Monday, 31 January 2011

Picture of the Day: Riding on Exposure

This is what passengers are staring at for some 23 minutes to the airport...

There are a number of MBA programs in Hong Kong, some are offered by local universities, others by post-secondary institutions abroad.

Many just advertise in newspapers and magazines, while others have branched out to expat websites as well. That's because many of the students are from overseas who are working in Hong Kong.

However, it seems Richard Ivey School of Business at Western in Canada is taking an even more aggressive step in standing out.

Ivey's aggressive marketing campaign on the Airport Express
On the backs of all the seats of the Airport Express trains are ads from Ivey promoting its EMBA (executive MBA) program in Hong Kong. And next to the seats are slots holding pamphlets for prospective students to get more information.

This seems like a very good marketing strategy, as people who would likely take this kind of program are high-flying executives who travel a lot. And since the train ride to the airport is 23 minutes and not much to look at along the way, that's pretty good exposure for the school.

One wonders if this was pitched by marketing students at Ivey, or it was the idea of its marketing team. Either way it seems like a good way to reach its potential target audience.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

An Update on Flying Procedures

My flight back home was OK overall -- we had a very fast take off and despite starting off 20 minutes late, we arrived 25 minutes earlier.

The plane I was on had those clam shell seats where you can recline without disturbing the person behind you. However the seat wasn't that comfy and seemed like an opportunity for the airline to cram more people in the aircraft, particularly cattle class; there wasn't much leg room.

I had thought the airline was changing the seats because there was a strong outcry against these seats, particularly for long-haul flights. But Cathay Pacific didn't want the seats to go to waste and would exchange them for planes used for short-haul flights in the region.

Nevertheless, the entertainment on board was pretty good -- I couldn't help but catch up on my TV comedies by watching some 18 episodes of 30 Rock back to back.

Security-wise, although ground crew checked our passports before we boarded the plane, as soon as we arrived at Vancouver International Airport, immigration staff were at the sky bridge checking every passenger to make sure they matched their passports.

So despite arriving in Vancouver much earlier, we were held up by this process. It was probably due to the incident in October of the young Chinese man who had worn a mask to look like an elderly Caucasian man, and immediately turn back people who didn't have their proper papers and turn them back right away.

The security staff asked Chinese people not only where they were flying from but also if they had gone to other places.

It turned out a few people, airline ground crew, were arrested in Hong Kong in connection with the mask case, allegedly aiding this man to get into Canada.

Passing through immigration was relatively fast with several touch-screen terminals where you scan your passport in as well as your declaration form. However, getting luggage was a painful process, having to wait a long time for suitcases to come out...

It seems some of the airport's logistics have improved in some areas, while others are still lagging behind, hardly helping passengers exit the airport any faster.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Trying to Shut Up Dissent

I'm at Hong Kong International Airport waiting for my flight to leave... I'm trying out the Traveler's Lounge for Amex card holders... it took me a while to find it, but it's behind the Gucci shop before Gate 60. It's OK... a quiet space with some food and drinks.

Cathay Pacific kept advising passengers to arrive three hours before departure but that was quite unnecessary as security staff were very efficient opening up several lines and moving things along quickly.

Immigration was very fast too as long as you have a Hong Kong ID card.

I'm reading the paper now and disappointed to see China continues its stranglehold on journalists there.

Columnist Chang Ping was recently sacked because his employer, the Southern Daily Group, was under pressure from a propaganda inspection teams. The company will not renew his contract which ends at the end of next month because he refused to compromise by insisting on writing columns for other publications.

Last year Chang was banned from writing for the Southern Weekly and The Southern Metropolis News.

He is best known for writing about political and social topics, including democracy, media censorship, the failures of government policy and Tibet. His writing is considered logical and not radical.

Veteran journalists say the government is very wary this year with more anniversaries -- the 100th anniversary of the 1911 revolution and the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Communist Party of China -- so it aims to get rid of outspoken voices in the media.

The government also seems alarmed by the growing number of social problems such as land evictions, land disputes, mass protests, censorship and human rights, Chang said. He added how the incident with Google and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo created alarm and that the government needed to control public opinion.

"The authorities have become increasingly incompetent in censoring the media," Chang said. "They believe that the traditional way of bottling up the media will stifle social unrest at an early stage, and social stability is their top priority.

"However, it's this kind of policy that harms social stability," he continued. "I am worried that the pent-up pressure will explode one day."

Nevertheless Chang is determined to continue writing one way or another. "My freedom of expressing my own views shouldn't be taken away," he said. "I am not sure how effective my commentaries are but I believe every little effort helps."

So far more than 1,600 journalists and academics have signed an online protest about Chang's sacking and news of it was circulated on microblogs.

Thank goodness for people like Chang who will do whatever it takes to try to make the government accountable for its actions.

And the government will not be able to shut them all up as they will continually find new ways to get their voices out.

Meanwhile the authorities need to realize there is no simple solution to achieving a harmonious society. If only the government would begin to own up to its faults then perhaps many of these tensions would begin to subside..

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Denied Entry

The hope that Hong Kong would "handle things well" went down the drain after the Hong Kong government decided to deny Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi entry into the city to pay their last respects to Szeto Wah, whose funeral is on Saturday.
 
Wang, who teaches at a Taiwanese university released a statement last night saying: "I can't say I am disappointed. I am sad and angry. I think the government decision has once again proved that the so-called 'one country, two systems' is a lie. Can the Hong Kong government explain clearly what kind of harm I would pose to the public?"
 
Today at a press conference in Taipei Wang said, "I am really worried about the future of Hong Kong. I want the Hong Kong and mainland authorities to give me a clear explanation."
 
Wuer was also at the conference and added the government was being disrespectful to Szeto's memory by preventing people from attending his funeral.
 
Another democracy activist, Chin Jin who holds an Australian passport, was turned away at Hong Kong airport yesterday after flying in from Australia.
 
He criticized the Hong Kong government for going against public sentiment. "Beijing has said Hong Kong can make the decision itself, so the government should allow entry in accordance with the traditional Chinese respect for the deceased."
 
Lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong who made the formal request for Wang to enter Hong Kong said he received the official response yesterday from the Chief Executive's office, but there was no explanation as to why the request was rejected.
 
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was asked twice during a public event about the case, but he refused to answer, probably because the government does not comment on individual cases.
 
The decision was a surprise as there were positive hints from the new director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Wang Guangya and Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong that Wang would be allowed in for the day. Wang had promised to come just for the day and not speak to any media in exchange for being allowed into Hong Kong.
 
This about face shows either more backroom politics we don't know about or Tsang's inability or lack of interest in standing up for Hong Kong.

The fact that Hong Kong can mark the anniversary of June 4 freely -- an event started by Szeto -- clearly demonstrates "One country, two systems", but now some people who owe their lives to him can't even enter the city to say good bye.

Administering Justice

I was surprised to see the young man who had run over a fellow university student and thought he could get away with it by saying his father was Li Gang, was in court yesterday.
 
Li Qiming admitted in court that he was responsible for the death of the female student and pleaded guilty to traffic offenses.
 
The court said it would hand its verdict another day, which means consulting with government officials instead of just looking at the evidence and listening to the arguments...
 
The 22-year-old Li is the son of Li Gang, a deputy district police chief in Baoding, Wangdu County in Hebei Province. If convicted, he will be sentenced for between three to seven years in jail according to Article 133 of the Criminal Law.
 
He was charged with traffic offenses for running over two female students while speeding through Hebei University campus while drunk in late October. One of the women, 20-year-old Chen Xiaofeng, was killed. However, when Li was stopped by security guards and students, he shouted, "My father is Li Gang!", inferring he would be able to avoid punishment.

It quickly became a catchphrase for people who think they are above the law.
 
While people across the country were outraged by the younger Li's behaviour, both father and son tried to win public sentiment by being interviewed on television though technically this should not have been allowed legally as Li Qiming was a suspect.
 
Then officials tried to pressure Chen's family into accepting financial compensation and eventually they did, and told their lawyer his services were not needed anymore.
 
Which is why I'm pleasantly surprised to see this case end up in court.
 
However, the Chen family's current lawyer Hu Yihua doesn't think the punishment will be too severe considering Li pressured Chen's family to accept 460,000 RMB ($69,896) for compensation and a signed letter of forgiveness.
 
Nevertheless, the family is still hurting over the loss of Chen Xiaofeng. Her brother Chen Lin said, "I was furious to hear that the lawyer was pleading for a lighter sentence because Li behaved well at university and during his internship."
 
He added that his father cried when hearing about the accident described in court. "We still believe that Li should be charged with endangering public safety."
 
While he hoped the verdict would be fair, Chen Lin acknowledged there wasn't much more he could do about it.
 
It's good to see China's legal system slowly lumbering towards proper implementation no matter who you are.
 
Anyone regardless of their connections should be charged and tried under the law if they have done something unlawful.
 
And hopefully the verdict will be fair, considering those making the judgment have to bear in mind the public sentiment over this incident. If the sentence is too light, the public's anger will easily simmer to a boil -- something the government doesn't want right now.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Spiderman Strikes Again

I missed the news about "French Spiderman" Alain Robert scaling the Hang Seng Bank headquarters this morning.

Hang Seng Bank headquarters in Central
At around 11:40am, the 48-year-old Robert began climbing the 137-metre high building with his bare hands and finished in 25 minutes.

He was promptly arrested on the roof but was later released without charge.

He's scaled three other buildings in Hong Kong -- the Four Seasons Hotel in 2008, Cheung Kong Centre in 2005 and the Far East Finance Centre in 1996.

I read a New Yorker article about him in which his interest in climbing began as a boy despite suffering from vertigo.

What building will he conquer next?

An Attempt at Appeasement

With Spring Festival or Chinese New Year coming up, Premier Wen Jiabao did something no other senior leader in the history of the Communist Party of China has ever done -- visit petitioners.
 
These people with grievances come to Beijing to try to file their petitions to the State Bureau of Letters and Calls if they feel the local authorities have not addressed their concerns properly or legally.
 
The crazy thing is that Beijing has tried to stop petitioners from going to this office, and provincial and local authorities even hire thugs to prevent these people from getting to Beijing or forcibly take them back or throw them into illegal "black jails".
 
That's because they don't want the central government to know there are problems in their area or Beijing wants to present the perception that China is a "harmonious society".
 
Some analysts believe Wen's visit showed the government's concern about petitioners as the authorities see this group of people as threatening social stability.
 
Wen met with petitioners from Tianjin, Jilin, Shandong, Inner Mongolia, Hubei, Hebei, Shanxi and Jiangsu, listening to their problems and grievances.
 
"I came here to seek your opinions on the government's work. Please don't hold anything back, and give me the facts," he said.
 
Most of the petitioners told him about forced evictions and land seizure disputes.
 
"As in some cases of land expropriations and house demolition happen in rural areas, the State Council is conducting research to work out relevant laws and regulations [to protect peoples' rights]," he said. "Land is the lifeline of farmers. The government must examine and approve projects using arable land strictly and in accordance with the law... and give reasonable compensation."
 
Then Wen urged the local authorities to be patient with petitioners and address their problems.
 
"Our government is the government of the people, and our power is granted by the people," he was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
 
It's interesting to see Wen addressing petitioners before Spring Festival, probably in a bid to ease tensions before the holiday in a gesture of good will.
 
However, a petitioner, Wu Wei from Beijing's Haidian district was skeptical about the meeting which was broadcast on state television.
 
"Those people Wen met don't look like real petitioners and I simply don't think it's possible for Wen to meet people like us," he said. "What he did is just for show, which will not do any help to alleviate our sufferings."
 
Wu has been petitioning over his forced eviction since 2007.
 
Looks like Wen needs to brush up on his act as many people can see right through it.
 
 

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Picture of the Day: Tram Jam


Sometime between 7:15pm and 8:45pm something went wrong with the trams in Central.

After I came out of the gym for a swim, I walked to the stop in front of HSBC headquarters to find a number of trams parked that were supposed to go east with no passengers or drivers. The trams were just abandoned there.

The chances of catching a tram westwards was slim so I walked towards the bus stop at Landmark. All along the tram track were more stranded trams. How strange.

I'll try to find out what happened, so stay tuned...

Fact of the Day: HK has World's Most Expensive Homes

People in Hong Kong knew this already, but a new international housing survey confirms Hong Kong homes are "severely unaffordable".
 
The city beat London, New York and San Francisco for the dubious honour.
 
The median home in Hong Kong costs 11.4 times gross annual median household income, according to US-based consulting company Demographia, which examined housing affordability in six countries and Hong Kong for the third quarter of 2010.
 
This was the first time Hong Kong was included in the survey that compares major cities in countries such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and United States.
 
In the report, Los Angeles was the only city that equalled or exceeded Hong Kong's "median multiple" (the median house price divided by gross annual median household income) in the seven-year history of the survey.
 
Places where home prices were 5.1 times household income or more are considered "severely unaffordable" by the report.
 
In the past two years, home prices in Hong Kong have surged 50 percent thanks to low interest rates and buyers from the mainland.
 
As a result, many young Hong Kongers cannot afford to buy a home as their salaries have not risen along with the prices, creating social and political problems for the government.
 
It's interesting to note Sydney is second at 9.6 with Vancouver following close behind at 9.5.
 
One wonders what Chief Executive Donald Tsang will say about the report. It's shameful that flats in Hong Kong have gone way beyond what most people can afford now.
 
People here are tired of the government pandering to developers and big business. It's time the government finally take a stand for the people and ensure more affordable housing for everyone.
 
The rankings of some of the cities:
 
1. Hong Kong (11.4)
2. Sydney (9.6)
3. Vancouver (9.5)
6. London (7.2)
15. New York (6.1)
30. Dublin (4.8)
48. Ottawa (3.6)
82. Atlanta, Georgia (2.3)

Monday, 24 January 2011

Build and They Will Fly

Does Beijing really need another airport after just opening T3 in 2008?

China built Terminal 3 at the Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA) in time for the 2008 Olympics and now it wants to build another Beijing airport in five years.

BCIA is already the world's second-busiest airport and while it's designed to handle 76 million passengers and 1.8 million tonnes of cargo a year by 2015, it already had 70 million passengers last year.

One has to wonder where all those passengers came from, though Shanghai hosted the Expo last year and many may have visited or transited through Beijing as well during the six-month period.

So does Beijing really need another airport already?

My impression overall was that Terminal 3 is not used very efficiently and neither are Terminals 1 and 2. While it's nice to have terminals that aren't packed with travelers, T3 didn't look particularly filled to capacity and many staff seemed to be standing around without much to do.

Nevertheless, the new airport is expected to be open for business by 2015 and would be located in Daxing district, south of the city.

Just sounds more like a make-work project again than practical sense or an opportunity to boast China's dominance in the skies...

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Run Banana Run

Have you ever seen a banana run?

This morning I woke up early and headed over to Tsim Sha Tsui to take part in the 6km run which is a fundraiser for the World Cancer Research Fund.

Kids gearing up for the 3K run after the "elite race"
It's called "Beat the Banana" and the fun run is 3km where the fastest person from last year gets to wear a banana suit that the rest of the runners try to catch up to.

However I signed up for the 6km "elite rate" even though I'm hardly "elite".

I even called up the organizers to make sure it was OK if I didn't run very fast.

In any case I was very concerned about it being very cold today and constantly checked the weather updates. Luckily the sun came out and it turned out to be a beautiful day.

A gorgeous Sunday morning at 7:30am with the Olympic torch
I took the MTR over and made a pit stop at the posh restrooms at The Peninsula before arriving at the Clock Tower at the Cultural Centre. On the way I saw a group of people doing tai chi exercises with the recording shouting out numbers in Mandarin.

The race itself was pretty straight forward: we ran from the clock tower to the end of the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade to a brown building called the International Mail Centre, ran back and did one more loop to equal 6km. This was good, as it enabled me to pace myself. At the start those definitely qualified to be elite runners sprinted off way in front and the rest of us rounded up the rear. Only a few hundred metres into it, some Hong Kong Chinese girls stopped running, complaining of cramps. Some people didn't train for this...
Some folks getting fit doing tai chi

A colleague had advised that I try to find a runner who was just slightly faster than me and keep pace with them. I tried to do that but then I started passing them or they slowed to a walk. Others passed me and I couldn't keep up with them.

Along the route we passed by the Avenue of the Stars which is the Hong Kong version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On the ground are famous Hong Kong entertainers' hand prints, and there is even a statue of Bruce Lee in an action pose that I didn't know about.

I kept a good pace all the way -- on my second time around, there were more tourists gathering along the promenade and we had to dodge them; the "officials", volunteers with yellow plastic vests over their jackets did little to keep the path clear for us.

"Officials" getting the route ready before the elite race
In the last stretch I picked up the pace to pass two more people and finish the 6km run in about 36 minutes as there was no time clock. I was very pleased with the time as I usually finish 5km in under 35 minutes on the treadmill.

Overall the organization of the race was alright -- our stuff was stored in plastic bags that were numbered and the tag was stapled to our race bibs. There was plenty of water to drink, but the bananas were way too green.

Nevertheless, it was a good outing out -- pleased with my workout and doing my bit for charity.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Picture of the Day: Keeping Warm

Bundled up while waiting for the bus
When I moved back to Hong Kong six months ago, I had forgotten how chilly it can get in the winter. I also thought the cold spell would only be temporary.

But this year it has dragged on for over a month now and lots of people are getting tired of it.

That said, stores are doing a brisk business selling everything from sweaters and boots to hot water bottles, blankets and heaters.

It can get down to 10 degrees at night, which to many outside of Hong Kong is hardly cold, but bear in mind we have no central heating let alone insulated apartments or offices!

So in the spirit of keeping warm, I spotted this elderly gentleman making sure his head was protected from the cold...

Friday, 21 January 2011

Fact of the Day: 400M Banknotes

Lai see envelopes waiting to be stuffed with crisp new bills

People who are married or elderly are gearing up for Chinese New Year.
They have to hand out lai see or red envelopes to anyone who is younger than them or to employees who work directly under them.
While the amount given is to the discretion of the giver, it's common courtesy to handout crisp new bills.
Which is why Hong Kong banks are busy preparing new banknotes for their customers to hand out in the red envelopes.
The Hong Kong Monetary Authority estimates some 400 million new banknotes will be in circulation during Chinese New Year.
That's a lot of new bills.
I spoke to a hotel general manager here who joked he would be wearing a fishing vest with tons of pockets next week. Those pockets would be filled with lai see envelopes.
While he enjoys handing out lai see now, he admitted he was stressed out and nervous in his first Chinese New Year. There are about 800 employees in this hotel and he wanted to ensure every person got lai see so he asked his assistant to put the name of every employee on each envelope.
Then he tried to put them in piles according to each department to hand out, but he quickly discovered this system was not feasible at all.
Now he just has the same denomination bill in every envelope and gives them out whenever an employee comes to him and wishes him a happy new year.
His only concern now is making sure he has enough lai see at any given time and if not to disappear and refill his pockets.
Which is why the fisherman vest would come in handy.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Underground City?

Beijing isn't going to be man enough and restrict the number of cars on the roads to prevent perpetual gridlock.
 
Instead it has come up with the ingenious idea of creating a make-work project and building roads -- underground.
 
City planners are looking into maximizing space at the subterranean level and put in parking lots, and business centres.
 
And there won't just be one floor underground, but four.
 
The plan is for the first floor below ground to be for businesses and subways. The next one down would be for roads, the third for electricity and communications infrastructure and pipelines, and the last one for parking lots.
 
Construction is supposed to start in March in Tongzhou district, in Beijing's southeastern outskirts, according to the Beijing Youth Daily.
 
Some people think this is the only solution left, with the Chinese capital's population swelling to 20 million.
 
"With the growing economy, Beijing's congestion is also growing at an unprecedented rate," said independent economist Andy Xie. "Underground is the only way to go."
 
"People like to move from villages to cities, so either we go into the sky or underground," said Professor Charles Ng Wang-wai, chair of the geotechnical engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
 
Ng believes that building underground will help avoid damaging the natural environment and pre-existing structures as well as avoid the costs of real estate and work permits.

However, while he concedes building underground is twice as expensive as above ground, Ng says operating a business or car park underground saves energy and is more "greener".
 
"Beijing can benefit from substantial energy saving," he said. "Underground, the temperature is fairly constant. Energy consumption would be less, especially given Beijing's weather."
 
He cited Montreal as an example of having an underground city, but that's basically in the downtown core area that has a maze of pathways lined with shops so that they don't have to deal with frigid temperatures when going from A to B.
 
Also critics with engineering backgrounds say there are a lot of problems related to building underground, such as blasting tunnels and mistakenly exploding a main water pipe or vibrations from controlled blasts that could leave cracks in buildings above ground. This could seriously affect cultural heritage sites like the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven.
 
And then there is the problem with water underground.
 
Beijing doesn't have the best drainage system, because when it rains in the city, the roads turn into rivers as the water has no where to go. Believe me, I've been there.
 
Sounds like there are many more risks that advantages to this pie-in-the-sky plan. However, as China and its officials are anxious to boost GDP figures, going underground might be the solution it's looking for now.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Family Ties

Eric Tsang Chi-wai

There's an interesting but sad piece of Hong Kong gossip today -- Tsang Kai-wing, the father of veteran entertainer Eric Tsang Chi-wai passed away in Taiwan yesterday. He was 94.
However Tsang senior was infamous in his own right -- as he was a member of a gang of corrupt police officers in the 1960s in Hong Kong.
He served in the police force from 1940 to 1972, when he was a sergeant-major. He worked under the legendary "HK$500 million Sergeant" Lui Lok, nicknamed for the wealth he earned in bribes he received during his time on the force. Lui died in Vancouver in May.
Lui was the most notorious of four corrupt staff sergeants at the time who were dubbed the "Four Great Sergeants". The others were Hon Sum, Nan Kong and Ngan Hung.
Tsang was sentenced to three years in jail for corruption in 1975 but fled to Taiwan after filing an appeal. The Independent Commission Against Corruption issued a warrant for his arrest two years later. Isn't that two years too late?
And then finally in 2001 the Department of Justice seized his house on La Salle Road. It was sold for HK$4.35 million at auction in 2005 after 10 years of civil proceedings.
It's interesting to know more about Eric Tsang's background and if his father's actions have motivated him in his current career as actor, comedian, director and game show host.
A vigil for Tsang senior will be held in Hong Kong after February 17, the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Google to Help the Blind

I was shocked to read that Hong Kong has no guide dogs for the blind... until yesterday.
 
Google, a four-month Labrador puppy arrived from the Taiwan Guide Dog Association and he will be trained for the next 18 months with a foster family here. After that Google will undergo formal training and then train with his blind partner.
 
Yesterday the golden-haired puppy received tons of media attention but he seemed shy and tired. [Sorry can't seem to find a picture of him right now, but he is cute...]
 
The foster family has been instructed not to play with Google or feed him too frequently so that he would not be spoiled and would learn to be responsible.
 
The Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association is newly established and it's crazy to discover Google will be the first ever guide dog here.
 
"We hope Google will be the first of many dogs to come here and will introduce a new chapter for blind people in the city," said Tsang Kin-ping, vice president of the association.
 
Why has it taken this long for Hong Kong, a supposedly civilized society, to allow or have guide dogs in the city?
 
While China should be put to shame for not having these working animals, Hong Kong should be even more embarrassed. It's time to help integrate more disabled people into society and guide dogs can help many of them feel more a part of the community.
 
It's better late than never, but really, it's ridiculous in 2011.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Fact of the Day: HK People Live Beyond their Means

Time to cut Hong Kong's carbon footprint now!

We knew that in general Hong Kong people are living the ultimate consumer lifestyles. They can buy cheap fashions, order take out, and almost all their food and goods (name brands) are imported.
And now the WWF has measured the city's consumption rates and its latest report called the Hong Kong Ecological Footprint Report 2010 says people here are living way beyond the Earth's limits. The report says that if all the people in the world lived a lifestyle similar to those in Hong Kong, we would require more than two earths -- 2.2 of them to be exact.

Hong Kong has the 45th largest ecological footprint per person compared to 150 countries with populations larger than 1 million people in 2007.

The city's carbon footprint makes up 60 percent of its total ecological footprint; only 26 percent of it is from emissions, which means the rest come from imported goods.
The report says a Hong Kong person uses 86kg of paper a year, and eats about 30.3kg of beef annually, up from 15kg in 2007. This is more than seven times the amount consumed on the mainland and almost double that of the European Union, according to the WWF report that used United States figures.
Seafood consumption is 62kg per person in Hong Kong, the third highest in Asia, while as much as 90 percent of seafood is imported from more than 150 countries.
It's shocking to see the dramatic rise in beef consumption (the growing number of steakhouses is a case in point) and the report adds Hong Kong people are eating seafood that aren't from sustainable resources. Does this include shark's fin?

And where does all that paper consumption come from? Newspapers? Textbooks? Toilet paper?
The WWF admits that Hong Kong would always be an "ecological debtor", that it would always need more resources than the land and sea mass can sustain, due to its dependence on imports.
But on the other hand this should be a wake-up call to Hong Kong people that the lifestyle of its people cannot carry on like this -- it has to be significantly reduced.
While I am no eco-warrior myself, I do see lots of people (Chinese and expats) wasting a lot of things, from letting the water run while brushing their teeth or rubbing their hands with soap, and using more than one paper towel when wiping their hands dry. Don't even get me started on not recycling and separating garbage.
The other day I listened to a Freakanomics podcast talking about waste management. Some American cities have adopted a pay as you trash system where the more garbage you want to get rid of, you have to pay more. Makes sense doesn't it? The end result saw a marked decrease in what went into the landfill and was recycled. It affected their consumer choices.

So how could this system be adopted in Hong Kong where the majority of people live in high rises? This is for the government to figure out -- and it needs to do so fast.

We can't continue living this way.

And by the way -- mark your calendars, folks. Earth Hour this year will be on March 26 at 8:30pm. Details at wwf.org.hk/earthhour

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Toys for Boys

The 2011 McLaren MP4-12C coming to Hong Kong streets later this year
Hong Kong car collectors are probably revving up with excitement with McLaren Automotive, the retail arm of the Formula One racing group, announcing it will start selling cars here.

It has set a target of selling 40 of its MP4-12C, a carbon-chassis super car that will debut in Britain this spring and will be available on show at local showrooms by the fourth quarter.

The British carmaker plans to sell 1,000 of these super-charged cars this year, with Asia expected to be the third-biggest market after the United States and Europe. And the price? Only HK$3.6 million ($463,000) and is obviously competing with Ferrari in the luxury sports car market.

Many luxury brands want to start off in Hong Kong as it's perceived as a place that knows what good stuff is. From there many others, particularly those in China try to emulate what Hong Kongers have.

Which is why McLaren will open dealerships in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Osaka and Sydney this year. And it plans to enter the mainland market next year or  in 2013.

Last year Ferrari sold almost 300 cars in China, a 50 percent increase from 2009. With those kinds of numbers McLaren would be silly not to shift its gears and get in on the money asap.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Charm Offensive

Can Lang Lang sway Americans about how great China is?

There's big expectations when Chinese President Hu Jintao comes to the United States next week.

There's going to be talk about North Korea, the value of the renminbi and the US dollar, more trade and... perhaps global warming? We can only hope.

This past week Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing and there was much talk about Hu who seemed unaware of the successful test flight of a Chinese stealth fighter.

China hands are debating back and forth about how Hu might be out of step with what the Chinese military are doing despite being the commander of the military. However many seem to think Hu did know about the tests but may have had the latest update. Some think the test was a show of strength by the Chinese in the run-up to Hu's visit next week.

Other than showing off its hardware, China is also doing some celebrity diplomacy as well. The government has completed two advertisements featuring Chinese celebrities that will be aired in the US, not only on TV but also on the giant screen in New York's Times Square.

The commercials, lasting 30 seconds and one minute, will feature stars like basketball forward Yao Ming, pianist Lang Lang, diving Olympian Guo Jingjing, as well as Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing and director John Woo.

It'll be interesting to see what these ads look like and what messages these celebs will be sending to Americans.

But perhaps China should really look how it presents itself from home -- the illegal land confiscations, incarcerating people like Liu Xiabo, the rich getting astronomically richer than the poor, corruption, illegally beating people up and incarcerating them without charge...

If China followed its rule of law that's laid out in black and white, perhaps it wouldn't need to do this so-called charm offensive?

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Expanding Waistlines = Exploding Health Issues


Paul French is the co-author of Fat China, which talks about the impending health issues China will have to face in the coming generations mostly because of the lifestyles of young people in urban areas.

When you think about it, he says, the country has gone from famine to gluttony in two generations.

And with that comes a wealth deficit of health issues like diabetes, hypertension and cardiac arrest.

From 1927-1949 Chinese people got taller mostly due to diet.

After the establishment of the PRC, people got smaller again mostly due to political upheavals that led to famines.

It wasn't until the last few years that the Chinese are getting taller again. Not only that but shoe sizes are getting bigger as well as bra sizes and the latter isn't because of plastic surgery, French says.

He showed a power point presentation filled with lots of numbers:

In 1982, 7 percent of the population was already obese, mostly in southern China. Ten years later it doubled to 15 percent, or 30 million people. In 2002, it jumped to 22.8 percent or 200 million and last year it was estimated the number of obese in China was 190-200 million.

The frightening thing is that preteens are getting diabetes, mostly young girls with onset diabetes.

Eight percent of the population between three and six years old are obese. Ten percent of urban kids are obese, and this is increasing at 8 percent a year.

French boils this down to many factors. The first is the "six pocket syndrome". Due to the one child policy, the two sets of grandparents and the parents all spoil the child rotten. On top of that kids in China are legally not supposed to work until they get out of school. As a result they don't have the concept of having a job on the weekends, or delivering the newspaper or newspaper. There are adults who do all that. And so some $392 on average are spent on a child every year.

He also says the rate or urbanization is parallel to the rate of obesity. Beijing has the fattest people in China at 60 percent.

There is also the factor of people not going to wet markets anymore and preferring instead to go to hypermarkets and convenience stores to buy their food, most of which is processed foods, as they don't have time to cook.

While the retail sales of sugar has actually gone down, the overall consumption of sugar has gone up from eating foods with more sugar in them, such as fast foods, soft drinks and candy.

French points out Chinese food isn't necessarily healthier than western food. For breakfast many people eat youtiao, or deep-fried dough sticks with soy milk. And did you know that eating a hot pot meal is the calorie equivalent of three-and-a-half Big Macs?

The other problem is there is no emphasis on sports in schools. Parents would rather their child study more than run around the field. And if there is a field, sometimes it's sold to a developer to build a luxury apartment building; or, no one is allowed to go on it because there is no budget for maintaining it. How ornamental.

He cites the complaint that Shanghai doesn't have any room to build playing fields. "But Shanghai has 18 golf courses," he points out, saying they are more of a waste of space. Some priorities are not in the right order.

The problem with obesity especially for girls is that while it's cute for them to be pudgy when they are young, but when they become teenagers they are then suddenly expected to be stick thin, leading to lots of image problems and self esteem issues. A lot of money is spent on diet pills, but these diuretics are not regulated nor are they good for your health.

French also goes on to say that while there hasn't been much research done on bulimia and anorexia, there are reports that boys are undernourished because they have been eating junk food all their lives and won't eat properly.

Meanwhile the Chinese health system is not ready to cope with this onslaught of people being diagnosed as diabetics. It's not one of those conditions where you take some medication and are well again -- it's about having to take insulin for the rest of your life. And who is going to pay for that? At this rate, China's health system would have to triple its budget to deal with this.

The other horrific thing is that the government is not educating its people on what they should and shouldn't eat. It feels that it has forced so many messages down people's throats that it doesn't want to interfere with people's consumption decisions. The recent announcement that China would not ban indoor smoking is another. The government has decided it cannot push too far otherwise the people may push back angrily enough to topple them over and it's not a risk it wants to take.

But on the other hand the government will be left with spoiled diabetic brats who will have to monitor their blood sugar levels and take insulin everyday for the rest of their lives. Sounds like the lesser of two evils, but really, if the government wants to look like it really does care for the people, it should suggest healthier lifestyles.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are probably watching and waiting to pounce on a new market that is on the edge of exploding.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Building an Icon

Building the Bird's Nest

Last night when I was running on the treadmill, I watched a National Geographic show on the construction of the National Stadium, or the Bird's Nest.
It talked about the whole bidding process that began in 2002 and how the Chinese government wanted to have a building no one had ever seen before.
Which explains why Herzog & de Meuron's Bird's Nest design was chosen a year later.
There were also scenes with them discussing the design with artist Ai Weiwei who said these architects were interesting because they wanted to start completely fresh and new; they said he encouraged them to push the boundaries. 

They looked into Chinese art and found design inspiration in ancient Chinese vessels, bowls and jars to give the round feel. Then they wanted the building to have a contemporary look, and an inviting building that gave people the ability to go in and out of it easily. In the end they did a de-constructionist design of putting the skeleton of the building on the outside. When the Chinese officials saw this, their immediate impression was that it was like a bird's nest and the name stuck.
The design was chosen and then a ground breaking ceremony was held. But then in 2004, a new section of the Charles de Gaulle Airport collapsed and China got very concerned about how sturdy the bird's nest would be. Construction was halted while everything was checked over again. The architects had to wait five months before they were given the green light again, but now there was no more retractable roof and so the open-air roof was made bigger, and cut down costs.
There were also tests to check its ability to withstand earthquakes and it was decided to separate the steel beams from the concrete floor and to break up the nest into sections so that one part would not affect the other.

Some 110,000 tons of steel was used as well as hundreds of tons of concrete; 7,000 workers were employed on the site working in three shifts 24 hours a day. Then came the time to create the weaving of the bird's nest and the steel created was never or manufactured before ever in China, and the beams which twisted had to be made in sections from near Shanghai and then transported by truck to Beijing. Why they didn't go the shipping route to Tianjin was not explained.

Anyway the pieces were brought to Beijing and then hoisted by cranes bit by bit. Welders had to put the pieces together -- but at the right temperature because steel will expand during hot temperatures, and contract in the evenings. The welders also had to lie on their backs at certain points to weld the pieces together.

All this time the stadium was held up by hoists. When all the steel frames were in place, it was time to take away the hoists so that the stadium could "sink" into the ground. It was recorded live on television and so the drama unfolded millimetre by millimetre as the hoists were ever so slowly lowered.

What's also interesting is that during the construction phase, Herzog and de Meuron aren't seen at all watching the action; perhaps it was left to the British engineering firm Arup. Throughout the entire design process and construction, the teams had to constantly refer to 3-D computer-generated images -- there was no way they could be drawn on a piece of paper. It was the first time they had extensive used 3-D imaging to solve problems which was most of the time.

In the end Herzog & de Meuron did create a building that no one has ever seen before.

But now it's sad to see it isn't used as a public space anymore or for events; it's just a reminder of the 2008 Olympics as a tourist draw. There are plans for a shopping mall and hotel to be built nearby.

So much for encouraging Chinese citizens to exercise and have a healthy lifestyle. It's just a monument to prove the government can spend the people's taxpayer dollars however way they choose.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Right Decision

The latest development around democracy activist Szeto Wah's upcoming funeral is that the mainland official who overseas Hong Kong affairs says it is entirely up to the city to decide whether to allow exiled mainland dissidents Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi entry to Hong Kong to pay their last respects.
 
Wang Guangya said yesterday he thought the special administrative region would "handle it well'.
 
How's that for vagueness?
 
That puts the Hong Kong government in the hot seat. If it doesn't allow Wang Dan and Wuer in, it looks like a Scrooge, and if it does let them in, Beijing might not be happy about allowing these men on the wanted list on technically Chinese soil.
 
Wang Dan wasn't too pleased with the announcement saying, "It's not good for Beijing to turn down our requests publicly."
 
He added that if allowed into Hong Kong, he promised not talk to the media and wouldn't even stay overnight as he teaches in a university in Taiwan.
 
If the Hong Kong government had any backbone, and unfortunately it doesn't have much of one, considering it still hasn't caved into public demands do something about the air pollution and waste in the city, and reining in property developers too, then we can't expect it to give Wang Dan and Wuer the green light.
 
But if it did, it would be a refreshing change. And the right thing to do. 

Battle of Wills Continues

Nina Wang Kung-yu was a larger-than-life persona when she was the richest woman in Asia. However, her husband Teddy disappeared in 1990 and when he was finally declared dead nine years later, there was a battle between her and her father-in-law over which of Teddy's wills was authentic.
 
In the end she won and that was the end of that.
 
And then Wang died in April 2007 at 69 of cancer and apparently left behind more than one will. You'd think after all the fiasco she went through in the courts she'd make sure there was only one will.
 
But her siblings who run the Chinachem Foundation had the "battle of the wills" against her fung shui master and lover Tony Chan.
 
Finally last February the judge ruled in favour of Chinachem, saying the 2006 document Chan produced was a forgery, while the one dated 2002 was the correct will. At the time Justice Johnson Lam Man-hon described Chan as "untruthful, unreliable and lacking in credibility".
 
Police are still investigating if they should press criminal charges on Chan for the forged document.
 
One would have thought that would have been the end of that saga.
 
But no.
 
Now Chan has launched an appeal, claiming he has new evidence including a video that shows he and Wang had an intimate relationship where Wang is called "Piggy" and Chan is "Daddy".
 
"The judgment does not do justice to the depth of emotion," Ian Mill QC, for Chan, said in the Court of Appeal. "We don't think the judge did justice to [Wang's] true feelings for my client."
 
While Chan has a right to appeal, why doesn't the court throw out the case after it has been determined the 2006 will is a forgery and on top of that Chan is a completely unreliable witness?
 
Trying to establish the intimate relationship between Chan and Wang doesn't help his case much which is why it's curious the court is still allowing his case to be heard.
 
The saga continues and strange characters like Chan continue to get their 15 minutes of fame. 

Monday, 10 January 2011

Another Seven-Star Hotel in Beijing?

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai... and a replica soon in Beijing?

Sometimes you have to wonder if Chinese officials have any shred of common sense left in them.

There was a report a few days ago that Beijing authorities are planning to build a "seven-star hotel" in Mentougou, a suburb of the Chinese capital, 30 kilometres away from the city centre.

Apparently the hotel will be modeled after Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building at 828 metres, in a $1.3 billion joint project with Saudi Arabia.

Or have the Chinese hoodwinked the Saudis into giving them a lot of money to build a white elephant?

A district official claimed the Saudi side would foot the entire bill, but refused to explain why such an expensive construction project would be located in an underdeveloped rural area.

And the seven star rating? A hotel in Beijing that looks like a dragon near the Bird's Nest and Water Cube already gave itself that rating and even put it in its official name. The Pangu 7 Star Hotel originally charged exorbitant room rates, but now on the website I see the rates are between 1,688RMB ($254.27) for an executive deluxe room to 9,888 ($1,489.50) for a premium suite. Perhaps the presidential suite is one of those things where if you have to ask, it's too expensive.

Nevertheless, most people know seven-star ratings are not internationally recognized which makes the Pangu, and this yet-to-be-built hotel in Mentougou even more ridiculous.

It's funny how the Beijing officials didn't make it an "eight-star hotel"... or maybe they knew it would be too obvious if they added an extra star...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Hong Kong English

There's different kinds of English spoken in Hong Kong.

The ones who went to British schools or taught exclusively by British teachers during the colonial era still retain a strong English accent. The upper-crust sounding David Tang is case in point.

Then there are those in my generation who went overseas to other countries like the United States, Canada and Australia.

And then there are the ones who never left Hong Kong, weren't able to get into university or didn't have any post secondary education and have an elementary level of English.

That is Hong Kong English, or Chinglish in the territory's context, as there's also mainland Chinese English.

In Hong Kong, some letters of the alphabet are pronounced differently, particularly on the phone when spelling things out. The letter "S" is not an s-sound, but pronounced (the letter "S") with "ee" attached at the end of it.

The letter "L" is "L-oh", and X is pronounced "X-ee". The letter "F" is "F-foo"

During a recent dinner, a friend of mine told us she went to an apartment complex she'd never been in before and was wondering which elevator to take to get to block L, on the 23rd floor.

She asked the security guard in Cantonese, "Where is 23L?"

He replied there was no 23L.

She couldn't understand how there couldn't be a 23L and asked again, showing him the piece of paper with the address written on it.

"Oh!" he said. "You mean 23 L-oh. Take the lift over there."

We all laughed at her little incident and bemoaned the fact that many young Hong Kongers today don't have good Chinese or English skills anymore.

Then the topic was changed to a mutual friend whose sons are very smart and grew up in the States and became FBI agents who tote guns around.

"They actually point their guns and say, 'F-B-I!'" she said.

I said, "Not F-B-I, but F-foo-B-I."

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Word of the Day: Shrinking Apartments

At lunch today my friend and I were talking about apartments and how he lives in an older building in the Kowloon side.

I quickly remarked that was a good thing, as those flats would be bigger.

He agreed and said, it wasn't one of those 缩水楼 (suo1shui3lou2) or "shrinking apartments".

New flats in Hong Kong are rarely the actual square footage advertised -- that's because the public spaces such as the hallway and lobby were also included in the floor area of the apartment.

It's such an appropriate expression, "shrinking apartments", as developers scheme more ways of making more money out of people slaving away to buy a piece of property in the sky.

Don't they have enough dough as it is? According to Forbes Asia's 2011 rich list, Hong Kong's 40 wealthiest tycoons have a collective net worth of $163 billion, a fifth more than last year ($135 billion).

Unlike the city's wage earners, whose real wages fell after adjusting for inflation, the increase for Hong Kong's top 40 was well ahead of the inflation rate, which was 2.9 percent in November.

Lee Ka-shing is still at number one with $24 billion, $21.3 billion last year; the Kwoks who control Sun Hung Kai Properties were second with $20 billion; and Lee Shau-Kee, chairman of Henderson Land Development was third with $19.5 billion. Notice these numbers are all in US dollars, not HK dollars.

Property prices are still going up in Hong Kong, making it near impossible for the rest of us to make our millions and own a home too unless we hit the jackpot in the Mark Six lottery.

We can only dream.




Friday, 7 January 2011

Paying Respects


Tonight after work I headed to Statue Square in Central and paid my respects to Szeto Wah.

Set up in front of the Legislative building is a make-shift tent with two people manning the table with condolence books. I thought it would be busy, but at 7:30pm only a few people were there. Beside the tent was a giant black and white banner that said, "In Loving Memory of Szeto Wah" in English, and in Chinese, "Uncle Wah, we will remember you forever!"

People signing condolence books for Uncle Wah
Lots of flowers were laid under the banner and wreaths too.

At first I didn't know what to say, but in the end I wrote: "Uncle Wah, thank you for your passion to fight for what you believe in. You are an inspiration for us all."

The woman behind the desk gave me a yellow ribbon and I promptly tied it on the temporary barricade like everyone else had. She also handed me a slip of paper inviting people to donate funds to the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China as Szeto has requested in his will. The paper included the account numbers for Hang Seng Bank and HSBC.

A memorial service will be held January 28 and funeral service January 29 at St Andrews church. As he requested, he will be cremated with some of his ashes dumped into the waters north of Hong Kong in the hopes they will reach the mainland, a place he was blacklisted from entering since 1989.

A woman ties her ribbon on the barricade
Meanwhile the Hong Kong government is mulling over whether it should allow former Tiananmen Square student leaders Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi to enter the city to pay their last respects to Szeto, as he was involved in helping them escape China.

In the meantime it's good to see many people coming out to say goodbye to Szeto. As the yellow ribbons testify, we shall not forget his fighting spirit.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Hong Kong Down in the Dumps

The Hong Kong government only realizes now it has a serious waste management problem.

Environmentalists have been trying to tell the authorities for years that more needs to be done in terms of recycling and cutting down waste levels, but did anyone listen?

And now that people are becoming more environmentally aware and know more about their rights, they don't want landfills to be built in country parks, nor do they want incinerators in their backyards.

So something's gotta give. ASAP.

Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah admitted the time had come for public discussion on a waste charge, a regulation that should have been introduced in 2007. But he was unable to offer a clear timetable for introducing the charge, citing the difficulty of collecting it in Hong Kong's high-rise society.

Yes, tricky issues can be difficult to deal with, Mr Yau, but really this problem needs to be dealt with now. Hong Kong will continue to be a high-rise society so figure out a solution!

There are concerns the current administration will continue to drag its heels on this issue for the next one to deal with.

Hong Kong aims to raise the waste recycling rate from the current 49 percent to 55 percent of municipal solid waste by 2015 by setting up waste recovery centres in each of the 18 districts. On-site kitchen waste recycling at shopping malls or housing estates would be promoted.

While recycling is only helps alleviate a small part of the waste disposal situation, at least it would make people more aware of what they are throwing away. The most frustrating part is a government that refuses to take a strong stand on the matter which is only going to get worse.

There should be recycling containers on each floor of an apartment building and the cleaning staff could make money by taking these items to the recycling depots.

Right now there is nothing to encourage any kind of recycling in my building. I separate my garbage, but is it appreciated?

Spicing Things Up

The best of the lot: Mapo tofu that's "medium spicy"
My American friend who came back to Hong Kong discovered a Sichuan restaurant in North Point. He said it was so good and I asked him to take me there.

But he went back there again without me!

Incensed, I kept bugging him to take me and finally we managed to meet up last night with another friend I haven't seen in years.

We first met at the Fortress Hill MTR station and from there took Exit B and walked several blocks east until we crossed the road north. He asked for directions, but not all locals can understand gweilos speaking Cantonese. I said it's the "little chilli" place and they said oh! Down the street turn right and keep going. We followed the directions and at the end of the street we saw it across the street, Little Chilli.

Cold dish of shredded chicken, cucumber and rice roll sheets
It was already packed inside, but the ever flexible staff let the three of us sit at a reserved round table first and then they persuaded two women to share our table so that they still had a reserved table.

The menu is in Chinese, but there is an English one with fewer dishes listed on it.

Most of the staff are mainlanders and same with the customers. Lots of dishes covered in red chillis are served to tables as well as beer -- Qingdao being the beverage of choice.

I used my Mandarin to order from a waitress from Hunan even though she could speak Cantonese and some English. Pretty soon the two large bottles of beer arrived and then a cold appetizer of shredded chicken, cucumber and rice roll sheets with peanut sauce. It was OK, not as good as the ones in Beijing, but it would suffice. We were all starving so we ate most of it quickly before the spring onion pancake arrived too. Strangely it was in a rectangular shape cut into squares, but it didn't matter.

The mapo tofu was quite good -- thick slabs of silky tofu that was what the waitress said was "medium spicy", with bits of dried chillis sprinkled on top and minced pork. On a winter day, it pretty much hit the spot.

Kung Pao chicken
I told my friend about kung pao chicken and he thought it was a North American Chinese culinary creation, but I told him this was a staple dish served in Beijing. While this one in Hong Kong wasn't as good as the ones in the Chinese capital, the cubes of chicken were still tender, though not enough flavour probably because there weren't any leeks in the dish and the peanuts weren't as big.

The jiaozi, or boiled dumplings with pork and chives were quite good, and I seemed to eat the majority of them, while my two other dining companions were fascinated by the julienne potato stir-fried with slices of garlic, dried chillis and Sichuan peppercorns. The last time my friend was there he ordered this dish, but it was much too oily, as the shredded potato sat in a pool of oil.

This time I asked for it to be cooked in less oil, but the end result was burned chillis. Nevertheless the potato wasn't burned and my tongue was so numb from the Sichuan peppercorns that I drank too much beer and could feel my face burning up. My two friends enjoyed the dish thoroughly and pretty much cleaned up the plate (minus the chillis).

We also ordered a plate of vegetables, seasoned stalks of chives that were stir-fried with copious amounts of diced garlic.

In the end we almost finished all the dishes, filled with hot food and cold beer.

The total came to HK$280 ($36) for three people! Mainland Chinese prices! Which explained why there were so many mainlanders who patronized the restaurant. Not only was it a taste of home, but cheap too.

The meal made me miss my Beijing food days -- I never thought I'd miss kung pao chicken that much!

Little Chilli
B2, 33 North Point Road
North Point
2571 9822

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Fact of the Day: Macau on a Roll

Macau's ever-growing casino landscape

Last year Macau raked in a killing in gaming revenues.

There are 33 licensed casinos in the city and they took in a record 188.34 billion patacas ($24.23 billion), up an unprecedented 57.8 percent from 2009, which coincides with when the Chinese government started its economic stimulus package to weather the global economic downturn.

So now we know where a lot of that money went. It didn't all go into pouring concrete.

Now the Macau market is more than four times the size of the Las Vegas strip. Casino winnings in Macau have more than doubled since 2007, more than quadrupled since 2005, and more than eightfold from the 22.2 billion patacas ($2.85 billion) in 2002 when Stanley Ho's gaming monopoly ended.

How's that for big money?

However, analysts think the good days will be soon over as Beijing is anxious to curb the flow of hot money and Macau is trying to put more regulations in the gaming industry by limiting the number of casinos that can open as well as caps on gaming tables.

But who knows? There's always a way around things if people are willing to gamble their money away...

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Koolhaas goes to HK

In the news today the Dutch architectural firm OMA headed by uber cool designer Rem Koolhaas will be moving its headquarters from Beijing to Hong Kong.

It claims the territory has more of the talented professionals it needs to handle its slew of Asian projects. The firm denied the move had anything to do with the controversy over the CCTV tower or "trouser legs" or the fire in the building next to it, which was supposed to house the Mandarin Oriental and apparently held most of the archive footage of the Beijing Olympics.

"We will still keep the Beijing office," said David Glanotten, who started the Hong Kong office and is partner of the company. "We just want a stronger presence in Asia and Hong Kong provides a convenient platform." He added that the firm receives "positive comments on the CCTV design."

The Hong Kong office opened in 2009 with 12 people in the architectural team and since then has grown to 45, when OMA pitched its design for the West Kowloon arts hub. It now wants to expand its staff to 60, making it the second-largest branch after its headquarters in Rotterdam.

"It's a change of strategy. We don't aim for the China market only, but the whole of Asia," Glanotten said. "Hong Kong by far is the most convenient platform for hiring both mainland and international talent. It provides a good mix."

He said architects from the mainland were imaginative and those from Taiwan were pragmatic, while those from Hong Kong were more rounded, adept not only in design, but also engineering and technical skills.

OMA's retreat from China is understandable; many people there didn't understand the design or appreciate it at all, and when the building next to it caught on fire in February 2009 from fireworks, the debacle created even more derision. They felt the government had wasted their hard-earned taxpayer yuan, only to see it explode into flames.

Koolhass will probably be pleased with making Hong Kong his Asia headquarters. It's a vote of confidence for the city, considering many top executives are considering leaving because of the worsening air pollution.

At least Hong Kong will look better.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Manufacturing Praise

President Hu Jintao talking to "low-income" families in Beijing

On December 30, Chinese President Hu Jintao did a humble thing and went to visit some low-income families in Beijing to wish them a Happy New Year.

This was because housing problems was "a great matter weighing on the President's heart".

Of course the whole event was covered by CCTV and the video clip is here complete with subtitles.

Hu went to visit a compound called Lijingyuan (丽景园) and went to see a low-income family that had a woman named Guo Chunping (郭春平) and her daughter.

The following is the exchange between Guo and Hu:

Hu: When did you move in?
Guo: I've moved in over half a month now.
Hu: Oh, half a month, I see. How big is this apartment?
Guo: It's 45 square metres in all.
Hu: 45, huh. Two rooms?
Guo: Yes, two rooms.
Hu: How much rent are you paying for this apartment?
Guo: I pay 77RMB ($11.68) each month.
Hu: 77RMB each month -- are you able to cope with the rent?
Guo: Yes. Secretary-General, I just wanted to say a big thank you to the party and the government. We are so touched to have been given this fabulous apartment to live in!
Hu: The party and the government are very concerned with the people's daily livelihoods. We've taken up a series of measures to further improve your daily lives. Well, we're so happy to see that your lives have been improved here!
Guo: Thank you! Thank you! Our country is really improving day by day. We never dreamed we would be living in such an apartment some day.

Only 77RMB to rent an apartment? Where can we get one of those?

Young people who are part of the "ant tribe" (蚁族) have to pay 200RMB ($30.44) for a bed in a cramped room shared by several other people, while those who are in the "rat tribe" (鼠族) live in underground rooms for 500RMB ($75.86) for 8 square metres.

Her answer infuriated viewers who immediately went to check out if rent at this Lijingyuan was indeed 77RMB per month, or to see if Guo was for real. For subsidized housing, Guo's family would have to have a total monthly income of 580RMB.

There are unconfirmed reports that Guo is actually a civil servant who works with the traffic police in Chaoyang District in Beijing. Neighbours at Lijingyuan say Guo doesn't live there, but actually rents it out. And the going rate for renting a place in that compound? Two thousand RMB ($303.44).

Sounds like Guo has come up with the new catchphrase of 77RMB, or how about her lavish praise on the government for giving her such a wonderful apartment to live in!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Passionate Democrat Passes On


Early this afternoon Szeto Wah passed away. He was 79.

There had been a death watch in the last few weeks as he was deteriorating from lung cancer.

But people in the pan democratic camp didn't want him to leave and still made him the figurehead leader of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Movements in China until his death.

He started his career as a teacher and primary school principal, and then became politically active by organizing the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union into one of the territory's most powerful unions.

But when June 4 happened in 1989, Szeto was greatly affected by what happened in Tiananmen Square along with most of not all Hong Kongers. He even helped some of the Tiananmen protesters escape China, for which people like Wang Dan and Wu'er Kaixi are eternally grateful.

Szeto formed the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Movements in China and every June 4 it hosts a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park demanding the Chinese government apologize for its actions. The party is a key advocate for human rights activists in China and voices its demands for justice and democracy.

He never married, and his term of endearment Wah Sook, or Uncle Wah shows how long he has been active in fighting for what he believes in, as it has led to the establishment of other political parties pushing for democracy, as well as encouraging the public to be more aware of their rights.

Szeto was a founding member of the United Democrats of Hong Kong, which later became the Democratic Party.

However last year he was greatly criticized for backing the Democratic Party's decision to vote for limited reforms for Hong Kong's half-elected legislature that were endorsed by Beijing.

Nevertheless, his achievements greatly overshadow his faults and will be sorely missed.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Beijing Wags its Finger at HK

Hong Kong is trying to practice "one country, two systems", but it gets more difficult when the master keeps changing the rules.

The latest development is the new man Beijing appointed to look after Hong Kong affairs, Wang Guangya who warned the city not to interfere in the mainland's judiciary.

His statement came after it was confirmed by three Hong Kong deputies to the National People's Congress (NPC) that tainted milk activist Zhao Lianhai was freed on medical parole. However, Zhao hasn't actually surfaced so it's hard to know for sure if he has his freedoms again or is under house arrest.

While Zhao's exact whereabouts are another issue, it was mainly Hong Kong deputies as well as the people who protested against Zhao's sentence of two and a half years in jail. These political representatives spoke out about the issue and 28 of them signed a letter to the Supreme People's Court calling for Zhao's release.

Responding to the criticism, Wang said most countries like China maintained judicial independence. "Others should not interfere," he said. "Moreover, I understand that this incident has already been properly settled."

When asked to clarify if the Hong Kong deputies' letter amounted to interference, Wang gave a classic Chinese official vague response. "It depends on the way of expression. Under 'one country, two systems', well water should not intrude into river water."

So if Hong Kong is considered well water, does that mean it's stagnant? While China is a flowing body of water? Does he mean Hong Kong has bad feng shui?

Wang was also repeating an expression first used by then President Jiang Zemin on the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, saying Hong Kong should not meddle in mainland politics.

However, Hong Kong deputies felt they were not interfering but rather doing their job.

"I believe he was talking about 'one country, two systems' as a general principle," said Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, who initiated the petition. "In the letter we stated that we did not know the details of the trial and would not comment on the judgment. It was very clear that we were not trying to interfere with judicial independence. We were only pleading leniency."

Another deputy, Priscilla Lau Pui-king said they were exercising their duties as NPC members to be a "check and balance" in national affairs. "The judicial system is among the state organs we watch," she said.

Ip Kwok-him, who also signed the letter said, "As members of the nation's highest power body, we should be certainly be concerned about the matter."

While it was heart warming to see Hong Kong deputies doing what they felt was morally right and express their strong opinion on the issue, it's also sad to see how naive they are about how mainland policies work. China does not want any kind of criticism, especially from those in Hong Kong who may not realize NPC deputies are only interested in promoting their own interests and hardly ever criticize its own.

It is probably correct that NPC members should be the "check and balance" of what's going on in China, but is the leadership really interested in seeing any kind of dissent? But by the same token, if Hong Kong is to be ruled by "one country, two systems", then China should respect these different and concerned opinions and understand the city is trying to drag the massive country into following rule of law.

It seems the two solitudes are still far apart.