Everything under the Heavens-book review

In recent times, China has risen to become arguably the world’s second power and potential global bad guy. China is now an economic, industrial, military and geopolitical power, but not content with this, it is challenging the US for regional supremacy in Asia. China’s huge ambition is driven not just by the urge for power or economic wealth, but also its perceived historical status as the center of its world. As such, China saw itself as the supreme civilization around which smaller and lesser nations and peoples submitted or paid tribute to. Everything under the Heavens- How the past helps shape China’s push for global power explains how this superiority complex came about by looking into China’s past.

The author Howard French, who has extensive experience reporting and writing about Africa and China, delves into China’s relations with different neighbors like Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. Delving into history, French shows how China developed tributary relationships with these smaller states on its periphery, as well as its ties to them.

For example, China had control over Vietnam for 1000 years up until the 11th century, after the Vietnamese managed to drive the Chinese out and maintain an independent status (minus a few decades when the Chinese Ming Dynasty invaded and gained control before being driven back out, as well as colonization under the French in the 19th and 20th centuries).

French also goes into China’s trade relationships with the maritime kingdoms in what is now Malaysia and Indonesia, such as Malacca, from which the Straits of Malacca is named. China’s claim and militarization of much of the South China Sea, which lies much closer to Southeast Asia than China, is derived from historical times when supposedly Chinese traders and fishermen sailed most of the sea. While this does not exactly confer ownership to China, somehow its Communist rulers have twisted logic to claim that it does.

It’s easy to see how China came to see itself as the center of the region which it firmly dominated both in scale and power. From the 19th century, the rise of Japan caused a rude shock when it managed to challenge and actually defeat China in a war (which is how Taiwan became a Japanese colony from 1895-1945). However, before that, China’s defeats to the UK and France in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century caused great shame, from which the current Communist regime has milked a “Century of Humiliation” narrative to the present day which fuels both a vindictive desire and victim mentality against the West. For the Communist regime, a return to the days of lore before the 19th century when China was the unquestioned and dominant power in the region is their goal, but the US and other nations must prevent this blast to the past.

French concludes the book with an excellent assessment of the strengths of China and the US, that also goes hand in hand with a good summary of China’s precarious future with declining economic growth and a rapidly aging population. French advocates that the US must try to cooperate with China but be firm when it needs to be. This is exactly the scenario that is playing out now, though cooperation is probably the last thing on both countries’ mind.

Exploring Taipei

View of Taipei
Taiwan’s capital Taipei is one of my favorite cities in the world, having been my home for many years over the last decade. My mother and most of her family like my grandmother, aunt and cousins live in Taipei, having been there for decades. As a modern, orderly city, it’s got the advantages of being first-world and prosperous while also being relatively laidback, especially when compared with Hong Kong, Tokyo, or many Chinese cities. It’s definitely a great place to live, though working is another matter. A lot of people really enjoy the food in Taipei, but for me, it’s the comfort, safety and general pleasantness of the city that stands out (I like Taipei for living, not for traveling), as well as the hiking you can do in and around Taipei.

I recently wrote about Taipei for Rough Guides website, specifically on five places to enjoy and explore, that are not night markets, Taipei 101 or the National Palace Museum. Besides an article I wrote many years ago about Taipei’s Yongkang Street food places (my first and only food article), I haven’t really written about Taipei travel, because having lived there for so long, I don’t really see it as place to travel. This changed last year when I had some free time and decided to visit more places in the city, which culminated in the Rough Guides article.

I came to realize Taipei has a lot of different and fascinating aspects, especially nature and historical. These places might not be individually famous or spectacular but they are very much well worth visiting and make Taipei special.

These places are Yangmingshan mountain park; the city’s hiking trails; Beitou hot spring area; Guandu (which features a wetland park and a large historic temple); Daan Park, Taipei’s largest park; and the historic neighborhood of Dadaocheng. Besides these, there are other interesting, historic and scenic parts of Taipei.

Yangmingshan
This is a large park in a mountain range just north of Taipei which features dormant volcanoes and active fumaroles that spew sulfur into the air. Yangmingshan also has mountain trails, grasslands and gardens all entirely on the mountain range.
Yangmingshan fumarole, Taipei

Dadaocheng
This historic neighborhood used to be a busy trading hub in the 19th and 20th centuries due to its proximity to the Keelung river. Now, it’s Taipei’s best preserved historical district and features loads of colonial buildings, shops, and museums. It also hosts Taipei’s annual Lunar New Year outdoor market.
Dadaocheng, Taipei

Beitou
This is a historic hot spring holiday destination that fulfills the same purpose to this day. Beitou has a lot of hot spring resorts and an outdoor bath, a sulphuric lake and a cool library. See my post on my travel blog here for more about Beitou.
Thermal Valley, Beitou

Guandu
I’d never come here before but it’s a low-key area to the north of Taipei that just happens to have a wetland park as well as a magnificent temple, one of the biggest and most exquisite East Asian temples I’ve ever seen.

Guandu Nature Park wetland, Taipei

City hikes
Taipei is ringed with mountains and hills, several of which offer pleasant hikes and fine views of the city. While Xiangshan is the most popular due to its being close to Taipei 101, Fuzhoushan offers a nice, less-crowded alternative where you can also see Taipei 101. Jiantan Mountain is a fine ridge walk that also has some nice views (see the photo at the top of this blog post).
Fuzhoushan, Taipei

Daan Park
It’s Taipei’s version of Central Park, though much smaller. It’s also got a cool MRT subway station that resembles a giant turbine engine.
Daan Park MRT, Taipei

 

Doing the unthinkable in Hong Kong- slowing down

I’ve been spending some time in Hong Kong recently so I think it’s fitting I publish this short essay below which I first wrote last year on whether Hong Kong should try and slow down.

As a major regional business hub, many Hong Kongers take pride in working and talking quickly. An English-language book released by a local well-known HK writer a few years ago (and which I bought) was titled “No Place for Slow Men,” implying only fast doers thrive in Hong Kong. Indeed, Hong Kong is full of fast talkers and movers and shakers. But is this really something to continue to be proud of?

While Hong Kong is a bustling business hub that tops many business-related lists, it has developed an unabashed money-first mentality and a stressful society that lags in certain measures of livelihood including happiness. Maybe Hong Kong should take a look at elsewhere in the region.

Take Taiwan as an example. The stereotypical image of Taiwanese are of people that are laid-back, friendly and not in a rush. While there is a lot of truth to it, the fact is the “laid-back” Taiwanese are not sitting around relaxing and doing nothing. Many working Taiwanese face just as much or even more stressed than their counterparts in Hong Kong. Salaries are much lower, annual leaves are shorter, and working hours are among the highest in the world.

Frankly, as someone who has worked in both Hong Kong and Taipei as well as on the mainland, my Hong Kong colleagues were no more hardworking than those in Taiwan or Beijing, actually took more days off and seemed the most happiest, spending much more time hanging out in the office and chatting.

When it comes to customer service, the difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong is like night and day. And the politeness is matched by efficiency. As someone who has lived in Taiwan, I can safely say that going to the bank, hospital or convenience store is almost always a quick and efficient experience. Over the last decade, I have flown on Taiwanese airlines Eva Airlines and China Airlines as well as Cathay Pacific many times and I would say service on Eva and CA are better than Cathay, especially in recent years.

Going beyond work ethic and customer service, Taiwan has achieved significant progress in areas like recycling and e-government.

In Taipei, residents must separate food waste, paper, plastics and regular garbage into different bags so they can be recycled accordingly. In contrast, the HK residential building I lived in did not offer any recycling so I had to take my paper waste to the public bin out on the street or even to my workplace. The local recycling industry is small as the vast majority of Hong Kong’s waste is sent to mainland China. Hong Kong has no paper recycling plants nor is food waste able to be utilized. Hong Kong is however set to implement a new garbage fee on the public to help reduce waste. Similar schemes have already been undertaken in Taipei and Seoul, while Hong Kong’s will start, not right away, but sometime in late 2019. It is striking that the speed with which Hong Kong authorities approach business-related matters is not replicated in policies that are not economic-related.

Let’s also look at Hong Kong’s regional rival Singapore. Almost every other week, it seems there is at least one article in local media about yet another area in which Singapore has outperformed Hong Kong. Yet I remember once overhearing in my workplace elevator a Hong Kong lady give her opinion on Singapore to someone next to her, “It’s alright, but the people walk so slowly there! They are not fast like us [Hong Kongers].”

Nevertheless, those Singaporean “slowpokes” have outpaced Hong Kong in things like Smart City initiatives and mega-projects like Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa. One can just as easily look at the more spacious and green urban layout and the affordable and bigger public housing flats, and see a big gulf between Hong Kong and Singapore in the latter’s favour.

Hong Kongers might still revel in thinking they walk and talk very fast, but that hasn’t prevented others from overtaking them in many aspects. As unpalatable as it might sound to Hong Kongers, being less obsessed with moving fast, taking the time to concentrate on issues other than business, and being more considerate might actually be a good thing.

Maybe it is time Hong Kongers should consider slowing down a bit, and realize fast is not always the best.

Hiking Hong Kong’s Dragon’s Back

Dragon's Back, Hong Kong

For such a tiny place, Hong Kong has some really great hikes. The Dragon’s Back is probably one of the world’s most scenic and pleasant coastal hikes. Located on the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, Dragon’s Back is a mountain ridge that overlooks Shek O Bay. Besides the views, what makes Dragon’s Back great is that the hike is only a short bus ride from a subway station.

The hike starts from a path next to the To Tei Wan stop, which I got to on the #9 bus from Chai Wan subway station. Before you get on the path, you can enjoy fine views on the opposite side of the road (this being the west side of a peninsula) of Tai Tam bay and a ringed apartment complex. The path goes up a long flight of stairs but once you reach the top, it’s a nice walk along a ridge during which you enjoy unobstructed views of Shek O Bay, beaches, villages, and the Tai Tam headland.

Dragon’s Back is a very well-known hike and I’ve heard that the trail is full of people on weekends as it’s popular with locals, expats and visitors. As such, I chose to go on a weekday when I had free time so there were only a handful of people.

After Dragon’s Back, the trail heads gradually downward to a forest path on the hill that goes on a clockwise loop (see the map on this site) down to Big Wave beach. It’s a completely different sensation walking along this path shaded by trees, vegetation and streams after the wide open views from Dragon’s Back. This trail is also section 8 of the Hong Kong trail, a 50-km islandwide route that goes across the entire Hong Kong Island.

The loop adds at least an hour to the hike and while it is not hard, I had the misfortune of tripping over a large brown snake while staring at Googlemaps on my phone. Luckily, the only harm I suffered was a huge fright that resulted in me jumping twice (the first after I tripped, and the second after I realized it was a snake and not a long piece of rope). I definitely learned my lesson not to stare at my phone while walking along quiet forest paths.

The forest path eventually reaches a concrete clearing where it diverges into two paths heading in opposite directions. I took the path to the right and walked all the way (there are at least two side paths on this trail you can use to head back down if you don’t want to continue onwards) to Big Wave beach, then proceeded to Shek O village in a taxi shared with a HK couple (who kindly paid the full fare and refused to accept money from me).

The village features a headland, where you can look out on the South China Sea. While it’s probably a 10-15 minute walk between Big Wave beach and Shek O village, I was not in the mood to walk after just completing a 3-hour hike.
Dragon's Back, Hong Kong
Dragon's Back, Hong KongDragon's Back, Hong KongHong Kong
Forest trail on the way down from Dragon’s Back
Hong Kong Hong Kong Shek O, Hong Kong
Shek O village
Hong Kong
Big Wave beach
Hong Kong
View from across the road after getting off at the bus stop
Hong Kong
Shek O village

Prisoners of Geography- book review

We usually think of geography as being about mountains, rivers and seas, but geography is also a major factor in how large or wealthy or powerful countries have become. Prisoners of Geography- Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics uses geography in the form of maps to explain ten large countries and continents including the US, China, Russia, Europe, Africa, and even the Arctic. The author, longtime foreign correspondent Tim Marshall, utilizes his ample experience to write a compelling book that combines geography with history and international affairs.

Starting with Russia, Marshall points out how the world’s largest country both benefits and is constrained by geography including plains to the west, limited access to oceans, and a vast resource-rich eastern region Siberia. The western plains is Russia’s most vulnerable area, being where invading armies from Europe such as the Nazis and Napoleon’s Grand Army have flowed through. As such, that is why it worries a lot about NATO expanding eastwards and specifically about the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the US status as the world’s superpower was aided by perhaps the most favorable geographic conditions such as large coasts facing the Pacific and Atlantic, a large interior, and the world’s longest network of navigable rivers such as the Mississippi. The latter might not be too well-known, but navigable rivers facilitate significant trade as goods can be easily and cheaply moved by ships. Conversely, Marshall points out, the lack of this can hinder countries and continents such as Africa and South America. The latter’s interior also has a lot of mountains such as the Andes range, that prevents easy rail and riverine connectivity. If you’re wondering about the Nile and Amazon, those are both mighty rivers but not conducive to large cargo-carrying ships.

Europe was able to prosper greatly during the Middle Ages because of its large rivers like the Rhine and Danube which facilitated trade and commerce. However, not all European countries benefited from this. For example, Spain’s hilly interior and lack of large rivers meant it couldn’t develop as quickly as its northern neighbor France, which partly explains why Spain didn’t become wealthier than France.

Prisoners of Geography is one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It is a fun read that also makes global affairs a little more understandable and the world a little less complicated.

Hiking Mt Misen on Miyajima

Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan
The sacred Japanese island of Miyajima (Itsukushima), which lies off the coast near Hiroshima, is famous for its “floating” torii gate and shrines. However, Miyajima also has a 535-m-high mountain, Mount Misen, that features small temples, a waterfall, and great views at the top. To me, hiking Mt Misen and taking in the great views at the top was my favorite part of visiting Miyajima, as opposed to seeing the “floating” torii gate.

There are several routes to Mt Misen, however I chose to take the one at the back of Daisho-in Temple, which lies at the foot of the mountain. Note if you don’t want to hike, then you can take a cable car up. Daisho-in Temple is worth a visit before you hike, as it features attractive halls, a cave shrine, and dozens of small stone Buddhas.

Once I got on the trail, it was straightforward. As I continued upwards, I passed a waterfall that flows into a rocky stream. There are vantage points along the way where I was able to look down at the floating torii gate, which will look very tiny. I also saw that much of the island is heavily forested, which isn’t surprising given the island’s population numbers about 2,000 and there isn’t any industry. I also encountered signs urging you to watch out for vipers or “mamushi – deadly poisonous snake.” Good thing I didn’t encounter any. There is also a notable man-made stone stream structure from where water flows out.

Near the top, there are a few diverging paths but just remember to stay on the main trail. There’s a temple hall where you can take a breather. When I reached the summit, I enjoyed really beautiful views of the Inland Sea, the island, and the mainland. I’d say the views of the sea were among the top three I’ve ever seen in my life. The observatory at the summit features benches and washrooms.

It’s possible to hike back down but I decided to take the cable car instead. The Shishiiwa cable car station is a little further away from the summit, about 15-20 minutes, and there are fine views there as well.
Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
“Floating” torii gate from the mountain
Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan
Temple guards and a temple (below) near the top
Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan   Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan