Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Arguably the greatest advance in journalism in my life is Wikileaks: truly a tool for bringing greater transparency to the world.
As its founder, Julian Assange, sits behind bars on trumped up charges (his accusers have links to the CIA), now is the time to resurrect Canned Revolution, an old anarchic movement set up in the dark days of the Bush regime. Yesterday we launched the design to your left in support of Wikileaks. This nifty Wikiaid comes in all shapes and forms, from tshirts to mugs to wall clocks and much more besides. For that perfect anarchic Chrimbo present click the following link for a free press:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

In defence of Guangzhou

It’s been a year or so since I last visited the noisy metropolis of Guangzhou and so, when earlier this week faced with a deadline to create a snappy city guide to the place formerly known as Canton, I thought I’d see if anyone had any useful nuggets of info on Facebook. I asked my 193 friends on the social networking site what are the five best things about Guangzhou. The responses were predictably dire from those who have lived in Hong Kong. Below a sample from one wit:
1. The train to Hong Kong.
2. A flight to Hong Kong
3. Barge down the river to Hong Kong.
4. They sell beer.
5. Seeing your pet cat about to be disemboweled and fried.
Poor old Guangzhou, host of this November’s Asian Games, has never ranked high on people’s travel lists. And yet, I really like it. I prefer it over Shanghai, for instance. Its huge sprawl can make it appear tough, grimy and confusing for first time visitors (often referred disparagingly as China’s Los Angeles) but scratch beneath the surface and you’ll see wonderful ancient culture coupled with soaring modernity and the best cuisine in the People’s Republic. After much thought here then are my five favourite things about this 2,500-year-old city.
1. Shamian Island – This tiny spit of land was the only place that Europeans could establish settlements. Beats the Bund hands down for outstanding 19th century European architecture.
2. The food – Undeniably the best in China.
3. The annex of the Victory Hotel – One of the best bargains accommodation-wise across the whole of the nation.
4. The markets – Alright, post-SARS the full on gore of many of the wet markets has been toned down, but the city’s assorted stalls are still pretty unique in their offerings.
5. Karaoke – For some reason I always seem to have a crazy singing session when in GZ – cantar in Canton.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

La vie en jaune

Part of the reason why I have been so reticent on this here blog has been an amorous affair. Well, more like the spark of an old flame.
I really have fallen back in love with Europe and can see myself living there soon. Pictured is my house in the Pyrenees; the sunflowers came out strong this year.
A recent EU-wide poll put France top in terms of quality of life (and the UK bottom) and it is once one is nestled in la Hexagone for a while that you start to appreciate what is important in life. The constant running around in Asia, the never ending schedule of appointments, flights and deadlines suddenly pale away once ensconced in my basic mountain shack.
I am now formulating a way in which AsiaScribbler Co could continue to work as a going concern with yours truly living in la belle France … and I think I might have worked it out.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Scrumptious pickings

The verb to scrump is a wonderful word that conjures up, for me at least, images of Kentish autumns. To scrump is to take the fallen fruit, normally apples, from an orchard. This is one of my favourite times of year in the UK from where I have recently returned and a suitably non-controversial topic in which to venture/tip toe/sneak back into the world of the AsiaScribbler blog.
Kent, where I was born and brought up, is the Garden of England. This time of year the county’s trees are weighed down with fruit, like old men carrying home the shopping, the mornings are crisp, the ground is green, the leaves are turning and the air is fresh.
What’s more, this year’s harvest is one of the best ever. A report in the Independent wrote about “the exceptional sweetness of the fruit” this year. “Oddly enough,” the report continued, “this was prompted by the overcast, chilly weather in May. The light level at that time influences the eventual size of an apple. In effect, the tree decides how big its fruit is going to be. Grim weather meant smaller fruit, but fine, sunny days in June and July converted the starch in apples to sugar. Since the fruit had a smaller number of cells than normal, the sugar was concentrated. The delectable displays look even more tempting than normal due to cool nights in August intensifying their rosy blush.”
This year’s scrumping options are truly scrumptious.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Back in blog land

Ah, I’m back in blog land. The Public Security Bureau (PSB) has tried and generally succeeded in shutting me off the airwaves for quite a while now. Whatever virtual network I used was quickly smote down by the powers that be in Beijing.
The tough censorship in this country is at times infuriating. Strangely I get Facebook messages in my email inbox, but that site as well as so many others (YouTube, Twitter, blogs, many news sites, etc, etc) are banned.
As a journalist operating here there are concerns. Everything I do (including email) is tapped, phone calls 'n all. To illustrate this point, I have the PSB coming to my office from time to time to catch up. The last time they came and discussed recent articles I had written that they'd read. In general they liked them and we discussed them at length. It was only after I left that I clocked the last article we'd be discussing had not even been published yet -- they could only have read it via my email!
Another example of the strange attitude towards journalists here, at a bar the other night I was chatting with a Chinese guy. He was an English teacher and asked what I did. 'I'm a journalist,' I said. Immediately, without a bat of an eyelid, he said, 'Oh, so you're a spy!' I attempted to explain the difference of Western and Chinese media. He was drinking what looked like Limeade. I said that if Beijing says his glass is actually full or red wine, then that is what Chinese journalists will diligently write to their readers where as we in the West would question whether that light green liquid really is red wine. This difference was lost on him.
Anyway, by and large I do keep off controversial subjects up here, but I do find the position of ethnic minorities in China fascinating and have written plenty on this topic and that is contentious. It sounds paranoid, but I have the British Embassy in Beijing on speed dial just in case.
So after a blackout of what seems like ages (a decade ago, no internet would have been no big deal, how times change!) I’m now foot loose and fancy free on the World Wide Web. How? Via the ingenuity of HideIPVPN, genuises who mask my online presence back to Blighty thus circumnavigating the Great Firewall of China. I salute them, thank them and will now return with haste to the wonders of the previously out of reach BBC iPlayer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Farewell Kashgar

In the earthy confines of an ancient Uighur courtyard house in the heart of the endangered Old City of Kashgar a shaft of sunlight illuminates the deep furrows of an ageing face. In front of me sits an elegant 97-year-old Uighur lady, an ornate shimmering white shawl draped over her head. Given the repression meted out in this Muslim outpost of China her name shall remain anonymous.
Her deep lines on her forehead reflect the tumultuous times she has lived through. Speaking in a quiet croaky voice, perched on a ledge, she recalls the arrival of the Communists. “From then on our lives were never to be the same, for better or for worse,” she says in a hushed tone, anxious not to be overheard by any of the hundreds of spies who mill about town. A shard of light spotlights half her face, and falls to the wall below her and intricate blue and white patterned tiling of the house she has called home all her life.
In 1958, Kashgar was electrified, something that changed daily working habits dramatically.
Ten years later, red guards charged through the old lanes, tearing off women’s scarves, smashing ancient relics and mosques, burning books and pillaging old homes.
“But we survived that,” recalls the old lady. “That was easy with what came next.”
Chinese authorities tore down much of the ancient city wall, a 10-metre-high earth berm, and paved over its moat in the 1980s to create a ringroad. The roar of cars is now monotonous from this lady’s house.
At the end of the 1990s, running water came to the old city. With the onset of the new century though and the whole nation undergoing irrevocable change, redevelopment sped up in Kashgar with many old lanes jettisoned in favour of a wide highway known as Liberation Road that bisects this ancient dwelling.
In 2002, renovations to the Id Kah Mosque commenced. “If they could touch that, well then, we knew nothing was sacred in their eyes,” recounts the old lady. “We knew then that it would only be a matter of time before they came knocking our way.”
During this round of renovations, the traditional bazaar and old residential area in front of the mosque vanished and were replaced by a broad, dull square and giant commercial buildings on the other side of the street. Hanification was in full swing now that the railway was up and running.
My kind host pats the earthen wall beside her. “Look,” she says, “this is a proven way of living in the desert. These walls are cool in summer and hot in winter. What do they know about desert life,” she says dismissively, her wrinkled hand waving weakly to her side.
I spent a month in Xinjiang province in August 2008, an incredible trip, one I’ll remember for the rest of my life, not least the sights, sounds, smell and people of Kashgar. But I know it is a city with little time left. When the announcement comes through earlier this year that 85% of the remainder of the Old City is to be razed to the ground I am saddened, irritated, despondent, but not surprised.
“Because many houses were built privately without any approval, the life of residents is not convenient and the capability against earthquakes and fire is weak,” a report in the state-run local media said. “Our target is every family has a house, every family has employed members and the economy will be developed.”
The fact that these centuries old houses have withstood countless earthquakes in the past unlike, say, the modern cheap rubbish that was blown away in last year’s Sichuan earthquake is, needless to say, not discussed. 220,000 Uighurs are moving out of their beautiful homes. Any house with a red + sign on the wall is due for demolition, not unlike the dreaded star that marked doom for Jews during the Second World War.
In a 2008 book called Kashgar: Oasis City on China's Old Silk Road, architect and historian George Michell described the Old City as “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia.”
The outcry over the city’s demolition might have been larger had it been where it rightfully belongs, on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but Beijing never applied to have it certified.
I slurp down the remains of my tea and get up to leave, thanking her profusely for her hospitality. “Now go and tell others of what’s happening here,” she urges me. “Our way of life is coming to an end.” Outside her pink studded door, there’s a red + on the wall. Her days in the old city are numbered.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Cup of copy

Journalists are machines that convert coffee to copy. This rather wonderful description of my profession I saw on Facebook just now and it perfectly captures my August, easily one of the most word-intensive ones I’ve had to endure.
A Hong Kong chum, who I shared this coffee/copy witticism with, added: "...and then back into Carlsberg and so goes the circle of life..." Amazingly, this month has been, by and large, an alcohol free one for yours truly. Strange times, indeed.
My day starts with espresso and by 11am I’ve generally gone through a cafetiere, averaging 500 words a cup. In total, this wildly exhausting month has seen the best part of 50,000 words churned out. Caffeine intake has been horribly high to the point whereby I swear it makes no impact and yet people look at my crazy, strained, hopping eyes and beg to differ.
Though I am now heading to Europe there is no let up – September’s output is going to keep baristas happy everywhere – at least another 40,000 words.
Time to put the kettle on.