musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Books! Chinese! Trump! Madness!

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Looking at the calendar, it’s suddenly obvious that this month is almost finished! Damn, another manic, whirlwind thirty days. Business has very brisk at my bookshop in Bangkok, so busy that I rarely have time to even sit down read a book myself when I’m in the shop most days. When it’s time to close up, all I want to do is go home and drink a couple of cold beers and try to unwind after another stressful day.

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Traditionally, the year-end holidays are always busy for us, but that heightened period of retail activity extends to the Chinese New Year — or Lunar New Year — period in late January or early February, depending on the lunar cycle. This year has been no exception, with regular customers combined with hordes of tourists passing through Bangkok, either spending time in Thailand or in transit to a neighboring country.  And it’s not, as you might assume, a lot of Chinese. Yes, there are indeed many tourists from Mainland China and even Hong Kong and Taiwan, but this holiday period is also observed in countries in the region such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and even Vietnam and residents of those countries also travel during this time. And it’s not just natives of those countries, but foreigners working in those countries that are getting a long holiday break and many are spending it in Thailand.

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This time of year I also see the usual throngs of Western tourists, many of them who are making an annual visit to Thailand. It’s fun to see these once-a-year regulars and catch up on how they are doing. Holidays or not, the trend I’ve noticed in the past year is a noticeable increase in the number of Asian customers in my bookshop. And it’s interesting to note that many of these Asians are reading and buying English language books. And in these dark days of Trumpovich and his evil regime, the fact that people in other countries — yes, Muslims included! — are looking for English language books and reading them and buying them, is a very encouraging sign.

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The seemingly illiterate Trump and his evil cronies might be intent on cutting themselves off from the rest of the world, and trying to make America white again (that is what he means, right?), but the rest of us — those with working brains — will carry on, trying to pursue our hopes and dreams, and reading good books!

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Chinlone Books Goes to Bagan!

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It all started with a request for a loan.

My friend from Bagan, Nine Nine, was unhappy with his current job and wanted to start his own business. After four years of working at the same hotel he was frustrated with the low pay and long hours. Opening his own business seemed like the thing to do. Low pay and long hours got you down? As many of us entrepreneurs can tell you, opening a business is certainly no cure for that dilemma! But hey, there ARE opportunities to reverse that equation if you are the boss, and Nine Nine is astute enough to realize that. But, after the birth of his daughter last year, money was running low. Needing some startup funds, he asked if I could help him.

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Hey, I try to help my friends whenever I can, but I don’t have a lot of cash to throw around, so I wanted to hear more about his business plan and what it would all cost. I wasn’t making any promises, but I told that we could discuss it when I visited Myanmar the next time. That was two months ago, back in September. The end result was that his idea was not going to cost all that much, so I DID lend him some money and his shop, 99 Souvenir Shop & Chinlone Books, is now  open in New Bagan!

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Yes, in addition to selling various souvenirs such as lacquerware, clothing, and postcards, he is running another branch of Chinlone Books. I asked Nine Nine if he was receptive to the idea of adding books to his product mix and he agreed. He’s been open for about one month now and is excited about what he’s been selling (the first book sold was “M is For Myanmar” from Things Asian Press) and what customers are asking for. The Bagan branch of Chinlone Books is located on Kyay Street (New Bagan’s main street) next to the Ostello Bello hostel, and diagonally across the street from the long-running Silver House restaurant. They are open every day!

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During that last trip to Myanmar, Nine Nine met me and my friend from Mandalay, Ye Man Oo, in Nyaung Shwe and we showed him the book setup at the Chinlone Books branch in that town, located inside Aye Aye Travel Services. The owner, Mar Mar Aye, explained to Nine Nine her system of cataloging the books and how she keeps track of sales. She’s an honest, hardworking lady and I hope her advice will help Nine Nine with his own business. If you are visiting Nyaung Shwe (near the popular Inle Lake in Shan State) or Bagan (New Bagan is just down the road from Old Bagan and the bigger town of Nyaung U) please drop in and say “Mingalaba” … and buy a book or two!

http://www.chinlonebooks.com/

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Chinlone Books in Nyaungshwe

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It’s official; the town of Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State now has a proper secondhand bookshop, that being the newly re-stocked and re-named Chinlone Books.

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Known as “the gateway to Inle Lake,” Nyaungshwe has long been a popular place for tourists to stay when visiting the famous lake. Due to its laidback atmosphere, proximity to hill tribe villages, and general beauty, Nyaungshwe has ecame one of those places where tourists end up spending more time than they had originally planned. And if you have time to spare, why not read a book … or three!

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Mar Mar Aye and her husband actually had been selling used books in their little travel services shop in Nyaungshwe for several years, but the stock never really grew much.  About two years ago the couple separated and the husband went away, only to come back briefly last year for a few months before leaving for good earlier this year. But when he left this time he also took the remaining stock of books and bookshelves — plus a few of the bicycles that they rented to tourists — with him. This of course left Mar Mar Aye with practically nothing, expect for a few photocopied books with various Burmese and Myanmar themes that she had bought from a dealer in Bagan.

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When I visited Nyaungshwe in May I was shocked to see the dearth of books in her shop. “Can you bring me some books the next time you come?” she asked me. Well, I thought, that’s no problem, but maybe I can do better than that. I’d been thinking about the possibility of opening a small bookshop in Myanmar, and had my eye on Nyaungshwe in particular. I have access to plenty of books and Mar Mar Aye has a great location right on the main street in town, so why not combine forces with her?

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We talked things over and came up with a plan. I had several hundred books in storage at Ye Man Oo’s house in Mandalay and I decided to send a portion of those books to her when I returned to Mandalay. Next step was getting some new bookshelves made, put up a new sign, and rebrand the shop as Chinlone Books. For more on the shop see our new website:

http://www.chinlonebooks.com/

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Unfortunately, one of the signs that she had made had a spelling mistake (instead of saying that we were “the only place in Nyaungshwe” with books, the sign said “the only palace … ”), so that will have to be changed, but everything else is proceeding according to plan. We still need to add a few hundred more books to the stock and reorganize the shelves, a project that Ye Man Oo will help me with next month. We also plan to print up some T-shirts (boasting a very cool logo designed by Ye Man Oo!) and sell those in the shop too. Hopefully, this will be the start of a fantastic bookshop.

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Meanwhile, Mar Mar Aye is also devoting plenty of energy to her main business, Aye Aye Travel Services. She’s up at the crack of dawn each day, cooking and cleaning, before opening the shop. She still rents bicycles and sells tickets for boat trips on Inle Lake or canoe trips on the town’s canals (highly recommended!), in addition to arranging treks to villages nearby and further away. She also provides a laundry service and can arrange a massage in your hotel or in an upstairs room. Needless to say, she is one very busy woman!

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Chinlone Books is located in the same building as Mar Mar Aye’s other business, now known as Aye Aye Travel Services. The shop is located on Yone Gyi Road, next to the Indra Indian restaurant and the One Own Grill. It’s directly across the street from an old monastery (Yangon Kyaung) and one block from Myawaddy Road and the Golden Kite restaurant. The bookshop is open daily.

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Please spread the word about our bookshop and come and visit us if you are in Nyaungshwe or the Inle Lake area. And keep reading!

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Orlando to Bangkok to Mandalay

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Where have the last two months gone? It’s been almost that long since I posted anything on this blog. During that time I’ve taken a trip to Myanmar and returned to Bangkok, hosted a friend from Mandalay, and worked myself into a stupor at my bookshop. Then came along this past weekend when news came of a singer being shot to death in my hometown of Orlando, Florida, and less than a day later another news flash about dozens of people killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando (initially, I was confused, believing that both incidents were linked). As of this writing, there are 49 people confirmed killed and nearly that many more injured or hospitalized. This happened in Orlando? The sleepy town we used to jokingly call “Bore-Lando. The mind boggles. Honestly, I can’t fathom such a horrific crime — they are calling it the worst mass murder in US history – occurring in my placid hometown back in Central Florida. But that only goes to show you that such madness can occur anytime and anywhere. But maybe more so in the gun-crazy environs of the USA.

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There have been many insightful, eloquent, and thoughtful articles and blog posts already written about the Orlando incident, that I can’t think of much more to say. All I can add is that I hope everyone in Orlando, and in gay clubs, straight clubs, and clubs catering to every musical and ethnic persuasion, remain open and do a booming business this week. Don’t let the lunatic fuckers intimidate you and prevent you from enjoying yourself and being around people you care about. Fight the power. Fight the insanity. And keep on dancing, dammit!

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Meanwhile, there was my trip. I’ll try and post some more photos from that trip in the coming weeks, but honestly, work has been so time-consuming in recent months that I’m not sure how much time I can devote to posting articles and photos. But, as usual, I had a very memorable time in Myanmar and there are some pretty cool tales to tell and fun shots to share.

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After spending two weeks in Myanmar — the  highlight of which was taking those irrepressible novice monks from Shan State’s Tat Ein village on a 3-day road trip to the ruins of Bagan — I returned to Bangkok … but not alone. Accompanying me on the flight home was my friend Ye Man Oo from Mandalay, taking his first trip out of Myanmar, not to mention his first time on an airplane. For the past couple of years he has been talking about how his dream was to come to Bangkok and see my bookshop. Well, defying all obstacles, we made that dream come true. More about his trip in a future post, but the two weeks he spent with me in Bangkok was an incredible experience — for both of us. Having him around constantly was a bit tiring — exhausting might be more accurate! — but his upbeat nature and boundless enthusiasm was contagious and by the time I took him back to the airport I was very sad to see him depart. But hey, there’s always a next time, and Ye Man Oo is already trying to convince his parents that he needs to make a return trip this summer. And frankly, he was so helpful at my bookshop every day that we would be thrilled to have him back again.

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Bombs Over Laos

If you read a newspaper or checked the news online this week you might have noticed that US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to Laos. There wasn’t any particularly urgent need for Kerry to visit the country, but Laos is the latest in a revolving door of countries in Southeast Asia to act as “chairman” for the ASEAN block of nations, and Kerry’s visit was part of the USA’s renewed “engagement” with Asia.

The article that I read noted the “grim legacy” of the Vietnam War era, in which the United States military planes dropped more than 250 million bombs on Laos. Yes, a poor land-locked country that was not even a participant in that unfortunate war became a victim itself. It’s been said, that per capita, Laos was the most bombed country in history.

Another sobering statistic is that more than 30 percent of those bombs failed to explode at the time, but have remained “active” weapons within the country, continuing to maim and kill people all these years later. Since the end of the Vietnam War — and that’s now been 40 years — about 50,000 people in Laos have been killed by these UXO (unexploded ordinance), and tens of thousands more than that have been injured, including loss of limbs.

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The best book I have read on this subject is Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos by Karen J. Coates. This isn’t a book that bombards you with a bunch of statistics and is content to lambast the American government for its acts. Instead, it’s a book that shows the human side of the issue. The empathetic and penetrating reportage by Karen Coates takes you inside the lives of the people in various villages and towns around Laos, ones whose lives have been permanently affected by the bombs, and shows you how they cope with this nightmare. It’s a sobering, gripping read.

Meanwhile, we’ll see if Kerry raises the issue of human rights with the Laos government, a secretive communist bunch of thugs in their own right. One of the most disturbing current human rights issues in Laos is the “disappearance” of Sombath Somphone in December 2012. Sombath was a widely respected community development worker in Laos, but apparently his efforts to ensure transparent economic and social development in Laos were considered threatening to the commie rulers. After being stopped by police and taken away in a truck he hasn’t been seen in three years.

Creepy Americans, creepy Laotians … creeps, creeps everywhere. What can you do, expect hope for peace and justice, press for changes … and fight the power. Really, don’t let the assholes win.

Over the Hills and Far Away: Visiting Exotic Places with Good Books

As locales go, Alaska and Myanmar are worlds apart — or at least half a world apart — but two books that I recently read, one fiction and the other a memoir, evoked similar senses of adventure and delight. Over the hills and far away, travelling to distant lands and discovering different ways of life and love.

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The first book I read was Light and Silence: Growing Up in My Mother’s Alaska by Janet Brown. Janet is actually a good friend of mine and she lived in Bangkok for many years before moving back to the USA to be closer to her two adult sons in Seattle. So, yeah, maybe I’m biased, but friend or not, I can’t help but be very impressed with this book. There is no denying the fact that Janet is a very talented writer, one who knows her craft and can vividly describe a setting. In this book she deftly relates her experiences of growing up in rural Alaska, a place that was “still locked in the nineteenth century.”

Basically, this book is a tribute to Janet’s mother who passed away a couple of years ago. Her mother had not wanted a memorial service or legions of mourners gathered by her grave, so this book became Janet’s way to “honor and remember her in a form that would have pleased her.” Indeed, the love of reading books was one of the strong bonds between mother and daughter, and you feel that closeness throughout this moving book. On the back cover Janet describes her mother as “a woman with persistent optimism in a life that was studded with tragedy, this New Yorker with eccentric dreams had the courage to build a life for herself and her family in a place that was truly wilderness, a domain of wind, grass, and trees. The daily life she lived was difficult, but it was her own. She chose it all, she crafted it, and she savored it.”

Not only does Janet offer a glimpse of her mother’s non-traditional life, she takes the reader into the heart of the beautiful and sometimes cruel geography of rural Alaska.  Growing up on this “last frontier”, Janet and her mother—  and so many others — were deprived of things that us city dwellers take for granted, yet you never sense that she felt deprived or cheated. Instead, as she writes, this remote setting “was simply a launching pad for new exploration.”

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Janet Brown is also the author of several other books published by Things Asian Press, including Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Almost Home, both of those also excellent reads.

The other book that I just finished this week was The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker. This novel has floated in and out of my bookshop numerous times over the past few years, but until my friend Myriam recommended it to me recently I had never bothered to read the blurb on the back cover, which would have informed me that the story was set in Myanmar! Not only that, most of the story takes place in the Shan State town of Kalaw, just down the road from usual haunts in Nyaungshwe.

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Once again, I may be a bit biased in my take on this book, but honestly, this was one of the most memorable and moving novels that I’ve read in a long, long time. Many reviews described this as a love story, and there is no denying that romance plays a big part in the plot, but this book is also a bit of a mystery, as well as an insightful look into Burmese society and its traditions and customs. The author (or at least the translator: this was originally written in German) does a fine job of describing the town of Kalaw, from its teashops and homes to its monasteries and surrounding mountains. Close your eyes and you can hear and smell and feel so many different things. Indeed, the ability to utilize — and appreciate — different senses (especially the part about “hearing heartbeats” from the book’s title) is a major theme of this novel.

Elements of the plot, especially one facet of the story’s ending, can occasionally be baffling or frustratingly predictable, but even those parts are so well written that they border on the poetic. To call this book magical and inspirational would not be an understatement, or a cliché. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a very special novel.

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One reason I had never paid much attention to this book previously was due to the relatively bland front cover. Well, maybe bland isn’t the best description, but nevertheless there was nothing particularly Burmese about the artwork. I don’t care what they say, you CAN judge a book by its cover, or at least pay more attention to it. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I did an online search and discovered that the book has been reprinted with several different new covers, ones with more of a Burmese theme! The downside is that one cover shows the temples of Bagan, while another depicts the famous U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, neither place of which is remotely near Shan State! Nevertheless, if one of those striking new covers had appeared in my shop, I would have picked up this book a lot sooner than I did.

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Keeping the Music Alive and the Pages Turning in KL

I returned from a four-day trip to Kuala Lumpur earlier this week. KL has become one of my favorite quick getaway destinations in recent years. I don’t much, if any, sightseeing at this stage of my visits, however. I have a clear agenda upon arrival: buy CDs, buy books, buy more CDs, and eat lots of good meals.

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Unlike Bangkok, where retail CD shops have become very scarce, Kuala Lumpur still does have several good shops that sell new CDs, both domestic and imports. Rock Corner sports the best selection and has several branches in the greater KL area, as does the Victoria Music Center, and there is even a branch of Tower Records still open! I had thought that Tower had finally bit the dust (as they have in the US) after their one large store downsized and moved into the corner of an electronics department in KL’s Times Square two years ago. But I accidentally stumbled upon their new location in the Gardens, adjacent to the Mid Valley Megamall, on the same floor at the Rock Corner branch. The stock at Tower is greatly reduced from their glory years, but it appears that Classical music takes up about half of the stock and those sales are keeping the shop alive. Tower also has a pretty good selection of Jazz and World Music, but their pop and rock offerings are pitiful at this point.

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Meanwhile, Rock Corner, despite having the largest selection and most interesting assortment of CDs and DVDs, appears as if they are struggling to stay open. Last year they closed their branch in the Mid Valley Megamall, as well as the one in the 1 Utama shopping center, and this year I was dismayed to find that they had also shuttered their original shop in KLCC. The manager at one shop told me that spiraling rents were to blame. But they still have four very well-stocked shops still operating in Bangsar Village, Subang Parade in Subang Jaya, the Curve, and the Gardens. My bulging bags coming back to Bangkok are evidence that they still have plenty of good titles.

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The Amcorp Mall also holds a few treasures for music lovers, especially on weekends. The Victoria Music Center branch there has a decent selection of CDs and the employees are very knowledgeable. On weekends the mall has an indoor flea market with several dealers selling secondhand CDs and vinyl records. A little browsing leads to a lot! A further lure at Amcorp Mall is the giant BookXcess store. They sell remainders — all new books at greatly reduced prices — in many categories, and you get a further discount if you have a member card. Speaking of books, the long-running Junk Book Store on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee is still around too. They sell only secondhand books and the prices are a bit cheap for the quality of the stuff they are selling, but it’s a fun place to browse. I am always amazed at the old treasures they have in stock. Any shop that has multiple titles by the likes of Donald E. Westlake, Ed McBain, and Ross Thomas is alright in my book! Needless to say, I usually find something to buy there, even if the book is overpriced and finding what you want is challenging. With its narrow aisles, low ceiling and baffling way of grouping books together, good luck finding what you are looking for. The books are neatly stacked, and most wrapped in plastic, but if they are organized in any manner at all, I have yet to figure out their system!

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Quirky or not, it’s still a pleasure to shop in places like the Junk Book Store and CD shops like Rock Corner, Tower Records, and Victoria Music, all of which are managing to stay in business and cater to “old school” customers like me who appreciate a well-stocked shop that is run by people who are passionate about what they are doing. Hey, all of this online crap is fun and shiny and oh-so-easy, but don’t forget about the brick and mortar shops that remain the foundation of the music and book business. They need your support now more than ever!

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