To meet Proust would have been delicious and the sight of John the Baptist incredible, and yet, in the end, I knew I could not really top the allure of Voltaire. In terms of a day spent, I just have to believe that Voltaire really had what it takes. I mean, he kept Madame du Châtelet happy for decades in her grand chateau, right?
We know at Cirey, the two lovers would spend their days absorbed in the respective studies. Working at opposite ends of the vast chateau, it is said they passed notes constantly during their days spent working apart; liveried butlers would deliver handwritten love-letters on silver platters whenever one of the lovers had something to say to the other. In the evenings, though, Madame and Voltaire would always come together to dine. Oh, can you imagine the sparkling conversations? Those dinners alone make him worthy of a wistful sigh.
I love Voltaire. And, like a favorite landscape, Candide is a book that I seem to return to again and again.
Some say Nowruz, or Persian New Year, is a holiday that goes back 2,500 years. Seems impossible, but everyone agrees it is one of the world's oldest celebrations-- a celebration which continues to be one of the most looked-forward to events in the Persian calendar.
Part of the festivities include a picnic-- hopefully with a fire. Persians love their picnics-- as this devotion to picnics can be seen across the vast expanse of what was once the Great Persian Empire. From Turkey, Afghanistan, Central Asia to Kashmir-- even in Tehrangeles, in the more elegant part of LA-- people picnic around the vernal equinox.
It is a civilized pastime, very much like cherry-blossom viewing-- a day to relax and dream of paradise-- enjoying both the company and spring itself-- the birds, the clouds, the sunshine, and more than anything the flowers.
And, why is it that everything tastes better outdoors?
I was indoctrinated into picnics long before I came to Japan (by a Persian best friend back home). It is a custom which I carried with me to Japan-- where, of course, it fit like a glove.
So, every year we would celebrate the vernal equinox by picnicking. And, in my heart, this will always be the real New Year.
Like clockwork, the ducks and egrets return to the Uzumagawa River and specks of green start sprouting in the lawn-- yes, the return of life and the start of a new year. I cannot help but start imagining all the picnics and flower-viewing-- and somehow everything seems so filled with possibility.
The Kid and I usually would start taking to the mountains just before the equinox to go "baby fern hunting." Called "zenmai" 薇 you know how they are like little coiled springs waiting till it gets to be just the right time to unfurl?
They are so cute and adorable. I read once that ferns used to cover prehistoric forests... so maybe they're very old like dinosaurs? Can you imagine wandering in never-ending forests of ferns as huge, prehistoric dinosaur birds soared in the skies above?
There is an expression used in haiku poetry composition around this time of year: "Mountains smiling in early spring" Borrowed like so many other things from China, the painter who coined this phrase, the Northern Song painter and Literati great, Guo Xi, is most famous for his work titled Early Spring. His poem about mountains smiling appeared in an poetry anthology in Japanese known as 漢詩集 「臥遊録」 (yes, that's right, the Han Anthology Dream Journey Jottings)
春山淡治而如笑 夏山蒼翠而如滴 秋山明浄而如粧 冬山惨淡而如眠
Mountains smiling in early spring was a theme much appreciated at court-- even during my beloved's times-- which came about 100 years after the painter wrote his legendary poem. Imagine after what must have felt like an almost unendingly long period of cold and depressing "mountains sleeping," the mountains in March would seem to almost "spring" to life again.
First, came the slow but sure return of green. Followed by a splash of color here and there: plum, robai, and finally sakura. And, so people would take to the hills....
This was also after all the best season for a love affair ---for of course, we all know everything is always dashed to hell by mid-Fall so it's better to get started early, right? :))
In China, people travel back to their hometowns around this time of year for qing ming to sweep the tombs of their ancestors and celebrate the return of spring-- very much like Japanese O-bon. There is also a custom of eating outdoors to celebrate spring.Some scholars see the Japanese cherry blossom-viewing custom having its roots in qing ming --as a day of family communion (between the living and the dead), picnics (celebrating spring) and purification. Ideally, one picnics on top of a hill and purified oneself in a river (to wash away in bad deeds or bad luck). There are probably poems about friends climbing hilltops （踏青）or maybe about picking mountain herbs (山菜摘み）...
It was this idea, of "stepping on blue" （踏青→ getting out and walking in nature）, along with the Japanese idea of the gods of the fields returning from their long slumber around this time of year that are most deeply connected to Japanese sensibilities surrounding cherry blossom viewing.
And, it's that time again.
Shalimar Garden; one of Srinagar's three famous "gardens of love," one the most memorable picnic I ever had in my life took place in the shade of one the garden's many chinar trees. Beautiful tulips were planted alongside the many fountains, and families sat in the pavilions as what seemed like an army of newleyweds strolled across the grass....Sultan's wife had prepared a true Persian picnic of pollo rice and yogurt, kebabs and tea served in glasses. Although nearly 20 years have passed since then, I will never forget it. Sultn's wife had brought the most beautiful tomatoes I have ever seen and we laughed and talked about the flowers and all the future children we would have.
To sit in the warm sunshine in a cool garden surrounded by the sounds of flowing water and laughing children truly is the perfect pastime for a spring day. I only wish I could go back in time and somehow insert my son right smack in the middle of the memory. Of course, he is war of rice with nuts and fruit in it and isn't crazy about tomatoes....Still, I think he could have really had fun in those fountains.
So, not only did the son of a bitch bring home a concubine with him from Troy, but he had killed with his own hands their beloved daughter Iphigenia.
Really, what else could she have done-- what else would any woman do-- but murder him that night when he was in the bathtub.
The Chorus, though, was not convinced. I mean, despite whatever marital issues they may have had, wasn't Agememnon--son of Atreus and brother of Menelaus-- a great and virtuous King? Had he not led the Greeks in their stunning victory over Troy?
How could she do it?
The chorus, demanded an answer.
And, so in a series of speeches, which would be the envy of any Washington speech writer, the queen lays out her case. Her husband-- the King-- has killed their beloved daughter. That he had brought a concubine home with him from Troy and that she and her lover were already happily ruling the Kingdom ensconced in the castle were reasons as well. But Clytemnestra-- make no doubt about it-- is clear about her reasons: he killed their daughter and for that he must die.
So, she sets him up.
In what is one of the most famous homecoming scenes in all history-- Clytemnestra gives her husband Agamemnon the "red carpet treatment."
Laying out the family's priceless textiles, she urges him:
"Walk across, my Lord."
He tells her he will not. For that is the kind of arrogance that Persian Kings show-- believing themselves to be as all-mighty as the gods.
"We are democrats," he responds.
And when she continues begging him to glide across the sea of blood-red tapestries, he retorts:
"These are heirlooms, how can we soil our family heirlooms?"
In the end, exhausted perhaps from the trip, he allows himself to be persuaded and across he walks-- to his death. For it was this final show of arrogance that will become the all-important piece of evidence that Clytemnestra will require to persuade the chorus of the need she had to get rid of him. For most Greeks would have agreed that an all-powerful monarch in the style seen in Persia was something to be avoided at all costs.
And, so we see that this theme developed by Herodotus was already to be found in Aeschylus-- just waiting for him and his retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae.
I am re-reading William Golding's famous essay on Thermopylae, "Hot Gates." It is such a wonderfully written essay, harkening back to better days in travel writing, better days in essay writing too (with some exceptions, of course, essay writing seems to have become an almost lost art). Truly and with thankfully not a trace of any personal journey of self-discovery anywhere in the essay (Eat, Love, Puke), Golding sets out to walk the ancient battleground. What was at one time only a narrow sliver of land-- pressed up against the cliffs, the edge dropped straight down into the sea. Thermopylae. Between cliffs and the sea, it was here that Leonidas made his legendary last stand.
It is so famous, I hesitate to attempt to even describe the armies-- the myriad of tribes and peoples comprising the Persian army alone went on for pages and pages in Herodotus. Here is Golding:
No man had ever seen anything like this army before. It was patently unstoppable. It came along the neck of the hills on the banks of the Asopus, from the heights of the mountain and along the coastal track from Alope and Phalara. Lengthening rivers of men—Persians in fish-scale armor, turbaned Cissians, bronze-clad Assyrians, trousered Scythians, Indian bowmen, Caspians, Sarangians in bright cloth and high-heeled boots—came down and spread in a flood that filled the plain. Soon there was nothing to see but rising clouds of white dust, pierced and speckled with the flicker of steel. If each of the seven thousand Greeks should kill his ten men, there would be more than enough to press forward—and this was only the vanguard.
The numbers alone are exhilarating-- the Persian army being said to have been comprised of a million men! Impossible, of course, but Herodotus' famous anecdote about the great Spartan warrior Dienekes is unforgettable:
Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and Thespians, yet bravest of all was declared the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, their arrows would block out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we will fight in the shade'
Truly one of the most exhilerating moments in history, when the Persians try and persuade them to lay down their weapons, Leonidas responds, "Come and get them." Not that he thought for a minute that his Spartans could overcome numbers like that. But, he knew, there were some things worth dying for.
Everytime I read it, it makes me breathless.
Golding's conclusion is rightly famous:
I came to myself in a great stillness, to find that I was standing by the little mound. This is the mound of Leonidas, with its dust and rank grass, its flowers and lizards, its stones, scruffy laurels and hot gusts of wind. I knew now that something real happened here. It is not just that the human spirit reacts directly and beyond all argument to a story of sacrifice and courage, as a wine glass must vibrate to the sound of a violin. It is also because, way back and at the hundredth remove, that company stood right in the line of history. A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.
What is worth fighting for?
Thermopylae-- this battle which the Greeks lost after all-- will always stand as something greatly symbolic. Indeed, it formed so many of our Western notions of bravery in the face of great obstacles-- of a few who gladly gave up their lives to take a stand for freedom and the law. And, maybe it is even to suggest that to not have something you would die for is perhaps one of the saddest fates a person can have (ie, Kierkegaard).
There is this great speech given by Leonidas to his men in Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire:
"Listen to me brothers. The Persian king is not a king as Kelomenes was to us or as I am to you now. He does not take his place with shield and spear amid the manslaughter, but looks on,safe, from a distance, atop a hill, upon a golden throne." Murmured jeers rose from the men's throats as Leonides spoke this. "His comrades are not Peers and Equals, free to speak their minds before him without fear, but slaves and chattel. Each man is not deemed an equal before God, but the King's property, counted no more than a goat or pig and driven into battle not by love of nation or liberty but by the lash of otehr slaves' whips."
For two thousand years, the West has held up freedom as personal liberty as the ultimate value to be prioritized. Never mind that Leonidas' own culture was itself based on slaves--some say some 50% of the Greek population was comprised of enslaved people. And, we see even in this speech above, the conflating of Democracy and Freedom with personal liberty (and negative freedoms).
It has been-- since the time of Herodotus-- presented as a great "clash" of values.
But what values were the Persians holding up as the Greatest Good? Well, the same values that we see being held up in many East Asian societies: Order, stability and collective Good. This is what the Persians were offering and their own ideas of freedom were inherently tied up with these values. I think we really can find this in Confucian philosophy-- this idea of "Freedom to" as opposed to "freedom from."
Melvyn Bragg had a great In Our Times show on Thermopylae in which he and his guests trace the rhetoric of Orientalism back to Herodotus' version of the battle. One of the guests describes ancient Greek culture as being unique in its holding up of dialogue and competition, and that it was this dialectical predeliction in Greek thought which would pave the way for theorizing and for philosophy. In her explanation, she describes two lawyers arguing or philosophers debating; Clytemnestra persuaing the chorus... and that out of this acceptance-- indeed it was a preference-- for the dialectical that true theory and true philosophy came into being.
The narrative surrounding Theropylae is also constructed in this dialectical framework. And, without a doubt I think we can see that it has laid the foundation for certain ideological constructs that continue to influence the way the West views other cultures. From Theropylae to the Ottoman Empire to China. This was what was so interesting about the great emotion surrounding Daniel Bell's work about China, for example. Nothing he said was so shocking from a Japanese point of view. That is because, perhaps, Japan, like China and maybe like the Persia under Xerxes prioritizes values differently. Freedom is certainly not defined in the same terms. Neither is "philosophy"... And so, like with so much else, everything comes down to translation and interpretation. And one's comfort zones.
And, this Battle, which has been re-told for generations upon generations in the West, hardly even showed up as a blip in Persian history.
Picnics and dolls-- what's not to love about this time of year? In Japan, the Third Month is traditionally known as Yayoi. And, while there are various explanations for the origins of each of the traditional names month names; for the third month, it is pretty unanimously agreed upon that yayoi means, "at last!" いよいよ!!
Yayoi: "At last, the grasses and trees are beginning to grow!" 木草弥生月
Of course, everything got messed up with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, so in Japan-- unlike in China-- all the events are off by a month. But, anyway, it's not that hard to imagine yourself on a picnic, eating princess cake under a big blossoming peach tree, right?
March 3rd (by the Gregorian Calendar) is Girl's Day--my favorite holiday of all. And in addition to dolls put out in people's homes, in Tochigi, little girls will go out dressed up in kimono and float paper dolls in paper boats down the river. Nagashi-bina (floating away dolls here and here)
In ancient China, any date with a double-number, such as the Third day of the Third month (3/3), was considered to be highly auspicious. All the "double" days are marked in China as days of festivies and celebration. In Japan, for some reason, this custom was only taken on the odd numbered months (except Nov), so we have Jan 1 (1/1 new year); March 3 (3/3 Girls Day); May 5 (5/5 Boys Day); July 7 (7/7 Star Festival); and Sept 9 (9/9 Chrysanthemum Festival).
With the notable exception of the equinox holidays-- there are very few holidays in Japan that follow the ancient lunar-solar calendar-- since Japan wholeheartedly adopted the Western Gregorian calendar during the Meiji period. Even New Year is now according to the Gregorian calendar in Japan. However, according to the ancient Chinese solar-lunar calendar, March 3 actually should fall sometime in early April-- which is when the peach blossoms actually blossom (nowadays flower companies grow special peach trees which blossom a full month early in March to coincide with the holiday). Early April, when the holiday originally fell, is a time when the seasons change (from cold days to warmer days). Seasonal transition times are known as kisetsu no kawari me (or "seasonal turnings of the year") and there were special days, known as sechi nichi (節日) in ancient Japan, to mark these seasonal transitions. At Court and among the aristocracy special banquets (with special nourishing foods to guard against sickness) and rituals (to guard against evil) were held as ancient people believed that the body was vulnerable to sickness and bad luck during these periods.
Like almost everything of the Heian Court, the customs surrounding the Third Day of the Third Month had their roots in China; actually, in one of China's most important holidays, the Qing Ming Festival (清明節) or the Clear and Bright Festival. Occurring in China following the lunisolar calendar, the Qing Ming Festival falls sometime in early April and marks one of the 24 solar terms (節気) that divide the ancient calendar. Qingming is the 5th solar term and marks the time when the Sun reaches the celestial longitude of 15 degrees until 30 degrees.
The Chinese Festival is a day of purification when Chinese people travel back to their hometowns to sweep the tombs of their ancestors and celebrate the return of spring-- very much like Japanese O-bon. There is also a custom of eating outdoors to celebrate spring and some people also see the Japanese cherry blossom-viewing custom having its roots in Qing Ming as well. I think it would be safe to say that many of the Japanese customs of Spring have their origins in Qing Ming, and in China it continues down to today to be a day of family communion (between the living and the dead), picnics (celebrating spring) and purification. Ideally, one picnics on top of a hill and purified oneself in a river (to wash away in bad deeds or bad luck).
And so this at last brings me to the star of the story: Master Wang and his gathering at Orchid Pavilion.
The gathering-- you won't be surprised to hear-- also took place on March 3. And it was this event that was probably the real start of the doll festival in Japan.
Even during his lifetime he was considered to be God's gift to calligraphy--certainly with Orchid Pavilion the legend of Wang Xizhi would forever after be firmly established. The year was 352 and Master Wang invited 42 literary figures of the day (his friends) to gather along a gently flowing stream and played what came to become the ultimate literati drinking game. Small cups made out of lotus leaves filled with wine were floated downstream, and the scholars, sitting spread out along the banks of the stream, were to compose poems on a set theme. If the floating cup of wine reached a scholar before he was able to complete his poem, then his task was to down the cup of wine. By the end of the day, the scholars had composed 37 poems, and Wang Xizhi, in a burst of energy, took up his brush and transcribed all the poems in his famed running script style of calligraphy, adding the famous preface for good measure. Inspired by the moment (not to mention the wine), Wang was unable to reproduce his mastery the following day when he sat down to try and re-write his work-- for he had discovered that it was already perfection.
The legend of this event was to have its effect on the Heian Court of Japan over 500 years after it originally took place. As early as the Nara period (710-794), in fact, formal Japanese gardens had something called Kyokusui 曲水- meaning a "meandering stream" as part of their design. This echoes the Chinese, Korean, and early Japanese tradition of a "stream banquet" (kyokusui no en) during which guests attempted to come up with an original poem before cups of wine, set floating upstream, arrived at their position along the riverbank. During the Heian period, these stream banquets were officially held on March 3. Over the following stretch of time, paper dolls replaced wine cups, and prayers replaced poems as this ancient Chinese custom was transformed into Japan's hina-nagashi custom, which in turn was transformed (during the Edo period ) into the doll festival .
And there you have it. My favorite story on my favorite day of the year.
Cities are smells, said the great Mahmoud Darwish:
Acre is the smell of iodine and spices. Haifa is the smell of pine and wrinkled sheets. Moscow is the smell of vodka on ice. Cairo is the smell of mango and ginger. Beirut is the smell of the sun, sea, smoke, and lemons. Paris is the smell of fresh bread, cheese, and derivations of enchantment. Damascus is the smell of jasmine and dried fruit. Tunis is the smell of night musk and salt. Rabat is the smell of henna, incense, and honey....
Asher J Kohn imagined his city, he said, "out of the realization that the law had no response to drone warfare.” And so he came up with his concept of Shura City, ostensibly in the hope that by rendering drones less efficient for "apprehending" targets, we would be forced to return to utilizing police and the law.
It is a take on a "gated community" --and yet the gates are not to keep people out, but rather to render all the people living within its walls unidentifiable and anonymous. So in the same way that a medieval castle fortress was an architectural defence against 15th and 16th century artillery technology, so too does Shura City seek to use architecture as a defence.
This new-style defence, though, "is not defense-through-hardening, but defense-through-confusion."
His architctural plan has several features--all which are seen to enable this style of "defence-through-confusion." People dwell in Habitat '67-style stacked dwellings, which make mapping and the tracking of residents' movements difficult. There is a protective shared-roof covering to the community, which further protects against aerial tracking. The apartment-style dwellings make use of smart windows, which utilize technology to render the glass easy to see out but prevent peering in. Focusing on windows, which are, after all, one of the weak links in security against drones, he envisions something like the exquisitely intricate windows at the L’Institut du Monde Arabe, in Paris:
Patterned after amashrabiya, a feature of Arabic architecture that protects from glare and prying eyes. In Paris, the machines dilate and contract, forming new patterns and shut-ting down for closed exhibits. These are obviously good for keeping what’s inside from being known outside.
An alternative to patterned windows is changing color glass, which would also serve to allow light in while preventing easy identification or tracking of the residents from above. The windows in effect are contributing to bringing peopk out of a siege mentality. We read every so often of how it feels to be on the ground in pakistan and Yemen, where the drones seem ever present. Th psychological effects are profound, and Kohn's imaginary city is designed to undermine the rationale of the technology.
Would it work?
All-in-all, Kohn's "drone-proof" city is reminiscent of Foster's famous project in the desert of Abu Dhabi. Also designed from scratch and planned to be the world's first zero-carbon city, Masdar City employs many of the same architectural elements of Shura. However, in Masdar's case, these similar architectual elements are not planned for reasons of aerial defence but rather for ecological reasons.
Kohn's project just a proposal. Or a dazzling provocation. And, while it is bare-bones, still there are two things that I think could immediately be said about the implications of "defence-as-confusion."
First, it brings us back to a state where we are living with our fates tied together. Like in the ancient Chinese han (班) system, because an attacker would be forced to destroy the entire compound rather than only the militants, we would truly have to become our brother's keeper. This might be anathema to Libertarians and yet to those interested in getting back to more communitarian values, it is of interest--as it would theoretically encourage stronger communities. Whether for security or for ecology, it seems like we are just going to have to go back to a more community-oriented lifestyle.
Second, experts tell us (and indeed it is a no-brainer) that the arms race for this kind of cheap and low level technology will be such that it's only a matter of time before "everyone has drones." If this is the "next arms race," it will be a very different one fro the nuclear club --which so far has required governmental level initiation. Drones are a different kettle of fish; for in the words of the Brookings Institution expert Peter Singer:
This is a robotics revolution, but it's not just an American revolution -- everyone's involved, from Hezbollah to paparazzi.
It is, therefore, simply inevitable that we will have to alter the way we live, I think. Not just in terms of architecture but in terms of community and communal responsibility. If not for defence against drones, then for ecological reasons for sure.
I can't help but think of Rene Girard's words that, History is a test. And Mankind is failing it.
Arriving at Daniel's hotel room, I knocked on the door. He
immediately opened the door and there I was speechless, for he had in his hands
this gigantic piece of amber. Behind him, the curtains were open and a strong
shaft of light was hitting the amber just right too, for it was glowing.
Silently I noticed that in the middle of the honey colored, glimmering chunk of
amber was a million year old red bug.
What could this mean, I wondered? (Even in my dream it was
all so unexpected).
He said that he wanted to get his coat and as he put it on,
I noticed that his briefcase was also full of amber. And like happens in
dreams, the golden honey color just infused the entire room with color and warm
"But I thought you were here to talk about China?"
"No," I am here to talk about my new theory."
I waited for him to tell me what (knowing it must have
something to do with that piece of amber in his hands).
"The Three Kings from the East, the Magi, they didn't
bring frankiscence, myrrh and gold. What they brought with them on their long
trek to the King was frankiscence, myrrh and amber."
My dream was so unforgettable in its sensuality-- the warmth of the color of amber. Even in our drams, our senses being the old fashioned way we know the world, they embed us in time and place. Creating meaning, they sustain our souls.
Proust, I am sure was right when he concluded that an hour is not merely an hour but rather is "a vase filled with perfumes, sounds, places and climates! . . . So we hold within us a treasure of impressions, clustered in small knots, each with a flavor of its own, formed from our own experiences, that become certain moments of our past."
Not all that long ago, he told me about the time he had fallen in love in Hong Kong; described reading novels together with his lover in bed; and about feeding each other mango pudding with a red lacquer spoon. When they could, he said, they would steal away to his room where they would spend afternoons making love after swimming. Then happily talking and long dinners.
To say that his story drew me in would only be an under-statement. For you will agree Dear Readers, that it is rare today to hear stories of a love affair. I mean, we hear all manner of complaints and about filing suit; we hear reports of all kinds-- relationship reports, the usual cost-benefit analysis reports; what I did over the weekend reports. But how often do people really talk about the delights of a love affair?
To speak of delight....
And, to listen in delight...it was like falling into a bd of rose petals-- and I could taste the mango pudding on my tongue.
I too fell in love in Hong Kong. In my case, though, it was Hong Kong itself that I fell in love with. And, it was for me, love at first sight.
Sitting in the back of a taxi from the airport, we headed toward Wanchai. It was back in the late 90s. The bridges and the water reminded me of San Francisco, but only even more beautiful. And the way the light was filtered through mist reminded me of the small misty valley where I grew up in LA. Mountains and water-- and sunlight veiled softly in mist. That was before I saw the harbor. When I got my first glimpse of that-- well, that was it. This was it.
Isn't true love not always like this, though?
Barthes describes this perception of perfection (of the Beloved) using the word "adorable!" The object of one's desire is loved in their entirety-- a state which no word can describe. And yet... for want of a better word, the philosopher calls this adorable! I call it perfection, which is only to say, I love you because I love you.
Perfection somehow fits perfectly in your hands. It is something you long to touch the moment your eyes rest upon it. And no matter how many times you see it, you always seem to find something new about it; something else to fall in love with. It never ceases to delight you, in fact.
In Wanchai-- it was the traffic; drinking tea in Times Square; the Metro; the trams; the unending crowds of people. I loved to see them switch the blinding lights on at night over at the race track.
And, in Happy Valley sometimes, waking up i the mornings there, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. In the mornings, if ever there was a break in the traffic or the jackhammers, I would always hear the sweetest sounds of birds singing (escaped songbirds someone told me living in the trees)... there was the fresh food market and the flower sellers just like in Japan-- but better.
For me, though, Mui Wo was perhaps as close to perfection as it gets. The food (don't you hate people who can't talk about food?) the Bay; hiking up to the temple for lunch. Adonis loved it there and the little piggy toddled his way from dimsum restaurant to seafood place. We spent hours on the beach playing. For him, the trams, the subway, the train out to that famous pigeon restaurant up on the hill by China University, the Peak Walk, the star ferry, hovercraft to Macao....it was all his vision of perfection just like it was mine.
People often seem surprised when they hear about my feelings for Hong Kong. Several of the Readers of these Pages, in fact, have written to ask me, Why Hong Kong?
Even my tea teacher was surprised.
We were in her garden. It was May and the peonies were in bloom. Her famous, famous peonies. Brilliant magenta (in Japanese 牡丹色 peony color), each flower was larger than a small child's perfectly shaped little head. She had me holding the bamboo basket as she knelt down in an azure kimono to snip just one flower for the tokonoma.
"Yes, Hong Kong."
"But, it's all about money, isn't it? And Peony, you love art and music. Culture. What could you possibly see in Hong Kong?"
I had never thouht of it before. (Does anyone ever think of reasons why they are in love?) And so I just said, "Well, opposites attract, I suppose."
The other day, though, I realized something else about the city. Isn't Hong Kong, after all, the silk road city par excellance? A vibrant trade city-- just prior to the Handover, they said it had one of the freest economies on earth.
It's a funny thing about Hong Kong. Yes, like Japan, people are very brand-oriented. They like to show off-- fancy cars or designer clothes-- Hong Kong's infamous tai tais in head-to-toe Prada and Chanel. Vacationing in Japan. One could never keep track of the fashionable bar of the week. Hip restaurant of the month. And yet, I would not say that Hong Kong is about spending money. Nope. To me, Hong Kong was always about making money. Trade. Free trade. Trade without ideology. I also heard that a huge portion of the world's exports passed through its harbor.
Up the escalator in mid-levels, there is a beautiful synagogue. One of the oldest and most thriving Jewish communities in Asia was a part of Hong Kong's history. The Sassoons and the Kadoories-- you know. It is the stuff of fortune-amassing legend.
Vibrant neighborhoods which for the most part are mutually-tolerant--African, Indian, Expat ("We've been here 25 years and still don't know how to say goodbye in Cantonese...." they said on their last day before heading Home). Chungking mansions, Discovery Bay-- need I say more?
Old World cosmopolitanism that is never a melting pot so much as a huge bazaar with two-way trade serving as the main conduit between people. Like Leh, like Venice, like Ithaka,- Hong Kong too stands a city of dreams--positioned smack in the middle of pilgrims paths and trade routes that first crisscrossed mountains and then crossed oceans.