to the girl in washington square park

August 16th, 2009

In the park. Music in the distance. Reading.

When a girl came to sit next to me. Quietly.
With headphones.
Her look drifting off. Smoked a cigarette.

I lean back, and gaze at the sky.

After a while she puts out her cigarette
picks up a pocket book from her bag. Japanese.

I’m breathing real slow. Life is good.

(to the girl with headphones who came to sit next to me, in washington square park, on a sunny saturday afternoon – July 25, 2009 ~4pm)

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the train back

August 16th, 2009

green trees solitary, passing by
quiet, desolate towns
stories, unspoken and untouched
clouds, still, stern and magnificent. looking over us.
blue, endless blue sky
the end of summer
the end of all summers

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leaving it all on the second floor

June 22nd, 2009

Sitting on the curb, the cars in front of us driving past. The street light illuminating the little stall where we got our food from: a bowl of beef noodles for me, chicken rice for my friend. We’re waiting for our other friends to join us – there is a party to go to tonight, after all.

We silently eat our food, gazing at the cars passing in front of us. Their lights, yellow and red, illuminating the dark night. It’s chill, but not too cold. A slight breeze keeps us comfortable.

“This rice is good”. I inhale the heat of the soup, take a bite of my noodles, turn my head and smile in agreement.

His friends arrive shortly after – grabbing a quick bite – doing some pre-party drinking from the local 7-11, and off we go, to the second floor in Taipei. The “second floor” is really on the second floor, it turns out. In line, I show my ID to the guard. He looks at the face in my passport, then lifts his eyes, gazes at me for a second or three, looks at my passport again. “It’s okay if you wanna use, but please don’t sell any, okay?” I give him a slightly blank look, smile and go in.

The night is still young – as the evening progresses, people come and go, and the floor fills up. The music becomes more intense, taking over our sensual sensory experiences. We start dancing, and dancing. To the beat that doesn’t stop. Friends come and go, it’s getting late and they start leaving. But it’s me and my friend. And we go on and on. We laugh, we concentrate, we leave our consciousness on the floor. We dance til deep in the night.

It’s getting light when we get out. “The birds are singing, fool!” he shouts at me, laughing, and chucking his half full bottle of water at me, trying to splash me. I laugh and push him back. As we cross the streets, we see people in suit, carrying briefcases, on their way to the train station, ready to go to work.

hearing you speak like that brings back memories of a time when the music really meant something. a time of relating, where people seem to shed the defenses built up while living in this sometimes cruel world…a place where people were friends no matter our backgrounds – where we lived, what we did in life, what ethnicity we were – everything was dropped because the only thing that mattered was that we stepped in time with the beat, and that is how we shared our universe. can’t explain the thoughts and the things we did. it just meant something then and it no longer means the same thing now…

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why nobody understands how i miss you

January 25th, 2009

Why is it that we attach such great importance to the need to be understood? It is in shared understanding that we find solace, comfort and a feeling best described as ‘home’. Home is not the place where you were born, or were you grew up, or even where you spent most of the time of your life. Home is not even a space. Home is where you are understood. Where unspoken words resonate, where people are able to read your tiniest gesture and know what to do with it. Where people know that something is wrong with you, depending simply on how you say and convey “hello”, “hi”, or “hey” to them.

Home is what you lose when you travel so much that people no longer notice your silences, let alone are capable of reading them. Home is what you long for when something terrible happened to you, when you need company, not just any company, but your true friends, those you (thought you) share an unspoken bond with. When you are too confused to make sense of what happened, and too tired to explain over and over again to the people the whole story. Where not only you wish you didn’t have to spend so much energy in explaining the obvious and the trivial, but where you wish someone could help you take off the load, assist you in thinking it through. When mere words are inadequate. Where you wish you had, in Joan Didion’s words, “a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines.”

Tired, of explaining, of coping, of pretending I am okay. Grasping for air. . and sorrowless understanding. Drowning in a vast bottomless sea, miles and miles going nowhere.

You wonder what is worse: To be overcome in moments of time with extreme surges of grief – where you walk down the road, lost in thought and memory, and tears just well up in your eyes, uncontrollably. Or the thought that eventually, this too, shall pass away. I never understood how the passing of time, the healing of wounds, can be considered a consolation. What if I don’t want it to pass away? What good is it to stop feeling, to lose hope, to give up, to give in to resignation? To be slowly dying away, losing the capacity to feel, even if it is pain.

Being alone is part of coping with grief. Grief, as Freud once suggested, being a state of mind that should be classified as a mental disorder, one related to manic depression. Grief, however, also that can be overcome with time, and something we eventually all have to deal with, somewhere, sometime. Being alone as a ritual, allowing the irrational possibility that your lost one will, can, might, has to eventually return. If only you continue the routines, as if she was still here. . If only, you freeze yourself in time, in stasis. . There is still, there remains the possibility, the hope that she might return.

But of course, she is long gone. I just pretend she isn’t.

La Ritournelle (the only love song)

Oh nothing’s going to change my love for you
I wanna spend my life with you
So we make love on the grass under the moon
No one call tell, damned if I do
Forever journey on golden avenues
I drift in your eyes since I love you
I got that beat in my veins for only rule
Love is to share, mine is for you

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the chair on the top of the hill at the end of the world

December 29th, 2008

It sounds like something straight from a Murakami novel: the chair on the top of the hill at the end of the world. And yet, it really exists. b and I rented a car, in search of some .. solitude, together. We printed out a Google map with directions, brought some books and snacks, and took off on a whimsical note, looking for some combination of adventure and quiet, as well as time alone together.

Who knew that there is this little beach 40 minutes away from where we live? On a strange day where it was over 60 degrees in New England, with a strong wind blowing, the weather was nice, with wind blowing in our hair, with dogs frolicking around, and the setting quiet but not all desolate. Walking on the avenue, we gazed at the boundless sea, fueling our imagination, wondering what was beyond the horizon.

But we digressed – we were in search of world’s end. Turns out we missed one turn, and instead went too far, ending up at the beach instead. Sometimes trivial choices of left-or-right lead you off the original destination, but nevertheless, what this teaches us, I guess, is that life is less about destinations than it is about the journey itself. After a nice walk at the beach, we turned around. We got to world’s end.

Arriving there, we were told by an old lady with a nice yet firm voice that we were really late, that the park was about to close. Whether we still wanted to go in. “Yes, please”. She charged us five instead of the usual ten dollars entrance fee. Wow, a discount at world’s end! And so we went in.

Left or right? What to do? Faced with the choice, we instead decided to opt for neither. We went straight up the hill. Racing b for the top, she suddenly pointed out – there it was – the chair on the top of the hill at the end of the world.

It was about to get dark, the sun was setting. We had to turn back fast and get out before the lady closed the park. But before we went back, we enjoyed a brief moment of bliss, sitting on the chair, together enjoying the marvelous view that I will leave up to your imagination. We capped the night in satisfactory fashion with some good Italian food at North End. Glorious day.

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how films tell us the way we are

December 20th, 2008

What do movies tell us about what kind of people we are?

Imagine the following: you are an alien from outer space, who is about to get into the space ship to visit planet Earth. Before you leave, you are instructed to learn as much as possible about the people and their culture who live on this planet. Your homework: to watch all the movies produced in the last year.

Think about what kind of image you would get from looking at what kind of movies we produce and watch as people. There is an abundance of Hollywood movies. You might think we are all American. Or that we imagine to be super heroes. So much special effects. How would our lives look like if they were like Hollywood movies? But of course, our lives are most of the time nothing like Hollywood movies.

Showing a movie that just portrays how we are would be boring. Would it not? Ann Hui doesn’t think so. She provocatively titled her latest movie The Way We Are. Ann Hui is perhaps the most gifted story teller in Hong Kong, at least when it comes to film making. The same way Ozu chronicled the lives of Japanese society, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang documented the day-and-nights of Taiwanese people growing up, Ann Hui is the cultural biographer of Hong Kong.

When it comes to Hong Kong movies, most people might think of kung-fu stars, like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan or Jet Li, or perhaps triad movies, made famous by John Woo, and more recently Johnnie To. Some might even think of Wong Kar Wai. But the films of Ann Hui are those who directly go to the core of what Hong Kong is about – but this core is as most of our lives perhaps unspectacular, mundane, and banal.

Ann Hui nevertheless manages to weave an incredibly rich story detailing the mundane lives of people in a part of Hong Kong that is often sensationalized: Tin Shui Wai. It’s a part of town that is considered desolate, characterized by social problems, unemployment, with high buildings (some might think of them as Hong Kong’s version of “the projects”).

What is worth telling here is a story from a part of society that you otherwise would never see or hear. But that they don’t exist in our popular imagination doesn’t mean they exist, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t know about. Most movies have spoiled the way we “consume” them: often slick, highly visualized, with something to grab our attention every three seconds (if not less). This movie by Ann Hui needs to be slowly taken in, with patience.

That is to say, our starting assumption should be that there are really no boring people. That every person has a story to tell, and that when they try to tell you their story, the least you could do is listen to them, with the patience and respect every human being deserves. Because, that’s the way we are. Ann Hui, thank you for reminding us of this important lesson.

(I was compelled to write this review after reading this review on IMDB that I .. slightly disagreed with).

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in search of excellence: vienna teng at club passim

December 7th, 2008

 Last Friday, we went to Club Passim in Cambridge, MA to see Vienna Teng. Going to see and hear Vienna is always a delight. She is an exemplary human being in many ways. An inspiring artist, a humble person, in search of excellence.

Allow me to tell you why. My first encounter with her was a moment of serendipity – my friend Herman asked me whether I wanted to go see a concert a few days before the weekend. Being in Philadelphia at the time, the invitation came at the right time as I had an urge to visit New York City, so despite knowing little about who would perform that night, I decided to go, visit NYC, hang out with my good friend and open myself up to the chance of good music. Little did I know I would be blown away.

It was in a small venue, and the concert was really a sample of a few artists who all would play a few songs and tracks. After a few unnoticeable tracks, this Asian looking girl took stage, started to play the piano and blew my friend and I both away. Breathlessly listening, I occasionally would stomp my friend and he would nudge back saying “I know”. . I went back home, ordered all her CDs on Amazon (friends making fun of me), and started looking into her background, fascinated by this human being. It turns out she is Asian-American, Taiwanese descent, grew up in California, and what caught my interest: got a degree in Computer Science at Stanford, even went to work briefly for Cisco but in the midst of the dot.com boom, decided to pursue a career in the arts. Perhaps I saw some semblance of that in myself – who also briefly pursued Computer Science (but never finished it) and instead turned to study China Studies instead. In her, I see someone to aspire to. After last Friday’s concert, I am even more inspired. Here’s why.

The concert last Friday was my third, and while she has always been a great performer, her confidence and conviction made me think she really took it to the next level. Her passion, her singing skill, have all been there before, but seeing her how comfortable she was in a setting where she had not planned a specific order of songs to sing, but was taking requests from the audience, experimenting with some tracks while at the same time exuberating enjoyment, comfort and confidence left me wondering how I can ever reach such heights.

I’m really impressed with how she seems to be quite a humble, down-to-earth and perhaps even introverted person, who nonetheless enjoys interacting and talking with the audience, telling us little bits and pieces of insight behind every song, while making jokes about herself. But how also once she is about to sing a song, becomes an intense performer who takes pride in her work – it’s quite a stunning transformation. 

I think her performance for me exemplifies the virtue of ‘excellence’ the way Hannah Arendt has described it. Excellence, necessarily a public act, caring for what you care about, to incessantly improve yourself, because you take serious what you do, but also tremendously enjoy what you do. To measure yourself against others, not because you want to be better than them, but because you want to be a better person. To make a difference in the world through this pursuit of excellence. 

She mentioned briefly during the concert what her feelings were with regard to her being an Asian-American. How she never thought of herself as an Asian-American artist, but just as an artist. How others look at her and see her as such, but that she herself refused to be cast in a category. That perhaps people should like her work because for what it is. 

To me, as an Asian-European, that is incredibly inspiring. It might be ironic, because she doesn’t think of herself as an Asian-American, but in the process becomes a role model, precisely because she refuses to “play that card”, to be reduced to a single adjective, even thought that might come with many benefits: the first Asian-American artist! being the biggest fish (in a small pond)! Instead, she wants people to measure her, and she measures herself, squarely in the larger public of all creative artists.

Which leads me to the end of this post: in requesting songs from the audience, I could not resist requesting a particular song (that nobody else I think requested that night): a song sung in Chinese. I was considering for a brief second whether I should yell “Green Island” in English or “Lu Dao” in Chinese, deciding for the latter. Great was my satisfaction and intense my enjoyment when she sung the song to cap the night. And what a night it was. (I recorded most of the songs that night in pretty good quality, leave me a comment if you are interested in hearing them).

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sparrow: an ode to hong kong’s past and present

November 30th, 2008

Sparrow is the latest movie by acclaimed Hong Kong director Johnnie To. In many ways, I feel he is the heir to the throne John Woo has built up over the years: their oeuvre have been quintessential to the definition of modern day Hong Kong cinema, stylish and macho. From Hard Boiled and the Killer now to PTU and Triad.

Sparrow is a departure from his signature work. It is much more lighthearted, slow paced (in a very good way) than most of his movies. Kelly Lin plays a super sensual and mysterious woman that threads all the characters in the movie (the usual suspects in Johnnie To movies: Simon Yam, Lam Ka Tong..). But while it is perhaps conventional to describe a movie in terms of its plot and the actors that carry this plot, it is more fitting to assign Hong Kong, the city, as the subject of the movie and the main fascination the director falls in love with. Mostly shot in areas of Hong Kong totally familiar to me and very dear and near to my heart, the movie allows the characters to roam around Hong Kong’s most sensual places; places of beauty, of contrast, of a nostalgic past versus a hypermodern capitalistic present, of the dried seafood sold in Wing Lok Street, to the stairs in Sheung Wan and Central and all the little shops on and around it, to the morning breakfasts and get-togethers with your buddies in the cha chaan teng in Wanchai. The willow trees hanging over Hollywood Road that have been there since my childhood, and probably the childhood of my parents. The Sang Kee congee shop where I had so many meals that warmed my heart.

Did I tell you that the soundtrack is awesome too? Made by Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril, it conjures up the sense of fantasy, of a place where little encounters of magical moments are sprinkled around wherever you go, never knowing when they will come to you. The breeze of a late-night stroll when you walk along a quiet road during a lazy and warm fall evening.

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regained appreciation for edward yang and wu nien-jen

September 16th, 2008

I enjoy being in Boston a lot – and one of the reasons is the presence and close vicinity of the Harvard Film Archive. It’s a treasure trove for rare, obscure, foreign, or otherwise hard-to-find movies.

Last weekend and this weekend, they are showing a retrospective of Edward Yang and Wu Nien-jen, two of the pioneers of the Taiwanese New Wave. I have long had a huge admiration for Taiwanese cinema and Edward Yang is no exception. His movies, besides maybe Yi Yi, however, have always been incredibly hard to find. I always thought it was the definition of irony that his most widely acclaimed movie, Yi Yi, who is so quintessential Taiwanese, was not distributed in Taiwan itself. Maybe it has by now, but when I was in Taiwan from 2001-2002, the movie won awards everywhere but my classmates at the National Taiwan University could only see this movie by downloading it.

Three nights ago, I saw Taipei Story, which is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, although the Chinese title (qingmei zhuma) translates more accurately as a proverb that refers to the kind of friend you have that you have known since childhood. In that sense, it’s a strongly nostalgic word that captures the appreciation for a shared history between you and your friend – all the things you have gone through together, the good times, the bad times, the way you dealt with adversities together, the successes you enjoyed together. This mixed sense of nostalgia and appreciation is explicated layer for layer for layer in this wonderful movie by Yang, who casted another Taiwanese New Wave director Hou Hsiao-hsien as his main protagonist. HHH plays a former Little League baseball star who is now wondering what happened to a world where his role was so clearly defined but now has changed so much, leaving him behind. It’s a critical look at the success of Taiwanese economic development – underscoring the social costs that often come with economic growth spurts (this, however, is not a necessary outcome. For a brilliant argument on why economic growth has to take into account and include social and political growth as well, see Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom).

Last night I saw another wonderful movie by Edward Yang, That Day on the Beach. I won’t summarize the story here, but it’s a wonderful story that plays with narrative structure and weaves a web of relationships between fascinating characters that portray the richness of human life in all its glory (and not so glory).

In short, I’m extremely grateful to be in a place and position where I have been able to see these movies that have been almost impossible to find these days. Edward Yang and Wu Nien-jen also just skyrocketed to my list of directors I have a deep admiration for – not that it wasn’t there, but being able to see their earlier works in full glory, something I haven’t been able to do before, confirms and underscores my admiration for them as persons who have a deep passion for what they do, have a admirable understanding of the oh-so important nuances of human life, care about the world around them and seek to share this through their work.

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crystal

December 10th, 2006
cafe lumiere

We decide to go to the cafe I just mentioned to her. We stroll along the street, turn into another alley and find ourselves staring in front of the large window of the cafe. I open the door for her and follow her in.

We sit down. The cafe has high ceilings, with a little staircase that goes up to a smaller floor, that serves as a kind of loft. Looking at the menu, she orders a Blue Mountain coffee, I opt for the stronger and coarser Mandheling. Having ordered, a bit unsure, we look around, half-casually. She looks gorgeous.

“Have you been here before?” I ask her. She looks at me with her big black eyes, just briefly, and lightly shakes her head.

“I am glad we are here. Even though you will be leaving soon.” She says, while looking at me.

Unsure how to respond, I look down and glance her briefly in the eye. A faint smile.

And then all of a sudden, I feel like I am a million years away, as if the present turned into a memory, and I find myself missing her, reminiscing this very moment. You wonder if that is how you are going to feel, once you really have left.

“I’m glad I met you too. The moment is kind of unfortunate, what with one month before I leave. But at the same time, I am grateful that we did meet.”

She kept looking at me, during the whole time I said those three sentences.

The coffee arrives, and a whirl of smoke emanates from the two cups of black liquid.

Adding one sugar, we stir and take a sip. A rush of warmth courses through my body.

“The coffee here is great!” She beams. I smile.

It’s one of those rare encounters that you will come across once every so many times in your life. They are brief, but leave a strong impression. In our darkest nights, we suddenly remember and cherish them dearly, at the same time wondering where she is, how come you had almost forgotten about her, and what if .. ? The brevity of the moment is similar to the sudden dead of a person in her youth: forever young and beautiful, etched in our memories, with yet so many unwritten tales now only left to our imagination.

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book and sword : gratitude and revenge

is the first novel written by Jin Yong. The protagonist is Chan Ka Lok, who is the leader of the Red Flower Society. The book title refers to Ka Lok being famous for being well-versed in culture and martial arts, but also for having to make a difficult ethical decision. My father named me and my brother after him.

The subtitle is from a poem Desiderata