Scene on the Corner of Centre and Hester Street

Today, a sunny mid-morning on the corner of Hester and Centre streets. That same corner where you can get 5 items and a soup for $4.95 in a vast buffet of various Chinese cuisines. Outside, a young Chinese man departed from two women; he headed east towards Centre and they west away from it. They were all wearing sunglasses and casual, colorful weekend wear – tanktops, jean skirt, flip flops, skinny jeans, a purposely crumpled short sleeve button down shirt, Diesel sneakers.

The guy, holding a large ice coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts in one hand, and a muffin and the brown paper bag it came in in the other, swiftly approached a trashcan at the curb when he turned his head back around, uttering a forgotten remark. At the same time, he blindly let go of the crumpled paper bag, missing the garbage can badly. It landed with surprising loudness on the ground a foot from its target.

It’s unclear whether he noticed this or not, but he kept tracking across Centre as the two women looked towards his purposeful strut. It’s also unclear whether they were fixated on him or on the paper bag which was now being taken by a gust of wind downtown on Centre. They simultaneously turned forward and began to step, but then paused and looked back again towards him, towards the bag, in identical glares of amazement and disgust. They finally made their way down Hester Street into the shadows of scaffolding. They became shadows themselves as their friend’s garbage sat unattended, left to the wind, on Centre.


War Movies

Films exist as cascades of images and sounds. Few people have actually seen war. And that’s why it’s a nearly perfect cinematic subject. What is the real sound of bullets whizzing past? How do the severed parts of limbs really look? How do you reconcile the vision of enemy troops stalking you and your crew, wanting to make all of you a stinking pile of corpses?

Hollywood finds itself in the war business, aestheticizing its rationales and turning it into moral entertainment. Audiences shake their heads at the anonymous brutality in that Saving Private Ryan scene where American troops land on the beaches of Normandy only to be bombarded by German gunfire as soon as the hatches open. War is America’s own genre, like kung-fu flicks are a Chinese thing. (Jeff Richardson and I agreed to this during an afternoon beer with basketball running mates Mike Owh, Jerry Tanaka, James Tai and his son Roebling, and Mark Cho). Film is war’s vessel.

To film, war is exotic lands, young men in uniform, guns and roaring heavy metal killing machinery, moral conflict under the pressure cooker of animalistic survival, the threat of evil overrunning the world, and the tragedy of heroism. Could Hollywood have invented war?  “Shock and awe” is cinematic effect as military strategy.

But war must also be boring. After dinner a soldier, a guy who just wants to come back to America alive without firing a gun, steps out into the middle of an empty street in a little town of rustic homes and a central square in front of a mosque. He’s full and for a fleeting moment, his thoughts are bright. He looks right down the middle of the street following it to its disappearance and was amazed by the symmetry of it all. The buildings on the left mirrored those on the right. Banged up cars were parked directly opposite of each other. The thought entered his mind that the world was as he imagined it. Somebody should make a film about that.

Hong Kong In Due Time

Hong Kong blurs in and out of reality. For 6000 I’ll claim allegiance. A few days ago I was having dinner with a few artists and curators from Hong Kong at the Brooklyn headquarters of the Asia Art Archive, run spiritedly by Jane DeBevoise. As with most conversations about a specific art scene, the usual complaints surfaced: lack of sophistication and money, and bumbling government intervention in the arts. The night ended with a listening session of the sound work of Cedric Maridet. One piece revolved around the buoyant Tagolog conversations of Philippina domestic servants as they hung out in contingent public spaces on their lone Sundays off. This fed thoughts about the manic audio quality of the city where I was born but to which I have no tangible connection.

Wong Kar Wai’s film Chungking Express is Hong Kong to me. It shows two consequential sides of that packed city: first the twisted dark side of drug gangs and violence spilling out into labyrinthian shopping quarters, and then the breathlessness of youthful yearning. The latter is soundtracked by the obsessive recurrence of California Dreaming by The Mamas & The Papas and the closing cry of the Cranberries’ Dreams, re-sung by Faye Wong in Cantonese. She is Hong Kong to me: a bored, dark butterfly, grounded by this tough, glittering city of cash, by a gray and unamusing world, banal all the way to its core. Beautiful, but undangerous, she stares out the window of her older cousin’s corner fast food joint, dreaming of some other reality besides this one.

Rewind it back to my teenage days working at my parent’s dry cleaners in San Mateo (A-1 Cleaners) where we frequently hired Hong Kong girls attending community colleges in the area, looking to land at one of the nearby University of California schools. We hired them to work the counter, taking in customers’ cloths and completing orders after everything had been washed and pressed. On long summer days near closing time, but before the after-work rush, these girls, dressed in the HK style of the time – loose and layered, colorful like children’s thoughts – would set both their elbows on the counter, lean forward with their butt out, chin resting on their cupped hands, their legs criss-crossed behind them. I didn’t bother them, just let them stray with their thoughts, but I wondered about their dreams. How did they look? How did they sound? These Hong Kong girls’ dreams in the blunt informality of Cantonese.