21 August 2013

Belfast: Rising From Ashes of The Troubles

(From RealClearHistory)

Over the summer, RealClearHistory Editor Samuel Chi embarked on a two-week tour of the British Isles and France. He filed a few dispatches via the transatlantic telegraph cable, which we just received now.
As the MS Caribbean Princess got tied up to the dock in the port of Belfast, a gleaming, glass and steel structure just across the ship channel came into view on the starboard side. It's a dream building that was completed just a year ago to commemorate the centennial of RMS Titanic. It also stands as a symbol of hope and progress - but most of all, rebirth.
Not that long ago, Belfast was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. During 'The Troubles' in the 1970s and '80s, bombings, assassinations and government crackdowns were a way of life in the hard-scrabble capital of Northern Ireland. The six predominately protestant Ulster counties opted not to join the new Irish Free State in 1920 and remained in the United Kingdom. There were sporadic conflicts between the republicans (those wishing to join Ireland) and loyalists (those wishing to remain in the UK) for the next half century, before an orgy of bloodshed erupted.
'The Troubles' finally came to a halt in the early 2000s after the Belfast Agreement in 1998. All told, over 3,500 people would lose their lives as part of the 50,000 casualties during the tumultuous three decades. In the past 10 years or so, there was finally sustained peace, and civic leaders went about rebuilding a once prosperous city that was the envy of the British Empire.
In the second half of the 19th Century, Belfast underwent a rapid transformation, becoming a boomtown while the rest of Ireland was ravaged by the Great Famine. People flocked into Belfast's new linen mills, whiskey distilleries and the burgeoning docks. As Belfast's population went from 87,000 in 1851 to 350,000 in 1901, it also became the world's biggest shipbuilding center.
The city's harbor commission had the foresight to dredge the River Lagan and redevelop the pleasure grounds of Queens Island into shipyards. Harland & Wolff would set up shop there and begin building the biggest ocean liners the world had ever seen. In 1909 workers started laying the keel for two enormous ships, side by side, under the monstrous Arrol Gantry - Titanic and Olympic.
While Titanic spent barely two weeks in the water before she met her untimely demise, Olympic had a 24-year career including a stint as a troop ship during World War I. In the slipways where the Arrol Gantry once stood is now a park commemorating the twin ships, with wooden benches laid out as the way they did on the deck of Titanic. At the foot of the park is the newly opened attraction - Titanic Belfast.
Titanic would've been drawfed by our ship, the MS Caribbean Princess (photoshoped to scale).

Opened March 31, 2012, to coincide with the centennial of its nameshake ship, Titanic Belfast is both a museum and a vision, of Belfast's past and future. The massive seven-story building tells the story of not just Titanic, but also the city itself. The exhibitions serve to weave the story of how Belfast emerged from a sleepy seaside hamlet to a martime powerhouse, as the birthplace to the greatest ships the world had seen at the turn of the 20th Century.
The exhibitions include not just images and old films, but also replicas and renderings of all areas of Titanic, including a ride that takes you from the top deck all the way to the boiler room as the ship was being built. In another interactive presentation, the visitors are whisked from the crew's living quarters in the bottom of the ship, through third-class accomodations, all the way up to the iconic grand staircase and the wheelhouse.
But Titanic Belfast is but one part - though a central one - of Belfast's rebirth. It serves to anchor a new development named Titanic Quarter, which consists of a 185-acre area of abandoned shipyards south of the ship channel and River Lagan. A short walk from downtown Belfast, the new development is home to Titanic Belfast, Titanic Studio (in which HBO's popular series 'Game of Thrones' was produced), and eventually also up to 28,000 residents.
The new Belfast seeks to move the city past a violent half century that included not only 'The Troubles,' but one of the most destructive air raids in the history of the United Kingdom. On the night of April 15, 1941, the Luftwaffe launched a massive air attack that sought to cripple Belfast's aircraft and shipbuilding facilities and, by being able to follow neutral Ireland's brightly lit coastlines all the way to Belfast, it was a devastating success. The 180 planes dropped 674 bombs and 76 mines that completely caught the city off guard, destroying much of its industries and killing 745 people. That, and other parts of Belfast's World War II history are captured in the small yet captivating Northern Ireland War Memorial on the ground floor of an office building right by St. Anne's Cathedral in downtown Belfast.
After Belfast, we finally bade farewell to Ireland, as the MS Caribbean Princess sailed toward the North Sea, heading for a destination where the greatest navy in the world once called home.

16 August 2013

Following in RMS Titanic's Wake

(From RealClearHistory)

Over the summer, RealClearHistory Editor Samuel Chi embarked on a two-week tour of the British Isles and France. He filed a few dispatches via the transatlantic telegraph cable, which we just received now.
Here's the second installment:
Aboard the MS Caribbean Princess, the first part of our itinerary followed closely the maiden (and only) voyage of RMS Titanic. We began in Southampton, just as Titanic did, made a stop across the English Channel (we in the Channel Island of Guernsey; Titanic in the French port of Cherbourg), and then arrived in Cobh, Ireland.
Cobh (pronounced "Cove," which was its original name) is located on the southeastern coast of Ireland. Historically it's better known as Queenstown, the name of this small but important port when it was under British rule. It was here on April 11, 1912, when Titanic made its last, ahem, scheduled stop.
Queenstown, the name it took in 1850 after a visit by Queen Victoria and kept until 1920, looks remarkably unchanged over the past 100 years. There's an eerie timelessness to this place. Sure, there are ATM machines now and your mobile phone works wonderfully, but from the dock where our ship was tied up it bears a striking resemblance to photographs taken a century ago.
One of the more famous pictures of the Queenstown docks was snapped by Father Frank Browne, who sailed from Southampton to Queenstown on a ticket gifted to him by his uncle. Browne wanted to continue sailing to New York, but was ordered off the ship by his Jesuit superiors, who were expecting him in Dublin to continue his seminary training. Browne obeyed the order, which most likely saved his life, and also the unique visual records of Titanic's voyage from Browne's photographs.
Whereas Browne and half a dozen others disembarked in Queenstown, 123 passengers boarded Titanic - most of them perishing four days later. Even before the disaster, Queenstown was known as "the Saddest Place in Ireland." Between 1851 and 1921, over two million Irish immigrants to America bade their families farewell in Queenstown. Back in the day, there was virtually no chance for the poor immigrants to make a return voyage, so for most, it was the last time they'd ever see some of their loved ones.
That history is vividly captured at the Cobh Heritage Centre, adjacent to the quayside train station. On display are documents and photographic records of the Irish immigrants' plight and journeys, dating to the Irish Potato Famine in 1845 that precipitated the mass emigration. And besides Titanic, another famous and ill-fated ship also has a connection to Queenstown. Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland during World War I in 1915. Most of the 761 survivors were ferried to Queenstown while 150 victims were buried in mass graves just up the hill.

Memorials for Titanic (left) and Lusitania (right) in Cobh

There are statues and plaques commemorating the dead from both Lusitania and Titanic in the small town center. Across the street, the old White Star Line ticket office on the dock is preserved and refurbished, now housing a small interactive museum Titanic Experience.
In a kid-friendly fashion (I have an 8-year-old and appreciated the help), the story of Titanic is told through photographic and interactive exhibits. You're handed a ticket upon entering the museum, on it is the name of one of the 123 passengers who embarked Titanic in Queenstown. You'll see what they experienced on the ship from replicas of accommodations, all the way until the meeting with the iceberg. At the end, you'd learn their fate. (Hint: If you're a man, it probably won't work out too well, as only a handful of those Irish male passengers survived.)
Outside the former ticket office is the skeleton of the old pier that served to shuttle passengers to large ocean liners - including Titanic - via tender boats. Luckily for us, this is where the parallel tracks of our two ships end. Whereas Titanic sailed into the cold North Atlantic toward her demise, Caribbean Princess instead worked her way up the Irish Sea, to where Titanic was born.

15 August 2013

What Happened to Taiwan's Little League Champs?

They were once the most dominant team in their sport. They won nine championships in an 11-year span. Their 17 overall titles more than double the total of the next-best team. They were so dominant that on the rare occasion when they lose, it’s considered an upset for the ages.
So are we talking about the New York Yankees? Montreal Canadiens? Yomiuri Giants? No. This is about Taiwan’s Little League baseball teams.
The 67th Little League World Series begins Thursday in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Taiwan will once again have a representative in the 16-team tournament. But the Taiwanese are not the prohibitive favorites they once were. In fact, the 12-year-olds from Taoyuan might be a longshot to end Taiwan’s 16-year championship drought.
Just what happened to Taiwan’s Little League teams? Those boys of summer once won 31 straight games at Williamsport – including the 1973 champions from Tainan that won its three games with a cumulative score of 57-0 while not allowing a single hit in the entire tournament. But since winning the 1996 tournament, a team from Taiwan has reached only one final, losing to Chula Vista, California, 6-3, in 2009.
Forget the often-cited and baseless accusation that Taiwan once used overage players to achieve its feat. That was never the case. Full disclosure: This author played Little League ball in Taiwan in the golden age of the1970s. The competition was so fierce that player eligibility was checked scrupulously in tournaments throughout the island. Little League Inc., did its own investigation in the 70s and found not one shred of irregularities.
Taiwan’s one-time dominance can be best explained this way: Winning meant much more than just fun and games.
Taiwan’s Little League success not coincidentally came at a time when the island was faced with a mounting diplomatic crisis. As Taiwan won its first Little League title in 1969, it was in the process of being kicked out of the UN, which preceded Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to China to normalize relations with the Communist mainland. When the U.S. officially severed ties with Taipei to recognize Beijing in 1979, Taiwan’s international isolation was complete.
In this crucible Taiwan’s youth baseball dominance stood as a beacon in the island’s uncertain future. Not just at the Little League level, Taiwanese teams also hoarded Senior and Big League titles – with 17 championships apiece, the last also came in 1996. These teams’ tournament games in America were broadcast live on state television in the island’s wee hours. In the darkness you could hear wild cheering throughout the neighborhood with the blasting of firecrackers greeting each victory.
Taiwan was never known for athletic prowess: other than the decathlon silver medal won by C.K. Yang in the 1960 Rome Games. Its Olympic profile is about as impressive as India’s, with a few medals here and there in minor sports. But the success of the youth teams cemented baseball as the island’s undisputed favorite pastime. Many of the Little Leaguers would go on to play professionally in Japan and Korea and later Taiwan’s own pro baseball league, the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), founded in 1989. In the past decade or so, Taiwanese sluggers have started showing up in the U.S. Major Leagues.
The island’s passion for adult baseball, however, never matched its fervor for the kids in the 1970s and 80s, and it’s easy to see why. The young boys were playing for much more than a sponsor and a paycheck; national pride was at stake. At the Little League World Series, they weren’t playing for Taipei or Kaohsiung or 7-Eleven or Brother Hotel. They were playing for Taiwan.
With the advent of the “Chinese Taipei” moniker and the ban on the use of Taiwan’s national flag at most international sporting events, Williamsport is one of the last places on earth where an ROC flag may be proudly unfurled and waved.
In the past, hundreds of Taiwanese expats and international students would regularly pack Lamade Stadium whenever their team was playing. For every ballplaying little boy in Taiwan, Williamsport was Shangri-La. But times have changed.
While Taiwan is still diplomatically isolated, its residents no longer feel a sense of impending doom, thanks to the rapid rapprochement with the mainland in recent years. The island’s economy, booming since the late 1970s, has raised living standards to the point where Taiwan’s per capita income (purchasing power parity) now exceeds that of the UK and France.
With most of the island’s population enjoying a comfortable life, the hunger for baseball glory waned. A dispute with Little League Inc., over the size of districts didn’t help matters, as Taiwan withdrew from competition from 1997 to 2002.
During its absence, Taiwan’s old rival Japan was once again ascendant. Japanese teams have appeared in 10 of the last 15 finals, winning five titles. Since their return in 2003, Taiwanese teams’ inability to defeat Japan in Williamsport (as both teams are always in the same bracket) has been the chief reason for the prolonged championship drought.
This year’s team from Taoyuan easily won the Asia-Pacific regional, going 7-0, though its recent predecessors have all done that, with little success once reaching Williamsport. Maybe this group of kids will finally end the 16-year drought. Maybe they won’t. But win or lose, it’s now just a game. And that’s the way it should be.

12 August 2013

British Land Under German Boots

(From RealClearHistory)

Over the summer, RealClearHistory Editor Samuel Chi embarked on a two-week tour of the British Isles and France. He filed a few dispatches via the transatlantic telegraph cable, which we just received now. Here's the first installment:
Sailing on the MS Caribbean Princess, one of those monster cruise ships that carries thousands of mostly geriatric passengers from one tourist destination to the next, our first port of call was St. Peter Port, on the Channel Island of Guernsey. 
Though on the French side of the English Channel and bracketed by the Cotentin Peninsula and Brittany, the eight permanently inhabited islands are unmistakably British, going back nearly one thousand years to the reign of William the Conqueror. The biggest two islands Guernsey and Jersey are British crown dependencies - called Bailiwicks - with their own governments and even own currencies (though they'll happily take your Sterling Pounds at a 1-to-1 exchange rate).
The most remarkable part of the islands' history, however, was the five years during which they were NOT under British rule. Ja, in 1940, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht showed up, as the Channel Islands became the only British territory fell under Nazi occupation during World War II.
After the fall of France and the near annihilation of the British forces on the continent in June 1940, it was evident that Channel Islands could not be defended. The British quietly evacuated the islands and demilitarized them - but never bothered to tell the Germans about it. The Luftwaffe made a probing air raid on June 28, killing 33 civilians in Guernsey. Only then did the British government notify Berlin - via the American embassy - that the islands were no longer defended and the Germans were welcome to them.
Life under the Nazi boots wasn't easy, but make no mistake, also not quiet as harsh as what was experienced in the German-occupied eastern territories. The first thing the Germans did - aside from having a military parade - was making everybody drive on the right side of the road and change the time from British time to Central European time. Over time, the Germans would station up to 100,000 troops on the islands, though the Allies never even contemplated an invasion.
The remnants of the German defensive works - erected with the help of 16,000 slave laborers imported to the islands - are still evident today on the shores of Guernsey. And the life and times of those five years are faithfully chronicled at the German Occupation Museum.
Located in the town of Forest, about a 15-minute bus ride from St. Peter Port, the German Occupation Museum is housed in an inauspicious one-story building surrounded by farms (yes, there are plenty of Guernsey cows on Guernsey). But once inside, you'll find a rich collection of armaments, munitions, automobiles, uniforms as well as documents retelling the stories from 1940-1945. You can easily spend two hours walking through the museum's grounds.
Closer to St. Peter Port, there's another, smaller museum also devoted to the wartime experience of the Channel Islands. La Vallette Underground Military Museum is located inside the underground tunnels the Germans built to store massive quantities of oil, though ironically it was never used during the enitre war. This museum has an interesting exhibition of all kinds of paraphernalia confiscated from all German service branches (Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine), as well as wartime posters and documents.
The war officially ended for the Channel Islanders actually a bit later than for everybody else in Europe, as the British had to arrange for ships to bring troops and supplies to the islands - there's a transcript (available at both museums) of the somewhat humorous exchange between the British and German commanders on how the surrender should be handled, with the British requesting the Germans maintain order until they arrive. The worst period of the war for the islands was its final 11 months, following the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1945, as the Germans could no longer resupply the islands after losing control of the French coast. With acute shortages of food and fuel, the Red Cross had to come in to keep the malnourished population fed.
The Channel Islands are not hurting for much now, as the economy is booming, thanks to the special status that allowed them to become a financial hub and tax haven - in 2008, Jersey's GDP per capita was the highest in the world. The islands, though, are still known for their cattle, and potatoes.
Our stop at Guernsey was brief - a mere four hours - but long enough to get a lot of history out of it. Next up, 'The Saddest Place in Ireland.'