Monthly Archives: November, 2017


Grills and window thieves in Bangladesh

Reza Mazumder

Society and culture


Look up amongst the throng of high rise buildings housing residents in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and perhaps you'll wonder why so many windows in Bangladesh are barred. Largely designed to keep thieves out, and to avoid those looking out of their balconies from falling out, having window grills in Bangladesh is as common-place as having a roof.

The simplest design for a window grill is made up of many straight bars that run parallel against the fewer bars running across perpendicular-wise. The pattern becomes a series of consecutive rectangles running both vertically and horizontally. The bars are made of metals that would require industrial grade machinery to break, and even then, would take too long to bend out of shape. This helps to keep intruders out, dissuading thieves from attempting to break the bars and rob an apartment or business complex.

[caption id="attachment_6568" align="aligncenter" width="326"] A simple window grill[/caption]

Intricate designs made with a series of straight lines are also popular choices when deciding what kind of grill to place across your windows. Popular patterns include criss-cross patterns and plus symbols. Shapes like triangles, diamonds and occasionally 5-plus edge shapes like pentagons and hexagons will be used to make patterns that add to the architectural aestheticism of what is otherwise just a plain window. Particularly remarkable or prestigious buildings in Bangladesh will have incredibly complex patterns that form along their windows, often taking the shape of a flower such as a lotus – the national flora of the country.

Besides preventing thieves from scouring up the drain pipes and breaking into your house, window grills have practical uses too. Most apartments have window grills made up of long rectangles suitable to hang clothing on. This helps make up for the lack of space in Bangladesh to have seperate clotheslines, however clotheslines are often installed on the flat roofs of residential buildings for all the tenants to use.

Window grills can also provide some privacy by obstructing the view of someone looking in.  The incredible proximity of buildings in Bangladesh can sometimes make it a little too easy for a nosy busy-body to try and get a peek at you while doing something you’d rather do without an audience.

Designed both for security, grandeur and clothes drying, window grills are a multi-purpose feature of building exteriors in Bangladesh that provide more than just something to look at out of the window.

2 minute read

Read more

A Tale of Two Chopsticks: Lingering Traces of Hong Kong’s SARS Epidemic

Kai Clark

Society and culture | Asia


SARS ravaged Hong Kong more a decade ago, infecting over 1,700 people and killing more than 300. Because of it, when I eat Dim Sum with my family in Hong Kong, I am presented with a cultural oddity. There are two pairs of chopsticks to eat with.
One pair is ivory-white, which you use to collect the food from the shared dish. The other pair is jet-black, which you use to eat the food from the plate. At least, that’s how I think it works. Watching my friends eat, they usually just take one pair and eat with it. Each tells me different answers for which one to use and admit that they don’t bother with the serving chopsticks at all.
This confusion is expected of a practice that finds its roots only 14 years ago. In Chinese culture, outside of extremely formal dinners or when eating with strangers, most people use the same pair of chopsticks to both collect and eat their meals. The same holds true in Beijing, Taipei, Singapore, and even in most of Hong Kong. Only upmarket restaurants provide two pairs of chopsticks.
So why have these restaurants abandoned centuries of traditional culture? The answer lies in the intensity of SARS’s attack on Hong Kong.
When the coronavirus spread throughout Hong Kong, hospitals were unsure how to respond -- allowing SARS to infect almost 400 medical workers and kill eight others. Nurses at the time found the panic was, “greater than the HIV/AIDS epidemic because of the swiftness of the outbreak.” Instructions for treating the patients kept changing, exacerbating the confusion.
Seeing that even doctors did not understand the disease, the public panicked and rumours on how SARS spread went viral. Over 100,000 people fled Hong Kong during the outbreak. Families of nurses refused to dine on the same table, fearing the disease would spread through chopsticks. Many people resorted to eating traditional Chinese foods believing it would protect them. Others wore facemasks, obsessively washed their hands, and avoided other people.
The restaurant industry lost over three billion dollars during the outbreak. Many restaurants shut down after losing over 90% of their business. Others survived by delivering takeaway orders as people were afraid to go outside. Reduced revenues forced many restaurants to lay off workers. Others willingly took no-pay leave, realising the extent of the crisis in the industry.
Desperate to attract patrons, restaurants promoted greater hygiene standards by requiring staff to wear surgical masks, check temperatures of customers at the door, disinfect tables, sterilise utensils, and provide two pairs of chopsticks to prevent the spread of saliva.
Once the medical community contained SARS, restaurants rolled back most of the adopted hygiene practices. However, many upscale restaurants chose to maintain some of these practices, including providing two pairs of chopsticks. This was despite research suggesting there is little health risk of SARS or other colds spreading through chopstick use.
The pandemonium of the SARS epidemic still remains fresh in many people’s memories. When I was in Hong Kong over a decade after SARS, I had lunch with a group of classmates in a dingy little food stall by the coast. We’d been hiking for 3 days, reeking of sweat and teen spirit. Settling in to eat I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dug right in. My friend, whose family fled Hong Kong during SARS, had yelled at me to, “Use another pair of chopsticks!”

3 minute read

Read more

The Rising Islands of Oceania

Simon Fenske

Society and culture | Pacific


The volcanic island of Ambae in northern Vanuatu rose from obscurity into world news in September after ash and gases began spewing ominously from its volcanic crater. It’s 11,000 residents were promptly evacuated to neighbouring islands in anticipation of further eruptions.

I’ve spent eight months on Ambae, a mere six kilometres from the brooding crater. Therefore these developments were particularly concerning to me. But what struck me more was that a place I came to appreciate for the startling beauty of its landscapes and the incredible resilience of its people, was now being broadcast to the world through a lens of vulnerability and despair. This is the same lens framing atoll nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, sometimes even the entire Oceania region, as the “sinking islands,” or the victims of climate change.

But just as Ambae continues to rise from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, the people of Oceania are rising to the challenge of climate change with resilience and resourcefulness. Stories of disaster need to be told, but an exclusive focus on these stories robs the people of Oceania of their agency and reduces them to powerless victims of the world around them.

I want to tell a different story, a story both about climate change and about Ambae. A story written not by rising sea levels or cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, but by people, adaptive agents of their own futures.

[caption id="attachment_6560" align="aligncenter" width="499"] Not your typical "sinking island." Ambae rises steeply from its rocky coast.[/caption]

Climate change results in increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. On Ambae this was demonstrated by Cyclone Pam, which struck the island in March 2015. This was immediately followed by a severe eight-month El Niño drought that was widely perceived as the worst in many decades. The combined effects of these two events resulted in severe food and water shortages.

When 80 year old Loren, a chief of Saranamundu village, saw the challenges that these extreme weather events posed, he responded in a way that was both intuitive and innovative. Trekking daily from his coastal village to an altitude of up to 1000 metres, he began clearing and planting gardens in the cloud forest of Ambae’s volcanic dome. Many others in Saranamundu soon followed suit.

[related_article align="right" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Changing maps of the Asia-pacific"]

Loren was drawing on both living memory and oral tradition that recount gardens as traditionally planted at high altitude where native varieties of taro and banana thrive in moist soils and frequent cloud cover. It was only with the introduction of new coastal crops such as cassava, cacao and new varieties of taro and banana from the late 19th century that agricultural livelihoods moved closer to the coast. The current rise of high altitude food gardens also means an increased focus on native crops, particularly taro and banana.

Traditional agricultural systems are once again on the rise, and the impetus for their revival is very contemporary. It is an innovative response to the new challenges posed by climate change.

[caption id="attachment_6561" align="aligncenter" width="561"] Taro and banana garden in the cloud forest at an altitude of roughly 600 metres. The ocean is visible below in the distance.[/caption]

Over in neighbouring Vuinggalato, a village of several hundred people scattered across Ambae’s most rugged valley, locals are pioneering an innovative solution to their chronic water shortages. Devoid of perennial rivers, fresh water on Ambae was traditionally collected from ganu (springs), found only in a limited number of locations across the island. While rainwater stored in cement wells and plastic tanks have generally improved water accessibility in recent decades, these reservoirs quickly dwindle in times of drought.

The people of Vuinggalato responded by returning to their ganu, located in the mountains behind the village at an altitude of over the 800m. Using plastic piping and cement wells, spring water is now diverted to a set of storage tanks, from which it is distributed to a number of taps for ease of access throughout the village. Vuinggalato’s water security and resilience throughout the 2015 drought is inspiring neighbouring villages to follow their lead, with a similar system currently under construction in Loren’s village of Saranamundu.

[caption id="attachment_6562" align="aligncenter" width="456"] Vuinggalato locals stand in front of their ganu.[/caption]

Much like a volcanic eruption, the potential impacts of climate change in Oceania are truly terrifying and cataclysmic. But the people of Ambae and wider Oceania aren’t just sinking; they’re rising to the challenge of climate change in unique and innovative ways. Stories of vulnerability and victimhood are needed to help us understand the urgency of climate change mitigation. But perhaps these other stories, of agency and adaptability, will point the way towards realistic solutions tackling climate change not just in Oceania, but across the globe.

Read more

Elderly Life in the Hidden World of Karaoke Kissas and Classrooms

Kai Clark
Benny Tong

Politics | East Asia


Benny Tong is a PhD candidate at the ANU studying the lives of elderly Japanese people in karaoke bars and how they seek fulfilment and purpose in the later stages of their lives. Born and raised in Singapore, he earned his Bachelors and Masters in Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore before coming to the ANU. As a teenager, he fell in love with J-Pop which ignited his passion for Japanese culture.
“Karaoke is a huge industry worth billions of dollars,” Benny explained, describing how the many sorts of karaoke chains in Japan accommodate everyone from millennials to older wealthy businessmen. Benny’s research, however, focuses on two types of karaoke venues: karaoke kissas which are small open-mic bars that are open during the day; and karaoke classrooms, where people learn how to sing karaoke from a trained instructor. These venues, Benny says, “lean towards a mature working-class demographic that are very much over sixty.”
[related_article align="right" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Podcast: Reunifying Korea"]
Benny explains how karaoke kissas provide a strong sense of community for many of these elderly people who don’t have a family to rely on. “The foundational concept of the karaoke kissa makes it a very inclusive place — as long as you pay the cover charge. There are a lot of regulars who all become friends, forming a tightly knit community.” Many of these regulars lament the demise of Japan’s traditional family structure, which has separated many elderly Japanese from their families.
During the interview, Benny showed me some karaoke magazines containing song scores used for study in karaoke classrooms. These classrooms provide many elderly people with a continued purpose in their life. At the end of the school year, the school organises recitals for the students, “where they can present what they’ve learned in front of an audience of peers, friends, and family. It’s a very important place for them to vindicate their continued participation in karaoke — as something to learn rather than passively enjoy.”

Many of these kissas and classrooms are located in working-class suburbs, far off the beaten track. These places usually lack windows and have two thick layers of doors, making it both inconspicuous and intimidating to enter.
Benny described to me, how lucky he was to find his first kissa. “The karaoke operator, or as they call them, ‘masters’, actually noticed me pacing back and forth outside, and beckoned me to come inside.” Once inside he was warmly welcomed into the community that was “happy to have a younger person among their midst to learn about their lifestyle”, he said.
“One important skill for fieldwork is getting on socially with other people. For me, coming in with a very open attitude towards learning what these people are doing and not making judgements, especially since you know so little, is important.”
"There’s a lot of them who very much desire to tell people about their life stories,” he said, “so they can pass on certain values or certain ideas that they’ve gained through their experience in life.”

Through studying these karaoke kissas and classrooms, Benny has found a widely-neglected space where many elderly Japanese sing with each other and laugh over drinks. Some have even rekindled their passion for love, despite losing their first partners to death and divorce. For many of these elderly people, singing Shōwa classics, like enka and kayōkyoku, helps reshape their identities in the face of old age, and provides a new direction in their lives. This contrasts very much to modern representations of elderly people as a drain on state healthcare, living their last days alone or in geriatric care.
Criticising the post-war experience of modernity, Benny argues that, “Japanese policy-makers, academics, and public discourse tend to think of elderly life as a period of life where bodily functions deteriorate to the point where you need institutionalised care. I find that actually, especially with these people that I’m working with, that’s simply not the case. They are growing old quite healthy. A lot of them take pride in the fact that they still maintain a very good standard of physical health. They tell me that they are very happy that they rarely go to the hospital. And it’s the singing that allows them to have them this kind of constant exercise and socialisation that keeps them both physically and mentally healthy.”
“So that's why I think studying Japan now is going to be a very valuable lesson for the rest of the world for learning how to cope with an ageing population in a manner that will treat old people with respect and honour. Growing old is not a problem. It is not a crisis. It is essential and unremovable part of what it means to live.”

Read more

Should we boycott Myanmar?

Mish Khan

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


In tourism brochure clichés, Myanmar is often referred to as the last jewel of Asia. After fifty years of isolation under military rule, the newly open Southeast Asian nation conjures quaint images of the last untouched frontier in a shrinking world. Although we must remind ourselves that such romanticisation can be misplaced, given the authoritarian regime was a harsh reality rather than a luxurious abstinence from modernisation, many foreigners are curiously enthusiastic about visiting the country.

As an undergraduate focusing on Myanmar studies and the Burmese language, across my degree I have had numerous friends approach me to discuss plans to visit the country, famous for its glittering pagodas, ancient temples and rich cultural diversity.

When people learn I study Myanmar, they often gush to me about their own experiences in the country. From backpackers I have chatted with in cheap hostels in Cambodia, to wealthy club-goers smoking cigarettes in Singapore, almost everyone had a positive story to share.

However, recently the tone surrounding this conversation has changed. When hairdressers, university peers, strangers at parties or uber drivers ask me what I study, their first question is now about the Rohingya crisis, or negative feelings stemming from media coverage of the situation.

A lot of this discussion has focused on whether it is ethical to visit Myanmar, given recent widespread attention to the mass exodus of the Rohingya from Rakhine state. People do not want to be seen as financially or ethically condoning this traumatic situation—who wants to look back across history and say they supported what has already been called a genocide?

Therefore, it is worth speculating on two things: how this most recent wave of international outrage could dent Myanmar’s tourism figures, and whether foreigners should boycott the country, for fear of lining an authoritarian pocket.

Tourism growth is important for Myanmar’s government. For some background, it is difficult to accurately gauge tourism statistics in Myanmar. In 2014, Myanmar claimed to receive 3 million international tourists. However, at least two-thirds of this figure were day-trippers from Thailand, China, India, Laos and Bangladesh. The number peaked in 2015 at 4.68 million. Unsurprisingly the following year, total tourist figures dropped dramatically to 2.9 million when conflict in north and north-eastern Myanmar rendered day-tripping more difficult.

A different measurement of tourism in Myanmar has been airport arrivals—this figure rose from 593,000 in 2012 to 1.08 million in 2016. Yet only 48.2 percent of those arriving in Yangon International airport in 2014 did so on a tourist visa, and it is estimated only 50-60 percent of arrivals in 2016 were purely for leisure. Measuring the sale of tickets at Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most famous tourist attraction, revealed 505,351 tickets were sold in 2014—far from the three million tourists statistic—and in 2016, 600,000 tickets were sold, a contrast to the 2.9 million total tourist figures.

The Myanmar Ministry of Tourism plans to accommodate 3.5 million tourists by the end of 2017, and claims to have hosted 2.27 million tourists from January to August 2017. Given the difficult in knowing if tourism is even really booming to begin with, in evaluating the impact of the Rohingya crisis on Myanmar’s nascent tourism industry by the end of 2017, we should be cautious to not make sweeping claims about how exactly figures did or did not drop, and instead carefully examine airport arrivals, ticket sales to sites like Shwedagon Pagoda and Bagan, and day-trip percentages to gauge the real impact the crisis will have on Myanmar’s 2017 tourism figures. Currently, some coverage suggests the crisis has taken a toll on hotel bookings, particularly visits to Rakhine-based attractions such as Ngapali beach and Mrauk-U, but only time will reveal the true impact.

So, is it ethical to visit Myanmar? Most people asking me this question are concerned for two key reasons—they do not want to financially assist the regime’s conduct towards the Rohingya, and they do not want to be seen as morally endorsing the Rohingya crisis, or at best, being complacent to it.

[related_article align="right" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Myanmar's choice"]

With regard to lining the wrong pockets, opponents of a tourism boycott argue that tourism infrastructure was mainly government-owned in the past and such a case could be made, however today hotels, restaurants, guides, drivers, hawkers and vendors are privately owned and employ ordinary people. Accordingly, a tourism boycott would have little impact on the government while adversely impacting many who have built a livelihood around tourism.

Others may argue that the government still owns substantive cogs in the tourism machine, such as airlines, or that it will benefit from tax revenue raised via tourism. Regardless of what you think, there is lots of literature suggesting economic sanctions in Myanmar never really had an impact in its democratic transition, so it is tough to conclude that a tourism boycott for economic purposes would now suddenly change the government’s attitude.

But what about more generally visiting Myanmar—is chowing down on Shan noodles and taking a selfie outside Shwedagon Pagoda normalising the Rohingya exodus? I think there are numerous factors why this is not necessarily the case.

Reverting back to avoiding the Myanmar people is one of the worst things we can do. Transitioning from a politically oppressive society with little access to information—to most of the country having Facebook within a few years—means the spread of misinformation and mistrust is particularly potent in Myanmar. Even within Myanmar, understanding of the Rakhine situation has been poor due to a history of travel limitations. In a global era of “fake news”, one of the most worthwhile tools we have is human relationships. To the common person in Myanmar, exposure to other norms will not come from catchy think-pieces, it will come from human interaction.

We should also keep visiting Myanmar because even beyond the Rohingya crisis, democracy and rule of law in the country is very fragile. A recent speaker I witnessed described the environment in the country as a collective PTSD. As a young person who has been to Myanmar many times, including with several Australian friends, I think cross-cultural interactions have been very valuable in prompting all of us to be more open to reframing our thoughts, especially if thinking is embedded in historical trauma.

And most of all, I have had people from Myanmar take me more seriously when they know I have bothered to get to know their country. Passionate strangers on Facebook or Twitter with contrarian political beliefs to mine considerably open up when I can blurt out some basic Burmese, reference my time in the country, and express an opinion as someone with a deep fondness for Myanmar, as opposed to looking to win a moral battle for ego points.

Therefore, I hope to keep encouraging those around me to spend time in the country and with its people, now more so than ever.

7 minute read

Read more

Back to Top