Saturday, August 30, 2008

First They Came...

Pastor Martin Niemoller: 

First they came...
When the Nazis came for the communists,

I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,

I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,

I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,

I remained silent; I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,

there was no one left to speak out.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fw: Asiabizblog: Famous Chinese Film Director Expresses Commonly Held Opinion of Western Workers: Lazy! Therein Lies a Lesson for Business Managers

Interesting views from Zhang Yimou, famous Chinese film director and Olympic impressario: Case of cultural differences?

--- On Fri, 8/22/08, <> wrote:

((( Asiabizblog - Business and Law for China and Asia Update: Famous Chinese Film Director Expresses Commonly Held Opinion of Western Workers: Lazy!  Therein Lies a Lesson for Business Managers )))                            2008.08.21 17:59:36  ------------------------------------------------------------------------  Dear Reader,  Chinese Film Director Zhang Yi-mou teaches Westerners a thing or two about the laziness of Western workers.  A lesson about opinions commonly held by Chinese in business.  Click the link above for audio and text.  Sincerely,  Rich Kuslan, Editor Asiabizblog    

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgia & South Ossetia

I pity the Georgians but not surprised that Russia is going after Tbilisi. Hasn't everyone forgotten it was the Georgian President who attacked South Ossetia first? The West would have done the same if in Russian shoes.

I reckon Putin would now recognise independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, just as the West had recognised Kosovo. Many of us in Asia, who have sympathies for neither Russia nor the West, now see Western complaints as plain Western double standards and hypocrisy.

What the Beijing Olympics mean to me as a Chinese-Singaporean

Most of us, Chinese-Singaporeans are glad to see the Olympics opening ceremony gone so well.  I was on the MSN with a PRC friend in Beijing and he described the carnival mood over there.  And how he is so happy that China has stood high that night.  The Western media, however, bitched non-stop about how communist the whole thing looks and about human rights, pollution, nationalism, Tibet and the spending.  Sour grapes, perhaps.  Haven't they always been adopting a terrible double standard when looking at these things?
I have my own criticism of China - on many of the same things the West complains about, although I do not necessarily agree with their perpective.  Even then, I have also seen how this country has made significant and real progress on the lives of its citizens and the rest of the world.  Without China's rapid progress, the world would not have enjoyed cheap manufactured products and rise in standard of living the past decade.  I am myself a beneficiary of a boom linked to the Chinese capital markets.  What is even more important is that, recent polls have shown that the Chinese people trust their own government alot more than the extent to which the people of the West trust their own government. 
As a Singaporean of Chinese descent, the Olympics has a significance too.  The press has reported about how, to the Chinese (i.e., of PRC) people, the Olympics signifies the re-emergence of China after 100 years of humiliation.  The Overseas Chinese are the result of the bitter past 100 years.  Our forefathers were political and economic refugees of a downtrodden China, and were forced to flee to Southeast Asia, Europe, North America, and practically everywhere else.  History has come a full circle. 
We are now no longer Chinese of China, but hyphenated Chinese.  We remain culturally Chinese of some sort (- some would argue not at all) though psychologically and politically distinct, loyal to the countries we reside in.  If Singapore goes to war against China for any reason, I would gladly fight for Singapore.  However, we must not lose sight of the significance of the Olympics - of how and why our ancestors left China and that history has now redeemed itself, i.e., China has finally regained her place among the most power of nations. 
Those of us familiar with Admiral Zhenghe and his voyages cannot fail to recognise the parallels when we saw Bush, Putin and 80 other world leaders attending the Olympics opening.  How different was this from the kings and sultans of the Southern Seas gathering in Nanjing to greet the Son of Heaven during the Ming Dynasty 600 years ago?
The next step for China would be how it can gain true admiration from the rest of the world, as opposed to fear and respect normally associated with the rich and powerful.  How it can build its soft power and how it can empower its citizens.  Issues such as Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang and human rights are difficult to tackle but a middle path has to be found for China to gain true global respectability.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Wee Cheng in the Singapore Book of Records 2008

I am here!

Account of Dong Shamanistic ritual in NG Magazine

The May 2008 issue of the National Geographic magazine has a story about a village of the Dong ethnic minority in Guizhou Province China.  In it is an account of a shaman ceremony in which 11 men got into trance and rode on the "ghost horse" in search for the reasons why a series of unfortunate events occurred in the village.  The full article is found here:
Exerpts relating to the shaman ceremony and a photo is hereby attached.
During Spring Festival, and for the first time since 1979, the village would be cleansed again by the same ceremony, Guo Yin—"Pass into the World of Yin." In the dim light of an assembly hall, 11 blindfolded men sat on black benches. The Chief Feng Shui Master called out incantations from the Book of Shadows. As fragrant rattan burned under the benches, assistants gave the men a rope of twisted straw to hold at both ends. More incantations were murmured, two bells rang, bowls of wine were stirred, and the 11 men slapped their bouncing knees, as if goading a horse to move forward. Soon they were galloping in a frenzy, and the oldest of them, a 73-year-old man, whinnied like a spooked horse, shot up, and leaped backward onto the bench. He had mounted a ghost horse and was racing toward the World of Yin. Assistants kept the frenzied rider from falling. Soon more riders mounted their ghost horses. The Chief Feng Shui Master sprayed water from his mouth to light the way. With more incantations the ghost-horse riders could go to deeper levels. At each level they could see more.
In 1979 the riders had gone to the 19th level, where they saw their dead mothers and fathers. Stay with us, their parents urged. If a Feng Shui Master provided the wrong incantation, the riders would not return. This time, the master would take them no further than the 13th level. It was still possible for them to find the illegal burials. At that level they could also see the backs of maidens, the Seven Sisters, as beautiful as fairies. Chase them, the Chief Feng Shui Master said, to urge them to go farther into the underworld.
That day the riders discovered where the illegal burial lay. After the ceremony they left the hall and walked to a slope that was shaped like the back of a comfortable sofa. At the top of the sofa was a small rice field, and buried several feet into its wall was a large ball with a thick crust. Unlike the Eldest Son of the fire starter, someone had placed the happiness of ancestors above that of the village. It must have been the doings of a greedy family from another village. The Chief Feng Shui Master broke the ball open, removed the ashes, and mixed them with rice wine, pig and human feces, and tung oil. The mess was thrown into the public latrine, and those ancestors who had once occupied the best place were now stuck forever in the worst.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Festival of Hungry Ghosts

The month-long festival of hungry ghosts have begun in Singapore.  This is one of the most amazing and yet locally feared times of the year, when Chinese-Singaporeans believe that ghosts and spirits of the Under World drop by the human world and wander around.  Many ceremonies and rituals are held to appease and entertain them.  A wonderful documentary made in a most entertaining manner has been made.  Trailers are found here:
Movie official website:
This is a great time for photographers and anthropologists to visit Singapore too!

China Dev Bank in the fray for Dresdner

How fortunes turned around.  I am amazed that my former employer could soon be bought by a Chinese government bank.
China Dev Bank in the fray for Dresdner


(HONG KONG) China Development Bank is competing with Commerzbank AG to buy Allianz SE's Dresdner Bank, Germany's third-largest lender by assets, three people familiar with the matter said.

Mad About English!

I am almost moved to tears, watching the trailer for this new documentary of the people of Beijing learning English:

Mad About English! (2008)

The Olympics are coming to China and the locals are getting ready. Mad About English is a 60 minutes documentary about Chinese people learning and speaking English. It's going to be a hit.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Food of Semarang, Central Java

Last week, I visited Semarang, Central Java with three friends, one of whom is Margaret Chan who was Singapore's foremost food critic.  She was also a former journalist, former actress and pioneer of the Singapore English language theatre, and currently a professor of theatre studies at the Singapore Management University.
Margaret wrote a great piece of the little known cuisine of Semarang, with photos from Victor Yue, another distinguished member and prolific collaborator in fields ranging from birding, heritage and Taoist temples. 
Margaret Chan: 
Four Singapore friends went to Semarang in July 2008. Our hosts, the generous, patient and knowledgeable Mr Zhuang and Mdm Luo took us on an unforgettable tour of the town.
The food of Central Java is Sweet, spelt with a capital 'S', make that SWEET, all in caps, for this one flavour dominates all else. So there is sugar in your stir-fried vegetables, sugar in the stewed meats, and sugar in the soup. The latter was particularly difficult to take to. I am thinking of the tom yam steamboat we had in the restaurant at Alam Indah, a motel on the hills of Semarang.
The Indonesians name steamboat shabu-shabu. In Thailand they call the same dish suki, for sukiyaki. This must say something; that Japan has bequeathed food terms to two Southeast Asian countries, I think it exoticises the DIY dish, giving excitement and panache to an essentially boil-your-meal- yourself experience.
But back to the tom yam steamboat at Alam Indah: The stock tasted like chillied syrup. Somehow the combination of sugar and spice did not translate to all things nice, for the meal went like this; fishball with syrupy soup, cuttlefish with syrupy soup, vegetables in syrupy soup, all washed down with spoonfuls of the same syrupy soup.
This is not to say that sugar ruined the food of Semarang for us. In fact it was the reason why we raved over some of the classic dishes we tasted. Sugar of course is the definitive ingredient of a sweet, which is like saying rice is a part of nasi goreng. But few of the sweets we enjoy in Singapore are blessed for that special flavour of gula jawa syrup – I mean the real thing, made from caramelized air nira the sap tapped from the inflorescence of the coconut palm. They stick a metal tube into the base of the spathe and collect the cloudy liquid that drips out; the method is not unlike rubber tapping. Boiled down to a thick golden-coloured magma, the air nira hardens on cooling into gula jawa. The latter is the source of much of the sweet in Jawa Tengah's cuisine, so that the flavour is not the straightforward sweet of sucrose, but is instead a wonderfully complex combination of lemak and manis; the translation of rich and sweet does not do justice to the taste sensation.

bubur sum sum and candil

We enjoyed gula jawa syrup best with bubur sum sum and candil. Bubur sum sum is a white paste made by boiling rice flour mixed with grated coconut into which is whipped coconut milk. The result feels soft and rather strange eaten on its own, but I can imagine quickly taking to the dish for it slithers down the throat in a most sensuous manner, and is as comforting as porridge eaten when one is ill and wanting food that nourishes without demanding much by way of eating as an exercise. For those wanting a bit more bite in their food, we have the candil, glutinous rice balls which make a chewy counterpoint to the slithery bubur sum sum. The taste and textures are best enjoyed when you have all three components in a spoonful; sensuous bubur sum sum with chewy yet yielding candil, drenched in gula jawa syrup. Mmmmm.
Gula jawa is also a crucial ingredient of gudeg which might be described as the definitive Jawa Tengah dish. Gudeg actually refers to a dish of young jackfruit boiled in coconut milk with aromatic spices, gula jawa and teak leaves. Just a smidgen of the latter is used, and it colours the gudeg a red-brown. By the way, teak leaves are stuffed into the cavity of babi guling, the roast pig dish of Bali.

see the top centre dish for the Gudeg

Gudeg is rarely eaten on its own, but with complementary dishes to make gudeg complete – that is a complete meal. The accompanying dishes include tau kwa (soyabean cakes) and eggs stewed in dark sauce and gula jawa (think Hokkien kong bak). Often a chicken curry is included in the list, but the key accompaniment, to my mind is the krecek (beef skin) in spicy sauce. Krecek is skin dried like kropok (crackers) which when fried puffs up into crispy, blistered morsels. These when stewed, become sponges that draw and hold in the stew so krecek make a juicy, flavourful textural food (you need all three adjectives to even begin to describe the eating experience).
Gula jawa also finds its way into a Lontong Chap Goh Meh, a dish that is specific dish to the Peranakan Chinese of Semarang. Lontong is rice cake, made by boiling rice into log-shaped cakes. The rice is poured into moulds. These are perforated aluminium tubes lined with banana. Cooked this way; the rice cools into logs coloured green on the outside by the banana leaves, which also impart an elusive but de rigueur fragrance to the longtong. Nowadays people have learned to make lontong by boiling rice in plastic bags – which robs the dish of its taste and romance.
Lontong is eaten as a filler; for example with satay or gado-gado, but it lends its name to a dish where the rice cake is eaten with a lodeh, vegetable stewed in spicy coconut milk gravy. This describes lontong Chap Goh Meh, except that the dish to qualify for the name should include some meat – usually chicken or beef. The latter, I suppose is a luxury that accounts for the name Chap Goh Meh, the 15th day of the first moon of the Chinese year, a time of celebration when houses are filled with guests. The dish is an easy way to serve a complete meal of staple, vegetables and meat in a bowl.

A takeaway Lontong Chap Goh Meh

In Singapore, good lontong is lontong served with serunding. The latter is grated coconut fried dry and heavenly fragrant with spices that include turmeric and onions. In Semarang, the definitive lontong Chap Goh Meh features kedelai, soyabean powder. The beans are roasted and ground finely. The powder lends the lontong a rich and deeper flavour – think how yong taufu soup will not be yong taufu soup without soyabeans in the stock. Where the gula jawa comes into lontong Chap Goh Meh is in a paste that might be described as a serunding lembab, moist serunding. The grated coconut is stewed with gula jawa syrup to make a dark paste. The entire lontong Chap Goh Meh experience is a meal in a dish which combines delicately scented but bland-tasting rice cake as a foil to a spicy coconutty vegetable stew made complex with soyabean powder and fragrant-sweet serunding.
The Chinese have been in Semarang since the 15th century, when local legends tell that Admiral Zheng Ho came visiting, leaving his ailing skipper in a cave. The skipper, while recovering, fathered a small community of Chinese who grew into the Chinese population of Semarang, officially described as a 2% minority group, and believed by the Chinese themselves to number 10% of the population, but exerting an influence on the cultural landscape way beyond the numbers. It seemed to us that temples were to be found on every corner of the streets of Semarang.
A dish that the Hokkiens have given to Indonesian cuisine is lumpia or loenpia. This is what Singaporeans will recognise as popiah. I have argued that the term describes the pancake wrapper; lumpia or loenpia (In the Philippines they also have lumpia) translates as lun pia, tough and chewy biscuit, just as popiah means crepes, or thin biscuits.
In Semarang you can ask for loenpia original (like KFC original) which is the fresh popiah as we know it, or fried into spring rolls. The filling is made with shreds of bamboo shoots (the way it is done for the best of Singapore-style Baba popiah) stewed with fermented soyabean paste and – what else? – gula jawa. Indeed it was sweet being in Semarang.

words by Margaret
pictures by Victor
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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Whirlwind visit to Hainan and Guangdong of China, Bangkok and Semarang of Indonesia

During the last 2 weeks, I visited parts of China, Thailand and Indonesia in rapid succession.  I have posted a number of short blog entries and hundreds of photos onto my blog at  Here is a summary of my travels:


I flew direct to Hainan with Dad from Singapore.  Hainan is the southernmost island-province of China.  This is a subtropical island whose humid climate and malarial jungles once served as the China's Siberia where political prisoners were exiled to for two thousands years, but today have become China's Hawaii where Chinese and Russian sun-seekers lie on beaches and enjoy scuba diving.  Dad was born here 70 years ago but was brought to Singapore at the age of 2 as a refugee from war and never returned till the late 1980s.  I visited Hainan with him and Mum in December 2004 ( ). 


This time (see for blog entries relating to the 2008 visit to Hainan), issues with our ancestral property had emerged and I accompanied him to the ancestral village, Taijia in Wenchang County, to see how those issues could be resolved.  The visit turned out to be non-conclusive and the events that unfolded turned out to be disappointing and even a little traumatic.  All you have read about land grab in a land-hungry rapidly growing China is absolutely true.  In what used to be a pathetically poor backwater, luxury beach resorts have mushroomed nearby and the proposed new multi-billion dollar space project in the same county have propelled local property values and stroked greed and conspiracies.


Generous Dad had sponsored the construction of a road in the village he was born, which opened a can of worms.  Petty intra-village politics, ancient disputes, animosities and clan rivalries, greed over properties of absent Diaspora-Chinese and a whole host of issues we were hardly aware of burst forth.  Rival factions fed us with their version of events.  Dad, generous and idealistic as he always was, was persuaded to give up ancient coconut groves that had belonged to our family for centuries all for the cause of building the road – despite the protests of local distant relations who have been looking after our ancestral properties. Then we were tricked into agreeing to level the entire garden after which unscrupulous individuals claimed the entire piece of land ( ). 


As we disputed their claims, dubious strangers claiming official status made veiled threats, and their thugs stood beyond in open view, besieging our compound with their threatening stares.  I told Dad to keep our passports close, kept our local allies informed of developments and get ready for a freedom dash in case of a physical attack on our compound.  Thankfully, we left the property with our lives intact the next day, as originally scheduled.  Events continue to unfold, as our distant relations and allies continue to battle for our ancestral interests. 


Not al was gloom and politics during our stay in Hainan.  We visited Danzhou, an ethnologically unique part of western Hainan as well as the provincial capital, Haikou.  See my blog entries ( ) for details and photos.


After Dad returned to Singapore, I flew to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province.  If China is the factory of the world, then the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong is the factory of China.  Shenzhen in Guangdong Province was where China first began its economic reforms in 1979 and it was in the province where international investors first discovered the wonders of Chinese labour and manufacturing. Today, Guangdong is the richest province of China and I was amazed by the world-class motorway, subway and rail infrastructure of this city I last properly visited in 1995.


I did a day trip to Kaiping ( and ) 2 hours away, whose dialou, 5 to 6 storey fortified towers built in early 20th century by returning Diaspora-Chinese from US and Canada, became listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2007.  I also visited the huge malls of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, gawking at the wonders money can buy and cannot. I navigated these cities on their hyper-modern subways and realized how much these Cantonese-speaking cities and their citizens now resemble Hong Kong either in infrastructure, dress-sense and general atmosphere.  I was also reminded that the once worshipped Hong Kong Dollar is now worth less than the Chinese Yuan, and local shopkeepers now request Hong Kong visitors to pay in Yuan instead of the US Dollar-linked HKD.  (See for my July 2008 visit to China)



From Shenzhen, I flew to Bangkok ( ), a city that I love and which I visit at least once or twice every year.  Here I visited the same old restaurants, malls and spas I have frequented for years.  I have never been monogamous when it comes to travel destinations but the City of Angels is one I return year after year.  This time I also met Tang, old buddy from London Business School, and caught up with alumni gossips and chatted about the latest in global developments and Thai politics and trends.


I hopped back to Singapore for one night and then flew to Semarang ( ), a large city on the northern coast of Java, Indonesia, with a group of friends who include a renowned academic/ex-actress/food critic and a few amateur or aspiring anthropologists like me.  Semarang is known as "Sam Po Lang" (or "City of Three Jewels") to Chinese-Indonesians.  603 years ago, Ming Admiral Zhenghe (or Cheng Ho, also known by his official title, the Eunuch of Three Jewels) stopped by here on his seven grand voyages across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.  The Admiral might have been a famous real-life explorer and historical figure, but he has also become a god for the Chinese-Indonesians, and temples have been built to worship him. We wanted to attend the annual Admiral Cheng Ho festival and procession but the procession was suddenly cancelled due to complicated reasons.  Even then, we had a great time watching toned-down celebrations of the festival, visiting a number of historical and religious sites and had meetings with local cultural, political, heritage personalities. 


I learned a lot not only on Semarang and the long present Chinese-Indonesian community, but also about the conversion of Java to Islam, which some academics have attributed to Chinese-Muslim saints (- these theories are so controversial that the first scholar who raised the theory had to flee to Singapore when he was overwhelmed by death threats from those who refused to believe that Chinese has nothing to do with Islam whatsoever).  Some academics claim that at least 5 of the 9 famous Wali Songos (the 9 saints that converted Java to Islam) were ethnic Chinese and I met one who believed that all 9 were Chinese.


I returned to Singapore only last Friday night.  No immediate plans on where to go next, but I would probably be around for a few months.  I'm going to start tutoring at two of Singapore's three universities, NUS and NTU, soon.


OK, that's all this time.  Good Luck and Happy Travels, everyone!



Wee Cheng