Cooking with Friends

The past few weeks we’ve had the opportunity to cook at other people’s houses, which is always a fun change of pace.  I find cooking outside my own kitchen to sometimes be a challenge – What do you mean you don’t have a potato ricer!? – but also fun because many friends have kitchens larger and more geared to socializing than mine.

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Over Songkran we went to Ko and Per’s house.  Ko was Tawn’s university classmate and her husband, Per, is from Sweden and moved here late last year.  We decided it would be fun to try and make Swedish meatballs although we didn’t have a specific recipe and I’m not sure any of us knew what we were doing. 

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Nonetheless, we intuited our way through it, and wound up with something that despite looking kind of gloppy, tasted good and seemed close to the real deal.  At least that’s what Per said.  Maybe he was just being polite.

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Ko takes pictures of the meal: Swedish meatballs, roast potatoes, mixed green salad, and I think we made spaghetti with meat sauce, too.  It was tasty and, more importantly, the company was wonderful.

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Tawn and me after a dinner of Swedish meatballs.  Compare that to our picture on the beach after the rough 30-minute ride on an unpaved road on Kauai!

 

The following week I went to cook at another friend’s house.  Chow, who is the author of the must-buy and use guide Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, invited friends over to cook Mexican food in honor (kind of) of the upcoming Cinco de Mayo holiday.  Never mind that we were a bit early.  Unfortunately, Tawn was not able to make it.  That didn’t stop us from having fun, though, and making too much good food.

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Enchiladas stuffed with avocado and smothered in red sauce and cheese sauce.  Tasty!

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Chicken enchiladas baked in a homemade mole poblano sauce.  Pronounced “mo-lay”, this sauce has cocoa powder in it, lending an unexpected flavor to its spiciness.

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For my contribution, I resurrected a recipe for fish tacos from Michael’s blog, using his avocado cilantro lime sauce.  This sauce just goes perfectly on fish tacos!

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And finally, a random picture not related to cooking with friends.  We had a visit from Ty, someone who was a very active member of the Xanga community under the username Just2Tyght when I first started almost six years ago.  We met in person several years back in SF and while Ty has gone AWOL from Xanga, we’ve stayed in touch through other channels.  Glad we had the opportunity to meet here in Bangkok.

Coming up soon… caramel rice flan.

 

Not an Event Entry

When my blog started out, it was a tool to keep family and friends up to date about my experiences living in a new land.  An easy way to stay in touch with everyone, if you will.  Over time, I’ve realized that my entries are more like articles in a magazine.  Not in quality, mind you, but in terms of how they tend to focus on a particular story, event, or subject.  One entry is about a type of dessert in Thailand, another is about a new mall that is being built, another is about a trip to Hong Kong.  So this entry is not driven by a particular event.  It’s just some random musings about what’s going on.

Since returning from Kauai nearly four weeks ago, life has been very busy with work.  With it being the start of a new fiscal year, there are lots of projects under way and I’ve been putting in extra hours in order to get them accomplished.  While it can be tiring since all my work is done sitting in front of a computer, I enjoy the work I do and the people with whom I work.  To top it off, I feel like the work I do – creating training materials – has a positive impact on people, so it is meaningful.

Barely over the jetlag, the final bits of planning are falling into place for our June trip back to the US.  Normally, I wouldn’t travel again so soon but there’s this tricky bit about my yearly visa.  It expires in June so I need to return to the US to apply for another one.  Had I had my way, I would have waited until later in the summer of even the autumn before returning.

Speaking of the June trip, our original plan was to connect in Tokyo and spend a few days on the way back visiting Daniel and Jason.  Unfortunately, because of the unsettled situation there, Daniel’s employer kept them out of the country for several weeks just around the time we needed to finalize our travel plans.  They’re back in Tokyo now, but it is too late for us to change our tickets.  Maybe if we can, we’ll fit a long weekend visit in later this year.  But if we do it, it needs to be before another friend in Tokyo, Taro, moves back to the US to get married.  (See?  All of these logistics to deal with…)

The trip to the US will not be only for visa application purposes.  While there, we’ll meet my sister, brother-in-law, and nieces for a week in LA.  That’s right, we’re going to Disneyland!  Also a chance to meet two of Tawn’s cousins and their families, along with his aunt and uncle.  They’ve been very welcoming to me over the years and I’m excited to see them again.  Plus, the cousins’ children are just about the age of my oldest niece, so they should have fun playing together.  Of course, I have my own cousins there, too, as well as a few Xangans with whom I need to catch up.

As for Tawn, he’s been very busy with his fashion design studies.  He’s supposed to present four looks at a student fashion show in a few weeks.  Needless to say, “the annex” (our second condo unit which serves as an office and workroom) has been a frenzy of fabric, thread, and the occasional needle on the floor.  I’ll share photos as the time comes.  (Seriously, I think of my life in terms of potential blog entries.)  In the meantime, I’m just trying to keep my head down and stay out of the way.

Finally, I recently went to the doctor about some pain in the ball of my left foot.  He diagnosed it as capsulitis, an inflammation of the capsule surrounding the joint where the fourth toe and the foot connect.  Doing some online research, the cause is probably from wearing shoes (esp. running shoes) that are too narrow.  I have wide feet and while I purchase some of my shoes from zappos.com when in the US, I also have some pairs that aren’t sufficiently wide.  That’ll teach me!  Right now, I’m trying to stay off the foot as much as possible and am wearing support pads to help redistribute the weight into the arch and away from the ball of the foot.

Well, not an event, but that’s an update of what’s going on.  Oh, as I’m writing this there’s a caramel rice flan in the oven based on a NY Times recipe.  That’s an event you can be sure I’ll be writing about soon!

 

Winner of the United Retro Jet Contest

This year marks the 85th anniversary of United Airlines.  In a post last November, I mentioned that they were holding a contest for employees to vote for their favorite previous livery.  The winning livery would then be painted onto a “retro jet” to commemorate the anniversary.  Five previous color schemes were presented, voted on, and I recently saw that the Airbus A320 painted in the winning colors recently took to the sky:

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Sigh…

I’m quite excited because of the five liveries, this was my favorite.  It is the one I associate with my early childhood in the 1970s.  I remember drawing airplanes when I must have been in my early elementary years and this was the color scheme I could recreate from memory.

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The other four liveries that represent the different eras of United Airlines.

While I’ve had my rough patches with United over the years, it is the company that my father, my husband, and I (not to mention countless friends) all worked for at various points in our lives.  Happy 85th anniversary to the Friendly Skies.  May the merger with Continental make the skies friendly once again!

 

On Being Intimidated by Poetry during National Poetry Month

(From topless teens to poetry.  Where is this blog going?)

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As you may know, April is National Poetry Month in the United States.  Several Xangans to whom I subscribe frequently write poetry.  Generally speaking, I greatly enjoy their poems.  But I must confess that at a certain level I am deeply intimidated by poetry.  The same is true for opera and ballet, but I won’t address those anxieties in this entry.

Like opera and ballet, I realize that poetry is supposed to be a beautiful art form.  And many, many times I can experience a poem and recognize that it is indeed something very beautiful.  But then I get a bit frustrated that I don’t understand it.  Or, at least, I don’t understand what I’m supposed to understand.  Or, maybe, I have this understanding that I’m supposed to understand the poem’s meaning.

This isn’t to say that I’m completely unappreciative of poetry.  Indeed, there are several poets whose work I greatly enjoy.

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As a child, I read the books by Shel Silverstein such as The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic, and Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Who could not be moved by playfully subversive verse like “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes”?

If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore

(Did you know, by the way, that Shel Silverstein was one of the leading cartoonists in Playboy magazine in the late 50s?  And he was able to publish successful children’s books, too.  Would that ever happen these days?)

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As a teenager, I discovered T.S. Eliot by way of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s musical Cats.  Eliot was a Nobel prize winning poet but it was his book of light verse titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (which Lloyd Webber turned into the musical).  I found these poems to be very accessible, if for no other reason than that I knew the music with which they went, so I could hear the lyrical nature of the poems when reading them.

There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying `Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.’
All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster’s daughters
They are searching high and low,
Saying `Skimble where is Skimble for unless he’s very nimble
Then the Night Mail just can’t go.’

Taken from “Skimbleshanks” from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

Of course, who was I to know that this opening verse was in fact a parody of a Rudyard Kipling poem?  That level of comprehension would have been much beyond me.

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In university, I discovered (and had the chance to meet) Dr. Maya Angelou.  Her books first attracted me, as the theme of exploring identity which runs through them resonated with my own journey at that time in my life.  I did not read her poetry extensively, but when I attended a talk she gave at my school and heard her give voice to her poems, they came to life for me.  It was her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning“, which she read at the 1993 inauguration of President Clinton, that seemed to speak widely to Americans, myself included.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

From “On the Pulse of Morning”

So you see, it wasn’t as if I had no exposure to poetry.  But somehow I still feel intimidated by it.  Despite the best efforts of Bob Dickerson, my junior college English professor and the first person (by virtue of his Tennessee accent) whom I ever heard pronounce poem as “po-em” instead of “pome”, I look at a lot of poetry and just don’t know what I’m supposed to make of it.

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So this week when I listed to a podcast of NPR’s Talk of the Nation from earlier this month, it was if I had heard from my messiah of poetry.  Billy Collins, the US Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, values approachability over pretention.  The article summarizing his 30-minute interview summed up his position nicely:

[Collins] thinks former students have “lingering anxieties” about poetry. Teaching of poetry, bound as it is to the teaching of critical analysis, is the culprit. In what he admits is a cynical interpretation, he believes that to some extent, teachers “teach difficult poetry because it ensures their usefulness as people standing between the reader and the poem” who help with interpretation.

In the classroom, “every time you hear a poem in a classroom, you know questions will follow,” he says. “This sequence — hear a poem, then get interrogated over it,” says Collins, can create an anxious relationship between readers and poetry.

There it was.  Suddenly my anxiety about poetry had found a voice.  Someone had put into words the reason that I felt inadequate when reading poems.  Every time I read a poem, I feel like I have to understand it well enough to answer questions about it.

Poetry 180

One of the projects that Collins has worked on in conjunction with the Library of Congress is called Poetry 180.  It is designed to make poetry accessible to students by presenting a poem each day for the 180 schools days each year.  (Only 180?!  That’s why American students are so far behind their global peers.) 

The selection of poems is geared specifically to high school students.  In Collins’ words, “Hearing a poem every day, especially well-written, contemporary poems that students do not have to analyze, might convince students that poetry can be an understandable, painless and even eye-opening part of their everyday experience.”

Let me share the first poem in the collection of Poetry 180.  It is titled “Introduction to Poetry” and is written by Billy Collins.  It sums up pretty much how I feel:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

from The Apple that Astonished Paris

Now that I’ve found a poet – a Poet Laureate, nonetheless! – who has put into words exactly the trepidation about poetry I feel, it is as if I have had a catharsis.  The boil has been lanced, and I can face poetry with a fresh start and now expectations.

I am just at the very beginning of my journey to learn to appreciate poetry, but I realize now that poetry is something I can learn to enjoy without having to worry about understanding it.

Happy National Poetry Month.

 

The Great Bangkok Songkran Bare Breast Debacle

Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year’s festival, a three-day holiday held each April at the height of the hot season.  The meaning of Songkran has been subject to much debate and over the past many years it has evolved into something much different than it originally was.  This year, however, Bangkok was caught up in a great Songkran scandal that, according to several local pundits, revealed the hypocrisy with which we choose to view “culture” and what is “appropriate”.

At its roots, Songkran is something of a harvest festival, a time of cleaning up after one year and getting ready for the next rice-planting season, which will begin when the rainy season arrives shortly after the peak of hot season.  Water has always played an important part in the Songkran celebration, and traditionally the holiday was celebrated by performing the “rot naam” (pouring of water) ceremony. 

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In this picture I took three years ago, school children dressed in traditional Thai outfits pour water over the hands of their elders.  This is a way of showing respect and blessing them. 

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In fact, this same ceremony is performed when a couple is married, as in this example from my Thai teacher’s wedding this past December.

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In addition to pouring water on the hands of elders, there is a religious aspect to the Songkran celebrations, where you pour water on the hands of monks and also over Buddha images, washing and blessing them.

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So those are the traditional celebrations of Songkran.  Given that Thailand is a hot, tropical country it is no surprise that along the way some amount of splashing about with the water also happened.  So Songkran started to get a reputation as being “the water festival” and was thus stylized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.  A little bit of playful, good natured splashing for the youngsters to engage in, if you will.

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Somewhere along the way, though, it evolved into something more: a water war with roving mercenaries with pump-action water guns.  This picture above is typical – families or young people fill up large tubs in the back of a pickup truck with water (usually with some blocks of ice in them) then drive around the city looking for revelers in other trucks or playing by the side of the road.  An impromptu water fight ensues.

Often, though, it isn’t just the revelers who are involved.  Anyone on the street – including those who are not interested in playing – are targeted with ice cold water.  A favorite target is passing motorcycle drivers and as you might imagine, there are any number of accidents in which motorcyclists lose control and crash after being splashed unexpectedly.

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In some sections of the city the celebrations turn into chaos, the streets shut down with people splashing each other with water and smearing each other with talcum powder.  Needless to say, the partying is fueled by substantial quantities of alcohol.

Which leads us to this year’s scandal.  Let me start by making clear that, while I don’t particularly enjoy the mess that Songkran has become, I also don’t have a bone to pick with it.  I either get out of town during the holidays or stay indoors to avoid unwanted splashing.

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The scandal began when video clips appeared showing a trio of young women – reportedly ages 13, 14, and 16 – dancing topless on a vehicle along Silom Road.  Worth noting is that Silom Road is adjacent to one of the more famous red light districts in Bangkok where you can find things much more racy than this.

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As you might imagine, there was a big fuss over this nudity and there were no shortage of pundits and officials tripping over themselves to proclaim what an insult to Thailand and Thai culture this was.  In a statement, Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat said, “the clip has negatively affected the image of Thai culture and that all parties involved with such behaviour should be punished, while asking police to give importance to this issue, for it destroys the country’s reputation.” (emphasis mine)

The girls surrendered to the police, were made to publicly apologize, and were fined 500 baht (about US$16) each, and released.

As for the hypocrisy that was pointed out by several observers?  Well, that comes in two parts.  The first is the “oh, that’s too damn funny” part.  Reportedly, at the time of this whole scandal, if you went to the website for the Thailand Ministry of Culture, the following art was displayed on the page banner:

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The picture shows some young Thai girls dancing topless in what looks like a water festival, right?  This was quickly picked up on by the denizens of the internet who hooted and hollered, posting and tweeting about how the Ministry of Culture was both promoting and punishing topless Thai teens at the same time.

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In no time at all – as one observer pointed out, on a Sunday, nonetheless! – the nubile nipples were replaced with this classical Thai picture which, if you look closely, also has some bare breasts displayed in it.

Several other commentators pointed out that the impromptu redecorating of the Ministry of Culture’s website wasn’t the real hypocrisy, though.  They explained that the real hypocrisy is that Thai society has long treated women and girls poorly.  The sex industry here, the vast majority of which serves Thai men, not tourists, is founded on the treatment of women as sex objects.  Young women and girls are sold into sexual slavery and rape is often not reported or, when reported, the women are treated as the guilty party for bringing shame on their family by not keeping quiet.

Now, I want to make clear that I’m not singling out Thai culture for its hypocritical treatment of women.  I’m just reporting on the controversy that erupted here.  Plus, hypocritcal treatment of women is something that is too common almost everywhere in the world.  But as a number of cooler-headed commentators pointed out about this event, the trio of topless girls aren’t the cause of the problem.  They are the symptom of larger societal attitudes that need to be discussed and addressed.  I wonder if this event will provide a catalyst for that discussion to begin?

 

Great Eats in Bangkok Volume 2 – Khanom Krug

As I promised, my “Great Eats in Bangkok” series is in fact becomming a series and not just a single video.  Using my new wireless microphone that plugs into a Kodak Zi8, the audio quality is a bit better than the first time I shot the footage for this episode.  I’ll have to keep playing around with the equipment in order to learn to master it, but hopefully each successive volume of the series will get better.

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Photo courtesy yang1815

In this volume we explore one of my favorite Thai desserts, something called khanom krug.  “Khanom” is the broad term used for snacks and nibbly type of desserts and “krug” refers to the half-sphere shape in which these tasty treats are made.  You can loosely describe khanom krug as “rice flour and coconut milk pancakes”, although that description fails to capture what makes them so special and worth seeking out.

Here’s the 3-minute video.

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Photo courtesy yang1815

The interesting thing about khanom krug is how it is composed of two batters, both made with rice flour and coconut milk.  One batter is a little saltier and the other is a little sweeter.  The sweet batter is poured into the indentations in the pan, filling them about 2/3 of the way.  Then a few seconds later the saltier batter is added.  Savory fillings such as corn, taro, or free onions can be added (but just as often, are not) and then the whole thing is covered and allowed to bake and steam for several minutes.

Once the khanom are fairly firm, but still a little molten in the middle, the halves are scooped out and paired together for serving.  You have to be careful of a few things when eating them: first, they will be incredibly hot and the interior will decimate your tastebuds like lava flowing through a forest.  Second, don’t let the vendor put the container of them in a bag.  Steam is the enemy of these khanom and they will lose their crisp exterior very quickly.  Third, solve that problem by eating them right away!

I hope you enjoyed the video.  A third one is being edited now and the first volume, focusing on rice noodles called guaytiaw, is here.

 

Two Days in Hong Kong

The final leg of our Hawai’i trip was a two-day stop in Hong Kong.  A former residence of mine, it is one of my favorite cities in the world and a place I always enjoy returning to.  Thankfully, we still have many friends there are were hosted by a former university classmate and her husband.

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This couple has three adorable children and two days wasn’t enough time to properly visit with them.  The older two were keen on showing off for the camera, seeing what funny faces and poses they could make!  Next time we’ll be sure to leave extra time so we can do some exploring of the city with them.

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One of our stops was breakfast at Lan Fong Yuen along the Central Escalator.  I wrote about this place almost exactly a year ago.  The full entry (with loads of food porn) is here.

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It was mighty crowded and we were placed at a table shared with two other couples in the back corner of the restaurant.  Ordering is always a bit of a challenge because the level of English spoken isn’t as much as it used to be, and our Cantonese is basically nonexistent.  Nonetheless we were able to work it out and were rewarded with some comfort food.

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Drawing on the memories of so many school children throughout East Asia: instant noodles and broth with chicken on top.

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And toasted buns with sweetened condensed milk on top, to accompany the milk tea that is just at the edge of the frame.  Nothing fancy here but certainly a tasty way to start your day.

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Most of the two days was spent wandering around, with Tawn doing some shopping and me chilling out in cafes, reading magazines.  Above is a small street in Lan Kwai Fong with some pretty flowers.  We passed by on our way to dim sum with a friend I had not seen since the day Tawn and I met in January 2000.  By coincidence, I ran into this friend and her mother in Hong Kong Airport that same day, as they were on their way to India and I was on my way to a fateful meeting with destiny.

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Lots of galleries in the Hollywood Road area.  This work is called Imperial Pig and it is by Chinese artist Huang Cheng.  It shows a pig receiving a traditional Chinese medicinal treatment known as fire cupping.  When I lived here, I actually had my own not so good experience being on the receiving end of one of these treatments, which left me bruised for months after!

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One of the coffee shops where I spent some time: Holly Brown Coffee, located on Stanley Street.  Fantastic coffee and ambience.  Their gelato is supposed to be pretty good, too.  I like the graphics on their cup.

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Walking around Central, I noticed this store.  I think the metal screens on the facade of Harvey Nichols are beautiful.  There is so much interesting architecture and design in Hong Kong.

We also had the opportunity to meet up with some Xangans.  By sheer coincidence, Jason and his husband Daniel, exiled from Tokyo for the moment, were in town for the weekend.  While they had visited Bangkok just a few months ago, we were excited for the chance to spend some time with them again.

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Photos borrowed from Jason’s facebook page (without permission – yikes!).  On the left, Tawn, Jason, and Daniel.  On the right, me, Jason, and Tawn.  You should check out Jason’s blog.  He isn’t posting as often these days but has some of the spectacular music he has written and performed.

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Following a tip from Gary’s blog, the four of us sought out this retro Starbucks.  Located on Duddell Street, which dead-ends off Queen’s Road in Central, it is designed as an old bing sutt, literally an “ice house”.  The exterior doesn’t give anything away…

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But once you’re inside, you feel you have been magically transported back to the 1950s and 60s.  A bing sutt was the coffeehouse of the old days, where people could take a bread, enjoy a beverage or trendy Western treats such as soda pop and ice cream.  The design was a fusion of East and West even back in those days.  It feels even more fusion seeing a recreation in the context of the modern day.

This particular project was a collaboration between Starbucks and the Hong Kong brand G.O.D. (Goods of Desire) and the location was chosen because it is very close to the city’s arts community.

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While we were there, some photographers started a fashion shoot.  My lighting isn’t that good but the model’s cheongsam fits the interior of the bing sutt perfectly.  Feels very much like the Wong Kar Wai film, In the Mood for Love.

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New shopping area at the tip of Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon called 1881 Heritage.  The developers took the former Marine Police Headquarters (which closed in 1996) and restored it, creating an interesting mixture of history and commerce.  Worth a visit, more for the sights rather than the shops.

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A ride on the Star Ferry remains one of my favorite ways to see the city, and one of the least expensive, too.

The other Xangan we met with was Angel.  He splits his time between Hong Kong and Vancouver, so we’ve been able to meet before.  Didn’t get a picture as we met in a crowded coffee shop.  You should stop by his blog, too, as he recently wrote about a stay at the new W Hotel in Taipei, which is beautiful.

We did a lot more with our two days, but those were the highlights.  On Sunday evening we headed to the airport and flew back to Bangkok, arriving just before midnight.  Of course, all this happened two and a half weeks ago.  I’m so far behind in my blogging!  So now I’ll get back on course and catch you up with what’s happening here in Bangkok.