Thursday, February 26, 2009

Where the Heads Roll

By Chip Tsao | published Feb 26, 2009

China has launched an angry legal bid to stop the sale of two antique bronze animal heads in a Paris auction of items collected by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. China says the heads were looted 150 years ago from the Old Summer Palace in Peking. They also say that putting these lots on auction has offended the Chinese people.

Offended? Or should we be grateful to the French for their care and appreciation of these artworks, cared for as they were for so many years by a world-class artist and fashion designer?

According to official figures, from November 9 to December 7, 1967, Tan Hou-lan, the head of a Beijing Red Guard brigade and a protégé of Chairman Mao, oversaw the wholesale destruction of more than 6,000 antique art pieces, mostly porcelain from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, but they also burned more than 2,700 classical Chinese books and 900 classical water ink paintings, some of which dated back to more than 1,000 years ago in the Song Dynasty, and smashed more than 1,000 tablets. A marvelous accomplishment in just a month, and only the tip of the iceberg considering the nationwide campaign of violence tens of millions of Red Guards unleashed all over China over two years.

Schoolchildren in Germany are nowadays taught about the crimes of Hitler. Meanwhile, Mao’s embalmed body is still enshrined in a Beijing mausoleum. Wouldn’t it be in the interest of mankind if more Chinese antiques remain safely outside of the Middle Kingdom? At least as long as there is no guarantee that the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution will never happen again. Westerners will happily welcome a few more art pieces like these bronze rabbit and rat heads (certainly much more so than the few snakeheads who lead yet more illegal Chinese immigrants into Europe or America).

Artworks like these will enrich our little global village if they are safely preserved in institutions such as the British Museum for an indefinite period of time, or at least until China is deemed mature enough to possess them again. Parents don’t buy a video game for their crying kid until he repents his misbehavior and gets higher marks at school.

In an auction hall where money counts more than nationalistic anger, higher marks could mean better prices. These heads are said to be worth more than €10 million. Would a patriotic coal mine owner from Shanxi who has just returned from a triumphant trip to the Venetian Macau offer half a billion to claim them back, perhaps together with Monet’s water lilies? Call it revenge. He could keep the heads and burn the painting in defiance of the French imperialists at the Place de la Concorde—a location known for being the site of mass hysteria during the French Revolution where they guillotined the king, the queen and tens of thousands of aristocrats in celebration of a nation’s rebirth.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vote With Your Feet

By Chip Tsao | published Feb 19, 2009

As the Hong Kong government continues to recommend “patriotic education” for all of our schools, with guidelines such as the mandatory hoisting of the Chinese national flag, required Putonghua lessons, and courses on contemporary China (it is, of course, unlikely that books revealing the ugly face of the motherland, such as “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang would be included), students and their worrying parents are continuing to vote with their feet. On a single day, a recent British education fair attracted over 3,700 parents seeking a better education for their children in Britain, a 5 percent increase compared with last year.

No surprise. If I were a Hong Kong parent, I would certainly refuse to be treated as an idiot, especially when you consider that most senior officials, executive council members and rich businessmen have sent their children either to the United States or to expensive boarding schools in Britain. These are the same privileged few who preach to Hong Kong schoolchildren about how honorable it is to gaze at the Chinese national flag, learn about the achievements of great-granddad Mao and generally feel proud to be a Chinese. Meanwhile, their own children are shipped off to have a good time in Harrow or Winchester, being trained (although with little result in most cases) to speak English like James Mason or Lawrence Olivier and behave like an English gentleman.

That’s why Lan Kwai Fong is always so crowded on Christmas, Easter or during the summer. It’s the peak season for government official’s children, who enjoy three return air tickets every year as part of their “overseas education allowance.” They’re back on holiday to practice their native Cantonese with their old friends and schoolmates. They are the lucky ones who have been spared the indoctrination of the patriotic education of Hong Kong, and have learned the difference between a martini and a Babycham—knowledge some secondary school students in Tuen Mun would love to learn (although as far as sex education is concerned, studying in Britain or America nowadays offers very little advantage).

So little wonder the large crowd who swarmed to the British education fair created a scene as spectacular as a horde of Vietnamese boat people queuing up for an immigration application to the United States in the 1980s. Both needed some sort of screening—the boat people had to prove they had a necessary skill, and for those who are keen to seek a better academic home in England, money.

The bad news is that living in Britain even as an overseas student remains as ridiculously expensive as ever. The good news is that the pound is falling, with some forecasting HK$8 per pound soon—the same rate as in 1977 during the time of Jim Callaghan, which is also the time I first landed in the UK. London looked like a ruined Sarajevo, ground to a halt by strikes and with rubbish piled up to overflowing at Piccadilly Circus.

Those are the days I miss, when the colonial government didn’t give a damn whether you grew up as a patriot or a Triad, and you were never taught how great the British empire was in local schools.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Time to Listen

By Chip Tsao | published Feb 12, 2009

After Obama’s inauguration speech, there was a global consensus that the new president of the United States has recaptured the majestic eloquence missing from American leaders since JFK and Abraham Lincoln—especially after George Bush’s inability to get his tongue around words, phrases and meanings, and generally making a laughingstock of himself for the past eight years.

But let us remember that through his oratorical incompetence Bush had once given us, the Chinese people, some comfort and confidence. It would not be a mis-underestimation to classify Bush as one of the most boring public speakers in American history. But at the same time, he did offer more entertainment to his audiences than the average Chinese elite does.

Few in Hong Kong would dispute that being forced to listen to a Chinese elite delivering a public speech at a banquet or a cocktail party is the second-most boring experience in the world after, say, watching an old gorilla snoring in her cage. Be it a stone-faced government secretary speaking as the guest of honor at the National Day celebration party of Saudi Arabia, or a millionaire father-in-law stuttering a few words off a piece of paper at a Chinese wedding before the roast piggy is served, they almost always start with a long chain of salutes: “our honorable chairman, vice-chairmen, ladies and gentlemen.” One of the toughest social challenges is fighting back a big deep yawn and keeping your mouth courteously shut while holding a glass of orange juice in the crowd.

But soon comes some relief. You’ll soon find every guest around you feeling the same pain of boredom, and they’ll begin whispering to one another. The mumble soon escalates to a defiant hubbub, then a rebellious market uproar, with people shouting out here and there while making weekend golf appointments, or enquiring about how much money they lost in the latest stock market crash. The speaker carries on with his broken, lonely monologue, reciting phrases like “building a harmonious society”—echoing the fashionable word “harmony,” which is as indispensable to any Chinese speech as soy sauce is to Chinese cooking.

How many times do consul-generals and diplomats have to endure no-choice speeches in Hong Kong or Shanghai, simply because China is, as cliché has it, a big market that cannot be ignored? The Chinese guest-of-honor speaker standing right in the center of that market is always completely ignored. You can hardly hear a thing, and you’re not likely to regret much by that, except that the champagne served during that humming Chinese speech was just a touch too warm.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Why Hong Kong Is a Good Choice

By Chip Tsao | published Feb 05, 2009

A friend from England, on a recent trip to Hong Kong, told me that the labor government has built a mosque in Oxford as a sign of “multiculturalism.”

But compared to other measures in the UK to promote a multicultural nation, this seems pretty tame. After all, this is the same government that passed a law allowing female students to wear burquas in cities like Birmingham. But it made me think: what could the British Parliament do for the Chinese? Perhaps they could legalize the eating of dog and cat meat in Chinatown by 2013. And then, anyone showing visible signs of shock at the sight of cages of live puppies and kittens piled up outside Chinese restaurants in London’s Chinatown could be branded a racist.

This is why I choose to stay in Hong Kong, I told my friend. What’s the point fleeing to a Chinese colony on an island in the North Sea, where a bowl of wonton noodle soup costs 8 pounds, more than four times that of an average restaurant in Hong Kong, the biggest and most authentic Chinatown in the world? Here (thanks to the influence of a powerful China, our motherland), the Koran will never be made mandatory in the secondary school curriculum, and although neither the government nor the property tycoons will dare to demolish the mosque in Tsim Sha Tsui (a prime piece of real estate) in favor of an American-style shopping mall, we can condemn the Uighur separatists in Xinjiang and the Falun Gong as freely as we want without worrying about whether we’ll be labeled neo-nazis.

So with 340,000 Britons turning their backs on their own country and emigrating every year, wouldn’t Hong Kong be a better option than say, Australia? If you’re going to emigrate to a fake Western country in the East where the prime minister speaks Chinese and where there are more Chinese foot massage shops than Starbucks, why not come to a port of the real China, where the chief executive is a sir, anointed by the Prince of Wales himself? Actually, why not just square up the price of a bowl of wonton noodles before you decide where to settle.

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