Sunday, September 15, 2013

From ‘A Fortune-Teller Told Me. Earthbound travels in the Far East’ by Tiziano Terzani

….one need only set foot in Laos to feel that there is something uniquely poetic in the air. The days are long and slow, and the people have a tranquil sweetness that is not found elsewhere in Indochina. The French, who well knew the peoples they ruled, used to say: ‘The Vietnamese plant rice, the Khmer stand there and watch, and the Laotians listen to it growing.’

What an ugly invention is tourism! …. It has reduced the world to a vast playground, a Disneyland ….. Is it not through the wear and tear of tens of thousands of snapshots taken by distracted tourists that our churches have lost their sanctity and our monuments their patina of greatness?

…..the vulgar modernity of Bangkok – dirty, chaotic, stinking, where the water is polluted and the air lead-poisoned, where one person in five has no proper home, one in sixty, including newborns, is HIV-positive, one woman in thirty works as a prostitute, and someone commits suicide every hour.

Living in Asia, I have told myself again and again that there is no culture with the capacity to resits, to express itself with renewed creativity. Chinese culture has been moribund for at least a century, and Mao, in the effort to found a new China, murdered the little that remained of the old. …..
Which Asian culture has preserved its own springs of creativity? Which is still able to regenerate itself, to develop its own models ……
India, India? I said to myself, nursing the hope – or perhaps the illusion – of a last enclave of spirituality. India, where there is still plenty of madness. India, which gives hospitality to the Dalai Lama. India, where the dollar is not yet the sole measure of greatness.

Where was the Malaysia of twenty years ago? The woman in sarongs, wearing brassieres that always seemed a size too small, and skin-tight lace blouses? Where were the rich colors and bodies whose joy seemed to reflect nature’s? Swept away by Islamic austerity? In the Malaysia I knew in the seventies, religion was marginal. The Malays had their mosques and he Chinese their temples …. But then, to defend themselves against the overwhelming economic power and materialist culture of the Chinese, the Malays began slavishly following Islam. They took away their woman’s sarongs and gave them veils and loose two-piece gowns, and shut themselves up in the citadels of their mosques.
At the border post all the policemen and customs officials were Malays. The taxi drivers, who offered to take me to the next town ….were all Chinese. ….
The Malays have the political power, the Chinese have the money…..
The Malay Federation, born in 1957 with a population that was 40 per cent Chinese and 50 per cent Malay ….Now ….the races are more hostile. The Chinese have become richer and the Malays more numerous. The Chinese now comprise only 32 per cent of the population ….

When I was a boy and someone died, it was a choral event. All the neighbours came to lend a hand. Death was displayed. The house was opened, the deceased was visible, and so everyone became acquainted with death. Today death is an embarrassment, it is hidden. No one knows how to manage it, what to do with the deceased. The experience of death is becoming more and more rare, and one may well arrive at one’s own without ever having witnessed another’s.

M.G.G, at the steering wheel, had been telling me that one of the consequence of imposing veils on Malay women was that the dermatologists were making a great deal of money. Given the hot and humid tropical climate, the poor creatures, who had previously washed frequently, oiled their hair and left it exposed to the air, were now developing eczema and sores on their heads. Many went bald.

By the end of the fifteenth century, Malacca was the largest emporium in the Orient. The products of several continents were traded there …. Apart from the Malays and Chinese there were Persians, Arabs, Indians from Gujarat and from the southern empire of Kalinga, there were Africans ….Someone has counted the languages that were spoken in Malacca at that time: eighty-four.

Once upon a time Singapore was a city full of smells – smells of mould, damp earth, fresh fruits, decaying vegetables, fried garlic, rotting wood. These too had disappeared. ….. I spent my days in a continual seesaw between admiration and disgust, between wonder and horror ….. The future is the invention of one individual: Lee Kuan Yew, a man of great intelligence, great arrogance, great ambition and no scruples ….he has created the most efficient and least corrupt administration of all the Asian states, paying its officials like captains of industry ….has established one of the most advanced educational systems in Asia …There is no question that his experiment has been highly successful.
The price? A city without life, a humdrum people, and dictatorship. ….
Archives of Singapore newspapers are extremely hard to find, even Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches are a state secret. They would reveal too many contradictions, too many changes of line …..By now all non-Chinese, still 25 per cent of the population, feel excluded. ….
Lee Kuan Yew has done all this with firmness, at times with unnecessary cruelty, without respect for anything or anybody, and above all with no qualms of conscience. ….
Whole areas of old Singapore have been razed to the ground. Whole generations of Singaporeans have been whipped into line by a sophisticated system of creepin terror.
The ratio of policemen to population in Singapore is among the highest in the world…..
Under a state security law, anyone can be arrested and detained indefinitely. Dissenters, real or merely suspected, used to be kept in prison for years without trial – the record was twenty-three years. Now the systm has changed. A person is arrested, ‘broken’, and returned to circulation with a government job where he can be constantly blackmailed and kept under control

Indonesia has a population of 190 million. The Chinese constitute barely 2 per cent, but 70 per cent of the country’s trade is in their hands, and the top five industrial groups and the major banks are theirs. ….
..the diaspora Chinese – strong, tough, hard-working, always ready to move on and adopt the passport of any state that would guarantee them security and protection….
Father Willem ….the Chinese are a minority everywhere, and everywhere the most enterprising, the most active, the wealthiest….
Today’s Indonesia is an empire held together and dominated by the Javanese, who hold key positions in the army and the civil administration. They realize that the strength of Indonesia depends on its remaining united. Hence the military dictatorship, hence the instant brutal use of violence against any dissent or any demand for greater autonomy.

Time and silence – so necessary, so natural – have by now become luxuries which only a few can afford. That is why depression is on the increase.
In my case, it started in Japan, where life was a constant rush, packed with obligations, every relationship difficult and strained. I never had – or thought I never had – a moment to catch my breath….
In Japan the whole society is in a straitjacket, the people are always playing a part and can never behave naturally. Just being there was oppressive …

What has happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime defies any fantasy of horror ….A million and a half, perhaps two million Cambodians, a third of the population, were eliminated….Everywhere new mass graves were being found. There were survivors who could not bring themselves to get on a boat since they had seen their relatives taken to the middle of a lake and fed to the crocodiles. Others could not climb a tree, because Khmer Rouge had used trees to test their victims and decide who should live and who should die. Those who could reach the top were considered peasants, who could be employed, the others were intellectuals, to be eliminated. … In Cambodia even nature has lost its comforting innocence. ….
For the people of Vietnam, Cambodia has become a sort of El-dorado: the country is underpopulated, the rice fields are fertile, the rivers full of fish, and the cities full of people who have got rich quickly with the traffics of war and then of peace and the United Nations…..
The difference from Cambodia is immediately striking. After the semi-deserted Khmer plains, Vietnam seems absolutely crammed with people. People sawing, hammering, welding, sewing, cooking, in what looks like an obsessive preoccupation with survival.

This old, gigantic empire still called itself socialist, but by now even China seemed to know only one god. ‘Qian’ was the first word that greeted me: qian, money, was the word I heard in every conversation during the five days I spent crossing China from south to north. ….Passengers on the minibus ….offered me, in exchange for qian, tiny monkeys, fat snakes and other rare jungle animals, most of them no doubt in the Red Book of endangered species. I didn’t buy any and they all travelled on, in their bamboo cages, towards the cooking pots of the great restaurants of southern China….
It took me three hours to buy my ticket – time to experience a hostility which I had never before felt in China. The impatience between foreigners and Chinese is mutual, and in the Chinese it is now mixed with envy, anger, and an ever less concealed racial aspiration to settle old scores with outsiders.

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