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On The Road to SIGGRAPH ASIA 2011

18 hours in planes, 8 hours in airports, 2 hours in shuttles, all in the quest for a chance to meet some of Asia’s brightest computer graphic technologists and to once again eat roast pork overlooking the majestic Hong Kong harbor. A worthy goal, I must say.

The map on my flight showed only part of the ridiculously long trip.

By Dan Sarto

18 hours in planes, 8 hours in airports, 2 hours in shuttles, all in the quest for a chance to meet some of Asia’s brightest computer graphic technologists and to once again eat roast pork overlooking the majestic Hong Kong harbor.  A worthy goal, I must say.  My trip from Los Angeles was excruciatingly long and uncomfortable.  My bag of honey roasted peanuts had to go through x-ray twice.  For 15 panicked seconds I thought I lost my wedding ring.  The kid sitting next to me on the flight from Japan knocked his tea all over my lap. The hour I spent in Hong Kong customs was made slightly more bearable by the entertaining antics of a big huge German man who screamed at the top of his lungs for 30 straight minutes, swearing non-stop at the phalanx of pint-sized policemen who tried in vain to calm him down.  They finally handcuffed him and tried to sit him down quietly on a bench, but he would have none of that, continuing to yell four-letter invectives at everyone in range.  I’m not sure if he was drunk or just off his meds but his rage enveloped the entire hall.  I fully expected him to start swatting around cops like some mythical beast from a Harryhausen film; he was so much bigger than the assembled authorities and so completely crazed. Guess he didn’t like the food on United either.

I finally made it to the hotel at 2 am, only to find that I had no room reservation and the hotel was full.  Sweet.  Channeling my inner Adam from Mythbusters, I told the young man behind the desk “I reject your reality and substitute my own. Indeed you do have a room in this hotel for me so why don’t you call whom you need to call, confer a bit, type something into your computer and then hand me my key.”   Needless to say, “a bit” became 30 minutes but he did eventually hand me a key and off I went to sleep.

The registration booth sits empty, the calm before the storm.

4 hours later, bright and early Sunday morning, I was off to scout the convention center, make sure I knew where to go for my meetings and then find some roast pork. If Las Vegas is the city that never sleeps, then Hong Kong is the city that never sleeps and eats anything that moves.  As I made my way around the Wai Chan district, I passed restaurant after restaurant filled with people, block after block, serving everything imaginable, windows displaying brightly colored posters adorned with stylishly presented platters of butchered animals.  To me, nothing says “Sit down and eat” like a great big sign filled with chicken heads and daily specials.  It’s hard to describe or capture in photos – you have to experience the sheer magnitude of the culinary style of this part of the city.  Even in other areas where expensive western stores and exclusive clubs line the streets, they’re still punctuated with hawker stand-filled alleys and long streets crammed full of crazy assortments of little shops and food establishments.  Like in Italy, you can’t get a bad meal, though unlike Italy, you need to overlook the bloody cleavers and fish heads.

No time for a fast game of ping pong, I was looking for pork.

Restaurant poster proudly displays appetizing chicken heads atop the daily specials.

One of dozens of fish markets I passed on my walk.

An hour into my walk, I found my roast pork stall of choice.  An old man in a god-knows-what covered apron pulled a long strip of red-hued meat from a hook.  With unbelievable dexterity and skill for someone who looked like he’d topple over in a stiff wind, he grabbed a big-assed cleaver and sliced that meat into a beautiful arrangement of long, thin fatty slices of pork goodness, moist and sticky from the maltose sugar, bright red from the carcinogenic dye.  Overcome with emotion and unable to speak, I nodded my approval.  He asked me for $20 Hong Kong, about US$3.  Like a junky scoring a dime bag from the man in a Panama hat, I quickly paid him and jumped between 2 stalls, away from the crush of people on the sidewalk, and started eating.  Life is short and often difficult.  We take our enjoyment in small doses any way we can.  For me, for a few moments on a nameless street in Hong Kong, a face full of warm sticky char siu, I was damn happy and glad to be back again in this fantastic city.  The struggles of my road trip from LA were distant memories, their harshness now softened by the tender morsels of BBQ pork I was stuffing into my mouth. I must have looked like an idiot but I didn’t care.

Tasty, fatty, sticky sweet char siu, or BBQ roast pork.

Hong Kong Harbor from beside the convention center. You can't hear or see, but while taking this picture, I was happily munching my roast pork.

Eventually, it was time to meet up with Emily Wong, an animator and producer I’d met here in 2005.  A native of the city, she is tremendously friendly and energetic, a wonderful host I was lucky enough to meet on my first trip and was happy to see again after so many years.  Now the chairman of the newly-formed Hong Kong Animation Filmmaker Society, Emily had arranged a lunch with a group of her fellow society members.  They’d chosen a famous landmark, the City Hall Maxim’s Palace dim sum restaurant, for lunch. I’ve had some pretty good dim sum in my day.  This was really very damn good amazing dim sum.  I’d already forgotten my roast pork, having moved on to tender dumplings filled with shrimp, bay scallops, fresh shitake mushrooms and other things I didn’t recognize nor cared to figure out.  But more important than the food was the company.  Joining me were Wong Wai Hang, Neco Lo Che-Ying and John Sinarwi.  One of the most rewarding parts of my job is getting a chance to meet truly enjoyable and talented people from all over the world.  Lunch was one such instance.  

Dim Sum at City Hall.

We talked about everything. We discussed the lack of attention paid to animation in Hong Kong, how the rich history of cinema and feature films has in many ways been quite separate from the animated filmmaking community.  John told stories of his years in London, working for Richard Williams in the Soho studio, a young architecture student suddenly animating alongside Art Babbitt, Grim Natwick and Ken Harris.  Unique experiences that I was enthralled to hear.  I regaled them with my babbling about America, the animation industry, politics, the breakdown of society and the evils of the internet.  My normal rants to be sure.  They were polite and didn’t seem annoyed, which is more than I can say about my kids and our dinner table discussions about those same topics.  Neco told of his childhood love for Japanese comic books and a seminal trip he took to Japan as a teenager in the early 1970s, his younger sister in hand, to meet his publishing heroes firsthand.  Though he eventually became an animator, his passion for comics lead him to open a comic book store in town, which he still operates. 

My lunch hosts, members of the Hong Kong Animation Filmmakers Society. From left to right, Frank, Emily, me, Wong Wai and Neco.

After coffee and more discussions about the fall of western society and the need for better, more in-depth education for animators, we parted company.  Emily, Wong Wai and I headed off to find a particular drinking establishment Emily had in mind.  Eventually, we made our way to Shelley Road, riding escalator after escalator up the side of a large hill, winding through the city en route to a bar called Club 71.  Never one to refuse a tasty adult beverage, I followed Emily without question, despite the fact she was lost.  After about an hour, we finally found the bar, tucked into a tight alley near Hollywood Road in the SoHo area of town.  Who was I to complain when Jack Daniels and big glasses of Tsing Tao suddenly appeared at our table? 

Fine, outstanding and tasty adult beverages at SoHo's Club 71.

Those who know me know that once I’ve had even the smallest amount to drink, I begin to bemoan the fate of humanity and curse the existence of Facebook, usually in that order.  Somehow, I manage to move from technology, to morality, to societal needs squaring off against evil media conglomerates.  Then, depending upon how much additionally I’ve had to drink, I often move onto one of my favorite topics, “kids today.”  Once I get started on the folly of youth and how it seems no one under 25 knows how to pick up a damn phone and actually speak to someone in person, I’m like a barrel of ale rolling down a steep slope – just laugh and stay out of the way.  Emily and Wong Wai were so patient and attentive to me, so polite, listening to me blather on about ethics and morality in business, my love for animation and visual effects and all sorts of other topics which I can’t quite remember.  I had a great time and I think (hope is more accurate) they did too.

One happiness could not hold all the happiness I had yesterday.

A fast stop off for a late dinner near my hotel made for my third and final delectable Hong Kong meal of the day.  Broth with bitter melon and some type of animal flesh, steamed fish with slivers of ginger and scallion, beef with something I’m not sure and simple steamed chicken with a light soy broth.  Damn it was good.  Sensing I was about to collapse, my hosts walked me back to my hotel and after saying goodbye, disappeared into the cool night air.  What more can I say – a fantastic day 1 at SIGGRAPH Asia, one I couldn’t have scripted even if I had the talent to write, which obviously I don’t.