"In all your relationships and communications today, remember that the emotional charge that most often causes people to speak brutally (or harshly) is fueled by the energy of fear. It may be wearing the disguise of anger, frustration, disappointment, impatience, and so on, but it is really only fear in disguise." ~ p. 15 Dennis Merritt Jones' "The Art of Being"
"Are you a Buddhist?" asked the handsome, bespectacled young man who had followed me all the way down Huashan Rd, observing me popping into Buddhist supplies shops and purchasing rosaries from a man selling them from a box on his bicycle. I'm never quite certain how to answer this question - how does one characterise a lifetime's exploration of Buddhism combined with an increasing unwillingness to define myself according to any one particular tradition? So I did what I always do - I avoided the question.
"Actually," I said, "I am headed to Jingan Temple - is it far?"
"Why it's just around the corner," he said. "Why don't I take you there?"
And so for the second time in my life I found myself at Shanghai's most visible Buddhist temple. From the road Jingan Temple is impressive. Vast wooden walls and towers are topped with gold, and the whole structure dominates the local landscape. It is handily served by a subway station in its basement, and a glamorous shopping mall right next door. Set into the temple's outside walls are large shops selling outrageously expensive Buddhist jewellery and religious objects. The shops make fascinating browsing, but really, who buys such overpriced tat?
The grandeur of the temple's exterior and the hefty entry charge might lead you to expect something pretty spectacular inside, but what I discovered was exactly what I'd seen three years previous - a dusty, cold construction site filled with rather desperate worshippers and a surprisingly large number of monks.
Even the statues are unfinished in the lofty, half-built halls. What can possibly be taking them so long?
Nonetheless, the place was filled with hopeful tourists striding along the walkways to the temple's various towers and shrines.
I was one of them, accompanied this time by my new and very earnest friend, whose entry I'd paid. His commentary was entirely unhelpful, but his company was cheering.
After about a half hour I suggested we ditch the temple and hit the mall. I discovered in there a gang of young toughs selling counterfeit bottles of Hello Kitty perfume encrusted with wannabe-Swarovski crystals. This time I was seriously tempted.
I will give you some more in-depth posts soon, but until then, here are some random scenes from China:
- Australian sci-fi author Marianne de Pierres is being discussed in an academic context, and she writes about it here. That would be a thrill, I must admit. Read a review of her new book here.
- Some amazing pics of Buddha statues that have withstood earthquakes and tsunamis. Last night I watched an amazing Chinese film called Buddha Mountain, and it was dealing with a similar theme. Also, to celebrate the upcoming festivale of Vesak - the Buddha's Birthday - they are exhibiting the Buddha's hair relic in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, in ultra-Buddhist Bhutan you can go to jail for smoking!
- A great pic from Boy George's B-Rude fashion line. George has been campaigning this week for the capture of the vicious thugs who beat up his old friend, fashion legend Philip Sallon.
- Hope you had a great Easter! Little Augury reminds us that no-one could wear a bonnet as well as the gorgeously stylish Edith Sitwell.
- My partner is a font nerd, and he will be excited that OMG have discovered the Llama Font. I might write an essay in this.
- They've done a movie about Hildegard of Bingen - fabulous! Who next - Julian of Norwich? Madonna would be perfect for the part.
- I am the king of distractions, and Problogger is on a mission to destroy all distractions. Have you heard his interview with Guy Kawasaki?
- Rob Bell has been a Christian-writer-of-interest for sometime now, and these days they are accusing him of heresy because of his new book - read more about it at the New York Times.
- If you've never watched Steve Hayes' wonderful Tired Old Queen at the Movies channel on Youtube you haven't lived. I live for these installments, and I love his treatment of Funny Face. Please someone give Steve his own TV show!
- Art and business have always worked more closely together than most people would like to admit, and a new book discusses why.
- Australian clairvoyant, tarot expert and brother-author under my publishing imprint Inspired Living, Paul Fenton-Smith, has released a new book on Intuition, and it looks perfect!
New Thing No. 4 - A Healing Workshop with Annie Evans - Annie is just gorgeous, and she is also published under the Inspired Living imprint, just like me. I had never been to a Healing Workshop before, so I booked me and my mum in as a birthday gift to her. It was fabulous. Spending a whole day with the delightfully warm Annie was really something, and I really did feel healed and relaxed afterwards.
New Thing No. 5 - Going to Hear Armistead Maupin - Maupin has been one of my heroes since I was about 19, and I have read all of his wonderful books. So I went to hear him at the Sydney Opera House when he was here recently, and because I didn't want to go by myself, I bought a ticket for my dear old dad. It turned out to be quite a good event to take one's father too. He and Armistead are of a similar age, and dad got to hear a whole heap of pro-gay things in a non-threatening environment.
New Thing No. 6 - Workshop With Dr. Brian Weiss - This was just on the weekend. I went a little sceptically, to be honest, but putting aside the truth or otherwise of what I experienced, the man is an incredible hypnotist, and I came away more calm, rested and joyful than I've been in many months. And it was fun - he has the most gorgeous, grandfatherly manner. Yes, I did have past-lives experiences, and no, I'm not telling.
New Thing No. 7 - Eating at the Guylian Cafe - Yes, I'm on a diet, but a man needs a break now and then. I am a lifelong devotee of Guylian Shells, those little hazelnut-infused chunks of Belgian heaven. I also regularly go to the Dendy Opera Quays, which is right next door to the Guylian Cafe. So one day I had some time on my hands....Had a huge hunk of cake and a Guylian iced chocolate and felt so much better for it. Waistline be damned!
New Thing No. 8 - Talking to Sci-Fi Author Marianne de Pierres - I used to work for Marianne de Pierres' publishing company - indeed, I set up her Myspace page! We had communicated by email and via Twitter, but I decided to go along to her book signing at Galaxy Books and get a copy of her new book Burn Bright. Marianne was friendly, kooky and striking, just as I'd imagined her.
New Things No. 9 - I Tried the New Super Dish Chinese Restaurant in Cabramatta - Actually, I try every new restaurant in Cabramatta, as all locals do. Just try getting into a new restaurant here in the first week and you'll see what I mean. Was very pleasantly surprised. Read Noodlies' review of it here.
New Things No. 10 - One Sunday I Went to St. George's Presbyterian Church in the City - This was probably my oddest New Thing yet. I adore this church, and have always wanted to go to a service there. I used to catch the bus across the road from it for years, and it was never open. Once I saw dozens of elderly ladies spill out, all wearing hats. I love its squashed but elaborate facade, its tiny door. So I went to a service one Sunday morning, and I have never experienced anything like it. It was definitely from another age. The ladies were still wearing hats. The liturgy was in a form I'd never experienced before, nor even heard about. A kind of continuous round of Bible readings and then sung Psalms (unaccompanied) and then a long sermon. Standing for prayer. Iguess it's some kind of traditional Presbyterianism, and I should read up on it.
New Things No. 11 - Ate a Yellow Dragon Fruit - Dragon Fruit is one of my favourite yummy things, and in the last month I have noticed in the markets in Cabramatta a yellow variety. I couldn't resist. I can report that it has a sharper, sourer flavour than its more familiar purple cousin. I will stick with the original, with its softer, subtler tones.
New Things No. 12 - Sea-Salt Coffee - This has actually become a dangerous addiction. Who would think that salted coffee would be so delicious. I always want to nip in a and grab one of these when I am near the gorgeous 85 Degrees bakery on George street. Noodlies told me he'd uploaded a video of this, but turns out he hasn't. Maybe later you can see me taking my first ever sip of sea-salt coffee.
So that's it! Well, should have a whole slew of New Things after my trip to China - do keep an eye out!
Cambodian New Year festivities in San Francisco
I was very honored when Walter asked me if I’d be willing to write a guest post for his blog!
As I know that Walter recently traveled in Cambodia and is at work on a book about Cambodia, I thought I’d write about the Cambodian New Year festivities in San Francisco, California, where I live. Although the traditional new year begins April 13 in 2011, celebrations in the Bay Area last all April long.
American federal refugee policy does not provide any funding whatsoever for “cultural preservation,” so all efforts to rebuild Cambodian cultural traditions in America have come directly from the communities themselves.
[caption: Children’s fashion show. Girl on the right is wearing the traditional scarf of the Cham Muslim population of Cambodia.]
However, Cambodian Americans are actively reviving and re-inventing their beautiful cultural traditions as well as actively teaching them to the next generation.
One of my favorite events at the 2011 New Year Festival was the traditional girls dance called “Robam Neary Chea Jour.” The group of five little girls were performing in public for the very first time yet they showed amazing poise and grace. Their teacher, Ratha Chuon Kim, told me they had been practicing for two months, spending four hours every Saturday to learn the graceful moves. For children so young, that’s dedication!
[caption: Modern day Apsaras preparing for their dance!]
I also enjoyed the energetic breakdancing by the Cambodian American young men! As they busted their hip hop moves to the traditional beat of the gong (drum), they proved that they are blending Cambodian and American dance styles very well.
Of course, there was food galore, including papaya salad, lemongrass, fried rice and satay as well as crepes and eclairs, which reflect the strong French influences on Cambodian culture.
Finally, I was thrilled to see my friend Sandra Sengdara Siharath, who is founder of the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage and Musical Performing Arts center (www.seachampa.org) in nearby Oakland, California. She and her talented father, Philip Siharath, performed in many of the musical numbers, her father playing the gong (drum) and Sandra playing the hand cymbals (ching).
In this picture Sandra holds the traditional kaen (mouth organ) and her father Philip holds a gong (drum).
The festival was just beautiful and is truly a community affair. Typical of San Francisco, it was very diverse, including performers of Cambodian, Thai, Laotian, Chinese, and mixed heritage. The audience was even more diverse, including people from all over the San Francisco Bay Area.
So, dear Aussie friends, if you are planning a vacation for next year, think about heading to San Francisco in April to see the Cambodian New Year Festival and join in the celebrationMay-lee Chai was born in California the eldest daughter of an Irish American mother and Shanghai born father. May-lee has lived in fourteen states and four countries. A writer and educator, May-lee is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in Literature. In addition to her books, she has published numerous short stories in journals, magazines and anthologies as well as essays and journalism.
- E. M. Forster: A New Life by Wendy Moffat - I adore Forster, and have been wanting to read this one for a long while. It has been quite controversial because Moffat had really examined the queer aspect of Forster's life, which leaves a lot of people squeamish. Me, I love it.
- A Superficial Journey Through Tokyo and Peking by Peter Quennell - More travel than memoir, I know, but I thought I could squeeze it in here. This is an obscure book, originally published in 1932 (the year my beautiful grandmother was born, as it happens). I had to grab it when I saw it in a second-hand bookstore because Quennell was a friend of Nancy Mitford's.
- Memoirs by Tennessee Williams - Prepare for an onslaught during my continued Williams obsession.
- Tennessee Williams in Provincetown by David Kaplan - This is kooky and should be great. A book about Williams' gay life in Provincetown and all of the tragic romances he had there.
- Tennesse Williams by Harry Rasky
- Five O'Clock Angel: Letter of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just - No idea who Maria St. Just was, but this is a massive book, so am sure to have a pretty good idea by the end.
- Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich
- The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams by Donald Spoto
- Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography by Dakin Williams - His brother.
- Life Itself by Elaine Dundy - I found out about this book while reading Simon Callow's wonderful My Life in Pieces. Dundy was Kenneth Tynan's ex-wife, and apparently she spills the dirt in this book.
- Vietnamerica by G. B. Tran - All of the Vietnam Twitterverse was a-chatter about this one, so I had to get it. It looks intriguing, a "graphic memoir" - something I've never read before (unless you count Maus as memoir?).
- Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin - This has so much coverage in the literary world, and I knew I had to have it.
- The Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams - I was chatting to an elderly gay friend one day and he mentioned this book and how camp and marvellous it was. The next day I was in a second-hand bookshop and there it was on a table, staring out at me. The Universe was telling me something. I would probably have purchased it anyway. Let me put it on record: Esther Williams is fabulous.
- Ustinov at Large by Peter Ustinov - Again prompted by the wonderfully literate Simon Callow. I remember when I worked at a second-hand bookshop we were always swimming in Ustinov books (he does seem to have been rather prolific) and it put me off them somewhat. But Callow sings his praises and claims he is an overlooked genius (possibly because of his enormous capacity for work and output). So I am about to give him a go.
- The Sixities: Diaries 1960-1969 by Christopher Isherwood - Isherwood is a long-term fascination of mine, and I know I will find these diaries incredibly diverting reading. With his twin obsessions with sex and religion, I always find Isherwood quite intriguing, and a man before his time.
Evan Cooper - The Commitment Project
As 2009 drew towards the Christmas season I decided I was FINALLY going to get myself a digital SLR camera. As a hobby photographer most people would think this would be quite a standard purchase, but you haven’t actually seen the size of my camera collection. People often look at my shelves and ask “why so many cameras?” And the only reason I can actually give them is “I like cameras”. You see I have …. Lets just say a lot of cameras and I’ll admit I don’t get to use them as much as I would like to.
So to stop all my friends and family excessively eye rolling at me when I announced “Hey I bought a new camera” I decided I would take on a project that would justify the reason for the purchase. But what would the project be? I could, like nearly every other gay male photographer decide to focus on beautiful male nudes and dream of being the next Bruce Weber. Hey I’m not knocking guys that do this and I have seriously considered this theme myself, and while I do not lack in self confidence in most areas, I would splutter, stutter and stammer if I had to approach some insanely attractive guy and ask him to pose sans clothes.
So the theme I picked was to document long-term gay and lesbian relationships. Why did I choose this theme? Well there were a number of reasons:
1. “Gay” marriage has been getting lots of press for the last few years and I wanted to help contribute to bring around equality.
2. I had previously made low budget documentary films and had written an idea to make a film about the subject
3. After watching both my grandmothers lose their husbands I got to see that they truly and deeply were IN love until that last day.
Yes watching my grandmothers broken hearted was an extremely hard thing to witness, but trying to see the experience in a glass-half-full manner I got to witness some truly beautiful romantic events: the tender stroking of hair during conversations, a hand being held while the other napped, intimacy that you don’t generally get to see from your grandparents.
I always wonder if I, as a gay man, could ever think this was even remotely possible for me or my friends, or were we destined to live a life of short relationships?
So I decided to search and find out if there were gay and lesbian couples out there that could be labelled truly “long term”. First I needed to find a number I would class as long term. I turned to the Australian Bureau of Statistics trying to find a number that they recorded. I found a stat for the median length of an Australian marriage. (Some people think median is the average, and while it can sometimes be it isn’t exactly. I doubt I can explain it eloquently here so I suggest you look up the definition for yourself.) So the first time I look on the ABS site it stated that the median length of an Australian marriage till separation was 8.9 years. I decided this was the minimum length of time a couple could be together to be included in my project.
Now interestingly the length of time has changed. After a pretty messy break up (of a way too intense relationship) I took a break from the project. I didn’t want to be surrounding myself with all these loving happy couples with my own heart broken. But soon I picked myself up, thought “man up and get on with it.” I thought I had better re-check my facts, and when I looked at the ABS site the length had dropped to 8.8 years. Recently I had to write a similar article like this and the time had reduced again to 8.7 years.
Lots of people have asked me how I define a committed relationship for this project. And the answer is, I don’t - the couples do. Some of the couples have had commitment ceremonies, some have had a British civil union, others have travelled overseas so they can actually be married (but not in the eyes of the Australian government). Most live together, but interestingly the longest couple both have separate homes and while they spend most of their time together don’t officially live together.
What have I learnt about relationships from meeting over 40 couples? Well lots and also not much. Many of them will tell me the secret to THEIR relationship, but it is only the secret for them. While one couple say that they have exactly the same tastes in everything, others say they couldn’t be more different. The only consistent thing through every couple is that they love each other. That is the secret: finding the person that you love and that loves you back.
How you find that person is anybody’s guess. While in this day and age a number of the couples have met via the internet (and are not in any way embarrassed to admit that) others met on the first day of university, some set up by friends and one couple met by literally bumping into each other as they boarded a plane.
Do you want to know the thing I have loved the most about doing this project? It is that I have met such a diverse group of people. If you look at the photos I have collected you CAN’T say that only one type of people find their soul mates. The ages of all involved are vastly different, their cultural backgrounds are different, the age gaps between the couples is different. I’m sure if you asked a group of heterosexual couples to come forward and have their picture taken for the same reason the diversity would be the same.
Diane Arbus was mentored by a great photographer called Lisette Model. Lisette had a saying “the more precise you are the more general you become.” Ok yeah, I don’t really get what she means BUT I think that my project is actually the opposite: by showing how diverse these relationships are, the more precise is the point that no matter who we are, we all pretty much just want the same thing – to love, be loved and have that loved respected by the world around us.
Walter and his partner Thang are featured in the photo collection. Now I can’t say I have a favourite photo, as I don’t (every time I look at any of the couples my heart flutters just a little) but what I can say that after I downloaded the photos we took and looked at the photo (which they ending up choosing) I got this sense that yes I can actually make this project something worthwhile, I got that rush of reassurance that this is something I can be proud of.
And yes I am proud of the project but really I’m inspired by the couples. Inspired to believe that one day I will be able to add myself to this collection of photos. Inspired that these couples’ images will help reduce homophobia in anyone who looks at them. Inspired that one day because of the example set by these amazing people that one day we will have marriage equality in Australia. Hopefully you will be inspired by the photos to believe that really no matter what the differences between the gay and straight worlds that Love is Love.
Viva la LOVE.
So please enjoy looking at this collection of images and if you would like to be part of the project, my contact details are on the site.
And PS - meeting all these couples actually helped me mend my broken heart and to be the silly, cynical romantic I used to be.