Friday, 30 September 2016

Not Buckling Under Ridicule

A still from the video that spoofs a viral Japanese music video
The Hong Kong Police are working hard to protect the community, and to send out messages to the public on how to keep safe.

The latest is a public service announcement that spoofs a popular Japanese earworm-style music video called Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen by Japanese comedian who goes by the stage name Kosaka Daimaou.

In the Hong Kong police version, the 33-second clip starts off with a man and woman in blue T-shirts and wearing sunglasses and they lip sync the words: "I have a belt, I have a buckle, ah, car seat belt".

Then two officers in uniform sit in the back of a police van and lip sync the same words before ending with the tagline: "Buckle up, it could save your life".

Uh right.



The video was meant to be fun and educational, but instead it was ridiculed, with over a million views in less than 24 hours. It got a deluge of comments from the public, while a senior police officer who declined to be named, said, "It's an embarrassment, the force looks more like a farce with this video. What were they thinking?"

The unidentified officer said comments internally and from ex-officers were even more scathing, saying they could not be published in a newspaper.

That bad.

However the force is taking the comments, good and bad in stride.

"HKP Facebook will continue to utilize the advantages of multimedia including videos, images, texts and other innovative means to engage the community. The HKP Facebook post on 28 September was one of many different types and styles to illustrate our diversified nature of police work, and had attracted a large number of 'Likes' and positive comments," the force said in a statement.


Thursday, 29 September 2016

Picture of the Day: Cheap Treat

For many in Hong Kong, Ovaltine conjures childhood memories
The other day I saw my friend's Facebook post saying that Ovaltine soft serve ice cream was back at McDonald's -- but only for a limited time.

I hadn't tried it before, so the other day I checked it out, only HK$5.50!

It does have that Ovaltine taste, the malt flavour with a bit of cocoa mixed in that isn't too sweet. For many people in Hong Kong, Ovaltine is a nostalgic food, bringing back memories of their childhood.

Another friend on Facebook posted a picture of waffles with the Ovaltine ice cream on top with chocolate sauce drizzled over them. He said it was available at the McDonald's at Admiralty, Quarry Bay and Cityplaza in Taikoo Shing.

The waffles definitely looked decadent, but I was OK with my cone. It seemed like just the right portion for a quick (and cheap) treat!

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Two Years On from Occupy

A large yellow reminder of two years ago for the fight for universal suffrage
Today marks the second anniversary of the Occupy protests that spontaneously broke out at Admiralty, when people were trying to get the activists released who were surrounded by police in Civic Square.

The milestone was marked by a six-metre long yellow banner "I want true universal suffrage" placed on Devil's Peak in Lei Yue Mun by the League of Social Democrats, that was taken down about 90 minutes later.

People gathered at Admiralty tonight to mark the anniversary
And then in the evening at 5.58pm people gathered at Tim Mei Avenue in Admiralty and observed three minutes of silence, the time when the police began spraying tear gas into the crowd.

I was there that afternoon, and told YTSL to come with me. She had just gotten off the plane from Japan and didn't understand what all the fuss was about.

But after we got a snack and I checked my Twitter feed to find out tear gas had been unleashed and we rushed back to see what was going on. We saw a surreal sight of people occupying the Connaught Road overpass and Queensway and refusing to leave. And there were people getting giant barrels of water ready in case the police would fire more tear gas.

We knew the roads would be blocked for a while at least and I remember getting to my great aunt's place in Tokwawan via the Star Ferry and then a bus.

Two years ago this was the initial surreal scene in Admiralty
On the news later that night we saw that Mongkok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay had also been occupied. It was simultaneously shocking and thrilling to hear that ordinary people had taken control of the area -- when was the last time something like this had happened?

They were brave but also determined to stand their ground which made me so proud of them. They were tired of being pushed around by Beijing and the Hong Kong government wasn't representing their interests.

The last straw was the white paper released in August that reiterated there would be no direct elections of the chief executive in 2017. So when would we ever get universal suffrage that was promised to us? They had to stand up for themselves and they did -- for 79 days.

I miss being able to walk along Connaught Road Central and there was such a community spirit there, people were very friendly and eco-conscious, everyone had the same mindset. It was a calm, but also passionate place, especially when there were gatherings to hear speeches.

Eventually evenings would look like this, crowded but friendly
The sad thing is that Occupy will probably never happen again.

But it has spawned a new generation of politically active kids, a few of them even elected into the Legislative Council! Who would have thought that would be possible! Pretty amazing.

So there is hope, but how do we proceed from here? What is the legacy of Occupy and what does it mean to us?

Thanks for the memories that are still vivid two years later. We will never forget that day.


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Bookseller Free from Police Protection

After almost three months, Lam is now free from police protection
Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee is a free man -- well free from the shackles of round-the-clock police protection.

He had asked for it in early July when he felt people were following him since he came back to the city in June.

But now he believes the worst is over and says it's time to live a normal life again.

Lam was one of five booksellers who had been kidnapped when he crossed the border from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. He was detained for several months and then came back to the city, because his minders wanted him to collect the hard disk from the bookstore that contained the names of people who had bought the salacious books about senior Chinese officials.

He told the media about his kidnapping and detention in China
However, Lam changed his mind and decided to go public with his plight, revealing his experiences of being detained in the mainland and how his minders received orders straight from the top.

It was then that he believed his safety was compromised and lived in a secret location. But now he's tired of it, and perhaps because the Legislative Council elections are over that Lam feels he should be OK now.

Or is he?

"I can't live a normal life under round-the-clock protection. I had to stay at the flat all the time and so I don't have the freedom to walk around," he said. "Now that the incident [abduction] has started to die down, I want to live a normal life again."

Lam promises to protest against injustices when they happen
The police had given him a phone and were in contact with him daily to make sure he was safe. Now that 24-hour protection has been withdrawn, they will be in touch with him once a week.

Now that he is basically a free man, Lam vows to continue taking part in social movements and urged others to do the same.

"I will do what every Hongkonger should do, and that is to come out at times of injustice," he said. "I will come out and fulfill my responsibility as a Hong Kong citizen because I have a responsibility to help the next generation.

"One or two years later, I hope that Hong Kong will still be a place where we can all enjoy the freedom of speech."

Is he saying we won't have freedom of speech much longer?!

Does he know something we don't?

Monday, 26 September 2016

Trying to End "Harassment Tourism"

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Now we know why Kevin Garratt was released last week from Chinese after being detained for two years.

In a bid to reset relations between China and Canada, it seems Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is negotiating an extradition treaty so that China can request certain people it deems should be tried for crimes they may or may not have committed.

Immigration lawyers and opposition politicians are crying foul, wondering why Trudeau is willing to return people who may or may not be fugitives to a country that is known for torture and executions. Is this "Canadian" of him?

However Trudeau seems to think he has things covered.

"Extradition is certainly one of the things the Chinese have indicated they want to talk about," he said. "But any discussions around extradition, for example, will be very much in line with Canadian principles and Canadian values and Canadian expectations that are very high."

What exactly does that mean?

Lai Changxing returned to China in 2011
For many years, the Chinese government was frustrated by Canada's oblique responses to extradition requests of people, one of the most famous examples was Lai Changxing, a former businessman in Xiamen who was implicated in corruption scandals that involved smuggling.

He fled to Vancouver where he lived for many years until he was sent back to China in 2011 with promises he would not be executed by imprisoned for life.

In 2000, three secret police investigators applied for visas to come to Canada as workers for China National Pulp & Paper Corporation, saying they wanted to discuss "Chinese users' requirements for Canadian pulp and paper".

But instead they really came to Vancouver to try to pressure Lai to come back to China to face charges of smuggling and bribery, bringing his brother along.

Lai's lawyer complained about this through diplomatic channels and later on it has been revealed that many other alleged fugitives have been harassed by Chinese secret agents who come to Canada on tourist visas.

How far will Trudeau go to make China happy in extraditions?
Talk about abusing the system, and also butting into the internal affairs of another country without going through proper legal channels.

This is ongoing so-called "harassment tourism" is what promoted Trudeau to have talks between the two sides "which allow Canadian officials and Chinese officials to discuss specific cases, to discuss the principles and concerns that both sides have," he says.

While it's understandable Trudeau would like Chinese agents to stop applying for tourist visas to harass people on Canadian soil, will he be able to get the upper hand in what the extradition treaty will be like?

It's kind of like dealing with the devil that has his cards hidden behind his back.

On one level it's good that China and Canada are actively engaged in talks, but on another, does Trudeau know who he's dealing with?



Sunday, 25 September 2016

Car-Free Day Hong Kong Style

Trams are still going by while booths occupy both sides of the roads
I was looking forward to checking out NGO Clean Air Network's event called "Very DVRC" or "Very Des Voeux Road Central", with the promises of removing cars from a 200-metre stretch of the busy thoroughfare from 10am to 4pm.

The idea came about 16 years ago from the Institute of Planners, who had suggested the entire area from Western Market to Pedder Street be completely car free. But in execution, Clean Air Network had to severely scale back and try it out with a small area, from Western Market to Wing On department store.

Some guys having a mini soccer match on a side street
I had visions of perhaps Occupy 2.0, large free spaces to roam around on the streets. However when I got there, people couldn't really walk on the roads because the middle of the street was occupied by trams that were still moving along the tracks, though at much lower speeds for safety reasons, and they were cordoned off.

The sides of the roads that vehicles would have used were occupied by booths, some 40 of them, ranging from making arts and crafts to fitness clubs, making mini Chinese flower banners, planters out of plastic bottles and even a mini soccer pitch.

There were musicians performing songs and one spot had colourful beanbags to sit on, and even a group that advocates giving hugs for 21 seconds.

I talked to a young enthusiastic woman called Winnie who said there was scientific research that said if people hug for 20 seconds then it helps release hormones to reduce stress. She also hoped the exercise would help people have more physical encounters rather than on social media. The extra second? Just to make sure your embrace definitely long enough.

The roads were carefully cordoned off for safety reasons
Former lawmaker Paul Zimmerman was also there and was pleased to see the event a reality and watched how people reacted to the carnival-like atmosphere. It's too bad he didn't get voted in, but he is someone who is always advocating for Hong Kong to be a more people-oriented city, to make it more accessible by walking rather than driving.

He feels that when a city is more walkable, people have more chances of bumping into people they know, and that in turn creates more dialogue and debate, and hopefully in the end makes people happier.

But there seems to be more cars on the road -- is it because there is a larger group of wealthier people who can afford them? Is it because public transport like the MTR are frustrating commuters so much that they don't have the patience to deal with it? Or is it because public transport doesn't adequately service the areas they live in?

Signs like this reminded people to watch for cars...
These questions need to be answered -- not with more roads, which is what the government likes to do. The current big infrastructure project is the Central to Wan Chai bypass that is taking years to build and will even cut into Victoria Park, something that the public didn't find out until it was too late to stop it.

Today's experiment was interesting, but perhaps it was too crowded a space, or the area wasn't quite right. Or maybe I'm just nostalgic about the occupation of Admiralty almost exactly two years ago when thousands of people converged on the bypass and created an ad hoc friendly community.

Are those days gone forever?

Saturday, 24 September 2016

China's Legal Eagles Silenced

Beijing lawyer Xia Lin was convicted of fraud and jailed for 12 years
The hope to change China from within through a civil society has suffered yet another setback with the jailing of Beijing lawyer Xia Lin, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud.

At his sentencing, Xia, his wife and supporters vehemently rejected the prosecutors' claim that he had defrauded four people of 4.8 million yuan (US$780,000).

But Xia and his supporters say the funds were legitimate loans, and that the charge was a reprisal for his combative legal work.

One of his most famous clients was Ai Weiwei
The 46-year-old had previously represented artist and activist Ai Weiwei when the authorities ordered Ai's company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, to pay US$2.4 million in back taxes and fines for tax fraud.

Xia was then detained in November 2014 when he agree to defend Guo Yushan, an activist and writer in Beijing who was also detained and later charged with running an illegal business.

Guo was released in September last year.

As for Xia's case, it doesn't seem to have been processed according to rule of law; Chinese legal experts said in a petition in June that there were repeated delays in Xia's case, and he didn't have access to his lawyers.

While it was expected he would not win his case, Xia and his supporters didn't expect such a heavy sentence.

"After he heard the verdict, Xia Lin said the case had been procedurally unfair and he was being persecuted for his rights defense work, for the cases he took on," one of his defense lawyers, Ding Xikui, who was in court for the verdict, said. "He is planning to appeal."

Xia was detained after he agreed to defend Guo Yushan
In a tribute published on Tuesday on an overseas Chinese website, Guo said Xia "never altered his initial intentions. From a commercial lawyer to a human rights lawyer, the road of life he took became rockier and rockier, but more and more soul-stirring".

Xia is one of several hundred lawyers and rights activists jailed for their work on human rights issues in China. His supporters say his case was part of the government's campaign to silence Chinese rights lawyers who have challenged arbitrary state power.

Earlier this week more than 100 lawyers signed a petition calling on the National People's Congress to stop the police and other government authorities from harassing and persecuting criminal defense lawyers trying to represent their clients.

The letter said the abuses had "deviated from the course of legality, destroyed legal order, and thoroughly disappointed people's hopes in the government".

It's a worrying sign that rule of law in China has less meaning in reality and that rule by fear continues to grow.

These lawyers are so brave. They had thought the law would protect them while doing their work. But it appears the Party is beyond the law.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Does the Liaison Office Get Hong Kong?

Wang Zhenmin has been stationed at the liaison office since January
The Chinese government may have people on the ground in Hong Kong gathering information about the people and the city, but it doesn't seem to want to try to understand what's going on.

At all.

The legal head of Beijing's liaison office here said Hong Kong is ill and needs medication, caused by the growing talk of independence -- which he ruled out for "1,000 years and forever".

It's either 1,000 years or forever. Which one is it?

Wang Zhenmin believes those advocating Hong Kong's separation from China are acting out of fear that the mainland's success is eclipsing the city's.

Sixtus "Baggio" Leung says Wang's comments are "laughable"
Someone really has his head above the clouds.

"Hong Kong's prosperity and stability is largely because of the motherland," he said. "Some people then think that now the motherland is developing well, Hong Kong will go downhill. It is heartbreaking to see some people going for extreme means to destroy Hong Kong."

Err... no one is really thinking that theory, Mr Wang; it is rather that Hong Kong people are tired of our dependence on the mainland and Beijing meddling in our affairs. None of us wants to destroy Hong Kong, unless the mainland has other plans for us.

He went on to declare Hong Kong would remain a part of China "for 1,000 years and forever", and that no one could break them apart.

Sounds so romantic and yet does Hong Kong have a choice in the matter?

The Basic Law expert said Hong Kong should serve as a role model for the country's economic and democratic development, along with the rule of law.

"If the 7.3 million people in Hong Kong mess up democracy and only bring extremism, violence and separatism, how can the 1.4 billion people on the mainland pursue democracy without fear?"

Is he insinuating there will be democracy in China?

Rimsky Yuen says advocating separatism breaches Basic Law
And he shouldn't he give us credit for no violent incidents on September 4, the day of the Legislative Council elections when 2.8 million people turned out to cast their votes?

Wang is the same person who raised eyebrows in April when he warned that those who discussed independence for Hong Kong in a "large-scale" setting were not only violating the Basic Law, but could also be committing "treason" and "sedition" under existing criminal laws.

That set off a debate on whether talking about separatism was considered "sedition", and the Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung warned that advocating independence was a breach of the "relevant" provisions in the Basic Law, and incompatible with the legal status and overall interests of the city.

While Wang said he was open to discussing whether "one country, two systems" should continue after it expires in 2047, he revealed that he personally preferred to maintain the
status quo.

Localist lawmaker-elect Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang, who advocates self-determination, dismissed Wang's take on the rise of separatism as "laughable".

"When we discuss the question of independence, we are driven by the invisible hand from the Communist Party that is meddling with our rights and freedoms," Leung said. "It has nothing to do with China's economic strength."

While Wang was here at the University of Hong Kong from 1993 to 1995, and served on the Basic Law committee from 2006 to 2008, his recent time here only started from January this year.

Perhaps he feels he has to play up the rhetoric because of his position, but that just only demonstrates Beijing's lack of sensitivity to the issue or a belief in the heavy-handed approach will bring bring stray attitudes around.

Not.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Flexible Employees, Flexible Space

The bank has dome some creative cost-cutting by moving staff to hot-desks
It's quite shocking to hear financial giant HSBC has decided to cut costs further by moving 300 of its staff into a hot-desk office in Causeway Bay.

These temporary office spaces are typically used by freelancers who want to do some work or having meeting space, or start-ups who aren't ready to commit to a lease yet and may be expanding too quickly to estimate how much space they need.

But HSBC is going a step further by moving its digital and transformation teams to WeWork, an American-based co-working office provider with an office in Causeway Bay.

The bank has rented more than 300 desks at WeWork, which is the largest corporate membership subscription in the Hong Kong market so far, according to Cynthia Chan, manager of office specialist Asia Pacific research at CBRE.

An idea of what WeWork looks like in Causeway Bay
"Co-working offices can provide a flexible alternative for banks looking to reduce their footprint or for short-term project space," she says.

Chan adds tenants in co-working spaces are not required to pay deposits, take out long leases, or make large capital out-lays on fit outs.

According to the WeWork membership plan, the starting price for a hot desk is HK$6,200 per month, and that includes the use of the venue for seminars, workshops or events. Children are even welcome to come in.

This compares to HK$8,170 per month per person for a traditional office space, based on a company with 300 staff in Causeway Bay and would need at least 27,000 square feet. The monthly total bill would be HK$2.45 million for a three year lease.

But with a rented co-working space, the savings work out to HK$23,640 per person annually.

That's serious penny-pinching.

HSBC isn't the only bank looking at co-working spaces, as Chan says these kinds of offices can help manage fluctuating staff numbers due to uncertainty in the economic markets.

While the bottom line probably makes the bank look good to shareholders, HSBC insists the move is not a cost-saving measure.

"As HSBC accelerates the build-up of our digital capabilities, our space in WeWork will allow our employees to collaborate in an open plan and agile working environment," says Andrew Connell, HSBC's regional head of digital, retail banking and wealth management, Asia-Pacific.

We can't help but wonder if other traditional businesses will be looking to co-working spaces as the most cost-effective way forward. But how would employees feel about working in a space that they are constantly sharing with others? Where do they keep all their stuff? In a locker? Or take everything with them all the time?

Co-working spaces takes working in a cube farm to another level.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

More Questions than Answers

What do you see here? Leung speaks to the media, Tsang looks on
This afternoon Hong Kong media descended on the Central Government Complex in Tamar, where everyone waited with baited breath to hear what Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah had to say about the disputed number of flats to be built in Wang Chau in Yuen Long.

While Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung and acting Secretary for Development Eric Ma Siu-cheung were also there, everyone was watching the body language between Leung and Tsang, but not much happened.

Leung had said there were plans for 17,000 flats for public rental and home ownership schemes, but that somehow got severely scaled down to 4,000. Why?

Here is a summary of what was basically said during the press conference in chronological order:

Cheung revealed for the first time that the housing department met with the rural leaders four times -- in July and September 2013, and twice in March 2014.

Anthony Cheung speaks to the media in the press conference
In the first two meetings, the rural strongmen strongly opposed the 17,000 flats, and only on March 12, 2014 was the plan of building 4,000 flats discussed.

[So what happened here? How did it get from 17,000 to 4,000? What was exactly said in those meetings, particularly on the March 12, 2014?]

Leung denied caving into the rural leaders, stressing that housing was a top priority for his administration. He added that Hong Kong's social problems stemmed from land shortages and his government would not stop finding land to develop.

[We don't need to find more land, we need to redevelop more brownfield sites, and the one in Wang Chau has a parking lot run by one of the rural strongmen who has refused to concede it to the government.]

Then both Leung and Cheung denied taking part in lobbying for the Wang Chau project, that it was the job of technocrats. Cheung also said that feasibility studies would be done on the second and third phases of Wang Chau (following the theory that the 4,000 flats were the first phase), and that the flats would be completed would be 2026-27.

[So we are still going ahead with kicking out residents from the three villages to make way for the 4,000 flats? Why can't we use that brownfield site for 17,000 flats instead?]

Pan-democrats and localists aren't impressed
When Cheung was asked by the media why district councillors did not know Wang Chau would be developed in stages, he just replied that documents already mentioned that they were discussing the first phase and that the remaining parts were an ongoing study.

[Officials seem to use the phrase "ongoing study" alot...]

Meanwhile Director of Housing Stanley Ying Yiu-hong (who is under Cheung) dismissed the suggestion that the public were not consulted before relocating the residents of three villages where the 4,000 flats will be built.

"We value public opinion, but it cannot replace our professional analysis," Ying said. "To implement stage one, we went through [four] procedures: consulting rural leaders, consulting Yuen Long District Council and publicizing the relevant documents, consulting the town planning board where people submitted their petition and we discussed them and the project was gazetted."

[Did Ying really say that? So you the public can tell us your opinion, but we won't listen to it anyway. What kind of attitude is that?]

Whenever Tsang spoke, it was to deny there were any tensions between him and his boss and that he had minimal involvement in the discussions...

By the end of the hour-long press conference, Leung got teary eyed saying, "I have to thank my colleagues because it was a toiling task for them, to every little achievement." He said the Wang Chau plan "is a good opportunity to show the government's determination, and the difficulties faced by it in boosting housing supply".

Then he abruptly got up and left to go to the airport to greet Hong Kong's Paralympic team.

So where does this leave us? The government is trying to give united answers to questions, but we have even more queries, with the crucial ones not even addressed, particularly why 17,000 flats dropped to 4,000 and what was said during these meetings with the rural leaders.

The pan-democrats and localists weren't impressed either and plan to grill the government soon after they are sworn in on October 1.

Is this the issue that will break the camel's back?

More importantly how does Beijing see how Leung is handling the situation? Are Chinese officials shaking their heads and wondering what their alternatives are, or do they think Leung's tearing up was a nice ending to get some sympathy points?

Stay tuned.



Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Cracks are Showing

One of the villages in Wang Chau fearing eviction for housing development
Incoming lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick has definitely opened a can of worms and senior government officials are squirming in their seats.

He claimed there was a "government-business-landlord-triad collusion" behind the scaling down of a public housing project in Wang Chau, Yuen Long in the New Territories.

Chu alleged the government had originally planned 17,000 flats to be built on the site, but it was reduced to a paltry 4,000 flats because of opposition from powerful rural leaders.

Leung claims he didn't make deals with rural leaders
These 4,000 flats are planned to be built on a site where there are three existing villages, instead of on a brownfield site that could yield 13,000 flats, but is controlled by rural leaders.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying denies bowing to pressure from these rural strongmen, saying this was only the first phase...

But even more interesting is how Leung and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah have made different responses to the issue.

Leung said that while he chaired a task force on Wang Chau in 2013, he claimed Tsang was involved in the deliberations as part of the task force that also included Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

However, Tsang's office told the media that while he was part of the task force, he did not attend the one and only meeting.

And even Cheng distanced herself from the issue, saying she was not a member of the task force or steering committee.

John Tsang denies being involved in any task force
As Tsang and Leung seem to be vying for the top job next year, Leung appears to be trying to drag down his opponent by trying to lump the responsibility of the Wang Chau issue on him.

Regardless, Chu isn't impressed by the responses from the government so far.

"Their statements are only confusing the picture," he said. "The public want to hear one full account from the government, not 10 different stories."

Indeed.

Being unable to get a straight answer proves the government is trying to hide something, and it's possibly that it may have colluded with rural forces. It's not a new story, but it confirms that something is up.

The tensions between Tsang and Leung in the days and weeks to come could reveal even more than they want us to know.

In the meantime, we should praise Chu for shining a spotlight on this issue -- and he hasn't even been sworn in yet.

Surely those who voted him in are already pleased they chose the right guy for the job...

Monday, 19 September 2016

Think Tank Avoids Real Issues

Tung Chee-hwa giving a speech at an Our Foundation Hong Kong event
Hong Kong has a lot of think tanks. They are either run by academics or politicians, the latter of which have some kind of agenda attached to them.

For example, Our Hong Kong Foundation was started by former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Given his connections with Beijing, one can imagine what this think tank's slant is.

Grandpa Tung -- bless him -- is still trying to help solve the city's problems, but he's not really looking at the heart of the issue.

Eva Cheng (third frm left) is executive director of the think tank
He has hired former Amway executive Eva Cheng Kam-fun as executive director of the foundation, but how can someone who did multilevel marketing -- in beauty and health -- know how to tackle Hong Kong's biggest concerns in housing, education, employment and the environment?

However, the think tank seems to believe that inspiring a new generation of scientists and innovators is the solution, organizing Innotech Expo 2016 that starts on Saturday to October 1 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Is this another way for Hong Kong's elite to try to distract youth from the main issues at hand (and doing a poor job of it), or does the pro-establishment body really believe technology is the answer?

The real problem is that the Hong Kong government is completely out of touch with the problems average locals are facing. Housing prices are still far out of reach of most people, and now first-time buyers are stuck buying microflats that are less than 200 square feet. How does that give anyone a sense of dignity?

Where does the government plan to house people like her?
And why are there two main supermarket chains that basically have the same prices? From 1996 to 2000 there was a French hypermarket called Carrefour that entered the market, but mysteriously suppliers refused to deliver products to its stores. Something fishy was going on there... As a result customers lose and for the most part are stuck paying Wellcome and ParknShop prices for average products.

Why is the government not helping the poor and instead spending lavishly on large infrastructure projects that have little meaning or use to Hong Kong? Many are dreading when the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge opens and seeing a flood of people coming over.

The latest report on the poor is that the government is now cracking down on illegal flats, many of which are in industrial buildings, thus evicting many people on or below the poverty line. Where are they going to go? Does the government even have a plan in place for the thousands of people who are forced to live like this because there isn't enough social housing for them?

Even more bizarre is that the government has so much money in its coffers and yet it cannot or will not house the poor, instead making them fend for themselves. It treats them as if they did not work hard enough, but for many, economic circumstances have made them barely able to eke out a living.

Hong Kong is not a social welfare place, so why would the government think the poor just want to leech off its money?

And why be so stingy about the money it gives to the elderly? Meanwhile the health care system, while equitable, doesn't have enough staff, many top doctors and nurses lured into the private system. In about 15 years there will be a lot of people growing old -- is Hong Kong prepared for the impending onslaught?

Then there's pollution and the environment, where the government isn't doing enough to encourage recycling let alone telling people to consume less. Oh wait. The city is dependent on consumerism. Setting up a task force with Guangzhou on dumping marine refuse isn't really going to solve the problem of garbage washing up on our shores either.

I could go on and on. Our Hong Kong Foundation thinks if young people got jobs in the technology sector then everything will be solved. How about trying to tackle some of the above mentioned issues? That would make all of us a bit happier.


Sunday, 18 September 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Simon Helberg, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins
Today I finally watched Florence Foster Jenkins, a bio-pic starring Meryl Street and Hugh Grant and it was alternatively hilarious and touching.

Based in a true story, it's about a wealthy socialite who inherited a lot of money and was a patron (and founder) of many musical clubs, one of which was the Verdi Club. She would always appear in them, usually at the end, not singing, but in elaborate costumes she designed herself.

Her husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), is much younger, and acts as her manager and organizes shows, and more importantly constantly showers her with praises.

Florence making one of her (off pitch) recordings in a studio
In the movie she watches a soprano perform in a recital and decides she wants to become a singer. They hire a pianist to accompany her, the delightful Simon Helberg who plays Cosme McMoon.

When he arrives for the first practice session, Cosme quickly realizes Florence is an awful singer -- but her coach, the assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera thinks her voice is wonderful, as does Bayfield -- so what can Cosme do considering she's paying him US$150 a week in 1944?

Her singing is not just a private hobby -- she wants to perform in front of an audience and so Bayfield goes through great lengths to choose suitable concert goers, and great hilarity ensues.

She doesn't choose songs that are easier for her to master, but ones that are way beyond her ability, such as "Queen of the Night" from Mozart's The Magic Flute and "Clavelitos". Cosme also composes some songs for her too.

Appearing as an angel of inspiration for the Verdi Club
We also find out about Florence having syphilis for 50 years, which she contracted from her first husband and out of courtesy, doesn't have intimate relations with Bayfield. This gives him a reason to look elsewhere for a relationship that Cosme discovers and realizes things are pretty complicated.

Streep is fantastic as Florence; you sympathize with her because of her personal setbacks, but then you also wonder if she knows what she's getting herself into,  performing in public. And how do you sing badly, not to the point of ridiculing her, but singing her heart out the way she did back then? It's no easy feat.

Bayfield's character is complicated, and Grant pulls it off well. He doesn't play the goofy character anymore, but someone who has a symbiotic relationship with Florence, as they need each other to survive.

The real Miss Florence in one of her costumes
And then Cosme is trying to navigate the whole situation the best he can, though it's his eyes that give away his true thoughts. Helberg also plays the piano, but he didn't play much classical beforehand, mostly jazz and rock music, so this was an additional learning curve for him.

After doing some research, the film is pretty accurate when it comes to the facts about Florence's and Bayfield's backgrounds, and the concert she gave in Carnegie Hall in October 1944.

It is believed the medication she took for syphilis that had toxic side effects, like mercury and arsenic, may have impaired her nervous system, affecting her hearing for pitch, as she was a piano prodigy when she was a child.

So while Florence is used to being in high society, she also came from humble roots, but it seems music was her true passion, and she was determined couldn't do without it.


Saturday, 17 September 2016

Taste of Ukraine in Central

Cabbage rolls filled with rice and minced meat
About a month ago a colleague told me that Ivan the Kozak was shut down on Cochrane Street. Apparently it had been around for many years so it was a surprise to hear it had been closed down, but then again it was probably a victim of jacked up rents.

Our braised ox tongue with pastry on top!
However, about a week ago when my relatives wanted to have a birthday dinner there, I was surprised to find Ivan the Kozak had re-opened on Wyndham Street and I was keen to try out the food.

I didn't visit the place before so it's hard for me to compare, but the restaurant has a cozy atmosphere, with needlepoint cushions, wooden tables and chairs, cabinets filled with glasses and crockery, and an idyllic panoramic picture to transport diners to the Eastern European country.

For starters we had two salads, one with beetroot, herring, potato and carrot topped with salmon roe that was refreshing and light, followed by the Russian salad, finely diced vegetables mixed in mayonnaise.

Next came "darlings" or cabbage rolls filled with rice and minced meat with tomato sauce and sour cream on top. We really enjoyed this dish that was quite filling, though more tomato sauce would have made it better. We're wondering if we can replicate this at home...

Here's another hearty bowl with beef, carrots and potatoes
Another was a small bowl that was covered with pastry that was baked. When the cover was removed, inside was braised ox tongue with melted cheese. This dish was a highlight, as the ox tongue was flavourful, cooked in a clear broth, and the layer of cheese wasn't too heavy. We ate the pastry on its own, though one could have ripped a piece off and put a piece of ox tongue on top before eating it.

We also have a slightly bigger bowl with the pastry on top again, and inside revealed a hearty combination of chunks of braised beef with carrots and potatoes. We also ordered lamb shank that came in a black stone bowl that was bubbling madly when it arrived at the table.

Steam bubbling from the lamb shank dish obscured my camera!
In it was a leg of lamb with most of the meat on the bone, though it came off easily, cooked in a soupy concoction that included big chunks of potatoes and carrots. Eventually the soup evaporated into a delicious sauce.

One more must-have is the dumplings, and the ones we ordered had potatoes and mushrooms in them, accompanied with some sour cream. This also had nice flavours, though the dumplings weren't stuffed to the gills as one would do for Chinese ones.

While we arrived at 7pm, the restaurant was pretty quiet until about an hour later when people streamed in, either with reservations or walked in. It's pretty impressive the restaurant did quite well tonight, considering its new location.

Dumplings with potatoes and mushrooms, and sour cream
Service is nice if you can get their attention.

I hope to try the borscht next time and perhaps the pancakes too!

Ivan the Kozak
1/F, Parehk House
63 Wyndham Street
Central
2851 1193

Friday, 16 September 2016

Vancouverite Finally Free

Kevin Garratt hugging his wife Julia in Vancouver
We were relieved this morning to read the news that Vancouverite Kevin Garratt was released after spending two years in a Chinese jail on suspicion of spying.

The move comes soon after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Beijing earlier this month and raised the Garratt case with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and a week before Prime Minister Li Keqiang comes to Canada next week.

Earlier this week Garratt was formally sentenced and then released on bail. According to his family, he was deported from China yesterday and was back in Canada.

Garratt in front of the coffee shop at Dandong
In August 2014, Garratt and his wife Julia were detained in Dandong, a city near the Chinese border with North Korea where the couple had a cafe called Peter's Coffee Shop which they operated as part of a Christian aid mission.

Chinese officials later said they were being held on "suspicion of stealing and spying to obtain state secrets".

"Kevin Garratt and his wife... are suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and important Chinese national defence scientific research programs, and engaging in activities that endanger China's national security," the Foreign Ministry said in a short statement at the time.

Their son Simeon said in Vancouver at the time that the charges "sound ridiculous". "Military secrets? It sounds like something out of a movie or something. Those are the accusations, but I have no idea where they are coming from or how it even came about."

Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Xi Jinping earlier this month
There were also concerns that China's relationship with then Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn't good, which made Garratt's situation harder to bring up and resolve.

Soon Julia Garratt was released on bail and allowed to leave China, but in January Chinese authorities announced Garratt would be tried on the charges. And now he's finally free.

He had originally said that God had told them to go to Dandong to spread Christianity into North Korea.

But after this two-year long wait and finally returning back to Canada, what's Garratt's next move?

Nevertheless, his release demonstrates Trudeau's ability to sway the Chinese, and scores the respect of Canadians for finally successfully dealing with this case which has been left idle for some time.


Thursday, 15 September 2016

Experiencing a Car-Free Zone

How would you like part of Des Voeux Road Central to be a car-free zone?
We're looking forward to September 25, when part of Des Voeux Road Central will be blocked off from vehicular traffic. Perhaps it will get people nostalgic again when the Occupy protests blocked Admiralty for 79 days and spontaneously created a warm, selfless community.

This event though is not a protest, but part of the Clean Air Network's plan to showcase the vision of urban planners on how to convert the busy thoroughfare into a pedestrian-friendly public space without crippling traffic or causing major inconvenience to residents.

The organizers also hope it will persuade Hong Kong people into supporting their ultimate goal of permanently rezoning the main road into a car-free zone.

This is what Clean Air Network envisions for the district
On that Sunday from 10am to 4pm, Des Voeux Road will be blocked between Morrison Street and Man Wa Lane. The area will feature booths, stalls, and even a mini football pitch, and another area will be for artists to perform or exhibit their work.

Trams that go along the line will still be allowed to go through, but at slower speeds, and there will be some 400 volunteers acting as marshalls to ensure pedestrian safety.

Clean Air Network didn't have an easy time persuading the Transport Department into granting the group a temporary traffic arrangement permit. And then the group had to deal with the police and Fire Services Department, who were concerned about potential blockage of emergency vehicular access to the area.

The NGO also had to talk to other stakeholders, like the public transport companies, as about 20 bus routes would be affected.

Winnie Tse of the Clean Air Network hopes the plan won't just be for weekends, when traffic is 40 percent lower, but become a permanent one.

"We want to change people's mindset and we know this is not going to be easy," she said. "A lot of roadside vendors we talked to agreed pollution was serious in the area, but they held a general perception that this is part of life."

Professor Ng Mee-kam, director of Chinese University's Urban Studies Programme, is supportive of the plan.

"I believe people are smart enough to adapt -- remember the Occupy protests?" she asked.

"I'm for non-motorized transport and walking experience. Pedestrianizing the area will help people interact with each other on the streets, gaining inspiration and boosting our social capital," Ng said.

Sounds like a plan!

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Getting Used to the Localist Snub

The annual October 1 flag-raising ceremony at Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai
They haven't technically been sworn in yet, but the six newly-elected localist lawmakers have already decided they are not going to attend the October 1 National Day reception that mark the founding of the People's Republic of China.

It's the ritual flag raising ceremony, speeches and singing of the national anthem at Bauhinia Square next to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai.

Cheung Chung-tai says he won't be attending the festivities
The Hong Kong government was testing the waters to see how its working relationship with these localists would be like, but with them snubbing the invite, it seems like the next few years are going to be a tough slog.

Civic Passion's Cheng Chung-tai, who is also a Polytechnic University lecturer, told the media he would skip the event.

"[October 1] is just the national day of China and has little to do with Hong Kong," he said.

The two members of Youngspiration, Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching, who once advocated independence, said the reception celebrated "the national day of a neighbouring country".

A similar reaction came from two others voted into functional constituencies, social welfare and architectural sectors, saying it was "a waste of time with nothing to celebrate".

Sixtus Leung says Oct 1 is a national day for another country
Nathan Law Kwun-chung of Demosisto doesn't plan to attend as a guest but as a protester.

However the seven lawmakers from the Democratic Party have decided to accept the invite, following an internal meeting today.

"We will attend and adopt our own means to reflect the public's opinions to the SAR government and other attendees," said Lam Cheuk-ting, but did not elaborate.

Leung Kwok-hung or "Long Hair" of the League of Social Democrats has yet to receive his invitation, though last year was the first time he was not invited. But seeing as the localists have decided not to attend, perhaps Leung is considered more moderate these days?

It's all relative, isn't it.

Nevertheless, the stand the localists are taking is refreshing. What does October 1 mean to people in Hong Kong anyway? Not much, if anything. While they do face the possibility of Beijing's ire for not giving it face, the six are making a statement that this is Hong Kong, and no, we don't think we're a part of China.

The ball's now in Beijing's court...