Oct 232017

Today is a public holiday in Cambodia (where I currently live) celebrating the Paris Peace Accords of 1991 (សន្ធិសញ្ញាសន្តិភាពទីក្រុងប៉ារីស), formally titled Agreements on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, which were signed on this date, and marked the official end of the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1975 – 1991). The agreement marked the first occasion when the UN took over as the government of a state. The last quarter, or so, of the 20th century was a horrific time to be living in Cambodia, so that as the century closed with the Paris Peace Accords there was a sense in the country that a modicum of equilibrium and normalcy in the country was possible. I’ll highlight a few salient points in the history of Cambodia here as a way of underscoring two themes I return to in my writing quite often: (1) Nationalism has been an unmitigated disaster since the 19th century. (2) The vast bulk of Westerners are quite contentedly ignorant of the history, culture, and politics of Asia as a whole and of SE Asia in particular. Obviously, all I can do is scratch the surface. You’ll have to learn more on your own.


Independence of Cambodia and Vietnam from France in the 1950s led to civil war in both countries but in different ways. Cambodia’s independence was reasonably straightforward at the outset, Vietnam’s was not. When France divested itself of Indochina in 1953, Cambodia became a kingdom under Sihanouk, but Vietnam split into a pro-Russian communist northern region and a pro-Western southern region. We all know what happened there next. Cambodia’s history in that era got very complicated because it not only split ideologically between the kingdom under Sihanouk and the Chinese-communist Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, but also had to battle incursions from Vietnam.

Pol Pot

During the Vietnam War, Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge communist armies had formed an alliance to fight U.S.-backed regimes in their respective countries. Despite their open display of cooperation with the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge leadership feared that the Vietnamese communists were scheming to form an Indochinese federation with Vietnam as the dominant force in the region. In order to pre-empt an attempt by the Vietnamese to dominate them, the Khmer Rouge leadership began purging Vietnamese-trained personnel within their own ranks starting in 1975 when the Lon Nol regime, which had overthrown Sihanouk in 1970, capitulated. (Are you following so far?) Then, in May 1975, the newly formed Democratic Kampuchea, dominated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, began attacking Vietnam, beginning with an attack on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quốc. In spite of the fighting, the leaders of reunified Vietnam and Kampuchea made several public diplomatic exchanges throughout 1976 to highlight the supposedly strong relations between them. However, behind the scenes, Kampuchean leaders continued to fear what they perceived as Vietnamese expansionism. As such, on 30 April 1977, they launched another major military attack on Vietnam. Shocked by the Kampuchean assault, Vietnam launched a retaliatory strike at the end of 1977 in an attempt to force the Kampuchean government to negotiate. In January 1978, the Vietnamese military withdrew because their political objectives had not been achieved and the Khmer Rouge remained unwilling to negotiate seriously.

Small-scale fighting continued between the two countries throughout 1978, as China tried to mediate peace talks between the two sides. However, neither country could reach an acceptable compromise at the negotiation table. By the end of 1978, Vietnamese leaders decided to remove the Khmer Rouge-dominated regime of Democratic Kampuchea, perceiving it as being pro-Chinese and too hostile towards Vietnam. On 25 December 1978, 150,000 Vietnamese troops invaded Democratic Kampuchea and overran the Kampuchean Revolutionary Army in just two weeks. On 8 January 1979, the pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was established in Phnom Penh, marking the beginning of a 10-year Vietnamese occupation. During that period, the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea continued to be recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Kampuchea, and several armed resistance groups were formed to fight the Vietnamese occupation. Behind the scenes, Prime Minister Hun Sen of the PRK regime approached factions of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) to begin peace talks. Under heavy diplomatic and economic pressure from the international community, the Vietnamese government implemented a series of economic and foreign policy reforms, which led to their withdrawal from Kampuchea in September 1989.

At the Third Jakarta Informal Meeting in 1990, under the Australian-sponsored Cambodian Peace Plan, representatives of the CGDK and the PRK agreed to a power-sharing arrangement by forming a unity government known as the Supreme National Council (SNC). The SNC’s role was to represent Cambodian sovereignty on the international stage, while the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was given the task of supervising the country’s domestic policies until a Cambodian government was elected by the people through a peaceful, democratic process. Cambodia’s pathway to peace proved to be extremely difficult, because Khmer Rouge leaders decided not to participate in the general elections, and instead chose to disrupt the electoral process by launching military attacks on UN peacekeepers and killing ethnic Vietnamese migrants. In May 1993, Sihanouk’s FUNCINPEC movement defeated the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), formerly the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), to win the general elections. However, the CPP leadership refused to accept defeat and they announced that the eastern provinces of Cambodia, where most of the CPP’s votes were drawn from, would secede from Cambodia. To avoid such an outcome, Norodom Ranariddh, the leader of FUNCINPEC agreed to form a coalition government with the CPP. Shortly afterwards, the constitutional monarchy was restored, and the Khmer Rouge was outlawed by the newly formed Cambodian Government.

If the alphabet soup and other complications confuse you, don’t panic. To be customarily simplistic I’ll boil it down for you. In the post-war era European colonial governments granted independence to the nations that they had colonized and created where previously ethnicity and governance had been fluid for centuries. Here’s where my fury against nationalism comes in. You really have to be a complete simpleton (which unfortunately too many people are), to think that nations have rigidly defined borders that were established in some misty past (perhaps by God?), and that all the people within the borders of that nation belong to one stock speaking one language. ALL nations are inherently multi-ethnic and linguistically diverse. I’m not talking about the complexities of immigration for the moment; I’m talking about people born and bred on the soil for generations. Even if you take away the problem of defining borders you are left with a mess. Look at Italy, which has water surrounding it on most sides with the Alps in the north to define the northern bit. Within those geographic borders you have a complete hodge-podge of languages, dialects, and ethnicities of long standing. When I taught in Mantua I had a fair sprinkling of red-haired, blue-eyed students who would look quite at home in Glasgow, yet were as Italian as they come.

Nationalism was the great evil perpetrated on Europe by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/congress-vienna/  — allowing the powerful nations it solidified to spend the rest of the century dominating the world via colonization. Prior to the Congress, Spain and Portugal had done the job of colonizing the New World only to see its empire crumble when they were weakened by the Napoleonic Wars, so that local forces were able to fight successfully for independence.  The aftermath, especially in South America, was a century of civil war as local factions sought to carve out their own nations. In place of Spain, Britain and France took the initiative, colonizing much of the rest of the world (fighting over colonial territory among themselves when they weren’t fighting the locals), with Germany and Italy joining the fray rather late once they had unified into nation-states in the latter 19th century.

What happened to South America in the early 19th century happened in south and southeast Asia in the post-war era. When France felt compelled to release its colonies in Indochina all hell broke loose as I have summarized above. Cambodia does not have God-given boundaries that contain a unitary ethnicity speaking a single language, but Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot thought it should be, though, and set about killing everyone that was not “Cambodian” enough. Pol Pot slaughtered roughly 25% of the population (somewhere between 1 and 3 million out of a population of 8 million), because they were not ethnically pure enough (or were not agricultural enough, or too well educated, or simply a threat to his vision of Cambodian nationalism). The deep irony was that Pol Pot was himself part-Chinese and had been to university. I’m sure someone has written about this before, but the common thread among tyrannical nationalist dictators is that their own ethnic bona fides are far from pure. Hitler had some Jewish ancestors, Napoleon was a Corsican, Stalin was Georgian . . . etc. etc.

It has not been plain sailing in Cambodia since 1991 but the Paris Peace Accords were a start. In 1993, Norodom Sihanouk was restored as king of Cambodia, but all power was in the hands of the government established after the UNTAC sponsored elections. The stability established following the conflict was shaken in 1997 by a coup d’état led by the co-Prime Minister Hun Sen against the non-communist parties in the government. In recent years, reconstruction efforts have progressed and led to some political stability through a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Elections next year are a toss-up for the moment with a lot of trepidation in the country.

In July 2010, Kang Kek Iew was the first Khmer Rouge member found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in his role as the former commandant of the S21 extermination camp and he was sentenced to life in prison. However, Hun Sen has opposed extensive trials of former Khmer Rouge mass murderers. In August 2014, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal), sentenced Khieu Samphan, the regime’s 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue to life in prison on war crimes charges for their role in the country’s genocide in the 1970s. The trial began in November 2011. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012. The group’s supreme leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

As has become my custom here I ought to simply suggest that you buy a ticket to Phnom Penh if you want to taste Cambodian food and leave it at that. Normally for breakfast I find a stall in the market that serves some kind of noodles in broth with meat or fish and vegetables. That is a very common Cambodian breakfast. Noodles in broth with bits added is ubiquitous throughout SE Asia with seemingly infinite regional and local varieties. Without the proper noodles, vegetables, and flavorings you don’t stand a remote chance in the West of replicating even the simplest dish that you can find at a market stall in Cambodia for $1 or less (Cambodian rials and US dollars are used interchangeably in Cambodia). They simmer their broths over wood fires for hours and then heat your chosen ingredients in them for a minute, serving them in deep bowls with a generous portion of broth, (which gets richer the more ingredients are added), and giving you side dishes of condiments. I’m partial to fiery pepper condiments, but I enjoy the pickles also.

What can I say? Pork is a very common broth base. You could start by making a stock from meaty pork bones from a roast. Green onions, garlic, cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves can be added in various quantities to enrich the broth. The secret is to simmer the broth for hours, refrigerate overnight, and then simmer again in the morning. Then cook some rice noodles of your choice in the broth augmented by vegetables such as bean sprouts or Chinese greens and a little sliced pork. Really though – come to Cambodia if you want the real thing.


Sep 252013


Beijing opera is said to have been born on this date in 1790 (or 1791) when the ‘Four Great Anhui Troupes’ brought Anhui opera to Beijing, for the eightieth birthday of Qianlong (pictured), sixth emperor of the Qinq dynasty.  It was originally staged for the court and only made available to the public later. In 1828, several famous Hubei troupes arrived in Beijing and performed jointly with Anhui troupes. Out of the combination, plus influences from other performance genres including acrobatics, developed what is now classic Beijing opera. Throughout the 19th century Beijing opera grew in popularity from the emperor’s palace to the peasantry. Unlike classical Chinese performance forms, Beijing opera is readily accessible to everyone, with easy melodies to sing at home (for the Chinese!), action, comedy, and drama concerned with everyday situations.  It was generally banned as “decadent” during the Cultural Revolution, and for a time was only performed in Taiwan.  Now with more relaxed cultural rules it is making a comeback, and is popular with tourists.

Beijing Opera presents scenes that fuse four artistic forms: singing, dialog, dancing, and martial arts, all very stylized. Singing and dialog move the story forward, while dancing and martial arts displays, for the most part, entertain and illustrate the narrative.  Singing and dialog are actually related in that even the dialog has a musical quality, and the songs are normally narratives. Vocal tone, which varies according to character, is a vital element of the drama.  There are over 1,400 plays in the repertoire with a few being perennial favorites. Here is an example of sung narrative.

All the roles are stock characters, divided into four types, Sheng, Dan, Jing, and Chou. Sheng is the common name of male characters. Lao Sheng is the older male figure who generally acts as the stable element, and Xiao Sheng is the young man, often playing a lover.


Dan is the general name for female characters such as Zheng Dan, the strong willed older woman, Hua Dan, low class girl, Lao Dan, senior woman, and Wu Dan, skilled fighter. Sometimes female roles are played by men.


Jing characters are male roles with painted faces.  They are stereotyped roles with their face paint indicating, through color and design, the temperament and character of each role.  For example red denotes integrity and loyalty, white, evil or devious people, and black, honesty and dependability.


Chou is the male clown role and is perhaps the most complex role of all, although Chou characters are secondary to the main plot.  Chou roles can be divided into Wen Chou, civilian roles such as merchants and jailers, and Wu Chou, minor military roles. The Wu Chou is one of the most demanding in Peking opera, because of its combination of comic acting, acrobatics, and flexible speaking voice. Chou characters are generally amusing and likable, if a bit foolish. Their costumes range from simple for characters of lower status to elaborate for high status characters. Chou characters wear special face paint, called xiaohualian, that differs from that of Jing characters. The defining characteristic of this type of face paint is a small patch of white chalk on the bridge of the nose. This is generally thought to represent either a mean and secretive nature or a quick wit.


Although Chou characters do not sing often, their arias (as well as narrative) can feature considerable improvisation. The orchestra has to be experienced enough to be able to follow along at these points. Improvisation has been severely restricted in modern times as the Beijing opera has become more standardized, and also to avoid impromptu social commentary which used to be the norm.  Chou characters, unlike the others who use formal classical Chinese, speak in common Beijing dialect and, hence are much loved because the audiences can relate to them. (This is a common characteristic of performance throughout east and southeast Asian performance.)

The accompaniment for a Peking opera performance usually consists of a small ensemble of traditional melodic and percussion instruments. The lead melodic instrument is the jinghu, a small, high-pitched, two-string spike fiddle. The jinghu is the primary accompaniment for performers during songs. Accompaniment is heterophonic, that is, the jinghu player follows the basic contours of the song’s melody, but diverges in pitch and other elements. The jinghu often plays more notes per measure than the performer sings, and does so an octave lower.


The other main stringed instrument is the circular bodied plucked lute, the yueqin. Percussion instruments include a wide range of drums, gongs, cymbals, and clappers which provide an emotive element in action scenes, especially those involving martial arts. The player of the gu and ban, a small high pitched drum and clapper, is the conductor of the entire ensemble. Here are a series of action scenes featuring the percussion section

Beijing opera could be performed in royal courts, at banquets, or in specially constructed outdoor theaters (pictured).  There was very little use of staging or props; only what was absolutely essential for a scene.


I have chosen a recipe to celebrate Beijing opera based on an old legend: guo qiao mi xian. It is said that the dish came about when a young scholar in Yunnan province retreated to a secluded place to prepare for the imperial examination for the imperial exam of the Qing Dynasty, which would qualify him for an official position. His loving wife would travel daily to him to bring him his main meal. To do so meant she had to cross a lake by bridge separating the village from his hideaway. She would leave the meal for him, but he was so often lost in his studies that he forgot to eat. One day she made a soup with noodles and other ingredients from a whole chicken.  When she came to collect her cooking pot she discovered that the meal was untouched.  She expected it to be stone cold, and was surprised to discover that it was still warm due to the insulating layer of chicken fat on top. From then on, she would serve the noodles and meat slices with the oil layer soup, and the young scholar could enjoy a warm meal every day. When he did well in the examination, he credited his success to his wife’s noodles, so the dish is now called guo qiao mi xian, which means “across the bridge noodles.” It is a popular dish nowadays with a great many variants.  You can choose pretty much whatever ingredients you want.  The essential elements are thick round rice noodles and fatty chicken broth. I have not given precise quantities for the ingredients because they are served communally for each guest to pick from to place in the soup.  For some of the authentic fresh ingredients you will need a good Asian market.

peking6  peking5

guo qiao mi xian


thinly sliced chicken breast
thinly sliced Chinese ham
squid cut in thin rings
cooked rice noodles
tofu skin
raw quail eggs
bok choy, shredded
chinese mushrooms, sliced
spring onion, green tops chopped in long lengths
cilantro, chopped
oily chicken stock


Bring the chicken stock to the boil.

Place each of the ingredients in separate bowls on the table (crack the quail eggs in small individual bowls)

Serve each guest with a big bowl about ¾ full of chicken stock that is boiling hot.  Use deep Chinese ceramic bowls, not European soup bowls. It is vital that the stock be as hot as possible and retain its heat as long as possible. It should have a healthy film of chicken fat oil on top.

Each diner takes some meat, then eggs mushrooms and noodles, and lets them cook in the broth. This takes a few minutes. Then the peanuts, green onion, and cilantro can be added as a garnish.

Note: If you wish to serve this as a dinner dish to guests, I strongly advise you to experiment first to be sure you can serve the stock hot enough to do the job. All the ingredients should be at room temperature otherwise they will cool the stock too much.