Friday 24 March 2017

Symphony on Port Phillip Bay

I was hosted by Crystal Cruises for this visit.

I'm not much of a fan of large sea-going cruise ships, though I've been on some smaller river cruises that I've enjoyed.

That doesn't mean I won't have a peek aboard a large cruise ship when I get the chance. In January I was invited with a bunch of other travel writers aboard the Crystal Symphony, which was anchored at Port Melbourne's Station Pier preparatory to a major cruise.

It's a big vessel:

After going through security and boarding the ship, we were split into groups and were led on an informal tour. Our tour leader was a Swiss musician who performs for the passengers by night, and had volunteered to show us around.

The attention to detail in the vessel's interior design was impressive; evolving the golden age of ocean liners with a hint of Art Deco, but not so much as to make it look like a movie set:



I particularly liked the "@" symbol set in marble at the entrance of the computer room:

And the cinema looked pretty cool as well:

We ended up in this ambient bar, having a afternoon tea:

Looking out from the deck, I could see this lettering on the roof of the pier way below:

Seems an appropriate message for those arriving at Station Pier, where many new arrivals in the great postwar wave of migration had their first glimpse of Australia. Passengers on the Crystal Symphony are more well-heeled, but the message still applies. 

For more about the Crystal Symphony, visit this link.

Friday 17 March 2017

Comics in Hong Kong

I was hosted on this trip by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

On my final day in Hong Kong, I had most of the day free before I needed to head to the airport. I'd researched all the stories I was commissioned to write, so the question was: what to do?

First up, I needed coffee, so I headed to Espresso Alchemy in Quarry Bay (4 Hoi Wan St). I'd been tipped off to this small coffee chain by the day before, and had let them know I'd be dropping by.

Even so, I was surprised to discover its owner had an Aussie accent. I had a coffee with Ambrose Law, the owner, who was brought up in Australia and has done well building up his roastery and cafes in Hong Kong:

Being suitable caffeinated (and I liked Espresso Alchemy's coffee, they know what they're doing there), I headed west via Hong Kong's crazy double-decker trams to Wan Chai.

I'd remembered this was where I'd find Comix Home Base, a place I'd stumbled across earlier in my research.

As a comic book fan, this place was always going to be of interest. Devoted to both traditional comic books and animation, it's a small arts hub arranged around a light-filled courtyard.

The architecture is of more than passing interest, because the complex was created within the facades of ten tenement houses which were built a century ago, between 1916 and 1922.

Constructed under British colonial rule, the houses had an interesting combination of Chinese and western architectural features, such as Chinese tiled roofs and French doors. Some of this original style can be seen by crossing a walkbridge from the main block to the facades on the opposite side:

Inside the main building there are various rooms used for exhibitions and conferences, not all of them open to the general public. However, there are always anime movies playing, which you're welcome to sit down and enjoy:

The other great facility for visitors is the Comix Salon, down a passage from the viewing area:

This marvellous haven is a small reading room, its shelves stacked with comic books from around the world - Asia, Europe, North America:

I picked out a few collections of my favourite characters (I'm a DC guy from way back, not Marvel) and settled down for a read.

On the way out I passed Old Master Q, a character created by Hong Kong artist Alfonso Wong under the pen name Wong Chak:

The character first appeared in print in 1962, and his humorous adventures acted as a medium by which to indirectly explore political and social issues. The character stayed popular throughout the artist's life, which only ended recently; he passed away on 1 January 2017.

So that was Comix Home Base - a rest stop and an education all in one. If you're a comic book or animation fan, I recommend it when you visit Hong Kong.

Comix Home Base is located at 7 Mallory St, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, China. Open 10am-8pm daily (Comix Salon noon-8pm, closed Monday). More details at its website.

Friday 10 March 2017

A White Night in Ballarat

Last weekend, Narrelle and I headed to Ballarat to experience its very first White Night.

I'd already written a preview of the all-night arts event for Fairfax Media's Traveller section, so I was curious to see how it would play out on the night.

White Night/Nuit Blanche has traditionally been an event staged by big cities - St Petersburg, Toronto, Paris, Melbourne - not a regional city of 100,000 people. Would it work?

It looked good from the start. When we stepped out of our Lydiard Street hotel at 10pm after a strategic nap, White Night had been underway for three hours and the city centre was packed with people.

As at White Night Melbourne, people were moving from artwork to artwork, with the largest pieces being huge illuminations mapped to Ballarat's plentiful historic facades.

In fact, the first thing we realised was that our own accommodation, Craig's Royal Hotel, was one of the buildings acting as a canvas:

There were smaller works to be discovered in the side streets running off Lydiard. One of these, Do Not Go Gentle, was a mesmerising video presentation in a vacant lot, examining ageing and the gaining of wisdom:

There were many of these interesting smaller pieces - including a mobile work, Crate Expectations, a strange object made of crates which trundled around producing curious effects and items as it occasionally popped open...

... and this, a row of "Here's Johnny!" heads smirking maniacally on screens in the window of the Regent Cinemas:

But the star attraction of White Night was undeniable the set of illuminations along Lydiard Street. It was here that White Night Ballarat had several advantages over its Melbourne equivalent.

Firstly, it was much easier to navigate Ballarat's White Night zone, which was basically two connected stretches of the city's broad goldrush-era streets, Lydiard and Sturt. It was crowded, but never did we feel that we couldn't progress.

Secondly, the relatively compact area enabled a visual unity that's impossible in Melbourne's sprawling White Night zone. One could stand at one end of Lydiard Street and see a stretch of illuminated facades along both sides, a kind of magical avatar of the daytime city:

Another asset was Ballarat's tumultuous 19th century history, in which it rocketed into prominence as a rough-and-tumble gold mining community after the metal was discovered there in 1851. This lent a certain thematic unity to the illuminations, several of which drew on the city's past.

As an Australian history graduate I particularly liked this projection on the old post office building, which referred to the Eureka Stockade revolt of 1854:

On the other side of Lydiard was a work drawing on a much deeper past. More Than 1 Nation by local Aboriginal art group Pitcha Makin Fellas told the story of Australia's indigenous people, and wasn't shy about referencing the harsh realities of European settlement.

It was by far the best work of the night, an animated journey through centuries, and much admired by onlookers. It was good to see that such public art could still be frank and confronting.

Here are two clips I filmed on the night, the latter one dealing with more modern times:

The first White Night Ballarat was, to my eyes, a success both in crowd appeal and artistic merit.

The only flaw, it turned out, was the 12-hour timespan. While this made sense in Melbourne, where the huge crowds gave people good reason to enter the city in the wee small hours before dawn, in Ballarat it was easy to see everything during more reasonable hours.

As a result, when we walked back to our hotel at 3am, after drinks with friends at the buzzing Mitchell Harris wine bar, we found Lydiard Street almost deserted:

On reflection, it might have worked better to stage White Night Ballarat from, say, 7pm to 3am, rather than run all the way to the scheduled 7am.

Quiet finale aside, White Night Ballarat provided proof that successful big art events don't have to be the sole possession of big cities.

Whether there'll be a second such event in the goldfields city has yet to be decided, but I hope it happens. It was a great night out among the art, crowds, and colourful history.

Friday 3 March 2017

Bloody Mary of Macau

As research for this post, I was shouted drinks by the St Regis Macao. It's a tough job etc.

We're all familiar with the Bloody Mary. It's a cocktail containing vodka, tomato juice and various combinations of spices or and/or sauces.

French barman Fernand Petiot claimed to have invented it at Harry's New York Bar in Paris in 1921, though that has been disputed.

What seems clear, however, is that Petiot refined the Bloody Mary into its modern form in 1934, in his stint as a barman at the King Cole Bar at New York City's St Regis Hotel (a bar which still exists today).

Since then the St Regis has taken a particular pride in the drink, with each of its hotels around the world creating its own version.

This man in the bar of the St Regis Macao whipped up the local variant for me:

And here it is close up, the Maria Do Leste - a Bloody Mary inspired by the former Portuguese colony which is now China's casino hub:

There was quite a bit going on, on that tray. Firstly, the tray itself, which resembled the wavy cobblestoned squares of Macau's historic Old City.

Secondly, there were food items associated with the region's Portuguese heritage, including a warm lobster egg tart and a slice of chouriço.

Thirdly, the spices (both inside and outside the drink) include pink peppercorns from Brazil, piri piri from Africa, cinnamon and paprika from India, black vinegar and black peppercorns from China, and sea salt.

If you're wondering what the connection might be between these geographically diverse ingredients, it's this: they were all from places where Portugal had colonies, and thus drifted into Macau's local cuisine via trade.

Although that tray did seem a bit busy, I enjoyed the invitation to add the vodka, Tabasco sauce, lime juice, sea salt and pink peppercorns to the level of my own liking (OK, I did add all the vodka).

I enjoy a bit of local innovation in hotel cocktail menus. A couple of years ago I was staying at the the famous Raffles in Singapore, home of the Singapore Sling, when it launched a new set of cocktails commemorating key moments in the hotel's long history.

If you're heading to Macau, I recommend the Maria Do Leste to you. Cheers! Or even À nossa!

You can find the St Regis Macao at Estrada Do Istmo S/N, Cotai, Macau.