Books · Travel

Indonesia Etc- book review

For such a diverse, fascinating and lofty country, Indonesia is somewhat obscure. Completely made up of islands, and thus the world’s largest archipelago nation, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation and fourth most populous, and it is Southeast Asia’s largest economy. But other than Bali (and maybe the Komodo dragon), is there anything famous about it? Elisabeth Pisani decided to do something about this pitiful situation by setting out to travel across the length and width of the nation. The result was Indonesia Etc- Exploring the Improbable Nation, part travelogue, part history and political primer.
As a former journalist and epidemiologist who had lived and worked in Indonesia for many years and spoke the language, Pisani certainly had the knowledge and experience to pull this off. But more importantly, she had the traveler’s knack of always being curious, never shunning an adventure, and being able to befriend strangers, even stay with them for months as she did with a family in a headhunting tribe.
Eschewing the main island of Java, where the capital Jakarta is located and home to two-thirds of Indonesians, at least until the end, Pisani travels from giant Sumatra to tiny islands in the Maluku chain. She also takes on Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo (Malaysia and Brunei occupy the rest).

However, what makes the book compelling is that Pisani goes beyond just travel, but gives some insight into Indonesian habits and quirks, like corruption. It is common to portray third-world countries as naturally beset by corruption with family and ethnic ties playing a huge role. But, Pisani explains that for Indonesia, factors like government decentralization and democracy exacerbate corruption.
There is also some good commentary about Indonesia’s recent history, from colonialism under the Dutch to independence to the present. We also learn about the country’s first two leaders, Sukarno and Suharto, and the complications with forming a nation that was made up of hundreds of peoples, languages, cultures and islands.

Pisani also does not shy away from the hard stuff like the mass killings of Chinese and Communists by the army and militias under the guise of crushing an attempted coup in the late 1960s, as well as East Timor, which eventually separated and is now independent, and Aceh, where fundamentalist Islam is strong. For the latter, which some call “Veranda of Mecca,” a strong separatist movement has given way, after the 2004 tsunami, to but with more autonomy to run their own affairs, which notoriously include sharia law. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a pair of gay men were publicly caned after being caught engaging in sex. And also recently, the former mayor of Jakarta, a Chinese Christian, was found guilty of blasphemy for criticizing a passage in the Koran. He had also lost the election in May to an Islamist rival.

The book was published in 2014 and it had been on my reading list for some time. It still holds up even if some of the political and social problems described like Islamic fundamentalism and the decreasing tolerance towards minorities may be even worse now. But nevertheless, they would strengthen Pisani’s assertion that Indonesia is still a country that deserves more attention from the world.

Visit the book’s website where she still writes about Indonesia.

Books · China

Trickle-Down Censorship- book review

Censorship is one of the most well-known and detested attributes of China. Many people are already aware that Facebook, Youtube, Google, and the New York Times are blocked and that newspapers and news shows cannot report freely on many sensitive topics. But censorship goes far deeper and is more complex and widespread than that as shown in Trickle-Down Censorship, author JFK Miller’s account of his time working for That’s Shanghai magazine from 2006-2011.

Despite the long time period between when he last worked in China and the present, his book is not really outdated because the sad truth is that censorship is not just still present but also much more widespread and harsher than before. But while regular citizens can try and ignore it, journalists and editors have it the worst because it is a constant in their work. Even as an editor at That’s Shanghai, an expat mag that mostly covers food and entertainment, censorship was a major threat to each story Miller worked on or approved.
Miller also goes through aspects of modern China through the scope of censorship, which mostly works because of how ubiquitous it is. At the end of it, Miller decides enough is enough and calls time on China, as I did myself.

The main point is censorship and there is plenty of aspects to it. It can be arbitrary as there are no firm rules and the censors do not need to explain specifically what is the issue; it can be applied to everything from serious political pieces to photo-essays on pyjamas; it is futile to resist, at best, one can fight to keep a “objectionable” sentence or passage. The worst is that it becomes so prevalent and expected that not only do you get used to it, but you actively apply it to yourself, as Miller did while editing and even assigning stories. “It is frightening just how quickly you acquire the ability,” says Miller. As a reminder, Miller worked for an English-language expat magazine that mostly features food, hotel, and club reviews, not some newspaper or political magazine specializing in hardhitting exposes.

And Chinese censorship is not just resilient but adaptable and sophisticated, extending even to the online space where censors utilize software to filter keywords and resulting in the blocking of blogs and social media posts to even text chat messages on WeChat. Coincidentally, this week saw news about China’s government announcing a crackdown, yet again, on unauthorized VPN software, which lots of expats and locals in China use to access banned websites.

The only main issue I have with the book is the cover which features an outline of China, that includes Taiwan. It is a somewhat strange and perhaps cowardly decision because it isn’t like the book would be able to be sold in China, given its topic, so one wonders why he had to do that.

Experienced expats won’t be surprised at much of the content, but other readers will likely find a lot to inform themselves.
Otherwise, Trickle-Down Censorship is a fine account of Chinese censorship, a sad reminder of the power of authoritarian regimes, even in this day and age.

Books · China · Travel

The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China- book review

China is a large, vast country with an area of 3.7 million square miles and though the majority Han make up 90% of the population, has over 50 ethnic groups. As a result, beyond the teeming megacities and factory zones, and the heavily populated Han-majority provinces, there is a lot of ethnic and societal diversity.

This is what former Sunday Telegraphy China correspondent David Eimer explores in The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China as he travels to the edges of modern China. A well-known Chinese proverb goes “The mountains are high and the emperor far away.” What this means is that in the outer reaches of the empire, the emperor is a remote figure and so is his rule. The modern equivalent of that saying is true in areas like Yunnan Province and the fringes of the Northeast. There, the government’s rule is not as firm as everywhere else in the country, and local non-Han minorities and cultures still thrive. In Tibet and Xinjiang, the very opposite is true as the full force of the regime is imposed, ranging from heavy army and police presence to repressive measures limiting or banning local religious practices and languages. Not surprisingly, these areas – Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and the edges of the Northeast – are often considered exotic and fascinating to both foreigners and the Han (the dominant majority in China) Chinese. But there is also a tragic element to several of the peoples in these areas as well, as Eimer examines how these minorities like the Tibetans and Uyghurs fare after decades of Communist rule.

The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang, the most restive and repressed areas in China, is not surprisingly, rather bleak. Heavy-handed policing and harsh measures enacted against the locals have generated significant anger, the result of which can be seen now and again in the news with “terrorist” attacks in Xinjiang, which raise fears of an insurgency, no doubt played up by the government to justify their taking even harsher measures. Not only are Tibetans and Uyghurs not able to speak their language at schools or freely practice their religion, but their movements are restricted through measures like making it extremely hard to get passports, and they are unable to integrate into mainstream Chinese society.

In Yunnan, the province that has the most minority peoples in China and borders Thailand and Myanmar, a Wild-West atmosphere prevails in much of the borderlands. Here, the government practices a looser form of border control as there are several tribes who peoples live across different countries like the Tais. A thriving cross-border criminal trade exists, especially in narcotics. Eimer manages to travel across to Myanmar where he visits areas populated by minority tribes and controlled by drug armies, descendants of KMT soldiers who fled to Burma and stayed to cultivate opium.  The Northeast is more sedate, though the vast icy landscape belies the economic dominance of China compared to Russia just across the northerneastern-most border. In this area, Small ethnic groups, including the descendants of nomads, cling on while facing the obsolescence of their language and customs due to decreasing numbers, intermarriage with the Han, and modern-day integration. This is already the fate of the Manchus, a Northeast people who ruled all of China as the Qing Dynasty for over 250 years up to 1911. Interestingly, the ethnic Koreans in the Northeast provinces are allowed to have their own schools where classes are taught in their own language. There is also interaction with North Koreans across the border in the form of trade, people smuggling and marriages, but this is starting to get clamped down on by the government.

It is a book rich in travel, historical and ethnographic detail about a China so much different from the one often portrayed in more conventional travel books, whilst not shying away from illustrating the repressive rule of the Communist Party. It is also sad to ponder the fate of all the peoples mentioned in the book, many of whose cultures and languages are under threat in one way or the other. Simply put, The Emperor Far Away is about a China that is rapidly disappearing.


Thinking, Fast and Slow- book review

After over a year of off-and-on reading, I finally finished Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read. In the time it took me to finish this, I moved countries and places twice, finished over 15 books, traveled to six countries, and got a new job.Written by Nobel Prize-winning economist and academic Daniel Kahneman, the book explains the two modes of thinking and how these affect people’s decisions and actions.

System 1 refers to one’s impulsive or intuitive thinking, whereas System 2 is the more thoughtful and methodical way of thinking. Usually, people use System 1 when they encounter problems, which leads to a lot of unwise reactions or judgements. It’s not surprising because a lot of times, we do things based on how we feel or see things (WYSIATI or what you see is all there is) but things might be different if we take a step back and think about the situation, which we don’t often do. Of course, we can’t help it because it’s normal human nature or a biased nature. The book presents dozens of situations in which Kahneman explains the way how both systems work, how our biases influence our decisions at the expense of rationality, how overconfidence in what we think we know affects us, and how our memories of things we’ve experienced can sometimes outweigh the actual effects of experiences.

For instance, causes trumps statistics (chapter 16) shows that people are often more convinced by causal explanations than by statistics, and that individual cases or examples are more compelling than statistics. The illusion of validity and skill (chapter 20) is a regular occurrence when people take things to be true, such as good fortune in picking stocks as evidence of supposed genuine skill, even if statistical evidence shows the opposite. And keeping score (chapter 32) shows how people often make choices to avoid regret or refuse to cut losses in order to try to gain it back (disposition effect). This latter often results in the sunk-cost fallacy, a situation in which you continue to put effort or resources into something even if it is failing because you’ve already put in a lot of effort and are worried about wasting it completely, such as gamblers who lose but continue to bet big instead of walking away.

I have to admit it’s a little unfair to deem this book as the most challenging I’ve ever read because I did not read it in the way it should have been read. So don’t be like me and read it in segments over a long time period. Read it daily or regularly over a week or month so you could remember all the different points and explanations. You’ll certainly gain a lot of new insights and perspectives that will open your eyes, or rather your mind.


Finding George Orwell in Burma- book review

It is a good thing I didn’t read this book before I went to Myanmar (Burma) last year. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have had such a carefree mindset. Finding George Orwell in Burma is an American writer’s attempt in 2003 to trace Orwell’s life in the country which had a huge influence on him. Orwell spent five years as a policeman in the country, which his first novel Burmese Days was no doubt based on. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, his two most famous books which were about communism and totalitarian dictatorship, had so many prescient similarities with post-independence Burma that Burmese joked these two books and Burmese Days made up a “Burmese Trilogy.”

The news about Myanmar has been stunningly positive in recent years, with the sudden opening-up of the country to the West, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and the elections in February, which the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s party won overwhelmingly. Yet it wasn’t so long ago when Myanmar was one of the world’s bleakest places, almost on par with North Korea. Under decades of military authoritarianism, the country became poverty-stricken and repressed with its people under constant surveillance from authorities and information heavily censored.

The people didn’t need to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, they were living it and many were fully aware of it. Even as the author was questioned and followed by government officials, she held many conversations with friends and strangers about the country’s politics. Almost everyone furtively tells the author how terrible the country has been under the military regime. “The British may have sucked our blood, but these Burmese generals are biting us to the bone!” an elderly man tells the author. Things were so bad in the country that the author, a Bangkok-based American who speaks Burmese, uses a pseudonym, Emma Larkin, to write her books.

Larkin travels to each of the places Orwell was posted in – the former royal capital Mandalay, the Delta, Rangoon (now Yangon), Moulmein (now Mawlamyine) and Katha. She tries to imagine how Orwell was influenced and inspired by his experiences to the extent he became more cynical about the British Empire through how it ruled Burma. Having gradually annexed the country and overthrown the monarchy, the British also abolished traditional institutions that helped run the country like the monks and replaced them with colonial officers. Orwell completely changed his view on empire and decided to become a writer after going on leave from his post in Burma. In the end, Larkin didn’t come close to finding out exactly what pushed Orwell’s transformation but it is easy to see how it might have been a gradual process. And this change was for the better because Orwell would write about the underclass and the poor, and eventually his masterpieces about communism and totalitarianism.

It is a profoundly sad book that is thankfully about a time that has passed. But I wonder whether the Burmese people could have so easily forgotten all the terror of the past or if it still lurks in the back of their minds and hearts. When I visited there, many of the people were courteous and restrained and it was almost unimaginable that just years before, they had lived through terrible repression.


Think Like a Freak- book review

Think Like a Freak is the third book from the two guys who wrote Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, the best-selling popular science books that used economics and statistics to explain problems in society. This book differs by encouraging people to think unconventionally or “like a freak” to figure out problems.

Anyone who enjoyed the first two books by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner will likely enjoy this one. Their breezy writing style and use of clear and interesting stories and data are effective once again as they show how problems can be solved when people approach them from a different standpoint and brush aside normal convention.

There is the scientist who was researching stomach bacteria and injected himself with bacteria to find out if it causes ulcers, something which naturally earned him a lot of derision. But in the end, Barry Marshall won a Nobel Prize. Then there is the former adman who started a successful eyecare charity that earned over $1 billion by being upfront in its fundraising appeals by allowing people to opt out of receiving any further advertising, something that would seem counter-intuitive.
Successful ways of thinking differently can even be extended to less serious fields. For example, Japanese competitive eating legend and hot dog champion Takeru Kobayashi was able to achieve his great success despite not being a big guy and entering his first eating contest as a 20-something-year-old. His secret was due to training techniques that emphasized effective ways to eat hot dogs rather than simply trying to eat more hot dogs.

Ways to think differently include thinking like a child, focusing on the role of incentives, digging deep to understand problems, and learning how to quit. Not quitting when you’re ahead, but to give up a dream. It is not exactly popular advice but it makes sense in some cases. Sometimes it is necessary to give up on something and consider alternatives into which you could redirect your time and effort. It takes courage to admit failure, the authors stress, and perhaps failure should not carry such a terrible stigma.

At times, the book feels a little too simple and the stories flow too smoothly in illustrating solutions. But the main lesson is clear and useful. Think differently and don’t be afraid to do so, especially when the normal ways don’t work. You can’t always go wrong in that.

Books · China

Chinese Rules- book review

Chinese Rules- Mao’s Dog, Deng’s Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China is one of those business books about China that have been popular in the last few years. The author Tim Clissold might be familiar to a few people since he also wrote Mr. China, a well-known part-memoir about his business dealings in China, which I haven’t read.

Chinese Rules starts off with Clissold being called into action in his native England to help rescue a carbon-trading deal gone wrong in China. Clissold had relocated back to his homeland with his family after 20 years in China, but is eager to go back. The business deal in question involves the selling of carbon credits by a Chinese firm from its two new power plants, not exactly a topic to get anyone’s pulses racing. Nevertheless it is a potentially lucrative business and vital too, given the environmentally conscious time we live in. Not surprisingly, all kinds of nonsensical and frustrating situations occur, but a deal is accomplished despite an embarrassing baijiu (Chinese hard liquor) episode with the English boss of the firm that hired Clissold for this deal.
Spurred by this achievement, Clissold and a female associate decided to go into the carbon trading business in China. They get funding from Bill Gates’ Millenium Foundation, then look for a carbon credit seller in China whom they can trade from. Which is when things get really juicy.

Clissold and his associate soon find a Chinese partner to work on a deal to buy and trade credits from a power company. The Chinese middle-woman is a fine example of the disingenuousless prevalent in society and business in China. She acts and looks like someone at the top of her game, as Clissold himself says, but she turns out to be unreliable, shifty, arrogant and greedy. Eventually, Clissold manages to dump her from the deal and handles negotiations with the Chinese company directly. There is more lack of communication and delays, though the deal takes off and they are able to sell off some credits.

Throughout the book, Clissold introduces his Chinese rules such as the “art of war” is vital to the Chinese way of handling conflict (indirectly rather than direct) and the trying of new things by taking gradual steps. These sound sensible but he also describes rules that are ambiguous and not directly related to business such as that China is a civilization masquerading as a state and how history has made China prize stability. These are not exactly false but the deeper lessons that Clissolds thinks that these rules impart – that China – are a bit whimsical.

To present the rules, Clissold describes several important events in China over the past two hundred years. It seems contrived and makes the book more of a history text than a business book. I am sure some people may benefit, though since I am already a bit familiar with the history mentioned, I did not learn anything new.

As if the main ordeal above wasn’t enough, there is another deal near the end involving a Chinese fruit juice mogul who owes an insurance company money. Clissold is hired to get back the debt which involves no lawyers or court orders, but constant pandering, passive aggressiveness and maneuvering. Going to the courts would never have worked, Clissold says, but getting the provincial governor involved and putting up with a whole year of negotiations did, since it allowed the mogul to save face while coming up with a solution.

According to Clissold, this is the proper way to deal with Chinese. He’s an expert with decades of experience in China and published books, but frankly in my humble opinion, I think that is nonsense. He is a fine writer and describes history and events very well, and he seems to have a strong appreciation of China, but it is dangerous to be suggesting that people need to scrape and bow when doing business with China, which his “Chinese rules” imply.

Inexplicably, Clissold is convinced in the end, despite how this sorry affair turned out, that China is the future.
The only thing I am convinced about is how full of bullcrap the country is in many ways and that it would be appalling if Chinese norms and practices, as the book illustrates quite clearly, were to influence the world.

Books · Travel

Grounded- book review

Christmas is one day away, so enjoy a photo of a very “Imperial” Christmas tree in Taipei, and a book review. Merry Christmas everyone.

In Grounded – A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, a couple circumnavigate the world by train, bus and ship, without ever going on a plane.
They do this because, according to author Seth Stevenson in the detailed intro: “We despise planes and all they stand for,” (we being him and his girlfriend). As a result, starting from the US, they cross the Atlantic in a container cargo ship, take the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Siberia, go from Japan to China through SE Asia to Australia by ferry, bike, and train, cross the Pacific on a luxury cruise liner, then go across the US by train to where they started from.

The journey sounds like an ordeal but Stevenson pulls it off rather smoothly, despite relying on desperate last-minute luck a couple of times. The writer makes it sound so easy, so much that the main challenge is often pure boredom such as when they cross the Atlantic in a cargo ship and encounter a week of mostly unchanging scenery.

One drawback about such a journey is that they often stay in major cities for very short times, sometimes leaving on the same day that they’ve arrived. I know sometimes people say it’s more about the journey than the destination, and Stevenson emphasizes this as well, but I’d rather read more about Moscow and Helsinki than just a page or two. Stevenson does admit this problem later in the book, wishing that he could see more of Sydney for instance. Similarly, the two cross Japan and China in a blur. The book breezes by and before you know it, they are back to the USA.

Coincidentally, the most interesting part is also the longest time they spend in a country, when they take part in a biking tour that cycles across Vietnam in 2 weeks. It is the only time they travel with other people in a group and the group dynamics and camaraderie turn out to be quite positive, though not with a judgmental overview about the tour guide at the end that was a bit harsh.

There’s a lot of complaining during the trip, as you’d expect when trips involve overnight train rides on hard seats and dodgy freighters and crossing the Pacific by ship. Stevenson also doesn’t hesitate to be candid about his fellow passengers and is downright insulting about rural mainlanders visiting Beijing. Stevenson’s girlfriend Rebecca is a peripheral character throughout the trip but steadily reliable, and one can think he was lucky to have someone like her. Rebecca is so steadfast that even after Stevenson leaves her behind in Singapore to run onto a ferry going to Australia, Rebecca “bears no ill will,” Stevenson assures us, and she flies to Bali to rejoin him on the ship.

Having first mentioned it in the beginning, Stevenson further reiterates his disdain toward flying and stresses how doing that robs travelers of a connection to the world. He explains how the ease of flying has taken the charm out of travel and led to the demise of ocean liners and trains, at least in the US.
He is right on some counts, as air travel has actually become a less luxurious experience (mainly for us plebs who fly economy class) than the past despite becoming more common, such as cramped seat space, long pre-boarding security checks and mediocre food. But the accounts of his ferry and liner trips in this book do not make those modes of transportation sound any more attractive. Props to the author for crossing the Atlantic and Pacific by boat but I feel no desire to do it myself especially after reading how his experiences were.

But weirdly enough, despite all these issues, I enjoyed the book and I found myself wishing that it could have been longer.

Books · China

Age of Ambition and Lu Xun’s stories – book reviews

A much-anticipated book on China that I had been planning to read for a long time was Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition, which I finally did thanks to the good old Taipei library. The book takes a good look at China’s development during the 2000s by focusing on people, specifically famous and everyday Chinese who Osnos interviewed during his 8 years in Beijing. Osnos details the ambition and change and resistance that springs up among Chinese. Even so, one can see traces of pessimism and wariness from Osnos regarding China’s political climate and human rights, and looking at how things are now, he is not wrong. Besides the ambitions and changes, Osnos examines the moral void in Chinese society which is best exemplified by the case of the toddler who was run over by a van and whose body was ignored by 17 passersby. As Osnos was a New Yorker writer, he got to do regular in-depth stories about China and he’s able to provide more details and nuance in his writing than your regular foreign correspondent.
Among the famous figures featured are controversial artist Ai Weiwei, blogger and writer (and race car driver) Han Han, and editor Hu Shuli covered, as well as folks like a guy who teaches himself English and has an ambition to spread his teaching methods.
Osnos is optimistic about Chinese bloggers and online netizens who used social media to spread criticisms of their government but unfortunately, recent developments such as the blocking and censorship of more and more sites and services have shown that even the Internet is not a place Chinese can feel free to voice their thoughts.

Meanwhile, a little less modern but still as pertinent is Lu Xun, arguably China’s most famous author. Lu Xun lived during the early 20th century, a turbulent time in China’s fledgling republic (ROC) era which began after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown. I finally read his work which was a complete collection of all his fiction The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China – short stories and satirical novella The Real Story of Ah-Q (Lu Xun never wrote a novel). His stories range from observances of regular life to portrayals of famous ancient Chinese deities and philosophers. What is striking is that some of his observations of aspects of Chinese society are still valid in current times, as Yiyun Li points out in the afterword about Chinese gathering around to observe a suicidal person about to jump from a building with an event in the Ah-Q story. I found some of the stories a little hard to comprehend but perhaps I did not put enough effort.