Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Memories of East and West Berlin linger on

By Nancy T. Lu
Berlin as city in focus at the recent Taipei Film Festival brought back fond memories of my days as a participant of an advanced journalism course in the German capital years ago.

The Berlin Wall was still there then. In fact, some of my German friends lived at that time “within spitting distance” of this landmark in the once divided German capital. They wrote a few years later to describe their emotional participation in the historic bringing down of the divider of the city of Berlin. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the historic event.

A tour of drab and gray East Berlin after crossing Checkpoint Charlie was my introduction to life on German soil at that time. “HALT – HIER ENDET DIE FREIHEIT (STOP - HERE ENDS FREEDOM)” (see photo) read one typical wall graffiti at the border.

"They stole this from us!” These words of protest from my Turkish classmate during a visit to the Pergamon Museum in East Berlin ring loud and clear in my ears to this day. He stood on the marble steps and looked angrily at the impressive Pergamon Altar taken from his homeland of Anatolia.

West Berlin bustling with life by day and night was a stark contrast to East Berlin. Kurfuerstendamm with a bombed-out church was walking distance from the International Institute for Journalism. Right there was Ka De We, the biggest department store which called for many shopping visits.

This was a German happening world. On a return visit to Berlin, no longer divided politically many years later, I saw the dazzling act of a high-wire tightrope walker right on Kurfuerstendamm.

For entertainment, I managed to catch the world-class Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in concert at least twice. The German production of “Chorus Line” in Berlin I found comparable to the original Broadway version.

In those days when Punks moved like Zombies on the streets in certain areas in West Berlin, a German theater production which I went out of my way to see despite its staging in a language I had poor command of addressed social problems confronting German adolescents.

Peep show signs all over Berlin aroused my curiosity, One day I convinced a classmate to go into a cubicle with me for my first and last experience as a voyeur.

A tent circus show then featured for its main attraction a half-Chinese and half-German performer hanging by his long hair and taking with him his wife and mother as they enjoyed afternoon tea. Such incredible hair strength or power was indeed item for the Guinness Book of Records. For his wedding, this son of a paralyzed Chinese contortionist.suspended himself from a helicopter and took his bride for a thrilling airborne adventure, he revealed during an interview.

The arrival of a lovable pair of Chinese pandas, gifts of China to Germany, was a big event in Berlin at that time. I monitored history in the making with help from a German friend who was the air traffic controller at the Berlin Tempelhof Airport at that time. In the wintry cold about a month later, I joined the long queue to have a glimpse up close of the cuddly pandas at the Berlin Zoo. What I actually saw was a lonesome male panda, sprawling at the gate. He was the picture of a lover pining for his mate as she played on a swing within sight on the other side.

My first attempt to skate on ice took place in Berlin, too. My Egyptian classmate had to surrender his passport to enable the three of us, including a Maltese classmate, to rent three pairs of ice skates. As soon as I stepped on the ice, I slipped and completely lost my bearing. I was not about to turn into Katarina Witt. Children at home in the skating rink shortly came over to take me by my hands to enable me to enjoy a smooth glide on frozen surface.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Once more with feeling from Taiwan’s drummer king Rich Huang

By Nancy T. Lu

Taiwan’s drummer king Rich Huang has gone Live Unplugged to fan excitement among his avid followers. He waited 11 years to launch his second album, “Rich Huang City Jazz Happy Dog.” In fact, the album launching not too long ago in Taipei marked his 40-year milestone in the jazz scene.

Drummer Huang in this particular project, using the KHS Hall as recording venue, brings together some of Taiwan’s finest jazz talents: pianist and composer of “Cape No. 7” fame Fred Lui, trumpeter Stacey Wei, alto saxophone artist Tung Shunen Wen, double bass player Gil Kuo, guitarist Eric Chuang and tenor saxophone performer Kunter Chang. Past collaborations have made it convenient for them to participate in this jazz music venture.

The recording opens with “It’s Not Easy” followed by “Summer Wave” and “Parallel Wonderland.” Then come “Blues for Rich,” “Rose Rose I Love You” and “Rich’s Ray.”
In the second half of the album recording are: “Happy Dog,” “Warner Street,” “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “Work Song.” “The Crimson of the Four Seasons,” “Life of the Party” and “Whisper Not” are the final three selections to jazz up Huang’s newest music album.

Asked why he took this long to embark on his second recording project, Huang confessed that he wanted to spring a truly special music feast on his fans.

Huang began his music career at the age of eight. He first took lessons in classical guitar. He also learned to play the piano, electric organ, bass and so forth.

At the age of 14, he became fascinated with jazz percussion playing. He quickly acquired the reputation of “Taiwan’s drummer king.”

In the 1970s all the way to the 1990s, Huang got involved in producing commercial jingles, movie soundtracks and song albums. In fact, his outstanding work in the field of Taiwan pop music spans three generations.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Chef William "Abu" Bu aims to serve exquisite cuisine with Michelin star rating in Taipei

By Nancy T. Lu

Just like a true celebrity in the world of fine dining, chef William “Abu” Bu enjoys a loyal following in Taipei. His fans, who like his style of palate pampering, track him down wherever he goes.

The 38-year-old all-around kitchen wizard hailing originally from Hong Kong opened a 40-seat restaurant close to the Jenai Circle in Taipei in April this year to the delight of Taipei gourmets. In just a few months’ time, Abu Restaurant has emerged a culinary address requiring patrons to make reservations at least five days in advance. A number of Abu’s guests who are eager to repeatedly savor his culinary delights have been returning every two or three days to let him serve them.

Sitting down for a good lunch starts with at least four different imported breads brought to the table by a gracious waiter. A crispy flat bread with sesame seeds spread all over it appears like the sail of a boat in presentation. A milk bread roll, a black breadstick and a slice of French bread arrive before the diner on a separate plate. The variety indicates the chef’s attention to taste, aroma, quality and texture to stimulate the appetite of diners. Dip options range from olive oil to butter to a mix of eggplant and sun-dried tomatoes.

The tasty mushroom soup of choice is thick and like bubbling cappuccino in appearance. A risotto entree shows the chef to be chock-full of culinary creativity. A special plate hollowed out for three small portions takes first a scoop of bean sprouts flavored with ham. Another portion turns out to be grain-like pasta awashed with cream. A third serving on the same china consists of cooked barley with duck confit introduced to give it gourmet taste. Subtle differences in color and taste contribute all the way to an appetizing experience.

The main course consisting of osso buco or veal’s shank takes a day to prepare. Even the dessert is usually a labor of love on the part of the chef. No guest is likely to drop it towards the end of a full meal of great refinement.

Abu has the reputation of a professional chef driven by an ambition to serve cuisine worthy of Michelin star rating. In fact, this admirer of chef Robuchon.has from time to time gone out of his way to dine at Robuchon’s whether in Macau, Hongkong, Tokyo or Paris. He seeks to find out the reasons why the restaurant deserves to be awarded three Michelin stars.

Abu does not hesitate to invest in an imported German oven costing over NT$400,000. Robuchon’s in Macau uses such an oven to get the meat cuts cooked right. Abu learns that he can roast lamb in this oven in 20 minutes, rendering the meat truly tender and keeping the juice intact. The oven likewise comes in handy when he has to prepare dishes like beef tendon and ox tail. Desserts, too, can be prepared in such an oven.

Abu was directly involved in the preparation for the grand opening of the classy restaurant, which is 80 percent owned by him. Good taste, he is convinced, must start with the interior design of the dining establishment. He has kept it consistently simple and elegant. He bought the chandelier, importing it to personally assemble and hang up as the restaurant’s decorative centerpiece. Even the china he uses reflects his taste. He, who likes to be creative not just in his cooking but also in his food presentation, does not hesitate to purchase a plate even if the price tag says he must fork out NT$6,000 to have it.

A lunch set menu at Abu nowadays costs either NT$1,000 or NT$1,800 while dinner is priced at NT$2,300 or NT$2,600. Guests pop up often with special wines for the chef to match with his exquisite cuisine. The well-heeled regulars also like to just inform him of their budget per cover when they turn up in a group to enjoy good food.

Chef Abu has worked without taking a single day off ever since he opened his new restaurant in April. Word has gone around that he has returned to the culinary scene after closing down his brasserie behind The Sherwood Taipei.

The popular chef started his career in the kitchen of the Hilton Hotel in Hongkong. In fact, he trained in the different departments. He even got sent to France and Italy for further training.
Chef Abu moved to Taipei about 11 years ago, working in the beginning at the Caesar Park Taipei and then at the Tutto Bello Restaurant. From the beginning, he tried to master the different aspects of the culinary art and even to innovate on traditional cuisine.

There is talk of launching a Michelin Guide in Taiwan. The gourmets to be appointed to evaluate the contenders for Michelin stars are very likely to keep Abu on an exclusive list of selected restaurants.

Abu (tel. 02-2707-0699) is located at 28 Shihwei Road off Jenai Circle in Taipei. Remember to make reservations in advance.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

“Foreign Affairs” at Biennale di Venezia reveals Taiwanese collective subconscious

Photos courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum
By Nancy T. Lu

"Foreign Affairs” means ordinarily relations with other countries but when associated with Taiwan, the expression instantly calls to mind the island’s struggle to break out of its status as a virtual international pariah ever since the country got booted out of the United Nations many years ago. Taiwan has repeatedly tried to force a change, even adopting scandalous dollar diplomacy and finding “allies” to help give Taiwan a voice in its bid to rejoin the international body.

"Foreign Affairs” as theme of the ongoing exhibition at the Taiwan Pavilion in the Palazzo delle Prigioni, a former prison, during the Biennale di Venezia this year opens up ample room for imagination when proposed to four different artists from Taiwan. All four take off to explore Taiwan’s identity and individuality, concluding with revelations of the Taiwanese collective subconscious.

It has been pointed out that Hsieh Ying-chun, Chen Chieh-jen, Chang Chien-chi and Yu Cheng-ta have noticed and observed over time “the disenfranchised suffering that results from unfair treatment within the structures of globalization.”
Let’s look more closely at what the four artists and observers have to say about “Foreign Affairs.” Hsieh Ying-chuan, a 55-year-old Taiwanese architect, comes across as a significant choice of participant in a year of tiny Taiwan’s warming relations with China, a giant neighbor trying to claim it as a renegade province.

The published introduction of Hsieh describes him particularly as having taken up the mantle of “foreign relations” (implying Taiwan’s sovereignty) by helping reconstruct rural China in the aftermath of the devastating Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008. Together with his team, he has been carrying out collaborative construction with communities. He has not been totally discouraged by the inadequate budget.

Hsieh is an example of how Taiwan adopts unconventional diplomatic approaches to win friends and validate status. The volunteers of Tzu Chi Buddhist Compassion Relief Foundation are all along getting recognition for being always at the forefront of meaningful international disaster relief work.

Hsieh previously acquired experience helping the Thao minority and disadvantaged group in the Sun Moon Lake area in Nantou County rebuild their lives after the destructive September 21 temblor in Taiwan years ago.

Hsieh is more than just an architect. He goes about carrying out collaborative construction, emerging as “architectural activist” because of the need to deal with societal factors and to become integrated in the system and with bureaucratic policy. He must work with people, who mostly just give up individual creativity under a communal system. Hsieh must learn to understand local culture fast. He must wear, for example, the hat of a “feng shui” expert.

For Chen Chieh-jen, the show participant who has had the greatest international exposure through his video works, the ongoing “Foreign Affairs” exhibition in the canal city of Venice becomes an opportunity to make a statement about countries with a history of imperialism like the United States and their treatment of visa applicants from non-western and weaker countries like Taiwan.

Random suspicion

Chen’s personal experience of verbal violence and humiliation from a consular officer at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) while seeking a U.S.non-immigrant visa after receiving an invitation to exhibit in New Orleans last year has told him that an individual despite legitimate travel reason must be prepared to face random suspicion, humiliation and disgrace at the hands of the consular officer.

Chen was accused of intending to become an illegal immigrant. His not very pleasant encounter with an American visa officer after he made a mistaken entry in his visa application form led him to set up a Chinese-language blog (http://ccjonstrike.blogspot.com), inviting other visa applicants to post and share their bad experiences, he revealed. Within days, he received hundreds of response. The blog is still there.

Chen reconstructs an airport arrival scene for his video on the subject of “Empire’s Borders.” Immigration officers tend to be seated higher than the incoming visitors to suggest position of power, according to Chen.

The immigration section as seen in the arrival area of an international airport sometimes even sees incoming passengers, apart from the local nationals, segregated into groups forming queues in front of counters reserved for those originating from countries where visas must be applied for beforehand and different ones marked out for those privileged to just request for landing visas.
Class consciousness not just on a global scale but even in a society is very much alive, refusing to die, according to Chen. Taiwan is just as guilty in the treatment of mainland Chinese and Vietnamese spouses, observed Chen during an interview in Taipei.

Illegal immigrants

For his part, photographer Chang Chien-chi has put forward his “China Town” series, documenting the trail of illegal Chinese immigrants from Fuzhou to New York’s Chinatown over a 17-year period. He knows quite well the subjects of his dramatic black-and-white New York shots or colored pictures taken in Fuzhou. Their future may seem uncertain. But these people cup hope in their hands even as they show a willingness to sacrifice personal happiness to give their sons and daughters, all waiting back home, a better life. They do not have many choices though.

Some of his subjects make a living as sidewalk vendors. But a few with skills in repairing and restoring old houses hit a gold mine in America where labor cost is extremely high, according to Chang.

Chang said he knew of one particular case, who had a very humble beginning in the United States but who has worked hard to become an owner of many houses on American soil. The fellow found a partner, who invested in the rundown houses, which he then repaired for eventual sale.

Yu Cheng-ta, the youngest among the four artists in focus, addresses the subject of identity and finds something to say about person-to-person relations, even using voice in creating sometimes funny pictures. He takes great interest in the foreigners encountered right in Taipei and in how they blend into the society.

Sounding out foreigners

Yu came upon two enterprising Filipinos, Liang Mei-lan and Emily Su, inside the Won Won Building not far from the St. Christopher’s Church on Chung Shan North Road in Taipei. Both have been married to their Taiwanese husbands for more than 10 years, becoming resourceful enough as to set up profitable business in their adopted homeland. One runs a beauty parlor – more than one, in fact – and the other manages a store (more than one, too) specializing in the retail of imported Philippine goods.

In their everyday life in an environment of different culture, both have learned to cope by picking up Mandarin and even Taiwanese. They, of course, also communicate in English and Tagalog. Yu talks to them, using a mix of English, Mandarin and Taiwanese as well as relying on guesswork in making out their words and sentences.

One of the two Filipinos gets captured on video, belting out without fully understanding Jody Jiang Hui’s very popular Taiwanese heartbreak song, “I Am Not Drunk.” The other one sings “Lovely Roses,” karaoke style, in Mandarin.
Yu, too, shares his video on foreigners, transients who are asked one by one to repeat self-introducing Mandarin lines the playful Yu voices out (usually somewhat descriptive of each picked individual) while hiding unseen behind. Inaccurate pronunciations and sounds result in funny situations.

The people in Taiwan need to be privy to the ideas and reflections brought up through the “Foreign Affairs” exhibition in Venice. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum agrees on this point.
"Foreign Affairs” will be on view at the Taiwan Pavilion near Piazza San Marco in Venice until November 22.

Friday, July 3, 2009

“Disgrace” wins big honor in New Talent Competition at 2009 Taipei Film Festival

By Nancy T. Lu

"Disgrace” proved a motion picture not to be ashamed of. In fact, director Steve Jacobs in absentia ran away with the Grand Prize in the New Talent Competition at the 2009 Taipei Film Festival. Jane Yu, the film festival program director, received it on his behalf. This is only the 42-year-old Jacobs’ second full-length feature film.

The Australian movie entry tells the story of David Lurie, a divorced Cape Town university white professor, who gets sexually involved with his student in poetry class and ends up punished with dismissal from his post for his indiscretion. The 52-year-old unrepentant character moves to the countryside where his lesbian daughter Lucy lives as a farmer. In post-apartheid South Africa, she seeks to his father's chagrin the protection of her black South African neighbor Petrus. One day, however, while he is away, father and daughter are viciously attacked by three black youngsters. One of them is even a relative of Petrus’ wife. Lucy, a rape victim, gets pregnant but decides to keep the baby.

Chung Mong-hong’s “Parking” came out winner of the Special Jury Prize. Taiwanese director Chung was also not around to receive the honor at a ceremony held on July 3 at the Red Playhouse in Ximending. Perhaps he went looking again for the driver of the double-parked car in his movie.

Honorable mention went to Sebastian Silva’s “The Maid.” The 30-year-old Chilean filmmaker tries to show the insecurity of Raquel, a household help who has been serving one family for many years. Every extra helper hired by her employer to lighten her burden gets tortured by her. The director puts every maid in the movie through a shower scene to undress her. Even the adult male characters are not spared from total nudity in front of the camera.

Yang Ik-June’s “Breathless” and Naito Takatsugu’s “The Dark Harbor” likewise won honorable mention. The Korean director of “Breathless” remarked that after 35 years of exposure to a violent environment, he made the movie as an emotional outlet for himself. He, thus, filled it with dirty slang.

Japanese director Takatsugu grew up in a fishing village. He, therefore, draws from his own background in creating the simple and na├»ve bachelor fisherman Manzo in “The Dark Harbor.” This is a very sweet and lovable character.

The Audience Choice Awards went to Sebastian Silva’s “The Maid,” Stephan Komandarev’s “The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner” and Cheng Yu-chieh’s “Yang Yang.”

Helma Sanders-Brahms, Yasmin Ahmad, Liang Hsiu-shen, Tetsujiro Yamagami, and Oliver Chen made up the jury panel this year.

Photo taken by Nancy T. Lu shows eight directors and one actress posing for a souvenir picture with Hou Hsiao-hsien, president of the Taipei Film Festival.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sexuality becomes big issue among local performers in Australian staging of Bizet’s “Carmen” in Taipei

By Nancy T. Lu

The countdown to the opening night of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the National Theater in Taipei on July 9 has begun.
Matthew Barclay, staff director of Opera Australia’s production in collaboration with the National Symphony Orchestra under Chien Wen-pin as well as the Taipei Philharmonic Chorus, has not been very happy with the acting of the local performers.

On Tuesday night, Johnny Ku, the choir master, described Barclay as “frustrated” in getting the Taiwanese cast to rise up to his expectations.

Sexuality on the stage has been the big issue. Barclay has observed how the men and women from this part of the world have not been comfortable in showing it. They have balked at openly reaching out and touching sensually somebody of the opposite sex. The repressed Asian culture has been inhibiting the local performers from completely letting go and acting naturally.

“This is a story set in Seville, Spain,” Barclay emphasized. “The wildness of the gypsies and the openness in show of passion of the Spaniards are expected.”

He remarked further: “The men, in fact, have been showing themselves to be even more nervous than the women.”

“The supporting cast members cannot help worrying about what their spouses and children will think when they come to see the opera,” said Lin Chung-kuang, who is singing the role of Le Dancairo. “At one point in the opera, I have to naughtily grab the buttock and also the thigh of a woman. Anyway, my wife will not see this for she will not be in Taipei.”

The staff director from Melbourne, whose job is mainly to follow through the blocking of stage director Francesca Zambello, has been patiently and meticulously explaining to the 48 members of the chorus the particular roles they must enact in “Carmen.” He has this mindset of not allowing a single performer to ruin the staging of the beautiful opera. He, in fact, has been training the less experienced cast members to deliver. Most of them have learned to act by watching closely the professional dancers from Australia.

The American Kirsten Chavez and the Hungaian Viktoria Vizin as the femme fatale gypsy Carmen have been amazing the chorus with their ability to both sing and act during rehearsals of a fight scene. Bizet’s extremely popular opera, which is sung in French, makes high demands on the singing and acting of the vocalists.

In the cast of “Carmen,” Richard Troxell and Justin Lavender are alternating as Don Jose. Michael Todd Simpson is singing the part of matador Ecamillo. Portraying Micaela are Hye Seoung Kwon and Chen Mei-lin. Other local vocalists picked for this production are: Kewei Wang as Morales, Liau Chong-boon as Zuriga, Lin Shiang-yeu as Frasquita, Shih I-chiao as Mercedes, Chen Chung-yi as El Renendado and Lin Chung-kuang as Le Dancairo.

No less than 250 people will be working on the stage, behind the scene and in the orchestra pit to bring to life Bizet’s “Carmen” on July 9, 10, 11 and 12. Tickets have been sold out since four weeks ago.

Photo of Michael Todd Simpson as singing matador Ecamillo was taken during the welcome reception hosted by the Australian Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei on June 30.