Monday, September 28, 2009

Cebu City, Discovered

CEBU CITY, the Philippines - The headline on this post is tongue in cheek, of course. People have been living in Cebu, one of the Philippines' leading cities, for hundreds of years. I discovered the place for myself just last week, just ahead of the typhoon that has devastated Manila this week, killing, at last count, 240 people in heavy flooding.

Cebu, located 375 miles southeast of the capital, has, thankfully, been spared the worst of Typhoon Ondoy. Like the rest of the country, Cebu - an island and province as well as a city - is on low-lying land, so it is vulnerable to ocean storms and to the threat of global warming.

I was based just outside the city at Shangri-la Hotels' comfortable Mactan Resort, a lovely place with white sand beaches, a luxurious spa called CHI, smart shops that smartly source goods from talented local artisans and good food, most of it international in style. Just outside the hotel grounds, everything changes, becoming more congested and visibly poorer. A few minutes drive puts you in Cebu City, which has a metropolitan population of 1.8 million people. I think all of them were behind the wheel when I explored the city. The traffic is epic.

The first major explorer to land in what is now Cebu City was the Spanish navigator Ferdinand Magellan, who made landfall in 1521 and was killed in battle there later that same year. Eventually, Spain colonized the Philippines and stayed for four centuries, until the early 20th century. Spain has left its imprint on the Philippines, where many people go under Hispanic names. Cebu City, dotted with whitewashed vintage churches and infused with a traditional form of Catholicism, reminded me a lot of Brazil. Some fellow travelers compared it to Central America. Cebu and the Philippines are, of course, Asian, but are unique among Asian societies.

The well-attended downtown cathedral, rebuilt several times, is a landmark of the city, as is a weathered cross that marks the spot where Magellan is believed to have first landed; it is now several hundred yards inland. The modern city, though it has a thriving tourist trade, doesn't depend on tourism, which is undoubtably good, given the sharp ups and downs of the travel industry. A port city, it is a center of trade and ocean shipping and manufacturing; the city is a center of furniture-making. It is also home to a number of music shops and at least one guitar factory. I watched local artisans fashion guitars by hand in the small plant, later taking some finished guitars and ukeleles off the wall to demonstrate their sound. One artisan-cum-salesman strummed "Has Anybody Seen My Gal'' while visitors browsed the factory.

Before visiting Cebu, I had never seen a Filipino city and had no clear idea what to expect. Bustling and industrious, Cebu, which is nevertheless marred by poverty, is not a pretty city. But it is lively, filled with the music and energy that marks so much of Filipino culture. On the fringes of the city, I saw goats, chickens, feral-looking dogs and the occasional cow wandering amidst vacant lots and people's homes. It is ironic that free-range poultry so beloved of yuppies and gourmets may be most in evidence in poor countries; people depend on them for meat and eggs, and don't necessarily depend on the huge factory farms that distinguish North American culture. As I rode around the city, I saw people packed into jitney buses, hanging on to trucks and piling into pedicabs, known locally as tricycles.

The energy and good-humor of Filipino culture amazed me. I wound up my visit with an al fresco supper at the resort, with the sound and sights of the sea washing up against the deck where I took food and drink. The next day, well inside security and just outside the entryway to my plane to Hong Kong, I saw something I'd never seen at an airport: A four-piece band playing upbeat music by the plane door, putting a lift in the step of boarding passengers.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Quorum of Mangoes

CEBU, the Philippines - Filipino cuisine is known for featuring seafood, rice, chicken, rum and other delectables, but I had no idea just how popular mangoes are here until I made my first visit to the Philippines earlier this week.

The succulently sweet, yellow-skinned tropical mango fruit is everywhere - in salads, in smoothies, in cocktails, in yogurt and of course in fruit bowls - and, if you are staying in a hotel, in your room. I stayed three nights at Shangri-la Hotels' Mactan Resort and Spa, on the edge of the port city of Cebu, and the mangoes just kept on coming. There were no fewer than six mangoes, along with other tropical fruit popular in the Philippines, available in my comfortable, ocean-view room. One day, not wanting to break off writing and leave my room for lunch, I devoured a mango en suite. Later, I went out. When I returned, the mango I ate had been replaced. The number was now back at six. It was like there was a quorum of mangoes. Should this number be reduced, I suspected, the ultra-relaxing Mactau Resort would cease to function.

There appears to be no danger of this happening, however. After I polished off a second mango another day, that mango was replaced, too. Mangoes are widely grown in the Philippines, where the warm, wet climate produces optimal growing conditions, and they are wonderful - juicy, sweet, delicious. The nation does not seem to be running low on supplies. The quorum stands.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Jim Thompson: From Man to Brand

BANGKOK - When I spied the 'JT 'on the front of a baseball-style cap in the gift shop at the Jim Thompson House and Museum, I realized things had changed. I was last at this lovely and deservedly popular tourist attraction in 1998, when it was somewhat less commercial. Thompson, who is presumed to have died more than 40 years ago, was by then already a legend, with a life right out of the movies; since then, he's also become a brand, with Jim Thompson shirts, dresses and other apparel on sale around town.

Ah, well. That's what happens when someone gets famous and has a certain allure. Thompson had that, plus a history as a stylish Westerner in the Far East and a link to apparel anyway. He is credited with having almost single-handedly revived traditional Thai silk weaving, which had nearly died out in the age of synthetic fabrics. He founded and ran a successful trading company to promote the newly dynamic trade. Then, one day in 1967, he went for a walk at a remote Malaysian resort and never came back.

Speculation adores a vacuum, of course, and there has subsequently been oodles of speculation about the U.S.-born Thompson, a Princeton-educated architect and entrepreneur who served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in World War II. Once a spook, always a spook, the speculation goes. Thompson could have been an undercover asset to the CIA. The war in Vietnam was raging at the time of his unsolved disappearance, and maybe he had enemies.

The mystery adds to the appeal of Thompson's former abode, but in fact the place ( would be a popular draw anyway. It is simply beautiful, filled with accomplished Southeast Asian art and consisting of six traditional Thai homes, made of teak and topped with the signature upturned rooftops. The six houses, brought to Bangkok from all around Thailand, were combined to form one big, beautful home. It is located by a canal and flanked with lush, green, flowery tropical gardens.

A person could wander happily for hours there. I did just that on my recent visit to Bangkok, the first time I have returned to the Jim Thompson House. While the Thompson brand, as noted, was not so omnipresent in '98, the house is just as I'd remembered it. It is itself a work of art, with its dining room table set for six, its long wooden window shutters, its central staircase, polished wood floors, dark wood walls, the stubs in doorways meant to stop evil spirits from moving along the floors and getting into the rooms. Big electric fans standing on the floor do their best to stir the heavy, humid air in the perpetual Bangkok heat. Two fellow travelers pointed out to me that the European-style chandeliers don't fit with the rest of the house, and they're right. But chandeliers aside, the house works marvelously as a coherent whole.

I didn't buy anything in the inevitable museum gift shop, but the house itself - once isolated among rice fields, now flanked by modern buildings and located near Thailand's National Stadium, is a gift to the spirit. With an adult admission price of 100 baht (about $3 U.S.) and half that for children, it is a bargain. I got there by taking the capital's gleaming, easy to use elevated light rail line, SkyTrain (fare: 30 baht). You go to National Stadium station on the Silom Line, take exit 1 and walk about five minutes along a narrow lane off the main street. The way is well-posted, and the trip is well worth taking.

Voluntourism in Thailand

BANGKOK - As mentioned in earlier posts, I embarked on my current, 17-day visit to Asia buoyed with the hope of doing some voluntourism - giving something back to communities I am visiting. Several proposed projects fell through, but one that didn't has turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.

Through the good offices of the Shangri-la Hotel Bangkok, which maintains on-going contact with charities, I visited a school for blind children, some of them with additional disabilities. The school, called - deep breath - Home for the Blind With Multiple Disabilities, is bang-on in the urban sprawl of Bangkok. It is operated by the Christian Foundation for the Blind in Thailand. That's a non-profit organization founded in 1978 by a blind Thai man. It is now under the patronage of the country's revered king, which gives it considerable standing.

Visiting early on a Sunday morning with a clutch of Americans and Canadians, I did some humble but, I hope, helpful work: Namely, helping the staff serve breakfast to several dozen children, most of them boys, in the section of the brightly painted and neat school I saw. This is more involved than it sounds, as the children can't of course see the food or food packaging, and have to touch the items to have any sense what they are. We helped take off the packaging and do little things like puncture the packages of juice, insert the straw and put the packages in the childrens' hands. In addition to fruit juice, the children got crunchy, chip-like snacks and small muffins. Some had ravenous appetites. A boy in a wheelchair sipped through a straw but that was all he ate. "He doesn't chew, he only drinks,'' a member of the staff said. Staffers appeared to be fully engaged, anticipating the childrens' needs and joshing with them from time to time.

After we helped clear the remains of breakfast, some of the children headed over to a well-equipped playground and began exhibiting the nonstop energy associated with kids their age. One boy occupied a swing; another clambered up the frame of a tall male visitor; several nestled in the arms of visiting women.

Children are taught to read and handle as much for themselves as they can by the school; they can stay up till age 15. After that, they either return to their family home to live or they can go out on their own. The more able ones support themselves as young adults, I was told.

The school is supported by government funding and, especially, by private donors. From what I could glean from my short visit, it seems well-run and caring. I came away feeling a little sad, as I expected, but braced, too, by the knowledge that people care for these children even in a country with as much poverty and as many needs as Thailand. Put it down to the gentle side of Thai society, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist, to traditions of Christian charity promoted by the governing foundation, or just to the brighter side of human nature, but this looked to me like a loving and pragmatic environment.

It was good to get out of the tourism bubble, if only for a while, and help out, even in a modest way. For more information, go to the entry on the Christian Foundation for the Blind in Thailand on Wikipedia or to the Web site E-mail is

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Zhang Yimou and Hangzhou

HANGZHOU, China - These days, Zhang Yimou is known chiefly as the show-biz whiz who staged the spectacular opening and closing of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In fact, he has had a long and varied career, directing operas and making justly acclaimed movies such as "To Live'' and "Raise the Red Lantern'' with the exquisite actress Gong Li.

When Zhang was warming up for the Olympics, he put together an imaginative and entertaining multimedia show in this east-central Chinese city, called "Impression West Lake.'' The show includes many of the elements - light, music, movement - that captivated a worldwide TV audience during the Olympics, if on a smaller scale. It has run for several years and is staged right inWestLake, the premier attraction for visitors in this old city, China's capital during the Song dynasty. I saw it last year and was taken by its luminous qualities. At under an hour, "Impression West Lake'' doesn't tax the patience; even the camera-carrying tourists and texting spectators paid close attention most of the time.

This year, it rained hard at showtime, so I didn't attend a repeat performance. However, in the grand, show-must-go-on tradition, it was staged despite the elements, with spectators donning raingear and gamely enjoying the show. The reason I say it is staged in the lake is because dozens of performers float by on slightly submerged barges, creating the illusion that they are gliding on the surface of the water. Recorded New Age space music plays and the light show glows and glimmers throughout the nighttime performance.

Spectators sit outside on bleachers in the lakeside park, located a couple of hundred meters from the hotel I stayed at, the Shangri-la Hangzhou. The hotel itself, built in the 1950s and 1960s and managed since 1985 by Hong Kong's Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, was one of the first 5-star hotels in post-revolutionary China and has been upgraded several times. It is known for its lush, spreading grounds and is located at the foot of a swiftly rising hillside on the road that rings West Lake. Big camphor trees more than 100 years old grace the garden.

The plant Hangzhou is best known for, however, is the tea plant. Hundreds of years ago, traders brought tea bushes from India and farmers have turned the plants into reliable producers of China's most famous and probably best green tea:Dragonwell tea. Independent growers typically live in modern houses in front of small, terraced hillside fields where the plant is grown and leaves are harvested by hand. I was taken there on my recent visit by a local guide who doubled as a taxi driver and seller of ginseng and furniture, surely an unusual combination. I didn't buy any ginseng or furniture but I enjoyed the rich brew of hot dragonwell tea. On a previous visit, another driver-guide took me to her family's house, where I observed a worker with one gloved hand roast green tea leaves in what resembled a very large wok. I later sipped tea in the fields where it was grown and bought some directly from the farmer to take home.

Such are some of the attractions of this old Chinese city, now swollen with a population of 5 million, with misty, manmade West lake serving as its liquid heart.

I.M. Pei and Suzhou

SUZHOU, China - The distinquished Chinese American architect I.M. Pei crafted what may be his last major commission when, in October 2006, his masterful Suzhou Museum opened in this east central Chinese city. An artful fusion of traditional Chinese elements - garden, pond, footbridge, rocks recalling mountain peaks, a circle incorporated into the main entrance, a high water wall inside - plus Pei's trademark triangles and pyramids, the museum is a must-see for any visitor to this part of China who nurtures an interest in art and architecture.

Pei, who is now 92, used elegant whites and greys in his design. He has told interviewers that he took on the job because his forebears came from Suzhou, a city of 6 million that was a center of art and culture during the Ming and Qing dynasties. For Pei, who was born in China but emigrated to the United States as a young man, the museum presented an opportunity to make an architectural mark in his native land, where he has done no other work, save for a Beijing hotel in the early 1980s.

Pei's work on the museum is subtle and contemplative - fitting for an institution that boasts major holdings of classical calligraphy, sculpture, ceramics and painting. Some artworks by contemporary Chinese artists are included in the museum's collection, too, but this is principally a home for classical art - and classical architecture.

Suzhou, about 100 miles northwest of Shanghai and easily accessible by fast train or by car - allot 90 minutes or so to reach the city - also plays host to no fewer than 9 UNESCO World Heritage gardens. I roamed through several great gardens on my recent visit, but perhaps the most memorable garden experience I had in Suzhou was at Master of Nets Garden, the first Chinese garden I have visited at night.

It was illuminating in both the literal and figurative sense to see the garden, with its pagodas, neatly tended plants and waterways, under sensitive night-lighting. The nighttime garden also is home - from mid-March to mid-November, when the weather is warm enough - to site-specific performances by entertainers in vintage Chinese clothing. Two masked actors greet visitors with a good-natured blessing, and as a guide shows the way, the action moves from place to place, outdoors and indoors. An enchanting performance by a man playing xiao (a bamboo flute) was almost, but not quite, ruined by a drunk braying into his mobile phone. For me, the highlight was a performance on the stringed zheng by a young woman with dexterous fingers and graceful arm movements who coaxed celestial sounds out of the instrument.

Much of Suzhou is determinedly modern, but the city retains oases of calm among the hurly-burly. Master of Nets Garden and Pei's new Suzhou Museum are chief among them.

Xintiandi: Take 2

SHANGHAI - A few years ago, I all but swooned over Shanghai's redeveloped Xintiandi - a cluster of vintage stone buildings transformed by Western architects into a warren of shops, bars, cafes and restaurants, complete with its own manmade lake and a mini-forest of mature trees uprooted and brought to the metropolis from all over China.

On my return to Shanghai this month - my fifth, or it it sixth? time in town - I had a more critical take on the place. Developed by American architect Benjamin Wood, of Boston, Xintiandi, which also saw input from the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, seems less charming than it had when I first saw it. Certainly, it is still beautiful to look at. Wood et al. basically cleared what had been a slum, reclaiming stone shikumen houses, with their distinctive stone gates and made it a prime example of urban rescue. Rather than simply level the place for highrises, as is happening over much of China, they built something new on the bones of the old.

This time, Xintiandi struck me as decidedly touristy. Of course, this may have little or nothing to do with the architects who brought it into being, and everything to do with the mercantile impulse of others. Roughly five years old, this development in central Shanghai, on the Puxi (west) side of town, has lost much of its early arty sheen. Anchored by a Starbucks on one end, a German chain brewpub and restaurant near the middle and a modern cineplex that sits jarringly on the other end, Xintiandi seems more ordinary than I'd remembered. Heavy consumer use has reduced its distinctiveness rather than given it a deeper, lived-in quality. Moreover, I saw way more people with Western features there, and markedly fewer Chinese faces. Xintiandi had injitially been popular with Shanghaiese, but that may have just been curiosity. A Hong Kong-born acquaintance of mine remarked "Chinese people don't think much of this.'' "Is it because it presents a somewhat idealized picture of China to the West?'' I asked. "I think so,'' he said.

I came away from my visit thinking there must be a more attractive shopping and eating district, and a cheaper one. I needed to find it Following the advice of locals, I walked the streets of the leafy French Concession, just following my nose. Before long, I found a nicely interlaced tangle of lanes and little alleyways, many of them lined with one of a kind shopsand lovely plane trees. Local advice also took me to an enchanting Sino-Franco tea shop, also in the French Concession, called Song Fang Maison de The. Co-owner Florence Sampson - she's the French half - has selected 20 French gourmet blends and 40 distinctive Chinese teas and is selling them out of her year-old shop, with its collection of vintage tea tins. Poking around the French Concession more than made up for my mild disappointment with how Xintiandi is aging. It's the best place in town for a visitor who wants to blend some style with the local color of a great city.

Song Fang tea house, by the way, is located at 227 Yongjia Road (near Shanxi South Road), telephone 86.21.6433 8283, Shanghai, China.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shanghai's Expo 2010

SHANGHAI - The big travel and tourism news in Shanghai revolves around next year's world's fair, called Shanghai Expo 2010. The spawling expo grounds on both sides of Huangpu, the river that bisects the metropolis, are expected to draw 200 international exhibitors and serve as a showcase within a showcase; the city of Shanghai is itself Exhibit A for modern China.

The last world expo I attended was Aichi Expo 2005, in the Japanese province of Aichi. The semi-rural site was modest in size, green in theme and made from recycled materials whenever possible, with buildings that were meant to be torn down after the fair ended. The expo officials said they expected maybe 15 million people to show up. When a few million more attended, they declared the show a success, though I suspect they kept expectations low on purpose.

Not so, Shanghai, which always thinks big. Shanghai is predicting 70 million visitors and is building large, spectacular national exhibits, many of which, I suspect, will survive the fair, which runs from May 1 to Oct. 31, 2010. The exhibitions are look-at-me structures, with a Danish center that resembles a spiral seashell and a performing arts center that looks like a flying saucer. Shanghai is extending its Metro subway system, adding lines 6, 8 and 9 to connect fairgoers to the site, which will also be accessible by river ferry.

You can get a good idea of what the expo grounds will look like - and for that matter, what all of Shanghai will look like, up through the year 2020 - by visiting the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, located on People's Square, in the heart of the established Puxi (west of the river) district of the city. Despite its dry-as-dust name, the 7-story center (admission 30 RMB, about $4.25 U.S.) has some fascinating points of interest, encompassing extensive photographic histories of Shanghai and including a jaw-dropping, room-sized model of every significant residential and commercial building in the city, built to scale. That alone is worth the price of admission. Here, you can get a graphic sense of one of the world's great cities and its envisioned future (

If ever the old Western expression "Make no small plans'' applied to a place, that place is Shanghai. It's a city that is living large.

The View from M on the Bund

SHANGHAI - It is an overcast day here, but bustling, as always. Flotillas of ocean-going ships and barges ply their way upriver, the hideous yet compelling Oriental Pearl transmission tower looms over the city on the ultra-modern Pudong side of the waterway and heavy earth-moving equipment rumbles along the Bund. on the Puxi side.

I am surveying China's largest city and financial capital from the 7th floor outdoor terrace at M on the Bund, one of Shanghai's most popular restaurants. Opened in January 1999 by Australian-born Michelle Garnout following her success in Hong Kong with M at the Fringe, this sophisticated eatery shows influences from Europe and North Africa. It also boasts some of Shanghai's best views, especially at night, when lights deck the riverfront in a necklace of neon.

The Bund - it's pronounced "bond'', the word is Hindi - is presently a construction site. The riverfront boulevard and companion pedestrian promenade will reopen next year in time for Shanghai Expo 2010, with most motorized traffic directed underground. This will make strolling about that much easier, which is good because walking around this dynamic downtown district is the best way to see it.

My most illuminating walkabout along and near the Bund was with Peter Hibbard, an expat Brit who draws on his academic background as an urban planner to lead tours of the Beaux Arts and Art Deco stone buildings that front a several-block-long stretch of the river. Hibbard bills himself as the Ginger Griffin - griffin being an old word for newcomer to Shanghai and ginger being the color of Hibbard's hair before it turned grey. I spent about three hours with the ultra-informed, chatty Hibbard, who lead me down back alleys and into courtyards, even into grand old mansions now converted into apartment buildings, the wash hanging from windows.

The best part of the tour was poking into the handful of buildings - old banks and offices, some now honeycombed with shops - that were built along the Bund between roughly 1900 and 1935. Once the home of mighty European, American and Japanese companies, they are mostly now inhabited by Chinese firms, including banks. Many have stunning decorative touches such as mosaics, murals, ornate front gates and gold trim. Hibbard ( knows so much, he sometimes corrects the historical plaques on the old buildings. And he knows so many locals, they barely bother to look up when he leads a tour through their private courtyards, greeting everyone in Chinese. His beautifully illustrated book "The Bund Shanghai: China Faces West'' is a definitive history in English of the Bund and its urban surrounds. The walk I took started at the historic Astor Hotel, passed the old Peace Hotel (nee the Cathay), which is currently being renovated and will open next year as a Fairmont, and ends near the 1921 office tower that houses M on the Bund.

M, for Michelle, is unlike so many restaurants with a view in that it has first-rate food (, not just a view. My lunch there was Moroccan-tinged, consisting of toothsome spiced lamb in big puff pastries that came with a savory pumpkin soup. I also lunched on a fresh salad of sliced mango, green cilantro and shredded carrots. It isn't especially Chinese and it doesn't come cheap - M on the Bund is a destination restaurant for expats and the expense-account crowd - but the fare is delicious. Down one level is the Glamour Bar, the restaurant's cool, see and be seen nighttime watering hole.

Shanghai's heyday as a capital of cool was in the 1920s and '30s, when this huge port city was considered to be the epitome of sexy, dressy decadence and, well, glamour. As the city began to come out of its communist-induced stupor in the late 1980s and 1990s, it tried to regain its lost allure. Places like the Glamour Bar in Puxi (west side of the river) and the Shangri-la Hotel's design-driven Jade on 36 in Pudong (east side) have brought back some of the glitter, and China's economic surge has invested Shanghai with a newfound prosperity that continues to elude China's poverty-stricken interior. In short, the view from M on the Bund is magnificent, going a long way to resurrect the legend of Shanghai.

Making Mooncakes in Kowloon

HONG KONG - I have long known about mooncakes, the rich, round pastries made for the Mid-Autumn Festival in the Chinese lunar calendar, but I had never made them until I visited the kitchen at the Kowloon Shangri-la Hotel, and got some coaching from a hotel chef.

Like gumbo in the American South, cooks in Asia like to come up with variations on tradition and put their personal stamp on this popular creation. In the case of the Kowloon Shangri-la (, the hotel has taken mooncakes upmarket, adding black truffles to the recipe. The hotel is about more than mooncakes, gastronomically speaking, to be sure. The Kowloon property's traditional Cantonese restaurant, Shang Palace, snared two Michelin stars in the recent Hong Kong guide. Still, mooncakes are special treats.

I donned a hat and apron and washed up with antibacterial soap in a gleaming metal sink in the immaculate hotel kitchen, then walked over to a long metal counter to see how mooncakes are made. You take hand-rolled dough and add steamed, salty egg yolk, take a few shaved black truffles from a bowl and sprinkle-in white flour. Then you knead the truffles into the dough, working them in good, and shaping the doughy mass into a cylindrical shape, cutting them into pieces - in this case, 10 pieces. When the dough is throughly kneaded, you take one of the pieces you've just cut off and put it into a long wooden implement with a hole - a mold - at the end, which gives the mooncake its shape. With a sharp, hard rap on the metal counter, you dislodge the piece; if you've done it right, it's ready for the oven.

Many people - I am one of them - find mooncakes heavy and rich, but, hey, they're celebratory morsels; you don't eat them every day. Here is the recipe - courtesy of this 5-star Hong Kong hotel - should you want to make your own mooncakes at home. The Mid-Autumn Festival, by the way, runs this year until Oct. 3.

Ingredients: egg custard (380 grams); black truffle slice (8.4 gram); salty egg yolk, one piece, finely chopped; pastry puff dough, one large piece; egg wash (one egg).

1. Knead the egg custard until smooth, then add salty egg yolk and sliced black truffle. Divide the mixture into 10 small portions and set aside.
2. Knead the pastry puff dough until smooth and then divide it into 10 portions. Use the palm of the hand to press the dough to form a thin disc.
3. Place one portion of the custard mixture in the center of the pastry puff. Fold in the sides of the dough to completely enclose the filling and press the edges to seal.
4. Place the mooncake dough, seam side up in the mold, flatten the dough to conform to the shape of the mold.
5. Remove the mooncake dough from the mold, then brush with egg wash and bake the mooncake in the oven at 200 degrees Celcius for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Stuffs 10 - er, makes - 10 mooncakes.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hong Kong: City on Fast-Forward

HONG KONG - Until this month, I hadn't been in Hong Kong in a year and a half - long enough for this dynamic Asian city to dream up half a dozen new travel attractions I didn't see or even know about before my recent visit.

Some changes are relatively small, such as a new Big Bus tour like you see in many cities - you get on and off at designated tourist sites. The Big Bus rolled out in Hong Kong last December.

Some big dreamers in this metropolis of 7 million have got their show on the road, too. The expansive Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center has just expanded again, for one.

Moreover, the 1881 Heritage shopping complex was opened just this past June at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, very close to the Star Ferry terminal. This nicely done reconstruction and reinvention of the former Marine Police Headquarters has the inevitable Shanghai Tang showcase clothing store, plus a range of high-end designer shops. This month, a 30-room boutque hotel called Hullett House is scheduled to open in this crowded corner of the metropolis.

Of course, Hong Kong being Hong Kong, that's just the half of it.

A newly landscaped piazza is scheduled to open late this year or early in 2010 near the enormous Giant Buddha statue and Po Lin monastery at Ngong Ping, accessed by what promises to be a spectacular cable car ride.

By late next year, the 118-story high International Commerce Center will top out on reclaimed harbor land. It will be the fourth-tallest building in the world, with an observation deck on the 100th floor for those 360-degree, panoramic views. Occupying floors 102 through 118 will be a 300-room Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

And if you're really looking ahead, Hong Kong has promised to build its fourth big terminal for cruise ships, this one on part of the land used for runways at Hong Kong's former airport at Kai Tak, on the Kowloon side. That project is set to be operational by 2013.

Verily, Hong Kong is a city on fast-forward. But it looks to the past for a bit of its future, opening this year a replica of Noah's Ark, on Wa Man Island. Yes, Noah is back, complete with a Noah's Hotel, with 19 hotel rooms and 24 hostel rooms for people who aren't taking any chances when global warming causes sea-levels to rise.

For more information about Hong Kong, go to the Hong Kong Tourism Board's Web site,

Going Molecular in Wan Chai

HONG KONG - Wan Chai still has a lingering reputation as a redlight district - ala "The World of Suzy Wong'' circa 1960 - but this bustling district on Hong Kong island now hosts the city's mammoth convention center and a forest of highrise buildings, not just dimly lit bars. Other things have changed, too. For one thing, dim sum has been joined by molecular cuisine.

I hadn't heard of molecular cuisine until the British destination restaurant the Fat Duck earned three Michelin stars for serving it. Wan Chai's own Bo Innovation - a resto that bills itself as the home of "X-treme Chinese cuisine'' - has done almost as well in the critical department, winning two Michelin stars in last year's gastronomic guide to Hong Kong.

Molecular food is nearly as much a product of the chemist's lab as the chef's kitchen. City guide Fred Cheng, who showed off the place, told me the chef at Bo Innovation is a former engineer. It takes a chemist or engineer to do things like re-engineer foie gras to taste like sour cream, or make beef puree taste like pork dumplings, to cite two imaginary but not far-fetched examples.

Bo Innovation, which is three years old, can be hard to find. You access this noisy, pricey, trendy restaurant by taking a private lift at 60 Johnston Road and going up one level. There is an outdoor terrace and a happening bar in the mirrored, crowded main dining room. I was there for lunch. Cheng told me the bill can easily come to $100 U.S. person for a meal. I had the chef's special, which at 680 Hong Kong dollars, plus a 10 percent service charge, is in that neighborhood, tab-wise.

Looking at the black-clad staff - a sign of high seriousness and self-conscious cool - I wondered if terminal trendiness could be far off. But Bo Innovation surprised me. Much of the inventive food was flavorful and fun, and the presentation - which included a course served on fine, round stone plates - had an air of artful theatricality. The vintages were good, too, starting with Drappier Champagne, progressing to a 2006 Montessu, an Italian blend of four red wines that was Merlot-like on the tongue, and including a 2007 Paul Mas Chard.

Over the course of a 2.5 hour lunch, I sampled a few traditional Cantonese-style dishes such as ocean trout served with fermented black beans, honey and pickled bok choy. But innovative fare befitting the restaurant's name was far more common. Foie gras powder and freeze-dried raspberry on thin-sliced tuna belly was one example. Dessert looked like it came out of a mad scientist's laboratory: Ice cream in a glass covered with a lid. When you lifted the lid, steam poured off the ice cream giving off a distinct aroma of incense. And the ice cream was good.

I don't know if Suzy Wong would be enamoured with Bo Innovation (, but I think she'd be surprised by it. For me, the place pushed right up to the limit of turning food more into science than art, but in the end it came down on the side of art, just. It's not just a trendy place, it's a good place - provided the budget permits.


HONG KONG - One of the things I did in Hong Kong - in addition to making mooncakes for the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival, taking the reliably enchanting Star Ferry across Hong Kong Harbour and sampling molecular Cantonese cuisine - was visiting a senior center just outside the city proper and "helping'' the residents make traditional red paper lanterns for the festival.

I put "helping'' in quotation marks because in reality they helped me. This was my first stab at voluntourism - giving something back to one of the communities I was visiting, if only briefly. I made the connection with the immaculate and well-run Lan Oi Tong Senior Center through the Kowloon Shangri-la Hotel, which has an on-going relationship with the center. The hotel's sparky director of communications, Patsy Chan, arranged for me and a scrum of fellow journos to bus to the town of Tuen Mun in the outlying New Territories to meet the residents of the center.

Red Lanterns are made from red paper envelopes, folded, stapled together and hung up all over town - they bring a colorful and festive touch to the weeks-long annual celebration, held all across China. Upon arrival, I was ushered up a flight of stairs to the center's library, where a cheerful collection of older men and women greeted me and sat me down at a long, rectangular table. My assignment: Make crisply folded and neatly stapled lanterns for the festival.

Folks, fine-motor skills are not my forte. The very nice lady seated to my right showed me how to proceed, then waited expectantly for me to match her own expert efforts. She was incredibly fast, her hands a blur, her red lanterns perfectly made. I was - how to say? - not quite as good as she. Oh, I tried to take my game to another level, but I was battling adversity, and adversity was winning. The lady said a few words in Cantonese. A center employee helpfully translated: "She says you are very fast and good.'' Uh-huh.

But the truth will out, and it did. After a few more minutes, the center employee overseeing the library gently took a half-finished, half-mangled wanna-be lantern off my hands. She then began rapidly extracting the staples I had just put in. She folded the paper the way it was meant to be folded. And then she held out the paper in my direction: "Staple!'' she said. Then again: "Staple!'' Then a few dozen more times in rapid succession: "Staple!''

At last, there were red lanterns. The elderly lady by my side took my hand and led me out of the library and onto a balcony above the center's spacious, rather nicely equipped gymnasium. There, we hung the lanterns, tying them onto the balcony railing. They looked lovely.

When the Shangri-la employees who accompanied us joined us in leaving the senior center, a line off healthy, happy-looking residents waved goodbye and shook my hand. I felt a tug at my sleeve. It was my teacher from the library. She had made a red lantern for me.

I guess I saw more spectacular things in Hong Kong, but if there was anything sweeter, I can't imagine what it was.

The Great Firewall of China

You have, of course, heard of - and maybe seen for yourself - the Great Wall of China. In the modern Middle Kingdom there also looms the Great Firewall of China, the Beijing government's rather successful attempt at restricting access to the Internet from its territory.

I ran headlong into the Great Firewall this week upon alighting in Shanghai, when I discovered I couldn't get onto to post new writings on this blog. Couldn't get onto, either. This is, alas, a common experience, as the Chinese government is not at all comfortable with allowing freedom of personal or political expression for the millions of bloggers and social-networkers in China who would like to have some.

This was a momentary inconvenience for me, preventing me from posting for a week during my current trip to Asia. The real problem, of course, is for the people who live in the People's Republic of China. Getting information in and getting information out is tough, even in the Age of the Internet. In the medium- and long term, the government's restrictions will probably be for naught. For now, they are simple but effective. As long as restrictions on the Net, and on established print and electronic journalism, remain in place, China will have difficulty building a stable civic society to go with its new glittering shopping malls and designer duds.

China is still very much worth visiting. I'll be writing about my visit both online and on paper in the days, weeks and months to come. As great as digital media can be, this is a useful reminder just how useful travel, with its face-to-face, real-time experience, really is.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Flying to Cathay...with Cathay

Cathay is of course, a charming, nostalgia-drenched name for China. More than that, it's the name of a thoroughly modern airline, Cathay Pacific Airways, which I have just flown to Hong Kong, to kick-off a 17-day trip in Asia.

As a person who flies a lot, in nearly every region of the planet, I can attest to this Hong Kong carrier's quality. It's easily one of the world's top 10 airlines for customer care and efficiency - and may well be one of the top 5. Of course, it helps, on any airline, to fly in the front of the plane, which I did. I was originally booked into business class, which would have been just fine, but was upgraded to first class when I arrived at San Francisco International Airport for my departure. I didn't argue.

First class is called first class for a reason. You get the best food, the best wine, the most comfy seats, the most personal attention from the cabin crew. All this was much in evidence. Cathay Pacific's first class amenities include a soft, roomy set of pajamas made for the airline by Shanghai Tang, the trendy Hong Kong retailer. As for overhead bins, perish the thought; the front of the plane includes a small passenger closet, complete with hangers for your jacket, built into the hard shell that surrounds the seat. The seat itself, a new type just now being installed across Cathay's fleet, converts into a perfect flatbed when the cabin lights go down. I took a 13.5 hour, all-night flight to Hong Kong, so that re-engineered seat helped a lot. I still feel the movable segments in airplane seats, though, and - perhaps perversely - spend as much time in a semi-reclining position as in a full flatbed on long-haul flights. It seems to me like an old overstuffed reclining armchair that way - something like a Lay-Z-Boy in the sky.

Oh, the 888 music CDs in the newly expanded in-flight entertainment system help long flights go by quickly, too. My flight even departed and arrived on time - something that's become increasingly rare in U.S. domestic air travel and a problem I - like many of you - encountered during the peak summer travel season this year. If only all flights could be like this one.

Cathay has managed to keep its high service standards in spite of being hammered, like so many airlines, in today's difficult business environment. Long-haul business travel is a mainstay for Cathay, which flies only international routes from its base in compact Hong Kong. Cathay employees told me that the company, which has lost money in recent quarters, has had employees take unpaid days off, but that no one has yet lost their job. This, too, is in contrast to many airlines, where layoffs have been counted in the thousands during the Great Recession - one cntributing factor to spotty service.

I don't mean to imply that this is a perfect airline; it's not. There is no such airline. But dedication to quality shows. I have flown Cathay's economy class, too, and, no, it's not the equal of business or first, but it's good. Cathay Pacific gets it right nearly all the time, making it a carrier I actually look forward to flying.

Monday, September 7, 2009

More Fall Travel Deals and Discounts on Offer

The travel deals that have characterized most of 2009 are rolling right along, heading deep into the fall, as industry vendors continue to try to pump up business during the recession - and this traditionally slow time of year.

Here's a line on some interesting deals that have filled my inbox in recent days. As always, be detail-oriented and check the terms with providers if you consider booking.

*American Airlines is offering double elite-qualifying miles for various levels of its AAdvantage frequent-flyer program for travel on American through Dec. 15 ( Book with the promotion code DBLEQ.

* United Airlines, Virgin America and others are offering discounted fares to and from the San Francisco Bay Area for fall and winter travel. Deals center on San Francisco International Airport and Oakland International Airport, as reported by the travel bargain Web site Sample fares - one-way, based on round-trip purchases, before taxes and fees - include San Francisco-Las Vegas from $49 and Oakland-Boston from $109. For more information, go to, or

* Speaking of airfare sales, Continental Airlines has a good business-class fare from its U.S. hubs in Newark, Cleveland and Houston to prime locales in Europe ( The catch: Deals are for travel during the U.S. Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Prices are as low as $1,130 roundtrip and nonstop from Newark to Europe from Nov. 21-Nov. 27, and back to Newark from Nov. 26-Dec. 4. Slightly higher but still good fares obtain on the same routes for those willing to fly over the Christmas holiday.

* The designer boutique hotel Opposite House, in Beijing (, is offering a third night free for guests who book two previous consecutive nights. Rates start at $337 U.S.
Offer is good through Dec. 31, and includes add-ons such as breakfast for two on weekends and a guided cultural walk around Beijing on Saturdays.

* Another American Airlines promotion: Selected destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico, the Bahamas and Bermuda are on sale through Sept. 15, good for travel to and from the United States till Nov. 19. There are no advance purchase requirements and no embargo dates. The terms include a minimum 2-day and maximum 30-day stay. Sample fares - one-way based on round-trip purchase, before taxes and fees: Washington, D.C.-Kingston, Jamaica, $95; Chicago-Montego Bay, Jamaica, $100. (

* Some 75 California winemakers, hotels and restaurants are rolling out special deals throughout September, dubbed California Wine Month in the Golden State. Deals encompass the prime winemaking regions in northern California's Napa and Sonoma valleys and southern California's productive Paso Robles area (

Here's wishing you a fabulous fall.


I'll be departing late tonight to Asia, to experience and write about "voluntourism'' - the giving-back by travelers to communities in need.

I'll also be blogging frequently about the high points of some great Asian destinations. You'll be hearing more about the latest happenings in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Bangkok, among others, as well as impressions of my airline journeys (I'm booked on Cathay Pacific Airways and Dragonair) and no fewer than six Shangri-la hotels and resorts in east Asia.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What's Good for Southwest Airlines...

Is what's good for Southwest Airlines good for the traveling public?

You would think so, given Wednesday's decision by the Federal Aviation Administration not to ground dozens of Southwest aircraft until unapproved airplane parts can be replaced.

This potentially dangerous decision is good for Southwest, which lobbied Washington to allow it to continue flying the planes. Southwest argued that taking 86 (the number reported by the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 31) of its Boeing 737s out of service would cause flight delays to ripple through the U.S. air travel system. The FAA, concluding that giving the low-fare pioneer until Dec. 24 to install new, approved parts would not pose a safety risk, agreed with the airline.

This is a mind-boggling decision for the same agency that fined Southwest $7.5 million last year for operating 60,000 flights by aircraft that were out of compliance with FAA rules.

Just this summer, a Southwest plane was forced to make an unscheduled landing after a foot-wide hole opened up in the body of the aircraft.

Last year on Capitol Hill, members of Congress accused FAA inspectors of being too palsy with Southwest, an airline they were supposed to be regulating. How does this decision look in light of that history? Should the millions of people who fly Southwest every year be reassured?

Southwest is, of course, pleased that the FAA ( sees things its way. In a statement Wednesday, the carrier assured its customers that they are in no danger. Said Mike Van de Ven, Southwest's chief operating officer, "The parts have been inspected, and the FAA agrees that they meet the requirements of the aircraft manufacturer, Boeing.''

The unauthorized parts were installed by a subcontractor to whom Southwest ( has - like many major carriers - outsourced work. More and more, airlines are outsourcing maintenance, sometimes to overseas stations that receive visits from FAA inspectors but not enough; concerns have been raised by U.S. labor unions and industry observers that there are not enough traveling FAA inspectors to conduct effective international safety inspections.

Now this.

The nearly always sensible Business Travel Coalition has weighed in with a critique, raising a number of thought-provoking questions. The answers should interest everyone who flies.

"If there are no safety implications associated with this part, why have a certification process that disallows flying with unapproved parts in the first place?'' the BTC asks, rather logically. "Are not such protocols in place to guard against subjective FAA judgments? What is the difference between this case and when American Airlines was forced to ground over half its fleet in 2008 over wire shields?''

Further, BTC ( asks the agency "Will FAA investigate Southwest's overall policies, practices and processes for overseeing aircraft maintenance outsourcing now that a deep flaw in the airline's program has been discovered?''

Separately, Southwest announced on Wednesday that it will allow customers to check-in for flights up to 25 hours before departure - for a new $10 fee. That's after business-class fliers and frequent-flier program members board the aircraft. This new move erodes the long-standing practice of allowing passengers to board without seat assignments. It has always been a dubiously efficient system, but if Southwest is going to keep it, why allow so many exceptions?

Personally, this frequent flier thinks Southwest should can the canned humor of the cabin crews, just assign seats to everyone and, above all, inspect their planes, fully and promptly, every time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Spoil Me

Consumer demand for travel remains weak in the recession, and that means the cascade of travel deals for airlines, hotels, resorts and worldwide destinations that began last winter continues apace, with packages and discounts reaching into this coming winter.

Here is a sampler of current travel deals. (Note: I am a journalist, not a travel vendor. I don't have shares or a stake in any travel company. As always, conduct due diligence.)

Onward, then:

* American Airlines has a big fare sale good for travel within the United States with one-way fares starting at $49. The sale is good for travel from Sept. 9 to Jan. 7, 2010 and must be purchased by 11:59 p.m. Central Daylight Time, Thursday, Sept. 3. Tickets must be purchased 14 days in advance on the American Airlines Web site ( There are blackout dates near major holidays. Sample one-way fares based on round-trip purchase: $49 Minneapolis-Chicago; $59 Los Angeles-Las Vegas; $79 Orlando-Miami.

* Ritz-Carlton Hotels has a worldwide "Peace of Mind'' sale on at 30 of its resorts and 40 of its city hotels through Dec. 31. Details vary from property to property but typically include at least one free night with a minimum stay of four consecutive nights, resulting in a fine de facto discount. Other amenities include $100 resort fees, daily breakfast for two, free parking and local telephone calls and more - a good deal at this 5-star, luxury chain. ( or telephone 1.800.542.8680 in the U.S. and Canada).

* The landmark Kahala Hotel and Resort, Honolulu, has just finished a $52 million renovation. Additionally, the hotel is celebrating its 45th anniversary with 30 percent off Kahala suites, plus a fifth free night with a five-night stay and daily buffet breakfast for two at the resort's beachfront Plumeria Beach House( or telephone 1.800.367.2525.) Hawaiian officials report that tourist arrivals dropped 15 percent in the first half of this year from the first half of 2008, so this is, broadly speaking, a good time to find deals in Hawaii. The 50th state is busy marking its 50th year as a member of the Union.

* The Upper House, a designer-driven, high-style boutique property from Swire Hotels, opens Oct. 2 in Hong Kong. The new arrival has 117 rooms, including 21 suites, and is located in the highrise Pacific Place complex on Hong Kong island. Advance press materials say the Upper house will boast bathrooms over 300 square feet. This is a sister property to the Opposite House, in Beijing. The Hong Kong opening is being marked with a two nights for the price of one offer from Oct. 2 through Dec. 31. (,

* Lufthansa, Germany's major airline, is offering double-mile status for Lufthansa's best customers: its frequent flyers. The airline calls its program Miles and More ( The double-miles offer is good throughout September and October for flights beginning and ending in Europe and includes travel on affiliated airlines such as Austrian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines and Swiss. (

* Dive St. Vincent and Mariners Hotel in St. Vincent, located in the southeast Caribbean, is offering savings through Nov. 30 of $106 U.S. per diver in its 7 nights/10 dives package. The deal includes an eighth night free and two free extra dives and costs $999 per person. (E-mail or telephone 1.784.457.4928).

* Six Fairmont Hotels and Resorts properties in California are asking guests at check-in if they want to contribute $1 to help make up a desperate funding shortfall at California's beseiged state parks. The properties, which include the Fairmont Hotel Nob Hill, in San Francisco; Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, in northern California wine country; and Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows, in Santa Monica, say funds collected "will be earmarked for Tourism Cares and the California Save Our Parks Campaign.'' Hopefully, the state, currently ablaze with wildwires, won't burn down first. Contact the non-profit Tourism Cares, a volunteer-based and educational-oriented organization, at You can reach Fairmont Hotels at or telephone 1.800.441.1414.