Archive for January, 2008
It’s been a long time coming, but I finally managed to get published a story that I’m privileged to have written, based on an interview with Asia Sentinel editor John Berthelsen, and his son Christian, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. The men are in the unusual position of having both covered the defining wars of their generation. John covered Vietnam for Newsweek in 1966 and 1967. Christian has been in Iraq on two stints for the Times in 2007.
Here are the opening paragraphs of the story:
In 1966, John Berthelsen went to war with a manual Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter, a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” and six weeks of French lessons. The 26-year-old Newsweek reporter, not long out of a job with northern California’s Grass Valley Union (circulation: 6,700), was embarking on a one-year assignment to report on combat in the Vietnam War. In his words, he was sent out to be “cannon fodder.”
In March 2007, John’s son Christian was sent to war with a satellite phone, a laptop and a Kevlar vest. The 35-year-old Los Angeles Times reporter, who usually covers suburban politics, was on his first posting in Iraq: a six-week relief stint for one of the newspaper’s regular war correspondents at the start of the current troop surge. It was a journey heavily influenced by his father.
“If you want anyone to take you seriously in journalism, you’ve got to cover a war,” John had told Christian at the start of his career. So when a staff email from the Times was circulated asking for volunteers to cover Iraq, Christian stuck up his hand. He got the go-ahead by return email within seven minutes. “There isn’t a huge supply of people wanting to go to Iraq,” he says, with a laugh.
Read the whole thing.
In the US on a high school exchange programme, my mum became friends with a young man, Doug Pritt, who later became a general in the US military. Ever since, mum and (later) our family have remained friends with Doug, who I’m happy to say is a stand-up gentleman and an immensely likable guy.
Doug is holidaying in New Zealand with my parents, and he, his wife, and her sister were there over the Christmas break, when I returned for my annual dose of clean air. It was six months since Doug had retired from the army. His final act in the job was to spend a year in Afghanistan overseeing the training of the Afghan army and police forces. He was America’s no. 2 man in the country. As might imagine, he had many interesting stories to tell.
Perhaps unfairly, I corralled Doug into an interview to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and the state of the armed forces there. Having come to the end of the bloodiest year in the conflict, I thought it an opportune time to get some thoughts from someone who had experienced life — and the conflict — there on the ground.
I later used the interview as the basis for a story on Asia Sentinel, which is now live. In the interests of balance, I also interviewed a lecturer from my alma mater, Najib Lafraie, who was the foreign affairs minister in the pre-Taliban government of Afghanistan. He had been in Afghanistan in November 2006, when he interviewed President Hamid Karzai, among other notables.
It was fascinating to listen to the two men describe, with equal conviction and substantiation, completely different scenarios. In one narrative, the Western troops in Afghanistan were making progress, the training of the Afghan army was a success, and the Taliban was becoming increasingly desperate; in the other, the Western troops had become part of the problem in Afghanistan and the Taliban was resurgent, gaining influence and territory by the day.
There was one thing they both agreed on, though: Afghanistan is a sad story.
Read more about it.
This is an actual email exchange between the editor of Asia Sentinel and someone who found the website through an unusual search:
Good day to you!
My daughter loves to have your doughnuts veryvery much..
Do you have any outlets located in Singapore, if not,
- could you recommend any nearest quality in Singapore .
- when do you plan to have your branch in Singapore .
Please give your updates asap!
Many Thanks and Best Regards,
dear Ms. Ong: I am afraid you have confused us with a doughnut franchise. Actually we are a regional magazine of news, opinion and analysis (www.asiasentinel.com). I hope you find us as easy to consume.
Cheers and regards,
John Berthelsen, Editor
The offending article.
Arrive after 13-hour flight and two-hour taxi ride to find apartment won’t be ready for another six hours. Stew in own grime until shower is discovered. Stumble to diner for greasy breakfast. Stumble to work-training. Stumble through work-training. Home and pub for Scottish whiskey and English beer. Soup for dinner.
Work happens. At end of day, one of our party receives bad news. Beer at closest pub helps address that. Back later for Chinese takeaways, and more beer. Notice a theme emerging?
Another great day at the office for mystery job-training. Meet mate from New Zealand for beer, followed by quality Mexican dinner (and beer), and back to pub for (not much) more beer.
Drag withered body through another day of work. Head to Hoxton (read: hip hangout for the sartorially blessed) for smiley-face Vietnamese meal, followed by the world’s most crammed gig for preppy New York afro-beat-inspired indie band Vampire Weekend. Unanimously agreed best song: Oxford Comma. A great gig that could have used just a shade more energy. Four stars out of six. Go to nearby bar (Catch — described by one reviewer as a horrible bar. I liked it) for more drinks and general good times. Catch black cab home about 2am.
Final day at training. Wine-based lunch, with salmon fillet. Drinks in a pub with colleagues and friends from NZ after work. Dinner at Ultimate Burger. To Soho to a trashy bar, followed by bourbon-and-cokes (or, to be more precise, Cack Daniels and Diet Jokes) at a modest member’s bar. Get in a ‘dodgy cab’ (i.e. a car driven by some dude trying to make a quick buck) and head home. Costs 20 quid, but it’s my first good look at some of London’s lovely old sights. Home in bed by 3am.
Already too much time spent online. Out for lunch soon. Roast later.
I’ve been a long-time proponent of the book On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover, and I’ve just had the slightly unusual yet highly amusing experience of watching my friend, a TV news anchor, introduce a story about a play about the book staged and directed by another friend, who just happens to be said news anchor’s boyfriend. Oh, and it was a friend who wrote the book in the first place. Not that I can reveal his top secret identity (as speculated on, with woeful inaccuracy, here).
Wellington’s daily newspaper, the Dominion Post, called the play “brilliant“, and another reviewer has said “it is exactly the sort of social and political satire we need to alleviate the inevitable earnestness and nastiness of the looming election campaign”. That’s a job well done, Arthur.
Arthur is also the main brains trust behind the Lonesome Buckwhips, a garage-country band of which I was a founding member (though the others now try to write me off as a mere session musician). Despite being debilitated by my departure, the Buckwhips have gone on to great success, winning best comedy act at the Wellington Fringe Festival, and now being named as a finalist in New Zealand’s most prestigious comedy awards: the Billy T Awards.
Starting to feel like an under-achiever. I mean, where’s my book and play?
By chance, I got to listen to Adriana Yoto’s presentation at a small art space called KLUUBB in Wanchai on Friday night. In 2003, Yoto and seven of her artist friends built an apartment in an abandoned and hidden part of a massive mall in Providence, near their homes. They lived there for four years, until they were ultimately found by some curious security guards and arrested.
When the Providence Place Mall was being built, other buildings were torn down to make space. Some of Yoto’s friends were kicked out of their apartments. Small businesses closed down. It’s a behemoth, accessible only through a grand entrance and rigged for cars. The mall has 4,000 parking spaces and 10 spaces for bikes. There are 170 shops, and four department stores.
Before the artists embarked on the project, the mall ran an advertising campaign saying something to the effect of, “This mall is so great! If only I could live here!” The artists took the call-to-action literally.
After discovering the abandoned space in the mall — Yoto’s husband had noticed the anomaly during construction — the artists assumed the hyper-capitalist mindset of the mall owners. They felt an obligation to develop it. After all, it was wasted space.
They smuggled in bricks through a squeeze-gap that led to the outside world and built a wall and door, which could be locked. Up a steep set of stairs, in a lobby-type space, they found their new home and gradually built it up, adding furniture, a TV, gaming consoles, artwork, and even a waffle iron. They used an extension cord to access a power outlet two storeys below. The only amenities the dwelling lacked were a bathroom and toilet. They were planning to set up plumbing, before they were foiled.
When it came time to move in pieces of large furniture, they couldn’t use the squeeze gap, so they just took it in the front door and out the back, passing security in broad daylight. No one suspected a thing.
The artists slept at the apartment every night, and would sometimes spend a large part of their weekends in there. No visitors were allowed, and the artists never talked about the apartment in the outside world. During the day, they would go to work in their studios. They used the mall toilets to relieve themselves, and Yoto had a morning routine of visiting the Origin store to use the test-sink and products to wash her face and hands. She’d drink the free tea at the Borders bookstore.
The fun had to come to an end some time. A couple of security guards in their 20s got bored one day at work and explored the mall, trying every door. When they found one that didn’t open with the skeleton key, they kicked the door in. They took the Playstation for evidence. The artists came back to find the door kicked in and some stuff missing but decided to continue living there anyway. Eventually, Yoto’s husband and a friend from Hong Kong (okay, they broke their rules, but she was the only visitor who came to the apartment) were found in the apartment by police, and the group was arrested.
Considering the circumstances, it wasn’t a bad way to get found out, Yoto reckoned. “I’m happy that we were caught by versions of ourselves. We were caught by adventurers.”
Yoto’s husband, Mike, was the only one to get taken to court, charged with misdemeanor trespass crimes. He got no fines, but he did get a probation officer. She found the whole affair highly amusing. During his short stint in jail, Mike was getting high fives from the inmates. Mall security told him, “What you did was illegal — but you did a really good job!”.
The mall owners were the only ones with a negative response. They’re suing for the copyrights to all the images and video that were produced in the apartment, because it’s their property. Yoto finds the implications of that interesting, because increasingly our lives are being lived in public. She wondered what would happen if someone wrote a poem while sitting in Starbucks and was later arrested. Would the poem belong to Starbucks?
Scary things happened in the mall while they were living there. A 14-year-old girl was raped in a bathroom. Some guy jumped off the parking lot — he didn’t die but he messed up his legs. A security guard accidentally drove his car too far in the parking lot, so half of it was hanging in mid-air. (Despite best efforts, the mall owners couldn’t keep that one out of the next day’s newspaper.) People fell off escalators. The mall was a place of drama; just not the sort that was advertised.
Yoto jokes that the project was an artists-in-residency programme that the mall didn’t pay for. They were living the dream. “We were fulfilling that promise — the empty promise of the mall; that it was this experience, this adventure.”
Wow. Hong Kong has a cool jazz bar that doesn’t have a covers charge.
Open for just three weeks, the Melting Pot, in Soho, is a dark, low-ceilinged joint that offers music six nights a week, courtesy of a house band that boasts a New York import as saxophonist/music director. He’s smooth, lively, and well supported by three locals, on bass, keys, and drums.
Tonight the bar had a special performance by a Mongolian blue-grass-folk-jazz band, who delighted the small crowd with story-telling music and some delicate harmonies. Most impressive, though, was the guttural drone that emanated from the female lead. Check out the video below for some truly extraordinary vocals. And yes, they were definitely coming from a woman.