Sleeper Train from Nanning (China) to Hanoi (Vietnam), and Rousseau’s Romanticism

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam)

train from Nam Ninh (Nanning, China) to Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
sleeper train from Nanning China to Hanoi, VietnamBid farewell to China and headed down to south-east asia by train. First stop, Hanoi in Vietnam.

Ga Gia Lam, Hanoi, VietnamWalked out Ga Gia Lâm,

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnamand following the familiar smoky aroma of pork grilling on the street, was heartened to see the familiar roadside scenes and hear the beeps of motos coming in both directions. I couldn’t decide if I’d consider Copenhagen or Vietnam my third home.

Phở bò, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò shop, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò, Hanoi, VietnamThen, the first person I talked to, a phở bò seller, laughed at my very rusty Vietnamese.

Ho Chi Minh's Tomb. Hanoi, Vietnam
communist poster, Hanoi, VietnamHere are more photos of lovely peaceful Hanoi scenes interspersed quite randomly (ah, can anything be random?) with a continuing read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax:

The Authenticity Hoax: A False Return

“The Romantic response to modernity was an attempt to transcend or mitigate the alienating effects of the modern world and recoup what is good and valuable in human life.”

“What [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau came to realise is that the gap between appearance and reality is not just metaphysical (as Plato thought) or epistemological (as it was for Descartes) but that it has a moral dimension as well, since it is the source of all that is wrong with the world. Appearance is the realm of guilt, reality is the domain of innocence.”

“The problem ultimately lies not with men and their bad intentions, but with society and the inevitable friction it introduces into relations between people. Society is necessarily the land of appearances, and it is society that introduces evil into the world, in the form of the quest for prestige, status, wealth, and esteem.” [Comment: (i) here Rousseau apparently discounts any responsibility Adam and Eve might have had for eating that fruit. (ii) this was exactly what i thought too as a kid! need to find those angsty diaries.]

“For Hobbes, the state of nature is a large, multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma, where what is good for everyone, collectively, is undermined by each person’s individual rational calculations. Without a coercive authority to enforce cooperation, each of us retreats into tactics of self-preservation that are collectively self-defeating. It is not human nature, but the structural lack of restrictions on people’s behaviour, that led Hobbes to assert, infamously, that life in the state of nature wold be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Rousseau has a rather different account…as he imagines it, it is rather a congenial sort of place, in which man enjoys a life of isolation, equilibrium, and self-sufficiency.”

communal dancing, Hanoi, Vietnam
communal exercises in a park, Hanoi, Vietnam“In contrast with Hobbes’s monotonic “psychological egoism” (the claim that we are utterly self-interested), Rousseau sees human nature as characterised by two basic drives…self-love (amour de soi) and…pity…Rousseau sees self-love as motivated by nothing more than the need to promote the survival and flourishing of the individual, by satisfying each individual’s rather modest needs…finding food and shelter, little else, but even this minimal amount of self-interest is moderated by the second drive, pity.” [Comment: a just-so story? The Bible’s explanation of human sin in Romans 1 is far more convincing.]

“How did we get from the congenial state of nature to the cutthroat selfishness of modern life?”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnami just like the juxtaposition of this evidence of community in Hanoi and Rousseau’s whine

“Before, social intercourse was transient and fleeting. But then these transient relationships started to congeal into a more settled form of life…inevitably, this nascent society led to the idea of comparison, or what Rousseau calls “relations.”…In becoming aware of how they compare with others, men got into the habit of self-regard, and “thus it was the first look he gave into himself produced the first emotion of pride in him.”…The sense of pride…gives birth to a new motivation, and a new form of self-love, which Rousseau calls amour-propre…it is nothing less than the quest for status, from which all the evils of civilization follow.”

“…the real problem with society is not social alienation, but self-alienation. Once amour-propre comes to dominate the relations between men, everyone becomes obsessed with appearances and with questions such as who sings or dances the best, who is the best-looking, or the strongest, wittiest, or most eloquent. Status becomes the only good worth pursuing…”

“In such a world, deception becomes a necessary survival skill. In a society dictated by relations of vanity and contempt on the part of social superiors, and the envy and shame of inferiors, it becomes imperative to appear better than you actually are. The mediated world of seems is now paramount, and the unmediated and unmasked world of is ceases to matter.”

motorcycle jam, Hanoi, Vietnam
on a motorcycle, Hanoi, Vietnam“When it comes to coping with the downside of the modern world, there are two lines of approach. We can try to eliminate the causes of our problems or, alternatively, we can work toward mitigating the effects. That is, we can see about changing society and eliminating competition and inequality or we can focus on building stronger, more self-sufficient individuals within the sphere of modern life. As it turned out, Rousseau thought the second approach had the best chance of success…”

“…Rousseau’s rather dismal account of civilisation…had considerable uptake among his contemporaries. Characteristic of the neo-Rousseauian genre is the work of …Dom Deschamps, who dreamt of a world free of the petty jealousies and enviousness that arose out of prideful men competing with one another in a market economy. In a passage that makes…the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban seem urbane in comparison, Deschamps proposed a world where intellectuals would be banned and everyone would live together in a hut, “work together at simple tasks, eat vegetarian food together, and sleep together in one big bed of straw. No books, no writing, no art: all that would be burned.”…Modern civilization is alienating, while primitive societies promise a return to our lost unity and natural wholeness, where we can avoid the status competition and raw commercialisation of society and embed ourselves in a true community based on simple, nonexploitative relationships. In this view, the search for our lost authenticity is essentially an exercise in retrieval, as we hearken back to our own premodern past.”

“If contemporary evidence is anything to go by, there is nothing peaceful, congenial, or even terribly solitary about tribal life. Instead, it is a world of “despotic chiefs, absurd beliefs, revolting cruelty, appalling poverty, horrifying diseases, and homicidal religious fanaticism” (a state of affairs which has been almost completely eradicated from the modern world).” [Comment: this sort of bunk thinking is truly alive in the present world. Recent examples include the refusal to vaccinate children for measles due to misinformation about children’s “natural immunity” and allegations that it causes autism (what’s wrong with autism? an autistic writer then asked).]

“…a more charitable reading of Rousseau is to think of his state of nature as a “regulative ideal” that is unattainable in practice but that an be used to evaluate actual social institutions and relationships and to measure our progress toward a more egalitarian and less exploitative society.” [Comment: but surely if the basis of the theory is inconsistent with facts, then the purported goodness of such an ideal might not be valid.]

street-side meat seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
street-side meat-griller. Hanoi, Vietnam“…on the living tree of Rousseau’s intellectual descendants, there is one group that has enthusiastically adopted this tunnel vision and developed it into a root-and-branch condemnation of the modern world…Let us call the people who seriously foresee the coming apocalypse “declinists,” and their animating philosophy “declinism”…the rights-based politics of liberal individualism, combined with the free-market economy, have served to undermine local attachments and communitarian feelings, leading us to seek meaning in the shallow consumerism and mindless entertainment that is leading us to ruin.”

“In order to recover from this alienation and restore our lost authentic wholeness, we need to learn “the grammar of harmony”, restore our lost “balance”, and achieve “organic order”, by inventing technologies that “work with the grain of Nature rather than against it.”…It is typical of this genre of critical declinism that any positive programme must remain unstated, and any concessions to the benefits that have accrued to humanity over the past hundred years or so must be grudgingly downplayed or even denied.”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam“…the central concern of Rousseau’s philosophical project is to distinguish what is natural from what is artificial in the state of men in society. He knows that civilization deforms human nature, but the precise contours of that deformation are unclear.”

“And so the popular, primitivist view of Rousseau’s ambition is mistaken: instead of looking for some sort of modernity-free sanctuary somewhere in the world or in our distant past, he proposed that we look inward and find our authentic self by attending to our most basic, spontaneous, and powerful feelings and emotions. In this view, the authentic person is someone who is in touch with their deepest feelings, whose emotional life is laid bare…Who am I?…Je sens mon coeur…”I feel my heart”…”I truly am what I feel myself to be.””

Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, Vietnam
Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, VietnamBún Bò Nam Bộ, 67 Hàng Điếu – my heart says,”Yummy tum-tum, this is delicious”

“The truth is an elusive beast, and one that ultimately Rousseau does not think is worth pursuing…As he writes in his Confessions:”I have only one faithful guide on which I can count: the succession of feelings that have marked the development of my being…I may omit or transpose facts, but I cannot go wrong about what I have felt or about what my feelings have led me to do.”

“He takes the Cartesian search for certainty and completely upends it, so where Descartes concluded that the search for truth could only begin with an indubitable fact (“I am, I exist”), Rousseau says…truth begins with the indubitability of emotions, and only once you know how you feel can you make any progress.”

rattan goods seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
rickshaw riders, Hanoi, Vietnam
overladen vehicle stuck in traffic, Hanoi, Vietnam“Authenticity becomes redefined as the ongoing process of filtering our experiences through our most deeply felt emotions and constantly interpreting and reinterpreting our lives until we find a story that is uniquely our own.”
Huu Tiep Lake and the downed B-52. Hanoi, Vietnam
business tourists and a train track. Hanoi, Vietnam“…it firmly establishes the quest for the authentic as an artistic enterprise. Being true to yourself, in the sense that Polonius intended it, is now a lifelong creative project from which no one is exempt, and it plants the solitary artist at the center of our moral understanding.”

colourful laquered coconut shell bowls, Hanoi, Vietnam
pop-up greeting cards, Hanoi, Vietnam
iPho, Hanoi, Vietnam“This is the Romantic turn in the modern worldview, heralding the start of a backlash against science, rationalism, and commerce. The authentic individual is one who disengages from the deforming forces of society and looks inward, drawing inspiration from the murky depths of the creative self.”

“…it was Rousseau who launched the first serious volley in the culture wars…the dispute between passion and reason, art and commerce, the individual and society, the bohemian and the bourgeois. To be bourgeois is to be alienated from your authentic self, which is just another way of saying that you’ve allowed your creativity to atrophy in the name of comfort and security. You’ve sold out, in other words, and the only way to get your edge back is to become a bohemian, a non-conformist, a solitary rebel at odds and out of step with the main-stream.”

shopkeepers, Hanoi, Vietnam
bamboo sellers, Hanoi, Vietnam
men drinking coffee, Hanoi, Vietnam“An authentic person is one who, almost by definition, rejects popular tastes, thoughts, opinions, styles, and morals.”

Thereby tripping themselves (their real selves?) over.
*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Modernity and Alienation. Nanning, Guangxi, China

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China)

Some photos of Nanning, Guangxi while looking at the next chapter of The Authenticity Hoax, where Andrew Potter theorises about the circumstances leading to the emergence of the cult of authenticity.

The Authenticity Hoax: The Malaise of Modernity:

Nanning, Guangxi, China
fishing beside a river, Nanning, Guangxi, China“Here, I am concerned with modernity less as a specific historical epoch than as a worldview. to be modern is to be part of a culture that has a distinctive outlook or attitude…”

“The rise of the modern worldview is marked by three major developments: the disenchantment of the world, the rise of liberal individualism, and the emergence of the market economy, also known as capitalism.”

“Between 1500 and 1800, these three developments ushered in profound changes in people’s attitudes toward everything from science, technology and art, to religion, politics, and personal identity. Put together, they gave rise to the idea of progress, which…does not necessarily mean “things are getting better all the time.” More than anything, progress means constant change, something that many people find unpleasant and even alienating.”

drum, Nanning, Guangxi, China
Nanning Provincial Museum, Guangxi, China

Disenchantment of the world

“Once upon a time, humans experienced the world as a “cosmos,” from a Greek word meaning “order” or “orderly arrangement.” The order in this world operated on three levels. First, all of creation was itself one big cosmos, at the center of which was Earth…Second, life on Earth was a sort of enchanted garden, a living whole in which each being or element had its proper place. And finally, human society was itself properly ordered, with people naturally slotted…into predetermined castes, classes, or social roles” [Comment: this is rather generalised (superficial, ha!) summary of all of human history. But let’s see where he’s going with this.]

“The work of Jane Austen is so important precisely because it marks the transition from that world to a more modern sensibility – most of her stories hinge on her characters’ nascent individualism straining against the given roles of the old social order.”

“The disenchantment of the world occurs when appeals to ultimate ends or purposes or roles being built into the very fabric of the universe come to be seen as illegitimate or nonsensical.” [Potter then discusses how the Catholic Church was adept “at accommodating the truths of divine revelation to those discovered through scientific inquiry”. To be looked into at another time.]

Nanning, Guangxi, China
Nanning, Guangxi, China“…what gives Thales his well-deserved reputation as the first true philosopher is a conceptual innovation we can call the generality of reason…Once we have the idea of the generality of reason, we are armed with a tremendously powerful cognitive tool, since the notion that the world operates according to predictable general laws is what gives us logic, science, and technology, as well as the principles of impartiality and equality in the ethical and moral realms.” [Comment: this didn’t start with philosophy, this would have started with the genesis of humankind so people could interact, know what to eat, how to farm, etc.]

“For [Max] Weber, the commitment to science

means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service.

…Weber’s final repudiation of magical thinking represents a genuine paradigm shift in our outlook on the world, and is a giant step toward becoming fully modern.” [Comment: first, the conflation of all religions without examining their truth claims, with magic in unfortunate. Second, the assumption that scientific theories can explain everything is erroneous because its presupposition is that the material world is all there is (and therefore the whole world can be examined and subject to “the scientific method”)]

“…disenchantment transformed our understanding of the self, it privileged a utilitarian philosophy that saw the maximizing of happiness as the ultimate goal, and it encouraged an instrumental and exploitative approach to nature through the use of technology. A key effect of disenchantment, though, was its action as a social solvent, helping break up the old bonds in which individuals and groups found their place within larger class-based divisions or hierarchies…They are free to make their own way, find their own path.”

Nanning, Guangxi, China

Rise of individual liberalism

“Thus, the disenchantment of the world leads directly to the second major characteristic of modernity, the rise of the individual as the relevant unit of political concern.”

The rise of the modern state and the emergence of the individual] “are actually just two aspects of the same process, and it is no coincidence that the individual became the focus of political concern just as the centralised state was beginning to consolidate its power in the sixteenth century.”

“…most of us find it difficult to imagine any other way of carving up the world, so much so that we habitually describe territories that employ other forms of government…as “failed states.” It was not always so.”

Nanning, Guangxi, China[Comment: I’d been thinking about this in relation to China. Of course, it is not a coalition of feudal lords but it does not subscribe to the idea of democracy (whatever that is), and has patronisingly told to “modernise” by Western commentators. But surely, its long history, its prevailing culture, and furthermore, the size of its population and land, would require a different form of political structure and ethos.]

“With the idea of the state comes the notion of sovereignty…the paired ideas here are supremacy and territoriality; together, they embody the form of government we know as the sovereign state.”

“As…Larry Siedentop puts it, the modern state is a Trojan horse, carrying with it an implicit promise of equality before the law.”

“…the state is first and foremost a collection of individuals…Individuality is now the primary social role, shared equally by all.”

“A second, related distinction is between…laws, which are the explicit and obligatory commands of the sovereign backed up by a sanction, and customs, which might be enforced through social pressure but which have no legitimate legal backing.”

“[Thomas] Hobbes was quite certain that the citizens of a commonwealth would prefer an absolute sovereign to the nasty and brutish condition of the state of nature (the “war of all against all”), but [John] Locke…proposed that the state be divided into separate branches, where the citizens have a right to appeal to one branch against another…the beginning of constitutionalism, or the idea of the limited state…The main principles of constitutionalism are that the state is governed according to the rule of law; that everyone is equally subject to the law; and that the scope of what is legitimate law is limited by a charter of individual rights and liberties.” [Comment: sounds good, but what grounds are there for equal rights, and who defines individual rights and liberties and adjudicates between competing individual rights and liberties?]

new army recruits, Nanning, Guangxi, China“This puts the question of individual rights onto the agenda: as philosopher Ronald Dworkin has argued,”Rights are best understood as trumps over some background justification for political decisions that states a goal for the community as a whole.””

“Locke summarized things with the declaration that everyone had the right to life, liberty, and property, the ultimate consequence of which was a group-up rethink of the appropriate relationship between the state, morality, and the good life.”

pork seller, market, Nanning, Guangxi, China
shoes for sale in a market, Nanning, Guangxi, ChinaEmergence of the market economy (aka. capitalism)

“An essential part of this system of individual liberty that emerges from the Hobbes-to-Locke trajectory is a species of economic individualism, also known as a market economy, also known, to its critics anyway, as capitalism.”

“…the term capitalism puts a misleading emphasis on material forces, while neglecting the powerful ideals motivating this new economic individualism. In particular, focusing on material relations (and even the class struggle) obscures the role of individual autonomy, the rise of the private sphere, and the importance of contract in conceiving a fundamentally new approach to the morality of economic production and consumption.”

“On the economic side of things, the most important consequence of Locke’s liberalism was the idea that the public good could be served by individuals pursuing their private interest. With the “privatization of virtue”, ostensible vices such as greed, lust, ambition, and vanity were held to be morally praiseworthy as long as their consequences were socially beneficial.” [See Bernard de Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees – Private Vices, Publick Benefits, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.]

“This is clearly at odds with almost all popular moralities, including Christianity, which emphasize the importance to public order and to the common good of individual sentiments of benevolence and public-mindedness. But it is no great leap from Locke’s economic individualism to the idea that what matters to morality are not intentions, but outcomes…The theory that best served this new morality was utilitarianism, summarised by…Jeremy Bentham as the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.”

men playing chess, Nanning, Guangxi, China
men playing chess, Nanning, Guangxi, China
“What ultimately validated the utilitarian pursuit of happiness – that is, hedonism – as morally acceptable end in itself was the great consumer revolution, which began in the second half of the eighteenth century, in which both leisure and consumption ceased to be purely aristocratic indulgences. Not only did consumerism become accessible to the middle classes, it became an acceptable pursuit; buying stuff, even buying into the spiritual promise of goods, came to be seen as a virtue.”

“In order for there to be a consumer revolution, there had to be a corresponding revolution in production.”

“The Industrial Revolution affected almost every aspect of the economy, but there were two main aspects to the growth in innovation: first, the substitution of work done by machines for skilled human labour, and second, the replacement of work done by unskilled humans and animals with inanimate sources of work, especially steampower…This marked the death of the cottage industry and the birth of the factory, where power, machines, and relatively unskilled workers were brought together under common managerial supervision.” [Comment: so it was an exchange of one supreme authority for another, only the second expressed a vested self-interest?]

“…the most remarkable aspect of the Industrial Revolution is that it was powered almost entirely by the private, household consumption desires of the middle classes. In their pursuit of personal happiness and self-fulfilment through economic development and consumption, the British nation of shoppers and shopkeepers unleashed a force unlike anything the world had ever seen.”

“Yet capitalism proved to be a universal solvent, eating away at the social bonds between people in a given society as well as cultural barriers that formerly served to separate one society from another. In place of the family or feudal ties, of religiosity, of codes of conduct like chivalry and honour, there is now nothing left but the pitiless demands of the cash nexus…”

“A capitalist society puts tremendous pressure on people to constantly innovate and upgrade, to keep on their toes. They must be willing to move anywhere and do anything, and “anyone who does not actively change on his own will become a passive victim of changes draconically imposed by those who dominate the market.””

“[Modernity] gave us a new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person, one who has learned to thrive in a milieu in which freedom is equated with progress, and where progress is nothing more than constant competition, mobility, renewal, and change…[Karl Marx] writes,

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.”

Chinese opera singers? practising in a park in Nanning, Guangxi, China“We have replaced the injustices of fixed social relations with consumer-driven obsession with status and the esteem of others, and where we once saw intrinsic meaning and value we now find only the nihilism of market exchange. Critics have found it useful to gather all of these problems and objections to modernity under the term alienation.”

“For many people, alienation is like victimhood: if you feel alienated, then you are…Regardless of [whether we are talking about psychological alienation or social alienation], it is vital to keep in mind the following: just because you are alienated, it does not mean that there is a problem and that something ought to be done about it.

“Alienation theory tries to bridge the [Hume’s guillotine] is-ought gap by treating alienation like a disease: it not only describes a state of affairs, it also considers that state of affairs as abnormal or unnatural…It needs a theory of human nature or of self-fulfilment that is not just relative to a given place or culture, or relative to an individual’s desires at a certain time. It needs an account of human flourishing that is in some sense natural or essential…for a theory of alienation to do any work, it needs a corresponding theory of authenticity.”

“This, in a nutshell, was the burden of Romanticism.”
Nanning, Guangxi, China

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax
**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Trains from Hong Kong to Nanning, Guangxi, China

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China)

MTR from Hong Kong to GuangzhouFarewell hugs before I dashed down the Peak to the MTR intercity through train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou.

Hong Kong train snacksComplimentary water from Watson’s, and I packed a little bite to eat, to be washed down with a soya bean drink.

sleeper replacement?Sleeper replacement people, one of whom (out of the frame of this photo) was taking a photo of us on the train passing him.

"Harmonious numberautomatic ticket office"At the Guangzhou East Railway Station, loved the Ching-lish. 🙂

Guangzhou East Railway Station

Guangzhou East Railway StationLoads of red everywhere! Even the digital signs were red. Also, chain-smoking indoors.

train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning
sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning

restaurant car, sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning
red-cooked beef with rice,  restaurant car, sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to NanningOn the sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning, Guangxi, the restaurant car provided a cheap but incredibly tasty and filling dinner.

train attendant, sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning
Later, babies were given milk (a train attendant went past giving milk powder samples – see the 2008 milk powder scandal and then the contamination of Fonterra’s milk).

Early the next morning, we were in Nanning, Guangxi.

Authenticity and Anti-authoritarianism, Hong Kong SAR, China

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China)

I loved how much Hong Kong was like the set of Blade Runner, with its plethora of neon signs filling the space above the streets. Hong Kong (Kowloon)

Hong Kong (Kowloon)

Residential flats in Kowloon too spoke of the economy of air space. Nothing was wasted for something as unprofitable as a balcony: Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon)

On the ground, shops were sub-sub-sub-divided so as to spawn tiny lots crammed with goods and tools of trade: Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon)

in markets, boxes and sacks of dried meat and vegetables and mushrooms and noodles, unable to be confined to the shop, spilled out onto the corridors: Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon) It was as if empty space abhored a vacuum and any unused surface, even a door, quickly attracted posters of every description and size and colour: Hong Kong (Kowloon)

On the streets, signs, not content to be in one language, were bilingual, making even empty streets look busy: Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon) Everywhere, the hustle and bustle and noise and mass of goods clamouring for attention: Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon) in the flower market, Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon)in the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, etc.

And Hong Kong seemed authentic, in the sense that none of these markets existed mainly for the benefit of tourists. In fact, one of the bird shop owners stood outside his shop defensively, stick in hand, once a tour-bus of French people descended, using it to tap away professed animal-lovers who were simultaneously commenting on the sad lives of caged feathered beings, and shocking the same poor birds with their camera flashes.

But perhaps there was a different sort of inauthenticity, said some commentators, with reference to the Occupy Hong Kong or Umbrella Revolution. This was the latest in one-upmanship, they said. Ever since the beginning of human society, everyone has desired to show how much better they are than everyone else. A few decades ago, you trumped others with branded clothes and expensive goods. But that has since become quite vulgar. Later, animal rights and human rights advocacy were how you demonstrated your (moral) superiority. Presently it seems, political martyrdom is the thing. If the good of society was the underlying reason, there might have been a better way of being heard and changes being made without a whole lot of inconvenience to everyone else (money lost, commuters who have to deal with congestion, police who have to work long hours), but where’s the self-glory in that? Better to get world recognition and the pats on the back, than to be an anonymous contributer to the improvement of the common good.

I met some Hong Kong students on my travels who were jealous that their friends had been able to rush home to be “part of history”. (Full details, photos, vidz, were on social media, with many “Like”s.) When asked what this “full democracy” was that they wanted, they admitted they didn’t know the details.

It was difficult for me to comprehend how one could agitate for something unknown. Lemmings come to mind. Thought these questions were worth asking:

  • What is “full” or “true” democracy?
  • If this can be defined, has any country anywhere ever practiced that?
  • If so, what were the advantages and disadvantages of that, and how specific were they to the particular situation of that country?
  • Was there ever “full democracy” under the British?
  • What were the terms of the handover?
  • What does “universal sufferage” mean?
  • How differently should it apply to Hong Kong, not an autonomous state, but part of the People’s Republic of China?

But the Hong Kong students grew defensive,”This is the only chance we’ve got! We need to show them!” But what exactly do you want to show them?
actors playing policemen, Hong Kong (Kowloon)not real policemen; actors taking a break from filming

I wondered if one’s position on the social ladder was now determined in terms of how much one could boast of one’s anti-authoritarianism. If the official position was capitalism, then socialism or communism would agitated for, and vice versa. Nothing at all praise-worthy about that.

And meanwhile, the camps themselves became quite the tourist attraction, many visitors taking selfies/wefies with empty tents. Protest Theme Park in the offing?:

Hong Kong (Kowloon) Hong Kong (Kowloon)
Past the protest camps, Tim Ho Wan in Mongkok was quiet when we arrived. We were ushered to a table immediately and made quick work of the concise menu:

Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong (Kowloon)

Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong (Kowloon) Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong (Kowloon) Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong (Kowloon) Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong (Kowloon)“Do you think some of the protestors might come to this one Michelin star restaurant for dim sum?”

Why not, I thought. It would only seem incongruous because modern society has somehow conflated authenticity with anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism and being on a lower tax-payer scale. So even if yum cha at Tim Ho Wan was affordable generally, patronising a place mentioned in the Michelin Guide would have smacked of selling out to an Institution. Uncomfortable with the lack of clarity of thought.

Surely there is no inherent virtue in either eating one’s dinner in one’s crowded workplace:

men eating in a Chinese medicinal shop. Hong Kong (Kowloon)
instead of on the balcony of an apartment on The Peak, with a clear view of the city:

view from an apartment in The Peak, Hong Kong (Kowloon)or spending money supporting emerging artists at PMQ Arts Hub

PMQ, Hong Kong (Kowloon)instead of, say, on a Geisha brew:

Hong Kong (Kowloon)
Hong Kong (Kowloon)No. And perhaps they are equally inauthentic, for

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)

PS: if anyone was looking for an English-speaking church in Hong Kong, I’d recommend Ambassador International Church Hong Kong – observed John Percival to be a faithful preacher.

Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China)

Walked into the 北京西站 (Beijing West Railway Station) and purchased a ticket just the day before I was supposed to depart for Hong Kong (or 九龍 or Kowloon). No credit cards accepted so happily, I had enough Chinese renminbi. The entrance to the departure lounge would not have been easy to spot if I hadn’t just been next door at one of those ubiquitous places selling instant-noodles-in-a-tub and assorted drinks.

From there, the usual security checks and immigration controls, then out the other side, just one platform and the Z97 Sleeper Train that would take me to Hong Kong.
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong KongIt was a neat, clean, new train,
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kongwith temperature and sound controls, some movies on repeat,
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kongdisposable slippers,
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kongand a very sanitary attached bathroom.

Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong KongThe toilets operated on vacuum flush, so you were never indisposed even at station stops.

I shared my compartment with a father of one who spent most of his time with his wife and kid and returned only to sleep late at night, disappearing when I went to brush my teeth in the morning.

Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong KongThe Chinese restaurant car was well-patronised, and the food, wok-fried a la minute was tasty.

Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
H had sent me away with instant coconut-flavoured milk tea with nata de coco bits – a nice sugar boost.

Outside, the view changed from remote fluorescent-lit train stations to bucolic countryside scenes with atmospheric mist:
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong KongThen, the foilage changed to banana trees and sugarcane, and before we could determine where the border between mainland China and its newest territory had been, we were in Hong Kong.

Welcome to Disneyland – Authenticity in Jingshan Park, Hou Hai, and the Hutongs, Beijing, China

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China)

How do you like your disneyization? I love mine full-blown, all-encompassing, no-holds-barred, please.

So the hyperreal bronze sculptures along the pedestrianised shopping street full of international brands in Wangfujing, Beijing, China? Meh, ok.

bronze sculpture, Wangfujing, Beijing, China bronze sculpture, Wangfujing, Beijing, China

A little better: 景山公园 (Jingshan Park) that was just across from the Forbidden City and had been constructed from the excess earth excavated while building the moat around the palace.

景山公园 (Jingshan Park), Beijing, China
景山公园 (Jingshan Park), Beijing, ChinaIts Ming-dynasty pavilions (that is to say, the originals were constructed then but who knows how much original material remains) offered great resting spots for courting couples and retirees.

view of the Forbidden City from 景山公园 (Jingshan Park), Beijing, ChinaAnd right at the top of the mound, from the Wanchun Pavilion (Pavilion of Everlasting Spring), a great view of the Forbidden City complex.

景山公园 (Jingshan Park), Beijing, China
景山公园 (Jingshan Park), Beijing, ChinaBest of all was the opportunity to dress up in period costumes, and take selfies.

Oh but 后海 (Hou Hai)? Oh, hello!
后海 (Hou Hai), Beijing, China
后海 (Hou Hai), Beijing, China
后海 (Hou Hai), Beijing, China
后海 (Hou Hai), Beijing, China
All this landscaping was first conceived a few centuries ago (or at least during the Ming Dynasty, 1368 – 1644) to conform to the Chinese idea of a place of natural beauty, where leisurely strolls could be taken by the water, under the hanging branches of willow trees.

hutong, Beijing, China
It was surrounded by spruced up hutongs that had been cleared of their residents and renovated into a historically-themed amusement park for tourists, with its tropes of ancient tea houses with caged singing birds, oriental-tiled roofs,

rickshaws, hutong, Beijing, China
rickshaws, hutong, Beijing, Chinaand shop-owners and rickshaw rider cartel all appropriately-attired and performing their set-pieces.

rickshaws, hutong, Beijing, China
Yet, they were not playing at riding rickshaw, for that was their true occupation, and one that might not have arisen if this theme park had not existed. What delicious hyperreality in (in)authentic Old Beijing!

And then, there was just the period-insensitive merchandising: candied fruit on sticks, giant cotton candy puffs:
candied fruit seller, hutong, Beijing, China
cotton candy, Beijing, China

And not quite behind the scenes, but people you might want to ignore to maintain the illusion, the road-sweepers and cleaners:
road sweeper, hutong, Beijing, China
road sweeper, hutong, Beijing, China

One cannot google “hutongs” without coming upon loads of complaints about the loss of authenticity after the hutongs were demolished or sanitised of all grime, rats and vermin, falling tiles, pot holes.
sun setting over the Forbidden City, Beijing, China
Beijing, China
But first, what is this authenticity that we all seem to hold in high regard yet appear unable to accurately define?

景山公园 (Jingshan Park), Beijing, ChinaWould this scene be less authentic if you knew these people had been auditioned and given costumes to wear? What if they were really from a minority race, local tourists visiting from a village, but told to put on these outfits by their tour agency? And should they not even have gotten help from a tour agency to see the big city because that would make their experience inauthentic?

And second, why would the presence of “authenticity”, if it could be defined, be preferable for life and for society?

Culture Shock and Eating in Beijing, China

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China)

Beijing was a bit of a culture shock.

I’d worked in Shanghai before of course, but had been driven around in company cars or taxis, and stayed in hotels where every requirement and request had been met efficiently by the concierge. (Shanghainese friends would say disparagingly at this point that the superiority of Shanghai has nothing to do with this.) Now, my backpack full of Mongolian winter clothes and I were being pushed towards the exit of the 北京火车站 (Beijing Railway Station) by a sea of humanity, drowning in the cacophony of shouting and high-pitched women making the announcements.

I held up a bit of the tide enough to ask a security guard about left luggage, but could barely hear her replies or, be heard.

“Can you speak-a English!” she shouted, waving her handheld metal detector about.

“I AM SPEAKING ENGLISH!” I replied. To no avail. She was not familiar with such a business concept, and said kindly that I could leave my bag with her if I wanted. Outside the 北京火车站, after buttonholing several groups of security personnel, one man left his post to show me to the door of the left luggage facility. It was on an upper floor, but its entrance was along a row of similar looking shops with gaudy red signs.

A further problem: Beijing yuan, or the lack thereof. Surprisingly, there were no moneychangers at the railway station. Across the overhead bridge, the Postal Savings Bank of China did not have a foreign exchange service, but perhaps I could try the bank a street away? That bank did not accept British pounds or Singapore dollars, perhaps I could try another bank a block away? Yes that bank did accept British pounds but they did not look new enough.

I did end up with just enough money to pay to leave my backpack in safe hands for a few hours while I went exploring, avoiding the innumerable globs of spit all over the tiled floors and pavements. Everywhere, you could hear people behind you and in front of you about to hack another to join its fellows on the ground. I could not tell if it was the notoriously polluted Beijing air or the Beijingers’ rampant smoking that caused them this trouble. Worse were the pedestrians who stopped suddenly in mid-stride to empty the contents of their leaky noses onto public walkways.

However, for once in the last few weeks, food was readily available along the streets, and relatively cheap.

老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China

老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China

smoking indoors, 老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China

老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China老北京炸酱面大王 (Lao Beijing Zha Jiang Mian King) was rather bland, even after a week of Mongolian mutton. Note the lack of ban on smoking in enclosed restaurants.

 After this hiccup, there wasn’t another bad meal in Beijing:

Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Beijing, Chinabao in fast food eateries and in holes-in-the-wall along the pavement, one basket for just 10,

Beijing, China

Beijing, Chinadeep-fried garoupa with chilli, washed down with a light Yanjing beer,

Beijing, Chinagiant cotton candy clouds,

Beijing, China北京酸奶 (Beijing fermented milk drink or yoghurt drink),

oh, and those amazingly diverse food choices along dedicated food streets (aka. night markets):

东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

centipedes, beetles, spiders, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

hearts, livers, and other organs, x东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

deep-fried crab, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

how to eat so your clothes stay clean, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

potato spirals, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

skewers of candied fruit, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, Chinawe were early at 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), but already, thick clouds of cooking and frying enveloped us as we walked along, deciding what to sample. Would it be 串儿 (chuan er, lamb skewers, كاۋاپ in Uyghur)? Or star fish and frogs and sea urchin? Or beetles and centipedes, finished off with a hairy tarantula spider? Or hearts, kidneys, livers, and other organs and spare bits? Or just deep-fried whole crabs? Or spirals of fried potato? Or colourful skewers of candied fruit?

A few minutes away, equally interesting food on offer at 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market)

singing noodle hawker, 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, China

quail eggs, 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, China

王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, China

baby scorpions, 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, Chinaa singing noodle hawker, quail eggs on a stick, two men pounding peanut brittle candy, and squirming baby scorpions on skewers.

Not sure what to think of the Chinese costumes – the half- 长衫s with mandarin collars with frog buttons, etc. On one hand, it panders to the Western orientalist (in the Edward Said sense) gaze that would prefer photographs of fake pig-tails to Jeremy Lin basketball shirts. It is a simulated authenticity staged for the benefit of the tourist yuan. Even further, it mixes orientalist signs with authentic differences of language and foods to further confirm themselves as the Other, the Altern, for the consumption of foreigners. On the other hand, why not?

At Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant though, there was modern sophistication a world away from the costumes of the street stalls. Ah, but do the white crockery, white table cloths, chef hats, internal water feature, dramatic setting of the duck ovens not constitute a different category of signs?

北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China

北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China

aubergine stack, 北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China

different ways of eating duck, 北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China“Look, the eyeball!” exclaimed B, who was determined not to act the part of the squimish Brit,
北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, Chinaand promptly wrote home about her authentic experience. I do love B, and also truly loved the irony. 🙂
Beijing, China