Sunday, April 12, 2009

Priscilla Chan, Queen of Musical Soap Operas

I came across this gem of a music video on one of my nostalgic romps through Youtube. If you were a child of the eighties who also happened to be a Cantopop fan -- like me -- you would instantly recognize the song as Priscilla Chan's mega-hit Thousands of Songs (陈慧娴 千千闕歌). Or you could just read the caption.

It is an oldie but a goodie - enjoy!

I will spare you all the boring details of how big a hit this was for Priscilla, and how many awards it won. Mainly because I don't know, and I'm too lazy to google-research it. Suffice to say that I'm certain the song was a huge hit - even my friends who are children of the nineties and double-o's are familiar with it.

It was the first time I'd ever seen this music video, and it left a deep impression. What had me entranced from the get-go, more so than the song - which is great, don't get me wrong, but I'd heard it a thousand times - was the visual style. I can't let it go without making some comments about it.

Let's start with Priscilla's outfit. Not something I'd ever seen on the streets of North Jersey, yet it looks strangely familiar. Of course, my suspicions were confirmed with a quick flip through some Japanese manga comics. (By the way, many answers to life's eternal questions are found on the pages of Japanese manga.)

A frenzy of google-wiki-search settled the argument. There is no doubt she's sporting Lolita fashion. Not your average run-of-the-mill Lolita outfit, mind you. Hers carries the trademark virginal white of shiro(white)-Lolita. However, Lolita fashion alone doesn't account for all her stylistic influences. There is something else I can't quite put my finger on. For now, I'll call it "burn victim couture" - how else do you explain why just about every inch of her body is covered in fabric?

Now that we've got the discussion of her outfit out of the way - let us proceed with an an in-depth analysis of the video itself.

It is obvious that the director is a scholar of the classics. The video draws heavily from traditional Cantopop playbooks. Many of the classic elements are present: soft-lighting, blood red long stem roses, staring longingly out of one's raindrop-covered window pane, resting one's chin on one's white-cotton-gloved hand and tilting one's head, pouring two glasses of champagne at a table for one, strolling by the sea-shore at dawn, and the sine qua non of Cantopop parting-with-one's-lover-love-song videos: letter-writing.

To its credit, the video does more than just follow a well-worn formula. The director's true genius is revealed when he takes the classical elements, melds them and creates something that captures the zeitgeist of the late eighties.

A case in point: in one scene, Priscilla lines a letter with rose petals and folds it, ostensibly to be delivered to her long-distance lover. Seeing that, I can't help thinking, "How many times have we all been there and done that?" Am I right, guys? Speaking for myself, I'm still getting used to the idea of sending off an envelope that I don't have to fill with rose petals.

For those fans out there that aren't fully fluent in Chinese, let me give you the low-down on the lyrics. They are written in a first person narrative, from Priscilla's perspective. The person she's addressing is, of course, her lover.


Slowly reminiscing, looking back at all the evenings we shared
Time and again, you were the one who lit up my heart with joy
If I were to shed foolish tears, I beg sympathy and forgiveness
Tomorrow we will part, I see a long stretch of loneliness ahead
All of a sudden, I am overcome with all the things I want to say
What a pity that we will soon be at opposite ends of the world
Let us live deeply in the final moment that we have together


Even if there were thousands of songs
That may cross my path in the future
Even if there were thousands of stars
That are brighter than the moon tonight
They will never match the beauty that I see now
They will never make me happier than I am now
Because tonight we sing together.
(I wanted to write "make music together" but that might be too cheesy)


Only on your departure's eve, do I realize the beauty of sorrow
As it turns out it was you who I will never forget
I don't know when we will have another night like tonight
Let's pause in each other's gaze, let our eyes say what's in our hearts
On a certain day, when rain drops fall gently on your window
When the sound of the wind rouses you from a daydream
Would you find the time to recall this old memory

The chorus then repeats a few times, with only minor differences between each one.

Here's a video of Priscilla performing in a different get-up, although it's similarly Japanese-inspired.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Griffin Clarifi Case for the iPhone 3G - A Review

I've had the Griffin Clarifi case for the iPhone 3G for a couple of weeks now. It was a real pain in the ass trying to decide which case to get for my iPhone. There are so many choices out there!

After I’d decided on a hard case, instead of one of those silicone gel covers, the decision turned to: which hard case? Clear ones? Candy-colored teeny-boppy ones? Plain black corporate ones? Then, to further complicate matters, I found out there are hybrid hard/soft cases that offer the protection of a rigid shell but are flexible enough that you can stretch and bend to get them to fit onto the iPhone. Oh, the agony of it all!

Over the years, I’ve become one of those people who tend to over-research every single purchase I make. It wasn’t always like that. In my teenage years, almost every thing I did was spontaneous and on the spur of the moment. Every decision was made in under five seconds. Could it be that I’m now over-compensating for all the mistakes I made in the past? That would be a great discussion for another time, another place -- preferably a place that has a couple of glasses and a large bottle of brandy.

Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? In brief, the Griffin Clarify is a slider style case that is very similar to the InCase Slider. With one major upgrade - it comes with a close-up or macro lens that allows you to take much clearer close-up photos with the iPhone camera. Without the lens, Griffin contends, you're gonna get sucky close-ups on the iPhone.

I've been told that the selling point of the case is that corporate types can use the lens to take photos of each other's business cards, as they are wont to do. I know! I've learnt not to be surprised anymore by what corporate types get up to when a bunch of them get together like that. Better that than screwing around with the economy, right?

The good news is this: the Clarifi close-up lens really does work. Let's compare some photos. I took a couple of shots of the little insert that came with the case.

Here it is with the close-up lens:

Here it is without:

Here's a couple of my watch.
With the close-up lens:


You can see the finer details with the lens in place. Without it, close-ups are more or less a blur.

Now for the bad news, the Griffin Clarifi case is a lint magnet. I carry my iPhone in my pocket. I've come to realize, since I started carrying my mobile phones that way, my pockets are lint factories. I have so much lint in my pockets I'm surprised other stuff are able to fit in there.

Of course, after the iPhone takes a lint bath in my pockets, it looks a mess. Lint collects in all the nooks and crannies where lint loves to collect. To start with, take a look around the edges where the case meets the screen in the next two photos.

Here's a closer look at all that lovely lint.

Now for the lint's favorite watering hole - it is literally a hole.

The slider that houses the lens doesn't stay very firmly in place. It moves and slides open easily and lint gets trapped in there. It looks disgusting, doesn't it? The linty little hole is next to impossible to clean.

It might not be pretty, but it's not a big deal. It's certainly no impediment to the proper function of the case, which is to protect the iPhone from scratches and perhaps more serious damage - I shudder to think what possible misfortune could befall my treasured iPhone.

Overall, I'm fairly happy with the case. It is a well made case, the materials are of decent quality, but it is expensive at about $35 retail. You can pick it up with a reasonable discount on the 'Bay or other on-line retailers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sally Yeh - Cantopop's Nonpareil Siren of Song

It's been too long since I've listened to some good Cantopop. By good Cantopop, I don't mean those pretenders on the scene who half-whisper lyrics, sounding more like they're speaking than singing. No, sir. I'm talking about the old-school artistes, those whose work have secured them preeminent positions in the Cantopop constellation of stars; singers who can carry a tune. When one peruses the Cantopop canon, the same names appear again and again: marquee performers like Priscilla Chan, Anita Mui, and the quintessential paragon of pop in multiple dialects and languages, Sally Yeh (叶蒨文).

It's been too friggin’ long since I've listened to Sally Yeh. The four time winner of the Hong Kong Best Female Singer award rightly deserves every ounce of adulation she receives. Ignore the doubters and naysayers. Her body of work speaks for itself. Even if she doesn’t utter another note for the rest of her life, her decades-long career as has made her an enduring and fervently worshipped icon in the high-turnover world of Chinese idolatry.

It was a recent Apple iPhone purchase that got me re-acquainted with her music. Loaded up iTunes with Sally Yeh mp3’s and boom, a stream of her silk-soaked-in-honey vocals are flowing from my earbuds. Life is sweet. Listening to her also made me realize reason why I don’t listen to her more than I should -- my proficiency in Mandarin and Cantonese is -- optimistically-speaking -- about grade five-ish. It's barely enough to get by ordering food at a Chinese restaurant without running the risk of poisoning the entire table.

How could anyone with such feeble grasp of the lyrics gain an absolute appreciation and enjoyment of her art? It’s no mystery really. She possesses the ability to convey the emotional essence of every song through her voice alone. Words no longer matter; language no longer matters.

Over the years, however, I’ve often wondered -- how much more juice could I squeeze out then, if I could actually understand the lyrics? I thought it would be interesting to find out.

With the help of online dictionaries and, I'm going to translate my entire Sally Yeh playlist, verse by painful verse. Consider it a community service to all the Chinese-language-challenged Cantopop fans out there. I can't be the only one, can I? Or can I? Either way, I think it's gonna be fun, even if it benefits no-one else.

I’m gonna kick it off with 哭砂 (ku1 sha1): it's near the top of my all-time faves. Could this be the most tear-jerky song she has ever sung? I don't know. She sings a lot of tear-jerky songs. Hmmm... why does saying tear-jerky make me hungry?

Right out of the gate, the title causes me to stumble. I have no idea how to translate “哭砂”. If it is a metaphor, it’s one I’m not familiar with (along with probably a million others). Weepy sand? Teary gravel? If anybody out there has an idea, please speak up. For now, I'll go with "Tears in the Sand".

哭砂 "Tears in the Sand"

你是我最苦澀的等待 讓我歡喜又害怕未來
Waiting for you is a bitter experience; I feel at once hope and fear of the future.

你最愛說你是一顆塵埃 偶而會惡作劇的飄進我眼裡
You love to say you’re a speck of dust; Every so often, you playfully blow into my eye. (Clumsy, and weird - you can tell I have a lot of trouble with this line)

寧願我哭泣 不讓我愛你 你就真的像塵埃消失在風裡
You want to make me cry; You won't let me love you; You disappear like dust in the wind.

你是我最痛苦的抉擇 為何你從不放棄漂泊
You're my most painful dilemma; Why don't you ever give up your wandering ways?

海對你是那麼難分難捨 你總是帶回滿口袋的沙給我
It's tough for you to part with the ocean; You always bring me back pocketfuls of sand

難得來看我 卻又離開我 讓那手中瀉落的沙像淚水流
Visits from you are rare; We’re more often apart; Let sand flow from the hand like tear drops.

風吹來的沙落在悲傷的眼裡 誰都看出我在等你
Wind-blown sand lands in my sad eyes; It's obvious that I'm waiting for you.

風吹來的沙堆積在心裡 是誰也擦不去的痕跡
Wind-blown sand collects in my heart; Which is impossible to clean out.

風吹來的沙 穿過所有的記憶 誰都知道我在想你
Wind-blown sand scatters through all my memories; It's obvious I am thinking of you.

風吹來的沙 冥冥在哭泣 難道早就預言了分離
The wind-blown sand; I'm crying in the dark; could it have long predicted our separation?

The last two verses repeat.

Whew! I’m glad I got through that with dry eyes. Okay, I might’ve misted up a little there… in one eye.

Okay, obviously I didn’t do a literal translation of the song. I took some poetic license here and there. Some parts could be more elegant - your constructive criticism is welcome, of course. Until my next post, happy listening!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Del Posto

For my birthday, my wife took me to Del Posto for lunch. It’s a Batali/Bastianich enterprise located in NYC’s meatpacking district. The façade of the restaurant is rather unassuming and could easily be mistaken for an office entrance, which was exactly what we did when we walked past it and had to double back.

Walking on 10th Ave, we stopped a block away at Crafsteak’s to study its menu. It looked very appealing. I seriously considered jettisoning our original plan for a meal at Craftsteak instead. My wife expressed misgivings about such a late cancellation. I wondered aloud: Does Craftsteak have the same validation policy as Del Posto for the garage where we had parked our car? It is certainly plausible - the garage is the closest one around to either restaurant. However, between wrestling with the qualms of cancelling late, and the possibility of a parking validation disappointment distracting us from completely enjoying lunch, we decided to stick to Del Posto.

The doors opened into an impressive and opulent dining room. It looked like the interiors of a grand Italian villa, or at least what I imagine a grand Italian villa to look like - the closest I’ve been to Italy was a couple of trips to the Secaucus, NJ Olive Garden.

The food had hits and misses. We'd wanted a tasting menu but apparently it wasn't available at lunchtime.

Amuses were some kind of soup with honey (blah), what I'd call codfish nuggets but I'm sure they had a fancier name, and sunchoke chips with some creamy dip that tasted pretty good.

First impressions were that the presentation isn't a top priority at this place. Food looks carelessly tossed onto bowls, cups and dishes that were either too big for the portions, or otherwise inapproriately sized. No thought given to make the presentation attractive.

While the bread was pretty good on the whole, bread service was awful. When we'd clearly exhausted one of the bread varieties, nobody took the trouble to refill/refresh - maybe nobody noticed.

Of the 84 pages of wines they have on offer, I had the good fortune to pick one that was out of stock. Without checking with me first, the server produced a bottle that was "similar in style and at the same pricepoint". I had no problems with that - it was after all at the same pricepoint, so I won’t be getting ripped off any worse than I had planned for.

For first course, I had the lobster and cauliflower and my companion the salumi. The lobster was overcooked and chewy - but the flavor was good. The cauliflower was creamy and had a nice sweetness that complemented the sweetness of the lobster.

The salumi was a complicated multi-dished course consisting of several selections of cured meats, a spinach tart (erbazzone), and a couple slices of what looked like rabbit terrine. The cured meats were very good, but the rest of the course rather forgettable. The erbazzone had absolutely no flavor whatsoever, and reminded me of a pot pie I once ate at a diner. Parts of the rabbit were too tough - impossible to overcome despite sustained and enthusiastic chewing. I had no choice but to spit it out.

For mains, we had the grilled striped bass and the pork loin. I enjoyed the striped bass but I thought the dish overall was out of balance and skewed toward being overly sweet. I wish there had been some acidity to play against the sweetness of the fish and the cauli.

The pork loin dish was a stack of two gigantic bricks of pork - a portion I expected to see at the Olive Garden more than at a fine dining restaurant. The loin was cooked to a perfect temperature. The meat appeared moist and yielded easily to the bite. The only complaint with this dish was again its sweetness and one dimensionality. The candied figs and the caramelized stuffed onion all sang the same sugary tune.

I don’t remember much about the desserts, except that it was chocolaty and it was pretty good.

All in all, it was an okay meal, but for the money, there are better choices in Manhattan. I don’t know if it’s us, but we don’t seem to have any luck at picking Italian restaurants.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Pair of Nuts

Let’s do it right and start the festivities with a duo of nuts. Don’t ask me why, but it just feels right to do a pair at a time. I submit for your consideration these two antioxidant-filled cans of fun.

The Peanut Shop of Williamsburg, Virginia Peanuts Lightly Salted

The Peanut Roaster Selects Golden Gourmet Peanuts

This is the second time I’ve cracked a can of the Williamsburg peanuts. The first one had a baseball theme, but both look like they contain the same product - I found nothing on the labels to suggest otherwise. If my whisky-addled mind recalls correctly, the baseball nuts were a little larger and crunchier, but I don’t know if that was by design or due to differences in the cooking process or variability in their peanut supply or both. I believe the same folks who make this also sell nuts under the “Smithfield Tavern” label.

Close-up of The Peanut Shop's Nuts

The Williamsburg nuts are lightly salted. You should be able to see from the close-ups that these have almost no visible salt, while the Peanut Roaster’s nuts are coated with a fine dusting. The nutrition label has these goobers coming in at 40mg of sodium per a 28g serving, while the Roaster’s are 85 mg.

"Golden Gourmet" just came back from a Florida vacation

Salt content is always an important consideration. I’m well known in my family for being an intolerable fusspot when it comes to salt levels. My preferences exist in a very narrow band.

Williamsburg’s lightly salted nuts are salted too lightly for my taste, and the Roasters’ are just a tad too salty. However, I found a happy medium when the two are eaten in combination.

John Edward, “a happy medium”

It is unthinkable to throw a nut party without the proper libation. I stuck my head in the fridge and pondered deeply, finally emerging with this German pilsner. The Radeberger pilsner is a light and refreshing brew - a fine choice even if I say so myself. The hoppiness of the beer cuts nicely through the oiliness of the peanuts. It was also the only beer I had.

On balance, the Roaster’s nuts appear darker than Williamsburg’s but they are similar in size. Being nuts of the Virginia variety, they are both bigger than the Planter’s. Planters do not reveal what cultivar they use for their regular cocktail peanuts. The Virginia nuts also cook up crunchier and less greasy compared to Planters.

Besides the saltiness, I could not find much else to differentiate the two. Though the Roasters’ look more “roasted”, the flavor isn’t appreciably better or worse. It is important, however, to take note of hidden treasures in both cans. They are something quite special - something I like to call the “uber-nuts”.

Uber-nuts are nuts that look like they got too much face time with some very hot oil, causing small blisters to form on the surface. The uber-nuts tend to have the heartiest crunch and the best flavor. I wish I could take credit for the discovery, but this is hardly the first time a link is made between hot oil, blisters and giddy pleasure. That’s a story we know all too well, am I right guys? You know I’m right.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

In Search of the Perfect Peanut

Peanuts don't get no respect. It occupies a lowly position on the nut totem pole. You won't find it in "Deluxe" nut mixes. In the English language, the word is slang for a small or insignificant person. Getting paid peanuts means getting very little money - possibly only enough to afford peanuts - the cheapest nut.

Here's a case in point. A can of Planters mixed nuts that claims to have “less than 50% peanuts”.

It would seem the folks at Planters don't think very highly of the peanut.

The claim itself gives interesting insights into how the marketing mind works: “Customers dislike peanuts, so the only hope we have of selling this product is if we limit how much goes in the can.” Fair enough, but why do they then turn around and pad up to half the can with the unwanted nut? Jackasses!

Why does the peanut get the bum’s rush in the nut world? You won't find the answer here.

That's because the peanut is my favorite legume. Ferran Adria once said, “Remember a very good peanut is always preferable to a not that good lobster”. He didn’t actually say that, but I think you know the point I'm trying to make.

Granted, the average peanut you find on the grocery store shelves doesn’t do the peanut justice. Ever since I ate some salted peanuts served on a Malaysia Airlines flight (of all places), I was smitten by the humble goober pea. The peanuts were large and crunchy, and tasted so good I was convinced they spiked it with MSG.

It was a culinary awakening - we've all had those before, right? It's an experience that is difficult to describe. I want to say it's like losing one's virginity, but that sounds salacious and that's not what I'm about, man.

Maybe it's like... see if I can illustrate with a story... You've just come back from summer vacation, and that frumpy girl you've known since junior high has transformed into one hot chick. Her braces are gone, she's traded her glasses for contacts and you catch sight of her tossing her long silky tresses carelessly, hither and thither and hither again. She beckons you over and as you sit close to her, she made no effort to move away, already a good sign. She reaches into her backpack with one hand, and takes your hand with the other and and places something in it and whispers in your ear, "I think it's time we start to spice things up". OMG! a bottle of Naga Bhut Jolokia hot sauce! Hello! At one million Scoville units, the Naga Jolokia is only the hottest pepper on earth! You almost wet yourself with joy.

From that moment on, the Planters nuts I had accepted as the "goober standard" could no longer cut it. My tastebuds have been liberated. I had to find some better nuts, and on these pages, I will share my trials and triumphs with you, dear reader. I hope some of you will join me in my quest.

Enough talk. Let’s crack open a can of nuts and get this party started!

Monday, March 31, 2008

NJ Dining: Chengdu 23, Wayne

I can't believe it's been over a year since my last blog entry. I've exceeded all previous estimations of laziness. Anyway, here's a restaurant review - one of many more to come, I hope.

Chengdu 23 opened a few weeks ago in Wayne where the Taipei Noodle House used to be. I was sad to see the old restaurant close, in spite of its poorly chosen furnishings: the bright red sofa in the shape of a hand in the waiting area looked oddly out of place. I'd enjoyed their Taiwanese beef noodle in soup - and I’d enjoyed it even more when I got the idea of ordering it with both brisket and tendon.

According to the new lao ban nian/proprietress, the previous owner had tired of the business and wanted out.

Well, I’m happy to report that the red sofa is gone, but the fish tank remains. Along with fortune cats, lightbox posters of Hong Kong skyrises at night and walls adorned with International currency notes, the aquarium has become de riguer in Chinese restaurants.

What’s not de riguer, however, is an aquatic freakshow. There’s a goldfish in the tank with something growing out of its forehead I’m pretty sure doesn’t normally grow out of a goldfish’s forehead. If the lao ban nian had any entrepreneurial inclinations at all, she’d charge admission for the sight.

Dinner and a show. Brilliant! Well, enough about the ambience.

We chose mostly from the non-Sichuanese items, because my two year old daughter was with us. Feed her anything spicy and she’ll turn into Miss Fussy McFussbucket; crying real tears and screaming for water.

So we ordered the beef brisket spicy noodle appetizer (the only item with a *, for Daddy only), half a peking duck, shrimp chow fun and chicken with broccoli - for my Chinese American daughter who has developed a worrisome palate for authentic American Chinese.

The spicy noodle turned out to be the best thing we ordered, and I can see it being an excellent replacement for my erstwhile "regular" - a slightly different rendition of pretty much the same basic ingredients, done at the same location. What more could a fella ask for?

To be frank, I could’ve done with more noodles and more beef. At about the same price, the new serving is less than half of the old one.

The shrimp chow fun was different from other versions I’ve had. The dark specks that were clearly visible on the pale rice noodle were not burnt wok detritus as I had first suspected but finely ground black pepper. The chef’s liberal hand with the pepper mill elevated the chow fun from what would have simply been a source of workaday carb and protein.

The other dishes were pretty unremarkable. I couldn't tell the Peking duck from regular roast duck. The skin was more chewy than crispy, and lacked the deep hue that comes from treatment with maltose. For half a duck, the restaurant had decided that exactly two pancakes would be sufficient accompaniment. When I requested extra, I got the impression that they're a precious commodity.

The server quizzed: How many pieces more, exactly, would I like?

About twenty minutes later, he arrived bearing two pancakes. With the grand gesture of someone who was about to give a lifetime worth of earnings to charity, he declared that the extra pancakes would be on the house.

At the end of the meal, after the dishes were cleared away and the check requested, I was hoping to be surprised with a wedge of orange or two and maybe if we were lucky, a small bowl of red bean dessert. What we got, instead, was a small plate of canned pineapple chunks in syrup. Our two year old, a fruit-in-syrup eating machine, devoured the entire thing.

After which, she pleaded: More, more. More, pleeeeease!

“How many pieces more, exactly, would you like?” I asked.