More skeletons in the KMT closet

Just when I think I have a fairly good idea about what the Chinese Nationalist Party, aka Kuomintang (KMT) has been up to over the years, I read the following text in a BBC obituary of Burmese warlord, gangster, opium smuggler and “prince of death” Khun Su.

Born in 1933 to a Chinese father and a mother from Burma’s Shan ethnic group, Khun Su’s given name was Chan Chi-fu.

Growing up in the Burmese countryside, he had little education and came of age fighting Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers, who had been forced out of China by the Communists.

The KMT rapidly took over and expanded the opium trade in the region, but Chan Chi-fu and his gang gradually began to exert their influence during the 1960s.

Allied with the Burmese government, they are thought to have fought against both the KMT and the Shan nationalists in exchange for being allowed to continue trading opium.

All of us here know that the KMT as an organization, following their defeat by the CCP in the Chinese civil war, fled to Taiwan where they ruled a one-party police state for decades, and that many of them had been engaged in warlordism and banditry on the Chinese mainland before and during the civil war (this corruption was one factor in their defeat,) but I do not recall reading before about KMT members who fled to and engaged in banditry in SE Asia in large numbers. I do, however, find it a little amusing that Khun Su would, with his history of fighting the KMT, “play host to journalists and Western tourists, treating them to Taiwanese pop music.” After fighting KMT bandits in Burma, mightn’t be be a little bit sour towards Taiwan?

Anyway,  do any readers have any suggestions for sources to look at on similar KMT banditry/criminal activity in SE Asia, following their flight to Taiwan?

A cure for the frogopalypse?

Some good news from New Zealand, scientists may have found a cure for the rampaging fungal plague that has been blamed for the extinction of 40 frog species since 1980 – one third of the 120 species which have gone extinct.

Chloramphenicol, currently used as an eye ointment for humans, may be a lifesaver for the amphibians, they say.

The researchers found frogs bathed in the solution became resistant to the killer disease, chytridiomycosis.

Help is on the way, slimy friends. Now, if only they could figure out a way to prevent whatever it is that eliminated the other 80 species.

Most exotic tourist spot

Until today I had thought that it might be Antarctica or the Aral Sea, but there’s a new contender: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

A looming environmental threat the size of Texas should be hard to miss, but when that threat is floating in a rarely-visited section of the Pacific Ocean and composed of a diffuse mass of plastic, it’s easy for it to avoid public attention. The recent establishment of a marine preserve north of the Hawaiian Islands has refocused attention on this floating refuse heap, which has picked up the moniker the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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Blog Wasteland

Apologies for the complete absence of posting recently. Perhaps with Adam’s wedding party concluded, and me being done with the GRE in a bit over two weeks there will be more coming soon. If any of our regular commenters are interested in doing some guest posts to help fill the void, please feel free to email me about it.

And of course, all congratulations to the happy couple.

The sneaky aliens

In 1922, a government permanent secretary was quoted in The Times of London calling grays “sneaking, thieving, fascinating little alien villains.”

UFO loveIn fact, the above quote refers to gray squirrels, in this rather amusing NYT Magazine story. But what it made me think of was the following sign, which is located near the central Nagoya train station, and which I saw out the shinkansen window as I passed by. I did not take this photo, and I believe the sign I saw had fancier graphics (the below photo is from August, 2004 and I saw the sign in May of 2007) but the text is the same:


In UFOs, there is love

As the URL,, confirms, this sign is the work of the Raelians, a bizarre cult based around UFO worship, founded by a French automobile journalist named Claude Vorilhon in 1975, and best known for their unconfirmed claim to have successfully clones a human being. They, like the more famous science fiction inspired religious group of Scientoloy, are classified as a cult in France (and other countries), and have been particularly singled out in South Korea, a country which is particularly sensitive to cloning related controversy following the Hwang Woo-suk fiasco.

While this massive billboard in central Nagoya indicates their presence in Japan and the Japanese Wikipedia article on them claims that of the 60,000 worldwide members they have scattered throughout 90 countries, Japan has the largest number, I have never heard anything else about their activities in Japan.

Based on this photo, they do seem to be active in South Korea though.

A Bathing Shoko

A few days ago I spotted the following sticker just outside Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills:

It’s an ironic tribute to former Aum Supreme Truth Cult leader* Shoko Asahara that combines his ugly mug with the iconic BAPE clothing logo (see below). I absolutely loved the image for my own reasons (I am a BAPE fan and an avid consumer of Aum-related developments), but it has taken on new relevance now that the BBC informs me that this year marks the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. The article discusses the enduring popularity of that one image of him glancing out somewhere with the utmost intensity:

Combined with the mystique and allure of Che and the spirit of revolution, another key to the spread of the image was the complete and intentional lack of intellectual property management on the part of the original photographer and designer, and it has certainly been effective for better or worse. Anyone with a pair of eyes who has visited US college campuses will know how pervasive this image is. And more importantly, the BBC article notes that in Latin America he remains an inspiration for his life and what he stood for, rather than just being a part of the trustafarian poster collection.

However, in Japan the story is a little different. A far more recognizable but similar image is the logo for hip clothing brand A Bathing Ape (aka BAPE) which derives its flagship logo from a combination of the Che image with the Planet of the Apes movies (stunning in their own right). While Che’s logo may stand for the combination of “capitalism and commerce, religion and revolution,” notwithstanding some recent dilution of the brand BAPE’s message is more along the lines of “wear this if you are young and listen to Cornelius”:

I should point out, however, that BAPE has none of the revolutionary hype nor is it even close to the level of pervasiveness of the Che image. It is just a hip clothing brand with a slightly creepy but somehow irresistible logo.

(*Asahara is apparently still revered in one sect of former Aum followers according to recent reports. He will be headed for the gallows for orchestrating the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways whenever the Justice Minister gets around to it.)

Unintended benefits

Joe’s post on the history of East/West flight routes led me to read the Wikipedia article on Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which was shot down by the USSR for entering Soviet airspace without authorization. The article then linked to this US State Department history of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which you may remember was built by the United States military, which contained the following fascinating bit of info.

In 1983, Soviet jet interceptors shot down a Korean Air civilian airliner carrying 269 passengers that had mistakenly entered Soviet airspace.

Because crew access to better navigational tools might have prevented the disaster, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive guaranteeing that GPS signals would be available at no charge to the world when the system became operational. The commercial market has grown steadily ever since.

So in short, if KAL007 had not accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace (their registered flight plan took them within 17 miles of the boundary) the US government might never have opened up the GPS network to unrestricted civilian use, and might even have restricted its use to military/government use, or perhaps only to large corporate customers in the private sector, or used the little-known GPS encryption capabilities (which are built into the network, and only supposed to be invoked for military reasons.) While GPS probably would have made its way into commercial aircraft like KAL007, it is unlikely that the unfettered, unencrypted, subscription-free access that allows us to our automobile navigators and GPS-equipped cell phones and digital cameras would have been granted. I’m not saying that every one of us who enjoys consumer GPS should be thanking the Soviet military for their Sept 1, 1983 massacre of civilians, but this is a good example of how so much progress is based on unexpected and unplanned connections.

Recalling the “golden age” of air travel: when the quality of the booze was the only thing that made you forget how long the trip was taking

Since I’m between jobs this week I have a lot of time to catch up on some of my passions: Japan, history and airplanes. One of my recent wastes of time online (taking up some of the time I would have otherwise spent blogging) is FlyerTalk, a massive online message board system populated by people who are excessively interested in travel and flying. Many of the fogeys in the crowd constantly complain about how bad airline service has become in recent years, and how they pine for the “good old days” when the stewardesses would carve ice sculptures at their seats.

JAL route map, 1968There is an awesome article on Japanese Wikipedia which talks about airline routings between Japan and Europe. Until 1991, it was basically impossible to do this directly, because the Soviet Union was in the way and they would not let planes fly over unless they were approved to fly into a Soviet airport. You can see the effect this had on routing in the 1968 JAL route map shown to the right (click to enlarge—courtesy of the awesome Airchive site—also note how they were using the dorky “Japanese government publication font” even back then).

Here’s a brief history of how things progressed:

  • 1952: BOAC (the predecessor of British Airways) inaugurates Japan-Europe service using de Havilland Comets, the very first jet airliners, now principally remembered for busting open at their poorly-designed windows. The routing is Tokyo – Manila – Bangkok – Rangoon – Calcutta – New Delhi – Karachi – Bahrain – Cairo – Rome (- London). Eight stops! It almost sounds like a pleasure cruise, except that it’s being conducted in a big aluminum pipe filled with mustard-yellow burlap seats.
  • 1957: SAS says “screw that” and begins service from Copenhagen to Tokyo via Anchorage. Several other airlines decide that Anchorage is a good stopping point—among them JAL, KLM, Alitalia and Lufthansa. Although it’s out of the way, it’s slightly more convenient than avoiding Russia to the south. Once travel restrictions are lifted in the early 1960s, the airport in Anchorage becomes a little hub of Japanese tourist activity.
  • 1961: Air France begins service in Boeing 707s (which are basically like today’s Boeing 757s except louder and less efficient) on Tokyo – Bangkok – Calcutta – Karachi – Kuwait – Cairo – Rome ( – Frankfurt – Paris). That brings it down to five stops, which I suppose is progress.
  • 1967: Japan and the Soviet Union negotiate to permit JAL to fly to Moscow, allowing connections to Europe through the Aeroflot network. Which would be cool, except that the service is actually operated by Aeroflot, using a dodgy Russian aircraft that looks like this, and as well as Japanese consumers avoid US airlines nowadays you’d better believe they wouldn’t touch a Russian one.
  • 1979: Air France manages to cut the southern route down to three stops: Tokyo – Beijing – Karachi – Athens (- Paris).
  • 1983: Finnair finally manages the first nonstop flight from Japan to what can almost be considered Western Europe: Helsinki. They accomplish this using DC-10 aircraft, by flying all the way across the pole, through the Bering Strait and back to Japan nonstop. Other airlines eventually figure there is no reason to continue stopping in Anchorage and follow suit. Also this year, KAL 007 was shot down, proving that the Soviets were serious about not letting airliners fly over Siberia.
  • 1991: The Soviet Union collapses. Airspace restrictions cease to be an issue. Schedule-sensitive executives rejoice.
  • 2007: The food sucks and the stewardesses are all pushing sixty, but I appreciate the fact that nobody wants to shoot me down. Besides Bin Laden. And maybe some ex-girlfriends.