Archive for April, 2014

SOTM World Tour – California

Monday, April 21st, 2014

988390_10153894918885241_911696053_nSan Francisco is like New York, because you’ve seen so much of it that when you arrive for the first time, it seems perfectly familiar.

It’s like perving over lots of someone’s photos on Facebook and then suddenly being with them in person. You’ve never met them before, but they don’t seem like a stranger.

That’s not to say San Francisco is dull, far from it. The up-and-down streets, trams, and stunning architecture will thrill you as you walk around.

The top image, for example, shows the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square, a famous landmark of several beautiful Victorian houses. I wondered if the people living there ever got sick of tourists gawping at their homes.

Here’s a shot across the city, one of many that you’ll see as you climb one of the peaks that ripple through San Fran.

1978857_10153894921635241_954399159_nThis is Lombard Street, one of the twistiest in the world, if not the most. I recall seeing photos of it in a Guinness Book of Records when I was a boy – I used to love reading them – and was thrilled to suddenly spot it when Kate and I were walking around one day.

1920357_10153894888990241_1824522469_nThis building is in Haight-Ashbury and Jimmy Hendrix once lived in one of the flats you see on top of the shop below.

Kate had told me that Haight-Ashbury was a hippiesh kinda place, “where the Sixties never ended, man”. This chap seemed to be embracing this ethos. I love how he thought to wear a hat.

I’m actually pleased with how I took this shot, because I used my iPhone from a distance, while walking along and trying to appear as though I was generally using it and not taking a photo. Came out well after all that. Be thankful I didn’t use my zoom lens.

Any trip to San Fran isn’t complete without a trip to The Rock – or Alcatraz, as it’s officially known. I’ve always wanted to go here, and the skies were kind on the day we visited.

1922377_10153894922470241_421954954_nThe trip was well stocked with tourists and usually that means it’s a bit hard to get into the mindset of how morose the human history of the place really is.

But it’s such a grim looking place physically that with a dash of imagination, seeking out a quiet corner and with the help of the excellent audio guide, the pain and hopelessness of life on Alcatraz seeps into you.

I was quite taken by the prison yard, because it was one place where you could be sure everyone ever imprisoned here would have been at some point. Also, the fact that there was a small baseball field at the far end amused me. What happened if the ball got hit over the wall?

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1655934_10153894927435241_374170866_nThis was the dining hall, another quite depressing place. There were once tear gas canisters suspended from the roof in case it ever kicked off, which it never did (in here at least).

1530315_10153894934725241_924783736_nThis is just one of the many rows of cells, based on the ground floor (first floor if you’re American).

One cell was open and when I went inside it, I could pretty much touch both walls when I outstretched my arms.

1958381_10153894926805241_1076153444_nOne thing I was amazed by was how visible San Francisco is from the inside of the prison.  This is a viewing hatch in one corner of the main cell block, and apparently on New Year’s Eve, prisoners could hear the sounds of revelry floating across from the city.

Torturous, but they were hardened criminals after all.

1939924_10153894931565241_418500405_nThis is one of the cells that featured in a famous escape attempt by prisoners Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris. Their story was featured in the Clint Eastwood movie Escape from Alcatraz.

It’s a good film and I remember seeing it years ago, so to stand where it all happened was quite incredible.  

1779348_10153894933445241_1879464166_nSo after getting out early thanks to our good behaviour, Kate and I needed a change from all that prison food – and happily found an In ‘n’ Out burger joint, featuring some of the finest burgers ever to be fashioned from a cow.

While we didn’t manage to visit the Golden Gate Bridge, we got a good look at it on the journey to and from Alcatraz.

1656323_10153894921810241_1942471091_nAs for the SOTM action I got this great story from Brian, who was a charming chap.

Also, I bumped into Madison in our hostel and she took part. I made a feature of the hill next to where we were.

After all that, it was back to Los Angeles where my dear friends Crystal and Cathy live. Crystal once invited me over to LA back in 2009 for SOTM purposes, and we’ve all been firm friends ever since.

Here I am with Kate and Crystal and to my left is Mara Marini, an actress who I photographed when I was last in town. She plays Brandi Maxxxx in the Parks and Recreation TV show.

1912281_10153887459080241_1808558402_nWhile walking around Santa Monica I spotted this classic 57 Chevy. I had a toy one as a boy and it was one of my favourites.

1897958_10153936719555241_387077679_nThis is a shot of Santa Monica pier, from on the pier itself.

397527_10153936710545241_230745998_nOver the other side is the Arlington West Memorial, a tribute to fallen US soldiers. It has lots of facts and figures posted up about American military deaths and asks people to debate the issues surrounding the deployment of soldiers in foreign conflicts.

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1962843_10153936714940241_2131940709_nElsewhere in the city, I spotted these abandoned shoes on a street near to Chinatown.

On our last night we held a SOTM meet up and it was a lot of fun. I took a number of shots, including this moody one of the lovely Meg.

After this, Kate and I headed to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and a road trip across the Deep South. Now, where did I put my banjo…

SOTM World Tour – Hong Kong and Macau

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Whenever I’ve heard of a particular faraway place, teeming with lives spent on top of one another and fused with Eastern traditions yet chock full of familiar features, I’ve wanted to go there.

Hong Kong is that place for me.

I’ve heard many good things about this city of high rises with its hugely crowded population, a fusion of British values and the best of Chinese enterprise. Technically Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, but it seems apt to call it a city, also.

I recall watching the United Kingdom hand over this territory live on TV in 1997, another moment when the crumbs from the British Empire, once mighty but long past its sell-by-date, were brushed from its table.

Then-governor Chris Patten clearly held back tears as he sailed out of Victoria Harbour, seen today in the picture above. He’s now Lord Patten and chairman of the BBC Trust, so will be one of my top bosses when I return to the BBC.

The architecture of Hong Kong is remarkable. Although I was fascinated by it, and loved wondering its streets which are a photographer’s playground, I couldn’t help but think of chicken coops, so packed in were some of the flats and living spaces.

1780629_10153863561005241_688454580_nWherever you walk in Hong Kong, it’s vital that you often look up. Please don’t trip over anything, though, as I’m not insured to be giving you that advice.

1656204_10153863561685241_213855116_nI bought a puffer body warmer on this street for about £15. Makes me look like a trainee rapper, but it’s pretty toasty.

aapicPeople would joke to me about how small their rooms where, and at a comedy night a couple of the acts used gags about the tiny stage being the same size as their flats.

I saw lots of washing outside of windows, so clearly there’s no room for a dryer in these apartments.

While the signs in Hong Kong serve a functional purpose for Chinese speakers, for everyone else they’re a beautiful enigma, a code that we’ll never crack but won’t stop being hypnotised by.

The transport in HK includes these trams, some of which are new and others restored from decades ago. They’re a lot of fun to hop on and off.

If you’ve read my posts on Japan you’ll know that I had a thing for the yellow taxis in Toyko. Here they have similar cars that are all red, and I think I liked them even more.

Although they’re beasts of burden they had an elegance about them, like a cleaner who goes home, puts on a sparkly dress and dances her heart out at a late-night salsa club.

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Here’s the view from inside a taxi, which I grabbed as we drove from the airport to our lodging. The driver was a little, beaming lady of a certain age.

1508998_10153814937330241_2115206492_nNow then, this is my clever and beautiful friend, Laura. I had met her only once before, photographing her for SOTM back in 2009.

She runs a tour company in HK which also specialises in food tours, one of which we went on. It was very chucklesome time and we ate superb local grub while learning about the history of the city’s cuisine, so it was a few hours very well spent in her charming company.

Laura runs Hello Hong Kong Tours and I strongly suggest you contact her for something fun to do if you’re ever in her town.

To begin our tour we went to a dim sum place, a real old school joint with trolleys being wheeled around from which you chose your dish of choice.

We were the only foreigners in there at the time, and it was a terrific way to start the day.

Here’s one of the trolley ladies in action.

While in there I was desperate to photograph this chap, who calmly walked around with a giant silver pot, replenishing people’s teapots. Happily, he came to our table, spotted me clicking away, and paused for one of my favourite ever photographs.

Afterwards he spoke in Chinese and apparently said: “Now you have to pay me, because everyone wants my photo, because I look like Buddha.” We all laughed, and he said: “No, seriously you have to pay me.”

But he was joking. I shook his hand and he had a grip like an affronted lobster.

Then Laura took us to a place where apparently the service is grumpy but the noodles are tasty. Didn’t experience the former, but the bowl we were served contained amazing brisket and noodles.

1743730_10153863547465241_190397671_nThis eaterie was once commended by Anthony Bourdain, no less. I won’t name any of the places Laura took us so you’ll have to contact her to uncover them yourselves.

1688302_10153863547925241_1220730327_nWhile we walked through a part of the city where much food is sold in bulk quantities, Laura pointed out such delicacies as dried seahorse…

…dried gecko, which you re-inflate with water to eat…

…and that old classic, starfish. You name it, the Chinese will eat it, or at least it seemed that way in this fascinating district.

We also ate in another place where the chefs tried to hide behind big chunks of swinging meat. That’s not a euphemism.

1947787_10153863554360241_541859882_nI liked this shot because I took it blind, firing off from chest height, over to my left as soon as I saw that chap stretch his arms out. I often use 800 ISO even in bright daylight while on the streets, as it means I can use a fast shutter speed.

Finally Laura took us for scrumptious egg tarts. Apparently these were a favourite of Chris Patten’s, so if I bump into him in the lifts at New Broadcasting House I’ll ask him about them.

Near to our lodging was an area nicknamed Goldfish Street, for reasons obvious to anyone walking down it. I spotted this little chap just waiting for a new home.

And although these fellas were labelled as sharks, they’re actually catfish.

One day I came across this small red book in an antique shop. It’s an English edition of quotations by Chairman Mao. It’s quite readable and plenty of what he wrote makes sense. However, as ever, there’s a big gap between theory and implementation.

And speaking of memorable literature – I spotted this sign with its stern warning.

1654122_10153863541590241_1753963287_nAnd while in Victoria Harbour I saw the statue of Bruce Lee standing guard – iPhone photo at night, so not the best quality – and later we visited the Heritage Museum where an exhibition on this remarkable man is being held until 2018. It’s well worth a visit.

aaaaapicAfter a quite successful SOTM World Tour meet up one particular Saturday, some of us went to a comedy club. It was good and compered by a big, tall man, an American called Peter, who teaches English outside of Hong Kong but does comedy in his spare time.

He was funny, held the show of 10 comedians together well and was in control of the evening the whole time.

When the show ended some of the comedians and some of the crowd, including us, went to a nearby bar. I got talking to Peter there – he approached me as he saw me dancing in my chair to Y.M.C.A before the show started, and told me he was going to single me out in his warm-up, but didn’t get around to it.

I told him about Someone Once Told Me, and he said he’d take part, but wanted to think about it. I approached him a while later, having photographed two other comedians and a Russian woman who’d also been in the audience, and asked Peter if he was ready.

“Yes,” he replied. “It’s not a happy one, though.”

So he wrote down: “You Need To Get Home… Mom’s Not Doing Well.”

I took his photo outside the bar and then it came to him explaining the story behind his phrase, which I captured on my phone, as usual. He said how these were words he never wanted to hear, especially from his sister, “when you’re half a world away”.

He carried on, his voice breaking, and I then saw tears run down his face, catching on his nose. He just about managed to finish talking and wiped them away.

I ended the recording and then gave a hug to this bear of a man, who I didn’t know, and who only a short time before had been making me and a room full of people laugh. I hugged him as he wept for his dead mother.

It’s one of the most unbelievable experiences I’ve ever had, and one of, if not the most, powerful SOTM moment for me.

Afterwards he dried his tears, we made happier small talk and we said goodbye. But I’ll never forget Peter or his story.

Here’s a shot of me taking Peter’s photograph.

1622706_10153840644670241_184937307_nHere’s some of the other SOTMs I got while in Hong Kong. Click on any image to see them on the SOTM website.

This is the smashing Bernice Chan, a journalist from the South China Morning Post who wrote an article on me and the SOTM World Tour.

And here’s our brilliant Hong Kong host – Richard Lai, who’s senior editor for Engadget.

I met him a few years ago at his leaving do in London, a result of us having a mutual friend. He handed me his card, told me to look him up if ever I came to HK during the SOTM World Tour – which was firmly at the would-love-to-do-this-some-day stage – and that was it. Whole meeting was about eight minutes.

Years later I wrote to him, told him we were coming at long last and he kindly invited us to stay at his family home. I could just about remember what he looked like.

What lay in store for us was nothing short of sensational. Richard’s whole family, and his parents in particular, welcomed us warmly, fed us well and his dad also took us out for food a few times. Kate and I were stunned at how kind and hospitable the whole Lai family were. Richard himself couldn’t do enough for us and took us round to some great spots, and to some superb places to eat.

Here we all are at a dinner in their lovely home.

1655948_10100128315623485_1649446407_nAnd here’s Richard’s SOTM. A gregarious and fun chap, he nevertheless chose a thoughtful and moving story about his uncle.

And here’s a quick selfie that we took as we were heading out the door to the airport – a lovely memento of an incredible time in an unforgettable city.

I’ll just give a brief mention to our day trip to nearby Macau, another Special Administrative Region accessed by a comfortable ferry ride and which was a charming spot to see.

It contains a really unusual blend of the glass/steel buildings expected from modern-day China, and the beautiful architecture that betrays Macau’s brush with Portuguese rule, which began in the 16th Century and didn’t fully loosen its grip until the end of 1999.

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1959363_10153870601770241_1569522372_nDid I mention the casinos? You simply can’t miss them and are largely what Macau is known for. When awaiting the ferry in Hong Kong, a stern voice recording was warning the passengers about how “gambling can mean you losing EVERYthing”.

Don’t be so hasty as to describe Macau as a Chinese Vegas, for it’s known as the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”. A far classier title (even though I love Vegas).

Macau actually overtook Vegas in gaming revenues in 2007, so it’s a major player on the world gambling stage.

1964829_10153870635475241_488400291_n So after our unforgettable time in Asia it was back to the good old US of A and San Francisco to begin with, where I was determined to make it on to Alcatraz, and just as determined to make it off again the same day. More of that next time.