The battle of Hong Kong

ByoLdNJCAAEm_SyLast night, following three days of student political protests and sit-ins, the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement closed down major roads and faced off a police assault. But to call this ‘Occupy Central’ is misleading. The markets and professional businesses in Central are operating normally, give or take some bad commutes. But the protest movement erupted not just in Central but in Admiralty, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok.

It’s ‘Occupy Hong Kong’.

Byn3bdFCEAAtax0The protesters are for the most part young and idealistic. I guess you have to be if you want to get tear gassed and maced by the cops. They are, according to people I know who have been involved, behaving with the utmost courtesy. They are armed with umbrellas, to shield them from gas and spray. Fears that some radical splinters in the movement would instigate vandalism or violence have so far not materialized.

Byn3bHSCcAA6bnyThe civil disobedience movement here has a reliable track record of good citizenship, non-violence and respect. (It was the pro-Beijing camp that, in a farce of a protest march last month, left a trail of litter and showed no respect for civic norms.)

ByijP4pCEAEJpNH.jpg-mediumThe police are not known for their brutality, but have been increasingly suborned by the establishment into partisanship. Last night they were given heavy-handed orders, escalating immediately to tear gas and pepper spray in a failed attempt to clear the streets. All they did was to anger people.

(From Beijing’s perspective, the police acted with restraint. Perhaps with too much restraint.)

Committed activists weren’t surprised; they were prepared. Many who were vaguely sympathetic to the protesters, but perhaps skeptical of their actions, are dismayed by what has transpired. People feel sad.

There is for now a touch of romance with the protests. They surprised the police throughout the encounter: first when students infiltrated government offices, then when the tear gas not only failed to scatter the crowd but attracted more people, and finally when protesters mobilized throughout the territory – as of Monday morning the cops do not have control of Causeway Bay. Central is empty but the barricades are still standing, so we may see more action tonight; as I write, the police are making a push against protesters in Admiralty, where the government offices stand.

I argue that the protests would be more effective if they targeted the corrupt tycoon/bureaucrat nexus and not directly opposed Beijing – there is no room for either side to back down now. So the question is whether we have a messy week and protesters fade away, having made their point for the time being, or if more people radicalize and take to the streets. I would bet on the former; if I’m wrong, the odds of a truly violent outcome get worrisomely short. Longer term, no solution is at hand: China simply won’t countenance any ceding of control or face, and Beijing has never explored ample opportunities to find a creative outcome.

Leung Chun-ying, meanwhile, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has secured his place in the history books as one of the territory’s great villains. Makes you wonder what masochist would actually accept Beijing’s nod to run this place.ByoAGrVCQAAbfcR

Indonesia, Etc.

Travel writing at its best

Travel writing at its best

Travel books: dead or alive? In a previous post I said they are very much alive, and now I have another terrific example. Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia, Etc. is a great travel book for our age. While it may not be the sort of Stanley-and-Livingston tale that some people still associate with the genre, it is an exploration of a place understood by few, going through incredible change, and likely to be of more importance over time.

Although Pisani includes history, social commentary, economics, and other analyses that are interesting to businesspeople and diplomats, these are layered in what are basically tales of the bizarre. Not that Pisani is using the country as a backdrop for cheap thrills and eye-rolling dismissals. Quite the opposite: Pisani herself is the bizarre one, a middle-aged white woman from London whose main rule while traveling the archipelago is “just say yes” to whatever invitation or suggestion crops up.

In this way she suffers seven months of hardship (Indonesia is famous for its rotten infrastructure) and heartwarming hospitality. By avoiding Bali and Jakarta – the two places known to foreigners – she gets to explore just how diverse Indonesia is. That was the starting idea of her book. Yet toward the end, she has a new sense of Indonesia as a thing, ramshackle perhaps, that hangs together.

This is travel writing at its best: engaging, funny, very well written (Pisani’s metaphors are all bulls’ eyes), sympathetic but also clear-eyed. Very few people could have pulled this off. She’s done the reader as well as the country a service.

Not exactly solo

Writing books gives the creator control. But not 100% control. Other people influence the project, by invitation.

I’m nearly finished the manuscript to the sequel to Gaijin Cowgirl. Whether readers enjoy Val Benson’s next adventure will reflect my ideas and execution. I’m the one who sits down every session and bangs it out, only occasionally with ease.

But I’ve had the pleasure of working with two other writers throughout this project. Jordan Dotson, Melanie Ho and I have been critiquing one another’s work on a monthly basis for about two years running. My wife Mabel has also been an important reader: she alerts me whenever my narratives smell of Hollywoodish cheese.

Aspiring and experienced writers should join a critique circle. Unless you’re a genius, it’s very helpful. Yes, I could write the novel without it, and eventually I’d spot some of the flaws. But not all of them: not every awkward sentence, or weakness in character motivation, or cliché. Not exactly soloContinue reading

Numbers game

The Nepalese woman told me the sandwich cost HK$56.80. I gave her HK$57. She needed a calculator to return to me my twenty cents.

Innumeracy is sad but, if all you need to do is run a fast-food counter, not fatal. But numeracy is not just the ability to apply simple mathematics. It is the ability to reason and comprehend the fundamentals behind the math. If someone can’t work out twenty cents change in their head, they won’t be able to manage a checking account, they will struggle to master credit-card payments, and will be hopeless at mortgages or investing for their retirement.

The innumerate are also more likely to be illiterate and poor at assessing risk (which relies on a sense of probability and an understanding of statistics), and therefore unable to make good decisions, from healthcare to basic comparisons at the supermarket. Numbers gameContinue reading


Alibaba successfully listed on the New York Stock Exchange in a deal that raised $21.8 billion and valued the company at $168 billion, bigger than Amazon. Although founder / entrepreneur / impresario Jack Ma is tight with the Communist Party – the two need each other – he is not their creature.

In many ways Alibaba represents the best of modern China. It shows what the country’s entrepreneurs are capable of. The site, linking global buyers to local producers, has become a lynchpin of globalization over the past decade.

Whatever benefits it has received of late from the government, it had to navigate a landscape that would have initially been tilted against it – as is the case for all private companies in China. Hard work, vision, a useful and reliable service have all made Alibaba a champion. It is a rare example of a win/win story involving China and the world. Let’s hope more such stories emerge. AlibabaContinue reading

True revolutionaries

Beijing’s announcement about what it will allow as far as Hong Kong participatory politics goes – zilch, basically – coincided with my visiting the US. The contrast reminded me what it means to be a revolutionary society. The US is one. China is not, and Xi Jinping’s treatment of Hong Kong shows why.

Often I find the US frustrating and disappointing: shamelessly bad infrastructure, an increasingly mediocre workforce borne of mediocre education, red tape/insane taxation, the endless hucksterism on TV, gun violence, political gridlock, and mindless self-gratification.

Yet it’s important to separate real pathologies (gun violence, structural political dysfunction) from matters of taste. The obsessive aggression of shareholder capitalism combined with an Aldous Huxley-like population hooked on pharmaceuticals, cheap pleasures and willful ignorance or anti-elitism is fodder for many a social critique of the US. But they are also the outcome of a revolutionary society, and I’d take them over having to live in a society that remains shackled to a pre-modern past. Such as China.

Wait, China’s not pre-modern! It is probably the most revolutionary country of them all, right!? True revolutionariesContinue reading

Old-fashioned in the pleasant sense

UnknownThe Asian Review of Books wrote on August 7: “The Story of Angkor is an interesting and somewhat old-fashioned little book, old-fashioned in the pleasant sense that DiBiasio writes well and relies on crafted prose rather than photographs.”

The essay was written by Peter Gordon, the editor of the Review. He added: “While it can be read as a standalone history, any visit to Angkor would be greatly enhanced by having this slim and concise volume to hand.”

The Review is based in Hong Kong. Its editorial board consists of high-profile writers Pankaj Mishra (From the Ruins of Empire), Ha Jin (Waiting), Suketu Mehta (Maximum City) and Qiu Xiaolong (When Red is Black and other Detective Chen novels); along with Gordon and Mark Clifford, a well regarded journalist and business organizer. Anyone interested in fiction and literary non-fiction from the region, either in English or translated into English, should check it out.

New look

You’re in the right place! Asia Hacks is in its third year and my idea of what it should be is evolving. I’ve given the site a stripped down look that emphasizes the most important part: the written posts.

The appearance is based on “themes” designed by WordPress, the publishing platform behind this site.

When Asia Hacks debuted in January 2012, I used the “INove” template. Following the publication of my novel, Gaijin Cowgirl, I switched to “Greyzed” because its fonts resembled those of the book’s cover. Asia Hacks has matured beyond a mere vehicle for Gaijin Cowgirl, however. This  new theme is called “Bosco”. I like the fonts and the simplicity.

You will see fewer photographs. When I launched Asia Hacks, WordPress’s platform included a photo library, but they ditched it so for the past several months I have been pinching photos from Google – which is content theft, something that as a content provider I should certainly not practice. This was a major reason why I made the change. I will however keep using images of the books I write about, since I’m encouraging people to buy them.

Thank you for reading and following Asia Hacks. Let me know if you dig the new template.

Is travel writing dead?

Some time ago I participated in a talk featuring writers of Commonwealth backgrounds (plus me, an American) discussing what makes for good reading while traveling. Inevitably the question turned on travel writing and, basically, whether it was dead.

As this conversation took place a while back, making this entry a reminiscence rather than a report, I’ll keep people’s names out of it. A (rather foxy) Melbourne-based academic and maven of Australian travel writing led the discussion. The other speakers were an Irish writer, broadcaster, OBE and lecturer at a prominent university in New York; an award-winning Irish poet who has written about traveling by sea; and a well-known English journalist, author and biographer of politicians from Asia.

Toward the end of the talk, which wound its way through themes of pilgrimage, contemplation and identity, the other panelists agreed that travel writing was a dying skill: one undermined by low-quality bloggers, and a sense that “it’s all been done” – that there is no more an undiscovered country.

The problem with this view is that it reflects a UK-centric idea that equates travel writing with the British empire. Someone on the panel, I forget who, actually said this: the end of the British empire meant the end of good travel writing. Is travel writing dead?Continue reading

The General Retires

DownloadedFileLittle Vietnamese literature is translated into English. The best known novel is Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, a beautiful and incredibly sad work that is often compared to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

On my current trip to Vietnam I found the next-best known writer, Nguyen Huy Thiep. He writes short stories and is best known for one called “The General Retires”, which is also the title of an anthology I’ve been reading over the past few days.

The style is totally different. Where Bao Ninh is elegiac, Thiep is funny and completely ruthless. His is a muscular, straightforward manner that would have delighted Hemmingway. He depicts Vietnam in the mid 1980s from the villager’s salty point of view, and slyly eviscerates the way the country is run.

It is the disgruntlement he subtly records that led the government to introduce economic reforms. That process continues imperfectly today. The country is in a transition, with its thrusting young population eager to realize their ambitions in a globalizing world, yet shackled to an official Marxist-Leninist ideology that nurtures corruption and incompetence.

Thiep captures the reality of working in a state ministry or state-owned enterprise. Take this passage from “Without a King”: The General RetiresContinue reading