Thursday, November 09, 2006
Okay, I'm back from Asia. Itinerary somewhat altered: Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Seoul, no stop in Kyoto.
Impressions? Well, I do a decent Jackie Mason . . .
- Hong Kong feels like a giant shopping mall. Of course, both the hotel we stayed in and our offices in the city are in the IFC complex, the lower floors of which *are* a shopping mall, so maybe that's not a proper impression of the city as a whole. But even so, downtown felt swank but kind of sterile, while Kowloon, which I explored for a half-day, felt much more Chinese but not really in a good way - the press of humanity was too palpable. The view from Victoria Peak was impressive, though not as impressive as it would have been on a less hazy day. Any way, the hotel was excellent, as was the hotel's Cantonese restaurant - this was by far the best eating we did in Hong Kong, which surprised me, as I had heard the food in Hong Kong was generally exceptional, and my impression of the other places we ate was: it was all good, but not notably better than places in New York. Overall, Hong Kong was a bit of a disappointment.
- Taipei I enjoyed more than expected, but my expectations were low. Felt like a real city, less artificial. Also felt the Japanese influence everywhere - in the layout of the city, architecture, even the signage and preferred color combinations, and all that's a positive in my view. But I don't want to exaggerate - Taipei is not what I would call a city with a lot of charm. I just was expecting something really ugly, and it wasn't ugly - just boring looking. Mountains form a lovely backdrop to the city, but didn't get to actually see them - too busy with business and, besides, weather was rainy. The National Palace Museum I did get to see, and it was very impressive indeed; I spent about 2 hours in the collection and, I think, saw most of the highlights, including the intricately carved tiny boat made out of an olive pit and the cabbage carved from a piece of jade (weirder was the lovingly mounted hunk of mineral that looked like a slab of pork belly). My favorite items were some of the smaller Chou-era bronzes, the elegantly simple Sung pottery, and some of the masterpieces from the Ch'ing era like that olive pit boat; least-favorite stuff was classic Ming era Chinoiserie, which looks like kitch to me no matter how accomplished it is.
- I had a lively political conversation with colleague from our HK office who is herself Taiwanese and, politically, deep-blue. The green-blue divide is substantially an ethnic divide, and getting deeper for that reason - by her report, taxi drivers who are "Taiwanese" will curse at fares (like her) who speak Mandarin and are of "Chinese" ancestry. She also asserted that most Taiwanese immigrants to the U.S. are, in fact, Chinese, a claim I could not validate indepedently as yet. The politics of Taiwan and Korea have evolved in the post-cold-war world in both parallel and opposite directions. In both countries, the advent of political democracy brought about a two-party system where one party is reformist, liberal, feisty, nationalist, and traces its lineage back to the opposition to the old right-wing dictatorships, while the other is conservative and traces its lineage back to the old right-wing dictatorships. But in Taiwan, the liberal, nationalist party is pro-independence from China, hence "right-wing" in American eyes, while in Korea the liberal, nationalist party favors rapprochement with the North and a distancing from America, hence "left-wing" in Amercan eyes.
- Shanghai is not an easy city to see in a day and a half, nor is it an ideal city to see alone. It felt like it would be a lot more fun if I had visited it with a group of friends. Also if I were 10 years younger. I spent a couple of hours one night at Barbarossa Lounge and, while I was genuinely impressed with the music (which is, in itself, impressive, since this I frankly don't listen to a whole lot of trip-hop electro-funk or whatever they call it), it was pretty lonely to be hanging out there by myself. More generally, Shanghai is gaudy, in love with surface, a city where "hip" and "now" are the biggest compliments, where the past is just an asset to be leveraged to make a cooler present. It's got a bit of Vegas in its soul. There's a lot of that around nowadays - remember "Cool Brittania"? - but it always rubs me the wrong way, and Shanghai really seems to mean it. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to feel the sheer scale of the city, and the speed with which it is rising. And no one would accuse the new skyline of lacking personality - every one of the new skyscrapers seems to want to make a statement. The Shanghai Urban Planning Museum is as good a place as any to see all these statements laid out on a single page. Unsurprisingly, while the new skyscrapers have boistrous personalities, they have nothing like the charm of the old colonial architecture of the Bund and the French Concession. The dilapidated condition of the splendid mansions in the latter testifies to Shanghai's decisive preference for the new over the old - in Brooklyn, these places would be fetching top dollar prices. My top restaurant recommendation: the Whampoa Club.
- Precisely because I was worried I wouldn't like spending the whole time in the city, I arranged to take a tour to the "water village" of Zhou Zhuang outside the city. I didn't realize quite how long the tour would take - we left at 12:30pm and returned at 7:30pm, with most of that time devoted to travelling to and from the village - and I regretted losing so much possible touring time. The village itself was interesting, and a nice change from the city, but more than a little marred as an experience by its apparently total transformation into a tourist trap. Literally everyone in the village appeared to be employed either selling kitch or piloting the gondolas. Nonetheless, one could still squint and imagine what the village looked like when it was a prosperous provincial town at the height of the Ming dynasty.
- Ended up in Seoul, which was another pleasant but boring city. It was fall foliage season and the mountains and hills around the city were too lovely for the urban landscape they cradled. The people of Seoul are terribly proud of what they themselves admit is pretty much their first urban beautification project, the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon River. This used to be the main river of Seoul, then was covered by a massive highway, and over the past few years was restored as a kind of linear urban park. I spent a very enjoyable hour following a school group down the banks of the river, snapping pictures of the schoolgirls waving at me and giggling at the prospect of having their pictures taken. The food we had in Seoul - a mix of Korean and Japanese, home-style and high-style - was the most consistently excellent of the trip, as was the air quality (which, I should note, was lousy in Hong Kong and terrible in Shanghai). I had another interesting, though brief, political conversation with a Korean colleague, who expressed his view that no one in Korea is at all worried about the North, nor terribly worried about China except as an economic competitor (*everyone* in Asia is worried about China as a competitor - Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand; it's not just an American obsession by any means). I find it rather unlikely that there will be a US-Korean alliance in any meaningful sense in 20 years' time.
All in all, an interesting trip, and very worthwhile from a business perspective. But I've very happy to be home.