Books

NW- book review

A woman in apparent distress desperately knocks on the doors of homes in a northwestern London neighborhood. Leah Cooper opens the door, then thinks nothing of helping the wretched woman by letting her in, hearing her out, and then giving her 30 pounds so she can take a cab to the hospital to see her sick mother. Afterwards, it turns out the woman is a liar and Leah has been scammed. And with this dramatic and bewildering episode, NW begins, taking us into the lives of several northwest Londoners.

Leah is an NGO staffer with an outspoken Irish mother and a African-French husband; her best friend Natalie, formerly Keisha, is an ambitious lawyer; and then Felix is a former addict who has been through some tough times but is trying to put that behind him. Connecting them all is their origin from the same working-class NW London neighborhood in a rough part of London, where public housing estates of blocks have walkways and “lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built.” Not surprisingly, they have all tried to escape their working-class roots with Natalie/Keisha being the most successful at first glance. Married to a charming but vain Trinidadian-Italian banker with two children with a nice house and a successful career, she has it all or at least it seems so.

NW is divided into several sections, each written in a different style and focusing on a different character. It is confusing and I wasn’t too comfortable with the obvious inconsistencies and disjointed effect when you go from one part to another. One entire section consists of 185 (not a typo) numbered segments, each one a bit of Natalie/Keisha’s past and which lead up to a surprising finale. Meanwhile, the most interesting section has a tragic conclusion that is linked to another section in something that, to me, is not very clear.

The book’s complexity and inconsistent tone mirrors real life, while providing a stirring reminder that even supposedly ordinary lives are interesting if one dives into the details and background. Things do not always work out as you would hope, the past is not always easily put behind oneself, and sometimes life is unfair. These aren’t exactly mysteries but NW puts a human face on them. Race, class and where one grows up all matter, and Smith portrays these in an intimate and pained manner through the characters’ struggles and clashes. But, I don’t think I can agree with the underlying notion that people cannot escape their past regardless of how hard they try. If that is indeed true, then society is even more bleak than what we . At the same time, the book is entirely set in London so some of the circumstances are inevitably unique to London and English society and not applicable to everywhere.

It may not be to everyone’s liking but NW is certainly a memorable novel.

Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- Eternal City at last

Rome is called the “Eternal City” and just a couple of days wandering around was enough to make me understand exactly why. Whether it was walking inside the largely intact 2,000-year-old Colosseum, going up the neighboring Palatine Hill, or going from the young, almost 300-year-old Spanish Steps to the Pantheon to the Castel Sant’Angelo, ancient Rome exists in an impressive and timeless state everywhere.

But it wasn’t “love” at first sight when I arrived in Rome. Rome actually wasn’t my first stop in Italy (it was Milan, which also was a very interesting city), but as the capital and the country’s most famous city, I’m writing about it following my previous posts on London and Paris. My initial thoughts when first stepping foot in the city was slight trepidation and dismay, the former at the notorious reputation I’d read of regarding pickpockets and thieves, and the latter at how dark and shoddy the subway was. When I got out at my subway stop and headed up the exit stairs with my luggage, imagine my shock when a guy at my side grabbed it while two of his friends walked right behind me. But when I looked at him, he said I’m just helping and true to his word, he let go when we reached the top. I don’t think I looked too helpless, especially with my slight carry-on luggage, so maybe some Italians are really helpful.

And when I reached the place I was staying at, a bedroom in an lowrise apartment that was clearly only for visitors, I was taken aback at the elevator – a slim metallic cage in which the inside and the mechanism were fully visible, probably something that was older than my parents.

While I did visit all the great attractions listed above like the Colosseum and Pantheon, as well as the Vatican, I’ll start off with a less famous but still prestigious attraction – the Archbasilica of St John Lateran.

That same evening after I arrived, I headed out to the Archbasilica of St John Lateran. I had never heard about it until I spotted it on Googlemaps near where I was staying (just one subway stop away), but yet it is the cathedral church of Rome, and so basically the Pope’s cathedral. The archbasilica’s lofty status derived from it being the oldest church in the West, having been built in the 4th century AD, and the ecumenical mother church of the Roman Catholic faith.

The archbasilica (the first of the four highest-ranking Catholic churches or basilicas, including the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica) was different from almost every church I’ve ever seen. It stood proudly on a grassy mound at the end of a driveway from the street almost as if it was a mansion on an estate. But the host of lifelike stone popes standing vigilantly on the top of its imposing stone facade made it clear it was a house of God.

Inside, the vast hall featured ornate marble statues, gold engravings and resplendent painted Biblical scenes on the walls. Every altar, every hall and every cloister was richly decorated. In addition, six popes are actually entombed inside the church. I visited a lot of cathedrals during my Europe trip – Milan Cathedral, Notre Dame, St Peter’s; but I never got tired of walking inside them, and the archbasilica was no different. When I came back out, it was fitting that there was a brilliant burst of cloud in the blue sky that looked as if it emanated from the church. Walking away from the archbasilica towards the street with the cars brought me back to the present, but the stately Roman umbrella pine trees and the stone Porta San Giovanni wall, part of the city’s 1700-year-old Aurelian Walls, that stretched across the street with arches to allow cars to go through were a steadfast reminder that this was a city where the past exists in a formidable form.

  

Books · Hong Kong

The Expatriates- book review

The title alone should provide a strong clue that The Expatriates may be set in Hong Kong but isn’t exactly about Hong Kong. But in keeping with Hong Kong, the expats in question aren’t your regular entrepreneur, copy editor or English teacher as in many other Asian countries but the ones on fancy expat packages, living a charmed life in mansions with Filipino maids/nannies/cooks, and high-end dining and yacht/junk jaunts. On the one hand, it is about privileged Western (mostly white), American expats living it up in Hong Kong, but on the other, it is a story with more substance than you’d expect.

When it begins, we are introduced to the three protagonists, two of whom mask a tragic secret which surprisingly is soon revealed. Consequently, the plot drags a little in the middle, but it does pick up towards the end and builds towards what could have been a predictable ending, but instead turns into a surprising finale.

The three main characters are American women at different stages of their lives whose fate is tied together by very unfortunate circumstances. One is a young, Korean-American, Columbia grad, another is a mom of young kids, and the third is a childless wife whose marriage seems to lack more than just children. At times, the details of the pampered lives of these well-to-do expats seem obscene, being something that is miles away from our lives, not to mention the poor and working class in Hong Kong. But rather than glorify the lives of those expats, it actually almost makes us feel a little sorry, but just a little. There is a very self-aware tone throughout the narrative about feeling as if one is putting your real life on hold and not being in reality, which is true when one has a 24-hour maid who caters for your every whim. But of course, this also reflects a major disparity between the lives of the characters in this book and  the more common expat life, which is that of putting up with greater challenges and hardships than you would face at home.

The funny thing about Hong Kong is that, as tiny as it is, it can sometimes seem like it comprises two very distinct worlds. This book is only about one of them, and even then, only a small segment of this world, specifically the highest-paid expats, the ones who could live in houses and actually not even have to pay for them. Add in the fact that pretty much most of the main characters are American expats, with nary an Englishman or Australian in sight, and one could wonder how much of this actually bears any relevance to most people living in Hong Kong. But yet, somehow the story is interesting enough, the details dramatic and the plot intriguing for the most part. It is a credit to the author, a Korean-American who was born and grew up in Hong Kong.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Hongcun village

One of two old UNESCO World Heritage Site villages near Huangshan, Hongcun is the most attractive Chinese village I’ve ever been to (not that I’ve been to that many, but trust me, it is beautiful).
Situated next to a stream, with a small lake in front of it and a pond within it, Hongcun is also where scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed. In real life, the village is just as scenic, and you’ll sometimes see Chinese art students sitting across from the lake painting the village.

I went to Hongcun on a cold, overcast morning on the last day (having gone to Xidi, the other World Heritage village in the area on the first day) of my Chinese New Year trip to Huangshan a few years ago. Unlike Huangshan, the village was not too crowded with tourists, which was a good thing because it is full of narrow alleys. To enter Hongcun, you cross a narrow stone bridge with an arch in the middle and no rails (so be careful! Or you can just walk around to the side of the lake) into the actual village and its lanes of traditional and well-preserved black-roofed white houses, examples of Huizhou architecture. Many of these were built by wealthy merchants and officials during the Ming and Qing dynasties which the size, design and workmanship, such as wooden frames and carvings, attest to. Several of the larger houses feature open courtyards with ancestral halls featuring portraits of illustrious ancestors and wooden frames.

When you get to the middle of the village, you’ll reach the Moon Pond, and the sight of old houses and their reflections on the pond is an incredibly photogenic sight. It is also exactly where one of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon scenes was shot, specifically the part where fighters are gliding across rooftops and leaping onto water while duelling with each other. There was a small meat market behind held that morning by the pond, which certainly didn’t seem like it was for tourists, while dried pork flanks, split-open fish and ducks hung right in the open on the walls of a few nearby houses.
Those were reminders that Hongcun, as with Xidi, is a living community despite being a tourist hotspot. That’s not to say there aren’t many villagers who’ve opened restaurants or sell souvenirs and local food specialties, but it isn’t as over-the-top as many other Chinese tourist areas. It’s been a few years since I was there so I hope it remains so.


Crossing the bridge to get to the village



An ancestral hall in one of the larger houses

Moon Pond





Meat market


   


Traditional pastries on sale. I think I bought some of this.

Books · Hong Kong

Hong Kong Future Perfect- book review

Every year, the Hong Kong Writers Circle puts out an anthology of stories set in or about Hong Kong written by its members. Hong Kong Future Perfect- One City, Twenty Visions of What Is to Come is their most recent, released at the end of 2016. From the name, the theme is about the future and 20 writers have given their take on what Hong Kong will be like.

While this ensures 20 sets of different characters, settings and themes, most of them, or almost all actually, share a similar mood of a bleak, dystopian future Hong Kong, which to be fair reflects the current pessimism prevalent in Hong Kong. Whether due to an economic crash, environmental disaster  or Chinese invasion, the stories feature a future Hong Kong that is repressed, unstable, unsafe, and sterile.

The collection was quite decent in general, but a few stories really stood out. “Twenty-three” echoes the worst fears about the present by following a guy whose girlfriend goes missing after attending a rally and searches for her. In “Pearlania,” a travel reporter comes to Hong Kong on a trip arranged by a local authority, but finds that things are just too perfect, but he can’t figure out exactly how. “Island Oasis” takes the opposite view of most of the other stories as an American expat comes to Hong Kong for a better life in a future where the US is a shell of what it used to be and China is the new superpower.

Sci-fi dominates the collection, and there are some really creative ones with compelling scenarios for Hong Kong. But as you can tell from the ones I highlighted above, political stories really stood out for me. Meanwhile there were one or two that were just plain scary without any dystopian themes like the one about the girl on a first date in a restaurant where either something strange seems to be happening around her or she has gone crazy. Jason Ng pitches in with a pair of stories that center on a family during Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 and over 30 years in the future. Repression and despair dominate the stories but resistance is also a key element in a few stories. Obviously this book isn’t something you read to cheer yourself up, but what it does is to make you think a little more deeply and hope that the future doesn’t turn out anywhere as it does in these stories.

Hong Kong

Indecency at the top a reflection of society?

As we get deeper into 2017, I’ve struggled recently to focus too much on politics. It’s not that I’m unaware of major issues like Trump’s presidency, Brexit and Hong Kong’s upcoming Chief Executive election. With the US slowly descending into a political comedy, as Trump picks fights or causes controversy almost every time he opens his mouth or meets with somebody, Europe struggling, and China trying to be assertive, it’s not hard to feel that the world is going to crap. Actually it’s not, but it’s hard to think it’s getting better either. The truth is that I didn’t seem to care too much to even feel pessimistic or complain anymore. But I think I really need to shake that feeling because apathy and ignorance are probably worse than pessimism or cynicism.

A lot of people were shocked, dismayed or even revolted by the idea of Donald Trump winning the US presidency (I was quite shocked as well). Likewise, the Brexit referendum result had a similar impact on a lot of people. It’s almost as if somehow, it became alright, even laudable to be openly nasty and spout sexist, racist, and simple-minded nonsense. And it’s not just Trump. Closer to Hong Kong, you can look at the Philippines and their president who boasts of killing people and acts like a clownish tough guy, but more seriously has launched a state campaign by encouraging police and vigilantes to execute “drug dealers” in the streets. Besides the UK, far-right politicians are making headway across Europe, invoking closed borders, violence against minorities and immigrants, and extreme nationalism verging on racism. Even in Hong Kong, the localist movement (I admit a bit of sympathy) at times express stances at times that contain traces of racism and hate.

It seems like suddenly, we’ve reached the point where democratically elected leaders of countries are people championing discrimination, isolation, belligerence and misogyny. Added to this, we also have the surge of far-right movements, open hatred and violence against immigrants, and “alternative facts” – false or manipulated news that is accepted as true by many.

But honestly, I think the real danger is this is a reflection of society. There is a lot of casual racism, malice and dishonest behavior that happens all around us. Back when I used to live in China, I used to rail a lot about negative behavior, but it is apparent that callous and malicious behavior happens a lot all over. Hate crimes, for instance, seem to be on the rise in the US and Britain. Just the other day, a white American shot two Indians in a Kansas bar because he thought they were Muslims (even if they had been, it still would not be right). People seem to be indulging in the most casually obscene ways to kill others, like driving trucks into crowds of people out on the street having a good time. Cyber-bullying can become so vicious that kids commit suicide due to online taunts or extortion or their reputation tainted by being involved in unseemly incidents, even when they are the victims, which is exacerbated by social media.

Ironically, technology appears to be a big reason why there is so much ignorance and hate in society. Rather than being something to broaden our knowledge and awareness of issues and people around us, for some, technology is a tool to foster more hate and ignorance. Fake news, alternative facts, and social media all play a role in disseminating false information that ramp up hate and intolerance, and not to mention stupidity. It would be silly and amusing if it weren’t so tragic at times, like the aforementioned American who shot and killed people because of mistaken ethnic identity. While it might be faintly amusing to think the US, the world’s only superpower and supposed leader of the free world, has plunged to such depths, it’s not amusing when one thinks of the worse things that happen in the developing world, especially Asia. The governor of Jakarta, capital of Southeast Asia’s largest nation Indonesia, supposedly one of the top emerging economies, was put on trial in December for blasphemy. Remind me again what century we are living in?

I am not saying every single ignorant and racist person is a Trump or Brexit supporter, because that would be too simplistic and too lazy an explanation. Besides, it also allows us to wallow in moral complacency. In actuality, I think there were probably Obama or Hillary supporters who were not exactly good guys too. Likewise not all Brexit Leave voters are monsters or Remain voters angels. But more importantly, let’s not pretend there aren’t people in regular life spouting racist or sexist garbage or flaunting their arrogance.

Maybe I’m not expressing myself clearly – I tend to think about different things and see common strands but am unable to  tie it together well enough. But we are living in a sorry period of history, when despite widespread impressive technology and wealth and knowledge, there are a lot of people who don’t know right from wrong, who don’t know real from fake. This applies to knowledge, this applies to morals, and it applies to behavior.

Books

Sir Vidia’s Shadow- book review

The country of Trinidad and Tobago, where I come from, is a tiny pair of islands in the Caribbean with a population of 1.3 million. Many people have never heard of it, especially in Asia, but Trinidad is renowned for a handful of reasons. One would be its Carnival festival and steelpan instrument, another would be star athletes like Brian Lara, one of the greatest cricket batsmen, and then there is VS Naipaul, the writer who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2001. Naipaul was born and grew up in Trinidad, but he left for England to attend Oxford and since then, has lived there. He has never been shy to criticize where he came from and there are many in Trinidad who feel he has turned his backs on them and would just say good riddance to him.

Naipaul’s critical views towards Trinidad is not unique because he has also been heavily critical, even dismissive, of Africa, India and the Islamic world, all of where he traveled to and wrote books about. In short, he is not a man who cares too much about who he offends and who is afraid to voice his true thoughts, as haughty, arrogant or contemptuous as they might sound. As a person, Naipaul is not much different, having been well-known for mistreating his own first wife and for various incidents at public functions as well as spats with fellow writers. One of these spats was famously with Paul Theroux, another famous writer, who for a long time considered himself a protege and friend of Naipaul’s. They had met in Uganda in 1967 where Theroux was teaching a local university and Naipaul was a visiting writer. Theroux was still struggling to launch his writing career while Naipaul, nine years older, was an established name. A friendship flourished that lasted through decades and continents, until suddenly Naipaul ended it.

Theroux was so affected by their falling out that he wrote a book about their long friendship. The result is Sir Vidia’s Shadow – A Friendship Across Five Continents, a compelling piece of work that lays bare their relationship and sheds more light on Naipaul, who could be perplexing and arrogant, than on the author.

The book is interesting but it did not make me feel sympathetic towards Naipaul and I came away wondering how Theroux could have been so deferential for such a long time. Theroux himself says almost the same thing, explaining how eager and pleased he was to get Naipaul’s praise and respect. He also recounts what he hears concerning Naipaul’s boorish behavior towards the public or to fellow writers. There is also the callous manner in which Naipaul treats his faithful first wife, Pat, who Theroux gets along well with, having affairs and then later courting his second wife while Pat is dying of cancer.

On the one hand, it is understandable why Theroux valued their relationship so much. Naipaul was already a published award-winning renowned writer when they met. Naipaul gives Theroux blunt advice and sparing praise, of which Theroux treasures every last bit. Theroux is wounded when the break-up occurs, and it is only then in the book he makes some intense criticisms of Naipaul, for whom up to that point he had only affection and reverence. While the book is not petty or harsh, Theroux’s recounting of their relationship seems to hint at a change in Naipaul’s personality in becoming more callous and bitter as time goes by over the years.

Naipaul may be the Nobel laureate, but I have more respect for Theroux than Naipaul, both of whose books I’ve read, though not that many. I’ve found Naipaul’s writing, especially his non-fiction to be spare and blunt in tone, though not necessarily always wrong. Theroux is also cantankerous and blunt, though less haughty and, as a white American, certainly not pro-Western and unreservably dismissive of the Third World like Naipaul.

The break-up of their friendship happened after a joint appearance at a 1998 book festival in Wales, but Theroux is not aware of it until he realizes Naipaul has not contacted him in over a year after it. Eventually, the two met again in 2011, which Theroux describes in the postscript. It ends somewhat positively and there is a sense of closure.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Xidi and Tunxi

Huangshan may be the most famous attraction of Anhui, but it is not the only interesting one in the area. The surrounding villages, whether it be the traditional villages of Xidi and Hongcun, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, or even Tunxi, known mainly as the area’s tourist hub but with a great ancient street, are also very much worth a visit. The reason why there are so many preserved historic villages around Huangshan is because this area used to be home to prosperous merchants who thrived during the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th-20th centuries). With over 600 years of history, both Xidi and Hongcun boast lanes filled with traditional homes, including large houses with massive halls and two-storey high ceilings, which no doubt belonged to the wealthier merchants. In these villages, the majority of old homes have been preserved with little or none modern houses. But far from being deserted relics or over-touristy theme parks, Xidi and Hongcun are both thriving communities with people living their daily lives while tourists come and go.
Both are attractive places but Hongcun really stood out for me with its small lake and arched bridges fronting the village and a pond within, the combination of old homes and water resulting in some very gorgeous scenes. So magnificent that a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed there as well. Hongcun is so beautiful that I’ll devote another post to it, so let’s go on to Xidi and Tunxi.

Xidi was less spectacular, but it also features a famous landmark – a high 3-layered stone paifang (traditional Chinese gate) at the entrance next to the pond bordering the village. Walking through the paifang takes you into a series of narrow lanes among which are several impressive compounds with giant open courtyards, wooden halls and ancestral tablets and paintings of illustrious ancestors. But even the “regular” buildings are attractive to look at, especially as they all feature curved upswept eaves and black tiled roofs, both distinctive architectural features in the region.
Getting there from Tunxi takes an hour by public minibus, which I took, but as it was during the holidays, I couldn’t get one back so I got a “black cab” minivan with a few other people, including a Cantonese family (one weird thing is I always run into Cantonese people when I travel in China).
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Tunxi is where I got off after coming from Nanjing by sleeper train as that is where Huangshan train station is location. Back then (2014), you could only get there by the regular slow train but they have since built a high-speed station, also in Tunxi. While the town is for the most part a hub for getting to Huangshan and not too special, it boasts an attractive old street with a lot of traditional wooden buildings. Many have been converted into stores and restaurants, but a number of them are still homes, as indicated by the dried fish or laundry hanging by the windows. Most of the stores sold souvenirs, while there was one that sold ethnic minority goods and another that sold faux Maoist stationery. Some of it was a bit too gaudy as Chinese tourist areas can be, but it was still a nice walk at night.

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Xidi
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Tunxi again
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China · China travel · Travel

Huangshan photo round-up

As we get set to move into the Year of the Rooster with Chinese New Year coming up on the weekend, enjoy this photo round-up from a CNY trip to Huangshan a few years ago. While it certainly wasn’t the best time to visit the mountain, it was still enjoyable enough.

The subject of countless paintings, photos and literary references, Huangshan is one of China’s most beautiful mountains, and it is not hard to see why. Despite not being able to hike around the paths at the top in full and having to share it with thousands of Chinese tourists, I was still able to experience some of the mountain’s beauty and magnificence.
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Books · China

Trickle-Down Censorship- book review

Censorship is one of the most well-known and detested attributes of China. Many people are already aware that Facebook, Youtube, Google, and the New York Times are blocked and that newspapers and news shows cannot report freely on many sensitive topics. But censorship goes far deeper and is more complex and widespread than that as shown in Trickle-Down Censorship, author JFK Miller’s account of his time working for That’s Shanghai magazine from 2006-2011.

Despite the long time period between when he last worked in China and the present, his book is not really outdated because the sad truth is that censorship is not just still present but also much more widespread and harsher than before. But while regular citizens can try and ignore it, journalists and editors have it the worst because it is a constant in their work. Even as an editor at That’s Shanghai, an expat mag that mostly covers food and entertainment, censorship was a major threat to each story Miller worked on or approved.
Miller also goes through aspects of modern China through the scope of censorship, which mostly works because of how ubiquitous it is. At the end of it, Miller decides enough is enough and calls time on China, as I did myself.

The main point is censorship and there is plenty of aspects to it. It can be arbitrary as there are no firm rules and the censors do not need to explain specifically what is the issue; it can be applied to everything from serious political pieces to photo-essays on pyjamas; it is futile to resist, at best, one can fight to keep a “objectionable” sentence or passage. The worst is that it becomes so prevalent and expected that not only do you get used to it, but you actively apply it to yourself, as Miller did while editing and even assigning stories. “It is frightening just how quickly you acquire the ability,” says Miller. As a reminder, Miller worked for an English-language expat magazine that mostly features food, hotel, and club reviews, not some newspaper or political magazine specializing in hardhitting exposes.

And Chinese censorship is not just resilient but adaptable and sophisticated, extending even to the online space where censors utilize software to filter keywords and resulting in the blocking of blogs and social media posts to even text chat messages on WeChat. Coincidentally, this week saw news about China’s government announcing a crackdown, yet again, on unauthorized VPN software, which lots of expats and locals in China use to access banned websites.

The only main issue I have with the book is the cover which features an outline of China, that includes Taiwan. It is a somewhat strange and perhaps cowardly decision because it isn’t like the book would be able to be sold in China, given its topic, so one wonders why he had to do that.

Experienced expats won’t be surprised at much of the content, but other readers will likely find a lot to inform themselves.
Otherwise, Trickle-Down Censorship is a fine account of Chinese censorship, a sad reminder of the power of authoritarian regimes, even in this day and age.