Monday, April 30, 2007

Thirty Feet

Calcutta, India

The distance is thirty feet, but it may as well be infinity.

I write this in Room 139 of the Oberoi Grand, the most luxurious hotel in Calcutta. The room is a corner suite, on the second floor, with an entrance hall leading to a main room containing a four-poster bed, a chaise longue, a sofa, a coffee table, two chairs and a wooden writing desk with pigeon holes and drawers of several sizes. The marble-lined bathroom is not one room, but three separate rooms, one for bathing, one for shaving, one for dressing. The suite costs $150 a night, and it has three large picture windows.

Thirty feet away, on the sidewalk across the street, are nine men, between the ages of 17 and 40. Eight are sleeping on dirty white sheets spread on the sidewalk; one is sleeping on the ledge of a fruit juice stand. A few are wearing only loincloths; most have stripped down to an undershirt and what looks like boxers. A rat skitters by but does not disturb their sleep. Four yellow street dogs are also asleep, keeping a wary distance from the men.

Ten feet further away is a water pump, an old-fashioned metal water pump from a Western. Every ten minutes or so, a man will emerge from the dark and approach the pump, removing from his shoulders a rusty three-foot rod from which hang two empty metal buckets. He fills the buckets with water and goes on his way. The sounds of the pump and the water do not disturb the men sleeping on the sidewalk.

A truck trundles down the street. Three men, fully clothed, are asleep on the top of the truck. The sound of the truck does not wake the men sleeping on the concrete sidewalk or the one lucky man who sleeps, above the rats and insects and dogs, on the wooden fruit juice counter.

There are a lot of men on the sidewalk tonight, eight. Most nights, there are three or four. It’s Sunday night; maybe newcomers have arrived in the city over the weekend and will look for work tomorrow morning. The man on the fruit juice counter sleeps there every night; I recognize his blue and white striped loincloth. Perhaps he is a guard of some sort.

I type these words on a $1,500 computer, while eating an $11 cheeseburger that was carried to my door because I picked up the phone and asked for it. The minibar is filled with overpriced alcohol. The bed has eight pillows.

The distance is thirty feet.

Labels: ,

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Unifying Force of Bollywood

Calcutta, India

The May 7th issue of the newsweekly Outlook leads with a cover story about the endurance of democracy in India. Historian Ramachandra Guha credits part of the polyglot nation's cohesion to the popularity of Hindi-language cinema:

"Apart from elements of politics and economics, cultural factors have also contributed to national unity. Pre-eminent here is the Hindi film. This is the great popular passion of the Indian people, watched and followed by Indians of all ages, genders, castes, classes, religions and linguistic groups.

"Each of the formally recognised states of the Union, be it Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan, Bengal, Orissa or Kerala, says the lyricist Javed Akhtar, 'has its different culture, tradition and style. In Gujarat, you have one kind of culture, then you go to Punjab, you have another, and the same applies in Rajasthan, Bengal, Orissa or Kerala.' Then, Akhtar adds: 'There is one more state in this country, and that is Hindi cinema.'

"This is a stunning insight, which asks to be developed further. As a separate state of India, Hindi cinema acts as a receptacle for all that (in a cultural sense) is most creative in the other states. Thus its actors, musicians, technicians and directors come from all parts of India. Thus also it draws ecumenically from cultural forms prevalent in different regions. For example, a single song may feature both the Punjabi folk dance called the bhangra and its Tamil classical counterpart, Bharatanatyam.

"Having borrowed elements from here and there — and everywhere — the Hindi film then sends the synthesised product out for appreciation to the other states of the Union. The most widely revered Indians are film stars. Yet cinema does not merely provide Indians with a common pantheon of heroes; it also gives them a common language and universe of discourse. Lines from film songs and snatches from film dialogue are ubiquitously used in conversations in schools, colleges, homes and offices — and on the street. Because it is one more state of the Union, Hindi cinema also speaks its own language, this, however, understood by all the others.

"The last sentence is meant literally as well as metaphorically. Hindi cinema provides a stock of social situations and moral conundrums which widely resonate with the citizenry as a whole. But, over time, it has also made the Hindi language more comprehensible to those who previously never spoke or understood it. When imposed by fiat by the central government, Hindi was resisted by the people of the south and the east. When conveyed seductively by the medium of cinema and television, Hindi has been accepted by them."

(The photograph is a publicity still from the motion picture Phir Hera Pheri.)

Labels: ,

India-U.S. Relations

Calcutta, India

In tomorrow's Washington Post, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns summarizes the various diplomatic fronts on the relationship between India and the United States.


Happening Upon A Corpse

Calcutta, India

The clean, white stretcher lay on the filthy sidewalk, a yellow silk pillow at one end and white flowers along the sides. Bouquets of jasmine were tied to each corner. About a dozen women in saris stood in a ring around the stretcher, repeatedly glancing at a doorway that opened to a stairwell.

“An old Hindu woman died today,” said the storekeeper who sold soaps and detergents next to the doorway. “Her relatives are bringing her down.” One relative, standing next to us, said she was between 80 and 90, but nobody knew her exact age.

“This is the last journey,” the relative, about 30, explained. “She will go to the burning house now.”

“Is there a priest, a Brahmin?” I asked.

“Yes, but not here. At the burning house.”

“How does she get to the burning house?” I asked.

“On that truck,” the relative said, pointing to a rusty, industrial pickup parked next to us. An Indian flag was painted on the side along with the slogan “India Is Great.”

“Her male relatives will carry her to the truck and then go with her to the burning house,” the relative said. “Women are not allowed to carry or to go with her.”

At that moment, several men in their 20s and 30s – probably the old woman’s grandchildren – backed out of the doorway, carrying her body. She was dressed in what looked like a new yellow sari with a white undergarment, a hood around her head. They placed her on the stretcher.

She looked old, incredibly so. Whatever her actual age, her face was gnarled like an ancient witch’s. Her hands were ash white. She looked like she was asleep, except that, in the heat of the day, her lips and eyelids had started to turn black.

A few passersby stopped to watch the rites, but most walked by without a glance. Around us, the life of the street continued, as men and women ate street food and bartered for bolts of cloth and walked home from work.

One of the men began to burn incense. Another took photographs of the body. A third passed out brown paper bags filled with small, white petals, which I assumed were jasmine.

After the incense was burned, several of the young men hoisted the stretcher. Another man initiated a chant; he would repeat a few words, and everyone in the crowd would recite a response. Meanwhile, people threw the white petals into the air, so that they would land on the old lady’s body.

The chanting and petal-throwing continued as she was carried to the truck and placed on its bed. Male relatives, thirteen in all, climbed into the bed of the truck with her. The female relatives stood on the sidewalk looking at the truck.

The women kept looking as the truck pulled out and drove away.

(The BBC photograph, of a religious leader, shows how the Hindu body is placed on a stretcher and covered with flowers. The old woman I saw was from a poor family and only had flowers, which were white, at the edges of her stretcher.)

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Erecting a Language Barrier

Calcutta, India

The man had been following me for two blocks. He was a Hindu Bengali in his mid-20s, dressed in brown trousers and a dirty white button-down long-sleeve shirt. He was carrying a shallow wicker basket in one hand, and he remained exactly one inch from my right shoulder no matter where I walked or how fast I moved.

“I get you good deal,” he said for the umpteenth time. “I know local price. I get you local price. Many markets here.”

He was right about the markets. The farther I walked that afternoon from the main street (officially re-named Nehru Road after India’s first Prime Minister but still referred to by its colonial name of Chowringhee), the narrower and more maze-like the streets became, and the more thoroughly they were devoted to local commerce. The shops on the main street sold new, machine-made clothing and English-language books and other goods that tourists or well-to-do Indians would buy at a fat markup. The high street merchants sold from proper shops, with doorways and display windows and products on shelves ringing a wooden floor, an electric fan clattering above.

The side streets were an earthier affair. Many of the shops were only about six feet wide; many vendors spread their wares on a blanket on the ground. Any spare wall space was used to prop up merchandise. The vendors sold meat, saris, cola, used shirts, candy bars, notebooks, everything. Restaurants – consisting of a man with a skillet and a few plastic tables with chairs – were everywhere. Juice carts crushed fruits into a water and ice mixture; customers drank from glasses which were re-used by hundreds of customers all day. Almost every sign was in Bengali.

“I know the best places,” the man at my shoulder said again. “The best prices.”

He wasn’t threatening, but his persistence had become irritating. Usually, these guys give up after half a block. The fact that I had ignored him didn’t slow him down, probably because I was the only Westerner in sight.

“I know the best price. I get you . . . .” I tried to shut out his banter, but he wasn’t taking No for an answer, and I tried to find a way to dodge him. There was no shopping mall or office building to duck into; my hotel was half a kilometer away. I didn’t see any taxis, probably because people who could afford taxis didn’t come into this part of the neighborhood. How do I get rid of this guy?

Light bulb.

I stopped and quickly turned, looking directly at him and startling him. I said too aggressively:

“Beszel magyarul?” [“Do you speak Hungarian?”]

His eyes narrowed in confusion.

Louder: “Beszel magyarul? Miert ne beszel magyarul?” [“Do you speak Hungarian? Why do you not speak Hungarian?”]

The man tried to regain his salesman composure, but he had been thrown off balance by the volley of arcane Finno-Ugric syllables. “You Germanish?” he asked hesitantly.

“Nem! Miert nem hagyod beken az embert?” [“No! Why can’t you leave a man alone?”]

He began to back away, and I sensed it was time to deliver a coup de grace. I shook my hands in front of my chest and widened my eyes and flared my nostrils and shouted:

“Soha foggat megtalal azt beka!” [“You will never find that frog!”]

He turned and rapidly walked away.

I turned the other way and walked unmolested through the market streets of Calcutta.

Photograph by Anicet

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Arrival in Kolkata

Calcutta, India

“This isn’t bad at all,” I thought as I surveyed the airport parking lot, waiting for the driver from the hotel to bring the car around.

Three or four taxi touts were requesting fares, but most of the cabbies were standing patiently next to their cars. And it was the cars that were my first impression of India.

The Hindustan Ambassador -- the car that dominated the taxi fleet -- looks like the spawn of an Edsel and a Beetle, diminishing, but not extinguishing, the unique features of each. The “Amby” has the rounded fins and general feel of one of Detroit’s Eisenhower-era designs, with the curved roof of the hippies’ favorite two-door. First manufactured in 1959 after a British design, the exterior has changed little, and you can order any of the four current models in one of ten colors. The taxis are painted bright yellow with a thick horizontal black stripe down each side. The cars certainly have more character than the Crown Vics used by many taxi fleets in the States.

My driver Attab worked for Avis, not the hotel. He said the pay was poor, which may have been a correct statement but was also a request for a tip.

Most people in the area spoke Bengali, he explained. English was taught in school, but poorer people only knew a few words. He said the number of Hindus and Muslims in the state, called West Bengal, was roughly equal. (According to the 2001 Indian Census, 72.5% of the residents of West Bengal were Hindu, while 25.2% were Muslim.)

Attab was thirty-two years old and had three children, two boys and a girl. I asked if his was an arranged marriage or a “love marriage,” the local terminology. Arranged, he said; half of all marriages are still arranged by the parents, he explained. (The internet is ripe with statements that about 95% of Indian marriages are arranged, although the percentage is lower among the urban educated classes; I have been unable to find reliable data to support or contradict this assertion.)

We drove by a campaign poster with Sonia Gandhi’s name on it, and I asked if it was from a recent election. “No,” Attab laughed; besides, he explained, Sonia Gandhi was the leader of the Congress Party, and the most popular political party in West Bengal was the Communist Party. Sonia Gandhi, the Italian widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, can't even speak fluent Hindi, Attab said. (The Communist Party of India (Marxist) – which is different from the Communist Party of India – dominates West Bengal politics. Attab’s comments about Sonia Gandhi are corroborated by news accounts.)

Calcutta’s airport was on the outskirts of town, about 45 minutes from the hotel, which was in the city center. At first, we passed through rural neighborhoods. Shirtless Bengalis, the region’s dominant ethnic group, worked in the fields. Cows walked by the side of the street. Many of the cars were Japanese -- Attab was driving a Toyota – but many were brands I had never seen before. The roads were adequate two-lane asphalt strips, and the vehicles kicked up reddish-yellow dust. Billboards and advertisements were in a mix of Bengali and English, sometimes with both languages on the same sign.

After about 20 minutes, the town became more densely developed. Blocks of newly constructed apartments blocks were visible. I asked Attab who lived in them. “People who work at the call centers,” he said.

We approached the city center. Apartment towers contrasted with blocks of low-lying flats. At red lights, men would walk through the cars, selling drinks or fruits.

“What the hell is that?” I asked as we passed a white, rococo wedding cake of a building that looked like it had been stolen from the Vatican. “Victoria Memorial,” Attab said, and I placed it on my To Do list. Calcutta was the capital of English India until 1911, and The Queen had been commemorated in the gaudiest style.

The further we drove into Calcutta (now re-transliterated Kolkata), the more crowded the sidewalks and streets became. People walked in the street with equal dignity with cars. Traffic lights appeared to be non-binding resolutions. A taxi drove alongside us, and its right side was crumpled, as if it has been broadsided. We now shared the road with more horses than cattle.

Suddenly, Attab turned right, three security guards stood aside, and we drove into the calm oasis of the hotel's front courtyard. We had entered another world within another world.

(Photograph by Robyn Rosenkrantz.)

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Editorial Note: Calcutta Diary

Calcutta, India

As an experiment, I will blog daily about my activities in Calcutta, India. Daily travel blogging is something I have avoided, because it usually results in the world’s worst writing:

“After a buffet breakfast of runny eggs but warm pastries in my otherwise serviceable but not-too-expensive hotel (Thanks, Lonely Planet!), my taxi braved the congested streets, swerving to avoid ox carts, until I was deposited at the base of the holy mountain. After a terrifying twenty-minute climb by rickety gondola (which, after the exchange rate, only cost a pittance of 42 cents), I walked out onto the summit and looked with awe upon the variegated tapestry that is Wichita.”

I don’t want to write that, and you don’t want to read that.

Nonetheless, e-mail clamor for more of what I do each day fills my In Box.

Ask, and you shall receive.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Take A Walk On The Mild Side

Notes From An Even Smaller Island: Singapore Through a Young Brit’s Eyes by Neil Humphreys (Marshall Cavendish 2001).

Here is a list of mildly amusing entertainments that are popular out of proportion to their actual quality: Friends. “A Prairie Home Companion.” Star Trek. For Better Or For Worse. KCRW.

To this list of tapioca mistaken for chocolate mousse, I would add Neil Humphreys’ three books about his life as a young British expatriate in Singapore.

Humphreys’ first book, Notes From An Even Smaller Island, is diverting in a brain-dead way. It’s the kind of book you read sick in bed or after the tenth hour of a trans-Pacific flight. If Baywatch were an expat memoir and replaced the lifeguards in swimsuits with Malay food hawkers in aprons, it would be Notes From An Even Smaller Island. (The title is a play on Bill Bryson’s book about the U.K.)

Humphreys grew up in the working-class London borough of Dagenham. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had been mugged twice and was looking for a change of pace in a safe, exotic city. A Chinese friend invited him to Singapore and Humphreys agreed, wondering what province of China it was in.

As it happens, Singapore is not a part of China, at least not geographically. Singapore is a small island of about 4.5 million people at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. Since 1965, Singapore, although physically about the size of Queens, has been an independent nation. I made a point of saying that Singapore is geographically distinct from China because, while the surrounding nations of Malaysia and Indonesia are ethnically Malay, Singaporeans are overwhelming Chinese. Singapore is, in numerous respects, a metaphorical island as well as an actual one.

Singapore is best known in the Western world for its strict laws. Infractions like littering and failing to flush a public toilet are subject to fines of up to S$1,000 (US$661) for first-time offenders. Chewing gum was outlawed for more than a decade and is now available only from health care professionals. If the government is not familiar with a motion picture, a citizen is required to pay the Board of Film Censors to review and edit it. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is punishable by imprisonment of up to ten years, and the death penalty is mandatory for certain types of drug trafficking.

Consequently, Singapore is safe and immaculate and boring. The city-state and its economy are run with zealous efficiency, and Singaporeans enjoy incomes and an infrastructure that in certain respects surpass that of the industrialized world. Singapore is an entirely First World nation.

Humphreys tells gentle tales of what he found. Old Chinese ladies, called “aunties,” rule the domestic roost. The locals can be pushy and self-absorbed, a trait called kiasu. The cabbies keep asking for his preferred route after he’s made it clear that he doesn't know. People talk on handphones during movies. The art, music and sports scenes are weak, because parents will not allow their children to pursue such impractical pastimes.

This is thin gruel, as far as travelers’ tales from the Orient go. Would that all of our lives had an outer perimeter of anti-social behavior limited to a pushy old lady talking on a handphone during Spider-Man 3.

Humphreys writes plainly, which is usually the greatest virtue of a pen. However, with some of these bland stories, a little seasoning would have been welcome.

In one tale, Humphreys and friends enter the wilds of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, stray from the path, get lost, and . . . . find the path again. The little dramatic tension in the story evaporated when I unfolded my Periplus map of Singapore and learned that the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is less than two-and-a-half-square miles in area. Walking half an hour in any direction would have gotten them out. The bigger picture: Would a government as controlling and paternalistic as Singapore’s allow the existence of a nature preserve that wasn’t completely safe?

The most pulse-pounding aspect of this book is that it has engendered two sequels, Scribbles From The Same Island and Final Notes From a Great Island, neither of which I plan to read absent an extended hospitalization.

Who could possibly find interest in two more volumes of Humphreys’ good-natured but somnolent tales? Maybe Reader’s Digest ceased distribution in Singapore, and aunties needed another source of corny anecdotes. Maybe there’s thousands of Western expats on the island looking for reading material that complements toasted white bread served with sugar-free cream of wheat. Maybe there’s a lot of guys living in Singapore who look at the cover photo of Humphreys and say, “That’s me!”

The stories are mildly amusing, but they’re as edgy as a tennis ball, and no threat to any social order. Maybe they're the perfect Singapore diary.

Labels: , ,

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Plan

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Flying to Bangkok today.

Flying to Calcutta tomorrow.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tom Wolfe on Hedge Fund Managers

Little India, Singapore

He's still got it.

UPDATE (May 1): Others disagree.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Korean Reaction To Virginia Tech Shootings

Little India, Singapore

The Korea Herald, one of the English-language newspapers in Seoul, is dominated today by local reaction to the Virginia Tech shootings, apparently perpetrated by a South Korean national with permanent U.S. residency. President Roh Moo-hyun convened an emergency meeting at Cheong Wa Dae (The Blue House), which is the South Korean White House.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Last Executioner

The Last Executioner: Memoirs of Thailand’s Last Prison Executioner by Chavoret Jaruboon, with Nicola Pierce (Maverick House 2006).

Beheading was outlawed in 1934, and Thailand changed its method of capital punishment to death by machine gun.

Between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on the appointed day, a condemned prisoner is escorted from his cell (all but three have been men) to a diamond-shaped gazebo on the grounds of Bang Kwang Prison, north of Bangkok. The prisoner, in leg irons, is seated at a table decorated with flowers, candles and incense.

The prisoner is photographed and fingerprinted. A prison official reads the execution order – occasionally the first time a prisoner is informed of his imminent death -- and requests that the prisoner sign it. The prisoner is given a piece of paper and a pencil and allowed to write a statement, will or letter. The prisoner is provided a final meal, although few eat it. If the prisoner requests a cigarette, the guards will usually provide one. A Buddhist abbot performs last rites and allows the prisoner to request forgiveness; a Muslim prisoner will wash his feet, face and hands and say a prayer. No visits with family or friends are allowed.

The prisoner is placed on a chair in a cart, which is wheeled from the gazebo to a small building called the Execution Room. A sign above the entrance reads “The Place To End All Sorrow.” For years, a statue of Yammaban – a Thai spirit that punishes the wicked – stood near the entrance.

The prisoner is blindfolded and led to a large wooden cross. With the prisoner facing the cross, his torso and waist are tied to it. The prisoner’s arms are pulled together at face level, around the vertical beam of the cross, into a praying position. Flowers are placed between the prisoner’s hands, as a final request for forgiveness. The cross has no religious significance; it is simply the most practical shape on which to suspend the prisoner.

A square white canvas held in a large green wooden frame is placed behind the prisoner. The canvas has a square hole which acts as the target, and a guard lines up the hole with the prisoner’s heart.

A guard serving as the gun adjuster aims a submachine gun, mounted on a stand, directly at the square target and, therefore, at the prisoner’s heart. Originally, the prison used a Bergmann MP 34, which was replaced in 1977 with a variant of the Heckler & Koch MP5.

Once the firearm is aligned, the gun adjuster inserts 15 rounds of nine-millimeter ammunition (previously inspected for cracks or other imperfections) into the freshly cleaned gun. The executioner takes his position behind the gun and unlocks it. The leader of the execution team stands on a short pedestal to the side, holding a red flag in the air. The scene at this moment, seconds before execution, is captured in this photograph of a diorama at the Thailand Corrections Museum.

When the leader of the execution team determines that all procedures have been followed, he lowers the flag. The executioner salutes the prisoner and releases one shot, which directs five to twelve bullets at the square target, through the prisoner’s back and into his heart.

A condemned member of the Thai royal family has the option of being beaten to death with a sweet-smelling stick.

* * * * *

Thailand abandoned capital punishment by machine gun in 2003 and replaced it with lethal injection. Thus, Chavoret Jaruboon, a guard at Bang Kwang, was the last person in the country to single-handedly execute prisoners with a gun. The Last Executioner, from which the above details are derived, is his autobiography.

Chavoret (Thais are traditionally referred to by their first name.) executed 53 men and two women during his 19 years as one of his country’s executioners. Prior to his appointment in 1984, Chavoret had assisted in dozens of executions, often escorting the prisoners or adjusting the gun. Death was a part of his business.

Chavoret emphasizes that Thailand only executes a few people per year on average and that years could elapse between executions. Furthermore, the death penalty tended to be reserved for especially brutal crimes that generated heated publicity. Prisoners in the modern Thai criminal justice system are entitled to a trial, an appeal and (except for narcotics cases) a petition for clemency to the King, many of which are granted.

Chavoret has no qualms about the death penalty now that a judicial process oversees sentencing. Chavoret admits concern about the summary execution orders, promulgated without trials, which were sometimes issued by the military leaders who ruled Thailand prior to 1992.

“I believe there are truly bad people who can never be cured of their desire to do depraved things,” Chavoret states. “I don’t think prison will make them any better than they are, and yes, I believe this type of person deserves to die.”

The book is narrow in scope. It is only about Chavoret and his job. Larger issues like the efficacy of capital punishment or Thai social customs are only mentioned in passing. The book is neither well nor poorly written; it is evidence.

The Last Executioner is a statement by a 58-year-old man about his life's work. It is not too far removed from the statements that condemned prisoners can write in pencil while sitting at a table with flowers, candles and incense, preparing for one final journey.

Labels: , , ,

Princess Masako

Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne by Ben Hills (Penguin 2006).

The prisoner’s days are rigidly controlled by the guards. She cannot call her family or friends without permission, and they cannot visit without prior approval. Trips outside are planned weeks in advance, and, on those rare occasions, she is heavily guarded to prevent escape. She has no passport, credit cards, cash or assets; she doesn’t even have a last name anymore. She is so isolated that she has succumbed to a powerful clinical depression and sometimes spends days in bed, crying and unable to dress, communicating with the guards by note.

She is the Crown Princess of Japan.

So reports Australian journalist Ben Hills in his engrossing book, Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Drawing from an array of published reports, named and anonymous sources, and targeted leaks from the Princess’ friends and family, Hills has written a juicy work which falls somewhere between a gossipy tell-all and a serious biography.

In another life, Hills’ subject was named Masako Owada, and she was the personification of the modern Japanese woman. A daughter of an accomplished family, she spoke six languages, she studied at Harvard and Oxford, and she was one of Japan’s highest-flying young diplomats.

She reluctantly gave it all up to marry a prince. Women in Japan know that marrying into the imperial family is not a storybook wonderland. Life for a Japanese royal is an endless series of religious and public ceremonies, at which they are expected to smile, wave and speak a few scripted words of eyelid-drooping blandness. Royal women agree to shed almost every facet of their prior lives. Above all else, royal women are expected to bear a son, because, under Japanese law, only a male can become Emperor.

When Masako agreed in 1992 to marry Crown Prince Naruhito (the elder son and heir apparent of Emperor Akihito), the royal family faced a succession crisis, because all six imperial grandchildren were girls, joined shortly thereafter by a seventh. Unlike European monarchies, with thousands of potential successors of both genders spread across dozens of royal lines, the post-World War II laws enacted under U.S. occupation severely limited the number of potential Japanese royals. Furthermore, once the Emperor’s granddaughters marry, they will cease to be royal and will become members of their husband’s families. Without the birth of a son to either Naruhito or his fun-loving younger brother Akishino, the imperial family would literally come to an end.

Consequently, the pressure on Masako to quickly bear a son was unrelenting. But, at the time of her wedding, Masako was 30 years old, and years went by without a pregnancy. The media hounded Masako, and, according to one of Hills’ sources, her mother-in-law, the Empress, added to the pressure by demanding to know each month whether Masako had had her period.

Worst of all was the suffocating rigidity of the bureaucrats in the Imperial Household Agency, which controls every aspect of the royal family’s life. The Kunaicho, as the agency is called in Japanese, reportedly “grants” only about 10% of the “requests” made by the royals for clothes, trips, meetings with friends, etc. The Japanese imperial family must look with bitter envy upon the freedom of the European royals to attend parties, drive around town and sneak out of the palace.

“If she wants a book, it will be delivered tomorrow,” a friend of the royal family is quoted, “but she wants to go down to a bookstore in Marunouchi and spend a few hours browsing. That is impossible, they say. And it’s not just Masako – the Kunaicho will not even listen to the Emperor.” Masako so chafed at the confines of life in the East Palace that the Kunaicho feared she might defect, Hills reports.

In 2000, Masako suffered a miscarriage. The next year, Masako gave birth. Little Princess Aiko was cute as a button, but she was not a boy, which only heightened the succession crisis. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi began to contemplate the unthinkable: amending the law to allow for a woman to reign as Emperor. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the fun-loving younger brother, Prince Akishino, announced in February 2006 that his wife was pregnant with a third child, which turned out to be a boy. The crisis was over.

But, by that time, Masako’s personal crisis was darker than ever. Masako was in the throes of a deep clinical depression, Hills reports, which the Kunaicho refused to acknowledge because of the stigma against mental illness prevalent among Japanese. Masako reportedly refused to interact with family members or even leave her bed for days, according to Hills’ sources. While her husband would appear at about 300 public events a year, Masako might appear at a dozen.

Hills concludes the book by noting that there is no happy ending to the Princess’ story. While Masako was ultimately treated with anti-depressants, her doctors determined that she would not fully recover until the confines imposed by the Kunaicho were lifted, something the hidebound bureaucracy will not do.

Princess Masako wanted to be a brainy Princess Diana, Japan’s modern ambassador to the world. Instead, she was turned into breeding stock, confined to her pen.

The story of this princess does not end happily ever after.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Asphalt Companies Decision

Little India, Singapore

On March 31, 2007, the Hong Kong Court of Appeal issued its written judgment in the case of Anderson Asphalt Ltd. v. Town Planning Board, a case about which I wrote earlier.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Bordertown. Written and directed by Gregory Nava. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Antonio Banderas and Maya Zapata (Capitol Films 2006).

Try, if you can, to follow the logic of this argument:

Point One. NAFTA allows free trade between the United States and Mexico but does not contain provisions to protect workers. Corporations build hundreds of factories in the border town of Juarez, Mexico, to assemble computer screens and other goods for import to the United States. Hundreds of thousands of poor Mexicans, predominantly young women, migrate to Juarez to work in the factories for five dollars a day.

Point Two. Several serial killers are drawn to Juarez to prey on the young women. The Juarez police cover up the crimes and may well be protecting certain of the killers. Journalists and straight-laced lawmen who investigate the killings end up dead.

Conclusion. The bad guys in this scenario are the United States, the companies that built the factories and free trade agreements in general.

This is the argument made by director Gregory Nava’s film Bordertown. This is also an example of what libertarians and conservatives call “fuzzy liberal thinking.”

The movie -- which has been released in Europe but not in the United States -- is a comment on actual events. The factories are real; so are the young women and the serial killers and the indifferent police. Since 1993, at least 700 women have vanished or been murdered in Juarez, which is across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. You can read about the situation here, here and here.

There is a compelling film to be made about the sorrows of Juarez. It’s a film about illiterate peasant girls, denied an education by a corrupt government, who work in the factories because that’s one of the few opportunities their country offers. Some of these women are slaughtered by psychopaths, and Mexican law enforcement refuses to investigate or prosecute, because dark-skinned girls from the colonias won’t be missed by anyone who matters. People of good faith say nothing, because they don’t want bullets ripping through their lungs.

The problem with this hypothetical film is that it places the blame on murderers and Mexican officials, and that’s not what’s wanted by the people who gave the Best Picture Oscar to Crash. The United States and conservative politics must be blamed if the filmmakers want to be players come awards season. So Nava blames the Bush administration and NAFTA (which was signed by Bill Clinton, by the way) for the murders.

Writing is about exclusion and elision, but Nava, who wrote the screenplay, didn’t leave anything out. Jennifer Lopez, whose charisma is better suited to light comedy, plays a journalist for the fictional Chicago Sentinel newspaper who travels to Juarez to investigate the story of a young woman (Maya Zapata) who survived an attack by one of the killers. (I can hear my journalist friends chuckling at the thought that an editor at a Chicago daily would incur the expense of assigning a staffer to cover an attempted murder in Mexico when he could pick up the phone and call a freelancer. According to the First Fifteen Minutes Rule, this and other unrealistic events in the first 15 minutes must be ignored; otherwise, there wouldn’t be a movie.)

So Bordertown is a brave journalist movie. But it also wants to be a serious commentary about globalism, an illustration of Mexican class differences, an expose of factory working conditions, a gritty documentary about life in the Mexican slums, a critique of media conglomerates, and don’t forget Lopez’s heartfelt monologue about life-work balance issues for career women. When Lopez goes undercover to work in one of the factories, the film veers into Nancy Drew.

Bordertown is so busy discussing all these Big, Important Issues that it becomes disorganized, unfocused and bloated, changing genres with each new scene. Nava doesn’t let the story emerge organically from the characters, perhaps because he knows his characters are too thin to support the film. And Nava keeps inventing situations and dialogue to illogically place the blame for some of Mexico’s homegrown problems on the United States and its free trade policies.

As it happens, there is a masterful film about murder, politics and race on the edge of Mexico. It is called Lone Star, and it was written and directed about ten years ago by John Sayles, one of America’s unique voices. It was centered by its richly drawn characters, and, by knowing that it was about the tiny lives of a few people in a small town, it became a film about The Border. And its politics made sense.

Labels: , ,

Today In Gratuitous Female Flesh

Little India, Singapore

I've never really understood the Gisele thing, but Oh My God.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Obstruction of Injustice: Hong Kong Law, Part III

(This is the final of three posts about the unique legal universe of Hong Kong. Here are Part 1 and Part 2).

Hong Kong, China

If you want to plumb the oceanic depths of the Chinese Communist Party’s paranoia, you can start with the story of Kwok “Long Hair” Hung Leung.

Every city has its Kwok. He’s the middle-aged guy with little visible means of support who organizes or speaks at every protest for every left-wing cause imaginable. He’s always suing the mayor or picketing the police station or gathering signatures for a ballot measure, and every once in a while he makes a valid point. He’s good for democracy, and he’s great for journalists in search of material.

Hong Kong’s Kwok is Kwok (pictured). He usually wears a Che Guevara t-shirt, and, true to his name, he has vowed not to cut his hair until the Chinese Communist Party apologizes for its bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters. He is also in favor of full democracy in Hong Kong. (Currently, the Hong Kong city council is elected, but real power is held by the mayor, called the Chief Executive, who is selected by an 800-member committee controlled by Beijing.)

Kwok, 51, has more mojo than your average activist. After prior failed campaigns, he was elected to the city council in 2004 with 60,925 votes, which is 60,925 more votes than any member of the Politburo Standing Committee has ever received. Kwok therefore is, in a real sense, a more legitimate leader of the Chinese people than General Secretary Hu Jintao, who has never been elected deputy head of work unit. (In the U.S., we would say “dogcatcher.”)

This terrifies the Chinese Communist Party. Kwok believes his phones have been tapped and that he is under surveillance, and I don't doubt it. Although the Party in January announced eased controls on foreign reporters covering the 2008 Summer Olympics, news organizations operating in China know that three areas are still off limits: no reporting about Tiananmen Square, the Fulan Gong religious movement, or Kwok.

It’s quite a compliment, really, placing an obscure city councilman on par with one of the most famous events in the 4,000-year history of China. It also reveals the Party’s totalitarianism. Kwok isn’t advocating that Hong Kong secede from China; he just thinks the people of the city should vote for their own mayor. In the People’s Republic, that’s enough to put you near the top of the government’s enemies list.

I had heard about Kwok -- you can hardly not, since he’s in the news all the time -- but I had never given Kwok any real thought, until I decided to visit Hong Kong’s highest court, the Court of Final Appeal, to watch a random hearing. When I arrived, there he was, blocking the entrance.

To The Barricades

Kwok and 11 of his supporters were chanting slogans while standing on the steps of the courthouse, holding a banner written in Chinese but bearing the name, in English, of the League of Social Democrats, a local political party. A small crowd had gathered, including one television news crew, two print reporters, three photojournalists and five uniformed police officers.

Blocking the entrance to the courthouse for a few minutes was part of the political theatre, because the hearing was an appeal regarding the prosecution of Kwok and four others for blocking a public thoroughfare.

Two years earlier, the Hong Kong city government had announced an increase in the fare to drive through the Eastern Harbour Tunnel, which connects Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula. Increases in cross-harbour fares are even touchier in Hong Kong than they would be in other cities, because one of the largest riots in the city’s history occurred in 1966 after an announced increase in the cross-harbour fares charged by the Star Ferry, the tubby passenger ships that are icons of the city. Fare hikes are an issue that resonates with Hong Kong voters, and Kwok is, after all, a politician.

On April 29, 2005, two days before the toll hike was to go into effect, Kwok and his co-defendants parked four cars in the two approach lanes to the Hong Kong-bound tunnel, blocking traffic. The protest was not a surprise. Kwok had informed the tunnel operators and the police of his intentions.

Kwok and his team parked the cars at 12:45 p.m., unfurled a banner across both lanes of traffic and chanted slogans – all duly recorded by the assembled reporters (Kwok had alerted the press, too). The tunnel operators converted one lane of the Kowloon-bound tunnel to service Hong Kong-bound traffic, but a back-up developed. At 1:13 p.m., Kwok and his co-defendants were arrested and charged with one count of obstruction of a public place and one count of doing an act (unfurling the banner) whereby obstruction might be caused.

The case was heard by Magistrate Josiah Lam who appears to be what prosecutors call “friendly” and what defense attorneys call “a jackass.” Or maybe he was having a bad day.

In any event, when the case went to trial, Kwok represented himself while the other four defendants were represented by counsel. Kwok was the only witness. The remainder of the evidence was in the form of written admissions of fact to which both sides agreed.

After the close of evidence, it became obvious that the prosecution had failed to establish certain necessary facts, specifically, the length of time the cars blocked the tunnel, how many cars were backed up and whether any of the drivers had been inconvenienced (since an obstruction which is tolerated is legal under Hong Kong law). In other words, the prosecution had rested without proving its case.

Magistrate Lam asked Kwok how many cars had been backed up. Kwok informed the magistrate that the evidence was closed and that it was no longer his obligation to answer evidentiary questions. Magistrate Lam didn’t like this answer and took the position that everyone had an obligation to assist the court in coming to a just verdict.

In a display of sportsmanship, the prosecutor reminded the magistrate that, if a reasonable doubt existed, Magistrate Lam, who was trying the summary offenses without a jury, was required to acquit. The magistrate instead offered that a prosecution motion to re-open the evidence could be entertained. The prosecution took the hint. The motion was granted, two witnesses supplied the missing information, and Kwok and his co-defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 12 days in jail.

The Court of First Instance, which hears appeals from the Magistrates' Courts, overturned the verdict. “In my judgment, unfortunately, even if justice was done, it was not manifestly seen to be done,” wrote Judge Peter Nguyen. “This would constitute a material irregularity, and on this ground alone, the appeals against conviction must be allowed.”

The prosecution appealed, which is why the players were gathering for a hearing in Hong Kong’s highest court, the Court of Final Appeal.

The Highest Court In the City-State

The Court of Final Appeal is housed in a red brick building built in 1917 for the French Foreign Mission. The building has been carefully restored and modernized and is one of the older buildings in Hong Kong, a city which does not hesitate to demolish its past to erect a more profitable future.

Contrary to its name, the Court of Final Appeal does not have the last word on all things legal in Hong Kong. If an issue arises regarding the relationship between Hong Kong and the Chinese national government, or there is a dispute over the meaning of the Basic Law (the city’s constitution), a litigant can request a “binding interpretation” from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Of course, the N.P.C. Standing Committee – like all high organs of the Chinese state – does what the Party oligarchs instruct it to do. Thus does the Chinese Communist Party retain ultimate control of Hong Kong, “one country, two systems” notwithstanding.

The Court of Final Appeal is similar to most American courts of last resort in that it has a highly discretionary docket, meaning that it generally hears only the cases it wants to hear. Aggrieved parties in the lower court have no automatic right to an audience, and they must persuade the court that the case is important enough to warrant review.

In the United States, this request is made entirely in writing. In Hong Kong, however, the highest court holds a hearing and allows the parties to argue in person as to whether the court should conduct a review of the case’s merits. In the case of HKSAR v. Leung Kwok Hung, Et Al., the matter before the court on the day of my visit was the city prosecutor’s Application For Leave To Appeal.

The Bench

Which is how Kwok and his supporters came to be obstructing the door of the courthouse with their rally. Actually, you could walk around them and enter the building, so the obstruction was more symbolic than actual, but everyone got the message.

Like all Hong Kong courts that I visited, the Court of Final Appeal had no metal detectors. I walked to the courtroom and took a seat in the press gallery. I am not familiar with the procedure for covering a session of the U.S. Supreme Court, but I don’t think it’s show up, stroll in unquestioned and take a seat five feet from the judges.

The courtroom was a jewel, the type of space in which directors film the climax of lofty constitutional dramas. The architecture was law-giving and authoritative. It was originally a chapel for French diplomats, with a vaulted classical rotunda two storeys above us. The various corners of the room were ornamented with tasteful plinthed columns, the features of the architecture outlined in light cream paint above brown wooden paneling.

Facing the raised judges’ dias were three rows of polished wooden counters, with seats for the lawyers and their assistants. On the judges’ left, facing the courtroom, was the press gallery with eight seats. On the judges’ right, also facing the courtroom, was a station with a young Chinese man wearing a robe, the courtroom bailiff. Next to him was a cage of steel, the dock where incarcerated litigants would sit.

At the back of the room, behind the eponymous “bar” that separated the attorneys from the general public, were two rows of seats for the curious. A set of double doors opened into a back room, which contained overflow seating and two television screens broadcasting a closed circuit link of the proceedings. It wouldn’t take much to have a capacity crowd. The most important courtroom in the city contained 33 seats for the public.

Four barristers were in the front row, in full robes and wigs. The two lead barristers were older men, one Chinese, one Western, while both were assisted by younger Chinese co-counsel. The older European barristers are a dying breed; Hong Kong's baby lawyers are almost all Chinese.

Kwok sat in the second row, representing himself. His co-defendants, who were represented by counsel, sat in the third row, looking like extras from a Cantonese staging of Hair. These guys had decided on a look in 1968 and never found a reason to update their style. Two reporters joined me in the press gallery, a Chinese woman and a European man, both taking notes in Chinese.

Three loud knocks. Everyone rose, and three judges, in robes and wigs, came out and sat down. Everybody bowed.

Applications for leave to appeal are heard by three of the four permanent judges of the Court of Final Appeal. If the application is granted, the appeal would be heard on the merits by a panel of five judges. This merits panel would usually consist of the four permanent judges as well as one non-permanent judge, who could be a lower-court judge given a tryout on the big bench or a visiting judge from another common law jurisdiction such as New Zealand.

Justice Syed Kemal Shah Bokhary, a Hong Konger of Pakistani descent, sat in the middle and directed questions, in English, to the barrister for the prosecution, John Reading, S.C., about the degree of public toleration which would provide a defense to an obstruction charge. The two sparred for several minutes in the quick, punchy style of U.S. courtrooms. Unlike the strange procedures of the Hong Kong Court of Appeal, the manner of argumentation at this hearing would be familiar to an American litigator.

Justice Bokhary asked for the certified Chinese-language transcript of the trial, but Reading conceded that one did not yet exist. “The purpose of this hearing is to increase my desire to send this case to the Court of Final Appeal. Some of the things you are saying decreases my desire,” Justice Bokhary said. Reading turned red.

“What would a foreign lawyer say if they saw this trial?” asked Justice Bokhary. “It depends on if they read the whole transcript,” Reading responded, later conceding that the magistrate’s actions could be reviewed under a “fair-minded observer” test.

The judges questioned the defendants’ lead barrister, a straw-thin man of about 70 years old who held himself with a vaguely regal manner. He wore black-rimmed glasses and the waistcoat of a Senior Counsel, the highest rank of barrister. He was completely at ease and spoke perfect, accent-less English. He looked familiar. One of the judges referred to him as “Mr. Lee,” and I realized I was watching the most famous attorney in Hong Kong.

The Learned Gentleman

Martin Lee, S.C., is Hong Kong’s Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Webster rolled into one. Lee is the city’s foremost advocate of democracy, for which he has agitated for decades. He is an elected member of the city council and served for years as the leader of the city's Democratic Party. He has a successful private practice and is the second-most senior barrister in the city, having been called to the Inner Bar – i.e., become a “silk” – in 1979. If Hong Kong were allowed to hold a real election for mayor, Martin Lee would be a shoo-in.

“After listening to my learned friend, I am none the wiser what the prosecution’s complaint is,” Lee said. “The burden is on my learned friend to show that there was a departure from accepted norms [when the Court of First Instance overturned the convictions]. I’m waiting for him to tell us.”

Justice Bokhary asked if the magistrate’s unorthodox procedures mattered if, at the end of the day, the trial was fair. “Even if justice was done, that’s not good enough,” said Lee. “Justice must appear to have been done.”

The vacatur of the convictions “would have to constitute a substantial and grave injustice for this Court to get involved,” Lee said, arguing that the dispute did not warrant the attention of the high court. American lawyers in Lee’s position make the identical argument. Nothing to see here, your honors, nothing worth your time.

The judges asked the unrepresented Kwok if he had anything to say. Kwok picked up the earlier theme of what foreign lawyers would say if they had watched the trial.

“If those lawyers were from North Korea and China, they would say, ‘O.K, that’s what we do,’” Kwok said. The judges appeared uncomfortable at the jab at the notoriously politicized Chinese judicial system. Hong Kong, as a semi-autonomous entity, is proud of its independent judiciary and the rule of English common law.

Kwok spoke in Cantonese, which was translated into English, despite the fact that all the participants in the courtroom probably spoke Cantonese. The use of English in courtrooms is in its final years, I thought; it makes no sense for Hong Kongers to live most of their lives in Cantonese but be forced to operate in English in the courtroom, where their liberty or property is at stake.

After two hours of argument, the judges conferred in whispers.

“We will reserve our decision on this matter and hand down a decision as soon as possible,” Justice Bokhary said. The judges rose. Everyone stood up and bowed to the judges as they left.

As I walked from the courthouse in the late afternoon, the bells of St. John’s Cathedral tolled five times.

The Day The Good Guys Won

The judges denied the application.

“In our view, it is plain beyond reasonable argument to the contrary that the magistrate’s conduct of the trial had lost him the appearance of impartiality, and that there is a real danger that such conduct had actually influenced his decision to convict so as to have deprived the defendants of a fair trial,” Judge Bokhary wrote for a unanimous tribunal.

The government lost. The prosecutors did not have their way. It happens every day in the United States and Belgium and Israel, but it’s unheard of in mainland China, where the government always gets what it wants.

Not in Hong Kong. In this postage stamp of freedom, the British bequest included the only functioning and legitimate judicial system in the People’s Republic.

So raise a glass to Kwok and Lee. The good guys won.

But – far more importantly – the government lost.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The China Fantasy

The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression by James Mann (Penguin 2007).

A popular example of insanity is the repetition of the same action with the expectation of a different result. Although author James Mann is too polite to phrase it so archly in his book The China Fantasy, the United States’ policy toward China over the last 20 years is an example of this form of insanity.

When I was in college, I spent days watching the C-Span coverage of the hearings and debates regarding President George H.W. Bush’s decision to renew most favored nation trading status for China. (I was a rocking party guy back then.)

The national security establishment of the time – Bush, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and company – argued that the Chinese leaders were “defying the actuarial tables” and that continued “engagement” was necessary to prod the next generation of leadership down a democratic path.

Since those days in 1990, the senior Chinese leadership has changed twice. Deng Xiaoping and the Elders gave way to what is called the Third Generation, led by Jiang Zemin, which in turn handed the keys to Zhongnanhai to the Fourth Generation, led by current Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao.

Little has changed in the intervening 17 years. Yes, the economy of China is moving from a command-and-control system to one with prominent capitalistic features. But, as Mann stresses, the government of China is still a Marxist-Leninist relic, in which the organs of state are subordinate to the Party’s Central Committee, Politburo and, at the top of the pyramid, the Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-man oligarchy that runs the world’s most populous nation.

Yet U.S. policy is mired in the belief – magical thinking, really – that continued “integration” of the Chinese government with the “world community” will somehow – it’s never clear how – lead to democratic reforms in mainland China.

Nonsense, argues Mann, who served as Beijing bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times for several years during the 1980s. There’s no evidence of the emergence of this Soothing Scenario, as Mann dubs it, or of its evil twin, the Upheaval Scenario, in which China is ripped apart by internal tensions.

Rather, argues Mann, a Third Scenario is more likely. China becomes wealthier. The Communist Party becomes more entrenched. Small increases in democracy and free speech are put on conspicuous display when the eyes of the world are on China (e.g., during the 2008 Summer Olympics) and then quietly revoked when no one is looking. Mann’s prediction, which he hopes is inaccurate, is that China in 30 years will be a lot like China today, only more so.

The China Fantasy is not, strictly speaking, a book about China. It is about the arguments made by Western enablers who seek to maintain a pusillanimous U.S. policy toward China.

One of the most powerful tools in the debate is language. Proponents of human rights reform within China are accused of being “anti-Chinese” “China-bashers” with a “Cold War mentality,” “troublemakers” who are “pushing the envelope” with "provocative” proposals which will “anger China.” (I had to chuckle at the pejorative for Sinophiles, who are called “panda huggers.”)

Mann finds the “Cold War mentality” label especially amusing. The Chinese Communist government was coddled by Western powers during the Cold War, because China acted as a counter-weight to the Soviet Union and kept thousands of Red Army troops pinned down on the Sino-Soviet border and away from Western Europe. The Cold War was the high-water mark in the West’s willingness to look away from the Chinese government’s abuses.

The Chinese leadership understands that, at the end of the day, only one person has to look away, and that person is the President of the United States. If the president can be pressured or convinced to avoid the topic of how China treats its people, then the issue is effectively removed from the world’s agenda.

The greatest victory of this president-centered strategy – called the “P Factor” – was the gelding of Bill Clinton, the only president in modern times to specifically campaign on the issue of Chinese human rights abuses. Once in office, a proposed statute (sponsored by Representative Nancy Pelosi) linking China's "most favored nation" trade status with human rights improvements was watered down into an executive order that would revoke MFN status 12 months later unless the Chinese government improved its record.

As the June 1994 deadline approached, Clinton realized that the Chinese government had no intention of changing its policies. According to The New York Times, Clinton informed the Chinese government, via diplomatic channels, that token compliance would suffice. He renewed China's MFN status and, as an additional flourish, announced the "de-linking" of trade status and human rights. Game, set and match to Beijing.

(Mann makes a small legal error in writing that Clinton "revoked" his executive order (page 81). A formal process exists for the revocation of an executive order, and that process was not applied to Executive Order 12850, according to the National Archives' Disposition Tables. Instead, Clinton disingenously found that the Chinese government had satisfied the executive order's conditions.)

Mann’s ultimate argument is that the various iterations of America’s China policy are different excuses for doing nothing. “Dialogue” does not require the other person to do anything except talk. “Engagement” requires no results at all. “Integration” is worse; the Chinese government gets World Trade Organization membership and other goodies, corporate interests obtain their much-desired access to 1.2 billion potential customers, and human rights advocates get nothing.

If I had been Mann’s editor, I would have requested one additional chapter, about the reality facing corporations attempting to conduct business in mainland China. Just as China loudly touts its village elections (which are tightly supervised and do not allow rival political parties), China shines the spotlight on Volkswagen, KFC and a few other Western companies which have succeeded – “been allowed to succeed” would be more accurate – in China.

The reality of doing business in mainland China – a game with fluid and arbitrary rules rigged in favor of Party cadres and their companies -- may be the best argument against the China Lobby. Why should motion picture studios avoid storylines about Chinese repression when any tourist can see that the studios’ intellectual property rights are being infringed on a massive scale? Why do the world’s manufacturers come hat in hand to the mammoth government buildings of Beijing when China’s artificial valuation of its currency increases the prices of their products? Cultural sensitivity and saving of face seem to run in only one direction.

Three successive presidents have downplayed the Tiananmen Square massacre so as not to “upset China” and create difficulties for Western business interests. Mann does an excellent job of exposing the vacuity of the arguments used by the old friends of China. But, if business interests come to believe that the protected and corrupt Chinese market isn’t worth the hassle, the current “do nothing” policy might collapse.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bangkok Babylon

Bangkok Babylon by Jerry Hopkins (Periplus 2005).

Bule Gila: Tales of a Dutch Barman in Jakarta by Bartele Santema (Equinox Publishing 2005).

The expatriate bar book is a staple of international publishing, and many of the books go something like this:

Chapter 1: The author arrives in ________________, where he is bewitched by the easy life and easier women. In an effort to live the dream, he recruits a partner and opens a bar, evading the domestic ownership laws by putting everything in the name of his partner’s local wife.

Chapters 2 – 12: Wacky stories of wacky times with wacky expats.

Chapter 13: The bar never turns a profit, and, just before the author sells it to a new guy experiencing his personal Chapter 1, the partner is divorced by his local wife, who uses her ownership rights to force everyone out. A sadder but wiser author returns home with his wacky memories.

Of this genre, Bangkok Babylon is one of the best and Bule Gila is one of the worst.

Bangkok Babylon was written by Jerry Hopkins, an experienced writer known for the Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive. (According to Hopkins, the bestseller was rejected by more than thirty publishers, including two rejections by its ultimate house, Warner Books.)

Hopkins’ bar book is a series of sketches of various expats, many of whom Hopkins met at the Three Roses Bar (now defunct) and other Bangkok watering holes.

CIA operative Tony Poe, the subject of the first chapter, was allegedly the basis for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (a claim denied by the film’s director). Poe paid his men for each enemy head they brought him, and he once air-dropped severed heads onto a hostile village. Poe took a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Laos while wielding a rifle and a machete. He lived with the hilltribe peoples, who thought of him as a god who could call in air strikes or make food fall from the sky, according to former CIA chief Bill Lair.

Poe is one of the less colorful people Hopkins describes. Father Joe Maier is among the last of the radical priests of the 1960s, a man who can say Mass in Hmong and is pastor of a parish in the Slaughterhouse, Bangkok’s worst slum. Byron Bales is a private detective who helps insurance companies identify con artists who fake their own deaths with the unwitting help of the credulous U.S. Embassy. David Jacobsen opened the wildly successful Q Bar in Saigon, only to have the Vietnamese government shut it down and revoke his visa, embarrassed that the city’s hottest nightspot was run by a foreigner. Joe Cummins is the author of several Lonely Planet guides, making him one of the most influential powerbrokers in the Southeast Asian hotel and restaurant industries.

There is a dark side to Hopkins’ adopted world. Several of his subjects died of cirrhosis of the liver and other chronic ailments caused by decades of unchecked substance abuse. You can walk into any Bangkok bar at 3 p.m. and see Western expats drinking themselves to death. Bangkok is a place where you can go to Hell in your own fashion, and nobody will stop you.

Someone should have stopped Bartele Santema, or at least kept him away from a word processor. His bar book, Bule Gila: Tales of a Dutch Barman in Jakarta has nothing new to say and doesn’t say it well.

Santema is a Dutch Archie Bunker, convinced that his banal observations are light-giving revelations. Apparently, that friendly Indonesian woman who asks for US$1,000 to pay her brother’s hospital bill does not actually have a hospitalized brother. Thanks, Grandpa.

Ideally, a chapter or essay should begin with a catchy sentence, called the “lede.” Here are some of Santema’s ledes: “Tomorrow I am going to Surabaya.” “The first night of the staff outing to Yogyakarta almost turned into a nightmare.” “This middle-aged Dutch guy I know decided to get his front teeth fixed.” “That Pak Arif is a funny guy.”

That Bartele Santema is not a funny guy, but he seems to think his stories are hilarious. Bule Gila (which means “crazy foreigner” in Indonesian) reminded me of advice that film journalist Chris Gore gives first-time film makers: Do not make a movie about your friends sitting around being brilliant; only you think your friends sitting around are brilliant. Maybe Santema’s stories were funny if we had been there, but I doubt it and we weren’t.

If you could choose which of these two guys sits down at the barstool next to you, choose Hopkins.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Still Alive, Just Bored

Jakarta, Indonesia

My lawyer in Kansas City requested that I post something every 72
hours, so he knows I'm not lying naked in a ditch somewhere (without
my consent, that is). I'm in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia,
waiting to receive a clearance to enter the city-state of Singapore.

While Jakarta is not the most boring place on earth -- that would be
Brunei -- time is hanging heavy as I wait for my papers to come
through. Expect lots of book reviews when I have real access to
Blogger again.

Labels: , , ,