FLAT EARTH: Standardising the Asians

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the Asians

THE CURSE on the Evening Standard's op-ed page continues. Just as memories of that article by Brian Gould which wasn't by Brian Gould begin to fade, this picture (below) pops up in exactly the same slot. It adorns an article on the UN Conference on Women opening in China this week, and the caption reads: "This is the image of female contentment as promoted by Beijing." Our source in Vietnam rings up in a strangely confused state, not sure whether to be furious or triumphant. The picture, as it happens, comes not from China but from its neighbour and arch-enemy, Vietnam, and shows a Vietnamese woman wearing what is very much a conical Vietnamese hat. I fear that Asians, like articles on Tony Blair, all look just the same to the folk on the Standard.

And no Peking

MEANWHILE, on the eve of the women's conference, the Chinese state security bureau is starting to feel decidedly jumpy. Their main nightmare is - well, let them tell you in their own words: "We can't afford to have half- naked lesbian activists walking through the streets of Peking," one official said. "We are frightened that people will hold demonstrations. And what if people take their clothes off, which I hear they do abroad?"

Policemen have therefore been ordered to carry white sheets folded under their arms, which, in a crisis, may be flung over the naked sisterhood, thus "preserving the modesty of the demonstrators and the sensitivities of Chinese onlookers".

I hate to be the one to throw a wet blanket over this sheet-flinging picture, but I'm afraid it'll never come to that. Don't get me wrong: I have the highest hopes of excitement at the conference, where an irresistible force - thousands of determined women - meets an immovable object, the Chinese regime.

But the idea that Tiananmen Square might turn into a swirling ballet of policemen like toreadors opening their sheets and bearing down on unpredictable lesbians - that's too much to hope for.

Roundhead view

AUTODIDACT, consummate politician, omnivorous reader - that's a lot of balls to keep in the air, and Newt Gingrich, excitable Speaker of the US Congress, more or less manages. But as for his press secretary, a certain Tony Blankley! Now there's a man who can tumble blindly into trouble.

Last week he wandered across the Style pages of the Washington Post, announcing that his holiday reading had included a biography of Oliver Cromwell, Dictator of England and a kinda fun guy.

"He truly was an intriguing character. A visionary, misunderstood both in his time and afterward," enthused the well-rested Blankley. Consternation in Washington. Newt's main man had forgotten about another view of Oliver - that held by the Irish.

"Cromwell is to the Irish what Hitler is to the Jews!" shouted the Irish lobby, representing perhaps 40 million Irish-Americans. "Blankley must apologise or resign."

An amazing literary reassessment followed lickety-split. "I completely share your judgement that Cromwell's abominable war against both the Irish and Catholics should be condemned now and forever," read a letter that came shooting out of the Speaker's press room within minutes. "I failed to make clear my utter rejection of Cromwell's Irish war and policies."

Give 'em the chair

LET US introduce you to the BackSaver 7500, manufactured in Massachusetts and a hot item in the LA area at $1,199 (pounds 775). It is also known as the Judge Ito Chair, and the reason it is a hot item is that the judge in the OJ case sits in one.

Now I know that it's a boring observation to make that Americans are a strange people with more money than sense, but really and truly ... I mean, what do they think as they lower their bottoms into the BackSaver 7500 and switch channels to the OJ trial?

I have a horrible feeling they say to themselves: "Now, in this fine chair, I am participating in one of the great American dramas."

On its last visit to LA, this column couldn't get over how most of the city managed to be supremely dull and yet frightening at the same time, like Milton Keynes with a maniac on the loose. The knowledge that thousands of its citizens are now sitting about on Judge Itos adds to that puzzle.

They say tomb-ato

ALL WEEK we've been brooding on a small item which appeared in the papers last week, stating that Chinese scientists had propagated tomato plants from 2,000-year-old seeds found in a tomb in south-west China. Rum ... very rum ... I distinctly remember having it thrashed into me at school that the tomato came hand in hand, as it were, with the potato out of South America in the 14th century.

I do hope we're not being told another Chinese whopper, like the claims that Harry Wu stole state secrets or that Tibetans don't want independence.

It's hard to see where tomatoes come in, but there's certainly a new pattern emerging in Oriental archaeology. The other day China announced that the Spratly Islands must be Chinese, because they'd just dug up some pottery left there by long-dead sailors. National expansion via the tomb, you could call it.