Remembering Wun Ban

It used to be that I’d run into the Chinese grocery specifically for the steamed rice cakes. I’d look for the saran wrapped packages, throw a couple in the cart and move on to the more desirable selection of Swiss chocolate rolls and candied walnuts. The steamed cakes were for my mother. In Cantonese they’re called Nian Gao, in Hakka they’re called Wun Ban.

When I was little, my mom made Wun Ban at home. She’d use her Osterizer to pulverize rice and water, strain it and pulverize it again until the liquid was silky smooth. Sweetened with a bit of sugar, she’d steam the cakes in round pyrex bowls. When they finished cooking, they’d be pale unappetizing discs of solid beige jello. My mother was the only one who enjoyed this dessert. My brother and I certainly did not and my father never once tried it in all their years of marriage.

How to describe the taste?

It was made of rice and it tasted like rice.

My mother loved it.

With a sharp paring knife she’d cut a slice, spear it with the tip and delicately bite off small portions. She’d chew it slowly and savor the soft gumminess, the mellow, understated flavor of rice. Eating Wun Ban was a quiet activity. Talking interrupted the flavor or maybe, the memories that the flavor conjured.

My mother said that her father made Wun Ban to sell in his Auntie’s shop. He’d fry green onions to a golden brown and sprinkle them on the batter before steaming. He’d score the cooked cakes into half inch strips and cut them into rectangular portions. As she spoke, I vaguely recalled a large netted box spread with sheets of pale steamed cakes, cooling in the shadow of my grandparents’ dining room. It sat on old wooden table covered with a red and white checkered oilcoth. I remember tearing a long, soft, stretchy rope of cake, holding it high above my head and nibbling up the length from one end.

In Toronto I can buy Nian Gao in the Chinese supermarket. On my way to visit my mother, I’d stop and buy a couple packs for her. At least, I used to. The last time I was there, I automatically reached for the Nian Gao, my muscular memory forgetting that she had passed away.

I bought it just the same. That night, I cut a slice and silently chewed on the slightly sweet, almost nutty, starchy graininess of rice.

Toronto, 2015


Bali Snapshots

Our photo guide, Yande was a taciturn man. On the first day of our photo shoot, we met in the 5am dark at the hotel’s entrance. He quietly greeted us, packed our camera gear and silently drove into the brooding night. Initially, I welcomed his silence. However, in the ensuing four hours of travel we exchanged less than ten words per hour. Forty words. Barely enough for a story stanza, hardly enough for a short story.

That day we had a sunrise shoot on Sanur beach with a local fisherman as a model. It was either his first time or a repeat of many similar times. Either way he was stiff and formal. He wore a cone straw hat and a pressed golf shirt neatly buttoned up. With awkward lassitude he stood against a rising turquoise sky. He held his fishing net with an arm stuck out, stiffly perpendicular to his body. It was a perfect silhouette of a one legged mail post. As the sun lightened up, we beckoned him on shore for portrait close-ups. With a stare reminiscent of mug shots and do-not-smite passport pictures, he stared blankly into the camera.

On a whim, I showed him the pictures on my camera’s LED screen.
“Beautiful,” I said.
BaliSnapshots-4628In my next shot I noted a gradual easing of his cheek. The slight, almost imperceptible crinkle at his eyes. It was the beginning of a potential for a smile.
Later I told Yande that one of my better pictures was a closeup of the fisherman.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Bugis,” Yande said.

On our second day, Yande took us to the hills to greet the sunrise at Ulun Danu. On the way we were stuck in a narrow winding country road, in a slow moving cavalcade of cars and farm vehicles. At one point we were cut off by a motor bike hauling a makeshift bamboo trailer. In the trailer, precariously maintaining his balance, was a large pig. White exhaust belched from the bike’s muffler directly into the pig’s face and the trailer lurched and swerved around the many pot holes. In this stretch there were more holes than road and I wondered how the pig stayed upright.

Poor pig. I thought.

“That’s a happy pig,” Yande said.

“Why? Isn’t he going to the butcher?” I said.

“Oh no. He’d be in a different position if it was the butcher. He’d be lying down. That pig is going to visit a lady pig.”

“He’s a bull pig?”

“Yes. The owner probably got a call just now. So he’s off to make a service.”

“How does the owner get paid? With the baby pigs?”

“No. No. He gets paid in cash for his service.”

“What if there’s no piglets?”

“It’s no matter,” Yande laughed. “Services rendered. No returns.”

Balinese homes have a feng shui type arrangement – walled compounds with a single gate for entrance and exit. Money and prosperity flows in and with careful watch, does not  flow out. The unofficial gate house is the kitchen, where mother stands guard. Everyone must pass the kitchen. Even a daughter’s boyfriend. Especially a daughter’s boyfriend.

In the Bali compound a system of houses are arranged in strategic north-south, east-west placement. The parent’s house faces West, the grandparents’ faces East. The eldest son’s family home faces North and the tombs of deceased family members face South. Yande says that the North symbolizes youth and prosperity; the East, longevity. Longevity without wealth is not good. Wealth without longevity is even worse. North East is the best.

“If the eldest son lives at home,” I asked “where does the second son live?”

“First son has to live at home with the parents, so that he can take care of them.”

Yande’s voice deepened with the weight of an observant son.

“He makes all the decisions for the family and has all the responsibility and power, but he can never leave the village. He doesn’t even get to choose his wife. His parents arrange the marriage. The Second son has all the freedom. He can leave the family village and do whatever he wants. He can choose his wife. He can marry for love. Buy his own land. Setup a new home.”

Yande paused before deciding to tell us a story.

“My uncle, my mother’s brother, is a second son. A long time ago he met two sisters and fell in love with the younger sister. She was very beautiful. He noticed though, that whenever he went to visit her, the older sister was always there. When it came time he wanted to marry the younger sister. But the girl’s parents said no, he could only marry the older sister. Although they were very rich, they owned two separate houses, they had no sons, only the two daughters. As an incentive, they said he could get the family home, if he married the older sister.

So he did.

Still, in his heart he loved the younger sister. After several years of marriage and the birth of his own son, he again approached the parents. Eventually they agreed and he married his true love. Today, he has two wives and two houses.

He is very happy.”
Bali Gate-5281

Gates are a big thing in Bali. Large stone structures, they are ornately carved portals which loom eight meters high. Yande said that the gates are built in the image of Balinese mountains because all life comes from there. Fresh water flows from the mountains and food grows abundant with seasons.

“True Balinese people are farmers,” Yande said. “They work the land and harvest the crops, three, four times a year. Balinese are not like the Bugis who live near the sea. Bugis are lazy and have no patience. Give the Bugis some seeds and three months and they don’t know what to do. They prefer the easy prosperity of the sea. They cast their nets and draw their catch.”

“Bugis,” he said with disdain “are not loyal to the land. They take their boats and scatter far away. Bugis are in Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines. Even Singapore! They plunder the sea and go everywhere.”

On our last day in Bali, we walked along Jimbalan beach and watched the fishermen bring in their catch. It was scarcely 9 am, but most of the boats had been docked and unloaded for the morning market. Wiry and burnt brown from the unforgiving sun, the men cleaned their catamarans and untangled their fishing nets. When a late coming boat approached, everyone dropped their work and hurried to help dock the vessel. Lined up on either side, they hoisted the heavy boat onto a barrow trolley and pulled it ashore. With the waves bashing against the fully loaded hull, it took twelve men and nearly an hour of heaving to bring the boat ashore.

Jimbaran Fisherman-5202My final shot of the Bugis is of two young men, classically posed against the breaking waves, patiently waiting for the boat to approach and begin the arduous work of bringing in the day’s harvest.


Indonesia, 2015

Shooting Angkor

The torch light flared across the bridge towards Angkor Wat. Puddles of water from yesterday’s rain filled the wide spaces between the flagstones. It was five am and pitch black. We were walking in the middle of the Cambodian jungle but an eerie quiet surrounded us. Our photo tour guide Nathan, hurried ahead, his flash light quickly disappearing. It was another hour before sunrise but we had to position ourselves before the hordes arrived.

“Set up your tripods here,” he told us. “Right up to the edge of the reflecting pool. Focus on the temple. That way. Stay tight and close together.”

Moths flickered to the torch, smacking into the glass face with frantic taps. Waving the insects aside and spitting out the papery taste of bug wings, I pointed the light to the ground. I placed my camera on the tripod, focused on a vast blank sky and waited for the sun.

The trip to Angkor started with a chance visit to Nathan’s website. Spectacular images of Buddhist monks against glorious Khmer ruins captured my imagination. Nathan offered travel photography tours to Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Nepal. He researched the best locations for photo shoots, provided technical coaching and taught the ethics of street photography. As I was to find out, the best travel photos were the ones enlivened by human content. However the hardest lesson to learn was how to engage with strangers. The secret to start, Nathan said, was to look them in the eye and smile.

Nathan’s pictures inspired me to visit but they didn’t prepare for the scale and grandeur that was Angkor. Altogether, there are over 70 temples covering 400 square kilometers. At its height in the 12th century Angkor was the center of the ancient Khmer empire which  included Thailand and Vietnam. The city was a metropolis of a million people with a sophisticated culture of art, religion, urban planning and tactical warfare.

“Coffee? Tea? One dollar.”

A woman’s lilting voice floated through the lightening darkness. Her flashlight danced across the banks of the pool and against a growing press of people. In the twenty minutes since arriving hundreds of tourists had gathered behind us. Whispered words in French, German and English multiplied into a buzz of anticipation. Faint shadows of light rippled across the sky. As the first silhouette of Angkor Wat appeared, a murmur of collective awe rose from the crowd.

Two million tourists visit Angkor every year. It was reclaimed from the jungle, divested of land mines and declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992. Although a tourist attraction, it is still a sacred venue for Cambodia’s active Buddhist community. Later in the morning Nathan arranged for a water blessing by a resident monk for good luck, long life and happiness. Over the next four days, I relied on that blessing as I clambered over narrow stone ledges and slippery, rain slicked rocks. Once, while crab walking down a steep and tumbled stair case I overheard Nathan cautioning a fellow shootist.

“Watch out for that centipede. It might be a flesh eating one.”

I scanned the stone block where my hand rested and looked around the floor before planting my next step.

“A friend of mine was bitten and he’s in a bad way.” Seeing my concern, he continued. “Don’t worry, it’s not the same one. Probably.”

Back in Angkor Wat the sun had broken through but heavy rain clouds loomed over the horizon. I packed away my camera and stared at the temple shimmering in the morning light. Outside of the narrow frame of the camera’s viewfinder the temple revealed itself in full glory. Its three tiered pyramid structure and lotus like towers rose from the ground like a massive temple-mountain. Despite the early hour, a steady line of people was already making its way across the moat. Two orange robed monks stood out against the sand colored stones. This picture of Angkor is one that has endured for a thousand years. A rising sun over a breaking new day. An ancient temple filled with reverent people. Devout monks ascending the steps to prayer.

Nathan Horton offers photography tours in Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal and India.

Crabgrass and Concrete

2f6c0-img-20130109-00189When I take photos I do so to capture a memory. Sometimes the image is the memory. Other times, it’s the details that emote the memory.  Like crabgrass and concrete.

When I was growing up every house had front yard lawns of crab grass edging concrete driveways .  Crab grass is ground cover which  survives the extremes of tropical climates.  It is aggressively green when watered and tenaciously hardy with drought.  There’s nothing remarkable about crab grass …except that it recalls  the houses  in which I grew up.
It recalls birthday’s with party games of musical chairs and egg and spoon races. It remembers a giant red tricycle,  plastic blue pedal car, Barbie dolls and tea sets.  It replays the loud barking of guard dogs behind wrought iron gates and concrete posts.

Concrete is pebbled and textured.  Its gray is white with streaks of marble black and undertones of green and blue.  It is smooth and warm and rough.

It is in the foot bridge that takes me to my Aunty’s  shop and the dank foundation of her outside kitchen.  It’s the dark corners where spiders spin webs,  lizards scurry  up walls  and hang from the ceiling.   It’s on the ledges of windows whose glass louvers filter sunlight and funnel cool tropical breezes.   It amplifies the splash of rain and shields torrential, driving rainstorms.   It’s in the pebbled steps that take me to my mother’s backyard hill garden.  It’s the platform from which I look out across the lowland houses towards a  wayward Caribbean sea.