Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Party Fowl: Giant Rubber Duck Everyone's Very Best Friend, It's True

A duck to water: Florentijn Hofman's "Rubber Duck" oversees
the revels at the 2014 Tall Ships Festival LA at the
Los Angeles Harbor.
The Tall Ships Festival L.A., which took place in San Pedro a couple of weeks ago would have been exciting enough with the thought of vintage yachts and schooners gliding along the L.A. Waterfront. However, it was the giant rubber duckie that floated near the Cruise Terminal that caught my attention.

Attending the Festival with two of my best friends, Shiho and Jason, added to the experience. I was a bit perplexed by the posters I had seen around town for weeks: announcements of the Tall Ships Festival with an image of a rubber duck, photo-bombing at the margin. Jason, who had seen photos of the sculpture on display all throughout Asia, solved the mystery for me.

The 54-foot inflatable sculpture, titled simply "Rubber Duck," is by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who has also created other gargantuan icons of childhood nostalgia that have been shown all over the world. Outsized stuffed rabbits, a concrete bear carrying a pillow, and an inflatable frog wearing a party hat are just some of Hofman's fanciful menagerie. Created in various sizes, "Rubber Duck" has been on display across the globe, including showings in Australia, Brazil, Japan, China, and Europe. San Pedro is only the third location in the United States where he (I've decided it's a "he") has radiated his sunny yellow glow.

Live chaat: India Jones Chow Truck proves once
again that it's a small world after all when it comes
to great street food, with this Mexican-Indian collaboration.

At the Festival there were, of course, the food trucks that are now de rigeur at any large gathering or fair. We enjoyed the menu at India Jones Chow Truck, with its inventive takes on Indian chaat, or savory street food. Shiho and Jason each had the "frankie," a piece of roti flatbread rolled up into a burrito-like tube that contains a variety of fillings like lamb, chicken, or paneer cheese. I went for the taco chaat, which was made up of two blue corn taco shells, filled with spicy lamb and potatoes.

Yellow was indeed the hue of the day, as we all toasted "Rubber Duck" with mango lassis, a drink that would beat out Starbucks Frappucinos any day. Imagine if Ganesha was on the coffee shop's logo instead of a mermaid.

There were other notable sights at the Tall Ships Festival that depicted a sense of nostalgia. The International Guild of Knot Tyers had their own booth, where they showed off examples of nautical practicality and knicknacks made of thick ropes. And the current incarnation of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile (the original was created in 1936), was on display at the end of the Cruise Terminal. Hordes of kids were posing for photos in front of it - kids whose well-meaning parents probably only feed them hot dogs made of soy. Nevertheless, who can be mad at a giant frankfurter?

Holy nitrates, Batman! The Oscar Meyer Wienermobile
celebrates two great American traditions: cars and
processed meat.
But in the end, it truly was "Rubber Duck" that was the main event. What was amazing about the experience was that everyone at the Festival seemed more excited about the giant duck than anything else. I was astonished by how many people would show up to view a giant inflatable toy, but will readily admit that it was what I was most looking forward to at the Festival. People took shot after shot of the sculpture, and even featured him in selfies and photos of friends. The three of us were no exception to the madness. Shiho, an accomplished illustrator, sketched the scene, while Jason, whose photos easily belong in National Geographic, and I took shots of the duck from every possible angle, with the Vincent Thomas Bridge, passing ships, or mere mortals en masse for scale.

The artist's statement on Hofman's website declares that, "The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn't discriminate people and doesn't have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them." This was evident in the way that the crowds venerated the oversized duck like it was a giant golden Buddha (no offense to practicing Buddhists). The imposing but friendly golden deity truly emanated a peaceful feeling of calm and happiness.

Even at night on Harbor Boulevard, "Rubber Duck" still has had numerous visitors, who can't get enough of his glowing personality, even in relative darkness, with some street lighting and the happy smiles of his fans. And those of us who are Duck-obsessed are in luck: after a two-day hiatus in Wilmington Harbor - and a deflating misadventure - "Rubber Duck" was reinstalled after Labor Day weekend, near the L.A. Maritime Museum where he continues to bask our collective adulation until Sept. 6.

After the Festival, we headed to Baramee Thai in downtown San Pedro, where we were happy to find Papaya Pok Pok. The classic green papaya salad was prepared sans dried shrimp - a boon for Shiho and others who are allergic to shellfish - yet still featured its complexities of spicy coolness. I am ashamed to report that the Roast Duck Salad did beckon to me from the menu for a second, but only for a second. I ordered my default Spicy Beef Salad instead, as I could not in good conscience eat roast duck that day.

Lucky duck: Our resilient friend
survived a deflation mishap and will
continue to grace the L.A. Harbor until Sept. 6.
Admittedly, this post really wasn't about the food. But time spent with good friends while experiencing an event of rare wonder can feed the soul, much in the way that a great meal nourishes more than the body. Such experiences can also make you see things in a more optimistic light than usual.

Seeing "Rubber Duck" in person, as opposed to the thousands of photos online, is unforgettable in a way that defies description. At the very least, the experience got me to post on this blog after nearly a year's hiatus. I'm still floating (no pun intended) from the euphoria that the whimsical sculpture has given Downtown San Pedro and the L.A. Harbor, areas that can be less than idyllic, despite some admirable efforts. I will miss him when he goes off to new vistas and more delighted viewers. And I hope that San Pedro locals - myself included - will see our hardscrabble town as capable of greater resiliency in the future - kind of like a deflated 54-foot duck that can rise again.

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