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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Living in Asia since 2000, Sam Chambers' life as a travel and transport writer keeps him on the road more often than not. His office is a laptop, his desk chair normally seat 36G onboard a CX flight to somewhere in Asia. This blog allows him to muse on some of the stuff he sees and hears out and about. Dalian is the place Sam now calls home.