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).]