Everything under the Heavens-book review

In recent times, China has risen to become arguably the world’s second power and potential global bad guy. China is now an economic, industrial, military and geopolitical power, but not content with this, it is challenging the US for regional supremacy in Asia. China’s huge ambition is driven not just by the urge for power or economic wealth, but also its perceived historical status as the center of its world. As such, China saw itself as the supreme civilization around which smaller and lesser nations and peoples submitted or paid tribute to. Everything under the Heavens- How the past helps shape China’s push for global power explains how this superiority complex came about by looking into China’s past.

The author Howard French, who has extensive experience reporting and writing about Africa and China, delves into China’s relations with different neighbors like Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. Delving into history, French shows how China developed tributary relationships with these smaller states on its periphery, as well as its ties to them.

For example, China had control over Vietnam for 1000 years up until the 11th century, after the Vietnamese managed to drive the Chinese out and maintain an independent status (minus a few decades when the Chinese Ming Dynasty invaded and gained control before being driven back out, as well as colonization under the French in the 19th and 20th centuries).

French also goes into China’s trade relationships with the maritime kingdoms in what is now Malaysia and Indonesia, such as Malacca, from which the Straits of Malacca is named. China’s claim and militarization of much of the South China Sea, which lies much closer to Southeast Asia than China, is derived from historical times when supposedly Chinese traders and fishermen sailed most of the sea. While this does not exactly confer ownership to China, somehow its Communist rulers have twisted logic to claim that it does.

It’s easy to see how China came to see itself as the center of the region which it firmly dominated both in scale and power. From the 19th century, the rise of Japan caused a rude shock when it managed to challenge and actually defeat China in a war (which is how Taiwan became a Japanese colony from 1895-1945). However, before that, China’s defeats to the UK and France in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century caused great shame, from which the current Communist regime has milked a “Century of Humiliation” narrative to the present day which fuels both a vindictive desire and victim mentality against the West. For the Communist regime, a return to the days of lore before the 19th century when China was the unquestioned and dominant power in the region is their goal, but the US and other nations must prevent this blast to the past.

French concludes the book with an excellent assessment of the strengths of China and the US, that also goes hand in hand with a good summary of China’s precarious future with declining economic growth and a rapidly aging population. French advocates that the US must try to cooperate with China but be firm when it needs to be. This is exactly the scenario that is playing out now, though cooperation is probably the last thing on both countries’ mind.

Hiking Mt Misen on Miyajima

Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan
The sacred Japanese island of Miyajima (Itsukushima), which lies off the coast near Hiroshima, is famous for its “floating” torii gate and shrines. However, Miyajima also has a 535-m-high mountain, Mount Misen, that features small temples, a waterfall, and great views at the top. To me, hiking Mt Misen and taking in the great views at the top was my favorite part of visiting Miyajima, as opposed to seeing the “floating” torii gate.

There are several routes to Mt Misen, however I chose to take the one at the back of Daisho-in Temple, which lies at the foot of the mountain. Note if you don’t want to hike, then you can take a cable car up. Daisho-in Temple is worth a visit before you hike, as it features attractive halls, a cave shrine, and dozens of small stone Buddhas.

Once I got on the trail, it was straightforward. As I continued upwards, I passed a waterfall that flows into a rocky stream. There are vantage points along the way where I was able to look down at the floating torii gate, which will look very tiny. I also saw that much of the island is heavily forested, which isn’t surprising given the island’s population numbers about 2,000 and there isn’t any industry. I also encountered signs urging you to watch out for vipers or “mamushi – deadly poisonous snake.” Good thing I didn’t encounter any. There is also a notable man-made stone stream structure from where water flows out.

Near the top, there are a few diverging paths but just remember to stay on the main trail. There’s a temple hall where you can take a breather. When I reached the summit, I enjoyed really beautiful views of the Inland Sea, the island, and the mainland. I’d say the views of the sea were among the top three I’ve ever seen in my life. The observatory at the summit features benches and washrooms.

It’s possible to hike back down but I decided to take the cable car instead. The Shishiiwa cable car station is a little further away from the summit, about 15-20 minutes, and there are fine views there as well.
Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
“Floating” torii gate from the mountain
Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan
Temple guards and a temple (below) near the top
Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan   Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan

The Stolen Bicycle- book review

The Stolen Bicycle is a rare Taiwanese novel that has earned international acclaim, having been nominated for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Written by one of Taiwan’s best modern novelists, Wu Ming-Yi, The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating story seemingly centered on bicycles but which winds through Taiwan under Japanese colonization, World War II battles, disappearing fathers, and even butterfly collecting.

To be honest, when I started The Stolen Bicycle, I found the beginning kind of perplexing. The story didn’t draw me in and the details seemed a bit overwhelming, especially the meticulous descriptions of bicycles by the story’s narrator. I stuck with it and gradually, the story began to feel more captivating. The plot became more complex but also more interesting as it covered disparate topics like antiques, butterfly handicrafts, and zookeeping. By the time it reached World War II, the story reached its stride with military invasions and battles.

The novel really brings Taiwan under Japanese colonization to life, including moments of turbulence such as when Taipei was even bombed by American aircraft during World War II. Certain characters are drafted by the Japanese into their army to fight in distant Malaya (Malaysia) and Burma (Myanmar). The military scenes are especially vivid and haunting, especially in portraying the hardship and terror of battle and retreat in remote jungles.

By this point, I didn’t mind all the details and I was actually impressed. The author did a fine job in being accurate with military history while making the characters and events believable, while conveying a strong sense of drama and danger. Just to give you an example, the story makes use of war elephants, which were actually used by both Japanese and Chinese armies in Southeast Asia to transport military goods. After the war, the KMT brought over a few of these elephants to Taiwan, one of whom became a beloved part of the Taipei Zoo and is also a part of the story.

War aside, there are nice descriptions of oldtime Taipei and Taiwanese society, as well as Japanese colonization, which while brutal to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, is regarded as having been somewhat beneficial. The inclusion of Japanese characters presents a rare Japanese colonial perspective of Taiwan.

Despite the honor of being longlisted, The Stolen Bicycle couldn’t escape political controversy arising from China. The Booker organizers tried to change the author’s nationality from Taiwan to “Taiwan, China” due to Chinese interference but luckily international criticism forced them to backtrack.

The Stolen Bicycle might have been challenging at a few parts, but reading the whole novel was a rewarding experience.

Japan travel- the holy island of Miyajima

Miyajima, Japan
Near the city of Hiroshima lies the holy island of Itsukushima or Miyajima, as it’s more commonly called. Tiny and sparsely populated, Miyajima is one of Japan’s most well-known destinations as it is where the famous “floating” torii gate lies, in the waters just off the coast of Itsukushima Shrine. Also called the “Island of the Gods,” Miyajima has been a place of worship for over a thousand years.

You’ve probably seen this giant orange “floating” torii gate in photos or blogs, as I did before I came to the island. However, Miyajima also features several temples, in addition to Itsukushima Shrine, and a 500m-high mountain that provides great views of the island and the Inland Sea.

Miyajima’s “floating” torii gate is among the first things you’ll notice when you come across on the ferry from the mainland. The torii gate certainly “floats” during the day when the water is at high tide, and you can get a closer view from the shore of Itsukushima Shrine. However, I only realized that in the late afternoon, the water recedes from the shore during low tide which allows you to walk right up to the giant orange torii gate. The low tide exposes the foundations of the torii gate, which are firmly rooted to the beach “floor,” hence it isn’t really floating (see below).

Torii gate aside, Itsukushima Shrine is an important temple. Dedicated to three daughters of a Shinto god, Itsukushima is considered so important that since 1878, no births or deaths have been permitted near the shrine. That means pregnant women on the island, as well as the very sick or elderly who are near death, are expected to leave for the mainland to give birth.

On the way from the ferry pier to Itsukushima Shrine is a street lined with shops and restaurants, as well as wild deer wandering all over the place. As with the city of Nara which is well-known for its deer park, the deer here are friendly and curious, walking up to people and letting themselves be fed. Along the coast is a tiny beach which was just a little bit wider than a sidewalk.

The most important temple, Daishō-in Temple, is located in a pleasant complex on the lower slopes of Mt Misen. There are several halls as well as dozens of small stone statues and even a small cave hall. At the back of the temple complex is the start of a hiking path to Mt Misen. I took this trail, which passes through a waterfall and a few small temples before reaching the top. I write about the hike in a separate post.

I also enjoyed visiting Senjokaku (Toyokuni Shrine), a wooden temple with a large, open interior built in 1587. While it was dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s three great warlords that unified the nation, Senjokaku’s construction was stopped after Toyotomi died. But I think this state of incompletion adds to the charm of the temple. Its open roomless layout means it’s a good place to sit and enjoy the breeze while taking in the many paintings hung on the ceiling.

Next to Senjokaku is a five-storey pagoda that was built in 1407, making it older than Senjokaku.

How to get there: Take a ferry from the mainland to Miyajima, which takes 10 minutes. The ferry terminal on the mainland is a short walk from Miyajima-guchi train station. Miyajima-guchi station is a 25-minute train ride (some trains may take longer) from Hiroshima. There is also a direct ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima.
Miyajima, Japan Miyajima, Japan
Senjokaku (Toyokuni Shrine), above and below
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
Daishō-in Temple (above and below)
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima’s deer are a friendly bunch
Miyajima, Japan
However, the island’s deer aren’t big, as the size of this buck shows
Miyajima, Japan
Itsukushima Shrine
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
The massive toii gate during low tide
Miyajima, Japan

Goodbye Miyajima!

Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.


Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).


Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.


Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.


The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.
As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.

While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.

I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.

As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.

Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.


I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.