By Mei Feifei (22A13A)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
Koh Buck Song’s Around the World in 68 Days is a travelogue featuring 13 countries he visited in the span of 68 days in 2018, the golden days pre-Covid-19. Around the World promises “insights into 13 countries’ ancient and modern cultures, national identities and brands, and their place in the world today”.
Around the World is easily intriguing for anyone who stumbles across it in a bookstore: what better way to cure wanderlust than to read about another person’s travels, especially with an itinerary as extensive and unconventional as Koh’s? As an experienced national brand advisor, Koh’s book also offers more than a mere collection of #travelholic moments.
Taking Off: National Branding
What is ‘national branding’? A marketing campaign done by a country’s tourism agency? A tagline like ‘City in a Garden’? An iconic landmark that definitely cannot be mistaken for any other country’s? According to Koh, national branding is all that and so much more.
Throughout the book, Koh weighs in on the intangible perceptions that are immediately tied to physical places. His journey begins and ends with two skyscrapers: the Burj Khalifa (UAE) and Taipei 101 (Taiwan). An ordinary traveller would probably just admire the architectural and engineering brilliance of these two landmarks, but Koh provides an interesting commentary on how these two iconic buildings are part of the image that the UAE and Taiwan engineer for themselves.
To Koh, the skyscrapers are a physical representation of how the UAE and Taiwan both “reach up […] towards modernity and the future, to grasp all the self-assurance and hope that the skies can yield” (p.310).
While I found myself disagreeing with some claims that he had extrapolated from his observations, it was still interesting to think on a more macro level about how a country ‘sells’ itself instead of just looking at the allure of individual attractions.
In the Air: Ichigo-Ichie, Haikus and Haiga
National branding aside, Koh’s book also borrows from iconic elements of Japanese culture. His prologue opens with “Ichigo ichie and the wonder of travel” (p.xi) and every chapter begins with a haiku (Japanese poetic form) and a haiga (ink sketch accompanying the haiku).
Ichigo-ichie loosely translates to ‘one lifetime, one moment’: it is a reminder that “nothing should ever be taken for granted”, that “in the blink of an eye, that moment will have passed—forever” (p.xiv).
While Koh rarely directly references this concept, the nature of travelling itself perhaps already best encapsulates the spirit of ichigo-ichie. How can one possibly replicate the excitement of spotting an elusive chameleon during a car trip? Or the “electric vibes” (p.178) of joining a salsa in a Cuban bar? Or the gastronomic delight from tasting a bowl of Okinawan-style noodles for the first time?
The preciousness and fleetingness of these moments are beautifully captured by Koh’s meditative writing. Indeed, I found that his writing shines the most when he describes—he is a master of weaving in the most fascinating details.
Descent: What Could Have Been Better
Overall, Around the World in 68 Days is worth a read just for gaining a better understanding of the countries that Koh travelled to alone, but it has a generous number of shortcomings as well.
Koh’s commentary comes across as being reductive at best and entirely inaccurate in the book’s first chapter, especially when he has to deal with the nastier bits of a country’s context. Dubai’s foreign labourers “look happy enough”, writes Koh, when at least two Indian expats commit suicide each week—to be honest, this claim alone almost turned me off from finishing the book entirely.
Touchdown: the Final Verdict
Around the World starts off weak but reaches a crescendo in the middle when he writes about South America and the Caribbean, although the final chapters on Japan and Taiwan fail to measure up against the standards set by the middle section.
Still, the good parts in Around the World in 68 Days are definitely worth your time, and it would definitely do well as a series of standalone essays—with the exclusion of some chapters.