Monday, 18 May 2009

Buried In Time

My unedited review of Anchee Min's The Last Empress that got swallowed up by the labyrinthine editing process at The Star. I felt the book, the sequel to Empress Orchid, spoke for itself. It also marked the start of a brief spell where the books I chose were part of a series.

History has never been kind to women with power (not when men write the books, anyway): Boudicca, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Empress Wu Zetian and even Queen Elizabeth I.

Apart from Wu Zetian, the only other empress this side of the world who’s been given a bad rep is Ci Xi. Tales of her excesses roared across every corridor and back-alley during her days. Under the Communists, her reputation fared no better. Modern-day scriptwriters did her no favours, either. Thus, the image of the female tyrant who reigned in her son’s name lives on to the present.

Then I came across Anchee Min’s The Last Empress. I was expecting the usual, so I thumbed a few pages - and was proven wrong.

The Dowager Empress Ci Xi began life as Orchid, the daughter of an official whose death left the family in dire straits. Once she entered the imperial court, she schemed and bribed her way into the emperor’s bedchamber and eventually sired an heir, no doubt stepping on some toes and ruffling a few feathers on the way. Ci Xi’s rise to power is chronicled in Empress Orchid, also by the same author. The story continues in this kind-of autobiographical account of the Dowager Empress’ days until the end.

I knew how the story ended, but I was unprepared for how it was told here. Min depicts the Dowager Empress as a smart, strong-willed and all-too human woman trying to shine in her role: disciplining the unruly, forging alliances, outmanoeuvring scoundrels and keeping her enemies at bay, struggling against the tide of public opinion, political chicanery and the onset of globalisation.

The author gives readers front-row seats to the drama that is twilight of the Qing Dynasty and remains faithful to the historical timeline. In this version, Her Majesty was in fact aware of the plots swirling around her, but every attempt to remedy the situation was sabotaged by traitors, schemers and the ineptitude of others, including her son. Other times, she was simply outmanoeuvred. Blame is also laid on the foreign media of the time, with accusations of sensationalism and propaganda. Once can’t help but draw parallels with Iraq and its “heroic exiles” like Ahmed Chalabi.

While there are glimpses into Ci Xi’s official role, more emphasis is given to her personal side. Your heart is wrenched by the Empress’ losses and how she reacts to them. As the country collapses around her, sabotaged by enemies from within and beyond, friends and loved ones are taken away one by one: her biological son, her eunuch attendant, trusted advisors and the other man in her life, whom she could not openly acknowledge. Her slow, painful decline is finally marked by one last departure - her own.

The prose is powerful and evocative of that bygone era. The Wade-Giles method of spelling Chinese names (as opposed to today's hanyu pinyin method) gives the pages the feel of an old history book. The flapping sounds of pigeon’s wings, the scent of flowers in the garden, meandering streams and the smell of musty old corridors and dark corners of the Forbidden City, are all brought vividly to life - minute interludes before each chapter unfolds.

In The Last Empress, Min abandons the notoriously popular Ci Xi of the silver screen and (sometimes biased) history books and gives us Ci Xi the mother, aunt, sister, lover and human being - a convincing portrayal that will have you wishing that the author’s interpretation of the Dowager Empress is actually closer to the truth. One can’t discount the possibility; written history has been proven to be as fallible as human memory, and subject to interpretation - or subversion.

The Last Empress
Anchee Min
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
308 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7475-7850-5

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Blookish And British

For this one, they actually rang me up and sent me a copy of the text to check. Not much to do, really. This time they did a better job.

Sadly, another review of mine for Anchee Min's The Last Empress will never make it to print; they apparently published an overseas review of this book instead, not knowing they had mine on file. So it goes...

Slight ride

first published in The Star, 17 May 2009

Unless hosted on a subscription-based system, password-protected, or set to private, blogs are generally open to the public. So why compile the posts of a public blog into a paperback volume for sale?

Well, for one thing, charity. Which is nice of the authors. But I think some readers would have a hard time fathoming the need for this "blook".

A blook is a book derived from a blog. In 2002, Tony Pierce collected posts from his blog on Hollywood and published them in a printed book called Blook (the winning entry from a contest Pierce held to name his book, sent in by American professor, blogger and media guru Jeff Jarvis). Which is what two women who travelled 12,500 miles (about 20,000km) on three wheels for charity did with their blog posts.

British belles Antonia "Ants" Bolingbroke-Kent and Jo Huxster, both in their late 20s, have been best friends since secondary school. Bitten by the travel bug early in life, they'd planned to go on a jaunt upon graduation from uni. But their plans were derailed when Huxster succumbed to depression for several years. Bolingbroke-Kent also became more aware of mental health issues when she lost another friend to suicide.

Then, when a recovered Huxster was on vacation in Bangkok in 2002, she encountered the cute tuk-tuk. The diminutive, garishly decorated three-wheelers that throng Bangkok's roads rekindled the girls' enthusiasm for travel – but on a much larger scale than before.

Their trip, they decided, would start in Bangkok and end in Brighton, England – a journey of those aforementioned 12,500 miles. It would aim to raise £50,000 (RM270,000) for a cause close to both girls' hearts: Mind (, a mental health charity for England and Wales. And ... they'd be travelling in a custom hot-pink tuk-tuk that they euphoniously christened Ting Tong.

"Ting tong" actually means "crazy" in Thai. It's like the gods wanted them to go on this trip, which eventually began in May 2006 and ended triumphantly in Brighton 14 weeks later in September that same year.

No crazy 20,000km trip would be complete without mechanical tantrums from their best supporting character, of course, despite Ting Tong having been souped up to withstand the long miles. But the emergencies always got a helping hand from the tuk-tuk manufacturer in Bangkok, and even from some locals in different countries.

Hard-core romantics will be disappointed to know that, being a sponsored charity tour, it wasn't all roadside camps and grubbing for roots for dinner.

Nor were there any run-ins with smugglers and paramilitary types, thank goodness – although Ants scrapped one route over the possibility of US missiles over Iran.

The trip and its purpose were heavily covered by the press in most countries they visited, but to keep their audience more up-to-date, the girls blogged. And I read the dead-trees version of their crazy adventure; a cut from the proceeds of the blook's sales will go to Mind.

According to the girls' website,, the trip raised £24,000 (RM129,600); donations to the cause still being hosted at has since raised the figure – as of Friday – to slightly more than £45,000 (RM243,000).

The book gives quite a bit of backstory about the girls' lives, from how they first met to Huxster's struggle with depression, and the events leading to the birth of their tuk-athon.

In the tradition of a typical travel book, there's a travel resource section at the end, and a frequently-asked questions list for aspiring cross-country tuk-tuk daredevils. Suffice to say that this is not something anybody does on a whim!

Tuk Tuk to the Road is an enjoyable ride, but isn't anyone involved in producing this book worried about the story going stale after the second re-reading? I know I'd be. The only reason I'd ever pick it up again is if I need a distraction from other more important things. You know, like, reviewing other books....

Tuk Tuk to The Road
Two Girls, Three Wheels, 12,500 Miles

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent and Jo Huxster
Friday Books
262 pages
ISBN: 978-1-905548-65-1