A New Journey: The Beginning

Filed in L.A. (Sept 2006), TravelTags: , ,

My singing has always been important to me. Often, music is a precious companion, the one thing that will always be there no matter where I am or what I'm doing. Over the years, I've tried to improve my singing whenever possible. Through multiple unintentional spans of time when I didn't sing at all followed by periods of re-training and learning, I was able to forget some of my bad habits and learn better technique. In July of 2006, I was still not at the place I desired to be and hungered for further improvement. I needed a teacher.

My previous teacher had taught me well but you can only learn so much from one teacher and I needed more. I needed someone who could take me to the next level. Finding a teacher is always a gamble. You can never know until after you've begun working with them whether or not they'll be good for you but if you don't gamble, you'll always lose. I had to try.

In the months leading up to July, I had been watching episodes of the American Idol 2005/6 singing competition. The competitors were all exceptional performers. One of the competitors in particular really impressed me. Her name was Katharine, Katharine McPhee. While watching the show, I learnt that Katharine's mother Peisha was a vocal coach (i.e., a singing teacher). A little research on the internet revealed that Peisha McPhee was also an accomplished and respected cabaret singer.

People have asked me how to know if a teacher is good. I would first suggest that you observe the teacher's students. If the students perform well, that's a good sign. If the students have traits and abilities that you yourself admire and would like to develop, then that's an even better sign. This was very true in my case. Katharine was amazing. More than one of her performances gave me goose bumps. She was awesome and I wanted some of what she had if even only a small piece. Peisha therefore became a prime candidate in my search for a new teacher. In fact, she became my only candidate.

Studying in the U.S.A. with a vocal coach as celebrated as Peisha would be a dream for me, but an expensive one. There would be the air plane ticket, the motel accommodation, food and of course the tutor fees. It wasn't a decision that I could make lightly or quickly and so I began to ponder the decision, weighing the costs and the potential gains.

A week later while pondering the decision to study with Peisha, I received a phone call from someone in Hong Kong, an assistant to a local stage director. He was planning to put on an English musical stage play here in Hong Kong next year, and he wanted me to star in it! To me, that was magical, the chance to act and sing on stage. But it was more than that. It was divine affirmation that I should go to the U.S.A. and study with Peisha; assuming that she would accept me.

Now nearing the end of July, I used the email address from Peisha's web site and emailed her, telling her who I was and what I hoped to do. At first, Peisha was not sure about taking me on. There are after all lots of crazy people in the world. It wasn't until she had looked at my blog, viewed my singing performance from Teresa Tang's memorial concert, and seen my Indonesia photos that she saw my passion and agreed to help me. Over the following 6 weeks, we communicated many times as we tried to arrange a suitable schedule for both of us. I changed the schedule at least three times, trying to work around one TVB series 「寫意人生」 that I was filming at the time and another TVB series (「獄焰驚情」) that would begin filming sometime in October. Peisha herself was a very busy person and her schedule too was not entirely foreseeable. But the effort paid off and we eventually had a workable schedule.

On September 20, one day later than originally planned so that I could see the talented 周華健 in concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum before leaving, I left Hong Kong for an adventure. I had no expectations, and no preconceptions of what I would see, learn or experience in L.A. My life has taught me that it is very difficult to predict the future. It is better to go with an open mind, to enjoy the journey and the experience, and learn all that you can.

On Thursday afternoon, September 21 of 2006, having disembarked from my plane three hours earlier and just minutes before booked into a nearby motel, I walked up the footpath by the side of Peisha's home, up to her studio at the back of the house just in time for our first scheduled lesson. In spite of not having slept for more than thirty hours, I felt exhilarated and excited to be there.

As I walked up to the studio, Peisha walked out to greet me. A huge wonderful smile on her face, looking radiant in the afternoon sun, and perhaps just as excited to see me as I was to see her, Peisha held out her hand and greeted me with an abundance of positive energy and joy. It was the beginning of a brand new journey, and the beginning of a precious new friendship.

I stayed in L.A. for four full weeks. I studied privately with Peisha one hour a day, five days a week. I also joined three other cabaret classes that she and a friend taught; one advanced class in her studio on Tuesday nights, and two classes at the Los Angeles Community College on Saturdays where they have taught their cabaret classes to budding performers for more than twenty years. Every hour of learning was invaluable, and sometimes grueling and exhausting. Privately with Peisha, I was able to cure bad habits and build good technique. The improvement over the four weeks was astounding. In the cabaret classes, I learnt much from Peisha, her talented friend, pianist, teacher and music director Mel Dangcil, and the other students.

I learnt a lot more from Peisha than just singing technique though. She taught me about confidence, attitudes, delivery, self-worth and much much more. You can never predict the future, and in this case, I came out winning big time.

Originally planning to return to Hong Kong on October 15 for the new TVB series, I extended my stay in L.A. to spend a few more days with Peisha. Those few extra days turned out to be invaluable because we were able to do something very special. You won't want to miss my next article ;-)

Goodbye L.A. Hello H.K.

Filed in L.A. (Sept 2006), Travel, WorkTags: , ,

I'm back in Hong Kong, back home with my wife and our kids. It's great to be back although the trip back was a little sudden and rushed.

Before going to L.A., I was filming 寫意人生 at TVB. Because filming took longer than previously hoped, I had to delay my trip to L.A. until September 16. Furthermore, TVB had another series planned for which I would need to be back in Hong Kong by October 16 or earlier if possible. This placed strict limits on the time I could spend in L.A., but the trip was important to me; improving my singing technique is always on my mind; so I worked around the limitations as well as I could and left for L.A.

My time in L.A. with my teacher was fabulous. My teacher and I clicked immediately, as if we'd known each other for a lifetime and my learning was significant.

While in L.A., I received information from TVB that the new series was willing to guarantee six half-episodes of work for me. Previously, I had expected a higher guarantee. Six half-episodes is not a lot of work, and the series would still lock me down for six to eight weeks. It was then up to me to balance the potential benefit of staying with my teacher in L.A. for another four days against the possibility of losing my role in the new TVB series if they couldn't wait for my return.

Sometimes, it's that little extra time, that small extra push, that final extra effort, that makes all the difference. I felt this would be true for me during this trip and therefore decided to stay the extra four days with my teacher, four days because my teacher had to leave L.A. on October 19 to go to New York for the 17th Annual Cabaret Convention and various personal reasons.

On October 4, I sent an email to TVB informing them of my decision to stay in L.A. an extra four days, and that I would accept the new series if they could wait for me.

Those extra four days in L.A. turned out to be invaluable. With my teacher's help, I did something which will likely have significant consequences in the future, something that you will all learn about soon. I am absolutely confident that my decision to extend my stay was the correct one.

Two weeks after sending that email and two days before I planned to return to Hong Kong, I was sleeping soundly in my motel room (sleeping soundly was unfortunately very rare during my stay in L.A.). I had just finished my last cabaret workshop with my teachers and student friends and I was preparing for the inedible good-bye; happy nonetheless. My time in L.A. with my teacher had been wonderful and well worth the expense. At one-thirty a.m., I was awoken by the phone. It was my wife. TVB needed me back in Hong Kong by midday October 20, one day earlier than I was scheduled to return.

When we explained to TVB that I wouldn't be back in Hong Kong until October 20, they became upset. Understandable. Every time they plan any filming, a lot of people are involved; i.e., a lot of money. Trying to change anything for the sake of one actor is never a good thing.

I felt obligated to change my plans and leave L.A. immediately. I was moderately upset because I had informed them two weeks earlier of my plans to return to Hong Kong on October 20, but certain people at TVB are very talented at moving the blame to the artist. It was later discovered that an unfortunate misunderstanding at TVB resulted in my email being read but not forwarded to the relevant parties. Therefore, the producer of the new series was not made aware of my changed schedule.

Fortunately, I was able to suppress my feelings and think about the problem at hand logically. If I had reacted purely emotionally, I'd have stubbornly refused to change my schedule; partly out of defiance, and partly out of anger and retaliation at being manipulated. Instead, I realised and admitted to myself that my final day in L.A. did not contain anything essential to my trip. My last lesson with my teacher was to be a summary of what I had learnt and while valuable, it would not be indispensable. Other than that one-hour lesson, nothing else was planned for the day. It was therefore an acceptable trade-off to leave one day earlier (even though changing my flight would cost US$100 for which I would not be reimbursed).

At six a.m., I woke up and called Cathay Pacific reservations. We were lucky. There were available seats on that day's flight and I was able to move my flight one day forward. I was also able to reschedule my airport shuttle bus ride without financial penalty. Ten minutes later when my wife called from Hong Kong, I informed her of the situation and she was able to inform the TVB personnel who subsequently breathed a sigh of relief. Two hours later, I had packed all of my belongings and was ready to leave. I had just enough time to rush down to my teacher's home and say my final good-bye.

I caught a cab down to her home and asked the cab to wait for me outside. I couldn't afford to be late back to the motel. The airport shuttle bus was due to pick me up one hour later and I knew that it wouldn't wait for me should I be late. Cabs are few and far between in L.A. so it was better to have him wait for me than to try to call another one later on.

My teacher was getting ready for a special TV appearance; taking a shower and getting her hair styled. Ten minutes after my arrival, she came out to the living room to see me. It was difficult for both of us. We'd seen each other almost every day for a whole month and it was now time to go our separate ways. We had become great friends. Fortunately, the internet and cheap international phone calls from Hong Kong has made the world a much smaller place so we will never be far apart, and I believe that great things are destined for both of us.

From the motel, my ride to the airport went well. With me in the shuttle bus were several other Caucasians destined for China. Some of them had lived in China for two years and spoke Mandarin. It's always a happy thing to meet other non-Chinese who have taken the time and effort to learn one of the Chinese dialects. It's almost as if we belong to a special club.

The Cathay flight was delayed two hours, but that wasn't a bad thing. Because of the delay, we were each given a US$15 food coupon which I used to buy an authentic meat loaf meal and the last cappuccino I would consume at L.A.

The flight was painful. Fifteen hours in a seat just wide enough and with very little leg room (especially for anyone six feet tall or taller) is very difficult to endure. The movies are ok but not great. The Cathay video system is still the older one where you have to wait until all the movies have finished before you can begin to watch the next movie and there is no pause/rewind/fast-forward functionality. Additionally, when the person in front reclines their seat all the way down, the cheap LCD monitor with limited wide-angle visibility is lowered so far that it's almost impossible to view. If I was five foot eight inches tall, I'd probably be ok, but I'm six feet tall and I almost broke my neck trying to view the monitor. Japan Airline's video system is soooo much better.

The next day at two p.m., I was on location in Fenling 粉嶺 shooting my first scene from the new TVB series 獄焰驚情, almost feeling as if I'd never left Hong Kong.

Everything was back to normal, everything except for one thing: I was now a better person, an improved person because of the knowledge and talent passed on to me by a very special one-of-a-kind teacher. Thank you Peisha!

One Asian man

Filed in L.A. (Sept 2006), TravelTags: , ,

I'm tired!

This morning, I didn't have any chores to do and I didn't feel like going to Starbucks again, so I started walking with a full backpack on my back. An hour and 25 blocks later, I discovered a very nice 'French' cafe Le Pain Quotidien with tables outside on the sidewalk. Inside, incredibly attractive breads and cakes were on display and I knew this was the place I wanted to eat at, so I sat down at one of the outside tables and ordered breakfast: a parmesan omelette and a double-cappuccino.

Everything at this restaurant was 'organic', meaning that any animals involved were treated humanely and any food products were not processed any more than necessary. The omelette was fabulous, the cheese wonderful (I'm a cheese lover). Even the organic butter tasted great. The bread was above average, and the organic Belgium jam, marmalade and hazelnut spreads were also wonderful. The coffee was so nice; served in a large cup without handles; that I ordered a second cup. The food wasn't cheap. In fact, by Hong Kong standards, it was very expensive but it's simply another case of getting what you pay for, and I'm only here for a few more days so…

After that fabulous meal, I continued my walk until I found a Staples store where I purchased a second clear folder for my sheet music, and then photocopied sheet music that I had previously purchased here in L.A. so that the pianist and I would both have something to look at in my workshops. Then it was back to my teacher's studio for our afternoon lesson.

Following the lesson, I spent almost an hour waiting and photographing the humming bird that lives near my teacher's home. The humming birds are quite fascinating and I'll tell you more about them after I've returned to Hong Kong and chosen a few photographs to show you.

I then took a bus ride to an electric appliance repair shop where our KitchenAid cake mixer was getting repaired. Fortunately, very close to that repair shop was a specialty shop selling cardboard boxes (cartons). I just so happen to need a box to pack the extra things I've purchased while here in L.A. so finding this shop was perfect.

It was then time to go 'home', back to the motel. Imagine for a moment, a Caucasian guy with a 25-pound backpack on this back, a cake mixer nestled in one hand and a flattened 18" x 30" box in the other hand, getting on the bus. It wasn't easy getting everything home but it's finished now.

An interesting thing happened while on the bus coming home. A young lady stood up, walked to the front of the bus and asked the driver how to get to China Town. I watched her carefully. Her English appeared to be broken but I was almost certain that she wasn't Chinese. She looked Middle Eastern to me. When she returned to her seat, I realised what was going on. She was helping an Asian man with very limited English to get directions. Their communication was though almost non-existent. The young lady alighted from the bus a couple of stops later, leaving the Asian man wondering about how to get to China Town. He moved over to the opposite seat and asked the black man sitting there the same question.

(Minorities mix very very well here. There is no obvious racism that I can see, and people treat each other very well and with respect, regardless of race or colour. L.A. is a very special city in this aspect. The same cannot be said of much of the U.S.A. where minorities are few in number.)

The black man tried to help the Asian but was also having problems communicating. At the same time though, he appeared to be ready to help out the Asian man or at least felt that he had communicated what the Asian man needed to know to get to China Town.

I struggled with whether or not to talk to the Asian man. He looked Chinese to me, and chances were good that he spoke either Mandarin or Cantonese. My struggle was that others were apparently successfully helping him and I don't like to belittle other peoples' favours and good intentions. In the end though, it became apparent that the black man was not taking the bus as far as the Asian man and it appeared necessary to talk to the Asian man.

I stood up, moved over next to the Asian and asked him in Mandarin if he was a Chinese man. He was a little shocked at first, and then relieved that I spoke Mandarin. I couldn't take him to China Town because I was carrying so much, but I was able to help him understand what subways he would need to take to get to China Town. He assured me that he would be okay.

The Asian man; by my estimation now in his late 40s; was in fact from 四川 (Si-Chuan) in China. He had sneaked into the U.S.A. more than ten years ago and has been working here ever since. He spends almost all of his time working for and being with other Chinese and has therefore never learnt English. I know that the Chinese can treat their own people very unfairly, taking advantage of their illegal status. This is true especially in China Towns all over the world including L.A., London and Sydney. I asked if he was illegal and after confirming my intuition (without any hesitation by the way; he obviously trusted me), he commented that no matter how hard it had been, his life was still far better than it would have been if he had stayed in China.

I believe the situation in China is now changing; rapidly. Within a few years, many people will have better lifestyles although many others will unfortunately still be living in squalor, especially those coming from country towns to make a better living in the big cities.

Happily, this Asian man has much to look forward to. His children will be emigrating (legally) to the U.S. next year. It will be a wonderful thing for him when his family is once again together.

And now, having carried everything back to my motel room, I am finally back in Starbucks, drinking my coffee, resting, reviewing today's photographs of the humming bird and writing this article. It's nice to be able to sit down and simply relax.

6 days to go…

Living the student’s life in L.A.

Filed in L.A. (Sept 2006), Music, TravelTags: , , ,

I came to L.A. to study singing, nothing else, and the studies are coming along wonderfully. I have one-on-one lessons with my teacher once a day from Monday to Friday. Additionally, I attend one Cabaret workshop with other students on Tuesday nights and another singing workshop on Saturdays in a totally different place.

My teacher is simply amazing. Her knowledge of singing is so broad and extensive that I would never be able to learn everything from her even if I stayed here a whole year. For the workshops, she has a friend and partner who acts as the musical director. He is also incredible and I feel incredibly lucky to have met both of these people. Sometimes, you get lucky!

Other than my lessons, I have very little to do, so my days are relatively relaxed in spite of the small hiccups I've encountered along the way (which I'll describe in a later article).

I live approximately fifteen blocks away from my teacher's studio. When I planned this trip, I used the internet to find the accommodation closest to my teacher's studio at the lowest price. The motel I'm staying is not quite the cheapest but it is the closest, albeit fifteen blocks. But I don't mind the fifteen blocks. When I stayed in Hollywood two years ago, I walked everywhere and quickly discovered that walking for an hour or so each day at a medium pace with seven to ten kilos in a backpack is a great way to get fit. So I decided to the do the same thing this time. Besides, I don't have a lot to do so walking for two or three hours each day is definitely not going to hurt me (although my beloved Birkenstock sandals are suffering). So my motel location has turned out to be excellent for my needs.

Coincidentally, my motel is just two minutes walk away from a shopping mall with a Starbucks store, so my coffee and internet needs are also provided for.

So basically, I get up in the morning, walk on over to Starbucks, have a cup of coffee and a raisin bagel, check my email, surf the internet for a short while and then go back to my motel. These days, I'm drinking a grande 4-shot 2% latte in the morning and another tall 3-shot 2% latte in the afternoon. I was drinking whole milk lattes but I soon realised that they were probably slowing my weight-loss in spite of all the walking, so I've switched to 2% milk which still tastes great nonetheless. At night, because there's nothing better to do, I come back to Starbucks for one last latte and a final email check before watching a little local tv and retiring to bed. Unfortunately, that night latte was causing sleep problems for me so a few nights ago, I started drinking the decaf version and my sleep is now much better.

Funny thing about Starbucks: They use less coffee here than they use in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, we have the Short, Tall and Grande sizes. The Vente size was only introduced a month or so ago in Hong Kong. In the U.S.A. where food portions are usually extravagantly large, Starbucks doesn't have a Short size. What is intriging though is that they use less coffee in their drinks. While in Hong Kong, the Tall and Grande sizes have two and three shots of coffee respectively, here in the U.S.A., they only have one and two shots of coffee. I remember the first time I tried a regular Tall Latte here. It tasted more like milk than coffee. I have subsequently remembered to always order extra shots of coffee. Conversely, Starbucks' primary competitor, The Coffee Bean, seems to use more coffee. Their regular Medium (ie, Starbucks' Tall) lattes taste just fine without adding any extra coffee.

It feels as if I've been here forever. I can hardly remember getting off the plane two weeks ago. It's been an excellent adventure though. My teachers are fantastic and I'm learning a lot more than I could have dreamed. And I've met new friends (hello Mandy and Michael ;-). In fact, it will be difficult to leave my teachers and go back to Hong Kong. But I miss my wife and family and it will be wonderful to see them again.

11 days of this fun adventure remain...

New Blog Subscription Options

Filed in General, TechnologyTags: , , ,

As some of you might be aware, the notification system I was using before wasn't working very reliably. I personally had two different email addresses registered with the system but rarely received a notice whenever a new article was added to my blog. Not good!

So I did some searching and found a plugin for MovableType that adds notification capabilities. The plugin is called MT-Notifier and while it's not perfect, it's still very good.

After installing MT-Notifier and testing it a little, I copied the email addresses from the old Bloglet subscription list and added all of those addresses to the new notification system. If you were on the Bloglet list, you should have received a new Notifier confirmation email sometime today. Simply click on the confirmation link in the email and you'll automatically receive www.hokwokwing.hk update notices in the future.

One of the nice things about MT-Notifier is that you can now subscribe to a single article and get notices every time someone (including me) writes a comment for that article. I think those of you who like to comment or question my articles will like this function. To get notices whenever new comments are added to an article, simply turn on the Receive notices whenever new comments are added to this article checkbox at the bottom of the comment form before you submit your comment.

If any of you have problems or suggestions regarding the new notifications, please email me.