Other Writing

Turning terror into terrines

South China Morning Post, 24 Aug 2014.   Anti-terrorism expert and social entrepeneur Noor Huda Ismail tells Jo Baker about attending school with a future Bali bomber and helping jihadists to reform




A GOOD MUSLIM I was born in Yogyakarta, in Indonesia, and brought up in a strong Javanese culture. My dad is a Muslim but was raised in a Catholic family, and my mum comes from Muslims but her father was a puppet master, so knew a lot of Hindu stories. I was sent to Islamic boarding school when I was 12 to become a "good Muslim". This changed my life forever because a number of the students went on to be notorious Islamic militants who brought atrocities to the region. The founder of the school started (militant terrorist organisation) Jemaah Islamiah, and its members were involved in the first Bali bombing and the Marriott bombing (in Jakarta). For many people, terrorists are a faraway issue, but I have a very personal connection. I played football with them, I ate with them.

SURVIVING SCHOOL At first I was disappointed with the rudimentary school: a dingy dormitory, sleeping on the floor and no girls in my class. Boring! But I made a close friend and he said, "You can survive." He helped me learn maths and martial arts. When I was 17, I qualified to be part of a scholarship group that would go to Pakistan to study military training because I was smart and physically fit. During those years I believed that Islam was the best way to solve social problems. There was a struggle back then between Islam and the nationalists, and the (Indonesian) government made me sympathetic with Muslims by targeting them aggressively. In all these boarding schools there

South China Morning Post, 24 Aug 2014.   Anti-terrorism expert and social entrepeneur Noor Huda Ismail tells Jo Baker about attending school with a future Bali bomber and helping jihadists to reform

A GOOD MUSLIM I was born in Yogyakarta, in Indonesia, and brought up in a strong Javanese culture. My dad is a Muslim but was raised in a Catholic family, and my mum comes from Muslims but her father was a puppet master, so knew a lot of Hindu stories. I was sent to Islamic boarding school when I was 12 to become a “good Muslim”. This changed my life forever because a number of the students went on to be notorious Islamic militants who brought atrocities to the region. The founder of the school started (militant terrorist organisation) Jemaah Islamiah, and its members were involved in the first Bali bombing and the Marriott bombing (in Jakarta). For many people, terrorists are a faraway issue, but I have a very personal connection. I played football with them, I ate with them.

SURVIVING…

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Making scents: saviours of the incense tree

South China Morning Post Magazine, 9 Mar 2014. 

The heady fragrance of agarwood gave Hong Kong its name, but it has become so valuable its source is under threat. As Jo Baker discovers, though, there are those for whom the incense tree is worth more than money.

Ho Pui-han makes her way along the fringes of a country path, through a patch of trampled undergrowth and then points to a deep gash at the base of a tree.

"You can see where they

South China Morning Post Magazine, 9 Mar 2014.

The heady fragrance of agarwood gave Hong Kong its name, but it has become so valuable its source is under threat. As Jo Baker discovers, though, there are those for whom the incense tree is worth more than money.

Ho Pui-han makes her way along the fringes of a country path, through a patch of trampled undergrowth and then points to a deep gash at the base of a tree.

“You can see where they’ve cut the wood as a test,” says the conservationist. “They’ll be back in a month to check and, if it’s the right tree, they’ll just chop it down and carry it across the border.”

Close to extinction in the mainland and internationally protected as a species, Hong Kong’s dwindling stands of Aquilaria sinensis, commonly called the incense tree, have become a holy grail for smugglers. The tree’s resin, which gives off a heady scent – like a muskier, more complex sandalwood – has been prized as a spiritual and medicinal tool for centuries throughout the…

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It’s Slow Time

South China Morning Post, 8 December, 2013.

Heavy hitters meeting at a Thai eco-resort seek to avert environmental catastrophe by targeting and changing the mindsets of the world’s most powerful people and companies, writes Jo Baker

The night is clear and black, the stars are close and the voice of Johan Rockstrom echoes around the open-air cinema of a luxury Thai resort as he describes the world’s impending demise. Reclining in the shadows with pre-dinner cocktails, a motley crew of problem-solvers listens. And as the leading sustainability scientist gets to a key part of his speech – on rainfall patterns – it feels as if the Earth has decided to make a point. Without warning, the heavens open.

“I was just about to get to the good news,” the Swede says, as his audience runs for cover.

It may have chosen one of the more luxurious conference spaces in the world, but try not to hold that against the Slow Life Symposium, which – in its fourth year – is threatening to become a driver of…

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Thrills and Kills: Interview with Frederick Forsyth

South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker.

AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was... interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”
 
Fans might have forgiven Forsyth for researching one of the world’s more dangerous cities, in Somalia, from a distance. But the British thrill master felt that his latest look into the world of modern-day terrorism, The Kill List, should be held to the standards that helped take his other novels to the top of bestseller lists.

Debuting as a novelist in 1971 with The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth has become known for his melding of fictional characters and plot lines with real political intrigues, using research techniques from his days as a journalist.

“I’ve always been intrigued in the things the establishment don’t tell us, rather than those they do.” he says with a smile. “Nowadays we think we know it all, and Mr. Snowden tells us, ‘oh no, you don’t know the half of it – what they’re listening to, eavesdropping on’.”

A journalist in the 60s and 70s, Forsyth has certainly developed a sense for the world’s lurking dangers and blind spots. Growing up in a small ‘one horse’ town in Kent with little money, he failed to secure the career he wanted with the RAF, but dreamed of travel. The idea of ‘diplomatic corp. cocktail parties’ was less than thrilling. “So the only alternative was the by-lines in Dad’s morning paper from cities with amazing names, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Beirut,” he recalls.

From the offices of a daily provincial paper, to London’s Fleet Street and then to the Reuters news agency, by age 23 Forsyth was reporting from Paris, covering the almost daily likelihood of an assassination attempt on president Charles de Gaulle by French extremists.  It was a ‘baptism by fire’ he says. This fire raged onward in the mid 60s, with two years in the thick of Nigeria’s civil war, first for the BBC and later – since he was unwilling to toe its editorial line and return to London – as a freelance reporter and writer.

At that time, few had attempted to blend modern-day politics with fiction, and the decision to use his experiences in France and skills as a reporter to write a political thriller, produced Jackal, his sleeper hit. Surprised but gratified, Forsyth continued to write his novels to a similar template, tackling subjects from the underground Nazi movement in Europe (1972’s Odessa File) to international drug cartels (2011’s The Cobra). In researching his books he was able to pursue the once-imagined thrills of a Kent boyhood, with ‘hairy moments’, as he calls them, galore. There was Afghanistan and Pakistan; Equatorial Guinea, where he blithely recalls almost losing a leg to septicaemia; and Guinea-Bissau – ‘a horrible place’ – where he came close to being caught up in a gruesome coup.

Each adventure produced new material for adrenalin-fuelled accounts of dark places and dastardly deeds, with a reporter’s eye for detail. “Travel was the main impulse for fifty years of my life,” he says. “And as an investigative journalist one learns where the knowledge reposes, and how to get at it. So that is how I approached fiction.”

The Kill List, which hit shelves in September, fits squarely into this oeuvre. As cold-war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda, it follows a US government-sanctioned assassin on the trail of a charismatic jihadist, and takes readers into the administrative bowels of an American organisation tasked with tracking and killing ‘enemies of the West’. It then leads them across the gullies and firewalls of cyberspace to various havens of Islamic extremism, from London to Kismayo  Deftly paced, the thriller has been reviewed as the usual meticulous yet macho Forsyth romp: heavy on action and intrigue; light on moral complexity and character development.

 

IT WAS A NEWS REPORT on drone attacks that inspired Forsyth to pick up his pen again. Not long after the extra-judicial killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy Seals, the author became curious about how modern-day manhunts take place. Originally called The Tracker, the novel’s name was changed when his American publishers called – in high excitement, he says – to verify that such a list actually exists in the White House. Forsyth was able to tell them, rather smugly, that it does. In 2012 the US government had admitted publicly that it authorizes ‘signature strikes’ on certain targets, with the decision centred around the counter-terror chief in the White House.

Yet this batch of research posed a new kind of challenge. The author had covered the technicalities of espionage and warfare with the Arab world before, in the Fist of God and The Afghan. But for a 74 year-old who, until last year had refused to own a cell phone, and continues to churn out his 10 pages-per-day on a steel-cased portable typewriter, Cyberspace was an alien landscape.

Forsyth has joked that if his first novel had been set now rather than the 1960s, with photos that could be e-mailed and data instantly accessed, it would have been ‘a very short spy novel’.

South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker.

AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was… interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”
 
Fans might have forgiven Forsyth for researching one of the world’s more dangerous cities, in Somalia, from a distance. But the British thrill master felt that his latest look into the world of modern-day terrorism,…

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Bruce Lee and the enduring jeet kune do spirit

South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee

South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee’s siblings reminisce about their famous brother’s life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports

Hard bodies abound. At the annual One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit, big names, tight muscles and a whole lot of spin are building an air of promise laced with testosterone.

The most highly billed appearances, however, are those of a pair who are not part of the fight club here at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort. As the first day of talks wind down, a convention room fills and falls quiet for two unassuming figures in their autumn years.

Neither compete, but they are happy to spin some eagerly received yarns about a long-dead fighting legend.

“Bruce was way ahead of his time in martial arts,” announces Bruce Lee’s younger brother, Robert Lee Chun-fai. “He wanted to show that there really is no set way in fighting and there is no limit. He believed that martial…

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Master of the House: Architect Wang Shu

Discovery Magazine, May 2012.  Chinese architect and Pritzker winner Wang Shu may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay. 

He calls his studio ‘Amateur Architecture’. His work is anything but.

This year, China’s Wang Shu was lifted from the relative quiet of his small practice in Hangzhou by a heavyweight panel of his peers, hailed as a “virtuoso” and presented with architecture’s equivalent to an Academy Award: a Pritzker.

And yet just as Hollywood has its naysayers and anti-heroes, the Chinese architect is emerging as a kind of anti-designer.  “Design is an amateur activity. Life is more important,” he has said. “The Amateur Architecture studio is a purely personal architecture studio; it should not even be referred to as an architect’s office.”

The likelihood of him accepting ‘starchitect’ status and all the trappings that follow, seems low indeed.

Wang Shu’s career has been…

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Duality Check

South China Morning Post, 15 December 2011

 

 Pakistani artist Rashid Rana continues to court controversy while hurdling cultural boundaries

 




Rashid Rana does not exactly mind being labeled a Pakistani artist, but he does wonder whether the tag does justice to the larger themes in his works. "A critic friend of mine has written that my art speaks a global language, but with an accent,” he grins.

South China Morning Post, 15 December 2011

 

Pakistani artist Rashid Rana continues to court controversy while hurdling cultural boundaries

 

Rashid Rana does not exactly mind being labeled a Pakistani artist, but he does wonder whether the tag does justice to the larger themes in his works. “A critic friend of mine has written that my art speaks a global language, but with an accent,” he grins.

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Bridging the East-West design divide – in London

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 16 November 2011 


China’s Diaspora designers face stiff competition in the UK, but offer hope for development despite trouble shaking off the Made-in-China tag

In a trendy industrial space bordering a West London canal, an eclectic series of objects sit on podiums, amid coffee drinkers and creative-types at work.

Among them are a ceramic Chihuahua in a neckerchief, labeled as a home accessory; a delicate, extraterrestrial-looking table poised as if for lift-off; a panel of architectural designs for a Buddhist temple in the heart of London; and a stool in mint-green metal entitled, fantastically, the ‘Silent Farter’.

These are just a few recent offerings from London’s Chinese Diaspora designers, and they signal a growing creative confidence amid a challenging landscape.



“The Made-in-China tag has brought some difficulty to Chinese designers trying to work in the UK or around Europe,“  says designer Elva White, who curated the exhibition, Cheers, for the UK China Art and Design Association (UCADA) Festival, which ran during September’s yearly London Design Festival.  “There are some issues that particularly affect Chinese designers here, and this was a way for them to talk about them, and also get some needed attention for their work.”

The association developed out of an informal group started by White and other graduates, mostly from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and it last year secured the formal backing of the Chinese embassy and the British Council.

China’s reputation as a manufacturing hub, combined with the negative publicity about its quality control and the youth of its design scene, can weigh heavily on Chinese designers looking to make it big overseas. Many move to the United Kingdom in search of a more cosmopolitan education and a stronger cultural design heritage, and hope to stay on and develop their career afterwards, at least for a few years.

But recognition is hard to come by, and they face stiff competition from their better-placed European counterparts.China is not yet widely known for its design talent, despite recent efforts by the government to reposition the country through international events, trade agreements, and by promoting the cultural and creative fields as new industry pillars.

Staffan Tollgard runs a high end interior design studio in London’s Notting Hill and credits Asian design as strongly influence in his work, but he believes that the manufacturing stereotype has done damage.

This year he co-launched a company, Kurate, to promote and import products by selected China-based designers, but he expects that, despite the success of the studios he’s working with, which include Neri & Hu, Design MWV and  HC 28, he has a task ahead in educating the British consumer.

“We’re basically saying that there are some really interesting things coming out of China at the moment, so please, rethink your idea that it’s just a copying nation,” he says. “The closeness of the designers with manufacturers there for example, means that prototypes are quicker to make and modify. We’re really seeing capabilities being pushed.”

In this sense, initiatives such UCADAs, that challenge conceptions of modern Chinese art and design, are coming at the right time. Last year David Jia, who founded one of China’s most successful industrial manufacturing firms LKK Design, opened a branch in London – his first out of China – and he sees the obstacles as unavoidable.

“It’s going to be a hard road. We have to change the European mentality about China’s ability to do good design, and there are always problems of cultural understanding, and of detailed communication between designer and customer,” he says.“But they can be overcome. And it’s our responsibility as a leader in this field in China to try to open this path.”
Through working and meeting with Diaspora designers, UCADA organizers have come across other issues that need addressing.  “Many young Chinese designers who arrive in London to study are less likely to have or build a good network, or self promote in the way that others do –  partly because of language difficulties, and a lack of confidence,” says Lucy Shum, who directs the UCADA festival.
Some of the exhibitors agreed. Taiwanese exhibitor Hsiang Wang says that he struggled to find contacts and exhibition opportunities in the UK after completing his Master’s degree. Shanghai-based Zhili Liu, designer of the delicate Shrub table, describes the isolation of a degree in Coventry University, which he spent mostly working alone.
UCADA has responded by setting up dialogues between UK and Chinese designers and an award for emerging Chinese talent and, following the exhibition’s successful run at the Beijing International Design Week in October as part of its London Guest City programme,  it is hunting for other overseas exhibitions to join.

Funding is a particular issue however.  Architect Guangyuan Li and his design partner Mohamed El Khayat took their Reading Chair to the last Milan Furniture Fair themselves, and were pleased with the interest and the opportunities that followed. Yet the chair alone cost them two thousand pounds to transport; they found that they were unable to afford the Beijing event, even though the chair would have made a noticeable splash among a relatively commercial programme.

The UK experience can be quite different for Chinese architects. Na Li works for Foster and Partners and exhibited her design for a Buddhist temple at Cheers. Ten years in the UK has given her a comfortable grasp of British sensibilities, and she believes that her background adds value to her resume.

“In a bigger company, as someone who can speak Mandarin and understand the cultural landscape, you can help it make a lot of connections in China,” she says.

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 16 November 2011

China’s Diaspora designers face stiff competition in the UK, but offer hope for development despite trouble shaking off the Made-in-China tag

In a trendy industrial space bordering a West London canal, an eclectic series of objects sit on podiums, amid coffee drinkers and creative-types at work.

Among them are a ceramic Chihuahua in a neckerchief, labeled as a home accessory; a delicate, extraterrestrial-looking table poised as if for lift-off; a panel of architectural designs for a Buddhist temple in the heart of London; and a stool in mint-green metal entitled, fantastically, the ‘Silent Farter’.

These are just a few recent offerings from London’s Chinese Diaspora designers, and they signal a growing creative confidence amid a challenging landscape.

“The Made-in-China tag has brought some difficulty to Chinese designers trying to work in the UK or around Europe,“  says designer Elva White, who curated the exhibition,…

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The arts are a traveller’s window into the heart of San Francisco

South China Morning Post, August 2012.

San Francisco has always had an acute sense of the frontier, and this can be said for its arts scene as well as for its gung-ho economy.

As a gold rush town, it was unusually cosmopolitan. In the mid-1800s it hosted up to 37 foreign consuls and boasted newspapers and theatre productions in at least five languages. By the time Mark Twain turned up in the 1860s, the city was a blur of bohemian activity, with strip after strip of saloons, boarding houses, dance halls, brothels and theatres.

During the next century, this bohemia fell victim to industry and the power of the American puritans; it is no coincidence that its architecture is so frothily Victorian. But its role as an artistic frontier somehow survived and ‘heading west’ has brought out the best in many writers since – from Jack London and Jack Kerouac to Isabel Allende and Amy Tan.

For anyone wanting to get a real sense of the place – after the trips to Alcatraz and a few laps of the bridge…

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