My take on the World Cup so far

It’s that time again. Every four years, I jump on the bandwagon, induce jet lag while living in my native time zone, drink more beer in a month than I usually do in a year, and brush up on my Spanish futbol vocabulary: pelota, partido, esquina, izquierda, derecho, “Ce laaaaa perdiiiooooo!”

Univision vs. ESPN – At home I only get Univision (free broadcast). When I go out to watch the game, it’s been mostly been on ESPN, except for at the Mexican and Brazilian restaurants, where it’s been on Univision. I like Univision better, because . . . don’t laugh now . . . the commercials shown during half-time are more soccer-oriented and more entertaining. I never realized this before, but even the same corporation will have created different commercials for the English and Spanish channels for World Cup. For instance, the McDonald’s commercial on Univision is my favorite – all these people carry their TV’s out and assemble them in the plaza to form a single large screen TV, so they can watch the game together while eating their Big Macs. It’s not on ESPN. The only good commercial that translates well both ways is the Budweiser one, where the fans opposite the goalie put on a card show of a undulating hula girl to distract him, but the player taking the penalty kick is distracted by fans putting on a card show of bottle of Bud. He misses the goal. The Nike ad “Write the future” which depends on star players (Rooney, Portugal’s Ronaldo, etc) set in funny situations feels to contrived and dependant on celebrityhood.

Radio vs TV: During joong making, I listened to the ESPN broadcast on the radio in my kitchen, and then rushed over to watch the replays of scored goals on Univision TV. There was several second lag between TV and radio, unfortunately, the TV was ahead of the radio.

Teams: The World Cup is where I can full-heartedly support Team USA, since they’re the underdog (unlike in most sports in the Olympics). All hail Tim Howard! Donovan has matured, and is no longer the whiny twit he was. He was extremely charitable after the Slovenia match referee fiasco, saying “It was the ref’s first World Cup match, maybe he got caught up in the moment.” It’s too bad Brian Ching didn’t make the team.

My second team is probably Mexico (hey I live in California after all!)

If I had to root for a European team: it would be Germany. I like Ozil!

If I had to root for a South American team: tough choice between Argentina (Messi) and Brazil.

If I had to root for an African team: the host South Africa

If I had to root for an Asian team: I don’t know between Japan and the two Koreas. I wish they’d expand the berths for more Asian teams.

Is it me, or did this tournament have a greater than usual number of star players sitting out or delayed by injuries? Beckham, Drogba, Ballack, Robben?

Surprises: Lots of Cinderella teams – Chile! The World Cup always has surprises, but is this a sign that the ‘traditional’ Western European and South American powerhouses have lost their dominance. Italy and Paraguay playing gingerly in the rain and tying. Brazil not scoring at all in the first half against North Korea. England tying their first match (I felt for Green, but hey we’ll take that tie anyway we can!) . . . and their second game against Algeria. Algeria! It’s not that England was that bad, but Algeria is better than people give them credit for. (Their players play internationally in Europe.) The USA game against Algeria is not going to be cakewalk. Spain losing to Switzerland, which they deserved to – the champions of Europe played like a conglomeration of egos, not a team. France – what is going on with them?

Vuvuzelas: the only time they’ve been drowned out was when the English fans were booing their own team against Algeria. Wow.

In spite of all the technology we have and will have in the years to come, we still can’t do anything about time zones. If you want to watch the matches live, and you do, you put up with the crazy hours. I always have fun comparing notes with my cousins across the world as to what hours we have to stay up to watch the matches. In California, it’s 4:30 AM, 7 AM and 11:30 AM. I have not been able to get up for any of the 4:30 matches, so I missed the Argentina- South Korea game, and the Portugal blow-out over North Korea (7-0). I get up naturally at a little after 7 AM, and miss the first goals that are scored in the first 10 minutes. Pfff.

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Six down, three to go

Joe and I went spent the weekend in SF for the annual SFIAAFF.

Maybe we’re getting too old for this. Joe fell asleep in the non-documentary movies (admittedly we’d chosen rather slow ones.)

Due to a quirk in our scheduling choices, we couldn’t stay for any of the post-screening Q&As, which was a pity because that’s usually the highlight. We scrambled from the Kabuki up Fillmore to Clay on Saturday. On Sunday, we made a mad dash from the PFA in Berkeley back to the Kabuki.

“Ninoy Aquino and the Rise of People Power”: Surprisingly, this was Joe’s pick. Since he’d known about Imelda’s shoes, Marcos’ fitness video, and the People Power crowds in yellow shirts, he wanted to know how it all came about. This film does its job in educating the viewer about that historic episode, and throws in a little context: Kim Dae Jung, who was an opposition leader in South Korea when there was martial law at about the same time, had a kindred bond with Aquino: both were political prisoners for a while. Kim went on to become prime minister of South Korea though.

What made me a little wistful was the sight of all those yellow shirts. In the Philippines in the 1980s, they really symbolised people taking to the streets who were non-violently demonstrating for democracy against the martial law imposed on them. (It’s easier to apply the simplistic good guys vs. bad guys label in that case.) The more recent yellow shirts vs. red shirts in Thailand seems more like a movement, in which people have been swayed, becoming pawns in a political maelstrom that is essentially a power struggle between two imperfect factions.

“Dear Lemon Lima”: Set in a private high school in Fairbanks, Alaska, it’s a teen-ager coming-of-age and identity-issues type story. What was interesting was the “Snowstorm Survivor” competition between high school student teams. I don’t know if these competitions also happen in real schools, but it was a series of challenges based on traditional Native skills, like kicking a suspended ball to signal a whale sighting while, or jumping on a sealskin trampoline to gain height in spotting whales, or a tug of war involving a stick, to simulate having to fish a seal out of a breathing hole in the ice. I’m bummed I missed the Q&A on this one.

“Agrarian Utopia” (one of two Thai movies this year): You know how some movie reviews are so high-falutin’ly abstract that you have no idea what the movie is like? Fortunately, the description written by Chi-Hui Yang (the long-time festival director) in the SFIAAFF catalog is pretty spot-on, with enough jargon to maintain his professional credibility! Unfortunately, I can’t provide a direct link to it, due to the quirks in the way the SFIAAFF website is set up. It’s fictional realism; show slowly, not tell. If you’ve ever wondered how debt-stricken Isan farming families shelter and feed themselves on a day-to-day basis when they’ve lost their land, this film will unflinchingly show you. None of the characters is a young single woman, which made me wonder if that was deliberate; to avoid dealing with the possibility of the stereotypical solution of her entering Thailand’s most famous industry. The ‘neighboring farmer’ who represents a last resort is like an Ad-Carabao-esque figure (complete with long hair) crossed with a organic/back to nature hippie. The movie features an obligatory scene of yellow shirt/red shirt demonstrations (there’s even a clip of the late Samak Sundaravej making a speech at a political rally.)

It seems unlikely this movie would enjoy a popular run at commercial cinemas in Bangkok, but I’d be so curious to see the reaction of a middle-class urban audience watching this film.

“Lessons of the Blood”: Again, read Yang’s spot-on description in the catalog. If anything, people have generally heard about the Rape of Nanking. I didn’t know, until I saw this movie, about the biological/germ warfare the Japanese inflicted in Zhejiang province in the form of a plague-type disease called glanders. Nobody realised that they had been attacked by biological warfare; most people who caught it died pretty soon afterwards, thinking it was just some infectious disease that their immune systems couldn’t fend off due to the wartime conditions (lack of food, stress, etc.) In the movie they call out an estimate that 1% of those afflicted had some inherent genetic immunity that allowed them to survive into old age (some are elderly people in their 80s today), although they have lived painfully with their wounds, sores, pus and bleeding all this time.

The film-makers threw in a lot of other history clips, including contemporary events (the 2008 Olympics!). It muddied up my understanding of the film’s context, I wasn’t really sure what point they wanted make with all that. In the end, what I got from that was: history is complicated, there are never any straightforward single causes and effects, there are multiple variables that affects how history/events turn out. Neither is there any black and white, nor heroes and villains in war. Inevitably, each side has committed sins and waged virtue.

“Mundane History”: The other Thai film. Includes an obligatory scene of red vs yellow political rally. Also includes the editorial work of my ex-next-door neighbor Lee. (I think every Thai movie that makes it into a film festival has had him working on it. He was listed in the credits of ‘Agrarian Utopia, and last year’s ‘Love of Siam’!). Instead of directing you to the catalog description, let me tell you what the assistant festival director said before the film started.

“After the screening the movie [for festival selection], Chi-hui was in tears . . .”

Err, after we watched the movie, we were like ‘what’? I think it was too abstract for us, especially towards the end when it throws in a lot of astronomy imagery. The film won a top prize at the recent Rotterdam Film Festival.

It is very much a ‘show, not tell’ movie centered on the premise of a young man who is paralysed from waist down, and his nurse. The best scenes are when he is outside in the rain. Getting rained makes him feel alive as nothing else can anymore. The film-maker Anocha Suwichakornpong is a woman: so it’s a promising sign that there are Thai women film-makers making critically-acclaimed movies. I also have to give her credit: there’s a brutally honest non-gratuitous scene of the invalid in the bath tub, shot from bird’s eye view.

“Unlocked” : This was one in a series of a short-films program. I have to admit, I picked it on the basis of this movie. A young man finds his bike locked up, not once, not twice, but three times, by someone else’s bike lock and bike – he can’t take his bike back until the other person unlocks their bike. (The screeching mom is a cliche nuisance though). It’s something conceivable, that has fortunately never happened to me. I wonder how many other cyclists have had the same experience though.

Next weekend in San Jose, “Au Revoir, Taipei”, “The People I’ve Slept With”, and “State of Aloha”.

Movies I wanted to see, but couldn’t squeeze in “A Village Called Versailles”, “The Forbidden Door”, “Cooking with Stella”, “Rasberry Magic”, “Wo Ai Ni Mommy”, “Prince of Tears” (note also “Formosa Betrayed” has been making the rounds, though not at SFIAAFF)

Someplace where they drive crazier than in Thailand . . .

I just finished reading Peter Hessler’s new book Country Driving. Of course I highly recommend it. The first part is about how he actually rents a car and drives around China, mostly following the Great Wall.

(I told April about it. Actually she was the first person to recommend River Town, Hessler’s first book, to me. We jokingly considered quitting our day jobs, getting Indian drivers’ licenses and then driving around India, and then writing a book about it too. Imagine two Chinese-American women driving around India in a geezerly white Ambassador, that would be such a hoot! Actually there was one season of Amazing Race where the challenge was for the contestants to pass an Indian driver’s license test!)

Country Driving is actually split into three parts. One of the other parts is about a factory that makes bra rings (the little metal notion to hold the straps). It was a little deja vu reading it: then I realised I had read an article in the National Geographic that he wrote and now incorporated into the book.

Theroux talks about nature and makes me think . . .

So tonight I went to a talk by Paul Theroux (of travel writing fame.) Since it was sponsored by a local open space group, he talked mostly about the importance of nature and wilderness, and nature writing by other writers like Thoreau, Stegner, Darwin, Basho, etc. In fact the title of his talk was “Madly Singing in the Mountains: Traveling in Natural World” which is taken from a poem by 白居易 (Po Chu I or Bai Juyi).

This talk made me think:

1) Theroux read a quote from a ‘blog’ about the earthquake in Concepcion, Chile . . . and it was from Charles Darwin’s journals from his voyage on the Beagle, over a hundred years ago. People really had better writing skills in those days. It was so well written, it’s hard to imagine it was something Darwin scribbled in his journal. If it was me, I’d have to labor over it, and edit a few times. This blog is my journal of sorts, but no one is going to read this in a hundred years and quote it as good writing. I really just dash things off here.

2) I really should go and read all these good-but-old-timey writers Theroux waxed on about. I go to the library pretty often, but I just usually browse the new section, and rarely find anything worthwhile. There’s a universe of literary classics for me to read now that I didn’t while in college. I should read Thoreau, instead of reading about him. (I knew of Thoreau and how his ‘reclusive’ lifestyle at Walden was not actually so hermitic; his mom did his laundry for him regularly. Come to think of it, I learned this titbit from one of Theroux’s books!) Part of my not having read these books earlier is that I have a hard time and little patience with reading Victorian writing; the style was rather convoluted, with flourishes of phrasing and literary arabesques. It takes a lot of attention and effort to read, and sometimes reread ‘to get it’. Unlike straight-forward contemporary prose that I can just gallop through.

3) Theroux talked about being a boy scout and going camping and how it was a formative experience in his life, and led to an appreciation of nature. That resonated with me: I go camping every year with some college friends and their kids: it’s become an annual ritual. For myself, it’s to ensure I don’t forget how to camp, to sleep outdoors, and ‘rough it’ a little. For us all, it’s a reunion that’s a constant, because we hardly see each other otherwise. For the kids, I think it’s a good and happy thing for them to experience, because camping is one my of favorite childhood memories, a yearly event I anticipated more than Christmas.

People are often surprised that I know how to build a campfire, without lighter fluid! Will gets the credit. It was in depths of his parents’ backyard (bottom of a petit canyon) where we slept ten cousins in a tent and built campfires . . . . to toast marshmallows and heat up take-out dim sum. Will being almost twice as old as we were (OK, 15 years to our 10) was the de facto camp counselor. Since he was a very responsible eldest-brother-type, he taught us practical skills like how to build a camp fire, ensure it was put out properly, and how to pitch the tent, invaluable skills to this day. Since he was also intellectually precocious, he tried to teach us how to play chess in the tent. That was not so successful; we ended up mostly playing card games! I’m very grateful though, that Will taught us how to camp.

4) I forgot to bring my copies of Theroux’s books to get autographed. Part of it is shyness, or a sense of not wanting to be cheesy and going up to a celebrity to say “I’m a big fan of yours.” Also, both copies I have are mass paperbacks, used and quite dog-eared from constant re-reading. It would have been embarrassing.

The two volumes do have quite a lot of sentimental value for me. “Riding the Iron Rooster,” while mostly about the trains in China, starts off from Europe on the Trans-Siberia. A bunch of us cousins (who used to camp together in Santa Rosa) rode together on the same one-week train ride from Beijing to Moscow. We ate haw flakes and saltines with peanut butter, played cards, and read and passed Theroux’s book around amongst ourselves. Fortunately no one got duffiled, although one of our new Russian friends on the train had her camera stolen (with all her pictures of her trip to Beijing!)

My other Theroux book is “The Great Railway Bazaar”. It’s the book which put him on the map, so to speak, and is a definitive work on traveling in the 70’s on the overland trail from London to the Far East. (“Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” is where he retraces his steps 30 years later on that same corridor.) Very aptly, I was given the book by a fellow traveler named Max at the pension I was staying at in Cairo, on my first ‘solo’ backpacking trip. I don’t know how Kindle will change things, but back then on the backpacker circuit, it was a perk to swap books, because English books were a treat. They were expensive and/or hard to find. Most people who like to travel also like to read.

Max’s destination after Cairo was Istanbul, specifically “Room XXX at the Pera Palas Hotel.”
“What’s so special about that particular room?” I asked. “The view?”
“I was conceived in it.”
It turns out twenty years ago, his parents were traveling the hippie overland trail; had split up for part of the trip but made plans to meet up in Istanbul at a certain point. And then, an unplanned consequence from that happy reunion. Presumably Max’s mom and dad had paid little attention to the view of the Golden Horn.

Max also taught me a good strategy for budget traveling, if you can afford it. Stay in the cheap two-cockroach hotels for most nights to save money. But once in a while, splurge and check into a five star hotel to enjoy the mod-cons of air-conditioning, hot showers, cable TV and ordering ice-cream sundaes from room service. You’ll really appreciate it, and it’ll keep you sane on the road.

Half the Sky

‘Women hold up half the sky’ – attributed to Mao Tse Tung

Lately, I’ve been struck by the idea that people are realising that it’s better to give women, rather than men, powers of management and decision-making, because women are more responsible. The outcomes will be better!

My opinion on this solidifed based on the few things I read recently. I came across them randomly, but they all happened to have this same underlying theme.

1) In the editorial pages on the NY Times:

“Not too long after the tsunami, government officials came through the village and announced that all new homes would be titled in the name of women (some were jointly titled to men and women). The men grumbled, but the officials told them they had no choice. Men drank and gambled, they said; women were more reliable.

Almost 50,000 houses have been built along the coast of Tamil Nadu. The result of titling these homes to women has transcended the economic gains of home ownership. It has changed the very social fabric of the coast.”

See the full article here

2) Likewise, in the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Haiti, the coupons for food rations were given to women.

3) Half the Sky

The most attention-grabbing/memorable quote in this new book by Pulitzer Prize-winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is:

” … a medical technician named Sonette Ehlers developed a product … Ehlers had never forgotten a rape victim telling her forlornly: “If only I had teeth down there.” Some time afterward, a man came into the hospital where Ehlers works in excruciating pain because his pen1s was stuck in his pants zipper. Ehlers merged those images and came up with a product she called Rapex. It resembles a tube, with barbs inside. The woman inserts it like a tampon, with an applicator, and any man who tries to rape the woman impales himself on the barbs and must go to an emergency room to have Rapex removed. When critics complained that it was a medieval punishment, Ehlers responded tersely: “A medieval device for a medieval deed.””

Men reading this are probably cringing. Don’t worry, it’s equal opportunity cringing. As a women reading about fistulas, and worse, well I was taking lots of deep breaths, but soldiered on.

The authors are up-front about this book being a pitch for their message: ‘a call to arms . . . against the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.’
See also the halftheskymovement.org

This book is a must-read. There’s a lot of rationale for why empowering and educating women simply makes good economic sense, and stimulates overall growth and development in developing countries. It will also in turns horrify you by its descriptions of atrocities committed against women, and inspire you with its accounts of strong, resilient women who are fighting back, doing amazing things to help themselves and their communities, against social/economic/political/cultural odds. But above all, it’s written in a way that’s so engaging and accessible, you’ll end up with a good understanding that these aren’t just ‘women’s issues’, but why things happening in the world are the way they are.

Banker to the Poor

This autobiography by Muhammad Yunus is about how he started Grameen Bank and how it evolved. For these efforts, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Grameen Bank provides small loans, known as microcredit, to the poor, as start-up capital so that they can improve their livelihood. (As a matter of fact, microcredit is featured in ‘Half the Sky’ as one of the most potent tools to help women. )

I started reading the book because I was really intrigued by the idea that what could be considered small change, say $15, the cost of lunch, could end up propelling a family out of poverty A hundred bucks is about what I donate to my alma mater in a year, which might cover half a textbook for a student in the UC system. Yet half across the world, as a loan it could probably enable a woman to invest in some bananas and cooking fuel, make banana cakes; and sell them for enough to put her kids to school for a year and cover their uniforms, and cover loan principal and interest. Such small sums, yet so potent! As someone who tends to be thrifty/cheap (hey I collect pennies 50 at a time and deposit each roll in my bank account!), I’m quite taken with this concept. Plus, these are loans, not handouts. Teaching fishing, not giving a fish!

Back to my original point about empowering the women . . . I was surprised to learn from this book that Grameen Bank quickly figured out that these mircoloans should be directed to women, not men, for better results. Women were more likely to do something productive with the money for their family, than men, who might abuse the loan for personal benefit, or just be plain flaky. Grameen developed a system where the loans wasn’t just offered to individual women, but to groups of five women for peer-enforcement. If the first two women repaid their loans, then the others would get their loans. (Actually, Grameen does give loans to men, but by they focus much more on women. )

By the way, if you’ve saved the cost of lunch by bringing leftovers, and are inspired, you can take that $15 and make a loan to someone halfway across the world, woman or man! via kiva.org

Baan Suan Restaurant and Miu Kiu Wai

About 30 years ago, I went to Chiang Mai for the first time. I was just a kid, and I don’t remember much about the trip, but someone took us to a restaurant that made a great impression on me. I remember the name was a bit unusual “Baan Suan” which literally means “House Garden”. It was apt though, the restaurant was like a home in a garden setting. (It turns out ‘baan suan‘ is a common type of establishment, Baan Manovejchapan is also a ‘baan suan‘)

There was a simple salad that was the most delicious one I’ve ever had in my life, and I don’t mean salad as in a Thai-style ‘yum’, it was a proper farang salad with slices of tomatoes, lettuce and thousand island dressing, like what you’d find in the US, which in that context, was the ne plus ultra. Today ‘salat’ are quite a fad in Thailand: you can get take-out boxes in all the Royal Project produce shops with lettuce, shredded carrots, tomatoes and a side of ‘naam salat’ (salad dressing), but the reverse snob in me now thinks they pale in comparison to a good Thai yum, which has more substance.
There were other dishes that were also very tasty at that western-style meal at Baan Suan, but the specifics have faded from my memory into the mists of time. Possibly a roast chicken or a pork chop.

I’d been to Chiang Mai since, but never had the opportunity to go back to try and track down the restaurant until now. Poring over the Nancy Chandler map, I came across the Baan Suan restaurant in the outskirts of town on the Mae Nam Ping, but I couldn’t find the listing or phone number, so I googled it and found only a review with contact info. They didn’t seem to have their own website. I called them up and asked how long they’d been in business. “Well we’ve been here at this location for about 10 years. Before that we had shut down for 2 years. We were originally located closer to town, where” he named some hotel ”now stands.” I infer that the site they were located on got taken over and redeveloped into a hotel. Then it took them two years to find a new location.

“How long were you located at the original site” Pause. “I wasn’t with this restaurant back then, but I think it was 10 or 20 years.” I was excited. It sounded like it could be the same Baan Suan with the mythically unsurpassble salad of my childhood dreams.

Since it was a Monday, I asked if it was necessary to make a reservation. ‘Well, it’s better if you do, because sometimes we get booked up entire for parties.’ I didn’t know what we were doing that day, and what time we’d be eating dinner, so I said 7 PM, but would it be OK if we came earlier or later. Sure, he said in that ever-accommodating manner of the Thais.
I forgot to ask what kind of food they served.

Because they were so far out of the way, I had to book a taxi that would take us there, wait for us while we ate dinner, and then bring us back. For 500 baht! (I think the taxis in Chiang Mai are second to Phuket island in the rip-off levels, in part because there’s no convenient bus service). Then again, we were going somewhere relatively far, and fancy, compared to all the meals we’d been having in Chiang Mai. My cousin and his mom were visiting Chiang Mai for the first time, and I was taking them around. This was a last-night, splurge meal, might as well go all out!

We arrived after a drive that was longer than even I expected. There was a wooden Baan Suan sign with a logo of a plate set with a fork and spoon that looked vaguely familiar. Maybe it was the same restaurant from my childhood.
There was a waiter waiting for us when we got there. “Celia for 7 PM”, I said, but that turned out to be superfluous. “Go ahead,” he said.

Uh, which way? It was very dark. The set-up was a little weird. Right at the entrance, there were two narrow passageways, I couldn’t tell which way led to the dining area, as opposed to the kitchen. He pointed us in the right direction, we walked through and then suddenly found ourselves in an expansive space enclosed by a tall pavilion that was completely open on two sides to the river bend. There was a long tree trunk conference table, a few lounge chairs, and an eloquently giant flower arrangement. In the dim lighting, it felt like a hotel lobby. The vibe felt odd. We were the only ones there. I started to wonder if coming here had been a mistake.

They led us to one of several finely appointed tables at the edge of the deck. There was a strip of lawn between us and the Ping. The inevitable stray/kitchen cat strolled by, the inevitable soundtrack of chirping played on, eventually becoming white noise. You could see the tall reedy wild grasses across the water, since the land on that side was undeveloped. At this point, the river Ping was more of a creek.

“You can actually see the stars here,” marveled my cousin as he looked up at the dark sky draped over us. He lives in Hong Kong now, where there’s too much urban nightlight pollution to see any stars. Actually, if you looked towards the city center of Chiang Mai to the southwest, the sky was a paler shade of grey, rather than the inky black of directly above.

Other aspects of Thailand not to be found in Hong Kong that my cousin was not so fond of were the jing-joks (lizards). They were hanging out high on the columns of the pavilion, each near a sconce.

Once we opened the menu, I perked up a bit. There was no salad, but a page full of yum listings. The food was mostly Thai, with some fusion/western elements; and some dishes that were local and unfamiliar and therefore intrigued us. One was a soup with local vegetables and miniature river shrimp, freshwater ha-mi as it were. The most unusual thing on the menu was “Hanging pork or beef”. The waiter explained it to me in Thai. But it was complicated, and I couldn’t grasp the concept except that it came with four dipping sauces. We ordered it anyway, to be adventurous. “Unfortunately, tonight we only have pork, no beef”. That actually, was fortunate. Beef in Thailand tends to be very chewy.

“There’s also a couple of specials tonight. One is poh piah gaeng kiew waan kai.” Literally ‘green chicken curry spring rolls’. Again I couldn’t fathom what it would be like, so we ordered it to see. After all, curry is a very saucy ingredient to be contained in a fried wrapper. “And for tonight’s yum, we have yod maprow on, and another yum of a local vegetable.” Oh good. I thought it would be neat for my visitors to try coconut shoots, something they probably never had before. Just to cover our bases, we also ordered ribs in barbeque sauce (the sort of American version) from the menu. After all, if everything else turned out to be disappointing, well, how could anyone mess up BBQ ribs?

The food came almost all at once. The green curry spring rolls were a hit. Small pieces of chicken are marinated in green curry paste and then encased in long flat skinny egg roll wrappers, fried until perfectly crunchy, and not too spicy. They were served in a wineglass, so we picked them up with our fingers like oversized grissini.

The soup came, a clear broth with veggies and lots of little pink shrimp the size of a thumbnail, complete with bead black eyes. The Anthony Bourdain adage about not ordering seafood on a Monday, especially at a restaurant with seemingly sluggish turnover was moot here. The shrimp were fresh, my GI tract had no complaints. The shells gave a little chew of calcium goodness. The herb/spice that was used to flavor the soup is the same peppery-sour one that I recognize from poh-taek soup. But I have to admit, I don’t know what it is. In the cool night air, the soup, served in a large bowl, cooled a little too quickly. It would have been better to serve it in a hotpot (moh ron), but then the shrimp might be overcooked if you let it sit too long. Perhaps a tea candle would work.

The two yum came together on the same plate; the flavors were well balanced. “What is this?” asked my aunt, pointing to the coconut shoots which are white slivers of tender crunchiness, mixed in with cashews, and other usual suspects you find in a yum. Since my culinary Cantonese is very limited when it comes to describing non-Cantonese food, I said “Well, you know, if you have a baby coconut plant that’s just beginning to grow and the stems are just coming out of the ground, well that’s what this is.”
“Oh, yeh miu!” Yeh means coconut.
“Say that again, the second word.”
Miu.”
Flash. “Oh the miu in “Miu Kiu Wai (苗僑偉)” I exclaimed. He’s a Hong Kong actor who was prominent in the 80’s, also known as Michael Miu. Come to think of it, he became famous about the time of my first visit to Baan Suan.
“You know who Miu Kiu Wai is?” My aunt was mockingly impressed.
I vaguely recalled seeing his name in print in tabloid magazines. Miu is rather rare for a last name. But I remembered it incorporated the radical for grass on top, and paddy on the bottom. Actually it made sense, grass coming out from the paddy beneath it would be ‘shoots’. Agricultural etymology.

The steamed rice came in green banana leaf cones (like they did at Heuan Pen), like an up-ended Cornetto ice cream. I guess it’s a Lanna/northern Thai thing.

The bbq ribs were pretty tasty, but plain jane, in presentation when compared to the drama of the hanging pork (moo khwaen).

Picture a suspended cast iron bell the size of softball, with a profusion of little nails protruding like vicious thorns. It could have been a medieval torture device for the jing joks my cousin loathed. The bell is preheated, and chunks of pork are spiked on those nails. The waiter pours a little brandy over it, flicks his lighter and the meat is flambéed with a flourish. Underneath the bell is pile of French fries, although there really aren’t any juices for the fries to soak up (and get soggy from). (The waitress told me later that the bell concept was not Thai, but imported.)

To remove the pieces of pork from the bell, you use your fork and knife to pry it off from the nails. The pork was a little too lean and overcooked to the point of chewiness. It was pretty plain also: I don’t think it was marinated in much. (The BBQ ribs were better in that respect, they weren’t as dry.) The several different dipping sauces did help slightly: thousand island dressing; mayonnaise; ‘Café de Paris’ which is actually a garlic butter, and the only Thai one: jaeow. It’s usually like a murky black sour and spicy chipotle sauce (if you are familiar with Mexican food). This one was spicy and sour, but it didn’t taste like regular jaeow. Maybe it was Lanna style.

We took in our surroundings. The informal and spare layout of the pavilion seems well suited for anyone wanting to host large party in casually elegant manner. (It turns out that the place is designed by Chulathat Kitibutr, an architect who focuses on Lanna architecture. He also designed the reknowned Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, which we didn’t have a chance to visit). My cousin and I wondered out loud if we could persuade any of our younger nieces or nephews to hold their wedding here. Or failing that, perhaps he could come back with a client to use the location for a photo shoot!

The service was fairly attentive throughout the meal, even through ordering of dessert. Their house speciality was a mango granite with St. Emilion wine, but we ordered the buay kaew. I didn’t know what a buay kaew was exactly. It turned out to be red fruit, like a miniature plum with a textured skin and a single seed inside, like a hawthorn. It was sweet-sour and perfectly delicious, served with shaved ice and simple syrup.

Two hours had passed by so leisurely and agreeably that we’d hardly noticed it. But it was getting late, and time to leave before we could be turned into pumpkins. We walked to the hostess stand where we had come in and called out “Check please.” There was no response. It was as if the place had been abandoned, the staff melted into thin air. I think the thought crossed all our minds that we could simply walk out without paying! With due diligence we walked towards the back. On the kitchen porch, various black clad wait-staff were sleeping around a table, heads resting on elbows. One of them woke up with a start, and led us to the other side of the restaurant, past a quirky little Olde Curiosity Shoppe with dusty paintings. That’s where the cashier’s desk was tucked away.

The bill came out to a reasonable 1,500 baht (US $45) We hadn’t had any alcohol. The hanging pork was the most expensive dish at 500 baht. I had been a little apprehensive, since we had ordered a few of the daily specials, and I didn’t know what the prices were for those dishes.

One word of advice: Depending on your proclivities, you must check out the toilets . . . or avoid them completely. (They are located ‘downstairs’, in what would be the open space of the stilts of a traditional Thai house).

On the door of each stall facing you as you are conducting your business, there is a painting in traditional Thai style, of a man and a woman embracing. The woman is bare-chested, but that was not unusual back then, until Victorian prudishness was imported to Thailand. Scrutinizing the painting a little more, you realize that they are beyond a PG embrace; they are very erotically engaged. What looks like blue and white bike shorts on the man is actually an elaborately patterned tattoo, modesty in camouflage. I don’t know if my aunt noticed. I don’t want to know if my aunt noticed.

(I have to admit, I checked behind the doors of the other stalls in the ladies’ room, and they all had similar artwork. Since there was no one else around, I checked out the men’s bathroom too! Same same!)

I don’t know for sure if this incarnation of Baan Suan restaurant is a direct descendant of the one I went to when I was a ten-year old. The menu has definitely evolved since then, in its new location. The food is creative, more hit than miss. The surroundings are pleasant and tasteful, if somewhat a little eerie on a quiet weekday night. Seeing the place in daylight would be nice. And if you have kids, you might have them use the toilet before you get to the restaurant.

Baan Suan Restaurant, 25 Moo 3, San Phi Sua, Chiang Mai
Telephone 053 854 169

The game’s not over after the fat lady sings

At Moe’s in Berkeley, I bought a used copy of Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde. (I guess there’s some irony here, my last post talked about getting rid of stuff). I’d been looking for it for a while, since I was reluctant to buy a new copy. Along with his “Palestine“, these are two must-haves in any graphic-novel collection. I usually don’t like war stories, but war is a fact of life now, and even those of us snug and safe in civilian life must be aware of wars don’t simply end when the last shot has been fired.

There’s a little irony more irony: Before browsing at Moe’s (because I had time left on the parking meter), I had gone to the Berkeley Art Museum to see the Botero exhibit “The Abu Ghraib Series“.

I first saw Botero’s paintings actually in posters at the Reprint Mint (also on Telegraph Ave) when I was in college. His ‘gimmick’ is the easily-recognisable pudgy, rotund human figures; they’re usually dressed in what I think of as 1930s or 1940s styles. Men wear suits. Women are always in dresses. I seriously thought he lived and produced during that period. I was so surprised when I found out he was still living, and he’s in his 70’s today.

His Abu Ghraib series apparently were inspired his outrage before he even saw the photos of those prison situations; he read about them in the New Yorker magazine. In these paintings, both the prison guards and the prisoners are portrayed, in the typical roly-poly Botero style. But unlike the ‘idyllic’ scenes of his conventional paintings, like couples, dancing or walking hand in hand, these show different configurations of abuse, torment and humiliation. Prisoners are blindfolded, forced to don bras and bikins, and beaten and sodomized.

By the end of so many paintings, the glut of abuse was numbing. But I came away with a solid realization of how the physical wounds of those war detainees may heal, but the emotional and psychiatric scars will remain for a long time.

The aftermath of war is and always will be a sad and scary unavoidable thing.