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.

The Last Train to Zona Verde- book review

I recently finished Paul Theroux’s most recent novel, and I’ve just finished his second-to-last nonfiction book The Last Train to Zona Verde, in which Theroux makes a journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city. It’s an ambitious trip, Theroux’s last in Africa, that would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.

He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.

Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.

Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.

There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.

The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a little shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.

While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.

Random links – Cambodia, Cape Town, Game of Thrones

I’m in the midst of a three-day “weekend”, given due to today’s holiday which is dedicated to workers – Labor Day. However, I’m not in a very celebratory mood because right after the “weekend” ends, I get to look forward to a 6-day work week. It’s not too bad, though I’d prefer it if the order was reversed. It’s also an example of the wacky work rescheduling in China (and Taiwan) for holidays, that happens due to the need to make up days. For instance, we only worked three days this past week, but in return we have to work one more day next week, which actually meant we got one extra holiday.

Anyways, another reason I’m not in a festive mood is because on Tuesday I got hit by a car (my first time ever). I got struck by a taxi making a right turn while I was at the side of a road. It wasn’t too serious so I didn’t make a big deal out of it but the aftermath concerning the taxi driver and one of his colleagues left a bad impression on me, which I’ll probably describe in a future post soon.

For now, let me just introduce a few links.

My last travel post was about Cambodia, so it’s fitting I’m turning back to that country. Cambodia has its own version of kickboxing, Kun Khmer, just like how Thailand has its Muay Thai, but sadly this legacy was almost destroyed during Pol Pot’s genocidal reign. This VICE Fightland story takes a look at a new Cambodian mixed martial arts (MMA) outfit that is already competing in Asia after having outgrown the local scene.

South Africa’s Cape Town is a cool city and it’s this year’s “World Design Capital.” I visited in 2010 and it is the most beautiful city I’ve been to, with Table Mountain looming right above and its attractive colonial buildings and harborfront. Unfortunately it’s also possibly the most divided city I’ve been too, and the inequality is still there and strong. Basically, the more well-off and white residents live within the city, while the poor live in huge township slums on the outskirts, which are a completely different world. Khayelitsha, one of the more well-known townships, has over 400,000. Conditions in the townships are rough and dangerous, and attempts to improve local infrastructure often doesn’t help and instead exacerbates the poverty and alienation of the people from the city. Back in 2010, I went on a township tour and the guide, a black South African, said some harsh things about Cape Town, such as that it is a pretty city, but it is not for black people, a blunt remark about how few blacks lived inside Cape Town. My airport driver, a white local, pointed out new homes in the townships while driving past them on the highway, and said how those were attempts by the ANC, the ruling party, to move more blacks into the region. I wrote a piece about slum tourism that year that covers a lot of what I saw in Cape Town, including that township tour.

Game of Thrones is one of the baddest TV shows out now, and along with many other people, I watch it regularly. Among its strong points are its impressive sets and beautiful landscapes, which are shot on location in Morocco, Malta, Croatia and Iceland. Yet it’s Northern Ireland that provides the backdrop for much of the show, and I confess I was ignorant about how attractive it is. A lot of those ancient cities and formidable castles and fantastic scenery in the show really do exist. I’d never thought of visiting those countries, except Morocco, but if I ever do, I’d definitely like to visit the places where the GoT scenes are shot.

Dental disappointment and random links

I’m still aggravated from spending over 1,100RMB (US$185) this afternoon to try and get a filling done on my tooth at a nearby international clinic, but at least I was able to enjoy the snowfall, Beijing’s first for the year and season, and a few online links.

First, the reason I had to get a filling is because my previous filling just flat out came out. It got dislodged on Wednesday in the Nanjing South train station as I was eating a salty duck jianbing (pancake) which was particularly chewy. The reason why I said I tried to get a filling done is because the dentist failed to do so, having spent over 10 minutes prodding into my mouth with a needle to apply the anesthesia without any success. She even used a second needle, as at one point she asked her assistant to change it. Admittedly the tooth is the furthest back in my mouth, but it is disappointing that a supposedly qualified and highly paid professional can’t carry out such an ordinary task.
The only good thing is because the filling wasn’t actually done, I didn’t need to pay a further 1,000 RMB. I will visit Taiwan in a few weeks so hopefully my former dentist there can help me. I’m not wealthy but the reason I went to this clinic is because I wanted to deal with an English-speaking dentist. Back in Taipei, I saw my dentist for years, having first gone with my mother, so I trusted him.

I was doing some random blog browsing earlier in the day, and I came upon a surprising bit of news about Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, who was also PM in 2006 but only for less than a year. The blogger claimed Abe resigned the first time around, because of a seriously upset stomach. Basically, he suffered from chronic diarrhea due to ulceratis colitis, a bowel disease caused by ulcers and which results in frequent and bloody bowel movements. At first, I thought the blogger was just saying nonsense to be mean, but it turns out he was saying the truth – Abe did step down as PM because of chronic diarrhea. Now I’m no fan of Abe, his policies or Japan in general, but when I read the piece, I can’t help feel some sympathy. As someone who has longterm bowel issues myself, the thought of someone suffering from a serious bowel disorder and still becoming prime minister is kind of admirable. Coincidentally, ulcerative colitis is also what forced Manchester United player Darren Fletcher to be out of football for some time. Fletcher, a Scotsman, has come back as his condition has improved.

The NY Times has a list of 52 places around the world to visit, and number one is … Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a great choice – the city is scenic, boasting the impressive Table Mountain which looms right over it, historic, and has a fair bit of culture and of course, glamor. For me, it is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to. Of course, I’m sure many of the other places listed are pretty good to visit too.

Meanwhile, here’s something about Scandinavia, specifically some negative stuff about countries that we often only hear good things about. A British writer wrote in the Guardian about problems with Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, half tongue-in-cheek and half serious, and not surprisingly, he got spirited responses from people from those countries, with a bit of banter thrown in. Here’s what they said, as well as the British guy’s defense. The Brit actually wrote an entire book about those Scandinavian/Nordic countries as well as Iceland that was recently released.

Cape Town- beautiful but unequal

Last year, I visited Cape Town for a few days and I found it a splendid city and the most beautiful one I’ve ever been to. However the Guardian had a bleak article about Cape Town, using Desmond Tutu’s celebration of his 80th birthday last week in Cape Town to lament the extreme inequality of that city. It seems a bit harsh, but for sure there is a lot of poverty right outside the city in the vast low-income and shanty neighborhoods that include townships like Gugulethu and Khayelitsha, said to be the biggest township in South Africa with over 1 million people. The city itself is really nice and has a European or San Francisco feel to it, with good museums and scenic places like Table Mountain and the V & A Waterfront. Yet as my tour guide mentioned (and which the article also describes), Cape Town is great for tourists but not for many locals, alluding to the poor, most of whom are blacks or colored. It’s a striking example of the vivid issues and problems that afflict South Africa, and make it such a fascinating country.

Cape Town- the end in pictures

These are a few pictures showing Cape Town in all its splendor. This should be my last post on Cape Town regarding my stay there, but you never know.

Table Mountain viewed from the V&A Waterfront.

These signs showed testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation hearings that were chaired by Desmond Tutu during the 90s to promote reconciliation. This was part of an exhibit inside the Mandela Robben Island ferry pier.

The words on the wall at left  read: “While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.” Wise words indeed. At right is the sleek catamaran that was our ferry.

At left is the limestone quarry or “Robben Island University” where Mandela and many other prisoners taught and learnt from each other. According to the guide, the limestone posed health risks especially to prisoners’ lungs. Mandela got off lightly, because the main health problem he got was damage to his eyes and tear ducts, preventing him from shedding tears when crying. At right is a sign near the entrance to the maximum security prison.

At left is the outside of the maximum security prison. Meanwhile once we got inside, “Sparks” started off the tour by giving us a talk in a cell where 60 prisoners were kept at a time. The charts showed the specific dietary allocations for prisoners of different races. Needless to say, blacks got less than the others.

At left is Nelson Mandela’s cell, small, nondescript and toilet-less. At right is a guard tower seen from outside the compound.

It’s impossible to leave out Table Mountain when talking about Cape Town, but I almost didn’t get to go there. It rained on the day I had scheduled a hike up there and it got canceled. However, on the morning of my last day, the weather cleared up and I hastily (without any reservation whatsoever) decided to go up there. I only spent less than an hour on top and I had to rush back to meet my airport pickup (who ended up waiting 10 minutes) but it was worth it.

This is how Table Mountain looks on a good day from the area I stayed at, left, while the right-side picture shows Table Mountain from the cable car station.

People abseil (scale down a cliffside) on the side of Table Mountain facing the Atlantic. The city centre is on the other of Lion Rock, the peak in the middle.

The city centre, with Lion Rock and Signal Hill on the left, and the city’s World Cup stadium, Green Point, the bowl structure in the background middle. There is too much glare otherwise the photo would have been much better but it couldn’t be helped.