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