Sunday, 31 July 2011

Trying to Turn Off the Tap of Anger

The Chinese government has had enough.

After seven days of grief, anger and frustration, mainland authorities have now imposed a media ban on all state media from reporting or talking about the Wenzhou train crash.

The Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China issued an order to all newspaper and internet editors at 9pm Friday to stop all coverage on the crash, forcing them to scramble to fill pages just before the printing deadline.

This is ironic considering the order happened a day after Premier Wen Jiabao visited the accident site and pledged transparency and openness.

The edict said: "After the serious rail traffic accident on July 23, overseas and domestic public opinions have become increasingly complicated. All local media, including newspapers, magazines and websites, must rapidly cool down the reports of the incident.

"[You] are not allowed to publish any reports or commentaries, except positive news or information released by the authorities."

Orders come down from the propaganda department on a daily basis, but this one was unprecedented.

As a result China Business Journal had to scramble to fill eight pages, 21st Century Business Herald 12 pages and Beijing News nine pages. Most newspapers in the country also had to take out the latest reports on the train accident from their front pages at the last minute.

The extreme measure was akin to trying to scrub out a stain so that it looked as if it never existed.

This kind of response shows the government's paranoia of people's anger getting out of hand, questioning its legitimacy to rule.

However people are already wondering who is ruling them. They were not particularly assuaged when Grandpa Wen showed up four days late only to give the lame excuse that he was lying in a hospital bed when he was busy conducting business. His persona of trying to be the softer, kinder side of the regime has lost its lustre. All people want is the truth -- what happened, why and how.

When the Sichuan earthquake happened in 2008, the media was open to report on the fortitude of the survivors and the hard work of the soldiers. But it also quickly revealed how ill-equipped the army was and sadly how poorly-constructed the buildings were, in particular the schools which led to thousands of children dead.

The train crash was quickly reported because someone on the stationary train reported on his or her microblog that something was wrong. From then onwards, the story caught on like wildfire -- and the Chinese government had no time to craft excuses or a narrative to fit the situation.

This time it was severely caught flat-footed and was punished for it by the anger of the relatives of the victims and the public as a whole, who were led to believe their country had the most advanced train system in the world.

The government thinks it can out-smart or out-run its people. But technology has a way of giving the masses a leg-up.

Senior officials can't hide anymore. The only way they can justify their leadership is to be open and transparent.

But that would only lead to the Communist Party's demise.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Something Systemically Wrong

It's one week after the Wenzhou crash and we still don't know exactly how the accident happened, but pretty much everyone has decided not to ride China's trains anymore, particularly the fast ones.

A report today says the faulty signal system that was installed in Wenzhou is used in all 58 stations, including along the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed route that has been having technical problems.

This is a chilling piece of information to know if the signalling system really is to blame.

The Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute of Signal and Communication designed the system and interestingly enough it has the monopoly on the railway-signalling industry.

The company is a subsidiary of the China Railway Signal and Communication Corporation which was previously controlled by the Ministry of Railways.

This company has designed all the signalling systems for all high-speed routes, including Beijing and Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin, Wuhan and Guangzhou, and Harbin and Dalian. It is also working on the Guangzhou-Shenzhen line that will go to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong people will be too terrified to even step foot on this train now knowing the signalling system is the same as the one used in the Wenzhou crash.

What's also shocking is that I rode the Beijing-Tianjin train a few years ago!

If railway officials believe the signalling system was the problem, all high-speed trains should be stopped until the matter is sorted out. And there should be serious questions asked about the capability of this company to provide safe equipment for China's railway network.

After the series of debacles in handling the accident, the most crucial things now are integrity and transparency.

People are angry with government officials playing god with their lives.

Laobaixing [ordinary people] are just trying to eek out a living and yet they still can't get the truth.

Meanwhile the government has almost doubled compensation for families of the victims to 915,000RMB ($142,147). While it's nice to know the value of a life has gone up, loved ones just want the truth.

That's the least they deserve.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Picture of the Day: Fu Yu Cheesecake

Fu yu is pungent smelling fermented tofu. It's usually used in a sauce to accompany water spinach or morning glory, but I've since discovered it has other uses too.

Some like to equate fu yu as a Chinese cheese, though it is quite sharp to eat straight.

Which is why Sha Tin 18 at Hyatt Regency Hong Kong, Sha Tin in the New Territories has incorporated fu yu in its cheesecake.

While it sounds strange, it really works.

The strong flavour of the fu yu is tamed by the sweetness of the dessert, but there's still a bit of a savoury taste to it.

So if you ever head to Sha Tin check out the Hyatt Regency's fu yu cheesecake. And while you're there have the Peking duck too.

Sha Tin 18
18 Chak Cheung Street
Sha Tin, New Territories
3723 1234
www.hongkong.shatin.hyatt.com

Thursday, 28 July 2011

China's Bureaucracy a Train Wreck

Heavy machinery moving the carriages -- but have they been examined yet?
Premier Wen Jiabao was in Wenzhou today to survey the site of Saturday's train accident and console the families of the victims.
Yesterday he called for an investigation into the incident where 39 died and some 200 were injured. He said the results will be made public.
"No matter if it was a mechanical fault, a management problem, or a manufacturing problem, we must get to the bottom of this," Wen said standing under the viaduct where four train carriages plunged. "If corruption was found behind this, we must handle it according to law and will not be soft. Only in this way can we be fair to those who have died," he said.
However someone was willing to take the blame. Today the designer of the train, Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute of Signal and Communication Company came out and apologized for the accident.
"(We) express deepest condolences to the dead and a most sincere apology to the injured and families of the dead," the company said in a statement.
There is still no confirmed word on how one train smashed into a stationary one, though a report from Xinhua says there was a design flaw in the signalling system which prevented the green light from turning red.
Despite the expressions of "deep grief" and apologies, the families are not satisfied with how officials are handling the accident or the investigations.
First of all, after the accident the site was disturbed by heavy machinery and it looked like officials were trying to hide evidence they claimed was technology that was of national security importance.
Xiang Weiyi recovering in hospital
And then the families felt not enough time was spent going through each of the carriages to find survivors and bodies; 21 hours later did a police captain disobey orders and manage to find two-year-old Xiang Weiyi alive. She is dealing with gangrene in her leg and will have to undergo surgery to remove the dead tissue around the wound.
Next officials started making deals with the families of the victims, offering the first family 500,000 RMB ($77,579) in compensation and it was reported the breakdown of the amount included a few thousand RMB as a bonus for signing on early. So basically the less questions you ask or the faster you accept the payment, the more you'll get. This further enraged other families who say they don't care about the money and instead want to know exactly how and why their loved ones died.
Now with the orders of an investigation from the Central government with the results that will be made public, how can investigators find outhow things went wrong when the carriages have already been damaged by diggers? And where is the driver of the train of the stationary car? Why hasn't he been interviewed yet? Why didn't the Central government order an investigation earlier?
What's even more intriguing is that Wen apologized for not being able to the crash site earlier.
"Over this time I've been ill and spent 11 days on a sickbed. the doctor only today reluctantly allowed me to check out of hospital," Wen said.
The Premier was in hospital for almost two weeks and we didn't even know about it?
Things keep getting stranger and stranger.
And where is President Hu Jintao in all of this? He has not said a word about this accident as far as I have seen or heard.
The government on all levels has completely bungled this entire incident and the public is not afraid to vent its frustrations on the ineptness of the bureaucracy. People are tired of hearing excuses or vague answers -- they want the truth -- for once.

So why is it so hard for the government to give it to them?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Setting Limits on China's Internet Highway

One of many internet cafes in China where users must register to use it

The opportunity for China to be virtually connected has suffered a major setback now that the government has instituted more controls on the internet.
Places like coffee shops, restaurants and hotels that used to offer this service for free now have to buy a software that will provide public security officials the identities of those customers online.
Businesses need to buy the software which costs $3,100 and if they don't, they face a HK$2,300 fine and could lose their business license.
So now instead of having to go through the hassle of buying the software and being responsible for strangers using wifi on their premises, businesses would rather not offer the free internet service anymore.

"From the point of view of the common people, this policy is unfair," said Wang Bo, a cafe owner. "It's just an effort to control the flow of information."

This is another in a series of internet tightening measures the paranoid government is implementing in order to crack down on online dissent. While most foreign media explain the latest edict came down because of the recent spring revolutions in the Middle East, sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were already blocked years ago due to the Tibet and Xinjiang riots, and then there was a campaign to get rid of anything "yellow", a code name for pornography.

Not only does the government have an army filtering what people are saying and seeing online, now they want to know the identities of the hundreds of millions of people who are on the internet. Tracking all these people will be another cumbersome bureaucratic layer. Who wants to have that job?

The government doesn't care if businesses lose customers and revenues because they don't offer wifi anymore -- it's all in the name of stability.

This just makes things worse for small entrepreneurs and hotels who will now have to find other ways to make more money and also soothe the fears of paranoid foreign guests worried about Big Brother.

As one shop owner who wished to be anonymous said, "We have no problem allowing our customers to surf the internet; it's the government that does. If they want us to install the software, they should foot the bill."

Sounds more like an economic stimulus project than for national security...

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Banknote Blunder

The new HSBC banknote must undergo revisions after a flag flap

There's a big debate over the Hong Kong government wanting to implement a national education curriculum in schools so that young people will have a better understanding of the motherland and become better citizens.

However perhaps its the government itself that should take the course, along with senior executives at HSBC and the Monetary Authority.

You see, HSBC is in the midst of issuing new HK$100 banknotes and was ready to release them in November.

On one side of the note is a parade and in the background are the Chinese and Hong Kong flags flying in the background -- except that the petals on the Bauhinia flower are pointing clockwise and they should be pointing anti-clockwise since the flagpole is on the right.

HSBC, the Monetary Authority and the government issued a joint statement Sunday apologizing for the error which was pointed out by members of the public after the bank unveiled the new look of the HK$20, HK$50 and HK$100 notes on Friday.

"HSBC, as a note-issuing bank, has responsibility for the design of banknotes," the statement said. "The design of banknotes was reviewed by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. As regards the design involving the national and regional flags, it has also been referred to the administrative wing for approval.

"The three parties had not detected the issue, we sincerely apologize for the incident."

So now it's back to the drawing board for HSBC and plans to issue the redesigned banknotes in January in time for Chinese New Year.

A spokeswoman for HSBC apologized "for the embarrassment caused to all parties concerned" and thanked the public for pointing out the error.

She would not say how much it would cost to reprint the notes or how many faulty notes were printed.

The three parties were probably so absorbed in the anti-counterfeit measures on the new bills and didn't stop to check if the flag was flying the right way.

The design of a military band parading on the banknote is a strange choice as it seems like the bank is blatantly kowtowing to China's interests. Hopefully the designers will scrap that idea and come up with something more pro Hong Kong instead.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Tragedy Goes Off the Rails

Workers seem to be disturbing the accident site -- under whose orders?

The pictures of the high-speed train collision in Wenzhou are shocking -- one train on an overpass, the front of it smashed, and another in front hit so hard by the impact that the other carriages fell off. One is even on leaning against the overpass having fallen head first.
So far 43 people are dead, at least 210 injured. Two Americans are among the dead.
The accident happened Saturday evening around 8:30pm when a southbound train crashed into the rear of another train, both heading to Fuzhou. At first rail ministry spokesman Wang Yongping blamed the incident on "equipment failure caused by lightning strike". Witnesses confirm there was heavy lightning over the area, which may have caused the second train to lose power.

Someone should have alerted the first train to stop or if there was a power failure, shouldn't that train have lost power too?
The government has already sacked three senior railway officials and ordered an "urgent overhaul" of national rail safety.
But the Chinese don't believe the government has come clean on what's really going on.
There are reports from Phoenix TV and pictures on Sina Weibo that work crew were tampering the accident site using backhoes to bury some of the carriages.
According to the railway ministry, the trains contained valuable national technology and could not be left out in the open in case it fell into the wrong hands.
This is outrageous when an accident site should be left as it is so that investigators can figure out exactly how and why the trains crashed so that this will not happen again in the future. But no, the country's national technology is at stake -- or perhaps it wants to hide what foreign companies have wondered all along -- that their technology was stolen.
It sounds like someone is trying desperately to cover up something.
The horrible accident proves once again China's ambitions to have a high-speed rail network is faltering shortly after it began. The new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed link has had extensive stoppages that were also blamed by lightning strikes. Also several months ago there were reports that low-grade ash was used to build the rails as there wasn't enough high-grade ash available on the market.
If this ends up being one of the reasons why the accident happened, corruption will be to blame. And more people will be at the mercy of airline companies.
One wonders if the government is genuinely interested in finding the truth to what really happened.
The railway is the lifeblood of China; it is what connects the country together with over 8,000 kilometres of track. The majority of people cannot afford to take planes, but also these trains pass through remote areas. Which is why it is critical that these trains and rail lines be safe.
One would think safety would be of the utmost priority in transport, but right now it appears pride goes before the welfare of the passengers.
Chinese officials don't seem to realize they are playing God with their carelessness and greed. Does that sound like a responsible superpower to you?

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Show Me Talent

Who would you choose to be Mr Hong Kong 2011?

The Hong Kong TV channel TVB must be desperate for some new talent. It's hosting a variety of talent shows in hopes of finding the next "it" boy and girl.

But so far it seems it isn't having much luck.

Last week it held the Mr Hong Kong pageant in front of a live studio audience and a coterie of beautiful starlets who were dressed up in cocktail dresses who gave comments on which contestants they favoured as the competition went on.

The most hilarious part was probably the beginning as each contestant was introduced individually. You could see their statistics on the screen and one by one they emerged from a fountain in their tiny swim suits so by the time they came out the had to rub their eyes in order to see the stage. Then they attempted to show off their physical prowess by doing pullups, pushups or the odd dance move. They ranged from wimpy to really ripped.

They also had to go through a talent contest where they either sang, danced, demonstrated kungfu, painted or performed magic tricks. None were particularly outstanding.

Then for some bizarre reason the top four contestants had to split up into two teams and debate whether a male pageant should be judged equally as a women's contest.

Mr Hong Kong winner Clayton Li showing off his lean body
In the end a guy named Clayton Li who had lived overseas and wasn't able to express himself well in Cantonese was crowned Mr Hong Kong.

Then this week it was a kungfu contest and interestingly enough, one of the young men with abs was also in this contest. Again around 10 people competed and no one was particularly distinguished in their routines. A well-known kungfu master was one of the judges and he got up a few times to show them how to improve on their moves. How embarrassing.

It looked like many of them had not practiced kungfu since they were young (perhaps their parents wanted them to focus on academics?) so they looked like amateurs, or hadn't progressed far in their routines to perform more skilled moves or even at a faster pace. There was no Donnie Yen in the making.

The final four were chosen and they had to follow exactly what a stuntman did which was a simple somersault, a few fist moves and then jump through a glass panel.

All four copied the same moves without the glass and then one was chosen to go through the glass.

In the end it was a 19-year-old pretty boy who got to smash the glass panel. He had performed a dance with a fan and recited poetry than any kungfu moves as he didn't quite have the athleticism.

Apprentice Chef host Steven Ma
Following the kungfu show was a cooking contest called Apprentice Chef where contestants had to prepare dishes in three minutes. Yes you read right -- three minutes. Water takes more than three minutes to boil and here they had to complete five servings of a dish in 180 seconds.

It's like Iron Chef but the Twitter version.

Actual chefs competed but for some bizarre reason the one who almost burnt the pan-fried goose liver won the contest, while another chef did two versions of prawns and a Pakistani made a lamb curry that didn't have enough flavour. What do you expect after only three minutes?

If TVB thinks it can churn out talent like a factory, it's terribly mistaken.

These contests only reveal its desperation to find the new stars of tomorrow, who are willing to do almost anything to become famous. Whatever happened to pure raw talent?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

The Next Chapter

No sooner had I written my post about Lai Changxing losing his bid to gain refugee status in Canada and he was whisked onto a plane and flown back to Beijing.

He arrived this afternoon Hong Kong time and the television footage showed him in handcuffs and manhandled by two security officers, each firmly holding one of Lai's arms with gloves as they walked down the stairs from the plane.

They were obviously taking no chances.

Gone was the flashy smile and Lai was read his rights, issued lawyers and he had to sign a warrant issued for his arrest.

The upcoming trial should be an interesting inside look into how this former farmer from Xiamen managed to implicate many senior officials in order to help him earn billions of renminbi from smuggling.

Apparently Lai had a "red mansion" complete with massage tables where he tempted officials with beautiful women and bribed them.

Some of these corrupt officials have already been convicted and were either executed or imprisoned for life.

But with this trial, Lai will surely expose more names which could leave some planning their escape routes now...

Friday, 22 July 2011

Game Over for Lai Changxing

Lai to go back home any day now
Eleven years after he fled to Canada, China's most wanted man, Lai Changxing is finally going back to the motherland.

It's been a very long tug-of-war of diplomacy between the two countries, and the 52-year-old Lai trying every legal avenue to stay in Canada to claim refugee status.

He's been accused of bribery and masterminding a multibillion-dollar smuggling ring that imported goods to Xiamen, including cigarettes and the Chinese government wants him back to be prosecuted on these charges.

But for the longest time Canada would not hand Lai back because the two countries did not have an extradition agreement, but also Canada is not supposed to send people back if they know they will be either tortured or killed when they are returned.

However on Thursday Justice Michel Shore said there were enough promises from the Chinese government that it would not torture or execute him.

"It is assumed that the assurances of the Chinese government, as per its written promises, will be kept, as the Chinese government's honour and face is, and will be, bound and kept respectively, by the monitoring for the lifetime of the applicant..." Judge Shore wrote in his ruling.

He added according to the Chinese government's word, Canadian officials would be able to Lai periodically and sit in on his court hearings which "augur hope for a different way to be taken, in a newly unfolded path to which the Chinese government's signature has been officially affixed for the commitments undertaken. The future, yet to be seen by both countries and others, will stand as witness to the outcome."

While Lai's lawyer David Matas tried to argue that the Chinese government does not keep its promises and that his chances of being fairly represented in a Chinese court were very slim, Judge Shore said this was not convincing evidence to prove Lai shouldn't be sent back.

Also apparently Lai has been negotiating his return to China with Chinese authorities, which to Judge Shore, indicated no risk of going back.

This last detail I didn't know about and Lai was possibly trying to seek as much assurance as he could about his relative safety back home.

Apparently Lai will be returned any day now and it's a long time coming.

Both Canada and China wanted this issue resolved and with Lai having exhausted all his legal options, the wait is finally over. Former Premier Zhu Rongji must be especially pleased, as he initiated the crackdown on smuggling in Xiamen and publicly stated Lai deserves not only one death but many.

Nevertheless, it's interesting to note Lai's judgment coincides with Foreign Minister John Baird's trip to China that just ended and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans to go to Beijing again -- and probably doesn't want another stern lecture from Premier Wen Jiabao.

It seems suspicious that all legal avenues were blocked for Lai so quickly and definitively when this debate had been going on for over a decade.

But perhaps more importantly, those who will miss him the most will be some of Vancouver's Chinese restaurants as Lai was one of their biggest customers....

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Spilling Over a Cover Up

A photo grab of a television report on the spill
 Face is everything for China, especially when it comes to important anniversaries.
During the recent 90th anniversary marking the the Communist Party of China's founding on July 1, former President Jiang Zemin was noticeably absent sparking rumours of his demise which were later found to be false.
But just a few weeks before the celebrations, there was also a massive oil spill in the Bohai Sea that no one heard about until a few weeks after the big party was over. Sound familiar to the melamine milk scandal that erupted after the Beijing Olympics?
It's now estimated some 1,500 barrels of oil spilled last month from China's largest oilfield and is now starting to wash ashore on two beaches along the Bohai Sea, some 170 kilometres away. The contaminated area is more than 4,200 square kilometres, four times the size of Hong Kong.
Environmentalists are calling it one of the worst ecological disasters in decades that could devastate the fishing and tourism industries there.
The first issue is that three parties are to blame for this spill: China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) is the majority owner of the Penglai 19-3 oilfield and it has contracted the extracting to its American operator ConocoPhillips. Also at fault is the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). All three have been accused of covering up the spill for over a month.
The spill happened on June 4 and ConocoPhillips told SOA about it on the same day. But apparently SOA did nothing and even claimed it didn't know about the spill until nine days later. SOA has also only had one media briefing about the spill, when it would be expected at least on a daily basis in North America.
Caijing magazine also reported CNOOC, which owns 51 percent of the oilfield, urged ConocoPhillips not to go public about the spills, citing "important upcoming events", a reference to the July 1 anniversary celebrations. CNOOC only confirmed the spill on July 1, almost 10 days after it was reported on micro-blogging sites like Sina Weibo.
Then the blame game began. ConocoPhillips' China president Georg Storaker was asked if the company would have delayed releasing information in the United States, and he insisted his company followed proper procedures in terms of information disclosure on the mainland; which leads one to wonder why the government allows such a lag time in disclosing information that is potentially environmentally damaging.

Then the media started poking at the SOA, demanding to know why it took so long to disclose the spills. SOA responded that it had rarely seen such an incident and needed more time to study it -- a classic government reply.
Then the government body tried to put all the blame on the US company in order to exonerate CNOOC, saying it was not directly involved in the drilling operations. This angered the public so much that SOA looked even more like a lame duck.

And now the second more pressing issue is how to clean up the mess. The authorities are cleaning up small tar balls that have washed up along the four kilometre coastline which is a big patch of area to cover. ConocoPhillips says it's doing all it can to stop the leaks and is dispersing the spills with chemicals and absorbent mats.

But it sounds like the spill is hardly contained.
Ma Jun, a leading water pollution expert says the impact of the spill has been "greatly underestimated" and that more information needs to be disclosed on exactly how much oil has leaked into the sea.
About a year ago I remember reading in state media in Beijing how China was proudly boasting about the Bohai oil reserves there and how the country would be able to ease its dependency on foreign oil.
But this spill proves China is not taking its environmental responsibilities seriously. There are natural wetlands in the area and a variety of sea life unique to the area. These spills are going to cause serious damage to the area.

It's great to see Chinese citizens becoming more environmentally aware and displaying their anger about how the government is handling the situation. If anything as a watchdog SOA should be severely punishing CNOOC and ConocoPhillips, not making excuses for them.

The future of the land and its people are at stake.

But then again with over half of all the rivers in China utterly polluted and undrinkable, should we be surprised?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Word of the Day: Baofahu

Living in Hong Kong we grumble amongst ourselves about mainlanders invading our city day in, day out. They come literally by the bus, ferry, plane and train loads snapping up whatever good deals they can find.

While it's great they're keeping Hong Kong's economy afloat, the side effects of hearing incessant Putonghua on the streets, getting priority service in boutiques and eating up our shark's fin and abalone supply can be quite a culture shock.

And it's the nouveau riche who are gaining the most attention. Last year alone, the number of China's millionaires jumped by 12 percent to 534,500 -- fourth in the world behind the United States, Japan and Germany, according to Capgemini SA and Bank of America Corp.

So these people are called baofahu (暴發戶) or "suddenly wealthy". The Chinese is so apt as bao can mean "explosive", but it can also mean "brutal" and "vicious".

Which takes us to a well-known baofahu -- Wendi Deng Murdoch.

She saved her 80-year-old husband from further embarrassment yesterday when a man tried to throw a plate of shaving cream into Rupert Murdoch's face while he testified in front of the select committee on culture, media and sport.

But the 42-year-old Deng quickly stood up and smacked down the intruder.

On the mainland she's already earned the nickname "slapdown sister".

Now you know your lesson -- don't mess with a baofahu.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Natural Star

Tang Wei is the new ambassador for SKII
The other day I was happy to see actress Tang Wei (汤唯) is the newest spokesperson for SKII.
Pictures of her with her flawless skin (unless it's photoshopped) grace giant billboards at MTR platforms and windows of department stores.
Hopefully this ad campaign will help bolster Tang's career after a miserable past few years.
When Ang Lee's Lust, Caution came out in 2007, I was sure she would become the next darling of Chinese cinema.
But the Chinese censors were not pleased with her character Wong Chiachi who aids her lover, a collaborator with the Japanese played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, to escape.
Hello? It's a movie!
But no, the Chinese government displayed its vehement displeasure at Tang's choice of role and the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) decided to punish her by ordering a media ban of her due to her sex scenes in the movie.

This resulted in television advertising campaigns involving her promoting Pond's cream to be called off for which she was paid 6 million RMB ($927,787). What is more outrageous is that the government should have been furious at Leung for his character or Lee for making the film.

Lee tried to plead Tang's case in a letter of protest, but it was in vain. "I am very disappointed that Tang Wei is being hurt by this decision," he said in a statement. "She gave one of the greatest performances ever in a movie that was properly produced and distributed. We will do everything we can to support her in this difficult time."

Tang's latest ad shown in HK
There was no hope of her getting anymore work on the mainland so she moved to Hong Kong

She ended up starring in a romantic comedy with Cantopop star Jacky Cheung Hok-yau called Crossing Hennessy that was set in Hong Kong. She learned Cantonese for the role and won the Best Actress award at the 11th Chinese Film Media Awards in Macau last year.

Did that signal that Tang was kosher again?

She then had a part in The Founding of a Party as an early girlfriend of Mao Zedong's, but she was then dropped after the Great Helmsman's grandson Mao Xinyu objected to the Lust, Caution star.

Hello? It's a movie!

But no, Mao's family was not happy having a controversial actress involved in the propaganda project.

Can Tang not get a break at all? She is a very talented actress and seems humbled by all the support and praise that has been showered on her. She has taken on these obstacles on her career with grace, making her even more of a star.

And so far it's starting to pay off -- she was well received in Singapore for the opening of SKII House. She joins a star-studded cast of spokespeople for the brand, including Cate Blanchett, Qi Qi and Carina Lau Ka-ling.

Hopefully the mainland will finally realize how silly its judgement has been on Tang and realize she is yet another wonderful cultural ambassador for the country, but more importantly this could propel her to Hollywood stardom and go even further than Zhang Ziyi.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Fact of the Day: China Likes Fast Cars

Some 200 Chinese have ordered Lamborghini's Aventador 

China is set to overtake the United States to become the world's number one market for Lamborghinis by the end of this year.

The two markets are "battling month by month... but there is a good chance that China is going to be the biggest by the end of the year," says Automobili Lamborghini president and chief executive Stephan Winkelman.

The Italian carmaker sold 138 cars on the mainland in the first six months of this year, an increase of 60 percent from the same period last year, he said.

Meanwhile sales in the US which had been Lamborghini's biggest market were "about the same number" but grew only in single digits in the first half of this year.

The company sold 206 Lamborghinis last year in China, with 150 percent of its sales there. "This year we will get close to 300 cars, at the least," Winkelman predicts.

Meanwhile about 50 cars are sold in Hong Kong each year and he believes Macau will be around 10 to 20 annually.

"When our expectations were not as high as they are today, we were forecasting over the long term, up to 500 cars per year in [mainland] China," Winkelman says.

"I think we can do much more than 500 cars. I don't want to put a time frame on it because it's about building up demand. And it's always about producing less than demand."

Most of the cars sold in China were of the Gallardo line, which starts at a retail price of 3.38 million RMB ($522,410) and were "entry-level" models according to Winkelman.

This year mainland clients are putting in orders for the Aventadors that can accelerate from zero to 100km/h in 2.9 seconds and have a top speed of 350km/h. It also burns 11.3 litres of gas for every 100 kilometres in highway driving.

Those lucky 200 in China who have ordered the Aventadors have to wait 18 months before they can take them out for a spin.

And one can easily imagine them speeding anywhere they have a chance to floor it and flaunt it.

Currently Lamborghini has 14 mainland dealerships and will have more opening in the northwestern coal mining town of Taiyuan, Shanxi province and Shenyang, Liaoning province. That gives a huge clue of what line of work those Lamborghini drivers are in.

And another interesting fact is that mainland Lamborghini buyers are the youngest in the world with an average age of 35. "They are entrepreneurs, they are self-made men," explains Winkelman. "They are very young but in China most of the money is young."

With these kinds of statistics, boys with toys is taken to an astronomical level.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Disseminating Half Truths

China Daily is doing some interesting spinning these days.

On Thursday it published an intriguing opinion piece with the headline "Tiananmen Square Massacre a Myth".

This is probably the first time in decades this English-language state-run newspaper has actually addressed the events of June 4, 1989 in any way.

Instead of silence on the black mark in modern Chinese history, China Daily is actually refuting the horrific event took place. It claims a former Australian diplomat by the name of Gregory Clark wrote an article in the Japan Times saying western media created the "so-called Tiananmen myth".

Through Wikileaks cables Clark says the massacre did not happen in the square. And that's all the China Daily opinion piece says of what Clark writes. It does not go onto with what he says that while people were not shot at on the square, they were killed around it, particularly in Xidan and Muxidi, south and west of the square. And the majority of those killed were not students but workers and residents in the area who were trying to protect the students as tanks were converging onto the square.

So basically China Daily takes a small part of what Clark says and runs with it -- in the opposite direction.

The piece also blames western media for being biased and not getting its facts straight. At the time there was utter confusion and things were so frantic that foreign journalists tried to report what they saw. There wasn't much time to reflect on what was happening.

However, every year when we look back on the anniversary, more and more details emerge about the incident such as the fact that there was no killing of students within the square, but plenty of eyewitness accounts of people shot by live ammunition on the streets leading to the square.

This is Dr Jiang Yanyong's account, the same doctor who was the whistleblower who told the world about the government's attempt to cover up the SARS situation in China:

I was chief of the department of general surgery on June 4, 1989. On the night of June 3, I heard repeated broadcasts urging people to stay off the streets. At about 10pm, I was in my apartment when I heard the sound of continuous gunfire from the north. Several minutes later, my pager beeped. It was the emergency room calling me, and I rushed over. What I found was unimaginable -- on the floor and the tables of the emergency room were seven young people, their faces and bodies covered with blood. Two of them were later confirmed dead by EKG. My head buzzed and I nearly passed out. I had been a surgeon for more than 30 years. I had treated wounded soldiers before, while on the medical team of the PLA railway corps that built the Chengdu-Kunming Railway. But their injuries resulted from unavoidable accidents during the construction process, while before my eyes, in Beijing, the magnificent capital of China, lying in front of me, were our own people, killed by our people's army, with weapons supplied by the people.

Chinese state media are always looking for ways to discredit western media by twisting the words of other foreigners and this is yet another pathetic attempt. The last paragraph of the China Daily article says: "Tiananmen remains the classic example of the shallowness and bias in most Western media reporting, and of governmental black information operations seeking to control those media. China is too important to be a victim of this nonsense".

If China Daily was a reputable news outlet it would have reading Clark's entire article before spinning its own conclusion. But given that it's state media, spinning the "truth" is all it knows.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Word of the Day: 磨合期 or Probationary Period

Today's word of the day or shall I say phrase of the day is something I learned recently on Chinese Pod. The hosts of the podcast talked about the culture of driving in China, more particularly the accessories one finds in Chinese cars.
 
One of them was a bumper sticker that said "new driver" or 实习 (shíxí). Another says 磨合期 (móhéqī) or "on probation".
 
The phrase can be used in a number of ways:

A newly married couple can be on 磨合期 or "on probation" or in an introductory period for the first six months to a year;
 
A newly hired employee can be on 磨合期;
 
And a couple that has just started going out can be on 磨合期.


 

 

 

Friday, 15 July 2011

Need Money to Dole Money

The debacle of the government handing out the HK$6,000 ($770) to Hong Kong residents is growing even bigger.
 
Last week the government submitted papers to the Legislative Council's Finance Committee to get financing for this undertaking -- and it's going to cost a lot of dough.
 
The proposal talks about establishing a new computerized platform to handle the process, upgrade computers in the Treasury and Immigration Department, and hire additional staff for Financial Services and Treasury Bureau and the Immigration department.
 
The government also needs to have detailed talks with the city's banks as they will have to act as agents in this process.
 
While the government is offering HK$6,000 per person, it projects to start making payments as early as November and will offer an additional HK$200 to those who wait until March next year for the money.
 
What does this all mean?
 
The paper says 6.19 million people are eligible for the payment so it will need HK$29.7 billion and an additional $7.675 billion for those who the government thinks will opt for the deferral (in other words the extra HK$200).
 
Then the banks will be paid HK$10 for every case they handle, as well as Hongkong Post. Those charges are expected to add up to HK$92.1 million.
 
To publicise the scheme and answer public inquiries, the government expects to shell out HK$39.6 million; and extra staff needed for this operation will cost HK$45 million.
 
The cost of setting up and upgrading computer systems will be HK$14.8 million. 
 
That means the government is looking for HK$191.5 million just to disperse the funds, and HK$244 million for those it thinks will wait for the HK$200 bonus, or 20 percent of those eligible.
 
The proposal to give out the HK$6,000 was made four months ago; and it'll probably be early next year when we finally get the money in our hands. 
 
What a fiasco. 
 

Thursday, 14 July 2011

He's Not Dead... Yet

Guess what folks! Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin is alive and well.

Earlier this week it was reported he was released from Beijing's No. 301 military hospital and recuperating at home after showing symptoms including fever. The news story said that while Jiang's illness was not clear, it was not as serious as a heart attack or stroke, which still leads to further speculation of what health problems he had.

Nevertheless, he was discharged even before July 1, the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, but doctors advised him to stay at home as the two-hour celebrations would have been too physically demanding for the 84 year old.

So it's a relief to hear he's fine, but why not disclose these details earlier when there were rumours of his imminent demise flying around?

This is a classic example of when the Chinese propaganda machine is on edge and isn't sure what to do.

Either the update on Jiang's health should have been released ahead of the celebrations that he would not attend, or during the event so that TV commentators could add this bit in while talking about the festivities; or at the very latest when Xinhua dismissed the speculation over Jiang's death as "pure rumour".

All this runaround wondering if Jiang was dead or alive was a complete waste of time, though it did make interesting fodder for a few days.

This story just shows how big the bureaucracy is and how long it takes to respond to "rumours".

How does the Chinese propaganda department expect to survive in the technologically-advanced world we live in where we expect answers instantly?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Boiling Point

Right now there's a pretty big gathering at Chater Garden in Central, where several hundred people are protesting the Hong Kong government's plans to scrap by-elections.

The event is organized by the political group People Power and they plan a three-day protest outside of the Legislative Council from today.

When I got to Central after 7pm there was an enthusiastic crowd with lots of placards, people shouting slogans, others making speeches. And there were swarms of police everywhere. I counted at least 10 police vans which meant there were over 50-60 policemen and women, not including those on motorcycles. The police were also filming the event in case things got out of hand, but from the short few minutes I passed the protest things seemed to be orderly. There were even some police a few blocks away which seemed completely redundant.

And after I left the gym at 9pm the protesters were still there in force, continuing to make speeches and shouting in agreement. The police were still sticking around too.

The government really doesn't get it -- it doesn't want to follow the rules.

When five of pan-democratic legislators resigned en masse in late January this year, they were trying to have a "de facto referendum" on democracy.

In the end the five were easily re-elected in May, but the whole process irked the Hong Kong government.

So what did it decide to do? To ban by-elections, by saying those that resign, die or are unfit to serve due to health reasons will be replaced by the runner-up in the election. The government claims this is the most efficient and cost-effective way of doing things. Has anyone ever heard of anything so ludicrous in a somewhat democratic society?

Even the Hong Kong Bar Association has issued four warnings that the proposal is unconstitutional. What part of "unconstitutional" does the government not understand?

Then just before the recent July 1 protests, the government suggested the runner-up could be from the same party as the one who left the seat empty.

The Bar Association still thinks this is unconstitutional and goes against articles in the Basic Law.

In the end over 200,000 people hit the streets on July 1, the anniversary of the handover, to show their frustrations with the government on a wide range of issues including banning by-elections.

After that protest which has become an annual event, the government has partly U-turned on the issue by saying it will now hold public consultations on it.

People Power is still upset at the Tsang administration and hence the three-day protest vigil that includes calling for the resignation of Stephen Lam Sui-lung, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs.

Will the government listen and finally back down on something that is technically illegal?

It remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Race to be Red

Bo Xilai (centre right) getting Chongqing residents to go red

Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai seemed to be on the up and up with his "red culture campaign". He's encouraged residents to sing red revolutionary songs, text quotations from Chairman Mao to prove how red they are and dance to revolutionary tunes.

It's an eerie reminder of the Cultural Revolution which ironically persecuted Bo and his family. They were imprisoned for five years and then sent to a labour camp for another five years.

One would have thought he'd abhor reviving red culture, but it seems Bo's ambitions to reach the inner sanctum of the Politburo Standing Committee knows no bounds -- until now.

According to a report by China Daily, plans to build a Red Classic Theme Park in Chongqing was halted by municipality officials. The park was supposed to be in the shape of China, with sculptures of the predecessors to the Communist Party of China, have imitations of former leaders' homes and landmarks in China's revolutionary history, according to Chongqing Red Classic Investment Co Ltd, the main investor of the project. What a snazzy name for a company.

The park would have cost 2.5 billion RMB ($386.5 million) over the next four years before completion, with most of the investment brought in by this Chongqing Red Classic Investment company.

"The project has been stopped by the municipal government because the authorities thought it was not feasible," Li Jing, deputy director of the publicity department of Nanchuan district [where the park was planned to be located] said last week. He declined to give further details on why the project was indefinitely postponed.

Plans for the park were announced soon after the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, but was soon criticized for its extravagant spending.

Other details of the park include a 1,949 square-metre national flag and a 1,921 square-metre Party flag to mark the birth of the People's Republic of China and the Communist Party of China respectively.

The article doesn't directly link Bo to the project, but one can infer his strong interest in it.

Perhaps the leaders at the top were tired of Bo's red antics, who had created a bizarre talent show of redness.

And now this idea of a theme park with imitation revolutionary leaders' homes and statues is just crass. I thought the Window of the World in Shenzhen was bad. But this would have been even worse.

Luckily cooler heads have prevailed this time and kiboshed this project for now, which surely would have cheapened the brand of communism.

As for Bo's political prospects, that remains to be seen. After all, how red can you be when your son went to Oxford and is now at Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government?

Monday, 11 July 2011

Redefining Women

Untitled (Fashion)
On the weekend I visited Pedder Building in Central and it was sad to see most of the shops in the upper floors have vacated the area. Some had left notes on their shop windows indicating where they had moved to, others left no trace behind.

Some boutiques are still in business but holding removal sales, others moved to higher floors.

Nevertheless there are two galleries in the building and one of them on the seventh floor is Gagosian Gallery which has many locations including New York, London, Rome, Paris, Geneva and Hong Kong.

The one here is showing the work of Richard Prince for the first time in Asia.

Cowboys & Girlfriends
The painter and photograher was in the news in March this year, found guilty of copyright infringement, taking images by photographer Patrick Cariou and creating art with them. They included pictures of Rastafarians Cariou took in Jamaica.

However, taking images and reworking them into art is what Prince does. He is known for manipulating pictures and words to give them new meaning. Prince started doing this in the late 1970s when he worked in the tear-sheet department at Time/Life in New York. He took magazine ads for jewellery, furniture, fashion and cigarettes and cropped them, removed ad copy from the image and re-shot the black and white images in colour film.

These "rephotographs" opened up discussion about authorship, ownership and the aura of the image -- that's what the gallery says. And it's true.

Nurse's Tricks (2009)
For example in the Nurse Paintings, he will take a picture of a nurse from the cover of a 1950s pulp romance novel and blow it up and paint a mask over her face. Another is a masked nurse posing in a state of undress. Or he takes images of semi-nude or nude women on motorcycles and shrinks them and repeats their images over and over again and on top of that have a witty sentence. A similar one is a collection of small images of model Kate Moss repeated in a sequence and then he paints over them.

He has a strong fascination of women and how they are portrayed in American culture. In Celebrities, there is a collection of female stars, many of them topless or nude, from Elizabeth Hurley to Pamela Anderson, Lisa Bonet, Anna Nicole Smith and Lucy Lawless. He'd track down their head shots or promotional photos and he would sign them himself, using the actor's name.

Prince once said: "Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman that will give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you're in the wrong home, that's what it means".

In some aspects what he is doing is clever and also reflects the media landscape we live in today -- the constant bombardment of images and how we process them in our minds.

Prince is creating the new pop art for the new millennium.

Gagosian gallery
7/F, Pedder Building
12 Pedder Street
Central
2151 0555
www.gagosian.com
Until August 27

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Breaking News... Or Not?

Speculation is rife over the state of Jiang's health
When former President Jiang Zemin did not make an appearance for the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China celebrations on July 1, there have been rumours speculating over what happened to him.

And earlier this week on July 6 Hong Kong journalism and mainland censorship came to a head when ATV broke the news that Jiang was dead.

Some China experts knew that Jiang was seriously ill for a while at No. 301 Hospital, and on that day ATV received word that he had no signs of life. The news team speculated the news would be announced on CCTV's nightly news at 7pm so the Hong Kong channel thought it would beat the state-owned broadcaster with the story at 6:36pm.

However no such announcement was made.

The next day the central government's liaison office expressed "outrage" over the report, saying ATV was "seriously breaching professional news ethics", according to the Beijing-backed Hong Kong China News Agency.

Xinhua also rejected speculation over the death of the 84-year-old Jiang. "Recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin's death from illness are pure rumour," the news agency said.

So who is telling the truth?

What's interesting is that Xinhua blasts "overseas media organizations", when Hong Kong is a part of China. Or is it just convenient in this case to call ATV a foreign news body?

Also, Xinhua prides itself as being the official news outlet of the government, so any stories that are not announced by the state-owned news agency first are considered "rumours".

But the story does not end there.

ATV's main shareholder is Wang Zheng who is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, the central government's top advisory body. He is also a "princeling", as he is the stepson of late Communist leader Shu Tong, the Shandong First Party Secretary in the 1950s and deputy director of the PLA Academy of Military Science in the 1970s.

Wang is also assumed to be very connected as it is alleged his late mother Wang Yunfei was the cousin of Wang Yeping, Jiang's wife.

Knowing it had a potential bombshell in its hands ATV surely made all the relevant fact checks with the story... or did it?

After ATV came out with the story, Wang Zheng denied knowing anything about the story. "I learned the 'news' only when I saw the ATV broadcast," he said on Thursday.

And now ATV news staff are angry with Wang for trying to extricate himself from the scandal and they have written letters to senior board members complaining about the main shareholder's actions.

When Wang acquired majority shares in ATV last year he vowed to transform Hong Kong's oldest TV station into "Asia's CNN".

Apparently since then staff claim he has been interfering by asking them to entertain his friends from the mainland, tinkering with program timing and upsetting marketing and advertising plans.

A staffer who was unnamed in a newspaper report also added the source of the Jiang story and the decision to run it came from outside the newsroom, fueling speculation over the identity of the person.

So while morale at ATV is at an all-time low and tries to recover from having to apologize over the incident, we're still wondering -- what's the state of Jiang's health?

With the reaction of Xinhua and the government it looks like it'll be a state secret -- for now.

Judging Mao as a Man

This is an article that was posted on the Wall Street Journal website a few days ago. Hopefully the author's premise will gain momentum so that China can come to terms with what has happened over the past 60 years and finally move away from political ideology.

Judging Mao as a Man

Only when Chinese strip away the mythology surrounding Mao Zedong will we understand his terrible legacy.

By MAO YUSHI

Editor's note: This article is adapted from a longer essay that has now been removed from the website of Caixin magazine. After it was published, pro-Maoist groups have called for the author to be prosecuted for sedition and treason. The translation is by Jude Blanchette.

Mao Zedong was once a god. With the uncovering of more and more documents and information, he is gradually returning to human form.

Some still view Chairman Mao as a god, however, and view any critical discussion of him as blasphemous. If these people have their way, we will never be able to analyze him, never directly face his legacy, never question his spirit. Fortunately, the average person is now able to form their own understanding of his legacy.

In the 1950s, Mao resisted criticism of his policies by Peng Dehuai for fear that Peng would usurp his authority. Even though his leftist policies had created disaster, he continued to push forward. He initiated the reality-defying Great Leap Forward with its backyard steel production, its People's Communes, and its Three Flags campaign. Thirty million Chinese starved during this period, a number that surpasses any previous period in human history. As this was a time of peace for China, there is no way to place the blame for this event on anyone else.

To evade responsibility for this destruction and retain power, Mao then launched the Cultural Revolution. He attempted to destroy all of his political opponents and pass his power on to his most trusted partner, his wife Jiang Qing.

His method for acquiring power was class struggle. The original meaning of class struggle was the proletariat's fight against the capitalist class. For Mao, however, the term capitalist was used to describe anyone he disliked, many of whom had little or no property.

The campaign against Hu Feng, the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Four Cleanups Movement and the Cultural Revolution all revolved around class struggle. Mao's use of this concept resulted in the deaths of an untold number of Chinese. Especially during the Cultural Revolution, many of China's most famous public figures died by their own hands. Some were even Mao's friends. Mao, of course, was aware of these events, but never showed any sympathy for their plight.

Not only did he exhaust the means at his disposal to cause pain, he also mobilized the entire country to fight against itself. Mao even destroyed some of the world's most wonderful treasures. For thousands of years, China had accumulated culture, ideals, morality and art. All of this Mao rejected.

Mao not only created suffering for China, he exported his theory to the world so that all could share in his cruelty. He encouraged armed revolution in Malaysia, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Perhaps Mao's greatest student was Pol Pot, who stands as the most ruthless killer in recent history. More than 30 years after his death, the world is still dealing with Mao's legacy.

When Mao sat on his throne, no one dared speak of his more beastly instincts, but after his descent from that position the truth has been laid bare. His cold-bloodedness is a matter of public record. Many say that Mao's wisdom was unsurpassable, but it is more accurate to say that few can attain his level of callousness.

During the last few years of Mao's life, his body had lost its former vitality but his mind remained active. He knew he was in the winter of his life, and so the question arose of to whom power should be given upon his death. In his heart, the only worthy candidate was Jiang Qing. And yet she would never be accepted by the majority, and so he was forced to enlist the aid of Hua Guofeng. He famously said to Hua, "With you in charge, my heart will rest easy." And yet he went on, "With any problem, consult Jiang Qing." In the final year before his death, Mao's plans for China's political future were made known. The Communist Party chief would be Jiang Qing.

Yet, during the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing proved herself to be the consummate shrew without the slightest insight or ability. After the destruction of the Gang of Four, she was convicted of being a counter-revolutionary and sentenced to a deferred death sentence, which I believe was eminently fair. Mao, it appears, wanted to turn over political power to a counter-revolutionary. In his mind, the only consideration was how to keep political power in the family. It had nothing to do with class struggle.

After Mao's death, Hua Guofeng and Ye Jianying seized the Gang of Four, and China's Supreme Court sentenced them to death. Yet the leader of the Gang of Four can still be glimpsed hanging above the Gate of Heavenly Peace and his picture is printed on the money we use every day.

In China, this farce still hasn't come to a close. We have yet to fully acknowledge that Mao was a man, not a god. Only when we strip away the mythology and superstition that once surrounded him can he finally be judged.

Mr. Mao is an economist and the chairman of the Unirule Institute.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Other Facets of New York

One more posting on New York before I go back to blogging about Hong Kong and China.

Here are a few quirky pictures of the Big Apple:
Street vendors sell old school signs with witty comments
A horse stands by across from the Al Hirschfeld Theater
A painting by Joseph Kosuth Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) The Word "Definition" at MOMA
A Tiffany blue typewriter at the Tiffany flagship store
Nests with birds in them on the ledges of some pricy real estate
Artists from writers to singers and composers are commemorated on the subway wall near Carnegie Hall
A bicycle wrapped in colourful stitches in Brooklyn
A skunk and banana playing tunes in the subway station

Decadent Dining with Daniel

Roasted spring lamb with jus at Daniel
On my last evening in New York, we dressed up and went out for a gourmet evening at Daniel, Daniel Boulud's restaurant on the upper east side. It was quite appropriate since I've dined a few times at Maison Boulud in Beijing, once at DB Bistro in Vancouver last year (before it closed down) and now one of his eight restaurants in the Big Apple.

From the outside Daniel looks unassuming mixed in with the other tony apartment buildings on the same block. But inside you enter a fantastical place that entices the senses. In the long corridor before the dining area is the Bar & Lounge on the right. Next time we know, but here not only can you have drinks mixed by a bartender, but also order a la carte from the menu. The seating is more laid back, but you are getting the same food.

Rabbit porchetta with chorizo, mushroom and artichoke
The dining room is on the dim side, but very sophisticated and elegant. There are circular chandeliers hanging above, a colonnade of pillars creating sections within the room, two giant vases filled with sunflowers and moldings and stained glass on the ceiling. On the walls are avant garde "portraits" invoking Piero della Francesca, where he did side view portraits of husbands and wives. Here there are the same profile views, but instead they are faceless collages made of textured paper.

We perused the menu and found that it's a price-fixed menu -- three courses is $108, six courses $198. We opted for the latter and I settled into a rose wine from the Loire region. For our amuse bouche, we were given a trio of tiny dishes on a tray that fit perfectly on our plates. It was a small slice of salmon with red onion, a refreshing shot of chilled pea mousse, and a poached prawn with a slice of asparagus and a tiny mushroom.

Maine sea scallop rosette with avocado and hearts of palm
Bread also came periodically throughout the meal and even though I have been cutting my carbohydrate intake in the last year, I could not help munching on rye with walnut, but in particular sourdough, a bread that's practically impossible to find in Hong Kong. There seems to be an endless army of wait staff, the majority of which are French. Some speak eloquently to guests, others mumble or ramble quickly when introducing the dishes as it's old hat to them.

For my starter, I had the rabbit porchetta with chorizo, pickled Saint Georges mushroom, Orleans mustard cream and artichoke salad with arugula leaves and radish. The two medallions of rabbit were delicious and hardly gamey.

Another appetizer was the trio of hamachi, confit with sorrel and hearts of palm tartare with Northern Lights caviar, lemon-omani tuile cured with bergamot, and snap peas. One slice of hamachi was topped with half a soft-cooked quail egg, another with cream and caviar, the third like a sausage. Very refreshing.

A light appetizer called trio of hamachi
Our third plate was the Maine sea scallop rosette with lovage, Hawaiian hearts of palm, avocado-tomatillo coulis, and pickled Fresno pepper. it was a layered cake full of textures with the hearts of palm chopped up on the bottom, thinly-sliced scallops on top and then the avocado mousse on top.

Finally the mains arrived and I ordered the spring lamb, which came in a beautiful pink colour cooked medium rare, with mushrooms, morels and stuffed cherry tomatoes. The jus was served at the table and a pity it was too salty otherwise the dish would have been perfect.

The slow-baked seabass was a winner with fennel and figs
We thoroughly enjoyed the slow-baked sea bass with Sumac roasted Black Mission figs, fennel royale with a Syrah sauce that the waiter added at the table. Presented as a long narrow rectangle, the sea bass practically melted in the mouth, and the cubes of fennel curious but delicious.

The last dish was a roasted salmon that was just a tad overcooked, again with a sauce added at the table for drama and potatoes topped with foam. It looked deceivingly small, but there was actually a big chunk of salmon, meaty and fresh.

If the mains were impressive, so were the desserts. We had trouble deciding what to order and depended on our waiter to give suggestions. My blackberry and fromage blanc vacherin with Swiss meringue and creme chantilly was amazing. It had layers of mousse, a crunchy flake and then meringue on top and together it was an amazing play of textures and flavours.

The blackberry and fromage blanc vacherin was sweet heaven
Another was the citrus-marinated strawberries with a swirl of vanilla-raspberry gelee, sable Breton and yuzu sorbet. This was also a wonderful combination of tastes of textures that was refreshing and light. The final dessert was the lemongrass poached pineapple with a piped zig-zag of coconut meringue, lime-rum gelee, and pina colada sorbet that seemed more in place in Thailand than New York. Nevertheless we enjoyed the exotic flavours again with a variety of textures, rough, loose, smooth, sweet and tart.

Our dessert extravaganza did not end there -- we were treated to warm madeleines that we popped into our mouths and savoured the lemony taste. And then a waiter came around with tiny cubes of chocolate in various flavours -- coffee, passionfruit, peanut butter and berry. We joked that the peanut butter one was a high-end Reece's Peanut Butter Cup.

The grand finale was the petit fours, very similar to the ones served in Beijing.

Citrus-marinated strawberries with yuzu sorbet
Unfortunately like all good things, our dining experience had to come to an end. Our tastebuds sated, we walked a few blocks in the warm summer evening.

Daniel
60 East 65th Street
New York, NY
212 288 0033
www.danielnyc.com

Friday, 8 July 2011

Passion for Fashion

Bill Cunningham "on the street". Photos: First Thought Films/ Zeitgeist Films

On my flight back from Vancouver to Hong Kong I watched a documentary I had read about called Bill Cunningham New York. It's a portrait about a man in his early 80s who is still working very hard for The New York Times both as a society photographer and for his column called "On the Street". It's the latter one that I enjoy seeing on The New York Times website every week where he narrates a video featuring a slideshow of his photographs of people on the street.

Cunningham is a social anthropologist, dedicated to capturing what people are wearing, how they interpret fashion on their own terms. He describes young people as "kids" and loves using the word "marvelous" a lot. But he knows his stuff, as he used to be a milliner when he was young, creating fancy hats.

He isn't interested in what he says is cookie-cutter fashion, where everyone wears the same thing -- he is more interested in those who dare to strut their stuff, putting together striking outfits or accessories, He seems to have no trouble finding stylish people, as he rides around town on his bike toting his 35mm manual SLR camera. He will shoot anyone he thinks has the look, from African Americans in fedoras, women walking gingerly in high heels in the rain, to drag queens.

Anything stylish catches Bill's eye come rain or shine
And they in turn are so thrilled to be photographed by Cunningham. "We all get dressed for Bill," says Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. She described it was like death if he didn't photograph you. He wasn't interested in shooting celebrities just because of who they were -- he was more interested in what they were wearing which makes him such a purist in the fashion sense.

Despite being surrounded by glitz and glamour, Cunningham leads a simple honest life. He himself is not fashionable -- he seems to wear a lot of blue, particularly a blue workman shirt he gets from Paris when he covers the shows there. He explains it's because the buttons of regular shirts get worn down from him hanging the camera around his neck so the thicker workman shirts are perfect. He even wears it while accepting a cultural award from the French government and making his acceptance speech in broken French.

He lived for a long time in Carnegie Hall until he and his neighbours were evicted in 2009 during the filming of the documentary. His apartment was filled with filing cabinets -- full of negatives of the pictures he took, or magazines of his published work. His bed? A mattress on the floor with a pillow.

While every other photographer has gone digital, he uses film
What was also interesting was that Cunningham felt religion was a necessary guide for life and attends church regularly. He was asked point blank by the interviewer if he had homosexual relations which he denied. He also shunned lavish meals and preferred simple diner food instead.

Director Richard Press used to work at The New York Times and in his director's statement he explains it took him 10 years to make this film -- eight years to persuade Cunningham to make the documentary then two years to shoot and edit it. Press and his small crew tried hard to respect their subject's boundaries but at the same time tried to be as discreet as him as they followed him photographing people on the street.

The end result reveals Cunningham's pragmatism, wit and honesty, making him such an endearing character. His dedication to his work shows how much he loves fashion and feels the need to record its ongoing evolution.

In the end I gained even more admiration for him and what he's trying to do. For an 80 year old to continue riding bikes on New York streets and photographing strangers is already amazing. And then to see his endless fascination for style is even more inspiring.

He shows that we can all be young at heart and strive to be who we really want to be.

To watch the trailer of Bill Cunningham New York go here.