Monday, 23 June 2014

My Friend Was Assaulted in Australia

Today I'm really angry. A friend of mine just told me that she was assailed by a man, who not only robbed her, but also punched her, apparently without any reason. She is a flight attendant and was spending a day in Perth after a flight. At around 5 pm the man assaulted her, took her shopping bag and hit her. Her eye was badly injured and now it's displaced. She may need surgery to fix it. 

I feel so sorry because I cannot do anything for her. Actually, she is really brave and perhaps she doesn't even need my help. But I'm just so upset. I didn't expect something like this to happen in Australia, let alone in the afternoon. She went to the police, and they told her that such crimes usually don't happen in that area of the city. But they couldn't do anything. 

My stay in Hong Kong wouldn't have been so great if I hadn't met her. She showed me a lot of interesting places and was always very nice to me. I can't believe that someone has done this to her. I really hope that she will recover as soon as possible, and that the Australian police may catch and punish that man. 

We should always be careful when we travel. I myself have been involved in dangerous situations a few times. Once, I was waiting for a night train in Heidelberg, Germany. The platform was empty. Then a man came. He was carrying two huge black bags and had a foreign accent. He asked me where I was going. After chatting for a few minutes, he asked me if he could travel with me (that is. I said my ticket was just for one person and there was my name on it. But he insisted. Luckily, the train approached and we got in. When the guards came, the man said that I had his ticket and we were travelling together. I explained that that wasn't true and showed the guards my ticket. Suddenly, the man jumped out of his seat and shouted at me: "You f*** Italian! You're just a cheap, f*** Italian!". The guards had to call the border police and took him away. 

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Armed Forces Museum of the Republic of China (Taiwan)

A couple of days ago I was walking from Ximending to Taipei Main Station when suddenly I came across a number of ... cannons and bombshells - an unusual sight in the middle of the city. I took a closer look at them and, after reading an explanation label, I realised I was standing in front of the Armed Forces Museum (AFM; Chinese: 國軍歷史文物館, literally: Museum of the Historical Relics of the National Army).

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Taipei Before and Now - Hengyang Road from the Qing Dynasty to the Present

At first sight Hengyang Road (衡陽路) doesn't seem to be a particularly interesting street. You are indeed unlikely to even notice it, immersed as it is in the jungle of buildings and roads in Taipei Main Station area. However, the appearance is deceptive. In fact, Hengyang Road is a fascinating example of all the changes and upheavals Taipei has gone through over the last two hundred years. 

In the late Qing era, Hengyang Road was known as "Stone Memorial Archway Street" (石坊街) because of the memorial arch that stood there. In the picture below, you can see the arch, whose name was Commonweal Memorial Arch (急公好義坊). At the end of the road, you can still see the West Gate (Ximen), which was demolished by the Japanese in 1905. The picture also shows the structure of typical Qing Dynasty streets of Taipei, with the simple two-storey buildings and the tile roofs. 

The Commonweal Memorial Arch was built on the 13th year of the reign of the Guangxu Emperor (1887) to commemorate Hong Tengyun (洪騰雲). Hong was an immigrant from Quanzhou Prefecture in Fujian Province. He came to Taiwan as a 13-year-old boy in 1824, following his father, a merchant who settled down in Bangka (or Mengjia, 艋舺) and became wealthy thanks to his thriving business with Quanzhou and Xiamen. 

He and his son were known for their social engagement. In 1880 Hong Tengyun donated a sum of money to Taipei so as to build an examination hall (考棚) in the northeastern part of Taipei Walled City (close to present-day Taipei Main Station). In 1887, the Governor of Taiwan Liu Mingchuan petitioned the Guangxu Emperor to allow him to build a Memorial Arch in honour of Hong Tengyun. 

The Commonweal Memorial Arch still exists, but it is now in a different place. When the Japanese built the Taipei Park (now 228 Peace Park) in 1908, they moved the memorial arch next to one of the park's entrances. 

Monday, 16 June 2014

Beautification by Destruction - The Demolition of Japanese Buildings in Taipei

When I first came to Taipei I didn't know much about its history. One thing I did know, though: Taiwan had been under Japanese rule for half a century and Taipei had been the capital of the colony. But when I walked around, I wondered why there were barely any Japanese buildings. If you go to Macau, for instance, you find thousands of houses from the Portuguese colonial era. But in Taipei, all the streets seemed not to be older than 60 or 70 years. I just came to the conclusion that Taipei must have been a colonial backwater, a small village, and that present-day Taipei had been entirely constructed after 1945.

It was only after reading some books and seeing old pictures that I realised the Japanese had built a lot, and that indeed many of today's roads and thoroughfares had been created during the colonial era. It's just that after 1945 most of these buildings were torn down, with the exception of  the most representative ones. 

Something similar can be seen in many cities in the Chinese-speaking world. In Hong Kong, the majority of the old colonial buildings were demolished without mercy. Even historic treasures like the Hong Kong Club did not escape destruction.

In Beijing, too, many buildings were sacrificed to the rush for modernisation. The famous hutongs, narrow alleys dating back to the Yuan Dynasty, were its most prominent victims. As Duncan Hewitt writes in Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China (2010):

[In 1997 a] drive across Beijing could take on a nightmarish quality, as on one memorable late-night taxi ride, when the faint yellow glow of the street lamps lit up a seemingly endless scene of destruction: for many miles, the half-demolished skeletons of courtyard houses lined the road on both sides, like the remnants of some particularly brutal battle. This, I later discovered, was the beginning of the construction of the new traffic artery, known as ‘Peace Avenue’ ... A joke did the rounds that Beijing was the only place in the world where you had to phone a restaurant before going out for dinner, not to reserve a table, but to check that the building hadn’t been demolished.

In Taipei, too, houses were demolished to make space for modern ones. In some cases, like that of the demolition of the Huaguang Community, there were massive protests. But it's hard to say whether these protests were a consequence of the love for the historic heritage, or rather of the anger of the owners who were to be forcibly relocated.

Most of the time, though, the demolitions of Japanese buildings go entirely unnoticed. For instance, only a few years ago old houses in Taipei's Roosevelt Road were demolished in order to build a small park. Therefore, in Taipei as well as in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese cities, the characters 拆除 (demolish) have become a symbol of the annihilation of the past.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Pinyin vs Wade-Giles, or China vs Taiwan

In the past I have been asked why in some of my posts I write Guomindang while in others I write Kuomintang. Both have the same meaning and pronunciation, but the different spelling is indeed confusing. The same thing can be said for other names, such as Kaohsiung vs Gaoxiong, or Taichung vs Taizhong. I must admit that I have been quite inconsistent. So far I haven't made a clear choice between the Taiwanese and the Chinese way to write these names.

But why are there different ways to write Chinese characters using Latin letters? And which one is better?

Map of Taiwan. The names are written with the Wade-Giles system

Wade-Giles, Pinyin, and the Chinese Civil War

When contacts between China and the West intensified in the 19th century, Europeans were confronted with a big issue: how to transliterate Chinese names? For instance, if a Westerner wanted to write a book about China for a Western audience, he had to mention Chinese persons and places. But how could one use the Latin alphabet to render all these exotic names?

For a while, Europeans did it intuitively, but that created a lot of confusion since everyone could write Chinese names as they pleased. The need for a coherent system was therefore felt among scholars and politicians. 

In the second half of the 19th century, Thomas Francis Wade, a scholar and British ambassador in China, created a transliteration system which in 1912 was improved by Herbert Allen Giles, a China expert and a diplomat. It became known as the Wade-Giles system, and it was the prevalent system used in China until the 1950s, and in the West until the 1980s (Gao 2009, p. 376). Most of us who attended school in the 1990s can still remember our textbooks using the Wade-Giles spelling, like in the name Mao Tse-tung. And we all know the word Kung Fu. These are all examples of Wade-Giles spelling. 
This system is in itself coherent and it works perfectly if you know it well. Originally, however, it was created for sinologists, and this results in a lot of complex and sometimes not very intuitive rules. For instance, one feature of the Wade-Giles system is “the representation of the unaspirated-aspirated stop consonant pairs using apostrophes: p, p', t, t', k, k', ch, ch'. The use of apostrophes preserves b, d, g, and j for the romanization of Chinese languages containing voiced consonants, such as Shanghainese (which has a full set of voiced consonants) and Min Nan”.

This means that, for example, the word 中國 (China) is written Chung-kuo, and the word 重慶 is written Ch'ung-ch'ing. It must be noted that Wade-Giles was created in order to render the sounds of all Chinese dialects and not just those of Mandarin Chinese, hence the complexity of this system.

When the Guomindang government (in this post I've chosen this spelling) retreated to Taiwan in 1949, the Wade-Giles system continued to be used on the island, and indeed it is still used there. But in mainland China, the Communist government created a new system: pinyin. It was introduced in the late 1950s and it is now used as the international standard. According to pinyin, 中國 is written Zhongguo, while 重慶 is written Chongqing. 

The Wade-Giles vs pinyin issue is not just a matter of linguistics. It has both political and practical implications. 

Recently, The Economist has published an article that highlights the sensitivity of language issues in cross-straits relations. In 2009, the Guomindang administration led by Ma Yingjiu decided to introduce the pinyin system to Taiwan, in order to 'integrate' Taiwan with the rest of the world. But, according to the magazine, many Taiwanese do not like pinyin because it was developed in Communist China. Moreover, they fear that this is just another strategy used by Ma Yingjiu in order to bring Taiwan and China closer.

This diatribe proves that in Taiwan it is very hard to talk about simple things such as a romanisation system when China is involved. In fact, pinyin has become a political issue. Many Taiwanese will indeed say they don't like pinyin just because they don't like mainland China, though probably they have never studied this system. On the other hand, some people in China are suspicious of Wade-Giles, because they identify it with 'imperialism'.

Is Pinyin Better than Wade-Giles?

Let me make this clear. Both systems work, therefore neither of them is 'better'. Some people claim that pinyin is 'inconsistent', arguing that foreigners in China cannot read pinyin names like Dongzhimen (东直门 / 東直門) or Gongyixiqiao (公益西桥站 / 公益西橋).

Monday, 2 June 2014

Goldfinch Restaurant in Hong Kong

If you are a fan of Wong Kar-wai's film In the Mood for Love, you may remember the famous 'restaurant scene', in which the two protagonists find out that their spouses are having an affair. I watched that film for the first time when I was a student in Italy, and I immediately loved it. That was still the 'Blockbuster' era, when people used to borrow DVDs and then watch them at home with friends. I was preparing an exam, and I used to relax watching some films in the cold winter evenings. I was particularly interested in Asian films. I hadn't started studying Chinese, yet, and I had no plans to go to Asia, but my fascination for that part of the world was growing. Wong Kar-wai's film impressed me for its masterful style: the mysterious and delicate atmosphere, the dialogues, brief and full of allusions, and the way in which emotions were conveyed more through musical and visual techniques than through words. 

Although I had watched the 'restaurant scene' many times, I'd never asked myself if the restaurant really existed or not. After all, In the Mood for Love was not shot in Hong Kong but in Thailand. That's because Hong Kong has changed so much over the past decades that Wong Kar-wai found it impossible to recreate the Hong Kong of the 1970s on the original site.

One evening I and my Hong Kong language partner (here I will just call her K.), were walking in Causeway Bay. If I remember correctly, we had just spent the afternoon at Starbucks near Times Square. She asked me if I wanted to have dinner at Goldfinch, the restaurant where the famous scene of In the Mood for Love was shot. I asked where it was, and she said it was just around the corner