Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Character Amnesia

Like most people who study Chinese, I recognize them better than writing them.

I depend on a dictionary -- online no less -- so that I can write it down correctly -- for almost every other word.

But for those, especially young people where Chinese is their first language, many are forgetting how to write the characters thanks to their dependence on software programs on their computers and mobile phones. Through typing in the pinyin, they can choose from a selection of characters instead of having to write them out by stroke, though there are a few programs that use stroke recognition.

The phenomenon of forgetting how to write Chinese characters is called "character amnesia" or tibiwangzi 提筆忘子 "take pen, forget character".

Many young people realize this problem is getting chronically worse and with it they lose bits of their own culture.

The problem is that learning characters must be done through rote memorization -- you cannot "spell" out a character; you just have to know it.

Siok Wai Ting, assistant professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University says forgetting how to write could eventually affect reading ability.

"Through writing, we memorize characters. Reading and writing are more closely connected in Chinese," she said.

Interestingly her research has found Chinese reading even uses a different part of the brain from reading the Roman alphabet -- a part closer to the motor area which is used for handwriting.

What's also worth noting is that the internet and mobile phone technology have led to the development of new words and forms of writing. This also reflects the age group of the users, the vast majority of whom are under 40 years of age.

So perhaps if people are forgetting Chinese characters, they can create new ones instead to replace them... but will they remember how to write those ones too?

Monday, 30 August 2010

The Joys and Perils of a Walkable City

What I like about Hong Kong is that everything is pretty much accessible by public transit or walking.

Just a few minutes' walk and you are in another district.

However, it really sucks when you have an injury, and in my case a pulled calf muscle -- which reminds me I need to ice it.

OK I'm back with the ice.

Now instead of walking briskly through the streets, I'm shuffling along, or limping along more like it, and getting around is a real drag.

I have have to rely on the tram to get to work, when before it would take me 15 minutes to walk there, though I have to admit, there was less perspiration involved with transit.

It seems that I pulled my calf muscle over a week ago and thought it was fine and then yesterday afternoon as I ran across the intersection because the light was about to turn red, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my leg and I grimaced and yelped.

So now I'm sidelined from cardiovascular exercises for a while until my leg gets better. I'd just signed up for a year-long membership at a gym and was intending to use it as much as possible. But now it looks like I won't be doing any swimming or running for a while...


Sunday, 29 August 2010

Another Side of Hong Kong

This afternoon I checked out a small massage place near where I live, and when I walked in, the masseuses were sitting in the chairs where clients should be sitting, reading the newspaper which was a bit unprofessional but not uncommon.

I inquired about full-body massages like the ones I used to get at Bodhi in Beijing and they did have them -- at HK$188 ($24) for 50 minutes. The place is a bit cramped with low ceilings and upstairs there is a small room with three massage beds. The enthusiastic owner warned me that there might be other customers coming into the room which was a bit disconcerting. But he gave me a free bottle of water.

He also gave me a T-shirt and long shorts to wear and it made me wonder if someone else had worn them before but I didn't want to think too much of it. Then a young woman who had been sitting in the chair in front came up to give me a massage.

Her Cantonese accent wasn't very good so I tried to speak to her in Mandarin. At first she kept trying to speak in Cantonese but then gave up and we spoke in Putonghua even though her accent wasn't very clear. She is originally from Guizhou and came here almost two years ago with her six-year-old daughter. I asked her if she liked Hong Kong and she said it was a step up, as she was originally tilling the fields in her hometown. It was in Shenzhen where she learned how to massage people, and I have to say she did a pretty good job relieving the tension in my body.

It turns out most of the masseurs are from China, and she said they were from all over the country. I asked her if she liked Cantonese food and she laughed and said not really. She explained that Guizhou food is mostly steamed too, but has more spicier flavour.

Then I asked her if she lived nearby and she replied that she lived in Tin Shui Wai, which is deep in the New Territories. It takes her a good hour and a half to come to Sheung Wan, three hours of the day eaten up by commuting.

She didn't elaborate too much on how she got here, but it sounds like she came to Hong Kong to give her daughter a better life, though it seems the child isn't too pleased about being in a new place where she doesn't know the language and culture very well.

Hopefully she will come to understand her mother's sacrifices and will study hard in order to get a good job.

The Chinese are know for their heavy investment in human capital, especially as they are betting on an exponentially brighter future for the next generation.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Electronic Distractions

I recently read a New York Times article about how we spend too much time using electronic gadgets, whether it's a BlackBerry, video games, TV and computers.

Hong Kong is no exception. In the elevators people are on their BlackBerries checking for the latest messages -- even those who are on their way to yoga class.

But trying to stimulate our attention or relieve boredom with these gadgets may not be such a good idea.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco found that if rats have a new experience, like exploring a new area, their brains show patterns of activity. But it's when they take a break from exploration are they able to process it to create a persistent memory of the experience.

And the scientists think this conclusion applies to humans too.

"Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it's had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories," said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, "you prevent this learning process."

However, games now have the pause button available to stop at anytime or now they are being designed so that you can play them for "micro-moments", says Sebastien de Halleux, a co-founder of PlayFish that was bought out by gaming giant Electronic Arts.

I can understand people using things like BlackBerries for business, but does a taitai really need to check her messages every five minutes?

At the gym there are people who have to watch TV or listen to music in order to work out. And some gyms even offer movies on DVD for people who need to watch a two-hour movie to get enough exercise. How you can run and concentrate on a movie I don't know.

If you need entertainment as motivation to work out, then you're not really exercising for your health but just to pass the time. Not really constructive.

For swimmers like myself, there are no distractions. It's just us and the water.

It's a good place to be.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Remembering the Dead

Friday nights most foreigners are out in the bars in Central socializing with friends and having a few drinks to relax and ease into the weekend.

Some Hong Kong Chinese have dinner with friends or bust out in song in karaoke bars.

But things were a bit different today.

After work I walked to my gym, which is on the edge of Central bordering Admiralty. As I walked there a young mainland Chinese couple stopped me and asked where the Peak tram was. I gave them the directions in Mandarin which made me think, those three years in Beijing are paying off!

But when I reached the street corner, there were several policemen standing around which was a bit strange. What were they doing there, with their motorcycles parked nearby?

I didn't think too much of it until after my workout and I walked down to the tram stop to go home. At Chater Garden next to the Legislative Council building was a large gathering of people in black T-shirts holding candles and singing songs.

They were remembering those victims from Monday's hostage taking in the Philippines.

The incident has hit many Hong Kong people hard and they are trying to understand the tragedy. Why were Hong Kong people targeted? Why did they have to be killed? Why didn't the police save them?

It will be a while yet before their questions are answered.

In the meantime they want to show their grief tonight. On Sunday afternoon at 3pm in Victoria Park there will be a rally that will include all political parties in a show of solidarity over this issue. They will demand that the Philippine authorities conduct a fair and independent investigation into the incident, and have Hong Kong investigators take part.

While the Philippine government claims an investigation is already underway, none of the surviving victims have been asked to give their accounts, according to Cheung Man-kwong a Democratic Party lawmaker.

The lack of trust in the Philippine authorities does not bode well for the outcome of this incident. Nor does it make accepting the situation any better.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

More Revelations of Missteps

There is more anger and sorrow in Hong Kong after the tragic deaths of eight tourists in the hostage-taking incident in Manila.

The bodies have been flown back here, the families have started burying their loved ones.

Some people have written angry or sad letters to the editor, asking why this happened or demanding to know why the Philippine police force made so many mistakes. There have even been a few reported cases of employers sacking their Filipino maids apparently in a fit of frustration after seeing the tragedy unfold on live television.

While the Hong Kong government asked its Philippine counterpart about a joint investigation, the latter refused, making it difficult for Hong Kong investigators to get information first hand. They will only be able to work with the results of the findings of the Philippine investigation.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino promised a full investigation, saying, "What happened should not happen again. Someone failed, someone will pay."

But he stopped short of blaming the police. In the meantime, police chief Rodolfo Magtibay and four leaders of the assult team have taken a leave of absence pending the investigation.

The Philippine government has had no choice but to admit there were fatal missteps made that led to the bloody end. These included the lack of training in dealing with these types of situations as well as inferior equipment, or even lacked of items considered basic by other police forces.

Magtibay told a senate hearing that he gave the order to storm the bus after hearing shots when negotiations broke down with the hostage taker, a former policeman.

He also "honestly believed" assurances by his assault team leader that they were prepared and were carrying the right equipment for the operation.

However, Senator Miguel Zubiri pointed out the police SWAT team did not have ladders or bus window blasters, and the rope they used to try to pry open the bus door easily snapped.

Another police officer testified the team did not have a "flash-bang grenade", a standard weapon used by police to stun a hostage taker.

"It was Band-Aid solutions as we went along, but the element of surprise had already gone," Zubiri said. "If you are a foreigner, you will no longer come to visit the Philippines because you have seen in the news that the police are not adequately trained."

He is right.

And the best thing the Philippine government can do right now is be completely transparent about this investigation, to allow Hong Kong investigators to join in the investigation so that the truth can come out.

From there, the police force can use the results of the findings to rebuild itself, shake off its bad image and start fresh with better training and equipment.

That is the only way for the Philippines to rebuild credibility now and to regain the confidence of its citizens and foreigners.

But that's only if the Philippine government wants to do so.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Copycat Images

One more thing about Vietnam.

It's following a similar route to China, where its economy seems capitalist with the wide range of consumer choice depending on your spending power, but it's also still quite Communist.

There are reminders on the streets where many stores and buildings hang red flags with the yellow star, or ones with a hammer and sickle. There were also many posters on the streets reminding people of how far society had progressed after Ho Chi Minh came to power.

And the images used on these posters were eerily similar to the Cultural Revolution ones in China from the 1950s and 1960s.

But now Vietnam's big neighbour uses cartoons to depict major social messages, as its citizens seem to have regressed into children...

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Holiday Turns to Tragedy

Hong Kong people are still reeling from the shock of watching the tense standoff in Manila that led to eight of their compatriots being shot dead along with the hostage taker yesterday.

What made it even more horrific was that it was broadcast live on television, a drama that unfolded with a tragic end.

Today the newspapers carried bloody pictures of the event, people on the bus recalling the terror of being held at gunpoint and the anger of the Hong Kong government at their Philippine counterpart for not doing enough to try to save the innocent victims. 

One woman told of her husband who deliberately rushed forward in front of her to shield her from the bullets. She did not know what happened to her children and was frantically searching for them. Others were visibly shaken and didn't want to talk to the media, only wanting to go back to their hotels and try to make sense of what happened.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was also demanding answers. Last night he said he was unable to reach Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Monday, while the Chinese consulate in Manila urged the authorities to try to safely rescue the hostages.

However, the tense standoff broadcast live only revealed the Philippine police's weakness in dealing with the situation. Critics are saying the police missed opportunities especially when they did not have a negotiator to deal with the hostage taker, 55-year-old Rolando Mendoza. He claimed his reputation was smeared when he was accused of robbery and extortion and was fired last year.

The police were seen hesitating and not even having the proper equipment to break the glass window of the bus, taking them 45 minutes to do this. It just reveals how ill-equipped they were and the lack of training in dealing with these situations.

As a result, the Hong Kong government has issued black alert, strongly recommending that people cancel leisure trips to the Philippines. The coverage alone was enough to scare most people, and tour operators have also canceled many tours.

In the next few days Hong Kong and China will be expecting more answers.

Losing innocent lives, especially while on holiday, is a consequence too cruel too accept.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Seemingly Good Intentions

OK folks listen up -- if you want to buy a knife and happen to be in Guangzhou then you'll have to register your name as part of security measures for the upcoming Asian Games in November.

This means kitchen knives, big fruit knives, craft knives and files are "dangerous" and people should only buy them from authorized vendors.

The Guangzhou Public Security Bureau website says buyers should show vendors their identity cards or certification from employers if they want to buy knives. Vendors, who would need to get a license to sell the knives, must write down the buyer's personal information, the type and quantity of knives bought and give this information to local police once a week. They would also need to tell the police if the buyers behaved strangely or appeared to have mental problems.

It alludes to the string of random knife attacks in the spring in China, killing and injuring many children as well as adults. While the police claimed the attackers had mental problems, there were no medical checks or proof after the fact to show they really were psychologically disturbed.

This is a draft regulation that is seeking public feedback until Wednesday before revising it. If approved by the municipal government, it would go into effect November 1 to the end of the year.

All these rules just create a drag on everyone rather than really getting to the real issue. This means there will be a buying frenzy of knives before November 1 and if someone wants to go on a bloody rampage, what's to stop them from stealing another person's knife or using one they already have.

It just reveals how incompetent security officials are in thinking ahead about security issues as well as tackling the issue of mental illness in China. They have already branded them as criminals without trying to understand what their problem is and giving them the proper treatment; and makes the public fearful of anyone who may seem strange to them.

Hardly seems progress for a country that has a president pushing for a "harmonious society". Seems more like a fractious one.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Unpretentious but Memorable Meal

When in Macau, how can one not resist going to Fernando's?

My friend and I checked out of our hotel at 12pm and made a beeline for the taxi stand. However, while one hotel staffer signaled for a taxi, another one did for another party, which led to some confusion as to who would take the cab.

The other party was a Chinese family of three generations and the matriarch even made the plea, "We have young children here!" as if that was supposed to make us have a soft spot for them.

The fact was we were there first, but given they were prepared to throw a tantrum, we decided to yield to them and wait for the next taxi.

Just say "Hac sa Fernando's" and just about every cab driver knows. It's the furthest island from the main area near the ferry terminal, but it's worth the trip.

You cross the main bridge and into Taipa and Coloane, where you pass by what is called the Cotai strip, featuring City of Dreams, a complex which has three hotels, Hard Rock, Grand Hyatt and Crown, and the 3,000-room Venetian across the street. Apparently this Venetian is bigger than the one in Las Vegas.

Soon afterwards we ride into more green areas, and then soon you can see the beach which really does have black sand. We finally arrive almost half an hour later, right in front of the restaurant.

It's still its unpretentious self, hidden under tree leaves. We arrive just in time to get a table in the front before a horde of other hungry diners come and have to wait at the back.

The menu is still the same -- in Portuguese and Chinese -- but thankfully there is also a slim colour brochure with pictures and English in it. I point to four items on the menu to the waitress and she quickly brings us a big bottle of water and the giant bread buns.

We don't wait long until the bowl of caldo verde arrives. It's a traditional Portuguese potato soup with slices of sausage and kale. It's a good thick hearty soup, probably not the best choice for summer, but nonetheless a Macanese dish worth sampling.

Then my favourite dish, the clams arrive. They are absolutely to die for, stir-fried with a good helping of finely diced garlic, a slight tomato-based sauce, and parsley. The clams are cooked just right, plump and juicy. But wait -- the other good part is mopping up the sauce with the bread. And we make the plate completely clean.

The salad here is also refreshing -- lettuce leaves, slices of red ripe tomatoes, and onions with a generous drizzling of olive oil and vinegar. In the end I also mop up the salad dressing with the bread.

Another highlight was the roasted pork ribs on a bed of thick fries. The meat was tender and we could not help but eat them with our fingers instead of forks and knives.

If we had more hungry mouths at our table we'd order more, like crispy suckling pig, crab cooked in a clay pot or baked cod fish. But alas our stomachs were full and satiated. Next time.

After lunch, we spent a bit of time at the beach, feeling the sand between our toes and the waves rushing in. Kids frolicked in the sand, while some die-hard swimmers did a few rounds in the sea.

We had a really good memorable time at Fernando's and look forward to the next time we're there.

Restaurante Fernando
Praia de Hac Sa No. 9 Coloane
(853) 2888 2531

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Picture of the Day: Macau and Money

Across from Casino Lisboa in Macau is Wynn hotel, which has a giant shallow pool in front and every 15 minutes there's a water and music show.

Sometimes it's Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas, classical music, or Frank Sinatra singing Luck Be a Lady, with the jets spewing out water at great heights choreographed to the tunes. Sometimes they sway, other times they shoot up water and then stop. There's coloured lights to go with the aquatic action too.

The last song, Holding Out for a Hero a remake of Bonnie Tyler's hit song even includes fire balls shot into the sky which definitely creates the wow factor.

But perhaps the most telling song they broadcast to the fountain is Money Makes the World Go Round from the musical Cabaret.

Because the hotel, like every other one in Macau, has casinos where lots of people, particularly mainland Chinese, who drop millions of dollars at the gambling tables, making the city what it is today.

And perhaps Wynn is just encouraging people to do it more with a few extra jet streams of water thrown in.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Fact of the Day: China is the World's Biggest Beer Market

According to Credit Suisse's World Map of Beer, China has grown from a market of hardly touching a drop of beer to consuming the most in the world.

The beer-drinking market in China is growing 10 percent each year which is probably making the four biggest brewing companies, ABI, SABMiller, Carlsberg and Heineken frothing at the thought. Together they already own half the world's beer market.

However, getting a bigger piece of the China pie is a huge challenge, as it already has its own beers, like Qingdao and Yanjing. These beers have lower alcohol content and are refreshing in taste. Not only that, but they are much cheaper than imported brands, and you can't forget the patriotic factor.

What nationalistic Chinese would want to be caught drinking anything but a Chinese beer?

Sounds like the Chinese beer market is still an elusive catch for multinationals...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Calming Urban Retreat

In Tsim Sha Tsui there is a small place to escape the hectic city life and have a bit of tranquility not too far away.

It's called Kowloon Park and I recently went in there for the first time despite having passed it many times in the years I lived here before. While it's seems smaller than Hong Kong Park up from Admiralty, Kowloon Park is more compact, but can quickly transport park patrons to another world.

The noise level of the buses, cars, and loud voices gradually decreases as you walk deeper into the park. Interestingly near the entrance is a department of hygiene; why it's there I have no idea.

All kinds of people hang out at this park -- young lovers, the elderly, children with their parents and those seeking a bit of alone time.

In the middle of the park is a giant fountain and in the summer it helps cool down the place as well as the surrounding trees offering shade.

It's a relatively quiet place, though the park is highly programmed, making it difficult for people to be more creative in using the space. They are either expected to walk on the paths or sit on the benches, with not much room in between for much else.

Nevertheless, when enough time in tranquility has passed, people can ease back into the frenetic pace of Hong Kong as they walk out of the park.

It's just good to know there's an escape valve nearby to collect your senses or take a breather.
We all need one of those once in a while.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Trying to Call the Premier's Bluff

The much-anticipated book Wen Jiabao: China's Best Actor is on sale in some book stores in Hong Kong, but not yet in the major chains.

The Chinese-language book is a collection of essays that analyze and comment on Chinese government policy in foreign affairs, economics, education, culture and human rights during Wen's premiership.

Author Yu Jie, 37, told Radio Television Hong Kong that mainland police had threatened him with jail if the book was published. He added he didn't consider Wen to be a great leader.

Publisher Bao Pu of New Century Press said 5,000 copies had been printed so far. He approached Yu around April or May and decided to publish the book because he thought people would be interested in reading it.

"I did not consider the views of the mainland [authorities]," he said. "We are a Hong Kong publisher. I just considered whether it was legal to publish it in Hong Kong."

The main bookstores are probably reading copies of the book first to see how sensitive it is before deciding to sell it in their stores.

However, with such a provocative title, who can resist taking a peek? Yu contends that Wen pretends to empathize with citizens, especially during disaster situations so that they will continue to have faith in the government.

Yu gives the example of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

"Premier Wen was the first high-ranking official to show up and appeared very emotional," he told ABC News. "He offered his condolences to the local school parents and promised to investigate why and how the schools collapsed.

"Two years later, however, he has still yet to issue any comforting reports to the Chinese public. No corrupt officials or developers associated with those officials were punished in any way."

Yu also feels the publication of the book is another exercise in freedom of speech in order to voice criticism of the government.

In an interview with BBC's Chinese service, he explained, "Wen Jiabao and [Chinese President] Hu Jintao are like the two sides of a coin. They are on a tandem bike, heading in the same direction. I think they are playing the good-guy-bad-guy routine, like the harsh-dad-loving-mum sort of thing.

"But they share the same goal, which is to strengthen their power base. I think they have more in common than differences. That's why I don't agree with the unrealistic view held by many Western scholars and China observers, as well as many Chinese people, that Wen is a reformist, that he is more open. I have a different view, which may not necessarily be the right one, but needs to be voice."

Good luck to Yu and hopefully he manages to avoid jail time. Otherwise, Bao worries that Yu may face a long prison term similar to Liu Xiaobo who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion. While the book is banned in China, like Zhao Ziyang's memoirs, Wen Jiabao: China's Best Actor could find its way into the mainland electronically. And the more people read it, they may gain the courage to finally say the emperor has no clothes on.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Commercialization of Hoi An

And now back to Vietnam...

Thirty minutes from Danang by car is a small town called Hoi An, which used to be a sleepy fishing village but now has become a major tourist spot.

There are small hotels in the area and many foreigners either wandering the streets, riding bicycles, sitting in cyclos to see the sights, or even riding on the back of a moped.

For sightseeing there isn't much, except for a few Buddhist temples and community halls associated with overseas Chinese; there's one for those from Fujian and another for those from Guangdong. Some even have yellow strips of paper with a person's name written down and the amount they donated.

The temples all have small boats near the offerings, probably in the hopes that higher celestial beings will protect fishermen in the area.

Many residents live in the area and one street by a bridge was lined with people selling fresh vegetables, fruits, meats (laid out in the heat), and even seafood like shrimp and tiny crabs.

Apparently this place is famed for its silk and tourists who have yet to go to China are seduced into the idea of having suits or dresses made within hours; however I've heard the quality is questionable and hardly worth the effort, let alone money.

There's lots of souvenir shops, selling T-shirts or postcards, ceramics and coconut shells lacquered with various bright colours. There's also some Vietnamese art for sale, though they seem mass produced than one-offs. And once you've seen one shop, you've basically seen them all, with prices also about the same too.

It's too bad there isn't much more about this town to make it interesting. More historical context or cultural presentations would make it more memorable.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

A Dairy Update

Here's the latest on the dairy situation at the neighbourhood Park N' Shop.

I went there again this afternoon and the shelves were still relatively bare. They had tried to stock some areas with packaged cherries and fruit juice. I even made a trip to the competitor, Wellcome across the street and no yogurt either.

Later in the day I called the store asking for an explanation and a woman explained that the refrigerator wasn't working well and not cold enough for dairy products so they didn't order as much stock. However, she promised after Monday things should be back to normal and apologised for the situation.

While I appreciate her sincerity, it would have been easier to write a note and place it in the empty section so that everyone knew what was going on.

In the meantime I found another Park N' Shop nearby fully stocked with lots of yogurt and milk. However, there was lots of ear-piercing noise as drilling was going on in the vegetable section, with workers replacing tiles on the floor.

Guess you can't have everything.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Where's the Milk?

A short rant before I continue my Vietnam report:

A friend of mine goes to a Park N' Shop supermarket everyday near where I live, checking out prices and buying staples like milk and eggs.

But in the last four days, the supermarket, which is also called "International" for its supposed selection of imported food products, has had hardly any yogurt and milk to speak of in the dairy section. The area -- a giant chunk of the refrigerated section -- was almost empty the first day, completely clear the second, even with the lights out. And now the staff seem to be sheepishly trying to make the shelves look quasi filled, but only with other items like eggs. How are eggs supposed to replace yogurt or milk?

Today I went in to see the situation for myself and it was quite pathetic. There was some yogurt available, but not the plain flavour that is usually for sale; instead several containers of cottage cheese were there. A slim selection of milk was there, but placed in a completely different area of the dairy section.

What is going on here? Park N' Shop is supposed to be a good place to buy groceries, with very competitive prices. So what happened with the milk and yogurt? Was there some falling out with the suppliers? Or did a buyer in that store forget to order more?

Four days without a decent dairy selection in a decent supermarket is deplorable.

What's even more bizarre is that customers either haven't noticed or don't seem to care.

Perhaps that also demonstrates Hong Kongers aren't eating healthy breakfasts...

The Charm and Challenges of Danang

Danang is an hour's flight from Ho Chi Minh. At the airport it's a drag having to schlep your stuff onto a bus that transports you to the plane and from there you board the aircraft.

On the Vietnam Airlines plane, we each get a bottle of water and nothing more, which probably explains why the aircraft is pretty clean. Every two hours there is a flight from either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh to Danang, each filled with a good portion of foreigners and locals.

I last visited Danang 13 years ago when they started opening up the place to capitalism, and also development to build the city into a resort town.

One of the first resorts to open was the Furama Resort Danang and it's still basically the only international hotel there. Others are trying to catch up, but construction has been delayed for two possible reasons: the global economic crisis or investors trying to sell the land instead of making a long-term investment into building a resort on the property.

The best part of the city is its gorgeous beach, with very fine sand and pretty much clear waters. All the resorts (and the ones being built) are all lined up next to each other on what was formerly known as China Beach. It was there, particularly in front of the Furama Resort Danang, that there was an evacuation hospital and rest and recreation area for American soldiers.

However, there are efforts to try to erase this wartime image and just called it the "beach" than its nickname. Hotel brochures have even used a marker to black out "China" and left "beach" and hotel staff don't refer it to its American name either.

Nevertheless, once you're in your resort you don't really want to leave the property. The pool draws people throughout the day and a view of the beach from there is like being in an oasis.

Many resorts are trying to cash in on Danang, but few having much success. There's empty lots next to the Furama, the Hyatt advertising its residences, Le Meridien has posted up signs marking where it will be, but no construction in sight. One place called Olalani has structures already built, but construction was abandoned two years ago. I've heard investors have pledged to finish the project, but with no action on the property, it's hard to gauge if this will really happen or not.

Construction is slow in Vietnam, and it's understandable with the oppressive heat and people's attitudes that things will be done eventually.

But unless these projects are completed, Danang cannot build itself into a viable resort destination for both locals and foreigners alike.

Friday, 13 August 2010

iPhones in China on the Cheap

There is an interesting story in The Wall Street Journal that says a Chinese company has found a way to transform an iPod Touch into an iPhone.

A company called Yosion Technology has unveiled the Apple Peel 520 "attaches to an iPod Touch like any protective case, but functions as a dock, an extended battery and a SIM card slot."

For less than $60, users who are able to manipulate their iPods can install Yosion's calling and text-messaging application, put their SIM card into the slot and use a headset in order to make a call.

Apparently tech geeks give the Apple Peel 520 the thumbs up, with good signal strength and batter talk time for up to 4.5 hours. The disadvantage is that the plastic case may not be durable in the long term.

Nevertheless, if you buy an iPod Touch for $236, and an Apple Peel 520 for $57, it's still way cheaper than an iPhone from Unicom, a Chinese mobile phone network provider at $738, not including the $33 monthly fees.

Perhaps this is China's way of innovating -- by cheating others into finding cheaper ways to using its technology.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

More Images of Saigon

Even monks get around by scooter. Everyone has to wear a helmet and many are also opting to wear face masks, probably because of the pollution on the street.
This is Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the main landmarks of Ho Chi Minh City
There are some temples like this Buddhist one that has Chinese characters on it; the strange thing is that many Vietnamese don't know much Chinese if any
The famed Saigon Opera House in Lam Som Square in District 1, across from the Caravelle Hotel

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Impressions of Saigon

The street view from my hotel window in District 5
Apologies for not blogging for the past two days. I've been in Ho Chi Minh City (HCM) and it's been interesting meeting the people who live and work here and hearing their thoughts about Vietnam and its future.

I was in HCM or Saigon, as locals like to call it, some 13 years ago and I remember cyclos, or people transporting clients on pedicabs. Now they are replaced with taxis, all of which are Toyota cars and minivans. The drivers all wear uniforms and for the most part are legit.

There used to be lots of street vendors too with their mobile carts, but now many cafes and shops have taken their place, some upscale Western coffeeshops, others still the local store fronts where people sit on small plastic chairs outside sipping dark Vietnamese coffee in tall glasses.

The roads are quite small for the biggest city in the country. The right lane is taken up by mopeds or scooters, while the other one is for cars. As a result, cars and trucks can't go much faster than 40km/h and turning and crossing intersections is just like Beijing, where everything comes at you at once and you have to inch your way forward.

More people speak some English, with those in hotels very fluent. It turns out some of gone abroad for their studies; one I met went to Singapore for university, while another just recently came back from Moscow.

And it's these 20-somethings who seem very optimistic for Vietnam's future. They are realising the importance of knowing English and I heard that some are taking night classes which demonstrates their eagerness to learn the language.

Aside from HCM, Hanoi is also an up-and-coming city. One likened it to HCM being like Beijing as the capital, while Hanoi is like Shanghai. The similarities between the two countries don't end there. Young and middle-aged locals complained to me about corruption in the government and how it has hindered the country.

One explained that it was because the people in power were originally from the countryside and after becoming rulers they don't have good knowledge in governing a city, area or country. They only seem to want to ingratiate themselves, remarked a taxi driver to me.

I added that China was like that too, but he felt that people only became corrupt after the country became powerful. But I retorted saying China would be an even better country if it wasn't corrupt like it is now.

Nevertheless, young people seem pleased at seeing their country develop so quickly in the past 20 years. They are thrilled to witness the progress and want to see it continue. For them, this is Vietnam's golden period and they intend to ride the wave as long as they can.

However, what's interesting is that not many young Vietnamese are willing to work very hard. A foreign woman in sales told me that if you put too much pressure on the locals, they quit and it isn't too difficult for them to find other jobs either. They will even find a new job in a completely different field as long as it pays well. So as an employer it's hard to strike a balance between meeting your targets and keeping good staff.

This also indicates Vietnam may take longer to reach greater heights of success if young people are not willing to push themselves harder. While they are kind and gentle, hospitable and soft-spoken, they also need that inner drive to help the country grow even more.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Green and Healthy

Last night my friend and I tried out Life Organic Health Cafe along the Mid-Levels escalator. It's a three-storey place that is perfect for vegetarians and vegans.

This place is pretty popular; we didn't make reservations so we were relegated to the roof, which luckily had fans to keep us relatively cool.

The seating arrangements are simple, with wooden tables and benches for two or four. And likewise the menu is limited and straight forward.

We started with the beetnik salad, featuring wine-marinated beets with mixed greens, almonds and dried tofu cubes. The other appetiser was hummus, a small, delicious scoop of it that was roughly blended with small pie slices of whole wheat pita bread.

Soon afterwards we got our mains -- a tofu sesame stir-fry with quinoa, carrots, peppers, bak choy, mushrooms, layered tofu and raw watercress. It was pretty good, especially the tofu, which is more usually found in Chinese dishes like mock goose, as it has a quasi meaty texture.

However, it was the raw power zucchini dish that really pepped up my friend's taste buds. The plate was filled with zucchini that has been carefully sliced like noodles, flavoured with pesto sauce and garnished with cherry tomatoes, pumpkin seeds and basil. It was very refreshing for a hot day and definitely filled us up.

We are keen to come back again and I know what my friend will definitely be ordering!

Dinner for two was HK$374 ($48).

Life Organic Health Cafe
10 Shelley Street
Hong Kong

2810 9777

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Picture of the Day: Hello Kitty Crocs

Hello Kitty is still going strong here.

When I first came to Hong Kong to live and work in 1994 there was a Hello Kitty craze in the form of collectible dolls that you could by from McDonald's with a certain set meal. Hello Kitty in a sailor suit. Hello Kitty in a kimono. Hello Kitty in a pink dress. Hello Kitty with a Hawaiian grass skirt. And then you could collect her boyfriend Daniel in his various outfits too. It never seemed to end.

Why Asians are so hung up on Hello Kitty is so bizarre. I can understand little girls having a fascination for the cat with the big rectangular face with no mouth, and a big red bow on her left ear, but 30-year-old women? Avid fans can have Hello Kitty lingerie, toasters that burn her face on the bread, or make pancakes the shape of her visage.

And then tonight as I passed by the Crocs store and saw, horror of horrors -- Hello Kitty Crocs. Check out the poster with her modeling her own pair.

Granted these plastic sandals are for girls, but who knows if Crocs might meet market demand and make larger ones for women who are still in love with Hello Kitty.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

A Green Escape

This afternoon I took my friend to Bowen Road for a stroll.

I hadn't been there in many years so as we wandered through Hong Kong Park I didn't quite remember how to get there. We went up to the aviary and then back down before finding the right flight of stairs up to Kennedy Road, then to McDonnell Road and then finally Bowen Road.

It was quite the hike. By the time we got to Bowen Road I was covered in sweat, but pleased that I had bought an extra bottle of water for our walk.

Bowen Road hasn't changed much in the over 10 years since I last was there. I haven't gone at such a late time during the day, but there were still a number of joggers and dog walkers along the path.

It was so nice to be able to escape the industrial sounds of the city -- the buses and trucks rumbling down the road, the pile drivers working non-stop; loud conversations, sidewalks crowded with people and the soupy mixture of smells had all disappeared too. It was replaced with lots of greenery, from centuries-old trees to shrubs and flowers. Even butterflies danced by us.

We walked, and walked... hardly talking, taking in the relatively quiet and verdant landscape. And looking out towards Victoria Harbour we could see the stunning skyline, and imagine the noisy streets down below.

It took us over an hour to finish the entire trail which ended around Stubbs Road, from where we took a bus to Causeway Bay and then took the subway back home.

I hope to do this walk/run more regularly now that I'm back... and remember how to get there.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Honouring China's Conscience

Later today Gao Zhisheng will be honoured with the American Bar Association's International Human Rights Lawyer Award.

However, he is still missing in China, but his 17-year-old daughter Grace will accept the award on his behalf in San Francisco.

The award is given to a distinguished foreign human rights lawyer who suffers persecution as a result of their professional activities, and Gao fits the bill.

Known as "the conscience of China" for his legal work in representing persecuted the downtrodden, such religious groups including the Falun Gong and victims of corruption, Gao has been repeatedly imprisoned and tortured by the authorities.

He had disappeared for over a year and then suddenly emerged at a Buddhist sanctuary in late March this year. He was allowed to contact some foreign media and expressed hope that his good behaviour would lead to a reunion with his family who fled to the United States. However, he disappeared again on April 20 after he had gone to see his father-in-law in Xinjiang. Gao has not been heard from since.

Glenn Hendrix, chair of the American Bar Association's Section of International Law, said, "in bringing attention to Gao Zhisheng's case, we show that the world is watching. Hopefully this will help protect other courageous lawyers who are promoting the rule of law in China."

Gao's wife Geng He adds, "It is my hope that the award will compel the Chinese government to release my husband. How much longer can it [make him] disappear when it knows the whole world is watching?"

A pro bono legal team has been fighting for Gao for a long time and it includes New York University Professor Jerome Cohen, Canadian lawyer David Matas, Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, Hong Kong lawyer and legislator Albert Ho and former Canadian MP David Kilgour.

It will probably be a bitter-sweet moment for Grace to receive the award for her father. She understands how much he has sacrificed -- including impacting his own family -- for the greater good of others.

The authorities put the family under surveillance for many months and the pressure got so great for her that she was mentally unstable which led to Geng's decision to take Grace and her younger brother out of the country.

It is an enormous price to pay for both the family and Gao. His work and determination to fight for others should never be forgotten. He has helped expose the contradictions and failures of the Chinese legal system as well as the deep insecurities of the Chinese government which will do anything to stop him from fighting for his clients on the rule of law.

That in itself is a grave injustice.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Macau's Transformation

When I used to live in Hong Kong, I went to Macau periodically for good food and to add to my 'antique' furniture collection.

No one can resist the Macanese custard egg tarts and roast pig, the quaint alleys and laid-back atmosphere.

It was later that I learned Macau was a refuge for many Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war and also when the Communists took over China.

So for those hoping to reminisce about the old days visiting Macau these days will be in for a shock.

 VIP Lobby of the MGM Macau
The place is trying to transform itself into the Las Vegas of the east and it is well on its way. It only used to be Casa Lisboa with its gaudy yellow and white colours, its bulbous shape and flashing lights that seduced excited gamblers to part with their money.

But now there are many more choices -- MGM Macau, Wynn, Sands, The Venetian, with many new luxury hotels popping up too.

Wynn has become so successful here that it has opened up Encore, an even more luxurious hotel specifically for the high rollers. The VIP entrance at MGM Macau was designed by Pansy Ho, the daughter of casino king Stanley Ho. She used lots of marble and raw jade to create a Moroccan-style lobby that oozes with grandeur. Who wouldn't want to be seen in a place like that?

The majority of these high rollers are mainland Chinese, and the source of all their money is questionable. Nevertheless, they are the ones keeping Macau afloat. Sixty percent of the revenues of The Venetian in Las Vegas come from rooms, entertainment and restaurants. In Macau, it's 20 percent. Many of the gamblers here would rather fritter their money away and then eat a bowl of cheap noodles before heading back on the ferry.

Mainlanders are everywhere in Macau; hotels have had to hire Mandarin-speaking staff to bridge the language gap with Cantonese-speaking Macanese. It was strange having to speak Putonghua to a waitress in a restaurant of a five-star hotel, and to the pool attendant.
Silver showers at the Grand Hyatt Macau

While it was not strange seeing mainlanders smoking up a storm, it was shocking seeing them smoke IN the elevator with the "No Smoking" sign on the control panel. The hotel I stayed at didn't have ashtrays at the elevators and so cigarette butts were left on the marble floor. How classy.

Although there were some Chinese who ate cheaply, there were others who dropped lots of money on expensive restaurants. The chef from Tim's Kitchen which is actually near where I live, got a Michelin star and he was lured to work in Macau. Joel Robuchon has a restaurant in Lisboa hotel. I've heard the set lunch here is a great value, but it's only available on weekdays and you must reserve well in advance.

It's just mind boggling to hear of the tens of thousands of hotel rooms that are available and tens of thousands more being built. Are they all occupied? Who stays in all those rooms? While the labour shortages are still an issue, the government has done little to alleviate the situation, insisting a certain number of Macanese must be employed at each property.

A view of the new hotels from the Taipa ferry terminal
As a result, a number of young Macanese abandon their jobs to become dealers at tables, job-hopping from one new hotel to the next in hopes of increasing their salary each time.

The few young Macanese I spoke to who were born and raised there think it's great to see their hometown boom like this. However, is it too much too soon? Time will tell.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Quick Cut, Quick Beauty

QB House is a cheap way to get a haircut, especially in Hong Kong. QB stands for "quick beauty".

The business started in Tokyo in 1995 just as the recession hit, and since then it has taken off in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The concept is that you're in and out of the no-frills salon in 10 minutes for only HK$50 ($6.44).

A friend of mine went there about a week ago to try it out. There are some 25 outlets in Hong Kong and he went to the one in Sheung Wan, in the Shun Tak Centre, or Macau Ferry Terminal. It's just at the top of the escalator when you come up from the MTR (exit D).

First you have to have a HK$50 bill that you feed into a machine and it spits out a ticket. Then you wait your turn.

My friend didn't have to wait long -- the guy ahead of him was semi bald, and only wanted his sides shortened. The hairdresser quickly remedied the situation by getting out the electric shears and shortened the sides in two minutes.

When my friend sat in the chair -- there's no hair washing involved -- the hairdresser was a bit nervous dealing with a gweilo or foreigner, but with his broken English and my friend's decent Mandarin they were able to communicate the kind of haircut he wanted.

The hairdresser was probably a bit more cautious, wanting to make sure he wasn't cutting off more than expected, but my friend was pleased with the end result.

While the hairdresser didn't check to make sure every single hair was cut properly, he basically did the job. And really, how can you complain about a HK$50 hair cut?

However, the service might not be advisable for women, who are more particular about their hair...

Monday, 2 August 2010

Fighting for Cantonese

Yesterday hundreds of people in Guangzhou and Hong Kong staged rallies protesting the Chinese government's bid to push for greater use of Putonghua instead of Cantonese.

In Guangzhou, protesters clashed with police, with at least eight people arrested, seven of whom were either journalists or supporters of Cantonese.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, more than 100 people marched from Wan Chai to the Central Government offices in Central in support of Cantonese.

Last month a political advisory body in Guangzhou proposed that TV stations broadcast prime-time shows in Putonghua instead of Cantonese ahead of the Asian Games in the southern Chinese city in November.

Officials and organisers anticipate a huge influx of Mandarin-speaking people into Guangzhou for the sporting event, but this also struck fear in Cantonese-speakers that their native tongue would disappear in the process.

The protest in Guangzhou yesterday was the second in as many weeks. The police tried to stop the rally, deeming it illegal, but demonstrators refused to leave, so the police carried many away by their hands and legs.

However, in Hong Kong the protest was subdued, with hundreds of people wearing white shirts demanding the preservation of Cantonese.

Kevin Kong, a 29-year-old university student studying in Canada, traveled from Guangzhou to Hong Kong to support the protest.

"We have the right to show our personal opinions," he said, saying Cantonese and Putonghua should coexist and one dialect should not be suppressed in favour of another.

"It may not be a major problem for this generation, but what about the next?"

Legislator "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung was also at the rally, saying people should be free to use whatever language they want.

"The people who speak Cantonese outnumber the population of France," he said. "How can you deny such a vast language to people?"

Meanwhile, government officials in Guangzhou were trying to play down the rumours to get rid of Cantonese.

"The citizens and concerned people can be reassured that Guangzhou will not go for the so-called cause of 'abolishing Cantonese to promote Mandarin,'" said Ouyang Yongsheng, a spokesman for the city.

Su Zhijia, a deputy party secretary of Guangzhou said, "The city government has never had such a plan to abandon or weaken Cantonese."

Sounds like the government is still blundering its way through social policy and has had to back down on this latest initiative. There is obviously little understanding of the importance of Cantonese, not only throughout the province, but especially in the Pearl River Delta region, where everyone in southern Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau use Cantonese on a daily basis.

Using the excuse of the upcoming Asian Games as a way to make people speak more Putonghua is ridiculous. Most people in Guangdong already speak it and Cantonese. And the Asian Games is only for 16 days.

Anyway, as long as people continue speaking it, Cantonese will not be a dying language.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Firing Up a Delicious Meal

Roka restaurant is located in the basement of Pacific Place Mall in Admiralty.

It's a place that is meant to invoke the five senses, from the wood and stone to the fire from the robata grill that serves up grilled vegetables, seafood and meats, as well as sashimi and sushi.

Sitting at the bar is the ideal spot to watch the chefs at work, busy tending to their dishes. Every time an order is read out, they all shout, "hai-ya!" for a bit of drama and energy. One chef garnishes an Alaskan King Crab leg, while another throws a piece of raw beef on the grill. The dishes are all plated with a thick leaf soaked in water to create a simple yet beautiful presentation.

My friend and I had a bite to eat here and thoroughly enjoyed the three-piece set of sashimi that featured salmon, tuna and yellowtail.

Then we had a spinach salad with sesame dressing, garnished with finely diced burdock and thin slices of daikon. It was very refreshing and light.

Strawberry jasmine sundae with yuzu granite
Next came the main, a grilled seabass, two lamb cutlets that were seared hot and a tender red inside. We also had a side of grilled sweet potato served in a small bowl.

The meal had to be completed with dessert, and so we ordered Itchigo To Jasmine No Sundae, Yuzu-Gouri, which is described as strawberry jasmine sundae with yuzu granite. Yuzu granite? What's that?

The waitress explained it was lightly flavoured shaved ice. Bring it on, we said.

It arrived in a small quaint glass on top of a bed of ice. There was the ice cream on top with the slices of dried strawberries, complete with the crushed ice and thin wafers in between the layers of cream and mango. Mmm-mmm good.

Dinner for two without drinks was just over HK$700 ($90).

Shop 002, Level LG1
Pacific Place, 88 Queensway
Hong Kong
3960 5988