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Showing posts from January, 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…

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 (presuma…

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!

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.

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 - absharp@hotmail.com

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 …

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. …

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.

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 t…

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 struggl…

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 …

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 th…

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.

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 f…

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…

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.…

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 floo…

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 Taiwanes…

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 talk…

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…

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 f…

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 …

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 shelter…

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.

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 at…

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 Rick…

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…

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, a…

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 pain…