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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Of Fire Dragons, Hakka Villagers and The Mid-Autumn Festival

So I'm spending my first Mid-Autumn Festival here in Hong Kong.  This was not entirely by choice but more to do with the fact that my procrastinating nature got the better of me and I didn't manage to book any trips during this long weekend until it was too late.  No matter - Hong Kong is a bona fide holiday destination in its own right, and I figured, quite rightly it turned out, that there'd be tons of things to do and see in town.  Case in point: getting over to nearby Tai Hang that's minutes from Causeway Bay to see the famed Fire Dragon Dance (which is one of only four festive traditions that have made the third national intangible cultural heritage list, the others being the Cheung Chau Jiao Festival, the Tai O dragon boat water parade, and the Yu Lan Ghost Festival.) 
According to the official website, the Tai Hang Fire Dragon tradition started in 1880.  At that time, Tai Hang was a sleepy Hakka fishing village, and during one stormy night, the residents killed a serpent.  By sunrise, the serpent's body had disappeared and a few days later, a plague had spread throughout the village and many people died of a mysterious infection.  In a dream, a vision of Buddha came to a village elder; he told the latter that the villagers had to perform a fire dragon dance and burn fire crackers during the Mid-Autumn Festival to be rid of the chaos and suffering.  Turns out that the sulphur from the lit incense sticks and fire crackers drove away the disease and the villagers were saved.  Since then, a 200-foot Fire Dragon, made from straw and covered with joss sticks, is paraded through the streets of Tai Hang each year for three nights during the Mid-Autumn Festival in commemoration of that incident. 
It was a slamming crowd when I made my way into Tai Hang on the first night of the ritual. I was fortunate enough to stand at a narrow street near the famous Tai Hang Temple when the spectacular (and believe me, it's a sight to behold) Fire Dragon, with its hooting and hollering "holders," went right by me, U-turned at the temple not 200 meters (650 feet) away, and noisily "danced" by me again, leaving a trail of thick incense vapors in its wake each time.  I like to think that, as it had done for the villagers more than a century ago, that those fumes will also bring good joss to me and everyone else in the crowd, during this Mid-Autumn Festival and for the rest of the year.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Mane Event: New Hair Do and So Much More

A cut and dry affair: the final result

Been feeling all mangy and fed up-ish with my long, straggly hair "don't" lately but was at a bit of a loss as to how to fix the problem as my regular stylist for more than a decade - the fabulous Joanne Tee of Salon Royale - was a distant 2600 km away in Singapore. Finally took the plunge one fine Wednesday evening and made an appointment at Hair Do salon at Causeway Bay.  I was a wee bit apprehensive, not least because I've not cold-called a hair salon for more than a decade, and no one I personally knew has heard of it, much less recommend their services.  But after praying to the Google Gods and checking out Hair Do's website, I realized there was one thing going for it that made it stand a whisker above its competition: more than half of its stylists, designers, and creative directors are Japanese, and the company itself (with four branches all in Causeway Bay) hails from Nippon too.  Call it a gut feeling, but my rationale for selecting them out of the gazillions of hair salons in Hong Kong - and believe me, they are legion - was that I'd hope the Japanese penchant for aesthetics, for obssessing over every minute detail, and for their fervent belief that all presentations matter as much as the substance, would be applied to my tired follicles in the most wondrous way possible.  That hope was realized the moment I was introduced to my stylist Zoie.

Not only were the hair cut and short bob totally what I wanted, but I was super pleasantly surprised by all the little and not-so-little touches that they did throughout the process.  First, Zoie stayed with me from beginning till the end.  That's no time did she fob me off to some silent, slightly churlish junior hair-sweeper who also double duties as the hair washer.  No ma'am.  Zoie personally handled the entire wash, conditioning and towel drying herself, and honestly, I never knew it'd make such a difference having my head coddled and expertly washed, rinsed and, this is the best part, massaged, by an experienced stylist. 

Oh, did I mention the massage already?  Well, it bear repeating and elaborating.

Actually, the correct term would be massages.  Plural.  The first one came when my hair was being shampooed; Zoie tenderly and efficiently worked my scalp, magically ensuring I'll never get any future migraines in this lifetime and the next.  After she rinsed and started on the conditioning, there her fingers were again, kneading my noggin' in all the right ways.  Finally, during the towel dry came the soft pressure again, this time through the microfibres.  Sheer heaven. And this all happened while I was ensconced in the most comfortable hair-washing chair and not one of those uncomfortable contraptions where you have to be in physio days later to sort out your dislocated spinal cord and neck tendons.  Remember when I said presentations and aesthetics matter?  In the world of Hair Do, that translates to investing in snooze-worthy, ergonomic-friendly arm chairs to sink into, having plush velour bean bag blankets (clumsy description, I know, but that's the best I can do, in post-quadruple-massage bliss) to comfortably rest my arms, cooling eye masks to absorb any stray pesky water droplets, and the pièce de résistance - tightly rolled hot towels dabbed gently along my hairline, from ear to ear, to soak up and/or prevent any imaginary errant trickles of water that dare to drip from my towel-dried scalp down my face. 

Honestly, forget the cut and the styling.  Truly, that washing sesh is where it's at.  

I almost forgot to mention the fourth and final massage that Zoie generously bestowed upon me.  This was when I was regretfully back at my main salon chair, waiting for the scissors to make their appearance, when I was treated to an invigorating head, neck and shoulder treatment that had just the right amount of pressure.  No other way to say it....seriously, it was an embarrassment of massage riches by that point.

The cut itself was also an experience.  No perfunctory hair grab and slash here.  Zoie examined my scalp and seemingly every follicle like a Nobel prize-winning botanist would a cherished, much-loved bonsai.  There was a carefully deliberate snip here, a decidedly angular graze there, a contemplative pause, a critical perusal, then it was back to the studied trims again.  I'd never before experienced this much consideration toward my hair and dammit, I gotta say it's a helluva feeling to get that much personal attention. Usually, my observations in those rare times I've strayed from Joanne Tee was pretty much the same as what I'd imagine a cattle-call audition to be: the person in charge being slightly bored, detached, distracted or worse, impatient to get the job done and move on to the next in line.

So in the end, how much did that Great Coiffure Adventure cost me?  A mere HK$288 or US$37.  Un-follicle-believable.  Yes, I had a 10% first-timer discount, but damn....I felt I should be paying them just for the massages alone.  It's the first time I can't wait for my hair to get a wee tad unruly so that I can go back and claim that entire experience again.  Rinse and repeat, indeed.

Where the magic (and wash) happens
Hair Do - 7/F., Plaza 2000, 2-4 Russell St., Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.  Telephone: +852 2528-3886

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Buttery Baked Char Siew Buns

While there are few dimsum dishes I love more than freshly steamed char siew pau (BBQ pork buns,) lately, that affection has been a wee bit usurped by its more sinful, buttery baked and slightly crumbly-on-the-outside cousin.  Honestly, I never even knew they existed - well not versions this good anyway - until only recently.  Best ones I've had so far are at the patience-testing Tim Ho Wan at the IFC/Hong Kong Airport Express terminal, Fu Sing Sharkfin Seafood Restaurant in Wanchai, and the swish Summer Palace at Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Build It And They Will Come....Then Leave, and Come Back Again

Dug this out of the archives (aka my cloud) recently and marvelled for the umpteenth time the amazing skyscrapers that had materialized in just a little over a decade on Sheikh Zayed Road. Sometimes it's still hard to imagine that this was my home for four tumultuous yet strangely enough, comfortable years. This photo was taken sometime in 2006 when The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre (bottom right corner) was literally a hole in the ground. Time flew quickly, like the tens of thousands of expats who made their fortune in this desert mirage and fled just as quickly when the downturn hit hard. Now, as economic cyclical timelines are wont to do, things are looking up in the U.A.E. and the transient population figures are on the rise yet again. For the sake of my friends still residing in that corner of the world, I hope this current upswing and the good times it brings will last much longer before the next inevitable fall.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mad Ads: Made by Arcade

Big thanks to Adeline Tan for introducing me and PR pro extraordinaire Lynn Gervais to the creative team of Made by Arcade when, back in 2010, The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre needed fresh ad concepts to highlight in a super competitive, overheated market its new F&B outlets: a French brasserie, a steakhouse, a Thai restaurant and a cigar lounge.  Our brief to them, in the most broadest terms, was to make the ads memorable, clever, slyly humorous, and subtly abstract. Under no circumstances did we want to be pitched ads consisting of flat over-saturated images of giant steaks, full wine glasses, empty restaurants, grinning chefs, demure hostesses, or worse, all of the above. 
And thankfully, we weren't. 
In a rare feat, the "Arcadians" hit it right out of the ballpark the first time around (I love how gorgeous the "five worst pick up lines" ad looks and that it cracks me up everytime I read the copy.)  Best of all, the exceedingly professional team, lead by Nick Marrett and the tatted-up Gary Tranter, was the most agreeable I've ever worked with (to which anyone who has ever been on the forefront of the client-agency relationship can attest, is no small compliment.)
Here are the ads:

"No.5 offers the top 5 ways of breaking the ice."
Photography and retouching by Edward Loh from Shots.

"Are you ready to do the Can Can?"
Illustrations by Sokkuan Tye and Typography by Vladamir Loginov from Handmade Fonts.

"Whether it's lamb, fish or chicken, we believe it would be better if it was beef.
Photography and retouching by Edward Loh from Shots."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bite-Size Review: Okinawa Dining Bridges at Causeway Bay

The chefs preparing the dishes from ingredients that are air flown from Okinawa
I know there's currently some unfortunate anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese sentiments raging in east Asia due to claims made on a deserted island outpost between the second and third largest economic giants in the world.  But all that brouhaha didn't deter me from recently trying out a quietly elegant restaurant in Causeway Bay that specializes in Okinawan cuisine (food is still the great uniter, in my book.)  Perched on the sixth floor of the new-ish Cubus building overlooking Hoi Ping Road, Okinawa Dining Bridges features two excellent menus: the lunch one boasts of a dizzying variety of gorgeous bento sets at very reasonable prices considering the quality of the ingredients, presentation and taste, and the evening brings with it a multitude of ala carte options, handily categorised into sashimi, sushi, grilled (highly recommended,) stir fry, stewed, hotpot, deep fry and rice/noodles.  Usually when a restaurant offers so many types of cooking methods and dishes, one might be forgiven into assuming that the chefs have spread their talents precariously thin and can offer no discernable specialty dishes, but that would be totally and absolutely incorrect in this case.  Sometimes, it is quite all right to be proven wrong.

Here are some of our dinner highlights: 
The incredibly fresh 5-Kinds-of-Sashimi platter
Grilled silver cod
Stir-fried Okinawan pork with thinly sliced bittergourd
One of my favourite comfort foods: hot soup over rice with salmon roe
The only disappointing item I'd ordered: seafood in hot broth served in a earthen teapot.
The portion was criminally tiny for its price (and especially compared to what was pictured on the menu.)

Okinawa Dining Bridges- 6/F, Cubus, 1 Hoi Ping Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.
Telephone: +852 3428 2131

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Life Cycle of a Three Minutes or Less

Quite an experience to see a massive chandelier materializing a few seconds before a full grown tree sprouted off the ground, twirled around, changed colours to reflect the passing of the seasons and then disappear to the cavernous underground space below.
All within the time it took for Coco Lee to belt out her theme song from
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Yes, it was as absurdly surreal as I'd just described. 
At Wynn Macau....of course.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What I Binge-Watch: Mad Men

I love Mad Men.  I adore the costumes, the furniture, the office bar, the lobster-and-martini lunches, the hoop skirts, bouffants and shift dresses, the fedoras, the shag carpeting, the polyester leisure jackets, the couch naps, the incessant smoking, the ad pitches, the power plays, the title card, the production values, the spot-on dialogue, and the complex characters and storylines that have, to date, held me in rapt attention over five seasons.  As the cherry on top, and this is what sustains me in between the too-long season breaks, I love the glorious photo spreads in which the cast have participated, none more so than this Vanity Fair piece which appeared in the September 2009 issue, featuring the impossibly beautiful Drapers played by Jon Hamm and January Jones; the article was written by Bruce Handy, and the images were photographed by Annie Leibovitz and styled by Michael Roberts.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bite-Size Review: The Graces Restaurant at Lee Theatre Plaza

It might seem like an easy thing to satisfy - one's hankering for good, decent Cantonese food - especially when in a place like Hong Kong, for crying out loud.  But the sheer proliferation of restaurants in this city - in the low-, mid- and high-priced categories - makes it seemingly impossible to pick just one to dine for any particular meal time.  So in terms of the selection process, what one is left to go by are, firstly, personal recommendations from friends and relatives whose tastebuds you trust implicitly, then perhaps reviews from anonymous diners on online foodie sites, and lastly, the chance perusal of restaurants' OTT, self-adulatory marketing goop on flyers, magazines, posters and billboards scattered throughout the city.   Well luckily, The Graces Restaurant falls in the first category, with a couple of friends raving about their cuisine, so that was where we had our dinner one muggy evening in August.  Very reasonably-priced too (well, except for that chunk of abalone we ordered, which alone cost more than all the other dishes combined....lesson learned the expensive way, that's for sure.
Here are some of the highlights:
That expensive braised whole abalone with bakchoy

Blanched tofu with yin choi (Amaranth greens) and garlic in soup stock

A perennial favourite: steamed whole red snapper with scallions and ginger,
and drizzled with light soy sauce 
The Graces Restaurant at Lee Theatre Plaza, 20/F, 99 Percival Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.
Telephone: +852 2882 1889

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Surfing Spot: China Walls at Portlock, Oahu

I lived only a three-minute drive from this dramatic surfing spot, but I'd never ever surfed China Walls mainly because the waves were intimidating as hell, and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out from where I should paddle out (and I was always too embarrassed to ask.)  The surfers always seemed to magically appear amongst the giant swells and at any rate, I was nowhere near their league for China Walls, with all its six-plus-footers and board-splitting glory, was created for hardcore riders and not moony-eyed amateurs like me.   I was totally at peace with that, for it was an amazing place to witness some of the best surfing techniques and of course, those glorious Hawaiian sunsets. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Travelscapes: The Road to Mandalay (II) by Eddie Buay

This second series of stunning images were taken by my talented friend and photographer Eddie Buay
when he was commissioned by Orient-Express to photograph the enviable journey onboard
the Road to Mandalay as it cruised down the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay to Bagan.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Travelscapes: The Road to Mandalay (I) by Eddie Buay

These beautiful images were taken by my wonderfully talented friend Eddie Buay when he was commissioned by Orient-Express to photograph the enviable journey onboard the Road to Mandalay as it cruised down the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay to Bagan.

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