An uncrowned king riding on a motorcycle

An uncrowned king riding on a motorcycle

By Ethan Liu

Hong Kong

A whole week of humid and stuff weather, May Titthara-thick curly black hair, tanned Southeast Asian skin, and a solid figure with a diction exactly of a typical Phnom Penh folk-riding on his little red motorcycle full loaded with media gears and supplements, driving deep into the provinces, just to find a source who’s willing to unveil some old but intriguing stories.

That’s how Titthara, the 36-year-old Cambodian journalist tried his best writing the story, A Tuol Sleng Interrogator Speaks Out, in which the protagonist shared with him his life experience as an interrogator at the notorious S-21 detention center, he’d never exposed to anybody the secret buried for nearly forty years, until he told Titthara.

“If in Khmer language he would not talk, if wrote in English he agreed to talk because he thought most of people in Cambodia, especially in his province didn’t understand English.” Titthara said. In most cases, occupational or daily life, people called him Thara.

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May Titthara, sitting on his motorbike, crossing the Mekong River on a ferry boat. His team was on the way of doing a report.  Source: Titthara’s Facebook

As a SOPA Award winner, former news editor of Phnom Penh Post and editor of Khmer Times, he mainly covered deforestation, land exploitation, economic land concessions and violent eviction in Cambodia-no relaxing, pink bubbling topics. From the titles of his two 2013 SOPA winning stories, Bloody Day in Svey Rieng and Escape from Hell on the High Sea, it naturally genders a conviction that this man is not doing some light-hearted entertaining pieces, actually he always treated himself as an investigative journalist.

“Investigative journalism is a very risky field in Cambodia,” Thara said, “Few people are doing this, even they start at the beginning, but after a year or so, they just don’t want do it no more.”

During the years he fight for press freedom and human rights, the major part of his stories share one thing in common: they reveal severe but usually covert social issues to the public. Consequently, it touched the borderlines of of some interest groups and the government. And what followed up are threatens, blackmailing and bribe. “To be honest I don’t know how to protect myself,” said Thara, “But why am I survive? Because what I’ve done is all about truth.”

The development of media is heavily hindered by political and economic obstacles, in which the corrupted government and powerful tycoons are the two main initiators. Just like many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, the majority of media outlets of the country are political assets rather than conventional business assets, facilitating broader political or business interests.

Thara mentioned that Cambodian journalists had been suffering beyond what outsiders could imagine, including direct intimidation, frequent defamation law suits, economic pressure from companies, or something even worse. “From 2003 to 2013, more than 30 journalists were murdered and none of them were charged.” He said on a meeting at Hong Kong Baptist University in 2013.

What did the problems bring upon? An even more problematic result, and then a vicious cycle. According to the report, The Media Map Project: Cambodia 1990-2010 by Margarette Roberts, few Cambodians understand the role of media and what lays behind the information agenda, and media literacy is underdeveloped, then as a result, there is no public outcry over media bias, poor quality reporting or the absence of newsworthy stories.

“If you do a corruption story from the government side, it would be very difficult to gather information and get some documents.” Thara said. There was a story he’d been doing for about two years but still not finished yet, “Because we have to protect ourselves, we will have to take a very long time before we can publish the story.”

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May Titthara(left), with Chad Williams(right) at the SOPA Award meeting in Hong Kong, 2015. He received the award of investigate and breaking news.  Source: Titthara’s Facebook

A Logging Free for All, one of his representative stories about the illegal logging in Cambodia, illustrated the particular business model of a logging syndicate and pointed out the harrowing fact that about a third of the country’s total forest cover had been lost since 1973 mainly because of illegal logging. Thara spent five days tracking the loggers and searching for any valuable sources in the fields, then came back to office and spent a whole week writing on it. “The information is easy to get but it’s too dangerous.” He said.

According to the report, Cambodia’s Family Trees: Illegal Logging and the Stripping of Public Assets by Cambodia’s Elites conducted by Global Witness, Cambodia’s kleptocratic elite including political leaders, army, military forces and even the Forest Administration are all heavily involved in illegal logging, it is not a one-sided simple issue, but a complicated process with a small group of complicit individuals from nearly every aspect of the upper class.

Illegal logging has long been a major issue of Cambodia, although the corporation competition in the process and the large-scale deforestation described in the piece were shocking, what’s more disturbing was the immoral, even illegitimate participation of the journalists, acting as a middleman between the gamers and the preys.

Earlier this year, Al Jazeera did a multimedia report about hundreds of Cambodian journalists making a living by uncovering news and then extorting bribes to bury the illegal logging stories, in which there were multiple trades infiltrated by the evil interference of journalists, illegal logging was just one of them. With a growing number of journalists making news only for money, there were only 20 newspapers out of 400 publish regularly then.

Thara was also featured in the video as one of the main interviewees and respondents from the handful of the respected newspapers in Cambodia. “In Cambodia, if people work for local newspapers, it’s because of their low salary, and then for other journalists in the provinces, they don’t have a salary at all.” Said Thara.

He referred a conversation with a tycoon in Phnom Penh, the man said: “Thara, I’m so scared of journalists right now.”

“Why?”

“Because when I go out, the journalist will give me a big piece of paper with a lot of journalists’ names on it, one journalist, $10.”

“I just don’t have enough money to give all of them.” Said the man.

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May Titthara featured in the Al Jazeera video: Cambodia’s News Blackmailers.  Video link shown as below.

Thara still remembered one time he went to Hanoi, Vietnam for an assignment, journalists there did in the same way as their counterparts in Cambodia, they accepted envelopes in which contained with some money. According to Thara, it’s a moment for making a decision: you accept the envelope, you don’t report some particular content; you don’t accept it, maybe you will get in big troubles.

“I’ve never accepted the money, even though my salary is not too much, I’m okay with that.” Thara said. He said one of the main reasons was the low salary of journalists, especially in Cambodia and some other Southeast Asian countries. Unscrupulous journalists couldn’t be satisfied with the humble amount, so they managed to get some “extra money.”

Envelope culture, at least it has long been called as so, is one significant source of funding of journalists in many Asian countries. The envelope culture refers to envelopes containing money or other valuable gifts that sources of news give to journalists at interviews and press conferences. According to Politics and the Press in Indonesia by Angela Romano, the envelope culture thrived until the 1970s in Hong Kong and Singapore, but wilted as wages increased alongside a growing economy and strong anti‐corruption laws and implementation of regulations, the similar methods may could be adopted to tackle with the problems in Cambodia.

“It doesn’t depend on low salary or high salary, it depends on their minds,” said Thara, “Some journalists working in the provinces, they don’t have my salary, but they are richer than I.” He agreed investigative journalism is a tough work and not monetary profitable, “But if you want to be rich, maybe you can’t work as a journalist.” He said.

Now working in Khmer Times, a young newspaper founded in 2014, Thara and his two friends lead the team. Besides daily editorial job, he has to finish a story in the morning hours, holds a meeting with the staff and assign them to certain works. Occasionally, he will have to spend the whole weekend covering feature stories in different provinces with his small crew and his loyal companion, the little red motorbike.

He said in the Al Jazeera video that a businessman once wanted to bribe him, the man offered him fancy cars, but Thara replied: “Thank you very much, but I have my motor.”

 

 

 

 

SOURCE LIST:

  1. The Media Map Project: Cambodia 1990-2010 by Margarette Roberts.

http://www.mediamapresource.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Cambodia_web.pdf

  1. Cambodia’s Family Trees: Illegal Logging and the Stripping of Public Assets by Cambodia’s Elites

https://www.globalwitness.org/zh/reports/cambodias-family-trees/

  1. Politics and the Press in Indonesia by Angela Romano

http://samples.sainsburysebooks.co.uk/9781136133701_sample_476968.pdf

  1. A Tuol Sleng Interrogator Speaks Out

http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/tuol-sleng-interrogator-speaks-out

  1. Cambodia’s News Blackmailers

http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/101east/2015/02/cambodia-news-blackmailers-150217120758902.html

  1. A Logging Free for All

http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/logging-free-all

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Sketching Nostalgia in a Fishing Village

Sketching Nostalgia in a Fishing Village

By Ethan Liu

Hong Kong

It’s no different with any other ordinary Saturdays. Stanley Wong Chi-chuen paid a routine visit to the small stall near the seashore where he could enjoy fresh cooked shrimps, ice herbal tea and some fried fish skins. But most of all, he came here to chat with his old friends. Tucked in the westernmost of the Lantau Island, Tai O was his hometown of precious fragments of a perishing lifestyle.

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A wooden framework sticked into the sea near the stall, local residents used similar construction structure building boardwalks and stilt houses, the kind of buildings could be seen everywhere in Tai O. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

The owner didn’t keep her living on the stall, “We just come here every weekend, I have a day job during the weekdays,” Peng, the owner said, “It’s more like something as an entertainment, somewhere for old friends reuniting together, eating, drinking and chatting.”

We came across Wong in the stilt house, he was 53 years old, a slim, energetic man, with the well-shaven goatee and a tanned but affable figure of a fisherman, his posture was elegant, his diction was occasionally exactly of an artist, or a painter. “We used to study in the mainland of China, now you youngsters come to Hong Kong for further education,” Wong said, “Things do have changed.”

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Stanley Wong Chi-Chuen, in front of his studio at Kat Hing Back St., Tai O, he is a painter, local resident born in the village and the founder of Tai O Gallery, an organization focusing on the artistic presentation of the endemic customs and cultures of Lantau Island, especially Tai O. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

Born into a fisherman’s family, his childhood memory was deeply rooted in the fishing village located near one of the most modernized and sophisticated urban hub worldwide, yet the very memory was all about an idyllic life experience in which fishing boats, sapphire sea waves, local temples and row upon row of wooden stilt houses could be the themes he sketched and painted.

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A typical architectural complex in Tai O where stilt houses raised over the surface of the sea water, they are built primarily as a protection against flooding, though most of them were labelled as squatter hut by the Hong Kong government. According to Peng, the stall owner, the seemingly fragile structure actually could bear enormous pressure. (Photo by Ethan Liu)
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A wet market at the center of Tai O village, multiple kinds of fresh seafood, fruits and dried goods could be bought in a relatively competitive price here when considering the high consumption level of Hong Kong, tourists has gradually become a main part of buyers. (Photo by Ethan Liu)
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A basket of pinecones presented in the Tai O Cultural Workshop, a privately owned museum offering visual insights into the history of the village, getting more people know the unique culture, local habitants and housing implements of the very region. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

He showed his works to us, lifting the canvas and turning them every which way so that we could see their trenchant contours and marvelous color, commenting on each one’s background meaning with the meticulousness of an auctioneer touting yearling colts at the Jockey Club.

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A facial decoration of Beijing Opera painted by Stanley Wong. He started his career as a painter in 1988, besides the experiences in Europe and mainland China, he also conducted various exhibitions and projects with the theme of Tai O village. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

“I didn’t have the opportunity to study in a school when I was very young, fishermen had to work very hard to earn their bread, but the life was full of joy,” Wong said, “With the economic development of Hong Kong, Tai O people then could work in some factories and got better paid, for me, I could finally realize my painter’s dream.”

He toured Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East from 1990 to 1994, backpacking and learning arts, he then enrolled at the China National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, specializing in sketching and oil painting.

“My original intention was being far away from home, as far as I could,” Wong said, “so I didn’t choose Guangzhou which was much more nearer, I went to Hangzhou for studying.”

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A worker operating a wheelbarrow full loaded with crates of fruits. The main streets and stone roads are lined with hawkers and small businesses selling foods and local dishes to the tourists. (Photo by Ethan Liu)
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The Tanka People is the mostly populated ethnic group in Tai O, they lived in junk boats previously before they settled in the village where they’ve already lived in for about two hundred years, and nowadays many of the local residents are elderly. (Photo by Ethan Liu)
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Tai O has become a major tourist destination in recent years, visitors from all over the world come to the village, yet the decline of the local community and the perishing endemic culture now raise a big question to the government and the people living there. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

Tai O Impressions, a painting album he published at his own expense, recording the historical transition of the fishing village throughout these decades, along with Tai O Gallery, a painting studio he established, were the main parts of his platform presenting and commemorating the certain culture.

“A lots have changed. There were no more big fishing boats in the harbor nowadays, fewer and fewer people living in the village and even if they go out for fishing, they are on tiny boats not for a big deal,” Wong said, “But this is where I was born and grew up, it’s naturally a perfect place for me to paint.”

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A hawker and local fisherman selling seafoods to passersby, he anchored his boat down below a bridge, when a deal was done, he would wrap the goods up in a plastic bag and used a stick sending the bag to the buyers standing above on the bridge. (Photo by Ethan Liu)
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Fishing is still a central part of Tai O life, just not as essential as the old days. Salted fish and scallops were sold in the market and a large part of the marine products were made into dried goods. (Photo by Ethan Liu)
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Located in the west Lantau Island where mountains framed the coast, with traditional trades declining, tourism has become the drawcard of the village. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

According to Wong, Hong Kong is a city that doesn’t have its own artistic or creative originalities, with fashion trends come and go, practitioners are all aiming for quick money. And that’s one of the reasons he decided to travel and study painting skills in different countries.

“Just to learn some real stuff, you know.” He said.

“When we were young, we all wondered what the outside world would be like, planning to leave our hometown for a lifelong journey,” Wong said and smiled, “I once had the same conviction. After travelled so many different places and compared them to Tai O, I’ve learned to see my hometown in the perspective of painting.”

“And then I decided to paint something about the fishing village.”

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Tai O is sometimes called the “Venice of Hong Kong”, lots of Hong Kong citizens make a short day-trip to visit the village, the government is now protecting several hundred site and buildings in the very region. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

Since his return to Hong Kong, Wong has been working as an art educator and a designer and producer of large-scale mural productions. He said he had less time painting than before because he had a family to maintain, yet Tai O would always be the most significant topic in his pieces.

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Stanley Wong’s studio at 90 Kat Hing Back St., Tai O. Besides painting, he also taught some local students sketching and painting. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

All great art has the power of suggesting a world beyond the beauty in terms of our human meaning, and in some moods nature shares it. Tai O is perhaps one of those places where human civilization and the natural beauty together presented a magnificent combination, in which intense aesthetic experience was all that in my mind when we were wandering down the streets and wet markets of the fishing village.

Drinking Fire and Blood

Drinking Fire and Blood

 

 

By Ethan Liu

Hong Kong

On a bright, breezy Saturday afternoon in March, Li T’ao sat loose on a rocking chair on the balcony of his small tidy room, from where he could see the view of golden fields and limpid creeks nearby. He didn’t have many belongings in that room of a nursing home, and most of them were collected in plastic bags, giving me a misconception that he was ready for another long trip any time he wanted.

61 years old, talkative and energetic, wearing an old Khaki jacket with a tanned, solid figure, Li’s image of an ordinary country folk could barely convince people he had a dramatic experience overseas, although his posture was elegant and his diction was occasionally of someone who had a life-story of vagabond, misery and unforgettable agony.

Last winter, my father who was working for the state security department found a man without any authorized identity been sent back to his hometown by the government. During the inquiry, the man said he lost his whole family including two wives and two children in a plague and an even more horrible fire, then he escaped back from Myanmar to China, after 18 years of detainment by a Burmese triad.

I had never been to Myanmar, actually I didn’t even know its exact location. The highway from Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province to where Li was living was about eighty miles, all that in my mind on the road were the fragments and pieces my father told me about the man, Li T’ao, they made me tossing and turning all night.

For a long time, China and Myanmar have been bounded together, caravans, adventurers, bandits, commissionaires, bounty hunters, opportunists are keep entering to the very region which characterized by continuous conflicts among at least three countries throughout hundreds and thousands of years.

According to Transformation of the Yunnanese Community by Yi Li, the history could be traced back to the Han Dynasty, such geographic, commercial and social connections developed during different historical eras were the premises for interactions as a cross-border international exchange, yet both the Chinese and Burmese developed a clear image of their own identities which is still one of the driving factors of ethnic clashes in Myanmar society.

Li T’ao’s life was buried in those millions individuals’ life, apparently.

The Journey Begins

The year 1984, Ho Yüan Village, Ku Kang County, tucked in the wetland of Hunan Province, a mountainous town in the south central of the mainland China, marbled with lakes and rivers, this is where the story begins.

He was 29 then, a “dauntless and ambitious young man” who “didn’t want to be an average Joe in his village hometown.” All his belongings could be put into one suitcase when Li left his foster parents, both his birth parents were died in the Cultural Revolution. Without any consistent economical supply during the six-year trip throughout the whole south China, he earned a living on the skill of fixing sewing machines by self-studying.

He suffered from an acute skin disease when he sojourned in Ssu-mao, Yunnan Province which was nearly 900 miles away from where he started, being extremely poor and couldn’t afford the medical aid, he decided to relied on himself.

“I’ve got some books about traditional Chinese medicine from a Chinese medicine doctor when I travelled in Guizhou, and from those books I learned multiple recipes of real significant remedial value,” Li said, “I climbed up to the mountains searching for herbs according to the formula. Finally, those self-made medicine saved me, and that’s the turning point of my life.”

With the raw medical knowledge which was also a gift of self-studying, Li made a career of a barefoot doctor in the remote mountain villages with poor medical and sanitation facilities. Ssu-mao, where he settled down, an underdeveloped inland town which is adjacent to the 2000-kilometer China-Myanmar border, is long been known as the frontier of the cross-border activities between the two countries.

This was both the marvelous and problematic thing about the certain interactions: most of the border was loosely guarded because of difficult terrain. Unguarded pathways along the border provided an ideal condition with the commercial and agricultural intercourses for the farmers from both sides, but what was more disturbing is it was also a bane for criminal activities back and forth, in which smuggling and drug trafficking were the most rampant ones, since the southwest Yunnan Province stood right in the forefront of China to the notorious Golden Triangle region, both geographically and politically.

Into the Foreign Land

1992, Li was then in the peddler’s trade, selling jade and human hair, yet he maintained the part-time job as a traditional Chinese doctor. He took a smuggler’s detour from Daluo, Yunnan Province to Mong La, the administrative seat of Mong La Township of Shan State, a city that was technically belonged to Myanmar though, the infrastructural works were heavily dependent on China.

“That was a nameless small village governed by the Mong La administration, although Chinese, English and Thai are the lingua franca there, most of the residents are either Chinese or Chinese descendants,” Li recalled, “I was very welcomed every time I came there not only for my goods but also my medical skills and the medicines I brought from China.”

According to him, the destitute hamlet in the verdant forests of eastern Shan State was extremely insufficient of professional medical helpers, “Villagers would give me a basket of eggs in exchange for drugs they could not afford, for instance, headache powder were eight cents per bag, and a syringe of Pethidine would cost you twenty yuan.” Li said. (1 USD approximately equals 8.7 RMB at that time, according to the Reformdata.org)

It was a big melting pot where people of different ethnic groups living together, most of them were chasing for profitable opportunities. Geographically and culturally, the certain area was mainly under the influence of Kokang, a region which was mostly populated by the Han Chinese people, a district which had long been a thorny problem of Myanmar government. Renminbi in China and Chinese were respectively the only currency and the mostly-used language here, but not their Myanmar counterparts.

Just like its neighbor, Kachin State, the zone enjoyed the reputation as a hub for the jade and hair trade. “I collected hair from the local Burmese girls, they had shiny black hair of the best quality, hair of 500 grams meant two or three months of salaries those days,” Li said, “The price was variable according to the market, ranged from twenty-two yuan per half kilogram to a hundred, most of my customers were merchants from Henan Province in the mainland China, although I had no idea what they would use the hair for, wigs, I suppose.”

However, hair or traditional Chinese medicine were no more than a piddling bonus, it was the jade business that made Li economically sustainable. During the peak seasons, he could make a monthly income of thirty to forty thousand yuan by purchasing and reselling jade stones. As a matter of fact, what lied behind was an enormous industrial chain.

According to the report, Jade: Myanmar’s Big State Secret conducted by Global Witness, the jade was mainly smuggled directly to China, bypassing official controls on both sides of the border, and licensed companies typically sell high volume, low value jade through government-sanctioned channels, an estimated Myanmar’s jade production in 2014 was US$31 billion, this breaks down to at least US$ 21,000 per person in Kachin State, and there was a US$122.8 billion production from 2005 to 2014.

Although he had a share in the big cake, Li was at the bottom of the pyramid all the time, and the share was negligible.

Meet the Mafias

Besides the trades and local markets, the village was also famous for its illegal organizations like brothels and casinos banned in China, yet the chaos was actually doing a big favor for the criminal syndicates.

“There is one thing you have to bear in mind when you’re making a rather short stay in that kind of place, you are never safe enough.” Li said, lighting up a cigarette, smoking deeply, immersed himself in the memory of the old times, “I was 38, handling my business in the village, two groups of local gangsters were in a fierce faction war, and I was taken away by one side as a captive, they threw me into a water dungeon and prisoned me for about 12 hours, suspecting I was a spy.”

“I reckoned it’s perhaps my Chinese nationality and irregularly comes and goes,” Li smiled bitterly, “Or maybe it’s just my bad luck.”

Luck could be even worse. Li then found they were not ordinary thugs or a motley crew, but well-trained triads in a sophisticated organization, or briefly saying, mafias.

According to Li, they were equipped with heavy-loaded weapons from 0.357 caliber Magnum pistols to AK-47 machine guns, even mortars. And its main capital source included drug trafficking, protection fee and kidnapping. They were the group of people that actually in charge in the very area.

“I have to admit when they took me to their boss, I was totally freaked out,” Li said, “He was an old man in his sixties who was easily got annoyed when we first met, they called him Mhank Sa, but I think it’s a pseudonym, no one knew his real name.”

The gang leader had heard of Li’s medical practices, after an oppressing inquiry, Mhank Sa decided not to give him a death sentence but asking him to be their private doctor. Considering he had no other choice, Li agreed. “But all that in my mind was escaping back to China during those days,” Li said, “They wanted me giving medical aid to the gangster members, I gave, but with a careless attitude.”

The leader noticed his delinquency soon after, and had a conversation with him. “Mhank Sa had already known what I was thinking about, he told me it’s absolutely impossible to return to China on my own,” Li said, “Even if the triads didn’t chase me, the tropical jungle where blood-sucking leeches and horrible beasts were everywhere would be a huge obstacle for me.”

“I just couldn’t make it on my own, and I’ve got no help from the others,” Li said, “Being hopeless and still want to gamble for one last time, I offered him a bellyful condition he would definitely refuse.”

For Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, Chinese triads raging everywhere was not a temporary pain of the local communities which were tortured by chronic, severe economic hardships and political strife, both of which were sharing an inextricably and subtle relationship with the violent organizations.

According to the report, Transnational Activities of Chinese Crime Organizations conducted by the Federal Research Division in 2003, the Shan State where Chinese are mostly populated was the center of the criminal organizations.

The village where Li lived was nothing different with anywhere else in the Mong La region. Pistols, stolen jewelry, fake note, heroin and all kinds of contrabands were widely available and could be easily bought from any street vendors spreading out their goods on a stall, and these traders and smugglers were directly under protection by the local gangsters.

According to the report, Cross-border Drug Trafficking between Myanmar and China conducted by the United States Department of Justice, the corporate model is the main form adopted by most Chinese criminal organizations in the area, in which at least five levels of hierarchy are assigned clearly with roles and responsibilities, a division of labor and chain of command is also presented in which roles and responsibilities are assigned according to members’ professional skills and talents.

And that’s the reason why Li’s relatively qualified medical knowledge could be a bargaining chip for him to save his life.

Mhank Sa was old, yet he had five wives among which the youngest one was just nineteen years old, “I asked him to give me two of his ladies, I was single, but what’s more important, I supposed this rude term would irritate him and let me go.”

But sometimes life is merely a bad joke, an evil humor born of indigestion. The boss not only agreed to the “ridiculous” offer, but also promised to build a new house for Li, “That house was worth more than thirty million Burmese Kyats, about three thousand yuan that time.” Li said. “I was totally stunned, cause at that moment I knew I would have to spend the rest of my life there.”

18 Years Living in Myanmar

Not exactly, but a couple of years, precisely speaking, eighteen years of life from 1993 to 2011, a life restrained by overwhelming power and stinting communication with the outer world, during that time, Li worked for the triad reluctantly and was blocked from any contacts with China, since the gang worried that once the information of Li being leaked, the China customs would take measures.

At the early stage of that new page of life, Li was absolutely hopeless at first, but his two newly-born babies with his elder wife afterwards was an encouragement to him, cheering him up to keep going on.

That was one of the most turbulent historical periods of Myanmar, but also full of radical changes. With the aggressive and harsh strike on criminal syndicates launched by the United Nations and Myanmar government and the historic destruction of Khun Sa and his army, not to mention the overall financial crisis of Southeast Asia in the late 1990s, all these disturbing chain of events making Li’s gang and village gradually withered.

“During those years, occasionally, I would wonder why my life is always full of misfortunes?” Li said, patting his chest heavily, “Why? Why me? Why was I the person who was so cursed?”

The hot, humid summer of 2011, malaria stormed the southeast Shan State and destroyed the whole village, according to Li, more than half of the population in the area was eradicated because of the terrible highly-contagious disease. The epidemic killed Li’s elder wife and his two children as well as Mhank Sa and most of his gang remnants, the “sin city” was at the edge of collapsing.

Although the younger one of his two wives whom he treated as a little sister all the time had survived from the malaria, but then unfortunately died in a car accident just one month later in a border city of Thailand, when she was purchasing the raw materials of traditional Chinese medicine for Li.

Malaria, being cured in many developed urban areas worldwide, but is still a type of disease that is particularly threatening in tropical and subtropical regions. According to the study, Controlling Malaria in Eastern Myanmar, the country has the highest incidence of malaria and mortality rates in Southeast Asia, there were an estimated 1.4 million cases in the country in 2012 with an estimated 2,900 deaths. The village was at the center of the deadliest region, especially when considering its poor sanitation infrastructure.

“Myanmar was never a modernized country in my eyes” Li said, “Too many tragedies happening every day because of sheer underdevelopment.” Most of the buildings were wooden or just perfunctorily made by thatch, the living conditions were horribly humble, and the houses were highly flammable.

According to the report, Infrastructure in Myanmar conducted by KPMG, there are significant gaps in Myanmar’s infrastructure development, the country was ranked 133 out of 155 in 2012 with an extreme lacking of transportation, medical, educational and telecommunication facilities.

All back to Zero

The last straw was a forest fire at the year of 2011, burning down the entire village or whatever was left. “My house and all what’s inside became ashes on the ground, I escaped from the fire, seeking for help from the China customs and finally passed the border,” Li said, “I’ve returned to Ssu-mao, awkwardly and penniless, back to the start after all these mess.”

Life could be incredibly difficult for someone without a legal ID card in China, but thanks to the assistance from friends and associates Li got acquainted with in his early years at Yunnan Province, the public security bureau gave him a provisional citizen status and some necessary financial help. After four years stay at Ssu-mao, he came home.

“I could barely recognize him when the government workers sent him back,” said Li Yu-chia, Li T’ao’s elder brother, “32 years are quite long enough to change a man.”

“Do you believe in Karma? I used to, but not anymore,” He said, “I feel lucky at least I can read and write, maybe I will write myself an autobiography.” He liked reading and smoking, and he said the only thing he felt regret was he couldn’t smoke the Burmese cigarettes any more, which tasted much better.

There was a piece of traditional Chinese calligraphy written by him hanging on the wall, what the sentence meant was intriguing: “Life is not an entertainment, but an arduous work.” Attributed by Leo Tolstoy.

SOURCE LIST:

  • Burmese Attitude toward Chinese: Portrayal of the Chinese in Contemporary Cultural and Media Works.

http://d-nb.info/102441678X/34

 

  • The Chinese Connection: Cross-border Drug Trafficking between Myanmar and China.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/218254.pdf

  • Isolated in Yunnan: Kachin Refugees from Burma in China’s Yunnan Province.

https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/06/25/isolated-yunnan/kachin-refugees-burma-chinas-yunnan-province

  • Jade: Myanmar’s Big Secret.

 

https://www.globalwitness.org/documents/18097/Jade_executive_summary_online_lo_res.pdf

 

  • Transformation of the Yunnanese Community along the Sino-Burma Border during the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.

 

https://www.academia.edu/18781292/Transformation_of_the_Yunnanese_community_along_the_Sino_Burma_border_a_case_study_in_the_southwest_during_the_nineteenth_and_early_twentieth_centuries

 

  • Transnational Activities of Chinese Crime Organizations.

https://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/ChineseOrgCrime.pdf

 

  • Infrastructure in Myanmar.

 

https://www.kpmg.com/MM/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/Infrastructure-in-Myanmar.pdf

 

  • Controlling Malaria in Eastern Myanmar.

 

http://www.christianaid.org.uk/Images/controlling-malaria-in-eastern-myanmar-october-2014.pdf

 

  • A Border City on the Edge of the Law.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/25/world/asia/a-border-city-on-the-edge-of-the-law.html?_r=0

 

  • 人民币汇率改革大事记(1978-2012).

 

http://www.reformdata.org/content/20121105/1191.html

 

A Perishing Urban Culture

A Perishing Urban Culture

By Ethan Liu

Hong Kong

Stores in a market of Kwun Tong are facing the fate of being closed down due to the reconstruction conducted by government.

Tung Yan Street Interim Hawker Bazaar, located near the Kwun Tong MTR station, right behind a bus terminal, surrounded by skyscrapers and extended roads, seems like an urban hub of convenient transportation, it may naturally gender a conviction that this kind of shopping center must be crowded of customers every day.

Not really. The truth is because its illogical location, fallacious construction design and unsolved business disputes between the hawkers and the policy executor, the market, even it’s just a temporary settlement, is now facing the difficulty of maintaining daily sales.

Urban Renewal Authority launched the project in 2014, with a budget of two hundred million Hong Kong Dollars, the new bazaar has been put into use in May the same year. Some hawkers of Mut Wah Street and Hip Wo Street have moved into the building afterwards, but because of an unreasonable location in which most of the customers were attracted by the neighboring APM and Yue Man Square, two major commercial centers, the rest is no more than a piddling amount for the stores and groceries in the Interim Hawker Bazaar.

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Most of the stores are closed in the new bazaar, hawkers don’t have many customers. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

Luk Hoi, 77 years old, has been running his stationery shop over four decades. He had a family of 4 children and an elderly mother to feed on, and that’s the initial idea of founding the store. “I had job as a hotel servant when I was young, after I quit, I devoted my whole heart into my store,” he said, “The business nowadays is much worse than the old days, many students would take a detour to here just to buy cheaper stationery of better quality.”

The Authority has promised Luk a new shop in two years, and the government also granted him a license fee absolution for one year. “I don’t trust too much hope, the reconstruction has given us irreparable damage,” he said, “And we hawkers have found an association to fight against the project.”

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Luk Hoi, posing for a local media in his stationery store. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

According to an analysis from Inmediahk, an independent media based in Hong Kong, the URA project put focus on the transformation from local market to a seemingly highly profitable CBD, yet enough attention on the basic living of local residents is still in urgent need.

Besides its reputation of an international commercial center where fancy buildings and luxury boutiques are always parts of the image, Hong Kong is long been known as a city of an unique urban culture, in which interesting local markets could be seen in nearly every district. However, old markets are disappeared in an astonishing speed recent years, such as Graham Market in Central and Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar in Sham Shui Po.

“Now that my children already have decent life, I don’t run the store for making money any more,” Luk said, “It is now a part of my life.”

 

At the Edge of Two Worlds

By Ethan Liu

Hong Kong

It’s definitely abnormal for a city located in the south of the Tropic of Cancer, even though in the late January. Snowflake of grayish color mixed with dark raindrops fallen from the faded zenith, a blurred skyline depicted the grim contour of the domes of skyscrapers along the border, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, with Shenzhen River meanders like a great wall between the two metropolis, which is used to control the travelling and migration of the population from both sides.

 

Sophie Wong was queueing in line with her husband and daughter, waiting to across the Shenzhen Bay Checkpoint. They were not heavy-loaded with suitcases and backpacks like other mainland tourists, most of which were targeting on the luxury stores and boutiques in Tsim Sha Tsui, they were managed to take their daughter to Hong Kong, where she was born in, to receive a routine medical check-up.

 

It has been nearly 11 years till the return, albeit the girl was born in Hong Kong, she had a blessed childhood on the other side of the border. “We did consider the possibility of sending her to an international school in Hong Kong, but in terms of the convenience, transportation and the cultural issues, we decided letting her grow up in where she belongs,” Wong said, “However, I always trust the credibility of Hong Kong as a sophisticated urban hub, and that’s why I gave birth to my daughter in the very place.”

 

For many of those with a similar cross-border background yet made another absolutely different choice, life is never easy.

 

Peter Huang, 13 years old, was born in a cross-border family, living with his uncle in Sheung Shui. His parents divorced when he was 10, the mother, came from Anhui province, disowned him unofficially and disappeared ever since. His father was a Hong Kong citizen, disabled and jobless, relying on the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance to support the whole family, didn’t give enough care to the child, and because of excessive drinking, he made the child suffered serious domestic violence.

 

The school once suggested Huang’s custodian applying the Special Education Needs, yet the case was concluded without a conclusion after rows and shuffle. “He seldom attend to class, spending days and weeks on video games, even during those rare days he presented in school, he would rather wondering on roads and fields but not to be sitting in the classroom,” his instructor said, “He always come to my office chatting and sharing some of his little secrets with me, but every single time I hope I could help him, he would tell me he cared nothing in this goddamn world.”

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Doodle drawn by Peter Huang. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

 

Cross-border students has long been a social issue of significant controversy, the interaction between Hong Kong and mainland China are getting increasingly closer in recent years, which brings upon a consequence directly, a dramatic increment of cross-border marriages, especially couples of Hong Kong man and mainland woman.

 

According to A Study of Cross Border Student in Hong Kong: The New Phenomenon of Cross Border Students which arise from Cross Border Birth, the number of mainland Chinese couples’ born babies increase sharply and the share of this kind of baby shared 39% of the total live births in the year of 2010. It lead to the rocketing number of cross-border students all over Hong Kong, the group of individuals are mainly concentrated in the elementary schools and secondary schools located in the northern parts of Hong Kong, who travelled back and forth through the two adjacent cities in a daily routine. It has been a controversial social issue since the 1990s when the educational and infrastructural resources were increasingly limited, according to the statistics of the census and statistics department, there were over 16,000 cross-border pupils in Hong Kong in the year of 2013, and the number has been increasing during these years.

 

The study shows that identity problem is also an important issue related to those students, many of them are not going to reside in Hong Kong or have already resided in Hong Kong but in a later stage in their life, the adaptation process is always a disturbing nightmare for them. Besides, cross-border families could be a bane of multiple domestic issues and mental traumas for the children.

 

Hsü Tse-yü, 24 years old, the instructor of Peter Huang, now working as an assistant counsellor in Fanling Assembly of God Church Primary School. His major in postgraduate studies was Youth Counselling, now spending nearly seven hours a day on helping the psychological service in the school, especially for the cross-border students in the Initiation Program.

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HSü’s working license in the primary school. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

 

The 6-month program, launched in 2000 by the Education Bureau, is aimed at newly-arrived students from the mainland and the non-Chinese speaking children. According to the office of Education Bureau, the program contains multiple contents including both academic and non-academic elements helping the children integrate in the local education system and fostering their social adaptation. It’s operated in a school setting on a basis of a class of 20 students, and could be optional for the children prior to their joining to mainstream schools.

 

Hsü was assigned by the Social Service Department of Assembly of God Grace Light Church, a NGO paralleled with the school and responsible for conducting the Initiation Program in the certain region. He majored in Behavioral Learning Theory in college which enables him providing professional mental aid with the students, whom he recorded as Client X but not real names on his progress notes for confidentiality issues.

 

“I found many of them suffered from various mental deficiencies in varying degrees, such as ADHD(attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, depression, autism and even visual disorders,” Hsü said, “But due to the familial problems and lack of love, these children couldn’t get enough help which they totally deserve.”

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HSü’s progress notes recorded the main contents in his conversations with the students he gives instruction. (Photo by Ethan Liu)

 

According to A Study of the Movement of Type A and B Babies in Hong Kong conducted by the Public Policy Research Funding Scheme, the fathers of Type A children, which means children born in Hong Kong to Mainland parents and whose fathers are Hong Kong residents, are most likely to work in service and shop sales related to elementary occupations, and are more likely to be economically inactive when compared to the parents of Type B children, who are in higher educational and occupational level as well as be associated with lower rate of return to Hong Kong.

 

The schools and government don’t have strong modus operandi to tackle the pickle raised by familial complexities, even though there has been heavy coverage in local media about the certain issue, yet enough attention which could improve the mental health of those cross-border students are still in urgent need.

 

“Our principal once told me that he didn’t think the government has paid plenty efforts,” said Huang Ch’i-yao, an assistant social worker of Caritus Yuen Long Chan Chun Ha Secondary School, “Those psychological experts sent by the government could only focus on macro conceptions, it is a particular individual who needs real help, not some vague and general project.”

 

John Ng, a 15-year-old third grade student, was also born in a cross-border family, has the problem of violent tendency for a long time, “He enjoys the feeling of bullying others,” Huang said. His father, a local Hong Kong man, got divorced with his mother several years ago because of committing domestic violence, and Ng was the next victim. “But his temper has changed a lot recently,” said Huang, “After witnessing a young fella took the rap for the boss of a local gang which he always hang out with, he was shocked and decided to quit, he told me he never wanted to be someone like that.”

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Painted by a student in the Fanling Assembly of God Church Primary School (Photo by Ethan Liu)

 

 

Probably, the daughter of Sophie Wong is lucky when compared to those young boys whom might be like unruly hooligans in many people’s eyes, yet the number of individuals they represent is not a piddling amount, these people would be a part of the city’s future, a harrowing part.

 

 

 

 

 

Venture capitals find a breaking point in the digital age

By Ethan Liu

Hong Kong

“Technology is changing everything.” said Derek Kwik on a talk about finding investment opportunities at Hong Kong Baptist University.

E-commerce, digital media, consumables and services were highly profitable industries for investments boosted in, and investing in high tech companies that leverage technology introducing radical change in China even the global market was of substantial profitability, said Kwik giving suggestions on the considerable investment options in terms of the status quo of the financial market in China.

Kwik, the founder of BraveSoldier, a venture capital fund based in Hong Kong, spent 25 years in investment banking, management consulting and direct investment. His success in the trade in many ways lies with his idea of investing with “smart money” rather than “dumb money.”

“Venture capitals’ roles are accelerators and incubators,” said Kwik, “A company is not just numbers on a piece of paper…it’s a human business.” During his past experience, he applied the smart money theory into multiple cases by constructing a “step by step process” in which he elaborated the significance of connecting with, working with and building value together with the entrepreneurs.

He illustrated the concept in a new context of the digital age by demonstrating a previous case, in which his agency invested a RF-SIM technology enabling a full service platform to be produced for mobile transactions designed by a college professor in Xiamen, they did not inject capitals directly into the program but instead, they presented the innovation to mobile operators around the world and commercialized the technology, promoting the investment of greater sustainability and flexibility.

In recent years, the local supply of potentially commercializable technologies has been increasing as well as the support of university-based research and incubation programs according to the Hong Kong Innovation Project Report, yet with the rate of bankruptcy deals of 60% and 4% of winners rate, the very business is still in urgent need of smartness and prudence.

“Chinese incumbents in digital communications are already too entrenched,” said Kwik, “…investors want to see 1st products, 1st customers and some revenue.” During the talk, Kwik set forth what the VCs should look for from numerous start-ups seeking for a fundraising. Unique business and customer acquisition models, scalability and sustainability, exponential growth in revenues and profits, strong management and leader, potential financial returns of over 200%, viable exit venues within 5-7 years are traits of great importance.

Kwik said: “Times have changed, don’t wait for things to return to normal, this is the new normal.” VCs have been hit hard by downturn, the overall scenario in investing market of this era is obviously different from any previous stage, accordingly, a new pitch fit for the new conditions should be taken into account. Kwik said at the end of the talk: “Ideas have a short shelf life, you must act on them before the expiration date.”

Masterminds Forging a Unique Urban Culture

By Ethan Liu

Hong Kong

https://www.youtube.com/watchv=bA2BZPd4KbY&feature=youtu.be

The Blue House is a landmark building in Wan Chai, which was built in the 1920s with distinctive blue. It was also known as the Hong Kong Story House with the charge of St. James’ Settlement, a multi-social service agency in Wan Chai, aiming to arouse public concern on the regional and cultural conservation through diverse exhibitions and activities, according to the official website of the Blue House.

Viva Blue House Studio, an innovative group founded in the Hong Kong Story House in 2013, focusing on the experience of multi-culture in community and prosperity of traditional arts by learning traditional handicrafts and sharing resources with skilled masters and artists like Mr. Lung and Alice.

“Every district in Hong Kong should have its own landmark as the Blue House, and do something special in their district.” said Fung Wing Kuen, a well-known collector who devoted a lot to the Blue House.

Thanks to the efforts made by volunteers and neighbors, the Hong Kong Story House is “not only a place representing stories in Wan Chai, but a platform for people to participate in community and culture communication about Wan Chai, even Hong Kong.” Said Him Lo- the director of the museum.