May 2012

Somehow in all the madness of the last three weeks I managed to find time to attend the first International Jazz Festival to be held in Kuala Lumpur. It may well be the last, for it was not well attended, and those of us who had paid for seats ‘in the gods,’ as they call the back rows, found themselves ‘upgraded’ from the gallery to the ground floor. Even with the balcony closed, those few who found their way to the hall for the beginning of the festival found themselves pretty widely scattered around the auditorium.

Perhaps the venue was not well chosen, for the Plenary Hall in the KL Convention Centre was built to hold 3,000. It is a gorgeous facility with steep risers and wide comfortable seats so that every view is a good one. Although no one much cared where you sat, I found myself most often at the back of the hall where I could put my feet up and sip my Starbucks soy latte and groove to the music in peace.

There is a small core of dedicated musicians in Malaysia trying hard to educate the ears of the public to sounds that go beyond their love of Asian boy bands. Many of the performers were Asian themselves, but most are living in the West where they can make a living from jazz. The best of these might have been Meg Okura who led a troupe called the Pan Asian Jazz Ensemble, who despite their name work and live in New York. Ms. Okura plays the violin, among other things, and to be honest it is probably my least favourite ‘jazz’ instrument. However, her band was very tight, and her music, much of it written by Okura, was bright, fast and edgy.

Another Asian worth watching was Trevor Jalla who hails from Sarawak, of all places, although he now lives and works in Perth, Australia. He was about as connected to jazz as B.B. King; that is to say, he played the blues, straight up and without apology. I have to admit when I first saw this dorky little character come on stage I thought he was the roadie just tuning the guitar. He looked like Buddy Holly with a bad case of bed head. But then he picked up that flame maple Les Paul and let it rip into an old B.B. King tune, and man could he play that thing! Then this nerdy little scarecrow lets out with a voice like a gravel truck gearing down and I knew I was in for a treat. Tasty, as we used to say!

Ernie Watts is a saxophonist who is getting up around 65-70 years old, but you would never know if you closed your eyes and just listened to him wail. He earned his stripes as a studio musician in Detroit laying down tracks for the Motown sound and touring with Marvin Gaye, Buddy Rich and the Rolling Stones. He moved to jazz in the 80’s and has developed a solid reputation in the field for his fast fingering and lyrical flights of improvisation. His band had a hard time keeping pace with the old geezer!

There were plenty of other acts, but I won’t bore you with the entire list; you get the idea. As with all things KL, I ended up paying the price for staying out late as the public transportation system in the city closes at 11:30 and I got hosed for the exorbitant rates the taxis charge at that hour to get home. I swear I will never go downtown without a car again no matter how long I have to sit in traffic to get there. But despite the frustration, and the miserable turnout, it was an excellent evening of music and a real treat to discover such a gorgeous venue in the heart of the city. Apparently they do Broadway shows here. Who knew!

One of the things I look forward to when I am home each year is the opportunity to touch base with the staff and volunteers at the TWR Canada office, which is fortuitously located in our home towm.

These are a very faithful group of women who volunteer one afternoon a month to come in to fold Project Hannah prayer calendars and monthly news letters and stuff about 2600 envelopes for supporters who still receive their communications by snail mail. One afternoon a month may not seen like a lot to some of you but we are so very grateful to these women who are a vital link in the world wide Project Hannah ministry.

The Lord has graciously given to Steve and I an opportunity to serve Him in a foreign field. He has also made it possible that we can do this without draining the church of badly needed financial resources at a time of shrinking budgets and unemployment. Ironically in this crazy fallen world we live in this makes us less than full-time missionaries in the eyes of some. We don’t pretend to understand the thinking behind such reasoning, for it is enough for us to know that God has called us and blesses us in our respective ministries.

How then does the world see the missionary effort of these women? Aren’t their prayers and practical support as vital a part of the work of God in reaching the lost as anything we or others do who are fortunate enough to live and work overseas? Does crossing a street or crossing an ocean make one a missionary? Surely at the end of all things when the Lord sorts through all that His people have done we will be surprised to find what He considers to be worthy of Him. And those who serve Him in humility, with whatever they have to give, will be recognized for the good they have done in His name. Thank you so much, dear ladies, for your service!

My grandfather never married my grandmother for a very good reason: he was already married. That didn’t keep him from taking a mistress (my grandmother) and getting her pregnant (my father). And neither wife nor mistress kept him from abandoning them both and sailing off to Shanghai. I think I was about thirteen when I first heard this story, and I was curious, as all little boys are, and a little bit in awe of hearing such unusual things about what I had thought was a very quiet and normal family. Anything but, it seemed. Now that I have seen Shanghai, I think I have a better understanding of what that all meant. But I am getting ahead of myself.

My father was born –out of wedlock – in 1917. There was a war going on at the time, so it can’t have been easy getting medical attention, I don’t imagine. And giving birth when you are not married was definitely frowned upon in those days. I don’t know what shame that birth brought upon my grandmother’s head, but it was enough to drive her to undertake a perilous adventure. My grandfather was in construction, and after the war England was not an easy place to get work. The war had caused a lot of economic damage in Britain, as wars do, and the prospects for employment looked better overseas, particularly in China, and most particularly in Shanghai.

Shanghai was at that time a British colony, and Britain intended to make it into its primary port and mercantile hub for the Empire in Asia. Buildings were going up at a phenomenal rate, and my grandfather sailed to Shanghai, as many young men did after the Great War, to find work and his fortune. As far as I can tell he first went to work on the Chinese Mercantile Bank on Nanjing Road, with its famous gold leaf dome, completed in 1921. I also believe he worked on the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) on the Bund overlooking the Huangpu River, famous for its dome mosaics, and completed in 1925 (The mosaics were covered up when the Communists took control and survived the ransacking of “imperialist” heritage buildings. I was unable to ascertain whether the magnificent dome of this building was also originally graced with gold leaf and stripped by Mao for his coffers). Certainly there was no shortage of building going on.

At any rate my grandmother, having waited some time for her man to return, decided to take her young son, who can have been no more than five or six at the time, and sail to Shanghai to find his father. I can’t imagine what she must have thought when she landed. There would have been a dizzying array of sights and sounds to greet her, for Shanghai was alive with Germans, French, Russians, Brits, and of course Chinese all building and buying, selling and drinking, gambling and dealing in drugs, for the heart of the opium trade ran through Shanghai.

How she coped with all that, I don’t know. How she found my grandfather in all that, I have no idea. But find him she did and I can only imagine how desperately she pleaded with him to ‘make an honest woman’ of her, and accept this young child by her side as his son and return to England with her. He refused; apparently he was by now already ‘married’ to a local woman, and had no intention of accepting any responsibility for any children or of returning to England.

How did she bear that, the poor woman? Having given her all to this man, having been willing to be disgraced for the sake of his love, having borne his child and brought it to him in China, to be refused in such circumstances, how did she bear such callous rejection, how did she bear such grief? And what must my father have felt, so have come so far with the prospect of seeing his father, to have been told to behave in such a way; to say such and such things, to smile and be polite? Did he think it was his fault, his father’s rejection? What did that do to his young heart? I can only imagine.

But I have seen Shanghai, its stately buildings, its wealth of colour and life, its clash of East and West, its crush of people, and it must have been then a disorienting experience for both mother and child to be alone is such place under such circumstances. Somehow my grandmother made it to Vladivostok in Russia where the two of them made the long and lonely journey back to Europe on the Trans Siberian Railroad. My grandmother died a few years later, perhaps of a broken heart. My father became an orphan with her death, having never been acknowledged by his father.

I don’t know what that did to my father emotionally, for we never talked of such things. He was always a very private man, my father, with private griefs that he bore with gentlemanly grace. He was always most kind with me, and I liked being in his quiet presence as he worked on his trains and painstakingly carved wooden boats. Perhaps someday, if God has answered my most fervent prayer, I will have the joy of walking and talking with him again in Heaven, where no one is an orphan, and all griefs are gone. This is my most fervent prayer.

On our last day in Shanghai we wanted to see a few of the sights that others had recommended before we came. Once again we took advantage of our HopOn/Off ticket and took the bus through the heart of the city, past the French Concession, now lined with trendy clothing boutiques out to the Jade Temple. I have to admit with now so many temples on this tour we really didn’t take the time to have a good look.

But Pam and I were captivated by a painter working away on the second floor in a little corner all by herself. She was doing one of those pen and ink landscapes that look so exotic and ethereal, but her technique was truly different; she was painting everything by hand. By that I mean she had no brush, pen or any other instrument; she painted entirely WITH her hand – palm, fingertip, knuckle, fingernail – and the detail was amazing. Apparently this is an old, almost forgotten style in China and in fact her family were the last known artists in the country. Perhaps one of our readers could comment on this. At any rate her drawings were amazing, and we ended up buying two of them to accompany the embroidery from Beijing that now hangs on our living room wall.

Moochi was desperate to find some ‘dragon buns’ for lunch, so we caught the bus back to People’s Square, and with Moochi’s help once again found a fantastic place with reportedly the best dragon buns (little meat filled dumplings) in the city. Suitably satisfied we decided to divide and conquer for the afternoon, Shelley going in search of some local art, while Moochi, Pam and I went to the Shanghai Museum.

Museums and art galleries can be good or deadly, but this one was exceptionally good; easily on a par with the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. We saw ancient artifacts of jade, bronze and pottery, some dating to the 8th century B.C. All of the exhibits were beautifully displayed and in excellent condition. We paid for the audio guide and it was worth the five bucks. I think we all agreed that the bronze vessels predating the Buddhist era were by far the most creative and interesting. Once you get to Buddha, the art is pretty much same old-same old. I find it more than a trifle ironic that a sage best known for his self-denial and asceticism is most often portrayed as a laughing, pot-bellied couch potato! Moochi was fascinated by the maps showing the development of the various tribes that made up ancient China, and was curious to find her own historical roots.

Maxed out on history and art we veged at a nearby Starbucks for a bit, and then hiked on to Xi Tian Di, an artistic collection of alleyways dotted with little café and restaurants. Shelley joined us for supper in what had to be one of the nicest meals among a very good selection of nice meals on our trip. After a late and leisurely supper we did a little more window shopping before heading back to the hotel to pack for the final leg of our trip. But we all agreed that should it be possible, we would all like to come back to Shanghai for another look.

While Steve is back in KL finishing out the school year, I have begun the annual visit home to Canada with the first stop being an amazing week in Calgary with Greg and Liz, in their lovely new home. We have made the most of the time. Liz and I picked out livingroom drapes and material to convert an old coffeee table into an ottoman, made a couple of matching pillows and valance for the front door.

The weather has been gorgeous, allowing us a couple of very productive afternoons working on the garden.

I even took some time out for a spin on the Harley with Dave.

Mother’s Day was another beautiful Calgary day so the kids took me out for lunch on a patio overlooking the city and the river.

On Monday, with Greg and Liz back at work, I drove about an hour south west, in the early morning to have breakfast with my friends, Bill and Sharon on their patio enjoying a fabulous veiw of the foothills of the Rockies.

I was so grateful to have Liz with me to help pick out my new glasses- one of my least favourite activities and have thoroughly enjoyed being able to cook some meals for my family again.

However, it is all fun and games until somebody gets injured and then it is five hours in the Urgent Care Center and three days with a portable IV for the antibiotics.

Breakfast in China is a challenge for my allergies. Unless there is fruit on offer – and there was none at this hotel – I am pretty much out of luck. I suppose there is the rice porridge. Moochi seemed to really like it! Never mind, the streets in China are full of food and rice noodles are not hard to come by. After breakfast we took the subway back to People’s Square and this time took the blue bus, which crosses the Huangpo River (a tributary of the Yangtze that it joins on the north end of the city) by means of a wonderful cable-stayed bridge patterned after one in Canada. The circular approach to the bridge, making the most of the restricted terrain and surrounding buildings, is unique to Shanghai.

Once in Pudong, which is what the other side of the river is called, we made our way down to the business district, home of most of the city’s skyscrapers. We stopped at the Pearl Tower, but opted not to pay for the ride to the top as our ticket already gave us access to the Jin Mao Tower, which we reasoned would give us a good view of the Pearl Tower and the city beyond. Although partially obscured by smog, the view was indeed spectacular and the concept itself almost beyond belief. Here was this entire financial district of some thirty enormous buildings – all of which incidentally are of marvelously modern design – where twenty years ago there was nothing on this land but vegetable plots. The government embarked on a deliberate program of development, aiming to make Shanghai a commercial and financial hub, and in a mere twenty years had completely transformed both the landscape and the economy of this historic city. You can rail all you like against central, socialist planning, but when it sets its mind on something, the results can be enormously impressive. Too bad they have set their sights on the smog!

Rather than take the bus back to the city we chose instead to catch a quick ferry ride for the sake of the view. For a paltry 2 Yuan we got terrific views of both banks of the river, and arrived in the center of the Bund. We stopped for lunch at a pricey little bistro and then caught the bus up the street to the Yu Gardens, which we had noted on our tour yesterday.

The gardens are located in what was once the original walled city before the Europeans arrived and was slated to be torn down to make way for a modern development. But a local community organization had argued successfully for its preservation of the site for its historical value, and the result is a quaint little section of town with narrow little hudongs, or alleyways winding their way past lovely old houses graced with curving roves and enclosing gardens, pools and temples. Tourists flock to the little shops that have sprung up in the houses and laneways and we had a very pleasant afternoon strolling through the grounds of the garden and the neighborhood temples and shops before settling in for supper at a dim sum diner for bao dumplings and spring rolls.

After supper we made our way back to the river and caught the boat tour that was part of our Hop On/Off package. The boat was packed and seats were non-existent, but none of us minded standing to watch the lights of the city float serenely by. It is truly one of the most magnificent skylines in the world, combining some radical and innovative modern buildings with some of the finest structures of the colonial past. Pudong is clearly developing into something of a tourist site as well, as further down the river there were parks and cafés lining the esplanade.


Once again a taxi at the end of another long day seemed to be the best option for getting back to the hotel. Too bad we were all so tired, for the nightclub scene in this city looks like it would be seriously entertaining!

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