Holland & Holland

The smoking gun of European politics will echo in the markets tomorrow morning, after the twin barrels of Greek and French elections fire this Sunday. Whether side by side or over and under, the consequences will reverberate around the world.

The French incumbent will be replaced by a socialist president, who goes by the name of Holland. In Holland itself, a minority party tantrum threatens to throw the country into disarray. The perspective from Asia is of an old Europe, rotten and sterile, where little work is done.

As the rain falls in sheets on Singapore town, the only southeast Asian nation where tap water can be safely consumed, I stare out the window at the airliner that will take me to Bangkok,  for the long flight to Europe.

“Europe is too relaxed, people must work more,” the Chinaman repeats, with a broad smile. I disagree, smiling back. Many a strong word said in jest. Europeans do work hard, I counter, and ironically the Germans, who work the least hours, are the ones doing best. Retirement is now a synonym of death or serious illness, and that’s hardly going to help reduce youth unemployment. If I were twenty, I would head east.

“In China, banks are only closed a couple of days a year,” my friend says. In the Middle Kingdom, he explains, people are too busy to go to the bank during the week.

“They work too hard,” he concludes with glee.

Home grown paparazzi: the locals in a photographic feeding frenzy.

The problem is the cost of labor, I argue. And the Western appetite for consumer goods, the profligate concession of credit. Not that things are any different in the East. If anything they’re worse. In Singapore there are credit cards tailored just for women, and private debt is substantial. Taxis are cheap, but cars are expensive. Not just the price, but the permit,under the Vehicle Quota System.

The locals bid for a car at monthly government auctions, and the happy winner can wave goodbye to one hundred thousand dollars (US, not Singapore). After that, you still need to buy the car. To me, that’s a staggeringly unfair system, denying poor people and favoring the privileged classes.

If there’s one constant in Asia, it’s poverty. Everything’s for sale, from sons and daughters to cure-all tea. The fish we eat in the sushi bars of London and New York are grown amid pigs and chickens, thriving on manure and antibiotics. Animals are everywhere, cultivated in a backyard pond, kept in cages, or squawking and scratching at the ground.

Tilapia culture in northern Thailand: waste not want not. The pig is a mainstay of SE Asia and China, and after all is said and done, the only thing left is the oink.

And the animals suffer. Not just a little, a lot. Up in Chiang Rai, at the end of a road snaking parallel to the Mekong river, Myanmar a stone’s throw away, lies the inevitable elephant park. These fellows don’t haul teak, they’re condemned to carry tourists on a ride to the nearby village. When she’s not working, ellie stands tethered to a two foot chain. Baking in the hundred degree heat, not a drop of water in sight, the poor beasts stare at me with baleful eyes.

One extends his trunk and pokes into my bag, hoping to find a banana. The minders, who carry long batons to discipline the creatures, sell the fruit, hoping that tourists will take pity and buy. The elephant looks at me, and in his eyes I see intelligence mixed with pain. It breaks my heart to write these words, and think of the suffering going on at this very moment.

Torture in 2012: ellie suffering in northern Thailand. Chained to a groundstake, some of the animals display acute perturbation symptoms, such as repeated shaking of the head.

Despite the differences in living standards, Asia is shifting gear. It’s true that lunch for ten people in northern Thailand costs ten euros, one per head, but wages are increasing, and as people earn more, the gap between East and  West will narrow. The children of today will teach their parents about the environment, and six in the morning on the stoop of a Chinese hotel will no longer herald the first cigarette of the day and a festival of hawking.

François Hollande will be the first anti-austerity leader elected in Europe. In Greece, neither the Pasok or the New Democracy wilI get a majority. The campaign was subdued because the politicians were afraid of being physically beaten by the angry crowd. And it’s not just in Europe that sands are shifting. In China, the Bo Xilai case, the increasing rural inbalance, and the blind man who saw too much, are blowing the winds of change.

Over and under, side by side, quiet revolutions are taking place. In the meantime, pigs and fish, chickens and mushrooms, heat and chili. And Rice. Rice, rice, rice.

“Have a good fright,” the attendant says. I’d kill for a piece of cheese.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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