Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Year in Asia, 2007

The pictures Buddhist monks by the tens of thousands clad in saffron-colored robes parading peacefully through the streets of Yangon and other cities in Myanmar will form the indelible image of 2007 in Asia. It was the largest protest in the country since the demonstrations of 1988 resulted in the deaths of several thousand protestors. The immediate spark was rising fuel prices and conspicuous extravagance by the generals who have ruled the country for more than 20 years, but it was more fundamentally grounded in pent-up frustration with the way the generals have run the country into the ground. The junta reacted predictably, by shooting into the crowds, although the bloodshed was mercifully lower than two years ago. Other notable events in Asia in 2007 include:

2. Chinese shoot down an orbiting satellite.

3. Pakistan’s year of living dangerously

4. China’s PetroChem becomes world’s first $1 trillion company.

5. South Korea’s voters turn to the right.

6. Diplomatic reversals – India and North Korea.

7. Japan’s election gridlock

8. Chinese product recalls

9. The return of Thaksin to Thailand

10. Australia’s drought enters 10th year.

In January the Chinese destroyed one of its own aging weather satellites in polar orbit in a demonstration of technical dexterity that stunned Western defense chiefs and underscored the increasing sophistication of the Chinese military. Much of America’s technical advantage in precision bombing depends on guidance systems from orbiting satellites now demonstrably vulnerable to counter-attack. If that wasn’t enough, China demonstrated its increasing sophistication in space travel by putting its first satellite around the moon. Beijing says it plans to land a man on the moon in 15 years.

It seemed as if nothing could go right in Pakistan during 2007. President Pervez Musharrif feuded with members of the supreme court and Islamists, culminating in the siege and capture of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. Suicide bombings, which had been rare in the past, became a common occurrence exemplified by the horrendous killing of 50 by one bomber near the year’s end. President Musharrif declared a state of emergency, bringing protestors out in the streets and international condemnations. He tried to appease these protests by resigning his army commission ahead of another term as president. Former premier Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in a US-orchestrated move to return some semblance of democracy only to barely escape assassination.

In 2006 the big economy story was China accumulating $1 trillion in foreign currency reserves (now more like $1.4 trillion). This year China unveiled the world’s first trillion-dollar company following the oil giant PetroChem’s initial public offering on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Its market cap exceeded that of Exxon Mobile and General Electric Co. combined. What China would do with this wealth was partly answered in December when the country’s sovereign wealth fund pumped $5 billion into ailing Morgan Stanley to gain 10 percent ownership.

Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party won a resounding victory in South Korea’s presidential election in December, ending 10 years of rule by two left of center presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. A popular former governor of Seoul and chaebol business executive, Lee ran mostly on a promise to boost the economy. It seemed doubtful that he would scrap rapprochement with North Korea, which is popular, but he will likely take a harder line around the edges, That should please Washington, which has seen the alliance with South Korea frayed in the past decade.

In 2006 the diplomatic story of the year was the astonishing nuclear deal with India and what it meant for a budding US-India partnership. Meanwhile, talks surrounding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions were stalled. This year it was the Indian deal that stalled in the face of unmoveable opposition from left-wing parties in India’s governing coalition. But in February, a breakthrough was achieved on the North Korea, which agreed to freeze and dismantle its plutonium plants at Yongbyon and elsewhere in exchange for renewed fuel oil shipments. At year’s end it was unclear whether Pyongyang would take the next step in revealing the details of its other nuclear establishments or the where about of its weapons.

Japan’s main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan, won a stunning victory in the July election to the House of Councilors, meaning that the two chambers of Japan’s bi-cameral parliament were in opposing camps, presenting the new Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda with tricky problems. The immediate result was temporary termination of Japan’s rather minor contribution to the Afghanistan War. A new bill allowing Japanese navy oilers to resume refueling operations in the Indian Ocean passed the lower house but faced almost certain defeat in the opposition-controlled upper house. That should set the stage for a confrontation in the new year that would lead to anything in from a general election to a grand coalition.

Perhaps the one Asian news development that truly impinged on America’s conscience during the year was the string of embarrassing product recalls. That was especially true as they focused on such popular items as pet food (The Chinese are poisoning our cats and dogs!) and toys, which are overwhelmingly made in China and exported to the US. But the product standards and safety issue was not just a Sino-American trade problem. During the year Beijing convicted and executed the head of China’s equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, for accepting huge bribes to certify untested medicines and other drugs as safe.

The return of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to Thailand if not to office seemed a real possibility after his supporters won a convincing victory in the first parliamentary elections held since the army seized power and ousted him last year. After his party was disbanded, supporters regrouped under the People Power Party banner. It won 233 seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives and at year’s end claimed to have enough support from minor parties to form a government. It seemed that Thailand was right back where it had started before the 2006 coup with unknown consequences for 2008.

The one serious blot on the otherwise happy picture for the “Lucky Country” this year was the continuation of the severe drought in Australia’s populated southeast, which is sometimes described as the first measurable impact of global warming on a developed country. It has led to reduced agricultural output and unpopular water restrictions. Whether these irritants played a part in prime minister John Howard’s convincing defeat in the parliamentary election may not be clear, but it seemed hardly a coincidence that the first thing the new Australian Labor government did was to ratify the Kyoto Agreement.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Stars Fall on Tokyo

Japanese have always believed in their deepest heart of hearts that theirs were the most sophisticated palates in the world. Last month Michelin, the world’s most famous restaurant guide, confirmed this belief spectacularly with its first Tokyo Guide, 2008.

The book identifies 150 restaurants as worthy of at least one of the coveted stars. In total, Michelin issued 191 stars in Tokyo compared with 64 in Paris and 42 in New York. Eight restaurants received the highest accolade, a three-star rating.

A team of three undercover European and two Japanese inspectors spent a year and a half sampling the fare offered by 1,500 Tokyo restaurants, culled from tens of thousands of eating establishments.

The Michelin Guide, which is issued annually by the French automobile tire maker, awards one, two and three stars based on excellence in cooking, exemplary service and beauty of the décor and up keep.

Many in Japan had expected the Michelin Guide to focus exclusively on Tokyo’s many Western-style restaurants, assuming that true understanding of Japanese cuisine was, like other aspects of its culture, beyond the comprehension of non-Japanese.

And the Japanese have such unique specialties such as fugu, a fish that can be deadly if not properly prepared, and soba kaiseki, a delicate portions served in an elegant and traditional manner, all of which found a place in the lineup. Of the eight three-star restaurants in the guide, three are French, and five Japanese, the latter including two sushi restaurants.

The guide naturally provoked much comment, not to mention some carping, among Japan’s immense cohort of self-described food experts. Some complained that Michelin awarded the city far too many stars, as if it amounted to a kind of grade inflation.

Toyoo Tamamura, a noted food essayist and expert on French cuisine, noted that in France about 90 percent of the starred restaurants serve French cuisine, in Italy most of the restaurants serve Italian food, and so on. “In Tokyo you have a much more varied fare – Japanese, French, Italian, Chinese, Korean ... I think that Michelin wanted to enlarge the field.”

Perhaps the number of stars is not surprising when one considers that Tokyo is the largest city in the world. Even though Michelin seems to have limited itself to the eight inner city wards, they still have a population of 8 million people, or about the same as New York and 3.5 times more than Paris.

Tokyo boasts between 100,000 and 190,000 restaurants, depending on how you define the urban boundary, probably the heaviest concentration in the world. Put that way it means that only .001 percent of them received at least one star, and only .00009 percent received the coveted three stars.

Tamamura pointed out that many of the restaurants in the French guide are located in the countryside, as befitting a handbook first published in 1900 by a tire company, whose initial purpose was to encourage motoring so that it could sell more tires. Japanese tend to dine in the cities.

In another departure reflecting sensitivity to Japanese tastes, the guide gave high marks to restaurants that are, by European standards, mere cubbyholes. That can be seen in the Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in the Ginza, a modest establishment run by 82-year-old Jiro Ono and his older son with the help of two assistants.

The guide notes that it is in the basement of a commercial building and has only limited seating. It rated three stars even though it had a comfort rating of only 1 out of a 5. “It’s true that its décor is low key, but that doesn’t mean that the cuisine is anything but first rate, said Michelin’s Japan spokesman, Taku Suzuki.

In all, 15 sushi restaurants received stars, two of them three stars, which is probably a reflection of the international popularity of this quintessential Japanese specialty. Says Tamamura, “sushi is very popular in France; it was a main target.”

But some connoisseurs fretted that some of Japan’s other cuisines did not get the recognition they deserve. Only one unagi (grilled eel) restaurant was starred, and none was handed out for yakiniku, (a beef dish) which many think is one of the country’s most notable cuisines.

So far, there have been no reports of starred restaurants raising their prices – which are pretty pricy to begin with – “but they are buried in reservations,” said Tamamura. Some restaurant owners told reporters that they are getting so many phone calls asking for reservations that they didn’t have time to properly serve their customers.

Japanese are obsessed with the preparation and display of food. Turn on the television during the day and one will as likely encounter a cooking show as a samurai costume drama. Restaurants with aspirations for excellence are held to very high standards and quick approbation if they fall short or cut corners.

The food scandal du jour involves Sanba Kitcho, an Osaka-based chain of upscale restaurants that was caught allegedly mislabeling beef as coming from the top-rated Tajima and Kitcho districts in Hyogo prefecture (better known to Westerners as Kobe Beef), the most expensive kind in Japan, worth 30,000 yen a kilo, while substituting meat from someplace else.

More recently, that beleaguered company has been accused mislabeling the origin of its conger eel and the eat-by-dates of some of its fish products. Ironically, the founder of the chain, the late Sadaichi Yuki is said to have boosted the idea of Japanese food culture as being elitist. He was the first restaurateur ever to be officially named a Person of Culture by the Japanese government.

It is understood that the Tokyo Michelin Guide is just the first of a series of Asian gourmet guides it plans to issue in the coming years. So if you are a restaurant owner in Hong Kong or Shanghai or Beijing, beware. One of your customers may be an undercover Michelin agent sizing you up for stardom.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Legacy Unfulfilled

One of my favorite tourist destinations in Bangkok is the Jim Thompson House. The Grand Palace is, well, grand. But the Jim Thompson house is on a more human scale. Everything in it, from the layout of the buildings, the lush garden, the numerous beautiful artifacts, reflect the exquisite taste of one individual. One could almost imagine oneself living in such a place.

Jim Thompson was an American who came to Thailand in late 1945 just after the end of World War II. He had been serving as an intelligence officer in the office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. On his discharge in 1946, he elected to stay in Thailand and soon took an interest in the then moribund Thai silk-making industry. He almost single-handedly revived the industry, establishing the Thai Silk Company in 1948.

A student of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he also took an interest in Thai-style homes. He began to assemble his own complex on the banks of a Bangkok canal. Assemble, rather than construct, is the operative word, since Thai houses are typically modular and fairly easy to disassemble and reassemble. He found many of the elements in central Thailand not far from the historic city of Ayutthaya.

At that time it could be said that both traditions, silk-making and Thai-style homes were languishing. The elite preferred to build their mansions in marble in the Western style and import their fashions. Thai houses were for peasants. It cannot be said that Thompson revived the Thai housing traditions, as he did the silk industry, but he did assemble one of the two authentic Thai-style homes in Bangkok, the other being the traditional home of Kukrit Pramoj.

He began work on his home in the late 1950s and moved in in 1959. But he was only able to enjoy his new home for less than a decade. For in March, 1967, while visiting in the Genting Highlands of Malaysia, he left friends to go for a walk and was never seen or heard from again. To this day his disappearance remains one of Southeast Asia’s enduring mysteries, along with the death of the King’s brother, King Rama VIII, and the fate of the Laotian royal family. But his home and the many precious objects that he collected have been lovingly preserved.

The company, of course makes the most of the Jim Thompson legend. Every store has a huge black and white photograph of Thompson looking sort of like Noel Coward. Every time a year ending in seven rolls around, one can count on one or two newspaper articles recounting once again the story of his disappearance (though without providing any new revelations).

But of the Thai Silk Company, as a contemporary business enterprise under Thompson’s successors, William Booth and his son Eric, there is surprisingly little in the published record even though they have managed the company for two-thirds of its existence.

While I was living in Thailand I made a stab at reporting a company story on the Thai Silk Co. I can’t say I was rebuffed by the corporation’s public relations but they weren’t terribly forthcoming either. I set it aside for other projects. My interest was piqued when, on moving to Tokyo, I covered the opening of the new Armani Ginza Tower. That made me wonder why Jim Thompson had not become a global brand, why it had not developed into something similar to the Italian fashion giants.

The company has stores though out Thailand and a few in neighboring countries. But there is none in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo or New York. When I sent some clothes to my daughter in the US she had never heard of Jim Thompson, and the label had no special cachet for her.

There is some irony in this since it was in New York that Jim Thompson first achieved success. Costume designer Irene Sharoff used lengths of Thai silk in several of her Broadway productions in the 1960s, including, of course, the Oscar and Hammerstein musical The King and I. They were also used in the film version and the movie Ben Hur Fashion designers such as Pierre Balmain incorporated silk fashion in his designs. Queen Sirikit dazzled Americans during state visits in the 1960s wearing collections of silk gowns designed by Balmain, an advertisement for Thai silk if there ever was one. And then . . . nothing.

Of course, the obvious answer is that Thompson has been dead for more than 40 years (assuming he wasn’t kidnapped by communists or decided to chuck it all and live out the rest of his life anonymously – to recite two prevailing theories explaining his disappearance), where as many of the Italian giants, such as Giorgio Armani, are very much alive and kicking.

The Booths seem to have been competent stewards of the Jim Thompson legacy, but maybe not very inspired promoters. That’s not to say that the Jim Thompson brands have not changed with the times. They have introduced new designs, and new products and branched out modestly into home furnishings, even restaurants (ck) And the family deserves kudos for preservation of the Jim Thompson House Museum, threatened for extinction not long ago by plans to build an express way through it.

There may be another reason why Thailand has some mixed feelings about promoting the Jim Thompson brand as the most recognizable Thai product abroad. After all Thompson was a farang. Thompson was not exactly a prophet unhonored in his adopted land. He received royal decorations for his work reviving the silk industry and patronage by the royal family which has also lent its support to the house museum and the foundation that support it.

It may be that the Booths have displayed considerable political subtlety and cultural sensitivity in not boosting Thompson into a global fashion cult figure. Yet it is rather sad that the year 2006 passed in Thailand with nobody, to my knowledge, noting that it would have been the 100th anniversary Jim Thompson’s birth.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Port Call Barometer

One of the more accurate barometers of the current state of Sino-American relations has been port visits by US Navy vessels to Hong Kong. In the ten years since Hong Kong’s return to China, warships flying the Stars and Stripes have vastly outnumbered those flying China’s red ensign.

That has mirrored the generally positive and stable status of bilateral relations during this period. Until last month the Chinese had temporarily denied port visits on only two previous occasions. The first in 1999 was after the US Air Force accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

The second came in 2001 after the collision of a US Navy spy plane and a Chinese MiG off China's southern coast. Both occasions were certifiable crises, and both were smoothed after a short while over with expressions of regret and the port visits resumed.

That makes the latest brouhaha over the cancelled visit by the USS Kitty Hawk and its support group and the earlier denial of shelter to two US Navy minesweepers a few days earlier all the more puzzling.

After all, Sino-American relations are on a reasonably even keel, pardon the nautical term. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had only recently had a friendly and productive visit to Beijing. The fracus came, ironically, as the Chinese Navy made its first friendly port call in Japan.

It should be noted that Hong Kong is not now and never was, even under the British, a base, such as Sasebo in Japan or the former Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines. There are few if any permanent shore facilities. It is a liberty port pure and simple, a convenient place for a break in the long voyage from the Middle-East to Japan.

A couple hundred dependents of the crews had flown to Hong Kong in anticipation of spending the Thanksgiving holiday in Hong Kong with their loved ones, which is one reason why the Defense Department is sorely pissed that the visit was canceled so abruptly – or why no succor was afforded to the minewsweepers despite being in a tropical storm.

But rather than being any kind of accurate gauge of bilateral relations, this looks to me to be, to borrow from my former British colleagues, like a royal cock up on the part of the Chinese

After all, the Chinese abruptly canceled the visit, then cancelled the cancellation (though too late for the ships to turn back) then denied that they had cancelled the cancellation. What gives?

My former colleague at Asiaweek, Willy Lam, now with the Jamestown Foundation, may provide a clue not mentioned in other news accounts. He reports that the Chinese began large-scale naval exercises in the South China Sea on November 19 – one day before the minesweepers were denied entry.

It is plausible to assume that the Ministry of Defense did not want a large contingent of American naval vessels hanging around these waters during their maneuvers. It is equally plausible that they didn’t bother to inform the Foreign Ministry, which handles Hong Kong ship visits, until rather late.

Now, to save face, the Foreign Ministry has concocted an ex-post facto rationale by complaining about Washington’s recent decision to sell Taiwan an up-graded version of the Patriot missile and the recent hospitality extended to the Dalai Lama.

But these are garden variety irritants that usually invoke only pro-forma protests from Beijing. My guess is the thing was a big muddle by Beijing and that the Stars and Stripes will be seen again in Hong Kong harbor.