Friday, 31 July 2015

Rua Da Felicidade - Macau's "Street of Happiness"

Located in the historic centre of Macau, only a few minutes’ walk from Senado Square, there is a street whose traditional Chinese-style buildings and romantic name seem to take one back to a long-gone colonial era, in which the society of old China mingled with the cosmopolitan, busy lifestyle of the former European enclaves in the Far East. Lined with two-storey, grey brick Chinese houses with conspicuous red windows and doors, decorations and inscriptions that recount old legends, the street is a remarkable example of the mix of traditional Chinese architecture and Western patterns. Here the visitor feels as if time had stood still, and is finally able to imagine, far away from the modern casinos and shopping malls, how life might have looked like for ordinary people in old Macau.


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Why Macau Is Much More Than Just A City Of Gambling

Last Friday I travelled again to Macau, and I have to say that I am more and more intrigued by this city. Unfortunately, the former Portuguese colony is mainly known to the outside world for its casinos. But in fact, it is a place with a surprisingly rich history and culture.

A few weeks ago I heard a German guy talking on the phone with his parents. They asked him how he liked Macau, and he said something like, "Macau is famous for its casinos. Someone told us that there are many old buildings, but we were tired of old buildings, we've already seen enough of them in China, so we just went gambling." 

A Malaysian guy I talked to last week, said something similar: "There is nothing to see in Macau, only casinos."

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Saving The Souls Of The Ancestors - 'Qianshuichezang': Taiwan's Unique Religious Festival

Every year between the 1st and the 9th day of the 6th month of the Lunar Calendar (July 16 - July 24) a traditional folk festival takes place in Kouhu Township, in Taiwan's Yunlin County, to commemorate the souls of people who died over a century and a half ago.

The festival is called 'Qianshuichezang' (牽水車藏), which literally means 'leading along water containers'. The name refers to traditional lantern-like, three-level cylinders made of bamboo sticks and paper. The ceremony is held at Wanshan Shrine (萬善祠), near Jinhu harbour, and Wanshanye Temple (萬善爺廟) in Jinhu. The three levels represent the division between water, sky and underworld. Each side of the cylinder is painted with images of humans and benign spirits.

In the temples, people offer foodstuffs and paper money to the deities. The offerings are carried from the villages to the temples by women on traditional bamboo poles. The food and money are placed on round tables in front of the statues of the gods.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Sleeping At Taiwan's Eslite Bookstore

Before I went to Taiwan for the first time, a friend of mine told me that if I ever wanted to date a classy, clever and pretty girl I should visit Eslite Bookstore in Taipei. It was not until I arrived on the island that I realised what he was talking about. 

Eslite stands out for its stylish design, wide range of English and Chinese books, and its customer-oriented service. Many people spend hours there reading books, sitting on chairs and armchairs, and even on the floor. The staff will leave you alone, no matter whether you buy something or not. Basically, Eslite is half public library half bookstore. 

Some Eslite branches are open 24-hours and have their own cafes and tea houses. They have turned into actual entertainment centres for people who like to read, need to read, or pretend to like to read. There are all kinds of customers: you see families, couples, groups of friends, people who are absorbed in a book and those who stroll around leisurely and, most importantly, there are well-dressed, fancy people who seem as much interested in observing others and socialising, as they are in reading. 

Eslite's customer-friendly atmosphere indeed makes you feel like at home. So much so that some people even treat it as their own bedroom. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Hong Kong - Water Floods Tanner Road After Water Pipe Bursts

On July 8 between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., a pipe burst on Tanner Road, near North Point MTR Station, causing severe flooding. Traffic was disrupted and shops were flooded.

Monday, 6 July 2015

What Greece Wants

As a European, I am just a detached observer of Asian affairs. But when it comes to the destiny of the European Union, I feel I am personally involved. Although this is a blog about Asia, I cannot ignore what is happening in Europe, and I want to write a few words about it. 

On the statement he published this morning on his own blog, Greece's former Minister of Finance, Jiannis Varoufakis, explained that what the Greek government wants is simply:

an agreement that involves debt restructuring, less austerity, redistribution in favour of the needy, and real reforms

They are not asking for their debt to be written off, as some media has argued; they just want their debt to be sustainable. As Varoufakis said in one interview (as I can speak Greek, I am following the actual debates in Greece), he thinks that the austerity policies of the troika are not viable for Greece, because they hinder growth and create a situation of instability that makes the recovery of Greece impossible. 

Without growth, employment, investments and fairer taxation (the troika has objected to taxing the rich more heavily than retirees and the middle class, as Tsipras said in an interview), Greece will never be able to get back to its feet and actually repay its debt. The policy of the EU has created a vicious circle that is damaging not only Greece, but the whole continent.

The obtuse and absurdly neoliberal attitude of some European governments and technocrats is condemning the EU to instability and poverty. It is deliberately destroying Greece to make up for the debt of European banks (chiefly German and French banks). In fact, as 'The Guardian' explained, around 90% of the money received by Greece from the bailout programmes "went to the banks that lent Greece funds before the crash". Less then 10% was used to finance reforms, investments or welfare services. De facto, the Greek people were squeezed in exchange for money that went to private banks. 

After 2008 Germany reacted to the crisis through more state intervention. Among the measures adopted by the government there was the so-called "Conjucture Package II", which included an eco subsidy for cars, reduction of the income tax, subsidies for companies that did not lay off workers but offered them courses to upgrade their skills and qualifications, and many other reforms. Moreover, Germany bailed out its banks and bailed out bankrupt automaker Opel. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

While Europe Destroys Itself, China Hopes That Greece Will Stay In The Eurozone

In a speech delivered at the University of Zurich on September 19, 1946, Winston Churchill called for the rebirth of the pan-European idea. This "noble continent”, he said, was “the home of all the great parent races of the Western world, the foundation of Christian faith and ethics, the origin of most of the culture, arts, philosophy and science both of ancient and modern times”; and yet, it was from this great continent that a series of nationalistic movements had originated, which had plunged the whole world into the most catastrophic wars. 

Europe, however glorious its past, lay now in ruins. Its economy had been devastated. Millions of displaced men and women marched homewards from battlefields, concentration and labour camps. Prisoners of war languished in captivity. Fallen soldiers left widows and orphans behind. Divided by hatred, impoverished by war, shocked by the unprecedented cruelty it had unleashed upon itself, Europe's prospects were bleak. Was it ever going to recover from the abyss into which it had sunk?

Winston Churchill believed it could, but only if all the states of the continent cast away the heritage of nationalistic feuds and trod the path of unity and co-operation. "If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance," he said, "there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy." The only way out of the present misery was "to recreate the European fabric … and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe."

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Chemistry, or A Brief Encounter in Macau

On Sunday, exhausted from my first day in Macau, I went to sleep at around 2 am (relatively early by my standards). I planned to wake up at 10 am. Eight hours sleep would be sufficient, I thought. I felt weak, dehydrated, and had a headache, probably the result of too much walking and too little drinking. As I put my head on the pillow, I immediately drifted off.

At 10 am the alarm clock rang. It went on for half an hour until it stopped. I felt as if I couldn’t move, I had neither the energy to get up, nor to perform the simple task of grabbing the bottle of water inside my bag to quench the thirst that made my throat burn. I was aware that I was sleeping too long, but my limbs simply would not obey my brain's commands.

All of a sudden, I heard a noise, so loud and persistent that I could not ignore it. I slowly came round and realised someone was trying to open the apartment door. Repeated sighs and the nervous tinkling of the key resounded from the staircase, tokens of exasperation at the stubbornness of the door. After a while, the bell rang.

I pushed the blanket aside, sat up and got to my feet. I walked towards the door, opened it and saw an Asian girl standing in front of me. Tiny beads of sweat shone on her forehead, and her cheeks were slightly red. It was unbearably hot and humid outside. “Hi,” I said. “Hi,” she replied. For a few seconds she fixed her eyes on me; perhaps she was embarrassed, or maybe she had expected Kana, my half Japanese, half Chinese host, to open the door, instead of a white guy wearing pyjamas. “Come in, come in,” I urged her. “It’s really hot outside.”
“Yes,” she said, and pushed a small pink suitcase into the flat.

She had large, slightly round eyes and long black hair. Her features were regular and well proportioned, with faintly protruding cheeks, thick arched brows, and a small nose. Her skin was nearly as fair as mine, but as smooth as a child’s.

There are times in life when you like a person at first sight. It is hard to explain why. Surely it is not just a matter of appearance. There are a myriad of things that make up one’s charm; voice, attitude, manners, outfit, etc. As soon as I saw her, my weariness receded, and I was glad that, of all apartments available in Macau, she had chosen that one.

“Are you a guest?” I asked.

 “No, actually I’m a friend of Kana’s,” she said. She opened the door of one of the rooms and put her luggage inside. While she was unpacking her suitcase, we started to talk. Her voice was gentle and calm, and her eyes were full of vitality.

“I thought you were a guest because of your luggage,” I said. She explained that she had just come back from Taiwan, where she had attended a friend’s wedding. I told her I had lived in Taiwan for two years. 

Monday, 8 June 2015

Nice Flats, High Prices - Airbnb in Macau

Since I could find no hostels in Macau, I decided to use Airbnb, which is a more expensive, but interesting alternative, as you can live with locals (or long-term residents), explore the neighbourhood and see how flats look like.

But once again Macau proved to be less convenient than Hong Kong. The cheapest accommodation I found in Macau was HKD 279 (around 30 euros). This wasn't the price for a room, but for a sofa bed in the living room. In Hong Kong, you can find a single room with private bathroom for HKD 264, or a single room for HKD 202. However, the location was good: Rua da Ribeira do Patane, just about 10 to 15 minutes on foot from Senado Square.

The HKD 279 bed was available only for three nights, so I decided to book this bed for two nights and then move to a nearby flat. I rented a single room for about HKD 383 (around 40 euros) per night. The price for these two flats for four nights, including Airbnb fees, was about HKD 1,600 (circa 180 euros). With HKD 1,700 I could have rented a double room at a hotel; in Hong Kong, I paid HKD 1,400 at a hostel for half a month.

Despite all that, I really wanted to see how people live in Macau, so I chose Airbnb.

First Flat - Rua da Ribeira do Patane


The first flat was located in Rua da Ribeira do Patane, one of Macau's central thoroughfares. From there you can easily reach the most important attractions, such as Senado Square and the ruins of St Paul's Cathedral.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Cheap Accommodation in Macau – Mission Impossible?

Once I met a Dutch guy who had flown to Macau on a visa run, planning to stay there for a few days or weeks. He believed that Macau was much cheaper than neighbouring Hong Kong, the latter being known as one of the world’s most densely populated cities as well as a major global financial hub.

It didn’t take him long to realise that he had made a mistake. The first thing he did upon arriving in Macau was, of course, to look for a cheap hostel. Little did he know that Macau has no hostels! To his surprise he could find no cheap accommodation and had no choice but to spent around HKD400 for one night at a hotel. Macau turned out to be so expensive that on his second day he moved to Hong Kong.

Despite having heard his story, I did not learn the lesson. I still believed I would find a hostel. After all, I had been to hostels in small cities like Triest, Krakow, Salzburg. How could Macau, whose GDP depends entirely on tourism, have no hostels? Probably, the guy should have looked for a hostel online before arriving in Macau, I thought. 

I searched on hostelworld but found nothing. So I googled ‘Macau hostels’. An old article from About.com listed only three hostels. One of them was Augusters Lodge, which seemed to be the best one in Macau; Lonely Planet selected it as one of the recommended hostels on Macau peninsula. I clicked on the link and found out that the hostel had been closed "due to new regulations of the Macao Government". According to the hostel's website, business had been good. Its three rooms "could not nearly meet the demand, nor the expected rising demand within the near future".

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Four Days in Macau

In 2013 I visited Macau with two friends of mine. We stayed there for two days and engaged in intense ‘touristy’ activities, as we went to the major sights, ate local food and strolled around the busy streets of the picturesque, European-style historic centre. After so much walking we were exhausted, but we accomplished our goal: to see as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

Those two days were nice and I had a lot of fun. But I left Macau with that kind of feeling that always accompanies me whenever I visit a place for a short time. I thought we had merely caught a glimpse of the surface, but had not got deeper into the soul of the city. We had seen churches, Portuguese-style houses, temples and nice squares; casinos, alleys and skyscrapers. But it was all too quick, too much. All I could remember of Macau was an incoherent patchwork of images, like pieces of a puzzle scattered around a table.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Life as a Westerner in Taiwan and Hong Kong

When I came to Hong Kong for the first time back in 2012 I had already lived in Taipei for about half a year. One of the first things that struck me was that people in Hong Kong seemed to have a different attitude towards foreigners than Taiwanese (generally speaking, of course). Even in Taipei, the largest and most international city of the island-state, I always felt as if I were an exotic creature. People talked to me because they were 'curious', or because they wanted to practice their English, or because they regarded me as a guest that they should treat with a politeness reserved for people from faraway lands.  

In Hong Kong, on the contrary, most people seemed to be indifferent to me. They didn't look at me when I took the metro, when I went to public toilets, libraries or restaurants, as it was the case in Taiwan. Obviously, I wasn't a local either in Taiwan or Hong Kong. But in the latter I felt more comfortable. I did not stand out. I was not perceived as an 'alien'. I could just blend with the anonymous crowd. My friends and acquaintances, too, seemed to treat me with more ease. I was neither a superstar nor an attraction, I wasn't a guest that should be impressed through particular gestures of kindness. I was just a person like anyone else.

One of the things that might be troublesome or, according to each one's perspective, enjoyable, in Taiwan, is the fact that some people are not familiar with Western culture, or that they treat foreigners either with exaggerated interest and politeness, or, in some cases, with resentment. I often heard Taiwanese say, "We are nice to foreigners", or "Taiwan is a paradise for foreigners"; I often saw Taiwanese using foreigners as status symbols; on the other hand, I also met Taiwanese who told me, "We are too nice to foreigners", "We are not nice to each other but we are very nice to foreigners". Of course, these two groups do not represent all Taiwanese, but they are examples of certain behaviours I have observed.

But why is it that Hongkongers and Taiwanese seem to have such a different attitude towards foreigners?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Don't Anger Your Taiwanese Wife or ... Face the Consequences!

Are Taiwanese women submissive and passive, innocent and cute, as some people suggest? The following story, although extreme, seems to prove the opposite.

As Apple Daily reported, on Chinese New Year a man surnamed Liu went with his wife to visit her family in the southern part of Taiwan. On February 21st, while the couple were returning to their home in Taichung, they had a quarrel. The man decided to stop at a service station in Gukeng, a township in Yunlin County, to try to ease up the atmosphere a bit.

But his wife was so furious that she took his money, wallet and phone, and just left. "Find a way to go back home, if you can!" she reportedly said as she drove off the service station, leaving her dumbfounded husband alone and penniless.

Without his money and mobile phone, Mr Liu could neither pay for a taxi nor call friends or relatives to help him. Nevertheless, he asked the staff of the service station to call him a cab. He explained to the driver what had happened and asked him to take him to the nearest police station.

At Yongguang police station Mr Liu told the officers his story and borrowed from them money so that he could return home. Jian Liangguang (簡良光), the head of the police station, gave him 1000 TWD (around 30 euros) out of his own pocket.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Chiang Kai-shek's Beheading and Ke Wenzhe's Tears

During an emotional speech commemorating the victims of the 228 Incident, the current mayor of Taipei, Ke Wenzhe (Ko Wen-je), could not hold back his tears as he recounted the suffering that his own family had to bear during the brutal and indiscriminate repression of real or presumed dissent on the part of Guomindang one-party state. Following the revolt of February 28, 1947, Ke’s grandfather, Ke Shiyuan, was arrested, not because he had been personally involved in the uprising, but solely because he was an intellectual. After he was severely beaten by the Guomindang police he became ill and died a few years later.

Thousands of people were killed, imprisoned or tortured during the White Terror that followed the 228 Incident. To a certain extent, February 28 1947 was for Taiwan what June 4 1989 was for the PRC. The state revealed its savage and cruel nature, reasserted its authority by force, and ushered in an era of silence, fear and suspicion, during which the memory and the truth about the historical events were suppressed.

On the eve of the 228 commemoration day, students and activists vandalised several bronze statues of Chiang Kai-shek, the former leader of the Guomindang and of the Republic of China. It was Chiang who ordered troops from the mainland to be transferred to Taiwan and suppress the popular uprising. Days after the massacre of innocent civilians, he still defended his decision.

To many people in Taiwan, Chiang is the symbol of the White Terror and of the restriction of basic freedoms and human rights that lasted until 1987.

In the morning of February 27, members of ‘Taiwan Nation’ (台灣國) and other groups that advocate Taiwanese nationalism, vandalised the bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek located inside Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, one of Taipei’s most popular landmarks.

They took advantage of the changing of the guards to throw eggs at the giant statue and sprinkle it with ink. “Chiang Kai-shek, you evil murderer!”, “When there is no truth there can be no forgiveness!” they shouted. The founder of Taiwan Nation, Wang Xianji (王獻極), and its chairman, Chen Junhan (陳峻涵) and other four individuals were soon blocked by the security guards and were later arrested. They were charged with disrupting public order and face a fine of up to 6,000 TWD. Chen was unrepentant. He stated that what happened in history can be forgiven but cannot be forgotten, and that he wants Taiwan’s society to learn the moral lesson from the past.

The 25-ton heavy sculpture of Chiang is not the only one that was damaged this year on the eve of the 228 anniversary. Other statues were vandalised on the campuses of Zhengzhi University (政治大學), Yangming University (陽明大學), Dongwu University (東吳大學) and Furen University (輔仁大學), as well as in Xinglong Park (興隆公園).

Students of Furen University spray-painted on the statue the sentence: "Guomindang, acknowledge your mistakes so that the dead soul may regret them." On the campus of Dongwu University, students spray-painted the words "Murderer!" "Don't forget 228!"

Similar acts of vandalism were committed throughout Taiwan. A statue of Chiang located in a park in Keelung, the city where the troops from the mainland arrived in 1947 to put down the uprising, was beheaded. Other statues were vandalised in Taoyuan's Zhongzheng Park, Taipei First Girls’ High School, Taipei Municipal Da'an Vocational High School, National Zhudong Senior High School, Donghai University and National Taipei University of Technology. Some students turned Chiang's statues into "artworks", spray-painting and decorating them.

What should we make of these acts of vandalism? Are they justified? Is it acceptable for a democratic country to honour a dictator like Chiang Kai-shek? Should all statues and portraits of the autocrat be removed, as it happened with Hitler's or Mussolini's after their regimes were overthrown?

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Taipei-Taoyuan Airport Express Is Finally Coming

When you see scenes like this you know why Taipei really needs an airport express. Last week I arrived at Taipei Bus Station (located right next to Taipei Main Station) and there I saw this huge line of people waiting to board the bus to the airport. When the bus arrived there were so many passengers that I had no choice but to wait for the next one. Overall it took me about one hour and a half to get from the bus station to the airport. 

Then I arrived in Hong Kong. I exchanged some money, bought something to drink, recharged my Octopus Card (the equivalent of Taipei's Easy Card) and took that amazing, super modern, spacious Airport Express that runs from Hong Kong International Airport to Central in just 25 minutes! 

When I first came to Taiwan at the end of 2011, I was quite surprised that this island, known all over the world for its high-tech industry, had no direct MRT connection between the airport and Taipei Main Station. I bought a ticket, exited the airport and looked for the bus stop. Then a guy from the bus company shouted at me in Chinese, asking me where I wanted to go. This was the first time I had to speak Chinese to survive in a foreign country. 

Then I boarded the bus. It took over an hour to get to Taipei Main Station. I must say that for someone travelling alone, for the first time in Asia, who is already quite nervous because of all the expectations and the uncertainty, and who is tired and hungry and doesn't know anything about this new place, the journey from the airport to Taipei is not as comfortable as in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai or other big cities in East Asia. 

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Papa Xi “Beats The Tiger” – Xi Jinping’s New Year Propaganda Cartoon

On 17 February Beijing Chaoyang Studio (北京朝阳工作室) released three cartoons which aim at spreading among the people the values of the Xi Jinping administration in a way that is closer to the common citizen and less stiff and cold than traditional political propaganda.

One of the three cartoons is entitled “Has the mass line been truly implemented?” (群众路线动真格了?) The animation revolves around Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption, a phenomenon which, according to the leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), runs counter the Communist Party’s mass line.

The cartoon condemns the vices that the official party language describes as “The Four Decadent Customs” (四风)and “The Three Abuses” (三公).

According to the Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报), the animations represent a departure from the previous style of government communication, which was too cold and detached from the people. “In the past,” writes the paper, “the Chinese people only saw pictures, portraits or official videos of their leaders, while it was extremely rare to see them in animated films.”




Friday, 20 February 2015

Taiwan, Breathtaking Miniskirts and the Wrong Laowai

I am not a big fan of hiking, but I love to take long walks in the city, where I can observe people and see interesting buildings. If I have to go somewhere, I usually go on foot instead of taking the MRT. Yesterday evening, too, I walked from Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to Xindian.

Before going home I went to Family Mart because I needed toothpaste and milk. While I was looking for the things I wanted to buy I suddenly saw a girl, one of the many girls one sees in Taiwan who will take your breath away. She looked young (I would guess between 18 and 20, but here you never know, she might have been 30, as well). She had a petite, slender body, and long dyed brown hair. Her clothes were simple and reflected the common and to me inexplicable Taiwanese habit of wearing winter clothes on the upper body and summer clothes on the lower body. 

In fact, she wore a black hooded sweatshirt, which definitely suited yesterday's cold and windy weather. Below she wore a tiny, really tiny skirt that revealed her gracefully long, slim legs, and high-heeled flip-flops. She was bending over the ice cream compartment, and her skirt was so short I could see a part of her panties. 

That girl was so pretty that I just forgot why I had gone to the store in the first place. I began randomly taking stuff off the shelves - a chicken salad, a potato salad, two boiled eggs, a chocolate croissant - none of which I needed. The girl kept standing there, moving gently to the right and to the left, searching for an ice cream. After a few minutes she took one out of the freezer and went to the cashier. I had finished my random purchases and I queued behind her. She asked for a packet of cigarettes. She paid and left. I realised I was buying things I didn't need, but it was too late to put them back. 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The 10 Questions Taiwanese Are Afraid To Be Asked on Chinese New Year

One might think that Chinese New Year is a time of rest and joy, of warmth and love. And to a certain extent it is. Family members eat together, exchange 'red envelopes' (i.e. cash gifts), chat and relax. Yet there is more behind the apparent happiness of this event, a less bright and merry side. As the family holiday par excellence, Chinese New Year is also a period in which people face a lot of pressure, a pressure that is often quite unbearable.

In Taiwan as in the rest of the Chinese-speaking world, the family was traditionally the most important thing in one's life. What a single family member did - his or her job, relationships, offspring, property and reputation - were not individual matters, but collective matters that concerned the entire family. Although in a weakened form, much of this still holds true.


The proof of this is the number of articles published in Taiwan before Chinese New Year which discuss how to deal with family pressure and with the dreaded 'questions' that relatives will ask to the younger members of the family - usually those in their twenties and thirties.

What people are so afraid of are questions regarding their private lives, and especially family planning and work. That's because, due to the specific social structure of the Taiwanese/Chinese family, which I have discussed in other posts, family members are extremely competitive and "face"-oriented. Not that this doesn't happen in Western families, as well. But since there has never been in the West a kind of family ideology as powerful and institutionalised as in Confucian societies, in the West family pressure is, as a rule, less fierce.  

According to a poll conducted by Apple Daily among its readers, the most feared questions are:

Friday, 6 February 2015

Getting Scammed in Beijing

After two lazy months I am trying to update my blog again more regularly. There was a time when I used to write one post each day, but it's a really hard pace to keep for a long time. 

There's also something that's bothering me. A week ago I was in Beijing and I got scammed. I'm kind of ashamed of admitting that, since apparently everyone knows that Beijing is famous for its scams. So was I the only one who didn't know? Obviously not, since these scammers find new victims each day among the naive and trusting foreign visitors. 

The funny thing about that is that I always felt totally safe in Beijing, especially in Wangfujing, Dongdan, Tiananmen Square, Jianguo Road and in the hutongs. Even in Dongzhimen in the evening I never had any problem. 

Beijing is one of the most militarised places I've ever visited. In Tiananmen, Wangfujing and the whole of Jianguo Road there are policemen and soldiers everywhere. Who could have imagined that in this country, with its all-powerful army and police, scammers thrived undisturbed in the city centre of the capital of the biggest Communist dictatorship on earth? 



Isn't this the state that detains people just because they have shared a picture online, or because they have "spread rumours"? Isn't this the state where in 1989 the army put an end to the democratic aspirations of an entire generation of students? And yet this almighty state can't handle a bunch of swindlers. Suddenly, the police need "proofs" and "evidence". Come on, this is the place where the CCP makes the law, and when it wants, it arrests, punishes, censors and blocks websites, and who cares about "laws"? 

But when it comes to stopping criminal activities that have been known to the authorities for years, they are, all of a sudden, powerless, weak, slow. The stern and menacing faces of the people in uniform turn into lazy, annoyed grimaces. 'Another one of those naive laowai who got scammed,' they seem to say, 'there's just nothing we can do to help you.' 

I am writing an account of how I got scammed, but it's getting too long, already over 10 pages, so I won't post it here. Moreover, I can't remember the details exactly, so I have to fill the 'blank spots' with my imagination. So I decided to write a kind of "short story" and upload it as an ebook. I would like people to see what shrewd and talented actors the scammers are, and what sort of psychological relationship, what an ambiguous interplay of true and simulated feelings, there is between the swindlers and their unsuspecting (and credulous) victims. 

I have been to mainland China several times. I wouldn't like to live there because I don't like censorship and the many restrictions on personal freedom (restrictions that are intensifying under Xi Jinping). However, I am very interested in the country and despite this annoying incident, I won't give up returning there if I get the chance to. Nor do I feel inclined to blame the entire Chinese people because of a few bad apples. 

But one thing is sure. As a traveller, and especially as a foreigner, it is much better not to trust people. The honesty that one may take for granted in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is a point of weakness in mainland China. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Differences between Germany and Taiwan

Recently I read an interesting blog post entitled “3 reasons why Taiwanese and German people think differently” (the original post is in German). The author is  Klaus Bardenhagen, a German journalist who has been living in and reporting from Taiwan for a few years. His blog and Facebook page have become major sources of information about Taiwan for German people as well as cultural bridges between Taiwan and Germany. 

In his post Klaus Bardenhagen argues that Germany is a country of perfectionists in which everything has to be done according to a well-thought plan, with accuracy and exactness. On the contrary, he argues, Taiwanese seem to overlook even some of the most evident flaws and blunders. He demonstrates this point with the help of three pictures: the first picture shows a bus stop built right in the middle of a bicycle path; the second, too, shows a U-bike station that was built on a bicycle path; the third shows the shabby façade of a building. 

After reading that post I began to think about the topic, so I decided to write down my own point of view about the differences between Germans’ and Taiwanese’ way of thinking. I lived both in Germany and in Taiwan as a ‘foreigner’, therefore I have an ‘external’ perspective on both societies.

First of all, I’d like to say that I will have to make some generalisations. As I explained in an old post about ‘culture shock,’ when you talk about a different culture a certain amount of generalisation is necessary. If you don’t generalise, you can’t talk about a society. I am simply going to write down my own observations based on my personal experiences or things I read. Everyone can judge by themselves if what I say is consistent with their own experiences and opinions.

Second, I have to point out that I mostly lived in Berlin and Taipei. Some people will say that ‘Berlin isn’t Germany’ and ‘Taipei isn’t Taiwan’. Well, no place is Germany or Taiwan. All cities and regions are different. Munich is different from Frankfurt; Stuttgart is different from Dresden; Cologne is different from Leipzig. No city or town can ‘represent’ an entire nation. Unless one has lived in every single city and every single village for a long time, one can never have a comprehensive understanding of a country. One can only make observations concerning specific places. 

German perfectionists vs Taiwanese bunglers?

Germans enjoy the reputation of being perfectionists; precise, reliable, accurate, obsessed with details. Many German products, especially their machines and automobiles, are world-renowned for their quality. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Office of the President of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan)

Located in the heart of Taipei, the Office of the President of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) is not only one of the centres of political power of the island-state, but also one of Taiwan’s most important historic buildings. Surrounded by some of Taipei’s major landmarks such as the Bank of Taiwan, Dongmen (East Gate), Taipei Guest House,  228 Peace Park, and the High Court, the Office of the President is one of the most characteristic symbols of Taiwan. 

Constructed during the Japanese colonial era, the Office has witnessed more than a century of momentous political, social and economic changes that have transformed the small island. Built as the headquarters of the Governor-Generals sent by Tokyo, it became the Office of the President of the ROC when Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Since 1996 the building is the seat of elected presidents of a new, democratic Taiwan. 

Overview


The Office of the President of the Republic of China is located on Chongqing South Road Sec. 1 Nr. 122. It was built in 1919 by the Japanese in a Western style influenced by the Italian Renaissance. In the colonial era the building was called ‘Office of the Governor’ (總督府). It has a conspicuous 60-metre-high tower (a futuristic feature by the standards of early 20th century Taiwan). Originally the building had 6 floors which were later expanded to 9. The Office of the President is the linchpin of the government district designed by the Japanese as the symbol of their power and authority. 

The only pre-Japanese construction that the colonial rulers left is Dongmen (East Gate), which was one of the 5 gates of Qing Dynasty Taipei. All the other major landmarks of the area were built by the Japanese: Taipei First Girls’ High School, High Court, 228 Peace Park, Taipei Guest House and Bank of Taiwan. 

The building’s red bricks, tower and elaborate adornment make it stand out from the surrounding edifices and give it a unique and consciously ostentatious character. The Japanese wanted to create a majestic, imposing and easily recognizable palace that embodied their colonial authority. The building is also highly symbolic. Its shape resembles the character ‘sun’ (日), which is part of the name of Japan (日本) and is also the emblem of the country, visible on the national flag. Its main facade faces East towards the rising sun.


History of the Office of the President


During the Qing Dynasty the area that is now occupied by the Office of the President was located in a sparsely populated part of Taipei Walled City. The only major buildings there were the ancestral halls of the Chen clan and of the Lin clan, and three study halls: The ‘Dengying Academy of Classical Learning’ (登嬴書院); the Xixuetang (西學堂, “Hall of Western Studies”), and the Fanxuetang (番學堂, “Study Hall for Barbarians”). Apart from a few small houses the rest of the area was just farmland or wasteland. 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Looking Back at 2014, Looking Forward to 2015

I'm writing this post in my home in Sicily. I have no running water, and electricity comes and goes. An unusual way to end an unusual year. 

Sicily is often associated with sunny, warm weather. But this winter is different. There was a snowstorm yesterday, and now all streets of my small hometown are covered in white. Unfortunately, this island is not accustomed to snow. Even in countries like Germany, snow can cause disruptions, but here it's a real disaster. Yesterday evening there was suddenly no running water. We thought a pipe was broken. But then we realised all our neighbours had no water, either. This morning we called a technician, and he explained to us that the water in the pipe had frozen. That's because the pipes are built outside and not inside the walls. Anyway, now I have to write quickly, I must go and see if there are candles (!) in case electricity fails again ... 

2014 was a strange year. My father got sick and I spent six months in Italy. It was a difficult time. Then I went back to Taiwan and spent a few months in Taipei and a few weeks in Hong Kong. 

As some people who read this blog may have noticed, I have become quite disillusioned with Taiwan, and 2014 has reinforced this feeling. Although my blog started as a personal virtual space where I could write about my life in Asia (hence the title, which I now don't like and would like to change), I have actually written very little about it. That's because I didn't want to offend people by portraying Taiwan in a negative light.

Obviously, every person has subjective experiences and opinions. When you write about them and people read them, however, you disseminate views that might disturb others. Moreover, so many people are involved in my 'stories' about Taiwan, and I prefer not to talk about them. Actually, 99% of what I have experienced in Taiwan has never been mentioned on this blog. 

I have met so many people and done so many things, I have a 'baggage' of memories from two years of my life. Unfortunately, many of them have not been very positive, on the personal level, I mean. This is a topic that I will have to address, sooner or later. I have talked about it sporadically, but never systematically. I am reluctant to rant about my subjectively negative experiences. I did it from time to time, like when I wrote about Guanghua electronics market in Taipei. As a rule, such posts raise controversies; annoying and empty controversies, I might add, in which others try to convince me that I have no right to have a subjective point of view or to express it. Such criticism is a waste of time and energy, but every blogger has to deal with it. 

In 2014 I have realised how much I like Hong Kong (I'd say, I love Hong Kong). Every time I go there, it is magic. It is one of the few places where I feel 'at home'. It's the same feeling I had when I went to Berlin for the first time. That city drew me like a magnet. When I finally managed to move there, I discovered its ups and downs. However, the 'downs' were nothing compared to the 'ups'. I loved Berlin from the first to the last day I spent there. 

Perhaps, I could find a way to spend more time in Hong Kong, maybe a few months. If there was this chance, I'd be very happy. But, realistically, it could be difficult. You can't run away from your real home forever. I, too, have my own responsibility. Not only towards my own family, but also towards Europe, which I call my home. It's easy to desert the ship in the hour of need. But we are called on to make sacrifices and try to solve the problems of the present, so that the next generations may live in a better place than the one we are living in now. 

Despite some negative experiences, though, I had a lot of fun in 2014. In Taiwan it was more of an 'intellectual' kind of fun. I read some interesting books, explored the history and architecture of Taipei. It is - in my opinion - impossible to 'know' a country. But perhaps it is possible to know a city. By focusing on Taipei, I think I have, at least, become a little bit familiar with its history, its buildings, and its streets. 

In Hong Kong, I met a lot of great people. I spent a lot of time in a hostel there. Last year I had rented a flat, but this year I chose not to do so, and this choice payed off. It was a cramped hostel, eight people in one room. One might think it would be impossible to stay there for a long time. But I enjoyed every moment of it. I met so many travellers from all over the world, most of them coming to Hong Kong to get a visa for mainland China; but I also met backpackers and some mainland Chinese tourists. It was great. But even if I had met no one - just walking in Hong Kong, seeing the skyline, the crowds, the buildings, made me feel happy.