What happened to ‘old Asia’?

by Kirril Shields

ON THE MONGOLIAN steppe roams a dog with the unfortunate name of ‘Rabies’. Some years ago, while I was working as a journalist in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, Rabies decided to adopt me. Then a scrawny little puppy, she followed me back to my apartment and climbed the five storeys to the front door. Eventually I had to leave the country and she now lives with Mongolian herders, but for two years Rabies called my apartment home. It seems somewhat ridiculous to suggest this animal capable of making such a conscious decision, but among the many remarkable stories to come out of Mongolia, one is of Ulaanbaatar’s street dogs.

Rabies has two brown dots above her eyes. These are a trait of the traditional Mongolian dog, a breed a vet would call a Tibetan–Mongolian mastiff that is more commonly referred to as the ‘four-eyed dog’. You find these dots on many dogs around the world, however their origin is the Mongolian grasslands as these animals are shepherds, trained specifically to ward off wolves and bears. The two brown spots make it appear as if the dog has its eyes open even as it sleeps. Wolves and bears have to be wary of encroaching on the grazing sheep as these dogs, when awake, are viciously loyal.

So Rabies is one-part Mongolian shepherding dog, but her origins are also German, and there is a noticeable streak of Alsatian in her. The other half of her lineage is made up of German-bred Alsatians taken by the Russian army as they defeated Nazi forces during the Second World War. Ironically, these German dogs, initially trained to patrol Nazi concentration camps, were re-trained by the Russians to guard German prisoners of war. A great swathe of German prisoners were forced to build or repair sections of the trans-Mongolian railway, and Alsatians accompanied this corpus of slave labour. When the Russians decided their German workforce had served its purpose they executed them en masse, and that’s who lie, quite well preserved, just under the sands of the Gobi. Today, if you go searching, you can find human remains and tattered uniforms preserved just beneath the surface of the Gobi Desert – the mass grave of tens of thousands of former German Wermacht and SS.

For whatever reason, the Russians did not shoot the dogs; instead, they transported them to Ulaanbaatar, and when the Soviet soldiers returned to their homes in places such as Moscow or Ekaterinburg, the dogs were left to wander the Mongolian streets. Given her lineage, it is little wonder Rabies would always impress me with her street acumen and determination.

The story of the street dogs is just one exotic and curious anecdote among the many to be found in Mongolia; there are people smugglers, former high-ranking Nazis, reindeer herders, dancing bear trainers, dinosaur discoveries and Soviet war monuments – this list of the potential for opportunity and experiences goes on. Little did I realise that when Rabies came looking for a home, her story would lead me to a sandy grave of mummified skin and bleached human bones. When I moved to Mongolia, however, this was the very thing I had hoped for – a taste of the unusual and the exotic.

Many other people who travel to Mongolia seek a country that has largely retained its exoticism…this is ‘old Asia’. Still offering glimpses of a nomadic existence, with stories of adventure akin to something from Indiana Jones, Mongolia is the chance to revisit a past in the present. The country provides a slither of insight into a world unsullied by capitalism that contains, among other things, an abundance of shamans and unrenovated houses with original Soviet architecture. The place remains ‘exotic’ in every Western sense of the word; there is still just enough Mongolian heritage to attract a growing tourist industry.

As a child I was privileged to visit a number of other Asian nations, and even back then it was the unusual or the exotic that made my pulse quicken. The snake charmers who once resided outside of Singapore’s Tiger Balm Gardens, for example, or the chance to buy an ornamented human skull on a Hong Kong street (not surprisingly, Australian Customs confiscated this). Now a grown man, the more I fly to Asia the more I question where this exoticism – the indigenous cultural authenticity – has gone. Is there anything left to discover in Asian nations, or has old Asia been trampled by new Asia? And what exactly is this ‘New Asia’ anyway?

DUE TO RABIES’ decision to live in my apartment, she was spayed, immunised, taught to walk on a leash and had to eat from a bowl. She even learnt to shake her paw. I Anglicised her, both to her benefit and to her detriment. Now she’ll never catch some horrid canine disease, nor have to fend for herself on the streets. However, there are downsides to her Westernisation. She can’t have puppies, and she is no longer free to move about the world as she once did. I gave Rabies her health, and she provided me with a glimpse of the exoticism I sought as a tourist…and I’m still telling stories about her.

This symbiosis, I think, is representative of New Asia, and here I hope you don’t take offence at ‘Asia’ being drawn as a single entity, which it’s not. What I mean to suggest is that there are advantages and disadvantages to this redrawing or rediscovering of Asia, this remoulding of what might be considered archetypal, stereotypical or even romanticised versions of those Asian countries that many tourists seek. New Asia is a cross-cultural pollination. For me, as an Anglo male, what I miss when I travel to places such as Hong Kong are the extremities.

One of the advantages of New Asia is that I now find Asia at my own front door. As a child, I had to fly with my family to distant countries to experience Asian tastes and faces, whereas now a bicycle ride allows me the same kind of interaction. In this New Asia I am tourist and native alike. New Asia is me and my peers and colleagues, both Anglo and Asian, experiencing a slightly watered-down version of the Asia I seek as a tourist, but this new version feels a more natural and fruitful cultural exchange.

Currently I live in the Australian city of Brisbane, a sprawl of suburbs on the eastern coast of the continent, about one thousand kilometres north of Sydney. In my day-to-day commuting about the city I encounter a great many people who are Asian, and for some years I’ve noticed a growing influx of Asian residents in Brisbane; there are even one or two suburbs now, such as Sunnybank and Darra, which are largely populated by people of Asian origin. Whether these populations are Australian and of Asian background, or Asian and just passing through the city, Brisbane is beginning to resemble a New Asian city.

Interestingly, this is a conscious town planning and governmental decision, for the city aims to be ‘Asianesque’ in character. What this actually means to those bureaucrats attempting to define the term ‘Asian’ would be interesting to find out, but the city is in the midst of developing high-rise apartments to replicate Asian living conditions. With this building spree comes Asian grocers and restaurants. Then there are the bubble-tea vendors, exhibits such as the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, and the annual Asia Pacific Film Festival and Asia Pacific Screen Awards. It seems as if Brisbane is slowly developing into the Asian city that the council and government are hoping it becomes.

THIS ‘ASIANISATION’ IS by no means a bad thing, for any change to the city’s dominant Anglo hegemony means the region develops intellectually and culturally. I find that I’m no longer looking at Asia from afar, but feel I’m becoming Asian (or Asianised) myself. I take for granted Chinese or Thai ingredients on supermarket shelves; I think nothing of buying sushi for lunch; my tastebuds hunger for Korean meals; and I walk among the Asian-influenced art exhibits and no longer regard the content unusual. The Anglo population around me transforms accordingly due to this migratory osmosis, and talk of manga, Korean pop, Japanese architecture and wagyu beef has become the norm among the non-Asian population.

There are a plethora of advantages when living in this New Asia but, just like the friendship formed between Rabies and myself, there are also disadvantages. Not to Brisbane or Australia, I don’t believe, but to Asia itself. First, while there may be better opportunities to study in places like Brisbane, and better living conditions may exist (this list of upsides goes on), Australia and its dominant social and cultural discourse taint Asian culture.

Around the time Rabies came to call my apartment home, an influx of small rodent-like dogs began appearing in the handbags of Mongolian people. This Hollywood trend meant that the traditional ‘four-eyed dog’ was no longer given cultural status and many of these animals were either released onto the streets to fend for themselves, or were socially relegated of secondary importance where once they were venerated. Here, Western trends – the small handbag pooch in this particular case – affected one aspect of Mongolian culture within a relatively short time frame.

This cultural assimilation, some would suggest, is the natural offspring of globalisation and is amply discussed under academic banners such as ‘modernisation and Asia’ or ‘Westernisation and Asia’. But there’s a second downside I wish to highlight, of which discussion is not so abundant even though it directly relates to ideas of Westernisation and cultural homogeneity. It relates to the question of why this New Asia is losing its distinctiveness, those unique cultural ingredients that tourists like me seek when they travel to Asia. Again, this is partially derived from Anglo-American cultural influence, yet, ironically, this is also due to the yearning of tourists such as myself. The more we seek ‘the exotic’, the more we destroy it.

I was lucky enough to live for a month with the Tsaatan, a community of people who herd reindeer up on the Russian–Mongolian border. It’s a bloody long horseback ride to find these nomads, but when you eventually come across their camps you sleep in a yurt and drink salted reindeer milk, and, if you so choose, you can hunt for a bear. I was initially amazed at this Tsaatan lifestyle, thrilled that people are still living by age-old tradition, and in many aspects of day-to-day life the Tsaatan exist as they had for hundreds of years, possibly thousands. And yet, I later discovered that much of what I experienced was for my own benefit. The illusion of the exotic was dashed one afternoon when a group of Tsaatan and myself settled in to watch the Australian television show Home and Away via a huge satellite dish. Then there was the proliferation of Mars Bars, vodka drinking (introduced by Stalin during World War II to raise war revenue), modern hunting weapons, sleeping bags and an open admission by the younger Tsaatan population that the tourist season provided enough money to live comfortably in the city in the ‘off season’.

What I had wanted to experience in that far-flung region of Mongolia was, to a degree, a figment of my own romantic notions of nomadic life. Due to that, the business-savvy Tsaatan heightened their cultural performance; I was watching a breathing museum and, as with all museums, this exhibit was curated. I came to the realisation that the Asian exotic, as far as I knew of it as a white Western male, or had read of it, or experienced it as a child, no longer existed. In fact, the exotic was mere artifice – viewing an Australian sitcom in a yurt (while enjoying American chocolate and Italian coffee) made it evident that the globalised world reduces everything to status quo, even for those who are most removed from mainstream influences such as the Tsaatan.

In Europe, this form of curated cultural expression, similar to that which I experienced while staying with the reindeer herders, became apparent after the formation of the European Union. Enclaves of people from traditionally conservative provinces in Europe, such as Bavaria, were so scared of losing their ethnic and cultural uniqueness that their cultural activities became over-the-top, hyperbolised…too many lederhosen and much too much schnapps.

Our determination as affluent Westerners to find the last remnant of the ‘unique’ or the authentic is, therefore (though not wholly), responsible for killing off the old Asia. Given the current Western fascination with countries such as Kazakhstan, it will be interesting to see how long these regions remain alluring to the modern middle-class adventurer. What Westerners like myself feel when we go in search of exoticism is now mostly disappointment, and this all our own doing. On a recent trip to Thailand, my partner and I came across a community of the Karen people, those Burmese refugees whose females wrap the golden rings around their necks. We paid our entrance fee to their settlement, wandered up and down an established tourist alley, bought a couple of scarves that the women had woven and, when satisfied that we’d experienced something from National Geographic, we drove away in our rented car. We both reflected on this experience with an odd mixture of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. We thought that we had witnessed something unique, but conversely, there was a sense of exploitation on both sides.

Similarly, in Beijing some years back, I was impressed with the city’s hutongs – those ancient districts with narrow streets and alleys. Nowadays there are still some intact, although in Beijing many have been demolished. Of those that remain the majority are tourist destinations. Walking from ceramic shop to antique shop to Starbucks is not really the experience I was expecting and again I was disappointed, for while these districts are a glimpse of old Asia they felt more like an exhibit in a museum.

I’m being somewhat farfetched in suggesting that there’s nothing in Asia worth seeing if the ‘exotic’ is hard to locate, for even a wander through Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, or through the restored Dutch architecture in Jakarta’s Kota district, inspires the imagination. These places are not so unknown, and much of what you find even in the little off-streets will be familiar, but stimulating culturally and aesthetically nonetheless.

Brisbane, by contrast, as an ever-evolving city, is doing the opposite – purposefully shaping itself into a city that Asians may wish it to be. The city is appealing to an Asian market, hoping to lure in students and business opportunities from all over the Asiatic world. In doing so, Brisbane is building to the requirements of a New Asia and offering much to show that the city is as exciting as a trip to, let’s say, the southern islands of Japan. From what I’ve experienced of it, New Asia promises the familiar but never to the point that it feels completely known. A nice balance, no better exemplified than a recent drive to the Brisbane suburb of Darra. Here, the Vietnamese community have lived for some generations. Similar to Cabramatta in Sydney, if you desire a taste of New Asia then wander through these suburbs. There are fish markets, Asian fruit, hanging ducks, odd meat cuts and exciting smells that float from the various cafés and eateries, and these are located beside a Woolworths and a bakery selling lamingtons and meat pies.

I felt at home in Darra, but also at a distance. A nice distance, an exotic distance. New Asia, I’d argue, is that ability to feel at home in a place that is not quite home. It means that racial and cultural differences are gradually dissipating and in their place, understanding arises. We force difference on people when we go traipsing through countries as tourists. We pay people to be different from us, and when it feels a little too common, we feel ripped off. Well, Brisbane and its role in forging or partaking in New Asia is showing me that this rebranding of the exotic is not about distance, but about cultural exchanges on footpaths and in parks, in local cafés and at down-the-road food outlets, in nearby clothing shops and in regional musical performances…in…

Now, did I ever tell you about the singing eunuch in Shanghai who attempted to woo me with a rendition of ‘You Are My Sunshine’?

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.