Saturday, 30 November 2013

the dragon king

Ao Guang, the dragon king of the east sea, is one of the most enduring figures in Chinese mythology. He is the most powerful of the four dragon kings, each of whom rules one of the four seas. He is a bitter, brooding character who resents what he perceives to be his lowly position in the hierarchy. He controls the waves and tides in his domain and can summon up a tempest at will from his palace on the seabed, where he lives with his eight sons.

He plays a minor role in Journey to the West, in which he is visited by Sun Wukong, the self-proclaimed Great Sage and Equal of Heaven, otherwise known as the Monkey King. Monkey visits Ao Guang because he needs a weapon, and he has been advised that the dragon king can help him. Ao Guang is not impressed and instructs one of his soldiers to bring Monkey a spear. It is Monkey’s turn to be unimpressed, as he contemptuously discards the proffered weapon, saying that he needs something heavier.

“Bring him the 3,600-jin halberd,” orders Ao Guang [a jin is approximately equal to 500 grams].

“Too light!” exclaims Monkey, as he tosses the halberd into the air.

“Bring him the 7,200-jin pike,” Ao Guang instructs his soldiers.

The pike requires an entire platoon of soldiers to carry it, but Monkey is able to use it to perform an astounding demonstration of his martial prowess. However, he still thinks the weapon is too light.

“Then I can’t help you,” says the dragon king.

However, Ao Guang’s chief adviser has a bright idea. Why not offer Monkey the needle that stabilizes the sea? This weighs 36,000 jin, and Ao Guang offers this to Monkey, if he can lift it. He clearly believes that this will be impossible, but Monkey discovers that the needle can be instructed to reduce in size and, presumably, weight. He insists that Ao Guang honour his promise.

Following the loss of such a treasure, Ao Guang petitions the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven, for redress, after which he bows out of the story. Other Chinese myths recount Ao Guang’s humiliation in battles with Prince Nezha, son of Li, the Pagoda King, but I’ve mentioned Ao Guang here mainly to introduce this wonderful ceramic panel in a recently restored temple in Ho Sheung Heung (the ‘village above the river’).

There are no captions or other information, so my identification of its central figure as Ao Guang may not be correct, but there are eight other dragons in the picture. Note the stylized waves and clouds. I do not know the identity of the mounted figure in the top centre of the picture, although it is unlikely to be Prince Nezha, who is usually portrayed as a child.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

journey to the west: part 3

No sooner had I established the ‘journey to the west’ back in March than it was destined to become our regular Saturday morning bike ride. I also did it by myself midweek while Paula was at work. However, I was always on the lookout for improvements to the route, because in its original form the second half of the trip was merely backtracking the first half. But first, a couple of photos.

This is the ramp where I encountered the elderly Chinese gentleman who called me his friend in Part 1. It isn’t as steep as ‘the hill’, but you do need to be in the right gear, and there is an abrupt and awkward left turn at the top.

And this is Paula nearing the top of Saddle Pass on the return leg. This is the longest and toughest hill on the entire route, and the steepest section is near the top. Note the gouts of concrete along the left-hand side of the road, which are dribblings from the occasional concrete-mixer trucks that pass this way. They make for some awkward moments on a bike if there is something coming the other way.

I didn’t give this pass a name in my original account, because I didn’t know it had one. However, I found the name ‘Saddle Pass’ in an old Hong Kong A–Z that I have back in the UK. Not much use there, you might conclude, but it is 30+ years out of date, after all. Anyway, Paula is always complaining that I go too fast for her, especially on the hills—this is how I have time to take photographs like this one—but she also knows that I’m not about to show any mercy to a former Olympic athlete, so she has to keep up.

At the bottom of the first hill after crossing Saddle Pass, there is a road junction, shown in the following photo:

The outward part of the journey comes down the hill on the left, so it made sense to see whether it was possible to find an alternative way back, at least as far as the expressway. After 200 metres or so, there is another choice to make:

I’ve only recently explored the right-hand option, which will be the subject of another post in due course, but the left-hand route does go in the right direction:

Unfortunately, this road does finally come to an end:

However, there is a footpath. The yellow tubular-steel railings may be an eyesore, but you can be sure that were they not there, it would not be long before some incompetent cyclist had gone over the edge. The drop is 7–8 metres in most places:

The path continues for some distance before reaching a footbridge:

Male cyclists are advised to stand on the pedals as they hit the end of the footbridge. Those male cyclists who have ignored this admonition can testify to the soundness of this advice. The route turns sharp left at the top of the short ramp before returning to the river for a short section:

The other modification to the route involves a replacement for the ‘link path’ described in Part 1. It isn’t half as exciting as the original link path, which we still follow on the outward journey, but it does offer the clear benefit of avoiding a category 2 hill on the return. That’s right! I’ve started grading the hills for difficulty, and the climb over Saddle Pass from the west is the toughest of only three category 1 hills in the area. I had been wondering why, on a Saturday morning, Paula and I never encountered any cyclists on the original link path, but it seems that this easier option is the reason. The following sequence of photos shows how straightforward this section is:

The final photograph looks back as the path emerges onto the banks of a constructed drainage channel. The horizontal line leading left from the base of the lamp-post in the fourth photo is a telltale sign that the background was once a paddy field. Paula found this alternative link during the summer, and the odd thing is that the turns from the main (metalled) road that lead to the two link paths are no more than 10–12 metres apart:

How did I miss the second one on my original explorations of the route?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

black music of the 1960s

This post is a companion piece to Sixties Music: the Top Ten, which was posted almost two years ago, and is a response to the criticism that I received for not including more black music in that top ten. Although I started writing it almost immediately, I was forced to shelve it by a serious accident at the end of 2011. Finally, however, here is my assessment of the black music of the decade. I’ve included YouTube links to what I consider some of the best songs.

Booker T. and the M.G.s, circa 1965. Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (third from left) has replaced Lewis Steinberg.

It is impossible to assess the political, social and cultural impact of black music in the 1960s without considering the black music of the previous decade, which was the inspiration behind the ‘beat boom’ of 1963–64 in the UK and the subsequent ‘British invasion’ of the United States. Until the mid-1950s, music performed by black artists in the United States had been aimed exclusively at a black audience, carrying on a practice that had started in the 1920s, when labels such as Okeh, Paramount, Victor and Vocalion released ‘race’ recordings as separate series, and almost the only white listeners were archivists such as Samuel Charters (author of The Country Blues, 1959) , and John and Alan Lomax, working for the Library of Congress.

In fact, there had always been two separate and mutually antipathetic strands in black music in the United States, sacred and profane. Gospel developed from the early negro spirituals, while the blues, described as ‘the Devil’s music’ by gospel singers and supporters, came from the work songs and field hollers of the bad old days of slavery. Nowhere is this schism better exemplified than in the controversy created by Ray Charles’ What’d I Say? (1959), which was unmistakeably an R&B song but which incorporated the call-and-response motif commonly associated with gospel music. It was a massive mainstream hit and as such a milestone in the development of rock music.

It is also important to remember that on the European concert circuit of the 1950s, the blues was regarded as ‘art music’. Its principal exponents were Big Bill Broonzy and the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. This pretentiousness was punctured by Muddy Waters, whose European tour in 1958 gave rise to the probably apocryphal story of a prominent music critic retiring to the men’s toilet to write his review because he found the music too loud, echoing a lament that would be heard by countless teenagers in the 1960s.

Muddy Waters was one of the best-known artists recorded by Chess Records of Chicago, where he enjoyed a friendly rivalry with Howlin’ Wolf during the 1950s. Both men were from the Mississippi delta, where they were influenced by the blues of Robert Johnson and Son House, but Chess did have many other popular artists on its books, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy and Little Walter.

However, the only Chess recordings to be released in the UK in the 1950s were by Chuck Berry, who was a rising star in his home country with an uncanny ability, in his lyrics, to articulate the feelings of a young audience. Only Sweet Little Sixteen was a top 20 hit in the UK at the time though; other Berry songs, such as Roll Over Beethoven and Johnny B. Goode, became classics in Britain only when they were re-released in the 1960s and/or were covered by leading British bands of the period. Unfortunately, Berry’s career nosedived in 1962 after he was jailed for three years for transporting an underage girl across state lines.

As was widely reported at the time, the Beatles cited Berry as one of their main influences when they burst upon the scene in January 1963. By this time, Pye had acquired the UK rights to the Chess recordings, and within a month the first 45 appeared: Howlin’ Wolf’s Just Like I Treat You. It may not have found its way into the charts, but it did find its way onto the jukebox of the coffee bar where I misspent my youth.

Other blues singers to make a mark in the UK in the early 1960s included John Lee Hooker, whose Dimples (1956) and Boom Boom (1962), became an integral part of the live shows of Newcastle band the Animals, and Slim Harpo, whose I’m a King Bee and Got Love if You Want It were covered by the Rolling Stones, and also by American bands the Grateful Dead and the Doors. Dimples was a minor pop hit in the UK in 1964.

The other important label for black musicians in the 1950s was Atlantic, where Ray Charles was the star turn throughout the decade. Other major acts included the Drifters, then an authentic doo-wop group, Big Joe Turner, who had started out as a ‘blues shouter’ fronting the Count Basie Orchestra and whose signature song, Shake, Rattle and Roll, was covered in a bowdlerized version by Bill Haley and his Comets, and the Coasters. Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler is often credited with inventing the term ‘rhythm and blues’ to replace the older pejorative label ‘race music’. Whether this is true or not, Atlantic produced a massive string of R&B hits during the 1950s.

Although gospel music lacked the commercial reach of rhythm and blues during the 1950s, it is worth noting that several of the most significant black singers of the 1960s began their careers in gospel choirs in the 1950s, including Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. The last three were the reason Atlantic continued to be an important influence in the 1960s, although the label lost Ray Charles to ABC Paramount at the beginning of the decade. The audience lost Ray Charles to country and western music.

Two important new record labels appeared in the late 1950s—Motown and Stax—although neither made much of an impact in the UK at the time, mainly because of poor distribution deals. Motown’s first US million-seller, Shop Around by the Miracles, went almost unnoticed in the UK.

During this early period, Tamla/Motown recordings were released in the UK on the Oriole American label, which explains the indifference of the British public (Oriole was the UK’s smallest record company at the time). Even though the chief reviewer of the Record Mirror heaped extravagant praise on Fingertips by Little Stevie Wonder, an electrifying harmonica-led live instrumental, it made almost no impression.

The company’s fortunes began to look up when it signed a distribution deal with EMI, originally for its records to be issued on the Stateside label. This covers the period when the distinctive Tamla-Motown sound was still in an embryonic state of development, which probably explains why most of the Tamla/Motown records that I would consider classics were released during this period. I recommend that you listen to Can I Get a Witness? by Marvin Gaye, which wasn’t a hit in the UK, even though I bought a copy at the time, and even though it was covered by the Rolling Stones on their first album. The ‘honky-tonk’ piano accompaniment may have marked this track as R&B, but the style of Gaye’s vocal delivery betrays its gospel influences.

If the later Motown sound was instantly recognizable, the same could also be said of the output of the Stax studio, which is most clearly seen in Wilson Pickett’s In the Midnight Hour. Pickett wasn’t a Stax artist, but Atlantic dispatched him to Memphis to record much of his early work. The ambience of Stax’s studio (a former movie theatre, complete with a raked floor where the seating had once been), Steve Cropper’s understated but expressive lead guitar (Cropper co-wrote In the Midnight Hour), and a pulsating horn section are the distinctive elements of this track. I wore out my original vinyl copy.

However, In the Midnight Hour was recorded in 1965. Three years earlier, Stax had released one of the most influential records of the decade: Green Onions by Booker T. and the M.G.s. The most significant aspect of this track is not musical but social: two of the band were black (Booker T. Jones (Hammond organ) and Al Jackson Jr (drums)); and two were white (Steve Cropper (guitar) and Lewis Steinberg (bass)). Such a lineup might not be unusual nowadays, but it should be borne in mind that this record came out a year before Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. At the time of this recording, all four were merely members of Stax’s house band, and Green Onions was the result of a jam session that just happened to be recorded. Nevertheless, within a couple of years, every British band with a keyboard player was performing a version of it at their live gigs.

The undoubted star of the Stax roster was Otis Redding. He could belt out an up-tempo number with the best of his contemporaries (Respect; I Can’t Turn You Loose), but he excelled at slower numbers such as Pain in My Heart and That’s How Strong My Love Is. As the best example of this aspect of his work, listen to I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, in which Steve Cropper’s lyrical guitar phrasing provides a perfect counterpoint to Redding’s impassioned delivery.

In addition to Pickett and Redding, Atlantic had another formidable presence on its books: Solomon Burke, who had a string of hits in the early 1960s. It isn’t easy to pick out one track from his repertoire as typical, but I would go for Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, which was covered by the Rolling Stones on their second album. This record, more than any other, betrays the gospel origins of what was beginning to be called ‘soul music’, because it is impossible to listen to this pulsating up-tempo song without gaining the impression that one is listening to an old-style revivalist preacher whipping up the emotions of his congregation.

Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music namechecks several of the leading performers of the time, including, inevitably,
Spotlight on James Brown y’all,
He’s the king of them all, y’all.
He’s the king of them all, y’all.
I have always disliked Brown’s mannered, histrionic stage performances, and all those I’ve mentioned so far were superior singers. Nevertheless, he made an important contribution to the decade with songs like Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and I Got You (I Feel Good), and his influence on future generations of black musicians cannot be ignored—he pioneered what came to be known as ‘funk’. But he certainly wasn’t ‘king of them all’.

Stax was hit by a double whammy towards the end of the decade. In 1967, a few months after an acclaimed performance by Otis Redding at the Monterey Pop Festival that propelled him into the mainstream spotlight and the earlier and equally successful Stax Road Show tour around Europe, which also featured Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the M.G.s, the Markeys and Eddie Floyd, Redding was killed in a plane crash. Then, the following year, Stax executives discovered that the distribution deal they had signed with Atlantic in 1961 had assigned all rights to their recordings to Atlantic. Stax was never again the same force.

Meanwhile, Tamla-Motown was entering the most prolific period in its history, with hit after hit by vocal groups the Supremes, the Temptations, the Miracles, the Four Tops and Martha and the Vandellas, and solo artists Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Unfortunately, the studio came to resemble a factory in the process, and as in any system of mass production, individuality was sacrificed (‘you can have any color you like, as long as it’s black’—Henry Ford), exemplified by the sign over the entrance to the studio: ‘Hitsville USA’.

Although I listened predominantly to black singers throughout the 1960s, by the early 1970s, any saccharine ballad performed by a black singer or vocal group was being labelled as ‘soul’, and the gospel roots of the genre had disappeared. I lost interest. Four decades on, when anything carrying the label ‘rhythm and blues’ bears no resemblance to the music to which that label was attached in the 1950s and 1960s, I do not expect that interest ever to be rekindled.

Friday, 1 November 2013

mission impossible

Regular readers will already be aware that I have a low opinion of Google Maps, but that opinion has sunk even lower following investigations of the accuracy of the map for my local area, which I reproduce here with annotations:

Among the essential features of a map that are absent from Google’s maps is a legend, a small panel that explains the symbols used on the map. However, I didn’t mention this in Off the Map—it didn’t seem important, given that roads were almost the only symbols on the maps I was commenting on, and I would expect even the most incompetent map reader to recognize these symbols for what they represent.

Unfortunately, I notice that Google now has two symbols for roads, the original strip of white bounded by two grey lines, which varies in width according to the importance of the road in question, and a narrower pair of grey lines enclosing the same background colour as the rest of the map. It is an obvious assumption that these two types of road reflect relative importance, and that the second is probably some kind of track, while the first is a ‘proper’ road, as in the following two photographs:

These photos were taken from positions A and B on the above map, looking southwest along the river. I think it is obvious which is the road and which the track, but it is the second picture that shows what Google proclaims to be a track. The ‘road’ on the other side of the river certainly looks more like a track to me. However, what a casual onlooker won’t be aware of, and what Google probably isn’t aware of either, is that the road on the north bank of the river is gated off and is thus inaccessible to motor traffic.

I have assumed Google’s ignorance here, but this may not necessarily be the case. I was staggered to discover a few days ago that Google invites users to submit corrections to its maps, a kind of cartographic version of Wikipedia. It is possible that the road along the north bank of the river has been designated a track because someone tried to drive along it and found the way blocked by a locked gate. The track along the south bank is freely accessible, although it doesn’t lead anywhere useful that can’t be reached more easily by keeping to the main roads. And both are Drainage Services Department access roads with signs warning people to keep out! That includes pedestrians and cyclists.

I don’t have a lot of time for Wikipedia—as a former professional editor and proofreader I cringe at the obvious amateurishness of much of its editing—but at least it cites sources for its information, and it can call on subject experts to verify its statements. Allowing anyone to edit a map is a recipe for disaster, because nobody is checking on the ground, and there appear to be no controls in place to weed out inappropriate changes. Who, for example, thought that the bridge across the river at C carried a road? Does this look like a road?

While I’m on the subject, does this look like a road? The following photo was taken at E, looking west.

The entire network of ‘roads’ shown on the map southwest of D is actually a network of footpaths!

I come now to the most egregious piece of nonsense I’ve so far discovered on a Google map, although I do admit to a degree of mischievousness in setting Google the task of finding the easiest way to drive from Fu Tei Au Road to the village of Ho Sheung Heung. After all, I already know how to get from one to the other, at least by bike. The crossing point under the railway, featured recently in The Hill, is marked with a small o. Still, the directions provided are admirably succinct and straightforward.

There is just one tiny problem. You will note that the suggested route starts by crossing the railway, but there is no bridge over nor tunnel under the line. There is a level (grade) crossing at X, but the gates are permanently locked. I imagine that only the police and the military are allowed to make use of this crossing, which remains in the ‘closed area’. You would need a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer or a Sherman tank to get through here. And Tom Cruise won’t be able to help you either. But then, his films are fiction. You knew that, of course. Now you know that Google Maps are also fiction.

Crossing the line? Mission impossible!