in Mumbai. ) A midnight to 5 a.m. hotel stay was arranged where I discovered hotels don't provide toothbrushes anymore.  Fuzzy teeth were bad enough, but the view out the window of one of those big L.A. industry billboards was more disturbing.  (We don't have signage like this in Hawaii.)

All night, I felt like I was being watched.  Even from a prone position in bed. Talk about peeping toms!

If it had to be a film star, why couldn't it have been this one?

I could have closed the drapes, but I was relying on the sun to wake me to get back to the airport where they had neglected to rebook me on the next flight out.  They had to handwrite a ticket!  Eventually, about 24 hours after I left Honolulu,  I arrived in Atlanta, all groggy and jet-lagged with bad breath and disoriented after a long walk from gate to baggage claim, past an endless display of somewhat disturbing sculptures by an artist from Zimbabwe.  I waited patiently --what else can one do?--with a bunch of people at a carousel that kept recirculating the same bags and no one was claiming any of them.  I had a nasty feeling my own bags had gone missing.  I looked up at the ceiling and experienced a truly Kafka-esque moment.

I'd been rerouted to Antlanta!  As if the hideous Zimbabwe bronzes weren't enough, these guys --at least 24 inches long, antenna to tail--formed a strange welcoming committee.  And I have confirmation that I was not hallucinating. Whose idea was this? Promoting Georgia red fire ants?  Just what a person after 24 hours in the air with missed connections and lost luggage needs to see.  Was it a promotion for a remake of Them?

My wayward luggage was eventually delivered to my Atlanta hotel, which also makes me wonder about yet another of the art installations at this curious airport.

This "piece," cleverly named "Samsonite," appears to commemorate the loss of luggage by travelers from all 50 states.  If I had had the presence of mind, I would have searched for the Hawaii license plate to photograph.  It reminds me of those charm bracelets composed of tiny enamel maps of all the states in the union. (I have one.)  But I just wanted to get away from those ants.

And this was just Day One.  

**I also wish I had had the presence of mind to have written the first comment on this Youtube link. I take the liberty to quote it here:
Atlanta was a city, landlocked, hundreds of miles from the area we now call the Atlantic Ocean, Yet so desperate the city's desire for tourism that they moved offshore, becoming an island and an even bigger Delta hub. Until the city over-developed and it started to sink. Knowing their fate, the quality people ran away, Ted Turner, Hank Aaron, Jeff Foxworthy, the guy who invented Coca-Cola, the magician and the other so-called gods of our legends. Though gods they were, also Jane Fonda was there.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How to Paint Obstinate Smelly Hairy Beast of Burden

One of my very early attempts at brush painting was this image, based on a black and white photograph from a very old book on China.
I'll Never Be Your Beast of Burden
Except for one person who thought it was a turkey, (who probably never has seen either a real camel or a turkey) most people like the painting very much. And actually, I like it a lot too, the camel and the coolie have a strange relationship, something like Bette Midler and Mick Jagger (click the caption link). Although now I look at it and see it is still very western watercolor style, not the technique taught in my new manual, "How to Paint Lifelike Camel," in Chinese, acquired via eBay from Shandong.  I was working from the manual today, and showed the Wizard some preliminary  camel studies.
The Singing Camels
"They don't look like camels," he said.  Then I showed him the manual. "They don't look like camels, either," he said.  "But they don't look like turkeys."  But I sorta think they do.

Camels and turkeys and ducks, also one of my favorite critters, actually have a lot in common.  They are irascible and walk funny. Like some of my favorite people.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why This?

I knew all these people are nuts, on both sides, but this pushed the camel lover in me over the edge.  Why sacrifice a camel to celebrate the victory?

I am reminded of an incident after Desert Storm (1990-91), when a Kuwaiti farmer was delighted at the return of his camel after the fighting stopped (then). His farming area in Kuwait had been declared a military zone by the invading Iraqis and some of the camels were frightened away.  But after five years, she came home to him.  He wrote a poem in praise of his camel's loyalty.  "Praise Allah," he said.  "CAmels are known for their loyalty, but this is a miracle."  And not only that, she was pregnant.

I wrote a little poem at the time to commemorate the camel's homecoming:
I had a little camel
She ran away from me
She returned a bigger camel
Soon we will be three.
Now I write:
You've overthrown Gaddaffi
This we plainly see
But I'd rather the ship of the desert
Trample over thee.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Brush and the Sword

I like this Chinese wolf brush.  It has a slightly warped bamboo handle with attractive etched calligraphy, it has lost its hanging loop (if it ever had one), but the bristles are strong.  Or what's left of them.  It was losing hair, probably through my neglect, but I injected a little super glue into the base,  probably not a very orthodox treatment, and it seems to have stabilized. Although now that I study more closely the calligraphy on its handle, I see it is a shan ma (mountain horse) brush, although not as stiff and dark as my others.  A mountain pony, perhaps.

I was thinking about this brush a lot as I watched Painter of the Wind, a Korean drama very very loosely based on the lives of Kim Hong-do and Shin Yun-bok, two important Korean painters of the 18th century.  To think I ever would have given a second thought--even a first thought--to Korean painters of the 18th century!  Getting hooked on Korean sa geuk has opened up whole new worlds beyond delight in the incredibly attractive, talented and teary actors who turn up in these things.

Painter of the Wind is about a young woman who has been disguised as a boy to be apprenticed in the imperial painting academy and her teacher who is strangely clueless (but puzzled) concerning her sexual identity, as is the giseang (geisha) who is the young painter's best...friend.  The plot has all kinds of gender identity overtones, and is complicated when the young painter is "sold" by her adoptive father to the man who also has "bought" her BGF and killed her father.  Like in wuxia, we have talented orphans seeking revenge with their weapons of choice. But here, the orphan wields a paintbrush, not the less mighty sword.  In real history, Shin Yun-bok was not a woman, but in the drama and history, his/her erotic paintings (by18th century standards) turned the Korean art world upside down, like a Joseon Mapplethorpe.

I have yet to determine if watching this while engaged in my new brush painting class with a Korean nun has informed my studies, although it was a pleasure to learn some things about making color, and watching the brush in action, a character in its own way, as much as the original paintings which drove the plot.  And I haven't seen such poignant unrequited sexual tension since Witness, the 1985 movie with Harrison Ford set in an Amish community.

I started watching Painter of the Wind with a set of DVDs I got a while back somewhere I don't remember, possibly from my Chinese video vendor, but more likely online on the cheap.  The set has dreadful nearly incomprehensible subtitles, and in the middle of the second of nine discs it simply failed.  But it is available on the awesome (please to excuse shameless promotion of commercial site) with far better subtitles.

Here's nice commentary about the series.  Not martial arts...just art, and completely captivating.

Painter of the Wind

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Finished the 40-episode TV version of Wing Chun with the ultra-attractive Nicholas Tse, an extended telling of the famous Prodigal Son movie, to which I have referred previously, mostly because of the enchanting kung fu calligraphy scene with Sammo Hung.  I don't have a lot to say about the series except that Sammo's son Sammy is fabulous, like an evil Donnie Yen, in a role like Al Pacino's in Scarface.  Nicholas Tse is very pretty to look at and probably added a lot of sex appeal for younger audiences (well, me too), but the original Prodigal Son actors, Lao Sammo and Yuen Biao, brought to the series some continuity from the past, and great elegance and credibility.
Sammo Hung, Nicholas Tse, Yuen Biao
 Of the genre, I probably would recommend Vincent Zhao's Master of Tai Chi series, but this was not a waste of time.  And it had a happy ending.

But what's with that big cucumber?  Pigua fist?  Pickle fist?
Deadly Cucumber Fist

Next on my viewing schedule was The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, something that turned up in my Netflix DVD queue. I don't remember selecting it. But... Tony Randall as a 7,000-year-old Chinese sage!  (Best role since the beatnik in Bell, Book, and Candle. Except that wasn't Tony Randall, it was Jack Lemmon.  IMDB is such a great resource.  But really, Jack Lemmon, Tony Randall, and even Peter Sellers...they're all the same.  Great!)

An MGM film from 1964 (the Wizard remembers it but I don't--ta shi lao, buguo, wo shi bu lao) this film, a strange combination of The Music Man, Seven Samurai, Godzilla and maybe Wall Street, is the best Tao-themed movie I think I've ever seen.  It would have been cool to have Bruce Lee playing Dr. Lao (or Lo, as the character calls himself, Canto-style), or even David, I take that back, Tony Randall was exquisite.  (Although apparently there was an idea that Peter Sellers should have done it...but really, Tony Randall is an American Peter Sellers. And Peter Sellers is an English Jack Lemmon.) The Grasshopper here was a cute little haole boy named Mike who received the sage's lesson.

Based on a novel, the film, a classic period American Western, is about evil landlords/developers/speculators and peasants; honest but lonely journalists and librarians; vain and stupid ordinary people; the idea that what's old is new; that ancient Chinese wisdom (and magic) prevails, and that the world has some sort of mythical continuity.  Oh, and redemption, although that apparently wasn't part of the novel.  Tony Randall plays not only the clever Chinese "fakir" (clearly Lao Tzu), but also Appolonius of Tyana, Merlin, the Medusa, the abominable snowman from the Himalayas, Pan, and a big talking snake. Dr. Lao/Lo keeps a pet fish in a bowl which, if exposed to air, turns into the Loch Ness Monster--a dragon really, but one that has to be appeased, or at least calmed and shrunk by a rainmaking machine, a device constructed of bamboo with fuses that need to be ignited with his long Chinese pipe.

In one scene, on the site of Dr. Lao's circus, the sage is fishing (anachronistically with a rod and spinning reel) in a totally dried-up creek bed.  The sceptical journalist there to interview him points out there's no water in the creek.  Dr. Lao (or perhaps Chuang Tzu) points out he's not using any bait.  Then he catches a really big fish.  "A tlout, a tlout!" he exclaims with delight.

Got Netflix?  Get this film. It's a delight.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I am willfully ignoring the 9/11 anniversary hoo-ha --what can I say really?-- by focusing more on the Chinese mid-autumn festival. It is the full moon!  It's that time again, I am eating White Rabbits (although no-one has given me any mooncakes) and practicing painting the Four Gentlemen: bamboo, orchids, chrysanthemums and plum flowers.

 I don't really enjoy doing these: it is exercise. (And actually, I did not do any orchids; they bore me.)

But I discover truth in something a qigong teacher told me in Wudang. The move you don't initially like or find difficult will become the one you are most proficient at if you practice.  I have begun to enjoy the plum blossoms!  Combining the wisdom of my Chinese master and my new Korean teacher, I painted some plum blossoms that I actually liked.

Have begun another Chinese TV series, from 2007, Wing Chun (aka Yong Chun) with the hot commodity, Nicholas Tse, very pretty with flirtatious mannerisms (and an unusual hawkish nose) that lead some to say he's not a very good actor.  In any case, the series (so far) really belongs to Yuen Biao, in a role with a dignified but powerful demeanor that makes me think of a Chinese Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore. (Ling ling qi?) And who else appears?  Sammo Hung, and Gordon Liu in a cameo.  The young Mr. Tse is adorable, as is Sammo Hung's son, Sammy, but this series is making me really appreciate the old guys.  Seasoned tofu, as my friend says.  Speaking of which, two of the characters, children of a noodle/tea shop owner, are actually named Bun (Xiao Mantou) and Tofu.  Bun is in love with Nicholas, Sammy is in love with Bun, Nicholas is in love with some ballet dancer who goes off to Hong Kong.  Nicholas and Sammy are inadvertent circumstantial enemies; perhaps it will work out. Nicholas's father, Yuen Biao, was the target of someone pulling Gordon Liu's strings, but they had a rapprochement in the middle of a serious fist fest. Perhaps Nic and Sammy will work it out too.  Seems to me Bun holds all the cards.

In the meantime, I contemplate the cover of the DVD set.  Nicholas Tse appears to be fending off a giant cucumber. I know nothing of deadly cucumber fist. (But I think I could paint a cucumber.) I have 30 episodes of 40 to go.  Anything could happen.  Bun could give everyone mooncakes.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I've been in a kind of wordless state the past few days, an in-between feeling, looking back on a few months of activity, engrossed mostly in reading and videos and Chinese language study. I am a little anxious because I am starting a new Chinese painting class this week, with a new teacher, a Korean nun whose style seems to be very different from that of my teacher of the past two-and-a-half years, a traditional Chinese bird and flower painter. It looks like she may be retiring; fortunately I have access to a new venue. But whether it is tai chi or wu shu or painting, we get attached to our teachers, our shifus. Eventually one of us moves on. The student feels humbled.
So feeling a little like Xue Rengui greeting his shifu in The Legendary Warrior, my latest Chinese series, based on a historical figure, I gather my energy to move on.

I didn't feel like painting today. I have no picture in my mind, and besides I've been reading about painting too much to focus on a particular subject, and I really don't even feel like writing. So I picked up a brush to try something different. Building on a few rudimentary lessons from my former teacher, I consulted a couple of fine textbooks on calligraphy and decided to jump into it.

Learning calligraphy is painting with no subject (although that's a stupid thing to say, really, a Chinese character is a picture, though practicing strokes is like practicing scales), writing with no words...learning it is like learning to dance. I remember my teacher's advice, I follow the 1,2,3, turn, press, and lift instructions in the book, and splatter and dribble like an uncoordinated moron. Over and over and over. Until eventually, I feel the rhythm of the brush stroke. I become one with the brush, and occasionally execute a stroke that looks almost acceptable. Never mind that there are many strokes to master, and characters are built up from them like a ballet. And then characters with characters to make a phrase or a poem. I practice the basic bone stroke*, the component of the characters for one, two, and three, recalling the fluid grace of the swordsman in Hero; the old monk who paints sutras on a wooden deck with his cat's tail in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring; Sammo Hung doing kung fu calligraphy in The Prodigal Son (go to 54:50 in the video), or the water painters on sidewalks I saw in Chinese parks:
Solo Running Script

Two-Handed Couplets
And I am still stuck on the simple bone stroke. "Practice, practice," my teacher says. "Slowly, slowly." For years and years.

*A quick search on this term yielded some hits I really wasn't looking for!!!

Monday, August 15, 2011

(This post was actually written a week ago--today is August 21. What is past? what is present?what is future?)
Since I spent some time in my office on Saturday putting last minute touches on a proposal due today, I took the opportunity to pretty much not do anything on Sunday. I passively time-traveled my way through Chinese history, finishing my current wuxia series and three movies that took me from Han China at the time of Cao Cao, to the birth of the Republican revolution in Hong Kong in 1906 to contemporary, post-modern Shanghai.

I'm not completely sure of the time frame of The Handsome Siblings, could be Song, could be Tang, but in the jianghu, the specific dynasty isn't important, it's just old and a little separate.
And irrelevant. In the middle of the last episode, I sent an email to my video vendor..."Do you have The Spirit of the Sword?" another series by the same author with Nicholas Tse. I have become accustomed to seeing him in films, but didn't know he did a lot of these longer TV series. Not unexpectedly, she did, and, "It's on sale!"

Donnie Yen didn't look bad (if a little short and pale) as Guan Yu, a classic general, bigger than life, from the Three Kingdoms Period in The Lost Bladesman. And he also played against his own standard in Beggars and Assassins, about a fictionalized (I think) attempt on the life of Sun Yat Sen in Hong Kong in 1906.

Alas, there was no swordplay or martial arts in Suzhou River--well, some beatings and a knifing--but what do you expect in contemporary Shanghai.

People sometimes comment about this passion/obsession of mine, the Chinese things. "You must have been Chinese in a past life," they say. But I think it may be the opposite. I'm studying to be Chinese in a future life. I wouldn't have fared well as a female in the Chinese past...none of the options are very appealing or a concubine, a bound-footed tai tai, a peasant, a servant.

The future for women in China looks better. (Assuming of course, I came back as a woman.) It is a truism that education is the key to improving women's status, giving them more options and control over their own social and economic lives. But some studies suggest it may be the one child policy that --despite its application in a society that favored boys--in the end is working to benefit girls (the ones who are born and kept anyway. I recently heard a depressing story about mothers in Pakistan, where policies against birth control keep a woman literally barefoot and pregnant against their will, in terrible poverty. And the face of African famine is usually overburdened women with several starving children. It's easy for us to say, why don't they stop having all these children, but cultural influences--religious values and patriarchy (patriarchal religious values)-- are working against them.

If there is time travel, or reincarnation, I hope I am prepared and aware. Perhaps I'll come back as my own granddaughter, (like Song Il-gook in Muhyul.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

One of my reader-commenters has observed that "it's time for a new post" which makes me feel something I haven't ever felt while writing these blogs: the pressure to deliver. I'm a one-time newspaper journalist, and now I manage valuable time-sensitive proposals, so I know about deadlines and time crunches and how to budget my time to get those things done. But I never have had that sense with the TAO 61s...until just now.

I never imagined that my ramblings about Spam and White Rabbit candy and hot Chinese martial artists and Korean swordsmen would result in anyone waiting for a next installment. So where are my ideas, my inspirations now? All awash in current events and global disasters, the heat and humidity of August dog days; writing, painting, working, cooking, all subsumed in a desire to just meditate.

So where do I find a topic? While other people are quaking and furious over everything China does (like preparing to launch a refurbished 30-year-old Ukrainian aircraft carrier or downgrading our credit or wrecking a train or harassing bloggers and artists), I look to China to find a good laugh. Here's one:

Tu and Mao

Perusing a reference book called Things Chinese, in the section that includes discussion of the elegant arts of landscape painting and calligraphy, inside-painted snuff bottles and thangkas (maybe not really a Chinese thing), I find a description of something I thought was just weird when I saw them for sale in Hangzhou: pyrographic renderings of Thumper (for Year of Rabbit/Tu) and Mao and other classic Chinese images like tigers and flying goddesses. I thought they were tacky and they reminded me of my cousin's woodburning set, which I coveted when I was 10 but was not allowed to have because I might do something pyrographic to the house. (Though I did have a small electric stove with which I could actually scramble eggs and bake cakes and burn myself.) These scorched pictures are called "poker work" (huobihua), a technique that Things Chinese says dates to the 17th century. The Chinese invented woodburning sets!

If that isn't amusing enough, I've been watching a lot of old Chinese movies in between marathon sessions with a 30-hour-long series, The Handsome Siblings, typical wuxia with orphaned and estranged (and attractive) twins and their goofy sidekicks (who knew Mr. Evil, Elvis Tsui, could be so FUNNY). It features the ethereal Nicholas Tse and the plucky Dicky Cheung (of Monkey King fame) in a romp through the Song Dynasty which, inexplicably, occasionally includes musical interludes of breakdancing and rock riffs on a guitar. Tse is a character named Flawless Flower, as delicate as a 13-year-old girl (who has formidable martial arts skill), the not-identical twin of Cheung, Little Fish, who sports the most unusual hairdo I've ever seen. I don't know what kind of hair-gel they would have used in the Song to maintain his fishy forelock.

The Handsome Siblings (and some miscellaneous pretty girls)

No matter how zany these plots are, I always learn something useful: in this case, how to bring a truly dangerous power-seeking eunuch to his knees. (You never know.)

You kidnap his "thing"...that is, you truly get him by the balls and then some. For those not quite in the know, and for those who never saw The Last Emperor (where one learned that eunuchs get to take their long-detached private parts to their grave to be buried as whole men), I refer them to the Last Emperor's Last Eunuch's story.

Although the Last Emperor's Last Eunuch was not so lucky:

In one corner of the outer square of the palace, a granite block still marks the spot where some of Mr. Sun's fellow eunuchs were said to have lost their "three precious," as the organs were called in court parlance of the day. Traditionally, a eunuch preserved his genitals in a jar to insure that they would eventually be buried with him, in the belief that this would guarantee his reincarnation as a "full" man.

Yet Mr. Sun was not so fortunate. During the Cultural Revolution, a decade of intense political and social upheaval that began In 1966 - coincidentally the year that the former Emperor Pu Yi died - Mr. Sun's family destroyed his jar. They were afraid of being punished by marauding Red Guards if such a symbol of China's feudal past were discovered.

"He used to joke about it," said Mr. Jia, who recorded Mr. Sun's story in a book titled, "The Secrets of the Last Eunuch."

In a scene not quite what I would have expected for prime time TV, the clever Dicky Cheung threatens the evil Eunuch Liu with an unusual sort of blackmail. (Like the Red Guards.) If he doesn't cause trouble for him, Dicky (really) will return the precious parts to Eunuch Liu; this deal takes place in a lovely palace room which is decorated with dozens of sausage-shaped red silk bags hanging from the ceiling. One would think that after the initial procedure, it wouldn't much matter where the parts went...unless you are the sort who worries that some black magic practitioner will do something with your hair and nail clippings.

And I thought a blog post was pressure! Next topic...footbinding!

Speaking of feet, I realize that Nicholas Tse has the same ethereal charisma as a massage therapist I had in Beijing.

Nicholas Tse: Flawless Flower

A Feel for Feet

If you're ever tired and need a little attention, I highly recommend a Chinese foot massage by a nice looking, strong-handed guy...who probably isn't a eunuch. Although I can understand why the old emperor preferred the eunuchs to look after their concubines' bubbling well points.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Da Bai Tu!**
I've been challenging the temporary crown I had placed last week on pre-molar number 20 (my dentist always talks about my teeth with reference to the numbering system) with some of the curiously addictive and very chewy White Rabbit Creamy Candies I bought in Hangzhou in May during a brief and slightly pointless stop at a huge grocery and dry goods purveyor: Trust-Mart. (Perhaps "Wal" means "Trust" in Chinese?) Our expert interpreter and guide insisted we stop there to get "dunnage," which puzzled us. She said it was a word she found in the dictionary. So in addition to stocking up on bottled water and some fruit (cherries were in), I picked up a small bag of White Rabbits to complement my big solid brown Easter rabbit (da qiaokeli tu) I'd brought from home with an eye to celebrate "Year of the Rabbit" at some auspicious moment.

I never did open the bag of White Rabbits in China (although we demolished the Easter bunny in a hotel in Beijing). Only yesterday I re-discovered them among some tea snacks I'd also gotten in Hangzhou: tiny tasty dried and sugared kumquats and plums to enjoy with my longjin.

I was going to send the White Rabbits back East with the Wizard as a gift for his sister's middle school class but I selfishly broke into the bag and consumed seven of the little milky sugary buttery taffies and then thought, maybe I can buy them online (if not Chinatown--I need an excuse to go to the video store). So Googling, I find a big Wikipedia entry about the iconic sweets along with the disturbing news that, in 2008, they had been recalled all over the world because the milk powder used in them was also contaminated with melamine. I was in China when that scandal broke, but I didn't think too much about it: I was drinking tea and beer and eating mostly rice and cabbage. Hmmm...maybe not so good to send to Auntie's students.

Contemplating the little pile of wrappers crumpled on my desk (I knew enough to not eat the outer wrapper, only the inner edible rice paper one), I wondered if I'd just poisoned myself. (None of my wuxia dramas has ever mentioned an antidote for melamine.) I did learn they have just 20 calories, and most people willing to eat them agree their mild flavor is curiously comforting. Not cloyingly sweet, a whole bagful could be consumed before you know it.

Determined to save myself, I looked for a 2011 update on the White Rabbit story. It looks like the company has recovered from the incident and entered Year of Rabbit just fine. According to AFP:
The scandal bankrupted Sanlu, once one of China's largest milk firms, after six infants died and nearly 300,000 fell ill - but White Rabbit survived. The sweets, which contain 45 per cent milk powder, were relaunched in China a month later with 'melamine-free' labels and banners in stores reading 'a healthy White Rabbit is jumping back into a big market'.
I only wish I hadn't thrown away the bag, not that I could have read the expiration date. I hope these were fresh. But at least I got them at Trust-Mart!

**Big White Rabbit

We stopped by Longs (CVS) on the way home tonight and what did I find but a HUGE display of White Rabbit candy in the center aisle where all the weekly specials are. Was I channeling White Rabbits today or have they been there all along? Now I can do a taste test, comparing my Hangzhou Trust-Mart stash against Hawaii imports! Feed my head indeed! Get high on melamine?

And in all fairness to both the White Rabbit Candy Comapny and Jefferson Airplane, there is another story behind the Chinese white rabbit: it is part of a folk legend. We see a man in the moon, or perhaps green cheese, but to the Chinese, there is a rabbit in the moon. The mid-autumn festival involves a rabbit on the moon pounding herbs to make a pill of immortality. The Chinese found centuries ago that mercury wasn't the right ingredient to achieve such a goal..maybe try melamine?

And it is no surprise that White Rabbit did intend to market the new healthy product as Golden Rabbit, the special icon for 2011. Although the candy I just bought is classic White Rabbit. Maybe I have to go to the mainland to find the Golden Rabbit.

Okay. I know I'm beginning to ramble on about rabbit makes you bigger, one makes you small....

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Could anything be more controversial than Spam, and I do mean the meat kind, not just the annoying stuff that accumulates in your inbox? Well, I thought lots could be more subject to horror and ire. I have been warned (a little unnecessarily) about the horrible additives
in the ubiquitous canned meat for which there is an actual local Hawaii cookbook--I have a copy and I know the author. I know it's not good for me, and I really consume little (although I have a sudden craving for a Spam musubi, a snack also loved by President Obama, thus proving he was born in Hawaii).

But if anything relegates the Spam cans to the disaster shelf (which now has a new meaning), it may be a story cited by one of my blog-o-pals. I flatter myself to think that my previous Defense of Spam was the reason for his posting of this article. In such a way, I actually may have helped spread information about something very ugly going on in the Spam factory. (Although I'm sceptical about the idea of Hormel pig brain slurry being shipped to Asia for use as a stir-fry thickener; the stir-fry dishes I ate in China were rarely "thickened" with anything. Not that I wouldn't put it above the Chinese...perhaps pig-brain gravy is a traditional delicacy. And apparently it is in the American South.)

It's hard to do anything without participating in some kind of hidden a can of Spam and condemn some poor illegal worker to auto-immune your car and melt the cheap coffee and ruin the rainforest...every day another mea culpa. This is the meaning of original sin.

But every day, another chance to start over.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

And I mean the "meat" kind, not the e-mail kind.

People in Hawaii have the idea that no one else in the world ever ate Spam, but I grew up with it on the East Coast. One of my favorite meals as a child, derived from a school cafeteria lunch, was green beans (probably canned), potatoes, a little onion, and cubes of Spam, cooked up as a stew. It was yummy. My druid-ish mother-in-law was known to make Spam roasts, studded with cloves and garnished with pineapple. And in Hawaii, Spam musubi is a very popular snack. I have been known to indulge.

Now there are flavors of Spam (one of the best inspired by a cargo-cultish recipe from Guam), and today I raided our "disaster shelf" (where there are cans of Spam and tuna, just in case of tsunami, hurricane or nuclear disaster) where a can of "bacon-flavored" Spam was lurking. (Bacon flavor? What a surprise.) I've been having all these lunches out with friends since I came back from China, and haven't really shopped. (Not that I ever do. The Wizard is better at grocery shopping.) Home alone today, I popped a few slices of the specialty Spam on the griddle, then a egg corralled in the browned slices, and enjoyed a kind of BLT in a flour tortilla (that's a wrap) with tomato, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and real mayo and a grinding of black pepper. Yum-me.

From the Wikipedia reference, I note that:
In China, Spam is an increasingly popular food item, and often used in sandwiches. Hormel has had a joint-venture in Shanghai for 16 years which has been highly successful in promoting Spam. In 2005, the Chinese division of Spam was one of the most profitable parts of the Hormel company. This development is due, in part, to the increasing per capita income in Shanghai, coupled with the expansion of their food diet towards more meat.
Yeah, Spam is made from what?... pig noses and toeses? But if you eat meat, and I do, what's the difference between a processed snout and a BBQ rib?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Not sure what to say about this. Just a couple days ago I streamed via Netflix Ed Harris's 2000 biopic about Jackson Pollock, who I really like, but sometimes get confused with Jasper Johns. If you just throw paint around, it can be fun, but I think you have to be conscious of what you're doing. And what is the difference between a paintbrush in the hands of an ape and a toddler? And Rembrandt or Jackson Pollock?

In the movie, the pivotal moment, quite delicious, is when Pollock notices a blob of splattered paint, off his canvas, and sees the artistic potential in the beautiful random distribution of pigment and goo. It is the sloppy birth of his unique signature style. I like those paintings. The mother of one of my adolescent friends once tried to approximate this style in painting the floor of a basement "rumpus room." She got us to help splatter the paint around. We had some fun, but I'm not sure it worked. Modern art sometimes bleeds over to interior decor in strange ways.

The contrast of this and classic Chinese painting is like yin and yang. My Chinese painting teacher once urged me to see a film about modern art, was it Picasso or some graphic artist? She sneers a little at Qi Baishi, the "Picasso of China." "He makes a lot of mistakes," she says.

So did Jackson Pollock. His whole life looks like one big mistake. But I could live with one of his big murals on my wall. I think, well, I could do that...but it would look like I just got crazy one day, throwing paint around in a fit. (The way I try to paint a peony, it takes a lot of practice.)

Maybe that's art.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

It should be no surprise to anyone reading this blog that I have an active appreciation for attractive Asian men, mostly confining my obsession to actors (like Zhao Wen Zhuo and Song Il-guk) and politicians (for example, the sprightly Ho Chi Minh, the dashing Zhou Enlai, and perhaps Gary Locke, our new Chinese ambassador). Not that streets and offices in Honolulu aren't overflowing with yang pulchritude.

In my defense, I note that I am not the only femme du certain age of the white persuasion who shares this predilection.

So a little escapade in a Hangzhou stationery store shouldn't be so hard to understand. I was browsing an offering of cute Chinese-style-bound notebooks (like at right) and picked a handsome red one that featured a silhouette of Zhou Enlai on the cover with a few photographs of the late Chinese statesman interspersed among the rice paper pages. I could use this for Mandarin class notes, I thought to myself.

On the next shelf was another little notebook featuring a photo of a dramatic young contemporary guy, looking like a Chinese James Dean or Marlboro Man. "Who is this, what movie is this from?" I wondered. Later I asked our guide/interpreter.

"He's not an actor," she declared. "He's a famous beggar! Everyone in China knows him." I had succumbed to the same phenomenon that millions of Chinese did, wanting to find this guy, take him home, give him a job, or at least just contemplate his visage and carriage. I imagined telling the Wizard, "Honey, I'm bringing home a beggar, he can live on the lanai, he can learn foot massage and clean the house." (Never mind that there are also an old hermit, a middle-aged shifu and a skilled young cupping therapist who I also would like to sponsor for U.S. work visas.) Unfortunately, like many of our own homeless (beggar and bum being not quite politically correct terms any longer), Brother Sharp, as he is known, is apparently mentally unbalanced and probably smells bad. He lives on scrounged cigarette butts and garbage, albeit with a lot of style and attitude. And it appears that the Takeshi Kaneshiro of the street has been rescued.

Can you name one famous homeless person in the U.S.? One with the charisma of Brother Sharp? Our guide/interpreter was puzzled by the concept of homeless (as opposed to outright beggars and street people.) "Why don't they work," she asked. It was a hard situation to explain. I think I'll leave that one to Gary Locke, who certainly understands commerce and the economy and is expected to communicate such issues well to the Chinese.

In any event, both Brother Sharp and Ambassador Locke look pretty good in leather!

Brother Sharp

Gary Locke