Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Increased Parking Fines get Honks of Protest

There needs to be increased enforcement of parking penalties and higher fines
Talk about backtracking.

Hong Kong has a lot of traffic jams during rush hour, and it's mostly due to private cars and vans waiting for their masters and mistresses to whisk them off to their next appointment. These vehicles are usually idling and clogging up roads where traffic should be moving.

And so the government submitted a proposal to raise fixed penalties for illegal parking and related offenses from HK$320 and HK$450 to HK$480 and HK$680 respectively.

But in a bizarre turn of events, lawmakers of all political stripes as well as those from the transport sector were so opposed to this that the government has backed down and lowered the fines to HK$400 and HK$560 instead.

Opposition claims there aren't enough parking spots
Under the revised proposal, making U-turn causing an obstruction and an unauthorized stopping at a bus stop, public light bus stand or taxi stand will be slapped with a fixed penalty of HK$400, while offenses like loading or unloading goods or picking up passengers in a restricted zone will face a fixed penalty of HK$560.

The proposal will be voted on at the end of June and are expected to take effect June 1 next year.

The revision came after feedback from the transport subcommittee and individuals claimed that an increase of 50 percent for illegal parking was "hefty" and that a phased approach should be considered.

In addition, lawmakers from across the political spectrum said there was an acute shortage of parking spaces for commercial vehicles, arguing the city should tackle this problem before penalizing those in the transport sector.

But isn't that the point of raising penalties to prevent illegal parking and other infractions? It's not about making the fines affordable. And besides, in the case of private car owners, if they can buy a car, they can surely afford a several hundred dollar fine.

Vehicles, like this one, clog up streets waiting for owners
As the government also notes, even when there are vacant parking spaces, motorists still choose to park their vehicles illegally "for their own convenience, or to save parking fees".

The number of penalty tickets issued last year was 1.6 million, almost double 820,000 in 2011. The number of licensed vehicles in Hong Kong is 710,000 as of February.

Meanwhile Liberal Party lawmaker Frankie Yick Chi-ming, who represents the transport sector, says he opposes the proposed rises in illegal parking fines, saying the government should be stepping up enforcement at black spots by towing away illegally parked cars.

"The government is barking up the wrong tree. Increasing fines can't deter illegal parking when the shortage of parking spaces is not resolved. Only strict enforcement such as towing away illegally parked cars can be a deterrent."

We agree with the government -- it's about selfishness and thinking they can get away with parking illegally in the hopes they won't get caught.

There definitely needs to be more enforcement and higher fines, but halving the proposed rise in fines is such a cop-out. Why bend to such pressure?

Don't we want more efficient traffic in the city?

Monday, 22 May 2017

A Teacher's Life Lesson for All

Ada Tsang is the first Hong Kong woman to conquer Mount Everest
A Hong Kong school teacher is literally showing her students that they can achieve their dreams, no matter how big they are.

Ada Tsang Yin-hung, 40, has become the first Hong Kong woman to reach the summit at Mount Everest after three attempts.

She along with fellow Hongkonger Elton Ng, a physiotherapist and Zhang Jianguo, an amateur mountaineer from Jiangsu province made it up to the world's highest peak yesterday with the help of two sherpa guides.

The former teacher shows students they too can reach goals
Earlier on her blog Tsang wrote: "For students, every dream seems so far away and words of encouragement are not enough to conquer the frustration of failed attempts. Many would easily give up their dreams... a dream is not defined by the way you think of it, but by the actual efforts you put in.

"I could share my experiences with them only by recollecting events from my past... But what are my own future goals in life? How will I best teach these students how to pursue their goals?"

The secondary teacher quit her job to give her pupils a "life lesson" by scaling the top of the 8,848-metre tall mountain.

On her first attempt in 2014, Tsang was forced to abandon her trek after an avalanche killed 16 Nepali sherpa guides, which resulted in the suspension of all expeditions that season.

Then the following year, she was caught up in a deadly avalanche triggered by a 7.9-magnitude earthquake that killed 17 climbers and left Tsang with a fractured skull and multiple injuries.

The head injury Tsang sustained in 2015 after an earthquake
"She had lost two litres of blood from her injuries in that last attempt," says Catharine Leung, a former pupil. "A lot of people asked her if she wanted to give up, but the thought never once crossed her mind. She said: 'As long as my body can handle it, I will try to do it'."

Many of her former students were ecstatic over the news of Tsang reaching the summit, as her seven years of hard work had finally paid off.

"There were pupils who had dreams of becoming lawyers but they were failing in English," Leung says. "She was telling her students to chase after their dreams, but she didn't want to just talk the talk -- she wanted to walk the talk."

If that's not inspiring enough to prove to Hong Kong students that really, nothing is impossible, I don't know what is.

There is no excuse now for anyone not to at least try to reach their goals. Tsang is a huge inspiration to all of us -- dream big and with determination and hard work, you can do it.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Can Lam Tackle HK's Land Shortage?

David Akers-Jones says Carrie Lam must tackle land shortages firmly
Former chief secretary David Akers-Jones has some advice for incoming chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor -- get tough on tackling Hong Kong's problems, in particular land shortages, describing it as a "shame and disgrace".

Now 90, Akers-Jones was a supporter of Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee during the CE race, but says Lam is "a determined person who has a gentle side to her nature".

While he would not comment on if the civil service produced better leaders than businessmen turned politicians, like Leung Chun-ying who (who he supported), Akers-Jones admits Hong Kong's colonial past was partly to blame for a lack of "clear assumption of responsibility".

He said the colonial civil service took a "positive non-intervention" approach, and left the task of finding solutions to social problems with the private sector.

There are a number of brownfield sites in the New Territories
No wonder the government today has such a laissez-faire approach to what are now very serious social issues, particularly low-income housing, education, and skyrocketing rents.

However, he noted Leung had a more interventionist approach when it came to increased welfare spending.

"I feel Carrie Lam would have to deal with... social problems with a strong hand," he suggested.

Akers-Jones said land supply needed urgent solutions, as it was a "shame" that much of Hong Kong's 1,192 hectares of brownfield sites are now owned by major developers.

"Management of land is a disgrace of the government. When I went to Yuen Long in 1962, it was surrounded by paddy fields... now look at it," he said, referring to where there are a lot of brownfield sites.

"We must reach an amicable agreement between ourselves and the owners of the brownfields, [as] we reached an amicable agreement in the 1960s in the building of new town."

Is Lam CY 2.0 or not? We shall find out in the coming months
That was then, this is now. The issues are more complex, and also residents are more outspoken and concerned about their living environment and of course property values. The stakes are much higher, but the housing problem definitely needs to be tackled.

Other issues Akers-Jones is concerned about including poverty and the ageing population, which he describes as "extremely difficult problems" to be solved.

But he is optimistic Lam will find creative solutions if she and her administration look at problems honestly and listen to the people.

However, from seeing how she performed as chief secretary under Leung, Lam will have to radically change the way she does things to convince us she is really honest about wanting to make Hong Kong better.

Many of us have yet to be convinced she won't be another CY 2.0...

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A Very Chunky Monkey

Uncle Fat needs to lose weight, as he weighs three times the average monkey
Meet Uncle Fat.

He's a chunky monkey who was found on the side of the road in Thailand and is morbidly obese.

A video shows him walking on the road and practically dragging his stomach, and when he sits up, well, it's not a pretty sight.

His stomach is so large that it practically drags on the ground
Nicknamed "Uncle Fat" by locals, the monkey had been feasting on junk food and soft drinks that tourists gave him and others on the roadside. Most of the monkeys are macques who usually weigh 9kg, but Uncle Fat is triple that number, tipping the scales at around 26kg.

He was caught by wildlife officials when pictures of him circulated on social media.

"It was not easy to catch him," says Kacha Phukem, the wildlife official who orchestrated Fat Uncle's capture late last month. "He was the leader of the pack and when I tried to go in, I had to fight off a flock of them with sticks."

As the leader who was not only protected, Uncle Fat was also well fed.

"He had minions and other monkeys bringing food for him, but he would also redistribute it to younger monkeys," says Supakarn Kaewchot, a veterinarian in charge of the monkey's diet. "He's now in a critical condition where there is a high-risk of heart disease and diabetes."

Vet Supakarn prepares his meals of fruits and vegetables
Currently he's on a very strict diet that limits him to 400g of lean protein, fruits and vegetables twice a day. Supakam hopes that in a few months he'll be trim enough to be released back into the wild.

"I understand that people feel sorry for the monkeys and want to feed them when they see them," says Supakam. "But please don't feed them food that people like to eat like snacks and soda. It is very bad for their health and the problem is entirely man-made."

Poor Uncle Fat. But we hope he'll get better soon.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Keeping Traditional Transport Alive

An iconic picture of the Star Ferry with Hong Kong Island in the distance
The tram and Star Ferry are iconic public transport in Hong Kong, and while tourists love to ride them and take photographs, and locals like the inexpensive fares, there are fewer and fewer young people willing to work in these two areas.

In the case of the Star Ferry, chief coxwain Chan Tsu-wing is 61 years old and has returned from retirement twice to help out the company.

Because he is the longest-serving employee, he has to manage subordinates, but he'd much rather be out in the water steering the ferry back and forth between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Chief coxwain Chan Tsu-wing at the helm of the Star Ferry
"If we want to protect this cultural symbol of Hong Kong, we have to have successors," he says. "Fewer young people want to work in this field and we have no one to take our place. The most difficult thing for us is the lack of fresh talent. Nowadays, we would need to urge people to take license examinations. People today are not as hardworking as in the past."

While driving trams isn't as monotonous, as drivers need to keep a constant look out for pedestrians darting out into the street, while having to deal with all kinds of vehicles on the roads, not many young people are interested in this job either, preferring to work in an air conditioned office and make more money.

These jobs may seem monotonous, but imagine if Hong Kong didn't have the Star Ferry or trams anymore? That's why they need to be supported.

And this is where the Hong Kong government needs to step in. It should be subsidizing these two means of transport because they are a crucial part of the city's landscape.

Most people think it's easy to drive a tram -- think again
That way fares don't necessarily have to increase all the time, and people might have more incentive to appreciate them more. If people have decent salaries doing these jobs, then maybe they won't mind doing them so much?

Currently it's hard to find people willing to sit by the docks all day in all weather conditions to help dock and undock ferries, while tram drivers also have to deal with all kinds of weather conditions and mostly have to bundle up for winter, or sweat it out in the summer as most trams don't have air conditioning.

Ridership for both have dropped off considerably -- the Star Ferry when its Central location was moved several hundred metres away, and trams were hurt when three more stops on the MTR were added westward towards Kennedy Town.

Hong Kong and its people don't have enough appreciation for these old school means of transport. Will the government just let the companies kill off the trams and Star Ferries because one day they won't be feasible anymore?

"It is a pity that Hong Kong is not the sort of place that credits people for their knowledge and passion if it can't make money, says tram enthusiast Joseph Tse Yiu-hon, 36.

"Passengers are often happy with the low fare if HK$2.30 a ride and appreciate the fact that the century-old transport is still running on the streets, but it is easy to forget the faces of those who are actually continuing the legacy," he says.

The government should really look at subsidies to ensure the existence of these two means of public transport keep going well into the future.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Contentious Plan for Country Park Housing

Can you imagine housing blocks near here in Tai Lam Country Park?
The Hong Kong government has announced that the not-for-profit Housing Society will conduct an 18-month study in the feasibility of building public flats and homes for the elderly on two 20-hectare sites on the edges of Tai Lam and Ma On Shan country parks.

It's a controversial move, following the proposal made by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in his policy address in January, and now the first steps are being taken two months before he leaves office.

"We are not saying we are going to build flats in country parks now," says Housing Society CEO Wong Kit-loong. "But the study will facilitate public discussion. We hope to also understand why people disagree [with the proposal]."

This is an interesting development -- the government is getting someone else to do the study, so that it doesn't get the blame in case the study concludes building housing on protected country park land is a good idea.

Or how about here at Ma On Shan Country Park?
Some lawmakers and conservationists are opposed to it, saying there is no public consensus on the matter and it may set a bad precedent.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong of activist group Green Sense says "pitting environmental conservation against the public's need for housing" was "deplorable and unfair".

According to the Planning Department, country parks make up 41 percent of Hong Kong's land area, while residential land use was only 7 percent.

Wong seems to hint the housing proposal would be a good idea, saying the total size of designated country park land had increased by 6 percent over the past few years to 43,000 hectares.

How could country park land grow, unless someone donated land back, or some rezoning has taken place?

"Hong Kong is still short of 200 hectares for building public flats, according to [the planning strategy beyond 2030]... The queue for building public flats is getting longer. The problem is immediate," he says.

One of many brownfield sites (front) that can be redeveloped
Thousands of families currently have to wait an average of four years and seven months for a public rental flat, according to the Housing Authority.

Seniors must wait about two years and seven months for housing, as there are 275,900 applications.

But why build housing for the elderly out in the boonies?

Then public infrastructure projects also need to be built to connect them to civilization. Oh wait -- is this a make-work project?

Why not, as we have pointed out time and time again, there are so many brown sites around Hong Kong that could be redeveloped -- and many are near transport links already. Why not work on these areas first?

Or is it because the government wants to distract us from New Territories so-called "indigenous villagers" who have occupied government land and refuse to give it back so the government would rather encroach on virgin land than try to reclaim what is essentially taxpayer land?

In these times we need to be more sustainable and practical. Developing the edge of what is supposed to be protected land with the blessing of the government is so bizarre and hypocritical.

Whatever happened to Hong Kong finding creative solutions? This is not one of them.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Lin Dan Threatens to Sue for Wages

Lin Dan publicly revealed he and six players have not been paid for months
It was shocking to read today that badminton superstar Lin Dan had to resort to social media to complain that he and his fellow players on his team have not been paid 4 million yuan in over five months.

He and six other players competed in the lucrative China Badminton Super League, the prime national team competition for badminton players on the mainland. It was held from December 6, 2016 to January 14th this year and is run by the China Badminton Association.

On Weibo, Lin complained to his three million followers that his team Guangzhou Yueyu had yet to pay them.

"It is chilling that so far all the athletes have not received salaries. We athletes in order not to affect the collective honour, still insisted on completing matches despite not being paid.

"We have communicated many times with the club to pay the salaries and so far their attitude is really frustrating and disappointing. For the club to win honour while we get nothing, please do not let our sweat flow white!

Lin was in hot water when he wasn't seen with his wife (left)
"We solemnly declare that the Guangzhou Yueyu Badminton Club's Mr Gao Jun and Mr Fu Xun respect the athletes and pay the full salaries... or we will take legal means to defend our rights and interests!"

Apparently Guangzhou's chairman Gao said even he himself was owed wages, and that he would rush to the city of Heyuan in Guangdong province, where the club's main sponsors are based, to have the wage matter settled as soon as possible.

While Lin is a very popular athlete, his image took a big hit when he was photographed with another woman while his wife Xie Xingfan was pregnant. The couple reconciled and his wife also took to social media, asking that the athletes be paid.

It turns out the club is registered in the national league under the name Heyuan Agricultural and Commercial Bank Guangzhou Team, and Gao said the bank was one of the club's major sponsors but had yet to pay up.

"This incident has nothing to do with Yueyu," says Gao. "We have been made scapegoats."

So will Lin and his fellow players be paid eventually? Does the bank have enough funds? Sounds strange for it to not pay the athletes... or is their money stuck in some soured loan no one is supposed to know about?

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Number of the Day: US$3 Billion

The Murray Road car park (right) sold today for US$3 billion
Land is getting even more expensive in Hong Kong, with today's sale of the Murray Road car park for a staggering US$3 billion (HK$23.28 billion). That works out to HK$50,064 per square foot.


The government building was sold to Henderson Land
The record up to now was a grade-A office space at 9 Queens Road Central sold in April for HK$145.82 million, or HK$39,800 per square foot.

The buyer of Murray Road, Henderson Land Development, run by Lee Shau-kee and his family, beat out eight rival bids, in particular mainland developers who are now strangled from getting money out of China these days.

Henderson Land plans to develop the multi-storey car park into -- what else -- a commercial building the company describes as "a landmark building" that will be completed in 2022.

Analysts are already speculating multinational and mainland firms will occupy that office space.

There's a convenient walkway from Central to Admiralty
So while car owners already have one less place to park their cars in Central (it closed a few weeks ago), pedestrians will lose a convenient thoroughfare, as it provided an easy short cut to Admiralty and the edge of Central.

By the way -- now that the government will have another US$3 billion in its coffers, how about using those proceeds towards building social housing? Seems like the most decent thing the authorities could do...

Monday, 15 May 2017

Asylum Denied to Refugees who Sheltered Snowden

Lawyer Robert Tibbo with the refugees who sheltered Snowden in 2013
Is it a coincidence?

Four people who came to Hong Kong at different times and filed refugee claims were recently rejected at the same time. They have 14 days to appeal, but could face imminent detention and deportation.

One is from the Philippines, and the others are from Sri Lanka. The one common thread is that they helped house NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden for two weeks in their homes when he was in Hong Kong in 2013.

Edward Snowden hid in Hong Kong for two weeks
"The Immigration Department rejected their cases on the foundation that the department did not believe the asylum seekers assisted Mr Snowden... The decisions are completely unreasonable," said Robert Tibbo, their Canadian lawyer, accusing the government of not complying with international obligations.

It seems the Immigration Department reactivated these four cases after the story of the four harbouring Snowden was revealed last September in a story in the National Post and in Oliver Stone's film Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has also appealed for help for the refugees.

The movie and the media have shone a spotlight on the plight of refugees in Hong Kong which is hardly a walk in the park. Many refugees are in limbo in the city for many years, unable to work, waiting for their cases to be processed. Some get desperate and start dealing in drugs which increases their chances of getting caught and if they do, they can find themselves in even worse situations.

Joseph Gordeon-Levitt in the movie Snowden
In the case of these four, Tibbo believes his clients were singled out for helping the former NSA and CIA contractor.

"I felt they already had the decision to reject the clients written up a long time ago... Their screening was expedited not to protect them, but to dispense their cases," he said.

However, a spokesman for the Security Bureau said the "accusation that the Immigration Department targets any particular claimants or categories of claimants is unfounded and not true."

He said the Immigration Department will continue expediting the screening of claims "with a view to clearing the backlog of claims pending screening as soon as possible."

As of March, there were 8,956 claims pending decision.

When the four heard their fate, they have been terrified ever since, worried that they may be deported at anytime.

They have already lodged applications to Canada and are waiting to hear back -- and we hope for their sake they will hear some good news very soon.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Picture of the Day: Cake for Smiles

The Valrhona chocolate and banana cake is the sweetest fundraiser
Every year around this time, The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong has a fundraiser that brings smiles not only to the beneficiaries but to donors too.

Smile Asia is a group of charities that help treat children with facial deformities like cleft palates and lips and The Ritz-Carlton hotels Asia Pacific have been helping to raise money through the sale of scrumptious cakes (HK$385 each) for one week.

I put in my order as soon as I heard about the fundraiser and picked up the cake yesterday as my relatives and I had an early Mother's Day gathering.

When we finished dinner and I opened up the box, the strong smell of chocolate pricked up our taste buds with anticipation.

The cake is Valrhona chocolate with banana, as the hotel pastry chef explains that children like both these ingredients. It's an unusual combination, but for a cake that's fundraising for kids, why not?

When we cut into the cake, it was pretty dense, but in a good way -- rich chocolate with hints of banana -- though more banana would have been appreciated.

Nevertheless we're glad we did our part to help children better lives.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Hong Kong's Lackadaisical Approach to Water

In the 1960s, people had to make their water supply last four days at a time
The Hong Kong government doesn't seem to care about its residents wasting water because it gets 80 percent of it cheaply from across the border via the Dongjiang River.

However, environmental groups and think tanks have been repeating their chorus that people should be paying the true cost of water so that they will think twice when they turn on the tap.

Civic Exchange released its latest report called The Illusion of Plenty, saying that water tariffs need to be raised to cope with a HK$1.35 billion revenue loss, as one-third of the city's water is being wasted.

One-third! And HK$1.35 BILLION.

Today 80 percent of our freshwater comes from China
Dr Frederick Lee Yok-shiu, associate professor in the geography department at the University of Hong Kong, said a typical family of three in the city should be paying more than double their current water bill. He estimated their monthly fee of HK$94 should be raised to HK$194.

While the price of water has increased, Lee says for political reasons the tariffs have been frozen, and so Hong Kong people have this illusion that water is plentiful -- and cheap.

As a result, Hong Kong has one of the world's highest rates of per-capita water usage, and the rates have been steadily increasing since 1998. The city's annual consumption in 2015 reached 1.25 billion cubic metres -- the equivalent to 5.5 billion full bathtubs -- about 21 percent higher than the global average.

While Civic Exchange chairman Evan Auyang says the water tariff system should reflect the true cost of fresh water, he also cautions that reforms should not impact low-income families' access to fresh water.

I'm not saying we should raise the cost of water for everyone," he said. "But for certain private companies that are using it in very large quantities, you should charge them more."

That would include places like restaurants, cafes, and laundry shops. The government needs to do more to really get people to be more aware of their water usage. In the office washroom and the gym I observe how people use water and it's shocking how they leave taps running, or take very long showers, when five minutes will do.

Raising water prices would at least help kick start people's perceptions about water and treat it more as a precious commodity. The government also needs to be on top of its water system, as the Water Supplies Department took up to two years to address leaking pipes in 2015.

And although the government started a campaign in 2014 to get people to save 10 litres of water a day, Civic Exchange estimated that even if the campaign reached its target, it would only save 2.6 percent of freshwater consumption.

My parents' generation remember having to take baths in a large bucket, and using the leftover water to wash rice to wash the dishes, as the starch removed oil from bowls and plates.

They also remember when water shortages were common place in the 1960s where they had to save enough water to last four days. Imagine the outrage if that happened now?

Politically and socially more needs to be done. We cannot afford to waste water anymore.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Numbers and Reality Don't Match Up

Hong Kong's GDP for the first quarter beat analysts' forecasts
Breaking news, folks -- Hong Kong's economy is doing really well -- according to the numbers on paper.

On Friday official figures released showed the city's economy grew at the fastest pace in six years in the first quarter, as the gross domestic product rose 4.3 percent.

This was due to the buoyant stock market, increased trade, the hot property sector, robust employment and an encouraging global economic outlook, said government and experts.

Unemployment is low, but most people need a job to survive
The GDP was well above the 3.7 percent average forecast by analysts, and now that they are readjusting their forecasts, these analysts believe Hong Kong's economy will remain strong in the second quarter.

However, as a lay person, I see a different picture of the city's economy.

There are lots of shop spaces that have been empty for months, or over a year, other shops and restaurants closing because they can't pay the rising rents demanded of greedy landlords, and because of that people are losing their jobs or finding it hard to sustain their business because their clients' budgets have been slashed or don't renew contracts.

Does the GDP take this into consideration as well?

There are many vacant shops around town
The heated property market is thanks to uber wealthy people snapping up multiple flats as if they were several articles of clothing, or bags of candy, thinking nothing of dropping over a hundred million dollars, and mainland developers overbidding for plots of land.

There is low unemployment because the vast majority of us need to have a job -- it's expensive to live here!

We don't know how these financial experts come up with these numbers, but if it psychologically boosts Hong Kong, then we can't complain too much. But the reality on the ground is very different from what's on paper.

Just see for yourself.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Bad Bureaucratic Optics

Every July 1, marcher congregate at Victoria Park -- what about this year?
 Every year on July 1, Hong Kong celebrates another anniversary of its handover back to China, and pro-democracy activists mark the occasion with an annual protest march.

Since 2003, it always starts from Victoria Park and I've participated in a few.

But this year with the 20th anniversary of the handover and Chinese President Xi Jinping expected to visit for the festivities, it looks like the Hong Kong government is not taking any chances in terms of dissent.

Xi Jinping's possible visit is making the government anxious
Instead of allowing the Civil Human Rights Front to stage its yearly march, the space in Victoria Park will be given to HongKong Celebrations Association, which is comprised of 40 pro-Beijing groups, including business chambers, and the Federation of Trade Unions.

A fun fact is that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Zhang Xiaoming, director of Beijing's liaison office, are its honorary patrons.

Au Nok-hin, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, queried the decision by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which is responsible for allocating the venue.

"A department member of staff called us telling us that they would allocate the football pitch to another group based on an internal guideline, which said if two groups applied for using the same venue at the same time, consideration would be based on the 'nature of the organization'." says Au.

"Is the government trying to shut out opposing voices when the state leader is in town? Is it only allowing celebrations but no demonstration? I don't rule out political factors are in play," Au added.

Zhang (l) and Leung have links to Federation of Trade Unions
Previously, the pro-Beijing group would apply to use the space in the morning, and the Civil Human Rights Front could use Victoria Park in the afternoon. However this time, HongKong Celebrations Association has applied to use the space all day. Au says it is an obvious ploy to prevent the pro-democracy activists from congregating and marching.

Apparently the decision is not security related, as a police inside source told the media that the annual pro-democracy march had been flagged as a possible security problem, but the police had no objections.

Another interesting thing to note is that anyone who wishes to put in an application to use the space, must do so three months before the date. Civil Human Rights Front did so in April, while the pro-Beijing group submitted theirs on March 15.

The optics aren't good in this case -- the government is just adding fuel to the fire. So much for supposedly trying to foster harmony in the community. It seems one-sided.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Hong Kong's Smog-Filled Air

The serious smog levels made it difficult to see across Victoria Harbour today
This morning I woke up to... haze.

Looking out towards Victoria Harbour, I could not distinguish between the water and land -- it was all like a fog, but it really was terribly polluted air.

At 2pm, readings at Hong Kong's 13 general stations as well as three roadside stations had reached "very high" or "serious" health risk levels. Six stations reported scores of 10+, the highest possible, indicating a serious health risk.

Children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory issues were advised to avoid staying outdoors, especially in areas with heavy traffic.

And yet when I was out in the streets I hardly saw anyone of us don a mask.

Air quality readings went through the roof today
Are we the stupid ones? Or is the government stupid to let our air quality deteriorate so badly?

An Environmental Protection Department spokesman said the pollution was brought by high pressure over the western North pacific as well as light winds locally.

"In addition, Hong Kong is also being affected by an airstream with higher background pollutant concentrations from the Pearl River Delta," the spokesman said.

That's code for blaming the mainland for the pollution, but in the last few years most of the factories across the border have closed down. So where is the pollution really coming from?

The spokesman added that the sunshine, together with "higher than normal" levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulates, had enhanced the smog, resulting in high pollution.

Nitrogen dioxide comes from emissions from cars, trucks, buses, machinery and power plants. Surely a good chunk of that was pollution was made locally.

We can expect the air pollution to be bad these next few days... how visitor-friendly and how nice we get to breathe in this terrible air quality.

Why aren't our lawmakers pushing for the government to do more to improve our living conditions? Surely this is an issue everyone can get behind?

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Number of the Day: HK$10 Billion

Macau seems to be another place for mainlanders to move their money
That is the amount of money that is withdrawn from ATMs in Macau per month.

Per month!

And the banks have received instructions to make sure these automatic teller machines never run out of bank notes too.

The 1,300 machines around the former Portuguese enclave are monitored 24 hours a day, and if they start getting low, a team is ready to refill them with more cash.

Looks like Macanese ATMs are another avenue for capital outflows.

What's also interesting is that since December last year, the maximum amount of withdrawals dropped from 10,000 patacas to 5,000 patacas, but that doesn't seem to have prevented mainlanders from getting money out.

Facial recognition technology will soon be installed at ATMs
There are reports that mainland racketeers use hundreds of bank cards to withdraw cash from Macau ATMs as part of a multi-million-dollar foreign exchange scheme.

In one case last January, the court heard evidence that one couple used 402 cash card accounts to make withdrawals from Macau ATMs as part of a 105 million yuan illegal foreign exchange racket.

A similar case in the same court last October had evidence showing 222 cash card accounts were used by a gang to make ATM withdrawals in the casino hub as part of a 139 million yuan foreign exchange scam.

Another interesting statistic is that the number of ATMs in Macau has quadrupled since the gaming industry was liberalized in 2001.

Either local Macanese like playing with ATM machines, or they are specifically geared towards mainlanders.

But maybe it'll be game over soon, as facial recognition technology will be used to scan millions of bank card users at ATMs in Macau.

The Macau government said all holders of mainland-issued China UnionPay bank cards "will be require to scan their mainland identity card and undergo a facial recognition check".

Officials did not have a time frame when the new scheme would be implemented, but one can imagine even more cash is being withdrawn now as we write this.

The vast majority of visitors to Macau are from mainland China at 30 million last year, 20 million of which were from Guangdong province.

The Chinese government is desperately trying to stop capital outflows any way it can, and yet people still find a way to get their money out. It is normal for people on the mainland to have a number of bank accounts, so facial recognition may not be all that helpful.

This cat and mouse game will continue, and Beijing might be the loser in the end.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Hong Kong's Unhealthy Shopping Habit

Hong Kong people's preoccupation with shopping hardly keeps them happy
Ah Greenpeace has another survey out -- this time it's about how Hong Kong people are the most obsessed in the world when it comes to shopping.

In the non-profit group's survey of 5,000 people in Hong Kong, the mainland, Taiwan, Italy and Germany, we scored first or second in 10 out of 12 indicators showing a tendency to spend excessively on material goods as well as an unhealthy reliance on shopping.

The questionnaire, which was conducted from the end of last year to early this year showed Hong Kong topped the charts on a number of indicators, such as admitting they owned more clothes than they needed, and consumers who had tried to conceal their shopping sprees.

Fifty-three percent of 1,000 Hong Kong people owned clothes that were still tagged, compared to 51 percent of those on the mainland, 46 percent in Italy, 41 percent in Germany, and 40 percent in Taiwan.

Numerous ads and signs entice people to shop daily
"It's nothing new that Hong Kong people are addicted to shopping, but we didn't think that Hong Kong would rank as one of the tops in the world," says Greenpeace campaigner Bonnie Tang Man-lam.

Mainland Chinese scored similar points to Hong Kong in most indicators.

While the survey didn't go into why Hong Kong scored so high, but Tang explained it was because of the city's values and lifestyle centered on consumerism.

"Most people said their feelings of satisfaction from shopping only lasted a day, and they would then shop again just to fill that empty void. The more they shop, the lonelier they got," she says.

Are Hong Kong people really that sad? Though I do know some people who really do depend on shopping to make them happy, which is a sad, endless cycle that goes nowhere except an empty bank account.

But stores like 759 are downsizing with shelves going empty
However, most people can't help but be sucked into buying things with the number of advertisements they are bombarded with daily, along with seeing what their friends are purchasing and showing off on social media.

That said, shops from luxury brands to small boutiques are downsizing or closing because it isn't economically viable anymore. My favourite greeting card shop Prints is closing down its several locations around town, while some 759 stores are gradually closing down with shelves of snacks and foods are getting barer by the day.

It's a sad state of affairs really -- shopaholics should get a life, while retailers can't make enough to pay the rent. This is Hong Kong, 2017.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

People Want to Leave HK

The number of people wanting to leave Hong Kong reached a three-year high
The numbers show it -- more and more people want to leave Hong Kong.

Last year the number of Hong Kong people who want to emigrate reached a three-year high last year according to figures from the Security Bureau. Some 7,600 applied for a certificate of no criminal conviction (CNCC) for outward immigration purposes, 8.6 percent more than in 2015 and 10 percent up from 2014.

The last time so many locals applied to leave was in 2013.

The top destination is the United States, with 2,800 people applying for immigration visas, the highest in five years -- despite Donald Trump being in office -- while Australia and Canada attracted 2,100 and 1,000 applications respectively.

Meanwhile the Hong Kong government notes that not all CNCC holders successfully obtained immigration visas.

The Occupy protests and other issues are reasons to leave
Nevertheless, Goldmax Immigration Consulting directory Benny Cheung said social, political and financial pressures had led more Hong Kong people to seek other options of where to live.

"There are three catalysts: the national education protest in 2012, the Occupy movement in 2014, and the Mongkok riots in 2016. We received a surge of inquiries soon after the incidents emerged," Cheung said.

He believed the rocketing housing prices and issues surrounding the education system were also factors. Taiwan is a favoured destination because "it is close to Hong Kong, with similar language and culture, and living costs are relatively lower."

Some 1,086 Hong Kong residents were granted residency permits last year, according to Taiwan's National Immigration Agency.

Meanwhile Centaline Immigration Consultants director David Hui said emigration inquiries from Hong Kong people had been growing, but there hadn't been as many successful cases because of stricter controls overseas.

Thirty-three-year-old Eric Tang is leaving for Canada with his wife, where they plan to have a baby in a year or two and believe they will have a better quality of life there.

Allan Zeman gave up his Canadian citizenship for Hong Kong
He said social and political factors influenced his decision, with the Occupy movement a trigger point.

"You could see Beijing is the boss and no matter who becomes the chief executive, he or she cannot implement policies that safeguard the interests of local people," he said.

Has Tang given up or is he being pragmatic? Sounds like if people have the resources to leave, they will.

His beliefs are counter to Hong Kong resident and passport holder Allan Zeman who claims he's a "localist" in that he is passionate about the city, despite not being able to speak Cantonese.

The Canadian first came to Hong Kong when he was 19 to work in the fashion business and made his first US$1 million.

"I came to Hong Kong because it's a place where you can dream at night and make it come true the next morning," he said.

That was back in 1970s when Hong Kong was at the height of being a manufacturing hub. Those days are long gone. He can still dream, but the vast majority of the population are struggling day-to-day with low wages and fewer opportunities.

No wonder people want to leave when they feel like second-class citizens in their hometown.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Picture of the Day: Is Ah Tak Up for the Job?

Can a dinosaur beat a rat in the game of rat infestation in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong has this brown blob with a big head, big eyes and small body called Big Waster, who is trying to tell people not to waste food.

It's too bad he looks so ugly because you don't want to look at him, and yet he is trying to send a very important message across to the public.

And now there's a new character in town -- Ah Tak, a dinosaur to help combat rat infestation.

Big Waster has an important message, but is hardly appealing
On the MTR I spotted this poster the other day, trying to get people to stop rat infestations in the city. The government designed the message like a video game (perhaps to enlist the help of male population?) to combat against rat infestation, but didn't explain how to do that.

But as Ah Tak is a dinosaur, is he the best creature to kick the rat's ass? While he can stomp around and growl, his little arms won't be much help in catching rats...

The poster reminded me of this week's match-up between a tai chi master and an MMA fighter, in which the former was defeated within 10 seconds.

So is a dinosaur the best creature to beat up a rat when dinosaurs are extinct, whereas rats are still running around?

Perhaps the Hong Kong government needs rethink who is the best character to beat a rat...

Friday, 5 May 2017

Wildly Popular Disturbing Art

A man taking a selfie with a gun. Did he get the shot?
This afternoon I went to a preview of an edgy show by Spanish comic strip artist Joan Cornella.

The paintings and prints are so absurd you can't help but laugh or be disturbed by the images, showing people with generic happy faces being destructive, or having violent acts being done to them.

Four years ago Cornella decided to change his style of art by doing these comic strips and posting them on Facebook to see what the reaction would be.

A Hong Kong family with a selfie stick...
The verdict was unanimous within a short period of time -- keep doing it!

Interestingly his biggest fan base is in Hong Kong, followed by Brazil.

When I asked him why Hong Kong people love his work so much, Cornella didn't have an explanation.

Perhaps Hong Kong people feel like society or the world they live in is two-faced -- that they have to give the impression that everything is fine or perfect, but in reality it's the complete opposite. Or maybe these are "happy" people fantasizing about what they could do to their boss, or people they hate!

The show, which is on at Space 27 in Quarry Bay from May 6-21, features 38 works, and some of them were inspired by Hong Kong. One of them shows a guy in a cage home, sticking out a selfie stick so he can take a picture of himself.

Maybe because of this work Hong Kong will get more attention on the world stage for its ever increasing widening gap between the rich and poor, and how young people can only afford shoebox-sized flats.

Another painting shows a father, mother and daughter, the latter two wearing face masks, and the father holds up a selfie stick, but there's a gun pointing at them. Wonder who gets that shot?

A man in a caged home looking happy...
The best of the lot is called Two Girls, featuring the poster of the Kwong Sang Hong Two Girls, and painted over their faces are Cornella's signature generic smiley faces, one wearing a face mask and holding up a selfie stick with a gun at the end, and a modern landscape of skyscraper behind them.

 A woman with the gallery told us a family from Taiwan recently gave Cornella their family photo for him to paint over. We can only say this family is really unconventional and brave because we don't know what the artist will do to their faces and bodies!

Joan Cornella: A Hong Kong Themed Solo Exhibition
May 6-21
Space 27
10/F, Block AB, Tung Chong Factory Building
653-659 King's Road
Quarry Bayd