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Daily Archives: September 28, 2008

The Goddess of the Sea and her Guardians

by Chris W.C. Sam and Eliza S.K. Leong, IFT (Institute For Tourism Studies)

Qian Liyan (千里眼) and Sun Fenger (順風耳) were ancient mythical characters from the Chinese legend of 'Ten Brothers' (十兄弟). Each of the ten characters in the legend was endowed with superhuman powers. Qian Liyan, the eldest brother, could see for miles with his binocular eyes, while the second brother, Shun Fenger, could hear for great distances. The legend spread throughout China and these characters often appear in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) mythology – Feng Shen Yan Yi << 封神演義 >> (Creation of the Gods) and Xi You Ji <<西遊記>> (Journey to the West).

Why are Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger the guardians of Taoist Matsu (媽祖)? Taoism is a traditional Chinese religion which believes in multiple gods in association with mythology. Its deities, living in the immortal world, are part of a heavenly hierarchy. During the early stages of Taoist development, the unsystematic immortal world of Taoism was unified. To complete the hierarchy of the immortal world, Taoism absorbed many ancient mythical characters as part of the lineage of Taoist immortals. Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger are two of the most important deities, symbols who completed the Taoist transformation. Of the Macau temples housing statues of Matsu and her guardians, the Lotus Temple contains the most spectacular.

There are many stories about Matsu and her guardians but one of them is of outstanding interest. People say that Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger were real people who lived in the Shang Dynasty (商朝), some 2,000 years before Matsu. Shang King Zhou (商紂王) (c.154BC) appointed Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger to important positions in his court whereby they could employ their extraordinary powers to spy out the military secrets of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝). The failures of King Wu of Zhou (周武王), founder of the Zhou Dynasty in his revolt against the Shang Dynasty is explained by the powers of Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger. With the help of Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), a gifted follower of Toaist Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊) in Kun Lunshan (昆倫山), King Wu of Zhou claimed the final victory. Jiang Ziya conceived the brilliant idea of splashing the blood of a black dog onto Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger in order to destroy their superhuman power and thereby kill them.

After the death of Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger, their souls are said to have stalked a mountain near a village. Clamouring for vengeance, they haunted the villagers until the period of the North Song (北宋). Matsu, the Goddess of the Sea, heard of the evil acts and decided to rid the villagers of Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger. When Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger met Matsu, they were unaware that the ordinary-looking woman before them was the Goddess of the Sea. They spoke insolently to Matsu and claimed her as their wife. Matsu challenged them to fight on condition that she would be their wife if she lost; on the other hand, they had to follow Matsu and help the needy if they lost. Of course, Matsu won and claimed the final victory. Qian Liyan and Sun Fenger became the guardians of Matsu and ever since have been making use of their extraordinary powers to help Matsu 'hear' and 'see' if there are any fisherman crying for help at sea.


Qian Liyan (千里眼) and Sun Fenger (順風耳) at Lotus Temple

Showbiz! Burlesque emerges from New York shadows

by Sebastian Smith*

All you know for sure about Murray Hill is that his name is probably not Murray Hill — oh, and that he may not be a he.
At New York's oldest surviving burlesque show there is little point in feeling sure about anything.
The lights are dim, the wasp-waisted cocktail glasses brimming, and the orientation, even gender, of performers and the few dozen guests crammed into the tiny theater open to speculation.
"Showbiz!" exclaims master of ceremonies Hill in a suspiciously high voice.
Angie Pontani, the Bedazzled Brooklyn Bombshell, takes the stage, just three leaf-sized pieces cloth and a sprinkling of body glitter between her and a violation of New York's anti-nudity laws.
Everyone cheers at the bawdy dancing. Even a pair of rather somber transgender men, decked up in evening dresses and chunky necklaces, tap their slippered feet.
Spotting a couple of canoodling ladies in the corner, Hill laughs: "The lesbians — they're having asthma attacks right now!"
Burlesque, mixing comedy, exotica, erotica and musicals, was a huge hit in US urban culture at the turn of the 20th century.
Eclipsed by the 1960s sexual revolution and the triumph of mass entertainment, the genre died out or was replaced by outright striptease.
Today burlesque is back in major cities as audiences rebel against an increasingly homogenised, commercialised society.
Hill's following is so strong that there is talk of moving his show up to Broadway and the big time.
For now, his troupe performs in a secretive upstairs room at Corio's restaurant in the trendy Village neighborhood, far from the regular tourist beat.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, building on the work of his predecessor Rudolph Giulani, has embarked on a crusade to make New York the safest, most smoke-free, fat-free, clean-living place on Earth.
But the atmosphere at Corio's recalls an edgier time.
While this is not exactly strip, the Pontani sisters are soon separated from their clothes. Peekaboo Pointe could whip up froth on a cappuccino at the speed her nipple tassles twirl from otherwise bare breasts.
Neither is this theatre — the red curtains are fakes stapled to the wall — but Angie Pontani does a good impression of an oyster having outrageous fun with a basketball-sized pearl.
And for all the chorus-girl numbers, complete with high-kicks, tap-dancing, red bodices, feather headdresses and a raucous rendition of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," this is definitely not Broadway.
Performers said after the show that their niche is growing rapidly.
Many were in New York to attend a three-day festival awarding Golden Pasties in categories such as "biggest diva," "classiest dame," "biggest media whore," and "most likely to go gay in 2009".
"A decade ago you could have put all of us burlesque performers into one taxi cab," said Rosa 151, showing off glossy lips, big white teeth and big equally pearly cleavage. "Now it's spreading across the States. An American art form is making a comeback."
The charm of burlesque for performers, explained Rosa 151, is that women of all shapes and sizes are welcome. "There aren't enough parts in the theatre world for women who aren't super skinny or who don't look exactly like each other," she said.
Another performer, Bette Noire of the Salome Cabaret, said burlesque was developing more slowly in her home state of Tennessee, deep in the socially conservative Bible Belt.
"They're starting to realize that it's not completely sordid and debauched," she said, then giggled: "Well, it is debauched of course, but there's joy too!"
Producer Chase Tyler said he was working to take burlesque from Off Broadway right to Times Square, navel point of Broadway's Great White Way.
He said there would be high demand, particularly from foreign tourists, but he acknowledged the pitfalls in pulling burlesque from out of the shadows and into the neon-lit capital of commercial entertainment.
"You need to bring Broadway production values, uptown production, to downtown humour," he said. "We just need to make sure we can bring this to a larger audience without compromising what it is."
Caprice Bellefleur, the more talkative of the two transvestites in evening dresses, said burlesque would continue to thrive in New York whatever form it took.
"Look at us," Bellefleur said, pointing to partner Tawdry Heartburn.
"We're as different as they come and there's plenty of room for us. If there's one place in the world that celebrates diversity then it's New York."