S02E10: Birobidzhan (Jewish Autonomous Oblast)

Birobidzhan Audio Link

In this episode of 80 Days: An Exploration Podcast, we’ll be discussing the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO), a somewhat independent region in the Russian Far East wedged between Siberia and Northern China. Its capital is the city of Birobidzhan, and with 75,000 inhabitants it is by far the most populated part of the region. For that reason, the name Birobidzhan is often used to refer to the whole area.

Officially founded in 1934 as an attempt to create a Jewish state within Russian borders, the territory was the world’s first attempt at a Jewish national homeland in modern times, and today is Russia’s only autonomous oblast. Aside from Israel, it is the world’s only officially Jewish territory. As of the 2010 Census, JAO’s population was 176,558 people, or 0.1% of the total population of Russia. Judaism is practiced by only 0.2% of the population of the JAO.

Биробиджан,_вокзальная_площадь

This special episode was commissioned by one our very generous Kickstarter backers, Ian Prince from New York (who does terrible things with food on Instagram). Your hosts are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Hong Kong, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Switzerland. (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle)

jewish-autonomous-oblast-flag

The somewhat familiar-looking flag of Birobidzhan

karte02-Birobidschan-u-transsibirische-eisenbahn

Some sources and further reading for this episode;

  • Masha Gessen’s Where The Jews Aren’t was the basis for this commissioned episode, you can find it on Amazon here, or listen to the author talk about it on NPR’s Fresh Air here
  • We also relied heavily on this excellent multimedia gallery from Swarthmore College, entitled Stalin’s Forgotten Zion.
  • An interview from People’s World with Masha Gessen provides some solid background on the region.
  • We mentioned the RT profile of Birobidzhan in this episode, you can find that here on YouTube.
  • The New York Times profiled Birobidzhan back in 2012. It’s worth a read.
  • The book Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union by Yaacov Ro’i has some interesting info on the JAO and wider context surrounding Jewish communities in Russia.
  • If you’re interesting in learning more about Stalin in particular, you can check out our episode from earlier this season on Georgia, birthplace of “Joe Steel”.
  • Michigan State University has a good article on the history of the region, as well as some visual essays here.

Thanks to Louise Ireson, John Killeen, Simon Greene for your support on Kickstarter. Thanks too to Rabbi Eliyahu Riss in Birobidzhan for interviewing with us.

We also need to thank our sponsor for the season Hairy Baby, who in addition to making the funniest Irish-themed t-shirts, have also produced the official 80 Days shirt for our supporters. Find it by clicking here. You can get 10% off anything on www.hairybaby.com by using our promo code “80DAYS”.

This will be the final episode for this season, but never fear, we’ll be back with more obscure goodness soon. We’re extremely grateful to everyone who’s supported us over the past year and a bit of podcasting, and if you want to hear more stay subscribed to the feed and keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

We’ll see you soon!

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S02E01: Singapore

S02E01 Singapore audio

Welcome to Season 2 of 80 Days: an exploration podcast. Today we will be exploring the fascinating history and culture of Singapore , the lion city. This tiny island city-state is home to 5.5 million people and is located just off the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, one degree north of the equator. It’s a country without seasons, remaining hot and humid year-round, and gained full independence just 51 years ago, although it wasn’t a cause for celebration at the time, as we’ll see. Since then, Singapore has developed rapidly as an Asian Tiger economy, despite its lack of any natural resources and today is one of the most well-developed and successful cities in the world.  

Your hosts are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Hong Kong, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne@anbeirneach in Switzerland. (Theme music byThomas O’Boyle)

Flag of SingaporeLocation of  Singapore  (red)

Table of Contents:
[05:02] Early History and founding of the “Lion City”
[14:05] Dutch and British East India Companies in the area
[17:41] Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founds a British colony
[26:20] Singapore growing, with little government

[31:00] Music break (traditional)
[31:25] World War 1 aftermath and fortification of Singapore
[35:38] World War 2, Battle of Malaya
[44:43] Japanese Occupation
[48:35] Post-war unrest, self-determination, the rise of Lee Kuan Yew
[52:00] A Malaysia including Singapore
[56:15] Involuntary Independence
[58:22] Music Break (modern patriotic song)

[59:00] Modern Singapore
[1:05:55] Economy
[1:09:15] Population planning
[1:13:49] Crime and punishment
[1:19:32] Languages: melting pot of speech
[1:24:54] Military song in Singlish

Generally if you want to keep learning about Singapore in more depth, the following would be useful:

  • History of Singpore” documentary on the Discovery Channel directed by Tim Lambert (Lion Television) 2005
  • The Hisory of Singapore podcast by PJ Thum (who teaches Southeast Asian history at Universoty of Oxford) – this gives very in-depth history of the city state. It is quite political and at times critical of the mainstream opinion of Singaporean history
  • Talk the Talk episode on Singlish, the unique ‘colloquial English’ dialect common in Singapore and its relationship to the many other languages spoken in this melting-pot country

Some things you might like to know more about:

  • Singapore’s early history showed the island appearing on the radar of the Greek geographer Ptolemy (as “Sabana”, c. 100 AD), in Chinese imperial records (as “Pú Luó Zhong/ “, a transliteration of Malay name for “Island at the end”), and in Old Javanese epics (as “Temasek“, perhaps meaning “sea town”, a literal name for the fishing port that pre-existed the city inhabited by Orung Laut/”sea gypsies”). It is also widely described in the Malay Annals.
  • In the 14th century, legend tells of the Kingdom of Singapura being founded by Sang Nila Ultama , Srivijaya Prince from Palembang
    • He is the legendary source of the name “Singapore”, literally “Lion City” (in Sanskrit). It is told that upon landing on the island, he went hunting and saw a lion, which was considered an auspicious symbol. There is no historical evidence lions ever lived on the island. Accounts of the legend can be found on Remembering Singapore, from this school resource,  or in the cartoon The Story of SingaporeRemembering Singapore is a very useful resource with lots of photographs of the island and further information.
    • Excavations at Fort Canning Hill support presence of a political centre at this time
  • Five generations later, Parameswara (alias Iskandar Shah) was an important figure, who lost Singapore to a Majapahit invasion, fled to Malacca and founded the sultanate there which became the core of the Malay world for centuries to come. The historical evidence of most details of his life are hazy, as is summarised here.
  • We mentioned the legend of Badang the strongman who placed the “Singapore Stone” in the harbour. There is an account of his tale in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1822).
  • In the early 19th Century, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles played a key role in founding modern Singapore as a stronghold of the British East India Company. Many of his contributions to the country are listed in this article.
  • He was succeeded by William Farquhuar, who had a different vision for the settlement than Raffles and the two came into conflict over issues such as slavery and gambling, which Farquhar allowed, arguing that they were essential to the survival of the place.
  • The laissez-faire governmental style, as the settlement had a large influx of Chinese laborours meant that various secret societies or gangs became very powerful in Singapore as the place for the Chinese population to look for protection and support (see “The Social Life of Chinese Labor” by Adam McKeown)
    • The Government knows little or nothing of the Chinese, who are industrial backbone of these [Straits] Settlements; and the immense majority of them know nothing of the Government. We know that a certain number of Chinese arrive each year, and that a certain number go away; but how long they stay, how many come back a second time, what they think about and desire – as to all this we know nothing… We believe that the case majority of the Chinamen who come to work in these Settlements return to their country not knowing clearly whether there is a Government in them or not

  • World War 2 effected Singapore greatly, with an elongated Japanese occupation, and racially- and politically-motivated massacres, like “Sook Ching” (“Purge”), particularly against the ethnic Chinese, who were suspected of anti-Japanese sentiment. Click the links to read further. Also watch film of the fall of Singapore here, and the documentary “Surviving Hell, stories from the fall of Singapore“. The settlement was name “Syonan-to/昭南島” during this period, meaning “Light of the South”
  • “But they also showed a meanness and viciousness towards their enemies equal to the Huns’. Genghis Khan and his hordes could not have been more merciless. I have no doubts about whether the two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary. Without them, hundreds of thousands of civilians in Malaya and Singapore, and millions in Japan itself, would have perished” — Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs

  • The quote from Lee Kuan Yew at [45:11] comes from No Prisoners – The Fall of Singapore (2002, 4 Corners)
  • Post-war Singapore saw great changes, including social agitation and race riots as the British began to disengage from direct rule.
  • The most significant figure in the second half of the 20th CentuLee Kuan Yew.jpgry was long-serving prime minister Lee Kuan Yew .  Leader of the People’s Action Party, he became the unquestioned leader of the independent Singapore for 30 years, shaping the new country to his own vision through strict but largely fair rule.
  • In 1963, Lee fulfilled his ambition of seeing Singapore join into a political union with British Malaya, Borneo and Sarawak; the modern state of Malaysia – this project, however was doomed to failure because of racial and religious tensions between largely ethnic Malay/Muslim Malaya and the significant ethnic Chinese component of Singapore’s population.
  • Prime Minister Lee was very emotional when he announced to his people that Singapore was leaving the union and embarking on an unwished-for independence

A few songs may interest you, also, some of which you will have heard:

  • Dayung Sampan”  – to quote it’s description on YouTube: “This video “Dayung Sampan” features Noraniza Idris, and He Yun (from China Hebei) playing the Erhu, a Chinese traditional instrument. “Dayung Sampan” is the Malay version of the famous Chinese tune “Tian Mi Mi” (甜蜜蜜). This is a fresh collaboration between the Malay and Chinese culture”
  • Ironic song by Dick Lee, making linguistic jokes and satirising modern politics
  • Shine for Singapore” was commission for the 2008 National Day Parade and “One Singapore” was another later commission. Both are examples of patriotic pop songs.

Finally, make sure to check out our sponsor Hairy Baby on www.hairybaby.com! You can get 10% off any purchase using the promo code “80days” and pick up an official 80 Days t-shirt at this link.

Special thanks, also, this week to Paula Cantwell and Rowland Seymour for their backing of the show this season – very much appreciated!

S01E10: Kowloon Walled City (Season Finale)

S01E10 Kowloon Walled City audio

For the Season Finale of the first season of 80 Days, we’re going to do something a little different and look at a place that no longer exists: Kowloon Walled CityOnce the most densely populated place in the planet, this unique, untamable settlement existed in Hong Kong, growing up from a military settlement which was originally built to demarcate the border between the British and Chinese controlled areas in the territory. It grew in size and scope to become a tightly-packed labyrinth of illegal activity and squalor, unregulated by either the Chinese or British governments. At its peak, over 30,000 people lived in the Walled City, resulting in a population density of approximately 1,255,000 inhabitants per square kilometre (3,250,000/sq mi). It was demolished in 1994, shortly before China retook control of Hong Kong, but has since become a cultural touchstone,  a fascinating example of what humanity can become when allowed to run unchecked. Your hosts are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 and Joe Byrne@anbeirneach, in Hong Kong, the UK and Switzerland, respectively. (Theme music byThomas O’Boyle)

A large solid block of ramshackle buildings varying in height, with many taller buildings and some mountains in the background.

Some things you might like to know more about:

  • The name Kowloon, given to the peninsula north of Hong Kong Island, comes from the Cantonese pronunciation of 九龍, Chinese for “Nine Dragons” (gau lung, or in Madarin Jiǔ ng); the name was given to it by the last Song Emporer, the 8-year-old Bing (), who saw the 8 mountains surrounding the place as “dragons”. A clever courtier pointed out that the Emperor was also a “dragon”, and hence there were 9. The story is told here in HK Magazine
  • We drew a few quotes and a lot of insight from Elizabeth Sinn’s article Kowloon Walled City: Its Origins and Early History” (Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1987, vol 27, p 30); for a more detailed account of this era, this article is recommended reading
  • When the Fortified City was built in 1846,  giant stone name plaques decorated the main gate to the city (reading , translated as Kowloon Walled City); they were excavated and can still be seen on the site today
  • The Opium Wars led to dramatic changes in this region of Qing China, with Hong Kong and later Kowloon falling into British hands through the  Peking Convention. Read further information about the wars from Julia Lovell (Birbeck, University of London) or Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Mark came across a cannon from the ship Nemesis (the British East India Company’s first iron-clad warship) in the gardens of Windsor Castle; it is pictured below. More on the Nemesis from Victorian Web.

A cannon from the ship

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  • Finally, here is some handheld camera footage by Rob Frost from the early 1990s inside the City:

We hope you enjoyed listening to Season 1. We’ll be taking a break for a couple of months to get production of Season 2 under way, but you may hear from us occasionally during the break. If you’ve been entertained by what you heard, then let us know – leave a review on iTunes (or wherever you listen), or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter. We also really welcome feedback about places we’ve explored and recommendations for where we should go next season.

Bhutan (S1.04)

Audio: S1E04 Bhutan

In this episode of 80 Days we’ll be talking about Bhutan a small, landlocked Asian nation with one of the best flags you’ll ever see. Bhutan is a country of less than a million people, bordered by the Tibetan region of China to the North and India pretty much everywhere else. Exploring Bhutan for you are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Hong Kong, the UK and Switzerland, respectively. (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle)

Flag of Bhutan.svg

It’s the last of the Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms, which unlike Tibet and Sikkim has retained its independence. Also known as , the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” due to the prevalence of the Drukpa Lineage school of Buddhism (aka the Dragon People). Bhutan is a strongly Bhuddist country, which remained and cut off from the outside world for much of its history. It is one of only a few countries to have been independent throughout its entire history, never conquered, occupied, or governed by an outside power. Since opening its borders to tourists in the 1970s, Bhutan has embraced democracy and now it famously promotes the concept of gross national happiness which is reflected in the Bhutan Gross National Happiness Index.

Paro, Taktsang Goemba (Tiger's Nest)

Paro Taktsang/Tiger’s Nest (by Arian Zwegers)

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