Velvet Heart

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It’s been said that looking in retrospect often affords a sharper clarity. Reading The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs certainly puts me in sharp perspective of how I grew up being he little boy with the bug secret. I was lucky that the other boys never bullied me or called me names, but at a very early age, I knew I was different. This “different-ness” is not a preference for a ice cream flavor, but more intrinsic, something that will cause me to lose the love and affection of my parents. So in a way I grew up “disabled”, because I was trying to avoid situations that would invoke shame but to solicit validation. Unfortunately, validation for boys came from where I dreaded the most—the playground and sport field. It is on the playground that I probably first began to consciously think about how I was different from other boys. I didn’t want to play the same games as other boys. I was ignored (at least not taunted) by the more athletic, aggressive boys who always seemed to win the positive attention of their classmates and even the teachers. Unbeknowst to me at the time of course, I was operating on a defense mechanism that ensured survival. Perhaps I learned that I could win approval by becoming more sensitive than the other boys. What caused all this? The answer is often embarrassing: The fear that there was something about me that made me unlovable. This is exactly what Alan Downs addresses. The book really hits the spot. As I read, I keep bumping into my self, hopefully my old shelf.

Author in the House

Crouching tiger, hidden dragon among us. Neither does she bare her teeth like a tiger nor is she bestowed with power a dragon in Chinese mythology. She is Ruthanne Lum McCunn, author of God of Luck, a novel about coolie trade in Peru, which was gifted to me by the author herself. Speaking fluent Cantonese with perfect tones (each Cantonese sound has 9 tones that in many cases distinguish the meanings of characters), Ruthanne puts many of us in shame, as we Chinese manage only with some sort of pidgin English with smatterings of Chinese words. For a long time she’s known as the American lady who speaks perfect Chinese and with whom we exchange stories of growing up in Hong Kong. Often a lighthearted question would lead to a very facetious reply. She’s totally amiable and kind. In fragments of conversations over months Ruthanne let on more biographical information than I can imagine.

Ruthanne Lum McCunn is an Eurasian of Chinese and Scottish descent. Born in 1946 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, she grew up in Hong Kong, where she was educated first in Chinese and then British schools. In 1962 she returned to the U.S. to attend college. Her grandmother was Chinese, thus the linguistic and cultural root planted in her. I cherished talking with her, and listening to her reflections on Hong Kong before my time. If you just listen to her talk alone, you would never realize she’s Eurasian. She talks like locals, using colloquial expressions and slang. It’s just wonderful to discover a published author among the coffee shop clientele—who speaks your native language! Is there a better way to start the new year with an autographed book from the author herself?

The Year in Life

Despite a broken limb and a stolen wallet, 2011 is a good year for me compared to the world. Walking out of the shadow of emotional turmoil.


January

  • The blog turned 5. I could believe I had been writing for that long, let alone an awesome group of followers/readers. Now 6th anniversary is coming up.
  • Participated in Independent Literary Award.
  • Started a new job with a slightly lower pay, but I have made the right decision because it’s where I belong.

February

  • After being stricken by eczema/scaly skin for a year, doctor suggested a change of diet. The benefit of gluten-free diet is two-fold: much improved skin and weight loss.
  • First words of Borders going under. Scoured the store for bargains.

March

  • Spent the whole paycheck on Japan post-earthquake relief.
  • Lambda Literary Award month.

April

  • Discovered Wallace Stegner who is the author of a favorite read of 2011.
  • SFO Terminal 2 open house.
  • Participated Chinese Literature Challenge and managed to finish in 2 months.

June

  • Trip to Paris for two weeks.
  • After almost 20 years, I finally read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Finished it in Paris.
  • iPad arrived. Read a small of books on the electronic device; but still haven’t got an iPhone. Maybe iPhone 5?

July

  • Another landmark in reading: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
  • Skipped the 4th of July celebration.
  • My cousin Fiona got married—and for the first time I realized I’m getting old!

August

  • Began The Divine Comedy but have yet to finish.
  • Participated 30 Day Book Meme.
  • Started a new exercise regime to work toward 100 pushup goal.
  • Internal promotion at work.

September

October

  • Alan Hollinghurst published his first novel since 2004.
  • 8 months since going gluten-free, weight drops to 148. Pant size 29. A friend said I looked anorexic. It’s time to head back to the gym to do some weight-training, which I haven’t had a chance to.

November

  • Trip to Dallas (Texas for the first time) and reconnected with someone I haven’t seen for 4 years. The beautiful and serene Dallas Arboretum made a fond impression on me.
  • OccupyXX campaign hits the campus, inducing violence and gunshot. Dismissed early from work.
  • Attended Dickens Christmas Fair. That was heaps of fun.
  • Celebrated my 36th birthday. Instead of a party, had dinner with individual friends.
  • Trip to Palm Springs.

December

  • Skipping Christmas.
  • Trip to Las Vegas to see Sandy Lam in Concert.
  • Saw Sandy Lam live again in San Francisco.
  • Finished the most difficult book ever, The Sound and the Fury, other than Ulysses.

Lotus 蓮

Las Vegas Rundown:
1.愛上一個不回家的人/2. 夜太黑/3. 心野夜/4. 埃及玫瑰/5. 沒結果之後/6. 灰色/7. 燒/8. 柿子/9. 為你我受冷風吹/10. 聽說愛情回來過/11. “Love, Sandy” Medley (影子情人 / 知難不退 /這些那些 / 傷痕)/12. 當愛已成往事/13. 好人–側田/14. 三十日–側田/15. 男人KTV–側田/16.傾斜17. 講多錯多/18. 醒醒/19. 一分鐘都市一分鐘戀愛/20. 推搪/21. 逃離鋼筋森林/22. 瘋了/Encore: 23. 鏗鏘玫瑰/24. Have Yourself A Marry Little Christmas/25. 至少還有你

(Pictures taken at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, on Dec 24, 2011) I’m seeing Sandy Lam live in Las Vegas on 12/24 and San Francisco on 12/26. Once I purchased the tickets the anticipation is unbearable. I cannot believe it’s been 26 years since I bought her debut album, a cassette tape, in 1985. Sandy Lam has always been a part of me, a part of my adolescence, growing up, coming out, and simply, living. She earned her first dollar as a DJ, known as 611 in the airwave, with Commercial Radio in Hong Kong. She was then aged between fifteen and seventeen. It was around this time that she signed an artist contract with CBS Sony, becoming known in pop-music industry as Sandy Lam.

Because of the marginal position of alternative/contemporary pop (more artistic, vocal technique-oriented) in the Hong Kong society, she is now probably known, certainly born after 1990, more as an almost archetypal figure of show biz tragedy than as a pop artist. (By the way, this is meant to be a compliment.) It didn’t help that her repertoire comprised what were then largely pop songs which, like most pop songs of all eras, were often churned out and never meant to have much of a life beyond a few weeks’ eager rotations on the radio, despite her strong position to command even the least popular of the songs. At least, to the consolation of many of her fans and I, her lesser known sidetracks have carried on and become our beloved favorites, that define different stations of my life.

Yet a few months after the new millennium, when “the best of” polls ran rife almost in every niche thereof, music critics in Hong Kong and Asia were moved to describe her as unquestionably one of the most important influence on Chinese popular singing of the previous twenty years. What was it about her singing that made them say that? Like some of the greatest international pop-stars, Sandy often takes liberties with written-down melodies, modifying them in subtle ways, rendering them more emotionally effective and more her own. To some extent, she is making the best of an already-wide vocal range which, even at her most supple and robust, is probably at least fifteen notes. You’ll never hear her sing the same song even if it’s the same song taken from the album.

A soprano, but her musicianship is greater than the sum of its parts as these might be identified by a musicologist. What lifts her at her best above almost everybody else in her field (except Faye Wong) is the presence in her singing of genuine emotion without artifice. There are musically purer, smoother, silkier, more perfect voices, but they don’t have the capacity to make you feel the singer’s emotional intention within the song as easily as hers do. And she does this with bright, up-tempo, happy, or sexy songs in the first half of her careers (CBS Sony, Warner Music, Capital 1985-1994) just as much as she does with the now far better known melancholy songs she chooses in the second half of her career (Rock, Virgin, Gold Label, EMI), which has primarily targeted Mandarin-speaking markets.

There are many senses in which I shouldn’t even know about her. Two years after her debut I moved to San Francisco. The eight concerts she held in Hong Kong (1991, 1993, 1996, 2002, 2004–with Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, 2005, 2007, and 2011) I attended only the first two. I saw her at Lake Tahoe in 2006 and San Diego in 2008. Why am I talking to you about Sandy Lam, besides the fact that she is my only pop diva? That this is a book blog probably isn’t appropriate to talk about music, but I think you can tell a lot about people from what is important to them. Do they like art? What kind of art? How much do they like it, and why? Where did the liking come from? Provide the answers to these questions and you will have gone a long way toward revealing much of yourself. Ultimately, for all the expert criticism in the world, the test of something as subjective as music or literature or even a relationship, as my favorite novelist E.M. Forster put it, our affection for it. And conversely, the test of us is that for which we have affection. That is why you are apt to get upset when somebody you care about does not share your taste in music or movies or literature. If I am a pod, the peas in this pod would be literature and Sandy Lam’s music.

Many of her songs that I like most are not the ones the critics praise, nor are they No.1 hits. They are songs that stroke my heart and evoke memories, both happy and sad, in my life. You can neither find fault with her performance nor expect new surprises. Sandy Lam is just one consistent performer, full of passion and emotion. Las Vegas was a great show, with a very play-safe rundown. I expect more sidetracks in San Francisco. Thank you Sandy for a wonderful concert—and I love your glamorous long hair!

Top 25 Most Played SLs: 1. 沒結果/2. 微雨撲巴黎/3. 破曉/4. 心野夜/5. 微涼/6. 多謝/7. 夢了/8. 哭/9. 早晨/10. 瘋了/11. 至少還有你/12. 赤裸的秘密/13. 滴汗/14. 一分鐘都市一分鐘戀愛/15. 一輩子心情/16. 沒有你 還是愛你/17. 野花/18. 願/19. 最佳男主角 (頒獎典禮後…At His Penthouse Suite)/20. 為何他會離開你/21. 黃昏/22. 誰像你好/23. 沒結果之後/24. 你是我的男人/25. 逃離鋼筋森林

Between some reading and prosecco, I’m living to Sandy all day up until and between her concerts.

28/30 Day Book Meme: It’s in the Name

Day 28: Favorite title

This is difficult. I don’t really know. (Three cups of coffee later) I’ll say The Gentleman in the Parlour by a favorite author of mine, W. Somerset Maugham. Not only is the title unique, it contains a word spelled in British manner, which somehow exudes an air of staidness and dignity. W. Somerset Maugham once said in this delightful, engrossing travelogue that captures his travel from Rangoon to Haiphong he didn’t know how he would put in words an account of all the wonders and render more than a vague and shadowy impression of the gradeur. He needs not to worry, for every page, which I try to delay reading, is eloquent, absorbing, and is never below the weight of the matter. His writing evokes deep interests of local life and makes no attempt to euphemize nor to judge the natives’ ways of life, customs and traditions. I actually followed Maugham’s travel route and lived vicariously through his descriptions. In many a palour I have drunk tea, written in my journals, read, and tried to be a gentleman!

21/30 Day Book Meme: Childhood Book

Day 21: Favorite book from your childhood

I have to search carefully my memory of the very first book that I liked and re-read. That was Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. It was actually a reader book my aunt found in the library. It wasn’t my mom but her older sister, who was a school teacher, being responsible for my brainy well-being. Subtitled The Simplest Seuss for Youngest Use, this book is perfect for teaching the rudiments of reading. Simple rhyming words, such as pup and up, are stacked one over the other in large capitals, so that readers see that up is contained in the word pup. Sentences using these words are accompanied by humorous illustrations to complete the playful reading lesson. It was both fun and educational.

A year or so later, out of my volition, I rummaged through the children’s book section at the library and found the favorite childhood book, also by Dr. Seuss: The Cat in the Hat. In this, the first book featuring the character, “the Cat”, he brings a cheerful, exotic and exuberant form of chaos to a household of two young children one rainy day while their mother is out. Bringing with him two creatures appropriately named Thing One and Thing Two, the Cat performs all sorts of wacky tricks to amuse the children, with mixed results. The Cat’s antics are louted, yet ultimately ignored, by the family pet, who is a sentient and articulate goldfish. The children (Sally and her older brother, who serves as the narrator) prove to be quite typical latchkey children by capturing the Things and bringing the Cat under control. It was only when I re-read the book years after, as a grown-up man, that I realized the ingeniousness of this book. It simultaneously maintains a strict triple meter while it keeps to a tiny vocabulary, and still tells an entertaining tale. It’s my all-time favorite children’s book.

Give Me 5: 5th Anniversary

The blog turns 5. What was meant to be a chronicle of my thoughts and reflections from reading has turned into a vanity project. The best thing out of this blog is the interaction with fellow readers, who have pointed to me books that I would otherwise not read. On top of blogging about books, I’ve had some fun, some great conversations, been warmly welcomed by the book blogging community—and have met a few of you. I do read and re-read your thoughtful comments, and try to response to all book-related ones promptly.

Although I’ve long been over the days when I was a huge sucker of statistics, getting so caught up with driving more traffic, I still enjoy reading the stats every once in a while (it’s in fact quite addictive). I love that WordPress show me referrers and search engine terms that have lead people to my blog. I tend to get several visits a day from people searching for “white tigers.” As for the most popular search terms, I want to show some interesting stats:

Most popular book-related search terms: white tiger, master and margarita, the boy in the striped pajamas, the stranger, a separate peace, the great gatsby, crime and punishment, their eyes were watching god, beloved, beloved toni morrison

Most popular non-book-related search terms: forbidden city, moleskine, puerto vallarta, abba, lang lang, mattviews, leslie cheung, kinokuniya, de young museum, sandy lam songs

My question for you is, how did you find my blog?

First Books?

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Do you remember the first book you bought for yourself? Or the first book you checked out of the library? What was it and why did you choose it?

I have very vague memory of the first book(s) I checked out from the library, although I was thrilled that the arrival of a library card liberated me from my parents’ surveillance. My mother felt safe that I was reading within the enclosure of the library for hours on end. What materials I have checked out with abandon that is usual in inchoate child who was just granted a small autonomy I cannot recall, but vision of the very first book that I purchased with allowance money is ingrained in my mind as if it just took place last week.

I was the class geek who sat at the back of the room mulling over math problems. Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott is about a two-dimensional world referred to as Flatland which is occupied by geometric figures, line-segments (females) and regular polygons with various numbers of sides. The narrator is a humble square, a member of the social caste of gentlemen and professionals in a society of geometric figures, who guides us through some of the implications of life in two dimensions. The square has a dream about a visit to a one-dimensional world (Lineland) which is inhabited by “lustrous points.”

Men are portrayed as polygons whose social class is directly proportional to the number of sides they have; therefore, triangles, having only three sides, are at the bottom of the social ladder and are considered generally unintelligent, while the Priests are composed of multi-sided polygons whose shapes approximate a circle, which is considered to be the “perfect” shape. On the other hand, females consist only of lines and are required by law to sway back and forth and sound a “peace-cry” as they walk, because when a line is coming towards an observer in a 2-D world, their body appears merely as a point. Obviously I was not aware of the social elements and the satire at that age, but this book has come to be a favorite over the years as I have re-read several times.

My Favorite Teachers

Biweekly Gathering 46: My Favorite Teacher.

Although I had been a teacher’s pet since day one in kindergarten up until the day I graduated from primary school (preferred term for elementary school in the UK and Commonwealth), the teachers scarcely made an impression on me, except for one. In high school, two teachers—who become my friends, have made an impact on what I am now.

Miss Kam-lin Siu was one of the few teachers who didn’t show favoritism even to the most accomplished students. It was her second year on the job when she became my 6th grade homeroom teacher. She also taught Chinese language arts, which lay the foundation of what little remains of my Chinese language skills now! Miss Siu made every effort to correct her students when they used spoken Chinese on paper, where written Chinese is deemed more appropriate and formal. Her being approachable made her stand out to be a favorite teacher. Almost the entire class came to see her walking down the aisle at the end of school year.

Miss Diana Loo was my math teacher for the last two years of high school in San Francisco. I remembered walking into her classroom with fear and trembling. A fairly average math student, I doubted if I would pass advanced algebra honors, let alone doing well in it. Her alternative approach to math, one that emphasized on understanding and concept, has not only cracked my fear in math and also made me a better critical thinker. Miss Loo made me see that I have to consider different angles when I ponder at not just a math problem, but any problem. I finished second in her AP calculus class. On my yearbook, she encouraged me to work on my writing because she saw that my talent was not just in science alone. I’m very grateful that over the years in high school, over countless lunches in her room, I have found more than a teacher in her. She’s a friend.

I split my lunch hours in between Miss Loo’s room and that of Mr. Don Sanchez, my English teacher for 11th and 12th grade. Burberry coat, poplin dress shirt, flat-front black trousers and a stud ear-ring: How can an English teacher dress so Neiman-fabulously? Yet Mr. Sanchez showed me a world of literature that was even more fabulous and fascinating. Under his tutelage I read Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, William Faulkner (which I still can’t say I appreciate), Joseph Conrad, and T.S. Eliot. He planted the seed of what I eventually become now (although I’m not even half as fabulous as he was). Upon completion of his AP English class, it dawned on me that indeed what Miss Loo said might be true—-I could pursue a non-scientific career. Mr. Sanchez had also been a mentor of personal don’t ask-don’t tell issues that perplexed me as a teenager. He had been the first person with whom I discuss my sexuality. He taught me to behave honestly and naturally according to the situation life puts me in.

Chinatown

This is my debut post for a collaborative blog named 2 Weeks 1 Gather, featuring posts of Chinese bloggers from all over the world on a variety of subjects bimonthly. The current topic just hits home: Chinatown. Twenty three years ago, when I first set my feet on the land of America, I was 12. Unlike Li Cuexin in Mao’s Last Dancer, who was raised in poverty and overwhelmed by the excesses of Reagan-era Texas and America in general, I wasn’t even thrilled about coming to San Francisco. Chinatown, boasting to be the oldest and the largest outside of China, was the biggest culture shock to me. It reminds me nothing about China, at least not Hong Kong, except the claustrophobic alleys lined with vendors selling all kinds of goods. A walk through it feels like going back in time and being baffled by things like chop suey and fortune cookies that are created for the benefits for non-Chinese folks..

The language spoken in Chinatown (back then) was one obscure, askew-sounding Toisan tongue. It’s a variation of the Cantonese language that hails from the mountainous villages near the Pearl River Delta, west of Hong Kong. It took me over a year to find out the meaning of haam seen—calling the line—telephone! The Chinese culture that is on display in the form of colorful paper lanterns, trinkets, toys, linens and knock-off handbags is just a small reminder of home. Chinatown is packed: every inch of it is used to make a living. Food shops, restaurants, and trendy tapioca-tea houses are tucked between trinket shops and colorful apartment buildings. Street vendors of cheap accessories flank the sidewalk, gaining a share of the tourism economy. Local Asian families going about their daily routines dodge around camera-clutching tourists whose eyes bulge at the sights of lion dancers, who perform all year round.

My first impression of this caricature of China was not unlike that of most visitors: At points I was shocked, disgusted and thoroughly amazed. I was not prepared for the crowds, the smells, and the spits! From the fresh-food market festooned with freshly killed carcasses to the incense-burning paper money shops, commerce never rests. Bearing a closer picture to home are shops that specialize in only meat and poultry, proudly hanging shellacked roasted ducks from hooks in the front window. The dim sum portions are ridiculously huge, but lacking the delicacy and craftsmanship of that at home. Chinese folks would scream at each other in Toisan dialect that sounds like hammers hitting iron over bor lor bao at the small pastry shops, which are more pleasant and healthy to eat in since the city bans smoking in all restaurants. There’s always a place for quick noshing. The one appeal that kept drawing me back to Chinatown was the music shop, of course, before the age of mp3 downloads. It was a weekly routine to scour for the latest releases, from cassettes to CDs, until when pirated CDs took over the market.

I’ve always felt that Chinatown is resentful to changes. That it fails to keep up with the modernity becomes the backlash of its fall, as new Chinese malls open up in neighborhoods populated by young Chinese. In fact, the hole-in-the-wall joints are indicative harsh history and contemporary poverty. The neighborhood, which is run by the Chinese family associations, had spent two-thirds of its history living a double life as a crash pad for immigrants and a stage set for tourists—neither of which I can identify myself with. But at least this undeniably a home away from home. It soothes the occasional nostalgia.

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