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.

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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.

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.

Books

Night of the Golden Butterfly and This is How You Lose Her- book reviews

As the fifth of Tariq Ali’s Islamic Quintet of novels, The Night of the Golden Butterfly is the most contemporary one, taking place in 20th and 21st century Pakistan and England, as well as China. The story starts when a famous but mysterious Pakistani painter Plato asks his childhood friend, novelist Dara, as a special favor, to write about his life for his lover. Hailing from Lahore, Plato and Dara met during the latter’s university years in the 1960s and developed a friendship while ruminating over politics and philosophy. The latter would come to fall in love with a Chinese-Pakistani, Jindie, the sister of their friend and the “Golden Butterfly” of the book’s title, who ends up marrying another of their friends. Jindie harbors a fascinating ancestral origin, being the descendant of a Yunnan Hui sultan who rose up against the Qing emperor in late-19th century China. The sultan’s defeat drives Jindie’s ancestor to flee Yunnan and eventually Pakistan.

Decades after their university years in Pakistan, Dara, Plato and Jindie have all immigrated to the US and England, but still stay in touch with events in an increasingly unstable Pakistan, which has uneasy relations with the Taliban, which part of its military tacitly supported (as most people know now, Osama bin Laden was killed while “hiding out” in a Pakistani military town). The problems in their homeland catch up to Dara and his Pakistani friends in the West in the form of “Naughty,” a former socialite and ex-wife of a corrupt Pakistani military officer, who flees to and gains fame in Europe as a liberal Muslim woman who openly criticizes Islam and was implicated in a murder and sex scandal involving Pakistani army generals. While the story meanders a lot, going from Pakistan to the West and to China, it is an entertaining read that cleverly mocks liberalism, art, religion, especially radical Islam, and Pakistan.

 

This is How You Lose Her is a collection of short stories from Junot Diaz, whose The Wondrous Life of Oscar Diaz is one of the bluntest, raw and profane novels I’ve ever read. As with the novel, the protagonist of these short stories is a Dominican-American guy from a working-class background. As the title suggests, the stories are all, except one, about the opposite sex. In several of them, the protagonist features his family, especially his womanizing older brother. They are a bit raunchy and profane, in keeping with Diaz’s literary style, which is like someone talking. Most of them feature sorrowful or wistful endings, which I suppose is the main point, to portray the joy and fickleness of love and passion.

Books

Everything Belongs To Us- book review

I like to read novels set in Asian countries, such as India, China, Myanmar, and even Malaysia. Now I can add South Korea to that list after having read Everything Belongs to Us, a coming-of-age novel about three young Korean university students in Seoul living under military dictatorship in the late 70s back when the country was still poor. I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, which forms most of my post below, with a few slight changes.

South Korea was not always a prosperous, democratic and cutting-edge country. In the seventies, it was poor and ruled by a harsh authoritarian regime desperate to catch up with the West while cracking down on any form of public dissent. 

Namin, Jisun and Sunam are students at Seoul National University, the best school in the nation. Graduation means an almost guaranteed life of lucrative employment, connections and advancement. For Jisun, the daughter of one of the country’s richest tycoons, this life of privilege is exactly what she hates. But for her friend Namin, the daughter of street-food vendors, it is everything, though not for purely materialistic reasons. In between is Sunam, who desperately wants to climb the school’s social ladder by becoming a member of the Circle, a campus secret society. He soon falls for Namin and starts dating her. But their relationship becomes complicated as their contrasting backgrounds and ambitions clash.

The students’ personal struggles take place amid stark societal problems such as violent factory worker protests, a clandestine Christian activist network trying to agitate for workers, and the sad fate of Namin’s bitter older sister who leaves her factory job to work in a red light district and gets pregnant by an American GI who later leaves her. The latter brings the starkness of poverty to the fore, especially when she then leaves her baby with Namin’s sister. These disparate elements are not explored very deeply but mesh together to form a subdued background. Sometimes, it seems as if too much is going on and some plot elements such as the Circle are introduced then discarded; the narrative might have benefited from a tighter focus on the more central elements.

The settings vary from Namin’s working-class sparse home to Jisun’s ultra-wealthy household, but they are still subject to the same forces that dominate society. Under President Park Chung-hee—the father of the recent female president who was just impeached—South Korea is a rigid, conservative nation that has forsaken personal liberties for economic growth and prohibited dissent. While Namin is constrained by these stifling norms, Jisun actively pushes against them. All this works to create an intriguing story, especially as it is never apparent whether Namin or Jisun will prevail in their respective challenges.

The historical context is notable, not just because it is a particularly precarious time during the country’s economic development, but also because there are very few English-language novels set in South Korea and not about the Korean War. As such, the novel provides a welcome glimpse into a country that is still not that well-known or portrayed in the West except for its electronics brands.

Wuertz’s female protagonists are strong and driven; but the male characters, however, are flimsy and superficial. Sunam has little going for him, other than being a good player of baduk, also known as go. It is unclear why both main female characters are drawn intently to him and at times, this mars the storyline. Other male characters, such as Juno, Sunam’s supposed mentor, and the American missionary, Peter, play a very minor role or act mostly as a foil for Jisun. In fact the latter starts off as a love interest for Jisun, but by the end is reduced to begging her for money for a legal case.

The more memorable male characters are minor ones such as Namin’s brother whose cerebral palsy caused him to be sent to be raised by their grandparents in the countryside, and Sunam’s controlling, tycoon father. The former is a major reason for Namin’s incredible drive for trying to advance herself at school as she has a dream of getting rich and buying a large house that she and her brother can live in.

Nevertheless, Namin and Jisun are compelling characters that deservedly soak up most of the attention. Together, they drive a worthy literary debut in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Books

From Third World to First- book review

Lee Kuan Yew was one of Asia’s greatest modern leaders and visionaries, having led Singapore from a poor, third-world country to a wealthy, first-world one in a few decades. As Prime Minister from independence in 1965 to 1990 and then Senior Minister from 1990 to 2004, he is closely tied to his country’s rise. So it is no surprise that his autobiography From Third World to First- The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 is basically a story about Singapore. The book lays out how Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore, while managing relations with bigger and threatening neighbours as well as the US, the UK and China. In fact, the latter part takes up most of the book.

Having been one of Britain’s major Asian colonies as a vital port, Singapore had a traumatic beginning as an independent nation, as it was initially part of a federation with Malaysia before being kicked out due to political differences and racial fears. In what now seems surprising, Lee Kuan Yew was so distraught by this that he cried, because tiny Singapore was now alone with no resources and hinterland. But with commendable planning, foresight and effort, Lee and his government made Singapore into a shipping and financial hub, with substantial manufacturing services and eventually, one of the world’s richest nations.

The first chapters are a historical timeline of Lee’s early years, the breakup with Malaysia and his attempt to solidify his domestic rule, including his fight against the local Communists. Internationally, he had to fight diplomatic battles with Malaysia and Indonesia, who had a very hostile stance against Singapore in the 1960s. He maintained relationships with a fading Britain, while building up ties with giants like the US, Japan and eventually China. It is fascinating to read his insights into the US, which had taken over from Britain as a global power, and China, which was moving away from its chaotic and tragic period under Mao Zedong and starting its economic rise under Deng Xiaoping in the eighties.

ASEAN relationships were also vital to Singapore, especially those with neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, which improved immensely after the tense early days of Singapore’s independence. However, he had a very hostile attitude towards Vietnam, due to their Communist regime, but even opposed their invading Cambodia and driving out Pol Pot from power, which I think was a little unreasonable. Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong also feature. With Hong Kong, he had a very interesting insight in that the British rule of Hong Kong, which lasted until 1997, meant Hong Kongers did not need to act cohesively as a community, thus they became “great individualists and daring entrepreneurs.” It is an attitude that still prevails today, though perhaps not the “daring entrepreneurs.” Lee’s view also helps explain why Hong Kongers seem to lack leadership skills in governance as under the British, they were never decision-makers but managers.

Lee was firm in what he did and had a pragmatic and ruthless streak. This also means he is blamed for Singapore’s authoritarianism which was exemplified in media restrictions and heavyhanded libel rules which saw him often successfully sue media outlets and political opponents. But he also genuinely cared for his country as signified by the public housing policy, which allows most Singaporeans to enjoy affordable quality public housing, and diversification of the economy into areas such as high-tech manufacturing and gas processing. There are a few policies that might raise your eyebrows such as a racial ratio quota with housing developments, meaning the proportion of Chinese, Indian and Malay residents had to be kept at a certain level, as well as a dating service for civil servants.

Singaporeans may be getting tired of their country’s one-party rule and rethinking Lee’s legacy, but they should consider themselves lucky to have had a leader like Lee who was pragmatic, intelligent about domestic and international politics, and was upfront about his policies and actions. At the least Singaporeans should be glad that Lee was not like other regional strongmen who either enriched themselves obscenely, like the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, or ruthlessly held on to power, such as Mao, while letting their countries stay poor.

Books · Travel

Tony Wheeler’s Dark Lands- book review

Written by the guy who founded Lonely Planet, this is a travel book but with a big twist. Instead of sun-kissed, idyllic holiday spots and cities, Tony Wheeler travels to 8 of the most wretched countries in the world. Zimbabwe, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Papua New Guinea and Pakistan are there, though more attractive nations like Israel and Palestine (counted as one) and Colombia also make the cut.

Basically, the premise is that each of these countries has serious security, economic, or environmental problems that render them either dangerous or near impossible to travel in. Obviously, things have changed for a few such as Colombia, which is high on a lot of travel lists, but many people wouldn’t really want to go to most of these places. Tiny, isolated Nauru also makes the cut though more for its status as little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that has squandered its financial wealth from its only natural resource guano or bird crap (seriously). Its story is a bit sad, as it was at one time several decades ago wealthy, but slowly wasted its money on expensive real estate in Australia, most of which it has had seized due to being unable to complete the payments.

Pakistan is a country that is often associated with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and for that, it hardly features in popular media for anything else (its cricket team did win the Champions Trophy tournament on Sunday). In reality, Pakistan is a complex nation with interesting history and politics and beautiful scenery, according to Wheeler, who actually spent four years of his childhood there due to his father’s work at an airline. Wheeler and his wife go there to travel to Xinjiang, China overland via the mountainous Karakorum highway, during which security problems and logistical issues often obstruct their journey. They do make it though.

The chapter on Israel and Palestine sees Wheeler visit both states, which is not easy to do. He goes to various religious sites, such as trekking the Nativity Trail which traces the route Joseph and Mary took to Bethlehem, while also highlighting the absurdity and tragedy of the political situation, in which Israelis and Palestinians live next to each other but are completely divided and segregated, which doesn’t bode well for any improvement in the near future. In Palestine, he goes to Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank. While the situation seems bleak sometimes, he expresses hope it cannot continue forever.

Papua New Guinea is a unique country with its hundreds of tribes, some of which still live as they did hundreds of years, and diverse birds and animals. But Wheeler goes there not to admire wildlife, but to visit the lawless island of Bougainville, east of PNG, which fought a decades-long war for independence in the 1990s and where people can kill with impunity over witchcraft or other petty reasons.

Haiti, sadly, is as bleak as one would expect from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As if poverty and political instability weren’t enough, the country was rocked by a terrible earthquake in 2010 which killed over 100,000 and destroyed much of the urban centres. In the DRC, Wheeler visits a volcano and goes on a gorilla expedition in a country which is still racked by violent conflict and poverty.

While the book title may sound fatalistic, the book gives a nice insight into these lesser-known countries combining travel with cultural, political and historical commentary, and the outcome is more fascinating than bleak.

Books

Article 66- book review

I used to read a lot of Star Wars novels back when I was younger, but Article 66 is the first I’ve read in a long time. The name refers to the infamous order given by Chancellor Palpatine (who becomes the Emperor) to clone troopers to kill off their Jedi officers during the Clone Wars in the Revenge of the Sith movie. Basically that is how the Jedi were wiped out, barring a handful such as Obi-Wan Kenobi, who fled into exile. But Article 66 isn’t actually on this tragic event, but centers on a bunch of clone commandos and their former trainer and father figure, Mandalorian warrior Kal Skirata, during the war against the Separatists.

Skirata has his doubts over the ongoing war, which is looking increasingly pointless and making his troops’ sacrifices futile. As a result, he’s hatched a master plan to take his troops out of it and spirit them to a distant planet. With the aid of a Jedi and a former Jedi turned mercenary, he has unearthed information that leads him to think the chancellor is creating a secret navy and army for personal reasons, while concentrating power into his hands by exaggerating the threat from the Separatists.

A major part of the story is the humanity of the clones, who despite being bred as fighting machines in a completely artificial and enclosed environment, are able to think and feel human emotions, including love, friendship, compassion, jealousy and anger. There are a couple of human-clone and alien-clone relationships, to amplify this point. This is a concept that goes beyond the scope of a normal Star Wars novel, which one could apply to the idea of clones, which obviously don’t exist in real-life yet, in general.

Questions and doubts are raised about the Jedi, who in the Star Wars universe are held up as noble and infallible warrior-monks, and provides a clue about how they became so vulnerable to their eventual demise.

The novel also raises interesting points about war and its cynical exploitation by politicians to concentrate power, such as the use of misinformation and vague threats to ramp up the fear of civilians, that exist in real life (see parallels with terrorism and the question of how far to restrict civil liberties in the name of security). But it does so in a rather natural way that lets the reader gradually understand it, rather than blunt preaching.

Article 66 is a very compelling novel though readers who aren’t into Star Wars and/or science fiction can give this a pass.

Books · Travel

Indonesia Etc- book review

For such a diverse, fascinating and lofty country, Indonesia is somewhat obscure. Completely made up of islands, and thus the world’s largest archipelago nation, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation and fourth most populous, and it is Southeast Asia’s largest economy. But other than Bali (and maybe the Komodo dragon), is there anything famous about it? Elisabeth Pisani decided to do something about this pitiful situation by setting out to travel across the length and width of the nation. The result was Indonesia Etc- Exploring the Improbable Nation, part travelogue, part history and political primer.
As a former journalist and epidemiologist who had lived and worked in Indonesia for many years and spoke the language, Pisani certainly had the knowledge and experience to pull this off. But more importantly, she had the traveler’s knack of always being curious, never shunning an adventure, and being able to befriend strangers, even stay with them for months as she did with a family in a headhunting tribe.
Eschewing the main island of Java, where the capital Jakarta is located and home to two-thirds of Indonesians, at least until the end, Pisani travels from giant Sumatra to tiny islands in the Maluku chain. She also takes on Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo (Malaysia and Brunei occupy the rest).

However, what makes the book compelling is that Pisani goes beyond just travel, but gives some insight into Indonesian habits and quirks, like corruption. It is common to portray third-world countries as naturally beset by corruption with family and ethnic ties playing a huge role. But, Pisani explains that for Indonesia, factors like government decentralization and democracy exacerbate corruption.
There is also some good commentary about Indonesia’s recent history, from colonialism under the Dutch to independence to the present. We also learn about the country’s first two leaders, Sukarno and Suharto, and the complications with forming a nation that was made up of hundreds of peoples, languages, cultures and islands.

Pisani also does not shy away from the hard stuff like the mass killings of Chinese and Communists by the army and militias under the guise of crushing an attempted coup in the late 1960s, as well as East Timor, which eventually separated and is now independent, and Aceh, where fundamentalist Islam is strong. For the latter, which some call “Veranda of Mecca,” a strong separatist movement has given way, after the 2004 tsunami, to but with more autonomy to run their own affairs, which notoriously include sharia law. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a pair of gay men were publicly caned after being caught engaging in sex. And also recently, the former mayor of Jakarta, a Chinese Christian, was found guilty of blasphemy for criticizing a passage in the Koran. He had also lost the election in May to an Islamist rival.

The book was published in 2014 and it had been on my reading list for some time. It still holds up even if some of the political and social problems described like Islamic fundamentalism and the decreasing tolerance towards minorities may be even worse now. But nevertheless, they would strengthen Pisani’s assertion that Indonesia is still a country that deserves more attention from the world.

Visit the book’s website where she still writes about Indonesia.