Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Vancouver Eats: The Farmer's Apprentice

Last night some friends and I checked out a restaurant that opened earlier this year in Vancouver called The Farmer's Apprentice on 6th Avenue and Fir.

Despite it's unassuming location, the restaurant opened to much praise due to former Wildebeest chef David Gunawan who is focusing on doing his own thing here with local seasonal produce presented in creative ways and bringing out the delicate flavours.

The menu is designed where dishes are shared and so the more people the more dishes you can sample. Also beware the plates are relatively small, tapas-style...

You have to also order bread ($4) which seems strange since it's a given at every other place, but here the sourdough comes warm with an interesting spread of pureed caramelized onions that looks like hummus with olive oil and sea salt.

For appetizers we tried the hop-cured trout with verbena, kolhrabi, radishes and cultured cream ($12) topped with fish roe. It's a refreshing start, the cream hardly heavy and we liked the play of textures here, soft, crunchy, round and flat and the ingredient combination worked well here.

Next came diced octopus ($14) cooked with pomegranate molasses combined with slices of cauliflower and fresh yogurt. Who knew these would come together so well? The colours were also very appetizing.

We were intrigued by the concoction of farro, a kind of grain that was cooked to give a sort of risotto texture, with hedgehog mushrooms, hazelnuts and apples ($10). The plate was finished with shaved cheese and together the dish was hearty but also light and made for a perfect side dish (if it ever was one). We are intrigued by farro and hope to see it on more menus in the future...

Another wintery dish was the tagliatelle with oxtail marmalade that one of my friends found strange, but we enjoyed it immensely, the thick handmade pasta standing up nicely to the hearty, meaty flavours.

Perhaps not for the faint-hearted was the plate of sweetbreads with rutabaga, brussel sprouts and spruce jus ($15). Here the sweetbreads were lightly floured before being pan-fried to reveal a delicate taste.

Our main event was the most expensive item on the menu at $42, the dry aged rib eye with chanterelles, onions and red wine jus. The meat was cooked to perfection, basically seared and was extremely tender and juicy. We enjoyed every bite complemented with a kind of yam puree with arugula and the mushrooms.

We were just about full but intrigued by the desserts and tried both, baked pear with chocolate cake that was more like bits of chocolate cookie with smoked ice cream (the cream was smoked before it was made into ice cream), and Gunawan's version of pavlova with again chunks of meringue that deflated (not baked long enough?) with marscapone sauce, slices of kiwi fruit and honeydew sorbet.

Without wine the total was $40 per person and with wine another $10-12 dollars more including tip.

It's an interesting place to check out and the menu changes often enough for people to come regularly. However the number of plates can quickly add up as well as the bill. Nevertheless, it's definitely a place for adventurous foodies to satiate their cravings for interesting flavours.

The Farmer's Apprentice
1535 West 6th Avenue
604 620 2070

Picture of the Day: Playful Piggy

A lit-up pig greets visitors at the entrance of Tap & Barrel
After dinner tonight a good friend took me around parts of Vancouver I hadn't visited in a while. One of the place we went to is the Vancouver Olympic Village where the athletes were housed during the 2010 Winter Games.

Hard to believe it was almost four years ago, but since then the accommodation at False Creek were sold off and some transformed into fancy condos with sophisticated looking lobbies from what we could see from the outside, with many facing the water.

In the neighbourhood are supermarkets, drug stores, niche shops such as ones for dogs, and of course restaurants. Many of them are pubs serving craft beers.

We stopped in front of one called Tap & Barrel that had a bicycle carriage in front decorated with Christmas lights with a lantern in the shape of a pink pig wearing a Santa hat.

His smile was so cute we couldn't resist taking a snap of him reveling in the holiday spirit.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Showtime -- The King and I

The local production of The King and I presented at Gateway Theatre
Yesterday we went to see a local production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I at Gateway Theatre in Richmond.

A family friend joked to my New York-based sibling that this show was amateurish compared to productions on Broadway, but we were undeterred and bought tickets.

As we walked into the theatre it occurred to me that perhaps this musical was chosen because it was being presented in Richmond, where there is a large Asian (Chinese) population, but regardless it's a feel-good show that's good for the holidays.

The original King of Siam Yul Brynner
The last time I saw a live production of The King and I was many years ago when Yul Brynner played the title role at Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. I just remember him being such a dynamic and charismatic character. He had played the King of Siam so many times on stage and screen that he was the king.

On a side note in 2006 my family and I took an Asian cruise on Princess and visited Vladivostock, Russia, where the only thing we found interesting was Brynner's childhood home which had turned into an office.

Nevertheless I didn't remember much of the story so this show was a good refresher.

The musical is based on the 1944 novel called Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Langdon, which was derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, an English governess to the King of Siam's children in the 1860s.

In the show Anna is a strong-headed female character which is unusual for that time, but perhaps because she was a widow and teacher, her only wish was to be treated fairly.

Brynner dancing with Deborah Kerr
Meanwhile the King's sexist attitude towards women seems outrageous to westerners, but not surprising to Asians who used to, and in Thailand's case still revere their king.

The King and Anna don't see eye-to-eye on many things and on many levels, while the king's children are eager to learn as much as they can from Anna and they are confronted by trying to understand the difference between scientific knowledge and traditional beliefs.

Overall Barbara Tomasic as Anna was fantastic, a strong singer who easily stood up to King Phra Maha Mongut played by Jovanni Sy, who is also the artistic director of of the show.

We also liked Rosie Simon as Tuptim, the Burmese princess sent as a "gift" to the King of Siam. Her singing was ethereal to say the least paired with her lover Lun Tha played by Justin Daniel Lapena.

Could we just add that Tyler Wong as Crown Prince Chulalongkorn sounded like Charlie Brown?! He wasn't very articulate and tried very hard to look regal...

A few scenes were cut in the already long show -- such as the blooming romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha, the banquet scene of the King hosting diplomats from England, and torturing Tuptim after she is caught trying to flee Siam.

The local production featured a number of Asian kids on stage
Perhaps the longest scene was the Thai version of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" featuring a narrated dance about black slaves escaping the underground railroad to Canada. Choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the dance sequence here didn't stray far from the original.

A number of children were recruited for the production, many of them Chinese, while a few were Caucasian and just barely looked the park with their dirty blond hair.

Set mostly in the palace, the set was relatively minimalist, but did the job, with a few props to embellish the stage.

In the end the show was very enjoyable and for $49 a ticket, was great value for entertainment on a cold day.

The King and I
December 5-31, 2013
Gateway Theatre
6500 Gilbert Road
604 270 6500

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Creeping Western Influences in China

Is anyone listening to Xi's rhetoric against "dangerous western influences"?
Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to sustain his campaign to crack down on corruption and extravagance which has resulted in plunges in luxury sales in Hong Kong. Fashion houses are already adapting to the situation by making their products more discreet without the brand name flagrantly displayed on clothing, shoes, handbags and such.

However Xi is also intent on clamping down on "dangerous western influences", such as universal values, freedom of speech and civil rights.

Nevertheless, friends from Shanghai who are here for the holidays report that mainlanders, particularly younger people are keen to embrace western holidays and traditions without understanding their meaning.

For example for American Thanksgiving, many of the hotel restaurants serve turkey dinners and locals sample the big bird despite their preconceptions that it tastes very dry. They wish each other a "Happy Thanksgiving" on Sina Weibo even though they don't know about the history of the tradition nor the dishes that are usually served on that day.

The same has happened with Christmas, where it is a commercial event for them, not a celebration of the birth of Jesus, as most mainlanders are not religious. Young people buy each other gifts and use the western holiday period as an excuse to get together with friends despite December 25 not being a public holiday in China.

In addition the country has created its own home-grown shopping "holidays". The first was November 11 to celebrate "singles day" because the date (11/11) features single ones and Alibaba encouraged consumers to shop that day and it has now become the biggest shopping day of the year in China.

And now December 12 (12/12) has followed the same as a shopping prelude to the winter season...

Meanwhile we think the Taiwanese have got the right Christmas spirit by having a flash mob descend on China World Trade Center in Beijing and singing a medley of Chinese songs that everyone remembered from their childhood and joined in.

Here's the YouTube video:

Wonder what Xi thinks of residents willingly embracing Western soft power...

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Picture of the Day: Xi's PR Stunt?

Xi Jinping seated in the middle with local Beijingers today
I just saw this picture on my Twitter feed and had to pass it on.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was seen in Beijing's Qing Feng restaurant this morning ordering steamed buns and sitting down chatting with local residents.

The Twitter feed added there were few security personnel around.

Some speculate this is a public relations stunt to mimic US President Barack Obama who was photographed going out for pizza.

In any event it's intriguing to see Xi out in public like this, but more importantly, why?

Perhaps the last time he went out unofficially earlier this year he apparently took a taxi with another passenger and chatted with the driver.

But maybe this time he's hoping with the larger number of witnesses there would be no mistake he is in touch with the common people?

Friday, 27 December 2013

Vancouver Eats: Hapa Izakaya

A refreshing ebi avocado salad
Tonight we tried an interesting Japanese restaurant called Hapa Izakaya in Kitsilano. While it is an izakaya or place to drink and offers a menu of tapas-style dishes, it's more of a western-style sports bar with screens showing ice hockey, and blasting rock music that was really loud!

We found it hard to have a decent conversation so we focused more on the food that was also not traditional Japanese. In fact the restaurant/bar and menu were all hybrids of Japanese and Western concepts and dishes.

Kinoko ishi-yaki is reminiscent of bibimbap in a stone bowl
The ebi avocado salad ($10.99 large) started strong, with mixed organic greens, cherry tomatoes, prawns and a gorgeously ripe avocado sliced up and arranged around the salad dressed with a light citrus dressing. Everything was fresh and very refreshing.

Next was ebi mayo ($8.99), featuring sweet prawns cooked tempura style then covered in a subtly spicy mayonnaise sauce. The freshness of the prawns came through and complemented the sauce flavour.

Karaage is the popular deep-fried boneless chicken
A seasonal special dish were the halibut croquettes ($7.99). The presentation was cute, small deep-fried balls with seasoned mayonnaise sauce, but we tasted more of the rice than any fish.

Kinoko ishi-yaki ($9.99) featured rice, mixed mushrooms, iwanori or seaweed with a poached egg that the server broke and mixed in the hot stone bowl, much like bibimbap. Topped with spring onions, the rice was quite delicious and hearty particularly on a cold winter evening!

Spicy scallop rolls had a nice kick at the end
Every other table ordered karaage ($8.99) or deep-fried boneless chicken and we tried a dish too. The batter was thick and the hot oil not changed often so it was a heavy dish in taste. Next came the spicy scallop roll ($8.49) that had a bit of a kick to it wrapped with some greens with the sushi rice on the outside.

Another roll was the fish n' chip roll ($8.49) that sounded interesting in theory but didn't have much taste in reality. The gindara roll ($8.99) was sablefish and had very subtle flavours we couldn't pick up easily. Maybe the noise level was distracting?

To finish off the meal we had another salad, this time with sashimi ($15.99) that came with the same mixed organic greens, and odd-sized chunks of salmon and tuna.

The vast majority of the patrons at the restaurant were Caucasian, while servers were mostly Asian or women wearing really low-cut tops... Too bad about the noise level or we wouldn't mind coming back here again.

Ending with salads again this time with chunks of sashimi
Hapa Izakaya
1516 Yew Street
604 738 4272

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Picture of the Day: Black Sesame Egg Tarts

An interesting Chinese dessert variation -- black sesame egg tarts
This morning we went to Golden Paramount Seafood Restaurant in Richmond for dim sum with some relatives.

The selection featured the usual fare of steamed shrimp dumplings, steamed char siu buns, steamed pork ribs with black bean sauce, pan-fried taro cake, and steamed turnip cake.

We also ordered some different dishes like fish shoulder -- that's what it's called but didn't know fish had shoulders! -- that was deep-fried and then braised, a sanitized version of stinky tofu that was hardly smelly but was deep-fried and slightly crunchy on the outside, soft inside, and a fresh bean curd sheets with bok choy.

But what really caught our attention was one of the desserts the staff were carrying around in trays from table to table -- black sesame egg tarts.

They don't look appealing being black, but the taste is pretty good, the black sesame taste combined with a slight hint of custard complete with a flaky pastry around it.

It wasn't too sweet and had a similar texture to egg custard tarts but lighter.

None of us had ever seen a dessert variation like that before which is why we had to take a picture of it and blog about it!

Golden Paramount Seafood Restaurant
8071 Park Road
604 278 0873

120 Years After Mao's Birth

China commemorates the anniversary of Mao's birth 120 years ago
It's still the last few hours before Christmas ends in North America, but in China they are well into the throes of marking the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth.

He was born in Shaoshan, Hunan province on December 26, 1893. Mao has been credited with kicking out Chiang Kai-shek and imperialist forces, the evils of capitalism and bringing the peasants to the forefront. He is also praised for making the agrarian class more literate and starting to lift them out of poverty.

But not all Mao did was good.

Which is why it's frightening to hear Chinese President Xi Jinping being keen to promote Mao and a return to his ideology, particularly "mass line rectification" where officials are to "promote self-criticism and criticism", and called for the revival of the "ideological purification" campaign.

Mao's legacy has left many issues that have yet to be dealt with
This harks back to the Cultural Revolution where people had to follow Mao's ideas even if they thought they were wrong or risk being vilified, torture, or imprisonment, being murdered by others or driven to suicide.

As a result many particularly in the older generations are scratching their heads and wondering why this retro return to this dark chapter in China's history, a period that hasn't been officially redressed and dealt with on a political, social, economic and psychological scale.

The Cultural Revolution resulted in the complete upheaval of the family and societal system which has led to mainlanders today not having many moral values, greedily taking all they can, or disregarding human life for personal gain.

For those of the Post-80s generation, the Cultural Revolution doesn't mean much if anything at all, so for them Xi's latest campaign is yet another in a line of previous leaders keen to leave some kind of legacy... but why this one?

Xi sees his alignment with Mao as a way to justify the Party's grip on power. He and his peers grew up wearing red scarves around their necks and singing propaganda songs. To distance themselves from the Communist Party would be sacrilegious.

And so Chinese state media publishes headlines such as "Mao Zedong was the great founder, explorer and pioneer of socialism with Chinese characteristics", in which the Great Helmsman used Marxism to build socialism in China.

Xi Jinping upholds Mao as a way to justify the Party's power
Apart from the ideology, Mao's hometown is getting a lot criticism for spending over 15.5 billion yuan on infrastructure and memorial projects. These include high-speed rail stations, highways, cultural performances, exhibitions and encouraging the public to sing "The East is Red" and eat longevity noodles.

The disconnect between Mao's ideology and what he actually achieved and is remembered for shows the country is still having trouble coming to terms with who the first leader of the People's Republic of China was.

With the government's even stronger grip on the media, this further delays the Chinese people's ability to come to terms with who the man really was and what his true contributions to the country were, which will result in more moral and societal problems to come.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Quote of the Day: Banking's for the Dogs

Yao Jingyuan criticizes China's banking industry
On Christmas Eve the former chief economist and spokesman of China's National Bureau of Statistics gave his predictions of the country's economy in 2014.

Yao Jingyuan estimated the mainland's economy grew 7.7 percent in 2013, but also added China's banking industry was like an automated system that even a canine could run it.

"Banking in China has become like a highway toll system," Yao said at a summit on China's economy on the weekend that was held at Nanjing University. "Banks charge every time money goes through them.

"With this kind of operational model, banks will continue making money even if all the bank presidents go home to sleep and you replaced them by putting a small dog in their seats."

He added there were no real bankers in China, and that most of them had become "freeloaders" who enjoyed wide profit margins by taking advantage of the interest differences between deposits and loans.

What a statement for Yao to make!

Very surprising to hear this from someone formerly from the banking industry, or is he annoyed he didn't get a cut?

Struggling to Make the Grade

Going abroad to study may seem like a good thing, but is your child prepared?
A few days ago late at night my cell phone rang with a China number showing up on the screen. I took it and on the other line was a distant relative I'd met a few times before in Jiangmen, which is near Guangzhou and Zhuhai.

He didn't know I was in Vancouver and apologized for calling at 12.50am my time. Then he got to the point of his call. His 17-year-old daughter Candy recently met up with a childhood friend who is now going to high school in Burnaby, a municipality near Vancouver and wondered if there were good schools there.

In the last few years many countries around the world are receiving more mainland Chinese students going abroad to study. Their parents have a perception the domestic education system is flawed, that their child spends all his or her time studying for the one big exam, the gaokao or national university entrance exams.

Money is almost no hindrance -- with the one-child policy, parents dote on their son or daughter and are willing to give them whatever they want, particularly in the case of education.

What could I tell him? A few weeks ago I met an academic from my alma mater. He wasn't my professor but joined the university just as I graduated. I asked him how mainland Chinese students were doing, and he surprisingly gave an honest answer.

In a word he said they were struggling. This was because the university (and practically every other post-secondary institution is guilty of this) didn't prepare these ESL students how to academically prepare, particularly in terms of English skills, critical thinking, adapting to a western lifestyle and living independently.

Elementary and high schools in Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby are flooded with mainland Chinese students who congregate together and don't take the opportunity to learn English outside of the classroom. Part of it is them not being easily integrated into the class because they are such a big visible ethnic group, part of it is their choice to be among their own culture which is understandable being far from home and feeling alone.

And so I told this father in his mid-40s that many of the schools in here already have lots of Chinese students and his daughter's chances of learning English was not very good, and suggested it would be better for her to go where there were less mainland Chinese students, like schools in Victoria, about an hour and a half away from Vancouver by ferry.

I admitted she may not like the place because it was populated by mostly seniors, but it was a good environment for her to learn English. He worried there weren't good schools there, but I assured him there were. But what about Burnaby? he asked again.

Again I repeated there were many mainland Chinese students in Burnaby and if he wanted Candy to learn English, Burnaby was not the place to go.

Part of him was listening to reason and part of him wanted to indulge his daughter. He reiterated his daughter's friend started studying in Burnaby in September and was enjoying it because it wasn't so stressful and that she was second in the class. I commented she was probably second in mathematics, but not overall.

Another aspect I touched on was that the schools here would definitely accept her, but it did not mean that she would get into university, hinting about her elementary English skills. She talked to me briefly on the phone and when I asked her if she could write a paragraph in English, say a few hundred words, she said no.

The provincial government is pushing students through the system without really ensuring they have the proper skills for tertiary education. I know this from the professor and my friends who are high school teachers, many of whom are forced to pass students, both ESL and not, in order to make the high school graduation rate look good for the province.

And so there are many ESL students who either get into university but fail because they are completely overwhelmed by what professors are asking them to do -- write analytical papers or even having trouble just keeping up with the readings and even understanding what is taught in the lectures.

There are also those who don't get into university and are stuck in colleges to try to bump up their academic standing to get into post-secondary education, but because their English is weak they cannot move up any further.

These were the two scenarios in my head that Candy could experience but I didn't tell her father that. It was already too much information for him to process. He said the application deadline for entering high school for September was in February so they had some time to think about it.

But really it's not that much time at all considering all the information they need to put together in the application. More importantly this is an important life decision they need to make that affects not only Candy's life but her parents too.

The father says he understands it will be tough for her (academically) and so she will have to study hard, but studying hard is not enough -- it takes determination and also a willingness to be independent and open to trying new things.

Candy is a sweet girl, but in the handful of times I've met her she has been too shy to speak to me, let alone practice her English. For her to all of a sudden want to go to Vancouver to study demonstrates her keenness to be with her friend and not the implications of studying abroad. Yes it can be a benefit to open the mind to new ideas and a new way of thinking, but is she prepared for that and the sacrifices she and her parents will have to make?

Monday, 23 December 2013

Vancouver Eats: Pidgin

Chefs Amanda Cheng and Makato Ono of Pigin restaurant in Vancouver
A few years ago my chef friend Amanda Cheng opened a dessert bar on Wellington Street in Central called Riquiqui.

It was a small place on the second floor of a building where she prepared a set dessert menu in front of guests at a bar. The HK$200 three-course dessert menu could be paired with wine, tea or coffee, though the main event was chatting with Amanda and watching her prepare the plates of sweetness.

A delicate combination of raw tuna and seared veal slices
However after two years she decided to pack it up -- with boyfriend Makato Ono in tow she met who was working in the restaurant upstairs -- and moved back to Vancouver.

In early February their restaurant Pidgin opened on Carrall Street near Chinatown. For Vancouverites the address is part of the Downtown East Side -- which was considered the poorest postal code in Canada because of the down-and-out drug addicts, prostitutes and homeless people who hung out in the area.

For the past 10 years the city has created many initiatives to revitalize the area, from trying to control the drug situation with a safe injection site, and then inviting entrepreneurs and developers to redevelop the neighbourhood with new residential units and businesses.

A good spread is duck rillette with endive salad
Pidgin is one of the latest businesses to contribute to the gentrification phase, but it had the unfortunate luck of being singled out by poverty protestors to focus their anger on the redevelopment of the area.

Since it opened the restaurant has been targeted by protestors, not every night, but periodic organized demonstrations that only bring more attention and curiosity to the dining establishment.

Four of us visited Pidgin last night and while my brother is used to seeing shifty characters on the streets, I was a bit nervous walking by them and was glad we were in a group.

Beautifully presented mushrooms and sugar snap peas
However once inside we were brought into a minimalist space made warm by the use of woods, soft glow lights and a casual ambience. All the staff seem well trained and upon looking at the menu we were encouraged to try both set menus at $40 and $55 in order to sample most of the dishes.

To start the amuse bouche was a diced fresh oyster in a shot glass with pureed apple and a splash of horseradish and a bowl of "pickles", pickled fennel and kim chi brussel sprouts. So we realized we were in for a fusiony meal...

The first of the dishes was raw scallops with pomegranate red curry oil, thin slices of daikon and green apple. We liked the sound of the dish, but in reality the scallops lost their fresh seawater taste, seemingly drowned out by the chilli oil, or didn't have much taste to start with.

Yummy crunchy and spicy deep-fried chicken wings
Grilled octopus with romesco and fennel biscotti was intriguing, the octopus cooked sous vide then grilled just before serving, but was not memorable, but we savoured the "vitello tonnato", veal and albacore tuna with fried egg emulsion and togarashi. The tuna was fresh and flavourful, an interesting combination with thin slices of veal.

Next came a nice presentation of duck rillette accompanied with endive salad and pickled raisins with grilled bread, while the following dish was a mixture of mushrooms, sugar snap peas, soft-boiled egg and soy yuzu brown butter sauce with a pea mash. We quite liked this vegetable dish and wished we had more greens in our set menu.

The highlight was smoked ling cod with lentils and clams
Another winner was the deep-fried chicken wings that had a slightly spicy kick, the batter light and crunchy, followed by a fast favourite -- smoked ling cod paired with hearty lentils, clams and bacon dashi veloute. The fish was perfectly cooked with a lingering smoky flavour, the lentils worked well soaking up the sauce.

By this point we were starting to get full when we were served roasted half squab with ras el hanout on a bed of tomato cous cous and raisin tea jus. The squab was pedestrian, but we quite liked the cous cous hidden under the carrots and arugula.

Bowl of braised pork belly with fried quail egg on rice
One of the last mains was pork belly rice bowl with Asian pear kimchi, bamboo and a fried quail egg. The pork belly was very tender as expected, though nothing particularly outstanding about this dish. Finally we were presented a large plate of half duck confit with carrot cake sauce that was too meaty and large a portion for us to finish. Two-thirds of the portion would have been plenty, and the plate had no vegetable accompaniment.

Despite not finishing the last dish, we were impressed by the desserts Amanda prepared. The milk chocolate Ovaltine mousse with a dark cookie crust was delicious and accompanied with a delicate orange blossom yogurt and chunks of honeycomb.

Scrumptious dessert of milk chocolate Ovaltine mousse cake
A lighter option was the caramelized and gingered apple slices on a bed of cinnamon streusel marscapone and kobacha squash. There was a play of textures here, soft and crunchy, sweet and spicy.

Finally the meringue was not cooked all the way through so it was slightly crunchy on the top and bottom, and soft in the middle. It came with three dollops of passion fruit curd, topped with almonds and white chocolate.

Overall we liked the concept of the menu, but the execution was inconsistent at times. Nevertheless the flavours on the whole are refreshing and hopefully Pidgin will improve with time and aiming for quality each time.

A light delicate option of meringue with passion fruit curd
350 Carrall Street
604 620 9400

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Vancouver Eats: Mamalee

Hainanese chicken rice is the signature dish at Mamalee in Vancouver
I'm now in Vancouver where I was greeted with several centimetres of snow. While it's slowly melting, the white stuff is still around the city. It's not making driving difficult, but it has put off some drivers from venturing out.

This afternoon my family and I headed to a popular restaurant called Mamalee on Broadway. It was previously called Cafe D'Lite and I tried to go there last time I was in Vancouver but it was closed for some reason and we feared it had closed down.

Roti canai is a comfort food for some, the sauce a bit tame
But it was still here, just with a different name. It's a well-known Malaysian/Singaporean restaurant that started in 1990 by Betty Lee. The menu describes her as a "hardworking Malaysian mother of three" who came to Canada with the cliche of finding a better life.

It started off at Cafe D'Lite and quickly became known for its Hainanese chicken rice and Laksa noodle. Then in February this year the name was changed to Mamalee "a unique and humble name more closely associated with the founder's spirit and heritage" according to the menu.

We waited several minutes and even considered getting take-out when a table of two was free and the three of us squeezed around the corner table.

Our first must-have was the Hainanese chicken without rice ($13.50 for half). The boneless chicken was absolutely delicious and definitely the highlight of the meal. The meat was tender and the marinade was a combination of light flavours including sesame oil and enhanced with chicken stock.

A kind of Malaysian spaghetti in the spicy pan mee
We also ordered the seafood noodle soup ($8.99), a large steaming bowl of vermicelli and thick egg noodle with fresh prawns, fake crab meat and bean sprouts topped with fried garlic flakes. Everything was standard, though the fake crab meat wasn't very appealing.

Another straight-forward dish was the oysters sauce gai-lan vegetable ($8.95), while the roti canai featured broke up pieces of slightly crispy, but fluffy Indian-influenced flat bread with a watered down curry sauce ($5.95). We liked the lightness of the bread, not too oily and the spicy sauce was tempered.

Our final dish was spicy pan mee ($9.95), a kind of Malaysian spaghetti with thick flat noodles stir-fried with bits of minced pork, a bit of chilli sauce, small deep-fried fish and a poached egg on top. We broke the egg yolk and mixed it up in the bowl before eating it. We quite liked the thick noodle texture that soaked up the sauce that included bean sprouts.

By the time we finished the dishes, we were quite full -- until dinner about four hours later...

3144 West Broadway
604 733 8882

Friday, 20 December 2013

Floral Meaning

A collage of flowers using a six-petal flower design created by Ai Weiwei
Activist artist Ai Weiwei is doing a bloomin' beautiful project that he's recording on Instagram.

Everyday he receives bouquets delivered by people in Beijing and he takes pictures of the flowers and posts them on his social media account.

On aiflowers.org, Ai is encouraging the public to create a virtual flower or flowers in memory of the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008.

Called "Respect Life Never Forget", his website has accumulated hundreds of pictures of flowers, mostly real, others are graphic designs. If you're stuck he has a template you can follow too.

Wonder what the end result will look like... in the meantime it's a great excuse for people in Beijing to go visit Ai Weiwei...

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Creating a Monotone State Voice

Chinese state media will become more monotone and Marxist... fun reading...
With the possible expulsion of two dozen China-based journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg at the end of this month, the mainland is stepping up its propaganda machine to further control its own journalists with more Marxist education.

There are reports that senior local propaganda officials will become heads or high-level officials of journalism programs at 10 top-tier universities on the mainland to ensure teachings are in line with the government's directives.

Similar changes would also be made at other journalism schools in the future.

Fudan University spearheaded this model in 2001 with the installation of current head of the journalism program, Song Chao, who is deputy propaganda director for Shanghai.

The propaganda authorities are reportedly in talks with the 10 universities on how to implement the Fudan model.

"The restructuring has already been decided and will be announced soon," said a person from one of the journalism schools. "Education on the Marxist view of journalism will be intensified."

Another source said the new developments were happening because the authorities felt mainland journalists were becoming more influenced by Western liberal thinking. One incident that comes to mind is the controversy over the New Year editorial calling for constitutional rights at the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly newspaper, that alarmed the authorities.

However some academics pointed out that press freedom was a guiding principle of the Marxist view of journalism and questioned the authorities' understanding of the media as a platform to address the Party's thinking and political ideas.

"The propaganda authorities probably fear that there will be more shock waves, with China continuing to deepen market reform and open up its economy," said one source. "It's hard to believe the authorities will resort to the old style of tightening their ideological grip."

Nevertheless, Chinese President Xi Jinping already set the tone back in August when he told a national conference of propaganda officials to present a unified message and to adhere to Marxist beliefs.

Political commentator Zhang Lifan said the authorities were aware that journalists were more distanced from the Party line. "Now it wants to start from the roots by revamping journalism schools," he said.

But some, like Li Datong, a former editor at China Youth Daily, think the latest directive will be ineffective. "The journalists will memorize some lines of Marxist thought but in the end they won't care too much about it."

We tend to agree with Li, but we can't help think that for the most part Chinese state media is already pretty dull and with even greater controls it's going to even more bland and monotone.

Won't that make the public repel state media even more? Or is the next step to somehow force propaganda down people's throats?

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Picture of the Day: Victoria Peak

An amazing view from Victoria Peak looking down on Hong Kong and beyond
Yesterday was horrible weather with cold temperatures, grey clouds and rain relentlessly coming down.

However we woke up this morning to crystal clear views with hardly any clouds in the sky. And with my cousin in town, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and go up to the Peak.

Our added incentive was that the water was shut off in my apartment building at 9am so we left early and managed to get to the Peak Tram by 10am.

Once we got up there it wasn't much colder and we walked the circumference of the Peak.

The views were nothing short of stunning where we could clearly see beyond Kowloon.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Ignorant Canadian Travellers

Canadian Minister of State Lynne Yelich
We find it amusing that the Canadian Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular) Lynne Yelich issued a statement to remind Canadians traveling this winter that their passport is not a "get out of jail free" card.

"Last year, Canadians took more than 65 million trips abroad. While the majority of these trips went off without a hitch, Canadian consular officials stand ready to provide assistance when Canadians find themselves in serious trouble abroad," she says.

"While Canadian officials strive to provide the best possible consular assistance to Canadians in all regions of the world, the Government of Canada cannot stress enough that a Canadian passport is not a 'get out of jail free' card.

She says that Canadians are subject to local legal procedures and processes that can be different from Canada, and stresses the government cannot intervene in these situations.

However Yelich does say Canadian consular officials will try to ensure the well-being of Canadians who are in trouble or detained abroad by contacting family members and advocating for fair treatment as well as basic nutrition.

After her stern reminder there is information about the 260 Canadian consular offices around the world in more than 150 countries that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help Canadians in trouble.

However, there is a list of actual requests consular officials have received which is shocking:

- ship emergency supplies of maple syrup;
- drive you to chase down the thief who stole your purse;
- help you research your family tree;
- help you redeem Aeroplan points;
- as your significant other to let you back into the apartment;
- chauffeur your poodle through the airport;
- help you avoid court appearances or jail time if you break the law in another country;
- pay your hospital bill because you did not think purchasing travel medical insurance was necessary.

Yikes. Are Canadians really that ignorant when it comes to going abroad?

Monday, 16 December 2013

Starving For the Sake of the Children

We are not surprised by sad nonetheless to hear a report that says 60 percent of low-income parents cut down on food and medical expenses to provide for their children.

Oxfam Hong Kong interviewed 400 families, 97 percent of which don't apply for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) even though they live below the poverty line.

All the families had at least one child under the age of 18 and one of the parents works full time. Their monthly income comes to less than half of the median household income for families the same size.

"Many of them told us that they hate being associated with the Social Welfare Department [which hands out CSSA payments]," said Wong Shek-hung, program manager at Oxfam.

She said there was a stigma attached to claiming CSSA, which covers the unemployed as well as low-earners and these low-income families didn't want to be considered hard working or that they accepted handouts.

Around 81 percent "hoped to to earn [their] own living" and that was the main reason they didn't apply.

Wong said more than 75 percent of the workers interviewed worked 44 hours per week, and 31.7 percent worked 60 hours or more.

The lack of extra money means children of these low-income families are unable to get learning materials and aren't able to participate in activities outside of school.

Almost 96 percent of those interviewed said there should be specific subsidies for low-income families.

As a result Oxfam suggests a monthly cash allowance of HK$800 for each of the first two children in a family, HK$600 for the third and fourth, and HK$400 for the fifth child and the rest, where one family member is working full time.

These suggested figures are half the rates allowed for children in the CSSA program, and the annual cost would be HK$1.73 billion.

Wong said to avoid the stigma around handouts the subsidy should be administered by the Labour Department and not the Social Wefare Department.

Kalina Tsang Ka-wai, Oxfam's senior program manager said the minimum wage needed to be reviewed first.

"The problem for these households is, ultimately, their low income," she said. "The minimum wage [which is reviewed every two years] can't even keep up with inflation right now.

"It'll be hard to maintain their current living standards even with a [child] subsidy if the minimum wage doesn't rise."

The government should seriously consider Oxfam's suggestion as a stop-gap measure for those who don't want to be on CSSA or are not eligible to at least give them some kind of financial relief. What is HK$1.73 billion from Hong Kong coffers? Hardly anything and yet it would be so helpful to these needy families.

We know the government is trying to figure out its strategy on tackling poverty in they city, but there should be some kind of temporary payments now until a more solid plan is in place. How much longer can poor people wait?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Fighting for Survival

The Brands and Products Expo at Victoria Park showcases items from food producers at very cheap prices -- some even at HK$1.

The deal is so tempting that people are willing to go into survival mode to get their hands on inexpensive food. It was so bad yesterday that the elderly were pushed over and the chaotic scenes were unexpected by the individual stalls and organizers.

"We didn't expect the situation could be so chaotic yesterday," said Johnny Chui Ka-kuen, sales manager of Nam Pei Hong. "We realized we needed more people to help keep our customers safe."

For today, the second day, the company, which sells dried seafood and soup ingredients, installed metal fences around the stall with a guarded entrance and exit, while each joint of the fence were manned by staff to prevent pushing and shoving.

Other stalls like Wai Yuen Tong which sells shampoo and soup ingredients for cheap also had extra staff on hand to deal with so many customers.

While the deals are so unbelievable, the mad rush to take advantage of them illustrates how people in Hong Kong are desperate to save money wherever they can, and if they can live like kings and buy abalone at cut-rate prices, they'll fight for it.

Many of the people at the fair are the elderly and middle-class people who are trying to scrimp and save where they can. This small example just shows how people are eking out an existence in Hong Kong -- that they are willing to rush for items that are so cheap.

Is this what the city has turned into? A city of haves and have-nots with the latter growing in population year by year?

We are not blaming this on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying but his predecessor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who seemed to despise the poor and swept them out of sight.

The government's attitude until now was not to help the poor with social services and financial support, due to the belief they were not working hard enough.

Meanwhile Tsang hung out with his tycoon buddies on their yachts...

Leung's administration has made a good start setting the poverty line which we hope will lead to a more productive, pragmatic approach to helping the working poor.

For the rest of us, the business environment has become such that the rich get exponentially richer, and we are just managing to get by.

How can a city like Hong Kong continue on this survival mode? We cannot forever depend on rich mainlanders to pay our wages -- we need to further diversify our economy.

Otherwise we're going to become more and more miserable and more and more of us fighting hordes of people for cheap soup tonics and shampoo. How is that a life?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Rousing Concert

Showstopper Ning Feng mastering the violin
Just came back from a stimulating concert at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall with the Hong Kong Philharmonic led by music director Jaap van Zweden.

And who did we (YTSL and I) come to see? The brilliant virtuoso Ning Feng. He's technically flawless and yet flies under the radar when it comes to charisma. Unlike Lang Lang who likes to throw in showmanship, Ning refuses to compete with more drama and instead it's all pure music.

The program started with Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, op. 61. An interesting fact is that this is Beethoven's only completed violin concerto in 1806, even though he started one a few years earlier in 1790.

While he was writing the concerto, Haydn passed through Bonn and recognized Beethoven's talents, which may have made him so exited that he forgot to finish writing the first concerto.

Nevertheless, we were treated to a fantastic performance thanks to Feng, who walked on stage in his signature black long shirt, this time with a hint of fuchsia on the cuff and edge of the shirt, black slacks and shoes. The Chengdu native didn't have his hair coiffed like Lang Lang or Li Yundi -- Feng is here to entertain us with his music.

His finger work is amazing, making it look so easy. The concert hall fell completely silent when he performed his solo passages, the audience watching him master the violin. He knows exactly how to tease the beautiful sounds out of the instrument without much force or pressure -- it looks so delicate and easy -- after decades of practice.

We enjoyed the concerto so much that it took a while for Feng to finally give us an encore and it was an intricate, energetic piece that again left us in awe.

Hong Kong Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden
After a short break van Zweden and the orchestra presented a boisterous interpretation of Shostakovich's Symphoy no. 5 in D minor, op. 47. The orchestra included a piano, celesta or small keyboard, two harps, an extensive percussion section, double bass and doubling contrabassoon.

Shostakovich wrote the piece after his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been criticized in Soviet state media, a hint that the composer was not following Stalin's guidelines of what artists should be doing.

So the composer gave his own retort in this apparently encoded political criticism that some listeners could pick out. The first movement is a classical sonata form that seems orderly, and then transfers into the second movement that is playful but then the slower passages evoke emotion.

The last movement climaxes into victorious sound that fills the entire hall. It's impressive and bold, perhaps Shostakovich's way of feeling triumphant.

Even before the encore, Feng's fans were already lined up outside the concert hall to have items autographed by the violinist. He seems to enjoy coming to Hong Kong, playing at least once a year here -- and we love him too.

Jaap's Shostakovich 5
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
December 13-14, 8pm

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D, op. 61
Shostakovich Symphony no. 5 in D minor, op. 47

Friday, 13 December 2013

Shock and Awe

Picture of Jang Song-thak at his military tribunal after which he was executed
We are shocked to read about the demise of Jang Song-thaek, uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Jang was reported executed for treason after a military trial in which he was found guilt of treason.

The military tribunal described the 67-year-old as "despicable human scum who was worse than a dog who perpetuated cursed acts of treachery".

During the trial, Jang, who is married to Kim Jong-un's aunt, was reported by Korean Central News Agency as saying that he attempted to stage a coup d'etat by mobilizing his associates in the military.

"I attempted to stir up complaints among the people and the military that even as the country's economic situation and people's livelihood are in dire situation, the current regime fails to deal with it," he was quoted as saying.

Jang's downfall was apparent earlier this week
On Monday there were images of Jang being pulled out of his chair by uniformed officers at a meeting in Pyongyang. At the time KCNA also accused Jang of taking drugs and squandering money at casinos while having medical treatment abroad.

The news agency added he also had "improper relations with several women and was wined and dined in the back parlours of deluxe restaurants".

KCNA continued the narrative of the coup, saying Jang bided his time when he was under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but now "he began to reveal his true colours, thinking that it was just the time for him to realize his wild ambition in the period of historic turn when the generation of the revolution was replaced," it said.'

The swift death of Jang is Kim Jong-un's bid to consolidate his power and to set his uncle as an example of what happens to people allegedly convicted as traitors to the state.

The news is shocking to everyone in the region, particularly South Korea, but also China, which depended on Jang as a dependable liaison. But now he's literally gone and Beijing is further losing its influence that the United States hoped could help ease tensions.

But now things are thrown into further disarray and it'll take a while for the dust to settle before we figure out what's really going on in the hermit kingdom...

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Lufsig Saga Continues

The Chief Executive's desk looks quite sparse for a man running Hong Kong
We have to give it to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying for taking lemons and making lemonade.

After the Ikea stuffed toy wolf Lufsig was thrown at him on the weekend, Leung was shown on his blog yesterday posing with it on his desk. The wolf had the casual look going with its legs crossed and hugging the grandma.

"Today I am with a wolf on the desk," he wrote. "I realize that this toy has been very popular recently with heated offline sales and speculation online. This shows that Hong Kongers' creativity is boundless."

Yes - especially when it comes to protesting...

In any event Leung said the toy was a present for his daughter and a gesture of support for Unicef as part of the proceeds go to the international child welfare charity.

Oh and the crude Chinese name for the toy on the mainland? It was changed to 路副西 (lufuxi) from 路姆西 (lumuxi)... which is basically the c-word in Cantonese.

It's an excellent example of what is translated into Putonghua does not necessarily work in Cantonese...

In the meantime Hong Kongers have exercised their creativity and photoshopped Leung's picture...

Hong Kongers seem to have a lot of fun with this photo...

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A Reminder of Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in happier times
The Nobel Prizes were awarded this week and US Secretary of State John Kerry used the timing to call for Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to be released five years after he was detained, as well as the harsh house arrest-like situation his wife Liu Xia is living in in Beijing.

While Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year sentence for subversion for his part in drafting Charter 08, his wife has had to endure a practically solitary existence where she is cut off from friends and the internet, only able to see her family once a week and visit her husband every three months.

Most recently she sent a message via a friend saying she believed she had developed depression and wanted to see an independent doctor, and that she wished that she and Liu Xiaobo could read each others' correspondence.

A poet, Liu Xia was financially dependent on her brother's income since her husband's incarceration, but now he too is serving an 11-year sentence what many believe is a trumped up conviction for fraud.

On Monday Kerry said in a statement: "We strongly urge Chinese authorities to release Liu Xiaobo, to end Liu Xia's house arrest, and to guarantee to Liu Xiaobo and his family members all internationally recognized human rights protections and freedoms.

"As the United States builds a constructive relationship with China, US leaders will continue to raise concerns related to respect for the rule of law, human rights, religious freedom and democratic principles with their Chinese counterparts."

But the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei rebuffed Kerry's call saying, that China was a country that followed the rule of law, but that Liu Xiaobo broke the law and was naturally being punished according to Chinese law.

China remembers Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate
However, things got tricky with the passing of Nelson Mandela last week.

Chinese state media lauded Mandela's legacy, and so internet users jumped on the apparently contradiction that it praised a former prisoner and yet the government had jailed Liu without mentioning his name directly.

Nevertheless, nationalist-leaning The Global Times struck back, saying it was wrong to cast Liu and Mandela in the same light.

"This year, as Chinese people mourned the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, some Western media deliberately cast a light on the imprisonment of Liu and praised him as 'China's Mandela'," the editorial said.

"Mandela was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for leading African people to anti-apartheid victory through struggles, tolerance and efforts to bridge differences. However, awarding a Chinese prisoner who confronted authorities and was rejected by mainstream Chinese society derides China's judiciary system," it said.

No matter how much it tries to label Liu as a criminal, he was awarded the highest honour by the Nobel committee, something the Chinese government cannot erase, and his Peace Prize puts him in the same league as Mandela.

Everyone can see through China's pathetic argument. Its statement about Liu's rejection by mainstream Chinese society is mostly due to the government's own doing. It has managed to prevent most of the public from knowing about Liu and Charter 08 that calls for political reforms.

We hope outside pressure calling for Liu's release will continue, and the anniversary of the Nobel Prize ceremony is a good time to do this.

However we worry about Liu Xia and her desperation to find sanity in the soul-sapping situation she is in. Liu Xiaobo will make it through, but will his wife be able to withstand seven more years of psychological imprisonment?