When the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, presented himself before the Chinese emperor Qianlong in 1793, he exhibited, along with his Chinese hosts, the classic “disconnect” between the two cultures which Michael Keevak discusses in his excellent study of embassies to China. “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance,” Qianlong told Macartney, “therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products.”
For most of its history, Hong Kong has been tied to the sea and ships. Today’s urban metropolis of skyscrapers and financial institutions is a relatively recent development.
Where there are ships, there are seamen; some of Hong Kong’s most venerable if not necessarily best-known institutions relate to their welfare. Strong to Save is a history of these institutions, culminating in the establishment of the Mariners’ Club a half-century ago. One can hardly think of anyone better suited than author and historian Stephen Davies to tell this story. Davies has an encyclopedic knowledge of anything to do with the China Coast, ships and seafaring; his writing manages to be rigorous without being dry.
When China announced plans to launch an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, the United States chose a response reminiscent of its Cold War playbook. It cast doubt on China’s intentions and leaned on other nations not to get involved. The result was no different from the Cold War era too—nations, including close allies of the United States, signed on to the initiative—awarding China a significant symbolic victory before any tangible work had even been accomplished.
A new book places China at the center of an underexplored aspect of the Cold War: the competition for influence in the “third world” between China and United States. Written by Gregg Brazinsky at George Washington University, Winning the Third World relies on previously unpublished archive materials from both countries. Far from last century’s history, the book illuminates the remarkable continuities in both countries’ foreign policies.
Stephan Haggard’s and Marcus Noland’s first joint venture was the 2007 Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, the best overview of the hunger that led to the death in slow motion death of a million people in the mid- to late-90s. Hard Target does a similar authoritative analysis of the last quarter-century’s attempts to shepherd Pyongyang—with carrot and stick—away from prickly hostility into the warm embrace of the global economic and political order. Their conclusion is neither sanctions nor inducements work, even if the latter have proved marginally more successful than the former.
When one transports an opera set in 13th-century Florence to early 20th-century Shanghai, as Opera Hong Kong did for the comic opera half of this weekend’s double bill of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, one can expect some textual inconsistencies. Puccini’s only outing in opera buffa tells a story hinted at in Dante’s Inferno: of an out-of-towner who tricks a wealthy family out their inheritance by will-tampering. The story might have come from the pages of the South China Morning Post, so audiences on the whole seem willing to overlook the references to Tuscany. The setting allowed for a number of (quite funny) culturally-specific sight gags.
How does one quantify something as ephemeral as faith? We have become familiar with accounts of China which predicate their analysis on statistics—hard numbers seeming one of the few means of offering an objective view of the scale and complexity of the country. And certainly when it comes to faith in modern China the numbers are striking: 300 million people, or thereabouts, now consider themselves a follower of a faith of some kind—almost a quarter of the country.
The “thousand star hotel” of the title is a metaphor of the night sky, the roof of the homeless. Bao Phi’s prose poem attributes this to a self-deprecating Vietnamese joke. Who knows? It is just one of perhaps one thousand metaphors, images and turns of phrase that sparkle in this new collection.