You Think Democracy Sucks?

When I was young, there was practically no debate over whether democracy, communism or dictatorship is better. Nobody would have taken you seriously if you lived outside China or the USSR and wished to migrate there.

Nowadays, things have gone grey as authoritarian regimes start growing a prosperous shell and countries that used to be great go on the decline due to a variety of social issues. There is an emerging group of simplistic, apathetic and shallow individuals from ailing democratic countries who think that democracy doesn’t work anymore and there is a better path steered by benevolent depots heading towards a socialist paradise.

But this is only the start of the prosperous phase in these newly wealthy states and not the finish. Sure, you can prosper under somebody else’s dictatorship, but when does the party end and do you know when to get out? Or are you so enamoured of the authoritarian system that you want your own country to follow the same system?

In this video, disillusioned former China expat Matt Tye interviews North Korean escapee Park Yeon Mi and discuss the mentality of some emerging Western socialists.

The second video is my review of Miss Park’s book which details her escape from North Korea, her hellish ordeal as a sex slave in China and finally gaining freedom with help from a Chinese church which helped her escape to Mongolia and then to South Korea.

Miss Lee was miraculously released after being caught by the Chinese police. That might have been possible in the 1990s, but probably not with today’s technology. Like Miss Park’s sister, Miss Lee went through Southeast Asia where her family was arrested and imprisoned in Laos. It’s a miracle that a good Samaritan paid the bribes and got them out.

Miss Lee also has a book. I hope I can read it.

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story by Hyeonseo Lee


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赵咏华 Taiwanese Singer

Many years ago when I was writing for the Straits Times, I had a robust debate with a journalist on the need to segregate and discriminate between high brow and low brow literature. I felt that all genres, can be written well or written badly. There are only well-written books and badly-written books.

The low brow works should not be treated with disdain if they are good reads. Almost all local writers should at least deserve some mention, not just those who write “serious” stuff which are not necessarily good just because they are serious. If our newspapers put the them on a pedestal and ignore the rest, then the majority in the reading public may get the impression that good writing must be boring and pretentious.

I must have struck a raw nerve with the high brow guardians of Singapore literature in the newsroom. From then on, I was never asked to contribute anymore to the Straits Times. I stumbled on a 费玉清 programme on YouTube a couple of days ago. This episode features Taiwanese singer 趙詠華, a serious singer who ended up on the “other side”. As a child, she had already been singing theme songs for children programmes. She received formal voice training and was poised to be a “serious” singer.

At the age of 17, she sang folk songs at restaurants to earn some pocket money. From then on, she began to appreciate popular music and realised that she actually could blend her formal training with well-written popular pieces without being seen as condescending. Listen to and watch 趙詠華 in action. Her highly trained voice is never wasted on nice songs, whether high brow or otherwise.


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The Era Of Powerful Voices 蕭孋珠

During the early 1980s, before the likes of Su Rei exploded on the Taiwanese music scene, female singers were mostly soft and gentle. Some were downright “feeble”. In the 1970s, however, Mandarin pop was dominated by the powerful voices of Feng Fei Fei, Teresa Teng and the not so well known Xiao Li Zhu 蕭孋珠, officially spelled Shiao Lih Ju.

Shiao rose to fame after singing the theme songs of many popular films based on Chiung Yao’s 琼瑶 novels, like 一帘幽梦 Fantasies Behind the Pearly Curtain (1975), 处处闻啼鸟 Everywhere Birds Are Singing (1978), and 踩在夕阳里 Love Under a Rosy Sky (1979). In the mid-1980s, she moved to Singapore, where she sang the theme song for the Singaporean historical drama 盗日英雄传 The Sword and the Song (1986) based on the legend of Song Dynasty hero, Yue Fei.

踩在夕陽裡 left a very strong impression on my teenage years. The music was so haunting and lyrics simple and down to earth. Ironically, my young mind was curious and immature, constantly dreaming and exploring. Another one of my favourites was 青色山脉.

At the age of 16, I moved from Queenstown to Telok Blangah. With my new home surrounded by hills which often got enshrouded by mists on rainy days, this song blended into my pensive moods, gazing out of the window. I’ve always mistaken 處處聞啼鳥 to be a song sung by Feng Fei Fei.

Having said that, I must say that Shiao sounded so unusually “refined” in 處處聞啼鳥. Frankly, I don’t remember watching any of the Qiong Yao movies mentioned above. As Liu Jia Chang once said, the trashy movies were soon forgotten but the songs became classics. He was willing to write theme songs for trashy movies as they gave him the break he needed.

While Shiao’s powerful voice is probably no longer fashionable these days, she had a powerful effect on the dreams, romances and sad realities of many young people growing up during that time.


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Tam Ping Man

Tam Ping-man (14 November 1933 – 5 September 2020) was a Hong Kong actor and singer. He was the first horse racing commentator in Hong Kong. He was also the voice behind many dubbed movies. From behind the scenes, Tam also starred in a number of successful movies and television shows where he also played host. His charming voice was much sought after in advertisements and public service announcements. He also dabbled with singing, but his albums were only marginally successful in Hong Kong. Still, he had many fans in Southeast Asia and he often made his concert tours around the region.

Many of the YouTube videos below received most of their views after his death was announced.


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Danny Chan Pak Keung 陳百強

Danny Chan Pak Keung was a Hong Kong singer/musician. At a time when piracy and the copying of Western and Japanese tunes were rife in Hong Kong, Danny wrote original pieces, making him a unique icon of Cantonese pop music (Cantopop) in the 1980s. Compared with other superstars of the same period in the 1980s, Danny’s singing career was the shortest, but his many of his songs have become classics.

Danny Chan reached the peak of his career in between 1979 and 1985. He released the most hits during this period and also played teen idol roles in movies with Leslie Cheung. After a brief two-year hiatus, he made a comeback from 1986 to 1989. I’m not a fan of his, but my favourite during this period is 偏偏喜歡你 (1983). After this period, Danny began to fade behind the scenes. He held a few concerts and recorded another one of my favourites 一生何求 (1989).

Many people who have been in contact with Danny Chan agreed that he was a sentimental person who was often melancholic. He did not hide his depression and chronic insomnia. Danny had sought medical treatment for his emotional distress and sought spiritual comfort by reading Buddhist scriptures.

His colleagues and close associates all knew that he was a victim of depression. On 18 May 1992, Danny Chan went into a coma after a drinking session with his friends. He remained in that condition in hospital until he passed away on 25 October1993.

Compared to most other HK singers with his level of achievement, Danny Chan had the shortest career which abruptly ended at age 35. Fortunately or unfortunately, he was a dewdrop that vaporised and became immortalised at a glorious moment.


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倩女幽魂

Chinese busker playing 倩女幽魂 on her gu zheng at a beach in France. Why can’t we have buskers like that in Singapore?


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In Order To Live

Park Yeonmi had thought that her classmates would never recognise her on TV, with her heavy make up and all, but she was recognised even by strangers on the streets. It seemed that she had worked so hard adapting to life in South Korea that many people who knew her were not even aware that she was actually a defector from the North. This book gives a poignant account of how a young North Korean defector survived the ordeal of an unnecessarily tortuous, humiliating path to freedom.

Compared to most North Koreans, Yeonmi had a rather privileged childhood. Her father was a member of the Workers Party, the state apparatus in of the totalitarian regime. Even though he had very little income from his official work for the Party, Mr Park had many contacts and connections through which he could operate his metals smuggling business for a considerable profit. The Park family was thus relatively well off. Yeonmi lived happily in Hyesan with her elder sister Eunmi and her mother. Like many North Koreans, her greatest wish was to visit Pyongyang. Unlike most North Koreans, Yeonmi fulfilled her dream when she was only 8.

All that changed when Mr Park had an affair with a fellow smuggler. When she was arrested and interrogated, she spilled the beans on Mr Park who tried to help her but ended up in trouble himself. He was sentenced and sent to a prison camp.

Their family’s fortunes plunged overnight. Yeonmi’s mother had to work, doing a bit of beautician work and a bit of smuggling herself. She had to sell the house and move to her hometown in Kowon while the two girls dropped out of school as they had no money to pay for expenses in school. While a lot of services in North Korea were supposed to be free, the service providers often demanded for payment or they would refuse to operate. With their father in prison and their mother often away from home, Eunmi and Yeonmi often had to hunt dragonflies and roast them for food. .

Mr Park was released from prison after some 3 years of hard labour. He became a shadow of his former self and was in poor health. The family was constantly underfed. Then, Yeonmi and her sister noticed that people around them had been disappearing. There were rumours that they had gone over to China. The sisters started asking around, looking for brokers who could smuggle them across the border. Then, Eunmi disappeared one night. They had no way of knowing if her escape had been successful. Yeonmi and her mother decided to go to China themselves to find out.

On 31st March 2007, Yeonmi and her mother walked across the frozen Yalu River and entered Changbai, China. Only then did they realise that they were in the hands of human traffickers to be traded like animals and sold from one household or individual to another. 13-year-old Yeonmi was introduced to the subject of sex by witnessing her mother getting raped. North Korean escapees had little choice or recourse as only one fate could await them if they were ever found by the Chinese police – repatriation.

They were slaves without a voice, trapped in a virtual paradise of seemingly endless food supplies and glitzy shopping malls. Yeonmi feasted and soon learned to practise a standard of hygiene previously unknown to her. But she and her mother were subsequently sold and separated. North Korean women were either sold into prostitution or married into families which could not afford a Chinese bride.

Yeonmi then entered into a bargain with her owner who had tried to rape her. She would surrender her virginity in exchange for being together with her parents. She became the mistress of a gang leader. Mr Park was smuggled into China, but the broker was disappointed as he was in very bad shape and would be of little economic value. He was diagnosed with cancer and soon died.

All searches for her sister Eunmi turned out in vain, but Yeonmi managed to gain some measure of freedom after getting one mafia boss to fight with her owner over her. She met and later worked for a very resourceful Korean lady who was operating a sleazy chatroom business. Yeonmi and her mother not only managed to make a living in front of webcams, they saved enough money to buy themselves fake IDs.

They then found out about a church at Qingdao which smuggled North Koreans to Mongolia. Even though South Korea was just across the sea, it was impossible for them to clear Chinese customs in that big modern city. The pastor assisted them on the condition that they read the Bible and sang Christian hyms. Though both of them found it difficult to accept Christianity after being brainwashed to worship the Kims since young, they had to oblige.

Together with other North Korean escapees, Yeomni and her mother made their way to Erenhot in Inner Mongolia. Armed with blades and poison pills, they were determined not to live if they were ever caught. Trekking across the Gobi Desert at night, they arrived at the border. After being arrested, the guards taunted them with 回中国 but ultimately brought them to a holding unit at Ulan Batar where they met up with a South Korean representative.

Both Yeonmi and her mother had great difficulty settling down in South Korea at first. Even the language was so unfamiliar. But Yeonmi was determined to fit in. She did well in school and quickly dropped her North Korean accent. While attending a Christian retreat in America, she received news that her sister Eunmi had arrived in South Korea. She was so excited that she shortened her stay and returned to South Korea immediately. Meeting a long-lost sister brought much tears and joy, but Yeonmi could sense that her sister had changed through her ordeal. Both sisters eventually graduated from university in Korea, but Eunmi had decided not to go public with her story.

Her sister had taken a different route to freedom, travelling southwards to Kunming, through SE Asia and finally arriving in South Korea through Thailand. Yeonmi could understand why so many North Korean defectors would rather take their humiliating story to their graves, but while she herself had held back a lot of information while she was being featured on Korean TV, she finally decided to write this book and not hold back any of the ugly details in China. While she respects the privacy of her fellow defectors, hers is a story that had to be told – like a contemporary version of the comfort women’s ordeal.

Not surprisingly, Yeonmi’s account has been challenged by several sources.This included the following article published by The Diplomat. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Yeonmi was only 13 when she escaped from North Korea and she was even younger when she was living in North Korea. A lot of the things she learned as a child could have been told to her by adults who were all out to get her attention. Also, she had made a deliberate attempt to cover up certain details on TV shows, so some inconsistency is to be expected. Yeonmi had also clarified that her English was still rudimentary when she was interviewed by the foreign press.

Many refugees and defectors have given interviews to foreign journalists. While they may have embellished their stories to attract attention and the details are often challenged by fellow refugees and defectors (who have not been interviewed), the bigger truth about gross human rights abuses in North Korea remains unchanged.

Yeonmi is married with a child and living in America.


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It Was An Epidemic

Most of us are familiar with the Battle of Red Cliff in the Three Kingdoms. However, the popular version of that battle, written by Luo Guan Zhong, is mostly fictional.

In Luo’s story, Cao Cao was said to have chained his boats together to prevent them for rocking, causing motion sickness in his troops. In fact, Cao’s soldiers were not sick from sailing but from an epidemic.

Cao Cao decided to abort the invasion of Dongwu and withdraw. He had been advised to abandon the boats – which was a brilliant idea even before epidemics were known to be caused by human-human transmission. Not wanting Zhou Yu to pick up his boats for free, Cao Cao set fire to them himself before withdrawing to Jingzhou overland.

In most movies and operas, Cao Cao is portrayed as a ruthless tyrant. The real Cao Cao is a bit more complex than that. At least he cared enough for his soldiers not to fight during an epidemic; even if it meant sacrificing 1000 boats.

The Three Kingdoms I’ve presented in my books is based on the popular (fictional) version. I’ll soon start work on a couple of new titles based on selected episodes presented from a historical perspective. In other words, Three Kingdoms minus the fake news. For centuries, the fictional version has been more popular. Let’s see if my style of presenting the truth can give engaging fiction a run for its money when I present it in English.


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告诉我你心里在想什么

I knew that the name 钟添飞 sounded familiar. When I heard this song, I suddenly remembered that he’s xinyao singer 钟添飞. I first heard this song when I was a student at NUS. Hearing it again brought back so many memories. 钟添飞 is better known as Jeffrey Chung now and he currently runs a modelling agency.

沉默 is a very simple love song. It’s the sort of uncomplicated struggle we went through when boys and girls of that era were so shy. Below are some recordings of 钟添飞’s appearance on Channel 8’s 缤纷八三 in 1986. 34 years ago, OMG! How many of you remember that show?

The xinyao era has been a most unforgettable part of Singapore’s history. Back then, the young people had artistic, meaningful dreams and ideals, not ambitions to own business empires. I too have been inspired to write, reviving my childhood dream if becoming a writer.

This video below has alternating old and new photos. Jeffrey’s transformation, like many of us from that era, has been great. The message is clear. Don’t miss out on chasing your dreams when you’re young. You’re only young once.

Looking back, I wish I had recorded an album when I was that age.


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Causeway Bay Books

The forced disappearance of the five shareholders from Mighty Current Publishing and Causeway Bay Books formed a complete picture in December 2015 when Lee Po, its owner, was seen boarding a van at his Mighty Current publishing office in Chai Wan at around 6pm. He was then taken across the border without any official record of his departure.

The incident raised fears for the city’s autonomy and concerns over the potential loss of freedoms. There was supposed to be a notification mechanism, whereby Hong Kong and the mainland authorities were obliged to notify each other if a resident of one is detained by the other. Mainland authorities had broken all the rules right under the noses of Hong Kongers who were still holding back until the Extradition Bill in 2019 dropped the last straw.

Lee’s disappearance joined the dots for a planned crackdown on writers and publishers critical of mainland politicians. Hong Kong realised that Lee, a HK-born British national, was in fact the last of five bookstore associates to go missing. The first was Gui Minhai 桂敏海 (alias Ah Hai), co-founder of Mighty Current Publishing. As an author and publisher, he had written extensively on Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang and Xi Jinping. Born in China, Gui was already a Swedish national by then.

Gui’s disappearance from his home in the Thai resort of Pattaya in October 2015 was a mystery at first. People following the news only managed to join the dots and see the connection after Lee’s abduction. Hong Kongers realised that it was an audacious extrajudicial abduction, apparently ignoring Thailand’s sovereignty. There was likewise no official record of his departure. This caused great concern for many Hong Kongers who realised that even people residing in Thailand were not safe, let alone those living in Hong Kong. Less than four years down the road, the implications of the Extradition Bill became horribly clear.

One of the shareholders, Lam Wing Kee 林榮基 was released 8 months after detention in the mainland. His “crime” was stated as illegal sale of books 违法经营书籍销售. Sales of books at Causeway Bay Books plunged 70%. Potential customers were afraid of being abducted for purchasing books from Lee. Their fears were not unfounded. Back in Hong Kong, Lam was released on condition that he would bring back the store’s computer to them and reveal his customers’ personal information. He took the store’s computer and just before he left for Shenzhen, he called his teacher. His teacher told him “我们不是生下来就被人打败的.” Lam’s conscience got the better of him. He turned back from the railway station, insisting on protecting his customers’ confidentiality and made plans to leave Hong Kong before he got abducted again. Below is an enactment.

After release, owner Lee Poh declared that he just wanted to lead a “normal life” and the store was forced to close down. All books in the shop were sent to Shenzhen where they were burned. Undeterred, shareholder Lam Wing Kee moved to Taiwan when a sponsor promised to support him. Not surprisingly, his sponsor was threatened and backed out. Lam then resorted to crowdfunding, raising NTD 6,000,000 in just one day. raised funds from crowdfunding and set up a new Causeway Bay Books over there. At the grand opening, Tiananmen massacre survivor Wang Dan presented Lam with the words “freedom” 自由.

But it was not all smooth sailing even in Taiwan. Lam had been splashed with red paint by unidentified men at a cafe before his store’s opening. It was a warning from agents working for the mainland. This time, however, Taiwanese police sprang into action and arrested three people.

Although Gui 桂敏海 was released from detention in October 2017, he was once again abducted by suspected state security agents – a group of men in plain clothes – in January 2018 while on his way to Beijing for a medical visit. Swedish authorities called for his release.

Shortly afterwards, while under detention for breaking “unspecified laws”, he once again “confessed” on the mainland’s national TV, denouncing Swedish politicians for instigating him to leave the country and for “using me as chess piece”. Gui was then sentenced in February 2020 to 10 years’ imprisonment for “illegally providing intelligence overseas”. Gui was punished most severely probably because he actually authored some of the books sold at Causeway Bay Books.

Back to Mr Lam in Taiwan, he seems very optimistic about physical book stores and he has big plans for the future, but as young people read less and less, I’m really not sure about the future of his book store. If something like this is not possible in Singapore, then perhaps in Taiwan.


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