Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Creative Chinese Cuisine

The signature "super lean" roast duck
This afternoon I had a chance to sample some Beijing food.

The Mandarin Oriental will be bringing in chefs including Da Dong himself in April where he will cook a gala dinner on April 20 at Man Wah.

Sliced Canadian geoduck with Sichuan pepper
While the food is for the most part Chinese, he has taken the cuisine one step further in terms of cooking with different ingredients and the Japanese minimalist-style of presentation.

Today I had a chance to sample some of the dishes, each very good, and of course the famous "super lean" roast duck.

To start we were each presented a square plate and on top of that was a thin hollowed out globe of ice sitting on a bed of fabric and inside it was sliced Canadian geoduck with Sichuan pepper. The ice kept the poached geoduck cool and it had a bite thanks to the peppercorns that wasn't too overpowering.

Chef Da Dong dressing a plate
Next came an interesting combination of small cubed pieces of lotus root covered with foie gras that had been thinly sliced and looked like ham slices. This was paired with some sweet osmanthus sauce and it worked very well. The sweetness of the sauce naturally goes well with lotus root, but even more so with the foie gras, enhancing its silky smooth texture.

Da Dong gave a contemporary take on a traditional Shanghainese dish of bean curd sheets with finely diced Chinese spinach. Here he sandwiched the spinach in between minced bean curd that may have seemed bland but actually had a delicate flavour that was refreshing.

Intrigue went around the table in trying to figure out what squid egg soup would look like. It arrived in small espresso cups and the smell was very earthy and like mushrooms. With a small spoon we fished out the skin of the squid egg, a very thin slippery white ingredient that didn't have much taste on its own, but was like a noodle. Apparently squid egg soup is a traditional Chinese dish, but obviously Da Dong has presented a different interpretation that was delicious.

Chef Dong's braised sea cucumber presented like a pine branch
His signature braised sea cucumber was presented on a long rectangular plate, cooked with leeks in a thick sweet-soy sauce. We enjoyed each bite, similar to tendon in texture, and the addition of the leek was unfamiliar but tasted great.

For a bit of a crunch, the fresh jelly fish with broad bean was very good. Interestingly it was paired with strawberries as well. It's a simple dish seasoned with a bit of chilli oil.

Then came the main event -- the roast duck that was wheeled to our table and ceremoniously sliced up very quickly. The duck was excellent as always, hardly any fat on it and the meat very tender. Everyone admired the individual plate of condiments that almost looked too pretty to eat.

Braised abalone and Chinese yam with rice in truffle sauce
Another delightful dish was the braised abalone and Chinese yam with rice in truffle sauce. They arrived in individual small clay pots with Chinese characters on each ranging from happiness and prosperity to long life. The aroma was heavenly from the truffle sauce and it was topped with a small plump abalone that was very tender. The rice had been thoroughly marinated in the sauce so each bite was very good.

It's so great to see Da Dong continue developing his dishes, making them not only delicious but thoughtfully presented so that the dining experience is absolutely memorable.

Da Dong Roast Duck Returns to Man Wah April 14-22
25/F, Mandarin Oriental
5 Connaught Road
2825 4003

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Car Status in China

The ubiquitous black Audi is the car of choice of Chinese officials
Every other car in Beijing is a black Audi.

It's the car government officials drive (or rather their chauffeurs drive).

Some 80 percent of all state-bought cars are foreign brands, and Audis make up one-third of that.

One time when I was in Beijing a friend told us he bought a car -- a black Audi.

Just as our jaws dropped in horror he said, "Just joking," with a broad smile.

We all had a good laugh.

However the Audi-buying all with other foreign brands will come to a complete halt this year.

A proposal from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology last week says the 412 models approved for purchase by state agencies this year will be limited to Chinese brands. It's seen as an effort to protect the domestic car industry as they struggle to compete against global producers.

In addition, China stopped offering incentives on investments to foreign carmakers in a bid to stop overcapacity.

"It seems that the China market for cars is closing slowly but surely toward foreign investment," said Dirk Moens, secretary general of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. "As an industry you cannot expect to be warmly welcomed outside of your country if at the same time you start closing the industry in your country."

Sounds like another bad sign for Europe.

However, there could be some resistance to this proposal that is up for public consultation until March 9.

"It's such a drastic step I could imagine they could be a bit resistant from the local government procurement side," said Klaus Paur, Shanghai-based head of auto research at Ipsos. "If you're a relatively high-level person, you still want to have an Audi. The brand, the reputation, the standing is all important."

Would a senior government official want to be seen in a BYD or Great Wall Motor car?

Perhaps Chinese officials will be holding onto their current cars for a little while longer...

Meanwhile for some background info, last month The Globe and Mail talked to a taxi driver surnamed Zhao who gave insights into who drives what cars in China:
Toyota sedan – Driven by putongren. Ordinary people. Not so ordinary that they have to use public transport or ride a bicycle, mind you.
Mercedes SUV – Driver Zhao presumes someone who drives one of these ubiquitous (and always black) vehicles is a laoban. The word means "boss," but in this case laoban can mean anyone who recently come into cash and wants to show it off.
Buick GL8 minivan – Wildly popular in China, these vans aren't for soccer moms. To Driver Zhao, someone driving a Buick GL8 is a "xiao laoban," or little boss. Someone who can't yet afford the Mercedes. Just as often, the driver is a professional and the passengers are Western expatriate families with kids.
Audi A6 – Weibo had it bang on, it's the automobile of choice for the Chinese bureaucrat. Seeing an Audi A6 in traffic means you're idling beside part of the country's power structure. As The New York Times put it , the A6's "slick frame and invariably tinted windows exude an aura of state privilege, authority and, to many ordinary citizens, a whiff of corruption." (The Beijing government says there are 62,000 official cars in the city, a figure that seems far too low. The state-run CCTV television station reported last year that the real figure is closer to 700,000.)
Humvees or Ferraris – Driver Zhao says the only people arrogant enough to drive one of these on Beijing's streets are the well-off children of top government officials. As evidence of that, I once saw a bright yellow Humvee rip the wrong way through traffic in Beijing's busy Sanlitun bar district, before proceeding to drive through a red light without so much as tapping the brakes. At least three policemen witnessed the same scene, but seemed to conclude from the driver's brazen behaviour that he was too powerful to be stopped.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Who Cares About Us?

After almost seven years in office Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen finally realizes he should be careful with what company he keeps as the leader of Hong Kong.

Yesterday he explained to two local media outlets in detail the trips he had taken on private yachts and jets, as well as his agreement to rent a Shenzhen penthouse from mainland property tycoon Bill Wong Cho-bau when he retires at the end of June.

Tsang denied accusations of collusion, conflict of interest or bribery, but admitted he could have been more careful when accepting the hospitality of tycoons.

"The recent incidents have taught me a lesson, that I have to be more sensitive in politics and be very careful when accepting hospitality," he said on Commercial Radio.

He added he would fully cooperate with any investigation conducted by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

If the ICAC actually starts probing the chief executive is another matter.

Meanwhile Brian Fong Chi-hang, a lecturer in social studies at City University, said there were loopholes in the existing rules requiring politically appointed officials to declare their interests.

"There should be a system in future for the chief executive to make public, regularly, advantages and gifts he receives," Fong said.

How did this all happen in the first place?

After the handover almost 15 years ago, it seems the colonial administrative system was completely thrown out for political reasons and Beijing did not implement enough checks and balances, probably because it never had to set up anything like it on the mainland.

This has led to Tsang, and chief executive candidates Henry Tang Ying-yen and Leung Chun-ying to hide their skeletons in the closet either believing no one would dare expose them, or if they were found out, the fallout would be minimal.

Perhaps 15 years ago we would have accepted the trio's major gaffes as part of the growing pains associated with adjusting to a new political system under Beijing.

But now things have changed and the public no longer tolerates the excesses of the ruling class.

Thanks to a free media that has gone to great lengths (and heights in the case of Tang) to digging up whatever dirt they can on our current and potential political leaders, we are getting a better picture of who they really are.

The public is tired of the charade of choosing the next chief executive and demands complete accountability politically and personally.

Most of us are law-abiding, hard-working citizens who try to save our money to buy extremely expensive flats, pay taxes exorbitant tuition fees for our children and live with smog-filled air everyday.

In return we ask for a leader who has long-term thinking, who is solely focused on the development and future of Hong Kong, cares about its environment and gives a helping hand to those in dire need of financial, social or health benefits.

Instead we have seen the exact opposite for the last 15 years. We've had enough and we are calling for change.

We dare the 1,200-member Election Committee to vote for Tang.

If they choose this wife-cheating, illegal-structure building candidate, this will reveal their selfishness and that the system is completely broken.

How's that for a harmonious society?

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Canadian Culinary Creativity

Stephen Harper (left) with Laureen Harper and Mark Roswell
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apparently made a deep impression on Beijingers on his recent trip.

So much so he spawned a new culinary creation.

On one of his four days in the Chinese capital, Harper and his wife Laureen went to Yi Wan Ju restaurant in Fengtai district for lunch with Canada's goodwill ambassador Mark Roswell, or Da Shan.

The restaurant's name literally means "the home of the one-bowl meal" where customers get a bowl of soup and noodles and season it according to their taste. A bowl of noodles costs 8RMB ($1.27)

What was supposed to be a photo-opportunity for photographers resulted in new business for the restaurant with its new dish called "Harper's Elbows".

That's because the prime minister combined two dishes, napa cabbage in mustard sauce with dong po pork, which is braised pork belly or pork knuckles.

Hence the name "Harper's Elbows" or "Harper's Knuckles".

A sign is up at the restaurant introducing the dish as well as a picture of the dishes Harper and his wife ate, which included kung pao chicken, red bean cakes, steamed rice cakes with sweet filling and fried noodles.

The owner is reporting business is up 20 percent since Harper was there.

Must check it out the next time I'm in Beijing.

Yi Wan Ju
22 Pufang Lu, Fangzhuang
Fengtai District
6765 4321

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Picture of the Day: Mandarin Jam

Bob Tay's interpretation of rose petal jam
Every few months the Mandarin Oriental unveils new fantastic creations under glass cases in the cake shop adjacent Cafe Causette.

Cake artist Bob Tay has made delectable-looking pieces in the shapes of dragons for Chinese New Year, giant eggs for Easter and most recently a heart-shaped layered dress for Valentine's Day.

One of his cutest masterpieces always shown is the large strawberry made to look like a jam jar. It represents the hotel's signature rose petal jam that is one of the best-selling items in the shop.

Definitely worth checking out when you're in the neighbourhood.

But beware viewing these pieces of art could lead to hunger pangs.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Donald's Decadent Dilemma

Donald Tsang is now on the defensive on accusations of graft
While all the brouhaha over chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen continues, Hong Kong's current leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is accused of bribery and conflict of interest after he and his wife were photographed on a luxury yacht belonging to a business tycoon in Macau with other wealthy friends.

The latest is that after he steps down from his position in June, Tsang will retire in a luxury three-floor flat in Shenzhen that a tycoon is renting him at a cheap price.

On the weekend Tsang and his wife apparently went to Macau on personal business but then were later photographed on the "Golden Toad" yacht. He denied any wrong doing and said he paid "market price" for the trip to the former Portuguese enclave without specifying the amount. How can one pay "market price" for a yacht trip to Macau when us plebians pay over HK$300 return for economy?

League of Social Democrats vice chairman Avery Ng said the group had lodged a report against Tsang on suspicion of taking bribery.

While the Independent Commission Against Corruption confirmed it received the complaint, it would not say if Tsang was under investigation. ICAC must be wondering what to do with this hot potato. Instead a spokeswoman responded: "We won't comment on individual cases or incidents. All reports made to the ICAC will be examined and looked into in accordance to the laws."

The Democratic Party and Civic Party have also sent letters to Tsang's office demanding an explanation and details of his trip and other trips he's made to Macau by yacht or helicopter.

Under Hong Kong's strict anti-bribery laws, the chief executive is prohibited from any acts of "solicitation and acceptance of advantage and possession of unexplained property" and must declare all gifts valued over HK$400.

That surely must mean a lot of declarations, unless Tsang's tycoon friends are just treating him at fast-food restaurants.

And what's Tsang's response to this controversy?

"I hope you will not always analyze issues from a negative conspiracy perspective," he said. "I'm very sad to see what is going on. And I'm very distressed, too. If this trend continues, Hong Kong will be constantly exhausted by internal strife."

Which is why we'd like Tsang to fess up and tell us what he was doing on the yacht last week and why he thinks as Chief Executive of Hong Kong it's OK to hang out with tycoon friends. Perhaps then we won't have "internal strife".

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Hong Kongers Get to "Vote"

HKU's Dr Robert Chung will simulate a vote for the next CE
The race for the next chief executive of Hong Kong has become a farce.

We have gone through two of them and know the vote is decided by 1,200 people approved by Beijing.

And we were prepared to go through the motions again with former Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, expecting him to be a shoe-in.

Then things got really interesting when former government surveyor Leung Chun-ying threw his hat into the ring and even Beijing approved of him.

But in the past week Tang's bid degenerated into a media circus when he announced to the media that the plans to develop the basement in his wife's Kowloon Tong home was her idea and he had nothing to do with it.

Lisa Kuo Yu-chin held back tears as she gave a dramatic performance as the woman who stands by her man even though he's made her liable for a criminal conviction and has cheated on her too.

The Hong Kong public saw through the Tang's attempt to clear his name and since then they have become even more disillusioned by the electoral process.

There are letters to the editor everyday calling Tang to step down from the race, saying he has lost his integrity and if he is elected he is a shameful representative of the city.

People are also frustrated by the system whereby Beijing determines the race that is played out by its favourite sector -- the tycoons.

It's reached the point where the public has had enough of the charade and want to have their voices heard.

And they will have a chance.

A professor at the University of Hong Kong has raised enough money to conduct a simulated vote for chief executive on March 23.

Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, head of the university's public opinion program has raised over HK$482,000 in funds that have been verified. The amount pledged so far is HK$577,678, some of which has yet to be confirmed.

Chung had announced that if he was able to raise HK$500,000, the city-wide vote would go ahead. The actual election takes place on March 25.

He stresses this exercise is not to incite independence, but to give citizens "an alternative channel of expression" on the election.

With the amount of interest this "vote" has generated, there will surely be a good turnout because it will send a strong message about who the people want to lead Hong Kong.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Hong Kong's Numbers

View of Central from the Four Seasons hotel
Hong Kongers took part in the latest census last year and now the Census and Statistics Department has released the results.

And the numbers are quite surprising. For a city that thrives on being young, its citizens are more young at heart.

The median age of the population rose from 36.7 years in 2001 to 41.7 last year. There are 940,000 people who are aged 65 and older -- an increase of 200,000 from 10 years ago.

In 1971 the median age was 21.7, which saw a high birth rate and influx of mainland immigrants.

Lily Ou-yang Fong, the department's commissioner, forecasts the median age will rise to 47.6 years in 2039 with the "greying" population increasing.

"This is a matter of concern for the government," she said, referring to the serious social implications for Hong Kong.

The city's population is now 7.07 million.

The census also revealed there are more people living alone, either unmarried or divorced. And not surprisingly, there are 1,000 women (including domestic helpers) for every 876 men.

In the 24 to 44 age category, there were just 725 men for every 1,000 women including domestic helpers. Also 46.8 percent of men and 38.9 percent of women in the "prime marriageable age" category, which is 20 to 49, have never been married.

There is also an increased number of single-person households, from 320,000 to 400,000 last year, with the average nuclear family shrinking from 3.1 people to 2.9.

"It could be the case that people don't live with their grandfathers or mother-in-laws anymore," Fong said. "There are also some people in their 40s to 60s living on their own."

When it comes to finances, the median household income rose from HK$18,710 in 2001 to HK$20,500 last year. More than 550,000 had a monthly income of HK$40,000 or more, compared with 18 percent a decade ago.

However, there are about 85,000 households that live on less than HK$2,000 a month. Another 130,000 households live on between HK$2,000 to HK$4,000 a month.

The Hong Kong government needs to pay attention to these figures, particularly that of the working poor and figure out ways to help out these households. How someone lives on such little money is shocking in a wealthy city.

In the meantime, it seems Hong Kong is a singleton city, and perhaps that's the way its citizens like it.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Still Pushing Forward

Despite the scandals plaguing chief executive hopeful Henry Tang Ying-yen, he formally signed up for the race for the top job yesterday.

And he had 379 nominations from the 1,200-member Election Committee.

They included Cheung Kong Holding's Li Ka-shing and his son Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, Sun Hung Kai Properties' Raymond Kwok Ping-luen and Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong, Henderson Land's Lee Shau-kee, New World Development's Henry Cheng Kar-shun, and Lau Wong-fat, head of the powerful rural affairs body Heung Yee Kuk.

In a five-minute speech, Tang vowed he would regain the confidence and trust of Hong Kongers despite having "strayed" in an extramarital affair and then admitted he had an illegal structure in his Kowloon Tong home, but blamed it on his wife.

"I will devote a hundred times of efforts and I will not give up," he said. "I admitted that I did not handle [the scandals] well. I intended to protect my family, but it hurt them even more. It's my fault and I will take the full responsibility."

He did not answer any questions from the media, but he was the second candidate to register his candidacy after pan-democrat contender Albert Ho Chun-yan received 183 nominations last week. Candidates need a minimum of 150 nominations. Leung Chun-ying may file his candidacy later this week or next.

Tang's staunchest supporters are thinking twice about voting for him, including the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions Cheng Yiu-tong, and James Tien Pei-chun, honorary chairman of the Liberal Party which submitted 62 nominations for Tang.

"If Tang's popularity remains too low in March, we will not vote for him. Even if he is elected, it will not be favourable for him and Hong Kong." He added Tang would face difficulties forming an effective governing team given his low popularity.

Nevertheless, it's really up to Beijing to decide if Tang runs or not. And apparently he's been given the green light.

Perhaps Beijing wants to see Tang and Leung battle it out further, but really one of its choices is too embarrassing to represent this city.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Hong Kong Exodus

Hong Kong is seeing a brain drain and a population expert is saying this should be a "wake-up call" for the government to do something.

Provisional figures from the Census and Statistics Department show a net emigration of 12,400 people last year. Emigration exceeded immigration in just seven years in the past 50.

Previous exoduses were attributed to significant events in the region, but this time the reason has baffled experts.

Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist at Polytechnic University said there was no obvious reason for the high level of emigration, but pointed to the uncertainty in the city's education system with reforms that have resulted in double-cohorts this year and students fighting for limited university places. As a result many pupils are choosing to study abroad to ensure a placement in tertiary institutions.

The Security Bureau says 8,300 permanent residents left the city last year, up 15 percent from the year before.

Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, a population expert at the University of Hong Kong warned that many of the people departing are from the middle class.

"This is really a wake-up call," he said. He said the government should take steps to ensure there would be no "structural brain drain", where emigration exceeds immigration over a period of years.

However Frederick Ho Wing-huen, former commissioner of the Census and Statistics Department had another explanation related to mainland mothers coming to Hong Kong to give birth.

He said those new mothers usually took their children back to the mainland after birth, and 60 percent of them sent their children back to Hong Kong for education.

Ho added the Hong Kong government should welcome these children and prepare for their return, saying, "If you can't get rid of them, why don't you make them valuable?"

There are many significant historical events that precipitated in large-scale emigration from Hong Kong.

During the Cultural Revolution, more people left than arrived in 1964 and 1969, and in 1966, more than 46,000 people emigrated than immigrated.

Another wave happened after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, followed by 1990 in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown. The next event was SARS in 2003 and most recently in 2009 because of the economic downturn due to the financial crisis.

The high level of emigration could aggravate Hong Kong's already low birth rate at 1.04 per woman, which has already prompted concerns of labour shortages.

Other reasons could be the worsening pollution problems; more and more children are diagnosed with asthma causing families to look for places with better living environments, or they have no more faith in the government and want a place that does not have short-term thinking.

Regardless the reason the government really should take notice and do whatever they can to keep educated professionals in the city. A good start would be tackling the pollution issue. As I've said before, healthy people are productive people. It's a win-win.

Sounds pretty obvious to me, but the Tsang administration seems to think pollution is not its problem...

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A Scripted Happy Ending

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping has ended his trip to the United States on a high note -- with his American hosts pleased that more Hollywood movies will be seen legitimately in China.

Xi's US counterpart Joe Biden announced China had agreed to make it easier for Hollywood to distribute movies to China's audiences, particularly 3D, Imax and other enhanced-format movies on favourable commercial terms.

"This agreement with China will make it easier than ever before for US studios and independent filmmakers to reach the fast-growing Chinese audience, supporting thousands of American jobs in and around the film industry," Biden said.

Biden didn't give out a figure, but the Motion Picture Association said the deal would allow more than 50 percent more American movies to China.

Right now the quota is around 20 movies a year and most of them are the usual blockbuster action movies and not necessarily Oscar-quality films.

In 2009 the World Trade Organization ruled against Chinese limits on the import of film, DVDs, music and books. And Hollywood has been lobbying for greater access to China for years; it finally got its wish.

More American films shown in Chinese movie theatres does not necessarily mean a drop in the extensive fake DVD market -- with movie ticket prices still expensive for many people, a cheap copy will do.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

HK Under Dr John's Spell

Dr John performed in Hong Kong
Last night I went out of my comfort zone in terms of music (classical, jazz and pop) to listen to some soulful blues from legendary New Orleans artist Dr John accompanied by The Lower 911.

The concert was part of the 40th Hong Kong Arts Festival and it was held at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

I'm used to watching the Hong Kong Philharmonic spread out on the stage with the male players in tuxedos, the women in black evening wear.

So it was strange or perhaps refreshing to see the place converted into an intimate concert space using colourful lights.

Just after 8pm Dr John did not come out right away -- The Lower 911, made up of a drummer, bass and guitarist -- came out first and warmed up the crowd before Dr John decked out in a gray pinstripe suit, pink shirt with a wide collar, hat and dark glasses holding a walking stick decorated with feathers, came shuffling out and sat at the grand piano.

His real name is Mac Rebennack and at 71, it's very impressive to see someone his age continue rocking with his style of music and keep doing this again and again.

He started off playing guitar, but in 1961 Dr John tried to wrestle a gun from a motel owner who tried to shoot the lead singer of the band Dr John was in. The gun went off and his left ring finger practically fell off. But he managed to get it reattached and now modifies guitar pieces and focuses more on the piano.

Rebennack got the persona of Dr John when he started learning creole rituals and voodoo. Which probably explains the feathered walking stick and the numerous necklaces he was wearing.

When Dr John started to perform, he mostly played the piano, followed by a portable organ, then a bit of guitar and singing back-to-back until the 90-minute concert was over.

It was a bit strange sitting in such a formal theatre to listen to a concert where you wanted to get up and sway to the music so most people were polite and sat in their seats.

However about halfway through a group of young non-Chinese women got up and started dancing where their seats were and then moved to the aisle. Surprisingly the attendants didn't say anything to them, but focused their efforts more on stopping people from recording and taking pictures of the concert.

I enjoyed the music, but Dr John didn't seem to notice the audience hollering, clapping and whistling. He just dove straight into the next song. He never once said anything like, "How are you all doing tonight?" or any banter about being in Hong Kong... nothing.

It seemed like he just wanted the 90 minutes over with as soon as possible and wasn't interesting in building a rapport with the audience which I felt held me back from a really satisfying concert.

He didn't even acknowledge the girls who were dancing in the aisle who later then led a kind of congo line around the aisles. It all seemed very strange.

Was it because he had his dark glasses on that acted like blinders? Was it because he didn't know if Hong Kong people could understand English? Or was it because he had a bad day and just wanted to get back to his hotel room as soon as possible?

At the end of the concert many people stood up and clapped and soon enough Dr John came back for an encore. But he left the stage and finally waved to the crowd before the music was finished, leaving his band members to say good bye to us.

I don't recall any other concert I've attended where the star of the show did not show any appreciation for his/her audience.

So while his music is intimate and soulful, why was he was so distant?

Friday, 17 February 2012

An Unenviable Role

Henry Tang puts his arm around his wife as she takes the fall for him
Political wives have the hardest role to play -- they must look pretty, look admiringly at their husbands and act like they're in love in front of the cameras.

But also take responsibility that could lead to criminal charges?

That's the prospect facing Henry Tang Ying-yen's wife Lisa Kuo Yu-chin.

Yesterday the chief executive candidate apologized for the controversy over the illegal structures on his wife's property, claiming they were her idea.

"No 7 [York Road in Kowloon Tong] is my wife's property. It was my wife's idea and I knew they were illegal," he said. "Since we were experiencing a low ebb in our marriage, I did not handle the matter swiftly. I take full responsibility for the incident."

He then apologized to the people of Hong Kong and asked his supporters for a second chance.

Doesn't he mean third chance after he earlier admitted having "strayed" in his marriage?

Meanwhile Kuo held back tears as she gave her side of the story.

"I just wanted to plan a comfy place for my family. I greatly regret that I did it without considering the consequences. I'm very very sorry," she said.

She added: "He [Tang] seldom deals with family matters. He is very busy at work. I wanted to provide a happy and warm family home for my husband and children, like most wives do.

"I'm the one responsible for the renovation and plans of the two houses, including the basement. He [Tang] knows little about the details."

Did she really plan for a wine cellar and wine tasting room to be in the basement, along with an entertainment room and Japanese bath? Sounds more of a masculine decorating idea than one a woman would choose.

Nevertheless, like a good wife, Kuo stood by her man.

"I hope you will forgive me and I hope you will give him a chance," she said. "He's a good man. Please don't take him as a bad guy."

Reaction on the street is that practically everyone knows Kuo is taking the fall for her husband, as the home is technically hers on paper since 2010.

Tang's integrity is plunging by the day and his original supporters who promised to nominate him are seriously doubting his leadership abilities.

Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin said, "He had said [earlier] a man needs to have broad shoulders, but his action to realize this -- putting the blame on his wife -- was unbearable," he said. The FTU has 57 nomination votes.

"Day after day he has offered different accounts," said Liberal Party chairwoman Miriam Lau Kin-yee. "This one response is unreliable -- he still refused to disclose the size of the illegal structure."

She said the party was considering withdrawing the 62 nominations it gave to Tang earlier this month.

Meanwhile Ho Hon-kuen, chairman of Education Convergence, said it was now impossible to nominate Tang.

But Tang still has his die-hard supporters such as Thomas Woo Chu who got 17 nominations for him in the catering sector. "We should not impose the death penalty on him simply because of one single incident," Woo said.

The on-going fiasco has prompted Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee to call for Tang to pull out of the race -- so that she can run instead.

She originally mulled throwing her hat into the ring, but believed that her only chance was if Tang supporters backed her.

"Unfortunately, Tang is not withdrawing from the election," she said.

Who knew what was originally supposed to be a slam dunk election would turn out into a frenzied race?

In the meantime regardless of what happens, Tang owes his wife big time for what she did yesterday -- she is a hard act to follow.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Fast Losing Credibility

Henry Tang Ying-yen's credibility continues to slide
Oh Henry.

The Chief Executive hopeful continues to slide further into the cesspit of notoriety with the ongoing debacle of the illegal structures in his expensive Kowloon Tong home.

While Henry Tang Ying-yen finally admitted that illegal work was done, he now says he was not sure if he had even seen the floor plan for what the media are now calling his "underground palace".

"I have no impression that I have seen the floor plan before. [The basement] is now mainly used for storage," he said.

The plans for the basement included a theatre, wine tasting room, wine cellar, gym and Japanese bath.

Yesterday photographers went to great lengths to cover the story by hiring cranes to hoist them high over 7 York Road to take pictures of the residence.

Tang and his wife both owned the home at one point, but now she solely owns the home through a private company.

This latest development of Tang now of him not being sure what the floor plans were gives a further impression that the man who wants to be the next leader of Hong Kong has no clue what is going on. It also portrays him as someone who has too much money to care what kind of renovations are happening in his expensive property.

Meanwhile Beijing has apparently told 30 Hong Kong tycoons including Li Ka-shing not to nominate anyone for chief executive.

This decision seems to signal encouragement to Leung Chun-ying to challenge Tang.

The latest development comes from a source who is a member of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Beijing's top advisory body. The central government officials told this person that they had "advised tycoons not to raise any nomination" for fear that support from such financial heavyweights could prevent one or the other two pro-Beijing contenders from securing candidacy in the race.

"Officials from the central government told em they have already informed 30 tycoons in the city, including Li Ka-shing, not to make any nominations at this stage, even though Beijing knows they may have their own preference," he said. "They can vote for whoever they want later in the elections, after both contenders enter the race."

Beijing obviously wants to make the race more interesting even though it's trying desperately to orchestrate it from above.

However its star contender Tang is fast losing lustre with this illegal renovation fiasco.

He is just digging himself into a bigger hole... as big as the 2,400 square foot one in his (wife's) basement.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Tang's Housing Blues

Chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen's credibility continues to slide down the drain with the latest revelation he had some illegal structures built in his posh Kowloon Tong homes.

On Monday Ming Pao quoted contractors who once worked inside the home on 7 York Road, saying there was a wine cellar secretly built in a hidden entrance somewhere in the house. It is believed a storage space built underneath the swimming pool was where wine was stored.

There was also a canopy covering a car part at a nearby address on 5A York Road that Tang owned that was deemed illegal, but it was allegedly left by the previous owner more than a decade ago.

At first Tang denied having illegal structures at his homes that he does not currently reside in, and then flip-flopped and later admitted he did.

He even denied there was a cover-up, blaming confusion on a "misunderstanding" in handling media inquiries about it in October.

"As a man, one needs to have shoulders and as a public officer, one needs to have backbone," Tang said Monday.

But how can there be a "misunderstanding"? Either you have illegal structures or you don't. And if you do, admit it, take them down and the issue is over.

In addition Tang still hasn't come clean on the timeline of the construction that happened at the 7 York Road property and if it was his wife Lisa Kuo Yu-chin who commissioned the renovations.

He also couldn't say for sure when he hired a consultant to inspect his properties for unapproved works after senior officials were told in May last year to check their properties to enforce building regulations.

So how is he going to deal with it?

By hiring an "authorized person" to act on his and his wife's behalf in dealing with the Buildings Department.

"Once the demolition is completed, I will give full account to the public," Tang said.

Yet another fiasco Tang is trying to dodge and yet he's doing a bad job and continues to explode in his face.

Doesn't bode well for Hong Kong, does it?

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Picture of the Day: Queuing Up

The commemorative Bank of China HK$100 banknote
When I walked towards the Sheung Wan MTR station this morning I saw an enormous queue and was worried there was something going on I didn't know about.

The police were there to monitor the crowds, wrapping plastic tape around poles to keep the people lining up in order.

And then in Causeway Bay in the underpass near Times Square I saw the same mass crowds of people.

What were they waiting for?
A large queue in the underpass in Causeway Bay

The commemorative HK$100 banknotes to mark the centenary of the Bank of China.

People had to buy the souvenir note at HK$150 a piece, but the resale value has already jumped to HK$1,100 apiece in Hong Kong, and 1,200 RMB in Guangzhou.

That's great, but to be honest, the design of the banknote is really ugly, particularly with the "100" written so un-artistically on the front.

Don't you think?

Power Talks

Vice President Xi Jinping goes to Washington
We hope love is in the air when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping meets with US President Barack Obama in Washington today.

Apart from the Bo Xilai-Wang Lijun affair that suddenly erupted last week, Chinese officials have tightly choreographed Xi's visit as an even greater indication that he will become China's next leader before the end of this year.

And the US is giving China face as Obama has invited Xi to have talks in the Oval Office, an honour usually reserved for close allies and partners.

Obama will be keen not to look like a pushover in front of the Chinese, as the Republicans have accused him of being intimidated by China in trade and currency issues, while Xi has to look confident despite the US's disappointment over China's veto of the UN resolution to call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, human rights violations and trade imbalances.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most interesting part of the trip will be a reprisal of Xi's visit to small farming town Muscatine, Iowa he visited 27 years ago. At that time he was an up-and-coming official who led an animal-feed delegation to Iowa. There he toured farms, watched a baseball game and visited a Rotary Club.

He also stayed two nights with a Muscatine couple, where Xi slept in their two sons' bedroom with their Star Trek toys on display.

And now almost 30 years later Xi will go back to visit the same family again which seems like an opportunity to showcase his personality as a man with the common touch despite his "princeling" status.

Discussions between Xi and Obama should be productive. And with the US economy showing signs of revitalization albeit slow, at least America is not as much in the mercy of China as Europe is now.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Feeling the Heat

Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai still determined to hold his ground
The intrigue continues over the Bo Xilai-Wang Lijun incident as more details slowly come out.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper ended his successful China trip in Chongqing signing CAD$3 billion in deals, but the local media didn't run a picture of Bo with Harper at a banquet.

Instead Chongqing media published pictures of Harper with his wife Laureen hugging a panda, while a 1,500-wore piece about the Canadian prime minister's visit in detail without even mentioning Bo.

Beijing-based analyst Chen Ziming said Chongqing's media probably were instructed to limit reportage on Bo after his deputy Wang Lijun's visit to the United States consulate in Chengdu last week.

"The Wang Lijun incident has not only made Bo lose face himself, but has also brought shame to the ruling Communist Party. the central government would certainly want to make some restrictions on media reports about Bo," Chen said.

It appears that Wang reached out to the US consulate for some kind of assistance; we are not sure exactly what help he asked for and he also apparently left some incriminating documents in American hands. There are rumours Wang asked for political asylum but both sides are tight-lipped about the purpose of the visit.

And now Chongqing's mayor Huang Qifan who is also a close ally of Bo is feeling the heat after he was reportedly summoned to Beijing to explain why he led a convoy of armed police and police vehicles to besiege the US consulate in Chengdu.

Huang took the police 300 kilometres from Chongqing to the capital of Sichuan province in pursuit of Wang, who was in the consulate for a day.

Beijing will probably also ask Huang who decided to put Wang under "vacation-style treatment".

In any event Bo's hopes to ascend the political ranks of the CPC are dimming by the day. For starters his revival of revolutionary songs was a regressive move, and his aggressiveness in breaking up triad rings made him out to be much like a cowboy sheriff in the wild west. Did we mention his son drives a red Ferrari?

For the last few months there has been a rivalry between Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang and his counterpart Bo over whose style of governing is better. After the standoff in Wukan, Guangdong where villagers demanded they have democratic elections to choose over 100 representatives who will then put forward names for a seven-member committee, Wang compromised and let them have it. Now the Wukan villagers are very pleased to have their own way, and for Wang it demonstrated he was able to diffuse a potentially dangerous situation politically and socially.

Meanwhile this political intrigue with Wang Lijun spilling secrets about his ex-boss while involving the US government creates an even messier ordeal for Bo.

However describing Wang Lijun as undergoing "vacation-style treatment" helps Bo give the appearance that his deputy may not be in the right frame of mind and he cannot be trusted. What are supposedly Wang's medical reports have been leaked online saying he is depressed and suicidal.

Nevertheless, there are also reports that Wang was also summoned to Beijing to give his account of the situation.

So who will Beijing believe?

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Picture of the Day: My Melody

Ah, the 80s are back.

The power suits with giant shoulder pads are back, though of course in an updated design while the big hair is not.

Thanks to mainlanders we're seeing a resurgence of conspicuous spending, and UK band Duran Duran will be coming to town next month revisiting their hits like "Hungry Like a Wolf" and "Rio".

Hello Kitty has had enormous staying power here -- she still manages to melt the hearts of fans who are more than 40 years old -- whose names we will not disclose here.

But making a resurgence is My Melody as evidenced by this storefront window with the hooded bunny plastered all over b+ab in Causeway Bay.

The nostalgia is fun for five minutes, but surely designers can create some new characters? Or are we suffering from a brain drain?

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Zaia Bows Out

Zaia ends its run at The Venetian Macau on February 19
Most of Cirque du Soleil's shows have been a hit, but there are a few expensive losses, such as Banana Shpeel that lasted less than a year, and Viva Elvis at Aria in Las Vegas.

The next casualty will be Zaia at The Venetian Macau which closes in February 19.

The show has had a three-year run and revamped the new show in September, but it already had poor reviews from the public and word of mouth spread that they should see The House of Dancing Water instead of the Cirque du Soleil production.

When I first heard the criticisms, I wondered if people were being too harsh saying Cirque was "too arrogant" in assuming it would be an instant success and putting in many acrobatic acts that mainland Chinese are already very familiar with, such as dancing lions.

I had friends visiting Macau this weekend so at first I suggested watching The House of Dancing Water. But when the next available tickets were on February 17, our only choice was Zaia. The cheap tickets were HK$388 ($48.57), and were all sold out, so we got seats in the next price point at HK$588, which were close to the best seats in the house at HK$788. You could pay even more for VIP seats at HK$1,288 which were only three rows in the 1,800-seat theatre.

So it was strange to enter the theatre and see the vast majority of the best seats, the entire centre section -- was empty -- and most of the back was filled.

But as the old saying goes, "the show must go on", it did.

The opening number in the show featuring upside down bikes
And now I can see why the show played to poor reviews. It wasn't that the storyline of the girl Zaia didn't make much sense, but there were design elements such as polar bears, ice, and people snow shoeing that were more an homage to Canada and didn't have any relation to the Chinese.

The individual acts for the most part were very impressive -- a couple on roller skates where the man skated in a small circle while holding his partner in very difficult moves. Another had a very flexible ballet dancer and her partner holding her in seductive but also amazing poses.

But then there were some routines that seemed mediocre for Cirque du Soleil -- a man flying in the air holding onto two straps was physically difficult, don't get me wrong, but it didn't go one step further. The same goes for the final act with many people jumping around on trampolines and catapults, and the trapeze artists. Their routines were technically good, but very familiar.

We liked the jugglers who used glow-in-the-dark clubs, but it wasn't different, though the fire juggling routine added a bit of excitement.

The aforementioned lion dance was nothing too unusual from the typical routines these Chinese acrobats can do, so while they were cute and more lively than the ones found on the mainland, they didn't add more to the show.

After Zaia ended, we were drawn to the gift shop where everything was 70 percent off. It was sad seeing so much merchandise still for sale and only one more week left to go.

What will happen next is anyone's guess, but perhaps another show is in the planning stages. It will have to be utterly jaw dropping in order to top The House of Dancing Water, which will probably enjoy monopolizing Macau's entertainment scene for a while.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Fact of the Day: Labour Shortage Projections

Looks like Hong Kong is going to experience a labour shortage by 2018 because of an ageing population.

This is according to a government manpower study that started in 1988 and for the first time is forecasting not enough workers.

With baby boomers gradually retiring, there will be some 14,000 jobs to be filled over the next six years by either foreign or mainland graduates or new immigrants.

The crux of the problem is the city's low birth rate, which demography expert Paul Yiip Siu-fai says needs to double to keep the economy growing at the current rate by 2018.

"Now on average 1.04 children are born to Hong Kong woman. We need to raise that ratio to 2.1 to meet the demand," he said.

If children born here to non-Hong Kong residents were also included in the calculation, the average birth rate jumps to 1.5 from 1.04.

What's also interesting is the shortage will be felt unevenly across the workforce, as there is a mismatch between education and economic restructuring.

Those with the lowest education will have a manpower surplus of 8,500 by 2018. But for middle and secondary school level, there will be a labour shortage of 22,000. For those with higher education, the shortage will be around 500 as Hong Kong moves towards a knowledge-based economy.

The projections were based on the data from the 2010 and early 2011 Statistics and Census Department.

By 2018, Hong Kong will have 300,000 baby boomers who will have retired. It is expected vacancies will not be filled as the city's birth rate has been plunging since the 1970s.

"The shortage of 14,000 workers may not sound huge. But we do have to pay attention to it because it will be the first time that we will experience such a problem," said a spokesman from the Labour and Welfare Bureau.

These are interesting projections. At the same time I wonder who is going to be cleaning up after us and doing menial jobs like collecting garbage, cleaning toilets and clearing tables that no one wants to do. Those jobs won't be mechanized anytime soon.

So while Hong Kong is shifting towards a more knowledge-based economy, we still need to eat, buy things and clean up.

Did the demographers think of that too?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Picture of the Day: Hotel Lisboa's Collection

A ship carved out of jade
I went to Macau this evening and when I arrived at Hotel Lisboa, I was greeted by a massive collection of mostly jade carvings owned by Stanley Ho.

There are so many of them -- each of them probably several tons in weight -- that they could all fit in a mini museum, or definitely a museum wing.

The intricately carved jade ship complete with interlocking chains is mind boggling. How artisans actually carved that throws visitors in awe.

An old man carved from a tree stump
Or how about this elderly man carved from a tree stump, his sagely expression captured in his face.

However on closer inspection, especially on the old man, there is a layer of dust on his head...

I can't even imagine trying to clean these objects, but the dust has to go...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Another Way to Disappear

Wang Lijun before his "vacation-style treatment"
Something strange is happening in Chongqing.

Last week Wang Lijun, the police chief there who was known for spearheading the anti-gang crackdowns in Chongqing for party chief Bo Xilai, was suddenly reassigned another post.

Last Thursday Chongqing's information office said he was given the post of looking after economic affairs. But a few hours later the office amended its message to say the 53-year-old would be in charge of issues including education, the environment and industrial and commercial management.

When someone is reassigned to a junior post it is usually a euphemism for being investigated for corruption of that he fell out with his patron Bo.

However things got stranger earlier today.

There was an incident at the United States embassy in Chengdu, several hours drive from Chongqing, where there are rumours Wang tried to seek asylum.

There are reports the embassy was surrounded by a heavy police presence, and even roads to the building were blocked off.

Microbloggers circulated pictures of the scene where they claimed a car with official license plates had been seen inside the building but was later removed by police.

The Chongqing information office claimed Wang was being treated for stress. "According to information, because of long-term overwork, vice-mayor Wang Lijun is highly stressed and in poor health. He is now accepting vacation-style treatment."

This is a new euphemism -- "vacation-style treatment". What does this mean?

In any event the US embassy in Beijing refused to comment due to the run-up to Vice President Xi Jingping's upcoming visit to Washington next week.

Many believe this incident is a political blow to Bo, who has high hopes of rising up in the political ranks later this year and now this scandal has occurred.

But more importantly, will we ever see Wang again? Or will he forever have "vacation-style treatment".

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Busting the Baby Boom

The escalating issue of mainland women flocking to Hong Kong to give birth regardless of any links to the city has led to officials finally saying something about it.

Guangdong governor Zhu Xiaodan said a solution would be found but would not provide any details.

He was in town to attend a function yesterday and also discussed the issue with Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

"You can be rest assured. There will be ways to solve it," Zhu said. When asked to clarify, he said, "You can rest assured, You can rest assured."

That's very reassuring.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen said the Hong Kong government had proposed to Guangdong to cooperate to stamp out middlemen and agencies that arrange for pregnant mainlanders to come to Hong Kong.

Tam said Zhu was aware of the issue.

Last year 3,560 pregnant mainlanders were refused entry to Hong Kong out of nearly 90,000 women who were examined by immigration officials. About 43,000 mainland women gave birth in Hong Kong last year.

The main reason they flood the city is that children born in Hong Kong immediately get right of abode. And there are rumblings of changing the policy which would mean a reinterpretation of or an amendment to the Basic Law.

Meanwhile, human rights lawyer Mark Daly urged the Hong Kong government to conduct a study of the impact the growing number of pregnant mainlanders giving birth here might have before it decides what action to take.

"Like the domestic helper cases, there should be a proper study of how many this will affect... I am guessing they [the government] are exaggerating the effect of the mainland mother issue.

"It is very, very serious to be suggesting -- throwing out [for consideration] the idea of having -- a reinterpretation [of the Basic Law]. It is against the rule of law. It is against Hong Kong's legal system. That's one of our few advantages."

Some pan-democrats proposed amending the Basic Law, which Daly cautions means changing the constitution.

Many of the public say if one of the parents is a Hong Kong permanent resident, then the child should be allowed to be born in the city. Those without any kind of links should not be allowed in.

It's this growing resentment of mainlanders coming here to give birth as well as governmental restrictions on how many can cross the border that has led to some pregnant mainlanders to consider giving birth abroad in Canada and the United States. It's not a new phenomena -- there are already agencies that help these women get booked in hospitals and stay in cheap hotels or apartments until their due date.

By now Beijing should be taking notice. People are trying to leave China whichever way they can -- either through jobs or saving enough money to "invest" in a new country; students try to go abroad via secondary and tertiary education. And now parents are securing a better future for their child by literally bearing them elsewhere.

Doesn't the Chinese government realize its people want a better life elsewhere?

Monday, 6 February 2012

Empty Boasts

Chief Executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen's popularity has dropped according to a survey released on Friday. There's a difference of 19.5 percentage points from his rival Leung Chun-ying, an increase of 6.3 percentage points from two weeks ago.

The poll was conducted by the University of Hong Kong where Leung was at 46.9 percent, Tang at 27.4 percent and Albert Ho Chun-yan of the pan-democrats at 8 percent.

Perhaps Tang's fall in the survey has to do with his reluctance not to participate in a public debate with his two other rivals?

However he prefers to shift the blame on his former employer -- the Donald Tsang Yam-kuen administration.

As Tang served as Chief Secretary for nine years, he feels that the popularity drop is attributed to the government's performance.

"I can sympathize. I can understand," said Tang yesterday. "Because the public feels there are inadequacies with the government which can be improved."

However he still insists he has a transparent track record.

"I am the most transparent candidate," he added. "All the records on my previous service can be found. I have been under media scrutiny, too. I can be held accountable for all my previous policy-making decisions."

The media pressed him again about his reluctance in participating in a head-to-head public debate with his rivals despite his self-proclaimed transparency; he replied: "I have my own timetable in [debating and rolling out manifestos]."

The response screams "pathetic" and "procrastinator".

If his popularity plunges again next week what excuse will Tang have this time?

Meanwhile Leung has admitted he doesn't yet have the 150 nominations required to officially join the race.

"Some political groups have not made their decisions on their nominations," he said yesterday. "But I hope to win the race with a landslide victory."

He later said during an ATV interview, "I am very confident I would win if there was universal franchise."

While it's quite boastful of Leung to believe he would win if every adult citizen could vote, this is Hong Kong where only 1,200 people will decide who the next chief executive is.

So he better hurry up and secure enough nominations otherwise he won't even get a chance to officially run at all.

Sounds pretty straight forward to me unless I'm missing something?

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Controlling Host

Ah how the mighty have fallen. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her Chinese counterparts big face by bringing with her a 37-member delegation that included party leaders, senior government officials, and businessmen.

After attending an economic forum, she made a trip down south and was hoping to meet lawyer Mo Shaoping and visit Southern Weekend, a hard-hitting newspaper in Guangzhou.

However, Mo was told by police he could not attend a dinner with Merkel and have a private meeting with her.

"Unfortunately the lawyer was unable to attend. I regret that," Merkel told reporters in Guangzhou at the end of a three-day visit, according to a German government transcript.

The German chancellor said China's vitality and dynamic economic growth should have the confidence that even dissident voices are necessary for its society.

The "vitality and plurality of a civil society must be admitted, and it will finally contribute to strengthening the society and its capabilities," she said in the transcript.

Merkel confirmed she did speak to senior leaders about human rights in the country.

"We have spoken about the overall human rights situation," she said Saturday. "The issue of Tibet was also discussed, not very explicitly, but as one of many issues, which are also very worrying for us."

She also had to cancel a planned visit to the offices of Southern Weekend. The paper said "because of the tight schedule" it could not host Merkel and her delegation. The weak excuse means the newspaper was strongly pressured not to receive her.

One of the delegation members, opposition lawmaker Viola von Cramin-Taubadel of the left-leaning Greens, said her overall impression of the visit was disappointing.''

"The Chinese leadership could have spared itself from acting like that," she told the German news agency dpad. She said preventing Merkel from visiting the newspaper office was a sign of "hyper nervousness."

Mo said he was invited by German diplomats to talk to Merkel about the Chinese legal system and the challenges lawyers face. However, state security officers told him "orders from leaders above" would not allow him to see the German leader.

He is known for defending Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and a number of pro-democracy, labour and religious activists.

China still takes the position of welcoming other countries to do business with it, but under no circumstances can they meet with those related to dissent.

As Merkel says this insecurity is regretful that the authorities go to extremes to try to hide its ugly side, when it's already out in the open.

Just the fact that it's trying to hide something shows China's weakness. Despite its economic might (for now), China still cannot face up or resolve its own domestic issues that are a threat to its own legitimacy.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Channeling the Lady

Movie poster for The Lady
Last night I was invited to the Hong Kong premiere of The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh as Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and David Thewlis as her husband Michael Aris.

The preview hosted by Amnesty International was shown at The Grand Cinema in Elements and many socialites were there as well as businessman Allan Zeman.

As we filed into the movie theatre late, there were a flurry of flashing lights as Yeoh, director Luc Besson had their pictures taken, and everyone else craning their necks to see what was going on.

Then the movie started late, as Yeoh and Besson went to each theatre to say a few words before the screening, that they hoped people would enjoy the film. Besson remarked that making the movie impacted everyone who worked on it profoundly and changed them.

One would think The Lady would be a dramatic story to tell -- a gentile petite woman who is unarmed goes head-to-head with the Burmese generals who have a shameful human rights record. I remember one news weekly magazine's headline of "The Lady and The Generals".

However, not many know the story of Suu Kyi and so this biopic tries hard to give as full a picture as possible, which at times was tedious and the dialogue a bit wooden.

It is told in a series of flashbacks that starts with her father, Aung San, a general promoting democracy who is killed in a massacre by rivals. Later we see Suu Kyi in Oxford, married to Aris with two young children.

One day she gets a phone call that her mother has had a stroke and she needs to go back to see her. And it just so happens when she goes to Burma students are massacred on the streets for protesting. It is then that others who still have great respect for her father, ask Suu Kyi to lead the country to democracy, much to the chagrin of the generals.

General Than Shwe was known to be extremely superstitious and regularly consulted a soothsayer. According to the movie the fortune teller advised him not to kill Suu Kyi as a ghost would be more difficult to deal with. As a result he did everything else in his power to try to limit the people's access to her, which eventually led to house arrest for a total of 15 years.

Michelle Yeoh plays the role of Aung San Suu Kyi
We also see the relationship between her and Aris. They both struggle with the long distance relationship along with her boys who grow up without her. We see Aris get his diagnosis for pancreatic cancer in 1997, forcing Suu Kyi into a very difficult position -- if she leaves the country she will never be allowed back into Burma again. They manage to go to Burma many times, making these scenes tedious, but perhaps are needed to help show her family her devotion to her country and how the people  depend on her.

In the end the movie gives some good background for people to understand the plight of the Burmese and highlight Suu Kyi's efforts and patience in waiting out the generals, hoping they will finally relinquish control.

For Yeoh this is a role of a lifetime -- she apparently immediately agreed to the script and set about learning Burmese. In the beginning she doesn't quite look like Suu Kyi, but towards the end, perhaps with less makeup, at certain angles she bears an uncanny resemblance. Thewlis and the two young actors playing her children didn't have much to work with script-wise which is too bad. The movie's style is one of few words, but one would think more dialogue may have been needed to express various emotions.

Nevertheless, hopefully The Lady will give the general public a greater insight into what's going on in Burma and follow its progress.

Towards the end Yeoh looks very similar to Suu Kyi
I remember when Aris was denied visas to visit Suu Kyi when he was dying of cancer, and was sad to hear he was never able to see her again when he died on his 53rd birthday in 1999.

In 2003 I interviewed some Burmese refugees in Vancouver; they were all holding out hope for Suu Kyi who was arrested after the Depayin massacre when 70 people associated with the National League for Democracy were killed by a government-sponsored mob.

And then in 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks came out to protest against the government. They marched to her house and despite being under house arrest, she made a brief appearance to receive their blessings.

I had hoped then that things in Burma would change, but it was not to be until last November when the authorities released Suu Kyi from house arrest. Her son Kim came to see her after 10 years of being apart. Amazingly this all happened while Besson was filming The Lady. Yeoh recalled watching the moment on television and saying while they were dumbfounded and amazed, they were optimistic but also worried about what would happen next.

The authorities seem to have changed things around for now and Suu Kyi has registered her name as a candidate for the upcoming elections in April -- will the government refuse to accept the results or finally allow the country's Lady to step up? We shall see.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Remembering History 40 Years On

President Nixon and the press corps in China
Earlier this week the Asia Society in New York showed a documentary about US President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in February 1972 from behind the scenes, particularly from the point of view of journalists.

It's entitled Assignment: China -- "The Week that Changed the World", using Nixon's own words describing the event.

I just watched it last night on YouTube and it was so riveting I could not stop until it was over.

Narrated by former CNN China correspondent Mike Chinoy, the 58-minute documentary follows why Nixon wanted to go to China, and all the logistics involved in bringing over 80 journalists and technicians to cover the event live.

The president knew the pictures of the historic visit were critical to its success which is why he and his aides mostly planned the itinerary around TV journalists, much to the annoyance of print reporters such as Max Frankel of the New York Times and Stanley Karnow of the Washington Post.

This was also the first time the vast majority of the journalists accompanying Nixon went to China and didn't know much about China, let alone what to expect at all. The United States and China were in a cold war period, where hardly any American reporters were behind the bamboo curtain at the time. As a result the cultural and political differences were great.

Several of them, including CBS' Dan Rather, Barbara Walters of NBC and ABC's Ted Koppel recall what happened during the trip, along with Nixon's former aides and even a former official from the Chinese Foreign Ministry who is now living outside of China.

Some of the memories gave insight into the details involved in the trip, others funny ancedotes. The journalists remembered how they wore long johns to keep warm, but inside buildings the heat was so hot they were sweating so much. But because there wasn't any laundry facilities, they started to stink very early on the trip.

They were constantly followed by minders and one of the photographers was working very late hours to get his pictures processed in his makeshift darkroom in the hotel bathroom. His minder had to stay up the same time as him, and so the photographer remembers coming out of the bathroom at 5am with his latest pictures in hand and his minder was sprawled on the floor.

Another remembered how fascinated another minder was at watching how live TV production was done with several cameras and a producer calling the shots. After it was all over, the minder said he now understood how all these things worked, but was still unsure about what "f***ing audio" meant.

Many of the journalists recalled their frustrations at having events manufactured with regards to regular citizens, including meeting some people in the park playing in frigid weather in February. But perhaps their greatest annoyance was that Nixon's meetings with Chinese officials including Chairman Mao, were shrouded in such secrecy, even the White House aides could do nothing to help them cover the negotiations.

But for Nixon it wasn't about the final communiques, but the pictures of him in China beamed live to the US. The events were choreographed so that Americans would be having their breakfast and watching their president establishing diplomacy with a communist country half way around the world.

Assignment: China helps collate everyone's memories together of this historic event 40 years later and surely the documentary will become an excellent historical piece later as many of the journalists who were there are now getting on in their years. Their recollection of their visit is still vivid -- a testament to the fact they knew they were making history.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Joke of the Day: South China Seas

China and Japan are each claiming the Diaoyu Islands are theirs.

A joke circulating in Chinese cyberspace gives an ingenious solution:

Diaoyu Islands belongs to which country? Answer: Bring a laptop computer there. If you can open Twitter, they belong to Japan. If you can't open Twitter, they belong to China!


Now why didn't I think of that.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Feeling Swarmed

The full page ad financed by some angry people
Today's Apple Daily carries this full page ad featuring an image a locust, representing mainlanders flooding into Hong Kong.

It says, "Would you like to see Hong Kong spend HK$1,000,000 every 18 minutes on the children of non-Hong Kongers? Hong Kongers have had enough!"

The "anti-locust" ad was financed by internet users who raised more than HK$100,000 in less than a week.

"[Mainlanders] have already crossed our bottom line," said Yung Jhon, who refused to disclose his real name and was the organizer of the fund-raising campaign. "Why are mainland mothers flooding in to take up resources in public hospitals, getting our benefits and social welfare? Why do mainlanders... refuse to follow our rules and order? We can't accept that."

Web users coined the term "locusts" to describe mainlanders who consume resources in the city, from delivering babies here for residency, and splash out on property or luxury brands.

Meanwhile culture critic Jimmy Pang Chiming said the hostility reached a critical point and welcomed the ad. "It not only shows Hong Kong has freedom of speech, but also shows mainland leaders just how serious this cultural clash has become," he said, adding that the dispute reflected resistance towards mainland culture. "Hong Kong people do not want Hong Kong to become mainland China."

Denny Ho Kwok-leung, associate professor at Polytechnic University's Department of Applied Social Science said the ad indicated the tensions between locals and mainlanders would not end soon.

He also warned Hong Kong's government to maintain rule of law and freedom of speech. "It's very important to stick to the principles because if they cannot do that, people will lose their faith in the system, and Hong Kong will collapse in no time," he said.

There is also local resentment of more companies using simplified Chinese to attract mainland customers.

"We hope the authorities can pay attention to this worsening cultural clash," said Yung who claimed to be in his 20s and in the construction sector. "Now we will see if the government really listens to the people's voice."

We're watching to see what happens next.