I arrived on Mykonos late Sunday, after an awe-inspiring, wonderful week in Bristol at CrimeFest--and immediately found myself confronting bureaucratic challenges and sharing in friends' personal tragedies. It's been a rough week. But it's ended on a high note, because out of the blue came a request from my long-time friend, Dr. Brian Stoddart, offering to post this primer on what's actually going on in the mysterious venues of Hong Kong and Malaysia. Believe me, it's well worth your while to read this post, for Brian knows of what he speaks.
Professor Stoddart is now a full time writer, after a storied university career culminating in service as Vice-Chancellor/President at La
Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. He's subsequently served as a consultant
on higher education reform for the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the
European Union in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Now based in Queenstown,
New Zealand, Brian
writes the Superintendent Chris Le Fanu historical
crime series set in 1920s Madras,
British India. The most recent, "A Straits
Settlement," was long-listed for New Zealand’s 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award and the
first, "A Madras Miasma," was among
CrimeFictionLover’s 2014 Top Ten debut books, a list that included Sarah
Hilary, Clare Donoghue and Eva Dolan. His "A
House in Damascus" won a gold medal award for best creative non-fiction and
was a No 1 on Amazon Middle East travel.
He is also a serious photographer and delivers history and culture
lectures on board cruise ships--an avocation of which I'm intensely jealous.:)
Welcome, Brian Stoddart!
ASIAN POSTCOLONIAL ECHOES
Serendipitously, I recently found myself
back in the Asian present but reflecting on its past.
I was in Hong Kong for a very modern
reason, the stock exchange launch of an Australian private college for which I
chair the council and sit on the board. Like most of Asia (used here as a shorthand
only), Hong Kong is much changed two decades after its return to China by the
United Kingdom which had run the place since the Opium Wars.
It has is increasingly hard now to find the
quirky, the unusual or even the genuine Hong Kong. The Hollywood Road antique
shops have been raided by wealthy Chinese now scouring the world in search of
treasures to take home to where they belong, and for whom money is no object.
This new Hong Kong is epitomised by its efficient airport that replaces the old
Kai Tak one where flights in past laundry fluttering on apartment balconies was
always an adventure. The main view on the way into this new one is of the about
to be opened Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge that is really an elevated road and
a tribute to engineering and vision.
But in the streets of Mong Kok and
elsewhere, it is still possible to find all the elements that made the Shaw
Brothers action films and Bruce Lee so famous, and that were captured so
brilliantly by photographers like Fan Ho.
And some of those elements are found in the
novels of Chan Ho-kei who deserves a wide reading in the West. http://asianreviewofbooks.com/content/the-borrowed-by-chan-ho-kei/
Kwan Chun-dok, his Hong Kong police force protagonist, experiences the city
both before and after 1997 and charts the behavioural, political and social
shifts that have occurred there.
At the heart of all that, of course, lies
Hong Kong’s transition from the veneer of a British order to one that many
still regard as a veneer of a Chinese one. That included the rise of the triads
that had connections into China via groups like the Green Gang that aided Chiang
Kai-shek’s struggle against the rise of Mao. Those gangs dominated the rampant
drugs and sex industries and, like Shanghai, Hong Kong became a global centre.
Throughout that colonial period Hong Kong experienced a strong British
commercial, financial, legal, police and military fraternity that floated above
the real Hong Kong.
Inevitably, cross-cultural clashes arose, like
the 1952 murder case that saw British soldiers convicted for killing a Chinese
Towards the end of that colonial period the
crime range widened. In the 1970s, for example, Chief Superintendent Peter
Godber of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force was returned to the colony from
Britain to face corruption charges on which he was convicted. East had definitely
The triads continued in the form of
characters like “Broken Tooth” Koi who ran Macau and once made a film to
memorialise his life. And more recently Carson Yeung, once owner of Birmingham
City Football Club, was imprisoned for money laundering over $700 million.
The coincidence was that while I was contemplating
all this in Hong Kong, in came news that Malaysia’s dominant political party
for over sixty years had been defeated by a coalition led by 92 years old Dr
Mahathir Mohamad and assisted by Anwar Ibrahim.
Now here was a real colonial and
Britain took over the region during the
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and ruled through three
agencies: the Federated Malay States, the Unfederated Malay States, and the
Straits Settlements. The last of those became the best known, perhaps,
involving Singapore, Malacca and Penang.
My most recent novel, A Straits Settlement, has Superintendent Chris Le Fanu of the
Indian Police Service come to Penang, ostensibly pursuing a case but really
escaping a tyrant boss back in India. While there, he encounters the
distinctive cultural patterns of the Malayan peninsula, mainly in the form of
Jenlin Koh, a Straits Chinese woman.
Like the rest of the British Empire, Malaya
(the Malayan Union was formed in 1946) had specific cultural forms that led
directly to this most recent political upheaval. From the beginning, the
British ruled over a mixture of autochthonous Malays, immigrant Indians (mainly
Tamils and Punjabis) and immigrant Chinese. The latter came mainly from
southern China with a myriad of languages and cultures. Some married into the
Malay community, producing the distinctive Straits Chinese or Peranakan community of Jenlin Koh.
Given that heady brew, writers like
Somerset Maugham, Anthony Burgess, Joseph Conrad, Noel Barber and Lesley Thomas
understandably all set novels there. Maugham was notorious for enjoying the
hospitality provided by his many hosts then casting them unattractively in his
books. Those writers traced the British presence through early colonial times into
the World War II Japanese occupation and subsequent Communist “emergency” then,
eventually, independence in 1957 before the 1963 separation from Singapore that
Among Malaya’s colonial sensations, few rivalled
the 1951 assassination of Sir Henry Lovell Goldsworthy Gurney, the High
Commissioner, by Communist insurgents led by Chin Peng. Gurney was born in
north Devon, went to Winchester then served during World War I before going to
Kenya and the colonial service in 1921. Then came Jamaica in 1934, back to East
Africa. and Colonial Secretary in the Gold Coast. In 1948 he was became
Colonial Secretary in Palestine, overseeing the creation of Israel. From there
he was appointed to Malaya.
Chin Peng was born Perak, Malaya. A Chinese,
he believed that Malays received undue consideration. Through World War II,
however, he was active against the Japanese, working closely with British
forces that moved back in during 1943. He received an OBE for his services.
After the war, Chin Peng climbed through the Communist Party of Malaya ranks,
resenting what he thought was Britain’s undemocratic creation of the Malayan
Union. That led to the armed rebellion remembered as the Malayan Emergency.
Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer led the
British military campaign and was appointed High Commissioner following Gurney’s
death. Templer later became a key British government adviser during the Suez
Today, Gurney Drive in Penang and Gurney
Road in Singapore remember Templer’s assassinated predecessor.
Chin Peng struggled on until the final days
of the Communist Party was finished, holed up in the jungle on the Malaysian
side of the Thai border. The University Utara Malaysia is carved into that
jungle, and I visited it many times while running one of Australia’s first
offshore campuses in Penang. It was strange to be there then because Chin Peng
was still alive – he died in exile in Bangkok during 2013.
Like Chan Ho-kei’s cop, Mahathir Mohamad
traversed this colonial and post-colonial journey. He became a medical doctor
then joined the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in 1946. It was 1964
before he entered Parliament but he was already a leading advocate of special
treatment for Malays as outlined in his influential book, The Malay Dilemma. He fell out with Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore, suggesting
too much Chinese influence was at play there. Mahathir fell out with his own
leader, Tunku Abdul Rahman, too, and left parliament but returned later to
become Prime Minister from 1981 until 2003.
His re-emergence is remarkable, if only for
the rapprochement with Anwar Ibrahim.
The pair were Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister for much of Mahathir’s ascendancy
and up until the Asian financial crisis of 1997 when they began to disagree.
While working there through that period, an Indian friend told me a story. It
had Mahathir suggesting he was the better politician because he bribed
everybody whereas Anwar bribed only Malays. True or not, it captured the
political order where Malays held power, Chinese provided capital while Indians
dominated business and labour. What is known in the West as “corruption”
certainly existed then, as a cost of doing business.
Anwar suffered after the rift. He was jailed
for corruption and then for sodomy. Freed, he was later tried again and served
more time for sodomy right up until this new election. In all that period he
was heralded in the West as a friend of democracy and a martyr to Mahathir. It
is forgotten that he was central to the Mahathir regime for a long time and part
of all the deals. His story is testament to how Asian complexity is often
overlooked or even ignored.
So why is Mahathir back, allegedly to hand power
over to Anwar within a couple of years? The short answer involves the decline of
UMNO under Najib Razak who became Prime Minister in 2009. He comes from
political royalty. His father, Abdul Razak, was the second Prime Minister, his
uncle Hussein Onn the third. Najib himself was educated in the United Kingdom then
entered parliament at twenty three to begin a storied career in senior
But his Prime Ministership has been marked
by scandal and corruption. One problem involved continuing rumours about the
2006 murder of a Mongolian woman being associated with people close to Najib.
In 2009 two policemen were convicted then later acquitted of the murder, but in
2015 another court again found them guilty. One fled to Australia which would
not extradite him back to a country carrying the death penalty. Now with the
change of government, Mongolian officials want the case reopened.
Meanwhile, up popped the 1MDB story. This
was a Malaysian government development company fund created in 2009 to enhance foreign
direct investment projects. Its total holdings are effectively unknown, but a
United States Department of Justice indictment suggests at least $US3.5 billion
have disappeared into private hands. Anwar has long been a critic, identifying
Najib as a key figure suggested as a major beneficiary. Some accounts have
Najib him receiving $US800 million.
Much of the story line swings around
characters like Jho Low. A classic “flash Harry” who attended Harrow then the
Wharton School and later befriended Najib’s stepson, Jho Low runs a Hong
Kong-based finance company behind or associated with major global purchases.
Those include the Park Lane Hotel in New York, EMI’s music publishing arm, and Reebok.
He and Najib’s stepson also ran Red Granite pictures that financed The Wolf of Wall Street.
That movie connection has him associated
with women like Paris Hilton and recently, Australian Miranda Kerr who has returned
a substantial amount of jewellery following indications it was purchased with
pilfered 1MDB funds,
Now the new Finance Minister, Lim Guan Eng
who was a successful Chief Minister in Penang, has ordered a full 1MDB audit.
Mahathir had already placed a travel ban on Najib and his family. Now, police
raided Najib’s home and offices to confiscate seventy-two bags of jewellery,
two hundred and eighty four boxes of luxury handbags, several luxury watches
and substantial amounts of cash.
The war of words continues.
We can only imagine what Somerset Maugham
might have made of it all, but one thing is clear – crime writers have plenty
of material in all these colonial into postcolonial conditions even if, as the
old saying has it, “you couldn’t make up this stuff.” Reality continues to be
stranger than fiction.
Perhaps it will be a new case for Shamini
Flint’s Inspector Singh.
--Brian in for Jeff
The replica wooden boat in the harbour at Bristol
Me in the sun. First time this year.
Quiet, early morning along the harbour wall.
Nobody about, Not even Jeff photobombing.
The swing bridge opened to let the fireboat pass.
Opps, need to get back for a panel
This panel was dotted with the F word, the B word and the C word.
Not from either of the two pictured here.
Or any Glaswegians.
As far as I know nobody complained.
On another panel Ruth Dudley Edwards said something that a lot of people complained about.
I wasn't there so I don't know what the complaint was, but the word 'trannies' was used.
Yet, I will type the Trannie word but not the C word.
I don't know I what context the T word was used.
Maybe I don't know why it is so offensive in itself so forgive me if it is.
And we do have a transgender in the family, she doesn't object to it. Maybe transvestites do, but it's never come up in conversation.
But nobody died, so we should all move on.
We were quite happily wearing masks of the royal family - note that I am married to Felix Francis!
This is probably treason.
Then I found out that there was a movement on social media which mentioned banning Ruth from moderating at Crimefest.
And facebook has been very busy with it all, largely supportive of the complainers. I don't want to use the word snowflake but people did find the comments Ruth made highly offensive and said so on facebook.
Yet, when I have asked folk to their face what they think, they say 'Some folk are too easily offended.'
So speak out then!
Nope. Too many of the PC brigade out there.
Respecting that they don't want their thoughts being made public, I won't mention them here by name.
But it's interesting that perception of power.
Like I said, nobody died.
My panel were lovely, no swearing, nobody being offensive.
Well, not that they told me but Felix was chatting about his sexual technique at one point.
You had to be there to hear it.
A good titter had by all,
No censorship here.
That is a dirty word indeed.
a very dirty word to me.
A busy hall. One lady sneaked in late and fell over the cable.
No panellists or audience members were harmed during the panel.
Me, Felix and the very talented Emma Elgar.
Who I always wanted to call Edgar.
Steve Mosby and Robert Thorogood, no sweary words here
The globe on bright sunshine.
And back to the boat!
Caro Ramsay 25 05 2018
Sujata is on deadline this week, so this is a rerun of an earlier post. She's unpacked the dress for summer!
Roopa Pemmaraju and Lily Hargrave's design
A week ago, I walked down to the consignment shop near my
house and picked up a fashion mystery.
The mystery came in the form of a long dress of purple-blue printed
silk crepe lined in cotton. The stitching was minute and clearly done by hand. Examining the dress, I flashed back to my first long dress and blouse
custom-stitched for me at a tailor’s in Hyderabad when I was ten years old.
But the pattern was unusual. The silk was printed with thick black brushstrokes that burst like a tree over my legs. The design was not pretty; it was strong and vibrated in a way that
reminded me of something strangely familiar, but that I couldn't identify. The label read Lily Hargraves for Roopa Pemmaraju.
I’d never heard the names, but the funky silk dress fit perfectly and was an unbelievable $68. I snapped it up and was soon on the Internet
searching its provenance.
Within ten minutes I had some solid information that told me I'd made a very special buy. Roopa is an Indian-born designer who’d had her own fashion label, Haldi. She left India to move to Melbourne, Australia, with her husband for his IT job. Roopa became inspired with the idea of bringing Australian aboriginal art into fashion that would be a far cry from the cheap cotton T-shirts sold to tourists. However, her interest wasn't welcomed by gallery owners and artists. I mentioned T-shirts? Many indigenous artists have been exploited by Australians and others who copied their designs without paying them.
But Roopa had a vision of a business model that was different. I'm going to call it the Indian artisan model. Throughout India, there's been a longstanding tradition of custom clothing making--and certain villages are known for a certain kind of block printing, or silk weaving, or cotton embroidery.
A Gujarati textile with folk motif has great energy
These niche technique are prized, and the regional artisans are celebrated by contemporary designers who ask them to do finishing touches such as embroidery around a neckline or hem. Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated wearing handspun clothing as a way of resisting the British in the early 20th century, would be smiling today if he could see the "desi chic," "ethnic-cool and "modern handloom" fashions that are the rage.
The Fab India chain
that sells clothes for all ages and sizes stitched from silks and cottons hand-loomed
by people in rural communities. Also well-known are Anokhi and Cottons Jaipur,
retail chains that specialize in fashion made from cotton woven, dyed and block-printed in
Rajasthan. A high-end designer, Ritu Kumar, has spent the last quarter
century collaborating with Kala Raksha, an organization in India supporting
hereditary artists, and several other regional textile weavers and embroiderers. Last year in India, I was pleased to buy a Ritu Kumar kurti
(woman’s tunic) with a meticulously hand embroidered placket typical of the
Kutch region of Gujarat. But the coloration is subtle and works well with the modern printed silk fabric.
Fine hand embroidery on a Ritu Kumar kurti
Back to the Australian-Indian collaboration: How could an Indian woman new to Australia convince aboriginal artists to work with her?
Here's what Roopa did. She pledged to give credit where it was due. She offered put the artist’s name on each
of her garments. Remember the mystery of two women's names on my dress label? Here is Lily Hargraves, a “desert
walker” in her nineties who’s one of Australia’s top aboriginal artists. Her paintings are exhibited around the world and sell for thousands of dollars.
Lily's full name is Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali Jurrah Hargraves, although she's most often known in art circles by the short Anglo name. She was born in the Northwest Territory in 1930 and having had a number of very hard jobs throughout her life, began painting in the tradition of her ancestors about thirty years ago. Lily is recognized as a senior Law Woman, which means she is an officiant of Waipiri indigenous culture--and her story is fascinating. And here are some of her paintings from the online museums and galleries in Australia. Looking at her work made me realize that's a tree on the front of my dress.
Looking through Roopa’s designs since the 2012 collection
that included my “Lily Blue
Dress,” I've noticed that indigenous artist names are continuing to decorate the dress labels. Additionally, the design label is donating 20% of her profits to aboriginal groups. And the India connection also helps artists, because the silk is printed and embroidered in India at Roopa's artisan workshop in Bangalore. The subtleties of clothing construction are overseen in India by Roopa's co-artist, the acclaimed designer Sudhir Swain. The most recent collection—Resort 2018—was
just shown in Australia a week ago and shows a riot of glorious abstract floral motifs merging with gauzy, gilded Indian silk.
Roopa Pemmaraju 2018 collection
Some might argue that fusing two cultures like this degrades the original. But fashion by its nature is an evolution.
Mahatma Gandhi told his followers a century ago what you choose to wear delivers power. Just this spring in Europe and America, women have been attacked for wearing traditional Muslim clothing items like the hijab and abaya. Given this context, wearing the textiles of international designers and artisans feels like another way to show resistance.
Books in Bloom, a literary festival with authors from around the world, takes place in downtown Columbia, MD, on Sunday June 10. Sujata is speaking at 11 a.m. Visit the Books in Bloom website for more details.