Hong Kong Hsin Hua Tea House (Taipei)

August 31, 2013 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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Another popular dining option in Taiwan are Hong Kong tea cafes, or tea houses, which serve traditional Hongkie grub ranging from rice and noodle stir fries to soup noodles, pineapple buns, toasts, and milk tea and lemon tea beverages. If you’ve been to one of these places in Hong Kong you’ll know what I mean.

Many of these places in Taiwan are average, expensive, or inauthentic, or all of the above. Hsin Hua Tea House (香港鑫華茶餐廳) on Jinhua Street in Taipei’s Da’an district is one of the few really authentic ones. On top of the dishes and atmosphere, the prices are also very reasonable (each person can expect to spend around NT$100-200) and the service is expedient. That’s why you can almost always expect to see the place full of people, though the wait is never as long as it seems because the turnover is so rapid.

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I have been to this joint a few times but the variety is so great that there are still many dishes that I am desperate to try. Unfortunately, the menus are entirely in Chinese, so you will need some local help if you don’t understand the language.

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The Menu

From a quick look at the menu I can see that there are around 15 types of stir fried noodles alone, plus around 15 or so rice dishes. They have a special recommended pork chop rice with egg (a Hongkie favourite), as well as a selection of soups served with instant-style noodles. On top of that there are small dishes such as pineapple buns, turnip cakes, sandwiches, toasts, and of course, Chinese desserts. They also have daily specials on the whiteboard which are a little cheaper than the menu prices. I’d normally say choose wisely, except everything looks so appetizing.

On this occasion we chose a traditional HK fried pork chop bun with lettuce and mustard (sublime), a pan-fried rice noodle rolls with hoisin and peanut sauce (awesome), a steamed pork with black bean sauce on rice (authentic) and a classic pineapple bun (excellent). For a beverage we got their traditional milk tea. Here are the pics.

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Pork Chop Bun

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Pan-fried Rice Noodle Rolls

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Steamed Pork Rice with Black Bean Sauce

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Pickled side dish

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Pineapple Bun

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Milk Tea

I’ve actually had a lot more stuff from this place but I always tend to forget to take photos. Their HK-style French toast is pretty good and I’ve also had their stir-fried beef with dry instant noodles. It’s all good stuff. Maybe I’ll add some photos if I remember take some next time.

Overall, Hsin Hua Tea House is definitely a place I would recommend. The food is authentic and tasty, the selection is vast, the service is efficient and the prices are fair. It’s one of those restaurants you can go to regularly and still keep wanting to go back for more.

8.5/10

Details

Hsin Hua Tea House (香港鑫華茶餐廳)

Address: 126-1 Jinhua St, Da’an district, Taipei — across the road from National Chengchi University’s Center for Public and Business Administration Education (nearest MRT: Guting or Dongmen)

Phone: (02) 2391-2002

Hours: 11am-9pm

Note: cash only

Hsinhua

Movie Review: R.I.P.D. (2013) (2D)

August 29, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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When I first caught a glimpse of the trailer for RIPD I thought, man, this looks a lot like Men In Black for ghosts. A young guy joins a clandestine organization dedicated to eradicating threats common folks don’t know anything about — for their own good — and gets paired with an older partner who is somewhat wacky. Throw in some special effects, light humour and an anagram for a title. Sound familiar?

And so I watched RIPD and my thoughts were confirmed. Yes, it is strikingly similar in idea and tone to MIB, except it’s not as good — and I don’t even think MIB is particularly good.

Ryan Reynolds plays a young cop who does something a little dodgy with his partner, Kevin Bacon, but then his conscience strikes and he has a change of heart, which of course inevitably leads to his demise. Given his skills, he is given an option (which he naturally accepts) by Mary-Louise Parker to join the RIPD, which stands for the Rest In Peace Department (so clever). He is teamed up with an old gunslinger from the 1800s, played by Jeff Bridges, who is quick with his gun and has a fetish for hats and ankles. The two are sent back up to Earth where they take on “deados”, essentially demons disguised as humans. Somehow, they become embroiled in a case where the whole world is at stake and they have to save the day.

As it turned out, a derivative premise is the least of RIPD’s worries. The biggest problem with this film is that it is boring and unexciting, even when our heroes are driving around, chasing and shooting at comically grotesque monsters. The plot is painfully predictable. The progression is flat. The jokes are not funny or fresh (they try to milk this gag where our RIPD officers are in avatars of a hot blonde woman and an old Chinese man — for far too long). The special effects are some of the worst I have ever seen in a recent movie, with the deados looking less authentic than creations in most modern video games. They essentially look like cartoon characters — no joke. And the tone of the film was clearly designed to appeal to a very very young audience.

RIPD might be a passable 96 minutes of fun-ish entertainment for audiences with very low expectations, but the truth is that it is one of the worst comic book adaptations, possibly ever. I won’t lie. I missed a bit of the movie because I fell asleep. It really was that bad.

1.25 stars out of 5

PS: I pity anyone who paid extra to watch this in 3D.

Book Review: ‘Party Time’ by Rowan Callick

August 27, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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For someone who writes routinely about the Communist Party of China, I wasn’t sure what to think when I received a copy of Party Time: Who Runs China and How by Rowan Callick, the Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian newspaper. Did I really want to read more about something I already have to deal with every day (and thought I had a pretty good grasp of), or was it a good opportunity to learn something new?

On the basis that Party Time is an awesome book title (albeit an obvious rip-off from Wayne’s World – excellent!), I decided to dig into the book with enthusiasm – and I am glad I did. The CPC is the most powerful organization in the world (take that, Vatican) with more than 80 million members, and yet few people have any idea how they operate. Despite significant progress over the last couple of decades, what is publicly known about the party, even by its own members, remains blurry and messy.

In Party Time, Callick tells us how the party runs the most populous country on the planet – by planting their presence in every aspect of daily Chinese life, from economics, education and law to media, arts and the military, and everything in between. Callick, who worked as a China correspondent for both the Australian Financial Review and The Australian, also conducted a series of interviews with locals – both party and non-party members – to provide a deeper insight into what people on both sides of the fence thought about the party and what it does.

The book is about 220 pages (excluding acknowledgments and the index) and split up into 14 chapters, each capable of standing alone as an independent feature piece. The first chapter, for example, tells readers how one can become a part of the Communist Party – something seemingly simple but lost on most foreigners. Chapter two then goes on to explain what goes on in the 2,000 cadre schools spread all over China (including the ridiculous “self-criticisms” that they all have to write), while chapter three explains China’s dual-system of government (with parallel party and state bodies and positions) and how it administers the country. So on and so forth.

What we learn from the book is that, despite the façade of having a “government”, China is unequivocally ruled by the party, and indeed nearly all government officials are also party members. You don’t have to be a party member to make something of yourself in China, but it certainly helps if you are. That is why so many young people are drawn to the party – even if they don’t believe in its philosophies or principles – because being a party member makes life easier and opens doors further down the track. This means for every hot-blooded party member there is probably one that is disillusioned, though as we find out in the book, once you join the party it’s nearly impossible to leave. One amusing anecdote tells the story of how one guy tried to leave but was told that the party would pay his annual membership for him – for life.

The chapters on law, media, art and business were of particular interest to me. In the law chapter, I learned that all lawyers, party members or not, must swear an oath of allegiance to the party’s mantra of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and to the party itself. Judges’ decisions are “guided” by the party line and “recommendations” of party officials, and overruling a lower court is frowned upon because it causes a “loss of face.” In one case, a local judge allegedly tried to punch a lawyer for suggesting that he intends to appeal the verdict. On top of that, sentences are heavily influenced by a person’s status, particularly if they are an important official or related to one. The examples Callick give include a death sentence for a minor theft by a commoner and 18 months for murder by the son of an official.

The way the party controls and censors the media and the art community in China is something I am well aware of, but it was still interesting to see just how ridiculous things can get sometimes. For instance, Callick describes a scandal in which a news photographer with a state media organization took and published a photo of the city mayor with his eyes closed. For making the mayor “look bad”, the photographer was fined and forced to write a self-criticism which he had to read out loud in public. And then he was sacked anyway.

I was also fascinated to read about how renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) choreographed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Zhang was honest but also very diplomatic in his responses, saying that while he had full control over the ceremony he was smart enough to know he had to take certain “suggestions” on board if they came from a high-ranking official, or several.

Doing business in China is a scary thought. In the business chapter, Callick takes us on a tour of the plethora of toy factories in Shantou in the east of Guangdong province, where the pay is surprisingly good for workers but profits continue to shrink for businesses. We are told of the dominance of the party’s All-China Federation of Trade Unions over the country’s 800 million-strong workforce, and reminded that the party is China’s most important business organization, with ultimate approval over every investment. It also has branches in every state-owned enterprise and 85% of private enterprises, with ultimate veto rights over all major decisions.

The last few chapters of the book, on subjects such as Mao’s legacy (they party has decided he was 70% right and 30% wrong), the re-emergence of Confucius (who was, by the way, not confused), and short bios of top leaders, were slightly less interesting for me, but I did love the chapter about what life is like in the party’s upper echelons – ie, no life, but all the benefits you can think of upon retirement, from free housing to chauffeurs to free overseas trips all totaling around US$1 million a year.

The best parts of the book are the anecdotes, such as the only recorded joke on record from ex-president Hu Jintao (who may or may not have been a secret Chinese lab experiment to create the ultimate cyborg leader), who told the governor of New Jersey in 2001 that was he willing to share with the United States the secret of how Chinese leaders keep their hair so black. It was also hilarious and insightful to learn how Chinese netizens went crazy when they saw Barack Obama step out of a plane holding his own umbrella (that’s a slave’s job!), and how Chinese consumers paste sticky tape over their tupperware so as to preserve the Lock-Lock logo (a reflection of the economic and social status they have achieved).

While Callick is critical of the party’s lack of transparency and its rigid, often draconian rule, Party Time is far from a “China bashing” book. Callick is quick to point out the positives afforded by an all-powerful centralized government and an insulated society, which demonstrated, among other things, how China was able to escape the 2008 Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed. He also gives credit to China’s rapid progression and its reforms, and offers due praise to Chinese leaders such as former premier Wen Jiabao and new party leader Xi Jinping.

In all, this is a great book for anyone with an interest in the Communist Party or China in general. Published in mid-2013, the information contained in it is relatively up to date, with regular mentions of disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai (whose trial just concluded the other day) and blind lawyer activist Chen Guangcheng. I had a good time with Party Time. It’s excellent.

4/5

KGB Kiwi Gourmet Burgers (Taipei)

August 26, 2013 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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The Specials Board

Burger joints in Taiwan are a dime a dozen, but one that keeps creeping up in recommendations is KGB (an acronym for Kiwi Gourmet Burgers), which as the name suggests was set up by a couple of ex-pats including a Kiwi.

It’s not an easy place to find, tucked away in a tiny alley off Shida Road, a short walk from the Taipower Building MRT station. The restaurant itself is small and cozy but nicely fitted to look like a chic cafe you might find in Sydney’s Newtown.

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Fancy ketchup

So what sets KGB burgers apart from the rest? Quality ingredients, apparently. They say the only use the freshest produce along with New Zealand beef and free range chicken, and the burger buns are made fresh to order from special bakers.

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Your meal at KGB involves a few choices. First of all, you pick your patty: beef, chicken or vegetarian. Second, you pick your burger type, and third, you pick your side, be it salad or fries. They also have a range of specialty burgers such as satay, lamb, bacon avocado, aioli (the KGB), and CC Heaven — Camembert with cranberry sauce. For some burgers you can also choose the “slim”, a smaller version of the “regular”. The prices range from about NT$200-260 for a regular, which is only about NT$60-70 more than the slim. In other words, I’d go for the regular every time.

We ended up choosing two burgers — a KGB (which comes with their special ginger lime aioli) and a Satay Chicken Burger. For the sides we got garlic fries and a rocket salad.

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The KGB with Garlic Fries

 

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The Satay Chicken Burger with Rocket Salad

First up, the KGB, served on a fresh bun with tomato, onion, lettuce, cheese, a thick, grilled NZ beef patty and some of that awesome ginger lime aioli. It was excellent, and if it’s not enough flavour for you, there’s always the option to add some ketchup. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best burgers I’ve had, though it’s definitely one of the better burgers I’ve had in Taiwan. It’s indeed fresh, doesn’t overload on too many things like some of the other Taiwanese burger joints, and the size is manageable (you know it’s not when you struggle to figure out how to take a bite). But if you’re talking aioli on your burger, no burger joint can top Brodburger in Canberra (review here). It’s the best, you hear me? The Best!

The garlic fries were fairly good. Instead of garlic powder or flavouring, KGB offers crunchy fries with herbs and actual chunks of crushed garlic. Unfortunately it doesn’t taste quite as good as it sounds or looks. Not bad, but just not mindblowing.

The Satay Chicken Burger was a little disappointing, mainly because the chicken itself was overdone and not that easy to chew through (the satay sauce was good — thick and flavoursome). I’m not sure if it was a once-off thing or if their chicken is always like that, but if I go again I’m sticking with the beef. The rocket salad was fresh and crispy, but I’m not a big fan of balsamic dressing (though I know I am in the minority).

Perhaps I didn’t have the best first experience there, but I’d be interested in heading back to KGB again to give some of their other burgers a try. I like their style and the effort they put into creating burgers that are fresh, tasty, and with just the right amount of flamboyance.

8/10

Details

KGB Kiwi Gourmet Burgers

Website: http://www.kgbburgers.com/index_en.html

Address: No. 5, Lane 114, Shida Road, Taipei (nearest MRT Taipower Building, green line)

Phone: (02) 2363-6015

Hours: 12pm to 11pm (kitchen closes at 10pm)

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 11

August 26, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Safe House (2012)

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Denzel Washington plays an ex-CIA operative who turns rogue and becomes an international criminal who, unsurprisingly,  appears to be more than meets the eye. Ryan Reynolds plays a low-level CIA agent who is tasked with looking after Denzel when the latter is captured and brought to a South African safe house (hence the title. Disaster strikes, and Reynolds is thrust into a dangerous situation in which he must figure out who he can trust in order to discover the truth behind everything.

It’s the type of basic premise we have seen dozens of times before (albeit with slight variations) — where a decent but relatively inexperienced guy out of his depth is paired with a slick professional and there is a big conspiracy waiting to be unveiled (is this considered a huge spoiler?).

I don’t mind these movies per se, but I’m a bit sick of the whole “Denzel is so cool” routine we seem to be getting in just about every film we see him in these days. You know, charismatic, super cool under pressure, extremely gifted in firefights and hand-to-hand combat, acts like he doesn’t give a crap about anything but cares deeply about doing the right thing in accordance with his own principles. As for Reynolds, I’m assuming he just played exactly the same type of character in RIPD (which I haven’t seen yet but will).

Look, Safe House isn’t bad — there’s intensity, action, suspense and a few semi-predictable twists here and there — but there is nothing that makes it memorable or stand out. In fact, I had forgotten a lot of the details and had to give myself a little refresher on YouTube and Wikipedia just to write this review. The performances are solid, but I didn’t like how the action sequences were edited with those quick, choppy cuts that prevent you from seeing exactly what is happening.

On the whole just an OK thriller that fails to live up to its full potential despite Denzel and an all-star cast that also features Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

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I swear I still intend to get to the acclaimed book on which this film is based, written by Stephen Chbosky. I’ve heard so many people rave on about the book that it would be an injustice for me to ignore it. Interestingly, the film version is directed by the author, who wrote the screenplay as well. Usually it’s a recipe for disaster to place so much of a story in the hands of a single person, but in this case it was complete justified because The Perks of Being a Wallflower turned out to be one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Charlie, played by Percy Jackson‘s Logan Lerman, is a high school freshman dealing with a traumatic loss from the year before. Shy and withdrawn, he is a wallflower, someone who observes but is never really part of the story — until he meets step-siblings Sam and Patrick, played by Emma Watson (Harry Potter) and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin), who accept him as part of their group.

Without going into too much more detail, this is a story about the loss of innocence, friendship, falling in love, loyalty, betrayal, and all those things many of us go through as we grow into adults. With full control over the material, Chbosky delivers an extremely genuine and heartfelt story told through a sensitive and delicate lens that I’m sure will be easy for many teens to relate to and conjure up a deep sense of nostalgia in adults. It’s hard to explain except to say that I connected with this film more than I thought I would and that I fully believed in the story from start to finish. Yes it is sentimental in parts but not overly so.

I’m astounded that Chbosky has only previously directed one other film, in 1995. The tone and atmosphere he creates in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is masterful and reflects just how in command of the material he is. He must also be credited for eliciting the best performances I have ever seen from Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. Let’s face it, Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers are not the best films for a thespian to show off their acting talents, but Lerman is unbelievably believable as the mild-mannered Charlie who is immediately likable but is also clearly holding onto something that prevents him from opening up. Your heart goes out to him. The only complaints could be that he is not quite young-looking enough to pull off a freshman or that he is too good looking to play such a loner.

As for Emma Watson, wow. I always thought she was the most talented out of the Harry Potter trio, but here she completely sheds the shackles of Hermoine and gives us the best performance of her career. The same can be said for Ezra Miller, whom I thought would forever be trapped in my nightmares as the horrific Kevin (from We Need to Talk About Kevin, one of the best movies of 2011). Here he is a completely different character as the giddy and affable Patrick and totally made me forget that he butchered a bunch of kids in his previous role.

In some ways, The Perks of Being a Wallflower might oversimplify or even glamorize some difficult issues in adolescent life, but for me it’s a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant motion picture.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: I’m almost doing The Perks of Being a Wallflower a disservice by reviewing it as part of a four-film movie blitz, because it deserves a solo review of its own. But I am lazy and I can’t be bothered.

Deadfall (2012)

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A stylish crime drama of intersecting subplots that feels strangely complicated but is actually very straightforward.

Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a pair of siblings on the run after a casino heist has gone horribly wrong. For some reason they must split up so they could reach their goal of making it across the Canadian border under blizzard conditions, kicking off a string of violent events and coincidences that eventually all comes to a head in a climatic flurry. The film is powered by an A-list cast that also features Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), Kate Mara (House of Cards), Kris Krisofferson, Treat Williams and Sissy Spacek.

I found Deadfall a difficult film to grasp because it seems to be moving along confidently, taking the audience in several directions seemingly without aim, but there is actually an underlying strategy all along to pull all the strands together by the end. But at the end of it all, I said to myself, “Is that it?” Despite the intrigue, I was left wondering what the fuss was all about.

That said, I was engaged and kept wondering what was going on through the majority of the 94-minute running time. I suppose you could call it dark, character-driven film, but then again I didn’t really care for any of the characters. Could it be described as a B-grade movie masquerading as an A-grade movie because of its sound technical efficiency and the super cast? I dunno. I can’t decide whether I liked the film, disliked the film, or if I am just indifferent about it. Meh.

2.5 stars out of 5

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

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Every now and then comes along a really interesting idea for a movie and the execution is nearly good enough to pull it off, but for whatever reason just doesn’t quite get there. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley, is such a film. It starts off brilliantly and has its fair share of genuine laughs and oddly comical moments all the way through, but unfortunately it loses steam halfway through and drifts towards a rather disappointing final act.

The film starts off with the announcement that the world, as we know it, is coming to an end. A giant asteroid is coming to Earth and there’s no Bruce Willis to save us. With just three weeks until impact, the world is understandably flipped into chaos (with drugs and suicides and looting and guilt-free sex dominating), but at the same time there are many lost and lonely individuals out there who have no idea how they are going to spend the last few days of their lives. Steve Carrell, whose wife leaves him in the opening scene, is one of them, until he meets Knightley, who had just broken up with her boyfriend and has no chance to see her family in England one last time.

Seeking a Friend could be described as a road trip comedy-drama, but it’s really a fascinating imagining of how the world would react if everyone thought they had just days to live. Would you keep working in your job because you have nothing else better to do? Or would you stay with family and go have beach BBQs all day? Or will you go crazy and break every law you can think of, just for the sake of it? A lot of the things depicted in this film, as random and outrageous and hilarious as they are, strangely ring true. I laughed often and hard, especially early on.

I’ve never been a big fan of either Carrell or Knightley, so I was shocked to discover that I really liked both of them in this. Despite the age gap (51 to 28), they had a comfortable rapport and a sweetness to them, and the resulting banter was sharp and clicking.

However, perhaps feeling like it cannot be a pure comedy with no emotion (given it is the end of the world, after all), the film starts to become more personal and begins venturing into light melodrama, regretfully sucking out its earlier charm. The closer it got to the end, the more flat and uninteresting things got. Some of the attempts are indeed poignant, but frankly I just wanted more laughs.

3.5 stars out of 5