Thursday, October 25, 2007

A place to shop at 5 am

I arrived in Dubai at 4.45 am to catch a flight to Tehran. I am always amazed when I travel to or through Dubai how busy the airport is throughout the night. Most other airports quieten down between midnight and dawn, and some with curfews close down completely, but Dubai International Airport is as busy at 5 am as it is as 5 pm with planes arriving and departing around the clock. It occurred to me that the duty free shops at Dubai airport could well be the busiest shops in the world at 5 am.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The death of Lake Tai

Another disturbing story in today’s International Herald Tribune shows that being an environmentalist in China is almost as dangerous as being a journalist in Myanmar.

The story is about Wu Lihong, a 40-year-old factory salesman turned environmentalist who was jailed for three years on some trumped-up charges of blackmail and threatening to extort money from the Communist Party Committee of Zhoutie by threatening to report pollution problems.

The story reported that Wu had been tortured for five days and forced to sign a confession, but because he couldn’t prove to the judges that he had been tortured, he was jailed on the basis of his ‘confession’, and his lawyer denied the right to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses.

Wu’s real ‘crime’ was that he was trying to expose the pollution of Lake Tai, once one of the Yangtze delta plain’s most beautiful lakes (and the third largest freshwater lake in China) but which is now covered in a foul-smelling green algae.

The pollution of the lake, according to Mr Wu, had been caused by the 2,800 chemical factories that were situated around the lake, manufacturing food additives, solvents and adhesives, and illegally discharging effluents into the lake.

The story reported that local rice farmers couldn’t tend their padi fields without wearing rubber gloves and boots because the irrigation water from the lake caused their skin to peel off.

But the most incredible part of the story is about the visit of Wen Jiabao (then a vice premier, now China's prime minister) in 2001 who came to investigate reports of Lake Tai's pollution. The IHT story reported: “Like most Communist Party inspection tours, word of this one reached local officials in advance. When Wen asked to see a typical dye plant, one was made ready, according to several people who witnessed the preparations. The factory got a fresh coat of paint. The canal that ran beside it was drained, dredged and refilled with fresh water. Shortly before Wen's motorcade arrived, workers dumped thousands of carp into the canal. Farmers were positioned along the banks holding fishing rods. Wen spent 20 minutes there. A picture of him shaking hands with the factory boss hangs in its lobby”.

That’s almost unbelievable, but doesn’t surprise me knowing to what lengths the Chinese government will go to muzzle environmentalists.

As the IHT story pointed out: “Pollution has reached epidemic proportions in China, in part because the ruling Communist Party still treats environmental advocates as bigger threats than the degradation of air, water and soil that prompts them to speak out.

“Senior officials have tried to address environmental woes mostly through pulling the traditional levers of China's authoritarian system: issuing command quotas on energy efficiency and emissions reduction; punishing corrupt officials who shield polluters; planting billions of trees across the country to hold back deserts and absorb carbon dioxide.

“But they do not dare to unleash individuals who want to make China cleaner. Grass-roots environmentalists arguably do more to expose abuses than any edict emanating from Beijing. But they face a political climate that varies from lukewarm tolerance to icy suppression”.

The full story is quite a long one, but well worth reading by anyone interested in the preservation of the environment, and the ongoing persecution of grassroots environmentalists in China. To read the full story CLICK HERE

Cruelty of the Myanmar military

Our local paper this morning carried a statement from the military junta in Myanmar commenting on the death of the Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Nagai, in their brutal crackdown on the street protests in Yangon in the last week of September.

The story said that he had only himself to blame for his death because he entered the country on a tourist visa and not a journalist visa.

What sort of logic is that? Everyone knows that Myanmar doesn’t issue visa to journalists, so it would have been impossible for him to enter the country on a journalist visa. I have many friends who are journalists and have wanted to go to Myanmar for holidays, but their visa applications have been refused on the basis of their profession – even though they had no intention of reporting on anything there.

Are the Burmese generals saying that if he had applied for a journalist visa, it would have been refused, so he wouldn’t have been killed?

It’s disappointing that to date Japan has done nothing more than express ‘regret’ at the incident. The video footage of Nagai-san falling to the ground with his camera still in his hand, that was broadcast around the world, looked very much like he was being shot at point blank range by one of the Burmese soldiers (see Japanese news broadcast video below). And all the Japanese government can do is express ‘regret’. Japanese people are renowned for their politeness and going out of their way to avoid conflict, but this was one instance where they should have been loudly protesting.

There was also a disturbing story in the International Herald Tribune today recounting some eyewitness accounts of the brutality that was seen on the streets of Yangon. In the IHT story, one housewife who was out shopping for food on 28 September recalls:

“I saw people in the street just beaten up for no reason - just walking along the road, not even part of the protests. There was this young boy, he was alone and not shouting with the crowd or clapping. This captain came up to him, just started beating him and the boy fell on the street. Then the police pushed him into one of those trucks that were lined up to take demonstrators. As they pushed him, he fell again. Then the police took out a big stick and gave him a huge blow on the back.”

To read the full story CLICK HERE

Friday, October 12, 2007

Rhapsody in video

Yesterday evening, after the conclusion of the first day of a conference I was attending in Seoul, our hosts took us to an art exhibition by the famous Korean ‘video artist’, the late Nam June Paik. I’d heard of his work before, but never seen any of it, so didn’t know quite what to expect. The exhibits comprised ‘works of art’ either made out of TV monitors, or displays inside TV monitors. The reaction of the delegates was interesting. They ranged from: “What an exquisite exhibition – this is so avant garde” to “What a childish load of rubbish – how can they call this art” (I suppose those making the former comments would call those making the latter comments something like ‘Philistines’). Some of the delegates in the former category spent ages admiring each exhibit from different angles, whilst those in the latter category retired to the snack bar or went outside for a smoke (one sat on the stairs reading a book, looking most uninterested).

I can’t make up my mind which category I fall in. I am still not sure whether I liked the exhibition or not. I have difficulty in calling it ‘art’ but would not disagree with calling it ‘artistic’. One very impressive exhibit was a 10 metre long turtle in the centre of the exhibition hall, made out of 166 TV sets.

I was told the turtle was ‘created’ in Germany in 1993 and was on loan to the exhibition. I suppose it was dismantled in Germany and the TV sets shipped to Korea in boxes, and then reassembled again, so on that basis I do have difficulty in describing this as ‘art’ (especially as the artist is no longer alive, so he wouldn’t be the one doing the reassembling). And I suppose when the exhibition is over, they will pack the TV sets back into their boxes, send them back to Germany, and whoever owns it there will have to reassemble it again. I wonder how the artist would feel about his ‘work of art’ being dismantled and reassembled all the time.

After the art exhibition we attended an excellent concert of both traditional and modern Korean music and song, but it was the Korean opera sets that were performed by Kim Yeong Im and the Incheon Opera Chorus that were most inspiring. There was a full orchestra in the pit (and a very flamboyant conductor) and the overall production was world class.

A most enjoyable evening (although I am still scratching my head about the ‘art’ exhibition).

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sleepless in Singapore

My room at the M Hotel was not what I booked. I’d booked a non-smoking room, but on arrival the receptionist told me that there were no non-smoking rooms left. She said the hotel only had a limited number of non-smoking rooms (why do hotels limit the number of non-smoking rooms if there is so much demand?) but assured me that the room “didn’t smell much”. I should have asked her to define “much” because the moment I walked in the door, I was overpowered by the smell of stale smoke. However, that turned out not to be the biggest problem with the room.

My room had a connecting door to the room next door, and when I checked in about 9.30 pm, all was quiet. I went down to the reception for a couple of hours after unpacking my bag to use the wi-fi (I’d forgotten to bring my LAN connector) and when I returned to my room about 11.30 pm, the people in the next room were making a lot of noise. The connecting door between the rooms was not soundproof. There were two males and two females (one of which was a young girl who was constantly whining) and one of the males was shouting at the others. It sounded like he was the father of a family, and for a while I thought he was angry, but after listening to their conversations for a while, I realised that was just the way he spoke to his family – in a very loud voice at about twice the level that most people speak. This went on until after midnight, so I called reception to ask if I could be moved to another room. I was told that wasn’t possible because the hotel was full, so I covered my head with a pillow and tried to sleep. I eventually drifted off in the early hours of the morning with the man still conversing in a very loud voice.

At 6.30 am the people in the next room received a wake-up call – which woke me up as well. Almost immediately the man started shouting again, and the girl whining again, and I realised I wasn’t going to get much more sleep. At that stage I lost patience with them and banged on the connecting door saying: “Would you please lower your voices – I am trying to sleep in here”. The man replied: “Okay, okay” and did lower his voice for a while to about a normal speaking level, but the girl kept whining, so that didn’t help much. At about 7.00 am I think they must have forgotten about my complaint because their voice levels were back to the shouting level, so I gave up on getting any more sleep.

When I checked out after breakfast, the receptionist said to me: “Did you have a pleasant stay, sir?” I replied: “No, I had a most unpleasant stay,” and told her about the problem with the connecting door that was not soundproof. She replied: “Oh I am so sorry about that, sir. We have a lot of people from the Lupin Group in India staying here on an incentive package, and they are all very noisy.” I didn’t have a clue who the Lupin Group was, but they way in which she conveyed her apology to me almost seemed like I was expected to know who the Lupin Group was and that I should know they are noisy people. When I was at the airport this evening waiting for my fight back to Kuala Lumpur, out of curiosity I googled the Lupin Group, and found they were a pharmaceutical company (the third largest in India apparently) – so that didn’t shed any light. I thought maybe if they had been a heavy engineering company, and all the employees had to converse during the day in loud voices, that would explain why they spoke so loudly.

So from now on when I book a hotel room, my standard request will be: “No smoking AND no connecting door please.”

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Singapore's oldest taxi driver?

I caught the 6.50 pm flight to Singapore this evening, after leaving home at 4.20 pm in a taxi. The flight sat on the tarmac for 40 minutes waiting to take-off (apparently there was only one runway in operation at KLIA for some reason today) and we came in at gate F60 in Singapore – the very last gate in Terminal 2 (I can’t understand the logic of making passengers from a short shuttle flight walk the longest distance in the airport) so it was about 8.30 pm by the time I got to the immigration counter.

Fortunately there was not much of a queue at immigration, nor at the taxi rank, so I was soon on my way into the city. However, my taxi ride into the city turned out to be the slowest taxi ride I have ever taken, courtesy of what I would guess was Singapore’s oldest taxi driver. She was a small Chinese woman, who looked about 75 years old, and could barely see over the steering wheel. As we pulled away from the airport she said: “Where you go, ah?” I told her that I wanted to go to the M Hotel, to which she replied: “You know where M Hotel, ah?” I replied that it was in the financial district. “You know how get, ah?” was her next question. “Yes, go along the East Coast Parkway, take the Prince Edward Road exit and then turn left into Shenton Way,” I said. There was a pause as she absorbed that, and then she said: “I call my friend, ah.” I guess she was not familiar with what was a very simple route into the city, because she spent most of the journey chatting in what I assume was Mandarin or Cantonese or some other Chinese dialect to her ‘friend’ on her mobile phone, who was apparently giving her directions.

We headed into the city at about 30 kph under the speed limit – in the fast lane. The rest of the traffic passed us on the inside, and it was surprising nobody beeped us (if that had been KL, people would have been honking their horns at us all the time). When we got to the traffic lights at Shenton Way, she was in the wrong lane, so I said to her: “You have to turn left here.” When the lights changed to green, she immediately pulled straight in front of another car in the left hand lane, but again surprisingly we didn’t get beeped – Singapore drivers are so polite compared to Malaysian drivers!

I wondered whether she actually had a licence to drive. Maybe her husband was a taxi driver and he had sent her out to earn some money whilst he had his dinner. She certainly didn’t know Singapore very well and was a pretty hopeless driver.

Arriving at the M Hotel, I looked at my watch – it was 9.20 pm. It had taken me five hours, door to door, a journey I could have easily driven in four hours. Oh well, at least flying is safer than driving, even if it does take an hour longer.