Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Continuing the CY Leung Chant

The scene tonight in Admiralty
This morning I woke up early and rushed to take the bus to Sheung Wan and from there to North Point to get my company shuttle bus.

There were still lots of people commuting to Sheung Wan from Western district, but it was much faster getting to the train than yesterday, though people leaving the MTR station were caught in a pretty big jam.

I made it to North Point with minutes to spare before our shuttle bus arrived and within half an hour we arrived to the office.

Many colleagues were dismayed to read on social media that crowds were thinning out in the protest sites, and I said it was crucial to have these areas occupied otherwise the police might take the streets back. However, by lunchtime more people started drifting back; some had gone home for much needed rest, food ad showers, others finishing work shifts and so on.

By late afternoon the crowds had swelled, particularly in Admiralty. It's interesting how the original plan was to occupy Central and yet Admiralty has become the flashpoint instead. Everyone's tactical plans, from Occupy Central organizers to the police had to be thrown out and redrawn for Admiralty.

Leung Chun-ying says Beijing will not back down...
In any event, the biggest news was in the morning when Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying gave a 15-minute speech insisting Beijing's decision was final and he would stay in office.

Now it is confirmed who is really calling the shots...

He said that if he stepped down now, then Hong Kong people would not be allowed to choose the next leader, as universal suffrage wouldn't be implemented until 2017.

But he offered no insight into how the government and police would deal with the protesters, if there would be any kind of dialogue with Occupy Central and student leaders, or if the political reform consultation process would be restarted.

He added that he expected the protests to "last for quite a long period of time".

"They have set up a lot of resource centres and even first aid points, so we know that Occupy Central... is not a matter of days, but it will last for a relatively long time," he says. "Its [impact] on the people's daily lives, their personal safety in the event of emergencies, the city's economic development, as well as the cost on international image will also grow bigger and bigger. I hope we can think about these issues," he said.

A yellow addition to Admiralty station
It was the Hong Kong government that created the terrible images of firing teargas at non-violent protesters. As for setting up first aid stations, that is a given, no? It shows young people are thinking of all kinds of issues, not just the protest. They are definitely one up on the government in considering everything that may be needed.

On universal suffrage, Leung insisted candidates had to be put forward by the nominating committee, saying Hong Kong must follow the Basic Law -- a well-worn phrase -- and that people need to think rationally and peacefully.

Everyone has thought this through -- it's not like the issue of universal suffrage just popped up in the last few days. We have been thinking about this for YEARS and are tired of Beijing constantly changing the goal posts.

That is why we are protesting! And if Leung doesn't understand that, then he doesn't understand his own people. Or perhaps he's just a robot following what Beijing is telling him what to say...

Needless to say the protesters were not impressed and continued their chants of "Leung Chun-ying step down!"

I've seen many people post pictures on social media of signs they have seen in the protest sites and they are so heartwarming to see. There are also many acts of kindness -- handing out bread and drinks, collecting garbage, and offering people to come to recharge their phones and such.

Many also admit they underestimated their own people and are so proud of them for being so brave and defiant, yet also polite and resourceful. The "Lion Rock Spirit" has not faded!

There were thunderstorms this evening just before 8pm and protesters just pulled out their umbrellas and stood in the rain. Obviously this was nothing compared to teargas.

Looking over Queensway in Admiralty
Speaking of which -- there are now stories in the media quoting police officers who wish not to be named, complaining they are being verbally abused wherever they go and it is mentally tough on them.

But as a friend pointed out -- that is nothing compared to having teargas and pepper spray hitting your face.

Nevertheless, some police officers and protesters have initiated dialogue and so there is less tension. However, some protesters warn not to be too friendly with them.

Meanwhile there are concerns the impromptu occupation of Mongkok may not all be legitimate, as not everyone there may have intentions of pushing for democracy, but perhaps stirring trouble.

Some worry there may be some black elements infiltrating the protesters and may use the protest to create an incident. Occupy Central's Chan Kin-man warned people to be on the lookout for anything suspicious.

There was also a lot of talk of the grey Mercedes that allegedly sped through the protest zone in Mongkok, causing people to try to scatter as fast as possible without being hit.

South Asians protesting too in Central
Thanks to the power of the internet, people were able to quickly track down the owner of the car and he was soon arrested. He claimed he did nothing wrong, and as a taxpayer he is entitled to drive the streets and didn't hit anyone... right...

Through more digging thanks to the internet, it was discovered he has entertainment links from decades ago and may have some triad connections...

In any event, after dinner tonight at PMQ, my friend and I wandered back to Central to see what was happening. The crowd was smaller than last night and very fluid, with people constantly coming and going.

At one point there was a loud chant with South Asians marching and carrying signs, shouting, "Leung Chun-ying step down!" in Cantonese. Who says Hong Kong isn't inclusive?


Monday, 29 September 2014

Occupying Hong Kong for Another Day

A relaxed atmosphere in Central tonight where tear gas was used last night
This morning I woke up to find that main thoroughfares in Central, Admiralty, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay and Mongkok were still blocked by protesters. I was amazed and proud. They had slept on the asphalt all night! And police were slumped off to one side as well...

My company bus was probably not going to be able to take us to work through the usual route, and buses from Kennedy Town that usually go to Causeway Bay and North Point were only going as far as Sheung Wan.

Tons of people in the Sheung Wan MTR station this morning
I caught a bus and it was soon full of passengers. It seemed like the usual commute for most people except that we all had to get off at Wing On department store. And then entering Sheung Wan MTR station, it was packed with people inching towards the turnstiles.

What was even more amazing was that no one complained, everyone just slowly made their way and after we crossed the turnstiles and walked down the stairs, it was pretty much normal in terms of capacity.

Central was pretty quiet, with less volume for rush hour than usual. I made my way all the way to Taipo with not much difficulty.

But once I got to work -- I and everyone else -- were all glued to Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to follow what was going on. It was so hard to concentrate on getting work done and at lunchtime, all we talked about were the protesters and how the Hong Kong government and Beijing completely miscalculated the situation.

Television footage showed more people showing up at the main protest areas, particularly Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok despite the heat. They even erected an awning in Mongkok to create some shade from the sun.

Just before lunchtime the Hong Kong government announced that anti-riot police were withdrawing in the hopes it would encourage protesters to disperse.

They did not.

Assistant Commissioner Cheung Tak-keung
Then the Hong Kong Police held a press conference around 3pm and Assistant Commissioner Cheung Tak-keung stated they had used minimum force on the protesters.

When asked to justify the use of tear gas, Cheung explained there were rules the police followed, and said there were some protesters who were "violent". When a reporter asked to name who gave the order, Cheung didn't answer.

"After repeated warnings, police used the minimum force in order to maintain a distance between the protesters and the police so that the injuries will be prevented," Cheung said. "We used pepper spray, the situation is [was] not improved, so that's why we used the tear gas."

He added, "In fact the tear gas did not cause the injury to people; people might feel irritated, not comfortable, so that they might cease their violent behaviour charging the police cordon."

Another reporter asked that with Mongkok full of protesters, why was there hardly any police presence there... was it because they were short of manpower? Cheung did not answer.

Protesters all over Chater Road in Central and beyond
During the press conference it was stated tear gas was used 87 "times" in nine locations, but there was no word on exactly how many canisters were used.

Then a long list was read out on which roads were affected... this was probably a way to try to make people irritated that they were being inconvenienced. But commuters didn't seem to care -- in fact many during lunch time came by the protest sites and dropped off food, water and supplies to show their support.

Around 5pm it was announced the Hong Kong Government would cancel the National Day fireworks on Wednesday. Another triumph for the Occupy movement.

In view of the latest situation, it is anticipated that main access roads leading to hot spots for viewing the fireworks display may continue to be seriously affected. Having regard to public transport arrangements and public safety considerations, the National Day Fireworks Display originally scheduled at Victoria Harbour on October 1 (Wednesday) at 8pm will be cancelled.

Surely people across the border must be wondering what is going on in Hong Kong since anything about Occupy Central has been blocked or heavily censored.

Tonight I had a quick dinner with friends at the foot of Lan Kwai Fong, where it was pretty quiet and no cars on the roads. Afterwards we walked towards Chater Road which was fully occupied by black-clad protesters. They were just hanging out on the full length of the street and probably beyond into Admiralty. It was quite an impressive sight.

What is going to happen next? That is what is on everyone's minds. Some worry Beijing could take a very hardline and repeat what happened in Tiananmen 25 years ago.

Would they really do that? But some people are also concerned that if someone does die during the protests, then what? Is it worth it?

It is something to worry about, but for the time being, there's a party atmosphere at the protest sites, knowing the police aren't there to do battle with them. We shall see what tomorrow brings.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Hong Kong's Saddest Day

A banner at Admiralty that reads: "Hong Kong will save itself"
This is the saddest day for Hong Kong.

People trying to get across to Tamar
Why did it have to come to this?

After several dozen students were cordoned off at Central Government Offices, Occupy Central leader Benny Tai Yiu-ting unexpectedly called for "the banquet" to begin on Sunday at 1.45am.

Most people woke up to the news this morning and headed over to Tamar to lend their support to the students.

But when they got there, the police had already barricaded the overpass to the area and did not allow anyone to go through.

I arrived around 2.45pm and found lots of people all over Admiralty, the closest MTR station to Tamar. What was even more bizarre was seeing people shopping, eating and watching movies at Pacific Place.

Spreading out all over Queensway
Nevertheless I pressed on to Admiralty Centre, where people were blocked from getting onto the overpass to Tamar. It wasn't a particularly tense atmosphere, with volunteers handing out surgical masks, plastic wrap to prepare for pepper spray and pamphlets.

When I got there, I couldn't help but feel emotional. Did it really have to come to this? My home is under seige. Why were we not allowed to go to the protest area to be with the students?

People made the occasional chants for the police to "open the road" and for Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to step down, and "protect the students", but they were on the whole short spurts.

At one point a large banner was unfurled on a walkway above us: "自己香港自己救" or "Hong Kong [has to] save itself" to much cheers and became a new chant.

People right by the PLA barracks (right)
It was then announced around 3.30pm on a bullhorn that Leung was making a statement.

Along with his key personnel, Leung promptly declared the protest "illegal" and that elections would go ahead as planned.

By then my friend YTSL met up with me and since she hadn't had lunch yet and so we left the protest area to grab a bite to eat in Pacific Place.

While we were having the late lunch, I kept checking Twitter and received tweets that pepper spray was used in the area we were in.

Afterwards we went back to the protest area to see people all over the roads, taking over Queensway and Harcourt Road. We saw two young people take flimsy barricades and put them over the tram lines.

As YTSL and I concluded, it was a surreal sight -- this was not the Hong Kong we used to know.

Occupying one of the main thoroughfares of Admiralty
After taking a few pictures we decided to leave the area via MTR and just as well -- at 6pm the police started firing tear gas into the crowd.

How does the police justify using tear gas on protestors who have done nothing except call for being allowed to go to Tamar to support the students? Sure they pushed against the police barricades, but that's all. It's the police that have instigated using pepper spray and then tear gas.

Hong Kong protestors are some of the most civilized in the world -- they are patient, pick up garbage and recycle, and when ambulances and fire trucks need to pass, they let them through.

Did they torch any of the police vans parked on the streets? Did they throw any Molotov cocktails? Did they punch a police officer?

Preparing for tear gas with water barrels
So why did they deserve tear gas -- several times?

They would be sprayed and then they would flee the immediate area. But soon afterwards they would regroup again in the same area. And because they saw tear gas being used, MORE people came out into the streets to show their anger against the government and support for the protestors.

Tonight Admiralty is in complete chaos, and so is Central and Wan Chai and now there is word that Nathan Road in Kowloon is being occupied.

If the police had let protestors into the Tamar site earlier...

Bad calculations on the part of the Leung administration. They seem to have no idea how angry people are with him and how they have not stood up for Hong Kong at all during the electoral reform process.

More police out in force at the Central Ferry Piers
What will happen tomorrow is anyone's guess, but come October 1, there will probably even more people out to voice their frustration at the Hong Kong government and Beijing.

Hong Kong people 1, Leung administration and Beijing 0.





Saturday, 27 September 2014

Breaking News -- Occupy Central Starts Now

Occupy Central leader Benny Tai Yiu-ting has changed his mind and has announced that Occupy Central starts now.

There are two demands:

1. Beijing must withdraw its decision on Hong Kong electoral reforms;

2. Restart the electoral reform process.

More Support and More Arrests

Scholarism's Joshua Wong Chi-fung arrested by police last night
Things are still tense for a second night at the Central Government Offices at Tamar.

Last night students stormed into Civic Square by forcing the gate open or jumping over the security barriers. And then Scholarism leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung was arrested last night and held without bail.

The police are probably hoping that if the ring leader is arrested, the body is without the head, but today the Occupy Central founders arrived at Tamar to keep the momentum going.

Benny Tai Yiu-ting says that the Occupy Central movement won't start earlier, but on October 1 as planned.

Tai and fellow Occupy Central founder Dr Chan Kin-man did not think the students storming Civic Square meant there were differences between the Scholarism and Occupy group.

Police cordon off student protestors inside Civic Square
"No it is not [a split]. The students wanted to take a step ahead of us. It is like we are complementing and supporting each other," Chan said.

Today many adults joined the students, including the elderly.

Meanwhile 61 protestors were arrested Saturday afternoon, including two members of the Federation of Students, while 34 people were sent to hospital for a range of injuries. A doctor attending to people on site said many of the cases were heat stroke and low glucose levels.

A letter signed by 23 pan-democrats that was read out by Civic Party leader Alan Leong, is calling for the police to release the student protestors as soon as possible.

"Regarding the students' action yesterday night, they only wanted to get inside Hong Kong people's Civic Square. It was nothing violent. We urged the police to release all the arrested students, and open Civic Square. Give the public back the public square so they can gather and demonstrate," the statement reads.

Those who signed it include Leong, Labour Party chairman Lee Cheuk-yan and Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau.

However, the police will probably not release them anytime soon -- perhaps try to keep them locked up past October 1 if possible...

There will probably be more people descending on the square tomorrow, and then only two more days before the National Day holiday... it will be very telling to see how many people do show up on October 1, and how the authorities will react...

Friday, 26 September 2014

Support and Tensions Rising in HK

Student protestors hung out at Tamar again for another night...
In the last few days, people have been posting their student pictures on Facebook and now I know why -- they are showing their solidarity with the student protestors, now out occupying the Central Government Offices at Tamar.

While friends and colleagues can't be out with the secondary and university students demanding universal suffrage, they are trying to show their support virtually.

Today there were some 1,200 secondary students who joined the fifth day of boycotting classes, which is far more than what Scholarism organizers led by Joshua Wong Chi-fung had expected.

"We originally thought only 100 students would join the strike. The turnout is 15 times our estimate and is complete out of our expectation," said the group's spokesman Agnes Chow Ting. "[The turnout] reflects there's a need to reform the [political] system... the government should listen to public opinion."

Secondary students had been warned to get permission from their schools and parents before being able to attend the sit-in. While some did get permission from both, or were even accompanied by a mother or father, some defied both to listen to speeches about democracy and civil disobedience.

Ho Ho-yin is a Form Five student in Ng Yuk Secondary School in Sha Tin, who joined the boycott with six classmates.

"The central and local governments have completely ignored Hong Kong people's voice, so I believe a stronger action, like a class boycott, could prompt the officials to listen to us," he said.

A woman named Mrs Lam who accompanied her Form Five daughter to the rally said: "I support the students to boycott classes if they have the ability and independent thinking to understand what's going on," she said. "The government has faked Hong Kong people over political reform and I do not think the reform proposal could still be amended in the future."

Students storming Civic Square tonight
The latest development now (11.30pm local time) is that some students have managed to break into Civic Square, the forecourt outside Central Government Offices. Some forced their way through a gate, while others climbed over the security fences -- catching the police off guard.

As they stormed the gate, the students shouted, "Open the gates!" What followed were chaotic scenes and police finally managed to secure the square with a few dozen students still inside.

There are reports that Scholarism's Joshua Wong has been arrested, along with three others, and there are unconfirmed reports that pepper spray was used.

At least three people were injured and attended to by paramedics...

It's going to be a long night...

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Dichotomy of Hong Kong

Students occupying the park near the Central Government Offices
Hong Kong students are into their fourth day of protesting and tonight they marched from the Central Government offices at Tamar to Government House, demanding that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying speak to them.

They have been demanding that he speak to them for several days now, and he has avoided any kind of appearance.

As a result the students are angered and yesterday some threatened to "arrest" him.

While they can't make a citizen's arrest, using that kind of language scares some people who want nothing to do with Occupy Central, which seems to be going ahead next Wednesday.

One of the people who told me about the students wanting to "arrest" Leung was a man in his 30s with two young sons I had lunch with, along with a woman who is a professional.

He said that the atmosphere now is like the 1964 riots, where at first the movement seemed benign, but could escalate into something violent. The man said he was worried about the students, saying they were naive and didn't seem to know what they were getting themselves into.

Meanwhile, the woman didn't care much for the movement except that it disrupted deliveries to her office on the east side of Hong Kong island...

The topic quickly moved to emigration, and she asked the man if he was considering leaving Hong Kong.

He said he is, and wondering where to go, though the sacrifice is for his children, not himself. We didn't get into where he was considering going to as the topic changed, but it made me realize there really are at least one in five people in Hong Kong considering leaving the city with what is happening now.

This guy also used to work in the telecom business, though he didn't say which company. He said China Mobile has aggressively moved into the Hong Kong market with much lower subscription fees. And then with the sale of cheap phones like Xiaomi, even more people were lured in to sign up with China Mobile.

And the this state telecommunications carrier combined with PCCW-HKT owned by Richard Li Tzar-kai, son of Li Ka-shing who are pro-Beijing, according to this young father, these two telecom providers have the vast majority of the market, where people do lots of texting and calling.

He says there will come a time when you may not be able to get onto Facebook anymore or other social media, so where are you going to turn to -- texting. And that will be monitored by China.

"It's scary isn't it?" he asked.

Frightening more like it. But then again it's all part of the mainlandization of Hong Kong. Should we be surprised?

On the one hand the city is still moving ahead as if nothing is happening -- celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was here opening his first restaurant in Hong Kong, Bread Street Kitchen, and then other students are protesting for a greater say in how they choose the city's next leader in 2017.

The dichotomy is so bizarre really -- some people going to work day in, day out -- while others are mobilizing to prepare for Occupy Central.

Things are definitely going to be interesting in the next few days, with the "banquet" less than a week away...


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

London More Expensive than HK?

Somehow London has overtaken Hong Kong as the most expensive place...
According to real estate firm Savills, London is now more expensive to live in than Hong Kong.

How could that possibly be?

Real estate costs per employee to rent residential and office space in London are $121,000 a year, while Hong Kong is not far behind at $115,717, and New York at $107,782.

"I don't think it's desirable necessarily to be the most expensive city to occupy, but on the other hand, you probably wouldn't be the most expensive city if you weren't also the most desirable," commented Yolande Barnes, director of world research at Savills.

Property prices in Britain have risen 18.4 percent in the past year, Savills said, and office rents have climbed sharply.

Meanwhile the report says Hong Kong is seeing residential rents falling as well as a weakening currency that resulted in the city losing the top spot for the past five years.

"Prime residential values have been hit hardest as cooling measures take effect, while rents are sliding due to weakening demand from the corporate sector," the report said. "In office markets, finance-focused Hong Kong has suffered as firms downsize and consolidate."

While rents fell in Hong Kong in the first quarter this year, they have since picked up, with average rents at 50 major housing estates hitting a record high in August, says Ricacorp Properties.

Nevertheless, Hong Kong is still the most expensive city to buy residential property, which is priced 40 percent higher than London.

Just yesterday a friend told me that her colleague, a young man in his early 30s with his wife had to pay six months' rent (at HK$15,000 a month) in advance in order to lease a flat in Tuen Mun. Tuen Mun! Not Mid-Levels, but out in the New Territories.

He was told that if he didn't have the money up front, the flat would be rented to someone else.

So the young couple somehow cobbled together HK$90,000 cash so that they could have a roof over their heads. The young man is only a contract worker, and I'm assuming his wife has a permanent job. How did they pay tax on top of that?, I asked. My friend said it's better to have somewhere to live first, then worry about tax later...

She has a point.

But six months' rent in advance in Tuen Mun?

Perhaps Savills should revise its report again... while property prices for luxury flats may be coming down, it's a really tight financial squeeze for the middle class who are just trying to get by...

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Silencing a Uighur Moderate

Uighur professor and activist Ilham Tohti during his trial
We were kind of expecting jail time for Uighur academic and activist Ilham Tohti, but not life in prison for separatism charges. This makes him a worse criminal than Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

How can that be?

What has the 44-year-old Tohti done except try to take the more moderate path, trying to promote dialogue between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese; instead the economics professor, who speaks both Uighur and Putonghua, is lumped in with extremists who have committed violent acts.

The verdict today after the two-day trial last week resulted in condemnation by countries outside of China and human rights groups.

"I'm innocent, I protest," Tohti shouted to the court before the judge ordered police to drag him out of the courthouse, according to Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping.

Tohti's wife, Guzaili Nu'er, who saw her husband for the first time in eight months, cried out loud in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. The judge also ruled all of Tohti's property and money be confiscated.

"This is totally unacceptable," Li said. "He will appeal. Based on the wording of the verdict, this case is extremely politicized."

"It's very shocking, much harsher than anybody expected," said Maya Wang of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "It's quite unprecedented for someone who is so prominent."

In a statement, the European Union condemned the sentence, calling it "completely unjustified".

If China follows rule of law, then what evidence did the prosecution have to prove Tohti is a terrorist, or that he orchestrated extremists to conduct terrorist activities?

He denied being associated with any terrorist organizations, or even advocated independence for Uighurs. If one examines his writings, interviews and lectures, he has only tried to promote understanding between Han Chinese and Uighurs, and is proud to be Chinese, adding that Uighurs should stay in China.

But perhaps in this case being too moderate is not even tolerated.

"The tragedy of Ilham shows that solving a problem through peaceful means is impossible in China," said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uighur Congress in an email statement.

Prosecutors had claimed Tohti had promoted independence of Xinjiang through a website he managed called Uighurbiz.net. Xinhua added Tohti had "bewitched and coerced young ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate". The official news agency added, "He colluded with foreign groups and individuals in hyping incidents related to Xinjiang with the aim of making domestic issues international".

Again we ask -- where is the evidence? In his defense, Tohti testified he established the website to promote dialogue between scholars and he had publicly opposed separatism and violence. He also said statements made against him by student volunteers who had worked on the website were made under pressure from the authorities.

"It signifies that China is taking a hardline stance towards any Uighur moderates trying to put forward solutions that differ from the party's approach," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

One wonders how Tohti's family will move forward, a daughter studying in the United States -- who will probably have to live in exile -- and the rest of the family in Xinjiang with no financial resources.

This is how the Chinese government destroys people it believes are opponents to the state; it shows the authorities' paranoia over any kind of dissent -- no matter how rational it is.

Tohti was the one moderate and pragmatic voice for Uighurs. How will this ethnic minority in China carry on now? Who is going to speak for them? They are being further isolated and repressed.

This will only lead to increased terrorist attacks that will be more violent, and then that will give Beijing more ammunition to further clamp down on Uighurs.

It's a never-ending cycle that Tohti was hoping to break. And now that hope is gone.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Political Gulf Widens

Secondary and university students descended on the campus of CUHK today
Some 13,000 secondary and university students cut classes today to protest Beijing's decision to restrict electoral reforms for 2017. They gathered at Chinese University of Hong Kong wearing white T-shirts and yellow ribbons symbolizing their push for democracy.

They plan to strike for a week in the lead up to Occupy Central on October 1, by gathering at government offices at Tamar these few days.

"The student strike will mark the turning point of the democratic movement," said Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, to the crowd at the university campus. "We will not have illusions in the government anymore, but we'll have faith in ourselves. We are willing to pay the price for democracy."

The strikers are angry the Central government has decided candidates running for chief executive in 2017 onwards must have at least 50 percent of the votes from the nominating committee which is pro-Beijing.

Lee Shau-kee doesn't want Occupy Central to ruin Hong Kong
Despite negotiations, the Chinese government has refused to budge, and in fact become even more stringent than the requirements for the 2012 election.

"Preselected candidates by a controlled nominating committee can only represent vested interests, but not the general public," Chow said, urging the Hong Kong government to push for public nominations and reform the legislature.

"If we hear nothing from them, the students, the people, will definitely upgrade the movement to another level," he said.

The students are not alone -- about 380 academics and teaching support staff have signed a petition supporting their pupils, saying "Don't let the striking students stand alone".

"As teachers and as citizens, we are pained and outraged to see the advancement of democracy in Hong Kong stifled and suppressed," said their statement. "Our hope in Hong Kong's future lies in the passion and spirit shown by our young people and their willingness to take up the mantle in the fight for democracy and social justice.

"Yet while the students are pure of heart, they have recently become subject to unreasonable smears and attacks. We appeal to all sectors of society... do not let them stand alone to face the white terror," meaning political suppression.

The strike today coincides with 70 Hong Kong tycoons -- do we really have that many? -- to Beijing for an audience with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The contingent includes Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-kee, Henry Cheng Kar-shun, Peter Woo Kwong-ching, Pansy Ho Chiu-king and Michael Kadoorie.

As usual they were predictable in their words of warning, saying Occupy Central would have a "negative impact" on the city.

"Hong Kong is a financial centre, and if the main financial district is messed up, then Hong Kong will be ruined," property developer Lee said.

As one can see from his statement, these billionaires aren't interested in universal suffrage, or Hong Kong people becoming more political active. All they seem to care about is making more and more money, and any rocking of the boat would ruin their quiet time counting all their riches...

It seems the tycoons try to act like spokespeople, or interpreters for the Chinese government, but it's not working anymore. It's obvious they are living in a parallel universe that has no connection with the lives of the average citizens in Hong Kong.

Which is why there will not be much bridging the gap between China and Hong Kong when the tycoons are siding with Beijing and hardly sympathetic with what the students (and some members of the general public) are striving for.

And so Occupy Central will probably go ahead as planned...

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Tuscan Trails: Parting Thoughts

Montecatini's City Hall, where the mayor's office is on the second floor
Soon it was the end of our seven-day tour of Tuscany, and on the last evening together we shared email addresses and took pictures with new friends.

In total there were 31 people in our tour group, seven of us from Canada (and Hong Kong), the rest from the United States, mostly from New Jersey...!

Verdi resided here in the summers (balcony)
Two other women from the US were also Chinese, originally from Shanghai. On the first day they started chatting with us and soon were adopted them into our little sub group.

We had one evening free in Montecatini, the small town we were staying at, and following the recommendation of one of our tour members, we tried to find the restaurant he said had very good pasta.

After strolling a few blocks we found the place, which had a large outdoor area in the front, and indoor area in the back. We approached the restaurant, and immediately I could sense the staff tensing up, seeing such a large group of Asian people tromping up to their entrance.

I asked for a table for nine inside (as there were smokers outside), and they pointed to two tables, one for five people, another for four. At first we agreed, but then asked if the tables could be put together.

There was a flat "no" and so we started walking out. They made a last-ditch attempt to suggest we eat outside where there was one long table, but I said there were smokers. It was too late for them to remedy the situation. Granted the space inside was a bit hard to fit nine people, but they could have tried.

Prawns with vegetables
So we continued on in our quest to find a restaurant.

We wandered into the area where the hotels are cheaper, mostly pensiones, and many had seats out front for guests to sit and chat amongst themselves.

One of the hotels we stopped at had a restaurant attached to it, looked like a fine-dining place, and it was still early so it was empty. I walked in and saw the head waiter put his jacket on and straighten it stiffly, while the other staff stared at us. It didn't seem like a good sign.

I asked if they were open and immediately he replied they were all full for the evening.

Right.

This is a town of 20,000 residents, has 200 hotels and as our tour guide told us, has 100,000 visitors during the tourist season.

A very hearty pappardelle with duck ragout
None of us in our group said the R-word, but it was definitely on our minds.

After walking a bit longer, we got tired, and hungry. We finally settled on another hotel restaurant in the same area, and this time a young woman warmly welcomed us to the empty dining area that was also part of the lobby. Nine people was no problem and she quickly put tables together.

We made it easier for her to do separate bills by sitting with our respective families, and she was very friendly, smiling and laughing with us. Although she made a few mistakes with our orders, no one minded -- we were just pleased to have a friendly server.

In the end the food wasn't amazing, but we had a good time and generously tipped the young woman who was overwhelmed by our gratitude. She had no idea what we had been through earlier.

On the whole though, the people we met on the trip were friendly and nice. It made us wonder if they knew the difference between people from China and Chinese people from elsewhere.

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently warned his fellow citizens to behave themselves when traveling abroad. One wonders what they have done in Montecatini to result in us getting strange looks?

Nevertheless, I will not forget the fantastic Tuscan scenery, from the hillsides covered in olive trees and grape vines, to the picturesque coastal scenes in Cinque Terre, but in particular the fresh food! That is something even the best Italian chefs can't replicate in Hong Kong! Take me back!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Idyllic Day by the Sea

What is there not to like about this view looking down at Monterosso?
We woke up very early to take our tour bus to La Spezia, a military base by the Mediterranean on the way to Cinque Terre, both in the next door region of Liguria. Not only is it Italy's second-largest naval base, but also produces munitions and is a port of call for small cruise ships.

You might also see Giorgio Armani's yacht moored here, but we were there over a week before Fashion Week so he was probably busy putting his latest collection together...

The hills are terraced by farmers, with the houses down below
This area of Italy on the northwestern coast (the top of the boot) was part of the French empire under Napoleon, and he already had plans to make La Spezia his biggest naval base. But two years later he was defeated by the English. Nevertheless, the Italians took his idea and made it a reality.

There's a panoramic drive from La Spezia to Cinque Terre, known as "The Five Lands" or villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has literary connections, as writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, DH Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway spent time in this area.

Geographically, the hills are very steep, and for centuries farmers have terraced these slopes by hand, without the help of animals. As a result people in this area are not very well off. It was only about 15 years ago when the area became a tourist site and about 60 percent of visitors are hikers. These are also very small towns with a total of 5,000 inhabitants.

More beautiful blue skies and waters to the train station
The houses by the sea are perched on the slopes too and tend to be built right next to each other to act as a defense wall against pirates. Houses also had back doors to escape quickly through the maze of streets.

Originally the houses were the same colour to blend into the natural environment, but these days new owners can express themselves by choosing from their palette. Apparently the going price for a flat here these days is about 8,000 euros per square metre...

It's nice to walk along the small streets -- which involves going up and down inclines, or up several steps to be rewarded with stunning views of sparkling clear waters down below. It was amazing to see how blue the water was!

Seafood spaghetti with clams, mussels and shrimp
However it's also hard to believe that on October 25, 2011 there was a terrible landslide in Monterosso. It was a dry hot day, and then suddenly there was torrential rain for hours, and at the same time one-third of the mountain above collapsed and slid down to the town.

There was a river of water that was one floor deep and cars had to be fished out of the water. Some buildings by the water still show the damage from that day. Residents were evacuated to other towns and it took less than a year to clean up the village. One of the churches displayed pictures showing the damage to the place, and those photographs are the only reminder of the disaster.

By the time we arrived in Monterosso, we were starving and had to eat! Our guide suggested we had to eat seafood, so spaghetti with mussels, shrimp and clams, or pasta with pesto sauce, which originates from Cinque Terre. We were also encouraged to order anchovies, which are from here too.

A memorable salad -- those ripe tasty tomatoes!
And yes the food was delicious! The spaghetti soaked up the bisque flavour of the sauce, and even better with rice. The salad was also fantastic too -- the tomatoes were so ripe, and the lettuce crunchy and fresh... not something one can easily find in Hong Kong...

The anchovy salad turned out to be several anchovy fillets with toast, but they were still delicious despite being on the salty side.

Technically you can walk from one village to another, though the stretch to Corniglia is closed -- according to our guide there isn't much to see there -- but another way to get around is by ferry. It's fun being out on the water, and being someone who loves being by the water, Cinque Terre is a great place to wander and hang out by the sea and chill out.
Love the jewel tones of the water below...

That said I would probably go stir crazy here after staying a day or two. But I can't get enough of the beautiful shades of aquamarine by my feet.




Friday, 19 September 2014

Tuscan Trails: Cooking, Dining and Wining

Some ripe sangiovese grapes on the vine waiting to be harvested
After our short visit to Pisa, we were taken to a Tuscan farm that grows grapes for wines, olives for olive oil and also makes balsamic vinegar.

It's called Fattoria il Poggio and it's definitely set up for tourists to visit, sample the food with wine and hopefully they'll purchase some of the above food products, as well as dried porcini mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, honey, and even the farm's own cookbook to take home.

Freshly made crostini with mushrooms that was delicious
Apparently this farm hosts some 5,000 visitors a week and with some guests taking tins of olive oil and bottles of wine back home, surely this is a profitable business...

But before we could sip the wine and dig into some rustic dishes, we first had a cooking demonstration of how to make basic Bolognese sauce by one of the chefs there, a female chef who didn't speak English, but had a translator.

She chopped up a carrot, celery, half an onion, half a garlic clove, and then sauteed them in a pan with salt and pepper. Of course olive oil was used -- and she used a lot. We all gasped when she didn't stop pouring...

Playing with our dough to make all kinds of pasta
After about 10 minutes you add ground beef, and when the meat is dry, then take the pan off the heat to add some dry white wine. If you use red wine, it changes the colour of the sauce, and dry is preferred, and no sparkling wine.

Put the pan back on the heat and let the alcohol evaporate which will take another 10 minutes before adding tomatoes. Of course fresh, ripe tomatoes are preferred but canned ones are fine (depending on what kind of texture you want, it can be diced or pureed).

At this point add herbs and spices and then let it simmer for two hours. Intermittently add water, but best to add as little as possible to retain the flavour.

The real pasta of pappardelle with bolognese sauce
If making risotto, use olive oil to saute garlic and vegetables, like porcini, and then add rice and water. The general rule is one handful of rice per person. Then keep stirring and adding water. We asked about using chicken stock, but the chef said no, because the chicken flavour overpowers the other flavours, which contradicts what many other chefs have told me previously...

In any event, she also showed us how to make crostini out of leftover bread. Slice up some mushrooms and garlic and then saute them with olive oil, sage or parsley and then add salt and pepper. Then spoon it onto the bread.

Another is to chop up fresh tomatoes and mix them together with basil, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper and olive oil and then spoon this concoction on top of bread slices. Yum.

A pretty good red wine...
Following the demonstration, we were instructed to get up from our seats and do some work. We were already wearing aprons and on the table in front of each of us was a bowl with some flour and a raw egg in it.

We were told to break the egg and then mix it into the flour with a fork. Once it was mixed well, we could start kneading it on the table, adding more and more flour to it. And then we were instructed to roll it out as thinly as possible. Some of ours came out great, others had to be rescued by the chef, who quickly added more flour and water to fix the dough.

Once it was rolled out, we could create pasta, by cutting thick lines to make pappardelle, or cut a rectangular shape, stuff something in the middle, fold it in half and then use the ridged cutter to make ravioli. The same concept could be used to make half moon dumplings too called agnolotti. Also using the ridge cut to make farfalle or bow-tie pasta, and tortellini, similar to wontons.

The best white of the evening...
After we cleaned ourselves of flour and washed our hands, we had a tour of the vineyards and olive groves. For olives, they were picked by hand -- shaking the tree apparently affects the roots and is not good. The olives are harvested and then put in a machine where everything is crushed -- including the seeds. This first pressing is the cold press, and is considered the best extra virgin olive oil. This means no chemicals were used to extract it.

Fattoria il Poggio then sells this left over crushed olives to olive oil producers, will further extract oil from it using chemicals and so it may still be called virgin olive oil but not extra virgin, nor cold pressed.

A word of advice -- never eat olives straight from the tree -- apparently it's a taste you will never forget. The olives have to be put in brine before they are edible!

The farm also makes wine from sangiovese and trebbiano toscano grapes. We tried some of the latter straight from the vine, and they were very sweet, hence they were busy harvesting the grapes when we were there.

Martha the dog gets a lot of attention from visitors
Our dinner was held in the "cellar", which was probably a barn on the ground floor that was remodelled to look like a cellar with barrels hung from the walls. After a meal of cold cuts, followed by pappardelle with bolognaise sauce, and then grilled chicken and beef. Lots of wine was drunk and impromptu toasts made. Following the meal some people got into the dance groove with music playing outside and no one else for miles around.

Also, the farm's relatively new mascot, a six-month old shepherd dog named Martha was too cute to pass up for a pat on the head. Everyone had a good time!

Dancing the night (and calories) away!
Fattoria il Poggio
Via S. Piero, 39
Montecarlo
+39 0583 22088




Thursday, 18 September 2014

Tuscan Trails: Leaning on Pisa

Despite the leaning, the bell tower is a gorgeous sight
We made a short but fun visit to Pisa and the Leaning Tower is still tilted but looks much cleaner than it used to be. It was such a gleaming shade of white we had to wear shades.

The Baptistry standing under blue skies
The bell tower was built in 1152 and it is believed it was designed by Bonnano Pisano, and the story goes that he realized the first few tiers of the tower were leaning due to the swampy area it was built on so he skipped town out of embarrassment.

However, recent studies suggest Diotisalvi was the original architect as the style looks similar to the bell tower of San Nicola and the Baptistry, both in Pisa; however he usually signed his buildings and there is no signature on the bell tower.

Nevertheless, the tower was built over a period of 199 years and several attempts were made to straighten it out, while at one point a war prevented work on it for almost a century.

The story that Galileo dropped two cannon balls of different masses from the tower to demonstrate speed was independent of mass, but apparently this was not true, as the only source is Galileo's secretary.

Inside the baptistry there are clean, simple lines
In any event, in 1990 efforts were made to stop the tower from tilting further -- but also to retain the tilt for tourism reasons. This was accomplished by removing the soft soil and replacing it with dry soil to mesh with the environment like glue and this was finally completed in 2008.

These days people have to pay 15 euros to climb the tower, and only 25 people can go up at a time in 20-minute intervals.

Given the short time we had here, we just took pictures with the tower -- trying to push it back up -- and marvelled at how clean it was, as it didn't look like that the last time we saw it over 20 years ago.

Before getting to the Leaning Tower though, there are two other magnificent buildings to check out -- the Baptistry and Duomo, or cathedral. There's also the Campo Santo or cemetary, but we visited the first two.

Looking over at the Dumo, or cathedral
The Baptistry was built because in Catholicism, it was believed that if you weren't baptized you were not allowed into the church. And so the baptistry was for people -- mostly babies -- to be baptized and then they could enter the church. Smaller churches would have a tiny corner near the entrance of the church for baptisms.

This particular one in Pisa called Battistero di San Giovanni, or the Baptistry of St John, is very grand. Construction began in 1152 and completed in 1363. The architectural style is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic as well as Byzantine with the black and white marble.

Inside is is relatively simple with the though the decoration is ornate, and visitors can go up to the second floor (walking up 69 1/2 steps) to the upper gallery. It's a magnificent sight looking down. Apparently the accoustics in here are brilliant, but we didn't stay around long enough to hear people singing in this space.

The colourful mosaic of Jesus in the dome
What's interesting about the roof is that half of it is covered in terracotta tile, but then they ran out of money and the other half was covered in slate.

Meanwhile the cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, or St Mary of the Assumption. The gorgeous facade is gray marble and white stone with discs of coloured marble as decoration.

The interior is very ornate complete with detailed ceilings, chandeliers, marble columns and arches, and a massive mosaic of Jesus on the inside of the dome. One of the highlights is the massive pulpit designed by Giovanni Pisano, who spent eight years carving it. Many allegorical scenes are carved around the pulpit, which is supported by several lions.

It's just a pity that there are blue plastic chairs set out to add more seats to the wooden pews -- they threaten to take away from the grandeur of the place. Luckily most people are too busy looking up in awe of the place to notice them...
Giovanni Pisano's ornately carved pulpit

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Tuscan Trails: Lucca

The cathedral in St Michael's Square
Lucca is a charming town that still has its three- mile circumference city walls intact, much like Xian. And like the Chinese city, people can bike around the city walls, as the ones here are like a promenade complete with pebbles and trees.

The walls are quite thick, and the Romans made it into the best army base; it never really had to defend itself nor was it heavily destroyed during World War II.

Composer Giacomo Puccini
In 5 AD Lucca was the capital of Tuscany and in 1250 it was one of the richest towns in Europe, as merchants had to pass through this town. However it quickly lost its influence when Florence became strong in textiles, thus attracting talent, technical know-how and power.

As it gained strength, Florence also began conquering other towns except Lucca, which managed to become independent. But Lucca also managed to specialize in silk, in particular weaving gold thread into it.

These days it is best known for making shoes -- particularly sewing the leather uppers, which is why there are many shoe shops here and places to buy leather goods.

One of the most famous people to come from Lucca is composer Giacomo Puccini. Apparently his music is the most played in the world, with songs from La Boheme and Turandot. His childhood home was pointed out to us, and we got to see that he probably had a good view of the church in St Michael's Square, the centre of the town.

Along the top of the city walls of Lucca
The facade of the church is embedded with many images and messages for the common people on how to go on the path to purity. On top of the church is St Michael with a spear to kill the devil.

Somehow the town of over 80,000 people has over 50 churches. Our guide explained that during Roman times, the Romans did not get along with the Christians and so the churches were in a corner of the town. But soon afterwards they proliferated and many of the churches are in buildings that don't necessarily look like a typical church.

Many pilgrims come here to see "the Holy face of Jesus"... it is said in the Bible that Nicodemus took Jesus down from the cross and prepared him for burial. He was Jewish and could not create icons of God. But he had tried to sculpt Jesus' face and left the work unfinished overnight.

Can you see the graffiti from the 13th century?
Somehow the face was completed while he slept, which suggests it was done by an angel. It was proclaimed to have a "perfect face" that looks Syrian, with dark hair and narrow eyes. Unfortunately we weren't able to see it for ourselves; and on September 13, the residents celebrate the Luminara, the day of the crucifix, where the town is lit with candles and there is a procession to the sculpture.

In any event our guide wanted to point out that even in the 13th century there was graffiti on the walls. Graffiti is an Italian word that means "scratches".

We were then led to a square that was actually oval because before it used to be an amphitheatre and over time it lost its use and people modified the space into other more practical things, like a marketplace in the 1830s. Today it's a "square" surrounded by restaurants and touristy shops.

Some enticing buccellato in the pastry shop
Our guide tried to continually tell us that even though Lucca is an ancient town, it is still alive thanks to the inhabitants. And we liked wandering the streets and could have done so for a whole day.

To snack on, the best known food here is buccellato, a bread that is slightly sweet.