Back To Back, Face To Face

The commentator/reviewer said at the beginning that a movie like this, if made today, would have been immediately brought to the censor’s firing squad. Back to Back, Face to Face is a movie that quite baldly depicts the complicated “office politics” in China. Many admirers of China apparent wealth and specious progress (that includes Westerners like Kissinger and academics like Kishore Mahbubani) have no idea what really goes on behind the scenes. This movie is unbelievably truthful. If you can’t even understand this, how can you say that you know China?

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In Search Of Enlightenment

In the new Tibet, all nuns must have a diploma in Chinese. I’m sure that is not the only condition. They must also be politically correct. Outsiders and tourists may not see anything wrong, but the real Tibetan teachings and practices are slowly but surely being wiped away. Those who insist on enlightenment have to find a different path in pragmatic, result-oriented China.

It’s an interesting irony that in spite of all the discouragement and disincentives, many Han Chinese people have grown to embrace Buddhist philosophy and contribute monetarily to the preservation of Tibetan culture and traditions. But as the system demands greater integration and “unification”, that situation might be forced to change.

You can see footage of a sky burial in the video. Yes, those were human bones freshly stripped of flesh. The amazing documentary shows a Tibet that tourists will probably never see. Annie was determined to find the convent that teaches the secret yoga and as the rinpoche at Tiger’s Nest revealed (only after making an effort to discourage Annie) that there really is such a place.

“If you are looking for “freedom” in this world, then you better learn Chinese. If you want freedom from this world, then go sit (and meditate) in a cave”.

I’m not so sure about the “mad saint”. Notice that he walked barefooted on snow and sat naked under a cascade of glacial melt. Could he have prostrated all the way to Lhasa?

She finally found the “temple” which would be better described as a field nunnery. The nuns here practised some form of asceticism and the abbess claimed to have witnessed a senior member vanish in a flash of light upon death. Could it be a case of spontaneous combustion?

It’s a very interesting documentary. I wish I could do this trek some day.

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James Wong’s SARS Concert

Born in Guangdong in 1941, James Wong migrated to Hong Kong with his family in 1949. Known for his lewd humour and vulgar works, James Wong was actually a well-educated and talented man. He completed his secondary education at La Salle College. In 1963, he graduated from the Chinese Department, Faculty of Arts of the University of Hong Kong. Wong received an MPhil degree from the University of Hong Kong in 1983 for his study in Cantonese opera. In May 2003, in the midst of his fight with lung cancer, he obtained a PhD degree from the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong. The title of his thesis was “The Rise and Decline of Cantopop : A Study of Hong Kong Popular Music (1949–1997)”.

Beginning from the 1960s, James Wong was the lyricist for over 2,000 songs, collaborating with composer Joseph Koo on many popular TVB TV drama theme songs, many of which have become classics of the genre. His works pushed the development of Cantopop to unprecedented popularity.

This concert was held about a year before he died in 2004. Hong Kong survived SARS. The former colony even survived Covid. Sadly, it won’t survive 国安法. Colourful characters like James Wong, even if they emerged in future, will no longer have an opportunity to express themselves.

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Long Live The Emperor

This TV series (made in China) features Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor Zhu Yuan Zhang 朱元璋 as a no-nonsense ruler who rooted out corruption to a tee. But as with all MIC productions in recent years, this one had to be “educational” and “politically correct”. What better way than to portray a corruption-fighting Chinese emperor lifting the country from the gutter created by the Yuan Dynasty? Do watch it. It’s really quite entertaining.

Apparently, Justice Bao was not impactful enough. Why Zhu Yuan Zhang? Well, the real Zhu Yuan Zhang is known to be a control freak who employed draconian measures to force migration to depopulated regions. He also ruthlessly rooted out corruption and disloyalty, ordering massacres of communities that refused to submit.

Paranoid about uprisings and power struggles, Zhu created China’s first secret police, the 锦衣卫 to spy on his subjects. Suspects were treated mercilessly. Over 1,000 offences were punishable by death. Zhu also confiscated land and redistributed it to the peasants. China then was a strictly regimented and self-sufficient society with its doors closed to all barbarians at its borders. Trade was discouraged, merchants and traders were despised while farmers were supported with massive agricultural projects. The audience is persuaded to accept Zhu Yuan Zhang’s way as the best way to cure the country of its ills.

I didn’t watch the entire series, but they probably didn’t mention that Zhu also promoted Islam (China had more Muslims during the Ming Dynasty than any other dynasty) and he had 30,000 people executed because one man plotted against him. He also wanted all his consorts to be buried alive with him when he died. Emperors will be emperors. May China never suffer from imperial rule again.

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My Philosophy

When I was growing up, Christianity was an “atas” religion adopted by the well-educated. My perception of Buddhism was that it is enshrouded in rituals and mysticism. Influenced by an evangelical primary school teacher, we sang Christian songs in class and even paid frequent visits to our teacher’s church. That teacher would have been censured today, but Christianity remain an “atas” religion in the minds of many Singaporeans out there. Just look at our mega churches. Being a kampung boy by nature, such things didn’t appeal to me.

For most of my teens and early adulthood, I’ve been a freethinker and as a young adult, I was no different from most ambitious yuppies desperately seeking 5Cs until an emotional setback made me realise that I might not have had the best game plan for happiness after all. Our country is obsessed with “security”, so much so that our reserves, whether in our personal capacity or at a national level, is never enough.

I began travelling adventurously at the age of 29. I went to poorer countries and got a feel of life at street level. While it did make me feel fortunate to be in Singapore, there was an even more important lesson that I took away. People who have less than we have can be happier than we are. People who are quick to give and share are a lot more pleasant than people who need to be drowning in excesses before they give something away. A visit to Borobudur and new, deeper understanding of Buddhist concepts in a graphic and dramatic setting introduced a new philosophy to a mind that was still shallow with materialism.

Phra Goh’s philosophy is the one I subscribe to. You don’t need to keep going to temples to tham boon (make merit). Buddhism can be practised anywhere. I stay positive but I identify bullshit (especially those coming from politicians). I try to do good and forgive but I recognise evil and won’t hesitate to call it out. I try to be compassionate in that I don’t bay for blood when someone has made a mistake. 得饶人处且饶人。Suffering arises from greed and grasping. Compared to the vast majority of Singaporeans, I’m easily contented. I want less and I let things go. Whenever appropriate, I unleash my sense of humour.

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The Late Ni Kuang On Science Fiction

Ni Kuang (1935-2022) made a lot of predictions in his science fiction novels. His style might have been rather lowbrow and some critics have pointed out many flaws, but so accurate were some of his predictions that some of his fans suggest that he might have had some communication with aliens.

On politics Ni Kuang was spot on when he said that it’s meaningless to talk about destroying “one country two systems”. There was never really any two systems. It was a scam from the very start. He predicted that there would be no hope for Hong Kong.

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Qinghai Love Story

Ying and Yong’er were both students from a university in the South. They signed up for a research project as environmental protection volunteers and travelled to the harsh, remote and beautiful Hoh Xil Lake region (Qinghai Province) together.


Ying was assigned to the relatively less remote Tibetan Antelope Observation Station at Budong Spring, Yonger, however, was assigned to the more remote and harsher Tuotuo River Observation Station. Beyond the towering snow-capped mountains in the north is the vast Gobi Desert. The Hoh Xil under the snow-capped mountains is known as the “forbidden zone” due to the extreme altitude, the cold and the lack of oxygen.


At Tuotuo River Observation Station, all Yonger had was a clean and tidy tent. There was nothing in it except a bed. For a southerner like Yonger, the crushing cold was unimaginable. At times, he had to collect data at minus 40 degrees C. However, every time Yong’er went to Ying’s place to submit reports, he only told Ying about his interesting encounters in Hoh Xil. He did not breath a single word about his suffering.

Actually, Ying had already learned from other companions how difficult the conditions at Tuotuo River Observatory were. Constantly at risk of hypothermia, Yonger pretended that everything was all right, for fear that Ying might lose sleep over it. She too pretended not to know and counted the days to the end of the project, but worry bit her constantly. She waited anxiously for the last batch of data from Tuotuo River. Once Yonger had submitted that, they could both go back to their warm and cozy beds in the south.

One day, Budong Spring was visited by the leader of the expedition. She thought the project was ending early, but he came from Tuotuo River and brought along Yonger’s personal effects to be returned to his family. Ying was stunned. Yonger had died at Hoh Xil. Ying was devastated and lived in misery ever since.

After hearing to the poignant story of Ying and Yong’er, Xinjiang songwriter Dao Lang was deeply moved. He wrote a song specially dedicated the two of them. This song is 西海情歌 (Love Song of the West Sea). 西海 is the old name for Qinghai Lake.

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Musical Maverick, Dao Lang

Actually, I agree with Na Ying and Wang Feng’s assessment and Dao Lang’s waning popularity is not so much due to him deliberately keeping a low profile but rather the initial buzz that greeted his unique style is long gone. In the long run, the capricious spenders in the Chinese market will grow tired of him and his only fans would be the working class people who buy pirated copies. If a studio were to invest in producing Dao Lang’s music from then until today, they are almost certain to lose money. In that sense, I don’t completely agree with the video below.

However, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Dao Lang is no good. I’m just talking about the commercial value of his music and his potential as an idol in China. While he definitely earn a comfortable living as a songwriter, there is a ceiling to his commercial value because unless he undergoes a total image makeover (which he is obviously unwilling to undergo) he simply doesn’t have the “sophistication” to sell cars and luxury apartments. People don’t pay a lot to listen to music these days. What’s more, concert tickets would probably cost many of Dao Lang’s fans a week’s salary. Singers often have to resort to being brand ambassadors to get rich. Dao Lang simply doesn’t have the star factor to rake in unlimited advertising returns.

Below is one Dao Lang Song that I like.

Dao Lang in Hong Kong with Cantopop king, Alan Tam, about 20 years ago.

Finally, Alan Tam manages 披著羊皮的狼 professionally and with superior technique. Note the difference and why some people think that Dao Lang can’t sing.

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