Friday, December 9, 2011

Voltaire's Fight Against Dogma

Voltaire was a French national hero who was among those whose thoughts blazed a trail for the world-impacting French Revolution and for developing philosophical ideas for the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, especially that relating to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This famous quote has often been wrongly attributed to the much revered French Enlightenment philosopher and writer Voltaire. The quotation is actually found in Evelyn Beatrice Hall's (pen name: S. G. Tallentyre) 1906 biographical work "The Friends of Voltaire". It is believed that she paraphrased one of Voltaire's maxims: "Think for yourself, and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too."

From Voltaire's first major philosophical work "A Treatise on Tolerance" (1763) to his saying when he was 83 (in what he believed were his final hours) "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition", one cannot but be awed at this intellectual's capacity for liberal thinking despite the dogmatist society that he lived in, his magnanimity and his empathic virtue. His free spirit and love of mankind never ceased to touch the French people as well as other peoples in the world.

In writing "A Treatise on Tolerance", Voltaire revealed a terrible story of gross injustice and subsequently, through his tireless campaigning, managed to exonerate the victim, albeit posthumously.

In Voltaire's times, France was a strictly Catholic nation and Protestantism was viewed as sacrilegious. On occasions, religious fanatics were able to lash unjust and totally groundless accusations against people whose only fault was that they didn't share Catholic beliefs. The Jean Calas case was one such occasion.

On October 13, 1761, Jean Calas' eldest son Marc Antoine was found hanged in Jean's textile shop in Toulouse. Hysteria erupted among the Roman Catholic populace and Jean was arrested and charged with having murdered his son to prevent him from or punish him for converting to Catholicism. He was found guilty by the local magistrates and sentenced to death "on the wheel" on March 9, 1762. The next day the sentence was carried out and Jean Calas died a torturous death by being first broken on the wheel and then strangled and burned to ashes. The body of Marc Antoine was buried as a martyr to the Catholic faith.

Voltaire learned about the case and started to use his influence to campaign for overturning the verdict which he and others found to be prejudiced by religion fanaticism. As a result, a 50-judge panel was appointed to review the case and on March 9, 1765, the verdict was reversed. The government also paid the family an indemnity. The Calas affair greatly strengthened the movement for criminal law reform and religious tolerance in France, although the reforms were not instituted until the 1780s.

We may all be, to some degree, dogmatist. It's easy to clutch at those thoughts and beliefs that we feel cosy about and familiar with, including those superstitions and customs that our ancestors pass down to us. The older we get, the more we tend to believe in our own infallibility and to reject outright others' rational opinions. Perhaps we can apply checks to our presumptuousness by keeping an open mind, engaging proactively in social discussions, reading uninhibitedly and exercising our power of critical thinking at all times. More importantly, as civilized human beings, while thinking for ourselves, we must "let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too".

Having said that, in the face of any repressive government machine trying to trample on press freedom and freedom of speech, which in fact is an exhibition of a kind of dogma, I am all for speaking up against and fighting relentlessly such an uncivilized attempt.

The French learned their lessons about dogma three centuries ago and they were lucky to have people like Voltaire and other great philosophers and writers as pioneers of civil society. The contemporary French education system has continually nurtured intellectuals and writers to become great politicians. Throughout the twentieth century, there was an easy blend between politics, education and culture, which reinforced the prestige of the cultural figures. Under the Third and Fourth Republics, culture was managed at state level through the Ministere de l'Education Nationale et des Beaux-Arts, which produced a republican leadership that included literary and artistic figures.

Two recent shining examples were George Pompidou and Andre Malraux. The former studied literature at the Ecole Normale Superieure and taught in the secondary school system before becoming, first de Gaulle's Prime Minister in the 1960s, and then his successor as Head of State in 1969. The latter, one of France's foremost novelists of the interwar years, became a leading Gaullist politician and then in 1959, Minister of Culture.

Hong Kongers have much to learn from the French.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Can the Monster be Caged?

I came across an excellent speech on HaoHao Report by a Chinese writer Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村). Just as I'm beginning to lose all hope in the strong nation, Mr. Murong's speech has swayed me a little bit in the direction that there is perhaps still a silver lining. Or is there?

Here's the link to Mr. Murong's speech (in both Chinese and English):-

Some trenchant passages:-

"In my country, the government claims to have eradicated classes, but in reality, class divisions are glaringly obvious. The highest class enjoys exclusively produced foods while the lower classes are left to consume contaminated and dangerous products. Children of the dominant class study at opulent private schools, while children of the second-class study at ordinary schools. The third class attend shabby schools for migrant workers and the fourth class, well, they don’t get to go to school at all."

"In my country, informing on others is encouraged. The government has a secret dossier on every single citizen which records everything about us until the day we die—from innocent remarks about us to unsubstantiated accusations as well as many things we don’t even know about ourselves. Secret agents in factories, schools and residential neighbourhoods covertly record everything people say and do. The atmosphere is oppressive—people do not trust the government, employees do not trust employers, students don’t trust teachers, and wives do not trust husbands."

"In my country, writing is a dangerous occupation. People are sent to prison for writing essays, or saying a few words of truth. Writers are not allowed to talk about history, or to criticise the present, let alone fantasize about the future. Many words cannot be written, many things cannot be spoken, and many issues cannot be mentioned. Every book has to go through a rigid censorship regime before it can be published. Many books are banned in my country, and then become bestsellers overseas."

"My country has one of the largest bureaucracies in the world. Most of these bureaucrats are either bribing or taking bribes. Power is being abused in every way imaginable and turned into a money-generating tool. According to publicly available reports, enormous amounts of public funds are wasted on sumptuous banquets, luxury trips and expensive cars provided to these bureaucrats. We are talking about 900 billion yuan or over US$140 billion a year. Some may ask: Why don’t the taxpayers say no to this practice? I’m sorry, the concept of taxpayers’ rights doesn’t exist in my country. All we have is the term 'the people'."

“This rotten system is the mongrel of Stalinist-Maoism and Imperial Chinese political culture, a cross-breed of the rule of the jungle with traditional Chinese trickery and communism. Decades later, this creature now has become a monster. This monster is vain, tyrannical and arrogant. It never admits to mistakes. It destroys people in the name of justice and rehabilitates them, also in the name of justice. It takes credit for everything positive, and blames others for all failures. It wants to lord over everything and only tolerates one faith, faith in itself. This monster only allows praise to one thing, praise to itself. It owns every newspaper, every school, and every temple. Without its permission, even flowers may not bloom.”

"Despite hardship, more and more Chinese people now are aware of their responsibilities. They break the silence, speak the truth, and calmly make suggestions. Some are suffering for their actions but refuse to be cowered or silenced."

In my opinion, the whole text is worth a thorough read.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Belated Farewell to My Beloved Cousin

On October 24, I was shocked and pained by a piece of heart-rending news: my beloved cousin G had passed away in September, shortly after undergoing a second round of chemotherapy. The regrettable part is that I hadn’t even had a chance to communicate with her while she was fighting for her life, as I had had to feign ignorance in order to respect her wish that the news of her sickness be kept strictly confidential, though I had known by chance for some time. I only learned of her death when I emailed her younger sister GG on that Monday to ask how G was doing. This post is to bid a belated farewell to my beloved cousin.

G had been my trusted friend and ally throughout our early youth. That night after hearing the heartbreaking news, I cried in bed and couldn’t go to sleep. All I could think of was the image of G in a photo taken when she was a teenager: she was smiling sweetly with one of her hands stretched upwards to touch an apple ….. Then scene after scene of the times we spent together in our youth flashed through my mind.

When I was around nineteen, one day I had a big fight with my father, as he had been verbally abusing everybody nonstop at the dinner table in one of his habitual intoxicated bouts. Infuriated that I had the nerve to throw some water in his face, he picked up a wooden stool and hurled it at me. It missed me by an inch and my mother urged me to go into the bedroom while trying to restrain him. I was distraught and called J (our phone was installed in the bedroom), one of my male cousins from another family, and told him what had happened. He advised me to go to G’s home. So I did.

G, GG and their two other sisters all studied at Maryknoll Sisters’ School. Coming from a well-to-do family, G never came across as snobbish or conceited. On the contrary, she was one of the most endearing, kind-hearted and considerate persons I had ever known. When their father and J’s mother and mine (they were first cousins; J’s mother and mine were sisters) had reunited after a long period of separation and the children had begun getting acquainted with each other, the adults used to say that G and I looked very much alike and had similar temperament. She, J and I were all born in the same month and same year.

At that point in my life, G, J, GG, JJ (J’s younger brother) and I were very close to one another. One of our favorite pass-times in autumn was to go hiking in the wooded area surrounding Wongneichong Reservoir, sometimes together with one or two of J’s schoolmates from Wah Yan College. J would bring along his guitar and we would sing folk songs when we stopped to rest. We all loved the crisp fresh air and the soul-calming green scenery. When we got tired from the walking and singing, we would walk slowly back to G’s and GG’s home on Blue Pool Road, where their mother (my aunt) would treat us to delicious snacks and tea and we would play with G’s cuddly youngest brother. Those were the days …. Sadly, we soon lost JJ to leukemia. He was only seventeen when he died. That was my first taste of the meaning of death and it was unnerving.

That dreadful day (I think it was a Saturday or Sunday, as I didn’t have to work and my cousins didn’t have to go to school), I went to G’s home to seek temporary refuge from my father’s wrath. My aunt tactfully left the two of us in private in the bedroom that G and her elder sister shared. In her quiet ways, she showed her sympathy and asked if I would like to lie down for a while. When I said I’d rather talk a little, she pulled up a chair and listened intently to my story. Then she tried to distract and comfort me by offering to play some piano pieces and encouraged me to learn playing a simple piece.

It was while studying at the U. of Wisconsin that G fell in love with a guy F.

Not long after that, I heard that she had fallen into a lovelorn state and was very depressed. Knowing that she was prone to keeping a stoic front, I felt it was best to just be in her company whenever an occasion allowed. At one of the gatherings, I was reposing on a bed beside her and tried to encourage her to talk. She only lay there with her big eyes wide open, speechless and expressionless. I could feel that underneath her armor of indifference, her pain was seeping out of every pore. From the corner of my eyes, I could detect her desperate struggle to fight back tears. It broke my heart to see her like this. But I was sure that she could also feel that I cared deeply. Shortly thereafter, she went on a date with one of her cousins and the two became steady. He would later become her husband.

In the early 1970s, G emigrated to the United States with her parents and siblings. In 1975, I emigrated to Toronto and in that summer took a greyhound down to New York to visit G and GG. They came to meet me at the greyhound station and we were thrilled to see each other. Everyday during my 3-day stay there, G and GG showed me around the wonderful city and on two evenings, G prepared delicious home-cooked meals for us. When the day came for me to depart, G got up early to bake some marshmallow rice cake squares and wrapped them up neatly in foil. Without me noticing, she slipped the wrapped squares into my overnight shoulder bag. On the boring journey home, I thanked G in my heart for her thoughtfulness.

The last time I had a chance to see G was in 1997 when she came back to Hong Kong with her family (her husband, a son and a daughter) for a vacation. We had a great time doing catching up on a yacht outing arranged by JS (J’s elder brother) and at cousins’ reunion dinners.

A couple of years ago, I had already lost JS, also to lung cancer. He was 65 when he passed away. Both JS and G underwent chemotherapy. In both cases, when the cancer was detected, it was already in stage 4. From what I gathered, they both suffered hugely the side effects of chemotherapy. I’ve recently read a blog post by a Chinese pathologist with special interest in oncology, which says that cancer in a late stage can neither be treated nor eliminated and that it would be much preferable to focus efforts on the patients’ quality of life rather than on treatment. I don’t know how authentic he is but I’m inclined to believe him. Above all, I think the patients’ own wish to do one thing or the other should be respected and the doctors should be forthcoming in explaining in depth the side effects of the intended treatment.

I think I can understand why G had not wanted too many people to know about her sickness. For one thing, there would be little that friends and relatives, close or not close, could do to help her. Being the always-considerate person that she was, she would naturally not want people to worry about her, especially her aging mother. My heart goes out to her close family members who had to watch her suffer great pains in her last days. Picturing this lovable person going through agonizing moments in the final stage of her life is just unbearable for me. It brings back the torturous feeling of helplessness and despair when I watched my own mother withering and suffering noxious side effects from radiotherapy and eventually losing the fight.

My dear cousin, goodbye for now. Rest assured that you will always be in my heart.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cote d'Azur, Land of Reveries (2)

While in Marseille and Antibes, I had a chance to communicate with some locals, which gave me a refreshing perspective on how the French folks are influenced by Asians.

On the fourth day of our stay in Nice, we took a two-and-a-half-hour train trip to Marseille, the third largest city in France. In order not to waste time fumbling around at subway stations, we decided to take a taxi to get to our target destination, the Vieux Port (Old Port). My plan was to have a bouillabaisse (a kind of spiced fish soup/stew) lunch there and to take the “petit train” tour round the old quarters of the city.

In a mix of broken, long-out-of-practice French and much more fluent English, I chatted with the handsome, high-spirited Caucasian taxi driver on the way. From our short conversation, I found out that he’s married to a Thai immigrant. He had met her in a Thai food restaurant in Marseille where she used to work. After they got married, she opened a small Japanese sushi restaurant, as experience told her that competition in Thai food was too keen. He sounded so full of joie de vivre that it was hard not to feel affected. I then asked him which restaurant at the Vieux Port offered the best bouillabaisse. He advised us to try the Mirarmar seafood restaurant on Quai du Port, near Hotel de Ville. He also told us frankly that he liked fish per se but not bouillabaisse.

After getting out of the taxi, we located where the “petit train” terminus was. As the next run wouldn’t start until 2:00 pm, we decided to have lunch first. We walked across the road to explore the row of brasseries and bistros stretching the full length of the quai, mostly with tables set under canopies on the outside. The Mirarmar was a full-house and the bowls in which bouillabaisse was served looked huge. We hesitated and doubted whether the price of 58 euros per bowl was really worth it. We walked past a couple of eateries and then out of nowhere bolted an over zealous restaurateur who almost grabbed me by the arm and ushered us into his bistro. Unable to fight his passionate appeal, we finally acquiesced and sat down. After the meal, we regretted not taking the taxi driver’s advice.

The “petit train” took us rumbling through a sleepy, yet historic part of Marseille called the Panier. The district is well known for hiding Resistance fighters from German troops in its warren of criss-crossing lanes, dark alleys and side streets during World War II. In January 1943, the Nazis, aided by some French police from Paris, evacuated 30,000 inhabitants from the area, sending 3,000 of them to concentration camps before blowing up 1,500 houses. But the raid failed to kill the feisty, freedom-loving spirit of Marseille.

On the way back to the terminus, a few playful kids from the streets jumped on board and took a free ride, exhilarated and triumphant. The driver probably knew it all along but decided to let them have some fun, as there were empty seats any way.
After the 65-minute tour, we spent whatever time was left in doing leche-vitrines at the nearby Lafayette Galleries. Had there been more time, I would have liked to take a ferry trip to Chateau d’If, the famous island prison on which an essential part of Alexandre Dumas (Pere)’s novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, was set.

On the taxi journey back to the train station, I was drawn into a friendly chat (in my staccato French again) by the middle-aged, proud father-of-two taxi driver. He told us excitedly that he would be visiting Montreal on October 1 on the invitation of a Canadian friend to see the autumn foliage. One of his sons is a taxi driver who is fluent in English and has visited the United States several times. The other son is a local journalist and is married to a professor of English. One of his cousins is working as a marketing manager for L’Oreal in Shanghai while another relative is a lawyer in Marseille responsible for vetting contracts for French expatriates in China. Seemingly proud and happy with the achievement of his lot, he came across as totally contented with what life has given him.

Two happy taxi drivers in one day. Was that my luck or what?

The morning of our fifth day was spent in Cannes and the afternoon in St. Raphael. Had I known that all the marches only open in mornings, I would have switched the order of visit around, as St. Raphael is known for its two food markets: one at Rue de Victor Hugo and one at Rue de la Republique.

We found the main shopping street in Cannes, Rue d’Antibes, without any difficulty. Both local and international brands could be found on this bustling street. I found and bought a pair of suede shoes at a sell out price of 20 euros at a shop that was about to close down. The Boulevard de la Croisette, which is the seafront street that abuts the famous Cannes beaches (Plages de la Croisette), purely hosts luxury brand shops. From a bench on this boulevard, we feasted our eyes on the spectacular boundless stretch of bright azure water. The Palais des Festivals et des Congres, which is located at one end of the said Boulevard (where the Old Port is), was unfortunately off limits.

While in St. Raphael, we had a hearty lunch of fish fillet in a cream sauce with spaghetti at one of the small, family-run eateries right opposite the Marche de Victor Hugo. The owner told us that the fish he used were bought fresh that morning from that market. The delectable meal kind of made up for our lost chance to browse the market. After lunch, we went to the seaside promenade of the Old Port to browse around, where many of the shops and eateries congregated. Like all other Cote d’Azur towns, St. Raphael’s sea front at the Old Port was enthrallingly color-imbued, even on a somewhat cloudy day.

On the last day of our stay in Nice, we ambled out in the morning to the markets at Cours Selaya for a second time to buy (more) souvenirs. Afterwards, we took an early afternoon train to the ancient town of Antibes. The Greeks were the earliest settlers in 5th century BC and they named the town Antipolis (meaning “the city across”). That’s how the name “Antibes” originated.

As it was a Sunday, the Office of Tourism in Antibes was not open and we couldn’t get a map of the town. Luckily, the road signs were clear and helpful and all we had to do was to follow the sign that read “Vieille Ville”. Experience in the past few days told me that all places with the words “Vieux” (“old” for masculine nouns) or “Vieille” (“old” for feminine nouns) are superbly interesting places. On reaching the Vieille Ville, an unbelievably large cluster of restaurants, bistros, cafes, shops and art workshops leapt out. There were even a few Chinese and Vietnamese food eateries.

We decided to take a tour of the area first, just to whet our appetite. Stopping at one of the shops that sell trinkets and accessories, we chatted with the lady shop owner, who seemed quite surprised to find that we’re Hong Kong Chinese living in Canada. She told us that she was very happy living in beautiful Antibes. Who wouldn’t be?

For lunch, we settled for a crepe and pasta eatery owned by a lady who appeared grouchy at first. We ordered seafood tagliatelles (a kind of flat noodles) in creamy cheese sauce and Caesar’s salad. Both were extremely scrumptious. While eating, a stylish, smart-looking Eurasian young lady in a chic white tunic top and black trousers sitting at the next table started to make conversation in broken English with us. She was having lunch with her early-teen daughter. She told us that she came from a parentage of Moroccan and Vietnamese descent and grew up in Paris. Recently she moved with her family to Antibes. She mentioned that real estate in Antibes was priced at about the same level as in Paris.

Learning that we are of Chinese origin, she got all hyped up and told us breathlessly that she had been yearning to visit Hong Kong, Shanghai and other cities in China, having been impressed by modern and prosperous Dubai on a previous trip there. At this point, the little girl mumbled something to her mother. The lady explained that her daughter’s name was “China” and she was asking her mother why she was repeatedly saying her name. Then she gushed forth about how China is the world’s growth engine and is the country of tomorrow, and that both Europe and the United States are done for. I certainly didn’t agree with her but preferred to keep my opinions to myself. My friend remarked to me that China’s propaganda abroad was apparently working.

When the eatery owner presented us the bill, I told her that the food was delicious. It was then that I saw her face relax in a grin. On leaving the eatery, we continued our browsing through the Old Town until it was time to walk back to the train station. How I wished I could have more time wandering into other parts of this lovely town and venturing into other Cote d’Azur gems that I didn’t yet have a chance to explore.

On that note, our six-day tour on the Land of Reveries came to an end. Time to wake up.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cote d'Azur, Land of Reveries (1)

If Paris could be likened to a mature lady of understated glamour in elegant poise, with a certain savoir-faire that comes from a polished culture and living with the best, then an apt symbol for the Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) would be an unworldly youthful dame of great verve and beauty with an infinite power of imagination. By the end of the 19th century, the Cote d’Azur was already a magnet for inspiration-seeking artistic painters and writers, who were drawn there by the balmy weather, paradise-like scenery, bright colors and clear lights. Since then, it has become a mecca for world-wide tourists in search of reveries.

The five-and-a-half-hour TGV (high-speed train) trip from Paris to Nice (on September 20) didn’t feel that long, probably because of one’s excitement and yearning for the destination. My plan was to make Nice our home base and to take daily excursion trips to nearby Riviera towns. Thus I had chosen a hotel very near to the Nice-Ville train station.

As the train sped past unending expanses of vineyards and farmland, which were punctuated by an occasional industrial hub, one couldn’t but sense that the wine and agricultural industries must be a vital part of the French economy. Official data say that over 60 percent of the land in France is used for agricultural purposes, the country is self-sufficient in food supplies and that it is a leading agricultural exporter in the European Union and the world’s second largest agricultural producer after the United States.

My own wild guess is that wine and agricultural exports may well have been the country’s key economic stabilizer in recent times of global financial turmoil. Only myopic nations and cities would give short shrift to agricultural farming. This reminds me of the Hong Kong youngsters who formed the Land Justice League and who mooted the point of returning village and country land to farming mode. Something tells me that they are the visionary lot. But the question is, how many Hong Kongers are sensible enough to heed their voice?

As the train journey drew towards its end, meandering stretches of sky-blue coastal waters adorned with a lone sail or two and charming seaside resorts were in sight through the train’s windows.

It was mid-afternoon when we set foot in the magical city of Nice. The Provencal sun was smiling warmly on us. What better thing to do than to take to the legendary Promenade des Anglais right away? From our hotel, it would take us less than fifteen minutes to walk down to the seaside. We took Rue Berlioz and then continued on Rue de Rivoli, at the end of which stood the palatial Hotel Negresco which dates back to 1912 and which graces a lot of Nice’s postcards.

There, the sweeping vista of the scintillating, sapphire blue Mediterranean washed over us! From afar, the deep purple blue sea melded with the cloudless cerulean sky and rushed towards us in an astounding azure, changing into a lighter shade of azure as it neared, then into a crystal light blue nearest the shore. The subtle blend of different nuances of blue was so magical that it simply left one in wordless awe at the wonders of nature. Against the changing hues of blue, the off-white pebble beaches were dotted with jovial, colorfully clad bathers and sun bathers, young and old, many with an enviable healthy tan.

Our first meal in Nice was taken at a family-run eatery on a street parallel to the Promenade des Anglais (I forgot the name of the street) and consisted of hearty omelettes aux champignons and salade Nicoise (romaine greens, tomatoes, tuna, anchovies and hard-boiled eggs, dressed in vinaigrette). The portions served were huge and we enjoyed both the meal and the friendly service.

The next morning was spent browsing the Marche aux Fleurs (flower market) and the food market in Cours Selaya, which runs parallel to the Quai des Etats-Unis, followed by a late lunch at one of the seafood restaurants in the market and an exploring visit to the Vieille Ville (Old Town).

The markets en plein air simply oozed with colors and activities. Freshly cut flowers and robustly growing plants of every imaginable species and shade of color were vying for shoppers’ pick. Souvenirs of lavender pouches and lavender soap were in abundance and reasonably priced, as were colorful fruits and vegetables, honey, fruit preserves, aromatic dried mushrooms, bon bons, nougats, pastries, raw fish fillets and other kinds of seafood. I was so drawn to the aroma from the stall that sold dried mushrooms that I had to buy some cepes and some mousserons, both types of which burst with fragrance.

For our late lunch/dinner, we had spaghetti with seafood and a big pot of mussels cooked in garlic sauce at a restaurant called “Paradice”. The restaurant owner was engaged and friendly and gave us a big jar of water for free. He smiled profusely when I offered courteous compliments for the exquisite cuisine.

The Old Town consists of a maze of narrow cobblestone streets in which hide a host of quaint small shops that sell all sorts of merchandises. Some of the shop owners even make their own products. I bought a pastel-color shoulder bag made from irregular pieces of quilts of matching color sewn together. All the bags and sacs are hand-made by the lady shop owner. At another shop, my friend bought a pair of psychedelic colored culottes made in Tunisia. As we wandered around, we were attracted by the deeply resonant singing voice of an amiable old lady who had her hair wrapped in an Arcadian blue-and-white scarf, dressed in a pinafore over a demure frock and carrying a woven basket, and who likely performs regularly in the square for free. Patrons of nearby plein air cafes rewarded her with hearty rounds of applause. It was easy to be lost in the heart-warming ambiance of the place.

The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting on one of the sea side benches and gazing out into the sprawling stretch of twinkling sapphire blue and conjuring up wild daydreams.

The next day (September 22) we took a mid-morning SNCF train to Monaco. Unfortunately, direction signs in the Gare Monte Carlo were sorely lacking and not user-friendly. It felt like the Municipality was trying to give train travelers a snub. I found it difficult to navigate out of the train station and we ended up using the most inconvenient exit.

Once outside the station, we followed Rue Grimaldi and walked down Rue Princess Caroline to reach the seaside promenade. It happened that the 2011 Monaco Yacht Show had just kicked off the day before (September 21) and it was the second day of the big event. The Route de la Piscine was packed with people and vehicle traffic. By vehicle I mean Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches, Jaguars, Bentleys, Mercedes and the like. Port Hercule was bristling with new shiny yachts and the show would include 100 megayachts of up to 90 meters, as I would later find out.

We ordinary folks of course didn’t come for the show. So on we ambled in the embrace of glorious sunshine and light sea breeze, which everyone could enjoy, thank God. We were so mesmerized by the postcard-perfect view of the Mediterranean that we walked right past the Monte Carlo Casino without knowing. It was only when we reached Plage du Larvotto that we realized this. So back we turned on Avenue Princess Grace until we came to the Grimaldi Forum, where a display of luxuriant carpets and rugs of the finest craftsmanship was being hosted. From here we moved to the neighboring Jardin Japonais (Japanese Garden) and savored the tranquil oasis in the midst of the opulent resort hub. The bamboo fences, the Tea House, the stone lanterns, the little red wooden bridge, the waterfall and the pond were all imbued with a “Zen” air of soothing calm.

The day’s tour ended with a brief visit to the casino complex perched high and mighty on the hillside, where we fed our eyes on an amazing view of the port while enjoying a delicious scoop of ice cream at the tourist-packed, fountains-furnished Jardin du Casino. As the majestic main casino was not yet open, I just satisfied myself with a quick tour of the American one, which was no different from any Macau or Las Vegas counterpart. My friend didn’t bother to join me.

Compared to earthy yet not-of-this-earth Nice, Monte Carlo is without doubt of the “regal” category. The comparison is like one between Catherine Deneuve and Grace Kelly in their prime. My preference should be quite obvious.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Paris, Mon Amour

Paris and the French Riviera are very much like fish and bear’s paw in the popular Chinese aphorism (魚與熊掌, 不可兼得) – I would never want to have to choose between them. In the past couple of weeks, in the company of a friend, I had a chance to savor them both to my heart’s content. On this self-pampering trip, which I hope I well deserve (I haven’t had a long vacation since 1999), we stayed four nights in Paris and six nights in Nice. During the sojourn in Nice, we visited towns on the Cote d’Azur by train, including Monte Carlo in Monaco, Cannes, St. Raphael, Antibes and Marseille.

It’s been thirty-five years since my first visit to Paris. The stunning city that once made my heart throb has no doubt aged, but only with grace and elegance. My love for the city was rekindled the moment I stepped into it.

Like all other great metropolises, Paris has not been spared the usual environmental scarring like air and noise pollution. Yet it has managed to retain a certain air of serenity and complacence in the midst of maddening growth and development over the last several decades. Despite all its trials and tribulations, it has stubbornly clung onto its old charm. In the unstoppable rush towards modern-day globalization and commercialization, the unshakable cultural roots of the French nation have proudly kept the glorious city in steady balance.

There’s perhaps no better place to have a glimpse of the French lifestyle than the colorful and vivacious open air marches (markets).

During our stay in Paris, we visited the Marches de L’Opera Bastille on Boulevard Richard Lenoir on a Sunday (these markets open only on Thursdays and Sundays). The place was literally packed by ten o’clock in the morning. Vendors of all sorts displayed their plethora of food and merchandise on makeshift canopy-covered tables arranged neatly in several rows, leaving pedestrian corridors in between. Eager shoppers were busy browsing and looking for the food or product they wanted to buy. The enticing aroma of freshly baked baguettes and croissants filled the market and tells that the French are really into such staple food. Strangely, it also brought to mind the image 35 years ago of Parisians strolling down a quiet street in St. Germain des Pres in the early morning, carrying long baguettes under their arms (I was staying at a hostel in the area). At some delicacies stalls, samples of goose liver and duck liver/meat pate were being freely offered to interested passers-by. Cheeses and pastas came in an abundant selection. Vibrant colored fruits and vegetables and mouth-watering smells of roast chickens were competing for the attention of lookers-on and shoppers alike. Vendors of fish fillets, prawns, shrimps and mussels attracted long lines of buyers. Other goods on sale ranged from scarves, clothes, shoes, accessories, to kitchen utensils, pottery, linens, plants, etc. etc.

On the day before (a Saturday), when we passed by the Place de la Bastille, there was a musical parade of floats and youngsters were dancing joyously on the streets. It was hard to picture that just a few months earlier, riot police had had to put down a protest that emulated the Spanish anti-austerity demonstrations. The protest had taken place on the steps of the Bastille Opera House, right next to where these rapturous markets were held.

Being used to the suffocating crowds of skyscrapers bearing down on the city of Hong Kong, my friend and I both found it was a breath of fresh air to see a clear and uncluttered skyline in Paris as we sat admiring the city’s panoramic view, along with hundreds of others, on the flights of steps leading up to the Sacre Coeur cathedral in Montmartre. We chuckled and imagined what Paris would look like if Hong Kong’s developers were to “invade” the city. Much of how Paris looks today, with all its enormous squares, plazas, straight and wide tree-lined boulevards, public parks, beautiful building facades of quarry stones and standardized building height, is owed to the 19th century architect Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann, with the support of Napoleon III in the Second Empire era. My favorite are the artistically patterned wrought iron balcony railings that embellish those buildings. I do believe that long-term vision in urban planning pays.

A pantomime artist draped in white cloth from head to toe with his face painted all white was seen doing his stuff standing on top of a railing baluster at the bottom of one flight of steps. Tourists were lining up to have photos taken with him. A newly-wed couple were walking ceremoniously down the steps, the groom dressed in a cream-color safari suit and the bride in a bare-shoulder, body-hugging white lace gown with a short train. There weren’t any guests and they seemed to be quite happy with just the photographer taking pictures of them. When they kissed, spectators (us included) gave a generous round of congratulatory applause. In a city (or country) where people’s liberty is sacrosanct, this is just another day.

Le Marais was certainly on my list of places to visit. Hotel de Sens, Village St. Paul, Musee Carnavalet, fashionable Rue des Francs Bourgeois, Rue des Rosiers where restaurants cluster and historic Place des Vosges were all worth our time. This is one district that was not touched by the Haussmann renovations and is marked by interesting narrow streets.

Another day was spent walking down Quai des Tuileries and Avenue des Champs Elysees. I paid a visit to Musee De L’Orangerie to admire Claude Monet’s wondrous water lilies.

I have to admit that the famous Avenue des Champs Elysees no longer awed me like it had 35 years ago. The heavy flow of traffic made it a nuisance rather than pleasure to stroll down the avenue. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could enjoy a cup of coffee at the curb-side cafes with vehicle emissions filling one’s nostrils.

When we reached the Arc de Triomphe, we took the Avenue d’Iena to Pont Iena, which was at the foot of Tour Eiffel. There, we wound up the day by taking a “Batobus” (like a water taxi) to go back to our hotel, which was located at a walking distance from the Jardin des Plantes stop.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Deluded Returnees

Hong Kong emigrants who fled the city for fear of Communist rule and subsequently returned to their place of origin realize they were deluded by a superficial calm.

In the years after Margaret Thatcher’s ominous Beijing visit, during which the iron lady took a fall down the steps outside the People’s Great Hall, Hong Kongers had spent most of their time worrying sick about the imminent draconian rule under the Communists and agitating over whether or not they should emigrate to Canada or Australia. Shortly after the 1997 handover, many of those who had emigrated chose to join the “return tide” back to Hong Kong when they saw that the way of life, systems and everything appeared to have remained intact, well in accordance with the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984.

Now, fourteen years have passed since the handover. Returnees have watched with their own eyes how fast Hong Kong has been speeding down the degradation highway, in terms of the freedoms they were used to in colonial days and the administration’s respect for civic rights, the robustness of the legal system, and the restraint exercised by the police force in times of turmoil. Instead of seeing “one country, two systems” being played out, they are witnessing that promise turned into tatters, with mainland’s master-slave mentality and paternalistic governing style replacing civilized, rational and open governance that is grounded in Hong Kong’s core values.

Every now and then there are street protests expressing deep disgust with a callous, condescending, self-interested and money-prostituting government that has been obtuse and unresponsive to popular demands on everyday life issues as well as political reforms.

Everyday life issues range from excessive speculation in the property market due to continual money influx from the mainland, to urgent and unmet housing needs of the low- to middle-income class as reflected in the rapid rise of the number of box-like subdivided rooms with inherent fire risks being rented, to rampant consumer price inflation caused partly by runaway property rental increases and partly by the strengthening Yuan, to a deepening rift between the haves and the have-nots, to youngsters’ disillusionment with social mobility and an economy that is getting more and more lopsided with ever diminishing job fields.

On the political front, as recently revealed in some cable documents provided by WikiLeaks (for the link, please go to the end of this post), CE Tsang disclosed to the U.S. consul general in 2005 that he was not supportive of elections by universal suffrage, as it would mean for non-taxpayers taking over political control from the taxpayers. Instead of fighting on behalf of Hong Kongers for full-fledged democracy, the CE actually sold them down the river behind closed doors. Is that his way of saying that he wanted to back the affluent at the expense of the needy? Why is that not surprising?

Society has long been pissed at being force fed the SAR government’s self-devised poisonous potion that is meant to kill citizens’ voting rights in by-elections by changing the rules. Hong Kongers are also shocked at the police force under the leadership of another Tsang using high-handed tactics and acting more and more like their overbearing mainland counterparts in their treatment of peaceful street protesters and activists. In the incident of Li Keqiang’s visit to the Hong Kong University on the occasion of the university’s 100th anniversary, policemen forcefully prevented reporters and university students from accessing Li and set up a so-called “core security zone” in the university compound (the legality of which is still being questioned). To top it all, the incumbent CE and CE-aspirants have had the nerve to back a police chief who has aroused a public uproar targeting what is alleged to be his impudent abuse of power. Recent police actions smack of a brazen attempt to trample on press freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, which are some of Hong Kong’s core values that are guaranteed under the Basic Law.

To further blight press freedom and freedom of expression, the infamous and omnipresent 50-cent gangsters hired by those in power are out and about to smear pan-democrats and their allies, obfuscate intellectual discussions on government policies on online forums, conflate social and political issues and generally seek to hide truths under blatant lies, hoping (naively) to fool all Hong Kong people.

What most Hong Kongers had feared would begin happening fourteen years ago are suddenly appearing full frontal. It looks like there is no escape from the fact that Hong Kongers’ freedoms are being forcibly taken away chunk by chunk, not to mention they will be forever denied democratic elections by universal suffrage. It wouldn’t be surprising if one day in the not-too-distant future, when Hong Kongers wake up, they find themselves under house watch, with mafia-looking “shengguans” (城管) patrolling right outside their apartments.

It is a matter of when those who were in the “return tide” will start questioning whether it is worth their while to linger on in the place they returned to. The worst fears that had taunted them over two decades ago are all of a sudden very real. But they are still the luckier ones because they have a choice.

Link to the WikiLeaks cable, see here.

Link to an earlier post: "Can you Hear Her Cry for Help?"

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Su Shi's "Nian Nu Jiao" (Reminiscing Red Cliffs)

In a previous post I briefly touched on the Three Kingdoms’ romantic history as depicted in Du Mu’s (杜牧) “Red Cliffs” (“赤壁”). I thought that bit of crucial background history might be helpful to non-Chinese speakers in reading Su Shi’s (蘇軾) lyric poem (ci ) “Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs” (“念奴嬌 赤壁懷古”), which I’ve attempted to render into English.

The original Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs:-

大江東去, 浪淘盡, 千古風雲人物
古疊西邊, 人道是, 三國周郎赤壁;
亂石崩雲, 驚濤裂岸, 捲起千堆雪;
江山如畫, 一時多少豪傑。
遙想公瑾當年, 小喬初嫁了, 雄姿英發;
羽扇綸巾, 談笑間, 強虜灰飛煙滅。
故國神遊, 多情應笑我, 早生華髮,
人生如夢, 一樽還酹江月。

My rendition:-

The Great Yangtze scurries forever east,
Many an ancient hero buried in its sweep.
West of the old forts, they say, 
Was fought Zhou Yu’s Battle of Red Cliffs;
Rampant cliffs that pierced clouds, 
Angry waves that ripped shores, churning up snowy foam.
Such a picturesque country, 
So full of gallant men in times of old.
Thinking of Zhou in that distant past,
He must've looked valiant, with Xiaoqiao his new bride;
Feather fan in hand, hair tied in silk, 
His enemies crushed to dust as he joked.
Such was my dreamy tour; mock me as maudlin,
But I’m just a young white-haired bloke.
Life is but a dream; let me offer wine to the river moon.

[Note: This lyric poem was written during the time when Su Shi was serving as a junior official in Wang Zhou () (in Hubei Province), to which he was banished after his release from prison. His imprisonment had been brought about by his writing a politically-incorrect poem called Crow Terrace Poem (烏臺詩). Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs reflects his dramatic change of outlook on life after experiencing the near-death trauma (as imprisonment could well turn into a death sentence on a momentary whim of the emperor). The “Crow Terrace Case” was an incident in which Su Shi’s Crow Terrace Poem was deliberately taken out of context by his adversaries to make it sound like an offending accusation against the emperor. The whole incident made him feel not only wronged, but also helpless within the then prevalent officialdom where knavery and chicanery thrived. His cherished ideal of serving his country was wrecked by the incident.

Thus, the tone of the lyric poem is one of unfulfilled mission and ruefulness. In recalling Zhou Yu’s (a handsome and gallant general of the Three Kingdoms period) once heroic and romantic deeds, which had nevertheless evaporated into the time river of no return, the poet was trying to express his own helplessness and the heartbreak of unrequited love for his country and his emperor. By implication, the poet wanted to say that as admirable and noble as Zhou, he had only lived a short life of 36 years. So, what right did he have, being a much less accomplished person than Zhou, to complain about petty failures? The undertone is sad (about the vicissitudes of life) though redemptive (because of his unchanging love for his picturesque country).]