BHB’s Neighborhood Talk @ Hong Kong Studies’ Inaugural Symposium (CUHK, May 11, 2019)

Thanks to Tammy and her fellow editors at Hong Kong Studies for inviting me here today, and to CUHK for hosting this wonderful event. It is a pleasure and an honor to be able to talk about my work at Bleak House Books at the first ever symposium for Hong Kong Studies.

Today is a very special day for me, not just because I get to stand before a bunch of strangers and force them to listen to me talk about myself. It also happens to be Charlie, my son’s birthday — he turns seven years old — and I’ve promised Charlie that I’d be back in time for his birthday dinner tonight. So for purely selfish reasons I will try to keep my remarks brief and to the point.  

As some of you may know I am the co-founder and owner of Bleak House Books, an English-language independent bookstore in Kowloon.

Jenny, my wife, is the other co-founder of Bleak House Books, but she has a real job as a college professor. So I have for better or worse become the face of the bookshop. To borrow from the recent testimony of Trump stooge and Steve Bannon look-alike, William Barr: Bleak House Books has become my baby.

Just like a baby has his or her moment of conception, there was a moment of conception for Bleak House Books as well. That would have been spring of 2016 when my wife and I and our 2 kids were still living in the United States. I had my own solo law practice doing criminal and civil rights work. My wife was teaching at Georgia Tech but had been offered a job at HKUST, which she accepted. So it was off to Hong Kong for the family.

I decided that rather than practice law in Hong Kong I would do something different. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next but I did have some criteria for what I wanted to get out of any such job. In my mind my next career had to be challenging, creative, and community-oriented.

Opening an independent bookstore, in the age of Amazon and Book Depository, and in a city that’s notorious for being a ‘cultural desert’ — an unfortunate and grossly inaccurate label by the way — seemed to fit the bill.

In December 2016 we moved to Hong Kong, and in February 2017 Bleak House Books was born.

At first we really just existed on paper. We had no physical space, no books, no website, and no customers. That would all change, of course, but not without a healthy dose of patience and fortitude.

You know what’s another unfortunate nickname that’s been given to Hong Kong? Capitalist paradise. It’s a paradise perhaps if you’re a capitalist with money to burn and others to do your bidding, but for regular people like myself, starting a business in Hong Kong from scratch was like taking a college entrance exam for the very first time: it was a painful, anxiety-inducing process that didn’t really make sense but you did it anyway because you had to.

For example, it took me almost an entire year to open up a business account for the bookshop at our local bank. We had to supply all sorts of information about ourselves and the bookshop to the bank before they would even look at our application. Once they started reviewing it the slightest discrepancy or question mark would cause the application to be sent to the reject pile, and we would have to start from square one again. The process was set up in such a way so that it seemed like we were asking the bank for money, when, in reality, we were trying to do the complete opposite: which was give them some of ours!

But I digress. The theme of today’s event, I am told, is the ‘neighborhood’. And my job is to talk to you all about what Bleak House Books has done to, and I quote, “build [a] creative, literary, culturally rich, safe and inclusive neighbourhood[].”

It’s humbling to think that Bleak House Books, now in only its second year of operation, might be considered a force capable of helping to build a neighborhood, let alone one that has pretensions of being ‘literary’, ‘safe’ or ‘culturally rich’. The sale of books does not a neighborhood make. And at its core, that is what we do at Bleak House Books: we sell books.

So what do we do at Bleak House Books, aside from selling books, that one might consider beneficial to the ‘neighborhood’ in a literary sense? First we support local artists and writers. We sell their works at the bookshop. We promote their causes if they have one. And we tell our readers about who these artists are and where they come from so that it might inspire others to take the plunge.

We’ve been lucky enough to have met artists and writers from all walks of life whose works run the gamut. For example, we have awesome poetry collections by Tammy Ho Lai Ming and Eddie Tay. We also have award-winning photography books and kids books created by some very talented and dedicated individuals: Agnes Ku, a sociology professor at HKUST and Ya Chin Chang, a young local artist, to name a few.

Something else we do at the bookshop is we offer our physical space to people who want to use it for events like book launches, poetry readings, and book club meetings.

After all neighborhoods need space too. Yes, they also need people and culture but without a discrete physical space you end up with the Wild West or maybe Twitter. That’s especially true for Hong Kong where there never seems to be enough land to satisfy the needs of the public. Housing, as we all know from news reports, is one of those needs. But so is art, especially when the artist is someone who is not famous, well-connected or independently wealthy.

But in today’s sensitive political climate the simple act of letting someone else use our space for an event can be fraught with difficulties and even risks.

Case in point, and we have Tammy to thank for this — thank you Tammy — Liu Xiaobo.

Last year Tammy asked if we would host an event entitled Liu Xiaobo Elegies on behalf of the literary journal Cha and PEN Hong Kong. When she asked I said yes without giving it much thought. In my mind and being from the U.S., holding an event to commemorate the death of a well-known and important human rights activist and political prisoner is natural, appropriate and uncontroversial; much as if we were to hold an event at the bookshop to commemorate the death of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr.

Little did I know though that just hosting an event about someone who might be considered a critic of the Chinese Communist party can call into question my own political loyalties — not that I have any to speak of — and that that would somehow make me a target.

‘Don’t do it’, someone told me. ‘You’re putting yourself and your family in danger’, said another. We still held the event, of course, to a standing room only crowd, and I survived to tell the tale. But I feel like a part of me died in the process — the part of me that was taught from very early on that neighbors should be able to talk about their differences openly and that neighbors should not be afraid of each other.

Because that’s what China is to Hong Kong; right? A neighbor. Geographically. Historically. Economically. And yes even culturally.    

And if we’ve learned anything from history it is that bad things happen when neighbors stop talking to each other. I won’t get into specific examples — that’s beyond the scope of this talk and, frankly, we all know what some of them are. I will say, however, that given the present climate of fear and polarization that exists here in Hong Kong and beyond the neighborhood needs more not fewer forums for open and honest dialogue.

I’ve talked about supporting local artists and hosting events as two things we do at Bleak House Books to help create an open, inclusive and culturally rich neighborhood. Is there anything else that we do? I’m glad you asked because the answer is yes.

It may come as a surprise to some of you that our bookshop is located on the 27th floor of an office building in San Po Kong, a working-class, semi-industrial area of Kowloon, near the old Kai Tak airport. It’s a location that our past customers have described as being ‘far’, ‘out of the way’ and even ‘bizarre’.

There’s a lot of interesting history to San Po Kong though. We didn’t know much about it before we decided to open the bookshop there. But we came to learn a lot about the history of our new home from neighbors, customers and friends.

For example, did you know that San Po Kong used to be home to one of the biggest movie theatres in Hong Kong? Or that through San Po Kong flows one of few Spring-fed nullahs in Hong Kong?

As the name itself implies San Po Kong used to be just plain old “Po Kong” — the ‘San’ in San Po Kong means ‘new’ in Chinese. After World War II the Brits redeveloped Po Kong from an agricultural settlement into an industrial center, and gave it the name it has today: San Po Kong.

The area also played a central role in the riots of the 1960s. In 1967 workers at an artificial flower factory in San Po Kong clashed with their employers over poor working conditions. This dispute led to still more clashes, mostly between Communist sympathizers and the government, culminating in what would become known as the Leftist Riots of 1967.

The San Po Kong of today is very different from the San Po Kong of the 60’s. Gone are the factories, smoke stacks and the horde of workers who used to stream down Tai Yau Street, one of the main thoroughfares in San Po Kong, on their way to and from work. Today’s San Po Kong is sleeker, quieter, and, on the whole, more expensive.

Even so a lot of the San Po Kong of old remains. The buildings and the people who inhabit them are still decidedly working class. And our neighbors there are the types of folks who will, under normal circumstances, never step foot inside a bookshop, let alone one that sells vintage, English language books.

For example we have a neighbor downstairs in the building next to ours whom we call Si Fu. Si Fu is an 80 plus year old mechanic who still uses an abacus and takes cat naps inside his clients’ cars at lunch time.

Still it is important to me that our neighbors know we exist — not necessarily as purveyors of fine books — they can care less about what we do for a living — but as fellow Hong Kongers who have put down roots in their neighborhood. Because at the end of the day that to me is what a neighborhood is about: human bonds formed by a shared purpose and a common culture.

So if you see me shooting the breeze with someone on the street or having an afternoon drink at our local bar just know that I’m actually hard at work, building a stronger, more inclusive neighborhood — one bond, or maybe one drink, at a time.

Thank you all for listening to me today. I apologize if I put anyone to sleep. If you are such a person please see Tammy afterwards. She will see to it that you get a full refund of your admission fee.  

Thank you.

Everything You Can’t See in San Po Kong (A Bleak House Books/Spicy Fish Cultural Production Special Feature)

For last year’s San Po Kong Arts Festival we invited Christopher DeWolf to the bookshop to talk to festival-goers about San Po Kong and how it has been changing in the past few years, along with the rest of Hong Kong. He was such a hit that we asked Christopher to make a return visit for this year’s SPK Arts Festival but Christopher couldn’t make it. Instead, he has contributed a piece, which he wrote exclusively for the Arts Festival, in which he discusses San Po Kong’s forgotten history, what’s left of that history in today’s San Po Kong, and what might be in store for the San Po Kong of tomorrow.

Everything You Can’t See
In San Po Kong

by Christopher DeWolf

In San Po Kong, what you see is not what you get. At first, it seems interchangeable with many other parts of Hong Kong – the kind of neighbourhood that, if it were a television show, would be a generic TVB drama, the kind whose characters and plot twists you have seen countless times before.

Just look at it. There are industrial streets with hulking concrete warehouses, others with rows of working-class tong lau. Two massive housing estates rise on the neighbourhood’s fringes, one humble in appearance, with anonymous towers punctured by small windows, the other more extravagant, with a glitzy shopping mall capped by a private roof garden, above which soar high-rise blocks with large balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows. So far, so typical.

But San Po Kong is deceptive. Deep inside its industrial buildings are coffee roasters and craft brewers, painters and photographers. An exceptionally well-curated collection of books hides inside one anonymous commercial tower; the King of Soyabeans purveys Michelin-recommended Shanghai-style sticky rice rolls from the base of another. And floating around all of this is a 700-year history that shaped Hong Kong into the city it is today.

On a map, San Po Kong looks like an island. It is a tight grid of streets wedged into a kidney-shaped parcel of land that floats between the Kai Tak River on one side and the vast lands of the former Kai Tak Airport on the other. The entire neighbourhood covers less than half a square kilometre, but it is home to 24,000 people, a density that infuses its streets with a constant thrum of energy. You can walk from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes.

And yet a walk through San Po Kong reveals a richness of history and culture that should never be taken for granted. In the middle of the 14th century, a man named Ng Chung-tak settled with his family on the shores of a stream that flowed into Victoria Harbour. Ng was the patriarch of a large family that had three centuries earlier fled the northern edge of Guangdong province to escape the chaos of the collapsing Song dynasty. The family eventually splintered across Guangdong and Vietnam, but Ng Chung-tak’s branch made their way to Kowloon. In 1354, they built a temple in honour of Tin Hau in their new settlement, which eventually became known as Nga Tsin Wai.

Nga Tsin Wai is still there – in a way. After seven centuries as a walled village, it has now been mostly demolished by the Urban Renewal Authority to make way for luxury housing and a sort of heritage theme park. The area around it has changed beyond all recognition. Once a fertile plain ringed by hills, with a sandy beach along what is now Prince Edward Road East, its geography was altered in the early 20th century when a pair of entrepreneurs named Kai and Tak pooled their resources to fill in the waterfront, creating space for Hong Kong’s first airport.

If you cross the bridge from Nga Tsin Wai today, you will reach the heart of San Po Kong’s market district, where stands of fresh fruits and vegetables spill out onto concrete pavements. This development dates back only to the late 1950s, but it was long ago home to the village of Po Kong, which was settled by the Lam family some time after Nga Tsin Wai. Other nearby villages had banded together into an alliance known as the League of Seven, but Po Kong was an outlier, with its own Tin Hau temple that stood in rivalry to that of its neighbour.

For most of its history, Po Kong was a large and prosperous agricultural settlement, but its fortunes were tested by an influx of squatters in the 1930s. They built houses on Po Kong’s fields and refused to pay rent, throwing the village’s economy into chaos. Villagers blamed this misfortune on Tin Hau’s failure to provide protection, and in revenge they set her figure aflame. Po Kong’s neighbours in Nga Tsin Wai were aghast, and they were not surprised when Po Kong suffered a far greater indignity less than a decade later. After Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese military in 1941, its new occupiers decided to expand Kai Tak Airport, wiping Po Kong off the map in a matter of weeks.

San Po Kong (“New Po Kong”) was one of the new industrial suburbs planned by the colonial British government to satisfy Hong Kong’s postwar economic boom. In 1967, a labour dispute at an artificial flower factory on Tai Yau Street mushroomed into six months of intense riots. The villagers of Nga Tsin Wai locked their gate and stood guard, ready to do battle if necessary. It seems they were still wary of Po Kong – even the new version.

Very little of this history is apparent when you walk around San Po Kong. There are no historical plaques, no acknowledgement of the centuries of history that have shaped this corner of Hong Kong. By contrast, the future of the neighbourhood is easier to divine. The former airport is now being redeveloped as a residential, commercial and entertainment district, complete with a monorail and major sports stadium. A new MTR station is under construction. And beyond that, the nearby districts of Kowloon Bay and Kwun Tong have been designated by the government as CBD2 – a new central business district.

Tai Yau Street and Tseuk Luk Street at lunchtime

You can already see how San Po Kong is changing as a result. New hotels have cropped up in the old industrial area, bringing with them tourists and the shops that cater to them. Factory buildings are being knocked down and replaced by office towers. As always, it’s easy to see the broad outline of what is happening to the neighbourhood. But the details are harder to read. It could well be that San Po Kong still has the potential to surprise.

Christopher DeWolf is a journalist who has written about cities, history, design, culture, travel, food and drink for more than 15 years. His first book, Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong (Penguin 2016), explores grassroots efforts to improve urban life. He is a regular contributor to South China Morning Post and Zolima CityMag. Christopher considers San Po Kong the ‘quintessential Hong Kong neighbourhood’, Pentahotel and all.

Coming Up For Air: A Very, Merry San Po Kong Christmas (December 2018)

Below is our December 2018, holiday edition of ‘Coming Up For Air’, a monthly column we write for Ming Pao’s English language section, reprinted here in its entirety with the permission of the folks at Ming Pao.

Coming Up For Air: A Very Merry, San Po Kong Christmas

by Albert Wan, Jenny Smith and Rachel Parnham
December 14, 2018

【明報專訊】What do the winter holidays mean to you? Last year at this time we were still getting things set up at our bookshop in San Po Kong. Rachel, our awesome shop manager, had just started working at Bleak House Books. We still had a lot of shelves to fill and books to price. And we had just hosted our first ever event complete with a plastic “Charlie Brown tree” from Ikea.

This year things are a bit different. Our shelves are now well-stocked with a carefully curated selection of new as well as used books. We have hosted our fair share of events from school field trips to poetry readings to book launches. And the dinky tree that we bought for last year’s inaugural event makes a return appearance, this time serving as both holiday decor and as the Bleak House Books “local interest” tree.

This year we also decided to have a little fun for the holidays. As bookshop employees we have ready access to a lot of literature written by a wide range of authors but we rarely get to write any of our own. So in what we hope will be the start of an annual holiday tradition, we are treating everyone to some home-made poetry and jingles, Bleak House Books-style!

Although each piece is penned by a different member of the Bleak House Books family, we decided not to attribute authorship to any of them. This is because the last time anyone here wrote a piece of fun, nonsensical prose, we were all a lot younger and there was, frankly, less on the line. Needless to say those days are long gone. Folks who want to know who wrote which poem will just have to engage in some guesswork. But we don’t think that will be too hard.

So without further ado we bring you A Very, Merry San Po Kong Christmas, a joint production of Bleak House Books and its three resident bookworms!

The 12 Days of Christmas (Hong Kong Edition)

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me|
A char siu way too salty

On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two jade rings

And a char siu way too salty
On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three hairy gourds,
Two jade rings,
And a char siu way too salty.

[By now we all know the lyrics and the song is, to be honest, a bit tedious so let’s pretend we’ve cycled through all the days and are now at day 12]

Twelve fish balls floating,
Eleven mooncakes moulding,
Ten ducks a-roasting,
Nine butchers chopping,
Eight eggs a-pickling,
Seven fish a-sunning,
Six screens a-glowing,
Five steaming baos,
Four suckling pigs,
Three hairy gourds,
Two jade rings,
And a char siu way too salty.

The Perfect Gift

The night before Christmas, lights were off at Bleak House
One creature was stirring and it was a mouse;
She scuttled through the stacks and the shelves
Half-empty, ransacked of books by the elves;
While the folk of Hong Kong were asleep catching zees
Sneaky elves placed book-shaped gifts ‘neath their trees.

Christmas at the Mall

In late November the displays appear
giant Snoopys, animatronic reindeer

peppermint, cranberry, eggnog, nut toffee
seasonal flavor shots enhance the coffee

Holiday jazz standards get piped in on a loop
Muzak more outmoded than shark fin soup

shoppers hunt crackers, tinsel & gingerbread
CFL lighting makes them look like the living dead

Vinyl cling candy canes are pressed on with care
Cheap plastic pine garlands are strewn everywhere

fake glittery snow dusts pine boughs of foam,
Santa’s toboggan is done up in chrome

Christmas at the mall is slightly off-kilter
but that can be fixed with an instagram filter

This ersatz winter wonderland is uncanny, unhealthy
But Christmas is coming so let’s take a selfie!

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Bleak House Books: A Refuge from the Hustle and Bustle of Hong Kong

Since opening in January we have received our fair share of visitors from outside Hong Kong. For these folks a stop at a used bookshop is just what the doctor ordered when traveling abroad, and they usually make it a point to hit one or two used bookshops along with the more traditional travel destinations and sights. This means we have met folks from Germany, Canada, Philippines, Australia, Britain, the U.S., and other far flung places (at least in relation to Hong Kong’s geographic location), and some have even become good friends of the book shop and its staff.

Apparently our friends from abroad are not the only ones who think it is cool to visit used bookshops on holiday! Flight Network, one of the largest global travel agencies, thinks so too, and they made Bleak House Books an obligatory stop for folks visiting Hong Kong, in a recent online feature of theirs, entitled ‘72 Hours in the Exciting City of Hong Kong‘! They even featured a photo of our part-time shop dog, Ella, who, as you can probably tell, was having one of her typical ‘long’ days at the shop.

We are grateful for having been selected by Flight Network as a destination for folks visiting Hong Kong who want to take a load off and get lost in our wonderful collection of new and vintage books and comics! Who knows you might get lucky and end up sharing a bean bag chair with Ella while reading your favorite Dickens’ novel. Bleak House, perhaps?

A Tribute to Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

It is probably cliche by now — just a day after his tragic suicide death — to say that Anthony Bourdain was more than just a T.V. personality, and somewhat presumptious to even make that observation for folks who never knew Tony beyond the cool, witty, no bullshit persona he exuded on the screen.

But judging by the shock factor elicited by Tony’s suicide, especially among his closet friends and family members, one might venture to say that no really knew Tony. What we have to go by it seems are the bits and pieces Tony left behind during a career that saw him go from lowly line cook to budding food writer to superstar media personality.

What follows is a tribute of sorts to Tony. It is a piece, which we transcribe here in its entirety, that Tony wrote for the now defunct food journal Lucky Peach. In it Tony tackles two of his favorite subjects in life: food and film. The piece is eerily titled Dead Heads, and if you read it even a bit closely you will see that it exudes the kind of despair and morbidity that perhaps ultimately led to Tony’s demise.

If you’ve read Tony’s stuff before or even listened to him speak you will recognize instantly that the piece that follows is classic Bourdain. Astute, funny, deep, even poetic at times. To borrow from Woody Allen’s classic film Manhattan — “pithy yet degenerate”, but in a good way.

If you’ve never come across any of Tony’s stuff, well, you’re in for a treat.

RIP Tony. You will be missed but not forgotten.

(The photos that accompany this blog post are taken from footage of Tony that was shot in Hong Kong which so happens is where he filmed his last full episode of Parts Unknown.)

Dead Heads
by Anthony Bourdain
(Lucky Peach, Issue 5: Chinatown, Fall 2012)

At a kopi tiam in Geylang one night, while happily tearing the flesh, fat, and cartilage out of a shark head, a Singaporean friend told me a story. He felt his were the Chosen People, the Enlightened Ones, and that this story was particularly illustrative of exactly why. It was probably apocryphal, maybe not true at all, possibly utter bullshit. I don’t care. It’s a story I want to be true. It’s a story that SHOULD be true. As my friend told it:

Back in the day, when wealthy merchants used to travel across China in caravans, they were, from time to time, set upon by organized gangs of bandits and highwaymen. These enterprising free-market enthusiasts would ambush columns suddenly and without mercy, quickly slaughtering guards and escorts, then stripping the members of the party of any valuables before killing them. The head man, however, they always saved for last. Dragged kicking and screaming and begging for his life from his litter, forced to kneel on ground still soaked with the blood of his bearers and entourage, he would find himself at the feet of the chief bandit. The chief bandit, inevitably a fearsome-looking fellow, would offer the trembling merchant a whole cooked fish. Steamed, grilled — it didn’t matter. But it was always whole.

“Eat!” The chief bandit would command, pushing the fish in the direction of his prisoner. There would be a hush as the other bandits took a break from looting, disembowling, post-mortem violation, or any totemic preservation of remains they might be engaged in to move close to the action for what was clearly a Very Important Moment.

If the terrified merchant’s fingers or chopsticks moved straight to the fish’s head, tunneling into the cheek, perhaps, or tearing off a piece of jowl, there would be much appreciative murmuring among the Chief Bandit and his colleagues.

By choosing the multitextured, endlessly interesting mosaic of flesh buried in the fish’s head, their captive proved himself a man of wealth and taste. Clearly a man such as this possessed more wealth than what he and his caravan were currently carrying. This man would no doubt be missed by his family and his many wealthy friends, at least some of whom would likely pay a hefty ransom. The bandits would spare his life in the reasonable expectation of future gain.

If, however, the merchant chose instead to peel off a meaty hunk of boneless fillet, the bandits would jerk a cutlass across his neck immediately. This nouveau riche yuppie scum would be worth only as much as he carried in his pockets. Not worth keeping alive – much less feeding. Nobody would miss this asshole. The minute he chose fillet over head he proved himself worthless.

* * *

The tale is a fairly lurid example of a widely held principle throughout Asia and Europe — the older, smarter food world — that the head is the best part. Put a pile of shrimp or crayfish in front of a Spaniard, a Chinese, or any self-respecting Cajun for that matter, and they sure as shit will know what to do with it: suck the brains and juice and all that good stuff right outta those heads!

Chefs know, too. They know that no matter how hard they try, no matter what they do, they will NEVER create a sauce better than the hot goo that comes squirting out of a prawn’s head after a short time on a griddle. In Japan, whole restaurants are dedicated to the enjoyment of carefully grilled fish heads and collars. Fish-head curry is enjoyed and cherished by millions of Indians both within India and without. In many Portuguese restaurants, the limited number of merluzza heads are reserved in advance for VIP customers. The rest must suffer with steaks and fillets.

So what’s our problem with heads? Sure, cheeks are well-known to most urban American diners these days. Tongue has been enjoying something of a comeback. But for as long as I can remember, the appearance of a whole animal head on plate or in film has rarely been a welcome sight.

* * *

Upon our first encounter with John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown, we identify him as a bad guy teeming with incestuous, pederastic, murderous, evil. How do we know this? Two reasons. He keeps mispronouncing Jack’s name — referring to him not as “Mr. Gittes” but as “Mr. Gitz” — and worse, FAR worse, he’s devouring a whole, sinister-looking fish.

“I hope you don’t mind. I believe they should be served with the head,” Cross says.

“Fine,” says Jake (played by Jack Nicholson), “as long as you don’t serve chicken that way.”

The thing is just lying there the whole scene, dead eyes looking up at us. The underlying message is simple: only a monster would eat a fish with the head still on — and only an entity of previously unimagined cruelty would insist that his guest do so as well.

“You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” warns Cross, “but believe me, you don’t.” He’s talking about a massive conspiracy involving political corruption, theft of natural resources, real-estate fraud, and murder, but he could just as well be talking about that fish head. It’s scary. It’s big. It’s “ugly.” It’s the unknown.

“It’s what the DA used to tell me about Chinatown,” replies Jake, our hero and, as it turns out, the only guy in the film who doesn’t know what’s going on.

* * *

Captain Willard sits at a lavishly appointed dining table in an air-conditioned trailer somewhere in South Vietnam. He is about to receive his orders from what appears to be a superior in military intelligence and two officers of the CIA. A uniformed waiter serves lunch, and the camera lingers over a platter of head-on shrimp.

“I don’t know how you feel about this shrimp,” says the commanding officer in this early scene from Apocalypse Now, “but if you’ll eat it, you never have to prove your courage in any other way.” We know now that these men Willard is sitting with are some bad bastards, untrustworthy without a doubt, and whatever they’re asking him to do will be fundamentally dishonest and awful.

But the shrimp heads, like Chinatown‘s whole fish, also imply something more. Their black, beady, unseeing eyes, sitting at this incongruously luxurious table, are full of warning. They hint at the Great Unknown, warning that no matter what Captain Willard might have seen in the past, whatever he thinks he might know, he in fact knows nothing about what awaits him upriver, beyond the Do Lung Bridge.

* * *

Of course the portentousness of sea beasts is not limited to American films. Think of the end of La Dolce Vita. Our hero, Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni), has just emerged from an almost-orgy that turned into a bitter, drunken humiliation of a woman. He and his fellow partygoers stumble onto the beach in the early morning, where they happen upon a giant sea creature, dragged up by fishermen’s nets. Marcello notes the staring eyes. Moments later, a young waitress who earlier in the film served as a possible muse/angel figure calls out to him from across a narrow channel of water. Marcello can’t hear her. They attempt to communicate for a few seconds, but their words are lost in the noise of the wind and the surf. He gives up, shrugs, and returns to his shallow, pleasure-seeking entourage, none of whom really care about him. Here, the fish head is not a signifier of evil at all, but a cruel reminder of everything Marcello has turned his back on: love, self-knowledge, any kind of spiritual life.

(During the initial release of the movie, the fish was widely interpreted as a classic symbol of Christian [and pre-Christian] belief. It’s appearance, dead — along with many other “anti-religious” images in the film — was seen by some as the director’s way of suggesting that God was dead, too.)

Certainly the mysterious fish and its wide-open, lifeless eyes are a reminder and a rebuke, once again, of the Great Unknown. But in this case, they remind Marcello not only of what he doesn’t know but of what he has chosen not to know.

* * *

Perhaps the vilest calumny against head eating appeared in the wildly popular 1979 short film Fish Heads, directed by actor Bill Paxton. Debuting as a comedy interstitial featuring Barnes and Barnes on Saturday Night Live, it quickly became a stand-alone sensation, and its message of hate and barely concealed racism only reinforced then-prevalent attitudes of cultural imperialism and craniophobia.

Under an Alvin and the Chipmunks-inspired vocal track of “Fish heads, fish heads/Roly-poly fish heads/Fish heads, fish heads/Eat them up, yum,” the action exploits homeless and Asian stereotypes, finding much to laugh at in poverty and the indigenous foodways of ethnic minorities. Soon after the video hit heavy rotation on MTV, the streets were filled with would-be skinheads chanting its infectious chorus. Worse, the song was eventually covered by Duran Duran. Perhaps no single representation in the twentieth century did so much to set gastronomy back.

* * *

By the time a horse’s head famously appeared in the bed of film director Jack Woltz in The Godfather, horse meat had long since been rejected by mainstream diners in America. Granted, during the time period in which the action takes place, horse taretare was still quite popular in Europe, but it is unlikely that Don Corleone’s emissaries delivered the head as a gift for the kitchen, so much as a straightforward and gruesome warning.

In fact, in the annals of animal heads on film, I can find only one happy appearance of this most delicious and delightful body part. Only one time when the head of a creature — in this case a duck — brings enlightenment, laughter, pleasure, or joy, as it should:

In a Christmas Story, Bob Clark’s classic film of the short stories of Jean Shepherd, our adorable child protagonist Ralphie and his family have had their Christmas turkey destroyed by a pack of feral dogs owned by their unseen neighbor and archenemy Krampus. (Is it a coincidence that the name echoes the evil Santa doppelganger of Eastern European legend?)

Their original meal cruelly demolished, the family resorts to visiting an empty Chinese restaurant where they order Peking duck as a surrogate turkey. The waiter delivers the bird whole, then brings his cleaver down, loudly separating head from body. Ralphie and family shriek with delight. It is the happiest moment in the story. The family is at its most joyful, together and functional, inspired by the severed head of a humble waterfowl — a duck epiphany, if you will. An all-too-rare example.

What is it about the topmost part of what is presumably food that elicits in us such a fear, loathing and derision? Is it the eyes that we abhor? Is it the unknown we see reflected in those unmoving, unseeing lenses — symbols of all we don’t know, or can’t know?

Or is the blank stare of the fish or game bird to be avoided lest we be reminded of our complicity in the death of another living thing? Perhaps it is death itself that we seek to avoid. The eyes of our victims beckon us, mock us, suggest that we will be joining them soon.

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San Po Kong: A Photo Essay

Because Ye Olde Bookseller has shop duty for this weekend’s San Po Kong Arts Fair/Walking Tour — Bleak House Books is a scheduled stop during Saturday’s events — he decided to go on his own walking tour through San Po Kong today. This photo essay is the result of that tour.