Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Melaka River

Previously I shared a view of the Melaka River from "my office". The view definitely proved conducive to prolonged pondering. The river also provided some rather enjoyable strolls. And one night I had the idea to sit next to it while sharing a bottle of wine with a friend. From that experience I discovered two things: 1. Finding a bottle of wine on a weekday night in Melaka's historic city center is more challenging than I would have expected. 2. Melaka's mosquitos have a strong affinity for people who drink wine next to the river during evening. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable experience.

So, in honor of one of my new favorite small rivers, below are a few photos of the Melaka River taken during some of my walks. Maybe they can inspire some more pondering.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Lanzhou Potato Interlude

Due to my travels, most recents posts have focused on Malaysia. For readers who are yearning for scenes from China, here is where last year I bought some spicy potatoes in Lanzhou, Gansu province:

man and woman selling potatoes and other foods in Lanzhou, China

Some more scenes from Lanzhou can be found in my posts "Zhengning Street Food Night Market in Lanzhou, China" and "Chinese Being Friendly to a Foreigner in China".

And yes, they were good potatoes.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Flying Above the Kampung Kling Mosque

I spent this evening sorting out some upcoming travel plans, including a likely air flight. In that spirit, here is a flight I recently saw above the Kampung Kling Mosque in Melaka, Malaysia.

bird flying above the Kampung Kling Mosque

More later...

Monday, February 4, 2013

An Attack in Melaka

Late last night while sitting on a 2nd story porch overlooking the Melaka River, I heard a woman scream something. For a brief moment, I was uncertain what to make of it. But her screams quickly increased in both frequency and volume. So I rushed to the edge of the porch. Roughly about 150 feet away on the dimly lit walkway next to the river I saw a woman crouched down and a person, apparently a male, physically harassing her. There was no quick and easy way for me to get down to the walkway, so I belted out a loud "HEY!" The man froze and then took off running to disappear down a alley. The woman quickly got up and ran into one of the nearby buildings.

A minute or so later I was able to make my way to where the woman had been. Several other people who had heard the screaming were also there. None had seen the struggle, but one person had seen the man running away. I saw what appeared to be the man's sandals and one of the woman's sandals. There were also a couple of potted plants in the area that had been knocked over. We were not able to sort out which building the woman had fled into, and we learned little more. Given some warnings I've seen posted in Melaka, I suspect what I saw was an attempted purse snatching. But I don't know. All I know is that the woman got away.

The End. Kind of...

Normally, I probably wouldn't have thought of sharing this story here. Sadly, it is not particularly remarkable for many places in the world. And while it is good to take some precautions, Melaka feels much safer to me than many cities in the U.S. But the experience touched on another topic I've discussed here before.

Prior to hearing the woman's screams, I had been speaking with a man I had just met. He is from Chongqing, China, and we had been discussing topics such as Chinese politics and censorship. After I returned to the porch, he praised me for scaring off the attacker, who he had seen as well. I explained that no praise was necessary. All it took was yelling. It is just what you should do.

But he shook his head slowly and said, "People in China would not have done what you did. They would not want to get involved." He later added, "I did not think to yell like you."

His words brought to my mind the incident in Foshan, China, where many people ignored a severely injured little girl who had been hit by a truck. None of them even yelled for someone to get help. I still have no sure and complete answer to what that tragedy says about China or about human psychology. But even in that case, one person finally did try to help the little girl. I know not everyone in China refuses to get involved when strangers need help.

And I think... I think if the man from Chongqing ever again experiences something like what he saw in Melaka there is a better chance he too will get involved, even if it is just by yelling.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Old War Movie Posters in Melaka

The other day I spent some time at Melaka's Democratic Government Museum. I haven't seen any museums dedicated to this topic in China, so it seemed like a good change of pace. While there, I noticed a series of posters for older Western-produced war movies involving Malaysia. I couldn't find any commentary, but they were placed near a display about Japan's occupation of Malaysia during World War II. Below are photos of the posters for the movies Malaya (1949), Uppdrag i Malaya (1957), Operation Malaya (1953), Outpost in Malaya (1952), and The Rape of Malaya (1956).

The posters first caught my attention because of their visual style. But it was some of their words that made the biggest impression. Maybe phrases similar to "In Malaya, you kiss a girl with your eyes wide open and a gun in your hand!" could be found on movie posters today. But there is much to consider about the choice of words in "They were women.. and they were white... at the mercy of the Japs who knew no mercy!"

Anyways, maybe I will later watch at least one of these movies. Any recommendations?

Movie poster for Malaya

Uppdrag i Malaya movie poster

Operation Malaya movie poster

Outpost in Malaya movie poster

The Rape of Malaya movie poster

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Internet Versus Xiaolongbao

I'm used to hearing complaints in China, particularly by foreigners fresh off the plane, about the speed of Internet connections. But I've recently noticed a number of people in the U.S. complaining about services there as well. It is a reminder to me that not all is entirely "smooth" even back in my homeland.

It also reminds me of when I signed up for Internet service for my apartment in Shanghai a number of years ago. Some Chinese friends encouraged me to seek out cheaper "unofficial" services, but I wanted to do it by the book and went to the local China Telecom branch. A service representative there explained to me that three data speeds were offered. As I considered them, the representative added that there was no reason to chose the fastest / most expensive option. I asked why, and she quietly told me the speed would actually be the same as the middle option.

I pondered life and humanity. Quickly realizing I wasn't going to get anywhere useful with that line of thought, I then weighed the possibility that the woman was correct versus the possibility that she was mistaken--for example, maybe the service quality varied across different regions. I also considered that the difference in price between the middle and most expensive options was at the time roughly around US $1.50 per month.

I decided it was worth giving the fastest option a try. I wish I could say for sure what went through the representative's mind, but based on her facial expressions I feel safe saying it wasn't anything like "Brilliant choice, oh wise one".

When a technician later set up the service at my apartment, he had me connect to a local site which could measure the speed of the connection. It reported a speed consistent with what China Telecom (but not the service representative) had promised. Even in my optimistic state, I looked at the numbers with skepticism. Nonetheless, I heartily thanked the man who had brought me my connection to the world (well, at least with the aid of a VPN).

My later experiences dealing with an Internet connection that often crawled along at speeds much slower than a giant centipede in Hong Kong convinced me the kind service representative had been correct. However, if I had listened to her I may have always wondered if things might be a little better if I had gone with the "faster" option. So maybe it was still money well spent. But then again, you could buy a rather healthy portion of xiaolongbao for a $1.50 in those days.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Next to the River in Melaka

I have been a bit distracted the past couple of days, but I recently found a peaceful place where I can focus on writing a few posts.

small table and chaires overlooking a river
My temporary "office" next to the Melaka River in Melaka, Malaysia

So, more soon...

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Signing for Love in Malaysia

What's the best way to seek a boyfriend's forgiveness? One young woman in Malaysia decided the answer included collecting signatures from people in various Malaysian cities and taking photographs with them while she held a sign. When I happened to meet her today in Melaka, she already had many signatures in a previously blank book. For what was she seeking forgiveness? That didn't seem to be something she wanted to discuss.

Young woman holding a sign and standing next to two other young women. Sign reads " I hope my BF will forgive me. 1 sign = 1 Support. I Nid Yr Support. Thank U."

One reason her actions caught my attention was that I could imagine a similar story playing out in China on a service such as Sina Weibo. And like the messages I saw on a bulletin board in a Changsha dormitory room, there could be important insights to gain about why she did not chose to express herself online.

Many may now be wondering if her boyfriend will respond favorably when she shares the fruits of her efforts. Without knowing more I don't think I could make a meaningful prediction. But she happily agreed to provide an update. If I hear anything, I'll pass it on.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Four Malaysian Girls and a Boy Band Book

4 girls, 3 wearing a hajib, looking at a computer screen in a bookstore

The girls in the above photo were excitedly talking to each other and giggling while using a computer at a mall bookstore in Melaka, Malaysia. They were seeking the book The One Direction Story: An Unauthorized Biography by Danny White. For readers not familiar with One Direction, according to Wikipedia:
One Direction are an English-Irish pop boy band based in London, consisting of members Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson. They signed with Simon Cowell's record label Syco Records after being formed and finishing third in the seventh series of British television singing competition The X Factor in 2010. The group subsequently signed in the United States with Columbia Records. Their two albums Up All Night (2011) and Take Me Home (2012), broke several records, topped the charts of most major markets, and generated worldwide chart-topping singles, including "What Makes You Beautiful" and "Live While We're Young".

Propelled to international success by the power of social media, One Direction are often described as sparking the resurgence in the boy band concept, and of forming part of a new "British Invasion" in the United States.
I have no deep insights to share about the popularity of boy bands. I'll just say that the above scene did not strike me as out of the ordinary for Malaysia and that minus a few hijabs it is one I could imagine commonly occurring in any U.S. city.

Friday, January 25, 2013


The woman in the above photo is tabulating my bill for the delicious lunch I enjoyed at her Nonya restaurant in Penang, Malaysia. In short, Nonya cuisine is a fusion of Chinese and Malaysian cooking styles.

If you ask her where she's from, she'll unhesitatingly say, "Malaysia"--not so surprising since she and her parents were born there. Her grandparents were born in China, though. And she marvels that they made the journey to a new country where their future was unknown. Her family's story of immigrating to another country and becoming a part of its culture reminded me of many families in the U.S.

When she asked where I was from, I mentioned that I used to live in Baltimore, Maryland. To my surprise, she was familiar with the city. She then excitedly told me about her visits there to see her son who works at a school rather familiar to me, Johns Hopkins University. More specifically, he works at its Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). She proudly showed me one of his published articles. I probably would need another degree to fully understand it, but I could see that his work is relevant to a variety of complex projects, including the MESSENGER spacecraft which is now circling the planet Mercury as part of NASA's explorations.

She mentioned she has traveled to places in the U.S. other than Baltimore. For example, she visited the World Trade Center in New York City before it was destroyed by terrorists. And she revisited the site when construction of the memorial there had just begun. It made a large impression on her, especially since she views the U.S. as the world's leading country.

She also told me about her arrival in the U.S. during a recent trip. It wasn't the same as her previous visit. This time, like other foreigners, she was fingerprinted at immigration. She saw it as a sign of the changes in America after the September 11 attacks. But I'm not sure she would have mentioned it to me except for a small problem. She has no fingerprints--something she attributes to years of working with her hands, although the condition can also be caused by a rare genetic mutation. Whatever the cause, her husband passed on through immigration while she was brought to another room.

As time passed without any update on her situation, she worried about missing her connecting flight. After sitting for a while not sure what would happen next, she approached one of the officials and explained her predicament. She asked how they could be concerned about an unarmed woman with proper documentation who was more than 70 years old and had visited the U.S. before without incident. So they decided to try fingerprinting her again. Not surprisingly, she still had no fingerprints. And for that reason there appeared to be doubt about whether she would be allowed to enter the U.S. After much discussion between various immigrations officials, though, they decided to let her pass through. Her husband had been patiently waiting for her, and they were able to make the next flight.

The woman from Penang told me she doesn't expect to see her son in the U.S. again. When I asked why, she told me about her recent knee surgery and her concern that the long trip might not be good for her. But she spoke in what seemed to be an uncertain voice. And after seeing the bafflement in her eyes as she told me about her experience at U.S. immigration and later asked me how a country as powerful and free as the U.S. could now become worried about someone like her, it is easy to wonder whether there isn't another reason she doesn't plan to return.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Another Refresher Post

As I did once before, I will share a variety of older posts that are now buried by many others but may be of interest to newer readers.

1.  A Most Amazing Payday in ShanghaiA Most Delicious Lunch Without Meat -- These are two stories about a young woman I met who moved to Shanghai to pursue some of her dreams. She could only marvel at how her life has improved since she was a child in southwest China.

2.  Discoveries Leading to Questions: "Sansumg" Computers and Bilingual Notes in Nanning -- Here I provided a light glimpse of one of the research methods I have used for companies such as Microsoft in China. It emphasizes a key point: research is not only about finding answers. It is also about finding the right questions. I followed up this topic in the next post -- A Computer at a Hair Salon in Liuzhou, Guangxi.

3.  Facebook, Taiwan, and a Waitress's Comments on Censorship in China -- This post shares an example of how knowledge about what is permissible in Taiwan can impact a Chinese person's views on censorship. Later when I was in Taiwan, I had an experience that further highlighted how Taiwan differs from the other side of the Taiwan Strait. -- Facebook Contrasts: Students in Taiwan and Mainland China.

That's all for now. For more you can find the previous "refresher post" here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Assorted Links: Tech in Southeast Asia, Car Pollution, Borders, and a Homemade Dialysis Machine

There is an ever growing list of pieces that I want to comment on here. So that they all don't get stuck in a bottomless pit due to waiting for time to write the more extensive posts they deserve, I will share a few of them together along with some brief comments.

1. As recent posts here make clear, I have spent the past several weeks in Malaysia. I won't deny that its weather, food, and scenery were a draw. But I was also curious to take a closer look at a key country in a diverse region becoming increasingly relevant for tech companies--somewhat symbolized by an airport in Thailand being the most photographed location on Instagram.

Jon Russell shared his optimism for Southeast Asia in his article "Why Southeast Asia is the world’s most exciting region for startups and tech in 2013" on The Next Web. One of the challenges he mentioned for local startups particularly caught my eye:
Society in many Southeast Asian countries values working for big companies (‘getting the lanyard’), not to mention that few startups can compete against the salary and compensation packages that multinationals and other large businesses can offer.
This reminded me of some of the advantages multinational tech companies with foreign headquarters once enjoyed over local companies in China. It is remarkable how much the landscape has changed in recent years. To keep things brief, for now I will just say that what companies offer and what people seek will continue to evolve. In both respects, a growing variety can be found in China.

2. Michael Dunne, president of Dunne & Company, a Hong Kong-based consultancy specializing in Asian car markets, wrote a post for the China Real Time Report about the growing contribution of cars to China's pollution and the challenges faced in reducing their impact. It raises several key issues, such as why electrical vehicles in China may be best considered as "coal-burning cars". He also addresses why a seemingly simple tactic--reducing pollution by improving the quality of fuel used by vehicles--is not so simple:
Fuel prices are set by the state ostensibly to protect the economy – and especially the rural areas – from affordability shocks.

State-owned oil companies China National Petroleum Corp and Sinopec have been reluctant to invest in world-class refineries that produce high quality fuel because doing so would increase costs that they cannot pass on to the consumer
As I've written before, although the pollution related to China's rapid growth is shared by many, the growth of wealth it represents has not been as equally distributed. "The wealthy" subsidizing (in one way or another) the costs of producing high quality fuel could be one way to acknowledge and partially address this problem. Not only would it help people who truly could not afford an increase in fuel prices, but it would help everyone breathe a little bit better. But like other potential solutions, despite some outside impressions of how China operates it is not a change that could be made with the flip of a switch.

3. In FT Magazine Simon Kuper shares and comments on Valerio Vincenzo's photo essays about borders. Much of the article is about the lack of barriers today at the borders between many European countries. Kuper contrasts these open borders with the past and with today's more restrictive borders elsewhere in the world.

As I read Kuper's article and paged through Vincenzo's thought-provoking photos, I considered some borders not mentioned in the article that I have mentioned before: the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen and the border between Macau and Zhuhai. Both of these borders are remarkable because they restrict the travel of mainland Chinese within their own country. Anyone in Switzerland or Germany can dine at a table straddling the countries' border without needing to show a passport, but mainland Chinese cannot even enter Hong Kong or Macau with only their passport and typically need a special permit (or proof of an onward flight and entry visa to another country). And I can only wish you good luck if you wish to try having a meal which spreads across the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

4. In the category of "Chinese resourcefulness" is a story first reported by Chai Huiqun in China's newspaper Southern Weekly. You can read it in Chinese here. Or you can read Xinhua's English article by Hou Qiang "Homemade dialysis machine sustains uremia sufferer for 13 years":
A sufferer of uremia for 20 years, Hu [Songwen] built his own hemodialysis machine with medical equipment, such as a blood pump and plastic tubing, that he purchased from a local market. The crude device has sustained his life since he stopped going to the hospital 13 years ago. Hu was a junior in college when he was diagnosed with uremia in 1993. After six years of medical treatment, hefty hospital bills completely depleted his family's savings.
See Caixing Online here (H/T Malcolm Moore) for photos of Hu and his machine.

The story reminds me of research conducted by former colleagues. I'll just say designers of medical technology can learn much from cases such as Hu, both in terms of the challenges some people face in China and how people sometimes overcome those challenges.

And that's all for this edition of assorted links.