We've Moved!

Check us out at


And feel free to leave any comments and ideas. There won't be any new posts going up here, to avoid duplication, but check out the new address for all our new material, and a much better looking blog overall.

Xiao Long Bao in the steamer

Xiao Long Bao in the steamer

Little Dragon Dumplings. More like a little gift from heaven, these things: pork and some soup stock which is chilled until it gets to a kind of jelly consistency, and then wrapped into a dumpling.
When it's heated, the soup stock obviously gets liquified, and a taste explosion ensues. Just make sure you work out how hot that stuff inside really is, though: my first Xiao Long burned the hell out of my mouth, and eveyone at the table was watching my reaction to eating this Chinese delicacy, so there was no unobtrusive way for me to help myself out of the fire.
I just said my eyes were watering because of the deliciousness. Not sure they believed me, though.
This shot was taken near Tian Dzhe Fun in Shanghai, of a street Xiao Long Bao seller's stall. I was excited at the find, bought 3 of them, took a bite, and found to my surprise that there was fish in them. Or crab. Or something vaguely piscine.
And to have that taste hit you when you're expecting pork isn't a happy sensation.
I like the shot, though. Looks better than it tastes, that's for sure.
This shot hit #61 on Flickr's Explore page on the 18th of May 2009. Nice one, guys, thanks a lot for your support.

Zhezhiang fairytale

Shanghai (499 of 712)-2
Walking through the narrow lanes that make up Zhezhiang, you get to see alot of traditional crafts being put on for the tourists. Most make you feel like you're wandering through a kind of low-budget Disneyland, and the crafts are totally put on show for you. But one area had people who were spinning silk from silkworm cocoons the traditional way, and making shoes, clothes and quilts out of it.
The stuff they were making was pretty high quality, and the methid employed were certainly unmechanized. But the most striking thing about the scene was the atmosphere: felt like I had slipped down the rabbit hole and ended up in a fairy tale, something like Sleeping Beauty or Rumpelstiltzkin.
The work of a few seconds to lift out my Nikon D300 and grab a few frames. I'm not even sure they knew I was there.

The view down the alley

Shanghai (581 of 712)-2

Walking down a lane in the Tian Dze Fan artists area of Shanghai. Saw this scene, and something struck me about it. Didn't last for a long time, but since I was surgically bonded to my NIkon D300 on this trip, it didn't take a moment for me to get set and roll.

Not sure what caught my eye here, but I think it was the fact that each house in the little lane here had a washing bar stuck out over the lane, and that gives a nice set of lines at the top of the picture which disappear into the distance, and contrast to the two sets of parralels which run down the corners of the shot. Whatever it is, I came back from a trip with at least one pic that both looks and feels like you're there.

Sticky situation

Traditional Chinese candy
This is a string of sugar that allegedly came from wheat, if my translation serves. It was being worked into a VERY sticky candy in a traditional Chinese method at a candy store in Zhezhiang, near Shanghai.

The man who was working with this mess kept grabbing that stick, pulling the sugar out into a long line rather like you stretch a piece of gum, and then winding it back together. I bought some of the end result, but didn't enjoy it: way too sugary and so sticky I couldn't talk for at least 15 minutes. Toffee has nothing on this stuff.
Shanghai (416 of 712)
Shanghai (426 of 712)

It's Friday! Time to break out my happy shoes!

And here they are:
Shanghai (504 of 712)-2
This was shot in a craft store area in Zhezhiang, a Ming-dynasty era town near Shanghai. Filled with canals, crafts and ancient houses and structures, it's well worth the visit.
As I was walking down one of the narrow lanes between the buildings, I noticed these traditional Chinese children's shoes in a store. Irresistible image.

On the back of the Bund

Spent a lot of time walking round the streets of Shanghai. Since I resisted the urge to pack all the gear I thought I could use, and restricted myself to my Nikon D300 and a 50mm 1.4 slung over my shoulder, and an Sb-800 flash (which I strapped to my belt, embarrassingly) I was travelling light and had everything ready all the time.

Using this rig, I also got to know the variations of that Nikkor 50mm pretty damn well in all the F-stops: where the sharpness was a little lacking, where it was so damn sharp you could cut yourself, how it reacted to bright light at midday, and when it struggled to focus in the dark. No changing to a lens that would be more suited to the conditions: if I wanted the shot I had to work to make it happen. Realised that sometimes limitations are really liberations. Plus it's really small and light, and although it's a little tight on a crop sensor, it's great for people and for isolating parts of the image. I stuck a circular polarizer
on the front of it to enhance in the usual way, but also to act as a neutral density filter and give me 2-3 stops of grace in the midday sun, and it worked like a charm.

One thing that struck me about Shanghai was the juxtapositions: drab grey concrete pavements with the colour explosion of a Tai Chi class going through their movesin front of it. Young beggars on the old glory of the Bund. It's often all mixed up there, and I'd find myself decoding a completely different story to the one my wife was looking at, although we were looking at the same scene. And amid the feeling of new prosperity, there was the constant reminder that life is still really tough for many people there, and for many their next meal is in no way guaranteed.

Just behind the post office on the Bund, in an area filled with monuments to money - the old money of the original Bund buildings, all granite marble and brass, and the new buildings that call out to them from Pudong, across the Yellow River - I stumbled on a lean-to with a tiny kitchen, a bed, and some clothes. Nobody was around, but someone calls that place home. I didn't intrude, just grabbed some shots from the pavement, and went on my way.

The back of the Bund

Shanghai (22 of 712)

Shanghai (21 of 712)

Back from Shanghai.

You may have noticed the lack of posts recently. Took a great Easter weekend out in Shanghai. Back at work today, and feeling lot like this:

Fast food?

This is a shot of a fast food vendor in the old section of Shanghai, the Yu Gardens (or to give its Chinese name, Yu Yuen) area. Crazy place, Shanghai, and surprisingly old world: much of it remains the same as it was in the Ming Dynasty. Anywhere else that I've been in China seems to be about 20 years old, tops. The Cultural Revolution did a great job of erasing the past, and rampant industrialization and economic development have finished the job off.
But not in Shanghai and the surrounding countryside, and the city gains a lot for it. Travelling around Shenzhen and Guangzhou can be a depressing experience: miles of industrial compounds and heavy industry, which has changed the landscape from green to grey. Shanghai and the area around it was refreshingly beautiful (well, parts of Shanghai, anyway: some parts are quite depressing as well).
Speaking of the pic above, I'm not sure if that makes anyone hungry. Seemed to be a popular snack, though: beef balls in noodle soup. I think the reason they put the skull in there was to infuse essence of beef into the soup stock. Maybe it was just a neat way of advertising: I wasn't having any, but then I went to Shanghai looking for Xiao Long Bao, which they had in abundance. Just that most of them were made of hairy crabs, not pork, and that's a nasty surprise to get sprung on you: expecting pork and you get a fishy-tasting hairy crab ball.
Got lots of food shots of Shanghai, too, which are going to go up here soon. More posts, many many more posts, to follow. I made a lot of images out there, and now I'm slowly going through post. Which is another reason I feel as if my skull is immersed in a vat of boiling water.

The view from my fire escape

Took out the trash yesterday. The communal bin and the recycle bins are out on the landing of the fire escape. I've lived in this building for nearly two years, all told, and taken the trash out plenty of times. I've never looked out of the window in there.

Not sure I did, yesterday. Glad I did, though, 'cos there is something about the view out ther that grabbed me. Went inside, grabbed my Nikon D300 and the Nikkor 50mm 1.4 that'always on it these days, and took a few frames.

Liked the result.

Busy, and busy planning for Shanghai!

My desk: 25th April 2007, around six o'clock.
Madness right now. I'm just trying to finish my first chapter of my M. Phil. thesis on Joseph Conrad. So my desk looks something like this again, although this is an older photo from when I was doing a proposal for a different academic project (and, surprisingly, it's my second most popular photo on flickr. Messy desks seem to resonate with people...). But work like this really eats into the photo time, you know? I've got to get it done this week, though, especially because I've decided that next week, during Easter, I deserve a break, and I'm heading off to Shanghai.

Never been there before, although I've been living in Asia for ages, and in China for between 5 and 8 years (depending on your definition of China: I lived in Taiwan for three years before moving to Hongkers). So I'm totally excited at the prospect.

This means I get to play my favourite Flickr game: plan-your-trip-by-using-our-search! (I outlined it in yesterday's post). And there are some crazy photogs in Shanghai. I've stumbled across these folks already: lifemage, theshanghaieye and tommyOshima.

Still working out the details, obviously want to take in the Bund and the view of Pudong, but not 100% sure about what's available in Shanghai, so I'll be doing more research on this during breaks from my other research. If you have any ideas or recommendations of what to do in Shanghai, give me a shout out in the comments section.

Gear wise, I'll have to travel quite light, and I'm toying with the idea of just hooking up my Nikon D300, a 50mm 1.4 and a 20mm. Only. No zoom, no macro. Not even a flash, maybe. Just want to unencumber and focus on getting great people and street shots with these to tack-sharp, creamy-buttery-bokeh nikkor lenses.

Shibuya Crossing at Night: /\ltus's Tokyo.

This image taken by /\ltus, check him out on Flickr.

Before I went to Tokyo, I did a Flickr search of the places I would be going to, to see what other people had done there, and which areas had the most picturesque appeal for me. I always do this, I find it helps me plan my trip much more effectively than reading a guide book: Lonely Planet doesn't have much in the way of photo-specific info.

So I'll check around Flickr, trying to see what a certain place looks like at night, at sunrise, at dusk etc. I'll also check to see what a given location will look like in the season I will be there: no sense in arriving prepped for cherry blossoms, only to find that you're two weeks late for that. And I always browse for " Most interesting" rather than " Most relevant": it's nice to see how far you should be pushing your shots.

While I was looking round Flickr, I found a name that kept topping the list of the "most interesting..." of almost anywhere I checked out: /\ltus. When I checked out his stream, he had a phenomenal amount of high-quality shots of Toyko: adjectives fail me a little, especially since he's an HDR-shooter most of the time, but I can say his photostream is interesting and, to a prospective phototourist looking to go the same area, exciting. I found myself thinking "Wow, is Japan going to give me shots that look like that ?"

It didn't, obviously, 'cos his photos are highly idiosyncratic, and the colours are quite something. HDR isn't an area that I've found myself working in, either. But in the right hands... Have a look at his most interesting shots to get an idea of what I mean.

This shot also shows my favourite Starbucks for shooting pics in Tokyo: click through to the image and look at the notes. My blog post about this is here.

Tokyo essentialized.

Street Scene, Shinjuku, Tokyo

This shot sums up Tokyo for me: Pachislot and vending machines. Sure, Tokyo is busy and crowded, but actually I wasn't too impressed by that. Maybe because I live Hong Kong, a place that has a smaller but more concentrated population. I was expecting to be wowed by the crowd there, and even awed by it. But even the fabled light-change at Shibuya Station wasn't as crazy as I thought it would be. I loved looking at it, like I outlined in this post, but that was more for what I could see in the crowd than how big it was. Drive down Nathan Road in Mongkok on a Sunday night, and watch the pedestrians cross the road when the traffic lights change: now that's an awesome crowd scene. No, crowds of people aren't what I think of when I think of Tokyo.

Tokyo for me means wandering around at night, down small lanes, grabbing beers and ramen in basement eateries, looking at interesting, happy people going by. Tokyo means street music like I've never heard before, performed by really talented artists who are listened to by the people around, not just dismissed with a glib " Not my style of music". Tokyo defininely has a lot going in the daytime, but like many great cities, Tokyo only properly wakes up at night.

A street scene in Shibuya, Tokyo


Mad thought for the day from Engrishfunny.com.
Maybe it' s because I've been living in Asia for so long now, but this site is strangely compelling. Too compelling, and totally laugh out loud funny, I've been getting odd looks from co-workers as I try not to snort my morning coffee out my nose while laughing.
But laugh all you want: some of this inadvertently hits the Truth, capital T. There's wisdoms contained inside hilarity thinks. Take look, be learning!

see funny english mistakes

Harajuku style

Gotta love Harajuku styles...

That's what I really love about Tokyo. You never know what you're going to see around the next corner. It really surprised me, with all you hear about how conformist Asian cultures are, and how there is no space for the individual , it's all about society and the good of the many.
I grew up in a small mining town in South Africa, and it was a lot less individualist than Tokyo. And certainly a lot less than Harajuku. I once went to our local pub back home with a friend of mine who had dreadlocks - nearly got the shit fun kicked out of us. Yet here we are, in a small but busy shopping street called, appropriately enough, Takeshita Street, just off Omote-Sando in Harajuku, and people dressed like this wander around without causing so much as a raised eyebrow or a second glance.
Wicked place to walk around, with people like this popping up - you feel like you're in the world of Akira or Ghost in the Shell. I think I created more of an impact than he did as he went by me, switching from my nikkor to my sigma, backing up to grab the shot, getting the Lowepro Slingshot in the way, out the way. He belonged. Obviously, I didn't.

Shibuya Starbucks

Cyclist, Shibuya, Tokyo

Did a lot of walking round Tokyo in the hot summer sunshine when I was there last. There's just so many places to go to, and so much to see, that you really can't keep in one place for too long. Well, I couldn't, but then I do have that problem when travelling. Just can't be satisfied with where I am, I need to see what's round the next corner - same as when I watch TV, channel-flipping every thirty seconds, totally obsessive-compulsive. The great thing in Tokyo: whatever's round that next corner is always going to be interesting.

The problem with my channel-flipping style, though, is that you literally can't go on forever. There's going to be a time in your day when your energy levels bottom out, and you need somewhere to regroup and refuel.

My favourite spot for this, in the middle of the day, was Starbucks. Boringly. But not just any Starbucks. The Starbucks in Shibuya, overlooking one of the busiest intersections in the world, where 1500 pedestrians cross the road each time the traffic lights change.

The thing about people in Tokyo is that they're just interesting. There are a load of different styles and cultural subgroups, and how you dress is a very important way of identifying which group you're in. Gothic, cosplay, kimono, punk, post-punk, arthouse, modern, 1920's, salaryman, pretty much any style you can think of you'll see walking round, and all pulled off really well. Here in Hong Kong, people don't have the same sense of style, and most of the street culture here is pretty monolithic - folks aren't creative about how they dress. There is some punk and very rarely some cosplay/dress-up, but you can tell the people are doing dress-by-numbers from a magazine. In Tokyo, you can tell people really live their subgroup. They don't look out of place at all.

The best place to see this, of course, is Harajuku, not Shibuya. But in Shibuya I could sit on the second floor of the Starbucks, armed with a 70-300mm, and drink my coffee while waiting for interesting things to happen. When they do, you just need to lift and shoot, and then go back to your coffee. With the crop sensor on the Nikon D50, I was able to get even closer to the action.

And when I got tired of people watching, there was a great Tsutaya to go and rifle through, looking for all the music that's hard to find in Hong Kong Records: Booka Shade, Justin Robertson, whatever I looked for, I could find. Pity there was only so much I could buy.

Kimono shoppers, Shibuya, Tokyo

Lake Toya

Volcano sunset

Following on from yesterday's post, I'm thinking about Lake Toya in Hokkaido. Caldera lake, active volcano area, beautiful scenery and fantastic onsen. This really would be a great place to visit in winter. And I'd really like to be there right now, just wandering round in the dressing gown like everyone else in a Japanese spa resort town. Seriously, that was one of the more bizarre sights of my holiday: pulling in to the town on the edge of Lake Toya and seeing eveeryone strolling round in bathrobes with their hotel's name all over. Good way to see the most popular hotel, I guess, and all advertizing is good for business.

This is the view across the lake, to the island:

Statue by the lake, Lake Toya, Hokkaido

and a final view of some weird statue, and the last sunset at Toya:

Statue and sunset, Lake Toya, Hokkaido

Here's the room we stayed in. Traditional Japanese style, or ryokan. Looked greta in the beginning, but there's nowhere to put your stuff, so the room was a total mess in about 3 minutes.

Our room in the Ryokan (Japanese hotel), Lake Toya, Hokkaido

Hokkaido Calling!

Spring seems to have started here in Hong Kong, which always makes outdoor photography difficult: overcast, foggy, rain, rain, rain. Not saying that you don't get moody atmospherics, but you definitely need some hardcore covering for your gear. I'm not sure even my Nikon D300's famed weather seal would hold up to it: it definitely wouldn't have through last June's downpours, when we had a record 1346.1 mm according to the Hong Kong Observatory.

SO seeing the grey clouds this morning, and the fog, while I was in bed drinking my morning coffee, I just felt the call of a Furano summer in Hokkaido, Japan. I went up there last year, and I've been longing to go back there ever since. Definitely not my last trip.

Here's the antidote to grey skies:

Flower Field, Biei, Hokkaido

Same field, different angle:

Flower Field, Biei, Hokkaido

And this is a another view from around the same field:

Flower Field, Biei, Hokkaido

These shots were taken in a field between Furano and Biei, which really is heaven in summer, and seems like a great ski place in winter, too. If there's any way I can get to spend a couple of years up there, I'll grab the chance. 'Till then, I'll keep dreaming, especially during Hong Kong's spring rains.

New must have book: The Hot Shoe Diaries

I don't often plug for gear, but there are some things that really are essential.

I bought Joe McNally's last book, "The Moment it Clicks", last year, and since getting it I've read it constantly every time I need inspiration and advice. It's more than a standard camera book, and the how-to's are peppered with stories that Joe has about his tremendously varied and amazingly high-standard photographic career. Take some time and head on over to Joe's blog, for some of his kind of behind the scenes advice, great images and the classic Joe McNally style of writing, that really seems to jump right out at you and make you want to get out and raise your own photographic bar.

Good to see that his new book, "The Hot Shoe Diaries" is out, and I'll be getting it as soon as I possibly can. From the looks of it, it is equally packed with great advice about how to use flash and camera in the field, with real-world examples. There's a link to a PDF preview of the book on Dave Hobby's Strobist site, so head on over and have a look at it. Just be ready to grab you camera and shoot straight after you take a look, because there is no way you'll be happy to just around.

Here's that link again:

Bad weather at the Big Buddha

One of the first overtly tourist places that I went to after moving to Hong Kong was head up to the Big Buddha on Lantau Island. Mid-July, sunny and so typically-Hong-Kong hot and humid that I thought I may pass out on the stairway up to the buddha statue.

Po Lin is kind of out of the way for me, though, and since there's not really too much going up there for locals, I haven't been back in the four years since then. Enter the Year of The Goat, and the year has just been one damn thing after another. Bad luck, according to our more superstitious frineds and relatives: I'm a Horse and my wife is a Goat, and apparently, this isn't the greatest year for either of these two Chinese zodiac characters. The advice from my grandmother-in-law was that the only way you can cure this is through a visit to a couple of specific temples in Hong Kong. You guessed it: Po Lin is one of them.

So this put the idea of a trip out there firmly into our consciousness, but it still wasn't exactly a burning issue for us. But after finding ourselves at alittle bit of a loose loose end last weekend, we decided on Saturday that a trip back to Po Lin, more for a look around again and a ride on the Nong Ping cable car than anything about the luck changing, may not be a bad move. Even with the bad press surrounding Nong Ping, the tourist village up there, and especially the cable car, which has been plagued with some Very Bad Things since its opening, climaxing in the time that one of the gondolas came right off the cable and crashed to the mountain below. Luckily empty at the time.

Plus, Nong Ping had to a tourist trap, right?

So, we wake up on Sunday morning, look out the window (our bedroom has a view right across the channel to Tung Chung, and the cable cars going up the mountain) and we see grim weather. Coffee and discussion in bed follow, and we nearly stayed in bed and waited for more auspicious weather. But in the end, we decided to head out, no matter what the weather was like, so long as we left early to avoid the crowds.

Weather didn't improve. We didn't exactly have the best view from our gondola on the way up to the temple:

Big Buddha (76 of 76)-Edit

And this was the sunny face of Nong Ping, waiting to greet us:

Big Buddha (1 of 76)

Still, the Buddha statue in was much more moody in the mist than in the bright sunlight, like last time, and the atmosphere was pretty intense. Felt like we were headed off to learn one of the great secrets of the Universe, known only to a few and half-hidden through th ages by a band of select Shaolin monks (who apparently do daily shows for tourists at Nong Ping, so there you go).

Big Buddha (29 of 76)

Seems like we weren't the only ones headed up there with a view to getting good things:

Big Buddha (4 of 76)

A new addition to the temple complex is the Garden of Knowledge, which is on the Path of Wisdom (10 minutes walk, which is the quickest way to get wise available) :

Big Buddha (40 of 76)

Big Buddha (38 of 76)

Not that it got me any wiser: can't read Chinese, so I couldn't read the inscriptions. Still, a very strange spot, and well worth the walk. Nice details, too:

Big Buddha (39 of 76)

Speaking of details, this is a floor detail of the main temple:

Big Buddha (28 of 76)

All told, it's worth a visit. Just try not to get taken in by the prices up on the hill there, becauce they are very different to those down the bottom, and get in early to avoid the tour groups, which tend to go up there for lunch. You can read more about the place in this wikipeida entry: