England travel- Cambridge


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

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

  

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.

You are awful (but I like you)- book review

Judging from just the title, You Are Awful (But I Like You) might sound like a twisted love story, but it is actually a travel book about the author’s native Britain. One could say the title is an example of dry British wit, but actually there is nothing ironic about it because the author Tim Moore really decided to take his patriotism to the limit by visiting the most depressing, rundown and unloved places in his country. The book’s subtitle is Travels through Unloved Britain which clears things up more. It’s a travel book, not about magnificent cities, beautiful scenery and cheerful people, but the complete opposite.

This book itself is full of dry, sardonic humor, with almost every paragraph dripping with it. It was kind of tough to get through in the beginning, but after a while I started getting used to it. Mind you, there is very little genuine joy in the places Moore goes to, which include the likes of Hull, Skegness and Barrow. If anything, a lot of them don’t exactly repudiate their reputation, which Moore gleamed from online “most boring” lists and articles. As if going to rundown cities and decaying beach resorts weren’t enough, Moore compounds this by staying at the dingiest and shabbiest hotels and inns, which he deliberately finds by trawling Tripadvisor and similar sites. Moore picks apart the cities and towns, both for their general decline and for the ugly town center structures and car park monstrosities that were put up during the seventies. And he visited all of them while driving an Austin Maestro, an early 80s British car which he describes as “a very British tale of delusion, sloth, incompetence and on-the-cheap botch-jobbery.”

Rather than be depressing, somehow the book becomes interesting and a few of these cities, despite their utter lack of anything remotely attractive, as Moore points out at every opportunity, still manage to seem decent to read about, if not visit. It’s not all ridicule and snark, as Moore does provide some history about these places, some of whom like Middlesbrough, were actually important and booming cities that played important roles during the Industrial Revolution. Modernization, such as the replacement of coal by oil as the main means of powering ships, and the decline of fishing, steel and shipbuilding industries, hastened by the Thatcher years, also played a part. In the end, Moore laments the shoddiness of these fallen cities, not just for their grim fates, but for their testament to a different Britain that was proud and full of confidence, even if it meant building crap town centers.

The book is a weird combination of a travelogue, albeit the most depressing one ever published, and a history book about the decline of a nation*, comes out better than it sounds.

* Don’t get me wrong, I think the UK is still a pretty good country, those are the author’s own views.

Bleak outlook for the generation of 20- and 30-somethings

Vice has this crazy read about the current generation of British 20- and 3o-somethings, who just don’t and can’t stop partying and living like teenagers. Basically, for many of these people, life has gotten comfortable enough to the extent that people don’t have any meaningful purpose due to a lack of significant responsibilities like marriage, parenting and owning a home that our parents went through at the same age. As a result, a lot of people spent a lot of time partying and getting drunk and wasted, in other words, living like they did as teenagers and university students.

But it’s not all their fault because decent jobs are scarce while home prices have risen so much that most working- and middle-class young folks find it hard to buy their own home. I’m not British, and neither does my life resemble the worst parts of the article, but I can feel some sympathy. The problem is especially bad in London where a lot of “endies” – employed with no disposable income or savings – struggle to save money, especially to buy a home. Though one could wonder why young people in other parts of the Western world like the US, Canada or say, Western Europe aren’t engaging in the same kind of drunken antics frequently as well, despite facing similar problems of skyrocketing home prices, comfortable lives, and delayed marriages and birth rates.

The problems, socially though not behaviorally, exist in East Asia too, specifically Hong Kong and Taiwan with regards to the low levels of marriage (which includes myself as I’m single), births, and home ownership due to skyrocketing home prices. Japan also has this problem, and back in 2012, I came upon an FT article that described this problem with young people’s lack of ambition and chances.
In HK, the problem is especially acute because home prices are among the, if not the highest in the world and many of these homes are so tiny (and these aren’t even cheap). Affordable and public housing is sparse and a significant number of new developments are luxury apartments. A lot of young people are living with their parents, even young married couples working decent jobs like the couple mentioned in this article, incidentally about HKers escaping rising home prices by immigrating to Taiwan.

Yet home prices in Taiwan are not cheap for young Taiwanese either. The problem is especially serious in Taipei where rising home prices mean many young, middle-class people can’t afford homes and have been forced to rent or move out to surrounding areas. The recent local election saw the ruling KMT lose municipalities across Taiwan including Taipei due to problems like inequality and out-of-reach home prices (and what many perceive as a focus on boosting China economic ties that only benefit local tycoons while unable to benefit most people).
Incidentally I missed this news way back in August, but it’s an interesting development that mainlanders have been buying homes and property in Taiwan since 2002, mainly through Taiwanese middlemen or shell corporations set up in other places like Hong Kong. Hell, there’s even an apartment project in Tamsui that was built by a mainland developer (through its Singapore associate company). Allowing more mainland buyers in Taiwan to buy homes would also push prices up, or rather push developers to build more luxury apartments like Hong Kong, since these mainland buyers are mostly wealthy.

In Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, things are tough too when it comes to buying apartments (condominiums). So tough that for many 30-something couples, the main way they’re able to afford homes is the “Bank of Mom and Dad” – money from parents.
Frankly, this could be applied to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. While I’ve yet to see articles that explicitly state this, I know from talking to people and family that many parents in East Asia pay for their children’s homes or at least pay off the deposit.

At the same time, it’s not as if young people can be spared all blame. There are other factors too such as that with the development of technology and materialism, there are so much more things to spend money on such as vacations, electronic devices and services. And as such, it’s harder to save up money and most young people don’t develop this habit.
In some countries like the US, this is exacerbated by a situation where things like say, health care and tuition are getting higher while clothes and electronic devices like TVs and computers are getting cheaper.
The problem is less so in East Asia, especially in Taiwan where health insurance is nationwide and extremely affordable.

This trend of home prices rising way beyond the reach of young, educated workers seems to be prevalent across the world, from the UK to Canada to East Asia to even China. And while it hardly gets mentioned, I’m certain housing markets and economies face a looming crisis down the road as societies age, birthrates drop, and 20- and 30-somethings are unable to continue buying homes at the same rate as their parents and grandparents.

Hopefully the future will not be as bleak for current 20- and 30-somethings in Asia like how the Vice article suggests it is in the UK.