Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"When Chinks translate Mandarin into English"

The stuff below was forwarded to me by a friend:
Brilliant Beijing Hotel Brochure - Translated as only they can.
A friend went to Beijing recently and was given this brochure by the hotel. It is precious. She is keeping it and reading it whenever she feels depressed.

Obviously, it has been translated directly, word for word from Mandarin to English.

Getting There: 

Our representative will make you wait at the airport. The bus to the hotel runs along the lake shore. Soon you will feel pleasure in passing water. You will know that you are getting near the hotel, because you will go round the bend. The manager will await you in the entrance hall. He always tries to have intercourse with all new guests. 

The Hotel: 

This is a family hotel, so children are very welcome. We of course are always pleased to accept adultery. Highly skilled nurses are available in the evenings to put down your children. Guests are invited to conjugate in the bar and expose themselves to others. But please note that ladies are not allowed to have babies in the bar. We organize social games, so no guest is ever left alone to play with them self. 

The Restaurant: 

Our menus have been carefully chosen to be ordinary and unexciting. At dinner, our quartet will circulate from table to table, and fiddle with you. 

Your Room: 

Every room has excellent facilities for your private parts. In winter, every room is on heat. Each room has a balcony offering views of outstanding obscenity! ... You will not be disturbed by traffic noise, since the road between the hotel and the lake is used only by pederasts. 


Your bed has been made in accordance with local tradition. If you have any other ideas please ring for the chambermaid. Please take advantage of her. She will be very pleased to squash your shirts, blouses and underwear. If asked, she will also squeeze your trousers. 

Above All: 

When you leave us at the end of your holiday, you will have no hope. You will struggle to forget it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Firefly, your community airline...

I don’t know what community Firefly is talking about; I certainly don’t feel that I am in any of its communities, except that I use it to commute to-and-fro Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

It is not my preferred choice, for I have hardly any choice really.

“Last minute” bookings can cost a bomb; one way ticket makes you out of poorer by more than M$500, roughly the cost of Business Class tickets on the “regular” airlines. Unfortunately, my meetings are usually the last minute type. And from where I am putting up whenever I am in the country (Malaysia), Subang Airport is just 10 minutes away, compared with an hour or so I have to set aside for the journey to KLIA.

If you miss you flight, too bad; you lose everything. And if you are early and want to catch an earlier available flight, which might be half empty, you have to pay surcharges. SQ will rush you into an earlier flight by every means. Why? They can sell another seat in the next flight.

Tan Sri Low Yow Chuan who built Malaysia's first international hotel (The Federal at Bukit Bintang) used to say this to his staff: A hotel room NOT sold is a night’s revenue lost! Commonsense isn’t it?

* * *

You get to meet people in Firefly you don’t normally get to see in other airlines.

I suppose Firefly’s ATR aircraft are too small to be serviced by Changi Airport’s regular aprons. Since it is a ‘classless’ plane, every passenger – without exception – will have to be herded into a coach to be ferried to the aircraft which is parked elsewhere for boarding.

Ditto at the Subang airport, there is no VIP lounge there, everyone is equal there. You have to queue up like the rest to walk a short distance to board the aircraft.

Amongst them was this on-time shaker and mover in the Malaysian stock market. I understand he was living like a corporate fugitive for a couple of years overseas. He has a attractive travelling companion. His new wife, maybe? I couldn’t help asking myself: What counter is he trying to “mover and shake” next? But isn't Singapore too dangerous a place for this one-time big cat to prowl?

I also ran into the head of our o our many private universities. I even thought part-time at his "university" before it became one. I read that this university has awarded the Supreme Leader of a rogue country up north an honorary doctorate. I don’t think I want to be a friend of his.

A junior of mine who became the custodian of the country's distressed assets after the 1997 financial crisis was also spotted being squeezed into a corner in the ferry coach. This might turn out to be the first and last time he flew Firefly.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Heaven of Filth

The new township of Ara Damansara is supposed to be the pride of Sime Darby Property. It is where its Oasis also is. A drive through this neighbourhood will certainly disappoints. I wrote to the MD of Sime Darby to alert him of the conditions there. He replied, but through his assistant. In short, don't bother us; it is the responsibility of the local council.

Doesn't this attitude speak volumes of the type of managers we have in some of our leading GLCs?

Now you know where lah?

Right under the nose of 7-Eleven
What's the black stuff right by the side of the road?

Right in front of Tesco
These precincts of Damansara, I believe, is largely patronized by office and blue collar workers who work nearby. Most of them are Chinese or Indians. I want to draw some correlation with another place with somewhat similar demographics: Klang. My wife and I went for a drive looking for Padamaran yesterday. A motor cyclist, as he drove past us, just flung something out of his hand - as if it was the most logical way for one to get rubbish out of one's way. Most motorists there also don't bother to queue to turn left or right; they just squeezed their way through from the wrong lanes. The grounds are also no cleaner than those precincts of Ara Damansara I highlighted above.

Casualness about cleanliness, orderliness and hygiene is generally indisputable in Chinese- and Indian-dominated cities and country sides all over the world. Is there anything wrong with the type of "formative" education Chinese and Indians children receive in their schools? Many seem to take this "lack" well into their adulthood and beyond!

Fair weather friends

Banks are no friends to small timers like us. Every transaction costs you money. Their service attitude is generally the same all over the world. Some are more Shylock than others, though.

In Singapore, you feel insulted by the interest rate they offer you. But they are generally pretty efficient. In Malaysia, some are outright daylight robbers. Tellers in Australian banks are most knowledgeable about their products. After your transaction, you are usually asked, "can we do something more for your today?" But don't count on them to have ready cash if you need large withdrawals.

My wife is forever chasing better interest rates. She thinks the stock prices are too high and property bubble is about to burst. Where else to make your money work, especially with the real rate of inflation we are experiencing today? Banks of course!

Some of her fixed deposits in AmBank were due for renewal.

'Can I enjoy the rate just advertised?"

'Sorry, that is for new funds," she was advised.

Hong Leong Bank and Public Bank appeared to offer similar rate. She decided to try out Public Bank.

'Oh, you have to open a savings account first, bank in your AmBank banker's cheque and wait for it to clear before we can open FD accounts with us.'

'How long does it take?'

'Two days.'

Waiting for two days for the banker's cheque to clear? As if AmBank's cheques cannot be trusted?

'Oh, we treat all cheques like that.'

I suppose, this bank just wants the money as a source of cost-free fund for two days!

No deal; she proceeded to visit Hong Leong down the road.

Hong Leong in SS2 looks like a government office. (Many government offices in fact look much smarter now!) The visitors chairs are so pathetic there. There was only one 'consultant' manning the investment desk and she had to handle a few customers in one breath! And there were so many papers to fill.

* * *

Aren't Hong Leong Bank and Public Bank the best rated banks in the country, at least in terms of share price? I told a friend who has a daughter working in Hong Leong Bank about the conditions of its SS2 Branch.

'My daughter has to go to office at 6am in the morning. She normally doesn't come home before 9:30pm."

Apparently, the staff there have to do two persons' job. No wonder these banks are laughing all the way to - where else? - the bank of course!

* * *

Foreign banks are not much better. Standard Chartered is a case in point. Like all banks, the roll-over rate is lousy. (Banks don't need customer loyalty!) My wife decided to take her fixed deposit out to bank into another bank. She was advised that it would cost her M$5 for the bank to issue her a cheque to return her the money.

What? I need to pay for the money you owe me?

Yes, of course.

Upon my advice, she asked for the matured FD with interest to be paid in cash. It took the bank almost half an hour to assemble and count the money. Of course, it has to be counted in front of us.

She was also worried; would it be safe for us to walk around with the money?

But principles are principles! No two way about it.

We later found that all day light robbers in Malaysia behave the same!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Lorenzo and Vonza, Shame on you...

I bought a dining set, amongst other stuff, for my little pad at Saujana Resort from Lorenzo's showroom at Sunway Pyramid. Two years or so later, the 'leather' started to flak and the chairs became very unsightly. I went back to the showroom only to complain - only to find that it had ceased business. I tried call their numbers. no response.

Learning that there was another Lorenzo outlet across the Taman Bahagia LRT station, I lost no time in visiting them. A lady manager promptly gave me her name and email address. Simple, I just had to mail her the original receipt and a photo of the condition of the chairs. One month passed, nothing from this lady. I sent in a reminder. Again nothing from them. I have more or less resigned to seeing such attitude that I decided not to lose my cool with them. I promise myself; I would never buy anything from Lorenzo again!

When I was driving in the Subang area one day, a furniture outlet attracted my attention. I asked if they would be able to reupholster  the chairs. No problem; M$360 each! I told them that I had to return to Melbourne in a month's time. No problem, we can do it for you. The chairs never came back in time as promised. I was in town again a couple of times after that. 'Not ready yet.' I was told each time I called. I even went to the showroom to have a show-down with them. But what could you do with those girls who didn't have a clue of what I was angry with them about?

One fine day, they called to deliver. What? Only five out of the chairs were mine; the other three were totally different in design. They were certainly not the chairs I had left with them. I decided not to pay them the balance and ignore the owners frantic calls and SMSs after that.

I finally took delivery of the last three today - after making Lucy, who over the phone introduced herself as Vonza's owner, sweat for the last couple of months!

There are so many Lorenzo and Vonza type of business people in Malaysia!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

禮義廉恥 (Lĭ Yì Lián Chĭ); 公明正大 (Gōng Ming Zhèng Dà)

I love Chinese idioms and these two are particularly dear to me. They are my beacons in life. Every of these eight characters can stand on its own.

However, simple as they sound, few of us can profess to have practiced, or be practising, them in full. It is just understandable; all of us are humans. Who is not vulnerable to temptations in the absolute sense?

I am going to write about these eight characters as each comes to my mind:

I read from today’s online news that someone tweeted that the new airport Klia2 was operationally unsafe – hardly after three weeks of its opening on May 2. Apparently torrential rains have caused some parts of the apron grounds and taxiways to sink down. Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) the owner and operator was quick to point at AirAsia for whistle-blowing and went on to say that only 1 percent of the airport is damaged. This is what I call a lack of (Chĭ) in MAHB’s leadership. The concept of Chĭ is much more than “shame” which is its apparent meaning. It also carries connotations of “defensiveness” and the lack of prepared to take responsibility.

In the South Korea ferry SEWOL tragedy, the deputy head of the school where the children were from took felt so bad that he took his own life. The prime minister also resigned and the president went on air live to apologize to the nation. In the case of MH370, we didn’t have anyone who felt Chĭ enough to do any of these things. I suppose if we had had this value in our culture, then there would be no one left to man the daily news briefing held in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Whether any of the “take responsibility” rituals performed by these three Koreans is warranted is debatable. In Malaysia, they would be totally outlandish. But in countries like Korea and Japan, they are to be expected. Malaysians may ask, so what? If we cared to see deeper, we would see that this Chĭ culture represents the very foundation of the greatness of these two countries in many things – safety and quality of their products, the level of cleanliness, the sophistication of their lifestyle, their mannerism, so on and so forth. Of course, there are always odd balls here and there to put my argument to rest.

Coming to mannerism, it is the character that I should now go to. My wife and I take morning and evening walks around our neighbourhoods every day, weather permits of course. We run into people we know living in the neighbourhood houses and apartments, many, especially the young, would simply breeze past you without expressing any desire to greet or to be greeted. This state of aloofness is also very evident in Singapore. We live in an apartment in Killiney Road for three years. Everybody seems to be invisible to everybody in the lifts. In Sydney where we spent three years there and in Melbourne where we now call ‘home’, strangers on your way will always try to make eye-contacts with you to exchange greetings or at least a hello. Women, especially the more elderly ones, in the less hectic cities of Japan can put many of us to shame when it comes to . The gentle bow and the soft smile – be there in the shopping mall, or restaurants, or in tourist spots, or in the lifts, or along the road – will tell you that you are in an entirely different world.

Besides etiquette, is also about decorum, conscious and respect for other cultural and religious norms. Propensity to jump queues, weave in and out of traffic, clear throat and spit, and toss things out of car and apartment windows, to the way many front gardens and back alleys are pathetically maintained, to the sloppiness of attire, to the way public toilets are being abused, and to not being sensitive to other societies' taboos, one can easily see the vast gap that still exists between us and the more refined societies.

Again, these observations are not 100% accurate. But aren’t cultural norms are based on generalization of observations?

I am a man of prejudices. I hate to watch Chinese movies and dramas especially of the Hong Kong and Taiwan varieties. Few have original themes and stories. Many are about personalities in Chinese history. I have no problem with the latter, except this: their blatant distortion of the history to accentuate half-truths! And about the kung-fu stuff, someone remarks: Chinese have both Kung-fu and pandas, but they can’t do anything close to Kung-fu Panda! Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was an insult to our intelligence; if these people can fly, they don’t really need to take such an arduous in the first place. No wonder John Howard could use the opportunity to catch up with some sleep when he was invited to grace the movie in Sydney! I am so contemptuous of Chinese movies and dramas that I nearly lose my train of thought on what I am writing here!

When my wife cultivated a liking of Korean DVDs, I left her alone until I accidentally sat through with her to watch one of the episodes. They are indeed DIFFERENT! Not only am I an admirer of Korean creativities in this industry, I really relish their wholesome understanding of – from their practice of filial piety to the way they conduct among themselves in neighbourhoods, communities and offices. After all, geographically Korean is just across the province of Shandong in China. Wasn’t Kung-tze (Confucius) born and taught there? That’s the real finger-licking good KFC of Confucianism where epitomizes his philosophy and teaching. Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore sure have a great deal to relearn form these Koreans.
Yì () is synonymous with Guan Yu (關羽) or Guan-kong of the Romance of Three Kingdoms fame that the warrior is now a deity worshipped wherever you see Chinese. It is about honour, it is about trust, it is about respect, it is about reciprocity and it is about humanism. It is also about friendship, camaraderie, thoughtfulness and the likes. A subscriber of this value is happy to lose his or her ‘head’ over the loss of some of these shortcomings. If someone does a good deed to you, it is incumbent upon you to reciprocate, even it means extreme sacrifices. You see these acts of selflessness in many Korean movies and dramas. Not being able to ‘repay’ is a sin of the highest order. Cultures in every society have both strengths and weaknesses. We can easily stereotype some of them. Among themselves, Japanese and Koreans uphold to extreme extent. Many historical in China also exhibited this ‘virtue’.

is you vis-à-vis your benefactor, regardless of nationality, race, religion or colour. But as life becomes more competitive, this is increasingly taking back-seats now. I don’t mean to be racist, but the lack of it is quite pronounced in some communities. We had a peon in our office during my MIDA (Malaysian Industrial Development Authority) days. He borrowed fifty ringgit from me; not only did I have to say goodbye to that fifty ringgit, I was also deprived of his service not long after that. He would avoid me at all cost! I was stupid enough – chiefly out of awe and delusion of ‘privileged association’ with Who's Who – to be enlisted by my chairman in Highlands & Lowlands, who is also a senior member of the Perlis royal family, to be a director in his family company and went on to act as a guarantor to a loan his company took from a bank. It was nearly a death warrant I signed for myself! I had to suffer in silence for many years. What is particularly hurtful is that this man did not show any sign of remorse at all. I visited him from time to time before the fiasco; as a matter of fact, I hardly missed any of his Hari Raya invites. He would always tell me everything was fine. Being a ‘name-only’ director, I could not do anything. Little did I realize that this man was totally bankrupt of  .

I never seemed to learn. A Singapore man whom I befriended when I was in IMC asked if I was happy to go into a joint venture with a party in Indonesia to do timber processing. I had to be the financier. The numbers look good. I made them sign all the undertakings. The bottom soon fell out. This Indonesian partner blatantly swallowed all the money. I sued the Singapore party, who acted as the overall guarantor of the whole scheme. Although he was not the culprit, he at least agreed to settle part of the debt. At least there is some in him. As for the Indonesian party, sue him? A lawyer there promptly took my deposit of one million rupiah (slight more than USD1K); after a few letters of demand here and there, he also didn’t to respond to my emails any more. Personally, I do not believe in divine interventions; but these did happen: the eldest son of the royalty passed away very suddenly and the Indonesian is now semi-paralysed. I am sure friends would tell me ‘cause-and-effect’ (因果, yin-guo) stuff is for real.

I have been a beneficiary of from bosses and friends. Two are particularly thoughtful to me: Tan Sri Low Yow Chuan and the present principal of mine. On hearing that I was heading to Australia to settle down, Tan Sri Low lost no time in offering me a position in Australia. Without this break, I would not be what I am today. A university teacher struggling to make ends meet, maybe. My present principal, who shuns publicity, shows me how wealth can benefit friends. I still can keep myself busy, thanks to him.

Last but not least is (Lián), which is ‘above board’, righteousness, humility and spiritual cleanliness, and incorruptible conduct roll into one. Many who have lived through the Tunku Abdul Rahman days will nostalgically talk about this element of governance during his premiership. Corruption was present, but it was not of the earth-shaking magnitudes. I suppose Rolex, Hermes and Louis Vuitton were not quite known to Malaysians then.

One man whom I would like to single out to exemplify Lián is Raja Alias, the immediate past chairman of Federal Land Development Authority, or Felda. Ungku, as he is fondly addressed by his friends and staff, was also chairman of Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC), Boustead and director of many companies, including Malayan Banking. The he principally kept, which was in Felda, was Spartan by any measure. He was fair and did not hesitate to promote non-Bumiputras if they were good. I had the opportunity to help him build two subsidiaries in MISC: one on container haulage and the other, port warehousing. So much was at stake in procurement; he was totally above board. There was absolutely no air of arrogance in him, even though he was so very powerful! Unlike many big bosses, he was prepared to spare time to listen.

As for 公明正大 (Gōng Ming Zhèng Dà), many prefer to lump this four-character idiom in one breath. But each of it has its own wisdom really. Gōng is ‘subject to public scrutiny’, ‘above board’, ‘for all to see’, ‘without personal gains’, and the likes; Ming is transparency and not opaque; Zhèng is ‘the right or correct or proper way’’; and is the ‘big picture’. Abstract nouns, verbs and adjectives can be tricky in Chinese language. Being a novice, I can only explain these characters of wisdom descriptively or illustratively.

If the officials in the MH370 briefing sessions can handle the press with full transparency, without tying their own hands and legs with defensiveness, attempts to cover weaknesses, oversights, and sheer ignorance, and pretensions, then there would not be so much anguish around, let alone the conspiracy theories that have been put forward for all and sundry to believe and spread.

Sustainable leadership also boils down to these four characters. As a whole, it represents good governance, whether it is about national politics, uniformed services, or in corporate suites. Devoid of it is tantamount a complete loss of credibility. Without credibility, no leaders can survive for long.

Monday, May 19, 2014

One misstep, thousand years of regrets...

Someone of standing told me that he was involved in a project that would return 60 tonnes of palm oil ffb (fresh fruit bunches) per hectare per year. Two things are necessary: (a) a supergene that his associate has developed and (b) a bio-fertilizer that his researcher has stumbled upon. I have heard of the former before. I even visited the breeder; that was in 2007 or thereabout, when I was the “executive chairman” of IMC Plantations. We didn’t buy his seeds because of a couple of considerations. One, the seed price was high; two, all established breeders we spoke to were skeptical of the claim; and three, bringing them to Kalimantan to germinate and grow was legally challenging.

Then we came to know another plant breeder who appeared to have the same lines of genetic materials. We decided to collaborate with him. Some 150 palms were duly transplanted to our seed garden in East Kalimantan. I did not follow up after my retirement, but I heard that things did not quite work out and the project was abandoned.

Some two years later, the daughter emailed to me to say that her father had passed away because of liver cancer. He was still in his mid-60s. I felt sad for her, since she had to inherit some messy stuff left behind by her father.


After hearing this new supergene alert, I thought I should check with the daughter what had become of her father’s efforts all these years.

I couldn’t feel sorrier for her. Not only her late father’s efforts have gone down the drain, she is also struggling to come to terms with IMC over the break-up in the collaboration. But what was more shocking was for me to learn that the father had hidden the fact that he had a second family in Jakarta! This 15-year secret was only disclosed to her three months before his death. He had to die as a Muslim and was duly buried as one. How devastating it was to the family!

The father was a self-made scientist. He had a diploma from the then Agriculture College in Serdang. But he was bold enough to try new things. Unfortunately, money management was apparently not his strong suit. He became a close friend of Suharto’s youngest daughter. He even showed me a portrait picture taken in a studio of him together with the late Strong Man’s family. Didn’t he know how to make use of this “guanxi”? He could well be one of another Sudono Salim, aka Liem Sioe Liong. Or was he totally consumed by the charm of the Indonesian beauty?

The man has already passed away; how can I say unkind things about him?

But isn’t there lessons in this for us to learn?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

On Mont Blanc, BMW and Rolex...

Any brand conscious person will know what this pen is. I personally would not buy such a pen; it was a present from a friend. You might notice that the pen is also inscribed with President SR Nathan (of Singapore) and his signature. It must have cost my friend a bomb to acquire it.

But why has the end-piece become dislodged?

Since it is “valuable”, I have been treating it like a collectible rather than a pen. I have used it so sparingly that I can count the number of times I have used it with the fingers of my two hands.
Yet, its pumping mechanism could break down soon after I had it. I had to send it for repair. It ran out of ink a couple of weeks ago and as I was trying to unscrew this end-piece to take in ink, it just came off! The repair bill will cost as much as a new Parker pen. I don't think I am going to spend that sort of money on a pen.

Ever try to change a bulb on a BMW? We are all suckers of brand names. Mont Blanc and BMW take pride in making things complex. Maybe people like me are not qualified to use Mont Blanc or BMW. Users of these brands are not supposed to dirty their hands!

When I was climbing the corporate ladder, one of the things I coveted was a Rolex watch. Everyone who has “arrived” seems to be wearing one. I decided to pamper myself with one. But you know all these mechanical watches; you have to wind it if you have left it idle for a couple of days. Soon the winding crown got jammed. When I sent it for repair at the Rolex centre, they told me: You also need to service your watch regularly! As for the bill, you simply have to dig deep into your pocket – without questioning!

I was careless enough to leave the watch on my study room’s desk when a removal team was in the house to unpack my stuff. Sure enough, it was flicked by one of the men. Sure he knew it was a Rolex!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Hokkaido Reflection...

The Q-gap between tour guides in East and Southeast Asia and the western countries is too glaring for all not to notice. The latter will explain history and other cultural facts and geography with authority. On the other hand, there is always a tendency for the former to act like primary school teachers. They would usually begin their sentence by asking Do you know this or that? followed by a pause to wait for some keener tour members to come up with an answer.

I personally find this attitude very condescending, even though I know most of them do not have this intention. Many claimed that they were graduates of tourism or hospitality courses; I just wonder if such ABCs are not even taught in these classes.

My wife and I toured Fujian on our own some two years or so ago. Since it was not quite practical for us to go about places ourselves, we decided to hire a local guide and a car that came with a driver. This guide is a case in point. On the way from Xiamen to Quanzhou, she excitedly pointed out some palms to us and asked us if we knew what they were.

Coconut, she exclaimed!

What coconut? In fact they were just some ornamental plants of the fan or royal palm variety, but certainly NOT coconut palms. And the one too many Do you know…? stuff prompted me to tell her that we were not there to sit for tests! It didn't take long for me and my wife to realise that was also her first trip out of Xiamen to Quanzhou! And she was carrying a People's Republic of China's accreditation card to confirm that she was a qualified tour guide! These Chinese sure have an easy way of getting certificates!

What prompted me to write this is because of a somewhat similar experience I just had from a recent trip I made to Hokkaido with my wife. The local guide actually hails from Malaysia. But he has been living in Japan for thirteen years. (He is married to a Japanese and they have two young children.) His attitude was excellent, but the "Do you know this and do you know that" stuff was a torture to me, since my wife and I were sitting just a row behind the row that has been reserved for him. I was very tempted to correct him, but decided to hold back. In Japan, one simply has to be polite. The only way was for us to avoid eye contact with him each time he posed a question.

* * *

Soft Power
In the wake of China's attempt to gain acceptance or respect by the world at large, it has begun a "soft power" offensive to sell its image overseas. There are two distinct periods in history that China was an object of great curiosity to the western world. The first is when China was under the Mongol rule. “Cathy” was a place of fabulous wealth and exotic culture, made known to the world by none other than Marco Polo. (But did he actually reach China? Or his stories were second-hand tales he collected along the way to the East?) The second is when China was under the Manchus and every Chinese seemed to be a sinister-looking, opinion puffing, Fu Manchu to the western world! The great contributions to culture and Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty, the industrialisation that began in the Song Dynasty and the sea-faring spirits of the early Ming pioneers were only appreciated by societies or regions that were directly impacted by these occurrences. China has largely remained a strange and exotic civilisation conveniently branded with Confucianism or Daoism or Qing's terracotta soldiers - for whatever they mean - to the rest of the world.

I didn't quite think about the real strength of soft power until my latest visit to Hokkaido. I can only conclude what the Chinese government is trying to project in the soft power front – notwithstanding the hundreds of Confucius Institutes it is promoting all over the world – will not do much to help soften the image of China or Chinese the world over.

Someone says soft power is like magnets – things are drawn to them because of their natural attributes. You don’t really have to go out to “sell” yourself.

Right from the coach driver who bows low to say “welcome” in Japanese to you, to the outlet girls who line up to bid you farewell after your visit to their factory (even if you have not bought anything from them), to the gentle nod you receive from the local old folk you run into in the elevators or by the roadside, to the salesgirl who painstakingly wraps the souvenir you have picked up, to litter-free roads and drains, to the non-intimidating calls of fishmongers to buy the catch of the day, and to the Spartan-ness of but rubbish-free dwellings you see everywhere, you FEEL totally at ease with them all. Compare them to the loud voices we are so used to hearing in public places, to the foul whiffs you smell from time to time, to the heaps of refuse piling like mountains, to your invisibility to fellow countrymen on the roads and in the elevators, to the unruly behavior of drivers, and to the apathetic attitudes of sales personnel, not to mention the spitting and clearing of throats, that we are constantly being subject to elsewhere in Asia, even the most anti-Japanese amongst us will conclude that theirs is a different world all together! To me, that’s real SOFT POWER.

Hokkaido in May

Spring is synonymous with sakura in Japan. The flowers usually bloom a couple of weeks later than those in Honshu plains. I am a little tired of them. In Hokkaido, I preferred to go for their tulips. And the white magnolia tree on the right is incredibly beautiful!

You have to take your hat off to the Japanese. This factory produces chocolates. Everything is spotless clean.

Even in the Hell Valley, everything is heavenly clean!

Look at the pictures on the right and below. They can be mistaken for Switzerland!

They would have been long snatched up in Malaysia!

I like to visit Japan but Hokkaido had never occurred to me as a destination until my wife said "let's go there" one day. A good friend Su has a resort project in Niseko and I have always thought it is an outlandish investment. It is beautiful! They have everything you like about Japan.