Sunday, December 21, 2008

Art & The City

On a cold, slushy, rainy day at Christmas time in midtown Manhattan – I step out of the subway station to find flocks of busy New York locals and visitors abound. In the mass of human bodies floating through the subways, the streets, the stores - how does one become a regular in a big city like New York City?

One secret may be to be a regular at a place. Some folks like to be a regular in their local café. Others have a favorite restaurant. And still others always hang out in their corner bar. I like to be a regular at
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

It was one of first thing I did when I moved back to New York City in fall 2007: I bought a membership card to MoMA. For $75, cheaper than the price of the unlimited monthly subway pass, I have unlimited access to the museum for an entire year. There are no lines to wait, no tickets to buy, no stress of people. Instead of trying to see everything in one day, we can take our time and just see a bit one at a time. I like to study and absorb one piece of work, and return at another time to see more. It’s a great way to appreciate the museum without feeling overwhelmed. I especially appreciate the movie theaters in the lower levels, where I have caught quite a few documentary and feature films.

The MoMA has a very nice atrium. The view is especially alluring through the windows from the third, fourth, fifth and sixth floor. In the current installation by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist who has created a 7,354 cm of landscape of sound, sculptural elements, and moving image that envelop the walls in a vivid panorama. There is a sign to take off your shoes before getting on the carpet – and to make friends with person next to you. The carpet is white and the huge sculptural seating island is made of suede like cushion. Despite being in a roomful of strangers from all over the city and all over the world, you get a sense of tranquility - you see people really relaxing, almost mediating. As I unlace my very wet hiking boots, I think to myself how welcoming it is to take them off and literally separate from the slushy cold outside. Sitting on the cushion and lying down, there is the comfort and warmth of being in one’s living room.

Encouraged by the other part of the sign to make friends with person next to you, I start to speak with this older couple from New Jersey. There are too many attractions in NYC and they don’t come to MoMA that often when they are in Manhattan. But today they are visiting with their daughter who is attending Savannah College of Art and Design. We then go into a deep discussion about art and its great value in society, and that there is not enough emphasis in the US education encouraging the study of art. After the couple left, I fold my coat to use as a pillow and lay down. As I stare at the panorama screen of a nude woman underwater, I begin to hear people speaking French around me. A sudden wave of nostalgia wash over me with the same image of me lying down…. on the square of Musée Centre Pompidou in Paris.

I developed an affinity for museums in the mid 1990s when I was a Fine Arts student at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center. Classes, homeworks, and projects required the art students to spend a lot of time with sketch pads in all the museums throughout the city. I enjoyed looking at the diverse objects in all forms of sculptures, canvases, and installations. It’s inspiring to learn about the artists’ backgrounds and their different time in history. I also love this concept of a public space as a place of learning and inspiration. From walking through the ancient artifacts of Mesopotamia at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to going up and down the rotunda of The Guggenheim where the architecture itself is a piece of art, to walking through the skyscraping dinosaur bones at The American Museum of Natural History, to pondering while standing underneath the Greek columns of The Cloisters – I am in awe of how different people in different eras of different parts of the world have all been inspired to achieve all they have done and their accomplishments are passed down to us today. Though I stopped studying art after high school academically, the passion for museums and a love for history stayed strongly with me.

When I moved to Paris in summer 2002, the first thing I did was get a membership card to museums. The museum I frequented most often was Musée Centre Pompidou. I eventually settled in the 11th arrondissement in the neighborhood of Belleville and the museum was just about half an hour walk away. It soon became my favorite hang out place. In the summer months I would lay down on the leaning square and stared at the colorful pipes. Whether listening to street performers play their instruments, or writing in my notebook, it was a great way to enjoy Paris and live the city as a local. Inside the museum, I had spent many coffee breaks writing in the café. When it got too hot, the Bibliothèque was a great place to escape the heat. And still, like MoMA, there was a lower level (and upper) for watching documentaries and features.

Today, there is a screening of Henry James’ Washington Square Park. This version is by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland and came out in 1997. It is such a treat to see this film now, for the first time, on the big screen – it seem to be the right time as I have not lived in the city for almost a decade and am rediscovering it and trying to reconnect with it - watching the film in MoMA somehow made me feel closer to New York City. I am struck by the music composed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Long after the credits have ended and I have exited the museum and taking the subway home, one song from the film, "Tu chiami una vita" still lingers heavily on my mind. The lyrics are by Salvatore Quasimodo. It is a truly beautiful song, so well written, so meaningful, for all emotions it evoke, I am really moved.

Art is like love. So inexplicable, so not logical, so not something we think we need - but yet - without it, life is dull and not as meaningful. You do not need to study it, you do not need to read about it, all you need is to feel it. And when it does resonate with you, it is pretty powerful.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cantonese Opera in Chinatown

On a magnificent clear sunny day beneath the hustle and bustle of New York City’s Chinatown lies a different world, of semi-darkness, sound and music. Every Sunday at New York Chinese School on 62 Mott Street the doors are opened to the general public for performances on Cantonese Opera. I came as one of the spectators to support one of the musicians.

When my father retired five years ago I got really worried that he would get bored. His job at his Chinatown restaurant occupied so much of his time, six days a week at over twelve hours a day for the past two decade in New York City that he did not have any time to develop personal interests and hobbies. Not yet sixty years old, he feels old and worn out, and he has been through a lot. In the mid 1950s his parents left him and the poverty stricken Taishan village in southeastern China. At six years old, alongside his three siblings he had to learn to take care of himself. Growing up he experienced famine in China and got very little education. In his life he only knows of the three things: thirty years of farming in China, twenty years of working in a restaurant in New York, and how to care for his family. After I graduated from university and both my elder brother and I were supporting ourselves, my dad made the decision to quit the stressful restaurant job and finally start living; he joined a music group for retirees in Manhattan Chinatown.

In the basement auditorium, both on stage and in the audience are filled with senior citizens in theirs 60s to 80s. There are half a dozen singers and eight musicians playing various instruments: the er-hu (Chinese violin), the flute, violin, gong, bells, etc. All of them share the similar background as my father, recent or long time immigrants from China these former workers from Chinatown restaurant or garment factory all spent many years slaving behind the restaurant stove or a factory sewing machine. After their children grew up and left the house these immigrant had the rare situation of having to find something to do with their time. This is how, like my father they came to be performing on stage.

Despite living in America for many years, the oversea Chinese immigrants hold on to the Cantonese Opera culture that they know of from China. As a kid, I grew up listening to Cantonese Opera and understand it very well. On stage with makeup concealing their old age, the 70 and 80 year olds look like 20 somethings dressed up in traditional Chinese outfits. The singers are not just merely singing out words, there are also facial expressions and hand movements. The Cantonese Opera stories are taken from ancient love stories from Chinese history and from famous literary masterpieces. The best stories are the tragic ones. One story performed was taken from one of the four Chinese classics, Outlaws of the Marsh about Lin Chong, a chief military instructor of the late Northern Song Dynasty who was framed and sent into exile. Sitting in the audience if you understand Cantonese Opera and know the stories, you feel a sense of comfort and familiarity. But even if that’s not case and it’s your first time, it’s ok too. You can still appreciate the experience, by absorbing the music, emotions, gestures, and the whole atmosphere.

At 5:00PM the show comes to an end, and I stood up to give a hearty round of applause to my father and his fellow Cantonese Opera performers. I applaud them not just for that day’s performance, I also applaud them for their energy, their motivation and their will. From garment factory workers to restaurant workers, from a job that is behind the scenes to something that is on stage they have reincarnated in one lifetime. These retirees all had no musical background, and now they’ve all learned to play instruments. It is truly inspiring to know that we can never stop learning, no matter what age and what background. Some people say life ends with retirement but for these retirees, life only starts. Next time you are in Chinatown do stop by for a Cantonese Opera show, you’ll be surprised to find what you can learn.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

America’s Most Endangered Place: New York’s Lower East Side

In May 2008 The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed New York Lower East Side as one of America’s 11 most endangered places. After a year of producing films on our endangered natural environment, my latest project is giving me a whole new perspective on how the term “endangered” can also apply to a man-made place.

Lower East Side, historically an immigrant neighborhood has in the last two decades gone through much development. Gentrification, as defined by is “the restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people”. Located in downtown Manhattan, the Lower East Side's close proximity to the Financial District has attracted bankers and business professionals. Gallery owners who can no longer afford the priced out Chelsea has seeped into the LES and settled their little galleries on Clinton Street and various other streets. Original resident buildings called tenements were once homes to a lot of immigrants have now have increased in price. The first hotel, a glass-walled 22 stories building opened on Rivington Street in late 2004. Many condominium towers are sprinkling up and the prestigious private university, New York University has also expanded their campus down to the LES. As more and more higher buildings are constructed, there is huge concern whether the LES will become a place where only the wealthy can afford to live.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

~ Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty

Lower East Side has been the most culturally diverse square mile in United States since the founding of this country. Most Americans can trace their roots to the Lower East Side one-way or other: Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Chinese, Hispanics, etc. When my family immigrated to New York City in the mid 1980s, we settled in Chinatown and LES. Speaking no English, the immigrant neighborhood provided support and resources with those similar to our backgrounds. Coming to America with nothing, immigrants learn English, get work, get an education, become American – Lower East Side played such vital place for many immigrants like my family that I can’t imagine growing up anywhere else but here.

Lower East Side developers such as Misrahi Realty talks about how change is inevitable and how development is necessary for a neighborhood. New York City is always changing, and LES is no different. For the developers, Lower East Side is still an immigrant neighborhood, just a new sort of ‘immigrants’ now. These ‘immigrants’ are international young professionals, college educated, good credits, and carry Blackberries. In face of these new ‘immigrant’, the traditional immigrants of the Lower East Side suffer. From long time tenants who are struggling to keep their rent control homes to small business owners (known as mom and pop stores) to artists, everyone is struggling to survive in the new Lower East Side.

Marylou, a Dominican American and Sharon, an African American were born in the neighborhood have lived here for half a century. They met when they were in second grade and have been best friends since. Greg, an old time resident in his mid 50s says any kid should be proud to grow up in the LES where there are all kinds of people and you learn to live with others very early in life. John, a long time Lower East Sider in is early 60s of Spanish descent said he could hardly recognize the changes now and missed the old time community feel of the LES. Shalom, an artist originally from Europe settled in the LES in the early 80s. Feeling the lost of the true flavor of the city, he said it’s just a matter of time that he will go back to Europe. He claims Berlin or Prague is more dynamic and open to poor artists than NYC. The list of long time residents affected by gentrification goes on and on. With development increasing every day, both the physical and symbolic character of the LES is eroding.

What is the future of the Lower East Side? Will it stop being a place that welcomes the poor, and instead only become a place for the affluent, for those who can afford to live here. In the natural environment, trees and oceans are potentially resilient; in time they may grow back. But once a neighborhood is changed and its historic buildings torn down with families and communities uprooted - it is all gone. For a country with little history as United States, I feel the need to hold on to its roots, more necessary than ever. But above all, I think what is endangered is not just the actual neighborhood of the Lower East Side – I feel, tragically what is also endangered is the idea and symbolism of an America that is a place accessible to all.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”

Baseball is claimed to be America’s favorite pastime.

After twenty-three years of living in United States, I have not yet experienced watching this important American sport. Recently, I decided to follow a friend who’s a passionate Mets fan to a baseball game at Shea Stadium. I was curious about two things, just what exactly is baseball all about and why it is “America’s favorite pastime”.

It’s an express subway ride on the 7 train from Manhattan’s Grand Central to Queen’s Shea Stadium – about half an hour journey. The whole baseball craze started as early as when I got on the train. My friend handed me a Mets cap. As I put on the cap, I started to notice other people also wearing Mets cap, and some with jersey shirts. Once we arrived at the Shea Stadium, people spilled out of the subway, in a sea of white and blue, and a tinge of orange. Boys were dressed in complete uniforms, including the gloves. People wore jerseys of their favorite players; Santana, Wright and Beltran. It occurred to me it was not just merely watching baseball, it was just as important to dress the part. Even before entering the gigantic stadium I was getting excited just observing the thousands of passionate fans - the enthusiasm was in the air!

A woman came on stage of the baseball field. All the spectators stood up. As the words of the national anthem “Star-Spangled Banner” filled the air and the American flag fluttered in the breeze I couldn’t help but noticed how patriotic sports can be. The audience is diverse, not just male, but women, kids and adolescents, various ethnicities and age group. Though it was my first experience, I quickly sensed that baseball is very much a family and friend event. Armed with plenty of hot dogs and beers or soft drink, this was a moment for family members and friends to catch up. People go to a baseball game not just of the game, being with their family and friends is important too. I enjoy hearing my friend talk about baseball and his granddad. As a kid, his granddad who lived in Flushing near Shea Stadium would take him to see many baseball games. My friend developed at a very young age the love of baseball, and the Mets. What I could connect with was not the affinity for the sport itself, but the memories it provokes of a childhood long gone, and the relationships with people.

How long in history has baseball been playing in the lives of Americans? “Baseball became an extremely popular sport during and just after the American Civil War. It was called "America's Pastime" because during the late 19th and early 20th century it was probably the most widely played sport in the country. Baseball was to that time period as video games and television are to today. Before TV Baseball was what kids did after school and on the weekends and during the summer...etc. It was literally how America passed the time.”

I tried to think of a childhood experience I may have had related to this great American pastime. I had none. In walking miles and miles down memory lane, the only recollection I could think of is from a book I read in fifth grade, “In The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson”. The story took place in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson took bat. In the book are these two passages:

“In our national pastime, each player is a member of a team, but when he comes to bat, he stands alone. One man. Many opportunities. For no matter how far behind, how late in the game, he, by himself, can make a difference. He can change what has been. He can make it a new ball game.

“Jackie Robinson is the grandson of a slave, the son of a sharecropper, raised in poverty by a lone mother who took in ironing and washing. But a woman determined to achieve a better life for her son. And she did. For despite hostility and injustice, Jackie Robinson went to college, excelled in all sports, served his country in war. And now, Jackie Robinson is at bat in the big leagues. “

The author, Bette Bao Lord is a Chinese woman who based the story on her life as an immigrant from China to Brooklyn, her struggle to learn English and fit in, and her passion for baseball. Sports have often been associated with the American Dream. It may not be true that dreams can come true in America, but one can dream and there is a possibility the dream can come true. In many countries, one can’t even dream. This is what I have learned in the past decade living in other countries. With all the problems and faults, America is still a great country. Success is never guaranteed, but it is a country of second, third, fourth chances.

“Take me out to the ball game... take me out to the crowd…. ”, the song blared from the sound system at the seventh inning, near the end of the game. I have heard of this song countless times in other settings. But as I hear it this time, I had to smile to myself : Here I am out seeing a ball game! and here I am out amongst the crowd! The first baseball game at the Shea Stadium is special for me - and as I found out at the end of the evening, it would also be my last game at this stadium. Shea Stadium will close down after this season. The new stadium, directly across the ball field will replaced this old one next year. Will the new stadium continue to provide for future generations, as it did for my friend and his granddad the same great experience of where people can come together to watch this great American pastime?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Herculean Father

My father is the strongest man in the world.

When he was six years old, his parents abandoned him, his brothers, sisters, and their hopeless village lives behind in search of a promising life elsewhere. At that age when we were loved and pampered by our parents, my father was to learn to fend his own demons.

In 1985, my family and my uncle's family immigrated to the "Land of Opportunity". Having heard of tales of streets paved with gold, my parents eagerly anticipated the improved life that would surely await us there across the Pacific. Little did they know of the hardships that we would face as "fresh-off-the-boat" immigrants. We settled in New York City's busy Chinatown. All nine of us crammed into a run-down, one-bedroom apartment that was to be called home for the next three years. It was all that we could afford, after paying off the debts to our relatives for the trip here.

My father was thirty-five when he came to the United States. All his life he worked in the rice fields. But New York City didn't have any rice fields for him to work in. He had to familiarize himself with a whole new profession, all over again. Due to his illiteracy in English and Chinese (his poverty stricken childhood prevented him from getting formal education) he had to resort to washing dishes in a local restaurant. It was an extremely endless and merciless job. It was also the only way he could pay the bills and put food on the table. Till this day I am still haunted by the nights when he came home with sores all over his hands. Over the years his responsibilities deepened as he ascended to a position in cooking. Now, instead of coming home with sores from washing so many dishes, there would be scars on his arms from the hot stove.

There is a saying that goes, "It is from adversity that strength is born." My father would always say in our native dialect Taishanese, "I've eaten more salt than you'll ever eat rice." It is true. I never had to experience the suffering my father went through. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a comfortable environment and still be able to understand the grief and poverty existing in this world. Growing up, I was never deprived of the education, love and support (like my father had) that is so vital to a person's upbringing. When my father stepped off the airplane at JFK airport in 1985, he didn't expect a better life for himself. He had already experienced the worst that could be during his thirty years in China. He came to the United States because he didn't want my brother and I to go through a similar childhood. He wanted us to have everything he didn't have.

As I've matured and learned my father's true reasoning, I push myself even harder in all that I do. I don't believe I could ever forgive myself if I didn't. I owe it to him, the strongest man in this world.

[ written in Autumn 1997 ]

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Caribbean’s Best Kept Treasure

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It all started with the glittering turquoise blue Caribbean Sea.

And then, a thatch-roof airport. This was the sight that greeted me as the plane descended on the runway. Swaying coconut palm trees. Rocking on a beach hammock. A morning jog along the coast to watch the sunrise. Thatch-roof huts glowing in silhouette against the sunset. An endless array of colorful fruits of papaya, pineapple, passion fruit, mango. A postcard paradise. Welcome to the Caribbean’s best kept treasure: the Punta Cana resort in the eastern tip of Dominican Republic.

What brings most people to Punta Cana is vacation; what brought me and fifteen other journalists to Punta Cana was a week-long seminar, “How Environmental Issues Influence Our Daily Lives: The Nexus Between Environment, Economics and Business” by The New York Times Institute on the Environment. We came from diverse ages, experience, and media backgrounds. From spread out locations of New York, New Jersey, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington DC, California, Montana and internationally, from Johannesburg, Montreal and Santo Domingo – we all united in Punta Cana resort with one purpose: to learn about the current environmental issues. It is my first time to Dominican Republic and the first time to the Caribbean. I hope staying at a luxurious resort will not inhibit me from having a real experience.

The Punta Cana resort was founded by Ted Kheel, and his partner Frank Rainieri over 30 years ago. A labor lawyer from New York he invested in this eastern part of Dominican Republic at a time when the area was barren and unknown. As a result of the resort and tourism, the region’s economy has been transformed, providing all sorts of employment for the Dominicans. But not just the locals benefit, also benefiting are their neighbors, the Haitians. These two countries share the island of Hispaniola, a significant historical location as it was first stop for Christopher Columbus when he first arrived in 1492 on his way to America. Ever since reading: Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I’ve been intrigued by how history and environment affects a country’s economy. Though Dominican Republic and Haiti share the same island, with similar environments, resources, climate, and a history as former colonies - their current situations are totally different. Haiti is one of the most impoverished nations on earth and is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. So poor are the Haitians that they escape to Dominican Republic to become ‘environmental refugees’.

Less than a century ago, Haiti was still a lush country with 60% forests covering the lands. Since then, the trees have been cut down and today Haiti only has 1 percent of its land covered in forest. Its neighbor, Dominican Republic on the other hand has environment that is protected. Its economy continues to grow and there is interaction with the international community. From this simple case study, I learned how vital it is for a country to be aware of its environmental problems. Unlike most resort owners in the world, Ted Kheel believes and supports environmental sustainability. He understood early on that the business of tourism is also a business of preserving the natural environment. Punta Cana Ecological Foundation was established to preserve the coastal zone, monitor water quality and has a recycling center and an Ecological Park and Reserve. Punta Cana Resort is setting an example of how it’s possible to develop a region, maintain economic growth and still preserve the environment.

Each day the journalists had the seminar classes in Ted Kheel’s resort home, Casa Guayacan. We had a field trip one afternoon that took us outside our Paradise-land to the shantytowns. Located in an area around the resort, this is where the resort workers and locals live. People are poor, with homes made of plywood or sheet metal. Our van passed by fields of migrant workers, of all shades of skin of black, chocolate and caramel, working on building the roads, gardening the plants, etc. We visited a medical clinic and an elementary school, all established by the resort owner to help the people in the impoverished area. Journalists get the rare privilege to view things differently, seeking out the extraordinary in the ordinary – just by definition of their profession. And whether in written words or photographs or moving images, they transcend what they have learned to others. Environmental journalists especially, I feel are humbled by their exposures of what they see. The interactions during the week-long seminars, both in and outside of class were tremendously dynamic - and because of all of them, Punta Cana was not only alluring for the sight but also stimulating for the intellect too.

As I sat on the plane heading back to New York City, I thought how Punta Cana turned out to be the perfect location for an environmental/economics seminar and a great introduction to Dominican Republic. It was as one fellow journalist said, “A rejuvenating experience learning about environment, socio-economics and life in general that left me with a great will to travel more and do better work". The experience has made me eager to return to the Caribbean. The next time I hope to be speaking with the locals in Spanish and making some great films. But until that next opportunity, I will always have the image of the coconut palm trees swaying in the foreground of the turquoise blue Caribbean Sea.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Alphabet City

Paris or Shanghai, London or Hong Kong, Amsterdam or Singapore -- the more I travel and live abroad, the more I notice that no matter how international or how charming a city is reputed to be, all cities feel more or less the same. What makes a place special? During the years living in Paris, I learned what I value about a city is the relationship I develop with the people living there and the neighborhoods. While the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, Montmartre, Seine, and Eiffel Tower all ring bells of greatness for Paris…. what will stay in my memory are the little details: my love for the neighborhood of Belleville, biking along the Canal St Martin up to Parc Villette, speaking with the locals who live there.

In Summer 1992, my family moved to Avenue C also known as Loisaida, in Alphabet City of East Village, Manhattan. It was a summer of transition for me; I just finished elementary school and was going into junior high school. It was also a period of transition for East Village; it just finished an era known as the dodgy 1980’s of crime and drugs (a time when Madonna was said to have lived here) and going into an era of gentrification. I went away to college in 1998 and came back in late 2007 to a neighborhood that has totally changed - but then, so did I.

The Lower East Side area has long been a first stop in New York City for new immigrants, because of the cheap rents and the ethnic enclaves. Puerto Ricans first settled in Alphabet City or Loisaida of Lower East Side in the 1950s. Loisaida is term first coined by poet Bimbo Rivas in his 1974 poem "Loisaida" and was officially added to Avenue C in 1987. Only recently have I learned the right pronunciation: "LO-EES-EYE-DAH"; it is Spanglish for Lower East Side. In the 1970s the culture of Loisaida began to flourish - characterized by art, poetry, gardens, and community organizations. Poetry was the favored form of cultural expression and the Nuyorican Poets Café began during this time, “Nuyorican poetry took on the characteristics of expressing the sorrows and struggles of Loisaida life but also celebrating Puerto Rican heritage”. Today the association is still a strong neighborhood landmark.

In these past six months that I’ve been back in East Village, I am reminded of the many things that make this neighborhood so quaint. Alphabet City has a local treasure that not many people know about. Community gardens were first formed in the 1970s from neglected lots and are tended by volunteer neighborhood residents. There are several scattered throughout the neighborhood. Across the street from my building, at the junction of Avenue C & 9th Street are two community gardens, La Plaza Cultural and the Ninth Street Garden. This is a haven for Lower East Side residents, a piece of Nature among the fields of concrete buildings. In both my community gardens there is a gigantic willow tree - my favorite tree.

I jog around Tompkins Square Park every morning and know ever corner blindfolded. As I jog by I would greet a group of senior citizens huddled together, deep in discussion over the daily news. On another side, I’d hear the sound of Chinese instrumental music coming from a portable stereo player before I catch the sight of people doing taichi. In the middle of the park is a dog run area where the owners chit chat with one another, while their pets roam carefree. Morning exercise is great for the body, but a good environment can strengthen the spirit and the soul. Running at Tompkins Square Park is peaceful, and the scenery is nice. In October, I was mesmerized by the colorful Autumn leaves - and now as Spring is here, I am in awed of the new green buds on the branches of trees. Each season really comes and goes so fast, and I am more aware than ever of how fast our days go, as I jog right through it.

Gentrification has changed the Loisaida neighborhood immensely. Bars, cafes, high end supermarkets, condominiums have all sprung up - I noticed the change especially by ears; it’s a lot noisier at nights now. Like all other gentrification in cities throughout the world, this is the case of young urban professionals moving in, rents rising, Puerto Ricans and now other Latinos fighting to keep their homes and institutions. The Lower East Side has the presence of public housing to act as a defense, but still it is not strong enough. Looking at the situation, I feel hopeless and very sad. I lived in this neighborhood during the formative, the adolescent years of my life. Looking back now, I believe growing up in this neighborhood helped shaped me to who I am today. It is a neighborhood of different culture, history, and vibrating arts. And because I lived here from an early age I developed a sensibility to be more aware and appreciate the different aspects and beauties of life. Losaida of Alphabet City is a special place.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Great American Outdoors

The heart of a country lies in its landscape. When I was a kid in elementary school I learned about all of United States of America’s vast range of geographic features: rolling hills and forests and grasslands and prairie land of Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Lakes, all from ‘sea to shining sea’. This famous phrase comes out of the song from Katharine Lee Bates’ 'America the Beautiful' (1893), a patriotic song familiar to most Americans, to which today I still know by heart the tune and lyrics:

O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties. Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee.
And crown thy good with brotherhood. From sea to shining sea!

But for all the wonderful natural landscapes that I learned as a kid growing up in America, I have never had the opportunity to see them firsthand. Most of my life is spent in the urban metropolis of New York City, and studying/working in San Francisco, Hong Kong, and the last five years in Paris. Bubbled in concrete buildings, mazes of people, mixed noises of cars, and mass transportation, I rarely know a time that is quiet, or a view that is empty. So used to urban life, I sometimes wondered if I could ever be anywhere else. Now as I get older and am settled in one location, it occurred to me, as I’m a filmmaker making films on both the man-made and the natural environment, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to learn more about the latter. Thus this is how I started my quest to discover the Great American Outdoors.

This weekend a group of us embarked on a day winter hike and it was ensured to me that it would be a one-of-a-kind experience. Mount Monadnock, the chosen destination is most climbed mountain in North America, and the second most climbed mountain in the world after Japan's Mt. Fuji. Located at 3,100 feet in southwestern New Hampshire, the word "monadnock" originally comes from the Abnacki Indian language meaning "mountain that stands alone." As a filmmaker needs her camera, a Tour de France cycler needs his bike, a chef needs his wok, a soccer player needs his ball - - a winter hiker needs her gear. We made a quick stop to REI, the #1 chosen retailer for quality outdoor gear to get the essential items. Once I entered the store I understood why it is haven for outdoor enthusiasts; they have everything! Snow pants, long underwear, heavy jacket, neck warmers, hats, boots, etc. Somehow felt compelled that this first hike is going to be the beginning of a lifetime of outdoor adventures, I signed up to become a lifetime member. The membership immediately gave me great discounts on my rented crampons. My curious reader may ask: What is a crampon? I would eagerly reply: It is a spiked iron/steel framework that is attached to the bottom of a boot to prevent slipping when walking or climbing on ice and snow.

Winter hiking on Mt. Monadnock is truly unique. The amazing tree-free views stretch far into the distance into surrounding New England states of Vermont and Massachusetts, because the mountain "stands alone”. Because of the winter weather and the snow, it discourages most people from coming. During our hike, we saw very few people and really got to enjoy the view of the natural landscape. Water running through the stream. The vast sky. The fresh air. The white snow. Not a sound at all. I was in total awe of where I was and felt utter joy. I now can understand how the snow, the trees, just Nature, have inspired so many great literature and poetry. I was also pleasantly surprised to find how comfortable I am at hiking and climbing and strategizing how to move through the snow in my crampons. I was at ease being in the middle of nowhere – to get away from the civilization, that of cars, buildings, people, Internet – even the cell phone had no reception. I had time to think and ponder my place in this world. And at times, I would just stand still, not do any thinking at all, and just enjoy the view. Just those moments are so precious. Coming downhill, we decided to let go of our crampons and just slide down in some parts. The thrill! The turn! We laughed so much! For a few moments we group of adults felt just like kids.

The winter hike on Mount Monadnock is a discovery into myself. I realized how comfortable and at peace I am with Nature. “REI is helping build a lasting legacy of trails, rivers, and wild lands for generations to come, supporting programs to help people of all ages and experiences participate“. Environmentalists would also applaud the need to preserve the beauty of Nature for the next and future generations. I, as an environmental filmmaker also agree. But I, as the new outdoor lover, want the natural environment to be protected not just for the next generation – I want it protected for our present generation too. Nature offers us so much beauty to discover and to experience; it would be great tragedy for us to lose it in this lifetime.

Monday, March 10, 2008

SHARK Fin Soup: A Cultural & Environmental Conflict

Culture is a wonderful thing; it gives us history and tradition. But at times, culture can be detrimental; it clouds our judgment and prevents us from changing.

A month ago I met up with a former Chinese-American colleague, now working for Humane Society International who pitched to me an environmental film I must make: Sharks are becoming endangered and shark finning is a big cause of it. Humane Society International is now actively doing a public education campaign in New York Chinatown and in the Chinese American communities across the country and Canada. Other than raising awareness, the goal is to encourage restaurants and markets to take shark fin dishes off the menu. I thought to myself: So what if the sharks are dying? What do we care? Why are we trying to save them? Aren’t sharks the man-eating monsters portrayed in the 1975 Spielberg film, Jaws?

Growing up in Chinatown, I know very well how important shark fin soup is part of Chinese cuisine custom. A rare and expensive delicacy dish, shark fin soup originated from south China in the Sung dynasty (AD 960). Shark fin soup became an established tradition in Ming dynasty (AD 1368) and since then the Chinese eat it during Chinese New Year celebrations, weddings, corporate functions, and other special occasions. If shark fin soup is not served at these important events, the host will look very cheap and is not giving face (respect) to his guests. In Chinese superstition, there is a famous saying: “nian nian you yu”, meaning “yearly prosperity”. Yu means ‘plentiful’ (in material wealth) and has the same tone as yu (fish). A fish dish is always served at Chinese New Year to welcome prosperity for the new year.

Despite my lack of concern for these ‘man-eating monsters’, my interest was ignited and I started reading everything about them. In February 2008 along with the Science Friday team, I attended the AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Boston. This year there was a symposium on sharks, “Will Too Few Jaws Take Too Big a Bite? The Importance of Sharks to Ocean Ecosystems”. I interviewed two of the experts, Lance Morgan, a conservationist at Marine Conservation Biology Institute and Julia Baum, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It is here that I really started to understand the importance of sharks and their role in the ocean ecosystem.

Sharks can be traced back to around 400 million years ago. They have existed 100 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared on land. Sharks are the world’s apex predator and are guardians of our oceans. They inhabit every ocean and play a vital role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems. Situated at the top of the food chain, sharks keep everything in balance in the oceans. The removal of sharks lead to increases or declines in other species below them in the food chain that causes unpredictable consequences for ecosystems. This is a big problem for fishermen and millions of people who rely on the ocean for their food, when the fish we do want no longer exist.

Although they have managed to survive all sorts of mass extinctions for millions of years, sharks have never encountered a predator as powerful as us, the industrialized humans. Sharks are being overfished and many populations have declined by as much as 90%. Up to 100 million sharks are being killed worldwide, mostly for their fins. The demand for shark fin soup is at an all-time high. The rapid rise of the economy in mainland China has created an increased middle class who has disposable income to spend on luxury items. What was once eaten on rare occasions, now is common to eat shark fin soup. With the ever-increasing environmental problems in the world today - it is urgent to raise awareness, concern and self-restraint among consumers. Because ultimately it is no longer a Chinese issue, or an American issue - one environmental disaster affects us all.

Is it possible to change a tradition that has run down over a thousand year? Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws (1975) for which Spielberg film was based on, spent the last decade before his death in 2006 campaigning for wild life. He said this about sharks : “For, world-wide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors". If Mr. Benchley can have a new insight to this great creature and the ocean, I hope it is possible for the Chinese people, and us global citizens of our planet to change our views too.

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MA Shumin produced environmental videos for NPR Science Friday.
View her video on shark awareness/conservation: A Bowl of Trouble for Sharks