Weekend Getaway in NYC

Every time I visit New York, I feel at home. My friends tell me how they wouldn’t be able to handle the hustle and bustle, but that’s exactly what draws me in. Each corner you turn, a new story is waiting to be discovered, whether it be a local art studio, a new café, or skateboarders filming on a Sunday afternoon.

This time, I wandered much of the city alone, which was exactly what I needed to let me mind slip away from reality. Initially an unplanned weekend in the city, I made some of the best memories letting my instincts guide me to the Frick Collection and sipping my first ever cappuccino.

But having good people to share certain moments with is just as necessary, let’s say for a thrilling interactive Shakespeare play or a lazy morning dim sum.

Nova with scallion cream cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers on a garlic bagel from Ess-a-Bagel. I wouldn't have noticed this little gem if I didn't purposely search for it. The long line was well worth the wait.
Nova with scallion cream cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers on a garlic bagel from Ess-a-Bagel. I wouldn’t have noticed this little gem if I didn’t purposely search for it. The long line was well worth the wait.

After a long night of catching up with a friend, I needed a pick-me-up the next morning. I rarely drink coffee, but Blue Bottle Coffee was right around the corner, famous for their cappuccinos. I can’t compare with anything else since this was my first cappuccino ever, but it was delightfully warm with a subtle nutty aftertaste.

from Blue Bottle Coffee
Cappuccino from Blue Bottle Coffee

On my way to the Frick Collection, I passed by Central Park and came across Parisian sculptor Tatiana Trouvé’s “Desire Lines.”

An installation of different colored ropes that represent all 212 paths in Central Park
Tatiana Trouvé’s “Desire Lines,” an installation of different colored ropes that represent all 212 paths in Central Park

I highly recommend The Frick Collection. Originally Henry Clark Frick’s house, he intended to build it to display beautiful art he valued. The house is preserved with his furnishings just as if he were still here.

Before our anticipated play at the McKittrick Hotel, my friends and I went to The Meatball Shop in West Village.

Spicy pork meatballs with mushroom gravy over rigatoni from The Meatball Shop. The spices from the meatballs balanced out the gravy and the rigatoni added a hearty touch.
Spicy pork meatballs with mushroom gravy over rigatoni from The Meatball Shop. The spices from the meatballs balanced out the gravy and the rigatoni added a hearty touch.

The highlight of the weekend was, without a doubt, Sleep No More. An interactive theater production by Punchdrunk held in the mysterious McKittrick Hotel, this twist on Shakespeare’s classic tale Macbeth left me speechless with its detailed installments, intricate choreography, and eyebrow-raising storylines. It’s an experience that’s unexplainable in words. You have to be there to see how incredible it is.

What was left from my night at the McKittrick Hotel - my mask and a program explaining the concept behind Sleep No More. Oh, and an obligatory slice from Artichoke Basille's Pizza.
What was left from my night at the McKittrick Hotel – my mask and a program explaining the concept behind Sleep No More. Oh, and an obligatory slice from Artichoke Basille’s Pizza.

You can never pass up a good soup dumpling.

Soup dumplings from Shanghai Café in Chinatown. Their scallion pancakes were also a hit!
Soup dumplings from Shanghai Café in Chinatown. Their scallion pancakes were also a hit!

While wandering our last few hours in Chinatown, we found a skateboarding shoot in progress.

Caught in mid-air
Caught in mid-air

Our last stop before heading back to DC, some sweet treats for sweet people.

Handmade sweets from Doughnut Plant
Handmade sweets from Doughnut Plant
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Check this out: Jenny Pan Photography

If you’ve read my post on UrbanKnowlogy 101’s Rock the Runway Fashion Show 2011, then you probably saw the wonderful photos that captured some of our moments in our performance. The select pieces provide just a sample of the amount of talent and creativity that originates from the growing photographer I’m about to introduce.

As a friend and a long-term fan of her work, I am happy to present to you Jenny Pan Photography, Jenny’s personal website which highlights her best compositions. My favorite albums are of the food and New York City, but her portrait shots are also at the top of the list. Here’s a preview of her most recent updates:

Property of Jenny Pan
Property of Jenny Pan

So click on her page already and browse away!

Yanji: Food

I’ve been in Beijing for almost a month now, but these posts for Yanji are still hanging over my head.  I don’t like to skip out on highlighting what I’ve experienced so far this year, and this was the perfect weekend to play a little catch up.  What better way to come back than with some tasty treats to reminisce about?

During my stay at home, the phrase “多吃” (eat more) was repeated to me the most out of all the “Be careful when you’re by yourself in Beijing,” or “Make sure you stay healthy,” or other words of care for when I start at Tsinghua.  Out of all requests and warnings, my relatives wanted me to eat constantly, to the point where I think I gained at least five pounds by the time I left.  But no matter, they convinced me that once I leave I won’t be able to enjoy the foods they were offering (especially since I heard campus food at Tsinghua is at the most okay) so I might as well indulge in what was on my plate at the moment.

*Excuse the quality of some photos, I didn’t have my Canon camera with me all the time, therefore resorted to my iPhone.

糖葫芦 (tanghulu), a specialty from the north, was my favorite snack when I was little.  Traditionally, it’s a bamboo stick full of hawthorn fruits covered in sugar.  The fresh treats are usually sold outside at stands, so the sweet sauce naturally stays frozen in the cold, making it only available in the winter, thus only in the north.  Nowadays, they also have variations of this candy including chocolate, kiwi, nuts, and grapes.

 

Whenever I go back to Yanji, there are two things I always have to eat before I leave – cold noodles and lamb kabobs.  Ironically, my grandmother dislikes both, and the weather wasn’t friendly for the cold noodles this time around, but I didn’t care.  By now, it’s a tradition two of my meals must consist one or the other each time I visit my hometown.

Yanji is a lot more developed since I last visited, meaning new shops and restaurants, including a famous lamb kabob chain called 丰茅窜店 (fengmao cuandian), or Feng Mao Kabobs.  Luckily my aunt made reservations so we didn’t have to wait, but for those who didn’t plan a day ahead, you are welcome to surf the internet in the lobby or watch your kids play on their indoor playground during the cue.  Some are willing to wait one or two hours before the next table is available.  This is a smart way to keep the customers waiting and say that they want to serve everyone, as long as you’re patient.

Well, I definitely had a party with the kabobs.  They were nothing less than fantastic.

 

Many times my plans revolved around food, like that’s a surprise now.  However, I remember it was particularly hard to plan out getting cold noodles.  The weather was either too cold or I had other plans.  And of course, I could only have cold noodles if they had these chicken meatballs with a certain crispness to it.  Otherwise, it’s not cold noodles to me.  My grandpa knew exactly what I was talking about so he took us to the most famous cold noodles restaurant in Yanji (it’s a shame I don’t remember the name).  I finally satisfied my craving of five years, and it tasted exactly as how I remembered it to be.

 My aunt also knows I love hot pot, so she took us to a restaurant that is known for its variety of sauces.  Gosh, it felt like heaven.

 

In the 13 days I was in Yanji, I went to more shopping centers and food markets than anything else.  If you want fresh vegetables and meat picked and butchered the morning of, you would want to go to the east or west 市场 (markets) where you can pick it out yourself and bargain with the merchants.

Another favorite of mine?  Red bean buns, one of the many options I had at my grandparents’ house from the bread, pancakes, and other 饼 (bing), what we call staples made from flour.

From this post, it looks like all I did was eat.  That’s partly true, aside from taking naps and preparing the meals.  But seriously, I originally planned on finishing up my trip in Yanji in one more post.  Then I realized this wouldn’t do the food justice, nor would it properly draw attention to the things I learned beyond the eateries.  This post is for me to drool over how I miss Yanji, but next post will be a little more personal.

Yanji: Chinese New Year Month

In the U.S., the New Year comes and goes on January 1st with families and friends gathered together on the eve and perhaps a day to recover from the festivities.  In China, the New Year begins an entire month before the lunar January 1 and is celebrated for another month after that.  This year, I was able to join in on some of the annual traditions with my relatives from my hometown, 延吉 (Yanji).  Having moved to the states when I was five, this will be the first Chinese New Year that I can remember celebrating properly in the homeland.  Surprisingly I was unable to recount any memories of what this holiday was like when I was little, so I was really excited to spend it with them this year.

During my stay, I always had great conversations with my grandpa whenever we went grocery shopping or hiking on 帽儿山 (Mao’er Mountain).  I asked him when we shopped for bread one day how he and my grandma prepare for Chinese New Year, because as far as I know we clean a few days before the eve and then eat dumplings on the new year.  For him and most families in Yanji, they begin cleaning the house the first week of December before the new year.  They will dust and wipe down every piece of furniture, scrub the floors, dispose of any unwanted clutter in their drawers, and wash their clothes to make sure all the dirty “bad luck” is washed away for a clean slate in the new year.

To prepare for the food, they buy the vegetables and flour about a week to two weeks so they can pick and clean them to be ready by the last week.  On the 24th, people will clean their houses again to ensure all the dust gathered in the last few days is out.  Nowadays, families who are busier with full-time jobs and school work will wait until the 24th to properly clean their house for time’s sake.  On the 25th and 26th, smells of freshly chopped vegetables and raw flour will fill the rooms for the 馒头 (steamed buns) and savory dishes.  As the new year date approaches, families traditionally make a month’s supply of 馒头 to store, use the fryer, and make seafood.  On the 30th, the last day of the lunar year, children are given 红包 (red envelopes) by their grandparents, parents, and any close elder relatives.  The color red is for good luck, and the envelopes are a way to wish the children to stay young and lively.  One of my friends my age joked that she can’t receive 红包 anymore because she’s too old now.

At midnight on the 1st day of the New Year, families begin eating their first meal of 饺子 (dumplings), fish, noodles, and any dishes special to their family.  If you’re lucky, you’ll receive one of the few 饺子 with a coin in the middle of its filling, indicating that you will receive good fortune and wealth for the rest of the year.  The noodles represent a long life, and the fish brings you good fortune as well (I forgot the exact meaning behind it).  Leftovers are always expected because it means you will have a good harvest for the remainder of the year.  When my grandpa was young, he would go over to his friends’ houses or vice versa to celebrate with sparklers and watch fireworks together.

Then comes the month after the big day.  During this time men do not cut their hair, women do not wash their clothes, and families do not use the frying pan.  I forget the significance of the hair and clothing, but using the frying pan creates a lot of smoke and rusting on the bottom of the pan, both indicators of bad luck.  This is when you eat your leftovers and 馒头 to limit cooking new food as much as possible.  At the end of the month, men can finally go to the barber and cut off their “dragon tail.”

Of course, this is just a guide to the traditions carried over the years, so I’m sure every family has its variances, but I thought the no haircut rule and making the piles of 馒头 was interesting.  I arrived on the 10th of the lunar year, which doesn’t indicate anything specific, though I was welcomed to my grandma and grandpa’s delicious cooking:

The 13th day is 立春 (Lichun) where we eat bean sprouts and meat wrapped in thin pancakes.  This light meal is to refresh our stomachs from eating so much heavy foods in the first 12 days:

The 15th is 元宵节 (yuanxiaojie), also known as the Lantern Festival, where families eat 元宵, sweet rice balls with various fillings such as peanut and red bean.  These are made by putting flour and sugar together and mixing it in a pan.  The ingredients eventually stick together to make small circular shapes, rather than 汤圆 which taste similar but are stuffed like dumplings.  Outside my grandparents’ apartment we could see fireworks lighting up the night and lanterns floating about in the sky:

My lunar birthday was the following day, so my family insisted on celebrating at a nice restaurant along with a beautiful cake that my aunt helped pick out:

When elders retire, many of them they like to spend time playing instruments in a local orchestra or dancing 扭秧歌 (niuyangge), aka shaking their tail feathers to Chinese folk music.  Each year they have a competition to see which team has the best costumes and routines.  I found the acts to be quite long, but they gave me a chance to capture good shots on camera:

It was great being able to jump right into the celebrations when I arrived in Yanji.  Of course food is always a big part of the traditions, but I liked just sitting at home with my family to talk about the old times.  We call from overseas from time to time, but physically being there under the care of my relatives brought a wave of nostalgia in me that will make me miss those innocent days as a toddler.

Snowing in Seoul

If you’re visitng Seoul and looking for a hostel to stay at for a few days, I highly recommend BiBim Guest House.  After taking a nice hot shower (which seems rare at other hostels I reviewed online), Panda cooked my serving of complimentary breakfast, part of every guest’s visiting experience.  He and Konda make a great effort in making each guest feel at home by driving us to the subway station to avoid the cold and offering plenty of advice on what to see and what to pass up.

With one day, I could cover four areas of downtown Seoul – the Bukchon Village, Namsangol Hanok Village, the Myeong-dong Shopping District, and the Namdaemun Market.  I started by taking the subway up north of the city to Bukchon Village, a neighborhood built with traditional Korean architecture.

Throughout the village, there are history museums and art galleries that you can visit for a small entrance fee.  You can also learn how to tie traditional knots or create your own piece of calligraphy at one of their many workshops.

Feeling a bit hungry, I went inside a shop selling furniture and decor to ask the owner where was the closest bibimbap restaurant.  She kindly directed me back towards the Anguk station where I got off for the Bukchon Village, and there I found a block full of soup shops and other eatery.  I was determined to try a bowl of bibimbap because it’s one of my favorite Korean dishes that I can find in the states, so I walked into a restaurant next to the Anguk station just small enough to fit locals and tired shoppers stopping by for a lunch break.

Yes, it was different.  The gochujang (spicy pepper paste) was placed in the middle of the rice rather than on top, and the rice simmered and clinged to the stone pot turning into a nice crunchy texture.  The kimchi had just the right amount of pepper and the seaweed left a sweet and salty aftertaste, leaving me wondering and wanting more after each bite.

I headed toward the Chungmuro station to see Namsangol Hanok Village but first stopped at Korea House, a performing arts center next to the village featuring folk performances and a museum.  I missed the daily performance but was able to walk through their gift shop full of award-winning wood crafts and trinkets.

A block down was the entrance to Namsangol Hanok Village,  leading to five main Hanok houses representing furniture and household goods from the lives of the Korean ancestors from the Joseon Dynasty.  Little snowflakes started to fill the air, and within an hour the grounds were covered with a soft white blanket.  I managed to get a few photos in before the snow came down too strong:

I originally planned to walk to the Myeongdong district because it was very close, but in this snow I caved and took the subway one stop over to Myeongdong, where shopping begins underground in the subway station.  Once you exit, Uniqlo, SPAO, and Nature Republic dominate the five or so blocks along with other popular brands sponsored by K-pop idols and actors.

Unfortunately, I didn’t bring enough money for leisure spending, but it may have been a good thing because I was tempted to try on so many jackets and shoes.  Just looking at the displays made me want to change my entire wardrobe.  My feet were getting really cold from the snow, so I found a Tom N Toms Coffee Shop to rest and warm up before I headed to my last destination.

I ate my Korean pancake paired with a freshly squeezed grapefruit tea and read the The Hunger Games.  Before I left the states, I heard so many people raving about this book, so I decided to borrow it from my sister on Kindle.  She warned me that once I start reading I won’t be able to put it down.  She was absolutely right.  I meant to finish a few chapters to take a break from walking all day, but I came out of that coffee shop finishing the rest of the book in four hours.  I could have been wandering more of the city in this time, but my feet were so cold and it was still snowing outside that I was perfectly happy situated inside.  I came across this gif on my friend’s Tumblr the other day, and it’s exactly how I felt when I finished it.

To celebrate the completion, I decided to check out my fourth and last stop in downtown Seoul for the day – Namdaemun Market, a tourist market selling clothes, gadgets, and souvenirs.  By the time I arrived everything was closing up, so I decided to just get some food to go.  A friend told me to avoid this area because it’s swarming with tourists, but I’m guessing the snow drove a lot of them away.

I took the subway back and enjoyed my kimbap and soup back at the warm hostel, chatting and meeting some Australian, English, and French students on holiday.  I’d say my thirty-six hours in Seoul were spent very well but I definitely want to go back and see some palaces and museums when the weather is nicer.  Now onto recounting my childhood memories in my hometown!

First Stop – Seoul, South Korea

With limited access to internet in my hometown, I’ve barely been able to update here!  For the next few days, I’ll be able to cover some highlights of what I’ve been up to the last few weeks.  After a 13-hour-and-20-some-minute flight, I landed in the Incheon International Airport late afternoon on January 30 dragging my semester’s worth of luggage to a storage service, which at that point made me realize that my Korean vocabulary only included “hello,” “thank you” and “goodbye” so communication was a struggle.

I was soon reassured that the language barrier wouldn’t be a problem by Konda, the owner of BiBim Guest House, a hostel located in the Hongdae district and about a ten minute walk from the Hongik University Station.  I was immediately welcomed into the hostel with a steaming cup of tea and soon conversing with Konda as if we had known each other for weeks.  He showed me some districts to check out and extended an invitation to dinner later that night.  We met up with an Australian student and went to a restaurant called EdaiJo Pyudaki to have HeiJangKook, a creamy spicy broth with pork and vegetables, known as a popular hangover dish for locals.  It was a little spicy to be considered comfort food, but the soup helped me warm up from the chilly weather outside.

Despite the low temperature, I decided to take a walk around the Hongdae District where it’s known for the reputable Hongik University and energetic night life.  Aside from the enormous amount of university students populating the streets, there was nothing too out of the ordinary in this area – it reminds me of the Shinjuku district in Tokyo.

I’ve been wanting to visit Seoul for a long time, but given the weather and time I had a limited amount of places to go.  I wasted no time asking Panda, the host of BiBim, about areas that would be most convenient to see in one day.  Next post, I’ll be showing photos of some villages and shopping districts that I was able to fit in the next day!

Taiwan: “Five minutes til closing, let’s go see the hippos!”

Day 16 highlights: Ministry of Education, Taipei Zoo, and Taipei 101

This month has been crazy busy, but for my own sake, I’m going to keep recording my adventures from Taiwan.

I’ve come to realize that I usually keep my adrenaline up nonstop for 2 weeks and then crash for 2 days to preserve my energy.  Not the most ideal way to live life but it definitely helped me in Taiwan, because after my 2 days hibernating in the hostel, I got some major sight-seeing done the last few days of my stay.

Amy, Michael, Dr. Heylen, and I met with the Ministry of Education, Taiwan, for lunch.  It was an honor being able to dine with the ministry and discuss what we have learned so far during our stay.  Michael and I were leaving soon so they suggested places we should visit before our departures.

The Taipei Zoo was a tourist spot highly recommended by the hostel staff and others who I met from TCP, so I decided to take a trip to East Taipei via MRT with Chris from Montreal, and Estelle, a solo traveler from Switzerland on this hot but beautiful afternoon.  After staying in Taiwan for two weeks so far, I imagined myself being able to comfortably live in a city where the main methods of transportation are by foot, metro, or bus.  Sure, having a car is convenient in terms of carrying all your groceries back on weekly food trips or protecting yourself from slanted raindrops (where umbrellas are just completely useless), but I felt so much healthier walking and being outside in order to go places.

Chris, Estelle and I arrived at the zoo with an hour before it closed, so we circled the park as quickly as we could, dashing from one exhibit to the next before it was too late.

He was just hanging out on the tree, no big.

Flamingos!

With five minutes left at the zoo, Chris suggested a visit to the hippos.  This is the pygmy hippopotamus, which is relatively smaller than the common hippo, but still very strong!

People commonly combine their trip to the zoo with a ride in the Maokong Gondola, which is what Chris and Estelle and I decided as well.  Covering 4.3 kilometers between Taipei and Maokong, tourists can take this all-glass covered gondola lift and watch the lush green trees pass by.  To be honest, I was really nervous to be enclosed in a car where I could see everything around me, including the ground 200-300 feet below me.  About a minute into the ride I relaxed and started taking in the scenery – there was just something so serene about getting away from the hustle and bustle of Taipei and grazing over the masses of green in peace.

Gondola lift

After our lovely ride and conversations about culture in Canada and Switzerland, we parted ways and I met up with Marisa to finally have a look at Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world symbolizing Taiwan’s evolution of technology accompanied with a large shopping mall of various name brands.  We arrived at night, where all the buildings and bridges were beautifully lit.

And of course, the famous LOVE sculpture by American artist Robert Indiana:

Marisa and I had a lot of fun just roaming around the city, and we agreed that even after this trip we would stay in touch about our travels and future plans.  It just so happens that she will be in China for the fall semester, and I will be applying for a program in Spring 2012.  We will definitely have a lot to tell each other in the next year!

Taiwan: Unexpected familiar faces

Day 13 highlights: It’s Battle Time Vol. 3 and peculiar street food

It’s been WAY too long since I’ve last updated, so I apologize to those who were waiting.  Enjoy the photos and videos!

And so the day arrived – the big dance battle at Kainan University.  Though, I’m sure this is only one of many that take place in Taiwan, I was so excited because it was my first time going to an official battle.  (insert cheers here).

We took the metro to Taipei Main Station and then rode a train to Taoyuan County, which is an hour south of Taipei.  Our tickets said “no seat” so we had to either stand the whole way or sit in the back against the walls.  We chatted and made jokes along the way, and before we knew it Taoyuan was the next stop!  Immediately coming out of the station, we spotted two students holding the poster I saw at NTUST.  This was great for contestants who were unsure of where they were going or for people like us who needed a little guidance getting to the university:

Photo Credit: Christopher Dragan

We took two cabs and we failed greatly in creating small talk with our driver.  Our conversation pretty much went like this:

“So what is there to do near Kainan University?”
“There’s really not much to do near Kainan, it’s really small.”
“Oh ok, then what do you suggest seeing in Taoyuan?”
“I don’t really know.  Taoyuan’s really big, there’s a lot to do here.”

Yep, so the rest of the trip we just talked among ourselves.  About 15 minutes later, we arrived in front of Kainan University:

It was really quiet near the gates (I’m thinking everyone was already at the gym and warming up because the competition was scheduled to start in 10 minutes) but we found a group just pulling up in a taxi, and followed them to the gym.  One of the guys looked extremely familiar, but I couldn’t tell if I was just making stuff up in my head.  It turns out that I saw him dancing at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial last Sunday, and his friend had taken classes with Tony and Andye when I went on Monday and Tuesday.  What a small world!  We heard music blasting as we approached the gym, and upon entering, all I could do was drop my jaw at the number of people here:

Photo Credit: Conrad Woo

I chatted with Elaine, the girl from the group we followed, and we started sharing our experiences in dance and our admiration for the contestants participating in the battle today.  Elaine was here to support two of her friends who were competing in the hip hop round of the battle.  It was delayed for about 45 minutes, I’m guessing to ensure that everyone had enough time to practice and prepare their muscles for the long day.  Here’s a video of the gym about 30 minutes before the battle began:

Video Credit: Conrad Woo

The emcee announced that the battle was officially starting, so everyone gathered around the front of the gym, leaving a spacious square in the middle for the dancers.  This is how it played out:

Round 1: Audition

Today’s battle consisted of three categories: hip hop, popping, and locking, and each team competed in pairs.  Each style had three judges who specialized in that particular area of dance and voted on who would advance to the next round.  In the tryout process, teams went up in threes and had one minute to show their potential to the judges.  First up, hip hop (sorry, the focus isn’t too great on this one):

Photo Credit: Felix Alfelor
Photo Credit: Felix Alfelor

The poppers:

Photo Credit: Felix Alfelor

And last but not least, the lockers:

I already knew that Xiao Hei, the instructor I met at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial last Sunday, was a judge for the hip hop category, but I didn’t expect to see the popping instructor I just took a lesson from to be there as well.  Needless to say, he was judging for the popping round of the competition.  I asked Xiao Hei if he thought any of the teams stood out today, and he mentioned that a pair from Japan was pretty good.  Later on, I realized he was talking about Kento, the Japanese dancer who guest taught at HRC earlier this week.  When I watched him dance, I could tell that he definitely stood out from the crowd.  We called him pocket-sized because he was so little yet so full of energy.

Round 2: Spotlight

The judges from each category determined which teams would advance to the next round, which required each pair to do a spotlight dance:

From Locking round | Video Credit: Conrad Woo

Round 3: Preliminary battle

The judges then chose the top 16 pairs in each category to begin the preliminary two-on-two battles.  Here, the pairs competed against each other through a random drawing, the judges decided individually who should move on, and the team with at least 2 votes of 3 would continue onto the semi-finals.

Some hip hop:

Popping:

Locking:

Round 4: Semi-finals

The top eight chosen from the previous top 16 then battled it against each other until the judges picked the top 4, and then the top 2 teams.  Elaine’s friends made it to the top 8 but were cut right before the top 4.  Here, they had a three-way battle because there was an odd number of teams:

From Hip Hop Round | Video Credit: Conrad Woo

Round 5: Finals

Finals for hip hop started right away, with Kento and his partner as one team, and my hip hop instructor from yesterday and his partner as another.  After a grueling battle of 3 rounds, Kento and his partner snatched the title of Best Hip Hop Dancers at IBT Vol. 3’s battle:

It was about 5:00PM by now, so they let the dancers take a break and it was the judges’ turns to perform solos.  Here’s the first popping judge:

And here’s the popping teacher I took class from the day before:

After the break, we returned with the semi-finals for the popping contestants, switched to the lockers, and then the popping final began:

Video Credit: Conrad Woo

My friends and I were rooting for the team on the left for their creativity, but according to the judges the pair on the right had better technique and were more well-rounded.  Congrats to them!

The lockers showed so much energy and determination even after waiting so long for the other rounds to complete.  After the top two teams gave all they could to the judges, the winners for the popping and locking of It’s Battle Time Vol. 3 were finally announced.

Eight hours.  That’s how long the battle was from the first round of tryouts to the last locking final.  We were tired from just watching dancers in the audience, so I can’t imagine how the contestants must have felt.  I spoke with our favorite popping group, and the pair told me they managed to pulled their routines together just a week before this battle.  Of course, they practice their other freestyling on a regular basis, but their time spent together was pretty limited.  I’d say with a week’s worth of practicing, second place is not bad at all.

We cabbed it back to the Taoyuan train station and on the way back to the metro, Jacqueline, Josiah, Conrad, and I went to Ximen for dinner.  Ximen at night is like the typical hangout spot for many young people, with street food, shops, clubs, bars, and restaurants of all types.  I even saw Elaine’s friend from the dance battle there!  In a matter of 30 minutes or so, I tried the most foreign Taiwanese food that I’ve been scouting for my entire trip.  First up, rice sausage and pig blood popsicles:

Retrieved from http://www.jaunted.com

I was not a fan of the rice sausage.  At all.  I’ve seen it at night markets before and Lucas mentioned that it was pretty good, so I decided to try it.  It’s basically rice stuffed into pork sausage skin.  No, thanks.  My camera battery died at the dance battle so I couldn’t take any more photos for the night, but I wouldn’t have even wanted to save an image of this thing.

The pig blood popsicles were better.  The ones I had were squares of rice seasoned in pork blood and stacked atop another forming a pattern of diamonds.  One of my friends tried it before and said it was sweet, and I do agree that there is a hint of tart from the blood.  Overall, it was much better than my attempted half bite in my rice sausage.  You’re probably thinking how gross both of these sound, but I was thinking of taking advantage of tasting what I couldn’t back in the U.S., and for the most part I’ve been pretty satisfied.

Next, we have stinky tofu:

Photo Credit: Conrad Woo

You know you’re near a stinky tofu stand when you feel the stench creeping up your nostrils, hence the lovely name of this dish.  It’s fried in a soy-sauce type oil and you can choose what sauces to go with it, but it is usually recommended to have something spicy to complement the stinkiness.  The tofu itself is not too bad.  I’ve had the “Chinese” version where it’s slow-cooked to create a creamy texture.  This one is soft and stays truer to its tofu consistency.

We stopped by a famous Taiwanese fried chicken chain and got a big bag to share among the four of us.  The chicken was great, but I think what makes this place special is the staff.  They all do this little chant basically saying that fried chicken is yummy and tossing the chicken is fun.  They do the “are you sure?” when people order the small bag to upsell the sizes.  They seem to be having a lot of fun working together, and if they’re not they are certainly faking it well.

I wanted something refreshing to wash down the stinky tofu and chicken aftertaste, so we found a shaved ice shop down the street.  This was without a doubt my favorite dessert I had in Taipei.  Shaved ice made with milk covered with fresh kiwi, strawberries, and mango, with a scoop of mango ice cream just to top it off.  This beats any smoothie or fruit dessert I’ve ever had in my life.  Yeah, in my life.

Photo Credit: Conrad Woo

We were on the metro heading back the hostel when Marisa called and told us to meet up at Ximen for the night.  Just as the doors were opening for us to change trains, Conrad and I decided to stay on and take it back to Ximen to see what Marisa, Jing Jing, Jeremy, and Bixx were up to.  We met them at Cafe Dalida, one of the many outdoor bars near the Red House Theater.  Then we took a taxi over to Cafe Fresh near the hostel and danced the night away.

I gave myself a pat on the back for quite the successful day of my two favorite subjects: dancing and food.  A few weeks later, I found out about a b-boying battle called Battle of the Year, an international battle that started in 1990 and the finals this year are hosted in Montpellier, France.  I felt like I should know that…still so much to learn!  Anyways, the Taiwan section was taking place on July 9, just two weeks after I left, so I was kind of bummed.  However, now that I know of it, I can plan to make one of these preliminaries or even finals in the coming years, either in the U.S. or maybe even abroad! 

Taiwan: Studio hopping on a Friday night

Day 12 highlights: NTNU meeting, HRC Dance Academy, and Merry Monarc

This morning Amy, Michael, and I met with Dr. Heylen and Professor Zhuang at NTNU for our first official gathering, reflecting on our stay in Taiwan and research progress to date.  Of course, I raved about the accessibility of my findings and the overwhelming support I have received from the dance community.

Since my topic is a part of Taiwanese popular culture, the scene may be more exposed in daily life than Michael’s (“influence of Confucianism on the education system,” check out his blog here) and Amy’s (“alcoholism in aborigine tribes”) research.  Though, both Dr. Heylen and Professor Zhuang were extremely helpful by suggesting various scholars on my peers’ topics.

We followed Meng-Chia, Dr. Heylen’s graduate assistant, to NTNU’s library so we could familiarize ourselves with the catalog services and layout of the building.  We found ourselves in the midst of a birthday ceremony for a former well-known Taiwanese artist, if I remember correctly.  His daughter was present in his place to express gratitude and appreciation for the attendees.  NTNU has an efficient online database, as with many universities, and ample room for students to study in its eight stories of open stacks and private study areas.

Lunch was at a Taiwanese restaurant in the Shida night market, or I guess day market now.  There is a set menu for each day, so most of us ordered the chicken recommended by Professor Zhuang.  We were served melon soup for our appetizer and milk tea for dessert.  Throughout our conversations we discovered that Professor Zhuang was well versed in the boy band culture during her younger years and Amy shared her experience attending an American university versus learning from the Taiwanese education system during her childhood.

Back at the Cat’s PJ’s, I was introduced to two new guests, Conrad and Josiah.  Both are from the U.S. but flew from Korea for traveling and teaching English respectively.  I am impressed with how many people come to Taiwan by themselves just for leisure.  I personally think traveling alone it is one of the best ways to learn about myself – how I manage my own time, what I find interesting, how I interact with people in a new environment, making new friends I may have not if I traveled with other people.

Conrad said he wasn’t sure what his plans were for the next few days, so I suggested checking out the dance battle with me tomorrow.  Two minutes later, I had the whole lounge agreeing on a day trip to Kainan University for It’s Battle Time Vol. 3.  Honestly, I was skeptical about how enthusiastic everyone was about this event, let alone expressing interest in going.  But I guess, how many times can you say you’ve been to a dance battle in Taiwan while on vacation, right?

The excitement for tomorrow motivated me even more to check out the dance classes I planned to take tonight near the Sun Yat-Sen MRT station.  First, I went to HRC Dance Academy, one of the studios I found last week.  This studio is known for its breakdance classes, but they also offer hip hop, popping, locking, jazz, MV (music video) style, LA style, girl style, reggae, house, and other combinations of jazz and contemporary movement.  I decided to sign up for their popping class, hoping for something different but not too difficult to pick up.

The lobby has lockers and a rest area with TV’s promoting their upcoming events and commercial reels.  Along the walls are their company merchandise of t-shirts, hats, and pants are neatly displayed hung and folded.  On the right I found Studio A, where they just finished up a jazz fusion class.  Two more studios and a lounge were located in their basement, Studio B being my popping class:

There were only five of us taking this class today, so the instructor could focus on each of us individually.  He was on the calm side, but he explained the concepts of popping very well, even if some terms were beyond my Chinese vocabulary.  Since most of us were beginners, we learned a simple routine that introduced us to basics.  This style is all about contracting the muscles to create the popping illusion and using your core to make your movements distinct and controlled.

After class, I asked the instructor how to improve in this particular style and his thoughts on dance receiving more popularity in schools.  The most experienced dancer in today’s class joined in to listen and pitch in for advice as well (featured post on both of them later).

On June 5, HRC held “The First Step,” their annual spring training showcase where teachers and select students performed dances they have created for the past few months.  Here is their preview:

HRC Dance Academy | The First Step video commercial

Check out 1:43!  I wanted to go, but I decided to wait it out in case I returned to IBT Vol. 3 (which this teacher’s judging at as well!) on Sunday instead.  Nevertheless, it was good to know that as part of their marketing for this event, they used their official website, lobby TV’s, and Facebook as their main sources of advertisement.  I believe many dancers involved in the studio training community also know about this through friends, teachers, and other dancers.

The first time I heard of Merry Monarc was when I met Xiao Hei and Ji Long Han last Sunday, but ever since then this studio has been mentioned most frequently out of all studios in my dance conversations in Taipei.  It was conveniently a five-minute walk away from HRC so I quickly headed over for a hip hop class.

The class rates here are a little more expensive than Lumi and HRC, but this is where you’ll find more intense training and choreography.  Both studios were packed with street jazz and wacking classes just wrapping up; I could tell from their hair and clothes dripping in sweat that I was in for a workout.  Merry Monarc is famous for its popping and hip hop instructors, but they also have house, dance hall, locking, freestyle, and the likes.

Out of all the lessons I’ve attended so far, this hip hop class probably contrasts what I do the most.  I was struggling midway not with the choreography but understanding the looseness of the instructor’s moves without looking like I was flailing my arms around.  The routine definitely felt like hip hop, but the appearance of it reminded me of someone freestyling, which I openly admit I need to work on.  Here he is looking light as a feather on his feet:

Merry Monarc | Hip Hop Class

Although this routine looks relaxed, it calls for a lot of footwork and change of direction.  I was past exhausted by the end, so I decided to return to the hostel and rest up for tomorrow’s trip.  Back at the Cat’s PJ’s I did a little impromptu dance to show what I’ve learned this week, then crashed onto a bean bag for who knows how long.

Taiwan: An afternoon in the studio

Day 11 highlights: dancing with students from National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST)

I started my day having an early lunch with Lucas at a small noodle shop along Shida Road.  It’s seating area is small like many vendor-type restaurants, so finding room to enjoy our fried noodles and wonton soup was a little difficult at first.  Our meal was delicious nonetheless.

We wanted some dessert to balance out the saltiness of our lunch, and what better way to wash it down than having a few fresh fruit served over shaved ice.

I mentioned how interesting it must be working at a hostel because you meet people from everywhere doing all sorts of things (most commonly traveling and studying), however, distance can potentially cause great relationships to deteriorate.  While it’s a great feeling being able to connect with people from all over the world, reality kicks in and we go back to our own lives, eventually losing touch with some of the friends we made the greatest memories with.  Sad, but many times it’s true.  Though, if both ends really work to keep a friendship strong, it can be a challenging and exciting journey.  I guess for a hostel staff member, you have to think more about the positives – you may stay in touch with your long-distance friends less frequently, but you’ll always meet new people who share new experiences with you in the present.  You lose some, you gain some.

This afternoon, I met Lene at National Taiwan University and walked over to her school, NTUST, a pretty and quiet campus (I forgot to take pictures!).  Her dance team and many others were practicing for their upcoming showcase, so Lene suggested I come by today to see how they run their practices and interview some of the dancers.  When we arrived on the third floor of their student building, I felt like I was in paradise.  The floor welcomed me with an open center for breakdancers to practice or student officers to make big advertisements.  The walls were lined with multiple dance studios and complementary media rooms where teams could study and rest in between rehearsals.  Add in a few private rooms for guitar players, bands, and singers, and you’ve got an entire floor dedicated to student organizations interested in performing arts.

We peeked into Lene’s dance team area, and it turns out they pushed back the start time to half an hour later, so she introduced me to two lockers, Di Gua and Jia Qing, practicing in yet another studio.  I found them rehearsing a routine choreographed by Di Gua (on the right in the beginning):

There are four members total in this dance, but these two guys were putting in extra time to clean it up and work on details.  Since this was Di Gua’s piece, he told Jia Qing what he wanted certain moves to look like and ran the routine a few times for muscle memory.  Taking a break, we sat down and chatted for a bit about how they became interested in dancing and how their organization is structured (featured post on NTUST students coming up).

I learned that even though I see many distinct teams scattered throughout the studios minding their own business, they are all subgroups of one main dance organization led by select members.  This central group, Executive Board in GMU student org terms, provides funding, creates advertisements, and finds sponsors to support the various teams (more on this in the featured post).

I received an exclusive lesson to the basics of locking and danced with these two a little bit before I headed over to Lene’s ladies group.  Their high heels and vogue appearance contrasted much of Di Gua and Jia Qing’s loose and relaxed style.  All of them were having a great time and seemed to have created a family, reminding me of UK 101 back home.  It was great to see these girls and everyone else working so diligently for a hobby.

Lene and I later watched a popping group, where they seemed to be learning a routine just a week before the show.  I was watching the student who coached his teammates, and I noticed that he had a lot in common with the other students who I witnessed in the same position.  Generally, they are patient, calm, and encouraging to their teammates, which is an important asset to making the learning process enjoyable.  I appreciated that he was open to questions and pointed out individuals who stood out to help them improve.

On my way out, Lene and I stopped by the lounge for dancers, and before I knew it, I was jotting down details for It’s Battle Time Vol. 3, a dance battle taking place this Saturday and Sunday June 4-5 at Kainan University.  I first glanced at the poster and did a second take realizing what it actually advertised.  Then, I noticed a familiar face on the judges panel for hip hop – Xiao Hei from Merry Monarc!  I didn’t have high expectations of attending it but got the details just in case.

Tonight, Jing Jing and Bixx took Marisa and I to Roxy Rocker, one of the clubs under the entertainment company Roxy Taipei.  This one in particular boasts a library lined with 10,000 vinyls and vintage decor paired with comfy couches, a perfect place to relax and listen to your favorite oldies.  What better way to start the weekend?