Monday, September 17, 2007


After seven months on the road I've arrived someplace familiar. However, it's been almost 15 years since I lived in Tokyo. While Tokyo is still Tokyo, it's not the same city I lived in for 18 months. Perhaps it's because I arrived on the Friday before a holiday weekend, three days of blazing sunshine in which the city's population of 12 million jammed the streets. Tokyo has always been crowded, but to my eyes it seems more crowded, more built up, more hectic, more everything, than it was in the early 1990s.

Ikebukuro Station

I'm withholding final judgment on the matter. I'll let you know my opinion in a month. Yes, a month. I've decided to put down temporary roots and re-explore this incredible city. I've rented an apartment for a month, a task made very easy by Sakura House, a real estate agency that specializes in rentals for foreigners. Yes, after seven months of transience, seven months of moving from hotel to hostel to guesthouse, I'll be sleeping in one place for four straight weeks. Even better, I'll have a kitchen when I can cook as much ramen as one man can eat in a month.

Finding Sakura House was a blessing. When I lived here in the early 1990s, there were no agencies catering to gaijin. There was also no Internet. Finding housing was a matter of either paying exorbitant fees through a rental agency, if you could find one that would housing to foreigners, or scanning the guesthouse ads in English-language publications. There were options, but it wasn't always easy. Now, I just popped in to the Sakura House office in Shinjuku and 30 minutes later was set up with a room in an apartment in a posh neighborhood in central Tokyo. I will be sharing the space with two other people. More details to come.

Cute or Scary?

How will I fill my time this month? For starters, I've signed up for three weeks of intensive language study. Three hours a day, five days a week. I hope to pick up enough Japanese that I will be able spend speak to the locals, both during my stay in Tokyo and during a few weeks of traveling that I've got planned for October and November. It's been rough lately being illiterate - I'd like to be able to ask simple questions and carry on basic conversations in the local tongue.

Also, Japanese could come in handy for that inevitable job search when I return to the States. Who knows? Gambatte!

On a side note, there always seems to be a festival in the streets of Japan. This weekend, on Saturday night in Shibuya and on Sunday afternoon in Shinjuku, I came across groups carrying heavy arks through the streets while chanting and generally making a lot of noise. I don't know what the occasion was - another reason to learn Japanese. It looked like they were having a lot of fun.




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Friday, September 14, 2007

Doggie Do

I've seen a lot over the last seven months, but if there's one truth to this world, it's that you'll never seen it all. I was reminded of this simple fact while walking up a steep hill in Macau. I was admiring the crumbing apartment blocks lining the street when I saw a simple, faded blue sign with a stencil of a dog, a German Shepherd in fact, with the letters "WC" below the image. That couldn't be, could it? A toilet for dogs? Sure enough, it was. A simple circular brick enclosure, one section open to the sidewalk, the interior covered with dirt with a tree at dead center (for something to pee on, I assume). A broom stood propped against the tree for owners to clean up after their mutts.

Doggie WC

The next day I saw another space reserved for canines. That afternoon, near the A-Ma Temple, I came across a wall of murals with messages. The crude cartoons showed residents (Macarenas?) the dos and don'ts of keeping their city clean. Each violation carried a monetary penalty, usually in the region of 600 Macau Patacas (US$75). The message was clear: don't let your dog doo on the lawn; do let your dog doo in the doggie loo.


The picture of the mural is best viewed large. The expression on the dog's face is priceless.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Midweek in Macau

An article in the New York Times business section on August 28th caught my eye, not because I follow the trends in the casino industry, but because it was about Macau, a pimple at the mouth of the Pearl River in Southern China that is a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong. I had arrived in Hong Kong two days earlier with no itinerary of than to recover from an illness and was open to suggestion.

The article announced the opening of the Venetian Macau Resort, a US$2.4 billion project that developers (i.e., the Las Vegas Sands Corporation) are betting will be mark the beginning of a major transformation of Macau's gambling culture and economy, a transformation they hope will once and for all turn the former Portuguese colony into the Las Vegas of Asia. I had not planned on visiting Macau, but after reading the article I was curious. Was Macau already the Vegas of the East? Could I play poker there? Was there more to Macau than buffets and baccarat?

Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (SAR). The long and short of the term is that Macau and Hong Kong are administered independently (independent of Beijing, that is), but are still part of China. Americans don't need a Chinese visa to visit Hong Kong or Macau, but I did pass through immigration and receive stamps in my passport when I entered and exited both SARs.

Before China resumed control of Macau in 1999, it was, for hundreds of years, a Portuguese colony. The influence of the Portuguese remains today. Mediterranean architecture lines cobblestone lanes, street signs are written in Chinese and Portuguese and there is an abundance of Portuguese restaurants. The inhabitants of Macau -- not including the millions of tourists who visit annually -- are still predominantly Chinese in appearance and heritage. Outside of the casinos and tourist districts, it feels like Asia.

Old World Charm

After months spent in Southeast Asia I was overjoyed to sit down to a bowl of caldo verde, a Portuguese kale soup thickened with potatoes and spiced with slices of meaty chorizo. I also enjoyed a large bowl of tender octopus drowning in a rich stew of rice, tomatoes and garlic. I wanted to try the African Chicken and the tamarind pork, but somehow wasn't able to fit them in between meals of Chinese noodle soup, good old fashioned fish 'n' chips (with a pint o' Guinness to boot!) and another round of succulent sushi.

As good as the food was, the most refreshing hour I spent in Macau was at the Macau Art Museum. It's been a while since I've been to a museum worth writing about. In fact, I think the only museums I've written about on this tour were those in Canberra, Australia, back in February. The Macau Art Museum is a housed in a modern building on the waterfront, part of the larger Macau Cultural Center complex. The museum features five floors of exhibition space, enough for a a good blend of rotating exhibits. It's a shame that during the two hours I spent there, there were only five or six other visitors, all of them Europeans. After all, no one goes to Macau for the art.

Museu de Arte de Macau

On the day I visited the musuem, I was relieved to discover there's more to work of the French photographer Robert Doisneau than variations on a big wet kiss. But his photographs capture the spirit of of mid-century Paris, from boys clowning in the streets to glimpses of high society that reminded me of Weegee's brushes with New York's glitzier inhabitants. I almost skipped the exhibit, thinking it would consist of nothing but romantic cliche. I'm happy I didn't. I wonder if Doisneau ever felt like the songwriter who was remembered for one snappy pop song while the rest of his body of work went ignored.

Robert Doisneau Exhibit

The Macau Art Museum also hosted "Edictus Ridiculum," a spectacular collection of paintings by a Russian artist named Konstantin Bessmertny. As far as I can tell, Bessmertny has never been shown in the U.S., which is a shame. His paintings, which on the surface can appear quite crude, offer absurdist commentary on his adopted home of Macau. There is humor, vitality, intelligence and a good old poke in the eye of societies high and low in each of his works.

Konstantin Bessmertny Painting

So yes, there was more to Macau than gambling. There's food and art. There are traces of an Old World European culture in a Chinese society sprinting into the 21st century (does everyone have a cell phone grafted to the side of the head or does it just seem that way?). There's sightseeing and shopping and even a black-sand beach. But like I said, nobody comes to Macau for the art. They come to gamble, and gamble they do.

The city is infested with construction. If there's a casino in operation, there's another one going up next door. Every view is obstructed by a construction crane or a hole in the ground. Whether the city can support more and more casinos in the long-term remains to be seen. Today, however, they are open 24 hours and busload after busload of Chinese tourists fills the tables for games of chance.

New School: Sands Casino

Old School: Casino Lisboa

Does Macau's Future Have Claws?

The feeling I came away with is that Macau has not reached the level or sophistication (or sleaze) of Las Vegas. There's still a provincial feeling to the scene - it's probably closer to Atlantic City than to Las Vegas. The lounge acts are a tacky blend of lackluster dance moves and bad karaoke. There is nothing approaching kitsch, nothing that makes a visit to a casino an ironic experience. It's all about the gaming and the shopping. The American casinos are trying to inject life into the experience by establishing hotel/casino/resort destinations. The newest, the Venetian, replicates the Vegas experience with an enormous casino, a luxury shopping center, sports arena, convention center and indoor gondola rides. Hotel rooms start at HK$1500 a night (US$200) so I wasn't able to check out anything other than the casino. What I saw, however, was so similar to what I've seen in Vegas that checked my passport to make sure the stamp really said "Macau."

The Venetian is the first in what's intended to be 14 interlocking hotels. If China continues to grow its economy, I think it's a good bet that those 14 resorts will be filled each and every weekend with rambling, gambling Chinese.

The Times reports that last year Macau surpassed Las Vegas in the total amount of money gambled. I haven't been to Las Vegas in 15 years. The last time I was there, I spent a long evening on the $2 blackjack tables. In Macau, the minimum bet, whatever the game, is HK$100 (US$12.85). The majority of the tables, however, require a minimum bet of HK$200, with a few going as high as HK$300. There are also, of course, rows and rows and rows of one-armed bandits, which you can play for as little as 10 cents (US$.01).

I'm was hoping to find a game of Texas Hold 'Em, assuming that the game's jargon would translate to Chinese quite easily. The only poker variation I found in the gaming halls in five casinos, three owned by Americans, two by the Chinese, was Caribbean Stud Poker. Most of the casino real estate was taken over by Baccarat and the Chinese dice game Sic bo (I can't say whether the Chuck-a-luck variation was being played). There were also roulette wheels and something called Casino War, which is really a simple game of high card wins.

I settled for Blackjack, winning for a few hours then losing it all again. Casinos are profitable because the odds are always in the house's favor. The attraction is not winning, but the lure of a big win. I only lost as much as I was willing to lose (according to a conversation I had with myself before entering the casinos). However, the experience of being of of the few (if not the only) white face in the room was worth the price of admission. I spent an hour at a table at the Sands with a group of four old Chinese ladies, eagerly trading chips and betting on one another's hands. The woman sitting next to me would slap the felt with an open palm, her heavy silver ring sounding a clunk in the cheap wooden table, whenever she got excited. She would yell "Pie Cha! Pie Cha!" when she wanted a face card on the draw. I thought she was shouting in her native tongue until I realized the Chinese call face cards "picture cards" and she was yelling "Picture! Picture!" The games were run entirely in Chinese, leaving me at an occasional linguistic disadvantage. Not enough to contribute to losing though, that was all in the nature of the game.

I'm still looking for a game of Texas Hold 'Em. I think a trip to Vegas is in the cards. Pun intended.

Flickr Photoset: Macau (99 photos)

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Best of Southeast Asia

I took a few thousand photographs between June 14 and July 23, between my arrival in Southern Thailand and the last few, frustrating days in Vietnam. Of those thousands of photos I uploads about 1,100 to Flickr. And now, I've whittled down those eleven hundred to 120 photographs in two manageable photosets. If you're looking for quick and easy vacation pics, you've come to the right place. I'll even call you and narrate each slideshow in a detail-laden monotone, only two or three hours for each one. If that's what you're looking for, of course. I've also included a link to my previous Southeast Asia set, the Best of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

Go on, take a look. Do it for the cowboy, the Buddhist and the monkey god.

Best of Thailand and Laos

Best of Cambodia and Vietnam

Best of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia

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In the Dark

Before embarking on a life on the road, I was the editor of the movies section for It was a position that gave me an excuse to see a ton of movies, a pastime that I've enjoyed since childhood. I knew before packing my bags that travel and moviegoing do not coexist. I understood that I would be giving up afternoons in the dark for bumpy bus rides and foreign landscapes.

I have managed to take in a few films over the past seven months, a meager selection that's mostly included Hollywood exports like "Spider-Man 3" and "The Bourne Ultimatum." My only brush with world or independent cinema on the big(ish) screen was in Singapore, where I saw Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," more than a year after it played at Cannes. Bootleg DVDs are widely available throughout Southeast Asia, and I've been able to catch a few titles that way, but watching a poorly-digitized copy on an 11-inch computer screen is not my idea of a good time.

Hong Kong has a long history of moviemaking. It was once the world's third-largest producer of feature filma, after the U.S. and India. But the Hong Kong film industry is suffering through a prolonged slump, resulting in reduced film production and the closing of many cinemas.

Like the rest of Asia, there are few options for moviegoing in Hong Kong. So I did the next best thing and headed to the Hong Kong Film Archive. The Hong Kong Film Archive is located in a neighborhood cluttered with high-rise, concrete apartment complexes. It is a small institution, considering the output of the Hong Kong film industry over the years and the size of the population. The archive is focused on film acquisition and preservation, but it also presents film programs (this month: Luis Buñuel and a two-day Australian film festival) and exhibitions in a small gallery space.

Hong Kong Film Archive

On the day I visited, there were no screenings (probably a good thing as I'm not in a Buñuel state of mind), but there was a exhibition of film posters from the 1979 to the present.

Posters are no substitute for the flicker of a moving picture, but I enjoyed the exhibition. Most Hong Kong films do not make it to the U.S. and even as a dedicated cinephile I only recognized a few titles: films by Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo and the excellent thriller "Infernal Affairs" (expertly remade as "The Departed" by the Oscar-winning Marty Scorsese).

The posters were arranged thematically, giving a good sense of the breadth of Hong Kong cinema. There were buddy pictures, horror films, period pieces, prison dramas, thrillers and romantic comedies. Can a movie poster, which in the end is no more than a piece of marketing, be a work of art in and of itself? I think so, and this exhibit included a few keepers.


Bold Type, Small People


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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Walking the Walk

I was sick when I arrived in Hong Kong, spending the better part of four days in bed. I woke up Friday feeling much better and was able to have dinner that night with my former boss at The Times, Len Apcar. It was great to see Len, who is now Chief Editor of Asia for the International Herald Tribune, and to talk about familiar subjects from the past. When I was waiting for him to arrive at the Foreign Correspondent's Club in the Central District, I realized he was the first friend I'd seen in person since leaving New York City on February 1. I've made a lot of new friends on the road, of course, but the value of a familiar face can't be overestimated.

During dinner with Len and his son, Michael, I said that Hong Kong is a magnificent city. Michael didn't agree and asked me to explain myself. Try as I might, I couldn't come up with any concrete examples, no attractions that I could point to as worth the cost of a ticket. I stumbled through a list of generalities and left it at that.

Wall of Ads

I've been thinking about that short conversation and trying to explain to myself what I like about Hong Kong. It could be that after five months in Southeast Asia I'm relieved to be back in a big, modern city, a city offering all the comforts of the first world. It could be that I've decided to take a breather, to put my feet up for a while, so to speak, and rest my road-weary bones. Maybe it's because Hong Kong feels more "Blade Runner" than anyplace I've been in my life.

Hong Kong is crowded and hectic, expensive and frustratingly uncomfortable at times. Yet it is energetic and picaresque, easily navigable and filled with abundant opportunities for exploration and discovery. It's got color and character, sights, smells and something for every taste. It's a photographer's dream and a foodie's delight. Since regaining my strength, I've only scratched the surface. I don't claim to understand this place, but as a casual observer it's a magnificent city to explore.

So explore I did. I've been using Lonely Planet guidebooks in every country I've been to this year. I would like to branch out to Rough Guides or the Footprint series, but Lonely Planet is the one series that is available everywhere I go. I won't go into the pros and cons of Lonely Planet (and the hordes that follow its advice). I will, however, concede that Lonely Planet does an excellent job with its self-guided walking tours of major cities. I've used them as a blueprint for exploration and they've consistently opened my eyes to places I would have otherwise missed.

The Hong Kong guide includes six walking tours, on Hong Kong island and Kowloon as well as the New Territories and beyond. I spent yesterday afternoon touring two colorful working-class neighborhoods in Kowloon, Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei. It being Saturday afternoon, the streets were chockablock with people, crowds as dense as anything I've experienced in New York or Tokyo.

The tour started with two colorful destinations: the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden and the Flower Market. The Bird Garden is both a market and a meeting place, a space for local bird fanatics to coo over their avian companions and to buy a few live crickets or a new cage. Next to the bird garden is the Flower Market, a street lined with shops selling flowers and plants. The selection is limited and the impression is nothing like what you'd see a wholesale market. Still, it was colorful and worth fifteen minutes of meandering.

Yuen Po Street Bird Garden

$25 Bunches at the Flower Market

The walking tour then hit crowded Tung Choi Street, where the first few blocks are dedicated to fish, the kind you put in tanks rather than on a plate. I've noticed in Asia that consumer goods are often sold in one part of town, with shop after shop offering the same goods. There will be the shoe block, the fish block, the furniture block, the Buddha statue block, etc. I don't think this happens in the U.S., where we crave variety. I can't explain why things are done this way in Asia.

Tropical fish are sold in plastic bags in Hong Kong. Boards holding the bags are lined up outside of shops and buyers hold the fish up to the light to inspect color and health. Some shops also sell fish out of tanks, but most shoppers seemed interested in the fish in bags.

Fish Store

The walk continued into more crowded streets. I walked through the Ladies Market, a street blanketed on both sides with clothes stalls. I braved narrow aisles and intense crowding at Trendy Zone, an indoor mall targeted to young consumers. It was the consumer version of a Halloween House of Horrors. I was disappointed to find the cutting-edge gallery Shanghai Artspace closed for an installation, though I was amused by the sign on the door stating "Close for Progress." If it's in the name of progress, I guess it's okay.

Close for Progress

I ducked into Tin Hua Temple, a house of worship dedicated to the goddess of seafarers, where I admired the large spiral joss sticks suspended from the ceiling. For a mere HK$130 you can purchase one of the spirals, which will burn continuously for about ten days. My tolerance for temples is quite low these days, but Tin Hua was deserted and peaceful, the spirals offering ample angles for photography.

Joss Sticks at Tin Hua Temple

The tour ended at Broadway Cinematheque, which my guidebook described as an "alternative cinema." Perhaps I'd set my sights too high, hoping for an Asian version of Film Forum. But alternative cinema seems to consist of "The Simpsons Movie" and "Ratatouille." What's a film lover to do?

I did, however, enjoy a visit to the Kubrick Bookstore Cafe next door, a wonderful space serving food and coffee and selling a selection of books on film, art and design (all in Chinese). What's with the name though? Is it named for Stanley Kubrick? All I know is the menus scream in bold lettering "Let's Taste Kubrick!" Creepy.

Nothing in this tour brought me closer to understanding why I find Hong Kong to be a magnificent city. It was just another day walking the streets, peeking around corners and poking my nose into the local culture. It's what I do best.

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