Japan’s Ghost Towns, South Korea’s Millennials, and More

Insider launched its first Asia bureau in January 2021. Since then, our small but mighty team of reporters in Singapore, and our network of writers across Southeast Asia, has written about everything from the anti-work trend sweeping across China to Singapore’s ravenous otter population. We’ve examined the economic outlook for China’s growing middle class, interviewed a man who bought a crumbling, $430,000 mansion in Sri Lanka, and spoken to Chinese millennials to better understand who they, as a generation, are.

And that’s just the beginning. Below, you’ll find 16 of the most popular features the Singapore bureau worked on in 2021. Enjoy!

food tray with white foods on it

Lina Batarags/Insider

On January 6, nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, I boarded the longest flight in the world.

It was the dead of winter when I left New York City’s JFK airport. For ten months, as borders opened and closed and COVID cases around the world surged, two coworkers and I had been delaying a move overseas to launch a new bureau for Insider. Now, a mere 19 hours on the world’s longest flight stood between me and my destination: Singapore.

In Southeast Asia, the durian is the undisputed king of fruit. While the fruit’s smell is divisive, it’s a special treat in Asian households, and, at as much as $13 a pound, it’s not cheap.

Durian is also the subject of an increasingly bitter year-long battle between Malaysian farmers who cultivate premium durian trees and a government-backed consortium that’s trying to cash in on the beloved fruit. At the center of this dispute is one specific breed of durian: the Musang King. It’s been called gold that grows on trees, and a single tree can earn farmers up to $1,000 a year.

In mid July, the state forestry department finished chopping down 15,000 durian trees, including the entirety of one farmer’s 13-acre plantation.

China’s middle class has grown explosively in the past twenty years. In 2000, roughly 3% of the country’s population was classified as middle class. By 2018, more than half of China’s population — 707 million people — had entered the country’s middle-income bracket.

As China’s middle class has expanded, it has in many ways also started to look like America’s.

Housing is increasingly unaffordable for China’s middle class, and household debt levels are rising. China’s middle class now also faces a new crisis: the real possibility of not being able to do better than their parents.

It’s 8 a.m. in Shanghai. Scores of office workers are pouring into the dizzying network of the city’s metro lines, toting heavy briefcases and steaming cups of coffee. Meanwhile, Zhiyuan Zhang, 27, is tucking himself into bed.

“8 a.m. means it’s time to lie down,” Zhang told Insider. “Though I don’t have a job to go to, so I can lie down anytime. It’s great.”

Zhang is a Chinese millennial who has joined the ranks of a social movement called 躺平主义 — the “lying flat movement.” It’s a mindset, a lifestyle, and a personal choice for some disillusioned Chinese youth who have given up on the rat race and are staging a quiet rebellion against the trials of 9-9-6 work culture.

sang culture pepe the frog


Pepe the Frog (also known as the “sad frog”) was co-opted as an icon of “sang” culture in China, symbolizing the sad reality of modern living in China.

Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images

In the South Korean Netflix hit “Squid Game,” 456 people are in so much financial strain that they are driven to join a deadly survival game. While the show has become an international sensation, many South Koreans are less than entertained by what they say is an accurate portrayal of an unforgiving society.

The average South Korean, for example, couldn’t pay off all their debt even if they saved every cent for a year. And property price gains in South Korea have outpaced wage gains. Real estate prices in the capital city of Seoul — where about half the population lives — saw a spike of 22% in 2020, real-estate consultancy Knight Frank estimates.

An idyllic sunrise dawns over Xiapu County, a rural town in Fujian, China. From Xiapu’s beaches, you can see a lone fisherman rowing his boat toward the endless horizon. And venturing deeper into the county, you might catch strains of a buffalo lowing and spot chickens scurrying about the lush farmland.

Photos of these scenic spots in the county abound on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

The catch? Most of them are manufactured.

Buffalos and farmers walk under a tree in Xiapu, Fujian.


Staged snapshots of farmers ploughing the land with buffalo are commonplace in Xiapu.

Travel Career/Weibo

They leave a path of misery, destruction, and fish carcasses in their wake.

Singapore’s otters have shown no mercy on locals’ pet fish — and have taken to eating the expensive koi that many Singaporeans raise in private ponds.

It’s hard to say just how many otters live among the nation of 5.7 million people — official counts hover near 100 — but residents have documented an increasing number of attacks from the 10 or so otter families that are thought to live on the island.

As recently as the early 2000s, much of Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s biggest island, was covered with forest ecosystems. There were no more than 45,000 residents, and their key occupations included fishing, producing Vietnam’s best seafood and fish sauce, cultivating green pepper, and farming pearls.

Now, Phu Quoc is on steroids with the kind of development that’s already threatening its seductive image as the “last paradise” of Vietnam. Thousands of hotel rooms, condotel units, and row upon row of cookie-cutter shophouses, villas, and residences are being built as far as the eye can see.

Insider spoke to Vietnam’s real estate, hotel investment, and relocation consultants, as well as tourism players, sustainable development experts, and locals in Phu Quoc to find out what’s lost when an island completely changes its identity in the course of 20 years.

An empty beach in Vietnam


A Phu Quoc beach in 2009. The island has been developed into an unrecognizable version of itself.

Andia / Contributor / Getty Images

Stuck in dead-end jobs, with piling debt and no real means of buying a home, many South Korean millennials think of Netflix‘s hit drama series “Squid Game” as a grim reflection of their own experiences.

“If someone told me that right now, you could gamble your life to have your debt cleared and become a billionaire, I’d do it without hesitation,” Kim Keunha, a millennial who moved to Seoul eight years ago, said. “Though if I’m being brutally honest, the game masters might think my life probably isn’t even worth that much.”

There are 400 million millennials in China, five times the number in the US. A quarter of them have degrees, but they rarely have student debt because going to college is cheap. Insider spoke with six millennials in China, as well as financial and generational experts, to better understand the generation.

What we found was that millennials are the first generation to grow up with privilege in China. The pressure to succeed, though, can be soul-crushing. Millennials in China are expected to own an apartment, get a high-paying job, and find a spouse by the time they hit 30. The country’s major tech companies celebrate working six days a week, 12 hours a day, as part of a “hustle culture.”

Buying a home sight unseen on the other side of the world could be an unsettling move for some people. But for one couple who split their time between the US and France, it seemed like a perfectly good idea. When a friend told them in 2011 that the property next to her home on the Indonesian island of Bali was for sale, they didn’t need to know any more. They bought it.

“It’s a simple story,” Margaux (not her real name) told Insider. “We wanted a place where we could spend time with family and friends.”

What they didn’t realize until they arrived in Bali was that they had purchased an oasis. Close to the surf breaks of Canggu’s Echo Beach and surrounded by rice-paddy fields, they had stumbled upon a true hideaway.

the bathrooms open up to the outdoors and include free standing tubs and natural wood accents


Margaux was also determined not to build a French home in Bali. “We wanted it look authentic,” she told Insider. “I wanted it to look like a Balinese home.”

Courtesy of Villa Zelie

Jaya Thursfield and his wife, Chihiro, bought an abandoned traditional Japanese farmhouse in 2019. The traditional Japanese farmhouse, known as a minka, had sat empty for several years after the previous owner died and the family declined their inheritance of the property.

“I remember the first time I saw it in person, it was quite spectacular, and I was really blown away by it,” Thursfield said.

They ended up winning the auction in a blind auction with a bid of 3 million Japanese yen (about $30,000).

The couple had been able to take only a quick look at the house before buying it, so they were happy to find that it was in good enough condition that they could renovate it instead of tearing it down.

If you drive an hour or two outside Shanghai or Beijing, you’ll find something odd. The cities are still tall, and they’re still modern. They’re also, generally, in good condition. But unlike their bustling, Tier 1-city counterparts, they’re basically empty.

These are China’s ghost cities.

As China’s real-estate market has risen to the forefront of the global conversation with Evergrande’s $300 billion debt looming large, ghost cities have become a renewed source of interest. While they’re a testament to China’s reliance on real estate as a driver of economic growth and in its belief in the sector as a safe investment, their exact quantity is hard to define.

It was in 2010 when the interior designer Dean Sharpe first glimpsed the crumbling mansion on the Sri Lankan hillside near the town of Weligama. In its glory days, Halala Kanda — known as Firefly Hill to locals — played host to guests such as Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and the legendary Australian cricketer Keith Miller.

But when Sharpe first saw it, the tired relic with its crumbling plaster looked as if it had been lost to the jungle. The coral and stone walls had collapsed, bats were roosting in the rafters, the windows were boarded up, and a tree was growing through the roof of the entryway.

“It was a ruin of what it once was,” Sharpe told Insider. “But we walked in and fell in love with it.”

In 2011, he and three friends bought the crumbling, 100-year-old villa and two acres of land for $430,000.

the home before it was restored


“It was a ruin of what it once was,” Dean Sharpe told Insider. “But we walked in and fell in love with it.”

Courtesy Halala Kanda

For decades, Bill Gates crafted the public persona of a nerdy but pleasant philanthropist. In contrast with the likes of Tesla’s Elon Musk and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Gates was likable, relatable, nonthreatening.

Gates continued to cultivate this personality — pledging to give away half his wealth through The Giving Pledge and investing heavily in healthcare and addressing the climate crisis through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — as his money multiplied.

But May reports about the tech founder in the wake of his pending divorce from his wife of 27 years offered a less flattering picture of the man. Reports from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal indicate Gates, at times, treated the workplace like a pickup spot, making advances toward women who worked for him.

While the US faces a shortage of homes, Japan is experiencing an altogether different issue: There’s a glut of unoccupied homes throughout the country’s rural areas. Japan’s Housing and Land Survey, conducted every five years, logged a record high of 8.49 million akiya in 2018.

These abandoned houses have created “ghost villages” in Japan’s rural prefectures where homes can neither be filled nor knocked down. In some areas, nearly one out of every five homes is empty. The government is offering incentives like $500 homes and tax breaks to entice residents to move from urban centers into rural areas like Wakayama, but cheap housing may not be enough to bridge the cultural divide and the bureaucratic difficulties that moving to a small town create.

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