Thursday, 31 May 2012

Hong Kong's Two Worlds

The Martian Pink diamond sold at almost double its estimate
Today the Hang Seng Index saw the worst May performance in 14 years, thanks to the fears of the euro zone going down the drain and the Chinese economy screeching to a halt.

The index closed down 0.32 percent to close at 18,629.52 Thursday and the downward trend led to Graff Diamonds pulling its $1 billion initial public offering that was due to set its price tomorrow.

If listed, it would have been Asia's biggest IPO so far this year, but the sparkling gems of the London-based jeweller were not enough to calm investors' fears. "Consistently declining stock markets proved to be a significant barrier to executing the transaction at this time," Graff said in a statement.

So Graff will have to wait for the next window of opportunity and who knows when that will be...

Then there are reports retail rents have peaked now that companies are not willing or able to pay double or triple the original rent in the last three years. Abercrombie & Fitch still have yet to open its flagship store and it's paying almost $1 million in rent each month for its prime Central location. Imagine how many polo shirts and jeans it has to sell on a daily basis.

"Until recently, retailers were willing to pay higher rents for shops in prime locations because retail sales were growing at such a high rate," said Joe Lin, senior director of retail services at property consultancy CBRE.

"But they have turned cautious this year because of the slowdown in retail sales and tourist arrivals from the mainland."

However if you look at the ultra luxury market though, there's gobs of money exchanging hands.

Earlier this week Christie's set a record price for pink diamonds with the sale of the "Martian Pink" diamond. The 12-carat gem was named by Harry Winston in 1976, the same year the Viking I spacecraft landed on Mars.

The auction house had estimated the diamond would sell at a high guesstimate of HK$95 million -- and after six minutes of frenzied bidding, it actually sold for a gob smacking HK$135 million ($17.4 million). It is the largest round fancy intense pink diamond to be sold at auction.

Christie's also sold a 6.04-carat Burmese ruby ring for a record $3.3 million, or $551,000 per carat.

There's lots of money here, but it's the uber rich who are holding the purse strings will the rest of us plebeians are eking out a living.

Hong Kong is of two different words -- a stock index that's plummeting and a buoyant auction scene setting record prices.

What gives?

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Are You Happy at Work?

We predicted this year the economy would not be doing so well with China slowing down and Europe going in slow-motion implosion.

And so instead of turning to productivity rates, a recent report in Hong Kong has looked at how happy employees are.

The Happiness at Work Index is the first for the city and was a survey jointly conducted by the Productivity Council and Lingnan University and it found people were marginally less happy at work than overall.

On a scale from zero to 10, the average work happiness of the 1,328 people who participated in the survey was 6.7 points, 0.2 points below the general happiness score.

A score of seven is considered "happy", and anywhere between four and six means neutral and below that is unhappy.

So for the small sample of respondents, 6.7 is pretty decent.

For some reason Hong Kong surveys have such small numbers of participants... surely in a city of seven million people they can get more data...

But I digress.

The survey defines work happiness as looking forward to going to work every day.

What's interesting is that the results showed that respondents with higher education were not necessarily happier at work, while those with secondary school education or less were happiest (6.7), followed by university graduates (6.6). Those with diplomas, high diplomas or associate degrees were the least happy at 6.5.

"This must have something to do with their level of societal recognition," said Lingnan Professor Ho Lok-sang, lead researcher of the study.

Another reason may be university graduates not being able to find jobs in their preferred fields and are stuck doing menial or low-paying jobs they are over qualified to do.

The survey does not indicate a link between the type of industry and the degree of employees' happiness.

Productivity Council general manager Raymond Cheng said: "This means a particular enterprise's culture matters more than which industry a person is in."

He suggested companies should take greater measures to encourage staff to learn from mistakes and involve employees more in business decisions -- methods that cost nothing and could bring staff closer together.

Another observation in the survey was that among small and mid-sized companies, the larger the workplace, the more its employees tended to be unhappy. And in Hong Kong these companies make up 98 percent of all local employers.

Meanwhile in large companies that have 100 or more employees, "more resources and better-defined systems" result in happier workers, said Ho.

He said it was worrying that most top-level managers interviewed in the survey had no regard for communication. It's perhaps because of their belief that they need to assert authority and the way to do that was to issue commands rather than involve staff to formulate better solutions for doing things. This is even more prevalent in mainland Chinese companies.

Nevertheless, Cheng noted that: "The happier your staff, the better the company's performance will be."

Wonder how many Hong Kong companies are actually going to heed these words of advice.

But in what may be the beginning of a rough patch, perhaps now would be a good time to implement some changes.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

His Version of the "Truth"

The book Conversations with Chen Xitong
Yesterday I blogged about a father who committed suicide a few days ago after waiting in vain for the Chinese government to acknowledge its mistakes in the Tiananmen Square crackdown 23 years ago.

And now the mayor of Beijing at the time is trying to fix his place in history by claiming "a regrettable tragedy could have been avoided" and downplaying his role in the incident.

Chen Xitong was seen as a hardliner at the time, pushing for military force against the students. Some accuse him of deliberately exaggerating the situation and misleading paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to get him to authorize the People's Liberation Army to use arms against the protestors.

After the June 4 incident, Chen was promoted to Beijing party secretary and made a Politburo member.

But he must have made someone higher up angry because he was arrested in 1995 and three years later convicted of corruption for which he was sentenced to 16 years in prison in one of the most dramatic downfalls of a senior Communist Party official -- before Bo Xilai this year. Chen was later released on medical parole in 2006.

Chen is trying to set the record straight by giving his side of the story in Conversations with Chen Xitong by scholar Yao Jianfu that will be published Friday by New Century Media in Hong Kong.

The book features eight interviews Yao conducted with Chen from early last year. The 81-year-old claims he didn't know much about the discussions senior government officials had and was only following orders.

Chen claimed he only wanted a quick end to "the turbulence" and believed the incident could have been resolved without bloodshed.

"Nobody should have died if it was handled properly," he told Yao. "Several hundred people died on that day. As the mayor, I felt sorry. I hoped we could have solved the case peacefully. Many things are still not clear, but I believe one day the truth will come out."

The ailing Chen who is in the last stages of colon cancer, claims he was the victim of a purge by then president Jiang Zemin.

Chen says the rumours he had been plotting to under mine Jiang's power were "pure fabrication" but led to the corruption charges against him.

He also disputes an unpublished diary of former premier Li Peng that said Chen was "the chief commander" of the Beijing Martial Law Command Centre.

"One day, if I had the opportunity, I'd want to ask Li Peng about this," Chen said. "I know nothing of this role I allegedly played. I don't know what his [Li's] purpose is [for claiming that].

"I believe that one day the party will declassify all the documents and history will give a fairer judgment on Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and [purged party general secretary] Zhao Ziyang," he said. "I believe this is only a matter of time. As our country is now getting stronger, so we should have a more democratic system. [Premier] Wen Jiabao has said on many occasions that [we need] political reforms... We need to do this step by step... Unfair and unjust things will be readdressed one day."

Chen claimed he had never been to Deng's home and did not attend the meeting on May 18, 1989 when Deng and other party elders defined the growing protests in Tiananmen Square as a counterrevolutionary riot and decided to depose Zhao, who had sympathized with the students.

He said that as mayor he was more responsible for daily logistics than the political discussions and decisions.

In any event it's intriguing Chen has come out now to set the record straight and release the book on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Does he think it's safe to stir up discussion about this taboo subject? Or is it all about him trying to tell his side of the story and get sympathy votes?

For Chen to believe the government will eventually declassify documents for the public to see is wishful thinking; does he really believe "democracy" -- which he does not clearly define -- will really happen in China under the Communist Party's watch?

Seems like he is more keen to resolve his own demons before helping the country exorcise its own.

Monday, 28 May 2012

A Lost Will to Fight

I was dismayed to read in the news today a father who had lost his son during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, committed suicide after 23 years of "injustice".

Ya Weilin, 73, was a retired hospital worker and member of Tiananmen Mothers, a group comprised of victims' families who are trying to get the government to change its position on the incident in 1989.

According to an obituary issued by Tiananmen Mothers, he hanged himself in an unfinished underground car park at No. 2 Hospital of the former Ministry of Nuclear Industry, south of Capital Normal University in Haidian district.

Ya's second son Ya Aiguo was shot in the head and killed at the age of 22 in Gongzhufen area of west Beijing late on June 3, 1989.

Ya Weilin left his home at 10am on Thursday and it wasn't until about 3:30pm Friday that his oldest son, daughter-in-law and niece found his body.

A few days before he killed himself, his wife and oldest son found a letter in which Ya wrote of his plan to take his own life, citing years of injustice, but they did not take the letter seriously.

Founder of Tiananmen Mothers Ding Zilin said it was the first time a member had committed suicide over the despondency at their decades-long fight against the authorities.

"We didn't expect that he would end his life like this," Ding said of Ya. "Every time he met us, he asked how the campaign was going. It was disappointing to him every time."

It is so sad to hear Ya lost his willingness to fight anymore; the fact that despite all their agitations, the Tiananmen Mothers are ignored by the Chinese government.

He wanted his son's death to be recognized, that he did not die in vain and be unaccounted for. And yet Ya Weilin's suicide will also not be reported by state media because of the sensitivity around it and so practically hardly anyone in China will know what he did and why.

Beijing refuses to acknowledge the bloody crackdown even took place, telling younger generations who were born in the 80s and 90s that it was an incident sparked by hoodlums.

However, yesterday afternoon there was a protest march in Hong Kong to mark the upcoming 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, and it was more poignant because of Ya's death.

And more mainland Chinese visitors are taking part too, after learning about what happened on the evening of June 3, 1989 through their visits to Hong Kong.

The more people know, the awareness will make them realize the selfishness of the Chinese government in protecting itself over its people.

If the Chinese government cannot even come to terms with the Cultural Revolution, how will it even begin to confront Tiananmen?

Next Monday we will remember Ya and his frustrated attempts to make the authorities see the errors in its ways.

We will continue his fight so that he may eventually see justice for his son.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Is Cantonese on the Decline?

Can you imagine Hong Kong without Cantonese?
Linguists in Hong Kong say Cantonese is dying in the city because more schools are teaching curriculum in Putonghua than the southern Chinese dialect.

More than 160 of the 1,025 government primary and secondary schools are using Putonghua in Chinese lessons after a government policy encouraged the switch in 2003. Before that Cantonese was used.

However, linguists say the increased use of Putonghua is accelerating the decline of Cantonese as more Putonghua is spoken.

Associate linguistics professor at the University of Hong Kong Stephen Matthews says a study by one of his Masters students showed that children taught Chinese in Putonghua spoke it in the playground. "She [the student] also did a survey of languages at home and found there was more Putonghua used in the children's home," he said.

"Cantonese might survive for 50 years or so, but after it may well be on its way out," he said. "It' is difficult to calculate the timing but in the medium to long term, Cantonese is an endangered language."

The impact could be huge, in that children would not be able to communicate with their grandparents or appreciate things like Cantonese opera. Matthews says what they are seeing now is similar to the studies they have done on the decline of the speaking Hakka and Chiu Chow dialects.

"It generally happens over three generations. It is sad when that happens," Matthews said.

Interestingly a few colleagues and I had this discussion a few days ago and now this news story has made me reflect on my own situation.

My mother is Hakka and I was never taught any words from the dialect when I was young; she hardly speaks it to anyone except her siblings.

She probably thought Hakka wouldn't be of much use to us children and felt it best that we learn Cantonese instead and also my father does not speak Hakka.

And apparently my mother's other siblings made the same judgement call, as none of my cousins on my mother's side can speak Hakka.

Is it their fault for not teaching us? Perhaps they were not thinking of the cultural implications, but trying to be pragmatic about the situation.

But now it's frightening to hear Cantonese could soon be a dead language thanks to the ever incompetent Hong Kong education system.

There obviously has been no long-term thinking involved -- only the goal of pleasing Beijing.

Meanwhile parents are only trying to do the best for their children, and in some cases insist on only speaking to them in English in the hopes they will become fluent.

But what about their mother tongue Cantonese?

Perhaps it's time for us to figure out what kind of city we want Hong Kong to be.

And if you ask most Hong Kong people, they will probably want to keep Cantonese -- this is the language of the city.

This again demonstrates we have a government that has no regard for what its people want...

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Romantic Melodies

Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam
Last night my friend YTSL and I went to a concert at City Hall Concert Hall. The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was performing with Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam.

After the playful and short Symphony No. 34 in C, K338 by Mozart, the stage was rearranged to accommodate a grand piano and the soloist walked on stage.

I loved his mop of white hair that reminded me of those Bugs Bunny cartoons that had a conductor with a similar mane who was like a mad scientist leading the orchestra in frenzied choreographed movements with hair and arms all over the place.

However Brautigam was very civilized and periodically brushed his hair aside as he played at the piano complete with tuxedo tails. His playing was effortless and displayed a whole range while playing Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25.

Online there isn't much information about Brautigam, but he is one of Holland's leading musicians, known for not only his virtuosity, but also his eclectic musical interests.

He studied in Amsterdam, London and the United States with Rudolf Serkin, and in 1984, Brautigam was honoured with the Dutch Music Prize, the highest Dutch musical award.

He not only plays the piano, but also the fortepiano and performs with leading Baroque orchestras and plays with chamber music groups.

Meanwhile Mendelssohn was no slouch himself -- a well known violinist, pianist, organist, conductor and composer. Not only that he was known to be a strong swimmer, talented poet and painter, and was fluent in several languages. Definitely a Renaissance man.

This piano concerto was written when Mendelssohn was 22, thus revealing romantic young and playful themes.

Afterwards the audience clapped so much that Brautigam came out at least four times before he finally sat down and played a short encore... I am making an educated guess that it was Grieg...

Following the intermission, guest conductor Paul McCreesh led the orchestra in another hopping piece, Schubert's Rosamunde, D797. Dressed in a Mandarin jacket, McCreesh almost looked like he was happily skipping in his place for this ballet music. YTSL couldn't help but giggle every time he did that.

However the mood changed with the last work of the evening, Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93. And as expected, the music was full of drama, building up tension that was finally released at the end.

While probably not one of the best performances put on by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, it did leave us all in a happy mood.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Locust Loo Behaviour

Some habits never change.

A colleague recounted she was in the Times Square shopping mall and went to the washroom for a pit stop.

When she came out of her stall she saw an attractive, well dressed mainland Chinese woman come out of her stall, but did not wash her hands.

Instead she horked a large clump of spit into the sink and was on her way out the door.

My colleague was horrified and told her in Putonghua that it was not sanitary and that she should rinse the basin.

"But there's no water," she said.

My coworker then ran her hand under the tap to show that that the water was activated by motion detectors, but by that time the woman left the washroom.

So -- just assume every other public washroom in Hong Kong is dirty -- you never know who has just been in there.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Deja vu Escape

Chen Guangfu has escaped to Beijing!
Breaking news -- Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng's older brother has also managed to evade his captors in Shandong and escaped to Beijing.

Chen Guangfu, 55, slipped out of the village of Dongshigu, Shandong at 3am on Tuesday while his minders slept. News reports are not explicit, but he must have received help from rights activists in order to make his way to the capital.

He did this to draw attention to the plight of the family since his brother's departure to the United States last week.

In particular he is advocating for his son Chen Kegui, 32, who is accused of murder when his family says he was acting in self defense with a kitchen knife when Chen Guangcheng's minders broke into the house when the blind activist fled over a month ago and demanded to know where he went.

The son is in police custody and cannot get access to a lawyer so his father went to Beijing to get him one. And in the process the farmer and itinerant labourer has highlighted the fact that the situation has not improved for Chen's family back home.

"Legally Chen Guangfu is a free man, but in reality guards had been preventing him from leaving his village," said Ding Xikui, the Beijing lawyer who met him on Thursday.

Chen Guangfu's escape is surely going to irritate local officials again -- for not being able to contain the fallout of his brother's dramatic escape to the American embassy and then flight to New York.

In the deal involving Chen leaving the US Embassy, there were promises made by the central government to investigate the Shandong officials who orchestrated his 19 months of house arrest and periodic beatings of him and his wife.

However it was unclear if the investigations had begun, if at all.

"There is still some hope but if nothing is done, it shows that these were just empty promises," said Wang Songlian, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

And there are indications I blogged about earlier here show that Shandong Party chief Jiang Yikang is set to be transferred to Chongqing in the fall, which means he was hardly demoted, and instead promoted to managing a major Chinese city.

To pay retribution for his brother's actions, Chen Guangfu told of being whipped and stomped on by angry interrogators who demanded to know how the blind man was able to evade his captors as well as scale several walls. The older brother said this physical torture lasted 48 hours.

While Chen Kegui is being detained and not allowed to see any lawyer of his choosing or his family, his mother Ren Zongju may also be indicted for "harbouring" her son, a charge punishable for up to 10 years in jail. She was detained April 29 and then freed on bail.

Her daughter-in-law Liu Fang has been in Beijing for the last three weeks trying to get a lawyer to represent her husband.

The fact that a man has to escape past paid thugs after enduring beatings and abuse in order to find legal representation for his son shows how paranoid Chinese authorities are about Chen Guangcheng and they want attention to go away.

But it won't disappear now that Chen Guangfu is now in the capital.

Perhaps he will go to the US Consulate as well?

Maybe the Chinese government should take this as a good example of history repeating itself when nothing is done to fix the problem in in the first place...

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Continuing to Bag Customers

Fashionable Chinese can't get enough of Prada's bags
Greece is financially falling apart and Italy might be next, but Prada isn't worried -- just yet.

The Italian fashion house hasn't felt much of the worsening debt crisis in Europe thanks mostly to mainland Chinese shoppers, according to deputy chairman Carlo Mazzi.

After the annual general meeting yesterday he said: "If you knew the results from our first quarter, perhaps you would also be optimistic."

The first quarter results will be out on June 7, and HSBC is bullish about Prada's prospects.

That's because according to the Italian fashion brand's report released yesterday, high demand for Prada's leather goods, particularly in China, have pushed its earnings up by 23.3 percent to 3.15 billion euros (HK$31.3 billion) this year, and the net profit could increase 72.2 percent to 431.9 million euros.

While hardly anyone in Greece buys Prada goods, its possible exit from the euro zone could impact its European neighbours and thus affect the Italian fashion house.

That's why Prada has strategically turned to emerging countries like Morocco and Dubai to open shops, as well as 12 to 15 boutiques in China this year.

Mazza added he didn't want to raise prices in Europe as there was already high shipping costs and import taxes into many Asian countries as well as an appreciating renminbi. He ruled out cutting prices as well unless governments reduced luxury taxes in developing countries.

CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets released a report earlier that found more than half of the sales for certain luxury brands including Gucci and Prada in key European cities, New York and Hong Kong were made by mainland visitors.

It just goes to show the mainland Chinese love of all things Italian will continue for a while yet, and thankfully for them Italy is still coping financially -- for now.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Price of Love

The Beatles sang that money can't buy you love, but in China it does.

In Guangzhou there are apparently 11 super rich men who are looking for the love of their lives and some 300 women are taking part in a contest to see if they have a chance to become Mrs. Rich.

A single men's club in the southern Chinese city picked the contestants from 2,800 applicants who had to undergo a rigorous screening process that included everything from psychological tests to face reading to plastic surgery exams to make sure the women did not enhance their looks, according to a report in the Yancheng Evening News.

The organizers hope to whittle them down and find the ones who meet the demanding criteria of these billionaires.

Apparently these super rich bachelors have at least 100 million RMB to their names, representing industries in clothing, property, finance and chemicals manufacturing. The richest one claims to be worth more than 10 billion RMB. The divorced entrepreneur in his 40s apparently offered the club 5 million RMB to help him find a wife who met his demands of age, weight, appearance -- and that she be a virgin.

Is that because he wants to be sure he won't catch sexually-transmitted diseases, or because he wants a naive girl?

Organizer Li Zhou told the newspaper the tycoons had to work harder to find their life partner otherwise they may end up having mistresses and children who are rebellious and spoiled.

"We are engaged in selecting excellent wives for entrepreneurs and high-quality mothers for the affluent second-generation in a professional way," Zhou said.

Face reading is considered a professional way of screening applicants?

Apparently the contestants are not just from the mainland, but also from as far away as Australia and Singapore with the age range of 19 to 56. Overseas passports could make those women more eligible than looks alone...

Meanwhile the club is offering 50,000 RMB to anyone who recommends a woman that the bachelor takes out on a date. If a relationship develops, the man promises the referee a 3 million RMB apartment. Cool deal, isn't it?

Wen He, a Guangzhou marriage consultant, felt the contest was a game for the rich, but wealth could not guarantee a happy marriage.

Meanwhile Professor Ji Yingchun, a sociologist on family studies at the University of North Carolina, said the contest revealed the commercialization of women and that as the fairer sex could not earn as much as men, they would try to reap financial rewards through marriage.

The obnoxiousness of this exercise and the response to it only shows that mainland Chinese are obsessed with money more than love and are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they think is the road to happiness.

Only in China.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Ex-Chongqing Police Chief Charged with Treason

Wang Lijun's treason trial may begin next month in Chengdu
Now that blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng is safely in the United States, our attention is now turning towards fallen Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun and his impending trial which could be held as early as next month.

The trial will take place in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, where Wang fled and tried to see asylum in the United States consulate. He is charged with treason, perhaps due to his possibility of having leaked state secrets to the Americans.

It was not known whether the trial would be open to the media and the public.

The outcome of this case will give a good indication of how Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai will be treated, as she is accused of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.

While Wang could face the death penalty, some China observers believe he will not be meted out that sentence.

Hong Kong-based China law expert Ong Yew-kim said Wang "neither killed anyone, nor had been caught in possession of weaponry. But I wouldn't be surprised if he receives eight or 10 years of jail terms."

Another source believed that despite Wang's attempt to defect, he had "made a major contribution" to investigations into the Bo scandal. Surely that deserves some brownie points...

The Chinese government is anxious to have these trials wrapped up before the upcoming party congress in the fall which is rumoured to be postponed.

If Wang's trial is made public or at least to all media, not just state-sanctioned ones, then the transparency will give people confidence in their justice system. Meanwhile it would give the rest of us a front-row seat into how Bo ran his fiefdom in Chongqing and how this all connects to the rest of the country politically, economically and socially.

Maybe it's wishful thinking.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Artistic Afternoon

Flowers That Bloom at Midnight by Yayoi Kusama
This afternoon I checked out the ART HK 2012 or Hong Kong International Art Fair at the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre.

Just as I was about to head to Wan Chai, there was a massive downpour of rain; it's no wonder so many people went to the show to shield themselves from the wet elements but also avoid another shopping mall.

As a result the place was packed, but thankfully big enough that visitors were moving in the two large exhibition halls on two different floors.

My friend YTSL and I saw several works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol, albeit not necessarily top grade pieces, but they were originals nonetheless.

Choi Jeong Hwa's Breath Flower - Red Lotus... it really moves!
She observed that in previous ART HK shows it was a huge deal to have one small Picasso. Now the pieces seem to be coming out of the woodwork. Perhaps as galleries all over, particularly in Europe and New York are flocking here to gain new clients, they are taking everything out of their storerooms to see what will sell.

There were some really odd pieces like Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa who created Breath Flower - Red Lotus -- a giant "breathing" red flower, its petals opening and closing every 10 to 15 seconds or so. For a moment I wondered if I had wandered into another version of the Little Shop of Horrors.

Another floral theme was by Yayoi Kusama, an eccentric Japanese artist and writer who made giant polka-dotted flowers called Flowers That Bloom at Midnight that were of an absolute delight to the many children who attended the fair today. 

Crane by Brazilian Vik Muniz
Also impressive was a piece entitled Crane by a Brazilian artist called Vik Muniz who made an installation that was photographed. There were probably thousands of coloured paper cranes made and they in turn created a massive paper crane shape. I'd thought it was an Asian artist who did that, but instead was someone from South America. Go figure.

We also saw two or three of Hirst's spot paintings and a round piece featuring an orange painted background and hundreds of red butterfly wings carefully placed all over this circle. It was simultaneously awe-inspiring to see the delicate butterfly wings, but also horrifically morbid to see them extracted from their bodies.

There were also some special installations for the show, including Ai Weiwei's Cong, one of his artistic statements on the Sichuan earthquake four years ago.

On the outside are 123 framed letters Ai's studio received from various ministries of government regarding the investigation into the May 12th earthquake. According to Galerie Urs Meile's description, the letters are all of a similar nature, refusing to disclose any information regarding the quake.

Ai Weiwei's Cong is about the Sichuan earthquake in 2008
Meanwhile inside is a cocoon-like feeling with 5,196 names of the children who died, listing their name, sex, age, what grade they were in and from which school. The students seem to be grouped according to their school and from the oldest to the youngest. The age range was about 16 to 17 to about two and three years.

Ai seems to mock the Chinese government for the formality of the letters complete with special red chops by framing them, while the authorities don't even recognize the dead or even try to find out why the students died when we all know the schools were shoddily built thanks to corruption.

Another curious piece is what looks like a giant "diamond" made from pieces of a shipping container. By Yin Xiuzhen, Black Hole represents the journey of commercial products in today's world of global exchanges. The "diamond", weighing 6.5 million carats, symbolizes perfection, luxury and desire as it emanates coloured light from within.

Everyone is chasing the China and Hong Kong market, with many galleries opening up branches here. We shall soon see if interest really translates into sales, or it's all hype and false hopes.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Flying to Freedom

Right now blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng is on his way to New York.

He had no idea he and his family were leaving until earlier today when they were told to get their belongings together and were driven to Beijing Capital International Airport.

There they received their passports from Chinese officials and boarded a United Airlines flight to Newark.

Earlier there was confusion as to whether Chen and his family would receive their passports, but it's good to hear they did, otherwise it would have been a one-way trip to the United States.

While he will settle in New York, Chen is worried about his extended family, in particular his nephew Chen Kegui who faces a possible death sentence for allegedly slashing and injuring men who broke into their home after they found out Chen Guangcheng had escaped.

However the nephew claims he was acting in self defense, thinking robbers had entered their home. He apparently cannot get access to his lawyers.

After Chen's escape, his brother, Chen Guangfu was tied to a chair and beaten for three days by interrogators demanding to know where the 40-year-old blind went.

So while human rights activists are happy Chen Guangcheng can start a new chapter in his life, there are concerns his relatives will have to deal with the retribution.

Fighting the system is no easy matter when relatives are caught up in it even if they are completely innocent.

We hope Chen Guangcheng will make the most of his time in the US and hopefully return to continue his fight for others.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Family Business

When I was in Beijing a few years ago, I started hearing about princelings, the sons and daughters of senior officials who take advantage of their connections and make lots of money in business deals. They benefit because companies want to be successful and if that means greasing the palms of princelings, so be it.

It was an open secret and while they tried to discreetly go about these transactions, this information eventually got out to the media, and after putting the various pieces together, it forms a picture of immense wealth on a massive scale.

For example, in 2009, the Namibian government charged Nutech, the maker of scanning equipment with corruption. It turns out the president of the company was Chinese President Hu Jintao's son Hu Haifeng.

The news made a brief blip on the radar and state media were forced to severely limit their coverage of the incident, and in the end made sure Hu Haifeng was not personally responsible for the alleged corruption charges.

And I soon noticed that every single scanner installed in every subway station in Beijing to avert terrorism had the brand name Nutech.

The Hu family obviously benefited from this security policy which was originally implemented just before the Olympics, but continued ever since. Or was the policy created for Nutech?

With the recent downfall of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, the central government is trying hard to portray the disgraced leader as an anomaly, but everyone sees through the ruse.

The New York Times has now written an extensive story on how princelings make their money and many examples of those who have made millions if not more from their connections.

The network is now so extensive that it will be impossible for Beijing to earnestly reform the system. There are too many people with too many interests to want to see the system benefit themselves than the ordinary folk -- they want things to continue as they are despite the system possibly imploding from all the contradictions that are layered on top of each other.

So when people say they hope Vice President Xi Jinping become China's next president will lead to a better China, they are dreaming.

Xi himself is a bona fide princeling and while his daughter is extremely low key, a student studying at Harvard, it doesn't mean his other relatives aren't benefiting from their connections to him.

And Premier Wen Jiabao, the one verbally agitating for reforms has his children and wife ingratiating themselves, albeit legally.

Where does it all end?

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Picture of the Day: Mao in Macau

Giant Mao suit by Sui Jianguo at City of Dreams
I was in Macau this evening and just before the function I went to, I took a quick stroll around City of Dreams. Just outside the complex was a massive red Mao suit and had to take a look.

It's by Sui Jianguo and I've seen his work before in 798 District in Beijing.

Now in his 60s, Sui witnessed the Great Helmsman's policies at work, particularly the Cultural Revolution. When he was young, he was "transfixed in the age of Mao worship, when Mao was virtually a God at home".

So it's not surprising Sui has taken the Mao jacket and used it as a focal point in his work, giving it many meanings. He started the "Mao Suit" series in 1997 and saw the jacket not as revolutionary attire, but as a symbol of restriction and limitation.

The iconic piece of clothing is hollow, and for Sui these are "symbols of Mao's empty promises".

So it's ironic to see Sui's work placed in front of City of Dreams in Macau where millions of mainlanders flocked to spend $33.5 billion last year, equal to five times the casino takings in Las Vegas.

Sui would probably think it was amusing to have his sculpture in a casino, whereas Mao must be mortified at seeing his infamous jacket take on such extreme capitalist meanings...

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Rewarding Thuggish Behaviour

Shandong Party Secretary Jiang Yikang going through the motions
In the countdown to the once-in-a-decade leadership change, there's lots of speculation about who will be taking up some of the seats in the Politburo Standing Committee, a small clique that rules China.

Word is out that the top Communist Party chief in Shandong is set to replace Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang in Chongqing who took over after Bo Xilai's spectacular ouster in mid-March.

Jiang Yikang has apparently been named by Vice President Xi Jinping himself to succeed Zhang, but no timetable has been set yet on when the transition will take place.

Fifty-nine-year-old Jiang is said to be a protege of former vice president Zeng Qinghong, head of the so-called princeling faction, of which Xi and Bo are members.

If Jiang does become party secretary of Chongqing, then he will most likely secure a seat in the party's Politburo.

While all this horse jockeying takes place, it seems blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng's requests of an investigation have gone unheeded.

In his videotaped message, he specifically asked Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate into the thugs who had built walls surrounding his house and harassed people trying to visit him.

And nothing, at least not reported in the media, has happened.

That means the central government condones what Shandong authorities are doing to Chen and in fact get rewarded -- with a promotion.

Surely Chen should realize by now the central government never means what it says in order to preserve its own skin.

Meanwhile there's an interesting development where veteran party members are calling for the sacking of Zhou Yongkang who heads security, police and spy network, and was Bo's patron. Zhou has also managed to receive a domestic security budget that surpasses the military one.

In an open letter to President Hu Jintao, they claim Zhou is part of the movement to revive the era of Mao Zedong.

However there are other reports that because Zhou is retiring, they letting him save face by not publicly firing him, as he holds many secrets of other top leaders due to his intelligence portfolio.

It's all very murky, but one thing is clear -- Beijing was very aware of what Shandong was doing to Chen and reward handsomely for obedience instead of rule of law.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Justice After Death

How the mighty have fallen. And they continue to fall.

Tony Chan Chun-chuen is back in court again to face charges of forger and use of a fake will purportedly signed by businesswoman Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum. He used this bogus will in a legal fight against Chinachem Charitable Foundation over her estimated HK$50 billion estate that he lost last year.

Wang died in 2007 of cancer at the age of 69.

The 52-year-old Chan is seeking to have the proceedings stopped for good, on the grounds that the "forged" will had been materially altered by chemicals used in forensic testing.

This kind of argument can only be thought up by creative lawyers who are paid good coinage by Chan -- if he still has money to pay them.

Thankfully this time around the trial will be a short one -- originally there were to be 26 witnesses to be called, but now an agreement with the prosecutors and defense, only three will be appearing -- two chemists and a police officer.

Prosecutor David Perry added the hearing could end next week instead of the originally estimated 30 days.

Taxpayers must be thrilled to bits at the cost-cutting measures this trial is taking.

There was also another separate hearing into Chan's assets yesterday.

High Court Master Reuden Lai Tat-cheung granted an order that placed a charge over certain properties owned by Chan. This means Chan's creditors can recoup their debt if the properties are sold.

The reason for this is because when Chan lost the massive court battle against Chinachem Charitable Foundation, he was ordered to pay most of the foundation's costs and all the estate administrator's costs from the lawsuit. The foundation is asking for HK$150 million and the administrators HK$160 million.

Last December, a judge froze HK$130 million of Chan's assets, saying there was a risk he will disperse what he had to avoid paying.

The buck pretty much stops here for the self-styled feng shui master. He and his lawyers can try to make up as many interesting arguments to drag the process through the courts, but we've all had enough of Chan's antics.

We look forward to the day all these lawsuits are over, Chan declares bankruptcy and his 15 minutes of fame have finally expired.

He made a mockery of his alleged former lover Wang with her gullibility in superstition and now he is paying the price.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Bringing Community Back to Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government really doesn't have much of a clue of how to look after its own people, especially the ones who need the most help.

But thankfully there are some residents out there who are actively making a difference.

One of them is Benson Tsang Chi-ho, who was outraged last year when the government handed out HK$6,000 ($773) to permanent residents. Instead of depositing it in his bank account, Tsang used it to buy tins of food and hot meals from small, independent stores and restaurants in Sham Shui Po to feed the local poor.

The interior designer inspired some of his friends to help out and use their HK$6,000 handout "as it should be used -- back into the community".

He encouraged others to join in through a Facebook campaign.

But then on February 15 the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Home Affairs Department conducted a clean-up operation without warning and swooped on street sleepers in Sham Shui Po, confiscating and taking away their belongings including clothing, bedding, identity cards and phones.

Usually the police give notice to the street sleepers so that they can pick up their things and move on, but that day they could hardly keep any of their few possessions.

"I got so mad about it I started ranting on Facebook," Tsang said of his reaction. "That night I brought clothes down to Sham Shui Po for [the street sleepers] but they were nowhere to be seen. It was really cold that night."

After his online rant over a year later, some 150 to 180 people gather once a month to try to make a difference, and most have never met each other before.

"It's completely decentralized and anonymous," Tsang explains. "No one needs to commit and everyone's encouraged to bring the idea back to their own neighbourhoods, or start their own actions."

According to Tsang, it's not about feeding and clothing the poor, but to change the way people see others and realize how powerful one's decisions can be.

"This is not about being sympathetic -- we don't needs that. It's about sharing. We are trying to rebuild community and relationships within a neighbourhood," he said.

Nise Sou Lai-sim, a regular participant says, "We hope this experience will create bridges between people of different backgrounds. Our aim is to bring back the sense of neighbourly friendliness which Hong Kong has lost."

She became involved when Tsang organized a "mooncake event" where the group gave out 800 mooncakes that had been donated.

Sou adds the importance of buying locally to the project.

"If we buy cans of food from ParknShop and Wellcome, then the meaning is lost. This exercise is actually about bringing awareness. I changed the way I see, and so I changed the way I consume."

Others, like Cyrus Hu Kwok-chum have also learned from joining in the group since last December.

"My eyes were opened," he said, as he became more aware of who would benefit from the money he spent. He also now counted street sleepers, local store and restaurant owners as well as people collecting cardboard among his friends.

As Hu works in a food import and export company, his bosses now donate food and drinks that are close to their sell-by date that cannot be sold to supermarkets.

Hopefully Tsang's group will build momentum and inspire others to start their own neighbourhood groups to help others.

It reminds me of a blog post I wrote earlier about a local resident who was grateful for his landlord's help in supporting him through his hard times.

Because if the government's not going to do it, who will?

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Through Annie's Lens

Steve Martin, Beverly Hills, California (1981)
Steve Martin wears a white tuxedo with black paint strokes all over it as he poses in front of a large painting with the same haphazard black paint strokes.

Lauren Hutton smiles at the camera, revealing her body that is covered in mud.

David Bryne makes an eco fashion statement wearing a jacket made of leaves and trousers that look like wood.

Angelina Jolie is naked in a bath showing off the tattoos on her back and looking at the viewer with her sultry pout.

These are only a tiny fraction of the millions of photographs Annie Leibovitz has taken over her 40-year career and now we in Hong Kong finally get to see them for the first time at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery on Hollywood Road.

Nicole Kidman, New York (2003)
The exhibition revolves around the theme of power in public and private spheres. A good example is two pictures of Nicole Kidman. The first was taken in 1997 when Kidman's career was taking off to stratospheric heights. Wearing a black top and underwear, she poses in a bedroom sitting on the bed, her big blue eyes staring into the camera, with her original red hair. She looks annoyed, uneasy, feeling as if her space is being intruded upon.

But nearby is another portrait taken in 2003, with Kidman extremely polished and glamorous in a beaded full-length gown that flares out with a large train. She is poised and elegant, sure of herself and very blond. 

Leibovitz is our generation's photographer, capturing pop icons and celebrities of our time in interesting poses and situations that enhance their personality. Her portraits are extremely accessible and in many cases groundbreaking such as her Vanity Fair cover of a pregnant Demi Moore posing nude, or Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub filled with milk.

One would think after many decades of hard work she would be slowing down, but she has three young children, including seven-year-old twins. Leibovitz's private life also included a relationship with Susan Sontag that started in the 1980s until the latter's death in 2004.

However Leibovitz made headlines in February 2009 when she revealed she needed to borrow $15.5 million and for collateral put up several houses including rights to all her photographs. At the time The New York Times noted, "One of the world's most successful photographers essentially pawned every snap of the shutter she had made or will make until the loans are paid off."

Angelina Jolie
The fact that she was willing to give up rights to her work showed that despite having lucrative contracts, she did not have a good grasp of financial management and very desperate. Later that year a financial arrangement was settled that still gave her control over the rights of her work.

So basically Leibovitz is still working actively at the age of 62 for financial reasons, but we are glad she is continuing to take photographs for us to enjoy.

Annie Leibovitz
May 10-June 17
Sundaram Tagore Gallery
57-59 Hollywood Road
Central
2581 9678
www.sundaramtagore.com

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Still Demanding Justice Four Years On

I remember feeling woozy at my desk in Beijing exactly four years ago at 2:28pm. I felt like I was drunk, but obviously hadn't had a drop of alcohol.

It took me a few minutes for the strange sensation to dissipate.

About 20 minutes a colleague came by to say there was an earthquake in Sichuan and then that evening we found out it was a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake that killed almost 70,000 lives.

We read about the soldiers rushing to the scene but lacked equipment so they had to dig through the debris with their bare hands.

Originally China was too proud to ask for assistance, and then when overseas expertise were allowed to come, the critical 72-hour period was already over to save more people.

Most of the casualties were children, in schools that were later found to be shoddily built.

Premier Wen Jiabao visited the disaster area and pledged the government would investigate into the "tofu" buildings.

This emboldened parents of the dead students to criticize local officials for corruption, but after a while they were ignored and later detained and even beaten up for demanding justice.

Four years on, no one has taken responsibility for the badly-built schools and no investigation of any kind has been carried out. Obviously the Chinese government, both central and provincial want to claim it was a natural calamity. But how can they say that when buildings next to many of these schools were still standing?

Many parents lost their only child that day. And they are still bitter, and rightly so.

Zhou Xinrong, 47, lost her 15-year-old son Lu Qianliang at Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan four years ago today.

"I am exhausted both physically and emotionally after having taken on the might of the state apparatus for the past four years. But I will persist as long as I am still breathing, even if it means waiting four decades," she said.

She has been detained six times in the past four years, and has even gone to Beijing to try to petition -- but that led to her spending time in a "black jail" and extralegal place by thugs apparently hired by Dujiangyan authorities.

That's because soon after the earthquake, she refused to sign for "condolence money" -- compensation to pay for her son's funeral and employment, but in return they could not criticize the government over the "tofu" buildings.

At first many held out, but due to financial constraints, many eventually caved in and got compensation, but Zhou is one of the few who have held out.

She has found it difficult to move on also because she and her husband were already in their 40s and could not conceive another child again.

When she lost her only hope for the future, it fueled her courage even more to fight the system.

Meanwhile rebuilding in the area hasn't turned out as promised as many homes were quickly built and already show cracks.

Another serious problem is embezzlement. The National Audit Office released a report last month citing officials siphoning off funds earmarked for reconstruction, using money to build extravagant offices for themselves, and rebuild schools having structural problems.

Interestingly the report this year did not release a figure, but the one from last year said 188 million RMB was misused in 36 reconstruction projects.

That's nothing compared to 2010 when it was reported a whopping 5.8 billion RMB was not used properly.

Hmmm perhaps some of that money ended up in Hong Kong, Macau and elsewhere?

Professor Zhu Lijia of the Chinese Academy of Governance, said the incompetence of local authorities and the abuse of reconstruction money fueled public distrust of the government.

"Organized irresponsibility is prevalent throughout the quake relief and reconstruction process, among central and local government agencies. This not only poses grave hazards to social justice and sustainability, but has also further undermined the government's credibility," he said.

Zhu and another Beijing-based political observer Hu Xingdou, also point out Beijing's reluctance to admit glaring inadequacies in rebuilding, especially with regards to the investigation into the shoddily-built schools that Premier Wen had promised to do four years ago.

"It is preposterous to cover up real problems, because stability cannot be achieved at the expense of justice and human lives," Hu said.

If the government really cared about "social harmony" it would have made sure accountability mechanisms were in place to ensure transparency to inspire public confidence.

But instead the party believes reforming the system would uncover even more problems and so it prefers to sweep things under the carpet and hope no one notices as it continues to ingratiate itself in any way possible.

How can "Grandpa" Wen sleep at night, knowing he publicly made a promise to investigate why thousands of school children died and still four years later absolutely nothing has been done?

Friday, 11 May 2012

A Gambler with Values

I often go to Macau for business and tonight got to check out the new Sands Cotai Central.

It's a step up from Galaxy in that it's less gaudy, but not all the shops and the Sheraton have opened yet so there wasn't much window shopping to look at. Which was probably good for the wallet.

The God of Wealth at Sands Cotai Central
The highlight is probably the giant statue of the God of Wealth, standing in front of a giant fountain and garden. Superstitious gamblers probably make a visit to the deity in the hopes of winning big at the tables.

But I met one who didn't do so well.

On the ferry ride back to Hong Kong, I sat next to a well-to-do woman in her 50s who wore a large multiple diamond ring on her left hand with a Rolex on her wrist, and a tennis bracelet on her right. Her hands were manicured and she wore some makeup.

"Oh! What a horrible day. I lost HK$30,000 today," she complained to me.

I was shocked hearing that as that amount is a good chunk of my monthly salary and she gambled it away in one afternoon.

"And the other day I lost HK$20,000. I keep coming to gamble but keep losing." This woman said she'd been gambling for some 20 years, coming very regularly to Macau, so much so she notices other regulars.

"I've seen some couples gamble and then they get into fights over how much they gamble and lose and then divorce or don't come anymore... the problem with me is that I don't mind going by myself."

I asked her why she gambled even though she lost.

For her it was something to do and you never knew if you would win or lose that day.

"I would be happy if I won HK$5,000 or HK$6,000, but then the next day you might lose it all or more," she said. "But those mainland gamblers, they want to raise the stakes even higher so they can win more, but they can lose even more."

She said she was very lucky her husband didn't mind her gambling away her monthly allowance he gave her. Perhaps that explained why she wore expensive jewellery in case she had to pawn them to pay her debts.

Even though she lives in Yuen Long, it seems her husband did a profitable business in manufacturing construction machinery, a progression he made from working in a doll factory in the 1980s.

That's where she met him, in the factory where her job was to put the synthetic hair onto the dolls' heads.

"He made HK$9,000 then which was a good salary and I made HK$6,000 and together HK$15,000 was pretty good," she reminisced.

From there they saved and scrimped, bought a home, had two children who are now in their 20s.

She said she was lucky her children and husband weren't into gambling. She added since her children were working now, she taught them they should at least give HK$1,000 to HK$2,000 per month to her and her husband as "tea money" -- a symbolic token to thank them for raising them.

"If they make HK$10,000 a month, they should give at least HK$1,000 to me. If they make more money, say HK$30,000, then I don't expect them to give me more money because they need to save for their marriage or children.

"My son moved out and has a girlfriend so he asked if he could give me less 'tea money' because he had to pay rent and also treat his girlfriend when they went out," she recalled. "I said no, but if you and your girlfriend live with me you can save more money and I will cook two meals a day for you. But he wouldn't agree."

Periodically she wondered if I was bored listening to her, but I was too curious as to how this woman was motivated to gamble away her money almost everyday.

She even showed me text messages from her husband, saying he knew she was probably in Macau for the day and hoped she had a good day, while he had to go to China for business and would be back the next day.

"Of 100 men in Hong Kong, only 20 are decent," she said. "The bad ones are bad in that they cheat. When they have a mistress then there's emotions there. I tell my husband if he wants to cheat, he should make sure he does it with a different pretty girl every night so he doesn't get emotionally attached."

But she knows her husband isn't having an affair -- or two -- according to her hunch.

"Those girls just want money, or an apartment or a Hong Kong ID card. They really don't love the man," she said, which is probably true in may gold-digging cases.

So the strength of her and her husband's trust in each other has led to mutual respect all these years.

The ferry docked and we got up to leave. But I still couldn't get over her losing so much money in a couple of hours.

Since she had such a bad track record this month, she said she wouldn't go back again until June.

Will she, or won't she?

Only the God of Wealth would know.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Another Definition of Happiness

A year ago Guangdong party chief Wang Yang launched the slogan, "Accelerate the transformation and upgrade, Build Happy Guangdong".

Guangdong party chief Wang Yang
As part of the 12th Five-Year Plan from 2011-2015, The government established a happiness index and urged citizens to see the party as the benefactor and provider of good fortune.

However Wang gave a slightly different take of the ambitious campaign.

Instead he put the onus on people to find their own happiness. Period.

"It is the people's right to pursue happiness and it is the party and the government's responsibility to do good for the people," he told the opening of the province's 11th Communist Party congress yesterday.

"We should eradicate the wrong concept that happiness is a benevolent gift from the party and the government."

This is part of the provincial government's plan to slow growth to 8 percent from the 12.5 percent in recent years and so it felt residents should not chase production numbers but instead "real happiness".

But residents aren't that easily fooled. They criticize the government for not providing enough jobs, social welfare, medical services and housing, which many argue are necessary to be happy.

Wang spins it by saying people should strive for their own happiness. "We should respect the people's initiative and allow the public to boldly explore the road towards happiness."

What does that really mean? If people want to commit evil deeds because it brings them money and money makes them happy, is that OK? Or if people want to protest against the government and speaking out makes them happy, would that be sanctioned? Surely there should be some guidelines or at least some kind of definition of what "happiness" is...

Nevertheless, Wang, who is tipped to be a leading contender for one of the spots in the Politburo's Standing Committee (that Bo aimed for, then magnificently crashed and burned), promised to improve party governance at the grass-roots level within five years. He also added the government would strengthen supervision and audits of party cadres, especially decision makers and launch a reeducation campaign to crackdown on corruption.

We've heard that kind of party speak before...

Professor Hu Xingdou at Beijing University of Technology said "Happy Guangdong" was just an ideal. "Without a constitutional democracy, a 'Happy China' will only be a fable. There are so many other things authorities could do to improve the public's satisfaction, such as protecting civil rights, building a democratic country, fighting corruption, stopping illegal land grabs and reducing taxes.

"Guangdong cadres don't have the ability to build 'Happy Guangdong' without a fundamental change in the political system. That's the matter of the whole country."

Hu took the words right out of my mouth.

However the task of completely reforming the political system is practically impossible without a revolution and that's the last thing Beijing wants. So it just keeps building onto the existing system, creating so many contradictions and bureaucratic layers that it's amazing anything gets done.

Sadly it may take Guangdong people a long time to be truly "happy".

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Fact of the Day: Locusts Go Global

Louis Vuitton's latest ad campaign
Luxury conglomerates LVMH, (Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Dior, Celine, Marc Jacobs, DKNY and Fendi), Richemont (Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, Chloe), and PPR (Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta and Boucheron), can be rest assured business will be good in the next few years.

That's because the consumer and gaming research firm CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets projects the global luxury-goods market will grow 10 percent annually in the next three years thanks to emerging markets like China.

Last year the luxury market grew a record 14 percent to HK$2.5 trillion.

"Mainland Chinese contribute about 33 percent of the sales of some of the brands, which include Gucci and Prada," said Aaron Fischer, head of CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets.

And these emerging market consumers aren't buying at home -- they are going abroad. "That is really an important part," Fischer said.

More than half of the sales in key European cities, New York and Hong Kong were mainland Chinese visitors, he said.

World Luxury Association statistics show that during Chinese New Year, mainlanders spent $7.2 billion overseas, with Europe being the biggest beneficiary attracting 46 percent, while 35 percent was spent in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Another interesting fact is that mainlanders are the biggest group of duty-free shoppers in the world, accounting for 19 percent of total sales, according to the CLSA report entitled Dipped in Gold.

While there are indications of China's economy slowing down, Fischer doesn't think it will dent the luxury purchases by wealthy Chinese consumers.

This means for the most part France's economy will continue to be propped up by mainlanders' penchant for mostly French luxury goods.

And every other shop assistant from Paris to New York, Hong Kong and Macau must learn to speak Putonghua to cater to the market.

Now that's soft power.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Heritage Site Renewal

The new home of the Asia Society on the former army site
When I went to watch the documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, it was shown at the Asia Society's new permanent building, behind the Conrad Hong Kong in Admiralty.

Previously the Asia Society would rent rooms in places like the Hong Kong Club or in hotel venues.

But now it has a place it can call its own.

The reception area is large and very contemporary looking
It is built on what was previously the Explosives Magazine Compound that was built by the British Army in the mid 19th century to prepare and store explosives. It was here that gunpowder was processed, packaged, stored and distributed to defense locations around Hong Kong.

In the beginning of the 20th century it was taken over by the navy, and then was used as storage up until the 1970s when it became a depot. After the 1980s the site was unused until the government gave the building and the site to the Asian Society.

It's taken 10 years to come together and HK$400 million as well as donations, and the end result is a modern-looking space that can be used for exhibitions, lectures and presentations.

Downstairs is a small gift shop and the AMMO Cafe.

The multipurpose function hall has a different view of the city
I like how the Asia Society now has its base, and its location is relatively convenient. Now if only they could do something about the outrageous prices they charge for events... Right now it makes the group more geared towards intellectual elites when it should be opening up itself to invite more people into the fold to enhance their knowledge and understanding of Asian culture, history, politics and economics.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Dazzled by Diamonds

An almost 64-carat diamond ring by Cartier
Hong Kong jewellery Chow Tai Fook isn't waiting for high-end customers -- it's literally bringing bringing them in.

Last week 75 mainland couples and families were invited on a three-day, two-night, all-expenses paid trip, featuring harbour cruises, visiting personal stylists and wine tastings while staying at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong in Wan Chai.

These guests were chosen because they spent at least 1 million RMB ($158,508) last year with Chow Tai Fook and were invited to the jeweller's first auction in Hong Kong.

The high-end jewellery market is very competitive because that's where the money is. Last week Cartier gave a very lavish presentation at the InterContinental Hong Kong where guests wandered in a "garden" setting, looking at baubles with astronomical price tags.

"Our mainland VIPs -- especially in first- and second-tier cities -- like to buy diamonds, said Chow Tai Fook executive director Adrian Cheng Chi-kong. He said the margin for diamond pieces was about three times higher than for gold.

The auction was carried out in Putonghua, where 100 couples attended as well as 25 couples chosen from a list of 55,000 VIPs in Hong Kong.

The highlight of the auction was an 18K white gold diamond and blue sapphire necklace called "the galaxy" that was sold at HK$7.5 million to a buyer from Beijing who was introduced to the jeweller by private bankers in Hong Kong.

Cheng says partnering with private banks helped Chow Tai Fook identify VIP clients. Sounds like a good strategy.

An orchid brooch with a large ruby stone by Cartier
Interestingly he predicted growth was expected to pick up in the second half of the year after the leadership change in China -- in the fall -- as a lot of clients "are still waiting for political sentiment to clear". We are already starting to see China's economy slow down, unless he thinks it's going to be a soft landing...

Chow Tai Fook has over 700,000 clients on the mainland where it has a presence in 320 cities. Cheng said any city with a population over 300,000 is a target. Which means practically every county would be eligible.

Consultants Frost & Sullivan says in its research that China became the second-largest jewellery market in 2010, with retail sales at HK$302 billion, just behind the United States.

In Hong Kong and Macau, mainlanders make up the largest group of customers buying jewellery, with 49 percent settling the bill using China Union Pay (China's version of paying by debit) or in cash in the first half of this financial year.

While gold still accounts for about half of all sales diamonds are how to really win mainland customers, Cheng said.

Another interesting fact -- last year, imports of polished diamonds to China hit $1.29 billion, up 85 percent from 2009, according to the Diamond Administration of China.

Diamonds are China's best friend, so it seems.

However, a friend of mine who is in the jewellery business heard that a high-end jewellery store had two VIP clients, mainland women who put down deposits for very expensive pieces.

Separately they said they would pay the difference in about a week, but then the money never showed up.

When they contacted these clients, one said her husband had gone bankrupt and had no more money, while the other said her better half had gone to jail.

If we start hearing more of these stories then we'll know which way Hong Kong's economy will be going...

Sunday, 6 May 2012

More Silly TV

It's a circus every Sunday night
Hong Kong's TVB channel has yet another entertaining game show on Sunday evenings called Battle of the Senses -- 五覺大戰.

It has a circus theme, though when you are talking about taste, touch, smell, sound and sight it's hard to understand why it's held under a big top.

The prelude has some starlets dressed in skimpy outfits who try to show off their moves in front of the camera, but really they seem more scared than trying to make love with the camera. So why be a wannabe star?

In any event there are two teams of three, two girls and one guy, all in showbiz. They are introduced one by one where they only have a few seconds to see, taste, touch, hear and smell random things they have to identify. Their prize? A giant tael of gold.

One would think a better idea would be for them to donate those to the charity of their choice, but alas we're in Hong Kong where people take what they can get.

The first game is watching a clip where the ringmaster, Chin Ka-lok (錢嘉樂), dressed in a race driver suit takes a pretty girl out for a spin -- literally.

He drives the car in crazy twists and turns while she in the back has to do various tasks. It's all set up as an entertaining gag watching the girls shriek and scream as they try to pour water into a glass, eat cake, do arithmetic or take pictures of themselves.

When it's all over the ringmaster of course is fine, while the girl in the back is either sick to her stomach, or covered in cake and water. How... delightful.

Check out the host and his sidekicks' outfits (centre)
After the clip is shown the contestants have to run to the microphone to answer the question correctly. Previously the female guests wore high heels, but because it's a dangerous sprint, they've now opted to wear sensible flats.

The next game is another set up to elicit laughs from the audience. One of the female contestants enters a pitch dark area where she has to touch three things and identify them. Special cameras allow the audience to see what's going on and most of the time the young women are screaming  "Oh my God!" or "I'm scared!" when they haven't even touched the object yet. How enlightening.

In today's show, some of the items were fresh fish heads, and a kind worm, many of them wriggling around in a bowl. Previously they've had the girls touch a guy with washboard abs for a more titillating effect.

Another game involves sliding food or objects down a table and see how far it goes without falling off, or seeing how many pearls in a milk tea pearl drink you can stuff in your mouth.

Yes it's all very intellectually challenging but for some reason I get sucked into watching it every time I'm near a TV.

Perhaps it's a reflection of how we're too stressed out and don't mind stupid gags to entertain us?

Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Maestro and the Protege

Isaac Stern in Beijing in 1979
Tonight the Asia Society organized an interesting event where it screened the 1980 Oscar-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.

It followed American violinist Stern who visited China for the first time in 1979 and was invited there by the Chinese government. The country was just coming out of the Cultural Revolution and the people were starving for western music.

What was originally supposed to be one recital turned out into more than one formal performance and numerous masterclasses with young Chinese musicians.

He was impressed by their hard work ethic, determination and skill, but they just seemed to play the notes on the page.

By playing on the violin to the students he was able to demonstrate that music is not about imitation or technique, but feeling the music and expressing it through the instrument.

He instructs a girl to sing then to play on the violin
He asked one girl to sing the first few bars of music for him, and at first embarrassed, she does it for him and he then instructs her to play like she sang. Stern said it was about getting the brain and the body to work together to create the music.

In another instance he explained that music was like all the colours we see as well as the ones we cannot see; he also said that every note in the music is intentional, and so when you play, you must make a statement with the music, otherwise what is the point?

This documentary perfectly captured the cultural awakening of the country as he profoundly touched the lives of these young musicians and their teachers -- he encouraged them to express themselves individually -- not as a group, or the same. This was probably a very difficult concept for them to understand, but only then could they really play music.

Another aspect of the film was seeing China over 30 years ago. There were lots of shots of people riding bicycles along Chang'an Avenue in Beijing, farmers walking barefoot as they carried heaps of straw on their shoulders, donkeys pulling carts, people wearing plain Mao suits.

How the country has changed so much in three decades. It was quite amazing to see the the difference.

We also saw how people the audience were constantly fanning themselves; there was no air conditioning to speak of, and perhaps the odd fan blowing hot air around the room.

There was also a sad interview with Tan Shuzhen of the Shanghai Conservatory, who talked about his experiences in the Cultural Revolution. He recalled having to live in a small closet below the stairs with no windows or fresh air and below him was the septic tank where all the toilet waste flowed into. He was only allowed out a few minutes each day and he lived like this for 14 months.

Wang Jian at aged 10
He said some 10 teachers committed suicide because they could not stand the humiliation of being treated like criminals when their crime was having the knowledge of western music.

Nevertheless, towards the end of the movie, there's a scene where Stern and his family visit the conservatory and watch a 10-year-old boy -- who looks more like a seven-year-old -- play the cello.

He is playing intently with feeling, each note resonating with the maestro.

This is Wang Jian, who has since become a famous cellist.

I saw him perform in Beijing in 2008 and wrote about it here.

After viewing the documentary, Wang came up on stage and talked about his life.

He began playing the cello at the age of four, as his father was a cellist. Because his father played well, he was chosen to go to Shanghai to perform for an opera company and the younger Wang joined him at the age of three. His parents were originally from Xian.

"My father gave me a viola and that to me was a cello," he explained with a smile. "Then I used a chopstick as a bow."

"My father wanted me to hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but at the time of the Cultural Revolution, all the recordings were locked away in the library," he said. "So my father said to the Red Guards that he wanted to write a criticism denouncing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but needed to do research on it. So he was allowed to get access to it and that's how I first heard this recording."

His father taught him many life lessons at a young age.

"When I was young I worked very hard," Wang recalled. "My father said if you learn an instrument then you will avoid being sent down to the countryside. So I practiced very hard.

"He also said, 'I have nothing to give to you. I only know how to play the cello.' One time he took me to see a movie about a young child begging in the streets of Shanghai and said that if I didn't learn how to play cello well then I would be like that child begging on the street. So I practiced very hard."

When Stern came to the Shanghai Conservatory, no one knew who he was, not even the teachers. Wang explains that at that time, China was more focused on learning from Russian musicians. So to have an American musician come see them was unusual, though he was told Stern was invited by the Culture Ministry so he must be of some importance.

Wang wiping off his 1622 cello, a gift from the Lam family
At the time Wang has just studied one year at the conservatory which was very difficult to get into. So many children applied that he recalled, "If you didn't have perfect pitch, it didn't matter if you played well, you were not allowed in."

Not knowing who Stern was, Wang didn't focus too much attention on practicing for the maestro, even remembering that he played soccer just before playing for him.

Wang explained that he was always chosen to play for important people who visited the conservatory, so he thought this would be another routine thing.

"But I soon realized how serious this was because there were so many people, so many cameras and lights," he recalled. He mostly remembered Stern's bright orange shirt and "his face was really red."

Wang said at first they didn't film him and then Stern got up and got all angry and soon "they stuck a camera up my nose and they told me to continue playing."

He says for a long time he could not watch the film as he didn't remember himself like that. "He's a little awkward," Wang says of himself. "But then after I saw him as a cute boy." It was this distance that helped Wang see how much he had matured.

"Isaac Stern was very special," he said. "He was very intrusive. If he cared about something you could not run away from him. If he hears a young musician who has 'it', he can't control himself. He was the godfather of music in every sense of the word."

After Stern went back to the United States, he wrote letters to Wang, asking him how he was and even sent him a bow because his had broken.

A Hong Kong-born Chinese-American businessman Lam Sau-wing saw the documentary and was touched by the young boy.

Lam wrote to the Culture Ministry asking if he could sponsor Wang to study in the US. But because he was 12 at the time, he was considered too young. But four years later Lam tried again and succeeded. He promised Wang's parents he would treat the young boy as his own son and gave him a very expensive cello -- more dear that Yo-Yo Ma's instrument.

Wang talking to fans after his mini recital
Wang's cello dates back to 1622 and is from Lam's collection of musical instruments. From there Wang was able to go to the Yale School of Music with Stern's son and periodically the maestro gave him lessons.

It's been an incredible journey for Wang, who is forever indebted to Stern for his endless encouragement.

When asked what he thinks about young musicians today, if they are focused more on technique than playing with their heart, Wang observes that musicians are the product of society and today's society is more comfortable.

"Masterpieces were written in hard times. Maybe people like entertainment than pure art," he said, adding that most classical music was linked to religion which encouraged followers to think of a higher calling.

Wang did agree to a certain extent that many young Asian musicians he sees are technically proficient, but do they really love music? That's another thing altogether.

He definitely sees himself as a pure artist, as he jokingly says he has no clue how to become more commercial.

Just as well -- we need more artists to steer us back to important values, even as simple as music.