Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bobby D and Me

I do what I do best. I take
scores. You do what you do best
trying to stop guys like me.

You never wanted a normal-type

What the fuck is that? Barbecues
and ballgames?

That's part of it.

That's nice. That your life?

No. My wife spends half her
time on the couch. My
stepdaughter's got problems 'cause
her real father's a world class
asshole. And every moment I
got, I'm chasing guys like you.

A man told me once: you want to
make moves? Don't keep anything
in your life you're not willing
to walk out on in 30 seconds
flat if you feel the heat around
the corner.

De Niro and Pacino chew the fat in 1995’s Heat

Me and Bobby D’s character here, Neil Macauley, we aren’t that dissimilar, you know. You got to be sharp, always switched on, looking for the next story as a freelancer, just as Neil here is always on the look out for the heat coming round the corner. As a freelancer, you gotta be ready to drop everything at the drop of a hat for that next big front page.
Here I am on holiday, yet I am still always on the prowl for interesting tales – this blog has never been so busy, for instance.
Perhaps, that’s why journos so often burn out – never really being able to properly switch off, always antenna up looking for the juicy scoop round the corner.
Still, I guess there is a big, fundamental difference between De Niro’s character and yours truly.
Bobby D is into bank heists,
While I just write rank Scheiss!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Another Bus Ride in Paradise (or I Wanna Sledgehammer)

I really only have myself to blame. We’ve been sitting in a bus for hours – now six to be precise – heading back from Bagiuo to Manila.
The bus is ok and, as is the way, after a few hours the crackly TV shows (they sure are bad here in the Phils) are replaced by a DVD. It ain’t great – but what do you expect for something called Skin Walkers? Still, this horror pic is a way to while away a couple of hours and though the TV shows seem to have been on at full, irritating blast, I can’t quite catch the less than Oscar worthy dialogue of this B movie so I make the fateful request to the conductor to turn the volume up. He does. I watch the movie content. Beaucoup tomato ketchup deaths. It’s a midnight TV flick at best.
Movie over, we’re that bit closer to Manila. Then I get my comeuppance.
A new disc goes into the player and there on screen is … Phil Collins, Live and Loose in Paris! Sporting a wicked widow’s peak, ultra hip chinos and a tight fitting white tshirt, a thin black belt and oh-so-cool white sweat bands, Phil belts out his tunes for the next hour and a half as we hit the interminable traffic of the Philippine capital. Distinctly uncool, however loose Mr C might purport to be.
Mental note to self, never, ever ask for the volume to be turned up on Philippine buses.

I want to play a game …

It’s the same every December as we hove towards New Year. Like some twisted scene in the horror Saw series or yet another moment of carnage from Baghdad, newspapers and TV news here in the Philippines lead with graphic tales of kids blowing their fingers off with dodgy firecrackers.
Fireworks here are dirt cheap, available everywhere and to everyone, enormously popular and dangerous as hell.
Yet, despite the gory, blood spewing images every late December the number of firecracker injuries always rises. On the front page of today’s Philippine Star (December 28th issue) a report notes how the number of injuries is once again on the up – with 86 reported (including eight amputees) since the Dept of Health started tracking these wounds on December 21. Last year from December 21 to January 1, a total of 600 people were injured – a number authorities say will be surpassed this time around.
Among the most popular fireworks are the Gatling Gun-esque coils of firecrackers called sawas or pythons, which fire off 2,000 noisy rounds for under US$9 (at the bottom left of picture). Efforts to ban certain types of firework have proved nigh on impossible so widespread a cottage industry is the business of pyrotechnics in the archipelago. One particular type authorities are keen to outlaw is the boga, an improvised bazooka style canon made out of PVC – the risks of a backfire with these homemade devices being all too apparent.
Auld Lang Syne, prodigious quantities of spirits, and snogs all round might be the images and sounds most readily associated with New Year in my native country but out here the dawn of a new year is always tinged a ghastly red.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Four-month festivities

Like moaning about how the English football season starts earlier and earlier each year, my Mum always used to tsssk when the first mailed Christmas catalogue arrived on her doorstep as early as September. Yet really us Brits don’t get excited about Christmas until December when there’s a proper chill in the air, Oxford Street is aglow with festive lights switched on by a C-list celeb and the advent calendar (preferably of the chocolate variety) is in doors open mode.
8,000 miles away, meanwhile, there is one nation, which is right at home with Chrimbo catalogues doing the rounds circa September. Nowhere celebrates Christmas longer or harder than Asia’s only Catholic country, the Philippines. You’ll spot the early Xmas celebrations by the way Filipino homes and buildings are adorned with beautiful star lanterns, called parol (pictured) coming from the Spanish farol, meaning lantern or lamp.
Carols kick off in September, no kidding, and don’t end till Epiphany. Once the months start ending in –ber, the festive season is in full swing in this wacky archipelago. It is unique and worth checking out though interminable taxi rides in Manila’s legendary traffic listening to ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’ in October can be a tad testing at times.

Purple haze

As I attempt to write this, the bus negotiates yet another knife edge, hairpin bend, my laptop almost squirming out of my grasp.
Night has fallen on a mesmeric journey, the fourth time in ten years that I have taken this particular route in the far north of the Philippines. Heading from Bagiuo across the nation’s Cordillera to the wonderful Alpine surroundings of Sagada is a treat and the little town of Sagada, perched 1,500 metres up in a wooded valley surrounded by mountains, is, as far as I am concerned, the perfect Xmas getaway.
Today, though we are heading back to Bagiuo. The weather had been fairly inclement to begin with as we whipped through the tight, muddy roads. Patches of low-lying cloud swathed many of the jagged peaks.
After around four hours or so, having just passed the highest part of the nation’s road system (7,400ft) we enter the most spectacular part of the journey where steep rice terraces compete with the forests for footholds on the cliff-like mountains – our driver nonchantly, one handed caressing his huge steering wheel around the tightest of turns, each sway left or right producing stunning panoramics.
The sun is going down. Violet hues vie with fiery oranges ahead of us, while a long, long way below a river wends its way through the steep terrain.
We’re high enough to be in amidst the clouds. And suddenly, whoosh, as we enter a new canyon, it’s almost as if our battered, ancient bus had ridden onto the stage of a rock concert. The dramatic sunset tinges the clouds purple, and like some gig by the artist formerly known as Prince we’re ploughing through shaded dry ice; the driver seems unpeturbed, he’s seen it all before. I’m blown away by the sight – my last shot in my roll of Kodak 100 unlikely to do justice to the moment. Baguio is now a couple of hours away.
I say it every time I am on this stupendous road: one day I really ought to bicycle this route. Who knows, one day I might just do that. Lord knows, I could do with the exercise.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Harrow Hos

So I’m on the demon mailing list from my former school. They track you down to the corners of the Earth. You might have heard of it – Harrow, in northwest London, where Sir Winston Churchill attended miserably.
I get news that the school orchestra is on its way out here to Hong Kong to play. Curious. This school – annual fees now in excess of £25k a year – does not do things for free, ever.
Despite the costs – doubled since I left 12 years ago – the queues for signing up to this top school are so enormous that they can barely squeeze every one in. Diluting the brand, two ‘international’ affiliates have been set up in Beijing and Bangkok, while a 12th house for overspill students has been created at Harrow – aka the Dump on the Hump – with the unfortunate name of Gayton.
So just what are these guys doing out here in Hongkers – a top delegation including the Headmaster and perhaps key, the Burser, he of the purse strings.
Chez the Main Bar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club last night all was revealed. Macau casino mogul, Stanley Ho, has recently sent his umpteenth son to attend the north London school, and as my senses proved correct, this trip was all about quite literally singing for one’s supper. It is a prostrating show for Casino Stanley, with a begging bowl asking for some severe cash injection to build another house on the hill. Hos will go well alongside Gayton.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dead Man's Puke

Dead man’s puke – that’s how a Canadian I was traveling with at the time described it. Seemingly it was the elixir of life, its name being Deoxyribonucleic Acid or DNA, yet its taste was as filthy a spirit as has ever passed my lips.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, aka North Korea, has a multitude of fiendishly outrageous spirits to go alongside more mundane brands of soju – the national spirit of the entire peninsula. But DNA counts as the foulest. No kidding, it immediately tasted and smelt of puke and came close to inducing chunder all round.
Forget purported weapons of mass destruction in Pyongyang, a bottle of DNA is way more dangerous.

The South Pacific Scientology Road Show

A dashed vote in a far-flung colony of New Zealand in the depths of the South Pacific had left us scrabbling around for any, literally any, story to sell as we hung around waiting in Samoa for a few days before our return flight to Sydney and on to Hong Kong.
Gleaming plastic yellow tents on the grass lawn in front of parliament in the capital, Apia, looked like offering a chance to make our money back.
We’d noted that from the airport to Apia there were more churches than you could shake a crucifix at. Missionaries had well and truly done their job here from the 19th century onwards and a rainbow of Christian denominations lined the streets. Sundays were dead – nothing happened, bar citizens dressed up in white flowing clothes gathering in the countless churches across the island. They don’t even sell booze on a Sunday – the outrage!
Anyway, I digress. Back to the prominent yellow tents. The Scientologists were in town and had set up camp with the blessing of the prime minister in a prime location as part of a road show across the Pacific Islands. A regional commentator, Michael Fields, had told us earlier that in Samoa, “There’s a hell of a lot of competition for people’s souls.” The religion of Ron Hubbard was looking to muscle in on this act.
The taxi stops opposite. I set my mobile on to record and slip it into my pocket. We stroll across the road. The play, I say, will go as follows: We’re down and out, in search of salvation and interested in this Scientology malarkey. In the end I don’t have the cahonas, nor acting skills to play this role, but we go in looking for a wacky religion nonetheless.
A slim, attractive, black-haired lady in her mid-40s with a glistening white set of gnashers greets us. Mary, a former model from New Zealand, signed up to the sect that boasts stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta as her modeling career faded. She now promotes the religion around the region. Inside lots of funny fake smoothie looking models posed in photos – the typical tale being how when depressed or out of sorts Scientology gave these folk a lift.
All along our tour round the tented sect, Ron Hubbard blaring out of a TV in the centre, Mary was depressingly sane, offering absolutely nothing in the way of wacky, funny, scary Scientology pastiches. I probed, I pressed, but to no avail. She was all too normal, and what she was saying was nothing extraordinary whatsoever.
We left on favourable terms, though I was annoyed I couldn’t get anything out of her. Outside, in the fierce midday sun, the photographer turns to me, pointing at my expanding midriff. “It’s hardly surprising,” he says, “Look what you are wearing.” I gaze down at my bright green tshirt. D’oh! It’s the one I picked up in Tokyo a couple of years ago – The Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club one!
In the end, we make do with schmaltzy wedding destination stories.

Brand Mao

It was teaming down in Shaoshan when I got there in spring 2006. Just bucketing. The paddy fields shone electric green with all the water, the drains struggled with the torrents and most locals were taking shelter.
That didn’t stop the hundreds of coaches pulling up though. Come rain or shine, this little slice of western Hunan province is mobbed day in, day out with an armada of mainland tourist buses at this quasi-religious site – the village where Mao was born. Nothing can prepare you for the old world propaganda and tack that lies in store in this otherwise charming slice of Hunanese countryside; it is a throw back and a must see in China’s fast changing society. The streets are lined with all manner of Mao tack, from badges, clocks, watches, posters to lighters, lasers, and VCDs. Brand Mao is very much alive and well.
The mud-walled house where Mao was born on December 26, 1893 and brought up with his two brothers is surprisingly large, facing south with pines behind and paddy terraces in front. It is free to enter unlike the Na’Nan school next door which is rather dull at 10RMB to see where Mao started his studies. Slap bang in the middle of the village is Bronze Square where, in something reminiscent of Turkmenistan or North Korea, tour groups line up to bow in front of a large Mao statue. Across from the statue is a museum on the life of Mao, costing 30RMB to enter. Next to this and costing 10RMB is Mao’s Ancestral Temple.
To the east of the village is Dripping Water Cave, (entrance 33RMB) where Mao and his entourage decamped to in 1966 for a fortnight amid the Cultural Revolution. Set at the back of a lovely forested, watery park where patriotic music blares from speakers secreted in fake rocks, the cave is more of a dacha. At the end of the tour you can have your photo taken alongside a lifelike Mao mannequin for 5RMB.
Finally, on a rutted road two km south of town is a chairlift to ascend Shao Shan, an impressive mountain. The lift, open 0800 to 1730 all year round, costs 23RMB single or 45RMB return.
China might have changed beyond all belief since the Great Helmsman popped his clogs, but he still makes a top tourist draw.

Urban Jungle

Let’s be clear, Singapore ain’t my favourite place in the world. Far from it, in fact. Yet it was the place where I realized begrudgingly that I am a city boy.
I’d grown up my whole life in the idylls of the Weald of Kent, in a small village with a post office, a couple of shops, three pubs, where conversation was decidedly agricultural. From my bedroom window I looked out at rolling wooded farm land, weekends were often spent ‘twigging’, picking up the detritus from my father’s pruning efforts, while in a field nearby sheep were being sheered.
Yet in 2005 after five years in the helter skelter concrete jungle that is Hong Kong I traveled down to the South Island of New Zealand to see my elder sister and her family. For two weeks I traveled around the fantastically beautiful New Zealand countryside, taking in mountains, glaciers, lakes and seemingly half of the Lord of the Rings shooting schedule. I enjoyed it tremendously. Yet the lack of people I just found weird. Likewise, the severe lack of anything I had come to associate with news finding itself into the local newspapers was strange to me. ‘Sheep stuck in tree’ type thing might make a page lead in the bucolic surroundings of Dunedin. Alright that’s an exaggeration, but you get what I mean!
Flying Singapore Airlines back I stepped out in the sweaty Lion Republic and immediately, the noise, neon lights and elbow jostling just felt right. I am a city boy.

A yabadaba doo time

Flintstones, meet the Flintstones … you’ll have a dabdabadoo time, a yabadaba doo time, you’ll have a gaaaaaay old time.
We were reaching the absolute depths of our karaoke knowledge in the most astounding of surroundings. Having been present at a narrowly failed vote for independence in one of the far most far flung places on earth, we were heading back to Samoa, initially downcast at leaving behind the pristine paradise we had encountered for the past few days, numbed too by the one percent failed vote which might have made selling our South Pacific odyssey tale that bit harder. However, onboard the 30 metre long MV Tokelau, spirits were enlivened by the genial head of the UN’s decolonization programme, Robert Aisi, Papua New Guinea’s ambassador in New York.
The stars shone bright, the waves pelted against the bow and the Vailima beer flowed freely as we made our 32 hour boat ride back to civilization and Samoa. We hadn’t seen land for around 12 hours and we were unlikely to see the green jagged hills of Samoa for another 12 or so. Leading from the front Robert commandeered his merry band of UN apparatchiks and journos to sing. There was no karaoke machine – just memory and much backing vocals. It counts as one of the most memorable karaoke sessions ever … yet no karaoke machine I have encountered since seems to carry the barnstorming Flintstones tune.

Beijing Blockbuster

So long as you can put up with your favourite brand names being occasionally misspelled, the Ya Show market near San Li Tun in Beijing is a haven of all things pirated. Whether it's a ‘Tommy Hilfiger’ jacket or a ‘Siny’ pair of speakers, this den of Chinese covert capitalism has it all.
I was there the other day on a crisp winter’s afternoon perusing my normal DVD joint. Having amassed a decent selection of the latest crop of Hollywood hits I strolled to the counter and for a second thought I was in Blockbuster Video. “You have club discount card?” the lady at the till asked me. A membership card for knock off DVDs?! Wonderful, and only in China.
Quick witted I fumbled through my pockets, turned to my accomplice, who was scanning a rack of DVDs in the corner, and with a sly grin I asked him if he’d remembered to bring his club discount card this time. He played along, rifling through his pockets, and said he’d forgotten it. We still got the 20% off, though.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lunch with the Pentagon

To the American Club, high up in Exchange Square, Hong Kong, for one of the more surreal lunches of my life.
A week prior the naval attaché from the US consul general is on the blower. “Hey Sam, long time…,” he intones. “Say, I got someone coming in Washington and they’re keen to know more about China’s merchant fleet. How does lunch on the 24th grab ya?”
Intrigued, I could hardly refuse but I added a caveat, asking that I bring along an American known to all who have worked with him simply as The Agent, much like Harvey Keitel was known as The Wolf in Pulp Fiction. The Agent grew up in Conneticut, attended spook central university aka Johns Hopkins where one Dr P Wolfowitz was his dean. Thereafter, The Agent worked “for the government” in DC for a couple of years before heading to East Asia where after a spell with Dow Jones he joined a shipping newspaper, gaining access to highly sought after intelligence targets such as shipyards and ports. The Agent was an asset, and if I was to powwow with goons from Washington I wanted him on my side.
We met with the attaché on the 37th floor and were introduced so a young, crew cut, earnest fella from the Department of Defense. What ensued I look back on as frightening in hindsight at how little knowledge or understanding the world’s current superpower has of its heir to the throne, China. ‘John’ from the DoD was a China specialist and he wanted to know about Beijing’s naval capabilities.
While I knawed on a roll of soft bread, keenly anticipating the arrival of my spare ribs, John cut to the chase and asked his most important question; the moment where we sang for our luncheon. In a veiled reference to the vexed issue of Taiwan, he set forth his poser. “Let’s say,” he mused, “there was an ‘incident’ in the East China Sea,” he said, adding inverted commas with a manual flourish like Dr Evil might to the word ‘incident’. “Just how quickly could the government commandeer the fleets that are quasi-state owned?” A malicious mischieovness overtook me and I nodded at The Agent to say I’d answer this one. “Well, ‘John’,” I replied deadpan, “If, indeed, there was an ‘incident’ [yes, dear reader, I couldn’t help myself and manually added inverted commas too] in the East China Sea then by the time you woke up the next day, they would have strung all the Chinese tankers up from Xiamen to form a landbridge across to Kaohsiung.” There was a pause, both the naval attaché and the man from the Pentagon taking on the ramifications of what I had said. They mulled it for a while, and said “how interesting”. Lunch careened on with countless moments where I had to stop myself from gasping at the DC guy’s ignorance as a China specialist. The Agent and I made our farewells, got in the lift and boomed out laughter, each of us thinking that night in some darkened basement of the Pentagon, war simulations involving hundreds of Chinese tankers may well be taking place.

Enter the damp squib

Looking back, it was a momentous occasion for the Asia Scribbler. My first ever trip to mainland China. It was 2000 and I had been drafted in, because the editor felt Guangzhou, formerly Canton, was not a significantly flashy enough destination for him. I, on the other hand, was not fussy. The chance to travel anywhere was and still is like a red rag.
I was running late due to some late production issues on the magazine I was working for. It was my first foreign trip with the company I had joined and I was excited. Hopping on the train at Hung Hom I made the two hour train to Guangzhou. It moved slowly through Hong Kong, like the southeast trains in the UK do though London, only to pick up speed across the border. Sitting on the top floor of a double-tiered carriage the scenery that greeted me on passing through Shenzhen into the no man’s land up to Guangzhou, I admit deeply depressed me. Endless factories, tiled housing complexes, dark grey, heavy skies, lacerations of polluted deltas, blasted hillsides; Guangdong province might be leading China economically, but at what cost, I wondered peering out the window as the heavens opened up.
Guangzhou East train station is a maelstrom for the unititiated such as yours truly seven years ago. Move with the tidal flow of humanity or risk being trampled upon. Look fast for signs, and elbow your way to the necessary exit point, this vast monolith of a station in the heart of the central business district is dull on the eye, quick on the heart and heavy on the irritation if the queues don’t work in your favour.
The rain was pouring so hard it made a platoon of Gatling gun firing maniacs sound like a monastery. I was late. The taxi queue was long. The rain brought little relief to the humidity. My suit was damp.
A Volkswagen finally drew up. I jumped in the front seat. My right foot immediately was immersed to the ankle in rainwater. The car had one hell of a leak. Late to the Garden Hotel and the largest ballroom I have ever seen for a Singapore government function I waded in. My right foot left an imprint wherever I stepped. Quite an entrance on my first visit to China.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Sozzled on soju

The shrill ring of the phone went through my ear and rocked the core of my sleepy head. ‘Good morning, this is your wake up call,’ an automaton droned. The seemingly bleary alarm clock showed 10 after 7.
I stumbled out of bed and, wallop, it hit me hard. This was a hangover that only soju, the Korean national drink can induce. In one word: epic. My mouth was drier than a birdcage, my legs barely strong enough to allow me to walk and my head felt as if it was wrapped in cotton wool. Tsssssk, I tut tutted myself and made a mental note once again never to touch the stuff.
Where had I been? What had I been doing to suffer such pain? Total memory loss from about midway through last night’s dinner – not a good sign.
I shuffled meekly into the toilet, dispensed with the previous night’s barbeque, mused as to the incredible shredded state that kimchi brings to one’s ablutions, noted the familiar post-heavy-soju-night shaky hand and got up to brush my teeth. Big day, big day, I was saying to myself, annoyed that I was in such a state with so many interviews to carry out all over Seoul for the next 12 hours, and then I peered, eyes barely alert, into the mirror.
From deep within my muffled head alarm bells started to ring LOUD. Panic, horror, shock! What the hell was that on my face? Oh my God! A black eye! Nee na, nee na, nee na – alarms sounding off in my convoluted brain, urgently trying to rekindle any memory from the previous evening. Had I got into a punch up. Surely not, I figured, I am six foot six and it’d be darn difficult for a Korean to swing that high. Jesus, I thought, maybe I’d got into fisticuffs with my advertising colleague and friend, Victor. Soju does make you do strange things. But hold on, I reasoned, I don’t get into fights ever.
What on earth had happened? I desperately wanted for this elusive moment in time to return to me, but the power of soju had rendered my brain into a sieve. Another even more worrying thought entered my by now utterly bamboozled head: how, oh how, was I ever going to be able to conduct all these interviews with respectable captains of industry all day. I shaved, showered and dashed downstairs to find Victor and ask for some rational explanation for the dark swelling around my left eye.
Turns out I got up to leave from one of those minute stalls in the outdoor BBQ place we always go to and promptly the knees gave way and I crashed down to Earth with quite a thump. The interviews that day were horrendous.
Sadly, soju sorry sojourns have since reappeared though without such a serious unidentified drinking injury.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Beneath the tracks

Ch, chuk, ch, chuk, ch, chuk. Another train glides gently overhead. A plate of the meatiest tuna sashimi arrives at the crowded table, struggling for space amid the litre glasses of Sapporo, heavenly inch thick asparagus, and grilled fish of the day.

There are few places on Earth that derive such culinary pleasure as Andy Shin’s Hinomoto, which lies under an arch of the Yamanote line just outside Yurakucho station.

Yurakucho itself is full of brilliant, smoky shacks selling yakitori, sushi, dumplings and all sorts but the stand out is Andy’s joint.

I have lost count the number of times I have been there yet every time I always spend 15 minutes walking round the block under the rail line (pictured) finding the place. He never used to have a business card, just a box of matches by way of a calling card. Yet, the last time I visited Andy’s I picked up a brand new card and attach the details below. Call in advance as places disappear fast. It’s raucous, good value and as fresh produce as you can get.

Andy, with a bald pate, is a jovial Brit who married into a Japanese family that runs this atmospheric eatery and has since turned it into a massively popular, elbow-by-elbow establishment that for me is the greatest highlight in all of Tokyo. Oh yes, did I mention they also have Guinness on tap?!

Open 5pm-midnight

Address 2-4-4 Yurakucho, across from the Yurakucho Denki Building

Phone 03/3214-8021

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A run in with local government

He sat there near the bridge, red faced, wiry yet with a small potbelly. Sweat dripped from his brow, no doubt caused by the copious amounts of alcohol imbibed. Bottles were lobbed indiscriminately everywhere among the boulders of the shallow river. Plastic bags and wrappers from the prolonged picnic littered this otherwise pristine slice of Inner Mongolia.

He was the local CCP boss called Mr Ho and was surrounded by a number of slobbering deputies and a couple of SUVs. His demeanour and attitude immediately smelt as much as trouble as the potent baiju being necked down.

We were there to track down China’s last hunter gathering society, a somewhat fruitless task as, by and large, the Orochen people have been assimilated into the Han Chinese majority way of life. He was there to be a little Hitler.

Hunting might have been banned since 1993, but that hadn’t stopped Mr Ho and his acolytes wolfing down deer meat. With a wave of his hand he told us in no uncertain terms that we didn’t have a permit to be here so we had to leave right away or else. We bade him a hasty farewell and left him in the late afternoon sunshine surrounded appropriately by carcasses.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rainbow below

The other day I had a totally unique experience, one I would wager very few people get to see. Atop a mountain in the far north of Yunnan province, in a Tibetan autonomous zone at some 4,700 metres in altitude after a mad scramble on scree to the summit we paused to catch our breath. Air when you’re this high is in short supply. We hadn’t exactly gone too far, a handy cable car doing most of the legwork for us. At the top station of the cable car we had headed another few hundred metres to the top; a guard en route bribing us for 100 kwai for the ahem ‘insurance’ to get there. At the top the view is simply out of this world, overlooking the valley basin of what the Chinese now call Shangri-La, after the mythical creation alluded to in James Hilton’s 80-year-old Lost Horizon novel.

Behind us jagged peaks loomed in the cloudy distance and then swivelling a little left it hoved into the view, a most wondrous sight. There, some 700 odd metres BELOW us was a rainbow! All seven colours fanned out in the valley below, providing some colour to the overcast day. The euphoria created by the altitude accentuated dramatically.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Plastic bags: environmental time bombs

Just back from 7/11 down the road where on picking up a couple of items the lady at the counter pleasingly said almost apologetically, “Sorry, no plastic day”. What, no VISA or Mastercard? What she meant to say I learnt from my colleagues in the office is that every Tuesday in the Special Administrative Region is No Plastic Bag Day, an encouraging development.
A couple of years back a photographer and I headed to one of the largest garbage dumps in the world, in Payatas near Manila.
Amid the squalor, the atrocious smell, the squelching sensation underfoot, what sticks out most visibly in these mountains of rubbish are the plastic bags. They perforate every seam of the garbage hills, one of which collapsed in 2000 causing many deaths, and only on seeing these monuments to waste does the true disastrous nature of the proliferation of these largely superfluous bags hit home. Amid the decaying detritus, it is the plastic bags that refuse to break down, leaching chemicals into the environment.
Plastic bags, which are of course made using oil, represent one of the great stupidities of mankind — the damage they do, compared with the amount of use the average bag gets is shocking. The world uses up as many as one trillion of them a year, many of course are used just once.
So while the idea of a No Plastic Bag Day is commendable let’s go the whole hog and levy taxes on bags. Ireland did this and these environmental time bombs are almost a thing of the past, usage down by more than 95%.
On a recycling tangent: as a buyer of 750ml glass bottles of Perrier with a twist of lime most mornings why, oh why, is there no glass recycling whatsoever in Hong Kong? The government line, I am reliably informed, is that glass recycling is heavy and as a result the transport costs are higher. The glass cannot be crushed down or bailed together like plastic bottles and tins and sent across the border for recycling. This issue needs resolving!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A climate of fear

“You’re not to stop walking, do not raise your hands or shout,” I was told firmly. Was I back in school on some outing to a museum? Kind of. The timepiece I was visiting was the last slice of the Cold War, what Bill Clinton in those hazy pre-Iraq War days of the 1990s called “the most dangerous place on Earth”: the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
I’d been whisked from Hong Kong to Seoul at the drop of a hat on the promise of a decent conference to report on for my former newspaper. Checking in at the Lotte Hotel then my eyebrows raised somewhat when the friendly, sweet receptionist handed me an envelope with a ticket to tour the DMZ the next day.
“Yeah, well, err, turns out the conference will be all in Korean,” said my former colleague turned conference organizer, “so it’s kinda pointless you sitting through it, but since you’ve come all this way I thought I’d make your trip worthwhile.”
Fast-forward 12 hours and after a bus ride through endless barbed wire partitions where the population thins to almost nothing I was in the vast CCTVed-to-the-max compound that straddles the border. Fear was the most pungent feeling that our military guides tried to engender in us.
100 metres in front of our building was the mad, bad Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, from where a bunch of frankly scraggy guards looked out; their uniforms hanging loosely from their frail physiques. In the awful ‘Arduous March’ as the DPRK refers to its heinous famine of the mid-1990s where hundreds of thousands died, South Korean guards used to waft the smell of their cooking across the border.
The hillside behind the DPRK installments contrasted poorly with their southern cousins, raped of any trees, barren and a clear reminder why this neo-Stalinist ‘Hermit Kingdom’ is so prone to flooding.
The largest flag I’d ever seen – the red star with white circle and blue lines of the DPRK - fluttered high in the sky, while on the ground the bullshit flowed freely: from the handpicked South Korean military guards all of a certain height and frame to give off the illusion that the South is far mightier (since the 70s it is true the South’s population has grown in height, while the impoverished North’s has stunted); to the fake village on the North side whose lights come on everyday at 5pm and which bares no resemblance to real life in the DPRK, more for the movie junkie Kim Jong-il, reel life, à la Stepford Wives trying to create an illusion of modernity, and comfort.
The South Korean guards in the centre of this pissing contest, shades on come rain or shine, stand in a firm tae kwon do pose. Fear, fear, fear: that’s what one takes away from the South Korean side.
Yet, as luck would have it, I had the chance to see the bipolar opposite just a few months later and for me it showed all that is wrong with, what my chum Paul French coined, the ‘Paranoid Peninsula’.
Midway through an unforgettable and highly recommended trip to North Korea our tour party trundled down to the border. There the guards couldn’t have been nicer, taking pictures with us, cracking jokes and not hurrying us along whatsoever. The CCTVs from the other side frowned back at us, the US and ROK guards glared down from their modern bastion, yet all I felt was a sense of camaraderie, of being in the presence of friendly, kind people.
To this day the two Koreas are still technically at war having never signed an armistice. Shots were traded across the border just a fortnight back and now President Roh will travel from Seoul to Pyongyang this year for only the second ever inter-Korean summit.
Here’s what I learnt from visiting both sides of the DMZ in the space of five months. The climate of fear suits many nations most notably the US so it can station troops strategically in East Asia. If the world only knew what wonderful people the citizens of the DPRK are this whole paranoia would ease up and the paper tiger that Kim, and to a certain extent the US, have created would cease to be.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The fire within

So you think you’re pretty hard when it comes to all things spice, do you? You can wolf down a vindaloo with nary a peep of complaint. The hottest, tongue tingling creation from Chiang Mai barely elicits a bead of sweat from your brow. Kimchi doesn’t even register on the heat scale of your well-worn taste buds. You even laugh in the face of Mexican chilli.
Then it’s time for your comeuppance.
Chongqing, one of the four so-called furnaces of China, is home to the hotpot or huoguo, and dear God is it hot!
The experience is so bodily debilitating to the novice that countless parts of the human anatomy simply give up normal operations when confronted with this red menace.
First to cease functioning are your lips; they start to tremble, go numb and generally careen all over the place out of control.
Next to go is any form of decorum as you stretch across the table and neck any available beer in sight in a desperate attempt to douse the fire.
Finally, and often for days afterwards, your bowels are in a total mess. You will be uncertain whether or not it is safe to switch off your computer for all the downloading you’ll be doing!
A ‘Chongqing’ hotpot from outside of the world’s largest municipality simply isn’t the same thing as a Shanghainese friend recently related to me. “Sure they are warm enough,” he said of the various Shanghai incarnations he’d had over the years, “but really they are like hot water compared to the real thing.”
So what is it then that does the damage? It is not the mass of red peppers floating in the broth, nor even the pungent chilli oil. It is the local ingredient, hua, that sets the mouth on fire. These speckled little balls look like peppercorns, add a certain aniseed quality to the soup and never fail to numb. Local residents delight in showing silly spice-boasting foreigners, lao wei, like yours truly their cuisine. You’ve been warned.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Head down to Adriatico

It is one of the greatest, yet least commended streets in Asia. Morphing from slums to bars Adriatico Street in the central Manila district of Malate offers the best that the Philippine capital has in terms of night life yet still manages to encapsulate all the faults, frights and frissons of this third world country. Running parallel with Mabini street, Adriatico is less overtly red light; more disco light.
Starting from the bottom end – where Quirino Avenue leads onto the coastal Roxas Boulevard -the street is slumville, with a welter of narrow lanes leading off Adriatico into crowded dens, where think bunches of electric wires hang overhead and foamy water flows along the pockmarked concrete.
In amongst this poorer part of the street though is a genuine oasis – Bianca’s Garden, formerly known as True Home. As the black gates swing open, a Spanish style villa awaits amid plenty of lovely trees, a swimming pool and the generous, friendly welcome of Jupiter and his team. The rooms are large but basic with great Philippine wooden furnishings, and though the price has gone up a lot in the last five years, it is still a favoured spot in this part of the world.
At the halfway point of Adriatico is Remedios Circle, a concrete park that despite recent renovation attempts still looks a bit duff. Nevertheless, this is the hub around which the street hums.
There’s the wonderous Café Havana, with mojitos that even Hemmingway would have approved of, and a cigar bar upstairs. Havana’s fantastic Cuban style band gets going after 9pm till the wee hours. Across the way from Havana is the Korean Palace, kimchi central, a place to gorge on barbeques and soju. The street in between Havana and the Korean Palace, San Andres, is full of outdoor barbeque shacks where blue marlin ribs or tuna belly can be rustled up for next to nothing.
Heading further up the street, past the booming music of Flintstones and Padi’s Point, a Starbuck’s juts out from the Malate Pensionne, a sad infringement on what used to be the backpackers’ mecca in this archipelago a decade or so ago; since then though the pensionne has gone a bit upmarket. Back in the day, it served as a great place to meet people time and time again after jaunts around the islands, because the number of travelers was so few you’d often bump into the same bunch at the pensionne where its freezer worked overtime to ensure the San Miguels were amongst the coldest in the capital.
Continuing the walk further north then, is the steet’s only properly decent hotel, the Pan Pacific where room rates start at US$120 and up.
Further up on the left is Mey Lin, perhaps the best Chinese restaurant on the street, with decent hand pulled noodles, dimsum and braised aubergine.
Just before that on the opposite side is Mocha Blends whose espresso serves to get you through the often exhausting Manila day.
At the junction of Julio Nakpil, where the cavernous Robinson’s shopping mall continues to expand, on the left is a barber shop, used to be known as Bruno’s, now under new management with the same staff but less exciting name, Barberos. Inside is the quintessential barber shop – leather reclining seats, mirrors everywhere, barbers in uniform ready with sharp single blade razors or scissors depending on what ‘Sir’ demands. For my money the scalp massage is pretty unmissable.
The street continues all the way up to Padre Faura, with the encroaching Robinson’s mall taking much of the right hand side. At the top is the much written about Kamayan restaurant, with its 400 peso buffet – avoid it, the service is slow, the food old and if you hang a left as Adriatico hits Padre Faura to Mabene where Watson’s is on the corner, just next to that is the supremely good value German establishment, Munchen Bar and Grill, whose goulash soup is well worth the walk. But the street of iniquity that is Mabini, with all its oddities such as the bar run by midgets, will have to be for a separate post.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Sun sets for the Red House

The rooms were spartan but clean. The price - at RMB250 - a bargain. But it was the location of the wondrous Red House that made it my home from home whenever I was in Beijing over the last decade.
On the ground floor was a North Korean art gallery run by the wacky chaps from Koryo Tours, whose office was on the third floor. Also on a wing of the ground floor was the China Football Club, where Yanjing beer flowed freely, footie was permanently on the telly, and pictures of the likes of Ian Rush at the Great Wall adorned the walls.
Across the way was a great Xinjiang restaurant with scrumptious hand pulled noodles. 15 minutes walk took you to San Li Tun, the bar street, where, with its convivial atmosphere and wireless internet, the Bookworm café continues to serve as my de facto office when residing in the Chinese capital.
Shopping, in the form of the cavernous Yashow market, was similarly nearby to stock up on cheap clothes, even cheaper DVDs and ludicrous trinkets.
And two minutes to the right as you headed out the door of the Red House was a blind massage joint. An Albino lady there performed wondrous things to my knotty back.
So it was with no small amount of horror and indignation that I rocked up at the green doors of the Red House the other day to see rubble everywhere inside, the whole place gutted and odds and ends thrown out on to the street. The Red House, like far too much of my once favourite city in China, has been set on the ‘path of progress’. The character chai (tear down) stamped on its wall, like thousands before it, earmarked for bigger and supposedly better things once it has been pulled down.
I am told it will become a KTV bar. I’ll only be singing sad songs in there.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The short life spans of umbrellas

'Big Red' was what I called it. A corporate gift from some shindig way out on Tsing Yi island from as far back as four years ago. It was so robust it could even handle typhoons. Given my giant frame (six foot six with an expanding girth to boot), Big Red's wide circumference made it the ideal tool to combat Hong Kong's stormy summer months.
I've been through more umbrellas than there have been typhoons in my seven years here in HK. Left at bars/ferries/meetings/more bars/yet more bars, umbrellas generally have had a lifespan of approximately one month. Oh yeah, I forgot to add just how many have been pilfered from the office over the years as the heavens opened and those less hard working than yours truly scuttled out to face the downpours with my brolly never to be seen again.
But Big Red was different -- it led a charmed, protected life as I looked out for it. All that changed a month ago when, on a truly gargantuan night out that ended circa 5am on a sampan back to the Fantasy Island where I reside, the umbrella somehow went missing at one of countless hostelries frequented on that tempestuous night.
All of which preamble brings me to my main point of all this drivel - the strange existence of that seemingly most constrained of business sectors in this roaring metropolis that I call home, namely the humble umbrella repairman. You see them in shacks around the lanes in Central, often next to a shoe shine/key making kiosk. Now, here's what I don't get: an umbrella costs all of HK$25 from the ubiquitous 7/11 stores that line our streets. How on Earth can you earn a living out of repairing an umbrella?
Now, if anyone has laid eyes on a large red umbrella with the letters HUD emblazoned on it, please let me know - that's one brolly worth repairing!