Category Archives: cultural review

Sauce: The Cultural History of McDonald’s ‘Dim Jack’

Dim Jack

Dim Jack

This article explains the cultural history of sauce, with McDonald’s Dim Jack as the starting point. 

Following the rotten meat scandal in July, McDonald’s launched several major marketing campaigns, trying to recoup the lost confidence. The first wave of marketing started with the Justice League Burger series where each style of burger is featured by a superhero. ‘Dim Jack’ represents the latest wave of this line of marketing.

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The Knight of Swan – A Hero Always Awaiting for His Destiny

Lohengrin (Savonlinna Opera)

Lohengrin (Savonlinna Opera)

The Knight of Swan is a German medieval legend about a knight led by a swan to save a lady embroiled in political intrigues, with a condition of having his name never to be asked and questioned. The story appeared in various forms under different medieval tales, and its fascinations are captivating enough to have many modern musicians and composers retelling it in today’s performing halls. In this week, I had the opportunity to know the Knight of Swan in Before Brabant and Lohengrin (Savonlinna Opera Festival) in the 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival.

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Forbidden City (1918): Orientalism and Yellow Face

Yellow Face: Norma Talmadge (right) played the role of a Chinese princess.

Yellow Face: Norma Talmadge (right) played the role of a Chinese princess.

Forbidden City (1918) is an early crude Hollywood production that deserved to be trashed and forgotten and is only remembered because it belongs to a special genre of oriental films called yellow face: the portrayal of Chinese by white actors.

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Reinterpreting Siddhartha in Light of Oriental Philosophies

In your quest for meaning of life, a Buddha will be always near you

In your quest for meaning of life, a Buddha will be always near you

Siddhartha: An Indian Poem by Hermann Hesse is a misleading novel. Despite sharing the first name, it is not a biography of the historical Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Hesse called it an ‘Indian poem’ and Hindu philosophy was indeed crucial to the story but one commentator has seen it as another typical Western work not dissimilar to Moby Dick or Huckleberry Fin. Some saw the novel as a mélange of Indian and Western ideas, while others viewed it as a work of excellence for its integration of Hindu and Christian mysticisms. Siddhartha: An Indian Poem is a novel so riddled with conflicting views that a reinterpretation seems not only proper but desirable. 

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Europa – The Origin of Europe Part 1

The Abduction of Europa by Rembrandt, 1632

The Abduction of Europa by Rembrandt, 1632

In one morning at Phoenicia, Europa and her maiden were gathering flowers along the shore. She was attracted by a snow – white bull in the river. With admiration and curiosity, she put a chain of flowers on his horn and then mounted on his back. The bull ran and swam into the sea. Unbeknownst to her, Zeus has long admired her beauty and has disguised himself as a bull to seduce her. When she regained consciousness, she found herself pregnant and was in a new island. She gave birth to a son called Minos who became the first Lord of Crete, a Greek island in the Mediterranean Sea.

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Orientalism in Lawrence of Arabia

T.E Lawrence and Sherif Ali

T.E Lawrence and Sherif Ali

The East is distant, mysterious and sensual. An archetypical oriental picture would have been an Indian Raj lying comfortably on the soft Turkish carpet, drinking wine in a silver jeweled cup and watching a group of young thinly dressed Indian women performing belly dance. Another typical oriental picture might be a group of Arab nomads ridding on camels in the limitless golden desert. At night, they set – up a little camp fire whose flames compete with the glow of the night’s multitude of stars. The little children surround the fire and listen to the old wise man narrating ancient tales that his grandfather has told him when he was small.

Lawrence of Arabia is a film like this. Its sheer scale is breathtaking. It spans for 4 whole hours, including a 15 minute intermission. Yet, it achieved immense success, winning 7 Oscar Awards and being considered as one of the greatest epic films. Part of the reasons, I believes, lies in its exploration of the exotic Arabia.

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Vulgaria is the Root of Culture – A Look in Shakespeare’s Plays

Vulgaria is the root of culture.

Vulgaria is the root of culture.

‘Death and vulgarity are the only two facts in the nineteenth century that one cannot explain away’, said Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lord Henry’s fear of vulgarity is shared by audiences who were appalled by the usage of the n-words in Django Unchained (which is  uttered, by one account, for 110 times).

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南京城牆遊記(補)

上周欲畢南京城牆而不得,賸清涼門石頭城漢西門不曾看。因翌日向,並補於茲。

清涼門得名清涼山,清涼山得名清涼寺,非為涼風頻拂故。在南京城西。傳是東吳孫權建業遺址,朱賊元璋造南京城,并之。宿鼓樓區青島路旅館,登百〇三號車兒童醫院站,下清涼山站,即見清涼山公園門,復沿廣州路西即至。

清涼山公園門

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Cubism, Surrealism and Pop Art in Pablo Picasso

‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable.’ This is certainly true in appreciating the baffling paintings and sculptures by Pablo Picasso – the most original and ingenious artist in the 20th Century

In Visite à Picasso, a short 20 minutes black and white Belgian documentary, Picasso drew on large glass plates in front of the camera – like a live show of a great artist in visually presenting his flow imagination, with a few rough brushes or sometimes just one continual brush that outlines a dove, bull, flowers, man and woman, and whatnot.

With these simple lines and almost child-like arts that look more similar as caveman painting than any great historical or mythological scenes from the Renaissance or Baroque arts, Picasso sought to deconstruct the reality with geometrical shapes and to reunite them into multi – perspectives – the birth of cubism.

Portrait d’ homme (Portrait of a man)
Homme à la moustache
(Man with a moustache)

It is hard to imagine that the same artist has painted the Portrait d’homme and Homme à la moustache, both showing a man with moustache but with vastly different style. While Picasso stuck to the conventional art technique in Portrait d’homme, with heavy emphasis on blue colour – expressing his deep depression at the time due to the suicide of his friend – he changed to Cubist style in drawing the same man by deconstructing him into geometrical shapes, along with  pieces of papers, cardboard, wallpaper and wooden frame that ‘synthesize’ or overlap with each  other to add rich texture and a tangible touch to the object of the painting. 

Le sculpteur (The Sculptor)

Refusing to confine in one style, Picasso proceeded to base on his Cubist training to experiment with surrealism – an art movement that explores the subconsciousness of human mind. In Le sculpteur, Picasso described a Roman myth about a sculptor, Pygmalion, falling in love with a statue he carved and loving it so much that he made a wish to Venus to transform it into a real woman. Yet as blood and flesh, she will eventually age and wrinkle, Venus warned. Pygmalion wavered. 

On one hand, the dreamlike scene created by bright colours and curved figures is a distinctive surrealist feature. On the other hand, the anxious Pygmalion and his mirrored visage, showing the Hamlet indecisiveness, strongly reminds of the presentation of simultaneous perspective in Cubism. 

Figure et profil (Figure and Profile)

Another interesting surrealist painting is Figure et profil that left a hint of autobiographical note. How many faces can you see? I see three: one on the left hand side, beside the window; another is the geometrical white figure itself; and the last is the alien – looking black outline – respectively representing Picasso’s progression from classical drawing in early years, then Cubism, and Surrealism later. 

Picasso broke conventions with Cubism and Surrealism and it is no surprise for him to reinterpret masterpieces as a form of pop art during his late years. The rough brushes and unscrupulous splash of colours in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe destroyed  the natural grandeur and a harmonious balance painstakingly constructed by Édouard Manet in his original Le déjeuner sur l’herbe but interestingly instead of pure destruction, Picasso’s reinterpretation suggests more of mischievous naughtiness to see the world as a child does.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe
(Luncheon on the grass)

Already a distinguished painter in the early years (he can’t scribble like a child since he was ten, he said), he spent his life to unlearn the academic and classical drawing skills and to rediscover the world with imagination and childhood’s curiosity. As Laozhi admired the innocent unconsciousness of children, Picasso reinterpreted the world with childhood originality. 

A cynical person might see his shifting style of art as a very good marketing attempt to boost up his reputation. What I see, however, is a man who tried to break free from the all too realistic world with his free flowing imagination in Cubism, Surrealism and Pop Art.

Below is a clip in Visite à Picasso. The full documentary is available here


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1920s – Sophisticated Elegance

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s

Casually holding her cigarette, Holly Golightly gazes at the camera with her careless confidence. Sophisticated, elegant are the words to describe her – the exact words 1920s falls into – sophisticated elegance. 

Carefully combed hair, perfectly fit tuxedo and casual decadent flappers are only ones of the many example of this sophisticated elegance. Glenn Miller’s Jazz music, Scott Joplin’s rag time (e.g. the all famous  Entertainer, originally composed as soundtrack for The Sting),  Peg Leg Bates’ one legged tap dancing show all the excitement and hype of the Roaring Twenties.

All these aren’t too far away from us when The Artist and Midnight in Paris – all set in the 1920s – found their way in nowadays cinema

The black and white silence in The Artist does not dampen any interests but only serve to remind us in this midst of vulgar CG effect or blind production of 3D movies what we want is only sincere originality – something that long ceases to exist since the 1920s.

In a slightly different context, Midnight in Paris recounted all the buzz and noise of the Americans on the French soil. Meeting writers as eminent as Hemingway and Fitzgerald in person in the movie is like taking a trip by time machine back to the 1920s

The dazzling bright light of this Roaring Twenties casts a long shadow of decadence which is all the more attractive. I can not but to lend Fitzgerald’s words in The Great Gatsby to describe it:

“Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiteer in New York –  Every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caters came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby ‘s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors – d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another. 

By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five – piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the breach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colours, and hair bobbed in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introduction forgotten on the sport, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names. “

The lavish waste, heavy percussion jazz and chaotic chats do not suggest any of the moral decay ( if there is such thing as morality) but only the beauty of decadence.

Reaching the peak, this Golden Age, like all other advanced civilisations, is destined to a downfall – opening the door for Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression, chaos, bloodshed and massacre from the Second World War.

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