Interview and a Chinese poem on Urban Diary

Urban Diary, an online journal supported by Oval Partnership, has featured my Chinese poem ‘Turtle Jelly’ from my poetry collection Goldfish and an interview on writing poetry in English.

To read the full text in Chinese, please go to http://www.urbandiarist.com/012

For the benefit of non-Chinese speakers, an English version of the feature article is appended here: Urban Diary article in English

Photo credit: 123rf.com
Photo credit: 123rf.com

Peppering independent bookshops with arts leaflets

I’ve been helping to put together and distribute poetry contest leaflets for Magma – a nation-wide contest opening this month (16 October). Having dished out a considerable batch to the bookshops in London last month, I am most delighted to come across this gem booklet issued by the Guardian last week – the directory on UK’s independent booksellers – which makes it easy for us to reach out to bookshops of reputation and character. It’s sweet to imagine the nicely illustrated competition leaflets appearing at the till or counter at some of these cool and quirky bookshops.

This Guardian pocket guide is a handy who’s who in the literary world. I’m most fascinated to find out from it which authors are the regulars of those independent bookstores.

There is the story of former Macmillan sales director, Tim O’Kelly, who ventures to open up his own bookshop in Petersfield, Hampshire, back in 1994. One Tree Bookshop has now grown into a two-storey local wonder with a remarkable cafe, a bustling coffee bar and an unrivalled atmosphere. Tim’s work has won much respect. The bookstore has been named the independent bookseller of the year.

I also found out that the boutique-like Lutyens and Rubinstein in Notting Hill – a pretty little bookstore with a comprehensive stock of children’s picture books, jam jars and postcards for sale, and which has a snazzy coffee machine hidden in the basement – is set up by two literary agents. No wonder.

Boasting its own literary lineage, Surrey, Dorset, Sussex, Yorkshire and Somerset are places peppered with beautifully decorated bookshops that ooze character and history, and my dream holiday is to embark on a train journey of my own, stopping by all these little gems, poring through packed bookshelves, whiling away the time, finding and reading something completely obscure and rewarding on a warm sunny afternoon.

Even the Queen is said to frequent G Heywood Hills, an antiquarian treasure in Mayfair. I wonder what she likes to read?

This little country, despite its economic struggles, fares well in literature. Look at what the bookseller stalwarts have done to upkeep the reading tradition.

If you’ve been away last weekend, copies of the directory are still available via Guardian. Don’t forget to go online and add your own favourite bookshop on the map!

Murakami’s birthday girl

birthday girl‘The Birthday Girl’ is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Published initially in the Guardian in 2006, Haruki Murakami’s story tells of a girl who made a wish when she was twenty, working her shift in a restaurant.

I loved it when I first read this story, and to tell the truth, a few years had gone past and it has grown on me ever since. I feel that it is about what we really want to make out of life, the spontaneous choices or decisions that somehow made us. The girl refuses to reveal what she wished for. She says only time will tell whether the wish has come true. There is a deliberate contrast between her current and past life. Now a mother and housewife with a seemingly comfortable lifestyle as opposed to the poor waitress who worked her long evening shift on her 20th birthday, the girl tells her tale in an unaffected, self-absorbed tone, and there is no letting on whether she is happy or not. This is precisely the magic of the short story – the briskness of it all, the enigma, the uncertainty as to whether one has attained what one has set out to do. Tobias Hill describes it as the refusal to reveal.

The story speaks to many because it is a question on everyone’s mind: if you were to be granted a wish, what would you wish for? What do you want to do with your life? I find it irresistible, the imagery of ‘the dent’ in the front of their car – that imperfection in life that you have to put up with, that stays no matter what. I am impressed that Murakami can crystallise this idea of helplessness in life in a poetic and cinematic way. I am touched to see many readers ponder about the same puzzle in the narrative. There are various websites and dialogues on this. An example is the wiki dialogue (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_was_the_wish_in_birthday_girl_by_murakami).

Like many others, I identify with his writing a lot, and I always have the image of him writing away at the kitchen table, daily, in the wee hours after his work at the jazz bar in Tokyo. It left me such a strong impression. In spring 2008, when I was in Tokyo, I went to a bar in Ginza, where a friend used to work and manage the bar business. Many Japanese businessmen went to the bar to chill out after work. In that quaint bar there were posh leather sofa chairs and a long, elegant, dimly illuminated bar where the bartender stood and mixed drinks behind the counter. And I had imagined that it would be similar to what Murakami’s life used to be, managing the bar business, working till late, clouded in that lazy music and dim lights. If he had not become a serious writer instead. If he had not gone back home those nights to scribble down what was swimming in his head. According to what Murakami told the papers, when he was 29 he realised he could become a writer.

In the story, I think the girl wished to become a different person.

Now that Norwegian Wood is going to be out soon across London’s cinemas, I have this longing to reread all his books again. That story still kept me thinking on some nights.

West kowloon arts hub in Hong Kong part 1

m plus Hong KongGraham Sheffield, former artistic chief of Barbican Centre in London has decided to quit his role as CEO of Hong Kong’s HK$21.6 billion (£1.8 billion) West Kowloon arts hub project after five months. He has resigned due to health reasons, although many think that there must be more that triggered his abrupt decision to leave. The Wall Street Journal blog highlights that this follows the government’s decision to abandon Norman Foster’s canopy design for the arts project, while the Hong Kong Standard‘s article pinpoints Sheffield’s unfamiliarity with the local arts scene and his willingness to market the city’s arts hub on the world stage.

With the urgency to complete the 40-hectare cultural district before 2015, the Hong Kong government is now on an immediate global hunt for a new arts director. Words have gone round that Stephan Spurr, GM/director of Swire Properties with substantial arts background especially in theatre education and artistic direction, is tipped to be one of the candidates.

Mastermind behind the thriving Island East district in Hong Kong, a distinct strip of land where art and commerce meets, Spurr has demonstrated much creativity in transforming the landscapes in this skyscraper city. Born in Japan, educated in the UK and Canada, and having worked in Hong Kong’s competitive property development sector for several decades, he has international vision and is strongly supportive of arts development, especially theatre. Over the last few years, he was the volunteer artistic director for Shakespeare4All, directing plays and inspiring local schoolchildren to master Shakespearean drama/literature. He was also involved in advising the strategy of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, which has seen considerable expansion in recent years and attracted many new patrons on board. (Read more from SCMP‘s article)

Hong Kong is a heavily built-up city, and the project land area reserved for the arts hub is a rare piece of land for new architecture, property developments and museums. With a first high speed rail soon to be built across this region, it is a great location that will soon be connected directly with the Beijing capital. Many interests are involved. Many. In my opinion, this factor calls for leaders with vision as well as diplomacy.

We are yet to discover what top-notch candidates may register their interest in this artistic director role, and the jury’s still out as to how far this arts hub project will transform the arts scene in Hong Kong or even Greater China. Yet one thing is for certain: it is time for Hong Kong to address the need for a workforce of diverse talent, to create opportunities to fuel the long term growth and development of the city’s arts and culture. It is high time to cut back bureaucracy that will poison arts development and the retention of human capital.

Much work needs to be done.

Musings on mind boggling social media

twitterToday a friend of mine told me that not replying an email from a boss within three minutes is considered under-performance in her industry. This is probably more acceptable since she is in banking. No wait, I don’t think so. The world is changing too fast, and users are adapting to the digital world or culture in a bad way, often to serve their own interests.

I am quite receptive to traditional and social media in work and personal life, including email, Facebook, Twitter, blogging. In fact I have done lots of website copywriting and online articles for clients simply because of the overwhelming market demand for it at the moment. There are healthy benefits from these. My blog is a handy writing space that I can always go to, and knowing that there are people who are truly interested in reading quality articles online helps.

Twitter in a way replaces the function of a social event. In the past, people go to social events to get plugged into a certain network, of mutual personal or business interest. Nowadays, all you need to do is to go to Twitter to search for the interest circle that you are after, and you will probably find some.

Like it or not, Twitter and our million exchanges on various social media platforms are, in a real sense of the word, history. They record what people feel or think, or claim they feel or think. No wonder the Library of Congress is planning to archive everyone’s twitter history.

I saw in Creative Review (June issue) a cartoon strip featuring two office workers typing away from their desks. One asks to borrow a pencil, the other says how funny, do you mind if I twitter it? I have similar experiences of being in an office setting sometimes listening to the tapping sound of keyboards and wondering why most jobs have now become so similar: despite the different sectors and roles, one inevitably spends a huge chunk of his/her time in front of a computer, replying emails, sending out e-copies, creating Word documents and spreadsheets. Sometimes I start to envy those few who are free from this prototype, say the bartender mixing the cocktails, or air stewardesses handing out blankets and headsets.

Above all, what I am most guilty about is the way we seemed to have left some people behind by endorsing this digital phenomenon, or revolution as some may call it. It is true that most cities are now investing in resources to ensure IT accessibility. But as things stand, there is something almost unethical about excluding people from information, goods, services and benefits simply because they lack the skill or interest to get plugged in to this virtual reality. Think of all those friends and contacts you have not invited to an event simply because they are not on Facebook. Remember how you are always prompted to check out a product or company’s website as if this is the most natural and necessary step towards understanding. Have you seen the way your kids would rush to the computers to upload their latest travel photos on blogs or social websites as soon as they return home from a trip? Since when did the newspapers like the Guardian or Daily Telegraph put in a Technology or Twitter section?

The new movie on Facebook, The Social Network written by Anna Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, is likely to cause a stir and revive the debate on the use of technology or social media. What is your stand?

Poem inspired by Surreal House show at the Barbican

MagritteThis is the floor of my mind. The floor.

You can curl your limbs and your mind as if in yoga. Fold up your thoughts, one by one, then undo the positions.

The stove is hot. Don’t touch it. Don’t touch.

And don’t surf. Or I’ll stab your hands with pencils. I mean it.

Girl with a bag of potatoes hunted down by a cat in the night. The potatoes are evil. The potatoes like the dark world.

Andre Breton is everywhere. His boastful face.

Take out a pair of scissors and try anything – that’s surreal. Cut up your clothes, your eyelashes, heating bills, your thesis, it doesn’t matter what.

It’s weird the way the world is. Everyone sits down in Starbucks, takes out a mac, makes love with it for an hour or two. That’s work.

And a piano on the ceiling? Why not. Someone will play the music up there.

Melon and cucumber on the mattress. Do they replace them after closing the gallery to visitors?

Don’t study surreal art for too long. It’s bad for health.

Picasso and the Mediterranean mood

Looking at the exclusive family-owned collection of his paintings, sculptures and drawings exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery this summer, it is wonderful to be reminded how irrelevant age is to one’s imagination and creativity. That flamboyant body of work was what Picasso, in his 60s, created in the Mediterranean.

The colourful ceramics featured in the show take on such life, such wonderful energy, be it a starry night in the ceramics town of Vallarius, a broad smiling face, or the impregnated strength of a centaur. Even a door becomes hugely interesting (anatomie feminine), serving as a new dimension for practice and self-expression, a challenging canvas. In a well-paced sequence, the substantial collection of artworks is united in one flamboyant, self-assured Mediterranean mood.

I am particularly pleased with his portraits. Curiously, the charcoal tones and broad cubist brushstrokes combine to yield a most abstract yet realistic impression of a child. The lack of facial features gives such room, such appetite for the imagination, while the angular silhouette brings out the naivete of the child.

child

In Picasso’s drawings, masks and cutout animal figures, I admire the confidence in his art. His exaggerated approach in abstract cubism might have helped to give his work a more striking edge, but what marks his work is his confidence and the scale of vision. You can feel behind those paintings and sculptures the presence of an artist with a triumphant smile or an irreverent scowl, even in the smaller cardboard pieces and cutouts. He is able to hammer out with precision and humour the bulging muscles and terrific body build of swimmers on the beach, and at the same time express the refined, subtle grace of a woman caught unawares (femme a la robe verte 1956).

Adrian Searle of the Guardian has described the exhibition as ‘overwhelmingly beautiful’, delighting in the range of objects and artwork that combine to reveal the mythic quality of Picasso’s work (Read more). It is not an overstatement. Roberta Smith’s review on Gagosian’s show in New York Times reminds us that this late Picasso is an artist who works in relative isolation during his Mediterranean decade (Read more). One tends to think that people grow more conservative with age. From his paintings and sculptures, I realise that age is rather the true liberation, a breaking free of prejudices and fixtures, a graduation into undeterred stylistic confidence.

Arab world in Knightsbridge, London

The London Evening Standard reported a traffic accident of two Arab drivers crashing their Lamborghinis in the streets in Knightsbridge, London, damaging four other expensive cars along the way. Allegedly from wealthy families in Abu Dhabi, these car owners reassured shocked passers-by that they would pay for the damages.

cars in knightsbridge

Two weeks ago, we had stood in the same area, leaning against the railings outside Harrods, watching and counting the number of posh cars fleeting past. In the half hour that we spent there, I must have seen at least forty snazzy cars – Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and the more common BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes. A considerable proportion of the car owners or drivers are from Asia and the Emirates. We saw one long, cream coloured limousine with a car plate in exotic Arabic.

Inside Harrods, we saw many elegant Muslim women, draped in their long qihabs, their enchanting eyes giving one a feast of their hidden beauty. Some of their qihabs were impressively opulent in the sense that qihabs could be, decked with glittering, precious stones. They moved in such slow, graceful steps. Some of them had Prada and LV handbags. We saw these immaculately dressed women, who inhabit an entirely different world and culture, emerging from the expensive, chauffeured cars and entering the department store in unmistakable style.

My friends asked, since these beautiful women were dressed in black garb for most of the day, what do they need the luxury goods for? The truth is, I don’t know. Perhaps they are after the luxury goods for their sheer beauty and quality, rather than feeling the need to show off.

The phenomenal glimpse of the Arab world in Knightsbridge has reinforced my belief that to stereotype people or races is often misleading if not futile.

Oxford: a trip down memory lane

It’s a long time since I’ve gone back to Oxford. Last weekend, we took the one hour train to get there. The sceneries haven’t changed: fields, trees and the occasional cows and sheep.

The college is still protected by the same heavy wooden gate the height of two persons or more. They have a new porter now. I looked at the wooden letter shelves – the pigeonholes – and a wave of nostalgia returns, thinking that there might be a letter or two for me.

They had planted a new plant with purplish, velvety leaves around the front quad. The grass was greener than I recalled. We walked down the path in the middle. The buttery was closed on that day but I went through the swing door to see the college pub, the library, and back quads, and the beloved Helen’s Court where I used to live. There was a strange calmness about Helen’s Court that moved me, its blue doors and sash windows. The much-used wooden cart propped up at the shed – I remember how I used those tools to take my luggage to the storeroom come the term end. After putting in all the luggage to that cellar-like storage, I was usually much exhausted and longed for a good sleep.

The Kybald House on the other side of the campus was a quiet and adorable red brick building where I lived in the second year. For the whole year, I saw the late Prof Strawson, a philosopher of metaphysics – who had a room and a study there – every now and then. He always had this learned air about him, always looking rather pensive and tranquil. There was a lovely bath in Kybald House with billowing floral curtains.

Oxford was good to me but I felt it was a thing of the past now. I love its elegant and unchanged self, but having spent time in other places – Hong Kong, London, Beijing, Norfolk etc – I felt acutely the sense of unreality of the city of spires. It is a place of enlightenment and transition, but it must be somewhere that you grow out of.

I always remember Vidia Naipaul’s reading whenever Oxford springs to mind. He read from his book – Half a Life – to the college students and I remember him saying how lonely and out of place he had felt while studying there. He didn’t feel belonged. Poor Vidia. His alleged solitude made me feel curious about him. I have been reading his book Literary Occasions now, an absolute gem. Our society’s sometimes too institutionalised. One college evening when people were having fun at the college ball, when most were enchanted by the fire-eaters and mobile beauty and massage parlours and pageant shows, that was what me and my friend discussed. He did philosophy, very brainy and British, but he didn’t feel belonged. It might be a matter of personality, of place, of encounters, or simply a coincidence.

Didn’t manage to go to have the G&D ice cream on that day, but we went up to the St Michael’s tower of Anglo-Saxon times. It’s exhilarating to be up there and see all the sand-coloured colleges, narrow lanes, students and quads dwindle into manageable sizes, to grow out of that ancient, protective micro society.

st michaels church tower oxford
From St Michaels Saxon tower oxford