If I’m So Smart, How Come I’m Not Rich?

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I’m coming up on my 17th anniversary in Hong Kong. A little further down the line is the 10th anniversary of this blog. I’m in a bad mood this morning. Consider this post therapy. Or a list of bad decisions.

Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, I decided I wanted to be a movie director. Looking back at it now, I think I reached this decision because I loved watching movies and it gave me an excuse for that.

When I was in high school I joined an independent filmmakers cooperative on Rivington Street, when Rivington Street was the exact opposite of the upscale hipster location it is today. A few times a week after school I’d take the subway down to this area where I had to step over and around broken glass, used hypodermic needles, junkies and drunks to get to this storefront “school” where they taught me how to use a 16mm camera and a Moviola. I don’t recall ever actually making any films there. Actually I don’t recall much from those days at all.

At the same time, I was playing piano and bass. My parents started me in on piano lessons around the age of 7 or 8. In junior high school, where my choice was between school orchestra or shop, I took up the double bass. I chose this because everyone wanted violin or clarinet (go figure), no one wanted bass, and I thought I could stand out this way. I did. The shortage of double bass players meant that somehow I got into a high school orchestra while I was still in junior high. It was the Bronx Borough Wide Symphony Orchestra and it was a year in which they (we) would play our annual concert at Carnegie Hall. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice!” I didn’t practice much. There just weren’t many bass players to choose from. So I played Carnegie Hall when I was 14. I also got a cheap electric bass guitar and despite having zero understanding of it at all, I tried to join or form a band. I even had an ad in Rolling Stone (which at the time did free classifieds for musicians) about wanting to form a band modeled after the Bonzo Dog Band, a huge favorite of mine at the time. That never got off the ground, no big surprise.

For college (or university, depending on where you’re from) I had my heart set on going to UCLA or USC but my parents said California was too far away. So I got into NYU’s film school, I was accepted for early admission, which was sort of a big thing.

My first semester, there was a course on still photography that went for 8 hours a day, twice a week. Second semester, there was a course “intro to filmmaking” that also went 8 hours a day. The teacher decided that this would be perfect for the entire class to do mescaline together, as he saw psychedelic drugs as essential to understanding the film experience. The dean kept rejecting his request for some reason.

I got a summer job working at the restaurant at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. The guys running it had a kosher deli nearby and hired me because they owed my parents a favor. They hated me and I hated them. Eventually they tossed me out of the restaurant and had me pushing a hot dog cart through the park. By early August I quit and took off for London for 3 weeks with a friend.

Second year at NYU, I had the legendary Haig Manoogian as a teacher. He’s one of those people not easily forgotten. (Raging Bull was dedicated to him.) I remember doing a documentary on my then-piano teacher Barry Goldberg and a moody thing shot in a hundred year old synagogue using Tim Buckley’s Star Sailor as a soundtrack. I don’t think Haig was impressed by my stuff. I started spending most of my time at WNYU, the school’s radio station, dj’ing a couple of times a week. I’d also shot some photos of David Peel and he liked them so I occasionally hung out with his odd assortment of friends.

I was also working part time as a grillman at this bar and restaurant called Hungry Charlie’s. It was right down the street from NYU’s “main building.” Since I was commuting to school rather than living in the dorm, I thought this would be a good chance to meet other students. It turned out that this was more of a lowlife sort of spot, lots of dealers, junkies, hookers, scammers and the occasional odd celebrity. One day I was driving through the east village and spotted a junkie hooker in a doorway and thought to myself, “Oh yeah, I made her a cheeseburger last night.” And then I thought to myself, “Time to get out of New York.”

But first, a summer job. I got this list of every film production house in New York, divided it up geographically, put on a suit and tie, and knocked on every door and left a resume at the front desk. I got hired by Larry Lindberg Productions. They were doing a weekly 30 minute sports magazine show for CBS called CBS Sports Illustrated. I was hired as a gopher and assistant editor and ended up cutting one piece that got on the air. Larry was an interesting guy and the two “real” editors there taught me a lot, including how to use one of the newer flatbed editing machines. One of the things there was that they needed music as soundtracks to their 5 minute segments but they didn’t know anything about current music. I brought in a lot of my records; they liked Deep Purple and Yes. They told me I could have a job there again the following summer but for some reason I never went back. I should have.

I had friends going to school in Boston so I looked for a Boston school where I could major in film and found Emerson College. The film school was pretty shitty there and I think in two years there I made one 5-minute vampire movie. Back in those days Boston had a lot of repertory movie theaters, double bills of classic movies for $1, and I went to the movies almost every day. I almost never went to classes. I also started working for Boston promoter Don Law; I was head usher for awhile at the 3,000 seat Orpheum Theater and did security at another theater, name I can’t remember, and also the occasional show at the much larger Boston Garden. Basically I got to see just about every band that came through Boston in those two years – and got paid for it.

Somehow, I graduated on the Dean’s List. I say “somehow” because I don’t think I went to too many classes in those two years.

Back to New York, reading the trades, and I got a job as a production assistant on a kung fu/monster/blacksploitation film called The Devil’s Express, which was mostly shot in the subway tunnels in Brooklyn.

When that finished, I took an office job at a place called Physicians Radio Network. Doctors would fill out these postcards in medical magazines, this company would send them these free crappy radios that only played their network, filled with ads from drug companies. I sat and did something with filing these cards all day long.

Another ad, another film job, somehow I ended up as assistant cameraman on a 35mm feature film – an XXX-rated hard core porn called Rollerbabies. The director was this guy who had a PhD in chemistry but decided he wanted to make movies. The only people who would hire him were Mafia types who’d give him 25k and he’d give them a movie. So the budget was low as his “salary” was basically whatever was left over from that 25k after the film was made. The script was written by a guy who was moonlighting from Mad Magazine. No one in it could act so most of the jokes were jettisoned. The director’s “trademark” was a pull-out-slow-motion-cum-shot. He got busted on his next film for using under-age talent.

Meanwhile I couldn’t get busted and I couldn’t get a job. So I took a summer job as a camp counselor, a camp in the Poconos, and that’s where I met my first wife.

Back after the summer, I put on the suit and tie and started banging on doors again. This time a lot of places told me I needed to be in a union. None of the film unions would accept me, even as an apprentice, because I either didn’t already have a job or I didn’t already have relatives in the union.

Eventually I got hired part time by Bob Gaffney Productions. Bob was a director/cameraman doing TV commercials – Clio-award winning commercials for global brands. First they brought me in to edit the house reel – splicing together commercials so they could send reels of film to ad agencies to get jobs. Yeah, it was like that once.  I got to PA on a few location shoots too. Then they started calling me to fill in as the receptionist whenever their full time one got sick. When she quit her job, I asked them to give me the job permanently. “But it’s not a film job, you won’t be happy, you won’t get to go on shoots.” “But I’ll be happy getting a regular paycheck!” So they agreed and I had my first full time job at the age of 24, as a receptionist. I’m sure my parents were thrilled.

One day the phone rang. “Bob Gaffney please.” “May I ask who is calling?” “Stanley Kubrick.” WTF?

And so I learned a bit more about Bob’s history. Bob started out shooting March of Time documentaries. He’d done work for the CIA – which he told us about and which I will not write about here. He directed Orson Welles’ first TV commercial. He directed cult favorite Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.

For Kubrick, he’d shot second unit stuff for Lolita, Strangelove and 2001. He was the producer for the never-finished Napoleon. He’d designed the super low light lenses for Barry Lyndon. Working on Napoleon soured him on feature films and he decided doing commercials was easier. Every time Stanley would start a new film, he’d call Bob and try to get him to come to work for him again. This time the film was to be The Shining. Barry Lyndon had tanked at the box office and Stanley thought he needed a sure-fire hit otherwise he’d lose creative control and final cut. He hated the book and thought if he filmed the ending as written the audience would run out of the theater laughing. So our first task was to read the book and suggest alternate endings.

Stanley thought he might move back to the U.S. to shoot the picture. Since he wouldn’t fly – and since there was no Internet – I had to collect every train schedule and every Mobil Travel Guide and mail them to him in the UK. He stayed in London. We tested the Steadicam for him and our office served as the office for the second unit crew whenever they were in transit between Oregon and London. Whatever work I did on this film was not enough to rate a screen credit. I did get to meet a lot of people who’d worked with him for a decade or more. Few had any good things to say about him yet they kept working for him film after film.

The other thing with Stanley that he was convinced that as a famous American living in London, he was a potential target for the IRA. He thought they would try to kidnap his children. So every two days he had his phone number changed. I have no idea why he thought that would be effective. So every time he called it was always, “Hi Stanley, what’s your phone number today?”

Gaffney decided to promote me away from the receptionist desk. I was told that I would either be trained to become an associate producer or business manager. I had no say in the matter. His current business manager was his father-in-law, approaching 65 years old. So guess which job they gave me? I became business manager of one of the top ten commercial director/cameramen in the U.S., with absolutely no background for it. Why? Because I worked cheap. However, it seemed to seriously piss him off that I would show up for work every day in jeans, t-shirts and cowboy boots but that I could get short-term bank loans at lower interest rates than his father-in-law had done.

I didn’t much like the job and I didn’t like other things going on in the office that I don’t feel comfortable writing about. I left there after four years. And I was screwed. No production house in New York wanted to hire me as a business manager because they didn’t believe that someone so young and unqualified had done that job. No production house in New York wanted to hire me for film work because I hadn’t been on a shoot in more than two years. And the unions still weren’t willing to take me.

My assistant at Gaffney had introduced me to a young British songwriter. He had a publishing contract with Capitol and wanted to put a band together. I agreed to manage him and funded the entire thing with credit cards. We found three more musicians, I bought them equipment and a rehearsal space, I got them gigs at places like CBGB’s and used a connection to get them into NYC’s famed Record Plant to record demos.

At the same time, I was working at my cousin’s store that was right on the borderline between Columbia University and Harlem. I was selling TVs and stereos, delivering stuff into the projects, repairing TVs and covering for him while he ran off doing various things that I probably shouldn’t be writing about.

The whole thing sucked. The record companies came down to see the band and they all said the same thing. “They’re good but they’re at least a year away.” The band didn’t want to rehearse, they didn’t want to try and get gigs on their own, my cut from their gigs was usually around $25 a night. I walked away from them, deeply in debt. Eventually they got picked up by King Crimson’s management company and released one EP on A&M Records and, as far as I can tell, none of them were ever heard from again.

This is getting rather long so I’ll take a break here.

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Hong Kong – Can It Get Any Weirder?

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So the deal as you all should know by now is that there is this group called Occupy Central With Love and Peace. Their deal is that should they decide that the preparations for the 2017 elections in Hong Kong are not truly democratic, they will stage a protest that will possibly bring Hong Kong’s Central district to a standstill.

They’ve been talking about this for more than 18 months now and every Beijing loyalist and card-carrying member of the Communist party has been predicting the destruction of Hong Kong if this takes place.  The walls (and the banks) will come tumbling down! No more foreign investment! Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky, rivers and seas boiling, earthquakes, volcanos, the dead rising from their graves, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together … you get the idea.

So this group of brainiacs decided that the best way to protest this coming protest would be … to stage a protest! And so yesterday we had the Alliance for Peace and Democracy (sigh) staging a protest march from Victoria Park to Central.

As the New York Times and other sources have noted, it would appear that many of the participants of yesterday’s march were mainland Chinese.

Typical was Kitty Lai, an investment adviser wearing an orange T-shirt and a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the Hong Kong Federation of Fujian Associations, a group that represents people from the coastal province across from Taiwan. 

“We want everything to be stable,” Ms. Lai, 50, said in Mandarin Chinese. “We want everybody to live harmoniously.”

Many participants brought along their Indonesian and Filipino domestic helpers, who also donned the T-shirts and hats, with some given Chinese flags to wave.

“Hong Kong people desire peace. They’re not afraid of speaking out, and the silent majority has spoken,” Robert Chow, a spokesman for the alliance, said in an interview. “Why should they follow Occupy Central and try to hold Hong Kong hostage? If they really want universal suffrage, negotiate with Beijing. Negotiate with the government.”

That phrase “silent majority” has irritated me since the days when Nixon and Agnew used it to try to defend the Vietnam War. “The protesters may be against it but there’s a silent majority who love it!” or something to that effect. How does a “silent majority” speak, anyway?  And how does one negotiate with a totalitarian government bent on maintaining control at any cost?

After the demonstrators had left, the detritus of protests, including posters, water bottles and flags, was strewed across the park, in contrast to the aftermath of pro-democracy rallies, when volunteers patrolled the ground, cleaning up everything, including wax from candle drippings.

You’d think all those rich people who’d brought their maids along would get them to do a bit of cleaning up afterwards. But nooooo ……

From the SCMP:

Clans that hailed from all corners of the mainland made up a crucial part of the turnout. Their origins were on full display – T-shirts of the same colour to depict a certain hometown and banners held high proclaiming the same.

Some had their fill at sponsored dim sum lunches in restaurants before setting off from nearby Victoria Park.

But under the gruelling sun, some abandoned their mission to oppose Occupy just 500 metres into the march, near Sogo department store.

The clans were not the only ones putting up united fronts; dozens of South Asian protesters were dressed in red T-shirts – curiously – carrying the logo of the Federation of Hong Kong Shenzhen Associations. They refused to say if they were members of the federation or had been paid to take part. “We are tourists,” a man said.

Yesterday’s rally proved lucrative, at least for Causeway Bay restaurants. At Cheers in Windsor House, 30 tables were reserved by the Hong Kong Hubei Fraternity and An Kwei Clans Association to treat protesters before the march started. In the same building, all of King’s Cuisine and several more tables in Choi Fuk Royal Banquet were taken up by the Hong Kong Hakka Association. About 30 protesters were decked out in blue T-shirts with the logo of Ying Wah Construction Group.

A woman with another company said her mainland employer had mobilised staff. “I join the July 1 pro-democracy rally every year. I would not have joined [this march] if there was no pressure,” she said.

The SCMP also live-blogged the march.

“Keep your Hong Kong and China flags as souvenirs, don’t throw them away,” organisers tell marchers at the finishing point.

Why would patriots need to be reminded not to throw away their country’s flag?

4.20pm: One woman taking part told the Post that she had only joined the march after direct pressure from her seniors at work. The woman, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, said she was from Hong Kong but some of her colleagues had travelled from Shenzhen. “I would not have joined if there was no pressure,” she said, adding that she normally took part in Hong Kong’s July 1 demonstration.

4pm: Some minor confrontations have been reported between marchers and Occupy Central supporters. One marcher threw a tray of 24 eggs at members of People Power, who support the Occupy movement, but the eggs hit a woman police officer, according to reports.

3.55pm: The march is rather a lacklustre affair, according to Post reporters on the ground. Marchers are plodding along, shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas, while there is no chanting of slogans or creative costumes often seen during Hong Kong demonstrations. “Whistles blown half-heartedly can be heard from time to time but most people look indifferent. It seems like a march without a soul,” reports Nectar Gan.

No one was arrested for the egg-throwing incident, a clear indication of the police turning the other cheek when it politically suits them.

Also a clear indication of how stupid the police look is their estimation of 118,000 marchers in this event, as opposed to their estimate of just 98,000 for this year’s July 1st protest. Comparing overhead photos of the two events, as many have been doing on Facebook, shows the truth pretty clearly – that July 1st’s march had many times more participants than yesterday’s dog and pony show.

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So there you have it. A protest to protest a protest. Made up of people bussed in from across the border with the promise of a free meal and people coerced by their employers. And the icing on the cake is the lying by the police.

I wonder when someone will stage a march to protest the real rulers of Hong Kong – Cheung Kong, Sun Hung Kai, New World, etc.

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Review – Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13

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Photographers suffer from what we jokingly refer to as GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. We get GAS not only for cameras and lenses, we also get GAS for bags. I don’t know any photographer who only has one camera bag. We buy them in all different sizes for all different purposes.

There are plenty of companies making photo bags and I’ve tried lots of them and after several years, the one company that I “follow” is an American company called Think Tank Photo. Their bags are intelligently designed and durable and have stood the test of time for me.

Here’s my “family” of Think Tank Photo bags:

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As you can see, I’ve got six of them, ranging from a small shoulder bag that will hold just my Nikon D800 with a zoom lens all the way up to the rolling Airport Security bag – which I use not just for travel but also for local shoots when I’m taking everything with me.

Think Tank decided to branch out into a new line that they called My 2nd Brain. This is a line of bags that they say are specifically sized for Apple products – MacBooks, iPads, iPhones – though of course they should work for just about any notebook, tablet and phone.

The first series of bags that they introduced left me cold. These were ultra-slim shoulder bags that could fit a laptop or a tablet computer and maybe a few sheets of paper but very little else. They couldn’t begin to accommodate what I carry on a normal work day. I looked at them and wondered if their designers all had 20/20 vision or wore contacts. There wasn’t even space for a couple of regular-sized eyeglass cases, let alone all the stuff I’m liable to carry on an average work day.

So, you ask, what do I carry on a normal day?

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  • 13 inch MacBook Pro
  • iPad Air
  • two pairs of glasses – reading and sun glasses
  • Fiio headphone amplifier
  • Over the ears headphones – most often B&W P5s, sometimes I go for the Bluetooth Parrot Zik headphones, which are also fabulous.
  • a “regular” pen and an Adonit Jot Script pen for writing on my iPad
  • The power adapter for my MacBook
  • a battery-powered electric fan, for all the times I’m waiting for the damned 307 bus in 35 degree heat
  • some sugar-free mints
  • 3 different business cards (day job, photo studio, photo/writing)
  • Keys
  • Battery charger and cables
  • Umbrella
  • Water bottle

And that’s not everything. Not shown in the photo above are:

  • Two mobile phones (one for business, one for “life”)
  • Cigarettes and a lighter
  • Sony RX100 III camera
  • And, occasionally, a paperback book for when I feel like reading on paper vs. on my iPad

Now, take all of that stuff and add on that I’m somewhat obsessive compulsive (as if that wasn’t already evident) and that I don’t want to spend time digging through my bag looking for things. I want each thing to have its own pocket or compartment; first so that it won’t be banging into anything else, and second so that I can put my hands on anything in an instant without digging around.

I have a slim vertical shoulder bag from Skooba that can’t really handle too much stuff. An iPad and two pairs of glasses and the Sony camera leave it bursting at the seams. I have a messenger bag from Crumpler that holds all of the above and more, but it’s just too big – when I’m sitting on the bus it’s really difficult to keep the bag from spilling over onto the laps of the people sitting next to me.

I decided that I wanted some kind of briefcase, to look more professional (okay, granted, I go to work wearing jeans and t-shirts and sneakers, but once in a rare while I have to do “business casual” or even a suit and a messenger bag just doesn’t go with that).

There’s probably a zillion briefcases one can find in Hong Kong, everything from cheap knock-offs to fancy leather cases costing thousands of dollars. I figured I could spend years looking at all of them, trying to find one that would fit my particular mania. But when TTP expanded their My 2nd Brain line to include briefcases, I knew that was the answer I was looking for. The price was right, the size was right and I also knew that this would have all of the pockets and compartments I wanted. So I got the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 in black (it also comes in “Harbor Blue” and “Mist Green”).

(Full disclosure – after not being able to locate the bag in Hong Kong through the local TTP distributors, I approached the company directly asking for a bag in exchange for a review and I was quite surprised when they agreed.)

Let’s start by examining the outside of the bag, starting with the front:

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It’s a very clean, classic design, made from 420D high density nylon with a water-repellant coating. The bag measures 14.2″ wide by 11.8″ high by 4.5″ deep. As you can see, the handle at the top of the bag is well padded. The detachable strap is also sufficiently padded, with those little shiny maybe-silicone bits that keep it from slipping off one’s shoulder.

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There’s even a small buckle on the strap to let you hang a pair of headphones or some other small item with a strap.

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(The above photo is the only one taken from the company web site. Wish I had a nice set-up at home for doing this kind of shooting!)

All of the hardware is durable nickel-coated metal.

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The front flap has two zippers that open to reveal the type of sectioned divider that’s found in almost every TTP bag.

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Note that there’s a deep pocket there good for papers, a small notebook, or perhaps a passport and tickets. (That’s where I put my electric fan.) There’s also a small blue strap with a hook at the end meant for attaching a key ring.

Viewing this same compartment from the other side, there’s another flap that’s the right size for a full-size iPad – in my case an iPad Air in a slim case from Odoyo.

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Just behind that compartment is a zipper that opens to reveal a small compartment meant for a mobile phone.

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There’s also a small webbed pocket in there that will fit business cards nicely. Me, I prefer to keep my phone in my jeans.  I tried putting my Sony camera here but the weight of the camera made this section get all bulgy.  So I’m using this pocket for my smokes. They fit perfectly there and they’re instantly accessible.

Looking inside the main compartment, theres one divider that features 5 expandable pockets:

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And there’s plenty of room to fit some papers or a magazine back there. Still in the main compartment but facing the other direction, there’s another divider that features two clear zippered pockets.

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And again, room behind that for more papers.

What you might also note in the above photos is that there are pieces of fabric along both sides attaching the front of the case to the rear. This is great because it means when the bag is on your shoulder and you open it up on the street, there’s no possibility of the front flipping over and all of the contents spilling out. You also have probably noticed the light grey interior, meaning it’s easy to see every item that you’ve got in there.

TTP include rain covers will almost all of their bags, and the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 is no exception.

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The blue bag contains a black plastic cover. The strap ends with a bit of velcro that wraps around a red elastic hook inside, meaning that you can take the bag out.

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As you can see, the rain cover bag actually takes up quite a bit of space.

Looking at the back of the bag, there’s the zippered compartment for your laptop.

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I don’t know that I needed that bit of cutesy text there. Both sides of the compartment are lightly padded.

Then there’s a slim space that you can drop a newspaper or magazine into.

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There’s also a tight flap that will allow you to put this securely onto the handle of a larger piece of luggage, as shown below with my TTP Airport Security rolling bag.

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Finally, both sides of the bag have zippered, expandable pockets that can hold a water bottle, a folding umbrella, a large eyeglass case or perhaps a kebab from Ebeneezer’s.

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So, yes, this bag holds everything I might possibly want to take with me on a day out, each item in its own place and easily accessible. It’s small enough to fit on my lap and it’s flat which makes it a great “desktop” for holding my iPad while I’m watching my TV shows during my commute.

I’ve been using this bag now every day for about 3 weeks and on the whole, I’m really loving it. It’s the same Think Tank Photo quality that I love in the other 6 TTP bags that I own. It seems strong and durable. It feels as if it will last a lifetime, or at least for several years.

What this bag positively screams is that Think Tank Photo have put the same amount of thought into the organization, construction and details that they put into their camera bags. That’s what I was hoping for in a briefcase from this company and they didn’t let me down.

The size is both a positive and a negative for me. Everything feels as if it has been engineered to military-like precision. The bag is small enough and light enough for me to take it with me every day without feeling as if the bag alone has added 5 or 10 extra pounds to the stuff I carry with me. (The actual weight of the bag is 2.1 pounds.)

It’s also small enough that I can pack it in my luggage when I travel. I know that sounds odd, but generally when flying I want a larger carry on bag (for reasons that I won’t go into here). But once I arrive, I want the smaller bag for my every day walking around stuff. I’ll be able to do that with this bag.

On the other hand, this compactness means that once I fill up the bag, and all of the little inside pockets, there’s not a lot of room left over. This becomes an issue with the power adapter for my MacBook. I’m not sure that the Think Tank designers ever saw this power pack with the huge British plug as opposed to the slim American one – it’s a tight fit and I can’t really use the compartment for this as shown on their web site. I suspect that the bag is strong enough that I could really stuff it beyond the point of sanity and manage to get it closed, but it might get really bulky and uncomfortable to carry at that point. I actually find myself wondering if I shouldn’t go for the 15 inch laptop size – not because I want a larger laptop but because of the couple of extra inches of interior storage space I’d get as a result.

Honestly, that’s about as much of a complaint as I can come up with for the bag. It is 100% the bag I was looking to get. It holds pretty much everything I want to take with me during the week – it holds everything safely and securely and everything is instantly accessible whether I’m standing at a bus stop or sitting at my desk. And, bonus, my wife says that the style really suits me.

The Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain briefcase series comes in 3 sizes – for 11 inch, 13 inch and 15 inch laptops. Each size is available in three colors – black, “Harbor” blue or “Mist” green.

The My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 that I have retails for US$129.75. You can purchase the bag from Amazon or  B&H Photo.  You can also try contacting Howen International, a great local company that distributes Think Tank products (and other photography accessories) in Hong Kong although at the moment they’re not bringing in the briefcases.

Thanks again to Think Tank Photo for supplying me with this bag in exchange for a review.

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Lauren Bacall

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Bacall In Beads

 

One day after Robin Williams’ shocking death, the world also lost actress Lauren Bacall, one of the all time greats.

Bacall, whose career spanned 70 years, made her film debut at the age of 19 opposite Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, in which she got to say the immortal words:

You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.

She and Bogart fell in love and were married (he was 24 years older than her) and they remained together till Bogart’s death in 1957.  (Bogart remains my all-time favorite actor and my dog is named for him.) She was romantically linked to Frank Sinatra and was also married to Jason Robards Jr.

(Here’s a good bit of trivia. Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway got drunk together and got into a debate. Hawks claimed that great books made lousy movies, lousy books made great movies. Hemingway disagreed. Hawks bet Hemingway that he could make a great movie from Hemingway’s worst book. “What’s my worst book?” “To Have and Have Not.” Hawks told Hemingway that the book was a “bunch of junk.  Hemingway agreed and dared him to film it. And he did, but basically he threw away almost everything from the book except the title and the names of the characters. William Faulkner helped write the script.)

(Another bit of trivia. Legend has it that Bacall’s singing voice in THAHN was dubbed by a young Andy Williams. Hawks and Bacall both deny this.)

Bacall’s films include The Big Sleep, Key Largo, Young Man With a Horn, How to Marry a Millionaire, Harper, Murder on the Orient Express.  She won two Tony Awards for appearances in the Broadway musicals Applause and Woman of the Year. She won a Golden Globe for The Mirror Has Two Faces and received an honorary Oscar in 2009.

Lauren Bacall was one of the true greats and will be missed.

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Robin Williams

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I woke up this morning to the news that Robin Williams had committed suicide. Almost every day we read news of celebrities dying, some too soon, and shrug our shoulders (at least I do) and say, well, people die, everyone dies sometime. The news of Williams’ death left me almost inexplicably sad. And clearly it did this for others too – I can’t recall any other celebrity death getting so many mentions from so many people in my Facebook feed.

I never knew Williams and I never got to see him perform in person. But I’m just 3 years younger than he was, which means that I got to follow him for his entire professional career, from when he first turned up on TV on the Richard Pryor show and his guest appearance on Happy Days that led to Mork & Mindy. It was just last week that I finally had listened to his amazing interview on Marc Maron’s WTF from four years ago. He seemed so optimistic and so in control that this news was doubly shocking.

Anyway, while Williams was in many movies that I detest, he was in an almost equal amount that I really respect (and that’s not counting his multiple stand-up specials for HBO, surely his best work). So I thought I’d run down a few of them.

Popeye 

This was his first major film role, in Robert Altman’s revisionist live action take on the beloved cartoon character. Revisionist? The movie was reviled in its time, yet I liked it 30 years ago and love it now. Screenplay by Jules Feiffer, a cast that included Shelly Duvall, Ray Walston, Richard Libertini, Bill Irwin – and don’t forget songs by Harry Nilsson, arranged by Van Dyke Parks.

The World According to Garp

Two years later, the film that proved that Williams could act, and could do serious as well as humor.

Moscow on the Hudson

This is a great film from Paul Mazursky, one of the most patriotic films ever made. Williams carries the film but he had a great script to work from and a great director to work with.

Good Morning Vietnam

This was the first film to properly capture Williams the comedian, as the role gave him plenty of room for improvisation.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

A small role in this Terry Gilliam wackfest.

Dead Poets Society

People love this movie and I guess I did at the time but I never feel an urge to go back to it.

Awakenings

Robin goes semi-maudlin, this is the kind of film that would set the stage for a lot of his later work.

The Fisher King

Back with Terry Gilliam.

Aladdin

Yea, Robin is funny again!

The Birdcage

People seem to love this film but I don’t, maybe because the original is too firmly fixed in my mind.

Good Will Hunting

I’m currently reading Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, which is primarily about Sundance and Miramax, and the making of this film is an important chapter in that book. Williams gets his Oscar for this but is he just repeating himself from Dead Poet’s Society?

What Dreams May Come

I keep thinking I have to watch this again one day.

Insomnia

One of a small number of films in which Williams played a bad guy – very effectively.

World’s Greatest Dad

What is especially notable here – and commendable – is how Williams continued to appear in smaller indie films, even ones like this that might be slightly controversial, giving support to interesting projects and to friends (in this case fellow stand-up and now writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait).

He also continued to do stand-up, his last HBO special was in 2009 as I recall.

Anyway, you can hear his entire Marc Maron WTF interview on YouTube here. It’s revealing, it’s frank, it’s very funny.

(I know there’s nothing strikingly original or unique, maybe just the link to the WTF interview, just felt compelled to write something about this.)

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Find My iPhone – Please!

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I’m just back from 6 days in Manila. On the 4th day, I did something that I haven’t done in at least 5 years, maybe 10 – I left my iPhone in a taxi.

Over the years I’ve trained myself to always look back at the taxi seat before closing the door. This time, for whatever reason, I didn’t do that. We got out of the cab, went to a coffee shop, I reached into my pocket to pull out my 2 phones, and only 1 was there. I checked all of my pockets and then called the hotel and asked them to search my room – but I already knew I’d taken it with me when I left the hotel in the morning.

We tried calling the phone at least 27 times but no answer.  We sent an SMS message to the phone in Tagalog offering a reward if returned.

As soon as we could, back to the hotel. After searching the room myself, I called 3 to cancel the SIM card. I went to the “find my iphone” and hit all the settings – play sound, “lost mode,” erase phone. I set the message with my Hong Kong number and an offer of a “big reward” if returned. And then, just to be safe, I proceeded to change the passwords to most of my major accounts – email, iTunes, Facebook, Twitter and so on.

So bye bye iPhone 5S, 64 gig, gold color.

I didn’t lose any data worth mentioning. The phone was backed up to my computer right before I left for the trip. Photos were stored on iCloud. So pretty much just the most recent call logs and SMS messages. And since the phone was password/fingerprint locked – and remotely erased – I believe/hope that my data has not been compromised. So the only real damage – I believe – is the loss of something that cost US$900.

And now my wife finally has an answer to the question she has asked me 100 times – “why do you have a password on your iPhone?”

I don’t want to go out and buy a new iPhone 5S (or try to find a used one in Mong Kok, if that’s possible) because the iPhone 6 is rumored to be announced next month.  So we reversed the “hand me down” order. Every time I’d get a new phone, my old one would go to my wife and her old one would go to her daughter. So for now, the daughter’s iPhone 4S back to my wife, my wife’s iPhone 5 back to me and bought some sort of phone for the daughter.

I got back to Hong Kong on Wednesday. Finally tonight (Thursday night) on my way home from work, Find My iPhone beeped. My phone had been turned on. It is sitting at the Ever Commonwealth Mall, just off Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City.

Supposedly once an iPhone has been put into lost mode, the phone is essentially bricked and cannot be used or erased until you enter your iTunes account and password. But I am relatively certain that hackers have found ways to get around this – especially in the Philippines.

Going back to the iPhone 5 from the 5S, I find I am really missing that fingerprint sensor. Instead of just touching a finger to the button, now I have to hit the button, swipe and enter a passcode every time. (Well, you all know this already.)

Such is life. We become so attached to our gadgets that the loss of one can seem almost catastrophic, even though it’s really just a few steps above trivial. Fortunately Apple (and Google) build in some safeguards for when this happens, and hopefully those work. Life goes on.

 

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Our Chief Weapon – Surprise

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In case you didn’t already know it, Monty Python’s five remaining members reunited for 20 shows at London’s O2 arena earlier this month. One show was simulcast to theaters around the world (although I don’t think any theater in Hong Kong had this).

I was in London at the beginning of July and thought about going to see them. I checked online and saw “only single seats available” and thought, “Well, that’s okay, I’m on my own.”

But then I thought about it a little bit more. The remaining tickets cost close to 150 pounds and were all the way in the back of the arena. I realized I’d be so far from the stage that I’d be watching the whole thing on the video projection screens. So I figured, okay, if I’m just gonna watch TV, I might as well save a few bucks and wait for the inevitable home video.

(Plus, I’ve already seen them live. April 1976, City Center in New York. As I recall, I had third row seats for that.)

There was another reason.  Back when Python was new, whether listening to their records (the only way one could experience them in the US until PBS started broadcasting the shows) or watching their TV shows and films, much like a key line in their Spanish Inquisition sketch, amongst their weaponry was surprise. You never knew what was coming. The bits were mostly short, took unexpected left turns, and often ended and segued into other bits sooner than anyone would expect.

I felt it pretty safe to assume that for this reunion show, they wouldn’t be writing any new material. So it would be Python’s Greatest Hits. No surprises. Just the stuff I already know by heart. I figured I could live without that.

And sure enough, the blu-ray and DVD are up for pre-order (in the UK at least, US will follow suit soon I’m sure). Like the live show, it’s being called Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go, referring to the fact that Graham Chapman died too young, too many years ago.

Monty-Python-Monty-Python-Live-mostly-One-Down-Five-To-Go-Blu-ray

Actually you can download the entire 2 hour 20 minute show now if you know where to look. I’m guessing that someone got ahold of the digital stream that was beamed to theaters and put it up in the usual places.  I’m told that the last night’s show was broadcast live on UK TV. I haven’t had a chance to watch the entire thing yet, just bits and pieces, and it’s pretty much what you would expect.

Anyway, here’s a preview, a bit of the Spanish Inquisition sketch.

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New Old Music – Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton

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Near the top of my ridiculously long list of favorite albums is The Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East live double set, recorded and originally released in 1971.  It’s an album that I still play fairly regularly 43 years (gulp!) after its release.

allmanFillmore_East-353x

The Allmans had earlier released two studio albums that failed to catch a fire. This 2 LP, 7 song set is the album that put them over the top. There’s something about that 23 minute live version of Whipping Post that still excites me. Plus, it’s possible to listen to this album differently each time – focusing not just on Duane Allman’s astonishing guitar work but listening instead to Berry Oakley’s melodic bass lines or the interplay between drummers Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks.

In 1992, this was reissued on CD as The Fillmore Concerts with 5 additional tracks. The 2003 “Deluxe Edition” release changed the running order slightly and added a 13th track.

Allman-Brothers-Band-The-1971-Fillmore-East-Recordings1

This week, we finally get what I’ve been 40 years for, a 6 disc boxed set called The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings. The box features 5 complete Allman Brothers Band concerts – early and late shows from March 12 and 13, 1971, as well as the Allman’s complete June 27th show the same year – the last show performed at the closing of the fabled Fillmore East.  While some of these tracks eventually turned up on Eat a Peach and various compilations, 23 of the 37 tracks here are previously unreleased. (Plus the original release of You Don’t Love Me was pieced together from two separate versions; here we get both original performances in their entirety.)

One can argue that the box is still not completely complete. They also played two sets on March 11th that are not included here. That’s because on that night they added a reportedly under-rehearsed and out-of-tune horn section. Producer Tom Dowd thought it sounded horrible and basically ordered the band to drop them for the following nights. We may be better off not hearing that. Or perhaps in another ten years there will be yet another release of these shows that reinstates that material as well.

At six hours and six minutes, there’s a lot of material to go through here, and I haven’t listened to all six discs yet. From what I’ve heard, I have no doubt that they picked the “right” versions for the original release. But the other performances ain’t exactly chopped liver either.

And that’s why this set is such an important document of a major band. They might have played similar set lists from show to show, but there’s a lot of variation in the performances. The Allmans were not just an incredibly tight unit but really into improvisation in ways rarely heard outside of jazz in that era. So you can listen to them as they come to forks in the road and take different turns each time. Rather than just having the 7 tracks we’ve known all these years, hearing these different versions side by side provides a truer picture of what made the original Allman Brothers Band so unique.

The set was produced by Bill Levenson – the man who helped invent the retrospective boxed set back in 1988 when he put together the Eric Clapton Crossroads boxed set. (I guess I should mention that I knew Bill back in the 80s and 90s and we remain friends today via Facebook.)

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Speaking of Eric Clapton, he’s got a new album out, and it’s the first Eric Clapton album in decades that I can wholeheartedly recommend. It’s credited to Eric Clapton & Friends and titled The Breeze – An Appreciation of J.J. Cale.71tNgqxL-dL._SL1032_

It’s no secret that Cale was a huge influence on Clapton. Clapton basically changed his career direction and musical style completely after being exposed to Cale’s music. Cale never sold a lot of records and has said that it was the royalties from Clapton’s covers of his songs After Midnight and Cocaine, among others, that kept him going.

J.J. Cale died in 2013 and Clapton decided to record this tribute to his idol. (Clapton said in a recent interview that he no longer writes new songs, he finds it too difficult and time consuming.)  A decision was made to not try to reinterpret any of the material but to stay relatively close to the original versions. To his credit, the album doesn’t include any of the Cale songs that Clapton previously had hits with (but apparently there were a lot more songs recorded and there might be a “volume 2,” much like Clapton’s Robert Johnson albums a decade ago).

The “& Friends” is a pretty stellar list. Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Don White, Derek Trucks, Albert Lee, David Lindley, Doyle Bramhall II and quite a few others. I think the most successful tracks on the album come from Mark Knopfler (Someday) and Willie Nelson (Songbird). Cale was clearly also a major influence for Knopfler and Nelson just effortlessly wears that Tulsa groove like a comfortable old pair of boots. Mayer does better than I would have expected but Tom Petty sounds uncomfortable.

To be honest, I’m a fan of Clapton from the days with the Yardbirds, Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie, Derek & the Dominoes.  Clapton’s first solo album (the self-titled album produced by Delaney Bramlett) was the only one of his solo albums that I ever really liked. I’ve always loved him as a musician but mostly I could take or leave the studio albums.

I think this may be the first Clapton album in at least 20 years that I’ve played more than twice and would recommend to anyone else.  And that might be more a tribute to the amazing songs that J.J. Cale wrote than anything else.

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Asia’s World City #1,247

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thisassholeagain

The above image is from Liar Town USA, a pretty consistently amusing web site.

parentsguide

The above image is not from Liar Town, it’s a photo of a book that’s currently stocked in Hong Kong’s Public Library. Asia’s World City indeed.

Meanwhile, it’s reported that 400 of the first 492 flats put on sale in Cheung Kong’s new Mont Vert project in Tai Po sold on the first day despite a “no viewing” policy. Cheung Kong reports that they had to use a ballot system as more than 10,000 people had registered as prospective buyers, and that 150 flats were sold in the first hour.

The development has flats ranging in size from studios to three bedroom apartments. The average studio apartment is 195 square feet and selling for HK2 million, or roughly US$260,000.  An executive director at Cheung Kong said this is a “stunning low price.”  Later there will be studio apartments for sale that measure just 177 square feet.  Larger flats, a whopping 932 square feet, on higher floors, are selling for over HK$10 million. That’s US$1.3 million for a 3 bedroom shoebox in Tai Po.

This place is near the Tai Po Industrial Estate, which means a bus ride to the closest MTR station, or a bus ride into central Tai Po to get another bus to get to Kowloon or HK (pretty much what I deal with every day.) So it’s not as if they’re exactly “convenient,” except possibly if one has a job in the Industrial Estate.

They’re claiming that the majority of the sales are to people who live in the area, with 75% of the buyers getting these for “self-use”.  Apparently when one buys a three bedroom apartment, one gets a special deal on buying an adjacent studio apartment.

In vaguely related news, a few days ago the SCMP had this report:

Forty per cent of Hongkongers would consider leaving the city when they retire, believing they would be financially better off elsewhere, a survey has found.

Respondents gave an average rating of 5.5 out of 10 to the question of whether they were confident their life would be satisfactory in retirement. That was down from a rating of 6.1 two years ago.

And 40 per cent said they had considered retiring elsewhere. Of those, 27 per cent would consider mainland China, while 21 per cent were contemplating a move to Taiwan. Australia, Canada and Britain were also on the list.

The average estimate of cash needed to support themselves in retirement was HK$16,600 per month – and a total of HK$3.9 million to cover their old age once they stopped working. That was up from about HK$10,000 a month in the last survey, while the total estimate was similar.

Jeanne Sau, senior vice-president of MassMutual Asia, said: “It was surprising to see the significant increase in the estimate … It shows that they are really worried about the impact of inflation on their future lives.”

She said HK$3.9 million was a significant underestimate, and the company had calculated that someone retiring at 60 would need HK$7 million to support themselves if they lived another 20 years, taking into account annual inflation of about 3 per cent.

But the 74-year-old chairman of the Association of Senior Citizens, Mak Hon-kai, disputed those figures, saying he spends just HK$5,000 a month. “Of course, that means we live a very simple life, maybe eating out at McDonald’s,” Mak said.

That’s a good plan. Eat at McDonald’s so you will need less money because you’ll undoubtedly die sooner.

jack-white_gamedayr

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I’m Not Lovin’ It

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Years and years ago I used to eat at American fast food chains pretty regularly. And why not?  Or so I thought at the time.

Cheap, fast, tasty enough, and easy to deal with in places where English isn’t spoken. But reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation pretty much put an end to that habit.  I will sometimes still go for a fast food burger but I try to limit it to once or twice a month. I still visit McDonald’s pretty often, but that’s because when I’m coming home from work and get off the bus near Tai Po Market, McD’s is one place where I can run in and use the toilet with no questions asked. I’ll also confess a liking for the McD’s branches that have a McCafe coffee shop inside – open 24 hours, cheaper than *$ and oddly enough the best western style cakes in Tai Po.

The abuses of the fast food industry in the United States are well documented, but what about in China? One can only logically assume that the food sourcing and processing in China is no better than it is in the U.S. and very possibly it could be orders of magnitude worse.  These days I favor cha chaan tengs for a quick, cheap meal. I realize that they’re probably not sourcing Australian wagyu grass-fed beef for their beef hor fun and I hope they’re not using some chemical meat tenderizer or loading the sauce up with MSG, but most places probably are. Every day we pick the compromises we are most able to live with.

(I’ve got a funny story about the quality of McDonald’s beef that goes back to my days in advertising, back in the 1970s, can’t recall if I ever wrote about that story here.)

At any rate, we now have the latest food scandal in China. And again, it is a reminder of how corrupt and greedy some people can be. I don’t want to paint a nation of 1.5 billion people with the corruption brush, because that would be a gross exaggeration, but it does seem that these things – where people running companies make decisions that knowingly put peoples’ lives at risk in exchange for a little extra profit – occur more frequently in China than anywhere else. (Yes, I know, General Motors.)

So here’s the thing, in case you haven’t read it elsewhere. There is a food processing company in Shanghai called Shanghai Husi Food Company. They are 50% owned by an American company. They took expired beef and chicken and repackaged it, changing the expiration dates to make it appear that the meat was still fresh, and then sold it to fast food chains in China and Hong Kong.

HK McDonald’s is one of their customers. So are Starbucks, KFC and Burger King.  And apparently this is not a one time occurrence – this was standard operating procedure at this company and has been going on for years.  The company maintained multiple sets of records to help them perpetuate this dangerous fraud. (I suppose one might argue that if it’s been going on for years and no one has died from it, it’s not that big a deal? Yes, it is that big a deal. It’s a level of risk that is unnecessary and unacceptable to any rational person.)

McD’s in HK has reportedly removed all of the menu items that were made with food sourced from Husi. Last night as I passed one Tai Po branch of McD, I saw they had large red signs in their windows – all Chinese-only – that were probably informing customers of this. (I guess they didn’t bother to post English versions of the sign because they don’t care about their white or brown customers.)

Here’s a few McD’s facts courtesy of the SCMP:

  • There are currently 239 branches in Hong Kong employing more than 15,000 people.
  • The first HK McD opened in 1975 on Paterson Street in Causeway Bay. The 3,000 square foot restaurant paid $64,500 a month in rent.
  • In 1992, 7 of the 10 busiest McD’s in the world were in Hong Kong.

Old joke:

A retired American comes to Hong Kong as a tourist. He’s booked everything first class. He’s met at the airport by his tour guide, who says to him, “Welcome to Hong Kong Mr. Smith. I imagine you’re tired after your long flight. I’ll take you to your hotel where you can take a shower and relax for a bit before we get started.”

But the tourist says, “No! I’ve waited my whole life to come to Hong Kong. I love Chinese people. I love Chinese food. I want to get out there and start experiencing Hong Kong right away. I don’t want to go to the hotel yet. I want you to take me to the most popular restaurant in Hong Kong!”

So the tour guide shrugs his shoulders and takes him to McDonalds.

Unrelated HK food items:

The first location of the Press Room, the one on Hollywood Road, has now closed after the landlord reportedly sought to increase their rent by 500%. Because why should the landlord continue to make a reasonable profit from a successful business that has been there for years and probably always paid their bills on time?

The same group operates The Pawn in Wanchai, which has now closed. Reports differ as to whether this is going to be just a renovation or if it will re-open with a new name and concept (but still managed by the same group).

The SCMP quotes food critic Walter Kei (whoever he is, a quick Google on his name turns up a press release from The Link calling him “a renowned gourmet traveller and wine taster.”)

Food critic Walter Kei said the proliferation of trendy restaurants was another problem.

“There are too many restaurants in the market,” he said. This led to cut-throat competition and drove up staff costs.

Kei said that with high rents and labour costs, the only cost that could be cut was food.

This was compromising quality but consumers didn’t know because food writers and critics weren’t telling them. “The so-called food reviews are only to promote new places, not the quality of the content,” he said.

“Writers are afraid of offending restaurants.”

As a result, Kei said, people had higher tolerance of bad ingredients and bad food sourcing.

He’s probably correct. HK culture cares about size of portions and price and not so much about taste, while the great majority of HK food bloggers who write in English only review places that give them free meals.

Restaurateur and critic Lau Kin-wai said he shut the doors of his famous Yellow Door Kitchen a couple of months ago more because of staff issues than rent.

“I can’t hire someone to wash dishes even with HK$10,000 a month,” he said.

I suspect there’s a little bit more to it than that. Now that my wife is working as a waitress, I’m getting to hear directly about how shittily some restaurant owners and managers treat their staff.

 

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