Sunday, April 22, 2012

Chinese Language for Dummies

People who don't speak Chinese are usually confused about the Chinese language. The characters are terribly difficult. The spoken languages are even more confusing. There's Mandarin, and when I say my native tongue is Cantonese, I doubt how many people understand what exactly that means. They generally know that's a different dialect, but they probably wouldn't know that even in Guangdong province, Cantonese is just one of the many dialects.

I'll explain in 3 parts: Chinese characters, spoken language or dialect, and written language.

Let's start with the Chinese characters, or Kanji, a word borrowed from Japanese. Chinese is a tonal language, not a phonetic one like English. Technically speaking, it doesn't employ an alphabet like "a", "b", "c", "d". Instead, each character denotes a concept.

There are around 10,000-20,000 everyday used characters nowadays. The number of characters has been increasing throughout history. The first Chinese dictionary, Shuowen Jiezi, published around the 2nd century, recorded around 10,000 characters. In the Qing dynasty, the Kangxi Dictionary, published in the early 18th century, recorded about 50,000 characters. Currently, it is estimated that there're a total of 80,000-90,000 characters. Characters are looked up via radical, or the root element of a character. This classification of characters by radicals was pioneered by Shuowen Jiezi, and is still being used widely today.

Around 200 BCE, the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, of Qin dynasty, re-instituted the standardization of Chinese characters, after he unified China. Thanks to this standardization, all Chinese can communicate with each other via the same written language, even though the spoken language varies from place to place.

It is important to point out that even with the standardization, other scripts existed throughout the history of China. Their birth and evolution were closely related to Chinese calligraphy. In our times, we have another example, simplified Chinese versus traditional Chinese, where the scripts differ. Mainland China uses simplified Chinese characters, whereas in Hong Kong and Taiwan, traditional Chinese characters are being used. From my conversation with mainland Chinese, they learned both traditional and simplified characters in school, but of course they use mainly the latter.

Secondly, the spoken language, or dialect rather.

Different parts of China speak different dialects. It's a common misunderstanding that Mandarin is the dialect spoken by people in Beijing. It is not. Beijing has its own dialect, even though it's very close to Mandarin. Since I was born in Hong Kong, my native tongue is Cantonese. It is another common misunderstanding that all people in the Guangdong province speak Cantonese. In fact, Cantonese is just one of the many dialects throughout the province. Taishan, about 100 miles west of Hong Kong, has its own distinct dialect. Chaozhou, about 200 miles north east of Hong Kong, speaks yet a completely different dialect. Cantonese refers to the dialect spoken in the city of Guangzhou. In general, the farther away from the city, the higher the chance that people speak something different than Cantonese. Hong Kong people speak Cantonese because (a) it's close to the city of Guangzhou (less than 100 miles), and (b) historically, most of its immigrants were either from Guangzhou or its vicinity.

So, what is Mandarin? Before we answer that question, we have to go back to Chinese history. China has always been a large country. Officials who worked for the central government came from places all over the country, thus all spoke a different dialect. To facilitate communication and administration, a dialect spoken among government officials was born. This dialect varies from dynasty to dynasty throughout the history of China. Today's Mandarin is derived from the "official" dialect of the previous dynasty, Qing dynasty. Because its capital was also in Beijing, Mandarin was therefore heavily influenced by that dialect. Also, because the imperial court of Qing dynasty was Manchurians, Mandarin was heavily influenced by the native dialects of the Manchurians as well.

Due to the government's effort around the turn of the last century, along with the push for standardized education, every Chinese knows how to speak Mandarin. That's why when a person travels from Shanghai to Xian, he/she can go into a restaurant and orders food via Mandarin. But after the waiter takes the order, it's likely that he/she will speak Xianese to the chef! By the same token, if a foreigner knows Mandarin, he/she should have no problem communicating with people throughout China. Theoretically, nobody's native tongue is Mandarin, since it's "man made" (see previous paragraph). A Chinese kid first speaks the native language of his/her own town or village, and he/she only learns Mandarin in school, albeit at a very small age.

Lastly, let's talk briefly about written Chinese.

There are, in general, two forms of written Chinese, classical Chinese and written form of spoken Chinese (baihua). Regarding classical Chinese, since that's a complicated topic by itself, I'll just say that it's not based on spoken Chinese and leave it like that. There is a learning curve (in fact, quite a steep one), even for Chinese, to read and write classical Chinese. The written form of spoken Chinese, or baihua, again, without getting into the details, is based on Mandarin. For instance, the famous Dream of the Red Chambers was written in baihua. All published materials today are in baihua.

When I was educated in Hong Kong during the 70s and 80s, students didn't learn Mandarin. But since the written form of spoken Chinese is based on Mandarin, how could I, who didn't know any Mandarin, possibly read any books then? I got this question a lot from foreigners. The answer goes back to our unified script. Because the meaning of the characters are the same, and most expressions are common whether it's in Mandarin or Cantonese, I was able to understand what I read. I was only able to pronounce the words in Cantonese but not Mandarin. Of course, if you get into the details, there're some Mandarin specific expressions but that doesn't change the big picture. Furthermore, when I am learning Mandarin, it's mostly just the pronunciation that I need to pay attention to. Everything else is just "Chinese"!

To summarize,

(a) Chinese characters are unified. They carry the same meaning. Expressions are common in almost all dialects.

(b) There are a lot of different dialects spoken throughout China. In other words, the spoken and the written forms of the Chinese language are related but separate.

(c) Mandarin is the standard, or official, spoken language. It was derived from the Beijing dialect for historical reasons. They're not the same dialect technically.

(d) Modern written Chinese is based on the spoken language of Mandarin. A person doesn't need to speak Mandarin in order to understand written Chinese (he does need to speak a Chinese dialect though). It is because Chinese characters and expressions transcends over all spoken Chinese languages.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

More Spring Show 2012

Here're some photos my friend took for me yesterday.

Me with Sunset at Oakland Hills.

Me with Abandoned.

Me with Kosaten.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Spring Show 2012

The Spring Show of 2012 at Photocentral is here. Yours truly have 3 photographs in the show. We had a reception yesterday night and it was a great party. For those of you who've missed, the show continues until May 17. The gallery is in Hayward and it opens Mondays 5pm-10pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays 10am-1pm, and Saturdays 12pm-3pm. Call me or email me and I can give you a private tour as well. It would be a fun family activity or even a fun date :)

For those who still can't make it, I'm going to give you a little virtual tour of my photos here. I am showing 3 photographs: Sunset at Oakland Hills, Abandoned, and Kosaten.

Sunset at Oakland Hills was taken during a photography club event back in October last year. The weather was perfect as scattering clouds made for interesting light. I was planning to leave after sunset. However, I saw many members still staying. So, I decided to wait for a little while. It turned out to be the most exciting photographic opportunity. I was completely captivated by these astonishing colors at dusk! Sometimes, serendipity awaits those who are patient.

Abandoned was taken when I was traveling in Nikko (日光), Japan, this past winter. I passed by this strangely abandoned gas station 4 times while riding on a bus. It was only in late afternoon of my last day in Nikko that I finally visited. It was around 4:30 and I knew I only had roughly 30 minutes before the sun set. It felt funny and unusual to see the inside of a gas pump for the first time. I also found its cover nearby. It's not only abandoned, but it looked like it's looted, I couldn't help thinking. There was some furniture lying around in the office. There were also recent campaign posters on the walls. When was it abandoned? Why? Once, a great civilization disappeared suddenly, its traces yearning for attention, and curious photographers like me.

Kosaten (交差点) is the Japanese word for intersection. It was taken during the same Japanese trip this past winter. I was in a Starbucks on the 2nd floor in Shibuya, Tokyo. It's easily the busiest intersection in the world. Every minute, when the light turned green thousands of people from all directions would try to cross. I found a table by the window. It was a perfect spot. But as soon as I took out my tripod I was stopped by a staff. I sat back, contemplating my next move. The table was a good platform. I had to tilt my camera downward though and I needed stabilization. I looked at the Mandarin oranges that I bought. OK, they're perfect for that. So, the image you saw was captured with the help of Mandarin oranges! A moment later, a bus was caught in between the intersection. Pedestrians decided to be indifferent and made their way across. Life went on. I was sitting in a coffee shop, watching the world revolve around me. It was truly a luxury.

I hope you enjoy Spring Show 2012 and my photography. For my work, you can visit

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Jan 8 - ただいま

This morning, I originally wanted to take the subway. But then I remembered there's a bus that would take me to Shinjuku station from my hotel (see Jan 5 blog). In fact, it'd be easier because I didn't need to carry my luggage up and down the subway stairs. So, I arrived at Shinjuku without lifting my luggage more than a few steps.

I took the Narita Express when I arrived and at that time I already bought my return ticket. Before boarding the train, food time :) I went to the underground food court and had the following, crab meat plus salmon roe over rice.

Yesterday, I said I wouldn't do any shopping at Narita. But today I changed my mind. Well, I just bought the following since it's so attractive that I couldn't resist.

My flight was around 5pm. So, at around 3pm, yet more food again :)

This is chazuke (茶漬け) where they pour tea over rice and in my case unagi (eel) as well. The name says tea but I thought it's actually clear broth, as I tasted the soup afterwards and found no trace of tea.

Goodbye, Japan! I will be back!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Jan 7 - part 2/2 オッジ ダルマット



Dinner again was quite an adventure. After my shopping at Shinjuku, I went back to the hotel, dropped everything off, and went for dinner. The place is called Oggi Dal-Matto, and it's an Italian restaurant. Technically, it's Italian-Japanese fusion. I knew of this place from the singer song-writer Karashima Midori (辛島美登里), of whom I'm a fan. In one of her blog entires (, she talked about this restaurant and the food looked delicious. I was intrigued but didn't know whether I'd have time for a visit. After I returned to the hotel, I went online and realized that the restaurant was just a few blocks from my hotel in Hiroo. And so I went.

I think this restaurant serves familiar customers and so my presence was a bit odd. Anyway, the reception was great and the food excellent.

It's a prefix menu, or omakase (おまかせ).

Mind my poor Japanese. I was not able to understand the explanation of the following dish from the waiter.

Bread served with olive oil. There're 3 kinds of olive oil. Starting from the left, it got progressively heavier and more spicy.

Various vegetables and sashimi. The middle one was not a sauce, but instead it's like a soup for its own consumption. My Japanese was limited and so I was only able to know that the item at 5 o'clock outside was sea urchin on stop of sashimi.

The following was neither foie gras nor pork. It's chicken served with red wine sauce and vegetables!

This was their open kitchen.

Pasta with strawberries and tomato.

The main course, Japanese beef and vegetables.

Oyster pasta with cream sauce.

The desert, matcha cake (抹茶ケーキ).

Karashima-san, thank you so much!!!

As I mentioned earlier, today's my last activity day. And this pretty much concludes my Japanese trip.

Jan 7 - part 1/2 ゆっくり歩いて、買い物する

Today's pretty much my last activity day in Tokyo. Yes, I can do shopping in the airport tomorrow but I don't plan to. My flight is 5pm. That means I have to arrive at 2pm, and since Narita is around 1 hour 30 minutes from Tokyo, I have to leave my hotel at noon at the latest.

Today, I continued to walk in nearby Azabu. I planned to return to Shinjuku for some last minute shopping as well. I wanted to buy more Japanese tea, and some books and CDs for learning Japanese. Last quarter at my Japanese school, one of my classmates showed me a very nice book+CD series. They are divided by listening levels according to JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). The books include short stories, cultural themes, and Japanese myths. The accompanying CDs represent the audio version of the books. I think they're good because of their all-roundedness in reading, listening and to a certain extent speaking, albeit non-conversational. The English web sites have huge markups and shipping charges that I'm better off buying it here. I hope this won't backfire tomorrow as United Airlines have a pretty strict limit on luggage weight.

As I was walking on the street, a group of 6 Japanese women ran in front of me and entered a soba restaurant. This must be good, I thought. So I looked at their menu and decided to have lunch there. I ordered their あさりそば, or clam soba. The menu says it's an Azabu speciality and is only available in winter. Here's how it looked like.

Later, I found out that they're famous for their 担々麺, or Tantan noodle (This is actually Chinese noodle famous in the Sichuan province). Everyone ordered the Tantan noodle except me! Well, I have only one stomach, so next time :)

Here're the Japanese women who led me here.

In the afternoon, I found this coffee place in Azabu Juban called Ueshima Coffee (上島珈琲). It's very relaxing and the best part was their smoking area was completely isolated. I ordered their caramel milk coffee.

I was writing this portion of the blog as I was enjoying their coffee. Very delicious indeed.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Jan 6 - 東京で歩く

I spent the whole day walking in the nearby area, which included Azabu (麻布), Roppongi (六本木), Tokyo Tower, and Akasaka (赤坂). I first thought they're pretty far, but they're actually quite close. There's this area called Azabu Juban (麻布十番), that I've heard about it for a long time but didn't get the chance to go there. So, here I was.

I woke up pretty late in the morning and so it's about lunch time by the time I've reached Azabu Juban. I decided to try sashimi, and I found this restaurant called Arakokyu (鰓呼吸), or breathing with gills.

Here's the inside of the restaurant.

I ordered their Tekka Don (鉄火丼), which is raw tuna over rice.

After I lunch, I walked further and I realized that Tokyo Tower was really close. Even though this is my 8th time in Japan, I have never visited Tokyo Tower. To be honest, I don't think it's that spectacular. Anyway, since it's within walking distance, I decided to give it a try, but I never thought of going up the tower though.

So, here's a photo I took outside.

I always thought the tower was built on a huge flat area, but Tokyo Tower was actually built on a small hill. It's interesting that they chose such a location. If I had entered the tower, I could have read the whole history but I didn't do it.

I returned to the hotel early evening. For some reason, I wanted to have yakitori (焼き鳥) tonight. So I asked the front desk what's good yakitori restaurant in Shibuya. They gave me one by the name of Fuku Mimi (福みみ), and also gave me a map. It took a while for me to find it. But it's cheaper and better than yesterday's "all you can eat".

Grilled chicken liver and grilled chicken meat loaf (they call this tsukune, つくね).

I don't know how to translate. It's chicken wrapped with sea weed. They call it Shisomaki (しそ巻).

Chicken skin and chicken soft bones.

Chicken gizzards and nori mayo tsukune (のりマヨつくね, sea weed + mayonnaise + grilled chicken meat loaf).

Chicken soft bones again. I don't know what's the difference between the first one but they have different names.

Cold tofu from Hokkaido.

Yaki onigiri (焼きおにぎり, grilled rice ball) and soup made with chicken bones.

Finally, the desert - Shiratamaccha (白玉ッ茶). It's ice-cream with matcha powder, red bean paste, and rice flour dumplings.

Two more days, and I'll not be able to have food like this :(

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jan 5 - 東京へ移動

Today, I'm returning to Tokyo.

I had a really weird dream last night. I saw my high school classmate. We're co-workers (in the dream only) but he's being laid off. I asked him if he's found a new job. He said he's going to retire because a few years ago, he bought an apartment in Hong Kong and now has steady income!

I should seriously consider something similar :)

This morning's breakfast was the same as 2 days ago, ham, scrambled eggs, potato, garlic bread etc.

The owner was so kind that she offered to drop me off at the train station. If you're looking for a homey and quiet place to stay in Nikko, I would highly recommend Logettel St. Bois. The owner came from Kobe (神戸) 15 years ago and has been operating this hotel with her daughter since.

I bought a bento at the Nikko train station. So, this is my lunch.

I'm staying in the Apa Hotel in Azabu (麻布). The closest subway station is Hiroo (広尾). Azabu is home to a lot of foreign embassies, including the Chinese. It's a pretty quiet area. This is the hotel building.

Across from the hotel, there's a Lamborghini showroom. The price tag says 14.8 million yen, which is around US$200,000!

Every time I travelled in Tokyo, I almost always used the subway. There're only 2 times that I was on a bus, and both times were of the same route. This afternoon, as I was walking around the hotel, I saw a bus stop indicating that there's a bus to Shinjuku station. It only costs 200 yen, regardless of how far you travel. I think it's much cheaper than subway to Shinjuku, albeit slower. So, I boarded the bus and went to Shinjuku for shopping. Traveling by bus has the advantage of seeing the streets, and helps me develop a sense of direction and orientation.

I then went to Shibuya because I wanted to see a Japanese Apple Store. But first, dinner. (My friend already told me that I sounded like a plump, because I have been talking about food all the time. But I am not a plump! Plus, food is a BIG part of traveling in Japan.) I saw a restaurant called Gyu-kaku (牛角). I think I saw it being mentioned in a travel guide somewhere before. In fact, I think there's one in New York that I've been to. Gyu-kaku is a chain store and it specializes in charcoal grill. And then I saw the sign 食べ放題, which translates to "all you can eat." And so I entered :)

The waitress said there'd be a lot of people during dinner time, and I had to leave in 70 minutes. So, it came down to "all you can eat in 70 minutes." Here's how some of the food looked like. It was cheese on the left hand side in the first picture, and I was supposed to dip the grilled beef into it. So I guess it's like Fondue!?

Here's the desert, Annintofu (杏仁豆腐), or literally almond tofu in English. I think it is a Chinese desert because I have had the same thing back in Hong Kong. Anway, don't be fooled by the word tofu. It's not made of tofu, or so I was told. But the texture tastes very much like one.

I was so full getting out that I'm not going to another "all you can eat" restaurant again for the rest of the trip.

The Apple Store located in Shibuya is no different than the stores in US. Moreover, the accessories portion of the store were selling the same brands like Griffon, Belkins etc. And it's much cheaper in US given the strength of the yen. I was not surprised. My 2nd purpose of my visit was to see if the Japanese store, like the US ones, offered free WiFi. And they did! I was able to sync my iPhone with iCloud. In Japan, unlike US, coffee shops usually don't offer WiFi, let alone a free one. WiFi services in Japan are offered by local mobile carriers like Docomo (I think it's similar to the model in Hong Kong as well).

Tomorrow, I think I'll just relax, walk around Azabu, and maybe go to Roppongi (六本木) and Akasaka (赤坂).

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jan 4 - 武射祭+戦場ヶ原でのハイキング

Every year on January 4th, the Samurai Archery Festival (武射祭) is held at Futarasanjinjya Chugushi (二荒山神社中宮祠). The jinjya is located on the Chuzenji Lake (中禅寺湖), which is half way between Nikko downtown (currently where I am staying) and Yumoto (where I last stayed). The festival began at around 10:30am, and because it would take 30-45 minutes to get there, I had to really hurry this morning to catch the bus. Here's my Japanese style breakfast.

Since the New Year holiday was over, there're only a few people at the festival. In fact, when I mentioned it to the hotel owner this morning, she said she didn't know there's such a festival.

Anyway, it's very interesting experience, as I've never been to a Japanese matsuri (祭り, or festival) before. At 10am, several priests led a prayer for all the participants. There were around 15-20 people altogether, males and females.

And look at the female samurais.

After they circled outside the jinjya, they went to the archery field at around 10:30am, where it was just located beside the main temple of the jinjya.

The participants were divided into 4 groups. The first group had just 1 person, and I think he's one of the priests. The 2nd group had 3 people, and I suspect they work for the jinjya. The 3rd and the 4th group had around 5-6 people each. They didn't look like jinjya people, but they must have close relationship with the jinjya, and so I think. Each group fired 2 rounds, and in each round each person fired one arrow. After each round, someone would hit a drum and exclaimed. There're reporters and one TV crew, and of course they were given the best seats. Here's one of the participants after he fired one. These people must have practiced throughout the year as I don't think a layman can do it.

The whole event lasted around 30 minutes. After all arrows were fired, what happened? Well, people would roamed and tried to find them!

And here's a lucky person who found one. I think those arrows are supposed to drive off evil spirits.

After the festival, I did some hiking at Senjogahara (戦場ヶ原). As I mentioned before, I had wanted to hike it when I was staying at Yumoto, but didn't have time. Today's my last activity day and so this was my last chance. The trail is flat and it takes about 2 hours. I was not disappointed. Here's some of the photos I took on the trail.

Ah! While hiking, I spotted a monkey, eventually!

The weather was quite unstable, as snow was falling from time to time. I started at around 11:30am and by the time I finished, it's already 3:00pm. I was very lucky because there's heavy snow after 3pm while I was waiting for the return bus.

I didn't have lunch. Instead, I brought a cake with me and ate it while waiting at the bus stop.

There is one more place that I wanted to go though. For some reason, the place was very intriguing to me. It was an abandoned gasoline station. I passed by it a number of times while I was on a bus. I thought it was beautiful. So, on my way back, I stopped by and took a few pictures. Again, I was lucky as the sun had set just after I was done. This is one of the pictures I took.

Have you ever seen the inside of a gas pump? Now I know how it looks like!

Dinner included pickles, salad, grilled seafood, yuba, grilled fish, clam soup, and ice-cream (the same ice-cream served in the past 2 days). Here they are.

This pretty much concludes my adventure in Nikko, as I'll return to Tokyo tomorrow by the 11:30am train. I don't plan to do anything tomorrow morning.

I wish I could come back in autumn so that I can enjoy the Koyo (紅葉 or fall color).