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[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]

[773] Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders – Vincent Bugliosi


“I believe Charles Manson is unique. He is certainly one of the most fascinating criminals in American history, and it appears unlikely that there will ever be another mass murderer quite like him. But it does not take a prophet to see at least some of the potentials of his madness in the world today. When people unquestioningly turn over their minds to authoritarian figures to do with as they please—” (Epilogue, p.630)

Helter Skelter is the full account of the Manson murders that captured headlines across America in summer 1969, written by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who then served as Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles. The book itself was first published shortly after the trial, which last 22 months with the jury being in sequestration for the whole duration of the trial. So the book lends an immediacy, and sheds remarkable insights into the motive of these atrocious, bizarre murders, as well as Bugliosi’s insider knowledge. It covers the murders, the evidence being gathered, the interviews, the rumors, the defendants, the preparation of the trail, the full trial, and an epilogue reflecting on how Manson gains control over his followers who turned over their minds unquestioningly to do what he told them.

The record discloses over and over again that all of these girls at the ranch believed Manson as God, really believed it. The record discloses that the girls obeyed his commands without any conscious questioning at all. (Murder in the Wind, p. 528)

In short, a band of hippies, later known as the Manson Family in San Fernando Valley, broke into a Los ANgeles house and murdered five people, including the nine month-pregnant actress Sharon Tate (wife of director Roman Polanski) and her friends, including coffee heiress Abigail Folger. It was one of the grisliest, bloodiest and apparently senseless crimes of the century. Atrocities repeated and befell the LaBiancas in Los Feliz, who were picked at random from among the affluent, on the night after the Tate murders. All victims were stabbed multiple times. A thin trail of circumstances eventually tied the Tate-LaBianca murders to Charles Manson, a killer who cleverly masqueraded behind the common image of a hippie. As Bugliosi would have shown, there was a further motive, almost too absurd to even conceive of, to the murders other than Manson’s grudge against the people who denied him a record contract. The real motive is perhaps as bizarre, or even more bizarre, than the murders themselves.

Though…drugs were one of several methods Manson used to obtain control over his followers, they had no part in these crimes, for a very simple reason: on these two nights of savage slaughter, Charles Manson wanted his assassins in complete control of their faculties.” (The Investigation–Phase Two, p.251)

Helter Skelter is as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony to Vincent Bugliosi’s brillance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. He even took up a substantial amount of investigative responsibilities that should have been LAPD’s. During the trials, which were often cluttered with nonsensical motions and objections from defense attorney Irving Kanarek, the issue was not so much how Manson committed the murders but proving that he did it. The case was unique and highly challenging; evidence linking Manson to the murders was scarce and argument anemic at the beginning. Bit by bit, with attentiveness to minute details and repetitive interviews, Bugliosi built his case by reconstructing the sick philosophy of Manson that inculcated his followers. To Bugliosi’s credit, he showed how a Mephistophelean guru had the unique power to persuade others to murder for him, most of them young girls who, disconnected from their families and loath to the world, went out and murdered total strangers at his command, with relish and gusto, and with no evident signs of guilt or remorse. They were not insane, Bugliosi showed, but was in full mental faculties and were aware that society disapproved of their acts. The most unbelievable part of the trial is the evidence that Helter Skelter was the principal reason for the savage murders. Manson’s motive was to ignite some black-white Armageddon, with the motivating nexus between the lyrics of a Beatles song. He envisioned the blacks would destroy all the whites, and the Manson Family would be the only whites to escape the revolution unscathed. He removed all the convictions of his followers and made them do what he asked them.

This book is a feat of judicial triumph, of mind-blowing conspiracy, and of courtroom intrigues. It’s frightening to think of the detrimental and fatal consequences of mind control.

685 pp. W.W. Norton. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[768] Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson


“It is a cherishable irony that a language that succeeded almost by stealth, treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants, should one day become the most important and successful language in the world.” (Ch.4, p.48)

Mother Tongue is as casual a history of the English language as it is an insightful study of how it becomes one of the most common-spoken languages in the world. Bryson begins with why English has easily invaded foreign cultures: the richness of its vocabulary, the flexibility of the language, and the simplicity in spelling and pronunciation, as English is devoid of any diacritical marks like umlauts and circumflexes. But English is not without its shortcomings. Although the consonants conform to a regular sound pattern, English spelling can be treacherous because for centuries after the Norman conquest in 11th century, English has been disparaged to a peasant language. Even in Shakespeare’s days the use of English for purposes of scholarship was only experimental. After all, without adaptability English could not have permitted Shakespeare to coin some 1,700 new words. Pliancy has made English easy to learn; but such versatility also made regulation of spelling difficult. Having been a second-rate tongue for peasants, proper spelling of English words had been disregarded in history. The changes attributable to such efforts had generally been few and frequently short-lived.

It would be a mistake to presume that English is widely spoken in the world because it has some overwhelming intrinsic appeals to foreigners. Most people speak it . . . because they need it to function in the world at large. (Ch.12, p.181)

Bryson applauds the vitality with which English has spread and evolved itself. He concurs that a system should lay down the ground rules of grammar that both native speakers and foreigners shall abide. That said, where there is proper usage that is conductive to good English, Bryson reminds us what makes good English or bad English is up to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. In this spirit of tolerance, he sees no valid objections to split infinitives (only because Latin doesn’t permit it?), to sentences ending in prepositions, or to the use of “hopefully” at the head of a sentence.

Bryson is not a linguist, neither is he a historian. But he does a good job presenting the evolution of the English language with a fizzle and pop. He writes with an exuberance and excitement about what English is capable of that is infectious and uplifting. Though it’s not a comprehensive history, it does drop in at key moment and point out some of the really interesting, weird, trivial tidbits. It surveys English’s vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations with style, flare and humor.

Penguin Books. Orange Series Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“The Fall of Hong Kong”


Another great find from the used bookstore. The Fall of Hong Kong has been out-of-print and I have never set my eyes on a copy—until today. On December 8th, 1941, Japan launched an all out offensive against Hong Kong. On Christmas Day—just seventeen days later—the Colony was surrendered. This is the story of those seventeen days. It is the long, true, and terrible story of a battle and of the men who fought it: British, Indian, and Canadian soldiers; sailors and airmen; civilians of many different nationalities. These are the people who, with sudden and violent unexpectedness, were jolted from security into a maelstrom of savagery. In face of the recent China’s “celebration of victory over Sino-Japanese War”, this book is a timely slap in the face to the Communist Party, which hardly played a role in liberating Hong Kong.

[765] A Short History of the World – H. G. Wells

“From the sixteenth century onward the history of mankind is a story of political and social institutions becoming more and more plainly misfits, less comfortable and more vexatious, and of the reluctant realization of the need for a conscious and deliberate reconstruction of the whole scheme of human societies in the face of needs and possibles new to all the former experiences of life.” (Ch.52, p.250)

First published in 1922, crammed into just under 350 pages, in highly lurid and readble prose, is the history of the origins of the world millions of years ago until the outcome of the First World War. The book is impressive in its scope and groundbreaking in its approach. It’s the first book of its kind to try and narrate the entirety of the planet’s history on an evolutionary, sociological, and anthropological basis.

Although it’s a period piece, somewhat outdated, Wells gives us a survey of how the world, or more aptly, its political organization comes to be such today. It is free from the certainties of opinion held in Edwardian England. It is not Euro-centric, only focusing on the significant role Europe and its empires over the centuries plays in the development of human beings.

Wells’ history doesn’t focus on the actions of great men. His history is narrative, a sequencing of events that occasionally stops to discuss issues or matters that stand out to him as significant. He is good at giving reader a panoramic view of events happening concurrently over different parts of the world in the same period. Wells presents history without any attempt to place it into a politicized framework. Nor does he discriminate any race. In elegant prose he describes the Aryans, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans—all flourished remarkably up to the 4th century AD but they declined for some centuries, until Western Europe started off again. In the interim, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of papal imperial power, the Great Schism of the Church, the Semites and the Mongols had dominated most of the Eurasian landmass.

The vast period following the split of the Roman Empire (into West and East Empire) has significant impact on languages and religious of the world today. Wells describes in details how western Europe came to be Latinized—how the Romanian, Italian, French and Spanish languages are all variations and modifications of Latin. Eastern Europe and Asia Minor remained adamant in their languages and gods, rendering the region a constant battlefield of Christendom crusades. The lack of central government in Europe after Roman’s fall, such antagonism among the local states, the narrow intense struggle for phantom predominance is to consume European energy for 1,000 years, until 18th century. However, Wells doesn’t believe history is a cyclical process, more a result of intelligence (or the lack of) on the part of humans. The book demonstrates Wells’ admirable skill in the compression of material, and extraction of what matters, with a sense of moral purpose.The history is seen through the perspective of human psyche—the frailties and limitations.

371 pp. Penguin Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

More History Books

My recent trip to France had awaken the history bug in me since I was reading up on French history before I went. In fact, travel bug and the craving for history have been two peas in a pod. I won’t go so far as to say history is all cyclical, but one thing is for sure: the great power of a monarchy, a kingdom, a government, or even a church, lay in the wills and consciences of men. A sovereignty is bound to collapse if it fails to retain the moral prestige on which its power was based. To read about history is to understand people. I’ve scoured more books for fall.

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.
The book covers the war between Sparta and Athens, and though its accuracy remains moot–Thucydides was an Athenian general and so likely to be selective in his emphasis, it’s a rich drama.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
This book chronicles events of the Roman Empire from the 1st Century BC to 15th AD. It’s witty and opinionated, highly readable despite the vastness.

1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman
England was attacked by the Norwegian Northmen and the Duke of Normandy in 1066. This is the insider history.

Legion of the Damned by Sven Hassel
My first impression is that this reminds me of All Quiet on the Western Front. This book describes the misadventures of a group of German soldiers on the Eastern Front.

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill
This is a four-part history of Britain from Anglo-Saxon times to 1914. The book is full of character and incident—read more like a social history.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
This is what the government doesn’t want you to know, let alone to be taught in school: It follows the heartbreaking travails of the American Indians from their first contact with the white settlers until the massacre at Wounded Knee, which, is in fact an ethnic cleansing by the American Government.

[764] The Crippled Tree – Suyin Han


“It was impossible to isolate either my father or my mother from history itself, the history of their period in China. As impossible as it was for Proust, writing about himself, to cut himself and his characters from the period in which they lived and the events to which they reacted. We are all products of our time, vulnerable to history. I was born because there has been, in China, a Boxer Rebellion (as the Europeans called it) in 1900, and because of this event, which the Chinese cal the Uprising of the Righteous Fists, my Chinese father, instead of becoming a classical scholar, perhaps a Hanling Academician, married my Belgian mother. The tree is known by its roots. I had to go back to the roots.” (Ch.1, p.10)

The Crippled Tree is the first of an autobiograhical series dated from 1885. Han Suyin (real name Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou) was a Eurasian writer born of a Chinese father of Szechuan stock a and Belgium mother, raised in China but educated abroad later, where she married and divorced a British army officer.

This first volume introduces the circumstances in late 19th century under which her father, a native of Szechuan scholar family who was commissioned by the then-weakening Manchu (Qing) monarchy to study railway enginnering abroad, met her Belgian mother. Their romantic pairing takes the couple confidently back to China, only to confront harsh conflicts and prejudices on all sides—ultimately undermining their love, and shaping resentments that cripple their life together, and the future of their children.

As Han has noted in the very beginning, private life is inevitably woven into history. Everything that happened on a large scale influenced also private life. The book is itself woven with the belligerebnt events in China as monarchy is weakened during a time of uprisings to form a republic. Han’s father is from a gentry background. He is pruned to become a scholar and official. The Manchus have relied on the Chinese gentry to organize levies of Chinese provincial militia to fight the Taiping Uprising.

I found The Crippled Tree a very slow read, mainly because Han Suyin recounts not just her own life, but that of her various family members, using detailed excerpts from diaries and letters that probe many experiences exhaustively. She draws from the letters of her parents, as well as diary entries of her Third Uncle, who went on to military academy and fought in the war with Chiang Kai Shek. It is easy to get bogged down in specifics, and become diverted from the overall relationships being traced.

It was Papa being Chinese, and to be a Chinese in China was wrong, only being European was right. (Ch. 23, p.384)

The broad scope and the expanse of the history make this an important read on China during the period Han is documenting. That the Western powers have stripped China off its capitalist power made it convenient for Japan to conquer China in 1895 and helped bring forth the Revolution in 1911. It illuminates how the Manchus managed to twist the demand for change and the hatred against the manchu monarchy into a hatred against the foreigners. Knowing the rising restlessness among the reformers, the manchus diverted the violence, which threatened to be anti-dynastic to an anti-foreign frenzy, then condemned it. But all the foreign powers that offer China financial help in building the railway also had political motives.

All these events played a role in the domestic turbulence at home. Han’s mother becomes a piteous victim of her situations for her remaining years in China. She is a dislocated, hectic, miserable, and suspicious woman, who is a target of Chinese’s verbal attack. She is given to fits of rage and tears, developing a lifelong addiction to anger. She blames Han (Rosalie) for the death of her son. As a grown woman, Han wants to research and write about the years in which her relationship with her mother had gone cold. The Crippled Tree is a powerful and compelling book, because it presents such a vivid and comprehensive picture of parts of China, and how they were devastated by the years of foreign intervention that marked this period. As for Han and her parents, a mixed marriage is proved to be even tougher. The book depicts the beauty and brutality of the life around her, the pressure of living between irreconcilable contradictions in a China where to be Chinese was to be a beggar, to be European was to be a “foreign devil.”

503 pp. Bantam Book. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Letters of Mme de Sévigné


In my perusal of Paris’ history, one name makes frequent appearances during the reign of Louis XIV—Mme de Sévigné. She was France’s preeminent writer of epistles in the seventeenth century. Not trained in philosophy, yet in her extensive correspondence, de Sévigné develops a distinctive position on the philosophical disputes of her era. Her letters reflect the intellectual sophistication of the period’s salon culture.

During her lifetime, individual letters were already copied and read by members of her social circle. Circulation of letters and memoirs was not unusual in the era’s salons. The preeminent literary quality of the letters quickly established them as favored salon reading. Most of the correspondence is letters between Mme de Sévigné and her daughter.

Soon after her daughter’s marriage to Monsieur de Grignan, a scion of one of Provence’s noblest families, beyond Mme de Sévigné’s expectation, Louis XIV appointed her son-in-law Lieutenant Governor of his native Provence. The Grignans were forced to leave Paris for their ancestral estate, which prompts Mme de Sévigné to begin her writing career as a way of surviving the pain of this severance.

The mother’s correspondence has a tone of erotic possessiveness unusual in any epoch. She even expresses toward her son-in-law that she, the mother, should remain the center of her daughter’s affections. The visit to Paris becomes so strained as Mme de Sévigné’s nagging and snooping are so possessive.

The letters do not limit to domestic happenings. They also deal with the intrigues that accompanied Louis XIV’s shifting affections from Mlle. de La Valli ere to Mme. de Montespan to the future Mme. de Maintenon (Louis XIV’s second wife); the costumes, coiffures, jewelry, games and conversations displayed at the court of Versailles, which Mme de Sévigné visited once or twice a year.

Her letters brought to light the trial on charges of treason of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s Superintendant of Finances, an event on which she lavished 40 letters that offer as detailed an account as one might have of the daily account of court proceedings in 17th century.

Reading “Seven Ages of Paris”


How Paris Became Paris chronicles the major architectural and changes in Paris rendered by Henry IV and Louis XIV in the 17th century. Now I’m ready to tackle something grander, more epic and covering a wider period of time—Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. From the rise of Pjilippe Auguste through the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIV; Napoleon’s rise and fall, Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris; the Belle Epoque and the Great War that brought it to an end; the Nazi Occupation, the Liberation—Horne brings the city’s highs and lows, savagery and sophistication, to life.

Paris has undergone woe after woe for centuries—without ever being budged from its position as the most beloved city in the world. For all its violence, greed, inequality and double-dealing, Paris is most impressive, Horne thinks, for its ability to recover from collapse “and live again as if little had happened.” After Waterloo, after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, after the carnage of World War I, Paris did not merely survive; it saw ”an extraordinary blossoming in the gentler and more enduring works of humanity.” A trip to Paris should focus on Paris and its history. Except the Rick Steves’ guide, this book is the only book I’ll bring with me to Paris next week.

[759] How Paris Became Paris – Joan DeJean


” All through the 17th century, everytime its cityscape was redesigned in an important way, Paris benefited from what would now be called a rebranding campaign. In a continuous stream of publications and images, writers and artists publicized the city’s transformation from urban ruin to urban wonder and advertized the city as a destination, the epitome of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place. ” (Introduction: Capital of the Universe, p.5)

Today, books, films, and digital media define Paris as one of the most beautiful and romantic cities. Paris’ spell is rooted in its uniformity of architectural façade, the parks and gardens made for quiet stroll, and the views of the Seine. In fact, as DeJean nimbly demonstrates, Paris’ charm owes much to the vision of two savvy monarchs: Henri IV and his grandson, Louis XIV, the Sun King. How Paris Became Paris, wittily and quite thoroughly researched, presents the city’s role as a significant precursor urban modernity in 17th century, a decisive period of change for the city as it emerged scathed from the War of Religions. The book examines how many of Paris’ quintessential landmarks began as royal visions and benefited from royal support but carried out on a for-profit basis by financiers and real-estate developers. The most notable consequence of these public works is to give Parisians, regardless of social standing, places to go and sights to see, and thus broaden social trajectories and business opportunities.

The opening of Pont Neuf is a milestone in the emergence of an urban culture. Not only is it suited for heavy traffic and served as the first artery linking the two banks, the New Bridge was the first Parisian bridge built without houses, affording view of the Seine from the deck. Most important, it was not just utilitarian, it was treated as a place for urban civility and social exchange, a space for entertainment and commerce. It was a social leveler. The Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges) became a ground-breaking model for the city square devoted to recreation. Île Saint-Louis, built from two undeveloped islets on the Seine, changes Paris’ skyline with the unprecedented white stone construction. As city walls were demolished, streets widened to become boulevards, street lighting implemented, and public transportation introduced, Paris is leaving its medieval identity behind.

But the book is not exclusively about urban development. DeJean covers Le Fronde, the period of revolt against the monarchy (1649-1653) as Parisians, unified in their cause against the corrupted minister to the king, set up barricades and shut down Paris. The book also touches on the noveau riches who bankrolled on the king’s battles, and how these new riches bought fraudulent papers feign aristocratic standing. The result is an end to old aristocracy as one’s social status can be elevated by means of wealth. Rags-to-riches bring the demand for luxury goods, evolutions in fashion, and, a new social class that pursues money in unscrupulous means, otherwise known as gold-diggers.

The richness of subject matter is the strength and fun of this book, although the writing sometimes can be at risk of becoming subsumed in the delivery of facts that cover a vast period. DeJean is at pains to imply no greater city has existed until the reinventing of Paris. She succeeds in demonstrating the making of a very sophisticated Paris. She does an excellent job putting political, economic, and social events of 17th century in context, and showing how they are inter-related.

306 pp. Bloomsbury. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]