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Endorse Reading

Guardian UK reports that the number of children reading for fun has declined since 2005. The proportion of children reading for pleasure has declined as their time is crowded with other activities, and more than a fifth never read in their own time. This is the UK stat, I wonder what the number would be in the United States? School days are shorter here, and children seem to spend more time watching TV and playing video game.

My youngest aunt taught me to read (mostly English). She was a school teacher back in Hong Kong. She was appalled, when she was young and I was younger, that she could read and I couldn’t. So she took my education into her own hands (my parents worked 9-to-5 jobs), sitting me down and making sure I was paying attention while she carefully drew letters on a little chalkboard, sounding out words for me, writing up vocabulary lists. Best of all, she would read to me: Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, Beverly Cleary. I was barely four, and pre-school was a concept unheard of.

At first, I think, I loved the materteral attention as much as I loved the books themselves. But gradually, the books grew on me, and before long I was devouring them on my own. I’m forever indebted to my aunt for imparting in me the love of reading. As a teenager, I was an undiscriminating reader, blissfully unaware of the lines between high culture and low (maybe except for romance). I read it all: classic works of the western and eastern canon, pulpy novelization of disasters, paperback collections of detective stories.

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.

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.

“The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.”

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“Janie achieved the tail of the cow and lifted her head up along the cow’s rump, as far as she could above water. The cow sunk a little with the added load and thrashed a moment in terror. Thought she was being pulled down by a gator. Then she continued on. The dog stood up and growled like a lion, stiff-standing hackles, stiff muscles, teeth uncovered as he lashed up his fury for the charge. Tea Cake split the water like an otter, opening his knife as he dived. The dog raced down the backbone of the cow to attack and Jackie screamed and slipped far back on the tail of the cow, just out of reach of the dog’s angry jaws.” [166]

Continuing Janie’s adventure in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the scenes of the overflowing river that threatened Janie, Tea Cake and many other residents of Everglade transmute me back to Phuket in 2004, when the killer tsunami hit Kata beach and claimed the lives of over three thousands.

December 26, 2004. The beaches were somewhat quiet as vacationers were still asleep in their luxury beach-side resorts after the celebration the previous night. When it came I saw that the wind and water had given life to lots of things that people tink of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things. Water everywhere. Stray fish swimming in the beach. Trees and huts felled. An understanding that explained the curious sights glowed in my mind: Elephants sought refuge of the hills, dogs ran berserk. They smelt the disaster coming.

Dodging rocks and sharp objects on the beach, the beach-combers ran for their life until they gained comparatively dry land, which was quickly devoured by the encroaching waves. Flummoxed and horrified, they had to fight to keep from being pushed the wrong way and to hold together. They saw other people like themselves struggling along. Some tried to run in raging waters and screamed when they found they couldn’t. A house down, here and there, scores of beach chairs and umbrellas floated, trees uprooted, frightened roosters and cats.

Above all it was the drive of the water that floored me. Under its multiplied roar could be heard a mighty sound of grinding rock and timber and wail. The waves broke but the water seized the embankment, rushing forward until it met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after its supposedly conquerors, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses, rolling the sleepy people in the houses along with other timbers, crushing the roads and overturning vehicles. “The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.” Like Hurston writes in the novel.

The worst was yet to come. After the water receded, Kata Beach smelt of death. We crept on hands and knees to the piece of roofing to look for sign of survivors. We saw the hand of horror on everything. Houses without roofs, and roofs without houses. Steel and stone all crushed and crumbled like wood. Bodies had to be searched out, carried to certain gathering places that were lobbies of the most expensive lodges half an hour ago. Corpses were not just found in wrecked houses, they were tangled in shrubbery, floating in water, and drifting under wreckage. A stench percolated the area. Death had either found them watching or caught them off guard, for the faces were calm and hands satisfied in some bodies. Others were brought in in all degrees of dishevelment. Sullen volunteers set up the station to greet and aid families that arrive to claim their dead loved ones.

Every now and then, scenes of the tsunami aftermath would surface in an everlasting lucid clarity–it’s almost myopic. What happened during the two weeks that I was stranded will always stay with me.

Elementary School

培� - Pui Ching Primary School

I’ve been wanting to write piece on my elementary school in Hong Kong. I stopped by during my trip to Hong Kong and took some pictures of the most recent incarnations of the cluster of buildings on Waterloo Road and Pui Ching Road. What really muster up my determination are my friend’s tribute to his school and the perusal of Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood. The book strokes my heart-string because his first residence in Hong Kong, on Waterloo Road near Soares Avenue in Ho Man Tin, is right across the street from where I used to go to school. The disparate expatriates at Four Seas Hotel on 75 Waterloo Road find themselves living in proximity of locals. The alleys and streets that made up the childhood of an English boy are the very same that I have trundled for a decade en route to school.

Pui Ching Primary School (培正小學) is located on 80 Waterloo Road, in the quiet neighborhood of Homantin in Kowloon that is off the main business thoroughfares of Mong Kok. I started K1 here and matriculated until the end of P6 (primary six, equivalent to 6th year of elementary school). Two of my uncles had been alumni of the school and the well-established prestige of the school had found favor with my parents. The entrance exam consisted of reading, writing and an interview session of which I don’t remember much.

I remembered sticking to a rigorous schedule: a six-day rotation with subjects like Chinese language, English language, math, social studies, health education, and religious studies. On the days with arts, music and P.E. I remembered schleping an extra bag full of musical instrument, a change of jersey and art supplies. Recesses were spent in library and tuck shop, with lunch being the much anticipated time for ping-pong and badminton. The final bell went off at a quarter after three, which marked off the highlight of the day. Scent of the snacks wafted from the stalls that flanked the sidewalk outside of school. Breams, fish balls, beef tripes, and rice cakes.

I thought about it when I sauntered down the street—the very same way I used to take going to school for at least 8 years. I had been happy in Hong Kong, especially at Pui Ching, where I met some of my first and closest friends. It had been an exciting place in which I live and I was sure it had much to offer that I had yet to uncover. Entwined in these memories were worries—worries about exams, tears—tears about low test marks, and countless days of laughter, joy, argument, and escapades. Sometimes I wonder what would happened if I have stayed and completed secondary school at Pui Ching. Would I be the way I am now? This place has shaped the gist of the person that is in me. Most importantly, it has imbued in me, and taught me some of the most important values, like respect, sharing, and giving my best to everything I do.


Classrooms in Block C. This is where I spent my last two years of elementary school.

Fly Deborah

San Francisco - Cafe FloreI walked into the mottled sidewalk that is lit up by patches of sun in the cloudless blue sky. No fog, not even a light caress of wind. The stuffy air promises another really warm day in the city, which, for the month of June, is rare but nonetheless very pleasant. Activities are sparse at about quarter shy of seven. My rut of a morning routine will begin at Cafe Flore, where I take up the corner table and read over coffee. Christopher beats me getting there first with the New York Times (crossword puzzle) in his hand. Then in strolls Karin with her trendy and chic bag. But no Deborah.

For 31 years Deborah has been a regular at Cafe Flore, where she takes her coffee, helps out with perplexing crossword puzzle clues, reads her buddhist books, and just threads everyone together. Literally she knows everybody like the back of her hand–not only the names, but their jacks of the trade, gossips, and pedigrees. Yesterday, her last day at the cafe, all her friends came by and paid tribute to her friend. They showered kisses on her. Hugs were exchanged. It was indeed an emotionally charged moment to see that everyone were holding back their tears. I cannot even imagine how tough and difficult the decision is for her to move back to Connecticut after living here in the Bay Area for half her life.

I know we are all feeling the impact of the ups and downs of daily politics and deteriorating economic news and, to one degree or another, the toll it takes on each one of us. I think she feels comfortable and at peace with the choice she has made–to retire in her hometown where gas prices are not as staggering and to be near her sister. As she has gladly puts, “Life here has been wonderful, more than I could imagined; absolutely no regrets! Now, off to the next adventure, one filled with Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring!.” Deborah, I wish you the best and you will be remembered. But the cafe will never be the same without your being there.

Pockets

Ever since my mother passed away in 2000, Mother’s Day has become an uneventful, remembrance sort of an occasion. I have completely alienated myself from dim sum restaurants and shopping malls and taken refuge in a sanctuary like Mount Davidson in San Francisco. My mother had wardrobe of the size of a model: blouses, pants, dresses, jackets, and coats. When I went through her clothes and wrapped them up to give away, I found humps protruding from pockets of her coats. Tugged away carefully, sometimes in small zip-up bag or origami-like wrappers, are relics that she has kept since before I was born. Jade pendants. Gold earrings. My teeth. Wedding bracelets with carvings of dragon and phoenix. Coins with square holes in the middle. Little bric-a-bracs. Movie tickets from the 60s. Various receipts and invoices. The artifacts that chronologically chart my mother’s life fill up two boxes of the size of laundry basket. I realize she has been a very private person who cherishes moments in life and seeks to capture the beauty of the moment of her life. She chooses to keep these intimate, personal relics in very intimate places, in the pockets of her clothes, and these objects are meant to be uncovered by us.

My First Song 每當變幻時 (薰妮)

I stumbled upon a long-lost tune that my mother used to play back in the early 1980s. The first thing she did in the morning was to turn on the radio and tuned to her favorite morning show on Commercial Radio 1 (CR1). It must be more than 20 years since I heard it so the catchy melody immediately grabbed me. I remembered this song used to top the charts and aired almost everyday. When the school talent show came, my mother decided that I would sing this song in front of the class and teachers. A 3-years-old boy wouldn’t have a clue to what stage fright might be and so I was invulnerable. Endowed with a good memory, I took the lyrics to my heart in no time. Like any of the kids at that age, on the day of performance, my body must have juddered with the effort to unlock those words, while the teachers would smile and nod as if the words and pitch were perfectly intelligible. The kids would jab their hands and jerk their heads to go along with the tune, but not understanding what the song really means. Some 25 years later the tune once again comes to my earshot, with more tenderness and a melancholy nostalgia, and snaps me back to the days when my mother spent the most time with me. She would make steamed eggs and BBQ pork with rice for me everyday, since that was the only thing that I ate after I quit the baby formula.

Hong Kong | My “Firsts”

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The new year has marked some of the most unusual times in my life. Until the New Year’s Eve, I have never stayed up fo the count-down nor have I seen any of the light show and firework that accompany the celebration. That some of my friends from the States are in town for the holiday has changed the monotony of the season. Perching on 32nd floor, at my friend’s hotel room, we toasted champagne and waited for 2008’s descent. Dinner boats and junks slowly congregated in the midst of Victoria harbor, fluttered in interest in anticipation to the synchronized laser and firework show. I have also met some very wonderful and special people, spend time with them and show them around Hong Kong.

I met a fellow blogger for the first time ever, in Hong Kong! He showed me around off-the-beaten-path sights that are very intriguing to me: trees with entwining roots that threaten to split a wall, a tram ride on Hong Kong Island, hidden food stall tugged away in alleys, and some very tasty hot-pot.

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I also attended the first book club meeting in Hong Kong, at a used bookstore in the SoHo area near Central. I walked around Hollywood Road and Cat Street with a friend looking at antique shops, junk shops, and galleries and bumped into this artsy bookstore. I decided to drop by the discussion on Jose Saramago‘s The Blindness.