Category: Just for Fun

Just For Fun: Capital Spirits – Beijing’s First Baijiu Bar

By , April 8, 2015
Cozy Capital Spirits in Beijing

Cozy Capital Spirits in Beijing

For most foreigners in China, baijiu (pronounced bye gee-oh) is a joke, or at the very least, the key element in any story about passing out, blacking out or vomiting up your banquet dinner.  But for the Chinese, baijiu, a strong, traditional grain or rice wine, is a must at any celebratory outing.  While foreigners often turn up their noses at baijiu, the Chinese really seem to enjoy it.  And have so for around 2,000 years.

Capital Spirits, a new bar in Beijing’s Dongzhimen neighborhood, successfully bridges

Bartender David gives an introduction to a flight of baijiu

Bartender David gives an introduction to a flight of baijiu

the gap between foreigners’ misunderstanding of baijiu and the Chinese love of it.  Showcasing some of China’s finest and smoothest baijius, Capital Spirits gives the uninitiated a reason to respect – if not begin to love – baijiu.  The bar offers a number of baijiu flights, where for 40 kuai (around $8), you can taste and compare four or five different baijius from around the country.  Each drink in the flight is introduced to you by the bartender, highlighting the differences and history of each brand.

But for those who cannot yet face pure baijiu, Capital Spirits also offers an eclectic and inventive baijiu cocktail mix.  That is the menu my friends and I ordered off of when we were there one recent night.  The cocktails were familiar – the hutong hound, a mix between grapefruit juice and baijiu was similar to a greyhound; the pineapple express had elements of pineapple and Malibu; and the ma-la rita, like a margarita.  But the taste of baijiu was evident if not in the strength of the cocktail alone.  While each was refreshing and tasty, especially the ma-la rita which had an enjoyable Sichuan peppercorn kick to it, because of the baijiu, these were sipping cocktails, not downing ones.  If you do want to down drinks in a more traditional manner, Capital Spirits has a full bar (two men were drinking whiskey when we showed up) and a non-baijiu cocktail mix.

Baijiu cocktails @ Capital Spirits - the Hutong Hound, the Ma-la Rita, and the Pineapple Express

Baijiu cocktails @ Capital Spirits – the Hutong Hound, the Ma-la Rita, and the Pineapple Express

Capital Spirits’ goal is to convert the doubting to the gospel of baijiu, a task that it appears to be slowly winning.  But what it truly does best is create an intimate neighborhood vibe in this small hutong space.  This is a crowd willing to try new things, and as a result, willing to talk to strangers.  By the end of the night, we had bantered with many of the other customers.  David, the bartender that night, was also hospitable, explaining all the different drinks.  But if you want to be left undisturbed, that is an option too in this dimly-lit space.

I am probably not going to become one of the converted.  Baijiu is still a mean spirit, especially for yours truly who thinks Mailbu and pineapple juice is a strong drink.  But I am going to go back to Capital Spirits.  It’s a great place to enjoy a drink – even a non-baijiu one – with a fun group of a people.

 

 

 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Capital Spirits

大菊胡同3号 (DA JU HUTONG #3)
Beijing, China

Although in a hutong, Capital Spirits is easy to find. Take Line 2 to Dongzhimen and get out at Exit B. You will be on Dongzhimen Nei Dajie and the Second Ring Road. Walk west along Dongzhimen Nei until you hit Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie. Cross to the otherside of Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie and immediately turn left. Pretty much the first hutong on your right will be 大菊胡同 (Da Ju Hutong). Capital Spirits is pretty much five feet in on your right. There is no sign, but there is the address painted on the front: 大菊胡同3号

Note that the bar does not open until 8 PM.

恭喜发财!Welcome Year of the Horned-Sort-of-Something?

By , February 17, 2015
Happy Lunar New Year!

Happy Lunar New Year!

On Thursday, the world says goodbye to year of the horse and welcomes year of the…..what? Is it a sheep? A ram? A goat? For this Lunar New Year, it’s okay to be confused. And walking down the streets of Chinatown does not make things any clearer. Fuzzy stuffed sheep abound, as do cute little billy goat statutes and the occasional muscular ram. What in heaven’s name is going on with this Lunar New Year?

The confusion stems from the Chinese word used to describe the upcoming year – 羊 (yáng). Each of the animals – the sheep, the goat, the ram – use this character in its name. In Chinese, sheep is 绵羊 (mián yáng), literally meaning “soft, horned, hoofed animal;” goat is 山羊 (shān yáng), a “mountain, horned, hoofed animal;” and ram is 公羊 (gōng yáng), meaning a “male, horned, hoofed animal.” For sure if you go into a Chinese restaurant and order a dish of yang, it will be lamb meat. But the same doesn’t hold true for the Lunar New Year. Does yang mean sheep, goat or ram?

In Vietnam, a country that also celebrates the Lunar New Year (known there as Tet), they dispensed with this

Year of the Sheep, Goat or Ram?  You decide!

Year of the Sheep, Goat or Ram? You decide!

problem a long time ago, declaring the zodiac sign a goat. But in China, the debate still rages. While many feng shui experts declare that goat is the more fitting translation (because of the “horns” that appear a top the character yáng), the attributes given to a person born under the Yang sign resemble a sheep: kind, polite, creative, filial, timid in nature, and sensitive.

It is these sheep-like characteristics that have caused couples in China to delay having a baby for a year. For those couples who get one bite at the apple, they do not want their only child to be a “follower.” As a result, the Chinese state-run media has launched a campaign encouraging couples to have sheep babies. CCTV ran a segment entitled “Hardly a Terrible Sign if People like Bruce Willis and Whoopi are Sheep.” Others listed, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner (both sheep!). Unclear if this will do the trick.

What's so bad about being a sheep?  These guys are fun!

What’s so bad about being a sheep? These guys are fun!

But at any rate, year of the sheep, with its more docile personality, should be a bit calmer than last year’s horse. As every year is on its own five element cycle (wood, fire, earth. metal, water), this year is year of the Wood Sheep, However, each zodiac animal is associated with its own element – here, sheep’s intrinsic element is earth. Unfortunately, according to feng shui master Raymond Lo, wood – 2015’s element – conquers earth – the sheep’s internal element. Thus, the two are in a destructive relationship causing disharmony, but given the nature of the sheep, while 2015 will be filled with conflicts, these conflicts will be easily resolved through compromises.

But what Year of the Sheep has in store for you depends on YOUR sign. How will you do this year?  Check out your personal horoscope here (note you may have to do a Bazi test to determine the strength of your birth year element.  You can do that here – note that birth date is entered day-month-year).

To all of our friends who celebrate the Lunar New Year, may you have a healthy, happy and prosperous Year of the Sheep!

Just for Fun: Uptown & Downtown – Different Perspectives on the Chinese in America

By , October 30, 2014
At the NY Historical Society - Photo from American actress Anna May Wong's identity card that she had to carry with her at all times

At the NY Historical Society – Photo from American actress Anna May Wong’s identity card that she had to carry with her at all times

It is rare to see an exhibit exclusively on the Chinese experience in America.  Rarer still to have two shown simultaneously in the same city.  But that is precisely what is happening in New York this fall with the New York Historical Society’s Chinese America: Exclusion/Inclusion and the Museum of Chinese in America’s (“MOCA”) 35th anniversary show, Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving.

Located on the Upper West Side, the Historical Society is removed from any of the city’s Chinatowns and unfortunately, that removal is felt throughout the show.  The exhibition centers on the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a 1882 act of Congress that essentially barred all but the few Chinese from entering the United States and prevented the naturalization of Chinese immigrants for the next 60-plus years.

Exclusion/Inclusion does a great job of presenting the history of Chinese immigration in America, American’s backlash with the passage of the Exclusion Act, and the Act’s eventual repeal in 1943 (although a  quota remained for Chinese immigration until 1965 when the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act eliminated quotas).  In particular, the show makes clear that “exclusion” in the title of the Act was a misnomer.  With the stated goal to keep out Chinese laborers, the Act permitted other classes of Chinese citizens to immigrate: officials, teachers, students, merchants (although not laundry or restaurant owners), and their immediate families (wives and children).  As a result, an industry falsifying documents began and the modern U.S. immigration bureaucracy – needed to verify the accuracy of the immigrants’ documents and keep as many Chinese out – was born.

But throughout the show, the history feels whitewashed.  While the exhibit is about Chinese and Chinese Americans, little of their voices come

MOCA's New Show -Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving

MOCA’s New Show -Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving

through.  Sure the show uses the usual method of quotes and diary passages from Chinese men and women held for years in Angel Island, but it is more didactic than it is inspiring.  It isn’t until the end, with a blown up graphic novel of Bronx-born Amy Chin describing  the continued impact of the Exclusion Act on her family that the exhibition takes on an emotional gravitas.

The Chinese voice is particularly absent in expressing the community’s role in actually changing the law that impacted it or in shaping its own future.  Scant attention is paid to the Chinese-American community’s continued activism in agitating for acceptance as Americans.  Instead, the show ends with a feeling that “inclusion” has already happened.  There is no mention of the 2011 suicide of Private Danny Chen who, prior to his death, was tormented daily because of his Chinese heritage.  No mention is made of the 1982 hate-motivated murder of Vincent Chin whose murderers received a mere three years of probation.   These incidents and many others show that full inclusion has yet to occur.

But what Exclusion/Inclusion lacks can be found in MOCA’s Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving.  Commemorating the museum’s 35th anniversary, Waves is a modest but compelling show.  MOCA, located in Chinatown itself, was very much a community-created institution and it is that sense of community that is felt throughout the exhibit.

Waves is not a lineal procession through history like Exclusion/Inclusion; instead, it is much more innovative.  MOCA’s impressive collection of community artifacts, photos and oral histories are laid out by answering a series of questions:  “who founded MOCA and why?”; “what does it mean to be Chinese?”; “how do you become American?”; “how does memory become history?”; “where does Chinatown end?”  None of these questions are directly answered by the artifacts and multimedia that accompany the section.  Instead the viewer is forced to engage with the objects and draw their own conclusions.  The McDonald’s Shanghai McNuggets promotion that you might fondly remember from the late 1980s, how do we – and should we – place this in our, shared American history?

Shop in Chinatown days after Sept. 11, 2001 (c) Corkey Lee - http://911chinatown.mocanyc.org/album/CorkyLee.html

Shop in Chinatown days after Sept. 11, 2001
(c) Corkey Lee – http://911chinatown.mocanyc.org/album/CorkyLee.html

And that is perhaps the biggest difference between Waves and Exclusion/Inclusion.  The latter, by its very title, presupposes a separate society that Chinese Americans are either kept from or allowed to enter.  Waves on the other hand demonstrates that Chinese American history is – and has always been – as much a part of the greater American history as the American Revolution or the Southern Civil Rights Movement.  Perhaps the portion of the exhibit that demonstrates our shared history the most is the section on the impact of the September 11th attacks not just on Chinatown itself which sat in the shadows of the Towers, but also on its people who, like all New Yorkers, saw those anchors of their lives fall before their eyes.

Chinese America: Exclusion/Inclusion, with ads plastered on almost every subway station, is getting the most attention.  But if you go see that show, be sure to follow up with Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving for carefully curated exhibit by the community itself that will engage the viewer.

 

Chinese America: Exclusion/Inclusion
Now through April 19, 2015
Rating: ★★½☆☆New York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY
Admission: $19; FREE Fridays 6 pm – 8 pm
Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving
Now through March 1, 2015
Rating: ★★★½☆Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street
New York, NY
Admission: $ 10; FREE Thursdays All Day

Just for Fun: Movie Review – Ghina

By , July 29, 2014
GHINA!

GHINA!

Every year, over 10,000 Chinese immigrants arrive in the oil- and gold-rich West African nation of Ghana, all with the aspiration to hit it rich. But what does such a huge wave of immigration followed up by the Chinese government’s low-cost loans and aid mean for Ghana? In Ghina (pronounced Gee-na), director Christine Choy attempts to answer that question by looking at the inter-personal relationships between a few Ghanaians and their Chinese bosses. But by focusing only on these select impressions and not examining the bigger macro issues at play, Choy fails to achieve her goal and instead, the movie is a disjointed, hodge-podge of interviews and scenes that merely perpetuates stereotypes of the Ghanaians rather than enlighten the viewer to any cohesive point.

Ghina opens with the Chinese construction of a hospital in the capital. As we learn from the English-speaking Chinese boss, this hospital is a donation to the Ghanaian people.   While the undercurrent is clear – that China is likely getting something in exchange for this “donation” – the movie fails to ever explain what that exchange is. There is vague reference to “Chinese illegal mining” but the movie never explains just how illegal and damaging to the environment that mining is to a country that still largely relies on agriculture and thus is sensitive to environmental pollution.

And that is the major problem with Ghina. It barely scratches the surface and as a result, fails to explain, either on the micro or the macro level the complexities of China’s investment in Ghana. It is not all bad. As Ghina points out, roads are being paved, hospitals are being built and ambitious Ghanaians are learning new skills and technology. But at what cost? And ultimately, at what benefit? Is China just another colonial-like power in Ghana, intent to strip it of its resources and go, leaving Ghana worse off than before? Or is it committed to the development of Ghana, where the country and its people can share in the prosperity?

Ghina also fails to adequately address the fact that many of these new Chinese construction projects aren’t job-creators for Ghana.  Instead,

Chinese boss leading a work group in Ghana

Chinese boss leading a work group in Ghana

the Chinese company often imports the Chinese labor with the construction materials, giving only a few jobs to the locals.

Only in one scene – where what appears to be an NYU professor traveling with the film crew interacts with one of the Ghanaian professors (who judging from his wardrobe is doing quite well) – do we see the kernel of the greatness that Ghina could have become. In that exchange, the Ghanaian professor defends the Chinese actions, acknowledging that the Chinese are only taking advantage of loopholes that the Ghana government allows. And on some level that is true. However, in the case of Chinese mining in Ghana, these aren’t loopholes. These are largely illegal actions that since the summer of 2013, the Ghanaian government has begun to crackdown on, deporting thousands of Chinese immigrants.  The movie fails to point that these referenced loopholes are actual illegalities.

Unfortunately, with an issue like Chinese investment in Africa, it is difficult to tell a coherent story just by looking at a few vignettes of individual people’s lives. While Ghina attempts to do that, it largely demonstrates that this type of storytelling ends up telling little to no story at all. Instead, check out the Guardian’s 15 minute video on illegal mining in Ghana for a more nuanced understanding of the Chinese in Ghana.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Just For Fun: Art Review – Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?”

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

For sure the best part of the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition of Ai Weiwei‘s (pronounced Eye Way-Way) retrospective – “According to What?” – is that it was able to obtain the six dioramas Ai made of his 81-day detention by Chinese authorities. The dioramas visually demonstrates the utter absurdity of the Chinese police state. This alone mandates that this exhibit not be missed.

But the second best part? That the Brooklyn Museum did not place Ai’s works in a vacuum. Instead, Ai’s exhibit is one of four fascinating exhibits concerning art and social activism. Any visit to Ai’s exhibit should be accompanied by a viewing of at least one of these other shows. If you get there before July 13, definitely check out “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” as a contrasting exhibit to Ai’s and as a powerful reminder of America’s own checkered past and unclear future concerning civil and human rights.

“According to What?” is not just a retrospective of Ai’s art but also an explanation of

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

his activism. One of the most revealing parts of the exhibition is Ai’s photographs from 1980s New York City, covering the decade when Ai lived in the city. Through Ai’s photographs, we see what he saw: constant protests in various city parks, face-to-face confrontation with the police, the beginnings of the AIDs crisis and its activism, the grit of 1980s New York City. When later on in the exhibit you watch a video of Ai challenging the Chinese police and demanding accountability, you can’t help but think back to the photos of bloody protesters in Tompkins Square Park and wonder if this is what influences Ai to be the agitator that he has become.

But Ai wasn’t always such an agitator. Unfortunately the exhibition gives only short shrift to his prior – and government-accepted – work. In overlooking this aspect of Ai’s career, the exhibit also fails to fully explain the spark that radicalized his art – the Sichuan earthquake. After an 8.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Sichuan province, Ai traveled to the region and saw the hundreds of shoddily-built schoolhouses that completely fell, killing the children in them. All the while surrounding government buildings remained standing. Seeing the thousands of children’s backpacks lying in the rubble and the fact that the government-controlled press was not acknowledging the “tofu-dreg construction,” Ai took matters into his own hands, undertaking a “Citizen’s Investigation” and uncovering the names of the 5,196 children killed.

The gallery with Ai's Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including "Straight"

The gallery with Ai’s Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including “Straight”

In “Sichuan Name List,” Ai lists the name, age, school and address of every single child killed.   It is the layout of this work – the 5,196 names line an entire wall of the gallery, from top of the ten foot wall to bottom – that forms the art work. Only in seeing this can one even begin to attempt to understand the enormity of the loss. The work is accompanied by “Remembrance” a three-and-a-half audio recording of strangers from around the world speaking the name of every single child that perished. Lying in the center of the gallery are the steel rebar from the shoddy construction – all of which have been straightened back to their original form.

Ai’s homage to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake is powerful. It is also the reason why Ai is so dangerous to the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”).   To maintain its power, the CCP needs to retain its monopoly on Chinese history. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, it is the CCP that writes the country’s history; not its people. Tiananmen? Never happened. Mao Zedong? Only 10% wrong. The Cultural Revolution? Not a descent into madness, just a little blip on the radar screen. Here, Ai – who is an influential figure since his father, Ai Qing, was a well-known and respected poet – is attempting to write the people’s history. It’s that attempt that the CCP sees as an assault on its rule.

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

But if you think that is overreacting, then check out the six half-life size dioramas that Ai made of his 81 day detention. In 2011, Ai was detained by the public security bureau allegedly on tax fraud charges although the general consensus is that it was the government’s failed attempt to silence his activism. Ai designed each five-foot tall diorama with a window where the viewer can look in and see Ai in his room. In the first room, things don’t look so bad. It looks more like a hotel room than a jail cell. But as you progress and look into each scene, you begin to realize the absurdity of what is going on here. Two guards are with Ai at every moment, watching him. As he eats, as he sleeps, even when he showers. The guards are there, standing over him, watching his every move. Is this jolly, chubby man really that dangerous?

With so much of Ai’s art involving his interaction with the authorities, “According to What?” raises the question – has social activism become Ai’s art? And is this good for either: should activism merely be theater; should art be so much protest? By situating “According to What?” with other activist art, the Brooklyn Museum has largely answered those questions – art does not exist in a vacuum nor should we want it to.

Philip Guston's City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum's Witness Exhibit

Philip Guston’s City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum’s Witness Exhibit

For Americans, viewing “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” will demonstrate that art and activism go hand-and-hand and that we can and should respect the artist for both. It will also serve as an emotional reminder of our own dirty little past. But in the end, it will make you wonder – while these tactics worked in 1960s America, a largely democratic society, will they also work in Ai’s authoritarian China? One hopes that Ai’s art is not in vain, but, as China’s new regime even more violently cracks down on any purported challenge to its rule, only the future can tell.

*************************************************************************************

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” is only on view at the Brooklyn Museum until July 13, 2014. “According to What?” is on view until August 10, 2014. This will be the exhibit’s final stop on its international tour. While entrance to the Brooklyn Museum is a suggested donation of $12, “According to What?” is a required $15 ticket (which includes price of general admission). Note that the dioramas of Ai’s detention are on the first floor before purchasing tickets and thus can be viewed for free.

Just For Fun – Art Review: Xu Bing’s Phoenix

By , March 10, 2014

P1000203There are those pieces of art that are truly transformative; that can change the way you see the world and remind you of the humanity of this united struggle we call life.  Picasso’s Guernica is one such work.  Now there is Xu Bing‘s (pronounced Sue Bing) recent installation – Phoenix.

Housed in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Phoenix is nothing less than iconic.  Back in 2008, Xu, who had just returned to Beijing after 18 years in New York City, was commissioned to create an art installation for a glass atrium in Beijing’s soon-to-be-completed World Financial Center.  It was Xu’s visits to the construction site that proved to be the inspiration for the work.  After seeing the paltry conditions for the migrant construction workers and the primitive construction techniques, Xu used much of the scrap left over from the site to create two massive and powerful phoenixes, an homage to those nameless workers who built one of Beijing’s most modern skyscrapers.

For those who have spent time in China, the materials that create the birds’ gritty skeletons are familiar: faded red, white and blue plastic tarps serves as wings, bamboo poles as the ribs, and old hand cement mixers for the birds’ heads.  But the message of these phoenixes is fresh.  As one of my companions noted, the simplicity of birds’ frames monumentalizes the laborers and workers who built one of Beijing’s fancier skyscrapers and who have largely been left behind.

But this was not a message that Beijing was ready for.  Reflecting how far removed the People’s Republic is from its socialist

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

rhetoric, the real estate mogul who commissioned the work requested that Xu cover the phoenixes’ rough frames  with nothing less than crystals.  Fortunately, Xu, schooled in the Socialist Realism style, refused to change his art.

Since 2010, the Phoenixes, and Xu’s homage to those invisible workers who have literally built China’s new society, have traveled around the world.  But seeing the Phoenixes suspended in flight in the nave of a Gothic cathedral is truly spectacular.  It elevates an amazing piece of art – and the message that infuses it – to an almost sacred and divine realm.  As we walked the nave this past Sunday, studying all the construction site scraps that created the birds,  the choir practiced at the altar, giving the phoenixes an angelic feel.

Phoenix is on display through 2014 and should not be missed.  Admission to Cathedral is free but a suggested donation of $10 is politely requested (and well worth it to help support this piece as well as the Church’s important community outreach and services).

恭喜发财!Riding in on the Horse

By , January 29, 2014
Welcome to the Year of the Wood Horse!

Welcome to the Year of the Wood Horse!

Volcanoes, earthquakes, record high temperature.  Are you ready for Year of the Horse?  The horse might look like a gentle beast, but in the Chinese zodiac, it is full of fire and it is that fire that will make the new year a tumultuous, fun-filled ride.

After two years of reptiles – dragon followed by snake – the Chinese zodiac is back to the more fuzzy animals and the horse is one of China’s favorite.  People born in year of the horse are often prized – charming and intelligent, they are often the life of the party.  Oprah Winfrey, Joe Biden – both horses.  But they can also be strong-willed, refusing to be corralled or dominated.  Mike Tyson is a horse.

What makes 2014 a little bit bumpy is the fact that horse’s internal element – fire – is at odds with the year element – wood.  Every zodiac animal has one of the five elements – wood, water, metal, earth or fire.  But every year has its own element and this year’s is wood.  But fire burns wood, making international tensions – think Syria, South China seas, the Olympics – downright combustible.

But a lot of how the year will pan out for the individual will depend on your own sign.  How will you do?  Check out your personal horoscope here (note you may have to do a Bazi test to determine the strength of your birth year element.  You can do that here – note that birth date is entered day-month-year).

At any rate, your year won’t be worse than Justin Bieber’s.  According to Hong Kong feng shui master Alion Yeo, Bieber will have a very negative year. ” gongxiThere will be times where he will not be able to control himself” Yeo told the AFP.

Whatever the year may bring you, we wish all of our lunar new year-celebrating friends a happy and healthy new year!

 

Just For Fun – Movie Review: The Grandmaster

By , September 25, 2013

Grandmaster coverMany will likely compare Wong Karwai’s new kung fu masterpiece – The Grandmaster  – to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but to do so does a disservice to the artistry, intensity and beauty that is The Grandmaster.  Wong Karwai out did himself on this one and if this movie is still playing at a theater near you, it is a must see on the big screen.

The Grandmaster opens with a dark, fierce, rain-soaked fight scene and center to it all is the white fedora of Ip Man (Tony Leung), perhaps the most famous master of the Wing Chun school of kung fu.  It is 1936 China, the Japanese are on the verge of invading most of China, and the various kung fu schools are seeking to unite.  Northern China’s great Grandmaster visits Foshan in southern China and calls upon the southern schools to present their best pupil to become the nation’s Grandmaster.  Although younger than most, the southern schools choose Ip Man and his Wing Chin technique.  The decision is interspersed with different kung fu school disciples demonstrating and explaining their own style, providing for a deeper understanding of the history of kung fu and seeing some of the moves that Ip Man will eventually adopt.

Ip Man, who was a  real kung fu master and lived in China and Hong Kong between 1893 and 1972, meets his match in the northern Grandmaster’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and her “eight fists” school of kung fu.  The fight ends up being a draw but the chemistry between the two is obvious as they each go back to their respective homes, planning a future meeting.

That meeting never happens as history gets in the way, first with the Japanese invasion and eventually with the Communist takeover.  Leaving even his family behind, Ip Man escapes to Hong Kong where he sets up a school.  In the 1960s, Ip Man’s most famous student – Bruce Lee – will join his gym.

As with most Wong Karwai movies, each scene is a painting, with its vivid colors and slow camera shots.  Wong’s tortured stories of longing –

The most intense 5 minutes of film - Zhang Ziyi ready to do battle

The most intense 5 minutes of film – Zhang Ziyi ready to do battle

longing for the woman you love, longing for the life you once led, longing  for vindication – are told with even greater effect and emotion than his prior works.  Wong is surely at the pinnacle of his game.  But what makes The Grandmaster truly a tour de force is the combination of Wong’s style, respect for beauty and downright genius mixed into all the kung fu fight scenes.  The train station fight scene where Gong Er takes on her nemesis is perhaps the most intense five minutes of film making ever made.  And also one of the most beautiful.  Being on the edge of your seat the entire time, you want the scene to end.  But then you don’t because the beauty and gracefulness of Wong Karwai will end with it.

But The Grandmaster is more than just a series of beautifully shot scenes and exciting kung fu fighting.  Rather there is a story there – quite a number of stories – that Wong is trying to tell.  You can’t help wondering when watching the movie if Wong is really currently critiquing modern Chinese culture (or just all modern culture really).  With the modern day’s insistence on the material goods and the changeability of truth, The Grandmaster holds up a mirror to that society and shows the profoundness and spirituality that is kung fu.  That there are things bigger than ourselves in this world.  That with dedication to an art, one can transcend.  Wong Karwai has certainly done that with filmmaking and now he is showing how Ip Man did that with kung fu.

Ip Man with his most famous student, Bruce Lee

Ip Man with his most famous student, Bruce Lee

The version of The Grandmaster shown in the United States is shorter than the one shown in Asia, leaving out perhaps some character development of the more one-dimensional characters.  Also, some of the historical aspects are not mentioned in the US version – it isn’t very clear that Ip Man, as a master of kung fu, wealthy citizen, and Guomindang  (Nationalist) soldier, had to leave China once the Communists took over and thankfully for Hong Kong, his Wing Chun school could live on.

But these are minor critiques in an otherwise incredible piece of cinematography, storytelling, and kung fu genre.  It is a film that must not be missed.

 Rating: ★★★★½

Just for Fun: Hunan Manor – New York Restaurant Review

By , July 18, 2013

Diners at Manhattan’s new Hunan Manor

For the past few years, Sichuan restaurants have opened in New York City like no one’s business , with over six being clustered in just a few blocks of Manhattan’s midtown east.  But if you are like me – you are Sichuan’ed out.  In fact out of all of China’s various cuisines, Sichaun probably has the least versatility.  Eventually that spicy, tingly feeling and taste after every dish gets a bit repetitive.

That is why I was excited to learn that a new cuisine had moved into the Sichuan barrio – Hunan Manor.  Hunan Manor boasts of an equally spicy cuisine – that of Hunan province – but with a lot more freshness, flavor and diversity.  Hunan food relies less on the chili paste and peppercorns of Sichuan cuisine and instead incorporates greater use of garlic, fresh chili peppers and shallots.  Hunan food is usually a treat.

Unfortunately that was not the case at Hunan Manor.  Hunan Manor is the Manhattan sister restaurant of perhaps one of Flushing’s bests, Hunan House.  I had eaten twice before at Hunan House in Flushing and both times thought the food was amazing.  So I was looking forward to trying out Hunan Manor.

But perhaps because Hunan Manor does not serve an exclusively Chinese clientele, its food was bland and ultimately uneventful.  In fact, the menu itself demonstrates that Hunan Manor must serve two masters – the first two pages of the menu are filled with traditional American Chinese food, an option that is missing in Flushing’s Hunan House.

My dining companions and I ordered five different dishes and only one was particularly outstanding, the eggplant and string bean dish.  The

Sauteed Eggplant and String Bean

dish was extremely flavorful and fresh with the string beans appropriately crispy and the eggplant not too soft.  Also the garlic flavor was pronounced in a good way – while noticeable, it did not over power the vegetables .

Unfortunately from this dish it was pretty much downhill.  The Hunan fried noodles were far from spectacular.  The flavor was bland and ultimately it tasted too much like take out.  But not good take out; more like 1 AM hangover take out where nothing better is open.  The braised pork Mao style, which is perhaps one of my favorite dishes in the Flushing restaurant, lacked the flavor and the richness of Hunan House.  And the sizzling tofu with shrimp was nothing to write home about.  It was good but nothing great.

Although there was only one stand out dish out of four, my dining companions and I decided to continue to venture the further down the menu, with the hope that things would get better.  As a result, we ordered one of my favorite dishes – a dish that I don’t understand why more Chinese restaurants in America haven’t realized that this dish would be a big hit: zha mantou (pronounced ja man-toe).  Zha mantou is basically fried bread dipped in sweet condensed milk.  Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.  The zha mantou redeemed Hunan Manor a bit – the mantous came out hot which makes the dish even more divine.  It could have been fried a bit less but ultimately I ate three of these little guys.

Sizzling tofu and shrimp

Strangely, we were served no tea at Hunan Manor.  At first I thought this was an oversight, but many of the other tables lacked any teapots.  This itself should have been a sign.

My ultimate take away – skip Hunan Manor and instead make the venture to Hunan House in Flushing.  The food is more authentic, fresh and flavorful there.  It does justice to the amazing cuisine which is Hunan food.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Hunan Manor

339 Lexington Ave (at 39th Street)
New York, NY 10016
(212) 682-2883
http://www.hunanmanornewyork.com/

Just For Fun: Restaurant Review – Las Vegas’ Ping Pang Pong

By , June 13, 2013

Ping Pang Pong in the Gold Coast Casins

It’s not an understatement to say that Chinese tourists likely saved Las Vegas from economic oblivion after the meltdown of 2008.  When most of Nevada was in a foreclosure crisis, Las Vegas had to look elsewhere for cash and not surprisingly, that elsewhere was China.  Chinese people have long enjoyed gambling: Macau is the most profitable gaming city in the world and the number of Chinese travelers to Las Vegas has risen 30% every year these past through years.  In fact, last month, two Nevada congressmen proposed a bill to provide a visa waiver to Hong Kong Chinese.

And to thank these Chinese tourists, Las Vegas has given them their just reward – plenty of Chinese restaurants along the strip.  Because if there is something that Chinese tourists like more than gambling, it is eating Chinese food.  Some of the fanciest hotels – like the Bellagio and the Wynn – have premier Chinese restaurants allegedly serving “authentic” cuisine.

But what China Law & Policy wanted to find out – were any of them good?  A review of the internet brought up mixed reviews of some of the fancier places, but the one name that kept popping up as the best Chinese food was the unfortunately named Cantonese restaurant Ping Pang Pong in the old school, $5-table Gold Coast Casino.

Ping Pang Pong and the Gold Coast Casino are about a 20 minute, unattractive walk from the strip.  But every step of that walk is worth if for just

Best roast pork buns outside of Hong Kong? You bet!

for one thing: some of the best roast pork buns (cha siu bao) outside of Hong Kong.  All too often dim sum restaurants give too little attention to the roast pork buns, knowing that it is an easy sell; even a bad roast pork bun is still good.  But Ping Pang Pong’s roast pork buns are not simply good, they are actually divine.  The attention provided to the pork is amazing – not only is the bun full of shredded pork, but you can actually taste the barbeque flavor of the sauce mixed with the sweetness.  The soft bun, which was served hot, was fresh and added a perfect complement to the strong, delicious and distinct tangy and sweet flavors of the meat.  This is the way a steamed roast pork bun is supposed to taste.

The rest of the dim sum was very solid.  Although the restaurant was full of Chinese and Hong Kong customers (out of the 20 tables, only four were non-Chinese speaking) and most of the ordering is done in Chinese, it is still accessible to non-Chinese speakers because of its picture menu.

Spinach in garlic sauce

One of the first things that intrigued my dining companion and I on the picture menu was the shrimp lollipops.  And these lollipops did not disappoint.  If you like shrimp, you will love these.  The ground shrimp meat is fried and breaded and sits on a bamboo stick.  Although fried, these shrimp lollipops are very delicate – the frying is lightly done with no taste of oil, allowing for the flavor of the hefty amount of shrimp meat to really come out.  Even ground, the shrimp was still extremely fresh.  There is a mayo-based dipping sauce that comes with the shrimp lollipops, but this only detracts from the flavor.  There is no need for any sauce with these hefty shrimp mammas, but if you feel the need, go with the table hot sauce.

Next we tried the sticky fried rice with Chinese sausage.  At first taste, there was not much to write home about.  It wasn’t overwhelmingly flavorful, but it was a dish my dining companion and I kept coming back to.  The sausage was nice and sweet and the texture of the sticky rice complemented the sausage.  This was a dish we ended up making a point of finishing – it turned out to be very savory and satisfying.

Our next dish was a bit of a mistake – shrimp balls with rice on the outside, sitting in a congee sauce (rice gruel sauce).  Mixed with the shrimp was a vegetable medley of sorts – corn, carrots and peas.  I would not recommend ordering this.  While it is great that Ping Pang Pong is experimenting with new ideas, this is one experiment I could do without.  The flavors do not really go together and it’s just weird to mix corn, carrots and peas with the shrimp.

Fortunately we were saved by the next dish – the beef and shrimp shu mai.  These shu mai were bursting with flavor and were also very savory.

Turnip cakes

The dish did not come with a sauce and to be honest, it wasn’t needed.  A sauce would again detract too much for the freshness of the meats.  We also ordered off the menu – spinach with garlic sauce.  The dish was good – it was not dripping with garlic sauce which meant that the flavor of the spinach wasn’t lost as all too often happen – but it wasn’t great.

Finally, we ordered one of my favorites – turnip cakes.  These turnip cakes were fresh out of the oven, an experience I never had.  As a result of their freshness, the cakes fell apart very easily when you went to pick them up with your chopsticks.  Also surprisingly, these turnip cakes did not come with the oyster sauce that usually accompany them.  The waitress was happy to oblige when we asked for it, but I have never seen turnip cakes without a sauce.  These turnip cakes were good – my dining companion enjoyed them more than I did – but nothing you can’t get in New York City’s Chinatown.

All done!

Ping Pang Pong offers very good dim sum with exceptional roast pork buns that should not be missed.  The food is authentic and can compete with some of the better dim sum restaurants of larger Chinatowns like New York and San Francisco.  It also can compete with many of the Strip’s more famous chefs. Whoever the chef is of Ping Pang Pong, his genius is evident in the roast pork buns – Emeril could learn a thing or two from him.

What’s also great is that the meal will not set you back in the way that one of the restaurants on the Strip will.  The prices of the dim sum dishes range from $2.18 to $5.88 for a specialty.  Our meal – in which we over ordered – was $35 with tip (no alcohol though).  Certainly a winning find after losing big the night before in blackjack.

 

 

Rating: ★★★½☆

Ping Pang Pong
Inside the Gold Coast Casino
4000 W Flamingo Road
Las Vegas, NV 89103
(702) 367-7111

http://www.goldcoastcasino.com/dine/ping-pang-pong

 

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