Archive for December, 2013

Ubud encounters: Chauly, Godden, Wibowo explore identity

December 30, 2013

At the 2013 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Salena Godden, Agustinus Wibowo and Bernice Chauly talked about the art and science of the memoir.

All three writers spoke of their complex identities. Godden grew up in Britain with an Irish jazz musician father and Jamaican dancer mother. Chauly was born in Penang, Malaysia, to a Punjabi father and Chinese mother. Wibowo is an ethnic Chinese Indonesian who has written about his extensive travels, including lengthy stays in Afghanistan and China.

Wibowo was raised in the Chinese Buddhist tradition by his parents and taught to think of China as the ancestral homeland. In his most recent book, Titik Nol (Point Zero), he recounts a bizarre scene in his mother’s hospital room. With terminal patients, Indonesian hospitals will summon the approach clergy to minister appropriate rites. However, some of Wibowo’s relatives had converted to Christianity. “My mother’s sisters and brothers tried to baptize her on her deathbed on one side. On the other side, Buddhist monks were performing their rituals.”

During the Suharto years, Chinese language teaching was banned, and Wibowo’s parents took advantage of that in front of their children. “They spoke Chinese when they didn’t want us to understand.” In response to anti-Chinese discrimination under Suharto, his parents infused Wibowo with the idea of China as their ancestral homeland, and they sent him to school there. “But when I got there, I was just a foreigner,” Wibowo recalled, and that strengthened his Indonesian identity. “I used to root for Chinese teams in badminton competitions. But in China, I rooted for Indonesia.”

In the years since Suharto’s ouster, as part of Indonesia’s refomasi legal discrimination against Chinese has ended. “My father always wanted me to take his bones back to China when he died, to bury him in his homeland. He called it returning home,” Wibowo said. “When I asked him after refomasi, he wanted to be buried here. He said, ‘My home is Indonesia.’”

Bernice Chauly said that her father’s death cut her off from her Indian side as her mother moved back to live with her family. “I had a Chinese childhood, but I yearned to be Indian.” In her teenage Malaysian national indoctrination class, she did feel sufficiently tied to each community to apologize for both the Chinese and Indians’ enumerated abuses of Malaysia’s native bumiputera.

“Memoir comes from a great void, an emptiness,” Chauly, who curates Penang’s annual George Town Literary Festival said. Her book, Growing up with Ghosts, uses six different voices to tell its story. “If I hadn’t written this book I’d be haunted by ghosts,” Chauly said. “This book saved me.”

Poet and spoken word artist Salena Godden hopes that crowd funding can save her memoir, Springfield Road. The book follows Godden growing up as the “brown girl” in her school and wondering about her absent father, who, between cruise ship band gigs, visits her for a single day.

“I was craughing when I wrote the book,” Godden said, using the term she coined for the cross between laughing and crying. “When you read it, you’ll craugh after ten lines.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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Penguin blazes trail to Chinese literature

December 22, 2013

Chinese modern literature may not be at the top of your last minute holiday shopping list, but Penguin Books would like to change that. The publisher is building a niche in Chinese fiction in English.

Penguin’s efforts to spread Chinese literature may be helping to its parent company, German media conglomerate Bertelsmann gain ground with Chinese authorities. Penguin China’s managing director Jo Lusby acknowledges that publishing Chinese novels in English fits Beijing’s objective of spreading Chinese cultural globally in an interview included in the Asia Times article. But she adds that the Chinese works Penguin chooses meet literary standards for publication and are expected to succeed commercially.

In 2012, Penguin published Northern Girls, the contemporary story of a young woman who leaves her village in northern China to work in the factories of the south by young novelist Sheng Keyi. (See an interview with Sheng from her visit to the 2012 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.) It’s a rollicking good read that runs the gamut of emotions.

This year, Penguin has published a pair of novels from the early 20th century by Lao She. Mr. Ma and Son move to 1920s London to run an antique shop inherited from Mr. Ma’s elder brother.

As I wrote in Asia Times, the book reflects Lao’s experience as a Chinese teacher in London, as well his love of English literature, with echoes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. A work about culture and generation gaps with entertaining characters, it’s easy to see why Mr. Ma and Son remains one of Lao’s best loved books in China.

Penguin also published Cat Country, more difficult to understand, both as a literary work and a commercial choice. A fantasy work about a dysfunctional society of cat people stoned on reverie leaves, Cat Country was intended as a political satire of China in the 1920s and 1930s.

First released as a serial in 1932, Cat Country can also be seen as a Chinese version of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s tale of drug-addled utopia gone wrong published in the same year. Lao’s novel also anticipates another anthropomorphic critique of Communism, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, published a decade later. Eerily, Cat Country also anticipates China’s Cultural Revolution that drove Lao, tormented by Red Guard radicals, to suicide. Lao has since been politically rehabilitated and his birth centennial was celebrated with Chinese television miniseries version of Mr. Ma and Son.

Penguin says it plans to publish more classic and contemporary Chinese literature in the years ahead. Whatever the company’s political and business motives, these books provide a welcome window in the Chinese society with a degree of honesty that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Japan shuffles toward legal casinos

December 9, 2013

The land of the rising sun is the land of rising hopes for the world’s casino industry. As I wrote in Whale hunting, Japan style (see page 86), the world’s third largest economy is the last great frontier for gaming, and virtually every casino company in the world wants to be in it. Macau casino companies keep upping the ante, with spending pledges for a Japan project reaching $5 billion.

The article in the October issue of Macau Business points out there’s already a well-established market for gambling, including pachinko parlors with illegal payoff windows next door, Yakuza-run remote broadcast of live casino games from legal gaming jurisdictions, and the world’s most heavily bet horse racing.

For years, Japanese politicians have said that it’s time to make casinos legal, most notably Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who promised to push for casino legalization during his previous, truncated term succeeding Junichiro Koizumi in 2006. Last week, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) introduced casino legislation, and the long anticipated bill is widely expected to pass. This time, casinos are packaged as part of Abenomics, the prime minister’s plan to reform Japan’s economy and lift it out of its quarter century long doldrums.

The draft casino bill outlines a multilayered process for bringing casinos to Japan. The national bureaucracy will draft the rules, while local governments weigh whether they want casinos in their jurisdictions. Against the promise of investment, jobs and (mainly domestic) tourists, there’s the perception of gambling as a seedy activity, embodied by pachinko parlors with their legacy of money laundering, drugs and bribery. Japan’s National Police oppose casino legalization, along with some civic organizations, Buddhist groups and fringe opposition parties.

Gambling also has a reputation for government boondoggles, embodied in overbuilt publicly funded speedboat race courses and overstaffing at horse tracks. A government sponsored theme park construction initiative, with similar goals to casino development, fizzled into a puddle of wasted public money.

Mix in Japan’s inherent social conservatism, and, despite politicians’ support, casinos face an uphill fight. The seven year tease for the world’s casino companies may be over soon, or it may have only just begun.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Gaining from China’s air defense zone error

December 4, 2013

China’s declaration of an air defense zone surrounding disputed islands in the East China Sea could present an opportunity for the US and its Asian friends, particularly in the equally disputed South China Sea region.

Japan and China now claim overlapping air defense zones over the Diaoyu (to China)/Senkaku (to Japan) island chain. China’s claim has proven an embarrassment as the US, Japan and Korea promptly, openly defied it. That led China to scramble jets, even though there are signs the military leadership is far from unanimous in support of the declaration, let alone any escalation. Confrontation over these specks of rock, regardless of their potential, would be foolish for all sides.

One obvious solution is for a multilateral body to oversee the air space. But that would count as a win for China, which would gain from its unilateral and ill-considered declaration. Moreover, the US may not like this idea of informing China and others of its activities in the area due to the volume of espionage flights it runs through there.

The same may be true in the South China Sea. However, in that area, dealing with claims on a multilateral, rather than bilateral basis, is a key goal of the Southeast Asian states. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam fear being overwhelmed by China’s economic and military power in any one-on-one negotiation or confrontation.

A measure of diplomatic creativity that gives China a way to save face over its air defense zone declaration, while forcing it to accept the principle of multilateralism in the full range of maritime disputes, would be a big win for the US and its friends in the region. It would represent a tangible benefit of the Obama administration’s rebalancing of US foreign policy that’s been woefully short on substance. If China rejects such a deal, it would further undermine Beijing’s claims that it seeks peaceful cooperation and stability in the region, not territorial gains. US Vice President Joe Biden, who landed in Beijing hours ago, is a good guy to turn chicken feathers into chicken salad that all can enjoy.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.


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