Review of Asian Studies Volume 16 (2014) Editor’s Desk from the editor’s desk

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Virginia Review of Asian Studies

Volume 16 (2014)

Editor’s Desk


This section contains several short essays on a variety of topics by Daniel Métraux including two on Korea that have been published in local newspapers in Staunton VA and Vermont and a travel magazine in Britain. Several are meant primarily for casual reading. They are republished here in the hope that the reader might enjoy them and to insure their presence on the internet.


During a visit to Seoul, the bustling huge capital of South Korea, in April, 2014, I took some time off from work and guided my two colleagues to the front gates of Blue House, the beautiful presidential palace below a large mountain near the center of the city. My cell phone buzzed an important news bulletin from CNN – apparently about 40 miles away North Korean and South Korean naval vessels were lobbing shells at each other. CNN advised that this was potentially a very real war scare.

the blue house, seoul, korea

Blue House, South Korea’s Presidential Mansion

I expected to see heightened activity at Blue House and we sat expectantly on a bench to see the action. But to our surprise there was no activity at all. Small groups of Korean tourists came up and posed for pictures by the Blue House gate, at times with polite but attentive police guards posing and smiling for some of the visitors. Since it was a beautiful spring day with cherry trees in full bloom, we walked back through the old imperial palace and then back to Insa-dong, a lively art and café quarter full of young people. Some high school students approached me with a pamphlet requesting support for Korea’s claim for Dokdo Island, an outcrop of rocks claimed by both South Korea and Japan. I accepted her handout and then asked her whether she was worried by the ongoing shooting between the two Koreas. She smiled and said, “There is nothing to worry about!”

That evening we had dinner with several young Korean women who had studied for a year at our college (Mary Baldwin) in Virginia. The shelling was still going on north of the South Korean city of Incheon, but none of my former students seemed a bit worried. While CNN kept sending me “Breaking News” bulletins, Korean patrons in our restaurant were cheering for a Seoul baseball team that was winning its home opener. There were no bulletins about a potential attack from North Korea.

the bridge of no return, dmz, dorea

Looking into North Korea at the DMZ

Seoul sits only 20 miles from the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea, but my former students showed absolutely no concern. One of them noted, “We live in a very peaceful time. To be honest, we never really think about North Korea. It’s there and my brother served in the military by the DMZ, but we do not regard North Korea as a threat. They make a lot of noise to get attention, but they will never attack us. They realize that while they could cause a lot of destruction here in Seoul, the end result would be their annihilation. So this shooting is what Shakespeare called ‘a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.’”

I had scheduled a tourist bus visit to the DMZ with my colleagues the next day and expected that the tour would be cancelled due to shooting. CNN was still sending me dire news bulletins about a growing naval engagement between the two Koreas, but the only thing on the TV in our hotel was a cooking show with some grandmotherly woman showing us how to make kimchi. To my surprise our tour bus was there on time at the hotel to pick us up. We drove through layer and layer of armed barriers and security check points as we approached the North Korean border, but all was quiet.

mines in the dmz, koreaDemonstration Mine Field, DMZ

We entered one of the most popular tourist sites, a long tunnel built by the North Koreans to invade the South, but fortunately discovered by the South and later turned into a tourist attraction. One can enter the tunnel and walk for almost a half mile underground up to the border. We traveled to a railway station that may one day link North and Korea by rail. Everywhere we went and from what we could see looking into North Korea at the border, all was quiet and normal even though the naval bombing continued.

It would appear that North Korea and South Korea have settled into a noisy but peaceful coexistence where both nations quietly ignore each other. It appears that Americans and CNN in particular are a lot more concerned about terrorist threats from North Korea than anybody in Seoul.

Korean Youths Demand International Recognition of Dokdo Island As Belonging to Korea and Plead for an Apology From Japan for WWII Crimes
[Readers of the preceding article will remember this writer’s being approached by several high school age girls in Seoul who were handing out short propaganda pieces in English urging international support for what Koreans call Dokdo Island. The entire contents of the pamphlet are reproduced below.
The Liancourt Rocks, called Takeshima by the Japanese and Dokdo in Korean, are a group of tiny rock crops / islets in the East Sea / Sea of Japan whose ownership is disputed between South Korea and Japan. There are said to be valuable fishing rounds around the islets and large reserves of methane clathrate. The territorial dispute has caused nationalist tensions between South Korea and Japan. Both Japan and South Korea are adamant in their claims to the rocks, but there is far less risk of a military confrontation than there is between Japan and China in their island dispute.]

Dok-do / Takeshima

Hello everyone! We are members of “Candlestick Lily,” which is a youth club to have tried to let people know more about Korea and the beautiful island, Dok-do. Firstly, we thank you for visiting our country and really hope you make a lot of good memories here in Korea during your rip.
The reason we are standing here before you is that we’d really like you to know about our precious island Dok-do. There are many kinds of rare plants and a variety of birds living on the island. The island also has the deep blue sea and clear blue sky all year long. It is small, but so beautiful. In addition Dok-do is rich in natural resources. Especially methane hydrate, which is called burning ice, is now buried under the sea around the island and may be used as a fuel in the near future. There are also tons of kinds of fish in the sea around the island because of crossing the warm current and cold current.
There, however regrettably, is a dispute between Korea and Japan over the ownership of Dokdo. We don’t hate Japan. We have had a psychological wound, which was the period of Japanese colonial rule. Although Korea had been ruled brutally by Japan for 35 years, that is now all another past history.

From now on, we think that it is the proper time to have to move into the better future together after a reconciliation between the two. Wrong things are literally wrong things. We have to get all straight. Dok-do is originally the Korean island. Many of the data show that Dok-do is the Korean territory.

Japan also has to apologize to the Korean enforced sex slaves which is the group of young Korean women taken to Japanese military camps during World War II, and stop the distortion of history by accepting that Dok-do island surely belongs to Korea. When you come back home, we sincerely hope that you would talk to your friends , family and neighbors around you the truth that Dok-do is the Korean territory.
Additionally, we’d like you to remember Dok-do and Candlestick LilyWe are going to let people know more about Dok-do and be a great youth club….


By Daniel A. Métraux

When one thinks of the writing of Jack London (1876-1916), one conjures up stories of brave dogs in the Yukon, but London was in fact a multi-dimensional writer who wrote on a wide variety of topics. He made several trips to East Asia and the South Pacific and had a brilliant stint as a feature writer covering the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) for the Hearst newspapers. London was one of the first writers in the West who realized that the ascendancy of the West was over and that the 20th century would see first the rise of Japan and then of China as major economic powers and that the “Pacific Rim” would become the center of world economic activity by the end of the century.

I discovered the “Asian” Jack London when I visited his home and ranch in Glen Ellen California in 2007 which my daughter Katie and other specialists with the California State Park Service had faithfully restored. __________

Deep in the Sonoma wine country of California lies an old meandering ranch. Surrounded by rolling hills and deep green valleys, the majestic ruins of a never-completed mansion, open grape vineyards, and a small modest home attract thousands of visitors a year, many of them from abroad. There are hiking and horseback trails up Sonoma Mountain through a dense forest of ancient Redwood trees. Views from the upper reaches of the mountain look down to the very green and highly cultivated land of the Valley of the Moon.

When I revisited this natural gem on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in May, 2014, I met a few Americans, but there were also visitors were from Europe, speaking Chinese, French, Italian, Russian, German and a few other languages I failed to recognize. They were all there to visit the home of one of America’s great writers, Jack London.

The Russians and Chinese have always had a deep appreciation of London. He was an avowed socialist and many of his best books depict the suffering of poor and oppressed people throughout the world. His best non-fiction book, The People of the Abyss, looks at the plight and misery of life in the deep slums of London’s East End. His very first short stories, all based in Japan when London was still a teen-ager, look at the struggling family of an impoverished rickshaw runner and of a beautiful dancer scorned by her unfaithful husband. London’s stories found a wide audience during the Communist regimes of Maoist China and of the Soviet Union.


London’s home at Beauty Ranch


Jack London’s grave


The ruins of Wolf House


Jack London in 1914.

Jack London is rarely studied in American schools today and only a small handful of my college students really know anything about him. Yet a century ago London was America’s best-selling and most famous writer. He churned out more than forty novels and hundreds of short stories during his short life. London was also an avid socialist who twice stood as his party’s candidate for mayor of Oakland. Many of his fiction and non-fiction books dealt with the oppressive conditions and miserable lives faced by common laborers not only in the United States, but also Europe and Asia. He was also a well-read newspaper correspondent in Korea and Manchuria covering the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and the revolution in Mexico shortly before his death in 1916. London’s work gained great popularity in the socialist countries of eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. Recently I asked one of my former Chinese students if she had ever heard of London. “Oh yes,” she replied, “he is a great hero to my father. All his educated friends in China read London.” London’s appeal to foreign readers may well explain why there are so many foreign visitors to the Jack London State Historic Park.

My interest in London comes from his work on and in Asia. My daughter Katie Metraux was part of a team of historic preservationists and curators from the California State Parks that renovated and restored London’s home at the Beauty Ranch several years ago. When Katie took me to London’s home in 2007, I was startled to see a picture of London in Manchuria surrounded by a group of Japanese soldiers. That led me to do a lot of research on London’s Asian work and to begin writing articles about London’s contribution to the field of Asian Studies.

London was above all a man of the Pacific and much of his best and most poignant writing focuses on the people he encountered there. We encounter many Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, native Hawaiians, South Pacific islanders as well as many people of mixed race in his stories. What makes much of London’s writing so compelling is that he avoids stereotypes and provides his main characters with many dimensions and considerable depth. He differs from many late Victorian writers in the West in that he was not writing from a mainly Anglo-Saxon-centric perspective. London penetrates the hearts and souls of non-white people who have suffered deeply from the exploitation of the Anglo-Saxon, but there is very little that is moralistic or didactic in his style. While London shows sympathy for many of his non-white characters, he is above all an artist who attempts to develop the full personalities of the key people in his stories.

London at home in Glen Ellen

In 1905 when he was already a famous writer at age 29, London purchased a 1,000 acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain for $26,450. He wrote that "Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me." He desperately wanted the ranch to become a successful business enterprise. Writing, always a commercial enterprise with London, now became even more a means to an end: "I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate."

"When I first came here, tired of cities and people, I settled down on a little farm ... 130 acres of the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California." He didn't care that the farm was badly run-down. Instead, he reveled in its deep canyons and forests, its year-round springs and streams. "All I wanted," he said later, "was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of Nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don't know it." Soon, however, he was busy buying farm equipment and livestock for his "mountain ranch." He also began work on a new barn and started planning a fine new house. "This is to be no summer-residence proposition," he wrote to his publisher in June 1905, "but a home all the year round. I am anchoring good and solid, and anchoring for keeps ..."

London added: “I have long decided to buy land in the woods, somewhere, and build. For over a year, I have been planning this home proposition, and now I am just beginning to see my way clear of it. I am really going to throw out an anchor so big and so heavy that all hell could get it up again. In fact, it’s going to be a prodigious, ponderous sort of anchor….” “I ride over my Beauty Ranch. Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain, wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”

There are many interpretations of the history and meaning of Beauty Ranch. A brochure produced by the London State Park elaborates further:

Clarice Stasz writes London

had taken fully to heart the vision, expressed in his agrarian fiction, of the land as the closest earthly version of Eden … he educated himself through the study of agricultural manuals and scientific tomes. He conceived of a system of ranching that today would be praised for its ecological wisdom." He was proud of the first concrete silo in California, of a circular piggery he designed himself. He hoped to adapt the wisdom of Asian sustainable agriculture to the United States. He hired both Italian and Chinese stonemasons, whose distinctly different styles can be seen today.

The ranch was, by most measures, a colossal failure. Sympathetic observers such as Stasz treat his projects as potentially feasible, and ascribe their failure to bad luck or to being ahead of their time. Unsympathetic historians such as Kevin Starr suggest that he was a bad manager, distracted by other concerns and impaired by his alcoholism. Starr notes that London was absent from his ranch about six months a year between 1910 and 1916, and says "He liked the show of managerial power, but not grinding attention to detail …. London's workers laughed at his efforts to play big-time rancher [and considered] the operation a rich man's hobby."

In 1909, '10 and '11 he bought more land, and in 1911 moved from Glen Ellen to a small ranch house in the middle of his holdings. He rode horseback throughout the countryside, exploring every canyon, glen and hill top. And he threw himself into farming - scientific agriculture - as one of the few justifiable, basic, and idealistic ways of making a living. A significant portion of his later writing - Burning Daylight (1910), Valley of the Moon (1913), Little Lady of the Big House (1916) - had to do with the simple pleasures of country life, the satisfaction of making a living directly and honestly from the land and thereby remaining close to the realities of the natural world.

Jack and Charmian London's dream house began to take definite shape early in 1911 as Albert Farr, a well-known San Francisco architect, put their ideas on paper in the form of drawings and sketches, and then supervised the early stages of construction. It was to be a grand house - one that would remain standing for a thousand years. By August 1913, London had spent approximately $80,000 (in pre-World War I dollars), and the project was nearly complete. On August 22 final cleanup got underway and plans were laid for moving the Londons' specially designed, custom-built furniture and other personal belongings into the mansion. That night - at 2 a. m. - word came that the house was burning. By the time the Londons’ arrived on the scene the house was ablaze in every corner, the roof had collapsed, and even a stack of lumber some distance away was burning. Nothing could be done.

London spent $80,000 to build Wolf House. After it burned he vowed to rebuild, but he never did. I can feel London’s ghostly presence when I walk through the extensive stone ruins of Wolf House.

Today the visitor can walk the grounds of London’s Beauty Ranch. His house is beautifully restored and looks as though London had just left it to go for one of his daily rides. Beautiful quiet woodland trails take the visitor to his isolated grave site, to the ruins of Wolf House and to a museum dedicated to London’s life. The paths that lead to the remains of London’s manmade pond on the upper slopes of Sonoma Mountain take one through a spectacular forest of Redwoods.

London’s life philosophy, noted below, is reflected in the natural beauty of his home turf.

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dry rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor,
every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time" Jack London

Long Lost First-Hand Report on the Kennedy Assassination Details Death Scene at the White House on 22 November 1963
A fascinating memo found in the papers of the late anthropologist Margaret Mead reveal little known details about life in the White House the day that President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  The document is a confidential report of Nancy Tuckerman’s comments on the Kennedy family and the appearance of the President’s body when it was returned later that day to the White House.  Tuckerman (1937-2006) was White House Staff Coordinator during the Kennedy years.
                The most revealing aspect of the report concerns the return of Kennedy’s body to the White House.  Kennedy died in Dallas around 2:00 on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 and Air Force One returned to Washington later that evening.  Kennedy’s body was sent to Bethesda military hospital for 6 hours before it was transferred to the White House late that night.  The casket was placed in the East Room with an Honor Guard.  The only light came from several candles placed around the room.  
Once everything was set, Tuckerman decided to go home to rest, but just as she was about to get into a White House car, she heard Bobby Kennedy’s voice urgently calling her.  He then appeared and said he had a great favor to ask of her.   He himself could not bear to look at the body, but would Nancy do so for him and tell him what she saw.  She consented and walked into the East Room which with the candles was a truly eerie sight.   She opened the casket and looked at the face and body of her late boss.   She was appalled at what she saw.  The face she saw hardly resembled the President.   It was as if a wax mask had been placed over his own face.  “The famous hair was combed all wrong, with a part, + the whole effect was appalling.”  After she told this to Bobby Kennedy, the casket was immediately closed.
The report also reveals Tuckerman’s disgust when the White House received a “colossal” bill from the Dallas undertakers which was carefully examined by the Secret Service who wryly commented that this was what one should expect from Dallas.  Eventually the bill was sent to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.   Tuckerman was especially shocked by the fact that the undertakers even charged for the cost of the stretcher that had been used to carry Kennedy’s dead body.  According to the bill, the stretcher was “ruined” by the state of the body.

The report discusses Tuckerman’s long relationship with the Kennedy family and what happened when news of the assassination was received in Washington.  It is unclear who wrote the report and how it ended up in a collection of papers that my mother, Rhoda Metraux, had about Mead.   Rhoda Metraux (1914-2003) was a close professional partner of Mead.  The original copy of the report is on deposit at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton.


No Penny For Your Thoughts in Canada

            Recently I drove from my son’s home in Greensboro Vermont through North Troy to southern Quebec to view some early spring foliage in the hills behind Jay Peak.  The wild country on both sides of the border in that region has great beauty, especially on a crisp sunny early spring day. I make a point of driving through the area several times a year to take pictures and to catch some of the brook trout that inhabit the streams there.

While in Quebec I made a quick stop at a small market in Mansonville to procure a can of fine maple syrup.  Quebec syrup is no better than the sweet nectar produced in Vermont, but the Quebec brand comes in beautifully decorated cans and is much cheaper than the Willey’s store in Greensboro.  The price for the equivalent of a quart was $7.79, and there being no tax on syrup, I told the clerk that she need only give me twenty cents back as I had no need for the extra penny.  She replied, “You only get 20 cents back in any case.”  “Why?” I inquired, why won’t you give me my penny?  It’s my hard earned money!”  She said, “We have done away with the penny in Canada!”

What a brilliant idea, I thought.  Certainly it is not a novel concept.  Other countries I have visited in recent years that use dollar currencies like Australia and New Zealand have also abolished the penny in recent years.  In fact, New Zealand has also done away with the old 5-cent coin as well.  All goods for sale there are priced to the nearest dime.   When you pay at the register, a good that costs $1.07 is charged at $1.10 while another good charged at $1.04 will cost you $1.00.  Both Canada and Australia have a five cent coin and a good going for $2.03 is $2.05 and something that is $2.02 requires only a $2.00 payment.

When you think of it, what use is there for a penny these days? Long ago when I was a kid I could buy a stick of gum for a penny—and Hershey bars and cokes in New York were only a nickel, but those days are long gone.  I have two or more large jars at home full of pennies and many of my friends report that they too throw their spare pennies into containers.  I hate pennies and I don’t like to clutter the coin box in my car with them.  You can’t really throw them away, but they are really useless.  I have heard that roughly half of the copper pennies in the United States are out of circulation, sitting in jars like mine.  It is also a sad fact that it costs much more to produce a penny than they are actually worth.

Americans are inherently very conservative people who hate change, but when it comes to their currency, they need to make changes right now.  Step number one would be simply to stop making pennies.  It’s a coin that nobody wants and which costs too much to make.  We also need to get rid of the paper dollar bill.  Canada, Australia and New Zealand have dollar coins and Canada also has a two dollar coin.  It costs a lot of money to produce the American dollar bill and they simply do not last very long while a coin has tremendous lasting power.             

The transition to one dollar and two dollar coins would be very easy.  In Canada the government stopped printing dollar bills and banks refused to distribute or accept them. The public very quickly adapted and these coins are today both convenient and very popular.  And getting rid of the penny and dollar bills  is saving the Canadian government millions of dollars a year.    

Getting rid of those jars of pennies would clear up space in my closet—and with inflation I would gladly offer a nickel for your thoughts.

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