Monthly Archives: March 2010

Satay King restaurant review – ahoy there, mateys

The food is possibly the least interesting thing about Satay King, a very popular chain of restaurants in HK (their website suggests traffic of 22 million people monthly, which seems staggering and could be Google Translate having a laugh).

Instead, it’s all about the décor – a local re-imagining of Pirates of the Caribbean that makes you feel like you wandered into a lost zone from The Crystal Maze (‘a mystery game please, Richard!’) – and the ingenious ordering machine. The sooner every restaurant installs one of these babies the better, as it cuts out at least half an hour of waving at waiters determined to ignore you. Basically, you press one of five buttons (Order, Water, Bill, Service or Cancel, just in case you’d jabbed the wrong button in excitement) and lo and behold, someone appears. Magic, especially for a restaurant as busy as this one.

The décor really is something else. The designer clearly took the theme and ran all the way with it – with a yo ho ho and bottle of rum from the looks of things. In Disneyland Paris, there’s a restaurant called the Blue Lagoon which is actually inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (you can wave at people!) and the Imagineers really should take a poke round Satay King sometime to see the madness they may have inspired. The place drips with pirates – by the entrance, hanging off the ceiling, you can even sit next to one! But even then, there’s a few touches that you can’t quite account for – this grinning table leg totally freaked me out and I just love the madcap way they’ve attached this wheel to the ceiling and draped it in multi-coloured fairy lights. You can never go wrong with multi-coloured fairy lights; as Caitlin Moran once said, they’re the MAGIC ONES. At least it’s all relatively unobtrusive – it’s not like the waiters are dressed as pirates and thrusting their cutlasses under your nose – and it’s certainly not boring. I’d say it’s good for a HK restaurant to have a sense of humour about it’s interior, but I’m not entirely sure humorous was what the designers intended.

Once we cut out the magical machine and the pirate theme, we’re left with average, although very reasonable for sit-down-on-proper-chairs waiter-serviced restaurant, food. Lots of it is cheese-baked, deep-fried or possibly some combination of both, so not the best place to head on a diet. And they have a full English menu, so gwei-los can get it on the action too.

The best thing to order is the set meal of Pork White Curry. It’s totally delicious – the sauce is creamy with a subtle lemongrass flavour that’s very moreish and there’s lashings of it (I’m one of those that can’t eat my rice dry). The pork is lean and crispy on the outside and ordered as a set, it comes with a big bowl of rice that was enough to share between the three of us, a side of your choice (we opted for Prawn Rolls – tasty and light) and a drink. Bargain at only $50 or so (sorry, I didn’t note prices and the receipt is in Chinese).

My boyfriend is obsessed with soft shell crab and this double portion ($88) was not the best we’ve had, but definitely not the worst. It comes peppered with that amazing rock salt/spice stuff that would probably make sawdust palatable. Together with another three dishes (two snacks and one main) plus three drinks and 10% service charge, it still only came to $80 each. And you get a free bottle of their signature XO chilli sauce at the end. Yes, you can probably eat much cheaper at your local cha cha deng, but you wouldn’t be getting the pirates then would you?

489 Hennessy Road, 9/F Causeway Bay Plaza, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, 2893 6667; see all branches of Satay King in Hong Kong here

Gabriella Cilmi – Ten album review

Sometime before Pixie Lott was the new Amy Winehouse, Gabriella Cilmi was the old new Amy Winehouse. Not that you’d guess from Cilmi’s sexpot space cadet re-invention in her latest video, On A Mission. And frankly, we’re not complaining. Turns out the lessons learned from Cilmi’s dull MOR debut (it was called Lessons To Be Learned, we just made a possibly too subtle pun, enjoy!) were that, come second album time, she’s discovered she has a stonking pair of pins that we never saw thanks to all that sitting-on-a-stool nonsense, she’s learnt the arts of a basic, if silly, dance routine and most importantly, she’s developed an inclination towards pop.

Sonically, Ten treads a similar path to Rachel Stevens’ much-lamented but never-forgotten Come & Get It – except this time, Cilmi has the vocal chops to sell the goods with more gusto than a drive-through employee asking if you’d like fries with that. Although nothing matches the brilliant Barbarella bolshiness of lead single, On A Mission, the rest of Ten is a silky, slinky, synth-laden electro take on mainstream pop that all washes down very nicely.

Last time, Xenomania produced the whole album; this time, it’s just the one song, Hearts Don’t Lie, and with it’s authentic 70s disco groove, irresistible ‘my heart keeps ticking’ motif and an almost Bee Gee worthy falsetto from Gabriella, we can almost imagine questionable-attired folk doing the hustle to this with disco-balls shimmering merrily in the background of Studio 54. Believe it or not, that’s intended to be a compliment.

Elsewhere, Robots is a breathy dreamy electro rush that wonders ‘what if kisses were made from ones and zeros’ (ah, the romance of binary code), Boys is classic Dallas Austin cool with a chorus that seems to grow from nowhere, What If You Knew is a bouncy uptempo that film producers are probably fighting over to provide the ‘girl realises she’s in love with best friend’ moment in countless romantic comedies and Love Me Cos You Want To is a sensuous sparkly surefire smash. Even when Cilmi finds herself slipping into old Winehouse-flavoured habits (Superman, Let Me Know), they’re actually surprisingly palatable. And those missing The Voice are directed to a strangely addictive ballad called Glue, so overblown and full of pomp, it must have come from an atrocious 80s flick. Somehow, it’s gorgeous.

A little generic perhaps but I’m enjoying myself far too much to look this sonic stun-gun-toting gift horse in the mouth. Whether Cilmi will still be trilling from the electro songbook come album three, when La Roux is just a quiff-shaped memory, remains to be seen. All the more reason to lap up the plastic-fantastic pleasures of Ten whilst they last then.


Article also available at Teentoday.

A Bliss-full day

Apologies for the lack of posts but I have spent the last week struck down with gastroenteritis – a week of being bed-ridden and existing on nothing but congee and clutching at my stomach. So it’s only now I can tell you about the amazing thing that happened to me last Friday morning…

If there’s one thing I don’t mind being woken up early by, it’s this:

There can’t be many better starts to a working day than a Chinese courier bearing gifts. Let’s take a sneak peek inside:

So that’s a bag full of Bliss goodies for those of you not in the know. I regard Bliss as Benefit’s smarter yet stunning sister – the two companies share a sense of humour and playfulness that I adore (pun-writer’s dream Bliss product names: Fatgirl Slim, Love Handler, Quadruple Thighpass, whilst each box opens with the missive ‘You look spa-velous!’ on the flap) married with top quality product. Bliss majors in skincare and body treatments (it’s the scientific wizardry behind the skincare that makes them smarter than Benefit fyi!) in-line with where it all started, their delightful modern luxury spas. Founded by Marcia Kilgore (who now oversees the brilliant Soap & Glory range, available at Boots in UK), Bliss spas offer up not just luxury but a sense of cool, fun and free brownies. Yes, you read right, free brownies. No wonder Kate Hudson, Oprah Winfrey and Jessica Alba are fans.

Receiving this bag of Bliss bounty is possibly one of the best days of my life – apart from my day spent at Bliss Spa itself, of course (and yes, I filled up on the free brownies, no doubt undoing all the good work the Bliss beauty therapists had spent hours on). It comprises of the Bliss Triple Oxygen Trio – energizing face mask, cream and eye mask – plus a lovely handwritten card telling me to ‘stay beautiful’. Note to PR companies worldwide, *this* is how it’s done. This, rather than the daily irrelevant spammage I receive as music/style editor for Teentoday, is the way to ingratiate yourself to your customers. Any other HK-based PR agencies wishing to bestow me with samples, I’m only an e-mail away at (and you’ve got a tough act to follow!).

I was recommended the Triple Oxygen face mask by my Bliss therapist after my treatment, and ever since, it’s been waiting in the Make-Up Miracles vaults for me to shout from the rooftops about how brilliant it is so expect to see that get the full glowing write-up soon; I’ll save proper reviews of the other products (and even my trip to Bliss Spa at W Hotel HK if you’re lucky) for later, once I’ve had a chance to try them out. This is just a post to say a big thank you to Bliss for just proving why they’re totally at the top of their game.

SML restaurant review – does my tum look big in this?

UPDATE: SML is now closed.

Originally, this was going to be a write-up for one of my fave restaurants in HK, Tapeo on Hollywood Road, Central. Alas, once the tapas arrived, I was simply too ravenous and dug in without a second thought to the camera kicking about in my bag (so until I visit again, let me just tell you their Squid a la Plancha is the most tender, flavoursome squid I’ve ever eaten and their platter of Manchego cheese, honey and toast is more divine than words, photos or thoughts can ever do justice to – we polished off two plates, one rather spuriously as ‘dessert’…).

sml baby

Never fear though because the restaurant I am going to write about is pretty much the next best thing to a tapas joint, without actually being one. SML is one of those genius/ridiculous concepts that seems so head-smackingly obvious, you wonder why it hasn’t been done before (and yes, I’m expecting to be inundated with people telling me it has been). All dishes come in the eponymous ‘small, medium or large’ sizes, meaning complaints about portion sizes at least will not be gracing your end-of-meal comment cards. Cute concept, right?

The menu features dishes from nearly every cuisine you can think of; basically, an international tapas! I think you’ll get a fairly good idea of this from our selection (we ordered small everything), which basically reads like we threw a handful of pushpins over a culinary map of the world and ordered accordingly. I would describe the food as solidly good rather than great – true of the truffle prawn toast ($38) and lasagne ($43), with the creamy, meaty lasagne being the better of the two. The Jamaican coconut chicken curry ($48) was an aberration to nearly every element of its description though; there was very little Jamaican, or even coconut-y, about this ‘boil-in-the-bag’ curry and the chicken was distinctly unappetising, two huge hunks still on the bone and when cut open, revealed gristle, fat and disturbingly pink meat.

We tried to correct our mistake by going for the sizzling chicken fajitas ($67), a little pricey given you only got two wraps (although enough filling and dips for more!) but tasty nonetheless. The star of the mains was, in fact, a mere ‘bits n bobs’ player – the chips with sea salt, truffle and some sort of unidentifiable, probably very fattening but obviously therefore delicious dip. These were fresh and hot, soft yet crispy and guess what, the only things we ordered in medium ($26). You can take the girl out of Britain but you can’t take the Brit out of the girl… I swear that you could sprinkle that sea salt on paper and I’d probably lap it up though.

Desserts definitely require further exploration, as we only had room for the pot of chocolate ($27 – unremarkable and with two bricks of fudge on the top that we weren’t fans of) and the to-die-for profiteroles ($20). Well, in the small size, that should read profiterole singular but the pastry and cream was feather-light and it came bathed in a gorgeous butterscotch sauce, like melted Werther’s Originals floating to heaven. I’m not ashamed to say I practically licked the bowl clean. The drinks menu, with an extensive list of lip-licking cocktails, is also worth a look although I’ve heard the sizes for wines is a bit of a joke (one gulp max even at large, apparently).


The quirkiness of the concept is followed all the way through, from the décor to the small design details. So I loved the little messages on the crockery (‘scrumptious’, ‘more please!’, ‘still hungry?’) and the ingenious way the menu was split up – the mains divided into Land and Sea (for where the animal making up your dish roamed when it was alive), Liquids for soups, Bits n Bobs for sides, Raw & Green for salads and Happy Ending (keep those perverted sex jokes to yourself!) for desserts. The ambience was lovely and relaxed, with some interesting little features; pictured are the punked-up Lego ‘SML baby’ outside the restaurant, the cool light fittings and one of the sweet $10 Ikea cacti that are thrown about the place with artful abandon.

It’s the little things that are ultimately what make the big picture great (as is always the case with Press Room Group restaurants, like The Pawn and The Press Room itself), so I can safely say it is those small touches and quirky twists that will have me coming back to SML again. Well, that and the angelic butterscotch sauce of course.

SML, 11/F, Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, 2577 3444; open 11.30am-11pm.

Red Carpet Rundown – Oscars 2010, Part III

Oops… so I forgot about these photos and since it takes so long to edit them, it seems a shame not to include them. Unfortunately, my genius method of categorising only took me as far as two groups so ummm… ‘The Rest of The Rest’?

Demi Moore in Atelier Versace – *Goo goo eyes* Ruffles! This is essentially a less nice version of Elizabeth Banks’ gown (and by the same designer too); I say less nice because I’m really not sold on the colour, which PR guff probably refers to as ‘blush’ but which I see as not terribly attractive muddy off-tan shade. Despite my love of all things romantic and ruffly, it also reminds me of Emily Blunt’s Golden Globes dress… which in turn reminded me of Frieda Pinto’s Oscar de la Renta at 2009’s Baftas. And out of all those dresses, it still ranks fourth.

Sandra Bullock in Marchesa – This dress was unlucky to make the ‘Favourites’ category, as every time I look at it, I think it looks more beautiful. With each awards ceremony she’s hit up, Sandra’s look has become more refined and she may have just saved the best dress for last. It’s sleek, it’s elegant, it’s shimmery in a subtle way (compared to the Quality Street wrapper shine of her Golden Globes gown… although I really did love that dress); it fits like a glove and the embroidery really is stunning. Her hair’s immaculately groomed and contrasts beautifully with the pale champagne shimmer of the dress and the finishing touch of that bright pink lipstick really was an inspired touch. For an actress whose career has so far been based on pratfalls and tomfoolery, I never thought I’d see her look so poised – a winning outfit in every way. Miss Congeniality would be proud.

Anna Kendrick in Elie Saab – This gown has a slightly vintage feel about it, but I’m not entirely sure I mean in it a good way. The lace around the slit seems a tad too fussy for me and it all feels a little Victorian. The nothing-y colour also contributes to the aged feel as it just looks kinda… old. In fact, it reminds me of these voile drapes I used to have that we never washed and went yellow with age. There are positives (love the off-the-shoulder cut) but the colour kills them all. It’s just so blah.

Jennifer Lopez in Armani Prive – What is J.Lo these days? She’s not been in a decent film for ages, her last album flopped and her last single seems to have been created more with an eye to getting her free Louboutins than for the sake of the music. She still knows how to bring the red-carpet glamour though… even if this dress is a little bridal and the top looks like the peak of your Mr Whippy just flopped over. Minus marks for messy hair though.

Kristen Stewart in Monique Lhullier – I do far prefer when Kristen brings a big of an edge to her red-carpet dressing, but this trumpet-shaped gown oozes gorgeous. Being a bit Gothic, inky midnight-blue dark and very dramatic, it also marries well with the whole Twilight thing whilst showing off an enviable figure and Stewart’s flawless porcelain skin. It’s a grown-up dress for a young girl and I think she pulls it off well – and proves she can crack a smile to boot! Oh Kristen, never stop being your slightly awkward, clueless red-carpet posing self as it’s so endearing and stops me hating on your ridiculously-high levels of talent, beauty and ability to snag a hot boyfriend quite so much.

Amanda Seyfried in Armani Prive – Not you’re not seeing things, this is a definite case of déjà vu. Same designer, similar colour, similar style = very similar dress to J.Lo. For me, Seyfried edges it thanks to that immaculate bun, which would make every prima ballerina proud. Unlike Lopez’s scrunchy mess, it’s the perfect topping to a classic dress. Also, the gown’s shape is simpler, making for a cleaner silhouette. Pure personal preference and Lopez will always have more charisma in her perfectly-manicured little fingernail than Seyfried carries in her whole body, but Amanda’s look is the winner for me.

Red Carpet Rundown: Oscars 2010, Part II

And onto Part II, cunningly-named ‘The Rest’ category; this is what I was referring to when I said the Oscars 2010 red carpet was one of the most interesting and adventurous in years. Thought I’d hook you in with the uglies to start off…

Diane Kruger in Chanel – Kruger is usually one of the most impeccably-dressed women around (see what she’s been wearing the rest of this awards season here) but this is a dress only a mother could love. In fact, make that grandmother, as surely (cool hip grandmas apart) they’re the only ones constituting any sort of buoyant lace doilie market there may be and lace doilies appears to be what this dress is fashioned from. Screwed-up lace doilies occasionally throttled with screwed-up black lace doilies that is. Find the most unflattering parts of a figure to tie things around and in a quite remarkable feat, that’s where the black lace appears on this gown. The middle section reminds me of curdled cottage cheese, which in turn reminds me of thrush. No dress that reminds me of an infection whereby your urine looks like cottage cheese can be a good thing.

Vera Farmiga in Marchesa – I’m usually a big fan of Marchesa’s structural gowns but try as I might to love this one, rather like that Topshop dress that rocked on Alexa Chung/Kate Moss/Sienna Miller but just looks weird on you, I can’t. I love the cerise colour, I love the shade of lipstick and I love that the neutral-wearing Farmiga has taken a real fashion risk, but I just see pencil shavings… or pleated napkins… or cupcake cases, which are stiff, slightly grotesque and give Farmiga no shape at all. I think in isolated doses, just on the bodice with a sleek skirt or vice versa, it might have worked yet in its current state, it just looks like an infection running rampage over the entire dress.

Zoe Saldana in Givenchy – Some critics are going loop the loop for this dress, which just highlights the selective couture blindess that seems to go on. Saldana is stunning and sells this gown with all her Na’vi might but it was weird on the catwalk and it’s still weird now. Let’s go through this step by step. Glittering bodice: gorgeous. Origami-pleated waistline – delectable. Lavender colour – delicious. The bottom: *Red alert, fire alarms, sirens, screams of horror * What is it?! The remains of a Muppet? A crowd of purple Chuzzles? Some tie-dyed shag-pile rugs from the 70s? No idea, but DO NOT LIKE.

Charlize Theron in Christian Dior – In homage to her Arrested Development character, perhaps this gown would look better on inside out? Only a Mr F could have thought this would look good. Charlize really can’t have a go at us if we’re all staring at her tits because the two Danish pastries attached to her boobs make it kinda hard not to. I preferred them when held up to the ears to make you look like Princess Leia (you can have that style tip for free). In all fairness, the rest of the gown is fine and Theron is her usual immaculately-groomed but if the designer really had to “add interest” to this simple dress, couldn’t he have found a less patently ridiculous place to do so?

Carey Mulligan in Prada – I hoped it would be Kristen Stewart bringing a rock edge to the Oscars but step forward English rose, Mulligan, to do red carpet dressing with a punky twist. Rather than embellishing the bodice with mere girlie glitter, Prada have instead scattered it with miniature knives, forks, scissors, keys and watch gears, a really cute and quirky design detail that totally works and makes the top half of this dress rock. Bottom half however and things start to get a bit tipsy; I don’t like the shorter length at the front, the border is unnecessary and the shoes seem heavy. I think a shorter version of this would look great at some music awards show – get onto it Prada!

Sarah Jessica Parker in Chanel – Of course, SJP fans would have you believe this dress is amazing/beautiful/stunning and that she was one of the best dressed of the night. But those SJP fans tend to think she would look fantastic in a bin bag (and let’s face it, she probably has worn one at some stage) and the reality is that this dress is a bit of a let-down. It does have a classic sort of elegance to it, but the musty yellow colour makes it look like it was discovered amongst the mothballs at the back of the closet and you’ll have more chance of finding a real-life Big than any sort of shape in this saggy sheath. Nevertheless, the beautifully intricate neckline is fascinating, in a Derren Brown sort of way. Is sheer will power alone holding it up? A spell from the fashion gods granted for so many years of sterling service? Who knows but it, and those sparkling bracelets, are the best thing about this outfit.

Red Carpet Rundown: Oscars 2010, Part I

2010’s Oscars were, for red carpet watchers anyway, some of the most exciting in years. It’s as if the stylists heard my moans of boredom from having to write up the Baftas and brought their A-Game to the dressing table. If the gowns weren’t breathtakingly beautiful (and many were), they were at least interesting, daring or adventurous in some way – and let’s face it, something has to be in order to keep us awake through the narcoleptic’s nightmare of the ceremony itself.

After much careful thought and deliberation as to how to order the eighteen dresses I wished to write about, I came up with the genius categories of ‘My Favourites’ and ‘The Rest’. Yes, revolutionary isn’t it? Commencing with ‘My Favourites‘:

Rachel McAdams in Elie Saab – Is this dress not one of the most breathtakingly beautiful creations you’ve ever seen?! I simply adore it. If the last time you gave watercolours some thought was when you found yourself wondering what the hell that one in your hotel/hospital/grandma’s room was meant to be, take a look at this dress and think again. The stunning swirl of pastel shades in a floral print is just a total dream and transforms what is essentially a simple gown into something greater than the sum of its parts. McAdams looks fresh, fragrant and fabulous. Love the earrings too.

Meryl Streep in Chris March – Proof that it’s not only Helen Mirren nailing the ‘sexy older woman’ market, Streep looks stunning in this simple yet sophisticated white number. It’s sexy in an understated way, extremely flattering and accessorised nicely with the blingtastic bag and bracelet. The real miracle, of course, is how youthful Meryl looks – her skin just looks so radiant, easily outshining the complexions of some of the mere toddlers walking the red carpet. I’m going to christen this look Slouchy Snow Queen (it’s all about the draping) and hope I look that good when I’m Meryl’s age. (P.S. I’m choosing to ignore the peep of a clunky platform wedge in the hope it will go away and I can pretend I never saw it and go back to unadulteratedly loving this dress like before…)

Cameron Diaz in Oscar de le Renta – Princess Dress Alert! God, this is gorgeous. I would like the assurance of Diaz’s stylist, Rachel Zoe, that no fairies were harmed in the making of this dress because it looks like unprecedented amounts of fairy dust may have been sprinkled on it. Exuding a shimmering old-school Hollywood glamour, Diaz totally pwns in this and there really is not much else to say.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Dries van Noten – Gyllenhaal rarely disappoints with her slightly quirky sense of style and this is actually my favourite Oscars dress. By keeping the shape simple, the bold brushstroke print is allowed breathe without going overboard and I love the detail of it fading away at the hem. In a red carpet season dominated by actresses trying their best to look naked without y’know… being naked (when will the nude trend die? It totally kills Anna Kendrick’s dress… more of which later), the splash of bright colour is invigorating. I’m also a big fan of Gyllenhaal’s bubblegum pink lipstick, which makes the outfit pop even more without looking like it came from a Barbie dress-up set.

Miley Cyrus in Jenny Packham – …And speaking of the nude trend! I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the hunched posture that makes Miley look like she’s sucking in her stomach or the somewhat ginger quiff or even the too-small Ann Summers bustier masquerading as a top but believe it or not, I do really love this gown on Miley and it’s a massive improvement on last year’s tacky monstrosity that came complete with rhinestone belt. This outfit seems to channel Christmas tree fairy – but in the best possible way – and the stunning accessories (that cuff is just gorgeous) complement it perfectly. You could even say (if you’re a fan of a bad joke), that it makes me nod my head like yeah… [Red carpet hawks please note the similarity to Marion Cotillard’s Critic’s Choice dress, which was also beautiful]

Elizabeth Banks in Atelier Versace – Couldn’t care much for Elizabeth Banks as an actress (her character in Scrubs was insufferable) but she makes a fine mannequin for this stunning Versace gown. Seriously, what is it about me and ruffles? Stick them on any dress and I seem to go all goo-goo eyed. Romantic ruffles aside, I do think the unusual dove-grey colour is beautiful too. (P.S. Oh no, another hint of clunky platforms again… why do I keep spotting these and spoiling the look for myself?!) (P.P.S. Panic over for the Streep platforms at least… turns out it was the camera angle and they were a perfectly nice pair of Jimmy Choos, phew. Banks’ still look dodge though.)

Sephora no mora…

Terrible headline aside, the very serious news this post brings you is that Sephora is closing in Hong Kong.

As a VIP member of Sephora (i.e. I have a loyalty card), I received an oddly-worded email last week telling me Sephora was ceasing ‘operations in Hong Kong market for strategic reasons’. All my VIP points would expire on March 31 but in the meantime, there was a clearance sale with up to 70% off to be had. My boyfriend and I duly made the trek to Mong Kok this Saturday and the photo of crazed women screaming that accompanied the email (see below) turned out to be scarily accurate. The shop was literally teeming.

sephora 2

I duly deposited my boyfriend in the 40-minute long queue that snaked around the entire shop whilst I tried to grab some bargains. What became obvious was that half these bargain-hunters had never set foot in Sephora before – as they jostled over the near-empty concession of Sephora’s own range of make-up to grab one of the few horrible shades of eyeshadow that remained (who cares?! It’s only $10!!!), I simply darted downstairs where an identical counter stood, albeit much better-stocked and in a location where I was able to breathe without getting my face wedged up someone’s sweaty armpit.

HKers are notoriously crazy for bargains – I’ve seen a line snake down an entire road in Causeway Bay for what turned out to be free mini-packs of Tic-Tacs, cordons set up at midnight for the Lane Crawford sale and when Happy Valley Racecourse gave away some free souvenir gift-sets, several elderly people were injured in the ensuing crush and commotion – so the crowds at Sephora did not surprise me. They certainly surprised the staff who looked on with an air of bewilderment and fear, like aliens shown the store to illustrate the concept of ‘crowd’ (or merely ‘crazy HK people’).

I might not know much about business (although according to Sir Alun Sugar, all it takes is an ability to not bull-shit or arse-lick, in which case I’m good to go) but I do know about make-up and Sephora’s demise is frustrating because they were doing so much right and had spotted a unique position in the sprawling HK cosmetics market. Unlike standalone stores selling just one brand (MAC, NARS, Clinique), Sephora housed several under one very spacious and luxurious roof. So do department stores like Lane Crawford, I hear you cry – but there, each concession is manned by an individual who takes the trouble to give you the hard sell for their brand alone. Other cosmetics stores in Hong Kong offering several brands certainly do not fall into the leisurely shopping experience category. Watsons and Mannings are more pharmacists, stocking standard drugstore cosmetics brands alongside cough medicines and condoms, whilst the likes of Sasa, Colormix and Bonjour are akin to cosmetics cash-and-carries – yes, their stuff is a little cheaper than the recommended retail price but that means stock supply is unpredictable (we couldn’t possibly speculate as to its ‘fallen off the back the van’ nature), any customer service above the likes of ‘That’ll be $20 please’ is out the window, and goods are stuffed into the shop with about as much care as a toddler cramming toys back into play-box.

Sephora’s staff were genuinely knowledgeable about all their ranges and offered relatively unbiased recommendations. The downstairs floor that so many of the bargain-hunters didn’t even know existed housed dressing tables where you could get free make-up consultations and apply different products to your heart’s content. The VIP card was not exactly a great deal (then again, what loyalty cards ever are?! but at least it was making an effort to give something back, with less strings attached than most VIP cards I’ve picked up along the way (ridiculously-high minimum spends are a perennial favourite).

And Sephora’s own range of make-up was brilliant. Their range of cosmetics was huge, covering every product under the sun, and married quality with reasonable prices. Their skincare range was equally dependable without costing the earth and their range of accessories (brushes, bags, tweezers etc) was extensive. This range was, of course, the most heavily discounted in the closing down sale and I stocked up on their eyeliner pencils (with a range of colours in such great quality bettered only by Urban Decay’s 24/7 pencils IMHO) and their cleansing water, a fantastic product that tackles eye make-up too whilst being gentle and not at all greasy. Basically, for someone that misses Boots and its brilliant Advantage Card as much as I miss anything from England, Sephora was the closest I could get.

That’s not to say they didn’t do anything wrong. The Mong Kok location raised expertly-plucked eyebrows from the start. Mong Kok may be a tourist hotspot for its Ladies Market (an open-air street market selling cheap tat souvenirs and designer fakes) but with its array of street food, pokey shops and hectic bustling streets, the atmosphere is very “local”. Sephora, with its feeling of quality, luxury and an airy ambience, would have fared better amongst the designer stores of Tsim Sha Tsui, the fashionable shopping mecca of Causeway Bay, or in gweilo central, the cunningly-named Central.

Elsewhere around the world, Sephora stores stock brands or items exclusive to their stores as prime draws to make-up mavens like myself. But Sephora HK was filled with brands that you could have procured easily at the same price in department shores or even in their own shops in malls without having to brave the Mong Kok masses (and potential acid attacks), whilst the few exclusives they did garner (excepting the BareMinerals range, for which there was a lot of positive press) did not have great brand recognition. Take just one look at the list of brands on either Sephora France or US to see how we’ve been short-changed here.

And, as the bargain brouhaha described above shows, a few more sales, promotions or freebies couldn’t have hurt – Sephora’s regular VIB promotions are the stuff of legend on beauty blogs worldwide. I hope somewhere out there a Sephora executive is reading this blog and making careful notes, as I’m sure Sephora will return soon enough (they already have 41 stores in China and over 1000 globally, though strangely none in the UK). And next time, Mr Sephora man, please bring Urban Decay with you.

Alphabeat – The Beat Is… album review

Alphabeat’s Fascination may well be one of my favourite songs of the last decade. Essentially Footloose re-spun Scandi-style, ground-breaking stuff it certainly wasn’t, but sold with such a boundless joie de vivre that you couldn’t help but smile (and the ‘Word is on your lips… say the word!’ section is just shiny pop brilliance). Sadly but perhaps not unexpectedly, there is nothing to match Fascination, or even some of This Is Alphabeat’s lesser moments, on new record The Beat Is

Whilst This Is Alphabeat saw the Danish band channelling the 80s in their inimitably feelgood fashion, The Beat Is… sees them mining the sounds of 90s dance acts (Black Box, Corona, Haddaway, Snap! et al) for inspiration. If you were frantically throwing shapes to Rhythm Is A Dancer whilst wearing shapeless clothes, perhaps you will fall for The Beat Is… but for me, the resulting marriage between house beats and sparkly Scandipop is far from successful. At times, some arrangements even seem to veer dangerously into pastiche.

Nevertheless, lead single, The Spell, does come close to recapturing Fascination’s magic (spell… magic – see what I did there?!), helped in no small part by the vocals of sole female Stine Bramsen, which retain their glorious radiance – shame these are often computerised to oblivion elsewhere. The other delight that remains in tact from This Is Alphabeat is the interplay between Stine and male vocalist, Anders; in an age where mixed-sex pop groups are an endangered species (in the UK and US markets specifically), this is a joy to listen to and it’s no coincidence that this occurs on pretty much all of the album’s best songs.

DJ and second single Hole In My Heart manage to turn the old-school beats into something new and alluring whilst Heatwave makes the most of the album’s unexceptional lyrics (mostly about being really really into someone… like really) by perfectly capturing the dizzy delirium of being in lust, but after a while, the beats start to grate. This is compounded by what feels like the vitality being slowly sucked out of the group throughout the ten-track duration – at times, it feels like a somewhat lifeless Alphabeat are content to let the beats do all the talking, resulting in dirge like Chess and Q & A that I have about as much desire to revisit as I do 90s fashion.

Remember those ads that had the Duracell bunny hopping about ceaselessly in contrast to the other one powered by the nameless-for-legal-reasons battery that slowly winded down after an initial spout of energy? Well, This Is Alphabeat is the Duracell bunny, still exuberant, fun and packed to the brim with joie de vivre two years on; no prizes for guessing which rabbit I’m comparing The Beat Is… to. Alphabeat could probably be catchy in their sleep – shame they seem to have taken me a bit too literally on this occasion.


Article also available at Teentoday.

Be careful what you wish for ‘cos you just might get it…

A while ago, I hastily-penned a short article expressing my disdain for the whole Sugababes v.27 thing. Just a few months later, in their eternal bid to prove that anything the Brits can do the Yanks can do better, the Pussycat Dolls are making the Sugababes incident seem like an event of ‘kid pushes over other kid’s sandcastle’ magnitude.

It currently looks as if Nicole Scherzinger is the last Doll standing – a mean feat considering she wasn’t even a Doll in the first place (she was added to give ‘vocal strength’ when the burlesque troupe became a band). Given that Scherzinger apparently manages to sing both lead and backing vocals on When I Grow Up (meaning should the post of PCD magician become vacant, Scherzinger is a dead cert), any other members are clearly dispensable and amidst tales of dressing rooms, drug tests, regulated screen-time in videos, non-sharing of vocals, broken ribs and even homelessness, Kimberly Wyatt, Jessica Sutta and Ashley Roberts have all confirmed their departures. The exit of Melody Thornton, the only other member even allowed within breathing space of a microphone and who had an outburst live on stage about not being ‘featured’ (a reference to the band’s new name of “Pussycat Dolls feat. Nicole Scherzinger” on their last singles), surely cannot be far off.

The fact that you’re probably scratching your heads trying to place these names – that’s if you’re even bothering attempting to place them at all (and no, none of them are the one who looked like a he-she – that was Carmit Bachar and she left 2 years ago) – illustrates the problem. These other members were little more than glorified back-up dancers for Scherzinger and in fact, salaried employees of the record company. This means they picked up pay cheques for a set amount just like you, me or any other average Joe flipping burgers at the local Machouse.

This already promoted the idea that members were interchangeable – in any corporation, no-one is irreplaceable – and this has led to a somewhat blasé attitude amongst some commentators regarding PCD’s (as we know them) demise. But this isn’t a corporation, it’s a pop band. You put these girls on every single record sleeve, you have an official website where each has a member profile, you send them out touring and you do this over the course of five whole years – of course, their job status is a little different to your average Joe flipping burgers and should be treated as such. It’s a little sad if we just shrug our shoulders and continue to lap up whatever material Scherzinger and her chorus line put out next.

The notion of modern pop fandom means having some connection with the individuals in the group, for better or for worse. Yes, yes, it should all be about the music blah blah blah but where would the fun be in that? People inevitably develop favourite members, bustling fansites and forums emerge and Thornton, Wyatt and Roberts have approximately 90,000 followers on Twitter between them; to the hardcore fans, the staple of pop groups who rely on such fans to religiously buy singles even when they’re at the tricky dodgy ballad stage, these women are not just interchangeable faces – whatever Robin Antin, the brains (and the botox) behind brand PCD, may believe.

Compare and contrast the videos for the lead single and last singles from the Doll Domination album campaign. By the end, the other members are lucky to get 20 seconds screen-time between them and aren’t even bothering to lip-sync to backing vocals. It shows disrespect to the fans, disrespect to real bands whose performances aren’t a total charade and disrespect to the girls themselves.

Line-up changes, bust-ups and messy splits are practically written into girl groups’ DNA and I daresay that if the Pussycat Dolls, in whatever Nicole-centric incarnation (lest we forget she had a prolonged crack at solo stardom and comprehensively flopped), continue to release highly-commercial material of a similar calibre to their work in the past, they will continue to sell decently. To lose one band member is bad luck, to lose two is carelessness… to lose four in one fell swoop hints at deeper problems. I hope the press give them a hard time because they genuinely deserve it. Come back Sugababes v.48, all is forgiven.