History, Travel

A Whirlwind Tour of Waterford

A few weeks ago we moved house from Dublin to Dungarvan. The journey was divided in three discrete stages: a train to Waterford, a wait of three hours, a taxi to Dungarvan. This gave me just enough time for a tiny tiki-tour of one of the oldest towns in the Republic.

Waterford County

The Train

Considering that Ireland was still in the strictest level of lockdown, the train ride was surprisingly unhellish. Half of the seats were covered with ‘do not sit’ signs to aid social distancing, there were very few passengers anyway and those of us who were there wore masks. A train attendant came through every half an hour or so to check Covid-era compliance. I had two conniption-fit moments: once when I heard a cough and once when a man at the front of the car seemed to be having a mask-free phone call, but overall we felt about as safe as you can possibly feel on public transport during a pandemic.

Every so often a recorded male voice announced the name of the next station in Gaelic. After the third such announcement I thought I was going mad because, no matter where we were, it sounded like the man was saying (in English) that we were ‘Neither here nor there’. Was this mere Irish whimsy? Was it a tribute to Samuel Beckett? Or had the past year effect genuine existential despair? When I mentioned it to John, he pointed out that the man was actually saying ‘Irish Railroad’ in Gaelic: Iarnród Éireann.

Plunkett Station

At around noon, we arrived in Plunkett Station in Waterford, named for Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916). He was one of the heroes of the Easter Rising, an armed insurrection against British rule in Ireland. On Easter Monday 1916, a group of rebels occupied key public sites in central Dublin demanding an immediate end to British rule in Ireland. Even though the insurrection was crushed, it made the creation of the Republic of Ireland almost inevitable. This was partly due to the heavy-handed reaction of the British Crown: leader were executed by firing squad and many civilians who had nothing to do with the operation were massacred by police, the bloody repression drawing outrage and sympathy around the world. Plunkett was one of the executed leaders whose courage and martyrdom is particularly celebrated even today.

The signatories were later all shot by firing squad

Born to a wealthy Dublin family, Plunkett contracted tuberculosis at an early age and spent part of his youth in warmer climes such as the Mediterranean and Algiers, where he studied Arabic literature and language. Deeply interested in Irish culture, he was a member of the Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League), which promoted the Irish language. It was at a bilingual (English and Gaelic) school that he met Grace Eveleen Gifford, a caricaturist, and fell in love.

Portrait of Grace Gifford by William Orpen

Plunkett was a key member of the Military Committee of the Irish Republican Brotherhood that planned and carried out the Easter Rising. A few weeks before the planned attack, he had an operation on glands in his neck and subsequent meetings with the Military Committee were often held at his bedside. His condition worsened and doctors predicted he only had a fortnight to live. However, despite his weakness, Plunkett showed up at the General Post Office on April 24, still bandaged but sporting a white silk sash and sabre. The Rising continued until April 29, when Patrick Pearse surrendered unconditionally to Brigadier-General Lowe. In the days that followed, 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested, including Plunkett. A series of court-martials began on May 2.

After his arrest, Plunkett was held in Kilmainham Gaol. On May 3 he was allowed to marry Grace in the prison chapel. Seven hours later, he was executed by firing squad. He was twenty-eight at the time. Grace never married again.

Plunkett was also a pretty decent poet

Rice Bridge

The Suir (pronounced ‘Shur’) seen from Rice Bridge

Moving past this mural, we climbed a ramp and found ourselves on one side of the river Suir looking across at Waterford on the other. The bridge we trundled our suitcases over in the middle of a freezing gale was Rice Bridge, named after Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762-1844), a Catholic missionary and educationalist who was beatified as a saint in 1966. Although he started out life as a businessman, the death of his wife inspired Rice to devote the rest of his life to prayer and charitable works particularly in Waterford. In 1802 he and two colleagues opened the Congregation of Christian Brothers in the city. The order became particularly known for its schools. Unfortunately, in the latter part of the twentieth century, it became notorious as a sort of child-abuse franchise. Notable former pupils include Gabriel Byrne, Siddhartha Mukherjee, John C. Reilly and John Philip Holland, who developed the first submarine to be formally commissioned by the US Navy.

Getting off the bridge, John and I inched our way towards the bus station, only ten minutes’ walk from Plunkett Station but a very cold and wet ten minutes they were. When we got there, we stowed our luggage for a small fee (a service not available at the train station) and decided to explore the town a little. It soon became clear, though, that the weather was not ideal for touring. Not only did John’s mask make his glasses fog up, but the rain blew right in his face and made seeing impossible. What’s more, the cold was biting at his arthritic knee. So we decided that he should head back to the train station across the river, where there was hardly anyone in the station and where he could sit in the warmth for a couple of hours without dying of hypothermia. Meanwhile, I would scout the town for points of interest and see about getting a taxi.

A Plethora of Plaques

So began my whirlwind tour of Waterford. I strode up a steep hill and saw mainly a bunch of closed-up houses. Turning left at the top of the hill there was a commercial street, mainly closed except for a supermarket and a couple of cafes (takeaway only). Outside the supermarket was a line of taxis—bingo! Relieved that I knew how we would get to Dungarvan, I continued with a lighter heart.

Coming to ‘Patrick Street’, I took a picture for my brother, whose name is Patrick for our maternal grandfather Patrick O’Reilly. It turned out this was a plaque-rich street. Not only did it have a medieval gate, but also a plaque informing me that I was standing outside the place where William Hobson was baptized. Hobson (1792-1842) is a name that most New Zealanders will know because he was the country’s first Governor General and a co-author of the Treaty of Waitangi, the document with which the British Crown neatly swindled Maori of vast swathes of their land. It remains contentious in 2021. I wasn’t aware that he’d also founded Auckland, but you learn something new every day. This is the sort of thing I like about exploring new places–finding unexpected echoes and familiarities that tilt the mental kaleidoscope.

Strange-looking feller

At the bottom of the street, I found another echo. Last year we lived for several months in Belfast, home of the Titanic (“She was all right when she left here” is a real town slogan). In Belfast, understandably, there are dozens of plaques and monuments to the local victims and survivors of the accident. It was a little strange, then, to see one here in Waterford. I had to think a moment to remember where I was. Patrick O’Keefe, said the plaque, was a heroic survivor. As it turns out, he appears to have helped another couple of guys out of the freezing water before going on to make a new life for himself in New York.

Close to this plaque was another one that rang no bells at all. The admirers of William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865), a nineteenth-century composer, had erected a fancy stone plaque to his memory. The whole Wallace family emigrated to Australia when William was a newlywed man in his early twenties. In Sydney, they opened Australia’s first music academy and William became known as the ‘Australian Paganini’ for his virtuosity on the piano and violin. At some point, he ditched his wife and went walkabout across the globe. He hied off went on a whaling voyage in the South Seas, where he encountered the Maori tribe Te Aupouri. Then he wandered around South America, Jamaica and Cuba, apparently giving concerts everywhere he went. In 1841 he conducted a season of Italian opera in Mexico City. He then spent time in New Orleans, New York, London and Austria.

Overture to The Amber Witch

Not twenty steps along and I came to another plaque, this one duplicated in Gaelic. It was in commemoration of Thomas Francis Meagher, ‘Young Ireland Orator and American Civil War Hero’, which is quite an impressive boast.

Young Ireland was a political and cultural movement committed to Irish independence.  Impressed by the bloodless February Revolution in Paris, Meagher William Smith O’Brien and Richard O’Gorman led a delegation to congratulate the new French Republic and to get some tips. Shortly afterwards, in late July 1848, the Young Irelanders gathered in a little town called Ballingarry and unfurled the tricolor flag for the first time. The struggle was very short-lived. They exchanged fire with police for a few hours and then the leaders were arrested. Meagher and his fellow revolutionaries were arrested and sentenced to being ‘hung, drawn and quartered.’ It was after this trial that Meagher delivered his famous Speech from the Dock.

To lift this island up—make her a benefactor to humanity, instead of being as she is now, the meanest beggar in the world—to restore to her, her native powers and her ancient constitution—this has been my ambition and this ambition has been my crime. Judged by the law of England, I know this crime entails upon me the penalty of death; but the history of Ireland explains that crime and justifies it. Judged by that history, the treason of which I stand convicted loses all its guilt, has been sanctified as a duty, and will be ennobled as a sacrifice.

Due to public outcry and international pressure, the ridiculous sentence was changed to exile to Van Diemens Land. From there, he eventually ended up in the United States of America and became a citizen. When the Civil War broke out, he decided to serve the Union and began recruiting men. Many young Irishmen in the States were falling over themselves to volunteer for his Company, “the fighting 69th”. He fought with mixed success, having victories at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861) and the Battle of Fair Oaks (June 1 1862) but when his company was decimated at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April-May 1863), he resigned his commission.

Luke Wadding

Yet another of Waterford’s famous sons was the Franciscan friar Luke Wadding (1588-1657), who was an avid historian and supporter of Irish Catholics in the Eleven Years’ War (1641-1653), the single most destructive war in Irish history. The conflict began in 1641 when Irish Catholics tried to seize control of the English administration in Ireland. They wanted an end to anti-Catholic discrimination, greater self-governance and an end to the Plantations of Ireland (whereby the English goverment replaced local populations with Protestant Scots). Wadding helped found the College of St. Isidore in Rome for the education of Irish Priests, and it was mainly thanks to his efforts that St. Patrick’s Day was made a feast day.

Luke Wadding by Carlo Maratta–the friar was also a patron of the arts

The Viking Triangle

Waterford was founded in 914 CE by Vikings who called it Veðrafjǫrðr – ‘Wetherford’or ‘ram crossing’, maybe because sheep were sent out from its port. The site offered a safe, defensible harbour and was fed by at least four rivers, which made it a strategic area for trade. Because of that early settlement, Waterford is known for its ‘Viking Triangle’, which is the roughly triangular area downtown where the Norwegian visitors based themselves.

Reginald’s Tower is shiny from being touched

At the tip of the triangle closest to the Suir is Reginald’s Tower, the oldest civic building in Ireland, first mentioned in annals in 1088. The tower seems to have first belonged to the Vikings and then to have been destroyed and rebuilt by the Anglo-Normans when they took over. Though no one knows exactly who Reginald was, he may have been Ragnall Mac Gilla Muire, one of several men captured when Richard de Clare invaded Waterford in 1170.

Little remains of the Vikings, but there are some modern touristy reminders of their presence. Next to Reginald’s Tower is a replica of a Viking longboat and a bronze 3-D map of the ‘Triangle’. Not far away is a plaque marking the former site of Turgesius Tower, built about 1000 CE. And there’s also a modern sculpture vaguely reminiscent of longboat sails.

The Medieval Museum

In the middle of town is a big cathedral called Christ Church and right next to it Medieval Museum devoted to medieval Waterford. Of course, thanks to the novel coronavirus it was safely closed. It is intriguing to wonder what treasures are hidden in the darkness. Thanks to the internet, there is a virtual tour, which gives a tantalizing peek of what is in store.

From the outside, there is a stylized Normanesque couple cordially inviting you to sit on them.

And another inviting you to see the world from their point of view:

Leaving Waterford

When I got back to the train station, John was looking worried. He was the only one in the vast station apart from the station master, who had given him strong hints that his presence was unwelcome. Because there were no trains due that day (he reasoned in his tidy stationmaster brain) there ought not be any waiters-around. Any waiters-around in those circumstances were more properly classed as loiterers. John had explained the situation to the stationmaster, viz that it was extremely outside and he had nowhere to go until 3 o’clock. The stationmaster had grudgingly agreed to let him sit in the otherwise completely empty station for two hours at the most.

Feeling, not for the first time, like orphans of the storm, we headed back to the bus station to get our luggage and a taxi. Ah well, probably more comfortable than travelling in a longboat in the tenth century.

Asia, Travel

Touring South-West China with Davide Melia

This week I’d like to introduce you to Davide Melia, creator of ‘South West China with Davide Melia’ on Patreon. Davide lives in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in south-west Yunnan and for several months his site has provided subscribers with an online portal to this special place.

Davide’s photographs, videos and stories illuminate daily life in this area. At a time when travel has been severely curtailed, these posts have provided a welcome—even therapeutic–escape. Whenever the stultifying sameness of the living room started getting to me, I knew I was only a few clicks away from Yunnan’s delicious food, spectacular landscapes and fascinating history. It’s been a bit like having a personal tour guide without having to go anywhere or to learn the language(s).

Davide was kind enough to agree to an interview talking about his life and the region. If you find this interview interesting, please consider subscribing and supporting his work.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your life before arriving in China?


Of course! Well, I was born in Perth, Western Australia at the end of 1982, and my parents are migrants from Italy who arrived in Australia in the 1970s.

Growing up, I lived in Huntingdale, an outer suburb about 1 hour’s drive from the centre of Perth city. I went through 12 years of Catholic primary and secondary school, then attended the University of Western Australia where I did a double major in English and History and then Honours in English. After that, I spent 6 years post-uni working as a doorman at different places, mainly big nightclubs and pubs, around Perth.

I was very involved in the punk scene in Perth. I was not a musician, though many of my friends were. At one point I worked as the head doorman of the Hyde Park Hotel, in many ways the home of punk in Perth, before it was taken over by a large conglomerate and turned into a cookie-cutter, sanitised suburban pub.

I’ve also been involved with anti-racist activism in Perth since I was a teenager. Why anti-racist activism? Well, Huntingdale (and the neighbouring suburbs, Thornlie and Maddington and Gosnells) have always had large populations of Indigenous Australian peoples, and of people from different parts of the world, but Gosnells was also the home of Jack van Tongeren, the leader of the Australian neo-Nazi group the Australian Nationalist Movement, and it was quite a racist place in some parts.

When I was very young, the ANM were very active in posting neo-Nazi propaganda, putting neo-Nazi graffiti everywhere, and making attacks on various people and their homes and businesses. They were all jailed when I was very young, but in the early 2000’s, they made a comeback, and started getting serious about doing the same kind of shit they did back in the late 80’s.

Jack van Tongeren with suggestive hairstyle and moustache


So, remembering them from when I was young, I was very active in disrupting their plans and goals, collecting information about who they were and what they were doing, and generally interfering with what they wanted to do. Thankfully, that time around, their group was broken up without them doing any serious harm to anyone – and van Tongeren was exiled out of the state (and is very old by now), so a third coming of the ANM has not and is not going to happen.

2. Where are you now and how did you get there?
 
I live in Mangshi, which is the capital city of Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, which is located in south-west Yunnan, which is located in south-west China, right on the northern border of Myanmar.After I finished working as a doorman at the end of 2009, I went back to university to do my graduate diploma (I’d previously completed a BA in English and History, with Honours in English), and while I was there, I met a visiting scholar from China. We wrote a book together, and I mentioned to her that I knew very little about China, and that I would be interested in working there for a year or so.

Image from here


So she helped me find a job at a private English training school. That job lasted for 6 months until my boss tried to cheat me out of wages and I left after an extremely acrimonious argument which culminated in him throwing a chair at me. When I came back, in 2013, I went to work at the Dehong Teacher’s College. That job was great. It lasted for 3 years, but then I went back home because my grandfather was dying. And a good job I did – he passed away a week after I got back.

At the end of February, I am going back to work at the Dehong Teacher’s College.

3. How does your region relate to the rest of China? How is it different?
 
Where I live is right on the border with northern Myanmar.

Well, Mangshi city itself is a couple hundred kilometres away. It would be much less, except that this whole part of Yunnan consists of mountains, hills, rainforests and valleys. However, Ruili, which is like the commercial centre of Dehong, is literally on the border – the border crossing to Shan State in northern Myanmar is in Ruili itself. In fact, Ruili is a two-part city – the side on the Myanmar side of the border is called Muse, and it is a single city, more or less, with a national border going through it.

Riuli, on the border with Myanmar


So, as you can imagine, the geography and climate is very similar, in fact the same, as that in northern Myanmar. I’ve already mentioned the geography, but the climate is very sub-tropical, with two distinct seasons – cold and dry in the winter and autumn, and warm and very (very!) rainy in the spring and summer.

There’s also similarities in the people who live here. For one thing, 75% or so of the construction and hospitality sectors in Dehong is staffed by people from the Myanmar side of the border, and also, the same ethnic groups tend to live on both sides of the border. They might have different names in Myanmar – for example, Dai people are called Shan, and Jingpo people are called Kachin – but they are the same peoples.

There are also a lot of similarities in the foods that are eaten, the music that people like, and many other cultural aspects.

But as for similarities with the rest of China … well, it is very much still China, even if it has a very different culture as a result of being an ‘ethnic autonomous prefecture’ with a very varied population.

Shan State is largely neglected by the Myanmar government, given that the Myanmar government is dominated by Bamar people who don’t care very much for the ‘hill tribes’ living in the ‘ethnic areas’ on the border. So it’s very under-developed. It suffers from a gross lack of government investment and government funding. So even though the people are hard-working and do the best with what they have, Shan State is noticeably more run-down and under-developed than Dehong. You can see this clearly just by going to Ruili and comparing the Myanmar side of the border to the China side.


Dehong is a very low GDP-per-capita area in a very low GDP-per-capita province of China – Yunnan is the second-lowest GDP-per-capita area of China. In spite of this – or more accurately, because of this – it has received massive amounts of government investment over the last 10 or 15 years, and has developed very much in that time. Roads that were once treacherous and narrow have been replaced by multi-lane expressways leading to every other part of Yunnan and China, and even out of the country.

Villages and towns have received massive amounts of investment, which has meant that every aspect of life in them has improved. This is something which Dehong has in common with very many other, similar, areas all across China, and particularly in northern and western China.All of this sounds a lot like a PR job, or the outright P-word – but it is nothing more or less than the god’s honest truth. That’s one big issue with Western coverage of China – if it’s not outright negative, or at least laced with negativity, it’s largely regarded as propaganda. The well has been poisoned so thoroughly that just trying to give an accurate view of how things are here is somehow suspect.

Mangshi

4. You often mention your wife, Weina. Can you tell us a little bit about her background, how you met and her interests? What was the procedure in terms of your residency there?

Well, Weina is from Shandong province way on the other side of China. She did her degrees at universities in Kunming, which is the capital city of Yunnan, and after she was done, she got a job here at the teacher’s college, where she has worked ever since.

Weina’s very much involved in her work, and very serious and professional on that. Most Chinese academics and teachers are like this, especially those who work in marginal areas like this. But she also very much likes travelling, reading for pleasure, learning about different things, listening to music, watching television, and other things besides. In this sense, and many others besides, we’re pretty well matched with each other.

Weina and Davide


We worked at the same college for three years, from 2013-2016, but we didn’t meet during my time at the college. Well, we met a few days before I went back home, but then I went home and we didn’t talk again until the latter third of 2017, when we were introduced to each other by a colleague from the college. We talked a lot, got along very well, went on a holiday together at the beginning of 2018, and from there decided that we’d both like to stay together from that time on.

So at that point, we started preparing for me to come back to Mangshi. It wasn’t too difficult because I already had a passport and had a job lined up, so I went through the usual process involved in obtaining a work visa for China. That’s the first step. Once I had been issued a work visa, I flew to China, and from there, I obtained my residency permit, and I’ve been living here ever since.

5. How do locals react to your being a foreigner?

It varies quite a lot.

Children range from horror at my ogre-like presence, to treating me like a celebrity. I don’t mind either – it’s quite funny. Children are children, and their reactions have more to do with how they feel at a given moment than anything else.The reaction of adults also varies quite a lot, but isn’t so extreme. Dehong is already quite a multi-ethnic region – it has many different local ethnic groups, plus lots of people from Myanmar and other nearby countries. But not too many ‘Westerners’.

Kids from Davide’s post “Pictures from a Xinjiang Primary School, Kashgar, Xinjiang”.


So, the reaction of adults varies from friendliness, to utter indifference. Really old people, who associate Westerners with the Americans and others who were here during the war, are uniformly friendly. People who are a little older than that, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution and the time in China’s history when foreigners never came here, are a bit more ambiguous … some are friendly, some are unfriendly, and some are obviously wondering what the hell I am doing here. Mind you, they wouldn’t have met a ‘foreigner’ who wasn’t from Myanmar until quite recently. At the earliest, they would have met foreigners maybe twenty years ago. So these kinds of reactions are understandable.

But I have never come across anyone who was openly rude to me, or hostile, or anything like that. The local people are wonderful and tolerant.

Well, once I was threatened with a big knife for taking photos of people who really, really didn’t want to be photographed, but that was at the jade market in Ruili, the border city with Myanmar. And even at that, he just brandished his knife at me and made me understand that I should stop taking photos, which I immediately did.

Jade market in Riuli



Another time, some dudes were sizing me up like a particularly juicy pork-chop – and not in a friendly way – but I’d stumbled into illegal stuff going on, and had a camera in my hand. On both occasions, even though there was an implicit or explicit threat, I was still shown a large amount of forbearance and tolerance, for which I can only be grateful. Neither of those events were because of my being a foreigner, though – my own ignorance caused them.

6. From your posts, I’ve learned that there are several different ethnic groups who live in the region and who maintain a sense of their distinct identity, for example the Dai,  De’ang and Jingpo. Can you talk about some of these minority groups –language and dialect, for example, and their relationship with the Han majority?

Dehong is a Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, after the two largest ‘ethnic minority’ groups who live here. However, Dehong is home to at least five different ethnicities besides the Han, Hui, Bamar, and others who live here – the Dehong Dai, Jingpo, De’ang, Lisu, and Achang.

First, there’s the De’ang people. As far as anyone knows, they’re actually the indigenous people of Dehong, and were living here when the Dai people arrived from further north-east over a thousand years ago.

De’ang language is part of the Austroasiatic language family, and is most closely related to certain other languages spoken in India, Bangladesh, and other areas around south-east Asia. They were pre-literate, and now use Dai script – they were introduced to it along with Buddhism by the Dai people when they arrived here – but have a long and rich history and culture.

De’ang people picking tea [Photo/Xinhua] china daily newspaper]


They were and are an agricultural people best known for tea planting- in fact, they may well have introduced tea to the Han people and other peoples of China. Tea is, after all, indigenous to this part of the world, and spread over the world from here. They believe that they are descended from primordial tea plants in an earlier era of the world (I can only compare this era to the Dreamtime, although this is an imperfect comparison to make)- and tea is an integral part of their culture, at every level.

Second, there’s the Dai people. The Dai people are from much further north-east in what is now China. They spread out over Yunnan, Myanmar (where they are called Shan), Thailand (where they are called Tai), and as far south as northern India, from the borderland of modern-day Guizhou, Guangxi, and Hunan provinces, although their ultimate origin is thought to be even further north-west still.

Over the centuries and millennia, they followed the rivers and mountains and hills and valleys to the south and west, where they formed smaller groups in suitable locations for rice-farming, which grew over time into powerful independent kingdoms and principalities. The modern-day Thai people, for example, are related to the various Dai/Tai/Shan peoples – Thai language is about 50% cognate with Dehong Dai language, with many shared vocabulary items (such as numbers).

That bring us to their language. There are many different Dai languages, all of which are mutually intelligible, but which have different influences and vocabularies based on the influence of their neighbours in a given area. Dai languages are part of the same family as Burmese, Thai, Sinhalese, Balinese, Kannada, Tamil, and other ‘south-east Asian languages’. The Dai language spoken in Dehong is referred to as Dehong Dai (or Tai Le or Tai Nua), and has a vast amount of literature, both sacred and secular, written in it, as well as a rich spoken heritage.


Women of the Dai minority


If the De’ang are associated mainly with tea, the Dai are associated mainly with rice planting. The Dai people may have been among the first rice-planting cultures, who introduced the crop, and the best ways of planting it, to many other cultures and peoples. Rice farming has always been the basis of their way of life, their prosperity, and their principalities and kingdoms which have been very powerful and influential in the past. Even today, Dai people are the main basis of the agricultural wealth of Dehong, which is mainly an agricultural area.

Then, there’s the Jingpo and Lisu, who I will deal with together, since much of what is true for the Jingpo is also true for the Lisu. The Jingpo and Lisu are actually two parts of what is called the ‘Jinghpaw Wunpong’, or ‘Jingpo Confederacy’ – a confederation of five different peoples. Or six or seven – it depends who you ask. However, only two of those peoples, the Jingpo and Lisu, live on this side of the China/Myanmar border.

Jingpo woman dancing, photo courtesy of Davide Melia. He has a fascinating explanation for the costume in the February 2021 post “The Dragon Woman, Ja Nang, the progenitor of Jingpo women”



The peoples of the Jinghpaw Wunpong originate from much further north, in central Asia, from a land which they call Ka-ang Shingra. From there, they slowly and gradually moved south – spending a lot of time in different areas along the way, such as Mongolia, modern-day Sichuan province, and many others besides – until they arrived in this part of the world about 500 years ago.

The Jingpo speak a number of languages but here in Dehong, they speak two – Jingpo and Zaiwa. Both of these are Sino-Tibetan languages, although part of a rather rarified branch; many of their closest relatives are in the mainly-extinct Luish/Asakian language group.

Jingpo/Kachin people in this part of the world have been best known for living in the hills and mountains, where they have practiced various forms of agriculture such as swidden farming and raising cattle and other suitable livestock. Jingpo areas have a lot of mineral wealth – most famously, jade and emeralds – and the Jingpo people were well-known as miners.

Unlike the Dai, who were able to maintain large standing armies thanks to their style of agriculture, Jingpo people have long practiced a form of warfare which we might compare most accurately to guerrilla warfare, using smaller units and depending on precise manouvres and hit-and-run attacks. Most recently, they were instrumental in pushing the Japanese out of northern Burma and Yunnan in World War 2. They were organized and trained and armed by the British – although, by all accounts, they didn’t need that much training from the British in guerrilla fighting!

Unlike many other peoples in this part of the world, they are mainly Christians, and were converted by the China Inland Missions in the late 19th Century – although they also retain ideas and cultural elements from their previous animist beliefs.

And then there’s the Achang people. They are the least-known of the ‘ethnic minority’ groups of Dehong, among the people of Dehong themselves, which is a shame because they basically all live here. Their earliest recorded origins were in the region bordering modern-day Sichuan and Gansu provinces. About 2,000 years ago, they travelled to Dehong when their home region was placed under the control of a Han governor at the beginning of the Ming dynasty. At one time, they were tributaries to the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms based in Dali, and are well-known for rice farming.

Achang man



Like the De’ang people, the Achang have also been influenced quite a lot by the Dehong Dai. Achang people commonly speak their own language, which is related to Burmese and Arakanese and Zaiwa, but have also spoken Dehong Dai and Mandarin for trading purposes for hundreds of years.

Overall, though, the Achang are very little known – not a lot of work has been done on their history and culture, and even less has been published in the English language.

How do all of these ethnic groups relate to the Han? And how have they related to the Han in the past? Well, for a long time, the Han were not very well established here in south-west Yunnan. There has been a significant Han/Hui presence in Baoshan prefecture to the north-west for about 500 years, but for the most part, the region has been dominated by the various Dai peoples and by a wide variety of different ethnic groups depending on the locality. Various local kingdoms and principalities paid tribute to the Imperial court under the tusi system, but there weren’t really significant populations of Han people in this part of Yunnan for a long time. So, the story of inter-ethnic-group relations here has more to do with how the different non-Han ethnic groups have related to each other. That’s a question which could fill entire volumes of books!

7. What are the aspects you like best about living in Mangshi? What are some of the more challenging things?

Mangshi has a number of features which make it very attractive to live in.

First of all, as you’ll know from my photos and videos, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Dehong is about 1,000 metres above sea level, and it’s made up of 80% rainforest/mountain/hills, 15% rural land, and it’s only about 5% urbanised. It’s basically a giant ‘carbon sink’. So the environment is really good, the air and water are clean, and it has a lot of bio-diversity – even by the standards of Yunnan province, where much of China’s bio-diversity is to be found.

Mangshi River, flowing through a lush green landscape


Second, it has always been, and still is, multicultural and multiethnic. So, not only are there all kinds of different peoples and cultures here, tolerance and acceptances have long been ways of life here. With so many different peoples from so many different places living here, it had to be that way, otherwise society would have broken down a long time ago. Third – the necessities of life are very cheap here. Because it’s a low GDP-per-capita area, wages are quite low. And 2020 was very difficult – I myself was below the poverty level of income, even for here in China, for much of it. And yet, we still got along pretty well. Rent is relatively cheap, transportation is cheap, and food is very cheap indeed, as well as being good-quality.

One thing that is challenging about Dehong is that it is an isolated area. It’s very far from my home in Australia, and from Weina’s home in eastern China. So it’s difficult to see our families more than once a year or so – and lately, what with the virus, it’s been even longer in-between visits.

Another thing is that there are so many different peoples, and so many different cultures, and my eyes are bigger than my stomach. As much as I try, I can’t learn as much as I would like about everyone – so my knowledge is mainly limited to the Dehong Dai and Jingpo people, with a decent amount about De’ang people. So I continually feel like there’s stuff I don’t understand, or that I’m not getting.

8. I particularly like your photographic portraits and the stories you extract from people about their lives. You seem to have a knack for putting your subjects at their ease. Do you have a favorite portrait and accompanying story?

Well, that starts with choosing suitable people to photograph. Some people just don’t want to be photographed, and even asking them is likely to accomplish nothing but aggravating them. If you can clearly see that people look unhappy, or unfriendly, or are doing something that they wouldn’t like others to see – they’re probably not looking to be photographed.

Photographs of wedding guests from the January 2021 post “The wasteland/agricultural land near the new development, Mangshi, Dehong, Yunnan.”



I err on the side of caution on this one – as I said, I’ve been threatened with a big knife once, and had a group of guys out in the countryside regarding me in a very unfriendly fashion – and it would accomplish nothing for me to get tied up in anything like that here. I spent a lot of time in my twenties having people trying to stick me with knives, broken bottles, and so on, as part of my work, but it’s 10, 15 years on from that time in my life, and there is no possible way I could benefit from anything like that now.

From there, if it’s at all possible, I ask permission. It’s not difficult to ask people if they would like to be photographed, and it’s just good manners. It ensures that they’re going to be happy to be photographed, and if they’re happy, they’ll be more relaxed and the photo will turn out better. Sometimes they’d like to take a photo with me, or of me, as well!

I like to photograph people doing everyday things. People pose for photos in much the same way wherever you are in China, or in the world – but their normal body language is very different in different parts, and that difference is part of what makes photographing people so interesting.

I have a lot of favourite portraits, but if I was being prompted to pick one, I’d probably pick one of the pictures I took of an elderly Han woman, who had been foot-bound in her early days, sitting in her grand-daughter’s shop.

A grandmother with bound feet, from Davide’s December 2020 post “Intergenerational Change in rural China, Mangshi, Dehong, China”



Because it’s so isolated and out on the periphery of China, foot-binding actually kept on going here into the 1950s. This lady was one of the very last women who were foot-bound in China, maybe. This is a cultural practice that had been done in China for over 1,000 years, and it only stopped dead in the 1950s, when the Communist government made sustained efforts to stop it, and to remove it from the culture altogether.

But her own daughter didn’t have to go through that, and neither did her granddaughter. She was confined to her family’s home, but now, two generations on, her grand-daughter has her own business, owns the building that her business is in, and can do whatever she wants to do with her life … and didn’t have to go through her whole life functionally crippled.
 
And even though she has been basically crippled for her whole life, she’s pretty happy in her old age, because her daughter and grand-daughter never had to go through that.

9. What would you most like people to take away from ‘South-West China with Davide Melia’?

There’s been an absolutely massive, sustained, propaganda campaign against China, and against the peoples of China, for a long time now – but it’s really spiralled out of control since 2014, when Xi Jinping came to power. And I feel that nearly all of it is being done in bad faith, because many countries see China’s development and growth as an existential threat.

But the truth is, China has gone through many positive changes in that time. Hundreds of millions of people have been raised out of the most awful poverty imaginable. The country is developing at an absolutely unprecedented rate. Even here, in one of the lowest GDP areas in the entire country, this process is going on. Things are getting better for the majority of people in China.

And the people of China are not a mass of evil-doers and brainwashed drones. They are some of the kindest, most friendly, most intellectually curious, and dedicated and committed people I’ve had the pleasure to live amongst.

If people are going to take just two overarching ideas away from my photos and videos, that would be it, I think.

From the October 2020 post “A Red De’ang lady at the mobile phone shop, Mangshi, Dehong, Yunnan”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about the region, please consider subscribing to Davide’s Patreon page. A very low price gives you access to all previous posts. Plus, Davide is very responsive to feedback and willing to create posts according to subscriber questions and interests.

History, Medieval, Travel

The Battle of Clontarf Heritage Trail

A couple of weeks ago I set out on a coastal run little suspecting that it would be paved with the storied bones of proud chieftains and rapacious Vikings. In fact, the curve of the coast from Clontaf to Howth was marked all along the way with signs that told of the Battle of Clontarf, one of the bloodiest and most significant battles in Irish History. What was it all about?

The approach to Clontarf from Dublin

The Viking Age in Ireland

The very first entry in the Annals of Ulster, in 841, is “Pagans still on Lough Neagh”. It’s quite a telling sentence, suggesting that the strangers had arrived fairly recently and were entirely welcome to leave.

“Visitors from Over the Sea” by Nicholas Roerich (1910)

The Vikings (for they were the Pagans in question) had no intention of going away any time soon. They had been successfully raiding the British Isles since at least 793, when they popped into the priory at Lindisfarne, an island off England’s eastern coast. The Archbishop Alcuin of York wrote a chilling account of that particular visit:

“Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.”

As long as there were treasure-filled undefended monasteries to loot, the Vikings didn’t see any reason to stop doing their thing.

Eighth century gilded disc crafted in Ireland or Scotland and excavated from the tomb of a high-status Viking woman in Norway

In Ireland, the Vikings (mostly Norwegian as distinct from the Danes who settled England) founded fortresses and trade centers that would later become cities. They first arrived in the Dublin area about 795, raiding a monastery on Lambay Island. By 841, they’d established a settlement there. The Irish called it Fine Gall (foreign people) and/or Dubh linn (black pool). Both names stuck; Fingal is now a county and Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Over the next three centuries it became a major trading post, and the biggest ‘export commodity’ was slaves.

Dublin seen from Howth. It’s true, the water is a bit dark.

The Irish frequently fought with the Vikings but they also fought among themselves. There was one nominal ‘High King’ but in fact there were about 150 local kingdoms and a dozen over-kingdoms, all fighting for dominance. According to John Hawyood (author of Northmen: The Viking Saga AD 793-1241) this fractured political landscape made Ireland less vulnerable to a large-scale Viking takeover than either England or France. At the same time, the Vikings gradually assimilated into Gaelic society and became Norse-Gaels.

Brian Boru

In 997, the High King of Ireland Máel Sechnaill Mór and his old enemy Brian Boru, King of Munster met and decided to make a truce and split up the island between them: Mael would get the northern half of Ireland and retain high kingship, Brian would get the southern half. The people of Leinster (an area just outside of Dublin) objected to this and made an alliance with Dublin to revolt. In the Battle of Glenmama in 999, Mael Mor and Brian Boru crushed the Leinster revolt so decisively that they had a clear path to Dublin. In 1000, Brian Boru plundered the city, burned the Norse fortress and expelled the King, Silkbeard (Sigtrygg II Silkbeard Olafsson). Silkbeard looked around for friends but found none and finally went to submit to Brian Boru, who offered Silkbeard his first daughter in marriage, while Brian took Silkbeard’s mother Gormflaith as his second wife.

Posthumous coin minted in 1050 to commemorate Silkbeard

In the 1010s, Brian Boru and Silkbeard had a falling out. In the first place, BB divorced Silkbeard’s mother, who then (according to Njál’s saga) nagged her son to kill him. Meanwhile, Leinster was gearing up for another revolt. Silkbeard joined Leinster’s cause and made alliances with the Viking leaders in Orkney and the Isle of Man. In Holy Week 1014, Silkbeard’s Viking allies sailed into Dublin. They were met by Brian Boru, High King Máel Sechnaill, several other kings and thousands of troops.

Battle of Clontarf (Vikings in Red) By 赤奋若 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Hugh Frazer Battle of Clontarf (1826). Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

What ensued was the Battle of Clontarf, in which most of the commanders, along with thousands of unnamed soldiers, died. According to Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib (“The War of the Irish with the Foreigners”), a twelfth-century account of the battle, Brian Boru was killed in his tent whilst praying. Silkbeard was not involved in the battle as he stayed in Dublin in case the fighting should turn in that direction. He survived for many years but his power over Dublin weakened until in 1032 he was forced to abdicate and go into exile.

The traditional view is that Viking power in Ireland was finally broken at the Battle of Clontarf. However, some modern historians contend that it was merely one event in a centuries-old civil war and that Vikings fought on both sides. Perhaps, then, the main reason for the decline of Viking influence after this date was that they had so successfully fused with Irish Christian culture.

The Crozier of Clonmacnoise shows a beautiful fusion of Viking and Celtic styles

The Trail

These days, Clontarf seems pretty peaceful and if the signs weren’t there it would be hard to imagine a huge battle in the vicinity. Here is a selection of local scenery along the way to Howth.

The promenade at Clontarf, looking towards Poolbeg
A Moai statue donated to Dublin by the Government of Chile
Redshanks

View looking across Dublin Bay from Howth towards Dalkey and Dalkey Island
Racial memories
Sunset from Sutton Strand
History, Modern, Travel

Would You Like to Go to Phoenix Park?

Thunder and lightning is no lark
When Dublin City is in the dark.
So if you have any money go up to the park
And view the zoological gardens.

“The Zoological Gardens”, lyrics by Dominic Behan

We’ve been in Dublin for a couple of weeks and one of the biggest surprises has been the massive green space close to the city, Phoenix Park (the name is an anglicization of fionn uisce, which means ‘clear water’). It’s a patch of land whose history mirrors that of Ireland itself, in the sense that it has passed from one ruling party to another and retains the scars of battle and souvenirs of different eras. Like a phoenix, it has repeatedly risen from the ashes.

Some idea of the size of the park

In the twelfth century, Anglo Normans started getting an eye for Irish real estate. This all started when the King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada was dispossessed of his kingdom and called for some outside help. The one who answered the call was Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (now popularly known as ‘Strongbow’). Together, they raised a large army and got the the kingdom back. Diarmat died shortly afterwards, probably of grief, and Strongbow lost no time in claiming the kingship for himself, much to the displeasure of both the Gaelic kings and Henry II. Henry invaded Ireland and brokered the Treaty of Windsor, which stated he would become overlord of all existing Norman territory within Ireland and Rory O’Connor would be High-King of all the rest. Unfortunately for Rory, and for the Gaels, the Normans interpreted this as a bit of a free for all, their territory expanded rapidly, and by the mid-thirteenth century, Ireland looked like this:

Stormin’ Normans. Map taken from here

So how does the Park come in? Well, after the invasion, the Norman knights who’d helped Henry received land and titles as a reward. Hugh Tyrell was one of these and he received land later known as Castleknock, gifting the area that is now Phoenix Park to the Knights Templar. They built the Abbey of St. Brigid’s on the ground and held it until 1308, when Edward II had the order condemned and suppressed (probably under the influence of his father-in-law Philip IV of France). The land and abbey subsequently passed to the Knights Hospitaller, who kept it until Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century. The land went the king’s representatives in Ireland.

James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, by William Wissing

When the Irish Rebellion of 1641 broke out, one James Butler was chosen as commander of the Royal Irish Army, charged with defending Dublin from local Catholics who wanted self-rule and an end to anti-Catholic discrimination. A staunch Royalist in the ensuing English Civil War and Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland, Butler lost his troops and went into exile with Charles II and lived with him and his retinue in Paris. After the Restoration, Butler was made Duke of Ormond in the Irish peerage and recovered his extensive estates in Ireland. In 1662, the Duke of Ormond established a royal hunting park, stuffing it full of deer and pheasants so that it required a wall to keep them in. Fallow deer are there to this day, wandering about, though I haven’t seen any pheasants.

Incidentally but entertainingly, in 1680 the Duke of Ormond was kidnapped by a bravo named Thomas Blood, the same ruffian who tried to steal the Crown jewels the following year. Ormonde escaped in the nick of time before being lynched. Blood, meanwhile, was inexplicably pardoned for both outrages. John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, wrote a scurrilous poem about it:

Blood, that wears treason in his face,
Villain complete in parson's gown,
How much he is at court in grace
For stealing Ormond and the crown!
Since loyalty does no man good,
Let's steal the King, and outdo Blood!

Rascal

The park was opened up to the public in 1745 by Lord Chesterfield (1699-1773), during his eight-month viceroyalty in Ireland. Chesterfield is probably best known as the author of Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774). These were collected and published by his son’s impoverished widow, Eugenia Stanhope, after Lord Chesterfield unkindly left her out of his will. Samuel Johnson was scathing on the subject of the letters, saying “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.”

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Well, notwithstanding his dubious literary legacy, Chesterfield left a lasting memento of himself in the park itself and in the neo-classical monument of a Phoenix on top of a Corinthian column. This now stands in the middle of a roundabout in the road that runs through the park.

Decimus Burton

When the nineteenth century rolled around, the park was getting a little dishevelled. The man hired to give it a makeover was one Decimus Burton, famous as the architect of a large number of Victorian public projects including Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St. James’s Park and the seaside resort of Queenstown. Not only did he redesign Phoenix Park, but he was also the architect of Dublin Zoo, which still stands today.

Escapee elephant in Phoenix Park, 2002

Part of the spruce up involved putting a honking great obelisk on the grounds, a testimonial to the achievements of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, particularly his achievement in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. At 62 meters high, it is the tallest obelisk in Europe and was funded by public subscription. This is kind of ironic because although Wellington was born in Dublin, he considered himself British and despised the Irish.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, by Goya (1812–14). This painting was stolen from the National Gallery in London in 1961. Five years later, elderly pensioner Kempton Bunton confessed to the crime.

The mid-nineteenth century was pretty busy for Ireland. Great Britain’s laissez-faire, not to say brutally callous, attitude to the Great Famine of 1845-49 increased Irish desire for Home Rule and calls for an end to the vampirical system in which absentee landlords profited from the labor of tenant farmers. When these farmers, who often lived at subsistence level, could not afford to pay rent, they were generally evicted. One of the most effective advocates for land reform and Home Rule was Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1879, at a time when popular anger was growing, Parnell was elected president of the Irish National Land League. Over the next year both evictions and retaliatory violence against landlords and enforcers increased. On October 13 1881, Parnell and his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham jail in Dublin under ‘reasonable suspicion’ for inciting violence. Together they issued the No Rent Manifesto, a fiery call to tenant farmers “to pay no rents under any circumstances to their landlords until Government relinquishes the existing system of terrorism and restores the constitutional rights of the people”. He was released on May 6, 1882 after signing the Kilmainham Treaty, in which he agreed to withdraw the manifesto and discourage agrarian crime provided that the Government would allow 100,000 tenants to appeal for fair rent before the land courts.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Only four days after Parnell’s release, there was a politically motivated fatal stabbing at Phoenix Park. The victims were Chief Secretary of Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and Permanent Undersecretary Thomas Henry Burke. Parnell was shocked. He offered to resign his position as MP and made a speech condemning the murders. As it turned out the killers were Joe Brady and Tim Kelly, members of the Irish National Invincibles, a militant breakaway movement. They got away in a cab driven by James Fitzharris, nicknamed Skin-the-Goat, and subsequently fled to the US. In the end, the incident allowed Parnell to make a break from more radical elements in the Land League and so to increase his political influence.

Memorial to the victims in Phoenix Park

Another feature of this park is the magazine store, a military fort built in 1735, when the country was quite poor, which prompted Jonathan Swift to write a satirical ditty about it:

Now’s here’s a proof of Irish sense,
Here Irish wit is seen,
When nothing’s left that’s worth defence,
We build a Magazine.

This fort was kept in use for 250 years and was raided twice. The first time was during the Easter Rising in 1916, when members of Fianna Éirann unsuccessfully tried to blow it up. The second was on December 23, 1939, when IRA members took weapons and more than one million rounds of ammunition. The materiel was recovered shortly afterwards. Since 1988 it has been owned by the Office of Public Works.

The fort from a path

Probably the most notable thing to have happened at the park in the last fifty years is the visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1979, the first ever visit to Ireland by any Pope. He helicoptered in to Phoenix Park and celebrated mass with 1,250,000 people–one third of the country’s population at the time. His visit came at the height of the Troubles and he had wanted to visit Armagh but they were having a particularly violent year of it. Such was the importance of the occasion, that nine months later the country had a baby boom–people born around July 1980 are still called the Pope’s Children.

A crowd gathers in Phoenix Park to celebrate mass under Pope John Paul II

The Papal Cross erected for the mass still stands in the park. The simple white cross stands 116 feet high. Something about the scene, with the graceful deer and trees and mist (and cars). I found it quite affecting, it reminded me of old poems like “The Dream of the Rood:

Many years have gone–yet still I have it in remembrance–since I was felled upon a forest’s edge and wakened from my slumbers. Strange foes seized hold on me and wrought me to a pageant and bade me lift aloft their wretched men. Men bore me on their shoulders, till that they set me on a hill; enough of foes, forsooth, fastened me there. Then I beheld the Lord of men hasting with mighty, steadfast heart, for He would fain ascend upon me. Yet might I not bow down nor break, against the world of God, what time I saw the compass of the earth tremble and shake. All those foes might I lay low; yet firm I stood.

I had a few more things I was going to say but it’s soo late so here are just a few more pictures.

History, Modern, Travel

Me and You and SARS-CoV-2: A Year in Review

Historians will look back at 2020 with the same fascination as arborists looking at one of those tree-ring anomalies that signal something cataclysmic—a wildfire, a rare atmospheric event, a rampant disease. It is something grandchildren are likely to ask their elders about and that people will build unwieldy monuments to. So for this week’s post I thought I’d do something I’ve been avoiding for a whole year, which is to talk about the pandemic and the year we’ve all just scraped through. Thinking about the virus and virus-related events tends to inspire feelings of dread, denial, depression, anxiety, shock, anger, grief and dislocation, so I try to ignore it as much as possible. On the other hand, sometimes looking at things squarely can have a bracing effect, and somehow it’s easier to think about now that some vaccines are ready, so here goes.

December 2019: Wuhan & the Tsunami Omen

It is believed to have started in Hubei Province. Some studies show that people in Lombardy, Italy, had it as early as September but it wasn’t until the final days of December 2019 that anyone recognized the virus as something new. On December 26, an elderly couple visited a Wuhan hospital complaining of fever, coughing and fatigue. The next day, examining their CT scans, Dr. Zhang Jixian noticed features different from flu or common pneumonia. Zhang had worked as a medical expert during the 2003 SARS outbreak and was alive to the possibility of another epidemic. She ordered tests that confirmed the couple’s illness was a viral infection but not influenza. She ordered a CT scan for their healthy-seeming son; sure enough, his lungs were similarly affected. Another patient showed the same signs. Zhang filed a report to the hospital directors declaring the discovery of a viral disease that was probably infectious.

WUHAN, April 16, 2020 (Xinhua) — Zhang Jixian, director of the respiratory and critical care medicine department of Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, receives an interview at the hospital in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, March 2, 2020. (Xinhua/Shen Bohan)

By the end of the 2019, Wuhan was on high alert. On December 31, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission released a briefing on its website about early signs of a pneumonia outbreak in the city. It advised the public to seek hospital care when having persistent fever while showing signs of pneumonia, and to wear face masks and avoid enclosed public places and crowded areas. Meanwhile, Zhang instructed her staff to wear face masks at all times and to take extra precautions.

At this time John and I were in Sri Lanka, in Hikkaduwa, a beach town. We were not yet aware of any virus in Hubei. Actually, the biggest disaster news was that Australia was burning. Around us, there were reminders of a local disaster—the tsunami of 2004 that devastated many families in the region. Near Hikkaduwa was Tsunami Honganji Viharaya , a Buddhist temple built by the Japanese dedicated to the victims of the tsunami.

Peraliya Buddha near Hikkaduwa

On New Year’s Day I went swimming on the beach, out to where the water was waist high, when the tallest, most powerful wave I’ve ever experienced knocked me head over heels. I decided to get out quickly. A Russian swimmer had the same idea—the Indian Ocean was taking no prisoners. I couldn’t help wondering if this slap on the very first morning of 2020 was some kind of omen…

January 2020: Thailand & the Chinese New Year

The very first confirmed COVID-19 patient outside of China popped up in Thailand. A 61-year-old Chinese woman, a resident of Wuhan, entered Bangkok on January 8. On January 13 she was diagnosed as having the new coronavirus. By January 28, at least 14 people in Thailand had been infected and the Thai Health Minister said the government was unable to stop the spread of the disease. Cases started appearing in dozens of other countries.

We arrived in Thailand at about the same time as Covid. Our ultra-modern Chinese hotel had an infinity pool (yay!) but also facial-recognition instead of entry keys and we got stuck in a dystopian nightmare (the stairwell) for an hour (boo!).

One day a screen in the elevator lobby alerted us to the need to take precautions against something called COVID-19. Overnight, everything was different. Everyone seemed to know where to get face masks, every building entrance had a little table with hand-sanitizer. In the metro, two friendly public officials supervised the use of hand-sanitizer and, confusingly, made everyone pass through a metal-detector.

It was just at this time that shops in Bangkok were gearing up for Chinese New Year. It was the Year of the Rat and everything was branded with cute mouse images. The supermarkets and special New Years’ markets were very crowded. For the first time, when doing my grocery shopping, I felt heavy claustrophobic dread. This would become a familiar feeling over the following months.

February: Tokyo & the Diamond Princess

By February 10, the COVID-19 death toll in China had already surpassed the total number of Chinese deaths in the SARS crisis of 2003. In America, the case of Trisha Dowd, the first person in the US to die of COVID-19 and someone who had not travelled recently, suggested that the disease had already been spreading by community transmission, maybe even as early as December 2019.

On February 5, a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess was quarantined near Yokohama when several passengers tested positive. Confirmed cases on board would eventually total 712 (of 3,711 people). In early February, the ship accounted for over half of reported cases outside of mainland China. Since then, more than 40 cruise ships have had confirmed positive cases of coronavirus on board.

Like the virus, we ended up in Japan in late February, for a week-long stopover. The train ride from the airport to the city was dreamily quiet and, again, everyone was wearing masks except us and other Americans/Europeans/Australasians. The streets were eerily quiet. We visited the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden just as the cherry trees were starting to flower and saw a couple get their wedding photos in traditional kimonos. We ate ramen and spicy fries in a little bar where Japanese country music was playing. We were roughly handled by a real sushi chef. In short, it was everything we’d hoped!

March: Seattle & the Elderly

On March 2, a woman living at a nursing facility in King County, Washington State, died of coronavirus. Eventually 81 residents, 34 staff members and 14 visitors at the same facility would become infected and 23 people would die—the first outbreak in a nursing home. By the end of November, more than 100,000 long-term care facility residents and staff would die of the coronavirus in the US. Disturbing reports of neglect and lethally irresponsible decisions would emerge from carehomes in Canada, the UK , Europe, Australia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Italy was becoming the Wuhan of Europe. By March 9, 9,172 cases had been confirmed and the entire nation was in lockdown. There, too, the elderly of Bergamo died in staggering numbers.

Message in the window of a nursing home

In Japan, the airport had been a little chaotic but there was definitely a sense of emergency and people were required to wear masks at least. Prior to boarding, an airline official had come around with a clipboard asking if we’d visited China within the last 14 days. When we arrived at SeaTac airport, no one was wearing masks or acting like anything was different. I was interrogated for 15 minutes by border guards about why I wanted to enter the US. They did not wear masks nor mention the virus at all— I suppose they were worried I was a potential ‘illegal’.

April: New York & Emily

On March 1, the first patient in New York had tested positive for the virus. By April, there were 83,713 total cases and 1,957 deaths in the state. On April 10, New York State had recorded more COVID 19 cases than any single country other than the US. Some New Yorkers fled their apartments to seek safety in the country. Schools, restaurants, workplaces shut down and residents were required to stay at home except for essential activities, where they had to wear masks. Scenes emerged of temporary graves being dug in public parks, of exhausted healthcare workers, of makeshift disaster morgues.

Statue in Kenton, Oregon

We’d arrived in Portland, Oregon, but my thoughts often went to New York, where so many of our friends live. A couple we know were expecting their first child and I was extremely worried for them. Jasmine said her experience of labor in the middle of a pandemic was like a hell, and she is not someone who exaggerates. She’d been whisked away to a hotel that had been hastily adapted to function as a maternity hospital, the hospital staff were exhausted and grumpy and it was very daunting for a first-time mother. But Emily was born healthy and beautiful.

May:  Portland & Black Lives Shattered

In the USA (and elsewhere), COVID-19 was not just a virus, it was a political issue. The one time we used a taxi in Portland, the driver was not wearing a mask. He saw that we were masked up and told us that we shouldn’t believe what we hear on the ‘mainstream media’. He said that the virus was no different from the flu. Conspiracy theories about the virus gained traction.

Meanwhile, anger was growing about cases of white cops targeting and killing innocent black people. In March, three plainclothes police forced entry into a Kentucky apartment and shot young ER technician Breonna Taylor in her sleep. On May 25 Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Mural in West Belfast, 2020

By now we’d been in Portland for a couple of months. The neighborhood where we lived was characterized mainly by beautifully tended gardens designed to attract birds and bees, and chalked messages on the sidewalk saying things like ‘I Love You’ and ‘Hope’ decorated with hearts and rainbows. Mt. Hood stood serenely in the distance and the huge forest park cooled the whole city with its fragrant shadow.

On the news, though, Portland was portrayed as an apocalyptic firefight. Starting from May 29, there were protests in Portland demanding police reform, but they tended to be focussed on one point: the Justice Center downtown. Even after police used teargas and militarized federal law enforcement officers invaded the city in July, seizing protestors off the streets in unmarked minivans, protests continued.

Portland, hotbed of unrest

June: New Zealand & Felipe

In New Zealand, Jacinda Adern’s Labour Government put the country into full lockdown on March 25. By June 8, after a couple of quickly contained flare-ups, there were no active cases of Covid-19 in the country. This was a comfort to me primarily because my family lives there but also because it demonstrated that it was entirely possible for a political leader to deal effectively with an infectious outbreak.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a post cabinet press conference at Parliament on June 08, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In the US, our nieces graduated so we had a little get together on Zoom, the conferencing app that 2020 made famous. Like many students across the globe, they were deprived of the official graduation ceremonies. This was a problem that Japan solved with robots.

The end of June brought a huge loss when our friend Felipe Gutteriez passed away. I will always miss his good humour, elegance and quiet humanity.

Rose in Portland

July: Migration & Belfast

One thing that happened in 2020 was that borders closed fast and hard and there were many travel and transport restrictions. This was an essential part of stemming the spread of a deadly infectious disease. For many people looking forward to a summer holiday, it was an inconvenience. One lovesick Scottish man crossed the Irish Sea on a jet ski to see his girlfriend. For migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, though, it was a life-threatening nightmare. In the Asia Pacific region, migrants faced a higher risk of covid thanks to not being included in social security provisions. Indian migrant workers suddenly left without work were forced to walk or cycle thousands of kilometers to return to their home villages, and many of them had no money for food . There was a huge drop in people applying for asylum in the EU due to constraints on international travel and hardline border policies. In the UK, anti-immigrant sentiment increased . An enormous migrant camp appeared on the US border and government contractors in the US detained hundreds of migrant kids in black sites.

Fifteen-year-old Jyoti Kumari cycled 700km from New Delhi to her family’s village with her injured father, a migrant laborer, on the back of the bike. Read the story here.

Concerned by lost profits, American airlines resumed booking flights to 100% capacity at the start of July. Unfortunately, this was exactly when we were due to leave the US. The first thing that US border authorities had told me was that I was not welcome to overstay, and I was not about to call their bluff. So we took the scary step of flying from Portland to Seattle to Denver. From Denver we were going to fly to Iceland, which at that time was accepting foreign visitors. Unfortunately, the day we were supposed to go, Iceland closed its borders to most non-EU foreign nationals and that plan was scrapped. We spent a night in Denver figuring out what to do and decided to go to Belfast instead because the UK’s border was open. We arrived a few days before July 12, the beginning of the Orange Parade season.

Near Denver airport

August: Americas & Eating Out to Help the Spread

In August, COVID-19 was hitting the Americas hard. On July 29, Brazil set new COVID-19 records for a single day, reporting 70,869 cases and 1,554 deaths,  bringing the country’s totals to 2.5 million cases and 90,000 total deaths. Mexico had the third highest number of deaths from coronavirus in the world, with more than 62,000 fatalities. Argentina, Bolivia and Panama were hit by waves of protests against the combination of covid restrictions and economic recession. By the end of August, Peru had reported the highest number of deaths per capita from the coronavirus and had also posted the world’s deepest economic contraction in the second quarter.

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t get my health and wellbeing advice from this character

At this time we were living in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, a relatively new district near the port. The UK government introduced a scheme called Eat Out to Help Out, an ill conceived plan designed to help resuscitate the restaurant industry. Dozens of people in the city centre flocked to dining establishments and spent many maskless minutes indoors with strangers. Not surprisingly, this was probably responsible for eight to 17% of newly detected COVID-19 clusters in the UK in August and early September.

Sign outside a Northern Irish restaurant during an easing of restrictions

September: Spreading like Wildfire

India topped four million cases, the US seven million. In Europe, daily cases reach a record high on September 20. In the UK, 7,143 new cases were recorded in a single day, the country’s highest single-day jump since the beginning of the pandemic. Indonesia recorded several daily case records on five consecutive days.

Meanwhile, California experienced 13 large wildfires. One of these, nicknamed Bobcat, was one of the largest recorded in the history of Los Angeles County.

We took a taxi tour of Belfast, a highlight of which were the political murals on the Peace Walls, many of them dealing with contemporary issues such as racial injustice in the US, the importance of the National Health Service in the UK and the pressing issue of Climate Change.

Pictorial tribute to the NHS on Divis Street (the Falls)

October: In Sickness & In Obscene Wealth

Spain declared a national state of emergency, and the French and UK governments both announced a nationwide lockdown. In the UN’s COVID-19 and Universal Health Coverage policy brief, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that “inadequate” global health care systems had contributed to the millions of deaths from the pandemic so far. He stressed that universal health care was a key recommendation.

Meanwhile, in Belfast, we moved to a house near the Falls Road, famous for its Republican sympathies in the sectarian strife of the Troubles. We visited Milltown cemetery, where many Republican partisans are buried. It was an area with a strong Socialist presence and every second lampost had stickers announcing the failure of Capitalism and pointing out the huge profits that billionaires have been raking in since the beginning of the pandemic.

November: A Sea Change

The US elections on November 3 were won by Joe Biden and his running mate Kemala Harris. Trump refused to concede and later claimed that the elections were rigged. On November 8 scientists at Pfizer and BioNTech announced that a new coronavirus vaccine stopped 90% of cases.

In its final trial it has been shown to be 95% effective.

In November we moved to a house in Bangor, by the sea, and spent the days trying to spot eider ducks and guillemots. John tried cold-water swimming and decided it was a bit too cold.

A turnstone in Bangor

December: Dublin & Brexit

On December 16, the US passed 19 million cases. About one in every 22 North Americans had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. By December 26, one of every 1,000 North Americans had died from the disease. In late December it became clear that a new, more transmissible strain of the virus had appeared in UK. Macron closed the French-UK border just a few days before the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020.

Thousands of trucks were motionless at the Port of Dover on December 24

On December 30, with our time in the UK nearly up, John and I took a taxi from Belfast to Dublin. We didn’t know where the border is and there were no checks on the way. When we got to town it was very cold. Ireland had lockdown restrictions in place so we walked up and down the street until it was time to meet our new landlord.

The New Year

And so we come to 2021, which lacks the fearful symmetry of 2020 and hopefully will be lopsidedly gentle on everyone. Happy New Year!

Statue in Belfast outside Carlisle Memorial Church, just down the road from Mater Hospital