A break from the elections, an Armistice day series, a summer trip: The funs of history

As the title says, I know that we’re all worried about the future but there’s nothing much we can do about it right now. Instead let’s all take a break and read about a trip I took during summer to several historic sites in Hong Kong. Hey, anything’s better than the end of the world. Also it’s Armistice day soon, so a bit of history to remember the dead never hurts (not us anyway).

Introductory note:
I had originally intended to write and post this several months ago but I was lazy and procrastinated. It outlines a trip that I made just a few days before leaving HK again, this time to New Orleans where I currently am studying for a year. In some ridiculous mix of patriotism and boredom I visited several historic sites that took me far too long to get to. Although I’ve still written/finished this as though recent, note that my actual trip was in early August. Also because of how ridiculously long it was, I’m splitting it into two halves. The first half covers the two smaller areas: Causeway Bay and Aberdeen whilst the second half covers Stanley which was far more interesting.

Stupidly long trip: Causeway bay – Aberdeen – Stanley

It was a stupidly convoluted trip that would take me round the whole of Hong Kong Island. I had toyed with the idea for several weeks but I was busy and also lazy. There were three places that I wanted to go to: Stanley I had wanted to visit again I went last summer and bought an incensed fan. It broke but it still smelled wonderful so I wanted another. Aberdeen, I wanted to visit for its historic significance in the naming of Hong Kong. Causeway Bay, where I basically spent all summer, has the famous noon-day gun which I never had the chance to see despite being nearby. With only a few days left and finally no more rehearsals at the Academy of Performing Arts, I decided to just do everything in a single day.

Part 1: Causeway Bay: The legend of the BOOM day gun.

Causeway Bay was my first stop. I had spent the majority of my holiday nearby at the Academy of Performing Arts on a production of ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’. Last Christmas I had read about the famous noon-day gun, still fired everyday (though without bullets anymore) in ceremonial fashion. I had planned to visit it earlier but my only free afternoon I spent at the US embassy, a trip which took far too long. Causeway Bay was also a good starting point because from there I could visit both Stanley and Aberdeen on a single bus ride.

The story of the gun goes back to the 1860s when a powerful Hong Kong company, the Jardine-Matheson cooperation, used to fire a cannon in salute of ships when they left port. One day a British naval officer arrived in Hong Kong and unaware of the tradition saw it as an insult as cannon salutes were reserved only for commanders. In punishment the officer commanded the company to fire the gun every day for forever and ever. The gun has actually been fired every day except for during Japanese occupation in World War II and even gained notoriety through Nöel Coward’s song ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. This isn’t the same gun, if I’m right the original was lost in the war. The gun that was mounted after that was removed for being too loud and is now at Sai Wan Ho Marine Police HQ. At some point a third gun was involved (they traded guns many times) and that gun is now mounted at the Former Marine HQ, aka: 1881 Heritage Hotel.

William Jardine and James Matheson, the company founders. Jardine House in Hong Kong (defacto HQ) has been rebuilt several times but Jardine Matheson Building in Shanghai still stands.

I showed up at the gun around 11:40 with a crowd of 100% tourists except for myself, a couple of Americans and a few mainlanders. It is not easy to get to the gun, you have to walk through the carpark of the World Trade Center (WTC) next to the Excelsior Hotel and then up an old stairwell. I believe you can also walk into the area from Gloucester Road but that’s no fun. It’s interesting to note that both buildings used to be owned by the Jardines as did the land they stand on, however in 2006 the Jardines sold the WTC to Sun Hung Kai Properties.

The gun itself sits on a platform in a small square that also houses several disused cannons, a bell and a few plaques. The square is locked at all times except for half an hour after firing, presumably so we don’t accidentally start a civil war with it (it is a very functional, very dangerous machine).

Keep out at risk of war

The Jardine gunmen came out of their office soon after I arrived, unlocked the gate, walked through the gate and locked the gate back up. We watched in excitement as they walked under a pagoda to cover from the rain and chatted with each other for 10 minutes. It was a very exciting 10 minutes. Approaching noon at around 11:50, one of the gunmen loaded the gun preparing it for firing. Then at 11:59 the ceremony started, in complete honesty I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a ceremony but a bit of pomp and circumstance never hurt anybody. The gunman began a short march to the bell and rang it signaling noon, turning he marched up the platform, saluted and pulled the chain.

The gun prepares


Obviously we all knew it was going to go boom, it’s a bloody gun but it was far louder than expected.

The gunman told me that they don’t actually fire bullets (I thought they loaded the gun) but only put blanks in. In antiquity the gun would have been used for salutes and time checks but those days are long gone. Everyone knows when lunch is. I for one know every minute for the 1.5 hours leading up to lunch. The ceremony is now a living tradition with very little purpose and for being that I love it.

And now as a direct advertisement for my instagram:

Part 2 – Aberdeen: Named after Scotland, as empty as Scotland

The great colonial tradition of naming things other names

After such an exciting boom I went for lunch and decided to visit Aberdeen. I put no pictures from Aberdeen on Instagram because it was 6x more boring than I expected. Aberdeen is one of the southern ports on the Island, in Cantonese it is known as 香港仔 (heung gong tsai) or ‘Little Hong Kong’. Hong Kong, as many will already know, means fragrant harbour, the name came about because incense wood was felled and shipped from Aberdeen to Imperial China making it a great smelling port. When Westerners first landed on the Island they asked for the name of the place and got told Hong Kong. The whole island was since then called Hong Kong Island and from 1841, British Hong Kong. As colonial territory expanded the name was carried over for the whole British owned area of South China, first southern Kowloon in 1860 and then in 1898….everything else. The whole territory become known simply as British Hong Kong. The name Aberdeen was named after George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, or simply Lord Aberdeen who was British Prime Minster during the annexation of Hong Kong Island. An alternative theory offered on one of the signs on the promenade said that Hong Kong Tsai harbour looked similar to Aberdeen Harbour and was named for such although I personally fail to see the resemblance.

Except perhaps definitely not wanting to go in the water


With such historic significance I expected to have a nice time there. Turns out Aberdeen became industrial a long time ago and is now just an office/residential district much like Causeway Bay and Wanchai. The geography of the area is interesting though considering that everything is on a very steep slope and that much of the immediate area can only be reached by crossing water (locals get a cheaper ride, tourists get ripped off). The Hong Kong government is trying very hard to improve tourism to Aberdeen which is currently only known for the Jumbo floating restaurant – famously expensive. I have been told that there’s a similar floating thing in Sha Tin that is much more accessibly – soon there will be two MTR stations in the area which will make visiting much easier.

The proposed line which will include a station in Aberdeen Proper and then two stations (South Horizons and Lei Tung) on nearby Ap Lei Chau, currently only reachable by Sampan ferry or on the highway.

I did end up finding a hidden gem on the hillside though – Old Aberdeen Police Station built in 1891 to manage the surrounding areas, it is a medium sized red brick structure literally hidden amongst the trees. It is currently used as ‘The Warehouse’ a member’s only clubhouse which offers classes and opportunities to teenagers, although from how abandoned it looks, much better as a zombie uprising hideout. The membership prices are low in order to accommodate those less fortunate. I tried very hard to find a way into the building since all the gates were locked, I finally walked up to the carpark and found that…there was no one there. One room had lights on, everything else was dead. The reception was dead, the café was dead, it was all dead. Having said that, I was technically trespassing so I didn’t linger too long but I hope that it was simply not being used due to nearby refurbishment.

Is anyone home?


I guess I’ll let myself in then
Probably a Block B? Some sort of residential block at one point? It’s not a very big station.

Nearby on the main road there also still exists an old Hong Kong electric substation. A humble colonial structure still performing its original purpose. Quite rare nowadays.

Unmoved, forgotten but still serving its purpose. Still only with an English name. Out of place but at home.


that was the whole of Aberdeen. Hours spent walking till my shirts were see through only to find an abandoned police station. Ok, that’s not entirely true, there was also….a nice looking school…and a tourist sign post that told me to take a bus somewhere else for more historic sites. It might not have seemed like it when Britain first named the area Aberdeen but considering its current interests, it sure lives up to its name.

Aberdeen Technical School. How technical? I don’t know.
It’s definitely got a fancy gate, I’ll give you that

And soon when I get around to it, I’ll post the rest of my trip which culminates at a graveyard. Fitting as a late Armistice memorial and as a foreshadow for democracy!


Birmingham: Maybe you SHOULD visit

Date: 25th March 2016
Good Friday

It’s 8am and I’m late.
I get to New Street Station by 8:15 and help finish setting up the banner and putting out the props.
We didn’t have props last time but we do now, it helps draw people in.

It was my second day volunteering with the Birmingham Museums Trust.
We were tasked with the slightly ridiculous but surprisingly useful task of walking round Birmingham’s largest train station in historic outfits handing out fliers and enticing people with artifacts/science experiments. One of my fellow volunteers called them victims. Probably a bit of a harsh way to put it, the kids seemed to enjoy the experiments and the parents were grateful that they didn’t have to stand around for half an hour waiting for the train with nothing to do.

The highlight of the day was when I bumped into a good friend of mine who said her family was visiting but she had no idea where to bring them.

This is not an isolated issue.

Had we been London, Manchester, Edinburgh the answer would be easy. The iconic sights: Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, British Museum, not the British Library because as I found out a few months ago – it’s not much of a library. But Birmingham? Well….we’ve got the Bullring….that’s exciting right? Not when your family is from Singapore with links in Hong Kong it’s not, the Bullring is tiny compared to South East Asian malls.

The face of excitement.

What then to do?

Birmingham, unlike London and other historical cities, does not have much of the aged splendor and seems at first glance to be, frankly speaking, a bit of a (insert expletive). For many years New Street Station was ranked most unsightly station in the country: the hulking brutalist chunk of concrete let no sunlight in and was topped with even more hulking chunks of concrete. Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction is also famous for being unsightly even though it provides great mobility across the midlands. Youtubers such as Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation (one of my favorite critics, highly recommended but not with children) and the School of Life have made fun of Birmingham with the latter using it as an example of a bad city that no one wants to go to – “No one’s ever willing taken a holiday to Frankfurt-am-main or Birmingham”.

Seems a bit mean for the UK’s second city which has the busiest train station outside of London (statistically flanked in both directions by London which means every single other city has to step up a bit).

They can’t be blamed though because as I found out, although the BMT own and manage nine (yes, NINE) museums across the city, no one seems to know. Our sites range from the Museums and Art Gallery in the City Center, famous for our collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings; to the Thinktank Science Museum which has just gotten a BRAND NEW DINOSAUR (and the world’s first steam engine but seriously…a new full sized fossil); to Aston Hall a Jacobean Mansion; to Soho House, the childhood house of Matthew Boulton and more.

Also at the Thinktank:  Dinosaur Poo.
Birmingham’s story is in many ways, one of being an outsider. George Cadbury set up his factory in Birmingham because he was a Quaker and could not work in any major city. It has also in many ways been a story of industrialization: Birmingham has always been a market town even in its earliest days as a Warwickshire village. By the 1800s Birmingham had acquired the nickname “City of a Thousand Trades” because every industry you could think of was thriving in the small town. In 1889 Birmingham’s status finally became that of a city.  In the 20th Century Birmingham became one of the world’s leading manufacturers, the legacy can still be seen in the city with places like the ‘Jewelry Quarter’ and ‘Gun Quarter’ being named for their industries. Unfortunately, as industry became increasingly outsourced to cheaper markets, Birmingham’s factories closed down. The legacy of the closing down can also still be seen in places like Digbeth and Aston which are absolutely packed with unused, crumbling, once thriving factory buildings.

Birmingham’s history might not be at the forefront like it is in London but we didn’t become the second city out of thin air. Many of Birmingham’s has housed some of Britain’s post important people: James Watt, inventor of the first steam engine along with Matthew Boulton; J.R.R Tolkien, author of the Lord of The Rings trilogy spent much of his childhood in Edgbaston; and of course George Cadbury, whose name is now synonymous with chocolate, founded his factory in Bournville and created a town around it. There is as much history and culture here as any other city, you just have to look.

Also also at the museums: A 1910 Cadbury box with three queens on it.


If you want even more of the story, come visit the museums. We have open days.
The Museum and Art Gallery is always free.
Open all day every day, no exceptions (except exceptions).

And other things.


Historical accuracy note: Many of these places weren’t actually within Birmingham boundaries at the time. Cadbury set up his factory in what was still Worcestershire, Watt and Boulton worked in Smethwick and Birmingham up until 1974 was formally part of Warwickshire, not as the center of the West Midlands.
But give me a break, this is a much better story.

Also note: We have currently stopped advertising at New Street Station. I did mean to write this weeks ago as a plug for that but I didn’t end up finishing it for several reasons the biggest one being procrastination and a smaller one being my file got lost. Much apologizing if any staff from BMT are reading this….

For more information that I did actually check before writing this post see:

Historical maps, surveys and summaries from the City Council



and for even more information visit:


On there you can find links to all the BMT’s sites. All 9 of them.

And the following were referenced:
School of Life: How to Build an Attractive City

Zero Punctuation, Escapist Magazine
Specific video could not be found, it was a passing reference to the confusing thing that is the spaghetti junction

New Street as UK’s worst station:


Queen’s Pier revives! All praise.


Queen’s Pier in 2003
via: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/21603857

Good news. Breaking news. All the news!
After nine long years the Hong Kong government finally has plans to rebuild Queen’s Pier.

According to SCMP and the HKFP (both articles are linked to at the bottom of this article if you wish to peruse them), the pier will be rebuilt as part of the current Central Pier complex and will be sandwiched by piers 9 and 10, the two public piers. There seems to be no information as to whether Queen’s Pier will be open for use or whether it will be only be aesthetic.

Ah. That’s a good word. A big one too.

The pier that will be rebuilt is a modern utilitarian structure that is but 50 years old, it is not the aesthetic, nor the age, nor even the convenience that made the government keep it in storage for what will soon be a decade. The building is important because of its historical and cultural importance.

The place where Queen’s Pier once stood is part of a group of historically important structures which included the Edinburgh place Ferry Pier, City Hall and a within a few minutes down the road, the old Supreme court. The Antiques and Monuments board said that the historic and architectural value of Queen’s Pier had to be addressed on the grounds that it was part of an assemblage of government buildings most built in similar post-modern styles, by itself it did not possess too much. The pier itself prior to the handover of 1997 was used mainly as a ceremonial pier for visiting British dignitaries which included Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, HRH The Prince of Wales and every governor since the 50s. Arriving governors would land at Queen’s Pier, inspect the guard of honour then take their oath in City Hall. The Antiques and Monuments board also noted that the pier had great social/collective memory since it was used as the backdrop to many local films and was also used as a public pier and social meeting spot when nothing important was happening.

Princess Alexandra and Lord Snowden in Hong Kong during their East Asia Tour, 1966
via: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-E9u2WxDrlg/hqdefault.jpg

It should be said now that there has always been a pier at or around the site for ceremonial purposes. Originally there was a small wooden structure which was replaced in the 1920s with the first proper pier known as Statue Pier, later renamed Queen’s Pier in honour of Queen Victoria (though, as is often the case with Queen Victoria, Victoria was already dead). This pier was a lot more imposing than the to-be-rebuilt pier, it had the same triangular top but also a stone archway decorated with all the etchings, carvings and general stonemasonry you would expect from historic British structures. This pier was decommissioned and demolished in the 50s. As one pier went down, another pier, 1950’s Queen’s Pier, went up.

queen's peir 1920

1920s Queen’s Pier. Note the podium for Queen Victoria’s statue in the foreground.
via: http://gwulo.com/node/5120#11/22.3153/114.1185/Map_%28ESRI%29-Markers/100

All was good until 2007 when the government needed to reclaim more land. I remember the reclamation but at that time but thought nothing of it except that I could remember fondly walking from City Hall to the IFC for lunch during a day of rehearsal for a choral concert and could smell the Ocean. That’s not possible now, though luckily, the ocean is still in sight. Sort of. There’s now the world’s smallest Ferris wheel in the way. The reclamation claimed not only Queen’s Pier but also Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier which was owned by and used only by Star Ferry, the outlying Island piers were located elsewhere.  Both piers were demolished despite aggressive public protest which included banners, sit ins and even hunger strikes.

The government however promised to keep the clock tower from Edinburgh Ferry Pier and to rebuild Queen’s Pier though they did not give a date for either. There is still no news about the clock tower but the pier is now reviving.

This is of course without a doubt good news. As of late the government has not been very compassionate about historical sites and this is a step in the right direction. The issue is that their plans, although ambitious, are still a little ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as Central Pier looks (and which Queen’s Pier will now become part of).

Central Pier was built in 2007 to take over from Edinburgh Place pier and to its merit, it’s an amazingly convenient complex. There is a footbridge linking from IFC, it is a small walk away from Hong Kong and Central MTR stations and has a bus/taxi/minibus terminal. There are restaurants and stores and even an occasional farmer’s market. It also houses 2 public piers, the Star Ferry pier, outlying island piers, discovery bay pier and now even the Maritime museum.

And this is a big however.
It looks like shit.


Central ‘Plastic’ Pier
via: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/17/HK_Central_Pier_View.jpg


Or rather as journalist Ng Tze-Wei described it “neither modern nor authentic – more like a something taken from a film set or theme park”. It was modelled on the 1912 Star Ferry Pier which was situated at the bottom of Ice House Street but like other ferry piers was demolished when the need of land grew larger and there was no choice but to reclaim more and more of the harbour. Star Ferry has spoken out against the Central Pier Complex saying that its distance from Central and Hong Kong MTR stations has reduced their passenger intake. The plan is to rebuild Queen’s Pier between the two public piers at the end of the pier complex.

As the architectural styles of the amusement-parky-mock-Edwardian pier and the mock-Victorian-utilitarian pier are incompatible, the government have released three different proposals to reinstate the pier. The first plan is to rebuild the roofs of the two public piers so that all three piers will have the triangular rooves which were common in colonial piers (see: Blake Pier in Stanley for closest comparison. The second will have walls built around Piers 9 and 10 so that different architectural styles will stand out against each other forming a old-within-new sort of aesthetic. There will also be canopies to link the piers. The final and cheapest proposal is essentially to do nothing at all and just plonk the old pier between the new piers. The three plans are estimated to cost HK$303, HK$248 and HK$230 million respectively.

The second option seems to be the best middle route. Assuming that the recommissioning of the pier will go according to plan, HK$230mil will be spent anyway, with only HK$18mil more Queen’s Pier will be given a proper place within the pier and its architectural and cultural difference respected. Plus, depending on how it turns out, even if the most expensive option were taken there is nothing to say that redesigning the 2007 pier will be a good idea. What would happen is piers 9, 10 and Queen’s Pier will becoming their own historic reenactment complex separate from the rest of the pier complex. Piers 9 and 10 are part of Central Pier’s mock-Edwardian architecture and a having a separation of the two aesthetics might prove to create a more interesting design. Having said all that, I can’t see how building walls around a pier is very practical.

queen's pier 3 plans

Proposals A, B and C respectively.
Images via: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/03/11/60026/. Via HKGov

 Of course, all this is speculation.

I look forward to seeing how everything turns out. Although the plans don’t seem to be brilliant, any move is a step in the right direction.

Maybe we’ll even get the Star Ferry clock tower back.


For further reading if interesting, the following were consulted in writing this post.

“An Architectural and Historical appraisal of Queen’s Pier Central”, Annex B. Report by the AMAAB. Available online.
“Public Hearing on the grading of Queen’s Pier”, 129th Meeting of the Antiques and Monuments Advisory Board, public meeting. Available online.
Kris Cheng “Proposals to restore Queen’s Pier”, Hong Kong Free Post
Sidney Leung, “Queen’s Pier Resurrected? Hong Kong officials considering design options near its former site” South China Morning Post. Available Online
Ng Tze-Wei “Not even HK’s storied Star Ferry can face down developers”, International Herald Tribune. Available online.
Trea Wiltshire “A Stroll through Colonial Hong Kong”, Form Asia Books

What Musical Theatre is to Me: Part 2 – Don’t dream it, be it

Last post I talked about musical expression in musicals. Now I’ll talk about how the theatre side of Musical Theatre can also be used as a form of expression. Despite being a huge fan and wanting to study the Art, I’ve not actually been lucky enough to see many musicals. Most of the ones I’ve watched were performed at the HKAPA, which despite being the best we have, is a rather pathetically small stage in comparison with other international stages. So what I say is slightly limited, although I do try to be objective.

One of my favorite musicals by far is Richard O’Brien’s “Rocky Horror Show”. Musically, it hasn’t got as much continuity as I would like, hence expression via the music itself is slightly lacking (note that I don’t mean expression through performance but solely the score). However, the dramatic side is astounding.

The Rocky Horror show is what my girlfriend and I often describe as ‘Theatre or Cruelty in a musical’, the way the characters are written, the plot, the costumes in addition to the music is what makes the entire show horribly uncomfortable but at the same time a timeless piece of art.

Theory preamble: Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is a is a theatrical form categorized by a rejecting of social norms on stage. It is an attempt to showcase the darkest inner parts of humanity, according to Artaud the theater should not be an escape but a realization of our inner darkness. In every performance there is a general feeling of unease, disgust and fear amongst the audience; and that is what Artaud wanted. (see: http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/staffhome/siryan/academy/theatres/theatre%20of%20cruelty.htm).

Now in the Rocky Horror Show, the main antagonist, Dr. Frankenfurter, is a mad scientist creating a man, he has very little empathy, oh and he performs the entire show in drag. This already is uncomfortable for many members of the audience, I know I performed his title song “Sweet Transvestite” once and even only half in drag the audience were shocked.

However, there is one particular scene of interest that I think illustrates how the Rocky Horror Show, and of course expanding out to Musical Theatre, can be used expressively. (Note: I speak from the movie because I haven’t actually seen it on stage, I’ve watched some performances of the scene I’m about to talk about on Youtube but I think that the movie version is the most apt). Close to the climax of the Musical, Dr. Frankenfurter has hypnotized most members of the main cast and put them all in very revealing drag, especially the men, and they sing a sequence of songs in which they let out their inner sex drives. One particular song: “Don’t Dream It – Be It” is slow, lyrical, atmospheric, almost like a trance, however it is in this song that I realized how Artaud the entire show is – half way through the song, all the characters lose control and have an underwater orgy.

The scene realizes one of the greatest human fears: loss of control. Being put in drag by a mad scientist and then losing all your self control and giving in to your most animalistic, sexual desires. The scene is wholly unnerving. The music truly aids it by repeating the same slow phrase, slowly building up vocal and instrumental harmonies. Until Dr. Scott enters, the texture doesn’t change that much and even after his magnificent loss of control as he finds that he too is in drag, the musical texture quickly dies back down when Brad sings. The music almost beckons the audience to join in, it sounds so innocent, so pure, yet at the same time no one on stage has any self control.

As Dr. Scott says: We’ve got to get out of this trap
Before this decadence saps our will
I’ve got to be strong and try to hang on
Or my mind may well snap
Und my life will be lived for the thrills…

The question now is, can this sort of expression be done in another Art form? I would argue maybe, but not quite in the same way. Musical Theatre has the ability to bring together very talented actors and musicians, trained professionals in two very expressive art forms. It has the ability to portray a message through Music and through Theatre. The only question that remains now is: why doesn’t it?

Perhaps that’s not a question though, that’s a goal.

And that is what Musical Theatre is to me.


What Musical Theatre is to me: Part 1, actual music

A few weeks ago I participated in the Summer Musical School at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. For the past few years they’ve been performing shows written by their staff. This year the show was directed by award winning song writer Charles Teo (he’s taken ladies) and written by Louisa Caraffi (she’s also taken). (No not by each other you sick person).

The musical was called “New Kids on the Block”; a jukebox musical featuring memorable songs such as the not-annoying-enough-yet “Let it go” and classics such as “Big, Big, Girl” and “What Makes You Beautiful”. Usually I try to stay away from dance heavy musicals because I can’t dance, but in all honesty I had no idea what type of show this was, just that it would be good work experience for me. No seriously, I didn’t know what character I was auditioning for, good thing I got through eh?

Anyway, I’ve watched quite a few musicals, I’ve listened to a lot of musicals, I’ve been in a few and I’ve written one; so although I’m not professional, I’d like to think I have a leg to stand on when I talk about them. For me, NKotB was barely anything like anything I’ve seen before.

*disclaimer: sometimes I might go a bit too far with criticisms, in all honesty I really enjoyed being in the cast and I would do it again. The songs too, I didn’t like the song choice but GOD I loved the arrangements…*

Despite not being the most amazing show I’ve been in or seen, having a different experience on a topic I’m familiar with really made me think about what musical theatre really means…to me.

Our playwright and director, Louisa talked in rehearsal once about how to think about performance in a musical: “you have to deal with the acting which already a whole lot, then the music which is another lot, then the dance which is also a whole lot”. Yes, in a musical is a whole lot of lots. But seriously, it is. For me dance was never an integral part of the musical theatre genre, but I guess it still is for many people (see dance heavy shows such as: Chicago, Starlight Express and Cats vs Phantom of the Opera, Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop Of Horrors). However, this is just the practical side, what about the expressive side?

This question might come as a surprise to some common-goers of Musicals because the genre isn’t usually attached to being a vehicle of expression or criticism, contrary to a lot of modern art. The question therefore is, why can’t it be? I’ve said before that I totally believe, beyond reasonable doubt and to an overly enthusiastic and borderline insane degree, that music in itself can be treated as a language with the ability to express meaning. Theatre has often prided itself also in the ability to express, in fact a lot of modern abstract Theatre exists for this reason (see: Theatre of Creulty, for example). Postmodern Art, yet another example of how Art is used nowadays to express meaning and criticism; just a few days ago I was at an exhibition of Chinese artist Xu Bing who, using pictures, tried to create a universal language (I don’t think it worked but that’s a story for another day).

book from the ground

So back to Musicals. This genre, unlike any other, combines Drama and Music…minimum, often dance too. Sometimes, if particularly ballsy, visual Arts, electronic media etc also come into play. So why can’t Musical Theatre be used as a vehicle of expression? Personally, I would argue that this view is simply a social mindset that Broadway is for gays but then I look at the Musical Theatre boom and I get worried. On one hand, I’m happy that more people are looking into Musicals as an expanding Art form, on the other hand…everything has a Musical now and very few are particularly profound Musicals.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean when I say expression. Compare the ethical dilemmas of Les Mis. or Ms. Saigon against some more modern Musicals such as Matilda or Shrek. Take for example when Javert, after having his life spared by Valjean jumps into the river Seine and dies; of course Victor Hugo wrote the plot, but the expression is just as strong Musically. The song itself is instrumentally almost an exact replica as Valjean’s Solioquy, by sharing the same music but changing the lyrics, the audience contrast what is essentially Valjean and Javert’s inner monologues. The song then ends with an instrumental reprise of Javert’s solo song “Stars” playing as he jumps to his death, the lyrics of “Stars” was when Javert swore to never back down from finding and putting Valjean in jail, even to his death the music shows this. Here, for your perusal:

Now, a more modern Musical: Shrek (Jeanine Tesori, 2008), not a bad musical in it’s own right but not sharing the same musical strength as Les Mis. More often than not, what the song says shares little with what the music says: take for example the song “Build a Wall”, this song is sung after Shrek hears Fiora say “Who would love a hideous ugly beast” and subsequently leaves Donkey and Fiora (in the movie I believe this is during Hallelujah). Have a listen for yourself:

The song, like most of the musical, has a distinctly 70s feel to it although this one might crossover a little into punk rock. One could argue that the grungy feel of the song aids in showing Shrek’s displeasure with Fiora, that’s a valid argument but there’s not much more to say. The ending of the song does bring to mind the overture:” Big, Bright, Beautiful World” which is ironic of course because Shrek is putting himself essentially behind bars away from the world. However, this is barely scraping the level of musical expression that Schoenberg and Boublil were writing in Les Mis. This is just the musical side, without being lucky enough to watch either Musical, this is what I gathered from listening to the album alone. Now let’s add some Drama.

*Second disclaimer: I’m really not saying that all modern musicals are bad, I actually really like Shrek, I just find that some of the more famous shows express a bit better. There are also some old ones that I find express nothing at all, but that’s a story for another day.*


Define for me an opposite

Philosophical rant #2

Last night I was playing League of Legends with some of my friends when one of them failed a flash1 after which the enemy Olaf said “dat fail flash”. We were messing with the enemy team a lot in chat that game so I replied with
“but what is a fail flash”
“one that wasn’t necessary”
“what is necessity?”
“Therefore everything is a failure”
“And therefore there can be no success for success is the opposite of failure”
“Shut up Leona”
And we left it at that.*

Earlier the previous day I was also thinking about something along those lines but in the context of altruism. Altruism is a topic that often pops into my head because as a Catholic it was something that I was taught is a good thing – and a possible thing. However, after four years of high school religious studies and philosophy that seems to have become for me a questionable truth. Here is my reasoning:

Altruism is defined as the “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.”2

If this is true then a true altruist receives no pleasure when doing a good act neither by choice nor passively. They cannot be happy that the affected is thankful, they cannot be happy that their actions did something good for anyone else, they cannot be happy even if they believed that their actions will bring them closer to a good afterlife. They are so selfless that in any situation they will put every other person ahead of themselves, they will help in any way possible, do any and all work for another person, however none of that will be for their own well-being as the true altruist would be unable to feel the pleasure. As Ayn Rand put it in “Atlas Shrugged”: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake”3. In short: they must be miserable.

Theoretically speaking, this definition of Altruism is possible but does is it realistic? When a person helps someone then expects a ‘thank you’, this is not altruistic. If someone does charity and expects to feel like they’ve done something good, that is not altruistic. This clip from Friends should explain my point

If we can do good actions, but cannot entirely detach pleasure and self-worth from a good action, then realistically altruism cannot exist. Yet, to a large extent we can call someone altruistic when they put someone else ahead of themselves at the RISK of their own happiness even if they receive a little back at the end. Therefore this could be defined as “Realistic Altruism” as opposed to “True Altruism”.

French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, in his theory of Binary Opposition states that the common logic behind all cultures is the belief of the existence of opposites. Man and Woman, Dark and Light, Life and Death and so on. However, is this a realistic way to perceive the world or is it reductionist? Even if “Man” is described as biologically male there can still be a gray area. The Kleinfelter Syndrome4 is a genetic issue that gives the person an extra x or y chromosome. Therefore a Kleinfelter individual with have neither xx nor xy but xxy. Some males with the condition may grow breast tissues. This makes it so that a male with this condition is not a “True Male” yet he is also not a “True female”. However, if the person is mostly male (as Kleinfelter individuals are still phenotypically male or female), then they can be defined as “Realistically male”.

Having said all this, you might ask then whether any “True” description of an object exists. I believe yes, but only in theory. Just as I have discussed above that “True Altruism” is only theoretical but not “Realistic”, all other such descriptions of objects must also only be theoretical. In reality, most descriptions are more based on a spectrum than binary opposition. It is true that, with the gender example above, that a “True Male” can be defined as a male with xx chromosomes and therefore binary opposition must exist. However, culturally a “True Male” must also exhibit all the stereotypical traits of a male in order to be called a “True Man”. Taking this into consideration the binary opposition of Maleness and Femaleness must be a spectrum where a person is either more male or more female and is therefore called a male or a female (or nowadays one of the many words for physically male but not entirely culturally male etc.).

Similarly a “True” person of any culture must adhere to the stereotypical traits of the culture – for the stereotype is the extreme form of a group and therefore the unmistakably “True” form of the group. A stereotypical Chinese follows all the Chinese cultural rules, believes in a Chinese religion, has Chinese skin, a Chinese heritage, a Chinese look and speaks Chinese – Stereotypically speaking, this cannot be denied. However, this has never been the case in reality, as humans every single person thinks differently therefore even if I had two stereotypically “True” Chinese persons, they would still disagree on some matters. Therefore the one “True” Chinese form cannot exist. Plato would say that these “True” forms do exist and are simply beyond reach, I disagree and believe that they are all only theoretical.

To round off: back to the first point of failure and success. If nothing is necessary, then everything is a failure; but if everything is a failure, then there can be no success (as success is the binary opposite of failure). This is unrealistic as we define some actions such as ‘becoming rich’, ‘achieving good results’ and ‘winning’ as being ‘successful actions’. However, you cannot be infinitely rich, your results are never a true reflection of being best at every single activity and you cannot ‘win’ in the best way. Therefore, success is also just a theoretical description that we place onto an action or a person. A successful person is someone who, within the spectrum of success and failure, achieves more success than failure and vice versa for a failed person.

I hope that any readers have enjoyed this post, if interested please spark some debate in the comments.


1. Flash: a skill in League of Legends where the character teleports a short distance to the cursor. Easily to mess up if not careful.
2. Taken from: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/altruism
3. Biddle, C. (n.d.). Atlast Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism. The Objective Standard.
4. More information see: http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/klinefelter-syndrome
*. If anyone is interested, the match history is here, sadly I don’t have access to the conversation history: http://matchhistory.na.leagueoflegends.com/en/#match-details/NA1/1506656456/41873578

Music and Life

To break out of my long hiatus, I’d like to upload a piece of work that one my friends have written and asked to upload here. I personally find it a very beautiful piece of work and am very very honoured to have it first put here.

I’d just like to take this opportunity to enter him, Broomstick, to our writers alongside myself and the translator, Tiffany.

ps: I also quite like his little nudge at me in it….

Music and life:

Talk to anyone who is dedicated to music, and they will often tell you that music is their life, or part of their life. Now, being an everyday student musician living in Hong Kong, I can definitely vouch for the importance of learning music in our society, how essential it is for us to spend endless hours practicing and perfecting our music and push the limits for higher marks on ABRSM music exams in our respective instruments. Therefore, it is possible to say that we have integrated music into our daily lives, and essentially, music IS our life.

However, as I prepare to start my life as a university student abroad, I can’t help but reflect upon my old life as a high school student, and realise that the generic phrase of “music being life” epitomizes not only the amount of time we spend on music, but also or experience of life itself.

“Life is full of ups and downs” is a common phrase that resonates through society, and it’s applicable to most people. I myself have always firmly believed in it and also experienced this throughout high school life. The variation in friendship groups , the making of new connections with people in later years that one would have never imagined to become close to or successes in academics are what one may consider the “ups” in life. However, nobody is perfect, and people will also lose friends, make bad decisions, leading up to stress, problems and what not. In short, life is a mixed bag of experiences.

You may ask, how is this relevant to music? Well, whilst reflecting on the ups and downs in my life, I couldn’t help but summarise life so far with Beethoven’s Symphony No.6. Being a former IGCSE music student(and I’m sure my fellow classmates would agree), the symphony comprises of different movements that are all unique in themselves, from the cheerful, upbeat Mvt. 3, “Merry gathering of the country folks” to the stern, frightening atmosphere in Mvt. 4, “the storm”. Despite being consecutive movements, the sudden contrast in the themes of the movements can connote the drastic changes we may face in life. The two movements in combination, therefore acts as a representation of life, comprising of both joyful, ecstatic moments, with a mix of fear, oblivion, and pressure.

However, this is just one way of seeing the connection; Try imagining a symphony with a number of movements, but all sounding almost identical to the next; Ultimately, this hypothetical symphony becomes dull and boring. The importance of having different themes in movements within a symphony becomes evident, as it is the variation in themes that makes a symphony interesting. Therefore, there must be a reason for variation. In the same way, we have a need to experience both good times and bad times, as having a variety of both good and bad experiences allows us to reflect and learn from our past.

People learn a lot from their bad experiences, but not only do they learn to improve and approach similar situations from a different perspective next time, they also learn more about the friends they’ve made. Friends are very important to one’s life, as they are the people that will support you in all times. Just like the chinese saying “在家靠父母,出外靠朋友(At home, you rely on your parents. Away from home, you rely on your friends”), the role of friends in life is to make your life a more fruitful and rewarding experience. Likewise, a piece of music wouldn’t be engaging to the listener without the proper dynamic markings, grace notes or tempo marks within the piece. Having said this, a song with an excess of the additions may make the song ever more confusing and complicated, defeating the point of the song as a whole. It’s always great to have a lot of friends, as connections are also key in society, but one may question who may still be there to support you when you’re in your lowest. It is these darkest moments in one’s life, where you realise and cherish the true friends who are there to direct you out, whether it’s to listen to your problems, or just to distract you from them. Sometimes, the people that accompany you in your darkest, most problematic moments may surprise you!

Music and life share one thing in common: both depend on what the person considers ‘good’ to be. The term ‘good’ itself is arbitrary; it can be replaced with any word that represents what we consider to be our ultimate goal in life. It could be Success, Fame or Fortune. Every person has their own perception of their life, and this shouldn’t be restricted by society. When I was a Music student, one of the sections required us to do some composition, and there was always a large variation of pieces, each portraying what the composer considers a perfect piece. I had a friend who composed music, which to me, sounded somewhat eccentric, but perhaps that’s what he considers ‘good’ to be. Similarly, what we perceive to be good may be different to others. For instance, being in HK, a good life may be a big house, with a lot of money, cars, good schools etc etc. On the contrary, a good life in Cambodia may just be a happy family with a roof and food to survive. Essentially, it is how we perceive life as a whole, given the circumstances we are in; If the circumstances are not going to change for the time being, there are only two ways to look at the situation: Live life and make the best out of the situation, or loathe everyday about the situation. For me, I’d choose the former!

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you do not aim high and improve the circumstances. Situations change and it is crucial for us to have the motivation to improve our lives and live it to the fullest. There are people who have started from the bottom of life, and worked hard to be where they are today, and for sure, they have had their share of tough times. we should learn to variate our life, and explore alternatives. Compare it to all the variations a piece may have. Often, there are alternatives to the theme of the piece, which follows the general theme, but uses different notes, accents, dynamics to convey the same idea; Correspondingly, given that you have a certain amount of time to live, you might as well make life worthwhile and live with minimal regrets.

Just like how one may choose to perceive life, one can also choose how they do perceive the phrase ‘Music is life’. In the end, you may still believe that the phrase denotes the time and effort put into music, but I do hope that after reading this, you may gain an extra perception of what the expression means!











Public Pooping (China)

See: mainland child urinating our Hong Kong streets and the mom supporting her child.

Storytime with John


China – Wuhan ~ 2012

A move to a different country is difficult, you have to contend with a different time zone, a different language and a whole different culture. It can be pretty hard, but eventually you adapt. You get to know the layout of your city; you get a favourite café, pub and a place to hang out…slowly you learn that McDonalds isn’t the only thing you can relate to (not that you don’t return every so often/all the time).

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Story of my life: language is arbitrary

Once upon a couple of years ago, I studied IGCSE Psychology and I fondly remember one lesson when my teacher, Ms Bower, show her middle finger up to the entire class. It was a lesson about body language and we were discussing physical symbols in cultures, we raised points about the soles of your feet or a thumbs up being derogatory in some cultures then someone mentioned the finger. Ms. Bower asked us to be specific, obviously enjoying the unease in the room as every student glanced around sheepishly, no one dared to do the actual action as we didn’t want to flip her over. So she did it to us instead.

“What this?” She says with her mouth as her hand says fuck you “it’s just a finger!”

I think this moment was important to me because I often thought, even before then, about why we have to follow some social concepts but never did I expect someone older than me (and hence should follow strictly these ideals) to tell me, in an academic scenario, that we only follow them because we believe them. It’s just a finger. It means fuck you. But it’s just a finger.

A couple of years later my English teacher, Ms Bruce, made a similar point but this time in linguistic terms. First lesson of English and she tries to get us to define “language”, no easy task. She defined it as “Arbitrary symbols that we attach meaning to”, her point being that if enough people use a word to mean something then a meaning is attached to the word. She made a point of saying that if we got enough people to start calling ‘tables’ ‘Olivers’ (one of our classmates, he wasn’t too impressed by the joke), the object ‘table’ would be known as ‘Oliver’ instead of ‘table’.

To some people this seems to be a huge mindfuck. A table is a table, a table is not an Oliver. That is true but the object of a table does not have to be called a table, in every language the words that describe objects are different. In German a table is einen Tisch, in Cantonese it’s pronounced ‘toi’; yet all these words mean the same object. On this simple premise it seems obvious that language is relative to culture, language is arbitrary, there is no supernatural dictionary that defined words before they came into being. Not to make an existential point about human existence but as Satre said “Existence precedes essence”, in a linguistic sense anyway.

It’s interesting then that many people seem to be ignorant of this point. If you’ve read my previous post “Cups of Poison Tea” (if not you can find it here: https://composingphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/cups-of-poison-tea/), the point of drinking the poison tea being the only polite thing to do is an extension of language being treated as having objective meaning, which I also said in that post I find rather short sighted. Having said that, that post was not about language so all these are loose interpretations. However, say that I offered one of my Western friends a cup of tea and they refused it saying they don’t like tea; do I get angry that they do not conform to my cultural expectations of social language? Ridiculous.

The point of this post I guess hasn’t been so much to explore new ideas, as some of my posts try to do but rather just to write a bit about my experiences and why I have the ideas I have now. I do like sharing these little stories, maybe I should do that more.


image from: https://composingphilosophy.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/a3099-sign2.png