Legacy of Financial Crisis
BANGKOK -- A travel agent in Bangkok made me see that the idea of "pan-Asia" is dead, at least for now.As she prepared my ticket to Indonesia, she commented, "Only Americans and Chinese travel now. Thais, Malaysians, and Koreans don't travel so much anymore."Less than three years ago, everyone was traveling. I came to Asia then to write about the world's largest middle class population and regional integration. People were trading and communicating across borders as if for the first time. In the process, they redefined East Asia with an optimism that promised to usher out the colonial blues and usher in the Pacific Century.Today that cosmopolitan optimism has been sidelined by massive economic woes. The idea of "one Asia" recedes further and further as news of mounting debt and destabilized currencies becomes a daily requiem. In good times, the nations of this region shared a spirit of generosity and were willing to transcend historical differences. In bad times, history returns with a vengeance.Once again, the borders are becoming impervious. Thailand, for instance, is sending its guest workers packing -- back to Burma, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam -- as one million Thais, maybe two million, are expected to lose their jobs. Singapore is on the alert for Chinese "boat people" from Indonesia. Malaysia, too, has beefed up its borders as economic refugees arrive from Indonesia. Indeed, all over the region I hear a collective moan -- barely audible to western ears, it is an old complaint, more resigned than hostile, and chased with self-pity. It mourns the fate of all small countries that live in the shadows of super-powerful ones. This is expressed in many ways. "I hate the IMF," a Korean woman told me. "We worked very hard to be independent of the West, to be as wealthy as the west, and now they are back telling us how to behave, like we are children or something."Her sentiment, it must be said, is widely shared. And yet these feelings are much more pronounced toward China. The west had provided Asia with technology, infrastructure and a useful mutual language -- American English.Relationships with China and the Chinese are more complicated. The Chinese are key in the economic games of the region, as everyone knows, but in Indonesia, for instance, anger is directed toward the ethnic Chinese as well as Indonesia's government. The argument goes, those who were responsible for the economy in good times should take the blame when things go bad.So a laid-off hotel worker in Jakarta notes that the "Chinese states" -- China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore -- have not suffered from the currency crisis. He claims that ethnic Chinese tycoons in Indonesia and Thailand are supporting those states.For many, the new story of Asia is the old one. Thang Nguyen, a retired high school teacher in Saigon, says, "There has always been a hierarchy among Asians. The Japanese and Chinese vie for the top of the pyramid, the Koreans and Thais and Malaysians for the middle, and the Vietnamese and the Filipinos are somewhere near the bottom." With the collapse of the Asian economic miracle, Nguyen says, "we know that the Chinese will always be on top, and the Vietnamese will always be at the bottom. Nothing has changed since the Chinese colonized us a thousand years ago."And yet the resentment is accompanied by a kind of awe. China has, after all, withstood the currency speculation -- as have Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. They held together, they don't need IMF money, they don't need to be told how to behave. These states remain a kind of Oriental bulwark against Occidental bullying -- dragons protecting the wounded tigers. The Pacific Century will come. East Asia may be down but it is far from out. The opposite of regional integration is not necessarily disintegration but that the dragons could redefine the region without the tigers.At a karaoke bar in Bangkok, on my last day in Asia, a Chinese man is singing a song by Dick Lee, a Singaporean rock star. "Our separate lands are one from now on," he sings. "We are Asians. We sing in one voice. And we sing in one song."Sitting next to me is Anita, a Filipino maid who is going home because her Thai employers have lost their money. "I used to like this song," she says, "But now it feels like the Chinese are singing to themselves and we all have to listen."PNS editor Andrew Lam, a journalist and short-story writer, just returned from a two month trip to East and Southeast Asia.