A Flag Worth Dying For (All Countries)

The Union Jack

The Union Jack

by Tim Marshall
courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore, proudly Indie since 1978
Disclaimer: My views are NOT those of my employer. My employer has nothing to do with my blog.

Even though this book isn’t about one specific country, it’s a great one to have on the blog. I learned more about the history of some countries through their flags than I did in reading history books about that country!

The first chapter deals with The Stars and Stripes. I’m a little bored with America right now (my home patch) so I skipped it. I mean, your own patch is always the least interesting, right? Or you know the most about?

The second chapter is called The Union and The Jack. OK, fellow Anglophiles, let’s dig in! Righty-ho, like all countries, Great Britain has had many flags before settling on THE ONE. Kind of like dating, really. The flag that we all know and see now at Royal Weddings and flying proudly at Buck House etc. used to be called The Union Flag.

Irish Flag

The Irish Flag

It represents the union of Scotland and England, although with Brexit who knows how long that will last. (The Scottish didn’t vote for it. Could Scot-exit be next?) Anyway, when the Royal Navy started flying the flag, it hung from a pole on the ships called “a jack”. And that is why it is now called the Union Jack. (Not represented: the Welsh dragon, or any Cornish or Irish symbol.)

Oh yes, the Irish, those feisty buggers. (Shout out to Great-Grandpa here.) The orange, white, and green tricolor represents the two fighting factions and the white is the hope for peace and the desire to keep them apart. My book group just learned about an Irish rebel who helped design the flag and fomented revolution on 3 continents before becoming the Governor of Montana. The Immortal Irishman was a great read!

The Colors of Arabia

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian Flag. Arabic: Allah is God.

“White are our acts, black our battles, green our fields, and red our swords.” –Safi al-Din al-Hili (1278-1349)

I play this game on www.freerice.com. It’s a trivia game where you identify world flags. This chapter gave me a lot of hints! (Free Rice, btw, is run by the United Nations. It isn’t a scam. It is a free way YOU can help hungry people today. Advertising pays for your donations of rice. I checked it out when I worked at the BBB and it is legitimate and cool as hell.)

What is an Arab?
So…the Arabs. My one big complaint with this book is that it assumes a level of knowledge I didn’t have. If you live in the Middle East, wear a head scarf, or are Muslim or all three, to me, you are an Arab. Well, this chapter starts by talking about the pan-Arab movement (this worked as well as the pan-Asian movement, ie; not at all…ditto the pan-Balkans). The pan-Arab movement started during WWI, to overthrow Turkish rule. The Ottomans. WAIT A MINUTE, the Turks aren’t Arabs? No.

Turkish Flag

Turkish Flag

And–big shocker here–the Iranians aren’t either! Professor Google told me that the Turkish people are descended from the Mongols, and, it is thought, the Chinese. People in Iran speak Persian, which is distinct from Arabic. So which countries/peoples can be described as Arabic? (In the way that the U.S. is a “Christian country” but has Jewish people, Buddhists, secular people, Muslims, Hindus, etc. living in it.)

  • Saudi Arabia
  • The United Arab Emirates
Flag of Iran

Flag of Iran. I actually recognize this when it comes up, I think because of how often I saw it when I was in elementary school and our Embassy was taken over. Scary times.

Easy, because they have Arab in their names. Come to find out: 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa could be described as Arabic, according to this book, and they  have a combined population of more than 300 million people. “Within this region are many different ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, including Kurds, Berbers, Druze and Chaldeans, but the two dominating factors are language and religion.”

Take a moment, close your eyes, and try to name some Arab countries, would you? OK, now here they are:

Wikipedia says that there are 20 Arab nations (They don’t count Palestine) and here they are by population. Look at the tiny flags! A British vexillologist (flag specialist) told the author that if you can’t reduce your flag to the size of a postage stamp and have it be recognizable, you have a crappy design.

1  Egypt 90,045,700 22.73 2.29 1,981,000 31 94,633,000 January 17, 2018 Official population clock
2  Algeria 40,100,000 10.25 2.07 808,000 34 40,400,000 January 1, 2016 Official estimate
3  Sudan 38,435,000 9.87 3.07 1,146,000 23 38,435,252 2015 Official estimate
4  Iraq 36,575,000 9.39 2.90 1,030,000 24 36,575,000 2015 Official estimate
5  Morocco[5] 33,680,000 8.65 1.24 412,000 56 33,337,529 September 1, 2014 Preliminary 2014 census result
6  Saudi Arabia 31,521,000 8.10 2.44 751,000 29 31,521,418 2015 Official estimate
7  Yemen 26,745,000 6.87 2.95 766,000 24 24,527,000 July 1, 2012 Official estimate
8  Syria 23,270,000 5.98 2.45 557,000 29 21,377,000 December 31, 2011 Official estimate
9  Somalia 14,372,000 3.95 1.54 166,000 45 12,316,895 July 29, 2016
10  Tunisia 11,118,000 2.86 1.04 114,000 67 10,982,754 April 23, 2014 Preliminary 2014 census result
11  United Arab Emirates 9,500,000 2.76 2.75 183,000 26 9,500,000 2015 Official Census 2015
12  Jordan 8,933,000 2.29 1.57 138,000 45 9,531,712 November 30, 2015 Official Census 2015
13  Libya 6,278,000 0.54 1.13 70,000 62 5,298,152 April 15, 2006 2006 census result
14  Palestine[6] 4,683,000 1.20 2.92 133,000 24 4,550,368 2014 Official estimate
15  Lebanon 4,288,000 1.10 1.78 75,000 39 4,965,846 December 31, 2013 Official estimate[permanent dead link]
16  Oman 4,181,000 1.07 5.13 204,000 14 4,352,000 January 17, 2018 Official population clock
17  Kuwait 4,161,000 1.07 3.00 121,000 23 4,183,658 June 30, 2015 Official estimate
18  Mauritania 3,632,000 0.93 2.43 86,000 29 3,718,678 2016 Official estimate
19  Qatar 2,113,000 0.54 4.29 87,000 16 2,412,483 October 31, 2015 Monthly official estimate
20  Bahrain

A few notes:

  • Syria (is where the Arabs are thought to have originated)
  • Iraq (Hmmm…may explain the Iran-Iraq wars. The former is not Arab and speaks Persian, the latter is Arab and speaks Arabic.
  • “the would-be nation state of Palestine” is listed in the book as an Arab nation.

Trivial Pursuit

Flag of Mozambique

Flag of Mozambique

After reading this book, you’ll not only ace Free Rice, but you’ll be great at trivia games in the pub or on board game night. I learned that:

  • Nepal is the only country to have a flag that isn’t rectangular
  • Mozambique is the only country to have a flag with an AK-47 on it, somewhat analogous to an early US flag with a rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me”
  • In a more peaceful stance, that wheel in the middle of the Indian tricolor represents the Circle of Life and the concept of Re-incarnation
  • Ignoring or dishonoring a white flag of truce is considered a war crime, and
  • The Jolly Roger that we know today as a pirate flag was originally flown by the Knights Templar. Take that, Johnny Depp!

Carping and Criticism

Flag of Nepal

Flag of Nepal

I read an Advanced Reader Copy of this book that I got from Auntie’s, so I don’t know how the final edition will be. But the ARC is all in black and white. I would have appreciated COLOR pictures of the flags described. Particularly in the Union Jack chapter, where he says that many Brits can’t tell when their flag is upside down, and apparently other countries have accidentally flown it this way, offending those who noticed. That Union Jack in the top of my blog post? Yeah. It’s upside down. But these criticisms are minor.

I highly recommend this book. Fascinating stuff. I focused on Arabia, but the chapters on Latin America, Asia, and everywhere else are just as thrilling.

RATING: Five Vexillologists at a Geography Convention!

Flag of Tibet

Flag of Tibet

PS–One more flag, the Snow Lion Flag. How could I resist?


Whatever You Do, Don’t Run (Botswana)

map of BotswanaBotswanas flag is blue with a black stripe bordered in whiteby Peter Allison
This young Australian worked as a safari guide in Botswana, in the Okovango Delta, for a number of years. His stories are hilarious, scary, sad, touching, and just plain fascinating. One of the great joys of reading this non-fiction work for me was getting to remember going on safari myself. But not in Africa.

My friends Gary and Julia and I were bicycling from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra a few decades ago, and stopped at Sariska Tiger Preserve. We stayed in a former palace which employed dogs to keep the monkeys from taking over everything, and peacocks were everywhere. We got up at 4 in the morning, got loaded into a Land Rover, were handed coffee and headed off into the park. For animal lovers, there really isn’t anything better than looking at animals.

In Africa, all the game seems to be bigger. The African elephant, for example, is a giant when compared to the Indian elephant. Africa has lions, where India has tigers (both awesome, of course!) Africa has rhinos, and hippos, and giraffes.

The Games People Play When Spotting Game

Africa also has warthogs, which Peter says are big favorites of his German guests especially. Well, it is pretty fun to say

warthog in grass“Warthog” in German–Wartzenschwein! Wartzenschwein! And the Germans, being the orderly and methodical people that they usually are, have to count the warthogs. This cracked me up. (I doubt it has anything to do with the WWII-era German plane called “the Warthog”.)

People Who Compulsively Count: Gary and Julia and I ran into some “twitchers” at a bird sanctuary in India, who also had lists to check off all the birds they saw–kind of like trainspotting. I didn’t get the point of it. Photos, yes. Checklists, no. But as Peter says in the book, his birders, or bird nerds, are a rare breed. Some don’t even seem interested in seeing leopards, cheetahs, or lions. And as he sadly says, most of them seem like the sort of people who would never, or could never, attract a mate. (He identifies with this strongly, for a time.)

Don’t Mess With Texas…Unless You’re From Down Under
Botswana people walkingPeter is the only white guy on the guide team, and there are no women. One game he and his darker mates like to play is that when they get Texans in their group, they pretend that Peter is B.K.’s son. He claims his mother was Swedish and it bleached him out. On one trip, Peter goes even farther and says the other guides are all his uncles. The group is intensely bonded. When one of them dies from AIDS, you can feel the sadness and the fear. (AIDS hit Botswana hard. I previously read a book written by a woman whose father was a flying bush doctor in Botswana at the height of the epidemic. She remembers the hope that people had when anti-retro-viral drugs began to come in, and it seemed that they would work. Finally.)

The guide named Rautanga Rautanga is not the only man to fall victim to a catastrophe. Another guide is mauled by a lioness he startled, not realizing she had cubs. His guests save his life when the woman screams at her husband to drive the Land Rover straight at the lion. A third guide, one that Peter doesn’t like, picks up a snake to look at it and has to be airlifted to a hospital. (Peter calls this man “Genius” for obvious reasons.) Turns out the approved way to pick up a snake is by immobilizing the head so it can’t bite you, which this fellow had done. UNFORTUNATELY for him, the snake was an adder. Adders have fangs that can rotate 180 degrees out to the side and there is no safe way to pick them up. Aaaaand, I’m just thinking, if you have to be told not to pick up strange snakes, maybe you don’t belong in the bush.

The Animal Lions Fear

genetOne of my favorite parts of the book is when Peter talks about the animals that visit their camp to try and scrounge people food. One is a genet that lives in the rafters, and one is the ferocious and legendary honey badger. This animal is one of only four that lions will go out of their way to avoid. Elephant, rhino, and hippo are the others. The honey badger is tiny by comparison, but it’s the Dwarf from Tolkien on the African Savannah. A fierce fighter, known to take offense easily, never back down, and go for the genitals with a slash of its sharp claws. The genet twitters asking for food, the honey badger growls and demands it.

I enjoyed the chapter on Botswana’s first King and President, Sir Seretse Khama. I knew from reading the excellent Alexander McCall Smith series, The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency, that Khama was universally beloved, and this book added to my knowledge about why. He was a true leader and a real statesman. I wish we had someone like him in my country. Khama honey badgeroutlasted his nefarious uncle and the last of British imperialism, he genuinely tried to help people, he didn’t become a warlord, he married an Englishwoman in 1947 and had four kids and tried to stamp out racism. Botswana discovered diamonds and Khama shared the wealth.

I could go on and on, but you need to read this book, so I won’t. A must for animal lovers, Botswana aficionados and armchair travelers. All the fun of an African safari with none of the mosquitoes.


I.E.: Sehr, sehr gut!

Status Update January 2018

Looking back over the blog, I see that my last post was on October 24. Where, you may wonder, have I been since then? Well, on October 27, an infection changed my life.

What’s Bacteria Got to Do With It?

I have an ancestor who died from an infection she got after picking at a pimple on her face. It was the early 1800s, about 200 years ago. My ancestor was a young Mormon girl, too young even to be a sister wife. She messed with a pimple, some teenage acne, for God’s sake, and Nature killed her for it. Fast-forward to 2017 and to me. I had some calloused, hard skin on my big toe, so I picked it away. I know better, of course, but it was so rough, and I just wanted it gone. Then one day my toe swelled up. It was the size of two toes, red,and hot. I went to Urgent Care and that was the start of a three month journey away from this blog.

I had MRSA, streptococci, (yes, like strep throat but in my toe) and enterococci bacteria all playing around in my foot. Even more fun, the infection had gone into the bone. I saw a wound care specialist, my GP, a podiatrist, and an infectious disease specialist. I got an MRI. I got a port placed in my arm so I could give myself IV antibiotics daily after the first six they tried didn’t work. A nurse came to my house once a week to take blood, and clean the port. I got to go to the wound clinic once per week for a doctor to clean the wound, and scrape away the dead skin and pack it with an antibiotic strip of cloth. For awhile I had two holes in my toe–one on top and one on the bottom. You could take that strip and push it into one and out of the other; in fact I was supposed to, to remove dead skin.

The doctor at the wound clinic told me I would probably lose my toe, that if the bone infection came back or was too far advanced and had killed part of the bone it would have to be removed. I was told to elevate the leg to maximize circulation and not to walk on it. No dog walking, no running around the bookstore finding books for customers, no cooking, shopping or going to the post office. No pressure on the wound. I couldn’t wear regular shoes.

I was lucky. In the first week of the New Year, they told me I was cured. I still have all 10 toes. I got to Ring the Bell. (A wound clinic graduation ritual which means you are free to go. Hopefully you won’t come back.) As my foot was slowly healing I got to know someone–the daughter of a friend–who had had a worse infection even than mine. She wound up in the hospital. They had to shave her head. She’s out now and doing better, but not out of the woods yet.


My ordeal is in the past, I am alive and well today. I am grateful. I am going forward with the blog, finishing up a post about a book on Panama. I will walk the dog. I might even make dinner, if my husband does the shopping. I am trying to be careful, and cautious, and not overdo. Trying to be careful, and mindful, as I should have been in the first place. Be careful, people. Infections can happen; bacteria are out there and they are deadly. You can get them in hospitals (as I’m pretty sure I did in January 2016). So, remember:

  • Wash your hands. Careful hand washing remains your best defense against germs. Scrub hands briskly for at least 15 seconds, then dry them with a disposable towel and use another towel to turn off the faucet. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer containing at least 62 percent alcohol for times when you don’t have access to soap and water.
  • Keep wounds covered. Keep cuts and abrasions clean and covered with sterile, dry bandages until they heal. The pus from infected sores may contain MRSA, and keeping wounds covered will help prevent the bacteria from spreading.
  • Keep personal items personal. Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment. MRSA spreads on contaminated objects as well as through direct contact.
  • Shower after athletic games or practices. Shower immediately after each game or practice. Use soap and water. Don’t share towels.
  • Sanitize linens. If you have a cut or sore, wash towels and bed linens in a washing machine set to the hottest water setting (with added bleach, if possible) and dry them in a hot dryer. Wash gym and athletic clothes after each wearing.

And I’ll see you on the blog side! I hope, soon.

The Art of Being Kuna (Panama)

Edited by Mari Lyn Salvador
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

I didn’t want to read about some white guy’s swashbuckling adventures in Central America in the 1930s, a la Ernest Hemingway, or yellow fever and the Panama Canal. (Having seen Arsenic and Old Lace, I’ve seen all the Panama Canal building I care to. Bully!) So instead, I plunged deep into the world of the Kuna, the Golden Ones– the original inhabitants . I began with the chapter on Medicine.


Unlike many indigenous people around the world, the Kuna have managed to hang on to most of their culture. Ritual medicine is practiced by shamans, medicine men, and chanters (kind of like the different levels of doctors we have in the US). Sometimes all three are needed. Like many Native American tribes, the Kuna believe that sickness starts in the soul.

I was interested to read that in their creation story, as in the Biblical one, death and illness were once unknown. (As opposed to say, the Buddhist tradition that death and rebirth are a natural part of life.) Also, part of the events before the coming of modern-day Kuna includes a great flood In this section I was surprised to learn that the Kuna used to live all along the mainland, implying that Panama has islands. (It does.) There are rattlesnakes (I thought only North America had rattlers.)

map of Panama

Panama–note the islands. And, Panama is an isthmus–a narrow strip of land surrounded by water. Looks like a turkey neck.

In the final section, recorded in 1975, the year that I was four years old, a four-year-old Kuna girl, suffering from a high fever, is treated with traditional medicine. When this doesn’t make her better, the local Panamanian doctor arrives, having heard from the community about the kid. He strides in shouting in Spanish, with his Kuna nurse, telling the women to bring the child to the clinic. Once there, he gives her an injection without explanation and the women take her home. The next day he shows up at the dwelling, angry that they haven’t brought the child to the clinic, saying that he’s busy and these unnecessary house calls are wasting his time. (It wasn’t clear to me or to the Kuna that this wasn’t just a one-time injection!) He gives her a total of five, and then she starts to recover. I would have liked for the author to have mentioned what the little girl’s Western diagnosis was; and what she was being given. I assumed antibiotics.

Wiki tells me that Panama is home to some tropical plants (and animals) found nowhere else on the planet. That could have important implications for medicine, if they don’t get destroyed.

Let’s Talk About the Islands


Some of the islands of Panama

All the maps I’ve ever seen, plus my Dad’s high school globe circa 1956, make it look like Panama has practically no islands at all. But in fact, it has hundreds. There are islands in Lake Gatun. There are islands in the Caribbean Sea. There are islands in the Pacific Ocean. There are 378 islands in the San Blas archipelago alone. The Kuna inhabit 49 of the San Blas islands and the rest are not inhabited. I begin to see how the people may have preserved their culture so well.

The islands and the forests served as refuges for native Panamanians when Europeans arrived from Venezuela in 1501. (Columbus arrived one year later.) The original people were:

  • Chibchan
  • Chocoan
  • Cueva
  • Cocle

Unfortunately, the last two named tribes were almost 100% wiped out by European diseases. (I rather hoped the natives exchanged STDs with these men–syphilis is said to have infected European men who slept with Native American women, and since I assume the sex was forced, this made me rather pleased.)

Kuna Writing

Kuna writingKuna tradition involves oral storytelling, but they also have a written script. This seemed unusual to me for indigenous people. In the book on Burkina Faso, Malidoma Patrice Some talks about how the elders of his village didn’t want to learn to read and write, because they said it would cause them to lose their memories. They had observed how white people couldn’t remember the simplest things without writing them down. And in elementary school, we were taught how the Cherokee hero Squanto had devised a written alphabet for his people, who had never had one. I was surprised to read that scholars are now finding that tribes they THOUGHT had only an oral tradition often relied on written symbols as summaries or shorthand for stories. You’ve only got to see a fish symbol on the back of a car to understand how this works: the story of a fisherman from Galilee will pop right into your head.

Kuna script is very pictorial and colorful–more like ancient Egyptian than modern-day Chinese. And like some Asian languages, it is read from the bottom and moving up the page, from right to left. The earliest writings were made on balsa wood.

So what kinds of things did the Kuna write? Well, the book has examples of creation stories and tribal history, medicine chants, etc. Absent are bills of sale, love letters, or records of births and deaths. You can learn a lot about a people by what they consider important.

Are You Kidding Me?

Kuna weavingWhile the book contains a heaping helping of facts about the Kuna, I had two problems with it.

  • Some of the pages are so dense and scholarly as to be almost unintelligible to the layperson and
  • what are these weird and uninformed assumptions about written language?

“Rows of small figurines, of circles, boats, flags, leaves, or flowers accurately colored one by one, on balsawood form the oldest documents that we have; more recently they appear on ruled pages of school notebooks. Kuna healers and chiefs have produced images of this kind for at least a century. Like other picture-writings of the American Indians, these images have been considered with some embarrassment by Western scholars. Historians of art have found them difficult to understand in purely aesthetic terms; historians of writing found them too pictorial to be sound vehicles of information.”

Yes, yes, ok, we know that the Western anthropologists of yesteryear were blinkered racists who couldn’t have found their own blind spots with a spoon. Such as when the Western discoverers of Machu Piccu determined that an alien race must have built it because the modern Peruvian Indians were too stupid.

More Kuna weavingBut it gets worse: “A drawing devoid of phonetic value is, we tend to think, a fragile, even rusty means for encoding a text. Whatever the symbolism used for transcribing words in a drawing, it will be fatally restricted to the domain of the individual. ‘Never mistake a drawing for a text,’ warned E. Gombrich rightly in his famous book on The Sense of Order (1979). …Communication through images is difficult, always arbitrary, inevitably vague. Faced with a document that stands midway between sign and design…we feel uneasy.”

What the front door?

Seriously, who is this “we”, White Man?! Both Japanese and Chinese kanji, as the former call it, are stylized representations of nouns. OMG, an ideogram, I feel queasy. Somebody help. My friend Hanjo, in grad school, told me that he sees (literally sees) English as flat and boring, with no dimension. When he sees the Chinese drawing for “tree”, he said, he sees a tree. In 3-D. Not just a symbol representing the sounds you make when you say the word for tree. Chinese, he said, is more immediate, more alive, more rich and colorful. Some of the picture words have relationships–Man Carrying Water, for example. There are probably other ideogramic written scripts–I’m only familiar with those above because I lived in Japan for a time.

There is an entire poetry movement created by Idaho’s much-lauded son Ezra Pound, in which artists try to deal with abstract content by using concrete imagery. It’s called the Ideogrammic Method.

I also need to point out that scientist have discovered that our brains don’t think in words or abstract symbols. They communicate in images and pictures, which we then put into words (and then, in English, into symbols representing words). I have to stop now. Reading this bit was infuriating. I could’ve understood it better if the book came out in the 1970s, but it was published in 1995. GRRRR

I am glad this book exists, for if it didn’t I would have zero information on the Kuna, but at the same time, they could have done better.

RATING: Three Panamanian mosquitoes. (That they are mozzies is bad, but that there are only three is good. LOL)

Aunty Lee’s Delights (Singapore)

Book has characters from the Philippines and Australia as well as Singapore.

by Ovidia Yu

This cozy murder mystery features an amateur detective and professional cook called Aunty Lee. She is a widow, and part of the fun comes from her confrontations with her step-daughter-in-law (step-monster-in-law) Selina who is all the things Aunty Lee is not: Young, beautiful, status-conscious, fashion-conscious, concerned about money and getting more of it, and racist. Aunty Lee has employed a Filipina girl, Nina Balignasay, to be her general factotum, and Selina just hates this. She is always twitting Nina because she considers her low class and not nearly good enough for her family.

Selina’s husband Mark is trying to make it in the wine business. So they hold joint events at Aunty Lee’s cafe, where Mark presents wines and the guests do tastings, paired with Aunty Lee’s delicious cooking. Of course, the very meals that delight the reader as being traditional Peranakan fare appall Selina who would much prefer that Aunty Lee served fancy food.

But when a body turns up on Sentosa beach, it soon becomes clear that someone is serving up a big helping of murder.

A Little Whine With Your Meal?

(That would be Selina complaining.)

“The menu for that night’s wine dining gathering was chicken and pork satay, luak chye, (mustard greens that had been pickling in vinegar, ginger, and sugar since yesterday–Nina had only to remember to mix in the mustard powder just before serving…) and the hee peow or fish maw soup made with prawn, fish and meatballs…Most of the visitors who came to Aunty Lee’s Delights were there to shop for her sweet and savory kueh, fried delicacies, and of course, the bottles of Aunty Lee’s Shiok Sambal and Aunty Lee’s Amazing Achar and Krunchy Kropok, which sold out as fast as Aunty Lee and Nina could produce them.”

As a detective, Aunty Lee loves solving little problems to keep her brain active. “These little problems were a legitimate way of putting what the late ML Lee described as his wife’s outstanding talent for being ‘kiasu, kaypooh, emzhai se!‘ Nina could remember the old man saying kaypoh, meaning minding the business of others with as much energy as kiasu devoted to their own. Em zhai se literally meant ‘not scared to die’ and effectively described how Aunty Lee drove everyone around her to despair through frustration as she pursued some triviality no one else could see any point in.

A Tale of 2 Old Ladies

Aunty Lee is no Miss Marple. The latter is definitely upper-class, and her detective work consists of thinking about villagers and servants she knows in St. Mary Mead. Aunty Lee may be rich, but she constantly horrifies her daughter-in-law with her “common” behavior. Also, Aunty Lee draws conclusions about people based on how they eat (a fascinating concept). It reminded me that people in Japan ask each other “what is your blood type” to predict your personality. Aunty Lee also experiments–she likes to reverse-engineer food and people too. And she knows when something is off. She seems a bit younger and more vigorous than Miss Marple. She doesn’t smoke or swear, but she gets quite excited and yells a lot.

In one way, however, the book is exactly like an Agatha Christie: Every chapter has a title.

As compared to the last book I read for this blog, set in Malaysia, just across the bridge from the tiny island of Singapore, the mystery is much gentler. The pace is sort of slow. And, it made for an easier read. I enjoyed the book and wouldn’t mind reading more Aunty Lee mysteries. Curiously, the back of this book has an interview with the author by Louise Penny, whom I just saw in my hometown. Louise is the Canadian author of the Inspector Gamache series, a much edgier set of books, and very good in their own way.

A Word About Singapore

The Raffles Hotel

Alas, I never did make it to Singapore, but I have downed many a Singapore Sling! The secret is sloe gin. Stamford Raffles founded colonial Singapore in 1819, and after gaining independence from Britain, the city state separated from mainland Malaysia over what Wikipedia calls “ideological differences.” There are four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil. The “Lion City” is just one degree north of the equator. The Pew Research Center, a few years back, found Singapore to be “the world’s most diverse religious nation”. I wonder if this is because of its size,  in addition to its geography. I mean, Monaco and Lichtenstein are also tiny, but not religiously diverse.

Buddhism is the largest religion in Singapore, followed by Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism, along with the 17 percent who say they follow no religion. Interesting.

Rating: Four stars.

A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder (Malaysia)

book coverFiction

by Shamini Flint

Many years ago, having left Tokyo where I had been teaching English, I was on my way home via Bangkok. I had flown to Thailand and cycled south from Bangkok  to Hat Yi, where I met a handsome young man from Kuwait. I put my bicycle in storage and spent a breathless, hot, humid two weeks with my new boyfriend. We visited Chinese temples and dusty gardens where dusty Muslim women strolled, all in black, and went to waterfalls with giggling Thai girls in skimpy bikinis. We ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but only with our right hands. My boyfriend was suffering from terminal ennui. The bored young man’s father was insisting he return to the Middle East and pilot school. His father was not much fun. After some time, I discovered, neither was the young man. So I boarded a train south for Malaysia. New country, new fun.

I ended up in KL, or Kuala Lumpur, the capital, where I met an elderly taxi driver  from New Zealand. Bob became my ersatz grandparent. We had a great time eating peanut satay on the street and visiting the zoo. We stayed in Little India with a Malaysian man of Indian origin whose dream was to invent a bestselling board game.

A Most Peculiar…er…Delightful…Malaysian Novel

Batu CavesWhat I enjoyed about this novel is how it continually compared and contrasted Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore and Malaysia used to be the same country–Malaya. But now, Singapore is a tiny island of apparent moral rectitude divided from the Malaysian peninsula by a thin strip of water. KL is dirtier, and livelier. People have old cars. (Bob and I both had planned to go to Singapore, but got  distracted by Malaysian delights like visiting the Batu Caves (featuring the original See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys) and playing 6-colored Go with our Indian host.

In this novel, Inspector Singh comes from Singhapore…er Singapore, to KL at the behest of his government to be sure that the rights of homicide suspect and Singapore citizen Chelsea Liew are not violated by (corrupt) Malaysian police. Singh quickly determines that she could not possibly have killed her abusive husband, Alan Lee–she is too pretty! (SIGH) And his job is done. But wait, there’s more! A family member confesses to the murder. Inspector Singh quickly susses that Jasper Lee’s motives are suspect, but Singh isn’t sure what his true motives are. In addition, Chelsea Liew and Alan Lee had recently filed for divorce and each wanted custody of their three sons.

At one point, Inspector Singh drives his police-issue vehicle around KL for 2 hours without being able to find his way back to police headquarters. He parks the car and takes a taxi. He ponders whether or not his winding path around the city is a metaphor for the case, which seems like a labyrinth.

In a scary subplot, Inspector Singh discovers that before his death, Alan Lee had asked the divorce court for a 2-week recess. The reason? So he could convert to Islam. Even though he’s dead, his kids are now automatically Muslim. That means that Chelsea Liew is probably about to lose her kids to the ruling of a Sharia court. The kids would go to a Moslem children’s home as orphans, because to a Sharia court, the most important thing is that Muslim kids are raised by Muslims. Never mind the fact that these boys have never been in a mosque in all their lives, and that their paternal grandmother cooked them pork stew just the week before. As she has done all their lives. Never mind the fact that the court would be ripping the kids from their mother and placing them with strangers. OMG. If the Founding Fathers of America were still alive, I would hug them around their kneecaps in religious gratitude for their insistence on the separation of church and state.

MapThe author makes it clear that Alan Lee’s “conversion” is not heartfelt, which would be different. Still problematic, but different. No, he was a cynical Chinese businessman and abusive husband who was determined to “win” at all costs. And he still might. (However, we get a scene where Alan Lee’s mother claims she cooked this pork stew for him the week before he died…a true Muslim would not eat it…)

What’s Borneo Got To Do, Got to Do With It?

Alan Lee used to be the head of Lee Timber, a logging company which has been illegally logging forest reserve land in Borneo. Unfortunately, his cruel and cold little brother Lee Kian Min has taken over the company, which he’s really been running for years. Chelsea Liew’s housemaid is from Indonesia, as are lots of Malaysian servants and illegal immigrants. I didn’t get it. Were these countries not far apart? (Answer, no. One of the great pleasures of reading is learning things, and boy did I. Not only does one of the long Indonesian islands in the world’s biggest archipelago parallel the Malay peninsula, the island of Borneo is half owned by Malaysia.) But illegal logging isn’t all that Lee Timber is up to, the corporate villains. They’re also intimidating the indigenous Borneo tribe the Penan, and forcing them off their land. You know, so they can cut down all the trees and contribute to worldwide pollution. Awesome.

old Penan women

Penan elders in Borneo

Inspector Singh doesn’t think so. And his Malaysian counterpart, inspector Mohammed, who quotes Shakespeare only when he is good and pissed off, doesn’t think so either. When the men combine their cunning and experience to solve a murder, great things happen.

Along the way we meet Mrs. Wong, a brave and clever Chinese landlady with the intestinal fortitude to take on corrupt policemen along with the ironing, Alan Lee’s remorseful young Muslim girlfriend Sharifah who moves from being a victim to a force of nature, and a blue-eyed Englishman named Rupert who may just have the power, the contacts and the chutzpah to bring Lee Timber to its knees.

Little India KLI enjoyed this murder mystery immensely. Although the back of the novel compares it to my close personal friend Colin Cotterill’s Laos cozy series featuring Siri Paibun, and also Alexander McCall Smith, I felt it was a bit darker than that. Still a great read. I understand that Inspector Singh travels to many countries–it just worked out well for me that this one was Malaysia, from Singapore.

PS–Of Backpackers & Ritzy Hotels

The novel mentions the Mandarin Oriental as THE place to stay in KL. My British friends Gary and Julia had told me that back in the day, THE place to stay in Singapore was the Raffles Hotel…the Raffles was the spot upon which the historic Singapore Sling was invented.

Rating: Five old-growth hardwood trees NOT chopped down in the rainforest!