Tag Archives: japan

George and the locusts, coming soon to a former colony near YOU

20 Feb

george osborneThere’s probably something about living in the shadow of the world’s most populous nation and pre-eminent global authoritarian one-party state, that can’t help but make one a little jittery. At least, that’s my over-simplistic explanation of why Hong Kongers seem so quick to mobilise in protest. Last week all the fuss was about the not-so-subtle erosion of the SAR’s enshrined press freedoms while this week the news cycle has been dominated by a rather ugly anti-mainlander rally.

In the sort of irony bypass that’s become wearingly familiar to anyone following public protests in Hong Kong and China, around 100 locals paraded the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui on Sunday waving anti mainlander banners and scuffling with passers-by. The reason? They believe HK is full up and can’t take any more of these rude, uncouth big spenders from across the border. They conveniently glossed over the fact that tourism makes up a decent wodge of Hong Kong’s economy (around 4.5%) and that they were being pretty rude and uncouth themselves on the Sunday march, shouting slogans like, “Go back to mainland China”.

The Communist Party of China has spent the past 60-odd years carefully constructing the narrative that the Middle Kingdom and its territories (Taiwan, Tibet etc) belong to a unified Han race; a kind of master race of the East rising once again to its rightful place at the centre of the universe. I guess Hong Kong didn’t get the memo. Want some more irony? The protesters also shouted the word “Shina” at mainland shoppers on Sunday. That particular moniker was last used by imperial Japan back in the day as a derogatory word to describe China. Want another? The Sunday protesters were apparently carrying British colonial-era Hong Kong flags to signal their otherness from the mainland.

You’ve got to hand it to the protesters, they’ve managed to do the unthinkable and actually arouse some sympathy for the hapless ‘locusts’ caught in the crossfire. All that those bum bag and velour leopard skin onesie-wearing gits want to do is spend a shedload on some gaudy luxury goods, jump a few queues and act rather unsympathetically to their surroundings, which is not strictly speaking illegal. As I’ve said before, Hong Kong has made a rod for its own back in allowing developers to build luxury shopping mall after luxury shopping mall to attract these tourists. It’s no wonder why the SAR is so limited when it comes to theatres, arts spaces and non-tourist oriented shops/bars/anything.

Go George!

I have a theory about this particular protest. I reckon it was incited by the UK Chancellor as a classic bit of magician’s misdirection, so he could slip into the country almost unannounced this week. Now I’m not quite sure why gorgeous George has decided to make a speech about the UK economy from Hong Kong today, unless the rationale was that the last remaining group of people on the planet who might not be tempted to give him a good shoeing are the Mr and Mses of the British Chambers of Commerce here.

Or it might be that only local business leaders in Honkers are predisposed to take George and his ridiculously high fringe line seriously. “Balanced economy? You don’t even have a balanced haircut mate.”

Anyway, Lord Gideon of Tatton has shared his message that the UK economy might just be ever so slightly too reliant on consumer spending and the City of London. So well done there, exactly what every economist worth his salt, and the Governor of the Bank of England, has been saying for rather a long time now.

Still, thumbs up for getting there in the end chancellor. You can go back to the UK now, and while you’re at it can you take some of these revolting Chinese with you? We’ve got enough take-aways here as it is.

Taiwan: Land of t-shirt wrestling and stinky tofu

7 Jun

taiwan beerAhhh Taipei. Another weekend, another new favourite Asian city. I realise I do this gratuitous love-in on an irritatingly frequent basis but I’ve got to say this place is worth fawning over.

Taiwan has a long and chequered history ending in a lengthy period of Japanese colonialism in the late 1800s to 1945, and then the forced immigration of the Kuomintang Chinese nationalists after they were routed by Mao’s lot in the Chinese civil war. This has made it a smaller, friendlier, cleaner, tastier and altogether sexier version of China proper. Some American douchebags I met called it China Light, but that’s doing Taiwan a massive disservice.

The Japanese empire may have departed this island long ago but its cultural remnants cast a long shadow. From the tap-to-open automatic doors to the ubiquitous vending machines and even the hot springs, Japanism is everywhere. And people queue! And, especially refreshing coming from Hong Kong where the locals are tucked up in bed playing Candy Crush on their phablets by 10pm, Taipeiers go out and booze like it’s the end of the world.

taipei cityscape

Case in point: I was awoken in my hotel room on Sunday afternoon by the gentle shaking of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, with no memory of how I got home. Only the blurred pictures of tequila shots on my smartphone and a vague memory of being wrestled out of my t-shirt by a girl called Melody remained. Ahh, Taipei.dancing girls

The Republic of China has been unfairly ignored for much of the past 50 years by the international community but in a lot of ways it’s the kind of place you wish mainland China could have been. Ignore the stinky tofu for a second and you’ve got a free press, good education, a fully functioning healthcare system and lovely people. The PRC still regards it as a territory to be eventually subsumed into the motherland à la Hong Kong, but one visit to the imposing Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei will prove that this is about as likely to happen as Xi Jinping opening a Twitter account.

chiang kai shek

Generalissimo Chiang cuts a forlorn, almost tragic figure in the museum dedicated to his life, beneath the monument. After all, this is the guy – the Kuomintang leader for several decades – who let China slip through his fingers and effectively exiled himself on a small mountainous island. It’s now a place where the rivers flow bereft of even a solitary rotting pig carcass; where the internet takes you to any site you wish, where the police do not arrest elderly women protesting the sexual abuse of their infant daughters; where the air is clean and the rice doesn’t even contain dangerously high levels of cadmium.

He must be kicking himself.

Camb-Okinawa: darkness and light in Asia

22 May

s21 museum“Does the genocide museum have a dress code?”

It’s not a phrase I’ve ever typed into Google, certainly not on holiday, but it was necessary research a couple of weekends ago in Phnom Penh. Cambodia isn’t really like any other SE Asian country I’ve ever visited but it doesn’t take long to realise that a sombre trip to the Killing Fields and the notorious S21 prison are essential, if harrowing, stops.

I’m not going to prattle on like a sententious twump about why they’re important, you can figure that out for yourself. But reading a forced confession of some poor sod from my old school in NE England whose life was abruptly terminated at the hands of the Khymer Rouge does rather focus the mind. Reading all about the horrors of the ’70s and the turbulence that followed for decades afterwards, it seems churlish to complain about the food (pretty terrible) or the horrific sex tourism (the Heart of Darkness club is aptly named) in Cambodia. That didn’t stop me, of course.

I didn’t make it out to the Angkor Wat wonderland but the highlights for me were the smiley, smiley locals – you’ll never meet more polite hustlers in your life* – the dirt cheap beer, and the other worldliness of a city which was almost entirely depopulated during the late ’70s.

As lovely as Cambodia was, however, it was eventually time to pack away the Gary Glitter costume and head somewhere slightly closerkaraoke to home, culturally at least: Okinawa. Now there are two types of people in this world: those who see a five day forecast of torrential storms and brave it to the beach anyway, like IDIOTS, and those who decide to cut their losses and spend their entire weekend eating and drinking. So it was we discovered that the delights of Okinawan nightlife are even more delightful perhaps than Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

Naha is more chilled, more friendly and more accessible for the gaijin tourist than virtually any place in Japan proper I’ve been. That’s probably down to the fact it isn’t really Japan at all but part of the ancient kingdom of Ryukyu – the locals don’t much look like Japanese and they’ve a different dialect and even separate languages, although the two distinct cultures seem to have found a pretty sweet balance on these sub-tropical islands.


Cue lots of counter-stool-beer-izakaya action; plenty of chopstick competence-related comments; complementary shots of local firewater awamori; and the odd lock-in listening to the owner’s Led Zeppelin collection. Food = as good as you’d expect from Japan; beer = ditto; random events = cracking; brothels = surprisingly un-hidden; amusing Engrish signage = in abundance.

All in all an excellent quick-stop weekend destination from HK, especially thanks to Abenomics and the weak, weak yen.  The only dud was Black Harlem, a bar chocked full of over 10,000 vinyl records playing the most beautiful soul music but with the most miserable customer/bar staff combo known to man. In an irony which did not escape us as we exited post haste after one drink, it simply had no soul.

(*99% of the time anyway. My mate did have her flip flops nicked outside the Killing Fields museum. Who does that??)

Honkers – come and have a play

22 Oct

Mount Parker hong kongIf you’re lucky enough to get accepted on the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme – a one-way ticket to fun, adventure, intimate knowledge of the locals and alcohol-related liver damage – you’ll be treated to a seemingly endless parade of pre-and post-orientation seminars. The purpose of these sententious survival guides is to teach the naïve young uni grad of the dangers of culture shock. It goes something like this:

According to JET, culture shock forces individuals “to re-examine assumptions and social behaviours which were once thought absolute, and may cause discomfort, disorientation and emotional conflicts”. The four stages are as follows: initial euphoria (honeymoon); irritation and hostility (culture shock); gradual adjustment; adaptation and biculturalism (‘going bamboo’ as my granddad might have put it).

Now, the whole lot played out as predictably as a particularly bad Hollyoaks plot for the three years of my particular tour of duty, but here’s the thing – it’s not really happening in Hong Kong, which is a blessing and a massive disappointment.

The problem with Hong Kong is it’s one of the easiest places in the world in which to live. Once you’ve found somewhere to live (probably as expensive as a London flat but a bit smaller) utilities, internet, phone are all set up on the day. There’s no council tax and income tax is a famously low 17%. Ikea delivers and assembles furniture for an embarrassingly tiny fee. Hailable mini buses zip around the island for less than 50p, or you can get a real taxi for about a third of the price of a black cab in London. There are international supermarkets and authentic Western restaurants on every street corner. And great, cheap local Chinese hole-in-the-walls. The locals are at least on grunting terms with English. There are wonderful beach-side bars and sleepy villages, and more hiking trails than you can shake a stick at.

All of which was beginning to stress me out a bit, until I gave up trying to play this the Japan way – knuckle down at the local lingo, learn cultural no-nos: adapt, change, enjoy. It’s an international city state which prides itself on being all things to all people, which has a rich cultural history if you want it but won’t push it down your throat. Most Hong Kong Chinese would not like to be mistaken for a mainlander, and a lot of their difference comes from living in this cultural melting pot. That’s right, I just said melting pot.

In this spirit I ate a brunch of Eggs Benedict last Saturday, caught a £3 cab down the road a few miles to Quarry Bay and went on a stunning 10km hike across Hong Kong island – and was back in Central in time for several pints of cider and a steak sandwich down the pub. Looking for the difference can be exhausting and not much fun if you come to Honkers, enjoy it on your terms.

Yokoso Japan! Come ye and stay for a while … but not too long

12 Oct

kinkakuji kyotoJust come back from a glorious ten days in Japan. Ahh, Nihhon – every time I go back I wonder why I ever left. And then right at the end of the holiday, when all my endorphins have withered and died, when my belly simply cannot stomach another grilled chicken ovary on a stick and my liver is cowering at the thought of more Asahi. Then I remember why.

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the place, it’s just that the rabu rabu, when it’s good, is so bloody good, and the bad, well is so bad it just gets pushed to the darkest recesses of my mind as if it never happened. If you haven’t been yet I’d urge you to go, especially if you live in Asia. It’s so bloody close but literally unlike anything on Earth.

All the rumours are true: neon-infused Blade Runner-style city scapes; beautiful snow-capped mountains; peerless temples and hill-top shrines … child porn that would make Jimmy Savile blush. It’s all here. It’s all fighting for space and vying for your attention in the most utterly polite way possible. Like the people who inhabit this archipelago, bad manners is not an option. Learn just a smattering of traveller’s Japanese and you’ll be set – no shrugged shoulders and blank Parisian stares here – and the food has enough variety and quality to keep you happy for at least a fortnight, never eating the same dish twice.

You probably don’t want to hear about how much fun we had though, so I’ll tell you about the darkness. The politeness gets too much after a while, inevitably. Japan’s a walled garden, a playground for the foreigner, but also eventually a bit of a prison. It locks you into the same endless cycle of polite conversations with locals who really should know you better by now – complimenting you on use of chopsticks, linguistic dexterity or just being tall as if the past three years never even happened.

Its otherness, its difference, becomes intensely frustrating. “Why can’t I use my credit card anywhere? Why does it take foreign films two months longer to get here than anywhere else? Why do all the girls have a borderline personality disorder and squeak like a child’s toys when you try to get intimate? And why the hell can’t I find decent CHEESE anywhere!?” Sometimes you just want a beer in a bar without having to order food, a cigarette in the street without having to find the nearest designated smoking area, or a shit without having to operate a Buck Rogers toilet from the future.

That’s basically why I couldn’t live there any longer. That and the child maintenance payments. But post-tsunami Japan needs all the help it can get, and that’s certainly not going to come from Chinese tourists any time soon. So get your collective fingers out and book a trip tomorrow. The soaring highs and the crushing lows are waiting just around the corner…

China vs Japan – which is better? There’s only one way to find out…

25 Aug

japan imperial flagYou might have heard recently about a bit of diplomatic aggro between China and Japan. I say a bit. I mean what may in 20 years’ time be referred to as “the origins of World War Three”. As with most disputes in Asia Pacific, it revolves around a disputed set of rocks. Literally little more than jagged stubs of nothingness poking wilfully out of the deep, shouting “claim me, if you DARE!”.

Now, you might hear a lot of nationalistic posturing on both sides about their rightful claims, but here’s the deal. I can pronounce the islands in Japanese – Senkaku, since you ask – while I have more difficulty, as with most words, with the Chinese Diaoyu. This, in my book, means Japan wins by default – if half the planet can’t pronounce the pesky name then you forfeit sovereignty rights … is the new rule I’ve just made up.

Ironically in this instance, and for about the first time in such disputes, I think China probably has the more valid claim. If you look on the map, the disputed lands are bloody miles away from Japan – Taiwan has a pretty valid claim on them too, but definitely not Japan. I say ironically because China claims just about everything in the South and East China Sea because it has an old map with all of these islands, atolls, reefs and sandbanks depicted as belonging to the Middle Kingdom.  Not very convincing if you ask me but who’s going to argue with China? Well, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan, now that there are signs that there could be precious minerals or even gas and oil under the crabby bits of rock.

As tensions mounted over the Senkaku dispute, a boat full of Chinese and Taiwanese activists sailed off from Hong Kong to plant the Chinese (and Taiwanese) flags on them. Now I found this propaganda stunt particularly, err, fishy given that Hong Kongers in my experience do not consider themselves to be a part of that whole Chinese territorial posturing nonsense. Yes, they may feel ethnically aligned to their cousins across the border, but when it comes to geopolitical matters, they would rather remain aloof of China’s insatiable land grab. They are happy in their difference from the PRC because it means they can hang on to things – rule of law, press freedom, financial independence, freedom of speech etc etc – that mainland Chinese can only dream of.

The whole thing smacked of a Communist-sponsored PR stunt – making sure the activists came from Hong Kong to distance the act itself from the PRC, but still showing Japan that the government has popular support for its territorial stance.

Anyway, long story short, no-one in this or any of the Asian maritime squabbles that have erupted over the past few months have particularly covered themselves in glory. What there needs to be is some kind of international arbitration in all this, some kind of union of nations which could decide on who gets what. A United Nations, if you will. Oh, wait a minute. There is.

Sonic Mania desu!

20 Aug

sonic mania shotWhat do you get if you stick several world-class electro DJs in a gigantic conference centre, fill it with 20,000 crazy Japanese yoofs and fill each one of them with far too much booze? SONIC MANIA DESU! Saikooooo!

Never having been to a Japanese festival or even club night before, I was slightly dreading this all-nighter in the Tokyo suburbs. It certainly was an evening full of surprises. Just 690 Yen and 38 minutes from Tokyo Station, Makuhari Messe is a beast of a building about the size of three Earl’s Courts. More commonly home to Japanese Jeremy Clarkson wannabes at the capital’s auto-shows, the venue did not look particularly appealing for a gig, but actually a storming sound system and up-for-it crowd made it feel more like Alexandra Palace on a good night.

I think the idea was the best of Japanese + the best of international musics, so true to form we eschewed the local stuff and focused on those old favourites Soulwax/2ManyDJs and Basement Jaxx. Despite some dodgy Japanese MC-ing, the latter were actually pretty good – the Noodle not being a fan of their own tunes. Sadly there was no time to haul ourselves to see other promising French electro music-makers like Surkin, Para One and Madeon – the Messe being a victim of its own size.

So. Highlights of the night? A man staggering through the crowd at 2ManyDJs with a half-eaten bowl of udon; a massive queue at every bar which, true to form, was almost non-existent by about midnight; being able to see over most heads to the stage; a sea of bodies asleep on the tarmac by 4am, brutalised by too much Asahi and fried octopus balls…

So was it Manic? Well, once the initial euphoria had passed and we realised the most dangerous thing we could do there was smoke a contraband cigarette and get largered, yeah, it was a bit. You know how you’ll always get a token couple of Japanese girls at any club in London, dancing badly, looking bored? Well, here there are thousands of them and they’re bloody loving every minute.

For the sheer balls-out, pissed-up, good natured crowd, shamefully nice food and wicked music, Sonic Mania, I salute thee! Kampai…