my talk on identity at The Economist’s Open Future Festival

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Dear friends, click below to watch my ten-minute talk on identity and multiculturalism in Asia at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Hong Kong on October 5th.

I cite the different approaches to ethnic/cultural identity that we find in China, India and Singapore, and give my reasons why we all need to think a bit harder about our identity choices, given current larger forces at play in the world today.

In a sense, this Economist talk is a direct product of the brownface brouhaha in Singapore in July/August this year. I made a couple of videos on brownface and race, which got passed around by some of my former colleagues at The Economist Group in Singapore, Hong Kong and London. (Read more about my work there from 2006 to 2013.)

That in itself was surprising, because I thought the videos were hyper-local, what with my generous use of Singlish. I guess it shows that these issues are quite universal, no matter my bumbling delivery.

I took that as a cue, and decided to have a Singlish segment in this Economist talk. First time I’ve used so much Singlish at a “proper presentation” overseas. It went down well, especially with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party in Thailand, who was laughing away in the front row (and later introduced himself). I guess South-east Asians have a soft spot for our Singlish!

It was both tougher and easier than other talks I’ve given. Tougher because it’s a big topic for ten minutes; and I felt the pressure of both the live stream and the very tight timing, the clock counting down at me from a screen at my feet. I missed a couple of lines, but oh well. Happens.

But easier because I had lots of support and encouragement from the floor, including a bunch of former colleagues and bosses, some who gave me many opportunities to speak and write early in my career, some thirteen years ago now.

Also great to have Singaporean buddies Amanda and Mel in the crowd, who kindly took me out for a smashing time after. Long time since I partied in Lan Kwai Fong.

Many have asked me about whether it’s safe to travel to Hong Kong now. My response: it’s the best time! Fewer tourists, hotels are cheaper, easy to get around. The protests are very well organised and planned, so you know where to go or not, you know whether to take the MTR or taxi. I had a great time (while also acknowledging the pain others on all sides are enduring…).

And, finally, very grateful to Kaiyang Huang and Rohan Mukherjee for helping me refine my arguments.

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There were many other cool segments at the conference, including this debate between Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s most famous pro-democracy activist, and the pro-Beijing Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group.

 

 

Letter from China: Shaolin and Bodhidharma

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

Zhang Yong

Zhang Yong, one of the shifus at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center

A continuation of Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

The Shaolin Temple…at last

Two days after reaching Dengfeng, we visit the Shaolin Temple. After paying the RMB100 (US$16) per head entrance fee, we walk through the ticket counter, and soon pass one branch of the Tagou school on our right. We keep walking for another five minutes to arrive at the wushu demonstration centre, which has hourly performances. Even at 9 in the morning, some 30minutes before the first performance, a queue has formed.

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Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

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Chinese Muslim, People’s Park, Xi’an

A continuation of Letter from China: It’s Wu-dang!

Despite Wudang’s serenity and peacefulness, our week there leaves us quite tired, due to a combination of 12hr days, relentless interviews and photo shoots, mountain hiking and cab shortages. Thus we are glad to board the Sunday morning bus to Xi’an, via Shiyan, the closest big city to Wudang, where we have a one-hour stopover.

Foreigners frequently stumble over the intonations and pronunciations of Chinese words, especially when reading from the “Pinyin” versions, i.e. written in the Latin alphabet. But in that one week, as we are trying to navigate a route out of Wudang, I experience more lost-in translation moments than ever before with “Xi’an” and “Shiyan”.

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Culinary post from China: Xi’an and Luoyang

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

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Biang biang mian

This post is a culinary addendum to Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

I go to Xi’an, that ancient crossroads of people and trade, expecting some of the best food on this trip; and it doesn’t disappoint. The Muslim quarter, in particular, is a veritable treasure trove of bites and eats. I do, however, recommend wandering off the main alley (pictured) and exploring some of the side lanes—more locals, greater variety, better prices.

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Letter from China: It’s Wu-dang!

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

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A continuation of Letter from China: Guangdong and Fujian

Depressed in Shanghai

In early November, I return to China for the last major leg of the trip, a six-week journey—the longest so far—that will take me from Shanghai – Nanjing – Wudang – Xi’an – Shaolin – Weifang – Beijing.

Even though the hallowed Shaolin awaits, I am not looking forward to this trip. I need all my discipline to board that flight from Singapore to Shanghai on Nov 6th.

There are several reasons for this. The first is simply fatigue. After more than four months on the road, having covered more than 15,000km overland, I am just bloody tired. I am tired of searching for cheap hotels and the most cost-efficient overland journey. I am tired of packing my bags every four days and moving to the next place. I am tired of carrying around my voice recorder, camera, GoPro, phone and notebook wherever I go. I am tired of repeating my damn shpeel about Kerala and Shaolin. I am tired of looking at every person on the street as an interview subject. (I want to just look down and walk past you!) And I am tired of watching over my two team-members: as fun and independent as they are, I always worry about them, feeling somewhat responsible for their safety.

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From Kerala to Shaolin: Thanks to supporters

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Dear friends, 2013 has been a crazy, fun, wild year. For the first time since college in the US, I spent more of the year outside than inside Singapore, my home. In completing my longest research trip to date, I travelled overland more than 20,000 km from Kaniyakumari at the southern tip of India to Beijing in China, crossing Nepal and the Tibetan plateau in the process.

Having spent more than six months in China and India, I now know much more about life in both countries; and yet, have also been made painfully aware of how much more I have to learn. The research will continue next year. (For more on my book project, please see here.)

There are many people I have to thank for making this trip possible, and for helping me along the way. It may seem premature to do this before I have even started writing the book. But the publishing world is a fickle one, and I would like to say thanks regardless of what happens next.

The ones I can’t name include you, dear reader, for clicking on my frivolous blog posts and occasionally sending me comments and feedback; and all the incredibly friendly people I met in China and India.

I must, however, name the people who financially supported the project, as well as those who were part of my team. Without them, none of this would have been possible.

People in both groups took a big risk. The former because I am sure there are many wiser ways to invest one’s money than in a novice writer’s jaunt across Chindia. The latter because I know that these talented people sacrificed other projects in order to follow and help me.

So, a very big thank you. I’ll do my best not to disappoint you.

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Funders:

Ho Beng Huat

Arvind Khattar

Sat Pal Khattar

Dinesh Shahra

Ganesh Shanmugam

Angeline Tay

Anjula Thomas

Annmarie Thomas

Easaw Thomas

Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC):

It’s only right that I thank all Singaporean taxpayers, because it’s your arts money that has been chanelled towards this project. Additionally, I want to say thanks to the NAC for supporting this project, after being unable to fund my first project, Floating on a Malayan Breeze.

Then, NAC told me that my book had “the potential to undermine the Singapore government”, so they couldn’t support it. It was, of course, hugely disappointing for me that my country’s arts council distanced itself from my very first book. But now, happiness! Good to have NAC’s support for my second project.

Project team:

Eddie Choo, who provided research assistance

Jeffrey Chu, who travelled with me in Nepal as well as Chengdu to Shanghai

Kirit Kiran, who travelled with me for six months, from Kaniyakumari to Beijing

Julia Lee, who travelled with me from Shanghai to Weifang

Arjun Nihalani, who provided research assistance

Tan Kane Juan, who travelled with me in Nepal and Tibet

And, saving the best for last, my dear wife, Ho Li Ling. Thanks for putting up with my six-month absence! (Although she had gotten so used to not having me around that my presence again was a bit disruptive, ha.)

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Thank you, everybody. I feel blessed. Here’s to a great new year!

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Letter from China: Guangdong and Fujian

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin

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A continuation of First letter from China: Sichuan

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Bust of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s shifu, in Foshan, Guangdong

Buses

When we try to leave Sichuan for Guangdong (Canton), Jeffrey Chu, my Shanghai-based Taiwanese-American friend, Kirit Kiran, the Delhi-based photographer, and I are faced with the contemporary traveller’s worst scheduling nightmare: the Chinese national holidays. Our journey comes near the end of the weeklong holiday around October 1st, the national day of the People’s Republic of China, when in 1949 Mao Tse-Tung declared that “The Chinese people have stood up!”

There is certainly a lot of standing to be done. We stand in Emei, as hordes of domestic tourists—some with walking stick and camera, others dressed to the nines—flood the usually peaceful Emei shan, mountain. When we reach Chengdu, we stand outside the quaint boutique hotel I booked through booking.com; they are overbooked, and don’t have a room for us, and so after two hours of calling around they find us another hotel thirty minutes away.

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Culinary post from China: Sichuan

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Mapo doufu

This post is meant to accompany my First letter from China: Sichuan. Since digestive difficulties have prevented me from tasting Chengdu’s wonderful food on this Kerala to Shaolin trip, I will instead narrate a story from April 2012, when I visited for the first time with my wife Li Ling.

Barely 15 minutes after reaching Buddha Zen, our hotel, we are on our way out. Ling has gotten directions to a local restaurant and we are walking briskly, after pulling on a thin extra layer for the crisp Spring evening. Unfortunately, we cover only about 300 metres before I get distracted by skewers of raw meat lying next to a charcoal grill. Perhaps more importantly, there is a wide tray of chilli flakes sitting next to it.

A few minutes later, the eager, young Chinese BBQ master is brushing the chilli onto sizzling meat cubes, using a giant paint brush, the kind one uses to paint walls. The meat is good enough, but we are to have much better.

I am ecstatic, though, that my mouth is finally on fire. I had spent months dreaming of this moment—my first chilli high in Sichuan. It is, I imagine, much like one’s first scotch in Scotland; or joint in Jamaica.

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First letter from China: Sichuan

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin

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A continuation of Postcard from Tibet: Drinking yak butter tea

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Chengdu streetfood

Chengdu

When I find out that our mainland China trip will begin in Chengdu, I am overjoyed. Before this Kerala2Shaolin research trip, I had visited only a few mainland Chinese cities: Chengdu, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. By some distance, Chengdu is my favourite.

Li Ling, my wife, and I had visited in April 2012. Ling, on her first ever visit to the land of her forefathers, was filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, worried about a week of musky hotel rooms, smoky restaurants and squalid, squatting-only toilets.

Deciding on Chengdu back then was easy. Ling wanted to look at animals and I wanted to eat them. Few places attract animal lovers and carnivores so effortlessly: Chengdu is home to the world’s foremost Panda sanctuary; it is also one of Asia’s gastronomic capitals, the centre of Sichuan cuisine. After five days we were smitten, by the comical, goofy pandas, by the irresistible “mala” spice (ma: numbing;  la: spicy) and, unexpectedly, by the charming, laid-back people of Sichuan, who seem less interested in China’s hot growth than China’s hot tea. (For a more detailed digression into mala and Sichuanese food, see Culinary post from China: Sichuan)

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