National coronavirus success stories

The coronavirus pandemic still has a grip on most of the world and our lives, but there are a few bright spots. After over three months, here are a few countries in Asia and Oceania that are succeeding in one way or another in containing their respective outbreaks and resuming some parts of normal life.

I might be biased since I’m very pro-Taiwan and reside here, but the fact is much of society is still functioning like normal. This includes schools, offices and stores, as well as sports! As I’ve written before, Taiwan’s response includes early vigilance, proactive measures and transparency, as well as cooperation with private firms on making much more facemasks than normal. Taiwan did experience a small surge of imported cases from visitors and returnees coming back from the West in March, as well as a naval ship cluster, but they have had many days with zero or just one or two daily cases.

Remarkably, this country of over 90 million has less than 300 cases and no deaths due to the coronavirus. They did do a partial lockdown but there’s already talk of easing it. And just like Taiwan, taking early measures like shutting their land border with China and mass quarantining helped a lot. The one factor that hinders more recognition of Vietnam’s success is that as a Communist country, the government controls all information and the media is restricted and censored. There is a likelihood that the actual numbers might be higher but even then, not by too much, according to some experts.

South Korea
In contrast to the two countries above, South Korea got hit really hard by the coronavirus and at one point, had the second-most cases in the world. But despite over 10,000 cases, they implemented rigorous measures like mass testing, contact tracing, and public mask-wearing, and have managed to “flatten the curve” to the point where they only get low double-digit daily cases now. The public also played a big role as they voluntarily stayed home or closed down their businesses without being ordered to, so in a sense they did have a lockdown but it was a self-enforced one. South Korea might arguably be the most impressive success story because they actually experienced a mass outbreak within a short time and seem to have defeated it.

Australia and New Zealand
As the only non-Asian countries here, the two neighbors both enacted hard lockdowns but have reached the point where easing is being discussed and even a “bubble” involving the two countries. Both countries have managed to clamp down on daily infections and keep the death toll at a minimum, which is laudable. New Zealand implemented a lockdown when there were only 102 cases, which has helped them contain their outbreak. Australia implemented a lockdown much later (when they had over 4000 cases) but in the weeks since then have also managed to contain the outbreak at a reasonable level. In both countries, widespread testing and contact tracing were implemented. New Zealand did reference Taiwan as an example, which is why they did the smart thing of cancelling mass gatherings very early, unlike some Western countries which continued to hold large sporting events and concerts until their outbreaks hit hard.

Hong Kong
At one point in February, HK was being likened to a failed state due to being a state of panic over the coronavirus and a perceived lack of toilet paper and instant noodles. But HK soon got past that and has reached a point where, like Taiwan, they have enjoyed zero-cases days. HK people do love wearing their masks, maybe overly so, but it has helped with containing the coronavirus so that there have been no hard lockdowns. Schools have been closed since February and there are social distancing limits on restaurants and public gatherings though. And like South Korea and Taiwan, rigorous quarantine measures and contact tracing have also been implemented.


No matter what, it’s still necessary to stay on guard and keep up precautionary measures, even here in Taiwan, and the situation could easily change quickly.
For now, hats off to all these countries (and Hong Kong) for beating back the coronavirus and let’s hope that more countries can follow in these countries’ footsteps soon.

The New Koreans- book review

The New Koreans – The Story of a Nation tells the fascinating story of how a small, impoverished, war-ravaged people became one of the world’s most advanced and coolest countries. It tells this story in a manner that is both entertaining and informative, providing an in-depth historical, cultural, political and sociological look at the country.

While I did know the basics of South Korea such as its spectacular economy and authoritarian and war-torn past, I learned a great deal more from this book. I especially liked how the book was organized into themes and chapters covering specific aspects of the country and people, ranging from contemporary times to Korea’s historical roots to Japanese colonization and the Korean War. Breen’s affection for the country, where his wife is from, is obvious as is his disdain for the North.

Having worked as a foreign correspondent in South Korea since 1982, Breen includes lots of insights from his career as well as anecdotes of encounters and interviews with high-ranking politicians and businessmen. But he wisely does not let these overwhelm his narrative, which combines history, cultural references and recent news events.

There are certain themes that are well-known, such as the Koreans’ competitiveness, pride and patriotism, but this is tempered by a lack of self-confidence and inferiority. This stems from Korea’s historical geopolitical status as a small state wedged between much bigger and powerful neighbours, chiefly China and Japan. In the 20th century, division after World War II caused the north and south to separate under the respective influences of the Soviet Union and the US, which continued Korea’s long history of foreign domination. This partly explains why despite being firm allies, South Korea sometimes harbours anti-US sentiment.

While for many people the predominant issue on the Korean peninsula is the South’s standoff with the North, a poor pariah state ruled by a boyish madman with nuclear weapons, the two had a long history of being a unified state since the 7th century. This was formed from three historic kingdoms Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla, the latter of which conquered the first two. This state was followed by Goryeo, which lasted for 456 years until it was overthrown by a general, who created the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea until it became a colony of Japan in the 20th century. The book also looks at the country’s tense relations with North Korea, with which it split from after World War II and then fought off an invasion from in 1950.

Since the second half of the 20th century, South Korea has become an economic success story, accompanied by a transition into a full democracy. This sounds similar to Taiwan, though one surprising difference was that South Korea actually had presidential elections whilst supposedly an authoritarian state. However, rulers did interfere in elections to ensure their victories as well as declare martial law, so for the most part, these elections were not free and fair. As a result, coups, protests and bloody crackdowns were common throughout the seventies and eighties, until after the 1988 Olympic Games held in Seoul.

Nowadays, South Korea is better known for K-pop, Samsung, and Hyundai, with a growing international cultural clout (as seen by this year’s Academy Awards Best Picture win by Parasite). Thanks to The New Koreans, we know that behind this cool national exterior is a country that has (and continues to) overcome a tortuous and turbulent past and has more than earned its place in the global spotlight.

Everything Belongs To Us- book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seoul’s impressive museums photo roundup

Here’s a photo roundup from Seoul’s great museums – the National Museum of Korea, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Arts and War Memorial (military museum). This is the last of my Seoul travel posts so that’s it for South Korea for now.

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There was a display of military uniforms and equipment for the 16 nations who contributed troops to help South Korea.
An opera tenor sings for one person, in this case the child on the seat, while other people watch

Seoul travel- city sights

Crossing the street from Gyeonbokgung palace takes you to Sejongno (also known as Sejong-ro) boulevard, along which stand statues of King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a 16th century naval admiral who is probably South Korea’s most admired war hero for defeating the Japanese. King Sejong the Great, as you can tell from his full title, wasn’t too bad either – he apparently invented the Korean Hangul alphabet and encouraged scientific reform and innovations. When I passed by his statue, a bunch of Chinese tourists were paying their respects.

Going down further on Sejongno took me to the Cheonggyecheon stream, Seoul’s famous urban canal. Stretching 10.9km. Cheonggyecheon stream is famous because it is the reincarnation of a stream that had been paved over to create a motorway, which was then removed (an impressive decision given how much priority cars often get over the environment), making it a long continuous pedestrian zone along which works of art and exhibitions are held. It wasn’t cheap, costing over US$200 million, but it sure seemed to be worth it.

Seoul has a really interesting city hall that is a large, modern glass building superimposed onto an older concrete building. This older building was the city hall and was converted into the Seoul Metropolitan Library after the new building was constructed. When I passed by there, a skating rink was set up in front of this combined building with dozens of young Koreans skating to their heart’s delight.
Seoul City Hall (green glass building), Metropolitan Library and skating rink

The great king himself with a bunch of adoring Chinese tourists. The round astronomy object in front is supposedly one of the inventions he helped develop (through his support for scientists)
Korea’s mighty Admiral Yi Sun-shin
This weird colorful cone marks the beginning of the stream
Seoul City Hall
Deoksugung Palace gate, one of Seoul’s five palaces

Bonus pic if you made it all the way down here – Seoul’s Namdaemun (great south city gate), also known as Sungnyemun. It’s one of the city’s main landmarks but was heavily damaged by arson in 2008. Restoration was completed in 2013 which is why it looks so new.

Seoul travel- its impressive major museums

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

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

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

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

History museum exhibits below
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War memorial/military museum photos below

MMCA photos below