Monday, 18 September 2017

Picture of the Day: Xuanzang

It's interesting to learn that in Xinjiang, even though the majority of the population are ethnic minorities like Uygyurs who  practice Islam, back in the Tang Dynasty, they followed Buddhism thanks to the teachings of monk Xuanzang.

He was from Henan province and was ordained as a novice Buddhist monk at the age of 13, then a full monk seven years later in Sichuan.

The monk and scholar became famous in 629AD and on his way to India to learn more about Buddhism, he passed through Qocho kingdom. Its king, Qu Wentai was so interested in the religion he wanted Xuanzang to stay and teach more people about Buddhism.

But Xuanzang was insistent on continuing his journey, though he promised to come by on the way back and teach what he had learned.

However, by the time Xuanzang returned, the king had already passed away. We visited a now deserted prayer area where he taught Buddhism in Qocho, today known as the Gaochang ruins outside of Turpan, Xinjiang.

Another interesting factoid is that Xuanzang recorded his trip in detail in a text called Great Tang Records on the Western Regions that inspired the novel, Journey to the West.

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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Picture of the Day: Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang

In 366AD, a monk named Le Zun traveled along the Silk Road, but stopped in Dunhuang when he saw a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site of the Mogao Grottoes.

He carved a cave into the rock face and lived there, and gradually more people came to practice Buddhism.

Later wealthy donors hired artisans to decorate caves for them, and the caves are covered from floor to ceiling in murals and statues dedicated to Buddha.

After the Yuan Dynasty, the caves were mostly forgotten until the 1900s when Western explorers were interested in the Silk Road.

As foreign visitors, we got to see only seven of them, but each one was very impressive. The caves cover over 1,000 years of history through Buddhist art and showcase the various art styles and beliefs.

This is a place I've wanted to visit for almost 10 years after seeing a replica in Beijing, and now seeing the Grottoes in person was nothing short of awe inspiring.

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Saturday, 16 September 2017

Picture of the Day: Singing Sand Mountains

We drove almost five hours to get to Dunhuang, which is home to many historical landmarks, including the Mogao Grottoes, Yumen and Yangguan passes, the western most frontier posts in ancient China.

Our stop first stop was the Singing Sand Mountains or Mingsha Shan, which are actually tall sand dunes that were said to make haunting noises at night.

We were very lucky to have gorgeous weather -- hot but with a breeze. The sand was very soft and warm from the sun.

For many Chinese tourists, this is a very exotic place, and the park did a roaring trade of offering 40-minute camel rides at 100 kuai per person. 

Each group had four to five camels tethered together in a line and there was a constant stream of these animals walking along the sand...

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Sent from my iPhone

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Picture of the Day: Jiayuguan Overhanging Wall

I've climbed the Great Wall in different sections near Beijing, but today was the first time to go to the western most part of the wall in Jiayuguan in Gansu province.

Built in 1539 during the Ming Dynasty, it is the frontier border that really kept the "barbarians" out -- the Xiongnu, Tibetans and Mongolians -- though the Mongols did set up the Yuan Dynasty in 1271 by Kublai Khan.

That made Jiayuguan a military strategic place along the Silk Road.

Here is the Jiayuguan overhanging wall section. Our tour guide challenged us to see who could get to the top and back so we did -- five of us women!

We climbed 401 steps to get to the top. When I was almost there, a little boy at the top of the watch tower shouted, "Ayi, jia you!" "Auntie add oil!" So cute.

He and some other men kept going onwards while we rested a bit, taking in the view before going back down. 

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Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Picture of the Day: Zhangye National Geopark

After a four hour drive from Wuwei, Gansu province, we arrived in Zhangye. Its most famous natural landmarks is Zhangye National Geopark.

We got onto the park's tour buses that act like hop on, hop off buses that take visitors to four main locations in the 322 square-kilometre park.

Each place we went, the landscape seemed even more amazing. The place is known as "rainbow mountains" for the multicoloured hill formations due to erosion of the red sandstone that revealed other minerals of different colours.

The weather was not too hot and we enjoyed the amazing scenery formed by nature.

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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Picture of the Day: Leitai Park

In 1969 a farmer discovered a tomb dating back from the Han Dynasty. It is situated in Leitai Park, a temple that honours the God of Thunder. 

The farmers would worship this god in the hopes of getting rain to result in a good harvest.

Right underneath the temple is the tomb of an officer from Zhangye, a place we are actually going to next.

We went inside the tomb and it's made of small bricks. There are a few chambers in there and you have to bend down almost perpendicular to get through the various openings.

The most important find inside the tomb is the bronze galloping horse. It only has one foot on the ground on the back of a bird in flight. 

Outside there is a massive bronze replica, along with an army of horses and soldiers of varying heights, led by this famous horse.

The city of Wuwei in Gansu province has even adopted this horse as its logo...

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Monday, 11 September 2017

Picture of the Day: Labrang Monastery

Today we visited Labrang Monastery in Xiahe county, a four-hour drive from Lanzhou. Yes, it's a trek!

Built in 1709, it is one of the most important monasteries in China for Tibetan Buddhism. It is also second in size to the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

Labrang is a massive compound that houses around 1,500 monks and it still has six institutes of learning, including medicine, astrology, theology, and law.

As we walked around, we saw many pilgrims -- mostly women -- walking around murmuring prayers as they briskly walked by; they would nudge you if you were in the way.

One woman made a very intense pilgrimage. She took a step forward, then kneeled down, and she had pads on her hands and prostrated herself flat on the ground for a second before getting back up and repeating the process again.

We got to see a few of the temples where two had a giant Buddha statue each and in the last and biggest temple has a prayer hall that holds 1,000 monks.

They were coming in for prayers at 11.30am just as we were leaving, and they wore their maroon robes along with a yellow headdress.

Outside were a lot of black boots that all looked the same -- how did they know which one was theirs? Or maybe it was a lesson in not being attached to things...

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Sunday, 10 September 2017

Picture of the Day:Binglingsi Grottoes

It too us over three hours by tour bus, then a half hour ride in a tiny speed boat on the Yellow River and a long walk to get here.

There are supposedly 10,000 Buddha statues here but we didn't see them all -- many are closed off from the public.

But the styles of the statues are different from the various periods in China's history. There's even a Buddha with mini murals of palm trees flanking him on each side.

This is like a mini prelude to the Mogao Grottoes we will see in a few days.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Picture of the Day: Beef Noodles

We spent the whole day traveling -- from Hong Kong to Beijing and then to Lanzhou for the start of our Silk Road tour.

When our tour guide picked us up, he said it would take an hour and a half to get to town because of traffic jams. Why?

He explained geographically Lanzhou which is in Gansu province is in the centre of China, which is why there are a lot of transport links here...

So he suggested we eat before we hit the road. Lanzhou is famous for its beef noodles and our guide took us to a place near the airport.

It's kind of like cafeteria style and since we are foreigners, we got the clean disposable chopsticks in a sealed package.

The noodles were really good, not overlooked, with a bit of a bite, and the soup base had a mala taste from the Sichuan peppercorns.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Mao's Grandson not Invited to Party Congress

Mao Xinyu usually gets followed by the media in public appearances
The 19th Party Congress is set to start on October 18, but some notable faces won't be there, including Mao Zedong's grandson.

Major General Mao Xinyu is one of five senior military figures descended from or with close family ties to revolutionary generals or former state leaders who will miss out on this important political event that is held every five years.

General Liu Yuan won't be at the Party Congress in October
Those who are not invited to attend are effectively ruled out of any future promotions within the military.

Previously people like Mao Xinyu were practically guaranteed a seat at these events, but it seems President Xi Jinping doesn't put much weight on associations with "princelings".

Macau-based military watcher Anthony Wong Dong was diplomatic in explaining the reasoning behind Mao Xinyu's absence by saying perhaps it was because Xi didn't know these people to trust them in key roles.

"Rather than deliberately suppressing [the influence] of the descendants of party veterans, Xi might simply think they are not reliable enough, or that they don't have the right skills to lead the army," he said.

A total of 2,300 delegates from all sectors will attend the party congress, where they will vote to select the powerful Central Committee and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Xi Jinping hasn't invited five princelings in the PLA
Other princelings that were excluded are: General Liu Yuan, the son of former president Liu Shaoqi; Admiral Liu Xiaojiang, the son-in-law of the party's former general secretary Hu Yaobang; General Zhang Haiyang, a son of former Central Military Commission vice-chairman General Zhang Zhen; and General Liu Yazhou, the son-in-law of former president Liu Xiannian.

Other than being known as Mao's grandson, Mao Xinyu had the honour (and the criticism) of being promoted the youngest major general in the People's Liberation Army in 2009.

He is also a member of the Chinese National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory group to the government.

Very interesting that Mao Xinyu is not invited to this year's congress -- he always got the paparazzi treatment during these events, just because he is Mao's grandson.

But guess that pedigree doesn't get you far anymore...

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Revisiting Ciao Chow

A pretty and delicious Proscuitto and arugula pizza at Ciao Chow
Last night we went to Ciao Chow for dinner, a place I visited almost two years ago when it opened.

This time I went back with the restaurant owners so we were treated there, and there were some interesting items on the menu worth sharing.

Thinly sliced ox tongue (left), house-smoked salmon (right)
For antipasti, there's thinly-sliced ox tongue with a garlic-parsley sauce (HK$49), but the sauce could be on the side. The house-smoked salmon (HK$49) is also very good, but give the calamari (HK$66) a miss. The batter doesn't work and the tomato sauce needs seasoning.

We really enjoyed the kale salad (HK$99) that came with pine nuts -- though there would have been bonus points if they were toasted -- along with croutons and honey garlic dressing.

The manager told us the octopus salad (HK$119) was new on the menu and it needs some work. Some octopus pieces ranged from chewy to almost jaw-breaking, though we liked the other ingredients, such as baby potatoes, green beans, arugula and lemon dressing.

Popular kale salad with pine nuts and croutons
Ciao Chow is known for its pizzas and they are still good. We had the one that is basically a Margherita pizza topped with proscuitto and arugula (HK$209) and the dough was delicious, holding up the tomato sauce without being soggy.

I almost ordered a pasta, but then looking down at the main courses I spied an intriguing dish -- assorted seafood soup that is baked with a pizza dough top (HK$448). We had to try it.

It arrived in a large oval pan covered with pizza dough baked on top. The server then used a large spoon to cut the dough into four pieces before revealing what was underneath -- a gorgeous combination of fish, mussels, clams and prawns in a cherry tomato broth seasoned with white wine and garlic. Basically a bouillabaisse baked with a pizza dough on top to make it Italian. Magic!

Seafood soup under pizza dough
The seafood was perfectly cooked, particularly the mussels and fish; the clams had a bit of sand in them, but plump, the prawns a tad overcooked though still good. Our only complaint would be to have more of the tomato broth to eat.

We were pretty full at this point and passed on dessert -- luckily our generous hosts did not insist. For mocktails I tried the strange-sounding aged balsamic punch (HK$58) that was a concoction of fig, vanilla aged balsamic, and lemon juice. It was slightly tart, but the edge was taken off by the aged balsamic that gave it a rounded flavour. It's definitely an acquired taste.

By the time we left the restaurant just after 8pm and bar area were practically full for a Wednesday night.

Ciao Chow
G/F, California Tower
30-32 D'Aguilar Street
2344 0005

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

1,300 People Fight Over Four Flats

Flats at Parc City in Tsuen Wan are still being built, with almost all units sold
Yesterday the headlines were unbelievable but true -- 1,300 people were fighting over four flats in Parc City, Tsuen Wan.

That's because the owners of the four flats walked away from their transactions, giving up hundreds of thousands of dollars in deposits.

The flats ranged in size from 427 to 850 square feet, with prices from HK$6.04 million to HK$14.4 million.

Over 1,300 people tried for a chance to buy one of four flats
But the most sought-after flat was the smallest one, which was being offered for resale at the original price. But if the buyer paid in cash, the price was discounted to HK$5.89 million.

So how did they decide who got which flat in the end?

Each potential buyer had to pay a deposit and then their name was put into a lucky draw with the odds at more than 300 to 1 in being able to buy a flat.

While property agents claim this is evidence that the property market is still hot, it also clearly illustrates there is hardly enough supply.

The Lam administration really needs to tackle this urgent issue -- not only to help people have roofs over their heads, but also give hope to young people who feel owning a home is an impossible goal.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

China's Second Lost Generation

There are at least 9 million left-behind children in China, as high as 61 million
Two years ago, the village of Cizhu in Hubei province was in the news for the most unfortunately reason -- four children aged between five and 13 years killed themselves by drinking pesticide after their mother abandoned the family and the father went away for work.

The surviving grandparents were too infirm to care for them and the children had dropped out of school because they couldn't afford it.

What has happened since then?

The village still has a lot of left-behind children; while the parents understand the psychological and emotional consequences of being separated from their children, they have no choice -- the money needs to be made somewhere.

Grandparents must look after the youngsters, a tiring job
According to official figures, last year there were over 9 million left-behind minors, defined as rural children with both parents working away from home, or where one parent is working and the other did not have guardianship of them.

In a wider definition where all children with at least one parents working away from home, the number is as high as a staggering 61 million.

A State Council guideline issued last year called for a system to be set up involving families, governments, schools and social groups to provide care to left-behind children.

It also promised to reduce the number of affected children by improving laws and regulations by 2020 -- only three years away.

Cizhu village is home to 260,000 left-behind children and eight year-old Ma Juan is one of them. She doesn't understand why her father is hardly there, but he has no choice as her mother abandoned the family when she was three months old.

Her father works on construction sites in Shandong province, 1,800 kilometres away and only comes back for Lunar New Year.

Can the government make children's lives better in three years?
Ma's aunt says at least her brother is making some money and saving several thousand yuan a year, bringing gifts for Ma and her older sister.

But for his youngest daughter it's not enough. The aunt said she once found the youngster crying and not even the promise of buying anything could stop her. Later she told her aunt she could not help missing her mother, even though she did not have any pictures of her or remembered what she looked like.

After the 2015 tragedy, Bijie government, which administers Cizhu village, asked parents to return for the sake of their children, and there was even an effort to document those whose parents were away.

But even if parents want to bring children with them to where they are working, they have to pay extra to house them (on their own accommodation is free), and it's an additional cost they would rather not take on, which is why families are separated.

And if they do bring the kids with them, it's hard to find schools to accept them because academically they are behind, and there is the additional cost of tuition.

It's a tough call for parents, but through observation, families where at least one parents came home, their children were more at ease and happy, even smiling more.

Can the government really tackle such a serious issue -- that it has neglected for decades -- within three years?

Chinese President Xi Jinping may be making poverty alleviation a big priority, but how is the government going to help families whose parents must go away for work because they can't earn a decent enough living where their families are?

If the government can solve this issue effectively within three years that would be a miracle. These children -- like eight-year-old Ma -- have been neglected too long -- they are basically a lost generation, the second one after the Cultural Revolution.

What hope does Ma have of a decent life ahead of her if she can't even get the family love and support she desperately needs?

Monday, 4 September 2017

Dessert of the Day: Durian Pudding

Durian pudding! This one's D24 from Malaysia served at Cafe Malacca
Yesterday we had lunch at Cafe Malacca -- and we had Hainanese chicken rice, beef rendang, mee goreng, lady fingers (okra), and morning glory. An interesting main dish was called ikan pari bakar, or stingray grilled in between banana leaves with a mild spicy sauce.

My aunt said it had the texture of crab meat and it sort of does, as you can portion it off into strips. The meat was delicious and then the cartilage is thin and can be eaten too! It was quite crunchy.

The easy winner -- Musang King from Malaysia!
After all that we were quite full, but we were curious about the dessert.

On the menu are two different durian puddings -- one is D24 at HK$52, and the other called Musang King at HK$68. We asked the server to suggest one to try, but he said we should try both to see the difference.

So we did.

The D24 one was smooth, but hands down the favourite was Musang King with its intense durian flavour that lingered.

Now we know!

Cafe Malacca
Level 2, Hotel Jen
508 Queens Road West
Shek Tong Tsui
2213 6613

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Another Side of Audrey Hepburn

Beautiful pale blue dress Audrey Hepburn wore
Auction house Christie's is going to sell some of Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn's personal items in an upcoming sale on September 27 in London.

Tailoring details in this coat dress
To drum up interest in Hong Kong, some of the pieces, from clothing to jewellery to miscellaneous items are being shown at the Landmark Atrium -- otherwise known as the Landmark fountain -- from now until September 8.

Yesterday we saw the items on show and were in awe of Hepburn's petite size, though she was quite tall too.

There was a black cocktail dress by Givenchy Couture she wore as Regina "Reggie" Lampert in the 1963 movie Charade, or how about the gorgeous pale blue satin cocktail gown she wore to promote Two For the Road.

She also had Burberry trench coat way before it was trendy years ago, and a few pairs of ballet flats (used) should you want to own them.

We loved the detail of the ivory wool coat dress with the detail of the outer stitching, the mother of pearl buttons, and knit sleeves. What a cool combination created by Valentino.

Also for sale is a tiara and the annotated script from Breakfast at Tiffany's that will probably generate a lot of interest.

Did you know Hepburn could paint? Now you do!
What I liked the most was her oil painting called My garden flowers painted in 1969. The flowers are so colourful and vibrant, with texture too from the brushstrokes to try to make it less two-dimensional.

I didn't know she was a painter, like Katherine Hepburn too!

Saturday, 2 September 2017

PLA Recruits Not Making the Grade

More and more PLA recruits aren't able to pass the fitness exams
The People's Liberation Army is having trouble recruiting young soldiers because more and more are failing the physical exam.

In one unnamed city in Hubei province, more than 55 percent of the 1,233 young people who tried out for the PLA failed to make the cut because of vision and weight issues, the PLA Daily reported.

However, that was better than in Jianghan Plain, in central and southern Hubei, where the pass rate was 25.6 percent last year, down from 30.8 percent in 2011, the report said.

Many young people applying are overweight and aren't fit
Li Xianggui, chief director of a hospital in Jingzhou said he had seen a significant decline in fitness levels in the 20 years he had been involved in the military's physical exams.

He said although living standards are rising, many young people had unhealthy diets and more were overweight.

According to the medical journal The Lancet, some 43 million men and 46 million women in China are overweight -- 10.8 and 14.9 percent of the population respectively.

"In general, the physical condition of young people wanting to sign up is not ideal, but we can't lower our standards when it comes to finding troops," said Gao Jindong, a division commander in Jingzhou.

Although more young have been applying to the PLA in the past two years, many weren't able to pass the physical exams, according to Liu Deming, a military political commissar in Jingzhou.

PLA doesn't want to lower its standards to get more recruits
The problem of finding new recruits is so widespread that the PLA Daily even posted on social media 10 reasons why many recruits failed the fitness test -- including too many  video games, not enough exercise and too much masturbation.

How the last reason has anything to do with fitness levels is bizarre, but maybe has to do with focus?!

Many are keen to join the army because of the benefits for them and their families, though with Chinese President Xi Jinping cracking down on the PLA as a corporate entity, taking from the trough will get harder in the coming years.

And then there are also recruits who pass the exam, but are later discharged because of "hidden" conditions that emerged during the rigorous training process.

Does this mean the world's largest army is going to shrink soon?

Friday, 1 September 2017

Yujia Wang's Distracting Dress

Here is pianist Yujia Wang covered up! in a promotional poster
Tonight was the season opener for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the soloist was superstar pianist Yujia Wang.

It's quite amazing that I've seen her perform for 10 years now -- I saw her play in a small concert hall in Beijing in 2007.

And tonight she played in front of several who's who -- Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, principal guest conductor Yu Long, former lawmaker Emily Lau Wai-hing former Hong Kong Monetary Authority Joseph Yam Chi-kwong to name a few.

While her performance tonight of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 was mesmerizing, she doesn't seem to have matured as a person.

This is the dress she wore (here with the Santa Cruz Symphony)
She walked on stage in this revealing dress -- a turquoise number with a deep V both in the front and back, but it was actually covered up with skin-coloured cloth. Then she could barely walk and I soon could see why -- she was wearing platform heels which forced her to stick her butt out.

When she sat down -- and we sat behind her -- we could see her G-string... how classy.

Why was she wearing such a skin-tight dress with skin-coloured fabric? This is not figure skating! This is a performance at a concert hall! And those heels -- gold coloured too -- belonged on the dance floor. Hardly sexy or sophisticated.

As for the music, we really loved her playing, but that bow afterwards needs some work. She just flings her head down, puts her right arm across her chest and shuffles off in that skin-tight dress that might as well be a nylon tube sock. She hardly acknowledged the crowd sitting behind the orchestra -- at least Lang Lang would have given them a few bows in gratitude.

And what about some kudos so the orchestra that performed with her? She barely gave any thanks to them except finally shaking the hand of the concert master before again shuffling off.

She seemed ambivalent about giving an encore, but when the audience won't stop clapping, surely they want to hear more?

Wang finally obliged -- twice -- and we were very pleased. But how about a bit of humility? Or was it nerves from performing in front of dignitaries or the dress and shoes weren't working out?

If she's not comfortable in them, she really shouldn't wear them. I want to see a performer who is confident and happy and shows some grace. I guess she still has a lot to learn.

After the intermission, the Hong Kong Phil gave a very lively performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Music director Jaap van Zweden was militant about the timing and also jumped up and down several times to make his point.

The orchestra replied with fantastic sound that resonated throughout the concert hall, dischordant at times, but very experimental and full of energy and full use of the entire orchestra, especially percussion!

When the concert was over, with two rounds of clapping, Carrie Lam got out of her seat to approach the stage. My friend nudged me to leave so we did -- along with scores of other people!

Season Opening: Jaap & Yujia
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall