news and blogs in Phnom Penh

I feel a lot of pressure to make this an excellent post, because I talked so much about the importance of strong writing at Barcamp Phnom Phen on Saturday. Now I look back and I want to recast my presentation a bit: the most important thing, make no mistake, for bloggers in Cambodia is the content they produce.

And that’s something they don’t need a presentation to understand.

Wikitravel today says this about Phom Penh:

For western visitors, even those who have visited other Asian cities, Phnom Penh can be a bit of a shock. It can be very hot and (in the dry season) dusty, its infrastructure is lacking, and it is very poor – much poorer than, for example, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Visitors who cannot adjust to rubbish filled streets, constant harassment from tuk tuk drivers and touts, and large numbers of beggars, may not enjoy the city (though by no means will you experience all of these things.)

My experience there was completely different. We saw live music, ate great food along the Mekong, and bargained with tuk tuk drivers, who were generally good natured. I did not feel harassed in the least. The streets of Phnom Penh (which are relatively clean, I might add) are peppered with Internet cafes advertising email, VOIP and hi5 social networking access. There are computer shops and small web design and tech businesses. It’s a youthful, friendly city where people are interested in learning and curious about the world.

It was important to me that I put what I was seeing into context. I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, otherwise known as S-21, where 17,000 passed through the high school-turned-jail on their way to the Killing Fields from 1975-1979. Only seven survived. It was a sobering explanation for Phnom Penh’s youthful feeling; a generation of educated people was eliminated by the Khmer Rouge.

So I appreciated greatly the bloggers and journalists and techies who I met at Barcamp Phnom Penh. I see them as a very important generation who work very hard to revive a professional and literate culture not just for themselves but for people all over the world who want to understand Cambodia. (In English, try the comprehensive writing of Tharum Bun on Global Voices, news tidbits from Soponrith, nice vignettes on vrkhmer.com, or Seanheng’s sweet photoblog with occasional essays.)

The organizers nudged everyone to suggest topics or lead sessions. I couldn’t hope to repay our gracious hosts – I certainly learned more at Barcamp than any of the campers learned from me – but I talked a bit about the importance of good writing. The campers estimated that there are between 500 and 1,000 English-language blogs in Cambodies – not very many in the grand scheme of things. So I wanted to help those bloggers (or “cloggers” for Cambodian bloggers) reflect on their own writing, since they are helping people all over the world to learn about their country.

(See Dengue Fever for some ambiance music.)

Two Guangzhou Neighborhoods

In the last days of the Olympics, neighbors in Sanyuanli and residents of the Clifford Estates left their televisions on so that the final matches and last medal ceremonies set the backdrops of their daily lives.

The neighborhoods are similar in many ways. They both sit on the edges of the megacity of Guangzhou. The people who live in Sanyuanli and the Clifford Estates seem to enjoy their ways of life, and exhibit pride in the place where they live. They point browsing visitors to their most cherished monuments — for Sanyuanli, a monument to their victory over the British in an 1841 battle of the Opium War, and for Clifford Estate, the multimillion dollar condominiums that line a beautiful lakeside walk. Which, of course, hints at the two neighborhood’s obvious differences.

Sanyuanli is an upward-growing urban slum, where small businesses line small alleyways and families crowd the upper levels of precarious housing. It’s called a “shake hands village,” where the buildings are so close together that neighbors can shake hands just by reaching out their windows. Clifford Estate is a sprawling and modern development, a gated community for retirees from Hong Kong and upwardly mobile families in China. It’s home to Clifford markets and Clifford restaurants and its own internal shuttle service system.

Here are these neighborhoods in pictures.

Thanks to my little bridge to China, Jacky Peng, and my road tripping companion, Anka Lee, for giving me entree into these neighborhoods.

random updates: writing about Singapore, teaching in Cambodia and watching movies in Korea

I had a little bit of an epiphany about my writing life in Singapore a while ago. And I promised I would write more about the country where I live. So, a few months later, I am true to my word and am posting for Global Voices. Will work my way up to longer, reported writing.

I’m also not giving up just yet on my goal to get at least a few of my students reading more. I’m writing for them at npReads. Students, colleagues — if you’re reading this, I’d love for you to contribute and build the site after my fellowship ends.

Next next weekend, I’ll be attending a bar camp in Phnom Phen. I’d like to teach a news writing topic — perhaps about upsidedown triangles or a spiced up lead drill of some sort. Any suggestions or requests? Mostly, I am very excited to meet new people and get to know Cambodia a bit.

In the first week of October, I’ll be off to the Pusan Internation Film Festival with my friend and trusted film maniac Brian Hu. I’ll take some photos and do some writing and try to see as many beautiful people as possible. And get a taste for Korea.

Then it’s off to Los Angeles, home of tacos and burritos and In ‘n Out burgers. And my family too.

word cloud analysis?

Every major newspaper needs a clever multimedia way to cover speeches at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Nytimes.com scores with its streaming video, transcript and hyperlinked outline all in one. But I noticed today that newspaper websites are using word counts to add graphical interest. But what can you tell from the fact that Republicans used the word “God” 43 times and Democrats used the word “McCain” 78 times during their conventions? I’m not completely sure — but it’s nice to look at.

Again, nytimes.com wins for design — they go the extra step to provide numerical breakdowns, and breakdowns by speaker. Washingtonpost.com wins for interesting content — they compare buzz words across history. It’s fascinating to see what has changed over the years, and even more so to see what hasn’t. My hometown paper, latimes.com, unfortunately suffers from not putting word clouds side by side, leaving in links to nowhere, and generally not providing much more than an automatically generated tag cloud, with generic text below it. Here are the screenshots, linked to their sources.

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latimescloud.jpg

Orientalism or chinoiserie?

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Marketing material for the 1926 Milan premeire of Turandot on the left, and for the 2008 Singapore staging on the right.

Like most people, I don’t know where I first heard the famous aria Nessun Dorma of Puccini’s Turandot. But my interest in the opera has certainly been revived several times recently.

Maybe it was Pavarotti’s triumphant (if staged) performance of the aria at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Or maybe it was the recent Beijing staging of the opera, with a new ending that revisited Puccini’s version of a Chinese folk song instead of recapitulating Nessun Dorma.

Both of these revivals, for me, took place (via YouTube and podcasts) in Singapore. It’s an interesting vantage point, to see how an Italian opera set in “legendary China” — Peking more specifically — is interpreted in Asia. Some criticize Puccini’s work at worst as Orientalist, and more diplomatically as chinoiserie. So when I read that the Singapore Lyric Opera is staging a production at the Esplanade, I bought a seat (back, center) to see how they would interpret it.

While the quality of the music was not awe-inspiring (though, Nessun Dorma takes my breath away under almost any circumstance), the staging was interesting and rich. Along with the simple but grand sets, came sometimes grammatically awkward English translations on two side screens, as well as Chinese translations below. The audience laughed heartily at the wise-cracking ministers, Ping, Pong and Pang, and other elements of the show most often criticized as stereotypical.

China had banned Turandot for 70 years. Its brutal title character, a steely princess who has her suitors beheaded for not answering riddles correctly, was not an ideal heroine. The opera was, however, an inaugural piece for the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, with its new ending by a Chinese composer. Puccini died before completing the opera and the most commonly staged ending is by his contemporary, Franco Alfano.

It’s interesting that the Hong Kong-born director of Singapore’s production, Lo King-man, has also endeavored to localize the opera by adjusting for Chinese sensibilities, though he sticks with Alfano’s version of the end. “For us Chinese, to see it being set in the Qing Dynasty [1644-1911], we lose that exotic and remote and fairy-tale and legendary feeling that some time there could have been such a woman like this,” he told Time Out Singapore. Lo took a darker approach, using bronze metallic colors and simple, peasant costumes for the chorus, instead of the flashy Qing and Ming Dynasty costumes and sets of more famous stagings of the opera. It was meant to look older than the Qing Dyanasty, Lo said.

These kinds of adaptations create cultural webs — Italians interpreting Chinese, then Chinese interpreting Italians interpreting Chinese — that say a lot about how cultures get appropriated and reappropriated, by the West, East and every multinational production (such as Singapore’s) in between.

beautiful things

I went to China. It was a fantastic and eye opening trip. I took some photos and wrote a bit — will share that soon.

For now — I can’t help but echo the crowd about the Democratic National Convention. I had missed the Hillary Clinton who spoke on Tuesday, the woman who was a leader not because she’s a woman and certainly not in spite of being a woman. And Al Gore gave my second favorite speech I’ve heard him give — the first is on Ted.com. But I’m no political junkie, so I’ll comment more on what I know — online journalism.

I love good reporting, I love investigative journalism and I love moving images and well-placed quotes. But the meaning of news is changing and readers and consumers now demand many more options, including first-hand sources and searchability. Good journalism more and more often is a question of good design. My pick for best news coverage of the DNC (if there ever was such an award) goes to the designers of nytimes.com. If you haven’t yet, watch Obama’s speech on their website. It loads fast, the picture quality is fantastic, the transcript scrolls with the speech and you can jump to different sections easily. And they did the same for Al Gore.

It’s powerful. It cuts away the talking heads who recap and editorialize and speculate. It makes me more confident that 24-hour online news, with multimedia embedded, is infinitely superior to cable news alone.

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Olympics+

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people lately about how the world is covering the Olympics. Along with the palpable excitement and pride on the part of Chinese people, and intrigue and appreciation on the part of folks from other parts of the world, there is a lot of frustration out there.

Is the world looking too closely at politics and human rights and freedom of speech in China? It’s nothing new that the Olympics are politicized by the media (and many other parties) — is there something different and worse about what is happening for China? Or maybe, the media is not paying enough attention to the China’s politics.

Perhaps there’s something more important here — what happens after the Olympics? Will the world still be watching China? Or will they suffer China-burnout and start running cursory stories about mining accidents or human rights and focus solely on financial news?

Here are a few links that might be of interest on these topics:

On Western bias:
China Daily’s reportage on Ban Ki-Moon’s comments

On the Beijing organizing committee and the IOC’s conflicts with the press and each other:
The New York Times’ detailed account of a daily press briefing

On China’s future post-Olympics:
Daniel Lynch in The Far Eastern Economic Review

And here’s a totally different way of looking at the Games (via history) by my former Cal classmate Anka Lee: San Francisco’s local NBC station is publishing his blog (also here). He’s also making short videos.

Would love more links — what have you been reading about China? Do you find the focus fair?

unlikely combos

I spent maybe too much time this weekend reviving my rap playlist on iTunes. But it’s not my fault! To be fair, rappers are making pretty good news lately.

I’ve been waiting for a hero to take on Fox News, and I’ve found one in the most unexpected of places. My favorite rapper #2, Nas, is taking Bill O’Reilly to task, and what’s even better is that he’s doing some of this very important work on really reputable new sources.

And I thought this was enough for one weekend, enough to keep me busy looking for videos and awesome soundbites from both sides. Enough for me to start emailing friends links to my favorite Nas songs from YouTube. But two more unlikely combos are taking even more of my attention.

snoop-akshay.jpgSnoop has gone to Bollywood. My favorite line: “Snoop Dogg’s got love for everybody. I like how the Punjabis get down;
the way they dress is fresh and they got a real appreciation for music.”

And then, I find out that Ludacris is eating roti pratas. I can relate to one of the patrons of his new restaurant: “‘The roti is like crack,’ said Camille Wright, 36, the owner of a boutique in nearby Decatur, who was devouring the paper-thin pancakes with friends.

the other self-censorship story

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The front page of the Sunday Times (the Sunday edition of the Straits Times) on July 20 had a big graphic about a really sensational story of two “warring” bloggers. One is suing the other for defamation.

Here’s a follow-up that’s free on the Straits Times website.

No, I have not fallen into the black hole of tabloids news from the trenches of online celebrities. I just wanted to give you a bit of background to the opinion piece the Straits Times ran yesterday:

Ignorance may not always be bliss

By Ang Peng Hwa

The lawsuit between two of Singapore’s top bloggers is alarming. It
may spill over into the larger blogging community and could even
backfire on the two involved.

Given that no writer or editor can be free of errors all the time,
defamation suits can and do crop up. But, often, those between a media
organisation and an individual can be settled quietly.

It is, however, quite another matter altogether when one content
producer sues another. This may set a precedent with far-reaching
consequences.

The law is a two-edged sword: It can cut the wielder too. To avoid
being sued, would Singapore blogs have to be sanitised by lawyers? If
so, how edgy can they be? And what appeal would they have if they
aren’t edgy?

This particular libel suit may lead to self-censorship. In which case, the biggest losers would be the biggest bloggers.


(via AsiaMedia)

Reading this opinion piece, I wonder if such a frank critique of the use of defamation suits has been made about Singapore’s most famous defamation suits. Do politicians have the same rights to lose in suing each other?

If there are some locally published articles or opinion pieces on the topic of how defamation works (or doesn’t work) in Singapore, please do comment and leave links.

the scales of justice

I haven’t written much about Singapore. As I approach my last few months here, I’m starting to ask myself why.

Perhaps it’s because I live here — sometimes it’s easier to observe things when you are a complete outsider. That doesn’t seem satisfactory though. I’m a curious and inquisitive person by nature, wherever I am. I remember as a kid one Christmas, while all my sisters were getting toys and clothes, my uncle bought me a really fat, hardcover, Costco-esque book called “The Big Book of Tell Me Why” — he said maybe it would be better to consult the book, then to ask so many questions to the adults.

So, as much as I try to gloss it over, the reason I don’t write about Singapore is pretty clear. While I know the risks are actually quite minimal, I just don’t want to deal with the hassle of people here finding out that I’m writing about Singapore politics. Reading that last sentence again, I realize it sounds absurd, but that’s how this little island really operates. People self-censor to make their lives easier.

But why? What are the risks involved? There’s of course livelihood issues. Employers tend to not be so happy about their employees being outspoken on political issues. They subtly nudge their employees to focus on art and culture and economics so as not to risk their company’s reputations.

But there is also a judicial question. This country is famous for its efficient and fair court system, which is a big reason why so many businesses feel comfortable setting up shop on the island. They know that they will get a fair shake if something goes wrong.

But since the Far Eastern Economic Review was kicked out in 2006, and subsequently sued for defamation (here’s a nice summary and introduction to the issues by Columbia’s journalism school), there have been questions about how the judiciary in Singapore operates. It’s important to read the essay that created the stir (PDF), as well as some of the explanations for the suit (scroll down to the question about FEER near the end).

And now, with the defamation suit against Chee Soo Juan in full swing, those questions are coming back. The International Bar Association listed their concerns (PDF) about, among other things, defamation suits and their use in Singapore’s courts.  Here’s the Straits Times take, a view from Australia, a Wall Street Journal opinion, and a piece from The Economist. You can also get lost in the black hole of Singapore Rebel’s court transcripts for first-hand information, editorialized introductions to each blog entry aside.

What does this have to do with my hesitation to blog about Singapore? Well, nothing. And everything. When everyone around you self-censors — they whisper certain names, cut lines out of scripts, report heavily on certain speeches but not others — it’s hard not to think that they have real reasons for doing so. Not many people want to bring trouble on themselves for voicing an opinion, or even just reporting on others’ opinions. And after a while, even if I don’t know what can get me into trouble and what cannot, I just make a habit of not publishing certain things.

I don’t think this entry is objectionable — I have not taken a position on these issues and all of ten people read my blog. But I will reread it three times before I hit the publish button anyway.