Monday, 30 April 2012

China's More Liberated Than You Think

I just got back from an amazing kaiseki dinner at a high-end Japanese restaurant in Kowloon.

While the meal was fabulous, the manager was highly entertaining.

Throughout the meal we drank the house sake and it was a very large bottle the two of us couldn't finish.

So towards the end we invited the manager to have a cup with us and after we clinked glasses, he drained his cup very fast. And then we invited him to have another.

And soon fueled by alcohol on an empty stomach, he started telling us his story.

After working in an Italian restaurant in a hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui East, this Hong Kong Chinese manager began opening restaurants. And perhaps because he got a buzz from doing intense hard work of starting something new, he started helping other eateries open too.

Not only did he do this in Hong Kong, but also Macau and many places in China including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other places in Southern China.

"But Zhongshan was the most interesting," he said.

Turns out he helped an entrepreneur who made his money in sex toys -- yes you read right -- to open a sex toy-themed bar.

"At the entrance you had to walk a long hallway and then go through the sex toy shop before entering the bar," he explained. We were already giggling with laughter.

My friend asked if this was illegal.

"It was all legal," he said. "We got all the proper licenses including one for hygiene.

"You know in the villages, most of the men have to go away for work, so the women are lonely," he explained. "And in the end people are animals. We need it. And this was a way to introduce them to sex toys. Because if they go to sex shops they are not comfortable, but at this bar they could see these sex toys."

We were now laughing hysterically, but he was serious.

"You know those blow-up dolls called Mary?" he asked. "They cost HK$1,400, more than if you find a girl in a nightclub. But like my boss says, sometimes a guy may be too shy, but with a blow-up doll, you can do it anytime, any place. And you can even carry it around with you," he said.

Now we were almost rolling on the floor.

"And you know those bar tables, the tall tables with a high chairs? We had specially made tables so in the middle there was a dildo sticking out of it and had a sign that said 'Try me! Try me!'"

It was too much. Tears started coming out of my eyes. We couldn't believe we were having this conversation.

He explained the entrepreneur opened several of these bars in many places in China and they were successful. Apparently the sex-toy industry in China is the second-biggest in the world.

"So why don't you open one in Hong Kong?" I asked.

"If we have the conversation that we are having now, people here would be very uncomfortable," he replied.

Afterwards my friend remarked it was so interesting to see him sexually liberated after his experience in mainland China of all places.

I explained to her that sex shops were on practically every corner. Granted most of the items in there were of low quality, but there wasn't much shame into going into one of these closet-sized places to grab condoms or a toy for a quick fix.

But really Hong Kong should have one of these bars -- if only to get people to open up and talk more about sex. Heaven knows teenagers need to have more sex education. So why not start at a sex toy-themed bar?

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Tiger Zhou is Free!

One of the photos Zhou Zhenglong took of the "tiger"
After spending two-and-a-half years in jail, farmer Zhou Zhenglong is now free.

What was his conviction? For faking photographs of the rare South China tiger, thought to be extinct since the late 1990s in Shaanxi province.

He was was sentenced to jail in May 2010 after he was held in police custody for six months.

The 2007 event was a huge fiasco which I wrote about here, and not just because the photo was manipulated, but also how the government handled the whole incident.

Forestry officials originally wanted to give anyone who had photographic evidence of the tiger 20,000RMB ($3,173.76) and Zhou set about trying to find the tiger.

When he gave the authorities the photos, they insisted the images were real even though people online were skeptical. It all came to a head when an internet user proved the photograph looked the same as the one on his wall calendar.

It turns out Zhou used a poster of the tiger and placed the paper cutout in a forest near his home and snapped photos at different angles and distances.

He was awarded the monetary prize and the government immediately promoted the event, basically showing the province was environmentally friendly and conserving animals. There were tourism billboards put up and a press conference was held in Shaanxi.

In the end more than 16 government officials were penalized for the scandal, some sacked or demoted, and Zhou was convicted of fraud and illegal possession of firearms.

More than two years later the scandal has still hurt the province's credibility.

Dr Long Yongcheng, a leading primatologist and member of the Primatological Society, said that after the South China tiger scandal, the Ministry of Forestry became reluctant, if not afraid, to announce the discovery of a new species, a new snubnosed monkey

He urged the government to hold a press conference about it to increase public awareness of the animal, but at the last minute the event scheduled in Kunming was cancelled at the last minute due to concerns from Beijing about "another 'Tiger' Zhou incident".

"Tiger Zhou was a painful sting for the government, and it still hurts," Long said.

Meanwhile, Zhou's wife, Luo Dacui told Huaxi Metropolis Daily in a report yesterday that her husband was still obsessed with the tiger and was determined to keep finding it.

"We have been married for 30 years, and I know his mentality. When he comes back, he will probably continue looking for the tiger."

While she admitted Zhou had tried to deceive others with his photos, "but this deception was different from others -- different from fake drugs or milk powder. We don't blame him for what he has done," she said.

Sounds like Zhou is determined to find the tiger to redeem himself, but really, he may be looking for the rest of his life in vain.

The Last Supper

Dim Sum Restaurant will shut down after tomorrow
Tomorrow evening Dim Sum Restaurant in Happy Valley will close its doors after many years of business.

It was famous for its dim sum menu featuring deluxe items like har gao or steamed shrimp dumplings with lobster or bird's nest, siu mai topped with shark's fin, as well as homestyle dishes.

Shrimp wontons in chilli sauce
Friends of mine who live in Happy Valley and have eaten there regularly for over 15 years saw the notice and we decided to have one last dinner there tonight. It was the usual scene -- not too busy around 6:30pm but an hour later there was a lineup outside the door.

And strangely the restaurant isn't closing because of the landlord demanding higher rent -- according to one of the long-time staff, the owner just wants to close shop. That puts several people out of work and regular patrons wondering where to have their dim sum fix in Happy Valley.

I remember my first time going to the restaurant in the mid-90s. My boyfriend at the time and I had heard so much about the place that we finally made a trip there on a Sunday morning.
Siu mai or steamed pork dumplings topped with shark's fin

We were so excited to be there and see the pictured menu that we went crazy and ordered way too much food for two people.

And that is the day that I ate so much food my stomach hurt.

We thought we'd walk off the meal, but I was in so much pain just walking out the door that we had to take a taxi home and rest.

Consequently I continued to go there with the aforementioned friends and another who used to live in Hong Kong on a regular basis.

So it's sad to see our regular place is closing. It was different from most places because of its cozy Art Deco decor, with 1920s Chinese cigarette posters framed on the walls, old school fans and lamps, wooden booths and tables. Most of the staff had worked there for a long time too.

The restaurant has an Art Deco-style interior with lots of wood
Tonight we ordered a few dim sum dishes including har gao, siu mai, fried onion cake, shrimp wontons in chilli sauce, and also some dishes like fried pork chop with vegetable rice served in a bamboo holder, beef slices in a sweet sauce, and Japanese tofu with mixed vegetables.

And then, we just about finished everything, paid the bill and walked out, but not without saying good bye to the staff and manager.

Thanks for the memories.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Waiting for China's Response

How a blind 40-year-old activist lawyer managed to escape from his home at night that is guarded by several rings of thugs at all times, climb over a wall and meet a friend the next day who then drove him to Beijing is a major loss of face for China.

On top of that Chen Guangcheng released a video addressing Premier Wen Jiabao directly, describing his ordeal under house arrest, how he and his wife were beaten many times, how his daughter is subjected to non-stop surveillance, and how others were beaten including actor Christian Bale and prevented from visiting Chen.

He tells Wen there are serious corruption issues that need to be dealt with and outlines how there is corruption in his community as the thugs seem to have a better gig preventing anyone from seeing Chen than having a normal job.

Fellow activist Hu Jia revealed that he visited Chen in the US Embassy though the State Department refuses to confirm this. After his visit, Hu's wife sent a message on Twitter saying her husband was detained.

Many China analysts are hoping the American government will use this opportunity to force China's hand in creating accountability systems in place to ensure there are human rights in the country. One even suggests the US government make these negotiations multilateral and even involve the United Nations to hold China to account for its numerous human rights violations.

So now there are two major issues to deal with now -- what to do with disgraced official Bo Xilai who attempted to undermine the ruling elite through wiretapping, and now a blind lawyer who is probably in the US Embassy trying to force China's hand into ensuring justice for all.

While Bo and Chen are complete opposites in their backgrounds and motives, their actions both point to the need for real political reforms in China. Otherwise what's left of the Communist Party's integrity and its premise that it is the only one capable of ruling the country are fast crumbling thanks to corruption and not following rule of law.

Wen may just be a man of words and no action since the Party rules by consensus.

But now that both stories have hit international headlines, the government may have no choice but to somehow concede some change, if only to preserve its survival.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Daring Escape and Demanding Freedom

Blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng in his latest video
There was breaking news this afternoon that blind Chinese lawyer activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest and is now in Beijing.

Even though he completed a four-year jail sentence in September 2010, he was still subjected to police surveillance at home, making it difficult for him, his wife and young daughter to go outside and meet their friends and loved ones.

Supporters -- including actor Christian Bale -- were refused entry to his home in Dongshigu village in Shandong province, and in many cases they were roughed up.

And so it was quite remarkable Chen was able to get away, but sadly left behind his wife and daughter to bear the brunt of his efforts.

Apparently Chen was able to get out of his home April 22 and his friends escorted him to a safer location. They refuse to give more details, but say that Chen is safe in Beijing.

There are now rumours that Chen is in the US Embassy there, but consular officials refuse to comment.

Nevertheless, he has released a 15-minute video where he addresses Premier Wen Jiabao. In a reasoned voice he asks that Wen investigate and prosecute local officials Chen claims beat him and his family members up; that the safety of his family is ensured; and that corruption in general be dealt with and punished according to the law.

It's interesting he chose to address Wen directly, perhaps challenging the premier to not just talk about reforms, but actually go through with them.

Analysts don't think senior officials will pay much attention to Chen, but it does put them in an awkward situation as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be coming next week for the next round of the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue.

Beijing would probably rather that Chen leave the country, but his supporters say he is not interested in going into exile; instead he is hoping to negotiate his and his family's freedom.

"We asked if he was willing to get out of China. He's very reluctant and he  said he wants to fight to the end inside China for his citizen's rights. He wants to lead a normal life as a Chinese citizen," said Bob Fu, an activist based in the US.

This latest development shines a spotlight on Chen's case, that he is being illegally detained by the authorities in his own home and his friends and supporters cannot visit him, leaving him isolated.

He had already done his jail time and yet the authorities felt it still wasn't enough.

How can Wen claim that there is rule of law in China when people like Chen are held against their will and unable to speak out?

Chen was jailed in 2006 for accusing family planning officials in Shandong of forcing at least 7,000 women to undergo sterilizations or late-term abortions.

He has now somehow managed to get out and lob a ball into Beijing's court. How will it respond?

Thursday, 26 April 2012

A Self-Destructive System

The Bo Xilai story is fast snowballing into an intense story no creative writer could come up with -- there are now allegations that he wiretapped top senior officials to find out not only what was going on, but also what they thought of him.

"This society has bred mistrust and violence," said Roderick MacFarquhar, a historian of Communist China's elite-level machinations over the past half century. He was quoted by the New York Times. "Leaders know you have to watch your back because you never knew who will put a knife in it."

On the pretext of cracking down on triads and corruption, Bo and his former right-hand man Wang Lijun, set up a comprehensive bugging system covering telecommunications and the internet.

They even enlisted the help of Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, who is also known as the father of China's "Great Firewall" that censors websites internet users can see online.

This resulted in many of Bo's adversaries to resort to old school communication, including writing notes or using stacks of unregistered SIM cards to avoid surveillance.

One political analyst claims Bo tried to tap the phones of virtually all high-ranking officials who visited Chongqing in the last few years, including Zhou Yongkang, who overseas law enforcement; he is said to have backed Bo for a seat on the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

"Bo wanted to be extremely clear about what leaders' attitudes towards him were," said one analyst.

This spy-vs-spy game at senior levels shows how the entire political system is a dangerous combination of politics but also intent on destroying the other for advancement.

How is this a productive way to lead the country and 1.3 billion people?

In any event, this latest development of wiretapping is a serious charge, but may not necessarily be released to the public.

However the Chinese will eventually find out. They have always been told that political change is tumultuous and could lead to serious unrest and set back the country economically.

Nevertheless they are beginning to realize how corrupt the entire system is and are perhaps starting to think political change is the only hope for the country.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Donald in the Doghouse Again

Royal Tulip Brasilia Alvorada's presidential suite living room
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen claims he's repentant about accepting free rides on yachts and meals from his tycoon buddies.

But not when it comes to official trips.

His office admitted Tsang stayed in a $6,900 presidential suite during an official visit to Brazil earlier this month.

That's in US dollars, not Hong Kong dollars. And guess who paid for that? Us taxpayers.

"The so-called presidential suite is just a name, coming in different standards in different hotels," a spokesman said.

If a room costs $6,900 we would definitely expect a presidential suite with all the trimmings.

The spokesman added there were no guidelines as to what kind of accommodation the chief executive should stay in during official trips.

And we only find this out now, almost 15 years after the handover?

The $6,500 a night presidential suite bedroom
The hotel in question is the Royal Tulip Brasilia Alvorada, which is centrally located in a safe area and is experienced in hosting state leaders, the spokesman said.

"Other suites in that hotel were too small to meet practical needs, such as holding internal meetings and receiving local representatives," he said. The 350-square-metre suite with private access also has a main living room, balcony and meeting room, which avoided the need to rent a conference room, the spokesman said.

However, according to the government website, Tsang met local representatives outside the hotel.

This compares with Premier Wen Jiabao, who on his trip to Hong Kong in 2003, refused to stay in the presidential suite and instead opted for a cheaper room in the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong hotel.

Since April last year, Tsang has spent HK$4.2 million on nine official visits, not including Brazil.

Interestingly on his next stop in Sao Paulo, Tsang stayed in the Renaissance Sao Paulo Hotel, and paid $1,250 for one night, but chose not to stay in the presidential suite.

This haphazard choice of ultra expensive hotel rooms and then relatively moderate ones is so bizarre but even more strange is the fact that there are no rules in place as to the budget the chief executive should follow when traveling on official visits.

The balcony overlooking the water from the presidential suite
So for the past 15 years we the taxpayers have allowed our leader to stay in basically whatever place they want regardless of the cost.

Tsang is not the President of the United States, nor is he a despot.

But surely some guidelines should be set in place in terms of costs balancing security needs, and if the chief executive insists on a more expensive hotel room he should at least pay the difference out of his own pocket.

That's how things work in the developed world. And Hong Kong is considered in the developed world, right?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Calling for Change

In the last few days three Chinese state media outlets have called for political reform following the scandal around former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai's downfall.

The People's Daily, overseen by the Communist Party of China, Xinhua news agency, run directly by the State Council, and China Youth Daily, run by the Communist Youth League that trains future leaders, are all calling for political reform.

China analysts believe these recent developments indicate the country's top leaders have come to a consensus on the issue, the biggest scandal to rock the government since June 1989.

"It is surely a concerted action ordered by the top leadership, which has also revealed that they, or a majority of them have reached some consensus on the need for political reform following Bo Xilai's case," said Professor Hu Xindou, a political commentator at Beijing Institute of Technology.

The People's Daily published four articles, each written by different think-tanks, including the Central Party School. Xinhua and China Youth Daily published similar commentaries.

The opinion pieces did not call for Western-style political reform such as democracy and freedom of the press, but they acknowledged China was at a crossroads and urgently needed comprehensive restructuring of its systems, including political.

One People's Daily commentary had a headline that said only reform would secure China's future. It called for "deepening political reform and ensuring that the people are the masters [of the country]".

Meanwhile Xinhua said China's reform had reached a stage similar to "assaulting fortified positions", while China Youth Daily said reform should be "of the people, by the people and for the people", echoing former US President Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address.

What exactly does Chinese state media and these think-tanks have in mind when they say political reforms and that they be "for the people"?

If they are only talking in terms of theory, not many changes will be made.

Bo's sacking and the current investigation into him and his wife not only in the alleged links with Briton Neil Heywood's murder, but also their apparent attempts to move large amounts of money abroad and how their families financially benefited from their connections have created non-stop buzz in China.

They were taking advantage of the system because there aren't enough checks and balances in place.

Only when there is a free press and rule of law that is independent of the government can there be accountability of corruption.

But since the Communist Party of China believes it is the only legitimate ruler of the country, things will never change.

However below them the people are grumbling, seeing their hard-earned tax dollars end up in corrupt government officials' pockets.

The complaints will only get louder and louder...

Monday, 23 April 2012

Still Ruling the Roost

Chicken oyster skewers with lemon wedges
Yardbird opened a year ago and it fast became the trendiest joint in town.

The concept is yakitori, as the vast majority of the skewers are around parts of the chicken, from wings and hearts to knees and necks.
The sweet corn tempura were a hit -- twice!

Every morning the restaurant gets fresh local chickens and the staff spend most of the day carefully carving them up so there's hardly any wastage. Also once an item on the menu runs out that day, that's it. You just have to come back again.

Oh and did I mention there's no reservations?

New York style, it's first-come-first served and you can wait by the bar and ply yourself with drinks before having any food, or you can eat at the bar or stand by a counter and eat with friends.

The place is so friendly and casual, most customers don't seem to care where they are as long as they have their drinks in hand.

Brussels srpouts with fried garlic flakes
My friend YTSL really wanted to try Yardbird and I was worried we wouldn't be able to get a seat; we had a plan B and C in mind.

We strategically chose a Monday -- tonight -- and were impressed to see it already busy after 7pm.

At first we were told we'd have to wait about 45 minutes to which my friend thought we might as well stay and had a drink.

Then we noticed there were open spots by the bar and asked if we could sit there.

Gizzard skewers topped with more garlic flakes
No problem -- except it can be really noisy there so you have to almost shout to your dining companion. But the friendly service staff make up for the loud volume and of course the food.

We quickly ordered and soon they arrived. First came the sweet corn tempura, the corn niblets shaped into balls that were coated in batter and deep fried. They are the perfect accompaniment to beer. And they were so good my coworker had to have another plate.

Then came one of the specials, stirfried brussels sprouts with soy sauce and topped with fried garlic chips. I have to say I dislike brussels sprouts with a passion, but here they were more bearable thanks to the garlic. YTSL just wanted to eat the rest of the garlic... like chips.

The grilled tail for curious diners
Next came the grilled gizzard and boy they were delicious! We savoured each bite, also topped with garlic chips and I had an order of the tail which was a bit fatty, but also chewy. Another plate of oysters came -- chicken oysters -- which are round pieces of dark meat on the back of the bird near the thigh. These were meaty and flavourful, accompanied with lemon wedges for an extra zing.

And we also had another special, of asparagus with an onsen egg, or slow-poached egg. The server broke the yolk and mixed the asparagus with sesame seeds, seaweed and bread crumbs. It was a great play on textures, crunchy, hard and soft.

Hitachino Nest pale ale
Oh and yes the beers. YTSL started with a Sapporo draft and then we moved onto the Hitachino Nest pale ale in bottles. She was quite impressed with the selection of microbrews, as well as the restaurant's own sake.

The place was still hopping when we left after 9pm... and we pondered when would be the next time we'd visit Yardbird...

Yardbird
33-35 Bridges Street
Sheung Wan
2547 9273
www.yardbirdrestaurant.com

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

On Friday I read in the newspaper that the place where I get my hair cut, Salon Esprit, is closing its doors on May 5.

So I made sure I got a trim today because I had bought a package of five hair cuts, but had only used up three (now four).

I asked my hairdresser if he'd found a job yet and he said yes and promised to text me the details of his next place of employment later.

The staff knew it was coming, as the last time I was there, my hairdresser whispered that the place may go belly up.

Esprit Holdings which owns Salon Esprit has been in the news for not doing well financially in the past year. Last September, Esprit Holdings was valued at just $1.4 billion, a loss of more than 90 percent from the $20 billion company it was valued at four years ago, though Credit Suisse says it's worth $3.4 billion.

Customers no longer find Esprit clothing trendy like before, or the prices are too high. A few months ago it closed one of its boutiques on Queen's Road Central, as it could not compete with the painfully hip H&M down the street. And Esprit announced it will shut down all of its stores in North America because they are losing money.

The brand got into the hair business in 1999 when chairman and executive director at the time Michael Ying helped hairdresser to the celebrity set Kim Robinson when he was down and out. The Australian went bankrupt, losing his Le Salon Orient and had only a few thousand Hong Kong dollars to his name.

Ying came up with Salon Esprit and had Robinson as the headliner in November that year. The concept was to give people stylish cuts at decent prices -- and perhaps even Robinson himself would cut your tresses. It was pretty much a hit with the industrial-like salon where senior stylists wore white shirts and black pants and service overall was prompt and friendly.

After he got himself back on his feet, Robinson left Salon Esprit to set up his own place.

I knew something was fishy when back in November the receptionist asked me if I was interested in buying a package of haircuts and when amortized they were cheaper than if I paid for them individually. The discounted price (HK$350 from HK$440) seemed reasonable and I relented. Luckily I only bought a package of five; I feel for those who gut sucked in and bought one with 10 visits.

So I basically have one more visit left before it closes on May 5.

Anyone want to use it?

Salon Esprit
3/F, 100 Queens Road Central
2525 2525
www.salonesprit.com

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Betting on a Winner?

It was very interesting to see People's Daily website raise 1.38 billion RMB ($219 million) in its IPO, more than twice its estimate.

People.cn is the first state media to be listed, selling 69.1 million shares at 20RMB each.

It had originally hoped to raise 527 million RMB to compete with new media companies such as Sina, Tencent and Sohu.com.

It's curious investors are so keen on putting their bets on state media, or maybe they think it's a sure win, as it's backed by the government. However, the whole point of having the IPO was because Beijing wanted to wean state media from public coffers.

Currently people.cn is ranked 49th in visitor numbers in China last year according to ChinaRank, an internet monitoring organization.

That's really pathetic, considering it's the Communist Party's mouthpiece. Or maybe the old school Party members don't know how to go online.

"We need to increase our popularity, expand the range of products and services we offer, reach a wider audience and increase page hits per visitor," People's Daily said in its IPO filing.

How it's going to do that is another story, as we all know Chinese state media organizations aren't the most nimble outlets on the mainland.

While money can buy the latest technology, strong interesting content is vital to get repeat customers, day after day.

Is people.cn up to the task?

We'll have to wait and see, but don't hold your breath.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Caught Flat-Footed

Donald Tsang says he's no lame duck...
Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is anxious to show he's not a lame duck.

This comes days after Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying spoke out saying there would "zero" quota for pregnant mainland women who do not have Hong Kong husbands, and those mainlanders who give birth in the city would "very likely" not get permanent residency for their children.

Leung's comments seemed to have caught the Tsang administration off guard, calling into question whether the current government had been informed in advance of this bold announcement.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok was supposed to announce next year's quota, which would be a reduction of 31,000, but Leung preempted him by saying it would be "zero".

Tsang denied his government was a "lame duck" and said it was helping to shape his successor's "zero" quota.

"I have the same target with Leung in ensuring a smooth transition of the two administrations," said Tsang. "It is of the utmost priority for my government. We maintain constant communication."

Right. Unfortunately we don't quite believe you.

There are going to be other issues that will have to be dealt with by the incoming Leung administration, such as the waste incinerator planned for Shek Kwu Chau in which residents in the area have vehemently protested, the rent-to-buy housing scheme for the middle class, and an adjustment of MTR fares.

Public governance professor Lam Wai-fung at the University of Hong Kong, said these issues illustrate the need for a better government transition.

"It isn't just about communications between two officials. Other policy participants like private hospitals and political parties need to be engaged and informed of the proposed changes," he said.

Lam added Leung's early intervention could trigger huge public criticism if the public was not supportive of the ban [pregnant mainland women].

Meanwhile Ma Ngok, associate professor of politics at Chinese University, criticized Leung for using public preference to exert pressure on the current government over the mainland mothers issue.

Lingnan University political scientist Li Pang-kwong said, "No matter what Donald Tsang says, the perception is formed -- he lacks communication with Leung over policies, and it jeopardizes the public's confidence in the government."

Tsang has to make more of an effort to figure out what is on Leung's agenda because the latter seems to have already decided he's going to make a clean break from the current administration and establish a new direction for Hong Kong.

Whether it's right or wrong is another issue, but for now, the optics make Tsang look really bad.






Thursday, 19 April 2012

Desperately Seeking Mr Right

A scene from "Bride Wannabes"
The show on TVB that has become the talk of the town is wrapping up this evening after 10 episodes.

Called "Bride Wannabes", it follows five "blossomed women", those aged 30 and over in their pursuit of a husband.

The show got a lot of flack because the women underwent makeovers, from hair and makeup to even fixing their teeth, and consultants instructed them on how to conduct themselves to get men.

Psychiatrist Tsang Fan-kwong was critical of the advice. One of them said a woman should look at a man from a 45-degree angle and not to show excitement no matter what he says or promises. "Why 45 degrees? Why not 35 degrees? Any angle is good enough as long as the conversation is conducted naturally," he said. "Those 'professionals' on the show are merely making silly suggestions to earn money. They are shaming themselves."

Others say the show basically tells women to be fake in order to lure men.

I watched one episode on YouTube and it followed two women, Bonnie, 29, and Gobby, 30. Bonnie looks cute and seems eager to find a man and has two, Wood and Roxwell (yes strange names) pursuing her.

Two consultants, Pierce and Santino (more bizarre names) tell her not to act like she likes them too much otherwise she's giving herself away.

In one scene Roxwell takes her on a second date to a private kitchen where he knows the chef and actually cooks the main course, filet mignon, for her. Bonnie thinks this is really sweet, but the two male advisers warn her she's not the only woman he's cooked for.

Meanwhile Gobby is not as attractive and even has her teeth straightened a bit before going on her manhunt. She is intimidated by a pilot she is set up with as he uses a lot of English words she can't follow and then meets a photographer online. He says most Hong Kong women are the same, have the same expectations about dates, but he is looking for someone more interesting, but does not find it in Gobby, while she finds him quite high on himself.

The two women are then taken across the border to meet some mainland men where the ratio of men to women is much larger. Five men meet these two over a bottle of red wine and for some the language barrier is a challenge, but there are also cultural differences as Bonnie says they aren't as refined, but at the same time Gobby says Hong Kong men seem more focused on playing games on their smartphones.

In the end there were no sparks here but it was interesting to hear their different points of views about relationships.

We would prefer skipping the advice part of the show and spending more time following these women in their trials and tribulations in finding men in the city.

It's a show that reflects what's going on in Hong Kong, that women over 30 are having a hard time finding a mate, not only because there are less men than women in the city, but there is also the belief that the ladies here are more demanding and in many cases more successful than men, making it more intimidating to go out with them.

In the case of both sexes, there isn't much experience in dating and so there's miscommunication, weak ability to read body language or not mature enough to know what they really want out of a relationship.

Nevertheless, "Bride Wannabes" addresses the reality of the situation unlike soap operas or movies that for the most part have romantic endings that are only fairy tales.

Stay tuned -- there will be the male version of "Brides Wannabes" coming out... wonder how desperate the men are...

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Quote of the Day: Patrick Tang Kim-kwan

Who is the real cheater?

"King of Shoes" Patrick Tang Kim-kwan was testifying in court yesterday about how he was upset his mistress cheated on him.

The 69-year-old admitted being embarrassed when Karen Lee Chi-ting had a fling with former Mr Hong Kong Francois Huynh, calling her an unfaithful liar.

The reason why he was in court was because he is trying to recover ownership of three properties in Sai Kung, Hung Hom and Tsim Sha Tsui, as well as the sale proceeds of a fourth in West Kowloon.

He claimed he had not given the properties to Lee because "they cost quite a lot".

We should imagine those four properties would be quite expensive.

Tang heads the shoe-trading empire called ATG Sourcing with an estimated fortune of HK$2 billion.

The court heard Tang was "madly in love" with Lee at first in 2002 and he put her name as joint owner of a house in Marina Cover in Sai Kung, subject to her faithfulness to him. However, he said she proved untrustworthy in the seven years of their relationship.

"During the 'honeymoon' [in the first few months], my eyes were virtually blind and my ears virtually deaf," Tang said. "When you are in love with someone, you would not bother about [what people say about her]."

Tang claimed Lee told him in December 2002 she was pregnant, but a medical report showed she didn't conceive until March 2003.

Her lawyer suggested it would have been easy for Tang to tell if her belly was growing and asked why he didn't find out if she was lying.

"Did you have an intimate relationship with the defendant during the so-called honeymoon period?" the lawyer asked, clarifying she meant sexual intercourse.

"A lot," replied Tang. "She is not the first woman who became pregnant by me. I didn't pay attention [to the pregnancy claim]."

How strange he would not seem to care if his mistress was pregnant or not, and seems to enjoy bragging about his sexual prowess.

Nevertheless, the court earlier heard Tang juggled a wife and two mistresses. He gave Lee a HK$50,000 monthly allowance and paid the mortgages on the Hung Hom, Tsim Sha Tsui and West Kowloon homes. He also gave her jewellery worth HK$3.1 million as well as HK$4.2 million in cash.

Outside court, Tang said, "I have so much money that I can't spend it all. Now when I see women, I'll avoid them, especially attractive women."

Hmmm being a mistress can be a really good gig. And Lee definitely hit the jackpot with this wealthy paramour.

But how can Tang claim Lee cheated on him, when he was cheating on his wife?

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Already Taking a Stand

Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying has already made his views known on the issue of mainland women crossing the border to have children in Hong Kong.

He said yesterday that mainland women who do not have a Hong Kong husband will not be allowed to give birth in private hospitals next year. Leung added children born of mainland parents would not be guaranteed residency in the city.

"The Hong Kong community has come to a common consensus that, no matter whether we use administrative measures or seek legal methods, these non-locals' babies should not become permanent residents," he said.

His quota of "zero" mainland births in private hospitals has shocked hospital bosses because many of them have invested heavily in obstetrics, poaching doctors from public hospitals and the latest medical technology and services to cash in on mainlanders coming here with fat wallets to have children.

Leung even added, "Providing obstetric services to mainland women is not the correct way to develop the medical industry."

That was a major 180-degree turn from current Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen who had said medicine was one of the six key industries in Hong Kong.

Leung's comments have already won the praise of many Hong Kong legislators, pleased to have an incoming leader who has very definite ideas, and is looking out for the best interests of Hong Kong people.

Meanwhile private hospitals are worried the sudden halt of mainlanders coming here to give birth will cripple their operating costs and are proposing a gradual decrease in the next few years.

Dr Alan Lau Kwok-lam, chairman of the Private Hospitals' Association, said some hospitals may face some closures if they are banned from serving mainland women, thus revealing their revenue model. He projects hospitals will lose 28,000 patients a year if "transit mums" (mothers without a Hong Kong husband or are not local residents) are banned from giving birth here.

Perhaps there is some wiggle room in the timeline, but it seems Leung is intent on putting an end to this loophole once and for all.

This should win confidence is many Hong Kong people who are fed up with mainlanders stretching the city's health care facilities to the limit.

We just need to wait until July 1 when Leung takes over..

Monday, 16 April 2012

Intrigue Around Bo Xilai Continues

As people in the media say, the Bo Xilai story continues to "have legs", in that new developments continue to surface by the day.

The latest now is confirmation that British businessman Neil Heywood was murdered by poison and the reason was because there was a dispute between him and Bo's wife Gu Kailai about transferring large sums of money abroad.

Apparently last year Gu asked Heywood to move large sums of money overseas and she became incensed when he demanded a larger cut of the money than she had expected due to the size of the transaction. There is no explanation of how he would have gotten the money out as China puts strict controls on how much money gets taken out of the country unless he had some kind of complicated banking arrangement.

And because he knew what was going on, he threatened to expose her and Bo, which became too big of a risk considering her husband's political ambitions and hence the alleged plot to kill Heywood.

One source said, "Heywood told her that if she thought he was being too greedy, then he didn't need to become involved and wouldn't take a penny of the money, but he also said he could also expose it."

It seems this veiled threat got Heywood into big trouble; one would think after 20 years of cultivating a good relationship with Gu and Bo that Heywood would not want to jeopardize it, or did he know too much and his overconfidence got the better of him?

The other new development was that while Gu and Heywood were not romantically linked, she did become closer to him when Bo was more focused on his work and career ambitions.

"Bo and Gu Kailai had not been a proper husband and wife for years... Gu Kailai and Heywood had a deep personal relationship and she took the break between them deeply to heart," said Wang Kang, a well-connected Chongqing businessman who learned details of the case from Chinese officials.

"Her mentality was, 'you betrayed me, and so I'll get my revenge'," Wang said.

There are also hints that Bo may be charged with corruption after Premier Wen Jiabao vowed to implement more anti-corruption measures. He was quoted in the Party's magazine, Seeking Truth, where he stressed anti-graft measures must be given a "more prominent position" in the government's work this year.

He said 2012 "is the last year of this government, and we must not be slack in our work. [We must] deepen reform and strengthen the construction of our system."

In the article Wen mentions such measures as deepening reforms in relation to the administrative approval system, marketization of public resources, the fiscal management system, administrative expenditure, and the general financial management of administrative bodies and state-owned enterprises.

With the publication of the article, analysts believe corruption charges will be brought against Bo.

"This, on the one hand, shows that if Bo is indeed found to be corrupt, he will be seriously dealt with," said Hu Xingdou, an economist with the Beijing University of Technology.

"But also, with high-level officials such as Bo falling from grace, people are increasingly finding officials untrustworthy."

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, professor of political science at City University said the possible charge could be another strike at the leftists, whose idol has fallen from grace.

"The biggest criticisms by many old and new Maoists are the wealth gap and rampant corruption, since they believe that there was less corruption before reform," Cheng said. "But if Bo is found corrupt, this will be a blow to the leftists."

We wait with baited breath to see what happens tomorrow.

In the meantime things definitely do not look good for Bo and his wife. If convicted, she may face the death penalty for murder, and he will be completely demoted and perhaps even kicked out the party.

What of their son, Bo Guagua? Apparently he was allowed to visit his parents briefly and then curiously spirited out of the country again and back to Harvard where he is studying for his final exams next month.

Talk about being stressed out.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Quote of the Day: Fang Lizhi

The well-known China expert Perry Link has fond memories of dissident Fang Lizhi who died last Friday.

Link wrote a touching obituary in The New York Review of Books. He explained Fang's background, how he became a top astrophysicist who had no fear in confronting officials about demanding human rights. He even believed concepts of human rights grew out of science.

1. "Science begins with doubt," whereas in Mao's China students were taught to begin with fixed beliefs.

2. Science stresses independence of judgment, not conformity to the judgment of others.

3. "Science is egalitarian"; no one's subjective view starts ahead of anyone else's in the pursuit of objective truth.

4. Science needs a free flow of information, and cannot thrive in a system that restricts access to information.

5. Scientific truths, like human rights principles, are universal; they do not change when one crosses a political border.

According to Fang, human rights are critical in producing good science.

Link has one particular anecdote about Fang that brilliantly illustrates his wit.

I remember watching a Western journalist interview him during the student protests in spring 1989. When the interview was over the reporter asked if there were a way he could ask follow-up questions, if necessary. Fang said "sure," and gave the reporter his telephone number.

"We've heard that your phone is tapped," the reporter said. "Is it?"

"I assume so." Fang grinned.

"Doesn't that... bother you?" the reporter asked.

"No," said Fang, "for years I've been trying to get them to listen to me. If this is how they want to do, then fine!"

We will miss Fang for his brilliance, integrity and courage.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

What Childhood?

I have heard stories of three-year-old children in Hong Kong having to jump through hoops just to get into pre-school and thought that was stressful enough.

But last night my parents' friends told me about babies just over a year old going to pre-pre-school. It's called ITT -- infants, toddlers and two year olds.

For HK$6,000 a month, three times a week, the child must be accompanied by an adult, who could be the parent, grandparent or nanny, and they sing songs, learn words and play for an hour and a half. There is a break in between so that diapers can be changed.

Apparently the adults have to keep washing their hands so much that they've washed their skin raw by the end of the session.

What can a one-year-old child learn? Some can't even speak at that age.

And yet there are many kids going through this program, because as soon as one class is over, the next batch of children come in.

Is this what Hong Kong has become? A place where children lose their childhood at the age of one?

When they grow up they will wonder what their lives have become and why they have no warm childhood memories.

Meanwhile the parents will have even higher expectations of their children having invested so much time and money into them.

Doesn't see this will bode well for the future of Hong Kong when all the next generation remembers is going to class every waking moment of their lives.

It looks like the makings of a dystopian society.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Fact of the Day: HK Eats Too Much Salt

This is a shocking statistic -- Hong Kong people eat twice the amount of salt recommended by the World Health Organisation.

According to university researchers, this means a higher risk of stroke in all ages.

The average daily salt intake in the city is 10g, while the WHO recommends less than 5g, said Dr Ruth Chan Suk-mei, medicine and therapeutics research associate at Chinese University.

One reason is that many people here eat a lot of processed food, which has high salt content, and by lunchtime they could have already eaten 10g of salt in their food.

That's a scary thought, because high salt intake causes higher blood pressure that can lead to stroke, and is the fourth most common cause of death and prime cause of disability in Hong Kong.

The university's Centre for Nutritional Studies and the government's Centre for Food Safety show a typical breakfast of satay beef noodles has 6.08g of salt, and a lunch of beef brisket rice has 5.44g, totalling 11.52g.

Researchers say from 1995 to 2001, 13 out of every 100,000 people here were affected by strokes. This rose to 15 people for every 100,000 from 2005 to 2007. In 2010, Department of Health figures say 8 percent of all deaths are related to strokes.

So if people who usually ate 10g of salt per day reduced the amount, the incidence of stroke worldwide would decrease by 23 percent, saving 1.25 million lives per year, according to British advocacy group World Action on Salt and Health.

Professor Mandy Sea Man-mei, the manager of the Centre for Nutritional Studies says the youngest stroke patient she saw here was a 14-year-old boy.

He ate instant noodles everyday with a lot of seasoning powder so his blood pressure was up to 180/90.

After he reduced his salt intake eating better food, his blood pressure is now normal at 110/70.

He is not unusual -- there are many people who think this is fine to eat everyday or most days; many people at the supermarket stock up on these easy-to-eat noodles because they don't want to cook from scratch or don't know how.

"It usually takes around four weeks for people to get used to a low-salt diet. After that they usually find that they can taste the original flavours of different foods, which they hadn't known before," Sea said.

Hong Kong really needs to do more to educate its people about nutrition. Not only do they eat too much salt, but way too much sugar too.

Preventive medicine, folks. We all need to do our bit to stay healthy, or it's going to cost us the quality of our lives and the healthcare system.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Let More Gambling Begin

Sheldon Adelson (fourth from left) with wife Miriam
Billionaire Sheldon Adelson has just added another casino complex to his burgeoning portfolio -- Sands Cotai Central in Macau that officially opened yesterday.

Located opposite his other property, The Venetian, this latest one has three hotels: Holiday Inn and Conrad have opened, and Sheraton later this year. That means there will be an additional 5,800 rooms in Macau, as well as 300,000 square feet of gambling areas and 1.2 million square feet of shopping, entertainment, dining and convention facilities.

Adelson's Sands China also owns Sands Macao and The Plaza in the former Portuguese enclave.

For Sands Cotai Central, over 6,000 staff were hired, over 4,000 of whom are from Macau.

According to Macau Daily Times, the city's population hit a record 558,100 in June last year, which includes 85,273 non-resident workers.

It's mind boggling to see such a small city have so many gigantic hotel and casino complexes and enough staff for them all.

In any event Adelson isn't just putting his eggs in Macau -- he already has Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, and is looking to build two "integrated resorts" in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan.

And while the rest of us are unsure about Spain's financial prospects, Adelson plans to pump $35 billion into a mini-Las Vegas strip in Spain, either Barcelona or Madrid.

"We are looking at 12 integrated resorts, 3,000 rooms each -- a mini Las Vegas, about half the size of the Las Vegas strip, in Spain for the European market," Adelson said yesterday.

Which is no wonder for him donating some $20 million to a group supporting then Republican candidate Newt Gingrich is a drop in the bucket.

But now that Rick Santorum and Gingrich have admitted defeat, paving the way for Mitt Romney to battle it out with incumbent US President Barack Obama, will Adelson put his bets on Romney as well?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Sorely Lacking Customer Service

On Monday just before 6pm, I sent a colleague a text message, but I didn't hear back from her until the next day.

"Were you drunk last night?" she asked me. I was confused. She showed me her phone had received my message at 1:26am.

It turns out SmarTone's mobile and internet network stopped from around 8am for at least four hours after a power failure at a switchboard station in Central and Western district. Then the problem got worse when its backup power supply also failed within a couple of hours. As a result there was a massive backlog on text messages and some customers could not get online either.

Mobile service operators are required to inform the Office of Communications Authority about any incident within 15 minutes on weekdays and an hour on holidays.

However it was only after the watchdog contacted SmarTone at 10am did the company say it was "just a glitch". At 3pm SmarTone said the network had almost been restored to normal.

While my mobile phone message eventually got through seven hours later, I luckily did not have problems with my wifi internet connection, while other customers did.

In addition, operators are supposed to inform its customers through the media or internet about the breakdown. We didn't get the letter from SmarTone CEO Douglas Li until Tuesday evening. He basically recounted the chronology of events, apologized and said the company would do all it can to prevent incidents like these happening in the future.

It's probably a good thing I wasn't desperately trying to get a hold of someone that day, or that someone was attempting to reach me urgently.

Some customers protested outside one of SmarTone's Mongkok branches yesterday and demanded some kind of compensation. That fell on deaf ears -- we're in Hong Kong, where customer service is not a priority despite it being a main industry in this city.

Or is does the service industry only cater to tourists and not residents?

SmarTone's inability to be more transparent about the problem is extremely disappointing particularly for a company whose users depend on instant communication through mobile phones and the internet.

What is wrong with admitting there is a problem, this is what we know so far and we hope to get services back up and running as soon as possible?

Perhaps at this time we should point out that SmarTone is a subsidiary of... Sun Hung Kai.

It too is suffering from bad publicity after its owners, brothers Raymond and Thomas Kwok are facing an investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

So much for the Kwok brothers trying to reassure the public and stakeholders that things at Sun Hung Kai are "business as usual"...


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Ongoing Drama with Chinese Characteristics

Breaking news -- fallen political star and former Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai has completely lost any hope of political rehabilitation now that his titles have been stripped.

Xinhua made the announcement earlier this evening that his memberships to the Central Committee and Politburo have been suspended.

There had been talk that his reputation may be salvaged with honorary titles, but this was not meant to be.

It seems the leftists have definitely lost this round.

Meanwhile Bo's wife Gu Kailai is now under investigation for the murder of Neil Heywood, a British national who died under mysterious circumstances in Chongqing. His family in the UK believe he died of a heart attack, while others heard he drank himself to death.

During his last public appearance at the National People's Congress last month, Bo claimed his wife was a stay-at-home mom who gave up her law career 20 years ago.

However the Wall Street Journal did some digging and found she was still very active in business and law in both the United States, UK and China.

When their son Bo Guagua went to Britain to study she moved there to be with him, around the year 2000. His education at two private boarding schools and Oxford was apparently arranged by Heywood.

There are allegations she may have become paranoid in the last few years due to a corruption investigation on her in 2007. She allegedly ordered the demise of Heywood, which caused Wang Lijun to investigate. Wang came to tell Bo the news, which apparently caused the Chongqing Party chief to become infuriated with his police chief and demoted him from his post and have "vacation-style therapy".

A few days later Wang desperately sought asylum at the US consulate in Chengdu.

Questions still remain about where Bo and his family are being held, as there are rumours they are under house arrest in Beijing.

And what happened to Wang? What did he tell American diplomats in Chengdu?

It's a fascinating story that will continue to unravel for many weeks, months and years to come.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Tensions Still Simmering

Premier Wen Jiabao formalized Leung Chun-ying's appointment
Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying is in Beijing today for a short visit to be formally appointed to the position by Premier Wen Jiabao.

He is also expected to meet President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping and discuss what will be on the agenda for the next five years.

And when Leung comes back on Thursday, he will be attending a "reconciliation dinner" organized by the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and those who supported Henry Tang Ying-yen are invited to come.

It's hoped that this banquet will help ease tensions between the two camps now that the election is over.

However, at least four lawmakers snubbed the invite, revealing some lingering sore losers in Tang's camp.

One, Chim Pui-chung, who represents the financial services sector, said he was not going.

"It's meaningless for me to attend the dinner as I disagree with some of them [lawmakers]," he said. "I am not desperate for a close relationship with CY [Leung], as I am not seeking any title or position [in the government]."

Two others said they would not be in town while another said he was going to another meeting.

However Miriam Lau Kin-yee of the chairman of the Liberal Party, who had cast a blank ballot in the election, indicated she would attend for a short period because of another previous engagement.

"If the chief executive is working for the best [interests] of Hongkongers, we will support him. There is nothing needing to be reconciled. I did not support Leung during the election, but he is elected now and it's my responsibility to raise my constituencies' concerns to the incoming chief executive."

At least we know the women are taking the high road and giving Leung a chance.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

One Less Voice for Democracy

Physicist and democracy advocate Fang Lizhi
There is still no information on what caused the death of dissident Fang Lizhi (方励之) who died yesterday at the age of 76.

He was an inspiring figure during the pro democracy movement in 1989.

One of the student leaders at that time, Wang Dan, mourned Fang's death.

"I hope the Chinese people will never forget that there was once a thinker like Fang Lizhi. He inspired the '89 generation, and awoke in the people their yearning for human rights and democracy," Wang wrote. "One day, China will be proud to once have had Fang Lizhi... Fang is my spiritual teacher, his death is a major blow to me. At this moment my grief is beyond words."

The son of a postal worker, Fang went to Peking University in 1952 to study theoretical physics and nuclear physics. Later he became a pioneer in China's research in laser theory.

He was a loyal member of the Communist party (CPC) and because of his academic brilliance he traveled extensively and was exposed to Western political concepts.

However he gained prominence in 1986-88 when he became outspoken about democratic reforms; the authorities alleged his speeches at the University of Science and Technology where he was vice-president, incited unrest.

As a result Fang was expelled from the CPC and sacked from his academic post. But he refused to stop speaking out and received letters of support across the country almost daily.

In early 1989 he wrote an open letter to then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping calling for the release of political prisoners which helped fuel the enthusiasm of the students occupying Tiananmen Square.

After the crackdown on June 4, Fang and his wife Li Shuxian sought refuge at the United States embassy for 13 months, as their names were on warrants that could have carried death sentences on conviction.

American diplomats, led by ambassador to China James Lilley refused to hand the couple over and eventually the two countries negotiated he could visit the US for "medical treatment".

He continued his work as a physics professor at the University of Arizona in Tuscon and also to criticize human rights abuses in his homeland.

"Human rights are fundamental privileges that people have from birth, such as the right to think and be educated, the right to marry, and so on. But we Chinese consider those rights dangerous," he said 26 years ago in a speech to students at Tongji University in Shanghai.

"If we are the democratic country we say we are, these rights should be stronger here than elsewhere. But at present they are nothing more than an abstract idea."

And more than a quarter century later, Fang's words still ring true.

May his hopes and efforts for China to be a better country not be in vain.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Pictures of the Day: Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery

Miu Fat Buddhist Temple in Tuen Mun
Today my cousin and I took the West Rail to Tuen Mun to visit some relatives for dim sum.

The animal zodiac painted on the ceiling
When we were almost there, the train passed by this giant Buddhist temple with golden dragons encircled around giant columns. Next to it was a strange modern building that jutted out like a box with its flaps open.

It turns out my maternal grandparents and great grandparents have tablets enshrined in the temple and after lunch we headed there on a short taxi ride over.

The temple was built in 1950 and it is an artistic extravaganza inside. Many of the walls and even ceilings are painted with Buddhist imagery. On the first floor there's a relief of the animal zodiac on the ceiling, and then on the second floor is a very elaborate display of three large gold plated Buddha Sakyamuni who sit behind a glass case and the high-ceiling room features chandeliers, and floral and fruity offerings.

Three Buddha Sakyamuni sitting in the main hall
Behind them are rows of tablets where my ancestors are and we paid them a late Qing Ming visit.

The place is quiet and peaceful -- not to mention grand -- and it's no wonder my grandfather chose this spot to have him and his parents here.

We headed down and crossed over a walkway to the modern building next door that is the new part of the temple. It was officially opened in March 2010.

Here the architecture is nothing much to marvel over, but at the top you can have a panoramic view of Tuen Mun. People can also come here to have vegetarian food which we'll have to try next time.
Two of the many lotus flowers now in bloom

Nevertheless we were appreciative of the garden that is meticulously looked after, featuring Japanese carp, very old olive trees with twisted trunks, lotus flowers and even Buddha's hand bergamot, where the fruits look like fingers. They were quite fragrant too. No wonder there are so many butterflies hanging around this place.

Buddha's hand bergamot growing in the garden
Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery
18 Castle Peak Road
Lam Tei
Tuen Mun
New Territories



Friday, 6 April 2012

Compassion Disappearing from HK

Tam Kin-wai in his old home; he lives in public housing
There was a story in the local paper today interviewing a man who lived in a communal space.

Tam Kin-wai, 76, has fond memories of communal living for 50 years and his story also reflects the rapid changes in society.

When he rented a space in To Kwa Wan in the 1960s he lived there for nearly 20 years.

"There was a time when for two full years, I couldn't pay rent, because I was out of a job," Tam recalled. "Instead of kicking me out, my landlord invited me to dinner with his family."

He explained the landlord was a tailor and leased the flat from the owner and occupied the largest room with his family, while subletting the rest of the space to people like Tam.

After he lost his factory job and was unable to find another one, Tam struggled for money. But the landlord never pressured him; instead his wife kept giving Tam food to eat.

"He was prepared to pay my share for me because he didn't want to see me on the streets," Tam said. "He could have easily found another tenant, but he kept me. I felt so guilty that when they asked me to dine with them, I'd refuse and say I'd eaten, even though I was starving. I felt bad for taking their food while I couldn't even pay rent."

However, Tam eventually found a job and he tracked down the landlord -- who had moved away -- and presented him his two full years of rent.

"Places are made by people," Tam said. "And it is people who change those places."

During that time, he explained people shared their food, help each other financially and become friends. "There was always room for another pair of chopsticks," he said, adding people were poor and so they did whatever they could to find work but also shared whatever they had.

It was also then that Tam remembers being able to leave his door wide open and his cupboards were unlocked when he went out because he knew no one would steal from him.

However, he noticed things started to change in the 1990s. "People became more complicated, and landlords were not as they were before," Tam said.

One theory is that because landlords moved out of the flats and refitted the rooms to accommodate more people, they were more focused on profits than tenants. This resulted in communal spaces and kitchens disappearing and places became more crowded and dirty, resulting in problems with fleas.

"There's less trust between the landlords and tenants. I don't blame [the landlords], as more people try to cheat them out of paying the rent," he said. "It's just a different world. Harder and meaner."

How did Hong Kong become this way?

I thought after SARS people were more friendly and more caring about the city. It's almost 10 years since those frightening times and people have already forgotten they live in this community together?

This evening I finished working out at the gym and didn't get to near my neighbourhood until 8:45pm. I walked into a cha chaan teng (HK diner) I'd been in before and the waiter seemed to look at me like he recognized me but then brusquely stated the place was closed even though there were customers in there.

Did he have to be so rude about it? He could have said, "Sorry we're closed at 9pm", but made no effort to be polite.

I won't be going there anymore.

With Hong Kong's economy slowing down, he doesn't realize he's lost a potential customer for the long term?

But of course not -- it's not his restaurant. And with seven million people in the city, he's bound to have other customers.

Should we just shrug our shoulders and forget about it?

Or should we stop and wonder how we became this way?

This is not a problem the chief executive should solve; it's really up to each of us to make an effort.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Pricey Porcelain

The Ru Washer sold at record price at a Sotheby's auction
A small, simple but elegant-looking bowl from the 12th century was sold at the Sotheby's auction yesterday for a whopping HK$207.86 million ($26.65 million), over three times its estimate.

It's called Ru Guanyao or government ceramics kiln and it was a brush washer, and the shallow bowl was used exclusively by emperors to wash their calligraphy brushes. Dating from the Northern Song dynasty, it is just one of five in private hands, and only 79 are known to exist, as the Ru kilns were only in production for 20 to 30 years, producing the most refined ceramics at the time.

The fight for the 900-year-old bowl lasted 15 minutes with eight bidders; an anonymous phone bidder won the round and set a record for Song dynasty ceramics.

"The bids mostly came from Asia. I understand that the buyer was ready to pay a lot more," said Nicholas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Asia.

Really?

In this economy?

Paying almost HK$208 million, including "administrative expenses" to Sotheby's is mind boggling to most of us. It's the equivalent of say two luxury flats in prestigious neighbourhoods in Hong Kong.

While it is understandable these items are rare and in very good condition, does it really warrant three times its estimate?

However the real test comes when the buyer actually pays up.

There have been cases where successful bidders at auctions do not pay in full and the auction houses must chase them up with legal letters.

Some have trouble paying up because a group of people bid together and not everyone has their share of money ready; others seem to "forget" to pay up.

Sotheby's and Christie's have smartened up and in the last few years have demanded unfamiliar bidders to put down a certain amount of deposit to show they have the means to shell out.

But HK$208 million?

Either Hong Kong or China's economy is still going strong or some bidders are out to make a joke out of this record price.

We shall see.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Wen Pushes for Banking Revamp

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is still on his reform rant, after effectively sacking Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai in front of a live audience and said the country needed to move away from its dark Cultural Revolution days and continue with political reforms.

He doesn't mean universal suffrage, but more democracy within the ruling party.

But I digress.

Yesterday Wen said it was time to break the cartel China's four main banks have enjoyed for years.

"Our banks are profiting too easily. Why? That's because only a few big banks command monopoly positions -- [business] can only get financing from them and [it is] hardly [possible] elsewhere," Wen told private entrepreneurs during a three-day trip to Fujian and Guangxi.

His solution is to have more private capital enter the banking and financial system to break up what is basically a cartel.

However the government have created the situation the four state-owned banks are in now -- Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and China Construction Bank.

These four make up 40 percent of China's total loans and last year they made net profits of $99 billion, more than double their US equivalents of Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Wells Fargo.

The rest of the loans are made by smaller banks or underground ones that charge exorbitant interest rates, making it inevitable for lenders to default, and as a result skip town or worse, commit suicide, as in the case of some businessmen Wenzhou about half a year ago.

State-owned banks prefer lending to state-owned enterprises, knowing they will get their money back, and less interested in loaning to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that desperately need the capital to expand their businesses.

As a result, Wen wants to make credit more accessible to smaller businesses because they are the ones creating employment and stimulating local economies.

However, his words were not conveyed by all state media. Neither Xinhua nor People's Daily carried Wen's remarks, which indicate his ideas were not endorsed by the government.

We shall see if the leadership is interested in entertaining Wen's suggestions and if so, how long it will take to implement them.

And while Wen's at it, why not break up the mobile phone monopoly as well? For 1.3 billion people there are only three providers in the market?

So much work to do, so little time...

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Lingo Fracas Erupts Again

agnes b. just wants to sell tarts, not create controversy over its menus
Hong Kong people are becoming more and more sensitive to the presence of mainlanders and language recently became a hot topic.

It was discovered that the popular agnes b. Cafe LPG chain has its menus printed in simplified Chinese characters and Hong Kongers got extremely upset about it.

The cafe apologized on its Facebook page yesterday after many users on an internet forum complained about the "invasion of simplified Chinese" at its new branch in Tseung Kwan O's PopCorn mall.

While the cafe said management would replace the wall menus at all of its branches, the company had been using simplified Chinese since 2008.

Did it really take four years for people to notice?

"The Times Square branch -- one of the first shops we had -- only offered English menus as we received complaints. So we have also included simplified Chinese characters at every branch since then," a company spokeswoman said.

"In light of the complaints, we will replace all our wall menus to include only English and traditional Chinese. Simplified Chinese will be listed alongside the two languages in the printed menus," she said.

Hopefully this will calm down the public, as agnes b. is very popular with trendy young people.

But in reality, many companies like banks have lots of advertising in simplified Chinese, specifically aimed at potential mainland clients.

So what about the rest of us?

It's the non-Chinese who are really losing out even more these days; 15 years after the handover, those who can't read Chinese are getting the shorter end of the stick when it comes to billboard advertising and promotional emails are always in Chinese, English second.

Regardless, this latest incident shows the controversy over mainlanders in Hong Kong has not gone away.

Instead it's still like embers flickering in the background that can spark into flames at any time...

Monday, 2 April 2012

Creating History in Burma

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the people's conscience
We are still waiting to hear the results from yesterday's elections in Burma, but are optimistic the National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Aung San Suu Kyi will win the vast majority of the seats it was contending for.

It is incredible that after almost 15 years of house arrest Suu Kyi is running for a seat in the Lower House of Parliament as the official opposition.

The NLD is projecting winning 43 of the 44 seats, which will be a major victory, but is only a drop in the bucket compared to the total 664 seats in the Lower and Upper houses, State and Regional assemblies.

Nevertheless if Suu Kyi wins in her constituency, it will finally legitimize her voice and the ruling military junta will have to at least listen to her as she is the conscience of the people.

There are lots of expectations heaped on the 66 year old; the people believe she will help the country get out of poverty, but does she really have the solution? She may have the encouraging words and beliefs, but does she have a pragmatic economic plan?

In any event just the elections themselves are a historic moment in the country's history and today she declared outside the NLD headquarters in Rangoon:

"It is not so much our triumph as a triumph of the people who have decided that they have to be involved in the political process in this country," she said. "We hope this is the beginning of a new era.

"We hope that all other parties that took part in the elections will be in a position to cooperate with us to create a genuinely democratic atmosphere in our nation."

Another aspect of this election is that many NLD candidates vying for the seats are young and inexperienced; they will be looking to Suu Kyi to carry the party.

Living under house arrest was a challenge. But now leading a party and representing the people in Parliament will be another.

We hope she is up to the monumental task as the nation is depending on her to voice their grievances and provide solutions.

We wish the Lady good luck in her and Burma's next chapter.