The Rock

An urge brought me to The Sydney Rocks

I craved its vibes for reasons lost in time


I have been here many times.

The Harbour, the Quay, are no strangers to me

Along the stall-lined alleys

I saw familiar sights—the crafts, the clothes, the cafés

     My eyes feasted on the multi-coloured hats, jewelry and native art

     I inhaled the aroma of eucalyptus souvenirs, soaps and essential oils

     Street musicians entertained my ears with country, rock and pop

But, I know them all

What am I here for?

What has lured me to The Sydney Rocks?

Is it just the rollicking market?

Or my mother, whose home always feels like home to me

       Every time I come?

My own home is in

      A different place

      A different hemisphere

      A different time zone

      Ten thousand miles away.

I heard a sound—a ring and a rippling vibration

    That stirred my senses and lifted my soul

I stood in front of a stall with temple bowls—large, medium and small

Metal bowls with etching of dragons sat on tiny cushions

     Their roots lost in time

They drew me close

Someone hit the edge of the bowl with a wooden stick

And swirled it around the edge

The sound was scintillating



I stood still, watching, clinging onto the energy and the vibration

     Drifting into timelessness

I picked up a stick and did the same

And the bowl sang to me!

It gripped my heart

     My soul

     My spirit

I knew it.

The bowl has brought me to The Rocks

It will come with me to

     A different place

     A different hemisphere

     A different time

     Ten thousand miles away

My own home.


Love, Survival and Redemption

After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara (Book Review)

Dundurn Press, Toronto, 324 pages, $21.99 paperback / $9.99 ebook here

Part family history, part mystery, After the Bloom is more than the story of a daughter’s attempt to look for her missing mother. The publisher’s back cover note calls it “epic”. That is not an exaggeration.
The story begins in 1984. Rita has just moved home and is coping with her recent separation from her husband when she was informed that her mother had gone missing from her home in Toronto. Rita’s search for her mother leads her to unravel Lily’s dark past in an internment camp for Japanese in California during the Second World War.
The narrative flashes back to 1943. Young Lily and her family are rounded up with other Japanese in an internment camp in the desert of California. The desert is hot and dry, and the pace of the story is reminiscent of the slow and long day the inhabitants would feel out there. Lily’s entrance was dramatic, and Kaz’s appearance brought on the tension. A double narrative line then develops between Rita’s search and Lily’s experience in the camp.
Lily falls in love with Kaz, and gets entangled in camp politics and the extreme tension between the rioters and camp supporters.
Shimotakahara writes with refined sensitivity about the fragility of human nature, and how such vulnerability can transform into strength in the name of love. Her characters are flawed with human weaknesses. They come across as real: they feel, they think and they act. They draw the readers into their worlds, sharing their anguish and pains.
Both the downtown Toronto and the desert camp landscape are depicted vividly, filtered by Shimotakahara’s keen observation, vivid imagination and strong narrative. The fictional name of Matanzas camp bears close resemblance to the actual Manzanar camp, where a riot took place, as in the novel. Credit must be given to her artful blend of research material and personal experience.
This is a story about human survival and redemption. History has its verdict on Japan’s role in the Second World War. Notwithstanding, the treatment given to the innocent Japanese born and living in North America at the time is also an ignominious page of history not to be denied. Imagine being given the choice of internment camp or repatriation to Japan, a country unknown to them, the language of which they did not speak.
A fourth-generation immigrant Japanese, Shimotakahara seems to be exploring the Japanese psyche, if this can so called, for herself. I share her journey through her lyrical prose about the social poise expected of Japanese women, the stringent rules of ikebana and the magic of Japanese folklore. Yet beneath the veneer of stoicism, her characters are frustrated, if not angry, and they need an outlet.
The author is not making a political treatise, but a plea for respect for humanity as her characters seek reconciliation and resolution with their past. When I finished the book, I was convinced that in the bigger world, it’s also time to move on to a more hopeful future after we have acknowledged the occurrence of past events.
I strongly recommend this book to readers with an interest in historical fiction, or a curiosity into the complexity of human nature and relationships. Any reader with an appreciation for literary prose will not be disappointed.

(A version of this review has appeared in the issue of Ottawa Review of Books in the blog Quick Brown Fox

I Grow Old, I Grow Old…

“I grow old, I grow old, but I shall not wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” if T. S. Eliot will forgive the reference.
At my last checkup, my family doctor looked at my height measurement and said, “I think you are shorter than two years ago.”
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“I kind of noticed that, too,” I replied. “The other day my trousers seemed long and I had to take the bottoms up afterward. It would be awkward to roll them up.”
My doctor did not seem to recognize my poetic reference and, without smiling, went on to suggest a bone density scan and the inclusion of glucosamine supplement in my diet. For my part, I was eager to reassure her that I was keeping up with my weight training and I was fine with following her advice. Not a big deal.
I recently read Globe and Mail feature writer Ian Brown’s exposition of his 60th year in Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year and it upset me. His self-effacing entries of the changes he noticed did not come across as humour, but bitter grumpiness. The shape of his nose is apparently changing and his sexual prowess is fading.
Really? Is this aging’s worst threat? What’s wrong with growing old? And his nose changing shape? Oh vanity, vanity! I want to tell Mr. Brown that growing old isn’t a disaster.
When I turned 50, I said to myself, “This is the beginning of life.” In the 10 years between my 50th and 60th birthdays, I looked around and discovered many new ventures to enrich myself.
I transformed myself from a couch potato into a power walker. I joined a walking class and progressed step by step from not being able to walk fast for one minute, to entering races. I even completed a marathon, walking the entire distance. I power walk to stay fit and healthy. This is not to say I am oblivious to the changes in my body and my performance. I never entered a race before I was 50, but I can well imagine that 20 years ago I would have raced faster. Even so, does it matter? I am doing what I can and I am at peace with myself. No regrets!
When I turned 60, I felt good. In fact, I felt great. I reassured myself, “Sixty is the new 40.” I took up creative writing, while I continued to work part-time. I did not feel that I had reached a watershed at 60.
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For a while, I experimented with blogging and wrote about my love for hiking. To make the blog more interesting, I became more adventurous in taking snapshots with my cellphone and added photo inserts to illustrate my posts. Blogging opened the door to a new dimension of social interaction with strangers, of which I was generally more wary. Never an extrovert in real life, it turns out I don’t like mindless chatter in the cyberworld, either.
Another milestone birthday arrived recently, the one that delivers discounts in shops, restaurants, museums and public transport. Still, getting older hasn’t bothered me.
Why should growing old be depressing, as Mr. Brown sees it?
I look at my mother, who, at 89, is my inspiration to keep up with technology. She checks her e-mail every day and clicks reply, delete and forward as she wishes. Though her siblings who are scattered across the globe, she is in touch with the whole world, it seems. I install WhatsApp, which she enjoys using to communicate with her children in both English and Chinese on her iPad. She is fluent in emoji.
She embraces life and has something to look forward to every day. She never moans about her knee problems. She puts some ointment on her knees in the morning and starts her day with tai chi. She cannot bend as low as the instructor. She cannot raise her hands above her head. Who cares? As we age, we are not immune to the usual physical changes, let alone any hereditary conditions. Indeed, I have at least 10 health-related appointments every year, covering various physical organs and systems of my body. I do not complain, for they give me a sense of comfort that I can discuss my changing body with a knowledgeable person and make decisions on how to take care of myself.
I am not oblivious to my mortality, but I have decided not to loathe my physical body but live life as it is. It is more frightening to have a disillusioned soul than an aging body. It is futile to encase a hopeless spirit in a young-looking shell. It is only when we decide to continue to be ourselves and embrace the age-appropriate changes in our body that we have peace of mind.

The West has bred a culture of ageism and an inability to accept the natural changes that take place in our lifespan. Too many people cling to their younger selves, afraid to flow with time and nature. This is an arrested mentality. I hope Mr. Brown will emerge from gazing into his wrinkling navel to cherishing the joy that life promises him, by being who he is. I certainly wish that he has a happier 63rd birthday.
(A version of this article was published in the Facts and Arguments Column of The Globe and Mail under the titel “60 is the new 40” in 2017.)









Momofuku Daisho: What’s Next with Fusion Dining


My first encounter with fusion cuisine was many years ago at Susur in Toronto. The tasting menu was a quintessential blend of western and eastern ingredients and culinary skills. I was happy and proud that finally, someone from my home city of Hong Kong had made it to the world stage of cooking. After all, Susur Lee began his cooking career in none other than the prestigious Peninsula Hotel, where he apprenticed with the best chefs in town.

When fusion cuisine was introduced as a dining concept a while ago, nobody could predict that it was here to last. In fact, thanks to global travelling and customers in big cities becoming more adventurous and open-minded in their taste, fusion cuisine has evolved from a fine dining experience to a regular affair and has become mainstream.

I saw Susur Lee display his flair on Iron Chef using tofu and Chinese mushrooms. Still, it was Susur Lee’s dishes, not fusion dishes any more. I have also tasted stir fry beef in oyster sauce over a plate of penne and risotto with mushrooms (shitaki, enouki and Chinese) in Italian restaurants. I read Jamie Oliver’s recipes using soya sauce, fish sauce and raw ginger. I watch Emeril Lagasse mix hoisin sauce into his barbecue sauce. (By the way, he cooks Swiss chard in one programme exactly the way I do it, with garlic and black bean sauce!)

When Chef David Chang made his name with ramen in New York, and popularized his Momofuku logo with his restaurants and recipe books, he re-ignited the interest in fusion cuisine, his fusion cuisine. I began to wonder whether something new was happening with fusion dining. He opened his three Momofuku restaurants—The Noodle Bar, Daisho and Shoto— and Nikai, the Bar, to raving publicity and excitement within the gourmet circle in Toronto last Fall and I decided to explore what the magic was all about. I spoke to my daughter about my intention and I got a “wow” reaction from her. Yes, from what I have read, Momofuku is popular among the younger working generation. So I picked Daisho, and I brought my family along.

Daisho was located on the third floor of the Momofuku complex adjacent to the Shangri-La Hotel on University Avenue. On entering, I noticed the floor to ceiling glass windows with an unobstructed view of University Avenue stretching from south to north. There was hardly any décor and the place struck me as austere, even stark but for the warm lighting.

We were seated on plain wooden benches, although there were chairs for the tables near the windows. I felt deprived, not only because there was no padding on the benches, but every time my husband wanted to adjust his seat, I had to shift as well.

The menu listed dishes described in English and grouped under headings with Japanese kanji. With our knowledge of Chinese characters, we could figure out part of the reasoning behind the categories. For our family of five, we had pre-ordered the porchetta, which was a kung-fu dish, translated literally from the menu. This category should mean the house specialties. We also selected one dish from the sections interestingly termed Carbohydrates, Winter (seasonal greens, I guess), and Lettuce Wraps. The sweet white buns, the wasabi sauce and kimchi mustard that were served as side dishes breathed their Chinese, Japanese or Korean connections. There was a touch of fusion with the lettuce wrap which came with hanger beef, or the black rice congee with bone marrow. The only novelty for me was the salsify with steelhead roe. The food was good to very good, depending on what we ordered.

Still, as I was biting into the brined pork of the ham-like porchetta, I wondered if the brining was just a short-cut to the traditional slow roasting. I also realized that I was looking for the wrong experience all together. Momofuku is a marketing gimmick, with questionable success, which attempts to fuse cultures, not food. It makes you sit on hard benches that I doubt would motivate you to spend more time practicing how to sit on a tatami to build the endurance of your gluteal muscles. It gives you a menu part of which you cannot read so that you would ask, and will learn that the character means “origin” and this is your hors d’oeuvre. But how will it help with your non-existent Chinese or Japanese vocabulary? You are offered a large format dish—the kung-fu dish–so that you can tear the meat off the chicken family-style like the Chinese and the Koreans. Yet the Italians and the Greeks do that too. The caveat: you are paying a lot for the food to expand your cultural horizon with Momofuku. Besides, what you get from the food hardly qualifies to be called fine dining. It’s the same now familiar fusion cuisine we have known. The location is expensive, but Momofuku Daisho has saved on the décor.

I still miss Susur, the restaurant from which Chef Susur Lee launched his international career and attained global fame. I like the white table-cloth, the expensive cutlery and the different wines that paired with the small plate food which woke up my taste buds. Fusion or not, it was fine dining, par excellence.

I want a memorable gastronomic journey, not cultural enlightenment.

Future Tense: Yearning for Spring

July 31, 2013 Leave a comment (Edit)


I was walking on Spencer Creek Trail which extended from Hamilton to Dundas in Ontario this morning. The air was still cold. The sun had risen, but it was struggling to creep through the clouds. The weather forecast predicted only a high of 3 degrees Celsius later in the day. This time last year, we were enjoying a balmy 26 degrees.  This is already March 23, two days after the Spring Equinox, and yet Spring to us here in southern Ontario is still in the future tense. I have a sudden impulse to break out of the cold and launch into the future.

The ice and snow are refusing to go away. Nature is playing a game with us. The melting and  re-freezing is a continuous tug-of-war in our outdoor world.




When shall we see the colours of the flowers and the leaves and the green grass that we are craving for? I am tired of looking at only white and brown around me. Then, isn’t everything in life relative? And so is Time. When we stepped out of the trail, we walked up the hill to Grove Cemetery, where the graves reminded me of my future although they were also the symbols of some people’s past.


We need patience waiting to see what will transpire in the future. Future to me also means Hope. There are finally signs of hope about the Spring yet to come. Turning into a residential street in Dundas, I suddenly spotted the first buds on the south-facing yards. My heart leapt with joy: the crocuses, the snow drops and the tulips had burst through the ground.




On the opposite side of the road, however, the snow relentlessly hung on.


I am hopeful. Spring  will come; it will come soon!