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Entries about living abroad

Living & dying as an imperial consort

The Emperor will need female companionship in the afterlife

sunny 26 °C

They buried the concubines in pits, after the women had hung themselves from silk ropes or swallowed poison. This is what my guide to the Ming Tombs in China, John, informs me as we both stare down at the metal grate covering one of the pits in question.


Upon death and his entry to the afterlife, the Emperor would need female companionship. So he chose which concubines were to be executed by palace eunuchs or to commit suicide, and they were buried on the outskirts of the tombs.

“Sometimes they were burnt, and very rarely they were buried alive in a standing position, so they could greet the Emperor in the afterlife.”

The latter two practices were discontinued in the advancing years of the Ming dynasty after being deemed uncivilized.

The Imperial Garden was the site of concubine try-outs. Concubines would audition for entry into the Emperor’s select inner harem. Some Emperors had thousands of concubines, so making it into the elite inner circle was no small feat. Those who didn’t make the cut were given as presents to foreign dignitaries, nobles, or those the Emperor was pleased with.

Staring at those burial pits, wind through cypress needles, I shudder, snap a photo, and walk on.




Posted by DenaAllen 06:08 Archived in China Tagged culture city china forbidden living_abroad Comments (0)

Sense-drunk & sweating

Bali's insistent indulgence

sunny 31 °C

November 25, 2010 – 8:22 AM Ubud, Bali


There is a woman whose job it is to pick the flowers. The flowers used to adorn every nook and corner of the villa I’m staying at in Nyu Kuning village on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali. She has a long stick with a forked end, and a plastic bag half full of blooms looped over her arm. She quietly prowls this garden that makes words like verdant and lush seem understated. I have grown gills and cannot be convinced to leave the pool. Bending down, she shows me her collection and asks if I’d like one. “For your hair,” she says, offering me a pink frangipani.


The flowers are also used as offerings. Bundled with fruit and incense and intriguing little flourishes like a mini-Ritz cracker or a plastic-wrapped candy. Balinese people are intensely devout and small shrines and offerings are everywhere – outside family dwellings, shops, dotted around guesthouses, on sidewalks, tucked into the corners of green spaces – incense wafting and the little banana leaf packages being raided by birds.

“The ephemeral arts”. I am in love with this phrase. I found it on an art gallery wall used to describe the offerings Balinese women are responsible for making on behalf of the family throughout the day. Simple or elaborate, these spirit gifts must be constructed. The forces of good and evil must be kept in balance. Words must be spoken.


Magik. Incense. That otherworldly gamelan music in your ears. Flowers. The shining filaments of butterfly cocoons dripping off palm leaves. Water running over rocks. Snakes red and brown and small. The iridescent exoskeletons of beetles. People moving slow and smiling quick. Fat, glossy lizards. A lushness that teeters on the obscene.

Cruising around rice fields on the back of a motorbike. Koman and I are on a mission to find the perfect woodcarving of Rama and Sita for me to take home to Bangkok. We’ve stopped for a break at a roadside eatery – I’m sticking to the red plastic chair and scarfing down some of the best roast chicken on record.

Art is ubiquitous. Paintings, carvings, music, dancing, ceramics, silverwork…galleries and museums both in your face and hidden away. Every café and guesthouse and shop features some artistic offering for either view or sale. Walking into the surreal and sensual Blanco Renaissance Museum, I’m presented with an oversweet welcome drink and a flower “For your hair”, the lady who takes my ticket informs me with a slow smile. Large tropical birds – both tame and wild – muttering and screeching, a giant stone dragon slithers down the imposing entrance steps, there’s opera in my ears, and a stained glass dome filtering coloured light downwards to glance off the already shockingly bright walls and canvasses.

The Blanco museum is bonkers and beautiful. Ornamental, strange, sexy. Rococo doesn’t even begin to cover it. Carved gilt frames and flashing black eyes and full breasts. Fruit and glitter and the sound of insects. Strange words strung together. Dizzying. Hot. Me, sense-drunk and sweating. Blanco, and Bali, softly but firmly whisper to me that more is more. As if I needed convincing.

Posted by DenaAllen 22:14 Archived in Indonesia Tagged art bali indonesia culture living_abroad Comments (1)

Hanoi's quiet seduction

sunny 35 °C

Beguiling. Hanoi is absolutely beguiling. I was here nine years ago as a scruffy backpacker – both the city and I have changed, but the combination is still pure bewitchery.

Everything and everyone is out on the street. Noodle pots and tiny plastic stools appear and it’s an impromptu alfresco dining experience. Every corner a street-side café offering industrial-strength Vietnamese coffee, dripped onto condensed milk and strong as the reverence for Ho Chi Minh felt round these parts. Whole streets selling nothing but tombstones, or tin, or warehouse-big bolts of silk, or jar upon jar of herbs or animal bits or who-knows-what to be ground into medicine.

Misty Hoan Kiem Lake, young and old alike out practicing Tai Chi, families picnicking, multiple just marrieds getting their wedding photos snapped, young couples whispering under tree-shade. Evening and still too hot, dads walking around with sleeping babies, drool on their forearms. French colonial architecture. Beers and still more roadside noodles. Swish bistros, cyclos chasing customers or transporting goods when tourists can’t be found. Getting lost in the old quarter and playing paper, rock, scissors with two little brothers (cos you don’t need a common language to get your ass kicked). Pulling up a plastic stool that maybe fit one third of my backside and slurping a freshly-cracked coconut. Sadly informing my boss that no, those dead animals on the back of that motorbike, stacked 4 high, hairless and ready for someone’s dinner, were not goats but dogs.

Incense sticks and money to be burned for the ancestors in a variety of both denominations and currencies. Getting ripped off by cab drivers and smiled at by old ladies, and having hello shouted at me from countless little kids. Getting my weight read by a man who looked to own a cracked scale and not much else, and having a small group of people crowd around to read the results and actually pat me on the back at the impressive and obviously healthy number.

I fell in love with all these songbirds in cages. Hanging in shops and on apartment balconies and off power lines and overtop sidewalk barber chairs. Gorgeous amid the cacophony of traffic and vendors. Apparently there are tea shops where you bring your bird, hang it up alongside the birds of other patrons and you all sip and listen to their warbling. Magnifique! Will they let me in without a bird, do you think?

The motorbikes – millions of them – are inescapable, their honking and buzzing an aural undercurrent that accompanies you your entire trip. Crossing the road takes balletic precision and a saint’s strength of faith – you see the onrush of traffic and you just step out anyways, trusting that the bikes will move around you. Look both ways – continuously – take small steps and walk in a straight line. It works, but you need to woman up for it.

I remember being here the first time round with my girlies Erica and Ronnie. We were laughingly incredulous at the traffic – we compared crossing the road to a grotesque game of Frogger (if anyone remembers that old skool video game from the 80s), your mission was to get across the stream but at any moment you could be splattered, squashed and written off by any number of hazards. I remember how an old man in Ho Chi Minh City initiated us into the fine Vietnamese art of crossing the street. Coming up to barely my chest, he held on to my arm and walked me across the road as though I was a child, using the tactics outlined above. It’s one of my favourite memories of being a wide-eyed and grinning newbie backpacker in SE Asia. So funny to be back here as a laptop-toting real fer real grown-up on a work trip ;)

And the food. My lord you could simply eat your way through this country (and I know none of you are surprised to hear that I did). Papery thin fresh spring rolls, noodles of every colour and description, mango shakes, banana crepes, baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese, gorgeously glutinous crab and asparagus soup, tamarind and garlic prawns, hotpots and grilled garlic fish and coconut ice cream. As per usual, some of the menus proved to be inscrutable, just what is “Bowl depository swear goby” do you think? Or “Ruffle fried squid”, or “strangled chicken polygonaceae” (they make pills for that) or my personal favourite, “salt torrefaction crab”. It’s a mystery!

Vietnam was the second country in the world to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and has made great lengths towards universal literacy and primary school enrollment. But it’s also on par with Nigeria on the corruption scale. The one party state thing seems to have somewhat shielded it, from what I could see, from the horrors of sex tourism that you see in other parts of SE Asia. Whilst booking my hotel online, I was clearly informed that non-Vietnamese men checking in with a Vietnamese woman must show a marriage certificate. That’s a far cry from Thailand’s blasé “joiner fee”! (The charge levied on your room if you bring back a sex worker or freelance girlfriend for the night or a few hours thereof).

It’s been really interesting for me to compare Vietnam’s capital to Thailand’s. I love Bangkok, I do. But it has a certain grasping, try-hard aspect to it that I can find grating some days. It’s like it’s working very hard to convince you it’s a sophisticated and glamorous global city. And it is. But does it have to expend so much damn effort to prove it? Hanoi doesn’t seem to have that. It’s effortlessly cool. Like the kid in the back of your English class, it’s so cool it doesn’t need to try. Bumping right up against the traditional Chinese medicine shops and noodle stalls are these fashionable young designers with Western-Eastern hybrids hanging in the window, and trendy hair salons turning out kids who look like they could be on Asian MTV.

Hanoi, bewitch me. Whirl around me with your ghosts and your tragic hipsters, too. Reveal to me your crumbling arches, your red-painted pagodas, your cracked plastic chairs and cheap flip-flops. Get me drunk on caffeine, sugary milk and melting ice cubes and whisper to me your myths of magical turtles and fairy-seducing dragon lords. Drape me in raw silk and a fine film of dirt and sweat and let me laze away with you in your steaming afternoons. Beguile me.

Posted by DenaAllen 04:56 Archived in Vietnam Tagged living_abroad Comments (2)

“I want my Bangkok back”

Red shirts, riot gear & bamboo rockets

overcast 27 °C

April 28, 2010 - 8:11 pm


“I’m sorry for all this,” the lady at the motorcycle taxi rank says to me with a sad sort of grimace. The queue is triple the length it usually is. Bangkok’s traffic – hideous on the best of days – has gone into a brutal gridlock as people rush home, worried that a military crackdown on the “red shirts” is imminent. The sky train and subway lines have been in disarray for days. Key roads are blocked by military and the protestors continue to paralyze the economic and commercial epicentre of Bangkok.

This woman doesn’t know me. But she feels compelled to apologize to me, the foreigner caught up in an internal conflict, for all the chaos and disorder her city has sunk into.

My Thai coworkers have done the same thing. They’ve sheepishly apologized to any of the expat staff within earshot for the current mayhem gripping the city they love. “I’m sorry!” they groan, “Bangkok is not usually like this!” and “My country is out of control right now!” I think it’s a strange reaction. They have nothing to do with the political turmoil and the civil strife – why are they apologizing to the collected farang?

“This makes us look crazy,” one of my best Thai friends lamented to me when the red shirts started throwing protestors’ blood at key political points around the city a few weeks back. “It makes us look like we’re some third world backwater. I want my Bangkok back.” From what I have seen, Thais are quite concerned about their standing in the eyes of the world. They want the country to be seen as an Asian tiger, not an Asian cuckoo.

“I think this is not good for tourism and the economy,” continues the woman waiting for her ride home. “Foreigners will be afraid to come here.” And it’s true. I’ve had friends on SE Asian swings change their travel plans just so as to avoid Thailand in general and Bangkok specifically. I’ve seen figures in the media reporting Bangkok hotel occupancy rates hovering somewhere around a dismal 20%. Ouch.


Today was not a good day for Bangkok. Tear gas, rubber bullets, live rounds fired into the air by the military, one soldier possibly killed, transportation chaos, tension running rampant through the city, and bamboo rockets (I had to ask a co-worker what these were – we don’t have bamboo in Canada, much less bamboo rockets. They’re basically explosives propelled through a hollow bamboo branch).

But it’s so weird, life goes on. The evening the official state of emergency was declared by the government I was out to dinner with some friends. We heard the news, sort of shrugged our shoulders and carried on to the pub. And April 10, when the military moved in trying to clear the barricaded red shirts and 25 people were killed and hundreds injured, I was at a yoga retreat on the beach in Koh Samui. None of the tourists sun-tanning themselves even knew what was going on. Thailand’s worst civil violence in two decades and they were all floating in the sea and downward dogging, blissfully unaware.

It’s because for the most part, the protests and fighting have been localized – contained in certain areas of the city – a pain in the ass fer sure, but relatively easy to avoid. But things have changed and the death toll has been climbing. In the last few weeks 27 people have been killed and approximately 900 injured. Bangkok residents don’t recognize their home city anymore.


The situation is radically different from last year when I wrote this post. And the tension has noticeably ratcheted up in the last few weeks. Living four doors down from the Prime Minister, I had a front-row seat when the red shirt traveling circus rolled down Suk 31 to splatter blood all over my poor neighbour’s front door. There were plenty of soldiers in full riot gear, but the atmosphere was downright festive amongst the red shirts. Things went down in the usual chill Thai style, even prompting this classic picture below of a grinning red shirt girl with obliging soldiers that was snapped by Newley Purnell. But there is no more smiling, now there are sharpened bamboo canes, water cannons, and tire barricades doused in fuel.


But somehow, the “only in Thailand” aspect is still there. This morning, my organization’s overworked and ubiquitous security advisor stood in front of my desk shaking his head in obvious amazement. “Last night I saw a formation of soldiers in full riot gear in the parking lot of Robinson’s department store on the corner of Sukhumvit 19,” he said. “There were officers with microphones shouting orders and warnings from the back of this military vehicle. Then they stopped shouting, and starting singing karaoke! The assembled crowd and the rest of the soldiers loved it! I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t have seen it with my own eyes.”

I don’t tell this anecdote to downplay the gravity of the situation, people are dying. Most people want it to stop. But seriously, only in Thailand.

Posted by DenaAllen 06:08 Archived in Thailand Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Rescuing girls from child labour in Nepal

The opinions expressed in this post are mine alone and do not represent Plan

sunny 25 °C


When Asha was eight, her parents sent her to work as a domestic servant in the home of a wealthier landowner. Not forever, just for a year. But one year turned into ten and Asha didn’t come home until she was 18.

“That first night, I was really scared,” Asha says. “I didn’t speak the same language as the landowner’s family. I didn’t know anyone. I cried a lot.”

I met Asha a few weeks ago when I was in Nepal with Plan, looking at how we can prevent child labour and support working children.


Asha comes from the Terai region in the western lowlands of Nepal. Her family is Tharu, one of Nepal’s indigenous minorities. Tharu families have very few opportunities to earn a livable income. Most don’t have their own land and are forced to work as agricultural day-labourers. Providing the necessities of food, shelter and clothing becomes an all-consuming task for many Tharu parents. They don’t have money left over for education. They don’t have reserve funds if a family member gets sick or if a parent is unable to find work that day. Oftentimes girls are seen as little more than a drain on the family’s income, as just another exploitable resource.

“I worked from very early in the morning until very late at night,” Asha says. “I would get up around 4:30 am and wouldn’t get to sleep until 10 or 11 pm. I never had any days off.”


I have been to a few countries in my life now, and never have I seen more working children than I did in Nepal. In 2001 the International Labour Organization estimated that over 42% of Nepali children, approximately 2.6 million children between 5 to 16 years of age, are working. Those figures are 9 years old. Like much of Asia, Nepal has a growing youth population, so I can only imagine what the figures are now in 2010.


Kamalari is a system of bonded labour. Under it, girls are sent to work as indentured domestic servants in the houses of those more financially fortunate than them – usually higher-caste landowners, business people or civil servants. Girls are usually around 8 or 9 when they are sent to work, though some have been sent as young as 5 or 6. Can you imagine? A 5 year old being expected to clean the house and take care of other children??


Oftentimes the girls are taken far away from their communities to different parts of the country and areas where they don’t speak the same language. Alone and without family or community support, they are vulnerable to all sorts of harms, including physical violence and possible sexual abuse. Some have been trafficked into brothels in India via open borders where identity cards aren’t checked and no questions are asked.


Plan estimates that between 10 and 12 thousand girls are currently working as indentured domestic servants under the kamalari system. Plan Nepal, with the support of Plan Germany, are working to change this in 5 districts of western Nepal.
Since 2005, Plan and its local partner Society Welfare Action Nepal, have rescued and supported 1,739 kamalari girls.


“There are less than 100 girls left to be rescued in Dang district,” says Pratibha Chaudhary, Plan Nepal’s kamalari abolition project manager who is herself from the Tharu community. “Before, even district officials themselves had kamalari girls working in their houses. But now the district administration has declared Dang kamalari-free and we are all working to keep it that way. But still, there is much work to be done.”


Plan is working to dismantle the kamalari system on a number of fronts. “In order to be successful, our work has to be multi-faceted, we need to come at this from a variety of different angles,” says Donal Keane, country director of Plan Nepal. “In addition to rescuing and rehabilitating these girls, we help them get back into school or provide alternative education support, we give them training in a trade, and support them in starting their own businesses. We also support parents so they can earn a decent living for their families and don’t have to send their daughters to work. And of course we run public awareness campaigns at all levels – from the villages right up on to the national stage.”


Plan has started scaling up its fight against the kamalari system, expanding into the districts of Kailali and Kanchanpur this year and aiming to rescue an additional 4,500 girls from indentured servitude.


“We still need to re-educate the landowners and the higher-income families who are recruiting these girls,” says Prem Pant, manager of the Banke program unit. “They need to see how exploiting the poverty of these families is wrong. The laws are on the books, the challenge is in implementation, enforcement and fighting indifference.”


Asha is doing much better these days. When I met her she was laughing and busily preparing meals for myself and some other guests. With Plan’s support, she now runs a restaurant called the Lawa Juni Hotel, lawa juni means “new life” in Tharu. “My former bosses, the landowners who used to work me so hard, they now come to my restaurant,” says Asha, blushing with obvious pride. “Now they compliment me on my cooking and speak to me with respect.”


Posted by DenaAllen 04:08 Archived in Nepal Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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