Empires of the Word or Empire of Words? – A Review of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Khmer Inscription in Banteay Srei (Angkor Wat) The Khmer language is heavily influenced by Sanskrit

Khmer Inscription in Banteay Srei (Angkor Wat)
The Khmer language is heavily influenced by Sanskrit

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World , written by Nicholas Ostler, is an immensely learned book with an ambitious project: to recount world history from the births and demises of languages. From the cuneiforms engraved on the baked clay in 3000 BC  to the gloablisation of English in the twenty-first century, Ostler narrated this 5000 years of history from the perspective of languages – an approach, in his terminology, called ‘language dynamics’.

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The Knight of Swan – A Hero Always Awaiting for His Destiny

Lohengrin (Savonlinna Opera)

Lohengrin (Savonlinna Opera)

The Knight of Swan is a German medieval legend about a knight led by a swan to save a lady embroiled in political intrigues, with a condition of having his name never to be asked and questioned. The story appeared in various forms under different medieval tales, and its fascinations are captivating enough to have many modern musicians and composers retelling it in today’s performing halls. In this week, I had the opportunity to know the Knight of Swan in Before Brabant and Lohengrin (Savonlinna Opera Festival) in the 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival.

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‘My father was dragged out and carried away in a truck. I have never heard of him again.’ – The Horrors of Khmer Rouge

Skulls inside the Choeung Ek Memorial

Skulls inside the Choeung Ek Memorial

‘ “Your father has a big belly! He must have stolen people’s food and so he was a capitalist!”, said a man who intruded my home without cause. My father was dragged out and carried away in a truck. I have never heard of him again.’, said in one testimony of a victim of the massacres under the Khmer Rouge. His tragedy was shared by million others during the short rule of the Khmer Rouge period, and we must not fall into fallacy expressed by Stalin: ‘A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic‘. Each death is a tragedy and a million deaths – a million tragedies,  and a million testaments to the horrible crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

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Coffee and Café in Vietnam

Early morning Old Quarter, Hanoi

Early morning Old Quarter, Hanoi

Almost a century of French colonial occupation instilled a love for coffee and café among Vietnamese. A quick search reveals that coffee or cà phê occupies a central place in Vietnam’s economy as she was the second largest producer after Brazil. Vietnamese are also keen consumers of coffee and their numerous domestic brands (among which are Trung Nguyên and Highlands Coffee – both deemed as Vietnam’s Starbucks) testify that. Together with tourism, streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are filled with café of all different sorts; from little mobile café booth with low-lying tables and chairs on the sidewalk to prestigious café with luxurious sofas and beautiful French interior designs.

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Story of Music

Bad documentary informs, while good documentary inspires. Howard Goodall’s Story of Music belongs to the latter.

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The Paradox of Reading a Book

The Paradox of Reading a Book

The Paradox of Reading a Book

I can proudly tell the world that I’ve not spent my childhood time in idle daydreaming. I read intensely and devoured any classics that I can lay my fingers on. I focused on classics because, well, they are classics – something that everyone will say is good and something that I can make sure I have well spent my time on. I read Dickens’ Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities, most of H.G Well’s science fictions, Shelly’s Frankenstein, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde and even Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Social Contract. All is very well. The only problem is that I understand none of them.

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Forbidden City (1918): Orientalism and Yellow Face

Yellow Face: Norma Talmadge (right) played the role of a Chinese princess.

Yellow Face: Norma Talmadge (right) played the role of a Chinese princess.

Forbidden City (1918) is an early crude Hollywood production that deserved to be trashed and forgotten and is only remembered because it belongs to a special genre of oriental films called yellow face: the portrayal of Chinese by white actors.

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Reinterpreting Siddhartha in Light of Oriental Philosophies

In your quest for meaning of life, a Buddha will be always near you

In your quest for meaning of life, a Buddha will be always near you

Siddhartha: An Indian Poem by Hermann Hesse is a misleading novel. Despite sharing the first name, it is not a biography of the historical Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Hesse called it an ‘Indian poem’ and Hindu philosophy was indeed crucial to the story but one commentator has seen it as another typical Western work not dissimilar to Moby Dick or Huckleberry Fin. Some saw the novel as a mélange of Indian and Western ideas, while others viewed it as a work of excellence for its integration of Hindu and Christian mysticisms. Siddhartha: An Indian Poem is a novel so riddled with conflicting views that a reinterpretation seems not only proper but desirable. 

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The British Empire in English Novels: Kim and Burmese Days

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880's

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880’s

At her zenith, the British Empire governed a quarter of the Earth’s land and brought roughly a quarter of the word’s population under her dominion. The Empire was so huge that it was hailed as the empire ‘on which the sun never sets’. Yet by 1920s, the very word ’empire’ became an object of ridicule. David Low, the satirical cartoonist, even represented the British Empire as Colonel Blimp – a middle – aged man who is pompous, aggressive, shallow and slow – witted. The unwarranted self-assurance in the late nineteenth century has descended to self – doubting and deteriorated into shattered confidence. This process has been illustrated in many English novels, among which Kim (Rudyard Kipling) and Burmese Days (George Orwell) are ones of the most representative works. 

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2001: A Space Odyssey: A Film of Music and Mysticism

2001 A Space Odyssey screenshot 1920x1080 (14)

2001: A Space Odyssey is an enigmatic film. It is a science – fiction film that meticulously portrayed a scientifically accurate picture of the space but is also puzzle riddled with many mystic symbols. It starts as a conventional story of space exploration but ends with a mysterious spirit approaching the Earth. It is a film with so many conflicting notions, that I was stupefied at the end of the screening. In Stanley Kubrick’s own ironic terms, this film is a ‘mythological documentary’ or a ‘controlled dream’.

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