Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Transience and Volatility

Image of the Hang Seng Bank building in Hong Kong.
Dear Gentle Reader,

If you look closely, the building shown in this image is a bank. It is called the Hang Seng Bank.

The Hang Seng Bank was founded in 1933 as a money-changing operation. It is now the second biggest bank in Hong Kong, although its majority owner is HSBC (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation), an old overseas British bank from the days of mercantilism and colony.

The corners of the Hang Seng Bank building are not.

Not corners that is, or not sharp corners at least.

The corners of the Hang Seng Bank building in Hong Kong are rounded. This is because feng shui (literally wind water) beliefs state that sharp corners are dangerous and bad for business.

Arguably (your scribe is guessing) feng shui practitioners determined, in the past, that because you could not see around a sharp corner it was easy to be ambushed at sharp corners. And ambushes are always bad for business--unless you are the bandit...

So the superstitious board of directors directed round corners for the bank.

When you watch your stock portfolio plunge each day, and they tell you what Asian markets are looking like, you probably hear about the Hang Seng Index. The Hang Seng Index is Hong Kong's version of the Dow Jones Index. Now you know where that index is calculated.

Why do I have this picture here, today?

Yesterday, I mentioned the relative advantage Spain once had.

Spain had huge forests of sea-worthy hardwood timber. The Spanish harvested and converted these forests into vast navies to explore the world.

The Spanish were lucky enough to find lands rich in silver and gold, and sparse in armaments, in the New World.

Spain's last great harvest of trees should have allowed them to invade and conquer England, but their Armada was destroyed by a storm and there were no more trees left in Spain to build a new fleet, not to mention the loss of human life and materiel (and no, that is not a typo) that an army runs upon.

Prior to the Great Armada fiasco, the Spanish had been, pragmatically, the most important nation in Europe.

Due to the phenomenal wealth the Spanish were deriving from the New World, they achieved the remarkable anti-alchemical trick of converting gold to stone. This also led to their downfall.

One glance at the Spanish surplus of grandiose churches and cathedrals, constructed in a very short time, proves this point. For clarity, the oversupply of grand stone churches proves the anti-alchemical trick, not the downfall of Spain--but the fact that at a certain time all new construction and acquisitions ceased does implicitly point to a financial downfall, or at least to a significant shift in fiscal priorities.

In their heyday, when the gold and silver from the New World was pouring in, the Spanish spent faster than their ships full of gold and silver would arrive (once a year) from the New World.

The Fuggers, a wealthy banking family from the Swabian Free City of Augsburg, starting buying up the next year's delivery of the shipments of gold and silver, at a discount, by providing the Spanish crown with massive loans. The Fuggers were also the majority underwriters for the loan that allowed Charles V sufficient funds to secure the votes he needed from the Electors to become the Holy Roman Emperor.

When the shipments of gold and silver from the New World faltered, Spain fell. When there were no more forests to build fleets to go get more gold or silver from the New World, the bankers called in all their loans, and some of the bankers fell too.

Spain went from being a country controlling Europe through its riches, and almost the conqueror of Britain through it forests (the Armada), to a country in ruin.

Spain stayed, relatively speaking, in rags until the English, with rising equity in their houses, came on an Iberian campaign (reenacting their staging grounds from the Peninsular War of 1808-1814) and started buying up the Spanish countryside.

Now that the financial storms have unleashed their turbulent winds, or, more aptly, bagged the zephyrs that drive the sails of commerce, that campaign, the Anglo-Iberian campaign, two centuries later, has foundered as the value of land in Spain has collapsed. What outcome will flow from the current financial distress has yet to be determined.

I mention all of this because something similar happened with the Khmer civilisation.

The Khmers spent much of their wealth, and time, building structures in the middle of a swampy lake, the Tonlé Sap.

As we reviewed Khmer architectural history, in snippets, yesterday, the Khmers went from bricks to laterite to sandstone as the materials of their trade.

Their sandstone was hewn from Mount Kunlun about 60 kilometers away and ferried by raft in the wet season and dragged by elephants in the dry season to the middle of the marshy Tonlé Sap (lake).

There was no stopping the Khmers in their building frenzy until their treasuries were empty, their people unhappy, and the country was unable to defend itself against predations by its neighbours.

The architecture of the Khmer civilisation survived the Khmer collapse because it was so much work to transport the stone to the middle of the swampy lake that it did not seem worthwhile to cart it back out again.

So the architecture, the physical manifestation of culture, wealth, and civilisation, was covered up by the jungle where it remained hidden for centuries.

Image of the jungle taking over the temple complex of Ta Prohm in Cambodia, built in the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1220).

Everything is transient. Wealth, power, and glory; all are volatile commodities.

The Khmer temples and palaces of Cambodia have now been uncovered and the tourists flood in, bringing riches to a very poor country.

But even the greatest wealth and power is transient, as Ozymandias discovered, or rather as others (specifically the English poet, Shelley) disovered of Ozymandias...

Ozymandias (by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Your scribe has stood atop the vast and trunkless legs of stone at the mortuary temple of Ramses II, what the French philologist Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) called the Ramesseum, on the west bank of Thebes in Egypt. Looking at the toes of the ruined statue of the Egyptian Pharoah, Ramses II, was the first time your scribe recognized the transience of fame, power, and glory.

After the collapse of the New World gold and silver trade, and of the Spanish Armada, Spain as a nation was poor. Spain was poor until the recent global housing boom, and the influx of European Union support and fiscal equalisation funds for infrastructure projects made Spain wealthy again. The global housing boom is collapsing and the economy of Spain is following.

Khmer culture and civilisation was famed throughout South East Asia in its time. It collapsed and disappeared into the jungle.

Refound, those Khmer temples that led to collapse now lead to rebirth and prosperity. But for how long?

Maybe it's time to appreciate the now again.

Image of a lake of water lilies in bloom in the Angkor Thom complex in Cambodia.

Chris, Regina, and Pommes


Cloudia said...

ozymadas! Feng sui! Armada facts I didn;t know! the reason shelli and the romantics went to spain in 19th century! So much info aand dreaming, Chris.WOW! Thanks, man!!
Just incredible tour de force post!!
Corners? CUTTING CHI, but i like the ambush idea too and it's probably somewhat valid. aloha, ScribFriend

Sepiru Chris said...

Liebe Cloudia,

I agree that feng shui masters call it cutting chi (in Wade-Giles transliterations or qi in the pinyin Mandarin transliteration), but why? I am no expert on feng shui, only know enough for appreciation of Chinese architecture, but I think the cutting qi can come from that slashing blade.

Cloudia, I hope you recognized that this post was an homage to a viewpoint you have expressed in Comfort Spiral... the appreciation of now...


Barbara Martin said...

Eckhart Tolle teaches people to live in their now moment. Not a bad idea all things considered. And very true civilisations grow and fall.

Sepiru Chris said...

Thanks Barbara, I will check out Eckhart Tolle on my return to Hong Kong. I am unfamiliar with him. I am trying to keep my internet time to a minimum while on vacation, but I will be checking out sites when home again.