Saturday, November 18, 2017

Palace Museum gets digital renovation

Nevertheless, huge crowds, especially during peak times, have sparked growing frustrations for museum officials and visitors.

Confronting challenges, museum staff have agreed to work with hi-tech companies to develop a digital museum that allows users to view its 1+ million items of rare relics and ancient cultural artifacts with APPS that provide an in-depth understanding on Chinese emperors' lifestyles under dynastic rule.

1st of its kind

After three years of efforts, the Palace Museum announced on August 1, 2017 that its entire collection has been stored into a digital community with the launching of nine APPs.

The museum's curator Shan Jixiang played a leading role to create a digital Forbidden City that integrates an intelligent museum with stronger security and communications systems.

By utilizing new advanced technologies and equipment, the smart museum taps into Big Data, Virtual Reality, 3D (three-dimensional) imagery and video games to provide valuable information for the public in an entertaining format.

For example, Xinhua cites the Night Revels of Han Xizai APP, where users on smartphones can click to uncover insights of the painting that depicts luxurious court life during the 5 Dynasty period - (906-960AD).

The painting comes to life on the APP as viewers can witness ancient performance art that had been composed of music and dance from the era.

Fun & cool APPs

There's other trend-setting APPs as well. The Qing Emperor's Wardrobe APP helps the public distinguish the differences between real imperial dress of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911AD) and what many Chinese have seen actors wearing on popular TV dramas that featured scenes from that part of history.

Users obtain explanations of Qing Dynasty court functions and ceremonies that were celebrated along with descriptions of the attire worn by imperial families, court officials, and ladies-in-waiting.

Another APP offers a digital map and information of the Forbidden City's 1,200 buildings and 9,371 rooms. Actually, the museum has over 1 million artifacts and artworks, but never more than 1 percent of items are set for display at a given time, while just a third of the buildings are open to the public.

VR and 3D tours

APP users can receive background information of each piece under the possession of the Palace Museum. Meanwhile visitors are encouraged to visit the physical site where they can go straight to the Hall of Supreme Harmony Sanxitang (Room of Three Rare Treasures).

Visitors are provided with VR (virtual reality) devices and given a VR tour. They can look at high-resolution images and listen to audio narration.

For added fun, The Hall of Supreme Harmony has placed 3D images on display that make the relics and artwork come to life. The computer giant IBM in 2008 had agreed to invest in a US$3million joint project with the Palace Museum to develop the project.

Japan-based Toppan Printing had also signed on to build a Cultural Assets Digitalization Research Center of the Forbidden City, which was launched in Oct. 2014 with a RMB37 million investment.

Viewing the benefits

"For many people, the Palace Museum experience can be enhanced as they use our APPs," Yu Zhuang, head of New Media at the Palace Museum, told China Daily. "The Internet has provided us with more channels to expand museum influences to more corners in people's everyday lives."

Yu highlighted the museum's calender APP, '365 Days of Masterpieces.' The APP features 1 piece for each day of the year. The user can click to receive cultural background on it.

Google Arts & Culture has agreed to place 100 artifacts from the museum to go online. Google only features famous artworks from around the world.

Most of all, digital users can capture a better understanding of what life was really like for Chinese emperors and the courts. A virtual tour named, ‘Beyond Space & Time' had been set in a computer game format.

Visiting from afar

In 2008, the then-director of the Palace Museum information department, Hu Chui, announced the Forbidden City would go digital during an interview with PC World magazine.

"The project has several purposes, mainly to allow people who cannot visit Beijing to experience the Forbidden City and for those who have visited the physical premises to learn more about it."

The staff were proud of the Palace Museum's rich cultural heritage and sought to bring greater attention to the world.

Many APPs encourage users to share their experiences with others while asking them to submit articles and photos that delve deeper into ancient Chinese history.

A museum is more than just a museum and when the Forbidden City had gone digital, it opened its doors to the world.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Towards building a happier Malaysia for all Malaysians

Whichever way we look at it, Malaysians will admit that we are not as happy as we were when we came together on Aug 31, 1957.

Yes, we have better roads; grander buildings; a sprawling, impressive Putrajaya that houses the civil service machinery of a small nation; we have weathered many political storms; we have stomached many economic woes. But we are by no measure as hopeful as we were sixty years ago.

On Sunday, Aug 20, 2017, some 100 over ex-servicemen and women from the Malaysian Armed Forces, Navy, Air Force and Police gathered at the iconic Royal Selangor Club in the very heart of Kuala Lumpur for their first annual general meeting to mark the birth of their ‘Persatuan Patriot Kebangsaan' (National Patriot's Association).

One of its key objectives, which should send a clarion call across the entire nation as we gather to mark sixty long years of trial and errors, omissions and sins of commission come the 60th Anniversary of our Merdeka (Independence) is the association's determination to “help build a fairer and happier Malaysia for all Malaysians”.

Indeed after six decades of self-rule under one sole political party, we are no more the happy people that we were in 1957 whence we gathered together as one nation of ‘Malayans' endorsing our solidarity of hope for a new nation – independent, fair and free finally.

The decades of living together, working together, eating together, and even wearing each other's traditional costumes and visiting each other's homes and exchanging home cooked meals and sharing goodwill on festivities are today politicised with a dose of religious bigotry and racial differences.

We have come so far worse as to even have drinking cups in schools segregated by religion. We have difficulties in appreciating cultural practices like having figurines as part of landscaping. We have aversions to dressing and costumes.

Hurting the soul-beat

And today the leadership of this nation is constantly crying out “untuk bangsa dan agama” (for race and religion). The division of a nation of multiracial and multi-religious people along race and religious boundaries just to stay in power is killing the soul-beat of Malaysians.

The ex-servicemen and women who put their lives at risk to serve the king, rakyat (citizens) and country for the love of an entire nation's happiness should know best. If they too are concerned about the need to fight for the happiness of all citizens and a happier Malaysia, it only means that we have failed.

And we have failed to ensure that our ex-servicemen and women are well taken care of. We have failed to ensure that politics does not interfere with the very duties of defending a nation and its people and rulers from threats – internal and external.

We have failed to return to the supreme commander, the Yang DiPertuan Agung, that sole right and honor and power to independently exercise over the armed forces, the police, the navy and air force of Malaysia even though these forces are named after the very monarchy, - "di Raja Malaysia".

If ex-servicemen and women have to cross the divides between the four defenses and law keeping entities - the armed forces, police, navy and air force, to set up an association to fight for their merits, rights, and justice and including to make the country a happier place for all Malaysians, it tells us one thing: we have failed in so many ways despite having the wealth and resources for six long decades to do better.

We shout about race rights. We scream about race threats; we drum up fears over religious infringements and deprivation. But we ignored the very people who were there to ensure our people are free from corruption, safe from the denial of democratic rights, and guaranteed of a watchful presence to ensure a happier nation of citizens.

We have so much wealth and resources tapped for centuries and still flowing. We have much more untapped resources. We are blessed with bell weather. No natural calamities that plague and threaten so many nations far and near. The global business community has time and again counted on us for their sweet killings.

But our political mantras and politicians have prevented us from being any happier.

A salute to the ex-servicemen and women for not failing in their duties to the king, citizens, and country even in their retirement.

And civil society too must align with such noble efforts to return to Malaysia and all Malaysians a nation and a future that serves only rulers, citizens, and nation. Not political advances for personal and family benefits at the expense of the rulers, citizens, and nation.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Luscious costumes, Puccini's music in Madama Butterfly at Clinton's Andrews Memorial Theater

Not a lot of people associate this shoreline town with Puccini opera sung in Italian, much less costumes from 1900 imperial Japan. But those are two of the hooks for the four performances of "Madama Butterfly" at Andrews Memorial Theater on Main Street starting Tuesday.

Opera Theater of Connecticut will present the opera in its original setting of 1900 Imperial Japan and, said General Director Kate Ford in an email, "Our costumes and other stage items are specialty items from Japan that are theatrically authentic and incredibly sumptuous."

The opera is based on a play by David Belasco, rooted in a short story by John Luther Long, points out Ford. Madama Butterfly's father was a Samurai and by birth, so is Butterfly.

Ford says the costumes and some props are from a private collection in Japan.

"The costumes, wigs, sets, and production are a stunning depiction of that period, brought to life and made real in this OTC presentation," writes Ford.

No worries about understanding the Italian words or story. The opera will feature English supertitles prepared by Artistic Director Alan Mann.

Of course, ultimately, it comes down to the quality of the singing and the orchestration, no easy task with this show.

"These singers have a triple challenge," Ford writes, "singing in a foreign language, in this case Italian, wearing heavy and intricate costumes which in many cases are 4-5 layers, working and managing the intricate gestures of the period in history, all the while singing beautifully with other singers and acting the part."

Starring are Shannon Kessler Dooley, who sang in the company's "La Boheme," as the tragic heroine Cio-Cio San; Joshua Kohl as Lt. Pinkerton; tenor Stefan Barner as Goro, mezzo Evanna Lai often seen at Yale in recent years) as Suzuki; and John Dooley as Consul-General Sharpless. OTC also introduces Andrew Potter and Zachary Johnson as The Bonze and Prince Yamadori, while Carly Callahan as Kate Pinkerton.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Barbarian Dress Codes From Rome To Game Of Thrones

What can we tell about a country, culture, religion or fictional world from the dress codes that they impose? In the fictional world of Westeros, in ancient Rome and even today, clothing was tied to stereotypes.

As any fashion designer will tell you, a lot of unspoken words are whispered to an audience regarding a character's identity just from the clothing they wear on screen. For its first five seasons, Michele Clapton was lead costume designer for Game of Thrones. Last year, she told The Telegraph that during each of these seasons, Daenerys Targaryen has always worn a hidden pair of pants and boots underneath her dress. As Clapton notes, "There’s always a fear in her that she will have to leave so it gives her the freedom to always escape and run. If she had silly shoes on she’d lose all her strength."

Quite right. Clapton's functional fashion choice is certainly a step up from Bryce Dallas Howard’s insistence on running in high heels to escape dinosaurs in Jurassic World. Her layering of a dress over pants also represents the two worlds that Daenerys has straddled in the series: the world of a noble in a refined court and that of the invading general leading her troops.

In Rome of the late fourth century CE, pants were similarly controversial indicators of the blurring lines between civil society and warfare. This was due in large part to the fact that pants (called in Latin 'bracae') were seen as identifying items of clothing for groups perceived as "barbaric" or non-Roman. A number of these men had come to make up a significant portion of the Roman army by this date. Many Germanic groups, Goths and Huns were often characterized by historians of the time as wearing pants and boots. A law from 397 and then another in 399 CE strictly regulated the wearing of pants and boots in the city:

In addition to voicing a displeasure for certain items of clothing that appear to be coming into vogue, this law may have been signaling that the city of Rome was still seen as a safe haven from combat and thus off limits to martial attire. As I have written about before, the city of Rome was intended as a zone protected from weapons by a sacred boundary line called the pomerium. Even into the early Christian period, the city was cast as ideally off limits to most soldiers.

The laws of the late fourth century didn't seem to stop the barbarian fashion craze. In 416, another law was passed stipulating that those who wore skins and had long hair were similarly banned from coming within the walls of the city. This likely meant that within the confines of the Aurelian Walls, individuals were expected to adopt a traditional Roman urban dress (e.g., the toga worn by elite men) rather than attire associated with the "other." We can perhaps read fear into the dress code law of 416 in particular; it came just 6 years after the sack of the city of Rome by Alaric and his Goths.

It seems that Games of Thrones has also picked up on the imagined dichotomy between Rome and the "barbarian" seen within these dress codes. The presentation of the Wildlings in particular certainly appears to draw heavily from a description in Ammianus Marcellinus of the Huns' use of field mice as pelts for their clothing:

One way that the costume designers on the show denote that the Wildlings that lived beyond the wall are uncivilized people who are characteristically different from those living south of the wall is by similarly draping the Wildlings in skins and animal pelts. Notably, this is also just functional fashion. Animal skins are a lot warmer than silk or linen.

Even in the city of Constantinople, there was a fad for wearing Hunnic fashions in the city. The 6th century historian Procopius berated the charioteers who dressed in Hunnic outfits. Procopius saw these charioteers as a threat to peace within the city--and he was right. As ancient historian Susanna Elm has pointed out, military clothing came into fashion throughout the later empire. This caused a confusion among the elites as to how to identify someone visually. An integral part of Roman society was being able to determine through visual indicators like clothing whether someone was a citizen or a soldier. In her work on this clothing trend, Elm notes: "Elite male dress absorbed the military style and was designed to show-case wealth, regardless of the military or civilian status of the one who displayed it. All wished to glitter with «the splendor of gold and colors»" Elite male dress consciously crossed the military-civilian divide..."

We have seen something similar from the fashion evolution of Cersei Lannister. She has gone from long flowing gowns to a decidedly military-inspired outfit in the last episode to air. This was a a coronation gown with Italian-cut leather and a silver and black textured brocade that is similar to a military cuirass. No doubt, it sent a message that we have seen coming for a long time through the clothing of Game of Thrones: The lines between the city and the battlefield are about to blur. Just as in ancient Rome, fashion can be a strong indicator of demographic and military shifts within a society. I can only hope that Daenerys puts those hidden pants to good use this season.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Celebrating an unusual Italian Easter

Chocolate eggs are stacked high in supermercati, Colomba dove cakes decorate pasticcerie windows and lambs are being made ready for the dining table. But away from the well-known traditions of an Italian Easter there are many different ways to celebrate. From cheese rolling to Florentine fireworks, dancing devils to sprinting Madonnas and tree lifting to egg Olympics Italians love to mark Easter. Here are some of the more unusual ways to mark a wonderful Italian Easter.

Good Friday
As the Vatican prepares a series of solemn Easter weekend events including the candlelit "Way of the Cross" procession from the Colosseum, towns and villages around the country are marking the religious festival in their own unique ways.

In Enna, Sicily, over 2000 friars in ancient costume parade through the city streets in silence, just as their ancestors have done for over 500 years. Meanwhile in Puglia, the festival of Le Fracchie, or the torches, turns night into day in the town of San Marco in Lamis. Tree trunks are split open and wooden sticks packed into one end to make enormous torches. They're piled high onto wagons and pulled along lighting the way for a procession of the Madonna. The torches, so locals explain, help Mary to search for her dead son.

Easter Sunday, La Pasqua
The main Italian Easter festivities occur around Easter Sunday or Pasqua and Easter Monday or La Pasquetta, "little Easter." And merriments really do take all forms. So whilst Pope Francesco takes holy mass in front of thousands of worshippers in St Peter's Square, Rome, the people of a little town called Prizzi in northern Sicily are dancing with the devil.

In an ageless medieval battle between good and evil, villagers dress up as demons and death to take over the town centre for "Il ballo dei diavoli", the dance of the devils. The red costumed satans move through town annoying locals with their demonic dances until they are offered money or food to move on. But they're not just irritating; the masked monsters are on a mission to stop two statues of the Madonna and Jesus from meeting. Ultimately, however, the devils fail and good eventually triumphs reaffirming the supremacy of goodness but not before excited locals have enjoyed a little forbidden excitement.

Up north in Florence, the scene is even more explosive, with the traditional Scoppio del Carro, or "Exploding of the Cart" celebrations. Pasqua festivities begin as an ornate cart carved in 1689 is pulled through the historic Florentine centre by huge garlanded white oxen. The 3-storey cart is packed with fireworks and its destination is the front of the sumptuous Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral where thousands of spectators gather to welcome it. Meanwhile inside the basilica Florence's Archbishop presides over mass whilst the crowds wait outside. And then comes the moment that everyone has waited for as the priest sends a dove-shaped rocket symbolizing the Holy Spirit whooshing towards the cart. Everything hangs on the dove igniting the cart's volatile cargo and the bigger the bang, the better as an almighty explosion ensures a good harvest and good fortune for the city. Never have so many fingers been crossed!

And if that's not lively enough for you, how about a sprinting Madonna to enliven Easter celebrations in Italy? That's exactly what happens in Sulmona, in the central eastern region of Abruzzo where the procession of La Madonna che scappa, or the "Madonna who runs away" sees the statue of the Virgin racing across the main town square towards her resurrected son on the other side. The drama is heightened with firecrackers and the final release of doves as Mary's black mourning cloak falls from her back. This is most definitely an unusually vibrant way to celebrate La Pasqua and one not to be missed.

But if devils, fireworks and sprinting statues are a little too much why not head to Cividale del Friuli, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northern Italy for a game of Il Truc or egg boules. The pastime dates back to Medieval times and uses prettily painted hens eggs instead of bowls, boules or balls. Centred around a circular stone lined pit the aim is to roll your egg down the ramp into the pit and knock your opponent's eggs out of the way as you go. And fortunately competition is good-humoured so it's an egg-citing way to celebrate the arrival of Easter Sunday!

La Pasquetta, Easter Monday
Known affectionately as La Pasquetta or Il Lunedì dell'Angelo, Angel's Monday, Easter Monday is a national holiday and traditionally the day when Italians enjoy carefree country picnics with friends and family to celebrate the return of spring.

In Alto-Adige's alpine Merano, however, the town is preparing something a bit different, the Corse Rusticane or traditional horse races of peculiarly blonde Haflinger horses. Before the race, gold maned horses and their traditionally costumed Tyrolean riders parade through town accompanied by bands and folk dancers. The day culminates as the beautiful blond mountain horses race around the Maia racetrack to the delight of the crowds. The golden horses of Easter are a unique sight as their manes fly in the wine. If you like horses, Merano is definitely worth a trip.

And finally, we can't talk about an Italian Easter without mentioning food. Dining tables and picnic blankets sag under the weight of roast lambs, Columba cakes, bread and much much more. But in Panicale in Umbria, food is even more central to the Pasquetta festival, if that's possible, as the town celebrates with a cheese-rolling race! Combining elements of yo-yo, bocce and running the race is said to commemorate the moment the stone door was rolled away from Jesus's tomb. Giocatori, or players, jostle to be the first to roll a nine-pound Pecorino cheese around the perimeter of the old, walled village but the rules of this ancient race are strict. They're allowed to use a leather strap to launch the cheese and keep it moving with a whip-like stick but otherwise players shouldn't use hands or feet to propel their cheese on. The winner of the Ruzzolone race is the one who finishes with the fewest taps of the cheese and the prize, fittingly, is the cheese itself. Delizioso!

Ultimately there's more to a traditional Italian Easter that meets the eye with as many different ways to celebrate as there are towns and cities. One thing is for certain, however, Easter is a festival very close to Italian hearts. And whether you do it with races, parades or simple egg-travaganzas, this is definitely a time to celebrate. Buona Pasqua a tutti, Happy Easter everyone!