Asia

Which one of these two women represents the real China?

In response to someone who told me I hadn’t been to the real China because I didn’t visit a hutong:

People like to say that Hong Kong, Shanghai, and even Beijing these days don’t represent the real China, with their modern skyscrapers, ubiquitous Starbuckses, and global influence. The real China is rice paddies and opium dens, Little Red Books and old ladies with bound feet, straw hats and bicycles and dragon lanterns, right?

When people who fancy themselves “travelers, not tourists,” visit foreign countries for the first time, they often verbalize their desire to see the real place. The real Paris. The real Brazil. The real Australian Outback. (Though, I concede to not hearing very many people expressing a yen for the real Orlando.) In my opinion, this quest for authenticity is as romantically futile as it is superficial – places, like people, are multidimensional entities that embody contradictions and eschew easy categorizations.

In the present, more than at any other time in history, the emergence of a global urban culture has transformed, if not usurped to some degree, the local “authentic” culture of cities. And while that global culture is indeed dominated, somewhat shamefully, by American hegemony, it is still the local incarnation of global culture that visitors to the world’s largest cities encounter – homegrown fast-food chains next door to McDonald’s, hip hop artists rhyming in Yoruba or Finnish or Bahasa Indonesia, jeans and sneakers and hoodies everywhere – evidence that anything can become tradition, given time.

True, once-unique locales have begun homogenizing, morphing into glass-and-steel clones of New York or – gasp – Dubai, with air conditioned shopping malls housing branches of the same mid-range-to-luxury goods purveyor found in commercial centers the world over.

But this is the world we live in now. Yuppies in Beijing use smart phones to order Thai takeout to watch in front of their flat-screen TVs. Students in São Paulo organize anti-corruption protests via Facebook, likening themselves to anti-corruption protesters half a world away in Turkey. It’s the technology that’s connecting us as well as conditioning us into a state of global citizenship (with its concomitant dark side, global consumerism).

Nonetheless, are these places any less real because the people who live there utilize products and services that may not be homegrown, or that many more people in a given country live in abject poverty? Is New York any less American, Paris any less French, or Bangkok any less Thai because of globalization? And does a visitor to the U.S. need to spend a night in the hood or a trailer park to experience the real America? I think far too many people conflate realness in travel with slumming, or at the very least, with what the “average” [insert nationality here] person does or doesn’t do. Every place on the planet is comprised of conflicting realities, one no less real than the other.

What I experience when I travel is as real as it gets, be it an hours-long conversation at a Krispy Kreme in Seoul or comparing dance moves in front of a chaiwala in Mumbai. It’s through genuine human interaction and an openness to learning that I get to know the real place, the real people. And that means first letting go of my own preconceived notions of realness and authenticity.

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Image sources: Lauren Nelson & Eightfish

The first thing I did upon arriving in Singapore was look for people jaywalking, littering, and chewing gum, the trifecta of must-not-do’s in many a guidebook to the city. And despite assurances that the local government frowns severely upon these trespasses, people were doing all three. In fact, the idea that Singapore is a soulless, sterile conurbation obsessed with cleanliness and making money just smacks of lazy thinking. Singapore may not have the hedonistic chaos of Bangkok or the dramatic setting of Hong Kong, but it’s got a palpable sense of drive and a reverent appreciation for its surprising cultural diversity.

You can see Singapore’s legacy as a trading center in the vigorous commercial sector of the city-state, where Chinese dried goods warehouses, knock-off electronics emporiums, and multistory Louis Vuitton boutiques all vie for access to disposable incomes. In fact, the subway during evening rush hour is like a fashion show flash mob, as office denizens make their way home in the haughtiest of haute couture. Beyond the brands, however, Singapore’s got a notable mix of inexpensive food options—from Chinese chicken rice to Indonesian barbecue to Indian curries, all for under $2 a meal!—plus neighborhoods like Little India, Chinatown, and Arab Street that speak to the city’s diversity in sights, sounds, and flavors. Exhibitions on food, film, clothing, and traditions at the National Museum of Singapore follow these cultural pathways as they weave themselves into the fabric of modern Singapore, and the almost side-by-side Chinese and Indian temples embody the interplay and mutual influence among the city’s constituent communities.

Granted, the heat can be hellish, prices astronomical, and fun shut down by 2am. And the city really is clean and efficient. But for a quick peek at a prosperous, multicultural society with hidden deals and more than a few charms, make sure you spend a couple of days in Sin City.

And don’t forget to pronounce it the British way—Singa-POUR. It sounds sexier.

(Sorry about the paltry number of photos…I had 50 images of the city go missing mysteriously from my computer. 🙁 Guess that makes for another reason to return!)

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Deciding to hang out in Singapore at the last minute can be costly, with accommodations being pretty expensive. Luxury hotels weren’t in the budget and the city seemed short on reasonably-priced mid-range options. Hostels normally aren’t my thing, but in a pinch, I’ll try anything once. Bunc, a sleek new 233-bed backpackers in Little India, came to the rescue and offered us a couple nights’ lodging in exchange for a review, and I was more than happy to oblige.

Located in a restored shophouse originally built in 1926, Bunc is bright and spacious, with high ceilings, ample common areas, and cloud-like beds so soft, you drop off to sleep in no time. The grid-like partitions separating the beds offer a decent amount of privacy when the private rooms themselves aren’t available, and the upscale design and ambiance encourages a respectful atmosphere among the guests. Above all, the place is clean, with a top-notch cleaning staff, bug-resistant linens, and a deliciously fragrant organic air freshening system.

Other amenities include double beds for couples, a movie/games room with plush cushions, a tremendously handy washer/dryer combo, a separate ladies-only floor with its own lounge, a kitchen, complimentary Continental breakfast every morning, and free wifi. There’s also that oh-so-welcome A/C to cool you down after a day of sightseeing in hot-and-muggy Singapore. Bunc is perched between two subway stations, close to a rack of cheap Chinese and Indian eateries, and walking distance to major touristic sites like the Goddess of Mercy temple and Arab Street. And for those into the group thing, Bunc hosts tours, activities, and events every night of the week.

I’ve never been a fan of hostels, but Bunc duly impressed me with its design, cleanliness, and the amazing friendliness of its staff—managers Adrian and Winnie rocked! It’s not the cheapest hostel you can dig up, but it’s without question one of the best.

Bunc Hostel
15 Upper Weld Road
Little India, Singapore
+65 6262 2862
www.bunchostel.com
Single beds from US$32, private rooms from US$97

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The wheels on the bus go round and round, unless the bus is stuck in traffic on Eid.

Dateline: Malaysia. I’m traveling with a good buddy from Germany, and we’re on the bus from the colonial port city of Malacca en route to a European-style chalet in the verdant Cameron Highlands to meet up with the birthday gang from Bali. Suddenly, I get the bright idea to backtrack south to Singapore and get in a little city life after our Highlands adventure and before beaching it up in the Perhentian Islands.

So, we get to the chalet and do a little internet research. The flights to Singapore from Penang, the town with the nearest commercial airport, are more than what we were willing to pay and scheduled train departures were all full. What we hadn’t counted on was Eid (the end of Ramadan) taking place in Malaysia and the rest of the Muslim world that very weekend, during which thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people would be traveling around the country, making merry for themselves and making hell for all the luckless foreigners who hadn’t checked to see there was a holiday that weekend.

At the bus station in the Highlands, the ticket agents all warn that buses back to Kuala Lumpur are filling up and that buying tickets the next day would be virtually impossible. One company sold tickets from the Highlands to Singapore with a stop in KL, but at a steep holiday markup. Being cheap, we decide we’d pay the regular fare to KL, then get tickets on to Singapore from there. Oh, why in all the Creator’s great green hills and valleys did we do that?

We get to what used to be KL’s main bus terminal and it’s jammed with holiday travelers—mostly young men off from their construction jobs in the capital and heading somewhere else in the country to see their families. By the time we arrive, we’ve missed the few departures for Singapore and the remaining buses are either completely full or not leaving for another 9 or 10 hours. We take the metro (also jammed) to the new and improved bus terminal, from which almost all buses to the south of the country depart, and find out the few remaining seats to Singapore are on luxury buses and cost three times the normal fare. Figures.

What to do, what to do? Eureka: take the bus to Johor Bahru—the southernmost city in Malaysia, just across the causeway from Singapore—then take the commuter route into Sin City! There was a bus leaving within the hour and it cost not even half the price of the luxury bus. We snag a can of MSG-loaded Pringles knock-offs and a pack of bean-paste rolls (num!) from the 7-11 and we’re off to JB.

Along the way, however, we hit Spring-Break-in-Florida-style traffic as everybody, their mother, their grandmother, their great-grandmother, their grandkids, their dog, their neighbor, and their play-cousin Roscoe decides to take to the highway for the holiday. Soon, we realize that we’re in a race against time as the buses that cross the causeway from Malaysia into Singapore stop running just before midnight. With no contingency plan should we get stuck in JB, we chew our nails to the quick hoping the bus can sprout wings. And lo, we make it to the crowded, ramshackle bus terminal in enough time to run real, real fast across the parking lot just to wait in a long, long line of Malaysians, Singaporeans, and a sprinkling of cheap-ass Westerners (who didn’t want to ante up for the luxury bus) aiming to cross the border before it closes.

After two or three buses fill up and head off, we finally crowd onto one along with the daily commuters, packed and sealed tightly in a lumbering proletarian transporter with the a/c set on Arctic. First stop: the Malaysian customs and immigration office. We peel out of the bus, split up into lines based on national origin, get stamped out of Malaysia, then herded back onto a bus which may or may not be the one we departed moments earlier. We cross the causeway separating Peninsular Malaysia from the island of Singapore, but I don’t see much because it’s dark outside and my face is pressed into the back of someone’s head anyway. Sing’s customs and immigration office is next, and we peel out of the bus, split up into lines based on national origin, get stamped into Singapore, then herded back onto a bus which may or may not be the one we departed moments earlier.

The time is almost 1am and we’re tired and hungry and though we reach our destination safely and physically unharmed, we’re emotionally scarred by the figurative crush of holiday travel and the literal crush of some dude’s scalp pressed against my nose on a bus. Please be sure to remind me of this the next time I get one of my last-minute bright ideas. And make sure you know the date of Eid before traveling by bus in Malaysia.

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As evidenced by the Dutch-built Stadthuys, the over 230-year-old Hindu temple, and the Chinese-inflected Kampung Kling Mosque, Malaysia’s multicultural colonial port of Malacca has been fought over and ruled by a succession of Asian and European powers since it was first established over 600 years ago. Offering safe harbor during the ferocious monsoon season for trading ships threading between China and India—a virtual crossroads of the world—the city pulled in abundant riches and a pallet of cultures.

Tossed like a hot potato between the Malays, the Javanese, the Vietnamese, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English, Malacca is home to architecture, food, religion, music, and other traditions that reflect the various flags flown over the city, and which influence the dominant cultures (Malay, Chinese, Indian, mixes of the three) that populate it today. Malacca’s tangled history and relaxed, Caribbean-like atmosphere make it a popular stop on the backpacker trail, but there are still a few secluded corners that occasionally go tourist-free. Here are a few of Malacca’s beauty spots.

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Verdant hills, foggy dells, infinity pools, and some of the friendliest people I’ve met in life summed up my brief 2-day excursion to the tropical isle of Bali. The only majority-Hindu island in the mostly Muslim archipelago of Indonesia, Bali has been a major tourism destination–especially among Europeans and Australians–for decades. Pristine beaches, alluring culture, and cheap prices keep surfers and yoga devotees and retired hippies and honeymooners and even affluent young parents coming back. My friends and I tried to avoid all of those people and headed for the hills, far away from the Florida-style hubbub around overbuilt Denpasar and deep into the quiet, calming countryside.

To infinity…and beyond!

My buddies Mike and Ana are a crazy/cool California couple with back-to-back birthdays, which they wanted to celebrate with friends on Bali. Mike found an amazing 3-bedroom vacation villa hidden from the tourist throngs and close to the artistic and cultural center of the island, Ubud. The villa came with stunning views of a solemn valley, a refreshing infinity pool, and a terrific staff who hung out discreetly on-site and whipped up omelets on demand. If it weren’t for the lack of promised internet access, we wouldn’t have left the premises. We did eventually head into Ubud for a little Balinese food and culture, capped off by a fiery performance of the polyrhythmic Kecak dance:

Just a few hundred feet away from the villa sat a secluded Hindu temple, tended by rice farmers from the surrounding villages. But before we knew it, our very quick breather was over and it was time to move on to not-so-green pastures–Mike, Ana, and friends to Kuta and Lombok while I hopped a flight to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

My most exotic luggage tag yet!

A few more images from the villa and the temple:

Mike + Ana
Soul Glow

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This summer, I’ll be joining a group of friends in Southeast Asia to celebrate our buddy Mike‘s birthday. Mike is on a Fulbright teaching fellowship in rural Malaysia, but we all plan on bouncing through several countries in the region throughout the month of August, coming together at various points along the way.

A few weeks ago, I found a decent (i.e. less than $1500) round-trip ticket to Southeast Asia, arriving at Singapore and departing from Bangkok. This week, I’ve been buying tickets between cities in the area, connecting the dots of the trip and stirring up a little bit of excitement for what will be my second visit to the region, but my first time in three countries: Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand.

Low-cost carrier Air Asia will be shuttling me first between Singapore and Bali ($80), where I’ll be joining Mike and crew for the birthday bash; then I’ll hop aboard a bus, ferry, and train to get to Jakarta (thanks to The Man in Seat Sixty-One for all the excellent in-depth info about rail journeys in Indonesia), followed by an Air Asia hop to Bangkok ($102), Lufthansa flight to and from Kuala Lumpur ($104!!!), and bus travel around the Cameron Highlands and coastal islands of Malaysia. The purchase of plane tickets is truly one of the significant pleasures in my life.

So stay tuned to Fly Brother for developments on the upcoming Whirlwind SE Asia Tour 2012 and other travel tidbits and commentary. And don’t forget, you’re always welcome to tag along!

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Macau. Most people haven’t even heard of the place: a former Portuguese colony on the southern coast of China established as the first permanent European toehold in the Far East back in 1557 and the final foreign stop on my amended round-the-world trip (Seoul doesn’t count, as I was only transiting for eight hours; though I did get to shower in the lavish Korean Air business class lounge and meet up with this sexy sista at Krispy Kreme in the Gangnam District for a short 60 minutes).

Long since overshadowed as a trading and financial center by urbane and much-larger Hong Kong, only an hour’s ride east by high-speed ferry, Macau has reinvinted itself as a combination Lisbon-Las Vegas, with its collonnaded colonial quarter framed by monumental, neon-lit casino resorts. Peopled mostly by mainland Chinese in search of capitalist-country incomes and sprinkled with a few expat Portuguese working in the still-lucrative legal sector and assorted Brazilian showgirls, Russian and Australian ballroom dancers, and Romanian strippers who cycle in and out as casino entertainment (of course, I was there the one night the strippers had off), Macau has the distinction of being the first and last European possession in China, having been handed back in 1999, two years after HK. Under the “One China, Two Systems” plan that also allows HK to flourish with a large degree of independence, Macau still bathes in the collective glow of flickering lights, glamorous floor shows, luxury retail, and palacial gaming halls.

Observe:


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Oh, Hong Kong! How the currents of history and culture have conspired to make you the entoxicating urban assemblage that you are. Poised at the foot of Victoria Peak and gracing both shores of a similarly-named harbor, Hong Kong has lost none of her shine after having changed hands from the British colonial power that created her to the Chinese superpower that is her cultural foundation. Expats from all over the English-speaking world keep the financial sector abuzz, hold-up in luxury skybox apartments and tooling around packed and narrow streets in Maybachs and Bentleys (only the service people—accountants, attorneys and such—whip around in Beemers and S-Classes). The masses, and I do mean masses, aspire to these trappings, though, for the time being, whisking around the city in speedy, efficient public tranport doesn’t make being part of the proletariat seem so bad. Hong Kong is a city of conspicuous consumption and unbridled capitalism, upward mobility writ large. But unlike, say, Dubai or Las Vegas, she’s been handling her business for centuries.

And that’s what makes her somewhat imposing. Arriving by ferry into Victoria Harbour, guarded on both sides by walls of skyscrapers, themselves backed-up by mountain peaks, I felt as if I’d just entered a fortified medieval city with high walls and turrets full of sentries. Once inside, the cluttered and exhilirating commercial alleys of Kowloon City or Sheung Wan contrasted with the sleek and chic straightaways of TST and Causeway Bay, and regardless of the cost of rent, a pair of shoes, or a bowl of soup in any given area, the place was crowded, teeming, jammed, packed, populated. Literally, erybody and they mama lives in Hong Kong.

Despite a population density of 15 thousand people per square mile, I didn’t find HKers to be particularly outgoing. Unlike other places I’d been, in spite of looking conspicuously foreign, I barely got a second glance from anyone. This in itself didn’t bother me. I was annoyed, however, by the few blacks I did come across, and I mean few and far between, who actually looked away as we approached one another on the street. I was aghast; never in my travels had I not crossed paths with a fellow black Westerner (usually distinguishable from black Africans by carriage, demeanor, and hairstyle) and not shared the bruh-man headnod of solidarity and kinship in a foreign land. Well, it was straight “incognegro” in Hong Kong*. Maybe the brothers and sisters thought I was Indian, as there were many in HK, but it was the whites who I was continually greeted by at intersections and on the street. I was hurt to my heart. I was angry.

Fortunately, I had been blessed with a few soulmates in the city who could feel my pain: the lovely and talented Nikita the Traveller kept me company when not parsing French grammar for the kiddies at school; and Victor, novice diplomat and expert translator (homeboy be tawkin’ dat Chinese!) who graciously provided a roof, vittles, and wireless Internet for a week in Wan Chai, as well as a crew of fellow FSOs who knew where to go in Hong Kong for the hot beats and hot grits (yes, grits). We were of split opinion regarding the eye-avoidance issue: Victor saying folk greeted him all the time (I say that’s because of his dreads), while Nikita parked in my lot, highlighting numerous instances of shade. That aside, Victor and his friends provided me with much insight into life as a diplomat (though, to be fair, HK ain’t exactly Kabul or Ciudad Juarez, so I think they might be just a tad biased, understandably), and almost sold me on the idea, until we compared the three-month annual vacation time afforded teachers versus the fourteen days they get in the Foreign Service. You do the math.

When I wasn’t hanging with the homies, I hoofed it around the city, wiping the sweat off my brow while snapping photos of open-air meat and flea markets in Wan Chai, wading through the throngs in Times Square, expanding my mind at the Hong Kong Museum of History, politely declining an offer of tailor-made suits by Pakistani salesmen on Nathan Road, flying over to the Big Buddha on the longest cable-car ride in life, zooming up to breathtaking Victoria Peak on the near-vertical tram, coursing back and forth across the harbor on the Star Ferry, uncovering the lone capoeira class in town, and scouting out the nearest Burger King to ease a craving I’d had for the last month.

Hong Kong is hot. I just wonder why the people are so cold.

*Side note: Subsequently, in both Macau and Seoul, brothers greeted me appropriately; one was from Mozambique and the other Canadian. This vindicates Asia as a whole and isolates HK as a mecca for coloreds with no damn home trainin’.

Then ride with me to the roof of Hong Kong in the glass elevator of the Hopewell Centre:

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