Monday, January 31, 2005

Migrant workers

Though the Shanghai subway is largely useless as a form of transportation (two lines only, takes ages to work to and from the station to most places worth going to, always crowded) is does make a great place to watch the massive pool of migrant workers going about their business. China has tens of millions of migrant workers, who move from town to town as the demand for labour shifts. At the moment there is plenty of construction in Shanghai, and so the city is alive with middle aged men from rural areas trudging around to and from days on the job.

The migrant workers look greatly out of place in cosmopolitan Shanghai. Most of them sport a look that is best described as 'Country Bumpkin (with a Chinese twist)' and have a permanent vague stare in their eyes. They also seem to carry around massive amounts of stuff with them, usually in simple cloth bags which are bursting at the seams, and presumably full of every worldly possession owned by the carrier. One has to feel for these men, who work desperately hard and have so little to show for it. And at the end of it all, to be looked down upon by worldly Shanghaiese and arrogant foreigners like myself mustn't be a lot of fun.

Am I a crackpot?

The following line of thinking started off as a casual bar-room conversation with a cluey pom, and now the more I think it through (and add my own twist on things) the more it seems to ring true.

China has a massive demographic problem, one that it is only slowly realising. Since the introduction of the one-child policy in 1980, there has been a growing imbalance to the number of males to females who make it through infancy. Due to the partiarchal nature of Chinese society, families would generally rather their one child be a boy rather than a girl, in order to continue the family name, be more likely to find education and work etc. There are various ways to tip the balance in favour of a boy - diet around the time of conception, ultrasound followed by selective abortion, infanticide... The recorded male:female ratio is getting close to 120:100 in some cities. It is worth noting, though, that the one child policy has led to a high level of 'unreporting' of births (presumably more of females then of males) to avoid punishment of the parents from breaking the one-child law. Regardless, there is a ticking demographic timebomb, and something's gotta be done.

The one child policy started in 1980, which means that those born early in it's period are approaching the age of marriage and parenthood. Over the next couple of years, the problem will get worse and worse as more one-child-policy era babies grow up and are ready for kids of their own. Some quick arithmetic shows that even if every female was to marry (unlikely, of course, but let's presume) there would still be 1 in 6 males (that's males 101-120 over and above the 100 females) who were without a wife. In a country where the government has the answer to everything, just what is the answer to this connundrum.

Various options...
- Encourage 1 in 6 Chinese males to become gay. At 120,000,000, that's one hell of a Mardi Gras down Nanjing East Road in Shanghai. Next.
- Import a large number of single, marriagable women. Not really a practical option given that both China is not alone with the gender dilemma, and also the incredible overpopulation that led to the one-child policy in the first place. Keep trying.
- A massive population 'cull', targetting primarily males in their late-20s and below. Bingo?

As cruel and painful as it sounds, this is the most realistic option for the Chinese government to prevent having hundreds of millions of angry, militant, and possibly revolutionary young men on their hands. Of course, it would be unfathomable to have an overt, culling of the population. But what if it could be done covertly, passively, through inaction rather than action? Surely the world would have nothing to latch it's opposition on to?

Here's where the theory turns conspiratorial. Two significant causes of male death in this country are through mining accidents and smoking. In both cases, the deaths are frequent, the result of private rather than public actions, and easily preventable. Occupational health and safety standards in the coal mines of this country and appallingly bad, and surely even in povertry-stricken, bureaucracy-riddled China, if the will power was there to improve working standards, then there would be action on the mines. Alas, there is not and accident after accident continues. Ditto smoking, which is met with minimal public health campaigns, and is largely supported by the government who has an effective tobacco monopoly. Added bonus through all this is that males, and young males in the case of the mines, are almost exclusively the victims.

So with male population out of control and a socially and politically acceptable way to dispose of surplus population, is this yet another chapter in the social engineering that the Chinese seem to be so fond of?

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Pimps of Shanghai

There's no subtlety to the pimps of Shanghai. Walking home late last night down Nanjing East Road, I was approached by a number of young, sleazy looking guys, one at a time. "Wanna fuck a Shanghai girl?" is all they say, completely taking the romance and excitement out of organised prostitution. It's like they were paying their English teacher according to the number of words learnt, and managed to whittle it down to five (although 'Shanghai' they could probably work out themselves). Hey presto, they've got themselves a marketing strategy.

Ready for take-off

Just a quicky to let the world know that my visa application has been approved for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, better known to the rest of the world as 'North Korea' or 'that fucked little Stalinist hellhole in Asia'. Apparently there was some difficulty in contacting my employer in Melbourne, who were apparently refusing to confirm my employment. After a quick call from me in Shanghai to the embassy in Canberra, all was resolved and I'll be able to pick up my visa from the embassy in Beijing in a fortnight.

I've got heaps of stuff I've held back on re observations on NK from my time in SK, and I might just hold on to those for a little longer until I've come and gone from Club Med Pyongyang.

Bottom line, though... I'm in!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Shanghai showers

As predicted, I can write it, but I can't read it, here in the People's Republic of China. Blogging will be a fair bit more difficult, but I'll be doing my best.

I've been in Shanghai for just under a day now, and it's barely stopped raining the entire time. It's cold, grey, wet and depressing out there, and no matter how much neon the shop proprietors of Shanghai use, the place still looks drab and unwelcoming. It is a little startling to see the neo-Colonial architecture which lines the Bund and would be more suited to Rome or London, right here in the bustle of mainland China.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Blogging in China?

A quick bit of admin...

Tomorrow I am bound for Shanghai, and will be in China for about a month. As part of its efforts to show the world just how modern and progressive it really is, the Chinese government has blocked access to all blogspot sites. As for whether I'll be able to access the site I use to update the blog, I won't know until I get there. There's a chance I won't be able to update this for a month or so (I don't fancy my chances of doing it in Pyongyang), but then again I might be fine and be able to do it tomorrow. Most likely, I'll be able to update it, but not be able to access the blog itself. Flying blind.

Either way, email contact should be fine throughout. You know the drill -

You spik Inglish to me pliz?

Korea has a hunger for learning English, and it says plenty about how Koreans see themselves and the world. A whole industry has grown around this desire, with the public school system failing the adequately scratch the English itch and the subsequent growth of private langauge schools, known as Hagwan. Generally staffed by native-English speaking 20- and 30-somethings, the schools work well for both teacher and student. With demand outstripping supply, foreign teachers without a qualification can earn good money and live not too far from the big cities.

But why the obsession with learning a foreign language which is only of very limited use on the strets of Seoul or Busan? Part of it is the South Korean education obsession. Parents put unrelenting pressure on their children to learn, beginning at a remarkably young age. The noble notion of education as a good in itself is largely lost, and instead education becomes a highly functional means to an end. Initially, that end is a quality university, which makes a huge difference in a society when the old-school-tie (or in this case, university hoodie) is still unashamedly a ticket to success. Ultimately, education is the key to material success in life, and a spot on the corpoate ladder. English forms just a small part of the nation's obsession with learning.

The other big factor is English as a means of engaging with the rest of the world. At present, South Korea is a recepticle of internationalism rather than a participant. This country is home to hundreds of thousands of expatriots in all walks of life, with a sophisticated expat network to satisfy those needs. Major global events often come to these shores, most recently the World Cup soccer - the strong legacy of which makes it look like it just finished yesterday. Going the other way, however, SKers are only just starting to make an impact abroad. A large part of that is the language barrier, which prevents people here from engaging on equal terms. With Korean being a great tool if you wish to do business in Seoul, Pyongyang, Carnegie or with the bald bad guy in the Bond films, but not too many other places on this planet, English skills are crucial.

If you've gotta go...

Okay, enough lazing around and feeling sorry for myself. I'm feeling fine, health-wise, and have been just a tad lazy in writing some juicy little insights on whatever captures my imagination.

Speaking of bodily fluids, the Koreans have an unusual sense of what is socially acceptable and unacceptable. Blowing your nose is not to be done in public, and is roughly the same social equivalent of a loud, shameless fart. You need to chose your time and place carefully before clearing out your nostrils, and with the strange rareness of rubbish bins, disposing of the evidence can be spectacularly difficult.

On the other hand, there is no taboo regarding clearing the throat and spitting. Even the most delicate and dainty Korean can be heard (often on the subway) assembling phlegm at the back of the throat, and once the troops are there in sufficient quanities, launching an assult across the DMZ of the mouth, toward the North Korea that is the generally very clean train station floor. Loud, gross and proud.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sick, but back

Since late on Friday night I've been struck down with a painful case of food poisoning. After starving myself for 24 hours to clear out my system, I'm nearly back to full health. Damn that kimchi.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

It takes all kinds

One of the lasting legacies of the truce in the Korean War is that South Korea is swarming with US troops, ready to defend the south if the north try anything funny. After 52 years of having a troop presence, they have become a part of the landscape. Strangly, though, they've never actually been called upon to do anything. Their job is simply to be here. In great numbers.

Current estimates of the US troop presence in South Korea varies greatly, but most estimates put the figure in the tens of thousands. Many are stationed in Seoul, at the vast US army complex at Yongsan, and the evidence of a troop presence is everywhere. There is an army TV channel and army radio channel, broadcasting the lastest news from the Pentagon (and bizarrely after listening the other night, I heard them rebroadcasting Rush Limbaugh. Go figure.) and there is also a soft anti-Americanism that pervades public opinion, particularly amongst younger people who tend the overlook the original reason for their presence. The other charming piece of evidence is the suburb of Itaewan, immediately outside the Yongsan base.

Itaewan is a place that is crawling with all the seedy necessities of a night on the town for a serving soldier. There are greasy bars on every corner, with American paraphenalia covering the windows and bad 80s pop music being played on a loop. Most of them seem to have an overabundance of attractive Korean girls, many no doubt there to meet their sweetheart in a uniform. And many there to make some quick cash. Barely concealed brothels are also there, usually disguised as massage parlours or incredibly run down bars. There are also some other aspects to Itaewan that seem a little incongruous.

Itaewan is also the centre of the gay community in Seoul. A line of bars up one particular alley offer all the fun and games (many of them are perfectly legitimate bars, mind you) that a gay man in conservative Seoul could seek. Indeed, homosexuality may be legal here, but it is met with stern, disapproving stares by many, and is decidedly un-Confucian. The other community which calls Itaewan home is the substantial Muslim community. In the midst of sleazy abundance stands an imposing Mosque, busy with worshippers when I visited on Friday. It seems bizarrely out of place, and says a lot about planning in Korea.

One guesses that one day early on in the life of this city, some practical joker at Seoul HQ said "I know what we can do for a laugh - let's stick the Yanks, poofs and towelheads together... and let God (or maybe Confucious) sort it out." And so it is.

Oh the irony... at the DMZ

Most people who come to this part of the world only ever see the Korean DMZ from the southern slide, looking northward at the fearsome (if somewhat malnourished) bunch that is the North Korean. Quite understandably, coming at that particular piece of valuable real estate is best done from the open and democratic south, which allows people to visit all the way to the edge.

At the moment, though, it's at the lowest point of winter and tourists are few. It's notable that most South Koreans are not too keen on repeating trips to the DMZ, and are satisfied with their single viewing as youngsters. Perhaps it shows just how vulerable to attack Seoul is, being just 60km south of the border. Anyhow, the upshot of having few tourists around is that DMZ tours are scarce, and those which would run twice daily during the other three months a year run only sporadically during winter. Such is the way with fre markets and private enterprise. After four days of trying, I am still struggling to arrange my half-day trip to the site.

If I don't have any luck before I depart on Wednesday, I will have no choice but to miss out on seeing it from this angle and satisfy myself with a visit from the northern end. Like most tourists, then, I'll only get to see to DMZ from one end - though my choice of end will be a tad unusual.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Heart and Seoul

Have been in Seoul for 48 hours now, and it feels like I've arrived while the whole city is hibernating. I know it a cliche to complain about the weather, but here goes. Today is scheduled to rise to a warm, sultry -2 in the afternoon, and then after this heady peak it will sink to -13 overnight. The cold is stultifying - when you walk out the door, you get two seconds of warmth before the wave of cold air hits and all feeling drains out of your exposed flesh. Those who have been here a while have developed some resistance to the cold, and have also developed very clever ways to minimise the amount of exposed skin to just the upper part of the face. For me, it's gloves and the thermals my grandfather gave me. I'm debating the merits of wearing my ragged Collingwood beanie around town., but I think I might get the same response as if I wore my "I Love Kim Jong-il" t-shirt.

Speaking of which, apparently the big new TV comedy coming out of NK is "Kim and Kim", the story of a working class father-and-son from the suburbs who constantly do and say stupid things as they try to run the country. It's like "Kath and Kim", except the haircuts are more ridiculous.

Makes Howard look like a real innovator

A quick closing post on Hong Kong...

Since the handover in 1997, governing HK has been a case of steady-as-she-goes. There seems to be a determined effort to not bring about any major changes or reforms. Perhaps the greatest embodiment of this laissez faire attitude to governance is the do-nothing Chief Executive, the doddering old fart that is Tung Chee-Hwa. Tung made headlines last week by delivering his annual State of the Nation (or perhaps State of the SAR in HK's case), and spent the vast bulk of it flaggelating himself for his government's sins for the previous 12 months. This has the ingenious effect of taking on his critics by agreeing with them whole-heartedly.

Tung is a hack straight from the Central Party in Beijing, and acts in the sort of creative way that Central Party hacks tend to act. It was surprising that he was given a second five year term when his first one expired in 2002, and it would be no disappointment if he didn't make it all the way to the finish line in this term. A dynamic vibrant city like HK needs a vibrant, energentic leadership to match. In this case it is sadly lacking.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Makin' it in Macau

Me (to a new friend in Hong Kong): I think I'll go to Macau on Monday.
NFIHK: Macau? Why? Do you like gambling?
Me: No, not really
NFIHK: So you're into working girls?
Me: No, not at all.
NFIHK: So why are you going to Macau then?

That pretty much sums up the attitude of Hong Kongers, and the rest of the world, to the ex-Portuguese now proudly Chinese colony that is Macau.

After spending the day here, my theory is that the amount of sin and the amount of Churches in any given place are directly correllated. Like all things Portuguese, Macau is a deeply Catholic place, with Churches liberally dotted through the landscape. They are dwarfed only by the seemingly endless parade of neon-lit Casinos, ensuring that the old cliche about a fool and his (or, increasingly, her) money is proven correct.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Dodgy backpacker accommodation update

I've decided to stick it out for the week at the Oriental Pearl Inn, my crusty little guest-house near where Kowloon hits Victoria Harbour. In fact, I've even managed to knock it down from HK$60 to HK$50 a night for the last three, which is mere pocket change given the cost of anything in this city.

Venturing to the shower on Saturday was frought with danger. The 4 shower-toilet cubicles are haphazardly seperated from each other by makeshift dividing curtains, and the small cubicles are cluttered with a toilet, basin, mirror, small shelf, buckets, showerheads, stray pubic hairs and mould. As I ventured into the least pubic and mouldy cubicle, I turned on the tap for my cool refreshing-ice-cold-on-a-winter's-morning shower. Just as I acclimatised myself to the water's crispness, the sweet little old lady owner started knocking insistantly on the divider, demanding that I stop the shower. Evidently, I had chosen a cubicle that was lacking a functioning drain (or a functioning sign to indicate that it was lacking a functioning drain) and was to be used only for waving one's hands behind one's backside and blowing raspberries, at least that's what her little charade seemed to indicate.

Tickets, please

Deep, deep down I'm a trainspotter, and nothing gets me excited like a slick new public transport system to get my head around. Taipei and Hong Kong are both doing amazingly well in that department, with the MRT (Taipei) and the MTR (HK - full marks to both for originality) both doing their job admirably. What I'd really like to sing the praises of, though, are the contact-card ticketing system that both systems have taken to heart.

To generalise across the two of them, the cards work a bit like this: commuters buy a plastic card with a magnetic chip inside (forgive me for my engineering ignorance, I'm an arts student at heart) which they add credit to. To use the transport system, the card simply needs to be placed within a small distance of ticket-detectors at the entrance to train stations and the entrance to buses. The best fair is automatically calculated and the money deducted from the value remaining on the card. The indicator whenever the card is swiped shows the cost of that fare, and the remaining credit on the card. When it gets low, you can easily recharge and the system goes on. The cards don't even need to make total contact with the validators - for most regular commuters, simply lifting the handbag or wallet to within a couple of inches is the usual method for validation. It's amazingly quick at moving people through entrances, no fiddling with small change, and commuters seem very happy with it all.

The Hong Kong Octopus system (the branding the HK MTR has given to the ticketing system) is now being expanded to include payments from vending machines and payphones, whilst the Taipei system can be used to pay for parking. This is a world class, modern and efficient ticketing system to complement the transport infrastructure.

Small problems which may arise a quickly overcome with smart thinking. Short term visitors, for example, can hire a card and pay a deposit, refunded upon return. Old-style, single trip tickets are also available, although these are priced higher to encourage users to opt for the automated system. The HK system even allows the user to go into debt for a single trip, and that amount is taken back when the user next recharges the card.

I seem to recall that a similar system was being considered in Victoria, post-Metcard. Bring it on!

Saturday, January 15, 2005

HK culture - a contradiction in terms?

Hong Kong is a Club Med for professionals. Seeing street after street of an army of white collar ('white' collar being the overwhelming description) letting their hair down and desperately craving a good time in the funky bar district of Lan Kwai Fong, one gets the feeling that deep down there's a sense of homesickness. By virtue of the fact that so many of its population are transient, Hongkongers for now but who-knows-where next, Hong Kong has a very peppy, up-beat nightlife with people freed from the obligations of family, children and domestic responsibility that acts as a choke on any good time when at home. The expat community of HK love to have a good time, and they love to do it in a very western way.

Rather than adapt themselves to the Chinese temperament, westerners here have worked tirelessly to adjust their environment to be a replica of life back home. This is not a new phenomena, of course, and goes back to the start of British colonial rule in the 1840s. The streets are given quaint English names, shops advertise themselves as offerring a European experience, and by far the most popular bars in town are the ones that are so international that they lose any pretence of being Hongkongian.

Hong Kong therefore lacks a clear identity of its own. It is a cultural vessel, filled with the identity of whichever particular international cosmopolitans happen to be occupying it at the time. Still, the coffee is nice and the beer moderately priced, so who am I to complain?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

How low can you go?

Hong Kong is an expensive place. There's no escaping it, and it's particularly painful after recently being in Vietnam, where AUD$20 will keep you well satisfied for the day. Here, that amount will barely pay for dinner. Without dessert.

The first challenge after arriving on Wednesday was to find a place to stay. Like most budget travellers, I headed straight for the southern part of Kowloon, where guest houses proliferate on Nathan Road. There are two buildings in particular, Chungking Mansion and Mirador, which dominate. Both of these large, public-housing vibe concrete buildings are packed floor after floor with different guesthouses, each with a few rooms and each in very direct competition with one another. Some quick arithmatic will tell you that with 15 stories each, and an average of 3 guest houses per floor... there are guaranteed to be some bargains.

And so the price shopping began, as I weaved my way up through the stairs of Mirador. The early couple of floors yielded little, and it wasn't until I got to floor 6 that the fun started. The cheap dorm beds were available in abundance, and with this being the middle of winter and most places struggling to fill their beds, some careful bargaining was the order of the day. After much haggling and shopping around, I ended up paying HK$60 a night (about AUD$13) for a dormatory bed at the 'Oriental Pearl Inn' (according to it's craggy, fourth-generation photocopied business card).

The OPI - my home for the week - is one of the most run-down, decrepid places I have stayed at in my many months of travelling. Desperately needing a make over from Queer-Eye, the bunks at OPI are about 6 inches shorter in length than I am, privacy is a torn bedsheet held up my butchered coat-hangers, and the shower-toilet is the sort of thing that people at Guantanamo get hot and bothered about. In short, the place is a dump... and I love it. There's something satisfying about waking up in the morning, knowing that you've lived in true Hong Kong style. In spite of the run-down facitilies, the ma-and-pop owners and the friendliest and most approachable people in Hong Kong. And the best part - because of just how run-down the OPI is, every other dorm bed is empty, meaning that I have my cosy little room to myself!

Jeez I'm a tightarse. And proud of it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

One China, Three Systems?

What do Taiwanese people fear the most? Have a look at Hong Kong, and it would give you a fair idea. If the unthinkable was to happen at Taiwan was reintegrated into China, it would be under a 'One Country, Two Systems' model which has theorically been the Hong Kong approach since it returned to Chinese control in 1997. Slowly but surely, HK has seen creeping incursions into the freedom, democracy and market capitalism that was its life-blood prior to '97. More on life in HK when I get there tomorrow, but what's important for now is Taiwanese perceptions of how HK has coped.

If Taiwanese people are ever going to accept unification with China, they need to be assured that their most basic ways of life will be protected and could never accept regular interference from Beijing. The Chinese assure them that this is possible, and with a glint in their eye the Chinese Apparatchiks try and woo over the Taiwanese. C'mon, it really won't be that bad. The Taiwanese know better, though. They've seen how unrealistic China's promise is, and know that if they were to integrate they would soon become just another Chinese province, controlled by Beijing and lacking many of the freedoms they take for granted at the moment.

The issue has become particuarly acute these past couple of days. Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou was scheduled to speak in Hong Kong, but was denied a visa by the Hong Kong government. No reason was given by the HKers, and so speculation is rife in Taiwan that he was denied the visa because he recently spoke out against China's absurd Anti-Succession bill, which would compel any future Chinese government to take military action should Taiwan attempt to assert its independence. Why Taiwan is so interested in this little power struggle is not only because a Taiwanese public figure is at the centre of it, but because of the strong suggestion that Hong Kong took its orders from Beijing in rejecting Ma's application, despite having legal autonomy to accept or reject visa applications. If this is how China treats Hong Kong under its version of "One China, Two Systems", then how will it treat us? - that's the question that China and pro-unification Taiwanese will need to address. Not an easy one.

More on the whole issue in this piece from the Taipei Times.

Never alone in Taiwan

To drag out a travellers' cliche, the local people here are amazingly hospitable. Not just in the they-smile-a-lot-and-let-you-take-photos sense, but in the sense that they are so often prepared to go to so much extra effort to make you feel welcome, often in their homes and their lives. A few quick examples to try to shatter the illusion that I'm talking shit:

- My hosts here in Taipei, Stacy and Kathy, have helped show me the real Taipei. Through a mutual friend in Melbourne, we were put in touch, and despite being no more than a name and an email address, they have looked after me incredibly well. From being welcomed at the airport, to a couple of nights on the town, to a spot on the couch to sleep, to a map, a rail pass, ideas, inspiration, stories. The sort of hospitality I'd struggle to find at home.

- A few nights back I sat on a stool at a bar near the university distict in southern Taipei. A Taiwanese man sat nearby, a little down on his luck. We start talking, and his story is slowly revealed. An argument with his partner at home, looking for a place to get away from it all, and someone to talk to. After sharing a few rounds of drinks, he insists that we order some traditional Taiwanese food to share, his shout as is so often the way here. We gobble that down, and just before calling it a night, he makes an offer: do you want to come for a ride with me and we'll head up to the lookout on the mountain that towers over Taipei. A few quick mental calculations later (what time is it, do I trust him, how much has he drunk, what vehicle are we in) and I agree to go. Thankfully. Speeding along the mountain road, with the tune of American Pie blaring out the speakers, it was good to be alive.

- Late Sunday afternoon, the sun is rapidly setting, the rain is starting to fall, and I'm waiting for a bus which will probably never arrive to take me from Toroko National Park to the nearest city, Hualien, an hour away. More out of desperation than confidence, I head to one of the shopkeepers just outside the park, asking meekly if they know when the next bus will be coming along. 'Haulien?', the lady responded, 'Ah, forget the bus, I'll give you a ride. I'm kind of heading that way.'

Now either I'm one of the most charming people on earth - not likely - or Taiwanese people are some of the friendliest - bingo!

KTV - Karaoke, Taipei style

One Taipei experience that is not to be missed is karaoke. That desperately nerdy and tacky of artforms has been commodified and transformed into the most amazing night out by the enterprising folks at PartyWorld. PW is a chain, with karaoke centres dotted through Taipei offering the McDonalds equivalent of karaoke, but doing it all with extraordinary style.

The PartyWorld that me and my new Taiwanese friends headed to was a 15-storey state-of-the-art complex offering Karaoke for a group of any size, at any time, literally around the clock. So if 50 of your closest friends decided they wanted to croon away to Britney at 4 o'clock on a Wednesday morning, most cities would leave you struggling. Not Taipei.

The ambiance and design of the PartyWorld building is pure class, and it looks much like a five-star hotel. The exterior is grand, the staff are all immaculately dressed in tuxedos, stunning chandeliers illuminate the lobby, and mahogony wood finishes to the seats are hard to ignore. This is no greasy back-alley karaoke joint. This is where Taipei's beautiful people go to impress each other, with a microphone in hand.

Three hours after we entered, the five of us left with our bellies full on the all-you-can-eat Taiwanese buffet which took pride of place in the central area on our floor of the building. 20 or 30 small rooms shared the floor with us, each a private little karaoke booth. It's not hard to imagine that if the karaoke business turned bad, it wouldn't take a lot of effort to convert the space into another form of glitzy late-night hospitality. All in all, a great, if a little bizarre, night out.

Air wars

One of the big issues keeping the Taiwanese amused during a cold and dreary winter is the possibility of direct flights between China (the Mainland, as the locals euphemistically call it) and Taiwan. It's a surprisingly complex issue, and one that requires an army of bureaucrats on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to resolve. The status quo is that for political reasons there are no direct flights between the two, and passangers must first fly to an intermediate city, usually Hong Kong. This is a long and costly arrangement, and suits no-one, except for the airlines and the Hot Dog vendors at Hong Kong Airport. But that's how it has been since 1949. In 2003, there was a mini-breakthrough, with flights merely needing to stop in Hong Kong and continuing to the other destination rather than a complete change of flight, but this was only a very marginal step.

With Chinese New Year coming up on 9 February, there is a push for some more flights to be let through. A delegation from Taiwan is in the Mainland at the moment, trying to wade through the technicalities of it, but it might just happen. Wait and see is the best approach.

Interesting little footnote, that one of the major sticking points is that the Taiwanese have insisted that any direct flights to Taiwan out of China must first pass through Hong Kong airspace, but with no requirement to land there. An odd request, at first at least, and there has been no official reasoning given though. This hack's hunch, though, is that the Taiwanese have anti-aircraft equipment on a hair-trigger, ready to shoot down anything eminating from Chinese airspace without a second thought. From a distance, passanger aircraft and cruise missiles do look remarkably similar. Surely the Chinese wouldn't use this goodwill arangement to exploit Taiwanese vulnerability. Would they?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Eat up - dinner's getting cold!

As a vegetarian, it was with great trepidation that I headed out for some dining, Taipei-style. Thankfully, there was plenty for me to chose. I should have realised early that I would be okay when I heard that one of the most famous and widely-available dishes is Stinky Tofu (yep, full marks to the guys in marketing for that one) - lightly fried chunks of tofu liberally coated in any one of a number of fairly innocuous seasonings. And tasty too. And only mildly stinky.

There was one style of eating here that I deeply feared, and it was with my hand held by one of my Taiwanese hosts that I ventured out to try my luck. From the outside, the place strikes fear into the heart of any vego, or indeed any person with functioning taste-buds and a sense of smell. Laid out before prospective-diners is a buffet-style table of ingredients, ready to be mixed together and fried. On offer is meats of all kinds - chicken, fish, beef, pork, random bits of fleshy brown things, something pink, a spotty black thing - as well as a few meek looking vegetables and some prefried tofu. From amongst this selection, I chose the latter few, hoping to put together a decent stir-fry from what the locals would consider only side-dishes.

Happy with my selection, the bowl of goddies was passed to The Frying Lady for, er, frying. In front of her was an enourmous tub, wide enough for most people to struggle to get their arms around, and bubbling inside a gooey, murky brown liquid which she occassionally replenished. The top part of the tub was divided into three parts, allowing up to three people's food to be cooked at once. The obvious outcome of all this, then, is that all the food is cooked in the same greasy, fatty oil, which as no where to escape and instead attaches itself to the food. Given the queue was 15 deep even at 11 o'clock at night, it's a scary thought to think of how long it had been since it was cleaned and the oil changed.

Finally, my vegetarian delight underwent its punishment, and emerged a couple of minutes later. Poking at the finished product with my chopsticks, I suddenly lost my previously-powerful appetite. Trying to coax my appetite back, I ate a few of the more innocent-looking pieces of broccali and mushroom from the top of the delicacy, and chewed on them desperate the find the flavour that the vegetables contained only a few minutes earlier. Alas, all things that come out of giant tub taste the same - a heavy, meaty, fatty, salty, oily stew. The actual ingredients selected have little effect on the taste of the finished product - instead they merely provide texture, and a vessel to carry the gooey goodness. Yummy.

Tomorrow, when the war began

The metropolitan train stations here in Taipei are sleek, modern looking things. Like most of the big Asian cities, the metro only came online relatively late in the city's development. And that fact made a huge difference - for the better. In MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit) there is not a single metre of track at ground level. Instead, the tracks are mostly buried deep beneath the ground, or high above your head as you walk down the main streets of this gridded city. This was one of the upsides of building a metro system in an already-crowded metropolis. With land too expensive and already developed, the only options were up or down, and both have been used in abundance.

The underground stations are vast, cavernous constructions with Escher-like stairs and escalaters taking passangers to meet their precisely-timed trains. The train stations are great hidden worlds, deep beneath the ground. The conspiracy-theorist in me wonders if they might also make perfect bomb shelters, should the need arise.

If my stint as a belly-dancer doesn't work out...

A quick bit of personal indulgence from The Age today...

Call-centre jobs boost
By Darren Gray
January 11, 2005

Almost 400 jobs are likely to be created when call-centre company UCMS establishes a national headquarters in Melbourne's central business district.

The company, which provides services to major companies such as Alinta and Vodafone, will spend about $18 million on the project.

Financial Services Minister Tim Holding said yesterday the step was a "strong vote of confidence in Victoria".

The State Government has identified the call-centre industry as one of the most important in Victoria, employing an estimated 65,000 people and contributing about $3 billion a year to the state economy.

UCMS is to start working from the CBD within weeks, and complete its HQ within two years.

With 400 new jobs coming on line at UCMS, it looks like I will have a job waiting for me when I get back in March.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Pull my finger

This quote from the Taipei Times on Wednesday says it all, really:

"The sovereignty of the ROC is already something that is acknowledged by the Taiwanese public, and proposing this resolution is like taking one's pants down before farting," Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) caucus whip Huang Teh-fu said. The Chinese proverb "to take one's pants down before farting" means to engage in an unnecessary act.

Taiwan and China

Seeing the blooming success that confronts a visitor on every street corner, it's hard to believe that Taiwan is number one most likely place for the outbreak for WWIII. If the harsh words out of China are to be believed, though, then Taiwan is where it's at.

The Taiwanese seem amazingly relaxed about the whole thing. For most of them, they have grown up hearing distant propagandist rumblings from the mainland all their life, and in the tradition of the boy who cried wolf, the fear is rather underwhelming. Instead, the Taiwanese are resigned to the fact of their inferior military might when compared to their mainland rivals (in spite of one man who earnestly informed me that he believed the Taiwanese airforce was superior to the Chinese one). Rather than military might, the Taiwanese believe they have two things in their favour - firstly, the firm knowledge that they are in the right, and secondly the belief that the rest of the world will rush to their aid should China attack. With these twin beliefs, Taiwan marches energentically forward.

There is a justified loftiness to the Taiwanese view of the world. It sees itself as the plucky underdog, who has done exceptionally well from its meagre means, whilst its more materially gifted counterpart has drifted aimlessly. It is indeed a remarkable achievement for Taiwan to propel itself into the realm of the modern, first world whilst China fritters away its numerous opportunities and languishes with a large part of its country in absolute poverty. The political scientist within sees China and Taiwan as perhaps the clearest example of the material benefits of democracy and free markets over totalitarian, planned economies.

So why do the Taiwanese prize their independence so highly? My gut instinct is that Taiwan values its independence largely for the practical, pragmatic advantage that it gains rather than some abstract, intanglbe idea of pride. Taiwan fears that the bustling society it has constructed for itself would be quickly demolished if China was to take over control of the island. The Taiwanese look ominously across the Taiwan Strait at the callous, antidemocratic monolith that is China, and fear the impact that it would have. There is, however, no great spiritual reason for the Taiwanese to assert its independence. Ethnically and culturally, Taiwan and China have much in common - it is the way of life that sets the two apart.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Carnegie's - rock 'n wobble

Carnegie's is a small slice of Americana in the heart of a bustling Asian metropolis. The bar is famous for several reasons, and as a new visitor to Taiwan, my two hosts in this city (thanks Stacy and Kathy!) were keen to show me that Taiwan could party with the best of them. The food is average, the prices extortionate, but the crowd there is exceptionally hip and cool, and do their best to look as fashionable as possible. It is here that I reached the conclusion that there are no ugly people in Taiwan - all look healthy, dress well and glow with excitement. Perhaps that explains the proliferation of middle aged western men who flock to this city, and more specifically to Carnegie's.

It's not until well after 10 that you realise just why Carnegie's has become one of the hipper nightspots in Taipei. The plates are cleared away, the lights are dimmed a little, the dry ice is pumped in like magic, and the 70s and 80s retro classics give way to a musical diet of Ricky Martin, Robbie Williams and Britney Spears. Not long after the mood changes for the hipper a few brave souls are launching themselves on top of the bar, helped only by some ricketty golden handrails that would aid the grandmothers of Taipei were they in another location. The dancing on the bar has started, and would continue for hours to come. First the hip-cool-plenty-of-initiative types start up there, the crowd below gawking upward and trying their hand at a bit of dance karaoke.

Within a couple of songs, however, the dancing on the bar is on for young and old. Blokes who had previously cowered behind their litre-glasses of beer use their liquid courage to propel themselves onto the bar, and soon they are swaying to the smooth sounds of Kylie. A few songs later, and it's my turn. With Kathy and Stacy already atop the gold-railed impromptu stage, I venture up there and start dancing in the way that fat, rythymless white guys dance. My feet are fixed on the ground, my hips move awkwardly, my shoulders pivot around my neck, and my head bops up and down. Yep, that's as adventurous as I get.

By 1 in the morning, the dancefloor is packed, but with a round of drinks for four people setting me back close to NT$1000 (about AUD$40 - you know a place is pricey when people are ducking outside to buy 'cheap' drinks from a nearby 7-Eleven), it's time to call it a night. Stumbling into the darkness, I can now live the rest of my life knowing that I've had the perfect LA night out... in the middle of Taipei.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

First thoughts on Taiwan

Taipeians are obsessed with time. Like someone with a fatal disease who knows their time on this planet is finite, people in this city seem focussed on getting the most out of every second, and see futility in idle moments being wasted. A few examples that jump out after just a few hours in the city:

- The pedestrian traffic lights count down the seconds until the light changes to the other colour, and running this race against the clock is an animated 'walking man', who gradually speeds up as he reaches the finishing line of his own marathon. Clearly a static green man was inadequate to convey the intended message.

- The ultra-modern MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transport) train network with glides across the sky and under the ground gives rapid amounts of information in mind-boggling detail. Clocks countdown to the arrival of the next train in five-second increments, and do so with alarming accuracy. One wonders just how useful it is to know that your next train arrives in 3 minutes and 50 seconds, but it's there for those who need to know.

- Also on the trains, the speed of the escalator is quoted (generally, 39 metres per minute), but who really needs to know?

The pace of life is hectic, but it would be painfully wrong to think that this meant the people were cold and industrious. People walk the streets with a quietly confident air, with the streets streaming with men and women who dress as immaculate professionals - the Italians of Asia, if you will. All the modern conveniences are available at your fingertips, often very literally given the proliferation of 24-hour convenience stores selling the kind of junk you'd only want at 3 in the morning.

As to the politics of this ambitious nation (a phrase like that is the sort of thing that seems to spark something close to war if said by a person with enough importance), there'll be more from me on that in the next couple of days. One initial thought that struck me after reading a couple of the English-language Chinese papers - the only news from Taiwan that we hear in the west is to do with the diplomatic war with China. And strangely, that's what makes up most of the news within Taiwan, as well. Page after page of the most miniscule detail in the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Even the tsunami issue has been seen through the prism of the Taiwan-China conflict: Taiwan have requested a seat at the aid conference in Jakarta tomorrow, but have been denied it on the basis that the UN recognises Taiwan only as a provence of China.

After the boring slog that was Hanoi, it's great to be in Taipei. Indeed, it's great to be anywhere.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Drowning, not waving

As I write this, I am without a belt, shivering in freezing Hanoi.. Normally, not a big detail but for some reason this minor detail sums up the abysmal day of travelling I've had. It's probably worth putting it all in perspective, and there are 150,000 other people who have recently had a worse time in the water than I possibly could have had, but regardless - I need someone to whinge to, and what better people than the fine folks who stumble across the blog whilst looking for something better to read.

Okay. A here's what happened. Whilst cruising down the beautiful Halong Bay a couple of hours east of Hanoi, there are various sites along the way. The area is rich was wonderous scenery, steep cliffed islands, deep caves, strange animals and some of the dodgiest house-boats in Vietnam. Cruising out through these various sites into the South China Sea is the best way to escape from the pace of Hanoi. It's a cold destination, particuarly in the middle of winter, and requires several layers of clothing to see the place in comfort.

As part of a cruise ship of 16, we stopped along the way to head to a series of caves which jut out into the sea. To enter requires a low-lying motorised raft, which sees about 10 people huddling on deck and the driver navigating through various narrow cave entrances. After seeing the various caves, we headed to back to the cruise ship to continue the journey - and this is where the fun began.

As is often the way in Vietnam, moving from the raft to the cruiseship was a haphazard, risky venture that relies largely on local know-how rather than any sort of safe passage. The raft floats freely beside the cruise-boat, and the passangers make the 1-and-a-half metre vertical leap with the aid of a small handle on the deck and plenty of helping pairs of hands on both the raft and the main ship. Somehow, it works. Most of the time.

I was second last to make the journey, and the person before me need to be lifted part of the way. As I did this, and she had her hands on the side of the boat ready to pull herself up, strange things started happening below. The small raft started drifting away from the cruise-boat, and with nothing to anchor is down, is started drifting away. At this point, I was in an impossible position. Without the person in front of me properly on board, I couldn't let go, otherwise she would drop down into the water. But if I hold on any longer, then I will be unable to regain my balance with the boat sliding out underneath. Being the chivalrous idiot that I am, I kept pushing the person in front up, and the inevitable happened. I plunged a metre down into the near-freezing South China Sea.

As I finally surface with a nose full of salt water, I see two things that scare me. In front of me is the backside of the person I was pushing on board, and she is holding on dearly to the side of the deck with the aid of half-a-dozen pairs of hands. To help, all I can do is try and push her further up, but with nothing below my feet but water, any attempt to push her up makes no difference to her, but simply pushes me down. Damn physics. At this stage the commotion of deck is slowly spreading. Initially there were just a few passangers on the side of the boat, and the boast staff were too busy drinking/smoking/hammock-testing to help. My (I think quite reasonable) calls for a buoy were met by an indifferent shrug of the shoulders by staff.

By this stage, everyone's interest turns to the raft and its young driver, who would be a big help in ending the ordeal. However, in the cool way that Vietnamese people deal with a crisis, he had taken his payment and was leaving us as we were, and was now 30 metres away and heading away from us. As the screaming from the fellow passangers on the boat become impossible to ignore, the raft finally turned around and returned to help. Eventually the person in front managed to haul their way onto the boat, and I am floating freely, with jeans, jacket, wallet, camera, and assorted extras there to keep me company.

After a minute a buoy is thrown in the water to help me rest my furiously spinning legs. Then a ladder is thrown down the side of the boat, and I managed to climb up, exhausted, shiverring and heavy from my unplanned South China Sea swim. Ushering me into the kitchen of the boat, the staff became rather panicky at what had happened. These cruise boats rely on good reputations and tips, and they sensed that both were being put at risk.

The damage from this Monday morning ordeal was significant. With my pouch around my waist drenched, tickets, money and passport were in a pretty ordinary state. My camera was no longer working. My jeans waterlogged, and my jacket - absolutely vital at this time of year in this part of the world - heavy and wet. My pride - seriously dented.

After arriving back in Hanoi this afternoon, I was desperate to dry everything before a flight scheduled for tomorrow. Unfortunately, drying-machines are a luxury here, and clothes-on-the-line is the method used by all the laudaries. With the temperature strugging to hit double-figures and the sun mysteriously absent, drying takes days if at all. After approaching one dry cleaner, and getting a response, which, roughly translated was "Ho, ho, ho, you silly white boy think we can dry that, not fucking likely, ho, ho, ho", I crossed the road in desperation and walked into a quiet hairdressers. After trying several times to mime a blow-drier being applied to my clothes and getting blank stares back, I plonked down 15,000 dong (about a dollar) and reached for the drier myself. One way or the other, I was going to get that stuff dry.

And as for the belt - in the confusion on board, and the ill-fated attempts at drying it all, the belt went missing, a fact that was only discovered when back in Hanoi. And so I venture into the night, the shops closed, my pants revealing plumbers-cleavage, shivering in my jacket. You gotta love this city. Tomorrow, I leave for Taipei.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

New Years Eve in Hanoi

9 days before the end of 2004 I was bumming around in Saigon, in the south of Vietnam, gradually contemplating my trip up along the coast of the long, narrow shores of Vietnam. Finally I found the motivation to head onward and upward, and it has been hectic and tiring since then. Passing through the beach towns of Mui Ne and Nha Trang, the waste-of-space historical town on Hoi An and the unremarkable-but-fortuntely-located Hue, and finally just after dawn on New Years Eve I pulled into a shiverry Hanoi. In total, it was 9 nights, 36 hours on the bus, two overnight trips, 6 cities, 15 bars and countless friends made along the way. But finally making it before the year was out was priceless.

Last night was a chance to celebrate, both the end of another year, and also the end of an intense period on the road. Hanoi has a rather quiet and subdued nightlife, with none of the bustle or excitement of Saigon. The night started and ended in the favourite travellers bar of Hanoi, the painfully named Funky Monkey, which shows all the imagination of a Communist republic. Drinking through the night, the group gradually grew from a core of 4 to an international cacophany of 15 by the time midnight struck. Like with many New Years Eves in the past, there is always a rather drastic letdown once midnight arrives, with the celebration of a new year feeling like it deserves more than sparklers and the phrase Happy New Year drunkenly slobberred into the ear of a stranger. The night kicked on, a detour to the tackiest night-club in Hanoi coming to a screeching holt when the 80,000 dong (About 7 AUD) was revealed. Instead, far more ingeniously and in true backpacker spirit, two cheap vodka bottles were snuck in and mixed under the table to beat the NYE prices.

Happy New Year all, and have a safe and happy '05.