Monday Blogcrawl


You know how sometimes you feel that your life is out of control? Well I feel like that right now. I am wandering around with a low-level anxiety that prevents me from being truly productive. I think it's age. I just can't seem to do things as quickly as I used to. Or maybe it's just the heat? Here are some interesting tidbits:

Lunar New Year Decorations - Mingyue Temple, Bonnyrigg





This afternoon I went to cast my Kwan Yin oracle at the Mingyue Lay Buddhist Temple in Bonnyrigg.



It was all decorated for the coming Lunar New Year, with flags flying everywhere.
The Buddhist flags seemed to be the wrong way up in some places - correct me if I'm wrong.



And I discovered, hidden behind some bushes out in front of the Tien Hau shrine, some caged cement lions. Obviously they've been shipped over from China but no-one has found the right place to put them. Or perhaps the auspicious time to install them hasn't arrived yet. I shall follow their fate with interest.


Where are new year festivals in Sydney?

More about Lunar/Chinese New Year.

See a Kwan Yin lotus at Mingyue Temple.

Secret Historian


Samuel Steward may just be the most fascinating person you've never heard of.
Academic, literary novelist and friend of the great, he was also a pornographer, a tattoo artist and an obsessive sexual collector. He kept extensive notes of a gay sex life that lasted forty years, and his careful and exhaustive notes were an invaluable source of information to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. And though he had once been a close friend of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder's lover, though he had once rubbed shoulders with Rudolph Valentino, Jean Cocteau and Genet, he ended his days as a miserable, filthy recluse, too scared to walk on the streets of suburban San Francisco, lost in mountains of nostalgia and mouldering away in bitter reverie, steeped in dachsund's piss.
Justin Spring's extraordinary book, Secret Historian, a finalist for the National Book Award, is one of the most fascinating I've read in a long time. It is a reclamation of an obscure but enthralling character, and a type of queer social history that captures perfectly the torments and dangers of homosexual existence in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. Pacy, sexy and beautifully written, Secret Historian is easily one of the most unique books I've ever encountered.
Its subject, the slender, sexually obsessed Steward, is surely one of the most intriguing figures in literary history. A daringly provocative sexual outlaw, he managed to sleep with the elderly and decrepit Lord Alfred Douglas and to insinuate himself into Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas' Parisian literary and artistic salon. He also managed to seduce their Vietnamese houseboy, a wonderful detail that immediately called to mind another brilliant book, Monique Truong's Book of Salt, a novel about a similar queer Vietnamese houseboy living with Stein.
Justin Spring, a writer with a special interest in queer art, has created a dazzling work of gay history that deserves to stay in print forever. Though never less than an entirely engaging author, he is also scholarly and rigorous in his approach, and the occasional footnotes are fascinating and illuminating all on their own. It is a big book in every sense, and Spring proves himself not just as a stylist, but as an historian, an art critic, a literary commentator and a good old fashioned gossip. He has a wonderful eye for the obscure and quirky detail, for the commonplace that is, in fact, utterly intriguing, and brings the story to life. For example, he tells of Steward's insane decision to send Toklas and Stein a Mixmaster, causing the gift to cross the atlantic at the outset of World War Two. Miraculously it arrives, and Stein (who comes across in this book as a warm and funny matriarch) sends him an enthusiastic letter saying:

"...so beautiful is the Mix master, so beautiful..."


How wonderful to think of the grandmother of modernism delighted by the quintessential emblem of American domestic technology.
Of course, there is plenty of sex, much of it transgressive, kinky and downright dirty. Steward had a taste for rough trade, hence his career shift into tattooing, and was something of a pioneer in the BDSM community. Spring's rendering of Steward's extraordinary sexual journey is really quite remarkable, and certainly brought to life for me the long, long history of proud aberrance and homoerotic culture.
I don't think I even once grew tired of Secret Historian, and found its long and intricate tale of desire, compulsion and sexual martrdom constantly stimulating and eye-opening. The cameo appearances by many of the literary greats of twentieth century America make it even more intriguing.
Quite simply, it is the most perfect biography I have read in many years.

New Hello Kitty Beauty Line Launched



No longer do you have an excuse to be smelly on these hot days, beautiful people.
A brand new Hello Kitty beauty products range has been launched, and it includes a fabulous perfume which will have us all smelling like the world's favourite mouthless cat.



Though I'm a 40 year-old man, I think I can get away with just a splash of eau de Hello Kitty, before I apply something more manly like a dab of Old Spice.
And what with all the photo shoots I have to do, the Hello Kitty range of make-up brushes and applicators will be in constant use.
This is a happy, happy day indeed.
And does that nail polish come in clear?
And how long till the men's range? I want a Hello Kitty pumice.

Doing 50 New Things This Year

Inspired by Paul Fenton-Smith's book True North, I decided to committ myself to doing 50 new things this year. Why? In an effort to keep my experiences fresh, to avoid falling into a rut, to learn new things. As I have certainly mentioned before, I am an extraordinarily self-protective person, and my usual reaction to suggestions of doing or experiencing something new is fear and worry. This may surprise anyone who has read my book, Destination Saigon, in which I do all kinds of foolish and dangerous things. But that is because when I am wearing my cap as writer I have a committment to myself to always say "yes" to every suggestion and invitation, for the very reason that I never know where it will lead me. So this year, I am bringing some of that approach to my everyday life.
You know how sometimes you hear something in passing, or someone makes an offhand comment, and it can change your life profoundly? Well, such a shift happened for me about a year or so ago. I was in Bangkok and watching a Japanese travel show on TV in which two middle-aged housewives were exploring Japan. No idea what it was called, but it was fabulous. Their constant refrain, when faced with something new or challenging or daring, was to turn to each other and say, "Well, since we've come so far..."
I turned 40 at the end of last year, a significant milestone I'm sure you'll agree. So from now on my motto is, "Well, since I've come so far..."
I will attempt as best I can to blog my 50 new experiences. I may have to leave out a couple for the sake of discretion :-) But here are my first two:



  1. I visited the Mukti Gupteshwar Mandir in Minto - This is a Hindu Temple far out on the very outskirts of Sydney. It is an underground temple, so quite unique. It has been there since 1999, but I never even knew it was there. I am always thrilled to discover a new sacred place in my city.
  2. Had lunch at Mamak Malaysian restaurant - Almost from the day it opened this place has had vast queues outside its door. We always frequent the Sichuan restaurant right next door, but I knew the food at Mamak must be good - those queues can't be wrong. But I hate queues. By the time I get to a restaurant I am normally starving to the point of collapse, and there is no way I am going to wait in a line for 20 minutes just to get a table. But I have always ached to try Mamak, because I LOVE roti! So on Sunday we resolved to go, and, bizarrely, when we got there just after 12, we walked straight in and got a table - the Universe was looking after us. Thang has blogged the visit here at his food blog Noodlies. And yes, it was delicious. I am still dreaming about it.

Monday Blogcrawl

I have promised my academic supervisor a new chapter of my thesis by Wednesday, but I need to confess that it may not happen. Maybe Thursday? Friday? I just can't bring myself to write - not an unusual problem, I know. But I need to, because my thesis needs to be finished by the end of the year, NO MATTER WHAT! So I can't afford to relax right now. Paradoxically, here's how I've been relaxing:

(Image by Jeffrey Fisher, as featured in New York Times Sunday Book Review)

Monk's Robe Drying, Cambodia


I have an obsession with the robes of Buddhist monks.
I love their variety, their colours.
Whenever I travel I am on the lookout for them - especially when they have been tossed aside, or are in unlikely places.
I took this photo at a busy temple on the road to Oudong, just outside of Phnom Penh. It was hanging on an upper verandah, drying in the breeze.
I always feel like a voyeur when I take these kinds of photographs, because the robes are very intimate things.
They are also sacred objects - in Buddhist countries people always say things like "You never make offerings to the monk - you offer them to the robe." The robe, more than the person, represents the Buddha's teachings and the Buddhist tradition.

"Seeking the Sacred" at Kinokuniya, Siam Paragon

As well as skulking about looking for copies of my own book, when I'm in bookshops I am also always keeping a keen eye out for the books of friends.
Imagine my pleasure when, in Bangkok recently, I found a copy of my friend Stephanie Dowrick's latest (wonderful) book Seeking the Sacred at Kinokuniya Bookshop at Siam Paragon.



And not just a single copy on the shelf - a great big old pile of them right out the front with the bestsellers! So exciting! Despite the scowls of the nearby security guard (who was armed AND hunky), I had Thang snap this pic of me boasting of my connections. I am delighted to think of the English-speaking residents of Bangkok poring over Stephanie's latest book.
BTW, Kinokuniya at Siam Paragon is just about the best bookshop in Asia, and an absolute must-visit if you are in Bangkok. A fantastic range of Asia-rleated titles, a big self-help section - what more could a reader ask for?
Paragon is the most glamorous of Bangkok's mega-malls, and is home to Thailand's infamous solitary outlet for Krispy Kreme, where people queue for days to get their hands on an original glazed!

City of Ghosts



Phnom Penh is one of those cities that evokes a mythic reaction in people. It is a byword for suffering, for war, torment and the worst excesses of human cruelty. Surprisingly, it is a city that has rarely been depicted in film or literature - perhaps its shadows are too long and dark, leaving people scared to deal with it.
City of Ghosts creates a peculiar kind of Phnom Penh - though doubtless it is the vision that most haunts the popular Western imagination. In this film the city is its own character - post-colonial, almost even post-apocalytptic, it is a place full of addicts, thieves and miscreants. It is the Phnom Penh of the popular imagination, and it is an entertaining and amusing vision, but it bears no resemblance to reality.
This is not a criticism of this odd, atmospheric and hugely entertaining movie. A city should rightly serve as backdrop for an artist's imagination, and all of us carry our own visions and experiences of place. But I can imagine that the Phnom Penh depicted here might perplex an actual resident of the city. One shouldn't watch City of Ghosts for any kind of documentary satisfaction - it is Cambodia as fairy tale or, more appropriately, horror story.
Written and directed by Matt Dillon, one can only suppose that it was inspired by a visit to Cambodia, and I will admit I was impressed by how deeply and humanly the Cambodian story is depicted here. The lead Khmer actor Sereyvuth Kem, an extraordinarily beautiful man and a magnetic presence, is incredibly sympathetic, and his character is brilliantly handled in the script, surprising the viewer by evolving from an incidental bit-part to the central point of the film.




Indeed, all of the Khmer people depicted are possessed of enormous presence, though it might also be said that they function too frequently as exotics and grotesques, scarred and misshapen agents of evil and destruction on what is quite an exceptionally cruel story. Nonetheless it is unique to see "locals" playing such a large role in a Hollywood film.
Though sometimes clunky, the script hangs together, but really this is a movie about atmosphere. Everyone camps it up a little (Depardieu as the violent expatriate bar-keeper is having a great time hamming it up), but the script itself, and its improbable situations, seems almost to encourage such excesses.
I loved James Caan's turn as the affably wicked bad-guy, and the scene in which he sings a Khmer karaoke song while people around him are murdered is one of the scariest and most unsettlingly hilarious I've ever seen. The song, incidentally, is one of the great Khmer torch songs, written by Cambodia's poet-laureate of popular music, Sin Sisamouth - another potentially offensive moment for Khmer viewers, but extraordinary nonetheless.
In truth, I had never actually heard of this movie until I read about it in the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia. Naturally, it is readily available in the DVD stores of Phnom Penh, though not in what could be called licensed editions. It is actually a backpackers movie par excellence, evincing all the youthful passion for vice, violence and betrayal. And all with the intoxicatingly exotic background of a Cambodia drawn with broad, almost parodic, strokes.
It might sound like I am panning the film, but I'm not - I enjoyed every second, and it excited and intrigued me from beginning to end. I think it is technically accomplished and brilliantly acted. I am just left a little discomfited by the representation of Cambodia and the Khmer people, with Phnom Penh rendered as a kind of natural home of all things wicked. I guess I am conscious that my friends in Phnom Penh would be horrified by such a vision.
Would be interested to know what other people think.

Wat Hua Lamphong, Bangkok




Situated just moments away from Bangkok's most infamous red light district, Wat Hua Lamphong is a fascinating, modern Thai Buddhist temple, one that I visit often whenever I am in Thailand.
Rich and constantly refurbished, the temple is always busy, as is the small Chinese shrine attached to it, with its special cult of the tiger, to whom devotees offer raw cuts of pork belly.
This is a little video of some of the highlights of the temple.


Unusual (at a Thai Theravada temple) Shrine to Kwan Yin outside the main prayer hall at Wat Hua Lamphong

Wat U Phai Rat Bamrung, Bangkok





For many years I'd heard of a mythical Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist temple in the heart of Bangkok, but whenever I visited Thailand my Thai friends had never heard of it and assured me that no such place existed. My Vietnamese friends who had visited it were shaky in their grasp of Bangkok's topography, and couldn't give any useful directions.
One day I was wandering around Pantip Plaza and I saw two young monks shopping. Though they were dressed peculiarly (see my description in the video) I knew instantly that they were from the Mahayana school - a rare sight in Thailand. Using my minimal Thai and their even more minimal English I managed to get their address and visited them that day. Lo and behold, I had discovered my long sought for Vietnamese temple.
Most Bangkokians, even those living in the Chinatown district, have no idea that Wat U Phai Rat Bamrung on Charoen Krung Rd was established by a Vietnamese monk 300 years ago. They have just glanced inside and assumed it was one of the various Chinese temples that dot this part of Bangkok.
The families that make up the temple's devotees were once Vietnamese, but were long ago assimilated into Thai culture. All that remains of their ethnicity is their allegiance to this strange temple. The chanting is done in Vietnamese, but the parishioners (and the Thai monks resident) need to read the words transliterated into the Thai alphabet.
I have blogged some photos of the temple in the past.
There are two young monks from Vietnam resident, and they are rather unstinting in their continued Vietnamese-ness. They refuse to eat meat and they assume a rather more active role in the community than Thai Buddhists are used to.
It is a strange place, and one that I like very much. As soon as I get to Bangkok I always try to visit, and my Thai friends are always fascinated to learn about it. I guess it is a remnant of a much closer relationship that once existed between the two countries.

Books for a Midlife Crisis


A bookseller friend called me this morning with a special request. He had a customer in-store whose 40-something husband was having a midlife crisis, and she wanted to get a book for him. I'm afraid I wasn't much help - I have spent a great deal of time avoiding the fact that I am in midlife, and thereby I have completely sidestepped a crisis. Anyway, I always say I had my midlife crisis at the age of 29. But it got me thinking.
So here is a list of books I'd recommend for any man 40+ who is beginning to wonder what the f*** it's all about.

Self Help:

  1. Manhood by Steve Biddulph - Recently revised and re-issued, this is the book that every man should read. It covers the whole experience of being a man, from childhood to old age. Biddulph's style is quite accessible and wouldn't scare off even the most rigidly sensible man.
  2. Iron John by Robert Bly - Yeah, this one can get a bit squirmish, but I reckon that most men would respond to its message - especially if they haven't done much in the way of self-examination before. It's an incredibly liberating read, and is probably the message that most men want to hear by the time they are 40.
  3. Fire in the Belly by Sam Keen - Another men's movement classic, Keen is slightly more radical than Bly, and perhaps his language might represent more of a barrier to the rugged Aussie male. Nonetheless, it's worth reading.
  4. What Men Don't Talk About by Maggie Hamilton - For a start it has a wonderfully Australian take on things, and it also contains several qutoes from me (though I have been disguised s0 happy searching!). Maggie is immensely empathetic, and her tender regard for men and their special dilemmas is obvious throughout this book.
Fiction:

  1. The Books of Jack London - No-one really reads London anymore, and yet his books are exquisite. Readable, pacy and exciting, I also happen to think they are parables for the male condition. Any man feeling a bit down in the dumps would respond positively to one of London's sensitive but macho tales.
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole - The oafish and egotistical Ignatius J. Reilly is of course a caricature of the male gone wrong, but in his awfulness he speaks to the pathos and tragedy of humdrum existence, and is an embodiment of peculiarly male concerns about life wasted and masculinity stymied. And the book is enormous fun.
  3. The Stories of William Trevor - Trevor's gentleness in fact captures a special state of being that most men secretly cherish. Of course when one thinks of characteristically male literature one leans toward action, crime and intrigue. But someone going through a midlife crisis would, I think, respond to Trevor's mild and sensitive analysis, as well as his beautiful storytelling. It will bring out the inner philosopher in any man, and delight any reader.
  4. Anything by Philip Roth - Roth has been constantly describing the sad decline of the male, and almost any of his books would set out situations and anxieties instantly recognisable to any man over 30. He is the laureate of the midlife crisis.
Biography:

  1. The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie - The ultmate man of action, the taciturn Scotsman Carnegie became the world's wealthiest man and then gave it all away. Men love this kind of stuff because Carnegie embodies so many of the masculine qualities that have been forced upon us - unstinting hard work, the accumulation of riches and extreme self-sacrifice.
  2. Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey - Allow the poor suffering mid-lifer a little escapism and a little despair - it is therapeutic. De Quincey managed to fritter away his entire life under a drug-induced haze, and this book has enormous appeal to teenage bys and middle-aged men. It illumines the dark side of manhood, and so is quite thrilling. Anyone feels better about their lives after reading this.
So there it is - my eclectic little collection of books to soothe the aching, wasting heart of the fellow in his 40s. I guarantee that if he reads any - or even some - of these, he will emerge from his midlife crisis a better and more reflective person. And so on into a glorious old age!

Monday Blogcrawl


Aaah, obligations press in around me and all I can seem to do is watch Hong Kong movies and eat banana bread. Fortunately my other (and wiser) half has returned home after some weeks absence, and so is bound to force upon me a greater work ethic. Here's what I was doing when I should have been writing:

End of Love


Ming is a 22yo Hong Kong hustler and drug user who falls in love with the older and screwed-up Yan. Betrayed, he finds himself sent to a Christian rehab centre, where he becomes besotted with his mentor, the handsome and hopeless Keung.
Without giving too much away, that is the basic plot of End of Love, a beautifully shot and well-acted romantic drama from Hong Kong, directed by Simon Chung. Released in 2009, it is one of a number of hard-hitting queer stories to emerge from Hong Kong, though of all of them this is probably the most professionally produced and dramatically successful. The trick, I think, is in the casting.
More than being good actors, the characters are, in every case, perfectly played and perfectly physically matched. The lead character Ming, for example, could so easily have been played by some pretty and vapid young thing. Instead the director has chosen Chi-Kin Lee (who was Tony Leung's body double for the nude scenes in Lust, Caution). Lee is, quite simply, perfect for the role, and is utterly believeable from his first moment on screen. His casual masculinity and boy-next-door looks are exactly the requisites for the character he plays, and his astonishing - though perfectly natural - physique comes only as an added extra.
Alex Wong, as the deplorable lover Yan, is exactly the right combination of tortured closet-case and sexual predator, a 30-something queen on the verge of losing his looks and seeking redemption in the youth and beauty of another. But most alluring, most magnetic, is the extraordinary Guthrie Yip playing Keung, the Christian ex-junkie who takes an interest in the shiftless young Ming and ultimately becomes his father-figure. His every action is a joy to watch (the tantalising occasional glimpses of his tattoed arms providing an exciting hint at the duality of his character) and through every scene he is pitch-perfect, never for a moment over-acting. Why he is not more of a well-known heart-throb I can't imagine, for I have rarely encountered so much presence on-screen.
End of Love is a fascinating film on so many levels. Its exploration of Christianity, for example, is rare in Hong Kong film, and rarer still in queer films. The do-gooding Christians are not demonised, and Chung affords them the same complexity and subtlety he grants to the film's more obvious, and more queer, heroes. It is, too, a fascinating exploration of unrequited love in Chinese culture, where homosexuality shifts and struggles in its relationship with mainstream society. Chung's Hong Kong is hardly a queer paradise, but its gay residents are leading full and complex lives which are at the very centre of things - right in the over-crowded suburbia of Hong Kong, among real people. With their addictions and their obsessions they are still not fringe dwellers. With an astute plot twist he shows up the same problems at work in heterosexual relationships, and the film remains staisfyingly sophisticated in its analysis of human desire and its depiction of queer realities.
Chung's film, an exceptionally satisfying and entertaining piece, proves that some of the most exciting queer art of the twenty first century is emerging out of Asia, and is telling a whole new set of stories. New stories in new locations, but still powerfully recognisable to any sensitive viewer. I shall seek out his future work keenly.

THE HOUSE THAT MADE ME - BOY GEORGE EPISODE



What an intriguing premise for a television program: celebrities are taken back to their childhood homes, which have been re-decorated to look as much as possible the way they did when they were young. This episode features my beloved Boy George, and it shows just what a deep psychological impact such spaces can have on us. Poor George is quite unsettled by the experience. A fascinating exploration of the emotional significance of object and place.


Teaser Tuesdays


Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
My Teaser:

"A group of people sits together, more or less unfriendly and chilly toward one another. Then a person full of friendship and geniality enters the group. What happens? He attracts to himself the previously unexpressed friendliness and geniality that is in each member of the group. What happens next? They all start to be friendly to each other."

~ p. 88, "A New Design for Living" by Ernest Holmes








Monday Blogcrawl

(Image from ecumenicalbuddhism.blogspot.com)


When it comes to blogging I am something of an abject failure. I have made a promise to myself to be much more conscientous about blogging this year, but in the first three days I haven't made much of a splash. Oh dear. And I have a million backlogged reviews I have to do - I really don't know what makes me procrastinate so. Here are some of the things that may have been the cause of my inactivity:

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