Books

Civilization- book review

Why does the West dominate the world today? Why did the West become so successful in advancing from a chaotic backwater 500 years ago to overtaking Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab, and other civilizations? Niall Ferguson attempts to tackle this major question in a fascinating and informative book. Despite its provocative subtitle – The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, the book is nuanced and not some form of propaganda advocating Western supremacy. According to Ferguson, six major factors allowed the West (Europe and later, the US) to become the world’s leading region: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work.

Competition arose from compact populations that led to a multitude of kingdoms and city states that eventually became the dozens of countries in Europe today. China, for example, is equivalent to most of Europe in area and has a far greater population. As a result, while Chinese emperors put a lot of effort into administering and securing their giant empire, European states constantly fought and competed.

Science is self-explanatory. Europe experienced the age of Enlightenment and Reformation that led to the questioning of old dogmas and religious ideas that were erroneous or nonsense, like the earth being flat. In contrast, in civilizations like the Arab world, religion became a central force and dominated thinking and education.

Property rights meant people could own their own land and be assured of ownership by ensuring the state or other people could not simply seize it. Ferguson compares North America to South America, which were colonised by different countries and had vastly different experiences. Hence, North America had a more “liberal” experience (not trying to excuse slavery) in which private property rights payed a key role in legal, political and economic liberalization, while South America had a more feudal colonialism in which land was concentrated in the hands of the few.

Similar to science and also a result of it, a lot of medical advances took place in Europe in various fields (surgery, dentistry, psychology etc) and led to things like the eradication of smallpox, rabies, polio etc.

Consumption refers to materialism. Simply put, this was a big part of the West’s economic success over the last century (and East Asia’s in the last few decades). Industrialization meant both more goods produced and more wealth generated, which would be spent on goods and hence lead to greater demand, in an ever-growing cycle. For the US, this helped it become the world’s most dominant economy due to a vast domestic consumer market and because it made goods that the world wanted like jeans, Coca Cola, and planes.

Work might sound strange, because people everywhere work, but Ferguson’s main point is that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, helped promote economic development. That’s because its emphasis on hard work and prosperity encouraged people to focus on economic activities by making generating wealth seem sanctioned by the Lord.

There is much, much more than what I’ve summarized up here. There is a lot of facts, arguments, and examples in Civilization that make it a very compelling book, whether you agree with its points or not.

One might argue that China, as well as India, Southeast Asia, and Russia, is challenging Western dominance and Ferguson addresses this directly in the conclusion. In this, he says the West’s problem is not the rise of China, India etc but that it has lost faith in its own advantages. That might be true but it remains to be seen whether the West can regain its dominance or shrink from the challenge of China, Russia, and the developing world.

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Books

1356, and Taipei- book reviews

These two novels may have single-word titles but that is the only similarity. One is about a military conflict hundreds of years ago between England and France, while the other is a contemporary semi-autobiographical novel about a New York writer and his aimless, drug-taking life.

During the 14th century, England and France fought a series of battles and campaigns which went on so long they were known as the Hundred Years War. The majority of these battles were fought on French soil, though at that time, much of France was actually semi-independent duchies or English possessions like Poitiers and Normandy. One of the most famous battles was Poitiers and 1356 is a novel by historical fiction master Bernard Cornwell about events leading up to it. But instead of being a retelling of real events, Cornwell puts a fictitious quest for the lost sword of St Peter led by The Bastard, Thomas of Hookton, a knighted archer from England.

While European military history in the Middle Ages is best known for armored knights, it is a time of great violence and brutality, which the book sometimes casually describes such as in the beginning, when the losing count of a skirmish is castrated and tortured to death. On a greater scale, the English were trying to force the French king to fight a battle by launching campaigns across France, destroying countryside, ransacking cities and raping, killing and pillaging. The English longbow was especially feared during this time, being a weapon that could destroy knights from great distances and launched dozens of times per minute in the hands of a skilled bowman.  The Catholic church also played a large role in the novel, with the Papacy based in Avignon, France, during that time and very much on the side of the French. As with the circumstances of that time, the church held a lot of power and wealth (it still does). Among the key church characters are a stern bishop and his enforcer, a callous priest who uses a hawk to terrorise and blind prisoners.

With a name like Taipei, you’d think the novel would be about Taiwan and perhaps take place mostly in Taipei. But nope, the only association with Taipei is that writer Tao Lin’s parents are Taiwanese, and in the book, the main character, Paul, is also from Taiwan. But other than brief trips to Taiwan and to Canada, the book takes place wholly in the US. Paul is a writer in New York who basically just hangs out, goes to parties where he hardly knows anyone, and takes a lot of drugs. Now, Paul is allegedly Tao Lin, and.

Here’s the thing about Taipei. It’s a unique novel that charts Paul’s life through every interaction, feeling, and conversation he has. Unfortunately, the end result is probably the least interesting novel I’ve ever read. I think that it’s a useful indicator of how empty modern urban life can be, but surely, readers did not need this point to be figuratively beaten into them repeatedly.
Once I realized midway there was no plot, it was a chore to struggle and finish the book. Paul is not interesting to me, and neither are his drug habit or casual relationships. Near the end, he gets married to someone almost on a whim, then he takes her to Taipei to meet his parents, and within weeks, he is already thinking the marriage was a mistake.

It’s a pity that the title Taipei was wasted on such an insipid book, because the city certainly deserves better.

Taiwan

Taiwan shut out of World Health Assembly, “demoted” by companies

Taiwan has been under a lot of pressure lately. After losing a diplomatic ally Dominican Republic at the beginning of May to China, Taiwan has been excluded from the World Health Organization’s annual assembly that kicks off tomorrow (May 21), despite calls from the US, the European Union and Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies. WHO head, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, even said that because of China’s opposition, Taiwan would not be allowed to participate. It’s a very shameful and absurd situation that a country of 23 million can be excluded from a world gathering to discuss vital health issues simply because another much bigger and powerful country claims it and uses its clout to dissuade multilateral bodies from acknowledging it as a country.

Taiwan basically doesn’t exist as an independent state, even though in reality it is very much so, in the eyes of a lot of countries, corporations and multilateral world bodies. As this excellent article states, Taiwan exists in a “unique diplomatic purgatory.” While unofficial ties exist, such as with the US and , the problem is that Taiwan cannot participate in or be a member of world bodies such as the WHO, the UN, or even the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), which oversees global aviation standards and practices.

This lack of recognition even extends to international companies, especially airlines such as Air Canada, which recently changed its listing on its website of Taipei, Taiwan to Taipei, China, therefore implying Taipei (the capital city of Taiwan) is part of China. British Airways, Lufthansa, and Etihad had also made this change earlier this year. It is very disappointing that Air Canada did so as Canada has always been a very progressive country with good ties to Taiwan. I actually regret flying on Air Canada last year when I visited the country and if I had to repeat the trip, I would certainly consider flying on a Taiwanese airline even if it were to be more expensive.

China also tried to pressure American airlines into changing how they listed Taiwan, but thankfully the White Houses responded by calling it Orwellian nonsense. There’re lots of problems with the current American government, but when it comes to dealing with China, they’ve actually done a few things well.

The changing of Taiwan’s name by international organizations was actually happening much earlier, as I personally experienced when a charity I used to donate to sent a letter to my Taiwan residence listing Taipei as a “Province of China.” I tried to leave a message on their Facebook account but never got a reply. I’ve recently contacted them again by Twitter and email so I’m hoping to get a response. I don’t doubt they do valuable work, which is why I donated to them in the first place, but their listing of Taiwan as a “Province of China” is very blatant and false.

I haven’t donated to them since and won’t consider doing so until they stop listing Taiwan as a “Province of China”, but don’t worry, I can still help “save the children” by donating to other worthy organizations.

The growing danger is that while right now, many organizations, companies and world bodies are forced to recognize Taiwan as part of China and not its own country, in the future, China can push this to justify military invasion and attacks.

Africa · Books · South Africa

Born a Crime- book review

By now, Trevor Noah has become a household name in the US. As the host of The Daily Show, having taken over from Jon Stewart in 2016, Noah has come a long way from growing up in a poor neighborhood in his native South Africa during apartheid. What makes his life story even more remarkable is that his birth was a result of a criminal act – his mother was a black South African while his father was a white Swiss, and miscegenation was illegal during apartheid. Hence, the name of his biography – Born a Crime – Stories from a South African Childhood.

I got this book because a friend highly recommended it, but I have to admit I was a little apprehensive. As Noah is a well-known US celebrity, I thought his book would be tame and politically correct. Well, how wrong I was. From the start, he doesn’t pull any punches in talking about his life. He balances hard-hitting commentary with humour and bluntness as well as poignant recollections of painful memories. When he talks about how his devout Christian mother and him spent Sundays going to 3 different churches for the entire day, he says that “white church” was his favorite because of how comfortable it was and how brief the services were (just one hour). “Black church” was an ordeal, as services went on for 3 or 4 hours. “I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more,” he says, which struck me as both hilarious and sad. Then he complains about his mother’s old, beat-up car. Almost all bad experiences were a result of that old car, said Noah. Having to miss school, hitch-hiking, being late for work. And having to find a mechanic, who ended up marrying his mother, beating her, and eventually shooting her in the head. That escalated fast (Noah is not joking about that, it really happened). All this is just the first chapter.

South Africa is one of the world’s most fascinating countries because of its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. I have great memories of visiting there in 2010. But under apartheid, this diversity was twisted so that it was completed corrupted and abused – blacks were forced to live separately; coloreds and Indians were treated as being inferior to whites but better than blacks; child siblings of different skin complexions could be classified separately. As the biracial, light-skinned son of a black woman, Noah is caught up in this. The remarkable thing is Noah isn’t bitter or sad, but filled with optimism as well as a resolve which stayed with him his whole life. As he says, his mother told him not to forget pain, but to also not let pain rule him.

Not surprisingly, Noah’s mother is a key figure in his life and in the book. She is a woman of great resilience and spirit, who worked and brought up young Trevor without any shame, and instilled in him a strong attitude towards life. But she is the victim of the greatest tragedy in Noah’s life, when she is shot in the head by her abusive ex-husband (not Noah’s father). She recovers, which goes to show how tough she is, and Noah’s love for her and vice versa are very apparent.

Noah fills the book with hilarious and harsh anecdotes, as well as commentary on racial and social issues. Sometimes, it sounds brutal such as when he talks about the Coloured people in South Africa – people of mixed ethnic origin. Now, you might wonder – isn’t Noah himself Coloured since his parents were black and white? No, because Coloureds were mixed going back several generations, as their ancestors were the early Dutch and European settlers and locals over two centuries ago. Noah’s point is that this is the Coloured’s tragedy because they don’t have a solid heritage. That isn’t a problem in itself (obviously there are lots of mixed people worldwide) but in South Africa, Coloureds were caught up in the middle of the country’s racial hierarchies, during apartheid and even now.

This book is a great example of this – it’s not dominated by pain and terror, but by humor and fond memories of growing up, getting in trouble, and hustling in the hood, whilst learning some hard lessons. Noah’s autobiography is a fantastic read for learning about South Africa, race, the hood, and basically how a boy from a South African ghetto grew up to become an international comedian and personality. It is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Interestingly, the last biography I read was also about a South African, Elon Musk, which was also good. The country might have some serious problems, but it produces some special people.

Taiwan

Don’t write off Taiwan despite China’s threats

Taiwan seems to be going through a bit of a crisis in terms of global recognition after longstanding ally the Dominican Republic abandoned it for China on May 1. This reduces the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies (countries that officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country) to 19. Also, American Airlines and United have been targeted by China because they list Taiwan as Taiwan and not something like “Taiwan, China” on their websites. China actually claimed that foreign companies need to follow Chinese law overseas when it comes to Taiwan. While the US airlines haven’t made the change yet, several foreign companies like Zara and Marriot have done so when challenged by China earlier this year. And let’s not forget the Man Booker Prize website did the same thing when they changed Taiwanese author’s nationality from Taiwan to Taiwan, China. An online outcry led to them reversing this, though they consequently changed the category from nationality to country/territory, hence implying that the likes of Taiwan could be listed but were not necessarily countries.

This continued absurd overseas bullying by China might be laughable but it is frightening how international companies, from large countries like the US and Germany, continue to yield to China rather than stand their ground. While the obvious reason is that these firms want to get a slice of the China market and not be subject to punishment from China, it is disappointing that they will allow profit to prevail over common sense, international reality, and integrity.

The point is that despite China’s continual and tiresome claims, Taiwan is a fully functioning, independent and stable country. The governing Chinese Communist Party might be able to warp reality and control their population in the mainland but they think they can do so in the world too. Unfortunately a few people in Taiwan as well as supposed experts from the West have been deluded or alarmed enough that they think Taiwan needs to bend to China because it is for the best.

Taiwan has a few bright spots of optimism, one of which the New York Times highlighted in mid-April with a story lauding Taiwan as a bastion of free speech. The other is that companies like Google and Microsoft will set up major research and development (R&D) centers on Taiwan that will focus on artificial intelligence. So it’s too early to write off Taiwan. I wrote about this for Hong Kong Free Press so visit the link to read my article in full.

I’ve also put a shortened form of my article below:

 

Taiwan found itself in the media spotlight in mid-April when The New York Times lauded it as Asia’s bastion of media freedom, replacing Hong Kong whose political and media climate continues to recede under Chinese influence.

The island also saw positive news on the tech front after Microsoft, Google and IBM all announced plans earlier this year to increase R&D in Taiwan by training local talent and setting up research centers.
This is not surprising since Taiwan boasts a strong local tech industry, a deep talent pool, and relatively low wages. Taiwan already boasts a number of tech giants like TSMC, Quanta, Acer, and HTC.

But aside from tech factors, Taiwan also has political advantages. There is a growing backlash in the US and globally against China over various unfair and illegal protectionist actions, which has seen the announcement of heavy tariffs. While tech is one area in which China has become a powerhouse, the fact that its internet is heavily restricted and censored, and that foreign tech firms are subject to protectionist measures means data security and integrity is a significant risk. Meanwhile, intellectual property violations are also widespread in China and the lack of rule of law mean the law is stacked against foreign companies. Foreign companies face significantly less risk in these areas in Taiwan, which has proper rule of law, independent courts, and of course, a relatively free media environment.

Taiwan’s media atmosphere compares favorably with not just China and Hong Kong, but Asia in general. It was the top-ranked country in Asia on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index put out by Reporters without Borders. Ranked 42nd, it was 134 places ahead of China which languished near the bottom at number 176. Hong Kong, meanwhile, was ranked 70th.

As such, it wasn’t surprising that Reporters without Borders specifically chose Taiwan over Hong Kong for its regional bureau. The media in Hong Kong faces growing restrictions, including physical attacks on reporters and self-imposed censorship for fear of offending China. Besides media, this fear of censorship has spread to other areas like books and films. The Times article also mentioned the Hong Kong Human Rights Film Festival which will be held this year in Taiwan, and the relocation of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold controversial China books. Lam Wing-kee was one of five partners of the Causeway Bay Bookstore who were abducted by Chinese agents in 2016, in Hong Kong, China and Thailand, and then held for months without any contact with the outside world. The bookstore has since closed and Lam has said he will reopen it in Taiwan.

Taiwan stands out in the region and Asia, not just for media freedoms, but also human rights. When it comes to political freedom, religious freedom, gay rights, and animal rights, the island state is renowned for being progressive, especially when many neighboring countries are clamping down on these freedoms. This includes China, which claims Taiwan and frequently uses threats such as military exercises to intimidate the smaller state.

Of course, there is still a lot of room for Taiwan to improve in these areas such as a fragmented and competitive media scene that results in a dearth of quality journalism, as well as fading brands like HTC and Acer that failed to focus enough on marketing and maintaining market share overseas. Taiwanese firms traditionally were strong in hardware, especially OEM, but this came at a cost of focusing less on software and services. This is why the increased R&D cooperation with Google and Microsoft in fields like artificial intelligence will be vital. The more Taiwan diversifies its tech focus, the more it can boost its economy and tech capabilities.

Books

The Sympathizer- book review

Lots of books have been written about the Vietnam War but those mostly are about the US experience. The Sympathizer is a novel about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, but even this is a little complicated. The protagonist is a South Vietnamese captain and aide of a special police general, both of whom flee to the US after the fall of Saigon to the victorious North Vietnamese. But he is also a long-time mole who reports on the general and other South Vietnamese in the US for the North Vietnamese. This makes for a very intriguing novel that blends a war story with an immigrant’s tale and a suspense thriller with a bit of history and politics as well. This potent mix is why the Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 as well as several other major book prizes.

However, the story doesn’t end in the US but surprisingly returns to Vietnam, which was unified after the North defeated and overran the South, in an agonizing finale. Since I don’t want to disclose the ending, I’m being intentionally vague. I will say the conclusion comes after the general and other South Vietnamese refugees in the US plot a covert invasion of their home country, which the captain struggles to decide whether to take part in.

The book is starkly fascinating, starting in Saigon during its last days as the capital of South Vietnam, with the desperation of people to flee being especially palpable, mixed with the despair and defiance of soldiers like the general and the captain’s comrade as they contemplate futile resistance. After the captain and the general make it to the US, they struggle to make a living in vastly humbler circumstances, a common experience of many immigrants. During this whole period, readers discover the captain’s origins, being the illegitimate love child of a French Catholic priest and a local village woman, which makes him a bastard, a Eurasian and scorned by many of his compatriots. Yet it is never clear why he chooses to serve the North, other than that his village was in the north.
There is a strange interlude in the middle of the novel where the captain serves as an advisor during the filming of a Hollywood movie about the war, which bears similarities to Apocalypse Now.

Vietnam, to me, is an intriguing country whose history (both recent and past), culture, and society are often overlooked and underrepresented in Western media. The Vietnam War was a significant tragedy for the US, which can be seen in American movies, TV series and novels about the war, but this obscures the fact that the Vietnamese suffered the most, even if they were the ultimate victors. The Sympathizer can only portray a bit of the effect of the war and its aftermath on the Vietnamese, but this is more than enough to present the trauma and tensions vividly.

I found the book a little too dark and tragic to be truly enjoyable, but it is highly captivating.

Books

The Triple Package- book review

It might be a sensitive topic, but academic and economic success varies among different ethnic and cultural groups in the US. What makes ethnic groups like South Asians, Jewish, or East Asians such high performers in the US? The Triple Package- How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America  argues that three factors foster the success of certain groups.

Some readers might recognize co-author Amy Chua for her 2011 book Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of how she parented her two daughters based on strict “Chinese” values as opposed to American/Western compassion. In The Triple Package, Chua and co-author Jed Rubenfeld (also Chua’s husband and fellow Yale professor) explain that three main traits are essential — superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control (discipline). Superiority and insecurity seem contradictory, but they go together because groups need to both have a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence while also feeling insecure enough to keep striving and pushing themselves. Impulse control is also important, so for Mormons, their austere upbringing as well as the two-year service for many young Mormon adults who go on evangelical missions worldwide, is a great benefit.

All three traits are vital because if a group lacks even one of them, they will not be successful. For example, the authors explain that black Americans (those whose ancestors came to the US as slaves) lack a sense of superiority due to enduring persistent discrimination, which hinders them from being successful, whereas Nigerian-Americans, one of the successful groups mentioned in the book, and other African immigrants don’t. Another example is the Amish, who live even more austere lives (no electricity!) and possess more discipline than the Mormons, but they do not have a sense of superiority and have little desire to compete and advance in modern society.

Most of the groups like Chinese-Americans and Nigerian-Americans are immigrants or have only been in the US for 2-3 generations, though the Jewish community and Mormons are exceptions. However, decline usually sets in for immigrants after two generations so that for example, “first- and second-generation Asian students outperform whites, whereas there is no difference between third-generation Asians and whites.”

While the subject matter is rather sensitive, the writing is rather nuanced and not inflammatory or exaggerated. The authors also devote a chapter to exploring the downside of the triple package traits in cultures, which manifests in insularity, high pressure and psychological problems. Asian-Americans often do very well in academics and are one of the highest earning groups in the US, but some young Asian-Americans chafe under the high expectations and try to break out of the narrow stereotypical mold they grow up under.

While groups might rise, they can also decline as they become complacent and lose the discipline or drive to strive harder. Interestingly, the authors apply this to explain the recent fortunes of the US as a whole. This is because the US can be considered the ultimate “Triple Package” nation- a young upstart that harboured a strong desire to prove itself compared to the much older and cultured European powers, whilst also possessing a sense of “exceptionalism” as a nation forged from a desire to be free, and a “Puritanical inheritance of impulse control” including moderation, saving and industry. But having risen to become the world’s superpower, America lost its discipline and sense of insecurity and became too confident. The world has become very turbulent and unstable but the authors say this is the right time for the US to recover its “Triple Package” due to insecurity presented by threats of terrorism, China, and financial woes. It will be interesting if the US can recover its status as a “Triple Package” nation.

Ultimately, the success of ethnic groups may not be simply due to these three factors, but the authors make convincing arguments that they are key.

Books · Taiwan

Green Island- book review

I find it a very ironic time to have read Green Island, a novel about the life of a Taiwanese man imprisoned after the 228 Tragedy in 1948 and his family as they endure Taiwan’s decades of repressive martial law before it became a democracy in the late 1980s. I say this because of recent developments in China, where the president has become an “emperor,” (he even threatened Taiwan today in a speech at a national congress) and worsening political repression and government announcements seem to be harkening back to the sixties and seventies. Single-party authoritarian rule and political repression are what Taiwan, a proud democracy since the late 80s, suffered for decades, during which the events in Green Island take place against.

There are not many novels about Taiwan, so Green Island is rather unique. And by focusing on Taiwan’s turbulent period of martial law, also known as the White Terror, starting with the brutal massacre of the 228 Tragedy, the book is even more special.

The 228 Tragedy was a mass killing of Taiwanese by Republic of China troops after mass riots erupted in 1948 sparked by the beating of a cigarette vendor. Having been a Japanese colony, Taiwan was granted to the ROC in 1945, who behaved like oppressive occupiers, fuelling serious tensions with the locals. The death toll has never been verified but was at least several hundred, though some believe the number was in the thousands. The narrator’s father, a doctor who speaks up for during a public hearing a few days after the tragedy, is arrested in the ensuing crackdown. His family never gets any news of his arrest or whether he is in prison or dead. The narrator was born on the day the tragedy began – February 28 (a public holiday now in Taiwan in commemoration of the victims) and grows up as the youngest child and daughter without knowing her father until he suddenly appears 11 years later.

But instead of a joyful reunion, the father’s reappearance causes complications with the family with his haunted and stern presence. As the narrator grows up, she is introduced to a son of a family friend studying in the US and marries him. Moving to the US in the early 1980s, they start a family in California where the husband teaches at a local university. He is involved in a Taiwanese dissident movement, and when the couple take in a Taiwanese academic who has fled Taiwan, Taiwanese government agents shadow them. This is a chilling echo of reality in those days when Taiwanese agents and thugs spied on and intimidated activists in the US, even committing murder, something that happens in the novel as well. When the dissident decides to write a book about Taiwan, the narrator helps him translate it into English. But a Taiwanese consulate agent contacts the woman and tries to intimidate and bribe her to spy on the dissident. Things become murky as the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept and fear and paranoia creep into her relations with her husband and the dissident. The situation seems hopeless for the dissident movement as the regime continues to rule by intimidation and terror (a state of affairs that would not seem out of place in Taiwan’s giant neighbour across the Strait right now). The book ends with a return to Taipei in the midst of the SARS virus epidemic in 2003.

While I have a general understanding of Taiwan’s 20th century history such as the 228 Tragedy and the White Terror, which lasted from the late 40s to the 80s, I did not grasp the sheer brutality and climate of fear and repression that occurred during that time. Reading Green Island brought this dark period to life and increased my appreciation of how much Taiwan has progressed to become what it is today. What makes this period even more striking is that the 70s was when Taiwan left the UN after the organization decided to accept China and then saw its chief ally, the US break off official relations with it in favour of China. Taiwan’s ensuing international isolation,  which still exists today with less than 20 countries officially recognizing Taiwan, was a big blow to the ruling KMT regime. I got the sense from reading the book that this loss of international legitimacy weakened the KMT and somehow helped Taiwan’s eventual democratization to occur.

At times while reading the book, I thought how Taiwan back then was so similar to China, both being one-party states ruled by dictators (Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, China by Mao Tse-tung) and with censorship; mass killings; citizen surveillance, secret detention, torture and killings of dissidents. The big difference is that China now still has some of these things. Taiwan now is a completely different place and sometimes given the country’s openness and easy-going nature, it is easy to forget that decades ago, it was under a terrible dictatorship that committed killings and repressive jailing of its citizens. There are some torture and killing described in the book, all the more chilling because it is not over-the-top gory but realistic and based on reality.

Green Island refers to a small isle off Taiwan’s east coast that was used to imprison dissidents like the father, so the main criticism I have about the book is that the father’s 11 years of imprisonment are not described at all. After he is captured and jailed, time goes by and the family picks up their lives until suddenly one day he reappears. While the father’s Green Island imprisonment is traumatic and affects his personality, the isle itself does not feature so I think  the book being named after it is misleading.

You could say Green Island is both the story of a country and a family, both a political thriller and a family drama. There is an air of sadness and fear throughout the book, but it is lightened by the fact that in real life, we all know which side won in Taiwan between the authoritarian regime and the resistance.

Green Island is one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read and there were a couple of times when I felt emotional and I rarely do so for books. Green Island is not an uplifting tale of heroism and happiness, but a somber story of survival and family that is also the story of a nation.

Africa · Books

Behold the Dreamers- book review

The American Dream has long been held up as the ultimate goal for people from all over the world, who brave all means to reach what they believe is the fabled land of hope and opportunity and try to make a good life for themselves and their families. Behold the Dreamers is about a Cameroonian couple, Jende and Neni, who try to accomplish this dream amid the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis. Having overstayed his temporary visa to remain in the US for several years, Jende has gotten a lucrative opportunity to become the personal chauffeur of a Wall Street high flyer while applying for refugee asylum. His wife Neni is studying for a nursing degree while looking after their young son. Author Imbolo Mbue has crafted a compelling novel that goes beyond sentimentality and fanciful hopes to provide a raw and poignant take on the contemporary American Dream.

Through Jende and Neni’s challenging lives, Mbue shows that the American Dream is not always so fantastic nor attainable. Despite being set in the bright lights of New York City, which Jende and Neni both love, Mbue doesn’t hold back in portraying the grimness and sacrifice they put into trying to build a life in America, having to carefully balance their budget and diet while having to be obsequious at work (Jende not only has to drive Clark, but his wife and children, each of whom Jende treats as a master).

However, Behold the Dreamers is not just an immigrant story. Mbue seamlessly intertwines Jende and Neni’s story with that of Clarke’s well-off American family. Jende’s boss, Clarke, is an executive at Lehman Brothers, which became the most well-known victim of the crisis as it basically collapsed, so we know things won’t go too well for him. His wife is not as happy as she looks, and his elder son has a worldview very much at odds with him and much of society in general. Clarke balances work problems with maintaining a facade of a good family, which also doesn’t go too well and in a very sad way, he actually suffers more than Jende. I don’t know if it’s deliberate but Mbue makes Clarke a more empathetic character than one would have thought. Clarke’s lack of resolve with his home issues also drags in Jende and Neni and the result is tragic.

The novel was highly acclaimed and chosen by Oprah as one of her 2017 book selections, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had thought I would. For one, the main characters didn’t interest me that much and I wasn’t too sympathetic to their personal circumstances. In the middle of the novel, Neni commits a blatant act of extortion on a vulnerable employer that basically eliminated any sympathy I had for her. The ending provides some redemption as Jende makes a courageous decision, which I almost though he would go back on, and goes through with it. The ending will surprise a lot of readers and raise some issues to think about, such as rethinking what exactly is the American Dream worth.

China

China enters a new “imperial” age

This week’s biggest news in Asia confirmed what many people have already been thinking. The announcement in China on Sunday that term limits on the presidency were to be scrapped effectively means that Xi Jinping can remain as leader indefinitely. The significance of this is not just that Xi can stay in power forever without stepping down, but that it ends a decades-long safeguard that was put in place by Deng Xiaoping specifically to prevent anybody from consolidating power like Mao Zedong by staying in power indefinitely.

But yet, the move was not totally unexpected as Xi has been trying to follow in the footsteps of Mao, gathering up personal power, creating a personality cult and launching massive crackdowns on society while continuously limiting freedom of expression. However, though Xi might be a powerful leader, China’s most powerful one since Deng, but he is not a great leader. Cracking down on corrupt officials, which also conveniently got rid of lots of potential rivals and their followers; coming up with the grand-sounding but dubious Belt and Road “initiative”; as well as acting belligerent with the US, Japan and Taiwan might seem impressive to some Chinese, but in reality, demonstrates little. The more Xi consolidates power, the more stronger China might seem, but in the long run I think this will be detrimental to China. This move also puts China back in the very slim ranks of nations where unelected leaders stay in power for as long as they wanted, like North Korea and Cuba. Even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe just stepped down last November after decades in power, and he actually won elections. Previously, the 10-year limit on Chinese leaders meant that China could claim to have a more professional and efficient leadership that was authoritarian but not dictatorial. Xi’s desire to stay in power beyond 10 years, without any limits, means that the leadership is now solely about him.

The announcement was made on Sunday in a lowkey manner, but as the news spread amongst Chinese people, the authorities were quick to begin censoring opposing opinions. Hilariously, they were paranoid enough to also censor keywords like “emigrate,” “migration” and “Winnie the Pooh.” In case you are wondering why a fuzzy, harmless cartoon bear would be banned from China’s online space, it’s because Xi kind of resembles Winnie. There are reports that Wechat and Weibo posts that were critical of this news have been deleted, as many Chinese who previously might have been neutral or silent towards domestic politics have become alarmed.

We are living in dark times with a reckless imbecile in charge of the world’s most powerful nation and a wannabe emperor in Xi leading the second-most powerful one. Just as how Trump’s victory occurred despite many Americans knowing that he would be a terrible president, Xi’s course of action took place despite the apprehension of many Chinese. Just as bad is that the people of the world, most especially Taiwan and neighbouring countries, might have to suffer as well.

Taiwan might have cause to worry the most because one of Xi’s goals is to unify China and Taiwan, by force if necessary. Never mind this is something hardly any Taiwanese wants, but given Xi has no qualms about using force  and repression on his own people, as well as Chinese with foreign citizenship, there is little reason to doubt he won’t hesitate using force on Taiwan. Taiwan will need to stay vigilant, boost its military and economy, and not back down on its sovereignty despite Xi and his regime’s threats.

The only positive I can see in all this is that Xi’s ambition is now out in the open, and people can now more clearly see the real nature of Xi and his regime.