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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 http://twcnomad.blogspot.com  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 (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/twc-nomad/messages/268 ). 

  

This time (see http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Hainan 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 (http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/2008/07/tragedy-unfolding-destruction-of-our.html ). 

 

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 (http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Hainan ) 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 (http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/2008/07/kaiping-part-1.html and http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/2008/07/kaiping-2.html ) 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 http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/China for my July 2008 visit to China)

 

 

From Shenzhen, I flew to Bangkok (http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Thailand ), 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 (http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Indonesia ), 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

 

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