On the first page of Return to Sri Lanka, Razeen Sally endearingly describes himself as a wonk, ie a technocrat. A political economist and policy advisor on international trade, his writing normally appears in academic journals; this is his first attempt to write something more personal. He was born and grew up in Sri Lanka, but as an adult he lost touch with the country. This book is a personal rediscovery and an exhaustive look at the history and culture of the island.

In Jia Zhangke’s 2018 movie “Ash is Purest White”, the protagonist, Qiao, gets off a Yangtze river ferry near the Three Gorges Dam. She knows nobody in this new city and has no money. Desperate, the ruse she employs is to walk into a restaurant, call a rich looking young man out of a private dining room and tell him he has got her younger sister pregnant. She demands money as compensation. The trick works, the scared man hands over a bunch of red hundred RMB notes. Qiao, a gangster’s girlfriend fresh from jail, has skills that Matthew Evans, the antihero of Tom Carter’s An American Bum in China, couldn’t dream off. Evans, like Qiao, finds himself broke and alone in China. Unlike Qiao, he is not a character in a movie where wild schemes succeed.

In 1876, Englishman Henry Wickham smuggled rubber tree seeds out of the Amazon ultimately dooming Brazil’s rubber boom. The stolen seeds were successfully germinated, leading to the British establishing rubber plantations in Malaya that broke Brazil’s monopoly and sent the states of Amazonas and Pará into rapid decline. The Opera House in Manaus, capital of Amazonas, is a melancholy reminder of the luxury rubber profits once afforded. Much as rubber seeds once were, genetically-engineered (or modified, ie GM) corn seeds have become valuable enough in the 21st century that some will resort to anything to get them. 

British writer EH Carr in his classic text on international relations, The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919 to 1939, argues that ideas of peace and cooperation between nations cannot stand up to the realities of international instability and competition. In Carr’s time the League of Nations was ineffectual in preventing a return to war in Europe. In Southeast Asia After the Cold War, Ang Cheng Guan using Carr as inspiration looks at ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), an intergovernmental organization caught between China and the old, creaking superpower, the USA. Can ASEAN with the help of diplomacy and trade deals strike a balance between the two powers in the region or is military action inevitable?

130 Years of Medicine in Hong Kong  places particular focus on medical and financial factors. Each chapter begins with an abstract in the style of an academic paper and frequent subtitles help with the location of specific information. As Hong Kong has been heavily involved in a number of pandemic scares in the 21st century, a look at the history of the Hong Kong University Faculty of Medicine that has tackled SARS and various Avian influenzas reveals how historical factors can shape an institution.

Even as Singapore marks two hundred years since Englishman Stamford Raffles set up an East India Company factory there, the citystate is promoting another date. In 1299, according to the Malay Annals, a Srivijayan prince, Sri Tri Buana, arrived at the island then known as Temasek and founded Singapura. The motto of the bicentennial is “from Singapore to Singaporean” and the idea is that to understand what it means to be Singaporean today the events from 1299 on needs to be considered. Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore details this story.

While the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej is perhaps the figure most associated with the development of modern Thailand, two-time Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun has had a large influence on the country’s development. Anand stands out as an upstanding, liberal figure who steered well clear of corruption and scandals. As Thailand embarks on a new era under a new king, Dominic Faulder’s recent biography of Anand provides timely background.