I was interviewed by Wellington’s Spanish language radio program Qué Onda. I talked about China, including my time in Wuhan, Argentina, and my book Buenos Aires Triad.
In ‘Civilization and its Discontents,’ Freud tells us that civilisation necessitates the curbing of the natural expression of the libido, and this repression leads to neurosis. The answer is to redirect the libido into work or artistic expression. For author Isham Cook, the state keeps us in fear of our libido as a mechanism of power. Sexual transgressions are punished to a degree of severity completely incommensurate with the nature of the peccadillo. This repression is not a function of civilisation but of fascism. And it is in America that this ‘Sexual Fascism’ has its most extreme expression. Like Freud, Marx, Jung and others before him, Cook has dusted off a mirror and is holding it up for us to see our reflections. In this book of essays, he articulates things most cannot, even if they are aware of them.
Cook the plastic surgeon has a number of fixes for wrinkles caused by tortured sexuality. He’s a good surgeon but the results won’t be what he promises – but hell, nobody else knows how to fix things either. It’s not news that we are hung up about sex, and Cook gives a vision of how it could all be different. He puts forward the case that all sex should be paid for. What would happen? All sexual interactions he means and he’s talking about America. It’s a remarkably free-market idea from Isham who leans to the left. Once sex is just another commercial activity, we will be free of sexual shame. But won’t this capitalization of sex create a lot of have-nots? He also imagines a polyamorous society. Could such a utopia work? Or would human nature sabotage it? Some of his radical solutions he is serious about, others are merely challenges to staid thinking.
In the first essay, Cook gives a competent definition of fascism. He explains that fascism needs scapegoats and in America it is no longer popular to scapegoat minorities, so the sexual offender is the new pariah. In the USA lives are ruined over offences as trivial as urinating in public. It’s up to the police to decide whether you were just pissing or ‘wilfully espousing yourself’ – an offence that will get you placed on the sex register. Only in America is the sex register public and often the offender is on there for life.
As usual with Cook, there is much freewheeling from topic to topic. The writing is academic with references but also highly entertaining. Cook is at his oddball best in the essay ‘Toilet Terrorism;’ where the prudish and wasteful practice of gender-segregated public toilets comes in for his criticism. It was refreshing reading his discussion of toilets in China and the USA, not for the visual images summoned to mind, but because the state of the public toilet infrastructure in any given city is of concern to all and not written about enough. Only George in the hit series Seinfeld has previously given the topic its due.
To this point, Cook has been concerned with sexually repressive America, and China, which while repressive to be sure, is not particularly obsessed with cracking down on sex. Germany is frequently referred to as a more enlightened society. Then, in a not so smooth transition, we go walkabout. First to the massage parlours of America and then to those of Southeast Asia, the idea is to contrast American prudishness to relaxed Eastern sensuality. These massage essays appeared in an earlier book by Cook, but they bore a second reading well.
In Bali, inspired by pictures on the wall of his guesthouse in Ubud, the author begins to research the Bohemian paradise of bare-breasted women that once existed there. But he doesn’t get very far. Most of the novels and history books he reads about Bali’s glory days disappoint. Tuttle publishes many of these old Bali classics and on my bookshelf I have ‘Bali: A Paradise Created’ by Adrian Vickers. The cover image is an old Dutch East Indies tourism poster featuring a modestly-dressed Balinese woman carrying a bowl on her head. Cook includes the original poster, in which the woman has bare breasts – that got censored by Tuttle!
Cook discusses a number of artists looking for a sexual paradise in the South Seas from Gauguin in Tahiti to Walter Spies in Bali. Because I grew up in Auckland, the city with the largest Polynesian population in the world it’s hard for me – probably because of prejudice or trauma – to imagine a sensual paradise in the Pacific Islands. However, with Bali, I can imagine this and have experienced it to some degree. Though Bali is a tourist trap and breasts have been covered there for a long time, it’s still a place in which sexual adventures can be had. But will you see any real-life breasts of Bali? The Balinese are quite reserved and many of them are sick of tourists. Spending time in Southern Bali, one can see why. In 2016 I went to a medical clinic in Seminyak. My thumb had become infected from a splinter I got hiking in North Maluku – an Indonesia a million miles away from touristic Bali. At the clinic, there were two Australian men covered in blood. Laughing and shouting, they had obviously been in a fight and were very drunk. After getting stitched up, they unsteadily sped off on a motorbike. The Indonesian doctor and nurse apologised to ME(!) for their behaviour. This is one of a million incidents of tourist (mainly Aussie) boorishness in South Bali that have been happening for generations now. I would suggest Balinese women and their families have reservations about foreign men not present on Indonesia’s other 1000 plus islands. A tourist (let’s not define them beyond that) looking for female company in Bali is more likely to see Javanese breasts. Most of the prostitutes on the online dating apps are Muslims from Java. Interestingly, on the same dating apps, you have a number of European yoga teachers who hang out in trendy Canggu. Beyond that, there are Javanese girls looking to experiment while on holiday and the drunken Australians. If like Isham, you want to go the massage route (Australian pun) my experience is that most masseurs are Muslims from the adjacent island of Lombok. So much for going to Hindu Bali to get away from the stuffy Muslims in the rest of the country!
The best place to relive the breasts of Bali era is the Timescape Indonesia channel on Youtube. One particular video features a beautiful woman naked from the waist up combing her hair. She smiles for the camera, knowing her beauty is being admired, but probably unaware of the potential to arouse her breasts posses. To her exposing them publically is an everyday thing. This for me is an erotic rather than pornographic video. You can eroticize the scene but it wasn’t overtly set up for the purpose of sexual arousal as is the case with pornography. Isham, however, doesn’t believe there is a difference between erotic and pornographic. He also makes the claim that all pornography can be counted as art.
The book finishes strongly with ‘Sexual Surveillance in the Age of Covid 19.’ Isham likes to insert himself into the narrative and here his anecdotes from his trip to Xinjiang in 2019 give us a taste of a future of mass surveillance where sexual trysts will be near impossible to hide. ‘Sexual Fascism’ is another solid collection of essays from this original writer.
Links go to my GoodReads reviews.
Magical Disinformation: A spy novel set in Colombia. Shades of Graham Greene.
Law of the Jungle: Medical research and revenge in the jungles of Venezuela and Colombia.
Crimechurch: Psychos and troubled teens in NZ’s earthquake-hit city.
Teacher, We Girls!: The experience of being a woman from New Zealand teaching in Saudi Arabia.
White Monkey: Darren escapes being a binman by going to teach in South Korea. Very funny.
The Noriega Tapes: Historical novel about the CIA and the invasion of Panama.
A Certain Kind of Power: A corporate spy navigates a labyrinth of corruption in Argentina.
Lust and Philosophy: Set mainly in Beijing and Chicago. An intellectual takedown of modern sexual morality.
Lying in bed my eye felt like it was going to explode, finally, after hours, aqueous fluid and pus squirted out relieving the pressure. The pain subsided, but only for fifteen minutes. So began a rewarding experience of the public health sector in Argentina, one winter morning in 2010.
After consulting my friend (who I later fell out with) at reception, I took a taxi to Hospital Lagleyze in Villa Gral. Mitre. Only one eye was infected and very sensitive to light, to keep it clamped shut I needed the good eye to be pretty much closed too. I was not feeling great. The taxi driver was sympathetic: “not far now”, he said as we rattled down a cobbled street.
I lined up to register for la guardia, my passport had an expired tourist visa inside but they weren’t worried about that. The wait in la guardia was not inordinately long. The doctor inspected my eye with equipment out of date compared to what optometrists in New Zealand had. He was friendly, spoke some English, but gave me the news in Spanish, “se puede curar, pero es una emergencia médica”. I needed to get steroid drops and antibiotics in my eye right away to sort out the infected abscess caused by my contact lenses. A common problem I’m sure. A student doctor took me to where I had to wait for my prescription, she put her hand on my shoulder sympathetically as I was a pathetic sight.
Upstairs at the dispensary I got two bottles of eye drops, these needed to be kept in the fridge and administered once every hour for forty-eight hours. This was going to make sleep near impossible. I ‘slept’ on the couch in reception to have easy access to my drops in the kitchen fridge. My alarm rang every hour at five to the hour. My condition was brought on by misuse of contact lenses. That August I was working the four to midnight shift on reception, after which I usually went out drinking until five and then crashed without taking my contact lenses out. They were one month’s disposables, bacteria covered and scratching my eyes as I slept, little wonder I had a problem.
Two days later I was back at the hospital with a piece of paper that let me into the waiting hall for patients on return visits. There were a lot of bunged up eyes in there. An elderly lady asked me to administer drops into her bloodshot eyes, this made me feel less alone. A little rat of a man shouted out that he’d been attended by a blond female doctor, I clung to his excitement that a hot blond could treat someone like him….amazing mate! The doctor who saw me this time was all black humour. Keep putting in those drops…or we’ll have to rip it out. It was no longer every hour though, my eye was on the mend.
The drops were free as was seeing the doctor. If you get to the hospital early morning in Argentina you can not only see a doctor, but a specialist of the same quality or better than those in the private clinics. Often the same doctors work in both sectors. My experience is from the rich Capital Federal not the poorer provinces though. After writing several true crime articles about Argentina, I wanted to talk about something good about the country — great in fact — the free healthcare. Of course it has its problems and — the question is, in a country with an ever-tanking economy should medical care be free, especially for foreigners? This a debate on which Argentinians are very divided.
Juan Domingo Perón in his first government from 1946–1952 created a strong welfare state. He built a lot of hospitals, lowered the rate of infant mortality and tuberculosis. A tenet of Peronism is that healthcare is a responsibility of the state. On the other side people will show you that Argentina’s per capita income started falling at this time, that Perón received a rich country to govern and left it poor — he spent too much. Lagleze, the ophthalmology hospital I visited, was built in 1942 before Perón. In Recoleta, what you might call the central hospital, the current incarnation of Hospital de Clinicas was built under Peron in 1949. The many towers of Clincas include the Faculty of Medicine and a number of specialist departments. Clinicas has something of an Eastern European communist feel, but hospitals are not about architecture. I’ve been there for a few minor issues — clogging up the system no doubt.
I was working illegally at the hostel, three shifts a week for free accommodation and one hundred pesos (then in 2010 twenty-five USD, now less than two) for any extra eight hour shifts. There were two or more other guys doing the same thing at any given time. Some of them I saw last summer on a trip to Buenos Aires. Spending months living in the same room tends to make you friends or enemies for life. The hostel was called Firulete — a term which refers to a series of moves in a tango dance — now it appears to just be imaginatively named hostel (I’ll resist checking on booking.com).
When I hear tales of Argentines and Chileans stuck at hostels here in Wellington (other nationalities too sure, but I don’t get those reports) during this Covid-19 quarantine period I feel sorry for them. Especially those at Lodge in the City, where a bunk in a room of twelve costs one hundred dollars a week — the cheapest deal in town. I’ve never been into Lodge but through the windows you can see people’s stuff piled up on the window sill. I hope none of them get sick in those crowded conditions. Many are working holidayers who were doing temp jobs that are now non-existent and so will be struggling financially. (They can’t all work reception at the hostel.)
Lodge in the City currently has 2.5 stars from 443 reviews on google — when the score is less than three out of five you know things are bad. Built in the fifties, the boxy four-storey structure used to be the Harry Spires Hostel for the elderly. The hostel I worked at in Buenos Aires was built not long after the turn of the twentieth century and is a much more attractive structure, from the outside at least.
The locals who did the day shifts when I was there have become quite successful. Mariano, who was about thirty-four in 2010, is now a well-known painter and kung fu teacher. A talented guy, I think he resented having to work at a hostel. Juan, the first Catholic communist I ever met, has since met the Pope and word has it he may have finished the history degree he’d been doing for ten years. The University of Buenos Aires, with no tuition fees, has high standards and a reputation for being hard to graduate from. If you aren’t paying you don’t have so much to complain about when your professor fails you?
About ten days after my first trip to Hospital Lagleyze, I went to Hospital Santa Lucia, another eye hospital in Buenos Aires. I ended up there because I got in a taxi and said “to the eye hospital” as I couldn’t remember the name Lagleyze. The driver obliged by taking me to Santa Lucia in San Cristóbal. I thought my abscess was back — it was just conjunctivitis. Santa Lucia, founded in 1823, was the first hospital in Latin America specialising in diseases of eye. In the neighbourhood of San Cristóbal since 1922, it is quite attractive. Before I went in to line up for la guardia I got a small plastic cup off a guy with multiple metal thermoses on his cart. The coffee tasted metallic and was loaded with sugar, but hey it contained caffeine. That I felt well enough to risk street coffee was a good sign. Not long after my eye issues I had a flu-type virus. I was working extra to make up the shifts the guys had covered for me when I couldn’t open my eyes. Mariano said, not unsympathetically “you’re always sick!” Being low season, there wasn’t much to do and I lay on the couch watching Two and a Half Men. However, there was always somebody up early wanting breakfast and conversation. It’s a sweet and sour experience living and working in a hostel, for example, you get to meet people but it’s hard to get away from them when you are sick or more likely hungover.
Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel as Forbidden Portrait.
In 2016, at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, I saw a black and white photo that didn’t compute at first. The photo featured a portrait of the Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-Shek, hung above the Tiananmen gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Chiang’s upright military posture was evident, even though he could only be seen from the shoulders up. His expression was serious and piercing; his shaved head and moustache gave him a look of grim determination. The portrait was put up to celebrate victory over the Japanese in 1945 – before which it was Sun Yat-sen’s face that had graced Tiananmen square ever since his death in 1925. Mao Zedong’s portrait replaced Chiang’s in 1949. Mao has been up there ever since, except on the odd occasion when another figure has been honoured – like Joseph Stalin on March 9th 1953, to mark his death.
A traditionalist and authoritarian at heart, Chiang Kai-Shek was the leader of China and chief of the Nationalist army before the Communist takeover in 1949. Defeated after a long civil war, Chiang and his followers escaped to the island of Taiwan and set up an alternative Chinese government. Chiang arrived in Taiwan after decades in China fighting against warlords, communists and the Japanese. Once there, he got busy dominating Taiwan – committing some atrocities along the way – and never gave up his dream of re-conquering the mainland. Chiang is not popular among many circles in Taiwan today (the new government even rounded up statues of him and relocated them in a single park) but the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall remains an impressive tribute.
A huge number of tourists get their pictures taken in front of the Tiananmen gate entrance to the Forbidden City, especially domestic tourists on a pilgrimage to Tiananmen square. A popular place to take the snap is beside the Huabiao at the north edge of the square, a ceremonial marble column engraved with a twisting dragon. The column is topped off by a dragon-like creature that looks skyward to convey the mood of the people to the heavens. Past it, Chairman Mao’s portrait is flanked by giant placards that read, “Long Live the People’s Republic of China” and “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples.” From Mao’s headshot, you can tell that he stooped, and his receding bowl-cut is instantly recognisable. I had always assumed it was Mao who first had the cheek and bad taste to put his portrait on the Forbidden City, so it was a shock to find out Chiang had been up there before him.
Beijing was not the capital of China in Chiang’s time: his Nationalist government had set up in Nanjing – literally “southern capital” – inland from Shanghai. Later, he was forced by the Japanese invasion during World War II to move the capital further west to Chongqing. And after his defeat in the civil war, Taipei became the capital of the Republic of China – complete with its own Imperial Palace museum, full of artefacts taken from the Forbidden City when the Nationalists fled. Yet despite many of its other architectural highlights, such as the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium and the Temple of Heaven, contemporary Beijing could feel like any other mainland Chinese city if it didn’t have the Forbidden City. Once you go through the Tiananmen gate, you can forget the Communists; you are now in the nine-hundred-and-ninety room palace of the emperors of old. Traditional Chinese culture takes over.
You would be hard-pressed to find a copy of the picture of Chiang Kai-shek looking over Tiananmen square inside China – just as other incidents on the square that have sullied the Communist Party’s version of history have been scrubbed out. That is not just the student protests that ended with the mass killings of June 4th 1989, but also the sit-down protests nearby by thousands of Falun Gong practitioners in 1999, a group that President Jiang Zemin named an illegal, subversive cult. Then in 2001, there was an incident where Falun Gong members self-immolated themselves on Tiananmen square. This helped turn public opinion in China against the group, but Falun Gong disputes the events and has claimed that the self-immolations were staged by the government; the figures sitting cross-legged engulfed by flames, they said, were actually People’s Liberation Army soldiers in fire-proof suits.
In Taiwan, Falun Gong practitioners are common and occasionally accost Mainland tourists, trying to change the minds of their cousins across the straits who have been submitted to twenty years of propaganda demonising the group. I noticed billboards in the Taiwanese countryside, featuring a smiling blond woman in her twenties and the phrase “Falun Gong is good”; the other side had a smiling Chinese woman and the same message in Mandarin. The 1989 Beijing massacre is also widely commemorated, in the Taiwanese press and in popular culture. And Chiang Kai-shek’s name, while widely reviled, is a common sight, with buildings and streets named after him, although in Taiwan they use the honorific title Chiang Chungcheng. A few years back there was even a Chiang lookalike in Taipei that mainland tourists liked to get a photo with.
Chiang, who died in 1975, is no longer a thorn in the Chinese Communist Party’s side. But to see this photo of him on the gate of the Forbidden City, I had to go all the way to Taiwan. A great player in China’s modern history had been swept under the carpet. The defeated Nationalist party, enemies of the people, are rarely mentioned. There is a museum to Chiang Kai-shek at his former residence in Zhejiang, but otherwise, he is not so much vilified as ignored. The photo likely exists inside China, but it is not one you would want to take out at a dinner party.
I also wrote a version of this article in Spanish.
She checked in wearing dark glasses. It didn’t seem weird as she had platinum blond hair and pale skin. I put her in a six-bed dorm. There was only one other guest in there, a Russian woman of twenty-five. Dorms were officially mixed but in practice, we generally kept men and women separate. We hadn’t had any complaints about women being harassed yet and we wanted to keep it that way. The only complaint of a sexual nature – other types of complaints were common – had been a British guy who’d broken down in tears at reception, because he’d woken up by an Ecuadorian man in his bed wanking. It wasn’t a complaint really more just an incident of (momentarily) inconsolable misery. Anyway, it must have been early evening when she checked in, she said she was Chilean.
Some hours later the Russian girl came down to reception, her passport had been stolen. She fell to the floor in despair. It was dramatic. The Chilean, now long gone, had used a wire saw to cut through the Russian’s flimsy padlock. The Russian was strawberry blond, good-looking, had excellent English and zero Spanish. I’d heard that she’d entertained other guests the night before with some belly dancing.
The ID number the Chilean wrote down on the reception register was fake. If someone wasn’t a local, i.e. Argentinian, I didn’t usually check their IDs – unless the person looked suspicious. Most of the receptionists rarely checked either, it wasn’t policy. Or maybe it was policy to check IDs? My memory, or lack of it, is protecting me here. I felt like it was me who’d stolen the passport in the end.
I went to the Police Station on Lavalle with the Russian to report the crime. There were a couple of Brazilian tourists in there who’d had their bags snatched. That was common downtown. The officer who typed out the statement was dead-eyed and impatient. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, but I was translating for the Russian and she had a lot of questions. She wanted to know where in Buenos Aires stolen passports got sold. Man, the police weren’t going to tell you that. Impossible to say, the policeman said. I thought he took the question well. He left the room for a minute and the Russian got up and then sat down at his desk to look for information on the computer. I pleaded with her to get back in her seat.
The Russian stayed on and came to reception every day to ask for news of her passport. Amazingly, the email address the albino Chilean had given was genuine – she answered me! I tried to arrange a meeting with her. We’d pay her money to get the passport back. She seemed keen for a while. But eventually, she wrote HAHAHAHAAHA and stopped replying to my emails.
The Russian’s boyfriend turned up. An American, he told me he was livid at the slack security in the hostel and seemed to blame me personally. He had given up a real job (I’m guessing banking) to come and travel in South America with his girlfriend. She would now have to go back to Moscow to get a new passport. Her stolen one had visas for Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, Brazil etc inside which had all cost money. Those were some pretty harsh rules by the Russian government that you couldn’t get your passport sent anywhere. Blame Putin. The Russian didn’t speak to me after her boyfriend arrived, just shot evils my way. So, as I mentioned. I felt like I’d done the crime.
The experience was worse than when I was the victim of an armed robbery in Auckland ten years earlier. A guy walked into the liquor store I was working at, went into the beer fridge, came out and asked for a bottle of Jack Daniels that was behind me. When I turned back around after reaching for the bottle, he showed me a pistol and told me to empty the till into his bag. He never pointed the pistol at me. I gave him the money – four hundred dollars. He also marched me out back and took the cassette out of the VHS – this was the year 2000 – and tore out the phone line. Quite a professional. The boss later complained that I should have made a cash drop and only have had one hundred dollars in the till. I didn’t feel guilty about that. The boss didn’t even bother to tell me this directly, but through the store manager who didn’t seem too fussed about the whole thing.
At Auckland Central Police Station the officer taking my statement was much more jovial than the one in Argentina – he was an equally bad typist though. He asked me what the gun had looked like, I said it was a black pistol. He opened a draw took out his gun and handed it to me.
Like this one?
I was surprised how heavy a real pistol was.
Careful that’s loaded.
Sounds unreal I know. He was plainclothes, a detective I guess – but since when did police in NZ have Glocks in their desks? A good looking young policewoman, another blond, gave me a lift home. She was stoic, tough, but friendly.
A month or so after the passport theft, the Chilean was apprehended in a hostel down the road in San Telmo – stealing again. It turned out she wasn’t Chilean but a seventeen-year-old Argentine from Mendoza with fame for ripping off hostels. I couldn’t go to the court case as a witness because I didn’t have a visa and was therefore working illegally. One of my Argentine colleagues asked me for the details of what happened and he went to the trial. After that incident, we were more careful about asking about IDs but the crime wave of stuff getting stolen continued nevertheless. By the way, I found out the fake Chilean really was an albino. This discovery made me feel justified in not asking her to take off her dark glasses when she checked in.
One of those old guys, hands clasped behind back, pausing every second step to see if there was something to stick his nose into. The way he dressed, grey slacks, polyester polo shirt with sleeveless pullover on top, didn’t indicate money, time abroad, or working in a big company. He had an educated air though. Perhaps he was a retired professor. I was eating lamb skewers at a street BBQ. I knew he’d want to question me. If he’d been a college student I’d have told him to buzz off, but I couldn’t do that to an old gent. Back in the sixties, he’d probably been stuck in Manchuria, clutching an antique rifle, waiting for the Russians to invade, his prize possession an English dictionary which he rigorously studied….or some such amazing tale. Sure enough, the old guy spotted me. He ambled over to my table and stood over me, making me hesitant to stuff my mouth with more BBQed meat. I could see by the brown spots on his face that he was positively ancient, but the old bastard probably had lower blood pressure than I did. He pointed a creaky finger and demanded, Enjoying that meat?
Yes, it’s great.
Where are you from? I must say his English did sound good.
Ah, and how is it there?
Well you know a lot of space, a lot of sheep, big houses, we drive on the left, unemployment has been high lately but I’m sure it’ll come right.
No, no…I’m asking you how is the meat there?
In Oct 2016 I travelled to North Maluku in Indonesia. Two islands there, Ternate and Tidore, are the most fascinating places I’ve been to in Indonesia. Not exactly tourist hubs, I had some trouble getting around with my basic Indonesian. The main aim was to climb the summits of these two volcanic islands. I managed one but not the other. Out of the material I gathered on the trip and subsequent reading, I wrote and sold a travel article, and published a short story. There is no direct link to the online short story, so I have polished it, renamed it, added some photos and posted it here.
Ternate is one of a string of volcanic islands just north of the equator in the Indonesian province of Maluku Utara. Before the Portuguese reached them in the early sixteenth century, Europeans had been searching for these islands for centuries because they were the source of the then precious spice: cloves.
The Sultan of Ternate allowed the newly arrived Portuguese to build a fort on his island. He was ever in need of allies as Tidore, home of a rival sultanate, was a short boat ride away. The two islands had been enemies since time immemorial, locked in a battle of mimetic rivalry: vying for the riches of the spice trade and land for growing food on the large island of Halmahera. Further afield they sought tribute from Sulawesi and Papua. Malukans believed maintaining the balance between the two islands was important to keep their world healthy. Ternate was always slightly ahead in the game, a stronger older brother, but Tidore, the cunning younger brother, had its moments.
Tidore featured a nearly perfect cone named Kiematabu while Ternate’s Gamalama peak was asymmetrical but no less beautiful. From time to time a Portuguese climbed Gamalama to scout for incoming ships. At the summit, there was a two-hundred-metre high hill of scoria rock containing a deep, sulphur belching, crater. From the crater’s edge, early morning before the clouds rolled in, the view of the other volcanic spice islands and Halmahera to the east was almost worth the arduous journey from Lisbon. The rocky hill was surrounded by a plateau covered in long grass. And then, after descending steep slopes covered in spiky rattan choked jungle, you came to the clove tree plantations and finally mountain villages.
The Portuguese wanted the locals of Ternate to sell cloves exclusively to them. However, the Sultan’s acquiescence to this demand was only of a Machiavellian nature. Why would he stop trading with the Arabs, Javanese and Chinese Sanglays from the Philippines who had been coming to the island for so long?
By 1570 the Portuguese presence on Ternate was not only limited to soldiers of (mis)fortune – priests had set up shop too. The Jesuits urged the Portuguese Governor, Mesquita, to do something about Sultan Hairun selling cloves to Javanese traders. Hairun was breaking the agreed-upon monopoly. These priests hated the Sultan, as he backed Islamists who blocked their proselytizing efforts. At this stage, Islam had a weak grip on the common people of Maluku and the priests were hopeful of gaining many converts to Christianity.
Mezquita took action. He sent a force of twenty men to the far side of the island, where they burned Javanese trading ships. Some poorly armed Javanese tried to stop the Portuguese and were made mincemeat. To escape responsibility for violence we say it’s enough never to be the first to do violence. No one ever sees themselves as casting the first stone. Hairun had thrown the first rock as far as the Portuguese were concerned.
Sultan Hairun was furious. After several scuffles between the two sides, Mezquita invited the Sultan to the fort for reconciliation. Hairun was no newbie to political intrigue having been held prisoner in the fort at various times. He’d visited the Portuguese Governor-General in Goa, usually wore Portuguese clothes and spoke the language – none of these things had saved him. Mezquita managed to separate the sovereign from his bodyguard and, in an act of bad political manoeuvring, stabbed Hairun to death. The Sultan had two servants beside him. An old man, holding an umbrella for the Sultan, tried to defend his lord and got stabbed himself. The other was a hunchback girl carrying the Sultan’s betel nut – she got away unharmed.
Hairun’s bodyguard broke out of the fort and spread the news. Chaos ensued around the island. Mourners went contrary: they paddled their kora-kora with the stern facing backwards, wore headdresses around their necks and played the flutes with their noses. The Sultan’s soldiers laid siege to the fort, yelling for Mezquita to be turned over to them.
Inside the fort there was rebellion, Mezquita was stripped of his title and sneaked outside at night. He was sent back to Malacca on a supply ship that’d been waiting offshore. When the locals learnt that Mesquita was gone they lifted the siege. Instead, they focused on guarding the two sailing ships at anchor nearby, so there was no escape for the Portuguese.
The new Sultan, Babullah, was a stronger, more ruthless character than his father and the people loved him for it. What a mistake to murder the old man, who at least had been somewhat malleable. Babullah traded for muskets, gunpowder and coats of mail. The crimson and purple Indian cloth his father had loved could wait. Crimson had reminded the old man of fresh mace – the covering from nutmeg seeds. In the name of Islam, Babullah was going to reestablish local dominance over the spice trade by driving the Portuguese out. The Sultan made sure the rice paddies around the fortress became a muddy wasteland and supplies were cut off – the battle of Ternate had begun.
Vitor Paulo Rocha became the new Portuguese governor. A man of some ability, it was a shame he became a leader in such a dire situation. A better choice than Mesquita, nevertheless he had a shadowy past. He’d been accused of corruption back in Portugal but was granted a pardon on the condition that he joined an expedition to the Indies. They said men who went to Goa were fortune seekers and those in Malacca adventurers. To end up in Ternate, that furthest Portuguese outpost, you had to have done something criminal.
A few months after the assassination, food became a problem for the Portuguese. In the fort, there were a lot of cloves and other spices, but very little else. The men subsisted on sago bread so hard it needed to be dipped in water. The days of trading with village women for jackfruit and bananas were over. Going out to collect water was a daily trial. At first, the locals just took potshots. But then one day, the Sultan’s soldiers attacked a party getting water from a brackish stream. One man received a deep sword cut to the leg – the blade was poisoned and he died in agony. Rocha then ordered that every time they left the fort the men must wear helmets, breastplates and quilted leggings. This command was unpopular as that gear was almost unbearable to wear in the tropical heat. The next supply ship from Malacca did not appear when due. Rocha knew there could be many reasons for this.
Every evening Rocha did his rounds – checking the guards upon the turrets were in place. The other men went to sleep early inside the stone barracks, Morpheus was their only comforter. They were out of liquor and the men had never taken to chewing betel nut. Sometimes Rocha came across Padre Goncalves pacing about inside the defensive walls. The priest genuflected incessantly as he walked. Rocha knew he didn’t do this from religious fervour. The truth was the priest’s mind had gone from being holed up in the fort too long. Goncalves had been a restless man, roaming the world, and of late the island, incessantly looking for converts. Now he was just another grey beard longing for Europe.
Rocha had seen something similar to Goncalves’ compulsive genuflecting with an Indian Tiger in Goa. The beast was kept in a large cage and would pace back and forth within, using exactly the same swing of the head on every turn. The owner of the tiger eventually couldn’t bear the dead-eyed pacing and had it made into a rug. Rocha had given up confessing some time ago. Confessing to Goncalves was like throwing your sins into the abyss to multiply. The other Jesuits in the fort weren’t much saner, men who had wanted to escape life by taking priestly vows – instead they had been plunged right into the middle of things and suffered accordingly.
Rocha thought about their chances of making it off Ternate. Even if they defeated the men guarding their ships, they would need time for repairs to make the vessels seaworthy. This would allow the Sultan a chance to regroup. What awaited them in Malacca anyway? Chains for some disobedience he was not yet aware of? Would they get shipwrecked on an island with no water? Or have the bad luck to land in Mindanao and become prisoners of the Castilians? There were thousands of possibilities. In theory, they were the glory of Portugal, conquering faraway lands, spreading the faith and making the king rich through opening new trade routes. In reality, Islamic traders had arrived first and embedded themselves, and the majority of Christian adventurers who set out for the Indies came to a bad end.
The people of Ternate kept up the pressure until the Portuguese garrison was reduced to a state beyond miserable. Eventually, the Sultan offered boats so that they could leave and Rocha accepted. The locals then occupied the fort themselves, Rocha knew that wouldn’t last for long, because the island was cursed with wealth. If not the Portuguese, some other group would arrive to make trouble. The Portuguese managed to creep back into the region and have a presence over the water in Tidore but they never returned to Ternate.
Against the odds, in 1577 Rocha made it back to Portugal. He became a fisherman, one of the better results out of any of the Portuguese adventurers from that age of exploration. When out fishing, Rocha had the habit of looking back at the skyline of Lisbon. He knew the beautiful palaces and churches he saw had been made a reality by distinct garrisons of criminals in miserable forts, trading for the spices that Europe was crazy about. Not only did cloves do simple things like preserve meat and sweeten the breath, but they also performed miracles – for instance, if mixed with oil, they could warn off the plague.
As a fisherman, Rocha’s days were of hard labour casting and pulling nets. A stark contrast to those idle tropical days, when his men did not care about life or death and slept as much as they could. In 1577 Rocha was not yet old, he got married a year after his return. Given his new way of making a living, he became a pescatarian, but his wife occasionally liked to cook meat. That was fine, but he begged her never to use cloves as a flavouring. The slightest whiff of that substance reminded him of the fort…the sweet fragrance of cloves contaminated by gunpowder and sweat.
In the animated film “The Swallows of Kabul” the Taliban force a man to pray in a mosque and his wife must wait outside in the hot sun wearing a suffocating cover-all burqa. We see the world as she does: through the grill of a veil. And we hear her laboured breathing as she nearly faints from the heat. In “Teacher, We Girls”, author Katherine Dolan relates a similar experience waiting outside a restaurant. Her husband is inside ordering takeaway, but as a woman, she’s not allowed in the door. She stands sweltering in a full-body abaya but thankfully finds some shade. This first-hand account brought home to me one way hardline Islamic nations can be uncomfortable for women. On occasion, I’ve seen women wearing black abayas or burqas that cover them head to toe, but I’d never really considered what it felt like to wear one.
Katherine Dolan and her husband John spent a year teaching in Saudi Arabia – a challenging mission at the best of times. Making matters worse, after arriving they are sent to the small, ultra-conservative Najran in the south of the country. This memoir is a searing criticism of the Saudi oppression of women. It also portrays other head-scratching aspects of life in the kingdom. Chief among these is the Saudis death-wish style of driving. Pedestrians take their lives into their hands every time they cross the main street in Najran. The Dolans weekend trip away in a hired car becomes the stuff of nightmares as drivers speed down the highway with their headlights off at night.
“John’s knuckles were white from gripping the wheel, and he kept glancing at the rear vision window with a hunted look.”
Katherine could not share the driving with her husband, women were not allowed to drive in Saudi until 2018. And so it is comical when she teaches her students the vocabulary for the parts of a car. The girls in her class complain that the activity is not relevant to them. However, the textbook must be followed, teaching the girls other content is forbidden. Especially anything to do with sex. Why do the Saudis keep their woman under such tight control? It’s only one interpretation of the Quran that dictates this. Is it a fear of female sexuality? Outright misogyny? Or a misguided attempt to protect? Whatever the reason, when sexuality is repressed and pushed underground, usually there will be some unhealthy consequences.
Spending one year in Saudi Arabia, Dolan can’t give us all the answers. But she took careful notice of what was said by the women she worked with – generally Muslims from other Arab nations or Asia somewhat adapted to life in Saudi. While some writers may have used exposition to explain life in Najran, Dolan uses the staffroom conversations – a sound writing technique. One of her colleagues, Dama from Jordan, gives us an idea of just how much power men have over their female relatives.
“In Saudi Arabia now, it is forbidden for a girl even to meet with a man who is not related to her. In 2007, a man murdered his daughter because she chatted with a man on Facebook. According to the law, it was OK for him to murder her.”
This is also a story of English teachers abroad. Typically books on this topic feature some serious oddballs – often they are alcoholic – but that’s not an easy thing to be in Saudi, where alcohol is illegal. I wasn’t disappointed though. At one stage Fleur, an obese blond woman, turns up at school and starts talking to Dolan about the homosexual love affair of a prince and how her friend worked as a prostitute in the capital, Riyadh. Dolan cringes as she knows the other teachers are listening. The filter-less Fleur does not last long and gets fired. Fernando, a teacher who works with John, also provides some humour with his wry comments on the foolishness of certain colleagues, referring to one as nuttier than a squirrel’s pantry.
At the street level, things are hot and filthy, full of stray cats, rats, and depressed Asian immigrant labour. Dolan is forced to see a lot of this because the city is bereft of public transport. As she walks, she is watched by eyes that disapprove of a woman out alone. I did question why Katherine Dolan went to Saudi Arabia in the first place. She did seem well informed before going and it’s not a place you’d think a person with strong feminist ideals would want to go to. At one stage, she admits she thought wearing the abaya would give her a kind of desirable anonymity. Whatever whim or financial goal took her to Saudi, the production of this book made it worth it. I’m surprised no publishing house in her native New Zealand took it on. It’s well-written, very informative – and while sometimes grim, not without its lighter moments.
A few years ago, the police in Buenos Aires busted a Chinese mafia group known as the Pixiu Triad. I wrote about this group and its activities in my article published in the LA Review of Books, China Channel. Inspired by those real events, I chose the xiezhi to be the symbol of the Chinese triad gang that plays a central role in my crime novel ‘Buenos Aires Triad’.
Pixiu? Xiezhi? What the hell are those?
Both are mythical Chinese beasts.
The Pixiu: The legend goes that Taoist masters sealed off the rectum of the pixiu so that when it eats gold, silver and precious stones – its favoured diet – it takes them in but doesn’t pass them. Therefore, the pixiu is a symbol of wealth generation and an appropriate mascot for a criminal gang. Chinese supermarkets in Buenos Aires protected by the Pixiu Triad apparently have a poster of a pixiu on the wall. I never saw such a poster.
The Xiezhi: These creatures look pretty much like Chinese lions. They have the head of a lion, the body of a dog and the claws of a dragon. A symbol of honesty, the xiezhi has a horn on its head for butting liars. Is it a good mascot for a criminal gang? Well, maybe for a boss looking to promote loyalty among their followers. The bronze statue of a xiezhi at the Forbidden City in Beijing is the most famous representation of this creature.
A Chino in San Telmo
The photo at the top of this blog post shows the front of the Jia Yuan ‘chino’ in the touristic neighbourhood of San Telmo in Buenos Aires. In Argentina, a Chinese supermarket – supermercado chino, súper chino, argenchino or even just chino – is not a store catering to Asian expats. The target market of these shops is the general population. In addition to several aisles of food and alcohol, there is usually a counter to buy meat, cheese and cold cuts, and a fruit and vegetable stand. An Argentinian might be behind the meat counter, a Bolivian weighing the vegetables and a Chinese attending the till.
What is interesting about this chino in San Telmo is the sticker over the S in the supermercado sign. The sticker features the Argentine and Chinese flags and a bird’s head flanked by the characters: 山鹰. The translation is ‘mountain eagle’. Now the ‘Mountain Eagle Group’ could be legitimate or are they a rival of the Pixiu Triad? I haven’t been able to find any information on them.
Of all the things to do in San Telmo – I might be nuts concentrating on a bog-standard supermarket. Here in New Zealand, I don’t take photos of the takeaway fish n’ chip joints with Chinese characters on the frontage. However, I never heard of triads extorting money from these places. And being in a foreign country sometimes the mundane is interesting because you don’t fully understand what’s going on. You need to fill in the gaps for yourself – and this can be a starting point for creativity.