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


(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


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.


07 May 2007

Eurovision 2007 is coming

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.