China · China travel

China travel- Yungang Grottoes, Datong

During my final months working in China, I took a couple of weekend trips including to Datong, in Shanxi Province. While Shanxi may be better known as the dusty, heavily polluted, coal-producing center of China, it is also one of the country’s oldest core areas of civilization. China’s coal city of Datong was a former capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, a Xianbei (Mongolian) regime which ruled much of northern China from 386-535 AD, from which was built the impressive Yungang Grottoes. Yungang is one of the three largest and most famous Buddhist grottoes in China. The others include the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan, which I’d visited a few years earlier, and Dunhuang in Gansu. Datong also has a few temples, and a large city wall that was newly built to recreate the city’s old wall. Further away from Datong is the Hanging Temple, a wooden Buddhist temple built on a cliff, and Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda. I also wrote about all this for a newspaper feature about Datong.

Yungang features dozens of caves and countless stone carvings of Buddhas cut onto the cliff walls of a mountain stretching from west to east. There are gigantic towering Buddhas, smaller human-sized ones and even tiny intricate carvings smaller than your hand. The most impressive are the number 7 and 8 caves, the entrances of which are enclosed by multi-story wooden structures. The caves feature giant Buddhas, walls filled with intricate stone Buddhist figures, and cave ceilings painted with colorful murals of scenes from Buddhist legends. It is an impressive sight, as are the giant Buddhas on the outside further down.

  

  

Advertisements
Hong Kong

Always a first time for everything

For most of my working life, whether I was in small companies or big ones, in Taipei or Beijing, I’ve had the good fortune of working with people who I got along well with, respected, and befriended. Since this happened regularly, I considered it normal to have pleasant work experiences. I have had a lot of great Taiwanese, Chinese mainlander, Western (English, Scottish, Welsh, Australian, Canadian, American etc), and Asian (Singaporean, Indian, Korean etc) colleagues. You might notice a certain omission on this list so please read on.

Sadly, this good colleagues “streak” came to an end in my last job, which I left recently. Now, this wasn’t the main reason I left (that would be issues concerning the work role and responsibilities so I won’t touch on that here), but it was a major factor. Because it’s just not good when you work with people who don’t respect you and vice versa. What bothers me is that I have no idea what was the cause of this problem with my colleagues, which went on for over a year up to the very end of my time there. I never had any disputes with anybody, never undercut anybody, and never disrespected people, whether my peers or juniors.

From the start, there were a few people who didn’t like me for some reason. They so disliked me that they became fixated on me. What started as petty gossip from these people, from my own team, about me became more vicious and blatant. They also did things like search for me online, including finding this blog and talk about things I’d written (and not in a good way). Even worse, they also spread their gossip about me to other colleagues. I tried to stay professional and remained polite with people, including the very ones who started this, but this still went on. During a very hectic period earlier this year where I had to handle several tough projects simultaneously, I decided to limit myself to perfunctory greetings (some not even) with most colleagues and ceased attending certain voluntary office events, which made some people realize that I was aware of what was going on. Instead of letting things dying down or deciding to repair the situation like adults, my colleagues aggravated the situation even more. And that’s when I really lost a lot of respect for some people and started wondering about whether I really wanted to work with them. During this time, I also had to deal with a lot of complications in handling the aforementioned projects, and this reaction (not the original gossiping, but the fact they escalated it) helped convince me to make my decision.

I don’t regret it. Truth is despite what you may have heard about Hong Kong, I’ve never been in a workplace where so many colleagues spent so much time hanging out and gossiping during office hours. It’s not like I’ve never chatted or joked with coworkers at my previous jobs, but not to the extent where we were doing it all the time and disrupting others in the middle of the day. I’ve also never been in a workplace where young people, specifically those in my team, were the ones gossiping so much (maybe this is a Hong Kong thing). In the end, I was more disappointed than angry at them.

I was a little at fault for trying to tolerate this for so long and not taking steps to resolve this situation like directly speaking to some of the people involved. I’ve never been good at confronting people and especially not at work. Also, in general, I believed that people usually behave with decency and hoped that my colleagues would act like adults in the end. But, as with many aspects of life, problems never go away if you just ignore them and refuse to deal with them. Sometimes you need to either confront or call out people for their bullshit. Of course, if the job was worth keeping and staying on, I would have tried doing this.

In the end, I’m not sure if what I experienced was normal in Hong Kong workplaces or if it was that I had some particularly devious and negative colleagues. Either way, whenever any Hong Konger boasts about how hardworking Hong Kongers are, I have a great comeback.

Books · Hong Kong

Ten Cities That Made an Empire- book review

At its peak, the British Empire covered territories around the whole world on almost every continent from Africa to Asia to Australia. I’m sure most of us know and have been to countries that made up this empire. However, at its core were illustrious cities like Bombay, Hong Kong, Cape Town and New Delhi, which provided the industry, commerce, and wealth that enriched the mother country of Britain greatly and allowed the empire to be sustained. Ten Cities That Made an Empire is a fascinating look into 10 of these cities that tell the story of the empire’s development.

In addition to those mentioned above, Boston, Calcutta, Melbourne, Dublin, Bridgetown, and Liverpool (the lone British city on the list) also feature. Boston, of course, stopped being part of the empire once the United States won its independence. An argument could be made for Singapore, Sydney or Kingston to be included, but otherwise the list is very sound. Bridgetown, as the capital of tiny Barbados in the Caribbean, might raise eyebrows, but having been colonized since the 17th century, it played a great role in the sugar industry in the British Caribbean, acting as a lively and prosperous shipping hub.

With three cities, India features prominently which is appropriate given its nickname as the “Jewel of the Empire.” While Bombay, now Mumbai, and Calcutta (Kolkatta) were built by the British, Delhi was a historic city that had been the capital of the Mughal Empire. The British built a new section adjacent to Delhi, aptly naming it New Delhi as its grand seat of power, a role which it still fulfills today. Cape Town in South Africa was taken from the Dutch and not surprisingly, soon became an important refuelling station for British ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope heading to the East. Hong Kong was seized as a prize of war from China’s ruling Qing Dynasty after victory in the Opium War, and hence saw its fortunes transformed from a mere fishing village to a free market business hub that it still is now.

The author, who has written several books and was a former Labour MP who is now the head of the Victoria and Albert museum, does very well bringing each city to life, showcasing fascinating historical facts and developments concerning architecture, politics, and economics. I admit I am very biased because I do enjoy cities very much, whether visiting or reading about them. Of course, there is always controversy and debate about the empire, regarding how much harm it inflicted on colonial subjects and the actual benefits that were derived from the British rule. Hunt does not vilify the empire or glorify it, though he shows how imperial officials often thought they were doing great work.

The chapters proceed in loose chronological order, and in so doing, illustrate the changing fortunes and status of the British Empire. We see how the empire develops and expands from an Atlantic slave-based power to an eastward-looking empire centered on its prized possession of India. The irony is that by starting off with Boston, the author begins with the British loss of America in the late 18th century, but instead of wilting, they went on to greater things by conquering the world. And in ending with Liverpool and its decay and slight resurgence in the 20th century, we see the empire and its power finally ending as Britain comes to term with a new era and world.

Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok revisited- live Muay Thai in a TV studio


One of the things Thailand is most famous for is Muay Thai or Thai boxing or kickboxing. Known as the art of eight limbs, Muay Thai fighters use their elbows and knees to strike in addition to fists and feet so it is a violent and exciting martial art. I became fascinated by the sport after seeing it in movies like Kickboxer and the Quest, both with Jean Claude Van Damme, as well as online videos of Muay Thai fights.

When I first went to Bangkok in 2013, I was finally able to watch it live at the fabled old Lumpinee Stadium. When I went to Bangkok earlier this year, I decided to go watch Muay Thai live again, but at a different venue – the Channel 7 studio. Less high-profile than the Lumpinee fights, the Channel 7 fights take place on Sunday afternoons, is free to attend, and is broadcast live on TV. The venue is a large indoor space that seats around 500 (I may be off by a quite a bit) and is kind of near Chatuchak Market. It is a very raucous environment, especially if you happen to be in the stands where locals are shouting out or offering bets during each fights. The fights were mostly eventful, though I remember one that went the distance but I was puzzled by who the win was awarded to. There were a couple of TKOs but no outright knockouts. During a fight, the most exciting moment is not kicks or punches but when the fightrs clinch and exchange knees.

The venue is situated inside a compound in a residential neighbourhood is across the main road from the Chatuchak Market and subway station, about a 15 minutes’ walk. Because I hadn’t been to the venue before, I actually arrived about 45 minutes early. I took a peek inside the venue, saw a lot of empty seats, so I took a walk around the block and came back. This time, the stands were packed so I went to the side where there were some empty seats. It turned out this was where a lot of bookies were operating, and I jostled with an older man who demanded I give up my seat. I didn’t and he eventually squeezed in next to me, and we spent the whole event side by side. This old guy was one of the main bookies who kept shouting out bets and taking in money throughout the fight. As I don’t know Thai, I couldn’t understand exactly what was going on but I know that the betting would be especially frenetic when people though a knockout would happen.

The more prestigious fights take place at the new Lumpinee Stadium and Rajadamnern Stadium several evenings a week but cost quite a lot for foreigners (around $40 for the standing area, the seats cost much more). But the cards at these stadiums feature more fights and sometimes, there are title fights. For some reason, these stadiums are located in northern Bangkok and are not close to the subway so you need to take a taxi to get to it. It’s not that convenient to go to (if you are a non-local and don’t know your way around) since fights end at after 9.30 pm. The old Lumpinee Stadium was very close to the Lumpinee subway station.

  
Prefight preparation with the fighters outside the entrance. The facilities are rather sparse here.


The TV cameras at the back as well as the live broadcast on the screen to the right.

China · China travel · Travel

Beijing travel- Yonghegong Lama Temple and Imperial Academy


Beijing has so many famous sites that it’s not surprising that its largest temple is somewhat overlooked. But the Yonghegong Lama Temple is still a nice place to visit, being a rare instance of Tibetan Buddhist building that blends both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist architectural aspects. Built in the late 17th century during the Qing Dynasty, Yonghegong actually was a residence for an imperial prince, before being converted into a lamasery, a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. I first visited it during my first week in Beijing when I came to work there in 2013, then brought a friend visiting from Trinidad there. The temple is always full of worshippers and tourists, and saffron and red-clad Buddhist monks can be seen walking around as well. Unlike some other Chinese temples, the commercial aspect is toned down so there isn’t a ton of vendors and stalls in the temple ground. While the worship halls and the largest building, the three-storey Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at the northern end, are all interesting, the most fascinating aspect of the temple is the exhibit of small Buddhist statues, specifically deities wrapped up in erotic Tantric coupling, as you will see in my photos below.

Across the street from Yonghegong temple in a nearby lane is the Imperial Academy or Guozijian, a former imperial college for officials. As the name implies, it was the highest place of learning in the country and used for training and testing officials throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Built in 1306, making it older than the Yonghegong temple by centuries, the Guozijian is also worth a visit and is a quieter place than the Yonghegong Temple. Inside the ground is also the Confucius Temple, the second largest in the country.

Outside the temple, there are a bunch of fortune-telling and Buddhist paraphernalia stores along Yonghegong street, as well as sadly, numerous beggars, some of whom are handicapped and missing limbs. It might be different now, but back then, there was always a lot of them on that street.


  

After you are done with the Yonghegong Temple, head to the Confucius Temple nearby.

The famous Chinese sage

Emperor’s seat 

Rows of massive stele inscribed with Confucian classics

  


Yonghegong Temple from outside

Nearby Hutong, which may or may not still be around, given Beijing’s recent destruction of hutongs

Africa · Books

Say You’re One of Them and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – short stories reviews

Set across Africa, Say You’re One of Them is a striking collection of short stories and novellas about children. Each one of these stories takes place with children or teenagers at the center, amidst turbulent events and life situations. But instead of being a cheerful read, it is a touching and provocative book that eschews the stereotypical perceptions of Africa such as carefree village life, colorful culture, and exotic wildlife.

There is a story about a family forced to confront its mixed ethnic identity in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, a poor street family with a preteen prostitute daughter in urban Kenya, and a novella about children being sold off by their uncle to traffickers who plan to smuggle them to a neighbouring country. But the most heartbreaking and riveting story is about a Nigerian teenager of mixed religious and ethnic background trying to flee the conflict-riven North to his father’s village in the South. Jubril was born in the Christian South but grew up in the Muslim North after his parents split up, but after his friends turn on him during a campaign against Christian Southerners, he decides to flee south. Hiding his amputated arm, cut off under sharia law due to stealing, he boards a bus carrying Southerners away, but endures a terribly long delay as the driver searches for gas. The characters on board the bus are a mix of ages and personalities who argue and debate over the country’s madness, but it is when they set off that danger really sets in.
I can’t say I enjoyed most of these stories, and I don’t think that is what the author would want readers to experience, but they really left a strong impression. The author Uwem Akpan is an ordained priest from Nigeria who won various prizes for this book, published in 2008.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of 24 short stories from Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author. It is a mix of the supernatural, the mysterious, tragedy as well as banality. While I can’t say I’m a fan of Murakami yet, some of the stories were interesting in terms of how they blended ordinary occurrences like past romantic affairs or recounting childhoods with an air of poignancy and mystery. The most memorable were about a mother who loses her son to a shark attack in Hawaii and returns every year to the scene of the tragedy, a gay piano tuner whose serendipitous friendship with a woman leads him to contact his estranged sister, and another about a woman who suddenly loses her ability to remember her own name, the origin of which stems from a tragic incident during high school involving a classmate. The stories are not necessarily happy ones, but their somber and restrained sadness often leads to a kind of calm acceptance. I suppose that is a kind of essential for real life as well.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s business district “zoo”

Nestled deep in the midst of Hong Kong’s business heartland, Central, is a secret. Hong Kong does not have a real zoo but what it does have is the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, a small animal and bird park in Central. Its location is smack in the middle of the business district, on the lower slopes of Victoria Peak, so you are surrounded by a “forest” of skyscrapers whilst staring at animals and birds in cages. Last year, I came to Hong Kong to interview for my job, which I am actually leaving very, very soon. The day after, I visited this local “zoo.” I also visited it a second time when hiking down from the Peak earlier this year. It only has a couple of orangutans, by far the biggest animals there, as well as monkeys, meerkats, tortoises, and birds. But as it is free, it is decent so if you find yourself going down the Peak on foot or wandering around in Central, do visit it. Of course, it’d be better if Hong Kong had a proper zoo.






The zoo even has the scarlet ibis, the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago.

Across the road from Hong Kong “zoo” is Hong Kong Park, an impressive place that features a greenhouse, several gardens, a large carp pond, and a giant bird aviary. Like the zoo, Hong Kong Park is free as well. It is also a nice place for lunch breaks as it is close to my office.



Ideal lunch break setting
  

Books

Submission- book review

I don’t read too many French or European novels, though I should. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is one such French book and it is a stunning novel that explores the possibility of an Islamist party winning the presidential election in France. It is the first book I’ve ever read from Houellebecq, arguably France’s most famous novelists and probably the most controversial too.

In 2022 France, the protagonist Francoise, a literature lecturer at Paris III-Sorbonne, is living a steady but somewhat empty life. He is respected in his profession as an expert on a 19th-century French writer and has affairs with students. However, he has a pessimistic and misanthropic approach towards life and its conventions such as religion and marriage. As the presidential election looms, an Islamic candidate gains significant support, and after he wins, France finds its educational and social systems altered, and Francoise is forced to consider a major life change.
Suffice it to say, the question of the French core identity is challenged by the outcome of the election. However, the significance of this political possibility was slightly offset by Francoise’s personal struggles to find himself so the effect was not as powerful for me.

While I’m not a Frenchman and I don’t live in a society with a lot of Muslims, I can understand why Submission would court some controversy. Submission does address Islamophobia concerns by presenting a future with an Islamic control at the highest level. For a country like France which is historically Christian but has a large Muslim minority, questions over how much to accommodate Islam is a major issue, such as the banning of niqabs (full face covering worn by some female Muslims) in public.

However, Islam is not the main target but France’s mainstream politicians and academic institutions. The Islamist candidate is actually a reasonable-sounding but driven individual who is not an extremist or radical firebrand. The issue posed by the author is about the decline of mainstream parties, the result of which is that only far-right candidates like Marie Le Pen, who in real life lost the presidential elections this year, and the Islamist candidate can galvanize the public.

The novel is not very long at less than 250 pages but that is enough to produce a blunt and slightly chilling effect. Not just because of the shock and repercussions of an Islamist in power, but the personal change undertaken by Francoise that completely goes against the fundamentals of his character.

Books · China

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds- book review

In the early 20th century, a Swedish-Finnish nobleman by the name of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim undertook a secret mission for the Russian Tsar to spy on China. Starting from Moscow, Mannerheim crossed Russia, traveled through Central Asia and across China to collect information on the country’s reforms and development. 100 years later, in 2006, Canadian writer Eric Enno Tamm decided to undertake the same journey as Mannerheim, going through the Central Asian Stans and into China, from Xinjiang to Beijing.

Even 100 years after the original, Tamm’s voyage is a remarkable journey. Going through Central Asia, the author sheds light on little-known countries like oil-rich quasi-authoritarian Azerbaijan and repressive and secretive states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The murkiness and poverty of the cities in those states is balanced by the beauty of the sparsely-populated, desolate wilderness of mountain passes, desert and plains. In China, Xinjiang is already heavily policed and Sinicized as cities like Kashgar are built up while having their historic neighborhoods ripped apart. Tamm visits famous cities like Xian and not-so-famous ones like Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, and the holy sites of Wutaishan, one of China’s holiest mountains, and Dunhuang, site of one of China’s greatest Buddhist grottoes.

At every stage, Tamm describes fascinating accounts of Mannerheim’s trek, which was especially sensitive as he had to deal with rival European explorers and spies, and the Qin Dynasty authorities. Besides the historical and nature aspect, the book also features a lot of interesting descriptions of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that is present across Western China, such as small Mongolian and Tibetan sub-tribes as well as the local Uyghur majority.

Despite the 100 years separating the journeys of Mannerheim and the writer, there is a striking similarity between how China was going through significant change in the form of economic and industrial development during Mannerheim’s journey under the Qing Dynasty, as it was during Tamm’s journey and to the present. Tamm raises a provocative point about the parallels between the present and in Mannerheim’s time, as the Qing embraced Western industrial technology and economic changes, but not values and ideas, in an attempt to make the country prosper while retaining power, which ultimately proved futile. The Qing Dynasty would fall just a few years after Mannerheim’s journey when a successful revolution broke out in 1911. The recent news of China’s supposed banning of VPN by early 2018 and the death of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo is a reminder that China’s impressive economic rise and might has been accompanied by greater censorship and repression. I’ve never read this specific view linking the last years of the Qing with the present time expressed before, despite the abundance of predictions about the fall or decline of the Chinese Communist Party, and I admit it is partially convincing.

Tamm also notes the tensions in China’s borderlands, especially the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghurs chafe under harsh Chinese rule. Indeed, Xinjiang is China’s most heavily policed region, and there are restrictions on the Uyghur’s practice of their religion and culture. It is obvious that Tamm is not too positive about his observations and experiences during his travel through China.

Tamm also coins a word for China’s pervasive technological censorship – technotarianism. Back then, China had just erected its “Great Firewall” and Google provided a limited version for use in the country, which didn’t prevent it from being banned completely. The censorship has only gotten worse so Tamm’s “technotarianism” is still in place.

Another serious problem Tamm observes is China’s dire environment, especially the heavily polluted air or smog which is as much of a problem in Beijing and much of China now as it was 11 years ago.

Coincidentally, much of Tamm’s journey traces the ancient Silk Road, as he goes through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi to get to Beijing. He also visits Henan and Inner Mongolia. Given that the Belt and Road (also known as One Belt, One Road) is meant to recreate the Silk Road and passes through the countries Tamm traveled to, I was thinking it would be fitting if Tamm could go on another journey through Central Asia and China and write a new book.

Incidentally 2017 is the 100th year of Finland’s independence from Russia. After Finland became independent, Mannerheim became its regent and then a national war hero by defending Finland from the Soviet Union during the 1940s as the Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland.

While the book was published 6 years ago, several of the observations are still very relevant. It is a little sad that not only do issues like the severe pollution and the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet still exist in China, but they are perhaps worse now than when Tamm undertook his journey.

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok revisited


Bangkok is a city I didn’t like much the first time I went there several years ago. But after going there a couple of times again in the last two years, for brief stays while transiting to other places, I confess I’ve had a change of heart. Not only does Bangkok not seem so noisy, ugly and stifling, I think I might even like it a bit.

Once you go beyond the famous attractions like the Royal Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the mega-malls, there are a number of interesting places to check out.
There is the Big Swing, a giant swing over 15 meters high from which people used to swing on it to try to retrieve something from the post during religious ceremonies (it sounds dangerous and indeed it was banned in 1935 due to a number of deaths), and the elaborate Wat Suthat temple next to it.

There are the many English-language bookstores ranging from Asia Books, a local bookstore chain, to Dasa, a multi-level second-hand bookstore, to Kikokuniya, a large Japanese regional bookstore chain. Compare this with Hong Kong where Dymocks and Page One have both shut down in recent years, leaving only local chain Bookazine for English-language books.

Then, there is Jim Thompson House, the former residence of silk magnate Jim Thompson. The small, but spacious and pleasant compound consists of several red houses, built from teak in the traditional style and brought over from other parts of Thailand, and a garden. The houses are attractive and comfortable, though you can only enter them as part of a tour (which is included as part of the entrance fee). Of course, the houses may be traditional but they are probably much bigger and fancier than the ones regular Thais lived in.
Thompson was an American businessman and intelligence operative (he served in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, during World War II) who settled in Bangkok and built up a silk export business, and disappeared in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. His disappearance remains a mystery even now though his silk brand is still thriving.
There are more, but that will be for another post.


Another form of public transport in Bangkok, which I took to get to the Giant Swing.
These boat taxis run on the narrow canals (klangs) and are different from the Chao Phraya river taxis and not as pleasant. The canal is not very hygienic and the boats are completely enfolded in tarpaulin, which are let down when passengers get on and off, as you can see in this photo. Try it for the experience, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it more than once.


Erawan Shrine, a Hindu shrine located at the corner of a busy intersection surrounded by offices and shopping centers. This was the site of a bombing in August 2015 that killed 20 people and injured over 100. I took this photo in 2016.


   

Asia Books is a local English-language bookstore chain that has a wide selection. This outlet is in Siam Paragon.

Bangkok’s colorful traffic

The Giant Swing


Wat Suthat, another of Bangkok’s beautiful temples, located next to the Giant Swing

It has a massive golden Buddha inside and walls and columns covered from floor to ceiling in intriguing black mosaics.