1. One good thing about working in a university is how I get to attend talks by speakers from all over the world. The month of August was a fulfilling one, because I got to hear two separate talks by visual storytellers whose work take on an advocacy slant. Yet, they are very different. One dives deep to explore the mystery of the oceans all around the world while the other takes a bird’s eye view of his beloved country. 

    American National Geographic photographer David Doubilet specialises in underwater photography. His series of photos on dolphin-killing in Futo, Japan shocked the audience and made us wince. The dolphins were herded into a harbour, where the fishermen grabbed them by their rostrums (beaks) and killed them using knives. The water in the cove turned a bright red from their blood. Images don’t get any more visual than that. 

    The other speaker is Chi Po-lin (齐柏林), an aerial photographer from Taiwan, who decided to document the landscape of Taiwan from a helicopter. The result was the Golden Horse Award-winning documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above (看見台灣). 

    I’ve just watched Beyond Beauty this weekend and even though it’s a little too long, I’d still recommend it to my friends, mostly because Chi’s story about making this documentary is so compelling. 

    Chi has been an aerial photographer for 20 years and had witnessed the beauty of Taiwan, but also the damage that industralisation and tourism had wrought. He held numerous photo exhibitions but felt that people seemed unmoved. Because this is the age of moving visuals, he decided he had to make a documentary instead to get his point across to them.

    As a civil servant, he would have been able to retire and receive a pension at the age of 50. Instead, he quit his job, mortgaged his house and spent all his savings renting a helicopter and the photography equipment for his project.

    But somehow, he was lucky too: the prominent Taiwanese producer Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢came on board and attracted more funding for this project.

    When advertising star and director Wu Nien-jen (吳念真) was approached to provide narration for the documentary, he said Chi is a fool to undertake this work. But it is because Taiwan has such fools that it is a lovable place. Wu decided to narrate the film for free. 

    The documentary made a big impact in Taiwan. Because of a scene of a rust-coloured river that runs through an industrial area, the Taiwanese government inspected factories there and closed down a few that were found to have flouted environmental regulations. One of them manufactured components for Apple, and the closure delayed the launch of iPhone 6, said Chi. 

    After watching the documentary, I appreciate what a big risk Chi took. It is very different from what people would pay to watch in the cinema. In an interview with a Chinese newspaper, he confessed that even his son was worried if they will be able to afford his university fees. If not for the fact that it won the Golden Horse Award, I wonder how this documentary would have fared in the box office.

    I’m happy that his gamble paid off, and that the Taiwanese people are sitting up and taking notice of the environmental problems that they had been blind to. The things that Chi said during the talk make a lot of sense to me. Progress made by us, the humans, have been destructive to nature. We cannot undo the progress. But can we learn to have fewer desires? Must we insist on savouring the tea and vegetables grown on mountains because they are reputed to taste better? Do we really have to stay in picturesque homestays in the hills? All these lead to clearing of forests and the encroachment of farms and resorts into the mountains, which may lead to future landslides. 

    As a tourist who loves Taiwan, and yes, all those lovely homestays and mountain-visiting, it poses a real dilemma. How do I continue to visit and enjoy this “lovable” county without encouraging further damage to it? This is a question that all tourists might want to ask themselves. 

     
     
  2. A few mornings ago, I was jolted awake by a loud, booming noise outside. In my half-conscious state, I thought someone had finally decided to invade SG, and had just dropped a bomb. And my second thought, as I laid there, waiting to see if I’d be engulfed by a ball of fire, was that I have yet to begin living the life that I had been thinking about for the past year or so. There wasn’t sadness; just a sense of regret. I waited. But nothing happened. So I turned and went back to sleep.

    When I finally awoke for work later, it was raining. That boom was the thunder, which was so loud it woke the rest of my family up too.

    My life isn’t exactly a disaster—in fact, it has been a relatively quiet one. Perhaps too quiet. My version of starting over isn’t of the blank-slate variety, of leaving everything behind. It is rather, borne out of a wish to do things simply because I want to, without having to think about costs and benefits, or whether it is “good for my future”.

    The change doesn’t call for a dramatic make-over of my life, but still, it will come at a cost. The only question is, would I have the confidence, grit and money to foot the bill?

     
  3. Taken at the Singapore Garden Festival 2014, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.

     
  4. I can’t be a very good fan if my favourite band came out with a new studio album in January and I got to know about it only in July!

    Fading West garnered many good reviews, with a few saying this album is Switchfoot’s best yet. 

    Switchfoot’s songs are about hope. Their last album Vice Verses was about the yin and yang of things—we’re all trying to make the best out of this tug and war between hope and despair which we call existence. The one before that was Hello Hurricane, inspired by stories about people who survived the Hurricane Katrina. A hurricane, be it a literal or metaphorical one, can sweep away everything you once knew as your world, but not your entitlement to hope. 

    Fading West carries the same message. Only this time, the band’s riding on a wave of unrestrained optimism that hope will always see us through. They sound like a bunch of surfer dudes jammin’ at a beach hangout. As a matter of fact, they are! This album is actually the soundtrack of a documentary film that follows Switchfoot as they tour and surf around the world. 

    Personally, their last two albums moved me more. But I always like surprises. Sometimes, when a band has been so good for so long, you start to wonder if their next outing will see them a little subdued, or perhaps even worn-out.  But no, these guys decide it’s time to brush contemplation and doubt aside for some hope and joy of the in-your-face variety. And if there’s any rock band who can do this without critics panning them for dumbing down or selling out, it’s Switchfoot. 

    Song: Love Alone is Worth the Fight by Switchfoot

     
     
  5. Pour a cup of liquid gold, because my engine’s still cold
    But in a minute everything’s gonna change.

    - Jason Mraz, “Hello, You Beautiful Thing”

    A good cup of tea makes everything all right. :)

     
  6. There is something about final songs that often make them more compelling to me than the opening tracks of albums.

    "The full stop on an album can make or break that spell," says NME music reviewer Priya Elan (http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/10-magnificent-album-closing-tracks) and I do agree.

    "Shine", the closing track from Jason Mraz’s latest studio album Yes! is way more engaging than his lead single "Love Someone". I remember listening to “Love Someone” for the first time in quiet anticipation, and then vague disbelief. I immediately messaged my colleague cum music lover and said that the song is essentially aural cotton candy. 

    For someone who has every one of his albums, this seems to mark the complete transition of Jason Mraz. From the early days of youthful optimism tinged with playful defiance and creative (and sometimes, smart-aleck) wordplay, he has become a true-blue adult contemporary artist belting out mushy, easy-listening love songs (Sample lyrics from “Love Someone”: “When you love someone/your feet can’t touch the ground/Shining stars all seem/To congregate around your face.”)

    The good news is, things got better from there.

    I discovered the other single "Long Drive", which I liked immediately. And then, it was "Hello, You Beautiful Thing", which I can’t help singing along to. I went ahead to purchase the album on the first day of its release, 15 July 2014 and was pleasantly surprised. Mraz’s playfulness is intact in "Everywhere", “Best Friend” was catchy and "A World With You" is well, beautiful. Of course, I also noticed “Shine”. 

    It took a few repeats for me to like it. But from the first listen, it was already more interesting than most other tracks: The opening sounded almost eerie, especially because I was listening to it late in the night, while studying statistics. I paused and looked up from the textbook. It got my attention from the start. And I really like it when pop songs incorporate Asian musical instruments. In this case, it’s the sitar and some kind of tribal drum.

    The song is about selfless love as told through a story of the sun and moon, and of how love will reach all of us, like the rays of the sun or the glow of the moon. The album ends with a bang, and I hope that it’s a hint of what’s to come in Mraz’s next album.

    This album is that it’s Mraz’s most mellow and lovey-dovey effort to date. Even the imagery he evokes are of the dreamy, romantic sort: the sun, the moon, the snow, the songbird etc. This is destined to be played at weddings all over the world.

    There will be some early fans who feel disappointed that he has gone the easy-listening way and others, especially female fans, who think it’s really romantic.  As for me, I’m not complaining. Even “Love Someone” has grown on me, although only as a soothing song and nothing more. Like cotton candy, it is delish in snatches but at the back of my mind, I know it is sugar and air and very little else.

    My guess is: Mraz is still sharp; he can still be quirky. But perhaps he has decided to place something else above all this

    And I feel quite foolish
    sometimes when I pray
    But my thoughts are all I’ve got
    so I try to make them brave

    His songs are melodies of acknowledgement, affirmation and encouragement to his listeners who are trying to be brave. Of course, one can say he is simply pandering to mass tastes, and writing what he thinks the mass audience wants. But they did cheer me up when I had to endure 2 weeks of chickenpox and quarantine, which became a literal nightmare (I dreamed that the poxes came back just as the old ones have dried up).

    "Comforting" is the word to describe how I felt as the songs accompany me through this period. It just seems to be me that the artistic creativity and emotional appeal of music are equally important. Rare are those who can achieve both at the same time.

    Song: Shine by Jason Mraz

     
     
  7. Welcome to this week’s edition of Crummy Monday!

    I was reserving this Mraz song for a blue start to the week, where I would find myself trudging, almost against my will, to meet another work week. 

    Alas, that didn’t happen. I’m resting at home. Not that I’m enjoying it though, because I’m down with a rather bad bout of chickenpox. All I can muster now is sleep, eat, bathe and poop. Even reading drains me. Reading the newspapers takes me twice as long as I need a break in between pages. This is most definitely not “what I had been waiting for”

    Anything and everything looks more attractive than chickenpox (and me) now. Yes, even work. Even evening classes on statistics. I can only hope that the poxes (poxies?) will dry up quickly and not leave too much damage, so that I can greet the day and meet the world again. “Hello!

    Song: Hello, You Beautiful Thing by Jason Mraz

     
     
  8. A new favourite from Jason Mraz’s new album, Yes! Listening to this while working late in an empty office makes me feel a little wistful. I wonder whether I’ll ever find someone whom I want to take the long way with.

    Song: Long Drive by Jason Mraz

     
     
  9. Taken at Taiping Mountain (太平山), Yilan, Taiwan, April 2014

     
  10. If you love something, set it free. If it comes back….

    Image taken from The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc, as recommended by Brain Pickings: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/05/07/the-lion-and-the-bird-marianne-dubuc/ 

     
  11. Terraces of calla lilies at Yangming Shan in Taipei. This was stitched together from five photos. You might wonder why the photo is so pathetically small. Well, it’s because I accidentally switched the settings of the camera such that it took photos in the smallest possible jpeg format. :|

    Taken in April 2014

     
  12. It isn’t something I admit to often, but I like camp! And there were lots of it on display at Yilan’s National Center for Traditional Arts. I was prepared to be bored stiff by a Chinese opera performance but found myself chuckling at politically incorrect jibes, such as references to unmarried daughters as a certain farm animal reared to be sold at the market. Or giant traditional deity puppets running through the street, low-fiving and shaking hands during a procession. Or performers making “cold” jokes to entertain the audience (“How much does a star weigh? 8 grams!” [in reference to Starbucks’s Chinese name, 星巴克]).

    All in all, it’s quite a pleasant place to explore, and not your traditional centre for traditional arts. With various streets lined with shops and stalls selling trinkets and food, it feels more like a theme park. 

    Taken in Yilan, Taiwan, April 2014

     
  13. It looks like we’re deep in autumn when it’s actually spring at Taiping Mountain (太平山) in Yilan.

    Taken in April 2014

     

  14. "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."
    — E.F. Schumacher
     
  15. Welcome to Taiwan! Or to be more precise, Yilan. On the right is Guishan Island, or Turtle Island. Doesn’t look like one here because we’re facing its back. 

    Taken in Yilan, Taiwan, April 2014