Saturday, 22 March 2014

My Life: Australian artist and body painter Emma Hack

THE KNACK OF IT I started face painting at 15 as a way of earning pocket money. I got so caught up in make-up artistry and wanted to work with these guys in theatre that I forgot I actually wanted to be an artist. One of my ex-boyfriends from back in the day said to me, when my art career started to climb, "It's wonderful - you're finally getting to do what you've always wanted to do." I said, "What's that?" He said, "Art." We're taught that we have to do "normal" things to survive and I think that's what kind of happened to me. When I was doing face painting at make-up school a teacher suggested I do what I was doing on faces all over the body. He said it would be "kind of cool". So I just started   doing it.
IDOL HANDS I became aware of (German model, actress and artist) Veruschka's work in the early 2000s. I come from a small city in Australia. The internet wasn't really around then. It is so easy to look things up now but, back then, there was no reference material for me. When Joanne Gair did the Demi Moore Vanity Fair cover back in 92 (for which the actress appeared clad only in body paint), I realised that I could perhaps make a career doing this work. Gair actually came to one of my shows in New York recently. She is one of my idols. I also really like Veruschka's illusion of being at one with the environment and with the surroundings that she creates. There are undertones of that to my work. I prefer to try new things and not necessarily repeat something that has been done before. I love illusion and surrealism and it always makes me want to look a little bit further into           the work.
OVER THE WALL In 2005, I walked into a homewares store and saw Broadhurst wallpaper (brightly coloured geometric and nature-inspired oversized designs by Florence Broadhurst) on a wall. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I was so drawn to the work as an artist, but also because of the Asian influences. I'm the only artist who's allowed to work with the Broadhurst archive (which she uses as background, against which nude models are painted to blend in). That same year, I had five ideas, and the wallpaper was one of them. I went into a gallery in Adelaide and I told the owner that I had five ideas and would they represent me if I went with any of them? I was told that if I took the wallpaper idea on, they wouldn't take me on. In my heart I knew I just really wanted to do the wallpaper. I went with my gut feeling. It took me three years to get a gallery to take me on after that.
GETTING GOTYE In the past, people would look at my work at an art gallery or an art fair and dismiss it as "Photoshop". I do use Photoshop to remove knicker lines but, other than that, what you see is what you get. My art isn't perfect, there are idiosyncrasies. What the Gotye thing (Hack did the body artwork for the video of the Belgian-Australian's 2011 hit song Somebody That I Used to Know) did for me was it allowed people to see the application process of what I do. I am thankful more so for that than the fact that it became a wonderful piece of art. I wanted to create a piece of iconic art that people would recognise for years to come, like Gair's Demi Moore cover. The producer contacted me and I said, "It has to be a good song because you only get the chance to do these kinds of thing once, because once it's done it's done."
THE NAKED TRUTH As an artist, I just need to get on with it. It's a very painful process and isn't comfortable at all for the model - or for me to have to stand for that long, so it has to be the right person. I moved away from painting celebrities or well-known people ages ago because it just didn't allow me to turn up and create a piece of art; they were very limited in what they were capable of doing. Dancers are quite disciplined, fit and healthy looking. I don't really like the "model" look. There has to be a certain amount of reality to the person that I choose. It's not about this glorified ideal, it's about being real. Before choosing a model to work with I will talk to them and I might even have a little look on Facebook, just to see what kind of person they are. I want to work with people who will just get on with it and are comfortable, as the process puts me in their personal space. I feed off positive energy from the model and I can put that back in to the piece.
BEYOND THE BODY I don't necessarily think of myself as a body-paint artist anymore. I'm planning to move into 3-D photography. Over the past 10 years, what I want to do has evolved. I wanted to capture these amazing images in my mind. That has so far just happened to involve a lot of body painting. For me, it's all about the imagery and, once I have created that image, I'm satisfied. It's all I want to see. It's not about that model being able to walk around looking amazing. Once I have captured what I had in my head, I don't even want to look at the model. It's done.

Emma Hack is represented in Hong Kong by the Cat Street Gallery

This interview originally appeared in the SCMP's Post Magazine. Click here to see the original.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Aisles Have It

Spending a lot of money on wine is difficult for some people. Without knowing the difference between a bad wine, a good wine and a great wine means people can be reluctant to take a leap of faith. I have always resisted the urge to spend a lot of money on wine, and have, for most of my drinking life, enjoyed bottles of wine that cost less than HK$70.

I was convinced that with a little inside knowledge the average Hong Kong supermarket would reveal wines that were at the very least quaffable and at the very most excellent. To put this theory to the test I simply had to persuade a Master of Wine to wander around a supermarket with me.

I meet Charles Curtis at the ParknShop on Gage Street, Central.

“This used to be my local when I first moved to Hong Kong,” says Curtis, who is one of only 312 Masters of Wine in the world (and only one out of 22 in the United States), as certified by the Institute of Masters of Wine. “My company rented me a serviced apartment on Hollywood Road and so this was the closest spot. I came here and I thought 'Oh what am I going to be able find at this supermarket?' Well you know I was really surprised and very happy with everything they had.”

As we survey the wine aisle I ask if there are tricks to quickly identify a potentially good wine from the label alone. The short answer is yes. And no.

Some wines indicate that they are vegan and vegetarian friendly, but Curtis points out that although some winemakers - including the very best - use fish and/or egg products in filtering and fining their wine it is a processing agent not an ingredient.  

“It’s a very natural process. They use isinglass, which comes from fish, and egg whites, and it is usually slightly more expensive wines that are treated that way. I don't think you need to even put it on the label because it comes out of the wine," he says. He likens the use of these ingredients to making consomme. And, he adds, some countries aren't even required to put it on the label. The same goes for sulphites. If a wine doesn't contain sulphites it is “probably going to be disgusting.”

The first thing Curtis suggests is seeing if something jumps out from the shelves. He admits that as a complete beginner nothing may, but with a little knowledge small details make themselves known. For example a Chilean wine that may have otherwise gone unnoticed jumps out as it bears the Chateau Lafite symbol, a sign of quality and recognisable to anyone who has even a passing interest in wine.

The alcohol content too can be a bit misleading. “They have a half per cent leeway in terms of labelling. So it’s not a solid indicator.”

Acquiring the knowledge that will enable you to identify which appellations and producers have good reputations and which vintages have been scorned or revered comes from tasting and reading. Curtis advises making a few simple notes - the only kind you will likely be able to make at this stage - which will give you something go on next time.

As with learning anything, practice makes perfect for fledgling wine connoisseurs. “My motto has always been ‘the more you drink, the more you know’ and so I am a big advocate of never drinking the same thing twice.”

It didn't take long for Curtis, the former head of wine for Christie’s in both Asia and the Americas and a certified member of the Appraiser's Association of America, to spot something.

“The first thing that you come to is this. This is wonderful wine. Gunderloch is a really well known name. This is their least expensive, but it's under HK$90,” he says. “Gunderloch is really well known for their more famous wines, but the entry level is a great place to start.”

And then he is off.

“And then you start to look at the different appellations [a legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where the grapes for a wine were grown]. Sancerre is a pretty well known appellation. [Only sauvignon blanc and pinot noir are permitted as AOC classified sancerre wine.] Seems pretty reasonably priced. HK$128 is not out of the realm of possibility [of being a good example],” he says. “On a hot, salty day a cold glass of Sancerre would be a great thing. And you might just have to give that a whirl, especially if you didn't want something a little sweeter, like the riesling is bound to be.”

There were other white wines too but they were all ruled out on this occasion as alfresco dining at this time of the year at a dai pai dong isn't practical. More’s the pity as Curtis says they are “home runs,” in a nod to his homeland.

There are more famous wines on Gage street. “Speaking of the famous producers. HK$168 for two, see that’s pretty cheap too. That is the Chateau Lafite symbol," he says. "This isn’t Chateau Lafite of course, this is Los Vascos. Produced by the the Lafite-Rothschild company but by different winemakers. Produced in Chile in the Colchagua Valley this is a very good option as well.”

Lafite-Rothschild is a Bordeaux, arguably the most famous Bordeaux, and almost certainly the most consistently expensive. "Speaking of Bordeaux, you've got a big section of Bordeaux here. It’s very popular in Asia. These are mostly what are known as Petit Chateau, so that means usually you won't recognize the name, but there are still some great buys."

Interestingly red Bordeaux is generally made from a blend of up to six grapes, meaning, in theory, that two wines that taste completely different could both be Bordeaux, compounding perhaps problems for beginners. Cabernet sauvignon tends to dominates the blend in red wines produced in the Médoc region and the rest of the left bank. Merlot tends to dominate in Saint-Émilion, Pomerol and the other right bank appellations. White Bordeaux is predominantly, and exclusively in the case of the sweet Sauternes, made from Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle. As with the reds, white Bordeaux wines are usually blends, most commonly of Sémillon and a smaller proportion of Sauvignon blanc. Other permitted grapes are sauvignon gris, ugni blanc, colombard, merlot blanc, ondenc and mauzac.

“If you are being very price conscious there is a trio of them here. You would look at this one, a Michel Lynch because you know the name Lynch maybe from [Château] Lynch-Bages. In fact this is there negociant [a merchant who assembles the produce of smaller growers and winemakers and sells the result under its own name] wine. Solidly under HK$100,” he says.

Curtis, who is well versed in what is or is not popular in China as he writes a regular column for the Chinese version of French wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France, gets a touch excited when he sees a 2010 Bordeaux Supérieur Château Marjosse, particularly as the winemaker, Pierre Lurton, one of the most famous winemakers in all of Bordeaux “even put his name on the bottle.” Curtis calls this a real find, which ensures we will be drinking it later.

Curtis admits to having classic taste and so New World wines are not always at the forefront of his mind. “I would totally roll the dice on [the drinkable HK$59 Bergerac we looked at]. I would be a little more cautious about doing that with something from the New World. And the reason why is because Bergerac is a very particular place and the wines adhere to a relatively circumscribed description,” he explains. “In other words there are only so many things it can taste like. Whereas if something says South East Australia; that’s a gigantic region. That’s like a whole continent’s worth of vineyards and you have no idea what it is going to taste like unless you know the producer. Just like if it said California on the label. That could be anything; there are so many styles. Whereas Bergerac, is not going to vary that much.”

For high-end wines, Curtis says the New World wineries have started to scale down the regions, but at the price points we are talking about it is still difficult.

“Even if I hadn’t had a particular vintage of Ridge, I know Monte Bello is always good and I wouldn't really worry about buying it. I would buy it with the same confidence I have in Latour or Mouton.” At the lower end of the price point, however, Curtis would be a bit more sceptical.

However, this time we do roll the dice as Curtis does know one of the producers. “The series Y Yalumba was calling out to me,” he says of the South Australian wine, so that goes in the bag too. To complete the three wines that we will try Curtis chooses a 2011 tempranillo from Spanish producer Bodegas Chivite. At just HK$88 for two this was perhaps the best bargain of the entire shop.

Having originally trained as a chef, receiving the Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Curtis is also the perfect person to suggest suitable food to go with our purchases. In keeping with the ethos of this article, I was excited when he suggested we take our plastic carrier bag of wine to a nearby dai pai dong. Curtis explains his seemingly unorthodox venue choice.

“I think Cantonese food is one of the most versatile cuisines on the planet and there are very few wines that don’t go with it. Cantonese cuisine is a type of cooking that has a lot of variety. You can find a Cantonese dish to match almost any wine out there I would think”

To hit home that he has the courage of his convictions, Curtis tells me has no reservations about drinking the best wines with Cantonese food, going so far as to recount a time when he found that Champagne and pig brain hotpot go quite well together.

Photo: D3N
The bottles barely had time to dimple with condensation before they were on the rickety plastic dai pai dong table at Sing Kee on Stanley Street.

We ordered first. Shrimp with cashews, salt and pepper squid, spareribs with black bean sauce and chicken liver and gizzard (which turned out to be more gizzard than liver) with spicy pepper.

“The standard wines, the Bordeaux that we have or the Sancerre that I was eyeing among the white wines. Those would be very, very versatile. The sweeter wines, like the riesling we were looking at, would be for spicier dishes,” Curtis says by way of further explanation of just how the wines he has chosen go with what we have ordered.

We wasted no time in cracking open the bottles and pouring into the tea-rinshed dai pai dong tumblers. The first, the Spanish tempranillo, was, like one of the others, a screw cap. “You don't always have to be scared off by the screw cap,” he says, debunking the myth that a screw cap means lower quality. He says the same of boxed wine. “There is nothing about the packaging itself that innately makes it lower quality than bottled wine. It is meant for current consumption,” he says. “As long as it’s drinkable, that’s all that matters.”  

Curtis offers his expert opinion on the cheapest wine of the three. “Young vine tempranillo produced in Navarra by one of the oldest producers in Spain, this wine is an absurd value at this price. It shows a pure, clean expression of fresh red berry fruit on the nose, while on the palate the wine is light and clean with admirable balance and equilibrium. Not a heavyweight wine, it is still thoroughly well made with a very pleasant fruit character.”

We crunched our way through the gizzard as we opened the second bottle, a South Australian shiraz-viognier “Y Series” 2011 from Yalumba. "The wine’s aromas jump from the glass with notes of fresh raspberry and an exotic floral note on the nose. On the palate there is a bit more punch than the tempranillo, with more weight and alcohol in evidence. A great example of what makes South Australia so popular with consumers."

The advice from Curtis was to start with the cheapest and end with what would hopefully be the best, the Bordeaux Supérieur 2010 from Château Marjosse. "This must be among the best wine values anywhere on the market today. The wine is produced by Pierre Lurton, general manager of Bordeaux power châteaux Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem from his home estate in the Entre-Deux-Mers region. Here he uses his expertise to produce a wine that definitely punches above its weight class, with concentrated aromas of blackcurrant and spice on the nose with just a hint of smoke and earth. On the palate the wine has genuine density and concentration, with firm tannins, a rich, velvety texture and admirable length. Went down quite a treat – definitely a wine to buy by the case."

The rest of the wine manages to disappear as we chat and finish the food, and I come away with a new found confidence in buying wine from the supermarket. In fact I went back and tried the Los Vascos from Lafite and while I am not ready, and I am not sure I will ever be, to comment with such authority, it was very nice indeed. So much so in fact that even though it was beyond what I would normally pay for a bottle of wine I was happy to buy it and even happier to drink it.

Top Tips for getting the most from the supermarket

Curtis says you should be suspicious if the shelves are full of wines you have never heard of. This leads him to suspect the motivations of the buyer and whether they are simply good value for the employer or wines he or she has fallen in love with. He mentions that the ParknShop selection are well priced and well chosen.

Wine is a personal thing and what is right for someone else maybe not be right for you, however, advice from others can be invaluable. Curtis explains that there are other ways to help you along with your oenological ambitions.

Reading. There are lots of books at the library, lots of magazines and plenty of sound advice on blogs. Just reading a little will help you make an informed decision.

Going to wine clubs. Tasting wine with people who know what they're talking about, or even just people who have more knowledge than you, will help you along. Try

Events. Whether it be wine fairs or having people over to your house, or any event where wine is available for tasting, will help develop your ability to differentiate between tastes and open you up to more and more varieties.

Apps. There are lots, both paid and free, that offer advice. Many allow you to scan wine bottle labels in the shop and get advice and notes from other users and experts.

Twitter. A great mass communication tool that allows you to contact producers and experts directly.

WeChat. Curtis' own WeChat app is abuzz with people talking about wine, he says. Download and talk to people, mainly in the mainland and Hong Kong, from all experience levels.

This article originally appeared in the print edition of the South China Morning Post on Friday November 8th, 2013. An online version of the article on can be found here.

Charles Curtis' website is here.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Tampat Do Aman

A Malaysian Tech-Free Getaway

With mobile technology becoming ever more ubiquitous and new conditions and syndromes being diagnosed to cover the anxiety that accompanies the separation between smartphone and addict, the travel industry is moving more and more towards tech-free getaways that offer opportunities to go cold turkey and detox from modern life. Freeing us from the shackles of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin is the next big trend in the travel industry.

Hong Kong seems to have a bigger problem than most when it comes to reliance of technology, as the city, with a population of just over 7 million, had over 16 million phone subscribers as of November 2012.

With plenty of options for high-cost, low-tech getaways at sterile resorts that do their best to shelter you from nature by positioning palms in pots around manicured lawns that surround gleaming swimming pools, I am more inclined to go for a low-tech getaway at a more pocket-friendly "resort."

A very interesting cultural exchange on the three-hour minibus trip - the driver stopping at a roadside stall to buy a large bag of fresh, deep-fried banana pieces in batter called pisang goreng - we arrived at the low-tech eco-resort of Tampat Do Aman.

Tampat Do Aman could, I suppose, be described as a resort. But instead of a gleaming pool there is the South China Sea and instead of potted palms there is tropical jungle. The white beaches are deserted and the cool water, which is clear aside from the swirl of fine sand that is churned up with every wave, is the perfect accompaniment to the blazing "spring" sun.

The resort is run by Howard, a former rugby playing, 40 something Englishman, who speaks Malay. The resort consists of a "jungle camp" and a beach-side cafe. The bunks and small huts are a short drive from the beach and cafe, and along with the cold showers (it's Malaysia and it was April so they were very welcome), remind you this is not a resort as you know it. Located at the tip of Borneo, the sunsets are incredible and the food, particularly the aforementioned pisang goreng, kaya (a coconut jam), fresh swordfish and tuna, and hinava (a Sabah take on ceviche) are really something that for most people can play a huge part in making or breaking a holiday.

The Man with the Golden Gun

In the book that preceded the film The Man with the Golden Gun the tri-nippled Scaramnaga is a crack shot, but unlike his namesake on the silver screen his silver bullets were liberal ally sprayed around in the book in an arrogant show of the marksmanship that earned him his moniker. Aside from MI5 agents and anyone who dared to cross him Scaramnaga seemed to have a particular dislike for birds. Both blackbirds and turkey buzzards fell victim to his moods and whims in Ian Fleming’s 1965 novel. It was with these scenes in my mind that I tried in vain to sleep in the hot and humid conditions of Borneo in April. It was these same scenes that came flooding back, and at the same time my sympathy for the birds deserted me, when I was woken just after 3am by the several temporally challenged roosters that are resident at the camp.

The curious incident of the dogs in the night

The wildlife is something to be treasured at these kinds of places, but as the roosters highlighted they do not always work in conjunction with the people. As Tip Top, the beach-side bar and restaurant, is a few kilometres from the camp, a stroll from the beach seemed like a very relaxing, beach-holiday thing to do. The short walk through the bible black Malaysian night was quickly curtailed, however, when a dozen (perhaps I am being dramatic, but it was at least three) barking dogs, concealed by the darkness, prompted an abrupt about turn. Not wanting to walk all the way back to the beach I opted instead to ask a local for a lift, which, like the idea to begin with is something “travellers” do.
A table of Malaysian men who were sat around a rickety table outside a shack of a bar seemed eager to have a drink and offered me the same warm beer several times. They were working men and they were unwinding. After some persuading one of them offered to taxi my girlfriend and me back to our hut. It was on this short trip, in an extraordinarily new looking truck, that was at odds with the rest of the area, I was given a short but pertinent lecture about the man behind Tampat Do Aman. I’m not sure if it was sour grapes, a personal grudge or a legitimate complaint, but from my perspective Howard came across as an honest man who was running a legitimate business and couldn't make millions out of the place and run off in the night even if he wanted to. 

Practical Stuff

Howard has the place well stocked with snorkeling equipment, kayaks, bikes and a car for hire, and he is very accommodating. He also told me that he was heavily invested in the local community and the resort itself runs in conjunction with the locals, with a deal being struck so that the locals get a small cut of his profits in exchange for agreeing to let him build the place to begin with.

And the low-tech part? Well the internet is incredibly slow and the sunsets so amazing that the only thing you will want to get online for is to make your friends envious of where you are and a few minutes of watching the progress bar is enough and you give up and realise why you went to Borneo in the first place. 

There is a lot more to do too and Howard et al are happy to accommodate you if they can. The menu says that with a few days notice the young girls who run the kitchen will be happy you show you how to cook some of the Malaysian items on the menu.They are equally happy to learn something new. 

Receiving high ratings and favourable reviews on Tripadvisor, and a mention in Lonely Planet, the relative inexpensiveness of the place is matched only by the lack of luxury. With camp showers and no frills, like laundry facilities, Tampat Do Aman could be a great base to explore the Tip of Borneo and the surrounding area if you hire a car, otherwise you are somewhat tethered to the restaurant, which as pleasing as that might be to Howard, it could make a longer stay a bit tedious, especially as the beach and lodge are a few kilometres apart. Howard has a car for hire, but hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu and leisurely driving up would be a good idea too.

It was an inexpensive stay overall, coming out at about 100 USD for two people for three nights including a dozen beers, half a dozen soft drinks, a couple of breakfasts, accommodation for two for two nights and an inexplicably expensive transfer to Kudat (30 km for 30 MYR, which was 5 MYR more than the three hour shared taxi that dropped my party of two at the lodge from Kota Kinabalu). 
AirAsia fly to Kota Kinabalu from Hong Kong.

Friday, 18 October 2013


Hong Kong’s cousin from another ... colonial overlord

It is the age-old story of marauding Europeans looking for more stuff. The Portuguese wanted to trade with the Chinese, and did for a while, but the Chinese remained sceptical. When they got news the Portuguese had been misbehaving elsewhere, both in China and around the region, they became a bit more hostile, torturing and executing a few. After some raiding and pillaging from the naughty Portuguese it was decreed that, just to be safe, all Portuguese should be killed on the spot. Perhaps a touch draconian. A couple of massacres at Ningbo and at Quanzhou sent the Europeans fleeing to Macau. Eventually they made up and in 1557 a permanent Portuguese trade base was established there. The rest, as they say, is history.

Handed back to China in December 1999 Macau, also spelled Macao, is a one hour jet ferry journey from Hong Kong. Sometimes called the Las Vegas of Asia, in terms of gaming revenue perhaps they should call Las Vegas the Macau of America. The 29.5-km2 territory has a population of just 568,700, is just under one-twelfth the size of Las Vegas, and yet it generated seven times Las Vegas's $6 billion last year thanks to the 2.2 billion people live within a five-hour flight.

When it comes to sightseeing how about we start with something to not do. Don’t waste your time going to a casino. They are huge and soulless and offer nothing in the way of the excitement seen on CSI. Instead walk around and absorb the other, much more beautiful and interesting face of Macau. Get a bottle of cheap Portuguese wine and sit in a small square. Largo da Se is as nice as any other, and has the beautiful Igreja da Se. Just off the more commercial Largo Do Senado, the pastel facades of the buildings are a welcome respite from the modern and shimmering waterfront of Hong Kong, which is almost certainly where you came from. The Ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral are probably the most well known tourist site in Macau and somewhat understandably. The seemingly fragile facade is all that is left after a fire ripped through it in 1835. It is overlooked by a fort built on top of the interestingly named Mount Hill.

The tiny region has also made an impressive number of appearances on the big screen, most recently in Skyfall. Along with dozens of Hong Kong movie credits and quite a few Portuguese ones, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed partly here as was the Man With the Golden Gun and Macao, the 1952 film noir starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell.

Macau offers plenty in the way of trinkets and touristy knick knacks, but edible gifts are my favourite and bakkwa, a fatty, dried pork treat that will raise your cholesterol level along with your serotonin, is great and it will survive the journey home too. The almond cookies are pretty good too.

With lots of authentic Portuguese and Macanese - an interesting mix of local and colonial - restaurants, there is plenty of food to try. Among the most popular are stir fried curry crab, minchi - a soy and molasses minced beef and / or pork concoction, Galinha à Portuguesa (Portuguese-style chicken) and Galinha à Africana (you can work that translation out) are among the most popular. Egg tarts are also a must.

Lots of high-end hotels on the reclaimed Cotai Strip house the gamblers, including the very plush and very nice Holiday Inn, the largest in the world, from around 220 GBP a night (look out for seasonal differences and special offers). A cheaper, much cheaper, option would be to camp at Hac Sa Beach. There are plenty of options in between too.

Getting to Macau is almost exclusively easier by taking a ferry from Hong Kong. A one-hour trip each way the cheapest weekend ticket is £12 with Cotai Water Jet and TurboJet (£13.75). However, if you are travelling anytime during your birthday month (until the end of 2013) it is your birthday month you and a friend can get a return ticket for £19.50. Air Macau connects Macau to mainland China, SE Asia and even as far as Seoul and Tokyo. BA fly to Hong Kong for £569 return.

Originally published in the Buzz magazine @Buzz_Magazine

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Charming Snakes on Lantau

Life on Lantau island means sometimes getting in touch with nature, whether you like it or not

You don’t have to be an ornithologist or a herpetologist (more on that later) or any kind of ologist or naturalist to appreciate the nature that lives on Lantau. Walkers, mountain bikers, campers and even just people who value the occasional lung full of clean air can all appreciate that you can’t really get that (or maintain it) without nature. Lantau, and plenty of the other 200 or so islands that are part of the SAR, is awash with nature and is a natural remedy to big city living. But there are things to be aware of while traipsing across the island. There are things lurking in the undergrowth, under the ground and in the trees that may give you even more of an appreciation for the island if not a little shock.

It should come as no real shock, given the geographic location and climate of Hong Kong, that there are snakes here and some poisonous ones at that. But it seems that the city - the smog, buses, trams, skyscrapers and the general detachment from nature that is the strip from Causeway Bay to Wan Chai - leads people to forget that there are islands, greenery, national parks, bays, inlets, beaches, headways and peninsulas that are home to an incredible array of wildlife.

But of all the wildlife, the beasts that crawl, scurry, dig and weave their way around the SAR (perhaps in the world), the snake is quite possibly the most feared, yet like sharks and spiders (probably the three most nightmare-inducing creatures), they are just misunderstood. Distrusted by Christians as the agent of downfall in the Garden of Eden, snakes are firmly in the category with the nightmare beasts. Slimy (even though they aren’t really), creepy, poisonous, fang-bearing creatures of horror movies they are, along with spiders, bats and all kinds of creepy crawlies, are vilified and derided by everyone aside from herpetologists (that’s people who study snakes to me and you).

Not helped by movies like Anaconda, Snakes on a Plane or cameo roles in movies like Indiana Jones, scaremongering videos on youtube of snakes with animal - or even scarier - human shaped bulges they are associated with poison, danger, fear and death. Do an internet image search for snake and you will be presented with a page of scary gaping-mouthed serpents bearing fangs that make people think they are out to get us (aside from the cartoon snake wearing a top hat and playing a guitar) and videos that scare us into thinking man-eating snakes are in the undergrowth. Well, actually they are in the undergrowth, lots of them and lots of different ones but they aren't out to get you. In fact they will avoid you at all costs.

From February 10th, however, you may see more snakes than other years. While the Gregorian calendar is used for day-to-day activities throughout the world, the lunisolar calendar is used to mark traditional holidays in East Asia. The holiday is celebrated all over the world by Asians and is called Seollal in Korea, Shōgatsu in Japan and Tet in Vietnam.

For Western expats in Hong Kong it can be a bit disconcerting to see Hongkongers going about their business as normal on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but that they don’t, for the most part, participate in our revelry is of course a cultural thing and this lunar New Year will offer those of us who have not experienced it before to see how Hongkongers spend their New Year. And this New Year is the year of the aforementioned snake, in particular the year of the water snake and so maybe sightings of the Plumbeous Water Snake, the Mangrove Water Snake, the Chinese Water Snake and, the most feared of the water snakes, and rightly so, the Banded Sea Snake, or to give it is scientific, and infinitely cooler name Hydrophis cyanocinctus, may increase, although probably not!

But snakes are not, in mythology and historical contexts, anything to be scared of. In fact many ancient civilisations revered and even worshipped the snake.

The 12 Earthly Branches have been used to record the time of day. However, for the sake of entertainment and convenience, they have been replaced by the 12 animals.

Snakes in mythology
In Egyptian myth a many-coiled serpent gave rise to Ra the Sun God and all of creation as a result. The snake is also said to have healing properties in Egypt and in Greek mythology, the Rod of Asclepius is a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine (which goes someway to explaining why ancient Greeks believed that people could acquire second hearing and second sight if their ears or eyes were licked by a snake!)

Hymns and offerings were made to snakes since it was believed that the goddess Mertseger could manifest herself through the snake. In the Sumerian culture snakes were also very important as a healing symbol and their god Ninazu is identified as the patron of healing, and his son, Ningishzida, is depicted with a serpent and staff symbol.

Snakes have been a common feature of creation myths long before the Garden of Eden. In ancient Indian myth, there is the drought-serpent Ahi, Chinese mythology has the woman-headed snake Nuw (女娲), who made the first humans. Greek myths tell of how Ophion the snake incubated the primordial egg from which all created things were born. The snake is also linked to rebirth and is some myths is likened to the umbilical cord, connecting us to mother and mother earth. Snakes were thought in many cultures to assist mother earth. The Hopi, a native American tribe, worshipped the snake and have a 16-day dance about it.

Of course there is a reason snakes are associated with nightmares and horror, and a lot of this arises from myth too.

Medusa, perhaps the most recognisable of the Greek mythological characters has snakes for hair. In Egyptian myth, every morning the serpent Aapep attacked the Sunship and tried to engulf the ship and the sky was drenched red at dawn and dusk with its blood as the Sun defeated it. In Nordic myth, evil was symbolised by the serpent or dragon called Nidhogg who coiled around one of the three roots of Yggdrasil the Tree of Life, and tried to choke or gnaw the life from it. In ancient Slavic paganism a deity by the name of Veles presided over the underworld. He is almost always portrayed as a serpent or dragon depending on the particular myth. The underworld was part of a mythical world tree. The roots of this tree (usually growing in water) were guarded by Volos the serpent god.

The idea of snake-people living below the Earth was prominent in American myth. The Aztec underworld, Mictlan was protected by python-trees, a gigantic alligator and a snake, all of which spirits had to evade by physical ducking and weaving or cunning, before they could start the journey towards immortality. In North America, the Brule Sioux people told of three brothers transformed into rattlesnakes which permanently helped and guided their human relatives.

As with the Indian drought serpent and the ringed serpent of Egypt representing the oceans, there have been found carved stones depicting a seven-headed cobra are commonly found near the sluices of the ancient irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka; these are believed to have been placed as guardians of the water. Making this year, the year of the water snake, more auspicious.

In the state of Kerala, India, snake shrines occupy most households. Snakes were called upon by the creator of Kerala, Parasurama, to make the saline land fertile. The Mannarasala Shri Nagaraja Temple is one of the main centres of worship. The presiding deity here is Nagaraja - a five-headed snake god born to human parents as a blessing for their caretaking of snakes during a fire. It is believed that Nagaraja left his earthly life and took Samadhi but still resides in a chamber of the temple.

In Australia one of the most prominent Aboriginal stories is the one about the Rainbow Serpent. Many Dreamtime tales tell about the first child of the great creator and the guardian of Australia. The rainbows you see in the bush are said to be the Rainbow Serpent travelling from one water hole to another. If he is happy he will go back into his hole and there will be a beautiful day, if he isn’t happy there will be a terrible storm.

Snakes in the grass
So snakes are both revered and reviled and that is perhaps best reflected in the fact that some snakes are harmless (if you call a nasty bite but ultimately just a bite) and some are very venomous indeed and Hong Kong is no exception.

According to the AFCD “ There are 52 native species of snakes recorded in Hong Kong. The most common snake found on Lantau Island is the Common Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops braminus) which is a small non-venomous snake. Out of the 52 native species recorded, 14 terrestrial snakes and six sea snakes are venomous. Eight of the terrestrial snakes can inflict fatal bites, including the lately discovered Pointed-scale Pit Viper (Protobothrops mucrosquamatus). All of the sea snakes found in Hong Kong are highly venomous but they are rarely seen. Their venom potency ranges from causing severe pain and swelling to human death."

When it comes to identifying venomous snakes a lot of people stick with the idea that a triangular shaped head is a good indicator. The AFCD had this to say: “No single characteristic can distinguish a venomous snake from a non-venomous one. The common perception that all venomous snakes have triangular-shaped heads is unreliable. A study from a major hospital in the New Territories indicated that over 95 per cent of venomous snake bites recorded in the study were related to Bamboo Snake. Cobra bites occurred much less frequently and bites from Kraits were rarely reported.”

But before you cancel your camping trip and vow to never to ramble the lush hills of Lantau again think about Australia. It is well reported that Australia has the most deadly concoction of snakes and spiders in the world and it is true that snakes do bite and kill people there, and according to the Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU) the top 11 most poisonous snakes in the world are all in Australia. But even considering that scary fact there were only fifty-eight deaths (41 males and 17 females) reported in relation to venomous snakebites between January 1979 and December 2000, according to the University of Melbourne who got their info from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In fact you are much more likely to choke and die eating snake soup than you are from a snake bite.

The AVRU, who know their snakes, offer these mostly common sense tips to avoid becoming a very, very rare statistic:

  • Leave snakes alone.
  • Do not attempt to catch or handle snakes. 
  • Wear stout shoes and adequate clothing, including long trousers, in 'snake country'. Do not wear sandals or thongs
  • Never put hands in hollow logs or thick grass or under woodpiles, building material etc without prior inspection. 
  • When stepping over logs, carefully inspect the ground on the other side. 
  • Keep barns and sheds free of mice and rats as they may attract snakes. 
  • Keep grass well cut - particularly in playgrounds, around houses etc. 
  • Take care around houses, barns etc on warm nights, as snakes may be active at this time. Use a torch and wear adequate footwear. 
  • Educate children in the above precautions. 
  • Do not handle snakes whilst intoxicated. 
  • Do not rely on visual identification of snakes as non-venomous, as appearances and colouration may vary considerably within species. 

Conversely the AFCD offers this list of dos and don'ts for reptile watching:

  • When searching for hiding reptiles, turn over rocks or logs lightly. Replace them to their original positions 
  • Use a torch to look inside holes and crevices carefully
  • Do not attempt to handle any snakes and lizards as they may bite and some snakes are venomous. Always keep a distance from any snake 
  • Do not destroy vegetation, wildlife and their living environment 
  • Do not pollute water 
  • Do not litter 

"Herpers" on forums like Asia Expat and Geo Expat are more than willing to give advice on snakes and regularly go out looking for them.

The times of the year when snakes are most active does vary but according to a local snake enthusiast May is the best time, but you will see them up till October/November depending on the weather.

More information on snakes of Hong Kong is available on AFCD’s website and their publication “A Field Guide to the Venomous Land Snakes of Hong Kong”.

This is a great article about snakes, and this is good too. For help identifying snakes there is a great Flickr page here

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Going Green in Lantau Part Two

Accor’s PLANET 21 initiative was launched last year and promised to reinvent the hotels of the future as “a hotel industry that is sustainable, responsible, innovative and open to the world.” In the last issue of Life On Lantau we looked at the initiative's lofty goals. In a follow-up to that article I talked to Chris Messer, Accor’s Asia Pacific sustainable development and public relations manager, and Nicholas Cullum, the general manager of the Novotel Citygate Hong Kong.

Life on Lantau (LOL): Overall how do you think PLANET 21 has gone?
Chris Messer (CM): A year into the program, we have seen a positive impact of PLANET 21 on our sustainable development performance and growing involvement by our hoteliers. One way of measuring progress is to look at the number of actions our hotels are implementing. To be considered a PLANET 21 compliant hotel, a property must qualify for PLANET 21 Bronze by completing 10 basic actions, such as installing low-flow water regulators and energy efficient lighting, offering healthy meal options, implementing recycling programs and using eco-labeled cleaning products. These actions tend to have the biggest immediate impact in terms of reducing consumption, or are the ones our guests have indicated they care about the most. (Hotels can progress to Silver, Gold and Platinum status as they complete additional actions). Before the program’s launch in early 2012, 24 per cent of hotels worldwide performed at PLANET 21 Bronze, which has increased to over 60 per cent today.

LOL: Can you give us an overview of the 21 goals you set for yourself for 2015 and how you are doing in terms of reaching those goals?
Nicholas Cullum (NC): The 21 commitments are centered around seven pillars, each pillar features three commitments. The seven pillars are: health, nature, carbon, innovation, local, employment and dialogue.
Examples of the implementation of some of these policies locally are:

  • Novotel Citygate offers Planet 21 meals on our menu’s that offer guests a healthy choice.
  • Use of motion sensors in public bathrooms, reduces water waste and reduces risk of spreading some diseases.
  • Recyclable bins in guest rooms; 2 bins in each guest room asking guests to separate recyclable and non recyclable items.
  • Use of eco-friendly cleaning products.
  • Water flow regulators are installed on all taps in front and back of house and all guest rooms.
  • Waste food is collected every day and recycled into animal food by external company.
  • Guest discarded soaps are collected for recycling.
  • Glass, paper and plastics sorted and collected for recycling.
  • Timers for reducing electricity use, wide use of LED lighting throughout.
  • Preventative maintenance of equipment ensuring optimum settings and productivity of air conditioning systems, pumps, water systems, air handling units etc.
  • Monitoring of energy usage.
  • No use of CFC in refrigerators or technical installations. 
  • Source and use of eco-friendly packaging throughout the hotel, containers and amenities.
  • Use of heat pump for water heating and use.
  • Promote local food products, purchasing milk from Trappist Monastery in Lantau.
  • Ban endangered seafood species from our restaurants.
  • Work together with local welfare agencies in supporting the local community.
  • Internal promotion and participation in Accor development, retaining and development programs.
  • Work with local community in Job Fairs and support of local talent.
  • Provide an equal opportunity workplace, encouraging diversity and empowerment among employees.
  • Encourage healthy work – life balance; offer activities outside of work such as team sports, tree planting, and beach cleaning activities.
  • Follow strict procedures for internal and external processors; external and internal audits from finance, hygiene to meeting Novotel brand standards.

From a hotel's’ individual perspective, 65 measurable and specific objectives have been identified within these 21 commitments to achieve by 2015. As an indication of meeting these objectives, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum certification of Planet 21 is awarded to the individual hotel as they progressively achieve the objectives. Novotel Citygate is on track to achieve Platinum status by 2015.

LOL: How has Hong Kong performed in terms of meeting targets compared to other locations?
CM: Our five properties in Hong Kong are leaders in sustainability within Accor. Today, all five properties perform at PLANET 21 Bronze or higher, compared to a global average of 60 per cent. The Novotel properties have all achieved an environmental management certification and will be ISO 14001 certified by the end of this year. [The ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 14000 is a family of certifications that address various aspects of environmental management. ISO 14001:2004 focuses on environmental management systems].

NC: [While] all the hotels in Hong Kong are on track to have met all the Planet 21 objectives by 2015, different regions face different challenges. We are lucky in Hong Kong to have a good sense and understanding of environmental concerns and being the international city we are have an expectation from our international clientele to by committed and offer to such programs.

LOL: Can you tell us some of the major difficulties you have faced since implementing PLANET 21?
NC: Obviously depending on what is required to be changed can influence the level of challenge it may bring; but generally the challenge involves changing behaviour, which to me is all about communication and training; whether that is for our staff or guests or both. Changing equipment is generally easy, [it’s] mostly about ensuring the change in equipment or technology does not impact in a negative way on the guest’s experience or stay. From an owner's point of view, new technologies may involve capital costs but prove to be cost effective and offer savings in the long term.

LOL: How are you doing with actively engaging hotel owners to bring more franchised and managed hotels into the PLANET 21 program?
CM: Our hotel owners are increasingly seeing the benefits of operating more sustainably, both in terms of cost savings (e.g. reduced water, energy use) and as a driver of business. (Over two thirds of our corporate and leisure guests have indicated they consider a hotel’s sustainability as a factor in making hotel bookings or choosing a venue.

LOL: Do you hope that PLANET 21 will help Accor break into lists like Newsweek's environmental ranking of the biggest companies in developed and emerging world markets? Marriott International came third in the hotels and restaurants category in 2012, but with Accor being the world’s leading hotel operator and market leader in Europe, there is some catching up to do. How far away from companies like Marriott do you think you are?
CM: I can’t make a comparison with our competitors, but Accor is a leader in this area, with over two decades of commitments to operating more environmentally and socially responsibly. We were the first hotel company to set up a department charged with mitigating our hotels’ impact on the environment back in 1994. In 2001, we became the first hotel operator to sign the ECPAT Code of Conduct to take a stand against child prostitution and sex tourism. In 2006, we launched Earth Guest, our first comprehensive sustainability strategy, combining both environmental and social commitments. And we have been recognized for these efforts. We are the only international hotel company to be represented on four sustainable investment indices (FTSE4Good, Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, Ethibel Sustainability Index and Vigeo’s ASPI Eurozone). While we have been recognized with awards such as the Conde Nast Traveler's World Savers Awards, our sustainable development programs in the past have been largely internally focused.

One of the key differences between our previous initiatives and PLANET 21 is just this: increased engagement with guests, business partners, communities, media, etc. We believe that we need to share what we’re doing, not just to gain recognition, but also because we believe that sharing our best practices will inspire others.

Comments are more than welcome below.

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