July 3, 2012
Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia, a place where history lingers on as the spirited people of Vietnam charge into the future. I love especially its French colonial character, a vestige of decades when the tricolor waved over the country. Badly beaten by nationalist armies, the French finally pulled out of Vietnam in 1954, but the U.S. took up the battle against the same enemy in an effort to stem the spread of communism.
When the last American troops evacuated and the north and south reunited in 1973, Vietnam seemed to disappear behind the red walls of its communist regime, stagnating economically until free market reforms were instituted in 2005, stimulating an explosion of growth, with unbridled development in its wake. Saigon shot up, but Hanoi lagged somewhat behind, which helped keep its French colonial architecture and ambience intact. So travelers can still feel the subtle, seductive French-Vietnamese cultural blending that infused couture, art, literature and cuisine during the colonial era in Hanoi.
Embarked on a grand mission civilisatrice, the French colonial administration laid wide, tree-lined boulevards patterned on the Champs Élysées, installed electric lights and built villas in a hybrid style known as Norman Pagoda. With them came the language of Voltaire, Impressionist art, café society and Catholicism, a faith still practiced by an estimated six million Vietnamese.
A first stop for flâneurs is St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a neo-Gothic edifice with twin bell towers to match those of Notre Dame de Paris, completed in 1886 several blocks west of Hoan Kiem Lake. Black Flag guerrillas laid siege to the neighborhood in 1883, forcing harassed French colonists to hide in Ba Da Temple down the block; later the communists closed the cathedral, though worship resumed in 1990, reaching an annual climax at Christmas when choirs sing and little girls wearing traditional red and yellow ao dai tunics perform in a pageant.
Next catch a bicycle taxi—known as a pousse-pousse, which means push-push in French—to the Hanoi Opera House, inspired by the beautiful Palais Garnier in Paris. A yellow and white neo-Classical confection on August Revolution Square, it celebrated its centennial last year and often hosts performances by the Vietnam National Orchestra and Ballet. You have to attend an event to see the marble staircase, French murals and chandeliers inside, as well as the balcony where the Vietminh took control of the city in 1945.
Nearby is the Hotel Metropole, which opened in 1901, one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia, attracting luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on honeymoon, Graham Greene and Joan Baez, who had to take refuge in an underground shelter during U.S. bombing raids in 1972. American war correspondent Stanley Karnow saw the hotel at its nadir during the war. “Paint flaked from the ceilings, its bathroom fixtures leaked and rats scurried around its lobby,” he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam: A History.
But the Metropole re-emerged victoriously after a 1990 restoration, a perfect evocation of the colonial era, beginning with the vintage Citroën parked in the porte- cochere. The three-story lobby yields to intimate sitting rooms lined in dark, precious wood, prints, chinoiserie furniture, orchids and silk, where it’s easy to imagine men in white linen smoking opium-laced cigarettes. Additions were built to the rear, but the rooms in the old section summon up the colonial era best with elegant entryways, sitting areas and beds underneath slowly revolving ceiling fans.
It’s unwise to romanticize the colonial period, of course. French rule impoverished landowners, encouraged opium addiction and almost broke the spirit of a people with a long love of independence. All that’s behind the country now, but the French-Vietnamese style perseveres, a special enchantment for visitors to Hanoi.
April 26, 2012
In 2006 when the People’s Republic of China started railroad service from Beijing to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa—a 2,525-mile route cresting at 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass—people like me got in line. Though critics have seen it as yet another means for China to despoil Tibet’s cultural and mineral riches, I was studying Mandarin in Beijing and I couldn’t pass up the chance to take the railroad trip of a lifetime. I did think about waiting because I’d heard there were plans for a luxury version of the train, managed by Kempinski Hotels, with private-bath suites, elegant dining cars and window-lined lounges.
Then spring break came around and I couldn’t wait any longer. I flew to Lhasa and got a train ticket back to Beijing in a four-berth soft sleeper; it had pressed cotton sheets, pillows, comforters, TV monitors with headsets and oxygen canisters for victims of altitude sickness. All quite congenial at first. But it’s a 40-hour trip, so conditions deteriorated along the way (especially in the restrooms). At mealtime, passengers filed into the dining car for unappetizing food or bought noodles on the platform during brief stops.
I’d have been miserable, but every time I found myself wishing for a cup of coffee or a hot bath, all I had to do to raise my spirits was press my nose to the window. The first day we crossed the Tibetan Plateau, which looks like Utah with Alaska on top. Nameless ranges of snowcapped peaks passed by; fur-clad villagers stared at railroad crossings and yaks bolted off the tracks. The Chinese government spent millions to cross the plateau by rail, piping liquid nitrogen through the tracks to keep them from buckling during a thaw and building underpasses for wildlife.
I fell asleep after a 30-minute stop in the lonely mining town of Golmud, then woke the next morning in the heart of the Middle Kingdom, decorated with sunshine and cherry blossoms. I remember passing through Xi’an, home of the terra-cotta warriors, before tucking in the second night, followed by wake-up the next morning at Beijing’s West Station.
In retrospect, I’m glad I made the trip when I did because the 5-star Beijing-Lhasa train is on what looks like permanent hold. Fifty percent owned by the flush Chinese electronic company Huawei, it’s still being touted. But Kempinski has bowed out and the perhaps too fast-and-furiously growing Chinese railway system has suffered setbacks: to wit, an accident last July on a new high-speed line in eastern China that killed 43 people and the imprisonment of the nation’s railway minister, suspected of graft.
So don’t wait for amenities on the railroad that crosses the Middle Kingdom to the Tibetan Plateau. Question your soul about the political correctness of taking a PRC train to embattled Tibet. And then, if you ask me, go.
November 29, 2011
General Joseph Stilwell (1883-1946), known affectionately as “Vinegar Joe,” is one of my favorite American war heroes. His career—West Point, World War I in France, service as a military attache in Beijing and, most notably, command of U.S. forces in China, India and Burma during World War II—is masterfully described in Barbara Tuchman’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945.
Recently I discovered that it’s possible to see the man in action in The Stilwell Road, a 1947 U.S. War Department documentary, narrated by Ronald Reagan. Using vintage film footage, it tells the story of the general’s effort to retake northern Burma from the Japanese and supply beleaguered Chinese forces under Generalissmo Chiang Kai-Shek by building an 500-mile road across Pangsau Pass in the Himalayas. The Stilwell Road, as it came to be known, was an impressive engineering feat, completed in 1944, costing millions of dollars, thousands of lives and the good will of Air Force commander Claire Chennault who favored flying supplies over “The Hump” instead building a precarious land link from India to China.
Someday, I’d love to follow the Stilwell Road, though its most accessible portal is located in a rough, isolated corner of India plagued by unrest, terrorism and tension with neighboring China. I’d like to see the Stilwell monument in the West Point Cemetery and the plaque on his house in Carmel, California.
But there’s one “Vinegar Joe” site I have visited and won’t forget: the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing, China, where the general lived while liaising with Chiang Kai-Shek, then fighting both the Japanese and a Communist insurgency that would spiral into China’s long and brutal Civil War, ending in the establishment of the Peoples Republic. While Stilwell was there he grew increasingly disenchanted with corruption and subterfuge in Chiang‘s Nationalist government, ultimately opening communication with the Red Army under Mao Zedong, earning him hero status in contemporary China. The museum has artifacts and displays (with English subtitles) outlining the general‘s distrust of the Nationalists and efforts to put American relations with China on a new track. Ultimately, the powerful American China Lobby, headed by Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to recall him. Sometimes I wonder how the China-U.S. relationship would have unfolded had Stilwell’s voice been heard.
November 23, 2011
China’s ever-growing global power and influence just got another mark of recognition: The 2011 Pritzker Prize—which goes to Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura—will be awarded on May 25, 2012, in Beijing.
Considered the Nobel of architecture, the prize was created by Hyatt Hotel chain co-founder Jay A. Pritzker in 1979 (Philip Johnson was the first laureate). Award ceremonies are traditionally held in different cities around the world, but this is the first time the Chinese capital has served. The foundation that governs the prize said it based its selection on the proliferation of projects by past Pritzker winners currently rising in Beijing.
I’ll say. When I was last there in 2007, I watched a whole portfolio of them rise. A Pritzker-in-Bejing tour—not to attempt on foot, given the city’s size—should include:
National Stadium on the Fourth Ring Road
Built for the 2008 Olympics and affectionately known as the “Bird’s Nest“ for its singular round, woven design, the stadium was created by the Swiss architectural team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who collected a Pritzker in 2001.
Central Chinese Television headquarters in the Central Business District
It’s impossible not to rubberneck at this truly amazing structure designed by Rem Koolhaas, Pritzker class of 2000, and his then partner Ole Scheeren. The CCT Building, which was damaged in a fire and is still under construction, has two 50-story legs, connected by an angling 13-story bridge; when the observation deck opens visits will discover that the garden below replicates an 18th century map of Rome by Piranesi.
Four rounded, interconnected, steel and glass mounds in the international business district of Dongzhimen are beginning to look like buildings, as intended by London-based architect Zaha Hadid (Pritzker 2004). When completed Galaxy Soho, an office and retail complex, will join a small handful of projects completed by an architect know for mind and space-bending designs sometimes too complex to execute.
Capital Airport about 20 miles northeast of the city center used to be dowdy and inefficient. But in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics it got an ultra-modern new terminal designed by Norman Foster, whose 1999 Pritzker came about a decade after he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Cool, window-clad and massive, T3 Beijing is the hub for Air China and thus unavoidable if you fly in on the national carrier.
October 28, 2011
Just saw Chinglish, a new comedy at Broadway’s Longacre Theater by David Henry Hwang who won both a Tony and Pulitzer Prize for his play M. Butterfly in the late 1980′s. Since then Hwang has written opera librettos, screenplays and more plays, most of which explore the taught, tangled relationship between Occident and Orient.
I jumped at the chance to see his latest because, like other people who have traveled in China, I got a lot of entertainment from signs in hilariously mangled English. “Chinglish,” as its called is only the most obvious cultural barrier met in Hwang’s play by an American trying to do business in the People’ Republic, where signs advise English-speakers to Take Note of Safety: The Slippery Are Very Crafty (a very rough translation for Watch Your Step). A bathroom that accommodates a disabled person is designated Deformed Man Toilet.
In the play, Hwang takes the theme of miscommunication a step further with scenes showing the American in meetings with a Chinese minister whose words are rendered into English by an inept interpreter, with closer translations shown to the audience in subtitles. In this way, the Chinese for “His hands are tied“ becomes “He is in bondage,” and when the minister says “Travel home safely,” the American is told, “Leave in Haste.”
If it weren’t so funny, it would be depressing, one more instance of fundamental incompatibility between East and West, of Kipling’s “Never the twain shall meet.” When the American embarks on a liaison with the minister’s beautiful deputy, it seems as if hot sex in a hotel room may form a bridge. But that proves even more misleading than language, as in Sofia Coppola‘s haunting 2003 movie, Lost In Translation.
What’s an English-speaker in China to do? Learn Mandarin, of course, but that’s not so easy. With tens of thousands of characters, some requiring over 20 strokes to write, and tone-driven pronunciations hard for foreign-speakers to discern, standard Chinese is the study of a lifetime. Still, more and more students are taking it up. The Chinese Ministry of Education recently estimated that 40 million people around the world are studying Mandarin, and China’s popularity among U.S. exchange students increased more than 100% between 2002 and 2007.
I spent 5 months in 2008 studying at Beijing Language and Culture Institute, a government-sponsored school that specializes in teaching Chinese to overseas students. Three hours of instruction 5 days a week left me with a semi-permanent migraine, a 6-inch stack of vocabulary flash cards and the ability to haggle for fruit and vegetables in the market near my dorm. Alas, I‘ve forgotten most of it now. But I still have a trusty little book, “I Can Read That!” by Julie Mazel Sussman, teaching travelers to identify basic characters and phrases. These are good to know because, trust me, the slippery are very crafty.