22 February 2009

Tokyo Impressions 東京印象

I spent a week in Tokyo last month as part of my twice-annual pilgrimage to one of my favorite cities. Like many in Hong Kong, I take guilty pleasure in all things Japanese. Saddled by the burden of history, all ethnic Chinese in my generation are taught to loathe the Japanese or at least keep them at bay. How we are to separate our sworn enemies’ heinous past from their admirable qualities continues to elude every Japanophile among us.

Moral dilemmas aside, I find the Japanese aesthetics irresistible. The marriage of Shintoism and Zen Buddhism has produced such core values as wabi (; simlicity and transience) and sabi (; beauty of age and time). They are the underpinnings of every aspect of the Japanese culture from theater and architecture to food preparation and social etiquette. A perfect storm was formed when these values collided with bushido (武士道), the strict code of conduct of the samurai warrior, resulting in an idiosyncrasy that is exacting, nuanced and immensely graceful. At once a philosophy and a national identity, the Japanese aesthetics make even the most mundane of activities, such as cooking a bowl of udon or gift-wrapping a box of rice crackers, a ceremonial ritual to behold and admire.
I checked into my usual hotel in the Nihonbashi (日本橋) area and was led to the familiar room by a porter of impeccable manners...

Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.

13 February 2009

Le Sacre du Printemps 春之祭

I grabbed my briefcase and stepped out of my apartment building onto the quiet street. But something felt different this morning. The thick white fog had returned and swallowed everything near and far. Somewhere in the nearby woodland, atop an aged magnolia perhaps, a chorus of sparrows chirped briskly and worked up a Stravinskian dissonance. Tiny hibiscus buds, ever the bellwether of hope, adorned a stretch of wild shrubs drunk with morning dew. From a distance, roosters crowed in eager successions, evoking images of the rustic Cantonese village where my parents grew up. Suddenly, a taxi emerged from the bend and interrupted the tranquility. I resisted the intruder’s offer and continued my saunter as the muttering vehicle sailed away. Solitude restored, I slowed my pace with deliberation and gazed down the distant valleys where the southerly wind labored to disperse the fog. Plumes of smoke rose from the mountain ridge before quietly dissolving into the storm-pregnant sky, foreshadowing an afternoon drizzle.

In a prolonged breath, I inhaled the heavy, humid air and the smell was unmistakable: spring had arrived.

10 February 2009

The Premier’s New Clothes 總理的新衣

Last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (家寶) made a five-day visit to Europe while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The 66-year-old honcho jet-set through major cities in Western Europe, signing multi-billion dollar trade deals and posing with heads of state in front of flashing cameras. With economic growth languishing at 6.8% in the last quarter of 2008, party leaders are pressured to do whatever it takes to drum up demand for Chinese exports and to keep the economy growing at 8% annually. Ever the symbol of luck and prosperity, the magic number “8” represents the best antidote against labor unrest and social instability. Indeed, bao ba (保八; literally, maintain at eight) has been the Chinese governments main obsession since 1998 when the term was first coined.

Wen ostensibly skipped Paris on his tour of duty. While in London, the Premier enthused that his omission of France was fully intended. Speaking with undisguised spite and defiance, Wen told reporters that Nicholas Sarkosy should know full well why he was being snubbed, referring to the French president’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in Gdansk last December. Their brief rendezvous infuriated China, which has long considered the Tibetan spiritual leader one of the biggest threats to the country’s territorial integrity. And the Chinese neither forgive nor forget. Emboldened by China’s economic success and the warm reception from world leaders, Wen takes every opportunity to throw his weight around, punishing Sarkosy for his follies and chastising Washington for criticizing the undervalued yuan. But in the end, Wen comes off as vindictive and smug. A nouveau riche in a victory lap.

Rubbing elbows with European leaders at lavish state dinners surely make Wen and his posse feel accepted. After a half-century of military humiliation and post-war poverty, China has finally picked herself up and dusted herself off. She must be respected now. But to the rest of the world, despite its double-digit growth and increasing political influence, China remains a Frankenstein of a country. It is a socialist state on paper, but thirty years of “reform and openness” have produced a burgeoning middle class that drives around town in the latest Audi, binge-shops at Gucci and gamble their life-savings away in stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen. But no matter how affluent many of these city folks have become, they still can’t buy a foreign magazine from a newsstand or do a Google search without worrying about the web police. Just last week, Tan Zuo-ren (譚作人), an activist who helped victims of the Sichuan earthquake victims investigate the province’s collapsed schools, was charged with “illegal possession of state secrets.”

Tan’s arrest is just one of many sobering reminders that Frankenstein is still long a way from blending in with the rest of society. Erratic, stubborn, intolerant and socially inept, this is how the rest of the world still views China. The country faces a public relations battle that will take much more than an Olympic Games or a trip to the moon to win. But world leaders, ever pragmatic and shrewd, happily play along, putting on their party hats and pouring the champagne to welcome the new guest. But when Frankenstein is not looking, they roll their eyes and steal a snicker.

If diplomacy is all about keeping up appearances and putting on the game face, then nobody does it better than the English. It is therefore all the more ironic that the shoe-hurling incident should happen in England of all places. While Wen was delivering a speech at Cambridge University, a German student followed in Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaid’s footsteps and threw a shoe at the Premier, crying, “how can this university prostitute itself with this dictator?” Finally someone has the courage to say something about the pink elephant in the room. The episode, watched by hundreds of millions around the world but unreported by the Chinese press, is a modern day version of Hans Christian Anderson’s Emperor’s New Clothes.

These days it is easy or even fashionable to criticize China and its human rights records. But is the world’s most populous country the evil empire that the liberal media have us believe, or is it the most misunderstood nation on the planet? I try to put myself in the shoes of those in charge and imagine what it must be like to be responsible for feeding a population of 1.3 billion and all the while having to rein in an economy that operates like a runaway train. It’s not exactly a walk in the park. And why is it that I am working my hardest and doing the best I can, and still the West keeps wanting me to fail? Is it fear, jealousy, racism or all of the above? An international relations scholar once observed: the tension between established powers and an emerging one is a structural inevitability. But we dont have to be always that cynical. Looking at how quickly the world embraces Barack Obama after eight years of unprecedented anti-Americanism, we have reason to believe that the world isn’t out to get us. When the ruling establishment in Beijing is ready to loosen its clenched fist, the world will hold its arms out for China. And when that day comes, world leaders will once again put on their party hats and pop the champagne to receive a new China. This time they will actually mean it.

02 February 2009

Confessions of a News Junkie - Part 2 癮君子的自白-下卷

Lifestyle magazines often feature a section where celebrities make a list of the ten things they can’t live without. Brad Pitt goes everywhere with his Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses and Sofia Coppola her Louis Vuitton luggage. I yawn with indifference every time I come across such silliness, but only seconds later find myself mentally going down my own list: my 24-inch iMac, my Octopus card, extra virgin olive oil… And of course, the daily delivery of The International Herald Tribune.

The IHT, the global edition of The New York Times, is hands down my favorite news source. Averaging only 18 pages, the newspaper can be read cover-to-cover in a single sitting. From politics and business to travels and arts and entertainment, “all the news that’s fit to print” is packed into a single fold. The paper’s editorials, written with old-fashioned gumption, always pack a punch. Daily crossword puzzles edited by word wizard Will Shortz get progressively difficult as the week matures and provide a workout for the brain that at once entertains and humbles. Award-winning columnists like Alice Rawsthorn and Roger Cohen and sections with such enticing titles as “International Life” delight as much as they inspire. Whether it is an article about the Singapore government’s attempt to boost its citizens’ sex drive or a vignette on China’s emerging middle class buying their first motor cars, the writing is superb and the research thorough.

On the other end of the spectrum are the local news media in Hong Kong...

Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.

Confessions of a News Junkie - Part 1 癮君子的自白-上卷

I am addicted to news.

Everyday I devour The International Herald Tribune more enthusiastically than I do my lunch. At the gym I work out to 60 Minutes and CBC’s World At Six instead of the Black Eyed Peas or Beyoncé. After a day’s work, I risk motion sickness on the minibus to watch Katie Couric and Brian Williams at their anchor desks on my 3.5 inch iPhone screen. And when I finally get home, I change out of my work clothes in front of the television playing pre-recorded evening news on TVB, a local television channel…

Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.