23 December 2011

Book Review: Tokyo on Foot by Florent Chavouet

This unique presentation of one foreigner’s exploration of the world’s largest city over six months was never intended to be a guidebook: no star ratings for luxe hotels or interviews with celebrity chefs here - and wasn’t supposed to be a social commentary: don’t look here for studies on gender roles or the Occupy Movement. But a guidebook (of sorts) is what this simple artist’s sketchbook has become; one filled with the (usually humorous) views and comments about everyday life and ordinary buildings around the various districts of central Tokyo.
Florent’s district maps may be easier to use than the ones in the Frommer’s guidebook - and clearly show the most important places for family travelers, like good supermarkets and convenience stores and coffee shops; the photogenic spots and nice parks and walking-path shortcuts. 
Tokyo is not called a beautiful city (except perhaps at night, from a high building, when you can soak in the lights) - but Florent’s colored-pencil sketches give individual personality to even the most ordinary row house or storefront. And his cartoon drawings of shopkeepers, commuters, students, and local police - while, well, simple cartoons, still move past stereotypes and cliches to reveal humanity and show you details you might not ordinarily notice from the tour bus or running through the airport. (Mr. Chavouet’s blog - in French - continues his studies.)
When our family travels we like to use public transport and walk around, eat simply and try to experience parts of everyday life in the cities we visit. The flowers poking up in an alleyway are no less beautiful than the ones in the Imperial gardens, after all. This book brings back nostalgia we have for our time in Japan - and gives us ideas for our next trip.
Whether you’ve been to Tokyo already or are looking for ideas for a future stopover trip, this book lovingly shows the real side of the city, and is great entertainment.

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22 December 2011

Media review: Teach Me Chinese... and More Chinese

Teach Me Tapes is a Minnesota company that for many years has created and distributed workbooks and music for teaching many world languages, including Japanese, Russian, Korean, Hebrew, as well as Spanish and the other workhorse European tongues. In addition, they also produce materials for teaching English as a second language. I had dinner with the owner and manager several years ago at an education-industry convention, where I learned much about the disconnect between social interest in a language-learning product and the actual sales results; plus the investment needed to put a professional product together. (However, I purchased this title at list price this year from my local Lakeshore Learning store.)
This book compiles the company’s two original titles (Teach Me Chinese - A Musical Journey Through the Day, and Teach Me More Chinese - A Musical Journey Through the Year) and includes an hour-long CD with 41 tracks.
The songs include a fair number of classic English-language nursery rhymes such as The Wheels on the Bus, and Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. These songs are used for the company’s other language workbooks, too, but of course the songs and translations are unique to each book. So while this does mean the songs are not intended to teach about Chinese culture, it does mean that the content cover a great many common words including:
  • family members
  • animals
  • parts of the body
  • daily routines
  • clothing
  • colors
The songs are primarily sung in Mandarin, without English translation, although a few extended tracks are performed in English. [This is in contrast with the Sara Jordan materials reviewed previously in which every song is half-English-half-Mandarin.] The instrumentation is simple; the music stays in the background so the listener can clearly hear the Mandarin words. Extra care has been taken to accurately present Mandarin tones, too.
My daughter - currently a kindergartner at a Mandarin immersion school - quickly recognized several of these songs the first time I played her the CD. (I’ll take that as an endorsement!)
The accompanying workbook/coloring book has all the song lyrics in Pinyin, with English translations further back; the images and text, however, are all hand-drawn - literally handwritten Chinese characters, Pinyin, and English words. Some characters and words are crammed into the frame of the picture - readability is not consistent. This seems to be a missed opportunity when this twin-title book was compiled. On the other hand, the drawings are of Chinese kids and families (in Western settings and with Western friends) - it would have been easy for a publisher to recycle ethnic-ambiguous artwork from a book for some other language, so these illustrations are a well-thought and appreciated effort.
The primarily-Chinese songs and all-Chinese activity pages make this compilation attractive for immersion settings. The presentation is simple and easy to follow for non-native speakers, though, so it should be considered for home use, too. For preschoolers to second-graders, you’ll get a great deal of play out of the CD, and the activity pages could be kept as good reference materials. The price also makes this a solid value compared to the individual books.

For more media, product, and service reviews about traveling through and learning about Asian culture, please visit http://www.weninchina.com/Reviews/Reviews/Reviews.html

20 December 2011

Book Review - Exploring Hong Kong by Steven K. Bailey

This travel guide recently appeared at my local Barnes & Noble and immediately set itself apart from the traditional books on its shelf. After leafing through a few pages I recognized Mr. Bailey’s approach to travel writing had much the same spirit as what we are trying to do here at weninchina.com.
The book is oriented by geography much like other travel books (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, New Territories, etc.), runs a similar page length (just over 180 pp) and price ($14.95). However, it is different from the usual Fodor’s or Lonely Planet guides in two important ways: first, it does not go into any depth on which restaurants / clubs / hotels are in the must-see-and-be-seen-at category; no HK Disney reviews; and no interviews with local tastemakers. (After all, despite its recent 2009 copyright, these things change in a blink in HK.) Second, the author uses very specific activities - such as riding the Travelator from Central up to the Mid-Levels, hiking down from Victoria Peak, or crossing Lamma Island by foot - as a framework to tell longer stories of the history and people of Hong Kong.
And instead of trying to cover every neighborhood, Steven goes into depth on a narrow set of places that a first- or second-time visitor may be more likely to explore. His chapter on Victoria Peak, for instance, runs 22 pages. Steven also dedicates multiple pages to specific enthusiast activities that I’ve never seen in traditional guides - airplane spotting, train watching, military history, law enforcement, and several more. (I learned about a pair of excellent airliner-watching spots that I’ll have to try next time!)
Another unique and handy section is dedicated to activities especially appropriate for hot and rainy days, that kids and parents can all enjoy.
There is a thoughtful emphasis throughout the book on how to get around Hong Kong quickly but inexpensively - often including walking directions from MTR stations or ferry terminals (as that’s how the locals really move about).
Photography in the book is by Steven’s wife, Jill Witt, and is of high quality, although I’d have liked to see much more to accompany and illustrate the conversational text. There is some repetition in the book’s “how to get there” sidebars as well, although not noticeable if you aren’t reading the book straight through. Maps of local neighborhoods give the basics but could be a bit more fleshed-out (although if you’re also using a conventional guidebook or one of the many free maps you can get in HK, that is perhaps not a big issue.)
Overall, the book strikes the tone of a friend who lives in HK and wants to take you to the things people don’t see when in an organized tour group - often just a block off the ‘beaten path’ or around the corner of a building. My family’s experience holds this to be true, too - we found Victoria Peak to be a much more relaxed and friendly place once we walked to the back-side of its shopping center so our daughter could ride on the playground equipment and we could watch the Pacific Ocean - or in walking along the footpath on the side of the mountain almost to ourselves. Along with the expected and still-exciting activities like riding the Star Ferry and watching the evening laser light show on the harbor, Steven shows us the quieter and less-stereotyped vision of Hong Kong that is no less fascinating.
If you’re planning to spend three or more days in Hong Kong, even if you have been there before, this book is highly recommended reading, especially for families.

For other reviews of media, products, and services around travel in Asia and understanding Asian culture, visit http://www.weninchina.com/Reviews/Reviews/Reviews.html

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05 December 2011

Another awesome slice-of-life video

Tremendously creative timelapse video of the streets (and ferryboats) of Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Very well-edited. We've wanted to check out Vietnam for some time now - although after this I know we'll stick to taxis and public transport when getting around...