Thursday, 30 June 2011

NY Must See: High Line

The newest area along High Line that's starting to grow over the original rails
Today my friend took me to see High Line, a very interesting community project to turn something old into something new.

In the old days a rail line went from the ports up to mid-town and the track literally ran through buildings to make it easier to drop goods off. However, it was quite dangerous crossing the busy tracks and the strip was known as "Death Avenue" (now 10th Avenue).

The path along High Line emulates rail tracks
As a result elevated tracks were built in the 1930s and used until the 1980s when they were abandoned and eventually weeds, wild flowers and shrubs grew over the rail line.

A small active community group had proposed turning the area into a park, but their idea fell on deaf ears. It wasn't until 2002 when the track was slated for demolition did many New York residents put their energy into pushing the park idea again. Heavyweights like designer Diane von Furstenberg and her husband Barry Diller pledged millions of dollars to help convert the neglected place into a community-oriented garden.

Finally in 2009 it was opened to the public and even more recently an extension was added to High Line and it now goes from Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district all the way to 30th Street and 10th Avenue. Apparently it will extend further to 34th Street.

Watching the street view from above
We started from 30th Street and 10th Avenue and made our way along the path. We saw some remnants of the original track with grasses and flowers purposely growing over them. The elevated walkway is beautifully designed and some corridors have great public spaces for people to sit outside, have a rest, chat with friends or eat their lunch as they watch the world go by. Each section has a different layout.

There's a wide selection of flora and fauna growing along the area too, and it's a pity there are no signs to let people know what's growing out there. Nevertheless it's great to see the giant bumblebees buzzing around and doing their thing; I remarked perhaps in the future there would be High Line honey available.

Frank Gehry's IAC building at left
The city views are great along the track and you can see the wide range of architectural styles standing together. Even Frank Gehry's IAC building in Chelsea makes its presence known among the old brick buildings with its curves and glass. The Standard Hotel even stands over the track -- the guests have to keep their curtains closed at all times despite having amazing floor-to-ceiling views.

Vendors have started to appear at High Line and one young woman was selling delicious gourmet popsicles. I had papaya passion ($4) while my friend had cucumber lime ($3). It was a refreshing way to beat the heat. Another sold black and white images taken from his pinhole camera made of a film canister, while the group Friends of the High Line had books about the project for sale and got people interested in volunteering or donating.

It was just so wonderful to see a dead space come to life again through community efforts and the result is a beautifully executed area that has become a tourist spot and brings back energy to the area again.

The Standard Hotel hovering over the High Line
If only places like Hong Kong and China could take notice of places like High Line and see that old does make new again through passion. Yes it takes money to do this, but reviving previously neglected areas is priceless.

NY Must Do: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Multi-talented Daniel Radcliffe loses the accent
One of my to-do items on my New York City list was to see a musical and at first tried to get tickets to Book of Mormon which recently won a slew of Tonys. It's created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, better known for South Park. It's a parody on some young Mormons who go to Africa to spread the Gospel and hilarity ensues.

However my attempt to buy tickets came after the Tony awards were handed out and hence the chance to go see the musical was practically nil. My second pick was another musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and we ended up getting the $92 seats which were close to the nosebleed section in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (the cartoonist who used to write the name Nina in his work).

Daniel Radcliffe (fifth from the left) with John Larroquette
I'm glad we made this pick, not just because of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe but also John Larroquette. The latter was famous in the 1980s for his portrayal of lecherous defense attorney Dan Fielding in the comedy Night Court. So it was no surprise that when Larroquette came out there was thunderous applause, which he surely appreciated.

The musical is based on the satirical 1952 book of the same name by Shepherd Mead, a how-to book on getting ahead in the corporate world. Radcliffe is Finch, an ambitious window washer who uses the handbook to help him climb the corporate ladder in the World Wide Wicket Company, of which Larroquette's JB Biggley is the president.

Al Hirschfeld
Both stars are fantastic in the show -- Radcliffe in particular for not only does he lose his English accent thanks to a dialect coach, but also sings and dances his heart out, particularly in a scene involving football. Larroquette has the comedic touch and a sprinkling of sarcasm in between.

While there are one or two songs that slow the pace of the show, overall it's entertaining and funny.

Oh and the narrator of the book is CNN's Anderson Cooper. One wonders if this will be his foray into acting....?

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Al Hirshfeld Theatre
302 West 45th Street (Between 8th and 9th avenues)
New York, NY

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Pictures of the Day: Ai Weiwei's Animal Zodiac

Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads at Pulitzer Fountain

A dear friend of mine proudly wore her "Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?" T-shirt I brought to her from Hong Kong as we visited his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads sculptures at the Pulitzer Fountain next to the Plaza Hotel.

I had blogged about the sculptures back in early May when they were officially unveiled and at the ceremony Mayor Michael Bloomberg passionately called for Ai's release a month after he was detained at Beijing Capital International Airport on his way to Hong Kong.

Which heads are based on the original and which made up?
Ai hasn't said much since his release last week except to thank Hong Kong supporters for pushing for his release. He's very limited in what he can say to the media, but one hopes he will find ways to get around the system because surely a year is a long time for him to keep his mouth shut.

People manning the booth by the fountain were selling T-shirts that were not calling for Ai's release, but instead of his zodiac animals and used the opportunity to ask the public what animal sign they were born in. For New York it seemed kind of kitsch, but then again perhaps they were trying to capture the tourist market.

Nevertheless, it was interesting to note that not all the original animals heads survive and of the 12, five are missing. Ai had to create what he thought they might have looked like. We asked which five they were, but the guide didn't know and the souvenir book didn't give many hints either.

Personally I thought the snake looked quite modern, but had no clue about the rest. For sure it's not the rat, rabbit, boar, tiger monkey or ox, though Ai's rabbit and tiger look quite different from the originals.

In any case, it's brilliant to display these animal heads which has many layered meanings. For the Chinese government it's a source of national humiliation, or that's how it wants to paint the country as being defeated by foreign powers during the Opium War. And the government is currently encouraging its people to repatriate Chinese treasures back to the motherland as a sign of its power. Though that was busted in 2009 when a man called Cai Mingchao successfully bid for the rabbit and rat heads at the Christie's auction of Yves St Laurent's possessions, but then refused to pay for them.

However when you look at the animal heads, they are hardly Chinese -- in fact they were designed by Jesuit priests. So how are they really Chinese? And then another layer is Ai poking fun at things in China that are questioned for being fake or real and he's displaying the fake ones in a very public place. Originally these heads were part of a fountain at the old Summer Palace and only for the amusement of the emperor and his court. Now they are for everyone to see.

Apparently these sculptures will only be in New York for another two weeks or so before they will be moved to another city in the United States. So I was very lucky and happy to see them.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The World of Alexander McQueen

The Metropolitan Museum of Art showcasing Alexander McQueen's designs

The Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is absolutely amazing.

Entitled "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty", it encapsulates most of the late designer's creations in a multimedia space probably in the context he would have approved of.

The homage to McQueen is wonderful, but also sad to see such boundless creativity cut short at age 40 when he committed suicide just a week after his mother died. It seems she was the driving force of his career.
Duck feathers painted gold

There was a massive line up for the show and people were waiting patiently to get in. I was really lucky a friend of mine is a member of the Met and we were able to bypass the line up that snaked through several galleries and walk straight in.

Lots of people were already in there so it took longer to see each of the exhibits.

Throughout the exhibition are quotes McQueen has said and the first one sets the tone: "You've got to know the rules to break them. That's what I'm here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition."

Showcased are a series of basic black but elegant suits in various creative ways, from extended jacket collars to collars that are connected, an elaborate jacket decorated with numerous buttons. The tailoring is exquisite, the backbone of McQueen's work.

There's also a black jacket that's embroidered with gold thread in what looks like a long wavy dragon tail that ends inside the mouth of a human scull.

The spray-painted dress
Then there's a video of a model in a long flared strapless dress standing on a rotating table who is surrounded by two machines that squirt paint on her dress in black and neon yellow. After they're finished she walks up and down the runway, the audience clapping at the ingenious spontaneous performance art. And below the video is the actual dress on a mannequin.

McQueen looked to nature for inspiration and one of the corsets features the skeletal back of a dinosaur tail or a headdress of butterflies made from feathers, or more jackets made from feathers, baby alligator heads used as epaulettes. He also used wood and glass.

Asia features in his designs too, with a wooden fan-like skirt, or a headdress with a Chinese garden carved from cork. There's one collection called "It's Just a Game" where samurai warriors meet football where shoulder pads are decorated with Japanese designs, and burlap dresses have beautiful embroidery on them, skirts have layered shells on them. Embroidered shoes are elevated platform footwear reminiscent of those worn by imperial beauties.

He also promotes his Scottish heritage with his reinterpretation of the tartan. Dresses have the tartan placed like a wavy pattern, each of the squares matching perfectly, or added with black lace or black beading.

Milliner Philip Treacy's work features prominently in the collections and McQueen surely challenged him to make his designs into reality. McQueen also liked to cover up the models' faces with masks that made them completely expressionless, the face and head a part of the entire outfit.

A dramatic crimson cape
There was a hologram of Kate Moss that was featured in one of McQueen's shows as points of light create a vague image that soon morphs into Kate Moss in an elaborately layered cream-coloured organza dress. She looks as if she's floating, and she's in her bare feet.

At the end of the show is of course the gift shop and many snapped up the book of the exhibition with a cover of a hologram of a skull and Alexander McQueen's face. However the coffee table book cannot even do justice to what we saw -- each section put together beautifully and present a better understanding of the designer's endless fascination with so many things.

However what was kind of morbid was McQueen's obsession with death and what happens in the afterlife. He felt that as a designer it was important for him to force people to look at violent or disturbing things, to force viewers to see the reality of things.

Bodysuit made of black beading
It's so sad to see such a creative mind cut his life so short. One can only wonder what he would have done next. Or was it all too much for him to bear? Had he exhausted every design possibility?

One will never know and we'll forever wonder what might have been.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York
Until August 7, 2011

Wen's at it Again

Premier Wen Jiabao again called for greater democracy and reforms while making a speech at the Royal Society in London.

He said corruption and income disparity were harming people's lives in China.

"Without freedom there is no real democracy and without the guarantee of economic and political rights there is no real freedom," he said. "To be frank corruption, unfair income distribution and other ills that harm the people's interests still exist in China. The best way to resolve these problems is to firmly advance the political structural reform and socialist democracy under the rule of law," he said.

Wen is keen to show how progressive China is and yet the country severely lags behind his rhetoric. He likes to make these kinds of statements when traveling abroad to give the impression of how liberal China's senior leaders are, but instead it's the country's repressive actions that give such a negative picture.

The recent releases of Ai Weiwei and Hu Jia for speaking out and criticizing the government are things people in the west take for granted.

So for Wen to say it's important to have more reforms is very jarring.

And what is his definition of "real democracy"? China keeps insisting on more inter party democracy rather than democracy for all of its citizens.

Just another eyebrow raiser to keep pundits wondering on what's really happening in China.

But as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Trying to Hone Spy Skills

There are growing concerns of Chinese espionage with the mainland opening up its eight National Intelligence College on the campus of Hunan University last week. Since January a string of similar training schools opened in Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Qingdao and Harbin.

The West is worried at the scale and ability of Chinese intelligence-gathering, with Britain's MI5 saying the Chinese government "represents one of the most significant espionage threats to the UK".

The fears may have some truth to it, as there are allegations China penetrated the British Foreign Office's internal communications network. Until now it was previously thought most of China's espionage activities were limited to academics and students sent to host countries for a short period of time.

It's believed these new spy schools will modernize China's intelligence gathering techniques and recruit 30 to 50 carefully selected undergraduates each year.

The first of the new espionage schools was founded in 2008 with Intelligence College in Nanjing University, while the second one was set up at the end of last year in Guangdong.

"The establishment of an intelligence college at Fudan is in response to the urgent need for special skills to conduct intelligence work in the modern era," said a spokesman for Shanghai's Fudan University. "The college will use Fudan's existing computer science, law, management, journalism and sociology resources and then carry out special intelligence training."

What's interesting is that the university would not disclose where exactly the school is on campus and the students there don't even know about its existence. Now that's top secret.

"China does not have the talents and skills it needs in its intelligence departments," said Cao Shujin, deputy dean of the Zhongshan National Intelligence College. "We needed to set up specific degree courses to fill those requirements."

Cao played down the emergence of the espionage schools, saying the were "nothing for the West to worry about," adding, "This is nothing like the changes going on in the People's Liberation Army. We are just trying to provide the right sort of skills for our requirements."

Sounds like Cao is being cryptic in his comments, but the opening of these schools are definitely something we should watch out for. However, if the spy school administrators do intend to take on existing courses such as journalism, they won't be going far. Many journalism courses are about theory than actual practice.

And when practicing journalists are told to serve the Party first before reporting the news, then you know where priorities lie. Also, young people in China these days are not encouraged to develop critical thinking skills, so how are they to discern good intelligence from bad?

Perhaps its the fundamentals that need more work than the details.

Cashing in on China

Buffett and Gates give the thumbs up to China
On the flight home I watched some documentaries related to China. One was about the business of education and how schools in the west -- both secondary and tertiary -- are trying to get a foothold into China and India. That's because families there value education and will pay almost any price for it, and also these two countries have the largest populations of young people on the planet. Especially In China with the one-child policy, families will pour all their family resources into the only child to make sure he or she has access to the best education they can afford.

Not only do the schools lure these students to go overseas, but also set up satellite campuses in the respective home countries to make it easier in terms of visas and prices. It is also a way to brand the school, and give it a presence in Asia.

School administrators were at pains to explain they were trying hard to provide high quality education especially overseas as they were presenting a brand, a product, and so standards needed to be kept high to meet expectations. There was no mention of tuition prices, but it was hinted competition was stiff on terms of getting students.

Even Malaysia has designated an area specifically for satellite schools and hopes to create an education hub for the southeast Asian region. As one science researcher said, she hoped Malaysian students studying at home will stay there and help benefit the research sector by inventing new products or discovering breakthroughs in science for the country than for those overseas.

In the end there was no real conclusion except going global for education is an ongoing trend that will continue to flourish as long as people in Asia prize a western education. By the same token it's up to the schools to keep their standards up otherwise they will lose students to their competitors.

Another documentary by CNBC followed Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, his right hand man Charlie Munger and another on the board of Berkshire Hathaway on their trip to China last September. It literally followed them on Buffett's private jet which started from Omaha, Nebraska, then flew to Seattle to pick up guests like Gates, then on to Anchorage for refueling before arriving in Shenzhen.

As Berkshire Hathaway has a 10 percent stake in BYD or Build Your Own Dreams in its bid to build electric cars, they were keen to see the factories themselves and give a boost to the company. And everywhere they went they were chased down by the media, eager for any financial advice Buffet would give them. There is the added angle that Li Lu, one of Buffett's advisers was a former student leader during the Tiananmen massacre.

While on the trip, Buffett gamely hammed it up for the photographers and did some CCTV interviews. At the time they believed BYD had lots of potential to grow and felt its stake in the Chinese company is a long-term investment. However with the recent problems with many Chinese companies listed in the United States, Buffett may be privately reconsidering his heavy stake in BYD, but at the moment isn't saying much about the situation, even though the battery company's stock isn't doing so well.

The other goal of the trip was to talk to the uber rich about philanthropy. There was a lot of hoopla surrounding the event which was held in a quasi French-looking chateau in the outskirts of Beijing. It was strictly invitation only and when Buffet and Gates tried to talk about philanthropy and wanted to encourage others to pledge most of their wealth to charity, it mostly fell on deaf ears. Only one or two tycoons actually made some kind of earnest pledge. The rest seemed to only be there to take advantage of the photo opportunity with two of the richest men in the US.

After the event Gates and Buffett tried to play down the event, saying they were not twisting anyone's arms to donate their money, and they learned many things about the philanthropy situation in China. For example, there are no extensive charity laws in place so that companies and individuals can get tax breaks on their donations; Gates and Buffett were strangely unaware this issue existed.

They also didn't seem to realize that while China has a growing millionaire population that is on average 15 years younger than those in the west, how wealthy Chinese got their money in the first place is questionable which is why they don't want to draw attention to themselves. Probably the majority of these nouveau riche made their money through shady means and are keen to launder their wealth in real estate, fast cars, jewellery and fine art.

It remains to be seen if BYD will be one of Buffett's star investments, but in the meantime he and Gates need to brush up on their knowledge of how the rich really get super rich in China.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Homeward Bound

Just a quick note to say I'm now in Vancouver for a few days before heading to New York -- a place I haven't visited in over 20 years. I'm really excited to go back and see what it's like and compare it to Hong Kong.

The plane ride home was better this time around on Air Canada than Cathay Pacific -- the seats are bigger and more comfortable and overall less mainland Chinese on board. Though Hong Kong Chinese people can be very particular about things and fuss over the smallest details. One woman pleaded with another to exchange seats so that she could sit with her friends, but really in the end during the flight they each did their own things.

We did have lots of turbulence during the flight so we didn't have much of a chance to stretch our legs. The cabin crew must have been relieved at not having to serve us as much.

The food isn't as good as Cathay Pacific, but staff did come around frequently with water. The senior couple next to me kept asking for more drinks, say a glass of juice and one of water, or even asked for a whole can of Coke Zero. And I thought only young people drank that.

The in-flight entertainment is OK, more Canadian content which is fine, but not as much selection as Cathay Pacific. The ear buds are a drag and not very comfortable. We were all invited to take them with us as you have to pay for them on domestic and short-haul flights. Thanks for the advice!

I miss the Hong Kong International Airport efficiency when it comes to unloading luggage -- by the time I came out of immigration which was fast today, I had to wait quite a while for my suitcases and part of the reason is because the carousel wasn't even running when I got there and one of the luggage belts bringing the bags up onto the carousel wasn't working. Luckily one mechanic did eventually fix the problem and then soon most of us were able to leave the area in droves.

I wish I took a picture of the skyline today -- beautiful blue skies and fluffy white clouds though I was told there was heavy rain this morning. I would have never known.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Making Sense of Ai's Release

It's a relief to see artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been released after about three months of detention, though it's still not quite clear what has transpired to lead to this relatively happy ending.
Jerome Cohen professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University school of Law gives some clues of what may have happened. Ai was released on qubao houshen (取保候审) which literally means "obtaining a guarantee pending trial" and the closest English term is "bail".
"Qubao houshen is a technique that the public security authorities sometimes use as a face-saving device to end controversial cases that are unwise or unnecessary for them to prosecute," says Cohen on the NYU US-Asia Law Institute website. "Often in such cases a compromise has been reached in negotiation with the suspect, as apparently it has been here. Of course we will have to hear what Ai says upon release, recognizing that, as part of the agreement and as a consequence of long incommunicado detention, the released suspect is usually subdued in any public remarks made upon release."
With qubao houshen Cohen adds, the authorities can still investigate Ai for a year and his travel documents are held by the police and he must seek permission to travel within China and definitely abroad. The investigation could be dropped, Cohen says, if the suspect behaves and follows the agreement without any hitches.
Technically Ai was not formally charged with tax evasion so he has not pleaded guilty though he "confessed" to the crime.
What this three-month saga has demonstrated is that the Chinese authorities have no qualms in disappearing people at will and under whatever pretext it wishes. But it also shows in Ai's case that his star status, guanxi and public pressure does help.
There are other theories, that with Wen Jiabao visiting Europe, starting with the UK, the premier didn't want to have to defend China's illegal detention of Ai.

Another is the on-going battle between the hardliners and the liberals at the upper echelons of the leadership. The hardliners probably got Ai arrested in the first place, but in the end there wasn't much evidence to formally charge Ai of anything or so the liberals said and eventually he was released.

We'll have to see how the next few days of freedom play out for Ai. So far he isn't saying much which means some kind of deal was struck and he'll probably stick to it -- for at least a year.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ai Weiwei Released

Breaking news -- after over two months of detention in an undisclosed location, artist Ai Weiwei was released on bail.

He pleaded guilty to tax evasion and promised to repay the taxes.

He was interviewed by the BBC at home and said he was in good health. "I am already home, released on bail, I can't talk to the media, but I am well, thanks for all the media attention," he said.

We're so glad to hear he's finally out, but what now? Ex-judicial house arrest like everyone else?

The repression never ends...

Singing Sensations

All the talent lined up... with the winner Mark Tjhung at the far right

Tonight after dinner I dropped by at Salon de Ning, a bar at the Peninsula where it hosted its first open mic night with Time Out Hong Kong, daring people to come up and sing with a live band.

Each contestant could perform two songs and then the audience picked the winner at the end.

By the time I arrived just after 9pm the place was jammed packed, as the first three singers had already sung.

It was pretty neat to see people getting into the event, singing along with the contestants, even twirling around on the dance floor, all in support of their friends or just having a good time.

During the short intermission, the house music went on and many people were dancing, which was reminiscent of when I used to go to JJ's at the Grand Hyatt. It closed down many years ago, which made me realize how much a classy club is sorely needed in the city.

Salon de Ning is an intimate space, low ceilings and interesting Art Deco decor with a parlour-like feel with over-sized couches and chairs, rugs and pictures of Josephine Baker on the walls.

One favourite was Johannes Pong, the nightlife columnist for HK Magazine who did his own rendition of Paparazzi and Lady Gaga's Bad Romance complete with claws.

After nine singers, the winner was Time Out's own Mark Tjhung who sang and played the piano. Pretty impressive.

There were lots of hoops and hollers, whistling and clapping -- all on a Wednesday night.

Just shows there's lots of stuff going on in Hong Kong and all you have to do is check it out.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Who's Scamming Who

When I was in Beijing I did a bit of freelance editing for anyone who wanted English-language materials "polished", from cultural books about bronze and jade to company profiles. A few I did was for a small outfit for a young girl in her early 20s working for a Chinese man who had spent time in the United States and now set up a company he claimed could help Chinese firms go public in the US.

When I had lunch with the girl who thanked me for helping her out, she had no clue that this tiny office could not be equated to the likes of Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers (this was just after Lehman went bankrupt). She was naive and conned by her boss into thinking she too could be an investment banker if she worked for him. She didn't realize how the fallout from Lehman Brothers and the global financial crisis would change the entire economic environment.

And the materials I polished for this company? A series of PowerPoint slides crammed with information about the potential IPO company, from technical details to projections about how much it could earn in the next five to 10 years. None of the information seemed relevant, but there was no point in raising this issue -- had I ever helped a company with its IPO before?

Here was a guy with his own scam on Chinese companies falling over themselves in their keen attempt to get really rich in the US with an IPO, or at least some American investment.

But many of them can't pass through the rigors of getting an IPO through the front door, so many go through the back by buying a listed US shell company and then changing the company name. And once they're "listed" in these reverse mergers, these Chinese companies don't realize they are now accountable to their shareholders and must produce documents and reports to prove the firm's viability and its projects down the road to gain more funding from investors.

Instead more of them are being outed as being bogus or not at all what they claimed to be by short sellers in the US who are having a field day discovering a number of Chinese companies are not being completely truthful. The latest victim is Sino-Forest, whose value plunged more than 80 percent this month after allegations its forestry assets were overstated.

The company is desperately trying to keep its reputation in tact by appointing an independent committee to review the allegations with PriceWaterhouseCoopers assisting. However, the damage is done, and even well-known hedge fund player John Paulson was caught with Sino-Forest shares in the fiasco and his group Paulson & Co has sold its stake in the Chinese company, losing $700 million. It's not too much of a dent into a company whose portfolio is worth $37 billion.

"The realization I have come to recently is that it's a giant Ponzi scheme. It's all going down," says Rick Pearson, a Beijing-based investor who holds short positions on some Chinese stocks.

A New York Stock Exchange listed software company called Longtop Financial Technologies said last month its auditor quit, chief financial officer resigned, and it faced a probe by the US Securities and Exchange Commission amid concerns about alleged accounting irregularities.

Another was a probiotic food products company named China Biotics that said last week it would not file its annual report on time because of "serious issues" raised by its auditors.

These financial irregularities is probably due to the creative accounting that happens in Chinese companies. They always have two sets of books, one to show the taxman and one for their own records and there is a lot of fudging that goes on because the companies are keen to find ways to pay less tax.

And possibly they have brought these strange accounting practices to North America without realizing this is not the culture, particularly in listed companies. Also, it's also possible that these Chinese firms don't understand that having an IPO doesn't just mean lots of money on paper, it makes being much more accountable than before and it can cost at least a million dollars to do that properly every year.

As a result, many Chinese companies are seeing reverse mergers aren't worth it anymore. So far this year there have only been 29 reverse mergers of Chinese firms in the US, compared with 47 in the first half of last year. The deals have also raised much less money. At the end of June last year, Chinese reverse mergers raised over $200 million; so far this year it's only $13 million.

It's giving Chinese companies a bad reputation, but it's a good lesson for them. They need to learn to be accountable. While most of us might think that's a no-brainer, we have to remember the Chinese live in an environment where things are faked or get-rich-quick schemes are a dime a dozen. Hopefully they will come to understand the importance of giving the public a solid product or service, thus raising the bar across the board.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Wading Through the Trickery

Qi Baishi's painting and calligraphy sold for a record price
The prices of Chinese art at auction are going through the roof. And there might be a reason why -- bubbles artificially created in the market.

A recent Xinhua report says there are irregularities and fake deals particularly among small auction houses in China that are pushing prices up. And in some cases, auctions are used to launder money, or bribe officials. For example, an official might be persuaded to put a piece of art under the hammer and then the briber buys it at an inflated price, Zhang Ning, deputy chief of the Chinese Cultural Relics Academic Society's committee for cultural relics appraisal was quoted as saying in the Xinhua story.

There are cases where an artist will hire someone to buy his work at an inflated price, hoping it will boost the prices of his work in the future. Artist Han Meilin was quoted in the article as saying that he had received so many complaints from people tricked into buying fakes of his work that he was sometimes forced to paint genuine works for the victims. Han had to get his lawyer to send letters to auction houses to stop them from putting fakes up for auction.

Then there are the transactions where an employee represents a company and reaches a deal with the seller before the auction and then collude with the auction house to boost the price during bidding. After it's over, the two parties split the difference between the prearranged price and then inflated bidding price.

"Such corruption and money laundering exists in any industry," said Bian Yiwen, general manager of Beijing Johan Auction said. "Markets can naturally eliminate players who follow irregular procedures amid tight competition. We shouldn't be too reliant on the government to step in, because sometimes they are powerless to face problems like this."

These are shocking revelations, but also not surprising with the record-setting prices we're seeing at auction particularly in Hong Kong these days which makes one wonder what is going on behind the scenes.

For example a painting with calligraphy by Qi Baishi called Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree with Four-character Couplet in Seal Script set a record for modern art and calligraphy when it was sold for 425.5 million RMB at auction last month.

There are four big auction houses in the mainland -- Poly International Auction, Guardian, Hanhai and Council -- and there are claims the smaller ones cheat customers. One trick is to tell sellers that what they found at a flea market is genuine and persuade them to put it up for auction. They then tell the seller to pay them several thousand RMB in handling fees and printing costs for brochures. But the item is never sold because the experts know it's fake.

However, some in the industry think this is just part of the teething problems China is going through with its fledgling auction industry.

"China's economic power is on the rise and the auction industry has improved its abilities compared to 1992, when it began," explained Ouyang Shiying, deputy director of the publicity department of the China Association of Auctioneers. "Although some isolated problems occurred as the auction market developed, it's not fair to blame the whole industry for problems in some individual auctions that are not run properly, or some cultural companies that are not qualified to run an auction business."

Another interesting point in the Xinhua report is that the top four auction houses on the mainland paid taxes much lower than they should have based on their announced turnovers. A lawyer speculated that perhaps the auction companies were evading tax or their announced revenues were inflated.

Nevertheless, an employee from Poly explained the problem was due to delayed or installment payments. "For instance, some sales in December are paid the next year, so the tax is not included in that year's statistics. Some buyers prefer paying by installments with the sellers' permission. In that case, some transactions are not completed until a certain period has passed."

Sounds like either it's creative accounting or installment payments are a convenient excuse. Companies like Poly have strong government connections so the likelihood of it being forced to pay up its tax bills will be rare, so they can continue getting away with what looks like inflated figures.

In the meantime until the process of weeding out of bad auction houses from the good happens, we're still going to continue seeing obnoxious prices for art -- that may not even be real.

You have been warned.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Furious Back-Peddling

The other day I blogged about a report released by the People's Bank of China that said some 18,000 corrupt officials left the country with some 800 billion RMB ($125 billion).

It's a pretty shocking statistic but even more surprising the central bank posted what was meant to be an internal document on its website for the entire world to see.

But in a small brief article in the paper on Saturday, the PBOC is now saying the report is "inaccurate" and shouldn't be regarded seriously.

It's a pathetic attempt to tone down something that has some grave implications and so far the report has spread like wildfire across Chinese cyberspace.

No doubt it's more fuel to incite people's anger at corrupt officials and how they ingratiate themselves instead of serving the people.

Whoever authorized posting the report on the PBOC website in the first place is in big trouble now...

Saturday, 18 June 2011

More Government Faux Pas

In the news today there were two stories that showed the Hong Kong government is completely out of touch with reality.

First, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen finally admitted the city's housing prices are "quite frightening" and becoming more expensive because of mainlanders coming in and snapping up flats.

"Over the last 30 months, across this period of financial crisis, property prices continued to grow at 2 percent a month, which is quite frightening," he said in Melbourne on a week-long visit there. "We will do more to slow it down," Tsang said, "but we believe in the market, though. We don't want to do anything that would destroy the market completely."

Last month he told legislators at the Legislative Council that for the continuous rise of prices for new flats, "this trend is alarming to us".

While the government may try to install cooling measures in terms of mortgages, this hardly affects mainland buyers who come here with cash and buy properties outright.

Another shocking statistic from Centaline Property Agency says buyers from overseas and China account for one-third of luxury home transactions in the first quarter this year.

So what can the government do to cool the market and yet not interfere too much? And it took Tsang's administration this long to admit this is a problem? Or was it because Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council Wang Guangya hinted a few days ago that the Hong Kong government had to deal with housing issues before they became a political hot potato?

Second, the government wants to scrap by-elections claiming there is low voter turn out and it's a waste of money. Last year five pan-democrats, from the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats quit en masse to force by-elections as a form of referendum on the pace and scope of democracy in Hong Kong.

The government suggests that instead of by-elections whenever someone resigns, dies or is disqualified from office, that the runner-up take up the seat instead.

While it sounds efficient in a Hong Kong way, it's completely unconstitutional, as the Bar Association pointed out. The government's proposal is completely incompatible with articles 26 and 68 in the Basic Law and goes against the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Hong Kong is bound.

"The mechanism does not serve to express the free will of the electors," the association said in its submission. "Rather, it forces the choice of the back-up candidate upon them by operation of law. The electors are deprived, in substance, of their right to vote for the candidate to fill the vacancy."

As a result this could not be considered an election as the voters would not know who the back-up candidate was at the time of voting and the votes cast would not reflect their will.

The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau even dared to refute the association's submission, saying the government had consulted legal advice and that its proposal conformed to Basic Law. "The replacement mechanism can reflect the voters' general will," bureau chief Stephen Lam Siu-lung told legislators.

What does "general will" mean?

If there is a tight race between a pan-democrat and a pro-Beijing candidate and the former wins the election but later forfeits the seat for some reason, how would a pro-Beijing politician reflect the "general will" of voters?

Does Lam believe it doesn't really matter who fills the seat as long as the person is replaced?

Meanwhile 63 academics also signed a petition urging the government to drop its proposal, saying it would undermine the political foundations of Hong Kong.

One of the fiercest criticisms came from Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at City University. "The essence of election is to let the public choose who will represent them. It's shocking the government is doing this now. It's rocking the foundation of Hong Kong."

Perhaps this crazy incident will finally make Hong Kongers take notice and realize quasi democracy is in their hands and they need to exercise their right to vote to show how much they believe in it.

Otherwise, as we can see, the government has no qualms in taking that right away.

Friday, 17 June 2011

An Offense Spin on Food Safety

The Chinese government doesn't want anymore misreporting of food scandals so now it's creating a blacklist of reporters it believes is misleading the public.

Earlier this week the Ministry of Health announced at a meeting in Beijing it will establish this list of reporters it claims is deliberately spreading false information to attract attention.

Mao Qun'an, spokesman of the MOH said the main task of the Chinese Health Education Center and the ministry's publicity department is to provide valuable information to the MOH about health education, organize activities to publicize health information and assist the media in better communicating with the public.

He said the ministry will remind reporters to play an active role in promoting food safety information.

This is a brilliant attempt by the MOH to spin the story in claiming unscrupulous journalists are creating the hysteria over tainted food, when really for the most part it's intrepid reporters who are uncovering these food scandals.

For example, pork was found to be masquerading as beef after it had been soaked in the cleaning agent borax; some cheap restaurants used recycled cooking oil that is hazardous to your health; ink, industrial dyes and paraffin found in noodles, and most recently watermelons sprayed with too much growth hormones that they exploded.

If the MOH was doing its job, then there would be articles of how the ministry stopped these tainted foods from entering the market. But instead it is all revealed after there are a number of reported cases of people being sick.

This clearly shows the MOH doesn't have the manpower to enforce rules and also inspect every single food producer.

One good thing that's come out of this is that some Chinese have opted to become vegetarians instead and choosing organic if possible.

This could all help significantly cut down on methane gas and increase grain supplies for humans.

Or it could entice obese Chinese to go on a diet, because healthy people mean a more productive workforce.

Now that would be news the MOH would love to spread.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Fact of the Day: 800 Billion Yuan Gone

In a report, the People's Bank of China believes some 18,000 corrupt mainland officials fled the country with as much as 800 billion RMB ($124 billion) in less than two decades.

The money was taken out between the mid-1990s to 2008, according to the bank's anti-money laundering monitoring and analysis centre.

The 67-page report believes officials and executives from state-owned enterprises embezzled the money, which many have speculated for a while.

What's interesting is that the report also details how these corrupt characters managed to funnel the money out of China -- with Hong Kong usually the first port of call.

"A relatively large number of defectors passed through Hong Kong and made use of the SAR's status as an international aviation hub, as well as the privilege for Hong Kong people to apply for visas in Commonwealth countries upon arrival, to flee to other countries," the report said.

Lower-ranking officials who took smaller amounts of money fled to nearby countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Mongolia and Russia, while higher-ranking ones with more money went to the United States, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands.

Those who had problems going to Western countries directly waited things out in smaller countries in Africa, Latin America or Eastern Europe before moving on.

Many officials simply carried suitcases of cash out of China, or hired people to move the money out like "ants moving houses".

The report also notes other more complex money laundering operations, such as transferring money through intermediaries at home and abroad, forging false contracts and hiding the ill-gotten money through the guise of legitimate deals. And then there's the transaction of buying up luxury goods in Hong Kong using credit cards and then paying for it on the mainland.

And then of course there are casinos in Macau, Russia and Southeast Asia where corrupt officials laundered their money too.

Another interesting thing to note is that originally this report was not for public viewing as it was stamped "internal data, store carefully" on the title page and marked as a "discussion document" that was compiled in June 2008.

It was only uploaded on the bank's website Monday after it won joint first prize in the China Society for Finance and Banking's ninth annual awards for outstanding financial research reports.

The report warned rampant corruption jeopardized communist rule. "It is a direct threat to the clean-politics structure of the [Communist] Party and harms the foundations of the party's power," it said.

So this just about confirms our suspicions of mainlanders going overseas and snapping up luxury homes, cars and clothes with cash or gambling up a storm in the casinos.

Eight hundred billion RMB is a lot of money. In fact it's disgusting to hear that much has disappeared into the wrong hands. That money could have been used to educate millions of children and young people so that they can have better lives, to subsidize health care costs to ensure a healthy society and pensions so the elderly don't have to poke around garbage cans for empty bottles.

Instead that money has been used to ingratiate greedy people.

Until there is freedom of the press and rule of law in China, the corruption will continue. And who's to blame for that?

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Selective Hearing and Vague Interpretations

Donald Tsang and Wang Guangya
It's not often Hong Kong gets visits from its mainland masters, but Wang Guangya came for his first trip this week since taking office as director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in October.

His three-day visit was short which makes one wonder if he really understands what is going on in Hong Kong.

Firstly he pushed the national education agenda saying this was important for young people to understand the motherland.

"Hong Kong's national education should develop its own content and its own way of expression in a way suitable for local people's learning," he said. "The mainland also has a set of national education teaching materials, but I don't think it will be fully applicable to Hong Kong. But I believe there are some basic elements. One is Chinese history... How did Chinese people experience the past 5,000 years? Secondly, there should be an understanding of China's contemporary history, especially about what happened in the past 150 to 200 years.

"If you don't have such knowledge, you will find it difficult to understand why China chose to follow the way of socialism since 1949... Don't take it negatively when you hear the phrase national education."

Sometimes Chinese leaders can be so vague in what they say that it can be hard to know what they really expect. So for example does he mean it's OK for teachers to talk about June 4 as he encourages Hong Kong to develop its own content? And when he talks about history, does he mean to say that despite China's past as an ancient civilization that students should believe that thousands of years of imperialism were wrong and socialism was right?

Secondly, Wang said Hong Kong needs to address its housing problem urgently.

"The housing demands of citizens constitute both an economic and a livelihood issue. If not handled properly, it will become a political problem. The government should be sensitive to and be concerned about the housing problems people are facing."

So any pointers on how to solve the housing issue, Wang? Basically the problem is that many of your citizens are buying up properties here, and not just one at a time, but more like 10 at a time. Any suggestions on how to curb your people from buying our flats?

And finally, Wang went out of his way to avoid protesters and political critics. As columnist Michael Chugani says, "Why do they [senior mainland officials] always give the impression they have ears only for those who shine their shoes?"

He goes on to say Wang could have easily silenced his critics by meeting with the likes of "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung and Wong Yuk-man. Chugani says rightly that by deliberately avoiding the opposition, Wang has inadvertently given credibility to protesters who say mainland officials only listen to the rich and powerful.

Which is evidenced by his lunch meeting with legislators who were not elected by the people, including the likes of Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, National People's Congress member Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai and property tycoons Lee Shau-kee and Cheng Yu-tong.

Chinese officials like to say they are listening to the people -- but perhaps they really mean only their favourite people.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Backtracking on China's High-Speed Rails

High-speed trains were meant to be a symbol of China's future -- that its development was going at warp speed and no one was going to stop it.

But now the Chinese government is putting on the brakes to not only the construction of these trains, but also the speeds.

The Railway Ministry has lowered the operating speed of the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train from 350 kilometres per hour to 300 km/h. The ministry insists the reason is not because of safety concerns, but rather to improve operating efficiency, reduce energy consumption and prolong the life span of passenger trains and tracks.

Deputy Railways Minister Hu Yadong said on Monday in Beijing that the construction, test runs, safety reviews, quality inspections and preliminary certifications of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail had been carried out to meet the standards to run at 350km/h. The reduced speed, he said, was not a result of a "failure to meet quality standards in construction or lack of safety".

There had been safety concerns when it was revealed several months ago that the use of low-quality fly ash in the concrete base of tracks that could wear down the rails within five years.

Red flags were raised particularly after the former minister Liu Zhijun was fired on corruption and mismanagement charges in February. Some critics said Liu built a high-speed empire that was too expensive for regular riders and could compromise safety due to the possibly shoddy construction.

Rail officials also said there will be no luxury compartments on the trains and that train tickets would be cheaper than earlier quoted to ease the barrage of complaints from laobaixing (ordinary people), let alone migrant workers who could not afford such expensive tickets during Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, their one holiday of the year.

In the last few months foreign companies that sold China the high-speed technology said the trains were not designed to be run at 350km/h, but officials say Chinese engineers improved on the technology and that the trains were safe at higher speeds.

It will be interesting to see what happens when this route is up and running. Originally meant to be stiff competition for the airlines which are still plagued by runway delays and weather, perhaps going by rail may not be the best option yet.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Sex and Money in the City

Bauhinia Heroine who does good deeds in her revealing outfit

There's a new hero in town -- or shall I say heroine.
In the last few weeks a masked woman dressed in black and wearing a bustier to reveal some cleavage is going to the poorer places in Hong Kong and handing out cash and instant noodles to the needy.
She's been named "Bauhinia Heroine" and she describes her giveaways as a protest against the widening gap in the city.
Handing out instant noodles to poor residents in Hong Kong
"The SAR government favours the rich, rendering the rich richer, and poor poorer," she wrote on her microblog on Tencent. "I think only the poor should benefit from the [government's upcoming] HK$6,000 handout, but not the tycoons. That's why I began wearing a mask and giving out my HK$6,000 as a sort of protest."
The media has been trying to guess who she is and all they know for now is that Bauhinia Heroine is in her 30s, runs her own business and began her anti-poverty campaign after being inspired by Kick-Ass, an American film about a teenager playing a real-life superhero.
Her charitable acts have received a lot of attention and even from documentary filmmakers.
The mystery woman has lots of cash to hand out
However, Bauhinia Heroine has also inspired filmmaker Stephen Shiu Jr who recently made 3D Sex and Zen: The Extreme Fantasy which was completely panned by critics, but is packing in curious audiences who want to watch sex scenes in 3D.
She denies her crusade is part of a marketing campaign for his movie. Perhaps she wants to rethink her outfit...

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Key Word: Exclusive

Is it true that the mainland Chinese market for luxury brands is already maturing?

World Luxury Association is a non-profit group based in the United States with offices in more than 10 countries that aims to improve luxury brand management. The group is saying that Louis Vuitton and Gucci are losing their allure with the mainland's wealthy set who are now interested in things that are more exclusive and chic.

"No matter how much you love your Louise Vuitton bag, you'll dump it when you find people from a lower social status than you are using it as well," said Ouyang Kun, chief executive of the association's China office.

He says LV and Gucci now have to retain the loyalty of China's big spenders and protect their market share. These two brands are the most popular luxury brands on the mainland. In a survey of 50,000 Chinese consumers, 78 percent said they made regular purchases at Louis Vuitton shops and 63 percent said they had bought Gucci goods more than once.

"But over the next one to three years, the market will experience a reshuffle," Ouyang said. "The two brands may need to switch their focus to tier two and three cities in China as their sales in tier one cities fall."

Conversely, French brands like Chanel and Hermes that are more expensive and yet less well known among the Chinese have loyal customers in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

"For those top level customers, luxury goods are part of their social image. So the higher the prices, the more sought after they will be among this group," he said.

In addition, Chinese consumers in big cities are becoming more knowledgeable in their brands and prefer to buy what they perceive as something exclusive rather than mass market.

According to the World Luxury Association, the Chinese spent US$10.7 billion in the first quarter of this year and this excludes private jets, boats and cars. Luxury spending in Europe by Chinese consumers surged over the same period to US$50 billion. Now is this group sure that they were not mistaking Japanese for Chinese customers and lumping Hong Kong Chinese and overseas Chinese in the same group? Nevertheless those are gob smacking huge numbers.

While Japan is still the number one luxury market, consumption there has fallen since the March earthquake and tsunami and so luxury companies are now putting more focus on China.

On a side note, the association is setting a joint commission with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade to publicize the luxury industry and help introduce Chinese luxury brands to the global market, starting with Chinese tea, liquor, furniture and jade jewellery.

One wonders how well that will go considering so much of what China makes now is f-a-k-e... 

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Picture of the Day: Mona Lisa on Toast

A toasted Mona Lisa with gelato in hand
There's a relatively new shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui east called K11 that also houses the Hyatt Regency which closed down from its original space on Nathan Road.

Anyway K11 markets itself as "The world's first art mall" that supports local artists and gives them space to show their work within a theme. For the month of June it's "There's No Place Like Home" and young artists were encouraged to reuse waste paper to create art. Some created colourful 3-D pieces of flowers or miniature rooms out of paper, others silk screened floral designs on paper.

There is also some dedicated exhibition space and currently on show is "East Africa: Joy on the Red Soil". Last year the mall invited three local artists to go there to explore the environment and meet the people there and then come back and present their version of what they experienced. One shot brightly-coloured photographs of the people; one created a soundscape that included speakers on the floor with dirt I'm assuming was from Africa; another did performance art that was shown earlier in the mall.

It's really interesting to see a place making money through consumerism but also trying to be a community platform to help artists interact with the public. The only drawback is that the mall is a long narrow oval shape so the space there isn't large enough to be a good public area, like The Village in Beijing's Sanlitun. Nevertheless, it's an effort worth recognizing.

And at the entrance of the mall is a curious piece of art -- Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa -- made from toast.

Today the temperature was 32 degrees and relative humidity up to 85 percent so she seems to know how to beat the heat by holding a gelato. Any guesses on the flavour?

Friday, 10 June 2011

Trying to Push HK Food Forward

Canto charsiu creamy pork bone soup with lots of macaroni

Cha chaan tengs or Hong Kong-style diners are an institution here -- they're everywhere open at practically all hours offering hungry souls almost anything they want to eat. It can range from wonton noodles to deep-fried toast with syrup, and of course drinks like laichai or milk tea or yinyeung, a combination of tea and coffee.

These eateries are for the most part unhealthy -- they usually greasy, use Japanese instant noodles which are deep-fried and luncheon meat which is really spam.

So for the most part I avoid these places as not much of the extensive menu appeals to me.

However a new cha chaan teng on the block is trying to create a culinary revolution.

The place is called Cantopop and it's near my place on Queen's Road Central. It's started by chef Margaret Xu who is known for creating healthy dishes and at Cantopop she is offering a variation of the same cha chaan teng dishes but using organic ingredients and eggs laid by hens that listen to music daily. That's what the literature says in the restaurant.

Chilled tofu and sesame, topped with tomatoes and egg
I tried the place twice, the first time to have an afternoon snack of milk tea ice cream (HK$12/$1.54) and real chocolate fudge cake (HK$38). I liked the former as it's a different twist on the beverage. It was just served as a big scoop in a plastic bowl as if I was a child, but perhaps the option of a cone should be added. The cake was not particularly spectacular, and in fact wasn't very moist, and came with a few sliced strawberries.

The second time I went to Cantopop was earlier this week for dinner. I read through the menu but found it hard to decide what to have because nothing was particularly appealing. In the end I had a chilled tofu with sesame (HK$38) and Canto charsiu creamy pork bone soup (HK$88). I asked the waiter what creamy pork bone soup was, and he just said it was Chinese pork soup so I decided to have it with some macaroni.

The tofu was too firm -- it should have been the silky soft one and it was strange to see it topped with chopped tomatoes and hard-boiled egg. Excuse me? Where on the menu does it say this garnish? I don't appreciate menus that don't explicitly explain what is in the dish, especially with a new restaurant like this that aims to explain its concept to diners.

Soon after came my large round but very shallow bowl that was 80 percent macaroni and 20 percent soup. It came with a few slices of charsiu which is actually sous vide charsiu (cooked for a long time at a very low temperature), but didn't have much flavour. This dish was also came with things not listed on the menu -- a piece of choi sum, soy beans and an egg. I should have guessed as all the plates and bowls are white with a yellow circle in the middle.

I could barely make a dent in the pork soup with all that macaroni and had to ask the waiter for more soup which he gave me in another (smaller) bowl.

In the end I finished the broth but not the macaroni and was full, but not satisfied. It's too bad because I like the premise of this restaurant being organic and MSG-free, but is it because I don't like cha chaan teng food to start with or this restaurant?

I've heard the lionhead, the Shanghainese meatball (HK$98) is very good, as well as the Canto scotch eggs (shelled hard-boiled egg wrapped in a sausage mixture, HK$88), but that evening I just wanted a quick bite to eat.

It'll be interesting to see how Cantopop fares with its combination of local and expat customers. I imagine the place is busy for lunch, but is it worth it when people know they can get real cha chaan teng food around the corner for half the price?

UG/F, The L Place
139 Queen's Road
2857 2608

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Wen Jiabao's Basketball Prowess

Last week Premier Wen Jiabao was photographed played basketball with some kids in a school.

He was fitted out in an assortment of athletic gear -- he may want to rethink the sleeveless shirt -- and was seen dribbling with his left hand. Hmmmm is he a closet leftie? He and US President Barack Obama have something in common...

What was also interesting is that most of the school kids seemed to be on the overweight side... Wen obviously visited a more prestigious school...

The class was led by teacher Zhang Tao and Wen learned how to dribble and control the ball.

There are many shots of Wen doing a lay-up and making the hoop -- note the hoops aren't that high...

Then Wen said he was "very happy" to join the students, and added that building a strong and healthy body would help them in their studies.

"Only when children are healthy, can the country have a good future. We must keep a healthy body in order to better serve the people," he said.

Perhaps he should suggest less junk food in schools for starters?

A Life for a Life

On Tuesday a 21-year-old university student who hit a young mother with his car and then stabbed her to death to avoid paying compensation was executed in Xian, Shaanxi Province.

His horrific crime and even more outrageous motives enraged people in China, making them again question how the next generation are supposed to lead the country with their lack of morals and the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

Yao Jiaxin was a well-off undergraduate at the Xian Conservatory of Music and was sentenced to death on April 22 for murdering waitress Zhang Miao, 26, in a hit-and-run accident in October.

In a TV interview in November, Yao tried to justify his actions by saying he stabbed Zhang because she was trying to write down his car's license plate number and he feared "it would be particularly hard to get along with rural people" if he was caught. He also said he feared that the woman would harass his family for compensation.

During the trial, Yao's lawyer argued the killing was due to intense emotion and fear, while the prosecutor said the defendant was simply trying to evade responsibility for his action by stabbing her in the chest, abdomen and back several times until she died.

Medical experts confirmed the victim suffered a fracture in her left leg and a concussion as a result of the car accident, but died because of massive bleeding caused by a severed artery near her heart.

In the verdict the court said, "Yao Jiaxin murdered the woman to prevent divulgence of the hit-and-run accident; it can't be attributed to 'intense emotion' ... Yao's motive was extremely despicable, the measures extremely cruel and the consequences extremely serious."

The incident happened only four days after Li Qiming hit and killed a student and sped away saying, "My father is Li Gang!" in a bid to avoid punishment.

Yao's father offered 200,000RMB ($30,862) in compensation to Zhang's family, but the court ordered him to pay just 45,000RMB; however the family refused all money.

These cases are a growing concern for China's society -- it's also more evidence of the negative effects rapid economic development has on the country.

There is a lack of understanding that when you own and drive a car, you are responsible for your actions on the road. Yao's petty defense shows how little he cares for anyone other than himself and his belief that some lives are worth more than others.

How could someone be brought up to think this way? It is shocking and inhumane.

It is no wonder he was executed, though it will never bring back Zhang, her hopes and dreams.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Almost Free but Homeless

Aids and human rights activist Hu Jia will be released from prison on June 26 after spending three years and six months in jail for subversion.

However when he comes out, he won't have a place to live.

His wife and three-year-old daughter are being evicted from their apartment after their landlady was pressured by the authorities.

"The landlady can't put up with the [government] pressure and wants us out -- she seems desperate," Zeng Jinyan, Hu's wife said on Twitter.

Zeng, 27, moved from Beijing to Shenzhen in April. Observers say the eviction may be part of the authorities' strategy to harass his family before Hu is freed.

Although they are already under constant surveillance, Zeng doesn't want to move yet otherwise she and her daughter will have no place to live.

There is also the strong possibility after Hu is freed that the family will be under virtual house arrest like many others before him.

"It is very worrying that they are already harassing Zeng and her young child -- what is going to happen when Hu is released?" said Wang Songlian, a researcher at rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Their daughter was only a month old when Hu was sent to prison. One wonders what their reunion will be like and how their lives will change when he returns home.

Zeng is said to be mentally prepared for house arrest, but is worried what the effect will have on their daughter.

It's a terrible burden for children of government critics to bear. Many of them are ostracized at school and later on their chances of finding jobs and establishing their own lives is very difficult because of their parents' activities. It practically takes superhuman strength to go through what they do on a daily basis as the Chinese authorities seem intent on destroying them mentally and psychologically, one by one.

Hopefully Hu and his cohorts who are fighting for a better China will eventually prevail. May their efforts not be in vain.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Hard Rock Cafe 2.0

VIPs with escorts post for photos in front of Hard Rock Cafe Hong Kong
Many years ago -- over a decade ago, there was a Hard Rock Cafe in Tsim Sha Tsui, Canton Road to be exact. But after a few short years it fizzled out along with Planet Hollywood and I thought that was the last of the celebrity-endorsed eateries.

Smashing guitars to officially open the venue
But Hard Rock Cafe Hong Kong is back and officially opened tonight on the other side of Victoria Harbour in Lan Kwai Fong.

It's much smaller than its predecessor and includes the all-important souvenir shop.

I was invited to the opening and got the requisite "VIP Backstage All Access" pass around my neck -- but we had to stand around outside the restaurant and bar to wait for the ceremony to begin.

After a late start it finally commenced with a strange voice over from Ringo Starr imploring people to buy a Peace & Love T-shirt he designed with the proceeds going to charity. Uh, OK, whatever you say Ringo.
The Hard Rock helmet looks familiar...

Then the real VIPs, the owner, the president and CEO, VP of franchise operations and some major food suppliers and then minor celebrities were introduced on the "stage". The owner tried to make a speech but the sound kept cutting in and out, while the president and CEO kept it mercifully short.

Finally they donned helmets that might have been bought in Shenzhen as they looked quite familiar in the markets in Beijing, and got ready to smash their guitars, as it's the custom at every Hard Rock opening.

Some were able to do it in one or two hits, while one of the food suppliers had to swing it a few times to finally demolish it. While the VIPs got protection, we had none and were subject to flying debris.

A VIP guest had trouble smashing his guitar
Nonetheless at last we were allowed to go inside and shelter from the heat -- but what was there to sample? Except for red and white wine, sangria and beer, and two large plates of nachos and cut vegetables, there was nothing to eat. Why not mini burgers or ribs? Or even a giant platter of fries? Then a live band played so loudly we had to shout at each other to be heard.

That combination was hardly appealing and I left shortly afterwards.

Hard Rock may know how to party but it doesn't really know how to give a good party...

Monday, 6 June 2011

Picture of the Day: Rising Hopes for Change

A balloon spotted a month ago calling for people to stand up

Here's a picture of giant balloon that says "Communist Party Step Down, People Arise" that was spotted above Longquanyi district, in the Chengdu Hakka tourist town of Luodai on May 14.
Hundreds of police came, took pictures of it and then it took them an hour to shoot it down.
Meanwhile leaflets were scattered at Sichuan Normal University which is near where the balloon was on June 3.
This is a rough translation of what it said:
Communist Party Step Down, People Stand Up
Twenty-two years ago on June 4 was the day they raped the people and gave the Communist Party a climax that has lasted 8,030 days. in this year of the 90th anniversary of that devil coming into the world, let us use a devil's magic mirror to show the masses what it really is.
Think of it as a birthday present.
The Chinese Communist Party -- a cruel, tyrannical government! It has used political campaigns to purge and slaughter untold numbers of people.
The Chinese Communist Party -- it deceives everyone! It forges and alters history, it keeps the truth secret.
The Chinese Communist Party -- a criminal who fears being exposed! A list of crimes piled high reaching the heavens, it bans free speech, shuts down websites and bans books.
The Chinese Communist Party -- an incompetent ruler! The so-called overturning of heaven and earth really means polluting the heavens and destroying the earth.
- Murders people in the name of revolution
- Divides the loot in the name of the revolution
- Shuts people up in the name of harmony
Only if the Communist Party steps down will the people be able to stand up.
Bring down the Communist Party, rebuild a new China.
Abandon your illusions, be silent no longer.
We are not afraid.
They are afraid.
They can put Zhao Ziyang under house arrest. They can imprison Liu Xiaobo and detain Ai Weiwei. But they need to eat and drink. They need clothing and housing. If they arrest us, who will provide for them?
Arise, you people who will not be slaves, lift up your voices and you will see hope.
Your fate is in your hands!