Yesterday during some carol singing at a Christmas luncheon my husband Dave was part of a discussion with a woman at our table about the opening lyrics of The ChristmasSong by Nat King Cole. You’re probably familiar with them too.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”
Some other people at our table wondered if anyone had ever actually seen chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Turns out my husband Dave and I had.
We lived in Hong Kong for six years and the short winter season there was ushered in by chestnut vendors who appeared on street corners and roasted chestnuts in big tilted woks in a mixture of glossy black sand and sugar. The vendors were constantly stirring the chestnuts so they didn’t burn. The chestnuts came from China’s Hebei or Shandong province. I loved the smell of them roasting.
The trick to roasting chestnuts is to cut an x into their top before you roast them and then their shells literally ‘pop’ open as they roast and make them easy to peel and eat.
We also saw chestnuts being roasted on the streets of Sienawhen we visited one January. Roasting chestnuts is a centuries old tradition in Italy where street vendors roast chestnuts over hot coals in a pan with a perforated bottom. They have a lovely smokey taste. The roasted chestnuts are placed in a large wooden barrel padded with a thick blanket to keep them warm for as long as possible.
Whenever I hear those lyrics at Christmas about chestnuts roasting on an open fire I think of Hong Kong and Italyand the chestnut roasters I saw there.
This morning I am leading worship in my church and the service will focus on the story of Jesus visiting two sisters Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. I will be showing three visual images during the service and yesterday in my blog post I shared the first one.
The second is a wall hanging I purchased in Hong Kong in a shop selling the work of Chinese artists which stood just adjacent to the Lutheran Church Tao Fong Shan which we attended during the six years we lived in the city.
This wall hanging was done by women from the Chinese Tujia minority. They use simple wooden looms to weave cotton, silk, and wool into beautiful tapestries with precise bold images. Thousands of years ago these tapestries were offered as tributes to the Chinese emperor.
In the 1990s Dr He Qi the first Chinese to hold a doctoral degree in Christian art designed images that illustrated stories in the Bible in a unique style and enlisted the help of Tujia women to create them.
I like the way Mary is depicted listening intently to Jesus tell a story with her hands over her heart. Jesus is pointing heavenward perhaps implying that his story is divinely inspired. But Martha who is a person that concerns herself with the pragmatic aspects of life is not going to be ignored. She plops her tea kettle right down in the middle of the two conversationalists to remind them of more practical matters like eating and drinking and the work that preparing food and drink entails. She is going to attend to the physical needs of both her sister and her friend.
It is a good reminder that as we make our way through our daily lives it is important to attend to both matters of the body as well as those that concern the mind and heart. They are connected and contribute equally to our sense of well-being.
When Dave and I taught in Hong Kong we took a tour of one of its bustling container ports.
Our good friends who were involved with the trucking industry in Canada had come to visit us in Hong Kong and were interested in seeing the container port. Luckily the parent of one of our students was in charge of a container port and happy to give us a tour. We learned just what an intricate song and dance is required to coordinate the arrival and departure of tens of millions of containers each year.
On our tour we discovered the container port, which was like a mini-city was turning around ships in less than a day from the time their containers were unloaded to the time they were loaded up with new containers and sent on their way. This fast turn around time was achieved by a complex computer system that kept track of each container- its contents, weight, arrival and departure time and the best place in the port to store it. The port was open and operating twenty four hours a day, 365 days a year. We watched the steady stream of thousands of trucks arriving to pick up goods from the port.
Things are very different today as container ports are plagued with a myriad of woes that are vastly slowing their usual efficiency. These troubles in container ports are having a crippling effect on all kinds of businesses in Canada. Manufacturers aren’t getting the parts they need from other countries to make their products. Books, particularly those with lots of color, like children’s picture books that are usually printed overseas aren’t reaching book shops and stores will run short of toys for kid’s Christmas presents since many are manufactured in China.
Ships are being made to wait out at sea for days before unloading their cargo at container ports. Container ports are packed with containers that simply aren’t being picked up. The cost of renting a container has in some cases quadrupled from pre-pandemic prices and those costs are being passed on to the consumer.
The cause of all this turmoil? There is a shortage of workers in factories, at ports, and in the trucking industry. Some factories and ports had to close at least for a time because of COVID outbreaks and there is an increased demand for products as people have learned the ease of shopping from home.
And the container ports in Hong Kong? According to this article in The Financial Times they are currently nearly 600 ships waiting out at sea to unload their cargo at ports there.
In 1991 I was asked to do a story about Michelle Sawatsky for the magazine The Mennonite Mirror. At that time Michelle was a University of Manitoba volleyball player working towards a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance and voice.
She and I talked about her successful high school volleyball experience under the tutelage of coach Shannon Kehler and the wonderful support her family gave her in all her endeavors. Michelle commented on how media coverage of women’s sports seemed to pale in comparison to the coverage offered men, and the way the American attitude towards the game of volleyball stood in stark contrast to the Canadian approach. She expressed appreciation for her university coach Ken Bentley who she said made allowances for her musical aspirations and was helping her become the best player she could be.
At the time I interviewed Michelle in 1991 she shared her dream of someday making the Canadian National Team and competing in the Olympics, a dream which came true in 1996 when she was on the Canadian women’s Olympic volleyball team in Atlanta. Michelle went on to establish a long and successful career for herself as a radio host for CFAM and its affiliates.
In 2005 when my husband Dave and I were teaching at an international school in Hong Kong we invited Michelle to fly out to visit us and talk to the students at our school about her Olympic experience at our annual sports awards banquet. She also spoke to the high school student body and did some volleyball clinics with my husband’s physical education students.
We had a good time showing Michelle around Hong Kong. One morning when we took a cable car ride to the top of Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak and happened to meet two young radio journalists doing a school assignment. They asked to interview us and when we told them Michelle was an Olympic athlete they were thrilled to have snagged her as a guest for their video project.
On July 8th I was thrilled to connect with Michelle again when she interviewed me about my novel Lost on the Prairie on her radio show. We talked about how I got the idea for the novel, how it was appealing to a really wide audience of different ages, and the research I had done to write the book. You can listen to the interview here.
I was so grateful to Michelle for giving me an opportunity to talk about my book on her radio program. It also provided us with another opportunity to reconnect.
Check out these photos of me with different folks and see if you notice what is the same about my attire in all of them.
Did you notice how I always wear a T-shirt and some sort of sweater? How I always have a necklace on and a pair of earrings?
I hadn’t really recognized this monotony in my fashion style till a well-meaning person pointed it out and suggested I might want to try mixing up my ‘look’ a little bit. And that got me thinking about how in the world I’d become so stuck in my fashion ways.
I think I can blame it all on the six years we lived in Hong Kong. The weather there for much of the year was very hot and humid. So you always need a short-sleeved shirt to wear. But…………the air conditioning in stores and schools and on public transportation was always cranked up to the hilt so having a sweater with you was a must. When I was living in Hong Kong it was simplest just to have a bunch of T-shirts in my drawer and a bunch of sweaters in my closet.
It was also while we lived in HongKong that I started wearing necklaces and earrings all the time. We travelled A LOT during the six years we were overseas and on the first few trips I bought all kinds of souvenirs. I soon realized however that you only have so much room to display and keep mementoes from holidays and our Hong Kong apartment was tiny. So…..I started buying necklaces or earrings at every destination we visited because jewellery took up hardly any room. My jewellery collection which had always been small suddenly grew exponentially and I decided I needed to start wearing all those necklaces and earrings.
Even though we moved back to Canada a decade ago my fashion style hasn’t changed much. I know I should maybe try a different ‘look’ but this one is comfortable for me and makes shopping trips quick and easyand getting dressed in the morning a breeze.
My word for the year is acceptance so I think I’ll just accept that this is the best style for me.
As Manitoba moved into another strict lockdown this week many people weary of the restrictions and yet another surging wave, this time of COVID-19 variants, wondered, “Will this ever be over?”
It is easy to get despondent and think that life will never will return to normal, but one reason that I am hopeful is because we witnessed a city come back to life after a pandemic first hand.
When we moved to Hong Kong July 15, 2003 the city was still reeling from the SARS epidemic which had only officially ended on July 5th. Beginning in March of 2003 the people of the city had become virtual prisoners in their homes. Hong Kong medical professionals had died risking their lives trying to save their patients. Businesses were recording millions in loses. Real estate prices had plummeted. Tourism had ground to a halt. Schools, places of worship, restaurants, race tracks, museums and concert halls had all shut their doors.
Yet during the six years we lived in Hong Kong we watched the city make a remarkable recovery. Expanded sanitation and security departments quickly restored the city’s reputation as a clean, safe place to live and visit. Slowly the tourism industry blossomed and the economy improved. Schools, temples and cultural venues reopened and people confidently returned to the routines of life.
I often get despondent about our current situation. Will I ever see my grandchildren again? Will I ever I be able to hug my children again? Will we ever be able to entertain friends in our home, attend church, or go and see a play or a concert? Will we ever travel again?
When I am in one of those pessimistic slumps I think about Hong Kong and how we witnessed that city come back to life after the SARS epidemic. It can happen! I’ve seen it for myself!
Can you, short of an earthquake hold a pose? Are you willing to be centre stage for long periods of time? Are you comfortable having your body parts talked about? Can you be the object of intense scrutiny by a roomful of people for at least an hour?
I’ll never forget my first sitting as an art model. Before I took the job I did a little online research. One website suggested you consider the above questions seriously before becoming a model.
Many years ago the art teacher at the international school in Hong Kong where I worked, sent out an e-mail asking for volunteers to serve as a model for a drawing class. I was a little hesitant. Wasn’t I too old?
Then I read the story of Lala Lezli, a former dancer with the celebrated Martha Graham company, who modelled for California artists for fifty years. She was still working as a model when she died at age 92. I wasn’t too old to be a model.
I also found out art students need to learn to draw real people, not just the idealized human form. Models should be of all ages, races, shapes and sizes. Indeed when I hesitantly replied to the art teacher’s e-mail I was surprised by his warm response. He’d be happy to have me, model.
I asked if I should wear a special outfit, but the art teacher suggested I dress in a normal way. I’d read models should come prepared with interesting poses, but the art teacher had a pose in mind. He wanted me to sit on a chair on the elevated platform at the front of the room. He even arranged my feet and hands and told me which direction to turn my face.
I walked into the class as the teacher was giving final instructions and was quickly seated so the students would have a maximum amount of time to work. It was surprisingly easy to sit still for an hour. I had a good view of the drawing tables and was fascinated by the progress being made on the dozen different images of me emerging on paper across the room.
It was interesting how each of the students perceived me in a slightly different way. No two sketches were the same. Just like in life, I thought. No two people perceive us in the same way and we have to accept and indeed appreciate that.
In January of 2004, my parents came to visit us in Hong Kong. We had been living there for a little over a year at the time. I had forgotten that my mother had kept a journal during their visit. When we cleaned out my father’s apartment after his last move my sister found it. It was so interesting to re-live my parents’ visit through Mom’s eyes. Here is her Hong Kong experience in her own words.
“It was a beautiful morning and we went to the Cultural Centre for a Tai Chi class. Our teachers were William and Pandora. They were dressed in traditional Chinese clothes. After giving us a brief history of Tai Chi and its importance the class tried to follow the moves they demonstrated. It was great fun trying to keep up and stay graceful. We had some pretty hilarious moments trying to imitate our instructors. The whole thing was really one hour of fun.”
“We went to an authentic Chinese tea house and met the tea master. She was a woman and she showed us exactly how to brew tea. We drank from these very tiny cups. Making tea the right way is an “art” for the Chinese people. The tea house had endless varieties of teas and hundreds of teapots. Paul told me later for him the tea ceremony was “much ado about nothing.”
“On the island of Macau, we went to a church that had been destroyed by fire three times. After the third time, it wasn’t rebuilt but the front part of the temple has remained. We climbed many steps to the top and I was very tired.”
“We went to a Buddhist Temple today. It was built more than a century ago. There were scads of people there burning incense. A guide demonstrated how numbered bamboo sticks are placed in a can. You shake the can until one stick falls out and that stick predicts your future. There were fortune tellers at the temple who for a fee could help interpret your future.”
“MaryLou took us for dim sum. It was a very busy place just teeming with people. We had to wait for about 15 minutes to get a table which we shared with two other men. The food was interesting and quite good. The whole experience was unique to say the least.”
“At the flower market, there were so many fresh flowers. We were especially impressed with the many kinds of orchids. The place was truly very beautiful!”
Although I have no photos of it I think the highlight of the visit for my Mom was going to the concert hall at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre to see Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin perform with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu. My Mom was a gifted pianist who spent the last days of her life trying to play the pieces she loved on an imaginary keyboard on the blankets of her hospital bed.About the concert in Hong Kong, she wrote………
“We got to the concert hall in plenty of time. What a magnificent building! We had seats behind the orchestra on a high level which was just a great place to be because we had such an excellent view of each orchestra musician and it was also the ideal spot to see the guest artist. Hamelin is originally from Quebec. He played two selections – one by Paganini and then Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 3. It was just “superb!!!”
Mom also writes about how she spent time reorganizing our kitchen cupboards, cleaning out our fridge, sweeping and dusting our apartment, doing our laundry and halfway through the visit she writes that she thinks we are taking them out to eat too often so she and Dad have started going to the market on their own while we are at work and buying stuff to make our suppers each night.
In her last entry, Mom writes about how sad she is to leave because they have had two such interesting weeks with us and she thinks there is still much about Hong Kong she would like to explore. She hopes they can return some time. Sadly this was not to be because Mom experienced kidney failure a little more than a year later and would be on dialysis three times a week for the rest of her life.
I am so glad Mom and Dad came to Hong Kong and so glad to have her diary which brought back some wonderful memories of their visit.
Sign in a Hong Kong subway train. Photo by Andyhyleung
“Mind the gap!” Those three words were something we heard thousands of times during the six years we lived in Hong Kong. As you entered and exited subway trains a woman’s voice reminded you to mind the gap, the space between the train floor and the station floor. Not doing so meant you could catch your foot, twist your ankle or otherwise injure yourself. Hong Kong is a former British colony hence the use of the word ‘mind’ in the phrase and the reason you will see similar signs in subway stations in England.
Yesterday in his sermon our pastor talked about a mind the gap sign seen in a London subway station, and remarked that during the pandemic we have all had to mind the gap in order to stay safe. We have needed to maintain a two-meter gap between ourselves and other people.
Two of my Winnipeg Art Gallery colleagues Rachel Baerg and Colleen Leduc demonstrate ‘the gap’ using one of the most popular paintings in our collection The Story by George Agnew Reid- photo from the Winnipeg Art Gallery
Just like you can injure yourself if you don’t mind the gap in the subway station, you can get sick if you don’t mind the gap during COVID-19. We are having to think about relationships in new ways as we keep a physical distance from people. How can we still show care and empathy and maintain personal connections while ‘minding the gap?‘
Gaps, like the ones in the Hong Kong subway and during a pandemic, can be scary but we know with thought and care and mindfulness we can handle them.
It occurred to me that we are all constantly ‘minding the gap’ in our lives. There is the gap between what we expected our lives to be and how they turned out. There is the gap between what we know we should be doing in terms of things like our physical fitness or financial management and what we are currently doing. There is the gap between having a dream and actually achieving it. Rather than being fearful or anxious about these gaps we can embrace them and see them as opportunities to learn and grow.
I learned what the term BIPOC means this week. My son is the host of a weekly radio music show and this Thursday he featured music by black artists and gave specific suggestions from members of the BIPOC community about ways we can support them.
Mural on the wall of one of the schools I visit in my job as an education student mentor
The term BIPOC was new to me so I did a little research. The letters stand for Black, Indigenous People of Color. According to writer Mahreen Ansari the term is a replacement for the phrase people ofcolour, which in turn replaced coloured people. People of colour was a better term than coloured people because the people or human part came first.
Mural of children on Broadway Avenue in Saskatoon
The problem with the term people of colour was that it put all non-white people into one category when often the discrimination they were experiencing was very different and was specific to their particular race. The term Black, Indigenous People of Color is considered more specific but also more inclusive because it brings together people of multiracial backgrounds in a way that doesn’t erase their specific identity.
The events that have unfolded since the death of George Floyd on May 25th make it clear white people like me have lots to learn when it comes to understanding what it means to be BIPOC in North American society.
I visited one of the young women from this advisory group in Georgia
This week I have been thinking about a student of mine I visited in Savannah Georgia. I was holidaying there and got together with a young woman who had been in several of my classes as well as my advisory cohort when I taught in Hong Kong. She was studying art at a college in Savannah. She told me how challenging it was to adjust to life in the American south because growing up in Hong Kong she had never experienced prejudice and discrimination because of the colour of her skin like she did in Georgia. It was a rude awakening for her.
For some reason, a photo of me with my colleagues in the English department of the high school in Hong Kong where I taught has resurfaced on Facebook this past week. People have been commenting on the photo and reposting it. It reminded me of how incredibly privileged I was to work with these four strong, intelligent and gifted women. We all came from different countries, had many different life experiences and were different ages, but we were such a good team and I learned so much from each one of them. What a perfect way to end my teaching career.
Dave and I just finished watching the new television series Little Fires Everywhere based on the novel of the same name by Celeste Ng. I found the story thought-provoking and timely. The setting for the story is an Ohio town called Shaker Heights which prides itself on its racial integration. But as the story progresses we realize that racism is still all too real in the community. The acting performances of Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington are masterful. They play two mothers who have made very different choices about how to live their lives and raise their children and the reasons for their choices raise some important moral and ethical questions. I’d like to read the book now.