You Can’t Get There From Here

The day began earlier than expected as I’m still off kilter time-wise. This is the natural result of what is called jet-lag. The plan was a day trip out to Stanley Bay which is on the south side of Hong Kong Island. Stanley is a small town notable for waterfront dining and shopping.

We met at the 973 Bus stop on Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. They should change the name from Canton Road to Designer Label Street or maybe Rodeo Drive East. The actual bus stop was directly in front of a Mont Blanc Pen Store, a few doors up from a Piaget Watch Store, and directly across the street were the Louis Vuitton and Hermes superstores. These places were not selling knock-offs. These were the real things. That’s what this part of town is known for – Consumerism at its zenith. Zenith starts with Z which rhymes with C which stands for conspicuous and costly. Notice the people standing in line to get into the store at 10:30 in the morning. Also within a stone’s throw were Gucci, Tiffany’s, Ferragamo, Rolex, Coco Chanel, Dior, and some other Italian designer shops.This list of available ‘brand names’ seemed endless.

Anyway, soon enough the 973 double decker bus arrived and we boarded. Our route would take us beneath Victoria Harbor via the Western Harbor Tunnel arriving on the western end of Sheung Wan. The bus route would climb up the hills of Pok Fu Lam, past the University of Hong Kong, and head south along the western coast of Hong Kong Island passing through Aberdeen, then two of the most picturesque and expensive places to live in Hong Kong – Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay. Later in Stanley we passed a real estate brokerage where we saw dozens of listings for homes in Repulse Bay. One was offering a four bedroom, 4.5 baths, more than 4200 square feet home apartment. The cost to buy was 93 Million Hong Kong dollars which is just under 12 million US dollars. The cost to rent: HK$75,000 a month or a bit more than $9,600 US dollars a month.

Repulse Bay, Hong Kong

The road was quite windy, narrow, two-lanes, up and down hills, and had almost no stretches of straight or flat. Eventually we’d come down from the hills as Stanley is at sea level. Stanley Harbor spills directly into the South China Sea. The shopping is fun with everything from sporting goods, to home wares, from fashions to art, and antiques and curios to watches.

Entrance to Stanley Market

Our shopping purchases included a Beatles necktie with images of John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s faces stacked vertically, a Chairman Mao tee shirt only it wasn’t Mao’s face – instead it was ‘Chairman’ Obama, postcards, and a table runner.

The Murray House

Rather than having lunch at a waterfront restaurant, we opted for the Murray House (indoors and air-conditioned) which was a building originally built in 1844 and which housed the British Colonial offices. The building was located in Central on the north-side of Hong Kong. In 1984 the building was taken apart stone by stone and put into storage. In 2000, the building was re-assembled in Stanley. It currently houses the Hong Kong Maritime Museum and four restaurants. We ate at Wildfire sharing pizza, ribs, a chicken and pasta dish, a Caesar Salad, and a crab cake appetizer. I got a little buzzed on two large steins of ice-cold Carlsberg Beer.

Happy Valley & highway emerging from Aberdeen Tunnel

For our route back, we took the 260 Bus which passed through, actually under, the mountains of Hong Kong via the Aberdeen Tunnel. We’d emerge from the tunnel in the vicinity of the Hong Kong Jockey Club which is actually a venue for horse racing called Happy Valley. You round a bend and you pass the open end of the track, the huge grandstand does not completely circle the track. In the picture, you can see the road emerging from the tunnel and passing right along-side Happy Valley. What makes this sight so memorable are the soaring high-rise apartment towers that surround the track.

We ultimately arrived at Statue Square in Central and got off the bus. Rather than just grabbing a cab right there – we took the MTR to Sheung Wan where my apartment is. What we discovered is that it was quite difficult to get a cab at that time in Sheung Wan. We tried walking up the seemingly endless series of steps towards the apartment – but by the time we gave up and grabbed a taxi – we were on a street heading away from the apartment. We actually ended up going back down the hilly streets before circling around to go back up to Po Hing Fong. What I discovered is that it was easier to get to my apartment in Sheung Wan from Central rather than from Sheung Wan itself. Hence the title of this piece – You can’t get there from here.

First Dispatch From Hong Kong

They say getting there is half the fun. I’m not so sure about that. My route was from Sarasota, Florida with a stop in Atlanta to JFK Airport in New York via Delta. Then flying from NY to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific. Distance covered was close to 14,000 miles and it took approximately 23 hours from take off to touchdown.  The domestic flights in the USA went off without a hitch – not withstanding a sleepless Tuesday night – I was afraid I’d sleep through my alarm set for 4:30 AM in order to prepare for a 5:30 AM pickup to drive to the Sarasota Airport.  I had a near miss for my Atlanta to JFK leg of the trip as I only had 35 Minutes between landing and boarding AND I went to the wrong gate. In Sarasota they told me I was arriving at B24 and the Flight was from A28. Only it was departing  from B14. So I had to double back chop/chop but I made it safely as boarding had already started but fortunately hadn’t concluded.

Arrived in Hong Kong Airport after the sleepless 15 hour 15 minute flight  which arrived at 6:15 PM ahead of schedule as we were supposed to arrive at 7:00 PM. However, that gain was lost in the lengthy queues to pass through the immigration/passport control. Took the Airport Express Train to Hong Kong Central Station. 23 minutes and $100 HK dollars – a bit more than $12 US . Tickets are purchased from a machine with English. Nice, quick, fast and easy. Only there was a lengthy queue for taxis at Central.

My destination was Tai-On-Terrace, in the Sheung Wan section of Hong Kong. which means it was up in the hills. It was all city but it was all uphill. Not at all doable with luggage. ‘Just tell the taxi driver Po Hing Fong’ were the instructions and they worked like a charm. It was about a ten minute taxi ride which cost about 32.5 HK dollars (a bit over $4 US). I had trouble finding the entrance to the apartment but a quick call to Estelle, the apartment owner – and she came right down and met me.

The apartment was an L-Shaped studio – with a small kitchen and a nice big shower. Actually the apartment was  beautifully furnished and came complete  with A/C , the all important and must in Hong Kong de-humidifier, a 40 inch flat-panel TV with cable and a DVD player, WiFi for my laptop, a down comforter for the bed, and fresh linens and towels. The kitchen was fully workable complete with a coffee maker, a microwave, toaster, a small fridge, and a two burner electric range plus a full range of plates, glasses, etc.

The apartment was on the 1st floor which in HK means up one flight of steps from the entrance. The only thing the place lacked was a good view. Best news of all – right downstairs, actually under the apartment was a Viennese styled coffee house called Cafe LoisL. The fresh brewed to order Caffe Americano  and the croissant were delicious. Open daily.

The apartment was owned by a lovely French woman, Estelle B who is an International Certified Personal Trainer and she is the owner and founder of her own business called – Be Fit, Be Toned, Be Relaxed, and Be Recovered – a small plug for her because she was nice, and the apartment was great. After not sleeping on Tuesday night and a long and tiring trip which took all of Wednesday and most of Thursday, sleep beckons.

The pictures are of the apartment.

Shopping trip to Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon -side) Friday morning went as planned except for the heat – 82 degrees. Bought new eye glasses and new prescription sun-glasses at Classy Optical on Peking Road, also bought a USB headphones for my laptop. On the flight over I managed to destroy the small connecting card and plug by stepping on them.  Had some lunch and did some food shopping for the apartment.

I also scouted out the restaurant for tonight – The Serenade in the Hong Kong Cultural Center which is right next to the Star Ferry Kowloon side, and the famed Clock Tower. Across the street is the Peninsula Hotel that had a flotilla of Rolls Royce automobiles in the driveway. Meeting for dinner will be my friend Jeannette who I know since 1999 and Yu Ling who I know since 2000, and her husband Steve who is a Professor in Shantou University, which is sightly more than an hour away by plane.

This morning, going down hill past Blake Gardens, a small pocket park of greenery a couple of blocks away, and then down the rest of the way to the Sheung Wan MTR Station, I noticed something – one that I wasn’t ever going to walk up to the apartment from the MTR station. Two: every one that was walking up hill was walking very slowly, even the kids. And three – the steps weren’t made for the big feet of the westerners like me. They were decidedly small for the shorter Cantonese people.

I’m still a little tired from the jet-lag so an afternoon nap is a distinct possibility.

Lost in Time

With my departure time for travel to Hong Kong and then on to Yangshuo, Guanxi Province, China, only hours away, I’d thought I share one of my favorite Hong Kong films with you. You can watch it from the comfort of your own homes, and save the cost of an airline ticket to Hong Kong. Both Netflix and Blockbuster have it as a DVD rental, or you can buy it from or Barnes & Noble.

The film is called Lost in Time. The stars are Cecilia Cheung and Lau Ching-Wan. Directed by Derrick Yee, this 2003 release is not your usual Hong Kong movie. There’s no action, or car chases, shootouts and the like. There’s not a whole to laugh about and when you do laugh, it will be in joy instead laughing at something silly.

To set the film up for you – Cecilia Cheung has the role of Holly Lam or as she’s called on the video’s audio, Siu-Wai. As the film opens we see her waiting at a mini-bus terminal. She’s not waiting for a bus to go somewhere. Instead she waiting at the terminus to hand off a meal to her fiance, Ah Man, who is played by Louis Koo, who drives a mini-bus full-time for a living. Within a minute of the film’s opening, Ah Man’s mini-bus is hit cross side by a truck, and moments later, he dies. We do see Koo as Ah-Man in some flashbacks later on, so while he does die at the film’s outset – this is not the last of what we see of him.

That’s not much of a spoiler – in fact it was how the film was marketed. Holly is stunned – instead marrying Ah Man and becoming the mother to Ah Man’s little son Lok-Lok, or as he is called in the subtitles, Laurie, she’s now an almost widow, as well as a single parent. She decides to repair and drive Man’s mini-bus herself.

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Margin Call

David Denby, writing for New Yorker Magazine has labeled J. C. Chandor’s debut film, Margin Call, “… one of the strongest American films of the year and easily the best Wall Street movie ever made.” High praise indeed from one of the most widely read and esteemed film critics. Yet this film opened today in what was called a ‘limited release’.

That would mean that this film is opening in just 17 states, and here in Florida, the film is playing in just one theater, in the entire state, in a town called Maitland, somewhere northeast of Orlando. Google says it is 138 miles from my home. With gas prices hovering around 3.50 a gallon, driving that far and back to see the film would add about $50 to the cost of my ticket.

Think about that – just one theater in the entire state of Florida and playing in just 17 states. Well, the good news is that the film is quite good. The bad news is you might have to wait awhile to see it. Unless you have ‘on-demand’ via your cable provider.

I think the producers are going to have more copies of the film made and distributed. On the other hand. maybe folks won’t be all that interested in seeing what happened to their retirement nest eggs, which vanished overnight in some cases. But I won’t spend any more time discussing the harsh realities stemming from the events of the market crash in 2008, because we all know or knew someone, or we were/are actually victims ourselves. So let’s not talk about what happened in real life, instead let’s talk about the film.

I think the best way to discuss the film is to describe some of the performances by the actors, and even more importantly to describe what it was like to watch the film. Shortly after the film begins we are told that 80% of the traders and their support staffs, in an unnamed financial services firm, are going to be let go that day. Grim and stony-faced HR folks march in and set up in a conference room. People are asked to come in. They’re given the bad news, along with the size and the amounts of their severance packages, and this gentleman – they point to a security person – will escort you to your office where you will leave everything as is taking only your personal belongings. Which leads to the long and cruel walk to the elevators with your boxed possessions. This is the beginning of the film, and from there – it only gets worse.

I personally have seen what I just described in person – but when you watch it in Margin Call, from the safety of your own den, living room, or theater seat, you will be thankful that you are safely distanced from the what you are watching. Then again you may not be safe at all. But while watching, I felt as if I dare not blink or close my eyes – lest I miss something.

Stanley Tucci as Eric Dale, is one of the first to go. He’s a sympathetic figure as a mid-level manager handling risk assessment. He receives his bad news with a certain stoicism, but you know from the gravitas of his facial expressions that this is serious stuff for him. He’s been in the business 19 years. When he hits the street and stops for a moment to call home – he finds that the cell phone (provided by the firm) no longer works.

They had told him as much upstairs – no computer access, no emails, no phones – but he had forgotten. It was a startling and electrifying change of mood, when he hurled his phone to the sidewalk in frustration – all the more remarkable because of his previously shown calmness and strength when he was told to pack up and leave.

Dale’s boss, Will Emerson (played by Paul Bettany) has survived. We aren’t quite sure of what he does, but he was Dale’s boss, and now two of the younger risk analysts that reported to Dale now report to him. He makes big bucks, drives an Aston-Martin, and wears a rich navy blue suit. As portrayed by Bettany, he comes off as a guy who likes living on the edge, someone who never met a party he wouldn’t go to, and he was something of a player who later confesses that he made 2.5 million in the previous year. And out of that he spent more than 75K on hookers and drinking. Yet Bettany (below) gives him a decency that makes you respect him if not actually like him.

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The Big Year

Ace birder and reigning world champion of  The Big Year, Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is dining alone in a Chinese restaurant somewhere on Christmas Eve. He’s the only diner in the restaurant and the waiter and waitress have nothing to do other than bring him, and only him, his food.

He’s alone because, instead of being with his wife, he’s off on his birding expedition to protect his world’s record for bird sightings in a calendar year. We get this exchange:

Bostick: Hey guys, come over and join me at the table, there’s nothing going on and I’d like to thank you for working on Christmas Eve.

[They come over and sit down].

Bostick: I’d sure like to go to China some day and see all the different kinds of birds. Hey Chan, do you know anything about the birds in China?

Chan: Um…Peking Duck…?

Sadly, that was the funniest line in the whole film, and one of only a few, rare laugh out loud moments in the film. You’d think that with stars like Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson – that the film would be an actual comedy. Going in, visions of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – the classic Road film with Steve Martin and John Candy came to mind. Though it looks and sounds like a comedy in the trailer, and is a billed as a comedy – simply, it’s not funny enough to be a comedy. Mostly, it doesn’t even try that hard to get you to laugh.

Our three leads are in a head to head competition to win The Big Year which is a competition between folks to see who can see the most different kinds of Birds in North America in one calendar year. There’s no prizes to be won, no judges or referees – the entire thing goes on the honor system, and the top dog, er guy, get’s his picture on the cover of Birding Magazine. That’s it. We really have no rooting interest because for us, nothing is at stake.

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Zenkai Girl aka Full-Throttle Girl

Yui Aragaki has finally achieved her first lead female role in a J-TV Series. After playing a series of high school sweeties, and ingenues, “Gakki’ has finally been tabbed for a starring role. The series is called Zenkai Girl or Full-Throttle Girl. As we meet her in the opening scenes, she has just graduated from law school and has landed a job at an international law firm.

Yui is cast as Wakaba Ayukawa, and she’s good at everything she does – she graduated at the top of her class, she’s multi-lingual, and she has what is takes to become an ace lawyer. Only her first assignment is to baby-sit her boss’s five year old daughter, who is five going on 30, or so it seems.

Wakaba is driven because as child she grew up in rather desperate circumstances – her father was in debt from gambling to the Yakuza loan-sharks.

Little Wakaba got them out from under this by studying and then filing a motion and getting a decree for Voluntary Bankruptcy. That set her on her path of wanting to be lawyer and for seeing anything that she took on to its finish. In her own personal lexicon, there was no such thing as not finishing anything to the best of her ability.

But she hadn’t counted on taking a smart-ass five year old girl to pre-school every day. However everything was not all bad. At the law firm every once in a while she got to do a project, or a report, or a translation of a law-brief, and people took notice of her skills. At the pre-school she ran into a single parent Dad whose step-son also attended this school. This was Ryo Nishido as Sota Yamada , a would-be chef.

His story was no picnic either. He married a dancer who came with a son, another precocious 5 year old. But that marriage ended with a divorce after his wife ran off to New York with another guy, leaving Sota with her son. He currently worked as a short-order cook in a little hole-in-the-wall neighborhood restaurant. Sota had formerly worked at the internationally acclaimed, world class restaurant, Paul Bocuse, in Tokyo – but had given that up to raise his step-son.

Wakaba tells little Hinata: "I hate children"

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The Ides of March

Back in the late 1930’s, when our great-grand-parents were coming of age and discovering sex and politics (most assuredly in that order but I have no way to verify) populist film director Frank Capra brought forth the great grandfather of all political films. The title was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It starred Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, and what was billed, at the time, as the greatest cast of supporting actors ever. The film garnered 11 Oscar Nominations but won only one Oscar.

A film adapted from a popular novel by Margaret Mitchell, called Gone With the Wind, walked off with most of the gold that year including Best Picture.

However Mr. Smith was a brilliant film – Jimmy Stewart played Jefferson Smith who was appointed as a compromise by the governor of an unnamed western state to replace a Senator who had just passed on. Smith was appointed because the sitting governor couldn’t abide the political boss’s handpicked stooge and he had to worry about his own re-election so he couldn’t name a popular reformer because that would piss off his bosses. So, the middle of the road type, read as unknown, Jefferson Smith is appointed to the Senate vacancy because he was naive, inexperienced, an idealist, and yet could be (they assumed) easily manipulated.

Mr. Smith turned out to be a film that stood Washington on its head. While it is an inspirational and feel good story of the highest caliber, the Washington Press Corps and the US Congress reviled the film because of its portrayal of the corruption  and venality in those hallowed halls of the American Government. The Senators and Congressmen didn’t much care for the fact that they came off looking like a bunch of crooks at worst, or a bunch of hogs at the trough at best.

So with a film like that one, symbolizing one of the major roots of political drama in cinema, we can look back and take note of some of the off-springs of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, beginning with Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972), Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All The President’s Men (1976), Joan Allen in The Contender (2000), and of course, The American President (1995) which was directed by Rob Reiner and starred Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. These films made statements about the life and times of American politics and its natural bedfellow – the press.

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Det. Sgt. Tom Brant: So run the description by me again.

Witness: And you’re not taking any notes?

Det. Sgt. Tom Brant: Do I look like I carry a pencil?

That’s Jason Statham as Detective Sergeant Tom Brant in a film called Blitz. Brant is the South East London Branch’s version of Inspector Harry Callahan, S.F.P.D. Brant faces censure, suspensions, even dismissal for over the top brutality and violence. He’s just a bad man who tossed away the police rule book years ago.

They establish his character quite early on. He awakens on his sofa, at 2:30 in the morning, but he needs a double whiskey to get going. Get going means to take on three street punks looking to boost a car downstairs. Brant’s weapon? A field hockey stick. Naturally by the time the press gets ahold of this, Brant is portrayed  as the vicious cop who beat the stuffings out of the three innocent lads.

Another man, a Barry Weiss, is targeting cops – specifically the ones that arrested him in the past. Since he’s been arrested multiple times, the list of targeted cops isn’t small by any means.

One by one they go down. A lady copper is shot in the throat and bleeds out. A cop in a traffic cruiser is shot point blank in the face. And another cop is bludgeoned to death with a hammer. This Weiss is a walking crime wave all by himself. Or said another way – he’s a serial killer of police officers.

Statham’s Brant goes after Aiden Gillen (best known from tv’s The Wire) as Barry Weiss aka The Blitz, as in Blitzkreig. Barry’s kind of a celeb-wanna-be. He loves the killing, but he loves the media attention even more. So there’s your set up.

The problem is that the set-up isn’t anything new. A serial killer has to be taken down, and who is  better to go after him than a brutal cop. And they get him, only he’s going to sprung out of ‘gaol’ in 48 hours because the cops don’t really have any hard evidence.

So the real question is – how is Brant going to get this man?

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