Friday, 31 December 2010

New Years in HK

This year New Years was relatively subdued according to a good friend I hung out with tonight. Maybe people were tired of being gouged on December 31 or weren't in the mood to party.

I got off work early and went to the gym and then we headed out for dinner by the Mid-Levels escalator.

As I went up there to meet up with her, the barricades were already up to direct people to Lan Kwai Fong, a place I wanted to avoid completely mainly because of the giant crowds there that could easily cause claustrophobia.

Up on Staunton Street there was already a sizeable crowd there having drinks outside the bars and restaurants, and others gawking at those having drinks.

We wandered around Elgin Street and found set menus that weren't too expensive. We settled on Antipasto, a small Italian eatery that wasn't too busy. The food overall was not bad -- I had cream of mushroom soup, followed by parma ham with rocket leaves and slices of parmesan, and then a palate cleanser of lemon and lime sherbet before the main of rack of lamb with roasted vegetables like eggplant, squash, string beans and potatoes. The dessert wasn't very good, but not too sweet -- a brownie with vanilla ice cream. We also got a glass of sangria each, all for HK$450 ($58) each. The owner even gave us two complimentary shots of schnapps. Sangria and schnapps aren't very Italian, but anyway...

Before 11pm we wandered down to IFC mall and groups of young people were converging there as they didn't have the money to splurge on high-priced restaurants but they wanted to see the fireworks too in Victoria Harbour.

We checked out Isola and the bar upstairs on the rooftop was packed with people lining up to get drinks and more people piling in. The rooftop area of the mall was getting busy and security guards tried to control traffic there. We managed to escape to the Four Seasons and hung out at the lobby for a bit before going back up the escalator again by midnight.

By now the crowd to Lan Kwai Fong was a massive sea of black heads funneling through the maze of barricades to get to the area. We were so glad we were not in the line.

When it turned midnight we were just above Hollywood Road and everyone along the streets, restaurants and bars erupted into cheers. All of a sudden it was a really festive mood. There was even more celebration at Staunton Street a few second later, with a computer-generated countdown that encouraged people to make more noise. At its version of the stroke of midnight, balloons fell from above and Auld Lang Syne was played.

After Caine Road things were very quiet and we had a glass of Champagne at my friend's place before I walked home, and again things were relatively tranquil as I walked down Aberdeen Street and avoided the Mid-Levels escalator and those partying along it.

In the end it was a relatively quiet beginning to 2011, with hopes that it'll be better than 2010.

Delicious Feast at Tim's

Steamed crab claw with egg white
My first experience at Tim's Kitchen in October was mixed. We'd ordered a few excellent dishes and the rest were so-so or not good at all.
But that didn't deter me from trying it again this past week and practically everything was a winner this time.
Crystal king prawn with Chinese ham
We started with crystal king prawn that was delicately cut to look ruffled up and it was very crunchy. It had to be eaten with a fork and knife and it came with a slice of Chinese ham. It looks like an odd combination on the plate, but once eaten together, they complemented each other nicely, the saltiness from the ham with the fresh prawn.
Then we had the supreme snake bisque, a wonderful hearty soup filled with snake meat and pork, wood ear fungus and fish maw. It was accompanied with garnishes such as chrysanthemum petals, julienne kafir lime leaves, coriander and deep fried chips.

The other signature dish is the steamed whole fresh crab claw with egg white was excellent as before, the crab very meaty and cooked just perfectly, complemented with the smooth texture of the egg white flavoured with thick chicken stock. It's practically a meal in itself.
Last time we ordered salt-baked chicken which the restaurant insisted could only be ordered whole and not half. But this time we had a half portion of the crispy chicken that was excellent. The skin was indeed crispy, in a deep golden brown colour and not much fat left on it, while the meat was tender and moist.
Braised pomelo dish (left) and scrambled eggs with shark's fin
Another good recommendation is the braised pomelo skin with shrimp roe. This dish is absolutely divine, as I know how much work is put into just preparing the thick skin. It's soaked for around four to five days, each time it has to be wrung out and the water changed. Then it's ready for cooking and this one practically melts in the mouth, with an interesting textural contrast from the generous sprinkling of shrimp roe.
There's also sauteed shark's fin with fresh crab meat, bean sprouts and scrambled eggs. You can hardly make out the shark's fin here let alone taste it, the flavours mostly coming from the eggs and the crunchiness from the bean sprouts.
Pea shoots are still in season and we had them cooked in a soup base that was not too oily and very fresh.
For dessert we steered clear of the sago puff pastry and instead ordered the almond soup with egg whites. It was quite sweet, but the steamed red date cake was very good, not too sweet and was quite amusing with its sticky jello-like qualities.
Tim's Kitchen was awarded two stars in the 2011 Michelin guide Hong Kong Macau. That's probably because the reviewer only sampled the signature dishes of this place. But now I know what to order next time.
Tim's Kitchen
84-90 Bonham Strand
Sheung Wan
2543 5919

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Shopping Pilgrimage

Across the border in Shenzhen

My office is in the New Territories, only a few stops away from Lowu where Shenzhen is. And since work isn't busy at the moment I thought I'd pop across the border to see how things are at the infamous Luohu shopping mall, five stories of gratuitous consumption.

Crossing the border was quite efficient compared to almost 10 years ago -- now like the airport and the Macau Ferry Terminal there are speedy self-service kiosks to go through Hong Kong immigration. Then I walked across the walkway to China, where there is an immediate difference in the look of the place, obviously not logistically thought out and mini ramps here and there, so you have to watch where you're going.

Off to the far left is where foreigners go and the line was quite short. I had read about Chinese customs officials slapping duties on people carrying Apple products like iPods and iPhones across the border, so I was concerned about being caught. But the Chinese customs staff didn't seem too anxious about catching people and periodically pulled people over to show them what was in their bag.

The Luohu shopping mall
Outside the station you could quickly see how much Shenzhen has developed in a decade, with lots of new buildings from hotels to office buildings. There were also lots of billboards eager to catch your attention.

I immediately headed to the Luohu shopping centre or "commercial goods city" as it says in Putonghua. Inside it hasn't changed much if at all -- shop stalls crammed next to each other, selling everything from bags to clothing, tailors and electronics, places for massages to manicures.

I thought I'd go from the top and work my way down, but I'd done most of my shopping on the fifth floor already. Haggling is a prerequisite and it was fun to use my Mandarin again. Things in general are a bit more expensive than Beijing, 10-20RMB more, but the quality on the whole is better.

When I thought I'd finished my shopping, I wandered in a store selling Paul Smith stuff and asked about prices. When I didn't show much interest (and really I thought I should be going), the sales girl immediately dropped the prices by one-third. Why didn't I feign a lack of interest earlier?

There were also Diane von Furstenberg dresses for 280RMB.

You immediately know you're in China...
Next time, I thought.

Many of the customers were Hong Kong housewives with nothing much better to do than to shop for cheap stuff in Shenzhen. Some even spent the effort to shop around before getting the best price, or were regulars to certain shops.

After two hours I was pretty much done and headed back to the train station. Again going through immigration wasn't too difficult with a slightly longer line for foreigners in the China section.

The ride back home was a bit tiring, but got back happy with my purchases.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Follow up on Macau Shopping Sprees

Yesterday I talked about the amazing "fact" that Macau now sells more watches and jewellery than it does clothing, supermarket goods and motor vehicles combined.
But now I read something interesting. Many mainlanders come to Macau to gamble of course. How do they get all that money to start playing at the tables?
They can't use their bank cards with Union Pay at overseas ATM machines.
So what do they do to fuel their gambling habit? They buy watches and jewellery.
They "buy" these high-priced ticket items using their bank cards or credit cards at pawn shops and then immediately "sell" them back for cash.
So when Jimmy Mak, the vice-president of the Omega watch division for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan was quoted as saying the average sale amount in Macau is much higher than Hong Kong and probably the highest in the world, was he talking about the numbers of people who actually buy watches or the number of transactions to "buy" watches?
An intrepid reporter should follow up on that and try to find out which outlets offer this ingenious service.
In the meantime it adds another clue to the gambling frenzy in Macau, but it still doesn't explain where all that money comes from...

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Fact of the Day: Shopping in Macau

Hong Kong has always been the mecca for shopping in Asia mostly because it's tax-free.
But now Macau, which also has tax-free shopping, is challenging Hong Kong's status with more luxury brands snapped up in the former Portuguese enclave than ever before.
"Hong Kong is one of the leading markets in the world, but in Macau the incremental sales growth is even greater," says Jimmy Mak, Swatch Group vice-president of the Omega watch division for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
"The average sale amount in Macau is much higher than Hong Kong and probably the highest in the world," he says.
Macau now sells more watches and jewellery than it does clothing, supermarket goods and motor vehicles combined.
Did you need to read that again?
Macau now sells more watches and jewellery than it does clothing, supermarket goods and motor vehicles combined.
In Hong Kong, local consumption accounts for 20 to 30 percent of luxury retail sales, but Macau depends almost entirely on tourists from the mainland. Macau's retail sector currently rakes in one-tenth of Hong Kong's HK$300 billion-plus ($38.55 billion) in annual sales.
However, overall retail sales in Macau grew 35 percent in the third quarter compared to a year earlier, almost twice as fast as Hong Kong's 18 percent rise.
Watch and jewellery sales in Macau jumped 62 percent from last year in the third quarter, accounting for 25 percent of all retail sales. 
If mainlanders buy luxury goods in China, they have to pay at least 30 percent in consumption taxes, value-added taxes and excise taxes on imported goods. No wonder they want to shop in Macau and Hong Kong. There's also the added cache of being able to say, "I bought this in Hong Kong/Macau."
Two strong enticing reasons for mainlanders to shop till they drop in the two former colonies.

Pictures of the Day: Former Central Police Station

Here are pictures of the former Central Police Station taken on Sunday... it's a wonderful space and I hope the developers keep as much of the original architecture as possible.

It's a great area for community activities and is practically like a mini escape from the Mid-Levels mayhem with its colonial look and self-enclosed space.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Don't Drink to That

Have you tried the wine made in China?
For the most part, many do not go down nicely. They're actually quite tortuous to drink.
And you can forget Chinese-made wine altogether, now that some have been found to be fake.
It had to happen eventually, right?
Six people were detained after red wine made in Changli county in Hebei Province was found to have been chemically altered and falsely labeled as a superior product.
The Jiahua, Yeli and Genghao wineries have been accused of forgery and adulterating their wines after investigations by the local government shut them down, according to the Xinhua News Agency. Sixteen corporate accounts involving 2.83 million RMB ($427,000) were frozen.
The county has been nicknamed "China's Bordeaux" as it is well known for its wine production and produces one-third of the country's grapes.
Some wineries would use 20 percent fermented grape juice, then add water and sugar mixed with chemicals and colouring agents. Jiahua was found to use nothing but water and chemicals in its wines, which were sold at the bargain basement price of 10RMB ($1.50).

There doesn't seem to be much regulation in this industry if you can get plonk that cheap.

Huang Weidong, an expert in the wine industry from the China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association, said that the additives could cause headaches and irregular heart beats, as well as cancer.
While Changli and the Chinese wine industry will get a bad rap, perhaps the hardest hit will be the villagers employed at these so-called wineries, who won't have jobs now after this latest scandal. There probably won't be any orders of wine from this area for the upcoming Spring Festival, when many buy wines for gatherings and bribes.
One would think that after the milk scandal in 2008 that companies in all sectors would realize that adulterating or tampering with their products only has short-term gains; it is the integrity of the company and its product that will see it last for the long term.
The biggest benefactor will be Hong Kong, as Chinese connoisseurs will only drive up the prices of wines here.
Tainted toothpaste, milk and now wine. What will they think of next?

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Focusing on Hong Kong's Past

Victoria Harbour, 1880

Today I caught the tail end of an exhibition featuring photographs taken from 1860 to 1870, probably the first real collection of pictures of Hong Kong after it was ceded to the British in 1842 in the Treaty of Nanking.

The show was held in another colonial bygone era -- the former Central police station on Hollywood Road.

It was interesting walking up the ramp to the police complex, with its European architecture that sadly has fallen to neglect with paint chipping off the exterior as well as walls inside. There's been lots of talk over proposals of how to redevelop the site and now it looks like it will become an arts exhibition space as well as area for artists to develop their craft.

But back to the photographs. While we didn't see the originals, they were enlarged and mounted on slanted boards at chest height for easier viewing.

And if those pictures weren't labelled as ones of Hong Kong, I would probably think they were of an exotic place in southeast Asia that was far from the sophisticated city it is today.

The shots had lots of green rolling hills, empty spaces and colonial looking buildings standing majestically out from the trees. They turned out to be Government House and St John's Cathedral, both still standing.

There were also pictures of docks and wharfs, but they seemed rather deserted than bustling with activity.

What was also interesting was that most of the photographs were taken by British photographers, who had their own perception of what Chinese people should look like.

The Race Course taken between 1860-64
Many of the pictures of Chinese people were posed so they were hardly journalistic in nature. There was one where several Chinese people were supposed to be standing around an open-air kitchen, with everyone in bare feet, looking poor and destitute.

Another observation was the way the Chinese posed in studio shots, eager to look modern. Some tried to give the impression they were more western minded by posing with rugs or western furniture, but their dress was still strictly Chinese complete with queues.

The photographs of some streets in Central were really fascinating. They showed shops with signs in English and Chinese, hawking all kinds of things including Japanese curios, medicines, and teas. There was even a clock tower in Central that later caused so much traffic disruption that it was dismantled in 1913.

The streets today hardly look like the ones in the pictures at all -- the changes have evolved into something unrecognizable from over a century ago.

Three Hong Kong men in their 50s were looking at the pictures and periodically would point out they remembered a building in them. So history for some has only changed recently.

It was also interesting to see how many came out to see the exhibition -- people of all ages, particularly young people, curious about their city's history and of course those who take up photography as a hobby.

Perhaps this show should be a permanent one in some way, as a means to preserve Hong Kong's history so that its people can have a better understanding of their past in order to have a better sense of the future.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Picture of the Day: Christmas Tree

The towering Swarovski Crystal Christmas Tree
This is Christmas Tree in Statue Square in Central seems more of a corporate publicity stunt than an earnest effort at spreading holiday cheer in Hong Kong.

The Swarovski Crystal Christmas Tree is 30 metres tall and has over 20 million pieces of crystals on it. No you can't grab any of them because there are barriers around the tree and also a security guard standing watch.

This metal arbour is also sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, with its famous junk logo featured at the base of the tree.

Tonight being Christmas, many people came by to take photographs with the tree as it shimmered with snow flake designs on the diamond shapes.

A video was made to record how the tree was constructed. Watch it here.

But there has been much criticism about this tree not having much life, or Christmas spirit. It seems more like a public relations exercise than a bona fide gift to the city.

What's the point of the tree? To amaze people that Hong Kong has this giant sparkling thing in Central? Or to advertise Swarovski?

Born on Christmas Day

The congregation looks on and some people get baptized
To celebrate the birth of Christ, I attended the "rebirth" of one of my relatives, who was christened today.

The ceremony was held in a church in Tokwawan, a district near Hung Hom in Kowloon.

It's not a typical church with its own free-standing building -- but in a residential apartment block with a sign leading to a stairway.

However upstairs, lots of tinsel was put up and many people in the neighbourhood greeted each other and handed out Christmas presents to their friends.

The church is basically one big room, with a small corner at the back sectioned off for young children and babies accompanied by their parents. At the front is the stage, complete with the cross, flanked by stained glass windows.

Those sitting at the back could get a closer look from the closed-circuit TV screens.

It made me realize that a church can be anywhere as long as its congregation nurtures it with dedication and love.

The service was straightforward, complete with a program and they sang some Christmas carols in Chinese. I didn't know the words so I quietly sang in English instead -- but only the first verse because that's all I remembered.

The baptism featured those to be christened who knelt in front of the pastor, and he dipped his fingers in a chalice with holy water and dabbed their foreheads.

What was interesting was that after this ceremony, each person who was baptized was presented a gift and their family members and friends invited to stand up in the crowd, to acknowledge their presence.

After the service was over, there was a frenzy of picture taking to mark this rite of passage; some were given bouquets of flowers, others small gifts from members of the congregation. All in all, many were excited and happy to witness new converts coming to the fold.

How special to be baptized on the same day as Christ's birthday. A memorable event for all.

Friday, 24 December 2010

One Year Anniversary

While I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, I also want to remember Liu Xiaobo who will be marking his first anniversary in prison after being convicted of "inciting subversion of state power" last Christmas.

For someone behind bars he has achieved one of the highest humanist accolades -- the Nobel Peace prize.

Liu was definitely a news maker this year.

And I hope he continues to be covered in the media as a symbol of China's insecurity and shame.

Beijing Attempts to Ease Congestion

Beijing has finally put its foot down and announced some harsh measures to tackle the number of cars on the Chinese capital's roads.

Yesterday the municipal government said it would only allow 240,000 cars to be registered next year through a monthly license plate lottery. That number will be two-thirds less than the 750,000 added this year. Currently there are 4.76 million cars in Beijing.

As a result of the new policy, anyone who could afford a car (or another one) rushed out to buy one by midnight last night.

"You've got to be quick and if you can pay a down payment of 2,000RMB ($301.75) before midnight today [Thursday], we can still file the purchases with car registries to get around the lottery draw," said Li Di, a sales representative at Beijing Borui Xiangchen Car Sales Centre.

Considering the cheapest car costs around 40,000RMB ($6,035), that's a very low down payment, spurring probably the last chance for car retailers to make their last fast bucks.

This mass panic buying hardly helps the road situation.

But there are other restrictions.

You can't enter this lottery if you have one or more cars registered under your name. And only those who have a Beijing hukou or household registration can be eligible for the lottery.

Also, cars that don't have a Beijing license plate will have to apply for a special permit to enter the city, and even if they have it, they cannot drive in downtown Beijing during rush hour.

This seems ridiculous to some academics who say Beijing is the capital city of the country and that everyone should be welcome regardless of where they come from.

"As China's centre of politics, economy, culture and transportation, Beijing is destined to see more people come in," says Professor Jia Xijin from Tsinghua University who was consulted on Beijing's transport programs. "As long as it remains the centre of power, the jam could never be fundamentally cured."

Eighty-eight percent of the licenses will be given to individuals, and organizations like companies and schools will have 10 percent. The rest will go to the transport sector like taxis.

However some believe these new measures are not going to work and that people will find a way around the rules. Bribery of traffic management officials and mass buying of cars from neighbouring Hebei Province could happen. This is what happened in Shanghai -- many people drive cars that don't have Shanghai license plates.

Enforcing the alternating days doesn't work either as people will just buy another car to be able to drive the other day.

Another problem is that the public blames the number of government cars on the roads for the traffic jams. However, no one knows exactly how many government cars there are -- both municipal and central and neither have released their numbers. Seems like the numbers are a state secret.

The traffic saga in Beijing will never end until the entire city becomes a parking lot.

Then maybe someone will actually do something.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Yummy Singaporean Souvenirs

Slices of kueh lapis cake
When I was in Singapore, I tried a cake at the Fullerton Hotel called kueh lapis, which is a Malaysian cake similar to the Chinese "thousand layer cake". Kueh Lapis uses a lot of egg yolks, some egg whites, butter, vanilla, sugar, brandy, and flour among the ingredients and each layer is baked before adding on the next layer, resulting in a very tedious dessert that takes hours to make.

However the end result is beautiful, with lots of layers in brown and golden brown and it's not too sweet.

As a parting gift, the hotel gave me a kueh lapis cake and I asked if it could be put in the freezer, but was advised not to. It had to be eaten pretty much right away, and when eating it, to stick a slice in the microwave to warm it up a bit.

So since the cake couldn't wait another week, I shared the cake with my colleagues and they all enjoyed it.

When we got to Changi airport and checked in, the first matter of business was to buy pandan cakes.

Whenever people come back from Singapore I see them carrying these maroon-coloured boxes and they're filled with pandan cakes.

The pandan cake fresh out of the box after the deep freeze
It's also another Malay dessert and it's basically like an angel food cake with a bit of green colouring, mostly from pandan leaves and some artificial colouring. It also has a hint of coconut flavour.

Pandan leaves are usually used in Southeast Asian cooking to add flavour to curry dishes and desserts. The fresh leaves are torn in strips and then placed in the pot with the other ingredients, much like bay leaves, and then removed after cooking. For desserts, the juice is extracted and is either sold as an extract or paste.

The counter selling these cakes at the airport was doing a brisk business. I asked if the cake could be put in the freezer and as soon as store clerk said yes, I was sold. And for only S$10 ($7.64) for a whole cake!

I tried a sample piece and the cake is so light and fluffy and not too sweet that you can't help but want another slice!

As soon as I got home I put the pandan cake in the freezer... for two weeks.

Yesterday I finally dropped it off at my favourite dessert place Riquiqui, where the girls there, Amanda and Andrea told me the last time I was there that they LOVE pandan cakes.

And pastry chef Amanda ate a slice and pronounced it practically as good as fresh.

So -- if you're going to Singapore the perfect edible souvenir to bring back is the pandan cake.

Just make sure you buy enough cakes!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Unpredictable Commute

My commutes to and from work can be an exercise in patience.
They usually take just over an hour, mostly due to heavy traffic approaching the Cross Harbour Tunnel, and then it's pretty much smooth sailing afterwards through Kowloon or onwards to Wan Chai.
So I thought that with many people leaving for the Christmas holidays, the traffic situation would lighten up this week.
I was completely wrong yesterday.
We usually get to the office around 10:15am. But yesterday we were stuck in traffic in Central by the ferry piers and inched along all the way to Wan Chai.

It was already 10:15am by the time we approached the Cross Harbour Tunnel.
We finally arrived at the office at 10:40am -- a record.
My bus mates joked we would have the same kind of commute coming back, but it was almost the same as usual.
This morning we wondered what traffic would be like -- and it was the complete opposite from the day before. We whizzed through Central and got to Wan Chai with five minutes to spare. And then it was smooth sailing -- fast sailing in fact -- all the way to the office by 10:07am.
Today is Winter Solstice on the Lunar calendar which means we all get off early today for dinners with our families.
Traffic again was a breeze and I got to Central in just over 45 minutes.

Hope the next week and a half will be similar traffic conditions...

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Demanding Gen Ys

Today I met up for lunch with a friend of mine I haven't seen in years.

She has been working in the hotel industry for many years and in her senior position has hired a number of people.

However, she finds more and more young Hong Kong people are not willing to start from the very bottom and work their way up, unlike previous generations.

They feel that armed with a degree they should be entitled to positions they feel will help them climb the career ladder they have planned for themselves, however misguided some of them are.

Some have even told her that in X number of years they expect to be general manager of the hotel.

As a result, they are very picky about the jobs they want to take, even though there is lots of work available.

For example, the front desk staff must have a university degree, but many young people are not willing to stand at least eight hours a day doing this job.

They have even less interest in other service jobs like being a wait staff in the restaurant or other physically demanding jobs. They much prefer desk-bound work, such as working in the catering office or communications department.

On the other hand, she periodically brings in junior staff from China from other hotels in the same group for training and finds they are very hard working and intelligent people. They learn quickly and enjoy their stay in Hong Kong so much that they wish they could remain in the city, but due to Hong Kong immigration laws, the hotel can't sponsor them for a work visa because they are too junior.

I asked if she could argue the case that the hotel has an increasing number of mainland Chinese guests and therefore need more staff from China, but she said that reason didn't build a strong enough case.

So she worries about how the service industry in Hong Kong is going to survive, a concern I've also mentioned in this blog before. Hong Kong right now is mostly based on the service industry -- from hotels to tourist destinations, restaurants and shops.

If no one is willing to do these jobs, who will?

Monday, 20 December 2010

Charlie Brown's Christmas in Hong Kong

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown
Christmas is less than a week away and I'm happy to say for the most part I have managed to avoid the craziness in the malls.
I also opted out of mailing Christmas cards this year to avoid the long line at the Post Office, though early on Saturday morning the line was very short. So Merry Christmas, everyone.
Yesterday I went to visit a friend I haven't seen in months to drop off a Christmas present and we had a good time catching up.
And we rounded off the afternoon watching -- what else -- A Charlie Brown Christmas.
We both hadn't seen it in decades which made it even more fun to watch.
I didn't quite remember the storyline -- only the part about the sad-looking Christmas tree and how it was fixed up in the end.
In the opening Charlie Brown looks as stressed out as an adult leading up to Christmas rather than excited like any other child which seems... so mature.
His sister Sally is hilarious when she asks Charlie Brown to help him write a letter to Santa Claus and he gets frustrated by her materialism.
"All I want is what I have coming to me," she says innocently. "All I want is my fair share."
The climax of the cartoon has strong religious tones, but not overtly so and it does make everyone realize the true meaning of Christmas.
The dialogue is still funny and relevant, but the next generation may not understand some of the cultural references. The cartoon is still quirky and the kids dancing on stage dance like we used to in high school.
And the music by Vince Guaraldi is still cool and refreshing, jazzy and upbeat.
So even though we were sitting in Hong Kong watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, it brought back memories of home, and of Christmases past.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Hanging Out on the Ark

Yep Noah's Ark is in Hong Kong -- Ma Wan Park to be exact
Yesterday I went to my friend's wedding which was held in a rather unique location -- Noah's Ark.

I didn't even know Hong Kong had Noah's Ark which is in Ma Wan Park, near Tsing Yi subway station, and is actually located by the Tsing Ma Bridge, by the water.

There's a dark brown wooden ark near the beach and the complex includes a kind of amusement park as well as restaurants and even a hotel.

Who knew?
Noah's Ark is by Tsing Ma Bridge

The place, which is owned by Sun Hung Kai Properties, says on its website that it aims "to promote family values and teach love, social harmony and care for the environment".

This breaks down further into specific goals:

Love for Self and Others;
Love for the Well-being of the Body and Spirit;
Love for Life;
Love for the Environment;
Love for Learning;
Love for Challenges;
and Love to Serve Others.

It has slightly religious undertones which explains why my friend and his now wife chose this venue as they are Christians. But an ark? It is meant to save the rest of us from being swept into the evilness of capitalism and materialism?

Two giraffes from the ark
Admittedly I didn't wander around the whole park, but did see a pair of giraffe sculptures standing on top of a hill, and I missed checking out the rest of the animals coming out of the ark two-by-two.

There was a "Faith Avenue" and a kind of mural on the underpass that had words painted on there like "love", "forgiveness" and an interesting one -- "self-control".

The different attractions in the park are contracted out. For example, the Ark Expo and Ark Garden are run by The Media Evangelism (need I say more?), and it even has an exhibition called 2-Head Castle, showcasing two-headed turtles, conjoined twin fish and a single-eyed fish called Cutie. While it's nice to know these animals are embraced rather than destroyed, it's still kind of like a freak show...

Meanwhile the Chinese YMCA runs Noah's Resort, the hotel part, which from the website looks straight-forward and clean. There's no encouragement to mess about in this place.

Hanging out by the beach
Tickets here aren't cheap -- depending on which exhibits you want to see and when, it can cost up to HK$100 ($12.86) for adults. And transportation is a chunk too -- getting out to Tsing Yi and then taking a special shuttle bus for another HK$9.50 ($1.22) to get out there, as access to the road is restricted by the government and only those vehicles with valid permits can go in and out.

So the bottom line is -- if you have a hankering to brush up on your family values, come on down.

Sun Hung Kai Properties will thank you for it.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Good-looking Christmas

Pacific Place in Hong Kong is known as a pretty upscale mall, but not as much as say the Landmark.

Nevertheless, PP does have such veritable stores as Lane Crawford, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Cartier, Tod's and Versace.

The mall has been undergoing some renovations and a certain columnist by the name of Michael Chugani keeps complaining that the nice benches along the mall have been replaced with uncomfortable wooden mounds that are supposedly for resting. I have yet to try this out for myself, but they don't look like a good place for your bottom as you rest your tired feet.

Nevertheless, my beef is about PP's Christmas advertising campaign.

No, I'm not complaining about the fact that the mall is encouraging shoppers to drop HK$2,800 ($360) or more in a single day (or HK$2,300 of you are an American Express cardholder) in order to receive a free Links of London limited edition Christmas ornament.

There's another shopping area in Central that's pushing customers to drop HK$20,000 ($2,571) or more in order for the privilege of staying over at the Mandarin in Hong Kong or the one in Macau for a very cheap rate. I should hope so after plonking down that much money.

But back to PP. Its festive slogan this year is "True Christmas, True Emotions".

Why "true" had to be emphasized makes the holidays seem even more fabricated than they already are...

But my problem is that the campaign features pictures of good-looking Eurasian women and children (the guy looks Chinese). Are Eurasians the only ones who know how to celebrate a "true Christmas" with "true emotions"?

Unfortunately I couldn't put the picture up in this post but you can check the pictures out here.

While most Eurasians are good looking, what about the rest of us regular folk? Kind of misconstrues the whole point of Christmas doesn't it?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Winter Blast

These last two days have been freezing cold in Hong Kong, dipping to nine degrees. Before you think that's hardly horrific living conditions, bear in mind we don't have central heating -- any kind of heating really -- and insulation is non existent.
People here have been complaining about the cold and hope the winter spell will end soon. But the upshot is that the smog -- oops -- "fog" -- has disappeared due to rain two days ago and now the skyline seems pretty much in focus.
While it's been cold for me too, I am just glad I'm not back in Beijing where it really is cold! Just wish the office had some heat, as many of us are working in our winter coats...

Licensed Observations

About a month ago I wrote about Hong Kong license plates and how some special ones are auctioned off, some request to use a certain word or phrase.
Since then I've been on the lookout for interesting license plates.
Here are some of the ones I've spotted on Hong Kong roads so far:
INVENTOR -- the next Einstein?
EVERTON -- obviously a football fan
SHARLENE, MONICA, KADIE, KAYLA -- is that her car?
PUMPKIN, BISCUIT -- a term of endearment or favourite food?
ICON -- a bit presumptuous?
CHIEF -- someone's a big cheese
PMPMP -- code name for something...

The list will be continued...

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Reviving the Red Revolution

Following The Wynners harking back to the propaganda posters of the 1950s, it was intriguing to find that Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai has launched a "red culture" campaign and has pushed it to a new level with a new microblogging website to promote his revolutionary image and political philosophies.
The site, called Red Microblog, is run by, the website of the Communist Party Chongqing committee's propaganda department.
"I really like the words below by Chairman Mao [Zedong] that 'The world is ours; we should work together'," was one of Bo's postings.
What was also worth noting was that the Chinese characters were put in the similar typeface to the style used for Mao's quotations during the Cultural Revolution.
Also on the site are instructions of Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, which urges low-level authorities to master new media.
"The Red Microblog is aimed at expanding the influence and the coverage of our campaign," the statement said, adding that it was a way to help the public have a closer connection with the red culture campaign that has been ongoing for more than a year in Chongqing.
And Bo has taken up the mantle, asking Chongqing citizens to sing "red" songs, read classical literature and tell revolutionary stories.
They are also encouraged to write text messages praising the country or the city, describing how they were inspired. Apparently by October some 120 million "red text messages" had been sent by local residents.

Early last month Bo even said more than 750,000 students from Chongqing should spend at least four months of their four-year studies working with farmers or People's Liberation Army soldiers. Sound eerily familiar? The campaign is meant to remind the public that during the Cultural Revolution, tens of thousands of students were sent to the countryside.

Why this revival of the Cultural Revolution? We have all heard the horrible things that have happened and now this revisionist campaign has been launched to create a new version of the Cultural Revolution which is frightening to those who went through it or heard about the horror stories.

This need to be "red" is unsettling to see from across the border. It seems the government is keen to build a new generation that's "red". However, many young people are only doing this in the hopes of getting ahead. That's why many join the Communist Party in the first place, expecting that membership will have its benefits.

But in the end they realize it's those who are connected with guanxi who really get ahead, and all the "redness" in their heart won't get them very far.

So it'll be interesting to see how successful Bo's "red culture" campaign is. While numbers may seem impressive, it's really what happens a few years from now that really matters.

And did we mention how Bo's son Bo Guaguoa just finished studying philosophy, politics and economics overseas in Balliol College in Oxford? How come he doesn't have to spend four months working with the farmers or PLA soldiers?

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Revolutionary Fervour

When I saw this poster I almost thought I was back in the motherland.

It is advertising an upcoming concert by The Wynners, a Hong Kong pop band that was formed in the 1970s and features Alan Tam (vocals), Kenny Bee (vocals), Bennett Pang (guitar), Danny Yip (bass guitar) and Anthony Chan (drums).

How old are these guys now? Tam in particular doesn't show his age... could it be plastic surgery? Botox?

The group started off singing mostly in English, but from the looks of their latest poster, Putonghua might be in order.

On the gold badge in the background it says 溫拿 (wen na) which sounds like "wynner", but it's their revolutionary poses that are so bizarre. While it's probably meant to be a parody of the 1950s posters, the only sign of mockery are the blue, white and red arm band and badges on their jackets that remind us of those plastic sheets used for cheap covering or made into bags that mainlanders use to lug around their belongings.

The Wynners concert will be held at the Hunghom Stadium from February 4-9, during the Chinese New Year holiday.

I still don't get the revolutionary theme so perhaps their new material is?

Show Me the Money

Surprise surprise -- young people in Hong Kong just want to make money so they can buy property.
Some 57.1 percent say their top goal is to own property, which entails making money, or accumulate their "first bucket of gold" (40.1 percent).
The results of the survey were released by the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, a privately funded public-policy think tank. It conducted the survey between August and October questioning 865 people between the ages of 16 and 35.
"I hope to buy a flat in 10 years' time because having property will make life easier," said Marcus Ko Ho-man, a postgraduate student of education at Chinese University. "I think I'll need to save HK$1 million for that and I'll make investments."
His views are very practical, but hardly ambitious in terms of getting a job that broadens horizons towards the mainland or the world.
Dr Chung Kim-wah, director of the centre for social policy studies at Polytechnic University says such opinions like Ko's are due to unstable economic factors like the fluctuating housing market. "They tend to think of themselves first," he said.
The third highest aspiration was completing higher education (33.5 percent), probably as a way to earn more money, to buy property.
It's sad to see from the survey that getting married was only 14.1 percent, living overseas was a dismal 8.7 percent and having children was 19.9 percent. So it seems more people want to have children but not thinking about tying the knot to do it. Interesting. Did they interview more men than women?
The lowest score was 1.2 percent for living on the mainland.
While it's much cheaper to live there, the news reports about media freedoms, the tainted milk scandal and how human rights activists are treated have definitely scared off young people from even considering living across the border.
Or maybe it's made them even more appreciative of Hong Kong.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Picture of the Day: "Fog"

The soupy gray mixture called "fog" but it's really smog
Here's the picture outside my window this morning at around 7:30am.

The Hong Kong Observatory insisted it was "fog", and as I rode to work today I could hardly see across the harbour to Tsim Sha Tsui.

However, many people and news articles have been complaining about the smog due to the unprecedented levels of pollution, especially last month.

Just last week the pollution index in Central was 173, the worst this year.

Despite the strong gusts of wind, the "fog" seems like a soupy gray mixture that doesn't seem to want to go away.

Some blame it on the lack of air circulation, thanks to all the tall buildings trapping the pollutants. Gee, thanks developers.

The temperatures are supposed to drop for the next few days, but who knows if a cold front will actually clear the skies.

Could we at least hope for a blue sky day for Christmas?

Accelerating Traffic Woes in Beijing

I just read in the paper today that Beijing has 4.7 million cars. Did I miss the headline about the Chinese capital having passed the four million mark?
And now it has received the honour of having the world's worst traffic, tied with Mexico City.
Hmm -- horrific traffic jams do tend to happen when people buy too many cars and there aren't enough roads for them. Welcome to our world.
And now the municipal authorites are proposing to break the gridlock by encouraging residents to get back on their bicycles to commute!
Excuse me, but if someone buys a car it's because they don't want to pedal themselves around anymore. They want to show they've made it with the car as their status symbol. No way are they going to step out of the car unless everyone else is made to do so.
Song Guohua, a professor specializing in urban planning at Beijing Jiaotong University said changing people's attitudes to commuting would be more difficult than implementing control measures.
"Most people in the city have enjoyed driving on their own for only a few years. Unlike people in developed countries, it is still a fresh thing to them," he said.
This is the fault of the central government that stimulated the car market a few years ago with tax cuts and subsidies, making China the number one car market in the world. Sales of passenger cars in November jumped 29.3 percent from last year to a monthly record of 1.34 million units. And in Beijing there were more than 20,000 vehicles sold in the first week of December, more than double the 9,000 sold in the same period in 2009.
The Beijing government is considering a series of measures including imposing congestion fees, bringing back the odd and even number license plate days from the Olympics and making 50,000 bicycles available for rent at subway stations by 2015. There will also be more subway lines by that time. However, that's four years away. The city needs solutions now -- which should have been thought about years ago.
Nevertheless Song pointed out some 30 percent of the capital's population uses public transport and is confident it will reach half by 2015.
However, there seems to be no foresight on the part of the municipal and central governments about the consequence of people buying more cars. Perhaps the government was too keen on boosting its car industry without realizing this would affect roads, traffic, commutes and people's stress levels.
And to make matters worse, there was a rumour going around that those who did not have Beijing hukou, or a residency certificate, that they would soon be barred from being able to buy a car. So what did they do? Madly rush out and purchase one.
But perhaps the most ironic thing is the government trying to push people back onto bicycles again. And surely that proposal won't get much traction with new car owners. So the frustrations of commuting with continue.
Thank goodness I don't live in Beijing anymore.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Gripe of the Day: Chatty Cathy Workouts

When I and most people go to the gym, we want to focus on our workout.

Many choose to block out the rest of the world wearing headphones, listening to music or in my case, podcasts. I have a friend who listens to Chinese lessons while pounding the treadmill. I don't understand how you can learn Mandarin while trying to run at the same time, but if it works for him...

However I digress.

Tonight after work I did my usual workout routine of free weights, ab exercises and push-ups and usually end with a spin on the treadmill. But today I chose to go on the elliptical and was a few minutes into it when a Chinese woman got on another machine near me and was yakking away loudly in English and Cantonese on her headset piece.

And she wouldn't stop.

She just kept going on carrying on a phone conversation while working out on the elliptical.

A Caucasian guy on her left and I on her right stared at her periodically hoping she would stop, but she took no notice of us giving her dirty looks.

Why do I notice mostly women working out and chatting with their friends or even talking business at the same time? I now recall a few months ago seeing a woman chatting with a client on the phone, also on the elliptical.

I find it fascinating that people are able to multitask like this, but at the same time very annoyed by their disrespect for others around them.

Either chat with your friends or clients elsewhere or focus on your workout.

Both can hardly benefit simultaneously.

Maybe a scientist could conduct a study on multitasking workouts and I hope my hypothesis is correct.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Posting a Profit

With Christmas fast approaching, this past weekend was a busy one for mostly expatriates, madly buying up presents for loved ones either to bring back or mail home.

The post office near where I live was particularly busy yesterday. Many expats were in line posting packages and giant piles of Christmas cards. Another guy was at the side counter wrapping his presents and then putting them in bubble envelopes to send off. He seemed to take a long time, and even called his friend for her mailing address. After a quick chat he said, "I gotta go, they're going to close the post office in a minute."

The staff at the counters were shocked he hadn't even bought his stamps yet or filled out the necessary declaration forms...

As for me, I had to wait in line to get a cardboard box to post some things home, then put them in it and got the box to the parcel counter.

The staff thoughtfully gave me a roll of package tape and I practically taped the entire thing over, as if it would make it even more protected from the rough handling it would probably get.

"Hurry up," the clerk said. "The truck is coming any minute now."

I madly taped it up some more before bringing it back to the counter.

The options for mailing? One month, two weeks, which will not guarantee by Christmas, or within three to four days.

Huh? Nothing for about a week or so? I asked.

"Well, in three to four days," the clerk said.

Three to four days isn't a week and it's their way of getting a money grab from people worried their presents won't arrive in time for Christmas. And I had to fill out the necessary form for this "speed post" service.

So for HK$249 ($32) my package better arrive next week and in one piece... 

I can only imagine next week's line at the post office will be even longer...

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Tiresome Travel

A friend of mine living in Shanghai was supposed to arrive in Hong Kong at lunchtime yesterday. It's a less than three-hour flight.

However, she got online around 10:30am to tell me that her flight had been delayed... with no indication of when it would take off.

She was especially annoyed as she had to get to the airport at 6am for this China Eastern flight and hardly had enough sleep.

It turns out she waited five hours to board the plane.

At first the passengers waited at the gate, and then they were told to move to another gate. The reason for the delay? Apparently some mechanical malfunction.

Many people were furious and were demanding answers from the ground crew, but they were stone faced and hardly helpful.

Then after hours of waiting my friend went to the washroom and when she came out, she didn't see the passengers milling around -- they were lining up to get 400RMB ($60) in cash to compensate them for having to wait five hours. Luckily she managed to get into the line for the pitiful cash grab otherwise she wouldn't have gotten anything.

A male passenger tried to throw his weight around, saying this experience was very difficult for his two young children in the hopes of getting better financial compensation, but he got no reply. If they did give him more, they'd have to give it to every one else.

Soon after the money was doled out my friend was finally able to board her flight.

Needless to say she was exhausted, arriving at 6pm in Hong Kong.

It's shocking how bad Chinese airlines are, and yet nothing is done because that's the way the Chinese civil aviation industry works. There is no regard for the commercial aspect of the business, that people pay to be transported from A to B at a certain time and they shouldn't have to be delayed five hours, especially for such a short flight.

Either it shows China Eastern planes are too old, or they don't have qualified mechanics to fix problems quickly. Or was the military hogging the runway and not allowing commercial aircraft to use the air strip? How is the Chinese travel industry supposed to develop if passengers get crap service like this?

Friday, 10 December 2010

Childish Intentions

Six-year-old Zeng Yuhan accepts the award on behalf of Lien Chan
So it turns out I was wrong about Beijing not holding a ceremony for the Confucius Peace Prize yesterday.
There was one, even though winner Lien Chan didn't make the trip across the Taiwan Strait to receive the award.
However all was not lost -- the inaugural award was accepted on his behalf -- by a six-year-old girl.
What little Zeng Yuhan had done to have the honour of receiving the award no one knows, and she herself didn't understand what all the fuss was about, appearing puzzled and hiding behind members of staff.
Reporters tried to ask her if she knew why she was there, but the adults answered for her instead.
"Leave her alone, please. She's just a little girl who knows nothing," a staff member said. "She is not as complicated as you think."
So what was the point of having a six-year-old girl receive the prize then?
Did the organizers think the media would go ga-ga over her and report admirably about the event? Or that no one would be that concerned about having a child receiving an award that was supposed to have as much gravitas as the Nobel Peace Prize?

The ploy was completely transparent and fell on its face. What a farce.
Now Zeng will always be known as the girl who accepted the inaugural Confucius Peace Prize for nothing.
Wonder how she'll feel about it 10, 15, 20 years from now...

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Last Ditch Salvo

On the eve of the Nobel Prize ceremony, China continues to try to discredit it, now saying it's some kind of western plot against China.

The hilarious thing is that the winner of its inaugural Confucius Peace Prize today did not come to China to accept it -- mostly because he wasn't officially notified that he'd won, and with relations between China and Taiwan being on and off again, Lien Chan rightly decided not to wade into this issue.

So while there is a prize with Lien's name on it along with 150,000RMB (how cheap is that?), there was no ceremony that took place.

Meanwhile the Foreign Ministry has become really creative with its colourful attacks regarding the Nobel Peace Prize that Liu Xiaobo will be honoured with tomorrow.

The other day it claimed some 100 countries were not attending the ceremony in Oslo, proof that many countries disagreed with the choice of Liu.

However, the Nobel organizing committee stated 65 embassies were invited, 18 of which declined, probably due to pressure or campaigning by China. They include Russia, Egypt, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. Why is this list not surprising?

And now the Foreign Ministry is calling the members of the Nobel committee "clowns" and how this is a "flagrant interference in China's sovereignty".

"Clowns" is a new description of someone Beijing detests. How comic.

In the meantime, China has stepped up the offensive by blocking some foreign news sites like BBC, CNN and Norwegian state broadcaster NRK from today.

While Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu argued that Liu was a "common criminal", saying "Liu Xiaobo broke Article 105, a crime of instigating the subversion of state power... he went beyond the general criticism of the state", the Nobel committee has stood firm in its choice.

Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad said this year's prize was "big and important" because "it reflects on regimes".

"The empty chair [symbolizing Liu and his family being unable to come] will be the strongest argument for this year's prize," he said.

It's good to see a group so defiantly standing up against China.

While the government may claim this prestigious prize will hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese, many of the educated young people who have been following this fiasco are probably cringing, hearing the vitriol coming out of Beijing.

How does their government's actions make them proud to be Chinese?

Picture of the Day: Singapore National Library

Singapore isn't Singapore without rules.

The funny thing is how they illustrate these rules with cartoons or funny characters. The subway, or MRT is a case in point with a trio of women in colourful show-stopping outfits singing jingles telling people to queue in line, or let passengers get off the train before getting on.

And the library is no exception.

I spotted these public service announcements plastered on the bottom of the escalator in the library -- don't put your feet up on the seat otherwise other people can't use it; be careful about emailing people you don't know, and look after the library books you have borrowed!

While these posters a good use of space, but do people actually read them?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Islamic Touch in Singapore

The Sultan Mosque on Arab Street
The Singapore National Library is holding an exhibition called "Rihlah: Arabs in Southeast Asia" until December 31. It's a small show, but presents a lot of interesting material.
Many of these Arabs came from Hadramaut in Yemen, trading frankincense and myrrh with other countries like India, east Africa and China. These valuable resins were used for religious rites, medicines and mummification.
These traders became very wealthy and some settled in southeast Asia. Their family names include Al Qu'aiti, Al Kathiri and Al Walaqi. Other names like Alsagoff became famous as Syed Mohammed Alsagoff owned the Raffles Hotel which was opened December 1, 1887. Another family, Al Junied has a subway stop named after it.
The exhibition also shows items from these families, from letters and passports, to clothing and even chinaware. The aforementioned Alsagoff had specially commissioned dining ware with the logo "SM" on it, and "SHA" for Syed Hussain Alkaff. The chinaware was used for lavish tea parties, as shown in black and white photographs of men sitting around small tables outside.
While a few of these families are still around in Singapore, their numbers have dwindled as well as their wealth. Nevertheless, they still have made a strong mark in Singapore, adding another cultural layer to the city.
Afterwards we headed to Arab Street and checked out the Sultan Mosque. The first one was built in 1824, but it was already considered too small a few years later and four years later a bigger one was built where it still stands. Sir Stamford Raffles even contributed S$3,000 to the construction of the mosque. At the base of the dome is a black black ring and apparently they are from all from the crushed empty soy sauce bottles collected from the poor.
That story came from Jason, a docent at the mosque. What surprised us was that he was a Caucasian Muslim, eager to tell us all about Islam.

He explained the mosque has a capacity of 5,000 people and is especially busy on Fridays and during Ramadan. He pointed out there were no pictures or idols in the mosque and that Allah means "creator".

The men prayed in the main hall, while women had to either pray at the back or upstairs. This was to avoid people having sexual desires when they should be focusing on their spiritual development.

As for the mosque and everyone having to face Mecca when they prayed, Jason said in the Koran, Allah says people must be given direction otherwise they will not be sure of what to do or where to go. Islam, Jason said, is about surrender, safety, peace and submission.

He also explained Muslims pray five times a day, and each day the times are different depending on when the sun rises and sets. "We all spend a lot of time watching TV and resting, so why can't we at least spend 25 minutes of our day praying to Allah?" he asked. "Most people only pray when they are in the plane, hoping for a safe landing or trip."

Jason also said Muslims donate 2.5 percent of their annual income to the poor, widows, divorcees, recent converts and veterans. He says it is important for Muslims to first help their community, then their city, country, then the world. This is not dissimilar to tithes that some Christians and Catholics still follow.

As for the annual pilgrimage, or hajj which means planting a seed in the ground, Jason said for a Muslim not to perform the hajj does not make them a lesser Muslim, but it is encouraged, as it is considered a spiritual journey.

And the fasting that goes on during Ramadan brings humbleness to Muslims, be they the CEO of a company to an ordinary person, Jason said. From sunset to sundown, Muslims are not to drink any water or eat food -- but there are exceptions for those who are traveling, pregnant or going through their menstrual cycle. He says while Muslims can break fast at sundown, there are still millions of people still starving and so Ramadan gives them an opportunity to be thankful for what they have.

Polygamy is encouraged in Islam, according to Jason. However, it's not practiced widely in countries where the state only recognizes marriage only between one man and one woman. However, he hinted that a man could spiritually take another woman to be his "wife", but whether the two wives would get along as sisters or become competitors was another issue.

This last point didn't sit well with the predominantly female members of our group -- that and having to pray five times a day.

So much for his attempt to convert us to Islam.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Beijing's Breaking Announcement

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this bulletin --
China is attempting to upstage the Nobel Prize ceremony on Friday by giving out its own award tomorrow (Thursday).
Only three weeks after the idea was floated by Huanqiu (The Global Times), a mainland Chinese media outlet, Beijing is going to give out its first "Confucius Peace Prize".
Named after the philosopher, the new prize is to "interpret the viewpoints of peace of [the] Chinese [people]," the awards committee said in a statement released Tuesday.
And like the Nobel Committee, this other award committee made up of five judges is not an official government body, but it does work closely with the Ministry of Culture. Hardly sounds independent. The committee chairman Tan Changliu declined to give specifics about the committee, when it was created and how the five judges were chosen, saying this information would be disclosed later. It will probably be a miracle if they even release this information at all.
Nevertheless, the first recipient of the award will be Lien Chan, Taiwan's former vice president and honorary chairman of the Nationalist Party for having "built a bridge of peace between the mainland and Taiwan." And the response from Lien's office? One of his staffers said she couldn't comment because she knew nothing about the prize.
Apparently Lien was chosen among eight nominees, including billionaire Bill Gates, former South African President Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the Panchen Lama -- the Beijing appointed one, not the one the Dalai Lama had picked. We still don't know where he is being held, even though the Chinese government says he doesn't wish to see anyone.
"We should not compete, we should not confront the Nobel Prize, but we should try to set up another standard," said Liu Zhiqin, the Beijing businessman who suggested the prize in Huangqiu. "The Nobel Prize is not a holy thing that we cannot doubt or question. Everyone has a right to dispute whether it's right or wrong." Liu clarified that he was not involved in establishing the award.
Lien will be awarded the prize and 150,000RMB ($15,000). "It needs to grow gradually, and we hope people will believe the award is of global significance," said Tan.
Does Lien know about this prize? Will he actually come to Beijing to accept it?
This hasty and ridiculous attempt at trying to upstage the Nobel Prize ceremony just shows the lack of foresight and insecurity on the part of the Chinese government. It keeps mistakenly putting Liu Xiaobo into the spotlight when it really wants the Nobel Peace Prize winner's name wiped out.
Meanwhile it was heartening to read that many Hong Kong people came out on Sunday to demand that China free Liu and his wife to allow them to go to Oslo to receive the award.
It is also wonderful to hear the ceremony on Friday will include an empty chair for Liu, a stark reminder of what China has done to this year's Peace Prize winner.

A Taste of Peranakan

The Blue Ginger menu features Peranankan folk art
Peranakan is the term to describe Chinese-Malay people who, many generations ago, inter-married and created their own ethnicity. They wear clothes with floral designs in bright colours and their paintings are like folk art, colourful and playful. They have also created their own unique cuisine, called Peranankan food.
If you ask Singaporeans where the best place to eat Peranakan food is, they can only think of three or four restaurants, as the recipes are quite difficult, requiring hours of cooking. However the results are very complex flavours, layers of them particularly in the sauces.
One dining establishment recommended to us was The Blue Ginger Restaurant.
Kueh pie tee, a refreshing bite with shrimp
It's located in a quaint two-storey shophouse converted into a restaurant, a narrow long space that is very cosy and warm, with simple wooden tables, chairs and banquettes.

For starters we had some acha, a Peranakan version of kimchi, with a kind of zucchini, carrots and turnips in a vinegary chilli sauce that wasn't too spicy and made our appetites salivate for our main dishes.

First up was ngo heong (S$9.90), homemade rolls of minced pork and prawns seasoned with five-spice powder and wrapped in tofu skin and then fried to a golden brown. It came with a dark sweet sauce and was delicious and meaty.

Next was the kueh pie tee (S$7.00), apparently a staple dish that can be found in fast-food courts, but probably don't taste as good as these ones. They are small deep-fried cups filled with shredded bamboo shoots and turnips garnished with a piece of shrimp on top. The best part of it was the first bite into it -- it was so refreshing and light, but then got heavier towards the bottom with the deep-fried cups.

Sambal udang, stirfried prawns in a spicy chilli paste
A dark dish was ayam buah keluak (S$15.80), braised chicken flavoured with tumeric, galangal and lemongrass cooked with Indonesian black nuts. The bowl was filled with black liquid from these black nuts, which seemed a bit daunting, but it was a flavourful dish, the meat falling off the bone easily.

A favourite was the sambal udang, stirfried prawns in a rich hot and spicy chilli paste. The prawns were cooked with onions and wasn't too spicy, the prawns meaty and cooked just right.

For the chilli heads, the kang kong lemak (S$8.50) fulfilled their cravings. It was morning glory or water spinach and cubes of sweet potato cooked in coconut milk with a dried shrimp and chilli paste. Here the sauce was complex, with the layers of coconut, shrimp paste and chilli all combined in this reddish sauce.

Nonya fish head curry
My perennial Singapore dish is the nonya fish head curry (S$26.00). The head of a red snapper was cooked to perfection in a sauce that featured okra, here called lady fingers, tomatoes and eggplant. The fish was meaty and delicious, and I always wonder why there are never enough pieces of eggplant and okra to complement the dish.

Our guide told us that fishmongers will often sell large fish without their heads -- as many of them are sold for dishes like this.

For a bit of a reprieve from the spiciness was the scallops nonya (S$28.80), featuring fresh scallops steamed with cubes of tofu flavoured with preserved bean paste and topped with fresh garlic and spring onions. Again the scallops weren't too overcooked, the tofu silky smooth.

Another prawn dish we tried was the udang goreng tanyu lada (S$19.80), sauteed prawns with pepper in a sweet dark soy sauce. This dish wasn't spicy either, but I preferred the other one we tried earlier.

Finally, the ayam panggang Blue Ginger (S$11.00) is a dish of deboned chicken thigh and drumstick that are sliced thinly and grilled then marinated in a coconut milk sauce with exotic spices. By this time I was quite full, but the chicken was good, the sauce very delicate, again with various layers of flavours.

During the whole time we ate, the majority of the patrons were foreigners, coming for an exotic bite to eat. For many Singaporeans, Peranakan food is more of a homestyle thing, and at the Blue Ginger the owner is cooking from recipes passed down from several generations.

It was a good way to have a taste of one of the many cultures that make up Singapore.
The Blue Ginger Restaurant
97 Tanjong Pagar Road
(65) 6222 3928

Monday, 6 December 2010

Picture of the Day: Best Seat in the House

The hairpin turn from the Lighthouse Restaurant
Singapore has the Formula One race every September -- in the dark.

The likes of Lewis Hamilton (came in second, beaten by Sebastian Vettel), Felipe Massa, and Michael Schumacher compete in this 61-lap race around the streets of downtown Singapore. Even Mariah Carey came to perform during the Grand Prix weekend last year.

For those who want a glimpse of the action but can't shell out for tickets usually round up a group of friends and head to the Singapore Flyer, a giant Ferris wheel-like attraction. Each capsule holds 28 people and so the more friends you have, the more cheap and cheerful the event can be on your wallet.

During the races, these capsules can go for over S$3,000 ($2,295) compared to the usual price of S$29.50 per adult. They are apparently booked well in advance at the moment when the races begin to ensure a good bird's-eye view of the race from above.

But those who can afford to shell out for suites at the Fullerton Hotel or Fullerton Bay Hotel get a chance to watch the races from the Govenor's Suite at the Fullerton Hotel, or even better, from the rooftop of the Lighthouse Restaurant, as it's located right where the hairpin turn is. Guests can watch the spills and thrills from the perfect vantage point.

These places are also reserved well ahead too.

The things that money can buy...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Who Belongs in Business Class

Last Thursday I flew on Singapore Airlines' A380 -- in business class no less -- to Singapore.
There are several gangways for passengers to enter in order to make it as efficient as possible.
In business class each person gets an over-sized seat, plenty of leg room to actually stretch out your legs, place your feet on a foot rest and have a giant screen in front of you to watch movies using headphones that block out most of the loud sounds coming from the plane.
You also get meals served on a linen placemat complete with silverware, including an appetizer, main and dessert of either lemon sorbet or tiramisu ice cream. There is also a cheese plate and wines...
However, in the row in front of me were two rambunctious Singaporean boys. The row seating in the area meant single seating on each far side, and two seats in the middle. The parents put the two boys in the middle and of course they would not stop chatting and playing, making loud noises. What was worse was that the mother, a relatively attractive young woman, did little to discipline her sons, while the father tried to be the authoritarian one, shushing them or telling them to be quiet.
Hello? We're in business class. The reason for business class was to get away from families like these and have a quiet atmosphere to catch up on sleep or work.
Instead the airline, or most airlines allow parents to spoil their children with special privileges.
There was a recent article in The New York Times talking about the annoyance of having to deal with children on flights, particularly long-haul ones where the children aren't dealt with properly by the parents who themselves are also stressed out from travelling.
Some kind of happy medium has to be established, with some travellers advocating for child-free flights or designated family-only areas, but no one has offered any concrete solutions yet and so things are pretty much staying the same.
As for those kids in front of me, after take off, their seats were transformed into beds and they drifted to sleep for the rest of the flight. But really, children do not belong in business class.
They hardly deserve to be there.