「集體回憶」 radio interview part 1 now online (20080428)

Filed in Entertainment Ind., PressTags: , ,

Available now for your listening is Part 1 of a two-part radio interview, one in the 集體回憶 series over at UonLIVE.com. Part 2 will become available on Friday evening, May 2.

The interview is in Cantonese and UonLIVE's web page is in Chinese. If you can understand Cantonese but not read Chinese and wish to listen to the interview, boogie over to their web page and look for 2008-04-28 TVB外國人河國榮 in the listing. Failing that, here is the direct download link for Part 1 as provided on their web page.

The Problem with Starbucks

Filed in Food & Drink, GeneralTags: , , , , ,

Starbucks' stock (SBUX) is collapsing, and I think I know why. People are drinking less Starbucks.

Gregory at Starbucks in Farmers Market

Me at the Starbucks restaurant in Farmers Market, taken while studying at the Lee Strasberg Institute in 2004.

I drank Starbucks coffee for many years, especially during my years of burnout depression from 2000 to 2003 when I spent just about every morning in the Telford Gardens Starbucks café drinking coffee and reading the 東方日報 or 蘋果日報 newspapers. Before Starbucks came on to the Hong Kong scene, it was almost impossible to sit down, relax and have a decent cup of coffee in a café. Rents were too high, and coffee was not a common beverage (we're not talking about Cantonese-style coffee sold in the Chinese cafés here), so coffee cafés were not a viable business. The only choices for coffee lovers were the expensive high society Cova cafés or the Japanese styled high-turnover Pokka restaurants; not a great choice.

Starbucks changed that. They provided us with cafés where we could enjoy a decent cup of coffee for a reasonable price in a relatively quiet and relaxing place where we wouldn't be pressured to finish our coffee and leave as soon as possible to make room for the next customer, and Starbucks made coffee popular. In a self propagating development, Starbucks made coffee cafés viable.

Starbucks' success paved the way for other cafés. Here in Hong Kong, we now have several coffee café chains to choose from including Pacific Coffee, LGB, Habitū and UCC, and for that, coffee drinkers are grateful, but Starbucks now has a dilemma on its hands. While new café chains were popping up around it, Starbucks didn't make any changes to meet the competition. We drank coffee at Starbucks because it was decent coffee at a decent price, a quality and price that were not offered at other cafés. That's no longer true.

Reasons to drink at other cafés:

LGB's Tart and Macaroons

LGB's tarts are excellent companions to their coffee and mochas. The macaroons are however a little too expensive for my tastes.

The cappuccinos are great at similar prices to Starbucks. Their chocolate-based drinks including mochas use delicious France-imported cocoa-based chocolate syrups (with both light and dark selections) and are out of this world while Starbucks continues to use taste-insulting concentrated sugar syrups. LGB's tarts and French food are also very tasty.

Again, the cappuccinos are far better than Starbucks' cappuccinos at similar prices. The food is also superior to Starbucks' food though not quite as good as the food at LGB.

The coffee is great although slightly more expensive than Starbucks' coffee, but Cova has a unique advantage. Their range of baked-in-house French-styled cakes and biscuits are absolutely delectable. It is a rare moment when you do not see people lined up outside their restaurants waiting for their turn to attack the cake buffet.

Cova's cake selection

Queues are a regular occurrence at Cova restaurants all over Hong Kong because of their cake selection.

Some of the problems that Starbucks needs to examine:

They don't have good black or straight coffee!!! Typically, a Starbucks long black coffee is made by pouring one or two shots into a cup and filling the cup with hot water; yuk! In Australia, Starbucks has a better method of making long black coffees but Starbucks Hong Kong dissuades their barristers from using this method; essentially involving 23-second shots; because it requires more time to make.

Smelly! When I visited the Starbucks stores in L.A. in 2006, I was intrigued that the stores were so smelly, damp, dingy and generally very low grade. How can American people put up with that? Also a major problem in L.A. was the speed of the employees and their demeanor. While the barristers in Hong Kong's Starbucks stores are usually cheerful and quick (although over-worked and under a lot of pressure from management), the barristers in L.A. were rather sad and as slow as cattle meandering through a field of oats. Almost every morning and night in the Sherman Oaks Starbucks store, people had to wait in line for twenty to thirty minutes to get their coffee. That's absolutely unacceptable, especially if the product is mediocre.

Howard Schultz has returned to Starbucks to help turn it around. It'll be interesting to see what he does, but I'd start with a few simple things.

Find out why other restaurants are making better coffee and improve Starbucks coffee. Use better ingredients. Use less sugar and corn syrup in the syrups.

Improve the café environment. The cafés should be relaxed, comfortable and clean. No strange smells. No dampness.

Close a few cafés (in the U.S.A.) There are too many too close together. If you want to make the coffee more readily available, open Starbucks counters (such as the Starbucks MTR Kwun Tong counter here in Hong Kong) rather than full scale cafés. A majority of Starbucks customers buy take away so too many cafés are a waste of space and rent.

I've basically stopped going to Starbucks. Given the choice, I'll get my coffee at LGB or Habitū. Or I'll just make my own ;-)

Durango. The Work

Filed in Dragonball (2008), Durango, Mx (2008), Travel, WorkTags:

In January, having just left TVB after 20 years of acting there, I found myself working with Mr Chow Yun Fat 發哥 as his personal dialect coach, flying business class to a small city called Durango located in Mexico where we lived and worked for just over two months working on the Fox production Dragonball. It was quite an experience but not much fun (acceptable, given that this was a working trip rather than a pleasure trip).

Most people, at least here in Hong Kong, have the impression that working for a Hollywood film production company is fun, or at least much more pleasurable than working for a Hong Kong film production company. The perception is that the work is not hectic or rushed, the working hours are shorter (and that hotel standard food will be provided). The perception is wrong.

We worked twelve-hour days, at least four days a week, usually five. If not for the protection provided by Mrs Chow's carefully considered contract, we would have been working fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week as many of the crew and leading actors were. Twelve hours is tough. You have just enough time to get up in the morning, do a little exercise, have breakfast and rush off to the filming location. At work, only the actors and top crew members had chairs so I spent a lot of the twelve hours standing, or sitting on the floor when I needed to rest. Studio smoke relentlessly filled the studio. When you return exhausted to the hotel, you have just enough time to have dinner, check your email and go to bed. Continue this for several days, and then several weeks and the work becomes barely tolerable. During the last few weeks of filming, most of the crew were desperate to return to their homes.

My work involved working with 發哥 to help him get his pronunciation as clear and intelligible as possible. We did most of the ground work in Hong Kong and in Durango before filming began which was fortunate, because during filming, there was little time or energy left to do any extra revision work. During filming, my work required me to listen very carefully with my headphones to everything he said, making sure he didn't drop any words and helping him to improve his pronunciation when necessary.

I am intimately aware of the challenges that 發哥 faces. For twenty years, I have acted in Cantonese at TVB and in local Hong Kong movies. When the dialog is a learned language, especially one learned as an adult, it requires much more effort and concentration to memorise and speak when acting, so much so that the acting usually suffers. It took five to eight years for me to become familiar and comfortable enough with the language to be able to allocate less of my attention to the dialog and more to the acting. It's not an easy task.

發哥 is no slacker. By the time we began filming, his dialog pronunciation was excellent; not perfect but excellent none-the-less. Even so, my work on location was not easy. It required intense concentration to listen to every syllable of his dialog, note the areas that needed improvement, analyse which areas were within his immediate grasp or absolutely needed improvement and use the most efficient method possible to communicate the needed changes to him, all within seconds of completion of each shot. It was challenging and tiring but we did a pretty good job.

發哥's work ethics are admirable. His dedication to his work is truly remarkable.

Within hours of confirmation of his role in the movie, he began examining and developing his character, and he spent considerable time working on his dialog. From confirmation of his role until weeks into filming, he barely slept as he considered all of the options for his character, an experience I shared last year when preparing for "They’re Playing Our Song (2007)". He worked so hard and slept so little that he became ill just a couple of weeks into filming. But even sickness barely slowed him down. He rested for two days and went straight back to work, getting daily antibiotic injections until he was fully recovered, and regular vitamin supplement injections until filming was complete.

發哥 greets and respects everyone on set. He talks about the days he began acting at TVB, how the crew in those early days were few in number, and how as a result he helped out with every aspect of filming from carrying props to setting up lights to cooking supper 宵夜 in the studios late at night. He constantly reminds us that movies would not be possible without the crew, and that it is those people who make the stars look great on screen.

發哥's other great love is photography. He had his camera with him in Mexico but his dedication to the movie precluded him from using the camera for most of our time there. While I came back with almost 3000 photographs, he came back with less than fifty. (Note. Very few of my photographs are related to the movie or its locations and they will not see the light of day until after the release of the movie; wouldn't want to spoil the movie for you ;-)

Equally impressive and important as 發哥 is Mrs Chow, commonly referred to as 發嫂. Mrs Chow works incessantly to make sure that 發哥 gets the best work available, and is protected physically, commercially and legally before, during and after filming. She's a virtual diesel train, working in the office and on set, working the same hours as we do and often more. It is said that in the management offices of Hollywood, Mrs Chow is more famous (perhaps infamous) than 發哥 because she's the one they deal with, and she's fearless and tireless.

Together, Mr and Mrs Chow form a truly formidable duo.

Interview in this week’s 東周刊 East Weekly (20080422)

Filed in Entertainment Ind., PressTags: ,

Just over a week ago, Ken Leung, an editor from Eastweek 東周刊, along with three other associates, came to my home and interviewed me for the magazine. That interview was published today in this week's issue. Unfortunately, Eastweek is not available online so you'll only be able to see the interview if you can buy the magazine.

Article in today’s 蘋果日報 Apple Daily (20080404)

Filed in Entertainment Ind., Press, TVB (H.K.) 香港無線電視, WorkTags:

For those of you interested, there is an article in today's 蘋果日報 Apple Daily about my decision to leave TVB. The interview is called 「係一個唔開心嘅甘草」
, written by Kitty Tai who interviewed me over the phone last night. It is a very good write up.

Note (6 April 2008)

If the article's URL doesn't work, try loading the entertainment section first and choosing the article from the popup menu.