10 May 2018

Film review: Youth (2017) by Feng Xiaogang, *****

Synopsis

When Xiaoping joins the military, delicate dreams are dashed by the events of a China undergoing revolution. The devastating Sino-Vietnamese war crashes into 1970s China, changing the lives of the Army's young new recruits forever.

In this epic spanning several decades, Youth shows Comrades of the People's Liberation Army fight amongst themselves as much as on the battlefield – and cause as much damage as the war that tore their lives apart.


Review

Incredibly passionate and captivating historical film about life in China during the huge transformations that took place after Mao's death. A love story starts during the excesses of the cultural revolution with the "great helmsman" still in power, and the trauma of the war against Vietnam in 1979. After that, rapid reforms make many Chinese rich, and many officials corrupt, but the human story of the protagonists carries through the ages. One man's good deeds are taken for granted and not appreciated any more.

The film was supposed to be released just before the 2017 party congress but it was held up until after the congress itself for some reason. Maybe because it contains thinly veiled criticism of Mao and also raises many questions about the new system of the country.

A strongly recommended film about how China became what it is today.

See other film on China reviewed in this blog.






04 March 2018

Train back to Hong Kong and flights to Europe

Morning at home, final packing and tidying up before leaving Guiyang.As usual we have a couple of suitcases full of goodies, mostly food from family farm in Yanjia.

Brunch with family, bamboo shoots pork, water chestnut soup. And fish: a big black from the pond on our terrace! It is quite common for people to keep gold fish and live fish for eating together, in the same pond!

A neighbor gracefully drives us to Chenzhou station in his brand new Honda, which he points out costs twice as much in China as in Japan. Honda has factory here but it is supposed to be producing for export only, so he is not sure where his car, or parts of it, comes from.

He is a banker and has a good life. Happy with the way things are going in China but he says communism can never work. China is still officially pursuing communism but in practice it is successful because it is capitalist.

Chenzhou station is crowded beyond imagination, never seen it so full of people like an egg. And it must have been worse a couple of weeks ago for Chinese New Year's. They estimated that about 600 million people travel across the country to go home, the largest annual migration in the history of the world. No wonder the transportation system is busy.

Can't move around no chance to buy my favorite duck neck snacks from Shenhua. Bags through x-rays, but they don't check any of them.

people are allowed onto platforms in waves as each trains homes in on the station. There is one train every 8 to 10 minutes going either north toward Wuhan and Beijing or south to Guangzhou.

Fast train (over 300kmh) is slightly delayed but no problem we have a good buffer before our flight from Changsha. Once underway, the delay increases somewhat because one passenger sets off the smoke alarm. The driver slows down and two security guards walk up and down the train to catch the smoker. I am not sure what they will do to him or her but after about 10 minutes we resume our normal speed.

At Changsha station an avalanche of people moves to catch a bus or a taxi, or a maglev shuttle to the airport. We choose the bus as there is less to walk and we have large heavy suitcases full of Hunan food!

Just before boarding bus another x-ray machine for our bags, again no one cares to check .

The bus is an old and cranky machine from the bad old times, and a TV screen blasts off some kind of funny talk show at ear-piercing volume. It must be funny because Lifang laughs all the time.

At the airport we have to wait a while to check in but there is no place to sit down as people take up seats with bags, or lie down across three seats and think it is normal. We do not feel like starting an argument and just relax on our suitcases.

After check in we go through yet another x-ray machine no one pays any attention to and then passport control. Our flight to Hong Kong is in the same terminal area as international flights (and flights to Macau and Taiwan). Hong Kong is still a "special" administrative region, with its own borders, police, currency, laws etc. It is supposed to remain so at least until 2047 according to the treaty signed with the UK when the last remnant of the British empire was returned to its motherland.

After which we have another (you guess?) x-ray machine control! This time the do look very carefully and stop me. A guard asks if I am carrying a knife. I replied of course I was not. He asked me to open my trolley and take pretty much everything out. Of course there was no knife but the spine of a box looked like one on their screen. OK I can go.

The lounge of Changsha airport is nothing spectacular, and in fact they have reduced both its size and its offering since my last visit. Just some snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

Uneventful flight to Hong Kong, where we spend a pleasant hour or so in the Qantas lounge while waiting to connect to our British Airways flight to Brussels. We walk to the gate quite early to board with the first batch of passengers and enjoy a drink or two before take-off.

Here, again, we run into the less than fully prepared staff of British Airways. We're flying to London and connect directly onward to Brussels. They won't let my Chinese wife board the plane because she does not have a Schengen visa. The rule says that she does not need one, because she is a resident of the UK and is with me, her husband, and an EU citizen. She would need one if she were traveling alone (though they usually let her through) but not in my company. It is a rather complicated rule, but it should not be beyond the grasp of people who check passport for a living.

I love a united Europe but they could really make an effort to simplify the rules back there in Brussels. Or just allow anyone who legally lives in Europe to move anywhere else in Europe, whatever the passport. but you would think the employees of a major international airline which fly planeloads of people from every corner of the world would familiarize themselves with it. No, they did not. For the third time in a little over a year we are held for some 30 minutes while the staff makes phone calls and scrambles to read manuals. I googled the relevant EU rule on the internet in less than 10 seconds and showed it to them, and finally we were allowed on board.

One more trip to Asia is over, though every time it feels less and less like a trip and more of a home coming. A long night on our BA flight and we'll be in Europe. BA is on a downhill slope when it comes to quality. Service on the plane, while friendly, is less meticulous and attentive than it used to be.



03 March 2018

Getting ready to leave Guiyang

Easy day at home, mostly packing and enjoying a late lunch with family. Today we ate fish, but only later I realized two of the black fish that were cooked with spring onion, garlic and chili were from the pond we have in our terrace. I like the idea: you can have pet fish in a tank, but at some point you eat them. The cycle of life continues.

For dinner we were invited by a friend and his family to a Miao theme restaurant, there are many around Hunan now but this is new in Guiyang. Guiyang seems to be developing fast, and what may have been considered too exotic to make money a few years ago now all of a sudden is popular with the rising middle class.

The Miao people are one of the best known minorities in China and live in scattered groups in many provinces, but mostly in about ten. Hunan has the second largest group, some 1.7 million people, or close to 3% of the population of the province. Only the adjacent Guizhou province has more. We had seen many in Western Hunan two years ago, this is the first time here in Guiyang. I am pleased to see that the wealth of minorities once again seems to be recognized as an asset in the country.

Food is served in the usual "lazy Susan" turning table and is quite varied, rich and, of course, spicy! People, eat, drink, laugh and even smoke cigarettes, all at once. Most of the men drink a lot. Chinese rice liquor. They drink one shot at the time, and to prove their point every time turn the empty glass to the other so everyone can see inside that it is empty. Sometimes they turn it upside down to show that not a drop is left. I drink two or three, then stop. I am not into this kind of competition, which I could never win anyway. Amazingly, no one gets drunk and at the end of the evening they will all walk home (or even drive home) without any issue. I thought the Russians and the Ukrainians were the toughest drinkers, or perhaps the Poles, but the Hunanese could take on any East European!

Four ladies in Miao costumes tour the restaurant and visit each and every one of the reserved tables and pour sweetish and mildly alcoholic drink into a carafe and from there to a cup positioned on lips of the "guest of honor", who must drink it all up! At our table, of course, that is me! I actually like the drink, though it is not so easy to swallow all that is required to look good, but in the end I manage to do so and avoid embarrassment!

Meanwhile the kids of the families attending play around the restaurant. The are full of energy and do not seem to care that it is getting late.

On our way back home, at the end of the meal, the children jumped on a street stage that has been prepare for a jazz festival that starts tomorrow. Too bad we'll miss the festival as we have to leave, but it's fun to see the kids dance tonight! And it's good to see jazz taking root in China, it's not been a favorite in the country for now, although increasingly available in the big cities. I guess, but I am not sure, that one advantage for jazz is that it is usually not as politically controversial as other genres and therefore not likely to be subject to any kind of censorship or restrictions. (Icelandic singer Björk got herself banned when she mentioned Tibet in one of her appearances.)

While we keep an eye on them, a friend bought us a cold drink, a kind of milk shake with beads made of paste of some beans. Quite new for me but refreshing and tasty, great to finish off the night!

28 February 2018

Cherry blossoms in Guiyang, Hunan

After a lazy morning and lunch at home, we decide to take a short trip in the late afternoon. We take a taxi (a "Didi", the local company that bought the Chinese Uber operation) and drive about 10 minutes to see the famous cherry trees in bloom. It is February, rather early for any flowers, and it is cold, but somehow the cherry trees blossom in Hunan!

There are actually two orchards, one is free and for the other one we would need to buy a ticket that costs 40 Yuan. The ticketed one is more crowded, maybe it is better?, but the taxi driver told us it is not necessarily more beautiful, and in fact he had seen that most of the flowers had already fallen to the ground. So we decide to go to the free one.

The driver can only go so far, not really all the way to the garden. We have a choice: walk or take a motorbike taxi. As it is already a bit late in the afternoon, we chose the latter option. Someone with a bike offers to take us the few hundred meters that separate us from the orchard for 5 Rmb.

Once we reach the area we are getting close to sunset but the warm pre-sunset light is very useful to take some good photos. Only a few dozen people are left, and the local hawkers of drinks and snacks are beginning to pack up.

As I snap away at the flowers and take some portraits of my wife, I notice a girl wearing an eye-catching white and blue costume who is posing for her girlfriend. She also has a veil she lets lose in the wind while the other girl takes photos with her phone.

It is now getting dark, not enough light for more flower pictures, but we take a walk toward the town's mine. The dig out lead and silver from here. The mine is still partly in operation but has a section that is open for tourists. It is too late now but we'll come another time.

On the way, an interesting poster with the thoughts of Xi Jinping, sharing his wisdom with passerbys.


Socialism core values

people have faith, nation has hope, country has power

wealth, democracy, civilization, harmony,   

freedom, equality, fairness, justice

patriotism, professionalism, honesty, kindness



Chinese president's thought



Longish walk back home, about 1 hour. On the way I looked at a wine shop, China is now the 6th largest producer of wine and the middle class wants ever more good wines. This one though sells mostly distilled products. Most wines are red, which the Chinese consume in much larger quantities than whites. Some bottles are Chinese and a few French. A couple of Italian bottles from Tuscany and Venetia. Most wines are priced between 80 and 250 Rmb.

Dinner at home. As we're about to finish dinner the neighbors come in for a visit. Their little one and my niece Cindy play together quite often, even once kissed on the lips before they reached 2 years of age!


22 February 2018

Changsha to Leiyang

Amazing buffet at the Changsha Intercontinental hotel, eastern and western, hot and cold, sweet and savory, chopsticks and forks and knives and spoon, it is a real celebration.

Some of the highlights: I was first attracted by the local cold noodles, roughly grated with a special tool from a big boulder of dow. You then add spices and bits and pieces of veggies and meats. Also interesting the hot soup with veggies, pork, mushrooms, taylor-made for each of us by a dedicated chef.

After breakfast the real challenge of the day awaits us: find tickets to Leiyang for the wedding ceremony of Carrie, one of our best Chinese friends, but no seats were available to purchase online as usual. It is still the Chinese new year rush, with over half a billion people moving around the country to spend the holidays at home. We went to the station and tried our luck at the ticket office, but no way.

We were then approached by some scalpers who wanted 300 Rmb, not for tickets but as a fee to smuggle us on a train then we could then, supposedly, buy standing tickets. However I have never seen anyone standing on the fast train we need, and the slow train would take way too long, maybe up to 4 hours as opposed to 1. The whole thing is fishy, we give up.

We're stuck! My wife then remembers that there is an alternative: get bus tickets instead. We manage to catch the last bus to Chenzhou at 5:30pm, but must pay for the whole ride to Chenzhou even if we plan to get off at Leiyang. Actually at a highway station which is the stopover for Leiyang-bound passengers. But that's the way it is and we're lucky to be able to get (close) to our destination! Carrie's husband and his brother (who owns a car) will come and pick us up. Very kind for someone who's getting married tomorrow!

Meanwhile great buffet (40 Rmb pp) with unlimited food and beer at a restaurant by the gas station. Tons of meat (great), fish (so so) and veggies (again great). Beer is a local brand, kind of light, but tasty. No fresh fruit however. I loved the chicken paws and the pork belly. Also black fungus with quail eggs was juicy and inviting.

Gas station buffet, Hunan











25 December 2017

My book on the Maldives is available in English! "Journeys through the Maldives" by Marco Carnovale

Typical Maldivan boat
Tales from the many trips to the Maldives of the author. Avoiding the tourist resorts, he visited remote villages, where tradition is combined with innovation and technology, meeting local people and trying to understand their culture. Always island hopping by boat, he went from postcard perfect uninhabited islands and through the streets of the bustling capital Malé, in its hidden corners often overlooked by tourism. In dozens of dives, he witnessed the richness of wildlife and the sparkling colors of these seas.

But the islands are facing rapid changes and serious problems, and they are not always the paradise they seem. The Maldives are at a turning point, with political, economic and environmental changes that pose difficult challenges to the government and to the nation.

The book is completed by an analytical index, a chronology of the Maldivian history, a bibliography and some black and white photographs.

Available on all Amazon websites.


In the UK buy it here



In Italy buy it here



In France, Belgium and Switzerland buy it here



In the US buy it here



In Canada buy it here







18 December 2017

Book review: The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy (2015) by J. J. Robinson, ****

Islamic Center in Malé
Synopsis

The Maldives is a small and beautiful archipelago south of India, more renowned for luxury resorts than experiments in democracy. It is a country of contradictions, where tourists sip cocktails on the beach while on nearby islands local women are flogged for extramarital sex and blackmarket vodka costs $140 a bottle. Until 2008 the Maldives also hosted Asia's longest-serving dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. A former political prisoner, Mohamed Nasheed, an environmental activist, journalist, and politician, brought Gayoom's thirty-year autocracy to a sudden end, in the Maldives' first democratic elections.

Young, progressive and charismatic, President Nasheed thrust the Maldives into the spotlight as a symbol of the fight against climate change and the struggle for democracy and human rights in one of the world's strictest Islamic societies. But dictatorships are hard to defeat, enduring in a country's institutions and the minds of people conditioned to autocracy over three decades. Democracy brought turmoil, protests, violence and intense political polarisation.The ousted dictatorship overthrew Nasheed's government in February 2012, supported by Islamic radicals and mutinying security forces. Amid Byzantine intrigue, the fight for democracy was just beginning. (Amazon)


Review

It is unusual for a book entirely dedicated to the Maldives to come out, and here it is from an English journalist who lived and worked there for four years. The book is a compendium of his time there. It touches upon many aspects of Maldivian life, with special attention to the political dimension. Loads of facts and footnotes but also some opinions and evaluations. The book is written loosely in chronological manner, and it ends with the author's departure in 2013.

The general approach is typically English, ie detached. John J gets to know a lot about the Maldives but one does not get the impression he ever fell in love with the country, or was emotionally involved with it at all. But that is not a criticism, in fact perhaps it is a good thing in a journalist!

What the book lacks is a more critical organization of the issues, but perhaps as a journalistic chronicle it was never intended to delve in political analysis. Still, you will find more raw material for political analysis her than in any other book I know of that has been written on this country in the last decades.

I recommend reading this book to understand more about a country known mostly for its resorts.





06 December 2017

Book review: Wild Swans (1992), by Jung Chang, *****

Synopsis

Through the lives of three different women - grandmother, mother and daughter - this book tells the story of 20th-century China. At times scarcely credible in the details it reveals of the suffering of millions of ordinary Chinese people, it is an unforgettable record of tyranny, hope and ultimate survival under conditions of extreme harshness.

In 1924, at the age of 15, the author's grandmother became the concubine of a powerful warlord, whom she was seldom to see during the 10 years of their "marriage". Her daughter, born in 1931, experienced the horrors of Japanese occupation in Manchuria as a schoolgirl, and after their surrender joined the Communist-led underground fighting Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang. She rose to be a senior Communist official, but was imprisoned three times. Her husband, also a high official and one of the very first to join the Communists, was relentlessly persecuted, imprisoned and finally sent to a labour camp where, physically broken and disillusioned, he lost his sanity.

The author herself grew up during the Cultural Revolution, at the time of the personality cult of Mao and the worst excesses of the Gang of Four. She joined the Red Guard but after Mao's death she was to become one of the first Chinese students to study abroad.


Review

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It traces a micro-story of a family through three generations of highly motivated women interwoven with the history of China over almost a century. It it meticulous and fastidious about details and context, which allows the reader to immerse himself into the incredible evolution and revolution of this continent/country.

China went from the feudal system of the late Qing dynasty to a modern superpower, passing through two revolutions, civil war, foreign aggression, a world war, economic transformations that took other countries centuries to complete. In the course of these events China was invaded, then locked itself up and isolated its people from the world, then opened up again after Mao's death, and that is roughly where the book ends.

So we don't see the new China in this book, but we can understand how it got there and why the Chinese today are so eager to break with the early period of the People'd republic and open up to the world. Even the Communist Party of China today considers the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, two of the central events in the book, to have been complete mistakes.

Translated in 37 languages and 13 million copies later, this book is banned in China, perhaps because it is very critical of Mao. Even if today the policies of China are the opposite of what Mao preached, the time to criticize the great Chairman too much has not yet arrived. Deng Xiaoping famously said Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong. This book would probably reverse those two numbers!









23 September 2017

Film review: Farewell my concubine (1993) by Chen Kaige, *****

 Synopsis

The film gives a most interesting overview of China's history in the XX century through the eyes of Peking opera actors. We see the country moving from the fall of the Qing Empire (the last eunuch is still around for a long time after the advent of the Republic), through the Japanese invasion, the civil war and the various phases of the Communist rule.

Two boys are educated to play two classical roles in the Peking Opera, one masculine and the other effeminate. They are so good at it that they play the opera together for their entire career: during the chaos of China after the fall of the Qing Empire, during the Japanese occupation, the brief Nationalist takeover, the Communist take over, the Cultural Revolution.

Gong Li becomes the wife of the masculine actor, and as such created serious, and ultimately unsolvable, dilemmas in the mind of her husband, with tragic consequences.






Review

In this film the character Douzi represents in many ways the real life of the actor Leslie Cheung. Douzi was gay and struggled to be accepted in the society of his time, and so was Cheung in real life. He is however successful professionally and admired for that, and so is Cheung, the first Hong Kong actor who acted in a mainland China film. And the real life of Cheung represents Douzi's role in the film: he can't take the pressure any more and ends up committing suicide. Beautiful costumes!

A courageous masterpiece by Chen Kaige, a pillar of Chinese film in the XX century. He addressed the controversial issues of homosexuality and the Cultural Revolution in a film before anyone else dared to do so in the People's Republic of China. For this "farewell my Concubine" was banned shortly after its release in 1993, only to be cleared by the censors a while later in an abridged form.

This was the very first film from the People's Republic of China to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

See my other reviews of films about China here on this blog.

















Buy this film by clicking on one of these links



29 August 2017

Film review: A United Kingdom (2016) by Amma Asante, *****

Synopsis

From director Amma Asante, starring David Oyelowo (Selma) and Rosamund Pike and set against the breath-taking backdrops of the African savannah and period London, A United Kingdom celebrates the inspiring real-life romance of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1948 in the face of fierce opposition from their families and the British and South African governments.


Review

A historical narrative of one sad page of the decline and fall of the British Empire after WW II. There are two levels to the story: a personal tale of love and a non-fiction account of the birth of a new African country.

Churchill is depicted for what he was: an anti-democratic imperialist, who would go back on his promises to try and salvage the decomposing British empire. But the prejudice of blacks against whites is displayed as well at length.

In the face of all these difficulties, it was a remarkable feat for the young leader to pull off a national reconciliation that would make Botswana a unique success story in post-colonial Africa. One of very few examples where the leaders who took over power from the colonial rulers actually improved their nation's lot and did not squander national resources for personal gain.

Highly recommended movie to understand a very special part of Africa.