Author Archives: Alison Bate

My Site C story published

My feature Fighting for Peace Valley has just gone online at  Cascadia Magazine, with some great photos by Jennifer O’Keeffe.

In August, I visited the Peace Region in northeastern B.C. with two friends and talked to long-time residents fighting against the controversial Site C dam project. These included Yvonne Tupper from Saulteau First Nations, farmers Arlene and Ken Boon, and horse breeder Esther Pedersen. I also spoke with West Moberly chief Roland Willson, dropped in on the court case to hear B.C. Hydro’s arguments and finally, visited the dam site itself.

As the project enters its fourth year of construction, one of the last chances of stopping it rests on a court case that finished Sept.7 in B.C. Supreme Court. A ruling is expected some time in October (2018).

 

The eerie past at Bokor Hill

By Alison Bate

I went up a mountain today, and came down much the wiser.

It was a glorious sunny day in Kampot, too hot as usual, and I hoped it would be cooler at the top of the mountain.

As we started up the winding road to Bokor Hill station, our Cambodian driver/guide said casually: “My grand-grandfather helped build this road. Nearly 1,000 people died during construction.”

Whoa. I stopped gazing at the view as he explained that harsh working conditions, backbreaking labour and malaria all took their toll on the prisoners/indentured servants before the road was finally completed in 1925.

We learnt some chilling history about the plateau. After the inauspicious start building the road, Bokor became a pleasant retreat for the French colonials and King Sihanouk to escape the relentless heat in Cambodia. But a few years after they left, the Khmer Rouge moved in and planted thousands of land mines at the base of the mountain to protect themselves and ventured out to intimidate and massacre the villagers below.

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The old Catholic church at Bokor in 2017

It took the Vietnamese invading Cambodia to bring about the end Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. The two sides fought at the top of Bokor Hill, trading fire between the Palace Hotel and Casino (pictured above) and the old Catholic Church (right). The Vietnamese eventually succeeded but outstayed their welcome, remaining in Cambodia for 10 years after toppling the Khmer Rouge.

Afterward, the starving villagers came up to plunder anything they could get hold of, stripping away wood and fittings from the sturdy buildings. The road fell into disrepair and the buildings continued crumbling.

Even on a sunny day, it’s still spooky to see the derelict Palace Hotel and Casino, the old Catholic Church and the graffitti-covered remnants of the Black Palace, the summer palace for the Cambodian royal family.

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Temple at the top of Bokor Hill (Pix: Alison Bate)

There’s been a renaissance of sorts. A good tarmac road up the mountain was rebuilt in 2003 and at the very top, temples are being repaired and have a wonderful view to the coast and beyond, with Phu Quoc island visible offshore. Sadly, new buildings nearby jar horribly with the faded beauty of the older buildings and classic temples. The Sokha Thansur Resort hotel is soulless and a new convention centre  under construction looks like a giant aircraft hangar.

It’s the scenery and history that attracts tourists like myself for day trips from Kampot, just 36 kilometres away, and from the beach scene at Sihanoukville.

Halfway down the mountain, it started to pour and we laughed in sympathy as our minibus driver let out two young Germans to meet a dripping guide, ready to hike the rest of the way. Like many other visitors, they’d come over from the beaches at Sihanoukville to see Bokor Hill Station. Bracketing beaches and hiking with learning about Cambodia’s terrible past.

Later in the week, I was in Phnom Penh, deciding what to visit. On Trip Advisor, the top two most popular things to see were the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (the Killing Fields) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, code-named S-21.

I went to S-21, a high school converted into a prison and interrogation centre by the Khmer Rouge. At least 12,000 people died here and only a handful survived between 1975 and 1979. The buildings were remarkably similar to a high school I’d taught at in Hanoi, Vietnam the previous year — French colonial cookie-cutter school, I imagine.

It seemed ghoulish to be visiting these places. But then I looked around at the continuous stream of mostly 20-something backpackers listening intently to the audio guides as they walking quietly around the buildings or sat on benches.

A generation who weren’t born when the Khmer Rouge killed one-quarter of Cambodia’s population. Learning and bearing witness. I came away saddened but heartened at the same time.

Coffee in Hanoi

I’m returning to Vietnam on vacation next month, and that got me thinking about the many hours I’ve spent in coffee shops in Hanoi, especially one on Ngu Xa in Truc Bach…

By Alison Bate

 The cafe owner smiles the smile of many mornings as she brings over my iced coffee and green tea chaser. I lean forward in my bamboo chair to stir the two-tone Nau Da, digging down with the long-handled spoon to mix in the condensed milk, navigating around the lumps of ice. The mixture curdles and sometimes looks like a work of art and other times a sludgy mess.

I take a sip of Nau Da and the chocolatey taste spreads inside my mouth, and an involuntary smile outside. A sip of the green Tra Da clears my palette and my mind.

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A guardian at Cafe Pho, Hanoi (Photo by Alisher Sharip)

At the back of the Cafe Pho, the family shrine is graced with orange gladioli, three cans of Sprite, a blue tin of cookies, sticks of burned incense and other offerings. In another corner, a Ho Phap guardian casts a benign eye over the customers. The cat is not around today.

It’s 9 a.m, and the Cafe Pho on Ngu Xa is filling up. Two young guys read Bong Da sports newspaper and, less predictably, Phu Nu women’s newspaper. Others watch soccer on VTV3.

I watch as a triangular pattern continues all morning, with three businesses working in unison. A thirty-something couple and their two young boys have ordered Pho Ga and the owner yells their order up the street. The family could sit on small plastic stools at the chicken noodle stall a few doors away but choose to relax here in comfortable chairs. We watch as steaming bowls of the broth are brought down the street. The parents squeeze on fresh lime and add dipping and chilli sauce onto the noodles. Everyone tucks in.

Afterward, a woman in navy-and-white striped shirt comes over from across the street and rounds up empty noodle bowls. Back in front of her open room, she sends the white bowls along a bucket assembly line. Slops into dark blue container, pre-wash in white bucket, soapy wash in silver galvanized bowl, and rinse in sky-blue bowl. Finally, the clean bowls are stacked to dry in a pink meshed basket. Half-hidden behind her, two men sort herbs and bits of meat.

Now the woman in the striped shirt and her colleague are carrying the clean bowls in a pink basket to the Pho Ga stall at the top of Ngu Xa and return with the empty basket.

Above the little stores, songbirds chirp away in their pretty prisons, trapped in cages hung from precarious phone cables. Their tweets a pleasant backdrop to the revving of motorbikes, the clang of cutlery and the smell of wet noodles.

This evening, I’ll be teaching, but the morning is mine, all mine. I pull out Chapter 12 of my novel and begin writing.

Note: An earlier version appeared in Word Vietnam magazine in November 2014

Speaking about Sudan novel at Vancouver Public Library

By Alison Bate

Hi! I’ll be joining four other authors at the Vancouver Public Library this Sunday to talk about my upcoming debut novel.

The novel’s set in Sudan, where I taught English for a while, and tells the story of three very different women confronting their individual fears. Fatima, the second of three wives, faces poverty; her cousin Nadia fears for the health of her Down’s baby; and Jodi, a travel-loving westerner, fears a conventional life.

I write about the Muslim way of life in the tri-cities of Omdurman, Khartoum and Khartoum North (Bahri), a capital region dealing with the aftermath of civil wars, blazing desert heat, power cuts and constant traffic jams.

I’ll be reading from my novel and answering any questions at the New Voices event, along with four other authors: Suzanne Chiasson, Roxanne Barbour, AK White and Joan B Flood.

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DETAILS:
Date: Sunday, April 30, 2017 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Venue: Vancouver Public Library, 350 W. Georgia St., Vancouver. B.C. Alma VanDusen Room, Lower Level.
Price: Free!

Section of Muoi Trong Nguyen's "War" painting (2015)

War, peace and the artist: Muoi Trong Nguyen

By Alison Bate

The corpses filled the river valley, their hands stretched toward the sky.

It was 1979 and Hanoi artist Muoi Trong Nguyen had been sent north to the border with China to record the war scenes for historical purposes. The fighting between China and Vietnam lasted less than a month, but in that short time, more than 30,000 soldiers died in the conflict, also known as the Third Indochina War.

He spent months after the battle ended, sketching and painting watercolors on site, but it’s this image of the hands of the corpses stretched toward the sky that stays with him. Sadly, he says the paintings no longer exist or are in the hands of the military.

Pix Muoi Trong Nguyen and Thang Tran

Artist Muoi Trong Nguyen (left) with translator Thang Tran at Writing Across Generations in Hanoi, April 2016

Western visitors to Vietnam often focus on the aftermath of the “American War”, as it is known here, or perhaps the colonial period, when France colonized the country. But to most Vietnamese nowadays, these wars are events from the past. Any current fears or threats are focussed on its neighbor China, based on its past invasions, current maritime ambitions and, of course, tempered by a booming trade between the two countries.

Nguyen, who writes in Vietnamese under the name Nguyen Trong Thap*, has brought out a new memoir “Noi Chim” that gives a fascinating glimpse of personal life in north Vietnam during the land reforms, the American War, and his time in the military and as an artist. He read excerpts from “Noi Chim” (Sinking and Swimming) and answered questions at a special reading at Hanoi Cooking Centre in April. At the event “Across the Generations”, he was joined by poet Nguyen Thi Hong Van and blogger and copywriter Yuki Phan, with Thang Tran translating.

He told us that he grew up poor in a farming family in the My Hao district of Hung Yen province, east of Hanoi, the youngest of 10 children. He always wanted to be an artist, but life did not turn out as he planned. At the age of 16, he enrolled in art school in Hanoi but less than six months in, was unceremoniously expelled – caught between a rock and a hard place.  In his memoir, he describes how the art school told him he needed to be on the Hanoi resident register to stay, but the district police would grant it only if he handed in the school’s acceptance letter.

“I had to pack up everything and leave, in tears and to the ridicule of friends. Perhaps they would be happy after all, even without my presence. Only I swallowed the pain that would last until my death,” he writes.

“Angry and lonesome, I limped away from class across the school yard, my eyes swollen up, taking a last look at the trees, the chairs, the garden’s statues. I entered the dormitory to pack up. It was empty and quiet. Seeing my dear bed, I flushed away the tears. Everything long gone, no more dreams, no more future and career. Bitter and humiliated.”

Back home in the countryside, he gradually pulled his self-esteem together. Opening his piggy bank, he counted 10 dong and took some to buy paper and art supplies. He began drawing for Lunar New year and for weddings. His father now ran a tailor shop in Hanoi and Nguyen hung his paintings on the wall, in front of the house.  Sometimes he drew from dusk to dawn, and his business began to flourish.

Section of Muoi Trong Nguyen's

Section of Muoi Trong Nguyen’s “War” painting (2015), showing after-effects of bombing during the American War, now hanging in a museum in Nghe An province, Vietnam.

But military events punctuated his life. He was only 20 when he joined the North Vietnamese Army in the 1970s. During the American War, Nguyen spent three years in the Truong Son Mountains, working behind the front lines, tasked with ensuring smooth radio communications.

At one time he caught malaria and was lost in the jungle for five days. To cross one particularly heavy river, he blew up a plastic bag and floated across. He eventually emerged in an area where naked female revolutionaries were bathing, he told the audience. They gave him short shrift, furious that he’d invaded their privacy.

Now officially retired, Nguyen still meets with former army colleagues once a year, and his painting work continues. Late last year, he finished two enormous “War and Peace” paintings for a museum in Nghe An province in north Central Vietnam. One shows the peaceful pastoral scene before the American bombing and the other, the wrecked post-war landscape.

* Vietnamese names use the surname first.

[Notes: Muoi Trong Nguyen has been my friend since 2014. Noi Chim was published by Nha Xuat Ban Hoi Nha Van in December 2015]

Muoi Trong Nguyen with his

Muoi Trong Nguyen with his “Peace” painting (2015), one of a pair now hanging in a museum in Nghe An province, Vietnam

In praise of roommates and random conversations

By Alison Bate

My French roommate Julien is practising his Occitan, a language I’d never heard of until he moved in four months ago.

Julien and the Occitan flag

Julien and the Occitan flag

Julien is from Toulouse and he showed me a beautiful YouTube video called Mon Pais, accompanied by a rousing patriotic song. The language of Occitan sounds like a cross between French and Spanish which, of course, it is.

Glorious snowcapped mountains, sweeping white beaches and unbearably cute limestone villages in southern France floated by as Occitan subtitles spread across the screen.

Meanwhile in our apartment, the red and yellow flag of Occitan has pride of place next to Julien’s computer. I made the mistake of saying: “It looks a bit like the Crusades flag.” He visibly blanched and rushed to correct me “No, it’s the opposite of that,” he said, launching into an extended history of Occitan. I quickly apologised.

The other day, I bought two colorful cups from the crockery bicycle woman, to supplement our meagre selection. When I returned to our apartment, Julien immediately grabbed the red one. “Ah, the colour of Occitan,” he cried.

“Of course, that’s why I chose it,” I murmured.

In the evenings, Julien often plays a strategy game called Europa Universalis, which starts in medieval times and seems to involve colonising the world. He’s the president of Occitan, of course, centred on his home town of Toulouse. “I’m going to take Canada next,” he warned, knowing I live in Vancouver.

When I came home from work, true enough, the whole of Canada belonged to him, as well as the U.S.

“I hope you’re a benevolent dictator,” I said.

“Of course and I’m not a dictator. The Americans just asked for freedom and I’ve given it to them.”

The Occitan phase seems to have faded and Julien’s moved on to another strategy game, set in the wilds of Manitoba, where he is fiercely defending his cabin from attacks by wolves.

The headless pig

Living in Hanoi, I’ve learned a lot from my roommates. Before Julien, I shared with two very different friends in this same apartment.

First there was Sarah, a British friend who loved shopping in the local markets in Nghi Tam and Au Co. I’d return after teaching at night to home-cooked dhal or glass noodle salad and long monologues about the wonderful bitter melon or okra she’d bought that day.

In particular, I recall Sarah’s misadventures with a headless pig. I’d been away for New Year’s on vacation and when I returned, she told me about her time over New Year’s Eve.

On January 1, she had a stinking hangover and vague memories of dragging colleagues onto the dance floor surfaced.  “Shouldn’t have caned it last night,” she told herself, before deciding: “Food, healthy food – that’s what I need.”

She left the apartment and headed down the alley to the street market. She bought her usuals – tomatoes, cukes and garlic – and some tofu so fresh it was still steaming.  Then it was time to get some meat.

The meat lady was a youngish woman, hair tied back in a ponytail, and wearing a dirty beige cotton shirt. She didn’t have much on offer, but a lot of women were hanging around expectantly and Sarah waited, too.

Suddenly a man on a motorbike pulled up beside the meat lady with a headless pig straddled on the back, riding pillion, its trotters on either side of the seat.  The driver plonked it down, still bleeding, and the meat lady calmly proceeded to cut it up. Sarah rubbed her hands, excited to buy meat clearly so fresh. She ended up with a kilo of pork for 70,000 dong and went home well pleased at getting such a good deal.

Back home, she settled in and began making a Chinese pork stew with star annise. She started cooking the meat, but whenever she checked it was still tough. Three and a half hours later, it was still chewy. She finally gave up.

“It was diabolical and then I had to eat it for the whole week,” she told me.

“Such a shame there was none left when I got back,” I said.

Going upmarket

After Sarah left Hanoi, an Aussie friend – Chris – moved in and the apartment went decidedly more upmarket. An electric kettle, toaster and proper wine glasses appeared in short order, and Chris hung a huge maroon fan on the wall as a centrepiece. Textile pieces from ethnic tribes around Sapa followed suit, as well as local lacquer paintings of Vietnamese women in conical hats.

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Biking with Chris near West Lake

We biked around West Lake, she learned to ride a Honda Cub and the conversations changed, too. Instead of food and students (Sarah and I were both teachers), our talks turned to sexual trafficking in Vietnam and the crappy Australian government.

After a visit to Ha Giang province, Chris told me how some of the older local men complained about the revealing dresses worn by women returned from China after being sexually trafficked. As though it was their fault!

Chris is from Adelaide and we both complained about our governments: Canada had Stephen Harper at the time and Australia had Tony Abbott, who made even Stephen Harper mellow by comparison.  I learned all about the damage Abbott was causing to those who needed social services and the cruelty of offshore detention camps such as Nauru.

Chris is back in South Australia but returned for a visit to Hanoi earlier this year, full of envy that Canada now has a more socialist government headed by Justin Trudeau, with a gender-balanced cabinet and ministers with real-life experience. And Australia? Well, Australia has Malcolm Turnbull. Say no more.

Random knowledge

When I was in my early thirties, a Canadian friend about the same age moved into his own place. “Having roommates is something you grow out of,” he told me with absolute certainty.

Clearly, I haven’t.  Living overseas, roommates are especially important buffers and have added greatly to my enjoyment and comfort.  I’ve also picked up copious amounts of random knowledge from hanging out around other people’s brains.

How else would I learn about Occitan, ladies’ fingers and Australian offshore detention camps?

Morning in Kalaw, Myanmar

By 6 a.m, I’m on the third floor patio of my hotel, listening to loudspeaker chants wafting over still-dark streets. I wrap my jacket around me and descend to the empty streets and head for the market.

Woman and child in Kalaw

Women and children in Myanmar often use natural suncream from the Thanaka plant

Outside the golden stupa, barefoot monks sing for their supper as they line up and move slowly past the village women, holding out black alms bowls. Many of the women wear thick toques or bobble-hats decorated with pom-poms against the morning chill. A row of lit sticks makes the simple ceremony curiously moving.

I sit in a little teashop afterward, eating a chapati still warm from the fire, along with side dishes of potato and onion chutney and a hot sauce. The cafe owner brings me sweet milky tea and a separate glass of green tea to wash it down.

Today it’s big market day in Kalaw and men in longhis or long skirts and women with checked headscarves are pouring into town on motorbikes or sitting on top of their produce packed into open-sided trucks. The women’s cheeks and noses are covered with a thick white paste from the Thanatka plant, which acts as a natural suncream.

A little later, macho men on their motorbikes hang around the tree, smoking and gossiping.

BlogBikersKalawWhen I return to the Golden Kalaw Hotel, three westerners in their 20s are huddled over smart phones in the little reception area, , trying to make the most of the spotty Wifi in Myanmar. ‘Look up! Go outside and see what you are missing!” I feel like saying.

But then I go to my bedroom and check to see that my iPad is charging properly.

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Rich red earth north of Kalaw, Myanmar

 

 

Pix of Bint el Sudan and workers at W. J. Bush & Co. (Nig) Ltd. factory in Kano, Nigeria

My Bint el Sudan story in Brownbook

My story about Bint el Sudan’s factory in Kano, Nigeria, with great pix by photographer Khalil Halilu, is in the January-February 2015 issue of Brownbook magazine. Brownbookbintcover290Brownbook is an urban guide to the Middle East, based in Dubai, U.A.E. (2019 update: The magazine has since closed)

For more information about Bint el Sudan, see the following:

* Surprise in the Souk

* Memories of Bint el Sudan

* 36 bottles of Bint el Sudan

* The history of Bint el Sudan (on Perfume Projects’ website)

General Giap goes home

By Alison Bate

Crowds pressed in to try and see the funeral procession of General Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi on Oct.12, 2013.

Crowds press in to try and see the funeral procession in Hanoi Sunday.

The body of General Giap was escorted from Hanoi to his home town in Quang Binh province for burial.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

From Darfur to Salt Lake City

I had just boarded the ferry at Horseshoe Bay in Canada when my cellphone rang.

The line crackled and it took a while to realize who it was.

“Is that you, Mohammed*?

“Yes! I am here! I am so happy – everyone is so kind.”

“Where are you?”

I learned he was finally in Salt Lake City in the western U.S. It was the end of five long years in limbo in Turkey, desperately waiting to find a country that would take him in.

I first met Mohammed in the dusty desert capital of Khartoum in Sudan. It was 2007, and I was teaching English there. He was one of my more advanced students, always working hard to improve his English.

I left Sudan and the school later that year but kept in touch with Mohammed by email and Facebook. He completed his studies at Sudan University of Science & Technology, but had a difficult time in Khartoum and his time in Darfur before that is his story to tell, not mine.

The next thing I knew, it was 2008 and he’d fled to Turkey as an asylum seeker. Two years later, he received formal recognition as a refugee. However, Turkey only gives temporary asylum to refugees from non-European Union countries. So, like many others, Mohammed was stuck waiting for another country to take him in.

I tried to get him accepted by Canada, but had no luck with the United Nations refugee agency in Vancouver. In the end, it was the U.S. that accepted him.

Last week, five long years after he fled Sudan, Mohammed arrived in the United States to begin his new life.

Welcome to North America, Mohammed, and may your future be bright.

*NOTE: Mohammed is not his real name

[Posted by Alison Bate on Sept. 29, 2013]