Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Local Celebrity Sighting!

My friend with actor Chow Yun-fat at the Tai Po Cooked Market Centre
This morning I woke up at 6.30am to get to Tsim Sha Tsui East for an assignment. A small group of people and I were accompanying a chef to Tai Po Market in the New Territories as he bought some vegetables and seafood; afterwards he would go back to the restaurant to prepare lunch for us to eat.

For me going to Tai Po has memories -- I spent seven years commuting to the Industrial Estate for work, but hardly ever went to the Tai Po market. I only went once to the area to have the best roast goose I have ever had -- unfortunately that place closed so I never went back there again!

Anyway, we arrived around 9.20am and the Tai Po Market is a giant modern and clean complex near the MTR station. On the top floor is the cooked food centre and that's where we had some breakfast. We ate some pork chop buns, deep-fried fish fillet buns, and dim sum.

Chow having a chat with the chef
While we were eating, a woman we were with had a phone call and walked away to take it. She didn't come back for a long time but when she returned, she excitedly said actor Chow Yun-fat walked right by her and waved!

He seems to be everywhere these days -- people have reported sightings of him at 7am in a cha chaan teng in Kowloon City, in Mui Wo, and on the MTR.

One of the organizers of our field trip excitedly went off on a search for him and we told her to come back with him, but a while later she came back alone! She said he was swarmed by fans and she asked him to come by our table. Would he? Did he know how to find us?

Sure enough a few minutes later, a tall man in all black with a baseball cap, sunglasses, black top, shorts and leggings showed up. We were in the midst of getting up when he motioned to us to sit down, not wanting to cause a commotion.

But onlookers were thrilled to see him and huddled around our table. Chow was introduced to the chef -- the actor didn't seem to believe he was one until a name card was produced. Suitably impressed Chow told us to gather round for a wefie.

He didn't like where I was standing and instructed me to stand to his left and I quickly obeyed. Soon he took three pictures, gave back our smartphone and he left as quickly as he came.

We hadn't even gone grocery shopping yet and already had a massive celebrity sighting!

After I posted the picture on social media, it went wild with lots of comments saying "lucky you!" and "so jealous!"

We really were lucky! And we had a really fun excursion and delicious lunch too!

I'm glad to have a fun memory of Tai Po instead of just that one-and-a-half hour commute there and back everyday for seven years!

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Picture of the Day: Childlike Fun

Eddie Kang's Big City Life elicits smiles from visitors
The Asia Society Hong Kong always has some outdoor sculptures for visitors to admire. They are usually on the serious or contemplative side.

This one however caught my eye and made my day. It's a whimsical collection of five cartoon heads, each with different faces on them. You can't help but smile at the playfulness of the expressions and colours.

And that's the intention of Korean artist Eddie Kang with Big City Life 2017.

In the description it says Kang, like other city dwellers, is overwhelmed by the density and tension in the urban environment, and so he seeks comfort in cartoons. He wants to remind us of the joy and simplicity we experienced as a child.


Monday, 20 May 2019

Hong Kong Scared to Show its True Colours

Cathay Pacific wants to show diversity with this advert, but it's banned in HK
Last Friday Taiwan made a bold statement last week in legalizing same-sex marriages, the first place in Asia to do so.

In a way it threw down the gauntlet on other Asian places to see where they stand, and in the case of Hong Kong, it's still in the closet.

The city's airline carrier, Cathay Pacific also made a daring move with its rebranding with its campaign "Move Beyond", in a bid to demonstrate its diversity. In one of its images, it shows two Asian men wearing suits and holding hands as they walk along a beach.

Other Cathay campaign images are shown in MTR stations
However, both the Airport Authority, which runs Hong Kong's airport and the MTR Corporation rejected showing this image, and other ones are being shown around the city.

Since the news broke about not showing the image of the two men, MTR Corp tried to blame its advertising agency, JCDecaux to reconsider using it in the future. However this wasn't enough for LGBT groups, demanding to know when in the future MTR Corp would use the image.

"What does it mean that they will consider so in the future? What about [this advert] this time?" said Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, Hong Kong's first openly gay lawmaker.

"We reiterate that the MTR Corporation is committed to equal opportunities in all aspects of its business and supports diversity, and it does not tolerate any form of discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation or any other factor," the corporation said on Monday.

So... why not let actions speak louder than words and post the image in the stations?

Meanwhile, the Airport Authority tried to explain its reasoning not to show the image due to "established guidelines" on how adverts are displayed. 

"In the airport's environment, one important consideration is given to the fact that [the airport] receives a large number of passengers of all ages with different cultural backgrounds from all over the world," a spokesman for the Airport Authority said.

The LGBT community has started an online campaign
He said the advert in question had not been submitted to the authority, perhaps again blaming the ad agency.

In the meantime,  the LGBT community has started an online campaign, getting people, homosexual or not to hold a picture of the banned image and take pictures of themselves in MTR stations or at the airport, and post it on social media.

Already Gigi Chao, daughter of property tycoon Cecil Chao, posted a picture of herself and another woman at the Airport Express where they held up a sign, "#MoveBeyondDiscrimination".

Chao made headlines around the world in 2012 when her father offered HK$500 million (US$63.7 million) to any man who would marry his daughter, even though she was already married to another woman. Two years later he doubled the offer to HK$1 million.

Gigi Chao (left) and friend at Airport Express
Previously Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg had said of the rebranding campaign: "The inclusion bit is really important. No matter who you are, when you come to work at Cathay Pacific... we want you to be who you are and feel really comfortable and be a productive part of the team and that's what we strive for."

Also, the airline told staff in an internal meeting that one of the key messages of the rebranding was to "fly with pride for our LGBT community allies".

Can we please move forward with this issue? Hong Kong looks like an ostrich with its head in the sand next to Taiwan. We look sheepish in dealing with the reality of diversity in the community instead of embracing it.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Fake Job Hunters Wanted

Some 200 to 300 people in this room are pretending to want a job
It looks like hongbaos or red envelopes in China, have arrived in Hong Kong.

A recent job fair organized by the government of Ningbo promoted 820 positions with annual salaries as high as 3 million yuan (US$432,000) were apparently available.

The event was held at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, where 51 recruiters, from universities research institutes, state-owned enterprises, private companies and NGOs were looking for people from Hong Kong to fill the positions.

The job fair was organized by the Ningbo government
The Ningbo Human Resources Service Centre that organized the event, is a public institution under the Ningbo human resources authorities, and the job fair was arranged with support from the Beijing Liaison Office in Hong Kong, and Ningxing Group, which is the Ningbo government's investment vehicle.

Five days before the event, an advertisement was circulated on WeChat, which was looking to hire part-time actors to make the job fair look well attended.

"You need to prepare a resume and wait for an interview, which will be conducted for appearance sake," the advert said.

"Salary of HK$200 will be paid at the scene. Only nine places are left now. Add me [as a friend on WeChat] if you are interested. I will put you into a chat group."

A Hong Kong-based reporter went undercover to sign up, and was recruited as an "actor", but on the day of the fair was told there was enough people and didn't need to take part. The reporter still got the HK$200 -- easy money for just showing up! -- which was then donated to a charity.

Having fake job hunters helped boost attendance numbers
At the fair, the recruiter told the reporter there were 200 to 300 people paid to be there. She also said the liaison office and Ningxing Group were not involved in finding part-time actors.

"Unemployment rate in Hong Kong is so low. It's unlikely for such a recruitment fair to be popular here. But every government has its performance goals," the recruiter said.

"There are some companies paying money to hire people to fill the room and make it a lively scene. In return, they will have a better relationship with the Ningbo government when they do business there," she said, adding nothing illegal was taking place.

Meanwhile after the event, some people were seen receiving HK$200 each from a man who was standing across from the hotel in a park.

Some of the companies were contacted to ask if they knew some of the applicants were fake, but they were not aware -- except one noticed it was strange that one woman wanted to take a picture while she was being interviewed...

Sound familiar back on the mainland? It's not unusual for companies to hand out hongbaos as "transportation allowances", but in Hong Kong?

Perhaps someone needs to explain to the Ningbo Human Resources Service Centre that Hong Kong operates under "one country, two systems", and the latter part means no hongbaos!

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Germany's Humanitarian Dilemma

A timely reminder of Germany's constitution of opening its doors
I saw these banners posted in front of the Semperoper or opera house in Dresden:
Open our eyes.
Open our hearts.
Open our doors.
Human dignity is inviolable.

-- Article 1 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany

They immediately made me think of the Syrian, Iranian and Afghani refugees Germany took in since the summer of 2015, when thousands of them were stuck at Hungary's main train station. Today there are about 1.4 million of them in Germany, grateful to be safe from war and persecution.

Merkel visiting refugee children taking classes in school
However, Chancellor Angela Merkel's generous humanitarian action has cost her politically, with native Germans not happy with the massive influx of people who are not one of their own, even though these refugees must integrate and learn how to speak German to be able to thrive.

Our tour guide in Frankfurt blamed Merkel for the current economic situation. He said when he was a child, his father could easily provide for him, his sister and mother, afford a car and take a holiday once a year.

Today the 40-year-old said he and his wife both work -- they don't have children yet -- and they can't afford to buy another car.

Did he not understand that this situation is happening all over the world, not just in Germany? This is not because of the refugee influx. And they wouldn't be competing for his job -- they would be taking the jobs Germans wouldn't want to do.

His dislike of Merkel is misplaced.

I am grateful she has taken in these refugees, and that she has welcomed dissidents like artist Ai Weiwei and Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo to Germany.

Liu Xia (centre) and Ai Weiwei (right) meet up in Berlin
It is because Merkel grew up in East Germany since she was an infant and had experienced communism first hand until the age of 35.

Following a series of election setbacks, last October, the Chancellor announced she will step down in 2021 when her term ends. Merkel will also not seek re-election as the head of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany.

Hopefully in the future, Merkel will be vindicated for taking in the refugees not only because of the humanitarian crisis, but also boosting Germany's population to keep the economy going. But for now though, you can feel unease between native Germans and their new neighbours.

Which is why these banners in Dresden are so apt for what is happening today, a reminder to open our eyes, hearts and doors.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Tribute to IM Pei

The legendary architect IM Pei has died at the age of 102

This morning I woke up to the sad news that architect IM Pei had died at the age of 102. Tributes have been pouring in for the Chinese-American who is famous for his buildings scattered around the world, including the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and of course in Hong Kong, the Bank of China headquarters.

The Bank of China Building in Hong Kong
I pass by that building every time I go to the gym behind the bank, climbing up the stairs along the mini waterfalls. When the bank was first built, superstitious Hongkongers worried the building looked like a knife, cutting up the city, or that it looked like the devil with its two antennae at the top.

Pei's family has a long history with the bank -- in fact it just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, making it around the same age as him!

His father, Tsuyee Pei, was one of China's leading bankers, according to the New York Times, and when Ieoh Ming Pei was an infant, the family moved to Hong Kong so that Pei senior could run the Hong Kong branch of the Bank of China.

A century later and two generations later, IM Pei's son, Li Chung Pei or Sandi, would lead the renovations of the old Bank of China just down the street from his father's shiny triangular building.

It's a wonderful anecdote that clearly illustrates the Pei's family roots in Hong Kong and its contribution to banking and architecture in the city.

The Suzhou Museum is symmetrical and calming
My other story is in 2008 I spent Chinese New Year in Shanghai on my own. One of my days there I caught the train to Suzhou for the day, wandering around when I stumbled on a building that didn't look like the typical mainland Chinese architectural style of big, boxy and lacking style.

I was immediately drawn to this building that was very symmetrical and discovered it was the Suzhou Museum -- designed by IM Pei.

But of course.

This realization made my visit to Suzhou exponentially better as I was immediately soothed by its simple lines, sitting on the edge of a man-made pond that had a calming effect.

Dramatic pyramid down below the Louvre
How did I not know this was here? The building itself was much more interesting than the exhibits inside.

Sadly the Bank of China building is the only IM Pei building in Hong Kong -- in October 2013 it was announced Sunning Plaza, a 31-storey office building in Causeway Bay, whose main feature was that there was a large open space around the buildings, thus creating an "urban oasis". People liked being able to sit outside and dine al fresco amid a quartet of palm trees.

But alas Pei's first project in Hong Kong was torn down by landlord Hysan Development that replaced it with -- what else -- a mixed retail and office building that is a non-descript office block -- literally. It opened late last year.

Nevertheless, in front of the cameras Pei was always smiling, looking dapper in his suits and wearing his trademark black frame round glasses. He knew how to charm potential clients and explain to existing clients why things had to be done his way. There were compromises too, but probably his biggest battle -- the Pyramid at the Louvre -- shows Pei's skills not only in design but also patience and persuasion.

I haven't seen this entire video of his lecture at MIT about the project, but he explains in great detail (with jokes aside), the challenges he went through and how he solved several issues.

Pei is not only a legend in architecture, but also for Chinese immigrants and ethnic Chinese the world over, an inspiration of being proud of his roots and being successful for his designs that changed the urban landscapes around the world.

Pei fought the controversy of having a pyramid at the Louvre
He may have left us but may his buildings continue to live on.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Picture of the Day: Ampelmann

Amplemann outside his store near Berliner Dom

This green guy is called Ampelmann.

He can be found on the crosswalk lights in Berlin.

When it's time to cross, you see Ampelmann have a wide stride in green, and when the light changes, he becomes red and his arms are stretched out like a cross as a signal to stop others from walking.

The story goes in Berlin, the most foot traffic was at Potsdamer Platz, where some 83,000 people crossed the area everyday.

In 1924 the first traffic lights were installed there -- it was actually an 8 metre-tall tower with lights on each of the four sides and manned by a person, but people on the ground didn't pay much attention to it and continued their habits of crossing the road at their own peril.

A traffic psychologist by the name of Karl Peglau developed the traffic men called Ampelmann and in 1961 his designs were submitted to Berlin, specifically East Berlin. The little men have pug noses and slight paunches, and wear a hat. A year later these little men were installed, and it wasn't until after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 that people in West Berlin saw these cute street crossing signs and felt Ampelmann should be saved.

Today Ampelmann is so popular that Berlin has a number of stores selling products related to the red and green crossing men. You can buy mugs, T-shirts, key chains, canvas bags, baseball hats, bracelets, beach towels, and even pacifiers with these iconic logos.

Who knew such an important street safety sign would become emblematic of Berlin!

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Germany's Basic Cuisine

This crispy pork knuckle in Munich was so good! The skin really was crunchy
When you think of German food, the first things that come to mind are sausages, pork knuckles, schnitzels and sauerkraut. Oktoberfest food!

A disappointing currywurst that was hardly fiery hot
You would be correct. Most of the restaurants serving German fare in touristy spots serve the above items. In big portions.

First we tried the currywurst and they are advertised on signs with flames to indicate how spicy they are, but it's a pathetic sham. Even eaters who can't stand a piece of chilli on their food can eat the currywurst because it's basically a boiled sausage with a kind of ketchup sauce with curry powder sprinkled on top of it.

Seriously it was really disappointing.

Then we tried roasted pork knuckle in Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich. The one in Berlin was tender but the skin was very tough and hardly crispy. We thought perhaps the Germans could learn a thing or two from the Chinese when it comes to roasting pigs to ensure a crispy skin.

A pretty bland sandwich of pickled herring with onion rings
In Frankfurt, the situation improved a bit, with the meat from the pork knuckle meat very tender, though the skin was less tough, but again not very crispy.

However, by the time we made it to Munich, at a German restaurant near our hotel called Munchner Stubn, we were surprised and impressed that the menu item "crispy pork knuckle" really was crunchy! It was probably deep fried, but the skin delicious and the meat was not salty either.

The schnitzels I tried were good, hardly tough, even though they were breaded and fried. The meat was very tender and the flavour was helped along by some freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Meanwhile I tried eat as much sauerkraut as I could as it's not often found in Hong Kong and I basically eat it once a year during Oktoberfest. We also liked the braised red cabbage, more on the sweeter side though equally delicious.

A hearty portion of schnitzel in Dresden
The potatoes are either boiled, made into a potato salad with a tangy mayonnaise, French fries, or potato dumplings, which are chewy in texture, but not very palatable!

My friend YTSL asked if I had tried pickled herring, but I didn't see it on any menus. However at a rest stop along the autobahn from Frankfurt to Munich, I did try a pickled herring sandwich for 4 euros, garnished with onion rings and pickles. It was on the bland side, but oh well. At least I tried some seafood!

Perhaps the bonus of coming to Germany in the late spring is white asparagus season! I sometimes get to try it at fine dining restaurants in Hong Kong (at inflated prices because they are shipped over), but in Germany they were very fresh and meaty, and not too expensive.

Some restaurants offered several white asparagus spears with a side order of say schnitzel or smoked salmon or beef. It was the perfect combination with schnitzel. However, in Dresden I tried the white asparagus soup and it tasted way too salty.

Fantastic white asparagus in season wit boiled potatoes
We had dessert only a few times. Once was at a cafe in the Palmengarten, or Botannical Garden in Frankfurt, where we each tried different desserts. My apple pie was pretty good, a hearty slice. However, we had a fantastic apple strudel in Munich (the same restaurant as the crispy pork knuckle!) with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The strudel wasn't saccharine sweet, and was choc full of thinly sliced apples marinated in sugar and cinnamon and wrapped in several layers of pastry. Oh so good!

In terms of drinks we did try apple wine that was quite sour so it had to be paired with something sweet to eat, though the draft beers were refreshing, even the dark beer brewed with malt made from at least 50 percent wheat. It's easy drinking and doesn't have much of a bitter aftertaste.

Absolutely divine apple strudel with vanilla ice cream
We didn't just eat German food -- we did eat quite a bit of pasta thanks to a casual Italian cafeteria-style restaurant called Vapiano that seems to be a chain all over the country. It's relatively fast and good value for money.

In Dresden we saw a Vietnamese restaurant and decided to give it a try. The pho ga or chicken pho was basically rice noodles in a delicious broth, but with thin slices of chicken that probably came from a deli. There was way too much chicken meat in the bowl. That was the only Asian food we had the entire trip. And what was I craving as soon as I came back to Hong Kong? Soup noodles with vegetables!

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Munich's Museums

Beyond the Deutches Museum's planetarium is the Frauenkirche in Munich
Our last full day in Munich was a cold and rainy one... we took our hop on, hop off bus again just before 10am and got off at Deutches Museum, which focuses on science and technology with over 28,000 items.

A self-playing keyboard and drum!
the museum was founded in 1909 and is geared towards families and many had young kids. A random trivial fact is that for a time the museum was used to host rock and pop concerts for acts like The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John.

When we arrived there was a lineup, but went quickly and we decided to tackle the museum from the top down. The top floor is a planetarium, but it wasn't open yet, and it talked about all kinds of things related to space, from the sun to the constellations, how telescopes can see so far into space and how the black hole works, using a silver ball rolling around slowly into a spiral that spins very quickly at the end before disappearing into the hole.

On the same floor, the sixth floor, there is an outdoor area where you can see the museum has a tower that shows the barometer and hygrometer, which measure the humidity and water vapor in the atmosphere; the recording was a bit on the high side because it was rainy that day, which sadly made it difficult for us to take some nice scenic pictures of Munich.

The Wright brothers' plane
We also saw exhibitions on things like engines, a man demonstrating how to blow glass, the history of ceramics and how bricks are made in a factory. Another one that I found interesting was musical instruments, though it focused on keyboards.

There was a very small keyboard with black keys called a spinett and a clavichord, both about two-thirds the size of a piano. There was even those self-playing pianos -- one that included the drums too -- and they were pretty massive machines.

One Yamaha looked like today's upright pianos, but this one was different -- it can help musicians record music, as the movement of the hammers is scanned by an LED light barrier. The information is then stored in a MIDI file in the computer. When the music is played back, the signals are electronically converted, and the piano keys move hydraulically in the same way the pianist struck them. Wow.

A plane that was similar to what The Red Baron flew
I had heard of the hurdy-gurdy, but this was my first time actually seeing it. It was a giant box on wheels, but it's supposed to be a stringed instrument that makes sound when it is cranked by hand. The roller rotates and the bellows are then operated, this makes the pins of the roller open valves so that air flows to the corresponding pipes.

There was even a very old jukebox and not the ones we think of from the 1950s -- this one was from 1900 that was shown at the World Exhibition in Paris. Very neat.

Down on the first floor were flying machines including the one made by the Wright brothers in 1909, the first engine-driven plane. We also saw the Fokker Dr. I, the World War I fighter plane made famous by Manfred von Richthofen, or The Red Baron.

The Alte Pinakothek is only 1 euro on Sundays!
The airplane's wings only had a span of 7 metres, making it easier for the plane to fly tight turns. To be honest I don't know much about The Red Baron -- only from what I read from Snoopy comic strips! Nevertheless it was fun to see the plane in person.

We had a quick lunch in the cafeteria which offered decent food and after we finished we noticed there was a big line out the door for people to get food. When we left the museum, we saw a very long line that was almost a block long. Perhaps this was a way to spend a rainy Sunday.

Gorgeous flowers by Rachel Ruysch
After our dose of science and technology, we headed to Alte Pinakothek, an art museum that houses over 700 artworks from the 14th to 18th centuries. The museum was commissioned by King Ludwig I and built from 1826 to 1836 in a Neoclassical style. Originally the building was meant to hold the entire art collection of the House of Wittelsbach, and the king allowed the public to view the works, and it continues this tradition today.

It was still raining when we got there, and there was a giant lineup to buy admission tickets. We soon found out why -- on Sundays admission is only 1 euro!

The building is long and narrow and basically two floors. There are a lot of religious paintings with all kinds of themes from the nativity scene to the crucifixion, angels and depictions of heaven and hell.

I preferred the non-religious pieces, portraits of ordinary people, country scenes, and there's one of a bouquet of flowers by Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). She was the daughter of Dutch botany professor Frederik Ruysch and she used his vast collection of animal skeletons and botany samples to practice her drawings.

Albrecht Durer's self portrait that is Christ-like
She was so good that at one point she taught her father and sister how to paint. At the age of 15, Ruysch apprenticed with a well known flower painter, Willem van Aeist, and he taught her among other things how to arrange flowers so that they looked more spontaneous. While she continued to work with him, Ruysch was already selling her own work at 18.

Ruysch would later go on to marry Amsterdam portrait painter Juriaen Pool and have 10 children! She continued to paint while married.

Another famous work we had to see was Albrecht Durer's Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe, 1500.

He painted this when he was 28 years old and it is considered unusual because of its frontal angle and meticulous details. Durer based the style of this portrait on icons of Christ the Saviour, his hand raised in the sign of the blessing.

Madame de Pompadour by Francois Boucher
One fabulous piece of Rococo art has to be Francois Boucher's Madame de Pompadour, 1756. She was the official mistress of King Louis XV of France and here she is wearing an elaborate afternoon dress surrounded by books, sheets of music and drawings. We were mesmerized by the detail in the folds of the dress as well as the reflection in the back. Her proportions seem a bit off though -- she must have been extremely tall according to this painting and had very tiny feet! In any event a beautiful portrait that shows off the lifestyle of the aristocracy in that period.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Munich's Pride and Joy: BMW

The BMW headquarters (left) and the museum (right)
You can't go to Munich and not go to the BMW Museum! We got there via a hop on, hop off bus and everyone gets off at this stop. Anyone who is a fan of the German "ultimate driving machine" comes here to make a pilgrimage. And if you really want, you can buy a BMW as a souvenir of your trip too.

This is the showroom across the street with a sleek bridge
The showroom is a massive building that includes the Mini, and you can buy not only the cars, but also lifestyle products, from jackets to baseball hats to suitcases and toy cars. Some people were trying on the cars for size, getting in and out of them, while others were there to pick up their cars and drive them off in a special exit driveway for them that looks space age (from what we could see from the outside).

Meanwhile across the street via a sleek elevated walkway, is the BMW headquarters, a distinctive building that looks like four vertical cylinders in a car engine, while the museum looks like the cylinder head, both designed by Austrian architect Karl Schwanzer.

They were built between 1968 and 1972, finished in time for the 1972 Summer Olympics and the BMW headquarters is very close to the Olympic Village, giving the company greater exposure.

Inside the showroom, many were eager to look at BMWs
One good tip is that because we took the hop on, hop off bus, the BMW Museum also gave us a few euros off on admission! Bonus!

The museum is laid out in a linear way and goes through the entire history of BMW. Its origins go back to World War I when an unknown aircraft engine manufacturer called Rapp Motorenwerke GmbH presented a newly and innovative aircraft engine to the Prussian military authorities, the company was renamed Bayerische Moteren Werke (BMW) in 1917.

This is also when BMW's logo was developed -- the company name in a black circle, with blue and white panels from the Bavarian national flag.

One of the early motorcycles BMW produced
From there the company designed engines for motorcycles and then cars in 1929. Up until World War II, BMW's main products were aircraft engines, motorcycles and cars. Then during the war the company focused on aircraft engines, and motorcycles were a sideline business, while car production was stopped altogether.

But during this time, the BMW factory in Eisenach, in central Germany, was in the Soviet-occupied zone, and so the Soviets produced pre-war BMW motorcycles and cars there until 1955. However, its Munich plant was completely destroyed and it took time for the company to not only rebuild but also find another means of business because BMW was banned from producing motor vehicles the Allies.

One of BMWs first Formula 1 cars in a beautiful shade of blue
As a result, BMW made pots and pans, other kitchen equipment and bicycles, and finally got permission from the United States to restart motor production, in particular motorcycles in 1947. BMW started manufacturing cars in the early 1950s which was good timing because by this point the market for motorcycles was saturated and people were starting to demand cars.

The company started making mini cars called Isetta, but it couldn't compete against the Volkwagen Beetle. But by the early 1960s BMW was back on its feet with investors showing faith in the company and not wanting to merge with Daimler-Benz, and new cars that had powerful engines.

The BMW 1600, my father's first BMW!
We got to see those motorcycles and early Formula 1 cars contrasting against today's models. You had to be a petite driver -- practically the size of a horse jockey -- to fit into the old school racing car. Even back in the late 1920s they already knew about aerodynamics, with one racer who broke time records with BMW-designed motorcycles with an aerodynamic body like a fish.

There are a lot of consumer cars on display -- the 1600 from 1966 was there -- my father's first BMW which was fun for him to reminisce about as well as other models. The Z3 was also there, which 007 drove in Goldeneye -- the first time James Bond drove a non-British car.

For design fans, there are 1:1 clay models and videos of how the engineers, designers and modellers need to work together to figure out how every detail of the car is going to look like. Another section of the museum also explains the need to transfer from fossil fuels to electricity, and shows off its BEVs or battery electric vehicles.

Contrast it with this futuristic car powered by fuel cells
If that visit to the museum doesn't inspire you to go buy a BMW I don't know what will. It definitely emits those aspiration vibes for those who want to buy their first car, or their next...! Fantastic marketing tool that BMW has done tastefully and not overtly.

And if you want a bite to eat, their cafeteria does pretty good food too!

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Munich: The Grandeur of Nymphenburg Palace

The idyllic fresco on the ceiling in the Grand Hall
It was raining this morning when we woke up... but the precipitation let up by the time we left the hotel to catch a tour bus to Schloss Nymphenburg. It was built as a gift from Bavarian Elector Ferdinand Maria of the Wittelsbachs to his wife, Henriette Adelaide of Savoy, who finally gave birth to an heir to the throne, Maximillian II Emanuel, in 1662.

Construction began two years later, employing Italian architect Agostino Barelli. Henriette Adelaide of Savoy was an Italian-born princess, and called her Baroque home, "Borgo delle ninte", or "Castle of the Nymphs", hence Nymphenburg.

Maria Leopoldine of Austria-Este
After Elector Maximillian Emanuel grew up, he expanded the country home to create a summer residence, expanding to its left and right to accommodate the entire court during the summer months. Today the additions create a giant curve around the man-made pond and canal.

There is a long driveway to the palace and then for just 6 euros you can check out some rooms inside the palace. It isn't on the same scale as say the Palace of Versailles, but still grand nonetheless.

The first room we entered was the Great Hall, which is in the centre of the palace with a lavish Rococo style. There's a fresco on the ceiling featuring an idyllic scenery and suspended are stunning chandeliers that are covered in crystal beads.

On the walls are portraits of many people, some with interesting backstories. One is Maria Leopoldine of Austria-Este. She had the misfortune of marrying at age 18 to the 70-year-old Elector Karl Theodor.

Her main role was the produce her husband an heir, but she refused to obey, and after Karl Theodor died in 1799, she managed to negotiate the succession to another line of the Wittlesbach family, than a competing Habsburg imperial house.

The Chinese-themed walls and lacquer cabinet
As a result she became very popular which helped Mari Leopoldine become an estate owner, successful property agent and a stock market speculator. She was a very independent woman in the 18th and early 19th century.

Meanwhile the rooms are furnished with beautiful pieces, like a table that has designs of realistic-looking birds, flowers, fruits and insects that are inset with precious stones in marble. Another room has a Chinese theme, the walls looking like floor-to-ceiling screens, while the room also features a beautiful lacquer table with gold Chinoiserie design.

There's one room that has 36 portraits of women that King Ludwig I of Bavaria deemed beautiful women. They weren't all aristocrats or royalty -- there's even a daughter of a shoemaker in one of the portraits painted by Joseph Stieler. Interesting to note is that the king had something for brunettes...

This "collection of the most beautiful" was made open to the public. They were shown in two salons in the Festsaalbau of the Munich Residence, and only after the war in 1945 were the portraits moved to Nymphenburg.

From his youth, King Ludwig I was fascinated by female beauty. He was also a generous art patron, transforming Munich into the art centre of Germany.

A beautiful table of flowers, birds, insects and fruits
One of the bedrooms we get to visit is Queen Caroline's, which still has the original furnishings for visitors to see, complete with mahogany furniture.

In 1842, then Crown Prince Maximillian II and his wife Marie of Prussia took up residence in Nymphenburg Palace. Three years later, she gave birth to the heir to the throne in this bedroom. The son was named Ludwig in honour of his grandfather, Ludwig I.

However this son, Ludwig II ascended the throne at the age of 18, but he had a difficult relationship with his parents and he had is own psychological issues. Partly because he was so indulged and reminded of his royal status, Ludwig II became eccentric, shunning big social events and preferred to be secluded, and became very interested in the works of Richard Wagner.

The bedroom where the future King Ludwig II was born
Ludwig II also spent a lot of his money constructing castles, the most famous of which is Neuschwanstein, located about an hour a way by train from Munich. Apparently Walt Disney modeled his famous fairytale castle on Neuschwanstein.

In the end it was determined Ludwig II suffered from paranoia and was deemed incapable of being king; in the end he died a mysterious death, found dead in shallow water with one of his psychiatrists in 1886...

After wandering through the palace apartments, we took a long stroll to try to find the Chinese-inspired pagoda. We did find it, a Baroque-style small building, and inside is Chinoiserie style wallpaper and furniture. However, the security guard said that our ticket did not include admission to this pagoda so we had to leave.

The palace should really have staff on standby in these extra places to accept additional admission fees -- it is already a 20-minute walk to get to the pagoda from the palace -- why can't we just pay extra on the spot?

A look at the palace from the garden at the back
Nevertheless, we had a good time visiting the palace, as well as seeing all the birds, in particular the swans and ducks that occupy the grounds. They make good natural lawnmowers, which means we had to avoid the green-coloured poo...

Friday, 10 May 2019

Munich's New Town Hall

The gorgeous neo-gothic facade of the New Town Hall
We hired a car to take us from Frankfurt to Munich today, about 400km which took five hours with a lunch break in between. It was a pretty smooth ride overall. Yesterday we learned from our driver how every driver in Germany is well trained -- they all must enroll in professional driving schools for three months and the tests are pretty extensive.

Looking at the tower from inside the town hall complex
Once someone gets their license they have to drive carefully for the first two years -- if they get a speeding ticket, their license is revoked and they won't be able to drive for two years. Apparently the practical driving test is also difficult as the examiner will sometimes ask the driver trick questions to throw them off.

Our hotel is walking distance to Marienplatz, or Mary's Square, and we wandered there after an early dinner.

There's a lot of free entertainment, lots of musicians performing for any spare change you may have. One really good performer was a soprano accompanied by a guitarist.

The square has been around since 1158 with farmers selling their produce and merchants hawking their wares, but these days the area filled with international shopping brands like H&M, Vodafone, SportCheck, United Colours of Benetton, and discount clothing store TK Maxx. There are also mobile fruit stands that are also selling white asparagus which is in season.

The highlight of Marienplatz is the New City Hall or Neues Rathaus that is a stunning neo-gothic building made of brick and limestone that was built between 1867 and 1874.

The tower features a glockenspiel
Meanwhile the facade of the building features a glockenspiel in the tower balcony and everyday at 11am, 12pm and 5pm, mechanically powered figurines represent stories from Munich's history, along with the city's coat of arms, and then angel of peace.

We didn't get a chance to see the show, but maybe we can check it out in the next day or so, as well as take the lift up the 85-metre tall tower to see the views of Munich from above.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Frankfurt's Insightful Sights

Cathedral of St Bartholomew was spared during the war
Today we had a private guide and driver to show us around Frankfurt and a bit beyond. Originally from Frankfurt, he gave us some interesting details about some landmarks in the city.

The original 15th century stained glass
One of our first stops was to Romer, in the old city square. It's a medieval building that dates back over 600 years from the Romer family that made its money as merchants. It later sold the building to the city in 1405 and was later known called the Kaisersaal, or "Emperor's Hall".

Today is the old city hall where people can have a civil wedding, and if the football team, Eintracht Frankfurt wins a major match, the players can be seen on the balcony.

What's interesting is that across from the Romer is a spring water fountain, one of 160 of them in the city, though many are not in use anymore. On top of the fountain is Lady Justice, but on closer examination, she is not blindfolded -- that's because she is looking straight at the King and hinting that she is watching him and he had better make a fair judgment.

A short distance away is Cathedral of St Bartholomew (Dom St Bartholomaus) that was built from the 14th to 15th centuries. Our guide asked us to think of the many artisans who worked on the cathedral over 100 years. Designs changed according to styles of the time, and also how much money could be rustled up by the parishioners.

This popular sausage shop has been around since 1954
During World War II, the allied forces specifically used fire bombs on Frankfurt because it is a living city -- that meant the bombs would burn down buildings, while some facades managed to continue standing.

They did not bomb churches -- our guide explains this is because the war was not about religion, but also because they used them as landmarks to know their positioning. So the church was not damaged per se, but the fires were so hot that they melted the designs on the stained glass.

Sausages with mustard and bread. So good!
However -- all was not completely lost. One panel happened to be taken down for restoration and subsequently kept in a safe place -- and we are now very privileged to see the stained glass from the 15th century. The other stained glass panels looks very modern and the colours are muted pastels.

The tower of the cathedral is also 100 metres high and for a few euros you can climb up to the top to have a good view of the city.

After the war, people in Frankfurt didn't have much if anything left. Some had bunkers that may have stored some food, but other than that no one had much to eat. They would meet at this marketplace called Kleinmarkethalle and exchange food or give away some food so that everyone had a bit of something to eat and it was also a morale booster that the community would rebuild the city again.

The carousel in Wilhelmsbad State Park
We visited that marketplace, which is quite small and indoors, and today houses stalls selling fresh vegetables, fruit, meats and pastries, as well as cooked foods. One of the stalls is called Schreiber that has been there since 1954 and hasn't changed since then.

It sells thick sausages that are boiled and served with a blob of mustard and a portion of bread for 2.30 euros each. We got there just in time before the line started, which our guide says goes all the way out the door everyday.

The wooden horses are beautifully made
Because it was rainy and chilly today, having a bite of the hot sausage hit the spot, and it wasn't salty, and very meaty. The owner, Ilse Schreiber, prepares the sausages using a family recipe from her grandfather-in-law who started the business on Metzgermeile or "butcher's mile".

Then we had a short drive on the autobahn to Hanau, where we visited the Wilhelmsbad State Park that was originally the hunting grounds for Prince Wilhelm IX of Hessen-Kassel. To make his visit there more fun, a carousel was built for him in 1780 by Franz Ludwig Cancrin, who used his mining engineering skills in this project.

The carousel is built on top of a mound and is decorated with wooden horses and carriages. But underneath it is actually pushed around by donkeys and horses who walk around in circles. How ironic is that?

Palmengarten is very lush and green (and wet today!)
After lunch of pork knuckle, sausages, sauerkraut, potato dumplings, and apple cider (very sour!) we went to check out the Palmengarten or Botannical Garden. It's near Bockenheimer Warte subway station and best if you can go on a sunny day. Unfortunately for us, all day it would rain lightly then suddenly get heavier, then light again.

When we arrived here (admission 7 euros/$7.85), it rained lightly then got heavier and we would go into the various indoor gardens to try to stay as dry as possible. The garden was started by landscape gardener Heinrich Siesmayer in 1869 for Frankfurt residents.

The gardens house plants from then inaccessible, distant parts of the world, and includes a lot different species of palm trees, even cocoa trees, orchids, cacti, lotus, and even pitfalls, plants that have giant bucket-like receptacles that trap insects inside.

School children playing inside one of the pavilions
There wasn't too much organization in terms of the groupings of the plants, but it was a nice respite from the weather and warm too because of the tropical temperatures these plants usually live in.

However, when we finished, the rains still wouldn't let up and we found our way to a cafe on the grounds called Siesmayer Cafehaus where we had pastries and coffee. It turn out our server was from Xian, China and spoke to us in Mandarin. It turns out he has been in Germany for 30 years.

In any event, we tried some desserts -- I sampled the apple pie that wasn't too sweet, but a bit on the bland side. The lime yogurt cake was delicious and the Black Forest cake was heavy on the cream, but also not too rich.

Apple pie with cafe au lait for an afternoon treat
When we made our way back to the hotel, the sun started to peek out behind the clouds. Why now when the day is over?! It seems the rain is following us...!