Afternoon in Chinatown During 40th New York’s AAPI Heritage Celebration

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40th Annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Celebration

It was a gorgeous late spring day in New York this Sunday, so I decided to jump on my bike and head down to Chinatown for the 40th Festival for the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

I already missed yesterday’s opening of the #StarringJohnCho exhibit at Pearl River Mart, so decided I would not miss going there again, and added it to an expanding list of spots I needed to visit during my stroll.

Before going anywhere, I essentially took care of the essentials, first catching the last act of the festival, a choreography by the MoustacheCat Dance about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Got a pre-summer haircut and did my Chinese groceries.

40th Annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Celebration (last act, a choreography on internment of Japanese Americans during WWII)
Where Mott Street begins
Chinatown Fair Arcade
Mott & Pell during the 40th Annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Celebration
Taiwan/Republic of China flag on Mott & Pell

I thought, why is the Taiwan flag (probably more thought of as a Republic of China flag) so prominent in 2019? Maybe because this is Chinatown? (Like, in Montreal’s Chinatown, they still had a branch of the Kuomintang 10 years ago, perhaps just nominally related?)

I also stopped by Chinatown Fair, a video arcade that opened in the 40s and whose original incarnation existed until 2011, re-opened since under management. I don’t know any of that information first-hand, but I will return to Chinatown on Thursday to check out the screening of The Lost Arcade documentary on it, at MoCA ($15, at 6:30-8:30 p.m.).

After the supermarket run at Hong Kong Supermarket to replenish my stock of instant noodles and affordable veggies, I went to MoCA to check out the current exhibit. I saw that it was called Moon Represents My Heart, after the Teresa Teng song, thinking it would be something on the Taiwanese mother of Mandopop. In fact, it was a very personally interesting exhibit on music identify for hyphenated Chinese that I only had about 20 minutes to enjoy.

In my last years in Montreal, before moving to Hong Kong, I used to run a music show on the community radio about alternative styles of music sung in, primarily, Chinese languages (which I have mediocre control of). It was during that period that I found out about all sorts of Chinese rock bands under labels like Modernsky and Maybe Mars, twee pop Hong Kong bands like the now-defunct The Marshmallow Kisses or the still alive and kicking My Little Airport, or large music festivals in Taiwan dedicated to (more) independent music like Spring Scream.

So, definitely I would have to go back this summer. It’s on view until September 15.

Moon Represents My Heart at MoCA (May 2-Sept. 15, 2019)
Moon Represents My Heart at MoCA (May 2-Sept. 15, 2019)
Moon Represents My Heart at MoCA (May 2-Sept. 15, 2019)
Moon Represents My Heart at MoCA (May 2-Sept. 15, 2019)

I found out bumping into a friend at MoCA that Banana Mag was launching its 5th edition, aka 005, on the same day. I think it was after that friend spotted my collection of Giant Robot that he spilled the beans about Banana, a beautifully-produced magazine with stylish photography and original reporting that include interviews with high-profile New York Asian American cultural figures, food recipes, discussions on cultural trends. They do share some common themes that take me back to the mid-2000s when I discovering my identity as an Asian-Canadian.

I also got my hands on an elusive copy of long-gone 001! Here’s the preview, of me flipping through pages with greasy with hot wings fingers:

Banana Mag 005 launch at Canal Street Market
Banana Mag 005 launch at Canal Street Market

Next and last stop of the day would be the Pearl River Mart, the chinoiserie shop that re-opened on Broadway and Walker, on the Tribeca side of Chinatown, which now also hosts an art gallery for their artist-in-residence program, in the back mezzanine.

Worth seeing for yourself, if you’re in the area. The current exhibit is from William Yu, the artist-activist behind #StarringJohnCho. It’ll be on view until July 7.

Pearl River Mart mezzanine art gallery
#starringjohncho at Pearl River Mart (May 18-July 7, 2019)

Ghost in the Shell and Hong Kong

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Went to see Ghost in the Shell yesterday in the theatre, in regular non-IMAX version, at Lincoln Center. It won’t win the Oscar for best film of the year, but it vastly satisfied my craving for Hong Kong.

When Mamoru Oshii made the original animated feature adaptation of GitS in 1995, the setting was very obviously based on Hong Kong. Hong Kong is fast-paced, nervous. And Hong Kong has this natural darkness to it, thanks to the lower latitude, surrounding mountains and a very wet climate.

Stumbled upon Hong Kong-based filmmaker Edwin Lee’s study of the original movie and scenes of Hong Kong, where you can observe for yourself:

I can’t wait for the comparison to start emerging once GitS gets off the big screen and starts appearing on the ones at home. The shooting locations are very obvious for anyone who’s spent a meaningful amount of time in Hong Kong.

Yes, there’s been talk that Scarlett was seen in Jordan last year. How did they book the busy street at Yee Wo Street in Causeway Bay, with the ring-shaped footbridge? The busy markets with the open-air butcher shop provides a great visual while the meaning of flesh and shell is discussed.

Yau Ma Tei street

Sham Shui Po street

In the meanwhile, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell is a box-office failure in the U.S., but seems to be doing better overseas.

Making xiao long bao

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Let me tell you, homemade xiao long bao (aka those pesky exploding dumplings) are still an elusive one on my lifetime food to-do, for a good reason. (This was a lone attempt in 2004!) Somehow, you need to get gelatinous parts of pork with pork meat mixed together in the right proportion so that it’s solid-ish at room temperature, but then partially melts into the soup that makes it famous at steaming temperature.

The skins are probably the hardest part. If you make dumpling skins on your own, as we’ve tended to have done during our 2004-09 dumplings parties in Montreal (I’ve abandoned the practice in Hong Kong), they have always been on the thick side. I’ve never researched why they always seemed to inflate, but with my current bread know-how, I guess it’s the gluten contents of your flour.

Cantonese theatre on Lamma Island

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Cantonese theatre at Yung Shue Wan soccer pitch, Lamma Island

Every year, there’s a bamboo theatre set up from scratch at the soccer pitch near my home. In a matter of days, a temporary theatre made out of bamboo sticks (and surely some metal support) is setup to host Cantonese opera for Tin Hau’s Birthday on the 23rd of the Lunar Year. The soccer pitch happens to be just across the street from the Tin Hau Temple and just by the harbourfront in Yung Shue Wan.

It’s interesting to live in what’s technically the New Territories and definitely a rural area, which is only a 25-minute ferry ride to Asia’s most important financial centre. The festivities will go on until May 2 and, exceptionally, ferries out of Yung Shue Wan will run until 12:30 a.m.

Finding Taiwanese mandarins in Hong Kong

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Taiwanese mandarin orange

When I was living in Canada, I used to consume citrus fruits purchased in bulk with my family — a whole box of 30+ orange from Costco or crates of clementines from the supermarket. They make for a great quick snack, especially clementines, that are seedless and very easy to peel.

In Hong Kong, oranges are easy to find, but not so much for clementines. Since moving to Hong Kong, mandarin oranges (or 柑/kam in Cantonese) are the alternative. They are bigger, but usually have the trade-off of not coming in a seedless variety and are still somewhat harder to peel.

Mandarin oranges sold in Hong Kong usually overwhelmingly come from mainland China. Despite knowing about the Taiwanese ones, it wasn’t until recently, after consuming a lot of them as I was trying to shake off a seasonal cold back in March, that I paid attention to them. I even bought some a few years ago in my neighbourhood, but never realized how different they could be.

The mainland variety peels a lot easier, but the ones that I bought have always been drier and of varying quality (they taste fermented). Taiwanese mandarins are a lot sweeter and considerably juicier.

Taiwanese mandarin orange

Taiwanese mandarin orange

The Taiwanese ones are harder to find and you have to look to find them. According to a FAO estimate, 15.2 million tonnes of tangerines, mandarins, clementines, satsumas were produced in mainland China in 2013, compared with only 185,000 tonnes in Taiwan (around 80 times less).

In Taipei, I bought 8 for 100 TWD (~3 USD, so one is close to 40 cents) at a fruit shop outside Songjiang Market. The ones I bought on Friday were 6 HKD each, which is 77 cents, so roughly double the price. But if they’re specifically selling the fruits as coming from Taiwan and that the difference in taste and texture are so noticeable, it’s not surprising that there would be a market for them.

Sheung Wan fruit stall - Taiwanese mandarin orange

Sichuanese at the Shek Tong Tsui cooked food centre

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I really enjoy going to cooked food centres, natural descendants of the Hong Kong dai pai dong. One of my favourite ones is on the 2/F of the Shek Tong Tsui market, in the west of Hong Kong Island, close to HKU. I’ve never known it by name and simply called it “the Sichuanese” (for the record, it’s called 良品 / leung ban) and used to go there with friends after work.

We returned to that market for the first time in maybe a year or two, and ate at the Sichuanese, where we hadn’t been back for even longer (last time, we had hot pot nearby). The bright yellow signs that served as menu were gone and replaced with something a lot more sober. I was initially afraid that the place closed down, but upon asking whether they had their trademark “saliva chicken” dish, to which they answered positively, I was at least sure that if it was new management (not sure if it was), they kept their old dishes.

I did the ordering: saliva chicken, green beans fried with ground meat, pork slices with garlic and shrimp with a salted egg “sandy/golden” sauce. And we shared two large bottles of cheap lager, which is what you definitely should have with a cooked food centre meal. Back in the days, they even kept Pabst Blue Ribbon in the freezer (or a very cold refrigerator), and the bottles would be covered in frost from summer’s humidity.

Pork slices with garlic / 良品 at Shek Tong Tsui cooked food centre

A bottle of Tsingtao

Prawn with salted eggs sauce / 良品 at Shek Tong Tsui cooked food centre

It’s too bad that I forgot to take photo _before_ eating. But it was just simply too delicious.

Saliva chicken is really more like a “mouthwatering chicken” than being made from any corporeal fluid. It’s a boiled chicken that’s then served with a mixture of chili oil, spices (including peppercorns) and maybe peanuts, garlic if you like that.

With bowls of rice and drinks, it was only HK$105 per person, and we were definitely full.

Making a Montreal smoked meat in Hong Kong

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Montreal smoked meat sandwich in rye flour bread with yellow mustard

On almost every trip home that I make, I would bring back a piece of my home back with me to my new home. This is my third attempt to recreate what Eastern European Jews brought to Montreal a hundred years ago, which soon became synonymous with Quebec’s metropolis (on par with poutine and bagels). The other times, I tried with pieces of beef brisket that were simply too small or cut for stews where you weren’t expected to cook the piece whole.

Before Easter, last week, I went to a butcher shop called Feather & Bone on Gage Street in Central that sold chilled Australian beef at a reasonable price (about 1/2 of what you normally pay at City Super). Beef brisket was HK$135 per kilogram (per comparison, 1 kg of smoked meat is sold CA$18/kg or HK$100). I got a portion worth HK$220, about half of the piece that the butcher had at hand.

I took out the extra fat covering the chunk of meat and covered it with a mix of curing salt (hard to find anywhere — I had to order it online and had it delivered to my parents in Canada), and spices in seed form (coriander, mustard and pepper), and a little bit of Schwartz’s mix (not necessary if you have stuff like onion powder, garlic powder or paprika).

For six days, I let the salt and nitrites in the rub be absorbed by the meat in my refrigerator. On Thursday, I put my brisket in cold water and put it back into the fridge. And did the same on Friday. Then on Saturday, I started the smoking, which consisted in having some wood chips be lightly burnt in a large pot that I destroyed in a previous attempt at making smoked meat. You could probably substitute this with liquid smoke, as suggested in the Lady and Pups recipe.

I steamed for two hours, but the result was pretty tough, like a roast. From previous experience with stews, I could definitely tell I didn’t steam it long enough.

Today, I steamed it again for myself and guests, and this time in a much smaller pot and for longer (around three and half hours). The result was absolutely perfect and felt and looked like what I expected buying at the best delis in Montreal.

(If you try this at home, salt and spice quantities are relative to your meat, maybe a tablespoon of curing salt per kg of meat, around the same quantity of regular salt. Spice mix should just be enough to cover the piece, and you could get creative, but coriander + mustard + pepper sounds just right. You’ll just need to prepare some more spice mix to rub again after desalinating.)

Montreal smoked meat pre-curing with dry rub

Montreal smoked meat cut in slices

After the steam today, you could cut into the meat as it was butter. The meat filaments would lightly break up and crazy delicious when picked from the plate mixed together with the beef fat and leftover seeds. The slices were served in homemade rye bread that I made on Saturday with yellow mustard spread all over the place.

If I had to change something next time, I’d probably try to source my pepper better. I’m not sure if what I got was correct (a random HK brand selling seeds from Malaysia). But more importantly, I’d probably use less salt and curing salt (with has 6% nitrites — which gives the red tinge to cooked meat). Despite desalinating for one day in fresh water twice, it was still too salty in the end.

The only effort really was in grinding the spices and waiting for the smoking to work. If I substitute for liquid smoke, maybe this could be extremely painless and a sure winner for future parties.

I’m always extremely happy to try making things myself, like back in the days on this blog when I explored for Chinese food in Montreal. Nowadays, it happens more often with Western food that I try to make on my own, because the restaurant equivalents are either out of price (for what they are) or denatured beyond acceptability.

DEBRIS: Vhils at Central Pier No. 4, Hong Kong

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Vhils at Central Pier No. 4, Hong Kong

Generally when the top of my pier is transformed into something, it’s either some sort of private party for luxury brands or a showroom for development projects. This time around for art week, my pier was transformed into an exhibit by Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto aka “Vhils”. His techniques range from screen-printing, metal etching and super high frame rate videography.

I only realized that the exhibit was right under my nose when a former colleague tagged this neon sign installation posted this.

After climbing two flights of stairs to reach the roof of the pier (whose upper floors I never had the chance to enter despite commuting through every day for the last six years), you will enter a tent-like temporary structure and start with portraits made of columns of styrofoams. It’s unmistakably the artist’ style: the edges, the hybridity, the verticals.

The spine of the exhibit is a super slow-mo video taken on the streets of Hong Kong playing on long horizontal screens, which might be around Tsim Sha Tsui, the Star Ferry and Nathan Road, with a mesmerizing soundtrack of beeps and bops from the city and/or your Facebook webapp. Who knew you could either make lights flicker in post-prod or that they just flicker on their own when in filmed at a very high rate?

Some of the art used found materials in Hong Kong, like doors that the artist etched faces on, or paper advertising posters that he would stick together and carve into so to reveal faces.

The exhibit “DEBRIS” runs until tomorrow, April 4 at 8pm.

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Le cristal chinois (BBQ) 水天一色/燒臘

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Le cristal chinois 燒臘/水天一色

A new shop for siu mei, or siu lap, opened in the past couple of weeks. It’s called Le cristal chinois (水天一色 or literally “water sky one color”, aka the horizon), which is also the same name as the restaurant in the same building (presumably the same management).

This sort of Cantonese-style BBQ (the only sort, really) is popular in Chinatowns across the world, with its BBQ pork (char siu/叉燒), roasted duck (siu aap/燒鴨), white cut chicken (bak chit gaai/白切雞) and, my favourite, roasted pork (siu yok/燒肉, literally roasted meat, as if it were pig equaled default meat).

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The counter at cristal chinois

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Full on pork. Ask for the ribs part, if you can!

Despite raving regularly about Chinese food in Montreal and elsewhere over the years, Comme les Chinois has never written about siu mei. Siu mei is probably something just so default, so easy to pass over: my family has always ordered it for takeout when we were young and I would buy it on my way home when I didn’t have time to cook.

When I moved to Hong Kong four years ago, I would be constantly enthused to find it anywhere I go, including at the university cafeteria (at ridiculously low prices too — CA$3 for a rice and meat lunch). It’s simple, cheap and nourishing. And tasty. What more can you ask?

In Montreal, there aren’t so many takeout places anymore. In Chinatown, you got the one up on St-Laurent on the east side of the street, north of de la Gauchetière, and in the mall with the Kam Fung, across Dobe & Andy. Restaurant Hong Kong used to be the classic place for siu mei, but their counter shrank to the point that I wonder whether they still make their own. There may be some other places on de la Gauchetière on the pedestrian stretch, and I think Le rubis rouge restaurant has a stand attached.

However, the most prized item, the rice and meat (and double kinds/雙拼) lunch box, is a rarity and not frequently offered for takeout.

It’s hearty chunks of meat for $6 a box, with a side of Chinese cabbage, and $7 if you take a double kinds of meat of your choice. Too bad there isn’t enough volume to do suckling pig “on-demand” (as far as I know, in Montreal it’s only available as pre-order for takeout or in restaurants).

You can get the rice and meat combo at Restaurant Hong Kong for about the same price across the street, but it just isn’t the same in terms of your experience (no counter to check them meats out). Probably also at other siu mei places across town if they have warm rice on hand.

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The menu and market prices

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My double kinds of meat: roasted duck and roasted pork

Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles in Toronto

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It was a bit after I saw a photo posted by Kristen Fung on her Instagram that I decided to make a detour to check out Ai Weiwei’s art installation before hopping on my bus back to Montreal.

The thing was smaller than I imagined it from pictures seen online (really). A nearby stand labelled Forever Bicycles (aka Yong Jiu 永久) as conceptual art. It was re-exposed, grander than the one in Taipei, for the Toronto Nuit Blanche last week. It seems a lot more dramatic too without the dark rubber tires, with only the pure, cold metal in the Toronto version.

You can peek in and even walk under the metal structure composed of several dozens (probably hundreds) of superimposed bicycle frames, or parts of bicycle frames.

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There was something really invigorating to watch the succession and repetition ad nauseam of regular forms (triangles, circles, arcs that make up circles), like you would often see in a data visualisation with lots and lots of data.

The message, if there is one, probably lies instead in the composition of the sculpture: bicycles, symbol of the pre-economic boom China, dismembered and reassembled into what looks like nothing, but that is grandiose to look at. Wat?

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See the entire set on Flickr