Friday, 30 September 2011

Legal Validation

A maid in Hong Kong won the right for permanent residency today in the high court -- a decision that polarized public opinion over the rights of domestic workers.

Evangeline Banao Vallejos has lived in Hong Kong since 1986 and she applied for permanent residency because she had lived in the city for over seven years. But she was rejected on the grounds that she was a domestic worker.

So she took the government to court. Her argument was then how come foreign expatriates like bankers and cooks can get permanent residency then?

Meanwhile the government countered domestic helpers do not pay any tax now so why should they be entitled to the benefits of permanent residents? There was also the fear that the sudden influx of people would strain the city's health care, public housing and education resources. Domestic helpers make up about 4 percent of the population.

However Judge Johnson Lam ruled in her favour, saying that preventing anyone who has lived continuously in Hong Kong for seven years to right of abode was unconstitutional under the Basic Law.

It could mean foreign helpers would be entitled to the minimum wage of HK$28 per hour, and so their monthly salaries would significantly increase from the HK$3,740 ($480.35) they are currently lawfully entitled to.

Of course the government was upset by the decision and has already decided to appeal.

The battle isn't over yet, but it is a significant victory for foreign helpers.

When I told one colleague about the verdict, she immediately called her helper to tell her the news. But she didn't seem to understand the implications and declared that she only wanted to stay with my colleague because they were "family".

I spoke to another friend's maid about the issue over a month ago and she didn't seem to care about the case. "I don't want to stay here," she said. "I want to go back to the Philippines."

While some domestic workers may not understand or realize the implications of the verdict, it's a ruling that indicates everyone is equal under the law.

If the government's appeal fails, foreign maids who have lived here for seven years now have a choice to continue living here or not, and hopefully society will finally begin to appreciate the work they do in contributing to Hong Kong's economy.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Crash Course to Development

Rescuers evacuating passengers from the subway carriage
People's confidence in public transport has been shaken again after the collision of two subway trains in Shanghai on Tuesday.
Luckily no one died, but 280 were injured, some in serious condition. Newspapers were splashed with pictures of people with blood-soaked shirts or distraught passengers escorted to safety.
It happened near Yu Yuan station at 2:51pm when one train rear ended another on Line 10, 40 minutes before Shanghai Metro reported equipment failures on a train. At the time of the crash, drivers were operating the trains manually. 
An initial investigation is now saying a power cut was the cause of the signaling fault and that the collision was caused by staff failing to follow correct procedures, Shanghai Metro said in a statement last night.
There were attempts to put the blame of the latest crash on Casco, a company that also supplied equipment that was implicated in the Wenzhou train crash in July. 
However Alstom, the French firm that owns part of Casco, denied its products were connected to the Wenzhou crash. "Casco only provided the apparatus that is inside the station, which consisted of panels to inform passengers of the train departures and arrivals," an Alstom spokeswoman aid of the July 23 disaster that killed 40 people.
Casco is a Shanghai-based joint venture between China Railway Signal and Communication Corporation and Alstom.
Shanghai's subway line has been plagued with problems for years and they were previously shrugged off because no one was hurt.
Professor Xie Xiaofei, a Peking University psychologist said the public had good reason to feel angry and fearful even if they didn't take the subway often, their friends and loved ones probably did.
"In most people's mindset, the metro is run on mature technology. Such kinds of public transportation have been running in other countries for many years without much problem," she said.
So why can't China get its act together and manage its subway systems properly? Obviously something wrong. Safety cannot be compromised when moving millions of people everyday. But there seems to be no incentive to fix problems.
Nevertheless, there will probably be no thorough or transparent investigation so we will never know exactly what happened and who really is to blame.
Which is why it's understandable the Chinese cannot trust the government to deliver safe, efficient infrastructure in a time of so-called rapid development.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Fact of the Day: Beijing Top 10 Polluted Capitals

We knew Beijing was pretty polluted, and a recent survey by the World Health Organization confirms that the Chinese capital is near the bottom of the list of nearly 1,100 world cities.
 
Beijing is the 10th dirtiest capital in the world, only cleaner than Ulan Bator, Gaborone, New Delhi, Islamabad, Riyadh, Dakar, Cairo, Dhaka and Kuwait City.
 
In addition, the Chinese city ranks 26th of 30 mainland cities in the survey, according to its 2009 reading of PM10s (tiny vehicle and dust particles of 10 micrometres or less) of 121 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg).
 
"We've achieved great progress, but there is much room for us to catch up," remarked Ma Yongliang of Tsinghua University.

There has been a lot of development in Beijing, but at a severe health cost.
 
Interestingly Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan were not included in the rankings, but if they were, Hong Kong would have 47 in PM10s (using 2009 readings) which means it would rank 870th along with Manila and Turin, Italy.
 
Haikou in Hainan province scored the best mainland city at 814th with a reading of 38mcg.
 
The WHO recommends an upper limit of 20mcg for PM10s, which can cause serious respiratory problems, including lung cancer.
 
While visitors to Beijing don't have to worry about the long term effects of being in the city, its residents do. Not only is the problem the constant development of the capital, but also cars clogging up the streets and ring roads creating more carbon emissions in the air.

The government doesn't want to completely stop the purchases of new cars and yet the city can't handle the now over 4 million cars on the roads.

And what about Hong Kong? We live in such a developed city and yet the government's inability to implement effective measures to combat air pollution is pathetic.

If people can't afford expensive flats, can't they at least have a healthy environment to live in? How about it, Chief Executive Donald Tsang? How many studies and figures do we have to show you to finally persuade you that the city's air pollution is making its residents sick? 
 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Testing the Senses

Salmon and scallop tartar, Bloody Mary sorbet, potato tulle
I just came back from a stimulating experience of eating in the dark.

An upscale hotel in Mongkok challenged us to identify what we were tasting and while we were able to get some ingredients right, we were completely thrown off by others.

We do eat with our eyes, and as soon as we know what it is, we already have preconceptions of how it should taste.

But once you can't see it or don't even know what you are eating beforehand, you are forced to really concentrate on the taste, texture and smell to figure it out.

The first of six courses came with a trio of flavours which to us tasted like salmon sashimi, then a spicy gazpacho, and then a very thin potato chip. It was a bit difficult to eat in the dark, but after a while your eyes adjust and you can see your utensils and the wine glasses in front of you -- but that's it.

Beetroot and French goat cheese risotto
After we finished eating, the lights when back on and it was revealed that we actually ate salmon and scallop tartar with kaffir lime leaf oil; tomato essence jelly, basically a Bloody Mary sorbet and a potato tulle. This was matched with Tsarine Rose Champagne.

Then the lights went out again and we were given what we quickly figured out were three different hams to try. They ended up being Serrano, Kintoa (from Basque region) and Iberico, but of course it was difficult to actually discern their origins; all I could think of was different kind of proscuitto.

Our next dish was a small one with a kind of lollipop. Inside of course was foie gras mousse, but it was hard to figure out what the outer shell was. It was actually an apple-port jelly, when I had thought it was raspberry. This went really well with the Selbach-Oster, Zeltinger Himmeireich Reisling from Mosel, Germany which had a strong smoky smell and quite sweet.

The wine also worked beautifully with our next dish which we could taste right away was risotto, but what kind I had no clue. I thought for sure there was no cheese in it and speculated it could be yogurt. A fellow diner thought it had bits of onion in it. When the lights came on we were shocked to see it was actually a pink dish -- beetroot and French goat cheese risotto. I didn't even smell goat cheese in there at all.

Roasted lamb with broad beans and deconstructed Caesar salad
Some people admitted they didn't like beetroot, but thoroughly enjoyed the dish because they didn't know what they were eating; also the flavours were so hard to clearly identify, that it was more about the food tasting good than about what was in it.

The main course was quickly identified as lamb with some kind of beans and a vegetable, and I thought it could be a kind of bak choy. We were correct about it being lamb, which was actually slow-cooked for six hours with broad beans and then with a deconstructed Caesar salad of garlic sauteed Romaine hearts, bacon-potato soubise or little pastry and anchovy beignets. This was paired with a South African red called Meerlust, Rubicon 2006.

Finally for dessert we were able to figure out there were sliced figs and a scoop of bacon ice cream, with what we thought was warm cheesecake. It ended up being goat cheese honey cake with pistachio and brandy snap.

Being a foodie and completely thrown off, it was discomforting to think I couldn't identify ingredients! But it was a very interesting exercise for the senses.

I had heard of a restaurant in Montreal where the place is pitch dark and diners are served by blind waiters.
Dessert: Bacon ice cream, roasted fig, goat cheese honey cake

It sounded so intriguing so when this opportunity came up to experience eating in the dark I had to try it. And in the end it was definitely a memorable experience. I don't know what the lesson is except to keep your mind open when eating and concentrate more on the taste than identifying everything in the dish.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Mall Rats

Louis Vuitton at The Landmark in Central
Hong Kong is fast becoming one giant generic shopping mall.

Everywhere you look it's the same shops and restaurants over and over... brand names like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel, Tiffany & Co, Tod's and Prada... and it's the same eateries like Starbucks, McDonald's, Cafe de Coral, 7-11 and Circle K.

For the record we have seven Louis Vuitton boutiques and 10 Cartier shops and most recently at 20,000-square-foot Apple store.

Up until recently the city was thriving with multinational chains alongside mom-and-pop shops to add diversity as well as different price points, but the latter are fast fading thanks to the greediness of landlords. They hear stories of others charging double, triple or even quadruple the original rent and think they can do the same.

As a result many free-standing restaurants and shops have had to move or shut down, unable to find a spot nearby or at a reasonable rent.

Where I live in Sheung Wan there are many places boarded up for months or even over the past year without a tenant. Central too is seeing a dearth of shop fronts looking desolate and run down.

The restaurants along the Mid-Levels escalator used to be a refreshing change from glitzy Lan Kwai Fong, with their edgy spaces offering food and drinks at reasonable prices. But now that area is starting to be affected. After 12 years on Elgin Street, Fat Angelo's is closing. I actually never ate there, but I am shocked to see a place that should have a high profit margin serving big plates of pasta to hungry diners shuttered.

A favourite among many diners was M at the Fringe which closed down after 20 years because of rent increases. Restaurateur Michelle Garnaut is still looking for a space but says leases are so short there's not enough time to build the business.

"If you are going to do something properly, it takes time to build up a business and make enough money to cover the initial investment," she says. "Food costs are high, alcohol is expensive -- and labour is expensive, and there's a shortage of it. All these things make it difficult, which narrows the field to big players. There is very little room for independents."

Back to the fashion boutiques, not all of us can afford to buy LV bags everyday -- but our mainland counterparts are coming here in droves to purchase them at slightly cheaper prices. They are the ones who are driving up the rents.

Where does this leave us who live here?

It looks like we're stuck with this giant generic mall mentality for a while.

However with the Hang Seng Index at free fall at the moment -- today it closed at 17,407.8, down 1.5 percent with fears it could drop as low as 12,000 -- this might make some landlords realize it may not be that feasible to leave their shops empty and finally rent them out to some budding entrepreneurs.

Some business is better than no business.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

History to Repeat Itself

Days after Leung Chun-ying resigned as convenor of the Executive Council in a bid to run for the position of Chief Executive, Henry Tang Ying-yen has yet to quit his post as Chief Secretary to join the race.

Tang is keeping people speculating on whether he will run or not even though he's already been tipped to be Beijing's favourite.

"As the chief secretary, I carry great responsibility, and therefore I have to be cautious in considering my personal future, while ensuring the government can function as usual," Tang said Saturday. "I will make a decision on this issue as soon as possible, and will make an announcement at an appropriate time."

Although the two-man race has already been decided, many Hong Kongers are grumbling about the prospects of Tang becoming chief executive.

Most are unhappy about Tang's inability to govern and his many faux pas in making comments about Hong Kong citizens.

That's because he comes from a privileged background -- his father, Tang Hsiang-chien is very connected to the Communist Party of China and through the money he made in textiles he helped the motherland jump start its economy in the 80s by giving them much-needed capital.

Apparently Tang senior's guanxi is much stronger than Tung Chee-hwa's, whose father Tung Chao-yung started Orient Overseas Container Liner (OOCL). After Tung Chao-yung died the company fell into financial troubles, and the CPC bailed the younger Tung out who was running OOCL at the time. As a result, he was named Hong Kong's first Chief Executive in 1997.

Seems like family favours play a more important role than actual political and administrative ability.

While Tung Chee-hwa was mostly looked on as a grandpa and didn't seem aware of what was going on, Henry Tang just gets his foot in his mouth all the time, kind of like the Prince Charles of Hong Kong.

His comment that young people should aspire to be like Li Ka-shing didn't go down well as Li married a rich cousin and from there got his capital to start a plastic flower business.

And with tycoons like Li practically monopolizing the entire city from mobile phones to supermarkets, property and electronics, how can any young upstart have any chance of competing and even surpassing Li these days?

It's a David and Goliath story, with Tang as the narrator completely unaware of how the story ends.

With our possible future leader having this kind of thinking, what is going to happen to Hong Kong?

Tang was born with a silver spoon -- no wait -- gold spoon in his mouth -- and is completely oblivious to the financial strains and stresses of young people in Hong Kong today. He doesn't see how difficult it is to raise enough money to buy a flat, or even the rising costs of everything making it harder for seniors to eke out a living. And the 20 percent of people who are working poor in the city who have no access to social services or subsidies?

But is it his fault he's Beijing's choice?

It appears to be another political favour done behind back doors.

And we, the over 7 million residents in Hong Kong have to suffer our fate... yet again.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Picture of the Day: Legislative Council

The dome of the Legislative Council building
In the heart of Central is the Legislative Council building which was formerly the Supreme Court, a beautiful colonial-style building.

Up until recently lawmakers used to file in here to hear arguments for and against bills which for the most part were passed.

But now there's a spanking new Legislative Council and Central Government Complex on the Tamar site, straddling Admiralty and Wan Chai. It's basically two slabs of buildings connected at the top so it looks like a "window" into Victoria Harbour.

Most people dislike the building -- not only because there aren't enough public footpaths to get there, but also it creates a cavernous feel in Admiralty. As one person described it, it was like having "a Grand Canyon" there.

Apparently the building was one of those "make work" projects for Chief Executive Donald Tsang who wanted to show his Beijing masters he was completing a series of tasks during his term.

As civil servants and legislators get used to their new home, the old Legco will turn into a museum.

But before it is refurbished, I recently had a chance to go up to the roof and managed to take this shot.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Stock Market Blues

Hong Kong stocks took a beating this week, with the Hang Seng Index closing at 17,668.83 today, two days in a row below 18,000 points.

Sentiment turned sour on news that productivity numbers in China indicate a slowing down of its economy with fewer orders from the United States and Europe.

Analysts also believe the weak numbers indicate a global recession though many are reluctant to say the "R" word.

A few weeks ago there was a news story about how wine auctions are not as hot as before. At a recent Christie's auction, 12 bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 2008 sold for $17,719, only half the price reached in October 2010. Also up for grabs was a 300-bottle collection from the same famed chateau that sold for HK$4.2 million, but fell short of the presale estimate of HK$4.5 million.

So is this the beginning of the recession?

We shall see in the next few weeks.

If there are fewer lines in front of Louis Vuitton and Chanel then we'll know. Either the nouveaux riche Chinese are hiding their ostentatious wealth or the tap is drying up.


Thursday, 22 September 2011

Locke's Everyman Approach

Locke spotted at a Starbucks in Seattle
The new US Consul General to China Gary Locke already has some fans in China which has resulted in restrained annoyance in state media.
Admiration for him began even before he arrived -- one Chinese person saw Locke at the airport carrying his own backpack and trying to pay for a coffee at Starbucks with a voucher which wasn't valid at that store so he paid by credit card instead.
After those pictures were posted many Chinese were amazed to see such a high government official doing things on his own unlike Chinese officials who have minions running around, from carrying their things to holding up umbrellas when it's raining.
The praises for Locke were so great that Global Times had to write an opinion piece trying to downplay the consul's popularity saying in his position he is not supposed to have many bodyguards or that he and and family having casual strolls through hutongs aren't any different from other high profile people.
"A US ambassador should devote himself to the relationship between China and the US rather than play a role in Chinese media. A US ambassador becoming a political star in China cannot be interpreted as US respect for China," the Global Times piece says.
It goes on to chastise the media for over reporting on every move Locke makes.
"Media that actively sensationalize Locke should show restraint," it continues. "There are too many occasions and angles to criticize the corruption and bureaucracy in Chinese official circles. It is not suitable to overly praise a foreign ambassador, particularly when his task in China is rather complicated. Chinese media should be calm and rational when discussing the private lives of people like Locke."
It's very amusing to see Chinese state media make these instructive yet insecure pronouncements. It even points out Chinese media criticize the government too much whenever corruption scandals erupt -- but these incidents need to be reported.

Meanwhile Locke is probably doing what he usually does anyway, consciously scoring brownie points in what would practically be considered normal for any politician outside of China.

Can anyone imagine President Hu Jintao getting his own coffee?
There is a huge cultural divide between China and the US when it comes to perceptions of leaders. And Locke is definitely winning with his touch of soft power.

Almost Ready

An outside view of the two-level Apple store at IFC mall in Central
The Apple Store at IFC Mall has taken off the red billboard sign and unveiled its newest store which is set to open on Saturday.

Here are three views of the store, from the outside and inside as of tonight (Thursday).

Passersby check out what's going on in the store
Curious onlookers (like myself) took pictures as staff in blue T-shirts got acquainted with the store as well as all the goods from laptops to iPhones.

Apparently the first batch of lucky people who get into the store or who buy something will get a souvenir T-shirt that is supposedly worth $85.

And probably more than one will be selling them on eBay so stay tuned.

Gearing up for Saturday's grand opening



Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Lopsided Race

Leung Chun-ying is running for HK's Chief Executive
The race to become Hong Kong's next chief executive is heating up with dark horse Leung Chun-ying resigning as Executive Council convenor yesterday signalling his intention to run.
However the already decided frontrunner, Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen has yet to quit his position, though he's expected to do so in the coming days.
Some think of Leung as someone who shoots his mouth off and doesn't have the support of Beijing. However some Hong Kongers may like him because he seems to be willing to stand up for the city unlike Tang who seems completely out of touch with social issues. And anyway aren't things more interesting when there's more than one person fighting for a job?
Nevertheless Tang has already been deemed the winner as Beijing has already dropped hints of favouring him; the 1,200 members of the Election Committee will decide the winner, not the over seven million residents who live in Hong Kong. How democratic is that?
Ng Hong-mun, a former local deputy to the National People's Congress said, "The more the scene develops, the harder it is for Beijing to ask any candidate to withdraw from the race. Hong Kongers may feel Beijing is interferring with the election, annointing a particular candidate."
He said China's big concern was ensuring a high "safety coefficient" -- making sure the election will not be thrown in doubt by a pan-democratic candidate. The 1,200 seats will be contested in an election in December and Ng is projecting the pan-democrats will only gain one-sixth of them. A candidate for chief executive needs at least 601 seats to win the election.
In the end this is really a tug-o-war between what Beijing wants and what Hong Kong wants.
Beijing wants someone senior officials feel comfortable with, and on paper Tang suit their interests.
But what does Hong Kong want? What will Tang and Leung do for us if elected?
The sad thing is, we already know who will be the next Chief Executive.

It's democracy, Chinese Communist Party style.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Burning to Say Something

Golden Bauhinia Square lit up at night in Wan Chai
On July 22, Zhu Rongchang, a 74-year-old farmer from Jiangxi came to Hong Kong for the first time.
The first place he visited?
Golden Bauhinia Square next to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai where he lowered the Chinese flag from the flagpole and lit it with a cigarette lighter. The burning didn't ignite into a blaze as others stomped it out and Zhu was promptly arrested.
He claimed he was protesting against Communist rule in China.
On Monday Zhu became the first person to be jailed for burning the national flag in Hong Kong. He was handed a three-week sentence for desecrating the flag, a conviction that could have gotten him up to three years in the slammer.
"He was disappointed with the authoritarian rule of the Communist Part," lawyer Norman Lam told Eastern Court. He said Zhu pleaded not guilty because he had a different concept of freedom of speech and democracy than that allowed by the law.
"He is unhappy that there are no human rights," explained Lam. "He does not think the flag represents the People's Republic of China."
Zhu probably premeditated doing this before he came to Hong Kong; but did he believe he could burn the flag without any consequences? Or did he just want to make a statement?
It's interesting to see a farmer use his hard-earned money to make his first trip to Hong Kong and spend it unlike other mainlanders who immediately make a beeline for the shops.

His actions and later conviction were not covered in Chinese state media -- the thought that one of its citizens was so determined to protest against the government by burning the national flag probably did not fit its mandate of promoting model residents happy with the country becoming an economic powerhouse...

Monday, 19 September 2011

Corruption Crackdown, Chinese Style

The Chinese government likes to have campaigns, especially when it comes to corruption.

These anti-corruption sweeps are for a fixed period of time and everyone tries to act as innocent as angels and then when the campaign is over everything goes back to the way it was before.

A few people are caught as examples, but there is no determined widespread effort to shut down anything unless it's not in the best interests of the government.

The latest anti graft campaign is focusing on where corruption is likely to happen -- publicly funded infrastructure projects or where people's livelihood are affected, such as food and industrial safety.

One would think these would be a given, but it seems the government is seriously looking at it now after the fiasco over the Wenzhou high-speed train crash and the numerous food scandals.

The Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Ministry of Supervision and the National Bureau of Corruption Prevention have drafted guidelines on strengthening "graft risk prevention and control", the Beijing Times recently reported.

There will be extra attention paid to areas where corruption is high, such as industrial and infrastructure projects, the granting of land rights and the trading of property rights, according to the draft outlines.

Other areas such as land reclamation, education, medical services, social security, food and medicine safety, environmental protection and work safety will also be examined closely.

Not only that but the anti-graft watchdogs will also be looking at the officials who have the power over personnel matters, administrative enforcement, judicial affairs and the approval or supervision of projects.

Perhaps most interesting about the draft guidelines is its acknowledgement of repeated campaigns to stamp out corruption but that it still remains as one of the main sources of anger in China.

We all know what the fundamental problem is -- one party rule needs to end. The Chinese government cannot police itself -- if it was really determined to stamp out corruption it would appoint an independent body to do this. However three government agencies are looking after this -- which means there will be lots of bickering involved.

So the whole exercise is a foregone conclusion.

The people know this is a public relations exercise in the hopes of gaining more trust from them -- but they are so jaded that all they do is shake their heads and go on with their day.

And all these areas the government watchdogs are trying to focus on, such as infrastructure, health and food -- shouldn't it already be doing this to ensure all citizens live healthy and safe lives?

How is there supposed to be any progress in China when its people are constantly held back by corruption scandals?

When the massive 4 trillion renminbi ($570 billion) stimulus package was announced in late 2008, many China experts already predicted massive corruption. Over two years later we are seeing the results of it -- on an enormous scale because of how much money was involved.

The government only has itself to blame.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Picture of the Day: Southorn Playground

The area is nestled in between skyscrapers
The other day I was early for a dinner on Queen's Road East towards Happy Valley and happened to be near Southorn Playground. At first I thought I'd pass through the place and arrive at the restaurant extra early.

I had never actually been through the playground before, and saw many people sitting in the stands either watching the action on the playground -- people either kicking a ball around or playing basketball -- or reading the paper or chatting with friends.

So I decided to pass the time sitting on the benches there as well reading the paper. It made me realize what a great public space it was, because it also acted as a convenient thoroughfare for people to get from between Hennessy Road and Johnston Road.

People could freely use the space as they pleased for sports-related activities or set up market stalls during festivals.

The area is named after Sir Wilfrid Thomas Southorn who was Colonial Secretary, the second-highest position of the Hong Kong government who was in office from 1925-1936.

A good public space for people to use all hours of the day
Apparently a long time ago the space was a place for coolies to gather in the early morning before their work day and then by evening it turned into an entertainment area with Chinese magic and kung fu performances as well as street food.

It's a nice place to hang out and rest your feet for a while as you watch the world go by.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Murderous Lust for Power

Kevin Spacey getting a standing ovation
Last December I had the lucky chance to meet actor Kevin Spacey in Singapore. He was there for a function for Audi and he was staying at the same hotel as us. He was very serious as he met each of us, shook our hands and then posed for a group photo.

The hotel's general manager told us he would be back in the Lion City the same time next year to do a play and probably stay in the same hotel.

Fast forward a few months later I saw a flyer advertising Shakespeare's Richard III with Spacey directed by Sam Mendes coming to Hong Kong for three days.

So I immediately got tickets and saw the matinee performance today.

Spacey is surrounded by the cast as he bows to the audience
I love watching Shakespeare plays -- but I've mostly watched ones I've studied before but I'd never read Richard III before. The synopsis in Wikipedia gives a short story outline and I hoped it would be enough to get by -- but really it is best to have read the play beforehand to understand what everyone is saying and the meanings behind them. I was too busy trying to get all the characters straight as well as the storyline to really appreciate the language.

Nevertheless Spacey was brilliant as the humpbacked devious -- no -- evil -- Richard, Duke of Gloucester. He really was the epitome of evil and cunning who did whatever he needed to do to become king, even if it meant killing brothers, nephews, sister-in-law and aides.

His character talks to the audience a lot, seeing them as co-conspirators even though we may not agree with his actions, and there is a lot of humour sprinkled throughout the lines, some witty, others used to comic effect.

Perhaps the best part was when Richard was trying to build consensus with the public about him becoming king and he pretends to be meditating in church with two monks. He is broadcast on a screen as he talks directly to the camera behind the stage, while the Duke of Buckingham rouses the crowd (us the audience) for support.

The ending was also quite dramatic with remorse finally catching up to King Richard and we see the mental anguish he experiences before the final showdown with Lord Stanley in a pretty good sword fight.

A strong cast and excellent staging make Richard III excellent
The staging of the play was also excellent, sparing but used to great effect along with lots of light and shadow. Below the stage on each side were spots for two musicians to play mostly drums and other minimalist sounds to add tension.

It was also great to see many black actors on the stage too, making the play colour blind and demonstrating an actor is a good actor regardless of his appearance.

In the end the cast got a standing ovation and in particular Spacey. After such a physical and emotional role he had to do it all again in less than two hours for the 8pm show!

They have two more performances tomorrow before they move on to Spain at the end of the month, then Istanbul and Beijing. Here's the schedule.

And yes they'll be in Singapore in mid November. Check him out if he comes to a city near you!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Airing Out Frustrations

Yesterday Radio Television Hong Kong's new boss got an interesting greeting -- a black carpet and his staff in black protesting his appointment at the Kowloon Tong headquarters.

That's because after nine months of recruitment, the government apparently could not find anyone suitable for the job and appointed civil servant Roy Tang Yun-kwong to the position.

RTHK staff are not happy because Tang has no broadcasting experience and fear his appointment will compromise the news outlet's editorial independence.

"We have no faith in him," said union chairwoman Janet Mak Lai-ching.

However Tang took the criticisms like water off a duck's back, promising to defend the broadcaster's editorial independence against any interference.

He has spent 24 years as an administrative officer promoting government policies which is why Mak worries Tang will not understand what his new job entails. "The role of RTHK -- as a public broadcaster -- is to monitor the government's performance. This is where the biggest conflict lies."

Tang replaces Gordon Leung Chung-tai who didn't renew his contract due to health problems.

What is strange is that apparently there were six candidates in the final round -- some of whom were very experienced senior journalists.

This abrupt turn around clearly indicates the government's unhappiness with criticisms coming from RTHK and perhaps hopes this new measure will tone down angry opinions.

However the government seems to misunderstand the role of a public broadcaster -- RTHK acts in the interests of the public, not the government. It is not a government mouthpiece but a platform where all voices for and against the government can be heard.

RTHK is meant to engage the public in a two-way dialogue, not just singing the praises of the government. If the public wanted to hear one track they would have already moved to the mainland.

The broadcaster's staff are planning to take further action -- possibly a strike -- to further show their displeasure.

Tang has a tough road ahead.


Thursday, 15 September 2011

HK's Poor Left Behind

Following my post yesterday about how wasteful Hong Kongers are and that the government does little to help those in need, today the media is reporting almost one-fifth of people in the city live below the poverty line according to a report compiled by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service.

The umbrella organization for voluntary agencies and NGOs says the lack of services for the poor and disabled is alarming, with waiting lists for some services more than six years in some districts.
 
The welfare body says of the seven areas that need the most help are services for the elderly and handicapped as well as poverty alleviation and housing.
 
Council chief executive Christine Fang Meng-sang said central and local planning was needed. "With so many living below the poverty line in a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong, it would be a big mistake to ignore the needs of the poor."
 
The council said 18 percent of Hong Kong's population earned only half the median income -- a three-person household may earn just HK$7,000 ($898.38) a month.
 
Yuen Long was the worst-affected district, with 23.5 percent living below the poverty line and Kwun Tong and Sham Shui Po following with 22 percent.
 
It's also interesting to note that the number of poverty alleviation groups in district councils has dropped from nine in 2006 to just one in Sham Shui Po last year.
 
How and why did that happen?
 
Then there are the appallingly long lineups for special social services. A centre for handicapped children has a 19-month waiting list in Southern District -- the longest in the city. Then a spot in a sheltered workshop for the mentally handicapped can be a 76-month wait in Northern District. The queue for a daily activity centre for the seriously mentally handicapped is 54 months in Taipo.
 
The council's business director for policy advocacy and social enterprise Chua Hoi-wai said this shows that supply cannot even begin to meet demand.
 
While the council says it has had discussions with district council candidates hoping they will take up the cause with elections coming up and is hopeful something will be done, it's really up to the government to address the issue.
 
Meanwhile a spokeswoman for the Labour and Welfare Bureau said there was a decrease in the number of people living in poverty and that the government "attaches great importance to poverty alleviation work" and "adopts a multi-pronged approach to tackle poverty". The measures include education, social security and minimum wage, she added.

The annual expenditure on welfare is expected to reach HK$147.5 billion in 2011-12, with the money spent in such things as training and vocational-rehabilitation training and pre-school services. The government also plans to finance 1,500 more home care places for the frail elderly as well as more day care spots for the elderly in the coming year.

I want to know how many poverty alleviation groups there are, why the numbers have dropped off and if they really were able to help people. 

But more importantly why are there such long waits for social services? No wonder parents are at their wits' end looking after mentally and physically handicapped children on their own as well as looking after their elderly parents who can't afford to live in old folks homes, waiting years for a spot.

It's times like these where I and many others would rather our HK$6,000 payout go to these people instead of us. Imagine the billions of dollars that could be helping these people. The government has no foresight in looking after its own.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Must Cut Excess

Some mooncake boxes have elaborate packaging like this one
This year I was really lucky to receive nine boxes of mooncakes. I gave away all of them save one to very appreciative people from relatives to the security staff who look after my apartment building. With so many boxes I couldn't imagine throwing the mooncakes away, but apparently many Hong Kongers have no qualms doing so.
According to a survey by environmental group Green Power, Hong Kong people threw out enough mooncakes to cover 25 basketball courts last year, or more than 2.12 million mooncakes, up 12 percent from 2009.

That's a staggering amount and a lot of money down the drain.
The other issue with mooncakes is how much packaging they use. The survey of 287 households found 70 percent of families preferred "exquisite package" of mooncakes, only 10 percent liked simple packaging.
In this age of environmental consciousness and where Hong Kong has (for the most part) banned plastic shopping bags that people would realize throwing food out and excessive packaging is wasteful.
But apparently not.
I was also dismayed to find many of the mooncake boxes were huge and inside only held half a dozen small mooncakes. The packaging inside, using cheap gold-coloured fabric to make it look expensive was actually quite tacky.
China has tried to implement regulations cutting down on the amount of packaging used and perhaps the Hong Kong government should do the same. But the Tsang government would see it as encroaching on capitalism so really it's up to us to vote with our feet.

And if people aren't going to eat all those mooncakes, that's fine; we all want to keep our waistlines relatively trim. But please don't throw these traditional cakes out -- donate them to those less fortunate so that they can celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. However ways people can donate mooncakes are not publicized enough.

At work there was a notice that St James Settlement was accepting mooncakes but drop off points weren't convenient for a lot of people. There really has to be more of a community effort to help spread the wealth which is where the government can facilitate this.

But does it want to? It does not want to admit there are working poor in Hong Kong. And that's a shame. All countries have a section of the population that is underprivileged but ignoring them won't make them go away.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Dangerous Liaisons

Bob Deschert and Xinhua reporter Shi Rong
It is shocking to discover a member of the Canadian government is embroiled in a scandal over love messages to a Xinhua reporter. But perhaps even more appalling is that the ruling Conservatives will not do anything to punish him for his silly actions.

Bob Dechert who was first elected Member of Parliament for Mississauga-Erindale in the province of Ontario in 2008, is now one of two parliamentary press secretaries to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and a vice-president of the Canada-China Legislative Association which brings together lawmakers from both countries.

As a member of the foreign affairs committee, Dechert accompanied Prime Minister Stephen Harper to China in 2009.

Last week a mass email was sent out to more than 240 media, academic, political and business contacts that revealed the amorous messages Deschert wrote to Xinhua's Toronto correspondent Shi Rong.

One email he wrote on April 17, 2010 says: "You are so beautiful. I really like the picture of you by the water with your cheeks puffed. That look is so cute, I love it when you do that. Now I miss you even more."

In another he said he "enjoyed the drive [to Ottawa] by thinking of you". He then encouraged her to watch the parliamentary proceedings in the House of Commons. "We will be voting at 6:30pm. If you have time, watch the TV or on your computer (on the CPAC website) and I will smile at you. I miss you. Love, Bob."

Deschert played down the emails as an "innocent" friendship and explained the surprise release of the emails were due to an "ongoing domestic dispute", while Shi blamed her husband for hacking into her email and sending out the missives.

Regardless the reason, critics are calling for Deschert to step down for the serious embarrassment he has caused the government.

Liberal Senator Jim Munson, a former journalist who worked in China for five years and sits on the executive of the Canada-China Legislative Association says elected officials need to be careful when dealing with Xinhua.

"Any politician in Canada who has any relations with Xinhua should be aware that Xinhua is the voice of the government of China and that one should be very, very careful in his or her dealings," he said. "You have to recognize that Xinhua is the communications arm, the propaganda arm, the voice of the government of China."

Charles Burton, a Brock University professor and former diplomat to China agrees.

"The function of the Xinhua news agency is not to provide reporting that will provide information to the Chinese newspaper readership, but to gather information, some of which is used for internal purposes," he explained. "It should be made clear to Canadians with security clearances that contacts with the Xinhua news agency amount to contacts with agents of a foreign power and therefore one should be very prudent."

What Burton says is quite true. During my time in Beijing I learned that Xinhua reporters that rise through the ranks are those who were chosen to join when they finished their tertiary education. They were not only accepted for their academic performance but also for their devotion to the Party.

A reporter could not have come from another news organization either -- they had to be a fresh slate for Xinhua and if they were deemed good in their reporting or perhaps connections they got promoted.

The more trusted they were, the more they were allowed to do investigative reporting -- but these reports didn't necessarily make it into the newspaper. These reporters were sometimes purely for the consumption of senior leaders. They could be about serious topics on corruption to the hygiene levels of Beijing restaurants.

So it is fair to say that while these reporters may not consider themselves to be spies as such, they are providing information to the leadership, not just a straight news story.

The Harper government should really think twice about keeping on Deschert. While Canada is anxious to maintain good ties with China, perhaps it should stay away from the amorous type.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Inspiration Turns into Revulsion

Li Yang leads the masses in a very oral English lesson
Li Yang (李阳) is considered to be a guru for many people in China who want to learn English.

However the 42-year-old has unconventional methods, which include groups of people shouting out English phrases and sentences in union as loudly as they can to help them overcome their shyness in speaking English.

His brand of teaching called "Crazy English" started in 1994 and according to news reports over 20 million people have signed up for his classes.

However it has come to light that while Li might be inspiring millions of people to learn English, he has also been outed as a wife beater.

Li apologized on his microblog Sunday which also happened to be Teachers' Day in China after his American wife Kim Lee posted pictures of her injuries and comments alleging domestic abuse.

"I wholeheartedly apologize to my wife Kim and my girls for committing domestic violence," he wrote. "This has caused them serious physical and mental damage. Based on Kim's request, we are currently seeking professional counselling. I would like to offer my deepest apology here. Sorry to let you down."

The confession came after Lee posted a picture of her bruised forehead on August 31. The next day she posted another picture of a bruised knee and titled the entry "Love China, love yourself, do not use violence toward me in front of our child".

Two days later she posted yet another picture of an egg-sized lump on her forehead with a comment: "It would be easier if love had just disappeared the minute that your hand struck my face, but it did not. Seeing that you were having make-up applied for a TV appearance while I was in hospital hurts more than your slamming my head on the floor." She added he only stopped after one of the daughters intervened.

In the days following she posted more comments and pictures of injuries that dated back 12 years ago. Lee even said she would have to divorce Li for the sake of their children.

But after Li publicly apologized, Lee wrote this entry: "LY [Li Yang] faced police charges, admitted the truth, accepted responsibility and asked forgiveness. With courage, love and faith in God, we will sort out the rest. My family needs to heal. Everlasting thanks for all support, understanding and love".

It'll be interesting to see how well Li's reputation stands up to the scandal as he makes millions of yuan from his school and special appearances.

Perhaps his defense, though weak could be, "Do as I say, not do as I do."

But if the allegations really are true, it's a good first step to admit fault.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Reflections on 9/11

We all remember where we were on September 11, 2001.

And we will never forget because it changed our lives forever.

I remember lying awake that night, wondering how the world I knew had changed completely and with the terrified thought that this could be the beginning of the end.

In the last few days I've been reading, watching and listening to people reflecting on that day and what it means to them and the world.

Some said the Bush administration had a John Wayne attitude using 9/11 as a pretext to go into Iraq and that was a fatal mistake.

Some are only now trying to come to terms with survivor guilt, having escaped the World Trade Center and trying to find some meaning in their lives.

Some describe terrorism not as something that is definitively black and white but like a cancer, something we have to live with but can't outright destroy it.

Some say we should be paying more attention to the soldiers fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because back home we are doing nothing for the war effort at all.

Some want us to be aware that the victims of 9/11 are not just those who died 10 years ago on September 11 but also those affected by al-Qaeda in various countries including Somalia, Mogadishu, and Yemen.

Some say the United States' biggest blunder was Abu Ghraib -- those shocking images of torture and abuse of detainees will live on in perpetuity as a reason to take revenge on the US.

Some say on that day the US lost its steadfast belief of invincibility -- and nothing can ever bring that sense of invincibility back again.

We are still trying to figure out if things are better 10 years on -- it depends on who you talk to.

Let us hope that we are edging closer towards better cultural understanding and communication on a world scale. We need to because the survival of mankind depends on it.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Rich Kids Still Out of Control

General Li Shuangjiang and his 15-year-old son Li Tianyi
There's over four million cars on the roads in Beijing so perhaps it's not surprising there are going to be bouts of road rage.

However the latest incident calls into question what the parents are doing to rein in their kids.

A 15-year-old named Li Tianyi and his friend surnamed Su, 18, beat up a husband and wife while their son looked on.

According to news reports the two leaped out of their sports cars -- Li driving a customized BMW coupe without a license plate -- and beat the couple for three minutes.

Moments earlier the wife was driving the family back home to their residential complex and was slowing down to make the turn when the two teen drivers followed so fast behind them they screeched to a halt. They came out of their cars and quarreled with the husband before beating them. "Who will dare call the police?" they shouted at stunned onlookers. They tried to flee the scene in Beijing's Haidian district, but local residents stopped them.

The woman who was beaten up told a newspaper her husband had nine stitches on his forehead, two at the back of his head, and suffered wounds to his nose and right eye.

It turns out Li is the son of 72-year-old General Li Shuangjiang, a famous singer and music department dean of the Beijing-based PLA Academy of Arts. He profusely apologized for his son's actions.

"As the father, I bear the responsibility for my son's behaviour. I am so sorry that I'd rather now be beaten by you," he said to the injured couple in hospital. "I will not condone my son's faults and there will be a settlement."

First of all, what is a 72-year-old doing having a son who is 15? Is this really his only son?

And also why does his young son have access to an expensive car? He is not old enough to drive even though his parents bought him the car.

Li Jr's lawyer seems to think the teenager will not be charged because he is not yet 16. Excuse me? He committed an illegal act of driving a car without a license and physically assaulted two people.

Meanwhile Su's Audi had what appeared to be government license plates but later turned out to be fake. Li's car was also found to have a toy gun.

The outrageous behaviour of China's "rich second generation" has to stop because it's not only upsetting social harmony but also endangering lives.

In the meantime stay tuned for the lawsuits that will be launched and it'll be interesting to see what punishments -- if any -- are meted out.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Mistress from Hell

Hopefully the cautionary tale I am about to tell will scare off men from even entertaining the thought of having mistresses forever.

On Thursday 38-year-old Ki Chun-yim was sentenced to seven years in jail for taunting her ex-lover and his family for three years.

She met the now 50-year-old businessman known in the court case as Mr X in 2006 and he was so smitten with her that he rented a flat for her in Sham Shui Po and gave her an allowance of HK$60,000 ($7,700) a month.

But when he tried to end their relationship in July 2007, Mr X's hellish nightmare began.

At first Ki asked for millions of dollars as compensation but then upped the demand to HK$120 million as a "separation fee". She told him she had his child but never showed any proof, though she does have a 16-year-old daughter studying in the UK. Ki was married on the mainland but her husband died after she moved to Hong Kong in 2000.

In court Mr X testified Ki made over 1,000 harassing phone calls and sent tons of text messages demanding more money. She even sent threatening texts to his wife and his business partners, who were named Mr Y and Mr Z in the case.

Once Ki took a triad member to Mr X's office and even threatened to kill his and daughter. She also threatened to kill his business partners Mr Y and Mr Z and their respective families.

"Ki told me she had hired private detectives to watch me," Mr X testified behind a screen. "She was able to specify what law firms or investment banks I had visited. She was also able to tell of conversations between me and Mr Y when we were in a massage parlour."

Mr X said he tried to do everything he could to stop her harassing and threatening her by going to the police, but the authorities did nothing, with the police and lawyers saying the evidence was too weak to take legal action against her. Only yesterday did the police say that Mr X's seven reports over two years was finally enough evidence to take Ki to court.

Ki's defense counsel said her fear of losing Mr X drove her to extremes and that she was mentally unstable.

One time he said she chased him down a flight of stairs with a chopper in hand.

"There was a knife on the bed," he said. "The defendant said she wanted to kill me if I refused to pay... then she went into the kitchen to grab a chopper. So I immediately dashed out of the door and ran down eight flights of stairs while the defendant was chasing behind."

He was so intimidated by her that he didn't dare refuse to see her or reject her phone calls. He was even too scared to turn her down for sex.

"Every morning when I woke up, I had already received 30 missed phone calls," he said. "If I did not return her call within 12 hours, she would threaten me again," he told the court.

Mr Y testified that Ki and two accomplices kidnapped him and took him to Shenzhen for several hours in November.

Mr X said he paid Ki a total of HK$10 million, though he insisted it was not a "gift of love" as the defense maintained. "It was out of extreme fear about her threat that I gave in and made payments to her."

But for most of the trial media observed she was very calm and hardly testified. However she broke down after her sentence was read out and needed assistance walking to her cell.

While Ki is paying the price for mentally and physically bullying Mr X and his colleagues, Mr X has probably suffered the most through this horrific ordeal.

In 2007 he found out he had a heart condition and mental issues that he believes were caused by Ki. The death threats and harassment also affected Mr X's wife, who began suffering from depression and she would hit herself and pull out her own hair.

In May 2008 she threw him out of the family home and hasn't allowed him back in since.

"My wife asked me to leave our home, not because of my extramarital affair, but because of the threat to the lives and safety of both herself and our daughter," Mr X said. "Physically I completely broke down. For three months [after the chase down the stairs], I was trembling even after covering myself with three quilts. For four months I was bedridden and was completely unable to work... I used to work 14 or 15 hours a day... My life was even more painful than dying. This was what she wanted."

So let that be a lesson to the men out there -- cheating can be dangerous to your health.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Prices Over the Moon

A traditional mooncake handmade at the Sheraton Hong Kong

Mooncakes are a must for Mid-Autumn Festival which falls next Monday, but the tradition of making them may fall by the wayside soon thanks to inflation.

This year many local bakeries that make the mooncake complete with lotus seed paste and duck yolks are finding the ingredients more expensive and as they can't price them too high, the margins are getting much thinner.

"This year is particularly more difficult even though sales have been brisk," said Tse Ching-yuen, owner of the famous Tai Tung Bakery in Yuen Long. The bakery was set up by his father in 1943. Tse, 81, explains everything from the tin boxes to the ingredients and rent have all gone up.

The prices of lotus seed imported from the mainland have soared to HK$88,000 a tonne in June from HK$60,000 in March. Prices have since fallen to HK$42,000, but far above the HK$28,000 last year.

The wooden paddle used for making traditional mooncakes
Tse is angry that speculators have driven up prices. "There were rumours that a female speculator in Wenzhou splurged 1.3 billion yuan buying up lotus seeds in June which raised the price to HK$88,000," he said. "I have never seen lotus seeds so expensive before."

Sugar prices also went up 80 percent higher, peanut oil from South Africa rose 12 percent, American flour up 17 percent and walnuts from the mainland up 211 percent. On top of that with the minimum wage going up, wages rose 20 percent to around HK$70 an hour. These days more bakeries are using machines to make mooncakes than manual labour.

As a result a mooncake costs 25 percent more than last year, but only 3.4 percent more to buy.

"The retail price can't be raised too much or customers may vote with their feet," he said. "Producing mooncakes no longer makes you prosperous, but it means a lot in terms of continuing Chinese tradition and my family's heritage."

Tse's son Peter Tse Hing-chi observes many mainland customers order as many as 50 boxes of mooncakes worth HK$10,000. He said one businessman from Hangzhou ordered 150 boxes worth HK$31,500 as corporate gifts.
Freshly-baked custard mooncakes at the Sheraton Hong Kong

"We have had more mainland shoppers in the past few years, and their orders are getting bigger and with more specific requests," he said. "One thing they share in common is they don't care much about prices."

It's frightening to see the cost of ingredients, particularly lotus seeds and walnuts go up over 200 percent. However it's good to know mainlanders are keeping these bakeries in business. After all, these customers are willing to pay for the real thing.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Cash Grab Gets Closer

Months after waiting for the government to get its act together, now senior citizens can finally apply for their HK$6,000 ($769.82) handout.

Those born in 1946 and before are eligible to apply now, though there is a HK$200 bonus if you wait another few months, but the elderly are eagerly filling out forms now because they don't know how much longer they're going to be around.

When people are asked by the media what they're going to do with their cash handout, some say they'll travel, others buy clothes or pay their mortgage or even do the good deed of giving it to charity.

Meanwhile CNNGo has figured out some other creative ways to blow the cash:

1. 66 scoops of white truffle ice cream from Ice-cream Gallery, one of Hong Kong's best cold treats.

2. 200 pints of draught beer from our favorite bar by the Central Pier, The Beer Bay.

3. 461 plates of scrambled eggs from the perennially popular Australia Dairy Company.

4. 3,076 cups of food for victims of famine in the Horn of Africa through the World Food Program.

5. Stay in King's Cube for 60 nights.

6. Kick back in the Peninsula Suite for about 2 hours -- it's one of the world's most expensive.

7. Own a few square centimeters of a luxury apartment at The Masterpiece.

8. Book the Champagne room at hot "digital karaoke" joint Red MR.

9. Be the first to buy the iPhone 5 when it finally comes out, plus about 120 apps.

10. Get double eyelid surgery for one eye at hkfacelift.com




Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Picture of the Day: Apple is Coming

The excitement is building with Apple's highly anticipated store opening

Over a week ago I took a picture of where Apple's 100th store will be and yesterday I saw the black wrapping was taken off revealing this sign.

At the bottom it says: "Apple Store, ifc mall. The new center of Central."

Fans will definitely be flocking in a few weeks...

Monday, 5 September 2011

China's Major Misstep in Libya

China was quick on the defensive today when Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail found documents that China was offering weapons and ammunition worth at least $200 million to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi in late July which also violated United Nations sanctions.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu sought to deflect attention Monday by saying that while Chinese companies had approached Gadhafi's side, she stressed no transactions were ever made.

However Omar Hariri, chief of the Libyan transitional council's military committee saw the documents and believes they explain brand-new weapons the rebels encountered in the field.

"I'm almost certain that these guns arrived and were used against our people," he said.

The Globe and Mail reporter found the memo in the trash in a neighbourhood known as Bab Akkarah, where several of Gadhafi's most loyal supporters have ostentatious homes.

The memo documents a trip by Gadhafi's security officials made from Tripoli to Beijing on July 16. In the Chinese capital they met officials from three state-owned weapons manufacturers: China North Industries Corp (Norinco), the China National Precision Machinery Import & Export Corp (CPMIC), and China XinXing Import & Export Corp.

The companies not only offered their entire stockpile of weapons and ammunition, but added if they needed more, they would manufacture them. They also added that the weapons should be transferred through a third country to avoid detection.

If that's not proof enough that China was trying to back Gadhafi, I don't know what is.

And what about China's constant refrain of not interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries?

This time it definitely backed the wrong side and the transitional government will bear this in mind when it eventually comes to power.

China likes dealing with autocratic leaders like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Gadhafi because they have much in common. But Beijing has put its bets on the wrong horses.

As the Arab Spring continues to sustain and spread through the Middle East, Beijing will have to assess things much more carefully with fewer despots on its side.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Lack of Benefits in Over Parenting

Children in Hong Kong, particularly the ones of A-type parents don't have much of a childhood.

When they are three years old the children are already prepped for pre-school entrance tests which entail not only identifying objects on flashcards but also be able to say their name, and talk about their hobbies.

Hobbies? At three years of age?

I recall one parent saying that during the interview, her daughter was asked her name and she replied, "bee bee" or "baby".

And from then onwards the parents ferry their children here and there for tutorials, classes for dance, music, sports and art in the hopes all these extracurricular activities will give their brood a leg up in the world.

However on the show Freakonomics, economist Bruce Sacerdote found that over parenting doesn't have much of an affect on children and in fact doesn't help much in their financial future. He discovered that while parents could have a moderate affect on your income in your early 20s, they basically have zero influence for the rest of your life.

Zero!

But what about over parenting when it comes to academic success? Economists Steven Levitt and Roland Fryer took national data of children from birth to grade school in the United States and crunched the numbers. Levitt concludes it doesn't matter how many activities your kids do whether they go to museums. There is no evidence that the parental choices of obsessive parents can be correlated with academic success. "When it comes to happiness of kids that kind of cultural cramming is negatively correlated with happiness," Levitt says.

Negatively correlated to happiness!

So let that be a lesson folks. While it's good to encourage your child to learn whatever interests them, there isn't much value in forcing them to play piano or go to a museum.

Sometimes it's better just to let kids be kids.

Now if only the rest of the Hong Kong population and school system would realize this too.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

More Concerns about National Education

There are more doubts as to how Hong Kong will implement the controversial national education course in all schools within two years.

As expected many teachers raised objections during the four-month consultation period that ended earlier this week.

The plan calls for all primary and secondary students in Hong Kong to include national education as a study subject though it has not been clarified as to what exactly the students should be learning and how.

Those for it in the pro-Beijing camp have criticized the city's education system for years saying there is not enough effort made to instill a sense of national identity in students, fearing they will be ostracized by the rest of the country. And those opposed are concerned about the true meaning behind national education, that it could be used for "brain-washing" purposes. There are also concerns of extra workloads for both teachers and students.

This proposal has been one of Donald Tsang's key objectives as Chief Executive, though he steps down next year. He is eager to show Beijing that he is heeding its suggestion that Hong Kong children learn more about Chinese culture (whatever that means).

The Federation of Education Workers which has 13,000 members says the plan should be a pilot scheme first before introducing to all schools, and that only one-third of schools should be involved in the first year.

Federation chairman Wong Kwan-yu said the government's time frame of two years was "unfeasible" and said that as many as 50 percent of teachers taking part in the survey opposed the proposal.

The organization's concerns are a political blow for Tsang, as it traditionally supports the government. The federation is the second-largest teachers' group in Hong Kong, after the Professional Teachers' Union which has already objected to the government's plan.

An advisory body is looking at the comments from the consultation process and will meet on September 15.

Meanwhile Hong Kong Association of Heads of Secondary Schools chairman Yuen Pong-yiu made a cryptic comment. He said the government should make sure students could think independently and critically.

Is he hinting he wants Hong Kong's children to be able to figure out what is propaganda and what isn't when they take this national education course?

Friday, 2 September 2011

Short Form English HK Style

GLA magazine... what does that mean?
Hong Kong people have a tendency to shorten words to make them easier for them to pronounce or remember. They can speak a string of acronyms but ask them to explain and they could be at a loss for words.

There's a story that trendy fashion label French Connection got its cool name FCUK when in 1997 the Hong Kong office sent a fax saying FCHK to FCUK. After that the name stuck for obvious shock reasons which is why the name is now emblazoned on T-shirts and results in second looks.

The actress Maggie Q whose real name is Margaret Denise Quigley, made her big break in Hong Kong thanks to Jackie Chan seeing her in Gen-Y Cops and got her cast in Manhattan Midnight and Rush Hour 2. Her name was shortened to Q because no one in Hong Kong apart from those who had studied overseas could pronounce her name.

And now we have this magazine called GLA, short for Glamorous. It's originally a Japanese magazine called Glamorous, but probably the Hong Kong marketers of the magazine thought the adjective was too much of a mouthful for locals to pronounce and shortened it to GLA.

How much lazier are they going to get? They're already calling Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen "CE" -- heck even his license plate says that too.

But do we have to shorten every single word just to make it easier for people?

Pretty soon English is just going to be a string of letters that make no sense.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

On Top of Hong Kong

A view overlooking Tsim Sha Tsui and Hong Kong Island

Going back of house in a hotel is a really cool experience -- even more so when you're over 100 floors up.

The ships going in and out of Victoria Harbour
Anita, a good friend of mine visiting from the United States and I went to visit Peter who is the executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong which opened in March in the ICC building, the tallest in the city.

We first toured all the food and beverage outlets, Tin Lung Heen, the Chinese restaurant, Tosca with its open kitchen, the bar with large white and red chandeliers on the same floor and also the Chocolate Library above. The Chocolate Library has some creative desserts there, as well as packaging where you can buy a box of chocolates placed in a box that looks like a book.

A place setting with an old picture of Hong Kong
We also went up to Ozone, the highest bar in the world where the balcony is enclosed except for the roof so people can smoke outside on the 118th floor. During the day it has a relaxed atmosphere, but in the evening it looks completely different and reminds me of the scene in Star Wars where Han Solo and Chewbacca go into a bar to acquire a space ship.

Obviously there are some amazing harbour views up there and we visited on a clear day. During the fireworks Peter said you actually look down on them instead of up -- something I hope to try soon. He also pointed out that while we know there are lots of ships that go through the harbour, from up above you can see there is actually heavy traffic in the water.

Afternoon tea sets ready to be served
The private rooms have beautiful table settings including plates that have pictures of old Hong Kong which is different. Each private room we went into was more impressive than the last.

There is also a chef's table, another private room that seats eight or 10 and Peter will personally prepare dishes for VIP guests at a mini kitchen in front of the table. Most of the dishes will have already been prepared elsewhere but are finished in the room for a personal touch. But on the day we went, Sunday, the room was filled with tempting desserts put together for afternoon tea, as there was no other place to store them. We later found out how little refrigerator space there is for the entire hotel.

It is obviously more designed for the guests than the staff as some areas like the cold kitchen just had enough room for two of three people maximum. There were also many doors to go through for fire safety regulations. With a vertical hotel it also meant going up and down several floors in elevators not to mention ferrying food up and down too.

Freshly made dongpo pork that was braised for a long time
We also visited the Chinese kitchen where they were preparing stocks and we watched one chef heat up his wok on the open fire. "That's what wok-hay is," Anita remarked. She said she tried to explain this to her friends in the US where you know Cantonese food is good when the wok is hot enough. We also saw a large slab of dongpo pork, or braised pork belly just finished cooking and we got to have a small slice of it to try -- practically melt-in-the-mouth good.

Apparently singer Coco Lee will be celebrating her wedding nuptials to Bruce Rockowitz at the Ritz-Carlton and we checked out the ballroom which has lots of mirrors and crystal chandeliers which would be a challenge to clean. We can only imagine how lavish the banquet will be in such a striking hotel.

The crystal chandeliers in the ballroom
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and now I have a greater appreciation for chefs not only standing all day in the kitchen but also working in challenging environments so that others can enjoy your food.

Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong
International Commerce Centre
1 Austin Road West
Kowloon
2263 2265
www.ritzcarlton.com