30 September 2006
(Image ©2003 Hamid Bahrami)Entering the fifth year of my life in Scotland, or from a wider perspective, Britain, I'm surely getting closer to my doctorate on the one hand, but on the other, I'm apparently retreating into the past to rediscover what are gradually fading into oblivion and giving way to other modern audio-visual entertainment.
I joined the Choir of the Church of the Holy Rude in October 2002 immediately after I arrived in Stirling, and have spent almost every Thursday evening for the choir practice and Sunday morning for the worship service ever since.
In November, with a zeal to embrace great choral works rather than merely to be confined in church anthems and congregational hymns, as well as encouraged by some elderly ladies in the church choir, I joined the Stirling University Choir.
However, probably because I am a fastidious, stubborn pedant and can't be asked to sing Brahms in English, I left the choir after singing Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem in English at a concert in Dunblane Cathedral in May 2003. Speaking from a personal, and maybe biased, standpoint, replacing the original language in a vocal work, be it an art song, choral piece, opera or musical, with another language is absolutely bastardisation.
How can we distort the sound that was neatly designed by the composer simply to accommodate to the singer's or audience's language competency?
In September 2003 I switched to the Stirling City Choir and became the only Oriental face there. I love the city choir, although most members are senior citizens, and gents are always outnumbered by about three times the number of ladies. This is fairly common in Britain – choral societies are no longer appealing to the young generation, and men would spend more time in pubs or football matches.
On Wednesday, just three days ago, I joined the Stirling and Bridge of Allan Operatic Society, where, unlike the church choir, university choir or city choir, which are sort of all-encompassing and require no auditions, a musical director and a committee assess all new comers' musical ability.
It was an interesting rain-soaked evening. Having been practising my audition piece 'On the Street Where You Live', a song from the Broadway musical My Fair Lady, for several days since I made up my mind a week ago to expand my musical territory, marching on the field of operas and musicals, I crooned this show tune in a dazzling voice against the splash of a downpour outside the hall of Allan Park South Church.
Hardly had I finished the first verse, just a third of the song, before the musical director stopped me and said, 'enough, enough, that's good enough.' He then asked me to sing scales in order to assess my vocal range. Apparently satisfied with my E-g', wide enough for a baritone-bass, the musical director and the committee commenced a confidential meeting while I withdrew into the corridor. Three minutes later, they came out to congratulate me with a pithy remark: 'You're in!'
What a 'daunting' audition! It seemed that I had been preparing a formal speech, as formal as an address to Parliament and it turned out to be a casual chat. Anyway, I'm in the operatic society, exploring a dwindling tradition of British social life.
27 September 2006
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in the cybernetic era finding a unique user ID for yourself is no longer an easy task. As I'm quite convinced that user names such as szuwei, swchen or simply swc had all been reserved before I was born, I wouldn't even try to register myself as any of them. I gather chen1923 may be a good option as opposed to other combinations of my forename and surname.
As for the significance of 1923, I would say that while chen is self-evident and thus needs no further explanation, 1923 is sort of ticklish because 1923 is a momentous year in modern history. Although I'm not a history geek, some historic events of 1923 shall never be effaced from my mind.
(The bribing president Cao Kun)
In China, Cao Kun (曹錕) acquired the presidency in 1923 by suborning members of parliament with 5,000 dollars each, bringing ignominy on the warlord Government (北洋政府) and its assembly, which lacked a quorum to even organise elections.
In the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin suffered his third stroke. Inarticulate and bedridden, he retired his position as Chairman of the Soviet government. In the States, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the 29th president, died from a stroke in office.
In 1923, the Greek opera diva, perhaps the best-known opera singer after WWII, Maria Callas was born in New York.
Also in 1923, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a German physicist who induced and detected x-rays, an achievement with which he earned the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901, died in Munich.
Still in 1923, William Butler Yeats, an Anglo-Irish poet, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for what the Nobel Committee acclaimed as 'his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.'
Again in 1923, the calamitous Great Kanto earthquake (関東大震災) devastated Tokyo and Yokohama and killed more than 142,000 people.
Okey-dokey, there may be even more incidents in 1923; nevertheless, none of them has anything to do with my user ID. But why 1923?
After rendering an blooming lengthy account of 1923, I have to say (can't be any simpler): Szu-Wei Chen is my name, and s is the nineteenth letter of the alphabet and w the twenty-thrid; therefore 1923.
26 September 2006
I found this flash game on Adam's cartoonlife. While Adam thinks he might be too credulous or this game is quite clever, I can just see through the hoax. It's just a mathematical trick.
Say we have 10p+q as our two-digit number, when we add together both digits, we get p+q.
If we substract the total of these two digits from the original number, we have (10p+q)-(p+q), which is indeed 9p.
Hence, whatever two-digit number we have, the final number is always a mutiple of nine. By the way, since p is no greater than 9, 9p would merely be 9, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72 or 81.
Now have a closer look at the chart. Have you notice that in the chart the symbols next to 9, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72 and 81 are all the same, though it changes every time when you click 'Try again'. Obviously, symbols next to other numbers are just red herrings.
There is no magic; whenever you are amazed by certain magic, you are just beguiled by a neatly designed device.
25 September 2006
'To be or not to be, that is the question.' (click here to see the full text)
He or she who speaks English must know this famous phrase, which originates from a Shakespearean soliloquy uttered by the revenge-seeking protagonist in Act 3, scene 1 of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Throughout the whole of his monologue, Hamlet ponders over the dilemma of continuing life or resorting to self-destruction.
Those who study A-level English or have a penchant for drama may have come across some comments on Hamlet's soliloquy, such as the argument that these words reflect how a person's irresolute mind impedes realisation of thoughts and visions, or the viewpoint that the monologue is a debate on suicide.
What Hamlet mumbles actually has nothing to do with me, at least not for the time being, although I was also once dropped into a slough of despond. I'm just imitating the syntactic arrangement of words. Unlike Hamlet who still gives himself the final verdict on his to be or not to be, to win or not to win can never be a question to me, but rather a matter of probability, over which I have no control.
I moved in the house where I am currently staying last August. Before I crossed Victoria Green, moving from Clarendon Place to Victoria Place, I never won anything in any competition. It might just be coincidental, but there must be certain power in this house so much so that since I lodged here Lady Luck has been brining me some valueless yet useful booties.
To name a few items I've won so far:
- Concert tickets to the World Premier of Tlep at the Royal Albert Hall, won with CLASSIC FM
- Cinema tickets to any ODEON, UCI or thefilmworks cinema in the UK and Ireland, sponsored by Renault Clio, won with METRO;
- Breville silver filter kettle with BRITA water technology, won with CLASSIC FM
- Tickets to Ideal Home Show at Earls Court, London, won with CLASSIC FM
- Tickets to Proms in the Park in Glasgow Green, provided by BBC Scotland
- A month's unlimited access to all features on napster, won with STRONGBOW
- Some really worthless things, such as: a key ring with a torch, a wee pink pig stress reliever, an energy-saving light bulb and a small brown bin for composting
Although I am very grateful to Fortuna, who has blessed me with a few petty prizes, I still wish I could win some mega deals, such as cash of five grand, 10-day Caribbean cruise, or even better a time machine with which I can stop time passing ruthlessly.
For Hamlet, to be or not to be is the question; however, for Wei, to win or not to win is out of the question. Well, petty prizes are better than nothing. I wouldn't whinge.
23 September 2006
China is rising. Everybody knows. But what has it to do with England? It all started from piracy or the art of reproduction.
Liberated from the constraints of centrally planned economy, Chinese people have come to realise that fruits produced and distributed under free market economy bear more juice and taste more saccharine. The dragon finally woke up to the irresistible capitalism from decades' sound sleep and the Utopian dream of socialism.
In order to get on board the capitalist cruise down the river of fortune, Chinese people seize any opportunity to reap the benefit of economic reform: starting whatever private business, regardless of its size, capital structure and so on as long as it makes money. While this definitely contributes much to China's whirlwind economic growth, it causes problems, among which piracy is one of the toughest nuts to crack.
Virtually, from fake designer handbags and clothes, replicas of brand name watches, to bogus diploma and all sorts of permits or certificates, nothing can't be forged in China. There is always among 1.3 billion people a need of spending less to bathe in the same superficial glamour emitted from an adorable trade mark.
Although in piracy business reproducing a convincing verisimilitude of a genuine item is essential, sometimes there is a compromise. A deliberate twist of a trade mark may guarantee a position of never being sued while meeting users' need. Look at this masterpiece: set-of-four SQNY batteries. It's hard to say if SONY would win the case should they take it to the court.
The unauthorised use or reproduction of other people's work is absolutely a violation of laws; nevertheless, does this apply to all works created by human beings? What about an architectural piece?
In Songjiang, about 19 miles away from Shanghai, a major housing and commercial development called Thames Town has come to a successful end. This new town is really an exhibition of 500 years of British architecture: half-timbered Tudor buildings, white stucco Regency terraces, Victorian red-brick warehouses, gabled 20th century buildings, a covered market with distinct echoes of Covent Garden, a ferreted castle, a windmill, village greens and a Catholic church with a similar spire of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol.
Do not doubt. Here is a newly constructed residential and commercial town in Shanghai, a picturesque 'Little Britain'.
What impressed me most are these two buildings which almost copy detail-to-detail the original two in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England. Make a comparison between the photo at the top and the one below.
There are only very few differences, for example:
- The original buildings are fitted with sash windows, not two-fold casement windows.
- A window is missing on the first floor of the mock Rock Point Inn.
- A 'b' is missing in the copied Cobb Gate Fish Bar.
Nevertheless, can you copyright the façade of your building?
20 September 2006
After a very long and unusually warm summer, Scotland is in Scottish weather again.
Those who don't mind a walk in the drizzle end up soaking in a downpour; those who are basking in the sun in short sleeves are smacked by the sudden falloff in temperature; those who insist that central gas heating should not be switched on until they put the clock one hour back give in to the cold.
Nevertheless, I'm absolutely fine with Scottish weather. I was born and have spent 22 years in Keelung, a harbour town half an hour away by car from Taipei, where it used to rain 280 days a year (By 'rain', I mean 'rain', not 'drizzle'). Interestingly, rain gradually disappeared in Keelung in the last 15 years, so much so that this town, which was once nicknamed Rain Harbour, has been badly affected by droughts for several times.
It is rumoured that the three colossal chimney of a power plant, which started operation in 1985, pumped the rain to a nearby town Sijhih. Since Keelung is no longer a harbour of rain, incessant rain in Scotland actually reminds me of my delightful yet freakish childhood in Rain Harbour.
Probably because of the childhood dream of emancipating myself from its boundage, I don't bother to use a brolly, although I have two, a black ordinary one, which has been with me for at least ten years, and a shiny one featuring Raphael's Two Cherubim (part of the famous Sistine Madonna), which my Fiancée bought for me three years ago when she visited the Vatican but I've never used so far.
While I might give in and use my shaky black umbrella when it pours, I would never use the Cherubim one because reproduced images of their innocent looks on the canopy really imply a stupid question: why it rains so much and so unpredictably in Scotland.
Even though I am a cold weather person and wet days don't really distress me, as the days draw in and the mornings get darker in the British Isles, a downward trend in my coma score is certainly something that can be observed by any non-medical trained layman.
19 September 2006
(Proms in The Park 2006, Glasgow)Having just been awarded a bachelor's degree in history with a first-rate dissertation this summer and won a scholarship from the department, Francesca steps further for a master's with a view to a doctoral programme. She enrolled a week ago, was allocated an office and is officially a postgraduate student now.
It's quite understandable why she is still in sort of over-the-moon mood: What could be more exciting than enjoying full entitlement to all the facilities for research students? What could be more exhilarating than reading what you need instead of what you are demanded?
Lucky her. On the induction day there wasn't an unsmiling stern dean or head of department welcoming new postgrads with a frigid speech laying stress on the solitude, loneliness, frustration and suffocation one would encounter during their postgraduate study. Instead, she met other students and befriended them in Stirling Postgraduate Society, a secret society less secret than Masonry, but so esoteric that I myself didn't even join in during my postgraduate career at Stirling.
However, as her master dissertation will examine post-Mao Chinese cinema and therefore a knowledge in the Chinese language is required, under my cruel yet reasonable supervision, she swots up on Chinese everyday – contorting her vocal cords to produce different pitches in the language, twisting her Brit tongue to pronounce alveolar, alveolo-palatal or retroflex affricate consonants and close back unrounded vowels, puckering her spaghetti lips to enunciate the umlauted vowel 'u', and engaging in mental drudgery to thread up some rosaries of Chinese characters which would make sense all together.
Francesca is making good progress and, I guess, will sooner or later outdo my lovely fiancée Fanne, who always have problems to articulate correctly every single word in one sentence in her mother tongue, Chinese. For example, Fanne can't even be bothered to read (by this I mean 'to browse') my favourite Chinese text The Story of Mr Shi Eating Lions on my weblog, let alone to recite it.
My dear Francesca, you are now desired by your big brother Wei to equip yourself to declaim this Chinese text by the end of this semester.
15 September 2006
As I learnt English in Taiwan mostly by listening to BBC World Service and reading Jane Austin's novels, before coming to Britain, I supposed I didn't have to worry about how to speak proper English. However, most people I met in the British Isles simply looked at me with a friendly yet seemingly sardonic smile, pondering what bloody period I was from, when a torrent of archaic, over-mannered words poured from my mouth.
Gradually, I realised that nowadays Brits would not speak in the way a Georgian or Victorian butler did, nor would they chant verses of Shakespeare or Milton in their daily life. Just as what the saying 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do' suggests, I shall say what the Britons say when I'm in Britain.
Therefore, I had no choice but switched from period dramas to comedies, such as Yes Minister, Blackadder and The Two Ronnies, so that I could learn more practical, somewhat up-to-date English expressions, and meanwhile to sharpen up my sense of British dry humour.
The famous Fork Handles, which was voted the Nation's Favourite Sketch, is also included in the book I've just received. In this sketch an ironmonger became increasingly frustrated while serving a thickhead because he kept misunderstanding what his customer really asked for, as a result of the items required being homonyms of the items provided:
- four candles v.s. fork handles
- bath plugs v.s. electric plugs
- sore tips v.s. saw tips
- garden hoes, garden hose v.s. letter 'O's for the garden gate
- letter 'P's v.s. tins of peas
- pneumatic pumps v.s. pumps for feet
- windscreen washers, car washers, dishwashers, hair washer, etc v.s. tap washers
12 September 2006
(Image from BBC website)While all the time China elbows Taiwan out of all sorts of official international organisations and nowadays most Western countries pay more attention to China, Taiwan has recently regained some international media coverage.
Much to my embarrassment, it is the corrupt Taiwanese president Chen Shui-Bian, his avaricious in-laws and his venal aides who bring this island, which has almost dumped by most Western countries into oblivion, back on the global stage.
Protesters in their red outfits have congregated in front of the presidential office in Taipei since the 9th of September to demand Chen's resignation. This claimed grassroots demonstration catches the eyes of some news editors, to name a few:
- BBC, 'Taiwanese keep up Chen pressure'
- CNN, 'Protests target Taiwan president'
- The New York Times, 'Thousands of protesters call on Taiwan's president to step down'
- The Asahi Shimbun (Japan), '陳総統の辞任求め９万人 台湾で一部は座り込み開始'
- depose: to remove from office suddenly and forcefully
- dethrone: to remove a ruler, particularly a monarch, from power
- dislodge: to remove from an established or fixed position
- oust: to drive out or expel from a position or place
- overthrow: to remove forcibly power
- unseat: to remove from a position of power or authority
11 September 2006
Finally, I made my debut in the Last Night of the Proms last Saturday, though as a spectator rather than a performer, and though not in the real one at the Royal Albert Hall but the Proms in the Park in Glasgow Green, one of the five outdoor venues across the country. Nevertheless, unlike those in Hyde Park who had to pay £ 23, in Manchester £12.50 and in Swansea £7.50, I simply requested for and then, as lucky as those in Belfast, was randomly selected by the organisers in Glasgow to win free tickets.
Under the same theme Proms in the Park as they were, all of the outdoor venues in fact had their own concert programmes, and were only teleconnected with the Royal Albert Hall for about 20 minutes.
It seems that every year at the last night of the Proms, the whole country is reunited by classical music and the bygone glory of the British Empire is therefore reinvigorated. People from every corner of the country shoulder their way into the Royal Albert Hall for the Last Night by attending at least six other Proms beforehand during the Proms season in order to be qualified to buy the ticket, or simply by paying the exorbitant price to secure a seat through certain agent.
However, there is always a touch, or actually a distinct odour, of nationalism – not in terms of the United Kingdom as a whole, but rather, four constituent nations individually.
While in Hyde Park and Manchester St George's crosses sprinkled over the sea of fluttering Union Jacks, in Glasgow I could only count those Union Jacks immersed in Saltires on the fingers of one hand. I supposed in Swansea Union Jacks must have been shovelled down by their red dragons.
I have been practising Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory long before this great night, but as much as it has been worrying me, in Glasgow the linkup with the Royal Albert Hall on the screen was cut off and switched to Glasgow Green on the scene after we carolled Rule! Britannia.
I couldn't understand why for the Scottish singing Rule! Britannia while waving Saltires was less absurd than chanting Jerusalem or Land of Hope and Glory with the English. Though it may be regarded as nothing unusual by Britons, speaking from my own viewpoint, the smell of this sort of regional nationalism is much more pungent on site than on TV.
Anyway, it was a pleasant night with the good company of my English siser Francesca, my landlady Val and her friend Jane - none of whom are Scottish.
07 September 2006
My impression of The BBC Proms, or its gobbledegook formal title The Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC, comes from its Last Night, where some popular classics are performed in the first half and a string of patriotic tunes belted out in the second.
While the first half is regarded 'serious', i.e. decent, the second is meant to be lighthearted, a good occasion for some patriots to flaunt their exuberance, confidence and stylishness of being Britons, where Union Jacks, fancy dress, balloons, party poppers and all sorts of banners are most welcome. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to be a British nationalist to take part in the event. Just have fun and whoop it up, waving whatever you've got!
If my memory serves me, the patriotic songs include:
- Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (with words Land of Hope and Glory written for the trio theme)
- Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs
- Hubert Parry's Jerusalem (set against William Blake's poem)
- Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia
Since I came to Britain, watching Last Night of the Proms on TV has become an annual ritual of anointing myself with some British cream as if I was once a member of the British Empire.
Although now I pay much more attention to other prom concerts on Radio 3, Last Night still means a lot to me. This year, thanks to colleagues at the University of Glasgow who forwarded me the ticket information, I was offered a ticket by the organiser to Glasgow Green, one of the venues of BBC Proms in the Park.
The first half in Glasgow Green will see BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Inverclyde Junior Choir and some other artists, and the second half may join the crowd in the Royal Albert Hall in London through live telecasting. I'd better start to remember the lyrics of those British patriotic songs so that I can sing along with those Britons on Saturday.
05 September 2006
Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von NürnbergThe cast really contained a mixture of up-and-coming young singers and established names:
Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 2 September 2006
David Robertson conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with an impressive cast of soloists and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.
- Eva: Hillevi Martinpelto, soprano
- Magdalene: Wendy Dawn Thompson, soprano
- Walther: Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
- David: Toby Spence, tenor
- Sachs: Robert Holl, bass-baritone
- Beckmesser: Neal Davies, bass
- Pogner: Matthew Rose, bass
- Kothner: James Rutherford, bass
- Nightwatchman: Paul Whelan, bass
Probably because the musical content of Wagner's opera is usually constructed on symphonic principles which continuously develop many themes, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was decently appropriate for performance in the concert hall. Though without extravagant sets, props and costumes, the emotional facial expressions, vivid gestures and body language made by the soloists could still be clearly read by the audience. The interactions between leading characters, particularly Sachs, Beckmesser, Walther and David, were no fewer, no less explicit than a real staged opera.
Edinburgh Festival Chorus was also stunning. The choral piece at the beginning accompanied by the organ and the one that concluded Act III, sung together with the whole cast for the outdoor song competition, were particularly impressive.
In addition to the concert itself, another unforgettable experience is joining the audience picnicking on the pavement outside the concert hall. As the performance last nearly six hours beginning at 5.00 pm, most people brought their own meal boxes, bottles or simply grabbed some drinks from the lounge bar in the hall and gave themselves a good feed during the two half-hour intervals between each acts.
Unlike those elderly ladies and gentlemen, who were seated elegantly on the pavement benches and had their home made sandwiches with glasses of wine, I stuffed myself with a huge chocolate bar and dashed into a pub having a quick pint before the bell rang to call us back into the hall.
Thank you Jenny. You would probably never know how much I owe you; it was absolutely a fantastic night.
02 September 2006
Consulting my landlady's age-old household cookbook, I worked out the proportional amounts of all ingredients, and then started the first-ever jam making in my life.
- 3 lb. blackberries
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 oz. water
- 3 lb. sugar
- Put blackberries with the lemon juice and water into a big pan.
- Simmer very gently until the berries are cooked and the contents of the pan are reduced.
- Add the sugar, bring to boil, stirring, and boil rapidly until setting point is reached.
- Pot the jam.
It actually doesn't look as simple as it looks. I had to make sure the setting point is reach so that enough pectin was release and mixed well with sugar and acid.
Fianally, this first-ever life experience proved to be pleasant and full of fun – jam very successful. I've got four jars and a bowl (as I don't have enough jars).
Howevr, as I don't usually have my bread with jam, I may have to give away two jars or probably, following the Russian way, always have strong tea with jam so that my homemade blackberry jam can be consumed as soon as possible while it's still fresh.
01 September 2006
Anyway, today I went blackberrying in the early evening before the sun sank under the horizon. Walking along the footpath around the Kings Park, I found loads of blackberry shrubs spreading on one side of the path. As these blackberries are wild, unlike those cultivated thornless varieties, their dense arching stems carry countless short curving sharp spines – that's why I've got loads of cuts in my arms, palms and fingers, as well as some spines left in my skins, after today's blackberrying activity. I wonder if there are some techiniques to avoid being cut and punctured by those damned thorns.
What can I do with a pile of blackberries? As not all of these berries are sweet enough to be eaten straight, it may be a good idea to make some blackberry jam. Hope a spread of the sour, sweet jam can pacify a big crying boy, like myself, and bring some light to the last chapter of my thesis. I wish May, Ellen and of course my fiancée were here so that they could have a taste of the first-ever jam I will have made, whether successful or not, in my life.