Guangzhou in 5 senses

Smell: fermented chou4 dou4 fu (Stinky tofu) sizzling on the street corner. Like an intoxicating cross between blue cheese, roses and old socks. (Tastes like chicken… well, weird potent spicy chicken)

Feel: Precarious balance as I try to make my way down the edges of flooded alleys of Dong1pu3zhen4 after a rainstorm. Overflowing storm drains has left surfaces disturbingly greasy.

Taste: Buckwheat groats – nutty and wholesome. Pleasant surprise to find them in a bulk bin in a small supermarket here.


Sound: car horns. The “look-out-I’m-coming-through-this-narrow-street-where-people-walk-and-cycle” courtesy beep. Not so jarring as a Western hornblare, but many times more numerous, they are the commas of the city’s story.

Sight. Guang3zhou1 Train Station, on a regular Wednesday. Hundreds (thousands) of people heading out into Guang3dong1 and beyond, stretched over a massive square, and herded into chunks of dense humanity in places by metal security fences and narrow gates.


Guangzhou CBD. Gleaming glass and steel, pushed into novel and bizzare angles by modern architects.

IMG_20130519_164616 Untitled


Islam in Malaysia: my experience.

00000 - Putrajaya - PutraMosque

Putrajaya mosque, by xiquinhosilva (CC non-commercial)

Around 60% of the population of Malayisa are Muslim, and  Islam has a special relationship  with the state. It’s evident as soon as you come to Malayisa. There is an Islamic banking system, Malay children learn Arabic, pork and booze are not easy to find. Almost all Malay women cover their heads and necks. Muslim men can have up to four wives. Character’s relationships to Allah seemed to play a major role in the only Malay feature film I’ve been to.

Most prominent though, for me, is the adhan , the call to prayer, which echoes around villages and cities alike, 5 times a day*. I haven’t made a recording of my own, but this recording I found on youtube captures the everyday nature of the adhan here.

The call is the shahadah – the statement is that Allah(God) is good,  Allah is one and only one, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.  It is also a invitation to pray (including a suggestion that prayer is better than sleep, in the dawn version!).

This side of Islam speaks to me. The adherence to customs such as headscarf-wearing and halal (which, I discovered, extends to rules about avoiding wet dogs) makes a bit more sense in a context of overall obedience to what is recognised as the divine.

From what little I have picked up, prayer seems to be about humbling oneself before a greater power, physically, verbally and spiritually. It has this deep modesty in common with other of the five pillars of Islam – pilgrimage, giving to charity, fasting and the shahadah itself. Many of us, obsessing about what we can achieve on our own, could perhaps learn from this humility about our own powers and goals.

*The predominance of  domes in Islamic architecture, I am told, is due to their effectiveness as amplifiers for the voice, including the adhan. Nowadays, of course, it’s microphones and speakers.

Family stay: Similiarities

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Election flags in satellite town of KL

The kids laugh lots (and fight a little).

The women work in the kitchen while the men barbeque the meat over an open fire.

K always says he’s going to learn a musical instrument but never gets around to it.

Piggy in the middle, peaknuckle, tumbling with the toddler.

Every party’s slogan seems like a meaningless platitude.

Family stay: Differences

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Eat with your hands. K says “your fingers release enzymes that help with digestion, especially if you lick them”.  It also means it’s harder for me to burn my tongue by putting something too hot in my mouth.

When one shakes the hand of a respected elder one can (should?) also kiss it.

Electioneering continues on election day.

Bidet-type hoses and water buckets, not toilet paper.

Kampong Rice and salted fish for breakfast

Rooster in the suburbs.

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Under the Surface

I’ve just spent eight days at Pulau Tioman (Tioman Island) in the South China Sea. Inhabited only for the last 150 years or so, and 2hrs by ferry from the less developed East Coast of Malaysia, it has retained most of its jungle. It is also surrounded by coral. (Pity about the litter that punctuates the coral beaches and, less often, the reefs)

English: Tioman Island, Malaysia, by Andrew Lih

The power of time spent in or just near the wilderness to rejuvenate and re-energise me is often surprising and always welcome. I arrived feeling run-down, overwhelmed by being on the road again, and the amount of work to do to prepare my PhD application. I had been attacked by bedbugs in a cheap hotel on the mainland, and gnawed by worries of everything that could go wrong with this trip. Now I feel as relaxed as the turtle I saw today, paddling languidly and munching on coral!

I haven’t just been lying on the beach, I’ve been taking advantage of the cool of the mornings and evenings to work on finishing a paper for publication, and resting after lunch. I had worried that this would be a hard place to work. That hasn’t been a problem. I’ve been using the coral reefs just a few hundred metres from my room as a reward and escape, usually around sunset, and only on my final day here treated myself to a full day trip out to the quite spectacular Tulai Is.

What has been a little more difficult has been the loneliness – because I’ve been working quite hard, it’s hard to relate or even have time to meet the other travellers here, and to the locals I’m just a transient. That said, I have made some connections with the restaurant owners and shop hands I see everyday. B the restauranteur talked to me today of spot face morays (look out for that dangerous, strong-jawed eel), land-purchasing tactics (when you apply to buy a patch of jungle, “rich people wonder what is there and put in a bid too”) and the upcoming election. Still, connections in such a touristic place feel a little lopsided or unfulfilling. When I arrived I felt like I could stay forever. Now I’m ready to go and be in a town where people do more than serve tourists. I’ve already got some contacts, through, in Kuala Lumpur.

But ah.. under the surface! I’m finding it hard to find words to describe the underwater flowering of coral and fish (I’ve always found it hard to describe nature). Many of you may have snorkelled in tropical water yourselves. In lieu of a description, I’ll just briefly say what I’m taking away with me.

1) The sound. Snorkelling can lead one to a silent world, but not here. The sound of fish grazing on coral is truly incredible – like the crackling of a campfire or heavy raindrops on stone.

Hawksbill Turtle: I saw one of these beauties!

Nomad Within (Pete DeMarco). Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

2) The variety. Colours, sizes, behaviour of fish. Colours and shapes of coral. It’s rekindled my interest in the Latitudinal Species Gradient–one of the few predictable patterns in ecology–the phenomena that biodiversity nearly always increases as you move from the poles to the tropics.
3) The abundance. to be in the midst of a school of hundreds of long and silvery yellowstripe barracuda or whatever they were, or watch a hundred butterfly fish grazing on the bottom just felt so good. I felt the importance of coral reefs for the health of the overall ecosystem, and want to learn more about the threats to them.

I’m only very slowly getting under the skin of Malaysian culture (if there is a unified culture). The culture on Tioman is very laidback. People seem very trusting and family ties are important. The muezzin not only calls people to prayer but also talks for a quarter hour or so at least twice a day, through a loudspeaker that reaches a good part of the village.  His voice is soft and I find it quite relaxing. There is an election in a few days, and it might be the first time the government has changed since independence in the 60’s.

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One of the great things about nature is that it’s beauty can be immediately obvious, like a reef-ringed tropical island. It can often take longer to for me to really see the magnificence of people and societies, I know it’s there, just under the surface sometimes.

Johor Baru (Malaysia)

Today I travelled across the Causeway from Singapore to Johor Baru, Malaysia. Johor Baru is a massive city right next door to Singapore. Since many people work in Singapore and live in JB it is probably one of the busiest border crossings in the world, so it was very streamlined. People actually ran through customs to get back on the same public bus  (fare, $1.50 to cross the border) they arrived on. I was too slow and had to wait 10 minutes for  the next one.

All of a sudden I feel like I am in real Asia, not “Asia Lite” as K called Singapore. And Malaysia, like Singapore, houses three major cultures – Malay, Chinese and Indian. But here they cultures are a little more obvious.  Street stalls featuring booming Tamil music and people making flower garlands for puja, carts selling Chinese claypot dinners down grimy alleyways, women in headscarfs and the occasional full veil.

I’m on my own now, having said a sad goodbye to my kiwi friend in Singapore.  The change is both enlivening and a little unnerving.

I’m ready for this journey.

The Singapore-Johor causeway, spanning across ...

The Singapore-Johor causeway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Life in Singapore has been easy,  in fact Singpore seems designed to eliminate drama. So instead of a story, I’ll make a list.

photo by edwin11 from flickr creative commons

photo by edwin11

Emotion: When I got out of the airconditioned Changi Airport and the warm and humid evening air hit me and I looked around at tropical vegetation thriving even among this somewhat sterile city, I felt a deep sense of ease.

Sight:  A “boat” on top of three skyscrapers (above). Fluorescent streamers adorning a small truck at the chinese funeral at the base of our apartment block.

Touch: Warm and sticky skin in the 33 degree heat, especially with my laptop on my lap for  hours at a time, marking philosophy essays.

Smell: That hot Asian city smell – a pungent blend of chilli, sweat, airconditioning, lightning, durian and incense

Sounds: The clanging cymbals of the chinese funeral at the bottom of the apartment block, the whirr  of a fan

Taste:  Sugar cane juice bought freshly crushed at Boon Lay hawkers market. Sweet, cool, fragant


Time spent as part of Malaysia since independence from Britain: 2 years (1963-65)

Percentage of population Chinese: 75%

Tax rate on 65K USD p/a income: <4%.

Highlight: Visiting the plush and vibrant Nanyang Technical University  (one of the three major universities in Singapore), hearing an experienced western scholar, Roger Aames, give a public talk on Confucian ethics to an engaged room of mainly young Chinese. He was an engaging speaker, pacing the room and quoting Kong3 zi3 (Confucius) in the original with ease. I can’t do justice to his ideas here, but my meagre grasp on wat he was saying is that, for Confucius, ethics rests not on any transcendental principles, but on the primacy of relationships in our life. As opposed to western philosophies that see us as individuals relating to one another, he argued that Confucius emphasised the way self is constructed as we engage with others. Thus sincerity, creativity and flourishing comes not necessarily through independence, but through appropriate functioning within our day to day relationships.

I’m about to travel on my own into Malaysia. I hope I can be open and appropriate to the people that come into my life on the road.