Thursday, May 26, 2011

DR. NORMAN BETHUNE - "PHOENIX" removes 71 years of clouded varnish, revealing details of a passionate life, boldly lived

I work with high school and university students and I often obsess over the ideas they are choosing to believe. What they are taught by others, I can do nothing about, but over the past week I found myself ragging on faux memoirs ("Creative non-fiction") and lying documentary films that frequently arise in conversation. Al Gore's prose and Moore's Bowling for Columbine were typical exhibits. Be assured that after I demolish a fraudulent work I follow through, recommending trustworthy examples of a given genre. For an astonishingly candid memoir which avoids contrivance I read passages from J.R. Ackerley's MY FATHER AND MYSELF. For courageous documentary minus the smart-ass gimmickry, I showed clips from DELIVER US FROM EVIL, by Mathew Cooke.

Most students are waiting for the launch of the latest cellular gadget or fresh fodder for their game console. Part of my job is to get them to read good books. Call me 'old school' but my binoculars are trained on publishers, as I wait for important books I need to perfect my knowledge of this great country. These days, the really interesting books are being published by Canada's university presses. A fabulous example of what a tireless pair of biographers can accomplish is PHOENIX: The Life of Norman Bethune, just released by McGill-Queen's University Press. My interest in Bethune is not casual. I have all of the previous biographies and have researched him in archives. Memory convinces me that I first learned of his importance to our national history when, about 30 years ago, I joined a group of friends at U.N.B. in screening an NFB film on Canadian Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Since then I have collected much of what was published about Bethune. I knew PHOENIX had been completed, and I must thank McGill publicist Jacqui Davis for sending me a review copy.

PHOENIX: The Life of Norman Bethune was published this month by McGill-Queen's University Press. An engaging story and a trustworthy biography, it was written by Roderick Stewart and Sharon Stewart. This book will ennoble your bookshelf many years after lesser possessions have been donated to charity. Its in hard covers, 488 pages with 77 photos. $39.95 [ISBN 978-0-7735-3819-1] It's already available discounted on AMAZON.CA

Why would you enjoy reading this book, and why should you read it? Happily, I deduce that PHOENIX was created with the intention of finding a wide readership. Rod Stewart is a crack researcher who has devoted much of his life to understanding Bethune's ache for adventure, both in bed and on the battlefield. As well he has a deep understanding of the complexities of Bethune's political commitments. Clearly his writing partner, Sharon Stewart, brought energy and polish to the project because this new book is a major improvement on Stewart's first attempt at capturing his subject (BETHUNE, 1973). In an earlier biography Mr. Stewart could only hint at the petty jealousy and careerism inside Canadian Communist circles which clearly sabotaged Dr. Bethune's efforts in Spain and China. In PHOENIX we see the tragedy of each cynical betrayal, closely documented. But more, for the first time we learn how his mind worked, and why he stubbornly made each of the fateful decisions which lead to his lonely and needless death inside China in 1939. He contracted blood poisoning while performing surgery on a badly wounded Red soldier, and when the infection threatened to claim his own life, he refused amputation of his arm. He was assured that there was much work he could do for the Red Army as a one-armed doctor, but still he chose death. Why?

In BETHUNE (1973) Stewart's explanation was very thin: "Bethune refused. He knew he was going to die." But in PHOENIX (2011) the Stewart's are more intimate and help us understand a dying man's motives. For Dr. Norman Bethune "...amputation would have meant that he would never again have been able to function as a battlefield surgeon. And surgery was to him more than just a profession; in its drama and incisiveness it was the expression of his way of life, his mode of being. Despite his passionate commitment to communism and to the Chinese struggle against the Japanese, he refused to consent to becoming less than he wanted to be."

How refreshing to read the work of professional biographers who understand how to tell a great story well without resorting to fraud. While this book can certainly be read quickly and for enjoyment alone, I am one of those who also relies on books for my facts. I read with my thumb squashed by the fold between the story and its documentation - the Notes, Bibliography and Index. I also compare a new book to its predecessors.

Up till now, for good or ill, the most widely read biography of Norman Bethune was Ted Allan's clunker THE SCALPEL, THE SWORD (1952) a work of naked plagiarism, stamped with the dubious hallmarks of "Creative non-fiction" including plenty of fabricated dialogue. Want a comparative taste of Allan? Here is his rendition of the death scene: "Bethune shook his head. "No, Fong," he said in a feeble voice. "I'd give both my arms to live, tungtze. But it is no longer a matter of the arm. It's in the blood. Septicemia. Nothing can help me."

In assessing Allan's half century old book the Stewart's are kinder than they need to be, as Allan had a reputation for suing everyone he thought he could bully. The truth is his book should be weeded from every library in Canada and replaced with this franker, and certainly better written biography. If you are going to read ANY biography this summer, pick up a copy of PHOENIX, and let the Stewart's tell you the story of a Canadian who made a greater impact on this world than most of those in our celebrity obsessed culture dare dream. Hey, only Shatner tops Bethune for a single name Canadian brand!

Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, a Communist and a hedonist, has been a staple of popular culture since his death in China. Radio dramas, stage plays, movies, postage stamps, coins, a television series, novels, biographies, posters, colouring books and (above) the cover of a vintage war comic book, published in 1943.

Dr. Norman Bethune, like many of our national hero's, was obsessed with ensuring that Canada got "credit" for it's contributions on the world stage. In that respect he was uber-Canadian. He attended Canadian Club luncheons and fully understood the symbolism of VIMY in Canadian affairs. In BETHUNE (1973) Rod Stewart noted that Beth "was always looking for recognition". In the Spanish Civil War he fussed over the image and publicity given to the battlefield blood transfusion service he pioneered. He didn't want to be "sent" to Spain in 1937 like other nameless volunteers, fearing that he "would simply go into a hospital as a surgeon and that would be the end of the Canadian Unit as a Unit! Now it seemed better to emulate England and Scotland and establish ourselves as a definate entity. England has the "English Hospital", Scotland has the "Scottish Ambulance." Dr. Bethune is here delightfully modeled in the blue mono azul overalls he designed for "the unit" and had custom fabricated in London. Missing is the badge "CANADA" which was stitched on a breast pocket. .

Friday, May 13, 2011

PHANTOM FLOORSPACE - Hong Kong Architect transforms a Micro-Condo, creating square footage for free

As discussed in a previous Blog, the current wave of condo development in the Vancouver region has set imposed new, greatly reduced floor sizes on Buyers. The trade off is that your tenant gets a nicely fitted out pad that is located in a tower near mass-transit, shopping and recreational choices. An example would be a 374 sq foot unit in BOSA's VICEROY in uptown New Westminster, priced at $180,000 plus the usual $$ extras. So far the developers seem to be winning. I do not detect any backlash against the micro-apartments. For the the Investment crowd the micro-apartment creates a ticking time bomb because when bank interest rates start climbing, as they must, you won't be able to get an extra nickle out of the tenant, to help you service the bank loan.

Well, lets try to think positive, shall we?
I saw a fun video feature today which made my heart sing. It's the inspiring tale of a man who made a home out of a rabbit hutch. He is Gary Chang, Architect, and his Hong Kong based firm is the Edge Design Institute. As Gary puts it, Hong Kong's cramped housing conditions made him an expert on space, long before he considered a career in architecture.

If you can ignore the hyperbole of the American presenter, you will enjoy the story of how he created the "Domestic Transformer" - an amazing 344 sqft flat in a Kowloon housing estate which he can easily reconfigure into twenty four practical or useful combinations.


Monday, May 9, 2011


Who watches PBS News Hour? My guess would be the ladies and gents who make those cash contributions which keep the PBS network alive. The News Hour marches with the legion of the credible... the news sources (like the Christian Science Monitor) which are shunned by mass audience which prefers its baloney buffed and blow dried. Well the folks at PBS News Hour have just discovered what I have known for a long time. Matt Drudge's news aggregator site is a vital public service. For several years it it has been my first double click of the day.It is now confirmed. THE DRUDGE REPORT outranks all social media in directing traffic to the top Web sites. Twitter? Forget it! FACEBOOK? Not a chance. They're kid stuff. I've noticed in the past year (from browsing newspaper websites) that reporters at the Vancouver SUN, and all the free distribution paper's ... Burnaby, Richmond, etc are posting to social media (which I admit I've never used) and it made wonder what their motives are. I don't profess to know what makes are local reporters tick.

Read the PBS article for yourself. HERE:


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Inferno obliterated Condo Project in Richmond, B.C. - THE REMY was the stepchild of three levels of Governments and the regions most influential NGO

9388 Cambie - a very unlucky number

Yesterday's conflagration in Richmond, B.C. produced such dramatic video that it was chosen the lead story on Vancouver evening TV News. Watching an empty building burn is more fun than staring into a fish tank at the dentist's office, isn't it? This particular inferno is probably the biggest chipboard bonfire you're ever going to see, so savour it. Too bad it was also a truckload of taxpayer money going up in smoke.

THE REMY, six floors of B.C. "wood products" consumed in minutes, May 3, 2011. [photo A.M. Lee]

I have mentioned Chinese numbering in an earlier Blog on highrise construction in Burnaby Metrotown. The current mania in development catering to the Chinese market is to change the street address of the building lot, the floor numbers, unit numbers and the sale price to exclude the number "4" and employ the number "8" . Gordon Campbell's Press Release for THE REMY noted that it was to have the street address 9388 Cambie Road and would provide 188 mixed use apartments. Gordo, you're such a silly billy!
A detail I found most interesting in Premier Campbell's June 18, 2010 statement on THE REMY project was role of S.U.C.C.E.S.S. , the Chinese NGO which is the principle power broker in the local Chinese community.
"S.U.C.C.E.S.S. will manage and operate the 33 SRH apartments for seniors. The society will also own and operate 48 affordable apartments for low - to moderate-income families and singles. Incorporated in 1974, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., is a non-profit charitable organization that provides social services to multicultural clientele at all stages of their Canadian experience."
SUCCESS is more than that. The political clout of its senior staff, their ability to help secure political nominations and to get out the vote for select politicians, rivals what any combination of unions can deliver to a meeting hall. It has been interesting to watch SUCCESS morph into the most important NGO in British Columbia. I have heard it said many times, that if SUCCESS didn't exist, a purely Chinese political party would have been founded in B.C. For the time being, SUCCESS is the unelected Chinese representative body in B.C. Good stuff. Some of what I've heard lately leads me to suspect that within twenty years SUCCESS will be controlling 30 % of medical and educational services in the province. But I digress. That would be a useful subject for a future Blog article.

A photo of the building as it stood over a month ago - many tons of building products neatly bolted to a concrete parking base. Note the scaffolding in place. It remained standing for a time after the chipboard structure was totally consumed. Originally the building was to have wooden elevator shafts, but I saw on TV that a concrete shaft was constructed. It was the only feature left standing by the inferno.

Hail, hail the gangs are all here! The groundbreaking for THE REMY project in 2010 was a photo -op not to be missed. Here we see Gordon Campbell mugging for the camera. The B.C. government kicked in $2,375,000 under the Senior's Rental Housing Initiative, the Federal Government (CMHC) threw in $4,750,000 but demanded public recognition for two separate programs - the Canada-British Columbia Affordable Housing Initiative Agreement and the Tory Canada Economic Action Plan. There was also a daycare facility shoe horned into the REMY project - another $500,000 from Victoria and $900,000 from the City of Richmond.

Those who read the SUN yesterday or watched the TV News, are informed of changes to the Nuilding Code which allowed this 6 storey condo complex to be constructed of wood products, even though the Fire Department of the City of Richmond had sounded the alarm about their inabiulity to deal with a fire in a woodpile of such huge proportions. Below are some of the innovations built into THE REMY in order to allay the fears of the RFD.
No doubt the insurers will pay to rebuild THE REMY, and it will be rebuilt to the same plan. Or maybe they'll add sprinklers. Sprinklers are the remedy most municipal planners prescribe, and that's OK if you live the life of a Chuck Palahniuk character, surrounded by disposable junk. But those who live with books, artwork and Canadiana will never accept the horrible risk of the neighbor's wok triggering an inundation. Live concrete or live disposable! The builders of THE REMY claim they "saved" $12 Million dollars by building out of wood. I guess they never read the story of The Three Little Pigs.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

War Porn - the masses cry "Show us the photos of the dead Bin Laden!"

Wow. Step back from news Blogging for two weeks, and the world continues to go ape.
U.S. Special Operators assassinate Bin Laden... (" he was unarmed ...a double tap to the left side of his head") a Danish F16 pilot murders four members of Gaddafi's family, including three of his grandchildren... (How's that for telling the Danish Muslims where they can stick their Jihadist threats? Remember the Jyllands Posten cartoon furor?)

And what to make of the Canadian electorate cancelling the tickets of TWO political leaders with a single blow at the ballot box. Talk about HOLLYWOOD SQUARES - voting to block the Bloc!
We hear that the White House is agonizing over whether to release the death photos of Osama Bin Laden. Why? Just so the conspiracy nuts don't get to create a whole industry around a myth that Bin Laden actually escaped and is now hiding out in a bunker under Berlin. I for one don't enjoy war porn. If I showed you photographs of what Canadian snipers have done to Taliban guerrillas with .50 Calibre sniper rifles, you would be offended. I would hope you could be equally offended by what NATO bombs are doing to children, including (recently) mentally handicapped children in Libya. In another life I am a military historian, and heaven knows it would be easy to illustrate some of my blog articles with atrocity photos. I would rather persuade with words. No, Mr. President. Please do not pass out the photos. We believe. We believe!

Operation Neptune Spear - the assassination of Bin LadenFor those who are curious about the heated accusation that some Pakistani military officers, MUST have known that Osama Bin Laden has been resident in Abbotobad, here a few photos.

The first, (above) taken on May 2, the day after the U.S. raid, we see Bin Laden's compound with remains of a special op's helicopter, which the SEALS incinerated before exfiltrating Pakistan. Photos show the compound was festooned with electrical wires, (but no telephone) so it is likely the bird got tangled and its tail snapped off in a hard landing. This is a stealth aircraft with advanced sound suppression features, special fibre sheathing and paint.

Operation Neptune Spear - overhead of target area The second photo shows Bin Laden's compound, [34 10' 09.40"N 73 14' 33.51"E] and the nearby (ie. 1.37 kilometers or less than five minutes away) Pakistan Military Academy. The entire city of Abbotobad is a military zone and civilians are subject to cordon and search activities every time there is a terror alert. How did Bin Laden and his personal security detail live amidst the Pakistani military undetected for six years?

stealth helo wreck - Bin Laden compoundThis photo shows the tail section of the helo the American SEALs were forced to abandon inside the compound. It wasn't shot down, but deliberately destroyed with explosives. The Pakistani military removed it from the compound yesterday.

What will happen now? Well, the SEAL mission into Abbotobad was run from U.S. bases in Afghanistan. My guess is that the Taliban will do the honours on behalf of Islamic Fascism worldwide. They will do their best to kill the "puppet-president" of Afghanistan ASAP.

TIME MANAGEMENT TIP - The best single-page, but very thorough, analysis of the raid... and with great photos, is on THE DAILY MAIL website. Just click - MAILonline.

UPDATED PHOTOS: a wealth of images is pouring out of Pakistan, much of it concerning the stealth helicopter which the Americans had to leave behind, after destroying as much as they could. This is the best photo available of the tail section. Almost certainly it has already been flown to China and is being poured over by Chinese engineers.

tail of stealth helo - wall of Bin Laden compound=