Books

Sir Vidia’s Shadow- book review

The country of Trinidad and Tobago, where I come from, is a tiny pair of islands in the Caribbean with a population of 1.3 million. Many people have never heard of it, especially in Asia, but Trinidad is renowned for a handful of reasons. One would be its Carnival festival and steelpan instrument, another would be star athletes like Brian Lara, one of the greatest cricket batsmen, and then there is VS Naipaul, the writer who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2001. Naipaul was born and grew up in Trinidad, but he left for England to attend Oxford and since then, has lived there. He has never been shy to criticize where he came from and there are many in Trinidad who feel he has turned his backs on them and would just say good riddance to him.

Naipaul’s critical views towards Trinidad is not unique because he has also been heavily critical, even dismissive, of Africa, India and the Islamic world, all of where he traveled to and wrote books about. In short, he is not a man who cares too much about who he offends and who is afraid to voice his true thoughts, as haughty, arrogant or contemptuous as they might sound. As a person, Naipaul is not much different, having been well-known for mistreating his own first wife and for various incidents at public functions as well as spats with fellow writers. One of these spats was famously with Paul Theroux, another famous writer, who for a long time considered himself a protege and friend of Naipaul’s. They had met in Uganda in 1967 where Theroux was teaching a local university and Naipaul was a visiting writer. Theroux was still struggling to launch his writing career while Naipaul, nine years older, was an established name. A friendship flourished that lasted through decades and continents, until suddenly Naipaul ended it.

Theroux was so affected by their falling out that he wrote a book about their long friendship. The result is Sir Vidia’s Shadow – A Friendship Across Five Continents, a compelling piece of work that lays bare their relationship and sheds more light on Naipaul, who could be perplexing and arrogant, than on the author.

The book is interesting but it did not make me feel sympathetic towards Naipaul and I came away wondering how Theroux could have been so deferential for such a long time. Theroux himself says almost the same thing, explaining how eager and pleased he was to get Naipaul’s praise and respect. He also recounts what he hears concerning Naipaul’s boorish behavior towards the public or to fellow writers. There is also the callous manner in which Naipaul treats his faithful first wife, Pat, who Theroux gets along well with, having affairs and then later courting his second wife while Pat is dying of cancer.

On the one hand, it is understandable why Theroux valued their relationship so much. Naipaul was already a published award-winning renowned writer when they met. Naipaul gives Theroux blunt advice and sparing praise, of which Theroux treasures every last bit. Theroux is wounded when the break-up occurs, and it is only then in the book he makes some intense criticisms of Naipaul, for whom up to that point he had only affection and reverence. While the book is not petty or harsh, Theroux’s recounting of their relationship seems to hint at a change in Naipaul’s personality in becoming more callous and bitter as time goes by over the years.

Naipaul may be the Nobel laureate, but I have more respect for Theroux than Naipaul, both of whose books I’ve read, though not that many. I’ve found Naipaul’s writing, especially his non-fiction to be spare and blunt in tone, though not necessarily always wrong. Theroux is also cantankerous and blunt, though less haughty and, as a white American, certainly not pro-Western and unreservably dismissive of the Third World like Naipaul.

The break-up of their friendship happened after a joint appearance at a 1998 book festival in Wales, but Theroux is not aware of it until he realizes Naipaul has not contacted him in over a year after it. Eventually, the two met again in 2011, which Theroux describes in the postscript. It ends somewhat positively and there is a sense of closure.

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Travel cancellation

So I will be leaving Beijing soon this month, much earlier than planned. As I mentioned previously, I was going to do some traveling in the summer but my foot started acting up badly last month. It was a really rude surprise, since for the last few months I’d been fine. I went on short trips to Jinan and Datong in the mainland, and Hong Kong, in April and May. On each trip, I did a fair bit of walking, plus a small hike on a HK island. As a result of nixing my summer travel plans, I had to return my train tickets for Shanghai plus my first intended trip to the Northeast, all 11 of them. Luckily I was able to get back 90% of the ticket costs at Beijing Rail Station, but it was a waste of a month’s planning in which I’d looked through train routes and maps for the itinerary. I was also thinking of going to the far west such as Gansu and Qinghai provinces in August. But in truth, I was not that upset or sad. Over the past year, I’d gradually realized I had lost all my support, empathy and attachment for China. Some of my blog posts about China in the past year might have provided a clue as the tone became more negative. Simply put, I have come to dislike the government and society here more and more. This might also have impacted me a couple of months ago when even as I was planning my travel, I had no enthusiasm for that or anything else in my life. I was still able to go to work and continue writing, but I felt irritable and had no joy about the fact I was leaving my job soon (I’d given notice about 6 weeks in advance and had decided on it much earlier). For these last two weeks, I’ve basically done nothing but rest at home, clean things up a bit, and do errands, yet I’ve felt better than in the previous month. It might be because I’ve had to come to grips with how I harbored stupid thoughts and misled myself for such a long time about China. It wasn’t like I suddenly realized the Chinese government does bad things or that society here is full of rudeness and frustration. I’d heard of and expected these things before I had even come to China. But somehow I had naive thoughts about China and had expected the country was progressing. Indeed it is getting better in some ways, but not as much as it should be, or at least what I thought. I also learnt to be comfortable with the idea that I am not Chinese, except ethnically, nor should I expect to be. I am a HK-born Trinidadian who is also part Taiwanese with Chinese ancestry. I mean I always knew culturally I was not Chinese, but I had cultivated this sense of an inter-Chinese identity that comprised China, Taiwan, HK while being overseas Chinese. It was a vague concept that did not have much concrete links to bind it together other than my family background, but it was also comforting and unique. I’ve slowly shed this sense of identity in the last few months and perhaps it had a huge impact on how I viewed living here. In the end, it might be a good thing that I had to cancel my summer travel plans within China. I may not have enjoyed it given the lack of enthusiasm I had had for it and I might have even risked injuring my foot more. And plus, not not being able to travel because of a bad foot is kind of tough, but if it means I can come to grips with my China disappointment, then it might even be worth it. IMAG5254_1 Eight paper tickets, representing two separate trips, that I had to return at the train station. I had also bought 3 online which I refunded from the website too.

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Jack Warner, poor Trinidad, and his video spat with John Oliver

I come from a small nation in the Caribbean where I lived from when I was a baby to my high school graduation. Trinidad and Tobago is its formal name, though most people just call it Trinidad, Tobago being a much smaller and sleepy island that is more well-known for beaches and vacations. Not many people around the world have heard of Trinidad, which is why it’s very unfortunate that recent controversy with Jack Warner put a brief spotlight on the country.

Warner is a former longtime FIFA vice president and ex-head of CONCACAF, the football body for North and Central America and the Caribbean. By controversy, what happened is that British comedian John Oliver put out a short video on Trinidadian TV that lambasted Jack Warner over the ongoing FIFA corruption scandal (Warner had released a video message in Trinidad claiming to have an avalanche of evidence of FIFA corruption). Oliver also tried his hand at Trinidadian dialect, which was very much off and a bit amusing, but it left some Trinidadians fuming. Not me though, since the shame should be only on Warner. Unfortunately, Warner has none. He then made another video as a retort to Oliver, trying to come off as somber and outraged but in actuality arrogant and pretentious.
Choice remarks from Warner: “If a local TV station feels it’s proper to bring an outsider here to embarrass us, then all I can say is … Heaven help us.” “I don’t need any ­advice from any comedic fool … to tell me [what to do].”
The tough talk aside, Warner is either a master bluffer or a man who is incapable of seeing his own folly and guilt. By the way, his shirt  was in stark contrast to his somber look and dramatic music.

See both John Oliver’s and Jack Warner’s videos here.
I also wrote about this here in my sports column.
Here’s a good summary of Warner’s career, from a schoolteacher to one of the most powerful men in FIFA, committing mischief since at least 1989.

Oh, Oliver then made another video in response to Warner’s video response to him. It’s a bit confusing but basically Warner made a video claiming to have a lot of corruption evidence, Oliver released a video urging Warner to release that evidence while mocking him, then Warner made a dramatic response to that one where he insulted Oliver, and Oliver put out a second video responding to Warner. Hopefully this will be the end of this video spat.

Taiwan

The least corrupt and best places to be born in

I came across two interesting global lists recently.
The first is the best places to be born in 2013, put together by the Economist magazine, basically which places in the world are the best to be born and grow up in. The list is based on the society’s prosperity, security, social services and life-satisfaction survey. The list is topped by Switzerland, followed by Australia and Norway. Hong Kong and Taiwan come in at 10 and 14 respectively, out of 80 countries. I should feel good then, though the only tangible benefits I can say for being born in HK are being able to visit many countries easily, and the nebulous status of being part of a rising power, whilst not exactly being subject to this power’s laws and regulations. The worst country to be born in at number 80 is Nigeria, apparently, while surprisingly, for me at least, Kenya is second-worst.

Also, Transparency International released their 2012 list of corrupt countries, which lists the countries from least corrupt to the worst. The least corrupt country in the world for 2012 is Denmark, followed by Finland and New Zealand. Meanwhile, China and Trinidad, two countries I have strong links to, both tied for 80th place, which puts them in the middle of world corruption standings. That’s not good for either nation, especially for Trinidad which on paper is a prosperous middle-class country but has a society and government that lags far behind. It’s especially bad because Trinidad’s NE neighbor Barbados is ranked at 15, which is highly admirable and demonstrates that the easygoing Caribbean lifestyle doesn’t necessarily facilitate corruption. Hong Kong comes in at 14, while Taiwan is 37. The most corrupt nation is Somalia, which probably shouldn’t be considered a true country given its weak government, fractured society, and almost nonexistent national infrastructure.

To be honest, these kinds of lists, including quality of life for instance, are often highly predictable. Western European, or specifically Scandinavian ones, North American (US and Canada), and East Asian nations always rank high, with Australia and a few smaller nations like Singapore also there as well. There’s no doubt these are the most prosperous and advanced societies to live in.

So I guess whatever my problems, I guess I should always feel happy I was born in one of the “best places to be born” and live in one of the least corrupt regions in the world, right? Hmmmm.

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Something tragic happened to the Chinese in Trinidad last week when a Chinese couple were killed in a nighttime robbery at their business. Of course, Chinese people aren’t the only ones suffering from crime as the country is enduring another murderous year with the toll at over 220 for the year. In case you’re wondering, Trinidad is the Caribbean island country I grew up on and it’s a small, relatively prosperous oil-producing nation with some pleasant people and a laidback atmosphere. On the other hand, it’s got serious social and political problems, not the least being a nation with a GDP per capita of over US$20,000 yet coupled with a murder toll numbering in the 400s annually in a population of only 1.3 million. This sad double murder has shaken the local Chinese community and prompted the Chinese ambassador to express his shock and concern (the article headline is a bit over the edge). The national security minister, a certain controversial former FIFA vice president, also personally visited the couple’s adult children.

Interestingly, the couple who were killed hailed from Jiangsu, a relatively developed coastal province that is north of Shanghai, and the provincial capital is Nanjing. When I was in Trinidad, and for pretty much the entire 200-plus years that Chinese have been coming to Trinidad, almost all Chinese were Cantonese. However in the past decade, more Chinese have been coming to Trinidad to do business and immigrate, bringing their families and relatives. Also, some of these recent Chinese migrants hail from other parts of China. I don’t know the makeup or numbers of these non-Cantonese Chinese, but it’d be interesting to know. All I can say, is no matter where these Chinese migrants hail from, they are fellow Chinese and I’m saddened by this crime. I’m also saddened by the general state of affairs and the other murder victims in Trinidad.

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Bleakness in Trinidad

I saw this documentary about Trinidad on the weekend that shows the country in a new light, and not in a good way. It’s sad but you know Trinidad has made it into the big leagues of crime-ridden developing places when it shows up in a British documentary titled Guns, Drugs and Secrets. Seriously though, Trinidad, or specifically the crime-ridden poor neighborhoods that were shown, could double as an urban slum somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa or Brazil. There’s actually one scene at night when lookouts call out the movements of police as they drive through a neighborhood which is reminiscent of a movie I saw where kids in a Rio slum acted as lookouts on rooftops who warned gang leaders when the police were coming. Watch the documentary here. On a funny note, all of the Trinidadians, except for the government official at the end, who speak in the show have subtitles. Yeah, though it was warranted for some of the people who spoke in thick Trini dialect/improper English, it wasn’t necessary for everybody.

China

China’s navy hospital ship Daishan in Trinidad

In a sign of how impressive China’s geopolitical abilities are, it was a nice surprise to learn that a Chinese naval hospital ship, the Peace Ark, arrived in Trinidad last week and is currently docked there until the 15th. In a sign of how random this world could be, the hospital ship’s official name is the Daishandao, named after the island where my grandmother is from, presumable because it is based there (please see my earlier post about Daishan if you want to know what the heck Daishan is). The ship looks impressive, being a 14,000 ton fully equipped floating hospital with 300 beds, 20 ICUs, and a helicopter that can serve in both wartime and peacetime, the latter as both a disaster relief and goodwill ambassador. The Peace Ark/Daishandao is on a tour of Central America and the Caribbean and made stops in Cuba and Jamaica before coming to Trinidad. The ship was warmly received in Trinidad and its crew has hopefully done a good job treating people in Trinidad. It’s interesting to note how China’s recent launch of its aircraft carrier attracted so much attention, criticism and paranoia, but something like having a full hospital ship which is quite impressive, attracts very little attention.

Sports

Nov. 11 was a dark day for T&T as well

Last Friday, Nov. 11th, wasn’t just a sporting tragedy for China, it was also a dark day for the country I grew up in, Trinidad. While China is mathematically out of the running to advance further, Trinidad and Tobago is definitely, unequivocally, 100 percent, out of the qualifying round. What happened is that Trinidad played the group leaders of their semifinal group, needing a win to maintain their chance of advancing (only the group leader can advance). Instead Trinidad got their asses kicked, losing by a flattering score 2-1 to regional powerhouse Guyana, the Golden Jaguars. OK, sarcasm aside, Guyana seemed to play confidently and well as a team, outplaying Trinidad and taking a 2-0 lead until the end, when Kenwyn Jones, the only Trinidadian playing in England’s Premier League, scored a consolation goal.

When I was growing up, losing to the likes of Guyana, Grenada and Bermuda would have been unthinkable, especially in competitive fixtures. Trinidad was a Caribbean powerhouse, winning the Shell Cup time after time, playing in the Gold Cup (the Concacaf championships) time after time, and reaching the final round of World Cup qualifying regularly. Sure, Trinidad used to lose regularly to the US, Mexico and Costa Rica, the real Concacaf big boys, but at least Trinidad was part of the equation. Now, Trinidad fails to win the Caribbean Cup (former Shell Cup), fails to reach the Gold Cup, and get knocked out by Guyana. Of course, this hasn’t gone over well with Trini football fans or ex-players, who’ve blasted the TTFF (the local football federation), infamous Jack Warner, and the German coach, who blamed mighty Bermuda for Trinidad’s failure. Then you’ve got the Trinidadian assistant coach praising Guyanese workmen, not that Trinidadian work ethic was ever that high (and I include myself). And on the weekend, when I told a coworker who happened to be St Vincentian that Trinidad was now out of the World Cup qualifying, he asked who did it, and cracked up when I said Guyana. Actually I cracked up as well though I’m sure there are a lot of Trinis who aren’t seeing the funny side of this at all (Good thing I’m on the other side of the world, yes).

Trinidad has been declining as a football since the high of 2006 when they reached the summit, relatively speaking, by playing in the World Cup. However you can’t blame all of this on the players, because there are a lot of things wrong. Especially with the shabby treatment given to that same World Cup squad after they returned from Germany. Basically, they were denied the money they were promised beforehand, and they weren’t happy with that, and the local football body ended up blacklisting them. Though temporary, I would think this caused a lot of damage, emotionally and psychologically to the players themselves. With Jack Warner not having as big a role as before, hopefully, Trinidad’s football folks, whether it be the federation, the coaches, the players and fans, can pick themselves up.

Anyways, congratulations to Guyana and I hope they are able to enjoy whatever points or good results they can in the next round, because they sure ain’t going to finish anywhere close to first being in the same group as Mexico, Costa Rice and El Salvador. Really though, congratulations to them.

China

The Chinese-Trinidadians

As a person of East Asian/Chinese background, you’d think it’d be easy to fit in in Taiwan where over 95% of the people are ethnic Chinese. But actually not at all. I grew up in the West and being a non-native Mandarin speaker who barely reads Chinese, there’s obviously a big gap, culturally and linguistically, with my “fellow” Taiwan people. But this isn’t the only gap I face. It’s because while there’re a lot of people of Taiwan background who were born and grew up in the US or Canada or England, I didn’t grow up in North America. I grew up in a small island country called Trinidad and Tobago. It’s got a small population- about 1.3 million- and I was part of a small community within this small population. The Chinese community in Trinidad, despite its proud history of over 150 years, is less than 1.2 percent (<15,000), maybe even less (the CIA doesn’t even count us as a distinct group). And even funnier, I’m part of a minority within this minority as unlike the vast majority of Trinidadian-Chinese, my family is not directly from mainland China. Hailing mostly from Guangdong, Hakkas number the most, followed by Cantonese, and those from smaller Guangdong cities like Taishan and Zhongsan. Obviously growing up, from social interactions like lunches and association gatherings, we knew a lot of mainland Chinese and it’s a strong reason why unlike many people in Taiwan, I don’t and can’t regard mainland Chinese with blanket mistrust and disgust.

I’ve long wanted to write a little about this community I’m from, but what spurred me is recent events in Trinidad that have cast a not-so-good light on Chinese. Two incidents of serious crimes involving Chinese-Trinidadians have led to a strong media focus on the Chinese, with a subsequent police sweep for illegal immigrants and businesses to bear. The focus is more on recent immigrants who, from what I’ve heard and read, have swept across parts of Trinidad opening up a lot of businesses. Many previous Chinese immigrants also opened businesses with the “Chinese shop” and further back, the “Chinese laundry” being the main symbols of the Chinese presence in Trinidadian society. The Chinese restaurant is of course, also widespread and much beloved as well. I don’t want to be cliched, but I got to be when I say that most Chinese businesspeople work their asses off and make a solid and humble contribution to the nation. Furthermore you’ll find many  2nd, 3rd and even higher generation Chinese-Trinidadians in the ranks of doctors, accountants and other kinds of highly-skilled professionals, as well as artists and politicians. I can’t say that absolutely no local Chinese are involved in crimes, but unfortunately recent pieces from Trinidadian media such as the Guardian on the Chinese have a very sensationalistic and alarmist slant – The Chinese are overrunning us! The Triads are everywhere!* And even court magistrates are getting in on this act as you can see in this article. “From Cedros to San Fernando there are more Chinese restaurants than doubles vendors, which is scary.” Is that so scary, Magistrate Chankar? Yes, I suppose Chinese people are really scary. My response to all this, besides a typical Trinidadian steups, is please, journalists, find some hard facts and do some balanced reporting.

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SI has a decent short article on the impact of Honduras’ World Cup qualification on the Central American nation. Along the way it faced and beat Trinidad, in the final qualifying group stage. Trinidad’s unlikely win in 2002 is mentioned as it prevented Honduras from advancing. I remember that because it came at the end of a dismal campaign for TnT, who were coming off the tragic death of one of their players, Mickey Trotman, in a vehicular accident.

Of course, the brief mention of Trinidad is not why I put it up. I thought it’s an interesting article that shows the tremendous importance of football (soccer) on people and society, and also especially given the ongoing political crisis in that country that has put it in international headlines in the last few months, and at times has verged on the farsical.