Roaming Around PoHo and Beyond

8 12 2012

Not far from the hectic crux of the business district, a short stroll away from the booze-fueled din of Lankwai, just down the road from the gastronomic paradise of SoHo, a small little neighbourhood is sprouting up.

It goes by the funky name of PoHo, and has been called the ‘Brooklyn of Hong Kong’.

Tucked above the main streets of Sheung Wan, the PoHo district – with Tai Ping Shan Street as its main artery and the surrounding lanes as offshoots – is, on most days, quietly quaint. You might perhaps chance upon a casual game of street basketball at Blake Garden, but otherwise it is all a hushed repose.

Not today.

With the inaugural PoHo Bazaar in full swing, the neighbourhood swarmed with visitors eager to befriend this funky newcomer. Shops threw open their doors, little stalls served a seemingly endless flow of drinks, hamburgers sizzled on an open grill and soon, a large crowd gathered to explore the nooks and crannies of PoHo.

Here’s a little visual nibble of PoHo – and beyond…

The colourful exteriors of Secret Ingredient, organisers of the PoHo Bazaar:

The colourful exteriors of Secret Ingredient, organisers of the PoHo Bazaar:

The PoHo party. And then the old man.

The PoHo party. And then the old man.

Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences : an Edwardian-style building.

Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences : an Edwardian-style building.

En route to Tai Ping Shan Street, the Island Christian Academy's exterior. Very reminiscent of HK's iconic Red White Blue bags!

En route to Tai Ping Shan Street, the Island Christian Academy’s exterior. Very reminiscent of HK’s iconic Red White Blue bags!

Right outside Secret Ingredient. A sizzling BBQ, comfy, drinks, a great atmosphere.

Right outside Secret Ingredient. A sizzling BBQ, comfy, drinks, a great atmosphere.

An elderly PoHo resident watching the party going on all around him!

An elderly PoHo resident watching the party going on all around him!

A shop in PoHo -- Rat's Cave.

A shop in PoHo — Rat’s Cave.

Floral jamming at Tallensia, anyone?

Floral jamming at Tallensia, anyone?

A Chinese store and an English sign - emblematic of the interweaving of cultures that so defines Hollywood Road.

A Chinese store and an English sign – emblematic of the interweaving of cultures that so defines Hollywood Road.

A locked, dilapidated gate...strangely adorned with umbrella handles and even the neck of a guitar!

A locked, dilapidated gate…strangely adorned with umbrella handles and even the neck of a guitar!

The newly opened Fungus Workshop - handcrafted leather galore!

The newly opened Fungus Workshop – handcrafted leather galore! Full disclosure: I am currently in a ‘handcrafted leather’ craze!

A beautiful building on Square Street.

A beautiful building on Square Street.

Beautiful fabrics for sale, just outside the Konzepp store.

Beautiful fabrics for sale, just outside the Konzepp store.

Yes, another one of those old doors, old post boxes photos.

Yes, another one of those old doors, old post boxes photos. Sorry, I couldn’t help it!

The old.

The old.


Lines – a little further down from PoHo, on Circular Pathway.


Lines. Red, green, brown.

Along the antique street, a shattered ceramic kitty.

Along the antique street, a shattered ceramic kitty.


Tuscany: Two Castles, One Revelation

8 08 2012

This is the second in a series of articles about my recent trip to Italy. Enjoy!

Views from atop Castello di Broli. With a vantage point like this, advancing enemies can be seen from miles and miles away.

It’s always a bit of a pleasant surprise when you find out that so-and-so shares mutual friends with you:

Oh, so you know him too!”

Oh my, how do you know her as well?”

...we’ve all had moments like these. That little spark of affinity when you realise that your paths have crossed with someone else’s; when you find out that your are not a lone island but rather one of many interweaving, intersecting tributaries; when you appreciate the fact that however vast the world may seem, we are not separated by as much distance as we may originally thought. This may seem to you like a timeworn fact, but to me, it made all the difference on my recent Tuscan Castle Tour.

We had two castles down on the list for that day’s tour: Montessori Castle, picked because there was a geocache there; and Castello di Broilio, chosen because it was ‘highly recommended’.

The ruins of Montegrossi castle.

The castles couldn’t have been more unlike. Montegrossi, an 11th century fortress, stood dilapidated, in ruins, overgrown with weeds. No signposts indicated its existence, and we only reached the ruins after climbing up an obscure footpath. Castello di Brolio, on the other hand, stood proud and majestic, immaculately maintained, a potent symbol of wealth, power and status. This was a fully functioning castle, with a chic osteria at its base, a winding dirt road lined with cypresses and conifers leading up to the gates, and a lovely garden to stroll through.  Nothing suggested any kind of connection between the two disparate castles. And yet, as I soon found out to my amazement, the two castles do in fact share a mutual history. In Facebook-speak, they share mutual friends.

Castello di Broli…and this is just one part of it!

It turns out that the Ricasoli family (owners of Castello di Brolio), when they first arrived in the region, had at first lived at Montegrossi Castle before moving in to di Brolio. Despite the two castles being entirely dissimilar, here was an unmistakable link drawing the two together. In Facebook-perspective, both castles shared a mutual friend in the Ricasoli family.

Inside the ruins of Montegrossi. The Ricasoli family had lived here when they first arrived in the region, before moving into Castello di Brolio.

It’s fascinating, really, how seemingly contrasting elements can actually have close links. It’s almost  like a spider web, or tangled tentacles of an octopus. You may start off on one lone spoke of the web, or one solitary tentacle of the octopus, thinking you have no connections with those around you. Yet as you dig a little deeper and probe a little further, connections start to appear one by one and before long, a whole cobweb of an intricate system has emerged. That’s when you realise that though you may be but a speck in this world, you are also latched on to a highly network – a network which, unless you explore relentlessly, you will never fully appreciate.

And that is my revelation from my little Tuscan Castle Tour.

Running, Walking & Getting Lost to Find Venice

22 07 2012

This is the first in a series of articles about my recent trip to Italy. Enjoy!

My favourite photo from Venice: Hierarchy?

Venice: supposedly the most romantic city in the world.

I’m not much of a romantic, but I can sure tell you another thing about Venice: it’s an absolute nightmare to navigate! Forget the tourist maps – they won’t help you much. You’ll spend so long squinting at those darned blindingly miniscule alley names that by the time you’ve figured out where you are, it’s probably time to go home. And those yellow street signs, forever pointing you to San Marco and the Rialto? Sometimes they work, but I’m convinced that more often than not, they’re conspiring against all of us tourists, pointing us around in endless circles, laughing at us while we wander around like headless chickens, hopelessly lost.

Ditch the map. Go for a run.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Venice. But to really get a taste of this lagoon city, I decided to ditch the map, un-bury my face from all guidebooks, and just go wherever my running shoes took me. After all, what is it really that we want to take from our travels? Memories, sure, but what are memories? The view of Venice from the lagoon, the tourist-filled Piazza San Marco, the gondolas and their oarsmen (which, perhaps a little harshly, AA Gill describe as “unsmiling…a cross between a pork butcher and a French mime”) – all these are fine memorable views, but also views that every other tourist will see, whether personally or on postcards. What I want to take from my travels are more than just memories of these mass-produced views. I want to make make these memories mine, to attach to the views my own emotions.

This is what I will remember.

I will remember the endless winding narrow alleyways and the ubiquitious presence of calm waters; I will remember the way one emerges from a claustrophobic alley, hemmed in by buildings on both sides, out into a majestic square, and likewise retreat from the buzz of San Marco into one of the many quiet streets. I will also remember the soothing sun rays at dawn and at dusk, caressing the brick walls and cobblestones with its slanting, casting walls a vivid red, leaving a slither of gold here and there.

Beware the tourist traps!  

There is also, of course, the less beautiful side of Venice: the hordes of tourists everywhere. It’s ironic that I should say this, because as a tourist myself I’m part of the very horde that I so despise. The main tourist traps are Venice at its worst: tacky restaurants with menu turistico‘s in seven different languages, displayed together with unflattering photos of their food taken with harsh and direct flash; store after store selling you I Love Venice baseball caps, t-shirts with cliched memes, ‘Not-Made-In-China’ masks and other crappy touristy paraphernalia.

Don’t just ‘do’ Venice. Make it yours.

How was I to go about touring Venice, avoiding the tourist traps and unearthing the city’s inner beauty? Ditch the maps, chuck out the guidebooks, avoid the crowds. In short, eschew the conventional Venetian tourist checklist for something more spontaneous, self-directed and self-created. I would walk wherever my walking shoes escorted me, run wherever my running shoes took me, and explore wherever the geocaches pointed me! I had my qualms about this at first; after all, how can you say you have ‘done’ Venice until all the big name, ‘must-see’ attractions have been ticked off? This was a little quandary in which I found myself, but I also quickly found reconciliation in thinking that this was the real way to journey, the real way to create lasting, personal, emotionally rich memories.

So, here are a few of my favourite photos from Venice, taken during my map-free runs and walks. You can also view them on my Flickr page here.

Also, some questions to consider – I would love to hear your responses!

Have you been to Venice? Some say that you either hate it or love it. What did you think of it?

What are your thoughts about travel? Why do we travel?  What is the purpose of travel?

Venetian Archways

A Narrow Lane in Venice

Peekaboo! Hide and Seek in Venice?

Made in Venice…not China!

A Venetian Street

View From A Hidden Street

Venice at Dusk

A Street Cleaner in Venice

Along the Venetian Shore

Piazza San Marco, Venice…early in the morning, without the tourists!

Ponte dell’ Accademia, Venice

If they can run, so can I.

25 04 2012

What an experience.

Eye-opening, hugely motivational and quite simply, amazing – such was the All China Junior Athletics Championships 2012. Now as I try to adjust back to study-leave life at school, my mind is not on my upcoming exams, but rather the track that I raced on, the elite runners whom I saw, the 11 minutes and 55 seconds that I ran.

My event was the 3000m steeplechase, and this was my second timer ever to run it. I had first run the steeplechase only a few weeks back, clocking a time of 12:12. Coming to the All China Junior Athletics Championships, my mindset had been to run my own race, against myself. Realistically, there was no way that I would be able to compete with the mainland Chinese athletes – they simply much more experience. My goal, therefore, was to break the 12 minute mark. And I did!

The Changzhou Olympic Sports Stadium. Pretty fancy.

My water hurdles were atrocious, my pacing fluctuated wildly (fastest lap was 87 seconds, slowest lap was 99.99), I was quite nearly lapped by the winner, and I finished 11th out of the 12 runners. Nevertheless I was thrilled with my result – I had slashed 17 seconds off my previous time and set a new Hong Kong Junior Record.

What was also very exciting was seeing the elite Chinese athletes in action. Prior to this race, mainland Chinese athletes to me had always just been an abstract blur in the distance – a standard too high to even consider trying to reach. Not any more. Actually seeing them run and racing together with them has eliminated that psychological barrier, and has served as a reminder that they too are young female Chinese runners like me.

And if they can run that fast, so can I.

That, I think, is what I’m taking away from this race. If those girls can run a 3000m steeplechase in 10:19, there’s nothing to stop me from doing the same. All I have to do is train hard and train smart. I’ve completed the challenge of representing HK and running my first ever national-level race. The next challenge now is running the steeplechase in 11:30…and who knows, maybe even 11:00!

Some of my fellow HK teammates, along with the super-cool Coach Paul.

Doing a bit of history revision in my hotel room.

A bit of exploring

In between training and racing, I went out exploring the streets of Changzhou. Armed with my iPhone (I had been too lazy to lug my DSLR to China), I finally gave iPhoneography a proper try. Here are some of my favourites shots.

Woof!! As I bent down to snap a photo of this little puppy, he flinched and barked at me!

This lady was just casually knitting on the street.

Who's da boss?

Mmm...street food. This was a kind of crepe/pancake, with an egg cracked over it and garnished with pickles, spring onions, parsley, gravy and a small fried cracker.

Close up of the crepe/pancake in the making.

Sesame oven baked puff pastries. Yum.

Tai O: Photographing the Venice of Hong Kong

26 03 2012

Tai O, the quaint little fishing village at the tip of Lantau Island, is often called the Venice of Hong Kong – and not without good reason. Although weekends bring hoards of tourists to the village, some careful poking around with a camera will reveal the rich character of the area.

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting…

13 03 2012

As part of Project Week, a yearly week-long excursion that forms part of our United World Colleges education, I led a trip up to the city of Dengfeng – home to the mighty Mt. Song and the world famous birthplace of kung fu, the Shaolin Temple – where we experienced a week of intensive kung fu training. Here are some photos to tell the tale of our kung fu endeavours…

Here you see kids at the Shaolin E-Po Wushu School. These students would be running around everywhere during recess, practicing their kicks and punches and just generally developing very good stamina and agility without realising it! It was amazing to see how disciplined they all were – at one point we saw a line of about 10 boys, all squatting down on and moving slowly across the school yard, carefully picking up dirt from between the floor tiles.

Our daily training schedule was quite similar to theirs, although the intensity of our sessions would probably pale in comparison. Here’s a taste of a day’s training:

At 5:30am every morning we would quickly warm up, then go out into the cold and run along the empty streets of Dengfeng. All along the way we would see other students running in perfect formation, chanting ‘1, 1, 1-2-1’ in immaculate unison while we fumbled along, each running at our own speeds. Then we would return to the training center for some stretching, kicks and agility exercise, finishing up at around 6:45am.

Our second training session would begin at 9:00am until 11:30am. Again we would warm up, jog around the mat, stretch, kick, do lots of jumps and spins, and move on to practicing our routine. Stretching is a big part of each session…as is the pain that comes along with it!

After a quick lunch and perhaps a stroll around town we begin our last training session of the day at 2:00pm till 4:30pm. This would be very similar to the 9:00am session and afterwards we would all stay behind, playing around with various jumps, flips and kicks. By 9pm most of us will be fast asleep in bed, ready to start at 5:30am the next morning all over again!

We arrived on Sunday and as there is no training, we visited the Shaolin Temple.For some of us it was the first time to see snow…

The excitement as some of us touch snow for the first time!

Up we go to visit the Dharma Cave, climbing up large concrete steps. The Mt. Song mountain range stretched before us, the Shaolin Temple slowly diminished in size below us, and the landscape became progressively more snowy. Hmm…very Zen like.

A nice warm up for the coming week of intensive training!

Bodhidharma supposedly meditated in this cave for nine years, facing a wall and not speaking for the entire time. Talk about being patient and profound!

Here you have Leila practicing a kung fu stance (pu bu) on a tree.

On the second last day of the trip, we visited the Song Yang Academy and also did a short hike up to the entrance of the Songshan National Park. Halfway up the hike there was a little house, where some villagers were burning offerings for their ancestors, while others huddled around cooking noodles for lunch. This lady gave me the glare as I tried to peep in through the doorway…She seems to be telling me, ‘Tourist, you shall not pass!’.

At the Songyang Academy, we all walked around a small pond three times. Folklore has it that doing so will get you top grades. Naturally, we all dropped our bags down and proceeded to circle the pond three times.

This is our instructor Coach Jia’s two year old son. We asked him whether he would have his son practice kung fu, and he told us that it would really be up to his son to decide whether he liked kung fu or not. It’s interesting to see a  liberal parenting mindset as this coming from our coach, who has been practicing kung fu for 20 years. A helpful reminder that not all Chinese parents are Tiger Mums or Eagle Dads!

From Hidden Beauties, a Reminder

2 01 2012

I read about an old journalism adage recently, that the best story is often the one staring you in the face. It’s been floating around in the back of my mind lately, and I think it can be extended to include Hong Kong’s beauties: its best aspects are often staring us right in the face.

Visiting Po Toi Island yesterday to wrap up 2011, it felt as if I had been transported far from Hong Kong and dropped on some exotic paradise of some sort. The South China Sea stretched relentlessly on before me, the rocky landscape was interspersed with fantastical rock structures, and everywhere I looked, there was a sense that this island had stories to tell.

As I walked towards the southern tip of this southern most island of Hong Kong on the last day of 2011, it occurred to me that there was something very ironic and paradoxical about it all. Here I was, counting the last hours of the year 2011, reflecting on and celebrating the happenings of the past 365 days. And yet right under my very feet was a cliff made of rocks millions of years old, and all around me there were rocks jutting out of the landscape, looking like a monk from this angle, a turtle from another. No one had moved them there – nature’s elements did, over a long, long time.

And so while I was there counting time in hours, surrounding me was a landscape created through an eternity. This, I think, was a reminder. When we counted down ten, nine, eight seven…what did those ten seconds really mean? Nothing, really, when put into perspective of the eternity of the surrounding world.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to wrap up 2011.

Counting time in hours while touching time in the form of millions of years...a reminder of our place in the world.