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

No country for old men

While conducting business meetings in leafy, pleasant Ho Chi Minh City, I got an earful of rumors and speculation, which is what you’d expect when out drinking with stockbrokers.

The Vietnamese Communist Party’s next congress takes place in early 2016. These are held every five years and determine the leadership. This time around, all four of the most senior people in government are technically supposed to retire, as they will all be over the age of 65 by 2016. But the betting is the most powerful figure in the country, the prime minister, is eager to remain in power for a long time.

Nguyen Tan Dung has served as prime minister since 2005 in what is supposed to be a maximum of two terms (originally five years, extended to seven). No country for old menContinue reading


imagesVietnam, being ruled by a Communist party, cannot reach its full potential. There are too many political barriers to a more effective economy. The main problem is the vast role of the state and its control of most big companies, which is now justified on the basis of stability but the reality is sometimes venal, or xenophobic.

But while many people may grumble about the government or particular aspects to its policy, they revere Ho Chi Minh, at least as far as I can tell. Nor is the government fundamentally unpopular, just some of its policies or particular individuals. There is no anti-Communist movement here, and even if there were, no realistic alternative. Ho’s legitimacy and credibility endures.

I re-read “Ho”, the biography by the late, great David Halberstam, which he penned in 1971 and was reissued in 2007, when I first consumed it in a rush. It’s a slim volume, 118 pages only, but Halberstam deploys brevity like a knife. I was looking for some answers. HoContinue reading

Hanoi revisited

Humming Hanoi

I’m visiting a city I haven’t stepped foot in since 1997: Hanoi. The city feels smaller, but also more prosperous than the one I experienced 17 years ago.

My day job is writing about finance and capital markets, where time horizons are short and patience a rare virtue. Although I’ve been to Vietnam several times in the interim, the return to Hanoi is a rare chance to see how a city has turned out in the longer run.

The news is mostly good. The city charmed me on my first visit and the things I liked seem to still be here, and the things I didn’t like are better. The city, and by extension the country, has made tangible progress. Hanoi revisitedContinue reading

Root for Xi Jinping

Economic reform aimed at bolstering national security and power agendas is the norm in Asia these days, from India’s election of Narendra Modi to “Abenomics” in Japan. China has embarked on perhaps the most ambitious set of reforms, and is attracting Western critics loudly hoping for it to fail. But I think we’re all better off if China’s reforms largely succeed.

Since the March, 2013 plenum meeting of the Communist Party under newly anointed leader Xi Jinping, China has pursued simultaneous transformations in economics, finance, state-to-market relations and politics. Xi has made himself the most powerful Party chairman since Deng Xiaoping, at least on paper, in order to knock heads and implement tough changes.

Inevitably, some US commentators are eager to see Xi fail. A good example is an article by Joseph Bosco, a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld and now a think-tank China hand in Washington. Published by The Diplomat, Bosco says the West should worry about any campaign that enhances the effectiveness and power of autocratic China, particularly in light of China’s new, sometimes bloody-minded assertiveness. Root for Xi JinpingContinue reading

US-Vietnam alliance fantasy

Vietnam remains in the thrall of an ideologically Communist Party that has no intent to share power. But it is also caught in a tight spot.
Renewed tension with China, its ancient adversary, is causing Hanoi to drift closer to the US.

A former Marxist ideologue and advisor to Vietnamese prime ministers, Nguyen Phuoc Tuong, recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times urging his compatriots to abandon notions of Communist solidarity and ally themselves with the US.

He spins this argument by saying Ho Chi Minh always sought such an alliance. Vietnamese leaders since the 1980s, perhaps dazzled by China’s growth story, or simply mentally boxed in by notions of Communist brotherhood, have abandoned historical wariness of China and toed Beijing’s line, a policy Tuong now says goes against Vietnamese interests. US-Vietnam alliance fantasyContinue reading

Royal Geographical Society


Angkor coverThe Royal Geographical Society Hong Kong is inviting me to give a lecture on Angkor on Tuesday, July 15, at 1/f Duke of Windsor Building, 15 Hennessy Road. I’ll also have a chance to sign copies of my book, “The Story of Angkor”. Hong Kong is the only official chapter of the RGS outside of the UK, and it’s an honor to be given this opportunity. For those of you in Hong Kong, if you are interested, please come! Details are on RGS’ website.

My colleague, FinanceAsia reporter Suzy Waite, interviews me about the book for Asia Hacks.

Suzy Waite: What inspired you to write about Angkor’s lost civilization?
JD: I was irritated that I couldn’t find a decent, easily readable book to explain everything that a tourist would want to know. I’m not talking about a guidebook with restaurant tips and canned details about how many meters tall is Angkor Wat. Nor a dusty academic tome. But that seemed to be the only stuff available. Either that, or I was off my meds one year.

Describe your first visit Angkor Wat. How did it affect you?
That was back in 1998. I was there the same weekend Pol Pot died. Back then, Angkor was surrounded by Khmer Rouge. You had to stick to the main paths because of landmines in the forest. I had to bribe soldiers at a checkpoint to see Banteay Srei. It was all very Joseph Conrad.

What impressed you most about the temple complexes?
What didn’t? It’s absolutely amazing.

When you started doing research for your book, what surprised you most about Southeast Asia’s former almighty empire? Why?
I thought it was a known history, and that if I did my research, sifting through those academic volumes, I could synthesize it into something digestible for the non-professors among us. Which I sort of did, except it turns out a lot of Angkor history is unsettled and our understanding of it is changing. It turned out to be a moving target. Royal Geographical SocietyContinue reading