#39 First time

Do you remember when was the first time you swear?

Growing up, my brother and I watched a lot of TV. Not only that, we would record movies on VHS and rewatch them over and over. The Back to the Future I was part of that rotation. Not too bad if I learned my first swear words there?

I might be somewhere between 8 to 10 years old. At the dinner table,

Me: I learned a new English phrase today.

My dad: Yeah? What is it?

Me: Holy Shit! That’s what Marty said in Back to the Future.

I don’t remember how my dad responded. He might have just not responded and saved it for me to find out in the future. I didn’t know English back then, and I was misguided by the Chinese subtitles: 該死, which literally means “should die”. Nothing positive here, but at least not curse words?

And that’ my first bad English word…

I picked up my first bad Chinese words from Chow Yun Fat. I was (again) somewhere between 8 to 10 (maybe even 7?), and the TV was showing a series from early 80s (could be late 70s though) that starred Chow. In the show, Chow was talking to two gangster-type characters. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I remember he called those guys 木嘴 . Of course I didn’t know what it meant. It just sounded cool.

Fast forward a few days, I was at a park playing with other kids. Suddenly, I called one of the kids 木嘴. I wasn’t particularly angey, nor I wanted to scare him. His mom heard what I said, looked surprised, and took her kid away without saying a single word. My mom noticed something was odd and asked what happened.

I have not been saying that much since then, as I realized that is such a dated term!

#37 Why Reggae – episode #2

(continued from Why Reggae – episode #1)

Although I went to Indiana University Bloominton to pursue a business degree, my mind was on music, and every semester I would look for music classes to take. As a non-music major, there weren’t a lot of classes about music making and analysis that I could join, so almost all music classes I took were history-related: history of blues, history of jazz, rock in 70s and 80s, Latin American Music. I got to know Professor Andy Hollinden well, and sat in his class on Jimi Hendrix too. There were not enough music classes to take, and I ended up taking classes from outside the music school (it was renamed to the Jacob School in my junior year) – the Motown class through the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, the Hip Hop class through the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, and Black Music and Identity through the Anthropology Department. The Motown class brought everyone to the gym and we learned particular dance moves related to motown songs. Sadly, I have forgotten all the moves except for “the shotgun”. The Hip Hop class had everyone writing our own verses and rapping in front of the whole class. I couldn’t have been more embarassed.

The Black Music and Identity class was where I learned about reggae: how hip hop was originated by the Jamaican DJ Kool Herc, the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson. I was most fascinated by the Japanese reggae and dance hall scene, and the level of authenticity in the music they produced. On a side note, I recall my professor from this class told me he did not receive one of my papers. As the best student one could ask for, I was sure I had turned it in, and I remember rushing over to office hours after class to talk to him. I tried so hard to persuade him that I had turned in my paper on time. He seemed convinced and trusted me (maybe he just wanted me to shut up). It must have sounded so funny to him how serious I was?

As all serious business students should do, I planned ahead for my summers and looked for internships. That’t where I saw an ad by Rockpaperscissors, a local world music publicity company (they do more than music now). They were looking for interns, and I remember reached out almost immediately after I saw the word “reggae” in the description. My internship continued even after regular semester resumed, and I worked there as much as I could. Although I was trying to learn more about reggae, I got so much more out of this job. I did put on Dub Side of the Moon a lot when I worked there (looking back, it must have been extremely annoying for everyone else), but I was exposed to many musical acts and cultures unknown to me: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Samarabalouf, Ska Cubano, the Balkan Beat Box, Daara J, Seu Jorge, Samite, Habib Koite, the Slackers, Zuco 103, Bole 2 Harlem, Marcelo D2, Lura, Marisa…

Working at RPS was also the first time I encountered a small business (at the time about 5 people) that was making a national impact. I learned a lot of different basic tasks – packing promo CDs into envelops, keeping inventory, but the most important skills I picked up was how to use Photoshop. I can’t say I am a pro, but I have designed my fair amount of flyers for events over the years.

Ebay was also a source of my reggae education. I was trying to listen to reggae other than Bob Marley, but I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t have a lot of money either. So I would go on ebay, type “reggae”, and the prices from low to high, and buy the cheapest CDs there were. I ended up buy a few 3-CDs reggae compilations that way, which introduced me to a lot of classic songs very quickly.

One more thing that cultivated my love for reggae was when I worked as stage manager at the Lotus Festival (2006?), hearing Inner Visions play live. That’s also where I saw the Brazilian band Curumin (first time learning about the sound of the fender rhodes and the electric cavaquinho) and the Balkan Beatbox. (Is that where I saw and met Dudumaia too?)

Bloomington was also where I saw my first reggae shows, as I turned 21 there – Burning Spear, the Wailers, and Matisyahu. All were essential to shape my view of reggae before I came to Rochester.

#24 The failed hip hop DJ

A birthday card from IU, celebrating my 21st, and reminding me to act wisely.

The legal drinking age in Hong Kong is 18, so it felt quite strange that I was not allowed to drink when I came to the States at 19. It didn’t matter too much though, as I am not a heavy drinker anyways. But turning 21 was still a happy event, because I started going out a lot more to see live shows at different bars and venues. I was really into hip hop at the time, and I still remember seeing performances of DJ Mike Relm, Yuri Lane, and Del the Funky Homosapien. It sounds a bit “wrong”, but I took a class on hip hop offered by the anthropology department. I ended up writing my final paper about bboys in Bloomington.

Although rap might be the most direct link to hip hop for most people, it seemed so distant to me. Writing good Chinese was already tough, and I couldn’t imagine how would I ever be able to write cool lines and rhymes in English, let alone rapping with a flow. No talent in visual arts either, so grafitti was out too. Break dance was too physical. Dj-ing, on the other hand, was enticing: sampling is economic (create new music from the old) and efficient (picking out the coolest/catchiest/most groovy part of a record); beat juggling and scratching just sounded so cool; and a DJ must know a lot of songs (always in search of the most unique/obscure record and breaks that no one else have heard).

I can’t remember what year it was (2009?), but not knowing what to expect, I went to the DMC World DJ Championship in Chicago and saw C2C. I started making a few DJ friends, mostly moving records and equipment for them at parties. I quickly learned that being a DJ would be quite impossible too, because I could not afford the gear and the constant need of acquiring new records (most DJs probably don’t mix vinyls, but a vinyl DJ is still my ideal of a “real DJ” to this day). I still started buying records anyways, thinking they might become useful some day.

The coolest thing I learned from this period was The 45 King, who mixes 45s! And naturally so I started buying lots and lots of RnB 45s on ebay. As I seriously began my classical guitar studies, I put my DJ dream aside, and slowly forgot about these 45s…

Last year, a good friend of mine asked to see my 45 collection. She got into Djing, and started doing her own shows. She would like to see if there were any 45s she could borrow for one of her upcoming shows. We started digging through these forgotten discs, which included many Motown, soul, disco, and RnB tunes. But embbeded in the collection was a small stack of Ranchera records that I didn’t even realize were part of the collection. I must have not paid attention to them back then, since they were not something I could use for a hip hop set (or maybe I could have?). We put these records on, and they were just THE BEST MUSIC. I wish I understand Spanish to know the songs even better, but one can feel the passion and emotions even if you were listening to the expressions of the singers alone.

My purchase of 45s has since then been resumed, and mostly ranchera produced by Bego Records! (oh well, with some reggae and dancehall too) When things get back to normal, I hope to ask my Dj friend to spin these Ranchera records, maybe at a local Mexician restaurant, and maybe a benefit show of some sort?

#16 Why reggae – episode #1

Back then, HMV in Hong Kong would do a crazy sale every summer. A lot of CDs were around HKD 30 to 40 (USD 4 – 5) a piece (maybe cheaper?) – perfect for a student who didn’t have much spare money.

As unexciting as it could be, the Legend by Bob Marley was the first reggae CD I picked up, from a crazy sale, and the guitar solo in No Woman No Cry was one of the solos I learned by repeating the track endlessly. Forward a few years, I was a sophomore at Indiana University Bloomington, and I made a friend in the intermediate guitar class because he heard me playing that solo before class started. Turned out we were both business majors. I don’t even remember his name now, but I recall him being a handsome guy and had a beautiful girlfriend. We didn’t see each again till senior year, and he already had a great job lined up. He is probably very rich now, owns a nice house, kids and everything.

But anyhow, I learned much about Bob Marley. His songs always got nice hooks, and his lyrics are not as difficult to listen to compared to a lot of other English songs. It took me many years to really understand what does “no woman no cry” mean though.

A few summers later, in the TST HMV, I bought the Toots and the Maytals greatest hits CD. A completely different kind of reggae, and so much energy! And who knew I would would have two chances to see him many years later, and even opened for him? (More about seeing Toots in a later post.) The funny thing about the Toots CD is that, the text in the little booklet were printed backwards? Maybe there’s a secret message hidden in there, like the writings of Leonardo Da Vinci?

The Adelante / Forward / Transglobal Soul Movement was the last reggae CD I got in Hong Kong before attending school in the US. To be honest, I remember not enjoying it as much. Maybe my reggae soundscape at that point was Marley and Toots, and the Adelante CD was a bit too modern to my taste? But the title track is interesting – a reggae version of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne #1!

These CDs laid the foundation to my never-ending reggae quest.

(Continue on Why reggae – Episode 2)

#15 Valses Poéticos by Enrique Granados

I took piano lessons through my teenage years, but I was a bad student. With much shame to say, I didn’t practice much. Maybe I spent too much time playing basketball? Time seemed to have passed by so quickly, and the next lesson always came before I could find time to practice. My parents would use video game time in exchange for practice time, but apparently that didn’t work.

I did take a few Royal School piano exams. I remember taking the grade 3 exam with my younger brother, back to back on the same day. The passing grade was 100, and my brother passed – he got 100, but I got 99. I must have really annoyed the examiners to fail me by just one point. Or maybe they want to be “encouraging” and let me know I was “so close”. My family always thought my brother and I must have both done poorly, but they have decided to spare the younger one.

Of course, my laziness bites back hard. I became a music major, and eventually a theory teacher, but I am one of the few theory teachers who cannot play the piano. Give me a chord progression, and maybe I can make something up and fuzz my way through. But put a score in front of me, and I would just embarrass myself.

Not having taken piano lessons seriously was one of the biggest regrets of my life. Especially I have learned later that the “father of classical guitar” Francisco Tarrega was also a pianist. Maybe my tremolo would be better had I trained my fingers on the piano more? I tried to compensate and devoted more time in my undergraduate years on the piano, but it just never got better. I have passed the critical period.

I remember only two pieces from my teenager piano lessons, one of them was waltz #6 from Valses Poeticos by Enrique Granados, and the other was Golliwogg’s Cakewalk by Claude Debussy. I think they were both pieces from the grade 6 piano exam. The whole Valses Poeticos set was a popular piece for classical guitar students at IU, and I remember being surprised to hear waltz #6 played on the guitar. I quickly rekindled my love for waltz #6, and also fell in love with the whole piece. And it was dedicated to Joaquín Malats! I tried to learn the other movements on the piano (you can imagine how it went), and eventually I played the guitar duo version – fulfilling a dream with a little help from my friend Tom Torrisi.

#4 Fluke

fluke2[ flook ]


  1. an accidental advantage; stroke of good luck: He got the job by a fluke.
  2. an accident or chance happening.
  3. an accidentally successful stroke, as in billiards.
  4. what my friends from my teenage years might call me.

(from dictionary.com)

They don’t actually call me “fluke”, but rather, they would call me fluke in Cantonese. So if you want to speak Cantonese, sometimes you just need to break up an English word into separate syllables. For example, fluke would become… “fu look”. The meaning remains, but now it’s Cantonese.

Let me digress: a lot of terms and slangs in Cantonese came from Hong Kong people making an effort speaking an English word. My favorite of these terms is “屙拔甩”. “屙” means defecate, and “拔甩” is blood. So “屙拔甩” is used to describe… a very bad situation.

Anyhow, fluke was my nickname until I came to U.S. for college. It just seemed silly introducing myself to others as “fluke” in college. But I enjoy having a name associated with my childhood/teenage year. Only my dearest friends from home call me fluke now.

But why? What does fluke have to do with me? I actually had no idea about why I was called fluke for at least 10 years. It wasn’t until my early (or mid?) 20s that my dear friend Roger Chung reminded me, he was the one who dubbed my nickname. When I was in primary school, I played a lot of table tennis, and apparently I would always win by making “edge shots”. You could just stand there and be frustrated and helpless.

#2 Ken, Kenny, Kenji, Kenneth, Kendall, Kennedy, Kentucky, Kenjamin


“What’s your name?”


“What? Come on, tell me your real name.”

Although the story of how I acquired my English name seemed a bit forced, I have come to liking my name gradually, and today I am still called Ken. It’s simple, crisp, and easy to remember (or easy to forget).

A few of my American friends would insist on calling me by my Chinese name. I can’t speak for everyone, but I do prefer you to call me Ken. This is not out of convenience, or worry that you would butcher the Cantonese pronunciation. Many people from Hong Kong have both a Chinese and an English name, and it’s common to address each other by our English names. People call me by my Chinese name are either my parents, relatives, or those who don’t know me well. I also like having separate identities: me in US (Ken) vs. me in Hong Kong (???).

It took me a few years to realize Ken is short for Kenneth. One of my best friends’ name is Kenneth, and when I visited him in the UK one summer, people were just saying hi to me left and right. “Hi Ken!” “What’s up Ken?” How can I be so popular in a place I have never been to?

Once in a while, people would call me Kenneth, and it still takes me a second to respond. Professor Weinert always calls me Kenny. My friend Bernardo would call me Kenjamin. Just to mess with people, I have imagined introducing myself like James Bond: “The name is Ken. Kentucky Luk.”

#1 – Ken, or Gibson?

It’s extremely common for people from Hong Kong to have a Chinese and an English name, but I didn’t have an English name till 17. I just happened to have not picked an English name when I was young. I knew my dad always liked the name “Henry”, but it didn’t click for me (once we had a puppy for a short time, and my dad tried to name him Henry too. That’s a different story). My uncle suggested I should be called “Ian”, because it almost sounded like my Chinese name. Anyhow, none of these names were used. Classes were taught in English, and my teachers would just call my Chinese name, or the transliteration of my Chinese name.

I did many exams throughout my life, and my first big public exam was the The Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE). I did 9 subjects: Chinese, English, Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Economics, History, and Religious Studies. The exam was notorious for being difficult, and as preparation, we studied a lot of past papers. English was especially tough, and like many, I went to English remedial classes.

And it was all fine until I got to the first English remedial class.

After the first class, three students (including myself) were asked to stayed behind. Turned out that our teacher said we all needed an English name to be in an English class. She lined us up, to ask what would our names be. She wouldn’t let us go unless we came up with an English name on the spot. I was at the end of the line. I don’t remember what the first guy said, but I recall the teacher told the second guy that he could choose between “Ken or Gibson”. Second guy told the teacher a name of his own choice and happily left.

“So, Ken or Gibson?”

My mind was blank. What does “Ken” mean? I didn’t know. I did know Gibson was a guitar brand (I turned out to be playing a fender for many years and still have not gotten a Gibson), and it seemed weird to have a guitar brand as my name.


(As time went by, Ken turned out to be the better choice. I have met a few Kens over the years. I have never met a Gibson in my life.)