Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Fire Strikes Twice

At 4:40am this morning there was a fire on Fa Yuen Street in the Mongkok area that left at least nine dead and 30 injured including a one-year-old baby.

Witnesses said they smelled smoke, something burning before flames erupted. It was first labelled a No 3 fire and then upgraded to No 4 -- the second highest category.

It took firefighters several hours to control the fire using 12 water jets and then it was completely extinguished by 1:28pm.

Four charred bodies were found at the staircase of two tenement buildings nearby.

Police are investigating and not ruling out arson.

The eerie thing is, a similar fire happened in the same area almost a year ago in December. It was a category 3 fire and that time no one died, but six were injured. A 33-year-old man was arrested for arson and setting several fires in the vicinity.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang went to Kwong Wah Hospital to console the victims.

"This is not the first time," he said. "Last year there was also a fire in Fa Yuen Street. It was discussed in the District Council. We have taken measures to separate the [hawkers'] booths from the residential blocks.

"We have also restricted the amount of stock stored [in the stalls] and the expansion [of the stalls]. We have done all these things, but apparently this is not enough. We need to review these measures to prevent similar accidents happening again," he said.

However there are concerns that putting restrictions on these stalls is not enough.

According to a BBC report, the building where many of the victims lived had been subdivided into small spaces called "cubicle apartments".

That's because rising property prices have made it difficult for young people and families to rent a decent-sized flat and must resort to these tiny places that have improper wiring and no proper exits for people to escape in a timely manner.

In June this year four people died in a suspicious fire in a subdivided flat on Ma Tau Wai Road in Hung Hom. One of the victims included a young teenager who was trying to shield her younger sister from the flames. She was an intern in our office. We donated some HK$20,000 to her family, but it will never bring their daughter back.

The government needs to act now on these subdivided flats. Why are they not inspected and then shut down? People's lives are at stake here and two fires in one year is two too many.

But even more so the Tsang administration has not done enough to help the poor when it comes to housing. They have resorted to living in these squalid places and landlords have no qualms taking advantage of their financially-strapped situation.

More subsidized housing should have been built years ago but instead the government was easily seduced by mainlanders invading the real estate market and jacking up property prices, making flats out of reach of lower middle-class families and working poor.

When is the government going to look after its own people first?

We are the flesh and blood of this city. We are the ones who make it run everyday.

Do we not deserve secure and reasonable housing to live in?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Race for Top Dog

It's now officially a two-man race for the Hong Kong Chief Executive position.

Both Henry Tang Ying-yen and Leung Chun-ying have formally declared their intentions and it's shaping up into an interesting race.

Tang is already out in the hustings, shaking people's hands and even allowing dogs to lick his face.

Meanwhile Leung gave an impassioned speech to appeal to the masses. "My mother had her feet bound when she was a child. The image of my mother walking with bound feet, carrying a load that weighed over 30 pounds, to and from the rundown plastic flowers factory for over 20 minutes on each trip, left an indelible print in my mind," he said.

He added each step he has taken up to this point "is like the step that my bound-foot mother has taken. It symbolizes my determination in pursuing my goals."

Leung is mulling taking his campaign out on the streets even though in the end it's a small group of elites who will be casting the actual vote. He wants to be seen as a man of the people while Tang will try to play down his wealthy upbringing as the grandson of a Shanghainese textile industrialist.

"I had no choice regarding my origin, but I can choose how I want to serve," Tang said.

It's also interesting to see prominent people already taking sides in the race.

In Leung's corner there's Shui On Group chairman Vincent Lo Hong-sui, Housing Society chairman Yeung Ka-sing, Dr Lo Chung-mau, head of surgery at Queen Mary Hospital, Hong Kong polar researcher Rebecca Lee Lok-sze and former chief secretary David Akers-Jones.

Leung has also declared he is not a member of the Chinese Communist Party and has not applied nor has he been invited to join.

In Tang's court, there's HSBC Asia-Pacific chief executive Peter Wong Tung-shun, former Monetary Authority chief Joseph Yam Chi-kwong and Bank of East Asia chairman David Li Kwok-po.

When Leung was questioned why he didn't have heavyweights among his backers, he replied he had no intention of showing off any "stars". "I need talented people who can perform -- rather than just those who voice support and then disappear right afterwards -- to join my governing team," he said.

And then there are animal metaphors abound.

Some are describing the race as being "between a wolf and a pig", referring to Leung's cunning and Tang's perceived stupidity. Both men diplomatically said the analogies were incorrect.

Leung said people would appreciate his honesty, while Tang declared that he was born in the year of the Dragon.

And now long-time Hong Kong resident Allan Zeman has weighed in in Tang's favour, calling it a "big panda versus baby panda" race.

"I would say Henry is a panda, because a panda is loveable. You want to hug him," Zeman said, while describing Leung as a baby panda who was "learning on the job, just about to mature".

Why are people giving them animal attributes?

The race will just degenerate into a zoo.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Retail Competition Heats Up

Gap's first flagship store in Hong Kong has just opened in Central
Hard to believe, but Hong Kong has never had a Gap store until now.

Yesterday Gap's first flagship store here opened in a new building that has been under construction for years in the former Queens Theatre on Queen's Road Central.

My friend and I wandered over there after lunch and popped inside to check it out.

It was packed with curious shoppers like us and eager ones wanting to buy up some American basics.

The store is 15,000 square feet covering four floors, but since the space is quite tight, there is an elevator to go up and down and an escalator that goes down to the basement. It features men's women's children's and baby Gap clothes.

The shop's opening yesterday attracted a lot of attention
Overall the casual clothes looked pretty trendy and the prices were not too expensive, though it seemed a bit excessive for almost HK$500 ($64) for a pair of jeans.

Very thin (read practically transparent) T-shirts were around the HK$120 ($15.40) range and I'd rather go elsewhere for better quality T-shirts.

It'll be interesting to see how Gap does in the Hong Kong market, with Esprit across the street, H&M further down and Abercrombie & Fitch just around the corner. Gap will also be competing with Japanese retailer Uniqlo that offers good quality and value for basics such as jeans and casual tops that are designed with the petite body in mind.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Hardly a Class Act

There's a curious story that flared up late last week -- a 19-year-old kung fu starlet by the name of Rose Chan Ka-woon claimed two older actors, one married, had sexually assaulted her after a magazine published photos of them men touching and kissing her in a restaurant in Hengdian, Zhejiang province.

Benny Chan Ho-man and Joe Ma Tak-chung were there with Rose Chan for the filming of Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters directed by Wong Jing. She filed a complaint with Hong Kong police and publicly complained.

The reactions of the two men in question was interesting. Ma issued a statement saying he had not molested her and might take legal action against the magazine for its "untruthful reporting". But he said he was sorry for "the unhappy event that happened in Hengdian".

However, Benny Chan, 42, was remorseful and held a press conference with his heavily pregnant wife Jiang Lisha on Thursday.

He was tearful and said, "I feel remorseful because I have disappointed those who supported me, especially my wife, who is sitting beside me, and the baby who is coming into the world soon," he said in a speech in Kwun Tong restaurant.

Jiang added she had forgiven her husband and hoped the public would give him a chance as well as "Rose, the little girl".

Chan held his wife's hand and said he had "too much alcohol and did something rude to Rose".

"I admit it was really wrong. I had no intention to hurt Rose but I understand it really embarrassed and upset her."

He apologized to the starlet, her family and friends, saying his "unintentional mistake" had hurt their feelings.

The tears continued when Chan apologized to Jiang.

He added he would learn to become a responsible husband and would quit drinking. "I will see a doctor. If he thinks I need therapy, I will accept it because I really want to get rid of alcohol."

While Chan and Jiang's public pronouncements seemed earnest, he made the fatal mistake of leaving a piece of paper behind revealing that his statements were carefully scripted, even instructing him at three points when to "stand up and bow".

So was Chan really remorseful or he was acting?

It'll be interesting to see if more actresses come out and speak about instances where they have had to deal with unwanted sexual advances and if this is pervasive in the entertainment industry in Hong Kong. If Rose Chan's allegations are true, this 19 year old is courageous in standing up to say no.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Dazzling Collection

The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond given by Richard Burton
This morning we went to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai to check out the latest offerings that will be going under the hammer at Christie's.

The Windsor brooch
The auction house takes up a big section of one floor of the new wing and this year it's got star billing with a preview of Elizabeth Taylor's jewellery. She amassed some 1,000 pieces during her lifetime, and 80 of them will be for sale next month in New York. The mini catalogue handed out with pictures of the pieces do not give them justice. Seeing them in person only makes your jaw drop and wonder how one person could accumulate such an amazing collection.

Most of the pieces were given to her by Richard Burton, who famously quipped, "I introduced Liz to beer, she introduced me to Bulgari", while her tiara was from Mike Todd as well as a diamond and ruby set of a necklace, bracelet, ring and earrings. The jewellery Burton gave her were around milestones -- marking their two weddings, her 40th birthday, and her becoming a grandmother at 39.
Tiara given by Mike Todd

He even got her iconic pieces, like the 33.19 carat Krupp diamond that is now renamed The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond. The rectangular-cut diamond is potentially flawless and looking at it one is mesmerized by how the light dances in the stone. It's a very lively diamond which probably explains why she wore it everyday.

He also bought at auction La Peregrina, a large pearl that has Spanish royalty pedigree from 500 years ago. It was even depicted in royal portraits by Diego Velazquez. Taylor had the pearl set in a necklace with pearls and rubies by Cartier. 

The Windsor brooch is very beautiful -- three feathers in a crown that was formerly owned by the Duchess of Windsor who was also a friend of Taylor's. She admired it so much the Duchess gave her permission to copy it, but Taylor refrained and when the brooch was up for auction, she madly bid for it. The picture makes the brooch look smaller than it is, and the curve of the feathers is so delicate and almost real.

Many people came to see the exhibition today, Hong Kong Chinese, mainlanders and Japanese. While the pieces are gorgeous, they're really for larger women, as Taylor says herself, "Big girls need big diamonds".
La Peregrina set in a necklace

Intermingled with the pieces under glass and heavy security were blown up pictures of Taylor wearing jewellery or in various film stills, as well as a video showing her in various roles and interviews with experts about her jewellery and clothing that will be going under the hammer.

It'll be interesting to see what happens at the auction next month. We were lucky to see the pieces all together before they get dispersed -- around the world.

Taylor loved her jewellery but with this sale she had planned, it seems she also wanted to make them available to others who also have the same passion.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Uneven Cooking

Steamed whole crab claw with egg white was a winner
Some friends from out of town were keen to try a Michelin-starred restaurant so we took them to Tim's Kitchen.

A few days ahead of time we pre-ordered a few dishes and then hoped the place would live up to its two-star billing.

Fluffy but meaty crystal king prawn with Chinese ham
It wasn't too busy for a Wednesday night and we were seated upstairs by the window where there is a balcony area converted into a pond for goldfish and fake floating lotus flowers.

We started off with a bottle of red before the first dish of crystal king prawn, delicately cut so it looked like a giant white shiny ruffle on the plate accompanied by a thin slice of Chinese ham. It was meaty and crunchy.

Then the signature steamed whole crab claw with egg white arrived and our guests were impressed by the size of the dish. The egg white was steamed to perfection, silky smooth and delicious, while the crab was very fresh and had lots of meat to dig into. After finishing this our stomachs were already partly full.

Oven-baked pigeon with preserved vegetables was pedestrian
The next dish was oven-baked pigeon with preserved vegetables wrapped in lotus leaf. It looked impressive, but the taste was nothing special -- in fact the traditional roasted pigeon would have been better, juicier. Nevertheless, this one was interesting with strips of preserved vegetables for a more savoury taste.

Our guest spied a dish of deep-fried frogs' legs with peppercorn salt at the next table and ordered a dish to try. Unfortunately the frogs' legs didn't have much taste as the batter was too thick. One piece each was as much as we could handle and left the rest untouched.

Another disappointing dish was steamed rice in casserole with preserved pork sausage, liver sausage and duck. While the server portioned out the rice into four bowls, we were surprised to see there was hardly any evidence of the savoury oily meats having been cooked with the rice as it tasted quite plain. Instead they seemed to have been cooked separately and there weren't even any crunchy bits of rice as it should have been cooked within the clay pot.

Chinese sausages and duck with rice was a lowlight
We also had a dish of seasonal pea shoots that were delicious in a broth.

Throughout the meal our guests began to wonder what the fuss was about this restaurant and why it was given two Michelin stars. It then dawned on them that perhaps the food critics did not necessarily know much about Chinese food and this subjective exercises was even more swayed by their ignorance of the cuisine.

In the end the meal was saved by dessert -- almond tea with egg white that was creamy and delicious as well as steamed red jujube cake that wasn't too sweet.

However the best part of the evening was the good conversation and lots of laughs that made it even more memorable.

Tim's Kitchen
84-90 Bonham Strand
Sheung Wan
2543 5919

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Fuming Over Air Quality Continues

The Chinese government has now relented and decided to give public access to official data on smog-related fine particles called PM2.5 -- in 2016.

In the last few weeks there has been growing debate between environmental authorities and increasingly environmentally aware citizens about China's air quality and now residents will have to wait even longer to know what kind of air they are breathing.

This delay in revealing the truth only shows Beijing's credibility is eroding faster. Perhaps the government wants the next five years to buy some time to clean up the air...

Even Premier Wen Jiabao, Vice-Premier Li Keqiang and Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian have acknowledged the failure to include PM2.5 readings, sparking even greater distrust of the government's pollution readings.

"It's not that mainland cities lack the technical capacity to monitor PM2.5, or that the public is raising unreasonable demands for pollution data that the government has yet to grasp," said Wang Yongchen, founder of Beijing NGO Green Earth Volunteers. "It's all about transparency and the government's unwillingness to face up to the grim truth of air pollution."

Wang Gengchen, an expert on pollution from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly that the main reason for Beijing's reticence in releasing the air quality data was that it was too bleak and depressing to be made public.

He said air-quality issues such as monitoring standards and information dissemination "are not just about science, they are more about [mainland] politics".

And playing politics with urban air pollution is a powder keg waiting to explode since cancer replaced heart disease as the number one killer in the Chinese capital in 2007 according to the Beijing Institute for Cancer Research. One quarter of all deaths in Beijing are from cancer, while in Shanghai, the rate is even higher. Fudan University cancer expert Tang Zhaoyou says 80 percent of cancer cases are caused by air and water pollution and food contamination.

Mao Yu, a deputy director of Beijing's public health bureau, told Caijing Magazine that there was a startling increase in the number of lung cancer cases, amounting to 60 percent, which could be partly attributed to smog and other air pollution.

"Cancer is an environment-induced disease," said Dr Han Baohui, from Shanghai Chest Hospital. He explained there was an increase of lung cancer cases in non smokers, which further proves the link between cancer and environmental pollution.

In 2005 deputy environmental protection minister Pan Yue said that up to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases in Beijing were linked to pollution. In the latest figures that were released five years ago, about 358,000 urban dwellers in 600 cities died prematurely in 2004 from breathing polluted air, with an estimated health cost of 152.7 billion RMB. The severity of the smog pollution mostly from burning fossil fuels and other types of fuel, are linked to economic development levels, according to minister Zhou.

He said most developed areas in the mainland, such as the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta and the region covering Beijing and Tianjin have the highest concentration of fine particles. For a good half year, smog covers Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Nanjing, Tianjin and Suzhou.

A businessman named Shi Yuzhu who runs an online game operation called Giant Interactive claims that breathing polluted air in Beijing is apparently the equivalent to smoking 21 high-tar cigarettes a day.

He was citing pollution-monitoring data from Broad Group, a Hunan-based manufacturer of air purifiers that supplies the machines to top Chinese leaders. "If I live in Lijiang [in Yunnan Province] and smoke 20 cigarettes a day, the health impact is comparable to a non-smoker living in Beijing," he said on his microblog late last year.

One wonders if this comparison is correct and if it is, sounds like everyone needs to be tested for cancer.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Picture of the Day: Clothespin Dress

A floor-length sleeveless dress at Harvey Nichols
Harvey Nichols in Pacific Place is reigning the roost with its creative store windows.

Previously places like New York and London gave artistic license to store window designers to produce a talking point for customers and the curious to lure them into the department stores.

And now Harvey Nichols has brought this tradition to Hong Kong to show the city what real shop windows should look like.

The other day we passed by and our eyes were arrested by the sight of a fantastic sleeveless floor-length red dress -- made of clothespins.

And it's completely made of clothespins
Complete with a bodice and ruffled dress we were mesmerized by the hard work put into not only beautifully executing it, but coming up with the idea in the first place.

The only minor fault is that it looks like an Amazonian woman 10 feet tall should wear it.

Nevertheless we love the effort put into these window displays and look forward to seeing more creative arrangements at Harvey Nichols.

Even though we can't afford anything in there, at least we can admire it from the outside.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Fact of the Day: Surging Shop Rents

My friend's dessert place in Central is soon to be another casualty of landlords greedy for more rent.

Riquiqui will be winding down next month after two years. The rent was HK$25,000 ($3,209) a month and if she renewed the lease, the rent would be increased another 30 percent which would have make it unfeasible as a strictly evening business. She and her cousin already felt their current rent was out of their budget but decided to bite the bullet and start their fledgling venture.

In the end she didn't make much money, but learned a lot about starting and running a small business.

Tenants moaning about greedy landlords is not uncommon in Hong Kong.

And now anecdotal evidence has become fact. According to a report by CB Richard Ellis on global rents in the third quarter, Hong Kong moved up a spot to become the world's second most expensive shop rents.

The city's rents average $1,685 per square foot per year, right behind New York's Fifth Avenue. Annual rents have risen 52.8 percent in the city this year, and 6.2 percent in the third quarter, while those in the Big Apple only rose 5.6 percent to $1,900 per square foot per year. Sydney is third with $1,224, followed by London and Zurich. Guangzhou is 10th, Beijing 14th and Shanghai 20th.

"Tourist spending continues to be the growth engine of Hong Kong retail sales," says Joe Lin, a director of retail services at CB Richard Ellis.

So thanks to all the mainlanders flooding in Hong Kong to fulfill their shopping urges, we won't see commercial rents going down anytime soon which means we'll be having more shops selling luxury items are they're the only ones who can afford these surging rents that make landlords rub their hands with glee.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Northern Delights in Macau

Beijing Kitchen at the Grand Hyatt Macau
After watching The House of Dancing Water we headed to Beijing Kitchen just steps away at the Grand Hyatt Macau in the City of Dreams complex.

Shanxi knife-cut noodles with pork and mushroom
For a weekend -- and Macau Grand Prix weekend -- it wasn't packed, but all the better for us to have good service.

The restaurant is very contemporary looking with a few subtle Chinese accents, such as a display of porcelain against the wall, Chinese wines sealed with paper lids on shelves and even a long dragon kite suspended from the high ceiling. There's also a few open kitchen stalls for different items, such as dumplings, steamed buns and noodles.

Perusing through the menu it's not strictly northern Chinese; one can order steamed garoupa or wood-fired honey-glazed pork, braised abalone, shark's fin soup and double-boiled bird's nest.

Panfried pork dumplings with cabbage and yellow chives
However our group of nine decided to stick to mostly northern Chinese dishes including a pre-ordered Peking duck. One of the first dishes to arrive was the Shanxi hand-shredded noodles with pork, but it's really called knife-cut noodles. They arrived in a large bowl and were what you'd call almost al dente, with braised marinated pork cubes and thick mushrooms that were delicious.

Another dish was the pan fried minced pork dumplings with Beijing white cabbage and yellow chives. They came beautifully presented purposely stuck together with crispy bits left over from the flour and water mixture. As a result these dumplings had a play on textures, crunchy and soft, and even more savoury with dark vinegar.

Fried rice with prawns, French beans and preserved vegetables
A quick favourite was crispy pork ribs with fried garlic. The garlic taste is very pungent and the pork ribs were definitely crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. This dish was quickly followed by a plate of fried rice, prawn, French beans and preserved vegetables. We had left over bits of fried garlic on our plates and it further enhanced the flavour of the fried rice which was fantastic. The fried rice itself was well executed, the rice not dry and yet each grain separated from each other as well. A sign of a good chef.

We also had a dish of braised eggplant, garlic and sweet soya paste that was very flavourful and baby cabbage in duck boullion topped with thinly-sliced Chinese ham. Braised ox tail with chilli was excellent as well as the spring onion cake. Another winner was the Tianjin steamed pork buns with spring onions. The bun was very spongy and smooth, with juicy minced pork inside.

Baby cabbage cooked in duck boullion
However we had to wait a while for our main event -- Peking duck -- to arrive because we sat down much earlier than our table reservation time. Nevertheless it was worth the wait. A chef arrived by our table to quickly slice up the duck -- first the skin skimmed off the length of the chest and then some parts just skin, some mostly meat, and others in between.

What was even more impressive were the pancakes that were steamed and practically paper thin. We thought they'd break because they were so delicate, but they were actually quite elastic and wrapped easily without falling apart. We added condiments like mashed garlic, cucumber, spring onion and plum sauce, and sugar is also very northern Chinese. Yum.

Slicing up the Peking duck tableside
Diners have an option of having either duck soup or stir-fried duck bones; but because we had more than six people we couldn't order the soup. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the stir-fried bones were very tasty and crispy, and one of us licked most of the bones clean.

Finally for dessert, the menu has a selection of Western and Chinese sweets, but this is a weak point for the restaurant. While the sorbets, peach Champagne and raspberry were refreshing, the honey jasmine ice cream was reportedly not good to eat. Another was the double boiled papaya with almonds that came chilled, but would have been better hot.

Nevertheless we still thought it was a delicious and memorable meal at around HK$1,800 for nine people including 10 percent service charge.

Beijing Kitchen
G/F, Grand Hyatt Macau
City of Dreams
Estrada do Istmo, Cotai
853 8868 1930

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Suspended Belief

Faye Leung as the Princess dancing in water
Last night we went to Macau to watch the much talked about The House of Dancing Water at City of Dreams.

It's been running for over a year now and for the first anniversary show pianist Li Yundi made a one-off special appearance with his piano.

In any event the production cost over $250 million, five years in the planning and two years of rehearsals. The mastermind behind it is Franco Dragone, who also produced Le Reve at Wynn Macau which we saw earlier this year.

And in some of the acts there are similarities, but this show has some Asian elements.

The intimate theatre is in The City of Dreams complex
Apparently in the lead up to the opening of THODW, Dragone practically locked himself in the theatre with the crew for weeks keeping any aspect of the spectacle top secret.

For the most part it's paid off since the only competitor is Cirque du Soleil's Zaia, which reportedly initially bored Chinese audiences who are already familiar with Chinese acrobatic routines and wanted something different.

The basic storyline of THODW according to the official website is:

In a land beyond the limits of the Far East, there is an extraordinary Kingdom where the King and nature reigns.

The King has two lovely children. The eldest, a beautiful daughter by his deceased wife, the Fairy Queen. After her death, the King married the Serpent Queen and together they had a son. At the King's death, the Serpent Queen unveils her frustrations and imprisons the Princess in a cage, as her true desire is to see her son be the one and only Heir to the Kingdom. The cruel stepmother then leads the Kingdom to desolation and despair.

Miraculously, a windstorm then brings to shore a young and brave Stranger from his shipwreck. He finds out about the Princess and eventually they fall in love. Promising to save her Kingdom, he decides to brave any dangers in hope of freeing her from the clutches of the Serpent Queen.

Performers suspended above the pool
But that's not really the show we saw.

The basic story we saw was an Asian man on a bamboo raft who gets thrown into the water and then he meets up with a man who looks like a good pirate. They encounter a beautiful girl locked in a cage and from then onwards are determined to save her while encountering an African tribe as well as the Serpent Queen who looks more like a dominatrix with a clown sidekick.

Several battles between them ensue until a motorcycle gang show up that the good pirate is affiliated with and then before we know it, the conflict is amazingly over and everything is back to goodness and nature again.

Each of the acts were impressive, particularly the one near the beginning showing pirates diving off various points off the ship's mast, or when the evil band get on large swings and propel themselves through the air.

Faye Leung is the Princess, formerly the senior principal dancer of the Hong Kong Ballet and she is graceful and delicate. It must have been quite an adjustment for her to dance on wet surfaces and be submerged under water many times.

What came completely out of the blue were the motorcycles. The stunts themselves were excellent, jumping off ramps and in some cases choreographed closely together. But how were they related to the storyline at all?

And then there's a very skinny black guy who is also a contortionist! Where did he come from?

The end of the show reveals a mixed bag of performers
Which is why THODW requires the audience to totally suspend its need for a logical storyline for 90 minutes and just enjoy the show for its stunts and technical brilliance of having a stage pool that holds the equivalent of five Olympic swimming pools or 3.7 million gallons of water and the over 30 scuba divers underneath helping out with positioning performers and underwater safety for the show.

A very impressive and energetic show. It's Macau's answer to Las Vegas' entertainment -- complete with motorcycles. Go figure.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Mainland Gripes

The other day at lunchtime some colleagues were moaning about mainlanders invading Hong Kong.

They mostly complained about them pushing their way to get onto the MTR or subway, and not understanding the concept of queuing.

Two recalled instances where mainlanders didn't know they had to queue to get a taxi. One reported that at the Taipo KCR exit there's a taxi line and instead of waiting in line, two young women kept trying to flag down a green taxi before it went to the taxi line, but of course were unsuccessful. And yet they still couldn't understand why a taxi wouldn't stop for them.

Another talked about how a woman went to the front of the queue and got into a taxi but not before someone stopped her and told her to get back in line. Only then did she sheepishly apologize saying she didn't know about the queue.

A while ago a friend to me she was in a high-end designer brand store and wanted to look at a small bag, like a coin purse or cosmetics bag, but the saleswoman was too busy to look after her, as she was serving a young woman from China. However, when my friend finally got a chance to have a closer look at the item, the Chinese customer saw it and immediately asked, "Can I have 10 of those?"

Perhaps what takes the cake is one coworker recalling taking the KCR train recently and the seat next to him was empty. When it stopped at one of the stations, as soon asthe doors opened, an elderly woman of about 70 years of age threw her bag and it landed on the seat next to him and soon after a young child scrambled to that "saved" seat.

I told him the next time that happens to him to throw the bag back at them and see what their reaction is!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Pictures of the Day: Traditional Shanghainese

For dessert, sticky black rice stuffed in a pumpkin
Earlier this week we were invited to dinner at the Shanghai Fraternity Association on Wyndham Street in Central.

The food here is traditional Shanghainese and it's a pity this place is member's only as the dishes are fantastic.

We had typical dishes such as stir-fried river shrimp, very small ones that were fresh and well complemented with vinegar. Another was a dish of sweet peas that were a vibrant green and each bite was sweet and delicious.

The delicious taro duck soup presented in a large soup tureen
Next came a giant soup tureen that was placed on the table and inside it was a whole duck with chunks of taro and Chinese ham. The oiliness from the duck had been carefully scooped out leaving behind a thin flavourful broth, and the taro melting in the mouth.

We also had some pea shoots in season now with fresh crunchy bamboo shoots, and a labour-intensive dish featuring a fish with its meat filleted, thinly sliced and stir-fried.

For dessert we had a squash that was hollowed out and stuffed with black sticky rice and topped with nuts and seeds. After it was sliced up for each guest, we drizzled some syrup with osmanthus flowers in it. The taste wasn't too sweet or filling -- it was so good most of us polished it off easily.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Pushing for the Truth

I'm so glad I'm not living in Beijing anymore, not that Hong Kong has pristine air quality conditions, but marginally better...

At any rate the debate raging in the Chinese capital is about how there aren't comprehensive readings of the air there, as there is a huge discrepancy between what the Environment Ministry says and what the US Embassy tweets in its Twitter account.

Yesterday the US Embassy described the air quality as "dangerous" while the local environmental watchdog said it was "slightly polluted".

Who are you going to believe?

The crux of the matter is the reading of PM2.5 or airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. It's these microscopic particles that can cause serious respiratory problems and even lung cancer.

Most cities around the world give PM2.5 readings, but not China, which still sticks to its outdated pollution standards. That's why it still steadfastly maintains Beijing is only "slightly polluted", when in the last few days people have reported swampy air that smells like gas and that children are complaining of respiratory problems.

The ministry yesterday announced it would revise draft rules for public consultation and add PM2.5 readings -- but not until 2016. It added some regions might adopt the readings earlier, and urge local governments to voluntarily implement the new rules, but this is not mandatory.

The air pollution readings are a very touchy subject for China because if and when the public finds out exactly how polluted their living environments are compared to other countries, they are not going to be a happy bunch.

Peking University expert Zhang Yuanhang said including PM2.5 readings would mean a drop of up to 80 percent of the number of "blue sky" days recorded for many mainland cities, which could fuel public dissatisfaction.

Many cities could record PM2.5 now and probably have been doing so for years, but the public has never had access to that information.

Once the information is out we could see a correlation between PM2.5 readings and cancer rates. Sounds like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

The Chinese have been told to obey the Communist Party and they do so and only to expect to be looked after in return.

But when the air they breathe is terribly polluted, what recourse do the people have?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Falling on Deaf Ears

The recently vacated Central Government offices
The Hong Kong government has no concept of what it means to preserve buildings, or to convert them into other uses.

Instead it would rather pay developers to do that -- and then make a few million dollars on top of that -- at taxpayer expense.

This is what happened in 2003 when the government sold the Hong Kong Marine Police headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui to Li Ka-shing's Flying Snow Limited, a subsidiary of Cheung Kong Holdings. What happened? The building that was constructed in 1884 was turned into a fancy boutique hotel two years ago that the public cannot enjoy unless they stay in one of the rooms or eats in the restaurants, most of which I've heard are not good.

The icing on the cake is probably the bizarre shopping mall in front of the building now called 1881 Heritage, all featuring high-end brand names that no one can afford.

And now history is about to repeat itself with Government Hill in Central.

It's a prime location and at first the government was going to sell it -- without consulting with Hong Kong residents who technically own the complex -- and turn it into a giant shopping mall.

How many more shopping malls do we need?

After extensive protests and complaints, the government is now thinking of shelving the giant mall, but critics say this isn't enough.

That's because Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor says the government will go ahead and demolish the west wing of the Central government offices in ice House Street in Central and put the site up for sale despite public opposition.

And it will still go ahead with a 32-storey grade A office tower with the Securities and Futures Commission and Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing as tenants... even though they haven't decided if they are going to move there. So how can the government count on them to be tenants?

Government Hill Concert Group spokeswoman Katty Law Ngar-ning said Lam had "utterly disregarded" public opinion.

Property consultants felt that the loss of a giant mall would lead to the site being less valuable, one or two billion less, while another consultant estimated the government could rake in HK$8.6 billion.

"This land tender will be very unusual and very exceptional because of its particular circumstances and the need to respond fully to the public comments that we have received," Lam said.

In a public consultation last year, 12 organizations made submissions to either support or show no objection to the development, while 11 opposed it. Law said Lam dismissed the opponents as a minority.

"But our application to the Town Planning Board has received 6,000 submissions and has not yet been discussed," Law said. She said Lam's announcement yesterday was an attempt to create a fait accompli and influence the planning board that there were no more objections to the redevelopment.

Some of those who oppose it hope to keep the government buildings as heritage ones as they are structurally sound and good examples of 1950s architecture.

It's great to see more people keen on preserving what important buildings they have left, but the government refuses to listen. It's not like the administration needs the money -- it has so much in reserves so why this need to sell it? Why not create it into an interesting public space or a co-op kind of structure like a shared community space?

Instead the government would rather hear the sound of money coming in than have its citizens enjoy more preserved green spaces and heritage buildings.

Tell me again -- who is supposed to be serving the people?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Conflicting Choices

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei handed over $1.3 million in taxes today -- he had to pay up in order to appeal his tax bill.

The tax office changed the rules and said that in order to Ai to appeal, he had to hand over the money, or face police prosecution. And he had to pay up by today.

Ai was conflicted because the authorities changed the rules because making him pay gave the perception he admitted guilt of tax evasion.

"How they are saying we have to deposit it into the tax bureau's account [so] even during the appeal, they can just take it, which is not fair," the 54-year-old said earlier. "That way they can tell the public: 'This guy has paid and the case is over... that's all they want, they're so childish."

In the end Ai relented.

"This is the only way we could lodge an appeal. If we missed the deadline they said they could turn the case over to the police," he said later.

He used the money supporters donated 9 million RMB ($1.4 million) and Ai has promised to pay them all back.

After he handed the money, Ai told the BBC: "I feel upset and helpless. The whole process is absolutely outrageous."

Now that he has handed the money over to the authorities, Ai isn't even sure if the appeal will be allowed to proceed since he has paid part of the tax bill.

"It's not lawful, but in China you can't really argue with them," he said.

None of the related authorities, the tax bureau or any government department connected to the case would comment on Ai's situation.

Ai knows he's playing with fire, but the public's respect of him [those who are aware of him] has grown stronger because he's having such a public fight against the authorities.

For them he represents the oppressed and they are standing behind him to give him as much support as they can.

Who knows how this will end -- the ball is now in the government's court.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Finally, A Decision

Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai won't joint the race for Chief Executive
The two-man race that isn't official yet will just have two male candidates for now.

Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai finally announced yesterday she will not be going for Hong Kong's top job, citing her age as a reason.

"I have little confidence that I could handle the heavy burden of being chief executive till 2017," she said. "I am already 66."

If Deng Xiaoping could lead over 1 billion people in his 80s, why not Fan?

A member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, she repeatedly denied the central government pressured her not to run.

"This is purely a personal decision. Beijing has never dissuaded me," she said.

While at first Fan supported Henry Tang Ying-yen, her support for him cooled after his admission of extramarital indiscretion (of which we don't know for the record exactly how many). "I have promised to support Tang to strive for chief executive candidacy back in late 2009 and done that openly," she said.

"From now on, I would have to look at their [Tang's and Leung Chun-ying's] manifestos, forum performance, governing visions and teams before deciding who to vote for."

Many people criticized Fan for her coyness about her intention to run, which hurt her popularity.

"Some residents expressed disappointment after I showed support for Tang, so I said I might also join the race," she said. "This contradictory stance has led to a plunge in my popularity ratings and I paid the price for it."

Back in July Fan was ahead of Tang and Leung in opinion polls, but last month she lagged behind Leung by 10 percentage points.

The lesson here -- sitting on the fence does not pay dividends in support. Hong Kong people are tired of dithering and want to get on with business.

As we all know, time is money.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Not Very Promising

Hong Kong's students aren't thinking critically and aren't able to clearly express themselves, an opinion recently held by public exam officials.

In the latest report on the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, which was held for the last time this year, and Hong Kong A-levels, the words "narrow-mindedness", "immaturity" and "bad grammar" were frequently used.

One examiner said of the general student performance in the AS (Advanced Subsidiary) level use of English exam that fewer than 5 percent of candidates could write highly accurately. The examiner says the problem affected the "vast majority of candidates" and is one that should be "urgently" addressed.

Chow Ping-yan, chairman of the policy watchdog Education Convergence, agreed the students' inability to demonstrate basic academic skills was a major systemic problem. "It may be the ability of students, but it may also be that there is a problem with the schools," he said.

Chow also pointed out that most of the 20,000 candidates who took this year's HKCEE exam were repeaters trying to better their mark and who studied on their own.

To have examiners declare the vast majority of students cannot write proper English is shocking, but also not surprising. No wonder parents are anxiously putting their children in tutorial schools at whatever cost. They have no trust in the school system, or the government for looking out for the students' best interests. They are Hong Kong's future. The more low-quality the students are, the less chance they have of getting into university or finding a job.

It's the ones who studied overseas who will have a better chance and these few years many are coming back and easily getting jobs, particularly those requiring strong English for speaking and writing. Where does that leave those born and raised in Hong Kong? It also means expatriates continue to have jobs in Hong Kong, making it harder to keep jobs domestically.

What's even more appalling is to find that even mathematics was not a strong subject, as those who took the HKCEE exam were found to lack understanding of fundamental concepts such as percentages.

What happened to Hong Kong kids' math skills?

But more importantly it's the ability to think critically that Hong Kong students really need but severely lack. Because of immaturity or sheltered lives, they take things at face value. This combined with the school system that teaches by rote method instead of encouraging children to think outside the box exacerbates the problem. How is the future of Hong Kong going to develop when its young people don't know how to think critically? Is the city going to turn into a mini China and not be able to innovate at all?

One last thing. Form Seven students who took public affairs and liberal studies exams this year failed to understand mainland political theory. For example they did not demonstrate enough knowledge of the "Three Represents" by former President Jiang Zemin.

I'll admit I don't even know what the "Three Represents" is, but apparently it's that the Communist Party should lead China by representing the broad majority of the population, as well as represent advanced culture and productivity.

These kinds of political philosophies are too abstract for students to understand. Even most mainlanders don't really know what the "Three Represents" means.

On this account I'll cut Hong Kong students some slack. But in the meantime they really need to work on fundamental skills or they won't be able to get ahead in this competitive society.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Picture of the Day: Harvey Nichols

Harvey Nichols making a splash with eye shadow
Harvey Nichols has expanded its presence in Hong Kong, with its new location in Pacific Place in Admiralty.

Seibu was the former department store and it carried some great brands ranging from Vivienne Westwood to Paul Smith; but its owner Dickson Poon thought it was time to go even higher class with Harvey Nichols, which he purchased in 1991.

So a few weeks ago the upmarket department store was opened to great fanfare and to celebrate its new location, there were fabulous displays around the mall.

One of them was this one, a giant metal box suspended from the ceiling, opened upside down and all its contents spilling out featuring a giant mountain of eye shadow and lipsticks nearby looking like tiny flower buds poking out of the grass.

If that isn't pretty creative, I don't know what is.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Fact of the Day: Bare Sticks Day

Hey everyone! Happy Singles Day! And this year is even more special as it's 11/11/11.

Only China would think of marking a day like this, calling it guanggun or "bare sticks", a synonym for bachelorhood.

And like Valentine's Day, companies are trying to market to singletons with special campaigns.

For example Shanghai's subway operator is using its No. 1111 train that runs on Line 11, while some passengers are booked on the No. 111 train heading from Hankou to Qingdao. Another train, D3111 from Hangzhou to Fuzhou departed on 11.11am today.

Others marked the end of their bachelor days by tying the knot today. Some 3,000 couples got married today in Beijing.

Apparently there are 180 million single men and women in China as of last year according to a report from the All-China Women's Federation, the China Association of Social Workers and the matchmaking website.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

iPhone Frenzy

This morning on my way to work I saw a long time of people standing along the footbridge in between the ferry terminal and IFC Mall in Central.

Then it dawned on me these people were lining up for the the release of the iPhone 4S which comes out tomorrow.

Last night the police cleared hundreds of fans queuing outside the mall. News reports say about 500 people formed a line on the footbridge and police said they were blocking a public area.

A woman in the queue even fainted and had to be taken to hospital.

There are reports in the Chinese press that the Apple store will limit each buyer to five phones and resellers could already make HK$2,000 per phone.

Perhaps tomorrow will see an even bigger line...

If a number of people call in sick tomorrow, you'll know why.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Yao Hits the Books

Yao towers over his professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University
After officially retiring over three months ago due to injuries, basketball star Yao Ming is now back in school.

He was mobbed by photographers and students at Shanghai Jiao Tong University for the start of classes.

"On the first day of class, the teachers were quite easy on me, and didn't set any assignments or homework," he said at the end of the first day. He added he would be facing a steep learning curve as it had been a decade since the last time he was in a classroom.

"The moment I sat down today I just wanted class to begin," he said.

Yao will be studying an economics-related major and taking classes in history, English, math and journalism.

The 2.3-metre-tall athlete had to squeeze in behind desks and had to bend over to write on the white board, prompting other students to joke that he would have no problem cheating in exams.

It's interesting to see Yao go back to school -- other former athletes may have wanted to take the easier route of trying to cash in on their fame as much as possible. But he probably realizes having seen his predecessors lose their star lustre and because of their lack of education have no skills or knowledge to get a job, that he needs to hit the books.

Good for him -- though hopefully the excitement of him being on campus will die down so that everyone can concentrate on their studies.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Ai's Donation Update

As hoped, momentum is building as a flood of donations is coming in to help Ai Weiwei pay his enormous tax bill of over 15 million RMB ($2.3 million).

The latest update now is 4.7 million RMB has been donated and Ai believes this is the public's way of voicing its dissatisfaction with the government.

"They're saying... this is our ticket to vote, this is the only chance we have to express our feelings... [they're doing this] to express their own opinions," he said yesterday.

He said he was "very touched" by the nearly 17,600 people who have donated the money either through remittances through the post office, PayPal or even folding the bank notes into paper airplanes that they throw into Ai's compound in Beijing.

"I'm more than touched -- I feel the world is beautiful and our young people are full of imagination, and there is solidarity in people's hearts," he said.

Ai stressed he was treating the donations as loans and would pay "every penny" back. "I'll try not to touch this money... and I'll return it as quickly as possible," he said. "But I'm happy to see I'm not fighting alone."

He said he would try to use his own money to pay the first installment of 8 million to 9 million RMB by November 16.

The Global Times, a state-run newspaper warned in a commentary yesterday using unnamed experts (ie. not credible) that Ai could be engaging in "illegal fundraising" by accepting the donations to pay his tax bill.

However, Liu Xiaoyuan, a rights lawyer said accepting donations with the intention of paying back without interest cannot be defined as illegal fundraising.

Sounds like a really pathetic attempt by the government to continue to thwart Ai and his supporters. If anything, it just emboldens them to help Ai even more.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Voting for More Say

I am ashamed to say I didn't get my act together to register for the district council elections that happened in Hong Kong yesterday.

Many months ago I saw an ad on a bus telling people to register to vote and then never saw it again to remind me. By the time I remembered, it was too late to register.

Nevertheless I am very pleased to find that a record 1.2 million people came out to vote, 41.4 percent of the 2.9 million eligible to cast a ballot.

The turnout compares with 38.8 percent in the last election in 2007 and 44.06 percent in 2003 when there were nearly 500,000 less voters.

The day before the election a relative of mine claimed the government purposely didn't have many publicity campaigns about the elections saying it hoped fewer people would turn out. "They have tactics like changing the address of the polling stations or not even sending voter registration cards on time," he said.

He said the government was purposely playing down the election in the hopes that with less people voting there would be fewer stakeholders to deal with.

And he was right about the sly tactics. In the end it was reported almost half a million people encountered polling stations that had moved without much prior notice, including one that moved to another school on a hill making it harder for elderly voters to make it up there. Others found their designated polling stations were moved much further from where they lived, having to walk 20 to 30 minutes. Others showed up only to find they went to the wrong location.

If the government is purposely making it difficult for people to vote it is a pathetic sign it is not interested in universal suffrage. In the meantime the public is becoming more interested in local politics and determined to have their voices heard even more, hence the strong turnout.

Hopefully this sends a message to both the authorities and the district councillors they both need to work hard and together to give Hong Kong people not just want they want, but what's best for the city and their future.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Fact of the Day: Macau still tops Las Vegas in Casino Takings

View of Galaxy Macau from the Banyan Tree
With Greece and Italy falling apart economically and jobs not quite picking up in the United States, Macau is still going strong as the gambling mecca of the world.

Last month the former Portuguese colony set yet another record, soaring 42.3 percent from a year earlier to 26.8 billion patacas ($3.3 billion).

Mainlanders flocked to Macau particularly during Golden Week, October 1-7 and many flush with cash they are eager to burn off, head to the baccarat tables.

October's figures marked the city's sixth new monthly record in the past nine months, beating the record set in August by 8.4 percent.

An interesting comparison is that the $3.3 billion is almost the same as what Macau hauled in for the entire 2003, and surpassed the $3 billion hauled in by Las Vegas in the first six months of this year.

Stanley Ho's conglomerate SJM Holdings continues to lead the casino pack (29 percent share), followed by Galaxy Entertainment (22 percent), Melco Crown Entertainment (15 percent), Sands China (14 percent), Wynn Macau (13 percent) and MGM China (11 percent). The percentages are all approximate.

For those not familiar with the Macau casino scene, Melco and MGM are run by Stanley Ho's children, so the family's takings are even larger.

Many of the high rollers come to Macau on junkets and operators have ingenious ways to help the gamblers get access to lots of cash to burn.

However, with the economic slowdown also hitting China, the demand for junkets could slow down in the coming months.

It definitely won't stop to a trickle, but in relation to Las Vegas, very happy days are still in Macau.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A Trickle that Becomes a Flood

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei has many friends. Thousands in fact.

After he announced the authorities slapped him with a tax bill over 15 million RMB earlier this week, some 2,700 people donated 871,000 RMB up until 7pm Friday, said Ai's assistant Liu Yanping.

"Every penny will be repaid [to you]. Please leave your contact phone number or email address [when you lend the money]," Ai wrote on his Google Plus account.

Supporters can send their donations either through the post office, to a bank account, through Alipay (a third person online payment platform) and Paypal.

Many of his supporters say making donations as a way to show their defiance to the authorities. "If you are not wealthy you can at least spare five or 10 yuan because each postal remittance receipt says 'No' to the authorities", said one person on Twitter.

A number posted copies of their remittance receipts online after making a donation.

Hopefully momentum will grow to the point where the authorities will be ashamed by its pathetic efforts to get back at Ai and finally leave him alone.

Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but we can only hope.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Fuming Mad

In the last few days there has been stories in the news about Beijing's worsening air quality and how people with serious respiratory problems should not even venture outside for fear of exacerbating their conditions.

Many had wondered how Chinese officials would deal with the worst air quality since before the Beijing Olympics but it turns out the answer is simple.

They have been using air filters for years.

When I lived in Beijing my colleagues joked that the canteens we ate at in state-owned enterprises had decent food quality because they were related to the government. And it was a widely-known secret top officials and senior cadres had access to tegong or special supplies for all kinds of things from food to cigarettes, stationary and electronic appliances.

But now the word is out that government officials improve the air quality around them, thanks to the disclosure by a mainland manufacturer of air purifiers.

According to Broad Group, a Hunan-based air-conditioner maker, at least 200 air purifiers are installed inside Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound where many top leaders like President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao live and work.

"They are everywhere in Zhongnanhai, from living rooms and meeting rooms to swimming pools and gyms," the website of one of the company's Beijing dealers said. "It is a blessing for the people that our purifiers have created a healthy and clean environment for state leaders."

Apparently top leaders have used Broad's air purifiers in Zhongnanhai since December 2008, after the Beijing Olympics.

The webpage also explains in detail how leaders were convinced of the necessity of using air purifiers when they saw proof of Beijing's filth -- "ink-coloured dirty water" from dust and pollution-covered filters -- at the end of a test in a meeting room used by Politburo Standing Committee members.

Not only are these air filters in Zhongnanhai, but also in the Great Hall of the People, the Diaoyutai State Guest House and many other government buildings.

It has also become essential when leaders travel around, according to Qi Zhiwang, a Broad Beijing-based sales manager.

Qi added air purifiers were a popular gift for foreign leaders and dignitaries including Bill Gates, Tony Blair and Ban Ki-moon.

Long Yongtu, former secretary general of the Boao Forum for Asia and chief negotiator for China's accession to the World Trade Organisation, said in a video clip on the company's website that he carried a portable air purifier wherever he travelled on the mainland.

"Air pollution has become so bad that I have to use the purifier in my car and even hotel rooms," he said.

This latest revelation has no doubt led to Beijingers fuming at their leaders for not tackling air pollution and only finding a solution to breathe better for themselves.

"No wonder they don't care about food safety and air quality, while the grass roots are drinking melamine-tainted milk, eating gutter cooking oil and breathing deeply polluted air," remarked a microblogger on Sina Weibo.

Professor Zhou Xiaozheng of Renmin University agreed. "Thanks to the over-concentration of power and one-party rule, the special privileges enjoyed by special-interest groups have become the root cause of China's political, social and environmental woes," he said.

Could this be the straw that breaks the camel's back and see thousands Occupy Beijing?

Probably not, but it's just another reason for people to despise the elite who obviously have no concern for the people.

In the meantime one wonders if Broad will continue supplying air filters to government officials much longer...

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Another Dramatic Soliloquy

Premier Wen Jiabao is getting out his band of violins again with another sad tale to appeal to the masses that he is just like them.

In comments that were published yesterday in China Education News, Wen opened up about his family background and how his family was "constantly attacked" in Maoist campaigns.

Senior leaders do not usually talk about their pasts, but Wen told students and teachers at Nankai High School, his alma mater in Tianjin last week that his father was dismissed as a teacher and sent to look after pigs.

"After I went to high school and university, my family suffered constant attacks in the successive political campaigns," he said. Wen comes from a family of teachers and during Mao's campaigns to root out his adversaries, the party attacked and demoted citizens thought to have bad "class" backgrounds or suspect pasts. His father and grandfather were victims.

"In 1960, my father was also investigated for so-called historical problems. He could no longer teach and was sent to work on a farm on the outskirts of the city to tend pigs, and then later worked in a library," he said last week.

His grandfather constantly had to write "self-criticisms" according to surviving files from his school, Wen said. He died of cerebral hemorrhage in 1960.

"I was the one who carried him on my back to the hospital," he said.

Wen added his grandfather's self-criticisms "are filled with one self-criticism after another, written in small, neat characters," he added.

The 69-year-old Wen seems to be persistent in advocating political reforms perhaps because of his personal experiences.

Others think he is still too vague on his call for reforms or that he lacks support from other senior leaders to be taken seriously.

"I come from the people, and had a hard childhood, so I feel sympathy for all poor people and have given all that I can for the sake of their happiness," he said.

"My childhood was spent in war and hardship, and the poverty, turmoil and famine left an ineradicable imprint on my young soul."

If that's not dramatic enough, I don't know what is.

However if Wen really was determined to make things better for people, he really needs to prove himself with action and specific words otherwise his efforts of being a "man of the people" is just another illusion.

Seasonal Treats

White truffles from Alba
Around this time of year Chinese people get excited over hairy crab. Aficionados debate the merits of eating a female crustacean over a male one as it's all about the roe than the little bits of meat people pick out of with a series of tools. There's the ginger sauce that goes with it as well as the Chinese wine with a preserved plum in it to counteract the coolness.

The steamed crabs are eaten with a lot of ceremony and tradition.

As the crabs cannot be farmed, so each year the numbers vary. This year there aren't many crabs, but I've heard they are of a high quality.

Meanwhile the Italians also look forward to this period with the appearance of white truffles.

Truffles shaved on top of veal cheek agnolotti
They grow near the roots of oak trees and it requires dogs and pigs to sniff them out. However the forests are public domain and it's a game of finders keepers. The competition for white truffles -- the bigger the better -- is so tough that some truffle hunters resort to violent acts -- like killing an adversary's truffle dog -- as revenge for what they believe is stealing.

While the truffles may look like potatoes, they are pungent. A colleague asked me to describe what they smelled like and I didn't know where to begin except to say they are earthy.

They are usually kept with arborio rice and eggs in the same container so that they can absorb the truffle flavour.

White truffles are best eaten with the simplest of dishes -- a fried egg or pasta with butter.

Risotto with Piedmont cheeses, chanterelles and truffles
Then the ceremony begins with the white truffle shaved table side and the earthy aroma engulfs the senses.

One of my most memorable encounters with white truffles was many years ago at Grissini in the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, where I had a fried sunny side up egg with truffles shaved on top. It was absolutely heavenly. Another dish was a simple risotto flavoured with the truffles. Amazing.

Since then I've been thinking about them every late October and November. And now a decade later I was very lucky to try them again last night at 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo in Central. A delegation from Piedmont, Italy was there and brought with them some white truffles from Alba.

The truffles were quite large and pungent too when released from their glass case. The excited maitre d' ceremoniously shaved the truffles onto each of our plates, four courses that included roast lobster, veal cheek agnolotti, risotto and beef tenderloin.

The thinly-sliced truffles graced our plates like giant light brown snowflakes that enhanced the flavours of each dish.
Beef tenderloin with chestnut and porcini ragout with truffles

If you ask me to choose between hairy crab and white truffles, the latter wins hands down.

Honestly I have yet to appreciate all the tedious work that goes into deconstructing a small crab when shaved white truffles on a bed of risotto is utterly satisfying.

But not all is lost -- I'll try some hairy crabs next week and let you know if my conclusion has to be amended.

In the meantime viva tartufo bianco!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Absurd Revenge

The Chinese government was not satisfied with holding artist and activist Ai Weiwei -- illegally -- for nearly three months. The authorities have now slapped him with a 15 million RMB tax bill for back taxes and fines he apparently did not pay. He has 15 days to pay up.

However Ai feels the government's action is more a reprisal for his criticism of the the Communist Party.

"If it's a tax problem, I'll pay. But if it's not, I won't pay," he said.

He told the BBC he is only a designer in the design company Fake Cultural Development that his wife Lu Qing is the legal representative of. He added there were only three employees in the company.

Ai said his wife was given two notifications stating he had to pay more than 15 million RMB -- 6.8 million RMB in back taxes, 6.8 million RMB in penalties and around 3 million RMB for interest in delayed payments.

His lawyer Pu Zhiqiang thinks Ai will probably lose his freedom if he is not able to pay up.

"The penalty is targeting the [Fake] company... but if Ai and his company refuse to pay, the worst situation is that Ai will be arrested again by the authorities," Pu said. "The whole matter is ridiculous because so far there is no evidence to show that the [firm] is involved in tax evasion. And there is also a lack of an open and fair hearing on this case."

Pu added the authorities confiscated the original documents from Ai's company, including its account books and records of its operations so they cannot check if these allegations are correct.

In addition, officials did not specify any particular transactions or dates when the company apparently failed to file their tax reports, Pu said.

"Accounts for tax purposes should be investigated by the tax bureau, not the police. But it's the police that took me away to an unknown place for 81 days to investigate taxes, Ai said yesterday.

"I just want to say, if a country is determined to do something in the world, it's a must to protect every citizen's human rights well [and] building up a fair legal system [is] the only option," said Ai. "However, I am feeling so [unsafe] in my country."

Ai felt the authorities were targeting him because even though he insisted he was only the designer of the company, the authorities claimed he was the "actual controller" of the firm.

"They finally made up this new title... I know this matter is targeted at me. The authorities warned that they would give me a hard time when I was detained," Ai said.

"The officials [from the Beijing taxation bureau] said that they are not fining me, but the Fake company. But when I asked: 'Why was my name singled out by the government, at the Foreign Ministry briefings?' They still said to me: 'This has nothing to do with you.'"

On his Twitter page, Ai wrote: "They [taxation officials] told me seriously: 'If the country says you have evaded taxes, then you must have evaded them.'"

He noted discrepancies in the tax amounts the authorities were charging him. He said when he was first detained in April the amount was 60 million RMB, and then after his release it dropped down to 20 million RMB.

"Now the authorities say they will set me free if I pay the [15 million RMB], set according to my financial capability," he said.

After the entire fiasco of detaining him and the massive international outcry, the authorities will not let go of Ai. It wants revenge, albeit a financial one to punish him for how he has made them look silly.

But in fact they are the ones creating more grief for themselves

In his interview with the BBC, the interviewer asked Ai how he was going to pay the fine. He said perhaps they would have to sell the family home and of course most people will be sympathetic to Ai's cause even more.

To make up monetary amounts for Ai to pay is outrageous without any clear indication of exactly what his company has done wrong.

But this is China, where they will do whatever they need to do to prove to themselves they are still in power.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Fleeing Rich

It's not surprising to find that nearly half of all the mainland's super rich are considering emigration.

According to a newspaper article today, the survey was done by the infamous Hurun Report that surveyed people one-on-one in 18 major cities with assets of more than 10 million RMB. It also found 14 percent of 980 millionaires had either already moved overseas or were applying to do so.

The average respondent was 42 years old and was worth more than 60 million yuan.

Forty-six percent said they planned to emigrate, citing better education for their children overseas and concerns about security of their assets in China due to political and economic uncertainty. A third were either in the process of or investigating "investment immigration".

Interestingly the report did not list the most popular destinations for mainland millionaires though Hong Kong is probably top of the list. The city has attracted some HK$50 billion in investment immigration, and the effects can be seen in the property and fashion markets.

A Xinhua report also said that developed countries with good health care systems and less polluted environments like Canada and Australia were top destinations for mainland millionaires.

Other reasons for wanting to emigrate include the lack of legal framework in protecting assets, rising living costs and taxation. Some -- such as corrupt officials and businesspeople -- just wanted to leave because they obtained their money illegally. The increasing wealth gap also made the super rich uncomfortable living among their fellow citizens. Perhaps it's because they feel resentment when they ostentatiously show their wealth?

"This massive insecurity about the safety of their assets is like a huge black cloud hanging over their heads," said independent business commentator Ye tan was quoted as saying in the survey report.

The Hurun Report is "infamous" because once people's wealth is listed on there, not long afterwards many are hauled in by the Chinese government for corruption and soon after that they are either languishing in jail or executed.

It's no wonder they don't want to be scrutinized by anyone about their wealth.

Nevertheless it's interesting to note that while the super rich are benefiting from the system, they now feel they have accumulated enough to leave... how patriotic is that?