Friday 26 December 2014

Asia Summer Series: Melaka, City of Spice (Part 1)

Over December and January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles on Asia. Next up, the intriguing city of Melaka...

You wouldn’t think that you could run a South-East Asian city as a sort of colonial timeshare, but that’s what happened to the Malaysian city of Melaka (formerly Malacca) for almost five centuries.

Rather neatly, the Portuguese ran the place for about 150 years, followed by the Dutch for about 150 years, then the British. How long did they stay? You guessed it - about 150 years.

Standing outside the ruins of a 16th century Portuguese church on a pleasant hilltop overlooking the Strait of Melaka, you can’t help reflecting on the city’s eventful past.

The strait is, after all, the major reason the Portuguese took the city by force half a millennium ago, in a bid to control the spice trade from Asia to the Western world.

The Portuguese may be long gone, but they’ve left some interesting remnants behind, not least of which is the evocative stonework of St Paul’s.

Though the roof of the church has vanished, the rusty red stones of the wall and floor still remain, making it seem as though the structure was carved directly from the rocky outcrop it stands on.

As I step into its interior and admire the intricately-decorated tombstones propped up against the walls, clusters of visitors wander past me, many of whom are Malaysians exploring their own country’s history.

There’s a languid mood up here on the hill, as visitors relax in the soft humid breeze and stroll through the church interior.

Some bend to inspect the fenced-off area where the remains of Saint Francis Xavier were first laid to rest, before being relocated to Goa in India.

Walking down steep stairs cut into the hillside, I turn a corner to reach the Dutch-era town square.

For some reason the Dutch liked a splash of brick red in their decor, and several distinctively red civic buildings form a harmonious and lively space packed with pleasure seekers.

The laneways around the square are lined by souvenir stalls and vibrantly decorated rickshaws.

People mill around, enjoying a sunny weekend afternoon, chatting with their friends and taking photos of each other with their mobile phones.

What’s most appealing about this scene is its intimate scale; you get the feeling that though Melaka was an important port, it was never a sprawling metropolis.

Between the Stadthuys, the former governor’s residence, Christ Church, and a pillar-like clock tower, there lies a triangular garden of colourful flowers.

In the centre of this I find an elegant tapering fountain dedicated to the memory of Victoria, “a great queen”. It’s an evocative reminder of both the vanished past and the diverse empire that was ruled in her name.

That diversity lives on in Melaka today, personified partly in the Peranakan. This ethnic group descended from Chinese settlers who came to Malaysia centuries ago in the company of a princess who married into the local nobility. Over time, they took up Malay customs while retaining a Chinese identity.

Their food, known as Nyonya cuisine, is also an intriguing cross-cultural mix, and one I’m about to encounter...

[Next: Chicken kapitan, Jonker Street, a cross-culture mosque, and Medan Portugis...]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Malaysia Airlines and Tourism Malaysia.

Friday 19 December 2014

Asia Summer Series: Shanghai, China (Part 2)

Over December and January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles on Asia. Last week I described my journey to Shanghai's Old Town. The adventure continues (there will be dumplings. And tea.)...

Old Street is in constant motion, with crowds of eager shoppers crowding the narrow pavements, cars and bikes passing through, and young men politely assailing me with sales pitches.

They brandish picture cards with images of items including suits and watches, so I can indicate what they should lead me to. Shopkeepers also call out as I pass by, though I’m surprised to find that they’re not overly pushy and will take no for an answer.

There are also food stalls, and strolling vendors selling a popular treat on a humid day - melon on a stick. It’s really as straightforward as that, a long slice of watermelon threaded onto a piece of wood.

On my way along the street I spot shops selling tea, clothing, and products involving Chinese calligraphy. Then I strike the mother lode - a stall containing a range of items from the attractive to the frankly ridiculous. Many of the latter involve Mao Tse Tung, China’s communist leader from 1949 to 1976.

Never one to avoid an amusingly tacky gift, I pick up a small red wind-up alarm clock featuring an image of Mao, with his arm frantically waving his Little Red Book at the masses. 
I also fancy a set of playing cards with interwar Shanghai posters, another set depicting a bizarre 1970s ballet involving women with guns, and a relatively tasteful set of worry balls featuring a dragon and a phoenix. There’s also a dragon bracelet that’ll be too small for Narrelle, but will sit well in her collection of decorative dragons.

The ensuing bout of haggling is carried out by myself and the cheerful saleswoman passing a calculator back and forth, taking turns to punch in our bids. As is traditional everywhere in the markets of the developing world, these figures are accompanied by expressions of mock-anguish and gasps of disbelief. Finally, the bargain is struck, somewhere halfway between our opening amounts.

Having exhausted my desire to shop, I wander further along the street, fending off offers of antiques and dodgy Rolexes. Then I notice a sign above a doorway, inscribed “Old Shanghai Tea House”.

One floor up, in a long narrow room above several shops, is a magnificently atmospheric tea house, with jade-green tables on timber floorboards, lined with small windows overlooking the busy street. On the far wall is an eclectic collection of objects from pre-World War II Shanghai, including vinyl records, posters and a Singer sewing machine.

There are some mysteries I have to work out here. On the menu, the tea looks expensive, but the waitress refills my cup of fresh jasmine with hot water several times during the afternoon. The dumplings arrive on a decorative green plate, matched with a small white bowl of vinegar sauce, and are excellent.

I’m leaning against the windowsill, writing postcards and thinking that life is pretty good, when I receive a surprise of a musical nature. Halfway along the room, a man is setting up two traditional instruments- one a long stringed instrument called an erhu, the other a dulcimer-like arrangement known as a yangqin.

At first I’m not sure whether he’s playing an abstract tune or just tuning the equipment, but his purpose soon becomes clear. He dons a traditional robe, is joined by an accompanist, and they launch into a series of melodious Chinese tunes.

This is a bonus; I thought I was just getting a cup of tea and some dumplings. I sip my jasmine tea while I listen to this beautifully played music within a homage to Shanghai’s past, and feel truly delighted.

Then there’s an odd moment. After a series of Chinese melodies, the duo break into an instrumental version of Click Go the Shears.

I look up sharply in surprise, and the erhu player catches my eye. My expression says “I know where that song really comes from,” and his says “Let’s just keep that to ourselves”. And we exchange knowing smiles.

In this increasing cosmopolitan city with a vibrant international past, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to come across unexpected influences from abroad, moulded into a Chinese form.

Even a transplanted Australian folk song about shearers, played in the heart of Shanghai’s Old Town.

[Back to Part 1]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Shanghai Municipal Tourism and Helen Wong’s Tours.

Friday 12 December 2014

Asia Summer Series: Shanghai, China (Part 1)

Over December and January, I'll be running a series of my previously published print articles on Asia. First up, fabulous Shanghai...

I step out of the South Huangpi Road Metro station into 21st century China.

Nearby Huaihai Road, one of Shanghai’s stylish shopping streets, is filled with classy brand label stores, a Porsche dealership, and people clutching expensive-looking shopping bags.

Across the road, to my surprise, there’s even an Australian wool promotion taking place on an outdoor catwalk.

Then there’s a sudden movement in the vicinity of my shoes, so I divert my gaze from glamorous shopfronts to pavement level – where there’s a blob of black stuff on my right boot, and a man in a cheap blue suit smiling up at me.

It’s an arresting smile, as he’s missing several top teeth, which have been replaced by a gold bridge. The black blob is the calling card of the shoeshine man.

I may not have needed a shine before, but I do now, if only to remove the complimentary shoeshine. But this little piece of robust salesmanship is negotiated in good humour; we smile, haggle a little, and determine a fee of 10 yuan ($2.25) for the shining of my boots.

I lean on a handy advertising sign while the man places my feet alternately on a portable wooden platform, shining away to his heart’s content - all in the shadow of the Gucci store behind him.

Is this the Shanghai I expected? To be honest, my preconceptions of China are being challenged.

On the previous day I’d been bussed around modern Shanghai as part of a conference group.

We inspected huge modern buildings with quirky architecture, a dominating observation tower overlooking the historic buildings of the riverside Bund district, a soaring new bridge across the Huangpu River, and an exhibition devoted to an exhibition (Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo).

It was a day devoted to the large-scale and ultra-modern aspects of the city.

But what about human-scale Shanghai, the city where 20 million people live and shop and eat? Today I’m heading for the Old Town, to have a look at the remains of the coastal town that existed long before today’s rapid development.

After Britain’s victory against China in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, Shanghai evolved quickly into an international trading city. Silk, tea and opium flowed in and out of its port, making traders rich.

To facilitate this commerce, France, America and Britain ran their own colonial settlements along the Huangpu, known as concessions.

In walking east along Huaihai Road I’m leaving the former French Concession, with its attractive tree-lined avenues, and entering the Old Town. This district, contained within a perimeter of curving roads that echo its long-vanished city walls, is the oldest part of the city and a repository of tradition.

And it doesn’t take long for the old Shanghai to appear. As I turn off Huaihai Road and head south, the designer labels drop away and the streets narrow.

Bicycles and scooters weave between taxis, and crossing the road becomes an exercise in Zen-like concentration - one must sense the space opening up between vehicles and calmly step through it.

Turning east onto Dajing Road, I enter an older world of crumbling pavements, and roadside sales of fruit and vegetables. Passing an old Taoist temple and a nearby pavilion, I’m finally on Old Street, a long, bustling street packed with small shops.

The low buildings are decorated in the style of the Qing dynasty, with the distinctive tiles and upturned eaves synonymous with traditional Chinese architecture.

Though many of the buildings are newly restored, the narrow alleyways leading off the street are the real thing, funnelling strollers, deliverymen and bicycle riders through crooked routes linking major roads.

Old Street is in constant motion, with crowds of eager shoppers crowding the narrow pavements, cars and bikes passing through, and young men politely assailing me with sales pitches.

They brandish picture cards with images of items including suits and watches, so I can indicate what they should lead me to.

Shopkeepers also call out as I pass by, though I’m surprised to find that they’ll take no for an answer...

[Next: Mao novelties, tea, dumplings, stringed instruments and a surprising Aussie folk song...]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Shanghai Municipal Tourism and Helen Wong’s Tours.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Mind the Gap: The Novel & the Art of Travel

Two days ago, my debut novel was published by Harper Collins. Entitled Mind the Gap, it's a fast-paced adventure novel spanning continents and worlds.

To give you some of its location-hopping flavour, here's the official blurb:

Darius Ibrahim is not having a good week.

He's been threatened by a knife-wielding maniac on a London train, interrogated by a mysterious warrior woman beneath the city's streets, pursued by a military death squad in Melbourne, had his new girlfriend kidnapped and held hostage in Prague, and been captured and taken to another world.

And it's barely been three days since his life started to fall to pieces.

On top of all this, he's developed a bizarre ability that allows him to teleport in quite unusual circumstances - an ability that several deadly enemies will do anything to gain control of.

In a desperate struggle involving alternate worlds, Egyptian mythology, ancient prophecy, malevolent felines, underground railway stations and the power of dreams, can Darius long survive the arrival of his newfound power?

It's great to see it finally out there under the umbrella of a major publisher.

An interesting fact is that I started writing this book over ten years ago, during my final, unloved, salaried office job. To keep myself sane, I wrote 500 words a day at work, and emailed them home to myself.

By the time I visited Wellington, New Zealand for a holiday late in 2003, I'd written 15,000 words or so. In NZ I wrote a good chunk more, and it became inevitable that I'd actually finish writing the whole damn thing.

There's a lot of travel in the book, and it inevitably reflects the places I'd travelled to by the time I started writing it.

So Darius, the hero, starts off in London. In fact he's riding the London Underground the first time we see him, and the Tube and other underground railways play a major role in the plot.

The Tube fascinated me from the first time I rode on it. Dating right back to the 1860s, it seems to be a vast creature with a personality all its own - and a subtle air of mystery in its subterranean tiled passages.

He then pitches up unexpectedly (read the book to find out how) in Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne is my adopted home town of 16 years now, a city I love passionately.

It was an absolute delight to include some of its attractions - its trams, its alleyway bars, its majestic State Library - as part of Darius' only relatively quiet interlude.

He next appears in Prague. In 2014 that's a city I haven't visited for 21 years; but back in 2003 it was relatively fresh in my memory and I had fun placing spy-like intrigue, a kidnapping and a dramatic chase scene among its beautiful cityscape of elegant spires.

Our hero is then snatched away to Terra, a parallel version of Earth in which magic is an everyday part of life. The city he ends up in, Kahe-Ra, is a parallel version of Cairo, in which I lived for two years in the 1990s while teaching English.

The parallel name borrows from the Arabic name for the Egyptian capital, El Qahirah, and hints at the name of the ancient sun god Ra. Egyptian gods feature significantly in the plot, as it turns out.

Terra's Bubastis takes the same name as its Earthly counterpart (now an excavation site), which was a centre of worship for the cat-headed god Bast. She is also key to the plot, much more so than Ra.

Rome features later in the book, as does its Terra parallel Eternus (a play on the "Eternal City" nickname). I'd visited there only two years before commencing the book, so memories of its piazzas and ancient monuments were fresh in my mind. As was a cat refuge set among old broken pillars, something I couldn't resist adding to the story.

It was a lot of fun slotting my fictional characters into those oh-so-real streets I'd visited in the years before, and a chance to relay the cities' distinctive charms to the reader.

I only became a travel writer in 2004, so there are a great many new places I could include in a sequel. For plot purposes they should ideally be cities with underground railway systems, so that could take in the likes of Warsaw, Berlin, Shanghai, Montreal, New York, Los Angeles and Sydney.

Sydney's defiantly retro Museum station keeps asking to be placed in the sequel each time I pass through it (as I did a few hours ago on the way to Sydney Airport).

But so does Kings Cross station. Yes, Kings Cross has potential. Time will tell.

Mind the Gap is available from your favourite ebook retailer for a mere $2.99. You can find more information and download links by clicking here.