Why traveling solo is great

Ever since I started traveling as an adult, I’ve mostly done it solo. By now, it’s like second nature to go on a trip by myself to foreign countries and explore cities, historical sites, or travel around. I enjoy this a lot and I hardly feel lonely or strange. While solo travel seems to have become more popular worldwide, not many of my Asian friends do it, and I don’t often see other solo travelers on my travels, so I don’t think it’s common in Asia. The solo travelers I often see are from the West while in my many trips in China, I only met two solo Chinese travelers and one from Hong Kong.

Though I’m from Trinidad, as an ethnic Asian, sometimes I get some weird and noticeable reactions in Asia probably because locals don’t think I’m from the West and judge me like a local or an Asian. When I was working Hong Kong, I got stunned reactions when I mentioned to local colleagues (it was so incredibly unusual that some of them gossiped about it) I’d gone on a trip by myself (this was just one of many issues I had with those HK colleagues). I’d say there’s definitely a stigma attached to solo travelers in Asia, moreso if one is Asian and less so if one is say, white. I kind of get it, because of the strong emphasis placed on group interaction and behavior in Asian cultures. Whereas in the West, sometimes you want to be on your own and value some time alone to do things and ponder your own thoughts, in Asia, being by yourself and doing things alone is terrifying.

Despite this, it’s great to travel solo. There are a lot of advantages compared to traveling with other people. You determine everything, you set your own schedule, and you go wherever you want or do whatever you want. To me, it’s the closest you can come to absolute freedom. You are also fully responsible for what you do and can’t blame anyone for any mishaps. Traveling solo also makes you independent and helps you feel more focused on the places you visit and sights you see. When you are walking around and exploring places by yourself, unless you are daydreaming about something, you tend to pay more attention to things going on around you. Being able to set my own schedule is really important since I don’t like waking up early and I often don’t want to spend the whole day outside.

That said, I don’t mind talking to people I meet while traveling, whether on a long-distance bus or a half-day-tour or while hiking on a mountain. There have been times I’ve met good people while traveling, such as on my first trip to Southeast Asia several years ago or even in China last year, and we’ve visited places or hung out together. Ironically these were all mainland Chinese, though they weren’t traveling solo.

One thing that is key to having a good solo trip is to always have an idea of what places to visit and what to do. I never spend an entire day relaxing (not that there’s anything wrong with this, but it’s just not for me) or trying to find out what to do (yeah, I’m not spontaneous). I’ll always prepare a list of places to check out before my trip and then decide on my daily itinerary based on that list the day before. It’s the same with travel arrangements and accommodation – I always try to do it in advance.

There are also a few minor setbacks, of course. For instance, as I mentioned above, you can get strange reactions from some people in Asia (people in Asia can be very judgmental about a ton of issues). In contrast, I hardly got any awkward reactions in Europe (presumably there is more of a culture of solo travelers in Europe as opposed to Asia). It might be a little awkward to eat at fancier restaurants, though as I’m not a foodie and I usually eat at small eateries, this isn’t an issue for me. You have less room to haggle when getting rides that don’t have a fixed price since if you are the only passenger, you need to pay the entire fare. In some hotels, single en-suite rooms (with its own bathroom) are for two persons so you are paying for two even if it’s just yourself. But this also is relatively minor if you budget accordingly.

When I first started traveling, especially when I went to China by myself for the first time or to parts of South Africa by myself, I did feel a little wary about personal safety and being scammed. Since then, I’ve become much more confident. Of course, I still read up on potential problems and take necessary precautions such as being aware of where I am and not being too naive (for eg, if you need to look at a map, don’t do so in the middle of the pavement or an open area; don’t have all your money in one spot; watch out for pickpockets etc). Women might need to be a bit more careful with safety, especially in certain parts of the world like India. Ironically, when it comes to my Asian friends, I know a few girls who have traveled solo (including a Canadian-Chinese who traveled to India by herself more than once) whereas none of my Asian male friends have done that.

If you want to travel by yourself, whatever your age or gender, just do it. Ignore the skeptics and discouragement.

Don’t write off Taiwan despite China’s threats

Taiwan seems to be going through a bit of a crisis in terms of global recognition after longstanding ally the Dominican Republic abandoned it for China on May 1. This reduces the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies (countries that officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country) to 19. Also, American Airlines and United have been targeted by China because they list Taiwan as Taiwan and not something like “Taiwan, China” on their websites. China actually claimed that foreign companies need to follow Chinese law overseas when it comes to Taiwan. While the US airlines haven’t made the change yet, several foreign companies like Zara and Marriot have done so when challenged by China earlier this year. And let’s not forget the Man Booker Prize website did the same thing when they changed Taiwanese author’s nationality from Taiwan to Taiwan, China. An online outcry led to them reversing this, though they consequently changed the category from nationality to country/territory, hence implying that the likes of Taiwan could be listed but were not necessarily countries.

This continued absurd overseas bullying by China might be laughable but it is frightening how international companies, from large countries like the US and Germany, continue to yield to China rather than stand their ground. While the obvious reason is that these firms want to get a slice of the China market and not be subject to punishment from China, it is disappointing that they will allow profit to prevail over common sense, international reality, and integrity.

The point is that despite China’s continual and tiresome claims, Taiwan is a fully functioning, independent and stable country. The governing Chinese Communist Party might be able to warp reality and control their population in the mainland but they think they can do so in the world too. Unfortunately a few people in Taiwan as well as supposed experts from the West have been deluded or alarmed enough that they think Taiwan needs to bend to China because it is for the best.

Taiwan has a few bright spots of optimism, one of which the New York Times highlighted in mid-April with a story lauding Taiwan as a bastion of free speech. The other is that companies like Google and Microsoft will set up major research and development (R&D) centers on Taiwan that will focus on artificial intelligence. So it’s too early to write off Taiwan. I wrote about this for Hong Kong Free Press so visit the link to read my article in full.

I’ve also put a shortened form of my article below:

 

Taiwan found itself in the media spotlight in mid-April when The New York Times lauded it as Asia’s bastion of media freedom, replacing Hong Kong whose political and media climate continues to recede under Chinese influence.

The island also saw positive news on the tech front after Microsoft, Google and IBM all announced plans earlier this year to increase R&D in Taiwan by training local talent and setting up research centers.
This is not surprising since Taiwan boasts a strong local tech industry, a deep talent pool, and relatively low wages. Taiwan already boasts a number of tech giants like TSMC, Quanta, Acer, and HTC.

But aside from tech factors, Taiwan also has political advantages. There is a growing backlash in the US and globally against China over various unfair and illegal protectionist actions, which has seen the announcement of heavy tariffs. While tech is one area in which China has become a powerhouse, the fact that its internet is heavily restricted and censored, and that foreign tech firms are subject to protectionist measures means data security and integrity is a significant risk. Meanwhile, intellectual property violations are also widespread in China and the lack of rule of law mean the law is stacked against foreign companies. Foreign companies face significantly less risk in these areas in Taiwan, which has proper rule of law, independent courts, and of course, a relatively free media environment.

Taiwan’s media atmosphere compares favorably with not just China and Hong Kong, but Asia in general. It was the top-ranked country in Asia on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index put out by Reporters without Borders. Ranked 42nd, it was 134 places ahead of China which languished near the bottom at number 176. Hong Kong, meanwhile, was ranked 70th.

As such, it wasn’t surprising that Reporters without Borders specifically chose Taiwan over Hong Kong for its regional bureau. The media in Hong Kong faces growing restrictions, including physical attacks on reporters and self-imposed censorship for fear of offending China. Besides media, this fear of censorship has spread to other areas like books and films. The Times article also mentioned the Hong Kong Human Rights Film Festival which will be held this year in Taiwan, and the relocation of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold controversial China books. Lam Wing-kee was one of five partners of the Causeway Bay Bookstore who were abducted by Chinese agents in 2016, in Hong Kong, China and Thailand, and then held for months without any contact with the outside world. The bookstore has since closed and Lam has said he will reopen it in Taiwan.

Taiwan stands out in the region and Asia, not just for media freedoms, but also human rights. When it comes to political freedom, religious freedom, gay rights, and animal rights, the island state is renowned for being progressive, especially when many neighboring countries are clamping down on these freedoms. This includes China, which claims Taiwan and frequently uses threats such as military exercises to intimidate the smaller state.

Of course, there is still a lot of room for Taiwan to improve in these areas such as a fragmented and competitive media scene that results in a dearth of quality journalism, as well as fading brands like HTC and Acer that failed to focus enough on marketing and maintaining market share overseas. Taiwanese firms traditionally were strong in hardware, especially OEM, but this came at a cost of focusing less on software and services. This is why the increased R&D cooperation with Google and Microsoft in fields like artificial intelligence will be vital. The more Taiwan diversifies its tech focus, the more it can boost its economy and tech capabilities.

Singapore- first impressions


Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories. Tiny and lacking natural resources, the city state managed to raise itself from an impoverished reject (it was briefly part of Malaysia before being kicked out) in 1965 to become one of the world’s richest nations and major financial hubs. Singapore manages to punch well above its weight in business, trade, tech, tourism, and regional politics. Singapore is also unique in that it was ruled by a legendary strongman who was very respected, feared and admired – the late Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in 2015. Much of Singapore’s economic success and development has been credited to his leadership. But Lee also contributed to Singapore’s reputation as a nanny state due to severe laws that limit freedom of expression, dissent, and other more banal things (like chewing gum for instance). While supposedly a democracy, Singapore has been ruled by only one party, Lee’s PAP, which always wins elections in an overwhelming manner (PAP currently hold 83 out of 89 seats).

I visited Singapore last year for the first time, and I was prepared to be bored, but instead I was quite impressed by the buildings and attractions, and how modern the country was in general. There was a lot of open space and greenery, and places did not feel crowded, despite being a small country with over 5 million. While the population is about 75% ethnic Chinese, Indians, Malays and expats make up the other 25%, and this was apparent everywhere in terms of the people and the food.

My birthplace Hong Kong seems to regard Singapore as its main competitor, due to both being tiny city states that are thriving financial hubs and former British colonies. But from what I saw, Hong Kong is so far behind that there is almost no contest. As mentioned, Singapore felt so spacious and uncongested, in comparison to Hong Kong and its cramped buildings and sidewalks and very crowded spaces.

Also, Hong Kong has nothing like the Gardens by the Bay or the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which even though they often appear in countless photos , are impressive to see in person. I saw a lot of towers with rooftop gardens or plants strewn across the building itself, which besides supposedly being good for the environment also looks kind of cool. I’m sure Hong Kong might have similar buildings, but I haven’t seen any yet.

However, there were a few issues.
As spacious and clean as the streets and buildings in Singapore were, it often felt a bit too orderly. While not boring, I did feel like everything was a bit too perfect and artificial. In fact, parts of the city were a bit sparse like the riverside where the Asian Civilizations Museum was.

I also found the subway system to be kind of slow. For instance, I took the subway from my hotel in Little India to the airport, thinking it would take 1 hour, but in reality it took almost 1 hour and a half, which resulted in me having to rush to check in and scramble to my gate (I made my flight). Apparently, when going to Changi airport by subway, you need to get off at Tanah Merah station and wait for another train to go the final two stops, which took about 15 minutes to come. I hadn’t realized it would take so long because I thought that as a train going to the airport, it would be more frequent.
I also took the subway to visit a friend who worked there as an expat. Foolishly, I thought 45 minutes would be enough since I only had go less than 10 stations, albeit transferring twice, but instead it took over an hour.

A very surprising issue is the dual pricing at attractions like the Gardens at the Bay, which means Singaporeans pay much less than tourists. While this exists across Southeast Asia, I was surprised at seeing this in Singapore since it is a very wealthy country (if anything tourists should be paying less than locals, but I know locals have contributed to these attractions through tax). Still, dual pricing doesn’t exist across Europe, Japan or North America.

It may not be a place to stay for too long or go wild and let loose (go to Thailand for that) but Singapore is a very interesting small country that is an oasis of calm and order in Southeast Asia.




‘Happy’ Taiwan leads region

After the toilet paper scare in February and the posturing from China, with “emperor” Xi having been officially elevated, Taiwan had some good news this past week. According to the World Happiness Report 2018 (page 22), Taiwan is the 26th happiest country in the world, as well as the second happiest in Asia. In East and Southeast Asia, Taiwan is the undisputed number one, coming well ahead of Japan (54), South Korea (57) and Hong Kong (76). Jeffrey Sachs, the American academic and author who has done a lot of good work in studying the developing world and poverty, was one of the editors behind the report.

It is not surprising that Taiwan did so well (finishing 33rd overall last year) because there are so many positives in its society. While the economy has weak in recent years and salaries are quite low, Taiwan’s democracy and civil society are strong, the health service is one of the most affordable and accessible in the world, and there is a growing sense of national pride and identity. Some writers and foreign media outlets might like to present a picture of Taiwan suffering and being brought to its knees because of its economy and because it refuses to kowtow to China anymore, but as far as I can see, people in Taiwan are still very doing alright. People are still very polite and civil, customer service is quite good, and politics is just as noisy as before. Even with the aforementioned toilet paper fiasco, while for a few days supermarkets actually ran out of toilet paper, there were no actual riots or physical fistfights, ha.

The report attributed country’s happiness to six key factors: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. On this count, Taiwan is doing well in all except the first one. Taiwan’s life expectancy is over 79, its health insurance is available to all Taiwanese (it’s actually free for the poor and unemployed), the media freedoms are among the highest in the world, and Taiwanese are among the most polite, helpful and pleasant people in Asia.

On the other hand, Hong Kong doesn’t seem to be a very happy place at 76th place. That HK’s regional rival Singapore was 34th also makes HK’s abysmal placing noteworthy. Just as it’s not too hard to figure out why Taiwan placed so high, it’s not difficult to understand why HK performed so dismally. There are almost too many reasons. There are serious political problems with China, financial inequality and poverty, and daily inconveniences. Housing is sky-high, whether you’re renting or buying, as is private health care, eating out and groceries. In addition, HK society has a lot of materialism, selfishness and arrogance. Hong Kong couldn’t be any more different from Taiwan in this area, which one can easily observe in customer service or in asking strangers questions. On paper, Hong Kong has a very high GDP per capita but in reality, a lot of people are struggling. For HK, the adage that money literally can’t buy happiness is very much true.

As for China, it came in at 86th. The leaders probably don’t care as they were too busy granting their great president and “emperor” Xi official approval to rule forever.

Crazy Rich Asians- book review

Even though Crazy Rich Asians and its two sequels have earned a lot of acclaim, I held off on reading it for a long time because I wasn’t sure I cared about the lives of rich, high-class Singaporeans/Asians. Especially when the main plot centers on an American-Chinese girl, Rachel, flying to Singapore for the first time with her boyfriend Nicholas, whose family is one of the country’s wealthiest. Why would I find a romantic love story filled with wealth and extravagance interesting? Well, I did read Crazy Rich Asians, and I have to admit I found it interesting and more.

First off, the romantic plot is actually not the main point of the book – the lifestyle of the wealthy and elite Asian is. After getting past the convoluted beginning, which seemed to introduced several dozen characters (a mild exaggeration) and their backstories which focused on how rich they were, the story became more fascinating. That it is almost wholly set in Singapore, with a bit of Hong Kong and China included, made it interesting to me because I know little about the country. More specifically, it introduced the idea of a Singaporean old-money elite, which is distinct from the merely wealthy in the scale of their wealth, sophistication and their place in society. I suppose this is similar to the UK. The plot progresses from a simple trip to more complex and disturbing developments involving plots to break up the main couple, family fights, and illicit affairs. Rachel and Nick are coming to Singapore to attend Nick’s best friend’s wedding, where Nick will be the best man and which all of Singapore will be crazy about. However, despite being together for a year, Nick hasn’t told his parents about Rachel. But even worse, he hasn’t told Rachel about his family, which leads to obvious complications. In addition, there is a plot twist involving Rachel’s background that adds a poignant piece to the story and will have further repercussions.

The book is not without its faults. The main male protagonist, Nicholas, was rather boring, and both him and his girlfriend were not the most interesting couple in the book. The narrative can get too caught up in superlatives, especially concerning physical appearances. For instance, almost all the main male and female characters are exceedingly handsome or exquisite beauties. On the other hand, Rachel’s Singaporean best friend, while also wealthy, belongs to a different class – nouveau riche – and her parents and brothers are all short, and the latter dark-complexioned. While the book is described as a satirical parody of wealthy Asians, I found that at times it was quite serious and seemed to have a reverential tone towards its characters. And the sheer vapidity was quite overwhelming in a few parts, such as the wedding of Nicholas’ best friend and a local supermodel.

Despite its flaws, Crazy Rich Asians was an exciting read that turned out to be a guilty pleasure and more.

Goodbye (and good riddance) to 2017

With days left until the end of 2017, it is with a lot of disappointment that I look back at this year and a lot of concern to the new year.
The world is no less messed up than it was at the beginning of the year, and as if to underscore the point, December saw several major tragedies including a deadly train crash in the US, a massive mall fire in the Philippines, a tragic gym fire in South Korea, a mass shooting in an Egyptian church, as well as terrible fires in New York and Mumbai just this week.

The American president continued to make a mess, while the UK struggled to come to terms with its Brexit decision. There is already more than enough written about the US president and his antics online and in print, so there’s no need to mention him further here. China under Xi sees itself as the world’s true superpower, though cracks appeared in its facade, most notably with its recent forced eviction of tens of thousands of its poorest people from Beijing. As China seems to get stronger, its economic debt problems might worsen next year while its technology-enhanced grip on society and information shows no sign of abating. Also, it has kept up a belligerent approach towards Taiwan, with a Chinese diplomat warning China would invade Taiwan if any US naval ship was to visit, and ramping up military drills around Taiwan and claiming this would become normal in the future. However, China has faced pushback from countries like Australia and New Zealand about its illicit activities overseas, as well as increased resistance to its nebulous Belt and Road “project.”

The Rohingya tragedy stunned the world when over 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh after a military campaign to destroy their settlements and kill Rohingya. It is a massive disappointment given how far the country had come from its authoritarian past in just a few years, and Aung San Suu Kyi went from a symbol of hope to one of disappointment and complicity to what many saw as genocide.

But beyond human rights and the continued political theater of the US and Europe, one of the biggest developments in the West was a backlash against technology as people started to realize that not everything related to technology was positive. Not only does technology not solve everything, it can make things worse as with the proliferation of fake news and propaganda on social media. And worse yet is that the growing use of technology such as smartphones can have a detrimental and addictive effect on people. Major tech executives and insiders have spoken out about the dangers of tech and social media, going so far as to ban their own kids from using it. The growing glorification of tech in the past few years has seen tech entrepreneurs acclaimed as superstars, obscene amounts of money thrown into all kinds of start-ups, and “hip” companies acclaimed as vital disruptors of “staid” industries.

The other big development in the West was a stunning wave of sexual harassment cases that started with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and grew to include directors, actors, chefs, comedians, tech executives, politicians, and even a former US president. It seemed like every day brought some new story about a different famous person, even those who were previously admired or liked a lot, being accused of serious sexual harassment behavior.

Hong Kong saw the selection in March of a new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who became the first woman to lead HK. But it also saw political farce in its legislation as four pro-democracy legislators were expelled from office for supposed problems when taking their oaths, as spurious a reason to eject elected lawmakers from office there is. Beijing continued to tighten its grip on HK and erode the “One Country, Two Systems” that enforces HK’s distinct status, including approving joint checkpoints (mainland officials will be stationed inside the station and mainland law will apply to those parts, thus violating HK’s mini constitution) at HK’s new high-speed rail station and openly urging HK to accept that it is “part of red China.”

Taiwan saw a few serious protests during the year as the ruling DPP, under president Tsai Ing-wen, found it a little rocky when they implemented or backtracked on some tough measures relating to labour hours and wages and pensions. Internationally Taiwan continued to be bullied by China, which besides increasing military flights near Taiwan and making belligerent statements, lured Panama away to leave Taiwan’ official allies at 20.

There are several other major tragedies elsewhere, such as Yemen and Syria (where civil war has raged since 2011), though at least ISIS has been defeated and in Europe the refugee crisis has improved from 2016. North Korea, with its childish madman leader, has kept on ramping up tensions, making nuclear war a growing, significant concern. This post is already quite long and I don’t want to keep going on about terrible events in 2017.

But while it might appear that a lot of this world is falling apart or in danger of doing so, maybe this is a necessary period of turbulence before serious improvement (politically, economic, cultural, etc) can occur.

With all that in mind, let’s look forward to the new year. Surely, 2018 can’t be worse, right?