Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Igniting Further Tensions

On March 16 a Tibetan monk set himself on fire in an apparent protest against the repressiveness of the Chinese government in Aba county in Sichuan Province.

And yet three other monks were convicted Monday of being his accessories to murder and sentenced to 10, 11 and 13 years in prison.

The uncle of the monk called Drongdru, was imprisoned for 11 years for "intentional homicide" in hiding the 16-year-old monk, Phuntsog, while the other two were sentenced for "plotting, instigating and assisting" in the immolation.

However some people don't agree with how the government claims they were accessories to murder.

Tibetan rights groups report witnesses saw the monk set himself on fire and then they put out the flames but then started beating him. At that point monks and local residents took the monk to the monastery before taking him to the hospital. Phuntsog died the next day.

Afterwards there were protests near the monastery resulting in heavy police presence.

However it's these verdicts that are only going to exacerbate the already high tensions in the area.

"We urge Chinese leaders to address policies in Tibetan areas that have created tension and to protect Tibetans' unique linguistic, cultural and religious identity," a US state department statement said.

Tibetans are resentful of the Han Chinese coming into their areas not just through population but also an influx of money thinking economic development will make the ethnic minority not only happier but also grateful for bringing them into the modern era.

But it seems Tibetans are happy with their nomadic, simple existence and don't want to see their culture and religion diluted by their Chinese rulers.

As a result there is a clash of values with the Han Chinese unwilling to compromise or to understand what Tibetans want or need, creating tensions that escalated to riots in 2008.

Since then the Chinese government has been very wary of Tibetan unrest and has forced monks to undergo "patriotic education".

Monks immolating themselves is rare and even the Dalai Lama condemns it. But a handful have turned to this painful and frightening act as a silent protest against Chinese policies.

And so with these latest rulings of jailing others who may have assisted in this immolation may serve as a warning for other monks not to protest, otherwise their fellow brothers will be jailed for their actions.

This will sure lead to even more tensions in the area and extreme measures.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Does HK Need an Eye?

This is the now iconic London Eye... should Hong Kong have one too?

OK get this folks -- Hong Kong might follow London and Singapore and have its own 60-metre-high "eye" along the Central waterfront.

The Hall Organisation and Great Cities Attractions Global in the UK want to bring an observation wheel to Hong Kong in a proposal that was presented to the Harbourfront Commission today.

The company wants the wheel to be near where piers No 9 and 10 will be in one to three years.

"The wheel will definitely become a focal point of the harbour, offering postcard photo opportunities. It will attract people to the harbourfront and can promote vibrancy both day and night," the potential operators said in the proposal.

Peter Wong Yiu-sun, an engineer and commission member thinks it's a good idea. "We need something other than just cafes on the waterfront. A wheel can add vibrancy to the area." He did not think typhoons would pose a safety risk to the wheel.

But another commission member Paul Zimmerman had reservations. "It's immediately iconic, but it seems to be having a wheel in Hong Kong after London and Singapore is a bit 'me-too'," he said.

"It's a positive thing that people are starting to throw out ideas for the harbourfront, but I would hope for something more creative and outstanding."

The proposal for the wheel says it would carry 336 passengers at a time, would be lit with LED lighting and would open daily from 9am to midnight.

Thoughts of having the perfect seat to watch fireworks in Victoria Harbour come to mind with the wheel and yet another tourist attraction to suck up those visitor dollars.

Other than that, what good is the wheel for? Yet another place to shine gaudy LED lights; we have enough of that every night at 8pm with the laser light show.

Why do public spaces have to be so heavily programmed? Why not leave it up to the residents to use the space as they wish?

Or how about creating a garden park area with some grass, flowers and trees? Or open spaces for exhibitions or local farmers to sell their goods?

Hong Kong people deserve a space they can call their own -- after all the government is using their money to build it.


Ai Weiwei's Nightmare

For Ai Weiwei, Beijing is "a city of violence"

It's fantastic but also frightening to see Ai Weiwei speak out publicly when his minders hinted he should not do so for at least a year.

After he was released in late June, 54-year-old Ai at first seemed to avoid saying anything controversial, but now doesn't seem to care what the consequences are. He has started sending tweets on his Twitter account and given interviews to foreign media about his detainment, how he was monitored 24 hours a day with police watching him only three feet away and questioned about his political activities. That experience that could have broken the Beijing-based artist has not deterred him from writing any essay that was published on Newsweek's website yesterday.

Beijing is two cities. One is of power and of money. People don't care who their neighbors are; they don't trust you. The other city is one of desperation. I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope. They can't even imagine that they'll be able to buy a house. They come from very poor villages where they've never seen electricity or toilet paper.

Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing's slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts—and the restaurants and karaoke parlors and saunas are very rich as a result.

Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird's Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights. You will see migrants' schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don't have any money, they pull the stitches out. It's a city of violence.

The worst thing about Beijing is that you can never trust the judicial system. Without trust, you cannot identify anything; it's like a sandstorm. You don't see yourself as part of the city—there are no places that you relate to, that you love to go. No corner, no area touched by a certain kind of light. You have no memory of any material, texture, shape. Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else's will, somebody else's power.

To properly design Beijing, you'd have to let the city have space for different interests, so that people can coexist, so that there is a full body to society. A city is a place that can offer maximum freedom. Otherwise it's incomplete.

I feel sorry to say I have no favorite place in Beijing. I have no intention of going anywhere in the city. The places are so simple. You don't want to look at a person walking past because you know exactly what's on his mind. No curiosity. And no one will even argue with you.

None of my art represents Beijing. The Bird's Nest—I never think about it. After the Olympics, the common folks don't talk about it because the Olympics did not bring joy to the people.

There are positives to Beijing. People still give birth to babies. There are a few nice parks. Last week I walked in one, and a few people came up to me and gave me a thumbs up or patted me on the shoulder. Why do they have to do that in such a secretive way? No one is willing to speak out. What are they waiting for? They always tell me, "Weiwei, leave the nation, please." Or "Live longer and watch them die." Either leave, or be patient and watch how they die. I really don't know what I'm going to do.

My ordeal made me understand that on this fabric, there are many hidden spots where they put people without identity. With no name, just a number. They don't care where you go, what crime you committed. They see you or they don't see you, it doesn't make the slightest difference. There are thousands of spots like that. Only your family is crying out that you're missing. But you can't get answers from the street communities or officials, or even at the highest levels, the court or the police or the head of the nation. My wife has been writing these kinds of petitions every day, making phone calls to the police station every day. Where is my husband? Just tell me where my husband is. There is no paper, no information.

The strongest character of those spaces is that they're completely cut off from your memory or anything you're familiar with. You're in total isolation. And you don't know how long you're going to be there, but you truly believe they can do anything to you. There's no way to even question it. You're not protected by anything. Why am I here? Your mind is very uncertain of time. You become like mad. It's very hard for anyone. Even for people who have strong beliefs.

This city is not about other people or buildings or streets but about your mental structure. If we remember what Kafka writes about his Castle, we get a sense of it. Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Someone Pulling the Strings

Legislative Council president Tsang Yok-sing believes Beijing pressured the Hong Kong government and police to keep the city in "complete quiet and total security" during Vice Premier Li Keqiang's visit over a week ago.
 
He made the statement on ATV's current affairs program Newsline that was broadcast Sunday night. He said it was obvious mainland officials who were responsible for Li's visit were expecting their Hong Kong counterparts to keep protesters away from the vice premier.
 
"I believe the police would have been under pressure to ensure the VIP did not see or hear anything he did not want to see or hear," Tsang said. "Whenever an important official from Beijing visits Hong Kong, those [mainland officials] in charge of the arrangements always require complete peace and total security."
 
He said this clearly illustrated the value gap between Hong Kong people and the central government and said it was unfortunately Hong Kong leaders did not want state leaders to see "another side of Hong Kong", referring to the protests that were held during Li's visit.
 
It's interesting to hear this from Tsang who is also founding chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, the largest pro-Beijing party in the city.

While it's refreshing to hear this transparent explanation from someone supposedly close to Beijing, but his sibling prefers to take a more oblique path.
 
Tsang's younger brother, Tsang Tak-sing is the Home Affairs Bureau Chief. He wrote on his blog Sunday that locals should focus on the benefits from the over 30 economic measures Li announced during his trip here rather than be distracted by other issues.
 
"[The measures] will improve livelihoods substantially and facilitate continuous social improvement; this is the big issue related to the people's well-being," Tsang wrote.
 
"Some issues are more important and some are less important. It would show the wisdom of the public if they could distinguish the importance and priority of those issues. We should not be distracted."
 
Emily Lau Wai-hing, vice chairwoman of the Democratic Party said Tsang's views showed how out of touch he was with what Hong Kongers were most concerned about.

We are not in China where government officials think they can try to spin things any way they like -- we are in Hong Kong where we can see things quite clearly.

In any event it's a sad state of affairs when Li doesn't seem interested in seeing the "real" Hong Kong. If he's only wants to have a tightly-scripted visit then obviously he doesn't really want to know what's going on.

This does not bode well for us or China.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Impromptu Dining

Delicious braised short ribs that taste homemade

 Three years ago I went to Tin Hau to watch an incense dragon dance up and down Tai Hang Road. It was the first time I had ever been in that neighbourhood.

Roast pork neck
Things looked familiar when on Friday a friend took us to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in that area -- a Thai and Shanghainese eatery.

What's even more strange is that the place is called New York Club but the strange combination of cuisines work. People usually sit outside at makeshift tables and plastic stools scattered along the street. But since we were a big party of eight, they put us upstairs -- in someone's flat.

While you don't get the atmosphere of the street, we had some visitors who preferred to dine with air conditioning instead.

On the first floor we walked into a room that had tables lined with plastic and off to the side was a bed and bathroom. This was real see fong choi or private kitchen dining.

We felt bad for the staff who had to constantly go up and down the stairs to either serve us dishes or take away empty platters, but they didn't seem to mind as business is business.
Vegetarian dumplings in broth

We started off with roasted pork neck that tasted slightly different from most restaurants but still good, and fantastic braised short ribs that tasted just like the ones my mom makes, full of flavour and practically all the fat melted off. We also had dumplings in soup, both vegetarian and meat, though the former tasted better. There was also vinegar-marinated cucumber and jellyfish that reminded me of my Beijing days, and juicy chicken with a flavourful rice.

Vegetarian curry that was choc full of ingredients
The Shanghainese dishes are cooked by the owner's mother who is Shanghainese making it quite authentic. Also if you get a hold of the menu ahead of time there are some dishes that can be ordered in advance.

Then there were the Thai dishes. We had an excellent vegetarian curry with lots of coconut milk in it, stir-fried morning glory with chillis and also pea sprouts with zucchini. The deep-fried shrimp cakes were very good with a sweet chilli sauce that tasted like those at other Thai restaurants; but we were disappointed with the prawn toast that didn't have much taste.

The slow-burning green papaya salad
We also had green papaya salad that had a slow-burning spiciness to it -- it seduced you with its refreshing taste and so you'd put more in your mouth before realizing that it was too hot for your tastebuds and you needed a drink. Fast.

By the way the lime soda is great using soda water from Thailand, and they also have young coconuts, wine and beer.

We also had a juicy stir-fried crab in tons of minced garlic that was later poured into a simple vermicelli soup. A mudfish that was served as a steak didn't work too well and had many bones in it.

Overall we did pretty well finishing pretty much everything and had to get up from our plastic stools to stretch our legs in the small room.

Crab stir-fried with lots and lots of minced garlic
When we came back downstairs the street was buzzing with tables everywhere filled with diners -- one even had a small cushy chair for a corgi to sit in and pant waiting for its owner to finish his dinner.

We promised ourselves to go back to the area again when it's a bit cooler and eat outside this time just like a local.

In the end the bill came to about HK$1,400 for eight and it was a memorable meal for all.

New York Club
20 Brown Street
Tai Hang
6530 0288






Saturday, 27 August 2011

On the (Weak) Defensive

Is Hong Kong really One Country, Two Systems? Because we think it's more like Two Countries, One system.

It's been over a week since Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang was in town, but questions are still unanswered and anger still simmering as to how the Hong Kong government dealt with the senior leader's visit.

Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen did not believe security measures in place violated press freedom. "I think that is complete rubbish [when people say] that we have violated civil rights. Nor have we violated freedom of speech, because every single activity of the Vice Premier has been covered by the media."

His last statement is false.

The media did not cover every single activity Li went to -- because they were not allowed to.

Last Saturday more than 300 journalists protested that photographers were obstructed from doing their job, journalists underwent stringent security checks and press areas were far away from the actual event. Also, only edited videos and articles were offered at some of the events Li attended.

During his three-day visit, Li participated in at least 22 events, but the media were only invited to 10. Information on other events including his visit to local families and a home for the elderly and meetings with other senior leaders were released through the government's Information Services Department or Xinhua.

Journalists were not allowed to ask Li any questions either.

The public was also upset by the vice premier's visit, either because security measures created a great inconvenience to them or because they were roughly handled by police. One man wore a June 4 T-shirt and was hardly near Li at all and yet the police overreacted to his apparel by trying to sequester him from Li's sight line.

The police didn't think the man should have been wearing the T-shirt, but he asks what the problem is -- can't he wear any T-shirt he wants whenever he wants?

There were also complaints of men in black suits who had no clear identification but seemed to be part of the security detail at the Grand Hyatt Hotel where Li was staying. Apparently they were the ones who stopped all guests and visitors to the hotel from literally moving until Li got into a car and left the premises. Who were these men and did they have the authority to order people around?

Whenever visits with senior leaders happen of course there are concerns about security. But is it really necessary to have Central crawling with police when Li is actually in Wan Chai?

It's also understandable the Hong Kong government doesn't want its guest of honour to see residents protesting against the Chinese government, but the city is also run by rule of law which means freedom of expression and the press.

If Hong Kong is supposed to be Asia's World City then show it -- prove to Beijing these freedoms are what make Hong Kong what it is today and still has the edge over its Chinese sister cities.

Demonstrate that Hong Kong is a healthy vibrant city that makes it competitive on a world stage because of its unique characteristics.

Also if the Hong Kong government had more foresight and pragmatism in dealing with the city's issues like the income gap, housing, and inflation then maybe it wouldn't be so embarrassed trying to hide so many unsightly problems.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Changing the Rules

There was huge outrage around the world when artist and activist Ai Weiwei was detained by police in April and no one knew where he was for several months.
 
That kind of detainment is illegal in Chinese law, but now the government is moving to make it above board.
 
An article in the Legal Daily website says there is draft legislation that includes a new exception to the provision of residential surveillance that would allow police to detain suspects in a "designated residence" other than their home in state security, terrorism or major corruption cases "where carrying out residential surveillance in the home may impede investigation."
 
This decision would need to be approved by the procuratorate (provincial or state prosecutor) or public security organ at a higher level.
 
This means that the police can hold someone for up to six months without telling anyone of the person's whereabouts or the charges against them on the pretext of "impeding the investigation".
 
And so if the law is passed, the detainments of such people as Ai, Liu Xiaobo and others would be completely above the law.

It's already bad enough that these people don't even get access to a lawyer when they are first taken by police and now the government wants to make that legal.
 
It's another attempt by Beijing to shut out its dissenters in any way it can. Not only does it reveal its extreme repressive nature, but also its immense fear in any criticism of its policies.
 
A sore loser, the government would rather change the rules of the game than try to be a good sportsman.

Bullying does not win. See examples Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and now Muammar Gaddafi.




Picture of the Day: HK's Apple Store

The Apple store is under wraps at IFC Mall in Central

Steve Jobs may have stepped down as CEO of Apple, but the company is still moving ahead with the upcoming opening of its 100th store worldwide -- in Hong Kong.
It's located in IFC Mall in Central and they are still renovating the store as you can see from the covered up glass panels. Apparently there are plans for a big three-day bash to celebrate the opening of the story either in late September or early October.
One can only imagine the frenzy when it opens.
Who's going to queue overnight to be the first one in?

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Busload of Stuff

If you lose something on Kowloon Motor Bus, you're not alone

People in Hong Kong sure lose a lot of stuff on the bus.
Kowloon Motor Bus reports almost 70,000 items were left behind on its buses from July 2010 until June this year, up 9 percent from the year before.
A lot of cash was lost -- HK$2 million ($256,567) worth, though 90 percent was recovered. What's interesting is that those who lose ordinary mobile phones didn't bother reclaiming them.
"Perhaps now people just [want] smartphones," said Francis Lam Sai-shu, principal operations officer at KMB. Of the 5,400 mobile phones lost, only two-thirds were recovered by their owners, a drop of 2 percent from before.
On the other hand, lots of smartphones are left behind on the buses, even iPhone4s.
Octopus cards were the most commonly lost items, more than 8,600 cards, and only 63 percent were claimed back by owners. Other items include Hong Kong identity cards, jewellery, wigs, Chinese opera costumes and violins. "Some of these lost items are nicely packed and fancy," Lam said.
Bigger items include baby strollers, luggage and guitars.

How can someone lose their luggage on the bus? Or a violin, unless it's a kid who doesn't want to take lessons anymore.
So there still is hope if you left something on the bus. You've got three months to claim it.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Taking Gaudiness to New Heights

She wants him to touch here not pose there

On the weekend I went to Macau and this time checked out Galaxy Macau, the latest resort complex that opened May 16. It's a glistening white and gold series of buildings that definitely stand out for its fairy tale-like look.
Before getting on the shuttle bus I was handed a brochure of the place along with a packet of tissues with a picture of the building on it and ferry schedule which definitely came in handy.
Inside Galaxy Macau, the public areas are quite gaudy to say the least. The foyer at the main entrance features this giant round crystal or frosted ice that at times rises up and down and is lit from behind in various rainbow colours. One wonders the whole point of this presentation and the meaning behind it.
Milling around the entrance are very tall models, most of whom are not Chinese, wearing golden qipao and extra long eyelashes. They're very helpful to English-speaking visitors but other than that they stand around acting pretty.

Another foyer area had giant "crystals" coloured in a wild array of colours and if you crossed a bridge that went around them three times, you could get good luck, supposedly in the casino. We both lost money on the five-cent slotmachines and it's probably because we didn't cross that bridge.

Interacting with a visiting with an iPad
The brochure promoted four entertaining acts to look out for -- Thai puppets -- that are promoted as "coming to Macau for the very first time". Another was for the "Galaxy Tiffany Show", which showed two tall buxom girls in gold dresses complete with tiaras and the description said: "Glamour rules at the Galaxy Tiffany Show as famous impersonation [sic] tease your imagination in a stunningly different series of exotic performances at the Pearl Lounge." Hmm the two girls in the brochure don't look like anyone I recognize...

And then there was "Galaxy Living Dolls", where live mannequins -- another first in Macau -- have charming "doll-like" poses which are great for photo opportunities. Uh huh.
We were very intrigued by "G6", a robotic dance group that promises to "mesmerize you as they perform their unique, mechanical gyrations at the Retail Promenades. Join them if you dare."
So after dinner we tried to find them and even asked staff where the "retail promenades" were and they didn't know what we were talking about. There was no signage for "retail promenades" either.

But the next day with a bit of time to kill before going back to the Cotai ferry terminal we saw some people standing like robots -- we found G6!

They were holding iPads that said "touch me".
Touch the iPad or them?
There were two men and two women, the men, Caucasians, wore strange ill-fitting silver wigs, black trench coat, leggings, tall boots and gloves. The women looked better with purple wigs and they got more attention, perhaps because they were more attractive, or less scarier than the men.
The men looked strange in ill-fitting wigs...
People would pose for pictures with them, but really these "robots" wanted them to touch the iPad to get to know Galaxy Macau better.

None of them did any "mechanical gyrations" which was disappointing.
Why this need to dumb down entertainment? The complex itself looks quite nice with a lot of use of marble and tasteful decorations. So why have gaudy attractions? Why not make things look more sophisticated so that the target audience will understand what good taste is?
The last thing we need is more tackiness in Macau...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Paparazzi Field Day

Cheung and Tse in wedded bliss in 2006
The gossip pages here are all buzzing about the announcement that entertainment couple Nicholas Tse Ting-fung (谢霆锋) and Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi (张柏芝) are calling it quits after five years of marriage.
The impending divorce has taken months to unfold, and almost each day there have been reports on what he said or she said, or things they've done to indicate an imminent split.
Finally yesterday Cheung's management company Asia Entertainment Group issued a statement on behalf of the couple saying: "We have decided to file for divorce because of our irreconcilable differences... we have reached an agreement peacefully."
The agreement did not say if the "agreement" was about the distribution of their wealth.
As for their two sons, Lucas, four and Quintus, one, the statement said, "We will raise our two children together... everything [we] do will be for the sake and happiness of our children."
Tse finally reached the pinnacle of Hong Kong's entertainment elite when he won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards this year. He was so emotional about the accolade and thanked his father Patrick Tse Yin for pushing him so hard. Cheung had tears in her eyes and it looked like the couple's relationship might continue on track.
But things got worse in May when Cheung was on the same flight as Edison Chen Koon-hei whose reputation went south when he was caught taking pictures of many starlets including her in 2007. Apparently the two took pictures together on the plane on the flight from Taiwan to Hong Kong, and there were reports Tse was not happy, despite their marriage weathering the sex photo scandal four years earlier.

While Tse comes from a family of entertainers, Cheung's big break was starring in a lemon tea commercial for Hi C. Stephen Chow Sing-chi spotted her in that commercial and put her in his movie King of Comedy in 1999.

While the marriage is over, entertainment reporters are going to have a field day uncovering as much as they can on the divorce settlements and reactions from members of the industry.

Stars in Hong Kong live a fishbowl existence -- sometimes they thrive on it to hype up their careers, but other times they'd rather hide or be left alone.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Retro Calling

Richard on the phone in the MTR station
When I saw my good friend Richard for lunch yesterday there was something curious hanging around his waist.
It was an old school telephone -- just the phone handset complete with the coiled wire which was attached to his Blackberry.
After we had a good laugh about it he explained it was to cut down on the amount of radiation going to his head, which is a great idea.

It's also interesting to see something retro made cool again.
Another friend saw Richard's handset and decided to buy one too. So we after our dim sum lunch we went to City Super to get it and it costs HK$239 ($30.64). There are the standard black ones, but also in gold for the bling-bling set, one that says "he said, she said", and others with colourful cartoon graphics.
It can be attached to Blackberries, iPhones, you name it.
Then as we walked through the MTR station to transfer to another line, Richard's phone rang.
Getting the attention of fellow commuters
So he walked to the MTR train with his handset in hand and he got many looks from confused commuters, may of which were young and have never seen an old school phone before.
After he finished his phone call Richard explained the best part about the handset was that on the MTR he could hear the other person on the line so clearly because there was no outside noise, or very little. He could also talk in a normal voice and not have to shout either.
So if you see a guy with a handset around his waist walking the streets of Hong Kong, you know who that is.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Picture of the Day: Where's the Polisher in HK Part1

A bag that is screaming for attention
It seems that Beijing is not the only place that is in dire need of someone with decent English skills.

As I waited for some relatives to arrive in Aberdeen for dinner, I browsed the Bossini shop, an inexpensive basics clothing store which had a big sale on.

There were three puffy bags for sale, each with a different slogan.

One was: Be a big spender. Another was: Luxury bags ain't cool.

But it was this one that caught my eye -- Give a lusty cheer.

What does that mean?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary "lusty" means merry, joyous, full of vitality, hearty and robust. It also includes the word vigorous.

In this day and age we have a different definition of lusty and while it does entail being merry, it's not the clean kind...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Picture of the Day: Queen's Cube

Queen's Cube on Wan Chai's Queen's Road East
Last year Nan Fung Group and the Urban Renewal Authority got into hot water with the public when they tried to gentrify the Wan Chai neighbourhood with Queen's Cube.

Marketed with the tagline "Orchestrating a beautiful life", the skinny building on Queen's Road East was aimed at young professionals who wanted to enter the property market at an astonishing HK$6 million for 400 square feet.

How is that remotely affordable?

The media reported on how tiny these places were -- as long as you had the wardrobe of a monk and didn't cook much you would be OK living there. Oh yes and you could have a 275 square foot balcony too, as if that was useful.

As a result only two of the 96 flats were sold at the launch -- one of the worst responses in recent years.

There was criticism that the URA didn't ask the developer to lower the prices because apparently it can't do that according to market rules. Then why team up in the first place? When a government body and a developer get together on a project, one would assume they would be providing more affordable housing.

It's just another example of the government having a cozy relationship with developers.

A group of university students decided to mock the insane property situation in Hong Kong with a six-minute video called King's Cube.

It shows young upwardly mobile professionals dressed in suits coming home from work and entering their stylish homes -- where there is only enough room for a single bed.

They were demonstrating how tiny subdivided flats are in Sham Shui Po and the language used to market real estate.

"With the project, I'm concerned about the living environment in Hong Kong, particularly about what we consider to be an ideal home environment," explained Joe Yiu, a Chinese University IT graduate.

"It's like a dream," she said, as few marketing materials live up to their claims and most property agents exaggerate features and the actual living environment.

"They are telling you what stylish living is, but the reality is opposite to that."

When will the government realize we want to be able to buy a flat at a reasonable price? We can't be indentured slaves to property developers and live on instant noodles forever...

Friday, 19 August 2011

The No-Goodwill Tour

Two teams fighting with fists rather than a basketball

When American Vice President Joe Biden came to Beijing on Wednesday, it was expected the trip would involve some grovelling due to the US debt crisis and China holding some $1.2 trillion in US Treasuries was not a happy investor.

However things turned 180 degrees when a brawl broke out during a basketball game between the Georgetown Hoyas and Baiyi Rockets, whose players are from the People's Liberation Army.

The American university team is touring several cities in China to coincide with Biden's visit.

There was lots of amateur video taken of the final minutes of the game where the score was 64-64. A Rockets player rammed a Hoyas guard through a partition and sat on his chest wailing on him with fists. Chinese players and spectators started breaking out the punches and throwing bottles full of water and chairs.

The game abruptly ended without really finishing.

It was absolutely disgraceful to see Chinese players acting like immature sore losers when the game was tied. Why not leave it at a tie since it was supposed to be a goodwill game anyway?

It's a good thing Biden was not there to witness the mayhem, or his hosts would have been even more red-faced.

Why the Chinese players felt they had to resort to fighting is unbelievable -- but perhaps it's understandable considering they come from the PLA.

As one veteran Chinese basketball commentator said, "The team is celebrated for the 'baiyi spirit', which means you are tough, you eat bitterness and you don't leave the court even if injured."

It's strange the organizers did not choose other amateur basketball players, perhaps ones trying for the national Olympic team or other university teams. Or is it because there was some sort of deal made with the PLA about giving their players the spotlight during Biden's trip?

In any event the ugly scene revealed China's determination to win at all costs and lost sight of the whole point of sports -- that it's about the fun of playing the game, not who wins or loses.

While this will be a minor hiccup in Sino-US relations, it's a strange one.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Denied a Better Future

New Hope School was razed to the ground in Beijing (Beijing News)

Apart from farmers, migrant workers (many of whom are or were farmers) have the toughest lives in China.
They uproot themselves from their ancestral hometowns and descend into the cities to find mundane or dangerous factory or construction work and in return they encounter culture shock, high expenses and being treated like second-class citizens.
They endure these drastic changes in the hopes of making a better living for their families and setting up a better future for the next generation.
Migrant children lined up outside a school in Beijing in 2007
Children are not supposed to come with them to the cities, but some do because there are no relatives to look after them, the parents don't want their child to be "left-behind children", or the child was born in the city. 
Now that I think about it these children have it worse.
Because their hukou or household registration is linked with their hometowns, even children of migrant parents born in the city cannot get access to not only social assistance and healthcare, but also education.
And so a few NGOs and individuals took it upon themselves to find places to set up schools for these migrant children at a modest cost, to give them some basic education to be able to function in such a rapidly developing society.
In my first year in Beijing I visited a school for migrant children in the outskirts of Beijing. It was a small run-down complex of rooms that looked into a courtyard. The classrooms were very small with a limited number of books, desks and chairs were old. The school also had rooms for the children to sleep in and they were crammed with bunk beds, sleeping as many as three or four to a bed. They carefully put their shoes outside the rooms, but they basically had to use basins to wash. Many wore dirty clothes and had dirty faces.
Nevertheless the children were so happy to see us as we celebrated Children's Day with them. We gave them presents of knapsacks with white T-shirts in them and we encouraged them to draw on them with coloured pens. We had thought we would play with them longer, but their teacher had already organized a trip to McDonald's which they were all excited about.
We gave them coloured pens to draw on white T-shirts
Despite being given access to some kind of an education, it is hardly enough to compete with children from wealthy families who go to good schools and can afford tutors and extra classes to increase the chances of better grades to pass the gaokao or university entrance exams to get into a good university.
And so I was even more disheartened to read that in the last few days, several schools for migrant children were demolished in Beijing, crushing their hopes for an education that could lead to a better life. The demolitions affect some 14,000 students who will either have to find an already crowded migrant school or go back to their hometowns.

One parent showed his dissatisfaction by lying on the road spread-eagled and shouted, "We make our contribution to Beijing too!"

The schools were knocked down because the municipal government either did not approve them or the buildings did not meet safety standards.

And if parents were to scrape enough money to bribe their child into the public school system it would cost between 5,000-20,000RMB ($770-$3,070). The average migrant worker barely makes 3,000RMB a month.

Wearing their artistic creations the kids thank us for coming
The razing of migrant schools goes against Premier Wen Jiabao's vow last year to improve the livelihood of migrant workers. In a work report he said China "will solve employment and living problems rural migrant workers face in cities and towns in a planned and step-by-step manner, and gradually ensure that they receive the same treatment as urban residents in areas such as pay, children's education, healthcare, housing and social security".

One has to wonder if officials in major cities and provinces really listen to the directives from above, because it seems they are more concerned about carrying out their own agendas than looking after its residents which include migrant workers.

In 2003 which now seems like eons ago, the premier visited a school for migrant children and wrote on the blackboard: 同在蓝天下, 共同成长进步 ("under the same blue sky, grow up and progress together").

Sounds poetic and inspirational, but what about the reality?

How are migrant children ever going to make any progress if their schools are demolished in the Chinese capital?

Can Wen be held accountable for what has happened to these schools? Why is he silent about this critical issue?

While China prides itself in education, the government seems determined to hold many back. While it wants to innovate, it still needs labour in the factories... who else is going to do it?

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

HK's Next Master in Town

Vice Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Hong Kong yesterday. (Xinhua)

China's Vice Premier Li Keqiang who is expected to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao in 2013 is in town for his first official visit to Hong Kong.

The city pulled out all the stops for him, including tons of police and their vehicles all over Central and Wan Chai where he is staying at the Grand Hyatt.

Yesterday after he landed he was keen to show his concern for ordinary residents by visiting a day-care centre for the elderly in Ho Man Tin, chatting with some of the seniors there and presenting them a 55-inch television set and an electric wheelchair.

He also met two families in Lam Tin though other residents were annoyed by the inconvenience caused by his arrival.

Today he announced Beijing will allow foreign investors to use renminbi to buy up to 20 billion RMB ($3.1 billion) mainland securities. He launched China's largest-ever off-shore bond yuan initiative by pressing a giant glass button and from the podium a thick line branched into two passing by the audience that was like a river gushing with gold.

Sounds like someone hit the jackpot.

Tonight he had dinner hosted by the Hong Kong government and all 60 lawmakers were invited.

I met one of the democratic lawmakers today who was going to attend this dinner.

This person shall be called X. When I asked if the Chinese government paid lip service to the democrats or was really concerned about their issues, X replied that it depended on what kind of democrat you were.

"If you are someone they have a hold on, then you are not a threat," X explained. "But if you are not a career politician and don't depend on this job as your livelihood then they are worried about you."

X continued by saying the Chinese government knows what's going on in Hong Kong, knows who is on their side and who isn't, and knows everyone's strengths and weaknesses.

"They are way, way better than the Hong Kong government," X said.

When it comes to keeping their grip on power, the Chinese government knows how to play games.

Meanwhile Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his cohorts are too busy kowtowing to their masters to look after the interests of Hong Kong residents which should really be their priority.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Taste of Two Rivers

We all loved the mapo tofu which included Sichuan peppercorns

Last night I had dinner with a group of friends, one of whom is visiting from the United States. I took them to He Jiang, a relatively new restaurant that opened a few months ago in the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Queen's Road East, not far from the Xinhua office.

He Jiang (合江) means "two rivers" in Chinese, and here it's referring to the Yangtze and the Chishui rivers which link Sichuan and Jiangsu provinces. And so the restaurant presents Sichuan and Huiyang cuisines in a contemporary setting.

Rolls of sliced pork in chilli and garlic sauce
We started off with a roundup of appetizers, including thin slices of pork that were rolled up and stood in a garlic and chilli sauce (HK$68) that was pungent and a touch spicy, and we also liked the mound of minced bean curd with Shanghainese wild vegetables (HK$48) though it was a bit on the dry side and could have had a bit more sesame oil mixed in it.

Another starter was the mock goose ($HK58), though the bean curd skin was a tad tough, along with slices of Nanjing salted duck (HK$78) that were seasoned just right.

The mains soon came fast and furious, starting with pan-fried yellow fish with garlic (HK$48 each). The headless fish are good for two people to share and had a crunchy skin with tender meat inside. Just be careful eating it as there are many bones inside.

Braised "lion's head" presented in a clay pot
A definite favourite at the table was the mapo tofu (HK$78). This one not only had chillis, but also a dose of Sichuan peppercorns for another layer of spiciness that was deemed quite authentic. We also loved the silken texture of the tofu that you can't find in many restaurants.

The braised "lion's head" with vegetables (HK$88) was a touch too salty, but was very moist and meaty, and another star was the deep-fried spare ribs with minced garlic (HK$88) that was flavourful. We also had sauteed string beans (HK$78) and a must-try was the steamed pork dumplings or xiaolongbao (HK$44). The quartet of dumplings was quite large and though the skin was just slightly thick, the inside was juicy and deliciously meaty.

Delicious xiaolongbao or steamed pork dumplings
By the time we'd gone through all those dishes and washed them down with draft Qingdao, we were pretty much full. But dessert was arranged and for a sweet finish, we had the osmanthus jelly which is very popular in Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong and this one was a tad too saccharine, while the deep-fried egg white stuffed with mashed red bean paste was crispy on the outside, and the filling not too sweet.

With a discount using an American Express credit card, the bill came to just over HK$1,000 for five.

To help the digestion going I walked almost all the way home to Central. I think my stomach was relieved to have some exercise after such a wonderful feast with good company.

He Jiang
1/F, Cosmopolitan Hotel
387-398 Queen's Road East
3167 7833
www.eliteconcepts.com

Monday, 15 August 2011

Cathay's Campaign Launch Grounded

The airline's tagline of going "the extra mile" has a new connotation
Cathay Pacific may have to wait a while before it launches its latest advertising campaign.

That's because last week there were photographs published in the Chinese newspapers showing a Cathay Pacific flight attendant and a pilot engaged in a sex act in the cockpit of a plane.

The airline has since dismissed them, and tried to reassure the public that this kind of behaviour is not tolerated and that it did not happen while the plane was airborne.

Cathay's chief executive John Slosar said in a statement: "I find any behaviour that recklessly soils the reputation of our company or our team members as totally unacceptable."

It's interesting how he chose the word "soils"...

In any event, the latest campaign slogan that the airline was going to reveal was: "Meet the team who go the extra mile to make you feel special".

"We are thinking of holding the campaign back for a little while because the timing doesn't suit us at the moment," a spokeswoman said.

Sounds like a trip back to the drawing board...

More Antics on TVB

Guess who's a man dressed as a woman in this TVB show

Sunday night viewing on the Chinese channel of TVB continues to push the boundaries where sexuality is concerned.
A lot of cross dressing has been going on in the last few weeks and last night was a new concept for me.
A show called "Chok Chok Chok" (變身男女) has three contestants dressed up as women and six celebrities and the studio audience have to guess which one is a man.
The contestants are all covered in makeup, and wear strange outfits so it's hard to tell other than their legs and movements if they are of the male species.
The "women" came out one at a time, first having a question-and-answer session with the celebrities. However when they gave their replies, the voices of the "women" were masked with a high-pitched computer voice so it was hard to tell what they really sounded like.
This part was probably the most hilarious as the "women" flirted with the celebrities, both women and male. "Are your breasts real?" asked one female judge.
"You can touch them if you want," one replied with a wicked smile.
"What do your parents call you? Boy or Girl?" asked another.
"They call me Jenny," another answered.
When the question section was over, the "woman" got up and walked around the stage in heels and then got into a pair of flats and started dancing a routine for a few minutes.
Afterwards the celebrities were asked if they thought the "woman" was one, and the hosts also solicited members of the audience for their thoughts. The audience was also asked to vote with their feet and if they thought "woman A" was a man, then they should sit in the spot designated as "A", and the rest sit either in sections B or C.
It was really hardly to tell who was a man and who was a woman -- one seemed to walk like a man, another had a long nose for a woman.
The male celebrities even had a chance to awkwardly hug each of the "women" for a better idea of how they felt physically -- with one relatively good-looking one making each one stare into his eyes which was quite funny.
But in the end it was the one who looked particularly feminine who was a man -- from Shenzhen. Without makeup he was a young man in glasses, but seems very keen on being a woman as he had dancer-like movements. He had a bob-cut wig, face heavily made up with a small button nose.
The other "women" who really were women were not attractive at all, but thanks to the hair stylists and make up artists they did look similar to the young man all made up.
One wonders how long this gimmicky TV show can continue. Surely this will soon be old hat, or is it a way to educate young people on the art of cross dressing or the finer points of deceiving others? 

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Macau's Changing Face

Senado Square still looks quaint from a distance...
If you plan to visit Macau, don't go on the weekends or during the holidays.

I went there this afternoon for work and there were hordes of people coming and going. I had just missed the 11am Cotai Jet and the next one available wasn't until 1:30pm. So I got on the next Jetfoil boat at 11:30am.

Shopfronts now have international brands
However once we arrived, the immigration hall was already packed with people, and even the lines for Hong Kong residents -- of which there were only two -- crawled at a snail's pace.

Thankfully the taxi queue was relatively short. I didn't arrive to my appointment until almost 1:30pm.

Afterwards I thought I'd wander around a bit and headed to the ruins of St Paul as I hadn't been there in years and was keen to check out the antique shops. I was dropped off in front of Senado Square and had to stick my elbows out to jostle through the crowds. The quaint alleyways have turned into strictly commercial spots, and the more international the better. In places that used to have shops selling double boiled milk, pastries or other Macanese or Chinese snacks were overtaken by McDonald's and Starbucks, Sasa and Giordano.

I finally made my way to the bottom of the ruins of St Paul and tried to find the antique shops. The vast majority of them were gone -- one was replaced by a property agency, and many others by shops selling beef jerky that had crowds in front trying all the free sample strips.

The alleyways are now crowded with tourists
The antique shops I did look around in had much less stock than they used to. Prices also fell dramatically since the last time I bought furniture there in 2001 -- at least by half. From appearance it looked like many of them didn't carry much genuine antiques either, and some shopkeepers admitted as much. "We can custom make it for you," they added, which kind of lost the allure of a piece being "antique".

It seems all the good stuff had been snapped up and the pieces with severe cracks or bad paint jobs were left behind.

For me this afternoon was a sad commentary on what has happened to Macau -- it has practically lost its charm as a laid-back city where one could wander around the small winding streets and pick up curios as a fun souvenir. At least those were my fond memories of Macau over 10 years ago.

It is now overrun with mostly mainland tourists and the city is, like Hong Kong, catering to their tastes at whatever cost to its unique culture.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Splitsville Gets Fairer in China

A new law in China comes into effect today, Saturday. It doesn't matter if it's the weekend -- even banks are open seven days a week.

Yesterday the Supreme People's Court released a judicial interpretation of the Marriage Law clarifying how property should be divided when a couple divorces. The court now says the person whose family buys the apartment after marriage is entitled to sole ownership when the couple splits up.

The new interpretation comes after it was announced China's divorce rate has risen for the eighth year in a row.

Some 465,000 couples called it quits in the first three months of this year, up 17 percent from the same period last year. The court handled 1.1 million divorce cases in 2010, mostly involving property disputes.

Many of the divorces involving young people under 30 who critics say are too selfish or immature to understand the sacrifices that need to be made in a marriage. Part of it can also be blamed on the pressure parents put on their only child to get married in their early 20s so that they can have a grandchild.

And so the onus is usually on the man's side of the family to deliver the material wealth in order to be considered an eligible bachelor.

A young woman won't even have a second date with him if he doesn't have at least an apartment and perhaps a car. As buying an apartment is out of reach for the majority of young people just starting out in their careers, their parents have to shell out for the apartment, a hefty investment that really should fall on the young couple's shoulders.

What is the point of giving an apartment to a young couple who in some cases can barely function independently themselves? In Beijing I'd read about young couples whose parents would come in regularly to cook and clean for them.

This cultural belief that one must have an apartment or "home" before getting married has to change. In the West couples save up for years or perhaps their parents help them with the down payment, but it is the couple who purchases the home, not the parents. That is how they gain responsibility for the place. In some cases, they can't afford anything and must continue to rent or they choose to lease.

So it's no wonder China's Supreme People's Court had to make a ruling on property because parents would buy an apartment for their son or daughter only to fear that half of it would go to their son- or daughter-in-law in the event of a divorce.

The ruling basically says the person who put the down payment and whose name the property is under goes to that person in the event of a divorce. However, if both parties share the mortgage, then the property is considered a joint asset and should be split evenly after it's sold.

Until the Chinese stop putting so much emphasis on the material goods around marriage, divorce rates are going to continue climbing.

And whose fault is that?

Friday, 12 August 2011

Picture of the Day: Old Master Q

Old Master Q and his sidekick Big Potato on the bus

Old Master Q (老夫子) is a Hong Kong icon. The cartoon character was created by Alfonso Wong and Old Master Q first started appearing in newspapers in 1962. He has a sidekick, Big Potato along with other characters, Mr Chin, Mr Chiu and Miss Chan.

Mostly it's about Old Master Q and Big Potato who observe the social and political changes happening around them and usually have a comic twist to them. Wong says Old Master Q is like Lu Xun's Ah Q today.

The two of them wear clothing from the Ming Dynasty that Wong says gentlemen used to wear. And as they wear traditional clothing not only do they stand out but it helps create hilarious situations for them to be in especially in modern times.

Wong is still around, though his son Wong Chak runs the business creating products around the cartoon characters in Taiwan. You can read some of the old comics here.

And so it's nice to see the Hong Kong connection is still strong with Old Master Q and Big Potato featured in a series of public health announcements on the bus.

Here's one about coughing, and there are others about talking too loudly on the bus or giving up seats for the elderly, disabled or pregnant.

While it's strange that Hong Kong turns to cute cartoon characters to convey serious social messages, the ones with Old Master Q and Big Potato seem very appropriate since they are supposed to represent the average Hong Konger.

Hope Old Master Q will be around for a while -- we need him more than ever to reflect on who we are and where Hong Kong is going.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Q & A With James Murdoch

James Murdoch will come to Hong Kong next month

We may or may not get a chance to ask James Murdoch what he really knew what was going on at News of the World because he'll be in Hong Kong for the Asia Media Summit at the Four Seasons on September 6.

He's the keynote speaker who will also take part in a question-and-answer session -- but now it's uncertain whether he will be taking any tough questions about mobile phone hacking that led to the 168-year-old tabloid's abrupt demise.

The organizer of the event, Media Partners said a set of pre-arranged questions will be drawn up in advance and they will be finalized closer to the event. "I am not sure if [Murdoch] will be taking questions from the floor," a spokeswoman said.

There haven't been extra security measures taken either considering activist/comedian Jonnie Marbles threw a shaving cream pie at Rupert Murdoch at the British parliamentary hearing.

"We have not been informed by his office that any special arrangements are needed, but there is still about a month to go, so closer to the date we will know more about those kinds of arrangements," she said.

I can already imagine hordes of media attending Murdoch's speech, only to be disappointed by the highly-controlled event without any chance to ask questions.

Or perhaps his step-mother Wendi will show up too?

Nevertheless James has a brief connection with Hong Kong, as in 2000 he was appointed head of News Corp's Asian satellite service Star TV, which lost HK$1.27 billion a year. Two years later it turned a small profit thanks to new channels and distribution deals with India, China and Taiwan.

In 2003 he then moved to London where he became director of UK satellite broadcaster BSkyB, and later that year became chief executive.

So James, perhaps you wish to clear your conscience in Hong Kong rather than London? Pray do tell.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Performing for the Superstar

In front: Li Zhongxin, Kate Lee and Thomas Chan

Pianist Lang Lang is in Hong Kong doing some promotional activities with Langham Hospitality Group as he is contracted as its ambassador. And one of the events he did this afternoon was a masterclass with three budding pianists in front of parents, teachers, fellow students and the media.

But before the piano sessions started there was the announcement of the Langham Lang Lang Music Scholarship if that wasn't enough of a mouthful. The award recognizes "exceptional talent and promise as a great pianist of the future" and in this case Lang Lang chose to give it to eight-year-old Li Zhongxin who looked like a five-year-old.

He was the first student to play for Lang Lang, performing a Chinese song called The Buffalo Boy and his Flute. Li was very serious at the keyboard, wearing a two-toned shirt, bow tie and suspenders. He even bowed sharply like a soldier and Lang Lang comically mocked his bowing technique.

Nevertheless, Lang Lang gave him a few pointers that his left hand had to be softer and play more lyrically. "Do you drink?" he asked, as the audience laughed, but Li just looked at him strangely. The child doesn't have enough life experience under his belt to have the affect of alcohol on his playing.

Lang Lang likened the piece to the Chinese Bach and explained it was similar to a two-part invention but that seemed to go over Li's head too. Lang Lang would "sing" with him as he played and then apologized for his "bad singing".

In any event, after a few tips here and there, Li's playing drastically improved and then his mini masterclass was over.

Lang Lang with Dr KS Lo of Langham Hospitality Group
Next up was Italian-born Kate Lee, a primary five student at Diocesian Girls Junior School who attempted to play Minute Waltz by Chopin but fumbled through it to the point where the chords played by the left hand didn't match the right. He stopped her and she explained that she had only learned the piece this morning which was a ridiculously tall order.

He gave her the sheet music but she still fumbled in the same places. Lang Lang stopped her again and instead asked her to play what she performed for him yesterday -- The Cat and The Mouse by Aaron Copeland. She played the piece beautifully which probably helped her regain her confidence.

But he wanted to go back to the Minuet Waltz. He pointed out that she played the keys with hands that were flat on the keys rather than curved which didn't help her in terms of moving quickly around the keys but also strength in the keys to give them more colour. She also needed to work on her left hand as the chords weren't clean and had to be light as it was a waltz.

Again, her playing improved as he picked up not only major issues with her playing, but also suggested subtleties that helped make the piece sound better. But he warned that she had to work much harder on the piece -- but really not bad if she only started playing it the night before.

After her session was over, Lang Lang announced that he had to go to the bathroom and the hotel PR instructing the photographers not to follow the superstar into the restroom.

A few minutes later he emerged saying he was feeling much better and was ready to listen to the last student, Thomas Chan, an 11-year-old who played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Taking a backseat, Lang Lang played the orchestral part on the upright piano as Chan made an impressive performance.

It was the first time Lang Lang heard him play and he kept saying how Chan was very good and noticed how his hands were almost big as his own, matching them up. The boy was so serious he didn't do much except stare in front of the piano than watch Lang Lang try to make him laugh and loosen up.

Lang Lang posing with his "L" sign for Langham
Lang Lang said he only learned this piece when he was 13 so Chan was up two years on him. But again the way Chan placed his fingers on the keyboard it was too flat to get much strength from the keys as the chords are so critical in this piece. Also he noticed Chan's right hand's fingers weren't clear in playing every note. He suggested Chan play the sections slowly so that every note could be heard before playing it faster.

About an hour later the whole masterclass was over.

Throughout the masterclass Lang Lang was his playful and passionate self, trying to humour these kids into having fun with the piano -- and perhaps that was what was lacking in all three. They took on their tasks technically well, but did they really enjoy what they were doing? It was hard to tell.

But also were these children taught the proper foundations of playing the piano, or were they rushed through the syllabus to harder and more difficult pieces just to easily impress people?

If this is what music teachers in Hong Kong think is good, then that's a frightening thought. Talent is one thing, passion is another. And Lang Lang has the unique combination of both in equal measure.

He seems to be maturing in his interest in nurturing young talent, but perhaps Lang Lang should be focusing more on teaching them to love of music -- otherwise why play it?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Prejudiced Three-Year-Olds

Old habits die hard.

The Chinese pursuit of fair skin is still going strong as evidenced by the robust sales of whitening creams here -- which are in fact harmful to the skin. The products contain acid which not only bleach your skin white, but also make the skin layer thinner and thus more susceptible to harmful UV rays.

But I'm going off topic here.

A recent survey commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission in Hong Kong has discovered youngsters aged between three and six have more negative attitudes towards people with darker skin.

One hundred and fifty-two children were interviewed face-to-face by the department of child education and community services of the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education. They found after the children saw pictures of people with different skin colours, they gave significantly higher scores to white- and yellow-skinned people than those with darker skin.

As a result the government body is calling for better pre-school education and parenting.

Hmmm I wonder how that happened?

When children are babies they are praised for having fair skin and repeated enough times the belief is ingrained in them by the time they're three.

In talking about the results of the survey, which was the first of its kind in the city, commission chairman Lam Woon-kwong says prejudice among children may be escalating.

"We cannot underestimate the problem of discrimination at an early age. I hope the government can set up policies to start teaching the correct values at pre-school," he said.

Professor Wong Wan-chi of the department of educational psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong was surprised by the results. "Children usually do not have discriminatory attitudes at early age. As these attitudes do not exist by nature, it has more to do with their education," she said.

Wong said parents and teachers should be more sensitive and careful about their own behaviour. The media should be included here too.

But as I said earlier, cultural beliefs are still very strong and so it's going to take several generations for these preconceptions about skin colour to shake off completely.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Picture of the Day: Third Anniversary

Lighting up the sky with fire

Can you believe it's been three years since the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics?

I still vividly remember being on top of the Ling Long Pagoda and watching the amazing fireworks display around us. It was absolutely deafening and awe inspiring.

As Napoleon famously said: "Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world."

The Middle Kingdom definitely did so August 8, 2008 with a big bang.


Simple Pleasures Beyond Reach

Back in October I wrote about how shocked I was to discover that some 1.26 million people in Hong Kong live on HK$100 a day.

And now I read in the paper that many school children from low-income families are deprived of typical Hong Kong sightseeing trips to places like The Peak and Hong Kong Park because they can't afford it.

A survey by the Hong Kong Research Association and International Social Service (Hong Kong) interviewed 893 primary and secondary school students from families receiving government welfare or other subsidies.

Almost 60 percent said they had never been to The Peak, 62 percent to Hong Kong Park in Admiralty, and 55 percent to the Space Museum in Tsim Sha Tsui.

The survey conducted two months ago also found 34 percent of these children wanted a computer the most, followed by visiting tourist spots, then taking part in activities outside of school. Some even wanted to have a private tutor to help them in their studies.

But perhaps most heartbreaking was that 12 percent just wanted to be able to have a birthday cake.

Other shocking statistics include 13 percent only being able to buy milk once a week, while 12 percent said they couldn't even afford it. Sixty-three percent said their families could not afford special foods during festivals like mooncakes for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival.

Robert Ng Yat-cheung of the Hong Kong New Arrivals Services Foundation said there was an urgent need to improve the quality of life for these children in low-income groups.

"The Peak and Hong Kong Park are common places for family outings, but many of these young people from needy families are deprived of such fun," he said.

Ng added that in 2006, Hong Kong dumped some 450,000 computers a year, "But many of our needy students do not have a computer of their own. It reflects a worrying fact that Hong Kong has a wide income gap."

How can this be happening? Why is there such a disconnect between the haves and have-nots?

Hong Kong is one of the most consumer-driven cities in the world which gives everyone the impression its people are doing well financially which is hardly the truth.

Why can't non profits gather these dumped computers and hand them out to these kids? Moreover why can't these children get access to programs where they can visit these Hong Kong tourist sites? Some are free and some have a small admission fee. And what about a milk subsidy? Can't the Hong Kong government use the HK$6,000 handout to each permanent resident and give it to those who really need it?

It is an absolute disgrace that Hong Kong cannot get its act together in terms of social services for the needy. It is supposed to be a rich city, wealthy financially but also in terms of taking care of its less privileged to give them a chance to move up in the world.

Where is Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his administration in helping to close the income gap?

Or are they too busy cozying up to business to realize Hong Kong really does have poor people?