21 December 2007

25 Dec: once a public holiday in Taiwan


(Image of the Christmas tree from HappyNew.Com)

The festive season is upon us and people, including those who are not religious or do not even believe in Christianity, are performing their festive routine again – taking holidays, attending parties, binge eating and shopping or whatsoever.

I understand discussions about this matter have long gone stale, but as most people in Taiwan don't really 'celebrate' Christmas in the way most Westerners would do (most Taiwanese believe in Buddhism and Taoism), nor is this religious festival a public holiday here, it may not be regarded as repetitious and threadbare to ask the question:
What's the point of doing a lot of crazy, merry-making stuff to commemorate the birthday of someone whom you don't believe in or you don't even know?
Actually, Christmas day was once coincidentally an official holiday in the Republic of China, not the communist China but the Republic established by Dr Sun Yat-sen (Follow these hyperlinks if you are interested in the relationship between Taiwan and ROC). The Constitution of the Republic of China was promulgated on 1 January 1947 and went into effect on 25 December of the same year. In 1963, the 25th of December was made a public holiday to commemorate this historic event in the democratic development in the country.

As a result, people in Taiwan had long had a day off on the 25th of December and been able to attend whatever event, be it religious or secular, the night before.  I believe there must have been some folks mistaking the Constitution Day for Christmas.  However, this holiday was annulled in 2001 when the two-day weekend was formally implemented in the public sector lest there would be too many holidays or non-working days a year.

Several months ago, I was invited to write something Chinese-but-not-too-Chinese to be used in an advertisement for a biotechnology company in Taiwan. At one point, I was also asked to rearrange and make another 'jingle-bell' version so that they might use it on other occasions in the future. As this Christmasy version hasn't yet been employed in any advertising campaign and I'm still the owner/right holder, let me put it on my weblog and wish all my readers, no matter what your faith may be, a very happy holiday and a prosperous new year.

09 December 2007

Global Music Culture approved, Angkor Wat reactivated

Finally my proposal to offer the course Global Music Culture was approved last Wednesday and next semester I will be employed as a part-time assistant professor at my alma mater National Taiwan University, where I was awarded a BSc in Botany and an MBA in Accounting. Although it's neither a full-time nor a permanent post, it's a vacancy created by myself, not a temporary job to cover someone else, and thus, I believe, an important stepping stone to me.

The committee made the decision shortly after a 30-min trial lecture and then a Q&A session. I am so delighted that thy appreciated my intention to include issues such as popular music, the music industry and new media in the course, as opposed to an approach to deal with World Music solely either from the perspective of ethnomusicology or in the way record companies promote whatever they call World Music.

Although a Chinese saying goes 'an evil chance seldom comes alone' (huo bu danxing 禍不單行), it appears to me fortune sometimes arrives in pairs, particularly on this specific day.

Immediately after the result was announced, I received a call from the company which commissioned me to compose for their Angkor Wat film. There is now a new music supervisor, who would like me to continue the project, adjusting the orchestration a bit and fine-tuning the balance of each channel, and kindly offers an unexpected small rise in remuneration. On this occasion, Angkot Wat is reactivated and rescheduled into my timetable.

Being an anxious, pessimistic person who always searches for linen linings in a cloud and seldom believes good luck would knock at my door, I hope the approved course will start in practice and the reactivated project will be completed in peace.

29 November 2007

Shaking to the bouncy Afropop rhythm with my students

AfropopThere are ten students in my world music class. A few of them choose this course because they really have passion for musics of different cultures; a few of them are here because they need more credits for their degree; the others, I believe, drop in for no reason.

Officially, today is the last day of this temporary part-time teaching job. However, it appears that Canzio hasn't yet been back from his study leave (I hope he was not captured and cooked by certain anthropophagous natives in his field work) and thus I shall carry on with these students. As we do have fun from time to time, I would love to spend two hours a week with them while accumulating teaching experience for my academic CV.

After exploring a wide variety of traditional African music last week, today we shifted to African music in modern times, including choral activities, 'classical' music and Afropop. To be honest, Afropop is beyond my expertise, so I had to put in hours swotting up on the history of the development of popular music in different corners of this huge continent, listening to song examples and infusing all the neurones in my head with the rhythmic pulsation of mbaqanga, marabi, kwela, Krio dance music, salegy, iscathamiya, marrabenta, soukous, mbalax, juju, tuku and highlife.

There are more 'genres' of Afropop than these, but these materials were indeed more than enough for one hour, the second half of today's lecture. Instead of showering them with a plethora of boring stylistic, rhythmic, melodic, harmonic or whatever -ic analysis, I just gave some general descriptions about each genre and then played the music. They had fun and so did I.

18 November 2007

I didn't see the image of pipa in Pipa Images

Pipa ImagesI learnt of this album, Pipa Images (Pipa xiang 琵琶相), released quite a while ago in 2003, from May. I love the smoothly-flowing melodies, the hauntingly beautiful timbre of pipa (琵琶) and, above all, the idea of infusing a time-honoured Chinese instrument with different ethnomusical elements. However, I didn't encounter any climactic tension, which would usually be heard in a piece from the traditional pipa repertoire, nor did I catch any impressive sound effect, which would be conventionally created by a variety of fingering techniques.

It appears to me that the producer/composer has affection for the distinct tone colour of the pipa, but somehow ignores the characteristic expressions that can only be conveyed through the idiomatic practices of the instrument. As a result, while to some foreigners who are not familiar with the Chinese pipa, this album may present a refreshing combination of musical possibilities, to me it is simply another nicely produced easy-listening album featuring the sound of the 'pipa'.

Watch this video clip of the renowned piece 'King Chu doffs his armour' (Bawang xie jia 霸王卸甲) to get a representative experience of the pipa's 'characteristic expressions'.



I'm not proposing that the producer should maintain all the way the pipa's stereotypical image of vibrant strumming or ever-present rasgueado techniqes. However, it would be great if its resonant, clear and enchanting sound could be heard via the energetic rasgueado. Morever, this album would also become a ground-breaking act if the violent, fierce strumming could be used and incorporated into serenity with the graceful melodies.

15 November 2007

Deleting Angkor Wat

I am not suggesting that I'm gonna emulate the Taliban by bombing the UNESCO world heritage Angkor Wat. I am talking about ceasing to compose the commissioned Angkor Wat soundtrack.

It was indeed great fun to write music for this word heritage site, but it's irritating to have a client who wouldn't sign the contract before making more requests. The production team couldn't even decide whether they should use my composition or a track of copyrighted music which they felt too complicated to obtain permission to use.

What's the point of engaging a composer if the proposed CD track is still preferred? What's the point of reworking the score if the client can't make the decision?

While they may leave it in abeyance, I'd rather quit. I enjoy composing but not making alteration time after time against my own aesthetic for a client who doesn't even sign the contract.

Let me remove the blooming Angkor Wat from my work schedule and send the work-in-progress score to the 'closed' folder.

08 November 2007

Relocating Angkor Wat to Tibetan Plateau

Tibetan Plateau
(image from Life on the Tibetan Plateau)

I've just had a meeting with the producer and other supervisory personnel of the Angkor Wat film team. In their point of view, my proposed piece feels so contemporary. Although it has a good balance in all registers of sounds and can surely be used in their future plan, on this occasion they would like something that bears certain religious mark, has a touch of history and creates a mysterious atmosphere. Well, I now present a different version, with the same backdrop, the alternate C and B-flat chords, but with the more sonorous tone of string basses and the haunting voices of a choir.

May, the first one to listen to this redone version, commented that she heard monks droning and eagles screeching and it felt as if the Angkor Wat had been moved to the Tibetan Plateau. She wondered if I should treat the Angkor Wat soundtrack in such an epic manner.

Does this reworked one carry any epic or probably post-apocalyptic atmosphere?

04 November 2007

Coffee on the Singaporean menu

The vocabulary of Singlish, an English-based creole spoken in Singapore, consists of words originating from Malay, Cantonese, Hokkien (福建), as well as some other Indic languages, such as Tamil, to a lesser extent. Although the Singaporean government discourages the use of Singlish in favour of Standard English and runs Speak Good English Movement, this English-based creole is still used by most Singaporeans.

Both Fanne's brother-in-law, who is now working in Singapore, and her sister, who unfortunately still lives in Taipei at the moment but frequently flies over to visit him, have spent some time acquainting themselves with Singlish. Among a wide selection of interesting (or amusing) examples is coffee on the Singaporean menu. According to their demonstration and explanation, as well as my own investigation, I found following terms and origins of those non-English words.
  • Kopi: coffee with milk and sugar, or sweetened condensed milk
    It's the Singaporean default configuration of coffee.

  • Kopi-kosong: coffee without milk, without sugar
    Kosong, a Malay word for 'empty', 'hollow'.

  • Kopi-o (also kopi-oh): coffee with sugar, without milk
    O, the word for 'black' (烏) in Hokkien.

  • Kopi-kau: strong coffee, with condensed milk
    Kau means (of liquid) 'stronger' or 'thickened' (厚) in Hokkien.

  • Kopi-C: coffee with evaporated milk
    C stands for Carnation, a proprietary name for a brand of evaporated milk).

  • Kopi-ping: iced coffee
    Ping, the word for 'ice' (冰) in Hokkien.
I've been to Singapore in 2001 but haven't suffered too much from their native tongue as it was just a short break. Nevertheless, next time when I pay a visit, I will at least be able to order a cup of coffee in Singlish and I shall see what would happen if unwittingly I start speaking Scots.

03 November 2007

Composing for Angkor Wat

Angkot Wat
(Image from Far Horizons)

I haven't touched Sibelius for quite a while since I finished an advertising song commission in March. Thanks to an old friend, Richard Tsao, a couple of days ago I received a commission to write a soundtrack for a short about Cambodia and have now started composing with Sibelius again.

I'm still with Sibelius 3 (can't be bothered to pay an exorbitant price to upgrade to Sibelius 5 just for some more functions I'll only use when Ang Lee asks me to write music for his film, but would love to do so if someone else engages me to do a similar task and pays for it). The start-up music in this old version, the opening of Jean Sibelius's 3rd Symphony, really reminds me of the time I used it to make karaoke tracks of Christian hymns in Stirling.

Since the producer hopes that the soundtrack carries a hint of the mysterious image of Angkor Wat and the state religion Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia, I have spent some time gazing into the photo of Angkor Wat while intoning a Buddhist stanza in Pali to see if inspiration would come to me.
parinibbute bhagavati saha parinibbana
sakko devanam indo
imaj gathaj abhasi
anicca vata sangkhara
uppada-vaya-dhammino
uppajjitva nirujjhanti
tesaj vupasamo sukho ti

(When the Blessed One had passed away, simultaneously with his Parinibbana, Sakka, king of the gods, spoke this stanza, 'Transient are all compounded things, subject to arise and vanish; having come into existence they pass way; good is the peace when they forever cease.' )

(translation cited from Digit Library & Museum Of Buddhist Studies)
Additionally, I've also tried to find some clue from Cambodian traditional music. However, I don't think those I encountered over the Internet would help. It really doesn't sound any spiritual at all but something entertaining to me. (Check out this example from Asian Classical Music in MP3 Format.)

Anyhow, this afternoon, I put in three hours and drafted one and a half munites. The producer will decide if I am on the right path next week. If so, I shall turn it into a longer piece and try to match music to moving images as the producer wishes.

Use your earphones to avoid missing the opening low-frequency sound waves.

15 October 2007

Disorganised in an organised fashion

CollageThe original version of Murphy's Law states,
If there's more than one possible outcome of a job or task, and one of those outcomes will result in disaster or an undesirable consequence, then somebody will do it that way.
To put it simply,
If anything can go wrong, it will.
Therefore, I believe that the more organised you strive to be or to others you seem, the less likely you can keep every ongoing task shipshape and Bristol fashion.

I'm going to lecture on Japanese music tomorrow, on Mongolian and Tibetan a week tomorrow and on Indian a fortnight tomorrow. I thought I could manage to partition into three sections the temporary memory device in my head reserved for the World Music course and each of them can store respective materials for each of the ensuing three lectures. However, I failed.

No only are music tracks from different areas saved in the wrong section but also passages from different tracks are spliced or fused. A vivid image in my head all the time is a kubuki stage with a group of Tibetan monks on the right side chanting
to the sitar and tabla accompaniment on the left.

I've promised my student that in addition to 'traditional' and 'classical' stuff from each country or area, at the end of each lecture we shall listen to something more 'conemporary' and 'crossover', such as when shamisen meets John Zorn or some latest Bollywood numbers. Therefore, I don't see any problem in presenting them such a collage on the kabuki stage. Nevertheless, this should not happen before I show them the indigenous music from those different places.

In my head audio examples are all mixed up; in reality they are burnt onto different CDs accordingly, and lecture slides and other materials are also stored in correct file folders in my MacBook Pro. Although I'm now a bit disorganised in an organised fashion, since I've prepared the presentation pack, I may be able to play by ear in class, just like those jazzmen who can flesh out a tune with a fake book or lead sheet. We should not ask a jazzman to be too organised, shouldn't we?

13 October 2007

Repackaging M&S in Taiwan

M&S

A Chinese saying goes, 'A foreign monk chants better (外來的和尚會唸經 wailai de heshang hui nianjing).' Another one says, 'The moon looks fuller in other countries (外國的月亮比較圓 waiguo de yueliang bijiao yuan).' Sometimes people do believe that things from a distant land are of higher quality than domestically made products. However, whether imported goods are better or not, they may need repackaging or image-modifying to fulfil native consumers' expectation one way or another.

The established British retailer Marks & Spencer launched its first outlet in Kaohsiung in May and then another two in Taipei in September. Although one of the Taipei outlets is just two blocks away from our flat, we didn't visit it until today. Having worked unflaggingly to collect audiovisual materials and prepare the 'World Music' lecture pack for quite a while, I managed to spare one Saturday afternoon to check it out with Fanne.

I regard M&S in the UK as a high-street-version TESCO, but it has a different image in Taiwan: an upmarket fashion outlet which also sells tea, biscuits and wine but no fresh food such as veggies and meat. While M&S in the UK only provides Britons with free plastic carrier bags both for clothes and for fresh food, M&S in Taiwan offers us fancy paper bags at no extra cost for whatever we purchase. They even fold every clothing item neatly and wrap it individually before putting it in the bag.

I doubt what Taiwanese customers would think if M&S were positioned just as a supermarket which sells expensive imported stuff which could only be taken away in plastic bags.

Truly amazed by their upgraded packaging in Taiwan, we decided to take a picture to show our friends in the UK how M&S is doing here.

01 October 2007

Winter is approaching, but not in Taipei

Today is the first day of October. We have just passed the autumnal equinox a week ago and people in some countries are about to put their clocks backward one hour. Winter is approaching.

While according to the BBC website, the forecast maximum temperature in Stirling today is 16°C, the temperature now in Taipei is 31°C. As a cold weather person who wears only a polo shirt most of the time in Winter and take cold showers all year round in Scotland, I would call it 'perfect bliss' if I could return to Stirling immediately.

It is reported that high water temperature causes coral bleaching and subsequent death. Although I don't think high temperature would lead me to mortality, it is surely damaging my brain. I wonder how ancient Egyptians developed their civilisation in the desert.

24 September 2007

Mid-autumn barbecue

Tomorrow is the mid-autumn festival but I just don't feel any special. Neither festive food (moon cakes and pomelos) nor customary events really buoy me up, probably for I'm now surrounded by fellow Taiwanese and immersed in an inescapable atmosphere laden with excessive exuberance.

Quite right, familiarity breeds contempt. If I were in Scotland, I wouldn't thinks so, just as how excited most Scottish people might feel about Burns Supper when they are far away from their land.

As mentioned in another entry on this weblog, having a barbecue has become a ritual of the mid-autumn festival in Taiwan since the mid 1980s. Although the folklorist Liu Huanyue (劉還月) argues that it is just a westernised form of celebration, which reflects the thriving economy and uplifted living standard in Taiwan at that time, it has been recently reported on all major news channels that the ever-increasing popularity of the mid-autumn barbecue in Taiwan may has its origin in advertising campaigns.

It might be two soya sauce manufacturers, Wan Ja Shan (萬家香) and Kimlan (金蘭) who once ran their commercials incessantly before the festival, that instigated the mid-autumn barbecue.

Whichever is true, I heard another bullshit explanation last night. It's an adapted story about the Chinese mythical archer Houyi (后羿), who shot down nine suns and saved the earth from excessive heat, and his wife Chang'e (嫦娥), who swallowed a pill of immortality and ascended to the moon.

For more details about the original myth, read the Wikipedia entry. Here comes the parody:
Annoyed by his wife Chang'e's ascent to the moon, Houyi lifed up his bow and targeted at the moon. In a moment of exasperation, he released the arrow but shot down the sun by mistake. The fallen sun scorched the land and charred animals. In memory of this incident, the surviving folk have barbecues on the mid-autumn festival, the day on which the moon is at its fullest and brightest of the year.
A folk tale is in one sense a story which depicts an event at a time when photography and video were not yet introduced and thus has been passed through generations only by word of mouth. No one can verify what had happened to Houyi and Chang'e, nor can anyone challenge this lighthearted version. Therefore, I like this story and will going to tell it to my daughter in the future, and she will surely pass this on to her fellow classmates.

14 September 2007

Teaching 'world music'

I have been foraging for academic employment since I passed the doctoral viva, but unfortunately it seems to be a rather unpropitious time for job hunting in higher education institutions. While the recruiting procedure for full-time academic staff at Taiwanese universities won't commence until early spring, I won't be shortlisted for an interview at any British university if i keep dawdling in Taiwan.

At one point, I thought I would end up wandering aimlessly between Albion and Formosa, just like a migrant roaming in unseasonable weather. However, much to my surprise, a short notice arrived at my email box last Sunday from a retired professor, Ricardo Canzio, whom I used to work with at National Taiwan University. I am now asked to cover his study leave and teach world music in the Department of Music, National Taiwan University of Education, 2 hours a week for 18 weeks, from next Wednesday onwards.

There is no point turning down this offer and therefore I have to prepare a course package within a week.

I would say delivering ideas of world music to those 4th-year students from a department of music (more appropriately, of 'Western classical music') is actually about unfettering them from the shackles of theories of Western classical music, which they have allowed to be arrayed upon them since their admission to the department.

So, what's so world about world music?

The term world music was originally coined in a meeting on 29th June 1987 by some independent record labels to name the many various forms of music unclassifiable in terms of Western genre labels with a view to improving the music’s sales situation.

Now world music covers a wide range of recordings of traditional indigenous music and song from around the world and may include
  • Non-European classical music
  • Folk, tribal or ethnic music from diverse geographical regions
  • Popular music from non-Western urban communities
  • Non-European musical forms influenced by other 'third world' musics
but definitely does not include
  • Western popular music
  • European classical music
Whatever forms of music the term world music could embrace, a succinct definition given by Richard O. Nidel in his World Music: The Basics is
many forms of music of various cultures that remain closely informed or guided by indigenous music of the regions of their origin.
I wonder how I will entice those students in our first meeting by recounting the history about the creation of the term and asking them to rid themselves of European classical music. Nevertheless, I believe it'll surely be full of challenge and fun for me, and hopefully for them as well.

05 September 2007

Let no one sleep in Ghost Month

Video clip courtesy of Moonwall

We may not have someone in Taiwan like Paul Potts, a mobile phone shop manager who took away the breath of the scathing judge Simon Cowell at the show Britain's Got Talent by singing Nessun Dorma ( 'let no one sleep') the famous tenor aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot, but we have Mr Xu Wenlong (許文龍), an enthusiastic and properly-trained amateur singer, who sang the same aria at a community 'ghost month' social function.

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is the so-called 'ghost month' (鬼月 guiyue), during which the gate of the netherworld is unbolted and ghosts and spirits are allowed to visit the living and have a month of bacchanals of food and drink. It is customary to placate those 'fella brethren' (好兄弟 hao xiongdi, a euphemism for ghosts who have no living family and thus wander around aimlessly) by offering them sacrifices lest they get into mischief or cause harassment.

A major ritual service is usually held on the 15th day of the ghost month and it is not uncommon to see residents of a community, together with owners of business premises within close proximity, to organise a special joined service and a social function thereafter. While in the past people would deliver performances of glove puppetry, Taiwanese opera or other kinds of entertainment as part of the offerings, nowadays people just make the social function an occasion on which neighbours, employees and proprietors drink, eat and watch whatever performance that amuses them.

It wouldn't be surprising for any Taiwanese to see scantily-clad young ladies singing or pole-dancing on this occasion. If you fancy, sometimes you can even join them, singing a song either to the accompaniment of a combo or a karaoke track. Nevertheless, it is utterly astonishing to have someone belting Nessun Dorma. Did Mr Xu mean it – let no on sleep in Ghost Month? Anyhow, I'm sure Puccini would be glad to stretch himself in his grave and learn that Taiwanese have found a new stage for this aria.

31 August 2007

From flying a microwave to driving a piano

Electronic Piano

This is definitely neither a fresh corpse nor a desiccated mummy, but a discontinued Yamaha PF80 (33.5-kg electronic piano equipped with 88 properly weighted resin keys) carefully wrapped in a bed cover and securely loaded in a tiny Renault Twingo.

This photo reached me this morning. It was taken on the 24th of June, the day after my wedding in Stirling, before my best man Yung-Yao, together with guests Arnaud and Livia, started a long journey back to Cambridge. Actually, what is not seen in the photo is a microwave oven, which had just ended its four-and-half-year sojourn in Stirling and was about to return to Cambridge.

I still remember that on 20 January 2003, how this microwave flew Ryan Air with me all the way from Stansted Airport to take its long stay in Scotland. Rather than an item of checked luggage, it was actually treated as an embodied soul and allowed to occupy a seat.

Both frequent flyers and holiday makers should have noticed that since the 9/11 Incident, airport security procedures have become stricter, and sometimes so annoying and trying that it seems to take longer to pass the security point than to acquire a visa to visit the Moon. In all British airports, each passenger is allowed to take only one item of hand baggage through security control with a maximum size of 56cm x 45cm x 25cm. Thus, I guess, those who attempt to board a plane with a microwave today will be considered either absurdly insensible or harebrained.

However, believe it or not, on 20 January 2003, I was asked to bring a microwave into the cabin on my way back to Stirling from library and archive study in London.

Yung-Yao kindly lent me his spare microwave on condition that I took it by myself back to Stirling. Nevertheless, he helped me to transport this heavy machine by his bicycle to the station so that I managed to catch the train to Stansted.

At the check-in counter, scarcely had I queried whether the ground staff could take care of my microwave when a member of the check-in staff declared that the budget airlines Ryan Air could not take any responsibility should this unusual checked-in item be damaged and advised that I might want to take it to the cabin. Confused about the situation, I still walked to the security point with the microwave embraced in my arms, as well as a small rucksack on my back.

I would never forget the faces of the security staff. They probably couldn't figure out what the point was to take such a clumsy metal box when travelling by plane. However, it was true that I had the bona-fide permission to, and actually was required to, board with this bloody hefty hand baggage. Hesitating if they should let me go through the search point, a member phoned the check-in counter to make sure I wasn't stretching the truth. Finally, blessed with their non-stopping chortles and twitches of facial muscles, after the microwave was scanned, I proceeded to the boarding gate with it.

Stopped again before the plane by a member of the cabin crew, I repeated the story and explained what I was asked to do. Of course, a conversation went through the intercom between the cabin and ground staff and it proved that I was totally sane. However, I still heard not only gleeful giggles from the speaker of the intercom but also intermittent sniggers from those flight attendants wracking the whole aircraft. I was advised not to load this radiation-generating machine up to the overhead luggage compartment but, as the plane was not full, place it on the seat next to myself and fasten the belt for it.

In the end, the microwave successfully flew Ryan Air, travelled across the border, landed in Glasgow Prestwick and started its four-and-half-year term of service in Stirling thereafter.

I'm so glad the microwave has returned to its hometown in Cambridge, unexpectedly with a partner, the Yamaha electronic piano. After all, I gather it's the best way to send it back. I don't think Dr Lin Yung-Yao would run the risk of being regarded as a dumbhead because of an attempt to carry a microwave oven on board a plane.

Microwave

21 August 2007

Cowherd boy and weaver girl reunited last Sunday

Summer triangle
Last Sunday was Qixi (七夕, literally 'the seventh night'), or roughly the Chinese version of St. Valentine's Day. This traditional festival falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which is the 19th of August this year.

Unlike Western St. Valentine's Day, which is arguably associated with two Christian martyrs, both named Valentine and honoured on the 14th of February, or may have its origin in Lupercalia, an ancient Roman fertility festival, behind Qixi is a love story.

The two protagonists are Niulang (牛郎, 'cowherd boy'), an ordinary mortal, and Zhinü (織女, 'weaver girl'), the youngest of the seven fairy sisters from the Heaven. There may be several variations of the story, but the ending is always the same. The fairy weaver was ordained to return to the Heaven and only allowed to reunite with the human cowherd once a year on Qixi. On this special day all magpies will fly into the sky and form the so-called 'bridge of magpies' (鵲橋, queqiao) so that the two lovers can cross and meet over the Milky Way.

Chinese people are reminded in late summer that the cowherd boy and the weaver girl are reunited when they see in the sky both eponymous stars Niulang (Altair, the brightest star in the Western constellation Aquila) and Zhinü (Vega, the brightest in Lyra), together with Tianjin si (天津四, 'Heaven Ford 4', corresponding to Deneb, the brightest in Cygnus) over which the bridge stretches. These three stars conincidentally form the famous summer triangle in Western astonomy.

When working on my PhD thesis in Scotland, I sometimes associated Fanne and myself with the poor Niulang and Zhinü. Except for the first year during which we lived together in Stirling, throughout the course of my doctoral study, we were usually separated by two continents and some waters and spent most of our time apart. Between October 2003, when we returned to Taiwan after she submitted her master dissertation, and July 2007, when she came over for our wedding and my graduation, we had only seen each other for four times, which were:
  1. Fanne's visit for her gradation, March 2004
  2. Fanne's visit for Christmas, December 2004
  3. My holiday in back Taiwan, August 2005
  4. My holiday in back Taiwan, December 2006
Anyhow, so far it's not too bad compared with the annual reunion of Niulang and Zhinü. I have no idea where I'll end up and whether I have to leave again for overseas academic employment opportunities, but I'm sure Fanne is definitely not certain fairy, or an alien or so, and will surely never be ordained to return to another planet.

15 August 2007

Desperate for a betel nut

I can't really remember when I last had a betel nut (probably the second year at the university) but I really want to go and fetch a pack for myself.

The betel nut (also called as areca nut) is the seed of the betel palm, a kind of palm which grows in Asia, the tropical Pacific and East Africa, and contains mildly intoxicating and slightly addictive alkaloids. It is consumed in different ways from region to region.

For example, whereas in Vietnam a betel nut is ground and chewed along with betel pepper (the leaf of an Asian evergreen climbing plant, which is not botanically related to the betel palm) and lime (the white caustic alkaline substance, not the citrus fruit), in India it is crushed, mixed with tobacco and spices and chewed like a quid of tobacco.

In Taiwan, instead of being ground or crushed, the betel nut is usually consumed whole. There are three major preparations:

  • The nutjingzai (菁仔, 'the nut'): the most popular one, a whole raw betel nut cut half way through down the centre filled in with the inflorescence of betel pepper and red paste (made of lime and herbs and spices).

  • Leaf-wrappedbaoye (包葉, 'leaf-wrapped'): a whole nut wrapped in a betel pepper leaf pasted with lime.

  • laoteng (老藤, 'old-stem'): similar to jingzai, but the stem of betel pepper is used rather than the inflorescence and white paste (only lime, without any spices) instead of red.
As chewing betel nut leads to the copious production of blood-red saliva, in Taiwan, a sobriquet, 'the red-lipped' (紅唇族 hongchunzhu), is given to those who have got hooked on chewing betel nut. In the past, when personal hygiene and public health were disregarded, chewers usually spat the debris together with gobs of red saliva on the street. It was said that unprepared tourists were often shocked when seeing a Taiwanese taxi driver, whom they thought to be suffering from his hard work, or, even worse, at the final stage of pulmonary tuberculosis, vomited up 'blood' straight down on the road.

Certainly, I would never spit out the bloody saliva on the street and I know the bloody fact shown by tons of medical research that chewing betel nut could lead to oral cancer and other oral-related diseases, but I'm still desperate for a jingzai.

07 August 2007

The Day You Love Me

(Video by courtesy of Lucas Bear)

As promised to Fanne's relatives last December after singing a Spanish song at her sister Cindy's engagement reception, I sang a Spanish song El Día Que Me Quieras ('The day you love me') at my own wedding reception in Taipei.

This song was composed in 1935. The music was written by Carlos Gardel, one of the most prominent figures in the history of tango music, and the lyrics by Alfredo Le Pera, a journalist, dramatist and lyricist who was best known for his short but productive collaboration with Gardel.

El Día Que Me Quieras is a romantic and hopeful litany in which a man imagines how inanimate objects come to life and praise 'the day you love me', such as 'the jealous stars will watch us pass by' and 'the bells will tell the wind our love story.'

I came to know this song in 1996 when I boned up on tango (singing, not dancing, because I don't and never dance at all!). Thrilled to pieces when I heard for the first time Gardel's own interpretation in a historical recording, I learnt it immediately.

As most of our friends and relatives knew that I used to sing or play the Baroque recorder to Fanne's accompaniment on the piano in the past, we were particularly delighted to deliver such a performance together in front of our guests at the wedding reception.

Although according to the sheet music and the historical recording, there are some words recited against the piano solo at one point, I don't think there is any point to deliver a long recitation in Spanish at a reception where no one understands any single word.

El Día Que Me Quieras

Acaricia mi ensueño el suave murmullo de tu suspirar,
¡como ríe la vida si tus ojos negros me quieren mirar!
Y si es mío el amparo de tu risa leve que es como un cantar,
ella aquieta mi herida, ¡todo, todo se olvida..!

El día que me quieras la rosa que engalana
se vestirá de fiesta con su mejor color.
Al viento las campanas dirán que ya eres mía
y locas las fontanas me contarán tu amor.

La noche que me quieras desde el azul del cielo,
las estrellas celosas nos mirarán pasar
y un rayo misterioso hará nido en tu pelo,
luciérnaga curiosa que verá... ¡que eres mi consuelo..!

02 August 2007

Shit happens, but not today

The title of this entry has nothing to do with my recent life; it's just about a T-shirt.

It has been two weeks since I married the same bride for the second time, but I'm still moving things and trying to relocate them into more acceptable positions. Last night, I found a T-shirt Inez gave me when she moved to Berlin in winter 2002 for the fieldwork for her doctoral thesis.

It's a black T-shirt with tons of white words on the front, preceded by the title Religions of the World. Although I was warned long time ago that what's on this T-shirt might not be suitable for, probably be offensive to, people who cannot laugh at anything religious, I believe this quasi-joke would at least give all laymen a rough idea of central dogmas of different religions.

Taoism: Shit happens.
Hare Krishna: Shit happens rama rama ding ding.
Hinduism: This shit happened before.
Islam: If shit happens, take a hostage.
Zen: What is the sound of shit happening?
Buddhism: When shit happens, is it really shit?
Confucianism: Confucius say, 'Shit happens.'
7th Day Adventist: Shit happens on Saturdays.
Protestantism: Shit won't happens if I work harder.
Catholicism: If shit happens, I deserve it.
Jehovah's Witness:Knock, knock, 'Shit happens.'
Unitarian: What is this shit?
Mormon: Shit happens again & again & again.
Judaism: Why does this shit always happen to me?
Rastafarianism: Let's smoke this shit.

After patiently copying verbatim those central dogmas onto my blog, I did some googling (I suppose google has become a verb, and therefore it is grammatically correct to do googling. Refer to this article on my blog) and found four more entries:

Pentacostalism: Praise the shit!
New Age: Shit happens and it happens to smell good.
Atheism: There is no shit!
Sunday School student:I gotta go!

Maybe the T-shirt manufacturer would like to add those four entries to the new version in the near future.

31 July 2007

Photos from the wedding reception in Taipei

Our photographer sent us two DVDs holding 968 photos three days after the wedding reception in Taipei. While Fanne has been doing her damnedest to choose some, from them to make an album, I don't think this will be done by the end of this year. How could my picky, fastidious wife make up her mind about those shots from the happy moment within six months? No way.

Anyway, here come some photos I chose by myself.


(Our stylish reception venue, view from the top table)


(Fanne's father taking her into the venue)


(Raising our glasses in a toast to our parents and other guests at the top table)


(Retreating from the venue to change. It is the custom in a Taiwanese wedding reception that the bride has three dresses – the first worn when she arrives at the venue, the second changed half way through the reception and the third for seeing off the guests at the door of the hall)


(Walking into the venue again with the bride in a nice dinner dress)


(Singing to Fanne's accompaniment. A Scottish groom is not allowed to talk, let alone to sing, in a Scottish wedding, but today I'm a Taiwanese groom)


(Last-minute rehearsal before the reception)


(A quick shot outside the venue when the guests were being fed)

29 July 2007

Setting the nuptial bed before getting married

In addition to the Scottish church one, we had our Taiwanese wedding on the 19th of July and then on the 21st the mega reception for 250 guests at the World Trade Centre Club, a venue on the 33rd floor of a building near Taipei 101, the so-far tallest building in the world.

Fanne and I have been back in Taipei since early July. It took us quite some time to put everything in the correct place before the wedding and reception in order to make sure our parents would be delighted. Among many marriage rituals and customs which we were desired to observe was bridal bed setting.

While there are a range of variants of bed setting ritual in different Chinese communities around the globe, one requirement common to all the variants should be choosing an auspicious date and hour by consulting the Chinese almanac or by engaging a Chinese astrologist to perform certain calculations. At the specified hour of the auspicious date (7.00 am, 16 July in our case), the bed, which has actually been purchased and laid in the nuptial room since a couple of days ago, will be moved into position, again, according to the result of astrological calculations.

In some regions the custom demands that a boy jumps on the newly-set bed to bless the bed with fertility, whereas in others people place additionally a red tray of dried food such as lotus seeds, lichees and longans. We did neither.

In our case, after setting the bed, my mum fitting the bed with sheets, blanket and pillows for me and my dad accompanied me for three consecutive nights. According to the custom in my family, there should have been a boy accompanying me so that this bed would always sleep two and Fanne and I would be an everlasting couple. It is customarily believed that if the groom-to-be sleeps alone in the newly set bed, either himself or his wife will die through misfortune. As we didn't, and couldn't bother to, find a suitable young boy, we just modified the tradition a bit.

Although Fanne would followed any our my parents' and other relatives' instructions, she firmly believed that a couple shouldn't even get married in the first place if they would attribute to disobedience of these rituals any potential marriage problems or failure in the future.

17 July 2007

Wooden fortune toad

Coin toadToads may not be as attractive as frogs to most people owing to their dry warty skin that can exude poison. However, to those Chinese feng shui practitioners, toads (蟾蜍, chanchu) are auspicious animals which bring wealth and good fortune.

It is not uncommon to see in a shop or at an ordinary home a toad statue holding a Chinese coin (a round one with a square hole in the centre) in its mouth a well as sitting on a pile of thme. People would place the statue near the front door facing inwards in hopes that they can amass a huge fortune.

Last Sunday I went to Dajia (大甲), an urban township in Taichung County, to visit my elderly grandpa and to deliver wedding invitations to some of my father's siblings. On my way back to Taipei, I made a detour to Shenkeng (深坑) and bought an interesting handicraft – a wooden toad.

Wooden toad
There aren't any coins, neither in the toad's mouth nor beneath its bum. Instead, there are some sawtooth notches on its back. When scraped with a wooden stick against the notches from its tail to head, the wooden statue produces a rasping sound which resembles a toad croak. I have no idea if this wee toad is meant to be a fortune toad, but to me it seems to be more an instrument than a feng shui device. It really reminds me of the güiro, a kind of Latin percussion instrument.



P.S. I haven't yet got my new MacBook Pro, but after two weeks of rest, my champagne-poured old PowerBook has become alive and kicking. It decided to serve me again and that's why I could produce silly stuff on Principal Wei's Weblog again. Although this wooden toad may not be a feng shui talisman to bring in a bunch of wealth, it indeed inbues my once retired PowerBook with new life and vitality.

04 July 2007

Incommunicado

Another quick announcement before I fly.

I shall believe the Chinese saying 'Misfortune comes after reaching the apex of happiness' (le ji sheng bei). Having served me since I came to Scotland for almost five years, my poor Apple PowerBook retired unvolunteeringly due to an accident. My wife and I had some champagne to celebrate my graduation last week and so did my laptop. Fortunately, I've already backed up almost everything in my iPod.

However, I will be sort of incommunicado for a whil until I get my new Apple MacBook Pro.

28 June 2007

More photos from my Scottish Wedding

I've just been back from the honeymoon and attended the graduation ceremony with my wife. I came to Scotland with a Fiancée and now I amd going back to Taiwan with my doctorate and a wife. I still remember that whenever I was awarded a prize or received a good ranking in my class at primay school, my mum always said to me
It's OK. Being ranked as the fifth in your class is not good enough as it's not the third; the third is not good either as it's not the second; the second is just so-so as it's not the first; the first is OK as other people more or less win their first ranks in something in their life as well. It's really not something special.
It is the way in which I was brought up: whatever you achieve, it's OK. However, I believe she should be proud of me now. I've got my degree, a wife and friendship and support from the congregation in my church and people in the local community.


(Bridesmaid my sister Liwen, bride Fanne and her auntie Joy)


(Bridesmaid and bride before the procession)


(Lo and behold, the six-foot-long train)


(Keep smiling)


(And we just couldn't stop smiling)


(Another photo of groom and bride)


(With my fellow choir members of the Church of the Holy Rude)


(Fanne's uncle Richard who presented her to the marriage, best man Yung-Yao and myself)

25 June 2007

I'm a married man now

B4wedding
Just a quick announcement before I go for the honey moon: I've got a wife now. How the bride looked on our big day remains to be seen until my film director sends me the video and photo album. For the time being, I suppose a photo of the best man and myself in kilts is good enough for this quick annoucement.

I can assure that more photos will be uploaded after we return from the honey moon.

14 June 2007

I'm going to get married


It is required by the Scottish Marriage Law that both of us have to complete and submit marriage notices to the local registrar no later than 15 days before the date of the marriage. The registrar will issued a marriage schedule and no marriage can proceed without it. A minister will face six months in jail together with a fine of £5,000 if he officiates our wedding in the church without the schedule.

As I am neither a British nor a European citizen but subject to immigration control, when giving the marriage notice, I have to submit a Certificate of Approval for Marriage in the UK issued by the Home Office. We almost cancelled the wedding at one point because there was a 'catch-22' situation.

The Home Office demanded to see my fiancée's 'visitor for marriage' visa so that they could grant me the Certificate, but the British Trade & Culture Office in Taipei asked for the Certificate so that they could issue my fiancée the visa. Fortunately, having fought against the British red tape of bureaucracy for almost three months and obtained help from Stirling MP Anne McGuire, my fiancée got her visa and I managed to get the bloody certificate, which cost me £295.

Now that the local registrar in Stirling have accepted our wedding notices and announced out intended marriage on the notice board, we will definitely be able to get married in the six-hundred-year-old Church of the Holy Rude as planned and no one should interfere with it.

We'll definitely get married!

05 June 2007

Working holiday in Cambridge

Having implemented the required corrections to my doctoral thesis and unexpectedly won the losing battle against the Home Office to obtain the approval to get married in the UK, I can have my Scottish wedding as planned and attend the graduation ceremony after the honeymoon.

I'm so glad that everything is coming together after going through numerous sleepless nights, or nights full of terrors if I managed to catch forty winks.

Before coming to this pleasant point, I spent a week in Cambridge staying with my soon-to-be best man Dr Lin Yung-Yao in late May. It was intended to be a break to allow myself to switch off and get rid of the British red tape coiling around the Home Office, but finally it proved to be an alternative break, a working holiday. I had been busy painting the ceilings for Yung-Yao over the last weekend of May.

However, as it was wet and chilling in Cambridge during the English bank holiday weekend, I shoudn't complain. Miserable were those who came to Cambridge camping in the rain and mud.

Yung-Yao bought a terrace in Cambridge in January. Although he started re-constructing the interior of his 'castle' immediately after he moved in, he has actually been waiting for me to help out with painting.

As we are both fussy and obsessed with perfection, we didn't achieve what we planned. We painted at least three coats on the ceiling, including ghost painting, base coat and top coat, and super coat when necessary or when Yung-Yao desired. Moreover, in order to have shiny, smooth and blemish-free finish similar to crystals, every layer has to be sanded properly before we started next coat.

Therefore, although we thought we could have done all the ceilings and walls, finally only the ceilings were done. We reached a conclusion that we, the two perfectionists, could never start a business together, for we would never finish any contract work on time.

23 May 2007

Bob Dylan Night

(The only official souvenir of the evening. Image ©Matt Brennan 2007)

In celebration of my successful viva voce, Matt hosted an Introducing Szu-Wei Chen to the Life and Works of Bob Dylan evening for me last Wednesday.

The idea for this evening came about on 26 November 2005, a typical Scottish soggy and dark winter day, when Matt still lived in Lyon Crescent, Bridge of Allan. I went to upgrade his operating system from OS X 10.3 to 10.4 so that he could have the fancy Dashboard and the firmware of his DVD drive so that he can watch DVDs from whatever regions.

While waiting for the completion of upgrade, I was caught by two posters next to the Beatles on the wall - a herb-smoking guy in a matted, knotted hairstyle and a pallid chap with an anaemic face and a fin de siècle air. Matt was absolutely flabbergasted when I asked him who they were. Academic in popular music studies as I am, I know nothing about Western pop beyond 1950.

Regaining consciousness after such a shock, Matt gave me a crash course in the dreadlocked Bob and reggae music, and promised that an intense course in the other Bob should be arranged on condition that I cooked an authentic, non-Britishised Chinese meal.

Here we go! Including Matt, his flatmate Caitriona and myself, nine people attended this one-evening course. Basking in the music of the pale Bob while munching my Chinese dishes, we had a very successful Dylan night.

The Dylan induction was really my first postdoctoral popular music visiting fellowship. I am so glad the folks enjoyed my food and finally I know something about Bob Dylan at the end of my doctoral study.

14 May 2007

Happy Mother's Day

mum

(with Mum in Queens Botanical Garden in late March 2007)


Today, the second Sunday in May, is Mother's Day in Taiwan, a holiday copied from the States. However, in the UK people have already celebrated Mother's Day 2007 on the fourth Sunday in Lent (three weeks before Easter Sunday), the 18th of March.

Mother's Day in the States is actually an imitation from the UK, advocated by Anna Jarvis. Also known as Mothering Sunday, Mother's Day in Britain has its legendary root in the 16th century Christian practice of visiting annually one's mother church, which is a church established originally as the first mission of a particular region. On this occasion, mothers would usually be reunited with their children. It is also believed that in the past all the apprentice and slaves would be allowed to leave to visit their families on this particular Sunday. Nowadays, it is a secularised holiday on which people give thanks to mothers.

Anyhow, as Taiwanese, although in Britain, I still phone my mum on the second Sunday in May rather than on the fourth Sunday in Lent to say 'Happy Mother's Day' to her. I haven't celebrate this special day with her in person since I left Taiwan for my doctoral study in 2002.

Mum unfortunately had a stroke in 2001 and then had cancer in 2005. Although all monthly medical examinations show that she is doing very well, she complains all the time that she wouldn't survive to see me awarded the degree of PhD and getting married. I've got my PhD and will get married in June, but I'm sure she will be complaining that she might not survive to see her grandchildren sooner or later. This is my mum.

10 May 2007

Call me Doctor Chen

Having worked painstakingly for four and a half years, my thesis was accpeted for the degree of PhD with minor revision. I'm almost Dr Chen. I'm so gald that finally my doctoral study came to a good end. The support and advice I've gained from my examiners during the viva is really a good wedding gift to me.

09 May 2007

Happy birthday, Margaret and Ann

Calligraphy

Yes, quite right, I should have been reading my thesis and started a 'mock viva court' to prepare for the worst situation in the PhD oral examination. However, I was too nervous as well as too restive to do so and instead, I have been preparing birthdays gifts for Margaret and Ann, two ladies from our church choir, the former also my volunteering wedding organiser and the latter also my wedding invitation designer and personal hairdresser in Stirling.

Interestingly, Margaret and Ann were born in the same hospital on the same day in 1948 and their mother stayed in the same ward.

As a Chinese speaker born and brought up in Taiwan, I'm so privileged to be able to learn calligraphy in orthodox Chinese characters when I was a primary school pupil. I can always produce Chinese calligraphy work for my Western friends as birthday pressies or gifts on other special occasions.

This time, two Chinese felicitating expressions were chosen to be written:
  • 'Forever bright glow your birth star ' (Gengxing yong hui 庚星永輝) for Ann;
  • 'Ever spring in the sea house' (Haiwu chang chun 海屋長春) for Margaret.
While the first idiom is quite clear (an ever-gleaming birth star undoubtedly symbolise longevity), the second needs some more explanation. It has the origin in a story in which three elderly people talked about their age. One of them proudly said that he always put a stick in the house when a sea turned into an agrarian field (great change in the course of time) and he had so far gathered ten houses full of sticks. Based on this tale, the phrase 'sea house' is now used as an expression signifying longevity.

After completing the calligraphy and framing, I also spent some time wrapping them properly. I couldn't really read any single word in my thesis, so I suppose it was something worth preparing apart from my viva.

Gift

07 May 2007

Eurovision 2007 is coming

Eurovision
The Eurovision Song Contest, an annual competition held among active member countries of the European Broadcasting Union, is coming again! This year the semi-final and the final will be held on the 10th and the 12th of May respectively in Helsinki and telecast by Finland's national broadcasting company Yleisradio Oy.

The contest started in 1956 and has been telecast every year, but I only came to know it in 2001 when I first visit the British Isles. Although it has been transmitted far beyond European borders to North America and some countries in Mideast, Asia and Australasia, unfortunately it has never been shown in Taiwan.

There are 42 participating countries in the 2007 Contest. The so-called 'Big 4', which includes France, Germany, Spain and the UK, the four major financial contributors to the EBU, and the top 10 placed countries from the 2006 final will automatically qualify for this year's final. The other 28 countries will compete in the semi-final on the 10th of May for another 10 places to enter the final. Therefore, a total of 24 countries will be vying for the trophy on the 12th of May.

I suppose my European colleagues and friends will definitely know very well about the Contest but friends from other part of the world, for example my homeland Taiwan where Eurovision has never been broadcast, probably would be interested in how to decide who the winner is.

The winner of the Eurovision is determined by a voting system similar to the Borda count. Both in the semi-final and in the final each participating country will vote for their top 10 contestants, excluding themselves, by assigning 12 points to their favourite, 10 points to their second favourite and 8 down to 1 point to their third to tenth favourites. A country's set of votes is decided by the general public through televoting or SMS.

Interestingly, there is always criticism that Enrovision is just a political institution because the way a country assigns points basically depends on its political relationship to other countries rather than on the performance of the contestants. For example, Scandinavian countries tend to favour their neighbours and Greece and Cypress usually exchange 12 points with each other. Here is a paper from the Oxford University, titled How does Europe Make Its Mind Up? Connections, cliques, and compatibility between countries in the Eurovision Song Contest, which gives an analysis of voting patterns in the Contest.

Well, since I'm in the UK, I'll definitely watch the semi-final on BBC and the final on BBC One, just like how I would follow the Last Night of the Proms in September every year.

As my supervisor Simon comments that we can always see at the last night of the Proms how Britons are united by a musical event, I wonder if we can see at the final of Eurovision how Europeans would be joined together by a song contest.

01 May 2007

Mongolian singing and leather shoes

I have recently watch a film, The Cup (Phörpa), and therein heard a Mongolian song and learnt a Tibetan Buddhist lesson. While the song brought to my mind the moment I figured out how to sing like the Tuvan group Huun-Huur-Tu many years ago one morning in the toilet, the lesson reminded me of those days when I practised Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan.

This film is based on true events in which two young Tibetan monks tried desperately and finally managed to fetch a television with a satellite dish into a remote Himalayan monastery to watch the 1998 FIFA World Cup final. It is directed by Khyentse Norbu (also known as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche), a Bhutanese born Tibetan lama who was officially recognised as the third incarnation of the founder of Khyentse Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. It is also the first-ever feature film that has been produced in Bhutan.

This film caught me from the very beginning when a piece of Mongolian overtone-singing (Hoomii) was played against the opening credits. I was quite surprised at the use of Mongolian Hoomii in a Tibetan film. Although overtone-singing can also be heard in some Tibetan Buddhist chanting, the timbre and technique are quite different from those in Hoomii.

In Mongolian Hoomii, a singer produces a constant pitched fundamental and simultaneously modulate the selected overtones, from the 4th harmonic till the 16th, to create a formantic melody. However, in Tibetan Buddhist chanting, for example, the prayers recited by monks at the Gyuto Tantric University, there is a much lower fundamental, as low as 70Hz, and more simultaneous notes, and the 10th harmonic is especially made louder than other overtones.

Anyway, it doesn't matter. The lively and delightful Mongolian song is definitely more suitable for the opening of this light-hearted film than a sonorous and solemn Buddhist prayer.

Apart from the Mongolian song at the opening and the hilarious plot developing throughout the film, I was engrossed by the teaching of the abbot of the monastery at the end of the film.

Just before the ending credits, the abbot Lama Chonjor, lectured to the young monks
Can we cover the earth with leather to make it soft and comfort to walk on? No. What about covering our feet in shoes? Yes. Covering our feet in shoes works as well as covering the earth with leather.

Likewise, just as space is limitless, so are enemies omnipresent. It is impossible to overcome all enemies, yet once one overcome hatred, he also practically overcome all the enemies, all the discontent in this world and all the fears and sufferings created by ego-consciousness.
...

If a problem can be solved, what's the reason to be unhappy? And if it cannot be solved, what's the use of being unhappy?
Simple as it is in principle, I would say it is difficult in practice. I'm not ready in properly fitted shoes and just can't cheer up when seeing problems unsolved. There is much more for me to be learnt and practised in all aspects of life.

24 April 2007

The original setting of 'Auld Lang Syne'

Everybody knows the famous Scottish tune to which Robert Burn's poem Auld Lang Syne is sung, probably far better than the words. I suppose it is Robbie's poem and the occasions on which we sing it, such as the midnight on Hogmanay as well as the end of a céilidh or the Last Night of the Proms, that make the melody prominent. In my homeland Taiwan, it is usually played in graduations and funerals as a token of farewell.

Actually, there has been some doubt whether the melody we sing today is exactly the one Burns originally wrote words for. Nevertheless, it is a traditional Scots song and surely predates his time. I once asked folks in my local, Port Customs Bar about its origin but no one could give me a clear idea. Several weeks ago through a Scottish fiddler, Stuart Badenoch, I came to know a tune which is claimed to be Burn's original setting for his words.

Listen to my demonstration of the tune with only the first verse and chorus.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For Auld lang syne!
Well, this is just a home-made clip, if you would like to listen to a professionally produced recording of the complete five verses, check out the debut album The Winnowing of the Edinburgh-based duo The Cast, featuring Mairi Campbell (fiddler) and Dave Francis (guitarist).

19 April 2007

Can you insure a premature wedding?

I came across a new insurance product (not exactly new but new enough to me) online this afternoon after a heated verbal argument with my fiancée – wedding insurance, which safeguards your big-day investment with cancellation, postponement, legal expense, liability, natural disaster and so on coverage.

As explained on the web page, on your wedding day 'things can and do go wrong' and although 'wedding insurance can't guarantee that your special day will run smoothly', whatever happens, it give you peace of mind and helps financially. Clearly, the insurance covers financial losses and extra expenses for re-arrangement should any unexpected happens.

However, can you insure a wedding even if it is still under planning and may end prematurely?

I don't think there is any policy that pays if the wedding is cancelled and you break up with your fiancé(e) because of certain dispute over details of the ceremony or whether traditional customs should be followed. What's more, not until today did I realise how the process of planning a wedding may spoil a good relationship, lead to irremediable damage to both families, shatter hopes and cause huge power struggles.

Well, I'm not suggesting that my wedding plan is terminated. The Scottish wedding at the six-hundred-year-old Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling on the 23rd of June, a dream to my fiancée, will surely come true but the Taiwanese wedding to amuse family members and friends of both sides in Taiwan may be nixed due to a ridiculous rhubarb.

I was told the English will fight furiously on every single issue regarding a wedding for months before, right through or even after the great day and in the event both families may sue each other. However, I don't think the Taiwanese are any more rational although we don't usually bring the case before the court.

My parents would like to observe the tradition of choosing an auspicious date and hour for the wedding by consulting a Chinese astrologist who performs the analysis based on my and my fiancée's birth-dates and birth-hours. According to the astrologist my parents engaged, the auspicious hour is between 7 and 9am.

Obviously, the said auspicious hour is a wee bit early for a wedding ceremony, but my soon-to-be parents-in-law surprisingly can't be bothered to have a meeting with my parents to discuss details and find common ground.

Bloody heck, if my parents are so conservative and my fiancée's parents just don't even have the courtesy to be there vis-à-vis with my parent, I'll just have one wedding in Stirling and say 'off you go' to our parents.

13 April 2007

I collect thimbles and therefore I am a digitabulist

Thimbles
(Part of my thimble collection)

As mentioned in the previous entry, apart from admiring cherry blossoms, which are supposed to betoken the friendship between the US and Japan, and observing how the hotel-dimensioned White House is belittled in size by the grandiose Capitol, I bought some thimbles in Washington DC.

I came to know souvenir thimbles in 2001 when I visited Britain and had been collecting them ever since. Whereas others may buy spoons, key chains, plates, paperweights and so on when travelling abroad, I pay for thimbles. Right, I know a thimble is a metal or plastic cap with a closed end, worn to protect your finger and push the needle in sewing. Nevertheless, what I collect are porcelain thimbles, which are practically useless but purely decorative, imprinted along with landmarks and place names.

Porcelain thimbles in the UK were first produced in the early 1800s by established ceramic manufacturers such as Royal Worcester and Wedgewood, but it was actually the souvenir thimbles to commemorate The Great Exhibition in London's Hyde Park in 1851 that initiated the fashion for collecting thimbles. The production reached its pinnacle in 1885 to 1920.

Although a wide range of subjects can be depicted on thimbles, such as wildlife, plants, vehicles, signs of the zodiac, celebrated characters, commemorated events and many more, I only seek those which feature tourist attractions, landscapes or buildings from different places. When friends and colleagues go abroad, either on business or for pleasure, all I would ask is bringing me a thimble of the place they visit.

A thimble was once considered an ideal gift for a young gent to give his adored lady in the 19th century as it would remind the lassie of her wooer when she did her needlework. However, it is quite the opposite in my case. My fiancée searches for thimbles for me when she goes abroad. Moreover, she would find out a thimble even before I start the exploration in a new place when we travel together, as she can anticipate my crestfallen face and a string of venomous words out of my mouth cursing that town or city for its failure to produce thimbles featuring its landmark (another example of my problem of personality disorder).

By the way, just as there is a word philatelists for those who collect and study postage stamps, there is also a word for us who have enthusiasm and collect thimbles, which is digitabulists. Don't tell me you've never come across know this word, because this is indeed a work though it has so far not been listed in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Cherry blossoms in Washington DC

Cherry Blossoms
I don't really believe in astrology but sometimes I do believe that an Aries can be impetuous. The day before I returned to Stirling, I told my sister Liwen that it might be a good idea to visit Washington DC for those blooming cherry trees and, above all, buy a souvenir thimble for myself. Both pumped up, spending no time pondering this move, my sister and I took the over-night Greyhound from New York City to Washington DC at 1.30 am and arrived at 5.30 am, just before sunrise.

We were in time for the National Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual celebration from March 31st to April 15th which commemorates the gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington DC from Mayor of Tokyo, Ozaki Yukio (尾崎行雄, click here for details of an English translated version of his autobiography), in 1912.

Those cherry trees were presented to enhance the growing friendship between the United States and Japan, in response to which the US government also sent flowering dogwood trees as a gift to the Japanese people in 1915. However, the 'friendship' between the two countries turned sour when Japan was condemned by the US together with the League of Nations, the UK, Australia and the Netherlands, for its attacks against China. Eventually friendship became hostility after a surprise attack on the United States naval base on Pearl Harbor by the 1st Air Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1941.

Well, long gone are the days of war. Today over a million people per year come to Washington DC for these cherries in bloom, the harbingers of spring in the capital city.

Liwen and I spent 8 hours walking around the Tidal Basin (satellite image from Google Maps), strolling on streets and avenues and, of course, looking for thimbles. We returned to New York City before sunset.

PosterThis year's poster, created by Phyllis Saroff from Annapolis, Maryland.

10 April 2007

Micro mini umbrella from the US

Mini brolly
I've just been back from a two-week holiday in New York. Apart from reunion with my sister whom I haven't seen for a year, there was a great discovery: not everything in the States is necessarily big.

I suppose most people have the impression that in the US everything is big, extremely big, so unnecessarily big that sometimes we feel we were in Brobdingnag, the land occupied by giants in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It seems that the Americans have a penchant for supersizing things. They have offers such as ‘supersize your hamburger or coke for just an extra ¢1’, super-overweight people and therefore clothes in size XnL. But, returning from the holiday, I twigged that not everything in the States is necessarily big.

I brought a tin of M&S shortbread for Marcia as a birthday gift. I also received a ‘wee’ gift from her because, just as in our undergraduate days in Taiwan, she always remembered that my birthday came ten days later after hers and always gave me something unusual that, in her words, fitted my image, for example, duplicated contemporary paintings or sweetcorn facial masks.

This year Marcia gives me a totes umbrella. Obviously, her memory serves her pretty well so that she remembers that I had a brolly with me all the time when I was an undergrad at the National Taiwan University because I commuted between the University and my hometown Keelung, the harbour of rain (read this for more about my childhood memory of rain). However, she apparently has slightly unsatisfactory meteorological knowledge of the weather in the British Isles as she doesn’t realise that I simply can’t hold firmly a brolly when a Scottish gust of wind blows.

This umbrella, according to the tag, 'folds really small to fit most anywhere' and 'opens full size', but it's indeed so super-small that it hardly sheltered me and Marcia from a sudden shower when we were walking on the campus of Rutgers where she completed her master degree.

Comparison brolly
Look, this umbrella is realy a bit smaller than an ordinary one. Ergo, I can assure you that not everything in the States is necessarily big.

08 April 2007

My first-ever musical experience

King and I
I passed the audition to be accepted into the Stirling and Bridge of Allan Operatic Society last September and was then cast as the Interpreter for its 2007 show The King and I presented at MacRobert Arts Centre from 12th to 17th March, including 3 matinées and 6 evening performances.

I'd done some Chinese operas before I came to Scotland but I had no experience with musicals. It's really my debut on Western musical stage. I took great delight in presenting such a persona although I had only a few lines. In addition to the Interpreter, I also played other walk-on parts, a slave and a priest, and therefore at one point I had to change from one character to another within 30 seconds. It's good fun to run off-satge and on-stage while changing.

In the original script at Act 1 Scene 1 the Interpreter was kicked by the Kralahome (sort of 'Prime Minister, the King's right-hand man) and sent sprawling. However, our director Alan C Jones just wanted a more dramatic effect so the Kralahome was asked to punch my tummy and then kick my bum. Me and Jim Howson, who played the Kralahome, really enjoyed this modification.

As the Interpreter should be kind of middleman who puts on airs and thinks he is an important figure, I just showed a funny expression on my face. This was a successful deed; the audience loved it.

I don't know which show the committee will choose for our 2008 show but I'm sure I will get a part and create a new expression on my face.

04 March 2007

IQ test: Pick the odd one out

An IQ test is a set of problems, usually including items from different domains such as short-term memory, spatial visualisation, perceptual speed and verbal knowledge, designed and used to measure intelligence. So many different forms of IQ tests have been designed and revised since 1905 when a French psychologist, Alfred Binet, together with his colleague Theodore Simon, devised the first intelligence test, the Binet-Simon intelligence scale, in modern times.

There is always criticism that IQ tests may be biased, especially when the same set of questions are used on people from different cultures or of different races.

I'm not particularly interested in seeking evidence produced by any academic research regarding the validity of IQ testing. I still remembered my IQ was 62 according to a test in 1990 and 135 according to another test in 1997. I don't think I could make such progress in seven years' time and thus never believe this issue is worth exploring.

However, if my memory serves me, it seems that there are always 'pick-the-odd-one-out' questions in whatever form of IQ tests. From the following examples, you will understand why these tests are so biased.

Pick the odd one out:
  1. Asphalt, delight, leave and uncle
  2. Sun, moon, earth and lemon
  3. Da Vinci, Einstein, Kennedy and Marco Polo
And the answers:
  1. Asphalt, because it is the only one that cannot form an idiom with a national adjective. (You can have Turkish delight, French leave and Dutch uncle, but can you have XXX asphalt?)
  2. Earth, because when you were a wee boy or girl you usually coloured sun, moon and lemon 'yellow' with your crayon. (Earth is usually coloured blue or sometimes green.)
  3. Einstein, because he is the only one who doesn't have an airport named after him. (Da Vinci serves Rome, JFK serves New York and Marco Polo serves Venice.)
Bloody heck, are we supposed to know these when doing an IQ test if
  1. we've never heard any of these three English idioms?
  2. we've never done any colouring with crayons in childhood?
  3. we've never visited Rome, New York or Venice?