Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Tough Sell of Charity in China

So the super filthy rich in China got to press the flesh and take pictures with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates yesterday in a faux French chateau in the outskirts of Beijing yesterday.

Some of them included PanShiyi, chairman of Soho China real estate company, as well as Yu Pangnian and former peasant Chen Guangbiao, now a recycling billionaire from Jiangsu Province.

Others were Cao Dewang, chairman and chief executive of Fuyao Glass Industry Group in Fuqing, Fujian; Chen Lihua, president of Fu Wah International Hong Kong Group; Zhang Chaoyang, chairman and chief executive of and Jack Ma Yun, chairman and chief executive of Alibaba Group.

These nouveaux riche arrived in a series of black limousines to this gated chateau with tight security. Even though they had to wait half an hour for their hosts, Buffett and Gates and apparently only dined on biscuits, champagne and water.

There was a big brouhaha over whether Gates and Buffett would cajole Chinese tycoons to hand over more of their money for philanthropic purposes, making many worried about showing up. This led to further speculation that many of them would be a no-show, preferring to be away from the limelight, as they may have gotten their riches from corrupt practices.

The two American billionaires had to reassure the Chinese they were only there to encourage them to give more, and no there wouldn't be any face losing.

In the end Buffett gave a 40-minute speech and then left for an interview. And about a dozen Chinese guests gave short speeches (thankfully) on what they thought of charity. But according to reporters at the event, the super rich seemed more star-struck in hanging out with Buffett and Gates than really wanting to pledge their wealth for the common good.

Nevertheless the two American laowai were determined to put a good spin on the event. After the two-hour session, Buffet said through a press release, "By any measure, it was a tremendous success. We had a terrific exchange of views, and learned a great deal about the good work that is already under way."

Gates said: "We've both been very eager to have this meeting. We're grateful so many people made the time to attend, and for their candour and insights. People are doing some very good thinking about how their good fortune can have a positive impact on China and the world."

What's interesting to note is that of the some 50 Chinese billionaires invited to attend and discuss the state of philanthropy in China, only about half of them showed up.

Earlier this summer they managed to convince 40 US billionaires, including New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Oracle founder Larry Ellison to leave half of their wealth to charity in their wills.

And pumped by such exciting results, Buffett and Gates thought they could do the same in China.


It's yet another example of what works in the West does not necessarily work in the East.

The Chinese just got their wealth now. They aren't ready to part with it so easily.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Raising the Jackpot Stakes

I have some friends in Hong Kong who regularly play the Mark Six in hopes of never having to work again.

But now they're going to have to shell out more, or hope their carefully chosen numbers will help them win big.

The ticket now starts at HK$5 ($0.64), but come November 9 it'll be doubled to HK$10.

However, with bigger stakes come bigger prizes -- as the first prize can go up from HK$5 million ($644,529) to HK$8 million.

"Prizes for Mark Six have not been increased for eight years and that's seen reduced interest and turnover on draws with no jackpots," explained a Hong Kong Jockey Club spokesman. "If nothing is done, it will lead to even smaller prizes, creating a vicious cycle. Eventually the lottery will become unsustainable and that will adversely impact tax and community resources [which it contributes to]."

While there might be fewer tickets sold, the turnover should improve because of the higher jackpots, he reasoned.

However, Joe Tang Yiu-cho, a supervisor at the Caritas Addicted Gamblers Counselling Centre worries that with higher jackpots, punters may shell out even more for tickets hoping to win.

"Paying HK$5 for HK$10 doesn't make much difference... people will pour more money in without really noticing," he said.

He is concerned that since it takes a shorter time for the jackpot to grow, people will quickly feed into the frenzy and buy more lottery tickets.

With prices for apartments here climbing higher and higher, you'd need more than HK$5 million these days to get a decent place. So perhaps it does make sense to raise the jackpot.

But then again I'm with the conservative camp -- if I buy a lottery ticket that will double in price, that will significantly decrease my chances of winning... anything.

Perhaps I should get into the game now before November 9.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Just a Thought

Cleaning the streets. Collecting garbage. Keeping bathrooms clean. Washing dishes. Watching apartment buildings for tenants.

These are just a few of the essential services I see seniors doing in Hong Kong.

Many of them did not have a good education and have been stuck in menial jobs all their lives which is why they've had to continue working in what should be their golden years.

What happens after this generation of people pass away? Who is going to do these unenviable tasks?

For many years Pakistanis and even Englishmen have come to Hong Kong helping to build the city's infrastructure.

But who will keep the streets clean and do jobs that Hong Kong people look down on? It's not going to be mainlanders or Filipinos.

It's just an observation, but I'm wondering who will do these jobs in the future.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Pushing for "Democracy"

It is curious to see Premier Wen Jiabao return to the topic of political reform while on a 48-hour trip to New York recently.

Last month he spoke about it in a speech in Shenzhen a few days before President Hu Jintao went there for the official ceremonies marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the special economic zone (SEZ).

In his talk with overseas Chinese media a few days ago, Wen again reiterated what he had said earlier. "I've previously said economic reform without the protection of political reform will not achieve complete success, and might even lose what's been gained," he said.

"What is the main purpose of political reform? I believe it is to safeguard the freedoms and rights as provided under the constitution and the law... to have a relaxed political environment, so people can better express their independent spirit and creativity, and to allow them to enjoy free and all-round development -- I believe these should make up what we mean by democracy and freedom."

Then he went on to explain what rule of law means within a one-party state.

"Of course, we are trying to build a China with democracy and rule of law. The most important element of rule of law is when a political party rules, it should act according to the constitution and the law, and the party's will and ideas must also be exercised only after they've been converted into law through legal procedures.

"When all organizations must act within the framework of the constitution and the law -- that's rule of law.

"I believe, in order to achieve this, we still need a certain amount of time. But this is necessitated by modern civilization and modern politics; we must work in this direction."

What Wen means by "a certain amount of time" is anyone's guess. However, his statements have fueled speculation that there is a rift between him and Hu in terms of where China needs to go next domestically. Analysts have also been wondering why Wen is making such bold statements with two years left as premier.

Nevertheless, Wen might have specifically made these statements directed at an external audience to let foreigners know there are other voices in the country. Some observe that while the government has made no efforts in reforming the system as Wen has suggested, it might be away to appease its foreign audience into thinking there might be progress around the corner.

But as old China hands know, and there are many cynical ones out there, actions speak louder than words.

If political reform is underway, then why not release Liu Xiaobo, Hu Jia, Gao Zhisheng and many others who are locked up because of their fights for justice and progress in China's political system?

Speaking of which, last week former Czech President Vaclav Havel again called on the Nobel Prize Committee to give this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Liu.

"We ask the Nobel Committee to honour Liu Xiaobo's more than two decades of unflinching and peaceful advocacy for reform, and to make him the first Chinese recipient of that prestigious award. In doing so, the Nobel Committee would signal both to Liu and to the Chinese government that many inside China and around the world stand in solidarity with him, and his unwavering vision of freedom and human rights for the 1.3 billion people of China," Havel wrote in the letter.

We shall see what happens... in Sweden and in China.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Eat Right Challenge

A friend of mine is challenging me to eat better.

I already don't eat fast food, or much processed food, and on the whole eat a good portion of vegetables and fruits every day. But apparently this isn't enough.

And being in Hong Kong, where I love to eat ha gao (steamed shrimp dumplings), won ton noodles, and the obligatory white rice with meals, this is a serious test in resisting temptation.

Let's face it -- I'm not getting any younger, though many ask for beauty secrets and the secret potions I use.

I chalk it down to eating healthy (at least what I used to think was healthy), lots of water, exercise and at least six hours of sleep.

But now my friend is telling me to ramp up the exercise -- to do more interval training to get my body working harder in shorter periods of time, more strength training, but also to eat right -- all the time.

Sadly I have stopped eating my favourite won ton noodles that have a chewy texture that I love, or the fish balls I only dreamed about when I was in Beijing. I tried cutting down the one bowl of white rice to half, but my friend says no. "Eating white rice is like eating sugar," he said.

He is right, but almost all people who call themselves Chinese need to eat rice!

Unfortunately he doesn't buy this argument and insists that I need to take better care of my body.

This means preparing my own food. Every day.

For over about two years I've been eating oatmeal everyday with fruit, and an egg, or two on the weekends.

These days I finish work and head to the gym for an hour, come home and have some lentil soup I've prepared ahead of time, that has tomatoes, celery, carrots, squash, garlic, onion and ham.

My friend thinks my weakest meal is lunch, since that's when I'm eating noodles or rice, and not choosing more healthy options.

He doesn't buy my excuse that time is of the essence and I don't have time to prepare lunch every day.

So starting from tomorrow I'll be schlepping my lunch to work and we'll see how good it tastes.

I made a salad of cannellini beans, carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes, quinoa and roasted squash with olive oil and lemon juice. It's a huge batch so I'll be eating that all week. I also have some yogurt in small containers and granola I made myself yesterday to bring as a snack.

The salad can be topped with avocado too if I remember to cut it up in the morning... so we'll see how long this lasts but more importantly if there are any results!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Long Commute

I recently started a new job where the office is in Taipo, in the New Territories.

The human resources girl had to remind me many times that it was in Taipo, as she said some people are offered a job and then later realize they have a long commute to work and back home everyday.

Luckily the company offers transport through a contracted bus company. Every morning they make their rounds through the city to bring us to Taipo.

In my case, I take the one that starts from Kennedy Town at 9am and then hopefully around 9:08am it arrives at Shun Tak Centre or Macau ferry terminal in Sheung Wan.

The first day I waited for the bus and the area where we are standing is also where many tour buses drop off passengers going to Macau. The people file out of the buses and get their luggage too, blocking my view for the bus. Then suddenly I see a red and white bus go by and I think, "Oh no! Don't go past me! I'll have to wait an hour!" So I start running after him. A few metres later he decides to stop and let this crazy person on.

He was probably surprised to see a person waiting here, as there may not have been many people waiting at this stop previously. But now he knows that I'll be there.

After Sheung Wan he drives onward to the Central ferry piers, picking up those who have already commuted from the outlying islands like Discovery Bay, Lamma, Cheung Chau and Mui Wo. Then he goes past the IFC Mall to turn left to the main post office and picks up one or two people there.

The traffic by now starts to build up and he trudges along Queensway to get to Wan Chai, near a pharmacy on Hennessy Road for the last group of passengers before turning left on Fleming Road and loops around to get to the central Cross Harbour Tunnel. After inching into the tunnel we start hitting our stride as the driver hits the highway and passes by Ho Man Tin, then whizzes by Kowloon Tong, and then we go through the Second Lion Rock Tunnel and into Sha Tin.

By now there are fewer apartment buildings and more lush greenery. We pass by the Hong Kong Jockey Club racetrack, and luxury villas, and a science complex before we head towards Taipo. When the driver stops at an intersection, we know we're now in Taipo and almost at the office, well those of us napping.

He also marks down what time he arrives at each pick up point, probably for administration purposes. Most of the time we arrive about an hour after I get on the bus.

Of course going home, especially on a Friday is another story, taking at least an hour for sure.

What's interesting for me is that I've now taken a few different bus routes after work. The one that goes to Tsing Yi was interesting. I hardly ever see this area of the city and was impressed by the infrastructure in terms of roads. For the most part everything seems well connected to these areas that only 15-20 years ago were hardly reachable in an efficient way. Last night I took the bus that goes to Tsim Sha Tsui. In between it stops at Kowloon Tong, Mongkok and Jordan. Again I rarely venture to these places and if I do it's very briefly and I don't wander around. So it was strangely familiar when the bus passed by Jordan and it brought me back to when I first arrived in Hong Kong shopping in the small boutiques in the area there.

It makes me realize how much time has passed and how things are different and stay the same.

Friday, 24 September 2010

When in Korea...

Tonight I had dinner with some people I haven't seen in nine years.

One of them is always known as the entertainer of the bunch, with witty remarks and funny stories.

He didn't disappoint: He recently went to Pusan, Korea for a holiday and was wandering around when he saw what looked like an upscale medical clinic. He thought he'd poke his head inside to see what was in there and found for the most part it was pretty empty.

But what was strange for him was seeing an entire floor dedicated to... vaginal rejuvenation.

He thought it strange that no one was sitting around in the waiting area, but we pointed out who would want others to know they were having their vagina rejuvenated?!

With Koreans obsessed with having double eye-lids, nose and boob jobs, perhaps vaginas are the next big (discreet) thing?

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Mid-Autumn Moon's No-Show

Well Mid-Autumn Festival 2010 has turned out to be a non event because we can't see the moon in Hong Kong. After days of rain and overcast weather, the clouds have covered it up so people are just going to stuff their faces with mooncakes instead.

So instead of shots of the moon, here are some pictures I took of last year's Mid-Autumn Festival on Tai Hang Road, where the Fire Dragon makes its appearance every year since 1880. A village elder of Tai Hang village had a dream of parading a mock serpent covered in burning incense sticks would rid its people of plague. There are some 36,000 incense sticks stuck on the 70-metre-long dragon made of a specially-imported grass.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Li Wants You to Love HK

Li Ka-shing wants to give away millions more money, and is enlisting the public to help him spend it.

Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong and China's philanthropist
It's not about hitting the jackpot, but the biggest winners will be Hong Kong and its people.

Through the tycoon's foundation, Li has launched "Love Ideas, Love Hong Kong", the first of a series of charitable programs for "Love HK Your Way".

Individuals can ask for up to HK$25,000 ($3,222) for projects, while educational groups and charities can ask for HK$300,000 ($38,665) in grants.

This is all part of the HK$300 million ($38.664 million) initiative, but the total amount won't be known until the projects are approved.

The ideas need to be submitted to and then the public gets to vote on on those projects from November 1-21. The ones with the most votes will get the grants.

The projects are expected to cover fields in education, health care, culture and community. Applicants have until October 17 to submit their proposals online.

Some 500 proposals are expected, and the top 20 percent or 100 of them will be awarded grants. And once they are approved, the projects must be started within three months and completed in a year.

This is a great way for small unknown projects to get a boost in funding, or others who coffers have run dry due to rising operating costs or lack of donations. It also helps pinpoint exactly where the money should go, and gets the public more aware of what social issues need help.

According to the Li Ka Shing Foundation's website, he set it up in 1980 mainly for education reform and medical research. Since then about HK$11.3 billion has been given away, including HK$7.3 billion in China and HK$2.6 billion in Hong Kong and the rest of the world.

No wonder Chinese President Hu Jintao was so anxious to meet Li over a week ago in the celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Shenzhen as a special economic zone (SEZ). It was reported that Hu hoped the tycoon could spare whatever time he could for a meeting.

Hu sounded like a crazed fan, but really, why would Li miss an opportunity to meet the Chinese president as well? On previous occasions he has met Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.

In the end Hu and Li met for about 10 minutes, and the significance of the event completely cast a dark shadow over Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who was completely forgotten in the proceedings. It just shows money is power in China.

But in the meantime hopefully Hong Kong people are putting their creative caps on and thinking of ways to better their city.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Doling Out the Blame

A damning report has come out from the Philippine government about the August 23 hostage taking that left eight Hong Kongers dead.

It squarely put the blame on 12 people and three media outlets, making them liable for the botched rescue attempt.

"This report is part of the justice to be given to the victims... This is a manifestation of the concrete actions we have taken to render justice to all the victims of the tragedy," said Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

Only 61 pages of the 84-page report were released, omitting the conclusions on accountability, recommendations, highlights and epilogue until Aquino decides on how to act on the report. Strange, as one would think those would need to be made public in order for the public to understand the president's next steps and decisions.

While the report claims the seven tourists and guide were killed by hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza, Hong Kong officials seem unconvinced. A statement from the office of Chief Executive Donald Tsang said: "The report admits that the causes of death of the eight victims and the causes of injury of the seven others need to be further ascertained. Therefore, final conclusions have yet to be drawn. We expect the Philippine authorities to step up their efforts to complete the work as soon as possible."

The report outlines in chilling detail the events and criticises the "total lack of genuinely serious and well-planned out negotiation strategy" and the "inefficient, disorganised and stalled assault", saying these were all critical mistakes that led to the tragic end of the stand-off.

Some of the errors include Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim failing to properly activate the crisis management committee and designate sub-groups to coordinate intelligence gathering, conduct a psychological assessment of Mendoza and manage the media. The authorities also didn't take his demands seriously, as Mendoza was sacked for alleged corruption and wanted to be reinstated.

Hostage negotiators also should not have included Mendoza's brother and policeman Gregorio in the negotiations, as Mendoza became agitated after talking to his sibling and fired a warning shot. After Gregorio was arrested by police, Mendoza began shooting.

Another critical error was ground commander Rodolfo Magtibay leaving his command post to eat, which led in creating "a vacuum in command or decision-makers. This resulted in the inability of those present to handle crisis events as they unfolded," the report says.

Senior police officials were also criticised in not implementing a presidential order that the Philippine National Police Special Action Force be deployed for the assault. Instead, the local police SWAT team were used and failed miserably.

With the release of this report, many Hong Kong tour operators are probably going to cancel future tours to the Philippines, as this clearly shows incompetence on the part of Philippine authorities in handling such a serious incident.

Where does this leave Hong Kong people in terms of holiday options? Demonstrations have flared up again in Bangkok, leaving destinations like Bali, Vietnam, China, Japan and Korea welcoming more business.

When will the authorities realize that security can't be taken lightly, no matter if it is domestic or international tourists. Perception drives opinion, which determines where tourist dollars go.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Storm Watch

Yesterday Typhoon Fanapi battered Taiwan injuring some 66 people, resulting in landslides and gridlocked traffic. Typhoon Fanapi is now making its way towards the mainland, and we in Hong Kong are feeling the effects of it.

Last night the typhoon 1 signal was raised, and this morning there were strong winds keeping temperatures cool. Nothing seemed to happen until around 2:30-3pm, when there was a huge crashing sound outside that turned out to be extremely heavy rain. This happened for at least a good 20 minutes and then it died down to incessant rain.

I left the office early to get to Central and by that time there were light rains. But by 6pm the rain started getting heavy again and the typhoon 3 signal was raised along with a thunderstorm warning.

Then I went to have a swim (but there was a woman in front of me doing breast stroke and refused to yield even though she was in the fast lane which drove me nuts, but that's another story). By 8pm the amber rainstorm warning was in effect, with heavy rains coming down.

Now it's almost 11pm and the amber rainstorm warning is down, but typhoon 3 is still up.

Looks like we're going to get heavy rain for the next few days as Typhoon Fanapi moves westward across Guandong. The wind gusts measured at Cheung Chau and Chek Lap Kok were 44 and 45 kilometres per hour respectively.

We're towards the end of September and still getting typhoons. But all I can say is, thank goodness for Crocs. I'm a total convert now.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Picture of the Day: Sundays in Central

Filipino domestic helpers spending their Sunday at the HSBC headquarters in Central
For most 140,000 Filipinos working in Hong Kong as domestic helpers, Sunday is their only day off.

A number of them go to church, while the rest of them hang out in a variety of places all over the city.

It seems the majority of them descend on Central, where the authorities have even closed off Chater road in between Alexandra House and Prince's Building for these maids to socialize with their friends, play poker, get hair cuts and even perms, manicures and pedicures, or sing songs and dance.

Those seeking shelter from the elements choose the passageway at the HSBC headquarters. They pull out blankets or cardboard sheets to sit on, bring food they've made from home and have a giant picnic. Today I saw some Southeast Asian men trying to sell jeans, walking from group to group holding several pairs, but seeming unsuccessful in their sales pitches.

It is disappointing the Hong Kong government isn't doing more to give these people a more comfortable place to rest and relax, as they provide what has now become an almost essential service to millions of families in the city.

They cook and clean, do the laundry, walk the dogs, pick up children from school, drive cars and whatever else their employers want them to do for six days a week for less than HK$4,000 a month.

But they manage to save most of that money every month and remit it back home, where they are able to use it to send their children to school, rebuild their house or buy a car.

However, as a New York Times story says, sometimes money doesn't really buy happiness, resulting in fractious relationships between parents and children, resulting in a lack of good grades to become more upwardly mobile.

Nevertheless, these migrant workers play a vital role in Hong Kong's economy and they should be given more recognition for it.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Getting the Job Done

After many weeks of delays due to the weather, the pipe leading from my kitchen sink was finally fixed today.

The arrangements were confirmed the night before and at around 10:15am two guys arrived, one older, one younger complete with bamboo poles and an electric drill as well as metal triangular frames.

The older guy, the boss, was quite the character, constantly swearing at his underling for forgetting to bring certain tools and had to go back down twice to retrieve them. But after he put on his harness, climbed out of my window on the 21st floor and started drilling to screw the metal frames in, the boss was in his element. He told me he'd been doing this for 30 years, dressed in a green T-shirt, shorts and white cotton running shoes and wearing gloves.

His poor underling had to endure being castigated in front of me, but quietly handed the bamboo poles and frames when required. It's quite amazing these people who erect bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong. They don't even do this in China.

The fixed pipe (the bottom part)
These poles are not only environmentally friendly, but they are very strong and used to build skyscrapers. They are tied together with a black nylon ribbon that is wound around the two poles tightly a few times, then the two ends of the nylon twisted together many times then looped around and that's it.

In less than an hour and a half, their job was done, leaving behind the bamboo scaffolding and a plastic sheet there for the next worker to have a good and safe workspace. The underling even swept the floor of my apartment as the bamboo poles had quite a bit of dirt on them.

Then at 2pm at the appointed time, the man of the hour arrived. Also in his 50s, this man had no problem climbing out the window and into this kind of nesting area. He inspected the pipe and saw there were a few areas where it had holes in it. He took some pictures on his phone and sent them to my landlord's contractor and went back downstairs to buy more pipe pieces.

He came back, sawed off the broken pieces and handed them to me, then replaced them with plastic ones, sanding and sawing, and probably soldering, as I saw he had a soldering gun with him. Also in about an hour and a half the job was all done.

I asked him to help me fix the door handle of my apartment too, as it had recently gotten loose and fell apart in my hands. I temporarily fixed it, but it was still loose. He did this without a fuss and within five minutes it was all done, screwed in tight.

So now the scaffolding is still there and will probably stay there until next weekend (weather permitting) when the duo will return to take the bamboo poles down.

These are the things I like about Hong Kong -- how people get things done quickly and efficiently and everyone cooperates because of time and money.

Now if only the weather had the same kind of thinking...

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Lowdown on Toilet Paper

I didn't really look into the perils of buying toilet paper until a few weeks ago when I was not only considering the price (because hey, it's toilet paper), but also quality.

And I was horrified to discover many of the brands on sale here bleach their toilet paper. It's only going to be used once! Why does it need to be bleached?! So I bought some Scott toilet paper which did not mention any bleaching on its packaging and I'm probably going to stick with that brand.

So it was interesting to find in the South China Morning Post today that the toilet paper in China has tons of bacteria in it.

That's because the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) tested samples from the warehouses of nearly 600 toilet paper manufacturers in every province -- are there really that many? -- and found 10 percent failed to meet quality standards. Germs were found in 18 cases. Yikes.

Three of the unhygienic brands, Weisen, Fook Woo and Daxinghe are made in Guangdong. Fook Woo is a Hong Kong-mainland joint venture that is publicly listed in Hong Kong, and is the biggest paper recycler in China. It didn't comment on the report for the article. Apparently none of these brands are on sale in Hong Kong, but could possibly be stocked in every other restaurant or hotel across the border wanting to cut costs on toilet paper.

However, Jiang Guowang, general manager of Foshan Weisen Paper Company said the toilet paper that was tested was made from recycled paper which is usually exported, while the ones for domestic consumers are made of virgin pulp. Virgin pulp! Isn't that also a horrendous offense?

"Western consumers seem to be more concerned about the environment," Jiang said. "Chinese consumers are more concerned about germs. I won't say 100 percent, but more than 90 percent of the recycled paper products are germ infested."

Is he saying that when paper is recycled, it's not put back into a hot soupy mixture before being made into paper again? How do they recycle the paper then?

Liang Jingyu, a quality inspector for the National Paper Products Quality Supervision and Testing Centre, based in Dongguan, said all toilet paper products, regardless of their raw materials, should meet minimum hygiene levels.

The AQSIQ tested for three types of bacteria: E coli, which makes the lower intestine their home and cause bloody diarrhea; golden staph, an itchy and sometimes fatal germ; and a chain-like micro-organism called haemolytic streptococcus, which destroys white blood cells.

Luckily all the toilet paper didn't test positive for the above three diseases, but the 10 percent of toilet paper tested failed when it came to bacterial quantity. A small piece of toilet paper was left in a test tube with a nutrition solution for a few days and then the colonies of bacteria were counted.

"Too many germs on toilet paper is bad for human health," Liang said. "We can't say all of them cause diseases, but they certainly won't help." The report didn't reveal by how much the bacterial levels exceeded national standards.

If the recycled toilet paper is mostly exported overseas, then does this mean China is exporting its bacteria too?

Then again, as long as you're only using toilet paper once, you should be OK... right?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Stoking Curiosity

Richard McGregor, the deputy news editor and former Beijing bureau chief of the Financial Times has written an insightful book on the Chinese government, aptly titled, The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers which was released in June.

McGregor has spent a long period of time in China, speaks Mandarin and at one point had his own consultancy, selling reports to companies about the latest economic, political and social developments in the country.

I've only read one or two excerpts from the book and hope to get my hands on it soon. Thankfully I'm in Hong Kong now which makes it easier as apparently the Chinese government has caught wind of this book and have tried to stop anyone in China from getting a copy.

In his blog, McGregor writes that those in China trying to order a copy online from Amazon were blocked from seeing that page. And if anyone tries to find information on the book from other booksellers, they would be stumped too.

While that might appease most regimes, the Chinese government went a step further.

In August, the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing invited McGregor to speak about his book, which he did, as well as a video interview on it for the website. He was also asked to write an article, and gladly did.

However, the Chinese government caught wind of this and asked AmCham to suggest -- which means to request -- that the video interview be taken off the website, which then led to the organization to stop its plans of publishing the article McGregor wrote, as the newsletter it would have been printed in, is distributed to some 1,000 government officials.

He understands their concerns of getting into trouble, but thinks as a representative body of the United States, and thus representing freedom of speech and the press that it backed down on publishing the article shows how AmCham chose how to deal with the situation.

AmCham was not the only one. A monthly publication geared at expatriates called That's Shanghai also got its knuckles rapped by authorities about publishing an interview about McGregor and his book on its website, and had to take it down.

This clearly shows how "dangerous" China considers McGregor's book to be. From what I've read, it seems to give a pretty accurate portrayal of what goes on in China and how the government works. How it can try to maintain its aura of vagueness is sure to dissipate soon, as we're now in the era of the Internet and disseminating information 24/7.

The funny thing is, as the vast majority of Chinese don't read English, what's the big deal about this book? The memoir of Zhao Ziyang had a legitimate cause for concern as it was transcribed in Chinese, but a book about China written by a laowai?

Perhaps we should check it out ourselves to see what all the fuss is about.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Rules on What to Say

Apparently now people can write to China's top leaders on an online message board telling them what they think. Well, maybe not what they REALLY think.

That's because there are 26 rules about what you can write in your message. I'll get to that in a minute.

This service was launched September 8 courtesy of the People's Daily, and five days later there were more than 23,000 comments addressed to President Hu Jintao regarding exorbitant housing prices, corruption, environmental pollution, and civil rights abuses.

Here now are the 26 rules of leaving messages on the Direct Line to Zhongnanhai (直中南海) Message Board as translated by Human Rights in China:

It is forbidden to post the following content on this message board:
  1. That which counters the fundamental principles determined by the Constitution;
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The first half of the regulations basically rule out writing anything on there unless it's positive.

After all, don't politicians, communist or not, want to hear good things about themselves and how well they're governing the country?

However, I have to say I like rule #17 -- no bad writing or empty messages!

And it's understandable senior leaders aren't interested in getting spam (rule #19). They must be tired of getting those ones on penis enlargements... 

Monday, 13 September 2010

Hardly Original

Hong Kong license plates can be interesting to look at and speculate who drives them (or has them driven for them by chauffeurs).

If you see "CJ" or "CS" or "FS" plates, they are cars for the Chief Justice, Chief Secretary and Financial Secretary respectively.

Interestingly, Chief Executive Donald Tsang's car doesn't have "CE", but the Hong Kong emblem on the front and back of the vehicle.

And then there are those who get special numbers that are auctioned off.

The number 1 is always reserved for the Commissioner of Police, but numbers 2-10 were taken by the highest bidder.

Cecil Chao Sze-tsung has the number 4, but why you'd want to have a number similar to death is beyond me. Speaking of Chao, the other day while I was on the bus, I saw a Rolls Royce with the plate "CECIL" on it. Most probably his...

Sir Run Run Shaw, who is amazingly still going at the age of 104 has the license plate 6, and Albert Yeung Sau-shing is chairman of Emperor Entertainment Group has the number 9. Who has the 8 license plate? Law Ting-pong, a widely respected philanthropist.

In 2006 the Hong Kong Transport Department allowed personalized license plates using up to eight letters and numbers. These can be auctioned for a minimum of HK$5,000 ($643.70). However, for the plate "I LOVE U", it was under the hammer at a charity auction for $1.4 million. Sounds like real love.

And for more gushing adoration on car plates, the other day I was on the way to the gym when I saw a Rolls Royce with the license plate "PUMPKIN".

It's a cute name. For a five year old, not a Rolls Royce!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Documenting the Past

Main Post Office, Pedder Street (1973)
Hong Kong changes so quickly, even year by year with new buildings and developments. Tsim Sha Tsui is a case in point. The skyline there has changed so radically in the last few years that I haven't had a chance to wander around to check everything out yet.

And so seeing pictures of Hong Kong many decades ago are even more amazing, as they also document the city's progress.

Jardine House (1975)
Mak Fung (麥烽) was a professional photographer whose career spanned over half a century. At one time he was the executive editor of Photoart and Photo Pictorial in Hong Kong. He died last year at the age of 91 but left behind a treasure trove of images of what he saw of Hong Kong decades ago.

"Hong Kong As It Was" is showing at The Upper Station, a small photographic gallery near where I live in Sheung Wan, just up from Hollywood Road. There is a carefully edited selection of pictures that give a wonderful feeling of what it was like in the city in the 1950s to the 70s.

The skyline was quite easy to see with mostly low-rise buildings, and streets today in Central are barely recognizable with the colonial-style buildings that used to be there. For example, the main post office used to be on Pedder Street before being moved to where it is now. The lanes with wet markets almost look similar in layout, but seething with people, unlike today where they prefer to shop at supermarkets.

Graham Street (1958)
The tram is still around, and there were fewer cars then. Many people he captured did manual labour, like making salt from salt water in Tai O, selling street food or even pulling rickshaws. There was also a photograph of people who live and work on boats in Aberdeen; this breed of people have just about disappeared.

His photographs are nostalgic, but also excellent documentaries of life back then. It is a good reminder for Hong Kong people to remember where they come from -- an industrious lot who were pragmatic and hardworking -- and continue this tradition which makes Hong Kong what it is today.

"Hong Kong As It Was" runs until October 17.

The Upper Station Photo Gallery
No. 22, Upper Station Street
Sheung Wan
Hong Kong
3486 2474

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Remembering That Day

Everyone remembers where they were on September 11.

I was sitting in a classroom in Toronto that morning and the instructor was fiddling with the television set to play a video when we saw the images of the World Trade Center burning and saw the planes crashed into the two buildings.

It was absolutely surreal to watch. It was even more horrific witnessing the building crumble before our eyes and news anchors at a loss for words at what to say.

As we were watching this, our instructor, a media relations expert, told us that the world would be changed forever by this.

I called my parents, waking them up and telling them to turn on the television. They could hardly believe it.

I went back to my aunt's apartment, shaken by what I'd seen and we were worried that something may hit the CN Tower. What is this world coming to, I was thinking. Is this the end of the world? We were all glued to the television trying to find out who did this unspeakable act, of purposely steering planes into the World Trade Center and killing so many innocent people.

I could hardly sleep that night, wondering if we were next. Who did this? And why?

In Hong Kong, my great aunt told me they were watching it on TV thinking it was a movie, as it was in the evening, the prime time slot.

At that time I didn't know much about Islam, Afghanistan or a man called Osama bin Laden. Neither did the rest of the world.

Later, then US President George W. Bush called for war -- you're either with us, or against us -- making it impossible for anyone to question whether his decision was right or wrong.

Nine years later we have yet to have caught Osama, let alone stopped radical attacks on our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war has led to a greater proliferation of extremists who have given others the impression that Islam is an evil religion. Pastor Terry Jones in Gainsville, Florida who wanted to burn the Koran today but later rescinded his idea is a case in point.

It has also led to a few second-generation immigrant Muslims to set up terrorist cells around the world, and the general public wondering why they feel isolated and don't integrate with the rest of society.

However, I'd like to think most people have learned more about Islam, that it is a peaceful religion and it is the fundamentalists who make it seem extremist. People have the right to worship and freedom of speech. Security is getting tighter and tighter, which in some ways is good, in others too troublesome.

Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani was considered a hero for keeping the city together, but then lost his senatorial bid to Hillary Clinton. He wrote a book about his mayoral experiences and now runs a consulting company.

New York is still trying to heal, by deciding to place an Islamic center near ground zero. Some are strongly opposed, while others think it should be allowed. Those who are against the idea have not yet accepted or understood Islam. They think of it as the sole reason why 9/11 happened.

The emotions still stir nine years later because no one can forget those images of that day.

Today we pause and reflect, but we need to move on and make this world a better place every day.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Enough Already

Rain, rain go away!

Ever since I got here in early July it's been raining on and off and when it's not pouring, it's boiling hot. Have I forgotten what it's like during typhoon season? I guess so.

The other day I wore a suit and later was about to walk out of the building when it was pouring rain. I waited for it to stop and then got on the tram. But before my tram ride was over, it started raining again. I had no choice but to run across the street to get wet before getting under some shelter to wait for the rain to subside. Needless to say I got pretty wet (and hot).

But today I was much luckier. I carried my umbrella all day and after meeting some friends in Central I walked home, even making a trip to the supermarket. I missed the thunderstorm and amber rain warning by only a few minutes.

Now it's pouring rain with bright flashes of lightning and angry rumbling of thunder. Someone up there sounds very angry. Did we do something? 

I was hoping to get my pipe fixed tomorrow, but it looks like the contractor won't be coming. Did I mention this before? The pipe leading from my kitchen sink has corroded. The pipe is exposed on the outside wall of the building and being on the 21st floor of a 22-storey building, the water from the pipe leaks down onto other people's washing or into their open windows...

Guess I'll have to wait yet another week. Last week the contractor didn't come because the day before it had rained and he claimed the area wouldn't be dry enough to work on.

The leaky pipe saga continues...

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A Not So Model Weekend

I remember Rosemary Vandenbrouke when she was 14 years old and she had just won the Elite Model Look contest which was only in its second year. Vandenbrouke, whose father is half French and half Russian while her mother is Chinese, was born in France and later went to an international school in Hong Kong. It was her Eurasian look as well as height that helped her easily win the contest.

At the time her mother seemed to want to have the spotlight on her too, and having her daughter still a minor gave her the opportunity to escort her child everywhere with photographers and reporters following them.

Apart from modeling Vandenbrouke developed a singing career in 2001 with a debut album called Dreams Come True in 2006. She apparently wrote all the songs and played guitar.

However, this budding star's trajectory is about to be cut short after a double whammy in the United States this past weekend.

Firstly, the 28 year old was caught with a small amount of ecstasy Sunday during the Labour Day weekend where she was attending the counterculture Burning Man Festival. An officer had seen her pass a substance to another person and questioned her about it.

She was charged with possession of a controlled substance and was released on $15,000 bail pending an October 19 court appearance. If convicted, she could face four years of probation.

Then she faces an additional three charges for crashing a 40-foot rented motor home into downtown Reno's "Biggest Little City in the World" arch at around 3pm the next day.

City police sergeant Jim Stegmaier said: "She ended up hitting a fire hydrant, shearing it off, and hitting the base of the Reno sign."

He said no one was injured and water didn't spout from the broken fire hydrant.

Witnesses told police a passenger removed the broken hydrant from beneath the motor home and climbed back in the vehicle as a female driver drove away.

Soon after, the police stopped the motor home and arrested Vandenbrouke.

"She didn't deny the accident, but said she thought she would report it later because she was in a hurry to get the motor home back on time," Stegmaier said.

Vandenbrouke was arrested for a vehicular hit-and-run, failure to maintain insurance and improper right turn charges," the officer added.

She was then photographed and fingerprinted at Washoe County Jail in Reno and released on $1,280 bail. She is due in Reno Municipal Court on September 29. The above picture was taken at this jail. I hardly recognized her in this photo, which is a far cry from the flawless face I'd seen in magazines and advertisements. Or is it the beauty of PhotoShop?

In Hong Kong it will be interesting to see what the reaction is to Vandenbrouke's charges, but most will probably write it off as an expat kid who has been spoiled. Questions may also be asked about her starting a modeling career at such a young age. Drugs are pretty much a no-no in this city, even though some young people do this kind of recreational activity.

What will her sponsors think? Will her lucrative modeling contracts come to an end? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

A Valid Fear of Flying

The next time you need to fly within China, make sure it's not with Shenzhen Airlines.

It was recently found that more than half of the pilots or some 200 of them faked their resumes while applying for jobs in 2008-09. It was during this period that China's airline industry was taking off, but there weren't enough qualified pilots at the time.

The investigation into the fake pilots happened before the August 24 crash of a Henan Airlines plane while attempting to land at night in Yichun, Heilongjiang Province. In a fog, the plane completely missed the runway, killing 42 and injuring 54. The crash was considered to have such a bad reflection on Henan Province that the authorities forced the airline to change its name back to Kunpeng Airlines, whose parent company is Shenzhen Airlines.

Nevertheless, it's certainly frightening to hear more than half of the pilots in Shenzhen Airlines are not qualified pilots at all -- and what about pilots working for other Chinese airlines? Are they qualified to fly a plane too?

Obviously there are not enough personnel checks being done by the human resources department, or could it be guanxi? Knowing someone could easily get you a job as a pilot and be able to have a lifestyle glamourized in the movie Catch Me If You Can.

In any case, hopefully the Chinese will quickly suss out who should be piloting the plane and who shouldn't -- not only for the benefit of the airlines, but for customers too.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Determined Protesters

Everyday there are protesters camped outside Hang Seng bank and HSBC headquarters, as well as Citi bank in Central. They wave their handwritten signs and shout slogans, mostly saying how each bank is a crook.

When I came to Hong Kong to visit from Beijing, I thought it was fantastic these citizens were allowed to protest, as they would have already been hauled away by police if this was happening in China.

But these people continue their protest, though their campaign has fallen on deaf ears.

They lost lots of money after the global financial crisis, claiming they were misled into investing their life savings into certain stock packages that were promised high returns. So perhaps with nothing to lose, this band of people, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, make it their job to protest everyday in the vain hope of being heard.

It is particularly sad for pensioners to lose their hard-earned money, but at the same time kind if admirable for them not to give up their fight.

Security guards watch from a distance while most of the public ignore them and go about their business.

The banks have remained silent and probably will continue to do so, hoping these people will give up their protest and go away.

But it doesn't seem like these protesters will give up anytime soon.

While it's great to see them exercising the right to free speech, one wonders if there will be any benefits in the end.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Legacy of Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong
I thought I had missed my chance to see master artist Wu Guanzhong's (吳冠中) works at the Hong Kong Museum of Art when the exhibition supposedly ended on August 31.

But I saw in the newspaper that in fact it had been extended to October 10 so I rushed over to Tsim Sha Tsui to see it.

And for only HK$10 ($1.29) I was able to see a large collection of these works, some of which he donated just before he died on June 25 this year.

His paintings, both oil and watercolour, seem abstract at times, pushing modern Chinese art forward. Some look minimalist, others with strong brush strokes evoking power.

Almost every painting had a poetic or philosophical outlook. One called "City Night" he did in 1997 features the entire sheet of paper filled with lines and squares in black ink with coloured dots around them. He writes:

Tokyo, Beijing, New York, London -- people nestle in the steel frames like bees in their hive. The red light district, the green light district, the tears, the laughter -- the night of the metropolis is captured in a painting.

Indeed. Another has the entire page filled with leopard spots, and off to the right the viewer can make out the pointy ears, green flashing eyes and angry scowl of a leopard which Wu titled the work "Illusion". 

Mending Nets, 2009
In 2002 Wu made a visit to Hong Kong, where he was invited by the museum to sketch the skyline of Hong Kong island. However, that particular day was overcast, but he still managed to draw with markers a vibrant city, capturing the skyscrapers with their vertical and horizontal lines that were complemented by the playful waves in the harbour.

In the video his right hand seems shaky, but he guides it with his pinkie along the sheet of paper. He first drew a slight outline of the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, and then a series of lines across the page. these were then filled out slowly with shading or dots signifying windows. Eventually he added watercolour washes to give it some colour.

Wu did not become a celebrated artist until his late 50s. Born in 1919 in Yixing, Jiangsu Province, Wu first studied engineering and then art at the National Arts Academy in Hangzhou. He then got a government scholarship in 1947 to go study at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris.

When he returned to China in the early 1950s, he taught at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, Tsinghua University, and Beijing Fine Arts Normal University. In 1964 he became a professor at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts in Beijing.

But the appointment became a burden when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, a point not mentioned in the museum's biography of Wu. He was forbidden from talking about, teaching or creating art, and many of his early works were destroyed.

In 1970 when Wu was 51 years old, he and his wife were separated to do two years of hard labour in the countryside as part of his re-education. There he was only allowed to paint on Sundays, his day off and holidays. And he did not waste that precious time, sketching the countryside.
Leaving Youth Behind, 2009

Three years later Wu was allowed to return to the capital, and ironically enough, was given jobs to paint murals in Beijing hotels, and even create a huge painting of the Three Gorges for the Great Hall of the People.

When Mao died in 1976, Wu was finally able to return to his art and had his first solo exhibition three years later. From then onwards his career soared, with one of his paintings, "Loess Plateau" sold for $2.3 million at auction in 2003, the highest ever for a living Chinese artist.

What's interesting is that there is no trace of anger in his work, just thoughtful lines full of vitality and meaning. Perhaps for him they were his ultimate escape from the numerous obstacles he encountered, and wished only to put his best thoughts on paper or canvas.

And perhaps that's how he wants us to remember him by.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

In the Tradition of Reformers

Hu Shuli is the influential editor of Caixin, and used to be editor of Caijing magazine until she was forced to find a new platform for independent reporting elsewhere.

Caixin recently published an editorial following Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Shenzhen to mark the 30th anniversary of that city's designation as a special economic zone (SEZ).

While he praised the economic development of Shenzhen, he also said economic and political reform need to go hand-in-hand. He added that without political reform, China could not develop further.

It's an interesting remark from such a high senior official, though keep in mind Wen retires in 2012 and is desperately looking for ways to cement his legacy. Also his ideas for "political reform" are probably different from the ones we expect. And it seems like Wen is following in the tradition of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, speaking out for change in hopes something will follow. But will it?

In any case, the Chinese editorial is here. The following is the translation:

Wait's Over for Political Reform in China

The 30th anniversary of the Shenzhen special economic zone recently reignited debates over China's reform process. In particular, discussions focused on a speech made by Premier Wen Jiabao in Shenzhen a few days before the anniversary in which he said political and economic reform must go hand-in-hand.

Without political reform, Wen said, the nation's economic gains cannot be sustained, and the drive to modernize will fail.
The premier's remarks were not prominently reported in the official press, but they sparked strong reactions at home and abroad, underscoring the depth of citizen angst for political reform.

Reform was cited as a target three years ago in a report entitled Building a Socialist Democracy, released at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party. Now, the challenge lies in acting on that plan.

Economic reform has reached a point at which political reform is critical to further progress. The economy's improvements have been technically consistent in recent years but, despite solemn promises from the government, there have been no reform breakthroughs in areas such as taxation and factor price. The reasons are complex, but the main obstacle to change has been a lack of progress on the political front.

Cultural and social reforms have stalled along with political reforms, dividing public opinion on the value of and prospects for reform. Yet political and economic reforms complement one another. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's open-door policy, understood this fact early on. Political reforms, he said, will ultimately determine whether China succeeds in its overall reform project.

There was a time when economic and political reforms complemented one another. At the start of the open-door policy more than 30 years ago, China abolished a tenure-for-life system for leadership posts, promoted the separation of party and government, and strengthened functions of the National People's Congress, enhancing dialogue between government and the people.

But political reform has stagnated for the past 20 years, mainly due to practical fears that any misstep could result in social unrest. This is a valid concern. At the same time, overblown worries that delay what's needed only exacerbate the very tensions threatening to destabilize society.

Some have argued that China's phenomenal economic success is proof that its political system works. According to this logic, China's political system, although largely unchanged for the past 60 years, has shown it can adapt both to a planned economy and a market economy. This shows the advantage of the Chinese development model, they argue, and just as there was no need for reform in the past, so there is no need now.

But this line of reasoning ignores evidence that China's political system is increasingly at odds with its economy. It also not only contradicts the Communist Party's decision to undertake reform, but disregards the will of the people.

Because political reform is a sensitive topic, discussions over the past two years have focused on "government reform" or "administrative reform." These sidestepped key issues. Wen offered more concrete direction by urging political reform in four areas:

-- Protecting democratic and legal rights of the people;

-- Mobilizing and organizing citizens to manage the nation's state, economic, social and cultural affairs, in accord with law;

-- Resolving the problem of a centralized power that lacks checks and balances, tackling corruption, and opening channels for public monitoring and criticism of the government;

-- Building a fair and just society that upholds rule of law while protecting the vulnerable, giving citizens a sense of security and confidence.

As the framework of a market economy have continued to take shape, China's socioeconomic structures have been fundamentally transformed. Economic ties between different social classes and regions are now stronger than ever, while laws and private property rights are more clearly defined.

Citizens are becoming increasingly aware of their personal rights. They're also demanding a larger say in civic affairs. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are sprouting up, while a well-educated generation is poised to serve society.

With these conditions in place, political reform – if gradual and orderly – need not be the destabilizing force some leaders fear. Experiences in neighboring countries show that, while reform inevitably creates some social ripples, modern economic mechanisms can survive the tests of any steady push toward genuine democracy. Political reforms must be implemented alongside social and cultural reforms, and these in turn would strengthen – and be strengthened by – economic reform.

There was heated debate 30 years ago at the founding of the Shenzhen economic zone about whether reforms were needed at all. It was a tussle over ideology. Today, the reform debate centers on competing interests. For comprehensive reforms to take root, we must build mechanisms that let parties with different interests negotiate, thus preventing an arbitrary rule by few or a tyranny of the majority.

Social conflicts are on the rise, and mass protests are increasingly common. A thirst for change is palpable. Now, politicians with the courage to seek allies for reform can work to satisfy public demands.

China's economy has grown to become the world's second-largest. But many leaders are still repeating an outdated promise to politically "pursue reforms so that the country can have a bright future." The profound principles recently set out by the premier in Shenzhen represent a breakthrough in attitudes toward political reform. The key now is to act. We cannot wait any longer.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Bland Stars

This evening some relatives and I were watching a television special, a concert that was pre-taped earlier in the week to remember the victims of the botched Manila hijacking last month in which eight people died as well as the gunman.

Held in an outdoor arena in Wong Chuk Hang, a series of singers -- some well known like Karen Mok and Joey Yung, others budding -- came on stage one by one to sing a number. As they sang there were text messages projected on the giant screen behind them, many from members of the public wishing the survivors good luck in recovering from their injuries as well as the trauma they suffered.

As each of the entertainers sang, an uncle remarked that young Hong Kong singers these days have no distinct sound -- not only in their voices but the songs as well since everything is manufactured pop. Someone writes a formulaic tune that goes with some sappy lyrics sung by a relatively good-looking wannabe star.

Then his wife added that all the songs seemed to sound the same, no one tune more distinct than the other, making it even harder for them as "artists" to stand out from the crowd. They also seem to look the same as well, with similar make-up or hairstyles.

And yet so many young people still have dreams of making it big in the entertainment field, getting caught up in seeing their idols in gossip magazines wearing designer clothing and being photographed at various events.

How Hong Kong can sustain so many entertainers is quite fascinating, as they are desperate to get some kind of media coverage to prove they are still hot. This can range from saying outlandish things to being photographed holding hands with someone or reports on what they bought at a recent shopping spree.

But more importantly, why are people here so obsessed about such shallow pursuits? Not only does it reveal their penchant for gossip, but also materialism... which in a way fuels the city's economy

In some ways Hong Kong has improved in terms of people's awareness of the environment and having more social courtesy on public transit, but when it comes to the entertainment industry, not much has changed since I left nine years ago, as far as I can tell.

And if locals are telling me the saccharine tunes are all blending into one giant tub of bland glucose, it's a sappy past time not worth overdosing on.

Friday, 3 September 2010

SARS on film

Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh may revive sad memories when he comes to Hong Kong to shoot a movie in October.

That's because he will be directing an action thriller called Contagion about the SARS epidemic that happened in 2003. The movie will have an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The only Hong Kong actor confirmed so far is Josie Ho Chiu-yee, the daughter of casino mogul Stanley Ho. Apparently she met with Soderbergh two months ago and she will play a relative of "patient zero", a virus carrier who spreads SARS to the United States.

The film will also be shot in Japan, Britain and Brazil. It is not known who the other actors will be for the Hong Kong location shoots.

However it is interesting to know that Ho has already been chosen, apparently for her fluency in English and acting experience. It'll be interesting to see how she matches up with these Hollywood heavyweights on screen.

In any case, there are concerns that the film may upset Hong Kong people as it could dredge up the memories of the deadly outbreak that killed 299 people in the city.

The epidemic began in February 2003 when Guangzhou medical professor Liu Jianlun came to Hong Kong for a wedding, unaware that he was carrying the virus. He stayed on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel in Mongkok which became known as "ground zero". He infected seven other people, some of whom carried the virus overseas before he died. In the end over 8,000 people were infected, 774 died.

My friends in Hong Kong told me how the city turned into a ghost town, after many people fled overseas, worried about being infected. Restaurants and shops were practically empty. Some friends told me how they would get home from work, strip off all their clothing and wash it, and take a shower before hugging their children, unsure if they might be carrying the virus anywhere on their bodies and clothes. Others would sit in the MTR or taxi and wonder if the person sitting there before them was a SARS carrier. It was a very scary time for people in Hong Kong.

How appealing a fictional movie account of SARS will be to the general public remains to be seen, but Hong Kongers probably won't be interested in watching a movie reliving their terrified lives again seven years ago.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Productive Golden Years

On Saturdays Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) has a wonderful program on TV at 7:30pm called "Golden Age" 黃金歲月, profiling active seniors in the city.

The episode I saw was about a choir made up of seniors and highlighting a few of the participants.

Originally the choir was led by a well-known retired conductor, but he actually collapsed and died while they were rehearsing one of his favourite songs. Some of the singers teared up recalling what happened, while others said it was wonderful that he died doing what he loved best.

They interviewed the pianist, a widow in her 80s who played piano since she was young. But after her husband died, she felt there was no reason to play and stopped touching the piano, even moving to the United States for a while. But then she came back to Hong Kong and a friend told her about this choir needing an accompanist. So she went to see them and picked up the piano again, her agile fingers dancing around the keys.

One of the singers is a man in his 70s, quite handsome and full of vigor. He teaches young people how to tango and there were shots of him confidently leading women around on the dance floor. He also enjoys the social aspect of the choir though teaching young people keeps him energized.

Towards the end of the show the narrator talks about how the choir entered a competition against other choirs with much younger people in them. They all dressed up, the women in turqoise qipao jackets and long skirts, the men in black suits with mandarin collars. They didn't expect to win anything and in the end were awarded an honorable mention for their enthusiasm.

Watching the program I was so impressed that Hong Kong had so many active seniors that it warranted a 30-minute show each week. It clearly illustrates that they are making the most of their time, following their passions and interests.

It also shows Hong Kong is not just about people making money, but also enjoying life. I hope that I can be just as active when I get there too, and having a good time with friends along the way.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Trying to Regulate Humour

The "river crab" flag
Chinese Communist Party leaders don't see the humour in being funny.

They don't seem to appreciate wit and sarcasm, especially when it's about the Communist Party of China's policies.

Thanks to the Chinese language, there are many ways to play on words. For example, the word "harmony" or 和睦 (he2mu4) can also sound like "river crabs", 河蟹 or (he2xie4), which is how people like to make fun of President Hu Jintao's slogan of creating a "harmonious society".

Senior officials are so annoyed with the creative homonyms -- isn't it a kind of linguistic innovation? -- that they have decided to launch a campaign against the "three vulgarities" or 三俗 (san1su2). The "three vulgarities" are vulgar, cheap and tasteless content.

As of early August, the government has started cracking down on entertainment, particularly on television that have some of these "vulgarities".  

Officials are annoyed that commercialism and consumerism are dominating China's cultural industries when the government thinks they should be promoting the legitimacy of communist rule, socialist values and traditional Chinese virtue.

However, most state-run TV channels are trying to pursue profits as they were directed to wean themselves off state coffers, and what sells? Outrageous comments for one, baring a bit of flesh is another.  

Most recently shows about dating were criticized by officials after some women on the programs said they would only marry super rich men, which created a buzz around water coolers and even academics weighed in on the declining morality of society.
 But now that the TV stations have been told to tone down, the shows have become, well, boring. 

Doesn't the government realize it's 2010 and not 1910? People today have more choices than ever for entertainment. There are so many more television channels, and exponentially more shows on the internet. People will do whatever it takes to find whatever entertainment they want.

The "three vulgarities" campaign sounds like a sad attempt at trying to corral the people into "healthy" entertainment which will lead to even more resentment against the leadership. And whether the officials like it or not, people will continue to make fun of the government's policies even if the authorities try to clamp down.

That's been going on ever since governments were established.