Books

NW- book review

A woman in apparent distress desperately knocks on the doors of homes in a northwestern London neighborhood. Leah Cooper opens the door, then thinks nothing of helping the wretched woman by letting her in, hearing her out, and then giving her 30 pounds so she can take a cab to the hospital to see her sick mother. Afterwards, it turns out the woman is a liar and Leah has been scammed. And with this dramatic and bewildering episode, NW begins, taking us into the lives of several northwest Londoners.

Leah is an NGO staffer with an outspoken Irish mother and a African-French husband; her best friend Natalie, formerly Keisha, is an ambitious lawyer; and then Felix is a former addict who has been through some tough times but is trying to put that behind him. Connecting them all is their origin from the same working-class NW London neighborhood in a rough part of London, where public housing estates of blocks have walkways and “lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built.” Not surprisingly, they have all tried to escape their working-class roots with Natalie/Keisha being the most successful at first glance. Married to a charming but vain Trinidadian-Italian banker with two children with a nice house and a successful career, she has it all or at least it seems so.

NW is divided into several sections, each written in a different style and focusing on a different character. It is confusing and I wasn’t too comfortable with the obvious inconsistencies and disjointed effect when you go from one part to another. One entire section consists of 185 (not a typo) numbered segments, each one a bit of Natalie/Keisha’s past and which lead up to a surprising finale. Meanwhile, the most interesting section has a tragic conclusion that is linked to another section in something that, to me, is not very clear.

The book’s complexity and inconsistent tone mirrors real life, while providing a stirring reminder that even supposedly ordinary lives are interesting if one dives into the details and background. Things do not always work out as you would hope, the past is not always easily put behind oneself, and sometimes life is unfair. These aren’t exactly mysteries but NW puts a human face on them. Race, class and where one grows up all matter, and Smith portrays these in an intimate and pained manner through the characters’ struggles and clashes. But, I don’t think I can agree with the underlying notion that people cannot escape their past regardless of how hard they try. If that is indeed true, then society is even more bleak than what we . At the same time, the book is entirely set in London so some of the circumstances are inevitably unique to London and English society and not applicable to everywhere.

It may not be to everyone’s liking but NW is certainly a memorable novel.

Hong Kong

Indecency at the top a reflection of society?

As we get deeper into 2017, I’ve struggled recently to focus too much on politics. It’s not that I’m unaware of major issues like Trump’s presidency, Brexit and Hong Kong’s upcoming Chief Executive election. With the US slowly descending into a political comedy, as Trump picks fights or causes controversy almost every time he opens his mouth or meets with somebody, Europe struggling, and China trying to be assertive, it’s not hard to feel that the world is going to crap. Actually it’s not, but it’s hard to think it’s getting better either. The truth is that I didn’t seem to care too much to even feel pessimistic or complain anymore. But I think I really need to shake that feeling because apathy and ignorance are probably worse than pessimism or cynicism.

A lot of people were shocked, dismayed or even revolted by the idea of Donald Trump winning the US presidency (I was quite shocked as well). Likewise, the Brexit referendum result had a similar impact on a lot of people. It’s almost as if somehow, it became alright, even laudable to be openly nasty and spout sexist, racist, and simple-minded nonsense. And it’s not just Trump. Closer to Hong Kong, you can look at the Philippines and their president who boasts of killing people and acts like a clownish tough guy, but more seriously has launched a state campaign by encouraging police and vigilantes to execute “drug dealers” in the streets. Besides the UK, far-right politicians are making headway across Europe, invoking closed borders, violence against minorities and immigrants, and extreme nationalism verging on racism. Even in Hong Kong, the localist movement (I admit a bit of sympathy) at times express stances at times that contain traces of racism and hate.

It seems like suddenly, we’ve reached the point where democratically elected leaders of countries are people championing discrimination, isolation, belligerence and misogyny. Added to this, we also have the surge of far-right movements, open hatred and violence against immigrants, and “alternative facts” – false or manipulated news that is accepted as true by many.

But honestly, I think the real danger is this is a reflection of society. There is a lot of casual racism, malice and dishonest behavior that happens all around us. Back when I used to live in China, I used to rail a lot about negative behavior, but it is apparent that callous and malicious behavior happens a lot all over. Hate crimes, for instance, seem to be on the rise in the US and Britain. Just the other day, a white American shot two Indians in a Kansas bar because he thought they were Muslims (even if they had been, it still would not be right). People seem to be indulging in the most casually obscene ways to kill others, like driving trucks into crowds of people out on the street having a good time. Cyber-bullying can become so vicious that kids commit suicide due to online taunts or extortion or their reputation tainted by being involved in unseemly incidents, even when they are the victims, which is exacerbated by social media.

Ironically, technology appears to be a big reason why there is so much ignorance and hate in society. Rather than being something to broaden our knowledge and awareness of issues and people around us, for some, technology is a tool to foster more hate and ignorance. Fake news, alternative facts, and social media all play a role in disseminating false information that ramp up hate and intolerance, and not to mention stupidity. It would be silly and amusing if it weren’t so tragic at times, like the aforementioned American who shot and killed people because of mistaken ethnic identity. While it might be faintly amusing to think the US, the world’s only superpower and supposed leader of the free world, has plunged to such depths, it’s not amusing when one thinks of the worse things that happen in the developing world, especially Asia. The governor of Jakarta, capital of Southeast Asia’s largest nation Indonesia, supposedly one of the top emerging economies, was put on trial in December for blasphemy. Remind me again what century we are living in?

I am not saying every single ignorant and racist person is a Trump or Brexit supporter, because that would be too simplistic and too lazy an explanation. Besides, it also allows us to wallow in moral complacency. In actuality, I think there were probably Obama or Hillary supporters who were not exactly good guys too. Likewise not all Brexit Leave voters are monsters or Remain voters angels. But more importantly, let’s not pretend there aren’t people in regular life spouting racist or sexist garbage or flaunting their arrogance.

Maybe I’m not expressing myself clearly – I tend to think about different things and see common strands but am unable to  tie it together well enough. But we are living in a sorry period of history, when despite widespread impressive technology and wealth and knowledge, there are a lot of people who don’t know right from wrong, who don’t know real from fake. This applies to knowledge, this applies to morals, and it applies to behavior.

Europe travel · Travel

England travel- London calling

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The first country I went to on my first trip to Europe last year was the UK and the first city, London. This was by choice, because the UK is a country I greatly admire and have always lived under, despite never having been there before. I was born in Hong Kong when it was a British colony, grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, an English-speaking Caribbean nation and a former British colony, and I went to university in another former British colony. There were several aspects of British culture like the language, Premier League football, cricket, and literature that I was familiar with.

Flying into London via Dubai from Taipei, my mother and I had an uneventful entry at Heathrow and took the subway or Tube straight to our hotel. While that sounds convenient, the journey traveled through over 15 stations though it was a nice way to ease into London, seeing houses with gardens and overpass walls marked with graffiti, both sights that are unusual in East Asia.

The next day, we started with Sky Garden, which is not a garden but a free observatory hall located at the top of a tower in the financial district. From the hall, you can walk around and enjoy a 360-degree view of London and see famous landmarks like the Gherkin, Tower and London bridges across the Thames below. The hall is huge and over two stories high, with bars and restaurants. The large front glass panel is covered with steel bars which does interfere with the view, while you walk up the stairs at the side to look at the rear windows. It was raining slightly, typical stereotypical British weather, which marred the view but since it was free, there was no harm.
The building has an unremarkable official name – 20 Fenchurch Street – but it is nicknamed the Walkie Talkie and for good reason. From below, the tower curves gently outward at the front and back as it gets higher and has a rounded roof.
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The next stop was the famous Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, where so much history, much of it unsavory such as executions and imprisonments, occurred. Unfortunately we did not actually view this history because we were in a rush and in a frugal mood. We walked across the Thames on the famous bridge, which is sometimes confused for London Bridge but is more attractive, to the other end and strolled along the riverbank where further ahead the World War II cruiser HMS Belfast, which serves as a floating museum, was moored. The view across the Thames was a fine combination of the old Tower of London fortress with the gleaming Sky Garden and Gherkin towers looming in the back. To be honest, while these are ultramodern buildings, their modest height and weird appearances (the Gherkin in particular has an obscene resemblance if you know what I mean) make the London skyline seem underwhelming, especially compared to East Asian cities. But otherwise, that was the only real complaint I had about what seemed to me a fascinating old city, having existed since Roman rule, which seemed to preserve its many historic structures and illustrious past with modern times so well.
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The Shard on the left, and the “Walkie Talkie,” or Sky Garden tower, at right, look onto the Thames.

From there, it was on to another of London’s countless famous attractions, St Paul’s Cathedral. Again we didn’t go inside, but just walking around the massive church, the first of several grand cathedrals I’d see during the trip, was enough to appreciate its grandeur and size, topped by a giant dome. More memorable than the cathedral was getting lunch at a French bakery inside a courtyard at the side, where the French cashier misunderstood the amount I gave him when I paid (to get exact change) and sniffed audibly. Incredibly, that would be the only rudeness I experienced from a French service person during the entire trip, which included 8 days in France itself.
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The next place was Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. The square, named after the famous 19th century naval victory over a French fleet, is a vast open space that features the National Gallery on one side, two fountains, and the 51-m tall Nelson’s Column, atop which is perched a statue of the famous admiral who won the Battle of Trafalgar but paid with his life. Across the street are the embassies of several Commonwealth countries like South Africa, Jamaica, Malaysia and Canada, though not Trinidad. The square was lively, with hordes of visitors and street performers including a bagpiper playing the Game of Thrones soundtrack.

The National Gallery was impressive, more so given it was free. Though I would see even better art galleries later on during my trip but at that moment, I enjoyed the National Gallery’s works of art from English and European masters, including Vincent van Gogh, and as someone who wasn’t exactly an arts enthusiast, it helped me appreciate paintings a lot more.

After leaving the gallery, we walked a few streets north to Chinatown, passing by the theatre district. As Chinatowns go, it isn’t too big and had several pedestrian lanes filled with typical Chinese restaurants and a few bars. It did have a large Chinese arched “paifang” gate on one street. We had dinner at a well-known restaurant and that was that for the first full day in London.
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The Tower of London fortress
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Old and the new
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Looking down at the HMS Belfast, a floating military museum, from the Sky Garden
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It was drizzling when we were in the Sky Garden, then the skies cleared up when we walked along the Thames.
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This guys seem to be levitating though it’s more likely the pipe structure provides some kind of support.
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Two of the many masterpieces inside the National Gallery – the rape of the Sabine women by the Romans, above, a historical event when the Romans invited a neighboring tribe, the Sabine, to a feast and then proceeded to kidnap their women, and, below, one of several Venice paintings that I really liked

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Uncategorized

Britain’s post-Brexit pondering

It’s been over two weeks since Brexit happened in the UK and political events have become even more uncertain. Financial instability and widespread shock happened in the UK and worldwide, but rather than calm down, the UK’s domestic politics has become more unstable with the Prime Minister David Cameron stepping down, the ruling party set to choose a new leader and hence PM, notorious UKIP leader (and pro-Brexit advocate) Nigel Farage resigning, and the opposition Labour Party trying to get in on the fun by attempting to force out its leader Jeremy Corbyn. All this while the actual exit from the EU remains in limbo with some still hoping or praying it wouldn’t actually happen. It’s fair to say all this political drama has overshadowed the practical ramifications of Brexit.

For me, it was very disappointing. I wanted the UK to stay in the EU, so I was saddened by the referendum’s result. I support the UK in the EU, not for economic reasons but because of what the EU represents. I see it as a continental body that represents a bold vision of uniting multiple nations in various ways and actually doing that. Whereas the United Nations is just a gathering of countries and assorted multilateral organizations, the EU actually is a body of nations that cooperate and act as one in various ways, from law to education to freedom of movement. Yes, it has a lot of problems, from bureaucratic excess to increasing powers that limit individual nations’ sovereignty and policies, and the way how the issue of the waves of Syrian immigrants was handled was not very efficient, with Germany offering open arms while other nations closer to the EU’s boundaries were reluctant and badly overstretched. But in a world of still significant tensions, the idea of a continent of nations united in various ways and speaking with a united voice on important issues is necessary. With the US being the world’s sole superpower and rising giant like China, not to mention Russia, acting like a belligerent bully, it is imperative that Europe still have a great role on the world stage.

Of course, I am not a citizen of an EU nation nor do I live and work there. On a personal basis, my sole experience of the EU was traveling across parts of Western Europe last year and being able to cross boundaries without showing my passport and using a single currency, the euro, across different countries. But it was seeing the blue EU flag flying alongside the national flags in official buildings in France and Italy that really reinforced the idea of European unity.

And I think that’s where the Remain campaign went wrong in the UK. Rather than emphasize the idea and vision of the EU as well as border-less travel and work, they focused mainly on economic benefits in terms of trade and single-market access. For a lot of lower-income and older British who are undergoing tough times, that is a hard sell if the economy already seems terrible to them. Then again, the UK has also had a lukewarm relationship with the EU, for instance, they still retain their own currency (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and they are not part of the Schengen Zone, which encompasses much of the EU and enables borderless travel. When it comes to foreign policy, the UK has tended to operate independently from the EU and its main core countries Germany and France.

I also don’t want to fall into the trap of labeling British Brexit supporters as poor, uneducated idiots who all didn’t even know what they wanted (admittedly some of them really didn’t and thus deserve to be criticized). Even though the UK is supposedly a wealthy, developed country, it has its fair share of economic inequality and poverty, with parts of the country neglected and underdeveloped. It is also well-known that London is heavily, disproportionately supported in terms of government funding and other resources, so other parts of the nation are not as well funded and thus not prospering. Therefore it stands that some of those who voted for Brexit do have legitimate grievances with their government and with the EU, and they should not be universally derided.

However, will they still be as resolute in accepting the consequences of what they accomplished? Will those who voted to stay in Europe accept it as well? Will the UK be able to handle the consequences, economically and politically, not to mention stay intact given the rumblings from Scotland about leaving? All this means that UK politics will be very interesting for at least the rest of the year.

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Chambery, a small town in Southern France near the Alps. The flag on the left is Savoy, the region. 

China · Taiwan

Bleak outlook for the generation of 20- and 30-somethings

Vice has this crazy read about the current generation of British 20- and 3o-somethings, who just don’t and can’t stop partying and living like teenagers. Basically, for many of these people, life has gotten comfortable enough to the extent that people don’t have any meaningful purpose due to a lack of significant responsibilities like marriage, parenting and owning a home that our parents went through at the same age. As a result, a lot of people spent a lot of time partying and getting drunk and wasted, in other words, living like they did as teenagers and university students.

But it’s not all their fault because decent jobs are scarce while home prices have risen so much that most working- and middle-class young folks find it hard to buy their own home. I’m not British, and neither does my life resemble the worst parts of the article, but I can feel some sympathy. The problem is especially bad in London where a lot of “endies” – employed with no disposable income or savings – struggle to save money, especially to buy a home. Though one could wonder why young people in other parts of the Western world like the US, Canada or say, Western Europe aren’t engaging in the same kind of drunken antics frequently as well, despite facing similar problems of skyrocketing home prices, comfortable lives, and delayed marriages and birth rates.

The problems, socially though not behaviorally, exist in East Asia too, specifically Hong Kong and Taiwan with regards to the low levels of marriage (which includes myself as I’m single), births, and home ownership due to skyrocketing home prices. Japan also has this problem, and back in 2012, I came upon an FT article that described this problem with young people’s lack of ambition and chances.
In HK, the problem is especially acute because home prices are among the, if not the highest in the world and many of these homes are so tiny (and these aren’t even cheap). Affordable and public housing is sparse and a significant number of new developments are luxury apartments. A lot of young people are living with their parents, even young married couples working decent jobs like the couple mentioned in this article, incidentally about HKers escaping rising home prices by immigrating to Taiwan.

Yet home prices in Taiwan are not cheap for young Taiwanese either. The problem is especially serious in Taipei where rising home prices mean many young, middle-class people can’t afford homes and have been forced to rent or move out to surrounding areas. The recent local election saw the ruling KMT lose municipalities across Taiwan including Taipei due to problems like inequality and out-of-reach home prices (and what many perceive as a focus on boosting China economic ties that only benefit local tycoons while unable to benefit most people).
Incidentally I missed this news way back in August, but it’s an interesting development that mainlanders have been buying homes and property in Taiwan since 2002, mainly through Taiwanese middlemen or shell corporations set up in other places like Hong Kong. Hell, there’s even an apartment project in Tamsui that was built by a mainland developer (through its Singapore associate company). Allowing more mainland buyers in Taiwan to buy homes would also push prices up, or rather push developers to build more luxury apartments like Hong Kong, since these mainland buyers are mostly wealthy.

In Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, things are tough too when it comes to buying apartments (condominiums). So tough that for many 30-something couples, the main way they’re able to afford homes is the “Bank of Mom and Dad” – money from parents.
Frankly, this could be applied to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. While I’ve yet to see articles that explicitly state this, I know from talking to people and family that many parents in East Asia pay for their children’s homes or at least pay off the deposit.

At the same time, it’s not as if young people can be spared all blame. There are other factors too such as that with the development of technology and materialism, there are so much more things to spend money on such as vacations, electronic devices and services. And as such, it’s harder to save up money and most young people don’t develop this habit.
In some countries like the US, this is exacerbated by a situation where things like say, health care and tuition are getting higher while clothes and electronic devices like TVs and computers are getting cheaper.
The problem is less so in East Asia, especially in Taiwan where health insurance is nationwide and extremely affordable.

This trend of home prices rising way beyond the reach of young, educated workers seems to be prevalent across the world, from the UK to Canada to East Asia to even China. And while it hardly gets mentioned, I’m certain housing markets and economies face a looming crisis down the road as societies age, birthrates drop, and 20- and 30-somethings are unable to continue buying homes at the same rate as their parents and grandparents.

Hopefully the future will not be as bleak for current 20- and 30-somethings in Asia like how the Vice article suggests it is in the UK.