Friday, September 12, 2008

Catching up with the past - Josef Skvorecky

A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops. -
Henry Adams

I start with a man who has had much influence in the course of my life. It wasn’t one of those big meltdown moments of recognition but for many years now, I am certain that Prof Josef Škvorecký has been fate’s invisible hand that set me onto the path of my career.

In the early 1980s, I took a short-story writing course at the University of Toronto together with around 8 or 9 others. I took the course because I thought it would not be too demanding.

It was an oddity that someone like me landed in his class. I wasn’t an aspiring writer. I had no idea of what publishing meant; and I was not at all interested in being a part of the writing world.

I chose his course because I was a lost soul wandering the halls of the university, looking for a way to make the university days go quick so I can finish my degree using the path of least resistance.

I remember Prof Škvorecký as a gentle but somewhat reticent man. If my memory serves me right, he has a fondness for cigars. Did I smell the lingering scent of cigars in his office the few times I have been in there? To me, he has always had a crop of silver hair, hair that eases gently over one side. His suites were always conservative; his tones always soft and croaky; his pace carefully measured, never hurried.

To be honest, I don’t remember much from the classes. We sat and talked about our stories. (Forgive me Prof).

But one encounter I had in his office made such a huge impact on me that it propelled me in a direction I never saw possible - a career as a wordsmith.

My Childhood memories
We were to do a short story on “My childhood memories”. A story of maybe of 1,000 words. I remember I struggled with the story. I worked late into the night, and typed and retyped the copy due to the many errors that keep resurfacing. Yes, in the 1980s, computers weren’t that handy to a Luddite like me, and writing was even a stranger technology.

I stood outside his room waiting for my turn to see him. “Miss Lee, come in” he said to me. I dragged myself inside. “Sit down,” he said. I plunged myself on the chair, unsure of what to say, where to look and what to expect.

I didn’t dare look around his room. Right within my view were piles of paper on his desk. Student papers.

Any moment now, words would come from the man shredding my work to a thousand tiny pieces. I braced myself for the cutting words that would fall out of his mouth.

When he found my paper, he looked up and said to me: “I am very impressed by your work (it might have been what you have done), Ms Lee.” He had enjoyed my story, he said.

This was a moment of incredulity. I don’t remember whether my heart leapt, or sank. I had worked myself up for the worst. The worst didn’t come. I had no words.

Country bumpkin
Perhaps, my country bumpkin faced showed real gratitude. Perhaps there was such huge relief there was no need for words from me.

For a country bumpkin whose main source of literature had been my father’s reading material from high school, who didn’t know how to shape a story, or even knew what the purpose of a short story was - this was a huge endorsement.

Prof Škvorecký, if I recall the gist of the meeting correctly, told me I was one of the few people in the class who didn’t try to write about places like I haven’t been.

Good writing, he says, can only come from writing about what you know, and writing about what you are comfortable with. I have since clutched onto these words like a talisman, like some good omen, hoping its magic will work everyday.

I left his room a few pounds lighter. This was a fantastic rating from an accomplished writer who had won the Laureate of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (in 1980).

Dare I imagine that, singularly, with his endorsement, the chasm that divided a professional and a country bumpkin would somehow, someway be less wide. Perhaps there was a way I could cross the huge divide.

The course ended soon, and I never made any real friends with other students in that class who were too savvy for me. There was one student, a Jewish woman, who scared me. She was decisive, clever with words and knew what she wanted. She had snazzy titles, one being “Brahms Intermezzo”. She set her sight on being a writer someday. I had no vision of where I was heading except to get a real job after school to pay back the kindness of my parents who sold their house for me to get a good education.

In my last year at the University of Toronto, I took another course with Prof Škvorecký. I did an independent studies project under him, a novella, or short novel. It was a good course for me - I didn’t have to do much beyond trying to write about the things I know.

When the project was completed, I received a good grade. Was Prof a soft marker? I don’t know. I have no benchmarks. He said to me then, “If you polish this up, I will try to find you a publisher.” He was offering me a bridge to his future.

There are a few moments in one’s life when opportunity lands at your doorstep and you miss its face or form.

I don’t remember doing much with Prof Škvorecký’s offer. I think I just offered a non-commital, ‘I will try’, in my typical country bumpkin way.

Publishing seemed like something too distant; too hard, too unreachable and out of the world for a 21-year old without a compass in life.

So somewhere among my hubby’s impeccable filing system is my personal mess. In one zipped-up black bag is a brown envelop - my novella. It has travelled with me from my hometown, to Singapore, to Auckland - untouched since I finished school in 1984.

Prof Skvorecky and I have been in touch over the last 20 years. Every year I send him a card. He scribbles a “Merry Christmas to you and your family”, and I send some ramblings about my latest job/life/about politics of the day. Sometimes, he would send a picture, I have one of him and his wife Zdena – ever the smiling couple. I send him pictures of Princess of the House.

Years, earlier, when he was younger (he’s in his 80s and retired now), he used to send me some of his books. I read them religiously. The one I love most is “Dvorak in Love”. Prof Škvorecký loves music – jazz especially. I can’t relate to jazz but am more in tune with classical music. The book is a historical novel, of Antonin Dvorak’s unrequited romance in a new world, America.

Last year, I sent Prof Škvorecký a CD of Whirimako Black singing in her smokey voice, jazzy numbers part in Maori, part in English. I had hope he would like it. Prof Škvorecký wrote “very interesting”.

Unseen hand
We came close to reunion meeting in Singapore when hubby and I lived there over 10 years ago. I had a call from Kee Thuan Chye, an ex colleague who rang me to say there was a writer from Canada who would be appearing in a talk in Singapore, and he wanted to make contact. I was elated! Prof was among a panel of international writers at a conference! I couldn’t wait.

We set up a meeting. But he fell sick, and the meeting was not to be. If I had any brains, I would have insisted on going to his hotel, to make sure he was alright. He was an old man in a strange land. I was young and silly and always busy with work. What was I thinking?

So now, ever so often, I think about Prof Škvorecký’s offer over 20 years ago. Twenty years of lost opportunities. I am thinking of writing a novel now. The world has gotten tougher. There are many Amy Tans or Maxine Hong-Kingstons who write with so much manna, who remember their stories better. Dare I write about the things I know, the things I used to know but am forgetting? The things I am beginning to know or relearn?

Prof Škvorecký has been prolific, beavering away as all writers do to keep their art alive. His book tally is over 20. He and Zdena founded Sixty-Eight Publishers Corp, which for over 20 years, kept Czech and Slovak literature alive when the Communists in power were trying to shred them. He earned a gong from post-Communist president Václav Havel.

Over the last 20 years, I have been writing and writing – mostly about financial markets and business reports; nothing remotely resembling what I did in short story writing.

Once upon a time there were people who helped nudged you along a certain way; gave you some encouragement, saw or believed in your potential when no one else did; bosses who threw you in the deep end to learn…tutors who tell you your work is crap or you need to pull your socks up. These people become inevitably, the unseen hands that shake you to the core, and shape your being.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Finding new futures for NZ ports

One of the most interesting questions a CEO ask of me recently was do I think NZ ports should be sold to foreign investors. To be honest, the nationalistic side of me says, “no way” – ports like airlines, railways and telecommunications are strategic assets to be guarded like a prized lottery. But my position changes by the day. At the moment, I think the answer I have is “I don’t know”.

I grew up in a port town. Five miles from home used to be a dilapidated smelly harbour for fishermen. Then the port grew, and grew. Today, the place I used to know is beyond recognition. It is a modern, very happening port by world standards. A port can lend much life to its surroundings. Industries grow around in – like a motherload, the port attracts migrants, workers, traders and supporting services. Life grows around, feeding on the ports' vibrancy; or life becomes a drag, when the port's lifelessness cast its paleness around its inhabitants.

The big boys
Today, my old home town’s largest port – North Port -- can handle over 4 million TEUs (twenty foot equivalent container) and can berth super container vessels carrying 8,000 TEUS. In Auckland, handling vessels of that size is something that is achievable only within the next three to five years if dredging of the local harbour goes according to plan.

How the world is changing.

One set of statistics I picked up from the web show global operators are dominating not only the shipping but port operation scene. If the forecasts are to be believed, a handful of global port operators will by 2011 own about 60% of the global market in the port business. This is not surprising given that in New Zealand about a handful of global shipping lines already control about 60% of NZ's container market. A tide whose direction is unlikely to turn.

Who are these big boys?

These big boys are Hutchison Port Holdings (HK); PSA International (Singapore); Dubai Ports World (UAE); AP Moeller –Maersk Container Terminals (Denmark-based) and COSCO (China).
Together they have left their stamp in most ports around the world. AP Moller-Maersk has port operations in 50 locations globally. Hutschison operates five of the worlds' top seven container ports, accounting for 11% of the world's container traffice, according to what I found on the web.
Singapore's PSA International PSA has over 20 port projects in 16 countries. Dubai Port World operates over 45 terminals across 29 countries.

What is certain
Here is the certainty. Globally, the trend is for global players to have as many links as possible in a wide network of port companies, shipping companies (read the logistics business) around the world. It has to do with how the port operators feed into or fit into the wider world of moving cargo around.

The buzzword is efficient supply chain, which in ordinary people’s language means how goods get produced and eventually how they get distributed and everything in between that supports the process of delivering the goods or services produced.

Efficient supply chains is an imperative in today’s business world. Scales give size to greater efficiencies which in turn, hopefully, translates into cheaper goods/services.

NZ looks decisively small in the port universe. We have about 11 port operators all wanting be in the business of running ports – never mind that the industry has had negative cashflow as port operators, according to investment bank Rockpoint. Expect to pay if you want to read the whole report.

For so long, the message from the sages in the local port industry is this scene is not sustainable. But why hasn’t the rationalization of NZ ports happened? I take rationalization to mean 'Hey let’s revamp our business, or sell, or move in with enemies or allies to make something workable of this asset that needs demands huge dollars to keep healthy and productive.'

NZ ports are owned mainly by rate payers – read local councils, regional councils and its ilks. They all find it hard to let go of their prized assets. Everyone is worried selling out equates to losing control or seeing their city left to be picked by vultures (read overseas owners/operators/or other councils).

Recently Port of Tauranga and Ports of Auckland tip-toed around the topic of a possible sale/merger/ of their container operations. An uninformed person like me would read the situation as this: since the issue was raised by Ports of Auckland, Tauranga isn’t going to let go easily to its closest rival and competitor.

They are a match made in heaven, these two ports. But like a stubborn bride and a stubborn groom, they see little point in giving in. It is all about ego and ownership. Sigh. Imagine an import port (read Ports of Auckland) and an export port (Port of Tauranga) working as a unit rather than in competition. Is there a reason why they shouldn’t at least try to resume the process after Auckland called off merger talks after having cold feet a few years ago?

Alternative futures
What about the alternative of selling NZ’s port assets to the really big boys to run since they have the technology (read expertise); the muscle (they have widespread operations globally); and they have been at the hard end of the business and have proven track record. In 2006, Christchurch City tried unsuccessfully to sell to Hutchison Whampoa. Once again, pressure from local politics/citizens over the fear of losing control or losing jobs.

Which brings me back to the question I have been asked? Should we sell our ports to foreigners?

No: The logic for NO is this - Aren’t they our prized assets – ports, airlines, railway, banks? Look at other disasters after we have sold.

Leasing: How about leasing out the ports? Here the logic isn’t that persuasive unless you are believer in the concept of being a pure “a landlord” rather than operator. I take landlord to mean, ‘I collect the rent and don’t do much else but take my rentals.’ I take operator to mean, ‘my vision is to make this business the best and workable, using my ingenuity and hopefully gain ability to do the same elsewhere.’

Something in between: What about the alternative – having a mechanism in place/in legislation which allows foreign operators to own part of the assets but not for them to own the way we earn our living? Isn’t being part of something bigger better? Or is small just as beautiful?

Or something like this...Setting up a port operator holding company to own the business around the country. The councils get their share according to their interest in these port companies. Float the mega port holding company on the NZX. The mega port operator company then sells part of the stake to a foreign operator, like AP Moeller-Maersk (the best fit, culturally I think?). The possibilities can be beautiful.

Our options are to go with the tide or stay sheltered under the tower of nationalism and local concerns.

I walked away from goggling on this subject with this thought – NZ is being swept by global tides beyond our control. Swim we must. Find a place in all the madness and tempest we must.

The question remains: how to do so without drowning in the process, and having some ability to steer part of the course in the future.

Useful sites to visit
Hutschison Port Holdings
PSA (Singapore)
Dubai Ports World

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

This season of our despair, next season of light

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period…Charles Dickens – Tale of Two Cities


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. For our family and friends, the last half year has been every bit as Dickensque as you can imagine. A Darling Aunty dying from brain tumour, a child (post-liver transplant) suffering from relapse of bile duct narrowing. Princess of the House (our daughter Julia) spent 8 weeks in hospital sorting out her bile duct problems. She still wears a tube, hanging from the top of her belly like a weird extension (in case the surgeons need access).

This April just past was the worst of times for us. Darling Aunty got diagnosed with brain cancer. This June past, was the worst of times, Princess of the House got very sick. The worst of times because for the longest time in these very sultry winter months, the doctors were looking for clues of whether Princess of the House was having a relapse of her childhood cancer. We had a heavy block dropped off our backs on Monday results from a PET scan in Melbourne showed all is well on the cancer front for Princess.


What the last 5 months-plus has taught me is that the worst of times, can also be the best of times. It was the best of times because I have seen much greatness and professionalism among our care gives (read Liver Transplant nurses, nurses at Ward 25A, the mostly-bald headed Gastroenterology guys at Starship Hospital (well pardon me, including one impeccably dressed lady consultant with accessories to die for); Northern Hospital School teachers – hear the gong folks!).

It was the best of times because we learnt that humans cope despite great adversities. We wake in the morning, hoping it will be a better day, that the sun will still rise as it surely does. We wake up knowing our friends and family are there for us. We wake up hoping the Boffins and their friends (read people of science) may have some answers for us; that we will be one step closer to the end of the dark tunnel, closer to some answers.

The answers may not be what we desire to hear. Our Darling Aunty has been given months to live. We enter the realm of incredulity, the season of darkness; we sink into the winter of despair.

But these can be the best of times for us – because we learn to grow as humans, to see this as the time to seize the day, to live life with no regrets, to show kindness; to exercise compassion, to learn tolerance as a way of life, and say the prayers we never seem to find it easy to say. This is the time to feel the frailty of human life.

These can be the best of times as we learn to greet death in its gruesome face with as much surety as we greet the transcendence of the beautiful rising sun. That because instinctively we seek to live, we surely also, must by the same logic, have to seek to let go when that time comes.

Magical cat

There is a certain cartoon character – a pudgy blue robot cat which speaks with a mechanical human voice called Doraemon (Pico Iyer's version of the cat) – which I love. Doraemon always has a solution, something he can pull out of his magical pouch. Miraculous feats happen in Doraemon’s presence. Pipping hot ramen in bowls for Nobita and his friends atop a gigantic tree with vistas as wide as the eyes can see. How I wish Doraemon could produce a magical pill for Darling Aunty.

However, there is nothing magical to be found by way of how science takes it own pace to develop – not fast enough for Darling Aunty, I am afraid.

Season of light

So as surely as one accepts the rising sun must set, the time must come when we will have to let death come into our doors. For in dying, there is new life. In new life, springs the shoots that gives hope.

For now, for those who are grieving, our singular most important lesson must be that what keeps our daily life much more bearable is that spring of hope – that tomorrow will be a brighter day. That once we learn to let go gently, at our own pace - tomorrow, yesterday, the day before, last year and all of days, need not be the winter of our despair, but the season of new light.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Secrets of the Universe

This may be the biggest thing since the way the Internet changed our understanding of the power of science. A Herald article describes it as kind of Alice in Wonderland tunnel (a 27-km tunnel straddling the border of France and Switzerland). The Large Hadron Collider is one of science's most ambitious projects to date. One of its aims is to reenact the big bang theory, the theory that a giant "kaboom" created the universe. The boffins are trying to smash a whole lot of protons along this tunnel to find out how the particles will react. How cool is that?

You can read every single technical detail about the construction of this Large Hadron Collider on the web. Seriously. You can even build one yourself, if you are up to it. Just get the manual - there are some 1,600 pages - from the Journal of Instrumentation.

I am awaiting reports on this giant "collison" that is to take place tomorrow in NZ time. But don't get too excited, It will be at least a month, according to the boffins, before the travelling beams collide for us to realise the outcomes.

Doomsday criers say this collison may create black holes to endanger the universe. Great! Now we can dissapear into these blackholes and come out at the other end of somewhere. These are the stuff you only read about in science fiction.

I love what boffins do. They test boundaries for us. Imagine a world without boffins. Without boffins, my daughter who has had a liver transplant, wouldn't have had her second lease of life.
Without boffins tampering with the concept of flight, we won't be able to jetset around the world in jumbo jets. Without boffins we won't have food processors - imagine chopping up a whole bag of onions. Science is a great and marvellous thing. It is mysterious, weird and wonderful.

Why then am I a sucker for things unscientific (as my better half calls me)? Ie, I believe in the existence of ghosts/spirits though I have never seen one. But I have felt goosebumps in brightest, cheeriest hotel rooms. If someone tells me they can see angels, I would believe the person too. Does that make me vulnerable and loopy? If someone told me he/she spotted a UFO, my response would me "tell me more". Who are we to think that we alone exist in this vast universe.

My point is, not everything in the universe has to be lumped as either science or non science. For the longest time, Eastern mystics have explored inner space - going into the mind, to arrive at their version of "new universes". You can't scientifically prove this in a lab although lately there has been a lot of work done around the science of the mind.

I love chorals sung in the church although I don't believe in a creator god like the great composer Joseph Hadyn does and wrote his music singularly for the purpose of exalting the almighty creator. I love the sound of the muazzin (person chosen to make prayers) calling for prayers although I am not a Muslim. I love the Bharatna Natyam, a Hindu dance of worship to the gods although I am not a Hindu. I love a good pyschic reading but also believe you are the maker of your destiny. I also love reading about the mysteries of quarks, parallel universes and the bootstrap theory although half the time I can't understand what I am reading about. That is the beauty of life - the ability to enjoy opposites, the ying and yang, without feeling there is major compromise in how you live your life.

Here's to a happy medium - an appreciation of science and the other loopy versions of how the world really is, or how the world is as other people chose to see it.