China · Books · Travel

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.

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China

China’s ironic “open internet”

At China’s annual “World Internet Conference” held this week, Chinese government officials lauded the country’s “open internet” in front of top executives from American giants like Google and Facebook. This is despite the fact those two firms remain blocked in China, along with a host of others including Youtube, Twitter, the New York Times and even Skype. You can’t get any more ironic that, can you?

A case in point is what just happened in Beijing, when the authorities forcibly evicted thousands of residents as part of ostensibly efforts to uphold safety regulations but really was an attempt to force out poor migrants and beautify the city. Kicking out multitudes of your poorest residents onto the streets is ghastly, but it’s not too surprising as this is in line with what China has done, which is take shortcuts to becoming powerful and wealthy by taking advantage of its own people, clamping down when necessary, and censoring any criticism and bad news. As much coverage as the evictions received in the international press, local media coverage of the evictions was actually banned, and social media was heavily censored.

Censorship, control and surveillance of information, whether online, tv or print, ensures that the Communist authorities can keep its people ignorant and fearful, making them unable to openly agitate or form bonds. Unfortunately, what was once seen as backwards and crude, now looks to be the future. I won’t be as pessimistic as these writers who claim that China looks to be “winning” the internet, but it is a very worrying trend, one in line with China’s rise. The fact that the heads of Google and Apple attended China’s internet conference and had to listen to Chinese officials and tech moguls like Jack Ma crow about government policies, including more aggressive intervention, was a sign of China’s growing prowess in tech.

But I was wrong about one thing in my first paragraph. The only thing more ironic about China praising its “open” internet is that it censored social media mention about this very event where it said that. At the end of it, is this what winning the internet is?

China

Beijing kicks out migrant workers

On November 18, a fire broke out in outer Beijing, killing 19 people, most of whom were migrant workers staying in small housing quarters. Since then, the Beijing authorities launched a massive eviction of tens of thousands of migrant workers, claiming unsafe violations of their residences as the reason. As a result, police have simply just showed up at people’s doors and ordered them to leave within days or even hours! Many of these people were forced to leave hastily without guaranteed accommodation and in some cases, leave for their hometowns. It’s obvious the authorities have used the fire as a convenient excuse to evict these outsiders, something which some Chinese have not failed to note.

It’s a very troubling act, but it’s in line with the crackdowns the government has launched on society. Lawyers, NGOs, journalists, Christians and even billionaires have felt the brunt of Xi Jinping and his regime, and migrant workers in the capital are now the latest.
It’s also a vivid sign of the sheer power and cold-heartedness of the Communist Party and Xi. It is good to see a number of Chinese speaking up and doing things like setting up shelters. But even then, the government has already censored some of these efforts.

These migrant workers are Chinese citizens, who come from other provinces and do a lot of the manual and low-income jobs that locals won’t do and which keep society running. Basically, most deliverymen, construction workers, waitresses, repairmen and service staff in Beijing are migrant workers. When I was in Beijing, the people who cut my hair, the real estate agents, plumbers and waitresses I met were all migrant workers. Some also do white-collar and office jobs, such as a lot of my colleagues, though their living conditions are better.

The authorities have announced plans to reduce the number of people in Beijing, whose population as of a few years was at least 23 million. But the way they’ve done it is wrong. Instead of say, trying to boost development or provide more resources and funds to neighbouring cities and provinces, the government has resorted to heavyhanded efforts and outright force to force the most vulnerable people out. Kicking migrant workers out, after having benefited from their cheap labour, is a callous and flawed way of population control, doubly so given these are their own fellow Chinese. Since I left Beijing a couple of years ago, the government has closed down major wholesale clothing markets, shut down small stores on entire streets and torn down houses in hutong lanes.

This government cares little for the rights of its citizens and will continue to arbitrarily use its power to control its people whenever and however it wants. But as long as people in China accept this and don’t try to face up to the party, things will never change.

Hong Kong

Random Hong Kong photo roundup




Enjoy some photos of Hong Kong taken during this year, including two summer conventions (yes, I should have put them up sooner). The book fair and anime convention took place during the summer, and both were packed. The book fair was busy like last year’s, though there were less English language books, as Page One has pulled out of HK and did not have a booth. The anime convention was a bit more lively than I expected with some cool Transformers, Gundam and samurai figures on display, Marvel and DC movie booths, and even local comics, which the first photo above is about. However, there weren’t many people in cosplay with the exception of a few such as the two cheerful gals above. I also included a photo of the Indonesian President speaking at a summit on Labour Day this year, which I had to attend (thus having to work on a holiday though I did get back a day as compensation from the CEO) due to my company helping to support the event.


Cenotaph, Central. It honours war dead from World War I and II who served in Hong Kong.


Probably the most colorful harbour ferry design, advertising Hong Kong tourism

Rubber duck made out of food cans at the airport. It was part of an exhibition to highlight poverty and food security.  

  
The six photos above were all from the anime convention.

Saw Indonesian President Joko Widodo at a summit back on May 1 (Labour Day), which meant I gave up a public holiday for work.

It might look more like a kitchen set, but this guy was tearing it up on this improvised drum set.


I’m not advertising for Commercial Press; this just happened to be the best of the few photos I took during the book show.

Europe travel · Travel

England travel- Cambridge


Besides London, the only other place in England I’ve been to is Cambridge. Done as a daytrip from London, visiting Cambridge (as opposed to say, Oxford) was actually my mother’s decision, since a famous 20th-century Chinese poet had gone to Cambridge and written a memorable poem, which has since attracted many Chinese and Taiwanese to visit there. Anyways, we took the train to Cambridge, passing through some beautiful English countryside. At the town, we headed to the university, took a boat (punt) ride on the river Cam, toured King’s College Chapel, a neat and exquisite church, and strolled through an open-air market. The university is large, open, with university buildings spread among the town, and boasts a lot of impressive stone buildings, as expected from such a great university founded in 1209. We spent several hours there but still weren’t able to see all the main buildings.

The punt (flat bottom boat steered with a pole in front) ride was quite pleasant. During the ride, we passed a lot of attractive buildings on the riverside while treated to commentary by the boatman about the university college buildings, and self-deprecating anecdotes about his personal life. At the end as he drew up to the pier, he warned us not to get up yet, but he correctly predicted that the father of a mainland Chinese family on our boat would do exactly that.

  

Hong Kong

Hong Kong hiking- Devil’s Peak


In previous posts, I’ve pointed out that Hong Kong, despite being famous for its concrete jungle, is actually covered by a lot of mountains and nature parks. But besides that, Hong Kong is also a maritime city, surrounded by water and virtually next to the Pacific ocean. Well, specifically, it’s the East China Sea, but that leads to the Pacific. So Hong Kong is also full of coves, bays, and even beaches, as well as lots of small islands. While some of these places require a bit of hiking and/or a long transit to get to, others are a few subway stops and a short hike away.

One such place is Lei Yue Mun (Carp Channel) near Yau Tong, on the eastern edge of Kowloon. Between Yau Tong and Hong Kong island, there is a narrow gap that leads to the sea to the east, while to the west is Victoria Harbour. The two sides of the gap collectively are called Lei Yue Mun. In the old days, this was a vital strategic point that guarded the eastern side of Victoria Harbour from enemy ships. As a result, the British built forts and gun batteries in Lei Yue Mun. In Yau Tong, you can see the remnants of some of these battery walls, but not cannons, on Devil’s Peak, which is only a little over 200m high, but has some brilliant views of Junk Bay and the sea. You can also see Victoria Harbour as well though that is partly obscured. Despite its name, hiking Devil’s Peak isn’t that hard, but it does involve a long walk from Yau Tong subway station to the trailhead along a steep road (the Lion Rock hike is also the same – the walk to the trailhead from the subway is harder than the actual hike). Once you get onto the trail, it takes about 20 minutes or less to reach the summit and gun battery.


Just over the hill is the Lei Yue Mun gap

Looking to your right on Devil’s Peak lets you view Victoria Harbour, Wan Chai (left) and the rest of Kowloon (from the centre to the right)


Part of the gun battery 


The start of the trail

Junk Bay. Even such a secluded cove has a large residential complex 

Hong Kong kite, the local bird of prey

Uncategorized

Saving up isn’t cool but it’s vital

Sometimes, there are certain essentials in life that get overlooked. Things like say, saving up money for the long term. Whether it’s due to being thought of as impossible (student loans, low salaries, unstable jobs etc) or the urge (driven by peers, advertisers etc) to live for the moment and enjoy life, being frugal isn’t easy to do or popular. But saving isn’t about being cheap, not having fun and missing out on life.

That was an accusation I got from a relative when I mentioned that a lot of people in society don’t seem to save money — “well you hardly go out and never eat out,” she said, not without some rancour. That is not exactly true though I don’t have an overly active social life and I don’t spend much on meals and drinks – I usually get simple meals if I am eating by myself and I mainly drink only when I meet with friends (I do like beer and wine but I hardly drink alcohol at home). But the fact is that as someone who is completely financially responsible for himself, not to mention being well into my thirties, saving up is absolutely vital. Wherever I am and whatever my financial situation, I adjust my budget accordingly. Saving up also has a lot of benefits.

First, who wouldn’t want to have money on hand for whatever you want to do or buy.
Second, no matter how much people say to live in the present, being prepared for the future is important. You need to be prepared for medical issues, having a family, retirement, losing your job, etc.
Third, savings isn’t just for going on trips or buying nice stuff, but also for essential but not-so-fun stuff. Things like dental treatment, and surgery, and family emergencies. For instance, I have a lot of issues with my teeth and have had surgery to remove crooked wisdom tooth and two root canals (I may need another one soon too!). Though I did most of this in Taiwan, where dental treatment is extremely affordable as most of it is covered by health insurance, getting a root canal and a crown is still at least US$400. Of course, in Hong Kong, the same would cost at least US$2,000!

But the biggest benefit of saving money isn’t being able to afford good things or go on trips to different places. It’s not even the relative freedom of not having to put up with bad work situations for too long and being able to handle being jobless for a short period of time. It’s about being able to enjoy or endure these things and still have something left over.

At the same time, I’m not an expert saver. I don’t keep track of my daily or regular expenses, I don’t make detailed spreadsheets, and I don’t go around counting pennies.

Now, I’m the first to admit I could never be an expert on life, but this is one area where perhaps I can offer some decent advice. Here’s a few tips (some may seem kind of silly but they have worked for me):

—Use a mental trick to ensure you always have enough. When budgeting (as mentioned, I don’t keep regular tallies), always lower your actual budget. Basically, always imagine that your salary or the amount of money you can spend is a little less than what it really is.

—Never spend every single bit of your money. And conversely, save up a little more than what you actually need for something. For example, if you need to buy a pair of shoes, and you budget US$120, feel free to spend less than US$120. If you need to buy something that’s US$500, save up $600 and hold on to that extra $100. Doing this regularly will ensure you’ll always have a little bit extra and it adds up, which is very helpful if unexpected expenses come up or if you want to spend a little bit more in future.

—Pay off your debt (or as much as you can) as soon as you can, whether it be student loans (unless there’s no interest or it’s very miniscule), credit card bills, or even your mortgage. While a little debt might be unavoidable, it’s hard, both financially and mentally, to be dragged down by substantial debt that keeps increasing due to high interest.

—Invest in something stable like pension plans or life insurance investment plans, which are popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan, early such as when you are in your late 20s. In the case of the latter, these plans take a number of years to become mature but they guarantee a significant return later on in your life. I’m no investment guru so do check actual experts and professionals for more insight and advice. That said, I would add never put all your eggs into one basket, and diversify your savings into different things like stocks, insurance, mutual funds etc.

Books

A Brief History of Seven Killings- book review

If you want a raw, fascinating and sensational novel that shocks and confounds, then I highly recommend A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. This is mostly set in Jamaica, but not of sandy beaches and smiling, charismatic superstars like Usain Bolt, but the violent slums of 1970s downtown Kingston. Amid this carnage and despair, the legendary Bob Marley spreads his songs of hope and cultural commentary to the country and the world. But even he is not immune to the violence in Jamaica when one night, seven gunmen burst into his home to try to assassinate him. The novel follows a cast of over a dozen people, including these gunmen, from before and after the murder attempt, through three decades as they deal with the repercussions of this act. The final section goes from Jamaica to the US as certain gangsters move from ghetto wars to the international cocaine and crack trade.

At first, it was challenging to really get into the book due to the language (Jamaican patois) and the constant change of characters. Each chapter is a narrative from the viewpoint of a single character, ranging from gangsters to the local CIA station chief to a writer desperately trying to get a story, as well as a woman who had a one-night stand with Bob Marley. As such, the language varies from proper English to Jamaican patois (“Police only have to see that me don’t have no shoes before he say what the bloodcloth you nasty naiggers doing round decent people,” “But then me no get far when bullet start chase after me”). It is mostly understandeable but it took a little effort to get used to entire chapters written in that way. Even though I’m from another English-speaking Caribbean country which also has a dialect, Jamaican patois is still very different.

But the more I read it, the more engrossed I became. The plot interweaves the Cold War, geopolitics and local elections, criminal underworld and the supernatural. Jamaican politics in the 1970s was a deadly affair, with the two main parties backing gangs in Kingston who each controlled their own slums and literally waged war on each other for their parties. Behind the scenes, the US administration was concerned about the Jamaican prime minister moving to socialism and linking with Fidel Castro, so it provided tacit support for the opposition and ways to undermine the government. By the time the story reaches the American parts, the political angle fades and it becomes almost solely about crime with a bit of diaspora issues included.

The book is full of cursing and coarse language, but even that is an understatement. The dialogue is raw and nothing regarding race, sex, or basic human dignity is out of bounds. At times, it got kind of visceral reading the book, so much that I could almost feel the terror and brutality, which I’ve gotten from very few books. Killing, maiming and raping all take place. Interestingly, homophobia, which Jamaica is notorious for, is also a major attribute of certain characters, who true to gangster personas, openly espouse contempt for homosexuals.

This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015, making James the first Jamaican author to win it, and a few other awards and made many best book of the year lists. In my view, there is absolutely no question why.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Malaysia travel- Malacca


This year 2017 is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. However, while I don’t regard this regional multilateral organization as too useful, I do like the region a lot. I’ve visited several Southeast Asian countries before 2017 and I made my first visit to Malaysia earlier this year.

Malaysia is well-known for its food, its multicultural society, and places like the former colonial straits settlements of Penang and Malacca, and the towering 4,000m+ Mt Kinabalu. Its capital Kuala Lumpur is also well-known for the Petronas Towers, giant skyscraper twins that used to be the tallest building in the world. As I visited Malaysia during the Spring Festival, my modest itinerary was Malacca and Kuala Lumpur.

The port city of Malacca, for which the adjacent strait is named after, has a very mixed background. It used to be a powerful sultanate that was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, who in turn were defeated by the Dutch in 1641. In the early 19th century, the British took Malacca from the Dutch (mirroring the fates of South Africa’s Cape Town and Galle in Sri Lanka) and Malacca became a Straits Settlement. After the British gave up its Malay holdings, Malacca became part of the Federation of Malaya, which became Malaysia.

As such, Malacca’s main historical colonial sights are Dutch, such as the distinguished Stadthuys and the Christ Church, both of which dominate the Red Square and are painted in red. Malacca also has several streets filled with historical buildings and a small lively Chinatown, also known as Jonkers street. Malacca isn’t very big and the main sights are concentrated in Red Square and the adjacent streets so one or two days is quite enough. I was even thinking of doing a daytrip from Kuala Lumpur but I decided to stay overnight instead, which turned out to be a good decision.

Red Square features Christ Church and a distinctive red clock tower alongside the Stadthuys, a long, elegant building that was built by the Dutch in 1650 as the governor’s administrative building, then became a school under the British but now houses Malacca’s history museum. Further up from the Stadthuys on a very small hill are small museums highlighting Malaysian literature and democracy as well as the former house of the Dutch governor (all covered by the). At the top of the hill is the ruins of St Paul’s Church, which still features the graves of several European settlers. The shell of the church remains intact but the roof is missing. Built by the Portuguese and then taken over by the Dutch, the church was abandoned after the Dutch built Christ Church in Red Square. On the other side of the small hill is a surviving gate of A Formosa, a 16th century Portuguese fortress that was torn down by the British.

Jonkers Street is across from Red Square, on the other side of the canal. It’s filled with old buildings, temples, and stores. It was especially festive when I went as it was during Chinese New Year, with Chinese lanterns and umbrellas strung up over the street, but the buildings are the main attraction. Another good street is Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock or Heeren Street, which also has a lot of historic buildings, including the Baba & Nyonya Museum and mansions. Baba & Nyonya refers to the community of mixed Chinese-Malays, also known as Peranakan, in Malaysia and Singapore and who have distinct culture and even language. This street is parallel to Jonkers Street and a little less quieter with less restaurants but grander buildings such as the Chee Ancestral Mansion (see below).

In the surrounding streets, there are also Chinese and Hindu temples and mosques, signifying the diverse nature of the city. Near the canal before you reach the bridge to cross to Red Square, there are some huge murals on the side of some buildings, like in the first photo in this post. There are more historical and cultural sights such as the Malay Sultanate Palace museum and Maritime museum so if you have time, check those out too. While my time in Malacca was brief, it was a good introduction to Malaysia with its attractive colonial buildings and laidback (but not dowdy or boring) nature.


Chee Ancestral Mansion
Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Malacca”

Books

Chaos Monkey-book review

Silicon Valley is where every Mark Zuckerberg wannabe goes to make it big, hoping to land that million dollar-investment or even better, multi-million dollar buyout for their app. But things don’t always go according to script and behind the flashy deals and investments, there is a ton of bluster, bust-ups and bullshit, according to Antonio Garcia Martinez in Chaos Monkey, his tell-all account of his career as an entrepreneur and a Facebook product manager.

Martinez started off working for an online ad company, then left the company to do his own start-up to create an ad app, which earned the attention of Twitter and Facebook. Playing the two against each other, unknowingly to his two start-up partners, Martinez got into Facebook where he helped orchestrate their ad monetization strategy. Things then got a little rocky and complicated, and his Facebook stint didn’t end as promisingly as he had hoped.

As fascinating as this book sounds like, the reality, unfortunately, is that it was disappointing and one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Maybe my intellect isn’t up to par, especially when it comes to tech and online marketing, which the author really gets into the nitty-gritty of, but a lot of the content just flew over my head. It gets quite complex with tech jargon and industry professionals would probably like it, but not the average layman reader. I honestly think the book could have been trimmed by over one-third and would have been a better book. The author describes a lot of minor events and details, and doesn’t hesitate to drop names including Sheryl Sandberg, who he had meetings with but never actually knew, and industry executives and venture capitalists. It gave the impression that he was trying a little too hard to impress readers. I was also hoping for more dirt on working in Facebook but the author sticks to meetings, technical stuff, and general workplace struggles. The craziest thing that happened in his book at Facebook is a weekend graffiti painting spree by employees after moving into their new headquarters. I might be a little harsh but the book’s subtitle was “Mayhem and Mania inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine” and in the end, it turned out to be a big yawn.