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.

 

 

Life update: Leaving Singapore

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 have a window now, before our parents get too old, to experience another part of this fascinating world. I’ve been living back home in Singapore for ten years now…time for a change of scenery lah.

And I guess we’ve got enough energy now such that the idea of moving to an alien place where we may have to learn a new language fills us more with excitement than dread.

I will keep writing. But probably on new topics of more relevance to our adopted home. In other words, I am planning to slowly wind down my Singapore writing…not sure if I should rename this blog or simply put up a “Dormant” sign.

Of course, the idea of going somewhere and starting afresh is a bit daunting. Many of my literary contacts and most of my readership is in Singapore. But oh well. What’s life without challenges.

Incidentally, I am still working on my China-India book, which is going well. I expect to be done with the draft by the end of this year.

So, thanks very much for reading and for all your kind (and even the not-so-kind) feedback over the years. Hope to catch some of you over the next few months before we leave.

2017 UPDATE: After eight wonderful months in Mauritius, we moved back to Singapore in December 2016. It now seems like we’ll be here for the foreseeable future. I would love to live in Mauritius again at some point…see here for my writings on the place.

The Burning Man: A geographical analysis of a new-age pilgrimage

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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.)

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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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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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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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Postcard from Tibet: Drinking yak butter tea

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 Nepal: Teej and trout

Tibet has us in raptures.

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.

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Postcard from Nepal: Teej and Trout

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 Last letter from India: Manipur

I go to Nepal to get to Tibet.

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

Travel note from India: Chandipur beach, Orissa

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.

Click to enlarge any image:

High tide

High tide. The whites of the waves form from far, far away, and slowly making their way to the shore Continue reading