Saturday, 31 July 2010

Picture of the Day: A Far-Out View

On Thursday I checked out the Hyatt Regency in Shatin, New Territories.

I didn't know there was a hotel out there but it opened about a year and a half ago, conveniently located right next to the University KCR station and the bus terminus. It is near Chinese University and also a new tourism school that will open in September.

The hotel is usually busy with conferences and meetings from mostly local but now international groups are coming as well to this secluded area. Also residents in the area swarm the place on the weekends for the buffet and pool.

This picture is the view from one of the hotel's top floors, looking towards Tolo Harbour. Along the bottom right hand corner of the picture is a red path, which is actually a bicycle path around the area. Guests of the hotel can rent bikes and ride along the water for hours.

Sounds like a cool recreational activity I'd like to try out sometime.

Bedtime Setback

My apartment has a mattress, a fridge, a closet and now the bed frame was coming on Thursday.

The delivery came around the appointed time and luckily a friend was available to help open the door to the flat.

However, as I wasn't there to witness the whole procedure, I found out the workers had trouble putting the bed frame together.

First of all, the headboard was too tall and so it can't be against the window as I had hoped. But more importantly, it's a bed frame where the boards under the mattress can be lifted up so that I can put things underneath it, like luggage or things I don't use often. My bedroom isn't large enough to get a hydraulic lift, so I'm stuck lifting the mattress manually.

But it turns out one of the boards that is supposed to lie flat was of the wrong size and stuck out, making it impossible for the mattress to lie flat as well. 

So what did the workers do? They just abandoned the procedure and left! They left it half done, not knowing out to solve the problem (ie. probably not having a saw or a machine to cut the board into the right size).

They had told my friend they would contact their supervisor and that person would contact me, but that never happened. I called later that day and no one answered the phone; I called again the next day and the line was constantly busy. I also called the DSC customer service line, only to be told that it would be ANOTHER WEEK before the problem would be dealt with.

In order to sleep Thursday night, my friend helped me disassemble most of the pieces so that we could be back where we started -- with the mattress on the floor again. I was so looking forward to having it together, but this setback is a real drag. I know have pieces of the bed frame leaning against my wall or standing upright, taking up more space.

Nevertheless, the good thing is that my little leather stool has arrived, making it easier for me to type on the computer instead of sitting on my bed.

And fingers crossed, on Monday I'll get my table and chairs.

I hope this bed frame situation gets sorted soon. My friend suggested I had better get on their case or even go back to the store to complain otherwise nothing may be done. I think I will have to head there tomorrow...

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Caught in the Downpour

Today at lunchtime I got caught in the rain. As in thunder, lightning, and rain pouring down.

Water was rushing down staircases like a torrent, creating an instant river on the sidewalk.

It was so bad that my sandals were completely soaked through and I could feel the water swishing around inside. When I got inside I emptied some water out of them.

Even having an umbrella was no use because other people shorter than you would walk by with their umbrellas in your face, or worse yet, cars driving by had no qualms splashing pedestrians, the drivers probably having evil smiles on their faces watching others get more wet.

There was lots of lightning and thunder, as the Hong Kong Observatory had predicted. And the rain continued to pour down relentlessly. Those who ventured out knew they would be soaked -- but this being Hong Kong, sometimes things have to be delivered, come rain or shine.

Now several hours later, my sandals are STILL wet... hopefully they'll be OK in the morning...

I used to think people who wore Crocs were strange. Why did they like making their feet look so big? 

But they were perfect for today's crazy weather conditions.

So I finally caved in and bought a pair.

They're pretty comfortable, and given we're going to have more rain in the next month or so, makes sense to have these silly plastic shoes that are perfectly fine to get wet in.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

More Housekeeping

Yesterday my life got much better -- my closet arrived.

I was a bit anxious because I was very busy at work, but also the delivery was supposed to be made around 1pm, but there was no guarantee it would come on time.

In the process of assembling the closet
However, around 1:45pm I got a call saying they were coming in about 30 minutes. Hurray! The minutes were ticking down to when I could finally unpack after almost a month of living out of my suitcase.

Just a few minutes late the delivery guys came with giant cardboard boxes. They then proceeded to cut them open, revealing all the parts to the closet.

They probably installed closets for a living and were very methodical about everything; one guy got the outside frame ready, while the other prepared the drawers and later the doors.

In about 20 minutes the closet came together thanks to their drill guns that quickly screwed everything into place. It was quite amazing to watch them move so fast.

Despite being efficient, they were also careful about the quality of their work -- one guy kept swinging the doors open and shut to make sure they worked properly and were secure.

The other quickly cleaned up and threw out the cardboard boxes in the stairwell. With that, they were gone.

The closet fits perfectly next to my fridge
Last night after work I spent a few hours unpacking. While the closet doesn't have as many compartments as I'd like, I'll have to remedy the situation with more boxes or mini drawers to organize things better.

Nevertheless it was a relief to finally settle in, and call this my new home.

The bed frame will be coming on Thursday afternoon and then the table... almost set.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

An Unfathomable Crime

There was a shocking story reported on Friday where a 15-year-old boy had hacked his mother and younger sister to death in their home.

He himself reported it to the police, saying he had injured his hand. The authorities found him in a Tsuen Wan park with the blood-stained chopper and gloves in his backpack.

The police then broke into the family home and found the two bodies lying in a pool of blood, their heads nearly severed by the force of the attack.

The father was at work at the 24-hour restaurant he owned across the street from the flat when the crime was committed.

People are trying to come to terms with the horrific incident, as the boy was well-mannered according to outsiders and the vice-principal said he had good grades in school.

The police are theorizing that the boy may have an undiagnosed mental illness, but the family has no history of mental illness.

Consultant psychiatrist Edwin Yu Chi-shing, of Kwai Chung Hospital, said it was possible for a person to suffer from a mental illness without the family knowing.

"In the early stage of schizophrenia and psychosis, some symptoms like sleeping badly and becoming quieter cannot be easily detected," he said. "It's possible for a person to be found to be suffering from mental illness after a tragedy happens."

He explained that delusions and hallucinations were common symptoms of mental illness and some sufferers withdrew into their own worlds. A person suffering delusions might turn on close relatives and attack them because they saw them as enemies, Yu said.

While it seems inexplicable, how can the father even begin to understand it all? He went to see his son in the hospital for treatment of his wounds and an assessment on the boy's mental state.

What do you say to your son after he has killed your wife and daughter?

If one can have an undiagnosed mental illness, there could possibly be many more thousands of people who could crack at any moment.

Why is this happening and what can people do to ensure they and their loved ones have a healthy outlook on life?

While Hong Kong sees many people cracking under pressure, China is too and more needs to be done to educate the public about symptoms and signs and encourage people to get help.

Although mental illness is looked down upon especially in Chinese society, it cannot be ignored any longer.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Hard Sell

My search for gyms continues. After trying Pure Fitness, I wanted to give California Fitness a shot, as it is very close to my office on Wellington Street.

I asked to have a tour of the gym and that wasn't before I filled out a questionnaire about my fitness level, how often I exercised and what kind of workouts I did. Then I was subjected to a body assessment test similar to the one at Pure Fitness, and it also came up with the same numbers about my body fat, weight, and waist to hip ratio.

Billy, the guy doing my assessment looked buff enough in the arms, but it seemed like he only worked on his upper body than anything else. Then he had to gall to tell me that if all I did was run on the treadmill that my thigh muscles would get too large. If anything running makes your leg muscles leaner and it's a good way to lose weight.

Nevertheless he was correct in saying that I should vary my workouts more with other exercise machines like the elliptical and use resistance machines to build up more upper body strength.

Then I was handed back to the sales girl who gave me a tour of the gym. Like Pure Fitness, California Fitness is on several floors. The ground floor includes a small boxing ring for people to learn how to throw punches, and then the next one was all about cardio, with many working out on a variety of machines from treadmills to step. The equipment was a bit older, but hardly antique.

The next floor up was strengthening with weight machines and an area for stretching.

On the final floor was the large room for free classes with a membership and machines for hard core body builders.

For the changing room we had to go out the side stairwell and up one floor to the women's changing room, a large warren full of lockers and showers, but no steam room or sauna. Each time you present your membership card you get a small and large towel, but you have to provide your own lock.

It all looked pretty decent and then the sales pitch began.

The initiation fee would be HK$999 ($128.70), followed by a HK$698 ($89.92) one-time "processing fee". I asked what this "processing fee" was about and she explained that it was for processing my application and getting a membership card. Why does it have to be so expensive?

Then the monthly fee would be HK$698 for a year.

I kept insisting that I had to try the gym before knowing if I wanted to join or not, while the girl kept saying that I had seen the gym already so I should have a good idea if I liked it or not. I asked about their one-week free pass and she said I had to fill out the form online in order to be eligible for that, which is why I said I thought I'd skip a step and come here in person.

She retorted then that everyone would do that -- and walk-ins only happened when the gym first opened many moons ago, not anymore.

Then she got her manager to come over and now both of them were trying to pressure me into buying a membership.

Because I acted so disinterested, they cut the initiation fee, the processing fee, and now I would only have to pay HK$333 ($42.90) per month.

What a deal! But I still insisted on trying it first.

They said I'd have to pay HK$150 for the day pass (good for 24 hours) to try it, or go online and fill out the one-week free pass.

So I did the latter.

But I had to get in contact with the same sales girl to activate this pass so that she could again try to pitch me again. The one-week pass is actually only good for three visits and the second time I used it, the young man who checked my guest pass asked me to sit down yet AGAIN for another sales pitch.

He asked if I was familiar with the prices they were offering and if it was something I was interested in.

I said I still had to check out Fitness First in order to make my assessment.

He didn't put much value in customers trying to do their homework first before deciding where to go and proceeded to try to hard sell me again.

By then I'd had enough and said, "Do you have to pitch me every time I come in here?"

He realized then that he'd gone too far and quickly wrapped up the conversation, inviting me to head up to the gym.

It's really strange how gyms here are out to snag as many members as possible. There doesn't seem to be a shortage of people in Hong Kong anxious to lose some weight, get fit, or want to show off some muscle tone from the crowded gyms I see during peak hours. If they fall off the wagon a few months after joining, they are still obligated to continue paying their membership for the rest of the contract which is usually a year.

So why the hard sell?

A colleague of mine told me that California Fitness was notorious for its selling techniques and bad management, and that I should carefully read the fine print before joining.

It sounded like an ominous warning that should be heeded.

The gym hunt continues...

Friday, 23 July 2010

Settling In

Today is moving day.

I arrived at the apartment just before 10am because that's the earliest when the mattress would come. And with the other things I had to wait for (fridge and the gas man), I quickly went to the nearby Park 'n Shop to grab some water, apples, yogurt and dish-washing soap before the deliveries arrived.

While waiting for them, I started unpacking a bit, taking out my new cutlery set, a pair of cups my cousin donated to me, along with returning two plates and a slow cooker I had give her nine years ago.

Then I attempted setting up the broadband. I went through the directions, step by step. And aside from not realizing that I had to press the "power" button to get the four lights on on the modem, it wasn't difficult at all. Presto! I was all wired up and ready to go.

Before 11am I got my mattress, a guy hollering in the hallway there was a mattress so I quickly opened the door. He just laid it against the wall in the bedroom saying he had to go and that was that. The mattress fit into my small space perfectly and came complete with a mattress cover and two weirdly-shaped pillows that are apparently memory foam pillows.

Then I got a call from the gas man who politely asked if it was convenient to come up as he was two hours early. He fiddled around with the gas meter and did something under the stove to hook it up. And just like that, I am ready to fire up the kitchen. At the time I was trying to put together my Ikea lamp and couldn't loosen the screw and asked him to do that for me as he had many tools with him. I got the lamp together soon after that.

The fridge guys said they would come between 1-1:30pm and they were a few minutes late, which is already considered pretty good. It now sits next to my mini kitchen shiny and new. I am quite sure there is enough room for the closet that will go next to it...

My uncle also swung by with two boxes I had mailed to him from Beijing several weeks ago. Now I'm pretty much set.

While waiting for the fridge and my uncle I lay down on the mattress, and had a nice nap. 

Next up -- picking up curtains I had made in Central, but first some food...

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Hong Kong Gets Drenched

Typhoon Chanthu went southwest of Hong Kong, missing the city directly, but we felt the effects of it passing by with the Typhoon 3 signal.

Last night and this morning we had very strong winds, with heavy rain overnight.

Luckily it was overcast until lunchtime as I had a function to attend in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side. A woman I was with informed me that all typhoon signals were down. However, after I got back to the office in the late afternoon, the clouds got ominously darker and unleashed heavy rains over the city.

It got so bad, that at 5:30pm, the Hong Kong Observatory announced the black rain warning, which means severe rainstorm. When this warning is issued, people should stay at home or in a safe shelter until the rain subsides.

My colleague remarked it seemed to be coincidental that the black rain warning was issued just before the end of work. We should be going home right away, she says, but since it was pouring with rain, it will be impossible to get a taxi, and public transportation like the MTR or subway will be packed.

So the next best option? Stay in the office and do more work. Is this a subtle way to boost Hong Kong's productivity?

At sunset the rains cleared, but the sky looked ominous with the remaining sunshine and set against dark clouds.

I went home at 7pm as it had stopped raining even though the black rain warning was still in force. Some people were still determined to have a good time in Lan Kwai Fong or along the Mid-Levels escalator, while others erring on the side of caution, stocked up with groceries and went home.

The black rain warning was down around 7:45pm but we're still getting periodic gusts of wind and heavy rain.

As Chanthu moves further inland we're still going to have rain. So while it's going to be a wet weekend, at least we won't be completely drenched.

Which reminds me -- yesterday another coworker stepped outside for a cigarette when all of a sudden he was caught in a downpour.

Not only is that a good lesson not to light up, but also he tried to scrounge around for a clean shirt so he could dry the one he was wearing.

My colleagues could offer him either a monogrammed fluffy bathrobe, two polo shirts that a cat had sat on and so there were cat hairs on it, or an apron.

I thought he'd go for the robe, but instead he went to the bathroom and spent some time under the weak hand dryer...

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

In His Words

A friend mentioned to me the other day there was an article about Zhou Youguang (周有光).

"Is he dead?" I asked cautiously, as the man is 105 years old.

"No," she said. "Actually he was critical of the government," she replied.

It's refreshing to know that the old comrades who helped build the People's Republic of China with good intentions over 60 years ago are now not afraid to lash out against the system as they creep older in age.

Despite being over a century old, Zhou still keeps his mind active with writing and the odd comments to the media. He speaks good English and has a wry sense of humour that makes him even more endearing.

He recently published a book called Shi Bei Ji, or Collecting Shells -- the words of a 105-year-old man to awaken the world.

Zhou is best known as the "father of pinyin", the man who helped devise a way not only for Chinese people to become literate, but also millions of people around the world learn Putonghua. It is also pinyin that has allowed people to send text messages and emails without having to memorize the stroke order of characters.

But before that, Zhou studied economics at St. John University in Shanghai and in Japan, and then became an economics professor before becoming a representative of Xinhua Bank in New York.

When civil war broke out in the late 1930s, Zhou was keen to help rebuild his country and returned to China.

"I opposed the Kuomintang and supported the communists because they advocated democracy," he says. "During the war in Chongqing, I took part in small-group meetings each month with Zhou Enlai. Every time he said that the Communist Party advocated democracy. We very much believe him and detested the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek."

It was in the mid 1950s that he and a team developed the pinyin system, and probably because of this massive contribution to the country, he was able to escape persecution in the anti-rightist movement, unlike many of his intellectual friends, some of whom committed suicide.

But Zhou did not escape the political tumult completely -- in 1969, all the members of the language committee were sent to a "May 7 cadre school" in northwest China's Ningxia Province for reform through labour.

"There were 20 such camps, with more than 10,000 officials and their families from a dozen departments under the State Council," he remembers. "I worked there for two years and four months, which improved my health and cured me of insomnia."

It was during that time that Chairman Mao's chosen successor, Lin Biao had died in a plane crash in September 1971, after what appeared to be a failed coup attempt.

The leaders of the school ordered us to assemble for a meeting at five o'clock in the morning, to hear a report. Fearing that it would be very hot, I took a wide-brimmed hat to protect me from the heat.

At 10 o'clock, the sky was filled with a huge flock of wild geese, not several thousands, but tens of thousands. The sky became dark as they flew overhead and, on the loud screech of a leading goose comrade, they all excreted at the same time, on the heads of the May 7 soldiers.

Since I had the hat, the impact on me was limited, but not my comrades, who were covered from head to toe in goose feces. One local resident said that, while such collective behaviour was normal, to discharge on the heads of people happened once every 10,000 years. We were so lucky and thanked this rain. Lin Biao was dead and soon we were all able to go home.

Today Zhou is critical of Marx, saying he denied the value produced by brain power and its contribution, but in fact it accounts for 60-80 percent of GDP in western countries.

"In Japan there are factories with no workers and the US farms with no farmers [only machinery]. In the US some factories are owned 50 percent by the workers. Are they exploiting or being exploited?"

And, more than 70 years after listening to Zhou Enlai's speeches, Zhou is still hopeful China will have democracy one day.

"We need democracy to develop our society," he says. "The two biggest problems are income disparity and corruption. But democracy is no simple matter and we must not be rushed. There is a lot of work to do -- first we must establish laws. Since the start of reform and opening up, we have passed some excellent laws, such as the property law.

"Democracy is not a new product or a patent, it is the result of the collective experience of mankind. We need two pre-conditions -- we need to be open and improve the quality of thinking of the common people."

Here here.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Bugged by Mosquitoes and a Possible Storm

Since arriving in Hong Kong I've gotten several mosquito bites.

These nasty bugs aren't the ones that leave a small red dot on your arm or leg that disappear after a day or so. In Hong Kong I seem to get the ones that leave huge red swollen blotches on my body and have yet to go away.

Why is this? Are southern Chinese mosquitoes more aggressive in their blood-sucking attacks compared to their northern cousins?

The summer season is well underway and it'll be a while before it cools down. Looks like I'm a sweet target for mosquitoes, which don't seem to give me any mercy.

In other news, we are all watching the direction of Tropical Storm Chanthu as Typhoon Signal 1 has been hoisted as of this afternoon.

The Hong Kong Observatory says Typhoon 3 may be raised overnight or tomorrow morning with heavy rains expected in the next few days.

Which is why I moved most of my things to my new apartment tonight while there was no precipitation yet. I don't have any furniture in there, but on Saturday my mattress and fridge will be delivered, and the gas connected to the stove.

Smart thinking, huh?

If only I could find a way to avoid those pesky mosquitoes...

Monday, 19 July 2010

Picture of the Day: Toy Story

Toy Story 3 is out in theatres here and so far the verdict from a few friends and colleagues is that it's really good.

Of course trying to watch it in the IMAX theatre is near impossible as the tickets are completely sold out, and this being Hong Kong, it's better to watch it in the original version than dubbed in Cantonese.

And as if people in Hong Kong needed motivation to go see the animated flick, the marketers of the movie have created a wonderful set up in Times Square.

There's a Buzz Lightyear towering over everyone outside the popular mall, along with several of those three-eyed aliens. And inside the mall in the foyer is a giant bedroom with a Sheriff Woody sitting on the edge of the bed.

The people are even smaller than the toys which is a bizarre feeling now that I think about it, but no one's really thinking about it. They just want to get a picture with their favourite characters.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

More Boozing Options in LKF

Lan Kwai Fong's popularity dropped significantly before I left Hong Kong in 2001, mostly due to the proliferation of restaurants that flourished along the Mid-Levels escalator. Part of it was because they were new and interesting places, and the other was the cheaper prices.

But that doesn't mean LKF's rents have fallen. Instead landlords are demanding more and more from the spaces they rent out, leaving restaurateurs with thinner profit margins.

This probably explains why there are a number of 7-Elevens that have opened up in the area, three along the Mid-Levels escalator and one at the bottom of LKF.

However, restaurateurs are miffed that yet another of these convenience stores is opening up -- right in LKF, next to Al's Diner and across from Stormie's.

While the spokeswoman from Stormie's was trying to be diplomatic, she pointed out that lots of young people go to 7-Eleven to buy cheap booze and drink it on the street as an inexpensive way to soak up the party atmosphere in LKF.

And so when the newest 7-Eleven opens up in LKF, it will probably be a very popular spot among young people wanting to have a good time on the cheap. While most people who go to the area will be hitting the bars and restaurants there, 7-Eleven is offering an alternative -- without needing a liquor license.

Bars and restaurants have to jump through a number of hoops in order to get this license and so those establishments in LKF feel it's unfair that 7-Eleven can not only sell alcohol cheaply, but also up until a few days ago, staff even opened the bottles for customers too.

And in an interesting marketing ploy, the company has set up a Facebook page, called "Club 7-Eleven" to promote buying alcohol in LKF as a night out.

Nevertheless, as a result of a change in company policy, all 7-Eleven stores are still selling alcohol, but now staff are not allowed to open the bottle for customers. Instead they will hand them a bottle opener to avoid the liquor license problem.

While it is not illegal for shops to sell alcohol to people under the age of 18, the 7-Eleven Group claims it will not sell booze to those under 18.

A police spokesman confirmed that as long as those under 18 did not consume alcohol inside the convenience store, it was not illegal for shops like 7-Eleven to sell alcohol to them.

The space where the 7-Eleven will be is boarded up and being renovated... just in time for the summer party season. We'll have to see what happens. Will there be more drunken brawls started by teens who can't hold their alcohol?

But the other bigger question is, now that a chain store has entered the former warehouse district that was hip for its one-off bars and restaurants, will there be other brands like Starbucks invading the area too?

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Furnishing the Flat

This afternoon I was on a mission to furnish my apartment. It's under 400 square feet, with a tiny bedroom so all I really need is a bed, a closet, a table and fridge.

When I tell people I need to furnish my flat, they all say, "Go to Ikea". But although the Swedish furniture store gives the impression of being cheap, things there are quite expensive especially when you add it all up.

And then other people suggest that if I don't mind used furniture, I should check out the expat websites for things that foreigners are trying to get rid of. However, most of the items there were either too large for my apartment, or too expensive for me. It also required constantly checking the listings for updates and pouncing on things as soon as possible; arranging for a truck to transport the items was another headache.

However, last weekend a friend of mine told me about a discount furniture store called DSC and headed to the location on the 15th floor of Windsor House in Causeway Bay, across from Ikea.

And the prices were pretty good -- some items were about the same as Pricerite or cheaper (definitely less than Ikea) so it made sense to buy everything here.

The bed was the trickiest to tackle. My bedroom dimensions are so small (190cm x 150cm) that I had to find a mattress and bed frame to fit in there. And then I needed a mattress that wasn't too soft and not too hard either in a decent price range.

There were some great bed frames where you could lift up the mattress with a hydraulic system to put things underneath.

However, because my dimensions were so tight, I was unable to get a bed like that and had to settle for one that did have storage space underneath, but it meant manually moving the mattress. Oh well. Better than nothing. They also threw in two free pillows.

Some of the closets were a good deal, but they didn't have any in stock and would take two to three weeks. So I had to upgrade to slightly more expensive ones in order to get them in one week. But the one I chose includes a mirror which I need anyway.

The kitchen table/desk was a no brainer -- the staff showed us a round wooden table complete with four chairs for only HK$799 ($102.85). I ordered one right away, but that may take two weeks to come. The sale of the table included being able to purchase cutlery for just under HK$100 ($12.87) so why not?

Because I bought the bed at a certain price, I got a HK$500 discount, and the total of all my purchases was just under HK$8,000 ($1,029). If I could surpass that amount, I could get an additional HK$200 coupon to buy small household items.

Unfortunately the pickings were slim; the pillows for sale were the odd-shaped ones that supposedly help people sleep better, but only on your side; and the shoe cabinets were too expensive. I settled for a small leather stool in chocolate brown for just under HK$300 that needs to be made.

So for the extra HK$200 coupon, I got a frying pan, a wire rack for shoes, and a power cord.

The deliveries of all this furniture will be staggered, which is not ideal, but it seems this company would rather have as little inventory as possible to keep costs down. And different things are delivered on different days too. Ai....

I also got a relatively small fridge which also has a freezer section in another store. Unfortunately they didn't have a toaster oven otherwise I would have bought that too. The hunt continues.

It was a relief to get this all done... and now after a quick clean of the place I'll be slowly moving in bit by bit...

Next on the shopping list: curtains.

Friday, 16 July 2010

ABC Makes its IPO

The much-anticipated initial public offering of the Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) was a bit of a dud today.

There was lots of hype about the last of the "big four" state-owned banks going public in both Hong Kong and Shanghai.

However, in Hong Kong, the price closed at HK$3.27 ($0.42), only a 2.2 percent increase from the opening price of HK$3.20.

ABC has yet to decide if it will exercise an option to issue more shares, which could determine if ABC's IPO will overtake Industrial and Commercial Bank of China's (ICBC) record-setting $21.9 billion in 2006.

In Hong Kong, ABC chairman Xiang Junbo said the flotation was a "historic moment" and "the first step of the internationalization of ABC."

He added he was pleased with ABC's share price in the midst of a weak stock market. "I am very satisfied. It's really not too bad -- HK$3.30," referring to the share price.

Considering ABC is the weakest of the "big four", perhaps it is a decent performance. This bank isn't particularly known for good performing loans, as it was started by Mao Zedong in 1951 to help out farmers.

And over time, like many state banks, it has been ordered by the government to lend out money for national infrastructure projects, including most recently the massive economic stimulus package in early 2009.

Nevertheless, heavyweight investors like Qatar's sovereign investment fund, Standard Chartered and Li Ka-shing were rounded up to invest in the Hong Kong IPO.

While it looks impressive having these heavy hitters buying up ABC shares, how much longer they will hold onto them?

That will really determine ABC's staying power.

Wishful Thinking

Yesterday people were waiting with baited breath to see if Tropical Storm Conson would strengthen and move northeastwards towards Hong Kong.

Last night around 10:30pm there was a massive downpour and the Typhoon 1 signal had been raised.

My colleague told me she was in a bar with friends when the rains drenched the city. "All of a sudden there was a collective buzz of anticipation for the possibility of Typhoon 8 and a public holiday," she said.

Everyone grabbed their Blackberries and madly started getting on the Hong Kong Observatory website to check for the latest update.

However, when they found out Conson wasn't coming anywhere close to Hong Kong and not even a Typhoon 3 signal would be raised, my coworker said there was a collective sigh in the bar and as soon as the rain cleared, everyone left to go home.

Today the weather was slightly overcast in the morning and then there was a downpour just before lunch. The clouds then parted and revealed a clear blue sky before eventually turning gray again and heavy rain hit at 6pm.

Come rain or shine, I'm off on a mission to furnish my apartment tomorrow... it must be done!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Finally Investigating Sour Deals

In October last year, a record was set for the most expensive flat in the world at 39 Conduit Road in Mid-Levels for almost $57 million.

The five-bedroom apartment at 6,158 square feet was apparently sold to a mainland Chinese buyer, or that was what developer Henderson Land claimed.

But today police raided the offices of Henderson Land and a law firm after many questions were raised about the authenticity of this deal and 19 others that mysteriously fell through. Many believe these "deals" were made to manipulate the market.

One of the legislative councilors, Ronny Tong Ka-wah who is also a lawyer who has years of experience handling property contracts, was shocked to find the language in these contracts was so loose. They basically said the buyers could forfeit only 5 percent of the purchase price and did not have to compensate Henderson Land for any losses on resale. Also, the developer refunded HK$175 million ($22.53 million) in deposits to these alleged buyers in the aborted deals.

Oh and it just so happens that these "buyers" were shell companies registered in the British Virgin Islands and all were represented by Lo & Lo Solicitors...

Before the police raid today the public was annoyed the Hong Kong government had basically done nothing about the situation, which in a way tacitly allowed such scrupulous practices to happen.

However, despite its good intentions, the police may not have or find the evidence needed to prove Henderson Land's intention to manipulate the market.

"The police would have to prove the developer had such an intention," Tong said. "They would also have to find victims. For example, buyers who suffered a loss as a result of the uncompleted transactions. There is little chance."

He added the Securities and Futures Commission would be more effective in taking action by proving Henderson Land issued false information to mislead buyers, who relied on this information to make transactions.

In any case, the developer is apparently fully cooperating with the investigation, saying, "We will do our best to offer assistance so that the truth will be revealed," a spokeswoman said.

And we will eagerly wait to see the outcome of the investigation.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Typhoon Talk

The buzz in town these few days is the possibility of typhoon Conson landing in Hong Kong this weekend.

As the first typhoon of the year, it already hit the Philippines yesterday, killing at least 26 people and 38 are missing.

More than half of the main northern island of Luzon, which includes Manila, was without electricity. Schools and many government offices were closed, and dozens of flights cancelled.

After it landed, Conson has been downgraded to a severe tropical storm heading our way. It could either continue to weaken or gather strength, depending on the meteorological situation in the next hours and days.

The weather seems fine now, though a bit humid, but tonight the winds seemed to pick up. We'll have to see how it goes.

I had hoped to move into my new flat this weekend; but typhoon or not, there will be heavy rains in the forecast, so it may not be the best time to move...

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Paying for Fitness

Gyms have become more popular in Hong Kong since California Fitness came in 1996 in Lan Kwai Fong. It was odd watching people running on the treadmill as we walked past, especially in its Wan Chai location which is on the way to the Immigration Tower.

But nowadays these fitness places have sprouted all over the city, and the only drawback is that none of them have swimming pools, so you either don't swim at all, or pay an arm and a leg to swim in a pond that only takes a few laps to go across.

Over nine years ago I used to swim regularly at the Island Shangri-La before work which helped keep my waistline at a reasonable size.

And now that I've come back to Hong Kong and more interested in exercise (again for waist-trimming purposes), I'm on the hunt again for a gym.

A few days ago I checked out Pure Fitness along the Mid-Levels escalator, just up from Hollywood Road. It's quite a trendy-looking place, with pulsating music constantly pumping out of the speakers. I sat through a sales pitch complete with a physical assessment. This entailed standing on a machine and holding some handles while electric currents went through my body determining how much body fat I had, how much protein, minerals and the strength of each limb.

Then I inspected each four floors of the club, with the changing rooms at the top. Members have access to not only towels, but also black T-shirts, shorts and white socks to wear so you don't have to deal with your smelly gym wear afterwards.

There are also neatly designed day lockers, along with a steam room, sauna, and many shower stalls that have shampoo, conditioner and bath gel. Again, no need to bring that either unless you must use a particular brand.

The changing room also has toiletries like hairdryers, cotton pads and Q-tips to use -- as well as deodorant and hair gel.

However, for all this convenience you pay a price -- HK$999 ($128.50) for the initiation fee, followed by around HK$900 a month for a one-year membership.

Pure Fitness also has a location near my office, but it is only a yoga studio offering all different kinds of classes for you to twist your body into a variety of pretzels.

After sitting through the sales pitch I got a three-day pass and of course used it up. Yesterday was my last day to try out the gym and after work at 6:30pm the place was packed. Almost all the cardio machines were occupied and I managed to find a treadmill tucked away in a corner.

It was pretty intense pounding the treadmill like everyone else -- it was hardly considered relaxing. We should have all been hooked up to a power generator and we would have been able to save the gym some money in power costs.

Some of the people working out were intently watching movies as they ran or cycled, others listening to music.

There were some people who were poseurs and only there trying to look good, while others like myself were sweating up a storm.

I had no chance to use the mat in the stretching area as they were all occupied, and as it was dinner time I was anxious to get home for some dinner.

The next stop is to hit Fitness First in Sheung Wan, near where I will live... but not without a free trial!

Monday, 12 July 2010

A Pulse-Racing Lunch

My new job is in Central and finding a place for lunch at a decent price is going to be a challenge.

So I thought I was smart in finding a small eatery along the Mid-Levels escalator called Droplet that has a limited menu of sandwiches, soups, pasta and desserts.

I ordered one of the lunch specials, the soup of the day which was chicken and vegetable, and a tuna sandwich on toasted whole wheat bread HK$44 ($5.66).

The restaurant is a small area, with padded stools inside and outside diner style. It seemed quaint and a neat neighbourhood place with reasonable prices.

The soup seemed pretty good, with cabbage, carrots and chunks of chicken spiced with pepper in it. But after I finished the soup, my lips started to itch and swell up. I didn't think too much of it and ate the tuna salad sandwich that included tomatoes and lettuce.

However, my face started to feel flush and thought perhaps some yogurt would calm things down. Across the street at Smooch I ordered a frozen yogurt with homemade granola and three fruit toppings, strawberry, blueberry and pineapple (HK$36/$4.63).

Despite trying to cool down with this delectable treat, my face was still red, as if I had just worked out at the gym, and my heart rate was racing. It took hours for my body to finally calm down from what was probably an adverse reaction to MSG or something in the soup.

Suffice to say I won't be going back to Droplet anymore and will continue my hunt for a decent-priced lunch place in Central.

Stay tuned.

45-47 Shelley Street
2581 2128

23 Hollywood Road
2891 8728

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Getting into the Business of Death

Casino mogul Stanley Ho is getting into the death business.

His company, Shun Tak Holdings is going to build a multi-storey columbarium in Macau to compete with private suppliers in Hong Kong.

Also those supplying columbariums in Hong Kong are facing lots of protests from residents who don't want the urns of the dead near where they live; but with land at a premium, those who have passed on need a place to rest.

Which is why Ho is taking advantage of the situation by offering the deceased in Hong Kong the option of having a peaceful afterlife in the former Portuguese enclave.

Construction is already underway on the five-floor facility on a reclaimed site in an old industrial district in northern Taipa. It should be completed by the middle of next year.

When finished, the HK$900 million ($115.8 million) columbarium will provide 50,000 niches to Macau, Hong Kong and Zhuhai markets, according to Shun Tak's latest annual report.

"Upscale and contemporary, the columbarium offers one-stop solutions to purchasers seeking an environment with a tranquil setting," it said.

Hmm. How convenient.

The company is even planning to offer annual ferry ticket concessions to niche buyers and even direct coaches to the facility after the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is opened, according to Lai Hau-yan, a Hong Kong-based funeral agent.

Apparently these units are going for between HK$20,000 to HK$50,000 ($2,573-$6,433), and it will be interesting to see how Ho's company markets them and how they are received by the public.

Currently in Hong Kong, about 40,000 people die per year, which is a stark contrast to 1,600 who pass away in Macau. Also, local columbariums in the casino city are only a few thousand dollars.

Hong Kong is planning to build 12 more columbariums in seven districts, including Kwai Chung, Cheung Chau and Mui Wo. But in recent days many people are protesting the proposed construction of these buildings, saying the ash from the incense and offerings will blow into their apartments, thus affecting the property value.

It's quite obvious Ho is jumping into a potentially lucrative market that looks like a sure win.

So does this mean he hopes the deceased will be gambling in the afterlife too?

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Second Time's a Charm?

I still can't believe I found a flat on the second try.

Yesterday afternoon I met up with my agent; while she could not get in touch with a landlord who had a flat in my price range (the place probably already rented out), there was another available in Sheung Wan for HK$7,800 ($1,003) a month.

It's on Bonham Strand West, just a few blocks from where I used to live on Bonham Strand East.

The flat is on the 21st floor of a building over 25 years old, near shops that sell Chinese medicine or dry goods like beans and oats.

And once we went inside I was surprised by how "big" it looked despite the space being sectioned off into a small bedroom and bathroom. It was recently renovated, with new air conditioners, light fixtures, a new tiled floor, new counter top and gas stove. But there was no fridge and no furniture.

Oh and did I mention that the bathroom is the size of a closet? The shower is even in an enclosed stall.

While I didn't say much or make a decision right away, I could feel the two agents, mine and the one acting for the landlord telling me that flats like this didn't come by everyday, especially in this price range.

I told my agent I needed time to think about it as I had only started looking. I didn't expect to find such a decent place in such a short time.

The usual routine is that agents will show you crap apartments first, hoping to get rid of those listings before showing you better flats. So it's a test of patience in terms of how many duds you are willing to see before tearing your hair out in frustration.

But in this case, there was nothing else to show. My agent ran out of listings in my ideal price range.

The other agent explained that he had already shown the place to a few people, though the size was a bit too small for a couple otherwise they would have taken it. But for one person it was enough space.

We walked back to her office. Could she help me get the place for cheaper, like HK$7,500 ($965)? And a fridge?

The landlord replied back HK$7,500 but no fridge.

I had to think it over again, but with the property market so hot for landlords, I didn't have much choice. It was in the price range and area I wanted.

So... I put down a month's rent for a deposit and we'll finish the deal on Tuesday.

Last night as I tried to go to sleep I was thinking, "What have I done?" as I usually see a number of flats before finding the one I want.

But this one, facing south with a view of Western Market and Shun Tak Centre gave me a good feeling when I walked around in it.

And if my hunch is wrong, it's only a year lease and then get back on the flat hunting scene again.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Looking for Flats

Moving back to Hong Kong is a surreal experience.

It's not like previous visits where the stay is only for a week or a few days. You are actually going to live here for a long time. Again.

There isn't much need to carry a map; you know where practically everything is, apart from a few shops or offices that have moved.

But it's different from Beijing where I have just came from, where everything is a fraction of the price of things here.

Which brings me to the dilemma of finding a place to live.

I have lived in a number of places in Hong Kong -- a relative's apartment in Pokfulam; another in Tokwawan; in the YWCA, Mid-Levels, Central and then finally Sheung Wan.

And now with a job in Central, I'm looking to find a place in Sheung Wan again, walking distance from the office and near some wet markets to get fresh (and cheap) produce to cook.

However, the hunt for a place is discouraging.

I arbitrarily pick a real estate agent's office in the Sheung Wan neighbourhood and when I tell them my price range for a flat, they tell me it's near impossible. To find a place under HK$8,000 ($1,028) is going to be like finding a needle in a haystack. Oh boy.

The agent shows me a place on Gage Street nearby. It's in an old building with a rickety elevator. Although the place was recently renovated, the bathroom still looks a mess -- why the inconsistency? -- and it's one small open space with a tiny counter and sink which is supposed to be a kitchen.

The place just had a bad vibe to it.

And the landlord was asking for over HK$8,000 for it. Right.

The agent later told me that the rents at the place I used to rent in Sheung Wan are now over HK$10,000 ($1,285). Aiya.

I keep forgetting that nine years have passed since I last lived here. Of course things are going to get more expensive, especially when it comes to Hong Kong.

I'm going to have to either shell out more for a place in the same area, or look further away from Central for a decent space. Or of course think smaller -- like the size of a matchbox.

As I said, it's a surreal experience being back, and having to remember that things cost more than what they used to almost a decade a go.

Time really does fly by...

Back in Hong Kong

I left Hong Kong on July 4, 2001 after working and living in the city for seven years.

During that time I witnessed the handover of the former British colony to Mainland China in 1997 and the changes to the city despite the promise of "One country, two systems".

And now almost nine years to the day (July 7, 2010) I am back in Hong Kong to start a new adventure in the city.

I have just arrived here after my three-year stint in Beijing and you can read my China experiences here.

Join me as I document my experiences in Hong Kong and the region.