Books · China

Flood of Fire- book review

The Opium War is one of the most famous episodes in modern Chinese history, being the moment when China realized how feeble it was compared to the British who thrashed it in battle and forced it to open up its ports to Western traders. This came as a rude shock, putting it mildly, to the Chinese and their ruling Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and even after well over one and a half centuries, it still hasn’t been forgotten by the Chinese. Hong Kong owes its existence and prosperity to this war, because it was officially handed over to the British after the war under whom it changed from a small fishing village to the financial hub it is today.

Flood of Fire is the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s epic Opium War trilogy that spans India and China and features an eclectic cast of Indian, Chinese and British characters. The book sees the outbreak of the Opium War as the British launch an attack on the ruling Qing Dynasty over its ban on opium imports. As Guangdong is attacked, Hong Kong is captured and the Qing are humbled by the British navy and army, characters on all sides strive to exploit their differing situations. There are Parsi businessmen, British merchants and officers, an American sailor, Bengali soldiers, Chinese Tanka boat people, and Cantonese.

The trilogy began with a ship, the Ibis, which set sail from India in the mid-19th century with a diverse group on board, including runaways, fugitives and nobles, who dispersed after a mutiny mid-voyage. The bulk of these characters made their way to Hong Kong and Guangdong, which by then was the only point of exchange between Western merchants and China. Opium was the main import from Western and Indian businessmen, which as most of us know, caused a lot of anger among Chinese officials. But that is because many Chinese enjoyed this narcotic so much that addiction became a scourge (something that few Chinese accept responsibility for). A powerful Chinese official, Lin Zexu, (who is revered as a national hero in modern China) soon orders a ban on opium imports and burns a huge load of opium in public, bringing about hostilities that lead to a declaration of war from the British.

With such a large cast, it can be confusing at times, especially as there are several plotlines going on simultaneously, involving both sides. But most of these plots are interesting enough, though the conclusion ties them together a bit too neatly.

Indian-born Bengali Amitav Ghosh is probably my favorite novelist after I read Glass Palace, one of his novels which spanned Burma and India during the British colonial period. Ghosh has a gift for writing sweeping novels set across different but places, especially South Asia, during major historical events like the Opium War in this case, Partition (of British India into India and Pakistan), and the conquest of Burma by the British. Other books of his that I’ve enjoyed include Hungry Tide, a contemporary novel about a scientist studying Bangladesh’s vast Sundurban wetland, and this Opium War trilogy. His most recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is not a novel, but a work of non-fiction, examining how climate change threaten a lot of countries, especially through global warming and unpredictable weather changes such as rising sea levels that can put coastal cities and settlements at risks.

Books

Last Man in Tower- book review

Vishram Society Tower A is an aging apartment tower that still retains a trace of its former appeal as a respectable middle-class residence in a slum-infested district in Mumbai. Its longtime residents, mostly families and retirees, possess a sense of belonging towards their building. But this is severely tested when a property tycoon or “builder” makes a stunning offer to them to move out so he can redevelop the building.

The second novel from Aravind Adiga, who won the Booker Prize in 2008 for his debut book The White Tiger, Last Man in Tower is a tragicomic look at how the residents of Tower A deal with the offer from the builder to leave their revered building. The book starts off a little mundane but gradually tensions build up as the residents increasingly become tempted by the offer. The plot twists a bit, tackling multiple issues like greed, poverty, inequality, and human nature, especially how people sacrifice their ideals for their families. As the book is wholly set in Mumbai, India, it puts a spotlight on local issues like corruption and the prioritizing of development, mostly of high-end apartments and buildings, over providing for the mass poor and working class, some which is also a common sign of urbanization in many developing cities around the world.

There are several key tenants, including Masterji, a retired schoolteacher who copes with recently losing his wife and has a tense relationship with his son and daughter-in-law, Sanjeeta, a housewife who is devoted to her teenage mentally-disabled son and is willing to do anything to get him cured, Miss Rego, otherwise known as “Battleship” for her stout socialist views, and Ajwani, a greedy property agent. The builder Shah may be one of the less unscrupulous in the business but is not averse to using dark means to get his way, especially involving his henchman Shanmugham. As Shah makes his generous offer, while augmenting it with something extra for a few of the more influential tenants, resistance from the tenants gradually melts away except for one stubborn holdout who sees staying in his longtime home as a moral quest.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story but I’ll just say it doesn’t end well.

Books · China

From the Ruins of Empire- book review

Pankaj Mishra is a respected non-fiction writer from India who has written several nonfiction books about India, South Asia and Asia. From the Ruins of Empire (The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia), the first book of his that I’ve read, is a sweeping historical account of several major Asian intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century who challenged European imperialism at a time when its power loomed over much of Asia. Asia was largely subordinate, with India and most of Southeast Asia colonized by European powers, China defeated in the Opium Wars and bullied, Iran subdued, and the Middle East ruled by the Ottomans, who themselves would see their empire torn up by the Europeans after World War I.

Several of these intellectuals, besides challenging European domination and trying to revive their ailing countries, also shared a vision of pan-Asian unity. Mishra is a bit liberal by including Turkey as an Asian country because if anything, Turkey has been trying hard to become part of Europe via EU membership. That aside, the historical account of various countries across Asia, specifically China, Japan, and Iran, is compelling.
One of the more intriguing Asian thinkers profiled is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani who traveled across the Islamic world -Egypt, Iran, Turkey – agitating for a pan-Islamic sphere. Due to recent events, I couldn’t help think of ISIS while reading this part though al-Afghani seemingly had a more benign vision that alternated between tradition and modernism or democracy with Islamic elements. However, the desire to modernize while being able to retain Islamic characteristics is a struggle that is still true today throughout the Arab region (I admit I am not an expert on the Middle East or the Arab region).

Other major thinkers/activists include Chinese Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and Nobel laureate, who is admired in China and Japan. Mishra does well to bind the stories of these disparate individuals by linking them to a similar purpose and a common foe (Western powers). The end of World War II saw European colonization brought to an end in Asia and the “rise” of China and India and Japan makes for a tempting vision of Asia rising. There is a trace of sympathy and admiration for China, who Mishra sees as having risen to a power, though he is also aware about the injustices in that country. Mishra concludes with the thought that Western dominance is short-lived but admits that deep challenges remain, such as Pakistan and Indonesia. Personally, I think he is too optimistic about Asia and the end of Western dominance, but the book is still a fascinating and informative read.

China

Random links – Vast Chinese limestone caves, India wet wonderland, Roman Empire, and China’s poor urban planning

China’s Guangxi is famous for its karst hills but what’s underground is just as impressive. See National Geographic’s amazing video, 3-D footage, and article about the exploration of several of the world’s most massive underground limestone caves in Guangxi and neighboring Guizhou. And there’s more to China’s attractive karst hills than just the postcard-perfect hills in Guangxi. People from the cave expedition climbed several karst areas (Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi) with the best being a slim standalone tower in Hubei’s Enshi Grand Canyon. How they got down from that one, I don’t know and I wish the writer had described how they did.

Here’re some great photos of the wettest place on Earth, in India’s Northeast region. There’s a bridge made out of the roots of an old tree, a hilltop village that gets perpetual rain, clouds that descend vertically over a cliff, and whole-body traditional “umbrellas.”

This Guardian article slams China’s urban planning for mimicking the worst of contemporary American cities, repeating the mistakes of previous decades. There’s valid critiques, but one thing is for sure There’s no need to wonder why China has done this because it’s simple. Chinese want to live Western middle-class lifestyles which means enjoying comforts including cars, big houses, shopping malls and so on. And of course, property developers want to keep building more houses and skyscrapers, no matter how inefficient or unnecessary, while local governments want to keep selling their land to developers.

Here’s a cool collection of 40 maps that explain and clarify the Roman Empire, from its beginning to its peak to its end. It pretty much explains the major developments and changes, from the Romans’ rise to decline. 

 

Books

The Lowland- book review

I just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and the writing is fine and the story flows well. Unfortunately as a novel, it was disappointing because it just was not very interesting and deep. It’s gotten a lot of acclaim and is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, which was a factor for me in deciding to buy it. However this also made me expect more from the book and my expectations were off the mark.
Perhaps the main thing is I mistook the focus of the story, believing it would be based on India and the Naxalite struggle, a Marxist rebellion in 1960s Bengal that one of the protagonists was heavily involved in. Yet the Lowland is not a novel about India or the failed uprising, but a tale about immigration, love and duty.
The Naxalite rebellion, which I wasn’t familiar with, has a decisive role in the unfolding of the characters’ lives for the entire book, but it fades from the scene quickly. It’s not that I have a special attraction for Marxist movements, but I do like books that have significant or notable historical events as backdrops. The characters may have been heavily impacted, in different ways, by the movement but there is no deep narrative that explores it in-depth, so we fail to understand why one of the protagonists become so involved or the mood of society that enabled such a movement to spread. Also disappointing is the lack of emphasis on India and Calcutta/Kolkata, though the neighborhood where the protagonist brothers grew up is described in rich detail.

Two brothers grow up in Calcutta, close and inseparable, but during university, a fledgling Marxist movement takes hold of the younger brother Udayan. Things start to get tense as the movement becomes violent and Udayan becomes more active. Subhash moves to the US on a scholarship to study and eventually chooses to stay. However, he returns briefly to Kolkata after his brother is killed by the police and finds out Udayan’s widow Gauri is pregnant but ignored by their parents. Subhash decides to do the honorable thing and marry her and hence raise his brother’s child.

The story drifts as its moves to America as Subhash builds his life there with Gauri and her daughter. It then becomes a little like an immigrant story, except the problems and issues are not with the issue of being immigrants in a foreign country. It almost becomes banal but the story raises some valid questions about the choices you make in life and the sacrifices between personal desires and family responsibility. The biggest question is whether if one feels incapable of doing her duty, should one still persevere or abandon it. This takes up the core of the story, with the beginning and end touching on the events of the Naxalite uprising, almost like two separate stories. And of course, it means the tragedy that sparked the events in the story is neglected for the bulk of it.

The characters are not easy to sympathize with or care about, other than Subhash, the responsible husband and father who bears most of the burdens, and even he is not really interesting. One of the most striking scenes is at the end when we get to see an earlier tragic event unfold from the perspective of Udayan, but by that time, it is too late to have any major impact on the book. It’s a decent read but at the end, the hollowness of most of the characters reflects how I feel about the novel.

China · Travel

Random links- high-speed rail issues, old Beijing, and Arundhati Roy profile

China’s high-speed train network is the envy of many, but apparently not everything is as sound as it’d seem. It is impressive, having started in 2007, it’s become the largest high-speed rail network in the world, and traverses many major cities from north to south. China’s expertise and manufacturing capability now sees Chinese firms going across the world bidding for construction contracts, including even the US. One can take the train from Beijing to Guangzhou in 8 hours, a distance of over 2,200 km. However, you can also take a plane which would be much faster and only a little more expensive, as the article points out. And this is just one of the big problems with the high-speed rail, as the article explains. The network isn’t making money and the rail authorities are finding it hard to maintain financing and pay for construction and operations. Even worse is that some tracks are unsafe, owing to shoddy construction materials and hasty construction. Personally I’ve taken the high-speed rail several times, and find it good to use, however this article does raise some valid points.

A man goes back to Beijing after 75 years with his son, stunned by all the changes he sees, while remembering his life in the city when Peking (as it was then called) was still surrounded by an old city wall and was about to be invaded and occupied by the Japanese. It’s an interesting read that provides a picture of what old Beijing was like, albeit from a sheltered Western perspective, and reflects a disappointment and disapproval of the political and social changes in China. It’s not surprising that so much has changed in 75 years, though events like the Cultural Revolution, by literally destroying so much physical aspects of the past, caused a lot of the change.

Arundhati Roy won a Booker Prize for her novel God of Small Things, but she is far better known as a forceful Indian social activist who has no qualms about taking her government on about major issues like an ongoing rural rebel movement, indigenous rights, giant dam project and Kashmir insurgency. Even the late Mahatmas Gandhi is not safe from her criticisms, which you can read about in this fine NY Times profile of her. She’s also been outspoken about international issues such as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her fearlessness extends, not surprisingly, to her writing in the form of several nonfiction books of essay, which I read a few of back in my university days, and it’s fair to say she pulls no punches as her anger is palpable throughout her writings. She’s currently writing a new novel, which she refuses to say what it’s about.

China

China, Asia will rise, but not dominate the future

One of the more popular lines of thinking about the future is that Asia will dominate the world, this being a variant and accompaniment of the idea that China will dominate the world. Yet it’s become annoying for me to see this often repeated in the media, in books and by big business, since I’m a huge skeptic and strongly feel there’s a lot of hot air and wishful thinking behind those claims. It was good to see an article like this that says why Asia will not dominate this century. While it’s specifically about a debate at an Oxford alumni event in HK, the arguments made are sound and point to a very strong conclusion – Asia will rise, but it won’t dominate. Most arguments for why Asia or China will dominate center around numbers, as in quantity (size of national GDP, markets for products, growth etc), while not focusing on quality. Asia will rise, no doubt, as China and to a lesser extent India, Indonesia and others, will grow economically, become more wealthy and more influential in more fields. But at the same time, they’ll need to cope with and handle a whole host of problems such as large populations, socioeconomic inequality, deteriorating natural environments, and internal tensions. At the same time, in soft power and military alliances, technology, pop culture, China, and the rest of Asia, still lag the US considerably. Even Japan, as prosperous, innovative and dominant (in various sectors)  as it has become, has not come close to “dominating” the world. A far more telling argument is that in international ideas, innovations, inventions or campaigns to tackle issues such as the environment or nuclear proliferation, China has not contributed or taken on a leading role. Of course, noone knows what the future will bring but I think that it’s safe to believe that in the next few decades, Asia will still not dominate.

Books · China

Random links- Vietnam IT scene, Asian books, Indian soccer, and sleep

By now many of us have heard of Flappy Bird, the simple bird game for smartphones that became a sensation before being pulled off of app stores by its creator, who claimed the game’s popularity and the revenue it generated had made his life a nightmare. Flappy Bird’s creator is Vietnamese, and his government is intent on having more similar successes. Well not exactly, but Vietnam is trying to create its own Silicon Valley. It’s still in the budding stages though there are some interested youngsters who seem willing to be involved. Of course, the article raises at the end the not-so-insignificant fact the country is ruled by an authoritarian regime, just like China, which makes it kind of difficult to imagine facilitating enormous creativity. It’ll be interesting to see how this project turns out.

There have been some interesting books recently, such as from Indian authors. Even then, China is not surprisingly the main subject for one of these books. A Great Clamour is Pankaj Mishraj’s book about trying to understand the rise of China from a societal point of view and includes accounts of his travels to neighboring countries. Mishraj’s main mode of analyzing modern China is based on talking to moderate critics, those who don’t hesitate to call out the government but aren’t radicalized enough to be considered dissidents or put in prison. Punjabi Parmesar focuses on Europe from an Indian perspective, though the China connection is still present with the author, an Indian journalist, being a former China correspondent and her previous book being about China. From the reviews, the book doesn’t seem to be very admiring or complimentary of Europe, but blunt and critical as the following quote from the book shows:
Europe for a lot of people is like a picture postcard for holidays and I think Europe is great at holidays. However, it is in great danger of becoming an ossified museum — a place which is very pretty, has cobble stones, beautiful cafes and museums but in itself is turning into a museum.”

The Asian Review of Books, which I sometimes write for, always has a good list of book review links, in addition to its own book reviews, regularly such as this about China and Japan books.

India and football (soccer) are two things that don’t go together at all. And from this BBC article, it seems it’ll stay that way for a while despite the efforts of Pune FC and the fledgling league it plays in. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. India is crazy over cricket, and is a strong though inconsistent force on the global stage.  Which is more than can be said for China and any international team sport.

And finally, sleeping too little is harmful for us, especially our brains, but so is sleeping too much! Luckily the latter is defined as 10 hours, so I think I’m good. The article has some interesting info, specifically about how our brain cleanses itself during sleep, flushing toxins away from brain cells (the idea of toxins in our brains does sound a little ghastly, now that I think about it).

Uncategorized

India’s second carrier and Toronto’s mayoral ‘show’

China might have one major aircraft carrier, but India now has two, though one is over 50 years old. However, India is building a new one which will come into service in 2017. India is clearly building up its navy which is shaping up to have blue-water (ocean) capabilities, and which in the past lagged behind its army and air force. India isn’t the only Asian nation that is making waves (pardon the pun) recently with its navy. Just a few months ago in August, Japan unveiled a massive destroyer which has a large flat deck that allows it to carry helicopters – a so-called helicopter destroyer or rather helicopter carrier/mini-carrier in disguise.

In something that seems more like a bad comedy movie than reality, Canada’s largest city Toronto has moved into the international spotlight as it remains locked in a tense state of affairs with its ranting, raving, cracksmoking, football-coaching mayor Rob Ford. So much so, the Toronto Star has a complete section “devoted” to him. All the hilarity and smirking aside, it’s unfortunate that this has happened to Toronto, which is a very fine city, and that Rob Ford has turned into this. He was a city councilor when I was in university, and he had a reputation for being outspoken and frugal, especially in hardly using up his office budget which every councilor gets, presumably because he thought it was extravagant and unnecessary. It’s good to be a straightalker when it comes to talking about policies and helping the city, but another to be going on about beating up people, smoking illegal drugs, or even oral sex (not exaggerating).

In sad news, the World’s Biggest Bookstore will close next February. This giant bookstore, which fully occupies a 3-story, former theater in Toronto’s downtown near the landmark Eaton Center, was a favorite place of mine to go to whenever I went downtown. The store was chockfull of novels, nonfiction, comics, magazines and it was a good place to browse and read in. Its great location is precisely what will see it close down since the building is being sold off to a property developer, no doubt to be converted into something much more meaningful such as a 5-star hotel, restaurants or office building.

Africa · Taiwan

Taiwan vs Hong Kong; a bitter, disillusioned Indian

In some shocking news for Taiwan, one of its African allies, The Gambia, ended official diplomatic ties, reducing the number of Taiwan’s official allies to 22. A few of my Taiwan friends shared their disappointment and surprise on FB when this news broke, but for me, it’s not a major issue. In an abstract sense, I’d say Taiwan is a place that really doesn’t care much about the world, especially in terms of being aware that there is a big world out there (beyond Japan and the US) and in wanting to interact with people in the world. In a practical sense, The Gambia is a tiny country in Africa whose main value to Taiwan is to make up numbers, as is the case for most of its allies. There isn’t any significant trade (US$4.15 mil in 2010), or economic, tourism, or academic relationship, so neither side really loses anything. Interestingly, Beijing said that it wasn’t aware of The Gambia’s decision beforehand, saying it learned of this from foreign media.

Hong Kong versus Taiwan – see this interesting matchup here through a series of drawings by a Taiwanese artist living in Hong Kong. It’s kind of funny, kind of fascinating, and kind of untrue. In general, Hong Kong people appear to be more individualistic and blunt while Taiwan is more collective and polite, which is not surprising. HK is also portrayed to be softer than Taiwan, such as in dealing with typhoons. Taiwan does get affected by stronger and more frequent typhoons but it can’t be ignored that if things are really bad, typhoon holidays are often announced, sometimes even in the middle of a workday. It’s definitely true that people in Taipei walk slow and casually, even in the subway which was annoying. About the arguments on subways, I’ve never seen something like that in Taipei, especially blunt and in-your-face arguments or fights. On the other hand, I can only speak for Taipei as I’ve never lived elsewhere in Taiwan. Maybe down south in Kaohsiung things get more rowdier sometimes.

Moving away from Hong Kong and Taiwan, but still in Asia, this opinion piece is about being young, restless, and Indian. There’s a familiar lamenting of development in Mumbai, which can be similarly applied to Beijing or Shanghai or other booming cities in developing nations. But from that, the article moves on to a darker tone with strong words about bitterness and disillusionment, contrasting the problems of India with the comfortable life of urban, young middle-class people. The author unveils a really deep frustration at his country that ends in a striking paragraph about forces, revolution and getting out of India. I wonder if there are any young Chinese who feel the same way.