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Two heads of giraffes looking opposite directions | Where My Heart Leads

Focus Which Way

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.

Koans: They wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depths—the inner regions beyond knowing.

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?
  • What and where do you focus?

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Small light box on desk saying YOU GOT THIS | Where My Heart Leads

Fortune Telling

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. 

The Bank of China Tower by IM Pei stands out in the Hong Kong skyline. Doesn’t the specs of light look like bits of data in the night sky?

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.

Rather, like the more new age approaches, I would view challenges as opportunities.

Karen Tsui

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?
Five students in the sun at the farm at Milton Mountain School

Not your usual boarding school: on an Organic Farm

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

Solo

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?

Picture credit: Milton Mountain School website

Night sky filled with stars, connection to the universe

Opening to the Labyrinth

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.

Pac-man can’t do circles.

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.

Connection

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.

Unlike a maze where there are ‘dead ends” to maneuver, labyrinths are one path.

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?
Dewdrops in daylight on spiderweb | Where My Heart Leads

What I learnt from classes working with Circles

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

A picture of a dozen or so kids sat around a Harkness table with faculty during class. Copyright: www.exeter.edu.
Harkness classroom in action. A dozen-odd students and faculty as facilitator. Listen, respect, contribute.

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. 

What 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.

Steaming hot Chinese tea is poured from the "fairness jug" | Where My Heart Leads

Cultivation of one self and Chinese Tea Drinking

Is Chinese Tea Drinking just about taste?

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. 

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) brings Chinese calligraphy to life.

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. 

Chinese tea cups, lidded tea bowl, and fairness jug with tea. Pouring over tea cups on wooden tea station.
I’ve begun to enjoy using the lidded-bowl as ‘tea pot.’ It works well for teas that are rolled from a leaf, and probably doesn’t work so well for broken tea leaves. The bowl is easy to wash – say goodbye to digging fingers into spouts of tea pots. Hold the rim with your thumb and middle finger – it’s not too hot and is manageable.

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.

Cover of Man Mo Media's book Tea is for Everyone - a book that helps make Chinese Tea accessible for all to enjoy.
Photo credit: Karen Tsui, Where My Heart Leads

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?
Sky Earth Water Mouth Fuji | Where my heart leads

Mount Fuji Pilgrimage

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.

View before sunrise atop Mt Fuji | Where my heart leads
Outside Munatsuki-sansō, marveling at sun rays peeking through the clouds

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.

View of Mount Fuji | Where my heart leads
Mt Fuji has a mostly consistent shape all around – making it easily recognizable from afar.

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.

Onigiri in hand and volcanic terrain atop Mt Fuji | Where my heart leads
Refueling atop Mt Fuji with Onigiri

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.

Thankful

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?”

Japanese Harvest Festival Matsuri | Where My Heart Leads

What’s it like at a Japanese Harvest Festival

Thanks to serendipity.

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.

The OMGs

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…

Woman looking at young child playing in lantern by Tsuna | Where My Heart Leads
Tsuna art | Where My Heart Leads

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.

Key visual: (c) Brown’s Field.

Picture of a Video Game Controller | Where My Heart Leads

Letting Go of Control at Japanese Tea Practice

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.

和菓子 涼風の道
Japanese Wagashi “The breeze through the streets.” (c) IG: naonao_mix

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?
Photo portrait of Isamu Noguchi by Mimi Jacobs 1977 | Where My Heart Leads

Meet Noguchi: Design & Art for a better world

Prologue

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

Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint @M+ Museum. The Akari lamps. Egg-shaped light-sculpture on left illuminates. The curtain wall-like geometric pattern gives privacy to an indoor pavilion. The torso-like slab mentioned in the following text holds central space.

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.

Play

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. 

Isamu Noguchi: Stones and Paper (A PBS production. Excellent documentary)
https://ffh.films.com/PreviewClip.aspx?id=9010

Father and Son: A conversation with Isamu Noguchi c1986: read here.

Food for thought

  • How are you, and how are we – contributing to the public good?

Feature photo credit: Mimi Jacobs, 1977

Sharing tomatoes | Where My Heart Leads

Blood Donation: There’s Certainly Always a First Time

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.

Food for thought

Are you someone’s Secret Santa?

Beauty Pageant Q&A twenty-five years later

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’s all about the intent.

Looking up into the open sky from a well

What shocked me about the world as I knew it

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

Moderne Cuisine A Chef's design | Where My Heart Leads

A Knack and a Vision: The Ethos of Alain Ducasse

Alain Ducasse may be known for his Michelin stars, but he is so much for than a chef.

Food is ephemeral. You can have a great dining experience, but it’s “Ichi Go Ichi E” (一期一会)as the Japanese say. Every occasion – the people-place-and-time is unique – can never be replicated again. So, cherish the experience. Recognise it and be in the present.

Unlike architects who have monumental masterpieces for future generations to experience, or film-makers, novelists whose work can be savoured by future generations. With chefs and their creations, it’s for the now.

Message in food

Food is powerful, because it’s so primary.

Regardless of background, people can appreciate food.

Food brings people together. In celebrations as well as troubled times, offering sustenance and relief.

In one of my favorite Romance films – A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, the palace head chef is tasked to create a meal for the leaders of the warring factions.

The chef and his wife-partner understood the enormity of the task. Cutting no corners, they traversed the whole of Japan – in search of their country’s flavors and traditions, from land and sea. The meal was to represent the unity and diversity of the long island country – and to send the message that “We are more powerful together; we can live harmoniously together.”

We see the contemporary take in The Quest of Alain Ducasse (2017). Former French President Francois Hollande and Ducasse meet to discuss what France will serve to its international guests at the newly renovated Versailles. Ducasse proposes a meal that sends a message about sustainability and connection to nature.

“(He) receives the beautiful produce of nature and makes the best of it.”

Ducasse has an affinity to the produce of nature, the soil, the origins of ingredients thanks to growing up on the family farm. He has a knack for working with the ingredients and an appreciation of the farms and farmers who equally treasure earth’s creations as he does. We follow him to disparate and sometimes unusual corners of the world for the most authentic tastes of beluga, cacao, fruits just to name a few.

We are not here to be common

With twenty-some restaurants under his care, each with its own colours and flavours – Alain Ducasse is a busy man. Like a CEO of a top Fortune 500 company brokering deals, he oversees the ‘empire’s’ smooth running, Ducasse works a lot. He visits his restaurants and works with his chefs on new menus, flavors, and experiences.

One scene particularly stood out. The camera zoomed-in on a prettily assembled chocolate dessert in their London restaurant kitchen. After everyone has taken their spoonful, Ducasse comments.

“Most people prefer it, but we are not here to please most people. We are here to create peaks and convince customers that this is good food – ie be the taste maker.”

“We are not here to be common.”

-Alain Ducasse

It gave a new sense of Ducasse’ work – his is to introduce and educate his customers on taste, on good food. Like he does with his team of chefs – he teaches them how to be creative yet disciplined in the kitchen, and to appreciate produce and flavors. 

“He gets chefs out of the kitchen, makes them travel and learn, to obtain a ‘global’ vision of their work. He transposed the term to gastronomy, a contraction of ‘global’ and ‘local’.”

To young chefs, whom he guides and moulds. He’s trainer, boss, artistic director, conductor directing a vast symphony of the senses. 

Respect and cultural exchange

Many celebrated chefs love Japan for the country’s culinary traditions and craft. The Japanese have a knack for refining techniques so thoroughly to be able to bring out all the best notes in an ingredient.

Ducasse invites a Japanese chef known for cooking a bulbous seasonal Daikon radish to his kitchen to learn more about it. We witness an exchange. He asks about where the root vegetable is from, observes how the chef prepares it, asks questions and tastes.

In turn, Ducasse returns the favor and oversees his chef to come up with a dish using the same Japanese Daikon to create a dish in the style of Western cuisines.

We see a total respect for the plant, and a humbleness to learn from the best – the person who knows best how to cook and present the bulbous Daikon.

This exchange stuck with me because it offered a stark contrast to how a Western hip star chef handled an exquisite Japanese ingredient in his own biopic where there was little understanding and respect.

With Ducasse, there was no disrespect of the ingredients and an openness to learn.

His Secret Sauce

He was asked: “How do you think you’ve managed to attain this level today?” 

Curiosity

Not being afraid, undertaking things.

You look at what’s happening 

And decide to do something different

Occupy a different space

Also an obsession for learning,

Sharing,

Editing, teaching, keeping nothing for yourself

Helping collaborators rise and become chefs themselves

True to that not only does Ducasse support his team to grow, learn, and explore, he has founded and funds a hospitality school in the Philippines.

A man of many quotable quotes:

“High end gastronomy means selling memories – You need many ingredients. In order it make this memory unique and indelible.”

“That’s a sculpture of nature. A work of art.” (Looking at a block of salmon at the Japanese fish market)

“All experiences are good: good or bad. The main thing is to learn from them.”

“If we’re not in good company, it’s better to be alone with a good vegetable.”

The stars from Michelin doesn’t do him justice. But then again, Ducasse is more than celebrity. His work criss-crosses many spheres – from culture, to land, to creation, education, experiences and aesthetics …

Food for thought

  • How are you unleashing your full potential?
  • What are the characteristics of someone who touches and positively impacts many?

Available for online streaming here: https://www.thequestofalainducasse.com/

Products of different systems

Imagine Us owning up to our differences

The massive vat of stir-fry appeared circa October 2018 at one of the Vipassana meditation camps in Japan.

It was a slop of gooey soy-sauced corn-starch jumble of vegetables. I took a teeny bit and mostly filled my bowl with rice, and a massive serving of miso soup.

On the last day of the 10-day silent Vipassana camp, silence was lifted and we got chatting. On food, a friend excitedly exclaimed, “The stir-fry was SOOOO good. I had extra helpings of it.”

I thought, “You serious!? That was the most disgusting stir-fry I’ve ever seen.”

She continued, “I loved the sauce.”

“What!? The sauce was practically cornstarch goop.” I thought to myself.

I saw a couple other Japanese nodding in agreement to my friend’s positive appraisal of the stir–fry.

Thinking difference

During the meals when I was thinking how horrible the meal was; there were people who really enjoyed it.

The gooey sauce was a hit for Japanese taste-buds. I could see how it had resemblance to Japanese curry sauce or the demi-glace gravy-like sauce the Japanese seem to love.

For Chinese palettes we just prefer lighter sauces. Our most beloved is the seasoned steamed fish soy sauce finished with boiling hot oil. Adults and kids alike would order extra servings of rice just to get to the soy sauce.

So our preferences and perspectives really boils down to a difference in the norms we have grown up with.

We may not admit it, but we are products of the systems we are educated/ live-in.

Tomato To-mah-to, Potato Po-tah-to

In light of political clashes amongst mainland Chinese vs Hong Kong people, and arguments that have made relationships fraught with tension, Gershwin’s, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off offers some inspo:

Sing-along

You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto
Let’s call the whole thing off But, oh, if we call the whole thing off
Then we must part
And, oh, if we ever part, then that might break my heartSo if you like pajamas and I like pajahmas
I’ll wear pajamas and give up pajahmas
For we know we need each other so we
Better call the whole thing off
Let’s call the whole thing offYou say laughter and I say larfter
You say after and I say arfter
Laughter, larfter, after, arfter
Let’s call the whole thing off

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sings Gershwin’s. Tap dancing on roller-skates too!

Food for thought

  • Have you learnt to agree to disagree?

Extras: Real Stir-fry and Wok Qi

When it comes to stir-fries, southern Chinese talk about the “Wok’s Qi.” Yes, you heard me right. Chinese cooking is about the Qi, or the energy. Good stir-fry yields lightly glazed, crisp, piping hot dish as the cook can artfully handle the timing, heat, and qi of the fire.

Ingredients are dropped into the Wok in sequence. Garlic or ginger goes in first with the oil to “bring up and awaken the wok.” Subsequently, the ingredients that needs longer cooking time goes in first, less cooking time last so that all ingredients are cooked to their optimal states.

Sauce is light. You over-do the cornstarch or the food isn’t crisp and taut would be a sign of an amateur cook…or so I thought…

See the real Wok Qi here.

Because the girl did drugs | Where My Heart Leads

Because she did drugs, I told the teacher

Boarding school at age 13, 14 was very much a culture shock. Not just the language, the food, most of all how people think and the way things are done.

I was assigned to a large girl’s dorm my first year, sharing a large double room with a girl from NYC. You can easily tell which side of the room was hers and which was mine. We had totally different modes of life. 

Cultural Contrasts

My roommate sets her alarm for 6am (Classes start at 8, mind you). The loud beeping radio alarm types that I don’t get why people use waking up to scratchy, annoying noise. My roommate takes her morning shower and spends the next hour or so putting together her outfit and makeup (something I didn’t even own.)

I – rolled out of bed 15 minutes before the class bell rung. Brushed my teeth, went to the loo, threw on dress code-abiding clothes got there just at 8. If breakfast was had, I’d get up an extra 15 minutes earlier for a double-toasted bagel with cream cheese on one side and strawberry jello on the other. Sometimes, to change it up, plain yogurt, lots of grapenuts, milk to water it down, and big splattering of strawberry sauce.

Large, stylish magazine spreads from W, Harper’s Bazaar and the likes plaster my roommate’s side of the room. I didn’t really buy magazines then – it was something read at hair salons while getting my hair cut. She had a chunky, black stereo system (which I used to call a Hi-Fi) that became my early introduction to all that is Brooklyn-cool, including lots and lots of hip-hop.

My side – lots plastered on the wall too – of design postcards, name card designs, everything graphic design, line and colors. I listened to music on my computer. All in all, pretty minimalist.

Telling my teacher

One school evening, my advisor came to check-in on things and my roommate was out. As a foreign student from Hong Kong, it was natural I kept an eye out on people also from Hong Kong. I don’t know how I knew, but I heard that one senior class girl from Hong Kong was doing drugs. 

So that evening when my advisor came to my room, I told her that I hear that this girl so-and-so (let’s call her Beatrice) is doing drugs. It was more like gossip when I got hold of the news, kind of like hush-hush, “Oh, you know what, so-and-so does this….”

“Ms Finley, this girl from Hong Kong, Beatrice, I heard is doing drugs.” I said. 

My Finley – who teaches chemistry, wears plaid, and drives a pick-up truck -asks, plainly, “Why are telling me?”

Confused by my teacher’s question

You know how the crux of education is not so much about the information one is taught, but about the practise of analysing and coming up one’s points of view and listening to others? That evening was one memorable education/Lesson that has lodged in my mind since.

To be honest, I hadn’t considered why I would tell Ms Finley about the girl and the drugs until she asked me why. All the years leading up to age 13/14, going to school in Hong Kong, I’ve been trained to obey, trained on what is acceptable, what is not. Trained to identify what societally is acceptable or not. It had become second-nature to “report to an authority” what is out of line.

But Hong Kong and America had different values and different ways of looking at things. 

What was my motive for reporting Beatrice’ case? 

Was I concerned about Beatrice’s well-being? Did I want to help her get medical attention?

Or was I trained to report on others’ ‘mis-behaviors’ in a system built upon obedience? And was there part of me looking for a ‘gold star’ for doing the ‘right’ thing?

I was taken aback when Ms Finley asked me the question because I had assumed she would acknowledge my report, and do what I thought faculty would do – investigate and put the right to wrong. 

Instead, Ms Finley questioned my intent. 

Such opportunities of looking beyond the surface would present itself way past boarding school. And years pass, I realise the intent and motive for our actions is sometimes as important, if not more important, than the act itself.

Rewards of deciphering Koans

In senior year of boarding school, in a class on Zen Buddhism, I was introduced to Koans. The most famous one being, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” left our class around the Harkness table pondering fervently. No one, however, seemed to know. Because some things in life, it’s not about an answer, but about the reward of the inner knowing that comes in time.

Ms Finley’s response that evening was like a Koan. After that evening, my advisor and I didn’t broach the matter again. Beatrice wasn’t someone I knew personally. She was senior classmen afterall. She graduated and is doing well for herself, a partner at a professional firm. As for the drugs she purportedly took? Who knows? It might have been pot for all we know that is now legal in many parts of the world. (Canada has at least three Cannabis-producing companies seeking to list, and Asia has South Korea approving Cannabis for medical use). 

Personal Development

  • Are you aware of your intent? To put it another way: Do you notice when you operate from a place of this has been how it’s done/trained/drilled into me so that’s why it’s done? 
  • In light of the recent tussles between mainlanders vs Hong Kong Chinese; police and civilians; we may be presented an opportunity to do some deeper reflection of actions and motives. Do we stand by assigned norms and roles or create something greater?
Thailand's King Bhumibol legacy | Where My Heart Leads

Thai King Bhumibol: Inspiring Nations

On a recent trip to Bangkok, I got a different taste of Thailand. Instead of the shopping and eating, we visited some sites. I visited the huge reclining Buddha at Wat Pho (sounds like “What For?”) with intricate mother of pearl inlays and en route swung by an amazingly well-kept temple site Wat Arun.

Walking through the intricately-built and colorful Wat Arun temple grounds just a couple ferry stops from the main commercial area, I was struck by the fact that Thailand, some few hundred years ago, had preserved such wealth of culture, riches, and know-how evident from the well-kept structures and temples at the grounds of Wat Arun.

Upon further investigation, Thailand is the only South East Asian country not colonised by European powers. Thanks to their King’s determination and the unity of the country – the royal family and nobles practically emptied their cofers that they had saved over two generations to pitch in and pay up in defending their nation.

Widely travelled and an enthusiastic reformer: King Rama V (1853-1910) who defended Siam (Thailand) from colonisation.

The Upbringing of a Statesman

But my focus is King Bhumibol, the beloved King whose portrait was hung in many shops, homes and reverently displayed in public areas.

Until I saw the documentary on the late King Bhumibol on the flight back, I only knew him as a King well-loved and respected by his people, but had no idea why. King Bhumibol’s story is intriguing from the get-go. 

How come the Thai king was born in the US? He, his elder brother and sister and mother chose to live in Switzerland growing up, like commoners? 

The way King Bhumibol had to step up as King has parallels to Queen Elizabeth taking the throne. Neither King Bhumibol or Queen Elizabeth would have thought they would be heads of their countries growing up.

When King Bhumibol passed away in 2016 at age 88, he was the longest-reigning head of state ruling for seven decades. (As at July 2019, Queen Victoria has been on the throne for 67 years.) 

As a constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol didn’t recide to being a figurehead. He took an instrumental part in guiding and guarding Thailand through tides of change.

Qualities of a True Statesman

He was a very different kind of King. In old footage, he has the flare of the young Johnny Depp – sporting aviators and a camera around his neck. King Bhumibol visited the far corners of his country to understand what went on.

King Bhumibol grew up mostly overseas – first in the US, then in Switzerland. His mother, a nurse by professional training, and originally a commoner, made sure her children played freely and learned about the world through play. From the documentary, it was apparent that King Bhumibol, his elder brother King Ananda and sister had a fun, carefree childhood. They climbed, they dug muddy canals, and played in water tubs and built their own toys.

The two boys were later enrolled in boarding schools in Lucerne so to instill in them a sense of self-reliance. Perhaps because the children did not grow up ‘groomed’ for something other than to be themselves, they got a chance to discover their passions and interests. 

Multi-pronged Solutions

It was from building muddy irrigation canals in their garden as kids that King Bhumibol began his lifelong interest in soil conservation and the need to be close to the land.   

He came up with many solutions for his country. Thailand was a developing country rebuilding and recovering from the devastations of WWII. The King saw that the lack of schools and education nationwide could hold the country back. He starts by funding a Schools for Hill tribe children and later a vocational training program for those who had dropped out of school because they cannot afford tuition. (The latter reminds me of Prince Charles’ Prince’s Trust program in training and placing trainees to work)

Even before Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden at the White House, King Bhumibol had converted this palace grounds as his test lab. He tested to find out which strains of rice was most suitable for Thailand’s ecological factors. He bred fish and raised dairy cows so farmers around the country can do the same (and gave out fingerlings and passed on the know-how to farmers. All so his country can become self-reliant and break free from malnutrition.

Even in the face of political turmoil, financial crisis, natural disasters, he helped diffuse the ‘ticking bombs’ with wit and diplomacy. 

Embed from Getty Images

What stood out was King Bhumibol really lived to be like a Guardian of his country – as a true King would – putting forth sound initiatives for the sake of people, and to develop the country’s first self-sufficiency. Watch the short documentary, under an hour and you’ll witness how he calmly puts sense into the polarising politician’s mind and mitigates a potential civil war. 

Wat Arun in Bangkok

Final thoughts:

  • Nowadays, with many societies run by politicians and political parties hand-tied by vested interests and campaign funding – what would it take for politicians to put the welfare of the societies first?
  • Do we still have statesmen who guard the long-term welfare of their nation/cities?
  • As parents or educators, how would you nurture children with qualities that will take them far? (Tip: there was something the King’s mother was adamant with regards to his hobbies that may have helped in shaping his qualities)

Resources

Pouring Sake for others | Where My Heart Leads

Can we experience Harmony in everyday life?

Japan stepped into a new era – Reiwa (Enabling Harmony) – when Crown Prince took the throne on May 1st.

“What is Harmony?” has been on my mind since a friend said, “It went really smoothly. It was harmonious.” she said of a New Years tea gathering we helped host.

Harmony has great significance in Japanese tea ceremony. As a Japanese Tea student, we are introduced to the concept of Harmony early on – a four character scroll, summarizing the four tenets of Chado

Wa (Harmony)

Kei (Respect)

Sei (Pure)

Jaku (Tranquility)

written in large ink brush script would hang in the centre of the alcove – like a Buddhist master transmitting his teachings, reminding the student to hold these tenets of the practice to heart.

Despite trays of exquisitely arranged food of more than 10 items each needing to be assembled, bowls of tea to be whisked and served, sake to be poured and a few mishaps thrown-in, the new year tea gathering flowed like clockwork.

Everyone on our service team stepped up to complete whatever task was required. Whatever needed to get done, got done. And thanks to the teacher on duty with her calm and harmonious demeanor, the tone was established for the group to come together as a seamless team. You should have seen “backstage” in the kitchen, some of us did a little jiggly dance pre-show! This group! Haha.

It’s one thing to comprehend something like Harmony conceptionally, and another altogether to experience it. That gathering was the first time I felt like as a team, we were a collective, passing through the gates’ of Harmony (there are many gates of learning in chado I suppose).

Passing through the gates of learning.

Ego in the Tea Room

Way back when Chado, the wisdom and way of tea, was practised by the nobles, the samurai, and the religious, swords were carried at the waist atop of the Kimono. To enter, these swords (weapons, and defense) are hung outside the tea room on a rack. Before entering, one would purify one’s hands and mouth with water at the end of the stone path before crawling through a small window-like opening to enter the sacred space.

All external labels be it rank, pedigree, creed are left outside the tea room. Upon entrance, everyone is considered equal within that space. 

Stripped of the labels, stories, emotional baggage, the one entering the room is essentially a person in its purity. In my mind – perhaps it’s almost like enjoying the gathering over tea with a bunch of zenned out beings, where it doesn’t really matter what they do in their day job, who they are socially, because those don’t matter other than what’s in one’s heart.

Before entrance, one purifies themselves, the hands, the mouth, the heart.

Looking into the Heart

When confined in such a small, quiet space of the tearoom, our senses become heightened. We hear the rumbling of boiling water more fully, taste the scent of incense more clearly, and most of all we sense how everyone in the room IS more directly – whether one has left their non-essentials at the door, or have brought it in with them – becomes easily palpable.

Tea Practice is mesmerizing to some, yet an enigma to others. A friend of mine had said she couldn’t see the appeal of it when you’re doing the same thing again and again – take out the utensils, wipe clean the bowl, serve sweets, whisk tea – all the while kneeling on the floor too! Next week – repeat. And the week after – repeat. For some, it can be a life-long involvement.

Chado is so multi-faceted though, those who want to learn about the histories of the utensils or how to move beautifully can do so; those who want to come and meet with fellow tea lovers and enjoy time together over a bowl of tea can do so; those who want to uncover ‘the Way’ through tea may also do so. Chado can be a multi-dimensioned treasure trove where beyond the surface, leaves more to be uncovered and pondered.

Our tea teacher once remarked, Chado isn’t just about the taste of teas so much as it is about the practice of how the person be. 

Postscript

Chinese characters and Chinese expression holds much wisdom and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface and appreciate the depth of it as I have grown in years (ahem). The character for Harmony – Wa, means not only Harmony, but togetherness. It’s also implies a tie, like in a match where the two teams tie = are equal, neither is the winner or the loser.

Is togetherness only possible when there is Harmony? Or does Harmony enable togetherness? Chicken and Egg.

Wa Kei Sei Jaku by 66mami66| Where My Heart Leads
The four tenets: Wa Kei Sei Jaku.

The beautiful script calligraphy is by contemporary Japanese calligrapher MAMI. Find her on instagram: 66mami66. Mesmerising to watch how she creates life-size calligraphic works like a dance with ink and paper. Check it out!

Havana Divas in full Cantonese Opera costume | Where My Heart Leads

Unexpected Encounters: Havana Divas and Chinese diaspora

Little did I know, that I was in for a treat with the Havana Divas that evening.

I probably was not the only one with question marks over my head when we saw two westerners, age 80+ singing and performing Cantonese Opera complete with gestural expressions. You see, unlike Italian Opera, which is relatively ‘mainstream’, Cantonese Opera is a rare specimen that I had believed only existed in my part of the world. As Cantonese Chinese myself, I had not watched even one performance before that night.

They were impressive – not only because of the authenticity of their performance, which was surprisingly true to the art. (The way they pronounced the words, and the way they sung, you feel they were bringing through customs of a different era.) But their story offers a window into the Chinese histories of diaspora.

Caridad Ho age 87 and Georgina Wong age 89 hail from Cuba, halfway around the globe and are living links to another era. 

Their expressive and genuine ballads enraptured the audience. After a moving performance, the two octogenarians sat on stage as part of the program to share with us a piece of their life. 

Diaspora and Chinese dreams

Caridad’s mother gave birth to her at age 16, but the father died soon after she was born. A Chinese man with the last name Ho saw the mother and child on the streets and took them in. 

That was how Caridad got her Chinese name.

Two years later, however, Ho fell sick and mother and child went on the street yet again. This time another Chinese man, Bill Fong, took them in. Bill and Caridad’s mom married and Bill brought up Caridad like his own.

Bill Fong was amongst the large numbers of Chinese migrants that left China during the late 1800s when China’s last dynasty was in decline. Many left looking for a better life overseas. In China, Bill was a rebel. He loved Cantonese opera, but the family didn’t. Despite their disapproval, he would sneak out to see many performances. 

Once he found his footing in Cuba, he made his dream of founding a Cantonese Opera troupe come to life. Although Cuban by birth, Caridad, was taught all the operas, the back stories, the arias, gestures, rhythms, and expressions of Cantonese Opera. Her father and the troupe he founded were her great teachers.

Caridad Ho in Cantonese Opera costume when she was 16. Circa 1947.
Caridad Ho age 16, circa 1947.

When an elder sings her childhood

During the post-performance chat, Caridad was asked if she remembered the first song she learnt to sing. She sang, almost immediately the first song she learned – a song Bill, her father, taught her. I was moved to tears. It wasn’t a song I recognised, but her singing really touched me. It felt as if she was transmitting the love she received as a child learning that song. A bit of Bill, a bit of the time in the family comes to life through her singing.

It never crossed my mind that large Chinese populations would have been in Cuba. Yes, Western cities in Canada, the US, UK, Australia, I had visited the Chinatown. But in South America? That was news to me.

Georgina Wong, who plays the male lead is of Cuban-Chinese ancestry. Georgina’s dad is also from the Pearl River Delta area and was a tailor by trade.

In the documentary Havana Divas, Wong recalls how touched Wong’s dad was when he saw how Georgina found a liking to Cantonese Opera. Like a spider web-like thread, Cantonese Opera is the link his daughter has to his homeland, which he never sets foot on again. 

Autographed cards of Caridad Ho and Georgina Wong when they were younger. The Havana Divas. | Where My Heart Leads
Autographed pictures cards. From Havana Divas facebook page.

Stardom and revolution in Cuba

In its heyday, Cuba had not one, but a few Cantonese Opera troupes which toured the Americas and even hosted Cantonese Opera stars from Hong Kong. 

There was large demand from the large Chinese immigrant communities hungry for a bit of home.

Caridad recalls how the troupe was really well taken care of, served all the best Cantonese dishes in abundance. In a black and white photo showed during the chat, Georgina is seen all decked out sitting high on a horse in a parade through the streets promoting their shows. 

But the Cuban revolution in 1956 changed everything. The troupe was dismantled, the costumes confiscated. Caridad got married and took on jobs including work as a typesetter at a local Chinese newspaper. (She had learned to read and write Chinese from Bill).

Georgina graduated from university in law and became a diplomat. Meanwhile, the Chinese population dwindled because of the revolution. When Georgina revisited Chinatown after a 30+ year absence, she shed tears when she saw the state the town was in. 

Fate reunites

But with a stroke of fate, she ran into an old acquaintance and got connected with Caridad and they began to sing and perform again. It was funny to see them in the film Havana Divas practicing Cantonese Opera with a violinist. Indeed, where could they have found anyone who plays the real Chinese string instrument – the Erhu instead?

It was a treat to meet Caridad and Georgina and to see them live conveying the old artistry they had learnt as children some eighty years ago. These stage sisters might be the oldest performers, and among the most gracious I’ve met.

Lucky for me, a message for came in the form of my friend’s comment. As we were stepping out of the theatre, still relishing in the tunes and the stories, she said, “What’s key to their longevity and their art is by keeping it fun.” 

The key – When you’re having fun, when you’ve found what’s fun for you, you won’t grow tired of it. It fuels you.  

Related post on something I learnt that evening: Secret to Longevity: Havana Divas.

Longevity Reed | Where My Heart Leads

Secret to Longevity (That Everyone Has)

Prologue

A wave of confusion swept over me when the female lead came on stage. Obviously she was a foreigner, so how in the world did she learn, or why did she even learn to sing old-school Cantonese Opera of all things? From the looks of it: back a little stooped and her small shuffling footsteps, she was probably in her 70s or 80s even?

Soon after, the ‘male’ lead comes on stage – with a crutch in her right hand! 

I was at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, at one of its Cantonese Opera evenings entitled, “Global Traces, Local Stages.” 

What started it all

Pre-show, a friend and I got dinner at the quintessential old-school diner Mido Cafe. Over Hong Kong curry rice, I was venting (just ever-so slightly) about the challenges of starting and running my business. 

My friend generously shared her experience twenty years ago helping set up her husband’s business. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but twenty years later, her husband now jokes, “Would you still have wanted me to have taken up that job with that excellent package?”

Choices: fun and destiny

At the time, her husband was doing very well in the company he was with and got offered a post overseas. The expat packages came with all the trimmings – housing, driver, helpers, and benefits. 

Although it was attractive, her husband believed he could unleash more of his potential by creating his own than to stay at the job. He knew it was “now or never” – as the longer he stayed, the harder it was to turn away from salaried work and almost guaranteed “success” up the corporate ladder. 

As her husband’s life partner, my friend witnessed his growth building his own business and the satisfaction and enjoyment he gains from it. 

She said what galvanised her husband to leave and start his own despite the uncertainties was that he was confident in what he saw as a gap in the industry, and that he knew he could make it happen.

Even now, with an established business, my friend’s husband still branches into new industries and is totally hands-on managing and trialing things to get first-hand experience so he can come up with ways to outperform peers. 

Re-connecting to Beginners’ Heart

Turning the attention back to my “situation,” my friend asked, “What’s your beginner’s heart?” 

“What do you mean?”

“Why did you leave your job in the first place to start what you wish to start? What was appealing or attractive in pursuing what you want to pursue? What do you love?”

Good point. When we see the possibilities and potentials, we are inspired to keep going – thus the longevity.

The secret to longevity is to …

The Cuban sisters performed to a full-house of mostly Cantonese speakers. Their expressive ballads and performance from the heart touched many and they received a standing ovation.

Georgina, the male lead is cheeky in the fireside chat and as animated as ever although she doesn’t speak nor understand so much Cantonese. Caridad holds Cantonese Opera close to her heart as it is something dear to her and something that her dad had passed on to her. 

Walking out of the performance hall after a much endearing encore, still mesmerized by their performance, the stories of their lives, it seemed like magic that we got to watch the two Cuban stage-sisters perform more than seven decades since they first began, halfway across the globe.

My friend said, “You know what, the secret to longevity is to do what you love.”

I nodded in acknowledgement. How pertinent.

Check out the story of the Havana Divas and the Chinese diaspora in Cuba.

Folding clothes in the Marie Kondo way | Where my heart leads

Decluttering Frenzy – When I Realised there was Emotional Decluttering

Marie-Kondoing has taken off. Like Googling has become a verb, Kondo-ing has become a verb to mean purging things that do not spark joy. Netflix even aired a Marie Kondo show early this year. In the trailer, you see people distraught as they part with their belongings, as if they’re parting with a loved one. Their emotional responses – their red, crying faces made me wonder, is there something amiss in the approach?

The KonMari method theoretically

The idea

The idea is – by purging all that doesn’t spark joy, you’ll be living surrounded by only belongings and relationships that spark joy in you. Theoretically by doing so, you’ll be more joyful, fulfilled, happy.

The method

The Konmari method is easy to follow. First, you decide what to keep and what to discard. Then with the things you decide to keep, you organise them so each has a place in your home.

As an early adopter of the ‘Kon-marie‘ method after reading Marie Kondo’s first book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, I felt I found ‘the best guide for decluttering.’ I happily tackled the categories in the way Marie Kondo suggests. The results made me happy.

I decided to keep only the clothing that sparked joy. As Kondo suggests, I folded the clothing like sushi rolls so each would stand on its own. I hung my clothing like she suggests with dark colors on the left, and light colors to the right so it looks like it’s rising: from heavier left to a lighter right.

Armed with a ‘guidebook on tidying up,’ I felt empowered to finally tackle the stack of random printed material and notes piled on the desk, and anything else that could use a ‘cull’ (ahem, an edit).

What gave me pause

While it felt good to declutter, the framework for deciding what to keep and what to discard later gave me pause.

With some time and distance to my kondo-ing, I realise that in my fervour, I had discarded things that either A) I somehow despised; B) associated the item with some memory I found unpleasant. Both criteria met Marie Kondo’s for not sparking joy. However, there was a piece not addressed – the emotional association, and in these cases, a negative one.

When we discard something because it doesn’t spark joy, we could in fact judging the item. It’s like, ‘Ok, this [enter object name] doesn’t give me [enter feel good factor] anymore, let’s toss it.’ or “Uh, this reminds me of [whomever that gets on my nerves], I’m not going to keep it”

I suppose it’s like rather than confront what was making me uncomfortable, I had simply wanted to just get rid of it.

A different deciding factor: emotional charge

When we discard something based on whether it ‘sparks joy,’ we evaluate them for not giving us joy. Whereas, another way would be to look at whether we still have an emotional charge to the thing/person/incident.

Things associated with an “unpleasant” memory or emotional charge was actually an opportunity for me to look at why it seemed unpleasant. When there was no longer an emotional charge, that means I have resolved that issue and the item has served its purpose.

Decluttering can be a great exercise. Decluttering neutrally presents an opportunity to resolve what we may not have wanted to look at. When we apply this to how we declutter things, relationships, etc, perhaps it’s simpler and more complete.

The goal is similar: for a life that Sparks Joy. Yet in abundance and without limitations on how many books one should own!*

*As Marie Kondo suggests keeping only 30 books, people began to weigh-in on whether that made sense or not.

Background: Marie Kondo is a Japanese decluttering and organising expert. When her book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up came out, it quickly caught on in the English-speaking world. On the Netflix shows, she is invited to homes to help families declutter.

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Book cover of I.M. Pei A Profile in American Architecture | Where My Heart Leads

Salute to IM Pei

“To have something that lasts, means that you’ve really gotten hold of the essence of things. The only thing that can last is really the essence. Otherwise, it’s transitory, it’s fashion.” – IM Pei

My intrigue with IM Pei began with his short two-minute appearance in Louis Kahn’s documentary “My Architect” a documentary where Kahn’s son catalogue the life of his father. It was the first ‘video’ I saw of Pei. It surprised me by how frank and honest he was, how funny he seems and most of all – for someone with Pei’s renown and level of success, he had much praise and respect for Kahn.

In the documentary, IM Pei recounts sitting next to Louis Kahn at some event. The two chit-chatted and Pei praised Kahn for the Richards laboratory, which he thought “was really a marvellous group of buildings. “Those building are really one of your best.” To which Kahn responds, “Ah, the best is yet to come! From that little exchange, it seemed the two hit it off.

Later in the interview, Kahn’s son suggested that Pei had much more success than his father. Pei shakes his head saying, “Three or four masterpieces is more important that 50-60 buildings.” “Quality not quantity.” he adds. Pei seemed to have a quiet respect for Kahn’s work and saw the talent in his contemporary.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha designed by IM Pei.

Taking only half the credit

My second encounter with IM Pei was at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha during a 24-hour layover.

The Museum grounds had this stillness and beauty, which makes you want to spend time there. Inside, the space flowed and was harmonious. I just couldn’t then quite fathom how IM Pei, as Chinese-American could translate the Islamic spirit into such a beautiful space.

Reading up on Pei’s obituaries today, it was no wonder that Pei managed – he did thorough due diligence. At age 91, he was hoaxed out to retirement to do this project. He read the biography of the Prophet Muhammad and toured the world’s great sites of Islamic architecture for six months before beginning his work on the museum.

Flipping through a large picture book in the museum’s shop, I found an interview with Pei. In it, Pei takes just half the credit for the museum he designed.

He says the other half of the credit is because of his client, the ruling family of Qatar. Pei said that without the client, who not only commissioned the work, but also gave him the freedom and opportunity to express the vision, the project would not have become what it came to be.

I find it very humble for him to say so and it is true – great designs come not only from the designer, it also comes from a client with good tastes and good sense.

Daring to be extraordinary

Growing up in Hong Kong, we know of IM Pei because he designed the most iconic building in the Hong Kong skyline – the Bank of China Tower.

When visitors come, we love to tell the story of how the building design is informed by Feng Shui. The story is that the many triangles designed act as ‘swords’ to cut out bad energies that comes its way. (Interestingly, in the Kahn documentary, a model of double structure of something that resembles the BoC Tower is right behind Pei).

And then of course, the next reference most people would refer to is IM Pei’s glass pyramids at the Louvre. I didn’t think about it much until reading in Carter Wiseman’s, “I.M. Pei, A Profile in American Architecture of how Pei managed to get such a controversial design off the ground, and for a culturally snobby country too!

“To have something that lasts, means that you’ve really gotten hold of the essence of things. The only thing that can last is really the essence. Otherwise, it’s transitory, it’s fashion.”

Bank of China Tower by IM Pei | Where My Heart Leads
Bank of China Tower. View from Hong Kong Park.

RIP, Mr Pei. Thank you for all your works, your charm, and your inspiration.

Director/Star Justin Chon (credit: George Ko, Giant Robot Media) | Where My Heart Leads

Justin Chon: ‘Strangebird’ on radar

“Do you want to watch gook?” my brother asked.

“What’s it about?”

“LA riots.”

(LA riots? Never heard of it.) “Oh. No thanks.”


As he was getting gook to play on tv, I looked it up. Halfway through the trailer, I called out from my room, “Ok, I’m watching. Start from the beginning, please.” 

The film plays, I’m like, hey this guy looks familiar. He’s the YouTuber.

Justin Chon felt like a ‘strange bird’ – quirky, yet real in his YouTube videos. He looked Asian, but wasn’t your ‘typical’ Asian kid – you can’t quite put a finger on him.

In his older YouTube intros, against, fun, child-like music he peeks out from a plastic dumpster, flips open the dumpster lid and leaps out with a bouquet of colorful balloons in one hand and a big, wide grin on his face. As if he’s going to “litter” the world with colorful balloons in ways you wouldn’t expect.

gook was refreshing

gook was refreshing. The storyline was refreshing. The cast was Korean Americans and African Americans. It tells the stories of real people – two Asian brothers who ran a shoe store in a dangerous neighborhood, their dreams, and particularly the friendship between one of the brothers and a young girl from the African American community set against the background of the 90s LA riots.

In this interview with Build Series, Justin Chon sheds light on what works influenced this film, the challenges he saw coming while writing the script, and how he found the actors in gook including the 11-year-old lead actress Simone Baker who was a natural.

Highlights from the interview:

Where did the idea of gook come from?

“Personally, my Dad has a business in Paramount, basically right across the bridge from East Compton. We got looted on the last day of the riots, and we got completely demolished and so when I heard that there were a few other LA riots films being made, and I’ve auditioned for some over the last 10 years, I just felt like there could be another unique perspective, which is from a Korean American, which I felt wasn’t being addressed.” 

More importantly for me, this film really is about friendship. It’s about friendship between Eli and Kamilla.”


(22:15) “I’m an amalgamation of what I’ve seen and experienced through film.”


Do you want to delve into other areas?

(22:40) “Yeah. I don’t want to be defined by one thing – like as an actor, I’ve done roles that are all over the place. And I would just like to be a story-teller and have content just kind of filter through my lens, which happens to be Asian-American male. And just to go back to this (gook), this film, it was very important to me because I represented two very under-represented demographics which are Asian-American males, and African American females. 

(27:39) “You know, films from me, I feel need to be filtered through me and if I am really passionate about it, then I think it will resonate with audiences so those are the type of materials and stories I am looking for to make as a director.”

Look forward to following what director/star/’strange bird’ Justin Chon shares and presents. Have you seen gook?

gook is on Netflix in the US; on HMVOD in Hong Kong.

photo credits: George Ko, Giant Robot Media.

View of tearoom for Japanese Tea Ceremony | Where My Heart Leads

Finding One’s Way in Japanese Tea Ceremony

As an ‘outsider’ to Japanese culture, I notice a stark contrast between the practice of Japanese tea ceremony and how I am used to being “taught.” Growing up in Hong Kong and the US, I am used to being “directed”, “instructed” most of my life. So it was eye-opening to observe teaching through discovery.

Filling Tea Caddy to Prepare the Mind

Just like one would prep their mind grinding a stick of ink round and round on watered stone before Ink calligraphy – In Japanese tea ceremony practice, there is the filling of the tea caddy.

One recent morning, after sifting the matcha powder, I half moved the tea caddy towards our senior teacher and half gestured to ask if she might fill it/show me how to fill it. Nonchalantly, she said, “please, you fill it.”

As students, we are told not to fill the tea caddy unless given “permission” to. Perhaps because the tea powder historically has been a rare commodity/prized possession.

A bit fearful, because I didn’t feel I had “proper instructions” on how exactly to do it, I began.

To be honest though, I’ve seen it done many times. and have once closely observed how a senior, grandpa-figure does it. He was relaxed, and just filled it like a pro. Easy, simple, just fill the darn container. That’s it. Sometimes, perhaps we just blow things up and make it look a lot more important/complicated than it really is.

In filling the empty caddy, I adjusted along the way how big a scoop of tea I deposit, the system to which I deposit the powder – Do I go round and round and round? Or just pile on on top continuously on the pinnacle of the mountain? I managed to find my way to fill it up.

When done, I showed my senior teacher. She’s like an elegant little grandma. Now, she shows me how to adjust the tea powder in the caddy with a few quick runs through the powder to shape the beautiful, verdant “mountain” – not too sharp, a little round.

No intervention. Just allowing.

I later realized that my Japanese tea ceremony teacher was probably next to me the whole time keeping an eye on what I was doing. As I was totally immersed in the piling of matcha powder, I didn’t notice.

How different it was from the conventional ways of teaching. When ready, the teachers give the student the task, without giving you a demo or instruction first.

It is through that process of discovery/and trial where the student gets an unencumbered fresh experience of doing it the first time, without pre-conceived notions of how it has to be done.

So much of tea learning comes from observation.

Passing it onwards

Another teacher was arranging flowers another morning. A beautiful purple iris that shoots out of the water. She literally made the arrangement in seconds. Chop, Chop, the flowers are cut, inserted into the water and a ring was placed on it. Creative, expressive and simple.

I asked if she learnt flower arrangement from her mother who also practiced Chado (Tea ceremony). She said in fact she was never really taught per se, however, she has observed over the years how it was done. She then goes to explain a little about how the tallest stem would be arranged this way and there, that was my “lesson” that day on flower arrangement.

It’s like some of the best teachings are transmitted, not taught.

And the transmission possible when the student is there.

And learning by immersion, by experience.

My Learning

I find it difficult to hold back from “instructing” others and “intervening” at times. When I see classmates who might be newbies, I sometimes uninhibitedly jump in to “fix” or “point out” the way to do it. Here’s the Hong Kong side of me showing.

Whereas with my teachers, they rarely point things out out-right when the thing is not technically “wrong.” Once, being haphazard as I used to be, I picked up some candy with my fingers and arranged them on the platter to be served.

Later, one teacher did exactly the same thing – arrange sweets on a platter – however, she didn’t just grab with her fingers, but used chopsticks to arrange them nicely.

I felt that she had seen what I had done one tea sitting ago. And rather than stop me in the tracks, she modelled what could be done instead. That’s the subtlety and nuances of the tea practice. Always learning.

Some Japanese sweets arranged on a wooden platter set on tatami mat. It's probably spring as the sweets are of baby pink sakura and some sprouts coming out the earth. For Japanese Tea Ceremony.

The Sweets In Chado

The sweets are often seasonal and are arranged like a picture/imagery itself.

I’ve been following midori.muko’s Instagram for her photos of beautifully-arranged sweets and tea. (Credit: @midori.muko on Instagram)

Look beyond skin-deep

Are you more than skin-deep?

One morning in Tea Ceremony class, I found myself sitting in the main tea room with another student. I perked up my ears as I sensed something was going on back in the kitchenette area where we prepare the utensils, sweets, etc.

Soon enough, a middle-aged man looking a bit disheveled makes his way into the tea room, bows and says hello to our teacher.

He’s an honest-looking fellow who talks a tad too loud, and had hair sticking up like how little boys wake up for school forgetting to pat down their hair. But, he’s a middle-aged man.

This fellow came to pay our teacher a visit. It has been a while since he had seen her. He used to practice Tea ceremony as well. He brought a box of sweets with him and was polite.

While he and our teacher were conversing, because of the funny way he talked, I and the other student couldn’t help but giggle to ourselves. He didn’t seem to notice.

When the man left, our teacher remarked, not to us directly, but looking afar,

“He is very pure.”

Immediately, we wiped our faces clean of any remnant of a smirk or a giggle.

We got a slap on our hands without an actual slap. I realise that we judged the man from how he looked, not how he was as a person. And obviously judging people period was not the Way of tea, or the Way of Life for that matter. It’s become a great reminder for me to always look beyond skin-deep.

I’ve shared this story with the next generation – a young boy, a son of my friend’s. After telling him the story, I asked him what he thought. He said it sounded like one of those ‘God stories’ – which I think he meant it sounded like one of those stories with a moral he hears at church. (^v^)

Do you remind yourself to see what’s beneath the surface, or just the surface?