Keeping Darkness at Bay

For various reasons, touring San Francisco always gives us perplexed feelings. Meandering contours, lingering fogginess, and colorful shades all render the city dazzling and dynamic, but also lofty and eccentric.  In a practical sense, the sinuous, traffic-jammed 40-mile drive between the suburban town we live in and the ocean-side metropolis makes it more distant and difficult to reach.  Once in a while, however, we would overcome the mental barrier to plan a trip for a specific destination in the city, to feed a corner of our curious minds.

At the end of 2017, we decided to pay a visit to Alcatraz Island, an essential landmark of the San Francisco Bay.  Even though mystery and thrill within Alcatraz’s very fabric, as an abandoned prison, met the requirements for popularity in contemporary culture, it only became appealing to us when we realized that it was now managed by the National Park System for its historical and ecological values.  National parks never disappoint! This trip turned out to be a thought-provoking one as well.

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Alcatraz in the Bay, from the shuttle boat
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Lighthouse and cellhouse

For a winter day, the San Francisco Bay was sunny and warm, and moderately humid, which made the shuttle boat rides between the city and the island enjoyable.  While the cluster of buildings on the island got close and started to its true rugged faces, it became clear that this isolated island had gone through such harsh conditions over its short history.  In the 1920’s, Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary that held America’s most notorious criminals.  Their lives, in the forms of factual biographies, fictional films, and speculative anecdotes, added tremendously to the fame of the island.  But only upon walking through the detailed audio tour of the island did the lives of the inmates became hauntingly tangible.  The grand cellhouse, despite its size, did not boast spacious individual cells.  In fact, the sheer concentration of cell rooms under the same roof made it suffocating even when viewed as an outsider.  San Francisco’s vibrancy was clearly visible through the small windows along the walls, which must have added unimaginable weights to the thoughts of freedom.  The Bay’s iconic landscapes, the turquoise water, verdant hills and vivid buildings, even became seemingly within reach when one would walk down the stairs the led to the outdoor recreation yard.  And yet most knew that they were facing an agonizingly long wait, if any, before returning to the free world.

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Hallway and cell rooms in the main cellhouse
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Landscape from recreation yard

This unsurprisingly ensued riots with horrid violence, and attempted escapes with obscure outcomes.  The Bay’s grim natural surroundings—cold water, speedy torrents, and occasional appearances of predatory sharks—resonated solemnly with the darkest side of human nature in these stories.  Before long, authorities came to the realization that the torment of being places in this prison, both for inmates and federal personnel, was unbearable.  That, in combination with the mammoth undertaking to financially maintain the prison, led to its end of service in the 1960’s.  And yet history did not end here.  A group of Native Americans claimed the island shortly after it was decommissioned, an act, among many others across the country, contributed to the Indian self-determination becoming the official US government policy.

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Warden’s house
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Side view of cellhouse and surrounding indigenous plants
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Blossom

When Spanish colonists first spotted it in the fog-locked bay in the 18th century, the island was said to be habitat of a large number of California brown pelicans, hence the name—”alcatraces” means pelicans in archaic Spanish.  Nowadays, measured have been taken to preserve the breath of nature on this island that had been densely impacted by historical human activity.  Between buildings and paths, native plants were stretching freely; birds and seals had also returned to multiply.  “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.”  This was a famous quote from the island’s last inmate, Frank Weatherman.  With a condensation of many historical events in a oddly isolated environment, the island had unfortunately gathered and reflected a remarkable number of human nature’s unflattering facets—sin, despair, prejudice…  It was a consolation, however, that all were preserved and examined there today for a good reason.


Boudin Bakery is a must-go place for every tourist visiting San Francisco. As food enthusiasts, we could not say no to the opportunity of savoring one of the city’s most interesting culinary offerings—sourdough bread. I have to say, the deep tang of sourdough is an acquired taste.  But its earthiness and complexity do become appealing when repeatedly tasted.  Besides the signature clam chowder in sourdough bowl the is ordered by virtually every customer, Boudin is also creative about using sourdough for other bread-based dishes, waffles, pancakes, pizzas, tacos.  Their shrimp pesto pizza we ordered this time hit a fabulous balance between freshness of seafood and that we decided to try it in our kitchen.

Breadmaking is an art, and not an easy one.  And sourdough may be among the finest of the art.  As beginners, we were not brave enough to grow our own starter from the floaters in air—we were told that could be scarily unpredictable. Instead, we requested dried starter from the famed Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter.  With that healthy, consistently robust colony of yeast, we also referenced King Arthur’s sourdough pizza crust recipe, and MyRecipes.com’s shrimp pesto pizza recipe, for our final production.  A home kitchen’s oven can never reach the high temperature required to accomplish the authentic level crustiness of pizza, but we were satisfied with what we had, and the flavors were fantastic.

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Sourdough pizzas: shrimp pesto; pears, arugula, walnuts and truffle oil

As we were looking for ingredients in the pantry, we saw a bottle of truffle oil gifted by a good friend, which we had not been able to use much.  That immediately reminded us of a fragrant pancetta-arugula pizza flavored with truffle oil that we had tasted at a local bocce ball alley, Campo di Bocce.  We quickly gathered a few things at hand and put together a modified version of that pizza, loosely following rusticcrust.com’s recipe, ommitting crumbled gorgonzola but drizzling a touch of truffle oil to impart some unique, strong flavors.  These two pizza recipes seemed always appropriate to be served hot or cold under the perpetually mellow climate of Northern California’s inland valleys.  —FXZ and WZ

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Fleeting Past and Flickering Present

The departure from Los Angeles after each trip always ends up feeling like the lingering chapter of a nostalgic music piece.  Remnants of the cozy sunshine and breezy ocean gradually fade out and transition into something wilder and earthier,  before we enter into the familiar scenes up north.   The delight of visiting some hidden destinations studded along the lengthy pathway between the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolises has become a vital part of our Southern California trips.

This time in January of 2018, we chose to take a detour along the historic US 101.  Santa Monica Mountains, the range separating the LA basin and California’s Central Valley, turned out to contain so many natural and historical treasures.  A mere 20 minute drive from the bustling LA metro and north of the famed Malibu beaches, mountains rose with rugged rock formations and extensive vegetation coverage.  At the visitor center of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area,  we learned that this area is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna as well as the Native American’s sacred grounds, and therefore a key point of interest to locals for outdoor activities.  Outside the urban life of the City of Angels, this place must be a pure enjoyment for those who wanted to slow down and savor the beauty of life’s another façade.  For us, time was a luxury.  During the short morning in this area, we could only visit the Paramount Ranch, which preserved film sets used for western-style movies.   The dusty roads and false-front buildings blended in the rustic mountain scenes around them, bringing us back to the legendary pioneer times.  The history of film had portrayed valor, love, loyalty and resilience that were the themes of the primal land.  Aside from that, however, how much of reality still exists that could lead us to comprehending the true charisma of the past?

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Hills and a horse rental at Paramount Ranch, Santa Monica Mountains
Western town film settings at Paramount Ranch

Hearst Castle, which is 200 miles up north, turn out to be another interesting manifestation of that notion.   On top of the hills along the scenic California State Route 1, accessing the castle was only possible via a shuttle ride, now a state-run park service.  Owned  by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst,  construction of the mansion lasted 3 decades since the 1910’s, and technically never completed to reach its original full design.  Tt is now among America’s most famous castles,  boasting a compound of historic architectural style across Europe, and the owner’s collection of numerous antiques to decorate the castle.  The front façade of the main building, Casa Grande, was a colossal marble display of fine sculptures, with ornate windows and rails around the towers on the two top sides.  It was nothing but grand, luxurious, and splendid, neither was the interior.  The owner’s attention to details created many admirable elements in the interior design, brought to life by the finest craftsmanship of the time.  Surrounding the main mansion, a number of exquisitely designed smaller buildings served as guestrooms for the celebrities Hearst invited to the castle for the weekend, among which we found the most beloved film stars of all times.  A century later, however, one might argue the glamour of the castle only remained faintly in tourists’ leisurely minds.  How much it encourages or inspires may be a question that invites various answers.

Casa Grande
Hearst Castle’s Casa Grande
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Details on the ceiling of the Gothic Suite
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A guest house
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The indoor Roman Pool

As we descended from the hilltop via a winding path, the castle’s mountainous surroundings started to reveal themselves from the winter’s misty veil, and yet hid itself momentarily, only leaving the rising sun’s golden rays flickering from the distant Pacific Ocean.  Our adventure, fortunately, did not end here.   On the hillside of Highway 1 leading us away from the castle, we surprisingly spotted herds of zebras idly grazing with cattle, a wild and humorous sight no one would have imagined.   They were, in fact, descendants of some residents of Hearst Castle’s private zoo.  Further down the road, a beach crowded with thousands of elephant seals was one of the scenic route’s deserving top tourist spots.  The cool water of the California coast provides them with abundant food, making it optimal feeding grounds for these migrating sea mammals.   Mostly resting, the occasional budging and roaring of the sheer large number of the seals made the beach an extraordinarily lively place.  We found this moment of our trip most delightful.  Among all the busyness of modern life, decorated endeavors sometimes end up being a feeble attempt to celebrate life’s glory.  The plain, humble, unadorned efforts, on the other hand, may become the most relevant, and touching.

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Herd of Zebras at Hearst Ranch
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Bustling elephant seals

In the quaint little town Cambria south of Hearst Castle, we had a delicious Mexican dinner after a long drive, the evening before our castle tour.  Medusa’s Taqueria had a most refreshing chicken salad that struck the jackpot of nutrition and flavor for all of us.

Mexican chicken salad
Mexican chicken salad from our kitchen

Back in our kitchen, we succeeded in replicating this dish, based on a recipe found on recipetineat.com.  We almost followed the recipe step by step, except adding a handful of cucumber slices.  Chicken breasts were marinated with lime, honey, chili, cumin, and oregano, pan-seared to just done before sliced.  The winning combo of vegetables imparted self-complementary crunch and creaminess.  After an exhausting road trip, it was hearty and comforting; on a common Sunday afternoon, it is a dish that the entire family can prepare and appreciate together, a reminder of life’s wonderful richness.  —FXZ and WZ

Awakening of the Meager Conscience

The Chinese author and Nobel Prize winner (in literature, 2012), Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death, in my opinion, is a literary and linguistic feast.  One might argue that the word feast contradicts the novel’s theme—a most gruesome form of capital punishment which can hardly arouse any appetite for a normal reader.  Well, maybe it does take such an extraordinary form to convey the thoughts so heavy and so relevant.

The main characters, with names so generic that they clearly symbolize any Chinese citizens in ancient and modern settings, act roles in an intense dramatic opera (literally!) that fuses love, loyalty, honor, and subtly but most importantly, conscience.  At the transition of the 19th and 20th centuries, the feudal China is in her chair days, while strong and ambitious new bloods from the West reach into this ancient realm.  As the Germans start to build a railway across the northeastern province of Shandong, the locals interpret it as a violation to their sacred inheritance, the land, and respond with organized sabotages and attacks, which invite military retaliations that inevitably cause the death of a German soldier.  Sun Bing, the perpetrator, is captured and subjected to the titled punishment.  Various rescue attempts add to the dramatic elements of the story though all end up futile.  And Sun Bing the former folk opera (Mao Qiang, or Cat-Tune) singer turns the execution field into a theater where his martyrdom is poetically extolled.  The story climaxes as the punishment is cut short by Qian Ding, the local magistrate, as a frail sign of protest and compassion, and ends abruptly.

Mo Yan’s literary style,  praised as “hallucinatory realism (that) merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”, is on full display in this novel.  The sentences carry rhythms so melodic that they remind me of the classical Chinese poetry form of Qu.  And similar to the Qu genre, they reflect voices of ordinary souls from their hearts.  In this case, the souls  are in search of justice and dignity, and such pursuit eventually erupts with a deafening volume.  Analogous transformations of character images into animals are used so uniquely that they not only reinforce the intensity of emotions, but also sharply point to the darkest facets of human nature—malice, oblivion, apathy.

The author’s pen name, Mo Yan, means “don’t talk”.  With good reasons, it is his way to gain relative freedom to decipher history and humanity’s baffling codes.  After all, there must be many alternatives better than silence.   In this novel, He is successful in conveying his message through the sandalwood death, the details of which should be left to those who are absolutely interested to explore.  Though made-up, it is inspired by the many real ones of the same nature throughout the history of the civilization.  The purpose of the punishment is none other than a showcase of terror to intimidate those who bear similar rebellious minds.  In a regime where the profession of execution has become a mystified and revered form of art, or, in a more relevant context, where doubting minds are silently estranged and stifled by the social norms, one may say it might have taken effect.  However, when the new magistrate in the novel conducts his final act knowing the unthinkable consequences to his career and life, we can still hope that this brief fragment inspires the readers to search for their own conscience.  —WZ

Tranquility in the Bustle

Los Angeles was where our family started our journey in this foreign country back in the early 2000’s.  My wife and I spent a few years there attending graduate school, and had our daughter Emily.  Every trip back to LA since we had moved to the Bay Are, this kaleidoscopic city seemed to be constantly changing, adding colors and shades here and there.  The recent trip was no exception.  In early January of 2018, we visited LA again and spent a few wonderful days with our close friends, the Kim family—they were one of the families that helped us with incredible generosity when we had first settled down there.  Deep friendship had developed between our families and each reunion had been so memorable.

During this visit, we took a nostalgic trip to the campuses where we did our postgraduate studies.  As we entered the southern periphery of UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), staggering buildings of familiar maroon exterior started to remind me of the many walks I used to have along this same path, and yet the scene had certainly changed significantly with the addition of a handful of new buildings.  Modern and vibrant, these buildings were said to have fulfilled some of the growing needs of the university.  The heart of the campus, however, remained solemn and placid as I had remembered.  Buildings of Romanesque architectural styles, though not uncommon on American university campuses, contrasted from the surrounding buildings.  Royce Hall, one of the four original buildings of the campus when the University was established in the 1920s, had always been my favorite architecture on campus.  The most intriguing attribute of Royce Hall is that the two prominent bell towers on the front façade subtly differ from each other in terms of structural and decorative details, even though they are dimensionally identical.  Inspired by the Abbey Church of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, such asymmetric design was intended to exhibit man-made beauty inferior to God’s perfect creation.  I found tremendous awe and peace in such humility, which was becoming rarer in academia as in the rest of the world.

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UCLA’s Royce Hall
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In Royce Hall’s front porch
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Bruin Bear, UCLA’s mascot
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Magnolia in front of Kerckhoff Hall

University of Southern California (USC) was located much nearer to Downtown LA.  The campus was equally spectacular, with similar maroon-tiled buildings shining in the warm sunlight.  As we strolled down Trousdale Parkway, passing the towering spire of VKC library, the martial Tommy Trojan, and the elegantly ornate Hutton Park, groups of new students and families were also there for the spring orientation, with beaming excitement and curiosity.  USC is known for its warm welcoming culture to international students.  Judging from the crowd, the school was still a popular destination for youngsters from all over the world.  Our biggest surprise came from the newly renovated University Village (UV).  As a top research school, USC also had an contrasting poor reputation for its unsafe neighborhood.  The new UV area seemed to be a significant step toward improving that reputation.  Brand new dorm buildings were enclosed in a plaza with vast lawns, a grand central fountain, comfortable outdoor sitting areas, as well as convenience facilities within.  Recognizing all good intentions, I personally doubted the necessity of such luxurious living conditions.  After all, one attends a university to equip themselves with skills, knowledge, and wisdom.  And I had a difficult time connecting what I was seeing with that purpose.

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Main building of new UV of USC
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Tommy Trojan, USC’s mascot
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VKC Library
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An old piano outside the University Religious Center

One spectacle of LA in the last decade was the booming of Silicon Beach.  A large number of startup companies, together with high-tech moguls, had established their offices  on the west side of LA, boosting local economy tremendously.  Driving westward from the Kims’ home on Jefferson Boulevard, the neighborhood of Playa del Rey had become like those we typically saw in the South Bay Area, with numerous buildings of contemporary styles, extravagant apartment complexes, and vivacious shopping centers.  All were pleasing to the eyes, but once again, I did not find bliss and enjoyment until we drove further down and reached the beach area.  The azure ocean leisurely raised waves white as snow; the surrounding neighborhood was rustic and quiet.  Our children spent the entire afternoon running in and out of water, molding sand into various structures with their wild imagination.  My mind was pacified by such simple, innocent joy.

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Beach at Playa del Rey
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Beach houses
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Beach village

To us, the City of Angels is always different from the one where glamour and prosperity dominate the popular culture.  It is a second hometown, a place where we were and continue to be nurtured by intimate, enduring friendship.  In this world that keeps jolting forward with indiscreet strides, it comforts me to find such pleasing tranquility.


Los Angeles is a cultural melting pot that can certain fulfill a foodie’s cravings.  Back in our LA days, we were so blessed by the hospitality of our Korean American friends, who had repeatedly treated us with the best Korean food.  In this nostalgic trip, we did not want to miss the opportunity to relive those experiences.   Sundubu jjigae, or soft-tofu stew, was one of our favorite dishes that strike a remarkable balance between spiciness, flavor, and texture.  Cooked in a small clay pot, the piping hot stew brings together silky tofu, earthy seafood or meat, and the signature Korean chili broth, a perfect dish to share with family and friends especially on a cold winter evening.  We ordered three varieties (beef, pork, and seafood) from one of the best local tofu houses, BCD tofu, and they surely satisfied our stomachs.

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BCD’s sundubu jjigae, they were so good that nobody remembered to take a picture until we were half way through
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Sundubu jjigae from our kitchen

Back in our own kitchen, I had to use a larger clay pot we usually used for Asian soups and stews.  I mostly followed the recipe on mykoreankithen.com with minor modifications.  First step was to prepare Korean style dashi stock, leveraging seaweed and dried anchovies.  The simple, 30-minute process would extract such strong, earthy umami from the raw materials.  The anchovies smelled pungent but did not render the stock overly fishy.  From the local Asian market, I found both guchujang (Korean chili paste) and guchugaru (Korean chili flakes).  Instead of using the flakes as the recipe called for, I used the paste like a few other recipes recommended—I personally preferred the sweetness from the fermented rice in the paste.  Three types of mushrooms, enoki, oyster, and shiitake, were all used in this dish, which were another source of the wonderful umami.  For the seafood, I made the shortcut to use the seafood medley from Costco that included shrimp, scallop, mussels, and calamari.  The rest was simple: sautéing the seafood briefly in the chili paste, adding hot dashi, tofu, and mushrooms, bringing it to a boil, garnishing with green onions and a dash of sesame oil.  This rich, flavorful stew will certainly appear on our dining table for many more times.  —WZ

 

 

The Difficult Reconciliation

Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata’s works were among my very first foreign (non-Chinese) literary experiences back in my teenage years.  At that time I was impressed by Kawabata’s unique ability to accentuate the tranquil beauty of Japan.  Upon revisiting his top-rated works recently, I gained some more understanding on his interpretation of love and death, and his unresolved question about the conflict between tradition and new fashion.

The Dancing Girl of Izu was one of Kawabata’s earliest works, a semi-autobiographical short story about the narrator’s brief encounter with a teenage dancing girl, Kaoru, on his hiking trip to the hot spring country.  The narrator is drawn to Kaoru by her innocence and sincerity despite her low social status at the time, and develops an affection so deep that it revitalizes him with hope and compassion.  Kawabata’s pellucid and poetic language flows throughout the story, wholeheartedly praising the primitive beauty of the lower-class performers, which may be a projection of the Japanese culture heritage that Kawabata deeply admired.

In that sense, Snow Country can be viewed as a loose and peculiar sequel to The Dancing Girl of Izu.  Once again in the remote countryside, the male protagonist Shimamura (a middle-aged wealthy loner) is physically and emotionally trapped in his obsession with two women, Komako and Yoko, both of whom are unattainable in different ways.  In this little town that represents his delicately designed safe space, Shimamura’s attempts to establish intimacy with either (or both, at times) of the women end up tragically futile.  The sharp turn of sentiments from Dancing Girl to Snow Country was surprising to me.  But it may be a genuine reflection of Kawabata’s struggle about the fate of the traditional Japan.  Komako, a geisha-turned-prostitute, depicted with vivid beauty and barely noticeable frivolity, is in danger of irrelevance despite Shimamura’s efforts.  Her alternative, Yoko, introduced so vaguely into the story with an interesting western literary approach, however, only remains remote for the most of the time, and vanishes so quickly before becoming tangible.

Such sentiments are also the main theme  in The Old Capital.  Staged in the historic capital Kyoto, the story evolves around twin sisters, Chieko and Naeko, whose fates symbolize the clash between the old and the new.  Kyoto’s spectacular natural and historical landscapes, together with its rich cultural traditions in the forms of festivals and rituals, unfold magnificently in this novel.  More specifically, the art of kimono (thing to wear) is the vessel that showcases the delicacy of the Japanese traditional culture and Kawabata’s deep affection toward it.  As the modernization of Kyoto becomes inevitable, the characters attempt to preserve the old and find peace with the new.  Kawabata used this novel to gauge the acceptance of such transition in his heart, and in that of the Japanese people.  Based on this story, his conclusion seems pessimistic.

Thousand Cranes continues to explore the state of Japanese culture heritage, in a much more intense, dramatic fashion.  Tea ceremony, a traditional ritualized art that promotes harmony and grace, becomes the canvas on which Kawabata boldly portrays sexuality that is simultaneously impacted by old tradition and western culture.  The main character, Kikuji, haphazardly steps into an entangled net of relationships after his father’s death.  While gaining more appreciation of the charm of tea ceremony, of which his father was an expert, he treats Mrs. Ota, his father’s mistress also as a form of inheritance, through which he finds his identity and power .  To me, this points to a phenomenon universal to many cultures, which is sin being passed over generations.  What consoles me is to see the deep sorrow that is inflicted on Kikuji and Fumiko, Mrs. Ota’s daughter, after his incestuous actions, and their eventual but painful resolution to cross the bridge of the past.

Kawabata’s sensibility enabled him to compose such exquisite pieces with a highly enjoyable level of literary virtue.  The  Japanese mono no aware (an empathy toward things) tradition blends with modern realism touches, rendering his works vulnerable and poignant.  When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, Kawabata was praised for his ability to “express … the essence of the Japanese mind.”  They are also deeply thought-provoking, in a way that aside from the author’s deep contemplation on and skillful interpretations of the very nature of humanity, they do not pretend to have reached any simplified, self-justified conclusions.  Kawabata himself was tragically torn between the richness of the Japan he loved and the waves of modernity that struck the ancient culture.  The beauty seemed to diminish, while the shades of hideousness never ceased to expand in many ways.  That, to me, is a dilemma worth exploring at all times.  —WZ