Monday, December 7, 2009

From Laser Shows to Prehistoric Monsters

I left off at Xiamen in my previous post. From there I returned to Hong Kong to begin the next leg of my cruise. Hong Kong, despite the hordes of people trying to sell you "Rolexes" and perfectly tailored suits while you wait, is always a welcome respite because of its British heritage. It has an amazingly clean and efficient metro and signs in english which is so welcome after spending so much time trying to decipher directions from kanji. Also, they have a genuine appreciation for the tourist and put on a harbor wide light show every night at 8:00 pm.

Hong Kong Harbor Light Show - click to view the whole panorama

Our next stop was Sanya, Hainen - an island province of China - Things got a little scary here as half way through the day, shortly after we returned to the ship for lunch, Chinese immigration told our security team that we were no longer welcome and no one would be able to leave the ship. They even halted passengers returning for a short while. Our best guess was a power struggle between provincial officials and the central government. We had arrived with Central government officials who had gotten on in Hong Kong and they were clearly not pleased in Sanya. Sanya itself has a lot of potential as a tourist destination and they are building an island (where we docked) called Phoenix Island with architecturally fantastic buildings ala the Dubai islands in the Persian Gulf. Sanya has a splendid esplanade along its main river and a wonderful up and down "dragonback" foot bridge that straddles the river mid-town.

The "dragonback" bridge in Sanya

Poster for Phoenix Island which is well into construction

The current state of construction

Next stop was Da Nang and the nearby ancient Cham Kingdom port of Hoi An.  OK, This place was a treat and got the historical fiction juices flowing. The architecture, setting and history all seemed out of sync here and I learned that South Vietnam was actually the Kingdom of Champa from the 7th century to 1832. A long-lived monarchy that ruled the malayo-polynesian-indian-chinese-vietnamese polyglot that made up southern Vietnam for most of its history. Most recently archaeologists have shown similarities in the Cham origins and bronze age kingdoms in Sarawak and Borneo. The Cham Language was in the austronesian group of languages and is closely related to Acehnese. Champa's greatest city and capital was at Vijaya not far from Hoi An and archaeologists are currently excavating the site. The remaining towers look more Hindu-Indian inspired than Southeast Asian. Vijaya was sacked and destroyed by the North Vietnamese armies in 1471. The Cham capital was successively moved south to a variety of sites as pressure mounted from the aggressive expansion of the North Vietnamese emperor.  The Cham had a long history with colorful figures like the Red King, Che Bong Nga, see-saw wars with the Cambodian Khymer Kingdom and the fading power of the last Cham Nobles in the 1800's. Wow, plenty of fodder for historical novels there.

The characteristic eyes painted on the Hoi An boats

Hoi An was long the main trading port of the Cham Kingdom until its harbor silted up and the merchants moved to nearby Da Nang. The village has been restored and even has a multi-generational merchants house you can tour. The 6th generation occupant is even available for questions. You'll note in the photos the characteristic curved roof lines that look so much more naturalistic than the sharper lines of the chinese inspired vietnamese architecture of the same period. There is also a museum dedicated to the Cham kingdom in Da Nang situated on the esplanade.

Bridge built by a Japanese merchant prince in Hoi An's waning days

Saigon - again - and I decided that a day by the cruise ship pool would be more relaxing than trying to maneuver through the crowds of hawkers of that bustling city. From there we went to Bangkok, Thailand where I stayed overnight off ship. Bangkok is a crazy city with a shimmering temple every few blocks and some of them are blocks long like the temple of the emerald Buddha near the royal palace. Bangkok has a well organized system of ferries that cruise up and down the Chao Praya river that bisects Bangkok. You can buy a day pass cheaply and get on and off at stops to your heart's content. I cruised up as far as the King Rama suspension bridge which is spectacular and I hope the new Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland looks as good whenever it is finished. I love Thai food and ate my way up and down the city getting off the ferry wherever a restaurant looked promising. And, guess what? Everyone makes Pad Thai their own special way. Bangkok is prosperous and loud (and just as skanky as you can imagine in certain districts) with a skyway metro that serves a good portion of the city. It connects to the ferries and to the train terminals.

A temple on every corner

The King Rama bridge over the Chao Praya River

And then we went (unsuspecting) to the island paradise of Koh Samui for a bumpy, hilarious circumnavigation of the island. We stopped at Buddhist temples (big Buddha, Bigger Buddha and biggest Buddha), beaches, resorts, waterfalls, fed elephants, took refuge in a temple to escape a torrential downpour, and hiked. It was exhausting and refreshing. We travelled in a jitney which was just a toyota 4x4 with a cover over the back and two benches where 8 of us off the cruise ship bumped along the potholed uneven highway. Next, was Singapore where some guests departed and others joined the cruise.

Secluded bay on Koh Samui

Temple on Koh Samui

Festive detail from Big Buddha temple on Koh Samui

We sailed to Cambodia next and docked at Sihanoukville. This was mainly to pick up some passengers who had purchased a particularly expensive excursion that left Saigon to fly to Siem Reap and explore the temples at Angkor Wat. I went ashore but not for long. I had never been in such an impoverished place. The people were sweet but only the recent, tragic history of Cambodia explains why the country is still in such a bad state. The central market was mesmerizing with vendors selling completely unrecognizable fruits and vegetables. In all my travels I have never been more acutely aware of my sense of smell - odors alternately wonderful and terrible.

Cambodian vegetable seller

From Cambodia we sailed south, crossing the equator and sailing east along the Indonesian Archipelago heading to Semarang, a port city not too far from the capital Jakarta. Then we were off to Bali which was crazy. Their hawkers were even worse than Saigon's. I didn't think that was possible. The architecture of the Hindu temples were fascinating, reminding me a little of Hoi An.

Hindu temple detail in east Bali

East Bali vista

Next was my favorite stop in Indonesia, Komodo Island, home to the legendary Komodo Dragons. Komodo Island is a closely regulated National Park, protecting both the dragons and, the visitors from the dragons. You weren't allowed onshore unless you had an excursion or tour guided by a national park ranger and interpreter - I use interpreter in the same sense that NPS educators use that term.

One of the interpretation kiosks on Komodo island

It was frustrating for the interpreter for he was trying to build an understanding of the unique ecology of the island - an ecology that had preserved a species of reptile not far distant from their giant ancestors the dinosaurs - but almost everyone was solely interested in catching a glimpse of a dragon. The first we saw was a youngster zipping across the trail a few yards ahead of the ranger. The young ones have to be fast and agile and able to climb trees because the dragons are a cannibalistic species and will eat their young if they can catch them. Finally, at a watering hole that was supplemented by a drip system the park had constructed to help in times of drought, we saw four dragons lazing in the shade of large spreading trees. I was afraid they would just look like dusty crocodiles but they don't. They look primitive and they look cunning. Their eyes, when not covered by a nicatating membrane is a bottomless watery black - no iris, no cornea, just black. And, even sated they keep a careful eye on the meaty tourists.

Portrait of a 6 foot dragon

The rangers have a thin stick with two prongs about two meters long that we were assured was an effective defensive weapon. They also carried rifles. The hike to the watering hole and back down a brush bordered watercourse was about a mile but seemed longer in the still, humid air of brush and forest. Everyone was glad to again reach the beach and surf and feel the air move. I felt like i had emerged from a sequence in Jurassic Park.

Komodo island panorama

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Amazon Warriors in Vietnam!!

One of my favorite historical novels when growing up was James Clavell's Shogun. Of course, it was about a westerner's experience in feudal Japan and not from an Asian's viewpoint. Since then I can't think of another Asian-based historical novel that has caught my attention but after touring China and Vietnam I have run into several historical personalities who each deserve their own historical novel.

When I was in Nha Trang Vietnam I walked into town along a lovely white sand beach passing a war Memorial to the Vietnamese hero Tran Hung Dao.

Here are some photos of the monument and the bas reliefs depicting his victories over the invading Mongol Armies of Kublai Khan.

There was also a Vietnamese inscription, I am awaiting a translation.

Like many great heros, he was a man of many talents unwillingly called to serve his nation. He was a poet as well as a student of Chinese literature and was very familiar with Sun Tzu's "The Art of War". His treatises on military strategy were consulted in succeeding wars against the Chinese, French and Americans. He was born during an imperial dynastic transition in Thang Long (Hanoi) with all the attendant bitter intrigues.

 French Interpretation of Queen Trung Trac

Vietnam heros are not limited to men. There are also the famous Truong Sisters, as well as Lady Trieu who led successful but short-lived rebellions against the oppressive Chinese during their four lengthy periods of domination.

The North Vietnamese sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhj began a rebellion against the occupying Chinese armies and raised an army of woman warriors, capturing over 65 Vietnamese cities and destroying bridges along the norther frontier with Han Dynasty China. They ruled an independent Vietnam for three years until Emperor Gwangwu ordered an irresistible army to reclaim the lost territories. Facing final defeat the sisters committed suicide (How Cleopatra like!). They are still revered, especially in northern Vietnam. An intriguing observation in wikipedia reads: The stories of the Trưng sisters and of another famous woman warrior, Triệu Thị Trinh, are cited by some historians as hints that Vietnamese society before Chinese influence was a matriarchal one, where there are no obstacles for women in assuming leadership roles. What we need here is an asian Chris Gortner to tell these triumphant but ultimately tragic stories of these heroic women.

The fine arts community in Saigon is alive and well with many galleries of stunning paintings. This is a quick snapshot of a painting by a Vietnamese artist that I am pretending is Lady Trieu

China also has its share of heroes but one in particular caught my attention. I have always been interested in the purple twilight of the Byzantine imperial enclave at Trebizond and China has an analogue in the fading years of the Ming Dynasty in the fortress island of Xiamen. 

The above photo is of a heroic statue of Koxinga that stands on a promontory of Gulang Yu island a five minute ferry ride from Xiamen.

Zheng Chenggong, known by the more popular epithet Koxinga (or Koxingua) was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Chinese Father. He grew up in the fading Ming imperial court, attending the imperial University in Nanking, studying under the scholar Qian Qianyi. He was torn from his studies to lead a heroic resistance movement supporting a series of Ming emperors who had retreated to Southern China. From his fortified island of Xiamen he dealt the Manchus of the invading Qing dynasty defeats on land and sea before capturing Taiwan from the Dutch. He fortified Taiwan and used the island's resources to harry the Manchus until his untimely death at age 37 of Malaria. His son Zheng Jing succeeded him as the King of Taiwan.

There may already be historical novels already written about these fascinating people caught in the firestorm of war and rebellion -- so, if you know author and title please leave the information in the comments. Also, if you know of a novel that is untranslated maybe there is a way to bring these riveting stories to western audiences.

Sailing on a Sea of Glass

Right now I am sailing down the Taiwan strait between the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China on the MS Volendam which is a medium sized ship in the Holland America fleet. We had some rough seas when we passed through a gale on the way to Xiamen, China so this eerie calm that fades into a featureless horizon is quite welcome. Though, I imagine that for sailboats it would be worrisome without a puff of wind to fill their sails. One of the things I have missed in the China sea is the dearth of pleasure boats that you see all over the Mediteranean, Carribean and east and west coasts of the U.S. What you see here is fleets and fleets of fishing boats as well as container ships and in the river systems a veritable traffic jam of working barges of all sizes and colors.

Back to the Sea of Glass, I have a recording with me of Giles Reaves "Sea of Glass" and his music perfectly captures the mystery and the haunting beauty of this seascape. Giles Reaves is a composer of music that would be classified as contemporary classical by some and New Age by others. You can find his music on his website and I think you can still order some of his CD's from the "Hearts of Space" site.

In one of the stairwells of the ship I found some painting by one of the earlier captains of the MS Volendam, Stephen J. Card. I would like to share them with you as his technique as a maritime artist is both accomplished and intriguing. He has managed to capture the history of each of the iterations of the MS Volendam (We are currently cruising on the Volendam III) and acquaints the viewers with the proud heritage of this venerable line of cruising vessels. Mr. Card, a British citizen, currently lives and paints in Bermuda

MS Volendam II on a Calm Sea

SS Nieuw Amsterdam Passing the Volendam I

View of the Third Statendam

The 1938 Noordam Passing the Binnendijk

The MS Volendam III Cruising off the Coast

MS Volendam I in the Norweigian fjords

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Raising Your Consciousness with Music

I made friends with one of the performers who was booked for the past two legs of the cruise I am on -- internationally acclaimed flutist Bettine Clemen. She has played with many international orchestras including the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg. Being an amateur flutist myself I was dazzled at her command of technique (she has a gold flute and the tone is amazing - rich and warm) and also her amazing stamina -- twice doing two shows in one day of solo and accompanied flute. I'm always exhausted after a serious hour of practice.

But even more interesting were her stories she told. She has been all over the world to raise awareness of animal rights. Part of her multimedia show has film of her playing music for animals and their fascination with the music she plays. They seem mesmerized. One sequence has an exotic parrot keeping time with his head bobbing and another has an australian wallaby gazing at her with fascination finally reaching out with one of its hands to caress her flute. But the segment that caught my attention was her playing for Jonathan, a two hundred and twenty year old tortoise on St. Helena. This tortoise was alive and wandering about the island when Napoleon was imprisoned there! Now if Jonathan could just find a ghost writer to take down his memoirs…

Bettine, when she was just a child, had a chance to play with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra just before the start of the Cultural Revolution. She befriended and learned from the principal flutist who was an extremely accomplished musician. Sadly, in the purge of all things western he was taken to a reeducation camp where they broke his wrist and jaw to make sure he would never play again. Bettine was able to track him down this trip to Shanghai and while he cannot play the flute he is a respected member of the Shanghai music community and appreciated for his vast musical knowledge. It was a joy to her to finally renew their friendship.

I constructed the montage of Bettine from photos I took during her classical program that she preformed just before docking at Hong Kong.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Chinese Enigma

China is as mysterious as I had imagined but in an entirely unexpected way. I got a hint of it in Dalian, our first port-of-call. Dalian is a modern city with strong hints of past Russian influence. The city is built around a series of open squares and parks. and like just about any other city in the world has its share of MacDonald's, KFC's and Starbuck's. Mao would be appalled.

  Great Hall of the People from Tianamin Square

So, I was confused. I knew in the back of my mind that China was no longer a land of rickshaws and bicycles but I didn't fundamentally understand its root level transformation. On the cruise I had befriended a U.S. professor of modern european history and he told me that he was in the first group of academics and business people who were invited to tour China in 1979 after Mao's death, and after the dust from the cultural revolution had settled. He said that the tallest building in Beijing had been the tower of heaven and there wasn't a single car on the streets only bicycles and rickshaws. The new Chinese leaders were steering a course to take China into the modern world using a hybrid of communism and capitalism. This wasn't really strange if you look at the history of China. The emperor owned all the land and as long as the emperor held the mandate of heaven common people pursued their lives both commercial and academic as they liked. The emperor looked at the big picture (at least the good emperors) and the common people looked after themselves until they came in conflict with the emperor. If the people prevailed the emperor lost his mandate if the emperor won there was upheaval but then things settled and life began again. This seemed like what was going on now. People rarely mentioned the government except to complain about the price of housing - they buy 70 year leases on condos/houses/flats but they don't own the land. If the building starts to fall apart the government helps them to relocate to a new lease and they tear down the old building. It was amazing how much of the tear-down/build-new was going on throughout the cities.

Secret Gate - Forbidden City

I met young people (early mid-20's) in both Beijing and Shanghai. They were just like young people I meet in the U.S. They loved the internet, texting friends and watching movies both on their computers and at theaters. They seemed to prefer reality shows over fiction - none had seen Lost, Heroes or even Alias but they loved their version of American Idol, Project Runway, and Master Chef. (Not being a fan of reality TV this was troubling to me.) While I could not access my blog from my computer in Beijing, they had no trouble, knowing how to circumvent the blocks that the government puts on the internet. Most had access to satellites to watch virtually any TV show being broadcast and most were big fans of the ESPN sports networks. (I was especially surprised at their love - and in-depth knowledge - of American football!) While their english was good, it was limited, for when I began to dig deeper and ask about contemporary Chinese fiction and whether there was a new crop of music composers coming up, they didn't know how to respond - Though when I mentioned music I was told "We all love Michael Jackson"

 Forbidden City panorama

One of my favorite movies is "The Last Emperor". So, touring the forbidden city was an awe inspiring experience. Even the crowds filling the gated plazas didn't take away from the experience. My guide even showed me the spot where the last emperor learned english from his tutor (played by Peter O'Toole in the movie). The forbidden city is both metaphor and reality for the separation of the emperor from the citizen. This worked both for and against the imperial families. Weak emperors lost touch with the people (preferring to spend all their time with their 3,000 concubines while letting power-mad eunuchs rule). The people and often the military would rise up when things got really bad and they would start over with a new emperor or even a new dynasty. But powerful emperors used the distance well to build a god-like mystery about their personas and they stayed at least one step ahead of the common peoples' desires.

This gets me back to the current government of the PRC. They are very successful at staying a few steps ahead of the peoples' desires. The young people I talked to are acutely aware of the increase in human rights since the Tianamen square debacle. They also know what happened, and in their own ways hold the government culpable. So what are the implications?

Night skyline of Shanghai

Shanghai and Beijing are mind-numbing and overwhelming cities. They are each like a hundred New Yorks, Las Vegases, and L.A.s rolled into mega-cities that stretch far into what was once countryside. The outskirts of Beijing now reach the northern mountains within sight of the great wall. I was stunned. 30 years ago the tallest building in Beijng was the Temple of Heaven - Shanghai was only a sleepy fishing village not much changed from how it was presented in the movie "the Sand Pebbles". L.A. is like a mid-sized town compared to them. And, the Chinese did it all in 30 years! The streets are filled with cars (not a one older than 7 years) producing some of the worse nightmare traffic jams lasting for hours. It is clear that these new drivers are an aggressive species that put our own terrifying Las Vegas drivers to shame. And, they  ignore any rational traffic law better than the Neopololitans in Italy.

But, there are a multitude of Chinas. Both my guides referenced the older generation who participated in the cultural revolution and how disenfranchised they they now feel. They also mentioned that there was another older generation that did not want to embrace the work ethic of the new Chinese who rise early, work hard, and party into the morning.

Just outside of Shanghai is the preserved a water town - sort of an asian Venice built on the canals of the Shanghai delta. This place had some of the feel of my mythical China but in reality it is a reconstruction of an ancient town for tourists - with Mykonos like alleys filled with vendors selling silk, toys, bamboo flutes, and all sorts of wonderful foods and candies.

Posters and and the Graphic arts are impressive all over China. You can't really see it here but the printing detail on the 8 foot high poster was dazzling - colors bright and saturated, skin tones pure and the typography clean and readable.

So, As I asked previously, What are the implications? Globalization, for better or worse is homogenizing the world. We are moving toward a common balancing of the scales. No matter where I travel, when I do the math, I am paying the same for a similar item - a good tennis shoe costs the same in San Francisco, Barcelona, Busan Korea, Shanghai and Hong Kong. (It was a little more expensive in Japan - but the financial system there is closed and it was hard to even find an ATM that would recognize my debit card -- 7-eleven and the Post office ATM machines). The average Chinese is interested in human rights, perhaps even more than many people I have met in the U.S. And, as this wave of young move up the ladders of control, China will change even more. Extrapolating this out means that common work will generate a common wage -- eventually. People are smart and the internet gives everyone access to information. It's not hard for a car factory worker in Busan Korea to compare what he makes to what a factory worker at a Volvo plant in Sweden makes. Marshall McLuhan predicted it correctly when he said that telephones become hyper extensions of your hearing sense, television your eyes, and now, the internet is an expansion and extension of your mind. The only thing that limits us is laziness and believe me, the Chinese and Koreans are not lazy.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nagasaki and the Hope For Peace

Nagasaki was the next port we visited. Coming into the harbor our radar tower cleared the bridge with about 3 feet to spare. The design is very similar to the new Oakland Bay Bridge with its single tower and wingspread of support wires. It was a snap to get around as the trolley system can take you anywhere in Nagasaki and as in Kobe the Japanese are remorselessly polite. Some of the trolleys look like L.A. in the 50's followed by newer models that look like they arrived from the future. We went directly to the Peace Park  which is situated a few meters from ground zero where the the last nuclear bomb used in wartime exploded, ending WWII. The park is a sculpture garden with art donated from various nations of the world. Some of the foundations that were left from the bomb bast are preserved. And my first photo follows the radiating foundation to one of the many moving statues. Also in the photo is the origami crane shrine with its thousands of colorful cranes symbolizing the world's cries for peace.

This photo shows the Peace Statue centered over the dove fountain.

This next photo revisits the statue of a mother with the dove of peace resting on her arm from which the blasted foundations radiate out.

But Nagasaki is not just a solemn memorial, it's also a vital city with waterways and bridges, teeming with children at play with friends and families.

Friday, October 9, 2009

White Heron Castle

O.K. More Kami today. Off to Himeji (White Heron) to one of the world's most beautiful castles. Originally built in 1346, it was expanded to its presents size in 1613. It never fell to military siege.
It is so huge it it hard to frame it for photo and, of course, it has been photographed at leisure by some of the world's best. But capturing it in the slanted autumn light give it a sense of time and mystery.

Walking back to the train station I saw a print by a local artist depicting the Kami of White Heron Castle. If you have seen the Japanese anime Totoro you will see the resemblance to that Kami who lived in a giant Camphor tree.

Further down a lovely tree-lined avenue I found a sculpture of another Kami who is the personification of music and carved the first bamboo flute to invent music. However, in the 1930's the Kami blew into a French jazz club in Himeji where he heard a soulful rendition of "My Funny Valentine" He abandoned the bamboo flute and now he only plays the saxaphone - when he allows you to see him he wears just a beret and his musical instrument as plays his golden music.

Now off to Kyoto and the Buddhist temple of Higashi Hoganji.