“So, do you want to be Auntie Dhani’s son?”
Bama and I are at the table with his affectionate mom, Auntie Dhani, in the open-air dining room of his parents’ house. For the third consecutive year, I’ve joined Bama on his annual trip home for Lebaran, the week-long holiday marking the end of Ramadan. I’d considered flying back to Hong Kong to visit my own family, but by the time I looked up the flights, ticket prices had already gone through the roof. Semarang, a city of less than two million perched midway along the northern coast of Java, was an obvious alternative – not least because of Auntie Dhani’s home cooking and the warm welcome I would receive as an adopted member of the family. Read more
Standing on a pedestrian walkway by the Thu Bon River, Bama and I drink in the view of a sublime architectural gem. It rests on a succession of stone piers, the timber frame bearing traces of maroon paint, faded and stripped away by years of exposure to the elements. Above the rafters, delicate blue-and-white porcelain bowls are set into the edges of the tiled roof, itself crowned by florid, dragon-like finials. It was this famous structure – the Japanese covered bridge – that had brought us to the central Vietnamese town of Hoi An. When I read last August that the 400-year-old landmark would eventually be dismantled for restoration, I knew it was high time to go. Read more
Inside a high-ceilinged, unfussy diner in central Vietnam, I waited hungrily for my lunch at a small table by the window. Nguyen Thi Loc – the 80-year-old “Banh Mi Queen” of Hoi An – was carefully preparing the next batch of made-to-order sandwiches with her daughter at a stand by the entrance. I’d made the pilgrimage to Nguyen’s stall outside the UNESCO-listed old town after reading a host of favorable reviews. Most recently, a childhood friend had paid a visit while on his honeymoon and raved about her banh mi. Read more
Once again, Indonesia has found itself in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Jakarta’s no-nonsense governor – an ethnic Chinese Christian and a rare exception in a sea of corrupt politicians – has been found guilty of “blasphemy” against Islam and jailed for the next two years.
I do not think the negative coverage thus far amounts to fear-mongering, nor is the global backlash entirely undeserved. I’ve watched with alarm over the past few months, as bigots and powerful opportunists have successfully manipulated large segments of the populace under the guise of religion, blending their agenda with a toxic cocktail of racism and hatred. Indonesia may have gained its hard-won independence seven decades ago, but we are now seeing a new form of colonialism: a colonialism of the mind, of thought, fueled by a virulent form of religious conservatism that favors practices and extreme ideology imported from Saudi Arabia.
“You want to see Lady Buddha? How ‘bout Marble Mountain? The trees here are 100 years old, but there, one thousand years old!”
Outside the Museum of Cham Sculpture, a single-story French colonial building flanked by noble banyans and gnarled frangipani trees, a local tout in a worn-out cap makes his pitch. The man is presumably in his sixties, and he speaks American English with a distinctive nasal twang and a Southern-style drawl.
“There’s not a lot to see here in Da Nang,” the man says. “You’ll spend maybe half an hour at this museum. It’s small.” Read more
When I was nine years old, a family friend gifted me with a branch of plastic cherry blossoms. I tied it to a pin board above my bed, wrote a haiku about Kyoto in the spring (though I’d never been at the time), then drew a pagoda and cherry trees beside the poem. It was an obsession fueled by lunch breaks spent in the school library, where I returned time and again to a thick hardcover book on the Japanese city. Read more
When I moved to Indonesia last May, I promised my parents I would be back for Christmas. But it was a strange feeling to return to a place where I’d lived for nearly 20 years. Apart from a high-rise hotel taking shape on the Kowloon waterfront, and a handful of other construction sites, it appeared that my hometown had barely changed at all. Read more
We were not meant to visit Kurashiki at all. Though I’d heard of the place and looked up pictures several weeks before our trip to Japan, it never became a priority. But that changed with a chance encounter inside a sushi bar at Okayama station, four stops down the Sanyo Main Line. Read more
Arriving at Okayama station just before lunchtime, Bama and I are struck by the sheer volume of people passing through. Most lug a small suitcase for the long weekend; gaggles of students in uniform – the navy blue and white outfits we’ve seen in all those anime cartoons – throng the tiled corridor leading down to an outdoor plaza; suited-up businessmen and families with strollers crisscross our path. The unexpected aroma of Belgian waffles, freshly made on the griddle, wafts into our nostrils from a brightly lit stall. Turning right through a pair of sliding glass doors, we see gift boxes immaculately arranged by colour on the shelves of a department store, people lining up for lunch at a sushi bar, and a chain restaurant specialising in tonkatsu, the breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet perfected to an art by the Japanese. Read more
The last time I was in Osaka, nearly 15 years ago, the rows of cherry trees lining the riverbanks were in full bloom. Arriving by night, I spied walls of blazing neon through the windows of our tour bus, and a series of waterways carving their way through an urban labyrinth. By day I remember standing in the grounds of Osaka Castle, marvelling at the size of its curving ramparts and the gilded reliefs on the uppermost level of the main keep. Read more