Latin music night @ Peel Fresco

My friend and I went to Peel Fresco again on the 23rd. The cozy little bar comes alive at 10pm every night, when live music fires away. The music is free but they do ask you to buy at least two drinks, which is well reasonable given the wonderful entertainment.

Tonight they played Latin music. We were both amazed by the man in white T-shirt, who played the hand drum. His dexterous fingers glided over the drum surface, seemingly bringing it alive with his tender caress. I’m sure the same hand could please his girlfriend very well.

Halfway, though, they started banging too loudly, after downing several shots of tequila. It became a bit too heavy on the ears.

Which is why I think this kind of music should really belong outdoors, to the streets and carnivals, where the sound can travel wide and far under the sun, unrestricted like the festive mood and the passion of the dancers, not pent up in a small room.

To me, Peel Fresco’s posh interior of dim light, huge paintings and velvet sofa is a better setting for jazz.

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Market economy with Shanghai characteristics

The law of supply and demand says the greater the demand, the higher the price. But in Shanghai, things do not always work that way.

I was at a coach station waiting for my ride to a cemetery in the suburbs. As the bus went only to the cemetery, it meant most, if not all, of the passengers would need flowers. Strangely, there was not a flower shop in sight, despite the obvious demand. The cemetery also sold flowers, but with a hefty mark-up.

Soon, a woman appeared with a cartload of flowers, which immediately attracted a crowd. The price was one yuan per flower (or 25 yuan per bundle), which was grossly overpriced, although a premium was justified because her merchandise was in scarcity. But as much as she understood the law of supply and demand, she was woefully unaware of the law of the jungle.

Instead of paying the full price of 25 yuan, the crowd simply force-fed her 10-yuan bills and snatched bundles from the cart. I suspect some, taking advantage of the chaos, didn’t even pay. Outnumbered, the woman could only watch helplessly as her goods were taken away. Her shouting and crying fell on deaf ears.

One of the robbers buyers said: “Even at 10-yuan per bundle, she already earns a big profit. One shouldn’t be too greedy!”

I’m sure he’ll do the opposite if he starts his own business.

London 2010 – Day 6 – Museum Hopping (Part 2)

Ah, British Museum, the ONE museum to see in London. The collection is immense: part of which was even legally acquired. One can spend days in there and still not be able to see everything. I planned to spend the rest of the day here but in the end, I left in just two hours.

Unthinkable, I know, but I wasn’t in the mood for more antiques after V&A and Sir John Soane’s. Besides, I already saw some of the more important items (such as the mummy and Sutton Hoo helmet) in Hong Kong a few years ago. The hot and stuffy interior also shortened my stay.

I checked out the Assyrian winged-lion which I always wanted to see, plus a few other departments. I also saw the collection of Chinese antiques. Many of these were looted from China but ironically, that might have saved them from destruction during China’s later upheavals.

Oxford Street

After that I took the bus to Oxford Street for some shopping. First I went to Selfridges to look for a good trench coat. But even at discount, they were more expensive then what I was prepared to spend. Weary, I stopped by the food hall’s cup cake shop for some refreshment. Only after I began eating did I become aware the environment was very feminine, with all the “cute” cakes, girly colours and floral patterns. All other customers were women, many immaculately dressed, powdered and perfumed. I must have looked really out of place in my sweaty shirt, non-descript jeans and worn out shoes. I finished my food hastily and left. By the way, the coffee was good but the cake was too sweet.

I also went to Topshop, to see why it was so popular. Maybe the women’s section had more interesting items, but the men’s section wasn’t that much different from other retailers.

National Portrait Gallery 

I returned to Trafalgar square for the National Portrait Gallery. I’m glad to have come here instead of staying at the British Museum. I enjoyed all the pieces, especially the four portraits of Elizabeth I. In one of them, which showed the queen holding a bunch of roses, modern technology revealed an underlying layer which originally depicted her holding a snake:

The distortion in this portrait of Edward VI by William Scrots was actually a technique to show off the artist’s skills. When peeped through a hole on a small box from the side, the picture becomes correctly proportioned.

Again, I looked for people giving guided tours. There is so much information you can get by listening to them. One of the guides drew our attention to the rolled-up sleeves in this self-portrait of Mary Beale. In those days, it was unusual for a woman to be depicted with her arms exposed, as it would be considered quite inappropriate:

But Mary Beale was herself a portrait painter. The rolled-up sleeves indicate she is a working woman. That, together with the palette on the wall and the portrait she’s holding, suggests this picture might have been an advertisement of her trade.

An overpriced (what isn’t in this city?) curry dinner near my hotel ended my second last full day in London.

London 2010 – Day 6 – Museum Hopping (Part 1)

National Gallery

One of the best things about London is its free museums, and I visited five today.

Natural History Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum

First I went to NHM in South Kensington. My main purpose here was to check out the museum’s famous malnourished dinosaur:

I didn’t stay long there (the building itself was more interesting than the exhibits, but that was just me) and quickly went to the nearby V&A. It was much better than I thought and if not for time, I would’ve stayed longer. It is a museum of decorative arts and design (i.e. not fine arts like paintings). Exhibits range from roman statues to armour, furniture and modern glass installations.

Be sure to check out the impressive glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly above the main entrance (you might miss it if you use the side entrance):

I enjoyed the exhibition on fashion history especially the part on how men’s suit evolved to its modern form. I also liked the special exhibition “Architects Build Small Space”, which featured full-scale model of seven concept structures that “examine the notion of refuge and retreat”. Ark by Rintala Eggertsson Architects was the one I liked most. It was a spiral staircase bordered by bookshelves and, in the center on each level, was a warmly lit reading area serving as a “sanctuary”. How I want to recreate the ambiance at home:

From V&A I exited into Brompton Road and took a bus to Holborn. This building made a good subject for a B&W picture:

Sir John Soane’s Museum

After an overpriced steak lunch at All Bar One, I went to Sir John Soane’s Museum, which turned out to be another unexpected highlight. This is actually the former home of the eponymous architect, who designed the Bank of England building, among others.

So what’s there to see, you might ask. First of all, Sir John Soane was an avid collector of antiques and paintings. There is a whole basement of classical statues and figurines, even an Egyptian sarcophagus with hieroglyphs all over it. The house itself, also designed by Sir John Soane, is full of interesting architectural features.

I was lucky. A group of school children was visiting so I got to “eavesdrop” on the teacher’s explanations. For example, in the breakfast room, she explained how mirrors were cleverly placed to draw and distribute natural light.

The most interesting part, however, was the painting room. I was engrossed in William Hogarth’s satirical Election series (one of which is pictured below, from Wikipedia) when the students and the teacher entered.

“Now, girls, can you tell me how many pictures are there in this room?” She asked.

“32”, “43”, they answered. There seemed to be no more than 50.

“Actually, there are more than a hundred.”

A which point a staff member opened a lock on the wall and unfolded the panels, revealing many more pictures hidden inside, much to our amazement. One of the panels also opened to a small balcony from which the sarcophagus room could be seen.

Photography is not allowed inside but you can find drawings of the basement and breakfast room on the museum’s Wikipedia page.

I can’t recommend this place enough. It is within walking distance from the British Museum so you may consider combining the two in your visit.

Handwriting and diversity

The other day, I came across this umbrella repair stall in Peel Street:

I was drawn to the handwriting as much as the stall itself. Like umbrella repairers, handwriting in shops is a disappearing sight in Hong Kong. The prevalence of digital printing has done away the need to write.

I have a special fondness of handwritten signs because they represent the kind of individuality and human touch which are fast disappearing in Hong Kong. They hark back to a time when small businesses could survive (even thrive), unlike today when they’re increasingly forced out by exorbitant rents that only large chains can afford. You rarely see handwriting in chain stores: handwriting is at odds with the kind of standard and uniform corporate image that chains require.

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Our cityscape is being homogenized by the same chains and same malls in every district. Shop handwriting is just another thing lost along with the diversity in Hong Kong.