Update

I have recently started to use Evernote to organise my notes and thoughts. So far I have found it more efficient and structured than writing blog posts. Therefore this blog will be updated only occasionally.


Feeling guilty…and what’s next?

Just before my trip I need to confess this feeling of guilt somewhere, and hopefully the confession will help me get rid of this feeling magically, at least for the next three weeks.

First, I have not been thinking enough about work (thinking ≠ working on a 9-5 job). A natural effect of active thinking would be inspiration in the subconscious mind, or ability to connect the dots quickly. Unfortunately, I am frustrated to see neither of those effects happening to me – which should really propel me to read more & think actively.

Second, I am recently aware that quite a few of my friends from HKU are working on some really interesting ventures: some girls in finance are working on a side project in the Arts space; a girl who used to be a strategy consultant is now dedicated full time to revive and commercialise a village culture; a few other friends started writing articles in their expertise area and became popular writers / bloggers; not to mention a guy who was determined to pursue a career in internet startups since we met at 18, made it to Nasdaq at a very young age. Although I am very happy for them, this also frustrates me to a certain degree. What is my calling? Is there anything I can do to make a positive impact in the world, in my home or resident country, in my circle, in my neighbourhood? I think I would be a lot happier if I were a doer, a creator, rather than a permanent consumer.

A life without dedication in work or in a cause / calling is aimless. It sounds like the life I always wanted to escape: mid-lifers lolling on the bench playing Mahjong after the Sichuan earthquake, cheering over the post-earthquake holidays, and spending days and nights repeating the same old stories. I fear of (at some point) getting stuck in this state of mediocrity. I fear of this very much.

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Trip planning

(I have just created this new category named Voyage – better to read it in French rather than English because Voyage sounds more tuneful than Trips.)

Some random thoughts while I am planning my three-week trip starting next week:

  • While planning a trip (instead of joining a packaged tour), people can start getting information from travel guides, TripAdvisor, friends who have travelled to the same destination previously, etc. Those sources usually organise information by a) neighbourhoods, b) categories, such as hotels, restaurants, things to do, landmarks to see etc. It is surprising to see something missing – grouping by interest, which is about understanding the travellers and their differentiated needs (are they adventurous, what is their “quest” in a journey, what do they want to get out of the trip, etc.)
  • This missing “search by interest” has implied at least two messages: a) mass market travelling (travel planning) is a relatively new trend globally. As with most nascent industries, it is at a perfectly competitive stage where there is little barrier to entry, homogeneous product (quantities might differ though), many planners and travellers and little perceived differentiation. b) The planners have full confidence that travellers are willing to invest time to read through (most of) the information provided, and make their own customised to-do-list before a trip. But would it be too optimistic in the long run when consumers are increasingly time-bound? (thus the growth of ready-meal industry)
  • Although Tripadvisor helps users reduce uncertainty by allowing full visibility of traveller reviews, does it really improve the traveller’s satisfaction? Do voyagers really want to know the nitty-gritty details of the tourist attractions, the exact menus of restaurants (sometimes including photos of the dishes!) in advance? Is travelling not meant to be time for exploration, appreciation and delight? The heightened expectation and the prior knowledge might in a way impair the pleasure of discovery.

Despite those challenges, travel guides and tripAdvisor has worked well for me so far, though as a consumer I’d like to have a disruptor in the travel planning landscape sooner rather than later.

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(source of image: http://sproutsenroute.com/7-initial-steps/)


Heir of Communism

Today is the 20th anniversary of my becoming a young pioneer. Although slightly under-aged, I pledged an oath under China’s national flag and the Young Pioneer’s flag, to “be prepared every moment, to devote my whole life to the cause of Communism”. Back then, I did not understand any of the key words; I was not even able to pronounce the words correctly. If this kid were to vow in English it must have been, “I am pleating an ooze, to be prepared every moment, to demote my whole body to the four leaves of C%&$*%?sm”. I made a lot of mistakes when learning the Young Pioneer’s song as well, for example, I was under the impression for years that “to eradicate the enemy” means “to eradicate the police”. (As a kid I was clearly not good at language; piano and Hua Luogeng‘s math problems took an unfair share of my leisure time, although I never persisted with either of them.)

Since then I have entered into a life as “heir” of Communism, like most Chinese kids do. I worn the little red scarf every day, put on the emblem on special occasions, and was even appointed Chief Pioneer in class a few times, proudly wearing an armband with three strokes (an embodiment of highest authority among kids). Although the head teacher attempted to “teach me a lesson” a few times by taking away my armband (thanks to my slightly contrarian personality), she was never able to find a better substitute. Therefore, I experienced a mild version of Deng Xiaoping‘s three-ups-three-downs very early in life. (It’s funny to think about.)

Looking back, I never felt as an “heir” of Communism while I was a young pioneer (1996-2013), because no one mentioned the Marxist dichotomy, class conflict, exploitation, not even the old people, not even the textbooks, maybe partly attributable to the trauma from the Cultural Revolution. I felt more like an “heir” of the modern China (well, China in the late 90s and early 00s), a country left with scars since the Opium War, a country endowed with rich resources, a country that experienced enormous economic growth but had little political ambition, a country that learned to 卧薪尝胆,韬光养晦 (Chinese idioms: to motivate itself from self-inflicted ordeal, to conceal its brightness and bide its time). I sincerely felt proud of my homeland in those years. “To equip myself and serve my country” seems to be my calling, back then.

If I announce myself as heir of Communism, or heir of Nationalism, people might see me as a joke. Rather than committing myself to a cause (which brought me tremendous enthusiasm but also debate and struggle with myself, such as Globalisation, Regionalism, Economic development, National rejuvenation, Rule of law), I decided to stay away from futile dreaming, because a) I do not have full trust in my line of reasoning and my information source, b) there are brighter, scholarly people who dedicate their time fully working on those issues, with independence and integrity, c) I have worldly things to keep my mind occupied, and d) ideology and politics have low entry barrier as a topic, therefore an intellectual exchange can become a pub chat if there is too much banter, or a noisy fight if dimwits are keen to express their emotions.

Let me put down some causes I support for sure:

  • Science and Technology (including medicine)
  • Cultural diversity
  • Overall economic liberalism (unless we are talking about a) market failure, b) significant externalities, or c) a strategically designed industrial policy – though this is contentious area, even for myself)
  • Universal education (primary, secondary)

And those I cannot support for sure:

  • Animal rights
  • Poverty reduction as an end, not means (unless there is hunger and sheltering issues, in which case poverty reduction as an end can be accepted)

20 years after 1996 I am not heir of Communism anymore, but luckily there are still some causes worth fighting for.

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Live music: September

Last month’s music has been the best for me in terms of originality and diversity. Since I was lucky enough to have shared some thoughts with my friends after (almost) each recital, I’ll keep this blog post succinct, and try not to repeat myself.

2 Sept: Martin Speake (saxophonist, composer / improviser) & friends played music mostly from the album Fever Pitch: Beautiful nightmare, Busy, Babysitting, and a few more. The music was said to have Indian, Turkish and Arabic influence, though I have to admit that I am not familiar with Middle Eastern or South Asian music to tell the specific features. I guess I need to either read some theories or get sufficient exposure to primary source for better understanding in those origins of music.

16 Sept: Jazz, a type of African-American music. Almost all the songs were about love, although somehow Jazz seems to be an overly playful and insincere and unsoulful type of music in its expression. There were two exceptions that evening: It’s All Right With MeEverytime We Say Goodbye.

25 Sept: Some Chamber music – Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D minor was a delightful surprise to me (wiki page). The motives of the first movement and the third movement (Notturno – very dominant and expressive viola) were so powerful and defining; they built the clear and beautiful music ideas which naturally develop into an extended quartet. Just like the first few notes of Eugene Onegin (at about 2’20”): a simple glimpse of the 2-hour work can already unveil the essence of the tragic story that is filled with tension, desire and loss. Somehow I always find Russian music haunting and irresistible! Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, his only string quartet, is consistent with his style – I can feel the subtitles in hues and shades, though his work is usually hard (for me) to narrate without reference to anything visual.

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Art in commercial space

In the Open House London 2016 last week I went to a masonic temple attached to Andaz Hotel by Liverpool Street Station. The temple is now used mainly as a private dining venue at Andaz. This space must have attracted (20 people / 30min * 2 * 7 hours open =) 280 guests (who were completely amazed by the work of art) last weekend. The organised tour was facilitated mainly by volunteers, at nearly 0 labour cost. Because the tour was done from 10am to 5pm in a dining space away from guestrooms, its disturbance to hotel guests were minimal (if there was any), and the foregone revenue was negligible as well. In this way, by portraying part of the hotel as some magnificent temple and a work of art, and by turning the exclusive, private space into the public space, Andaz would likely quickly build brand awareness, acceptance…and trial. (For example, I subscribed to the brand’s newsletter right after the tour!)

My thoughts on the Andaz tour derived from a presentation by a specialist research / consulting firm on innovative practice in consumer goods, retail and leisure sectors. There were two ideas from the presentation that struck me as genius, very inviting and in a way, appetising.

One idea was Van Gogh’s “Bedroom” listed on Airbnb created by the Art Institute of Chicago and designer Leo Burnett. “Vincent”, the bedroom owner, charges only $10 per night along with a complimentary exhibition ticket. For me, and I guess for many people, the room looks so enchanting that I’m happy to pay $100 for the night, just to feel like being in a different time and space! The result of the Van Gogh’s Bedroom campaign was apparently impressive: the museum has had its largest daily exhibition attendance in 15 years.

The other idea was again absolutely delightful. A Parisian cocktail bar, Little Red Door, has a menu not in words / photos, but in drawings / paintings, to symbolise each cocktail. By translating a tasting experience into the visual artwork, the cocktail bar could achieve at least two things: first, it overcomes the linguistic and semantic limitation (description using colours, ingredients and adjectives) to allow for a more expressive and creative representation & interpretation of the mood a glass of cocktail could evoke; second, it would turn the customer’s decision-making process into an enjoyable viewing experience, and turn the bar into a mini gallery – again, here we are talking about the fusion between private (commercial) space and public space.

In excitement I have decided to put down Little Red Door into my to-do-list for my next trip to Paris, if only it could happen soon ! 🙂 (not this year unfortunately)

 

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London restaurants: Aug – Sept

I am on a journey of staying away from relatively large restaurant chains (such as Wagamama, ASK Italian) as much as possible. Instead I’ve been dining at restaurants with comparable price points (or <50% higher), greater imagination and personal style. Here is a list of restaurants I went to in the past few weeks:

  • Big Fernand (menu): French burger concept (see my previous post). To me the burger is minimalistic: no unnecessary ingredients and spice, plain-looking buns, thick beef, quality cheese (compared to burger chains of similar price points). Perhaps because of that, combined with red wine, eating burger becomes a less clumsy activity. The decor also has its own style; for example, the front of the counter looks like (and maybe is!) a disorderly array of wooden bricks which suggests a degree of casualness and some “Frenchness” (which is hard to define).
  • Gay Hussar (menu): It is the first time for me to try Hungarian cuisine. Following the waiter’s kind advice, I tried Őzpörköl (Venison Goulash with Tarhonya and Red Cabbage).Goulash is a kind of meat stew with very thick soup, and Tarhonya is an egg-based pasta/small dumpling which tastes soft and slightly sweet. On the wall of the small restaurant hang 30-50 caricatures, though I was a bit running out of time to check them in detail!
  • Murakami (main menu, drink menu): the presentation of rolls is very impressive; the bright, variegated look of rolls suggests their intricate layers of flavour. The spicy mango roll, for example, is made of prawn tempura (classic, crispy skin and tender inside), avocado (that softened the dry tempura skin), sushi rice, thick mango sauce with red chili on top (giving it a mixture of acidity, rich sweetness, and spice – a taste of Southeast Asia in this Japanese dish). Similar level of creativity in the vegetarian option, particularly the finely grated daikon that added crispy texture and sweet flavour outside the sushi rice – a taste of rives and lakes of the East Asia. I also had Sake for the first time (Shichida Junmai), so hardly able to make a critique!
  • Yauatcha (part of the menu) (founded by Alan Yau, founder of Wagamama):  Dim Sum and Congee for the Mid-Autumn festival. The restaurant has the right balance between authenticity, elegance, and appeal to European / American palates. This kind of balance is always hard to achieve for any brands with strong national identity, and so far I cannot think of many winners among Chinese brands other than food. Shanghai Tang? Shangri-La? What else?

philanthropie

Philanthropie by Theophile Steinlen; available on wikiart.org