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“2 + 2 = 5” in Hong Kong

I apologize ahead for writing a non-book related post. It’s about politics, in light of the recent assault on human rights and civil rights in Hong Kong, and the extraterritoriality on the part of Chinese government.

“If the Party could thrust it’s hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”

And it’s actually happening in Hong Kong. In Orwell’s 1984, the timidly rebellious Winston Smith set out to challenge the limits of the Party’s power, only to discover that its ability to control and enslave its subjects exceeded even his most paranoid conceptions of its reach. What will Hong Kongers discover when it comes to the Chinese government’s ability to control and manipulate our minds?

Politicians (the DAB 民建聯) are very much like Winston’s fellow intellectuals who have sold their inalienable right to think freely for security and a semblance of physical well-being. More chilling than Beijing’s goal to perpetuate its power to exercise tighter grip on Hong Kong is the large mass of common people who do not find in themselves the need to think independently, to question or to investigate what they have been taught. Between happiness and freedom these common, politically “apathetic” people rather surrender their rights and freedom for short-term happiness.

Pro-Beijing politicians work to the advantage of the apathy, ignorance and nearsightedness of the common mass. They tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion die so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies. They operate on deception, double standard and trickery. They use financial incentives and other underhand practices to gain support of the ignorant.

1984 is happening to Hong Kong. It’s time for people to wake up to their senses. The first step is to vote the DAB out of the Legislative Council in September.

[807] The Unwelcome Chinese – Pokong Chen


*Currently only available in the Chinese- and Japanese language. Pokong Chen appears on Voice of America radio.

Where the Chinese are there will always be racket, filth, and kerfuffle. It’s for a fact. Pokong Chen, a dissident originally from Szechuan and now residing in New York, cities many incidents of uncouth behaviors of mainland Chinese people to argue that inveterate despotism and one-party rule are to blame for the vices. He recognizes that rudeness and uncouth are not exclusive to the Chinese, but the Chinese people’s distasteful behavior are tied up with a long history of suppression, persecution, and cruelty by the government. The age-old monarchy and dictatorship system in China is not conducive to development of ethics on an individual level as people, out of fear, are led to blind observance. They are stripped of their own thinking and more caught up with pleasing the system at the expense of right-or-wrong.

Chen expounds on the culture of control that reigns over the people as a whole. Under generations of censorship, China has remained closed to any democratic liberation as seen in former East Germany and the USSR. China, ruled under the Communist Party, has become a nation that does not respect the dignity of human freedom. Chen is relentless in his denouncement of party officials, whose vices are endemic to their political culture. Bribery is rife as it’s the unspoken norm to get things done. The demonic values and pervasive influences of their party have every last Chinese person to some extent. Daily life becomes currying favor with local officials. The rougue behavior of Chinese tourists is a result of a deep-seated anxiety and fear imparted in them over the years. There’s a lot of distrust. There’s fear that material properties will be taken away from them. They dare not to criticize the Party or the government. Every man is for himself and so individual integrity diminished.

Chen further demonstrates the Chinese psyche is mere manifest of a political system so corrupted from the very top. Bureaucrat is the most coveted job in China because it’s the bright path to money and power. Their pride and arrogance; their exclusivity and elitism; their outward vanity and bravura; their titles of respect, authority, and personal renown; their heavy burdens that crush so many; their exploitation to maintain the standing—all trickling down to the common people, entangling them and weaving them into actions and thinking that are not of their own volition. In pleasing the devil, the people become devil of their own, given to corruption, cowardice, deceit, hypocrisy, selfishness, effrontery, greed, apathy, distrust …

The book title sounds gimmicky but Chen is neither sermonizing nor pedantic. He draws on facts from over a long period of time from the dynasty periods to modern China and makes objective generalizations. He seeks a fair justification of the cause of the unruly, uncouth behaviors of Chinese people from a social and historical perspective. He argues there will be no trust and freedom until the demise of the tyrannical rule. Until then, the weightier matters of the law-justice, love and mercy are neglected, and ultimately, the eventual slavery of men to the powers that be.

269 pp. Open Books Hong Kong. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “Turkish Awakening”


This is no light reading, but I thought it would serve as a good starting point to get to know Turkey. Modern Turkey has its historical and cultural roots in Ottoman Empire, which peaked in 16th century, spanning three continents and reaching as far as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, all of Asia Minor and Greece. This is all I know about Turkey.

Turkey has followed a turbulent path in recent years (in light of the recent bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, which makes me hesitate to visit) years. It is like an oddball relative, and understanding it a lifelong effort. As EU is considering to waiver visas of Turkish nationals, and Turkey being the top of my list, it’s time to read and understand history of Turkey.

Born to a Turkish mother and british father, Alev Scott returns to Istanbul to find her roots. She was about to finish this book when the Gezi protests broke out in May 2013, leaving more than 8,000 injured and 6 dead. She had no clue what gave, but it was clear to the world, and the Turks themselves, that the country is far more complicated than it looks. Scott interprets the Gezi spirit in this book and investigates the culture and society that precipitated the movement.

The book’s devotion to Turkish people and culture is a deciding factor. It is replete with real observations on daily life in Turkey. “Turkey is more than a country, it is a religion, and that is why anti-Turkish sentiments are equivalent to blasphemy.” Scott observes. The way Turks talk about their country sounds a religious fervor. The day-to-day anecdotes are so informative and appealing—exactly the way way how I would travel. She also alludes to the village-like interdependency of Turkish society. This leads to the dilemma between a solidarity and parochialism.

Scott writes a rich account of life in Istanbul, with thoughtful examples of how language is the soul of any culture. She also catches the myriad contradictions in Turkey, especially in how Kurds and Turks get along. She approaches her subjects with an open-mindedness and without prejudice. I am only browsing through the book and reading a passage here and there. But I get the impression that this is exactly what I have been looking for in helping me understand the country.

African Silences


Some of the books that have stayed with me over the years were serendipitous when found. Peter Matthiessen’s 1991 memoir on his travel through Africa is still irrelevant today in the sense of the depredation of landscape. The title itself is a disturbing double entendre—silences for the disappearance of nature’s diversity, but silences also for the few remaining areas of rich, forested seclusion away from urban chaos and destruction. The book, consisted of three extended essays, is a powerful brief for the argument that African wildlife and habitats can only be preserved if long-term economic and social benefits will accrue to African people for the effort. The same thing is happening in Brazil now, in the depredation of the Amazonian rain forest. African nations and Brazil might welcome the tourist dollars from wildlife parks, but this odd, if benevolent form of neocolonialism will never secure a conservationist ethic. Rather, Matthiessen advocates a long-term preservation that stems from a humanistic ecology of people protecting a bounteous nature for reasons of soul and body.


“Independent bookstores once again fulfilled their mission to put the right book in the hands of readers and book buyers while growing their businesses in what obviously remains a challenging environment.”

According to Publisher Weekly, bookstore sales rose 2.5% in 2015 over 2014, the first annual increase since 2007. Brick-and-mortar bookstore sales were down 365 in 2014 from their 2007 peak. It’s inspiring news for independent bookstores because the sales figure means people are still buying books—and they are buying in their local bookstores. The success of indies hinge on the creation of a community where people come together and talk about books.

E-book sales began to slow down while the number of new bookstores increased by about 4.4% in 2015. This is exactly what I mean by “having something at your fingertip doesn’t mean you will get it.” Ipads don’t create more readers. There is a resurgence in the fortunes of independent bookstores, and this trend is more sustained than after the demise of Borders in 2011, when indies took over the share of businesses. Indies once again fulfill their mission to put the right book in the hands of readers while growing businesses in what obviously remains a challenging environment.



221. This is the number of times a day we check our phones once we get out of bed. It breaks down to an average of every 4.3 minutes, according to a UK study. Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. I was on the subway in Hong Kong last month and everybody (pretty much 95%) was staring at their phones.

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? For me it means frustration when people in front of me suddenly just stop and send a text on the sidewalk.

In Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle, clinical psychologist and sociologist, presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships—with family and friends, as well as with colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking. Everyone is distracted from whatever they are engaged in—yes, including the nanny who is supposed to look after the toddler even within the confine of the library. She’s engaged on the phone that she doesn’t notice the toddler has wandered away.

Turkle finds the roots of the problem in the failure of young people absorbed in their devices to develop fully independent selves. She argues that phones and texting disrupt the ability to separate from one’s parents, and raise other obstacles to adulthood. Absorption in the virtual world can become a flight from difficulties of real life. In a way, they are alone on the devices but not really. Because they aren’t learning how to be alone, she contends, young people are losing their ability empathize. It’s the capacity for solitude hat allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent. This is what independent travel does to a person as he/she has the opportunity to absorb and reflect on his own.

Which brings the larger picture that is not exclusive to teenagers. The curated image of self. The tendency to craft a more rosy picture than in reality. Without an ability to look inward, with a vanity to show off, those locked into the virtual worlds of social media develop a sensibility of “I share, therefore I am,” crafting and fabricating their identities for others.

Whitman on Election


Since last year, I made a habit of reading Walt Whitman everyday. I keep the hardback on my nightstand for easy access. Literature, he argues, constructs the scaffolding of society’s values and “has become the only general means of morally influencing the world.” Archetypal characters of literature shape the moral character and political ideals of a culture. Long after the political structures of the ancient world ave crumbled, what remains of Ancient Greece and Rome and the other great civilizations is their literature.

In light of Super Tuesday, in a sentiment that makes one shudder imagining what the poet would have made of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, Whitman writes,

I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.


America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dilettantes, and all who shirk their duty, who are doing well…. America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.”

Therefore, the sole antidote, Whitman reminds us, lies in our own hands and the ballots they hold—in not shirking our duty as voters.

Hong Kong Bookseller Gone Missing

imageBanned books raised an outcry. Imagine if you’re censored and arrested for publishing materials that are at odd with the government. Imagine Bill Clinton wants to persecute and imprison all those who breathed a world about Monica Lewinsky. This is what happens in Hong Kong, in 2016. The firm believers of “one country, two system” by which the former British colony is governed after its return to the embrace of motherland get a reality check as five staff members of a local bookseller disappeared. Vanished without a trace.

The Hong Kong publisher whose disappearance has caused a major rift between Hong Kong and Beijing has written to a colleague to say that he is across the border, in China, where he is “cooperating with the authorities with an investigation.” But close examination of his handwriting revealed that the note was not written in Lee Bo’s hand. The bookseller specializes in books critical of Beijing’s Communist Party leaders. His disappearance on Wednesday, December 30 looks increasingly like an illegal abduction by Chinese police, which has no jurisdiction in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

In China, “assisting the authorities with an investigation” is equivalent to detention suspicion of criminal activity. Criminal activity can be criticizing party leaders and exposing corruption of state officials. The bookseller’s wife later went to the Hong Kong Police and withdrew of complaint of her husband’s mysterious disappearance. This, in my opinion, is very much a charade performed under duress. The bookseller’s disappearance is an assault on Hong Kong’s principles of freedom of expression and autonomy from Beijing.

On Beijing Smog

That an article about the severe smog in Beijing appears on a literary magazine really intrigues me. The truth is, the air in Beijing is constantly bad, at a hazardous level. When I went in March 2008, just five months before the Olympics, thanks to the government’s strident measures to reduce carbon emission (no burning of wood, cars take alternate days on the road according to license plates, etc.) I enjoyed clear blue sky all over the city and up the Great Wall.

Beijing’s air quality index hit 755 on a scale of 0 to 500. Pictures from the Chinese capital look like an early arrival of apocalypse. For miles and miles the city is saturated with smog and the only visible thing is a flashing video screen on a building. So why is this pollution good for China? Because the government can no longer hide its dirty laundry. The government can gloss over rights abuses. It can conduct secretive trials of prominent activists. But it cannot hide this kind of air, or blame it on foreigners. This detrimental smog is the result of the country’s own making–the heedlessness of environmental measure, unregulated industrial emission, and sheer ignorance.

The days of 24/7 mask wearing is near if China doesn’t implement concrete policy changes. The wave of pollution sweeping through the capital is more than an alarm for the intransigent Chinese negotiators.

“Distraction Theory”

On 4th of July, a day of celebration of America and its values, I read an article on the New Yorker how many many options and choices might do a disservice of our well being. The article is a response to a book called The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford, who states that “distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind.” At a glimpse Crawford’s claim seems very outlandish. To him, life’s most meaningful activities involve shutting down options and dealing with the constraints of the physical world. He means by being engaged in activities for which you cannot simply choose what you want to happen by pressing a button, like on your iPad.

Crawford presents an alternative ideology. The book is a somewhat philosophical treatise on how to cope with modernity that starts with annoying ubiquitous ads. The whole figuring out ways to capture and hold people’s attention is the center of contemporary capitalism. You cannot even get through a transaction of a card machine without being interrupted by an ad popping up on the screen. There is this invisible and ubiquitous grabbing at something that’s the most intimate thing you have, because it determines what’s present to your consciousness. This is exactly why we all try to close ourselves off from this grating condition of being addressed all the time—by withdrawing to the video game, the cellphone, etc. These experiences are so exquisitely attuned to our appetites that they can swamp our ordinary way of being in the world. But these “defense mechanisms,” Crawford argues, distract us from being productive and causes the “deadness of our time.”

The article is worth a read and if you’re piqued, the book as well. We all know how our attention wanders if a cellphone is merely visible on the table. Crawford belives that it is only by grappling with the world in a concrete that we can grasp it, and every screen that replaces a real interaction makes this more difficult.