Thursday, 5 November 2009

Singlish, Sino Lingo & Lingua Minima

And a 24/7 Free-To-Air Turkish Steam Room

semi-overcast 30 °C                     
In theory, I have been 'staying' or 'living' in Singapore since Dec '08 when we left Sydney; in practise I'm only staying in Singapore for a total of 4 months or so spreading over 11 months. The last 3 months have been the longest stretch of stay in Singapore since. This gives me just enough time to get myself Singaporeanized.

One of this is acclimatizing my ears to the the Singaporean accent. I'm not talking about the accent that sounded somewhat (and oddly) like Indian's, and where every sentence sounds like a question, courtesy of the rising accent at the end. On many occasion, when I say something in English with the 'proper' Aussie accent, I wasn't understood until I put a rising accent in the end to Singlish it.
I have no problem with this 'standard' Singlish accent whatsoever because I had a few Malaysian mates back home in the Land Down Under who speak like that lah. I am talking about facing a variety of different Singaporean accents. But perhaps the hardest to get a hang of, at first, is the Singaporean obsession to abbreviate, especially, but not exclusive to, names of places. Singaporean probably wouldn't understand you if you don't use the anagram forms that they get used to. Take where I live, Holland Village, is being shortened to Holland V. It wasn't saving a whole lot of jaw works, but that isn't the point. Fashion dictates a mini word - the shorter it is, the more attractive it is (to the ears). Every Singaporean (and Malay) nicknames Kuala Lumpur KL, and the Singapore/Malaysia border town of Johore Bahru is referred to as JB - these are just a couple that come to mind.

It was unexpected when I was having more problems with local Mandarin than Singlish. On second thought, it shouldn't be for two reasons. One, my English is far better than my Mandarin (or my Cantonese). Two, Australia - Sydney especially - being so multicultural, let me exposed to different English accents for almost three decades. The reason I was surprise was because up until now, I had never once have any problem understanding Mandarin. On hindsight, it was simply because the only Mandarin accents I have exposed to so far are restricted to Mandarin speakers from Indochina, and Mainland China. I haven't encountered Singaporean Mandarin speakers in any big way before (if any. If I did, it would certain that we would converse in English. David - Arno's Singaporean mate - for example never spoke to me in Mandarin). I came to Singapore 6 or 7 times before, but I had never once used anything other than English, as a tourist. Now that I'm a 'local', I have to venture to places where English is not 100% spoken (English is spoken by 3/4 of the population). Because I am easily passed as a local - Chinese Singaporean - as easily as a heavy beer drinker passing water in the dead of winter nights, I am usually spoken to in Mandarin, and I'm quite happy to reply in Mandarin to keep it from rusting away (further).

The Singaporean national pastime of verbal contraction isn't just restricted to convert words into acronyms, but the whole sentences, both in English and Mandarin. The first time when I ordered food in a hawker centre, I was asked "Eat?". Well, what else can I do with it? Snorted it through my nose? (Well, that's eating too. Loosely speaking). As it turns out, this is Singaporean shorthand for "Is this order an eat-in or takeaway?". These days, I replied it like any true local, "Eat lah." Why all these linguistic minimalism? Maybe the weather is too hot leh - wear less clothes, move less distance, eat less food, speak less words...Or this is a way of creating something that "uniquely Singapore" (the Singaporean tourism body's advertising slogan).

SG citizen probly r d 1 ppl in d wrld most happy in adopting 2 d netizen speak in d web & txt msg on d mob ph, oso call SMSing. LOL. Maybe dey r d 1 who invented d whole abrev txting & shrthnd typing tat's so cool on d net & in chat rms. U c wat I talk abt? :-P

Apart from the lingual shrinkage, the injection of Malay and (much lesser extend) Indian language also confuses the issues/tourists/expats/people like me who look exactly like locals, but aren't. At a first couple of times, I ordered a coffee from a hawker centre, automatically, I used the standard mandarin word for "coffee" and was met with puzzled looks. It was only when I said "kopi" - the Malay word for coffee - that I was immediately understood. (Kopi is pronounced something like "gore bee" - coffee in Hokkien. Not something like "copy"). Of course, on both occasions, they were older Chinese (they usually are the ones taking drink orders in hawker centres, unless they're beer gals, then they have noticeably less wrinkles, and clothes). Young locals would have known the standard Mandarin term for 'coffee'. While the older Chinese (over 50's) either barely understand Mandarin or practically none. Never mind English. They're the majority of 1/4 of the population that can't speak English.

And the word for tea is 'teh' (sounds a bit like 'dare' - a hokkien dialect). And one of the local style tea is teh-C (tea with evaporated milk with sugar), while teh-O is tea without milk with sugar. 'C' is shorthand for Carnation - the leading brand in evaporated milk. And 'O' (乌) is Hokkien for 'Black'. 'With sugar' is always implied, unless it's stated otherwise. Add kosong (malay for 'nothing') at the end to specify 'no sugar'. 'Kosong' sounds just like 'croissant' without 'r'. And so my fave cup is teh-C-kosong. 'Teh-C-kosong' is a little nice example of how the 3 major tongues are freely rolled and twisted into a Singlish word. It took me a little while to decipher all these, I'm embarrassed to say. I could do all the research on the web, but what would be the fun without getting your face red? I related this experience of trying to order a cup of teh-C-kosong to a Chinese gal who come from Malaysia but grew up here. She told me that she actually STILL doesn't know how to order a teh-C-kosong. Never mind that she grew up here. Malaysia has the same name in ordering this drink. So I wasn't as thick as I thought I was. I live in the tower of Babel.

Speaking of red face and default condiment. Like adding sugar in your teh or kopi is by default in hawker centre, unless stated otherwise, If you don't specify that you don't want chilli in your food, it will be added automatically. Especially if you don't look apart from the locals. Foreigners maybe spared from these defaults. I don't mind eating chili, just not in humid weather where sweating doesn't evaporate easily.

All the food items like teh-C, Kopi-O, and kaya toasts can all be found at kopi tiam, which literally means coffee shop ('kopi' = 'coffee' in Malay, and 'tiam' = 'shop' in Hokkien. Just another couplet of such blissful cultural mixed marriage). Quite a few chain stores/franchise of this kopitiam as well as independent owner-operators shops can be found around Singapore and the whole of Malaya Peninsula. I'm partial to the teh-C-kosong in Yakun Kaya Toast outlets.

Kaya toasts are usually filled with sugar and butter. This sounds heavy, but surprisingly not so. Take my word for it, I'm a light eater (and a light sleeper, which explain why I'm so light weight). Atta usually scrapes off the butter; I prefer to eat the way it's intended. The part I like about the toast is the crunch and it also melts in your mouth, and it isn't too malty for me either. It's supposed to be breakfast item, but I always eat it as a snack. You do what you what. It's a relatively free country). It's available all day, and most places.

So Singlish = English with Singaporean accent + Abbreviations + Malay words + Hokkien words + a whole of creativity.

For all things Singlish, one can visit Talking Cock.

Another Singaporean linguistic mosaic is the mixture of simplified and traditional Chinese characters that are being used here. All Chinese communities outside China - Taiwan, HK, overseas Chinese in SE Asia - use traditional characters/writing. PRC invented the simplified Chinese characters in the name of revolution (Nothing is off limit to change. Anything new is considered double good. Newspeak is double good. Gorge Orwell must have drawn this inspiration from China during one of Mao's many "revolutions"). The Chinese communities outside China are happy and proud to stick with the existing system, seeing no need to mess around with the classic. And then, there is Singapore - a kettle of fish, a basket case - that uses a hodgepodge of two Chinese writings (and three other languages). Being an international port, Singaporean embraces outside influence.

Why two Chinese writings? Here's my thinking. Singapore used the traditional Chinese form like all other Greater Chinese communities before the opening up of China in 1978 (the most watershed event in modern Chinese history). Atta's colleague Bee told me that about 15 or so years ago, Lee Kuan Yew encouraged Chinese to take up Mandarin (as supposed to sticking with their own Chinese dialects). Even the Marylander/billionaire/investment guru/professor/author Jim Rogers - also the co-founder (with George Soros) of the successful Quantum Fund - is now settling in Singapore so that his daughters can learn Mandarin in its native environment (and at the same time he can also be closer to the hub of economic actions in Asia). He makes no secret - actually reminds us repeatedly - that the economic powerhouse today is in the East, especially China.

Well, the "15 or so years" that Bee talked about was just sometimes after PRC established diplomatic relationship with Singapore in 1992. LKY's urging Singaporean to learn Mandarin is a logical move, even French and US major universities make Mandarin a compulsory electives nowadays. Before this move LKY encouraged his citizen to actively learn English. He's becoming to realise (like Jim Rogers) that the shifting of economic power/opportunities from USA to China is occurring, and he wants his beloved flock to jump on board this gear shift ASAP. Not much of a prophecy these days; the trend is firmly established. But he geared up this move about 1.5 decades ago before the US housing debt-bubble induced financial crisis. Bee was herself is now working in Shanghai, thanks to her Mandarin knowledge. This is LKY's legacy in actions.

What Bee said confirmed what I suspected. If you take a good look at the Chinese characters in official signs like MTR station names, safety warnings, TV programs' captions, you'll notice they are all written in simplified Chinese (assuming you read Chinese). In programs that have English subtitles, even names of protagonists of some of the Cantonese dramas are converted into Pinyin, and adopting the PRC name conventions where the two given names are merged. Instead of the existing Anglicised Chinese names. This replacing of Wade-Giles by Pinyin system in Mandarin transliteration is a clear sign of a cultural shift from English to Chinese. Fortunately, there are Wade-Giles to Pinyin conversion tables to ease the pain.

Just on a completely different side-note. One odd thing that I found out is that the Anglicised Chinese names in Singapore and HK are different. It's a bit like discover that sign languages for deaf people are different in countries where people speak the same language. All very strange business that make lives more interesting, and confusing.

The PRC writing system are followed to the letter (I should say to the character) in Singapore. This is Singaporean government's way of declaring where they are steering to. But if you look at shop signs of small private business, restaurant menus, etc, you would detect a mix of traditional and simplified Chinese characters. Actually I found the Chinese old-school writings tend to dominate in small private businesses. This should be expected, for business operators are in general tend to be over 20 years old - a time before the PRC scripts made their way in a big way into the Singaporean classrooms. Of course, some sign writers are young and likely to make signs in PRC Chinese.

Singapore is now in a unique position to capture the economic growth of China, India and the ME - both geographically and culturally. Her 3 adopted ethnic children of Chinese, Indian and Muslim Malays can be a leveraged advantage in entering these markets. The fact that Atta got sent to Bahrain, Dubai, and a few other potential places in the Gulf is a good example. Having an Indian president, although only a ceremonial symbol (actually has a tad more political power than QE2 in UK), wouldn't hurt Singapore business standing in India. As for China, she embraces Singapore with open arms like a long lost son who has come home after been settled abroad for a long time (no kissing, of course. They aren't Ruskies). In fact, Singapore is one of the very few privileged countries where its citizens can enter China without visas. In fact only 3 countries with visa exemptions: Singapore, Japan and Brunei. I understand the first 2, but Brunei?! Interesting...

Because of the 3 major languages being spoken in Singapore, in order for communication to occur, a 4th language - English - is needed. Of course, with Chinese make up about 80% of the population, Singapore can make Chinese the only official language. But she chose English for several good reasons:
1. Singapore promotes multiculturalism, specifically she encourages her peoples to maintain their cultural heritages (which turns out to be not only enriching its culture, being viewed as a tolerant society, and facilitating its adaptation to the current economic globalisation). She doesn't want to shove the language of one ethnic group into the throats of others.
2. It's a former British colony. Another heritage.
3. English is still an international language of diplomacy, politics, trades, and science.
Most things in public is written in English - street signs, official documents, addresses, etc.
Something that requires important attention like warning signs, etc are written in all 4 languages.

But the hardest acclimatization for me is the climate itself. The past few months the Singapore had shown me that its climate isn't hot. The maximum temperature in Singapore is actually a remarkable constant 30 - 32° C, and that's much lower than its neighbours like Malaysia and Thailand on the average. I wasn't surprise by the consistency of temperature for it locates almost smacked bang on the Equator (only off by 1° 18' from the Equator). What I was surprise is how low the temperature is despite its proximity to the Equator, and it's always been described as hot and humid. In a way, this relatively low temperature does make sense. The further a location is from the Equator, the hotter the Summer becomes. During the temperate Sydney's summer, the quicksilver can shoot up to a scorching 38 - 40 °C, which is much higher than the typical Singapore weather, albeit only a week or two in the Xmas-New Year period. And Melbourne, which is further south of the Equation can get even hotter in Summer than Sydney (and of course colder in Winter). So going by that logic, locations on the Equator is the mildest overall! A temperature above 36 °C is quite unheard of in Singapore. I have yet experienced it.

A average of 31 °C isn't hot by most standard, but it's the humidity that makes it so. Especially for someone who comes from Australia - one of the driest continent on earth. The stickiness can be quite insufferable. I can recollect vividly the warm humidity that hit my face the seconds I left Changi Airport in my previous trips to this island like a moist hot towels they handed out in air planes (or some upscale Chinese restaurants). I felt like stepping straight into a Turkish steam room, especially coming here during Winter where Sydney is especially dry and cool. I dig Turkish steam room as much as the next guy/gal, but only for 15 minutes, in winter and in my birthday suit. Not lugging my heavy camera during sunny days (I can only tolerate the sun a smidgen more than the urbane, pale face Count Dracula. No. I don't have a liking for reds). Without the sun, it isn't all too bad at all. Here in Singapore, the cloud is the silver lining.

I used to laugh at the locals who wear jackets and woollen jumpers, and not just for indoor air-cons, which could be friggin' freezing my fanny off (I don't have a fanny. I'm speaking Northern American with a British accent. Queen's English actually, old chap). Recently there are days when I can actually feel a chill in the air sitting at home without air-con on. A telltale sign that I'm getting on top of the humidity. The ocean breeze can be quite pleasant. Mind you, I have never put on pants or wear shoes except going to airport. And I don't wear cotton 'T' any more. I only wear 100% polyester jerseys that you see athletes wear in those sports where they sweat a lot, like basketball, soccer, and tennis. It isn't enough if they breath, I need my jerseys to pant like dogs in summer. If the humidity here is as low as Sydney, Singapore can actually be very pleasant with its usual groom sky.

As the dry season passed (in the 1st half of the year), the sun goes out and the rains and the clouds comes into the wet (or Monsoon) season (2nd half of the year). In the first few months during dry season, I relied on frappé to dispel the hellish humid heat. Little did I know, I was replacing BF (brain freeze for short. speak like a true local) with the wet heat. Gradually, and unbelievably, I even got over this affliction. I didn't know that one can avoid BF at all (unlike another involuntary response like hiccoughs). This is an indicator that I had reached L3A (Level 3 Acclimatization). Not completely sure if La Niña is at it bringing with her more wetness to the south of East Pacific area. It appears that even in the dry 1st half, there were considerable cloudiness and rains that on would expect. Nothing like what I experienced in the occasional visits in last 2 decades where I was greeted by only wet heat and sunshine. The only time where there were significant sunshine is during the Chinese New Year period of mid Jan to late Feb. Not that I'm complaining.

During the L2A period, I slept with the air-con on the whole night with thermostat set to 26 °C. These days I only turn on the air-cons awhile before bed just to keep the room cool as well as clearing up the air quality. I sleep quite soundly (as soundly as a light sleeper can) without the air-con on, knowing that I'm saving money, saving energy, and last but not least, saving Tuvalu from drowning (I'm assuming global warming is occurring. I'm 75% convinced. Global warming or not, saving energy and finding alternative renewable energy sources should still be a high priority. Peak Oil is nothing to be sneezed at; it's a global issue that that isn't too far away from global warming or GFC in the serious meter).

Pommies should feel at home with the cloud hanging over their heads most of the year. They may not like it in UK during winter because it stops the sun from showing up for work. But in the tropical island at the equator, the cloud provides a cool and protective canopy, thus saving you from carrying a brolly (a rare sight in Singapore, but not in other parts of Asia).

Few days ago, something reminded me that I have been away from Australia long enough. Some Aussies were being interviewed on TV, and they sounded foreign and funny! Mind you, she spoke with a broad Aussie accent - as broad as the land itself. Also, last week I bumped into someone in the street and I found myself mumbled "Sorry" in the original Singlish accent...Aiya! I 'm totally Singaporeanized liao!

I've also heard how Atta talk at work, sounds exactly like a local, and it's surprised me that I didn't like the sound of that. It doesn't sound like me. I guess, I don't know me that well.

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Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Sentosa Island

Island Resort for the Singapore Islanders

overcast 30 °C
We took Andy to Sentosa Island today. Like Johor Bahru that we visited yesterday, we also haven't been to Sentosa Island, despite living here for more than 6 months. This is usually what happens. When you're a tourist visiting Singapore for the first time, Sentosa Island is probably one of the destinations on your itinerary. This is especially true as Singapore isn't a sightseeing paradise. But when you live in Singapore, you no longer see yourself as tourist and so don't go to these touristy places until some body from overseas visit you. And so we take this opportunity to see the touristy parts of Singapore (the way Ishmael in "Moby Dick" wants to see the watery parts of the world).

Actually a country lacks tourist sights aren't a bad thing at all. Have you noticed that the most livable cities aren't usually the most visited cities? Take Perth, Australia, you haven't even heard of it, right? It's considered one of the most livable city in the world. What about Melbourne, Australia? You may have heard of it once or twice, is also voted as within the top 10 most livable city that ranks below Perth. As for Sydney, Australia, it's the most well known of these 3 Australian cities, and being voted the least livable of the 3 (but still within top 10).

Well known most visited cities like Paris, Rome, London, Shanghai, etc tends to fall within the 30th and 40th spots as the most livable cities in the world. Actually crime in Paris and Rome is terrible, just about everyone I know who had visited these places have stories to tell. Atta's dad was literally gang robbed by a bunch of kids in the French Metro. I was pick-pocketed in a bus in Rome by a housewife looking woman in her early 40's. In comparison, many parts of Asia is much safer, especially Singapore, and Bali, and even Pattaya is safer than Western Europe (at least for tourists). Perhaps, these European petty crimes targeted tourists because they're more vulnerable. Having said that locals in European city like Paris are actually more scare in the Metro at night than the ignorant tourists who thinks Europe is safe. While in Asia, crime rates are high in some cities because of the poverty, but in others, crime rates are low because penalties. Of course, there're cities in Asia where they have both high standard of living and heavy handed - some called barbaric, others zero tolerant - on crimes, the crime rates in these cities are very low indeed (I'm thinking Singapore and most of the Gulf States).

As Singapore isn't such a tourist magnet, it happens to rank just outside top 10 of the most livable cities in the world.

Please note that there are different surveys, and these cities are also ranked differently from year to year. I just chose one survey that suits my needs, and make my point (from the very popular The Economist's World's Most Livable Cities index in 2009). Having said that, I don't think too many people who have lived in cities like Sydney or Singapore would have argued that these cities aren't very livable despite their disagreement with this index.

Ok, it isn't really true that I haven't been to Sentosa Island. I had been there with Darren about 2.5 decades ago in one of our uni holiday break. We strolled down the island and saw a peacock on the road. We spotted some machine gun pillboxes. As usual, young Darren did some excited and exaggerated military photo poses with the plastic military dummies. The barren beach was devoid of people, convenient businesses, or activities of any kind. I remembered there were 2 sticks of palm trees. For a couple of Aussies who come from a country that's renown for beaches, this patch of sands looked pathetic. We took a dip anyway. There were nothing else to do, and we were feeling very hot. We could have done a skinny dip - a definite no no in Singapore - in broad day light and no body cared. We were the only people around. That was Sentosa Island then. 25 B.T. (Before Today).

It is quite difficult to imagine this piece of prime real estate can remain underdeveloped since. But this was situation in 2.5 decades ago where this island, like Singapore Island itself, was only begun to be developed. Today, Sentosa Island, like much of the rest of Singapore had seen some property development frenzies since my 1st memorable visit.

Sentosa Island is quite unrecognisable today (not nowadays, today, to me). Can't imagine the peacock still walking around here with all these tourist crowds from the surrounding countries. The pillboxes are still here, of course. The beach, well, is anything but empty. In fact, too busy for the eyes, and it's lining with restaurants and bars. Artificial islands were built in the water close to the beach. Shuttle rides take you between different spots on the beach, etc, etc, etc.

Sentosa is a prime prime real estate because it's an island with easy access and proximity to the city CBD. Today you can get to the island in just about any transportation imaginable from the bridge access with car and buses, light-rail to cable car. We bought a ticket package that included the Sentosa Express ride. We bought the ticket and boarded the ride in Vivo City, which is one of the large mall (large malls galore in Singapore).

Vivo City is one of Atta's fave malls for a few reasons. We took Andy for brunch in Kim Gary. Kim Gary is one of the many HK Cantonese food franchise that dotted across Singapore. This is one of the better one. HK food, and Cantonese food in general is quite popular in Singapore. As Cantonese[1] people make up only 15% of the Chinese population[2], most of the local restaurants and eateries sell Hokkien food as majority of Chinese in Singapore speak Hokkien. The popularity of HK franchise doesn't just come from its rarity, but because Cantonese food is simply much more sophisticated - being the capital city - than Hokkien cuisine.

Having said that, Cantonese cuisine, like other international cuisines, in Singapore aren't as authentic as those in Sydney. I hammered this point again and again in my previous entry "Quests for Authenticity". So the Cantonese food here is most likely to be cooked by locals - i.e. Hokkiens, and they taste it. But, many Cantonese and HK franchises hire Cantonese wait staff. In the case of this Kim Gary, I suspect even the kitchen staff are Cantonese. You will find far higher than 15% of Cantonese in these restaurants. Most of them, judging from their Cantonese accents and dialects, come from KL (as supposed to, say, HK). Their food passes Atta critical palette that runs in her family of restaurateurs. Just passable. She said. There're 2 other such HK franchises in Vivo City, but after the first taste tests, she haven't gave them the time of day for another look.

Kim Gary is one of the several restaurants that line the southern side of Vivo City, and you get the view of Sentosa across the narrow strait from the restaurant. The Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) is being near completion when Andy is here. We regularly checked its progress when we eat here. When completed, RWS will have a casino, Universal Studio, hotels, and retail shops.

Kim Gary architectural style is one of those typical HK Cantonese style with Western influence, which reflects its Cantonese and Western fusion food style. It represents the very quintessential Cantonese style of food culture in HK, and they're exported to all corners of Chinese community. There're quite a few trademarked setups in this types of HK franchise that you can instantly spot: booths, glasses that look like vases, fork and knife cutlery (instead of chopsticks), bewildering number of tick-it-yourself menu order forms, etc. You can also typically order a cup of hot coke with lemon (should try it if you haven't. It actually not as bad as it sounds), and a cup of tea and coffee combo (this is more of an acquired taste). These drinks are examples of the very uniquely HK's inventiveness with food.

Another place is a must-visit for us after Kim Gary, and that's our fave Aussie haunt Gloria Jean's. Singapore typically has more, lots more, coffee house brands - in fact brands in general - than Australia. I hammered this point out loud and clear in my previous entry "A Small Kingdom with Big Modern Shops". Despite the many more (American) coffee houses in Singapore, we missed our Gloria Jean's cuppa. The Yanks and Asian drink a weak cuppa coffee, while Aussies enjoy the stronger cup. This isn't at all surprising, before the invasion of US coffee chains like Starbucks, all the owner-operator coffee chops in Australia are run by Southern European, and they're partial for a strong of cup of coffee. So when the Aussie open a coffee chain to compete with the US giants, they make their coffee the way they accustom to - strong and bitter. We can order a double shots in Starbucks or Coffee Beans - we usually do and cost more - but we still prefer Gloria Jean's. Patriotic duty? Nah. Nostalgia? Maybe. Taste? You take the word right out of my mouth! And cheaper. What about this? Starbucks NEVER provide spoons for my cappuccino foam eating ritual. The good old Gloria Jean's does. Without the eating of the foam, what's the point of ordering cappuccino? I ask you! Get real!
[1]I like to make it clear what 'Cantonese' means in this blog (not just this entry). Some people - they're in the minority - use the word 'Cantonese' to mean things related to the province of Canton (or Guangdong in Pinyin). This seems to make sense. But to confuse the foreigners, thought not by design, majority of people use 'Cantonese' to mean the people or food from the capital city of Canton, not the province. The capital city of Guangdong is Guangzhou, and when I - and most people - use the word 'Cantonese', we refer to the food or people of Guangzhou, not Guangdong. Does it matter? It does. Different regions in Guangdong have their distinct cuisines, and Guangzhou (or Cantonese) cuisine is unique and the best in Guangdong province. This isn't surprising as it's the capital city.

[2] My own guesstimate from the Cantonese being spoke in the streets, Cantonese restaurants, etc. Most of the Cantonese come from Malaysia, especially KL where more Cantonese live there than the whole of Malaya Peninsula (again, I'm making educated guesses. But I think I'm right).

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Monday, 5 October 2009

Johor Bahru

Permanent 25 - 50% Discounts on Everything for Singaporeans

sunny 33 °C
When Andy said he was coming to Singapore for the Aussie long weekend on the NSW Labour Day, Atta and meself were scratching our heads to come up with a good itinerary for him. The task was made more challenging because he had been to Singapore before (albeit a good many years, but Singapore isn't China; nothing much had changed during that time maybe except for the cost of living).

So the easiest way out would be taking him out of Singapore, and into JB - the Singapore-Malaysia border town. Since we also haven't been there either - 2 birds with 1 stone (well, 3 birds if birds refers to people).

JB (Johor Bahru) may not look much, but it's Malaysia's 2nd biggest city only after KL (Kulua Lumpur).

We took a train to Woodlands (costs about $1.40 SGD from memory), because on the map, it's the closest station to JB. But one station before Woodlands at Marselling, the MTR's PA told us that we should get off there and took a bus if we wanted to cross the border.

And so we took a bus, got off at the Singapore check point, went through the custom (which took only a jiffy), and then re-joined the same bus to go to the Malaysian check point. Boy, the traffic between the two check points was in a gridlock, and it took about 35 mins what should've taken about 5 mins if there's no congestion that arose from the custom processing of motorists. The bridge that connects the two check points (also known as Malaysia-Singapore Second Link), was built to reduce traffic congestion. Well, looks like we need a second bridge, in addition to the existing 2 links (1 bridge, and 1 Causeway).

Most days in the second half of the year (Jun to Dec) in Singapore is cool and overcast to cloudy. As soon as we got to JB, the sky cleared up. It was as if Malaysia and Singapore has separate skies even if they separated by a very narrow strait.

JB is a fave destinations for Singaporean, going by the long immigration queues and the traffic jam. Since this is weekend and about 10:30AM, all these busy traffic were tourist traffic, not business (not a suits in sight). True is, JB is a popular weekend getaways for Singaporeans. Surely they're not here for the sightseeing, which we covered in less than a day, and on Andy's insistence we covered most of the places on foot.

So what was the attractions? Surely this popular place for shopping for contraband like chewing gums and pirated movies can't account for all the huge traffic that keep these two links in such a chockablock? Well, Singaporeans have 2 passions that Atta shares: shopping and eating out. And what Singaporeans love more than these 2 things are doing them on the cheap. Who doesn't like a discount?

The taxi's flag fall/drop in JB is $3.2, which is identical to Singapore. Except that they're quoted in their own currency. 1 SGD = 2.3 MYR. So the cab-fare in JB Malaysia is less than half of that in Singapore. But not everything is such a steep discount to Singapore. Taxi is labour intensive, and the petrol in Malaysia is much cheaper as it's an oil producing nation. Most of everything is prized similar to HK, which is about 25 to 50% lower than that of Singapore on a currency conversion basis.
If you intend to spend the weekend in Singapore, you save a bundle by going across the border that costs about $5 SGD by public transport. Say, you do some shopping=$100, have a decent lunch=$10, get a haircut, then go to a health spa (or get a haircut at a fancy day spa=$100), then finish off the day with a dinner=$15.

Total spending = 100+10+100+15 = $225
Average discount of 30% = 225 *0.3 = $67.5
Your net saving = $67.5 - $5 = $62.5.

JB might as well stand for 'Just Bargains' for Singaporeans. We would make this a more regular weekend visits from now on.

Footnote: Atta bought 5 bottles of chewing gums (she can't live without chewing gum after a meal. It's part of her dental hygiene routine. I prefer flosses). The 5 boxes of chewing gum in her bag went thru a X-Ray scanner, it wasn't picked up by the operator. Or maybe they simply didn't bother with such a small quantity. The worse thing can happen is that they will keep your gums. There's no penalty. the government isn't making a fuss over it. They do, however take a dimmer view about capsicum or peppered spray, which they're taking more seriously with multiple warnings posted in many places on the walls of the custom area. Because unlike countries like USA where carrying sprays are good idea for women in some cities because of the crime wave. But in Singapore these things are considered offensive weapons rather than defencive devices because public sexual crimes are unheard of in Singapore.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Three Gorges - Day 2

Frankly Madam, I Don't Give a Damn if this Dam is Damn Massive
semi-overcast 31 °C
I was woke up by the voice of a German speaking lady in das schiff! After that, she repeated everything in English. Everything is then repeated in Chinese by a fella. I struggled to lift my heavy eyelids, found myself lying in a bed of ship's cabin, and when looking outside the window, I didn't see landscape of the world renown The Three Gorges (TTG), I saw a grey wall. For a brief moment before I regained my full senses, I thought this is a false awakening.

No. I was very much awake. It's a wall of a lock at the Geshouba Dam - the 1st dam that was built on the Yangtze - and we're queueing up beside a sand barge to go through it as I looked over my cabin's balcony.

As usual on a cruise ship, the organiser tries to map out every minute of your day and filled it with activities. For people who prefer a leisurely pace - standing still - you don't have to do anything. For the active, the ship's full schedule will keep you too busy to complain about the lack of goings-on.
The German frau informed us on the PA that there is Tai-Chi practise on the Sun Deck before breakfast. Of course, I prefer to do it my head in my bed. Give me a good mental workout to work up an appetite.

The breakfast at 7:30 on the Main Deck let us meet all the passengers on this ship for the first time. There was an almost exact 50/50 ethnic divide between the passengers of the East and West in the dining room. Westerners occupied tables on the starboard bow, and the Chinese (looking) passengers on the port bow with buffet tables in the middle. You know which side the ship is tilted towards.

Walked past the reception counter after breakfast, a standard currency exchange rates board showing names of a dozen of countries, but only three currencies have rates indicated: USD, GBP & Euro. It makes sense that most of the (Westerner) passengers would be Yanks because Victoria Cruises is an US management company. Going by the lady in the PA, I guess the passengers from Deutschland would be the ones swapping the Euros for RMBs. Well, didn't have to organise a séance session to summon Agatha Christie from beyond to figure this one out. Another way was simply to eavesdrop them as you walk past the dining tables to pick up the accents - that would be cheating (and slightly creepy; won't be if you do it with a touch of finesse).

Going by the accents of the Chinese looking tourists (ok, I cheat, didn't know how to ask them to show me their passports), they are motley bunch of locals, Taiwanese, and HK citizens (whom I'm with). There you have it, not enough to form an UN assembly, but far from a monolingual horde.
I'm no spring chicken, but the ship of geriatrics does make me feel overwhelmingly like fresh meat. The occidental group averaged, say, circa 55 years old; the oriental gang is younger, especially some Chinese teeny bopper (original marketers usage of the term) skewed the average in our favour. Their parents probably decided to ground them on a ship - best ground ever even if it was unstable.
Ok, back from the rigamarole. After the passing through the lock, we entered the 1st of the 3 Gorges - the Xiling Gorge (西陵峡) - the easternmost of the 3 big gorges as we traversed the Yangtze from east to west. Around 9AM, we disembarked at Sandouping (三斗坪) to visit The DAM - The Three Gorges Dam. It was a misty day, and the visibility was low, the far side of the dam wall was swallowed by the mist, which I supposed would amplify its enormity. When I saw the Aswan Dam in Egypt, which was the biggest dam then, now superseded by this one.

Speaking of Egypt, dam and Agatha Christie, it's only natural to compare this trip with the Egyptian trip I took a few years back - there're more similarities than I can poke a stick at. Both trips are taken on a river cruise ship (the only two I have been to) on a river that is the longest in their own countries (the Nile is the world's longest, and Yangtze the world's third, and Asia's longest), and both famous rivers were crucial to the development of the two great ancient civilisations and it just so happened that they have the world largest dams erected in them (at the time they were built) to overcome the same problem: flooding. Oh yeah, both of these trips are relatively expensive, either comparing to ocean cruises or land travels.

There was one major difference between the two river cruises, though. With the cruise down the Nile, once the ship sailed beyond the cities, there weren't even so much as a palm tree to gawk at outside the cabin windows. The ship was just the best way to get to the many destinations that dotted the Nile. The reverse is true with this trip. Onshore excursions are few, and the destinations come to you. Just crane your neck out of the cabin window. You can watch it from the comfort of your bed or cocktail lounge over a cigar with your feet up and your hair down (or comb-over down like Donald Trump). Perfect for a couple of couch potatoes like us. And perfect after the Guilin trip. This ship is better than the Egyptian one in every way, from its spaciousness, condition, entertainment to food, and last but not least, prices. Well, it's Chinese prices.

The Hutchens Brothers (Peter & Jeff) are right in saying that when the Chinese built this dam, it's as if they sat down and work out how many records they can break with this project, from being the tallest, largest amount of concrete poured to the largest hydroelectricity station, etc. Record breaking infrastructures are common in China these days. If you look up the Guinness Book of Records for the largest trans-oceanic bridge (Hangzhou Bay Bridge), longest arch bridge (Lupu Bridge[1], Shanghai), biggest dam and hydroelectric station (The Three Gorges Dam), fastest trains (Guangzhou to Wuhan averaging 312.5 km/hr on the 922km track), largest cargo port (Shanghai port), largest man-made deep water port (Tianjin), largest Metro System (Shanghai Metro with 420km of tracks and counting), longest high-speed rail (HSR) network with about 6,552km to date, longest river railroad bridge (Beipanjiang, Guizhou), etc, etc, etc - a list that used to take up mostly by the West. The maglev train, developed by Siemens and Thyssenkrupp, operated (and more importantly showcasing) only in Shanghai. This is the kinda infrastructure statement that China is making. The Germans have to come to Shanghai to experience the ride. Not too shabby for a developing economy. Size matters. Absolute size matters absolutely.

This isn't the first time Chinese worked on vast infrastructure project. The US Transcontinental Railroad in USA, considered by some as the 8th Wonder of the World in the 19th Century, was worked on by many Chinese workers that head-hunted from California gold fields ('Gold Mountain') and many more were imported from China. Hired by Central Pacific Railroad, they tunnelled through hard granite of Sierra Nevada mountains, braving the elements like snowstorms. Some of these scenes were recreated in Shanghai Noon (Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson. The Chinese rail workers were uncredited in this movie as they were centuries ago in US history).

The two companies, Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad had a competition to see who could build the fastest, and Central Union, the company that hired most of the Chinese workers won. The UP didn't believe Chinese workers can deliver with such speed (sore loser!), and CP's director reminded UP that the Chinese ancestors built the Great Wall many centuries before. I guess this railroad's terrain is considerably easy compare to the tortuous mountain terrains where the Great Wall slithered on. Still, hundreds, if not thousands, died in building the railway (as were the building of the Wall).

China's GDP is approaching as the 2nd biggest economy in the world this year, surpassing Japan. Thus some people say China should drop its developing or emergent economy status, I say not so fast. Its GDP per capita ranks about 100, roughly similar to the living standard to El Salvador. So if El Salvador has the same population size of China, it too will be the 2nd biggest economy in the world. Sure, China has top-notched infrastructures that are envy of the West, and the modernity of their first tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but it's in the social sphere that this developing economy status sticks: income disparity, low GDP per capita, rampant official corruption, degradation of environment, etc. All the hallmark of a developing economy with social and environmental issues that country like USA faced in the early 20th century and Japan in the post WW2 period where China is now in. The bright side to all of these is that these topics take up the most air time on TV, the most space in newspapers, the most hard rive space on the Internet blogs in China. And the government is putting high priority on these issues. China has to listen to its people as it wants to stay in power. Giving what people want is their only legitimacy. The Communist party doesn't want another Tianamen Square's type of Pro-Democracy Protest.

Because of the size of China, both in terms of population and geography, building big things are second nature. When they build something, in order to satisfy the needs of the population and the land, it simply ends up building the biggest even without trying to break record. If you build a fortification wall across England, take the Hadrian's Wall, it won't end up being be the longest in the world because of Britain's size. China builds the biggest things out of necessity.

I guess the buildings of infrastructures is not only essential, but a great leverage to this stage of China's economic development. Transporting goods is the bottleneck of the world's largest factory, and efficient transport of goods is so crucial to China's industrialisation, and transporting of people is critical to China's urbanisation - the two twin developments go hand in hand, and transportation infrastructures is the vital link (pun intended). Don't think China could achieve an average of 10% GDP growth in the last 3 decades without these cutting-edged infrastructures (another first in the world record). Some of the growth came from the buildings of these infrastructures itself.
Many bonuses (or is it boni?) coming out of these world-class infrastructures, take tourism, can't do it any damn harm. And what about winning the bid to host Olympics Game, and World Expo. Credits have to go to these infrastructures.

All These shouldn't come as a surprise then that many high-level party officials in the Politburo are scientists and engineers. I sleep more soundly when I know the nerdom runs a country like China. Geeks by their very nature are not interested in power, they're more occupied in building things. They're bridge builders, not empire builders. They build bridges, not blowing up bridges. Since 1978, theses technocrats built friendship bridges to the West, not walls. For scaredy cats who freaked out by the current rise of China, please take note, China has the most technocratic government in the world today, and the infrastructures are screaming this fact. Of course when China begins to shift their gears into a developed economy status, the engineers and scientists might be replaced by lawyers and bureaucrats like those in the West. Maybe not. Not in the near future. In the West (at least country with a British system), the lawyers are trained to persuade jury to their sides in the courtrooms, and as a politician, the same skills can be applied to win the voters to their sides in the living rooms (via TV). I guess Hollywood actors (Ronald Reagan, Big Arnie, etc) win over voters using their looks, charms and celebrity status. They already have a fan base, which morphs naturally into supporters. Since there's no one-person-one-vote system, don't know exactly what criteria do they base to vote a political candidate into the communist party. "Geeks rules ok!" although you won't see that graffiti in China. But you might be surprise.

Technocracy was a popular movement in USA in the 1930, perhaps also because China is in a similar stage of the USA's economic development then. Many problems are needed to be solved by technology. Only when all these technological problems are addressed would China get their handle on the social problems. Of course, these things can and are occurring concurrently, it's just one is receiving more focus than the other. "One thing at a time, please. I only have two hands!"

The idea of this dam went as far back as Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who came up with the idea. With the financial, engineering and technical issues it faced at the time, the construction is nothing but a pipe dream (The 'pipe' refers to the opium pipe). By the 1990's, the vision is no longer a piped dream, and the construction begun in earnest.

This damn dam is the largest in the world, matched only by its potential challenges - silt buildup, garbage pile-up (because it's now a lake, not a river), ecological damage, etc, etc. Actually we tend to think of dam as being infrastructure, and it is because of its navigational function and the hydroelectric scheme. But more than any reason, the dam was built to control the flood. People complaint that many village had been relocated. When (not if) the flood comes, many villages would be devastated. Relocation by man is preferable than devastation by nature.

Back to the ship, the lull of a lazy afternoon was interrupted with activities like information sessions on the history and geography of the Yangtze, followed by presentations of snuff bottle, silk embroidery, and Chinese painting, and especially how these arts and crafts were made.

After dinner, a Dynasties Parade was shown where the "crew models a variety of Chinese costumes from the Han Dynasty to the present". This should be interesting for Sinophiles and fashionistas/fashionistos alike. It's right up my runway/alley. Even if you these things don't appeal to you, the eye candies might be sights for your sore eyes. In addition to a few selected dynasties, the crew also strutted down the stage in costumes of the Chinese ethnic minorities (sometimes is referred to as 'nationalities'). 'Nationality' in some cases sometimes spot on by the traditional use of the word. Koreans who live on the west side of the Yalu River[2] are considered an ethnic Chinese minority or nationality. True can be said about many other minorities who have their own independent countries until they decided to take over China, and became a Chinese minority as an outcome. When a snake tries to swallow an elephant, it ends up being an elephant (no negative connotation of a snake is intended). I've seen this done in a cartoon. I blabbed about this minority business in great length in my Guilin (Days 3 & 4) diary entry from last week. I'm glad that I've clued up further about the Chinese minorities during these two consecutive trips.

I've always find the young Tang male costume so dandy, and so befitting of the young playboys of these ancient times. The playboys are learned scholars who sought to indulge in fine rice wine and reciting poems (with cup in one hand and fan another. Let's say they have busy hands), sometimes in the company (or for the sake) of beautiful maidens.

When this lovely young maiden (I presumptuously presumed) strutted in the Tibetan traditional costume, I heard cries of "Look, cowboy hat!" in the audience in American accent. If the same girl walks in Texas (or swaggers as ex-president George W. Bush said that was how Texans walk - the 'The Duke' John Wayne's way), I think the cries becomes "Look, Tibetan costume!". Now that they were in China, the familiar becomes surprising.

I'm not 100% sure that this girl modelled an Uyghur costume. It was too dark, and I was too busy taking photos and notes the same time. This conclusion was based on my home-brew research afterwards (can be of top-class quality). The round cap, the two long ponytails, and the embroidered black vest nails it for me. ID it is never easy as there're umpteen variations in any genre of clothing fashion, may it be of a particular ethnic group or period. But this particular piece isn't too hard to ID - it was chosen to typify the costume of the Uyghur people. What I'm 100% certain is that she's no Uyghur, but a Han girl (99.5% definite without the aid of DNA testing (which won't give you 100% accuracy anyway). Eyeballing is a very old schooled technique, sometimes it does the job nicely). There are also other ethnic minority people in Xinjiang who wear similar traditional costumes, but I'll stick to my gun on this.

You can easily tell that these models are obviously amateurs. They all wore cheerful grins on their faces. A professional model strictly wears a poker face that says, "all the millions won't make me crack a smile to you poor slobs below".
[1] For my Sydney mates, Lupu Bridge, just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is a single arch bridge. And just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Lupu Bridge is a tourist attraction. That is, tourists can climb up the bridge and have a panoramic view of the Huangpu River and Shanghai city. The one major architectural difference between the two bridges is this. The two arches in the Sydney Harbour Bridge run parallel to each other while the Lupu Bridge ones lean towards one another at the top.

[2] The Korean called Yalu River Amnok River. It's the river that forms part of the border between China and Korean. A bit like the Murray River that makes up part of the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria (most of it anyway) states of Australia.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Three Gorges - Day 1

The Emporer's New Clothes

semi-overcast 30 °C
We were flown by Dragon Air in the early afternoon and arrived Yichang (宜昌) - a city of Hubei Province (湖北) - in the late afternoon. For Chinese history bluff, Yichang is made famous by the Warring States Period, and the Three Kingdoms Era. And just when my bums are nicely tenderised from all the seating, we get on a coach that took us from Yichang to the capital city of Hubei - Wuhan (武汉). The coach wasn't the top of the line, but it was kind enough to my backside and the rump area for me to last about 5 hours when we reached Wuhan at the wee hours in the morning.
This is where we boarded Victoria Anna on the Yangtze. This is also not so far from where Emperor Mao took his historic swim - a piece of theatre he performed during the onset of the Cultural Revolution - to show that he was still in tiptop shape and still can run the country (into the ground, one more time) at the age of 72 in 1966. In short, to show that he still got it - the right stuff. A show that he pulled off to fire up the testosterone of the adolescent suckers that otherwise better known as the Red Guards into doing some killings and shaming spree of their elders, between the demolition of priceless cultural relics, and arson rampage. The country went nuts because some people just didn't know the art of retiring gracefully and enjoy their twilight years in some tropical idyllic island like Hainan, sipping a colourful glass of pina colada or oolong tea.

"A man's got to know his limitations" - Dirty Harry in Magnum Force (1973).

Yes, I'm mad at the madness. Livid with bulging veins that ready to pop and short out the keyboard!'s good to get that diatribe out of the system.

Look at him stand there like a Mount Tai, so imposing and larger than life. I can't stay mad at him. It's all forgotten and forgiven. Truly, from the bottom of my fickle heart.


Look at that cute baby face, my heart has just melted. Who can get angry at a face like that? I love the Red Guards.

One noted event of the Cultural Revolution was the Wuhan Incident that was the closest thing to a civil war. These two cities are full of interesting histories, both ancient and modern (all Chinese kids know about the stories of The Three Kingdoms). Not that we can see much in this light, or have the opportunity to do so. It's a shame.

I'm totally knackered from the whole day of resting on plane and coach, I'm so relieved I can finally stretch my body out flat as nature intended me to rest, not in a 'L', or 'C' or 'V' shape, or other letters in the alphabets

Friday, 18 September 2009

HK - Day 2 - Mini Paris

of Swines and men

semi-overcast 34 °C
We returned HK for the second day, stay the night, and fly out tomorrow for our second package tour (also with Wing On) of the Three Gorges. This Wing On packaged tour is considerably more expensive than the previous Guilin tour we just took last week. Much more, in fact, it costs us close to 11,860 HKD while the Guilin package costs 3,600. It is 11860/3600 = 3.3 times dearer. (just like Guilin package, the price is all inclusive, no more to pay). This package cost more because the accommodation for this trip is entirely confined on Victoria Anna - the largest cruise ship sailing on The Three Gorges. A bigger and newer Victoria cruise ship is going to be launched next week, but we've just missed the booking. Victoria Anna is rated 5-star, and what's more, it's run by a company of the US of A, hence the stiff price tag relative to the local operators. You pay for what you get.

Because of scare of yet another flu pandemic hitting HK - last time was bird flu (H5N1), and this time mutant swine flu (H1N1) - HK was put on high alert from the thermal scanning of passengers, and the availability of free facemasks in the airport to the various hygienic measures that are put in place in Fraser's Suites. The buttons in lifts are taped over with a thick clear plastic to facilitate cleaning and disinfecting, and anti-microbial station that dispensing hand gel is provided freely in the reception for hotel guests wanting to disinfecting their hands. After the last SARS panic, it looks like HK is better equipped for another attack of the pandemic flu (than some, say, Mexico). People are wearing facemasks in droves in the crowded streets of HK, one group of primary school children are all wearing facemasks while holding hands as they crossed the streets - the kinda images I've only seen on TV news or Steven King's movies, and not quite travel brochure photo materials.
An interesting side note: the origins of both pandemic outbreaks occurred on similar latitudes (Guangdong, Southern China, and Mexico).

We barely has half a day left in HK, so only the most basic necessities of life can be entertained, and that automatically means an encore visit to Sunny Paradise (yeepee!), and dinner. After some discussions on the bewildering choices of restaurants in this food paradise of the Pearl of the Orient, we decided to try out the third Vietnamese restaurant we discovered in Wanchai because it's only 3 tram stops away (150 m) from the stop right outside Fraser's Suites, Wanchai.

This city block on Hennessy Road (bordering western Causeway Bay) probably has the highest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants. (Fraser's Suites actually locates on Johnston Rd, but when Johnston Rd merges into Hennessy Rd, so does the tramline). We have checked out Pho Tai (275-285 Hennessy Rd) and Pho Saigon (319 Hennessy Rd) a few months back, and have talked about sampling the third, Mini Paris (333-335 Hennessy Rd) for completeness. Opinions about these other two pho eateries was immortalised in my previous diary entry "Quests for Authenticity" dated 2 months ago.

Mini Paris is smacked bang almost in the middle of the two others in terms of authenticity, and standard of tastes (but not geographically). My advice is simple: stick with the good old Pho Saigon if you want to try out reasonable genuine Vietnamese food in this nick of HK Island. Like Pho Saigon, There are a few other Mini Paris' around HK. Don't know if they're chain stores or franchises. So you still can get to one if you aren't around Wanchai.

Of course, if you want the best and authentic Vietnamese food, either go to Vietnam, or one of the many Vietnamese 'enclaves' in Australia. Cabramatta in Sydney tops the list for me. I'm sure USA has similar places, but forget Paris (not a typo, nor a Hollywood romantic comedy title with Billy Crystal)!!! I mean it! It's an unpleasant surprise, in fact, a SHOCKER! Why the shock?
1. Paris is the food capital of Europe. So I believe.
2. France was a former colony of Vietnam. I grew up on Chinese, Vietnamese, and French food.
It just makes no sense! Actually I have an explanation in the above mentioned action and boring rambling packed diary entry "Quests for Authenticity" (Come on, I double dare you to read it. It's sure beat a sleep pill hands down if you suffer from insomnia. That's my iron-clad guarantee, and best of all, it's free of charge).

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Thursday, 17 September 2009

Guilin - Day 4 - Peach Blossom Garden, Crown Cave

Region Where Minority is the Majority. Strong As Zhuang.

semi-overcast 30 °C
Our first stop this morning is a ethnic cultural theme park. This kinda ethnic park almost always included in a Guangxi province tour package. After all, Guangxi official name is Guangxi Zhang Autonomous Region. China has 5 autonomous regions. A casual glance at the map of China would have detected that all these autonomous regions are on the landlocked fringes of China, bordering with other countires, naturally. Because once upon a time, some of them were other countries. Except for Ningxia, which in a sense borders with another country as Inner Mongolia was not part of China before Gengis Khan.

Another Chinese ethnic minority was the Manchu (or Manchurian) who ruled China, and are absorbed into China like Inner Mongolia. Where's Manchuria Autonomous Region? The Manchuria 'autonomous region' is composed of three dumplings-eating provinces that sits at the north east corner of China, which border Inner Mongolia, Russia, and Korea. It's a cultural diverse region.

Another province that inhabited by a large population of ethnic minority group is Yunnan and it borders with Thailand, Myanma, Loas and Vietnam. So why Yunnan and the provinces in the north east most of China aren't autonomous regions? They should be. But they are not. I could only speculate that it's due to the complex Chinese historical and political background. With the Manchu, its people and culture are being assimilated into China. Or to be precise, when the Manchus conquered China, they desperately wanted to be integrated into Chinese culture to bring harmoby (and thus stability) to the Qing Dynasty (and the policy worked out well).

Think of Catherine The Great who was a German princess. In the funny days of old, she didn't have to learn Russian to rule Russia. But she chose to taught herself the Russian language, and even joined the Russian Orthodox to go an extra mile to show her faith (in God and country). This won her brownie points with the Russian people.

The Manchu emperors actively adopted the Han-Manchu One-Family policy. The Manchu-Han Imperial Feast (滿漢全席) is one of the grandest meals ever documented in history that consisted of 108 unique dishes to cement this idea/relationship. Qing Dynasty wasn't overthrown the way Yuan Dynasty was because the ruling elits of the imperial court weren't Han Chinese. The Manchurian Qing Dynasty crumbled because the dynastic era has past its used-by date. Way passed. Not just because since 18th century saw monarchies in all corners of the world handing power over to the people's representatives, but over the long stretch of Chinese history (the longest in the world), there wasn't a single dynasty that have survived more 3.5 centuries, and the last dynasty of China was pushing this envelop, and had proved to be an unbreakable barrier.

Ever since I watched Klingon on Star Trek in the 1980's (never heard of them before that), thoughts of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire would just pop up in my head (the way I can't hear Strass' Also Sprach Zarathustra without thinking of the famous scene from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. These two items are inexplicably linked like two peas in a pod). I'm certain that the Klingon Empire is a thin veil of the Mongol Empire - a highly civilized, militaristic, disciplined, empire-building barbarians.

Maybe 'Klingon' should be called 'Molgon', but that would be way too obvious, and an insult to the Trekkie's intelligence (and they're a bunch of M & M). I speculate the 'K' in 'Klingon' may have reference to 'Khan'. So we should get Klangon, but Klingon sounds better, and it also sounds like 'cling on' or 'Clinton'. Trekkie should also be a very tolerant bunch too. After all, if they are accepting of many ET races, they would have no problem embracing terrestrial intelligences or otherwise. I suspect Trekkie loves all thing foreign and strange.

When the Klingons live among human (or Humaan as the Ferengi's derogatory term for us or Earthlings by Klingons), I'm thinking Worf or B'Elanna Torres, they would become (not 'assimulated' like the Borg's method) one of us. So too was what happen to Mongolian living among Chinese.

I can't imagine anyone enjoys travelling aren't also Trekkers (Star Trek fans) unless they are thinking Star Trek is about science and have no interest in such thing (nope, you don't have to be a 40 year-old virgin or hold a passport to nerdom to enjoy it). Star Trek is sci-fi, to be sure, oh Danny Boy, to be sure. Or you can be a closet Trekker and watch it in the basement (more like a dungoen Trekkie). But there's more (don't you want more?), Star Trek is about different groups of people (be it alien or not) interacting with one another.

The myriad alien races in Star Trek are modelled on different groups of people on Earth. Klingon are based on Mongols; Vulcan are likely to have drawn from the Indian and Greek's Ascetics whose worldly pleasures and emotions are abstained and given way to the pursuit of spiritual intellect; the Borg are modelled on the bee and/or ant colony, and the use of terms like hive and drone removes all doubts. The closest human society could be a totalitarian extreme left or right wing Communist/Fascist nationalistiic regime where the collective conformity overrides individuality, the good of the state far outweighs the rights of the individuals; the Ferangi is inspired by the Carpetbaggers circa 19th century USA, and so forth, limited by only the imagination. The international cast/intergalactic crew of the USS Enterprise isn't just a cosmic coincidence. This international crew that includes Afro-American and Asian was light-years ahead in Hollywood lore.

Journey to the West (西游记) - a 16th Chinese literature classic - is probably the original Star Trek.
It's inspired by the harsh pilgrimage of the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang[1] to India.
Instead of a trek to the far reaches of space, it's an arduous and perilous journey to the remote West over the Himalayas. In fact, the West in this magnum opus refers not so much to the geographical compass point but the West Heaven in India or sky (aka space).

Instead of a diverse international crew that led by a ship captain, it's a band of motley disciples - Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy - headed by the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang. Instead of exploring and gathering knowledge, the Chinese gang are fetching the holy scriptures (both are 'fact finding' missions). Instead of fantastical alien encounters in far-flung space, the Chinese version has far-fetched, whimsical encounters in distant land. Instead of fantastic, bizzare alien races and creatrues, this Ming's novel has wacky, weird and outlandish demons, goblins, and creatrues of all sorts. Both are stuffed with adventures into the depth of unknowns.

Since the band of guardians in Journey to the West are reluctant followers who are flawed and disreputable characters at the start of the story. In this 'plot line', it's most akin to Star Trek: Voyager where most of the senior crews are made up of the the Marquis who consists of disreputable characters in the beginning, and are grudgingly serving under Captain Janeway (the counterpart of Tang Sanzhang). In both cases, a mutiny are constantly brewing under the surface as they are unwillingly follow their leaders to the end of the earth/universe while harbouring their own hidden agendas. At the end of the journey (home/West), Janeway/Tripitaka has helped the crews/disciples to resovle their hostilities and differences, redeem them, turn them into good guys, and into two happy family/ies.

Ah yes, Journey to the West story is peppered with all manner of things like spartial manipulation, time travel and temporal discrepancies between Heaven and Earth, teleportation, and many out-of-this-world concepts that have became the standard bag of tricks in today sci-fi, all these are entertained in the this inventive 16th century tome. I was enthralled by Journey to the West as a kid the way I'm captivated by Star Trek as an adult (kid at heart).

It's no wonder why Star Trek is so popular, its theme and storyline mirrors to a literature masterpiece that has tested and survived after 5 centuries with its timeless quality and theme. This topic of heroic journey of spiritual growth and of self-discovery is popular of late as evident in TV programs like Lost and Heroes. (Heroes - what an orginal names in a retro-classic kinda way). Parrelles of Lost and Star Trek exists on many dimensions (pun intended). Lost could well have been written by Star Trek writers. We are suckers for this kinda heroic, spiritual pilgrimage, retold ad infinitum (Recycling is very fashionable nowadays).

For readers who are fascinated by the conflicts among various Chinese ethnic groups might want to read this travel article as well.

Where was I? Oh yeah, back to China. This ethnic cultural park, Peach Blossom Garden (桃花源), showcases the cultural architectures, artefacts and peoples of various major ethnic minority groups in Guangxi. If you ask me, I would prefer to see one real ethnic village than a dozen ethnic tourist display villages. I think the name for this park in the similar westerner tour packages might have been called "Peach Blossom Shangri-la", but I'm not sure.

Female Zhuang minority group playing traditional stringed musical instrument ,Yangshuo, Guangxi, ChinaAs we were free to explore the park, the tour guide didn't accompany us to do running commentaries (like a tennis match). So we were left clueless about the various minority groups roaming around the park. I took this photo and left to my own device to find out who these lovely gals were. The research can be a formidable task when you considering how many minority groups there are in China. Officially there 55 minority groups in China, give or take. This number is a very broad stroke, and the actually number can be a lot higher depending on the classification criteria.

Take Taiwan, it has approx 26 known Taiwanese Aborigines languages, which implies the Formosa Island has at least 26 ethnic groups, and the number should likely be higher. But PRC government count all Taiwanese Aborigines as one group. Think of a country like Vietnam, which has only a fraction the size of China has recognized 54 distinct ethnic groups. Some of the groups like the Yao that you met in my last diary entry, and the Miao, etc live in both countries. If Chinese authority sorts its ethnic groupings the way the Vietnamese or Taiwanese government does, the figure would get bumped up several times over. Indeed, there are many sub-divisions within the Yao people that Chinese authority simply lumps them into as one. Maybe it's a good thing because the diversity simply boggles the mind.

Undaunted, I thought I do the research by narrowly the research with some deliberation. First, not all ethnic minorities in China live in Guangxi. Duh. Even then, there still left with quite a number of minority groups (probably more than 20). I further narrowed it to the largest and most familiar groups - the Zhuangs (壮族), Yaos (瑶族), Miaos (苗族), and Dongs (侗族). I actually heard about the Miao people of Vietnam way back when I was still in my primary school in Vietnam, but didn't know that they also live in China. Starting with my first search of Zhuang, I hit the jackpot right away - I was able to identify costumes of the girls in the photo as the Zhuang people. After all, the official name for this province is "Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region". The Zhuang is not only the largest group in this province, but in fact, the largest in China - some 16 millions strong (Zhuang = 'Strong' in Chinese).

Most minorities have very colourful and flamboyant costumes, the Zhuang traditional dresses are quite simple, typically black and blue. The top looks like a top half of a short-sleeved qipao that are ever so popular in the West.

The unique wooden architecture is the famous Drum Tower of the Dong people. If you have already read my diary entry on "Guilin - Day 2", you would have thought this is a Yao costume (with slight variation), but in fact a Dong costume. That's the thing about this sort of ethnic park, there're different ethnic people walking around different places leaving the tourists like me can't make heads or tails - actually Yaos or Dongs - out of this place. This tower has 5 tiers of roofs, some have many more - as many as 20.

We headed for yet another cave in the arvo. 3 caves in 3 days in a row. I have never been so caved out, especially that I'm not a cave man - I mean a cave person (a civilised cave man). Don't bore me with another set of calcium carbonate formations, I said to myself. This one called the Crown Cave. Having seen Silver Cave 2 days ago, it takes a great deal to win me over.

The Crown Cave didn't top Silver Cave, but it has its own charm. I wasn't as disappointed as I have with Fengyu Cave that I went yesterday. Instead of trekking the cave in more or less horizontally, we ascend as we proceed deep into the cave. As we entered the cave's centre piece, standing at the bottom, the steep stairs led our eyes skyward towards the tall and impressive limestone columns on top of the stairs. It reached the top of a very high cave ceiling, with its limestones structures adorn the columns like intricate, exquisite carvings of some Renaissance genius sculptors. For an European, this probably reminds them of a cathedral with soaring columns and vaults. To me, it looks almost exactly like the underwater palace of the Dragon King of the East Sea (東海龍王) that I remember from Chinese movies. Quite spooky and stunning.

We finished the night with the watching of "Impression Liu Sanjie" ("Liu's 3rd Sister" 刘三姐). The show takes place in the open with the backdrop of the picturesque Guilin limestone karsts. The 'stage' is an inlet surrounded by seven limestone hills. Because it takes place at night, several karsts were light up with flood lights. They took on an eerily magical and translucent quality - imagine shine a torch light onto your face from below your chin in the dark. Yep, that same eerily ambience of a ghost story telling writ large provides the backdrop for the show. Most of the dancers perform in water, and I was told they do this all year round. My guide told me that one of his Harbin tourist member told him that winter here is colder than Harbin - the famous City of Ice Festival in the North (in 'Manchuria'). I find it hard to swallow, but what is even more incrediable is that the actors do their performances in water scantily clad. Many performers are fishermen by day, which explains their constitution of an ox that we mere mortals can only admire them from afar in quiet awe, followed by some loud applause. As impressive as these feats of physical endurance, these kinda things come natural to them, what is impressive is asking the farmers and fishermen to turn into performers, which is not something that come natural to them. Isn't this the developing story of China today? While China is trying to turn farmers into factory hands, Zhang turn them into stage performers.

Because the show was done in open air, the audience is susceptible to weather elements and other not so pleasant random Acts of God. It showered before the show started and we were given raincoats at the entrance. Our spirits weren't dampened. Our guide cheered us up by saying that the light rain adds atmosphere. He wasn't too far off the mark.

This show was created and directed by the ever so popular Zhang Yimou. Anyone who had sampled his movies and watched the 2008 Beijing Opening Ceremony knows about his handiworks. I watched the Opening Ceremony and nearly all his subsequent movies starting from "Raise The Red Lantern"2 (Gong Li gave a commanding performance), which introduced me to his cinemas. So I held high expectation of this show, and it was was met with resounding success; it delivered one visually stunning images after another of the highest calibre. Stylish, visual poetry. You don't have to be a part-time stock photgrapher turned casual shutterbug like me to appreciate the sumptuous feast for the eyes, and an awe matched only by the physical fortitude of the performers. Not surprisingly it was photography that save Zhang from slipping into oblivion. Truth be told, as a short-attention-span movie watcher, I found the absence of narrative a bit slow going. But this is just me, and it also explains my general boredom with staged performances of several kinds. Overall, the show is a must-see (despite my attention deficit). If you can stay focus, the performance is quite captivating and magical, the atmosphere dreamy, transporting you to another world. It costs $50 SGD/AUD if my memory serves. It's a China price.
This Chinese tourist operator website should offer clues on what I was talking about. Open the images on the left hand side of the webpage to get a better view.媒体

Zhang also created 3 other similar shows at 3 other Chinese tourist icons. According to the guide, "Impression Liu Sanjie" is the first and still the best. This show reminds me of the Light and Sound show at the Pyramid of Giza. Perhaps, Zhang got the idea from there3. The Pyramid and the Sphinx was light up with multicolour light and given it that translucent feel, not dissmilar to the limestone karst. The lightup of these Egyptian icons was spectacular and impressive, but the rest of the 'show' consisted of a giant video screen showing some dramatised doco. This part is a bit passe and when compare the Liu Sanjie performnces, it's quite lame. The narrator of the video sounded too 1930's with its over-the-top theatrical voice. Sorry! It was quite embarrassing. Replace the narrator with a Shakespearean actor and it would tone down its theatrical decibles by a few notches. Providing some live performances like Impression Liu Sanjie would have been better. Of course, you don't go to Egypt to see this lame show. But as some world tourism official suggest, if there's one show you should fly there to see, it would be "Impression Liu Sanjie". I wouldn't. But then stage performance isn't my cup of tea.
[1] Tang Sanzang (or Xuanzang) 唐三藏, Tripitaka in Sanskrit. 'Tri' = 3 = 三 = san in Chinese. In Japanese, 3 = san as in "San Yo" = "3 oceans". In Korean, 3 = Sam, as in "Sam Sung" = "3 stars". 'Zang' is a category in Buddhist Canon.
'San' (山) can also be 'montain' in Chinese, Japanese or Korean. Although the character '山' is written the same, Chinese pinyin uses 'shan', not 'san'.

Learning Chinese is useful in learning other Sinopheric countries like Japan, Korea and Vietnam the way knowing Latin is helpful in learning European languages in general. To put it another way, Chinese language provides roots to these East Asian countries just as Latin does for European nations.
釜山 = Busan, also spelled Pusan, is a city in the south of South Korea.
泰山 = Taishan or Mount Tai, is an important sacred montain in China's Shandong province (yes, 'Shan' in 'Shandong' = mountain. 'Shandong' is mount in the East).
富士山 = Fujisan or Mount Fuji - the icon of Japan. Also can be written as Fujiyama where 'yama' = 'mountain' in Japanese demotic. In English, you get the word 'liberty' from French and the word
'freedom' from some other language, which I'm too lazy to look up. Look it up yourself.

[2] This movie is considered one of 25 movies you must watch before you die. And Guilin HAS to be one of the 25 destinations you must visit before you die. So 2 birds with 1 stone when you visit Guilin.

[3] Actually, I don't believe Zhang got his inspiration from the Light and Sound show from Egypt, at least, not just from that. In the 1960 China made a musical called "Liu Sanjie", and it was as popular among the Chinese population as "The Sound of Music" is to the West, which, by the way was made only one year earlier in 1959. These 2 classics affected the same generation of musical lovers in both hemispheres. Like "The Sound of Music" where anyone who watched it can sing the show tune by hearts (I can, and I only watched it 3 times. A record low number by comparison), the songs in "Liu Sanjie" are familiar by all Chinese who watched it. Of course, this "Liu Sanjie" is made in the 1960, and so it's a pure propaganda film. One should be able to watch a movie purely from its artistic standpoint, and ignore its ideological message (especially that you're already aware of its intention). What was the story of "The Sound of Music" anyway? Something to do with some Von Trapp family?

I'm going to get myself a copy of "Liu Sanjie" to watch to complete my experience. I suspect it's not going to be easy (unlike "The Sound of Music"). The backdrops of these two musicals are enough reason to watch them. This "Liu Sanjie" nusical was shot in 1960 probably free of the pollution from the industrialization that both saving and ruining China today.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Guilin - Day 3 - Fengyu Cave, Yao Minority

A picture that worths 20 Yuan

semi-overcast 30 °C
When we say we're going to Guilin to see the world renown limestone karst landscapes, we actually mean Yangshuo where most of these geological wonders are heavily jostled one another for attention of wide-eyed, mouth-gaping admirers. The coach trip allowed us to have a whirlwind view of these amazing landscape as we entered deep into the Yangshuo country and finally to the Li River for a trip on the bamboo raft. The trip can't be considered complete without being floated across the Lijiang on a bamboo raft.

The 2005 edition of RMB banknotes contain heads of people on one side, and famous scenic spots on the reverse side. The drawing of Guilin karsts with its mirror reflections on Li River (don't forget the fisherman on the raft) is on the reverse side of a 20 Yuan banknote. The picture of the national treasure of Guilin hence worths 20 Yuan multiplies by the number of issued notes in circulation = a few billion Yuans. Bill Clinton once commented that the scenery of Guilin reminded him of the Chinese brush painting the most while he dropped into this place (by Air Force One) during his premature presidency.

Speaking of RMB banknotes, it has been few months since I heard the news about the counterfeit 100 Yuan notes with serial numbers beginning with HD90. It was said to have first appeared in Yangjiang and Guangdong and was suspected that they made their way from Taiwan. But the counterfeit ring has yet to be apprehended. We decided to swap some RMBs before we departed Singapore in a money changer in Pearl Centre in Chinatown (Singapore is one of the few countries where bank branches don't do forex). We were told that this money changer gives good rates, and I don't doubt that as Chinatown is a haven for bargain. There are a few money changers here, a few were run by Indians. The long queue at one of the money changers signalled me that this must be the one, and a few quick enquiries confirmed that they do give very competitive exchange rates. When I was handed a stack of 100 Yuan notes, I asked if I can have other denominations. The staff said they ran out of other denominations and re-assured me by putting it through a money counting machine. She explained that this machine can detect the fake 100 Yuan notes. I saw a label on the machine that says, "this machine detects counterfeit 100 Yuan notes". Of course I trust the shop as it's an old shop and this is Singapore after all! Just out of curiosity, I checked the serial numbers and none started with HD90.

When we bought some souvenirs in Yangshuo, our 100 Yuan note get a free forensic treatment: it was held up in the sky to check for watermarks and looked at from different angles for the holograms and other built-in counterfeit measures. And the vendor didn't show any favouritism, every note from a 100 down to 5 Yuan get a thorough strip search with her detective eyes.

They can solve all these problem by simply adopting plastic banknotes - a technology from a Melbourne firm Note Printing Australia, invented by professor David Solomon of CSIRO (nothing to do with CSI). NPA also applies similar technology to the Australian passport. To forge these plastic banknotes requires cutting edge propriety technology, and not to mention the very expensive hardware. The start up cost is very high. It's that, and not just the polymer technology that minimises if not prevents counterfeiting entirely. It's practically impossible to forge. Some of the counterfeiters of US currencies in S. America run their operations in their basement or garage. I don't think they can do that with polymer money.

Singapore already has its SGD polymerised. My wallet now contains a curious mixture of paper and polymer cash, sitting side by side in my wallet in perfect harmony like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. The mixture of paper banknotes and its polymer alter-ego suggests that the new plastic notes are introduced relatively recent and the paper SGD bills haven't completely been removed from the circulation just yet. As far as I can tell, no polymer 50 SGD banknotes have yet been printed (not that there're a whole of 50's flying through my hot little hands). Polymer money has all the advantages over paper ones except for the traditional smell of money (some would say another advantage). More than 15 countries are already on board with this polymer banknotes the last time I heard. The countries taken up these polymer trend should be on the up and up.

Okie dokie, back to my trip. As more and more local villagers in China are migrating to the cities - the largest human migration in history - for a better living, they are leaving their traditional ways of life behind. Many traditional way of life is surviving because of tourism. The Guilin cormorant fisherman of is an example. They now perform for the tourists as they fish (or as their file of cormorant soldiers fish). Some people say this kind of survival is superficial. You either put the tradition on artificial life support or let it die. Most people prefer the drips ("Pull the plug and let me RIP, come on papa!", "Over my cold dead body, sorry my lil'uns! Over my cryogenic body...")

Fisherman lifing a cormorant from water after its catch, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China

Fisherman lifts a cormorant from water after its catch, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
This fisherman has 4 sidekicks. He lifted one of the foot soldier that just caught a fish in its throat with his bamboo pole. Cormorants - several species - are quite common in Sydney (probably a common bird around the world). You can find them anywhere near water in Sydney. I even spotted a few of them in the artificial pond just outside Sega World building in Darling Harbour. But I've never seen a white one. When I spotted this white one on the left of the raft, I jumped the gun and thought it's a lazy, sitting duck getting a free ride on the raft. A zooming in of the photo revealed that it's a cormorant. If I'm not wrong, this is a youngling, and after moulting its white feathers (as seen by the snow flakes all over its feet) it would turn into a black adult (Michael Jackson in reverse. Moon walking?). Some speckles of black feather already appear on its neck.

Fisherman removing a fish from the cormorant's throat, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
Fisherman removing a fish from the cormorant's throat, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
A fish is being removed from the cormorant's throat. He then put the fish back into water, not his basket. He's not fishing, but performing. In fact, no basket on his raft to be seen.

We destined Fengyu ("Abundant Fish") Cave, about 95km from Guilin in the afternoon. The cave was nice, but it didn't top what I saw yesterday in Silver Cave. Far from it. So you get fed a dose of anti-climax. Since the cave spans 9 hills, I dildn't think we were going to cover its whole length on foot (for the sake of a few of elderlies in our tour group. OK, for my sake, I was overtaken by few sexagenarians and even a septuagenarian on more than one occasions. Should have tailed them closely to take advantage of their slipstream. Swoosh). After an hour or so of spelunking on foot, we arrived at a cave harbour to board a canoe, which traversed a subterranean river for the rest of the trip. There was no light and we were given torches to shine on the cave walls as we cruised along. The darkness adds some mystery and thrill. Some parts of the cave are so low that if we didn't have the torches we would suffer severe headaches several times before we exited the cave. Only kowtowing to these million years old stalactites saved us from having freshly bruised heads.

After dinner, our hotel provide some evening entertainment performed by the Yao (瑤族) minority people. Numbered in 2.6 million, they are mountain people, tree lovers.

Yao women performing their traditional dance, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
Yao women performing their traditional dance, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China.

The Yaos' costume is quite diverse, but the blue and black is quite popular. These little black numbers that these girls are wearing consists of collarless jackets with plaited skirts, fringed by beautiful Yao's traditional silk embroidery and brocades. These dresses are good for dancing, knitting, sewing, working, shopping, dating or simply for a leisurely walk in the English countryside, available at all good Yao households.

Speaking of dating, a lot of these Yao gals (and a few other minorities) get dates (boys, not fruits) by singing, usually across the river. The tourists would get to see these in action as mountain songs are being sung while we floated gently across the river. Other times, we were asked to belt our these folk ballads ourselves, killing the songs and the tranquil ambience the same time - 2 birds with 1 stone (or the equivalent Chinese expression "2 condors with 1 arrow". Hang on a cotton picking minute, they're both Chinese expressions!).

Most Yao people live in the south west regions of China spanning Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong, but heavily concentrated in Guangxi. They also live in Vietnam, Thailand, and Loas, not surprisingly as these countries bordering south and south west China where Yao people dwell. In Vietnam, the Yao is called Dao (and pronounced the same as Yao. 'D' in Vietnamese is pronounced identically to 'y' in English). As the consequences of the Vietname War (meself is one such inconsequential individual in such historical consequence), some Yaos are now living in USA. Most live in the west coast of the U.S. in the states of Washington (not D.C.), Oregon and California, making California more diverse than one can possibly imagine.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Guilin - Day 2 - Jingjiang Palace, Silver Cave

If I speak Mandarin, Look Like a Mandarin, Walk Like a Duck...Am I a Mandarin Duck?

semi-overcast 34 °C

Jingjiang Palace/Castle and Mausoleum was our first morning stop. This is one of the optional tour.
This palace belonged to King Jingjiang (not Emperor, of the Ming Dynasty, but his brother). During the 257 years from the building of the palace to the end of Ming Dynasty, 14 kings from 12 generations lived here.

One of the buildings in this palace complex that I didn't expect to find here was the Imperial Examination House (Gongyuan 贡院). I'm somewhat surprise because Guangxi is essential a political backwater (it's as far away from Beijing as it can get). Here lies one of the great Chinese invention. While the ancient Greek invented Democracy, Chinese come up with Meritocracy, which is embodied by the Imperial Exam for Civil Service. This Civil Service Exam created a level playing field, allowing the son of even a lowly blacksmith the opportunity to advance to the highest rank in the land: military general or chief minister of the imperial court (except for the top job). Birth-rights and social classes are irrelevant, only hard work and talents is counted for something. This idea originated by Confucius (circa 500 BC), and put into practise in the Sui Dynasty in 605 DC (existed a few centuries earlier in lesser forms). This is the 7th century Chinese version of the modern day Equal Job Opportunity Movement.

Confucianism empathises hierarchical relationship and harmony[1] (vertical power structure) while Democracy favours individual rights and expressions, competition and conflict (horizontal power structure), democracy wouldn't take off in China as long as Confucianism thrives. This is why the East never meets the West, or would they? I hope I see the day when they have a rendezvous in my lifetime. I hope so because I just want to live to 300 years old. Actually many societies of former British colonies like HK and Singapore already shows such marriage of the East and West, and gives birth to many interesting hybrid, colourful forms of government. Even China herself is changing. She's changing from a Mao suit into a business power suit lately. If you ask me (I know you won't, so I just ask you to ask me), I prefer her in an alluring qipao. Now has many suits and dresses in her humongous closet (plus a few dusty, spiderweb covered skeletons). The business suits may not look as fetching as qipao or as together as the Mao suit, but it puts 3 square meals on the table for all her kids. Get real, Mao suits don't work on China, or anyone else. You simply can't knock a decent power suit, can you? Call me company man, I like the suit.


Ok, back from the tangent. The tour guide put our tour group members into the individual Examination Cubicle (see photo); they even handed us with Examination Papers. On the side of fold-up Examination Table (it opens like those in a beer bar counter) is the calligraphy brush and ink plots. The Imperial Exam Papers contains many questions that tested the scholar of his general knowledge. In our mock paper, it contained general trivia regarding Guilin and our tour.
In the ancient time, for the three day gruelling exercise, this cubicle will be your examination room, dining room, bed room, and toilet. Yep, they provided the scholars the chamberpots for their not so literary, but substantial outputs. That's why there's an oil lamp in the niche of the back wall so the scholars wouldn't step into the chamberpots at night. Or allowed them to burn the mid-night oil, literally, to the original meaning of the expression.

This is the first time I hold a calligraphy brush in more than 30 years, with trembling hands, I thought I scribbled as much as I can on the papers and take it home as souvenir. I should enjoy looking back my calligraphic doodles that only I can read (much worse than the doctors'). Half way through my papers, the Imperial Examiner Clerk snatched it away as he yelled "Brushes down! Brushes down!"
As it turned out, they took the Imperial Exam Papers of the whole tour group (25 people) for assessment. They graded my papers with the highest mark and therefore passed this exam. I guess while others are busily posing for photos, I was busy writing. What's new?

They dressed me up in an official uniform of a newly appointed bureaucrat - a Mandarin (not a fruit. I'm not fruity) of the Imperial Ming Dynasty. As Guilin and this area is a county-level district, I was officiated the rank of licentiate (xiucai 秀才 - loosely translated as Budding Talent) in passing this exam - the lowest rank of the scholar-official. This instant-noodle-time public fame might just make the trip worthwhile. I kid. The photo ops just put meaning into my pathetic life. I jest. About the meaning, not the pathetic comment. That remains true as gold.

Dressed in my smart, sunday-best Mandarin gown I thanked the 'public' for congratulating me. To complete the make up, I would have to shave the front half of my scalp into half moon shape and wear a queue that was stipulated by law in the Ming Dynasty. Leave the queue or lose the head. Your call.

We headed for the Yinzi or Silver Cave in the afternoon, passing through the amazing scenery of Yangshuo. The satellite picture shows 20,000 limestone peaks in the Guilin/Yangshuo area. With so many limestone peaks, it's not hard to imagine the number of limestone caves exist. The Silver Cave is one of the popular one.

The first cave I visited was a cave in Sydney (near Wollongong city) back when I was in the later stage of growing taller, and more pimply. The visit didn't leave me with a good impression. First (bad) impression lasts and it lasted for a few decades. Nothing wrong with that cave, I guess caving is just not my cup of tea. Needless to say, my reaction of going to visit another cave is somewhere between lukewarm and tepid (I don't care for lukewarm tea or beer for that matter).

Don't know if it was the low expectation, the Silver Cave wowed me all the way with its myriad of limestone formations, one feature outdid another, and its size is far exceeded that of my first cave (as far as I can remember. And we tend to remember things much larger and fancier than they actually are when we are small). Just when I thought nothing could top what I had seen so far as we came to near the end of the cave, something quite unexpected appeared. A group of soaring limestone columns and formations around a bend were as good as anything I have seen so far, but what makes this spot so unexpected and unique was a pool of water in front of this formation. The pool of water isn't very large (small than an Olympic swimming pool), and is only few inches deep. It's the perfect mirror reflection of limestone formations above it that is really bumped it up a notch to a new league of uniqueness. As I looked down into the pool of water, the plunging depth of limestone structures is reflected as deep as its soaring height, its ceiling becomes its floor. The illusion is so complete that I felt woozy from vertigo - the same deal I get when looking down onto a street from, say, a 15 storey window. I instinctually stepped back from the water edge, fearing that I may plummet into a pool of a few inches of water. The whole effect is eerily magical. Surreal. Actually quite frightening. Judging from other awe-struck looking, jaw-dropped tourists passing through here, I knew I didn't mistaken vertigo for awe-inspiring. Maybe we all do.


This photo could hardly justify with what I depicted above. It does a good job in serving as an example to budding photographers of how one can fail miserably to capture the grandeur of the scenery. The cave limits how far I can stand away to take in the whole thing. A fish lens would do a better job (with a nice distortion). Also in order to capture both the limestone formations and the water reflection, a portrait (or vertical) orientation is called for, but it also ensures that it will lose out on the width/breadth of this thing. Even with the vertical format, I managed to only take in about 2/3 of the view above water, and less than 1/5 of the mirror reflection. In any event, no technology allows you to encapsulate the haunting quality of this place. In the words of the youth, real kewl...(don't forget to nod while swaying your bod when you say that, for max effect).

After dinner in our hotel in Yangshuo, we made our way to West Street. This street is also known as "Yangshuo's Lan Kwai Fong". LKF (Lan Kwai Fong) has became synonymous with a district in Asia (typically Chinese) that has a concentration of trendy, westernised types of cafe, beer bars, and restaurants that draws Western customers, tourists and expats alike. Holland Village, also called a Singaporean LKF, is another victim of such name calling. The following KTV bar (common in Asia) decides to cement this idea and call their business LKF, which is obviously a saleable brand name.


It's actually more than a Yangshuo's LKF. Besides drinking, eating and dining, there are large number of souvenir shops, and accommodation, which makes it much larger than your typical LKF. "Chinatown" would be a more apt description.

One of the local speciality is the beer fish, and it isn't hard to find in Yangshuo and even easier in West Street. We didn't get to try as all our meals are provided. You can also hire a bike here to watch the drop dead gorgeous scenery, and judging from what drove past me, tandem bikes are quite popular.
[1] In the Beijing Olympic Game Opening Ceremony, in the conceptual performance of the Chinese invention of the movable type printing, a Chinese character popped up. In case you wonder, the Chinese word is '和' or 'Harmony'. Of all the words in the Chinese dictionary, this one is chosen. This also fits in well with what I said about East and West, and the 2 Chinese religions in my entry "Two Chinese Ancestral Festivals"

The West believes that out of competitions comes progress. The (Far) East is interested in harmony more than progress. In fact, they value tradition, which is antipathetic to progress. This is the two cultural features.

But let's look at history. In the 18th to 20th Centuries sees the ascent of the West accompanied by much conflicts in the forms of social upheavals, Industrial Revolution, colonialism, nationalism, 2 world wars, ideological struggles, and Cold war. These are all expressions of competitions and conflicts. 21st Century sees the rise of Asia, and it's a century of globalisation where cooperation (aka harmony), not competitions, is a better way to go.

Of course, competitions and cooperation both occur hand in hand in all cultures and eras, I'm just talking about the broad strokes, the main themes, the big drivers.