Thursday, 20 July 2017

Remembering Liu Xiaobo Seven Days Later

A memorial for Liu Xiaobo was held at Tamar in Admiralty
I'm sorry I missed another memorial for Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong last night.

It was the seventh day of his death, where the Chinese believe the spirit of the newly deceased will return home to bid a final farewell to their loved ones.

In Hong Kong, about 1,500 people gathered at Tamar in Admiralty, where they paid their last respects to the political dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner who died of liver cancer on July 13.

Liu is remembered with pictures of a chair by the water
People signed condolence books and placed flowers in front of a large portrait of Liu with the words "Remembering Liu Xiaobo -- Free Liu Xia" at the park. Local musicians also performed several songs, including John Lennon's Imagine. At the end of the one-hour memorial, people raised three fingers in the air to represent resistance, freedom and hope.

Finally, a chair with a candle on it was lowered into Victoria Harbour. There are reports police were present but didn't intervene.

There were similar memorials in Vancouver, Boston, Melbourne and London.

It is believed the family was pressured by the Chinese government to cremate the Chinese dissident's body so soon after his death -- usually it is done at least a week after in observance of the Chinese custom.

Also his ashes were scattered into the sea in a controversial burial in an attempt by Beijing to deny supporters a place of pilgrimage. It is also known as a cruel form of posthumous punishment in traditional Chinese culture, where having a tomb is a place for one's descendants to pay tribute to the dead.

Projecting Liu Xiaobo's face on the facade of the PLA!
In the meantime there is serious concern over the whereabouts of his wife, Liu Xia. It is believed she may have been forced to "take a vacation" in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

Not only was she apparently detained, but also Liu Xiaobo's friends, who were reportedly under house arrest, unable to attend memorials. Others were detained after holding ceremonies by the sea.

On social media, people have been posting pictures of chairs by or in the sea, sometimes with flowers and the hashtag #liuxiaobo.

It's telling how far the Chinese government has gone to try to censor anything related to Liu Xiaobo, and yet people just keep remembering him through creative ways.

I think Liu would have been pleased to know so many around the world came out courageously to remember him in various ways.

Perhaps projecting his image on the barracks of the People's Liberation Army in Hong Kong is probably the most daring.

Only in Hong Kong...

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Picture of the Day: Emily Carr

Abstract Tree Forms is on show at the Vancouver Art Gallery now
The Vancouver Art Gallery has one of the best collections of BC artist Emily Carr's work. The museum's latest exhibition is called "Emily Carr: Into the Forest" focuses on one of her favourite topics, trees.

It also gives the VAG an opportunity to showcase Carr's work in a thematic way and showing her progression from a realist painter to more abstract.

One of the paintings I really liked was this one, called Abstract Tree Forms that was painted from 1931-32.

And in this case the tree has been pared down to sensual, curvaceous forms, and connecting one tree to the rest of the forest like undulating waves -- a sea of trees.

Nearby where this painting was hung was a timeline of Carr's life and it was interesting to note that in 1930, she had solo exhibitions in Ottawa, Victoria and Seattle. In the same year she also went to Toronto and New York, where she met American artist Georgia O'Keefe.

After that Carr paints this painting.

One can see clearly that in Abstract Tree Forms that O'Keefe's influence rubbed off on Carr.

We can only imagine the conversations they had! To be a fly on the wall back then! Both women were very independent, determined, stubborn, and they also had a mutual love for nature around them.

Emily Carr: Into the Forest
Until December 3, 2017
Vancouver Art Gallery
750 Hornby Street

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Harry Benson: Shoot First

Photographer Harry Benson is passionate about the pictures he takes
I really enjoy watching documentaries, not just for the subject, but also see how it is portrayed, or how the story is told.

Fun image of The Beatles playing around in their hotel room
On the way back to Hong Kong I watched a few documentaries, one of which was called Harry Benson: Shoot First that was released last year.

The Scottish-born photographer is now 87 years old and to say he's had a colourful career is an understatement.

In the documentary, viewers get to have a first-hand view of him, hearing his thoughts and feelings when he shot particular subjects or assignments, as well as testimonials from many people he has shot, or talking to journalists about why the photos Benson took were so "iconic" and that they were crucial documents to history.

Benson never knew he would become a well-known photographer -- he just took whatever assignments were given to him to make a living. When he was a child he didn't do well in school so he took a job as a delivery boy.

His father built him a small hut in the back yard, which became his darkroom and in one of the scenes Benson visits his childhood home and the hut is still there, though the current owners or inhabitants aren't there to explain what it's used for now.

An iconic image of Nancy and Ronald Reagan
In 1964 The Beatles were so hot in their first trip to the US and Benson was there to cover them by fluke because apparently the paper's top photographer wasn't good looking enough to be with them.

He caught them in fantastic poses, most particularly having a fun pillow fight on the bed of a hotel room. Another features the band encountering Muhammed Ali, who had no shame in promoting himself and proclaiming that he was beautiful.

From there Benson became known for shooting celebrities, everyone from Elizabeth Taylor before and after her brain surgery, Michael Jackson, chess champion Bobby Fischer.

He also took pictures of Robert F Kennedy when he was a senator, and then happened to be next to him when Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968. While it was hard for Benson to take those photographs, it was important to get the images to preserve history.

One of the pictures Benson took is of a terrified Ethel Kennedy with her hand out, trying to block photographs of her in the moment. It's haunting, but also immediate.

The endless sea of huts of starving people in Ethiopia
Other famous photos he took were on the cover of Life magazine of Ronald Reagan with his wife Nancy dancing, Winston Churchill, and Boris Yeltsin.

Benson didn't want to be just known as a celebrity photographer -- he also took pictures of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr and how blacks were lynched -- he risked his life documenting these horrific attacks on people because of their skin colour.

On the other hand he also went to document the mass starvation of children in Ethiopia in the 1980s, where the journalist Benson was with recalled how the babies and children were so malnourished and died daily, making it such a heartbreaking story to cover.

But it wasn't all seriousness for Benson -- he had a wry humour and always quick on his feet. Getting access to chess prodigy Fischer was very difficult, but somehow Benson managed to do it. He shot pictures of the quirky American playing underwater in a swimming pool and outside where wild horses roamed.

Bobby Fischer nuzzled by a wild horse in Iceland
At first Fischer seemed nervous to be around these animals, unsure of what to do, but Benson recalled telling him the horses loved him, and sure enough, a white horse came up to Fischer who was sitting on the ground and nuzzled his head and the American was so surprised the horse was so soft.

Benson's career spans over 60 years and one can tell he loves what he does and it comes so naturally to him. He credits his Texan-born wife Gigi for his success, helping him archive his work and is also his business manager.

It's fascinating to see how he is really focused on his subjects, trying to put them at ease, and how they trust that he will take the best pictures of them.

Harry Benson: Shoot First
Released 2016
Directed by Justin Bare and Matthew Miele
1 hr 27 mins

Monday, 17 July 2017

Picture of the Day: QE Park

Such a nice treat to see the park in full bloom in the summertime
After my friends and I had an early dinner on Main Street, I suggested we head to the nearby Queen Elizabeth Park to walk around and digest our meal.

It was still bright outside and I hadn't really visited the park in ages. Turns out all of us needed a refresher.

The 130-acre park was named after Queen Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, and it's the highest point in Vancouver at 152 metres above sea level.

Succulents line the bases of these trees and giant plants
It has sunken gardens because it used to be a quarry, and the landscapers definitely made good use of the land. The gardens are well maintained and it's a favourite place for wedding photos in the summer.

While some parts of the park are the same, there are others that have been upgraded or modernized. One section featured mounds of trees where the bases are decorated with lots of succulents! Talk about creating more colours and textures!

There's also another section that has three metal sculptures where happy couples can demonstrate their love by putting their lock on the three dimensional figures.

Apparently it's inspired by Pont des Arts in Paris, where couples seal their love for each other, but the sculptures here are hardly covered in locks, though there are many. And it's not just couples showing their love, but also grandparents and grandchildren too, some in different languages like French and Chinese.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Another Chinese Acquisition

Grouse Mountain is a short 45 minute drive away from Vancouver
When I was a teenager I learned how to ski on Grouse Mountain. I was cautious at first, but after learning the moves I became more confident skiing down The Cut, one of the main trails. On the other hand my brother had no fear and zoomed down the hill.

In recent years Grouse Mountain became popular in the summer thanks to the Grouse Grind, a 2.9 kilometre (2,830 steps) nicknamed "Mother Nature's stairmaster" all the way up to the top. If you could do it in under an hour you were really fit. Hardcore visitors were called "grinders" and liked to boast their times.

The Grouse Grind is popular with fitness addicts
In any event in the last day or so it has been announced that Grouse Mountain will be sold to China Minsheng Investment Group, the largest privately owned investment manager in China.

The property has been for sale since September last year and it is believed the deal is worth CAD$200 million that will be finalized in the next few days.

Apparently there are potential areas the new owners could develop, such as a hotel and spa, a bike park and conference facilities, but these are all subject to regulatory approval.

In the meantime all staff have been kept and operations will continue as usual.

Grouse is a popular and close by mountain for skiing
China Minsheng Investment Group was started in 2014 by Premier Li Keqiang and this purchase is apparently its first in Canada. Other Chinese companies with a foothold in the city include Anbang Insurance, China Poly Group Corporation, Greenland Group and Ping-An Insurance, Wanda Group and Fosun.

Despite the possible changes in the coming years, one thing's for sure -- the Grouse Grind will not be touched -- it's on government land.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Picture of the Day: Sunset Summer

Catching the tail end of a gorgeous sunset at Spanish Banks in Vancouver
I've had a short trip to Vancouver, but enjoyed every moment thanks to the fantastic weather we've been having. The best part is that the humidity is so low you hardly break out into a sweat, unlike Hong Kong, where walking outside for five minutes results in sweat pouring from your forehead like a waterfall.

After dinner my friend and I headed to Spanish Banks to catch the sunset and we got there at the tail end with the sky was already a deep pink and mauve.

Down the beach we saw a gaggle of Canada geese hanging out right by the water -- I don't remember ever seeing this before. But there they were standing around and cleaning themselves. Wondered what they were up to next.

It's so nice to see the sun go down just before 10pm -- in Hong Kong it's already dark by 7pm, but then again in Vancouver, it's dark by 3pm in the winter.

Nevertheless I was really glad to be able to catch the beautiful sunset right by the water -- before heading back to Hong Kong.

Epic Meal at Phnom Penh Restaurant

A unique (and delicious) place serving Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisines
Yesterday I met up with an acquaintance in Chinatown and he suggested we eat at Phnom Penh, a Cambodian-Vietnamese restaurant.

He was shocked to find that I had never been there and insisted we eat lunch there.

I arrived at the appointed time to find a crowd of people standing in the foyer waiting for a table, while others preferred to soak up the sunshine before their name was called to come in.

Watching people come in and out, there were not only Cantonese-speakers, but also Mandarin, as well as non-Chinese who seemed to be very familiar with the place. Guess it was a good sign.

Deep-fried chicken wings have alight batter and tart sauce
By 1pm the restaurant was still bustling, and after about a 10-minute wait we finally got a table. And since my acquaintance is such a regular here, he practically knew all the dishes we should order, adding that four of the items on the menu are ones one should eat before they die. Die? Really?

He asked me if I had such a list... I had to answer in the negative.

I'd never thought of it that way before, but that just made me more skeptical of how good Phom Penh really was.

Nevertheless, the food soon arrived fast and furious on the laminate table. A half portion of deep-fried chicken wings were garnished with spring onions, garlic, and coriander, with a peppery lemon sauce on the side. Fantastic, and perfect beer food. The batter wasn't heavy and was quite crunchy.

Cubes of beef covered in a dark sauce, topped with fried egg
Next came fillet beef luc lac on rice with egg (CAD$10.95). Honestly it doesn't look pretty -- the cubed beef was smothered in a very dark brown shiny sauce with a fried egg on top. The egg was a bit more cooked than runny, which would have made it takes a bit better.

My friend mixed these all up as well as he could, minus the salad on the side. This wasn't a dish I would consider a must-have before dying -- the flavour was actually flat -- even the egg couldn't save it.

However, we really liked the beef fillet anchois (CAD$19), which was basically beef carpaccio topped with a soy sauce mixed with lots of coriander, garlic and lemongrass. The sauce complemented the beef, and interestingly for a restaurant in Chinatown we did not get sick after eating a raw meat dish!

Finally the flavour of the Phnom Penh hot and sour soup with prawns (CAD$12.95) was fantastic. I like sour tastes, and this one pretty much hit the jackpot. It was a curious combination again lemongrass, and probably lime for tartness, added with tomatoes, pineapples, beansprouts, potatoes and overcooked prawns.

 SE Asian beef carpaccio with lots of coriander and garlic!
The food we ordered was enough for three people, but we somehow managed to almost finish it all. Needless to say I was so full afterwards that I could have almost skipped dinner.

When we came out of the restaurant, there was yellow police tape cordoning off the sidewalk a few doors down with police cars on the street and people in uniform checking out the area. One wiped blood off the sidewalk which meant that it was probably a stabbing.

And we didn't even know! We were too busy eating to hear any commotion if there was any...

Phnom Penh restaurant is pretty good, but as long as you're willing to wait...

Phnom Penh
244 East Georgia
604 682 5777

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Liu's Day has Come

Artist Ai Weiwei's Lego portrait of Liu Xiaobo
Anyone who has been reading the news of the deteriorating health of dissident Liu Xiaobo has been dreading this day, but it has come. He died today at the age of 61.

He is the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who won the prize in 1935 during the Nazi era.

This will be a dark stain on Chinese President Xi Jinping's legacy and the Chinese Communist Party that is desperately trying to win over the rest of the world through soft and hard power.

Letting Liu leave the country in his last days and hours would have been the humanitarian thing to do, and win Xi points on the world stage, but this is not how the president operates, as he has taken a harder line than any recent previous leaders.

China didn't want to be seen as giving in to Liu's last wishes of leaving the country in the hopes that his wife Liu Xia would have a better life.

Perhaps even more outrageous is that Liu's liver cancer diagnosis was announced at such a late stage that there was nothing any doctor or treatment could do. This appears to be a deliberate move so that no one could do anything.

At the same time, Liu's health condition had to be announced to avoid China being accused of killing him in prison, which would have raised issues of his treatment in incarceration.

While we are outraged at how the Chinese government treated Liu, where were all the world leaders speaking out about violating his human right to proper medical treatment? They are too scared to anger China with economies dependent on the country to stay afloat.

Liu can now rest in peace, but what of his wife? She will probably remain under some kind of house arrest, though she is the innocent bystander in all of this. Liu Xia is emotionally fragile and surely his death will make it even harder to keep going.

PEN America will be holding a vigil tonight in New York and we will probably see other groups hold similar events tonight and in the next day or so.

Liu was China's moral compass and he has died knowing he has done his part for his country.

Claude Monet's Impressionism

Monet was fascinated by reflections found in his pond at Giverny
This morning I headed to the Vancouver Art Gallery to check out Claude Monet: Secret Garden that just kicked off late last month and is on until October 1.

Another painting of the waterlilies
Luckily I had a free ticket and got to literally walk in -- there was a pretty long line at the entrance to buy admission tickets.

This exhibition features 38 paintings from the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris. The museum has the biggest collection of Monet's works in the world, as well as other Impressionist painters like Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, Paul Gaugin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The museum is currently undergoing renovation, which is why Monet's works are touring around -- with Vancouver as the only North American city stop.

In the show, the paintings focus on his impressionist style and in particular when he lived in Giverny, France, where he lived from 1883 until his death in 1926. We see his enthusiasm for painting in situ as much as possible, to capture the moment, and how he would paint the same subject over and over, studying how the light affects it at different times of the day and seasons.

He once said that he never used the colour black because nature didn't use it, and instead used other colour combinations to paint shadows.

My picture of the pond in 2015, with the bridge at the back
You also see the progression of his work, from the beginning of his impressionist style that becomes more abstract as he gets older, mostly because his eyesight was deteriorating and the frustration of not being able to see the colours as well almost put him off painting.

However, Monet could not not paint -- as a result his colours become more bold and farther from reality, moving away from pastel colours to more burgundies, browns, oranges, and ochre.

This progression was illustrated in his series of paintings of the Japanese bridge at Giverny. In reality the bridge is a pistachio green, with a canopy of wisteria hanging overhead, as well as some weeping willows.

However, in his later years, the colours change and become a more autumnal palette, the brushstrokes aren't very definitive in terms of identifiable shapes, but still strong and determined.

This painting of the bridge was done in 1918-19...
He and his two sons moved to Giverny, a country home he rented with his patron's widow, Alice Hoschede and her six children. They later married. When they moved to Giverny, he set about designing the gardens, and showed his green thumb expertise and enthusiasm.

There he planted many different kinds of flowers and made a pond where he could set up his Japanese-style bridge. It was the reflections in the water that fascinated the artist, inspiring him to paint his most well-known works, the waterlilies.

"These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession. It's quite beyond my powers at my age, and yet I want to succeed in expressing what I feel," Monet remarked in 1908.

At the end of the show, there is a small room, where American photographer Stephen Shore took pictures of Giverny, giving visitors a better idea of what the gardens looked like in reality.

... while this one was done 1918 to 1924 that is more abstract
I had the privilege of being at Giverny just over two years ago, and I loved every moment being there, knowing that Monet had wandered the same grounds and we saw the same flowers he planted in the late 19th century.

It is interesting to speculate what kinds of paintings Monet would have produced if his eyesight wasn't so bad -- what would he have done?

After his death in 1926, he did not have a will, but all his possessions were inherited by his younger son Michel. When he died in 1966, he bequeathed what he had to Musee Marmottan Monet.

We are very lucky to see this show and be up close to Monet, who taught us to see things in another way.

Claude Monet: Secret Garden
Until October 1, 2017
Vancouver Art Gallery
750 Hornby Street

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Super Healthy Breakfast at abcV

A soft dosa with yoghurt and gress like dentist-realated issues.
When in New York, there's not only sightseeing and show watching, but also lots of dining.

One place we were very curious to try was abcV, a vegetarian restaurant opened by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

I met him in Hong Kong a few months ago and when I asked him about abcV, he told me about the menu, and boasted the restaurant had "the best congee in New York City".

The restaurant's interior is sparse yet very modern
When a gweilo chef claims he has the best congee in town you have to check it out, right?

My New York-based friend made a reservation for July 4 for breakfast -- and we were told the only time available was 9.30am sharp, even though breakfast is served until 10.30am.

So we arrived a bit earlier than the appointed time -- no traffic because of the public holiday -- and hardly anyone in the restaurant either. We could have come at 10am... or did the staff forget it's a public holiday?

The decor is quite sparse -- a white modern room with a mish mash of chandeliers suspended from the ceiling, a bakery at the front, and kitchen at the back.

We noticed the pieces of cutlery were all different -- a kind of eclectic hipsterish feel that's kind of artsy, which is what the crowd was mostly made of, except for us.

Poached eggs and mushrooms underneath
The menu lists dishes that sound super good for you. Coincidentally the New York Times had tried the restaurant and the review came out just before we went, but I didn't read it until afterwards.

We agree with the assessment that the atmosphere is quite pretentious, but the reviewer showed the menu to a dietician, who proclaimed the dishes really were healthy -- though the portions were on the delicate side.

One of the first dishes we shared was the dosa with yoghurt, avocado and sprouts (US$14). It arrived in a beautiful presentation, but we have to say the dosa was hardly crunchy, but thinner than a pita bread texture. We liked the combination of yoghurt and avocado.

A winner was the wild mushrooms with poached farm eggs, shallots and herbs (US$15). How can you go wrong with runny yolks that explode onto the meaty mushrooms like a comfort sauce?

Testing out the congee dish with six condiments to choose
So the congee, or as listed on the menu: forbidden rice and millet congee with savoury condiments (US$10) that included pickled mushrooms, ginger, ponzu sauce, finely sliced nori, chilli sauce and spring onions.

The congee itself wasn't white, but more pinky brown thanks to the black rice, though it was more savoury than sweet. We threw in a bit of each of the condiments and they certainly perked up the congee. It was also quite a shallow bowl, so we savoured each bite (and more dosa), and sides like kale and potatoes.

In the end we were full, but not overwhelmingly so, which is probably the point -- portions are everything and just feeling sated is probably healthiest too.

Would we come back? Probably for lunch, not dinner.

38 East 19th Street
New York
(212) 475 5829

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Ai Weiwei's Modern Take of Hansel & Gretel

Visitors being tracked by cameras up on the ceiling of the armory
We managed to catch Ai Weiwei's intriguing interactive installation on surveillance called Hansel & Gretel, in collaboration with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who you may remember designed the Bird's Nest in Beijing.

At the time Ai also worked with them on that Olympic stadium, but later pulled out, stating that he didn't want to be a puppet of the Chinese government in its coming out party in 2008.

Called the "thinking person's 'Rain Room'"
So it's interesting to see this prominent collaboration again -- maybe Herzog and de Meuron want to repent for what they did? Or they now understand why Ai didn't want any part of the Bird's Nest project? Or perhaps they sympathize with what he went through when he was held for 81 days without any official charges, though later it was for "economic crimes".

In any event, we went to the site of the show, the Park Avenue Armory, and were promptly instructed by one of the staff to go to the back of the building to purchase tickets and enter from there.

We were led to a door into a very dark space and told the exit was where the blue light was. At this point we didn't know what to expect.

Why were we in such a dark room where the floor seemed curved? And what was happening on the floor?

Soon we realized there were images of us taken from above and projected on the floor, and we looked up and saw a bunch of lights lined up systematically across the ceiling of the 55,000-square foot armory, but we couldn't exactly see what they were. They were drones that were recording our movements, literally following us around with photographic evidence of their surveillance.

Being tracked is simultaneously cool and disconcerting
At first it seemed like a novelty, having machines tracking and taking picture of us. How did they do that? Infra-red cameras attached to 56 computers. But why were they doing this to us? What had we done to deserve that?

It also dawned on us that this is how Ai probably felt when he was under surveillance in Beijing, when he returned home from his unofficial incarceration to find cameras all over his home to track his movements, which is unsettling and scary how easily one can be followed at all times.

There were also at least two drones that wandered around ceiling hovering over people that gave an uneasy feeling.

After a while we emerged from the giant space and back into the sunlight, where we were instructed to go back to the front entrance of the Armory.

When we entered the doors, we were told to look at a series of red lights, which we later found had taken a picture of us that was projected onto screens in the hallway. We looked like zombies, our pupils were blank, making them haunting images.

A peephole view of the installation from a distance
Here there wasn't much to see except a kind of library space where people could sit down and browse through the Hansel & Gretel website that chronicles the history of surveillance over the centuries.

You can also take a picture of yourself on the iPad and then it will try to find the earlier picture of you when you walked through the entrance. In my case it was a successful (and creepy) match.

There was also an area where you could look through a peephole back at the armory space to have a more bird's eye view of the project, though you still couldn't clearly see what was going on.

What to do about it?

In the gift shop you can buy special foil bags or plastic case to put your smartphones in to stop others from tracking you, or buy a giant magnet that says #resist, as well as giant tomes of Ai's body of work.

There's also a phone case that says "The NSA has all your selfies" -- which pretty much hits the nail on the head.

The title of the show is a reference to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of two children tempted by sweets by an old woman who holds them hostage. Some critics have surmised from the show that the more you post online, the more Big Brother knows about you and your friends.

Will that stop you from posting on social media? Probably not, but don't say you haven't been warned.

Hansel & Gretel
Until August 6, 2017
Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue
New York

Monday, 10 July 2017

Book of Mormon

Mormon Elder Cunningham tries to convert Ugandans to Jesus Christ
We saw another show that I have been wanting to see for several years -- Book of Mormon.

Again it was a packed show at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, but we didn't have to line up around the block just to get in.

The premise of the story is funny -- a do-gooder Mormon missionary called Elder Kevin Price is considered the most qualified to go on his mission and hopes he'll be posted to Orlando, but he is sent to of all places -- Uganda -- with Elder Arnold Cunningham -- who likes to embellish things... a lot.

Everyone looks up to Elder Price as the model Mormon
It starts off hilarious, with side jokes here and there, but then things start getting really crass -- lots of f-words and outrageous lines that are definitely sung and spoken to get attention and cheap laughs.

But after a while when you swear too many times, the audience gets numbed by it and loses its effectiveness, let alone shock value.

We still enjoyed the storyline, but was the excessive amount of profanities that necessary? We were pretty much cringing towards the end and wondered how it would all end...

Both the leads were fantastic strong singers and the leader of the Mormon group in Uganda was really funny as he had gay tendancies he tried to hide. The most hilarious song had to be Turn It Off, when Elder Price is told to "turn off" his concerns about confronting a Ugandan warlord, much like the Mormon leader being attracted to men.

The lyrics are written by Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the latter two famous for South Park, and so you know you're probably in for some crass humour, and took seven years to finally get performed on stage.

Funny satire on Mormons but a lot of swearing in it!
Stone and Parker grew up in Colorado and so they were very familiar with the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints. When they were researching for the musical they went to Salt Lake City and interviewed missionaries and former ones, so in a way the audience can tell the musical may poke fun at Mormons, it doesn't slam them completely, that faith, hope and optimism are really important to everyone.

When the musical came out in 2011, the church issued a "measured", saying: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ".

There isn't much the church can do since it was a Tony-award winning show and has traveled around to several countries. Doubt it would make it to Hong Kong though!

Book of Mormon
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
230 West 49th Street
New York

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Learning More about Georgia O'Keefe

Ram's Head, White Hollyhock-Hills encapsulates O'Keefe's art and life
Yesterday we went to the Brooklyn Museum to see Georgia O'Keefe: Living Modern that ends July 23. She is an artist I have admired for a long time and many years ago copied her paintings in pastel. She encouraged me to be fearless, using big strokes, and express myself through vibrant colours.

Four cream-coloured outfits O'Keefe made early in her life
We caught the museum's 1pm tour through the exhibit and the docent was very knowledgeable about O'Keefe and picked certain pieces to show how the curators presented the show.

It wasn't just about O'Keefe's paintings, but also her clothing, a few miscellaneous things from her home and many photographs of her in the clothing, hats and shoes that were also exhibited.

She was born in Wisconsin in 1887 and at a young age showed a talent for art. The family moved to Virginia and when she was a teenager studied at the School of Art Institute of Chicago.

Later she taught art and as our guide explained, after work she would work on her own art, creating abstract watercolours. A friend showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, a well known photographer and art dealer in New York who was impressed by such modern art by a female artist.

This painting was first shown at the museum
He sold some of her pieces -- over US$1,000 in the late 1920s which was a lot of money in those days -- and eventually the two fell in love. Stieglitz was married at the time with a daughter, and was 23 years older than O'Keefe, but he divorced and married O'Keefe.

They lived in Manhattan and one of the paintings shown in the exhibition was of the New York skyline -- something that was usually depicted by men and not women. But O'Keefe was keen to show that she too could do it too -- and just as well. Not only did she paint the skyscrapers, but also in pink, and with three flowers to give them a feminine touch.

At the time she was known for her flower paintings. Women usually painted flowers, but they were small most of the time. O'Keefe felt if she painted flowers really small, no one would notice, so why not big too, like skyscrapers?

She also insisted there wasn't any deeper meanings behind the some 200 flower paintings she made, as some tried to insinuate there were sexual meanings behind the works.

Pink skyscrapers and flowers
One of the paintings on show is called Black Pansy & Forget-Me-Nots painted in 1926 and our guide explained it was first shown in a solo exhibition O'Keefe had in the Brooklyn Museum in 1927.

At the show, one of her friends bought the painting and O'Keefe managed to persuade that person to donate it to the museum afterwards. O'Keefe also gave some of her works during her lifetime to the museum, and after her death.

Our guide pointed out that many of O'Keefe's clothes were monochromatic -- she didn't want to have to worry about colour in her wardrobe when she would rather focus on the colours of her canvas.

Featured in the exhibition are several items of clothing, cream-coloured dresses she made and they are very delicate and reveal her skill in dressmaking. There are also a trio of white blouses, one of which shows very fine tailoring and could very easily be worn today.

She also had a penchant for black with a bit of white contrasting, be it from the collar of a shirt or the cuffs of shirts sticking out from black blazers. Later on she was obsessed about the V-shape and many dresses and jackets had this shape, whether the neckline or pattern on dresses.

One of the delicate blouses O'Keefe made
As more of her work was sold, she and Stieglitz would move to higher floors in the hotel apartment building they lived in. And this wealth would also help O'Keefe become even more independent, buying a car and buying a home and then another one in New Mexico.

She first went there in 1929 thanks to the patronage of an heiress, and O'Keefe immediately fell in love with the place and kept going back there every year until she finally settled there.

In New Mexico she stopped wearing suits and adopted denim as her fabric of choice, wearing shirts, jeans and even fashioned a Chinese-style dress out of the blue cotton.

However, after O'Keefe's first visit to New Mexico for six months, she came back to New York to find Stieglitz was having an affair with another woman; O'Keefe was devastated and even suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in 1933, mostly because her husband was continuing with the affair.

O'Keefe then finally moved to New Mexico in 1940, purchasing a home there, but then Stieglitz fell ill in 1946 with cerebral thrombosis and she flew back immediately to tend to him until he died in July that year.

A Chinese-style outfit she had made in HK
It took her three years to finally finish dealing with his estate before she permanently moved to New Mexico in 1949. There she was obsessed with painting a mountain called Cerro Pedernal.

One of her works, Ram's Head, White Hollyhock-Hills painted in 1935 encapsulates O'Keefe with the animal skull, a flower and her favourite mountain.

Interestingly there are two outfits shown that have a Hong Kong connection. In 1959 and 1960 she traveled there and got some outfits made, one very east-meets-west, the other looking like a very masculine Chinese robe.

In 1972 she lost most of her eyesight due to macular degeneration and couldn't paint anymore, though photographers would make pilgrimages to New Mexico to take pictures of her. The show has portraits of her by Yousuf Karsh, Bruce Weber, Ansel Adams and Todd Webb.

Andy Warhol also wanted a piece of her and invited her to come to New York to The Factory where he made a silkscreen of her in the same colour as the adobe home she lived in, and was sprinkled with diamond dust. Wonder what she thought of that.

A portrait of O'Keefe in a kimono by Bruce Weber
O'Keefe died in 1986, just shy of her 99th birthday. Art historians like to say she was the first American contemporary artist. Apparently she bequeathed all her things to a very young assistant called Juan Hamilton and her siblings went to court to fight for estate. In the end it was settled out of court.

Learned so much about this remarkable woman and feel inspired by her artistry in art and in life.

Georgia O'Keefe: Living Modern
Until July 23, 2017
Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway

Friday, 7 July 2017

Lessons in Kinky Boots

Lots of high energy in the Tony-award winning musical Kinky Boots
One of the Broadway shows we saw was Kinky Boots, the Tony-award winning show featuring words and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein.

Rock star Brendon Urie plays Charlie Price
The musical is based on a 2005 British film called Kinky Boots that was inspired by true events. In the show, Charlie Price is the fourth generation of a shoe-making business but needs to figure out how to keep the company from going bankrupt and has an encounter with a drag queen...

Brendon Urie plays Charlie, and when he first appeared on stage, there were hysterical screams from young women in the audience because he's the frontman for the rock band Panic!

Having someone famous -- and easy on the eyes -- helps sell tickets, and in this case Urie plays the part well.

However his co-star J. Harrison Ghee as Lola was electrifying. He can not only sing his heart out, but has hilarious lines he delivers with pizazz and can dance in heels. He and the other drag queens do some really cool moves... talk about making drag queens more mainstream than ever in a Tony-award winning musical!

Also fantastic is the character Nicola played by Taylor Louderman, who really made the audience laugh with her lines and body language.

J. Harrison Ghee is amazing as drag queen Lola
The storyline is well thought out and focused on the similarities of the two characters even though they have such different backgrounds. It makes you realize how each had to have courage to carry on despite the risks stacked against them.

Nevertheless, overall the show was very high energy and after the show was over, many people wanted to dance their way out of the theatre.

Lots of fun!

Kinky Boots
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th Avenue
New York

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Gorgeous Garden at Wave Hill

Paths lead to several gardens and villas on the property
My July 4 afternoon was spent at Wave Hill, an idyllic estate that's not too difficult to get to and the effort made to get there is more than handsomely rewarded.

There are various lilies grown in the gardens like these
We took the 1 train all the way to 242nd Street station (the terminus) and after we exited the train, headed to the nearby Burger King, where a white van with the words "Wave Hill" on it, picked us up and a short five-minute ride later we had arrived.

Wave Hill was originally a country home in 1843 and in 1903, it was purchased by George W. Perkins, a partner of J.P. Morgan. He added it to his collection of properties in the area, which included the next door villa that is now called Glyndor Gallery.

In 1960 the Perkins-Freeman family deeded Wave Hill to the City of New York, and it was later formed into a public garden that is now one of 33 New York City-owned cultural institutions.

A greenhouse houses many succulents and cacti
Once you arrive, you can see a vast expanse of grass, several different gardens, a green house and a magnificent view of the Hudson River with New Jersey on the other side.

We enjoyed wandering around and admiring the various flora, particularly the lilies of various colours, and small pools with lily pads (just the Japanese koi were missing). There were green houses filled with cacti and succulents, another with bonsai trees, and hanging plants.

The grassy area was so perfect for a picnic spot -- but that's what you can't do at Wave Hill -- unless you bring food and eat it at a designated picnic table that's no where near the nice view of the Hudson River.

Very pretty man-made pond that's missing some carp
You also can't have birthday parties there, smoke or play games and do things like rollerblade, throw frisbees or ride a scooter. While we've heard people hold weddings here, but then visitors would also be inadvertently walking in on your ceremony...

Nevertheless, the cafe on the property serves some pretty decent food like salads, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, smashed avocado on toast, and some delicious cherry pie.

One of the villas, the aforementioned Glyndor Gallery is a nice space for exhibitions of local artists, though we had a better appreciation for the home with its ornate interior design including fireplaces and cornices.

The prettiest avocado on toast
The almost three-hour visit was memorable and pleasant  -- and we all managed to get back in the van that took another route to get us back to the subway station.

Wave Hill
675 West 252nd Street
Bronx, NY
(718) 549 3200