Asia, Batu Caves, Book Alley, Colonialism, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Hermann Hesse, Hong Kong, IndoSiam Rare Books, Jacob Zeitlin, Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles International New Music Festival, Malaysia, Ngiam Tong Boon, Raffles Hotel, Singapore, Singapore Sling, The Gentleman in the Parlour, Vietnam, W. Somerset Maugham, Yves Azamar
I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took. W. Somerset Maugham The Gentleman in the Parlour
I can now easily locate my fascination with Asia when I remember certain events and people of my childhood. I’ve already written about Harry Woo of Hong Kong, who worked for my parents, reading to me in Chinese while pointing to his calligraphy. My first memory of a world outside of my family is of being taken to Chinatown for dinner in Los Angeles. I doubt I’ve ever forgotten the blue silk dress and lavish blue mascara of the server. And my pediatrician’s nurse was Japanese and the kindest soul on earth to me whenever I was a sick child.
At least I now recognize that these memories help me piece together those now far away moments of Asian awakenings, creating a map of my life and the new decisions that shape its events.
And to nurture my fascination for the East means that reading as much as I can is essential. Which brings me to an important point for this post.
“I know I’ll die an uneducated man,” said one of the greatest influences on my life, Jacob Zeitlin. Jake was a legend in Golden Era Hollywood. Confronting Asia certainly makes me a believer in Jacob’s credo.
I grew up literally behind Zeitlin’s famous Red Barn rare book store on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood. He was the literary agent for Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, sold first edition Sir Isaac Newton rare books to astronomer Edwin Hubble, was unable to find a buyer for Schoenberg’s manuscript of Moses und Aron, and was the first person to exhibit fine art photography in Hollywood, including Edward Weston in his first exhibition. He was best friends with my wife Jan’s San Francisco great uncle Louis Freedman, which provided us with the perfect extended family introduction. Jake and his wife Josephine regaled Jan and me with numerous stories when we were in our late 20s. They were in their 80s, seeing something in us as we were just beginning to piece together ideas for a career.
If I were limited to one Travel Tip, that tip would be to read a novel about where you dream about going someday, and then set your sites on achieving your dream. Libraries are free and are for us castles of imagination and curiosity. And in the era of the Internet, ignorance to me borders on willful. So much information is available at your fingertips with instantaneous clicks transporting you across time zones and languages like a magic flying carpet.
When we received our official appointments in August of 2015 as artistic advisors to the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, we used our love of literature to determine spending a few days in Singapore and Malaysia, searching for the footsteps of Maugham, Hesse, Conrad, Hemingway. Combine that with my restaurant childhood and a fascination with spices and it was an obvious choice to finally visit this part of Southeast Asia en route to Hà Nội and our new appointment in Việt Nam.
One other culinary reason we decided to go to Singapore – 2015 was the centennial of the Singapore Sling! We had it on our to-do list to visit the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel and taste the real thing. It delivered, and the atmosphere was magical.
Spoiler alert: The Raffles Hotel remains way our of our price range. But you can always wander around a great hotel, so don’t be shy. However, as we tried to wander around the grounds, a lot of areas were frustratingly closed, it seemed, to the public. We were getting a little disappointed but saw a helpful hotel concierge coming out of a to-die-for part of the hotel.
And so we asked him to help us, if possible. We told our potential Raffles guide that our friend Jacob Zeitlin had known W. Somerest Maugham and represented Aldous Huxley (Maugham was the first author to become a darling of Hollywood) way back in the day of 1930s Golden Era Hollywood. We were curious what we could see of the hotel.
“Come with me. No tourist ever asks this question!” And so fellow readers, it pays to be curious and do your homework before you travel!
Things change over decades and the Long Bar you saw earlier has been moved from this original location – but not to fear as here is where the literary giants of the Raffles Hotel had their afternoon cocktails and where the Singapore Sling was invented, in 1915, by Ngiam Tong Boon. Mastering the perfect proportions of gin, Cointreau, Bénédictine, grenadine (please get a good one), pineapple juice (Sarawak preferred), lime juice and Angostura bitters is a great way to save yourself the airfare to Singapore. And be sure to have good peanuts to munch!
The works of W. Somerset Maugham about British Malaya and French Indochina have numerous prescient observations about the cancers of extractive colonialism. My personal favorite is The Gentelman in the Parlour. And in honor of Jacob Zeitlin’s rare book store, we found an original edition from 1930 at Book Alley here in Pasadena. A stupendous Old School printing with a leather casing.
And this is a good moment to bring up the fact that the author of 1984, George Orwell, is born in British Burma and whose Burmese Days is an important read if you’re interested in the topic. These old European points of view have been swept away by Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Tan Twan Eng and a generation of other authors. But those earlier works of Conrad, Maugham and company provide us with a document of a bygone era that we do well to remember, as those attitudes shape our contemporary views.
Our Raffles (secret) guide opened up more areas of the hotel for us, told us to take pictures, as he was proud of Singapore’s literary heritage and thrilled to share his knowledge. It was a nice touch to know that Ernest Hemingway played pool at this table at the Raffles and to find recognition of the Raffles’ history with its Writer’s Bar.
But if W. Somerset Maugham wrote often about British Malaya and French Indochina, it was the writings of Hermann Hesse that helped launch the 1960s yearning for spiritual transformation with its origins in India. With his novels Demian, Siddharta and The Journey to the East, Hesse would become the literary version of Gustav Mahler, a European savant speaking truth to power. True, his own trip to the East in 1911 left him disillusioned with the colonial stranglehold on the countries he visited.
But Hesse’s spiritual journey would eventually triumph in the 1960s as his works became a creator spiritus to counter-cultural idealists, Hesse being quoted by Carlos Santana on his album Abraxas, inspiring the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and the Magic Theater in San Francisco. After the immolation of Europe during World War II, Hesse’s poems would contribute to Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs of 1948, the funeral music of German Romanticism.
The global impact of European colonialism is a gigantic topic, with differing stories depending on which country is colonized, where, and by which European country. The Iberian peninsula would be the first to vanish, with Spain and Portugal relegated to a second rank among nations for a long time. And many historians have noted that Winston Churchill was in effect fighting two World War II’s, one in Europe to rid the world of a murderous madman but another war in Asia, a war to regain and preserve the colonial empires of England and France.
As Hồ Chí Minh ominously quipped, “Gandhi wouldn’t have gotten his Indian freedom as easily if was dealing with the French.” With Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao-Tse Tung biding their time avoiding direct confrontation with the scourge of Japanese colonialism, it bears repeating the President Roosevelt maintained to his son that without the greed of the British and the French, he wouldn’t be sending American soldiers to fight in Asia.
And as I am bound for Hà Nội in Việt Nam soon, the reality of what happened to France’s Indochina is a story of which I am well aware. Which will be another post about the extraordinary French scholar Yves Azamar and his rare book store in Hong Kong, IndoSiam Books. Stay connected as ideas come together for future projects!
Finding Yves was also a travel memory dedicated to Jacob Zeitlin’s influence on our life. I’d recommend you search out rare book stores wherever you visit, they are Noah’s Ark for preserving cultural history. Without fail these gems are always One of a One Shops. It’s not all about yummy food and famous landmarks!
But out of all this colonial turmoil, a new Asia has emerged, one that is still adjusting to its financial clout and rising international reputations. How Asia relates to the West is animating my embrace of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and its potential. And that’s a post for another day!
For the next few weeks until I return to Việt Nam in September, I’ll continue to answer the encouraging readers about Malaysia and Singapore with more posts. So join us next as we climb the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, the largest Hindu site outside of India.
After writing this post, I think I’ll gather all the ingredients, read a lazy Maugham short story, and make a genuine Singapore Sling this weekend. Be sure to have a lot of peanuts handy!
Best, best, best,