Life is only one

IMG_1514I dislike the kitschy cutie kawaii crap that Japan and its imitators pump out. Did I just use the word ‘dislike’? Man, I’m being way too polite.

But like any genre or style, there is the broad, lemming-like, unthinking mob adopting the form, and a brilliant few kernels of originality and daring that inform the trend.

Yoshitomo Nara is not someone I was familiar with, but his influence is everywhere: he is the anti-Hello Kitty artist who swims in the same pool of twee. From the complex girls of Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant animated films to (the not-so brilliant) Hit-Girl from “Kick Ass”, the angsty pre-teen female has become a cultural trope. In Japan and much of East Asia this character is usually commercialized into bovine vulgarity, with undercurrents of social control that tell young women exactly where their place belongs. Continue reading “Life is only one”

The Story of Bagan – done!

DSC00692Today I completed the manuscript for The Story of Bagan, a non-fiction history of Myanmar’s ancient city as told through 10 of its monuments. 

The research took about two years, including one visit to Bagan. The writing was fast, however, about 10 week’s worth of Saturdays, Sundays and the odd public holiday. I was on a mission.

Ever since I completed The Story of Angkor I knew I would attempt a book about Bagan, which was Angkor’s contemporary and the other great urban civilization of pre-modern Southeast Asia. Writing Angkor was harder because I had never attempted such a thing. I relied on the painful parts of that experience to ensure a smoother run for Bagan. Some of this is structural (ie, keeping really good track of your notes) and some was just knowing the subject matter that much better.

But as with my book about Angkor, this one is designed to provide visitors (physical or armchair) with a one-stop explanation of all the key developments, in a concise and non-academic manner.

Now comes the less fun part: getting published, doing all the fiddly edits, stuff that feels like a job. But that’s OK. Writing this filled me with joy because I feel like this book will really contribute to people’s understanding and appreciation of Bagan and its legacy of thousands of beautiful temples.


The bull has been adopted as a universal symbol of financial market success. The most famous representation is the Charging Bull statue in Manhattan. The Chinese had to have a replica, made by the same artist, but tinted red for the Shanghai bund. Not every country seems able to exhibit the same virile confidence, however. Take the bull fronting the Hanoi stock exchange. It is made of stodgy stone, not sleek bronze, and its muscles seem to strain as it steps forward, as though dragging a plough. It is an apt metaphor for Vietnam’s half-hearted embrace of stock-market capitalism.


Tantric Buddha

The faces of the Bayon remain a mystery. Is it Brahma? Buddha? A bodhisattva? King Jayavarman VII? The answer is actually a Tantric invokation of a Buddha from the cosmic past. This image is from the wall of an office complex in Hong Kong. The tower is supposedly built on the site of an execution ground used by the Japanese during World War 2, and the divinity is meant to sooth the ghosts. Or perhaps it is just a cool thing to have in the lobby.

noir cambodge

More quirky images available on Instagram @JameDiBiasio.

Anti-China folly (updated)

US Senators from the Democratic Party are now trying to lumber President Obama’s Asia trade talks with provisions designed to combat perceived currency manipulation by China. [Since I wrote this, Democrats in the Senate denied the consideration of a vote on giving the President fast-track authorization; see bottom of this post.]

Discussing trade is a surefire way to make someone’s eyes glaze over and ensure they promptly find someone else at the cocktail party to schmooze.

The thing about modern trade agreements is that they’re important, but they don’t have much to do about free trade. Continue reading “Anti-China folly (updated)”

Hong Kong ivory tower to writers: sod off

On April 27, City University of Hong Kong surprised faculty and students by announcing the closure of its master of fine arts for creative writing.

No one really knows why this Iowa of the Orient was shuttered, but plenty of students are expressing the view – in the media, social or traditional – that it is part of Beijing’s post-Umbrella Movement clampdown on civic society in Hong Kong.

The university is not commenting, which would seem odd were the closure merely about the program’s finances (in the black, according to the program’s leader, author Xu Xi).

Less odd were the speculation accurate. Continue reading “Hong Kong ivory tower to writers: sod off”

Cowgirls and Indians

Recently in the US, a group of Native American actors walked off an Adam Sandler film set because the stereotypes they were being asked to portray were too painful to bear. Sandler’s humor is so generally unfunny that it doesn’t take a lot to imagine the nature of the Indian jokes.

I’m veering into dangerous territory because two Navajo Indians feature in Cowgirl X, the upcoming Val Benson novel. I don’t want to give the story away, so I won’t talk about the sources I used to develop these characters. But their Indian background is key to the tale.

It wasn’t especially difficult to write their characters – not much harder than writing a character who is Japanese, Thai or Australian. Mostly you give them a personality and a motive, and off they go. Continue reading “Cowgirls and Indians”

Deserve’s got nothing to do with it

The stigma of ‘vanity publishing’ has been lessened or even eliminated – among those who engage in it. There are also huge corporations such as Amazon (which owns CreateSpace, the world’s biggest digital self-publishing company) that actively promote the idea that self-publishing is great for authors. Cut out the middlemen and go straight to the consumer, and let the buyers decide!

Indeed, there are actual success stories of good writers who couldn’t get any joy from the traditional industry, self-published, promoted themselves well, and made money. Being an only modestly successful writer stuck with a big-five house can be unpleasant because these corporations only spend time and resources on their best-sellers, so some established writers have ditched them to go self-published; at least you keep all of the royalties.

There are always cases when self-publishing makes sense. It’s cheap, and you can use Facebook to promote the work. But there is still a fundamental difference. I once said in an interview, “Self-published is not ‘published’; sorry.” Someone has recently been asking me about this. Is a publisher that relies on print-on-demand actually a ‘publisher’? Aren’t sales figures the real arbiter of whether you are considered a legitimate writer? Continue reading “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it”