Bangkok, 27 July 2014

Well, I’ve received my transfer orders. I’m moving to Bangkok to take over our office there. So my wife and I have been down in Bangkok for the last week, looking for a place to stay. For the moment, we’re renting an apartment which we got through AirBnB. It gives right onto the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the middle of the city and around which the city grew. So as we have breakfast in the morning before we go out apartment-hunting we can watch the traffic on the river: the empty barges, riding high

ships on river 002

the full barges, with water to their gunwales

ships on river 005

the express boats crowded with commuters darting in between as they weave their way from bank to bank.

ships on river 001

But what also catches my eye is this temple on the other side of the river

temple across the river 001

and it always reminds me of … China. Or rather, a certain corner of China, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. This is way down in the south of Yunnan province, squeezed between Laos to the East and Myanmar to the West. A few years back, we spent a Dragon Boat Festival holiday in the prefecture’s main town, Jinghong, in a beautiful house which was built from elements scavenged from traditional houses that were being torn down in China’s rush to modernity.


It too gave on a river, the Mekong in this case (although the Chinese don’t call it that; it’s the Lancang River to them), and there too we could gaze down on the river while having our breakfast.

Yourantai-view of the river

The temples in Jinghong are built in the same style as the one I see across my breakfast table, or at least the newer establishments are.


The older temples in the area are somewhat more sobre.

temple Xishuangbanna

This very obvious echoing of the Thai style has a simple reason. The Thai people (Dai people in this part of the world, hence the name of the prefecture) originally came from southern China. Then, for reasons which may have to do with the southwards migration of the Han Chinese, a portion of them upped sticks in the first millennium AD and started wandering south through Laos and Myanmar until they settled in what is now Thailand. But they left echoes of their culture behind, reflected in the designs of the temples but also in the language – many of the signs in Jinghong are in Thai as well as in Chinese.

The local culture (Thai and non-Thai; the ethnic mix in this part of the world is quite bewildering) is threatened with submersion in the Han culture – recall that this is why the Thais probably originally started migrating southwards. Until the 1950s there were few Han Chinese in this part of Yunnan – they were afraid of the malaria, which was then endemic. But the Chinese communists vigorously promoted programmes which eradicated the malaria. They then brought in poverty-stricken migrants from other parts of China and put them to work cutting down the jungle and planting rubber trees in its place, so now the hills around Jinghong are monotonously covered with acre after acre of rubber trees. These are all clones from the same genetic line. Those who know about these things predict that sooner or later (probably sooner rather than later) a rubber tree virus from Brazil will arrive here and wipe out every single rubber tree: an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

In the meantime, the descendants of the miserably poor Chinese who were sent to Xishuangbanna to plant and tap all those rubber trees still live in miserably poor Chinese villages, scorned and resented by the local populations.

As I look at the temple across the river and reflect on all these historic movements of people, I am reminded of the current tensions in Thailand caused by more recent movements, tensions between migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, who do the dirty, poorly paying jobs which the locals no longer want to do, and the Thais, who have conveniently forgotten (if they were ever taught) that they too were once migrants.

“Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, as Jean-Baptiste Karr, a French journalist and novelist, said back in 1849, and as my French grandmother was fond of quoting: the more things change, the more they stay the same. So true.


Chao Phraya river pics: mine
Yourantai-interior: [in
Yourantai-river view: [in
Buddhist temple Jinghong: [in
Temple Xishuangbanna: [in


Beijing, 13 July 2014

As I mentioned in the postscript to my previous posting, I was in Budapest these last few days. One evening, in search of a restaurant, I came across this fountain:

Budapest 2014 fountain 001

Budapest 2014 fountain 002

As the pictures suggest, the fountain consists of a sheet of water moving as if it were the page of a book being turned. I rather like that idea. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I have since discovered that two venerable Hungarian universities, Eötvös Loránd University and Péter Pázmány Catholic University, both of whose foundations reach back to the 1600’s, are located across the street from the fountain. I would guess that the fountain is linked to them: aren’t Universities places which revere books? Maybe the fountain is telling us that books water our intellectual life. But that’s a bit too fanciful, perhaps.

My curiosity piqued, I started looking around for pictures of other sculptures where books play the lead role. And of course someone has already helpfully put together a gallery of such photos! It’s on a site called Book Riot, which promotes reading of book reading and writing about them, my kind of site. I have shamelessly lifted a number of their photos to put here. Most of them have obvious connections to book-related institutions.

Stacking books is clearly a popular design motif. Here’s a fairly straightforward stack in a sculpture in front of the Nashville public library


Here is another, a little bit more untidy and making the connection between books and children (which perhaps explains the untidiness of the stacking?). It adorns the public library in Coshocton, which is (and I had to look this up on Google Maps) in Ohio. The sculpture is composed of 100 books, each one representing one year of the library’s service to the community.


Here is another stack of books, this time from Berlin.


This particular sculpture no longer exists, alas. It was part of a set of six sculptures celebrating the football World Cup of 2006. After a few months, they were taken away, who knows where to. This particular sculpture, set up in Bebelplatz opposite Humboldt University, celebrated Johannes Gutenberg who invented the modern letterpress in the German city of Mainz in around 1450.

The stacking motif continues with this sculpture, although a spiraling twist has been given to the whole.


The sculpture is in front of Beijing’s Xinhua bookstore, although I must confess to never having noticed it.

Here, the stacking has turned into a triumphal arch, located in Atlanta, at Georgia State University.

georgia tech atlanta

This is a very obviously symbolic statue. It was created by the sculpture students at the University and is entitled “No Goal Is Too High If We Climb With Care And Confidence”. A visual metaphor dear to the hearts of many a University Professor, I’m sure.

This one, from Charlotte North Carolina, is quite different. Like the sculpture in Coshocton, it makes a connection between books and children, but here it becomes equivalent to playground equipment, showing books as something for children to play with, on, in.


As for Kansas City library, it dispenses with sculptures altogether and has just built the books right into its façade

kansas city public library

Another approach to book-sculptures is to consider the book a brick to be used to build structures. The Czech-Slovak artist Matej Kren has created a number of such structures, a couple of which I have photos for. The first is in the Prague municipal library

prague city library

I’ve not seen it, but I read that if you look inside you get the impression of an infinite tower. It seems that Kren has made clever use of mirrors to get this optical effect.

I don’t know where the structures in these other two photos are to be found

matej kren-1

matej kren-2

The last could easily be an old farm house in southern Europe somewhere. The following site shows a couple more such structures made with books by Kren and other artists.

This last photo brings me to another structure made with books, but of an altogether darker tenor. It is the Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz, Vienna, a memorial to the more than 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis before and during World War II. On my way back from Budapest to Beijing through Vienna, and with the book fountain still fresh in my mind, I decided on the spur of the moment to quickly revisit the memorial before boarding the bus for the airport.

holocaust memorial 001

From far away, it looks like one of those squat, windowless blockhouses which dotted the battlefields of World War II. But when you get closer, you see something else.

holocaust memorial 002

You see that the walls of this blockhouse are made of shelves of books. But the books are facing outwards rather than inwards as would normally be the case on a shelf. So unlike the sculpture pictured above in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, we know neither the author nor the title of any of the books. The shelves of the memorial simply appear to hold endless copies of the same book, which can stand for the vast array of faceless victims. The choice of books as the design motif perhaps alludes to the idea of the Jews being a “People of the Book”. Fittingly, another name for this memorial is the Nameless Library. Around the edges of the structure are carved the names of the camps where Austrian Jews died

holocaust memorial 003

At the other end of Judenplatz is a statue of the writer Lessing, staring so it seems at the Holocaust memorial.

Lessing statue Judenplatz

This is the same Lessing whose name appears on one of the spines of the sculpted stack of books in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, a photo of which I included earlier. A connection which allows me to segue into my next memorial, in that same Bebelplatz, a memorial to the campaign of book burnings, orchestrated by the German Student Union, which took place there and in 34 other German university towns in May 1933, shortly after the Nazis had taken power. The purpose was to ceremonially burn books by classical liberal, anarchist, socialist, pacifist, communist, Jewish, and other German and non-German authors whose writings were viewed as subversive to the new regime. Many came from Humboldt University’s libraries. The students first marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit”. Some 40,000 people then gathered in Bebelplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address:

“The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path…The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world to know – Here the intellectual foundation of the November Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.

Then the students joyfully threw the books onto the pyre, with band-playing, songs, “fire oaths”, and incantations.

bebelplatz book burning-1


In Berlin, some 20,000 books were burned. Looking back at the stack of books which make up the sculpture put in this same square 83 years later, Heinrich Heine’s books were burned, as were those of Anna Seghers, Karl Marx, Heinrich Mann, and Bertolt Brecht. In all, the works of some 60 German authors and 25 non-German authors were consigned to the flames.

The memorial to this shameful episode consists simply of a glass plate set into the square’s cobble stones, below which are visible empty bookcases, enough of them to hold the total of the 20,000 burned books.


Next to it is a plaque, with a line from Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play Almansor: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.” Heine was referring to the burning of the Muslim Quran by the Christian Inquisition in Spain. But looking back at the Holocaust memorial in Vienna’s Judenplatz, how prescient is that line! And the book burnings haven’t stopped, as a Wikipedia article eloquently shows.


Budapest book fountain: my photos
The following five photos are from
– Nashville public library:
– Coshocton public library:×1024.jpg
– Berlin Walk of Ideas
– Xinhua bookstore, Beijing:
– Brick book statue:
Georgia Tech University, Atlanta: [in
Kansas city library: [in
Prague city library: [in
Matej Kren-1: [in
Matej Kren-2: [in
Holocaust memorial, Judenplatz, Vienna: my photos
Lessing statue Judenplatz: [in
Bebelplatz book burning-1: [in
Bebelplatz book burning-2: [in
Bebelplatz memorial to book burning: [in


Beijing, 1 July 2014

For reasons which are too long to explain, a few days ago my wife and I moved out of our apartment and into another one not too far away. Suffice to say that renters have little if any protection in China: “you don’t agree to my doubling the rent? Well, the door is over there. Oh, and by the way, I’ll keep the deposit.”

In any event, this forced relocation has meant that I’ve had to walk a new route to and from the office, which takes me under a new set of trees. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say, which in this case is my discovery of the goldenrain tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, under a row of which I now walk every day. This picture shows nicely the origins of the name. At this time of the year, the tree is covered with bunches of small yellow flowers, which drizzle down on the ground around the tree.

solitary goldenrain tree

In my row of goldenrain trees, planted as they are close to each other – to give shade, which is devoutly to be thanked for at this time of year – I don’t get such an uncluttered view of the trees and their flowers. This is about the best I’ve managed to see.

golden rain tree 009

I also haven’t really been able to see the golden raindrops scattered around on the ground since the street sweepers are very efficient in this part of town. This is all I’ve seen, little piles ready to be picked up

golden rain on ground

although this car parked under some of the trees shows what the pavement must look like early in the morning.

golden rain on car

Actually, it wasn’t the flowers which attracted my attention. It was the seed pods (the tree seems to move from flower to seed astonishingly quickly). Some of them had fallen onto the pavement

seed pods on ground 006

and it was their light, translucent green which drew my eye. I carefully picked up a few – they are very delicate – and took them home. My wife took this in her stride; she is used by now to my bringing home botanical strays. I laid the pods out on our table cloth and took this picture

pods on table - 1 july 001

I’m not sure what to call this green. The clever thingy which in the Word software allows me to have an infinite number of colours for my fonts tells me that in the colour model RGB (whatever that is) it’s about 200 Red, 255 green, and 90 blue. But that’s far too boringly scientific. I would like a name for this green! A search of colour charts for paints, dyes and the like suggests that it could be Lime Green. Or there’s a green called Inchworm, after an inch-long worm of that colour. Or could it be Chartreuse? But that’s too yellow I think. Or maybe Spring Bud; it certainly has something of that tender green which we associate with Spring.

And I really like their shape. A number of websites call it bladder-like. Really, some people have no imagination! Others note a resemblance to Chinese lanterns, which is a much better comparison

green chinese lantern

although I think Chinese lantern makers could profit aesthetically from trying to copy the somewhat rounded pyramidal shape of these seed pods.

Having had my attention drawn to the pods, I quickly noticed how they clustered thickly about the crown of the trees, giving a frosting of light green on the dark green of the leaves, a delightful effect.

pods on tree - 1 july 002

pods on the tree

I understand that the pods eventually turn brown. It will be interesting to see how this changes the visual pleasure which I currently get from the tree on my daily walk to and from the office (intermittently cursing at my previous landlord).

POSTSCRIPT 1, 10 July 2014

Once you see one, you begin to see them everywhere …

I’m in Budapest at the moment, for reasons which are also too long to explain. Yesterday evening, I was walking across a little park when at its exit I stumbled across a goldenrain tree sheltering locals having a quiet evening drink and chat.

goldenrain trees Budapest 003

Here, it’s an immigrant in a foreign land. The goldenrain tree is native to China and Korea.

POSTSCRIPT 2, 17 August 2014

Well, the pods have turned brown. This is what the trees look like now.

golden rain tree with mature pods 002

I don’t know, I think I prefer the pods in their lime green phase.


Solitary goldenrain tree: [in
Green Chinese lanterns: [in
other pictures: mine