|15-21 January 2006|
|Monday, 16 Jan
The antiquary in me is intrigued. If an 18th Century Chinese map of the world really is – at its creator claimed – a copy of one from 1418, it would add serious weight to the theory that Admiral Zheng He/Cheng Ho’s fleet visited America before Columbus, and went round the rest of the world too.
Which is more probable?
1. The eunuch not only sailed to India, the Middle East and East Africa in 1421-23, which no-one doubts, but circumnavigated the globe via the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn a century before Magellan and also dropped in on Europe, Australia and Antarctica.
2. The mapmaker was lying – he had copied a more recent, Western-influenced work.
The first theory has gained popularity thanks to the book 1421 – The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies, whose beliefs rest on the spacemen-built-the-pyramids sort of evidence much loved by fans of pseudoscience. Menzies has been debunked as junk history. Other supposed evidence of Chinese exploration, like reports of Chinese DNA among Maoris or peanuts and tomato seeds in ancient imperial tombs, has never come to anything.
Viewing the chart, the words that come to my mind are‘17th Century’ and ‘gwailo’. Whoever put together the original outline knew the world was round and could place geographical features more or less correctly in terms of longitude and latitude and therefore in scale. The Jesuits introduced serious mappaemundi to China from 1600 and had their work criticized and even banned for showing the middle kingdom as anything other than a vast area surrounded by small and adoring tributary barbarian states. Up to that time (and later), all known Chinese world maps were wildly inaccurate. Portugal was described in one as a place south of Java that traded in small children as food. Another divided the distant world into lands of small men, large men, etc.
|Above – ‘Chinese map’ 1418
Left – Gwailo map, 1633
Below – Chinese map, 1750
|In the West, the great voyages of discovery from the late 15th century onward ignited interest in “capturing the world as a single ordered image.” But Zheng He's earlier--and in some ways much more impressive--sea voyages had no such effect in China; in fact, they were a source of embarrassment. And whereas the possession and display of a world map or globe from the Renaissance onward in Europe signified that the owner was “a knowledgeable and worldwise citizen,” it meant no such thing in imperial China. Thus, until forced to reconsider their craft by new political and cultural priorities, Chinese mapmakers generally made the choice to depict the world not so much in terms of how it “actually” was, but rather in terms of how they wanted it to be.
Richard J. Smith , Rice University
|While even The Economist is taking this “fresh and dramatic evidence” seriously, China’s historical officialdom is bemused. Beijing appreciates Cheng Ho’s ability to stir feelings of national pride, and they especially like the idea of him zipping through the Spratly and Paracel Islands, thus providing incontrovertible historical evidence that the South China Sea is an integral part of the motherland. Claiming America would be pushing it.
Tue, 17 Jan
In the gwailo’s lair on the top floor of S-Meg Tower in the heart of Asia’s international financial hub, streams of emails ooze and dribble from every electronic orifice on my PC onto my already cluttered desk. Many make slightly predictable but nonetheless witty comments portraying the Chinese map of the world as the first in a long line of pirated goods, a precursor of today’s counterfeit DVDs and fake Louis Vuitton bags. Then there is a plaintive plea from a talented former and greatly missed South China Morning Post writer…
|From: Tinnie Chow
How are you?
Do you mind taking me off your website? I appreciate your comments, but it seems a bit unnecessary as I am no longer in Hong Kong and it is now January 2006. I would be ever so grateful. I wish you the best in the year of the dog and hope Hong Kong is treating you well.
|Which obviously calls for a sensitive reply…|
|Greetings, Tinnie! As ever, life is wonderful here. You are absolutely correct that it is now January 2006, and I do not doubt your word that you are no longer in Hong Kong. As you know, a diary is a permanent record of events. What would be the point if, every seven days, a diarist tore out the pages and threw them away? To maintain the historical integrity of such work, it is impossible for people who keep journals to tamper with entries once they are written. So, unfortunately, I cannot change the entry for 31 January 2004 - which is a pity since, re-reading it, I see that I made the point that tapas and mezze are not Moroccan in an overly obtuse way. Still, it's a lovely picture!
With all the best,
PS - I notice that the material in question comes top of the list when you Google "Tinnie Chow". Perhaps that was what led you to write to me. If so, I think you will find you can dislodge it by arranging for another site mentioning your name (your own site, perhaps?) to overtake it in readership. Changing the spelling of your name (eg, Chau instead of Chow) would also work, of course.
|Flicking through the news, it is hard not to get the impression that the Far East is experiencing a bout of pre-Lunar New Year lethargy in which nothing of interest is happening – rather like the current-affairs doldrums that becalm the Western world’s media in late summer. A sub-headline on the front page of the Financial Times announces, ‘Sceptics say Thai prime minister’s vow to use a reality TV show to eliminate poverty is a gimmick’. A cynic, on the other hand, would wonder why the Philippine’s leaders didn’t think of it first. The SCMP gives pride of place to a report that Beijing will have a Disney Park by 2010. This, readers are told, represents a crushing blow to Shanghai, where citizens are reportedly slashing their wrists rather than suffer the prolonged deprivation and starvation that surely awaits them as their economy goes into inevitable decline in the absence of The Mouse.
Similarly, Hongkongers are, as I write, leaping from tall buildings to their deaths on receiving the unbearable news that Singapore has overtaken their city as the solar system’s number-one mover of metal boxes on and off ships. The Singapore Government has ordered all taxi drivers to proudly announce this latest tribute to Lee Kuan-yew’s visionary policies on eugenics, censorship and chewing gum to all passengers picked up at the airport.
Meanwhile, back in the Mainland, the latest outbreak of terminal paranoia leads the authorities to identify and clamp down on another threat to civilization – Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia that approaches the Britannica for accuracy even though the most deranged and ignorant people on the planet are free to amend or update it. This is good news. The site’s quality will be all the better now the glorious motherland’s millions of mouth-frothing, Japan-hating, America-hating, Taiwan-hating ultra-nationalist students will be unable to corrupt its contents.
ONE OF the cleverest, though not especially demanding, Times crossword clues I have seen for a while…
|Isolated place, El Asmada? (9)|
|Wed, 18 Jan
Not even the unexpected appearance in the Tinnie Chow saga of low-bred but finely manicured English soccer player David Beckham can distract Hong Kong’s business community from the puzzlement permeating the city’s boardrooms. How can we make sense of the Government’s proposal, apparently produced under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, to ban companies from giving expatriate remuneration packages to permanent residents of the Big Lychee under new laws against racial discrimination? “How would they enforce it?” chuckles the Big Boss in the morning meeting. Not that it worries him. S-Meg Holdings, like all traditional, family-run, Chinese firms, does not do ‘packages’. It knows that loyal and trustworthy men don’t want namby-pamby housing allowances, limp-wristed dental plans or lame school fees. They want money – tons of it. What they do with it is their affair. All that matters is that in return for giving it, you own them. It’s that simple.
|At the Swine Group, Jardine Phlegm or the masters-of-the-universe-infested investment banks, much of the cost to the company of hiring top people never sees the inside of the employee’s pocket. It’s like paying people in sacks of rice – it’s to modern HR practice what the safari suit is to fashion. But the foreign firms carry on doing it. The old British hongs make sure their ‘chaps’ are unnecessarily well housed (by the standards of gloomy, damp, old places on the Peak) as a sort of one-upmanship. The modern multinationals aim to provide their high-fliers with identical suburban living conditions, insulated from local contamination, anywhere in the world, no matter the cost. Sometimes, the company probably pays the landlord more than the expat.
But surely, the people who suffer from such executive compensation follies are the shareholders of the companies concerned. The intended beneficiaries of the proposed anti-discrimination law, on the other hand, are, if I understand correctly, our duskier fellow citizens, who for years have had to grin and bear it as Cantonese employers, landlords and bus passengers fled in fear of the deadly curry fumes their parents warned them about many years ago. Now, Home Affairs official Stephen Fisher declares that applying for permanent residency after seven years is “a conscious decision to give up expat pay packages.” A conscious decision to get access to the faster immigration channel at the airport, maybe. A conscious decision to be ineligible for deportation if convicted of a crime, perhaps. A conscious decision to gain the right to vote in our exciting and democratic elections, even. But to give up perks?
Seeking enlightenment, I call shapely Administrative Officer Winky Ip, but she is too busy trying to stuff both her permanent ID card and air-conditioning allowance into her wallet. So I have to conjecture. My mind drifts back just a few years, when Tung Chee-hwa’s administration banned Filipino domestic helpers from driving (mainly expats’) cars as part of their duties and ended expatriates’ spouses’ right to automatic work permits. No jobs for local people were created or saved. It was just a bit of populist gwailo-bashing, to enable the crop-haired one to tell local labour unions, “Look, we’re doing something that hurts gwailos, just to prove how much we want to make you happy, so will you please please please be my friend now?” In response to squealing from the dead-husband-in-rolled-up-carpet brigade, Tofu-for-brains’ new rules were implemented half-heartedly.
This feels similar. Do something that apparently damages whites’ interests to make the yellow people feel better about having to be nicer to the brown ones. Fascinating thing, politics.
Thurs, 19 Jan
Strolling into my office this morning, I find myself wading knee-deep through a veritable flood of emails, including a request from the Fringe Club for a contribution to a time capsule, a business proposal from someone who thinks silent toenail clippers exist, and…
|To Whom It May Concern:
It has come to my attention that you are posting photos of my client, Tinnie Chow, without the permission of my client nor Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) the source and licensees of the photo you have posted. Additionally you are using excerpts from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) without their permission. In order to prevent further action please remove the photo of Tinnie Chow immediately and remove the quotes from the SCMP pending your getting clearance from them to reproduce said quotes.
John Lin, Esq.
XXXX S. Bedford St.
Los Angeles, CA 90034
|A surge of adrenaline through my system gets my heart beating. I am in Seriously Deep Legal Trouble! Gasping for breath, I look nervously to the door. Is it about to be kicked in by bailiffs, bounty hunters and hit-men wielding warrants, handcuffs and guns? No. Because the door’s open. Still, they would probably strike it as they burst in, for effect. I lean over and survey S-Meg Tower’s private office. All is quiet. Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary is pouting her way from her desk to the Big Boss’s lair, clutching a little hot water bottle to her abdomen emblazoned with the warning ‘Menstruation in progress – keep clear’. No-one will get past her alive. I am safe.
I re-read the missive. The email address is private, not corporate. There is no corporate identitfication, no verbose disclaimers, no learned waffle about Justice Story’s decision in Folsom v. Marsh, 9 F.Cas. 342 (1841). I start to smile. The world is full of lawyers pretending to be human, but the opposite is rare and deserves a courteous and understanding response…
|Dear Mr Esq,
Warmest greetings! It has come to my attention that you believe the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation of Canada and the South China Morning Post are weak and pitiful institutions on the verge of collapsing as a result of one small, Hong Kong-based, not-for-profit public-service website quoting extremely small samples* of their past content. I am delighted to assure you that this is far from the case. Large numbers of websites (some of whose names I have, if you are interested) routinely plunder significant quantities of material from one or both news organizations, yet – happily – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation of Canada and the South China Morning Post continue to thrive. Doing so, despite both having lost your client's talents at some time, they can surely withstand any adversity!
Now we have dispensed with that – how is Los Angeles these days? The last time I was there, Ronald Reagan was in the White House. I would normally mention the price then of a can of beer by way of nostalgic illustration of the passage of time, but I was too young in those days to buy it and would never (it goes without saying) stoop so low as to use fake ID.
Well, enough chitchat. Please convey my best regards to Mrs Esq.
Peace and love.
PS: My friend Odell asks me to pass on a message, namely (in bowdlerized form) “get a life.” Between you and me, I usually recommend that people ignore his advice.
* The photo I believe you have in mind measures only 88 by 88 pixels (or dots of colour/tone). As the pointillists used to say – “It could be anyone!” It is 3 kilobytes in size, which means that in terms of filched property it is in the order of a paperclip rather than a vault of gold bullion. I am dismayed that you imagine I would sully my diary with South China Morning Post output other than in extreme circumstances covered by a principle known as ‘fair use’, but will let it pass.
|Fri, 20 Jan
In the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, I ask wild American friend Odell if he will undertake an important assignment for me during the first week of Chinese New Year. I spare him the exact details, but assure him that it will provide opportunities for him to attain public greatness. “Do it right,” I tell him, “and scores of nubile women will flock to you, devouring you with their eyes, flinging items of intimate apparel at your feet and begging you to sire their offspring.” I wipe the drool from his mouth as he tightens his grip on his marshmallow, jojoba and greengage yoghurt. “But first, the aptitude test.” I unfold a scrap of newspaper and point to one highlighted line…
|Isolated place, El Asmada? (9)|
|I have largely given up trying to teach Odell how to do cryptic crosswords, but not before igniting some brief sparks of understanding. He studies it for a few moments. “The answer is a word meaning ‘isolated place’, with nine letters,” he states. I remain silent. “Not an anagram,” he muses, “since ‘El Asmada’ has eight letters.” He frowns for a few seconds then recalls my advice – find the answer first, then find out why it’s right. “OK – an isolated place... Umm… Boonies? Backwoods?” He lights up and traces his finger along the paper. “Adam’s ale!” It’s Adam’s ale backwards. Water... backwards… Backwater!” I sigh with relief. Now I have a week to train him to impart wisdom, entertain voyeurs and, most of all, to observe and chronicle the course of human events in the Big Lychee for posterity. It will be a disaster. He’s an idiot.
QUITE RIGHTLY, the Big Boss turned down his invitation to join the Strategic Development Commission. Membership offers no potential for serious shoe-shining, let alone influence-peddling. The sprawling talking shop is supposed to connect our visionary Chief Executive with a broad cross-section of the community – a strange community, with no people, just ‘various sectors’. Nearly everyone who joined up seems to have done so reluctantly. The idea that a clutch of academics, tycoons, Mainland businessmen-cum-officials, pro-democrats, union leaders and all-purpose busybodies and bores can arrive at a consensus on anything is ridiculous. As Margaret Thatcher said, consensus is the absence of leadership. In our case, the search for consensus is the excuse to avoid change.
But they still send their papers to the tireless Chairman of S-Meg Holdings, who then dumps them on the Company Gwailo, who then has to tear himself away from hilarious attempts at communication between lawyers and humans to read them. Which is why my mid-morning countdown to the start of the weekend is disrupted by an Epsilon, who crawls into my office on the floor, performs a kowtow, deposits a thick envelope on my desk and then shuffles out backwards – and I find myself reading the papers for today’s meeting of the Committee on Governance and Political Development.
To warn members of the tedium ahead, Paper 1 explains that the task for 2006 will be to decide what ‘universal suffrage’ means. On a slightly more mundane note, they must also decide in what order to discuss exciting issues for 2007, such as nurturing political talent and developing political parties.
Paper 2 introduces participants to the constitutional basis of the Basic Law’s provisions on this concept with the yet-to-be-decided meaning, ‘universal suffrage’. Despite pre-1997 assurances that Hong Kong would have autonomy over everything except defence and foreign affairs, it seems we will never in fact even have New York or London’s right to choose our own mayor. Even if we elect one through this thing we don’t know the meaning of called ‘universal suffrage’, Beijing will still actually decide. Can’t be helped. Unitary state, don’t you know?
Not being expected to attend the meeting, I resist the temptation to slash my wrists, and press on to Paper 3, where I find a treat is in store for aficionados of Constitutional Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam’s unique brand of casuistry What is the meaning of ‘universal suffrage’? How many functional constituencies can dance on the head of a pin? Is it in any way possible that ‘universal suffrage’ can include appointments and indirect elections to public office? Are there any clues to the answer in the unelected elements in the upper houses of the Canadian, Irish and UK parliaments? Are there any clues to the answer in the US presidential election system, which “is a form of indirect election, and this is also compatible with Article 25 of the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]”. Could it be that, as in a crossword, we have already decided the answers and are now working out why they are right?