September 2015 Posts

20: Passion in Penang

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Despite the slow death of any passion between K and myself, that notBerjaya-Langkawi-Resort  even the weeklong stay in Langkawi, at a  romantic thatched hut colony, surrounded by the turquoise waters on the Straits of  Malacca could keep from unraveling, I was surprised one day at  lunch when a young artist joined us and simply took my breath away. I shouldn’t have been surprised as I have always suffered from this type of physical reaction when I meet a man of interest!

Kheng-Wah Yong

Kheng-Wah Yong

Penang, Malaysia, was K’s home port, and a good place at this moment in our trip to enjoy the distraction of  visiting K’s welcoming family and friends. One afternoon at lunch with a group of K’s friends, a   tall handsome young man, Kheng-Wah Yong, an artist, joined us.  When our eyes met a small smile played at the corners of his mouth. When he came around the table to greet me I took his hand and a familiar vibration coursed through my body leaving me flushed. Damn Chemistry.

After lunch we went to Yong’s studio to see his batik canvases, recently returned from a show in a Bankok gallery.  I had never thought much about Batik painting but was quite taken with their beautiful coloration and intimate depiction of women.  One painting, of half naked women sitting on a blanket in a market place, selling their wares, deeply affected me.  The women, with their hooded eyes looked back at me beckoning me to join them. Alas, when I inquired the price I was told the batik was not for sale.

Kheng-Wah joined us several times over the two weeks. We always managed to sit close and talk, and once, dance. Although our attraction was palpable it was also innocent.



On our last day in Penang some of K’s family and friends joined us for a farewell breakfast.  My artist was nowhere to be seen. After breakfast on my way to my room I was stopped by the concierge who handed me a small plain manila envelope.

Once in my room I opened it and found the batik I adored with a gallery ad telling about the artist. And not one other word.

The batik, a 30×30 piece of cloth, stays with me, reminding me, through the eyes of the women who gaze out at me, of the sweet memory of an unconsumated passion.

Chance Meeting in Penang
I saw you the moment I entered the room.
As I moved on
I was increasingly aware of your presence.
My eyes rested on you
fully enjoying the experience
wondering what would it be like to know you?
“To know” the ancient linguistic description
of experiencing someone to fullest connotation.
I watched you, heard your laugh,
As a third person
outside myself
Once more the earth moved
begging the question,
Is it better to leave this moment
to fantasy?

19: Mao’s China in 1980

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hong kong to canton 1980

1980’s China, under Mao’s tight fisted rule was a great mystery thus, flying up the Yellow River on an air boat bound for Canton, I was filled with an excitement born from not knowing what lay ahead. On the river we passed weather beaten wooden scows floating lazily, ropes dangling off their prows, as if in search of a tow. The closer our destination the greater the number of scows, now obstacles to be dodged.

river scows-1980

river scows-1980

Four young English speaking Chinese student-guides greeted us at the dock. After the cooling winds of the fast-moving airboat, the 95-degree heat and heavy humidity left me feeling like a sponge!

As visits to China, in the 80’s were tightly controlled – no one wandered around on their own rather visitors were escorted to determined destinations, thus we were not surprised when we boarded a bus half-filled with other tourists, our companions for the next three days.

Our hotel was quite luxurious with large well furnished rooms, comfortable beds and modern bathrooms.  But there were  quirks. The first morning I returned to our room after breakfast for a last bathroom run and found the water turned off. The front desk clerk explained the water was disconnect after breakfast and turned on in time for guests late afternoon arrival.

The food was wonderful. Breakfast, either English style, with boiled eggs, toast and tea, or Chinese-style porridges. Dinner was a traditional Chinese banquet, complete with all the Chinese vodka one might possibly drink and delicious ice cold Chinese beer.

pipe delivery 1980

pipe delivery 1980

Our first day in Canton we were escorted to a large convention center celebrating the wonders of Chinese industry. One hall was filled with modern agricultural equipment purportedly copied from America’s John Deere. Another room was filled with bolts of wool and cotton fabrics. Our guide took pride in showing us this rooms and told us China is a modern society that meets the needs of its people. It was on leaving the convention hall I took this photo of a man making a plumbing delivery. I guessed not everything had yet been modernized!

On our return to our hotel, I was looking out the bus window when it whizzed by a building where a very long line of people stood at its entrance. I asked a guide why were they waiting in line and was told they were waiting to get their toothbrushes re-tufted! Although I was amazed at first, on second thought it made a lot of sense.

Our first night excursion on the bus I was concerned to see its headlights  used intermittently. Before I could ask why, the lights flashed on and showed an endless number of people pedaling bicycles surrounding our bus. How many bicycles, I wondered,  were run down each night?

Bicycles and Buses

Bicycles and Buses

For three days we visited monuments, famous landmarks, parks and places of worship, open to visitors but closed for religious purposes by Mao’s orders.

We had lunch at a commune  where 70,000 people lived, grew their own food, and fertilized their fields with human and animal waste. The methane gas, made from cow patties and used as fuel ran through plastic tubes from animal pens into their homes. I thought that very innovative.

lunch in a commune 1980

lunch in a commune 1980

Our lunch in one of the communal dining rooms began with a small bowl of white rice and a pair of chopsticks. Large platters and bowls filled with fresh vegetables, slivers of chicken and more rice were placed in the center of each table.  Copying my hosts I held the bowl two inches from my chin and used my chopsticks to grab a morsel of food then scoop up some rice and plunk it in my mouth which brought stifled giggles from our local dining hosts.

infamous photo of Mao

Mao’s photo

The next day we lunched at a village home. Our hosts spoke little English. What caught my eye was the portrait of Mao hung on the wall, and a copy of Mao’s little red book resting on a side table, two objects that were visible  everywhere we visited.

After lunch each day we visited schools and were entertained by the children. One day it was a program of acrobatics and dance, the next a delightful musical performance.  Their expertise was astounding. When those beautiful smiling faces took their final bow we applauded until they returned to the stage for another bow. This one a highpoint on my visit to China.

acrobatic show 1980

school acrobatic show

On our daily tours we peppered our guides with questions. They deflected anything political but answered everything else. When I spied green terraces climbing up a large hill I asked what crop is planted and was told I was looking at a burial ground.

Our visit ended on our third day when an air-boat shuttled us back to Hong Kong. On the ride back I wrote a postcard to my children telling them China had to be seen to be believed.

Later, K and I made our way to the airport for our next stop, Penang,  Malaysia, where we would visit K’s family and friends for the next two weeks.  It would be in Penang I came to better understand my traveling companion, and where I had a chance meeting with a young artist who’s gift continues to seduce my senses!

18: Hong Kong

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streets of hong kong

streets of hong kong

When I first visited Southeast Asia in 1980, the politics were quite different than they are now.   Hong Kong is no longer a British Protectorate. China is not ruled by the tight fist of  Mao.  Thailand, despite military political coups, and the destruction of its coastal areas by a tsunami, is developing an upper middle income economy.  The sleepy beaches of Penang in Malaysia, now rival Miami Beach. But Singapore remains one of the financial centers of Asia.

And yet, with all the changes, its buddhas, temples, museums, and other antiquities remain timeless, as does Hong Kong, the city that never sleeps!

hknewzzzHong Kong

As we exited the plane in Hong Kong,  the sweltering heat enveloped me during the short walk from the plane, across the tarmac, to the air chilled  terminal where I arrived in wilted clothing, with frizzed hair, feeling like a sponge!

After checking into our hotel we freshened up and wasted no time hitting the street to explore Hong Kong. Across from our hotel was a park where   men and women were performing a stylized dance-like routine. When I asked K what they were doing he replied, “Tai Chi, a strengthening and relaxing practice very popular among Chinese.”

As we walked down Nathan Road store windows filled with jade, coral, gold and diamond jewelry lined the street.  Though first dazzled by all this splendor, the glitter soon became indistinguishable from costume jewelry!

At the bottom of the road, facing the harbor, stood the famed white facade of the Peninsula Hotel shimmering in the heat. Rolls Royce’s lined its circular drive with uniformed drivers standing ready to wisk guests off at a moments notice.


sunset over Hong Kong Harbor

We walked until sunset, when the sky filled with ribbons of  purple, orange, bright gold, and pink color. As the sun dipped below the horizon we thought about dinner.

We entered a restaurant and were greeted by a large aquarium filled with eels, lobster-like creatures and other crustaceans. Behind it was a wall of fish tanks, each holding a different variety of fish. After being seated the waiter arrived at our table and I chose a fish from one of the wall tanks. A short time later it arrived, perfectly cooked, on my plate.


Victoria”s Peak

The next morning we took a tram high above the harbor to Victoria’s Peak. We walked around its small park, had a cup of tea in the restaurant, and enjoyed breathtaking views. The harbor below, one of the busiest in the world, was filled with ships of every shape, size, and provenance. At the mouth of the harbor more ships lay anchored, waiting to enter.

Once off the Peak we walked along the waterfront and came upon a world of  sampans, many tied to one another. Generations of families were visible onboard, along with coal stoves, chairs, boxes, and mops-everything one needs to keep house. The boats, festooned with laundry hung out to dry, looked like they had battered sails at half-mast.

 Hong Kong Sampans

Hong Kong Sampans

Floating markets holding food, flowers, and other wares wove their way through the sampans, selling their goods. I had stumbled onto a village afloat, far different from the houseboat neighborhoods of Marin County in California, more similar to those I would see in Bangkok.

Shatin Floating Restaurant Hong Kong Harbor

That night we boarded a ferry for “The Shatin Floating Restaurant”, moored along the shore of the Shing Mun River, which  billed itself as having “Exotic Oriental Granduer and Exquisite Food”. It lived up to its promise. We were seated at a large round table with a group of hearty Australians . The food was served buffet -style and so delicious we ate and drank ’til filled to the brim. The Australians were grand companions!

I had heard having suits made in Hong Kong was something not to be missed so, the next morning, I asked our concierge for the name of a reliable tailor.  He did better than a name, he gave me Henry, a bone thin, fascinatingly wrinkled faced Chinese gentleman, who spoke English, and smoked like a chimney.

Henry escorted us to the Ocean Centre Mall and a tailor shop where I commissioned two suits to be made.  After choosing the cloth and style, numerous measurements were taken.  I was told to come back early the next day for a fitting and the suits would be delivered to the hotel that afternoon. They remain among the most beautiful clothes I’ve ever owned.

When we entered the Mall I had spied a fluorescent sign advertising the Beverly Hills Delicatessen.  After diet of raw fish, rice, and slivers of cooked vegetables,chicken and meat, this Jewish girl’s mouth was watering at the prospect of having something to get her teeth into. I convinced Henry and K to eat lunch there.


Corned Beef sandwich Jewish Deli style

As we passed through its doors the familiar deli style of Formica tables laden with bowls of dill pickles and jars of brown mustard appeared. The menu promised true deli fare so I ordered up a corned beef, a pastrami, and a Rueben for us to share.When the huge sandwiches arrived at the table I picked up half a Reuben, opened my mouth as wide as possible, chomped down, and was oblivious to the juices dripping down my chin. What joy! Henry and K laughed and soon we were making headway through my idea of  exotic food.


Jade collection Hong Kong Jewelry store

In addition to buying suits,  I wanted to purchase a piece of jade. K’s sister had given us the name of a jeweler who was expecting us late that afternoon. He greeted us at the door to his shop and asked what I was looking for- beads, a bracelet, or necklace, or ring?

But I could not answer as my nose was pressed to a case filled with jade stones of all the colors and sizes. One in particular had caught my eye. It was three by two inches, oval in shape, with two cats, in a ying- yang position, beautifully carved into the stone. When I asked what the stone was used for, the jeweler replied it was often kept in pockets, where its owner rubbed it for good luck. When he placed the stone in my hands it was as cold as a mountain stream, its surface sleek as silk.  It was a beautiful shade of emerald green, flawless and I had to have it.

We agreed on a price that included setting a gold bale at one end of the piece, allowing me thread it with a long gold chain and wear as a necklace. Whenever I wear it, I warm it in my hands, my thumbs massaging my ever-silky cats, my touchstone.

Too soon our time in Hong King came to an end. There was still so much to see; streets crammed with push carts of goods; and antique stores tucked into alleys; and restaurants famed for their food. But we were headed for China, far more mysterious in 1980, than China today. Come along!