Five years ago, I was finishing up my aromatherapy studies and give aromatherapy treatments (i.e. massages) to case clients over a course of seven sessions each.
One of the case clients was a friend. She had just returned from a trip, and I didn’t know where from.
I started the massage with the blended essential oils diluted in a base oil. However, when I got to the legs, I was like, “Hold on. What’s going on?” “Did my friend lose her sense of touch in her legs or …”
Her thighs used to ache tremendously – even the slightest pressure would be so sore. However, this time, pressure elicited no response.
I leaned in further and further with my forearm, and she still had no reaction whatsoever.
My friend was unfazed. I confused, “What did you do? Where did you go? How come the pain is gone?”
She then told me about the Vipassana course.
During the course, through meditation, a memory came through where she realised she was holding onto old memories of a person she used to be close to. She cried and let it out, and the pain disappeared.
That made me decide that I’d like to see for myself what I got out of the course.
Day ZERO at the Vipassana Camp
One of the basic rules of the 10-day meditation camp was to not kill. And, first evening of the afternoon we checked-in, had dinner and was briefed such rules, I …
Lights out was early. To make sure we got a good at least 7 hours of sleep before the waking bell at 4am. Beds lined two widths of a rectangular dorm. We don’t speak to anyone nor make eye contact. Everyone was quietly tidying up, getting ready for bed.
Amidst the ruffling and movement, I spot in the corner of my eye – a small darkish insect. Immediately thinking, gosh, a cockroach! I better eliminate it or else we’ll either have a very eventful evening with screaming dorm mates in the middle of the night over this tiny bug.
So discretely, altruistically, second-naturedly, with no consultation, I grabbed tissue and brought the end of life to the little cockroach, dumping them all into the bin. No one noticed. Thank goodness, and goodnight.
It was probably until the next day that I realised, “Oh shit! I killed something! Does that mean I ruined my 10-day camp even before it began!? Crap!”
After lunch on the first day, I lined up to speak to the literally buddha-looking jolly teacher and shared with him and the women’s group manager in private my concerns (and confession) of having broken an important tenant of the Vipassana camp. I explained my rationale – that had I not killed the bug, I worried it would affect all of our sleep in the dorm, you see?
Luckily, I was not banned from proceeding with the camp. Simply an advice to not do so again.
“Even with mosquitos? I mean we can’t kill mosquitos?” I asked quizzically. As cockroaches, mosquitos were – pests right?
“You leave it alone.”
“What’s the problem/what happens when we kill?”
And the buddha-looking jolly facilitator explains that the act of killing causes some type of chemical reaction within our bodies and thus could negatively impact the meditation. That’s why we are advised not to do so.
Over the course the camp, hanging out under the sun in the open fields, I realised what I unfortuitously killed was actually – a benign field bug. Brownish green, and not at all the shape of a cockroach. So sorry.
Hung up by a mosquito
It got me thinking about how sometimes when we let the smallest thing hang us up, it’s like losing perspective on things. If we don’t get hung up, then we can focus on the thing we want to focus on instead.
Thinking back to what got me into complementary healing modalities was a chance encounter with Kinesiology. The idea is that every emotion/memory is stored in our body and through muscle-testing, ie the Kinesiology, we could find out where there is a weakness showing up and then restore that to balance.
One kinesiologist I saw recommended the book Feeling Buried Alive Never Die and may be of interest.
My friend didn’t tell me much about the course other than that the food is vegetarian and one doesn’t eat after the sun sets, and a reminder to bring an extra shawl for the meditations.
I am very glad she didn’t tell me more and that I didn’t look up info online.
Going with an openness to soak in all that transpires, to follow the instructions closely would be my best tips.
Every person’s experience would differ depending on where they are coming from and what they put in. So why not see how it unfolds?
The course has been running for decades all over the world with a very good system of instruction. So do as you are told and you’ll be getting the most out of it.
For me, seeing how the pain disappeared from my friend’s thighs – no surgery, no nothing – was when I knew I want to check this out five years ago.
The camp is paid for by previous donors and is free for anyone male or female to attend. After finishing the course, one could donate for future attendees. For more information on Vipassana meditation: www.dhamma.org
I received a lovely message from Sae-san whom I met last October at a ten-day Vipassana meditation course in Japan. Sae-san wrote that she had just returned from another ten days, this time as a volunteer server, where she cooked meals, helped keep the place clean and running smoothly. The biggest gift from her experience as a server was how it showed her she could, incorporate the practice, three hours a day into everyday life and still manage her life.
How we kept each other going
For a few days during the course, I was sitting to the right of Sae-san while we learned Vipassana and practiced the meditation in the hall. Throughout the course, we do not talk and chat with one another, and we don’t make any contact, including eye-contact.
Silence was lifted after the ten days and we finally spoke to each other! We sat on the grass and Sae-san mentioned that she was really inspired by how just I sat and sat and sat. I, on the other hand,noticed how she was sitting so still that I felt I too could be sitting still like she was. So I guess we were inspiring one another (^○^)
On this last day, I also met a lady from Vietnam. This is her second 10-day course. She attended her first course in Canada. Since learning the Vipassana meditation method, she has kept up with her practice, although shortened to a more manageable 30 minutes, twice a day, and people around her and herself too noticed a difference. As a professor, she has been able to handle frustrating situations with students in a much calmer manner.
I am thankful she shared her experience with me as I was wondering if I would make this meditation a daily practice. She showed me the benefits and how it was possible – thanks to her, I’ve been keeping up with the practice at home.
Original post published 29 April, 2019. The current version is an update.
When you talk to people about this thing that they do, whether it’s baking bread, or you know, like whatever it is, they say the most incredible… Like, they have these incredible, rich interior worlds around that apparently simple thing of like baking bread, and they say the most gorgeous poetic stuff that you would just never have thought of in regards to baking bread. These worlds inside people. And I guess the intensity of feeling and thought around people’s vocation – that, I really enjoyed.
Anna Gleeson, on conducting interviews for Ha Wan Pao
Over the years, I’ve found that Anna’s a very interesting person and am excited to share our chat-like interviews in two parts with you. This one starts from the beginning, through the various pitstops and projects that has led up to now.
Tell us more about you. Who you are, what brought you to where you are now.
So I’m Anna Gleeson. I’m an artist. So what brought me to where I am now is, you want the long version?
Sure. So for a start, I grew up in a small coal mining town where there wasn’t really a big visual art scene, or possibly even a visual arts scene at all. But from early on, I really liked looking at the world, I was really intense about staring out the window during maths class and looking out the window during long car trips. And so my kind of my interesting visual stuff came really early just from sheer enjoyment of looking.
And then I had an art teacher that I really liked in high school, her name was Emma. She was really encouraging. And then I guess I never really thought about being an artist at that age, because it was just so foreign to the world I grew up in – a tiny town.
I remember when we got our first our first traffic lights. (Whoa.)
We used to ask my mom to drive that way through the traffic lights, in case they would turn red. And we would get to stop at them. And that would be so exciting.
We didn’t have a cinema. We didn’t have bookshops. You know, it was just like, but what one thing that we do have was we had this TV station called SBS, which still exists in Australia. And they used to show a lot of really interesting cinema on TV.
So one of the first things I wanted to be when I grew up was a filmmaker because that was one of the only sources of interesting visual culture that was around was watching movies on SBS.
Yeah, so I was like, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker when it came time to actually go study. There’s a really good film school in Sydney, but they don’t take people straight out of high school. They take people who are already in the film industry.
So I ended up doing this kind of compromise, which is I went to art school in the film department. In the film department it was called Electronic and Temporal Arts. And we did video, video installation, and film. That kind of thing.
And I’ve worked out very quickly that it was not for me, like filmmaking is a real team enterprise and I’m just kind of not a team player.
So I kind of drifted towards the photography studio, which was downstairs from the lab.
I guess before that I also I did in high school an exchange year in Dresden where I went to a high school that was really focused on art and music.
Dresden: nerd no longer
What is the style like in Dresden in contrast to where you were growing up?
Yeah, it was just a different world altogether. For me, it felt like I came from this really tiny town where there was nothing going on to Dresden, which is really quite a cultural place.
In my high school in Australia, I was this nerd that like to still talk about art history during recess, and people used to laugh at me for that. And then when I got to Dresden, I was like, not intense enough for how intense they were about…
Yeah, so it was just like, Whoa, was a whole other… For example, I played the violin. And in, my high school in Australia, I tried to keep that a secret. I didn’t want anyone to know I played the violin. When I got to my high school in Dresden, people were like, “You play the violin? Cool! You should join our orchestra!”
Wow, that’s such a contrast.
I was like what!? It was so weird!
So did you join the orchestra?
I did, but I wasn’t good enough for it. Do you know what I mean? It was just like, going from being the only fish in the pond to being in a much bigger pond.
So I guess, in visual style. I can’t really say a lot to the visual style of, I just kind of wasn’t really exposed to too much visual art where I was growing up. So it was more like the contrast between nothing and something.
You studied in Sydney, but then soon after you were living in different cities.
When I graduated, I was really into photography, I moved to Berlin. And I did that just because I already spoke German, because I’d had that exchange year. So I decided to go and have what people call a gap year, I guess, in Berlin. While I was in Berlin, I was taking lots of photographs, I was kind of trimming them in my room to cut down to the piece of the image that I liked, and sticking them in a little book that I made myself, kind of doing that kind of project.
So your year in Berlin was focused on looking and taking photographs, and cataloging your version of Berlin.
Yeah, exactly. Berlin is a really interesting city. And it was at that time changing quite quickly.
East Berlin: bleak yet beautiful
What year was this?
It was the year of September 11. So 2001. So I was living in the former Eastern part of Berlin.
And there are these really strange landscapes kind of, you know, abandoned factories and falling down houses, that kind of stuff. They’re really quite bleak, but beautiful, open landscapes, I guess.
So I kind of felt like I was documenting the moment of Berlin the way it was at that time. And just keeping it like a little time capsule sort of thing.
I’s funny how that is seen in your more recent work like the landscapes of Australia or, the project that you did with your daughter?
What’s the project that I did with my daughter?
I mean, her photo book you actually published.
Yeah, yeah. Definitely you can, it still kind of fits.
Recently, I even had an idea of something I wanted to do with photography that I was like, “Oh, am I allowed to go do a photography project?
After all these years and I was like, “Well, yeah, why not? Still got the camera! Who’s going to tell me no, right?”
New York City: darkroom – pinhole – paper-pulp
But from there, I moved back to Sydney. Shortly after, I moved to New York. And in New York, I continue to be interested in books. And I did a bunch of internships.
One of them was at the Center for Book Arts. And the other one was at a place called the Dieu DonnéPaper Mill. It’s like an amazing paper-making studio where they work with artists, and they make all kinds of art using paper making as their foundation.
It’s really worth looking at their website. As they have some really big names to come through there. They make really beautiful stuff.
And they have a bunch of Master papermakers that are there. The artists come in and go like, “I want to do this!” and they make it happen. I was the intern, I was just hosing stuff down and stuff. But I liked just being around it.
So what did you do at those two internships?
Just like whatever needed doing. Sweep the floor, hose down the paper making felts you know, nothing interesting.
But it really informs your work now too. Because you do the paper pulp work.
Yeah, yeah. And because I did, I had this memory of being in the studio one day when they were couching a really thick piece of paper.
All it means is you lift up this frame and it’s got paper pulp sitting on it and then you kind of couch that onto a felt. It’s like transfer.
I just remember seeing this really thick layer of wet pulp sitting on a felt and it was just like, it just looks yummy!
So yeah, and then I did come back to paper making projects, paper pulp painting, which my husband always says, “Say it Fast Five times!” Paper pulp painting! Paper pulp painting! ….
Did you make art while you were in New York?
I was doing some other stuff. In terms of those internships, It’s like I was learning how to make books at the Center for Book Arts. And at the paper making place I was supposed to have like a one day in the studio in return for my labour, but the studio was too booked and I never got it.
I had built a pinhole camera. And I was taking these really dark street photographs using my pinhole camera and I turned our tiny bathroom into a dark room; I was developing in there. (Wow.)
And what else was I doing? It’s kind of the only project I remember doing during that time, but I was there for like three years or so. So I must have been doing more than that.
How was New York then like when you were there, in contrast to say where you’re from?
It was cold, and people were tough. I was really culture shocked when I arrived there. Like the cold is dreadful.
It felt, for me at the time, it felt like a city full of the world’s best brightest overachievers, who knew exactly what they were doing with their life and I was just there like, “I have No idea what I’m doing with my life.” That’s how I felt in New York was just like, “I’m the only loser here.”
Who was in your circle? Like, who did you hang out with?
Who was in my circle? God, hardly anyone.
You in your dark room and your pinhole camera. *laugh*
I was in my darkroom with my pinhole camera. Yeah.
It was cold out. It wasn’t the best time. I mean, I think New York is a wonderful city, but it wasn’t a wonderful city for me at that time.
I did really enjoy the museums.
Was there a favourite one?
ALL OF THEM.
I used to be at the MOMA a lot. And the Met.
What did you like to see?
I don’t know, I don’t think I can remember.
And I think at that time, I still wasn’t really thinking of myself as an artist, I was trying to think of some other thing that I could do, that would be more sensible, like graphic design or something.
So I wasn’t very rigorous in the way that I looked at art or thought about art.
I would just like go wandering through a museum and probably never read a wall tag. My god, I still do that.
I kind of go galloping through and wait for something to hit me. And then something hits me. I spend a bit more time with that one work, but I don’t. Yeah, anyway. Still like that.
At what point did you realise or decide that you weren’t going to do the practical practical route of a graphic designer or whatever?
Only like 10 years ago, in Hong Kong. So it took a really long time to get there.
Japan was its own project
So from New York, there was a few more stops … It was New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong.
You know, living in Tokyo was kind of its own project. I needed to learn Japanese, and I guess something that’s a really big thing in Japan is the intersection of Craft, Design, Art. And so I kind of was just, interested in that whole thing in Tokyo.
I set up a language exchange with a friend so we would meet every Friday and one week we would speak Japanese, and the next week would speak English. And she used to plan the outing so she would find an exhibition or a shop that we would both be interested in and then a coffee shop nearby. So they were like these really nice little curated visits around Tokyo. And my friend Nobuko – she’s really, really cultured, really tasteful. Yeah, so that was great.
And I just really enjoy, you know, it might be somebody that makes umbrellas by hand one week, and the next week, it might be like a museum show. It was kind of all kinds of stuff.
While I was in Japan, I was doing some print-making, some kind of making books and notebooks. I was still trying to find something that might be sensible to do. And I was like, maybe I can sell notebooks on Etsy or something.
I was trying to make these blank notebooks that had hand-printed covers and sell them on Etsy.
But you know me, I’m really crap at marketing. So that didn’t work. I remember showing them to a friend of mine Emma White, who’s an Australian artist. And she said, “I just feel like, you probably could put something in the books and there would be more interesting.”
I went, “Oh…” So then after that, I did actually make a couple of edition-ed artists books with content.
Content of your art?
Yeah, one of them was a book called Goodbye Shoes, which was about a whole collection of shoes I had and then I had a problem with my foot with a swollen nerve. And I couldn’t wear most of my shoes anymore. I had to wear sensible flat shoes. So I made an image of each of the shoes that I was finding it hard to say goodbye to.
A little bit of text. It was like a little love letter to my shoes that I couldn’t wear anymore.
Which was funny, because then whenever I sold it to someone, it was always a woman that was going, “Oh, I know exactly what you mean. Me too. I can’t get in a heel anymore. It’s heartbreaking.” Somehow that really tapped a nerve of a lot of women.
Are you gonna do reprints for those?
No, I don’t think I am. It’s a long, long time ago.
You know, and I probably still have some of the editions somewhere.
They were actually Gocco-printed. You know what Gocco is?
(Nope.) It’s not in production anymore, but it’s a Japanese – It’s like silk screening for Dummies. But it’s all neat and tiny. You can do it on your kitchen table.
It’s like a little machine that you put that you can burn your own screens and it exists from – in Japan, people like to send each other New Year’s cards. And before personal computers were really a thing, people used to print their own use cards on their kitchen tables. Using these funny little machines.
So yeah, now they don’t do that. (Cool!) I still got mine!
Excellent so you can have that going!
Yeah, the supplies, they’ve become super expensive and like almost collectibles. Like, I still have some of all the supplies. Oh I did actually use them not so long ago. There was a series of spotty fruit prints that I did for Odd One Out that I did use my Gocco for that.
Oh, okay. Cool.
Then what happened was, we moved to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, because I was lucky enough to be able to get my first studio out of the house randomly, because it had happened that our housing allowance was too big for what we needed for an apartment that we would live in.
So we bought two apartments from one landlord. Lived in one, and I used the other studio. And it was kind of because I just thought, “This is amazing! I can’t believe I’ve got a studio. This is like the dream!” And I thought I’m not going to waste this trying to do something sensible, like graphic design or like illustration or something that clearly is not working anyway, I’m just gonna do what the f**k I want in here! And so that was kind of the beginning of me, I guess identifying as an artist or, just having to admit where you can’t really call this anything except art.
So what was the first project that you put yourself / launched into?
I think I just did a lot of drawing and because I had a lot of space I remember that everything I’d ever made before then had been the size of two hands. And then all of a sudden I was getting these huge pieces of paper and sticking them into the wall and just doing massive drawings, but was all over the place like I was thrashing around just trying anything. I was doing some experimenting with dyeing textiles. I was experimenting with making garments out of knotted fabrics.
It was in that period that I made the paper earrings.
Like I was really just doing anything that seemed fun without asking myself too much where it could fit in the world/ What possible context this makes sense in. I was just like, really – at play.
Art, Audience, Exhibitions
So how did you move from play within your studio to showing the works to an audience?
You know, I kind of just did I think.
Like I was in there playing and, you know, a lot of what I came up with wasn’t that good. But I didn’t care too much. And at some point, I made something that I was like, “Actually I like this, and I want to show it!”
I kind of still work that way in terms of I just go into my studio, like, no one’s ever gonna see what I do in here, it doesn’t matter, I can do anything. Then if something actually ends up being like, “Oh, this, you know, this is something I want to show it,” then I try to find a place to show it.
So you’ve actually organised quite a lot of your own shows.
Oh, almost all of them. And you know, I’ve been lucky that I haven’t found that that difficult to do. I usually just ask someone I know, who has some space. But as you know, they’ve been in a lot of kind of no- art, not strictly art context, like in a clothes store, or in a coffee shop, or, you know, different places like that, although also in a gallery sometimes.
And it was during that period, when I had that studio that I came up with the idea of publishing Ha Wan Pao.
The idea came from Tokyo, actually. Because there was a neighbourhood in Tokyo, which I don’t remember the name off the top of my head.
But it’s one of the oldest parts of Tokyo that that managed to escape the great fire, the wars. It had all these little wooden houses. This neighbourhood is the place where craft has been kept alive for a really long time.
And I think probably still now you could go to that neighbourhood and find people, hand printing decorative papers, and making traditional Japanese sweets, you know, really old way and like all kinds of ceramics and all kinds of crafts exist and are alive in this neighbourhood. And there’s a real community around that.
Apparently, the community around that came about because this neighbourhood was threatened by development at some point. And a bunch of women in the neighbourhood as part of their activism against the encroaching development, decided to launch a paper. And they went and interviewed all the people in the neighbourhood about the craft they were doing about their history in that area.
Yeah. And so this publication kind of became what the community was built around. It became something that brought people together and had all the different craftsmen be in touch with each other and make connections with one another. And the developers went away at the end.
It didn’t happen while I was there. And I’m not connected to it. It was something that I read about after the fact.
(Reminds me of Tsubame-Sanjo where two Japanese localities linked up to create more community and to promote their craft)
Ha Wan Pao, the birth of a community project
But it was just the idea of, you know, I was still quite new in Hong Kong and wanting to build a community. And I thought this is a really nice way to do it.
I have always been much better at a one on one social interaction than a big group. So it just felt like something I could do. So I decided to make it about people who make beautiful things.
Because I wanted something kind of inclusive, and I feel like for me, beautiful things could be a sandwich or a pair of shoes or, you know, could be anything.
And I decided I was going to publish. I think I decided I was going to publish once a month. I published once a month for three months, and then I was like, “Oh god, I’m exhausted.” It was as if I could not keep it up. But I really enjoyed doing it.
I would just like set up an interview with someone and go and record it with my iPhone and then… It was exhausting because I was doing the whole thing – I was doing the interviews, I was editing the interviews, I was designing the layout. I was distributing the thing. So it was kind of it was a lot. (Yeah.) But I did end up keeping publishing it for 10 issues. And it was fun.
Yeah. And people really loved it.
Yeah, people really loved it. And it’s funny, I thought of it as being not art, like something else. But I do have one friend who kind of said, “Yeah, no, I think it is Art.”
She kind of went, I said, “It’s definitely not Art.” And she said, “Yeah, but is it though?” And so, I thought well, yeah, I mean, if I say so, it is, right?
Yeah! Haha. So what did you get out of that experience?
Um, I got out of the house, and out of the studio, which at the time I just needed to do. That’s still something that’s a challenge for me is like I tend to just be a bit of a shut-in.
You know, there was something that I got, which was – when you talk to people about this thing that they do, whether it’s baking bread, or you know, like whatever it is, they say the most incredible… Like, they have these incredible, rich interior worlds around that apparently simple thing of like baking bread, and they say the most gorgeous poetic stuff that you would just never have thought of in regards to baking bread.These worlds inside people. And I guess the intensity of feeling and thought around people’s vocation – that, I really enjoyed.
I used to have these paranoid moments when I was interviewing people were like halfway through the interview, I’d be like, this is so interesting. And I’d be like, “Did I really switch record?”
But in the end, what ended up happening was, it was inspiring, and I was like, well, I want to go do my thing. The way all these people are, so yeah, so that was the end of that.
Yeah. And then what was funny also was that I didn’t have a launch party, I was just like, shy, and I was never very good at promoting it or making it into something that would make money, although it always felt like it had potential because people really responded to it, and it got a lot of press.
And, you know, somehow, I had people around me saying you should be able to make this pay. But I never figured that out. And, you know, if I had been able to make it work as a tiny business, maybe I could have kept it going and hired someone to do this part or that part of it. But, I couldn’t work it out.
Just yet. Yeah.
So from that, did you get a sense of the Hong Kong community?
I did. And it’s like, because I’m still a bit of a shut-in, the people that I knew from having created that project are still the people that I know, or like the basis of the people that I know, in Hong Kong somehow.
I did kind of create the project to get out of the house and talk to people that I like about the kind of stuff I like to talk about, and it really ticked all those boxes for me. It worked. What worked for me, which is the main thing, right?
What are you working on now?
It’s a secret. I never talk about what I’m working on now.
I mean, that said, … But generally what I’m working on now is some paintings, some printmaking, some ceramics, some sculptures. So when you asked me to think about my work as a journey and how I got where I am. I thought, I’ve really gotten where I am by having been completely lost the whole time.
And I’m still… I still go to the studio most days and feel like I’m completely lost. I do not know where I’m going. So I think that’s interesting, because it’s kind of like, you know, that’s not a story you hear very often. You hear this kind of like, you have to have a dream, and you have to go make it happen. It’s just like, I never had a dream. So I’m kind of the opposite of that.
But even when you say you don’t have a dream, per se, I feel there is some underlying kind of ethos or kind of driving theme.
Yeah. there is.
There’s this curiosity. Like, I’ve just been following my curiosity, and I’m still following my curiosity.
Curiosity is the engine for achievement.
Sir Ken Robinson
And I feel like it’s also that community thing, because I remember you wanting to kind of create something that would pull together, more artists to kind of exchange and support each other. So I feel the community thing is also something (definitely) not necessarily in the art itself, but kind of in your, in your pursuit of life.
Sure. Yeah. I think that’s definitely something that I want to always build.
And like how you choose to display your art in very unusual places? (Yeah.) Why is that?
So it’s partly because they’re available. So it’s partly just practical, you know, I can do that. There’s no massive hurdle to overcome, I don’t need to have applied six months ago to do it that kind of thing.
And it’s also what you say is that I think art has something to offer people in the broadest sense. I’m not super into the idea of Art about Art, or art who’s only for an Art audience. I mean, I’m fine if people want to do that. And that’s totally cool. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s not my thing.
I like the idea of being accessible. Not that everything that I make is for everyone. But that it’s out in the world, and it might kind of hit anyone in the eye.
I find that idea more exciting than some kind of super refined, white cube space. I like white cube space too. But I think that there’s this, when I was studying towards the end of my time, at art school, I organised a group show of all of the people from the video film department.
And it was at our student gallery, which was in this little kind of like main street of the suburb. It was a shopfront space. We built frames for projection on the inside of the window. And we projected the works onto that front window such that from the outside, it was extremely visible and noticeable from the street.
I just remember it being really exciting because we were getting all these reactions from everybody that walked pass. I remember a bunch of guys in a car that were hanging out the window going, “Oh, that’s f**king sick. That looks awesome!”
You know, it’sjust like, and I loved it. I loved the you know, somehowkind of adding humour and excitement and kind of something beautiful.
Yeah, or just the idea that Art can be something that’s robust and that can survive out in the world. And it doesn’t need to be like handled with white gloves and put in a humidity-controlled cube. Yeah, I don’t know. But you know, I love white humidity control cubes also, so *laugh*
So when can we expect to kind of see your art next?
So the best place (to keep an eye out for things) is my Instagram: _annagleeson_
I do want to ask you to share about your drawer of work that you stash away and revisit.
Yeah. So I have this thing where I think sometimes I have an idea for something and I can see it in my head. I’m like, “That’s awesome! I’m going to make it.” Then I make it and it looks nothing like what I thought was going to look like.
When that happens, it can be so disappointing that it’s tempting to go well, that sucked and throw it straight to the recycling. But what I like to do is stick it in a drawer until I’ve forgotten how I expected it to look. And I can look at it with fresh eyes. And I sometimes find that I go back through that drawer and go, “this is actually really great in some other way that I was not intending.” So I found that that’s really useful, because it’s like my own expectations can skew even being able to see something.
Thank you so much for your time.
All images are from Anna Gleeson unless otherwise noted. Date of interview: 4 December, 2019 via video conferencing.
I think of so many things in my life as a practice and I really like that idea.
It’s like I have an art practice. I have a yoga practice. I have a meditation practice. I have a parenting practice. It really works for me to think of things in those terms because it’s just like just keep showing up for it just keep showing up. And it’s not about like how it went today. Because if I make it about how it goes today, I can get really miserable because it doesn’t always go that well.
I met Anna at a group show that Emily Sarnel organised. And then got to chat with her at a show she put up at Plantation by Teakha. Anna’s art works drew me in. Over the years, I’ve found that she’s a very interesting person and am excited to share our chat-like interviews in two parts with you. Anna is from Australia, lived in Germany, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong; speaks French as well as Japanese and founded a really ground-breaking publication, more specifically a zine when she knew no one in Hong Kong. Her art speaks for itself. Let’s begin!
I’m interested – what do you realise when you look back?
Anna Gleeson: When I look back…
And how that relates to the series of works that you’ve been creating. A lot of them has to do with body, body image …
So specifically about their cardboard vessel ones?
So they kind of came out of nowhere. Or they seem to come out of nowhere. I had a bunch of cardboard corrugated cardboard in the studio, and I’d plan to make these like, big shallow relief-painting sculpture things; like relief paintings that would hang on a wall. And I tried some and they were awful. Like, I was just like, okay – and that happens a lot in the studio. Like, I have an idea, I think it’s fantastic. I try it, and I go, “Oh, no, no, not at all.”
But this particular day, I was really like, oh, and I was just like, “I suck.” You know, I was really like, “man, I suck at this. Who am I kidding?” you know. So out of nowhere, I guess I also had like a bunch of drawings of different vessels. It’s just like a thing that I like to do, because it’s calming and comforting to go and look at ancient vessels in museums, and I would always sketch them. So I had these sketchbooks full of these things.
And so then just like on an impulse, I just pulled out one of the sketchbooks, opened it to a page and started trying to make that vessel out of the cardboard. And I made one, and it was just like this kind of pathetic looking thing, you know, but it was like, “Oh, it’s got something,” and I put it somewhere in my studio. And then because my husband goes through my studio to have a shower in the morning. And he was like, “I really like that. I really like that thing.”
And I was like, “Yeah, it’s got something right?” So I started making a bunch more and the process is really, it’s a little bit cathartic. It’s like you’re trying to take this material that doesn’t want to go into this shape and you force it in. I would be like on the floor, bending the cardboard over my knee or around my thighs to try to get the round shape and it was like this clunky kind – it would never be perfectly round. It would like bend here and then there.
So I just found like, I was just making them and I was really lost in the making of them. And I hadn’t made any sculptures before and it kind of – I think it freed me up because I felt like “Well, this is obviously not my work. This is obviously just me arsing around in the studio.” So I was just going with it and I made a bunch of them and then I really liked them.
Crappy Imperfect – Fragile Beauty
And then looking back on them after they were made, I was kind of trying to articulate what it was about them that I liked –
I noticed that they were kind of, they’re kind of pathetic and fragile looking. They’re like bad copies, you know, of these original antiques, which were absolutely gorgeous and beautifully crafted, and worth millions of dollars probably and then there are these crappy replicas – but that was what I liked about it.
I liked it that they were crappy and imperfect, and fragile and beautiful. And so what I saw in it afterwards was that they had come out of me feeling crappy, and pathetic, and imperfect in a studio, like that day where I was like, “I suck at this!!!” And then I sat down and made one. So looking back at it, I was like, “Oh, it’s like, the works are teaching me that I’m imperfect. I’m still beautiful. You know, I’m still like, you can keep me, you know, don’t throw me away.”
So that’s what I realised, looking back at them. And I’ve noticed that when I’m working in the studio, I don’t know what it’s about the thing that I’m making, I never know what it’s about. It’s just like, I operate on instinct. And there’s just something that pulls me in a direction.
Like, I’m curious to see what if I, I could kind of see, sometimes I can see where it came from, what it’s about, you know. Possibly I’m just making up the what it’s about, because it’s like, at some point, you get to the point where you share something on Instagram, and you have to say something about it, or you put it on your website, or you need a little essay in a catalog or something. So you have to find something to say about it.
You mentioned something about body image, and your relationship with your body as you were growing up.
I have an ongoing interest in the way that we look at women. So there’s definitely that in a lot of my works that are with women. They’re not about women, they’re about the way that we look at women, the way we objectify women.
“I used to be Good Taste”
I feel what is interesting is the pieces you’ve made has a sense of Japanese-ness to them.
Yeah, I think so too. I did make them after having lived in Japan, and I do look back at the work that I made in my early years in Hong Kong, and you can feel the Japan in it. You know, you can feel the Japanese-ness and the colours are really subtle, there’s a lot of grey and … and it’s totally gone now. I’m just doing these books with these horrible clashing colours. It’s just like, “Whoa, this is Hong Kong! This is Hong Kong now!”
Like I used to be kind of “good taste.”
So what’s your taste now?
I don’t know. I’m really into colours that hurt your eye a little bit or like, (China colours!) you know, It’s like it is a little bit of Hong Kong. Like I’m into a little bit of ugly. I’m into like hot pink and …
When did you start delving into textures, and the materiality of things.
I do I remember there was a specific moment, and I don’t know when it was. But when I was younger, I wanted to be an illustrator. I was always working for “Destination- scanner.”
Everything I made was like, “It’s gonna go on a scanner, it’s gonna be a digital file, and it’s going to be on screen or it’s going to be in print.”
And there was a moment where I went, you know what, I’m sick of trying to be an illustrator, I suck at it in any way, I’m just going to be an artist and just do what I like.
And part of that decision was everything doesn’t have to end up on a scanner bed. I can make things that are impossible to scan now.
F**k you guys!
And so that’s part of what you’re seeing is this move towards materiality. And that I really enjoy. And I’m still working on paper, but it’s true that I have made a lot of work since then that they need to be photographed, or they need to be. I’m not really using the scanner so much anymore.
I think that was just me exercising one of my fantasy other jobs that I might, you know, in another life, I think I might be a ceramicist. Or own a cafe or, you know, how you always have those fantasy other things like, “Oh, I could totally be a, you know, I could totally be an earring designer.” So I was just having fun with that.
Those earrings, I could see people wearing them.
I would totally wear them also. Yeah, if they were real size.
I think I sold one or two of them. But they were a little tricky to sell. Because they weren’t really designed to be worn… because they were fragile, because they were kind of like, you couldn’t sell them as art because if you hung them on the wall, they’d end up squashed and mouldy. You know what I mean?
They were just made of paper, you know what I mean? Like they were never gonna last. So you couldn’t really sell – you couldn’t sell them like you could a bronze sculpture. They are paper too, but they are a lot more robust just because they’re corrugated cardboard. And I’ve sold one of those. I think that my pricing reflected that because it’s still an ephemeral thing to some degree, like they’re not like some like archival, corrugated cardboard; it’s an old cardboard box. So they’re a lot more robust than the paper earrings, but still I don’t expect them to live longer than me. Or they might.
I don’t know, but I feel like it’s an unknown. And so if I was selling a sculpture that was cast in bronze or some kind of proper arty material, then I would be selling something that I know that …
What are you working on? What are you exploring?
It’s kind of a secret. I never really talk about what I’m working on now. Sorry.
So how did you get to this point? You grew up in Australia, you lived in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, how have the people you’ve met, the culture, influenced who you are?
You’re also fluent in English, French, and you comprehend Japanese too.
For example, what you said about reading the newspapers (of different languages) you noticed that they have different perspectives.
I almost feel like you have an edge to see thing in more than one way.
I think that’s definitely true. But I think that’s something that is easier to see about other people than about oneself coz it’s kind of like you can’t really see the culture that you’re in. It’s kind of invisible. It’s like an invisible soup that you swim in somehow, you know.
Looking back, I can see how things affected me more easily than I can see what’s going on right now. Although there is, you know, what we just said about colour, like in Japan and Hong Kong.
Do you see yourself as an Australian artist?
I don’t mind being called that – I think. I don’t know. It’s like, I feel I’m deeply Australian. And that really is who I am. But there’s something about Australian-ness, that’s a little fugitive, or it’s a little like, if you try to hold it up to the light, it doesn’t… It’s not like French-ness, where it’s like “we all know what that is.” Australian-ness is a little…, but it’s definitely a thing.
Australians say things like, “Oh, we don’t have culture, we just, you know, we just take culture from other places.” Or it’s kind of like, “Well, that is culture – the culture of taking cultures from other places is a culture.” You know what I mean?
Australian-ness is just a little hard to see or define somehow. And then I guess the other thing is that, well, I have been away for like, 15 years now. So 10 years in Hong Kong, and I don’t know exactly how long I’ve been away. Let me think. But you want to know? It’s gonna age me. (Hahaha)
So in terms of how Australian I am – every second time I go back, I think, “I love it here. Everybody gets my jokes. I can talk to anybody. I just love this landscape. I feel so at home here.” And then, the next time I’ll go back, I’ll be like, “Ah, I can’t stand it here. These people are so Australian, and I don’t fit with this. And everything has to be a joke. And no conversation can be serious.” I get like culture shock every second time I go there. And then other times, I’m just like, I feel so … I don’t know. It’s weird.
I guess there’s a lot of people that I know in Hong Kong, most of my daughter’s friends are like, their mother’s Russian, their father’s French. And they you know, we have neighbours where the mother comes from Shanghai, the father comes from Switzerland and the daughters are born in Hong Kong. And so that kind of having a toe in a bunch of different languages or cultures, or in places geographically, is just normal. It’s just normal for me. I like it. I think there’s something about learning foreign languages that even if you’d never get … however far you get with it, it gives you another point of view on the world.
You say different things – it’s like in Japanese you meet someone you say, “Please look favourably upon me.” It’s a completely different emphasis. It’s about how you see me. Whereas in English you say, “I am pleased to meet you.” It’s all about me.
Anyway, I guess that the same is true in, you know, images are a language too and colour is a language too and it’s harder to talk about, but different ways of seeing and different ways of representing things, styles – they all give you different points of view also.
So that’s definitely something that I enjoy in terms of – I don’t really want to have a style, that’s mine and then all my work looks like that, because I just get bored.
So I guess I am probably doing a little bit of, looking at something like a Japanese person would like with those dresses where everything’s really pared down and neutral colour palette and kind of refined and delicate, or like looking at something the way an Australian would, but I’m not really aware of it when I’m doing it. But it’s one of the things that I sometimes look back at and go, “Oh, that’s like a Japanese woodblock print, or that’s like a Hong Kong hair salon ad or you know?”
What keeps you going as an artist?
It’s curiosity. I want to see how it’s like. I have some glimmer of an idea, and I want to know, what’s that gonna look like.
It’s like, I’m never doing something that, “I know what this is gonna look like, and I just need to execute it.”
Or if I am, It’s never good. So it’s really just about, yeah, curiosity. Like the spotty fruit ones were just, I was thinking about “Yeah, we’ve got this box of organic fruit delivered every week for a while. And then we’re just gorgeous.” Every time we open the box and we’d be like, “Wow, it’s so beautiful.”
I was joking with my husband, “Argh, I’m gonna end up like being a still life painter now. Because we get these fruits delivered. It’s all your fault.” (Because he ordered them.) And then I had this thing in the back of my mind about the half-tone dot when you print something with a Risograph, or old newspapers the way they separate colours or tones, and then it’s like dots.
Kind of like Roy Lichtenstein, right?
Yeah, he totally did that. He blew them up. And I really, I blew it up even further than, I’m bigger than Roy. I am going big! But I actually really love Roy Lichtenstein. Not the works that he’s best known for. But I really love the – he’s done a series of Greek ornamentation, and a series of brushstrokes, or like woodgrain. He’s done these ones that are just like mirrors that I just like, I love them.
The ones I always see in museums are the ones done with dots also, but the subject matter is different. But the ones I always see in museums are taken from comic strips and it’s like, I’ve maybe seen them too much. I don’t really react to them. And the other ones I’ve only seen in books, but anyway, blah, blah yadda yadda. What was I talking about?
Oh, yeah, so I was lying in bed. I was lying in my daughter’s bed trying to get her to fall asleep one night. I’m lying there in the dark, which usually goes like, “Pep per, pep per pep per…” And I’m like, “Okay, time to stop talking now close those little…“ “Pep per pep pe pep per..” you know, like that for like up to an hour.
Just lying there in the dark, I just had this lightning bolt.
Like, I wonder what it would look like to make those dots huge on a picture of still life, on a picture of those fruits. And I was just like, that would look crazy. I’m gonna try that! And then so that’s where it came from but it’s like, if I knew what it was gonna look like, I wouldn’t go – I wouldn’t do it.
When you make your work, how do you decide what you don’t like or what you don’t like. Or what is successful? What is not? What goes into that, like I’ll look at it later.
I don’t know what it is that makes it work or not work. But, I just know. It just hit some nail on its head or it doesn’t.
Failure and Success
What do you do with that pile in your drawer?
Yeah. So I have a drawer. There’s just a “Meh, that didn’t really work” drawer.
It’s just like, “meh this isn’t really doing it for me” drawer. I shove it in there.
And sometimes I’ll get it out like two months or six months later. Sometimes when I get it back out, I go, “Oh, this is actually, actually, I like this now. It’s not what I thought I was making.” I think sometimes what happens is, if you have too much of an expectation of how something is going to turn out, then the expectation stops you from seeing it.
You look at it, and you only see how it falls short of your expectation. Same goes for husbands, friends.
I think what I’m explaining is, that’s why the drawer works, because you shove it in a drawer. And by the time you get it back out, you’ve forgotten what your original expectation was.
So you see it with neutrality?
You see it with new eyes. And yeah, something like that. I think it also works to not have expectations and to operate based on “I don’t know, what’s this crazy thing even gonna look like?” I don’t even know, then you don’t have an expectation – is ideal.
How does that apply to other aspects of your life, that drawer?
I think I do it with my wardrobe. I have a “I don’t look as good as I think I thought I would, so I’m just gonna put this up in this top shelf for a while,” and then I’ll get it back down later on. And maybe I’ll be like, “Actually, this goes really well with…” Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if I do it so much in other parts of my life.
I feel like when you mount your shows, you’ve mounted quite a number of shows, you seem to just go with it.
You mean, I just like exhibit anything?
I definitely let things be a little bit unresolved.
Like I will go into an exhibition, not completely confident or feeling a little vulnerable, even, about the work I’m showing. However, if I hate something, I will not exhibit it. If I’m really clear, like “This isn’t…” then I don’t, I don’t exhibit it.
There was maybe one time where I set up an exhibition before having made the work. So it’s like I committed to it, and I was like, as an experiment to see how that would work. And it didn’t work that well. You know, I wasn’t as happy with the work that time. And since then what I do is I just work. When I have a bunch of stuff I like that kind of fits together, then I go commit to an exhibition or something.
Why is it important for artists to show their work?
It’s exciting. It’s artists’ communication. Yeah, it needs to land somewhere. Also, I love the conversations that you have with people around it.
Yeah, I mean, it’s yeah, it’s communication. It’s about making connections with between people. And that happens in exhibiting. I feel like the making art I can’t live without and the exhibiting art. I just do because it’s fun. That’s for me. I mean,
I want to be building community, also. You know, I want to have that dialogue with other artists and with people who are looking at art, and I love all those conversations.
And I’m not going to have them alone in my studio. Or I do sometimes if we’re honest. But it’s more fun when someone else…, you know, so yeah. So that’s it.
Last last last question (as Anna had to shoot off to her next appointment). What is success for you?
It’s not something I really think about much. I think that I feel like I’ve chosen a career that’s more about, more about my relationship to failure. You know what I mean? It’s like, I feel like the extent to which I can be with failure in my life, in my studio, In my work
that’s what my whole art practice hinges on. If I can’t be with my own failure, I can’t work somehow. I don’t know. So I guess I think more about failure than success.
Yeah. Success, I guess, there’s just so many narratives existing in the culture and in the media around success and that I’m like, “Meh.”
So you focus on the process.
And I think of so many things in my life as a practice and I really like that idea.
It’s like I have an art practice. I have a yoga practice. I have a meditation practice. I have a parenting practice, you know, and it’s like… It really works for me to think of things in those terms because it’s just like, just keep showing up for it – just keep showing up. And it’s not about how it went today. Because if I make it about how it goes today, I can get really miserable because it doesn’t always go that well.
“Ea’s a real-life Ninja!” says a friend of mine. I can’t agree more. I knew of Ea’s adventures through our Rolfing sessions, and had always been curious and amazed that her life seems so free from the rigidity of what I had known life to be. Very glad for this chance to find out more.
Hop-scotching from Denmark, Tokyo, New York, London, Hong Kong – in an off-sequence way bought an apartment even before she arrived Hong Kong, finished school, starting her practice in her mid twenties and Ea continues evolving since.
We cover Aerial arts, bodywork and clients, relationships and grief-processing.
Karen Tsui, Where My Heart Leads: How long have you been in Hong Kong?
Ea Holm, the real-life Ninja. A rolfing professional. Former aerial arts instructor.
It’s 11 years now. I was in New York for six years, very on and off because I never had a proper visa to stay there. So I had to leave once in a while. And then I went to London, where I actually did a bachelor’s degree because when I left Denmark, I never finished my bachelor’s degree. So I basically didn’t have a bachelor’s. So I went to London, did a bachelor’s degree and worked as a massage therapist. In New York, I had taken my massage therapy training, which was a very good, a very high qualification for massage, which was really, really helpful for me in London to have that. So I had my own massage business. And then I went to university.
Where did it begin?
I am from Denmark. In Denmark, I was studying music, because I was trying to become an opera singer. That was really, really important to me. And then I started to have some health problems that were affecting my voice a lot. So in a sort of stroppy fit I was like, “I’m leaving Denmark! I’m leaving singing. I’m never doing this again!” And that’s when I left. So I left in a bit of a dramatic way where my dreams in Denmark didn’t work out.
So was that around your Early 20s?
Yeah, that was when I was 20 years old. And back then when I was sad, I didn’t know what to do with my life, I had this dream that I went to Hong Kong. And I was happy in the dream. I’ve never been to Hong Kong, and it was humid and it was warm and everything that Denmark is not.
Did you have any concept of Hong Kong? Why would it pop into your dream?
I was really fascinated by Asia.
For some reason, both Japan and Hong Kong were somehow very fascinating to me. I’ve seen pictures, but not actually pictures of Hong Kong, mostly highways and skyscrapers.
That just came out very clearly in my dream. I didn’t go to Hong Kong straightaway. But yeah. That was when that idea went into my head. (Wow.) And then instead, I went for a very short trip to Tokyo to find my Asian dream.
And there I met a guy. My last four days in Tokyo, I met a guy. We met out partying, and we were probably out partying for about four days. And then I went on a plane and left and I went to Sydney where I was meeting some friends. And he was then moving to New York. So he wrote to me and said, “Do you want to come?” And that’s how I ended up living in New York. I basically flew over to have a relationship with a man I’d known for four days.
Was there nothing at home to like, kind of keep you in Denmark, so to speak?
No, I was really ready for a new life. So I was sort of like up for anything.
1. Hello New Adventures
So how was New York?
New York was fun and fast. And ageing.
Ageing, but you were so young when you were there.
I was so young, but I felt before I left that if I don’t leave now I’m going to age really fast. I should get out.
What made you get that sense?
I think it was just, I found it hard to sleep there.
The energy’s very harsh. People are very, very harsh. And in the beginning, it was hard for me to take.
I was kind of bubbly, happy Danish Girl, like, you know, friendly to everybody. And actually, you can’t be friendly to everybody on the street in New York. Weirdos are gonna follow you. If you try to talk back, answer some people who talk to you because you’re polite. They’re just gonna follow you all day, you know. You can’t do that. You have to be, you have to turn quite harsh.
I think that energy got a little heavy for me at some point. I mean, I didn’t actually leave because of that I left because I couldn’t get a visa to stay. But after that was determined – that I was going to leave, it was quite clear to me that like, it’s probably quite good to leave. Because this place – it makes you too hard. Like it makes you a little bit rude. A little bit rough.
I was in New York for six years, very on and off because I never had a proper visa to stay there. So I had to leave once in a while. And then I went to London, where I actually did a bachelor’s degree because when I left Denmark, I never finished my bachelor’s degree. So I went to London, did a bachelor’s degree and worked as a massage therapist. In New York, I had taken my massage therapy training, which was a very good, a very high qualification for massage, which was really, really helpful for me in London to have that. So I had my own massage business. And then I went to university.
In New York, I also did massage after I finished, but it was sort of like freelance, but in London, I sort of had my practice. I wouldn’t call it my business; It was literally just me and I rented a room hourly. And then I had clients and I wasn’t working for somebody.
2. A “soft-landing” in London
How old were you then?
So I would have been 26. Mid-twenties was when I came to London. And then stayed there for four years. So three years for the degree and one year extra where I was doing so great in my business that I didn’t feel like leaving.
What were you studying?
It is quite weird. I studied linguistics, which is one of the most useless things you can study, I think. Everyone thinks you’re going to learn a lot of languages, but you don’t learn a single language. You literally just learn different theories about languages and you learn how to see patterns in language data, and compare it and make theories on it. So it’s very nerdy in a way. In a way very mathematical. And if you have a type of brain where it’s easy for you to see patterns, you’ll do very well.
So did you do well?
I did very well. And that’s why I stuck with it. Because after I didn’t really know what it was when I signed off.
After I started, I was like, this is really weird. I don’t think I can use this for anything.
But then I got my first assignment back, and I did really well. And I thought, maybe I should stick with this because it might just be a really easy way of getting a bachelor’s degree. Since that was my main aim was just to have a bachelor’s degree, I wasn’t really too fussed about what it was going to be in because I really didn’t know which direction I was going.
And then seeing patterns actually has really come up in your work!
Yeah, exactly. Like being being a little bit of OCD with like, “Things have to be in that place” (anatomically.) It’s actually very useful in my work as a Rolfer.
How has it informed some of your choices and some of your work?
Like from my education, like the seeing patterns, definitely I can use that a lot in my work. Relating to like, my, my way of making choices, I think that’s more just from my mom, to be honest, that I just – if I have an idea, and I get a good gut feeling, I just go for it. I’m not too like, should I, shouldn’t I. I literally always very clear when I get some idea that this is what I need to do. And then I just do it. I think that’s just my mom. Very, very gutsy woman.
What was your experience like in London?
London was, in a way, very kind to me. It was easy for me to get started there. It was very easy for me to build up my massage practice. I kept meeting people who kind of helped me on the way randomly. I made a very good friend in my studies who really helped me to get rid of some of that New York hardness I had built up.
Oh, he was just very good. It was my gay best friend. He was very good at taking it slowly. He would he was Italian and Ethiopian, he would always take my arm and be like, “Now we stroll, stop running.” And he just forced me to walk slowly.
And sometimes he forced me to skip class and which I would never do and be like, “Now we go and just have ice cream.” Instead of having class it just literally taught me a little bit – how to have fun, how to be a kid, how to live gently, I’d say.
And then I also went to see a psychotherapist in New York, in London, who really helped me on that path as well. She helped me a lot on how to see things from other people’s perspective, how to always consider well, their situation could be this so act with kindness and so on where it was very much in my New York spirit to just be like, “No, it’s like this. And I see like this. So that’s how it is,” so that was that made a very big shift in me – My best friend and my psychologist.
So leaving Denmark, you didn’t have all those kind of garbage in a sense.
Yeah, I definitely learned a lot of a lot of hardness there (in New York). I wouldn’t say I was perfect back in Denmark. I was kind of a confused teenager, but definitely I had more of a kind approach to life in Denmark.
How does the kindness outwards relate to kindness starting with ourselves?
Well, that’s the thing, right? That if we, if we give other people the benefit of the doubt, we might also be kinder to ourselves. If you’re always like, “Why is this person doing that? Why is he walking so slowly? Why is he in my way?” and you might think, well, his leg might be hurting, you know, then you also can give yourself when your leg is hurting, you can be a little bit kinder to yourself and say, “It’s okay, you can. Yeah, you’re in people’s way. It’s okay.”
What experiences in London kind of gave you back more of your humanity?
Yeah, I think I just I just had really close friends. We were just really… it was sort of like I got a second chance of youth in a different way where it wasn’t so much like wild partying and so on.
It was just very, a nice community, a nice group of people who are now spread all over the world. So I don’t really have anything in London to visit now. It was like a soft place to land after New York I would say. I did not enjoy the weather at all. Did-not-enjoy like the city, the weather itself, that wasn’t actually something I enjoyed. But I enjoyed my friends, my work my, my life.
3. From Rolfing to Aerial Arts – Hong Kong Calling
So what made you decide to leave that kind of comfortable, nurturing, soft landing in London?
First of all, most of my friends were leaving anyways, because the university ended. And then I had actually, I had met a guy that I fell in love with, who was a Rolfer. And we started dating, and he started to teach me stuff, especially because he wanted me to work on him. So I actually learned an incredible amount from him, which I’m very grateful for. And he encouraged me to do the Rolfing training.
Now things didn’t work out between us. And when they didn’t, I was like, it’s my time to go, because you’re going to start something else. And then you’re going to meet another something, something else was there keeps being something that stops you from going to Hong Kong, which has been like in the back of my mind since my dream when I was 20 years old. So I thought once he and I broke up. I thought, okay, it’s the time to go. You go do your Rolfing training in Munich, and then you go to Hong Kong.
How long have you been doing Rolfing now?
I’ve been doing Rolfing for 11 years. So I basically finished my training and moved to Hong Kong. So what really drew me to it was, I was really bored doing massage, I was really bored just kind of doing patterns with people’s bodies at the end, because I’m, like, coming with the same problem every single week. And it’s not getting better, you know, I’m just I felt like I was just like a maintenance person.
And then when I met my, my ex-boyfriend, and I was like, Oh my God, this man is making changes in the body. This is like, this is what I want! Like he’s actually making a difference in people’s lives. Like, you know, when you’d leave after the session, you’d feel it feel kind of like a different person, even a different outlook on life. And I was like, This is what I want to give people. I don’t just want to like, give them a rub and a little chat. And then off you go, you know?
You mentioned you’re looking into counselling…
Rolfing is very physically hard, it’s very physically demanding. So I always have the thought, oh what do you do when you get older when you can’t actually work physically like that anymore? And I always in the back of my mind thought I’ll probably do some psychology course and some type and try to transition into that. And once I looked into it, I realised you actually need like a full on master’s degree, actually you need to do it properly. So once I looked into it, I started to think about doing it properly.
Basically, I want to be able to, to not work physically when I get older.
And I feel like in my Rolfing work with some clients, not with all clients. But with some clients, we already get into some, they end up telling me some quite personal things. And I very often felt like I would like to help them more, I would like to be able to dive into that. But a lot of what they teach us in Rolfing is you can listen, or for empathy, and so on, but don’t try to be a psychologist. Do not try to dig into the things because things might evolve in a way that you don’t know how to handle because you don’t have the training.
So I’ve definitely had times like that where I felt like I want to say something but I do not go there. And I kind of want to go there. So yeah, first I thought about it just as a way to help the particular clients who bring something. But then as I could feel I’m getting older, It’s getting harder sometimes to work the amount of hours I do so I thought maybe I should actually think about it as a transition into something. Something where I can sit down in the future at some point.
There must be like, several different modalities that also kind of tap into kind of, would you say like subconscious?
Well, there’s a lot of approaches within psychology and counselling, a lot of different, like, different styles, different ways of doing it, and different schools of doing it. And this particular degree is a general degree, you learn a little bit about each of them and you you learn enough to be a counsellor, but without following a specific one, you can take bits from each or afterwards, you can then choose to go more in depth into one of them. So it’s very general. And since I didn’t feel like I knew which approach I like better, I thought, let’s just go with a general one.
And the reason I chose counselling and not psychology is basically because of my high school. In my high school, you could, you could choose language track or math track, and I chose language. And when you choose language, you don’t have a physics, math… There’s a lot of the science subjects you just don’t have. And to actually get into a degree in psychology, you need to have those science subjects. So if I was going to do psychology, I had to basically redo high school courses. And I was, I was not really keen on that. And then I realised with counselling, you don’t need those. So cool. So that’s why I chose counselling over psychology. You can charge a little bit less than a counsellor, but that’s fine by me.
You also do aerial arts. Where did that come into the picture?
Oh that came out of the blue. I have actually sort of stopped performing now and I only teach a little bit on my rooftop in Lamma Island. I don’t I don’t teach them in a studio anymore.
This is how it was I was in London. And as I was about to leave, I went to New York to visit friends. And we did a flying trapeze class together, which I hadn’t done before. It was just a completely random – it was my friend’s birthday, and we went to do that. And I was like, “Wow, this is cool!” And then I got obsessed with just looking for a flying trapeze place.
What is a trapeze?
A trapeze is where you have two platforms up high, and then there’s a bar – there’s a guy hanging from one bar from his legs, and then the flyer will then swing out from the from the other bar, do some flips in the air and get caught *Clap* like by the catcher from the other bar.
So that takes a lot of space – and it actually takes a lot of people to run a class.
So when I came to Hong Kong, I was like, “Where’s the Flying Trapeze school!!?” And there is none because it’d be crazy expensive running a flying trapeze school here. The amount of space you’d need, and yeah, it wouldn’t really be feasible cost wise.
But in all my Google searches for that, I found aerial arts school because that obviously comes up when you put trapeze in. And then I thought, well, if there’s no flying trapeze, I’ll do this. And then I just started taking classes as a student, and it had just started in Hong Kong, that first aerial arts schools have just opened. So it was all very, very new. There were not many of us in class, we kind of became very friendly with the teachers, we started hanging out doing whatever we felt like, training together. And I got quite obsessed. And then when I finished my job in the clinic I was working in, I finished to start my own practice, then that’s when the aerial school moved to a location where there was an extra room. So I basically started my practice in that room.
And that meant that I put into my rental contract with them that I could come in and practice in the mornings when nobody was there. When nobody else was using the studio, I was allowed to go practice I paid an extra fee to be able to do that. So that meant I just came in like three hours before work every day and practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. Because I got really obsessed with it. And before I knew it, I was doing shows.
Wow. So you started aerial arts in Hong Kong with your instructors?
Yeah, I did. And I learned that I did all the things I tell people not to do, I learned from YouTube. (Oh, you did?) Yeah, I did. We all did that. Hong Kong instructors did as well because there was really no one here who had really gone to a three-year circus school program. So we were all sort of just figuring it out. (Wow.)
What’s the allure of aerial arts for you?
For me, it was particularly because I had almost had a lot of dance inside me. I’d hear music and I would already choreograph in my head, but my feet cannot dance very well, they’re really, really useless! When I tried to do turns on the floor, I fall over, like, I’m really not a very good dancer!
And I could never do the things that I had in my head. And so when I found aerial, I could. I could actually express my emotions to music, and it actually looked decent somehow, taking my feet on the ground out of the equation was the was the key. So for me, it was just that all this dance I had inside me that I felt stuck; it had had an outlet all of a sudden. And that was amazing.
What was it like doing shows in Hong Kong like for aerial arts?
Oh, it’s really quite exciting. It’s fun. It’s, I’ll say in Hong Kong, it’s easy in the sense that the clients, they are generally not looking for really difficult ,strenuous tricks, they generally want pretty poses, the hair flowing around the fabric flowing around you know? And you can actually make something very pretty with very easy tricks. So you can make it without being that level. And it was really fun. We were treated well, generally, you know, they take good care of you, you’re given a room to sit when you wait for the shows that give you some food (sometimes.) And yeah, it was it was quite a positive experience.
Sometimes, of course, you’re, you’re worried about rigging, because a lot of these places. Rigging is how the attachment point is set up so that you don’t fall down and die.
Of course, that’s always a concern, especially because there’s between me and Chinese riggers, there’s a language barrier. So you’re trying to kind of make sure that you’ve actually gotten the specifications you have asked for that there is enough capacity to hold the weight you have asked for up there. In some venues, you can’t check it yourself because it’s too high up like it’s already set up. So you can’t get up there. So you have to sort of trust. And that was sometimes I had a little bit anxiety about that. I usually didn’t have anxiety about my own ability to hold on. But I would have been excited about the rigging sometimes.
At what height do you guys typically perform?
Most venues in Hong Kong, I’ll say we use a silk there was six to eight meters. And so you sometimes go all the way to the top, but you’re usually like a meter or two down from that. But I have done some concerts where the highest I was up was 21 meters. And that was that was a little, that was a little tough.
What’s the kind of level of development you feel for aerial in Hong Kong versus neighbouring Asian countries.
I think neighbouring Asian countries is very similar. I know that in like in in like New York or London or so on you have you have proper circus schools where you do a degree in circus, you can do a bachelor’s degree in circus.
And it’s like seriously three years of hardcore training from the best coaches. And that’s obviously a whole different level than what we had.
But yeah, I feel like in Asia, it’s, it’s kind of growing similarly. I have a few Facebook friends around in Shanghai or Vietnam, it looks like it’s quite similar to here, the ways it’s growing.
I think one thing that does concern me a little bit about the way it’s growing is a lot of people are starting studios, and they are not always so aware about the safety with the rigging, like what they actually need to have safe rigging. And that can that can scare me a little bit. Because it’s so popular now in Hong Kong, there’re so many studios. And sometimes I get a little bit worried when I see videos on Instagram. I’m like, I don’t know how that was put up. That’s that that’s the only thing that I find worrying. But otherwise, I find it really wonderful that it’s just spreading so much, and people are enjoying it so much. I’m seeing so much talent in Hong Kong now. Some people I’ve never met, people that are like the new generation.
So aerial really gave you expression or creativity that you didn’t have, and how might that relate to your work, or your life?
I felt like it was feeding me. Like when I was when I work on clients, I’m giving out a lot of energy to the clients. And the aerial fed it back into me, it was like a stress relief, almost a meditation. Because when you when you do it, you you have to concentrate so much, because obviously if you don’t concentrate, you can fall off. And if you fall off, you’ll break your neck or something like that. So that that level of concentration and then at the same time when you’re in the zone with the music and you’re free-styling it’s almost like you go into a meditative state. And I’ve always been terrible at actual meditation sitting still meditation, I always sit and go, when is it finished? So this was like that. That was really my meditation was was doing aerial.
Over the years, in massage and Rolfing, how do you feel you have evolved?
I’ve definitely learned a lot more about how different everybody’s reality is – not just mentally, but also physically, that one person might come in like looking like this and like completely bent over and be crooked and say, all my friends told me I should come but actually I feel fine. They have no pain.
And then you have someone where you can only find the tiniest little imbalances, but in a world of pain, and that you really need to, to only keep only measure people’s, where they are in their body to themselves. Like you really cannot compare. I don’t like the idea like our arms should lift then with however many degrees and so on. There’s no standard. It’s whatever that person’s standard is, it’s what they feel like in their body. It’s how functional their body is. It’s how happy they are in the body, how pain free they are. That’s the standard you should be working with, rather than a than too much of a this is how it should be in the human body. You know?
Yeah. Do you feel like you’re seeing different types of cases over the years?
I find it quite interesting. I find like I get the people that I need to learn something from. (From their bodies?)
From their bodies, like I will often get people with the same problem at the same time. So I’ll get three new clients with an SI joint problem and I’m like, Okay, I guess I’m supposed to get better at SI joint problems now. And then I learned a lot from them. And I learned things from one that I can use on the other, and so on. Yeah, I find it often that I will suddenly have an influx of people with the same thing going on.
I think that is kind of how it works.
You are sort of attracting the clients that you need to learn something from and that you’re ready for.
Recently I’ve had more clients in recent years with sort of chronic pain, inflammatory conditions and so on where I’ve really had to learn that it is so different from person to person and you must enter into that person’s reality to help them. That you can’t just be like, Oh, this stretch is good for that. But it’s like, but for that person, that stretch really is going to make the condition worse. And to really respect everybody’s reality for their body. If that makes sense. That’s something that I in recent years have really understood. And I think that’s that was the influx of more chronic pain people that made me understand that.
I feel like working on chronic issues is really deeper, too, right?
Do you feel that like in the work that you do, you can enable them to also take responsibility for their own wellness as well?
To some degree, yes. It really depends on where they’re at in their journey. But with most people, they feel empowered when you give them some homework to do, or that you, you maybe give them a cue. After the session, I’ll have people stand up, and I’ll try to see what I feel like they’re missing, I might say, breathe into this place, or try to imagine your head is lifted up like this.
And for some of them, that those cues can really give them something they can hold on to when the session is over, so they can go, Okay, this is starting to come back. Okay, I’m gonna think about this. Or I’m gonna, you know, I’m going to use this little cue that I got. So for some people, that’s very beneficial, very empowering. Yeah, for some people, it’s just sort of I’ve often talked to people about their diet, and so on, even though I’m not a nutritionist or anything like that, but people will ask me thinking I know everything. And once in a while, you can actually see that.
I remember I had a client that I don’t remember I made the most amazing changes with, and I was actually a little bit frustrated.
Then a few years later, I met a friend of hers randomly who was like, Oh, you’re that you’re this person. And she was like, you made a huge change in her life. And I was like, really? Yeah, you changed her diet, her life, completely. And I was like, Wow. Okay. I felt like I actually kind of didn’t achieve what I wanted there. But yeah, some, it seems like sometimes the conversations you have with people actually makes them makes them want to make different changes or seek, it’s not that I definitely tell them, You must eat this and this and this, but they might go look for someone who will actually tell them what to eat. Sometimes I’m able to give them that that motivation to do that. (Signpost)
How fulfilling do you feel with like what you’ve pursued in your life, I guess going back to you know, like the beginning of you know, just pursue whatever makes you feel very fulfilled.
Yeah. Well, that’s the thing that’s very interesting that I kind of fell into bodywork. It wasn’t something that I dreamt about during my whole childhood. It was just sort of random that I fell into it. And I actually feel like it is such a blessing. You know, I’m actually really enjoying it. I really like when you, when you see people, they felt something shifted in their body, and they go, Oh, that’s really nice. Alright, well, I can breathe in here. That’s really fun. I’m gonna keep doing that, you know, this, then feels really good. Of course, it can also be frustrating when you’re stuck with a client and you’re not getting the changes that you want. But that’s part of life, right? That’s that’s how you learn.
4. Plans of the Unexpected
How did you fall into bodywork?
Oh, that was in in New York, because I was constantly trying to get a visa. So basically, it’s quite difficult to get a working visa in New York. And at some point, after 911, they got quite strict on letting people in and out of tourist visas, which is what a lot of people, a lot of us did that. We went into non tourist visas and just worked illegally. And there was lots of jobs illegally as well, it wasn’t really a problem. But after 911, they suddenly started stopping everyone and saying, What are you doing here? Why are you staying? So why are you coming so often? So I thought I need a visa of some type.
I researched a lot of different options for schools that would be affordable to pay for because I wasn’t actually intending to go to the school, I was just going to sign up for a school to get the visa. So I found this massage school and I was like sweet, I’ll sign up for that. I had to pay the first tuition fees for the visa to get activated.
You were planning to not pay the rest of the course!
I was. Well, I was just sort of let’s see how it goes and see how if the visas can stay active. But that was right when me and the boyfriend I had in New York we split up. I was so, so sad and depressed. I was crying, crying, crying. It was like the end of the world for me. And to distract myself, I thought, why don’t you go to the school. You’ve paid for it anyways, just go classes, it’ll distract you, you won’t lie here and cry on the sofa all day. And I was staying with a friend. And that friend was also having trouble in her marriage. They’re fighting all the time. So I actually couldn’t really stay on this sofa all day. It was quite hectic and miserable.
So I took these classes and just sitting there learning anatomy became my lifeboat for this broken heart. It was just literally what I needed. Just I would just sit there and memorise muscles. It just gave me purpose and meaning. And so I went through almost all this schooling, it was a year and a half of schooling that I went through, without even thinking I was probably going to use it for work, just because I was interested and I liked it. When we got towards the end, I’m like, Oh, I might actually work as a massage therapist. So I really fell into that. That was completely random. I didn’t intend to do it. I discovered that I liked it as I did it.
It’s kind of like how you got into the linguistics program?
Yes. It’s like, I want a bachelor’s, but I don’t know what I want to study. And I would look at the list of things. It’s like, No, no, no, no, that sounds hard. That sounds complicated. And then linguistics just sounded like something with languages, and I like languages. So I didn’t realise that it’s not quite what you learn; you didn’t learn any languages. So that’s what I signed up for. And I had quite a wrong idea of what it was, but it worked out for me.
So you kind of followed what you like, or love, or potentially interested in.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And then sometimes it’s just luck as well. With massage school, I think it was very lucky that that’s what I went for, and not some other random type of training that I maybe wouldn’t have enjoyed.
What do you love about Hong Kong?
Oh, I love so much about Hong Kong.
I love the nature. I love the city. The heat, I’m never cold here. I know that people don’t like the heat and the humidity. And it can be a little bit much at the height of summer. But honestly, overall I’ll take it over cold any day – Any day. And I love the mountains. Denmark is completely flat. And I’ve always been fascinated by hills. Love the beaches, there’re palm trees. You know, it’s just the nature is so incredible. There’re trees growing out of buildings. It’s the nature is just taking over everything. I love it. And then right next to all the nature you have the city full of opportunity.
And it is even though it’s like a roaring huge city, you have this gentleness I find. There is this I think especially during COVID It’s so so clear to see this. The sense of responsibility for the community, which is just so beautiful. You know, like here, you don’t have people arguing they don’t want to wear masks. There’s really this, Well, I wear the mask to protect my neighbour. That’s just a given. And I think that’s like something we’re really missing in the Western world.
5. Healing and the Hardest Grief
You asked me about the, my losing my dad and so on in the questions. With that, I would just say that I think it’s really important to sort out your shit with your parents early.
Because we just, we just started to sort it out like two months before he passed and I feel like it was such, if we had had a little bit more time we had actually had the chance of a much closer relationship. But we were both stubborn for many years. And the relationship wasn’t that close.
Who moved first?
I’d say he did, actually. But so one of the big obstacles to us being close was his wife that she was mentally ill and he was denying it my entire childhood.
It was very gradual, her mental illness came. So I will say when I claim she was mentally ill when I was like 12. I think that everybody just thought I was a jealous stepdaughter. But I actually was right. And of course it was fair that he denied it back then. But he denied it much, much longer into her illness where it was really clear to everybody and that was really what was in between us.
She didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. And that he wouldn’t admit there’s something wrong with her that was like the barrier between us and them. So at some point, he admitted it. That was when we started to soften where he was like, Okay, yeah, she is really mentally ill. And I’m actually a caretaker now. And it’s actually really hard.
That was when we started to soften a little bit, but it was still very hard for me to see him because she was always there. And now he couldn’t actually not be there because she couldn’t leave her alone.
So, two months before he passed, he actually came to Hong Kong to visit me. Because he had asked the government, if he could get a space for her in a care home so he could go visit me for a week which was something he had, he always said, I can’t leave her so I can’t come. You know, so that was really his reached out the arm was to say, Okay, I’ll ask. I’ll ask for a place in a home for a week for her so I can come.
And that was really the turning point where we started to have some conversations we shouldn’t have had many years before. It was just the beginning of us both melting. Then two months later, he passed.
Was it was really sudden?
Yeah, yeah, he was quite fit and fine. I mean, he would walk around Lamma Island and no problem in the hills. He was chopping wood for his fire every day. And he actually got a stroke while chopping wood. So that was Yeah, so it was quite sudden, he was 69. Good health, still playing football every Sunday, you know. So it was quite a quite a surprise. Nobody expected it.
But in a sense, sometimes it’s like when the time is, is the time it will happen. Right? Like it’s almost like there was no. Like, I don’t know what you could have done.
Oh, no, I couldn’t have done anything. Yeah, it was it was more than I would have loved for us to have a little bit more time to enjoy this softness we had suddenly built between us. And this is understanding of each other where we had both just been like, stubborn before, you know.
But at least we at least we got there before he passed. That’s that’s definitely something I just wish we’d had a little bit more time. Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything I could have done to speed that up. Because he needed to come to the conclusion that it was okay to put her in a home for a while to actually give me the time that I need it.
So there was closure, which is great.
Yeah, it was it was Yeah. Yeah.
What about Thor that passed?
That was the hardest grief of my entire life. I mean, very different grief from that with my dad – they were very different. Because he was like my child, he was with me 24-7. You know, he was on my body or he would be around my feet. I would never not hear his breathing, or smell his scent, or feel his little nose, pop my leg, you know, he was just, and he was like, my son, really.
So losing him even though you know, they’re gonna go before us. You know, you know, dogs are not like children, they’re not gonna live after you. But it still was the hardest thing I’ve had to go through. And I was so happy that I was closed down for business when he actually passed because I would have, I would probably have needed to take two months off to to recover.
Are there tips or things that you feel like, you know, like would be helpful for people who are kind of going through that loss?
Yeah. Which I mean, for me, it was really important to not try to distract myself. To really let the grief be there.
To go, Okay, I’m feeling this and this is an expression of love, to not think it’s Yeah, you feel terrible. You’re crying, and it feels like your soul is just like crushed.
But instead of going, oh, let’s watch a movie. Let’s do this – to literally just sit with it and sit and talk to him and write about him and I have this little pendants now with his hair. I have one with his ashes. And those really helped me. To go for walks and talk to him and pretend that he’s there. That that really helped me, even though it might seem a little crazy. So I still put his little the towel he used to eat from down when I feed my other dog Sif. Just because I feel like I’m still doing that to honour him. And I think it’s just important to let yourself do those things that can seem a little bit crazy because they’re actually really helpful for processing the grief.
Do you feel you’re sometimes getting signs that he is around?
Yeah, yeah, I sometimes get this little those little flying white things on my on my walks that just look like his first I always see that as a sign that he came to visit me on the walk. Yeah. He died of pancreatitis of old age. So it was to be expected. But it’s tough. Very tough.
Well, that’s the thing – I kind of fell into bodywork.
It wasn’t something that I dreamt about during my whole childhood. It was just sort of random that I fell into it. And I actually feel like it is such a blessing. You know, I’m actually really enjoying it.
I really like when you, when you see people, they felt something shifted in their body, and they go, Oh, that’s really nice. Alright, well, I can breathe in here. That’s, that’s really fun.
All photos are from Ea Holm unless otherwise specified. Date of chat: Saturday, February, 2021 over the internet.
I had always been intrigued by what it was like growing up for Ea for her to be so intrepid and adventurous.
If you haven’t already, check out Intrepid Real-life Ninja: Ea Holm where Ea shares her journey with us – how she “fell into” body work, one thing led to another as she pursues creative expression and satisfaction to her work. Key take-ways too on handling grief of losing a beloved pet.
From our conversation, it appears that the value systems and social systems in Denmark affects a different relationship in parenting and family life.
Is growing up in Denmark quite different? I feel like in Asia, a lot of the family, the kids, the thing is much more binding in a way?
Oh, it’s very, it’s very different than in Asia.
Very, very different.
It’s sort of like your parents – my parents wanted for me to enjoy life to find something to do that I would enjoy that I’d be happy doing. So there was never any pressure of like, you should take this, you should do that.
My dad was a little bit was just sort of like, just get a good job, you know? But he didn’t mean like, you have to be a banker or a lawyer or something. He just like something that will be fulfilling – that was important to him.
And my mom was just like, “As long as you’re happy, I’m fine whenever you want to do.”
Are most parents like that?
I would say so.
So first of all, I feel like here (in Hong Kong) there is the fact that the kids take care of the parents when they’re older. So there is a little bit of an investment in it in your kids.
Where in Denmark, the social system is so good that we don’t pay for our parents really, when they get old – the government does. Our parents don’t pay for our education, the government does.
So the whole monetary investment that’s kind of built in is just not there. You don’t have that pressure of like, “We paid this much money for you to go to school. So you should…” you know?
And they can’t also be like, “You should be a lawyer or a doctor, because otherwise who’s going to look after me when I’m old?” It’s like, well, the government is anyways, so. The pressure is just off. You can just focus on other things.
How do you feel that kind of childhood or kind of growing up experience informed you as a person?
I’d say, I definitely had a sense of freedom that I could do whatever I wanted. And I wasn’t scared of almost anything. I just was like, “Oh, I can handle most things.” That was probably the main thing that I got from home.
Is it specifically to your family, or that’s generally the case?
I think compared to here, it’s more the case in general, but my family was a little bit extreme like that as well.
It was a little bit like I was a child of hippies.
So I was just like, “Whatever you wanna do…” So like, Denmark is definitely more like that, but my family even more so on the extreme side.
What’s a Denmark hippie family like? Extreme would be like nudist type, right?
Um, a little bit. So my mom and dad actually split when I was one. So when I talk about my family, I talk about them separately.
My mom was just very free spirited. She had four husbands, though she wasn’t married to them throughout her life. And we always had the attitude that, you know, men come by to teach you different things. And then you find another one, you know, so very, very open-minded like that.
My dad went to live in a commune when I was five. So I grew up from five to 10, in a commune, and there were a lot of naked people. So the nudity thing – yes it was there, it was very common for people to just walk around without clothes on. And it really wasn’t a problem.
Yeah, weed was growing in the garden, people were just having a good time.
How do people make a living in a commune?
They had jobs, they just all lived together in a really big house. And then you pay part of your income to the communal fund.
So they had actual real jobs outside.
They had jobs outside, but then they just lived in this way. And so it was a lot of single parents.
Basically, I feel like it wasn’t so great for us kids, because we weren’t really part of a family unit.
We were sort of in one big room with bunk beds together. And then all the parents were like, sort of having a good time, but not really noticing if anyone was looking after us.
So it was in a way a really great concept. I can totally see that instead of having all these single parents live alone with their kid. Then the kid can have other kids to play with, And the parents can have other adults, so they don’t go crazy. But at the same time, it could have been maybe managed a bit better.
What were the values of the commune? Are there things that you see from the commune life that you’re like, “Absolutely, that really doesn’t work, that shouldn’t be.”
The things that really didn’t work, I think was putting the kids in a big room together. We should have been with our parents. Like I should have been with my dad in a room and the other kids should be with her mom in a room and so on.
That idea of like, “Oh, it’s great for them to be all together. They’ll just be like a big, like a big family” is not so right. Like kids of that age can be quite into hierarchies. And, you know, clique bullying and stuff like that. Nobody really saw or noticed anything going on. So that wasn’t so cool. But I did like I’ll say, there was a lot of sharing, like you cook together. So you had different people had cooking days at different days, and then everybody would eat together. And so you learn to cooperate. You learn to work together, you learned community. There was a lot of good things as well. Yeah, you learn to share.
So there’s community like with the idea of community, yet within the kids there is the hierarchy?
Yeah, within the kids. It’s like you really need parents to step in and say, “Hey, this is not how we do it.” And they were too busy with each other. The parents – they weren’t really paying too much attention to us. So I think they just thought we were just happy. But it was a bit tough sometimes being a kid there, I would say.
How big is a typical commune? Or is there no typical size?
Ours was quite small. I think probably, maybe 10 parents with 10 kids living together living in one big, old, old house. I don’t know how they did it if they actually bought it and paid the mortgage together. Or if they paid rent for it. I’m not sure how that was done. But I know that it’s still a commune today that house, but now they have actually changed the format to what I think is better. Now the kids live with their parents within the house. So they have built many smaller rooms rather than what we had. So I think they have actually fixed the things that weren’t so good in my time.
Photo of Ea and her Dad at around the time they moved into the commune, provided by Ea. Date of chat: Saturday, February, 2021 over the internet.
My original chat with Jacqueline focused on her art career. Two years on, her adventure has taken new developments. What piqued my interest was what she said “The destination is the excuse to take the journey.” Here I sat down with her to learn more of her adventurous and fun-loving side and a candid sharing of life, work, and pursuits.
Jacqueline Shiu, founder of her eponymous brand and painter
My trade is painting. But since being back in Hong Kong, I was thinking about how I could promote my artwork, how do I get into galleries.
Of the few gallery openings I have been to, I really didn’t enjoy that social environment. I felt it was very superficial. Also, as I was younger and quite shy I wasn’t very confident about myself, so I never made it into the scene. I was teaching most of the time – I stayed teaching, and I stayed learning just as a student, so I wasn’t a professional or I didn’t see myself as an artist. I had always called myself a painter. Because I think the connotation of being an artist is so vague?
Do you consider yourself an artist now?
More so. I’ve learned to appreciate art, through my exploration in psychology, or I guess, you know, being more mature and older, I know better what art means. And its value. And it’s easier for me to admit that I’m an artist.
How did you come to the understanding?
Probably through my learning about Thangka painting, and spending time with my Thangka teacher, I got into the spiritual meditative side of art. There’s a lot of psychology, talking about Mandalas and the visual representation of something deeper. So that gave art or images, paintings, a bit more meaning. So once I can associate the meaning behind images, and that I’m not just trying to paint a picture, I’m trying to create a meaning. That makes it easier to associate myself as an artist.
What led you to diversify?
The combination of me not seeing myself as an artist to begin with. So 10 years ago or more, with Chinese contemporary art, the prices were getting absurdly high, which is really exciting, of course. But at the same time, I feel like, that’s so superficial and false, and feels like people are liking art for the wrong reasons.
What did you feel they were liking art for?
For the investment value or money laundering that kind of thing. And, of course, with art, the value is not quantifiable, and hence, the price could be so crazy. But as an artist, if you ask me, do I want to sell my painting for 10 million? Of course, I want to. So there’s a contradiction between what is right and what I want, and what’s living honestly, and not honestly that kind of thing. And I thought, doing small businesses, selling things in itself is quite an honest way of making money. So that’s one reason.
And also my guru. I remember having a conversation with him once and it was right around when I went to college, and I told him, I was studying art. He said, “Oh, why don’t you study business?” And it got me thinking, there’s nothing about me that’s business. So I wouldn’t even know where that idea came from. But I also kept this in mind and thought, maybe he’s trying to say I should do business. So there are lots of things coming together.
Serendipity – things come together
How did you take the first step?
So I remember the first time after I learned about Thangka in Nepal. I came back, my friend commissioned me to do a painting. “It just needs to be blue and big.” So she’s Catholic, but I painted a Mandala for her, and well, she decided it’s not what she wanted or whatever. But I was happy to keep the painting. So I did. A lot of people saw the painting and they were all like, “I can see this on a scarf. It’s kind of like the Hermes design with the symmetry.” So that was another reason. And my then mother-in-law runs a charity in Nepal. So she traveled there quite often and she was saying, “Oh, I know a scarf maker. They make the most beautiful scarves ….” So all these things kind of came together and gave me the idea.
Was it hard? Or was it easy?
It wasn’t hard. I’m sure I had my frustrations, but it was quite fun. To me, the most fun part was designing the logo and the packaging, the nitty-gritty things – the wedding planning part of the business. The frou-frou, the small things, so that was really fun. And then, of course, it’s trying out different factories.
Can you tell us more because it sounded like, you really looked for something that aligned with what you wanted to give birth to.
I did. I first looked in Nepal. I also went to Shanghai, I sampled with them. And then of course, there’s the trade fairs and trade shows in Hong Kong. So there are tons of factories I got in contact with. And I’ve never been to Mongolia. Even though I sampled from several factories in Mongolia. I did go to Shanghai to visit the factory. I went with my sister and the staff brought us to some local noodle shop. So that’s the fun part of going there and doing all these things, including chit-chats with my sister in the hotel room.
You mentioned that some of the most memorable moments have been visiting factories.
Yeah, that has been really fun. In China, I spoke with the staff, because I think the factories are bigger, the owner doesn’t usually do the sales. So in that sense, it was less pressure because you’re dealing with staff. But in Nepal, I was always dealing with the owners, because the factories are small, and they do the business.
My then mother-in-law has a friend called Samir. Samir introduced me to a guy that he works out with at the gym who has a Kashmir factory. His company is called The Kashmir company. Meanwhile, I found another company online called The Kashmir Industries, to which the owner’s name is Samir. I made a bunch of appointments to meet these factory owners, and I guess I got Kashmir Industries and Kashmir Company mixed up. So they all came to meet me at the same time.
I met with Kashmir Industries first. And I shook hands with him and I kept talking, “Oh you’re a friend of Samir…” and he had no idea what I was talking about. But he didn’t catch that I was talking about the wrong person, because his name was Samir. So he just got confused. I just kept talking. And then the other guy came to pick me up. But by then I had left with the first company. My then mother-in-law who was with me in Nepal thought I had been kidnapped, because the other guy showed up, and I wasn’t there. So there was a huge fiasco.
What was your criteria in finding your business partner, or what you call the surrogate mother to create your scarves?
I asked for signs. And I had to say that I had very promising signs for this particular factory.
Did you have an inkling that this was the most probable one?
Yes, it was quite good. The first sample they made was really, really good. The problem was, because it was the beginning stages of sampling, I didn’t know what the standard was. So of course, their scarves are really nice. But it wasn’t until I see the other scarves that I realized they’re actually really good.
So it helped that you actually did sampling with various factories.
Yeah. But of course, in the beginning, we have the samples, but I was still dubious, because, maybe every factory makes nice scarves. But it turns out, their’s is really quite nice. So as I go through all the sampling and factories, I learnt what makes the scarf better or worse.
Work and relationships as learning ground
How have you grown from working relationships?
You really see the character of the people you work with. And you understand that everyone has different qualities. Some qualities you might like, some you might not.
So for example, a lady who helps with some of the sewing, I get to see a little more about this person and her life and that’s interesting. Then it’s also how do you deal with this person. Because, under normal circumstances, she won’t be my friend. But now I’m put into a situation where I work with this person because of her other qualities. From there I get to see other parts of her which are valuable in ways I wouldn’t see otherwise.
Likewise with my factory in Nepal. In the beginning, I was so annoyed by how things were. For the first few factory visits, we had to take the car for half an hour, an hour, on a very shitty road, and it’s a very small, dingy car. And I was always getting carsick. And for the whole journey, the owner would talk to me about Hinduism, as though he’s trying to convert me. Obviously, I’m Buddhist. And I found it really annoying. I tried to have a conversation with him. But I realized it was pointless. Plus with the carsick. So towards the end, I was just nodding and was like, “Okay, okay, okay.”
But then the relationship changed. Two months ago, he was telling me, “I’m very fond of the Buddhist religion.” And he was sharing with me some videos about Buddhism and some experiences of his life as well. That’s a nice, meaningful connection that I wouldn’t otherwise have if I’m not using this factory. So that’s the kind of relationship that I get to experience outside of my own social circles.
Because you’re working with different people, you naturally would share who you are, you naturally share your Buddhist experience or other things. In this case, kind of opened him up to something new as well.
Yeah. And I’ve always been told that I am too honest with who I share information with. I try to say less. But then actually, I feel like it really isn’t who I am. And maybe I should just be more confident about telling people things. So I feel if there’s a part of me, that opens myself up to other people, maybe that encourages them to be honest with me as well.
Being told you’re being too honest. Has it created problems or actually created surprises for you?
Well, not that I remember. I’m sure there are cases where I didn’t have to volunteer so much information. And maybe that made me less glamorous? I don’t know.
You think so? What if your genuine sharing is actually more inspiring?
I would like to think so. And, I think at the end of the day, you’re just who you are. Maybe you should have done this, maybe you should have done that. But maybe it’s just better to do whatever you do, right? Because there’s no measure of how much is too much. And how little is too little. So.
What did you mean when you said “The destination is the excuse to take the journey?”
When I was saying that I was thinking of all the fun that I’ve had with the business. And sometimes I feel like, “Oh, you know, where do I want to travel? Of course, maybe I should go to Kashmir because I’m making cashmere.” So it’s almost like an excuse for me to go and have fun.” Yeah, forcing me out of my comfort zone. I guess it’s almost like planning backwards. Planning backwards, meaning make the destination fit the journey, or make the journey the priority. I mean, this is just one way of thinking. You can also think normally, which is, I want to go there. So I’m gonna take this road to get there.
What’s that destination?
So the way I see destination, I guess being Buddhist, or being a painter, I realized, the most fun part about painting is you feel like you’ve done something awesome (destination). And then, but always, always, always, you look at it again, it’s actually not that good. But then you chase for another awesome, and then it becomes mediocre again. So the fun part is the chasing part. The journey.
So the destination is just, it’s like an oasis. You feel like you’re getting there, but you’ll never get there. And it’s actually the desire to get there. That’s the fun part. Because you will actually never get there. So that’s definitely the case with painting. Because there’s no perfect painting where “Oh my God, I’ve done this, I can never, surmount my great work. So I need to stop.” You know, there’s never a destination. I guess it’s the same with life, money, and everything. Right?
Tenacity and renewal
Is there anything else you want to share or add?
Well, I was recently divorced. So that had a huge impact on my growth as well. So everything that I’ve told you should be taken into consideration that my personal relationship had a lot to do with this growth, this revelation.
Did it set you free? Or did it give you an impetus to stand on your own?
Yes. So basically, my life was, let’s say 50% spouse 50% work. Now it’s 80% work and 20% parents and siblings. So I’m a more devoted to my work since the divorce. And that also means thinking more for me. Rather than thinking more for let’s say me and my spouse, what are we going to do together today or tomorrow. Now it’s more like, what am I going to do for myself?
It must have been very tough. How did you pull yourself through?
I pulled myself through by knowing that I did the right thing. And that it can only get better for myself, in the future. Because I mean, I think all in all, as much as I cry very easily. And I seem to be a softy. But I do think that there’s a part of me that’s very tenacious. The thing is, if you never give up, then you can only get better, right? And, I don’t have a reason to give up. I mean, and luckily, I’m well-fed, I have family support, I’m making money. I love what I do, and I find it meaningful. So you know, there’s no reason for me to give up. So, all in all, I just feel like it’s going to get better eventually.
For this brand, you said you wanted to bring something to the world? What is it that you want to bring?
Let’s say I’m a customer, and I see this brand. I’m not going to be enlightened by buying a scarf. If you look at my pieces, you’ll just be reminded that, “oh, there is such a thing.” Just like you see a yoga center, you might remember, “oh, that’s where people meditate.” So just to remind people that, these ideas are there. That’s one thing. But then, this doesn’t just apply to business, but also to being a human being.
Now, whenever I come across anybody, I just have to remember I stand for Jacqueline Shiu. I stand for myself, I stand for my brand. So I don’t want to do shitty things and ruin my brand and ruin my reputation as a human being. I think if everyone does that, then it’s good. Right? What was your question?
What do you want to bring to people?
I mean, it depends how people like my brand. Some people buy one scarf. And that’s it. Some people are so in love, they end up buying my paintings. And maybe if I have a biography, they read it. So maybe in that sense, I can share a little more. I mean, a lot of the ideas that I’m sharing, they’re not original. It’s a compilation of other ideas that I’ve learnt. So I’m just a source of dissemination just like everyone else is in this world. So it’s just how far and wide you broadcast pre-existing ideas through your own kind of understanding.
Cool. Thank you.
All photos and videos from Jacqueline Shiu. Date of chat: Tuesday, 23 February 2021 at Jacqueline’s studio.
Look out for the first interview on her training and art next week!
Thank you so much for coming on for this interview with Where My Heart Leads. I’m really excited to learn more about how you got into what you do. And to tell us more about some of the challenges and learnings and lessons that you’ve had. So can you tell us a little bit about you? Where are you from?
Matt Knights, game creator, co-founded Protostar Games
I’m from Australia. I’ve lived in Australia for most of my life, mostly from the country, small town Australia. In terms of the kind of video games, and how I ended up in that field. I guess I first saw a video game when I was about six years old, something like that. I think the first one I ever saw was Pong. It was just a really basic black and white kind of game that was kind of its own console. So you would have these two little controllers called paddles. They’re like little wheels that you turn. You kind of control the two little paddles. It was just a two player game. And that was all it did. That was all that console did, basically.
I remember going to my uncle’s when I was about a similar age, maybe like seven or eight and he had a Nintendo. And I played Super Mario Brothers for the first time and the Legend of Zelda as well. I think while the adults were upstairs catching up, and talking, I just played Nintendo all day with my brother. And yet that must have had quite an impact on me. After that, I just wanted to play games, and I got really interested in it.
Were you a good student in school?
I was, yeah,
Despite playing video games?
Yeah, I was really good. I was kind of a goody two shoes. A bit of an overachiever. Especially in primary school. I was on top of my primary school. In high school, I kind of fell off a bit. I think it’s because I was in this little country town. So it didn’t take too much to become the dux and that the schools were really small. So if you’re a little bit smart, you know, you’re probably going to do okay in their schools. But yeah, when I went to high school, for my last few years of high school, I was in a big boarding school in Brisbane. And I still did well, but I wasn’t like the dux. You know what I mean?
So did you go into uni thinking you want to become a game designer?
No, no, not at all. I mean, that wasn’t even really on the radar – I was pretty good at science, and I really liked it. I did chemistry and physics in high school and I think I just always wanted to do science. And so I applied to do a science degree at the University of Queensland. And I got in and that’s what I did. About one year into that degree, I sort of combined it with an arts degree because I wanted to study Japanese. So yeah, I ended up doing a four year kind of dual degree. It’s like science and arts with a major in Japanese. So yeah, nothing to do with games at all. Actually, in that part of my life, I was playing a lot of games still. Well, way too many,
I played this game called Counter Strike. Yeah, it’s still pretty popular now. Now, it’s called CS go. But yeah, I spent way too much time playing that game. Really. I mean, I passed. I got my science degree and everything, but I probably could have done better.
What was so addictive about gaming? What is the draw about gaming you feel?
There are some games out there that are just there’s so skill based. I guess it’s like a sport. And nowadays that is becoming much more of a thing, right? eSports. But even back then it was kind of like playing a sport, without unfortunately getting fit. But it had this real competitiveness to it. That draws some people in. And within the colleges at Uni, there were 10 colleges, each with about 100 to 300 people attending those residential colleges. And I think within every one of those colleges were at least 20 or 30 people that were playing Counter Strike for many hours a day.
Is there like a stereotypical type of person for the game?
Oh, yeah, I think so. I mean, especially for that game. It’s kind of like a pretty testosterone sort of fueled game. I think the word “toxic” gets used a lot now. Yeah, for that kind of thing. Sometimes, it depends. Some people who played the game, like most of the people, my friends who played the game, were really good guys. And I’m still friends with quite a few of them. Yeah, and then some guys who played it, not so much.
So did you get into your Game Design job right out of college?
No, so when I finished college, I had my science degree. And I had a degree in arts with the Japanese major. And I thought at that point, well, you know, I’ll probably try get some sort of science job, research job, maybe at the university or with a private company or something like that. But my girlfriend at the time, Christina, she said, you know, why don’t we go to Japan? She’d also done six months of Japanese just as kind of an elective at university. And you know, that there were these programs, you could go over to Japan and teach English for a year or so just as kind of a break. So yeah, we decided to do that. We applied, and we both got in.
We did that for 18 months. When we come back, that’s kind of where the video games thing happened.
1. New video game degrees. Back to school as an older student.
So what was the first job you applied for?
So I actually didn’t really apply for any video game job. But I kind of fell into it. What happened was when I got back, suddenly there were these video game degrees that didn’t exist when I started my science degree. And I just heard about, ah you can do these video game degrees now. You know, to get into video games. And there are a few big companies in Brisbane at the time that were growing. And Brisbane was becoming a kind of a bit of a hub for video game development in Australia. So I decided to do a video games course.
I thought, I want to try and do this. I love games. I’ve always been really interested in it. And I want to try and do this, this video games course. And so I use the savings that I had from my time in Japan and I did this video games course. It was a two year course. They kind of fast track a three degree over two years.
What do you learn? What do they teach you?
It was really broad, like all kinds of stuff. The specialization that I was doing was animation. But they would teach you all kinds of things like writing, storyboarding, things more to do with film than games even. We did some sound design, graphic design. Yeah. Lots of creative things like that.
Were you creative as a kid?
A little. Yeah. Yeah, I was. I wasn’t super artistic. Like, I’m still not really that great at drawing. I can animate. Drawing is not really my specialty. So that was always kind of a bit of a struggle. Because if you can draw well, that’s a pretty big deal if you’re going to be a video game artist.
So after that course, that got you into the first job?
Yeah, so I was lucky enough. By the time I finished, getting near the end of that course, and I think it was maybe because I was older. A lot of the guys and girls who I was doing that course with, they were just straight out of school. And they didn’t have quite as much of, maybe, investment. I guess their parents were paying for a lot of them to go through that course, they didn’t care as much or something. But, you know, since I was paying, I cared a lot about getting the most out of it. So towards the end of that course, I got an internship with a small, smallish games development company and I did a kind of two month internship with them. And that was like part of the degree, kind of at the end you would do like an internship.
And then after that I just stayed on at that company. They hired me. I was lucky enough to get a job with them right away and just carried on.
So that’s the job you stayed for for seven years. Prior to starting Protostar
I remember you mentioned that you learned quite a lot at this job. What were the things that you learned and was able to kind of help you launch your own?
I can remember the first day I started at that company. And one of the tasks that they had us doing, there was me and a couple of other interns there. And we were doing backgrounds for a game. Just like drawing up in Photoshop, which is the 2D software package that we use. We’re just drawing up these kind of backgrounds. And they was supposed to be like, cartoonish, but these, like, creepy kind of cemetery spooky looking backgrounds. And I was terrible, like, I was so out of my league. That, yeah, when we had the meeting, to sort of present our work and what we’ve done, there was this other guy who he’d been there for a few years, and he was really good. And just seeing my work put up next to his work was just so horrible. Yeah. I didn’t think I’d make it.
How did you get better?
Ah, I just kind of stuck at it. And yeah, I learned a lot on the job. I think that was kind of the key, right, was to just keep going. I knew that that illustration wasn’t my strong point. And I hoped that I would, you know, if I just stuck at whatever work was given to me and tried to kind of try to move towards work that I thought I would be better suited to.
So as time went on, at that company, I kind of moved from doing just illustration type work into more like, design, and visual effects, and sort of a bit more technical stuff. And I was just sort of naturally better at that kind of thing. So I guess I kind of stuck it out through those difficult times there. And I was lucky enough not to get fired, I guess. I mean, I was hard working. But yeah, the results were not really there. I don’t think.
2. Creative juices and lessons from the first launch.
It takes a lot of guts to be like, “Okay, I’m going to start my own.” What do you feel gave you the confidence to start your own?
So after being at that place for about seven years, I think what happened was, while we were there, we would often do kind of prototyping and we would split up into little teams. We used to do this on every second Friday, or maybe like one day a month or something like that. We would take a break from our normal project, whatever we were working on at the time. (That’s kind of really cool to you know, get the creative juices going.) Yeah, yeah, it was a really, really good kind of break. And you could just see the energy of the place light up on those days. You know, everyone was excited. Yeah, it was great. So much energy.
And I usually did pretty well with those little projects. Like, I would pitch an idea and get a small team together, like maybe three or four people. So we pitch our ideas in front of the whole company, you know, and then if people liked your idea, they would join with you and make your game over a few days. Or at least your prototype, you know. And I was pretty good at doing that. I was good at kind of getting a team together and kind of directing where I wanted the game to go.
So when it came time for us to decide, or when it came time when we decided to leave, there was one other guy who I’d done a few prototypes with. He was a really good coder. That was one thing that I at that time, I couldn’t do, I couldn’t code. So, yeah, he was keen to leave. And I was keen to leave. And I guess we’ve proven to each other in the past that we were capable of making a game together. So we felt fairly confident actually, in starting your own thing.
Has it been pretty smooth since starting your own company?
I wouldn’t say that. You know, we’ve had a pretty good run. But our first game didn’t do that well.
The idea for that game was to kind of create something as quickly as we could, and put it out just as like, a kind of a test or just kind of to get something out there as quickly as possible. We didn’t want to try and make some, you know, masterpiece or something, with our first game. You hear that story so often – people try and do their own thing. And they want to make the most, the greatest thing ever, on their first attempt, you know, happens to game developers a lot. So it’s a classic thing. We didn’t want to do that. So we thought, okay, we’ll give ourselves three months to make this first game. It took four, so not too bad. The game was pretty good. It was hard. It did okay. Like it was critically well received. But financially, yeah, it pretty much bombed.
We got a really good feature on the App Store. Basically, the best feature you could possibly get right? Back in those days was a big banner up the top of the store worldwide, right? There’s nothing you can get that’s better than that. And so, that translated to about a million downloads in that week where it was being featured. So in that respect, it sounds quite successful (promising.) Right?
But the game monetized so badly. I mean, it was a free game. And the way that the game was monetized was with at the time just in-app purchases, but it just, it just did so badly. You know, like, no one spent anything on the game. So yeah, so we learned a lot of lessons from that. And I’m really glad that we sort of made a game that we’re proud of, but at the same time, we didn’t spend a year or two years making that game.
Now, that’s a great lesson – to not be so gung-ho about, or stuck about launching the perfect product and just kind of get it out there. And, to test and learn from that experience and move on to a better one.
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I remember there’s this story of like, a pot maker. I don’t know if you’ve heard that story. Think it’s like a proverb or something. Basically, it goes like, you know, imagine two guys, right, and they’re both trying to create, like, the perfect piece of pottery, the perfect pot, right. And one of them spends his entire career, trying to make the perfect pot. This one pot that he’s working on right, meticulously, yeah. The other person makes like 1000 pots, right. So the person that makes 1000 pots, you know, for his 1000 pot, he makes it in say, you know, 10 minutes, but it’s better than the single pot that the other guy’s been working on for his whole career.
I think about that sometimes. And yeah, I kind of think that there definitely is something to that story.
3. Modus Operandi: What’s in a game and scaling the business
We got that game wrapped up, and then we moved on. And we started doing some more prototypes after that. And, yeah, that’s when we came up with Sling Kong, which was our second game. So it was a bit of a modest hit. It wasn’t like, crazy sensation, like some games do become. But for a small two man team. I guess, for us, it was definitely a hit. And we’re still doing updates for it today. So it’s still got a lot of people playing that game.
So why is that game so popular? Do you have a very good sense of what the market likes? How did you come up with a game?
So yeah, we knew that our first game was too hard. And we wanted to make something that’s more broadly appealing, but more fun for casual players. So that was one requirement. And then, at the time that we made that game, there are a few other games that kind of inspired us in terms of how to make money with a game like that, and how to be appealing with a game like that. So that the actual game mechanic of playing Kong is fairly unique. I mean, the game itself is not like a clone of any other game. That mechanic of the game is quite unique.
But in terms of how the game monetizes, we took inspiration from other games that have come before us. And that helps a lot. Because those kinds of decisions about how to make your game make money are not the kinds of things that were that good at or that interested in. So it really helps that someone’s already kind of shown, this is how you can make a casual game make money, basically. And keep your business going.
As far as coming up with the idea and that kind of thing. We do like a little, a couple of weeks of prototypes usually where we try and make a prototype, basically every day. (wow) So the prototypes are really rough, right. But after a couple of weeks, we’ll kind of maybe pick one that looks promising and develop it a little bit more. If we still like it after spending maybe say a week working on that one idea. And we feel like yeah, there’s something here, this could be good, then we’ll go into production. And yeah, that we’ll just start working on it.
So prototyping for games is kind of like coming up with the mechanisms. And what happens next, kind of like a storyboard?
Yeah, you could say that it is, it is similar to that. It’s like the kind of rough ideas we would build. Like in the case of Sling Kong, where, in the final game, you’re kind of sling-shotting a monkey or these other animals up this level of obstacles. In the prototype there’s nothing in the level except other little circles, and red circles are bad, and black circles are good. It’s, that’s the kind of level that we make it to.
So you launched Sling Kong in 2015. And then three years later, you launched Super Starfish.
Yes, yeah. So for the few years there between those two games, I mean, the first two years of 2015 and 2016, we were just doing updates for Sling Kong, and just adding characters, and adding different themes to the game and just kind of extra stuff because, we had all these players, all these people were playing the game. And we started a Facebook page and people were requesting. “We want more characters, we want more characters.” So we just kept making them.
What was your marketing strategy?
I don’t know. Yeah, we tried to do like these little videos when we first started on YouTube, you know, kind of a little bit about … insight into what it’s like to be a poor indie games developer.
Yeah, we should really take them down. Those videos they just took too long to make. And, you know, we’re trying to make games primarily. So we had to stop doing them. And I don’t think enough people are watching them anyway. There’s hardly any, hardly anyone watch them. So yeah, we just focused on the games after that. But after a while, we thought, Oh, if we just keep updating Sling Kong we’re never going to make our next game. We’re just going to spend forever – updating – Sling Kong. And yeah, so we got sick of that. That’s when we first hired a couple of people to help us out.
Like a natural transition to have someone help you manage Sling Kong, and then you focus on your next creation?
That’s right. Yep. Yeah. Yeah. So we always wanted to stay really small. Because neither Dean, my business partner, or I wanted to, we don’t want to have a big company. We’re not managers. You know, we don’t want to manage people. We just want to make games. We tried to keep really small, so we don’t have to do any of that managing type stuff. But yeah, we did. We did need to hire some people, if we ever wanted to sensibly move on. That allowed us to start our next game, which was Super Starfish. And that one, that one was a little bit different.The idea for that game was kind of rattling around in my head in some form for a pretty long time.
But the thing that took a really long time to work out was like, What is the game? Like, how does the player control it? And how does the game kind of work? I knew I wanted to have fish in space. For some reason I like space. And I like marine animals. So I wanted to combine them and have this cool, trippy, space fish. Yeah, so that idea was there for a long time. And also, we had this visual effect that we knew how to do. And we wanted to use it.
It looks really beautiful. The game. The colours.
Yeah. So a very early part of the game was starting almost with that effect and developing that effect, and getting it to work on a mobile phone and optimized enough so that it basically could work on a phone. Then we built the game almost around that effect, we thought let’s just use this for everything – the fish should make these colors swirl around and obstacles should make these colors and put these cool swirly colors onto the screen.
So are you more proud of one game over another? Do you have a favorite?
Yeah, that’s a tough question! I think I do like Super Starfish out of the games we’ve made. I think I would say that’s probably my favorite. That it’s the most complex, and it’s the most, kind of, challenging to play. I get the most fun out of playing that game out of the ones that we’ve made. And yeah, I think we did a good job with that game. I’m really proud of that one. Yeah, I was happy with how it turned out with Sling Kong as well. I mean, we wouldn’t have been able to make Super Starfish if we didn’t make Sling Kong. So you know, it’s very, very hard to say.
I was actually very, very surprised to hear that potentially, the next game that you want to develop is something that’s a departure from the previous games that you’ve designed. Is that something that we can discuss?
Yeah. we can, we can discuss that. We’re not very secretive. Yeah, we like to talk about what we’re doing. So, basically, it’s like, a mowing game. Where you’re, you’re essentially going lawn by lawn through kind of a small country town, and just mowing lawns. And that’s it.
What was the inspiration for this game?
This one came about a little differently. And it’s evolved since we first started making it. I remember someone describing once making games is kind of like, imagine you have a whole heap of jigsaw puzzle pieces, right? And you throw them up in the air. And for some reason you’re on like, some low gravity place, like on the moon or something like that. So the pieces fall really slowly. And if, before they hit the ground, you’ve got to kind of put together the best picture that you can. By the time these puzzle pieces hit the ground, that’s kind of the game that you’ve got.
So sometimes you think in your head, I know exactly what I want this game to be. But, as you’re making it, you discover things that are fun, and you discover things that are not fun. And you’ve got to adjust. Okay, right. Yeah, yeah. Something that was fun in your head before, maybe when you actually make it, you go, “Oh, actually, yeah, this isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.” And then other things that you had no idea would be fun suddenly, like, hey, this part of the game is great. Maybe we should emphasize this part of the game more.
So that happened a little bit with this game. Originally, the inspiration or the idea was to create a really small game. That was kind of, let’s say, hyper casual. It’s a hyper casual game, which means like, basically, anyone can play this game.
Is that like an official term? Hyper casual?
Yes, it is.
A lot of people are making hyper casual games. It’s like, maybe we can make a hyper casual game and we could make it in like a month or something like that. Usually, these games are really small in scope, and pretty quick to make. So we kind of came up with this idea of something that just felt satisfying to do. Something that feels satisfying to you is like – cleaning things feels satisfying. And also, we felt that mowing lawns feels satisfying. It feels good to start with something messy and when you leave it, it’s nice. So yeah, we started creating this game. We’ve been kind of supporting Sling Kong and Super Starfish this whole time. So it’s kind of taken a lot longer than we hoped originally. So I think now it’s been in development for about a year.
And it’s beta testing soon, though.
Yeah, really soon.
So what happens after the beta testing? How do you decide when it is ready for actual launch?
That’s a great question. So I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. After we do the beta test, we’ll have a look at it. And we’ll have some idea of whether or not it’s gonna do badly or well. Hopefully, it looks good. And people like it.
If it looks bad, we may have a bit of an attempt to fix some of the problems that we find. If people think that it’s, I don’t know, it could, it could be anything, it could be so many different things that people like or don’t like about it. But we will probably try and fix some of the things that are hopefully easy to fix. And then try and launch it. Maybe about a month after that we’ll spend like a month trying to improve it. Or if it looks good, then we’ll just release it and see how it goes.
Cool. I looking forward to seeing how this anybody can play game works out.
Yeah, me too. Very curious about this one.
Was there any significance for picking your company name – Protostar?
Yeah, yeah, kind of we did. You know, when we started the company, it was we weren’t, we didn’t want to spend too long setting it up, right? Because we wanted to just like, let’s just start making games. But we spent one week filling out all the forms you need to fill out to start a business with the government and everything like that. And at the same time, we needed to come up with a name before we could register a business. So we had to come up with the name Protostar. And that logo and everything. The name. Yeah, so Protostar is like a celestial thing. So basically, as a protostar it’s kind of like before a star becomes a star. It’s a protostar.
We like the word proto, because of prototype, and we like making prototypes and kind of doing something different and trying things out. We really like trying things out and seeing how it goes. We thought we’re starting something new. Like, yeah, a star. protostar is kind of a new star. That’s just forming. It just felt right.
Yeah it feels very kind of, like kind of positive and, and like there’s like, a big unknown, but it’s very optimistic.
Yes, yeah. To be discovered. Yeah, that’s right.
So we’re kind of coming towards the end of our chat. What has been the most rewarding taking a somewhat different path from probably what you might have imagined yourself to have taken as a student.
Yeah, that’s a, that’s a tough question. I’ve always felt kind of lucky, being able to work a job where I’m doing what I love. I’ve always been really happy about that. And sometimes there’s kind of a lot of pressure. Especially, I think that you put on yourself when you’re doing something that you love, and that you want to be, you know, as good as it can be. So sometimes it can be really stressful, but it’s on those days where I’m doing something, like making a new prototype, or like, sort of like, really in that creative zone. Those days go so fast. Like I blink, and they’re over.
But, you know, if I’m working on a project, and we’re near the end of the project, and we’re just trying to get everything wrapped up, like cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s, those days can take a long time.
Do you let your kids play your games? Do they like playing your games?
Yeah, yeah, they play them. Yeah. They like them. They have iPads. They had to get them for school, actually, as schoolwork requires that they have iPads. Which I’m not sure if that’s a good idea or not, but that’s how it is. They get a little bit of screen time, each day. And sometimes it’s really nice if they do choose to play one of the games that I’ve made, usually they don’t. Usually, they’ll do something else. But sometimes they do choose it. And when I do see them do that. Yeah, it feels nice. Cool.
All photos from Protostar Games website or social media pages. Date of chat: 10 December, 2019 over video conferencing.
Mindset setting: She set her sights to run Hong Kong’s toughest 100km Rebel Walker. An annual event where teams run over 20 hours straight through mountainous, earthy terrain. Why? Some people love coming through the other end, of having endured, grown and conquered.
To familiarise herself with the routes and prepare for the race, Vivien enlisted a friend who’s an experienced veteran. The friend agreed that it would be a good idea to do a 20 km overnight run to gain experience of running the hilly terrain at night.
First Evening Run: Drama
At a certain point of that run, Vivien was feeling her energy dip. In need of fuel, she grabbed some powergel/snacks. The friend yelled at her to stop her from eating – as he insisted that she finish that segment of hills first. However, Vivien knew her body best and could feel her energy drop. An argument erupted. He, was insistent. She, needed the fuel. He was yelling. She was yelling back. Soon, it all went downhill, “Just go! Go away. I don’t want to ever see you again!” she yelled. And she meant it.
So the guy friend jetted off.
At the end of the trail, he was waiting for V. Drenched in sweat and rain, exhausted and angry, Vivien declared, “I said – I DON’T WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN.”
They went their separate ways. On that fortuitous night, she set her sights on one thing – to not be in that situation again. She’s got to run faster! Trainer better!
Vivien is an experienced hobby athlete. She’s played for women’s tennis teams of clubs, and ran marathons in Hong Kong and overseas. She made the switch to running mountains because of injuries. Surprisingly, running mountainous terrain became more bearable than running flat pavements. Saturdays are her running days with husband and friends. Rain or shine.
Upon further exploration, a two-fold approach helped accelerate her growth.
Targeted Help – Physio & Trainer
Having a goal in mind
Vivien credits her Physiotherapist for helping speed her recovery, even of old injuries. What set this Physiotherapist apart was her ability to pinpoint very accurately and down to the specifics which muscles to strengthen and advise specific exercises to do. The exercise program the physiotherapist designed effectively addressed the physical weakness and misalignments that had yielded the old injuries. Thanks to the targeted action plans, V’s old injuries dissolved, giving way to more mileage in her runs.
Then the trainer Vivien worked with has a strong track record. Formerly one of the fastest runner on the police force, twice-weekly she trained with him. Curious, I asked, “Why do you train both days? Could you do one day yourself?”
Four or five of us gathered around some chocolates. The chocolate clear of labels. We had no idea what brand, what flavour. The facilitator led us to “taste” the chocolates at a distance – meaning we didn’t ingest, but we connected to the energy of the chocolate.
For the first piece – we first all connected to the chocolate to feel how it felt in our body as if we have eaten it. Some said they felt it was very sticky in the throat or in the digestion.
Surprisingly, although none of us were trained to “taste” this way, for each chocolate, we had sensations – sensing that this piece was more prickly in the throat, and that more heavy in the digestion.
The experience was eye-opening because how often do we sense the food we eat as suppose to just seeing how it looks?
When we buy fresh produce
Since that chocolate tasting, I was more conscious when I go grocery shopping. I look and sense the freshness and aliveness of the fruit or vegetables.
Sometimes at the wet markets you might see leafy vegetables that look pretty perfect. Very green, very sturdy. But they look a bit shell-shocked – a bit like zombies – frozen. Not surprisingly, these veg would sit in the fridge and not wilt forever.
A favorite vegetable of mine is the Shanghai Bok Choy. The outermost leaf would normally starts to yellow on the second or third day in the fridge. A bag I bought recently had no signs of deterioration – it could have been very fresh, but I suspect it had a lot of chemicals that kept it “frozen in time.” The veg had form, but lacked the tenderness and sweetness of its happily grown kind. (I must have bought that bag with my mind instead of my heart that time!)
What does it mean when food is alive?
Although I lived on an organic farm for a few months and helped harvest vegetables, feed chickens, manage the compost pit where there was a lot of life. Life in the soil: worms and bugs live, organisms in the compost pit that feed on the compost and helps break it down. However it was my neighbour who really showed me another level of aliveness in her farm.
She transformed her rooftop into a working vegetable garden that feeds her family. She showed me okra, tomatoes, and gourd that if you leave on the vine to dry becomes loofah! (Yes, loofah comes from a gourd!)
What was really interesting was that being a garden of life, there were many organisms that also loved her vegetable plants. The worms especially loved her baby tomatoes, which her two young children also loved.
What she did was she began talking to the worms that lived with the plants and asked if they might go elsewhere to find food as she would like to keep the tomatoes for her children. And sure enough, the worms listened and moved on! The funny thing was, they moved over to the plants across the roof and munched on those tomato plants instead!!
Whenever I share this story with my friends, they listen intently and seem absorbing the idea that these worms – they are worms for goodness sake! Could worms understand what we say!?
Taste the different: Food that is alive
This neighbor “grew” kefir also. She learnt it from a teacher who recommended high quality water for the kefir so she got glass bottled mineral water. She’s careful about what she feeds them too! Not just what she feeds herself and her family.
I’m no expert with kefir, but when she showed me the bottle, they look so happy! Like happy babies!
She let me try some coconut kefir she made, which is a mix of fresh coconut pulp with kefir that lived and grew in the fresh coconut juice. OH-M-G. It was so tasty. So fresh. Just so alive! A total gift from the earth. I would have that over any fancy plated cooking any day.
It turns out my neighbor had a way of growing her kefir, she asks them to grow healthy and strong – each day she talks to them like a child. And in fact, they are alive and growing and obviously responding to her communication.
Kefir respond to how we talk to them, just like babies 🙂
How do you talk to your kefir or your babies?
What emperors of imperial China ate
The “imperial food therapist” at the court was considered more important that the imperial doctor. Yes, the nutritionist had more importance that the doctor. That really says something about the ancients’ understanding of food and its energetic properties for the body. The concept of food therapy is still very much in the everyday life amongst Chinese. We make soups and brews with herbs and fruit according to the seasons.
The understand that food nutrition is more important than medicine shows that how we feed our body through the food we eat every day is very important to the wellbeing of the body. Over time eating food by nature, from nature that absorbs sunlight, we build our body with the energy from earth and nature. Medicine has its place – for short term solutions. Food from nature is what energises the body in the long term.
COVID and Congee
My brother’s flat mate got COVID earlier this summer. Luckily she recovered. During the recovery however it was quite worrying. My brother had the upper floor in a shared apartment in New York and the flatmate who was sick was on the lower floor. She kept herself in her room to minimise contact with anyone and my brother made food for her and left it by her door. My brother made congee, which is rice porridge. It’s a comfort food that the Chinese ate often for breakfast before the days of instant noodles or pancakes. My favorite is congee with fish and lots of ginger and scallions.
The flatmate made progress and she began to feel better. Until a week or so in, it kind of deteriorated. Oh shit, what’s going on.
My brother “fessed up.”
The flatmate made herself some microwave TV dinner meal thinking she’s already better. HA! “You better make sure she eats just congee until she has totally recovered!” I said. I believe she learnt her lesson. TV dinners fill you up, but what’s the energy in the food? Congee done well is simple, but exactly what the body needs to get some nourishment and liquids.
Moroccans and rice
On an amazing trip in Morocco some years ago, towards the end of the two-week trip, the four of us jumped at any opportunity there was to eat rice. On an overnight camp in the Sahara desert, the nomads that took care of us gave us an option: do we want bread or rice and the four of us roared, “RICE!” They chuckled.
To Moroccans rice is for sick people, they eat it only when they’re sick. Interesting eh? The desert people seem to understand that rice is easily processed by the body.
Traditional Chinese Medicinal doctors typically recommend eating white rice in the morning – for the Qi from the rice.
I guess the Japanese has it sorted – Rice for breakfast and the freshest ingredients eaten according to the seasons.
Food and healing – to be continued. Meanwhile,
What’s your relationship with food?
Start to notice how your body responds to food. Notice how you feel drinking certain drinks or consuming certain foods.
I didn’t realise she plays so well…and she looks so happy.
In the video, Karen Mok, a Hong Kong singer has fun playing the piano four hands with her husband.
Just a regular afternoon. They were looking intently at the score to catch all the notes and chuckles when one misses some. Child-like fun.
Recovering the Joy in Music
The morning I received Yee’s text, I had been thinking about playing piano. How fun it can be to play – play with music. When I moved from Hong Kong to the US, I noticed that whilst Asian kids dominated the music building, and a number were quite good, the non-Asian kids who played music seemed to experiment and enjoy it more.
Kids in the United States don’t sit for exams. In Hong Kong, I have yet to meet a serious student of music who do not sit for the British music exams. In the US, instead of drills on scales, we learnt about expression, about performing, about the period the composers lived, the different styles of Western music. Kids that learned this way understood the relationship of notes, and grew up in a culture where people composed music, wrote lyrics, formed bands and ensembles to perform.
Given learning an instrument is such a large financial investment and time, I wonder if it’s time for parents to consider providing children with music lessons differently. Instead of pushing for “accomplishments” though exams, how might educators and parents and even the society foster more expression and fun through music?
Obligation tends to take the fun out of most things
When we feel obligated to play for the sake of exams, there is no joy. When it’s fun to play though, we learn faster and the learning sticks with it. For the society, the educators, parents, it’s a matter of framing and mindset perhaps.
Some food for thought?
Do you choose joy or endure obligations?
Obligations are often a waste of time and energy that can be better spent elsewhere for more fun and joy. People say, “The older we get, the clearer we know what we enjoy. We decline those obligatory things we “should” do.”
It wasn’t until a chance encounter at City ‘super that I felt the power of grace.
Standing at the long metallic bench table by the oyster bar, I was having a salad – chopsticks in hand, Japanese style. A man who probably works in the office towers above walked over with his food and stood diagonally across me a feet or so away unpacking it.
Out of the blue, I felt a sudden wave of energy emanating from him. I glanced over – I saw him holding quietly still, hands folded in front of the Japanese hamburger patty he had just unpacked. He said Grace. Standing a couple feet away, I felt it the energy of his prayer.
He must have said grace so heart-fully that the energy radiated strongly, and across the bar table, my salad probably got some of the blessings too!
Saying grace and having a thankful heart, it changes the vibration of the person taking the food that naturally the food is in sync with the person.
Karen, Where My Heart Leads
For eight years I had recited prayers with my classmates twice daily as protocol at a Catholic girl’s school. The older we got, the faster we recited – as if we were in a dash to see who got it done with the fastest.
We turned to the cross of Jesus hung by the door and went through the motions and the words – but the words did not come from the heart, they were simply empty – words. We wasted all that time.
People wonder if prayers work
There are plenty scientific studies showing one way or another. I saw it myself one time.
I boarded a junk off some pier, with other people who had also donated money to buy lots of live seafood to release them. Boxes and boxes of seafood had been hauled aboard. There were all sorts of sea creatures, including large robust ancient horseshoe crabs with their thick armour that were almost too scary to hold.
The junk sailed out towards the sea. That day was overcast and a hefty layer of clouds blanketed the sky. We began releasing the live sea creatures, what would have been sea “food” into the oceans. Some people commented on how happy they look as they leaped fervently into freedom.
At some point, we were led to recite prayers and mantras. Walking counter clockwise in a circle around the tubs of sea creatures on deck, we chanted. Lo and behold, when we finished, someone pointed up towards the clouds, not too far from our junk “Look!” Sure enough, a small window opened though the blanketed sky where a ray of light shone through – as if a sign that our prayers were heard, the sea creatures will be free.
“Why do you pray or say grace?” Mina, my friend’s daugther asked. “To say thank you for all the blessings.” the adult answered.
He must have said grace so heart-fully that the energy radiated strongly, and across the bar table, my salad probably got some of the blessings too!
Karen, Where My Heart Leads
In Japanese tea ceremony, for every sweet, for every bowl of tea, for every meal prepared and presented to us, we say “thank you” – the way it is said, where we might raise the sweets or bowl of tea up, feels like the thank you is made out to the universe. Like “Thank you All for this sweet/tea/meal.” And with the heart of thankfulness, we receive the sweet/tea/meal with more attuned awareness and appreciation.
Once when I was at a silent meditation camp in Japan, I was pissed off at the food. Obviously I had forgotten about taking the practice in the tea room and applying it to the every day life. Food the first several days was HEAVENLY – this volunteer cook worked magic with the food she made. When she left, another volunteer took over – the food looked sad and soulless. In silence, I was pissed and complaining.
It was wise that the retreat was designed to be a silent one. When the camp ended, I realised that if everyone started airing their complaints, the time for reflection, and the energy to focus on meditation would have been wasted on trivial complaints and arguments. The silence gave us the opportunity to first looking within to see why those complaints and judgements arose in the first place!
Grace and calibration of the heart
Shortly after the camp, I asked my teacher, “Since people transmit their energy into what they make, what if the person cooking the food was in a foul mood or just isn’t of great energy, what then? Is there a way to purify the food?”
To which the teacher said, “Well, there is a reason why people said grace.”
Now that I think of it, it probably isn’t necessarily about the purification of the food – but rather, by saying grace and having a thankful heart, it changes the vibration of the person taking the food that naturally the food is in sync with the person.
It reminds me of the double-slit experiment. Sometimes our perception creates the ‘reality’. As that perception changes, what we see also change.
The Japanese say, “Ita daki masu” (いただきます) before they dig into their meal. I read somewhere it translates to “I receive.” How do you receive?
Practice: What have you noticed when you say Grace before your meal?
I used to visit Singapore often as a kid as we visited my Aunt who lived here. I had fond memories strolling with my cousin to a nearby arcade getting Archie comic books at the used book store, and having my favorite paddle pops. (4 a day!! For a kid that was like the Best-est holiday!)
Although unicorns weren’t quite a thing then, I guess all kids subconsciously have a love for the magical unicorn colors [Enter Agnes in Despicable Me]
There were fond memories of fresh chicken satays barbequed atop of smokey barbeque stoves. Teppanyaki lunches where we’d retire to the living room area for tea and ice-cream after the meal. And jumping off three-meter high diving boards (my first) at some club swimming pool.
New Singapore Explorations
I am here again to explore. This time, with over three decades of travels and life experiences with me.
Instead of paddle pops, I’m having Hokkaido affogato soft-serve at Don Don Donki food court. As suppose to neighbor’s grilled satays, I’m invited to Po at the boutique heritage Warehouse Hotel by Lo & Behold. My friend recommended her favorite duck pie tee (minced fragrant fillings served in semi-tall canapé cups, a local snack) and Popiah (think DIY Asian burritos).
For a place sleek like Po’s, the sight of children and toddlers would be mostly unheard-of in Hong Kong. And men in sandals? Would also be highly unlikely. Yet, there they were jovially enjoying a dinner that evening.
Singapore has a more relaxed vibe than where I come from – Hong Kong Island, Hong Kong. The blue skies, greeneries and space surely helps. People seem to live well – and keep their weekends to recoup and enjoy, not pushing to party hard so much. Perhaps there is more interest in keeping fit, building muscles instead.
I was asked quizzically, “Why aren’t you a member of a gym or yoga studio?” Quizzically, “Oh should I be? I mostly go walk outdoors or hike. And I found a place with rooftop sunset yoga. It has been quite special doing yoga under the unfettered skies.
Nature and Hiking in Singapore
With Meetups and apps like Moov, Singapore is super easy to get around and to explore.
Bukit Batok: Excellent for some myself time in nature
Just a short bus hop from the Botanic Gardens, Coconut Hill (Bukit Batok) is a lovely place for a quiet 2-hour stroll and respite. Start your day off with a hearty brunch by the Botanic Gardens or walk down the road a little to Atlas Coffeehouse. Quite a few people came on their own, to spend sometime in nature and have a quiet walk. There were plenty little creatures, bugs, and plants to color the walk. It was especially enjoyable to sit by the lake and watch coloured (i.e. male) dragonflies dance about. I tried for the first time to walk the pebble garden.
Shoes off, I walked on the sun-heated pebbles. And surely there was a reason why the Chinese designed such “contraptions’ for well-being. Our feet has reflex points of our body. (Cue reflexology for health and well-being.) Within minutes of stepping onto the sun-heated pebble park, some parts of my feet felt sore, and to my surprise – my digestive system immediately started MOVING! It was that effective! The heat on the stones surely did help. Some kids were on their scooters while their Dad jogged. Others played on the exercise plants while their Dad worked out.
I started my stroll going up a long flight of wide stairs. A former Shinto shrine stood atop of that hill where an Antenna Tower now stands. During the Japanese occupation (1942-45), the Japanese built the shrine to commemorate Japanese soldiers lost during the war. A couple years later, a wooden cross was put up behind the shrine to commemorate the Australians and other POWs.
When the Japanese left, they made sure to tear down the Shrine, instead of leaving it to the British to do so. Now, the Ford Factory Museum in the area serves to present and the history of the place during the occupation.
Thanks to Meetup, I joined this hiking group on a guided hike of Chestnut Hill. As we began, I thought, “This feels like going on a demonstration like we do in Hong Kong! With a massive turnout of at least 100 people. We hiked, we walked together. The guides told us about a hidden tomb of a Chinese businessman and his five wives. Why certain graves had the unusual character 㳉* of Water and Moon.
We looked out for rubber tree seeds and the shells of seeds which could make excellent Futaoki (Lid rest of the metal pot) in Japanese tea ceremony [enter photos of rubber plant and possible futaoki] Post-hike, there was the option to grab local grub at the neighborhood hawker centre. I met a lovely mom and daughter duo who lived in Dubai for eight years and thoroughly enjoyed the meandering paths and hauling myself/get hauled up from public water facilities. Great team effort!
Planning To Hit These Up in Singapore
The Peranakan Museum I am really looking forward to visiting as it re-opens after a refurbishment. The Peranakan culture is unique to Singapore and the joyful and vibrant colors of their ceramics makes me want to find out more. https://www.nhb.gov.sg/peranakanmuseum/
Haw Par Villa I didn’t get to visit their Haw Par Mansions in Hong Kong before it was torn down to make way for residential property. Very vivid depictions of the many levels of Hell used to line the Pagodas. The pictorial stories served to “educate” the masses who visited to “Be good.” I was surprised that there was one running “amusement park”of the Haw Par Villa here in Singapore. Their family (Tiger Balm family) and the business exemplifies the Chinese diaspora of the latter 20th century. Trade and travels between Hong Kong and South East Asia was prevalent. https://www.hawparvilla.sg
Jurong Bird Park It comes recommended by a friend whose family member is a registered guide for birds. Singapore Bird Park has some rare breeds including the blue macaw (wonderfully majestic blue color) and the Philippine Eagle on loan from The Philippines for “safe keeping.” I’ve noticed some cool birds so far – lots of cadmium yellow-beaked black birds called the myna, and in a museum a sample of “Birds of Paradise,” which has a rich history unto itself. https://www.wrs.com.sg/en/jurong-bird-park.html
A museum in Singapore hosts awesome monthly weekend activities for kids (and adults coz I thoroughly enjoyed it too). You’ll be in for story-telling of local folklore, a fun informative guided tour, and hands-on craft activity.
Did you know that there are four official languages in Singapore? You see them in the subways. Which are they? When did it begin?
Do you know about NS in Singapore? National Service is a requirement for all men. I’ve spoken to a couple moms about it – guess what they think?
Do you know what I find really expensive in Singapore?
Do you know about the Singapore grannies?
Did you know Singapore launched a cash-free initiative that traces back to 1985?
Answers to Singapore Trivia
#1: The Malay Heritage Centre hosts them. I attended two – the first time, we listened to a story of the Mousedeer that outsmarts the Monkey. The second time, we heard the story of the alligator and made our own alligator using cloves and a wooden clothes peg! See “Tales from the Nusantara” at https://www.malayheritage.org.sg/en/whats-on/programmes (Nusantara is the Indonesian/Malay name of Maritime Southeast Asia. I was surprised to hear an Indonesia story at the Malay Heritage centre. Turns out Indonesia & Malaysia are all part of Nusantara)
#2: On a tour of heritage buildings, we visited the Old Parliamentary House that the founding fathers hashed out the future of the country. The guides showed us Lee Kwan Yew’s seat and pointed out that on the sideboard of each seat, is a knob where one can turn to select one of the four official languages through their headset: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil.
Answers to Trivia continued
#3: In university, there were classmates of mine that went through National Service in Taiwan or Singapore. Then, I had the impression that students felt that National Service was a drain on these young men’s precious time. They hoped they didn’t have to join the workforce later than men of other countries – potentially giving them a slow start to the “rat race.”
What was surprising to discover however, was the moms’ perspective. One of the moms raved about how NS training has made her son (who recently gone through the NS training) much more disciplined. Not only did he come home to cook for the family on weekends, he just matured up overnight.
Another mom reckons by sending the boys to NS from 18 to 20, it helps minimise their exposure to drinking, drugs and all sorts of destructive behaviours. She conjectures based on reading from The Teenage Brain that the frontal cortex isn’t properly linked to other areas of the brain until around age 21.
So by the time the boys have gone through the discipline and training of NS, it actually puts these young men at an advantage – they are in a better mind-state and maturity to get the most out of their university experience. And – it may in fact translate to better outcomes too that lasts the lifetime beyond school. In Singapore, all men post-NS have to pass annual physical tests and serve yearly up to age 40! What a way for a country to keep its people fit and healthy!
More answers #4-6
#4: Alcohol. On occasional, I’d have a highball. The same canned high-ball I grab from Sogo HK is almost double the price in Singapore! So my local friend’s tip is to drink mostly at home and order deals from her “wine guy.”
#5: The Singapore grannies – I see them at various posts – at the MRT stations, at McDonalds managing the upkeep of the place, and at the Supermarket check-out counters. They are a gentle and generally friendly bunch. As I carry a smallish cloth bag to hold loose groceries like apples, peppers, the grannies oft like ask curiously and cutely, “Did you sew this yourself?” I reply, “Oh haha, I actually got it at a TCM clinic” (I did have an idea that it could be cool to make a lot of these bags that people could use at fruit stalls in lieu of plastic bags.) At the McDonalds, one of the grannies asked, “Oh you couldn’t finish the drink?” with a kind smile. “Oh, it was too sweet for me.”
#6: Singapore started a drive to cash-free society in the early 1980s. (https://www.nets.com.sg/about/milestones/) Here we can pay cab rides, get food delivery, subway tickets – almost everything on a card. With the exception of smaller stalls at hawker centres and some smaller restaurants, but even there those might be able to take Grab Pay (which is an app that provides Uber-like car services and food delivery)
So there you have it. Where My Heart Leads in Singapore.
㳉: The water radical on the left, comes from half of the word 清 of Qing Dynasty. The moon radical on the right, comes from half of the word 明 of the second to last dynasty. The point of melding these two – legend has it, is because those who left their country to farther shores like Singapore want to remember that whilst they are living in the Qing Dynasty, their heart is with the Ming. The Ming dynasty was ruled by Chinese, whilst China’s last dynasty was ruled by foreign northerners. A show of allegiance.
As you push the door open, the sound of metal work greets you. A hanging sea of living Metal Crafters of Tsubame-Sanjo hold fort.
As I walked past the NAFA Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries on my way to a Saturday afternoon talk, I took note to come back to this exhibition. Who wouldn’t with clean design like this? As a friend says, good design and packaging gives customers cues that it’ll be a good experience.
That’s what I wish to orchestrate – where stellar design infuse and energises user experiences. Why does it matter?
For something seemingly mundane as metal craft, the exhibition manages to pique people’s curiosity – setting up an exhibition with lots to explore. A great exhibition, like a great teacher, can enliven a any topic. Here – through a combination of exhibition design, story-telling, and candid documentary.
Old Towns – New Angles
The Japanese have another oft-cited exemplar of a place transformed by design, art and programs – Benesse Art Site Naoshima. Benesse breathed new life to an area that used to struggle to acknowledge its charm. In the words of Benesse founder and chairman, “Art as means for social transformation.”
Shortly after visiting the metal crafter portraits, a staff waved me over to view a demo.
How in the world is the seam invisible? The seam is less than half the width of hair I was told.
A great “magic”- like demo surely enticed me to explore the exhibition further.
Illustrating history through objects
A large running display in the central hall displays two running lines – Tsubame and Sanjo – their histories in metal craft.
Tsubame and Sanjo are situated in Niigata, famous for rice-production as well as Sake production. However, as they were affected by floods of the three rivers, the citizens had to look for new ways to make a living.
Tsubame harvested iron, a harder metal; Sanjo harvested and crafted from softer metals like steel, copper, and titanium. The twin cities began developing their new crafts concurrently.
To offer a deeper understanding of the craft of the makers, a documentary-style video at the end of the gallery captures the cutlery makers, the hand-made kettle crafters, the nail manufacturers at work. Behind the utensils and tools we use every day, there is a face, a person.
Did you know – 90% of “Made in Japan” cutlery comes from Tsubame-Sanjo?
Bridging into the NOW
Another part of the exhibition showcases a hodgepodge of objects: from Miso, to wooden trays, utility sinks, to cast iron pots. Every item has a number and visitors curious can look the number up in the Kouba (Kouba 工場 is Japanese for Workshop) catalog.
This exhibition serves as a preview to the actual Kouba Main Festival in October 2020; It is a roving exhibition of the 2019 version.
Since 2013, factories in Tsubame-Sanjo have opened their doors during the Factory Festival, welcoming both local and international visitors to explore, exchange and learn of their living heritage. Who’s in?
Tsubame-Sanjo Factory Festival
Will be connecting in a different way this year 2020 as we are impacted by COVID-19. Updates on website and facebook:
Written by the founder of Craniosacral Therapy (CST). The title is apt – our bodies are the ones doing the repair, the growth, the healing. We all have an inner physician. What encourages the body’s own healing to take place? What hinders it? How can we lend the body a hand in its healing?
It was disgusting, but we got through it
During the worst of the eczema, my whole scalp was oozing liquid and blood from the sores of the skin. I still remember lying on the massage table, clearly distressed by how out of hand the scalp was, and also embarrassed that the therapist would be working on such a horrid case. The smell of bodily wounds, the liquidy mess.
Blessedly, Catherine the therapist didn’t pass any judgement and made me feel at ease. By the end of the session, the oozing on the scalp had stopped. I was relieved that the skin has at least calmed down. I won’t be worrying about staining the pillows that evening. Following a few more sessions, the scalp had a full recovery.
There was no need for steroid drops, or expensive medicinal shampoos for scalp dermatitis. The skin had started mending through the body’s own healing abilities.
What is Craniosacral Therapy?
Many people have asked –
“So, what is CST?” To which I reply, “It’s a therapy you receive fully clothed. You lie on a massage table, and the therapist will work on releasing blockage in your body that is stuffing you up. That is done by holding space a palm on say the shoulder area, and another palm under. The ‘manipulation’ or movement is gentle. It’s holding space for the body to relax into a release. To relax into an unwind. To let go of old emotions, pain, baggage it’s gripping onto.
Cranio of Craniosacral Therapy refers to our skull (Cranium) at the top; Sacral refers to the sacrum, the triangular tail-like end at the base of our spine.
Whilst our ribs protect our essential organs, our spine protects the nerves running through to our brain.
Our major chakras too run along this spine. Our crown chakra at the top of our head down to the base chakra at the bottom. When the body’s energy isn’t flowing, the effect is two-fold. First, our body’s “Qi” or energy can’t get where it needs to go to do recovery work, and two, there isn’t flow to remove the toxin build up. In my case, the blockages created an explosion – a serious one to expel the toxins through my scalp.
What is a Craniosacral Therapy Session like
A CST session is very relaxing. The therapist places their hand underneath and lightly on your body, sandwiching it. For those who can feel the subtleties of energy might feel some tingling or movement of Qi. I had the deepest results when I fall asleep or am kind of in a dream during the 60 or 90 minutes session.
In my process of addressing the eczema condition, and finally clearing it once and for all, I worked with two Craniosacral Therapists who used CST to work on the body in different ways. One Therapist helped me unwind a lot of emotional blockage; the other more physical blockages. Of course the emotional, physical, and mental are all intertwined.
To no avail
The scalp issue had come up previously.
The first time it happened, I was desperate. Just one piece of my scalp was itchy and had an open wound – it wasn’t too bad. I went to see someone who’s supposedly a great specialist for skin issues the Adventist Hospital. She gave me steroid drops for the wound and oral antibiotics. It seemed to sort the situation out, until it didn’t.
The second time it happened, it was during a three to four year period when I was on traditional Chinese meds. I was seeing a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. He prescribed herbal medicine that we cooked up a storm at home and over the counter ampules of brownish herbal medicine for me to pour over the wounds. It took a long, long time. I felt I was carrying a dead rat with me – because of the smell of the wound and the herbal medicine smelled like a dead rat.
Ultimately, cranial sutures are there for a reason
Between the first and the second time, the situation worsened by a lot. I suspect it was because I had a course of acupuncture sessions for the eczema. The doctor inserted the needles into my scalp. As I am naturally quite averse to needles, when those needles got hooked up with electric current and dials turned up – it was difficult to relax. I just felt the throbbing in my scalp. The experience made my skull and scalp more tense overtime, blocking the flow of energy. The un-straighted arms because of eczema wounds in the joint disappeared, but little did I know the scalp was a ticking bomb.
Luckily, after Western Meds, and after over the counter stinky medince in ampules, CST got to the bottom of it. The scalp tension normalised over time. When you look at a model of a skull there are these lines of small gaps called sutures. These small gaps has still slight movement in young children as the shape of the skull is still taking shape. The CST therapist is sensitive to the shape as well as the shifts in the skull. Mine was previously very jaggedy, which changed as the build-up and hold-up were released.
It’s a start, working with someone to help you become more aware of your body and it’s innate healing abilities.
Karen , Where my Heart Leads
I used to make this muscle relief blend based on Kurt Schnaubelt’s recipe in his book The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils. An Auntie friend loved it. I did too. The smell of cinnamon, the cloves, and maybe some immortelle from independent farmers who distilled the oils. She offered to bring some for her personal trainer to try, however, he said he couldn’t feel the effects. For someone used to the “burn” of over-the-counter muscle “heat” creams, the personal trainer couldn’t feel the subtle as well as chemical properties from the essence of these plants.
Changes and shifts can be subtle. And you’ll notice more clearly as you feel and become aware to it more. With any healing with the body, you want to support your body in giving it time to rest, to mend, to heal. Find the practitioner you trust and see the magic of your body.
I was surprised that my once pill-popping dad, who had a mighty collection in his pills cabinet went to go try Craniosacral Therapy for himself. (Without my prior knowing). Clearly, he has been influenced by the other family members who use immune-boosting foods and herbal remedies over his stash in the pill cabinet. The shift after a CST session physically can be subtle, or it could be drastic.
I most often refer people to this book as it was one of the most fascinating reads when I explored healing modalities. Written by Dr John Upledger, someone who hails from a Western medical background as an Osteopathic physician, Upledger chronicles the happenchance that led him to developing Craniosacral Therapy (CST) as well as cornerstone cases of how CST allowed the inner physician to support people’s healing. I found it most fascinating when he recounted what he discovered that Western medical textbooks had made no mention of whilst in a spine surgery for a young girl. That was the starting point that saw Upledger create a method to encourage our “Inner Physician” and us to work hand in hand.
It’s a start, working with someone to help you become more aware of your body and it’s innate healing abilities.
You’d be surprised to find TOTO toilets in wooden shacks. TOTO toilets are swanky Japanese toilets complete with customisable bidet functions and most appreciated of all – the perennially warm seat. Waarmnesss…
The wooden shacks ain’t just any ordinary wooden shacks either. They were out in the boonies in Japan at a Vipassana meditation camp. Naked incandescent light bulbs lit each wooden stall. For 10 days, men and women stay at the camp to learn and practice Vipassana meditation.
Since Literati describes those who are learned, the “Considerati” would then describe those who are considerate.
The Japanese are culturally courteous and considerate. I remember removing my shoes before entering the chado (Tea ceremony) mizuya (tea prep area) and upon exiting found my shoes and those of others mysteriously arranged right way up for those leaving so we can put on our shoes more easily. It felt very attentive and welcoming. (細心 – heart into the details)
At the Vipassana camp, I noticed mystery triangles surfacing in the wooden shacks every now and again. The place out in the boonies had volunteers help make meals and manage the upkeep of the space. From the minute I arrived, I felt how well we were taken care of. Nothing was fancy, but we had everything we needed. From the basket of amenities in the bedroom – facial tissues, sweeper paper for cleaning the floor, to the extra alarm clocks or change of beddings one might need – were all in place for anyone who needed them.
Since the place was run by volunteers, the mystery triangles appearing in the toilet stalls – the type of folded triangles you see in hotels seemed improbable. The small folded triangle at the end of the roll is saying, “This toilet has been cleaned and taken care of for you. Please enjoy!” Did the volunteers do that? Out in the boonies at a meditation camp? Strange – those mystery triangles.
Solving the Mystery
Towards the end of the camp, as one lady came out of a stall, I thought silently to myself, “Oh look! There’s the folded triangle!”
Since we do not speak or make eye-contact with one another during the camp, aside from speaking with the assistant teacher or the mens/women’s manager, I waited.
On the last day when silence lifted, everyone was happily hung out in small circles. I went up to the lady and asked, “Was it you? Those triangles?” She smiles – a bit cheekily and nods. In my broken Japanese and a mix of gestures and English, she told me that yes, it was her! Because she wanted to leave the next person using the stall feel that it has been taken care of.
Energy of a place
The Vipassana camp is not a fancy place. However the camp is well-designed. When something is well-designed and well taken care of, its character builds like well-loved leather. Although the main buildings at the camp were built at least 20 years ago, the space felt in flow and in harmony with the foothills and fields amongst which it sits. And most of all, those wood shack toilet stalls – well-loved.
I had often shared this New York Times articlewith my students on Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. The 2014 Pritzker Prize winner designs buildings using materials sourced locally. He also builds with paper tubes. His paper tube structures – mind you – are not one-off; his buildings are built to last.
“A concrete-and-steel building can be temporary. It can be taken down or destroyed by an earthquake. But paper can last. It’s a question of love. If a building is loved, it becomes permanent.”
A question of energy
On the day we said our goodbyes at the camp, some of us chanced upon a Harvest Festival. After the day, we were at a station getting ready to head back into the city. I noticed distinctly the sterile washroom stalls at the mall – how spotless and functional, yet lifeless compared to the simple wooden shacks.
The Chinese say, “Use your heart.” “Do it with your heart.” As a child, my teacher would tell me, “Use your heart” be it copying Chinese characters or listening to the teacher speak. There is no saying, “Use your brain” except in a derogatory way.
When comes from the heart, it’s different from when done without. Even with cleaning and tidying up. (Or in this case the cleaning of washrooms). I reckon it’s not a coincidence that Marie Kondo asks people to thank and communicate with their belongings when tidying up.
Everything is energy. We are and emit energy
“Do you want someone with loving energy make you breakfast in the morning, or someone with grumpy energy?” the Pranic Healing instructor asked. Obviously the former, coz the loving energy goes into the food that is made. Lovingly prepared home-cooked meals have a different vibe to them, don’t they? (Vibe…vibrations = energy) In Japanese tea ceremony, after we receive the prepared tea or food we are to consume, we will say grace, we say “Thank you, for the blessing.”
In Japanese tea ceremony practice, I came to see how much care and consideration is in the practice. From how food is prepared, why certain things are placed the way they are, how both hosts and guests conduct themselves in consideration for the occasion and one another. The Chinese have an expression 為大局著想 – meaning to “Consider (your actions) in relation to the bigger situation.” For the welfare of the greater picture, what is the best action to take?
Food for thought
Have you been on a receiving end of someone’s awareness and consideration? What touched you?
Are you a Considerati? Do you think about others and how you might be impacting them in the office, in the home, in the day-to-day?
In a breezy corner of a mall-slash-hall, 20-30 seat-long rows arched before the stage. Neighborhood folks came in their homewear, kids and sometimes grandparents in tow. When they advertised this as a community screening, it truly was a community screening. A little girl climbed up on stage to play during the screening, yet nobody was too fussed to haul her off. The film continued to roll, the little girl played for a bit and climbed down of her own accord eventually.
I was surprised by the large turnout for a niche film, in Malay. It drew a large crowd of at least a hundred. REDHA, based on a true story, enraptured the audience as it tells the gripping, yet moving journey about a family rising above the harsh realities of raising a child with Autism. Thanks to superb acting, I couldn’t be sure if the boy who plays the main character was autistic or if he was acting. Turns out the young actors Harith Haziq and Izzy Zulkhazreef shadowed autistic children to help them get into their roles. They did an excellent job.
Film festival raise awareness on inclusiveness
My previous ‘encounter’ with autism had been from Mark Haddon’s book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The book, popular even among young tweens takes a light-hearted peek into the mind of an autistic boy named Christopher. Diagrams and drawings line the pages as we follow Christopher in all his quirks and thinking: counting traffic lights, carefully avoiding stepping on lines.
However, it wasn’t until watching REDHA that I became aware of the severity of some cases of autism.
The seven film selection were impressive, hailing from countries both East and West, tells diverse stories. From Korea hails Innocent Witness (2019) a detective story; from Italy: My Brother Chases Dinosaurs (2019) about brotherly bond; and even from Hong Kong: Distinction 非同凡響 (2018) on unexpected journeys. Refer here for the full program: https://www.singaporefilmsociety.com/event/mff2020/
These film screenings are a great way to promote understanding whilst help eliminate discrimination through an entertaining medium.
In lieu of clapping
A clip of a graduating class has been circulating on social media. The principal of the highschool asked the graduating class to not clap so their classmate, who is sensitive to loud noise, can receive his diploma. See what happened here:
REDHA means to accept everything that has happened wholeheartedly and sincerely (because that is His will). An Islamic term that is explored philosophically and spiritually.
Food for Thought
There is always a silver lining (Silver Linings Playbook: Another favorite film of mine, which btw, goes with the theme of the MINDS Film Festival). What had growth and opportunities did you gain from overcoming the challenges you’ve faced?
My friend Karen went to a retreat in Bali to learn surfing. She was very annoyed that the random people bobbing about in the water were checking out how she gets on the board. Her coach reminded her, “If you focus on those people, you’ll crash into them. However, if you focus on that opening between them, you’ll get past them and be riding the wave.”
It’s a excellent reminder on life too. Do we let distractions, like other people and what they do pull us off course, or are we intently focused on that gap/that way forward?
People say focus is important
Yet what we focus on has just as much importance.
An owner I know runs an education business that touches many lives. Undoubtedly, the owner pours her heart and soul her business. She offers music, education, and parenting of high quality.
For a long time though, she was so focused on fixing the parts in her business that didn’t work. Her focus on fixing had her believe her business wasn’t working until someone said to her, “Listen. Relax. Give yourself some credit. Look at the 90% that is doing very well.”
It was then that she released she fell into focusing on what didn’t work instead of giving herself some credit and some breathing space. When she backed off herself a little, sorting out that 10% became more manageable.
Focus on your steps
Maybe you’ve heard the zen expression 看腳下, which translates to look under the feet. And could also read: focus on your steps.
The story goes that Zen master Fayan* was with his three students when the light of the lantern went off as they were about to head home. In the dark, Master Fayan says to the three of them, “How would you describe our current situation?”
One student answered, “Look under the feet.” Master Fayan saw that this student has the best potential to take Zen further. The phrase simple, direct. Grounded in action. As it means taking the steps needed to walk (even in the dark) and find the way home.
Although it’s true that Zen could come across as a bit elusive, like the koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping.” The reality is zen practice is practical and grounded in the everyday. Like the simple practice of walking.
The expression of “Focus on your steps” applies to any situation desirable or not so desirable. As long as one focuses on taking steps, the light is at the end of the tunnel.
*Fayan is a Chinese Zen priest who lived in the Song Dynasty (12th century) in Sichuan, China.
Food for thought
Is your focus getting you to where you need to go?
As fresh twenty-somethings out of college having studied overseas, my friends and I went for fortune telling sessions. We’d ask: how is the job, how’s the love life, health, family – the usual.
Despite being a cosmopolitan, financial centre, fortune telling and feng shui practice is entrenched in the fabric of Hong Kong. Even Pritzker Prize-winning architect IM Pei designed Hong Kong’s iconic Bank of China tower with Feng Shui principles in mind. Its triangular forms make swords that cut through and deflect any bad energies directed from surrounding neighbors.
It is not uncommon for business magnates as well as office workers to turn to feng shui and fortune telling to get some bearing on their life.
My friends and I used to frequent a legally blind man who would tell our fortunes. He had a sense of humor and would share a life lesson or two here and there during our chat.
I’ve also been to ones who had a whole joss stick-burning ritual before sitting down to flip through a book and nerve-wreckingly try find an answer to my questions. And also ones where the teller sits with a full regalia of statues of divinities ‘backing him up’ and could write you “your book of life” for some hefty $um.
However, over years of going to the tellers and thinking back to how it’s served, I’ve observed the following.
The Messenger and the Message
Be it Chinese fortune tellers or Western readers, how the information is relayed and interpreted can make a huge difference.
With the Chinese tellers, the way the fortune is told often sounds fixed. Maybe that’s because the term ‘Fortune Telling’ is either (算命) = ‘calculating out your life’ or (批命) = ‘giving you your life “sentence”‘
That explains why some who go seek the teller’s advice go with a mindset of seeking an edict/sentence – something finite. The teller might describe a person: this person is greedy/ trust-worthy/ trouble-some / loving; healthwise, this person might have this issue. People take it as definitive, the Word.
A common practice after the teller informs the seeker of a potential outcome is to offer a ‘fix’. The teller might offer a crystal pagoda for sale with accompanying instructions on where to place it to mitigate certain problems. Others might be handed some scribbles on paper to burn as offerings so whatever challenge can be released.
Quick Fixes and Personal growth
Practices like consulting the I-Ching (Book of Change), the Book of Three Lives (三世書), and the the Lunar Calendar based on moon cycles are not obscure tools or practices. Historically, the Chinese have used these divination tools effectively and respectfully. Emperors, as the son of the Heavens, asked the Heaven for guidance on the energies for the year ahead. The information helps him devise corresponding measures to rule his kingdom.
But in the modernisation/commercialisation of things, the rich science and art of Chinese divination have taken on a different spin. In some cases, tellers have built billion-dollar businesses empires selling ‘fixes’. Some tellers feed on the fear or lack of security of those who come to them, and sells them more knick-knacks, more ceremonies, more offerings to burn. It’s disconcerting to observe when someone becomes utterly reliant on paying for ceremonies to get their challenges removed.
Beliefs and Mindframes
For some Chinese, any unpleasant event that happens to a person or a group is interpreted as a punishment. “A deceased ancestor or a someone they’ve crossed paths some lifetime ago is angry and is giving them flack.”
I subscribe to the idea that there is a lot more than meets the eye – the invisible, the phenomenons that we as people do not comprehend.
However, I can’t subscribe to the view that challenges are punishments. Rather, I view challenges as opportunities. Opportunities to dig deeper, to uncover the underlying patterns that are ready to be addressed and resolved. As the Chinese say, when there is danger, there is also opportunity. （有危亦有機）
Ready to be Resolved
By chance, a secret that was unknown to the rest of the family other than the person himself was revealed. The problem that person was facing has come to the surface. Rather than using the aforementioned ‘quick fixes’, I feel it was an opportunity on many fronts. For other members to support this person in resolving the problem where the support is asked for, and to be more supportive and accepting of this person in general. Once resolved, this person’s quality of life could take a 180 degree turn for the better.
Readings, Not Fortune Tellings
My experience with Western readings have in general focused on understanding a person’s character: make-up, gifts and challenges. Unpleasant situations serve a lessons from which to grow from. In contrast to some Chinese readings, there is not so much the feeling of a “sentence” given of one’s life. Western readings can be like deciphering one’s DNA, and knowing that the qualities can be nurtured, and triggers resolved through some self-development work.
An astrologer can highlight the propensities in a person’s life and view them as ‘lessons to learn from’ or ‘challenges that serve as opportunities to grow.’
With human design, another method in deciphering a person’s make-up, a friend gained a new understanding of herself. She came to understand what pushes her buttons, why she has a propensity to respond/react in certain ways. Armed with the newfound awareness, she is able to observe when the habitual reaction creeps up and choose to act differently.
It All Comes Back to Self
As I think back, the blind Chinese fortune teller also gave me a ‘groundwork’ DNA-like reading to help me better understand myself. But after that, I needed to look for ways to further nourish the elements I’d like to develop, and to resolve emotionally triggers and stumbling blocks. You need to walk for the path to open. （運是要行出來的）
Chinese and Western arts of reading the stars and decoding the unexplained has its merits. The key is: the way to changing one’s fortune, and one’s life lies in the person themself. Quick-fixes or band-aid solutions may not get to the root of the issue so buyers beware.
Disclaimer: I am using the term fortune-telling loosely here lumping divination with Feng Shui practices. And the point is not to dis one approach and praise another. Rather, to iterate that these are all tools, backed by a wealth of wisdom. When the message is delivered with integrity and no one is taken advantage of, it can give us a peek into a world unknown. The awesome thing is – there is a solution. There is a key to a positive, supportive outcome. And that key lies in YOU.
Food for thought
How has getting your fortune told changed or affected your decisions if any? Do you use them as tools or a crutch?
Two decades back, I was digging up potatoes, feeding hens and taking high school classes on an organic farm in Vershire, Vermont. With just forty-odd kids all in 11th grade and 8-9 faculty and staff, The Milton Mountain School was off-the-beaten-path, and a much treasured experience.
From feeding farm hens to being Kitchen Hand
Every two weeks, our chores rotate. Jack Kruse assigns us to our chores. I must have been his favorite – the only time we had a three-week rotation, he assigned me to the best-est chore of: Composting.
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner for 55 people sums to three or sometimes six slop buckets of compost a day. Slop is all kitchen scraps from cooking and after meals. The white buckets are arm’s-length deep. Just around sunrise, I’d load the buckets onto a wheelbarrow and push it up a small hill to the compost.
Hoisting the buckets high enough over the wooden fence, I’d empty the sloppy-slop into the compost, then cover it with dry hay. Luckily, I didn’t know what the squirmy worms were in the mix until later – maggots – I was told.
Downhill back to the station, I clean out the buckets with the spray tap and scrub, readying them for the next servings. Perhaps like attracts like, one evening a skunk visited the slop pile just outside the work station and gave us all ‘taste’ of its unforgettable smell. Once is enough!
Another time, I was assigned to feed hens. Twice daily – before sunrise and at the end of day, I’d go in, slip into the boots (coz it’s chicken shit galore), and refill the chickens’ feed and their water tanks.
The free-range hens were fed organic. They slept indoors and lay their eggs, and when the sun was out chased each other around in their outdoor play area. Some hens got singled out by other hens and they got pecked and their skin was patches of red, feather-less splotches.
Food or Feed?
Our meals were beautiful. Chef Marilyn and her sister cooked hearty meals using fresh produce from the farm that the school is on. We were so blessed. The weeks I was feeding the hens however, I couldn’t bring myself to eat eggs in the morning. Not because of some PC thing, but because I smell the chicken feed in the eggs!! The association in smell was so strong that until my two weeks of feeding chickens was over, I couldn’t bring myself to eat eggs. That goes to show – what we feed our food source, we ourselves eat. Have you heard of the quest to finding the best foie gras in the world? Check out the story on Ted talk if you haven’t already.
Some chores like composting and feeding hens are individual work, but others are teamwork like being kitchen hand or washing bathrooms.
It takes group effort to keep the school and farm running. Plus, the chores and the teamwork is great schooling. I still remember one time being Kitchen Hand, a classmate gave me well-deserved flack. After dinner, I cleaned out an industrial kitchen size mixing bowl used to whip fresh cream. (Probably to top pecan pie). My classmate said I should probably save the cream. I thought, looking inside the mixing bowl, “There isn’t much left anyways.” So I start scraping out the mixing bowl into the bin. The more I scraped, the more cream came out. I obviously knew little about baking and the power of scraping. And obviously, the classmate right. He was miffed I wasted cream enough for another evening’s server of dessert. Lesson learnt.
Classroom on a farm
We had regular classes like english and some type of critical thinking. Making great use of the natural landscape around our school, we had science class where we learned to “Read the Landscape.” Step by step we learnt about different trees, the land’s history and how to discern what might have happened from the types and age of vegetation. Was this area previously logged, or was there a fire? We each learnt to get an age reading of a tree by counting the rings of a core sample we took. I enjoyed learning outdoors, learning on-site.
Some things stuck. In Jack Kruse’s class. (He happened to be my dorm master as well.) We had a quiz every class. He set a rule to the answers though – our answers could not be more than half a line long. I tried squeezing three lines of text into that space of one line writing miniscule text. I’m sure my classmates often did too. Jack’s idea perhaps was to get us to be concise.
In another class, the teacher asked, “Who’d like to do X?” and some raised our hands. The teacher picked those who didn’t raise their hands and says, “Sometimes we don’t get what we want.” Right. Point taken.
Three-day solo – a rite of passage
A rite of passage at the Mountain School was the three-day solo. Equipped with all the bare necessities of food including 12 bagels and sufficient peanut butter, trail mix, apples, no tent but a tarp (plastic sheet), some rope, a mat and sleeping bag, we were dropped off at different parts of the woods. During the three days, we’re “solo-ing” with ourselves, with nature.
It was my first time, and perhaps for all of us, to be without any human contact for three days straight. I wasn’t scared, but I just didn’t know what to do with myself. Back then, I didn’t contemplate as much, nor did I know the exercises and meditations I could do to make the best use of my time. So I read an unmemorable novel, journaled some, and spent my day filling the gaps eating.
The most trying night of the solo was a pro-longed fight with a bee. Slotted into my sleeping bag, ready to turn off the lights and sleep, since there wasn’t much to do anyways, I heard a buzz. Oh shit. I can’t see it. But I hear a loud and constant buzz. I DO NOT NEED TO GET STUNG out in the boonies. My mind warns me instantly of all the horrible potential consequences if this bee is not dealt with ASAP.
The buzzing finally identified: underneath the mat – beneath my sleeping bag. So in the pitch darkness, I bash, punch, bash-and-punch at the thing making the buzzing noise underneath my mat. A bit futile really because the buzzing didn’t stop. I couldn’t sleep without knowing damn sure I wasn’t going to get stung in the night. The buzzing did eventually subside. The weird thing was, when I woke up and peeled the mat the next morning, there was nothing but soil on the ground. So where was that bee?
The school warned us of potential moose visits. And some claim there were bears too in the woods. Luckily all I saw was some animal poop during the daylight and from afar, one of my classmates across the river once on another hill during the whole solo trip.
Obvious need for mindful eating
When we reconvened at the end of the three days, everyone was a little bit dishevelled, but obviously thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I couldn’t help but notice when we were returning the left-over food that I was probably the only one who ate almost all my bagels – like 12 of them when everyone probably ate just a couple. My ‘appetite’ apparent.
The TMS experience was probably one of the most rich experiences I’ve had during my years in school. From there I continue my interest in food, produce, nature, earth. And since graduation, I follow the development of alternative schools as well as farming. Not your usual news-source, but this piece from Vanity Fair first shed light for me the state of industrial farming and food production.
Food for thought
What experiences in your formative years has made a deep impact on the person you are today?
After a shortened Sunday service on the fifth Sunday of the month, we were invited to the hall next door. A large labyrinth was laid on the floor. It was dusk. A mid-sized group of people of all nationalities and ages gathered, awaiting instruction in a soft-lit hall.
I’ve walked a few labyrinths prior, but nothing offered the full experience like at St John’s Cathedral walking it with more than a handful of people.
The path of the labyrinths starts on the outer rim of the labyrinth and coils into the center. Unlike a maze where there are “dead ends” to maneuver, labyrinths are one path. Winding though – as you’ll sometimes be walking clockwise, and soon after a turn, anti-clockwise. If mazes are left-brain, labyrinths are right brain. It could be a relaxing walking meditation once you are in it.
I got onto the labyrinth after a few people, making sure there was some room before me. To be honest, it took a little while to acclimatise. I noticed I was annoyed when the person behind me was chasing at my coattails and when the person in front just wasn’t moving fast enough. And, and, and… anything can be made into annoyance when you’re not at peace.
Every once in a while, you come close to another person on a different orbit/lane.
The annoyance didn’t last long thankfully. I was able to find my peace. The collective on the labyrinth began moving in sync in rhythm and it was really quite awesome to be doing so almost subconsciously. Still passing each other by every so often, still making a bend when the path directs, the synchronised movement together reminded me of planets orbiting the sun. The earlier frustrations dissolved within the larger scheme of things.
Six alcoves in the centre offers a point of rest when the journey is complete. Six people could fit, one in each alcove as we stand, feeling, collecting the senses.
There are several labyrinths in Hong Kong and around the world. Search on “Labyrinth Locator” (https://labyrinthlocator.com/) to find the one closest to you. One peculiar and off the beaten track labyrinth in Hong Kong is at Tao Fung Shan, an inter-religious sanctuary in the outskirts of Hong Kong.
One can simply follow the labyrinth’s path as it opens up without needing to “think” and arrive.
Food for thought:
Do you take note of the insights you get while walking and/or walking the labyrinth?
Aborigines could still telepathically connect under sphere-shaped construction, yet inside square rooms and buildings (which most of us live in and work in), their ability to connect telepathically doesn’t work. I was intrigued when my teacher mentioned that.
Where the connection to ‘god’ is concerned, there seems to be no coincidence that cathedral domes and the onion-shaped Cupolas of mosques and Russian church buildings take on a circular shape.
Ovals, circles, and ellipses are common in nature. We don’t find angular squares or trapezoids. Imagine square eggs, or planets, or orbits – things probably won’t flow!
Over the years, I’ve had teachers run classes a bit differently – all working with circles.
Tennis ball and a Harkness table
Sat around a Harkness table at boarding, we discussed everything from the Enlightenment period to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Ms Robinson liked to start her class with a tennis ball. She, also sat with us around the table, would pose a topic or a question. She’d then roll the tennis ball to someone across the table and that student would add their two cents on the topic and roll the ball across the vast, wooden surface to another student until everyone had had a go.
It was subtle, but the tennis ball exercise helped wake everyone up to engage, while priming us to be cooperative and inclusive.
Classes without this tennis ball could sometimes end up being a discussion dominated by 3-4 students, while we don’t really feel the full engagement of everyone around the table.
Circle of singers and back rubs
I wondered if other choirs had the same. In highschool, concert choir was a class, and probably my favorite class. More than occasionally, our conductor Mr Kushner would get us to do backrubs.
Our choir of around 28 people stood around in a circle in a roomy music hall. Mr Kushner in the center with his piano. We stood in mixed parts – i.e. I may be alto and have a a tenor guy to my left and a soprano classmate to my right.
So in a circle, we’ll all turn to the classmate say on our right side and massage their shoulders, upper back. In a bit, Mr Kushner would call out, “Switch!” And we’ll switch to the other side and give the other a back rub. Back rubs were always welcome. It was jovial and got us all in a different mood, ready to explore and co-create music. And like the tennis ball in Ms Robinson’s class, it subtly, yet effectively helped the choir to work more cohesively.
To be honest, it was such a privilege to be in Mr Kushner’s choir. I felt we did magic as we learned to hear the different voice parts with our own, and learn to balance and work as a team to sing the melodies, to convey and touch. Standing in a circle, we heard the voices gel, and the magic. I wished we could have performed in circles with maybe the audience sitting inside – kind of like a ‘surround-sound’ choir!
Feldenkrais and a beach ball
Feldenkrais classes with Sean was awesome. We had classes at the academy of performing arts, in a classroom with ceilings high enough for male ballet dancers to lift their ballerina up over their heads.
Sean, with his background in theatre set up ‘mood lighting’. Studio lamps clamped to the ballet barre cocked at an angle so the light shines upwards, we thankfully didn’t have to bear the glaring fluorescent lights, especially as we wind down for the evening.
I’ve learned a few things from Sean’s classes – like how with Feldenkrais, while movements are subtle and gentle, it effectively re-aligns and relaxes the body. Sean also made us aware of how people’s postures give us clues to how they are.
Sean liked to start his class with a beach ball. Although with Feldenkrais, we each had a yoga mat and the work was essentially individual, Sean made a point to gel the group. He had this big colourful beach ball and would direct: “Ok, Left arm only!” and the whole class of 12-15 people would be playing beach volley indoors taking turns to hit the ball with their left arm only. “Forehead!” And then we continue this time with foreheads until someone drops the ball.
To the spectator, it must have been a funny sight. These grown-ups, some in business attire, running fervently after a beachball in a dance studio. It didn’t take us long to leave behind the worries and angst of the work day before Sean turns off the fluorescent lights and takes us through Feldenkrais movements.
Thank you to all the teachers.
Food for thought
How might you use circles to encourage inclusion and participation?
For your interest: Sean who taught us Feldenkrais and how to read the body – his Theatre group.
Chinese tea drinking is simply about the taste of teas, I was once told. Whilst Japanese tea ceremony aims to cultivate the person as a whole.
Is that the case?
China is the birthplace of teas. Tea comes in many colors – to help remember, I was taught to remember the traffic light and the panda. Ie. the red, yellow, green and black and white to cover the full spectrum of Chinese teas.
Chinese tea is prepared and served on a wooden/bamboo work station. The station, like a stage with holes or slats drain excess water when fresh hot water is poured over cups and utensils. Guests sit gathered around the table whilst the server prepares the brew. The tea is brewed in mini clay pots or small tea bowls with lids. As the pots are small, the small servings of tea is poured into a sharing jug. After several brews are collected, the tea is shared amongst the cups. It can be a quiet affair, yet it can be a casual and relaxed affair. It can be meditative, and it can be convivial. It’s free-flowing.
My first encounter with Chinese tea prepared this way was when a friend brought me along to her qi gong practice. At the private gathering, one woman served tea. It was said the tea this former dancer and now tai-tai brewed was extra smooth, extra flavorful because she utilised Qi (energy) in preparing it. She was calm and at ease preparing the tea, her movements and demeanor graceful.
Everything is energy
When every student has the same water, same equipment, same coffee at a coffee brewing class, how come the coffee comes out all tasting different? Some might say it depends on how well one handles the water temperature, the drip of the water. True for beginners perhaps. But when the brewer has reached a certain level of proficiency, it boils down to the Qi (energy) of the one who brews. The more relaxed and at one the barrister is, the smoother and flavorful the coffee.
They say there are so many paths to the Tao. Or so many avenues to practice – whether through tea, through archery, through running – one can cultivate one’s inner calm, inner peace and qi.
The four arts and cultivation of the self
Chinese tea drinking isn’t a standalone ‘art’ or practice, but very much part of the every day enjoyment and awareness.
With a wealth of understanding in the physical and the subtle bodies, the qi, and the application of herbs and foods to balance and strengthen the body, tea for the Chinese is a medicine, drank for with awareness of its synergies with the body, before taste. Someone might love a good Tieguanyin (Iron Guan Yin), but if the stomach is not at its strongest, a rounder Pu’er may actually benefit the condition rather than aggravate.
Traditionally, there are two streams to which one cultivates the self: the scholar or the martial artist akin to the yin and the yang – the quiet and the active. If you have mastered both, then you’re top of the world.
For the scholarly, there are the four types of the arts practice, namely be able to play the Chinese zither, play chess, write calligraphy, and paint. (琴 – 棋 – 書 – 畫). Notice there is no mention of any tea practice however – yet it would have been a prominent presence in all these art practices.
What are they cultivating in these arts?
琴 The Chinese zither – musicality and collaboration
Music is a type of expression – lively and responsive to the mood of the gathering as well as others performing together. A great performance is when all the musical instruments listen out for each other, playing as one. That takes collaboration, teamwork to create harmony and balance.
棋 Chess – strategy and formations
The chess of Go is a game was played only by those army generals and those in training. When I took introductory lessons, I was fascinated by how strategic, yet philosophical the game is. The foundations of the game were built upon chess piece formations and their corresponding poems, each imparting various understandings of almost cosmic patterns and strategies. It is a world of its own.
Although the computer AI AlphaGo defeated the top Go player in a highly ground-breaking game, while the computer won, I wonder if there was any cultivation of the machine. The machine could get smarter from self-learning, but perhaps not more cultivated.
書 Calligraphy – the humors and flow
Being able to have a “good hand,” ie good handwriting is prized as the writing used to be a tell-tale sign of the person. (I say used to as the younger generation grew up typing, and consequently, their handwriting is not so practiced)
I once remarked to a friend, “I’d love to study with the person who wrote this (calligraphic script).” To which my friend said, “Oh, it’s actually a Rinpoche.” (An esteemed Tibetan Buddhist teacher) Who teaches Buddhist philosophies rather than calligraphy! His handwriting conveyed how he was.
To prepare for calligraphy, one grinds a rod of ink on stone with a little pool of water – to collect the senses and quiet the mind. How well one writes has much to do with how at peace one is. The clearer the mind is of distractions, and the more focused, the easier it is to hold the space and complete a flowing scroll of text. There’s a lot of Qi involved. I remember as a kid learning, the teacher stressed how we must link the Qi of the brush stroke “in air” so the strokes of the characters link together by the invisible movement of qi. Likewise the characters each link to one another to create phrases that in turn link together to create the full piece of text. It’a almost like doing a floor gymnastics routine, only that the rhythm, flow, and articulation are inked onto paper.
畫 Painting – story-telling and imagination
A major difference in Chinese vs Western paintings is the size and scale of people. In traditional Chinese paintings, the majority of paper space is of natural landscapes. Like a game of Where’s Waldo, one might manage to spot a little human figurine under a small gazebo on the side of the mountain half camouflaged by mist. As a kid sitting looking at some of these paintings at restaurants, I could stare at them forever, piecing together the story of the scene as they leave much to the imagination and for discovery. A short poem on the painting serves as guide taking the viewer deeper into the painter’s imaginary world.
Classical Western paintings on the other hand are about realism and the people play center stage. There’s been a lot of development on perspectives, light and shadow (whereas there is no shadowing in traditional Chinese paintings). The paintings are painted on upright canvases where the painter tries to create an exact replica of the subject on the canvas. Whereas with Chinese scrolls, they are painted flat on long tables – quite a bit might have been from the painter’s imagination and sense of his/her surroundings.
The joys of Tea
I recently went to the launch of Tea is for Everyone and when one of the writers was asked what she got most out of her journey putting together the book, she said it was great to see and know there is no ‘set way’ to enjoy tea. The farmer enjoyed it like easy every day beverage, connoisseurs can enjoy it however they like.
Does the art of Chinese tea not cultivate the whole person? Many things can cultivate the whole person it boils down to the teacher’s and the student’s … cultivation.
To understand how they primed AlphaGo to play against the top Go player and the aftermath, watch AlphaGo (2017) on Netflix. Gripping documentary.
Food for thought:
Do you sometimes imagine that instead of visiting art works in sterile museum walls, there could be tea gatherings to enjoy the paintings, maybe some light Chinese zither music, and a game of Go?
4:38AM – August 26: I noticed the three teru teru bōzu ( Japanese spirit-dolls) hanging on the door at Munatsuki-sansō (胸突山荘) at station nine-and-a-half of the Fujinomiya trail to the top of Mount Fuji. They had been my guardian angels, praying for good weather for my successful ascent.
Most of my fellow sojourners had already departed for the summit — they would miss watching the sunrise from the top if they weren’t arriving there by now. It was freezing outside — I had gone around to the bathroom behind the lodge and also that seemed to be everyone’s first topic of the day. I was standing at the doorway, gathering myself, contemplating whether I should linger longer inside the lodge for the sun to rise more and the air to warm up further. But the staff of the lodge must have seen me standing there with all my belongings on my back, looking ready to go. I could feel their gaze on me; it would be awkward not to leave now, so I said a final prayer to teru teru bōzu, then waved goodbye to everyone, and went outside.
The sun was just peering out at me from behind a vast blanket of cumulus clouds. I turned to look at the summit. It was just another 125 m or so above me, a zigzag thread of lights from the climbers’ headlamps leading all the way up. Above was a fast-brightening twilight sky. I opted not to join these dawn climbers since I went to the summit and circumnavigated the crater the day before. I was already an official member of the distinguished first group of climbers to summit Mount Fuji in the Reiwa (令和) era.
Orison: a prayer for good fortune
Just 24 hours ago I had passed beneath the enormous red torii gate of the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha (富士山本宮浅間大社) and was walking along the stone lantern-lined path between torii gate and shrine — it is customary to visit a Sengen shrine to pray for good fortune before climbing Mount Fuji.
I noticed how much the gable of the shrine’s hip-and-gable roof resembled Mount Fuji’s regally shaped slopes, but the building otherwise looked unapproachable to me.
The time was just past 5 am and the shrine was almost completely deserted, except a morning jogger who had beaten me to the altar to offer the day’s first orison to Konohana Sakuya Hime (“Princess of cherry blossoms”, goddess of Mount Fuji and other volcanoes).
Mount Fuji, of course, is a volcano, and I was asking for permission to trespass. Images from the unforetold 2014 eruption of Mount Ontake — and the many souls that perished in the tragedy were clear in my mind. The Sengen shrines were originally built to appease the fiery mountain (and its gods); the purpose had been a more benevolent one, but here I was, having come to selfishly ask for my own safe return. In the end though, perhaps karma was at work, I couldn’t string together a coherent prayer, so I just said to Konohana Sakuya Hime, “Meet you up there soon.”
Mount Fuji Ascent
The climb itself was very pleasant. My first attempt had taught me to go slowly and steadily, to not get ahead of myself. I learned to bring enough food. Getting caught without provisions on a mountain is no joking matter, so I brought more than a few onigiris (rice balls), manjus (buns), chocolate bars, some peanuts, a few bottles of water and a few extra drinks.
I arrived at gogome (fifth station) at just before 8 am by bus. There, I took half an hour to relax, to check for one last time that I had all my gear ready. Then, I purchased that wooden walking stick not for assistance but for burning stamps onto. Warmed up, and prepared myself mentally and got acclimatized to the elevation. At 8:27 am, I crossed the tree line into what felt like the beginning of heaven, and began my ascent.
The Fujinomiya trail was a lot quieter than the Yoshida Fuji Subaru route I took the first time with a guided group. This time I enjoyed much more personal space; the experience was much more intimate. I was able to take time to appreciate the smaller things — the frail-looking but resilient plants that popped out of the cracks between volcanic rocks, the rocks themselves that were crumbling and breaking into dust under my feet, the thunders — “the sound of the gods” in Japanese, aptly — that were resonating from beneath.
I was also able to stay in touch with my inner self: climbing Mount Fuji can be a deeply spiritual journey. To partake in one’s own time, on one’s own terms, and be ready — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
As a man of faith, I have climbed Mount Fuji because I want to know what happens when a man leaves behind what is worldly and comes close(r) to God.
Man to man
Japan is hiking paradise: each time I have gone hiking there — Yakushima, Sandankyo, Koyasan, Kamikochi — I would greet almost everyone coming towards me konnichiwa and they the same to me. The genuine friendliness embodied in that simple gesture has always been heavenly, because it says to me, when one decides to trek far, he is travelling to where there are no hierarchies.
The higher a man goes, the more he is reduced to the bare essentials — the less he can hide behind worldly possessions — and the more his essence — his soul, his truth — will be on display. So, in a way the mountain brings out the best of him.
There is, of course, the argument that when stripped to the bare bones a man’s ugliest side may surface for survival’s sake. But faith tells me that that wouldn’t happen on a place like Mount Fuji — such a man would not have chosen to climb a mountain like Mount Fuji; there’s nothing here that could sustain the pitiful purposes of his life. If someone decides to climb a mountain, he packs his own will to survive with him.
The Mount. The Temple
I arrived at Munatsuki-sansō at station nine and a half (which is the station closest to the summit), where I would later spend the night. At 12:33 pm, I deposited most of my belongings, and at 1 pm began to climb the last half an hour to the summit. The Fujinomiya route leads directly to the Fujisan Chōjō Sengen Taisha Oku no Miya (富士山頂上浅間大社奥宮), the better half of the shrine I had visited before the ascent. At 1:30 pm, I passed beneath the torii gate to the summit and to the shrine, and received the most coveted stamp from the shrine.
Throughout human history, man has labeled many places sacred they believed were graced by deity, and temples and monuments have been erected there. The Japanese call Mount Fuji sacred because it is just too perfect not to be noticed and claimed by the gods, and here too they have built a shrine. But to me, a temple is anywhere that my soul finds connection with God regardless of religion — it can be anywhere I happen to be.
I used to visit churches and oracles to look for deity and I used to enjoy them, but now, while I usually still find them aesthetically pleasing, they feel empty inside.
Here on Mount Fuji, the temple is the mountain itself, not that Sengen shrine — I rendezvoused with Konohana Sakuya Hime at a sunny spot right on the rim of the crater, where I then enjoyed the last chestnut-filled onigiri that I had brought.
Standing at the apex had been a glorious moment. Climbing Mount Fuji wasn’t easy, nor was it difficult either. Many people including even five-, six-year-olds do it.
Nevertheless it takes more than physical strength; things — including divine intervention in the form of agreeable weather and climbing conditions — have to come together. For my trip the gods had been very merciful.
So, on August 26, 2019, at 5:00 am, the sun was climbing, and I was well on my way of descending, but the gratitude inside me was ever rising like the morning sun, because I knew the gods had made the pilgrimage perfect in every way: It couldn’t have happened on a better Sunday (and Monday); I couldn’t have brought a more perfect amount of provisions — I had finished everything except a final chocolate bar, some peanuts and a small bottle of water; everything had been timed to perfection (a small word of wisdom: allow ample time if you climb — you need to let yourself break); Of course, planning wise, I had my first attempt to learn from, but more importantly, something more — a higher power — had been at work. I knew, and for that, I would be forever grateful.
I listened to the wind — it was otherwise tranquil — speak to me and ask: if this moment is your last on earth, would you be ready to leave? Or would you have regrets?
I said, “Haven’t I already left the world behind and sojourned in heaven?”
This time last year, I was waiting at a train station two hours east of Tokyo.
I had just taken a cab with two other Vipassana camp participants after our camp. We said our goodbyes and I waited for another two who said we’d meet for some coffee at the station before heading back into town.
15 – 20 minutes later, the two of them turn up in this little white buggy of a car. Waving, and windows rolled down, “Hey hey, we’re going to this really cool farm-to-table cafe that Yuriko is offering to take us. Would you like to go too?”
“Sure!” I had no plans for the rest of my time in Tokyo so roadtrip/adventure? I’m in!
My big fat suitcase just managed to fit into the trunk, and I squeezed into the back seat and off we went. The five of us didn’t know one another, but had ‘slept together’ the last 10 days at the Vipassana camp.
At the wheel is Yuriko. She’s a local. A total nutcase who travels the world, India, different parts of Japan on her own exploring the world. Winding through roads of her hometown, we get to Brown’s Field.
Something was up though – there was some little stall set up, a scattering of wooden chairs are propped on the grass field, and some people were testing mics and amps.
It might have been Yuriko who went up to find out what’s going on. She turns to us saying apologetically that the cafe was closed for the day because of a special event. Oh….we thought. But then someone of the organisers asked, “Instead, would you like to join us for the Harvest Party?”
Of course!! We lucked out!
Checking out the Eco-village
On paying a nominal entrance fee, we were each handed a slip of paper to cast our votes later. We milled about as they were still setting up. Off to stage right leads into a forest area. “Hi, goat!” There was a goat hanging out there nibbling away. Just to the side of the stage, a lady has brought her clean hippie-esque fashion line for sale.
Where we found ourselves was no ordinary farm-to-table cafe. It was an Eco-village founded a few decades ago by an American photographer and a Japanese lady. She was at the festival too. A lady probably in her sixties – a chic lady in kimono and a head scarf, she was surrounded by lots of young people, mostly friends and guests, like a big neighborhood community. Brown’s Field offers lodging and also farming opportunities.
A little stall was set up vending packets of locally grown rice, pickled fruits for teas and other seasonal items from the farm. Another stall served drinks alcoholic and virgin.
World’s best spread
Lunch soon was served. It may have been the world’s best-est spread ever. Not your fancy caviar blinis, nor your assorted cheese. This was a spread of products of LOVE, fruits of the earth.
My guess is those who came for the party at Brown’s Field were naturally more drawn to a natural/eco lifestyle. And as Japanese moms have a penchant for out-doing themselves when it comes to packing lunches – this was no different.
Not everyone brought their dish in the fanciest ware, but they were all presented beautifully. What caught my eye most was some of the lacquerware used – roomy square boxes stacked.
I learn later these Jubako boxes are used for storing and presenting new year days’ meals for the family. Some of these Jubako boxes are heirloom pieces so it was really nice that they were shared with friends and guests.
As we were at an eco village, we didn’t use disposables, but handmade pottery plates, pottery mugs, and chopsticks. Each itself unique.
While we sampled the array of food as we sat on the grass facing the stage, the music started to amp up. I was especially moved by a lady’s singing. It wasn’t perfect, but it was very heartfelt. As I later learned, she had only began taking singing lessons a few months ago. And what you’d never had guessed – she had three kids in tow including a little baby who was held by his eldest sister!
Everyone – kids, adults was dancing to music when the funky sing-song group Oh My Genmai came on to which the mom was also a member.
Japan has many particular things and one of them is anthropomorphism. Like putting a smiley face to inanimate objects, and giving objects human traits. In Japanese TV ads, one wouldn’t be surprised to see a smiley tomato and carrot putting on a dance to promote a vegetable juice. So Oh My Genmai does the same. Genmai (玄米) is brown rice. When the OMGs come on stage, every member except the lead singer wore a cardboard cut-out of grain of rice. Their faces in the centre – an animated grain of rice. They’re fabulous – they got everyone groving – you should have seen the adults AND little kids dancing and clapping along. See them in action:
I am not sure this would have been possible in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, these events attract mostly the young below-thirties crowd. At Brown’s Field, it felt like village gathering. There were young ones, but there were lots of families with kids, and also older couples as well. Everyone was welcomed.
The kids loved trying their hand pounding glutinous rice dough – a traditional ceremony. The adults gathered round chipping in to help dole out pieces and others helped made mochi with filling.
Sharing the love, the craft
It was time to cast our votes. Everyone who brought a plate had written on a small tag their name and the name of their dish. Although there were so many spectacular dishes – Japanese, western, middle eastern, you name it; I voted for a sweet potato dish. It was so simple, yet the way it was cut, and the way it was cooked meant the root vegetable’s sweetness and texture shone through.
The festival didn’t just end there. Throughout the eco-village, small stalls were set up where artisans have set up shop selling trinkets, shoes and pottery. An artist took up the attic and encouraged guests to interact with her art or sit on the wooden floor with her for a chat…
Again thanks to the girls for the generosity and sharing the love. It was an eye-opening heart-felt experience at the Harvest Festival. Arigatou Anri, Sae, Yuki, and Yuriko san.
Tea Practice is a bit like a world of its own. It’s somewhat of an insular practice space, a Dojo (道場）for immersive learning. It’s freeing in a sense beause it doesn’t come with the stakes and stressess of a workplace. Because we gather because of our common interest in Tea, Practice, and Japanese culture.
Our Senior teacher once asked, “Do you know how Japanese and Chinese tea practice differ?”
To which we discussed,“The Chinese ‘art’ of tea probably places more emphasis on the taste, the origins, the tenor of the tea?” we continue, “Whereas Japanese Tea Practice, or Chado (way of tea) is about the practice of the whole person.”
Our Senior teacher nods in acknowledgement.
Indeed, aside from the ceremony of serving the tea, almost everything around the Tea Practice serves as potential for learning.
To Help or Hijack?
Last Saturday, before the start of class, we gathered in the Mizuya (水屋), the water room for prepping and cleaning utensils, arranging sweets. One of our teachers asked a classmate to help cut up a brick of Yokan (羊羮). He did as instructed. Placed the brick on the cutting board, cut open the plastic wrap and measuredly cut the elongated brick into smaller slices ready to serve.
Seeing that the board overflowed with cut Yokan, I jumped in to ‘help’ and began to pile the cut pieces of Yokan into a plastic box. As the morning progressed, I noticed the teacher re-arranging the box I had filled. Painstakingly, she turned the Yokan the other way up and wiping away any excess syrupy liquid at the edges and bottom of the box.
Like I mentioned in Finding One’s Way in Japanese Tea Ceremony, a lot of the learning may be unspoken – you learn from what you manage to observe. So although the teacher didn’t point out that the direction I placed the Yokan was wrong, (since there is no absolute right or wrong – you can choose to place the bi-colored sweet another side up to convey another message or meaning in the practice), I am aware that pink on top and blue on the bottom is the prefered way of display.
I also noticed how in jumping in to help, I perhaps hijacked my classmate’s practice. I willingly offer help, which in most cases are welcome. To clean up the bowls that had just been used to serve tea, or to add fresh hot water to the pot for the next tea sitting. However, in this case, I probably shouldn’t have jumped in. Part of me was probably thinking we are starting soon so let’s get this sorted ASAP.
Opportunity for each and everyone
Our teacher as quietly as she does, has been asking different classmates to help cut Yokan on different mornings. Cutting and preparing the Yokan is as important as knowing how to whisk the tea. It’s a part of the whole. Tea is the sum of its parts – and mostly the energy. So by giving each an opportunity to have hands-on experience handling the sweets, we each learn.
My jumping in to ‘help’ without being asked, I kind of hijacked his full experience preparing and packing up the yokan. Our tea classmates are generally friendly and easy-going so we often help each other out. But then again, a good reminder to let things be and allow to be invited instead of jumping in!
Improvement comes from Experience
On a separate occasion, we brought the Chado experience to young students. A classmate was assigned to introduce what Chado is to the students. As she did, I was thinking, “Oh that’s a bit boring, and not engaging in the way it’s delivered either …I’d probably do it better.” I made my thoughts known to the classmate next to me and she was mute. Very soon however, I came to realise that I tried to hijack because I was thinking that I could do it better. But, everyone needs the practice and needs to start somewhere. Had I not been given the opportunity to start somewhere, I wouldn’t have the experience I have.
We are lucky that our teachers give everyone opportunities to learn. Every task, every occasion is an opportunity to learn. That’s the Way – of Tea, of Life.
Food for thought
What is the best antidote for the control freak or the bossy boot?
What is the underlying need is for those people who like to control or boss people around around?
How might leadership look like without the need to control?
Twenty years ago, I first saw Noguchi’s work at his museum in New York. I assumed he was Japanese or Japanese-American by the name. The Japanese aesthetics infused his works – the stones plucked from a zen garden, the minimalist forms helped corroborate my assumption.
Skip forward a couple years, I went to Paris for training at my first job in a French cosmetics company. With a couple days to explore the city, my boss recommended that I check out the Pompidou Centre.
Nothing at the Pompidou struck a cord.
At the doorstep of the industrial facade of the Pompidou however, sits a quaint, nondescript structure. It’s the Constantin Brancusi atelier. Brancusi (1876-1957) was a self-taught sculptor. Legend has it that he walked on foot from his hometown in Romania to France.
One enters the atelier and follows an elliptical trajectory circumventing a cluster of Brancusi pieces, separated by glass. Brancusi’s sculptures are magnetic. I had found myself encircling his works at the MOMA as if looking harder might enable a deeper connection. A recent article compares Brancusi’s clean sophisticated shapes to primitive sculptures of pre-Hellenic times. A 4000 year gap aside, the sculptures placed side by side seem to echo. Rather than looking to model sculpture to resemble, Brancusi’s sculptures were meant to evoke.
Brancusi and Noguchi meets
In preparing for M+ Museum’s Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint, I realised – Noguchi (1904-1988) was actually bi-racial. He was born to an American mother and an absentee Japanese father. His father was credited for introducing the Haiku (5-7-5 syllable poem structure) to the Western world. His progressive writer-educator mother raised Isamu and his sister.
At Columbia University, as Noguchi considered dropping out of school in favor of studying art, his mother supported his decision. She reckoned that Art offered more potential for positive impact in the world. Surely, Noguchi took this to heart in his far-reaching pursuits of sculpture, design, and even outdoor landscapes in his lifetime.
Although the Romanian sculptor did not keep assistants, Noguchi, on a fellowship from the Guggenheim managed to land a six-month stint with him. From there, Noguchi takes a piece from Brancusi’s exploration of capturing the energy, the idea of things in simple forms and to tap into different cultural pasts.
An array of sculptures spanning multiple centuries
Counterpoint was on show at the M+ Pavilion. A square-ish space that Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo and the curators had the works artfully arranged. On my first visit, a facilitator primed us to connect to our senses. We then walked quietly single file, meandering past the scattering of sculptures and objects. We each picked one that caught our eye. I found a curious-looking black relief sculpture hung on the wall. The relief looked like distorted faces seen from different angles. Is that a nose? Or an eye? Or that an ear? The piece turns out to have nothing to do with faces. Rather, it was a model for This Tortured Earth, a large-scale outdoor project that never got realised.
Internment camps in America during WWII
This Tortured Earth was a response to the devastation of land and people due to war. 110-120K Japanese on American soil, over 60% of them American citizens, were locked away in concentration camps as Japan attacked Pearl Harbour Hawaii. Although they didn’t lock Noguchi away, he however volunteered to join the concentration camps in the hopes that through design, he could help improve living conditions for his fellow Japanese in the camps. He left the camp in less than a year when it became apparent that his ideas would not garner the necessary support.
Although Noguchi was unable to hold classes in Japanese ceramics and wood at the camps, his exploration of the Japanese culture was life-long.
Artisan lanterns to modernist sculptures
In the 1950s, the mayor of Gifu prefecture (known for lanterns and umbrellas) invited Noguchi to help revive the waning lantern business. The sculptor began experimenting with different forms and stands. His designs, over 200 by the end of his life, breathed new life into a traditional business. Over the course of a few decades, his lamps that were once considered strange had become well-loved across the globe. The original Gifu lantern manufacturer as well as by Swiss furniture company Vitra now sells the Noguchi Akira lamps.
About this same time, Andy Warhol was minting art prints, redefining, democratising art for a wider audience. Noguchi with his AKARI light sculptures, turns light into material and lamps into sculpture bringing Art into homes.
Rubbing off each other
Noguchi hung out with some pioneers of his times. Early on, aside from assistant work with Constantin Brancusi, Noguchi worked with Buckminster Fuller, the philosopher-scientist-designer and twice Harvard dropout credited for designing the geodesic dome and set out to change the world for the better. And American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham for whom he designed stage sets. And a dalliance with painter Frida Kahlo.
Lesser known, Noguchi studied with esteemed Chinese calligrapher Qi Baishi in the 1930s. Noguchi married once – to Yoshiko Yamaguchi, known as Li Xianglan by her Chinese audience, who, not unlike Noguchi himself straddled two cultures growing up. A trip down memory lane with her singing 夜來香 and Hong Kong’s nightscape.
During their short-lived marriage, Noguchi created some of the more playful works that tap the traditional craftsmanship of Japanese ceramics.
Stone living essence
At the center of the Counterpoint show, a large torso-like slab sits on a wooden silt-base. Children liken it to a pencil sharpener. Adults and children alike peer into the hole drilled into the stone checking to see if there was something meant to be seen. The work, The Inner Stone was created in the later part Noguchi’s life. At that point, Noguchi had set up a studio in Mure on the Shikoku Island and had assistants working with him. Previously, he did his works mostly himself. At the studio in Mure, Japanese sculptor Masatoshi Izumi recounts how Noguchi would leave harvested stones for one, two years so it would heal, change color, and wait for stone’s beauty to emerge again.
In the same documentary, Isamu Noguchi: Stones and Papers, the young Izumi recounts how as a young Japanese, he shared with Noguchi his wish of living the lifestyle of the West. To which Noguchi, who was in Mure to take a break from that lifestyle, says, “it is the lifestyle you have here in Mure that you would come to realise is much more what you would enjoy.”
When I took visitors on the docent-led tours, I often liked to give the analogy of a jade carver who needs to have an eye for seeing the potential in the jade to decide how best to carve the stone. The stones are one of a kind. Likewise, the sculptor has to feel the stone in order to be able to highlight the stone’s best qualities.
This is the part where the kids and adults alike happily climb onto Noguchi’s sculpture – an undulating red doughnut one could stand on or sit on. I had wondered, can we have adult-sized playgrounds with massive slides and monkey bars to climb on? Perhaps the Noguchi playgrounds, as supposed the “tortured earth” is the answer.
“In spite of – or perhaps because of – the frustration of his remarkable ambition for civic activism and artistic idealism in the year he spent in the camp, Noguchi was driven for the rest of his life to create transformative public spaces meant to ennoble, uplift, and liberate the public.” – Counterpoint show booklet.
I still remember how gentle, kind and upbeat she was, giving me two thumbs up. And how nonchalantly he put on the Cartoon channel for me. Secret Santas in action.
First time donor
When it comes to blood and needles – I am a wuss.
The idea of extracting a Vitasoy pack-equivalent of my blood from my body is scary.
The attendant who led me to the cushy armchair became on the receiving end of a chain of my questions, all of which in the hopes of finding something that reassures – “It it going to hurt?”
“No, no. Just relax and watch TV.” He says casually.
The screens broadcasted the tired police press conference, so I asked if I could watch something else.
“What would you want to watch?”
“Cartoons.” I replied and he put on Cartoons for the screen in front of me. Some staff walked by and did a double-take at the cartoons. The guy didn’t make a fuss out of it and so neither did the others.
The trainee Santa
The time came. A young, cherubic-looking lady came and got my blood pressure reading. I spotted her “trainee” pin and worried if she was experienced enough. Maybe she sensed my unease. The head nurse came to do my procedure. She gave me a tip though, “Since it’s your first time donating, I would suggest that you donate a regular instead of a large pack.”
As the head nurse unwrapped the bags and tubes, I tried doing what I normally do with the nurse, “Can I use a small needle please?” to which she replies that there is only one size.
I stared hard at the cartoons. The needle was in. There was a plastic roll in my hand. I squeeze that gently. And – the machine goes off beeping. The whole floor could hear the darn machine beeping. Blood flow too slow. I was too possessive with my blood.
Get in the rhythm. Squeeze the tube.
I squeeze. I felt the blood flowing. It didn’t hurt so that’s ok. Soon the beeping stopped.
The young trainee came to check on me, mouthing, “Everything ok?” I nodded. Although my foot was beginning to spaz a little. I tried to put my foot down on the floor to counteract the spasing, but the footrest was too high and my foot couldn’t touch the floor. However, I persevered. Done. The spasing stopped once the needle was pulled. I was glad I did a regular pack. The young trainee came over, giving me two thumbs up while the head nurse did the final works of my blood pack.
“Thank you. Thank you.” I said under my breath to this secret santa.
The head nurse held up the pack (of my blood) to show me. I caught a look of it in the corner of my eye. It’s blood, it’s fresh. It’s gruesome, yet extremely life-saving.
The Quiet Santa
As I was about to leave, the attendant who switched the Cartoon channel on was nearby and I wanted to thank him. He was really cool about quietly keeping an eye out for everyone – having our backs. Three girls emerged from the hallway where one was feeling a bit weak so he tended to them. I said thank you from my heart and took leave.
I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment for having gone through with the donation. In retrospect, there wasn’t any external factors to be worried about. The team at the centre is professional and alert, the equipment all fresh from sterilised packs. Plus, if someone was unfit to donate, they wouldn’t allow it. I was in great hands.
Now that I’ve donated once, I know to give myself some good nights of sleep and be better nourished (eat proper meals before and after) and better hydrated. The spasm shouldn’t happen if I was better rested and hydrated.
I have no idea where the blood and blood products goes. Putting it out there so it may help those who could use it. I was thinking how interesting, the blood can go help people regardless of race, regardless of background. There’s no division.
Thank you again to the Secret Santas for supporting me in first blood donating experience. Small things, yet heartfelt impact.
Beauty pageants was a thing in the days of television. It was fun to watch: the song and dance, ball gown and swimsuit parades, and the Q&A the pageants have to go through.
One question stuck for over 25 years, “As a Miss Hong Kong, you need good manners and deportment going about your day. When you are at the ladies, do you need good manners and deportment also?”
The contestant fumbled for an answer. What probably was going through her mind and what was going through mine at the time was, “How does one go to the loo with (ahem) deportment?”
Let me fill you in on background. In the heyday of beauty pageantry, TV stations had big budgets to spend hiring experts to teach contestants how to walk, how to carry themselves, how to adhere to certain protocols. Perhaps not unlike what Kate Middleton or Meghan Markle would go through to adhere to – in their case – royal protocols.
After weeks of such training, the contestant’s probably thinking – yes, I need to stand at a slight angle with one foot in front. And yes, I need to remember to cross my legs at my ankles when seated.
But…what about the loo? There weren’t no training for loo protocols though! Ooops.
Form, function and spontaneity
This brings me to Tea ceremony and two common misconceptions. Follow me and you’ll see why.
Misconception #1: Tea ceremony is ritualistic and repetitive
We practice the same types of Temae (tea preparations) over and over again – True.
It can appear ritualistic, and it is repetitive. But get this – Temae are designed with beauty and efficiency in mind. Items are moved and placed where it can best facilitate the action whether it’s scooping tea powder or whisking tea. There is also an underlying Yin-Yang balance. For example the tea bowl, since it holds water is yin, is thus balanced with the yang – the tea caddy holding matcha powder from the earth.
As the practice becomes ingrained, it spills over to daily life. In the early days of learning Tea, each time returning from class, I’d have the impetus to tidy up and straighten out the home.
In the kitchen, I noticed how I started to fold towels in a particular manner, or arrange and prepare cooking ingredients with more care than I did before learning tea.
So back to the question of whether deportment or not in the loo. When manners are ingrained, there is no separation of how one is in or outside of the Tea Room. Likewise, there is no separation of in or out of the public eye – you are yourself as you naturally are.
Misconception #2 Tea ceremony is blind adherence to form and tradition
I thought so too until a Senpai (senior) told me these really cool tea gatherings that happen in Japan where the centerpiece instead of a scroll, might be an ice sculpture.
Or a friend in Washington DC who threw his own Tea gatherings with Rothko prints as centerpiece, and contemporary ceramics by American potters to serve. He learnt from Youtube on Cooking with Dog how to make Castella cakes as sweets. In the spirit of practice (he’s a pianist afterall), he made the cake over and over again to improve his output.
Last year when the professor of Tea from the Kyoto Headquarters came to teach us, he also showed us another side of Tea practice. He was in his sixties but god he was not one bit old. Trained in martial arts as a young man, you would have missed his punch had you batted your eye once. The way he moved across the Tatami floor had swag. He knew the movements not by rote, but because he has understood it and thus could explain why movements or arrangements are designed a certain way. It was not blind copying, but true understanding.
That’s what differentiates learning by rote or by understanding. Or actions by rote, vs actions through understanding.
So going back to the question that stuck for 25 years, when an action or ‘deportment’ is through true understanding, it’s not strict nor blind adherence. It could be full of creativity and freedom when you understand the essence of it.
Now, what would your answer be to the Miss Hong Kong question?
Postscript: Do clotted cream go first or jam go first on scones?
Years ago, my brother questioned why I cared what the proper way was. Was I too much a stickler for doing it right? Perhaps. Or was I curious about the cultural ramifications? That too.
The “proper” way was first the clotted cream, then jam. Reason being the cream was harder to come by in the olden days and more expensive so the host would offer it first to guests.
To be honest, jam first makes it so much easier to spread.
Times change. Rules change. Rules can differ depending on where one’s from. The Chinese finish their drink because drinking up even the last drop means they enjoyed what’s served. Some other cultures leave a bit behind, to show that they were served so well that they had more than enough.
It was like a revelation. A shocker – my life as I had known it has been like a frog living at the bottom of the well.
The revelation came about thanks to Michael Moore’s heartful film Where to Invade Next.
He takes us on an ‘invasion’ to ‘steal’ the best ideas of ways of life from other countries.
Growing up in Hong Kong with access to information, learning amongst “great minds” in the US, and travelled a decent bit – I thought I had a fair understanding of the world.
It was not until Where to Invade Next that I realised I held a limiting perspective on how life can be.
Eye-opening ways of the world
In Norway, prisoners run their own prisons and even have keys to their own ‘cells.’
Meanwhile in Portugal, all recreational drugs are legal. And as a result of legalisation, drug-use actually dropped!
In France, children are served four-course meals at school everyday.
And in Finland, some of the high-scoring students in the world don’t grow up with homework or test-prep. The reason is something so simple, and has long-lasting ripple effects for the society.
So can these ideas be applied elsewhere?
It’s encouraging to see how there are other ways to run a society. But is it as simple as stealing the model and applying it elsewhere? Perhaps not.
The Head of the Health in Portugal cautioned that the drop in recreational drug use didn’t drop just because they legalised it. The made changes to the healthcare system and other policies.
Likewise, French children don’t enjoy four-course meals just because someone decided that they should eat better. Fundamentally, the French government saw meals as a class for learning. To learn serving each other, holding conversations, and enjoying food together.
The nutritionist, chef, and district education personnel meet monthly to discuss school menus, making sure there is variety and balance. In French Children Don’t Throw Food, American author Pamela Drucker discovers the underlying ethos of school meals in France. For example, with a simple fruit like an apple, the school wants to introduce school children to an apple’s different textures and possibilities. So, the apple might appear on the menu in myriad forms: apple slices, apple sauce, baked in a pie, poached with toasted walnuts, or paired with cheeses. The aim is to introduce different tastes, textures and possibilities of the produce.
In Norway, at the prisons, even the high-security prisons, it was evident prisoners are treated as a human – Not cheap labour, not target for abuse. The prisoners get the support they need to get back on track. Which is a dichotomous contrast to why prisons are set up in most of the rest of the world isn’t it?
Aware of where we limit possibilities
My up-bringing, my schooling, and my choices had been limited to what I knew.
When we rely on social media to serve up news, or a service like Spotify to serve up music, it’s keeping us limited to what the AI or algorithms know we would respond to. It’s based on past history, rather than new exploration.
What’s cool about this film is that it goes against the grain. It recognises that the US has stuff to learn from other countries, and takes a humble look at how other countries view itself.
Where to Invade Next is an ode to human possibilities and offers a ladder out of the well into a wider world. A world where energies are channeled to ways that empower a life instead of wasted on battles.
The film was really fun to watch; so I leave you to explore.
Watch Where To Invade Next on MOVIEMOVIE On Demand in Hong Kong. In other countries, find it on iTunes, Amazon and on Netflix.
Food for thought
The CEO of Ducati said, “There is no clash between the profits of the company and the well-being of the people.” What would it take for businesses to be like Ducati?
One Icelandic businesswoman said she wouldn’t want to live in the US even if she was paid to live there. In light of how Americans treat one another and people turn a blind eye to how neighbors are being treated. Is there anything valuable to “steal” from the US?
Follow Michael Moore @MMFlint on Twitter. #empoweringall #livebetter #alllives