Tuesday, 30 October 2012

photographic abstraction #4

I present the latest in my series of photographs inspired by abstract expressionism. They do have something to say as artistic statements, but I believe that it is more important to stimulate the individual viewer’s imagination, so you can ignore any messages that you think I may be trying to convey and substitute your own.

The invitation that I extended in previous instalments, that you may want to suggest alternative titles for these pictures, remains in place. Background on how and why these images were created can be found by checking the previous posts in this series. And don’t forget that you can create a slide show by clicking on the first picture.

other posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction.
Photographic Abstraction #2.
Photographic Abstraction #3.

sand
migration

ghost

autumn rhythm

spillage
amoeba

Sunday, 28 October 2012

food for thought

When I was growing up in the 1950s, chicken was a luxury dish, to be eaten only on formal occasions such as wedding receptions. However, this situation began to change towards the end of the decade with the advent of factory farming, but this increased availability of chicken came at a price, a price that seemed inconsequential at the time but now has assumed critical proportions.

There are two problems: the huge energy input to light and heat the enormous sheds in which most chickens are reared nowadays; and the need to feed all these captive birds, which cannot forage for themselves. The two problems are closely related.

If we focus on the amount of energy that is needed to raise an individual chicken to a size where it can be eaten, it becomes apparent that the process is inefficient, because in addition to the parts of the chicken that can be eaten, energy has gone into producing feet, feathers, a head, blood and guts, which are essentially waste by-products. These can of course be reprocessed, but that requires yet more energy.

How would this reprocessing be achieved in nature? The animal kingdom divides neatly into two: herbivores eat plants, and carnivores eat the herbivores. But there is a third category, the detritivores, whose function is to clean up the mess left by the other two. Vultures and hyenas are part of this process, but by far the most important member of the clean-up brigade is the humble fly, without which the world would soon be buried under the weight of detritus generated by the twin processes of life and death.

However, it is not the adult fly that carries out this function but its larvae. Adult flies are justly reviled for spreading disease—they vomit on food and transfer contaminants from one food source to another—but this revulsion also extends to its infant offspring. Note that the larvae of butterflies and moths, widely acknowledged to be beautiful creatures, are called caterpillars, a name that has a romantic ring to it, even though the amount of damage they cause to food crops is often considerable. Fly larvae, on the other hand, are known as maggots, an altogether more sinister word and one that is often appropriated as a term of abuse. Yet once the large carrion eaters have had their fill, it is left to legions of maggots to scoff the rest before metamorphosing into more adult flies to carry on the cycle.

What if we could harness this process to deal with the waste from factory farms? This idea might sound far-fetched, but it is already being pioneered on a small but workable scale. The idea originated in South Africa, where chicken waste was routinely left in the open to rot. An astute observer noticed first the huge number of flies that this practice attracted and second the speed with which the waste disappeared.

Industrial trials involving millions of flies and tens of millions of maggots have shown that significant quantities of chicken waste can be consumed in just 72 hours. And this is where the feeding problem alluded to above enters the picture. Currently, chickens are fed fishmeal. Some of this is made from by-catch, unwanted fish species caught in the nets of trawlers fishing for other varieties. However, a lot of industrial-scale fishing, which itself requires huge energy inputs, is solely to produce fishmeal, and particularly worrying is a recent move to start fishing for the tiny crustaceans collectively known as krill to meet the demand from chicken farmers for fishmeal. In other words, having all but destroyed the top of the food chain in the world’s oceans, humans seem bent on destroying the bottom too. A better example of myopia would be hard to find.

However, the maggots that ate the chicken waste in the previous paragraph can be dried and processed into chicken feed that has been given the proprietary name ‘magmeal’. If current trials can be scaled up sufficiently, it should become unnecessary to continue to pillage the oceans in order to feed factory-bred chickens. There is just one tiny problem: would consumers knowingly eat chickens that have been fed on maggots, given their likely revulsion at such things? Well, chickens raised naturally routinely scratch about in the soil for worms and grubs, and this does not appear to deter those consumers who are willing to pay extra for organic chicken. And most people were happy enough to eat beef from cows fed processed sheep’s brains, until, that is, it became apparent that they ran a significant risk of contracting a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

all must have prizes

…the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead…, while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In the triumphalist aftermath of the recently concluded Olympic Games in London (the British team had had its best result at an Olympiad since 1908), Prime Minister David Cameron called for an end to the ‘all must have prizes’ culture that had poisoned the provision of physical education (PE) in British schools for forty years, and a renewed emphasis on competitive sport. The culture to which Cameron was referring took root in the British schools system in the 1960s, in parallel with the move towards ‘comprehensive’ education.

This latter policy, which was introduced by the Labour government of the time, involved the closure of grammar schools, many of which were hundreds of years old but seen by left-wing critics as elitist, and secondary modern schools, introduced by a Conservative government in the early 1950s. They were replaced by one-size-fits-all comprehensive schools.

The ostensible rationale behind such schools was to improve the quality of education being offered to those pupils who were less academically inclined, and this goal was probably achieved in some cases, but the practical effect, most of the time, was to drag clever students down to the level of the rest. In fact, being clever was usually viewed as undesirable, because, it was alleged, it dented the self-esteem of those who were not as clever.

This mindset was reinforced by a generation of lecturers with extreme left-wing views, who dominated colleges of education—where future teachers were being trained—at the time. It was a philosophy that also invaded the provision of physical education, leading to types of activity being promoted that bore an uncanny resemblance to the silly Caucus Race in Lewis Carroll’s famous story. Losing in sport was regarded as inimical to the emotional development of children, so competition was not only frowned upon; it was frequently dropped from the curriculum entirely. It is worth noting that the teaching of English grammar was abandoned around the same time for broadly similar reasons (it stifled children’s creativity).

Nevertheless, Cameron’s crass remark betrays an ignorance of how the promotion of competitive sport in schools would actually work. I’m old enough to have had first-hand experience. When I attended my local grammar school in the late 1950s, a games lesson during the winter months consisted of a full-blown game of rugby whatever the weather, although the weather, harsh as it often was, is not what I criticize about my experience. The really galling aspect of my introduction to the world of Kipling’s ‘muddied oafs’ was that the entire game was played out between half the boys on the pitch. I was lucky if I touched the ball twice a term, even though I tried hard to get involved and was often in the right place to receive a pass. The ball carrier always went down in the tackle rather than pass to someone whom they perceived to be one of the ‘wallies’. A similar scenario plays out every time a group of children pick sides for an informal game of football. The weakest are always the last to be chosen.

In fact, Cameron’s comments beg a very important question: what is the purpose of PE in schools? I left school with a fierce dislike of any kind of organized physical activity, and it was entirely fortuitous that, during my first year at university, I discovered a physical activity that I thought was worth doing. I’ve been active ever since. I conclude, therefore, based on my own experience, that the purpose of PE in schools is not to raise a generation of footballers who are good enough to play for Manchester United or rugby players who can beat the All Blacks in their own backyard. The real job of a PE teacher is not to build sports teams that can beat every other school’s teams but to help the weaker children to find a physical activity that they enjoy doing, and perhaps excel at. It doesn’t have to be a competitive sport; running, swimming and cycling are worthwhile in their own right, and it doesn’t matter if someone is never going to become the next Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or Bradley Wiggins. These activities can be enjoyed without the competition, although a kind of self-competition is probably necessary if the maximum benefit is to be gained.

And there is a major payoff: we are constantly being reminded that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the developed world, and although it is probably too late to help the current generation of couch potatoes, it is possible to encourage today’s children to adopt more active lifestyles. However, finding the right activity for each individual child is crucially important and will not be an easy task.

Friday, 19 October 2012

leaping dragon

When I came to live in Fanling in 2008, I quickly spotted an intriguing road sign at the first set of traffic lights on the main road leading east from the town. It informed me that if I turned right, I would be on the ‘Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail’. As soon as I could find the time, I followed it, on foot, only to become hopelessly lost in Fanling’s industrial area.

I was aware that this trail passed through the village where I live, the walls, corner guard towers and gatehouse of which have been designated ‘declared monuments’ under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, but until two weeks ago I had assumed that the rest of the trail merely linked the scattering of traditional Chinese houses that can still be seen in the area, so I thought no more about it.

However, following a depressing summer in the UK, I returned to Hong Kong two weeks ago. If you were to ask me about my first priority whenever I come back to the territory after an extended absence, I could summarize it in two words: yam char. However, we no longer patronize the restaurant described in this link, which is within easy walking distance of our house. There is a much better restaurant next to Fanling railway station, although we do need to catch a minibus or cycle there. We chose the latter option. Given that it was a Saturday afternoon, the restaurant was packed, but we soon found a table. More precisely, we were allocated space on one of the twelve-seater tables, but we have long been accustomed to sharing tables with other diners.

Having enjoyed all the delicacies I’d missed while in the UK and drunk huge amounts of tea, we set off home. However, when we reached the fourth set of traffic lights on the main road, where we’d normally turn left to San Wai, we decided to turn right instead and explore (we’d never done so previously). Rather than follow the road, we chose to follow a maze of narrow footpaths, but eventually we were reunited with the road, and I noticed what looked like a traditional Chinese building along the road to our right. It turned out to be the entrance gate of another walled village, Tung Kok Wai. Naturally, we couldn’t resist taking a look around, but there were more surprises in store when we continued along the road.

First, we came to the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, the largest such hall in Hong Kong, which was originally built in 1525 but extensively rebuilt in the early eighteenth century. It too is a declared monument. The Tang clan, one of the biggest in the New Territories, came to this area from Jiangxi province in the thirteenth century, during the final chaotic years of the Song Dynasty, and established a network of eleven villages in the area now known as Lung Yeuk Tau.

According to the website of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, Lung Yeuk Tau means ‘mountain of the leaping dragon’, which is inaccurate. The first two characters do mean ‘leaping dragon’, but ‘Tau’ actually means ‘head’. Perhaps the error reflects an earlier name for the area, Lung Shan, which does mean ‘dragon mountain’. The same website also has the following statement:
It is said that a dragon could once be seen leaping in the mountains here, which is how the area got its name.
Before anyone attributes the origin of this statement to the credulity of superstitious villagers, take a look at the photograph at the bottom of this page (an enhanced version of the same photo appears at the beginning of this article). It was taken from my balcony and shows mist swirling along the ridge of the mountain overlooking Lung Yeuk Tau just as the sun is rising. It does look vaguely like a dragon.

There are two words for ‘village’ in Cantonese: tsuen is the word usually used, but if a village name includes the word wai, literally ‘enclosure’, this is an indication that the village is surrounded by a defensive wall. There are no less than five such walled villages in Lung Yeuk Tau, suggesting that the dangers posed by bandits and pirates were once considerable.

Next to the ancestral hall is a temple dedicated to Tin Hau, goddess of the sea, which may seem odd given that this area is as far from the sea as it is possible to be in Hong Kong. The explanation is that Tin Hau is widely regarded by those Chinese who believe in such things as a tutelary deity. Her temple here is yet another declared monument.

Only a short distance further, we reached Lo Wai, the walls and gatehouse of which are also a declared monument, although the walls are nowhere near as imposing as those of San Wai, which looks more like a military fort than any of the other walled villages and was probably where the leading members of the clan lived in earlier times.

There is much more to see in this area, and much more to describe, but I shall leave this task until my health has improved. However, I have included one photograph here as a kind of trailer for future posts on Lung Yeuk Tau. It was taken from the outer courtyard of the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall looking out through the only entrance. Note the exquisite plaster mouldings underneath the eaves and the hand-painted door gods, the posting of whom to guard against intruders is an ancient Chinese custom dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907).

The models for these fearsome warriors were two of the first Tang emperor’s most loyal generals, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde. According to the legend, the emperor was being harassed each night by an unruly ghost and was thus unable to sleep, so he asked that the pair stand guard overnight to protect him from this unwelcome visitor. Apparently, the emperor subsequently spent a peaceful night, but, not wanting to impose further on his generals, he ordered his servants to hang giant portraits of the generals to perform the guard duties. It was a practice that caught on quickly with ordinary Chinese keen to ward off evil spirits and attract good luck.

Cheaply printed posters of the generals in highly stylized poses are widely used in Hong Kong, especially around Chinese New Year, but the generals portrayed here have been rendered in meticulous detail (and are considerably larger than those seen on a typical poster). Note that the pair are shown facing slightly to one side. This means that Yuchi Jingde (the dark-skinned one) must always be posted on the left-hand door, and Qin Shubao on the right. If this is not done, both guards will be facing away from each other, which would allow an intruder to walk between them unseen, and for good luck to slip away unnoticed.