Archive | May, 2013

Camb-Okinawa: darkness and light in Asia

22 May

s21 museum“Does the genocide museum have a dress code?”

It’s not a phrase I’ve ever typed into Google, certainly not on holiday, but it was necessary research a couple of weekends ago in Phnom Penh. Cambodia isn’t really like any other SE Asian country I’ve ever visited but it doesn’t take long to realise that a sombre trip to the Killing Fields and the notorious S21 prison are essential, if harrowing, stops.

I’m not going to prattle on like a sententious twump about why they’re important, you can figure that out for yourself. But reading a forced confession of some poor sod from my old school in NE England whose life was abruptly terminated at the hands of the Khymer Rouge does rather focus the mind. Reading all about the horrors of the ’70s and the turbulence that followed for decades afterwards, it seems churlish to complain about the food (pretty terrible) or the horrific sex tourism (the Heart of Darkness club is aptly named) in Cambodia. That didn’t stop me, of course.

I didn’t make it out to the Angkor Wat wonderland but the highlights for me were the smiley, smiley locals – you’ll never meet more polite hustlers in your life* – the dirt cheap beer, and the other worldliness of a city which was almost entirely depopulated during the late ’70s.

As lovely as Cambodia was, however, it was eventually time to pack away the Gary Glitter costume and head somewhere slightly closerkaraoke to home, culturally at least: Okinawa. Now there are two types of people in this world: those who see a five day forecast of torrential storms and brave it to the beach anyway, like IDIOTS, and those who decide to cut their losses and spend their entire weekend eating and drinking. So it was we discovered that the delights of Okinawan nightlife are even more delightful perhaps than Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

Naha is more chilled, more friendly and more accessible for the gaijin tourist than virtually any place in Japan proper I’ve been. That’s probably down to the fact it isn’t really Japan at all but part of the ancient kingdom of Ryukyu – the locals don’t much look like Japanese and they’ve a different dialect and even separate languages, although the two distinct cultures seem to have found a pretty sweet balance on these sub-tropical islands.


Cue lots of counter-stool-beer-izakaya action; plenty of chopstick competence-related comments; complementary shots of local firewater awamori; and the odd lock-in listening to the owner’s Led Zeppelin collection. Food = as good as you’d expect from Japan; beer = ditto; random events = cracking; brothels = surprisingly un-hidden; amusing Engrish signage = in abundance.

All in all an excellent quick-stop weekend destination from HK, especially thanks to Abenomics and the weak, weak yen.  The only dud was Black Harlem, a bar chocked full of over 10,000 vinyl records playing the most beautiful soul music but with the most miserable customer/bar staff combo known to man. In an irony which did not escape us as we exited post haste after one drink, it simply had no soul.

(*99% of the time anyway. My mate did have her flip flops nicked outside the Killing Fields museum. Who does that??)

Kommen sie hier Hong Kong und listen to Kraft-Blur!

9 May

kraftwerkHong Kong outdid itself over the weekend with the London bus-style arrival of two global musical giants of very different pedigree – Kraftwerk and Blur. Both showed up what’s best and worst about the city’s live music tastes.

Having spent Saturday afternoon drinking Tsingtao and listening to krautrock our expectations were suitably piqued ahead of the electro-pioneers’ 3D gig at Kowloon’s Kitec centre. There was only one problem – no bar in the venue and no drinks allowed inside. At a gig? Seriously? So after muttering to the box office staff something about my inalienable rights and that I’d see them in Strasbourg, we rejoined to the venue’s apparently only café, to find it had stopped serving half an hour before the gig was due to start.

It is a testament to Kraftwerk’s magical electronic plinky plonkings that being forced to drink warm Blue Girl Imported Premium Lager and chow down on a microwaveable 7-11 hot dog did not ruin my evening before it had even started. 3-D glasses firmly in place we were treated to two hours of a Kraftwerk greatest hits show, complete with nicely retro three dimensional projections. Autobahn, Robots, Tour De France, The Model, Trans Europe Express, Musique Non Stop – the music and visuals just about distracted from the appalling skin-tight bathing suits these four portly middle-aged men were wearing. For the record, Kraftwerk dress auf der linken Seite.hiroshima - kraftwer

Apparently chief songwriter Ralf Hütter is the only remaining original member of the band. To be honest one Teutonic sounding sex offender looks very much like another when plonked behind a plinth wearing a skin-tight bathing suit, so no great loss there. Good tunes. No banter. A simple auf widersehen and then they were off to go cruising Lockhart Rd, or more probably back to the hotel for a slice of strudel and a sleepy. Quality.

Blur was an altogether different beast. In what was billed as their farewell tour the English indie legends blasted through a 90 minute set of such quality it was almost impossible to choose the lame song to go to the toilet during. Albarn spent the gig jumping and spazzing about like a 23-year-old, with Coxon coaxing unearthly howlings from his geetar (solo highlight: Trimm Trab) and Alex James, well, standing off to one side looking louche and thinking of cheese. Age has certainly not withered them, although Albarn managed to throw a bit of a hissy fit when his guitar malfunctioned during Tender and the crowd had to step in to calm him down with an impromptu a cappella version of the chorus, like a long-suffering mother dealing with an ADHD-riddled child.

The highlight, early on, came when the Gorillaz front man apologised for not having made it to HK with Blur until now – 25 years after forming. Their upcoming gig in Japan had been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, he continued, meaning the boys had a week free which they planned to spend in the SAR trying to write a new album. Cue screams of delight from the audience. Whether we’ll ever see the fruits of this week’s Blur holiday in Hong Kong remains to be seen, although Albarn has already penned the imperious Hong Kong with Gorillaz.

So, thanks Hong Kong, but can we have more of this in future please and sort the bar situation out? It’s pretty embarrassing when you begin to get out-muscled on the live music front by Singapore, although judging by the noticeable gaps in the crowd at both venues, it’s no more than some of us deserve.

(PS I might add some videos to this post if I can work out how to do it)