Sunday, December 25, 2011

Museum in central Taiwan hosting "Videonale" exhibition until February 26 next year

By Nancy T. Lu

The moving image has become a mainstay of contemporary aesthetic expression. This explains the holding of the Videonale in Berlin, paving the way for the newly-opened exhibition “Videonale: Dialogue in Contemprary Video Art” at the Taiwan National Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung in central Taiwan.

Georg Elben, the man behind the Videonale in Berlin, and Wang Jun-jieh, famous Taiwanese new media artist, have joined hands to bring together 10 works from Germany, 10 from Taiwan and 33 from the rest of the world in an unprecedented exhibition of video art of such scale in Taiwan.

Forty-four works from 19 countries have come from participants of the 10th to 13th Videonale in Bonn. Nine Taiwanese artists have been invited to join and contribute to the diversity of the new media art show. Their political, social and media commentaries invite a look.

Museum visitors can expect the range: an hour-long film, a documentary, an experimental short, a concept video or a dramatic film. Each contemporary art production explores an issue.

Wang, a judge at the 13th Videonale in Bonn last year, waded through 2,000 entries. He saw how multimedia artists transcended stereotypes inWang, an invited judge at the 1 style and material use in their entries.

The ongoing exhibition of 53 works has required a bigger-than-ever area in size to mount. An entirely new space layout design featuring special seating arrangements has been introduced to create a new visual field and make possible a fresh new media experience. The museum under the leadership of director Huang Tsai-lang also has had to deal with the difficulty of bringing video to its premises. Artists after all are using new technologies all the time. Technicians have had to be brought in to properly put the exhibit in place.

Goethe Institute, the German Cultural Center, has supported the project at the museum. Epson has been the sponsor of the essential projectors. The exhibit, which opened on December 3, will run until February 26, 2012.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Christo - Mr. Wrapper - seeking to suspend fabric panels over miles of Arkansas River

By Nancy T. Lu
Christo, ever famous for his unique wrapping art, has spent more than half his lifetime trying to explain that he is more than just “Mr. Wrapper.”

What is the Bulgarian-born Christo wrapping next? This question inevitably pops up whenever Christo turns up in a city on any continent.

In progress right now is “Over the River,” his project for the Arkansas River in Colorado. This was started with his French wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude in 1992. But she is no longer around to see to its completion with him. She passed away in November 2009.

The 76-year-old Christo, however, is determined to see through this project. His target exhibition time for “Over the River” is August 2014. After two weeks, it will become just another beautiful memory.

Christo has this idea of suspending luminous fabric panels 10 to 23 feet above the water along a 5.9-mile stretch of the Arkansas River. He has this mindset to hurdle the challenges of the bridges, rocks, trees and bushes along the river,

“Over the River” has triggered expected debates among residents and property owners in the area. But at least there is progress on this environmental art project. This month (October 2011), Christo received from the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners the approval for two leases needed to execute the “Over the River” installation art and to generate income to develop a wildlife corridor to benefit schools and local bighorn sheep population. Christo, however, will still need to work on more permits to realize his Arkansas River project.

Christo’s reputation has been built over decades by a number of unforgettable projects which entailed covering buildings, a bridge or even islands. His art has called for long periods of preparation and realization. Over lunch during his second Taipei visit years ago, he spoke of a few projects still in the process of completion after 10 years or even longer. Included then were “The Umbrellas” - started in 1984 and realized in 1991 - covering about 12 miles in Japan and 16 miles in the United States - as well as the “Wrapped Reichstag” in Berlin - first proposed in 1972 and finally done in 1995.

Christo, whenever possible, tries to clarify to interested listeners that each project is not to be taken just at face value. He plays with an idea in different dimensions, including political. As an artist who was born and raised in a communist country, he can not deny the influence of his past.

The wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin had been his obsession for 23 years, he said. Before the reunification of East and West Germany, he saw the significance of the former seat of the German Parliament in ideological, economic and political dimensions.

The building stood for years in an area under the jurisdiction of the American, French, British and Soviet forces in Berlin. Christo thought that the carrying out of his unique plan for the landmark was not likely to happen overnight. The creative process would be left hanging, he was aware. Thrice he was denied permission to realize his vision, according to Christo back in December 1988.

But Christo would keep trying even if it would mean that he would have to live dangerously. The artist gave the impression of thriving in a sense of insecurity. He and his wife found themselves writing to all the 662 members of the Parliament to explain the Reichstag project and to finally win their approval.

When Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon, was still around, Christo knew already how it was to live a life on an emotional rollercoaster. He first met her when he went to do a portrait of her mother in Paris.

According to his wife and manager, Christo for 25 years did not leave the home he first moved into when he arrived and settled down in New York in 1963. The big loft on the 5th floor of a building without elevator was his atelier. His home was on the 4th floor of the same address.

When Christo’s retrospective exhibition came to Taipei upon the invitation of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the collection consisted of 119 works on loan from the Rothschild Bank AG Zurich. Project models, drawings and study plans made up the greater part of the exhibition. Big photographs served as records of completed projects. There were three displays from Christo’s personal collection: “Wrapped Oil Barrels (1958-1959), “Wrapped Table and Wrapped Chair” and “Store Front (1964).”

Christo gets asked why he chooses to create art that is temporary. Islands covered with special fabrics are returned to their original state. The Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, reverts to its undraped look. Christo smiled and acquiesced to the remark of his wife years ago: “His art lives. It lasts forever.”

Christo makes such an impact on his viewing public through his art so that the image of what they have seen remains imbedded in their minds long after traces have been removed.

At the same time, said Christo, the vulnerable character of his art is an essential part of his creative perception. The temporary existence of his works calls for them to be seen. Like a nomadic tribe which builds a village overnight and then pulls out just as quickly in a desert, Christo goes about his creative pursuits that are unique, sublime experiences.

“The Gates,” his project for New York’s Central Park, featured 11,000 saffron fabrics hanging from horizontal steel bars and flapping along 26 miles of park walkways in the autumn of 2005. New Yorkers experienced “The Gates” – art that was two decades in the making and involving 7,500 frames or structures in all – for 14 days.

Christo also pointed out that he has no recipe on art creation to share with the public. The reason that moves him to channel his creative energy into a project is “purely autobiographical.” Back in 1962, he found a way to block off Rue Visconti in Paris and called it “Iron Curtain – Wall of Oil Barrels.”

Christo is also particular about experimenting only with what has not been tried. After wrapping Pont Neuf in Paris, he has refused to wrap another bridge. Each project, finished or unfinished, must remain unique, according to him.

He also raised another point: his art can neither be bought nor commercialized. Each project is not just a painting or a sculpture. Christo also never accepted sponsors for his art projects. In short, he paid for his ideas’ implementation out of his own pocket. The plans and drawings were what he sold to collectors, notably banks and museums, to finance his art creation.

The monumental scale of this artist’s works makes him stand in a class all by himself. As he engages himself in a project, he is full of expectations. So are people whose lives he touches.

When Christo did “Running Fence” on private properties of 59 ranchers in an area north of San Francisco, California, he spent 11 months convincing the people concerned to allow him to make 165,000 yards of heavy woven white nylon fabric spread out across their lands.

A New York Times journalist one day asked one of the ranchers if he understood what “Running Fence” was all about. The fellow pointed to a painting of a sunset out on a bay on the wall and remarked: “Here everything is make-believe.” He next looked out his window and said: “Outside are the wind, the fence and real life.”

Those who have had the privilege to see his retrospective exhibition are more likely to understand that Christo is not going to just wrap a most readily recognized landmark upon his arrival in a city in any part of the world. He as an artist takes his time to realize an ambitious design and project.

The artist born Christo Javacheff began his career by wrapping smaller packages. He wrapped trees, a car and even a woman before tackling monumental projects like buildings, coastline and even islands. “The Umbrellas” was something else. He attempted to investigate the different behaviors of people under the umbrellas in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, and in Kern Counties, California, the United States.

Exciting ideas just keep flowing out of Christo’s mind. He gets all wrapped up in his creative thoughts until exhibition time before a watching world. The results are each time visually startling and unforgettable.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Crazy Horse de Paris founder Alain Bernardin for years sold dream that fired men’s imagination

By Nancy T. Lu

Feminists during the heyday of Alain Bernardin were bound to protest his treatment of women but the Frenchman managed for years to round up some of the most attractive women of different nationalities to dance professionally every night in his highly erotic revue at the famous Crazy Horse in Paris.

Three of the 24 Paris-based regular Crazy Horse dancers visited Taipei once with Bernardin – Akky Masterpiece, Cynthia Sainte-Rose and Glory Coloratura. Bernardin compared them to “bĂȘtes sauvages” (wild animals). “We try to tame them,” he said.

He was particular about the proportions of his dancers’ bodies. The length of the two arms combined should match that from the top of the head to the crotch. He revealed the rule of the tape he went by while actually measuring Cynthia Sainte-Rose, a Crazy Horse dancer who took a stage surname suggesting her naivete.

Alain Bernardin began girl watching when he was 14. He remained ever fascinated with the female body.

The body was not his only consideration in the selection of the girls. Bernardin liked them “ambitious and aggressive.” The Crazy Horse entertainers competed to be selected to do unforgettable solo acts that helped promote the Crazy Horse reputation.

With his often almost totally nude girls, Bernardin sold a dream that fired the imagination especially of full-blooded males from connected vaulted cellars at 12 Avenue George V off Avenue Champs-Elysees in the French capital. He started doing this in 1951, even insisting that he catered to the family.

Bernardin had his curvaceous dancers making an erotic show out of their bodies every night. Lights playfully cast patterns and designs on the nude surfaces of the dancing figures. Temperatures invariably shot up inside the cabaret as eyes perceived flashes of the female breasts, hips and buttocks.

International celebrities, by their own admission, dropped by for inspiration over the years. They included Madonna, Prince, sculptor Cesar, and Christo. Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali also used to be Crazy Horse regulars.

Bernardin baptized them all – about 300 girls – over the years. Some went on to become legends in the history of the Crazy Horse de Paris.

The stage names of the girls were indeed descriptive: Charly Commando, Smarty Canterbury, Funky Coconut, Barbara Cool, and Tally Yesterday, among others.

Polly Harper, an American who retired as dancer to work on Bernardin’s staff, used to be Polly Underground. This daughter of an American serviceman in Germany was discovered in a nightspot on Teutonic soil and invited to Paris. “I accepted the offer for I thought I could study French while working at the Crazy Horse,” she recalled.

Most girls joined Crazy Horse after graduating from high school. Akky Masterpiece, too tall to join an ordinary dance company, decided to work at the cabaret while still a second year law student. Cynthia Sainte-Rose shelved temporarily her pursuit of veterinary studies. Glory Coloratura viewed her Crazy Horse stint as a stepping stone to movie stardom.

Some of the girls had legendary romances, hooking millionaires or rather billionaires. Bernardin himself married former dancer Lova Moor. After Bernardin committed suicide by putting a bullet in his head in his office, Crazy Horse has been managed by his children.

Harper with her dancing job behind her shifted to the task of keeping the women performing at the Crazy Horse under discipline. “I have taxis waiting to take the girls safely home after the show every night,” she said. “They have to be protected in some cases from some customers.”

“The dancers range in age from 17 to 26,” revealed Harper. “Their height is between 168 centimeters to 176 centimeters. The average height is about 170 or 171 centimeters. The visual proportion is important.”

She continued: “They come with classical dance background. The newcomers must train for three weeks to two months.”

The dancers report at 8 p.m. and work until 1:30 a.m. The shows in the theater that seats 350 persons plus another 20 standing at the bar begin at 8:15 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. from Sunday to Friday. On Saturday, the performances open at 7:00 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 11:45 p.m.. Admission price starts at 100 euro. Group rates are cheaper.

Partial changes are introduced in the program every three months. Each number usually has a theme. The dancers can affect the postures of animals behind bars in a zoo in one act. In the next sequence, only silhouettes of shapely women going through the motions of a shower are projected on the stage. Everything is orchestrated to titillate the imagination. Or so dictated Alain Bernardin, “le prince de l’imaginaire (prince of make-believe)."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cliff Robertson missed collecting Oscar for "Charly" in 1968 for he was away shooting "Too Late the Hero"

By Nancy T. Lu

Hollywood actor Cliff Robertson passed away at age 88 in New York on Saturday, September 10.

Not a few people in the Philippines will still remember that he came to shoot “Too Late the Hero” in 1968. In fact, he missed the Academy Awards that year and failed to personally collect his first and only Oscar as best actor for his performance in “Charly” because he was not given permission to take a break and fly to Hollywood.

The good news about Cliff Robertson’s winning the Oscar that year reached him on Mount Makiling, where he was at that time busy shooting the war movie “Too Late the Hero” with Michael Caine. He shortly rushed back to Manila to attend the victory party organized in his honor at the Sheraton Hotel on April 15, 1968.

The actor with an impressive career first appeared in a television version of “Charly” and it was called “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon.” He played a mentally challenged man who underwent medical treatment and became a genius. Regression, however, set in and he returned to his former condition.

Robertson worried that the movie part would go to another actor. So he bought the movie rights of “Charly.” He tried for eight years to convince a studio to make the movie. Success did not come easy but it tasted really sweet when it finally did.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra remembered for bringing to Taipei a repertoire singers with less stamina shy away from

By Nancy T. Lu

World-class tenor and operatic star Salvatore Licitra will no longer shine again on the stage. His beautiful voice is now just a memory to his many fans and followers. He is particularly remembered by the Taipei public for performing a repertoire singers with less stamina tend to shy away from. Licitra originally accepted the invitation to sing in a production of Verdi's "Aida" in Taipei this October.

Italian tenor Licitra replaced Luciano Pavarotti in “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on two hours’ notice on May 12, 2002, receiving critical acclaim for his performance. Life was not the same again after that fateful break.

Licitra made his first Taipei visit in 2004 not long after Pavarotti announced he was retiring from the opera stage. This was after Pavarotti performed one last time the role of Cavaradossi in the Puccini opera "Tosca".

The good-looking Licitra, a man with a passion for singing, admitted during one of his Taipei trips that he had this ambition to succeed Pavarotti as a recognized voice.

.”I met Pavarotti last summer,” the then 36-year-old Sicilian said seven years ago. “I watched him in ‘Tosca’ in Berlin. I went backstage afterwards and introduced myself.”

Aware that the young and very promising young tenor replaced him at the Met when he fell ill, Pavarotti told Licitra: “Many years ago, I was in the same situation like you.”

Pavarotti once filled in for Giuseppe di Stefano, a tenor who often sang with Maria Callas, in Puccini’s “La Boheme” and his career took off from there.

“I hope to make a good career,” said Licitra. “I am still working at it.”

Licitra cited his need to concentrate and to study a lot to arrive at his envisioned "big success." Tenors with glorious careers like Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo were his role models.

The then rising star recognized as “the fourth tenor” after the Three Tenors in the opera world said seemingly with a premonition of a fairly short singing career that his big regret had been his wasting of seven years learning from two women, one a soprano and the other her teacher. He sought daily voice coaching from them.

“I joined seven competitions and lost all of them,” he said to point out the failures of his early mentors.

Licitra started singing quite late at age 19. He knew nothing about the opera until then. He could not even read scores. His mother heard him vocalizing one day and urged him to go and take singing lessons. At that time he was working as a graphic artist.

His career began turning around after he met Carlo Bergonzi in 1996. This tenor teacher told him: “You have to follow your voice and instinct. Forget about technique.”

“In two years,” recalled Licitra, “he let me start my career.”

Licitra began his career doing a repertoire which included Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and ”La Forza del Destino.”

The Berne-born Italian considered himself to be “a lucky man” for being able to work immediately with maestro Riccardo Muti in five productions.

Bergonzi, a famous Verdi interpreter, prepared him for “Un Ballo in Maschera.”

“But I made my more profound study with Riccardo Muti,” said Licitra. “I learned from him that it is important to follow the score…what the composer writes. Composers are geniuses and I follow their suggestions.”

Licitra, who considered himself “basically an opera singer,” revealed: “In the future, I hope to sing in ‘Turandot.’”

When prevailed upon to give a sampling of his golden voice, Licitra sang “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s three-act opera.

Licitra had the reputation of a true spinto tenor with rare talent and unusually strong voice to inherit heavier roles like Cavaradossi in “Tosca.”

Licitra, whose leading fans included his proud mother and his then lawyer fiancĂ©e said to be willing to wait for him in Rome while he went places singing, commented in 2008 that he sang in “Duetto,” a crossover CD recording he did with Argentinian tenor Marcelo Alvarez for Sony Music in 2007, because he wanted to make young people interested in opera and not just pop music.

But the artist acclaimed for his appearances at the Met, La Scala and Arena of Verona, added: “Opera should be seen as a live spectacle in a theater.” In his opinion, a movie and a DVD or CD performance could not compare with what was shown live on the opera stage.

Asked how he took care of his voice, Licitra replied: “I go to the mountain to ski. I sleep. Or I go to the beach to swim.” He also loved blazing a trail on his motorcycle.

Licitra crashed his scooter into a wall in Modica, southern Sicily, on August 27. He was not wearing a helmet. Flown to a hospital in Catania, he remained in a coma until his death on September 5. Licitra was only 43. His family agreed to make his organs available for transplant, said a BBC news report.

Photo was taken by this writer during Licitra's visit to Taipei in 2004.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dongsha Atoll in South China Sea: Protected for a better and beautiful tomorrow

By Nancy T. Lu
Dongsha from the air is a stunning jewel rising from the blue and green waters of the South China Sea.

The coral reef enclosing a lagoon, a protected area known today as the Dongsha Marine National Park, holds promise of a perfect getaway from the stressful city life. White sandy beach, seen through the window of a plane moments before touchdown, stretches around a part of the tranquil island in the sun.

To visitors arriving in Dongsha for a very brief stay, the story about the coral spawning and bloom millions of years ago to create this wonderful natural habitat for flora and fauna fascinates. Time spent in Dongsha, in fact, is full of moments of reflection on what life is all about, what is absolutely necessary in life and what is superfluous.

Soft and hard corals of many shapes in the waters of the Dongsha Atoll, a breathtaking sight not open to tourism, remain colorful only for as long as their symbiotic relationship with the algae living within them remains in place. Coral branches washed ashore by the waves from time to time, in fact, show bleaching due to stress. Disease, excess shade, pollution, salinity changes (rain), and mainly the increased water temperature affect the beautiful coral colonies.

About 10 years ago, experienced Taiwanese diver Kuo Tao-jen went down to have a look and his heart broke to find whole dive areas covered with dead corals. Sea temperature anomalies brought on by El Nino in 1997-1998 had something to do with the demise of the reefs, he said. In August 2007, he returned to do more documentary filming for the Public Television Service Foundation and the Construction and Planning Agency under the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of China on Taiwan. He was very excited to see patches of recovering corals.

Coral reefs as learned from the books are the most productive natural communities on earth, found usually in clear and shallow waters. Dongsha's reefs, a good example, provide food and habitat for fish and other marine life, making each dive in the now restricted area a thrilling experience for researchers. Even the servicemen trained to dive have few opportunities to go into the water these days. Nature must be protected.

Diver Kuo likes to chase the creatures of the undersea fairy garden, seeking to interact in a friendly way with them. But farther out in the South China Sea, where the coral beds are the most beautiful, the approach of divers automatically sends the schools of fish fleeing in panic.

Unsustainable fishing practices in the past wiped out the bounty of the sea, ruining the ecosystem. The fishermen on boats from China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and the Philippines in recent years resorted to the use of gill nets, long lines, purse seines, and even dynamite and cyanide to catch fish in the area along the sea and trade routes dating back to the Han Dynasty. They also dumped mercury batteries in the water.

Taiwan’s Coast Guard now sends out patrol boats to warn trespassers about their illegal fishing practices. The men in uniform are constantly amazed to see how ingenious albeit crude these fishermen could be in their deadly fishing devices.

The trauma inflicted on the marine life is long-lasting. According to Kuo, a Japanese research found that fish have long memories, in fact, as long as 50 years. Man, after destroying the ecological balance in nature, must now try to win back the trust of the creatures of the waters. It will definitely take time to befriend the fish again and erase the ugly memories.

Sea turtles used to crawl ashore after swimming a long distance to lay their eggs and then bury them in the sand. But Dongsha during the Japanese colonial days ceased to be a safe and suitable place for female turtles to leave their eggs.

Cuthbert Collingwood, a naturalist, wrote down his impressions of the Pratas Island (former name of Dongsha) after a one-day visit in 1866. He described seeing hundreds of birds on the horseshoe-shaped island. Returning researchers in recent years have not been able to spot and document such huge flocks of birds again.

Archaeological findings on the island have included buried feathers of birds and stony shells of sea reptiles. Records indicate Japanese interest in Dongsha from 1907 to 1909 mainly because of resources like the phosphorus mine and birds.

The phosphorus mineral on the island was traced to bird droppings. The feathered species, which were attracted to Dongsha by food, could not digest the phosphorus in the fish, which they caught and ate. Over time, the discharged droppings accumulated, creating a mine rich in phosphorus.

The birds themselves were coveted for their feathers, which found their way to the fashion capitals of the world like Paris.

The bird count on Dongsha island today has dropped sharply. The atoll, however, continues to be a stop along the route taken by the migratory birds such as swallows, egrets, and herons, among others, because the sea grass beds yield food season after season.

Strolls along the shoreline today lead to never-ending discoveries about the atoll's ecology. Changing tides expose the baby sharks combing the underwater sea grass beds for fish, easily spotted darting here and there. Powdery white sands, each grain a seashell, cover the beach that is a dream retreat for those who must earn a living in a city like Taipei. But resist any temptation to bring home white sands in bottles. It is forbidden.

Holes left gaping along the coast in the daytime mark out the presence of crustaceans and mollusks. Pulling out a peeping animal by force entails the risk of pain from the grip of pincers.

Return at night and catch countless hermit crabs having a party under the moonlight. They crawl all over the place with their salvaged empty seashells on their backs, searching for food. All that are left on the sandy shore the following morning are what seem like crisscrossing tank trails.

When on Dongsha island, race down a bike trail and even the entire airport runway at the end of the day to catch the dramatic sunset from a vantage point. The next morning, rise early from bed to chase the awe-inspiring glow of dawn from the seaside. White, puffy clouds constantly changing shape in the big, blue sky are mirrored like a painting on the calm lagoon in the early morning.

Breakfast with the servicemen includes bread baked in the kitchen on the island. In the morning, right after breakfast, men on duty at the Meteorological Station release a weather balloon to gauge the temperatures at different altitudes as well as the wind velocity.

The Uni-Air plane, which flies in about 56 passengers every Thursday, also regularly delivers food supplies like meat, fish, vegetables and fruits. Cargo comes in by sea, too, once a month.

A harbor capable of handling a ship with 20-ton cargo was a project earmarked for 2008, said Liu Kuo-lieh, the Dongsha commander and Coast Guard officer with strong engineering background.

"Typhoon Pearl's visit in 2006 proved so far to be my most unforgettable experience here in Dongsha," Liu said. " For 19 hours, the typhoon kept turning and swirling over the atoll, refusing to go away."

The typhoon brought heavy rains. The dike on one side of the island was destroyed, causing the water to rush in during high tide. The airport next to the lagoon remained under water for sometime. The debris left by the typhoon took a long time to clean up.

Fishermen in the vicinity at that time sought refuge in Dongsha's waters. An invitation for them to come ashore was turned down because they did not want to abandon their boats.

Dongsha, which is seeking listing as World Heritage Site, is indeed a beautiful atoll where the divine hand paints endlessly stretches of breathtaking natural shoreline and awe-inspiring blue or cloudy skies as far as the eyes can see. Explorations either on foot or on bike (no other transportation is allowed on the island) keep opening windows of surprises.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Memorable five-day Malaysian tour combines bits of history, culture, and even adventure

By Nancy T. Lu

Malaysia, truly Asia in its offer of a blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, entices as a travel destination. It is indeed a land of many charms.

A tour package lasting five days and four nights worth considering kicks off with the Malaysian Airlines plane touching down in Kuala Lumpur. From the modern airport, the tour group is taken straight to Malacca. The ride requires about two hours.

Rambutan and mangosteen are tropical fruits worth tasting at the first stop. The lisuruly drive continues to the heart of the historical city on the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

Malacca was once a powerful nerve center of trade between the East and the West. The trading of spice, gold, silk, tea, opium, tobacco and perfumes here led to the great interest of the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the British colonial powers in Malacca.

Vestiges of the Dutch period can be seen in the 17th century Stadhuys featuring the heavy wooden doors, the thick and red walls as well as the wrought-iron hinges. The Dutch governors of old used it as residence. The Malacca historical, ethnographic and literature museums are today housed in the Stadhuys.

At the main square near the Stadhuys is the 18th century Dutch Reformed Church called Christ Church. It replaced at one point St. Paul’s Church as principal place of worship. The red bricks were brought to Malaysia from Holland. The handmade pews inside have a history of 200 years.

From the Stadhuys, there are steps leading to the top of St. Paul’s Hill. Here can be found the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, originally intended by the Portuguese to be the leading Catholic church in the city. St. Francis Xavier, who visited this house of worship regularly, was buried here in 1553. But his remains were later moved to Goa, India.

The steps from St. Paul’s Church lead down to A’Famosa (Porta de Santiago) or what is left of the fortress built in 1511. Not far from here is the wooden replica of a 15th century Malacca sultan’s palace with the Cultural Museum.

Certainly not to be missed is a British villa, circa 1912, from where Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, proclaimed the country’s independence. The museum building now houses the manuscripts, videotapes, films and slides depicting the events leading to independence in 1957. The Tunku is depicted inside the Malaysian Independence Memorial as waving while riding on a convertible after his arrival from negotiations in London, during a parade down the crowded street.

The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, another sightseeing stop, is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. It has a marker commemorating the first visit of Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), the Ming Dynasty Emperor’s ambassador to Malacca.

Meanwhile the Sam Po Kong Temple is where Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) is venerated. He was believed to have visited Malacca five times during his seven voyages. Legend has it that on one of his trips, his ship sprang a leak but a fish got stuck in the hole, preventing it from sinking. The temple built in 1795 was named after the fish.

A stay at the Legend Water Chalets in Port Dickson is unforgettable. Accommodation units on the beach are built right above the water. A guest enters his room through a huge bathroom. Floor openings covered with glass enable him to look at the water below.

A tourist bent on bringing back from Malaysia an unusual souvenir – not just batik clothes and pewter items – can try to earn a very special certificate from the Ostrich Farm in Port Dickson. The text on it reads: “The bearer of this award has been judged by our fun-loving trainers to be full of bravado, stuffed with fun and certainly a little crazy in even considering riding a big brainless ostrich.”

The fun visit to the Ostrich Farm in Port Dickson, Malacca, begins with the guide asking: “Have you ever thought of riding an ostrich? You can do it in Malaysia.”

The farm tour starts with a lengthy introduction of the feathered creature said to have a brain smaller than its pupil in size. The guide explains that the productive ostrich at 18 months begins to lay eggs, as many as 40 to 70 per year.

The feeding of the animals is encouraged at the farm. The friendly birds, in fact, rush to meet visitors at every turn, naughtily pecking the outsiders and even snatching their hats without warning.

Before a guided tour is over, everyone is herded around a pen. Two trainers hold back a hooded ostrich to enable an adventurous volunteer to climb the railings and get on the bird’s back. And then they are off for a walk inside the fenced area.

The rider holds tightly in his grip a silk cloth entwined around the neck of the ostrich to guard against sliding off the back of the animal. The fun ride is over in just a few minutes.

After a trip to the Ostrich Farm, it is time to head for an orchard for an introduction to Malaysia’s tropical fruits as well as herbs.

The Putrajaya, seat of the national government just outside Kuala Lumpur, calls for a visit, too. The Prime Minister’s Department or the Perdana Putra is viewed from a distance. Its Islamic-Mogul architecture stands out. Within sight is the impressive mosque with pink domes.

The modern city with parks, gardens and wetlands, has an area for visitors to learn about Malaysia’s diverse flora and fauna. Besides a stroll, the Putrajaya lake cruise is another option for tourists.

Kuala Lumpur, the capital, beckons with the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. The buildings used as backdrop in the Hollywood film “The Entrapment” are connected by a bridge high above the ground.

The Istana Negara, the official residence of His Majesty, the King of Malaysia, is another tourist attraction. Traffic is usually heavy in this neighborhood. Guards appear on horseback. Motorcycle escorts are on standby, too.

The Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) with the world’s tallest flagpole flying the Malaysian flag is where Malaysians gather every year to celebrate their independence. On August 31, 1957, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time at this historical place.

Near the Railway Station is the National Mosque built along modern lines. Modest dressing is emphasized especially for the non-Muslim women seeking to enter. A relaxing spa treatment at the Berjaya Times Square is arranged before the end of the short stay in Kuala Lumpur. Accommodation is at the Palace of Golden Horses, where some floors are often blocked off for use by state visitors.

The Genting Highlands, the popular playground in the sky, is 2,000 meters above sea level. Therefore, it stays pleasantly cool the whole year round. The cable car ride of about 20 minutes is said to be the longest in the world. The casino complex features indoor and outdoor theme parks to keep the entire family entertained. The resort is only an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Before heading for the airport on the last day, the group makes a brief stop at the Batu Caves, famous for the annual Thaipusam Festival of the Hindu Indian community in late January or early February. Devotees to Lord Subramaniam on this occasion carry around kavadis with hooks or spikes extending to parts of their bodies. Climb 272 steps to reach the main cave decorated with Hindu shrines. Birds’ nest delight can be savored down below after the climb. Indian roti canai, a crispy food specialty, can also be tried.

The tour package covers a lot of ground at a leisurely pace. The Malaysian Airlines brings the happy tourist home after a truly relaxing holiday.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Memory of rustic pond of Liou Shaw-lu’s youth returns to inspire dance about earthly existence

By Nancy T. Lu

“Suite 2011: That Time of the Pond” thrusts choreographer and dancer Liou Shaw-lu on a nostalgic return to his past. He takes off to the farm irrigation days of his youth and remembers how life in almost every farming family then revolved around the “po tang” (Hakka word for “pond”). Aquatic life thrived in the pond as did insects hovering over it. But above all, growth on the farmland depended on its water.

Liou in the newest choreography created for the Taipei Dance Circle revisits his days brimming with hope and promise first as a young man of great physical prowess and later as artist of studied grace.

Life as captured in dance idiom is beautiful. He ventures forth with creative energy, working closely with trained dancers to build an evolving kaleidoscope of oil-covered bodies on the stage. The oil-slicked stage floor he perceives as a silent pond surface that is virtually an empty slate for him to fill with dance imagery.

A year after being confronted with brain surgery and the question of his own mortality in real life, Liou experiences a burning passion for dance. To go on living, he must keep dancing. Otherwise life holds no meaning for this artistic director of the Taipei Dance Circle. He refuses to be permanently yanked off the dance stage.

Liou grapples with the challenge to stay in control of his dream and vision as dance artist. The dangerous balancing act in his dance production adds to the dazzle and excitement of a performance. Just like in an acrobatic show, heeding the call for caution helps. The dreamer simply remains ever undaunted by the risk of a wrong move.

Liou wants to tell his story through the dance. It is a tale of passion and will power. It is about his determination not to be forced to bow out of the limelight. It is about an undying inspiration to share beauty defined by lines, silhouettes and moves.

Life in the old countryside pond of his youth with Hakka roots gets snuffed out without warning. But the memory of it all endures to fire his imagination.

And so Liou makes his dancers weave in and out – in pairs, in foursome, or in a bigger group. They come together or break up to rhythmic beat of beautifully flowing music selected personally by Liou, Sometimes natural body sounds resulting from breathing and movement come into play to dictate the dance beat. The dancers even pile up occasionally. Balance and harmony emerge crucial in fleshing out a picture. Baby oil on the bodies of the dancers and on the stage floor eases the choreographed motions of the the dancers.

Liou shows a sentimental streak in his latest choreography. But at the end of the day, he also paints a dramatic profile in courage, addressing unmistakably the question of earthly existence.

The choreography does not come about easily. As usual, Liou agonizes over the work, polishing the dance again and again.

“Suite 2011: That Time of the Pond” will be staged at 7:30 p.m. on July 15 and 16 as well as at 2:30 p.m. on July 16 and 17 at the Experimental Theater of the National Theater in Taipei. Tickets cost NT$500.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Stumble upon colorful episodes in history on golden sands of Fulong in New Taipei City

By Nancy T. Lu
Dream citadels of yore have risen this year on the golden sands of Fulong Beach about an hour and a half by train from Taipei, depicting fascinating episodes in world history.

Just like in a Hollywood movie, the story of the 300 Spartans dating back to 449-499 B.C. is being retold at the site of the 2011 Fulong International Sand Sculpture Festival.

Historical accounts told of how King Leonidas with only 300 brave Spartan warriors tried to exploit a narrow pass to gain advantage against the attacking Persian army. The Spartans locked shields and used long spears to deter the advance of the enemies for days.

Hannibal Barca led a massive army of Carthaginians in a surprise siege of a Roman stronghold during the Second Punic War (218B.C.-201 B.C.) in one of the most impressive and detailed sandy interpretations of history. War elephants figured like destructive army tanks on the move in those days. The pachyderms are shown taking a break from war duties though. The team behind the masterpiece on the theme of battle glory included the American Brian Turnbough, Portuguese Rodrigo Ferreira as well as Canadians Frederick Dobbs, Damon Langlois and Greg Jacklin.

History seems very much at the forefront of attention in a year devoted to the celebration of the founding centennial of the Republic of China on Taiwan. But so do legends and lores of different origins.

Mesopotamian myth, circa 713 B.C. gets told on the sands this summer. Sargon II was said to have built a walled city with seven gates guarded by human-headed and winged bulls. His capital came up in Dur Sharrukin or present-day Khorsabad. His grandson, Naram-Suen, appears in a bust sculpture inviting a look up close at this year’s sand sculpture show.

Different lifestyles also inspired the creation of masterpieces this year. The sand portrayal of the native Americans along with their love of nature was contributed by German participant Joseph Bakir. The Sioux tribe of the Dakotas gets to tell a tale revolving mainly around family life in a Sioux tent called teepee.

The igloo, a home built from blocks of ice by the Eskimos in the freezing North Pole, calls attention under the scorching summer sun.
The carnivorous polar bear with its thick fur and layer of fat beneath its skin is a survivor in the freezing cold of the North Pole. Its unusual presence on a sun-bathed shore is not likely to be overlooked.

An Arctic explorer comes upon an ancient giant buried in the polar ice caps in yet another intriguing creation at the sand sculpture festival. His origin, possibly tied to an ancient civilization, emerges a puzzling mystery.
Putuo Mountain in the middle of Lotus Pacific island in Zhejiang Province in China takes the spotlight in one corner of the exhibition ground. The peak floating above the clouds is known for its caves and rock formations. Ancient temples stand out in this Buddhist haven introduced by Chinese participants in the ongoing sand sculpture festival.

A legend of the sea constantly told in Taiwan centers around Goddess Matsu as a great protector of fishermen and the people on the island. Temples in many places have been built in her honor. And so this venerated deity finds her niche in the sand sculpture showcase.

Taiwan as a butterfly kingdom due to its unique ecological environment faces the threat of ruin in the light of economic progress and development. The Taiwanese team seeks to make a statement on protecting nature on the shifting sands of Fulong.

A Japanese participant dedicates his work of art to convey the Japanese people’s deep gratitude to Taiwan for being the biggest donor in the aftermath of the big earthquake and tsunami calamities in March.

Mysterious visitors from afar, courtesy of an unidentified American artist, have likewise landed in a spaceship along Fulong’s sandy stretch this year.

Forty-one sand sculpture experts from eight countries, including the United States, Canada, Germany, Portugal, Russia, Japan, China and Taiwan, were invited to transform a sandbar in Fulong, New Taipei City, into a striking showcase of sand sculpture art.

The Fulong beach tide rises and ebbs. Just like footprints on the beach, the “Golden Fulong” world built on the shifting sands overnight will be washed away by the waves towards the end of June. Another fun-filled season of sun and sea will have to wind up and give way to change. By then, the summer visitors will have returned home with cherished glimpses of romance and adventure tucked away in their memories.

Motorists can easily drive to Fulong to view the “Golden Fulong” exhibition. The hour-and-a half train ride to Fulong is another option. One-way train ticket costs only NT$83. Entrance ticket to the sand sculpture festival is priced at NT$190.