Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hong Kong

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

Gordon Mathews

Opera houses, trans-Atlantic flights, multilingual work atmospheres, nice restaurants, dressing up in formal attire, a steady flow of books to my home arriving via UPS, Pilates classes, shopping for clothing to take to Europe, etc.

The above are occurrences which have taken place in my life over the last few months and constitute my take on “reality.” Although I do not consider myself in the flanks of the “extremely privileged” in the United States by any means, I recognize that my “reality” will be experienced by only a few – due to preferences of time and resources.

Ever since I was young, I have been interested in the topic of the “realities” of different groups of people. Luckily, I have not only come to gain knowledge about other realities through my studies, but also through experience. For many years, my father worked in what is considered one of the lowest income sections of our small city. As a child, I loved spending time at his office because there was never a dull moment – I got a lot of attention from the customers because no one looked like me; people spoke in different languages; and I was there a couple of times when my father called the police to help solve disputes. As I got older, I spent time there because it felt so real – especially in contrast to my private school and later in contrast to my private liberal arts college.

I became accustomed to hearing about other’s realities. I heard about gang violence, people struggling to pay their bills, men taking their girlfriends’ food stamps to buy steaks to sell at half price for the cash, unwanted pregnancies, and teenagers dropping out of school. After increasing my Spanish language ability, I was able to learn a great deal from the customers who were undocumented workers: border crossings through the help of coyotes, deportation raids, fear of the police, separation of families, and corruption in their home countries.

Even though we lived in the same city, our realities were dramatically different. They lived in a reality of constant financial uncertainty. In their realities, there was no Visa, American Express, or Mastercard. But yet, I continued to see them week in and week out – constant testimonies to the tenacity of people to make due in difficult situations.

Thus, I was not shocked or even mildly surprised by the description of reality as described in “Ghetto at the Center of the World:Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong” by anthropology professor Gordon Mathews. Chungking Mansions is an old, 17-floor building in the heart of busy Hong Kong which now is home to cheap guest houses (often frequented by African traders), a plethora of ethnic food restaurants, and many low-end shops owned by South Asians and ethnic Chinese (many specializing in mobile phones and clothing.) A haven for people seeking economic opportunity from around the world, it is described by the author as a place where low-end globalization and cosmopolitanism thrives: “Chungking Mansions is basically a ‘club of the third-world successful.’” (page 102)
First it is necessary to define both “low-end globalization” and “cosmopolitanism.” We all know what globalization is – it is the phenomenon which allows someone (me) to sit at a Starbucks in Europe, listening to jazz, while chatting on the internet with a friend in Asia. It consists of the web of connections and transactions made across the world. Low-end globalization consists of “traders carrying their goods by suitcase, container, or truck across continents and borders with minimal interference seeking a better life by fleeing their home countries for opportunities elsewhere, whether as temporary workers, asylum seekers, or sex workers. This is the dominant form of globalization experienced in much of the developing world today.” (page 13) According to the Random House dictionary, “cosmopolitanism” can be defined as, “free from local, provincial, or national ideas, prejudices, or attachments; at home all over the world.”

After having developed a better understanding of the Chungking Mansions, it is important to ask the question: “Why Hong Kong?” First of all, it is important to recognize the current status of Hong Kong as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. It came under Great Britain’s sphere of control following British victory in the First Opium War in 1842. It returned to Chinese possession only in 1997. However, Hong Kong is distinctly separate from mainland China – firstly, through linguistic differences. While Mandarin Chinese is spoken in the mainland, the language of Hong Kong is Cantonese. Moreover, Hong Kong retained its economic structure based on free trade following its return to China. Hong Kong has been constantly ranked as the #1 most economically free country in the world by The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. The author notes that “by the 1990s, Hong Kong had become wealthy – far wealthier in its per capita income than China and wealthier, too, by this measure, than its colonizer, Great Britain.” (page 2)

In short, the author tries to expose the realities of low-end globalization, how it is a product of our neo-liberal economic system, and how it is a reality which we will experience in the years to come. The author describes this environment as cut-throat; a place where economic exploitation happens on an individual level: “Instead of the exploitation of faceless corporations, Chungking Mansions enables the exploitation by individual entrepreneurs whose faces those they exploit know very well. But the exploited seek, in general, not to rebel against their oppressors but to emulate them.”  (page 103)

One of the aspects that I liked most about the book was how it was interspersed with short vignettes from actual inhabitants in and people who make their livelihood from Chungking Mansions. Reading the “realities” of these individuals and their struggles to make the best for themselves in this world made the book certainly worth the read.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013



A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia

After receiving a high recommendation on this book from a contact for whom I have a good deal of respect, I read Aaron L. Friedberg’s “A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.” When I shared the title of this book with others, I got many raised eyebrows – questioning my choice. I will admit that the title seems to refute my goals of objectivity and cross-cultural understanding. It is for this reason that I would like to provide some background information that played a role in my thought process in choosing this book.

  • I have a great deal of respect for the Chinese people, language, and culture. This can be seen in the amount of time I have spent dedicated to learning more about China during undergraduate studies. I took an entire year of introductory Mandarin Chinese language– which meant one hour of class time each day, as well as at least one to two hours of preparation each night. Needless to say, all of my class notes (regardless of subject) from that year contain the never-ending doodling of Chinese characters. I also took a month-long Chinese culture course (several hours each day) where I learned how to cook traditional Chinese food, started practicing the ancient art of Tai Chi, and researched topics relating to law, economics, and music. As an extra-curricular side-note, I will mention that I was also a founding member of Wofford College’s Chinese culture club, Terrier Dynasty. Through my undergraduate studies, I have gained a very positive view of China and its cultural contributions to our modern world.
  • I have been lucky to encounter and make several life-long friendships with people from China in both the United States and abroad, who have been willing to share with me about key issues facing their country today. I have engaged in extensive conversations with Chinese nationals about issues such as territories in the South China Sea, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, nuclear programs, Tibet, Taiwan, corruption in government, rifts within the communist party, foreign relations (in particular, relations with North Korea and Pakistan), religion, and the One-Child policy. I feel lucky that they trust me with their thoughts about these subjects and I always work hard to be an enthusiastic and encouraging listener – even if I disagree with what they are saying. On the other hand, these conversations have exposed several differences between the United States worldview and the Chinese worldview – differences that are not impossible to overcome, but can certainly prove to be problematic.  
  • Having completed a government course in December entitled International Conflict, I saw this book as a perfect post-exam continuation of my studies. I realized that I could continue developing my interest in this subject by reading about potential conflicts that could arise between great powers in the future – namely, the United States and China. In my opinion, the only way to avoid conflict (i.e., maintain peace) is to acknowledge, understand, and come up with solutions for the situations which can erupt into conflict.

The author states that, “Even if great-power war is a thing of the past, great-power rivalry certainly is not” (page 39.) The purpose of this book is to offer an introduction to the rivalry which has erupted on the Asian continent between the United States and China. It begins with a brief history of Sino-American relations – how an international partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the United States was established and the reasons why. The book then discusses the recent strategies of the United States to curb the growing power of China. Finally, the book hypothesizes about the future and the ways by which relations between these two countries might develop.

I have yet to sit through an economic history course which does not address the Industrial Revolution in the first week. Similarly, this book poses the question, “Why did the Industrial Revolution happen first in the West rather than the East?” on page 11. The author brings up the Industrial Revolution because it set the East and the West on separate paths and created a discrepancy which can be felt even to this day. Needless to say, the fact that China has regained its empire (which was slowly dismantled during the time of the European arrival to Asia) plays a huge role in today’s world – a source of pride for the Chinese people and posing the question to the Western world whether China would like to further expand its territorial empire. Another factor associated with industrialization is China’s rivalry with Japan, a country which industrialized more quickly than its neighbors and built an extensive empire on the Asian continent which was only dismantled following World War II.

The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 by Mao Zedong. The United States did not extend diplomatic relations until 1979 through an agreement between President Jimmy Carter and Chairman Deng Xiaoping. It is important to note that a precedent for the normalization of relations was set earlier – most notably in 1972 with President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing to meet with Mao Zedong. (As a side-note, I will mention that this event serves as the subject for the opera Nixon in China by John Adams, which was recently performed at the Metropolitan Opera. I recently enjoyed an enlightening and lengthy conversation with President Nixon’s brother, Edward, about this opera and the importance of classical music instruction in the Nixon home - evidenced through this Youtube video.) Within these 30 years, there is a clear change in the United States’ attitude. Interestingly, these changes of attitude were often brought about by unanticipated or outside factors:

  • The Korean War: “Any possibility of an early-opening to China was swept aside within months of the start of the Korean War” (page 63.) Truman made the decision to come to South Korea’s defense in the Korean War, leading to the United States troops fighting on the Asian continent. The Chinese viewed this as a threat, and during the Korean War, the United States and Chinese troops engaged in direct fire – obviously leading to a worsening of relations.
  • Growing power of the USSR: In order to curb the growing power of the Soviet Union, Nixon and Kissinger decided “to move forward with a diplomatic opening to China” (page 73.) In 1969 border clashes between the Soviet Union and China also created an environment in which China was willing to enter into a partnership with the United States in order to obtain a higher level of security. (Needless to say, the fall of the Soviet Union created a void of a mutual competitor in both the United States and China, leading to a shift in relations.)
  • The belief that economic reforms and governmental reforms are interconnected: Following Deng Xiaoping’s accession to power, economic reforms were implemented in order that China might experience the prosperity of some of its smaller Asian neighbors, including South Korea and Singapore. Many people in the United States believed that these reforms would lead to government reforms, thus, creating a positive public opinion toward more engagement with China: “Greater openness had clearly quickened the pace of economic development. Goods and services, people and money, ideas and information were now flowing more freely… Surely liberalizing reforms, and a movement toward genuine democratic rule, could not be far behind” (page 87.)

Much of the book discusses factors associated with the Sino-American rivalry – including how the rivalry has manifested itself. It is my belief that just as relations were changed in the past due to unanticipated or outside factors, any future change (including conflict) will likewise be brought about by unanticipated or outside factors. Perhaps this will be brought about by the growing rivalry between China and another Asian power (such as India or Japan) or the global economic situation (which is especially noteworthy, as the effect of the 2008 crisis on Sino-American relations is yet to be fully determined.)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Tuesday, February 5, 2013



Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia

I feel as if I must apologize for not keeping my blog updated as rigorously as I intended. This is not for lack of reading – but rather for not having enough time to sit down and write! Last month (January 2013), I found myself in Barcelona, Spain interning for the Francisco Viñas Competition. As some of you might know, my love for opera and my studies in economics have opened up several doors for me in arts administration. Although I am not exactly sure whether or not I will pursue this as a career following graduation, I jumped at the opportunity to return to Barcelona.

Based on my experience in the States, I knew that an internship in arts administration in preparation for a production or event means: 1.) long hours; 2.) no weekends; and 3.) not knowing one’s schedule until hours in advance. While some might complain about this type of work, I find it stimulating: the atmosphere is so positive and the anticipation for the final event is so strong. At least on my end, it seemed like adrenaline alone kept me alive and running for over two weeks. During my hours off, I devoted myself to spending time with friends in the city – grabbing coffee, attending concerts, etc. After having returned home for a few weeks before resuming my studies abroad once again, I have finally found the time to write.

During my work with the Francisco Viñas Competition, Mongolia gained a new importance to me than just one of the lesser-known countries of my Global Book Challenge. This new importance came through the rich baritone voice of a man simply known by his last name, Amartuvshin. He quickly grew to be one of the most fascinating characters of the competition. He clearly had one of the richest voices – the audience was clearly moved and cheered enthusiastically after every one of his performances and auditions. (Spoiler alert: He ended up winning 2nd Prize overall.) However, what was so interesting about Amartuvshin was his lack of ability to communicate with any of the administration or even the other performers. We attempted to communicate with him in every language we knew – English, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, French, German, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese. He did not respond to any of these languages and it quickly became apparent to us that he was only comfortable communicating in his native Mongolian. (Needless to say, my communication with him involved a lot of hand signals.) Despite his lack of ability to communicate basic necessities verbally, I was always shocked every time he opened his mouth to sing. Through his music, he was able to communicate the deepest emotions. On a personal note, this experience truly solidified the often-said phrase that music is the universal language.

Perhaps one of the aspects that most drew me to Amartuvshin was that I had an understanding  of his country and culture after having read Jill Lawless’s book, “Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia.” This book, written by a journalist, is an excellent introduction to a transitional Mongolia during the 1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union. This had significant impact on the country, as the author describes: “Then the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the supply of money that had amounted to 30 percent of the country’s GDP… The results were fuel shortages, closed factories, unemployment, scarcity” (page 29.)

A frequent topic of conversation lately among me and a few friends has been the topic of progress. Specifically, this conversation has led to the idea that different groups of people have different definitions of progress. This was a topic which was brought to mind when I was reading this book. Although Mongolia remained independent and was never a part of the Soviet Union, it was clear that the Russian/Soviet ideals of progress were imposed over the Mongolian people, like so many other countries in Central Asia. (It is important to note that in order to ensure territorial independence from China, Mongolia fell under the Soviet sphere of influence and in 1924 became known as the Mongolian People’s Republic.) Some of the questions that I began to ponder in this book include:

  • Is standardization “progress?” / What is the role of historical tradition in progress?: I found two examples in the book where historical traditions of the Mongolian people were overlooked and disregarded in favor of the Soviet model: language and ways of living. The author notes that with Soviet aid, “the citizens of the People’s Republic were better educated and healthier than any Mongols in history. But they lost things, too. They lost part of their written language when the Russians persuaded them to scrap their traditional Uighur script in favor of the Cyrillic alphabet” (pages 27-28.) She also noted that the landscape of Mongolia was not consistent with its history, due to Soviet influence: “Mongolia has little history of large settlements. When the country fell into the Soviet orbit, towns were thrown up quickly and cheaply” (page 107.)
  • The problems with measuring a quality of life: Throughout history, Mongolia has been known to be the home of nomadic herders – despite the fact that emperor Genghis Khan once ruled Central Asia as an empire. The nomadic way is still highly thought of, evident as the author shares an interview with a woman who chose to return to her nomadic roots following the instability of modernization and city life following the economic hardship of the 1990s. In this interview, the woman states, “Our standard of living has improved here. I want my children to be herders because even in you have a university degree these days the pay is not so high” (page 45.)
  • The mental and historical scars of denying people a part of their identity due to so-called progress: The author shares how the religious traditions of Mongolia were erased due to Soviet influence. “Before the communist revolution, Mongolia had hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and more than 100,000 monks. By the end of the communist period, there was one functioning monastery and perhaps a couple of hundred monks. Once again, it seemed, seven decades had comprehensively undone the work of 700 years” (page 193.)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  



Vietnam: Rising Dragon 


At the end of this month, I will travel to Berlin, Germany to begin a semester of German language studies. To my slight discomfort, I am unsure on when I will return to the United States – it could be June, July, or even August, depending on my course choices and internship opportunities. Nonetheless, returning during the summer means one thing: I will not walk across the stage for my graduation during May 2013 to receive my diploma.

My family has accepted my deprivation of ceremonial formalities with understanding and support (partly because they are certain that I will continue my academic studies and provide them with more opportunities to see me “graduate.”) Another factor in their acceptance is the fact that, in my family, undergraduate education is an expectation. Both of my parents have undergraduate degrees. All four of my grandparents attended college and three of them obtained degrees. When I start going back further generations in my family’s history, countless of my direct ancestors (including a few women) received high levels of education.

I mention these anecdotes about education in order to introduce the country of Vietnam. To be honest, I do not remember a time when I did not know what or where Vietnam was. I can credit this to my family. One of my grandmothers went back to college as an adult woman. After obtaining her degree, she became an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher, working with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees who had settled in the area. Needless to say, the Vietnamese community became an integral part of the tapestry of our family life. Growing up, I was enthralled by stories of cultural miscommunications. (One such story is at my grandparents’ 25th Wedding Anniversary party when the musical band made up of Vietnamese immigrants played continuously “Your Cheating Heart.” Later, it became known to the family that they had chosen this song because of its melody and they had no idea the true meaning of the lyrics.)

After having covered the Vietnam War in one of my academic courses last semester, I did not want to read a book which discussed the war. Based on my childhood experiences with the Vietnamese community, I knew that there was a more diverse and complex story to be told. However, the country of Vietnam constantly seemed to arise in my studies and interests. For example, both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City boast opera houses – remnants of French colonial rule. Moreover, I was surprised a few years ago to Google myself, only to discover that I was the subject of an article of a popular Vietnamese magazine. I finally decided upon Bill Hayton’s “Vietnam: Rising Dragon,” a book which discusses Vietnam as a rising power, as well as the challenges it faces in the upcoming years.

Most of this book discusses the concept of power and how the Communist Party in Vietnam is intent on retaining its power. This has grown to be more and more problematic due to a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important reason is that the demographics of Vietnam have changed substantially in recent years, as “more than half the population is under the age of 26” (page 2.) Another issue associated with the changing demographics is that the memory of the Vietnamese people has changed – the United States is no longer seen as an enemy. Instead, the author discusses Vietnam as a country caught between competing international powers – both benefiting from and fearing China and the United States. The challenge that the Party faces due to changing demographics is essentially an economic issue: the country must provide ample opportunities to its young people in order to ensure peace. “To survive, the Party knows it has to match a simple, but terrifying, figure: one million jobs a year” (page 3.)

The author discusses past actions, including the liberalization of the economy, that have allowed the Communist Party to keep this power. The author also discusses the current situation in Vietnam and how the Party is hoping to develop to retain power. It is first important to mention that they are hesitant about full-scale liberalization in Vietnam as well as the development of a middle class, as this could change the balance of power. Indeed due to the nature of the liberalization process, “the gap between the top and the bottom of the pile is wide and getting wider” (page 25.) Interestingly, the Party has made itself open to more democratic reforms in order to stabilize its power: “the Party is prepared to allow greater participation in the management of the state, especially at village level, but it isn’t prepared to let the people rule” (page 262.)

I knew some about the power of the Communist Party in Vietnam. I do not often go for manicures/pedicures, but a couple of years ago, I received a gift certificate. As most of these stores in my area are owned by Vietnamese, I soon found myself in a lengthy conversation with the manicurist about her reasons for immigrating to the United States and the current political state of Vietnam. (I will admit that I highly enjoyed this conversation, but received a lot of dirty looks from some of the other women in the shop – sitting in massage chairs with tabloids on their laps.) This book delved into how power is exercised in Vietnam including:

  • The Neighborhood Warden: In order to make sure that citizens comply with government campaigns and laws, the Party has organized a system based on historical social practices of respect of elders. This system is a way to exercise local control. “Each neighborhood in the country, about 60-80 households – a unit Vietnamese call a to dan pho – has a ‘neighborhood warden;” most wardens are retired officials from some part of the Party or state. Their role is to monitor the activities or residents and visitors” (page 69.)
  • That Power in Vietnam Has Its Limitations: “It [the Party] can wield enormous coercive power over limited areas or short time spans but it could not sustain rigid discipline across the whole country in the style of North Korea or Burma in any circumstances short of national emergency” (page 73.)
  • Restriction of Information: The Party has had a difficult time adjusting the possibilities which are available for communication through modern technology. In the meantime, Vietnam utilizes a firewall to restrict certain information to its citizens. “In other words, the Vietnamese firewall allows youngsters to consume plenty of porn but not Amnesty International reports” (page 77.)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!