Books

Everything Belongs To Us- book review

I like to read novels set in Asian countries, such as India, China, Myanmar, and even Malaysia. Now I can add South Korea to that list after having read Everything Belongs to Us, a coming-of-age novel about three young Korean university students in Seoul living under military dictatorship in the late 70s back when the country was still poor. I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, which forms most of my post below, with a few slight changes.

South Korea was not always a prosperous, democratic and cutting-edge country. In the seventies, it was poor and ruled by a harsh authoritarian regime desperate to catch up with the West while cracking down on any form of public dissent. 

Namin, Jisun and Sunam are students at Seoul National University, the best school in the nation. Graduation means an almost guaranteed life of lucrative employment, connections and advancement. For Jisun, the daughter of one of the country’s richest tycoons, this life of privilege is exactly what she hates. But for her friend Namin, the daughter of street-food vendors, it is everything, though not for purely materialistic reasons. In between is Sunam, who desperately wants to climb the school’s social ladder by becoming a member of the Circle, a campus secret society. He soon falls for Namin and starts dating her. But their relationship becomes complicated as their contrasting backgrounds and ambitions clash.

The students’ personal struggles take place amid stark societal problems such as violent factory worker protests, a clandestine Christian activist network trying to agitate for workers, and the sad fate of Namin’s bitter older sister who leaves her factory job to work in a red light district and gets pregnant by an American GI who later leaves her. The latter brings the starkness of poverty to the fore, especially when she then leaves her baby with Namin’s sister. These disparate elements are not explored very deeply but mesh together to form a subdued background. Sometimes, it seems as if too much is going on and some plot elements such as the Circle are introduced then discarded; the narrative might have benefited from a tighter focus on the more central elements.

The settings vary from Namin’s working-class sparse home to Jisun’s ultra-wealthy household, but they are still subject to the same forces that dominate society. Under President Park Chung-hee—the father of the recent female president who was just impeached—South Korea is a rigid, conservative nation that has forsaken personal liberties for economic growth and prohibited dissent. While Namin is constrained by these stifling norms, Jisun actively pushes against them. All this works to create an intriguing story, especially as it is never apparent whether Namin or Jisun will prevail in their respective challenges.

The historical context is notable, not just because it is a particularly precarious time during the country’s economic development, but also because there are very few English-language novels set in South Korea and not about the Korean War. As such, the novel provides a welcome glimpse into a country that is still not that well-known or portrayed in the West except for its electronics brands.

Wuertz’s female protagonists are strong and driven; but the male characters, however, are flimsy and superficial. Sunam has little going for him, other than being a good player of baduk, also known as go. It is unclear why both main female characters are drawn intently to him and at times, this mars the storyline. Other male characters, such as Juno, Sunam’s supposed mentor, and the American missionary, Peter, play a very minor role or act mostly as a foil for Jisun. In fact the latter starts off as a love interest for Jisun, but by the end is reduced to begging her for money for a legal case.

The more memorable male characters are minor ones such as Namin’s brother whose cerebral palsy caused him to be sent to be raised by their grandparents in the countryside, and Sunam’s controlling, tycoon father. The former is a major reason for Namin’s incredible drive for trying to advance herself at school as she has a dream of getting rich and buying a large house that she and her brother can live in.

Nevertheless, Namin and Jisun are compelling characters that deservedly soak up most of the attention. Together, they drive a worthy literary debut in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Hong Kong

Urban Hong Kong photo roundup

Urban Hong Kong might be crowded, cramped and noisy but it still makes for interesting sights. It is probably the most built-up urban environment in the world, especially on Hong Kong Island, which is very hilly but apartment towers line the slopes of upper Central, Sheung Wan and Mid-Levels all the way up to just below the Peak. It is an impressive sight but on the other hand, the actual living spaces in a lot of the buildings (not Mid-Levels) are not, such as older towers, especially in Kowloon but even in supposedly trendier neighborhoods like Sheung Wan. It would be nice if the authorities spent more time, effort and funds on renovating existing buildings and neighborhoods, especially historical ones.


Probably Hong Kong’s most well-known mural, located in Central


Kowloon, above and below

Tram with retro advertising

I usually don’t go to these kinds of street markets as they are too crowded for me.

Wetmarket in Central – a non-touristy aspect of an increasingly touristy part of town
“Little Indonesia” – side street in Causeway Bay

Above photo and the following two are from the inner courtyard of Yick Fat Building, a public housing estate in Quarry Bay. A scene from Transformers 4 (the one with scenes in Hong Kong and China) was shot here.

The next four photos are of Central and Sheung Wan.

Hong Kong

Is Hong Kong a world city?

To some people, this question is obvious. Hong Kong is one of the world’s greatest cities, almost on par with New York and London, basically “Asia’s World City,” according to them. But they are wrong. While this may have been true a long time ago, maybe even up to 15 years ago, despite what some people profess, Hong Kong is not and is actually moving further and further away from being a world city every single day. There are experts who have made this claim and they look at macro-political, economic and governance factors, but I think just looking at society tells its story.

Now Hong Kong is a top financial hub. It is also unique as a city-state that has its own flag, currency, administration, police, educational system, and legal system. But it is not a city that can call London and New York its peers.
First, a great city is strong in more than one area. If you look at New York, it is the US center of gravity for arts, media, advertising, business, finance, tourism and so on. London can claim a similar status for business, arts, media, education, and political power. In Hong Kong- finance, yes, but nothing else. Going through key areas, the situation is bleak. In sports, there is the Hong Kong rugby sevens annual tournament which is certainly well-known, but no other major events. Its entertainment industry used to be well-known regionally, back in the 80s and 90s, but its singers and movie stars are no longer famous outside of Hong Kong. It may be a financial hub and boast some incredibly rich tycoons, such as Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men, yet none of its companies dominate banking or finance. HSBC is not a Hong Kong company despite its name, while AIA may be one of the world’s biggest insurance companies, but it is headed by a Westerner and was spun off from AIG. Customer service is alright at best, often dismal and sometimes downright rude. You can easily find better service in Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul. And Hong Kong doesn’t produce or develop much of anything, so there isn’t anything here that you can’t buy elsewhere.
Also, a great city should be the most important city in its own country, for example, London in the UK, Paris in France, Toronto in Canada etc. Hong Kong, however, isn’t even the most important city in China, or even the second.

Second, a great city should be multicultural. One might say Hong Kong has loads of expats, as well as Westerners and Indians who’ve lived in Hong Kong for generations, as well as a multitude of Southeast Asian helpers. But Hong Kong is still overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese (almost 95%) and its government and institutions are all run by ethnic Chinese with a thin layer of Westerners holding senior positions. Meanwhile, all those Southeast Asian helpers are temporary workers who fulfill an important role but who are not exactly part of regular society (they are not eligible to apply for permanent residency and are bound to live in their employers’ homes). Longtime Westerners may be doing alright as do some Indian business families, but a lot of South Asians who grew up here still struggle to get proper education, jobs and representation. Unlike Singapore, no non-white minority holds or has held a top governing or administrative post and there are hardly any minority faces in entertainment. On the contrary, it is common to see white expats hold positions of power in administration as well as business and education. Not that they are all unqualified, but this is both a reflection of colonial heritage and a lack of local leadership talent. Of course, by this same rationale of multiculturalism, regional metropolises like Tokyo, Seoul, and even Shanghai fall short and for the same reason, they are not really great world cities.

Third, some folks try to label Hong Kong as the perfect example of East meets West. However, the result is not so much a dynamic, unique blend, but a watered down mixture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t talented and quality people, because there are, but it’s that the society and culture does not create anything spectacular. The reason is probably due to a mix of factors like cramped buildings and streets, sky-high living expenses, animosity towards China’s growing control, and so on. There is a lot of negativity in Hong Kong between people, and I don’t mean my little rant here. The strong notorious anti-mainland Chinese sentiment still exists but I’m not just talking about that. A lot of Hong Kongers are trying to emigrate, even young people, which says something about how they perceive their future here. And to be honest, a lot of people, especially locals, some expats, and even the SE Asian helpers, don’t like it here and don’t like each other.

By being unable to be great at anything except as a business/finance hub and by failing to become truly liveable and truly integrate non-Chinese minorities, Hong Kong is not able to break out from its box. In a sense, it is already special, but more as a fading star still living on past glories.

This issue has perplexed a lot of people, including those who are more intelligent and informed than me. But in short, a city cannot be great if its only purpose is as a finance hub and that is pretty much all Hong Kong has got going for it.

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.

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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China

Marking the June 4 tragedy in Hong Kong

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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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Taiwan

Taipei travel and farewell (again)

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When I moved to Hong Kong in March, I said goodbye to Taipei for a second time. But unlike the first time when I moved to Beijing, my move this time happened abruptly and deliberately because I’d been job-searching from Taiwan and decided to move once I’d gotten an offer. Coincidentally I’m writing this from Taipei, which I went back to for the Labor Day weekend. But whether it’s because I only left only two months later, or because Hong Kong is close to Taipei and arguably more developed, I don’t feel as much relief or gladness to be back. Taipei seems very quiet (admittedly it was rainy and I stay in a peaceful residential area) and a bit dreary compared to noisy, crowded Hong Kong.

Anyways, before I left for Hong Kong, I went to a few places I hadn’t been to.

A monument to one of Taiwan’s worst tragedies, the 228 Peace Memorial Park occupies a spot right in the middle of Taipei, next to the NTU Hospital and near Taipei Train Station. The 228 incident in 1947 resulted in several thousand, perhaps even over 10,000 as the actual death toll is not known, civilians were killed by ROC soldiers in an effort to contain disturbances sparked by a riot over a vendor being arrested and beaten. The mass killing was covered up for decades until finally the government publicly addressed it in the nineties and later declared a public holiday to commemorate it. The monument features a steel sculpture of two mounted cubes mounted on their edges and fused together facing a large concrete structure featuring two blocks also fused together crowned by a towering steel spire. In the midst of the concrete structure is an underground fountain that flows downward.

See further down for Ximending and Huashan Creative Park.

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NTU Hospital, one of the city’s better hospitals. This is the old wing, which was built under Japanese occupation in the early 20th century.
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Shin Kong Life tower, the second-highest tower in Taipei

Ximending
This is a busy shopping and entertainment area that is popular with young people. I don’t usually come here (the last time being when I was a university student visiting Taiwan) but I had to go to the nearby Immigration Department for paperwork so I decided to go here out of curiosity. The area features the Red House, a renovated historic building that is full of artist shops.
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Art for this age- a statue of two youngsters taking selfies. It’d be meta to take a selfie in front of it.
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Huashan 1914 Creative Park
This art park used to be a winery that was built in the early 20th century. It’s got theaters, galleries, shops and an upside-down house, which you can see for yourself below.
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South Korea travel · Travel

Seoul travel- its impressive major museums

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Seoul is one of the best cities I’ve visited, right up there with the likes of Shanghai, Osaka, Hanoi and London. One of the reasons is that it has the most impressive military museum I’ve ever visited, with basically an entire mini army and air force to the side, while its national history museum and contemporary arts museum are also quite good.

The military museum or War Memorial of Korea is a huge, formidable gray building (it used to be the country’s military headquarters).  In front are a few large sculptures commemorating the Korean War and to the side are a fantastic collection of dozens of old warplanes, helicopters, tanks and even a full-scale replica of a navy frigate. These could be an entire attraction itself, never mind going into the museum (but of course, you should).
The museum proper features historic weaponry, a full-scale replica of a 16th-century turtle ship used to destroy invading Japanese navies, and a full section devoted to the Korean War, featuring a memorial to fallen UN soldiers and the flags, military memorabilia and info of each nation that sent troops to help South Korea fight off North Korea and China.
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War museum

The National Museum of Korea history museum is also in a large, gray, imposing building (maybe there’s a trend here) with a nice artificial lake in front. Like the British Museum in London and China’s national history museum in Beijing, this museum is completely free. The building’s entrance is a huge, conical glass section that leads directly to the exhibits which are on several floors surrounding open space in the middle. There were loads of Korean artifacts, paintings, and an Asian collection including Chinese, Japanese and South Asian items. Frankly, the ancient Korean artifacts didn’t impress me too much but what interested me more was Korean history. I learnt from the info on display that until the 7th century AD, there were three Korean kingdoms ( Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla,) that eventually became a unified entity after Silla, allied with China’s ruling Tang dynasty, conquered the other two kingdoms.
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History museum

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) was new, having just opened in January 2014, and was built at a cost of US$230 million. Normally contemporary art is not my thing and I wouldn’t go out specifically to view it, but I made an exception in this case due to all the articles I’d seen about this museum.
The MMCA (Seoul branch, there are other branches elsewhere in the nation) turned out to be worth it. The feature attraction was a giant transparent, hollow house made out of mesh cloth containing a smaller Korean house, a hanok, inside and was called “Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home.” (really). There was also performance art with a soprano singing to a child, who was a visitor, sitting across from him, visual art and regular weird paintings that look like somebody took paint and threw it onto the canvass. I even saw a short film in the downstairs cinema which was big enough for a few hundred people about a Korean woman trying to remember a weird incident in the past involving answering a casting call of some sort.
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The main attraction at the MMCA when I was there

History museum exhibits below
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War memorial/military museum photos below
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MMCA photos below
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China · China travel · Travel

Hong Kong roundup 2015 – famous skylines and Cheung Chau

Hong Kong’s famous skyline is probably its most well-known feature, symbolizing the world’s most densest collection of skyscrapers and HK’s status as a financial and commerce hotspot. Indeed, that skyline, which lies over Victoria Harbor on HK Island, is something I never get tired of looking at and taking photos of from the southern tip of Kowloon, called Tsim Tsa Tsui. But that is just one part of a diverse landscape that includes packed highrises, countryside villages, scenic beaches and hilly country parks with vast greenery.
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I could never tire of this view, especially at sunset and even with multiple ships – tourist boat, container ship, and ferry (left to right).

I didn’t hike on any mountain this time but I did go to Cheung Chau, a small island that is a former fishing village-turned-holiday retreat southwest of HK Island. The island has a busy waterfront with seafood restaurants and several temples and weird rock landscapes. There’s nothing spectacular but a pleasant island vibe and a decent excursion. People still live on the island, and there are holiday homes and school and religious retreat centers as well. It’s one hour from Hong Kong Island by slow ferry and half-hour by fast ferry.
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I also went to the HK History Museum again, the first being back in 2007. It was just as interesting as I remembered, with probably a few changes. HK may not seem to have much history given its current form as a busy commercial city and port stemmed from when the British colonized it in the mid-19th century, but fishing and pirate villages on the coast and rural villages inland had already existed for hundreds of years before. HK also has a diverse Chinese makeup including the Punti, Cantonese from Guangdong Province, and the Hakka (my father’s people), the Hokkien, from Fujian province, and the Tanka boat people, who mostly do not live on boats anymore. This assortment makes for a few distinct traditions such as walled villages and festivals involving noisy lion dances and climbing of bun towers. Nearby is the June 4 museum, which commemorates the terrible tragedy in Beijing (and other cities) in 1989 that saw a mostly student movement crushed by the authorities. Needless to say, such a place does not exist in the mainland.

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June 4 museum, a small but worthy effort to commemorate the tragedy. Located near the history museum, it’s on a floor inside a building (you need the address since there is no sign outside the building) and features photos and information, which unfortunately are all in Chinese for now.
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New Territory sunset

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West Kowloon, the red junk is a faithful reproduction of traditional Chinese ships that sailed in this harbour as recent as the 1970s
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HK has a busy commercial port so there are always container ships to the west of Victoria Harbor.
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Cruise ship docked at Tsim Tsa Tsui’s cruise terminal, with a junk in front

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Mongkok street market in Kowloon
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Indian/Pakistani food, which was quite good
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New Territories
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Enjoy the HK skyline again