30 November 2011

Book Review: My China Years, by Helen Foster Snow, **

Foster Snow is the wife of Edgar Snow, the author of "Red Star Over China - The Rise Of The Red Army". She actually met "Ed" in China and her book is about her time there, mostly with him. It is an interesting read to grasp the reality of life in China, and especially in Shanghai, in the thirties. She was well introduced in the circles that made things happen then, and had tea with notable Chinese as well as foreign dignitaries. She always was a naive political analyst though, and when she leaves her travelogue mode to draw more general conclusions about politics in China, or her future, it is clear that this was not her cup of tea...

24 November 2011

Book Review: City of Sadness, by Bérénice Reynaud, ****

This work introduces the Western audience to the richness of New Taiwanese Cinema. It revisits a painful episode in Taiwanese history, creating an elliptical and impressionistic picture of Chiang Kai-shek's takeover of the island after the defeat of his Kuomintang army by Mao Zedong.

This is a moving love story that serves as a conduit to illustrate the period right after WW II in Taiwan, when the Japanese colonial administration was replaced by the ruthless and corrupt rule of Chen Yi, a mainland administrator for Chiang Kai-shek. The infamous episode of 2/28/47 is the background against which the story is set.

Taiwan later became an extraordinary success story and today it is a thriving democracy, but the end of Japanese colonial rule did not start under the best auspices...

23 November 2011

Book Review: Singapore Swing, by John Malathronas, *****

MBS from the modern art museum

For generations of Britons, Singapore was the international crossroads of the Empire, the ultimate colonial posting, the stimulus for writers such as Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham or Noel Coward. Can today’s hightech 24-hour city with its gleaming skyscrapers and high standard of living provide a similar kind of inspiration to a visitor?

John Malathronas penetrates the Oriental psyche and discovers the hustle among the stuffiness, the thrill behind the Confucian ethic and, ultimately, the joie de vivre in what has been unjustly dismissed as “a shopping mall with UN representation”. Still more importantly, during his quest, he realises that this overcrowded, multicultural, multifaith city-state can teach us a lesson about living together in harmony and with mutual respect.

More about the book and the author here on his website, with some additional material not found in the book.

17 November 2011

Film Review: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), by Woody Allen, ****


Two couples discover the grass may not always be greener on the other side in Woody Allen’s breezy comedy on wry, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. Hoping to relive the pleasures of youth, Alfie Shepridge (Anthony Hopkins) dumps his wife of 40 years (Gemma Jones) and pursues a young call girl (Lucy Punch). So when daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) develops a crush on her boss (Antonio Banderas) and husband Roy (Josh Brolin) becomes obsessed with the beauty (Freida Pinto) who lives across the way, the entire clan’s fantasies take on reality as their passions not only drive them out of their marriages, but out of their minds as well.


I had great fun watching this movie. Typical dry Woody Allen irony about the futile attempts by simple people to change the way the world works. And wasting their life in doing so. I got a great quote from this move, that I would probably never have read in the original in my life:

"Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act 5, scene 5

Thanks Woody for bringing this to my attention!

11 November 2011

Glass and gondolas in Venice

Murano glass taking shape
Early start of the day in Venice. I am here for a photo workshop and we are off to catch the sun rise by the dock of the ferry to Murano, where Stefano has talked to his brother in law who owns a glass shop. We will have the privilege of being let into the shop while the dozen or so glass blowers are working to make the glass masterpieces which make Murano famous.

About a dozen artisans are blowing glass today, all Italian men plus a young and very thin French lady who has moved here six years ago to learn the trade. It seems that with 8% "unemployment" in Italy we need to import tall young girls from Burgundy to keep the magic of Murano glass alive! She follows closely each and every move of the senior master, who sometimes holds her hand in a fatherly fashion to guide her through the moves that transform sand into glass masterpieces.

The atmosphere is magic. In the middle of the shop a huge furnace radiates intense heat, and all around skilled workers dance with their red-hot glass at the end of a steel pole, blowing, cutting, chiselling, attaching gold leaves, shaping and reshaping their creations.

We leave the shop after two very full hours and take the ferry back to Venice, where a lineup of "spritz" is waiting for us at a local bar. They will be followed by delicious cicchetti for a true Venetian lunch by Rialto. I was afraid to run into a tourist trap, of which there are too many in the neighborhood, but ended up in a delightful little restaurant for a very special treat.

Fixing gondolas
The day then continues with a visit to  "squero" of San Trovaso, a shop where they build and maintain gondolas, the trademark boats of Venice. Again thanks to the good offices of Stefano we are welcomed into one of a handful of workshops where this ancient art is kept alive by a bunch of skilled masters.

As one of them shows us the tools he explains that a gondola costs about thirty thousand euro as it comes out of the carpenter's shop, with no accessories, decorations, or anything one would call an "optional" in a car. It can be twice as much when it hits the water with all its bells and whistles installed. There are only 420 licensed gondolas in Venice and licences are impossible to get unless you are well connected into the inner circles of the city and come from a family of gondolieri.

This squero can only make two new gondolas per year, and spend most of its labor time on maintenance. I had the good luck to witness some of this work today, one master was pushing special straw thread in the crevices between the long beams of a gondola to improve its water tightness. As the sun sets, a gondoliere arrives at the squero to deliver his gondola for repairs. Everyone gives a hand to raise it from the water, and after a first inspection a workplan is agreed upon. It's time for us to say farewell, and head off to town for a dinner of polenta with cuttle fish in its black ink sauce...