30 June 2009

Seoul Searching – Part 2 尋覓漢城-下卷

It was 12:05 pm and we were still on item 2.3 of the two-page agenda. Inside the conference room as white as a morgue, bankers and lawyers pored over company accounts and peppered senior management with probing questions prefaced with profuse pleasantries. Jin-hoon, my colleague and friend, faithfully translated every word for me like a seasoned UN interpreter. Then came the first piece of good news of the day: we were to break for lunch in 15 minutes at a nearby restaurant. Kamsamnida, I whispered the only Korean word I knew despite myself.

Outside the office tower, the midday sun had warmed the urban sprawl to a balmy 25 degrees...


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.

29 June 2009

Seoul Searching – Part 1 尋覓漢城-上卷

I snatched the ream of documents from my secretary’s hands and shoved them into my carry-on luggage. And so began the 48-hour cycle of a mundane business trip: a mad rush to the airport, a hurried nap on the humming plane and two days in a faceless city. Far from the glamor its name suggests, business traveling these days is all business and hardly any traveling. Imagine a trip where the final destination is a stuffy conference room and your travel companions a table of men-in-black who take their jobs way too seriously. Outside the dreary meeting room and just minutes from the sterile office building, a city beckons, waiting to be discovered. For an avid traveler like myself, it is the adult world equivalent of leaving a child behind the iron bars of the Disneyland entrance gates. So close, and yet so frustratingly far away.

This time my Mission Uninspirational took me to Seoul...


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.

18 June 2009

A Tale of Three Cities – Part 3 三城故事-下卷

The first sunbeams pierce the morning fog and sweep across the island’s verdant back. A lonesome streetcar emerges from the west praya, still dark in the shadow of the Peak, and rumbles noisily down the tracks. One by one congee shop owners push up their metal gates, not long before the sound of clanging crockery fills the dewy air. As the rising sun pours gold over the silver city, tree sparrows tweet to its quickening pulse and Hong Kong wakes up to another day.

If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Hong Kong must be the one that doesn’t even blink...


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.

04 June 2009

The Butcher’s Atonement 屠夫的救贖

The other night my niece asked me to tell her the story of Tiananmen Square. My avuncular instincts kicked into high gear and I made up a story more suited for juvenile consumption.
Once upon a time in a land far far away, an old butcher ran a humble meat shop. One hot summer’s night, he got into a heated argument with his sons over the way he managed his struggling business. In a fit of rage, the impetuous father reached for his cleaver and went on a bloody rampage. Shocked by his own monstrosity, the man frantically buried the bodies and vowed to be a better father to his remaining children. As the years passed, the butcher shop prospered and the family grew. Still, any discussion of that fateful summer’s night remained taboo. Convinced that he would never be forgiven, the old man resigned himself to waiting out the generation who witnessed his murderous acts. With each passing day, as memories thinned and denial thickened, the old butcher’s chance of atonement ebbed away like a receding tide.
The butcher butchers, and the butcher denies

* * *

The Tiananmen Square Massacre, or more delicately referred to in this part of the world as the “June 4 Incident, was the most senseless chapter in Chinese history since the Cultural RevolutionOn June 3, 1989, if Beijing citizens had to make a list of things they thought would never happen, their government using the bluntest arrows in their authoritarian quiver, by sending in the tanks in the dead of night and opening fire on unarmed demonstrators still asleep in their tents, would have been right at the top of their list.

The chain of events that led up to the bloody crackdown was more surreal than a Dali painting. Not two months before June 4, exuberant students camped out in the heart of the capital city, shouting rousing slogans one moment and singing the Internationale the next. Two weeks before June 4, student leaders wearing headbands and pajamas sat side-by-side with party chiefs in the Great Hall of the People exchanging ideas on political reform. Such fatal naiveté! How could anyone place even an ounce of trust in a regime utterly incapable of negotiation or compromise, or ever believe that lofty ideals would somehow move party seniors who took the slightest criticism as a personal affront? In the end, the student demonstrators got a lesson no textbook could teach them. And hundreds became part of a story they would never live to tell.

Secretary Zhao Ziyang would pay a high price for speaking to the students 

Twenty years later, Tiananmen Square was once again in a complete lock-down. Security had been heightened and armed police were everywhere. Determined to make the anniversary a national non-event, authorities summarily removed dissidents from the capital city and kept the less vocal ones under temporary house arrest. Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr had been blocked for a “national Internet service maintenance day.” But Beijing has little to worry about. June 4 is nothing but a historical blip for most Mainland Chinese. Young people born after the incident haven’t even a chance to learn or hear anything about it, at least not through public discussions or school books. And in a country that boasts the fastest growing population of millionaires in the world, money speaks louder than ideology. Lured by the promise of a comfortable middle-class life, many opt for a foreign car and a big apartment over political reform that may or may not benefit them within their lifetime. These days, university students are busy applying to graduate schools in America and interviewing with multinational companies, in what many believe to be a modern reenactment of Goethe’s tragic play Faust. From fearless idealists to unabashed pragmatists, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme in a single generation.

Sorry, the square is closed for maintenance

In Hong Kong, the only place on Chinese soil where free discussions of the massacre are possible, a couple of interesting preludes set the stage for the 20th anniversary. In April, Ayo Chan (陳一諤), the dorky know-nothing student president at the University of Hong Kong, outraged his colleagues at a campus forum when he suggested that the entire tragedy could have been avoided if the demonstrators had not behaved irrationally and provoked the Communist Party. Thankfully, fellow students acted swiftly to impeach the loose-tongued freshman before he moved on to the subject of the Holocaust and accused the Jews of taunting the Nazis.

Just two weeks ago, Chief Executive Donald Tsang told legislators that whatever happened in Beijing that day “happened a long time ago” and that the incident was better forgotten given all the prosperity China has brought us. And as if things weren’t bad enough, the bow-tied bureaucrat kept on stressing that his view represented the opinion of every Hong Kong citizen. Politicians are well advised to speak cautiously, and if that’s too hard to do, speak only for themselves. From university leader to government head, those who lack the maturity or conscience to separate facts from lies in the grown-up world should join my niece in learning the story of the old butcher. Learn it and remember it.

All that sucking up to Beijing has gotten him nowhere

Earlier tonight I attended the candlelight vigil at Victoria Park. With teary eyes and a heavy heart, I put on a black-and-white outfit as if I were going to a dear friend’s funeral. At the park, somber citizens occupied every occupiable space as far as the eye could see. To my left, a young couple held on to their infant fast asleep in the summer’s heat. To my right, a sweaty teenager led two blind men negotiating the crowds with their walking sticks. Every one of us chanted pro-democracy slogans and strained to hear impassioned speeches drowned out by the chorus of cicadas singing loudly in the trees. Twenty years ago, demonstrators besieged Tiananmen Square to demand the vindication of ousted party chief Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦). Twenty years later, I found myself among 150,000 sitting in a peaceful protest demanding the vindication of those very demonstrators. Despite Hong Kong’s many foibles and political anomalies, tonight our city was the collective conscience of the 1.3 billion Chinese people around the globe and a beacon of hope for a better China. I had never been more proud of being a part of this city.

The annual vigil at Victoria Park

*   * *

If this were a fairy tale, my niece would thank me for the lovely bed-time story and fall sound asleep under her quilt embroidered with giraffes and zebras. But we don’t live in a fairy tale. In reality, my nieces and nephews never asked me about Tiananmen Square and I never told them the story of the old butcher and his slaughtered children. Our next generation is either too young to be interested in politics or too busy with homework and exams. But how I want them to ask me what this anniversary really means! I want my next generation to know their country and its history, for how we remember our past defines who we are and how we live our future. Throughout the night, Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem Recessional kept playing in my head. And on this 20th anniversary of one of the defining moments of my childhood, I dedicate these lines to my next generation:

               The tumult and the shouting dies,
                     The captains and the kings depart.
               Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
                     An humble and a contrite heart.
               Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
                     Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Lest we forget!


If you like this article, read 36 others like it in HONG KONG State of Mind, now available at major bookstores in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.