Category: Just for Fun

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.

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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

 

恭喜发财!Happy Year of the Snake!

By , February 9, 2013

Happy Year of the Snake!

Sunday starts a new lunar year and with it, brings a new zodiac sign to rule the planet – the snake.  Fortunately for the snake, it doesn’t get the same bad rap in Asia that it gets in the West.  In Asia, snakes are often viewed as “little dragons” with a bit more of a calm and calculating personality.  Snakes are considered intelligent, stylish, and passionate but at times complex and unscrupulous.  It is said that a home with a person born in the year of the snake will never go hungry, perhaps relying on the ingenuity of the snake.

Like the creature itself, Year of the Snake proves elusive in its predictions with the last two snake years – 1989 and 2001 – providing major changes to the world order, the Tian’anmen Square protests and the World Trade Center attacks, respectively.  Major change is not surprising in a year governed by an animal that sheds its skin.

But what could make the 2013 Year of the Snake even more tumultuous is that the year element – water – and the animal element – for snakes, fire – are in conflict.  Water is considered a destroyer of fire, putting the two in a constant struggle. The only aspect of the snake and water that aren’t in conflict is the ability to make money.  Snakes are considered good at making money and water is the natural element of money.

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).

All this uncertainty brought on by the Water Snake is stressful, but have no fear, the Year of the Snake has its very own cocktail!  Detailed-oriented and elegant like the snake, this cocktail should help you get through what could be a challenging year.

Whatever this year might bring, we wish our Asian friends a happy, healthy and prosperous new year!  恭喜发财! (Gong Xi Fa Cai – pronounced gung-see-fa-tsai).  Those looking to ring in the new year with some music, check out the video below.

What’s Up with Chinese Contemporary Art: An Interview with Brian Wallace

By , December 28, 2012

Red Gate Gallery’s founder, Brian Wallace

If you want to understand Chinese contemporary art, a conversation with Brian Wallace is a must.  Although a humble man, much of China’s contemporary art field is a result of Wallace’s early efforts.  In 1991, barely a decade into Deng Xiaoping’s dismantling of the socialist economic state and only two years after the Tian’anmen crackdown, Wallace opened China’s first contemporary art gallery, Red Gate Gallery.  Housed in the infamous Dongbianmen Watchtower in Beijing, for the past 21 years, Red Gate has been a mainstay in the Chinese contemporary art field, identifying and promoting some of China’s best-known artists.

With its 21st anniversary and it’s current exhibit – 20th+1 where older, established Chinese contemporary artists identify some of China’s up-and-coming young artists – China Law & Policy sat down with Wallace to discuss the beginnings of China’s contemporary art movement, the impact of the hot art market on Chinese art and the future of the field.

Red Gate’s current exhibit – 20th+1 which identifies some of Chinese up-and-coming young artist – is only open for a few more days, until December 31, 2012.  So if you want to see some great pieces, better high-tail it to Beijing’s Watchtower to check out Red Gate’s show.

Click here to listen to the audio of the interview with Red Gate Gallery’s founder, Brian Wallace
Length: 17:35 minutes (audio will open in a separate browser)

Click here to open a PDF of the transcript of the Brian Wallace Interview

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[01:00] EL:  Thank you Brian for inviting us today.  I want to start with the beginning and a simple question.  Why?  What made you think to open a contemporary art gallery in Beijing when no one else had?  And what was it about 1991 that caused you to open it? 

[01:14] BW:  Thanks Liz.  While I was at University here studying Chinese language, my Chinese friends were artists.  So back in the ’80s I started to help them organize exhibitions at different venues around town.  As you know there were no commercial galleries, no private galleries.  So we had to hire different spaces and these turned out to be Ming dynasty buildings; structures like the Ancient Observatory – that is where I was doing shows in ’88 and ’89.  But other groups of artists were organizing shows at the Temple of Longevity, the Temple of Law, the Confucian Testing Center and such places which were empty and in some cases in quite bad states of repair.

[02:02]But anyway we were able to use those places.  So during those few years I got to know many of the artists and enjoyed helping them

One of the remaining vestiges of Beijing’s Ming Dynasty city walls, the Dongbianmen Watchtower. Since 1991 it has housed Red Gate Gallery.

while I was studying Chinese language at the same time.

[02:14] In 1989 everything stopped of course, so I went to the Central Academy of Fine Arts and did a bridging course in contemporary Chinese art history.  Not that there was much of that at that time.  Then in ’91, I’d been here for 5 years and was wondering what I was going to do – go back to Australia or look for a job.  It made me think about what we had been doing and we thought we would try and open a gallery at the Observatory.  So we went back there and they said no, but down the road was this Ming Dynasty Watchtower which had just been restored and was re-opening to the public.  So they [the Observatory] gave us a very good introduction to the management here [at the Watchtower].  That’s how we opened Red Gate in 1991.

[03:00] EL:  When you first opened the gallery, so you were already friends with the artists.  But how did you, for the gallery purposes, did you have to choose between which artists’ works to show and how did you do that?

[03:14] BW:  Well yes, I was friends with many artists but we wanted to work with a particular group so we just got them together.  Our first show I think had about 7 artists.

[03:26] EL: And who were those artists in the first show?

[03:28] BW: There was Wang Luyan, Zhang Yajie, Da Gong, just to name a few.

[03:37] EL:  And in terms of having a Westerner open a gallery here, how did the Chinese art field in general respond to your presence?  Were they happy that have a gallery here interested in their work or were they confused as to what your goals were?

[03:54] BW: No because they knew me.  And they also recognized that this was the first time someone was doing something like this so they were quite enthusiastic about being involved in it.  And we all were supported by the very small foreign community, mainly diplomats, cultural attaches, students, a few business people who were around at that time.  Many were very, very involved with the Chinese economy, the Chinese lifestyle, meeting Chinese, learning Chinese.  So they were very interested in seeing this develop even though we were developing from nothing and learning from the ground up.

[04:40] EL:  So it sounds like back in 1990-91, it was basically a group of artists and then a lot of Western support, supporting their work morally as opposed to financially.  What about mainstream Chinese people?

[04:51] BW: The interest was very limited to the artists and that group of foreigners. Outside of that there was no interest whatsoever in contemporary Chinese art.  People had plenty of other things they had to worry about before then.  And they didn’t have any experience in going to galleries or understanding art.

[05:13] What we have seen over the last 20 years is a huge educational learning curve for everyone, not just Chinese but foreigners and Western supporters.

[05:26] EL:  Let’s focus now on the shift in Chinese art.  Back in 1991 it was pretty much a very small field. What in addition to having more mainstream Chinese people support Chinese contemporary art, what are some of the major changes you have seen in the past 21 years in Chinese contemporary art in addition to just the support and the prices? 

Yue Minjun, an early Chinese contemporary artist. This painting – Execution – sold for $5.9 million at auction in 2007.

[05:52] BW: Well, for the artists that I have been working with, if we want to talk about their message, it’s all been a very strong commentary on what has been going on around them because they have been part of this dramatic change.  They have seen it from very much the inside.  That first group of artists from the ’80s, early ’90s, they were all post-Cultural Revolution graduates and part of the first group that came out of the Universities after they re-opened.  So they have seen a lot.  Those people are in their 40s and 50s now.  That generation of artists is one that I keep going back to.  I’m not looking for that particular age group but it is that maturity in their work, that content.

[06:41] EL:  So what kind of….the changes I guess from 1991, what do they paint now, what kind of work do they do now in terms of reflecting their environment?

[06:50] BW: Well, many of them are still working on the same subject matter and that could be anything from corruption, the environment, the state of living, freedom, things like that.  Many, many topics that they talk about and comment on.  Some of it is quite direct, some of it is very subtle.  That’s their way of negotiating their particular environment here in China.

[07:24] EL: And what about the next generation that is coming up  – the 20 and 30 year olds. 

[07:29] BW: Part of our current show addresses that issue.  The subtitle of the show is “Two Generations of Contemporary Art.”  We ask the older [artists] or the artists who have been with Red Gate for 20 years to nominate someone who they have had their eye on who is very good.

China’s younger contemporary artists – when will they grow up?

[07:44] The problem with looking at that younger generation is that many of them are quite well-skilled but they’re not that creative; they’ve landed in the art scene at the time of the boom in the art market.  Many of them have chosen being an artist as a career over being a doctor or a lawyer.  That’s changing but that’s sort of breed a younger generation of people who were not that experienced, not very creative.  So finding the very, very good ones among them has been a difficult task.  Finding the strong ones, the independent ones, we’ve found a few over the last few years.  But by having this particular show, all the artists we asked picked 10 very, very good [younger] artists.  Some of them are quite young, some are in their 30s and even there are a couple in their 40s, but they are quite unknown in the art scene.

[08:43] So these nominators took their time and took this role very seriously because they knew people were going to see who they chose.  We are very happy with the result.

[08:58] EL:  Just to go back to some of the younger artists who have chosen this more as a career because of the boom in the art field.  What do you think has caused the market for Chinese contemporary art to become so hot in the past 5 years?

[09:13]  BW: The introduction of a lot of money from the domestic market.  Just before that there was the international auction houses picking up a lot of Chinese artists from the secondary market and putting prices very, very high.  That sort of led the way.  And then very quickly followed by a cashed-up group of Chinese collectors but primarily investors who were looking for a quick return.  They landed in that market at the right time and took advantage of it.  Some of them did make a lot of money and lots of them had lots of fun.

[09:55] But now things have been dragging on since 2008.  Things have settled down and a lot of those people have moved on as well.  So there has been a maturing in that market.

[10:08] EL: Do you think that will be better for the younger artists to have less of this hot market? 

[10:14] BW: Definitely.  Some of them will move away completely from this career – if the money is not there, they are not that interested.

[10:28] EL:  In terms of the art, Chinese contemporary art; what is it about it that makes it “Chinese?”  Is it a continuation on a spectrum of

Traditional Chinese art techniques – brush painting.

Chinese art?  I mean, I am very familiar with a lot of the more classical art pieces, the calligraphy.  And then I see Chinese contemporary art and it doesn’t really look that “Chinese” to me.  Should I even view it as something that should be on a historical perspective with traditional Chinese art? 

[10:58] BW: That’s pretty hard.  There are artists who are still using the traditional techniques in contemporary art.  They are more or less proponents of maintaining those traditions but they’re using very contemporary content.  Apart from that, there’s a whole range of media being used now and people are addressing issues which are to them individual.  It is very much about where they are and where they are living – that’s China.  But the issues are global.  So people could come in and say, well some of the artists are talking about the environment and they would think that it could be back home.  So that kind of thing, these issues are very, very global.

[11:52] What people see in this group of artists, these people in their 30s and 40s, they are surprised by it because their reference to Chinese art going back a few years was the more traditional: was the calligraphy, was the scholar rocks.  So they are very surprised that over the last decade, the last 15 years there is this very vibrant contemporary scene.  That’s what’s been a catalyst for their interest.

[12:27] EL:  In terms of the art that is in the current exhibit, can we look at one of the pieces and maybe explain to somebody like me who knows little about modern art what about it that makes it a valuable piece of art.

[12:42] BW: Sure.

Chen Ke’s Red Sacred Mountain No. 6
Red Gate Gallery

[12:43] EL: I’ll let you choose one of the pieces.  So which one are we going to look at here?

[12:50] BW:  This is Chen Ke.

[12:52] EL:  Okay, this is Chen Ke.  What’s the name of the piece?       

[12:54] BW:  The name of the piece is Sacred Mountain No. 6, Red Sacred Mountain.  He was one of the artists nominated by a senior artist in the gallery, by Wang Yuping in fact.  Now apart from a wonderful piece of craftsmanship – very thick oil paint, the coloring all in red and shades of red, which is just quite striking.  He is talking about, after 1949, new China.  The future was bright, the future was red, communist red; everybody was working together.  There was this unity and common purpose of all these people who were part of the new China.

[13:45] So you can see that in his painting that people are just having fun in the field; they probably had a long work day.  They’re in their regular, probably nylon outfits, nylon white shirts that we used to see everywhere.

[14:01] What Chen Ke is talking about, he is looking at this nostalgic view about what things were happening in the ’50s, maybe early ’60s and comparing it with today and this dis-unity out there, this chaos in comparison to that previous time which was not so much a utopia but there was very much a common purpose in doing things.  Here, today in contemporary China right now there’s not that unity.

[14:35] EL: Right, right, you have a growing disparity in wealth and interests. Are there any other pieces you want to talk about? 

[14:44] BW: Well, we were talking about the environment earlier.  There is Zhou Jirongover here who is from southern China but has lived in

Zhou Jirong’s Mirage
Red Gate Gallery

Beijing since he graduated back in the ’80s from the Central Academy of Fine Arts.  His theme has always been about the environment.  You can see this mixed media work is rather hazy.

[15:04] EL:  What’s the title of this one?

[15:07] BW: Mirage.  So on some of the days you look out the front door here…

[15:15] EL: It sort of looks like….

[15:16] BW: ….this is what you see, this is the landscape.  And again, this could be anywhere in the world: a very polluted environment; a very quickly developing environment, uncontrolled.

[15:27] Then you have this other younger artist over here, Li Xiang from northern China with this very bare, barren landscape.  Maybe the environment has been destroyed.

[15:50] EL: Just in terms of what else Red Gate is doing…you talked about how when you originally started Red Gate it was helping to foster the art community.  How are you continuing to do that with the Artists in Residency programs.  Can you talk a little bit more about those?  

Li Xiang’s Night scene No. 3
Red Gate Gallery

[16:04] BW: We’ve been doing that for 11 years now.  We invite artists from all over the world and inside China to come and work in Beijing in studios.  They’re averaging about two months, sometimes three months.  Most of them have never been to China before so they have to come through this cultural barrier landing which we help them with and get them to work as soon as they are ready.

[16:30] They might be working toward a show back home.  Some of them, we are finding more and more, work their way into shows in Beijing – either group shows or have some solo shows or even become represented by galleries here.  So they’re finding opportunities here of meeting other artists, that’s one of the main things, but also meeting curators and dealers and collectors from around the world who are all passing through Beijing.  It’s something that they didn’t envisage and they realize that they may not of had that opportunity back home.  So they find that that is another very rewarding side of the program for them.

[17:08] EL:  And they also interact a lot with the Chinese art community? 

[17:13] BW:  Oh yes, very much.  They are finding that they are not here by themselves, but there’s a large artist, foreign artists community, who are living here on a long-term basis, so they get to know those people.

 [17:26] EL: Brian, this show – 20+1 – is on until December 31?

[17:34] BW: Yes.

[17:34] EL: Great.  Thank you so much for your time and for teaching us about Chinese contemporary art.

Just For Fun: What to Get your China-Watcher Friends for the Holidays

By , December 18, 2012

It’s that time of year again, when people endlessly ask: what is a good holiday present for my friend who is really into China?  China Law & Policy has heard your pleas and as a result, we offer you our first annual China Christmas Wish List.  So below is a list of some gift ideas for those friends in your life who feel the need to randomly drop Chinese words and references into conversation.

(1)   Any book (or all books) by Peter Hessler

Peter Hessler has written the books that most China-watchers wished they could write.   His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, tells the story of his time as a Peace Corp volunteer, watching a small river town on the banks of the Yangtze transform before his eyes; a microcosm of greater China.  Hessler perfectly communicates the hopes and dreams of his ambitious student including the memorable William Jefferson Foster.

His second book, Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, is arguably his best if you like to read about history.  Oracle Bones traces China’s past through three different narratives  – one story returns to the tales of William Jefferson Foster; one examines the plight of a Uigher man trying to succeed in Beijing; and the third story traces the history of the Chinese language from scratches on oracle bones to the almost complete Romanization of the language and the eradication of characters.  But for those who prefer to pontificate about China’s future, there is Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip which traces the lives of many factory workers and businessmen in southern China who are arguably responsible for the changes that have pushed China forward and it also unshackles it from its past.

See China Law & Policy‘s interview 2010 interview with Peter Hessler here.

(2)   Pleco

If your friend speaks and reads Chinese and doesn’t have this nifty little dictionary on his or her phone, this is a must.  Not only can you look up Chinese words through pinyin, but with finger recognition, you can draw an unfamiliar character and the dictionary will find it.   Software is available for both the iPhone and the Android.  For the Android, the basic software runs $39.95; on the iPhone, the price is similar.

China Law & Policy interviewed Pleco’s founder and CEO Michael Love in what proved to be a fascinating interview about the study of the Chinese language.  You can find that interview here.

(3)   Pop-up Chinese

Here is another great language tool although, at $99 for a yearly subscription, it likely puts it at a price point that excludes it from most workplace’s secret santas.  But it’s a great way to practice your Chinese while on this side of the planet.  The lessons are fun, with native speakers with different accents.  Topics range from what’s hot on TV in China to recent changes to China’s laws.  Save the lessons to your iPod and you can practice your Chinese on your commute!

If you are looking for a cheaper present but still allows your friend to practice his or her Chinese on the commute to work in New York, buy him a metrocard and tell him to get on at Flushing.

(4)   Prof. Stanley Lubman’s The Evolution of Law Reform in China: An Uncertain Path

Unfortunately this book falls way outside of the price limits for most secret santas.  But if you have $450 to blow on a China-law-loving friend, this is the way to go.  This anthology has some of the most noteworthy essays and articles about China’s legal reform written in the past 15 years.  Prof. Lubman, the editor of the anthology and a China hand for the past 50-odd years, sets the stage for the book in its introduction, noting the ambivalent and at times regressive nature of Chinese legal reform.  The authors of the eclectic articles are both Chinese and Western providing for dueling perspectives.  The book feature some great articles from He Xin, Zhu Suli, Eva Pils, Don Clarke, Carl Minzner and Jerome Cohen.

(5)  Midnight in Peking by Paul French 

This book, a true story of the murder of a young English woman in the 1920s Beijing, is a great read and one of my favorite books of the summer.  It’s a Law & Order episode set in a long-gone and much more frightening Beijing.  If you have a friend who is planning a trip to Beijing in the near future, this is a great read for the plane.  What’s more, once she arrives in Beijing, certain old structures – the Watchtower, the old Citibank building, St. Michael’s Church – will never look the same as before.

The full China Law & Policy review of Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China can be found here.

(6)   Brave Dragons by Jim Yardley

I did not expect to like this book – I’m not a big fan of NBA basketball in the United States, so it seemed like NBA basketball in China would be even less interesting.  But Yardley does a great job at telling a fun story about a loser basketball team in China trying to make it big with some NBA talent.  More importantly, Yardley uses the tale the symbolize some of the problems and some of the successes in U.S.-China business relations.

This is a particularly great gift if you like China AND basketball.  For China Law & Policy’s review of Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, click here.

(7)   Anything with Pandas

China watchers – even jaded, cynical ones who talk about China’s coming collapse – love pandas.  It’s totally not a stereotype.  As much as they would hate to admit it, it’s true.  So when in doubt, get your China friend something with pandas.  The weirder the better.  Here are some ideas:

  • Kung Fu Panda:  For those who want to play it safe, settle for the DVD of Jack Black’s Kung Fu Panda.  It’s a great cartoon flick, with a moral and a panda!

That does it for China Law & Policy‘s recommendations for some holiday gifts.  Have recommendations of your own?  Help out other readers and put your thoughts in the comments section.

Have a happy holiday and healthy new year!

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