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.

Notes on the Turner Prize

When I work on projects with the Tate magazine and the film division on some days, I found myself popping in to see the Turner Prize exhibition again and again. It’s definitely a draw, and I like the art show because of the challenges these artworks present. The film work by the Otolith Group and the political paintings by Dexter Dalwood present difficult materials: layer upon layer of meanings, inspiration drawn from social movements, warfare in Iran and Afghanistan, a historical discourse presented in the form of video and multimedia formats, and last but not least the concept of ‘sound sculpture’ by Susan Philipsz based on a Scottish lament sung at the riverside…If you are not careful, you could easily spend your whole day in this exhibition.

I find it encouraging to see such diversity and boldness in the range of works. The exhibition is curated with much thoughtfulness. After you have finished viewing the respective artworks, you enter a room where the video interviews with each artist are shown, and immediately I feel so much more connection with the artists and their work. The moving image, the dialogues and the behind-the-scenes are compelling contents that keep your mind active on the artworks long after you come out of the exhibition hall.

The Turner Prize has long been Britain’s leading award on contemporary art. Celebrating the achievement or vision of new exhibitions rather than an artist’s individual life-long achievement, it has helped to discover many of the world’s most influential artists. Each year, it stirs up considerable debate as to whom the prestigious prize should be awarded, even though it is, strangely enough, decided by a high-level 4-person panel, chaired this year by Penelope Curtis (although, I have to say, not dissimilar to the Booker Prize).

Based on a Scottish lament Lowlands Away. Susan Philipsz’s unaccompanied voice has been much talked about. The Guardian mentions the way sound or music can dwell in people’s hearts and inhabit one’s living space, pointing out that her voice is judged not so much by the musicality but the unaffected simplicity of it. I cannot agree more. Perhaps, as a poet, I have always been interested in sound and rhythm, and so found the exhibition room where Philipsz’s voice lingers a highly fascinating space. Each time I went in, I could feel something in myself being re-awakened and reborn, something almost akin to a cleansing. In particular, after watching the Turner Prize film that showed me the rivers in Scotland where the music was first heard, I was overcome by the sheer universality or potency of sound  (see Tate Channel) – how it speaks to people without the need for words.

Turner Prize winners
Hall of fame: Turner Prize winners

Other than the four Turner Prize exhibitions featured, one notices the list of previous winners on the wall of the film screening room. Almost all of the previous Turner Prize winners – Martin Creed, Keith Tyson, Wolfgang Tillmans, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofilli, Gillian Wearing, Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread — have emerged to be some of the top artists in the world (broadly speaking, all of whom managed to obtain considerable stature a decade or so after they won the Prize), producing artworks that startle or impress.

An artist’s course is never easy nor smooth, but the Prize has shown how some can really make it out there, biding their time and putting in long years of perseverance, talent, and perhaps with a little bit of luck or love.

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?

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.

The Guardian and me

I am having fun with my Guardian style book, which is a precious gift from someone.

A few of the entries are particularly inspiring, in some cases amusing ideologies.

Oxford comma

A comma before the final “and” in lists: straightforward ones (he had ham, eggs and chips) do not need one, but sometimes it can help the reader (he had cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea), and sometimes it is essential. Compare

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

Very: usually very redundant

Walkman: Walkmans, not Walkmen

Yo-yo

Yo-yo Ma: cellist

Haagen-Daaz: American ice-cream; despite appearances, the name was made up to give a European cachet to a product emanating from the Bronx in New York City

Public schools are actually private schools, so that is what we should call them

Chicken tikka masala: Britain’s favourite dish, note that there is also an Italian dish called chicken marsala

Cummings, EE: US poet who, despite what many people think, used capitals in his signature

Frankenstein: the monster’s creator, not the monster

And I am tempted to add a few of my own riddles:

Tube: characterised by weekend engineering works. If you want to know what’s slow, try taking the green line

Red tape: something you come across when you apply for things

First class: a slightly more spacious seat for a much more expensive fare. Gives you better drinks and food, a slightly bigger TV, and better access to the loo.

Marks and Spencer: known for good quality underwear and a great food hall. Appealing to middle-class moms

Volcanic ash cloud: an unpredictable cloud that paralyses air traffic. What people associates with Iceland

iPad: a gadget for people who haven’t had enough of the computer screen (yet).

Bigoted: for usage, google search for Gordon Brown

The Chinese internet I

There has been a surge in stories of late about the Internet search in China, sparked by Google’s call to move their search engine to Hong Kong. The Guardian has published an article on March 24 (see article), saying that companies in China sometimes get called up to remove online contents or have their websites suddenly removed. Financial Times (see article) has very comprehensive behind-the-scene reportage on this matter.

Chinese users can correct me if wrong, but I have never used Google too much when in the Mainland, simply because it doesn’t seem to provide as much as other engines such as Yahoo, Sina and Sohu. Perhaps it has to do with this ongoing row? In terms of design layout, the local Chinese search engines really suck, they are always so wordy, lacking in design and taste.

Look at Sina.com.cn:

And Sohu.com.cn

You will know what I mean.

I feel sad sometimes that Chinese users have to tolerate these really ugly and uncontemporary search engines. Everything is only in Simplified Chinese and I don’t know how its archiving works. The websites are also juxtaposed with flashing and colourful ad banners. It gives you a headache when you look at it for a long time. But if they are the better channels to retrieve information that they want…

In an attempt to poach Google’s customers, Google announced that its Bing searches are to stay in China. Okay…thanks for that. I also did a quick desktop search trial using Bing.com.cn, but it doesn’t work very well, and seems to trawl up very randomised, official-version websites. The globe image on the Bing homepage is rather ridiculous as well.

I would say, currently, that I like Baidu.com.cn much better in terms of searching for Chinese information, other than the popular but Hong Kong-based Yahoo.com.hk. In fact, Baidu looks like a Chinese-adapted version of Google, with more visual photos and a cleaner structure for finding what you need:

They use QQ (and for some, MSN) instead of Facebook. I remember several times, when I was in Beijing, and even in the UK, I asked some Mainland Chinese friends for their Facebook names so I can look them up, and they looked at me and said, what is Facebook? I don’t use it. I have QQ.

Not many of Mainland users like googlemail so much as hotmail or 163.com or yahoo.com.cn. This is highly related to the proliferation and user-friendliness of these website searches.

In China, the Blackberry devices are being launched without WiFi capabilities. The Blackberry to be sold by China Telecom is powered by the e-surfing function from the fixed line operator.

It is as if there is no one internet: there is a western internet, and a Chinese internet. These two worlds sometimes overlap, but for those who may only be able to access one world and not the other, it is a confusing experience to synchronise what one knows about these worlds.

According to Reuters, the Chinese internet user population has exceeded 384 million, with 86 million added in the last year. I am not surprised. Internet is a great way for the Chinese community to have access to the world of opportunities – for business, entertainment and education. With added wealth, higher living standards and the inevitable globalisation phenomenon, the trend is set to continue.