23rd anniversary of Tiananmen

Hard to believe 23 years have gone by since the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989. Despite the distance of time, any official discussion of the event the Chinese government still refers to as merely the “June 4th incident” is taboo. While Hong Kong remains surprisingly open in terms of freedom to assemble and protest about that night (there are yearly candlelight vigils on the anniversary of Tiananmen), there were no demonstrations reported across Mainland China where the events of June 4th are still considered “counter-revolutionary”.

Tank Man

“Tank Man”

When the Shanghai Composite Index opened today at 2,246.98, several bloggers within China interpreted this as the 23rd anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown when read from right to left. Their blogs were immediately shut down by censors. The Chinese have a long tradition of being superstitious- especially about numbers. There has been some speculation as to whether the fall in the index represented the work of hackers, but many believe that to be highly unlikely.

In the meantime, a spokesman for the US State Department encouraged the Chinese government to  “release everyone still serving sentences for their participation in the 1989 demonstrations; to provide a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing; and to end the continued harassment of demonstration participants and their families.”

Liu Weimin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with the statement.

Despite its acceptance of a more Western style capitalistic approach for its economy, the Chinese government is committed to one party rule at all costs.

Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 2010 and was involved in the 1989 demonstrations  is serving an 11 year sentence for his  internet proclamation “Charter ’08” urging China to end its one party rule and embrace democracy.


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Guide to pronouncing Chinese names

By popular request, we are adding a pronunciation guide for those who have said that would will help them pronounce some of the difficult Chinese names in our novel, “Rabbit in the Moon”.

The official system of romanization used in China today is known as Pinyin.  It is now almost universally adopted by the Western media. Although non-Chinese may initially encounter some difficulty in pronouncing romanized Chinese words,  many of the sounds actually correspond to the usual pronunciation of the letters in English. The exceptions:

c: is like the ts  in ‘its’

q: is like the ch  in ‘cheese’

x: has no English equivalent, and can be best described as a hissing consonant that lies somewhere between sh  and s. The sound was rendered as hs under an earlier transcription system.

z: is like ds  in ‘fads’

zh: is unaspirated and sounds like the j   in ‘jug’

a: sounds like ‘ah’

e: is pronounced as in ‘her’

i: is pronounced as in ‘ski’ (written as yi  when not preceded by an initial consonant).

However, in ci, chirishizi , and zhi,  the sound represented by the  final  i  is quite different and is similar to the ir  in ‘sir’, but without much stressing of the r  syllable.

o: sounds like the aw  in ‘law’

u: sounds like the oo  in ‘ooze’

e: is pronounced as in ‘get’

u: is pronounced as the German (written as yu  when preceded by an initial consonant)

When two or more finals are combined, such as hao, jiao, and liu, each letter retains its sound value as indicated in the list above, but note the following:

ai: is like the ie  in ‘tie’

ei: is like the ay  in ‘bay’

ian: is like the ien  in ‘Vienna’

ie: is similar to ‘ear’

ou: is like the o  in ‘code’

uai: sounds like ‘why’

uan: is like the uan  in ‘iguana’

(except when preceded by j, q, x , and y; in these cases a u  following any of these four consonants is in fact u  and uan  is similar to uen)

ue: is like the ue  in ‘duet’

ui: sounds like ‘way’


A few Chinese names are shown below with English phonetic beside them:

Beijing = Bay-jing

Guilin = Gway-lin

Xi’an = Shi-ahn

Qing Nan = Ching Nan

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Chinese music was our inspiration for “Rabbit in the Moon” thriller

We’ve been asked to think of who we’d like to see in the roles of the characters we’ve created in our novel, Rabbit in the Moon and in fact, we are working on that for a new website called My Book, The Movie. Frankly, with the exception of Lili, we didn’t focus as much on what film star should play what part.

Instead, we got our inspiration from Chinese music. As we were writing our book, we listened to Karen (Hua-Qi) Han’s gorgeous erhu (see picture above) playing

Karen happens to be a dear friend and some of the inspiration for our main character, Lili Quan, as well as the person to whom we dedicated our book. As Karen herself says, the 2000-year-old Chinese violin has a voice-like quality that evokes Eastern cultural traditions.

If a movie is made, we hope Karen will play (and perhaps compose) the music. She has been a featured musician in just about every Hollywood movie score that requires the erhu including The Joy Luck Club, The Last Emperor and Kung Fu Panda. Here’s a link to her playing the theme of that film:

It is also Karen playing on our book trailer.

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Our Singapore Food Fest

The Republic of Singapore is a city, a country and an island off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Because it’s only 85 miles north of equator, it’s almost always hot- sometimes wet and hot, but definitely hot.

Modern Singapore has experienced an extraordinary transformation from its original founding as a trading post of the East India Company by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Occupied first by the British, then the Japanese in WWII, back to the British after the war, it became internally governing in 1959. In 1963 it united with two other British territories to form Malaysia, then separated in 1965 to become a fully independent state. In the almost five decades since, Singapore has emerged as one of the world’s richest countries. It is the fourth-leading financial hub, the second largest gambling market, and the third largest oil-refining center.

Its five million inhabitants are among the most literate people in the world. Most are of Chinese, Malay, or Indian descent. English is readily spoken although Chinese, Malay and Tamil are also considered official languages. And while this small country is filled with amazing skyscrapers and high-rise condos, almost half of the land is covered by greenery – lovely parks and botanical gardens. Because it’s so expensive to have a car there ($60,000 just for a ten year permit to own a car!!), there is a fantastic public metro system, so getting around town is not only easy, but also inexpensive.

We had traveled to Singapore thirty years ago and though the country appeared modern then relative to China and even Hong Kong, the change today is remarkable.

What hadn’t changed for us was our memory of the incredible food.

If you’ve heard that food is a national obsession in Singapore, it’s absolutely true. We saw few overweight Singaporeans (at least compared to the US. Yet, it seemed as though everyone there is constantly eating – or if not eating, talking about where or what they’re going to be eating.

Singapore’s tourism board promotes the cuisine as a major attraction alongside shopping and the hype is well deserved. No matter where we ate – at a hawker stall, a mall food court, an outdoor family-style restaurant, or a fancy bistro, the food was outstanding.

Like the population itself, the food in Singapore is a product of diverse cultures living in close proximity – Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Peranakan (descendants of late 15th and 16th-century Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago during the Colonial era), Middle Eastern, Thai and even Western (especially English and Portuguese).

Thanks to Anthony Boudain whose TV show “Layover in Singapore” aired just before we left for our trip, we landed in the city with a long list of his food recommendations and the determination to try as many as possible. Luckily, Deb’s brother, who now lives and works in Singapore, was just as enthusiastic as Boudain and did everything he could to make sure we achieved our goal.

Much of the best (and least expensive) food can be found in the many hawker centers. Sometime in the 1990’s the government cracked down on street food, regulating the quality and moving everyone indoors, under air-conditioned food courts.  Here are just some of the highlights  of our two day eating fest with some photos above:

Day 1: Little India

– Kaya toast-thin slices of warm toast slathered with butter and kaya, a sweet coconut custard jam. Locals often have this for breakfast along with two soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce and pepper and a cup of coffee

-Milk sweets or Mithai (I found pistachio to be the best)- a type of colorful confectionery that made with sugar, milk, flour and condensed milk, and cooked by frying. In the Eastern part of India, milk is a staple, and most sweets from this region are based on milk products.

-Lunch at Anjappar, a Cettinand restaurant (NOTE: food from region 500 km south of Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu)

–Mutton curry

–Byriani chicken- Byriani is a one-dish, highly seasoned rice based meal consisting of layering cooked basmati rice and meat in a casserole baked in an oven

–Naan (with garlic and butter)-flat bread cooked in tandoor oven

–Papadum ( a crisp, delicious Indian flatbread / cracker / wafer)

We missed the Pongal festival celebrated for four days in January. In South India, especially in Tamil Nadu, The Indian version of Thanksgiving, Pongal signals the end of the traditional farming season. Entire villages gather for a community feast to share their crops, and to thank the Sun God, the Earth and the cattle for a bountiful harvest. In fact, Pongal comes from the word ‘ponga’, which means boil or boil over. In a non-farming country like Singapore, Pongal marks the start of the auspicious month of Thai, a time where Tamil Indians give thanks for the blessings of the past year. The term Pongal also refers to the sweetened rice porridge that is normally cooked on Pongal day. This Pongal rice has an important meaning to the Indian community. If it boils well, the family can look forward to happiness and blessings, and a good year ahead.

That evening at the huge outdoor Jumbo Seafood Restaurant, we ate:

– Chlil crab-hard shell crabs cooked in a thick tomato and chilli-based gravy.


-Steamed fish

Day 2: we visited Wisma Atria,. Located at the heart of Orchard Road, it is one of the city’s most popular shopping strips. Besides the 100 different specialty shops, the Food Republic offers wide variety of cuisine at more than 25 stalls.

Here we tried what is often called Singapore’s national dish: chicken rice. It sounds rather pedestrian, but it is incredibly delicious. The chicken is steamed or boiled and served atop fragrant oily rice, with sliced cucumber as the token vegetable. I am told that variants include roasted chicken or soy sauce chicken. Depending on one’s taste, the flavor can be enhanced by dipping the chicken into various sauces such as premium dark soy sauce, chili with garlic, and pounded ginger

We also tried the wonton which in Cantonese, means “swallowing of cloud”. Apparently most Singaporeans prefer the dry version of the thin egg noodles, although we ate them in a chicken soup.

Despite being stuffed, my brother insisted we eat some roti prata. This dish comes from Northern India and is prepared by flipping the dough into a large thin layer before folding the outside edges inwards. The dough is then heated on a hot plate. Flavorings or toppings, if ordered, can be added either before or after it is flipped, depending on the flavorings or the desired outcome. The ’tissue’ and ‘paper’ variants are pan-fried with butter, rolled into a cone shape and sprinkled with sugar. We had egg and cheese and onion prata- outstanding!

At the top of the spectacular Marina Bay Sands casino building we watched the day end – had drinks, appetizers and an amazing view of the city and the huge infinity swimming pool

In the downstairs luxury dining atrium, we had dinner at Chef Daniel Boulud’s elegant DB Bistro  where I especially enjoyed the squash and pomegranate soup

After 2  days of non-stop eating, we headed for Thailand, our next stop on our SE Asia tour. Our appetites sated, we left with a renewed appreciation for the amazing cuisine in Singapore – still wondering how so many stay thin!

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Does red wine really produce longevity?

When so much hope has been placed on the potential life prolonging effects of a substance in red wine called resveretrol, allegations that Dr. Dipak Das a University of Connecticut researcher had fabricated and falsified data in dozens of published papers is putting a damper on the work and upended plans for a December, 2012 international meeting.  Das is one of eight international experts on the scientific committee for the conference titled Resveretrol 2012 set for Lucknow, India.

Many of the now discredited papers asserted that resveretrol improves cardiovascular health. The university is in the process of dismissing Das and has already returned $890 000 of the federal research funding awarded to Das.

What appears to be an increase in fraud in medical research makes this story another sad commentary for those who believe in the sanctity of the scientific method. And for those who have taken up a daily glass or two of red wine to achieve longevity, well the real data is still out.


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Happy Chinese New Year 2012!!


Gung Hay Fat Choy! Happy Chinese Lunar New Year, the longest and most important Chinese festival.  It is also the oldest in chronological recorded history, dating from 2600 BC when the Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac. Like the Western calendar, The Chinese Lunar Calendar is a yearly one, with the start of the lunar year being based on the moon’s cycles. Because of this cyclical dating, the beginning of the year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February.

Lasting 15 days, this year it will begin on January 23 (the first day of the first month in the traditional Chinese calendar) and end with the Lantern Festival on February 9th. A complete cycle takes 60 years and is made up of five cycles of 12 years each.

The Chinese Lunar Calendar names each of the twelve years after an animal. Legend has it that the Lord Buddha summoned all the animals just before he departed from earth, but only twelve came. As a reward he named a year after each one in the order they arrived. The Chinese believe the animal ruling the year in which a person is born has a profound influence on personality, saying: “This is the animal that hides in your heart.”

This Lunar year, 4709 is the Year of the Water Dragon.  Fifth in the astrological cycle, Dragon Years follow the Rabbit and recur every twelfth year.

Anyone born in 1904, 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000 or 2012 is born under the sign of the Dragon.

According to the Chinese, anyone born under the Dragon Sign tends to be a free sprit- innovative, passionate, enterprising, flexible, self-assured, conceited, tactless, quick-tempered and brave.

These personality characteristics are then modified by one of the five Chinese elements of Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth which overlay a 5-year cycle of their own characteristics.

For 2012, that element is Water. Water is said to have a calming effect on the Dragon’s fearless temperament. It allows the Dragon to re-direct its passionate enthusiasm, making him or her a little less conceited, perhaps more perceptive of others. Because Water Dragons are also less quick tempered than others born under the Dragon sign, they are better able to take a step back and re-evaluate a situation. As a result, they tend to make intelligent decisions and deal well with others. Still, they need to learn to take their time and complete one project before starting another.

1952 was the last Water Dragon Year and produced such famous people as the leaders of Russia (Putin) and Singapore (Lee), a tennis champion (Connors), innovator (Craig Newmark, the founder of Craig’s list) and a host of CEOs of such companies as Coca Cola, Exxon-Mobil, Alberto-Culver, Time Warner, Colgate-Palmolive, Viacom, UPS, Radio Shack, Clorox, Tiffany & Company, Hershey, ITT, Macy’s, Xerox, and Walgreens.

The Dragon is the major symbol of good fortune and intense power in Chinese Astrology. For example, the Dragon constellation is accorded the honor of being the guardian of the Eastern sky. According to tradition, the Dragon brings in the Four Blessings of the East: Wealth, virtue, harmony, and longevity. Therefore people born in Dragon years are to be honored and respected.

While the other 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac are earthly animals, the Dragon is a mystical being and therefore special. Sometimes called a karmic sign, it is expected to portend larger than life events (like the dragon itself) for the year. That means spectacular successes as well as crash-and-burn failures.
The Dragon is not, however, just about money. It can also bring new love or renew an old romance. So this is a good year for engagements and weddings.

Chinese New Year is not only celebrated in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet or Taiwan. Countries and territories with significant Chinese populations, such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, as well as in Chinatowns elsewhere. This holiday has even had influence on the lunar new year celebrations of its geographic neighbors, as well as cultures with whom the Chinese have had extensive interaction including Korea (Seolial), Bhutan (Losar), Mongolia (Tasgaan Sar). Vietnam (Tet), and the Japanese prior to 1873 (Oshogatsu).

We’ll be heading for some of these places next week to document how Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, China and Hong Kong celebrate. Stay tuned!

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Eastern vs Western Medicine

In “Rabbit in the Moon” we explored the benefits of various Chinese herbs. Recently the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study by Chinese researchers  showing that a traditional Chinese herbal medicine – maxingshigan-yinquiaosan- made up of 12 different Chinese herbs- may help reduce fever in people with seasonal H1N1 influenza virus as quickly as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), making this a potential alternative treatment when Tamiflu is not available.

The study was a prospective, nonblinded controlled trial performed in 11 hospitals from 4 provinces in China. 410 subjects ages 15 to 59 years with laboratory confirmed H1N1 were randomly assigned either Tamiflu, maxingshigan-yinquiaosan, combined Tamiflu/ maxingshigan-yinquiaosan or no medication for 5 days. Subjects in all treatment groups had significant reductions in the time it took for their fevers to resolve compared with the control group. Those that had the combined Western and Eastern treatment had a 19% faster resolution time than those treated with either separately.

Future studies like this may offer more herbal alternatives to Western medications.

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