Last month I had the unusual opportunity to visit five different countries/regions in Asia, including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong/Macau, and Korea. This was the first of a two-part tour that I am conducting of schools in Asia as part of our global recruitment efforts for Duke Kunshan University’s new undergraduate degree program, which we are launching in fall 2018. Arranged and supported by one of our strategic partners, the tour involved visiting as many high schools as possible to spread the good word about our new degree program to college counselors, school officials, other stakeholders, and yes, students. Most of the schools I visited were on the edges of the city or in nearby suburbs. I calculate that over five weeks of traveling, I spent roughly 150 hours on the road on airplanes, in trains, buses, and in taxis and private cars, and was stuck in traffic much of the time (especially in cities like Jakarta, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur). Fortunately, though, worked into the itinerary was one day of personal freedom to explore the place before moving onto the next one.
This journal entry is not meant to be about my recruitment efforts per se, but rather about the experiences and general impressions I made while traveling in and around these countries on this whirlwind tour. Overall, I can say that the experience was for me a real eye-opener. Having lived in China for so many years, and having limited opportunities to travel elsewhere in Asia during those years (mostly to nearby cities like Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo), I have like so many others in a similar position developed a highly Sinocentric view of this part of the world. It was great to get out and see the larger mosaic of people and cultures that China is only a part of.
Some of these places, like Hong Kong and Seoul, I’d been to many times or even lived in before, while others like Jakarta, Bali, Chiang Mai, and Penang, I had never visited before. I hadn’t been to Thailand in almost 30 years and was long overdue for a visit. I’d been once before to Kuala Lumpur but hadn’t really experienced what that amazing city has to offer. Even places that I’d been to like Hong Kong and Macau I was able to see new spots and look at things with fresh eyes. Overall, the trip left me with a very strong impression of the growth and dynamism especially of the Southeast Asian countries, but also an abiding sense of loss of the past (the inevitable conundrum of modernization) especially in the case of Thailand.
Since I visited Indonesia and Malaysia during the height of Ramadan and was being led by Muslim guides, I was given a crash course in Islamic faith practices and emerged with an even deeper respect for and understanding of Muslim cultures and of Indonesian and Malaysian cultures and societies.
I was able to see parts and neighborhoods of both Hong Kong, Macau, and Seoul that I hadn’t seen before and experience the vibrant marketplaces of both the upscale and downmarket sections of town. I visited many temples of Buddhist and Hindu faiths and also a catholic church or two. In Bali I looked over a landscape of volcanic mountains and a crater lake, walked through monkey forests, and bathed in holy waters. I saw musicians perform traditional gamelan and Hindu music, and in just about every city I visited the best jazz club in town. All in all it was a fun adventure and one of the great traveling episodes of my life so far, and I look forward to another one around the bend.
One insight that came out of this experience is that the countries and islands of Southeast Asia constitute an extremely precious, fragile and vital part of our planet. At a point in my journey, when I was in Phuket, I jotted down some notes: "The gods blessed us with these isles. They are the emerald jewels in the crown of the world."
Here are some impressions and photos taken during my journey, which I posted on Facebook during this first part of my two-part recruiting mission/adventure (mis-adventure? : ) in Asia.
May 28 - June 1: Jakarta
My first impressions of Jakarta: has a rundown feel to it, with lots of sagging, decaying infrastructure, though new developments are under way, including a much needed subway line. City of 10 million people, so it's incredibly crowded, and the traffic makes Beijing's look good by comparison. We slogged for several hours through intense traffic as we made our way across the city to visit schools. Motorcycles everywhere, reminds me of Taipei or Hanoi. Some of the urban environment reminds me of Kuala Lumpur.
Very polyglot population. Mosques and minarets peaking out of the skyscape everywhere you look. Right now I can hear the sounds of the call to prayer or Adhan resounding from around my hotel. Ramadan has begun, and the restaurants all seem empty (In sympathy for Muslim fasting, people are discouraged from eating in public.) One of the best parts of the day's travels was taking a back road shortcut at the outskirts of the city, where I was able to glimpse some more "authentic" village or small town life. Otherwise Jakarta seems to be an endless parade of glitzy shopping malls and complexes, with lots of American brand names, fast food outlets, coffeeshop chains, donut shops, and cars, cars, cars. Japanese autos seem to dominate, as they do with motorbikes. I feel there's a lot more to this city that I won't have the time to explore this time round…
While I lay low out of respect for Ramadan, I did get to visit one jazz club, which was located conveniently close to my hotel. It was called The Speakeasy, and with a name like that I just couldn't resist. The drinks were well done and music was nice, though a bit more along the lines of diva pop than jazz.
June 1 - June 4: Bali
Bali quick impressions: very tropical! Hot yet breezy. Lots of people on motorbikes, densely packed towns and main roads full of traffic. Tons of European/Australian/Asian tourists. Local people very friendly. Strong Hindu influence. Visiting schools today. Tomorrow: Ubud!
On the first evening of my arrival, my guide took me to the famous temple of Ulu Watu on the western side of the southern tip of the island. It features a Hindu temple and Balinese performances of ancient Hindu mythological stories. The performance is known as the Kecak Fire Dance and it is dominated by a team of men who chant in a circle around a tower of flames as the story unfolds. I only stayed for part of the performance as I was tired of sitting and had to get up and stretch and walk about the monkey-laden temple, so I missed the climax of the performance. Oh well, I'm sure I'll have another chance to see it some day.
Kuta. Home to Bali's most famous surfer beach. The Main Street running parallel to the beach is hedonism central in Bali, lined with many nightclubs and bars, and also, not coincidentally, the site of a most notorious terrorist bomb attack in 2002. The memorial lists those killed by this terrible act. I recall this event well, as I had just recently moved to Sydney, and many of the victims were Aussies. Now, 15 years later, the party goes on, apparently. Just wonder how many more years this beach and party scene will last, before the waves wash them away for good (thanks Kris Kvols for reminding me how ephemeral all this beauty is…)
After a night of deep sleep and vivid dreaming, I am awakened by cockcrow. Early morning light and the view from my hotel balcony. The day beckons and Ubud awaits. My first day in Indonesia to relax after a week of school visits and meetings. Tomorrow: Thailand!
Quite a magical day in Bali today. The weather was perfect. Accompanied by local driver and guide, I traveled to the town of Ubud and visited the monkey forest, then we drove right through the tourist town and up the mountain road to a majestic lookout over a volcanic mountain range and crater lake, then back down another way.
The highlight of the day was Tirta Empul, where I bathed in the holy waters (will spare you the photos). Very refreshing and purifying, and one of the most gorgeous temples I've been to in Asia.
Bali rindik music. Reminds me of Chinese traditional music in terms of the pentatonic scale, yet the rhythm is more complex, more Hindu. One night our hotel featured a performance by Balinese musicians, which I captured a song from on my iPhone.
Must give thanks to all the wonderful people I met while in Indonesia over the past week. And a special shoutout to my guide Sudirma, who showed me around yesterday and took me to so many amazing places, including Kintamani Volcano, Batur Mountain and Lake (pictured here, behind us). Highly recommend him as a guide to anybody going to Bali! (contact me for details)
June 4 - June 11: Thailand
First quick impressions of Bangkok: I haven't been back here in 30 years (1988 to be precise), and only have some distant memories and a few photos from back then. The poverty and squalor are still here, but not so apparent as back in those days. In the middle of the city, one gets the sense of a decadent splendor as a new middle class/nouveau riche class spends their money. The streets are packed with cars, but rail transport makes it a much more navigable city than Jakarta. And far less motorbikes. The city center is full of fancy hotels and glitzy shopping malls, all connected by a sky bridge that makes for a fun walk above the city streets. The...er, people here are absolutely gorgeous, and I can now see why so many expats I know from China moved down here over the years. There is a strong Hindu influence and shrines abound even in the highly commercialized city center. Also, needless to say, Buddhist. There are memorials everywhere to the recently deceased King. The Chinese influence is much stronger here than in Indonesia, and Chinese food and people abound. The food? Amazing, of course! Great to be back here after so long, and looking forward to my week in Thailand!
Chiang Mai was a gorgeous surprise. I hadn't expected a town as developed as it is. But it is surrounded by nature, mountains, jungles. There are many beautiful temples in Chiang Mai. And after a morning of torrential rain and a long day of school visits, we were able to see them in all their glory.
After a brief sojourn in Chiang Mai, which left me with a fantastic impression of the northern Thai town, I flew down to the island of Phuket, which I had visited nearly 30 years before as a college student. Back then it had been a launch pad for a week on Koh Phi Phi island. But I hadn't really had a chance to explore Phuket itself.
For my last day in Phuket, and in Thailand, the weather cooperated wonderfully, and rather than lazing out by the hotel pool, I wisely chose to book a cab and spend a day exploring the island. My first stop was the Old Town in Phuket, some sort of amalgam of old Portuguese, Chinese, and Thai culture. Mansions and cafes going back to the boom years of the 19th century tin trade. Very charming and colorful spot. Would have loved to spend more time there…
The second stop on my tour of Phuket: Wat Chalong, an unbelievably gorgeous and ornate temple, replete with myriad golden Buddhas and thousands of visitors from elsewhere throughout Asia. The Chinese tourists were especially prevalent, as they were everywhere else on the island, and they came in large groups.
From Wat Chalong, the driver took me up the mountain to the Big Buddha, and a stunning 360 degree view of the island and surrounds. As in Bali, the temple was "guarded" by monkeys, who were very friendly (but apparently will bite if you provoke them).
No tour of Phuket would be complete without at least passing by the famed beaches on the western side of the island, including the infamous Patong Beach, where I had lunch. No time for bathing though--too many beaches and vistas to see. Thailand, you are making it very hard for me to leave you
All in all, my week in Thailand has been a real eye-opener, to say the least. My last visit was in 1988, so I was way overdue for a Thailand reboot. I had in my mind's eye an image of a beautiful, sleepy, timeless country that was still relatively untouched by the hand of modernity. Of course, those impressions were also a product of my own hazy memories from my first brief backpacker/bungalo trip to Thailand in my college days. Still, the changes here since then are remarkable. Maybe not as intense as in China, but the modernization drive here seems just as relentless. Bangkok is bursting with frenzied activity, Chiang Mai is far more developed than I remember, and so is Phuket. Overrun with tourism is a mild way of putting it. The flood of tourists not just from Europe and America but also from China and other Asian countries has been a huge game changer especially for places like Chiang Mai and Phuket. And I've also been surprised by the quality and diversity of the inter/national schools here. But the beauty of the land and people--still timeless as ever. While tourism has made its mark, Phuket is still a gorgeous paradise. And the food! I think this just might turn out to be my favorite leg of my June recruiting journey in Asia. Then again, I'm heading to Penang tomorrow, and Malaysia also strikes me as a country of incredible natural beauty and a nation on the move, especially in the field of education…
June 11 - June 18: Malaysia
Woke up early in George Town, Penang this morning and was out before the break of dawn with my camera, strolling through the Chinese quarters aiming for the heart of India Town, and watching the town wake up and have breakfast. These are some of the photos I took juxtaposing the different cultures, ethnicities and religions that make up this fascinating historical neighborhood, a real microcosm of Malaysian society.
Kuala Lumpur: Checked out the Sky Bar atop Traders Hotel with a stunning view of Petronas Towers. Fairly swank spot. Reminds me of some of the hotel bars in Shanghai. Now, if they only replaced that pool with a dance floor, it would be an epic nightclub.
Had a Shanghailander at Opium followed by craft beer at Taps . These two bars in definitely rate highly in my book on KL nightlife. The guitarist and violinist brought back my youth by playing Devil Went Down to Georgia by the Charlie Daniels Band. Not even Shanghai has an act like that.
Quick Impressions of Malaysia: truly floored by the diversity and dynamism of this country. Kuala Lumpur is really an amazing city and very cosmopolitan. The urban and transportation infrastructure in the area is quite impressive. Lots of building going on right now. The international schools are also very impressive in terms of student population and diversity. obviously the country has many challenges ahead but compared to its neighbors it does seem to have its act together in terms of especially the urban infrastructure that said I spent several hours in traffic today. Even with the highway system and the train system here it's still quite challenging to get around then again I've heard that that's also due to Ramadan and the need for people to go to their homes to to eat at night especially on a Friday. In any case, I definitely think Malaysia has a very promising and dynamic international educational system both at the elementary and higher levels I can see why so many international universities are eager to get involved and set up campuses here. Most of them are modeled on or supported by the British system and I definitely see the need for a more American style liberal arts education here. And the food!!! And the nightlife which I just got a small sampling of last night. Will certainly be back in the not-too-distant future and hopefully will be building some connections here.
During the trip in Kuala Lumpur, in addition to my excellent guide Jonathan from IIE, I was truly blessed with our driver Morgan who on Saturday took me around to see some sites, including the famed Batu Caves, a holy Hindu temple just outside the city.
Caught three live music performances last night in the Bukit Bintang area. First, went back to Taps bar for a Rogue IPA and saw the band. Nice trio consisting of a male guitarist who i saw perform the previous time, along with two women who did some nice vocal harmonies. They covered a range of classic and contemporary rock/pop songs including a beautiful version of Blackbird. Then strolled around the bar street and found a jazz band playing. They were great. Mostly Japanese. They ended their set with Night in Tunisia and some fine solos including sax, guitar, piano and drum solos. Spoke briefly to the sax player, Yagi, who told me he plays part time and has a day job. Talk about dedication! He said I should go to A nearby club called No Black Tie and so I checked that out. Female singer doing mostly funk pop tunes including one she wrote called Leave Your Man. Haha. Then walked back to my hotel in the sweltering night. Nice way to end my tour of Malaysia. I will be back!
June 18 - June 25: Hong Kong
Arriving in Hong Kong, one of the first places we went was to Macau, another fascinating post-colonial town with traces of Portuguese influence going back to the 1600s, ruins of the St. Paul's cathedral and an old town chok-a-block with tourists, and with a distinctive food culture all its own. Only had one afternoon to explore. Definitely worth another visit.
Hong Kong by night. Quite a sight. Took a long stroll from Causeway Bay to Central, then caught the ferry to Kowloon side. Walked up Nathan Road to the Temple Street Night Market then took the MTR back to HK Island. Over 10K in all. Definitely helped to improve my sense of HK geography. And nothing can beat the HK nightscape--not even Shanghai!
Had a nice tour of St. Stephen's College in Stanley, Hong Kong this morning. Out of the 40 or so schools I've visited in Asia thus far, it definitely stands out for its stunning location and its unique history. The school grounds became a prison camp under the Japanese occupiers in 1942-45. There is school museum and chapel memorializing this historical episode. We were led by two wonderful student docents on the heritage tour of the campus.
My trip to Hong Kong wouldn't be complete without a visit to Ned Kelly's Last Stand. This jazz bar has been standing in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon since the early 1970s. Had a good conversation at the bar with some old timers who gave me a rundown of the history of this unique nightspot. Also got to reconnect with trombonist and bandleader Colin Aitchison, who had attended my talk on Shanghai's jazz age for the HK RAS in 2014. Great way to cap off a week of school visits in this fascinating city.
Times Square in Causeway Bay. This area of Hong Kong is a wild roller coaster ride of glitzy shopping malls, super-crowded streets, night markets selling cheap clothing and bags, and street food. I always find it hard to get my bearings and end up wandering around mazes of neon-filled alleyways. Very Gibsonesque. Of course, cyberpunk godfather William Gibson's own model was Tokyo, itself a neon labyrinth of old and new cultures. I find both cities overwhelming and bewildering. Then again, over years and years of visits, usually short ones lasting a week or so, I've gotten to know the basic geography of Hong Kong. This trip has definitely consolidated that geography lesson. In addition to walking extensively around the Sheungwan-Central-Admiralty-Wanchai-Causeway Bay nexus, I've made a couple of forays to the Kowloon side. Over this week I've also visited many areas of HK that I'd never seen before, the more faraway, secluded areas that tend to be the optimum sites for schools, including Aberdeen, Stanley, and Discovery Bay. Those are beautiful spots, but these mazes of neon and street hawkers and polyglot crowds swarming under the canopy of flashy skyscrapers are to me the essence of Hong Kong.
Final day in Hong Kong. Met up with old friend and fellow China hand, Avron Boretz, who took me on a tour of Kowloon including the downmarket street markets of Sham Shui Po and the trendy youthful consumer markets of Mong Kok. We stopped in Mong Kok for some fine craft beers at Tap. Old friends are like gold, and so is good craft beer, and this was GREAT beer. Wish we had a spot like this in Kunshan!
The street market in Sham Shui Po is truly a sight to behold. Specialized stalls carry electronics, bags, you name it, and I assume most if not all of it comes from the factories of Shenzhen.
June 25 - July 1: Korea
In the past four weeks I have traveled to Jakarta, Bali, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Macau, and now, Seoul. Everywhere I have been, there is one unifier: scads and scads of tourists from Mainland China. Guess I am just one of the millions of 老百姓 from 大陆 traveling around Asia….
My one big regret from my grad school days at Columbia is that I didn't study Korean language. Columbia had and I am sure still has a great Korean language program. Every time I come here to Korea I feel ashamed at not being able to speak and understand the language. I don't feel that way about other Asian countries outside of China and Japan. And since Korean is so close in grammar to Japanese and shares the same cognates with Chinese, it wouldn't have been too difficult. On the other hand, I am glad I got some exposure to Korean history as a TA for Gari Ledyard.
Just had a great visit to one top Korean school. They already supply Duke with some of the best students in country and hopefully some will be joining us at Duke Kunshan as well. The visit ended with a deluge which is taken as a very favorable sign given the recent drought.
Driving through the Korean countryside after a visit to a school outside Seoul, built on a hilltop with gorgeous green mountain scenery. It's a fine sunny day, and the air is cool and fresh. Such a nice contrast to the oppressive heat and humidity in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. The Korean countryside is absolutely gorgeous. No photos--you'll just have to imagine it.
For my last day in Seoul, I visited the city center and the Jyogaesa Buddhist Temple, where groups of mainly women were busy reading texts and praying on mats in the grand hall of the temple.
Then I participated in a guided tour of Gyeongbokgung Palace. I found this nice cafe in the northernmost part of the palace grounds next to the King's library. It was a godsend as I had run out of water and was totally overheated in the hot summer weather. Nice spot from which to sip cool water and look out on the palace grounds.
So it has been an amazing journey traveling through Asia recruiting for Duke Kunshan's new UG degree program. I have been met with great enthusiasm and support for our venture throughout the journey. I have been blessed with wonderful guides and friendly people wherever I went. But now I am looking forward to returning home to my family and my life in Shanghai, and then back to Kunshan to share the good news. More trips to come later this summer and fall, so stay tuned. Same bat time, same bat channel.