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 · China · Hong Kong

Beijing’s international literary scene takes a hit

Back in Beijing, one of the events I really looked forward to were the annual literary festivals, specifically the Bookworm and Capital M. The Bookworm, located in a compound on a corner of the main intersection in Sanlitun, is regarded as an institution in the local literary scene, with sister branches in Suzhou and Chengdu. So it’s a little sad to read about how they had to suspend their literary festival for 2017 due to a lack of funds. Coupled with Capital M’s cancellation of its literary festival in 2015 and Shanghai M’s downsizing of its 2016 festival, things seem kind of bleak. These festivals brought in a lot of Western, Asian and Chinese writers and it was where I saw writers like Evan Osnos and Xiaolu Guo. As they would run for two weeks and hold events every day, you can imagine the variety and diversity of the programs.

In related developments, City Weekend Beijing recently announced it would stop publishing which is a blow to the city’s English-language expat magazine scene. I actually helped out and contributed a couple of articles to the magazine but that is not the reason I’m concerned (I readily admit That’s Beijing and TimeOut were always more interesting and fun to read). The most likely reason is financial because print publishing is certainly not a very profitable venture, especially when it caters to a small market like expats in China.

Obviously it affects Beijing expats, which some people might just dismiss as not a big deal, but it makes the city less vibrant and international. Losing major literary festivals and expat magazines makes the city less international in terms of the literary scene, not to mention the arts in general. Coupled with the crackdowns on clubs and concerts in Beijing, the increased climate of censorship and repression that has afflicted almost all of Chinese society has certainly hit the arts and cultural scene hard.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, which held its own literary festival a couple of weeks ago, the local chapter of PEN was re-launched on the final day of the festival. Led by local writer Jason Ng, who has been outspoken and written a lot about local politics including the Umbrella Movement, the PEN chapter will advocate for the right of writers and journalists to express themselves and resist censorship, specifically that brought on by the giant neighbor next door. At the panel, Ng and four other writers spoke about why PEN is needed and the increased censorship in China and Hong Kong. One of the panelists, a local poet and academic, spoke about the danger of self-censorship by telling a story of a friend warning her not to publish a Facebook photo which had a caption critical of a local university for refusing to let a student graduate because he carried a yellow umbrella to the grad ceremont. The panelist’s friend thought that someone could see that photo and use it to get her fired from her job (she didn’t take down the photo and she ended up getting her contract renewed).
Unlike its predecessor, it will also aim to become bilingual and trying to bridge the English and Chinese writing community. At a time like this in Hong Kong, this is a welcome development.


Books · Hong Kong

Umbrellas in Bloom- book review

When what was to be the Umbrella Movement unfolded in 2014, few imagined it would turn out to be the way it did. The initial standoff with police saw hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers take to the streets to voice their anger against Beijing and then occupy an entire stretch of land in the Admiralty business district, as well as two other parts of town, for months. These Umbrella activists formed a beacon of resistance that endured for 79 days, capturing the world’s attention and frustrating the Hong Kong government and Beijing.
Jason Ng’s “Umbrellas In Bloom- Hong Kong’s occupy movement uncovered” covers this entire movement giving both a superb broad overview and an on-the-ground view, courtesy of spending evenings and nights amid the protesters at the main protest site or village. It’s a fine piece of reporting that explains not just the Umbrella Movement, but how Hong Kong has gotten to where it’s at with the increasing authoritarian influence from Beijing and its voiceless minions in the HK government, and worsening socio-economic conditions in Hong Kong.
Ng breaks down the Umbrella Movement from how it started all the way to how it ended, describing how protesters braved police tear gas to stay their ground and settle in for the long term. They did so by creating a huge makeshift camp that temporarily turned a business district into a surreal village of goodwill and benevolence run completely by volunteers with impressive administrative and logistical operations. Mainland authorities and “analysts” claim, with absolutely no proof, that foreign agents like the CIA were involved.
The author visits the Umbrella village at lunchtime and in the evenings to offer tutoring, then stays overnight and gets to know some fellow activists, including office workers turned volunteers and students turned social activists. It is interesting to see how positive the vibes are at first, with people putting aside their studies or work to commit themselves, but gradually tension builds up as the more extreme protesters get frustrated with the lack of progress and slam the student leaders for inaction.
Besides the reportage of the protest, there are extensive explanations of Hong Kong’s political system and parties, so readers can be fully aware of which parties are pro-Beijing and what the others stand for. If you know nothing about Hong Kong politics, by the time you get through the book you will be a semi-expert.

Whatever one thinks of the effectiveness or futility of the Umbrella Movement, it is undeniable that it awakened strong consciousness amongst many Hong Kongers that cannot be contained. In these seemingly dark times, with a reprehensible Communist regime becoming increasingly blatant and authoritarian, doing things like kidnapping Hong Kongers at will outside the mainland and parading them on TV to “confess,” the resistance and passion that arose during the movement is even more vital now.



One year after Beijing


One year ago, I left my job in Beijing and set about making my exit from mainland China. Now, I’ve been in Hong Kong for three months in a new job and gradually settling in. I sometimes think that just a few months ago, which included a trip to Sri Lanka, I would never have imagined I’d be working here, taking the tram to work everyday and getting used to high prices for everything from rent to food. I’ve traded smog for fog, Mandarin for Cantonese, the chaotic, every-man-for-himself bustle of Beijing for the frenetic but orderly energy of Hong Kong.

I didn’t exactly leave Beijing with a heavy heart, in fact it was the opposite, but recently, I occasionally have slightly fond memories about a few bits of Beijing.

I certainly don’t miss the daily nonsense, the rudeness and the deceitfulness that was common, the awful smog and nasty water, nor living in a society governed by one of the worst regimes in the world. But I do miss the sense of being in a famous city with a grand history and the center of a massive albeit very flawed civilization, interesting and wacky scenes of a society in flux with great divides that is still developing (or going backwards depending on your perspective). Hong Kong has a lot going on and there are many interesting scenes in daily life, but it is a more sophisticated, polished and developed society. Hong Kong also doesn’t have the mix of people from across China (my Chinese colleagues were from at least 8 provinces), the historical sites with many hundreds of years of history, the hutongs, which I appreciate though I don’t have the soft spot for them like a lot of expats do, or real winter. I’ve put up a few photos of the better bits of Beijing I liked.

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But this, I certainly am glad not to see again


Marking the June 4 tragedy in Hong Kong

Last Saturday, June 4, was the anniversary of the tragedy that took place in Beijing, China in 1989. In Hong Kong, this tragedy is commemorated every year with a huge outdoor rally that often attracts over 100,000 people. This year was a little different because a public dispute broke out before the event, when several students associations publicly announced they would stay away from the rally because they didn’t feel it was relevant to Hong Kong anymore.

According to these groups, it was futile rallying to remember the 1989 tragedy and advocating for democracy in China, which is one of the main goals of the June 4 rally organizers, because it had nothing to do with Hong Kong. It would be better to fight for Hong Kong’s goals such as autonomy, a sentiment that is line with a growing “localization” feeling that has manifested in political parties agitating for such goals. I sympathized with them and I understood some of their frustration, which I would also venture might be augmented by the fact some mainlanders, including people I know, didn’t support or empathize with Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement.

However, I still decided to go to the rally because it was my first time having the opportunity to attend it and I think it is worthwhile to commemorate the tragedy. I arrived right around the time it started, which meant having to first pass through shopping streets in Causeway Bay that had been turned into an activist zone with political groups lining both sides of the streets, then gather in an adjoining field rather than the main area at Victoria Park and watching the speakers on a giant screen.

It didn’t dull the effect as passionate speaker after speaker appeared, and videos of one of the Tiananmen victims’ mothers, the kidnapped Hong Kong booksellers and the rights lawyer crackdown in China players. The organizers also didn’t shy away from confronting the issue with the student groups. In the middle of the event, three speakers, an adult, a female university student and a male high-school student came on stage to give some youth perspectives. Battling away tears, the female student called out her university and said “the student body association doesn’t represent me!” and “you can talk about Hong Kong’s rights everyday but you can only mark June 4 on one day.” The adult talked about his university and that he had been the student body president, then denounced them for staying away from the rally.

The student bodies who stayed away held separate events on their campuses that marked the tragedy but mainly focused on Hong Kong-related issues. They got a decent turnout apparently. This split won’t end anytime soon.

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China · China travel

Beijing travel- Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills)


A lot of people probably don’t realize Beijing has mountains. This is because much of the city center is flat (and smog often obscures the views), but Beijing is actually ringed by mountains that extend from Haidian district all the way to the Great Wall and towards Hebei.
When I lived in Beijing, I only did two hikes near the city. Both were in Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills). Located in the northwestern part of the city in Haidian district, a little further beyond the old and new Summer Palaces, the 557-meter-tall Xiangshan is a decent, scenic choice for an outdoor outing. The whole place is a park, created all the way back in 1186, and was visited by emperors. At the foot of the hill are a garden, a Buddhist pagoda and Biyun Si (Temple of Azure Clouds), which features a large white stone pagoda called Vajrasana Pagoda. While Xiangshan isn’t too high, there is also a chair lift which I never took but I wish I did. The hill is nicely forested, though the path is a concrete stairway with little pavilions along the way. Interestingly, Biyun Si also has an exhibition dedicated to Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese political icon. This is because after Sun died in Beijing in 1925, his body was placed at the temple until being taken to Nanjing to be buried.

The first time I went there was in the afternoon and I only went halfway up the hill because I didn’t think I had enough time, but the second time I went up all the way. The summit was crowded with people, noisy and shouting and creating quite a commotion, as Chinese tend to do. On top, you can look onto urban Beijing but still feel that you are in a completely separate place, with forest and mountains all around you. You can even see the Summer Palace’s lake. I always intended to go back again, but given I lived all the way on the other side of the city, I never did.

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Continue reading “Beijing travel- Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills)”


Beijing’s grand but empty parade

This week marks a special anniversary regarding World War II, 70 years after it ended with victory by the Allies over Japan. However, the biggest event commemorating this is being held in Beijing tomorrow September 3. China has spared nothing in holding a grand military parade while also granting a one-off 3-day holiday. This is despite the Communist Party having little to do with the victory – the PRC did not exist then and the Communists hardly did any fighting against the Japanese, mostly hiding in the background while the then-ruling KMT army fought battles. In any case, neither the KMT nor Communists won the war against the Japanese, the Americans did thanks to their victories in the Pacific and their use of atomic bombs to force Japan’s surrender.

And if you think the people would be happy, well keep in mind the general public cannot attend the parade nor be anywhere near it – people who live in apartments near the parade route have been told to stay away from balconies or windows. Transportation (subway, train stations, airport), restaurants and streets in Beijing will be closed before and during the parade. The Forbidden City and many other tourist attractions will also be closed. Even the stock markets will be closed too. It is almost as if the capital is being locked down just for the sake of this parade that is intended to massage the ego of the CCP rather than a sincere commemoration of a special anniversary. The official name of the event says it all – the Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Victory of Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War.
This is what the CCP is mainly about, maintaining and showcasing its power at the expense of everything and everyone else, as it marks a military victory it had nothing to do with. The hollowness of the military parade is actually an symbol of what the CCP stands for.

The past few weeks haven’t been too rosy for China. The stock market was hit by a big slump last week while data and reports about the economy have become increasingly dire. The major port city of Tianjin, one of China’s four special municipalities, suffered a tremendous disaster when explosions erupted at a factory containing dangerous chemicals, killing over a hundred people and wounding several hundred.

I’m not going to gloat or feel any satisfaction over events like the Tianjin tragedy, though the stock market plunge is another matter, but it does represent a stark sign of the way how China has developed recently. Specifically, prioritizing the economic and industrial growth whilst neglecting the enforcement of rules and transparency and accountability. I feel that this state of affairs may not even improve substantially anytime soon and it won’t be good for the world either.


Some good things about Beijing

So despite deciding to call time on working in Beijing after just two years, I can say there were good aspects about the city, enough to write a positive post.

As the capital of China, it’s a world city which at least 95% of people in your life will know or have heard of. This means you don’t need to spend time explaining where it is or what it is, nor why you’d want to work there (other than livability and human rights concerns of course). Indeed, Beijing is not an easy city to live in. There’s the bad air pollution, the crowded subways and awful traffic and the unpleasant aspects of society like deceitful rental agents and rude service staff. However, there are certain nice things, some of which are obvious and others less so.

So in no particular order, here are some good aspects of Beijing:

Historic world-famous sites
Beijing has a history of over 800 years and has been China’s capital for most of that time so it has a historical heft. You can see that from the range of impressive historical attractions like the  massive Forbidden Palace, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall, of which there are several different sites, as well as the Temple of Heaven and the Marco Polo (Lugou) bridge (famous for two events over 700 hundred years apart).

Cool buildings
Thanks to the 2008 Olympics and a booming 2000s, Beijing splurged out on a lot of attractive and weird buildings (CCTV headquarters).
The National Center for Performing Arts

Nice museums
There’s the gigantic National History Museum in Tiananmen Square, which covers over 2,000 years of Chinese history up to 1949 (when everything became perfect in China) but the Capital Museum is a lesser-known but fascinating modern museum dedicated to Beijing.
Capital Museum, there’s an entire display inside the green tubular section on jade. 

These lanes filled with one-story homes are probably Beijing’s most well-known characteristic but they’re sadly dying out as they get torn down and replaced by modern buildings. Some expats really love them and even live in them and a few have become gentrified and turned into tourist attractions. I’m no hutong lover but I got to say some of them have a lot of good things going on with restaurants, galleries and bars.
Wudaoying hutong, by the Yonghegong Lama Temple

Top division football
Beijing Guoan is Beijing’s top club and is one of the best-supported clubs in the country, often attracting crowds of over 20,000. It’s also one of the most reviled ones too though Beijingers don’t give a damn. I went to a game in May and it was a good affair, both on and off the pitch.

Diversity of Chinese and international food
From Chongqing hotpot to Shanxi noodles to Yunnanese food, basically all regions of China have their cuisine represented in Beijing. Meanwhile, there are a lot of different food outlets like foreign restaurants, pubs and cafes.
Sichuan laziji or pepper chicken, the finest Chinese dish I’ve eaten, which I first tasted in Beijing

In winter, the rivers freeze and you get scenes that can be semi-charming like people ice-fishing and kids riding wooden chair sleds. You might even get snow, like it did once in 2014 but not this year, and things even look nice.

Free English-language expat mags 
Beijing has a lot of them – four. They’re regular (monthly and biweekly) so every month I’d make it a ritual to pick them up. I read them not for the food and party reviews, but the articles about people, events, books and travel as well as cool feature stories. The best are That’s Beijing and TimeOut Beijing, while bi-weekly City Weekend Beijing, which I’ve done freelance stuff for, is pretty decent. The Beijinger has the coolest name but is ok at times.



Final day in Beijing, one to remember or forget?


So last week, I had my final day in Beijing. I was lulled into thinking it’d be routine because everything actually went smoothly in the beginning. I packed up, handed back my apartment to my landlady who returned part of my remaining rent, and by the time I got to the airport, I was saying goodbyes to friends on my phone and thinking well, this is it.

Unfortunately it wasn’t because fate and China decided there was one more “China experience” in store for me. As many locals and China expats can attest, Chinese flights are notorious for delays. I had never taken a domestic flight before so I was usually spared this problem when going to Hong Kong. However, on this day, my flight to Taiwan would experience two consecutive one-hour delays.

The worse was to come when we actually got onto the plane. Everybody got on board, but the plane stayed put for what seemed a long time. Eventually, an announcement rang out – the plane hadn’t received approval from the control tower so it wouldn’t be able to take off yet. One hour passed, then it started raining heavily outside. More time passed and before I knew, we were on the plane for two hours and the flight attendants announced they’d be serving dinner! So we all had dinner on board the plane on the runway and afterwards the plane got approval to take off. In all, we were stuck on the damn plane for almost three hours and the plane took off almost FIVE f*cking hours after its original time.

The day was already unusual because of an unexpectedly pleasant sending-off from my landlady. She’s a petite, plump, 80-something-year-old lady with a nice puff of white hair who looks like the perfect example of a kindly Chinese granny except that she can be sharp at times with a stern manner to match. Because of my sudden foot pain in June, I had to leave Beijing much earlier than I’d planned, which meant breaking my lease. When I told my landlady, she wasn’t happy and she got really aggravated at times, saying I didn’t keep her apartment clean enough and that it’d be hard to find a new tenant. She especially didn’t like when I asked her if she could give me back part of my rent in cash because I was leaving Beijing and didn’t want the money in my Beijing bank account (I suppose she thought I was questioning her honesty but I really needed to make sure). I didn’t think the apartment was messy, though I did have stacks of old magazines and stuff lying all over the place and I admit I didn’t mop as much as I needed to, but I cleaned up a bit. Also, when she started showing the place to people, within a week she found someone to take it. The second set of people she showed it to agreed within minutes on the spot (I was there both times) when they came to view the place. She also urged me to wash the window curtains which she found dusty, but I declined since I didn’t want to risk tearing them.

When I called her a few days earlier to confirm the time I was leaving so that she could come over, she even threatened me by telling me to make sure the apartment was clean or she wouldn’t return my money. I was handing over the apartment to her on my final day and she was refunding me one and a half months of rent (I’d paid the rent until September), while keeping the deposit and two weeks’ rent. She came over that morning and did an inspection, then told me she’d give me my money when I exited the apartment! I told her I had luggage and I’d rather she give me the money before I left so I could put it away properly rather than be dragging my luggage and holding a bundle of cash in one hand. She relented and gave me the money in the apartment, but not before having a brief debate with me about her having to find tenants and me reminding her she found new people within a week, then I called a taxi and started to leave.

And this is when things took a turn for the better. “I’ll walk you out,” she said. “You’ve got a lot of luggage so I’ll come with you.” I told her it wasn’t necessary but she insisted. Then she not only walked me out, she also helped me by pulling my smallest luggage (I had 3 pieces of luggage – a giant one, a medium-sized one and the small one with my laptops – as well as a backpack). She accompanied me to the ground floor, pulling my small luggage while walking with me all the way to the front gate and my waiting taxi. For all the tough talk and tense moments with her in the previous weeks, I’ll always have this fond memory of seeing my 80-something-year-old landlady behind me pulling one of my luggage as I left the complex. IMAG5345


Beijing’s great weather

Beijing has for the last two weeks, up until the weekend that just passed, been experiencing a special phenomenon – great blue skies day after day. Of course, blue sky days by themselves are not rare, but the fact they’ve happened for several days straight at a time and with the skies being really blue has made even experienced Beijing expats gush with delight. The reasons for this are unclear, there’ve been some rain in the past few weeks, though not like Shanghai thank goodness, and some wind. Also, the authorities have closed down coal plants and factories this year while banning smoking and outdoor BBQ  vendors, not that these last two contributed much to the smog. The continuing economic slowdown might be a factor too such as factories and steel plants reducing production, though this is only a guess.

Unfortunately I will not be able to benefit from this good weather in the summer. I’d originally planned on doing some traveling in China in July and August, but I recently aggravated my foot, which I’d previously had surgery on at the start of this year, and the pain plus a doctor’s visit has made it clear I shouldn’t even be walking around too much, much less hiking. I will be leaving Beijing a bit sooner than I planned, though I will not be too sad.

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