Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Blue Express Incident - How 30 Foreigners Were Kidnapped in Republican China

On the evening of May 5, 1923, everything seemed quiet on the Blue Express, China's luxury railway line connecting Tianjin and Pukou. The train, recently purchased by the Chinese Railway Administration from an American company, boasted Asia's first all-steel coaches. Its first class carriages consisted of compartments which, on that day, were filled not only by Chinese, but also by foreign passengers of various nationalities, some of them businessmen or long-term residents of China, others, using a modern word, 'tourists'.

Among the passengers were Miss Lucy Aldrich, the sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island; two officers of the US Army, Major Allen and Major Pinger; Angelo Musso, a wealthy Italian lawyer based in Shanghai and an early supporter of Benito Mussolini's Fascists; he was accompanied by his private secretary, the young Alba Coralli. There was a Mexican industrialist with his wife, one Rumanian, and several French, American, and British citizens. On board the train was also John B. Powell, an American journalist travelling to a recently completed land reclamation project on the Yellow River that had been financed by the American Red Cross.

Mr Powell shared a compartment with a French national named Berube, who worked for the Chinese Customs Administration and had just returned from Europe, where he had served on the Western Front. Years later Powell recalled that first night on the Blue Express,

It was early spring and a bright moon was shining, making the barren rocky Shantung Mountains quite visible in the distance. We had raised the window so as to enjoy the warm breeze, and just before retiring I looked out the window and remarked to Berube that we were passing through 'bandit territory,' as the mountainous area including parts of three provinces, Kiangsu, Anhwei, and Shantung, had long been notorious as a haunt for roving bands of ex-soldiers who had served in the provincial armies and, being unable to find jobs, had taken up banditry. Some of the bandit leaders had a Robin Hood reputation, but most of them were engaged in plain outlawry, looting towns and villages and kidnaping their inhabitants.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, China was a country wrecked by chaos, political instability and civil war. The Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s had cost at least 20 million lives. Foreign invasion and economic decline had weakened the imperial authorities. Poverty and the erosion of traditional social structures favoured the proliferation of secret societies, criminal syndicates and bands of outlaws. After the revolution of 1911 had overthrown the Qing Dynasty, the new Republican government proved too fragile and shaky to restore China’s greatness. The country soon fell apart, and the political vacuum left by the old regime was filled by warlords, powerful military leaders who established personal fiefdoms. Chinese society was militarised as never before. Far from being the modern, democratic state its founders had envisaged, Republican China sank into the abyss of anarchy, and the once well-ordered Confucian society turned into a battlefield in which political and military power were inextricably intertwined.

While the central government existed merely on paper, the vast territory of the Republic was sliced up in domains controlled by mighty generals, each with a de facto independent administration. There was Zhang Zuolin, the lord of Manchuria. Shandong was in the hands of the 'Dogmeat General' Zhang Zongchang, a former coolie whom a contemporary described as having "the physique of an elephant, the brain of a pig and the temperament of a tiger". Wu Peifu, known as the 'Philosopher General' or the 'Jade Marshal', had his power base in Hunan and Hubei and controlled the strategically important Beijing-Hangzhou railway line. Yan Xishan ruled over Shanxi, introducing modern reforms and improving infrastructure. Feng Yuxiang, the 'Christian General', was renowned for his frugal lifestyle and for baptizing his soldiers en masse.

The warlord era was a brutal and violent time. Soldiers robbed and tortured, peasants feared for their lives and property, citizens were taxed heavily to provide resources for their rulers’ endless wars. Thousands of destitute, most of them illiterate, were recruited to fight in the warlords' armies. When troops were disbanded, they often turned to banditry. As a contemporary remarked, 'Soldiers come and bandits follow them, then the bandits withdraw and the soldiers come back – and what’s more, it is the armies who maintain the scourge of banditry here. All discharged soldiers become bandits; and when the army needs one more soldier, it enlists a bandit . . . soldiers and bandits are two names for the same thing.' 

As the Blue Express crossed the border between Jiangsu and Shandong Province in the early morning of May 6, "there was a sudden grinding of brakes" and the train stopped so abruptly that passengers were hurled out of their seats. Firing was heard outside, and people shouted in panic. Mr Powell looked out of the window and saw 

what looked like a small army of men swarming down the embankment, yelling and firing their rifles as they came. They climbed into the cars through the windows, ran along the corridors and began routing the passengers out of their berths while they ransacked the baggage. One man, a Rumanian, objected to being pushed around and threw a teapot at his captor. The bandit raised his rifle and fired, killing the man instantly. There was no further resistance. I had in my bag a small .25-caliber automatic I had purchased in Washington. My French compartment-mate also had his service revolver, but we quickly decided that our armament was outclassed by the weapons in the hands of the highwaymen, and handed over our revolvers without protest. The bandits in our compartment were so elated by getting our guns that they permitted us to put on our clothes and shoes, a lucky break for us as most of the passengers, women as well as men, were attired only in their nightgowns and pajamas as the bandits lined us up along the embankment.

The bandits completed their looting, taking with them everything that seemed valuable, even clothes and light bulbs. But ransacking the train was not their main objective. As soon as they had finished pillaging, the band's chieftain, Sun Meiyao (1898-1923), ordered that the passengers be rounded up. The bandits – numbering around 2000 - kidnapped the 200 passengers of the Blue Express, among them 30 foreign nationals. Westerners were particularly coveted victims, because the outlaws could extract higher ransoms.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Sun Hongzhi, Former Deputy Director of China's State Administration for Industry and Commerce, Investigated for Corruption

Following a decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the former deputy chief of China's State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), Sun Hongzhi (孙鸿志), has been detained by the authorities and stripped of his party membership on corruption charges. 

Yesterday the Central Committee of the CCP passed a resolution authorizing the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to investigate Sun Hongzhi. He has been accused of violating party discipline regulations and 'socialist ethics', embezzling public money, taking advantage of his post to solicit bribes, of adultery and other charges.  

The Central Committee of the CCP decided to expel Sun Hongzhi from the party in accordance with the "Disciplinary Regulations of the Communist Party of China" and other regulations. He has been detained by the police and handed over to the judicial authorities for further investigation. 

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Are the Himalayas Taiwan's Highest Mountains?

“What is Taiwan’s highest mountain?” This seemingly harmless question has caused a public controversy in Taiwan, a country where geography and politics are deeply  entwined. 
On June 11, Chen Qineng (陳啟能), a lawmaker of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), asked Eric Chu (朱立倫), the incumbent mayor of New Taipei City and Chairman of the Guomindang, an apparently simple question: “What is Taiwan’s highest mountain?”

“Taiwan’s highest mountain is Yushan,” answered Eric Chu. “But according to the Constitution," he added, "the country’s highest mountains are the Himalayas.”
Chen Qineng’s question was not trivial. Its purpose was to make Eric Chu reveal his view on the controversial issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), a state that in theory still claims to be the legitimate government of China.   
Chen insisted. “We are talking about the Republic of China on Taiwan.” Eric Chu reaffirmed that, if one refers to Taiwan, the country’s highest mountain is Yushan.

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.