Monday, December 22, 2014

Amazing Singapore Part 3 – Country Standards

Here in Japan, the year-end snap election brought Prime Minister Abe his victory after touting his “Abenomix” mandate, but the voter turnout was low. It was 52.66%, the lowest rate since the end of World War II. Almost half of the Japanese population did not vote. In Singapore, non-voting is illegal, so you have to pay a fine if you do not vote.

Singapore is notorious as a ‘fine bound’ country, but I find it rather affirming and motivating. They are designed for good causes and help enhance morals of the general public. For instance, smoking is banned (only three locations are designated for smoking in the state). As a non-smoker, I like the strictness of the law. I understand they have come a long way to become acknowledged as a non-smoking country. Their smoking population should be less than that of Japan (one out of six Japanese smokes). Japan Tobacco has advocated that smokers use designated areas only or vapor break rooms to little or no avail. I give a big applause to the Singapore Government, especially for reducing risks from despicable secondhand smoke (SHS). Japanese roads would be much cleaner without cigarette butts.

Regarding other laws, I can appreciate Singapore laws on gum. I heartily agree on Jay walking. I had some trouble with taxi stands. I’m one of the Japanese spoiled with the ease and convenience of hailing or by finger snapping on the street, inviting risks in traffic flow. In Singapore, you definitely need a smartphone and a location map of taxi stands. Singapore traffic flow is greatly controlled by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) with an Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme used throughout the entire island. The LTA overhead gantries collect tolls and parking fees from all the cars equipped with electronic tags (IU) on the roads. The pay-when-you-use principle helps make motorist more aware of the true cost of driving. Thus the road usage can be optimized. They are one of the few traffic gridlock-less countries in Asia!

My stay in Singapore was just one week, and my island destinations were limited to areas where I could travel by bus and MRT. But as I previously mentioned, my Singapore host kindly drove me to the old Ford Motor Factory (the historic surrender site of the British to Imperial Japan) and Lim Chukan Jetty, where you view Malaysia across the Johore Strait. This Lim Chukan Jetty seems to be one of the last few surviving wooden jetties used as docks for the offshore kelongs (seafarers' villages built on stilts) and aqua-farms. We drove through an intricate maze and rows of cemeteries to reach the jetty and narrowly exited out of the tangled waterways and the army training camp. I was reminded that Singapore has a draft mandate.

On this trip, I picked up a new word “Kiasu", which I thought was antiquated as in Singlish, if not anachronistic. Kiasu comes from Chinese “Pah Shu” (Mandarin) and “Kia Su (Hokkien), meaning “fear of losing” or "hate to lose." The competitive spirit beyond the fear factor is referred to as one of the top values and behavioral traits of Singaporeans. No wonder economic prosperity and political stability are associated with this national mindset. This philosophy has helped guide them in competition and negotiations, and led to success in getting the most out of every transaction. The per capita GNP exceeded Japan’s long ago. Perhaps it also made them immune to criticism. I would like to see their Kiasu curbed slightly and shift their focus toward altruism for their neighbors.

I started to read Catherine Lim’s novel “Rice Bowl” (first edition "Times London" in 1984), the winner of the first Singapore literature prize. The story is about politics, imperialism and race, set at the time of the Vietnam War. I found her book equally exciting as reading Lee Kuan Yew's autobiography. The names of venues are all very familiar to me now. 'Rice Bowl' per Singlish dictionary is a lifesaver, the source of man’s survival.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Osechi For Sale

A question raised at a recent Toastmasters meeting was “How do you sell Osechi (celebratory New Year's food specialties) if you are an Osechi salesman?"

Hmmm, a very good question. I was out of the country for many years. I felt guilty seeing my wife struggling to prepare Osechi when materials were hard to obtain.

Osechi is very different from everyday Japanese meals. It is not even listed in the restaurant menus. I vaguely know what Osechi is, as my family has always set it up for the New Year’s. I belong to those who might have 'Osechi-phobia'. I picked up a couple of Osechi items, like Tazukuri, which is candied sardines, Namasu, which is sliced Daikon pickle with Ozoni, the rice cake, but I stay away from the rest - all the sweets and goodies.

Osechi should represent UNESCO approved Japanese Washoku dietary culture. If you explore Osechi, you could get the essence and soul of Washoku. However, the weight is more on tradition and rituals, all dishes necessarily devoted to auspicious expectations. In other words, materials and seasonings are selective consisting of kelp, abalone, sea urchin, herring-roe, prawn, fish paste, chestnut, lotus root, burdock, black bean and mixed veggies.

As a Noh song student once, I’m familiar with the word “Sechie” from the famous “Tsuru Kame, Crane & Tortoise” song. Sechi or Setsu taking off honorific O, is seasonal divide days, such as 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 5-5, 9-9. The Imperial Court started “Sechie”, religious rituals during the Nara period, during the 8th Century, for prayers and thanksgiving for the season’s harvest and foods found from the mountains and sea. As time passed, this celebration permeated into the Samurai class in Kamakura and Kyoto and into the Edo period, down to the general public, with particular emphasis on 1-1, the New Year’s celebration.

The recipe and ingredients of Osechi dishes vary a little by district but basically they are the same, handed down for generations. They should feature proactive and forward looking life values, such as happiness and fortune, prosperity and wealth, success and promotion, security of property, health and longevity, perpetuation of descendants, strong family bond and solidarity, all authentically cooked and served in a fancy lacquer Jubako, the multi-layered boxes. The Japanese believe that luck comes in multitude by box layering.

I used to see three layers, but learned that four layers are formal and often five layers (the top often left empty to beckon future happiness), depending on circumstances. Normally, the festive and sake companion dishes are at the bottom, grilled, stewed, or vinegared side dishes in the second, sea or river produce in the third, mountain produce in the fourth. Arrival of these boxes are rather new, right after World War II perhaps with advertising commercials from department stores.

Today, I saw the relevant newspaper survey polls; 52% yes, 48% no, to the question - "Do you prepare Osechi?" Now those who said "no" were questioned "why". 42% of men and 26% of women answered "felt no need to make it special even for the New Year." Hmmm, again! They are from a different generation.

Osechi had a great meaning when shops were all closed for 10 days or so, and when fridges were novelties in most homes. Housewives made everything by hand, making them to last longer; baking and adding vinegar. Now they are nostalgic scenes of the past, because ready-made Osechi is available at nearby convenience stores. I understand the competitions had become keener with the participation of the Post Office sales force.

With the increase of part-time laborers, many stores are open now even during New Year's holidays. There are people who don’t take holidays. It means households need not prepare preserved foods for the New Year celebrations any more.

I hope I have given you some 'food for thought' with New Year's Day approaching quickly.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Amazing Singapore Part 2

He who plants a tree, plants hope. (Anonymous)

Upon sending my e-mail inquiry, the Singapore Botanical Garden (SBG) replied almost immediately "Greetings from the Singapore Botanic Gardens and thank you for writing to us. The distance between Bukit Timah Gate and Tanglin Gate is approximately 2.3 km if you follow the blue dotted route marked in the attached map.” I was impressed with the speed and sincerity of the reply. The dotted line is a meandering road inside the garden. If a straight diagonal line is drawn, I figured it was about a 2 km stretch between north and south ends of the park. The Bukit Timah (tin hill in English) Road runs into the north gate and the MRT stop and is the longest road running from north to south of the island.

The Bukit Timah pamphlet I picked up at the old Ford Motor factory, the historic surrender site of the British to Japan (my host drove me there on the 4th day), offers quite a lot of information. The 163 meter Bukit Timah Hill is the highest point in Singapore and it was where the Shonan Shrine was built. Today the area is a nature reserve along with the neighboring Bukit Batok Nature Reserve.

One of my hobbies is to visit old trees. I visited many exceptional trees - redwood, sequoia and Moreton Bay Fig in California and others in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan. The Bukit Timah pamphlet read: "The number of plant species growing in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is more than in the whole of North America and at the same time, Singapore's oldest tree, a 400 year-old Seriya Shorea curtisii Tree is also found here. This tree is possibly the Temak tree that gave Bukit Timah its name."

My visit to SBG was through the Nassim Main Gate, mid-point on the east-side right by a taxi stand where the sightseeing bus stops, and near the Visitor Center and National Parks Board Headquarter. Luckily I got the "Tall Tales book" at the visitor center that had the well documented heritage trees trail guide. There are about 30 numbered trees and I just followed the directions. The names were new to me. They are Temak, Kapok (National Tree of Puerto Rico), Saya, Jelaw (47 meters tall, currently the tallest tree at SGB. common in Malaysia) and "Tembusu." Tembusu is a distinctive tree to Singapore, not found in Malaysia. The tree is featured as part of the Garden City on the back of SG 5 dollar note. (See photo). I know the orchid is the national flower of Singapore but decided to forego seeing the flowers for more exploration of trees of palm valley, around the lakes, with fancy names like Swan and Symphony.

There's one more tree I loved at SGB - the Senegal Mahogany. On June 1963, Lee Kuan Yew, the Father of Singapore, launched a national tree planting campaign. It marked the beginning of five decades of greening efforts that have built Singapore's reputation as a city in the garden. To commemorate Tree Planting Day on November 2, 1980, he took a hoe himself and planted a Senegal Mahogany Heritage Tree. I was seeing it 35 years after Mr. Yew's planting. It grew to be a huge tree.

I managed to take a hurried tour of the Chinese and Japanese Gardens in Jurong on the west end of Singapore. Jurong is a man-made island (connected to multiple small islands), based on the Jurong District Master Plan to bring together port, shipyard, chemical plant complex, and light and heavy industries. Two gardens are on Jurong Lake. The first is a Chinese Garden partially completed with pagoda and tortoise / turtle sanctuary and rows of statues of Confucius, Qu Yuan, etc. The neighboring Japanese Garden was closed but I saw many stone lanterns and Bonsais laid out in the distance, probably still in the preparation stages. The flat and open gardens were surrounded by high rise apartments. It was quite a sight. The two gardens will surely become a breathtaking park when completed.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Amazing Singapore Part 1

As soon as I was welcomed by a Canadian couple and host whom I befriended in Tokyo and Canada, I started my exploration of Singapore right away. My stay with them was 4 days, excluding arrival and departure dates. They live in a gated condo near the Botanical Garden. My host works in Shenton Way, Singapore's Wall Street, so we took a bus together at 8 AM and I was at Singapore City Hall area by 8:30. Morning rush was about to start but all the stores were closed until 10:00 AM. Church was where I could be alone in the morning.

My first three days were visiting l) St. Andrew's Cathedral; 2) Raffles Hotel (Museum & Arcade), the last bastion of the British colonialism, saved by Lee Kuan Yew, Father and the past Prime Minister of Singapore for over 30 years, almost like the Gate Formosa in Malacca saved by Sir Raffles; and 3) a nearby Starbucks or McDonald's for coffee.

I strolled the deserted park at St. Andrew's on the first and third day, and spent over an hour in a pew in the cathedral the second day, trying to see if the cathedral was lost during World War II (it was an emergency hospital - found a cathedral brochure written in Japanese), Raffles for two hours for the first day for picture taking, souvenir shopping the second day and befriended a Japanese mother and daughter at Thompson's Thai silk store the third day, etc.

One thing I learned was my misconception about Sir Raffles on this trip. I had thought Raffles was knighted after his Singapore accomplishment, which was incorrect. His knighthood was bestowed upon when he returned to England from his assignment as Lieutenant-Governor of Java, ill and crestfallen having lost his first wife Olivia. In 1816 he wrote and published a book entitled "The History of Java" describing the history of the island from ancient times. In 1817 he was knighted by the prince regent. Then he was appointed Governor-General of Bencoolen. Sir Raffles set sail all refreshed to take the post with his new wife Sophia.

In the afternoon, I took hop-on / hop-off sightseeing buses, first visiting the Esplanade, Music and Drama Theatres on the Bay, nicknamed "Durian" for its shape by local Singaporeans. (I learned this theater was chosen as one of the 1001 Buildings you must see before you die by Mark Irving). I'm glad I got to see it. It was amazing!

Then I visited the ArtScience Museum and Marina Bay Sands, breathtaking twin buildings with feng shui motif. The former brought to mind blossoming lotus, and the latter, three monolith towers connected together at the top with an enormous deck. Some people see it as Noah's Ark but I wonder. It is an iconic design that completely transforms the skyline - convention center, hotel, restaurant, casino, all in one. You can tell Las Vegas Sands was involved. The day I visited the ArtScience Museum it featured works by American photographer Annie Leibovitz. There were about 200 photos exhibited including those of John Lennon/Yoko Ono and celebrities like Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt and many others.

The Garden by the Bay on reclaimed land has been raised with what they call SuperTrees - huge artificial structures shaped like palms. I had planned to visit Botanical Garden so I hurried on.

I completed one clockwise circuit on the bus that took about an hour that included a visit to upstream Singapore River, the Botanical Garden and the hotels on Orchard Road. My ticket was valid for 24 hours. I used it for three rounds and stopped to view the Botanical Garden and ate at a fancy restaurant on Orchard Road in the evening. I enjoyed the great bus service and sightseeing.

Encountered during the bus ride were a couple of smile-provoking public art sculptures. I was too slow with my camera so I have no photos of them, but I found one photo from the database of Singapore Public Art. It is called "Momentum" (2007) - about 20 meters tall and 10 meters in diameter. I surmise it is the modern Tower of Babel. The sculptor is David Gerstein of Israel. He might have won the competition for the work. In surveying the above data, I found Singapore is now full of public art. I thought of Taiwan's Ju Ming who struggled with his son to create a private sculpture park near Taipei mountain village. Singapore, as a nation, is planning to fill the island with an abundance of public art.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tribute to TM Ishimatsu

Weep no more my lady
Oh! Weep no more today
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home far away

- Kentucky State Song by Stephen Foster

The third Monday in September is a unique Japanese national holiday which honors and shows respect to the elderly. A few years ago, our neighborhood started inviting me to a special district luncheon with entertainment provided by a local high school music band or drum corp. My wife Tamiko received the same invitation this year. The couple sitting across the table from us were our acquaintances. Tamiko knew they owned a dance studio and asked them, "Are the Ishimatsus going to demonstrate their dancing again soon?" Apparently Tamiko knew that the Ishimatsus came last year as the winner of the All Kyushu ballroom senior pair dance competition. The studio owner's response was, "We heard he passed away." After an awkward silence, Tamiko and I both uttered the same surprise, "But he was so young."

Yasutaka Ishimatsu joined the Kitakyushu Toastmasters before the turn of the century. He was the eighth President serving his term from 2004 to 2005. A mechanical engineer by profession, he worked at a Japanese subsidiary in Louisville, Kentucky for six years and returned to Kitakyushu. Ishimatsu was a breath of fresh air to our club with his serene smile and playful wit and humor. I found in him something our club was missing. We welcomed him and I enjoyed many of his speeches related to Kentucky. He traveled with us to a number of Toastmaster events and contests and was a popular Kitakyushu representative.

Kentucky is one of the states I never stepped foot in. The closest cities I visited were Cincinnati, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; and Indianapolis, Indiana. In late 1980s, Toyota built its Camry plant in Kentucky and soon related companies flocked there and clustered around them. We learned many things from TM Ishimatsu such as the Kentucky Derby, how Kentucky’s Lexington city was named after Lexington, Massachusetts and why Stephen Foster's Kentucky Home became literally the State Song.

One speech that impressed me was about the concert he brought to Lexington through his personal connections. He learned that the Japanese celebrity writer/singer Tokiko Kato was going to be performing at Carnegie Hall in 1988 (see her album cover at top). He knew his boss in New York was the brother to Tokiko and convinced him that that Tokiko's visit to Kentucky could not only boost the friendship between Kentucky and Japan, but also help ease and soften the local anti-Japanese feeling. With the go ahead obtained a year ahead of time, he succeeded in completing all the necessary preparations, getting cooperation from all the Japanese expatriates, including Toyota, who doubted at first if she would ever come.

The day came. Tokiko's song - "Shiretoko Jojo", "One million roses" and of course, Foster's "Home on the range" and state song overwhelmed and charmed the audience gathered at the Transylvanian University Hall. After the concert and reception, Ishimatsu tried to hand her an envelope in appreciation. She did not accept it. She thanked him personally by shaking his hands saying "I hope my concert tonight will help make you all succeed!" He said he became her biggest fan that day.

Transylvania University is a private university in Lexington, Kentucky. It was founded in 1780, making it the first university in Kentucky and among the oldest in the United States.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Malay Journey - Part 2

"Straight Trans Malay Road Amidst the valleys of lustered oil palms" (Haiku by riodan)

Monday August 25, 2014, I took a transnational bus, with a spider mark on the front glass, from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. I avoided Sunday traffic to avoid Johorbaru, shoppers coming back from Singapore crossing the border, reminding me of the San Diego / Tijuana border crossings, which I knew well. I changed hotels from KLCC to Pudraya Sentral so that I could walk to the bus terminal early in the morning with the ticket I had purchased on Sunday.

The first bus was to depart at 7:30 AM. I was at the terminal at 7:00 AM. The huge oblong building was deserted, contrary to the weekend jostling crowds. Travelers go up to the second floor which has numbered gates with waiting chairs and shops and food stalls. It was one of those store ladies who asked her neighbor to watch her store and guided me to the upper floors to the bus ticket counter. She was pregnant and I felt guilty to force her to hurry upstairs. She was so kind to me, a stranger.

At around 7:20 AM a woman came and opened the descending stair gate. I immediately followed her. She simply said wait there on the deck. It's a dimly lit first level floor with islands of platforms. The sectional concrete walls block the view of the entire floor. I felt I was in a large empty warehouse. No one was there at 7:30 AM and I became a little nervous. A nondescript man approached me and ordered me to move to a different numbered deck. He was a dispatcher. Again, nobody appeared at the designated deck. Nothing happened at 7:45. About close to 8:00, one guy joined me and asked me some questions I didn't understand. About 8:10, the bus finally arrived at the deck. The bus, after idling for another 10 minutes, left Pudraya, made a big left turn, headed for KL Lake Garden, passing the Amphitheatre and National Musuem and getting onto the highway heading south.

KL-Malacca was my third journey on the bus. I had plenty of time to compose my Haiku, watching hillsides all covered with oil palms. The bus was traveling through the two states south of Malacca, Pahang and Johor, which use close to 20% of their land for oil palm farms. Yes, Malaysia is the top palm oil producer and exporter in the world. The palm oil industry overtook the rubber industry by modernizing its mills with higher efficiency and an ecology friendly approach - reducing the output of methane and holding wastes to a minimum.

The bus had one stop at a place called Yong Peng to change drivers. It is an interchange town, 100 km or 70 miles from Singapore. Most of the passengers got off before the border. Only two passengers and I went through customs. After crossing the Johor Strait through a kilometer long causeway bridge, the bus took the Changi Airport route and down Nichola Highway. Finally, we circled the low rise shopping centers reached the end destination. The entire trip took five hours plus.

I had no idea where I was but happened to find a Japanese restaurant and went in. Ordering lunch, I asked a woman manager for the nearest bank and hotel. She also agreed to keep my luggage awhile. I walked free of luggage to exchange currency and obtain sightseeing info. This walk really helped me 'get my feet wet' in Singapore I was at the area called Bugis. The Hotel I visited was V Hotel, at MRT Lavendar. I even had a chance to drop into the Singapore Visa Office where I saw many young people walking in after a security check.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Malay Journey

"It was 1405, on a spring dawn. Three short years after Parameswara founded his empire (where a mouse deer outwitted a dog), the Sultanate of Malacca was still in an unstable infancy. In the south, the expanding Majapahit Empire was a threat, as were the Siamese, who sought revenge for the death of their regent Temagi at Temasek (today’s Singapore). As day broke across Malacca’s natural harbor, an unspeakable dread must have swept over all on shore. Ships larger than anything afloat, as far as the eye could see, had arrived in the night. Hundreds of ships, a fleet crewed by over 27,000 men, silken sails set by a forest of teak masts across the horizon. Treasure ships, as much as 125m long and weighing 1,500 tons, securely guarded by five-mast Fuchuan warships and supported by a host of transports, supply ships, and patrol boats. The Chinese had arrived."

- Malacca’s First Visitors by Mike Street

The diorama exhibit I saw at the Cheng Ho (1371-1433) Cultural Museum, Malacca, gave a vivid account of the Ming Dynasty's Armada's virgin voyage described by Mike Street. It preceded the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Atlantic Ocean, the discovery of the New Continent and the Age of the Exploration by European powers. Malacca became the archetypical trade port of Malay, on the mouth of the river, people congregating for trade, fishing, and farming under the Muslim Sultanate.

Admiral Cheng Ho's mission was to deliver Ming Dynasty's message and gifts to enter into amicable trade relations with the Sultanate, who in response, presented tributes and sought Ming's protection and influence against Siam's (Thailand) offense. This reciprocal relationship worked well and lasted until Cheng Ho's 7th and the last voyage between 1405 and 1433. Ho reached Mogadishu and Brava in eastern Africa on the 6th and 7th voyages.

Admiral Cheng made Malacca his Armada's strategic port-of-call, primarily for waiting for change in monsoon winds, and had constructed warehousing facilities. He died from illness on the 7th voyage and the Ming Dynasty discontinued the voyage because of the exorbitant costs.

At the Cheng Ho Cultural Museum, a small vase exhibited in a glass enclosure attracted attention of a few visitors. I wondered what it was. Contained in it was his male piece. Seemingly he was an Arab boy castrated under captivity in Yunan to serve as a page for one of Ming's nobles. Growing into an active lanky young man and a good fighter in the war, he won the trust of Yong Le Emperor and quickly rose up the ranks. Malacca showed special attachment to Cheng Ho with the Cultural Museum dedicated to him.

Thriving Malacca drew ambitions of European powers and was taken over, first by Portugal (1511), second by Holland (1641), and third by England (1824). The defeated Sultanate retreated to Johor and Perak. They had to wait for the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) to learn how Malacca lost its luster to Penang and Singapore. There is one legendary episode that took place in 1810. Raffles happened to be in Malacca when the old Portuguese Fort was almost totally blasted by dynamite, as it was an eye-sore to the British. Because of Raffles' respect and passion for history, a Formosa Gate was said to have been spared from destruction. We would not see the gate today if he had not intervened. Close to this gate are the restored replica of the Sultanate Palace and Malay's Independence Hall, which was the British Malacca Club where the writer Somerset Maugham liked to visit. It was here that he found inspiration for some of his short stories.

I didn't have time for the Maritime Museum nor the Malacca River cruise, but glimpsed a life-size replica of the shipwrecked Portuguese "Flor do Mar" (Flower of the Sea), close to the Watermill, the tourists attraction of the river. On his return trip, the Portuguese Conquerer Alfonso de Albuguerque ran into a typhoon and lost the Flor de Mar, fully loaded with treasures, near northern Sumatra.

Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum was my last stop in the Jonker street area. I was attracted to the curious names. Baba is an immigrated Chinese boy and Nyonya is a local Malay girl. It was the home of the Chan family (rubber plantation owners) that housed over eight generations, built in 1861. It was a beautiful home inside, reflecting the hybrid life style and furniture of the Chinese, Malay, Indian and English. Outwardly, it looked no differently from the rows of the neighborhood houses, called shop houses with narrow frontage. I passed the Chan house a number of times. I later learned that the Dutch tax system based on frontage forced such housing structures. The tour required reservations in advance.

Today, the Chinese Malaysians occupy a quarter of Malay's total population, as the key working force of its economy. My old pen pal from Negeri Sembilan, about 90 km away, came to see me on my last Malacca night despite the rain storm, accompanied by her new husband. She is a Chinese Malaysian who is a PhD candidate and middle school vice principal. Her husband is an Indian sports journalist. The couple took me to a modern Malacca business center located more inland, to treat me to an excellent Chinese dinner.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Thu Bon River Part 2

Have you ever heard of Cham or the Champa Kingdom? It was the name the kingdom was referred to by Marco Polo. He had traveled through Cham on his way back to Italy but Hoi An did not exist when he passed through. Polo wrote that the Cham Kingdom was conquered by the Yuan Dynasty and they had to offer 20 elephants tribute to Khans annually. This was not true. Yuan Dynasty, trying to expand south to Malay and Java, invaded Cham a number of times. Cham defended itself, once together with Dai Vet. General Tran Hung Dao repelled the Mongols using guerrilla tactics. His statue stands in downtown Hochimin square. Eventually Champa King made the act of vassalage to the Mongols and soon lost sovereignty thereafter and disappeared.

It was the Chams who opened the silk and spice roads via the ocean, trading with the neighboring countries, establishing a base in Hoi An as a trading port. The Chams prospered from 7th Century to 15th Century in Central Vietnam, with Dong Hoi, near Hue, to the north and Phan Thiet to the south. They had constant conflicts with Dai-Vets in the north and Kmel in the south.

Chams are found today in Cambodia and Thailand but are a minority in Vietnam. They started out originally as Shaivists and Hinduists but later more Chams converted to Islam. My Son (pronounced mi: sa:n, meaning beautiful mountain), 60 kilometers upstream and in the middle of the Thu Bon Valley, is where the Chams' sacred sanctuary ruins quietly sit, a cluster of over 70 Hindu temples, discovered by French archaeologists and recognized by UNESCO the same year as Hoi An.

I took the weekend tour on a fully loaded microbus. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a 50 acre site and is too wide an area for me to cover. Instead, I chose My Son for easy walks and for a fun boat ride of the Thu Bon River on the way back. My Son temples were partially bombed during the Vietnam War until U.S. Congress stopped the bombing to save the cultural treasures. The September 2014 issue of Vietnam Airline "Heritage" Magazine features "My Son" and "Chmpa Culture." It was full of beautiful shots of "Di Tich Cham." That is why I chose the photo of a 3-D wall of Phuoc An Hotel dining room where I stayed for this post.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kuala Lumpur Fun Night

On behalf of the ToastMasters from Sri Lanka, I am glad that you enjoyed the evening as much as we did. For most of us, it was the first time we enjoyed a fellowship with two international communities. Hopefully next time we can organize an event of a longer duration.

The team from our end that was involved in organizing the event was me, Arshad Mohideen and Trishma Pinto. We would be delighted in getting involved in whatever capacity as Toastmasters united, wherever we are in the world and whatever background we come from.

Please do keep in touch and I hope you will at some time in the future have the opportunity to visit our country, which to us is Paradise.

Warm regards

- Ajit De Soyza

Toastmasters - What expectation did you have when you booked your flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in August? Myself, as a repeat attendee, I looked forward to the very last event of the Convention, tension running high with excitement and thrills when the winners' calls melt the silence into a roaring applause. The crowning of the 2014 World Championship of Public Speaking!

Secondly, be involved personally in the Board Member election campaign. I wore a Sri Lanka "Balraj" Button the day I arrived. He won and, coincidentally, Sri Lanka became the 2014 world champion.

Third, become friends and hobnob with Toastmasters from around the world. I was to meet a Canadian couple, introduced by my Canadian friend by names only. When I made my registration, I asked the registration staff if there is any way to locate them and, if at all possible, at which hotel they were staying. Their answer was not very promising with such a flood of travelers. The suggestion they made was to use the open message board on the 2nd floor. I posted my message but had doubts how effective it would be. Then I heard each regional conference was scheduled on the last day, and 'bingo', I found a way and we connected.

I wish to report one hell of a fun night I enjoyed, which combined the above 2 and 3 expectations. At the KL hotel where I stayed, I bumped into my fellow DTM Tamura, ex D76-DG, who invited me to join their Fun Night Bout. I joined him without knowing any details, but it was quite an event over and beyond my expectation. If anyone plans similar bouts in the future, this will be a great precedent to follow.

From L to R: Tamura, Floy and Ajit
When Tamura made his business trip late last year to Sri Lanka, he met Balraj Arunasalam who was running for 2nd VP at the KL Conference and he offered to help. What popped up during their conversation was a joint meeting of their respective home TM clubs with details to be worked out between Ajit De Soyza on the Sri Lanka side and Tamura on the Japanese side. Making a long story short, this idea developed into the Aug 22 "Fun Night", unknown unfortunately, to other Toastmasters.

The event was held at a hotel in Bukit Bintang, near Pudu Sentral (formerly Pudraya) where about 60 Toastmasters assembled. Basically there were 25 Japanese (from Kansai area, a dozen women who were clad in Kimono), 25 Sri Lankan and 10 Malaysian Toastmaster volunteers eager to meet, dine and enjoy each others company. Expenses were split: dinners (boxed Bento catered by the KL "Isetan" Japanese Department Store) borne by the Japanese; venue and drinks borne by Sri Lankans and Malaysians.

Dinner started with mingling and chatting. Toastmaster of the Fun Night was personable Trishma Pinto, the right person at the right place. Greetings and speeches were exchanged to cheers and chanting of Balraj.

Soon Tamura led a bell chime rhythm along with taped music and the Japanese Awa Dance theme featuring "Dancers are fools, Watchers are fools, if both are fools alike, why not dance" - started in a circle. Encouraged by this theme, Sri Lankans, Malaysians and even hotel restaurant workers all jumped into the dancing circle and danced for many, many rounds.

Then Sri Lankans and Malaysians answered the Awa Dance with their wonderful Group Chorus, including the local "Baila" song. It was a marvelous "Fun" night to remember for all Toastmasters who participated.

I wish to recognize preparation/coordination efforts of each group as per the following list given by Tamura. Thank you all very much.

Sri Lanka Coordinators:
Ajit De Soyza
Arshad Mohideen
Trishma Pinto
Malaysia Coordinator:
G. Subramaniam
(friend of Kenshi Suzuki, Osaka)
Japanese Coordinators:
Kay & Minoru Tamura
Kenshi Suzuki

Monday, September 29, 2014

Thu Bon River Part 1

Have you ever heard of Hoi An in Vietnam (Annan) in relation to the "Red Seal Boats" licensed by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the early 1600s? Probably not. Hoi An was the least known destination as compared to Luzon (Manila), Melacca, Macao, Ayuttaya (Thailand), Pattahi (Indonesia), etc. I heard the name from my Canadian friend who visited Vietnam in the late 1990s. He had lived in Kyushu before and likened Hoi An as the Nagasaki of Vietnam.

Look up the map of Thu Bon River Estuary. Today, the river mouth is clogged with sediment now, but 400 years ago, large boats could easily sail and be towed upstream and dock for unloading and loading along the river town Fafo (Hoi An), trading port for the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Dutch. Most astounding is we can see a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port circa 15th to 19th Century with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences that survived the disastrous Vietnam War.

An introductory book on Hoi An I purchased there was surprisingly published by Showa Women's University in Tokyo. I lived close to that university during my Tokyo days. The book said that Showa Women University compiled the catalog in English and Japanese to commemorate the opening of the World Heritage Hoi An Exhibition in 2000 as well as the 80th Anniversary of the University. Proceeds from the sale of the book were donated to the Hoi An People's Committee & Association of Hoi An Cultural/Agricultural Heritage. What a coincidence and beautiful story between Vietnam and Japan!

This book shows remnants of both Japanese and Chinese quarters, although no physical sign of any ‘Japanese-ness’ remain today, except the tombstone epitaphs and the bridge named "Japanese", which is a unique covered structure, the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple annexed to one side. It is associated with a legend that a Japanese sword is buried in the bridge foundation to appease the monster dragon that caused so many ocean shipwrecks. The book also shows picture scroll illustrations in color of tow boats inside the estuary and local administration headquarters. These scrolls are now in the possession of a Japanese temple in Nagoya.

There were an estimated 1,000 Japanese in Hoi An at its peak. The boats departed Japan when wind from the north sent them down south, and returned to Japan when the monsoon sent them up north in the summer - a one way voyage taking about a month. Reportedly the Japanese merchants placed emphasis on time constrained procurements. As soon as the boats left, they placed orders to have goods ready in time for the next boat, and this meticulous business practice often forestalled and antagonized the competition. The voyages proved very profitable, but with risks to lives. So when the Tokugawa enforced a nationwide embargo, it favored the competition, the Dutch in particular, and hastened the decline of the Japanese town.

I strolled Tran Phu Street right after my arrival and ate lunch at the colonial looking Hoi An Hotel, introduced by my Canadian friend. The hotel is a little distance away from Thur Bon and on a narrow street (probably a one-way street) but very conveniently located. Almost all of the "must-see" locations are within walking distance. I first I looked for a post office to buy postage stamps, then bought a coupon to allow five visits to any heritage building, including temples and museums.

Almost 200-year old houses all feature narrow facades and shop fronts and went deep inwards. You can walk through to the open, breezy inner courtyard, which was well decorated, where you face the living quarters of the merchants. They were all renovated with encouragement from the Town Committee mentioned above. The houses are numbered for easy identification.

This post is dedicated to the hotel manager Phuoc and restaurant staff Hue and Trang who made my stay pleasant in Hoi An. Thank you for the special local banana pancake / crepe recipe. It was delicious.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Vietnam War Remembered

Rest well, my child of the yellow race
I'll rock you gently
and heal your gun wounds
You went to war at the age of 20 years
Never returning home
Sleep, my child, sharing my yellow skin
I'll lull you and coax you
I'll do it twice
This body
which used to be so small
that I carried in my womb
that I held in my arms
Why do you rest at the age of 20 years?

"Lullaby" (Ngu Di Con) by Vietnamese Lyricist and Composer Trinh Cong Son (1939 - 2001), about a mother grieving her son who has gone off to war, became a hit in Japan in 1972. When he died at the age 62, he was dubbed the Bob Dylan of Vietnam by American singer Joan Baez. He gained fame in the 1960s for his love ballads and anti-war anthems, and has just been posthumously awarded a 2004 World Peace Music Award (WPMA), alongside other well-known names such as Harry Belafonte, Country Joe McDonald, Peter, Paul & Mary and well, Baez and Dylan.

Da Nang in Central Vietnam was my next stop after visiting Hochimin. The distance between Hochimin and Da Nang is about 1000 km. I found Da Nang Airport as unboundedly open and shining, contrary to my preconceptions from the stained image of the Vietnam War. Yes, a modern city with good roads and bridges. I was met by a taxi driver sent from my Hoi An hotel at the airport exit and sped south after clearing city traffic along the beach with luxury hotels and condos and golf courses. The scene looked familiar. This is Southern California!

I've read that the US Marine Corps Battalion Landing Team, wearing full battle gear and carrying M-14s, met Vietnamese girls with leis, South Vietnamese officers, sightseers, carrying a large sign "Welcome, Gallant Marines", and General Westmoreland was appalled. I was similarly baffled with the "Southern Cal scene” in Da Nang, Vietnam.

I am glad that I dropped Hue, the old capital, from my itinerary. Heading north, you have to dash up Hai Van Pass and necessarily touch upon the 1968 Tet Offensive related Hue massacre. Hue is where Trinh Cong Son, the "Lullaby" composer, lived.

Reachable from Hue are many historical US versus NVA battlefields (Khe Sanh, Con Tien, etc) on the 17th Parallel DMZ where the US had tried to block NVA infiltration into the South through Ho Chimi Min Trails, as well as the Vin Moc Tunnel Complex, which was dug deeper than the US bombs could penetrate. More than 400 villagers survived the war and more than 40 new babies were born underground. However, they could have been victims of Agent Orange, the defoliants.

I was stationed, as a Japanese businessman, in the U.S. during the Vietnam War and saw nationwide upheaval, anti-draft hippies and anti-war student marches.

I remember David Halberstam, in Saigon, as a New York Times correspondent. He was among a small group of American reporters who began to question the official optimism about the growing war in Vietnam. The Communist government in the north enjoyed wide spread support in rural Vietnam. The US-backed Saigon Government was quite unpopular. Halberstam saw Vietnam as a moralistic tragedy, with America's pride bringing about the government’s downfall. Although he won a 1964 Pulitzer Prize for reporting, he was transferred to another bureau.

I safely chauffeured David Halberstam to Kearny Mesa when he flew into San Diego Airport. He visited my former employer's plant to interview the company’s founder Kazuo Inamori, who happened to be visiting San Diego at the time. Halberstam was preparing for his 12th book "The Next Century" and found Inamori's nickname Mr. AM quite intriguing.

Halberstam taught that the moment humans lose their modesty, it inevitably leads to hubris and arrogance resulting in the demise of everything. Kazuo Inamori, who later read "The Next Century", warned his employees to "avoid paved ashphalt roads” and not “be afraid to take dirt roads."

I wrote that I drove Halberstam "safely." In 2007, David Halberstam was killed in an unfortunate traffic accident in Menlo Park in a car driven by a Berkeley student.

Jack Langguth (unusual surname so I remember it well) succeeded David Halberstam at the Saigon NY Times Bureau. Jack was sympathetic to David. When I did a search on him, I was surprised to see his obituary a few days ago. It was Sept l, the day I came home from my Vietnam trip. He was 81. We are of the same generation. After retiring from the New York Times, Jack taught journalism at USC in Los Angeles. He not only wrote books about Vietnam, but history and children books as well.

I wish to dedicate this blog entry to all those who perished during the Vietnam War and to David Halberstam, Jack Langguth, and Vietnam pacifist composer Trinh Cong Son.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Brand New "Tung Son Thach" Japanese Garden in Hochimin, Vietnam

"She was crammed in by a boatload of human bodies, thinking of her father and becoming overwhelmed, slowly, with loneliness. As much loneliness as fear. Concentrate, she told herself. And she did ― forcing herself to concentrate, if not ― if she was unable to ― on the thought of her family, then on the contact of flesh pressed against her on every side, the human warmth, feeling every square inch of skin against her body and through it the shared consciousness of ― what? Death? Fear? Surrender? She stayed in that human cocoon, heaving and rolling, concentrating, until it was over."

- from Nam Le's The Boat (2008), which won the Dylan Thomas Prize

Nam Le, as a baby, was smuggled by his parents from war-torn Vietnam on a tiny boat, which landed in Malaysia and then found refuge in Australia. After graduating from the University of Melbourne, Le worked as a corporate lawyer and also started writing stories and sent them to the U.S. In 2004 Le attended Iowa Writers Workshop which taught him to concentrate on creative writing. His first book, The Boat, has 7 short stories, including my favorite "Hiroshima", dealing with a girl orphan named "Little Turnip." Today, Nam Le is a rising star.

So was Ngo Chanh, Chairman of Shoei Trading Company, the Vietnamese protagonist. His boat headed north for Japan, instead of Malaysia. Chanh, was probably in his late teens then, as he was born reportedly in the zodiac year of the wild boar. He landed in Tokyo and the Tokyo Association of Refugees transferred him to Matsuyama City, Ehimeken, my birthplace, where he got local support and shelter. There he first engaged in shipping secondhand fishing boat engines to Vietnam on a small scale and gradually expanded his business to bigger machines and vessels. As he succeeded, he returned to Hochimin, Vietnam in glory to manage plastic treatment factories in Hochimin, Vietnam. It took him more than 30 years of perseverance and hard work.

What amazed me was the construction of the Japanese Garden "con vien Rin Rin Park" near his plastic plant of about 5 acres (7000 tsubos), which opened early in 2014, 20 km northwest of Hochimin, an area called Hoc Mon District. I have a Japanese friend living in Hochimin who is a Japanese language teacher. She brought me news of the garden since she knew I was involved in the San Diego Japanese Garden. She had been in San Diego before Hochimin. She made an arrangement for me to interview Ngo Chanh on my recent Hochimin visit.

Accompanied by his son Ngo Kim Thuan, sharp-looking and debonair Ngo Chanh appeared before me at about the time Dinh Vuong (student of my friend who guided me to the park) and I finished the tour of his garden. Both father and son are fluent in Japanese.

Ngo wrote down his Matsuyama address in his impeccable Japanese Kanji. Doidacho was his address. We talked about common topics of Matsuyama. Doidacho is southwest of Matsuyama Castle, not so far from Matsuyama Shieiki, once the home of the Iyotetsu "Botchan" trains. Doidacho is the 2nd station on the Iyotetsu Gunchu Line from the Matuyama Shieki. There are sporting facilities for Matsuyama citizens such as a swimming pool, martial arts stadium, cycling track, etc. where the famous Ishite River joins Shigenobu River in southern Doidacho. His son, who graduated from the nearby sports loving Yushin Junior High, must be very familiar with those facilities.

Ngo Chanh was motivated to build the Rin Rin Japanese Park to show gratitude to Japan as well as to introduce the true Japanese culture to fellow Vietnamese. He therefore paid enormous freight, transporting 4000 tons of Japanese stones, including "Iyo" blue stones, "Uwajima" sperm-whale stones, Mikame-cho stone walls, Oshima-made stone Pagoda, drum stone bridge, stepping stones, stone lanterns, sculptured stones; 50 thick needle podocarp trees ( Podocarpus macrophyllus) and 20 pyramidal junipers (Kaizuka-ibuki) and Imabari gravel, per Yasuhito Kido, President of Ehime Kenjinkai in Hochimin.

In addition, he airfreighted 200 varicolored golden carp from Konishi Farm in Hiroshima. He hired Kiyohiro Takahashi, a professional gardener born also in Iyo-shi, Ehime, a year after ground breaking. The park, called "Tungson Thack Pak" (meaning Matsuyama Stone Park) in Vietnamese, officially opened in March with 1000 well-wishers in attendance. Ehime Governor Nakamura visited the park before the official opening and thanked Ngo for his fantastic conception and power of execution.

Looking at a map online, I expected to easily find the park, but in reality it is hard to locate. I circled around the crowded housing area for a quarter of an hour searching for it. The park is further west of Tan Son nhat Airport. I saw the Vietnamese ad pamphlet upon my visit. The "Cong vien da nhat ban" appearing on the pamphlet stands for the Japanese style stone garden. Its notoriety gradually spread by word of mouth. I was quite obsessed with pictures and knew what to expect, but standing in front of the central stone themed landscape, "spirit of stone" and "spirit of tree", I felt quite at home, serene and exhilarated and wanted to congratulate Ngo for his dream-come-true project.

He is planning to open up the park for Japan-Vietnam Friendship, Trade and Exhibition activities, attracting Japanese visitors and I'm sure it will be further developed for fun, leisure and entertainment.


Finishing this Rin Rin Park blog, I found that the pine trees were symbolic trees of the Ngyuen Dynasty, the last ruling family of Vietnam, whose capital was in Hue, near Da Nang, Central Vietnam, from 1802 to1945. The French invaded in 1858. Ngyuen Dynasty lasted until 1945, although it was under French protection and influence. I read that many of the Ngyuen Dynasty pagodas and royal tombs have rows of pine trees. "Matsuyama" (Mountain of Pine Trees) also means special fate and the park symbolizes Ngo Chanh’s second hometown.

Visit the park's facebook page.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Fukuoka 60th Anniversary Part 3 - Women Leadership

A few weeks ago, the paper reported that the Church of England voted to allow women to become bishops for the first time in its history. It's hard to realize that sexual discrimination still existed in the Anglican hierarchy, as I know quite a few women have been ordained in ministerial positions. It’s surely a welcome and overdue change.

Helen Blanchard
Today our Toastmasters Worldwide Organizations boasts 100 Districts. Of the 100 District Governors, men and women governors are split 50-50, equally and ideally balanced. Toastmasters International has come a long way,

It was 1970 when Helen Blanchard applied for a membership with the San Diego Naval R&D (her work site) Toastmasters chapter. The club may have been willing to let her in but Toastmaster headquarters’ position banning women hadn’t changed then. When local members submitted her application, her gender was disguised by turning the first name to Homer.

Toastmasters then quickly made an about face and ruled it gender free. Helen advanced up the ladder and in 1985 she was the first woman International President. I attended San Diego Toastmasters Convention but my official Toastmasters membership was after 1994, the year of my retirement when I left San Diego. I know and have seen Helen from a distance but missed the chance to talk with her in person.

Yoshiko Mohri

Upon visiting Fukuoka Toastmasters on my return to Japan, I found Yoshiko Mohri, as the 'Helen Blanchard' of Japan. She joined Fukuoka Toastmasters in 1972, probably one of the very few women Toastmaster trailblazers back in the pioneering days. Fukuoka can compete well with San Diego when it comes to history of women leaders. DTM Mohri held her membership for over 40 years to date without any interruption. She saw Fukuoka club’s 20th, 30th, 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries!

At the recent 60th Anniversary, I asked her if she was the first woman joining Fukuoka. “No, I was not the first,” was the immediate response. She showed me a photo static copy of the 20th Anniversary where I counted a dozen women. “Fantastic! In 1974, you had a dozen women members out of 20.” “Oh, I remembered a women college professor member brought some of her students… Of all the women members, I might have been the 5th”. In 2006, DTM Mohri served as District Lieutenant Governor for Education/Training, and in 2013 she chaired the D76 Fall Convention in Fukuoka.

I’m impressed with her knowledge and cool application of adult techniques, yet she is considerate with business-like-contacts and responses and full of common sense. Perhaps they are gifts from her travel related trade experiences. Once, she and I had a chance to greet our mutual Taiwan Toastmaster friends in Fukuoka. I liked her excellent choices of restaurant and the entertainment.

Shoko Akie
I pursued with persistence whom she could identify as Fukuoka women leaders like her in the past, serving as officers such as VPs and Presidents. Three names were given: Chieko Kawashima in the 1960s - 70s, Shoko Akie in the 1965 - 76 and Mitsuko Nishimura, later in mid 1980s - 90s. I could not find any records regarding Chieko Kawashima whom other members remembered as a hard worker, always cheerful and friendly. Shoko Akie (born in 1920) is Professor Emeritus of Fukuoka Women's University, holder of the Government’s 3rd Order of the Sacred Treasure for her lifetime contribution to women studies and gender equality campaigns. She authored a book comparing two distinguished educators, Horace Mann (1796-1859) and Yurei Mori (1847-1889). DTM Mohri is proud of such high caliber women as members of the Fukuoka Toastmaster. I know the late Mitsuko Nishimura well because she, Albert Moe and I co founded Kitakyushu Toastmasters in 1997. Mitsuko commuted from Kitakyushu to Fukuoka by train then. I will feature her on a future blog post.
Chieko Kawashima (third person from right)