peteg's blog - noise - books - 2008 02 28 GriffithReview18

Griffith Review #18: In the neighbourhood (Summer 2007-2008)

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One thing I miss about Sydney is ready access to books. I picked up this one from the UNSW Bookshop, who are still kindly offering a 10% discount to all comers, and read it while in Randwick and on the plane back to Hồ Chí Minh City.

This edition was not as good as I hoped; indeed, it is somewhat of a re-tread of issue #9, Up North, but with an overly strong focus on China. Memorable:

  • In Location, Location, Location, Michael Wesley discusses the changing international dynamic, from Western institutions to Eastern ones, as the balance of power shifts after 500 years.
  • Geremie R. Barmié's Sharing Values shows how ironically close the State-articulated aspirational values of Australia and China are.
  • Phil Brown's Hong Kong 1967: Summer of discontent recounts his experiences as a child in the former British colony.
  • Ouyang Yu's Book without bonking amusingly recounts his experiences with the Chinese censors.
  • Nicholas Jose's Back to the avantgarde details the commercial rise of China's artists.
  • Tony Barrell's Japan's paradoxical neighbourhoods is a great account of how the concept of a furusato ("the neighbourhood in which everyone feels they truly belong", usually a farming village) has been exploited and pork-barreled by generations of politicians.
  • Rachel Buchanan's Remembering a forgotten survivor tells of the relationship between illustrator Ronald Searle and Henry "Lofty" Judge Cannon, beginning with their time as POWs in WWII and following the post-war divergence in their fortunes.
  • The poem Heroic mother by Hoa Pham is a short anecdote about the Vietnam War, from a somewhat conventional Northern point of view.
  • Wayne McLennan's A night at the fights is a bit stomach turning; the Thai boxing boys know how to inflict damage on each other.
  • Peter Mares's A routine removal is an excellent and heart-rending account of a Fijian family's time in Australia as illegal economic migrants. (I use that description precisely, not enthusiastically.) This article makes plain the global importance of remittances and strongly advocates for some kind of guest worker program. My two concerns are that the unions will label the latter job-stealing, and the former may stifle reform in the countries of origin. Hopefully someone will write a follow-up article from the Australian "national interest" perspective, suggesting a pragmatic solution.
  • Jane Nicholl's Capitals of the world is a cute little anecdote about Nepal, from a latter-day convert to the concept of HECS who is now busily exporting something like it to developing countries.

Another two articles talk about Việt Nam. The first is Larry Buttrose's Lotus blossom day tags, an essentially touristic take on the country which avoids any possibility of controversy by asking (the usual) rhetorical questions. He claims that the locals have won the peace, but I am not so sure; the apparently over-free market surely creates inequalities, and the apparent lack of aspiration for universal education and health care are cause for me to worry. I have a feeling, but no proof, that USA-style prosperity is the goal. Australians should be well-familiar with the mixed feelings that brings.

He also implies that the women are universally emancipated; his stay at Cô Lợi's should have made apparent to him that a lot of women are stuck at home doing little other than domestic work, and it is at best unclear to a foreigner (non-Vietnamese speaker) just how egalitarian marriages are. Sure, the eye-catching young ladies on their scooters do look like they're got it made, no question.

The second article is, with presumably accidental irony, on page 187: Laurie Hergenhan's A lasting sorrow, a sort-of interview with Bảo Ninh. So much is lost in translation that it amounts to little more than a summary of the book. The flavour is similar to this piece in the Guardian.