“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Museum Representations of Chinese Diasporas – Migration Histories and the Cultural Heritage of the Homeland

Posted: December 21st, 2020 | No Comments »

Cangbai Wangs new book, Museum Representations of Chinese Diasporas, looks interesting…

Museum Representations of Chinese Diasporas is the first book to analyse the recent upsurge in museums on Chinese diasporas in China. Examining heritage-making beyond the nation state, the book provides a much-needed, critical examination of China’s engagement with its diasporic communities.

Drawing on fieldwork in more than ten museums, as well as interviews with museum practitioners and archival study, Wang offers a timely analysis of the complex ways in which Chinese diasporas are represented in the museum space of China, the ancestral homeland. Arguing that diasporic heritage is highly ambivalent and introducing a diasporic perspective to the study of cultural heritage, this book opens up a new avenue of inquiry into the study and management of cultural heritage in China and beyond. Most importantly, perhaps, Wang sheds new light on the dynamic between China and Chinese diasporas through the lens of the museum.

Museum Representations of Chinese Diasporas takes a transnational perspective that will draw attention to the under-researched connections between heritage, mobility and meaning in a global context. As such, this cross-disciplinary work will be of interest to scholars and students working in the museum and heritage studies fields, as well as those studying Asia, China, migration and diaspora, anthropology, history and culture.

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RIP John Le Carre

Posted: December 18th, 2020 | 3 Comments »

David Cornwell, aka John Le Carré, the master of the spy novel, died this week. There are a thousand obituaries of Le Carré online, but perhaps it is worth the Mekong Review remembering the author’s writing on Asia. For those obsessed with South East Asia Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy, published in 1977, is without doubt the most engrossing espionage novel of the region. For Le Carré fans it is the novel in which his greatest character George Smiley begins to rebuild an effective British intelligence service in the wake of the unravelling of “the Service” following the revelation of a senior Soviet mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). The Honourable Schoolboy moves between Hong Kong, Vientiane, and London.

When most obituarists remember Le Carré they recall him as the master of the London ‘Circus’ and the Cold War battlefield of Berlin. However, The Honourable Schoolboy is Le Carré’s masterful Asian novel. Most recall Le Carré’s time with MI6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service, in post-war west Germany. However, The Honourable Schoolboy reaches back to Le Carré’s early years with the domestic British Security Service, MI5, in the 1950s.

In amongst all the legends of Le Carré’s time in Germany it is worth remembering that his first job with British Intelligence was investigating Chinese industrial espionage against the UK. In the 1950s the People’s Republic of China used overseas students for industrial espionage. Le Carré was tasked with investigating mainland Chinese, as well as Hong Kong, Singaporean and Malaysian students a suspects – all ethnic-Chinese students were deemed vulnerable.

Le Carré was astonished to find that MI5’s China experts were mostly retired missionaries with rather austere views on China and the Chinese, and rather imperfect language skills. It got him thinking about an Asian novel.

Le Carré first arrived in Hong |Kong in the spring of 1974. In the colony he spent time in the fabled FCC (then in Sutherland House on Chater Road and not its current location on Lower Albert Road) a spoke to plenty of Old China Hands and several hacks who had been spending time in Phnom Penh. He spent a little time in Cambodia being shot at by Khmer Rouge snipers and met the American pilots who had flown for Guomindang opium for Air America. Time was spent back in Hong Kong, at the FCC with old China Hands who had begun their careers in wartime Chongqing and Shanghai, and further trips to Laos.

Out of all this came The Honourable Schoolboy, a masterpiece of writing about Cold War Asia that begins in Hong Kong:

‘Perhaps a more realistic point of departure is a certain typhoon Saturday in mid-1974, three o’clock in the afternoon, when Hong Kong lay battened down waiting for the next onslaught. In the bar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a score of journalists, mainly from the former British colonies – Australian, Canadian, American – fooled and drank in a mood of violent idleness, a chorus without a hero. Thirteen floors below them, the old trams and double deckers were caked in the mud-brown sweat of building dust and smuts from the chimney-stacks in Kowloon. The tiny ponds outside the highrise hotels prickled with slow, subversive rain. And in the men’s room, which provided the club’s best view of the harbour, young Luke the Californian was ducking his face into the handbasin, washing the blood from his mouth.’

Later the novel moves to Vientiane, a city little remembered in literature but encapsulated in The Honourable Schoolboy as a den of espionage and intrigue centred on the Constellation dive:

‘The bar was of concrete, two foot deep, so that if need arose it could do duty as a bomb shelter or firing position. Each night, in the mournful dining room attached to it, one old colon ate and drank fastidiously, a napkin tucked into his collar. Jerry Westerby sat reading at another table. They were the only diners, ever, and they never spoke. In the streets the Pathet Lao – not long down from the hills – walked righteously in pairs, wearing Maoist caps and tunics, and avoiding the glances of the girls. They had commandeered the corner villas, and the villas along the road to the airport. They had camped in immaculate tents which peeked over the walls of overgrown gardens.’

John Le Carré will doubtless be remembered mostly for his novels of the European Cold War – East and West Berlin, the treacheries of the London “Circus”, the machinations of the Soviets. But he also wrote one blistering good book about Asia, one that has never been matched in the espionage genre of the region since – The Honourable Schoolboy. If you haven’t read it then do so today. If you have, then reread it. It remains one of Le Carré’s best.      

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Barbarians at the Gate podcast on Beijing Hutong preservation….

Posted: December 17th, 2020 | No Comments »

Mt favourite (or rather least favourite as i get a bit upset) subject…click here.

In this episode, Jeremiah and David talk with Matthew Hu, former Managing Directory of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, Co-founder of the Beijing Courtyard Institute, and a longtime activist for the preservation and restoration of historic Beijing architecture and historical landmarks. This episode is definitely for lovers of old Beijing and hutong aficionados, as we take a deep historical dive into the ongoing struggle to maintain and preserve Beijing’s historic architecture and cultural sites against the wrecking ball of urban modernization. Matthew covers topics such as the preservationist Liang Sicheng’s abandoned vision for the Old City and the city wall, the botched renovation schemes for areas such as Qianmen and Dashilanr, the waves of demolition and evictions in the hutong neighborhoods of Dongcheng and Xicheng, as well as the ongoing municipal project to renovate and revitalize the city’s abandoned industrial sites, such as the Shougang Iron and Steel Works, into Olympic venues.

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Opium References in Popular Culture, the 2020 List

Posted: December 15th, 2020 | No Comments »

I’ve been spotting opium references in popular culture with interest for a few years now (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 & 2012) – just how opium keeps fascinating us…

Well, 2020 was a funny year but anyway.

Let’s start with a few novels – Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Blood and Sugar was a great trip to 1780s Deptford and the slave trade. Opium addicts of course and a few on tinctures of laundanum for various eighteenth century ailments. Lydia Kang’s Opium and Absinthe took us to 1889 New York, vampire scares, and opium. Elizabeth Bailey’s The Opium Purge is back in 1790 England with mysteries that lead back to dope. The Opium Prince by Jamine Aimaq starts in Afghanistan, 1970s. Born to an American mother and a late Afghan war hero, Daniel Sajadi has spent his life navigating a complex identity. After years in Los Angeles, he is returning home to Kabul at the helm of a US foreign aid agency dedicated to eradicating the poppy fields that feed the world’s opiate addiction.

On TV we had plenty of opium in the BBC/Working Title TV adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which was, in my humble opinion, a major part of the reason it was all such a mess).

Programme Name: The Luminaries – TX: n/a – Episode: n/a (No. 3) – Picture Shows: Anna Wetherell (EVE HEWSON), Dick Mannering (ERIK THOMSON) – (C) The Luminaries Production Ltd 2018 – Photographer: Kirsty Griffin

Opium more unexpectedly in Dickinson (a rather free and easy bio series about young Emily on Hulu). Included was a party where Emily and her friends dipped into the opium. True? Vulture magazine asked Martha Nell Smith, a distinguished scholar-teacher, professor of English, and the founding director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, who’s devoted most of her career to studying Emily Dickinson:

‘Is there any evidence that Emily had parties and took opium? The opium party, I was like, “Hmmm. Why is this here?” Opium was used as a painkiller and all of that. Whether George Gould brought some to Emily to take at a party? I don’t know. Maybe Smith is trying to capture that Dickinson was much more social than we’ve been led to believe, and that she was fun-loving. I think that’s true. But opium? I don’t know.’

Emily gets into the dope

Any other opium references from 2020 I’ve missed please do leave a comment….

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Lawrence Osborne’s The Glass Kingdom – My review in the Mekong Review a ‘Free Read’ for a limited time….

Posted: December 14th, 2020 | No Comments »

My review of Lawrence Osborne’s new Bangkok-set novel The Glass Kingdom is the Mekong Review’s Free Read for a while – have a look and think about a subscription to this fine publiucation that has battled Hong Kong and Thai censors this year to keep publishing…..click here

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Ching Ling Foo: America’s First Chinese Superstar

Posted: December 10th, 2020 | No Comments »

A new biography of the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo from Samuel Porteous….

Ching Ling Foo: America’s First Chinese Superstar tells the incredible story of the iconic Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo’s obstacle laden rise to unprecedented fame and private railway car riding fortune as a bustling, polyglot, entertainment mad, ever richer, disruptive technology embracing America burst into the Twentieth Century. Ching Ling Foo; reportedly the greatest illusionist ever seen on American soil along with his talented family of musicians and acrobats overcome on stage attacks, deportation attempts, homeland tragedy, and a talented and diabolically clever American copycat to make an indelible impact on American popular culture becoming the highest paid, most popular performers in the United States – twice!Ching Ling Foo’s story is a magical one that, with its focus on the interaction of Chinese and Western cultures, geopolitical tensions, international intrigue, nativism, the importance of celebrity and disruptive technological developments seemingly has much resonance for our current era.Even a partial list of “the Original Chinese Conjurer’s accomplishments still dazzle:· Highest paid and most popular performer in American vaudeville, twice breaking box office records from 1898-1900 and again from 1912-1915,· Inspired a mania for Chinese magic, a seemingly endless list of copycats, and one real genius: William Robinson, a.k.a. Chung Ling Soo, the doomed rival with whom Foo would become paired for eternity.· Subject of a historic, precedent-setting deportation trial, closely followed across the U.S.· Maker, in 1899, of the first sound recordings of Chinese music and singing.· Instigator of the infamous 1905 London “World Championship of Chinese Magic.” This much-hyped “War of the Wizards” would pit Foo against archrival Chung Ling Soo, the stage name of American performer William Robinson-the man who had appropriated both Foo’s act and his identity. The contest and its denouement would result in an enduring mystery when, at the last minute, the sphinxlike Foo walked away from his own challenge. (This biography will provide, for the first time, a plausible and research-based solution to this otherwise puzzling outcome.)· Maker, in 1911, of Wuchang Uprising, considered by many to be China’s first documentary. This daring and innovative war documentary, which played to rapt audiences in theaters across China, would play a significant role in rallying opposition to the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Chinese Republic.· In the 1930s, more than a decade after his death, his impact on the evolution of the film industry would be acknowledged when the man who would become known as the father of film special effects-and an inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars-would identify Foo as the man who mentored him in the field of optical illusion.Beyond all this-and there is more-perhaps the genial and charismatic Chinese conjurer’s greatest legacy was in the area of cultural and person-to-person diplomacy. In the era of the uniquely discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act, over a period of almost 20 years, Ching Ling Foo and his talented family, through the joyful and dignified presentation of their sheer talent, managed to introduce to an American public awash in very hostile representations involving opium, deceit, and vice, what was aptly termed a very “different picture.”

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The Mapping of Asia – Maps from the 16-20th Century – 8/12/20-27/2/21 – Wattis Gallery, Hong Kong

Posted: December 9th, 2020 | No Comments »

The Mapping of Asia

Fine antique and vintage maps from 16th to 20th century

Tuesday 8th December 2020 – Saturday 27th February 2021    Gallery open: Monday – Saturday 12 – 6pm
  Wattis Fine Art Gallery
20 Hollywood Road, 2/F, Central, Hong Kong 
Tel. +852 2524 5302 E-mail. info@wattis.com.hk

A WW2 relief map of Hong Kong Dec. 27 1941 – Gordon Home
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Wing On Shanghai Postcard….

Posted: December 7th, 2020 | No Comments »

Nice to think that the Wing On Department Store on Nanking Road (Nanjing XI Lu), built 1918 with add ons in the 1930s, was such a great site it inspired postcards….

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