Thursday, 21 March 2019

Obsessed with "Xiangchun Freedom"

If you can afford to eat this vegetable, it's as expensive as a lobster
What can you eat to show your peers you've made it financially?

In China it was cherries, but now it's a vegetable called xiangchun 香椿, the young red leaves of the Chinese mahogany tree that are the in thing to munch on. The basil-tasting leaves have become so prized that in places like Beijing it costs 80 yuan to 100 yuan (US$12 to US$30) for a catty or 500 grams.

People have taken to social media to complain about the price of the vegetable that could cost as much as a lobster, 10 abalone or 39 crayfish.

Xiangchun leaves are from the Chinese mahogany tree
"You can buy this [vegetable] to show off your wealth," one person on Weibo commented.

Another said: "There's plenty of xiangchun trees at my grandmother's house. I feel like I've just found the path to riches."

The first spring leaves of the tree are traditionally used in Chinese cooking, especially in the north, where it is stirfried with eggs or tofu, or used as filling for dumplings.

Xiangchun per catty costs more than pork in Beijing, where it is priced at 8 yuan to 10 yuan. In places like Qingdao in Shandong province, Xiaogan in Hubei province and Xian in Shaanxi province, the vegetable costs 40 yuan per 500 grams.

However, if you can afford to buy and eat xiangchun, then you are considered to have "xiangchun freedom", similar to people who can afford to buy imported cherries to give as gifts. Before the Spring Festival this year, imported cherries were selling for 60 yuan per catty in Beijing.

Economist Yao Zhiyong is with the School of Management at Fudan University and says the wide use of the terms "xiangchun freedom" and "cherry freedom" showed a decline in real spending power.

Xiangchun are stirfried with egg or tofu, or in dumplings
"Many items have become more expensive, but people's salaries haven't gone up accordingly," Yao says. "In the meantime there are other expenses -- education, housing, healthcare -- that can't be ignored. That's why people are bemoaning their lack of 'cherry freedom' or 'xiangchun freedom'."

The Chinese have this cruel obsession of constantly comparing themselves to other people, either to psychologically feel like they have a leg up on their peers or to bemoan the reality that they are never going to win the rat race.

It's as if this competition is the only way they know how to relate to others which is unhealthy and scary. But the ironic thing is that people are willing to pay top dollar for a seasonal vegetable, and I'm all for a greener lifestyle!

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

MTR Commuter Chaos

The MTR was back to running like normal today after two days of delays.

This wide walkway was covered in people all walking the same direction as me
Yesterday I was caught in the rush hour madness going from Causeway Bay to Central then walking over to the Tung Chung line to watch the documentary, Walking on Water about the installation artist Christo.

When I got out at Central station there were hordes of people getting out and upstairs on another platform there were tons of people trying to get on the train to go to Admiralty in order to get to the Kowloon side.

Meanwhile as I walked towards the Tung Chung line, there was a giant mass of people going in the same direction as me. By the time we got to the train platform, the train was already full and I had to wait for the next one and that filled up quickly before going on its way.

Thank goodness things are back to normal today, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor warns there will be tough action against the MTR for the accident that occurred in the early hours of Monday morning when two trains collided with each other due to a signalling software fault.

However, it's very easy for the MTR to blame the supplier, French company Thales for the software glitch that they are trying to fix. And what punishment will it be? The MTR can be fined up to HK$25 million, which is typically distributed as a rebate to commuters. Whoohoo, HK$3.60 per person if you count around 7 million people.

While the MTR is far superior to many other public transport systems around the world, it should strive to be even better, not just maintaining its 99 per cent efficiency. The MTR is something Hongkongers are proud of, but when these incidents happen we wonder what is going on. Investigations and reports are all fine and well, but we really need visionary people to lead the MTR forward.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Review: Walking on Water

Installation artist Christo "walking on water" on Lake Iseo in Italy in 2016
The 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival is already underway and I bought tickets to watch seven documentaries.

Hundreds of thousands of people visited the project
The first one was this evening, Walking on Water, a 2018 documentary about the installation artist Christo and his project in 2016 to create 3km of floating pontoons covered in yellow fabric. It was a project he and his wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude had created back in 1970 and tried to get permission to do this several times and were denied each time.

In the 50 years they were together, they were able to create 24 works, many dozens more denied permission. But Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 after complications of a brain aneurysm and Christo didn't do much afterwards, which is where the documentary starts, watching him finish off his sketches of Walking on Water.

It turns out he has permission to make his project a reality at Lake Iseo, in northern Italy near Switzerland. He's 85 now, and the viewers can see how passionate he is about his work, how he is determined that things must be done his way, and it is his will that keeps him active and alive. There aren't many people in their 80s who are as mentally and physically active as he is, constantly talking to people from school children to officials about his work and traveling everywhere on a tight schedule in all weather conditions.

The walkway is made of plastic cubes screwed together
He tells New York students that an artist never stops doing art; it is not like a job you switch off, but something you do everyday, all the time. It's probably too deep for them to understand, but do they even know who Christo is?

He is grateful to the local Italian authorities for allowing him to do Walking on Water, where he promises the people will literally be able to walk on water for three kilometres, and then we watch a team of people get to work.

They build pontoons made of 220,000 dense polyethylene white cubes that are screwed together tightly, and when they are put out into the water, they do as Christo had hoped, undulate with the waves like fabric and he is so excited.

Out on the dock is an army of women with sewing machines, madly sewing the 100,000 square metres of yellow fabric together and they are placed in giant white bags and helicoptered to various spots.

Overview of the 3km walkway with another in the far right
But then lightning strikes in the evening and there are fierce arguments about how they are going to get this all done in time. Christo also gets into verbal fights with his assistant Vladimir Yavachev, but in the end he supports the artist in getting the work done by being the liaison with all the other people they have to deal with. It's a huge logistical operation. It's amazing Christo did this before without computers and smartphones.

In the end Walking on Water is realized on time but now there's another challenge -- hordes of people are descending on the place and the pontoons can't handle 50,000 people in one day when they were expecting 45,000 people for two weeks.

The local government wants to cash in on the event as much as possible without regard to safety, which is Christo's main concern and things come to a head.

There is also the uncomfortable scene of Yavachev trying to sell Christo's sketches of Walking on Water because they fund the installation projects, but the prices go up each day by tens of thousands of US dollars, frustrating one Italian buyer.

Throughout the film I wondered what he was thinking... was he thinking about Jeanne-Claude and what she would say about the project? There was no asking Christo about this. Instead the camera follows him constantly, the footage dizzying at times and captures whatever unfolds.

Nevertheless the project looks stunning and something the public enjoys and interacts with the work just as Christo had hoped.

However, Walking on Water the documentary would have benefited more with some reflection from Christo or maybe the filmmakers didn't want to interfere. He doesn't seem to care the camera is there, he is wrapped up in his work.

Christo does not stop either -- the last scene has him in Egypt watching camels walking in the desert and he is plotting his next project...

Walking on Water (2018)
105 minutes
Directed by Andrey Paounov

Monday, 18 March 2019

Shocking MTR Crash

Two MTR trains in opposite directions crashed in the same crossing
The MTR has suffered another incident, this time a pretty severe one -- two trains going in opposite directions on the Tsuen Wan-Central line crashed into each other in between the Central and Admiralty stations.

Thank goodness it happened overnight at 3am when they were testing the system, but the driver of one of the trains was injured and rushed to hospital.

The wreckage is horrific, and luckily there were no passengers
Pictures of the crash look horrific, which makes it even more lucky that there were no passengers at the time. One train practically mounts the other and one of the carriages is ripped open from the force of the crash, insulation spewing out, as well as gnarled metal pieces.

Rush hour this morning for many people was pretty hectic, though because it happened so early that buses and taxis were given advance warning that the morning commute would be busy and more buses were supplied.

The main thing was for people to get to Admiralty via the Island line or other means in order to go to Kowloon on the Tsuen Wan line.

It turns out there was a signalling software failure that allowed the two trains to go through the same crossing at the same time.

The software manufacturer, Thales is based in France, but testing in its Toronto laboratory has shown the same result.

How will the MTR explain itself to Legco on Wednesday?
Interestingly Thales will be at the Asia Pacific Rail 2019 show at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. They will probably be bombarded by reporters with questions tomorrow and Wednesday...

In the meantime, the MTR has said that the Tsuen Wan line between Central and Admiralty will be down another day to try to extricate the damaged trains from the track.

On Wednesday MTR officials will be grilled by the Legislative Council and again there will be questions about complacency and why is the public transport system raising fares with service like this... it's the same thing over and over and yet nothing definitive is done about it...