Sunday, 31 October 2010

Laundering Fears

In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David goes into the dry cleaner to pick up his favourite baseball shirt, but the dry cleaner doesn't have it. She explains this happens all the time. He wants it back but she just shrugs her shoulders and he's flabbergasted.

He even takes up the issue with California Senator Barbara Boxer. She says, "See these pants? I got them from the dry cleaners."

Later on the street Larry sees a person wearing his baseball shirt... and then another...

I almost had a Larry David moment the other day. Last week I took my clothes to the wash and got them back the same day. but I didn't realize until a few days later that one of my red tops was missing. What happened to it? Did someone else have it?

In a moment of panic -- just before going to bed -- I wondered if it would be gone forever and if I was prepared for the possibility of it having a new owner or lost somewhere in laundry equivalent of the black hole.

I was too busy this week to go ask the laundry people about it until today when I dropped off another load.

When I told them about my missing top, they went over to a hanging rack and asked if the red top they were pointing to was the one. Yes! What a relief!

It turns out when they took it out of the dryer it was still damp so they hung it to dry and forgot to put it back in the load.

"We usually depend on the customer to tell us if they're missing something," they said.

While I appreciate their honesty, I guess it's hard to keep track of everyone's clothes all the time.

I'm just glad to have my top back.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A (Short) Visit to Sai Kung

Sai Kung pier
My friend is looking for a change in lifestyle from the hectic pace in Hong Kong, and heard that Sai Kung in the New Territories was a possible alternative. So we decided to check it out for ourselves and made a trip there this afternoon.

We took the MTR to Choi Hung station and then got out of exit C2 where there was a massive line for the 1A green minibus, and another line for either the 92 or 96R bus.

Just as we walked out of the station, the 92 bus arrived so we decided to take it; but now we realize why everyone was lining up for the minibus. The double-decker had to make frequent stops along the way, whereas the minibus -- several of them -- whipped past us.

Along the way we saw the hills covered in trees and three-storey tiled houses dotted along the way. Eventually we made it into Sai Kung town centre where there's a Wellcome superstore (a giant supermarket), as well as McDonald's, and Dymocks, a bookstore. There was even an upscale grocery store called Marketplace so it seemed promising.

Fresh seafood ready to be eaten by hungry diners
We finally arrived at the Sai Kung pier and lots of people were walking along the boardwalk, watching people fishing on the docks or waiting for ferries to go to other areas. There are also seafood restaurants right by the water with giant glass tanks filled with all kinds of seafood from clams to garoupas, crabs and geoduck to entice diners. I've heard these places charge an arm and a leg for meals here, so you've been warned.

And for some strange reason this place has lots of shops catering to dogs. There's a cookie shop for dogs, pet stores, vets, dog grooming... and there are lots of dogs in that area too. There are some western restaurants and cafes as well as pubs and bars.

The neighbourhood temple is all newly renovated and looked quite nice. We took a look inside and even made some incense offerings, hoping the gods would be good to us. And for a bit of luck we shook jars filled with bamboo sticks until one of them came out. I have to get someone to translate it for me.

A newly-renovated temple
We checked out the property ads and some were outrageously expensive, over HK$30 million for villas, or over HK$60,000 a month to rent them. Some had their own private pools, very modern decor and gorgeous sea views. Later we saw some other listings of pretty big three-bedroom places with selling prices at around HK$3-5 million dollars, but they would require some renovation work.

However, the logistics of getting to and from Sai Kung seemed too much for either one of us to handle. We did take the green minibus back to Choi Hung (with a split-second scare of almost hitting a barricade) in less than 20 minutes, the ride back to Central was tiring for both of us. There didn't seem to be much in terms of activities and places to entice us to stay, and wasn't very convenient in terms of having all the things we're used to having in town.

My friend's first impression of Sai Kung was that it was like being in Guangzhou, but without the heavy pollution.

While it's probably good for families and those looking for a practically hermit-like lifestyle, it wasn't for us. Maybe it was a sign from the gods.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Surreal Party

Bob Blumer and his Toastermobile
TV chef Bob Blumer of The Surreal Gourmet on the Food Network was recently in town as The Learning Channel (TLC) is rebranding itself.

The network held a bash at the Four Seasons which was really well executed.

In the ballroom there was a giant screen at the back, showcasing clips from TLC's shows to give visitors a taste of what the network's lineup is.

Blumer's Toastermobile recreated in Hong Kong
Near the screen was a small recreation of Blumer's Toastermobile, and the man himself, taking photographs with each and every person holding a copy of his latest cookbook, Glutton for Pleasure which he signed too. And he'd take a swig of wine between shots.

Blumer definitely has an eye for the ladies and the more skin they revealed, the more flirty he got. Taking pictures with each person gave him the chance to wrap his arms around a lot of admiring female fans. He seemed disappointed having to pose with guys.

And his mini Toastermobile was serving up some intriguing dishes which suited Blumer's Surreal Gourmet style.

What looks like bacon and eggs... for dessert!
In the dim light, it looked like the plates had bacon, a fried egg and a piece of toast. But the chef behind the counter, a Chinese one in his uniform explained it was actually a dessert. The egg was actually made from coconut panna cotta, the yolk was half an apricot, the toast was a thin slice of pound cake, and the bacon was made from a combination of white and milk chocolate to create a bacon-like effect and then a sauce made with coffee drizzled on top.

Jell-O shots presented like orange wedges
And next to them on a platter were orange wedges -- but they were actually Jell-O shots.

It turns out this recipe is in his cookbook called Jell-O Slicers. It's quite simple -- just cut oranges in half and scoop everything out. And then make Jell-O and add your favourite vodka to spike the Jell-O and pour it into the orange cups. Then refrigerate for a few hours until they're firm. Then slice into wedges.

His note in the recipe in capital letters says: Remember, you are serving solid booze.

And to complement these Jell-O shots, there were small plastic bottles with straws in them that had a label that said "Hangover Helper" on them stating they were made with "real strawberries". The chef also explained it was basically strawberry yogurt. Many people tried it just for fun.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Upscale Neighbourhood Joint

Crab claw in steamed egg white was a winner
There's a fancy restaurant near where I live called Tim's Kitchen (桃花源小廚) in Sheung Wan.

It's started by the chef who used to cook for the executives of Hang Seng bank and then he left to start his own restaurant in Hong Kong and now has one in Macau that recently earned a Michelin star.

My cousin told me that if you wanted a table in the two-storey restaurant you had to book well in advance as even a two-week period wasn't early enough. So in order to secure a table for sure I booked over a month ahead.

Also there were some dishes we had to order in advance so we reserved the crab claws for each person and salt-baked chicken. And then when we arrived at the restaurant we also chose the soup of the day (pork with figs and melon), tofu, stir-fried bitter melon with bitter cucumber, and fried rice with beef.

The crab claws were quite impressive. They were really meaty and were either served in a shallow bowl of steamed egg white, or with winter melon. The former was much better than the latter in terms of taste -- the winter melon was a small block and didn't do much to complement the taste of the crab meat, whereas the one with egg white had a wonderful smooth texture that went well with crab.

Stir-fried bitter melon with bitter cucumber and Chinese ham
An excellent delicate dish was the tofu. It was marinated in the lao shui sauce that includes ginger, salt, soy sauce, star anise, fennel seeds, Chinese cooking wine and dried orange peel. The tofu was very smooth and soft but had that wonderful flavour from the marinade, perhaps from slow cooking for a long time.

The soup was also delicious and well executed -- not a drop of oil in sight despite the use of fatty pork. The broth was probably put through a cheese cloth to ensure its clarity and the taste was a good combination that wasn't too sweet but savoury too.

We were intrigued by the vegetable dish -- having two types of bitter melons together. The wait staff explained the two eaten together would have different textures, the cucumber was harder, while the melon was softer. However when it was served with thin long slices of Chinese ham, the slices of the melons and cucumbers were so large they had to be eaten separately instead of together. I had thought they would be sliced finer so that you had to eat them in one bite.

Salt-baked chicken complete with gizzard and liver
The salt-baked chicken was a huge dish. You cannot order half a chicken which is strange but also makes it difficult for smaller parties. Nevertheless, the entire chicken is presented complete with its head, gizzard and liver. It was pretty good, having a strong chicken flavour, but even though there were five of us we couldn't finish the entire thing, and also limited us from trying another dish.

Finally the fried rice was pretty good, nicely flavoured with small chunks of beef. We were all pretty full by then and could only manage a small bowl each.

However, the desserts were disappointing. By the time we ordered dessert they had run out of walnut soup and so we ordered what was called puff pastry with sago but was actually filled with lotus paste and not sago. The pastry part was not interesting at all difficult to eat. The black sesame jelly was fine, but nothing interesting.

The hype of this restaurant raised my expectations so much that I was kind of disappointed to see the uneven results or perhaps we didn't know what to order.

Nevertheless it was good to try something in the neighbourhood and maybe next time ask for better recommendations on dishes.

For five, the bill came to just over HK$1,800.

Tim's Kitchen
G/F, Jervois Street
Sheung Wan
2543 5919

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What a Dump

Hong Kong is the most wasteful place in the world.
 
Last year the city generated 6.45 million tonnes of garbage, more than double the amount 20 years ago. That means each of the seven million people here produced 921kg of solid waste, not including construction and hazardous waste.

We beat Norway which was number one at 91kg per capita last year according to a survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
 
That's a lot of crap.
 
And what does the Hong Kong government say about it?
 
Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah said the increase was a natural outcome of economic activities, population growth and the arrival of millions of tourists.
 
"Despite the rise in waste generation... the waste dumped in landfills has been decreasing," he said.
 
The government claims that waste separation has helped reduce the amount of garbage going into landfills by half. But if you compare with other countries, Hong Kong dumped 1.62kg of rubbish per capita compared to 0.52kg in Taiwan and 0.44kg in South Korea.
 
So why isn't Hong Kong doing more? A friend of mine who has lived here for a long time has tried hard to be environmentally friendly at home -- separating his garbage into plastic, paper and food waste and even composts fruit and vegetable peelings in his garden on the terrace area. But he wonders if the government really does take his carefully separated garbage and recycles it as he hopes. I too separate my garbage and wonder if the trash collector for my apartment building cares to dispose of it properly too.
 
The government doesn't seem to be doing enough to have the infrastructure in place nor the economic or political support for recycling in the city. There are no regulations forcing people or companies to recycle or even separate their garbage. Why is that? Everyday Hong Kong generates so much waste and the government can only think of charging to dump garbage in the landfill and in the end the industry sector pressures it to rescind the charge. We are talking about the future of the place in which we live in!
 
Most Hong Kong people are removed from the entire waste management process. Many have maids to clean up after them and don't think about the garbage they generate. For example, my next door neighbours order take-out everyday. I hear their doorbell ring around 9:30pm at night and then I see them throw out a plastic bag filled with the plastic cups and bowls in the stairwell. My colleague sitting next to me goes through a plastic bottle of water a day and several paper coffee cups, along with take away sandwiches in a paper tray. Can't she bring a ceramic mug and use a plate?
 
These people don't realize they are polluting the place. They forget about their accumulation of garbage as soon as they drop it in the waste basket because it will be picked up and dealt by others.
 
Why is Hong Kong so passive when it comes to such a pressing issue?
 
I've heard that Hong Kong doesn't even recycle glass, the government claiming that it's not economically feasible.
 
It's not economically feasible? What about the state of our planet? Is that economically feasible for the next generation and beyond?
 
The short-term thinking of this city is absolutely appalling. Even if there are millions of visitors coming into the city, what is wrong with introducing them to a culture of garbage separation and recycling? It would make the city look far progressive and even give it a better image. You can't buy that kind of PR.
 
The government and its people need to sort their s*** out now.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Not Quite on the Ball

The queue behind us
My friend Marc and I enjoyed the Sarah Brightman concert but several things that occurred while we were Macau made us wonder what was going on.
When we arrived at the Venetian things were fine -- as soon as we walked in the door we spotted the ticket desk to collect our concert tickets and asked for directions to the Cotai Arena as well as restaurants. Although we had a bit of trouble finding the Blue Frog restaurant for our two-for-one steaks, staff in yellow jackets were very helpful and we eventually found the place.
We assumed that all the concert goers would have eaten before they arrived, but no. After going through a security check of a guard poking through our bags with a stick and going through a metal detector, there was a McDonald's within the arena area; Marc wondered if Sarah knew about this -- her fans munching on Mackers while she sang.
During the show the arena staff tried hard to stop people from taking pictures but Brightman and her crew had already taken precautions by shining a large strong light directly behind her, making pictures fuzzy or her hardly visible in attempted picture-taking.
When the 20-minute intermission came just over an hour into the concert, we rushed to the washrooms and luckily I didn't have to wait too long. But when it came to refreshments the situation was pretty dire. McDonald's shut down two of its sections and only had one stand serving... a few hundred people. One would think the audience members might be hungry or thirsty and want to grab some fast food, but McDonald's didn't open up more counters to serve people.
On the other hand, if the Venetian wanted to have more customers, it didn't do its bit either. Near the section area where our seats were was a small stand selling mostly alcoholic drinks like beer, frozen daiquiris, frozen margaritas and bottled water. The menu listed gelato, but none was for sale. What about other things to munch on? Or other drinks that were non-alcoholic?
Again there was a pretty big line for these drinks too and only two staff at first manning this stand and later one a third one jumped in. In the end it turned out the lime-flavoured margaritas were non-alcoholic and Cointreau was added once the icy concoction was in the plastic cup, so I had mine virgin.
And where were the CDs and paraphernalia people could purchase? None were to be found even though I'm sure many concert goers would have loved to snap up any of her CDs or DVDs. Although her concert tour was extended with relatively short notice, surely some kind of souvenirs could have been arranged for such a big headliner. Strange.
When we picked up our concert tickets we were also given our return ferry tickets -- for 11:59pm. The concert ended at 9:25pm and so we rushed to the shuttle bus in the hopes of getting onto an earlier ferry back to Hong Kong.
However, there was a massive line at the Taipa ferry terminal -- sorry -- the Taipa Temporary Ferry Terminal. There was no infrastructure at all to handle such big crowds even as shuttle buses kept unloading more and more passengers. There was also a lot of confusion in terms of what was going on. There were two lines for current sailings and then one massive one for standby which we were in.
There is a Cotai Jet departing every 30 minutes. But knowing in advance there is a concert and the majority of the audience are from Hong Kong and need to get back as soon as possible, why not put on extra ferries to depart every 15 minutes?
It was annoying to have to wait in line for over an hour to finally get on the 11pm ferry, thankfully an hour earlier before our actual departure time.
The only good thing was coming back to Hong Kong and the immigration section there opened up a number of lines, both manned and unmanned so that people could get through as quickly as possible.
Is Hong Kong the only place on the ball when it comes to logistics?

Monday, 25 October 2010

Class Act

Sarah Brightman singing with the stars
My friend Marc is arguably songstress Sarah Brightman's number one fan.
He has attended now five of her concerts, including in Melbourne in 2004 where he shouted out, "Sarah I love you!" and got the attention of reporters who offered up their press pass so he could go backstage and speak to her for five minutes and get a much cherished photograph with her.
So when I saw an ad in a magazine here saying she was coming to Macau on October 24, I immediately told Marc who was very excited as he happened to be coming to Hong Kong around the same time.

However despite the advertising, tickets weren't available for sale for a few weeks which was a bit frustrating. Eventually he and his friend got tickets and were set to come, but his friend dropped out at the last minute and Marc asked me to come. After hemming and hawing, I finally agreed, and why it took me so long to make up my mind I will never understand why.

We met up at 4pm in Sheung Wan and managed to get on the 4:30pm ferry which he was pleased about, as he had gotten tickets for 5pm. He kept updating his Facebook status about the impending concert.

When we got on the shuttle bus to the Venetian, we studied our coupon books and saw two-for-one steak at the Blue Frog restaurant which we made a beeline for (and taking pictures along the way).

We had just enough time to head to the loo one more time before getting to our seats inside the Cotai Arena, a pretty big stadium-like space.

The stage wasn't very large and it didn't have a catwalk like her previous shows as Marc pointed out. Nevertheless it seemed like there was enough space for a pretty decent-sized orchestra and a large screen above them.

After 7pm, the orchestra members filed in and then the lights lowered. The conductor dressed in a tuxedo came out and led the orchestra in an opening number. According to Marc, all her concerts start like this.

Then she appeared, walking on stage in a dark-coloured evening gown, followed by two white ones. And her voice? It's amazing. It's very clear and strong, lyrical and warm. She can sing classical to pop. The program included such songs as Nessun Dorma, He doesn't see me, Scarborough Fair, Stranger in Paradise, and Ave Maria.

All the songs were accompanied by videos projected above her, many of them not having much to do with what she was singing which was a bit strange.

And to the delight of fans she of course sang Phantom of the Opera in a ravishing red dress with a guest tenor.

Her "last" song was Time to say goodbye, though she came back after a quick costume change into a black dress.

After someone did a wolf whistle, Marc shouted, "You're looking hot, Sarah!" And she does, for someone having recently turned 50 in August -- August 14 to be exact.

Earlier in the show he also shouted, "We love you Sarah!" and she replied, "Thank you".

"She always says that," Marc observed with a knowing smile.

While she strives to sound like her CD it's too bad she doesn't try to veer from the script too much, which is probably highly produced. It's also a pity she doesn't speak too much to her audience. Perhaps it's because it's really strange hearing her speaking voice which is very clipped compared to her singing voice.

Nevertheless she is an excellent performer who hit all her notes perfectly and with a lot of energy.

So it was shocking to hear a couple in front of us in the standby line for the ferry back to Hong Kong say they were disappointed with the concert.

The young Hong Kong Chinese woman said that she had seen Brightman's concert last year in Hong Kong and expected the same kind of special effects and dancers.

Marc was horrified to hear a "fan" would say this and defended Brightman, trying to explain that most of the time her concerts are like the ones we just saw and it's only when she releases an album and does a world tour does she put on a big production number.

They complained that the had spent a lot of money on tickets and so they expected more, including the 3D hologram effect they saw last year. However, Marc the superfan explained that this concert was probably a last minute add-on to her tour dates in Japan and it was interesting to have her with an orchestra and perform many of her old numbers instead of new material.

"In the end you're paying to see Sarah, not the visual effects," he said.

But the young couple could not be convinced.

Ah, discerning Hong Kong aficionados can't be reasoned into realizing they are all caught up in the special effects and recognizing a true talent when they see it.

In any event she thrilled me with her crystal-clear voice and her ability to cover many singing genres in one concert. She also makes the music accessible to many more people who would otherwise feel intimidated if it was completely classical.

Complete with good looks it sounds like a winning combination.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Fact of the Day: 1.26 million are Poor

I read in the newspaper recently that there are 1.26 million poor people in Hong Kong. That's almost 20 percent of the city's population of 7 million.

These people live on HK$100 ($12.89) a day. In Beijing this would not be too difficult as things from transportation to utilities and food can be cheap. But in Hong Kong, that's a real challenge.

An expat could easily spend that on two drinks in Lan Kwai Fong.

But here that money needs to feed, shelter and clothe an entire family.

While some may think the tycoons of Hong Kong are the heroes of the city, it's really these working poor.

They are doing the impossible by surviving on so little.



Saturday, 23 October 2010

Dim Sum with a View

The Dale Chihuly-like chandeliers
Today we had dim sum in a place called Cuisine Cuisine or 國金軒 at ifc mall in Central.

Thanks to one of the mall staff standing near the map, he gave us pretty good directions otherwise we'd be circling around completely lost. I still haven't managed to find my way around this place easily which can be frustrating at times.

Anyway we arrived and the place looked grand with very high ceilings and Dale Chihuly-like glass chandeliers -- they were not nearly as intricate and artistic as his.

Our view of construction filling in Victoria Harbour...
The windows gave a great view of the harbour being filled in -- directly in front of us was a construction site filled with heavy equipment and the man-made land filling in what used to be the Star Ferry terminal. We can discuss the pros and cons of this project, but that's another story.

I expected rain despite Typhoon Megi missing us, but there was not a drop in sight, though the sky was quite hazy.

The dim sum menu here is a bit on the expensive side, but quite good and you're paying for relatively good service. We had steamed shrimp dumplings, barbecue pork in a round puff pastry, steamed rice rolls, vegetarian steamed dumplings, fried-rice covered with a layer of scrambled egg and then cut into squares, a plate of choy sum with oyster sauce, and stir-fried thick rice noodles with crab roe sauce topped with giant prawns and vegetables.

Floral-shaped osmanthus jelly for dessert
However what was really intriguing was the dessert. There was green tea jelly in layers, and then a delicate jelly made from osmanthus shaped like flowers and a coconut-like jelly with red bean underneath.

It was quite exquisite for a Chinese dessert, as Chinese cuisine doesn't do desserts justice.

Going to the washroom at Cuisine Cuisine is an event in itself.

You have to walk down the long hallway until you reach the end which looks like a gray wall. Off to the left is the men's, the women's straight ahead. An automatic door slides open and you walk in and then open yet another door to finally enter the washroom.

While the toilet flushes automatically, the sinks don't automatically turn on and off -- it's manual. Seems like the budget for sinks and soap dispensers was cut back. Either everything should be automatic, or manual otherwise people's expectations are not met. Nevertheless, there is an attendant there, handing small towels folded into squares to each person for old-school service.

Regardless, emerging from the bathroom, it can be a memory challenge of getting back to your seat...

Cuisine Cuisine
國金軒
3101 Podium Level 3
ifc mall
Central
2393 3933
www.cuisinecuisine.hk

Friday, 22 October 2010

Dongzhimen Shakeup

Yesterday afternoon there was an explosion that rocked an area across the street from where I used to live in Dongzhimen in Beijing.
 
It happened around 3:10pm, at an area called Sky Plaza, which is across from Oriental Kenzo shopping mall. Sky Plaza has a China Merchant's Bank and Bank of China as well as a Sichuan restaurant.

A 30-year-old American suffered a slight leg injury and was taken to the PLA Military General Hospital.

"The sound of the explosion was so massive I estimate people within a 10-kilometre radius heard it," said a security guard at the Dongzhimen subway station entrance. "I saw gray smoke rising after the explosion and I smelled gunpowder in the air. It was probably a bomb," he said, who was also an ex-army soldier.

The blast originated from the bushes by a street lamp in the parking lot outside the Bank of China and Merchant's Bank, where there is a newsstand and a bus stop where I used to catch the bus.

According to news reports, police troops, armed police, special police and firefighters were on the scene within an hour of the explosion, but then it took them two hours to secure the area which is strange. One would think at a crime scene like that police would want it secure within minutes of arriving. They then spent several hours there collecting evidence and photographing the area.

Apparently there was lots of debris, but curiously an onlooker said the police swept it away. Hopefully they took pictures and samples before they cleaned up the mess.

Unless they didn't want people to know about it...

But if the police later claim it was a terrorist attack, there is sure to be further security measures in the already paranoid capital...

 

No Megi

Around dinnertime the Typhoon signal 3 was dropped and Typhoon 1 was back on again.

So Typhoon Megi isn't coming to Hong Kong at all.

Despite everyone's best predictions, it veered further north east of Hong Kong, bypassing us completely and instead heading towards Fujian.

We'll still get some rain, but not as bad as feared.

I had heard some people were getting married tomorrow and were terrified of their wedding plans having to be canceled because of a natural disaster.

But it looks like everything's back on and business as usual.

Phew!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Typhoon Watch

This morning the Typhoon signal 3 was hoisted. Super Typhoon Megi is about 420km away approaching Hong Kong, though moving only at 8km/h. That means it won't be making landfall until Saturday evening, spoiling our weekend.

After work this evening I saw some shops and hotels board up their windows, while people were rushing home. A few drops started to fall from the sky, but not enough to merit opening the umbrella.

Supermarkets like City Super and Park N Shop were busy and the latter didn't have enough vegetables and dairy products available. People were stocking up (like myself) on food to hunker down for the next few days.

Perhaps we will see the Typhoon signal 8 late Friday or Saturday morning.

We shall see.


Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Typhoon Update

Around 4pm Typhoon signal 1 was raised, instantly increasing our fears of Super Typhoon Megi ruining our weekend plans. At this point the Hong Kong Observatory projects it will make landfall on Saturday just north east of Hong Kong.

Already the winds have started picking up and an eeriness in the air.

Tomorrow we're going to start having some rain and then who knows what will come next.

Fruity Target

China is now taking a bite out of Apples -- and it doesn't care if it's yours or not.
 
That's because customs officials are now slapping a tax on anyone bringing any Apple products in to the mainland, whether brand new or used.
 
There have been reports from people stopped at border checkpoints carrying iPhones or iPads who have had to pay a customs duty even though they were only bringing in one device, and even had evidence to prove it was for their own personal use.
 
A Shenzhen customs official confirmed this. "It's a common misconception that you can get a tax exemption if the device you are carrying is for self-use," she said, refusing to be named (as is the common practice in China). "In fact, iPhones and iPads are among the 20 products that are excluded from tax exemption. You need to make a declaration and pay the tax even if you are bringing in only one [device]."
 
While it's understandable most of the Apple products coming into China are still in their boxes, why is customs being petty and slapping duties on those people who are bringing in their own iPhones or iPads for their own personal use?
 
An American-Chinese was forced to pay the duty before he could leave the Lowu border. "I showed them the documents and photos I stored in my iPad but they wouldn't listen. In the end I had to pay 1,000RMB ($150.30) before I could leave," the man told the National Business Daily.
 
Apparently the General Administration of Customs in Beijing issued a directive on August 19, clarifying the regulations on what visitors and mainland residents can bring into the country without paying duty. But it did not specifically mention Apple products.
 
Nevertheless, the Shenzhen customs official said, "We started to notice a lot of people carrying [boxed] iPads and iPhones across the border since April," she said. The numbers increased in July when iPhones and iPads were on sale in Hong Kong. 
 
A 64G version of the iPad cost about 6,500RMB ($977) in China, but it's HK$6,500 ($837.30) in Hong Kong.
 
That has led to a huge secondary market buying and selling Apple products on the mainland.
 
Perhaps the best reaction to this latest development in China comes from Yardley Luk Wai-kit, a 25-year-old working in the advertising industry.
 
"My iPad is for personal use. I am not importing any iPad. Why do the Chinese customs impose tax on me? It just does not make sense. It is no different from provincial officials collecting heavy taxes from poor people in the past, or triad members collecting protection fees," he said.
 
 

Postponing the Inevitable

My prediction a few days ago was correct. There had been hopes that after 23 retired senior Chinese officials sent a strongly-worded letter urging political reform, and in particular a more independent media on the mainland, that this would inspire the Communist Party to loosen its grip on power at the plenum that just ended Monday.
 
But that was only wishful thinking.
 
A communique issued at the end of the plenum made only one passing reference to political reform, that the party would make "active but steady" efforts to promote "political restructuring" -- without elaborating.
 
It was a very strong sign that the government was not interested in entertaining any thoughts of diluting its power.
 
So what to make of Premier Wen Jiabao's statements in late August and later in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, and making the cover of Time magazine, reiterating that China needed to take the path of political reform to catch up with the economic reforms?
 
Turns out those were only Wen's personal comments, and he had no consensus of the leadership as a whole in this matter.
 
So was Wen just trying to get more brownie points from the West? Or was he floating out a trial balloon to see what others would think?
 
Unfortunately that balloon sank like lead and got no where.
 
And now with Xi Jinping practically confirmed as China's next leader, someone who doesn't have much of a leadership base, he will be desperate to tow the party line for at least the first few years to establish his power base. And as a member of the 'princeling' group, he will be even more adverse to change, as he and these children of senior officials are benefiting economically and politically from the current arrangement.
 
One had hoped that by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo that it would put more pressure to change from within, but the leadership was adamant that outside forces would not influence its decisions.
 
However, analysts believe time is of the essence and the leadership needs to make changes now in order to maintain stability in the country.
 
"It is imperative now, more than ever, to push forward political restructuring to protect healthy growth from widespread corruption, mismanagement and malpractice," said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University.
 
He added that decades of market-driven growth without political reform led to what he called "state capitalism".
 
Liu Kang at Duke University echoed Zhang's comments. "China right now is at its most volatile moment since the 1989 Tiananmen events, as mounting disparity and social injustice with unprecedented media exposure are threatening the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party's rule," Liu said.
 
"But no consensus can be reached in Zhongnanhai concerning political and ideological reforms that can address the problems effectively."
 
It has come to this -- the people within are going to have to force the leadership's hand in reforming the political system.
 
And that will be a day of reckoning.
 
 

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Typhoon Talk

The talk of the town today was whether Super Typhoon Megi which hit the Philippines yesterday killing 13 people, would make Hong Kong its next victim.

Currently the Hong Kong Observatory is showing Megi set to hit Hong Kong towards the end of the week, and is projected to be almost a direct hit. This is quite unusual as the observatory is known to make vague predictions as a possibility of raising a typhoon 8 signal apparently decreases productivity in the city.

However, in the office we were trying to get as much work done as possible in case the super typhoon does hit us, but my efforts to chase up people were in vain.

Nevertheless, we are all on the typhoon watch and wonder if we'll get typhoon 8 on Friday...

Stay tuned.

Sowing Artistic Seeds

Ai Weiwei and his sunflower seeds
It was disappointing to find the Tate Modern in London has abruptly closed down its "Sunflower Seeds" installation piece by Ai Weiwei after concerns that the seeds -- actually 100 million ceramic pieces shaped and painted to look like sunflower seeds were deemed a health hazard.

Apparently when people play with these things, which are fired with a matte finish, kick up a lot of dust that could be harmful to breathe in.

The whole point of the piece was to allow people to wade in the seeds, play with them, walk on them, or even lie on them in a large expansive area in the Turbine Hall. They were encouraged to touch them and feel them in their hands and enjoy the art with their senses (except taste!).

Sunflower seeds are so simple, a popular snack in China that people eat and carelessly drop the shells on the ground. But in the Tate Modern they are prized art pieces.

Each of the seeds were individually made and painted by people in Jingdezhen, a city well known for its fine ceramics, and it took two years to finish making all 100 million ceramic seeds, which, when spread on the floor four inches thick looks like a giant mass of gray.

For now the installation is cordoned off by rope which is a pity; how can one experience Ai's work from a distance?

It really is a clever idea that should allow visitors to try (at their own risk). Why not give them masks to wear while wandering on the seeds?

Otherwise it's wasted art.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Over the Top

Last week I took some friends from Beijing to an impromptu visit to Victoria Peak.
I tried to take them to Yung Kee for some roast goose, but the wait was over 45 minutes long and we were hungry so we wandered further down to Wellington Street for some authentic Hong Kong food -- wonton noodles at Mak's Noodles.
The restaurant hasn't changed at all, the servers still no-nonsense.
As it was already past 7:30pm, they were rushing us to take our orders as they close at 8pm. So early on a Friday night! Perhaps the old men need their beauty sleep.
We ordered noodles topped with shrimp roe, and a bowl of their wonton noodles which were highly praised. I had a bowl of just wontons and some beef tendon, and a plate of poached kale with oyster sauce.
While we were eating and catching up I asked them if they were interested in heading to the Peak.
At first they didn't think they had their camera with them, but then realized with fully charged and ready to go.
We walked to the tram station in about 15 minutes and after a short wait got on the tram. Everyone was excited as it climbed up at such a steep angle. People were trying to record the experience on their cameras with video but it was pretty useless in the dark.
The ride was soon over and we climbed out and straight into the mall area of the Peak Tower which was a strange retail experience. Every other shop was selling the same thing -- cheapy silk outfits, T-shirts with "Hong Kong" on them, "jade" that had horrific shades of green, and other trinkets that weren't really representative of the city.

The escalator ride up seemed endless, and thinking we could get to the observation deck, we were denied! Apparently our tickets were only the basic return fare for the tram and not anything else extra -- why couldn't anyone point that out to us earlier!

Towering strawberry shortcakes
Nevertheless we went back down a few flights and saw Bubba Gump Shrimp Co restaurant and my friend pined for a mushroom burger. We got a table with a view and he practically inhaled the burger while his wife ordered the strawberry shortcake.

However it was no shortcake. It was towering.

Three smallish shortcakes were sliced in half and had giant scoops of vanilla ice cream like a massive sandwich topped with fake whipped cream.

It was a daunting challenge for one person to eat. I ordered the key lime pie, which was quite dense and hard to finish too.

But it wasn't about the desserts, it was about catching up and telling them about the benefits of being in Hong Kong, one of which is having access to banned books and a relatively free media.

Afterwards we tried to find out way out and almost found ourselves trapped inside the Peak Tower. What a horror! The signage to get out was nowhere to be found; probably a ruse to keep tourists spending their money in there.

Eventually we managed to escape from the place and get a decent view of the city down below.

In the end they were pleased to go up to the Peak -- to see Hong Kong and have a taste of freedom in a technically Chinese city.






We wandered up the escalator

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Socially Disconnected

Hong Kong people seem to be socially distant.

That's because their habits of socializing can be very alienating.

I recently went to a party in a small bar on the 9th floor of a building. The place was covered in smoke even though it was against the law to smoke indoors. The guests didn't seem to care and smoked up massive gray clouds in the tiny space.

On top of that they were singing karaoke completely out of tune, the range of which depended on how much they had to drink. Did I mention it was really loud too?

As a friend there observed, karaoke is a total party killer especially when some people in the room don't know each other and need a quieter atmosphere in order to network. Karaoke should be done with friends in a private room, not in a bar.

Then tonight I had dinner with relatives on the Kowloon side in a local restaurant. This eatery tried to be upscale by installing TV screens everywhere, giant flat screen ones on the walls, and smaller ones in the booths.

It's not the only restaurant to do this in Hong Kong -- many of them do the same, thinking this is what patrons want.

The end result is that people around the table are staring at a TV screen eating their dinners instead of enjoying their food and each other's company. A couple sitting next to us sat facing the screen not each other, the young woman blindly putting food into her mouth, while her husband chatted on his cellphone.

How rude is that? And how does that make for stimulating dinner conversation, let alone developing their relationship further?

This need to be connected all the time with TV screens, cellphones, Blackberries, video games and the like will reach a breaking point soon. 

Or this society is going to be even more disconnected than ever.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

For the Love of Music

Gary Graffman when he performed last year in Beijing
I just came back from a wonderful (and cheap!) concert at the Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall.

It was only HK$200 ($25.78) for the most expensive ticket and my seat was in the second row.

The concert was part of a series called "The Joy of Music Festival 2010" presented by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong. Its biggest patron is Lady Muriel Kadoorie, an amateur pianist and music lover. She has helped subsidize most of the concerts and masterclasses which is fantastic for classical music fans in the city.

Some of the performers have offered their experience and expertise in masterclasses for aspiring musicians which, according to Dr Andrew Fereris, chairman of the Chopin Society, has become popular not only here, but also the mainland, where students and their teachers come here to attend these classes to learn more musical tips and techniques.

I got a ticket for tonight's concert because of Gary Graffman, who is best known for playing the piano with his left hand. I saw him last year in Beijing and really enjoyed listening to him.

This time the concert featured the London Chamber Orchestra Chamber Group, along with Graffman and another pianist, Peter Frankl.

The LCO string quartet is a group of young musicians who play very well together and with others.

The first piece was Franz Schubert's String Quartet, No. 10 in E flat, D 87 and it was pretty straight forward until the third movement that things really got moving in terms of energy. It's interesting to note that Schubert was only 31 when he died of syphilis and typhus, but in that short life span he left behind some one thousand pieces, including his first quartet at 13 years of age.

Afterwards Graffman came into the mix; the concert wasn't very formal so most of the string musicians wore black or dark shirts and pants, while Graffman wore a black shirt, but also a black almost casual jacket on top, like the ones senior Chinese leaders wear.

With him, the group minus the viola player performed Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Suite for piano and strings, Op. 23. Korngold was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, a famous Viennese pianist who had to have his right arm amputated from World War I. This piece of music had five movements, and things got really exciting towards the end in the last two movements. Graffman periodically looked over to the quartet to make sure they were all in time and did his own thing at the piano, even turning his own pages with the lick of his finger.

And like before, it sounded like Graffman had two hands playing the keys instead of one, thanks to lots of pedaling and excellent finger work. The audience clapped appreciatively and made the four come out on stage three times for bows.

During the intermission, Graffman came out, with a satchel slung across his shoulder, and talked to Michael Kadoorie and his wife Betty in the seating area. Graffman looked like he was on his way out; people wanted to take pictures with the man who is Lang Lang's teacher, but were not allowed. Sometimes members have their privileges.

Pianist Peter Frankl
The final piece of the evening was Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44. The viola player returned to the stage along with pianist Frankl. He was also casually dressed in a shiny black shirt that was left untucked.

And what made me enjoy this music so much was not only because it was upbeat and written for Schumann's wife Clara, but just the fact that Frankl looked completely at ease and enjoyed himself in the performance, which really, is what music is all about. He constantly looked over to the string quartet with a smile to make sure they were all playing together as well as concentrating on his own parts.

In the last movement the four string players seem to repeat the theme over and over like a round, almost something that Bach would have written, and accompanied by the piano. In the end this group came out four times on stage to receive the warm applause and shouts from the appreciative audience.

What a pity there was no encore.

While most of the applause was for Frankl and Graffman, the LCO Chamber Group were probably just as thrilled to be playing with such greats, getting their own masterclass on stage.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Pathetic Silence

While every other world leader has taken the opportunity to praise Liu Xiaobo on his winning the Nobel Peace Prize and some also calling for his immediate release, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang has remained strangely silent even a week later.
 
Yesterday lawmakers in the Legislative Council criticized him for not saying anything about Liu.
 
"Liu Xiaobo has won the Nobel Peace Prize but the Chinese Communist Party not only puts pressure on him in jail, his wife is suffering because of it too," Leung Kwok-hung, of the League of Social Democrats said. "Say a fair word for the people of Hong Kong," the long-haired lawmaker urged.
 
But Tsang declared he had no comment on the matter.
 
"Where is your conscience? I have never seen any leaders overseas make no comment in parliament," Leung said.
 
Albert Chan Wai-yip and Wong Yuk-man also chimed in, infuriated by Tsang's silence.
 
Even when the announcement was made that Liu had won the prize, Tsang didn't answer any questions from the media about it.
 
This is quite ironic considering Hong Kong (and Macau) are the only places in China where you can freely celebrate an historic event like this.
 
It was quite appropriate last Friday when I met up with my friends from Beijing and we celebrated Liu's win.
 
They were so thrilled but also pleasantly surprised by the freedoms here, inspiring them to perhaps move here in the future, where they could get access to all the information, books and movies they wanted.
 
But how could it be that Hong Kong's own leader is too scared to say anything?
 
It just goes to show how much Tsang's hands are tied, or how little integrity he has for his own people.
 
Perhaps he doesn't want to answer that question either.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Gregarious Night at the Races

Horse racing + Oktoberfest = Big Party
For three Wednesdays in October, the Hong Kong Jockey Club is celebrating Oktoberfest -- and this year is the 200th anniversary of the beer fest which gives people even more reason to party.

When I got to the Happy Valley race stands after 7:30pm last night, the public stand area was packed with people, many carrying plastic pitchers of beer and big plastic cups.

Oktoberfest fare: sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes
As I was hungry, we lined up for food... which took over 30 minutes as the line snaked around and around before ending up at the cafeteria-style counter. Of course we had sausages with sauerkraut and potatoes. As it was so busy, the food was already placed in sectioned off plates so it was impossible to enjoy hot food. We even had to eat standing up. Luckily some Chinese punters invited us to stand near them where there was a bit of counter space for us. For dessert, we had apple pancakes with a thick, sweet caramel sauce. Again, would have been better if they were hot.

A giant pretzel, anyone?
Those who were extremely ravenous could get a metre-wide pretzel for HK$100 ($12.88). We wondered who would buy that, but also how long would it take to eat it all.

Nevertheless, the lively atmosphere outside was too interesting not to check out. There were several beer tents serving all kinds of beers, a beer drinking contest, a chance to see how long you could hold up four ceramic mugs full of beer -- the minimum was 90 seconds. Another was sliding a ceramic beer mug onto some circles to win a prize, and another test to see if you could find four matching beer labels.

One guy trying to keep his beers up
In the meantime people -- mostly foreigners -- were downing lots of beer and smoking away, soaking up the atmosphere.

All this was happening while horse races were going on.

I wondered if the horses were bothered by all the commotion going on near the grandstands or they were too focused on what they were doing. Some of the races were quite spectacular, where some horses were trailing behind and then in the last stretch managed to overtake the leader to win. It's a tricky gamble because you have to be able to time it right, but also know that your horse is going to beat the others. But they definitely made for dramatic wins.

In my time in Hong Kong I don't think I've ever seen so many people at the racetrack before, but also so many foreigners. They were most definitely there for the beer, the horse racing second. Many of them didn't seem to care or notice the races were going on.

The crowd erupts in cheers as the horses pass the finish line
As the Hong Kong Jockey Club is trying hard to lure younger people it has certainly done it with Oktoberfest. But is this crowd of beer drinkers -- kind of an upscale frat party -- who they really want?

Nevertheless it was a good evening and enough beer for me for a while.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Old Guard Calls for Change

The Chinese government continues its desperate defensive spin with regards to Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo. The regime's line is that the West that is weak and trying to impose its values on China which it believes is wrong and labels it as colonial.
 
But if you look at the facts, the Chinese government has jailed Liu for his co-authoring of Charter 08 in which he asks that everyone have access to universal rights -- something that is even stated in China's 1982 constitution that says Chinese people should have freedom of speech and press.
 
And this is what a group of former high-ranking political and cultural officials is pointing out in an open letter to the top governing body that was published online.
 
They are calling for the abolition of media censorship and that media products and books from Hong Kong and Macau be made openly available in the mainland.
 
The letter says the lack of free speech is a "scandal of the world history of democracy". It even cites Hong Kong as a good example of a place that enjoys freedom of speech and publication.

The open letter starts by citing article 35 of the Chinese Constitution (the 1982 edition) that says all citizens have freedoms of speech, of publication, of assembly, of association and of demonstration. But it points out that for 28 years these constitutional rights have existed only in words but never really in practice.
 
What is most interesting is that the group of 23 well-known people condemns the Communist Party's central propaganda department as a "black hand" with the power to even censor Premier Wen Jiabao whose speech about the need for political reforms in late August in Shenzhen was not reported on by Xinhua.

"What right does the Central Propaganda Department have to place itself even above the Communist Party Central Committee, and above the State Council?" the letter asked. Wen heads the State Council.

It called for new laws for news and publication and that the media should gain its "relative independence" from direct control by the party of state bodies. The proposals include the media should have protection and support to report on mass demonstrations and official corruption, that the people should have the right to know all the wrong doings of officials, and no more deleting of material online unless it really is sensitive instead of blanketing anything and everything. It notes the mainland's censorship system lags behind Britain's by 315 years and France by 129 years. Who knows how they came up with these numbers.

Nevertheless, the 23 signatories include Hu Jiwei, former editor-in-chief of People's Daily, Li Rui, former deputy head of the CCP Organization Department and former secretary of Mao Zedong, Yu You, former deputy editor-in-chief of the China Daily, and other former heads of military, cultural and political advisory departments. Most of these people are in their 90s, which makes it their last gasp in voicing their opinions to the government.

While they can't be politically criticized, how much sway do these people have? Would anyone really listen to them?

Many other former officials have written similar letters trying to create attention before, but nothing is really done.

Sadly it's another cry in the wilderness that at first sounds shocking, but then quickly disappears with the wind.
 

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Riding a Revamped Tin Can

The new look of Hong Kong trams
Everyday after work I head to the gym for a few hours and then catch the tram back home.

Just the other day I stepped into a different tram -- one that has been revamped and will be the future look of Hong Kong's trams.

The outside pretty much looks the same, save for the LED panels on the front and side displaying the destination, but the inside is a different story.

Gone are the long bench seats where people try to squish their bums on and instead there are individual plastic molded seats. As a result less people can sit, but more people will have to stand.

However, thankfully the old turnstiles at the back are replaced now. Your clothes or bags won't get caught in these rickety things anymore as there are small swinging doors instead with infrared sensors to allow passengers in.

Most of the wood on the tram will be replaced by aluminum which is more durable and easier to repair.

French company Veolia Transport owns Hong Kong Tramways and is footing the HK$75 million ($9.66 million) bill to renovate the 161 trams, granted if the government allows for a HK$0.50 fare increase.

If the changes do go ahead, as a regular tram user, I'll miss the old-style trams with the old wood and bench seating, but it's understandable trying to upgrade the trams as they get older.

What would be even better would be if they could oil the wheels more so that we don't get those awful screeching noises when they turn the bend especially around where I live...

Monday, 11 October 2010

Looks Familiar...

Somehow the torch was lit in overcast weather...
On the weekend I saw a news report on TV showing the procession of Chinese maidens in white flowing dresses walking in a procession along the Great Wall and then they performed a dance before taking a torch, putting it near a concave metal disc and somehow miraculously getting a flame despite the overcast weather.

Does this sound familiar?

Perhaps the International Olympic Committee does not have a copyright on how the torch is lit in Athens so the Chinese have literally run away with it and made it their own.

All the women are dressed in white, their long tresses done up to look like Greek goddesses... the torch is lit and then a Chinese man holds up the torch to the admiring crowd before the flame is put in a special holder that also looks familiar from over two years ago...

This latest lighting is for the upcoming Asian Games in Guangzhou and as before there will be a giant torch relay. You can never have enough coverage of a torch relay in China.

Hopefully after these games are over on November 27 that will finally be the end of Olympics-like pomp and circumstance.

Why not create something more with Chinese characteristics? Now that would be innovative.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Flight Assessment

My experience with Tiger Airways back to Hong Kong was interesting, if not stressful at first.

I arrived a bit early for check in and strangely there was no sign above the check-in counters with my flight number, but for a Hong Kong flight later in the day.

So I went over to the ticketing desk to ask and she tells me to go to counter number 2.

I get there and the sign says "ticket management". Sounds ominous.

The line takes forever and I soon find out why -- a flight has been canceled and people need to fill out forms for reimbursements. Off to the side, an Australian man argues with a Singaporean staff demanding he be put on the plane to Sydney. The staff person tries to keep cool and calm down the man, but he gets more and more irate, instructing the staff to talk to his superiors and put him on the flight because he is not staying an extra night.

Apparently something is sorted out because the Australian winks to his two fellow travelers and they go to get some coffee.

Finally over half an hour later I make it to the front of the line and the poor guy handling all these frustrated customers tells me that the desk for my flight has opened and can I go there instead please?

So I kick up a fuss of my own, explaining that I was told to come here and that I have waited over half an hour so just check me in, please.

He again tries to persuade me to move, but I'm not budging after having stood in line for so long.

He relents and checks me in with a boarding pass printed from paper used for receipts in a grocery store. Now that's really no frills.

And like last time, I don't check in my luggage and then head to the security check where we actually have to weigh our bags.

I put my suitcase on the scale and it's just over 8kg.

"I'm sorry ma'am, but it's overweight," a young uniformed man tells me.

I open my bag and take out a big book my friend had given me to read on the plane. Then I put it back on the scale.

"Oh it's fine now," he says, seeing as it's under 8kg. "Is it you just bought the book?"

How Singaporean.

Then I head to the duty-free section and get some cosmetics, which I have to say were cheaper than in Hong Kong shockingly enough. With that purchase I was able to get a free prize at another counter sponsored by the airport authority. It was actually a lottery to win something, but I also got a S$5 coupon to use in any of the shops in the vicinity.

For some strange reason this budget terminal had no Singaporean snack shops, so in the end I opted to get a copy of the New Yorker which was originally over S$11 ($8.42) and i got it for S$7 ($5.35) instead. Definitely the deal of the week.

The gate was a small standing-room area and the plane hadn't even arrived yet. When we were supposed to depart, the plane arrived and they quickly emptied out the passengers and cleaned it up a bit. What was also interesting was that all the flight attendants were male. Have you ever seen that before?

So I'll give Tiger Airways an average mark overall. The ground staff really aren't very professional or seem to know what they are doing, which can make passengers nervous. But then again it does take you from A to B relatively inexpensively so you can't complain too much.

Gotta Love That Ride

The Dim Sum Dollies hope you Love Your Ride
One last entry on Singapore before I heading back about Liu Xiaobo, China and other Hong Kong-related topics.

Singapore's subway system called MRT and on the whole is quite efficient. Residents usually have a transit pass much like an Octopus card in Hong Kong which can also be used on buses. Visitors can get a ticket from the vending machine by using coins or bills. You just press the destination on the screen and it gives you the amount, which is usually over S$2 ($1.53).

However the ticket is a generic plastic card that is used to get through the turnstiles but that's not all. After getting to your destination, you can go back to the vending machine and press "return deposit", slip the card back in the slot and get S$1 ($0.77) deposit back.

While it's a pleasant surprise to get money back, it can be a drag waiting in line just to get a coin. Why they can't just follow Hong Kong and the machine just collects the card at the end of the ride is beyond me. However, now that I think about it, the staff don't have to physically take the cards from the turnstiles back to the machine.

Still... it's the time spent!

Also on the subway, I wish I had taken a picture, but there was a sign at the entrance of one station with a graphic of a durian with a line crossed through it with "no durian" written on there too. Durian is not my fruit of choice, which is why I appreciate the sign for reminding passengers not to bring the smelly fruit on board!

Here in Hong Kong we always stand on the right of the escalator to let people pass on the left. But in Singapore it's the exact opposite -- commuters stand on the left which is strange considering the steering wheel in cars are on the right like Hong Kong.

And finally the MRT has a campaign called "Love Your Ride" or "有愛心, 多開心". It features three bubbly Chinese women called the Dim Sum Dollies in various sizes dressed in colourful dresses who sing four public service announcement ditties.

One is "Love Your Ride", another is "Please queue", "Please give up your seat" and "Please move in". Check out the music video at the bottom of this link which literally spells out what people should and should not do on the trains and buses.

Only in Singapore.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Bad Knee-jerk Reaction

Unfortunately the Chinese government has not reacted well to Liu Xiaobo's win of the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday.

It summoned the Norwegian ambassador in Beijing and called Liu a "criminal" and that the award violated Nobel principles and could damage relations between Norway and China.

However the diplomat had to point out this had nothing to do with the Norwegian government, that the Nobel Committee is an independent body that can choose whoever they want to award the prestigious prize. Norway 1, China 0.

Meanwhile Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said: "Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who violated Chinese law. It's a complete violation of the principles of the prize and an insult to the peace prize itself for the Nobel Committee to award the prize to such a person."

While the committee is appointed by the Norwegian parliament, criticizing the committee is not a good idea. Norway 2, China 0.

International figures are now calling for the release of Liu so that he can receive the award in person in December.

"We call on the Chinese government to release Mr Liu as soon as possible," US President Barack Obama, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, said in a statement. "Over the last 30 years, China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. But this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that the basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected."

China has angrily backed itself into a corner now.

What can it do now? It can quietly release Liu on humanitarian grounds since he is physically not well, but that could lead to a life under house arrest for the rest of his days, which in itself is illegal. It can try to make a deal with him to make him leave China for good, but he may believe this will weaken his ability to continue his fight in helping China. Or he will continue to languish in jail to fulfill the remaining years of his sentence, which is just under 10 years.

With the announcement, more people around the world will get to know who Liu is. They will see the greater truth of how the government has treated its people and that everyone deserves freedom of speech, freedom of the press, rule of law. One wonders if this will make Premier Wen Jiabao look better or worse for giving the appearance of backtracking on his recent statements on political reform.

In the meantime let's celebrate what I had thought was a slim chance for Liu to be recognized by the Nobel Committee with so many other deserving candidates. His wife has been given the chance to visit him and hopefully she will relay this fantastic piece of news to him.

Liu has put the spotlight on China, shining on the dark evil injustices that happen everyday in the country. Now it's up to the government to clean it up or it will further lose respect as a major player on the world stage.


Friday, 8 October 2010

The First Chinese of Peace

Breaking news folks --
 
This is the statement from the Nobel Committee:
 
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 to Liu Xiaobo for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has long believed that there is a close connection between human rights and peace. Such rights are a prerequisite for the "fraternity between nations" of which Alfred Nobel wrote in his will.
    Over the past decades, China has achieved economic advances to which history can hardly show any equal. The country now has the world's second largest economy; hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. Scope for political participation has also broadened.
    China's new status must entail increased responsibility. China is in breach of several international agreements to which it is a signatory, as well as of its own provisions concerning political rights. Article 35 of China's constitution lays down that "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration". In practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China's citizens.
    For over two decades, Liu Xiaobo has been a strong spokesman for the application of fundamental human rights also in China. He took part in the Tiananmen protests in 1989; he was a leading author behind Charter 08, the manifesto of such rights in China which was published on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 10th of December 2008. The following year, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison and two years' deprivation of political rights for "inciting subversion of state power". Liu has consistently maintained that the sentence violates both China's own constitution and fundamental human rights.
    The campaign to establish universal human rights also in China is being waged by many Chinese, both in China itself and abroad. Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.
 
After warning the Nobel Committee not to hand the peace prize to a dissident who is currently languishing in jail for trying to push for greater equality and justice in China, it'll be interesting to see what the government will say or do now...
 
How could the Chinese government not allow Liu to go to Stockholm to receive this greatest honour?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

A Wild Night Out

A recent issue of Hong Kong Time Out was dedicated to the rivalry between Hong Kong and Singapore. And in it, the magazine talks about certain spots you should hit when visiting Singapore. One of them was the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo so we checked it out.
You can book tickets online but this has to be at least 48 hours in advance. We weren't that organized so after dinner we headed there around 9pm. And we were so surprised to see how many people were there! Crowds of mostly tourists, but a good number of locals too, wandering around the entrance and taking in some free shows that included men wearing loin cloths and eating fire.
It turns out there is a Night Safari tram tour, and the other you could wander around the zoo, but best to complete the walk before 11pm; presumably then onwards staff go out to find lost visitors. The tram tour was a bit more expensive than we expected, S$40 each, but we figured it would be good fun.
Friendly staff showed us the way to the trams that were battery powered and as soon as it started an evil-sounding male voice (or at least trying to sound evil), tried to forewarn us of a scary ride. As we rode along, he would narrate facts, saying on the left or the right what animals we would see. And each of them had the theme of how these animals could kill us. For example, the hippopotamus is some 2,000kg, so if it sat on us, it would kill us. Or the spotted hyena could run 3km an hour and would kill us by biting at our heels and then eating us.

A creepy pumpkin rising out of the patch
We also saw flamingos, lions, a sloth bear, giraffes, tigers, water buffalo, bearded pigs and deer.

And because it's October, the zoo has a Halloween theme which was pretty creative. In the areas we didn't see animals, there were people dressed up as zombies, or the Chinese version of them, or people trying to scare us. What was funny was that you could hear the screams from people at the front of the tram so you knew what was coming. Only one of them was smart enough to start getting screams from the middle and then go back to the front to scare visitors.

At one point a guy with a fuzzy head and no eyes and holding what looked like a weapon, clanged it against the bars of the tram. A funny group of Singaporeans behind us invited the guy to have a seat, which of course he ignored. While these zombie-like people tried to scare us, we laughed instead. It was kitsch but fun.

There was also a "Chinese ghost wedding", where we saw a bride in red silk pyjamas with a white face and blood on her lips, a puppet theatre thing with the puppets looking like ghosts, and other characters trying to scare us.

The ride lasted over 30 mins and was lots of fun. Now I know my S$40 went to hiring all these extras to scare us and the "blood-stained" decorations along the route.

Getting the foot spa treatment courtesy of nibbling fish
Overall it was just so interesting seeing the zoo so busy in the evenings; perhaps it's mostly on the weekends, but still it's a great concept of opening up the zoo at night and creating some kind of theme around it. I wonder how many others zoos have thought of staying up after the sun goes down to drum up more revenue. And if you're hungry, there are food outlets to eat from, and even a "foot spa", where you can get your feet bitten by nibbling fish, which I did before in Beijing.

While most of the animals were tired and weren't very active in the evening, it was still pretty cool to see them close up in somewhat natural surroundings. Each area had a corporate sponsor -- and of course the tiger section was sponsored by -- Tiger Balm.

Singapore Zoo
80 Mandai Lake Road
Singapore
(65) 6269 3411
www.nightsafari.com.sg