Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What I'm Reading, Watching & Listening - Oct 2008

I've decided that in this multimedia world, it's self-limiting to talk merely about books, so I'm extending the title of this occasional blog entry to include videos I've watched and audios I've listened to. As usual, I've managed to build up a rich list, which probably means I've got little chance of completing all of them within this month, but I am making enjoyable progress and the ones I don't finish will be within easy reach of my desk or bedside table for the next few weeks anyway.

These are the four books that I'm currently reading ...

"Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet" - by Ian McNeely & Lisa Wolverton. This is a new and insightful book which reminds and reintroduces us to the key institutions that have shaped and channeled knowledge in the West through the ages. These institutions are the Library, the Monastery, the University, the "Republic of Letters", the Disciplines and the Laboratory. The first three on the list are likely to be familiar, or at least self-explanatory. The "Republic of Letters" (roughly 1500-1800) can be defined as an international community of learning stitched together initially by handwritten letters in the mail and later by printed books and journals. The Disciplines (1700-1900) refers to the specialisation of intellectual labour (into disciplines) after the Enlightenment produced the West's first mass market for knowledge. Finally the Laboratory (1770-1970) is about the physically enclosed domain of objective fact, as well as the extension of its methods to ever wider spaces, which enlarged the realms of scientific experts.

Korean phrase book - Ahh, out of sheer necessity (I'm going to Seoul for work next week), I'm dipping into this one to pick up some common words and phrases. Ann yeong haseiyo (which means good morning/afternoon/evening), Kamsa hameda (thank you) .... etc etc. I must admit I'm quite curious about Korea, especially how it has been successful exporting its culture (think about Korean TV drama series, taekwondo, music, Korean food etc), and I'm sure I'll find much to write about from this upcoming trip there.

"West End Chronicles: 300 Years of Glamour and Excess in the Heart of London" - by Ed Glinet. I've always had a soft spot for London, having spent a good eight years there for education and work in the late 70's and early 80's. Now, my own daughter is there studying Performance Arts at a leading drama college of the University of London. So I've spent a fair share of time in the West End of London. This book - part history, part tour-guide, part collection of rare factoids - is very interesting as it traces the origins of some of the sites I'm so familiar with - Marble Arch, Oxford Street, Bond Street, Soho, Chinatown, Picadilly Circus - and I learn things I never knew before about the early roles or functions of these places.

"Shadow of the Silk Road" - by Colin Thurbon. Leaving the best for last, this one is a gem for anyone remotely interested in history or travelling or China. It's about the Silk Road, the famous series of trading routes that have been used over the early centuries and links China and Europe. It served not only as a conduit for exchange of products (eg. silk, foods, materials) but also innovation and information (eg. paper, gunpowder, the stirrup) . One could even say this was the original Information Superhighway! Thurbon writes brilliantly, and I swear that in my mind's eye I can visualise myself walking through the streets of Xian (formerly the great city of "Chang An", literally "Eternal Peace"), riding a camel through dust storms westwards into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and into the plains of Iran and Turkey. This book makes me want to make the real journey ("Journeys I Want to Make" is going to be the topic of a soon upcoming blog entry) ! This book has to be one of my best reads this year.

Some good movies and documentaries I've watched this month ...

"Mongol" is a movie made in the Mongolian language, though one can also view it in Thai. English subtitles, of course. It is the story of Temudjin, the Mongol child who grew up to become Genghiz Khan. There are few actors we can recognise in this movie, which makes it more genuine, to me at least. This movie was apparently Oscar-nominated.

"The Mummy III: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" - starring Brandon Fraser, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh - featured action from beginning to end, with great special effects and digital graphics, as well as nice humour.. This is a great example of "movie as escape" as the audience is taken on this fast-paced classic adventure of good versus evil.

"The Forbidden City" - from the History Channel - was about the design and construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing. I enjoy watching documentaries about Chinese history, and this one was pretty well made.

And finally, I'm almost through listening to an audiobook, which is very relevant given the current political happenings in the US - "Dreams From My Father" by Barack Obama. I especially liked the fact that it was read by the author himself. It is important to get a sense of the man who could possibly become the 44th President of the United States. The book was first published in 1995, so it is insightful to listen to the man who, it is probably fair to say, doesn't yet realise that a dozen years later, he would be going for the highest post in the US, and therefore is more likely to express his views with candour.

On Putrajaya and the MSC

I visit Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, quite regularly as part of my job. I was there again only last week for various meetings. As my professional and business focus is on public sector initiatives (ie. initiatives by government ministries and agencies), one place that I visit pretty often is Putrajaya, the 5,000 hectare federal administrative capital located south of Kuala Lumpur city centre.

Putrajaya, and its "sister city" Cyberjaya were created within the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) since 1996. The mega-project was a brainchild of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir. When one looks at the gleaming buildings, mosques, roads, bridges and other infrastructure there, one can't help but be awed by the amount of investment and effort that must have gone into designing and developing this place. It is even more impressive to note that as late as 1997, much of this area was covered by acres of oil palm plantations.

I remember when I first went in search of Cyberjaya and Putrajaya in 1996, shortly after they were officially launched. When I hopped into a taxi in Kuala Lumpur, and told the driver I wanted to go to Cyberjaya, he looked at me totally without comprehension as he had never heard of the place before. When I finally directed him towards the area, we drove around in circles looking for the MSC Headquarters - which turned out to be a series of low-rise buildings (called Cyberview, if I'm not mistaken) that resembled more a resort rather than an office.

Although it is surrounded by the state of Selangor, Putrajaya is a federal territory, just like KL and Labuan. It is now the Federal Government Administrative Centre, with most of the ministries having been relocated here. The government has also built many residential apartments here (with attractive discounts to entice civil servants to relocate there), and schools, shops, sports facilities, gardens and so on, are all sprouting up in the area. An express train now links the area with KL International Airport (KLIA) as well as KL City Centre.

Many people who have been to KL may not have visited Putrajaya, so I'd just like to point out some interesting sites there - the Prime Minister's office at Perdana Putra, the Putra Mosque, the man-made Putrajaya Lake, Istana Darul Ehsan (one of the residences of the Sultan of Selangor), the ultra-modern Seri Wawasan Bridge, and the grand avenue with all the key federal ministry buildings.

Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, and indeed the whole MSC project has had its share of critics too. They say the project was too opulent, unecessary and cost too much taxpayers' money. They point to the fact that despite the beautiful architecture, the place remains relatively "lifeless" - little or no buzz.

On my part, I tend to think that Putrajaya is a beautiful project - easily one of the grandest government campuses in the world. I believe there are definite benefits in physically putting the ministries closer together, and this relocation out of KL has certainly helped alleviate traffic in the city (although more still needs to be done). It will take more time to create the buzz that the critics refer to, but it will surely come. When I bring officials from other governments to Putrajaya, Cyberjaya and the MSC in general, they never leave unimpressed.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wine for Asia 2008

Yesterday I was invited by my friend Tommy, a sommelier and owner of popular restaurant Cafe de Amigo in Singapore, to visit the "Wine for Asia 2008" exhibition and show at Suntec City in Singapore. There were over 150 companies represented there, coming from Europe, South America, Asia and the US. The exhibition was nicely laid out in neat booths along five or six lanes in a huge hall on Level 6. Many company representatives manned the booths, with bottles of wines of all varieties (varietals?) available for the sampling. It was naturally a very enjoyable experience, and I tried no fewer than a dozen glasses (only a small quantity in each, of course :-)

As with most shows and exhibitions, I ended up with a small stack of marketing collateral - brochures, pamphlets, flyers, namecards and so on. As I look through them, I found that the blends I tasted had come from countries & areas such as: Austria (Wien), France (Bordeoux), Italy (Palermo, Cecina, Sicily), Spain (Sabadell) and Argentina (Mendoza). I normally like red wines - like Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots - but at this exhibition, I tasted some really smooth whites as well.

I had a look at some global wine consumption statistics from the Wine Institute. I'll share two sets of figures - per capita consumption and then total volume consumed.

First the per capita consumption figures available go up to 2005 (a little dated, but these kinds of figures don't fluctuate much from year to year, so I reckon they're still pretty accurate). The country with highest per capita wine consumption (in litres) is the Vatican City at 62 litres/person - I'm imagining a lot of tipsy cardinals and priests staggering around St Peter's Square ;-) Andora comes in second at 60 litres/person. France is third at 56. Looking further down the list, some interesting ones are Italy at 49, Spain at 35, Argentina at 29 and the UK at 19. The USA is surprisingly low at 9 litres/person. From Asia, the top country is actually Singapore at 2 litres/person, followed closely by Japan and Hong Kong, both just below 2. China is at 0.9, Taiwan 0.8 and Malaysia at 0.3.

And second, the total volume of wine consumed figures, which reflect a somewhat different picture. The top ten countries are: France (34 million hectolitres), Italy (28 m), USA (26 m), Germany (20 m), Spain (14 m), China (12 m), Argentina (11.5 m), UK (11.5 m), Russia (8.5 m) and Romania (6 m). Singapore does a mere 95,000 hectolitres.

Now that I've dazzled you with figures, don't expect any more deep insights or commentary today. I'm still recovering from yesterday's glorious consumption. But reading through the exhibition directory, I regret a little that there are so many booths and blends I missed - perhaps I should go back again for more exploration on the last day of "Wine for Asia 2008" today :-)

Cheers everybody !

Friday, October 10, 2008

Vietnam - Part 3 (Danang)

I'm now in Danang, the third largest city in Vietnam. With a population of over a million people, Danang is located somewhat midway between the capital Hanoi in the north, and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. It's a coastal city located on the mouth of the Han river, and has beautiful beaches, relatively wide and well-planned roads, great seafood and a laid-back lifestyle (at least that's how it seems to an occasional visitor like me). This is my fourth visit to Danang.

A historical snippet is probably useful here. Danang was called Tourane during the period of French colonisation. That's why one can still see a lot of establishments still using that name - like Hotel Tourane, Sky Bar de Tourane, Tourane Spa, etc. But of course, Danang's dubious claim to fame came during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as most Vietnamese usually refer to it) when it was the landing point for the first major American troops sent to fight here. They landed on Red Beach near Danang in March 1965 (see picture). Danang quickly became a major American base. Well, we all know what happened in that war. Eventually all US troops were withdrawn, and the area was turned over to South Vietnamese (ARVN) troops by end 1972. After the final offensive, Danang fell without bloodshed to the North Vietnamese Army in March 1975, only a few days after the 10th anniversary of the initial US troops landing.

But looking at Danang today, one would never have a clue to that part of its history. I like Danang very much and have visited several times over the past three years for conferences and meetings. Usually I stay at the Royal Hotel Danang which is conveniently located (but rather spartan interior-wise), but this time I was in a much newer Green Plaza Hotel, which is just by the river. From the 19th floor that I am located, I have a great view of the river as well of the ocean somewhat further away.

Here's what the hotel looks like from across the street. Green Plaza is a 4-star hotel according to the travel brochures and websites. It's pretty good from what I've seen so far. There's a number of restaurants and cafes, a pool, a billairds room, a spa, a rooftop lounge,a disco (which I heard last night, but haven't actually seen) and a small row of shops.

Here are some of the nice views from my window and balcony.

Unfortunately it has been a little drizzly for the past two afternoons, so the skyline tends to be hazy.

There are a few sites that tourists like to visit in or around Danang City. These include Marble Mountain (one of five mountains south of Danang that stretch from the coast inland, and which have lots of caves and tunnels - see picture below), the Danang beaches and Hoi An (a UNESCO designated World Heritage site and example of a well-preserved South-East Asian trading port of the 15th-19th centuries, where the buildings are are blend of local and foreign architectures). Danang has great aspirations to become a regional tourism hub, and everywhere one can see new developments - offices, residences and many, many hotels (along the same stretch as the famous Furama Beach Resort, I saw at least five new hotel developments, including the Hyatt and Crown Prince).

I'd also like to mention the unique round, basket boats that fishermen in Danang use. Very quaint and cute looking vessel. Here's me with some of these boats.

Well, this entry is beginning to sound like a page from a Lonely Planet guide, so let me change focus a bit and talk about something else - like the people. I've found the residents of Danang generally very friendly. This place is not as culturally sophisticated as Hanoi, but at the same time it is not commercially adultrated like Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). There is still a small town "innocence" about it. In many ways it reminds me of the Malaysian town where I grew up - Kuching in the state of Sarawak. Danang, like Kuching, is the small town/city that is perceived as the backward cousin of its more progressive kins, the leading cities (Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, HCMC). But I think Kuchingites and Danangites (don't know if that's the usual moniker for residents of Danang :) know that the real secret is to develop gradually but maintain the more relaxed habits that make for a higher quality of life. In other words, stay away from the rat race as long as we possibly can because, as an old bumper sticker I read said "Even when you win in the rat race, you're still a rat" ...