Monday, 31 August 2015

Picture of the Day: Disneyland Resort

The marbled floor is decorated with... glass slippers...
This afternoon I visited the Disneyland Resort for work and it was my first time going to the place.

After taking the MTR to Sunny Bay then transferring trains to Disneyland in a Mickey Mouse-themed train, we went to the supposedly happiest place on earth.

In the early afternoon not many people went to the park, a few young families, and a number of mainlanders, though the train wasn't packed.

When we arrived, we headed to the shuttle to get to Disneyland Resort and caught it just as it was leaving; the bus driver wasn't too happy waiting for last-minute stragglers, complaining that now his schedule wouldn't be on time.

So perhaps not everyone is happy at Disneyland...

The Disneyland Resort doesn't have Mickey Mouse or anything decorating the outside of what looks like a massive villa complete with outdoor ceiling fans in the entrance, but inside it's a fairytale-like place with marble floors and faux European decor.

I need to get to the Grand Staircase Foyer and after walking down a corridor, behold! Massive chandeliers!

And down on the floor it indicates who this staircase is for!




Sunday, 30 August 2015

Trying to Rectify Bad Optics

People leave notes for the chopped down trees near Bonham Road
How nice of Hong Kong's Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po to finally come out and admit that cutting down four 100-year-old Banyan trees two weeks ago in Sai Ying Pun "seemed to be done in haste" and vowed to improve how these decisions are made in the future.

"There is room for improvement," he said in an RTHK interview. "It did cause a public outrage."

Really?!

Dozens of people came out to St Stephen's Lane near Bonham Road to mourn the deaths of the trees, that were cut down overnight by the Highway Department without much discussion, even among tree experts and government officials. Many more people expressed outrage online.

Paul Chan admits the trees were chopped down in haste
While experts later confirmed the trees needed to be chopped down for safety reasons, Chan admitted the swift actions left a bad impression.

"It seems things were done in haste. Some people even felt that we chose to do it at night since we wanted to do it stealthily," he said.

Well, yes! The optics were not good...

Last Friday, Central and Western district councillor Wong Kin-shing said he had only been informed of the authority's decision to fell the trees in an email sent minutes before the Chinese banyans were chopped down on the evening of August 7.

Chan says a review is being conducted on improving communication between government departments about cutting down trees, especially those listed as "old and valuable" in the tree register.

How about doing a proper assessment of trees that may cause potential dangers to residents, particularly those that grow out of stone walls. There are more than 300 such trees in the city, 220 of which are in Central and Western.

Forbes Street in Kennedy Town has Banyan trees on the wall
Now every time when I walk along Forbes Street towards the Kennedy Town MTR station I wonder if the Banyan trees there are going to crack and fall...

But it also seems like tree experts here can't seem to accurately read the health of trees and when something happens to them, they had been checked a year or a few months earlier and pronounced to be healthy.

What gives?

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Ironman's New Owner

Ironman competitors diving into the water at the start of the race
It's been an interesting week for mainland property and entertainment tycoon Wang Jianlin. On Monday, he lost an estimated $3.6 billion according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index from the rocky ride in the stock market.

But later in the week he successfully acquired World Triathlon Corporation, the American owner of Ironman races.

On Thursday Dalian Wanda Group agreed to buy WTC for $650 million, following its acquisitions of Swiss marketing company Infront and Spanish football club Atletico Madrid in the past year.

Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda that owns WTC
"At present, almost all the top sports events in the world are controlled by European and American companies. Acquisitions are the only way for most companies to scale up efficiently," said Wang, chairman of Dalian Wanda. "By acquiring World Triathlon Corporation, we will be able to have a world-class sports brand of our own."

WTC is the world's largest operator of ironman-distance triathlon events, and the owner of the Ironman brand. It holds more than 230 races that attract over 230,000 competitors every year.

However, not many Chinese participate in Ironman, where a full ironman-distance race involves a 3.36km swim, 180km cycle and 42km run.

Many do Ironman competitions for their personal best times
"Our next task is to introduce Ironman to more Chinese people," said Wang, 61. "Chinese people's lifestyle is changing, as they are getting rich. Running, for example, as become very popular among Chinese people in recent years. This has provided a good foundation for the development of sports like triathlon in the country."

However, analysts are scratching their heads over this latest acquisition. Yan Qiang, a Beijing-based sports industry observer didn't see how WTC fit in with the other sports brands, but conceded the Ironman brand would boost Wanda's globa profile.

"The dela came as quite a surprise," Yan said. "We could see a rather clear strategy when Wanda purchased Atletico Madrid and Infront. Yet the sport of triathlon seems to be a totally different area.

It will be interesting if more Chinese are interested in Ironman
"Unlike sports like football, triathlon is very new to China. It may take years for Wanda to warm up the market and attract fans in the country."

Ironman is more of a event people do on their own to improve their own fitness levels, not a team sport that has an audience cheering them on, unless they are friends and family. And because the race takes place over several hours, people don't necessarily have the patience to watch the entire thing.

But -- as a way to get Chinese into this ultimate level of sport is definitely intriguing.

The best publicity stunt would be for Wang to get his 27-year-old son Wang Sicong to train for an Ironman. When Apple released its watches, he bought two for his dog Wang Keke. Does he know his canine can't tell the time?

How about getting Wang Sicong training for Ironman?
He's already been ridiculed for being a spoiled rich kid and making silly off-the-cuff remarks. So a great way to rehabilitate his image would be to train for this grueling race to learn discipline, dedication, hard work and sheer physical strength. Surely his dad would approve?


Friday, 28 August 2015

Phishy Phone Business

Beware the phishy phone scams that aim to swindle money out of you
A friend recently told me about receiving a scam phone call, very similar to the other ones that managed to swindle more than HK$182 million since last month from gullible victims.

She said it was all role-playing, and remarked how they all acted very smoothly and each of the characters were interconnected.

At first, the supposed courier company representative got her to clarify her name and address in Putonghua and then claimed the parcel she had sent had fake documents.

Her call was then transferred to a supposed official who went over her details. Then, as if to talk to a nearby "colleague", he repeated her details to this other person, and she could overhear him saying she was suspected as part of a mainland investigation into a serious crime.

She was so shocked -- how could that be? To prove they had the right person, the man got her to disable her computer to click on a link to a website that would normally be considered phishy.

Soprano Li Yuanrong was cheated out of HK$20 million
It was then that they showed scanned coloured copies of her home return permit or hui heung jing which frightened her. How did they have it?

Even then she didn't think this was a scam.

At this point the man told her that there was a warrant issued for her arrest and she had to transfer money to resolve the case. They asked her if she had a bank account in China and she said no, but that she would have to transfer money into a China bank account. Otherwise they would come to Hong Kong and get her (since they had her address details).

It was then that they demanded her bank details and she refused to give it to them, but they kept repeating that the crime she was allegedly involved in was very serious and she had to resolve it otherwise they would come to get her.

Luckily at that same time my friend's boyfriend texted her to tell her this was a phone scam and not to give them anything.

She hung up the phone and they tried to call her again and she again refused.

A few days after they called early in the morning which annoyed her and she told them to piss off.

Later she realized that these scammers, whoever they are, probably got a copy of her home return permit card when she checked into a hotel in Beijing in June.

Someone in the hotel made some extra dough getting copies of hotel guests' details to these unscrupulous people who ran a pretty smooth operation.

All hotels in China take down your passport/ID details and make copies of them too -- there is no getting around this apparently regulation.

When will these scams end?! Luckily my friend was smart enough not to give away her bank details. She also thinks there are Hong Kong-based accomplices to get money from victims.

But as long as there are people who fall for this scam, the perpetrators will keep doing it...


Thursday, 27 August 2015

Further Clampdown on Occupy Leaders

Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow enter Wan Chai police station
Eleven months after the incident, three students were charged today for starting the 79-day Occupy Movement.

Scholarism leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Federation of Students secretary general Nathan Law Kwun-chung and his predecessor Alex Chow Yong-kang went to Wan Chai police headquarters to plead not guilty.

Wong was charged with taking part and inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly; Chow was charged for taking part in an unlawful assembly, and Law for inciting others to take part in it.

The trio were part of a group who broke into Civic Square at Hong Kong government headquarters last September 26. That incident was precipitated by students who had staged a class boycott for several days outside the building protesting Beijing's white paper on election reform, where all candidates would be vetoed by a 1,200-member pro-China committee.

The eruption of tear gas sparked the occupation of Admiralty
After the young people broke into Civic Square, police surrounded them and then two days later, members of the public (myself included) went there to demand that the students be released. Hours later the police shot 87 canisters of tear gas that sparked the occupation of Admiralty, Mongkok, Causeway Bay and briefly Tsim Sha Tsui.

"'Civic Square' had been a place where we gathered freely to protest against the national education curriculum and the free television license decision. We were only trying to get into that place... So this is a political prosecution," Wong said. "The break in was the best decision I made in the last four years."

Law explained the reasoning behind pleading not guilty. "We are jumping into this procedure today to expose [the injustice] in it. When the law is used to suppress the people, we will not bow down... and show remorse or apologize just to get a milder penalty," he said.

Wong's lawyer, Michael Vidler, is considering asking the court to end the legal proceedings permanently because it was wrong to prosecute 11 months after the incident.

Exactly. Why is this happening now? Is someone or a group trying to get revenge for the outright rejection of the political reform package, after several pro-Beijing lawmakers walked out of the Legislative Council minutes before the vote?

Why weren't these young people prosecuted as soon as the 79-day protest was over and they willingly gave themselves up at that time?

Benny Tai faces punishment at HKU for his part in Occupy
Meanwhile three academics at the University of Hong Kong, including Benny Tai Yiu-ting, faces punishment from the university for receiving donations and not following the rules.

The punishments were proposed by HKU senior management, that many see as retaliation against Tai, and HKU Public Opinion Programme director Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, and Humanities professor Daniel Chua. Others see the punishments as a way for the trio to avoid outright dismissal.

Tai, an associate law professor, faces a three-year ban on assuming managerial posts, receiving donations and supervising researchers at HKU. Chua faces the same three penalties as Tai, but for a shorter period, while Chung is banned from receiving donations for a shorter period.

All three declined to comment citing confidentiality, and it seems they want to read the fine print to get a better understanding of what possible punishments they are facing.

It's interesting these developments are happening now, one month to the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Movement. Surely it's an attempt to preempt some kind of event happening a month from now, but is it really necessary?

After Occupy was shut down eventually in mid-December, the momentum and appetite to continue the protest significantly died down, mostly because it ended so ugly with violent clashes with police.

While Wong, Shum, Law, Tai and Chung gained notoriety for being the faces of the movement, they are already paying the price for sticking their necks out. Chung received a number of death threats, and what are the chances of someone employing Wong after he graduates from university?

Surely these are punishment enough?




Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Five Legs Never Quit

Fung Kam-hung proves amputees can do it too
Every once in a while you come across someone who has the Lion Rock spirit and today it's Fung Kam-hung, a 63-year-old amputee who lost his leg in a traffic accident 36 years ago.

He, along with his wife Chong Bing-ying, 57, and a lawyer Raymond Chak Man-lai, 41, Will be racing 250km on foot in Chile's Atacama Desert within seven days to raise money for the Hong Kong Amputees Association.

Fung's team is called Five Legs Never Quit, and the will be among 183 others competing from around the world.

Fung (centre) with his wife (left) and Raymond Chak
The retired administrator admits, "I'm quite scared. We have to walk 40km every day, carrying 7kg to 8kg on our backs. But to me, exercise is like an addiction -- you start small, then you keep on wanting to challenge yourself more."

Fung took up running 12 years ago after being part of the support team for his wife who has been competing in the Oxfam Trailwalker for more than 10 years. Oxfam Trailwalker is a 100km charity hiking race from Sai Kung to Yuen Long.

"I was pat of her support team, then I wanted to accompany her in the challenge," he says.

Since then he too has competed in Trailwalker and also Standard Chartered's annual 21km half marathon and 42km full marathon.

It has also helped that the development of prostheses has made it less painful and dangerous for people like Fung.

"Many of us are scared of doing exercises on land because it's easy to get injured -- before [there were quality prosthetics for exercising], each step caused friction to my stump and it would get painful after a prolonged period of running," he says.

Fung says the development of prosthetics helps him run better
To prepare for his latest challenge, Fung and Chong go on 20km hikes three to four times a week in Sai Kung or Fanling, and every weekend meet Chak on Lantau Island to hike from morning to evening.

"We try to trek through rivers and uneven trails -- once even during a red rainstorm warning -- because at least that could give me an idea of what difficulties I would meet [in the desert] and what solutions I could have. It's all a matter of whether you are prepared or not," Fung says.

"With my wife, I feel more at ease competing in such challenging events," he says in tribute to his wife of 32 years. "She is my coach and she knows best [the needs due to] my prosethetic limb."

Meanwhile Chak has competed in this upcoming race three times before.

Fung really does have the fighting spirit and age is not a barrier.

"I want to give out a positive message. I want to tell people that I dare to do it and I dare to accomplish," Fung says. "I want [able-bodied] people to look at me and ask, 'Why can't I do it if he can?'"

The fact that he wants to attempt this race and is training hard for it is definitely putting the rest of us to shame.

We wish him and his team Five Legs Never Quit the best of luck!

For more information (mostly in Chinese), check out their Facebook page.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Seemingly in Denial

Chinese stocks fell another day, sparking more fears of China's economy
Chinese stocks slid for another day, 7.6 percent lower and adding to the 8.5 percent lost yesterday, it was the benchmark's lowest level since December 15.

Some experts like Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics at Harvard University predicted China's financial crisis -- if this is it -- and says it's because of the Middle Kingdom's massive debt.

The Chinese government may like to believe -- or make others believe -- it has control of the markets, but Rogoff says, "It is very vulnerable. There is a lot of debt."

No one knows exactly how much debt China has, but according to a report published earlier this year by McKinsey & Company, China, the country's debt rose from $7 trillion in 2007 to $28 trillion by mid-2014.

Professor Kenneth Rogoff predicted China's impending crisis
"Several factors are worrisome: Half of loans are linked directly or indirectly to China's real estate market, unregulated shadow banking accounts for nearly half of new lending, and the debt of many local governments is likely unsustainable," the report says.

Yikes.

Rogoff isn't the only person who has been pessimistic about China's economy -- former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr predicted doom and gloom, while hedge fund manager James Chanos has been ringing alarm bells for years. "Whatever you might think, it's worse."

It's a serious issue the Chinese government needs to sort out, Rogoff says. "Financial meltdown leads to a social meltdown, which leads to a political meltdown. That's the real fear."

And then on top of it, is how the explosion in Tianjin almost two weeks ago that has now left 135 dead, is being handled by the government. The lack of transparency and getting more information out has undermined the Chinese government's credibility.

No mention of stock market losses today
Speaking of which, People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, made no mention of Black Monday in any of its 24 pages today. It instead focused on economic development in Tibet and the upcoming 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II.

However what's interesting is that those media who don't tow the official line have openly discussed what should be done about the economy and stock market, some calling for the government to intervene, others not. It's a good healthy debate, though at some point Beijing may enforce a total lock down on the matter.

Regardless it's a serious issue that needs to be sorted, which the officials in Zhongnanhai must been trying to figure out as we speak.

In the meantime why not learn more about how the economy in Tibet is developing!

Monday, 24 August 2015

Black Monday for China's Markets

Can Chinese President Xi Jinping continue to prop up the stock market?
World markets are recoiling in horror watching China's stock market take a big tumble today -- the Shanghai Composite Index plunged 8.52 percent, the worst close since 2007. The Hang Seng Index was down 5.17 percent, Shenzhen 7.7 percent.

The selling spree was estimated to erase $692 billion of market value in Chinese stocks. It's yet another sign of the Chinese economy slowing, but also that the central government doesn't really have control over the market like it thought it would.

A few weeks ago Beijing tried to prop up the market throwing lots of money into it to stabilize the volatility of stocks, but it wasn't enough to keep markets from staying in jittery mode as we saw today.

Chinese President Xi Jinping may have consolidated his power politically, but economically does he have the ability to control millions of shareholders?

Others believe the massive sell-off is an opportunity for a market correction, that the Chinese stock market was a bubble that needed to deflate a bit.

However Chinese stocks haven't been doing all that well except for a few days of massive growth spurts in June that then quickly leveled off and then fell.

Experts are predicting the Chinese economy will take a while to recover, seeing as production has slowed down, but when is anyone's guess.

"The government got badly burnt last time... Now the government doesn't want to underwrite a particular level. It doesn't want to be dictated to by market pundits," says veteran market watcher Fraser Howie.

Whoever said the stock market -- especially China's -- isn't a gamble?

Sunday, 23 August 2015

More Contaminated Water in Hong Kong

Why hasn't the government not solved the issue of lead in water yet?
It is very worrying that the Hong Kong government still has not found the cause of lead in drinking water in the city. The latest to find lead in their water is a primary school in Sham Shui Po.

One of six samples taken at St Thomas Primary School contained 43.2 micrograms per litre, more than four times the World Health Organization's safety level of 10mc/l.

The contaminated sample was found from a tap for washing hands in a first-floor classroom, while the other five samples were less than 5mc/l.

Principal Tam Hsien-ming said the school was highly concerned and taking emergency measures. Tam said the school took water samples for testing after public housing estates were found to have excessive levels of lead.

Tam has also notified the Education Bureau, which seems to have not shown any kind of concern, only saying it was working closely with the school and seek support from other government departments.

Why isn't the Education Bureau concerned about Hong Kong's children to ensure all drinking water in schools are safe? And what about hospitals?

In fact why aren't all water sources checked for levels of lead?

The longer the government takes to find the source of the contamination, the less confidence people have in the authorities to deal with this serious matter.

Some even think that perhaps the lead contamination is coming from the Dongjiang River across the border, where Hong Kong gets over 80 percent of its water, but the government not dare to say anything.

In the meantime the only ones pleased about this situation are the water companies... who apparently don't seem to do much to treat their water before bottling it!

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Subjected to More Toxic Statements

Two rabbits in a small cage are subjected to toxic air in the Tianjin blast site
Tonight there were explosions in Zibo city, Shandong that are 1km from residential areas -- eerily reminiscent of the Tianjin blasts over a week ago.

There are scant details at the time of writing, except eight people are injured so far and similar images of fireball explosions...

A pair of pigeons are also there to prove the air is "OK"
There's been a lot of talk in China about how faith in the Chinese government has sunk to an all-time low.

But wait! The government can prove the air is safe to breathe because animals were exposed to it for a couple of hours today.

Following the advice of experts with the rescue operation effort, soldiers from the PLA Beijing military command area laid down cages containing rabbits, chickens and pigeons in the site of the explosions.

Looking at the picture of the two rabbits, they barely have enough room to sit side by side in the cramped cage.

Tianjin Deputy Mayor He Shushan says at least 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide were stored with other dangerous goods on the warehouse site owned by Ruihai International Logistics.

Rescuers and investigators on the site wear protective gear
The animals contrast with investigators and rescue workers who are wearing chemical protection suits.

What is the point of putting these animals deliberately in harm's way? If they weren't caged up, surely they would have fled the area? Animal welfare groups are probably going to blast the government for purposely endangering these animals' lives.

Yet another wrong public relations move...

Oh and the thousands of dead fish in the nearby River Hai? Tianjin officials said the mass fish deaths were caused by regular seasonal low oxygen levels in the water.

They claimed tests from three different spots at the river did not show high levels of cyanide or sulfide.

Why have thousands of fish washed up in the nearby river?
But a report from the Tianjin Environmental Protection Bureau showed that tests taken of the water the day before showed cyanide levels in the river, sea and waste water in the evacuated area around the explosion site had risen rapidly, with one area reporting cyanide levels 277 times above acceptable levels.

So who's telling the truth?

Friday, 21 August 2015

Pictures of the Day: Water Fountain

Kids hanging out by the water fountain in front of Wynn Macau
People who work in Macau were telling me that it's busy because many families are here for summer holidays.

But you wouldn't know it by the roads that seemed relatively free of congestion, and hardly any taxis and cars pulling up into the casinos.

I came out of Wynn Macau just as the water fountain started up and Frank Sinatra started singing Luck Be a Lady in the speakers.

Taking in the water show a la Frank Sinatra
The few mainland Chinese visitors around gathered to stare at the water fountain that seemed to dance and sway with the music.

While watching a dancing fountain was probably not new, did they know who was singing and what the lyrics were about?

Written in 1950 by Frank Loesser, the song was featured in Guys and Dolls where a gambler, Sky Masterson, hopes he will win a bet, the outcome of which will determine whether or not he is able to save his relationship with the girl of his dreams.

The song became a signature hit for Sinatra.

After the song was over and the fountain stopped shooting water, kids started leaning on the edge and playing with the water.

"很好玩的," they said. "This is lots of fun."

The good fortune of enjoying simple pleasures.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

More Does Not Mean Better

Some people enjoying themselves in a pool in Shanghai
We couldn't help but shake our heads when we read this story in the news today.

It is a reminder of the ignorance that continues to pervade China despite its enthusiasm to modernize as quickly as possible.

At least 10 people who used a swimming pool in Beijing had to be treated in hospital after inhaling excessive amounts of chlorine, according to the Beijing Morning Post.

A cleaner was said to have put too much of the chemical in the water at a middle school swimming pool. Luckily there were no reports of serious injury.

The report said swimmers started feeling dizzy and began vomiting on Monday evening and police and emergency personnel were called.

One man was quoted as saying he smelt a strong odour in the water. "I couldn't breathe easily," he said. "I also had a heavy feeling in my chest and felt my nose swell with blood."

When he got out of the water, he was too dizzy to walk, according to the news story.

The pool has since been closed to the public, but expects to reopen within a week.

Has the cleaner been notified of his or her mistake? Obviously that person was not properly trained or instructed as to the necessity of putting accurate amounts of chlorine in, and what excessive amounts could do to people.

Either the cleaner was careless, or perhaps thought some extra doses of chlorine wouldn't matter, or would help disinfect the water because some swimmers may have relieved themselves in the pool...!

But that's another matter...

In any event, good intentions, but dangerous effects.

Hopefully lesson learned...



Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Attention Seeker

A consultancy firm proposed cutting tram service from Central to Admiralty
No need to panic -- we can all breathe a sigh of relief now that the Hong Kong government has come out for the record.

Earlier a company called Intellects Consultancy made a proposal to the Town Planning Board to cancel the Central to Admiralty segment of the tram service to improve traffic.

Shocking, right? What is Hong Kong Island without trams?

Intellects Consultancy is headed by Sit Kwok-keung, who turns out to have been a former long-time senior town planner with the Planning Department.
 
The firm said trams take up 30% of road surfaces
In a radio interview he said electric trams served no purpose other than taking up large chunks of major toads and blocking traffic during rush hours in the city's main business district.
 
He added trams take up 30 percent of the road surface, but now with the MTR line going all the way west to Kennedy Town, streetcars serving this area should "go to the history museum".
 
Sit did not rule out phasing out the entire tram service if his plan for the cancellation of the Central to Admiralty section succeeded.
 
One can imagine the outrage if the plan really came to fruition, of killing the existence of the 110-year-old tram affectionately called "ding ding". It could be grounds for another Occupy Movement.
 
But the government preempted it with a statement this afternoon.

On a recent submission to the Town Planning Board (TPB) to cancel the Central to Admiralty segment of the tram service, a Government spokesman today (August 19) clarified it is neither a government proposal nor a proposal by a consultancy commissioned by the government.

All submissions will be discussed by the TPB in accordance with the established procedures.

Under the existing transport policy, trams provide frequent and affordable services without roadside emissions on the north of Hong Kong Island for an average of around 180,000 passengers every day, performing a supplementary role. There is no change to the role of trams under the policy.

Phew.

Intellects Consultancy says trams belong in the museum!
At least the government has its head on straight with regards to trams in the city.

However, Sit should have proposed this on April 1 to make his idea even more compelling...

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Getting Hong Kong to Uber-ize

Uber is ready to serve customers who are willing to pay more for good service
Uber is forcing governments around the world to figure out how this car-hailing app can fit into their societies, but not without backlash.

In Hong Kong, the firm's offices in Sheung Wan were raided several days ago and three staff were arrested along with seven Uber drivers.

The ironic thing is that Uber was supported by InvestHK, a government arm that helps businesses set up shop in Hong Kong easily, in some cases offering promotional services and introduction to contacts, as long as the business fits into one of six areas like creative industries, financial services, innovation and technology, and information and communications technology.

Many complain about Hong Kong taxi drivers' bad habits
Uber was even promoted on the InvestHK website up until the day of the arrests which must have been an awkward U-turn for the government.

But why all of a sudden these arrests? Technically Uber drivers do not have licenses to carry strangers in their own cars. And what if there's an accident? Who takes responsibility?

This is what the taxi driver associations are angry about, because they are paying around HK$7 million each for their licenses while these Uber drivers are not.

However, upon hearing about the arrests, there was an online petition that garnered 50,000 signatures supporting Uber, and lots of comments in local newspapers from residents tired of putting up with cab drivers who refuse to pick up passengers, smell lingering cigarette smoke, charge exorbitant fees late at night, and so on.

Surely there is room for two services, one of which people need to pay more for better service? Some customers like to be picked up in a Mercedes, others just want to ensure they have a ride after a concert where thousands of people are waiting in line for a taxi.

Uber North Asia general manager Sam Gellman is keen to sit down with the government to hash out some kind of agreement.

Uber's Sam Gellman keen to work with the government
"A smart city must have smart regulations fit for a digital age, and we look forward to working closely with regulators towards developing a regulatory approach that enables more choice and innovation while putting the safety and interests of riders and drivers first," he says.

The Hong Kong government, via Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, says there should be "legal space" for Uber to continue to operate in the city.

Gellman says safety is a top priority for the taxi-hailing app, which is why the drivers go through an extensive background check and every ride is covered by insurance.

He seems optimistic something will be worked out in the end for Hong Kong, citing the successful adaptation of Uber into transportation regulations and licensing schemes in 54 jurisdictions in the United States, Mexico City and the Philippines.

Yuen says the Justice Department has yet to lay charges on the Uber staff and drivers, as the police are still investigating... but shouldn't the government have done its due diligence work on Uber before allowing it into the city? Seems strange for it to investigate one of its star clients...

Nevertheless, the fight between Uber and Hong Kong taxi drivers continues and public opinion seems to side with the former.

I have yet to try the service, and have heard about some hits and misses, but overall seems like it wouldn't hurt to drive a little competition in Hong Kong -- isn't that what this city is about -- choice?

Monday, 17 August 2015

Picture of the Day: Guide Dog

A guide dog and his master waiting to get onto the MTR
At around 5.30pm today at Kowloon Tong MTR station, many people stopped to look at a young visually impaired man who was standing after passing through the turnstiles while his guide dog was resting on the floor. It seemed like people didn't know what to say or do, but rather stare at this unusual situation.

While Hong Kong people are more used to seeing visually impaired people on the street, they aren't used to seeing guide dogs.

I passed by, not thinking much of it, but it turns out the young man and his labrador retriever entered the same MTR carriage as me, accompanied with a sighted person, perhaps a brother or friend.

He told the dog to sit and it obediently lay down on the floor, and he bent down to pet it, telling him he was a good dog in English, while he and the other guy chatted in Cantonese.

Not soon afterwards a little Chinese girl was wailing nearby -- I don't know why -- but the dog didn't even pick up his ears. He was completely unfazed by the sudden emotional outburst, but that indicates his good temperament.

After we changed trains at Mongkok, the owner again petted the dog a few times to know he was appreciated and wasn't neglected.

That was the first time I saw a guide dog on the MTR; there aren't many in the city and I hope to see more of them in Hong Kong helping the visually impaired live more active lives.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Going Through the Motions

Li Keqiang (right) checks out the site of the explosion earlier today
The number of dead in the Tianjin explosions has now reached 112, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang finally made a visit to the site today, though Xinhua only gave a brief summary of what he would do: visit firefighters, rescuers and those injured.

"He will also direct further rescue operations and treatment of the injured, as well as handling of the aftermath and production safety," the report said.

So... does Li have experience in dealing with chemical explosions and have medical knowledge in how to treat victims who were injured in the blasts on Wednesday night?

Surely he should really be deferring to experts in the field? Or do these rescuers and medical staff not know what to do, or must wait for his signal before going ahead?

These phrases seem so anachronistic, but they are brought out each time a disaster happens and a senior Chinese officials dutifully goes to inspect the site.

Meanwhile Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote instructions that the Tianjin blasts and a string of serious accidents exposed severe problems in the work safety sector, and the authorities must always keep "safe development" and "people's interest first" in mind to avoid such accidents.

These seem quite obvious, but surely an investigation needs to take place before such vague statements can be made?

Work safety has never been much of a priority for China, and all of a sudden it is on the President's mind.

Will this accident finally give work safety the attention it sorely needs? Or is this just another stock phrase to show the government is concerned?

But many Chinese citizens are not buying it, particularly those who are related to the victims of the disaster, or living in the port city near Beijing.

Some have joked that the air was too toxic until Sunday for Chinese leaders to breathe, despite local officials saying the air was fine, and adding no emergency crews were ill from chemical contamination.

They are racing against time before it next rain to contain the at least 100 tonnes of sodium cyanide at the site that can create noxious gases if reacted with water. That could not be a more stressful task.

And online censors are trying to control heated criticisms of the government and its handling of the disaster, calling it "a real life Pinocchio" in hashtags, and demanding the truth of what is really going on.

At press conferences, Chinese officials are unable to answer a lot of questions posed by journalists, only replying with "let me check" or "next question". Hardly gives anyone much confidence in the authorities.

Interestingly, the day of the blasts coincide with the 1,000th day of Xi's ascent to power, and hint that perhaps this Tianjin incident was the beginning of his end.

But we shall see how much punishment and blame goes around: access to public registries have been blocked, though the National Enterprises Credit and Information System revealed information about Ruihai International, the company that owns the exploded warehouse.

The chairman is listed as Li Liang, that overseas Chinese media have identified as the nephew of Li Ruihuan, a Tianjin-born former Politburo member and chairman of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference.

Considering much has been covered up, Li and his nephew have pretty good guanxi so far...

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Lack of Trust Pervades

People remember the victims of the Tianjin blasts
In Hong Kong there's lots of skepticism of what is really being told about the Tianjin explosions, particularly the number of dead.

As of today the total is 104, but many question the figure, saying that because the blasts on Wednesday were the equivalent to 24 tonnes of TNT, that there should be dozens more if not hundreds who perished in the disaster.

But it sounds like crews are still trying to contain the fires and figure out what chemicals exploded and which ones are still left lying around in the massive warehouse. Apparently the records of the chemicals were destroyed in the blast -- a big lesson there -- and now the authorities are going through the tedious task of going through transport records.

However, relatives of loved ones who are missing after the blast want to know what happened. Today some tried to barge in on a press conference, but were unable to enter, and they could be heard shouting from outside.

Anxious relatives want to know where their loved ones are
"Nobody has told us anything, we're in the dark, there is no news at all," screamed a middle-aged woman, as she was dragged away by security personnel.

Earlier Tianjin residents wondered if the government is telling them the truth, saying the air was fine to breathe, but many reported having headaches and dizziness; some resorted to wearing masks to try to mitigate breathing in possibly toxic chemicals.

But now those who were living within 3km of the warehouse were told to evacuate the area because the winds changed direction from moving towards Bohai Bay, to now back inland.

Xinhua also reported seven or eight fresh blasts that caused new fires to break out at the facility, but did not give further details.

There was another bright spot today, after a firefighter was found alive yesterday, a many in his 40s was found in a shipping container, 50m from the blast "core zone".

Fires are still smouldering in the warehouse facility
Staff from sodium cyanide producers were brought to the site to best determine how to deal with the situation, and an army of 200 nuclear and biochemical experts from the Chinese military were deployed to the area.

Unless someone is an expert in chemical reactions and can easily analyze what chemicals were involved in the explosions, 200 experts aren't going to be of much help if they only know theoretical equations.

It will take several more days to figure out what just happened in this warehouse facility and also possibly find human remains of those missing.

If the government is not transparent about how the explosion happened and punish those involved, this will be yet another thorn in its side as it tries to brush the incident under the carpet, like Tiananmen Square, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Wenzhou train collision in 2011 and now this.

How much more can people bear?



Friday, 14 August 2015

Starting to Reveal the Cost of Propaganda

The Hong Kong government spent a lot of money on ads like these
We are closer to learning how much the Hong Kong government spent on advertising to promote its political reform package, but then failed miserably in mid June when it was voted down 28-8.

The figure of HK$5.08 million was finally revealed on Friday after legislative councillor Claudio Mo Man-ching was unable to get the information from the government and then complained to the Ombudsman.

"Apparently the government is trying to avoid a bigger public relations blunder before the Ombudsman publicly calls on them to disclose the information," Mo said, as she accused the administration of disrespecting Hong Kong people's 'right to know'."

Claudio Mo finally get some answers to how much was spent
With this latest figure, the media are estimating the entire exercise, that started back in 2013, may have cost taxpayers some HK$24.4 million. That's because the government said it spent HK$7.2 million in the 2013/2014 financial year, and had set aside another HK$12.1 million in the last financial year that ended in April.

However the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau refused to clarify the numbers for the media on Friday, saying it had "nothing to add".

So we're left to speculate the total cost.

But the bureau did explain to Mo how part of the HK$5.08 million was spent -- HK$3 million went to advertising on buses and the MTR, and HK$837,000 was used for electronic media commercials. From April to June, 2,295 minutes (38 hours and 15 minutes) were allocated for radio ads, and 2,619 minutes (43 hours and about 40 minutes) for television.

My, how precise these numbers are.

The government must come clean on the exactly total, and Hong Kong people must hold the administration accountable for spending so much of their taxpayer dollars. That money could easily have been spent on feeding the poor and elderly at least...





Thursday, 13 August 2015

Tianjin Blast Sparks Many Questions

What was left on one area of the warehouse after battling the blaze in Tianjin
One wonders whose heads will roll following the massive explosions in a Tianjin warehouse that has killed at least 50 people and injured more than 500.

There are media reports an official environmental evaluation report on dangerous goods warehouses operated by Tianjin Ruihai Logistics, concluded that a fire or blast would not have a considerable impact on the neighbouring area.

The 42,000 square metre warehouse was a temporary holding area for dangerous goods before being imported or exported.

One of the explosions that rocked Tianjin Wednesday night
The report named some chemicals, like sodium cyanide acetylene, potassium nitrate, Toulene 2,4-diisocyanate (TDI) and condensed natural gas were transported stored at the warehouse, while it said many precautions were taken.

"Multiple surveillance cameras, a control centre for fire alarm and video surveillance are installed in the warehouse. A firefighting squad and traffic police square are stationed at the south of the warehouses," the report said.

It concluded "firefighters can arrive at the scene in time in case of fire or explosion and take fire extinguishing measures to contain release of toxic materials".

However, it seems the firefighters had no idea what they were battling in the blaze -- about 1,000 were deployed, but at least 12 died, 36 missing, and the rest had to pull out because they were unsure of what dangerous goods were inside and how much was stored.

Apparently 8,000 troops trained in anti-chemical warfare and 1,500 police also joined in the effort, but there were no other details on how they helped contain the fire and deal with the after effects.

Firefighters pulled out, unsure of what they were dealing with
The report seems to have been written in an ideal situation without having conducted any kind of practice emergency drills, or any kind of briefing or inspection by police and fire inspectors of the warehouse; it seems like a document that was published to tick off the right boxes to have it cleared at the government level.

There was also apparently a public consultation held in May 2013, allaying concerns, if residents had any, that all precautions were taken.

Workers at the warehouse who survived or escaped the blast told the media that they did not have proper training to handle dangerous goods.

Meanwhile there are at least three residential areas comprising 5,000 households that are located within 5km from the warehouse. A luxury development only 2km away was being built and so there were no casualties there, but construction workers now have to rebuild the project again, as all the windows were blown out and some surfaces scorched.

Some residents interviewed didn't know about the public consultation, or weren't aware of what dangerous goods were being stored there.

Rows of vehicles in the warehouse burned out from the blast
While Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on firefighters to contain the blaze and for rescuers and hospital staff to save as many people as possible, how seriously will the government take this incident and really investigate what happened? Will they really find out how residential areas could be built so close to a dangerous spot or vice versa, that a warehouse storing dangerous goods would be allowed to be built so close to a residential area?

Was this warehouse licensed to store and transport dangerous goods? And who endorsed the so-called environmental evaluation report?

There are too many questions that need to be answered. While this tragedy will bring the country together in grief, anger will be simmering below the surface, demanding answers and compensation.

Surely this tragedy will lead to a setback to Xi's legacy plan of amalgamating Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei together into a supercity called "Jing-Jin-Ji"...

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Depreciating the Yuan

The Chairman Maos aren't worth as much as they used to be...
The value of the Chinese yuan dropped for the second day in a row, following a 1.9 percent drop yesterday, and 1 percent today, making it the biggest two-day fall since 2005 when the yuan was unpegged from the US dollar and moved to be valued against a "basket of currencies".

In Hong Kong this meant that yuan deposits fell by a staggering HK$32.6 billion in a book value of 1 trillion yuan deposits.

However the chief economist of China's central bank, Ma Jun, said there was no need to worry.

"Based on fundamentals, our key economic data all supported a stable yuan," said Ma, of the People's Bank of China, in a commentary in the People's Daily. "China's economic fundamentals obviously fare much better than those economies which face huge pressure to devalue their currencies."

But perhaps the sudden move is to help jump start the country's export markets, particularly car and textile companies to become more competitive, and people buying Chinese goods abroad will find the prices cheaper. Tourists traveling to the Middle Kingdom will find the cost cheaper too.

Nevertheless, this does not bode well (if this drop continues) for those companies exporting to China, particularly luxury goods, as the Chinese will find them even more expensive, while domestic companies that have foreign currency debt will feel the pinch having to pay in dollars.

We will have to see what the fallout is, and how long it is sustained, but everyone gets nervous when China suddenly changes tack without much explanation. If this move is to spur the country's economy, it's a big risk the PBOC is taking...




Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Will There be Justice?

DSC boss Hui Ming-shun returned to Hong Kong was arrested yesterday
We are glad to hear the boss of defunct furniture and home electronics retailer DSC and his wife were arrested yesterday from arriving from Macau, a week after they disappeared. They conveniently covered themselves up with face masks, baseball caps and hoods.

One wonders what they were doing in Macau -- perhaps trying to double down to win back more money?

Hui Ming-shun, 61, and his wife and co-founder Lin Wai-yin, 55, were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and still remain in police custody.

Meanwhile the staff are still waiting for their unpaid salaries and marched to Hong Kong government headquarters at Tamar to demand the authorities speed up the process of getting their money.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung came out to speak to the 70 or so DSC employees, but he didn't give them much good news.

"This morning we contacted the lawyer of Mr Hui to demand him to sign a declaration of insolvency and to determine as soon as possible the amount of money he owed to his employees," Cheung said.

"Once we receive Mr Hui's declaration, the Labour Department will help the employees to apply for legal aid to petition to wind up the company."

What happens if Hui doesn't care to declare bankruptcy? Does that mean he doesn't have to pay the staff what they are entitled to?

In the meantime the government says it will start determining how much money each employee is entitled to receive from the Protection of Wages on Insolvency Fund, with a maximum of HK$289,000 per person.

It seems Hui and Lin owe some HK$10 million in wages, and another HK$10 million to landlords and suppliers. They recently sold their Kowloon Tong flat, but who knows what other debts they have, or if they have squirreled their money away elsewhere.

The Labour Tribunal hearing on this case will be on August 21. It will be interesting to hear what Hui has to say in his defense...




Monday, 10 August 2015

Hong Kong's Tree Conundrum

Stumps of the banyan trees are left behind on Bonham Road
On Saturday morning people living around Bonham Road in Sai Ying Pun woke up shocked to find four Chinese banyan trees growing along a stone wall were suddenly chopped down in the middle of the night.

A tree expert on a government advisory panel said the decision was "scientific", as another Chinese banyan tree collapsed on July 22 during a serious rainstorm, injuring two people.

Some residents left balloons and notes on the roots
There was no prior announcement the trees would be cut down, and so "mourners" came to the site hanging colourful balloons or leaving notes that read: "The trees are crying".

For many, the trees were a nostalgic memory of their childhood and questioned why they had to be chopped down -- could there not have been severe pruning done instead?

However it seems the Hong Kong government did not want to take any chances, and erred on the side of safety and face the wrath of residents than risk another possible accident.

It turns out the authorities may have been right.

Last night, after days of blistering heat, there was an amber rainstorm warning with lots of thunder, lightning and heavy rain.

The banyan trees before they were cut down Friday night
In the morning, four trees had collapsed, one in Repulse Bay and another in Stanley, and then one near St John's Church in Central, and the last tree in Sheung Shui.

It seems the city's aborists don't have enough experience in assessing Hong Kong's tree situation, because in many cases a year or two after they have been assessed, some trees collapse and it turns out they were completed rotted and should have been removed much earlier.

And now with residents gradually becoming more environmentally conscious, they want to save the existing trees without understanding some cannot be saved and need to be chopped down for public safety reasons.

The government really needs to do a thorough evaluation of trees in the city and monitor them more closely. They provide a natural shade and add character to our concrete jungle.

Not only do we need to protect what we have, but also plant more trees to create a greener future for our city.