Thursday, 30 January 2014

An Evening in Milan and a Strange Hostel

Two days ago I went from Rome to Milan, where I had to take my flight back to Taiwan. Since the departure time of the flight was 11:30, I decided to go to Milan a day earlier and stay there for a night.

I booked a room in a hostel, called Central Station Hostel. This turned out to be the second worst hostel I've ever been to (the first one being in Poland, perhaps I'll talk about that some time later).

As its name suggests, Central Station Hostel is located just five minutes walk from Milan Central Station, which is in itself a weird place. You see a lot of dangerous-looking people, some of whom ask you for money, pretending that they have "to make a phone call" and need coins or something of the sort. Some of these people are Italians, others are immigrants. I have nothing against immigrants, on the contrary (as you can see from this post). But the specific kind of immigrants who hang about in Milan Central Station look menacing. They might be people who came to Italy to find a job, but found none. I don't know. Anyway, the whole area makes one feel quite unsafe. I even had to pretend to be a foreigner in order to escape a drunk Italian who kept on asking me if I could give him one euro.

Friday, 24 January 2014

My Beloved Hong Kong Skyline

I have said many times that I am in love with Hong Kong's skyline. A few days before leaving the city, I kept on praising with my friends the amazing feeling I have when I take a walk near Victoria Harbour, or on the Avenue of Stars, or in Central, and I look at these giants of glass and steel. Some people may prefer older architecture, but I just can't resist the breathtaking charm of skyscrapers. 

I am not sure what makes Hong Kong's skyline so special. Perhaps it's the energy and dynamism they convey. Or maybe it's the modernity of their design. Or, more simply, it is just that the amazing power of the life and history of this unique city has been set in its buildings, making the soul of Hong Kong visible in all its might and monumentality. By looking at Hong Kong it seems as if the population was trying to reach to the sky; this is not urban planning made to be stunning, it is urban planning that is stunning because it reflects the soul of the place where it was carried out. 

Anyway, whatever the reason may be, I love Hong Kong's skyline, and I'd like to share with those who are also fond of Hong Kong a few pictures I took a couple of months ago.

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Crisis With System: A History of Austerity

2008 was a turning point in contemporary history. On the one hand, China celebreated her economic rise during the Beijing Olympics; on the other, the West plunged into a disastrous financial crisis that is still far from over. The dilemma, which is as old as economics itself, was revived: what is the role of the state in the economy? And what is the best economic policy? 

When the financial crisis gave rise to the Euro crisis, the answer that most experts gave was that governments which had spent too much in the past now had to cut spending drastically. Furthermore, they had to privatise, liberalise, deregulate, and make the labour market more flexible.

The result of four years of austerity and budget consolidation in the countries hit by the 2008 crisis has been disastrous. After half a decade of spending cuts, the economies of Southern Europe have been devastated.

By October 2013, Greek unemployment figures reached 27.8%, and by the end of last year, GDP had shrunk by nearly 25% in five years (note 1, note 2). In Spain, the unemployment rate stands at around 26.7%. As far as Italy is concerned, the latest reports show a further worsening of the economic situation, with record unemployment rates:

[The] Italian Institute for Statistics (Istat) confirmed that unemployment has reached emergency levels, and 15.8% of Italians living in poverty. The overall jobless rate is 12.5%, the highest since 1977. But the new record contained in this report is the youth jobless rate, which rose to 41.2%, from 40.5% the previous month. Italy's unemployment is an emergency for all of the EU.

Has austerity been a mistake? 

Well, not exactly. As I will try to show in this and the next post, austerity is a system. A system that has a long – but forgotten – history, which began in the 1970s and has continued, with methodical persistence, until today.

As David Harvey explained in a propheticbook published in 2005, from the 1970s onward neoliberal capitalism started to dominate public opinion and state policies. An alliance of economists (such as Milton Friedman), of business and finance lobbies, and of political parties like the Republicans in the US and the Conservatives in Britain, launched a year-long campaign aimed at bringing about a political and intellectual shift towards “free market”. 

They used academic institutions, government think-tanks and media, as platforms to propagate their ideology, to persuade the public that neoliberalism and capitalism were the same thing. Different points of view were defamed as backward and left-wing. 

It is important to note that the neoliberal claim to stand for freedom - as opposed to left-wing state control - is nothing more than an ideological trick. Neoliberalism wants to have an exclusive monopoly on the word "freedom", because it suits propaganda and helps them brand their opponents as Communist tyrants. In reality, what neoliberalism really propagates is notfreedom, but market self-regulation. In practice, self-regulation results in a Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest, whereby everyone grabs as much as possible and those who are left behind are deemed 'losers'. It is the idea that the weak deserve to go under, even if the weak are the majority of the population.

In a recent article, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has explained how the decline of the American middle-class and the impoverishment of parts of the population that used to be relatively well-off, affects the majority of the US people. He warns that the recent figures which show the US economy growing by around 4% should not be overestimated:

A disproportionate share of the jobs now being created are low-paying – so much so that median incomes (those in the middle) continue to decline. For most Americans, there is no recovery, with 95% of the gains going to the top 1%.

Even before the recession, American-style capitalism was not working for a large share of the population. The recession only made its rough edges more apparent. Median income (adjusted for inflation) is still lower than it was in 1989, almost a quarter-century ago; and median income for males is lower than it was four decades ago.

The ultimate aim of neoliberalism is to deregulate the market completely. Neoliberals argue that the market has a self-regulating power. It is assumed that the self-interest of the individual coincides with the self-interest of all other individuals. State regulations are unnecessary because, by pursuing one's own economic self-interest, one serves the interests of all economic agents. 

In reality, this is a philosophical theory, rather than an economic theory based on evidence. Such "market harmony" does not exist, for it is easily observed that deregulated economic activities can lead to the emergence of groups of winners and losers, of an aristocracy of money and a decline of the middle class. A recent report by the Oxfrod-based international organisation Ofxfam has shown that the globe's 85 richest people are as wealthy as poorest half of the world population. The evidence that a deregulated system are therefore manifold; evidence that markets have a self-regulating power which benefits the most, on the contrary, lacks any evidence.

Neoliberals blame the losers, and in this they prove their belief in a Darwinian worldview. If 1% of the people amass most wealth - so the logic of neoliberals - it is because they are better than others. Neoliberals do not admit any other interpretation of economic data. Therefore, they tend to have a totalitarian view which does not tolerate alternatives. The fact that deregulation has led to imbalances in the world economy, and to a 20th century-style capitalism in which poverty is widespread, is something that neoliberals do not acknowledge.

The history of austerity clearly shows the failures of neoliberal capitalism and of its ideological intransigence. But it also shows that through its masterful domination of universities, think-tanks, international organisations, through lobbyism and ideological fanaticism, neoliberalism has been able to depict its failures as a necessary evil on the road to future prosperity, which is constantly promised but which never materialises. The suffering of large sections of the population is justified in the name of abstract theories for whose rationality no evidence is given. In this respect, neoliberalism and communism have much in common.
In the next post, I will briefly examine three cases of how austerity was imposed, and how it was carried out according to a surprisingly similar blueprint: 1) the New York fiscal crisis of 1974-1975, 2) the Mexican crisis of the 1980s, 3) and the Asian crisis of 1997.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Maneki-Neko: The History of the Asian Lucky Cat

A beckoning cat in a shopping street in Taipei
Upon entering a Chinese, Taiwanese or Japanese shop you may have noticed something that to Westerners seems quite unusual: a small pottery cat with a raised paw, which is known as "beckoning cat" or "lucky cat". Due to the large number of Chinese immigrants in the West, some people believe that this beckoning cat was invented in China. In fact, the real name of this lucky charm is Maneki-Neko, and it originated a few centuries ago in Japan.

Maneki-Neko (Japanese: 招き猫; Chinese: 招財貓 / 招财猫, pinyin: zhāo cái māo) literally means "beckoning cat". As I will explain in a future post, this is one of the many symbols in the East Asian world that refers to the sphere of money and wealth. The lucky cat is supposed to be propitious for business and attract customers. 

According to a Japanese legend, in the 17th century there was a decaying temple in Tokyo, called Gotokuji, run by a poor priest. Yet despite his poverty, the priest shared the little food he had with his cat, Tama. One day, a wealthy landlord, Naotaka Ee, passed by the temple while hunting. At that moment, a thunderstorm broke out, and he found shelter under a tree. Then he saw Tama beckoning to him (when cats clean themselves or dry their wet nose or mouth, they look as if they were beckoning). The landlord left the tree and rushed up to the temple. No sooner had he walked away from the tree that a lightning struck it. Naotaka believed that the cat had saved his life, and out of gratitude, he took care of the priest and Tama, and he helped the temple prosper. When the cat died, he was buried with respect and pomp in the temple’s courtyard, and the statue known as maneki-neko was made in his honour (Nakamoto 2011, p. 206).

A cute Japanese beckoning cat (source: Wikipedia)
It is believed that the maneki-neko became popular during the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), though it is not named in written documents. By the Meiji period (1868-1912), however, the new technology of photography became a proof of its established function, as pictures of the cat figurine in shops and businesses of that time show (Moore / Choron / Choron 2007, p. 20).

According to one version, the first ones to use the maneki-nekos as lucky charms for business were brothels; in fact, the sex industry in the Edo period was booming, and establishments employed lucky charms to bring in more customers. 

There are two different kinds of maneki-nekos: one with the left paw raised, the other with the right paw raised. The first invites customers into a shop, the second promises good luck (ibid.).

From Japan (whether via Taiwan, I wasn't able to find out)  the maneki-nekos spread to China and are now a common sight on both sides of the Taiwan Straits and in Chinese communities throughout the world.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

“She Wants To Promote Negritude” - Why Sometimes I Am Ashamed of Italy

I am not a nationalist, and I do not believe that the individual is nothing without the group. I have often been accused of hypocrisy, but the truth is that I honestly believe in individualism. To me, individualism has nothing to do with selfishness. It simply means respecting the individual in itself, not judging a person only as a member of a community, but as an individual. I also believe that there cannot be real democracy without individualism. 

Many people in Europe have a different opinion. Everyone has, of course, the right to have his own views and express them freely. However, defaming or insulting other people because of who they are or because of the alleged characteristics of the group to which they supposedly belong, is not acceptable. This destroys society from the inside and creates a climate of hatred, fertile ground for demagogues. 

One of the things that troubles me most about Italy (and about Europe) is the resilience of racism and the growing desire of sections of society to express and be proud of a racist or xenophobic ideology. Today, an episode that happened in Italy angered me so much that I want to write about it.

Today (14/1/2014) Massimo Bitonci, an Italian MP of the righ-wing party Lega Nord, vehemently criticised the Congolese-born Italian Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge. Ms Kyenge is the first black cabinet member in the history of the Italian Republic, and she is an advocate of stronger rights for migrants and their children. From the moment she took up her post, she became the target of fierce attacks by members of the Lega Nord.

Mrs Kyenge does not know what immigration means, she knows nothing at all, she wants to promote negritude (“negritudine”) like in France, but we have no need for that.

Cecile Kyenge (source: Wikipedia)
This is only the last of many tirades of Lega Nord members against the Minister, who was born in Congo and came to Italy in 1983. In the past, Roberto Calderoli - who is also the vice-president of the Italian Senate - said that Ms Kyenge reminded him of an orangutan. Another Lega Nord politician, Dolores Valando, commented on an article about an Italian woman who had been raped by an immigrant with the question “Isn't there anyone willing to rape Mrs Kyenge?

The Lega Nord (literally, “Northern League”) was formed in 1991 in the industrial and wealthy North as a separatist movement that spread stereotypes against Southern Italians and the central government in Rome, and which advocated the foundation of an independent state. Over the years, the Lega Nord's interest shifted from anti-Southern to anti-immigrant sentiments (Bullaro 2010, p. 113; see also Lombardi-Diop / Romeo 2012).

The most worrying thing is that racism or xenophobia are often tolerated in mainstream discourse, or even denied (Lomdardi-Dip / Romeo 2012, p. 90). I remember one episode that shows this very clearly.

I went with a friend of mine – a Chinese who grew up in Italy but doesn't have the Italian citizenship – to a cafe' in Rome. There we bumped into a friend of hers, a man who, as I later discovered, was the honorary president of Associna, an association of the Chinese community in Italy. He was talking with a woman. 

At first, we thought they were friends and we joined them. But then, we realised that the woman was a journalist and that she was interviewing him. The journalist kept asking him questions such as “Why do you feel Chinese although you were born in Italy?” or “Don't you think it's unfair that the Chinese come to Italy but pay no taxes?”. 

An electoral poster of the Lega Nord.
It says, "They suffered immigration.
Now they live in reservations.
Think about it.
Source: Wikipedia
Of course, such questions are legitimate, but I thought that the important issue of xenophobia was totally missing from her interview, so I intervened, saying that there is also a long tradition of xenophobia in Italy and Europe, and that integration is a process that involves both the natives and the migrants. I compared anti-Chinese or anti-Romanian sentiment in Italy with the bad image of people of Turkish descent in Germany. At that moment, the journalist angrily cut in on me and said in a loud voice:

“I can't stand this polemic any more!” 

She denied the very existence of xenophobia, or of a tradition of xenophobia in Europe, and she went on praising herself as a tolerant woman who likes the Chinese, und who has her son study Mandarin, etc. It seemed to me that by denying that some Italians have prejudices regarding migrants, she implied that if Italians are unhappy about immigration it is because migrants behave badly. This is an attempt to rationalise and justify stereotypes and nationalistic sentiments.

It seems to me that democracy in Europe is more fragile than many people think or are willing to acknowledge. As long as we judge people according to abstract collective stereotypes, and not on the basis of individuality, the very foundations of rule of law will not be strong enough to withstand a major crisis.

Monday, 13 January 2014

7 Reasons why I Miss Hong Kong

I spent in Hong Kong around half a year and I have grown fond of it. Hong Kong is still one of my favourite places, along with Berlin and London. Recently, I read news that made me worry about the future of the Fragrant Harbour, and I will write about it in another post. But now, I would like to explain why I think Hong Kong is a great city to live in, and why I miss it. 

1 - International Atmosphere

Hong Kong is the right place to understand the real meaning of the word cosmopolitan. In the throbbing streets and in the vitality of its way of life one can feel the global vocation of the former British colony, which deserves to be included in the list of the great world cities of all times, together with Rome, Constantinople, London, Paris and New York. If you want to live a myth, then Hong Kong is the right choice.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Family Affairs - A Few Thoughts About Family Gatherings in China and the West

The three months between December and February are both in the West and in China a period of important traditional family festivals. Christmas and New Year in the West, and the Lunar New Year in China, are the most significant and longest festivals.

On the one hand, these festivals are an occasion for rejoicing. When I was a child, I loved Christmas. I didn't have to wake up early to go school, I was free from lessons and homework. A few days before Christmas, I decorated the Christmas tree and arranged the presepe (nativity scene); I loved to do such things. Last but not least, I received gifts from relatives and had plenty of time to play with my cousins. Apart from all this, Christmas stimulates children's inborn imagination and creativity, and the whole world appeared special, cozier, magical. 

When you grow up, things change. In fact, the family slowly becomes what some people call 'a sweet burden'. You grow up, you need to accept more responsibilities, and Christmas loses a part of its magic. One of the most complicated things is now how to relate to family members. 

However different my family and Chinese families may be, one thing is certainly common: parents like - or feel compelled - to talk a lot about their children. This year I noticed how much my relatives talked about money, children's jobs (or their lack of a job), prices of products and so on; a quite materialistic range of subjects. This may put pressure on children. If over the previous year they haven't achieved what the family expected, they will be more or less directly criticised.  

Conversation with relatives can be difficult at times. I do not meet my relatives very often. Sometimes, I feel relatives don't have much to talk about; discussing what children do becomes a hot topic exactly because there's not much else to talk about.   

And yet, after living in Asia I don't think that family life in Italy is too hard, after all. As I have explained in many posts, hierarchy and social roles have always been fundamental in Chinese families. Filial piety, or xiao, is the cornerstone of the family system. Of course, the Chinese family has changed, and has become more relaxed; moreover, every family is different, and the character of children is very important when it comes to the relationship between old and young. But generally speaking, I feel that Chinese family life is much harsher, more solemn, formal and complicated than one may at first imagine.

In my own family, personal character weighs more than social role. I always had the feeling that I can say my opinion, and also avoid replying to relatives' questions. I can more or less be myself, and disagreeing with my relatives is not a huge issue. A few days ago, my aunt talked with me about my grandfather (born in the 1910s). She said that when she was young, there was freedom in the family; no one commanded, but decisions were made together. After living in Asia, this seems to me a very progressive attitude for a man who was born more than a century ago. As I have shown in another post, this is indeed an old topic between Chinese and Westerners.

In China and Taiwan, many families 'compare' family members; and most of all, parents compare their children with those of others. Money, achievements, jobs, etc. are a common subject of conversation, and questions are asked whose directness might surprise outsiders. The pressure that the elders put on their children is shown by the following (however extreme) example:

"Groups of young women huddled over large bowls of noodles look depressed when asked about the February's impending Chinese New Year holiday.
'I'm pretty old - I'm almost 30 - but I'm still single,' explains Ding Na, a woman hailing from China's northeast.
'I'm under lots of pressure. My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I'm not married. When they call me, I'm scared to pick up the phone.'

Because of the traditional idea that getting married is a filial duty and a prerequisite for maintaining a good social reputation, parents, relatives and friends may make people feel they are 'losers' if they're still unmarried.

According to Zhou Xiaopeng, a consultant with, one of China's biggest dating agencies, the pressure for singles to settle down crescendos around Chinese New Year.
'Picture a scene where people sit around a table,' Ms Zhou says.
'Chinese people love to get together for dinner. On New Year's Eve, everybody is sitting in pairs, your brother with your sister-in-law, your sister with your brother-in-law, and so on. If you're the only one left behind, you can imagine the pressure and frustration' (source: BBC).

Unfortunately, I have no chance to enter the house of random Chinese or Taiwanese families to see for myself how the atmosphere in different families is, how people behave and talk with each other. I would like to know how children really feel during their big family gatherings, if they're happy, or stressed, or if they see them as a burden rather than a pleasure.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

From Vice To Virtue: A Comparison Between Two Medieval Women From China and Europe: Meiniang and Cunizza da Romano

As Western Europe and China were almost entirely isolated from each other for thousands of years, the systems of ethics that shaped their respective societies developed in a very different way. In this post, I would like to compare two medieval women who were immortalized in literary works: Meiniang, the female protagonist of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) vernacular story The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers; and Cunizza da Romano, a famous 13th century noble woman to which the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321) dedicated a chant in his master piece, the Divine Comedy.

Meiniang: Victim, Courtesan, Filial Woman

The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers is one of the most famous vernacular stories of Chinese literature. It was written by Feng Menglong (1574-1646), a scholar and a pioneer of Chinese vernacular fiction. He was a prolific writer, author of commentaries, poetry, drama and prosa. His most famous works are three collections of tales, Illustrious Words to Instruct the World, Comprehensive Words to Caution the World, and Constant Words to Awaken the World. In these collections, Feng compiled and adapted a large number of popular stories which allow a fascinating insight into old Chinese society. The protagonists of the stories come from all walks of life: merchants, soldiers, politicians, monks, courtesans etc (see Stories to Caution the World 2005, Introduction).

In The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers, Feng narrates the vicissitudes of the young and beautiful Yaoqin and of the oil vendor Qin Zhong.

During an invasion by the Jurchen people of Manchuria (1127), Yaoqin and her parents are forced to abandon their village. While they are marching aimlessly with other refugees to escape the barbaric hordes, demoralised imperial troops attack and loot the defenceless civilians. During the turmoil, Yaoqin loses sight of her parents and roams about alone in despair. After a while, she is found by a greedy fellow townsman who, taking advantage of her young age and ingenuity, convinces her to follow him to the city of Lin'an and then sells her to a brothel owner, Miss Jiuma. Jiuma gives Yaoqin the name 'Meiniang', and raises her. When Yaoqin turns fifteen, Jiuma forces her by a trickery to sleep with a customer:

On the fifteenth day of the eighth month Lord Jin invited Meiniang to go and watch the full moon with him. They embarked on a boat with four other persons who knew about the scheme. They made Meiniang drunk and then carried her back to Jiuma's house. By that time Meiniang had lost consciousness. They put her on the bed and took off her clothes, which was done easily, for the weather was hot and she was lightly dressed. Then Lord Jin satisfied himself, while Jiuma restrained Meiniang for fear that she might resist. Though the girl had sunk into deep slumber, she nevertheless felt pain and wished to struggle, but she was so intoxicated that she was utterly unable to move her limbs (Feng 2013 ).