Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Canada Day: Ô Mon Cher Pays

"Un Canadien errant...parcourait en pleurant des pays étrangers"
It's Canada Day - Dominion Day as it was once called - and my homeland is now 143 years old. Once again, I celebrate it from afar. There are worse places than Hong Kong to be a Canadian; in fact, today is also "Hong Kong Day," a holiday and the anniversary for when Britain returned the territory to China in 1997. It's also an unofficial day of protest when thousands gather to support democracy and vent about other issues. This year the numbers are projected to be smaller since the Democratic Reform package passed just last week.

I miss White Rock, the beach, family, friends, backyard barbecues and live music that doesn't function as a backdrop to some ridiculous promotional event...where a folk song doesn't mean "Puff The Magic Dragon," but manly, rugged things like falling trees...

Lately, I been reminded of "Un Canadien Errant", the classic expat lament for mon cher pays. Canada has been making international news recently through the obscene G8/G20 circus that took over Toronto last week. Stephen Harper continues to disgrace my country by yoking it to a religious/conservative agenda that has more in common with the American Bible belt than anything I recognize as Canadian.

I turned up this clip from Harry Rasky's 1980 documentary, Song Of Leonard Cohen. Leonard looks so forlorn and his version of "Un Canadien Errant" includes a mariachi band! A statement, perhaps, of his utter dislocation from his least he looks great barefoot in a suit.

Un Canadien errant,
Banni de ses foyers,
Parcourait en pleurant
Des pays étrangers.

Un jour, triste et pensif,
Assis au bord des flots,
Au courant fugitif
Il adressa ces mots

"Si tu vois mon pays,
Mon pays malheureux,
Va, dis à mes amis
Que je me souviens d'eux.

"Ô jours si pleins d'appas
Vous êtes disparus,
Et ma patrie, hélas!
Je ne la verrai plus!

"Non, mais en expirant,
Ô mon cher Canada!
Mon regard languissant
Vers toi se portera..."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Divide & Conquer: Beijing Scores

Hong Kong has finally passed a reform package that will take it towards a more byzantine-style democracy, Beijing style, by...oh, maybe 2020. This means, according to veteran activist and Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, turning a tiny cadre of selected "special" people responsible for choosing our dear leader, into a slightly less smaller one. In other words, democracy with Chinese characteristics.

For over ten years the Hong Kong democratic movement has been united in its commitment to obtaining universal suffrage. Beijing has tried everything in its power, including the politics of vilification, vandalism directed at the offices of individual democrats and even violence to thwart the dems and try to split their ranks. Nothing worked and local support has remained strong. Beijing finally gave up and recently reached out to the Democratic Party, the largest and oldest group that makes up the so-called pan-democrats, which also includes the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats (LSD!). These two parties bitterly opposed the DP's decision and now an internecine battle is erupting among them. Long Hair, longtime democracy advocate and one of Beijing's harshest critics, turned his fire on one of the grandfathers of Hong Kong's democracy movement, Szeto Wah, who is fighting cancer. Long Hair called him "guiltless" and said he has "cancer in the brain" for urging his Democratic Party colleagues to support the reforms. Beijing's strategy, so far, is paying off.

Beijing might also win over some skeptics by appearing to compromise, albeit ever so slightly, on their package by incorporating some of the DP's suggestions. On Friday, LSD legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip yelled out in the legislative chamber:
“Today is the darkest day for democracy in Hong Kong. Functional constituencies’ seats will last forever!”
These "functional constituencies" belong to a privileged few who are "elected" by special interests to "choose" Hong Kong's leader. The current package expands them, but doesn't eliminate them, which is the problem. After the legislature endorsed the reform package, Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan told reporters a new political era for Hong Kong had begun.

Ho said:
“We will continue to do our best to fight for universal suffrage...and the abolition of functional constituencies."
But now that he appears to have kowtowed to Beijing, he and his venerated party risk being rejected by a large section of Hong Kong society who views the DP as sell-outs. It's that age-old debate - fight the system from within and risk getting swallowed or continue the battle from outside and risk irrelevancy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Loverboy: Poodle Rock

At the dawn of the 80s, a change was afoot that would dramatically alter the coming decades. It wasn't the inauguration of Ronald Reagan or the U.S.-supported Iraqi invasion of Iran. Something far more distressing was about to occur. Birthing itself from the detritus of new wave and flaccid power chords was a spandex and bouffant atrocity known as poodle rock. As Canadian as poutine or the mullet, poodle rock created its own distinct breed of bands that as its name suggests, were tamed and groomed for maximum household appeal.

Released in the summer of 1980, Loverboy's self-titled debut is arguably ground zero for the poodle genre. With the clenched guitar-riffs of an already balding, but poodle-headed Paul Dean chaffing alongside the neutered yelps of front man, Mike Rynoski (a.k.a. Mike Reno), the album conveyed a level of preening usually reserved for spoiled canines. Coated with synth splashes more reminiscent of The Cars than the Attractions, it also revealed the band was more bark than bite.

Nevertheless, within a few months Loverboy would storm the Canadian charts on the success of singles, "The Kid is Hot Tonight" and "Turn Me Loose," eventually achieving multi-platinum success in North America. Above the din of video arcades like Circus Circus I used to hang out in, wafted the radio-friendly sounds of bands like Loverboy & The Headpins, who accessorized the sex-and-violence trappings of teen rebellion for this new breed. The brawny, muscular riffs, sweetened with the gloss of a Life Saver candy, appealed to young kids like us yearning to feel wild and turned loose, while allowing our puffy mullets to remain unspoiled.

My introduction to the band came on a chilly November evening in 1979 at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. Loverboy opened for KISS, and I thought they rocked the house. I was barely 12, which says as much about Loverboy's juvenile appeal as your correspondent's taste. Later, I remember sitting in the backseat of my friend's older brother's Dodge Duster on a Friday night, stubby beer in hand and Loverboy blasting from the Boss speakers. I was that kid, hot and turned loose on my sleepy South Surrey town.

The cover art cops the aesthetic of the period: black-clad androgynous figure clipped at eye-level standing in front of a fiery-red background. Is it a man or woman? The blood-red lipstick and nail polish over cuticles as sharp as switchblades suggest the latter. But the muscular biceps suggest otherwise. Look closely, just left of the cigarette raised to the lips, beside the eye at the cheekbone -- there's a smudge of rouge - or is it a bruise? Then there's that long-fingered hand carelessly splayed across the thigh precariously close to the crotch. A cross between Pat Benatar and Stiv Bators, the figure is a tacky embodiment of sex, violence and rock 'n' roll.

The font, recklessly typed over the cover, vaguely recalls Guy Debord and the Situationists and reaches for the street cred of the late-1970s punk scene. Inside the album, the five band members are arranged individually in various poses, dressed in 1980s chic attire of red, black and yellow (!) tight leather/pleather pants. Mike Reno, however, is missing the bandana that would eventually become his trademark, even before Springsteen rolled one on for his Born in the U.S.A. tour.

Despite its claims of being turned loose, the album remains forever linked to an era defined by its technicolor hedonism. "The Kid Is Hot Tonight," fast, tuff fluff, the very epitome of early teen preening, was destined to be the "brand new wave" it proclaimed to be. "Turn Me Loose," another pitch-perfect radio staple, still sounds fresh. Cymbal rolls and icy synths float over a simple bass-line while guitar clashes and smooth background "whooo-whooos" revamp the song's peculiar Sinatra ethos ("I gotta do it my way / or no way at all!") for an entirely new breed: the suburban mallrat.

"DOA" and "Teenage Overdose" are gratuitous nods to death and violence, nothing more than anemic affectations of punk. After all, the thriving punk and new-wave scenes in Canada that spawned Loverboy included such luminaries as the Forgotten Rebels, Pointed Sticks, and D.O.A. In a year that witnessed the suicide of the Joy Division's Ian Curtis and the assassination of John Lennon, Loverboy's debut remains a testament of an era that would see its music retreat into the safe, carny atmosphere of MTV. Who was listening? Mallrats such as I, bobbing with Galaga down at the video arcade.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rabbit Moon: A Flood Of Beauty

La Chascona
Can you see it? The rabbit on the moon?

This weekend I'm celebrating 10 years married to the most beautiful woman I could have ever imagined being with. We've actually known each other for 15 years, but it took me a while to get around to popping the question. Coming from different cultures, we both wanted to be sure. You know, it's for life, electric word life, and that's mighty long time, as Prince put it.

For me, it was love at first sight. It was a September evening in 1995, the setting - Nakano - a smallish town in the mountains of Japan. I was one of three Caucasians among a population of about 40,000 and had just been posted two months before to teach English at a local high school. Yuko had graduated the previous year from the same school and knew some of my new colleagues. She was a college student at the time, studying English and tutoring on the side. Unbeknownst to me, she made arrangements with her old class teacher for a little dinner party to take place at my tiny apato...

She showed up at my door carrying a huge platter of delicious Japanese food, along with two of her friends. She blew me away - her beautiful smile, exuberance, generosity and genuine wit. We quickly became friends and that's all we were for the next three months, much to my disappointment. She was already in a relationship so I did my best to remain relevant while surreptitiously doing what I needed to make a long story short, she dumped him and by Christmas we were together (our first "proper" date was actually on Christmas Eve).

Before I met Yuko I thought the moon was made of cheese. She showed my there's a little more to it than that. In fact, there's a rabbit up there and you can see it if you look for it, but I never even knew to look before. Yuko also happens to have been born in the year of the rabbit, so she's got an insider's perspective on these things. She points out the magic, reminds me of the splendor and beauty of life when it disappears down a hole or decides to play hooky. I'm grateful for all her love and for helping me to see the "tsukiyo no usagi" - the rabbit on the moon. So here's to another 10 plus years together, my sweet companion on the road.

This is a song by one of my favourite Canadian poets - Leonard Cohen - based on a poem by another favourite poet - Federico García Lorca. "Take This Waltz" includes the immortal line: "I'll yield to the flood of your beauty", something I've had no choice but to do since the day I met Yuko...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ha Long Bay: Descending Dragon

I was worried we'd get a rainy day in Ha Long happened, but it turned out alright. The mist and fog elevated the landscape beyond anything a sunny day could have revealed. It looked like its name - "Descending Dragon" - a watery lair where the coiled air serpents come to slake their thirst and rejuvenate before exploding back into space.

Ha Long Bay is about a four hour drive from Hanoi in the north-eastern corner of Vietnam. It's a popular spot and hosts all types of journeys - day or night. We chose a day trip on a rented junk that was perfect for us...and luxuriously private.

We spent five hours on the water, had a delicious lunch, visited a fishing village and toured the huge Hang Đầu Gỗ caves, aka the Grotte des Merveilles.

Ha Long Bay was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 so we jumped in a kayak for a closer look.

We paddled through a few opening in the islets and entered small lakes surrounded by rocky shores. The craggy islets resembled all types of creatures from cats and dogs to pythons and gryphons. It was a remarkable sight and a welcome change from the frenetic pulse of Hanoi.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mud Pies: Lessons In The Earth

(Class photo from grade 4...I'm in the front left with the dirty-knees beside the yogi)
I wrote "Mud Pies" to celebrate life's most valuable lessons - those learned outside of the classroom.

Mud Pies

Miss Young never mentioned the mud pies
but she watched us at work
bobbing below the ground
amphibious in a ditch
at the edge of our playground

Within the freedoms of recess and lunch
we practiced our lessons in the earth
far away from textbooks
and other prescriptions

After the bell we would show up
late for row-call
porous and slippery
with our creations dripping in the cloakroom

But Miss Young never mentioned the mud pies
or gave a lesson outside near the earth
Instead she stuffed us
with the text-gristled curriculum
while everyday outside
the ditch crawled closer and closer

Miss Young was my 2nd Grade teacher at H.T. Thrift Elementary. She was a nice woman, but obviously had misplaced priorities. The poem appears with five more of mine in An International Anthology Of Poetry from Hidden Brook Press.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Executioner's Song: Judical Homicide

What's that song? The one they play at an execution? Norman Mailer knew. He captured its nuance and cadence with such fine detail in his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning, The Executioner's Song. The life and death of Gary Gilmore is laid out in prismatic prose that illuminates every shade of human dealing imaginable. It's such a laboured work, I'm in awe. It also reads as the last gulp of realism in American letters...after this, the postmodernism of writers like Thomas Pynchon & Dan DeLillo, as well as Raymond Carver's sparse minimalism, would eclipse Mailer.

In over 1,000 pages, Mailer recounts Gilmore's release from prison on parole in April 1976 to his execution nine months later on January 17, 1977 at age 36. Free for only three months before committing two cold-blooded murders, Gilmore eventually agreed with the court's verdict when he was sentenced - he called their bluff and wanted to be executed. When given a choice of method, he chose firing squad and categorically rejected an appeal or any attempt to pursue a stay. At the time, it was the first judicial homicide to take place in the U.S. since 1967.

Mailer called the book "a true life novel", not quite fiction or non-fiction. He also said, "I think The Executioner's Song, more than any book I've ever done, was an exercise in craft. I've never felt close to it". That's not too surprising - it lacks the heated intimacy or interior monologues that might bring an author closer to his/her subject, but as a reader the panoramic scope of the narrative lured me in. Despite knowing the ultimate conclusion, I was hoping for that last minute phone call from the Supreme Court or some form of intervention to delay the fateful outcome. The style is plain, transparent reportage that creates a sense of objectivity as though the writer was some dispassionate scribe unaffected by the events he's relaying. Of course, there's no such thing...and Mailer was clearly against the judicial homicide that claimed Gilmore's life. That's the beauty of this book - it arranges the facts, like the furniture in a room, to create a desired outcome, in this case, sympathy for a cold-blooded murderer.

Mailer also captured the crass jingles of commerce that flocked around the execution - the National Enquirer, Geraldo Rivera types - and all the Hollywood scouts trying to capitalize on the event by turning it into a spectacle. Gilmore became an international media star. Here's the Adverts doing their 1977 hit, "Gary Gilmore's Eyes":

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

History Matters: Tiananmen Square

Tomorrow - June 4 - Hong Kong will host its annual vigil at Victoria Park to remember those who were murdered by the Chinese government in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square 21 years ago. It's the only place within China that holds such an event. Since the massacre took place in 1989, the government is still fighting the battle. But rather than use tanks and bullets, it's using the Internet and corrupted laws.

Yesterday, a sculptor was refused entrance to Hong Kong and then deported back to his current home in the U.S. Chen Weiming's crime was to create a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue that stood in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Last weekend there was a demonstration on public property outside a shopping mall in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay to commemorate Tiananmen and the statue was confiscated by the police. This was, according to the Hong Kong Bar Association, an abuse of their authority and undermined the rule of law.

This is how history perverts the present in China. In a desperate attempt to bury a past injustice, Beijing ties itself into more knots than a contortionist at the circus. While these abuses are common occurrences in mainland China, Hong Kong is supposed to be immune under our "one country, two systems" constitutional arrangement. But no matter what Beijing does, it'll never be able to hide the truth of the horrific events that occurred in 1989.