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 … Continue reading The Economist’s Open Future Festival: Video of my talk on identity
Dear friends, just a note to say that Ling and I have decided to leave Singapore early next year. Destination unknown, for the moment, but we hope to travel for a bit first, and then settle down somewhere for perhaps four or five years. Have been mulling over Indonesia, Sri Lanka and South Africa. (Any suggestions???) Just for the heck of it. We feel we … Continue reading Life update: Leaving Singapore
At the top of “6 o’clock”, a main street in Black Rock City, Nevada
The folks at UC Berkeley’s library have just kindly dug out my Geography Undergraduate Honours Thesis from 2002 and scanned it. I had somehow lost every single copy, a depressing combination of hard-drive crashes and absent-minded post-graduation packing.
It was interesting for me to reread it now, both for reminiscence sake and to ponder how my writing has changed over the years.
The Burning Man is a yearly festival in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Dessert that I have now attended thrice: in 2002 when I was walking around with a notebook interviewing people; in 2003, sans notebook, to partake in all the art, joy and partying that I had missed the year before; and in 2009 when my sister, brother-in-law, cousins and very good friend wanted to go for the very first time.
The Burning Man is very close to my heart, partly because of the great art on offer and partly because by living for a week in “the gift economy”, where money can’t buy you anything, one learns to appreciate labour and human interaction outside the mental confines of commerce. (One also learns to appreciate just how long the human body can go without a shower.)
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.
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”.
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 … Continue reading From Kerala to Shaolin: Thanks to supporters
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)
Impossibly blue skies that look fake, like creations from a Pixar lab; hills and mountains of varying shapes, sizes and colours, whose endlessness lulls you into taking them for granted, only to realise their true grandeur after you’ve left the rooftop of the world; monasteries that have somehow survived, that transport you to a bygone era of spirituality; rivers so pure, so clean, you can drink from them, bathe in them, live in them; and people so warm that the very concept of “stranger” soon evaporates, and you can almost imagine a oneness of humanity that predates Lennon’s poetry by generations.
All these elements are unwilling participants in the eternal clash between tradition and modernity, which is played out everywhere around you, in Lhasa’s glitzy new malls, along kilometres of power cables that line green valleys, in some monasteries that seem more intent on squeezing hapless tourists than lighting butter candles.
It is all part of “maintaining the integrity of my trip”, as Jeffrey Chu, my Shanghai-based travel companion in China, puts it. When I first sketch out the broad outlines of this trip, one guiding principle is my desire to travel overland—no flights—from the southernmost point of India to the northernmost point of China. My experience while researching my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, when Sumana Rajarethnam and I cycled around the whole of Peninsular Malaysia, taught me the importance of observing transitions in climate, land, vegetation, people, in understanding a large, diverse country.
While I am not bothered about travel within India and China, I worry about how I’m going to cross the Himalayas to get from one country to the other. Tibet, therefore, emerges as the potential Achilles Heel of this trip. Continue reading “Postcard from Nepal: Teej and Trout”
If you enjoy visiting places that still feel raw and untouched, and where tourists are rare; yet also developed enough that you can easily get there, and enjoy clean toilets, comfortable beds and Wifi, move Orissa—now known as Odisha—up your travel list.
Kirit and I travel here to investigate paika akhada, one of India’s lesser-known martial art forms. I am eager to find out why, in comparison to gatka, kalarippayattu, silambam and thang-ta, Orissa’s martial art seems to be very much on the decline. (For more on my book project, From Kerala to Shaolin, please see here.)
In between our martial arts interviews and exhibitions, Orissa leaves the wanderlusty travellers in us absolutely smitten. Bhubaneshwar, where we begin our journey, is known as the Temple City of India. I am not really one for marvelling at temple architecture, but the stone and wood work is so intricate and unique—unlike all the hundred others I’ve seen in India—it takes my breath away. Moreover, when strolling around Bhubaneshwar’s old city, where the old and new are so seamlessly integrated, one can easily forget what age we’re in. It is one of these “living” old cities.
Other major Oriya attractions—which we didn’t have time for—include Puri, a seaside town which is an important Hindu pilgrimage centre, the Sun Temple at Konark, with its erotic sculptures, and the many forest reserves, including those with some of the best tiger populations around.
You should go before the international airport in Bhubaneshwar, the capital, is complete, because then, as we all know, the floodgates will open. As it stands now, it’s still very easy to get there via Bombay, Calcutta or Delhi. More info below.
For now, I will just leave you with one of the highlights of my trip so far: Chandipur Beach. I love beaches, and have been lucky to spend time on many across the entire world. Chandipur is, in a way, the most special. This is because of its unique topography. The sea bed’s incline is so gentle that the sea recedes up to five kilometres during low tide. Locals call it the vanishing sea.
At high tide, you can see the whites of oh-so-gentle waves forming from five kilometres out and slowly rolling in. At low tide, the topography creates a gigantic low-water expanse for one to explore and play in. You can let your three-year old kids run wild without ever worrying about them drowning.