Saturday, 31 March 2012

Farewell, Possums

Dame Edna Everage with her favourite flower, the gladiolus
Australian comedian Barry Humphries is retiring his famous alter egos, Dame Edna Everage and Les Patterson after he completes a two-year farewell tour of Eat Pray Laugh! that will start in June in Australia.

When I read that in the news I had to go see Dame Edna Everage as she was going to be on stage in Hong Kong with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, narrating Peter and the Wolf.

That day came this afternoon and Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall was filled with mostly parents with young children, though there were some well-known personalities attending including David Tang and his wife Victoria, Sally and Robert Lo and new West Kowloon Arts hub chief Michael Lynch.

After the orchestra players tuned their instruments, the conductor came out and then the spotlight shone on Dame Edna Everage -- housewife, megastar, investigative journalist, social anthropologist, children's book illustrator, chanteuse, swami, adviser to British royalty, grief counsellor, spin doctor and of course icon.

Receiving a bouquet of gladioli
She came out in a fantastically kitsch turquoise gown with lots of sparkles and of course the trademark glasses and mauve coiff carrying a few gladioli that she threw to some members of the audience.

"Hello possums!" she declared. "Let me have a good look at you. You've aged! And yet I haven't! It isn't fair!"

Her humour was very witty and had no qualms making fun of the audience, particularly those "paupers" sitting in the upper seats. And since there were kids in the audience, she would make adult remarks and later added their parents would explain the meaning to their brood later.

Then she launched into asking the audience if they believed in reincarnation, because she claimed in another life she was Serge Prokofiev's mother. Dame Edna said it might not sound like ones they'd heard before because today she was going to give her version of the story.

And she read the story with some dramatic effect, with the wolf not ending up in the zoo, but an animal sanctuary.

There was a 15-minute intermission before Dame Edna came out again, this time in a fuchsia flapper-style dress that showed quite a bit of leg.

This time she read another story called Juanita the Spanish Lobster. "Do you know what a lobster is?" she asked the children. "You've probably seen it in many Chinese restaurants in those filthy tanks."

Dame Edna taking her bows at City Hall Concert Hall
In any event she read and sang the story with lots of rolling r's and did a few dance moves in between. She asked a four-year-old girl to come up on stage with her, but the girl was petrified on stage and hardly moved. The poor little thing was scared of the mega icon.

We also got a bonus, Dame Edna said, adding she wasn't going to charge us extra.

With the conductor at the grand piano, Dame Edna belted out a song about Hong Kong to the tune of New York, New York.

Some of the lyrics had to do with familiar names like Swire and David Tang, but also drew lots of laughs about Henry Tang's basement.

Glad to see Dame Edna in action and sorry to hear she'll be leaving the stage for good.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Fall From Grace

Is Hong Kong turning into China?

We have a Chief Executive-elect who some people claim is a closet Communist, our current Chief Executive is being investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) for getting too close to his tycoon friends, and now two billionnaire brothers arrested and later released by the ICAC.

The last story was shocking on many fronts. Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong, 59, and Raymond Kwok Ping-luen, 58, control Hong Kong's biggest property developer, Sun Hung Kai. Also arrested was former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan, 64.

It is alleged the brothers benefited from Hui's knowledge of confidential information while he was in and out of government.

Some believe the tip off came from the Kwok brothers' estranged sibling Walter Kwok Ping-sheung who left the company in 2008 claiming his brothers ousted him.

Ten days earlier Sun Hung Kai's executive director Thomas Chan Kui-yuen was arrested for bribery by the ICAC.

Until now Sun Hung Kai was considered a sterling company, winning many corporate governance awards, and the bothers were known to be workaholics who paid close attention to detail on their projects.

Meanwhile Hui was also a career civil servant who advised Donald Tsang Yam-kuen during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, then helped get Tsang elected Chief Executive in 2005 and was duly rewarded with the job of chief secretary.

It is believed Hui was carrying debts of some HK$100 million that the ICAC is investigating.

Since land is at a premium in Hong Kong, it's no wonder property developers are keen to gain any insider knowledge they can get from anyone in government circles.

How the mighty have fallen.

James Sung Lap-kung, a political observer at City University, said this latest investigation was a severe blow to Hui's otherwise stellar reputation and that of the government.

"Coupled with what happened to Tsang, who is also under investigation by the ICAC for receiving hospitality from tycoons, the two most powerful people in the government [from 2005 to 2007] have been involved in corruption allegations. It's inevitable the public will cast doubt on the government's determination to remain clean," Sung said.

"Hui was born into an influential Macau family. The public might wonder if relations between the government officials and businessmen were too close."

Sun Hung Kai stocks plunged 15 percent losing $5.8 billion in value today following the brothers' arrests.

We will have to wait and see the outcome of this investigation, but it seems the three parties involved will not come out unscathed.

It's very disappointing to see these corruption allegations happening so close to each other as well as the relationships involved. Isn't Hong Kong supposed to be a fair place to do business?

With Tsang and now Hui being investigated, it seems there are not enough checks and balances in place for government officials post 1997.

Many people are clamouring for the British to come back.

Are Hong Kong people really that bad at governing themselves?

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Signs of Life

We are relieved to hear human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng met his relatives last weekend.

It is the first time we've heard anything of him since last December when the government was announced he was returning to prison for three years because he apparently violated his probation.

In January the authorities told brother Gao Zhiyi that Gao, 47, was held at a jail in Shaya County in Xinjiang. But their efforts to go see him were stalled until now.

Gao Zhiyi and his wife Geng He's father in law went to see him; he spoke to Geng for 10 minutes and his brother for 20 minutes.

"He was very pale, like someone who hasn't been in the sunlight for years, but otherwise he seemed healthy," said his wife Geng He by phone from California where she lives with their two children in exile. "After hearing the news from my family, I slept well for the first time in a long while."

However they were unable to ask Gao where he had been for the past two years or his treatment in jail.

Geng asked Gao Zhiyi why he didn't find out more. "He said, 'My main purpose of the trip is to determine whether he is alive or dead. The police will not allow you to ask so many things.'"

They spoke via telephone separated by a glass wall and were closely monitored by police. According to ChinaAid, Gao asked his relatives to deposit 600RMB into his prison account and asked about his family.

While we are glad to hear Gao is alive and "well", but seriously lacking in vitamin D, we are disappointed his relatives weren't give enough time to speak to him and find out how he has been these past two years where no one (except the authorities) knew where he was.

His relatives had to travel all the way to Xinjiang to see him for 30 minutes and then go home again.

Gao broke down when his father in law said, "My health has greatly improved now that I have seen you." His brother cried as well.

This emotional distress is torturous for everyone involved.

And that's exactly how the authorities want those convicted of "inciting subversion of state power" to suffer -- not only themselves, but their loved ones as well.

They are using Gao as an example to deter those bent on pushing for democracy that rebelling against the government means you will pay dearly.

No one said the road to democracy would be easy.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

HK's Version of Xinjiang Food

Roasted leg of lamb at Ba Yi
Tonight a group of friends and I tried a Xinjiang restaurant, probably the only relatively authentic one in Hong Kong.

Ba Yi is not in a convenient location, so it was a bit of a struggle explaining to the taxi driver exactly where we wanted to go. But you go up Pokfulam Road past Third Street and it's on Water Street on the right.

Stir-fried string beans with minced meat
I'd booked the table at 7:45pm because they warned me if I was even five minutes late the table would be given away. We got there 10 minutes early and they wouldn't even seat us even though the table was ready.

So we waited several minutes and perused through the menu before we were seated directly under a large screen TV constantly broadcasting the news.

None of the staff are from Xinjiang -- they are definitely locals. But the food, while limited is probably best described as a Hong Kong version of the northwestern Chinese provincial cuisine.

I pre-ordered the roast leg of lamb (HK$368) and it came out on a steel rectangular tray in one piece. We snapped pictures before it was taken back into the kitchen to be chopped up and generously seasoned with ground cumin.

Shredded potato with dried chillis and peppers
The lamb was delicious, very tender and while it wasn't juicy, it was meaty. The giant bones were left on the tray and two of us were like dogs licking the bones clean as if we were on the Flintstones.

We also ordered the shredded potato with chillis (HK$40) that was excellent. It was hardly oily and had a slight sour taste from a dash of vinegar, while the potatoes had a slight crunch and seasoned with dried chillis and finely sliced peppers.

The stir-fried string beans with minced meat (HK$40) was pretty good too, again mildly spicy stir fried with fresh chillis, garlic and onion. These two dishes were small portions that was just barely enough for five people. This is not a typical Xinjiang dish, but more Chinese.

Diced camel that was wrapped in a pancake
Meanwhile we satisfied our curiosity with camel pancakes (HK$98). It came with one plate of pancakes, another with the filling of diced camel that looked like ham, carrots and onion with some cabbage. The filling was better than the pancake which seemed to be made of cornmeal. In the few authentic Xinjiang restaurants I went to in Beijing, none of them served camel...

Our final dish was boiled lamb dumplings (HK$68) that came with a dark vinegar sauce. We again liked the filling more than the skin which was quite thick, but nevertheless we finished practically all of the food.

Boiled lamb dumplings
To complete the meal we ordered a small pitcher of yogurt drink (HK$28) that came with ice cubes, raisins and black sesame seeds. Usually in Xinjiang restaurants each person gets a bowl of homemade yogurt to have throughout the meal. Nevertheless it was quite refreshing and slightly sweet.

We brought some wines with us and observed the HK$50 corkage fee per bottle. The restaurant also has Tsing Tao beer and soft drinks.

The total came to HK$853 for five of us and it was a hearty meal enjoyed by all. We're already wondering when we'll be back for the lamb again...

Ba Yi
G/F, 43 Water Street
Western District
2484 9981

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

MTR Fare Hike Rant

The prices of goods and services keep going up in Hong Kong. Rents and the prices of food keep rising and now it's the transportation sector that wants more money from our wallets.

Taxi operators have applied to raise the flagfall price to HK$23 from HK$20, citing rising fuel costs, and bus companies like Kowloon Motor Bus is also aiming to raise fares too.

And now MTR Corp wants us to pay more for each ride.

There are plans to raise fares 5.4 percent in June, the third and largest increase since a fare-adjustment formula was implemented in 2007.

This means an average increase of HK$0.37 per trip. As expected, community groups were outraged.

Lawmaker Andrew Cheng Kar-foo said, "The increase will create a great burden for passengers and any concession is unlikely to be enough."

The groups noted the adjustment formula was supposed to allow for fare increases during times of inflation, but also fare reductions when there is a recession. However so far there have only been increases, even though the MTR Corp saw profits surge 22 percent to HK$14.7 billion last year.

The company justifies the need to raise fares to maintain its service standards. "Every year, we invest an average of HK$4 billion to repair and upgrade the system, not to mention the various concession packages we offer to passengers, students and the disabled. We need a stable increase in revenue to support the move," said Jeny Yeung Mei-chun, MTR's general manager of marketing.

No wonder the company is running television commercials showing an MTR technician who explains how he and his colleagues work hard overnight to ensure all the trains are in working order and are safe for use the following day.

MTR Corp offered HK$1.7 billion in fare concessions last year when the fare rose 2.2 percent. Yeung said the company was considering a bigger fare concession package this year.

First off, the company made a massive profit last year. It not only runs an efficient transportation network in Hong Kong, but also manages subway lines in Beijing, Shenzhen, London, Stockholm and Melbourne.

It also invests in a number of property developments like the one in Tsing Yi and Kowloon station, as well as shopping malls like Maritime Square, Telford Plaza, The Lane and Paradise Mall.

How can the MTR not have enough money to cushion itself this year or at least keep the fare raise as low as possible?

Which is why I prefer taking the bus, tram or walking to avoid being gouged as much as possible.

Yes, the MTR is the most efficient way of getting around Hong Kong -- there's no doubt about that.

But when it reaches a threshold people cannot afford or are not willing to pay -- then there's a problem.

Perhaps the only solution is to be a shareholder -- the only people the company will listen to.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Shadow Over Leung's Future

The election of Leung Chun-ying as the next Chief Executive is troubling many in Hong Kong.

That's because Beijing is becoming more open about its control over the former British colony.

Previously things were done in an underhanded or low-key way. Now it's pretty much blatant, turning this city, which is known for its press and speech freedoms into a quasi mainland Chinese state.

This was not supposed to happen until 2047, but obviously not yet 15 years after the handover we're getting a lot of interference from the mainland.

Days before the vote yesterday, Beijing urged the 1,200-member electorate to vote for Leung over Henry Tang Ying-yen.

Tang was probably in denial up until Sunday, believing his patron former President Jiang Zemin was still supporting him since he had been promised the position many years ago. The winds have certainly shifted in the last few weeks.

During his news conference Tang was teary eyed. Was it because it finally dawned on him that he was a puppet in this entire exercise?

And then there were reports about the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government calling the Hong Kong Economic Journal and complaining that it was too critical of Leung. The paper is 50-percent owned by Richard Li, a staunch supporter of Tang.

Other journalists and columnists complained there published pieces also had their wordings changed. Some had originally said they chose neither Tang nor Leung, but the final version said they chose Leung over Tang.

"The invisible hand" is troubling to Hong Kongers who are typically straight-forward people who expect everyone to play by the rules.

So it comes as a shock to them to see Beijing meddling in a race that Leung would probably have won anyway. If he had clinched enough votes on his own merit, people would think he had more integrity than he does now.

This is disappointing as Leung hasn't even begun his job yet and already has so many issues to deal with regarding his ability to do the job.

While it is a fact of life that Hong Kong is becoming closer to China, Hong Kong people want to believe rule of law is still in place, as well as freedom of speech and media. When these institutions start to erode, they lose hope and confidence in the city.

Leung cannot let this happen -- but more importantly, Beijing must not let this happen.

If the mainland has any understand of what Hong Kong is, it would leave it alone.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Easy Win, Hard Road Ahead

Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying
This weekend is a strange one -- on the one hand mostly expats and overseas visitors are enjoying the Rugby Sevens, while local Hong Kongers are either elated or dismayed by the Chief Executive election where Leung Chun-ying handily won with 689 votes in the first round.

The election was interesting to watch live -- the 1,200 chosen to vote filled out paper ballots and then when voting was closed at 11am, they sat down at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The ballots were all put on the table on stage and counted, as the candidates and their aides looked on from behind.

Some ballots checked two candidates, and at least one showed all three marked. Some 143 votes were either void or blank.

While things inside were orderly, a large crowd was building outside with people carrying banners denouncing the "small circle election" or particular candidates. Some picked fights with police, trying to push the barricades down leading to the convention centre.

That's because the election did not reflect the people's choice as indicated by the mock poll -- where some 54 percent preferred none of the candidates. However in a real election "none of the above" would have been an option.

Meanwhile as the votes were being counted, Henry Tang Ying-yen tried to keep a brave face but he was probably shocked at the only 285 votes he got, a sure sign from Beijing that he was definitely not the favourite. Next to him was property Lee Shau-kee who looked sullen and downcast. Tang's wife Lisa tried very hard to smile, but his serious missteps cost him the election.

And what a race it has been.

At first it was believed Tang was a shoe-in and the public griped about the pathetic reality of having someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth continue the government's cozy relationship with the city's tycoons.

However when he was unable to contain the news of his extra-marital affairs and later the construction of an illegal basement, Leung quickly rose as the better alternative.

But things got nastier with Leung's alleged triad links and Tang later claiming his rival had advocated the use of riot police and tear gas on those who protested against the legislation of Article 23.

Popular support for Leung started to drop and their faith in the system completely eroded when some election committee members admitted they were waiting for Beijing's guidance on who to vote for.

And that's what led to mixed emotions today.

Leung will have an extremely challenging leadership ahead. He must make peace with his rival camps and assure the public he is not a blood thirsty wolf who is only out for himself; he needs to prove he is a man of the people.

There are numerous issues that need to be resolved, from mainland mothers coming here to give birth, to the environment, education, housing and economy.

He is untested as a government leader, but Beijing is backing him.

Hopefully he will not let us -- Hong Kong -- down.

Third time lucky?

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Breaking News: Hong Kong People Choose "None of the Above"

I voted in the mock poll for the next chief executive of Hong Kong yesterday.

The online site was down most of yesterday thanks to hackers, and so organizers extended voting on Saturday.

There were also several polling stations around the city and when electronic voting was down, the polling station used paper ballots.

Nearly 223,000 people cast their votes.

Interestingly the ballot included an option for "none of the above".

And it turns out some 54 percent of voters chose neither Henry Tang Ying-yen nor Leung Chun-ying. This was followed by nearly 18 percent for Leung, 16 percent for Tang and 11 percent for pan-democrat Albert Ho Chun-yan.

This clearly shows Hong Kong people are not pleased with the quality of the candidates as well as Beijing's meddling in the race.

But who are we to say? It's only a mock vote.

The real election is technically today (Sunday).

Hardly Tempts Tastebuds

Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro and Ferran Adrià in the lab. Alive Mind Cinema
The 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival is on and last night I had a chance to see Cooking in Progress, a documentary about the famous El Bulli restaurant, Catalan chef Ferran Adria and his team who create fantastical dishes using molecular gastronomy.

I was hoping the film would give an insight into the creative culinary process, but instead saw a rambling, badly-edited doc.

The documentary makers wasted an amazing opportunity to explain how El Bulli is a three-star Michelin restaurant and that Adria's aim is to excite the diner, to create new sensations and tastes that have emotional resonance. Only towards the end of the film do we see him explain this to a new crop of young cooks he's hired for the season.

Instead we see Adria's chefs in "the lab" trying to concoct new dishes for their master to pronounce as good or bad, and if they're good, rate them as either two or three stars.

Adria's right-hand man, Oriol Castro, is desperate to please him and pushes the others in the team to create new tastes with mushrooms, eel, asparagus and grapes.

They must photograph everything, record what they did in pencil and on their laptops and print them out for Adria to see; it's actually disappointing to see the man himself doesn't get down and dirty in the kitchen -- he just decides if it's good or not. And if it's not, he'd rather not taste it.

All the techniques they use, from sous vide baths, to pressure cooking, frying and creating juices all looks interesting, but as viewers we have no clue how it tastes. We just watch them put the foods into their mouths and then they discuss how it can be improved.

Then after several months in the lab, the restaurant gears up for the next season and new cooks are hired to help execute these new dishes. It is only then that Adria explains, "Going to eat at an avant-garde restaurant gives you something like a creative emotion. It's not just about, 'Mmm tastes good.' You feel something. You think, 'Killer!' For us the emotional element is most important."

But we don't see this either -- we don't watch the guests sample the 30-course meal and witness them having emotional connections with what they are eating. Instead the camera is more focused on Adria test-driving the menu and critiquing it.

If the filmmakers weren't allowed access to the diners, then Adria should have been interviewed to explain why this is so crucial with his food and to describe the sensations when eating his carefully-crafted dishes, or have food critics who have praised his restaurant to do this.

In the end we're left unsatisfied really, unable to taste or even understand what Adria is doing with anything edible.

So I'm still back at square one, wondering what this fascination is with El Bulli, though will not have a chance to try it since it closed last July.

Cooking in Progress is poorly conceived and executed; it's definitely not something Adria would serve his guests.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Sad Reality of HK's Elderly

A Simple Life with Deanie Ip and Andy Lau
A movie that's showing in the theatres in Hong Kong is called A Simple Life directed by Ann Hui. It's a story about the relationship between a young master from a wealthy family and the servant (Deanie Ip) who served them.

She has worked for the family for 60 years, raising the young children until they grow up, get married and emigrate. Only Roger (Andy Lau) is left and she continues to look after him.

But one day she has a stroke and he comes back from a business trip to find her unconscious. When she recovers she decides not to be a burden and asks him to help her find an old folks home.

After she settles in, he realizes how much she has been a part of his life -- even though she is not a blood relation -- and he resolves to do whatever he can to make her last days memorable.

It is a good story and one we should all watch because there are reports a growing number of elderly people in Hong Kong are terribly mistreated.

Against Elderly Abuse says three were abandoned by relatives in Hong Kong last year and abuse cases increased 15 percent to 368. But the group claims this is just "the tip of the iceberg."

According to statistics from the Social Welfare Department, this is the first time since 2005 that more than one case of abandonment has been reported in a year.

The advocacy group says many cases go unreported "because in Chinese culture, elderly people are reluctant to reveal the disgraceful affairs of their families," said Roy Lam Man-chiu, Against Eldery Abuse's assistant executive director.

More elderly people are being targeted for cash by their children even after they received their HK$6,000 government handout.

Lam said some children sweet talked their parents into giving them the money or even assaulted them if they refused.

"Last Christmas, an elderly woman complained that her son, who had failed to get money from her, removed her quilt and turned on a fan at high speed when she was sleeping," he said. "He was cold-blooded."

More than 70 percent of last year's cases, 160 men and 208 women, involved physical abuse, while 12 percent were related to money. Others were psychological abuse, neglect and even sexual abuse.

Two-thirds of the abusers were spouses, 10.9 percent involved children, and 11.4 percent were domestic helpers. Other abusers included grandchildren, other relatives and neighbours.

One high-profile case involved Tse Kam-wo, who was left by his son in Guangzhou in 2009 where he was taken to undergo cataract surgery. Tse, who was 75 at the time, had his travel documents and HK$5,000 taken from him, and on top of that, he broke both his legs in a fall as he tried to look for his son.

Eventually he got help to return to Hong Kong and later even forgave his son.

It is shocking to hear these cases in this city, and in the context of Chinese culture where elders are supposed to be respected and cared for.

Have we really become this heartless?

If we do not care about our loved ones, how can we care for society?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Making a Legal Allegiance

The Chinese government is making it harder for lawyers to practice law in the mainland.

They now must swear an oath of support to the leadership of the Communist Party of China, which means lawyers must first obey the state before deferring to the law and their clients.

The Ministry of Justice recently set up the oath system for new lawyers, Legal Daily reported yesterday.

The oath says: "I wish to become a lawyer of the People's Republic of China, and I guarantee to fulfill the sacred mission of a law worker of socialism with Chinese characteristics, be loyal to the country, be loyal to the people, support the leadership of the Communist Party, support the socialist system, protect the constitution and the authority of the law."

Since when did practicing law become "sacred"?

In any event, the All China Lawyers Association had put the oath system in place in 2000, but only now was effectively implementing it.

A ministry spokesman said the new system would help a lawyer "strengthen his commitment" to the profession and help "concretely elevate the political standards and professional ethics" of mainland lawyers.

The first group to be "sworn in" would be those who obtained their licenses to practice law in the last three months.

Veteran criminal lawyer Zhang Sizhi said the oath was just "formalism" and would not solve problems such as lawyers' declining morals and bad practices.

"The oath is just to further strengthen the guiding thoughts in recent years that the Communist Party will lead everything," Zhang said. "But as a lawyer, shouldn't one's first loyalty be towards the law, rather than a particular organization?"

Lawyers find this latest development troubling, particularly after the jailing of lawyer Li Zhuang who was jailed in 2010 for fabricating evidence during his defense of Chongqing crime boss Gong Gangmo.

"In the case of Li Zhuang, the Ministry of Justice did not stand on the side of the lawyers... and this has broken our heart," defense lawyer Si Weijiang said. "Like love between a man and a woman, in order to have the heart of a man, what you need is not an oath, but love and efforts."

The government is clamping down on every institution it can to ensure loyalty first to the Party, which only further illustrates its paranoia and insecurity.

And as lawyers know their way around the law, they could be a dangerous adversary to the government -- so it thinks.

Making them pledge allegiance to the state is an insurance policy of sorts, but in the end, the lawyer must follow the law, thus putting them in a tight spot.

Wonder what law professors are going to teach their students with this new layer of bureaucracy to contend with.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Word of the Day: 尚书 (Shangshu)

A terrible crash that Beijing doesn't want anyone to know about
The word 尚书  (shang4shu1) refers back to a government official title in imperial China.

But nowadays it's a codeword that refers to senior government officials and their family members who get special treatment.

The latest case is a horrific accident that happened in Beijing in the early hours of Sunday March 18 when a male driver crashed a black Ferrari into the wall on the southern side of Baofusi Bridge on the north Fourth Ring Road going east. The driver died, and two seriously injured female passengers were sent to hospital.

Pictures of the crash showed a completely totaled car split in half, the front portion crushed and the engine in flames. Surely the man was driving at excessive speeds.

Usually these accidents are reported in the news, but for some reason when people did searches for "Ferrari", "North Fourth Ring" and "car accident", the results came up empty.

There's a lot of speculation there is 尚书 involved... perhaps a senior government official's son, as information was scarce. While the Beijing Emergency Medical Centre confirmed two women were admitted, there was only the medical description of one woman who was 31 years old. The other woman, in her 20s was apparently sent to another hospital with facial burns.

Meanwhile the Beijing Public Security Bureau refused to give any information about the crash, the cause or the progress of the investigation, while all references to the accident were scrubbed clean from China's cyberspace.

Someone obviously did not want anyone to know about the crash. We know something happened, but we are not supposed to know.

TIC -- This is China.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Panda Poop Tea

The entrepreneur sampling his own tea in a panda outfit
The scam of the day comes from Chinese entrepreneur An Yanshi who is selling tea that has been cultivated using panda poop.

While completely organic, the green tea costs more than $200 a cup!

The first batch of tea leaves will be sold in 50-gram packages costing 22,000 RMB ($3,481), making it the world's most expensive tea.

An collects the panda excrement from breeding centres and then uses it on his tea plantation in Yaan, Sichuan.

"They are like a machine that is churning out organic fertilizer," he said. "They keep eating and they keep producing feces. Also, they absorb less than 30 percent of the nutrition from the food, and that means more than 70 percent of the nutrients are passed out in their feces."

Excuse me, but all living beings produce feces and it's always been a great fertilizer. For centuries before the invention of chemical fertilizers, people had been using "night soil" for generations.

An is trying to make the use of panda poop look like it's completely revolutionary and that consumers should pay a whopping fee for it.

He even says, "I just want to convey to the people of the world the message of turning waste into something useful, and the culture of recycling and using organic fertilizers."

Yes, we get the environmentally friendly exercise, but sorry, not impressed.

While people are concerned about what they are eating and drinking in China, paying through the nose is not what they had in mind.

Perhaps he needs the money to pay off his workers who all wear vests with hoods that are shaped like panda heads...

Monday, 19 March 2012

Final Sparring Round

The second and last round of television debates were held tonight before 1,200 people cast votes on Sunday to decide who will be the next chief executive of Hong Kong.

This time the audience was more vocal, as the audience was made up of the actual Election Committee. This gave an opportunity for the voters to directly question the candidates their stance on whatever issue they were concerned about.

Questions ranged from property prices to the environment, education and the economy.

This time there was no instant poll, and while pan-democrat Albert Ho Chun-yan had no qualms challenging the two main contenders again, Leung Chun-ying continued his confident poise, while Tang shed the awkward dramatics from last time and stuck to his points.

Who will win? Public opinion says it's Leung, but it's not up to them.

There may be a number of blank votes cast on Sunday as a protest against the quality of the two leading contenders, Leung and Henry Tang Ying-yen.

"There's a lot of members talking about ABCYT," said Eric Cheung, an assistant law professor at the University of Hong Kong and also an election committee member. "That stands for, anybody but CY and Tang."

Beijing doesn't want this election not to produce a winner -- that would mean another run-off in May, before the new leader takes office July 1.

There are seven more days to go for both Leung and Tang to win more votes -- so it's going to go down to the wire.

Who knew Hong Kong politics would result in a cliff-hanger ending?

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Realistic Portrayal

Radio Television Hong Kong has great programs on TV, many of them public service announcements in the forms of dramas.

Tonight they showed one about the dangers of gambling.

A young man in his 20s meets his aunt in a coffee shop and she tells him he needs to get back on the straight and narrow because he likes to play mah jong. He's got earrings, a slight punk do, very much someone with attitude.

Then there's a flashback to when he was a child playing the game with three other adult women. He wins two rounds and is praised for his skill as he wins money for his efforts.

Now he works in a restaurant and is bored, his only hobby seems to be guns and playing war games with friends.

One time he gets a glimpse inside a gambling hall, seeing many people playing mah jong.

Not soon after he himself is playing in there and is on a winning streak, cocky and all too happy winning lots of money.

However, the next time he visits the gambling hall he starts losing, so much so that he practically wipes out his bank account.

Instead of starting from scratch again, he gets in contact with loan sharks who set out the terms of his repayment schedule very clearly, but he already misses the first payment. The loan sharks are on his case and he ignores them, but they manage to track down his aunt who gets very scared.

The young man meets a mainland Chinese prostitute and has a session with her, and then later he continues to lose at the mah jong tables. He gets the idea of showing up at her door with his fake gun and pretending to be an undercover cop demanding protection money.

He does this a few times to her and some other girls until one day he is about to harass them again for money when a real undercover cop chases him down the stairs and he's arrested by the police.

A year later he's in a gambling support group still talking about his winning mah jong combinations, but it seems like he's learned his lesson about loan sharks. His relatives helped pay off his debts and now he's slowly returning the money to them.

The story seems realistic enough, though perhaps in reality it would be even seedier or dangerous.

At the end of the show the host comes on and suggests that if the viewer has a loved one who has serious gambling problems to contact a hotline and gives them advice.

Next week they will show another gambling-related episode featuring a young woman; it shows that gambling can affect different kinds of people in various circumstances to break the stereotype that only a certain group of people get caught up in it.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Political Showdown

From left: Leung Chun-ying, Henry Tang Ying-yen and Albert Ho Chun-yan
Last night I managed to catch most of the televised debate between the three candidates running for chief executive of Hong Kong.

The election is just over a week away and this was the first time the trio appeared together before a live audience.

The hands-down winner was Leung Chun-ying and 43.2 percent in a poll said they'd vote for him, versus 13.4 percent for Tang Ying-yen and a decent 23.2 percent for underdog Albert Ho Chun-yan.

While some critics claimed Leung looked nervous, saying perhaps he was worried about saying the wrong thing that may anger Beijing, to me his body language looked poised and confident. He seemed very prepared for all kinds of questions asked of him.

Meanwhile Tang was doing everything he could to gain ground. In the beginning of the two-hour debate he gave his opening remarks and then walked in front of his podium to bow deeply to the camera as a sign of his humility after going through many scandals. The action was bizarre and awkward.

But that was not all. Tang did all he could to undermine the leader, and at one point dug up some dirt that may have breached confidentiality rules.

He took a shot at Leung's stance on the controversial Article 23 nine years ago:

"After hundreds of thousands protested on the street in 2003, did you say, at a meeting attended only by high-ranging officials discussing whether the government should hard-sell the legislation for the national security law according to the Basic Law Article 23, did you say that 'there would be one day [when] Hong Kong would eventually need to dispatch the anti-riot police and utilize tear gas to handle protests'?"

Leung categorically denied this and so Tang used this opportunity, saying, "You are lying. Don't cheat people. Many people heard it at that time."

However, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who was security minister at the time, said she did not remember Leung make this statement and questioned whether Tang had broken confidentiality rules by revealing what happened in government meetings.

Ip may be saying this in the hopes of joining Leung's cabinet as Chief Secretary, but we may have to take her word on this since she attended every meeting related to the security law unlike Tang.

Ho garnered the most applause and laughs from the audience as he seemed to have fun poking at Tang's and Leung's weaknesses, particularly chiding them on not being more open about their stance on the June 4 crackdown.

What was most annoying was the structure of the debate. The moderators or should we say the producers did not allot enough time for the candidates to answer questions, particularly when they were complicated issues. Giving an opinion on a serious topic cannot be done in 45 seconds. And there were instances when the candidates asked each other questions and there was barely enough time to answer, giving them a chance to avoid replying.

Nevertheless, the debate was pretty lively even though some people declared it boring or predictable. The fact that there is a debate is good and gives people a chance to learn more about their future leader.

The latest sign from Beijing is that Premier Wen Jiabao has strongly hinted the person who has a strong popularity with Hong Kong people should be the next leader.

"I believe that as long as the principles of openness, justice and fairness are observed and the relevant legal procedures are complied with, the Hong Kong people will elect a chief executive who enjoys the support of the vast majority of the people in Hong Kong," he said earlier this week.

However, the media reported today that Li Ka-shing is still strongly supporting Tang despite his gaffes.

"I nominated Henry Tang," he said. "His experience and work in the administration are good for Hong Kong. I will definitely vote for him on March 25."

It's interesting seeing Li and earlier entrepreneur Allan Zeman already declaring their votes despite the public's support of Leung.

We'll have to see how it all shakes down just over a week from now.

Friday, 16 March 2012

A Bad Day at the Office

Bo Xilai is probably pondering what to do next
Beware the Ides of March, said the soothsayer to Julius Caesar just before he was stabbed to death in the Roman Senate.

And in Bo Xilai's case, yesterday marked the end of his high-flying career as the Chongqing Party boss who had ambitions of climbing the Party ladder, but stumbled badly.

It's disappointing to see this happen to him, but hubris can lead to one's downfall.

I like many others was attracted to his charisma, his English fluency and seeming ability to lead. He looked different from the other staid leaders who stayed close to the script or had the same old-man look.

Bo was first party secretary of Jinxian county in Dalian, then party secretary of the Dalian Economic and Technological Development Area. In 1999 he became the city's party secretary and from there promoted to the Liaoning governor in 2001 replacing Zhang Guoguang who was hit by corruption scandals.

Then he caught international attention when he was promoted to Commerce Minister in 2004 where he made his mark handling numerous trade disputes with the United States and Europe, and attracted foreign investment.

I thought he'd definitely move up the senior ranks so I was surprised to see him instead moved to Chongqing in 2007, which while it has the country's largest population at 32 million, it's not a mover and shaker position like Beijing and Shanghai.

And then it seemed he made a bad right turn when he began his red campaign of texting residents revolutionary slogans and encouraging them to sing red songs that were eerily reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

This was a huge contrast to his personal life where his son Bo Guagua has led a flamboyant playboy life, living it up in Oxford and now Harvard University, going out with politically connected girls including Jon Huntsman's daughter and driving a Ferrari.

Bo also caused a stir by the way he and his deputy Wang Lijun handled the crackdown on triads which made him look like the swaggering cowboy in the wild west. While he was praised for taking on gangsters who have had Chongqing as a stronghold for a long time, senior officials were concerned by the heavy handed tactics he used, neglecting rule of law and using torture to extract confessions.

He also got a Beijing-based lawyer convicted for fabricating evidence which critics said was a move to deter lawyers from defending suspects.

But things came to a head last month when a bizarre incident happened when Wang entered the US embassy in Chengdu 300km from Chongqing and stayed there overnight before being taken away by Beijing-based officials.

No one knows exactly what Wang told US diplomats but it is widely understood he tried to gain asylum but was denied.

This incident had serious repercussions for Bo and everyone was waiting during the "two sessions" what would happen to Bo.

Up until Wednesday everything seemed to be fine and Bo even gave a press conference to reporters.

However when Premier Wen Jiabao was asked about Chongqing he gave a critique that was unusual for senior leaders and many analysts believe he was speaking on behalf of the entire leadership.

"The current party committee and government of Chongqing must seriously reflect upon and learn lessons from the Wang Lijun incident," he said.

Although he was not singled out by name, Bo's face looked sullen and by the end appeared to look like he had lost interest. He probably knew the end was nigh.

Yesterday it was announced in a short statement that Bo was dismissed and Chinese state media have said little about Bo's sacking.

He will now be replaced by Zhang Dejiang, whose patron is also former President Jiang Zemin, and is also known for studying economics in North Korea in the late 70s. What that means for Chongqing economically is hard to say.

In the meantime what will happen to Bo's future is still a mystery. And what of his family and their wealth? Does this mean selling the Ferrari?

It's a crashing end to a personable man and my hopes that the Chinese leadership would loosen up a bit. In fact the opposite has happened and they are determined more than ever to keep a poker face.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

80s Memories Live On

Duran Duran performed live last night in Hong Kong
I have a confession -- I was nuts about Duran Duran when I was a teenager.

Now that I look back I had some strange infatuation with keyboardist Nick Rhodes who still has a penchant for eyeliner.

Meanwhile most of my classmates were into John Taylor and his shaggy mane.

So it was an opportunity for nostalgia and relive the 80s when Duran Duran performed last night at AsiaWorld-Expo.

I went with a co-worker and we decided on the mid-range tickets at the auspicious cost of HK$888 ($114.40) each. And like us, the vast majority of the audience were our age and older, most in their work clothes as they'd all come from the office.

However there were a few who made the effort to dress up in an 80s look, some young men with teased big hair topped with a pork pie hat, oversized shirts and balloon pants, while some women wore sparkly tops or dresses.

After several announcements made in English and Chinese that the show was about to start (not), we filed into the massive space filled with temporary seating. The stage in front looked like there wasn't enough room for the band members, and its layout wasn't very... updated.

We sat in the middle section to the far right with mostly Caucasians and a smattering of Chinese.

Some 35 minutes late the lights went dark and Duran Duran took their places.

Simon LeBon looks much older, but his voice still sounds the same. It's pretty amazing considering he had a serious bout of laryngitis in May last year where he lost his voice for a few months.

But here his vocal range was back and he was very lively jumping up and down, dancing around, but for the most part stayed in the centre of the stage.

Meanwhile Rhodes looked cool and composed in his suit playing keyboards, looking like he was hardly breaking a sweat, while John Taylor still had two-toned hair on guitar and Roger Taylor bashing away on the drums.

They played a mix of old and new songs, and it was really the former that the audience came for. We all jumped up with songs like A View to a Kill from the James Bond movie, and Planet Earth, Hungry Like the Wolf, Reflex and Notorious. The last song before the encore was Wild Boys in which they remixed in part of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Relax for a bit of a twist.

LeBon gave a tribute to the victims of the Japan earthquake and tsunami just over a year ago, singing Ordinary World to much applause.

Some of the new songs included All You Need is Now, the title track from their latest album and Girl Panic, featuring a wacky video on screen behind the band that reunited such 80s supermodels as Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen and Eva Herzigova impersonating Duran Duran and pretending to sing and play instruments.

We decided to leave when the band members left the stage to avoid the rush for the Airport Express at the end of the show. Previously we'd heard horror stories of hundreds of people trying to leave the venue en masse and hardly any other modes of transport available. As a result I was able to get back to town with fond memories of the show intact.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Wanting Out and Slim Pickings

You can't compare apples with oranges...
Nearly 75 percent of Hong Kong people want Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to step down before his term is over at the end of June.

His popularity rating has also plummeted to a record low of 43.5 points out of 100, which contrasts with the 72.3 he got when he first took office in June 2005.

The latest results were from a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme where 1,001 people were questioned from March 2-7, just after Tsang apologized for his trips on luxury yachts and a private jet as well as his very good deal on a retirement flat in Shenzhen from businessman Bill Wong Cho-bau.

The poll found 71 percent of respondents were against his role as a city leader, up 7 percentage points from February. His popularity rating was down 3.1 points from last month.

"The significant drop in the chief executive's popularity is probably related to his suspected conflict of interest," said Robert Chung Ting-yiu, the programme's director.

Tsang still insists his links with tycoons have not affected his policymaking but the public disagrees.

Meanwhile the Civic Party conducted its own poll and found 53 percent of 2,364 respondents were unconvinced by Tsang's explanations for his behaviour. Half of those surveyed wanted Legco to investigate the conflict-of-interest allegations.

The poll was conducted between March 5 and 12.

In other somewhat related news, we are disappointed to hear entrepreneur Allan Zeman still putting his support fully behind Chief Executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen, claiming public opinion has improved.

"Henry is back to what he was before... he is more confident," Zeman said yesterday. He added Tang and Leung Chun-ying are now equal in terms of scandals with the latter facing alleged triad links.

Zeman even equates Tang with former US President Bill Clinton saying, "Bill Clinton had an affair with [Monica] Lewinsky, but that did not stop him from being a well-loved president," he said.

The difference is that most people approved of Clinton and his policies before the scandal. Not many Hong Kong people liked Tang from the beginning.

Sounds like Zeman is comparing apples with oranges, particularly ones that are hardly ripe for picking.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Blazing Protests

Setting yourself on fire is one of the worst ways to commit suicide.

It doesn't guarantee death, and it's a very painful way to go. Those who survive self-immolations are physically and emotionally scarred for life.

However there are some Tibetans who are choosing this method of suicide to voice their protest against the Chinese government.

Tomorrow will mark the fourth anniversary of the Tibet uprising where there were peaceful protests but also violent ones that descended to looting, rioting, burning and killing.

Racial tensions erupted between Chinese and non-Chinese and it created stark divisions.

That palpable tension was even felt in Beijing when I was there, as it was clear foreigners believed one side of the Tibet story, while Han Chinese had their own version.

Most memorable was that on our MSN chat lists, everyone's name had a red heart next to it as a symbol of their love for China. My entire list was red, burning red; it was a frightening time.

After quelling the riots, the Communist Party of China came down even harder on Tibetans, particularly monks, making it more difficult for them to worship proper Buddhist texts without having "reeducation sessions".

The repression for these people has become unbearable, leading some to choose the desperate act of self-immolations as shocking statement of their plight.

There have been 14 self-immolations this year, and more than 20 in the past year.

Before setting themselves ablaze, they have been reported calling for Tibet's freedom and the Dalai Lama's name.

While His Holiness is sympathetic to these people, the Dalai Lama does not agree with self-immolations, saying it is not a Buddhist thing to do.

Meanwhile Chinese officials are trying to discredit these Tibetans by calling them outcasts, criminals and mentally ill people who are manipulated by the Dalai lama.

"Some of the suicides are committed by clerics returning to lay life, and they all have criminal records or suspicious activities. They have a very bad reputation in society," said Wu Zegang, an ethnic Tibetan who is the government's top administrator in Aba prefecture.

He added that the self immolations were "orchestrated and supported" by the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independent forces. He said that before they set themselves on fire, the immolators shouted "independence for Tibet and other slogans that aim to divide the nation."

Officials have tried to explain that some committed this kind of suicide because of other reasons other than Tibet's political situation, such as pressures at school or previous head injuries. These hardly seem like credible explanations because setting oneself on fire is not an easy way to die.

However the Chinese will never be able to control these self-immolators -- they are random and not organized.

As a result they may continue.

When will the Chinese realize they need to realize that force will not bring peace -- but mutual respect, understanding and communication?

I can only hope it will happen in my lifetime, otherwise all is lost and desperation remains.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Intrigue Continues

The race for the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong still continues to be fodder for discussion around dinner tables.

Now there are concerns candidate Leung Chun-ying may have triad links after some of his aides had dinner with Heung Yee Kuk members and one of the attendees was apparently former Wo Shing Wo triad boss Kwok Wing-hung.

Yesterday Leung's aides held a press conference stating they did not know everyone at the dinner and gave details of the event to the police to investigate.

We have yet to hear what Beijing thinks of this latest revelation which is creating a massive headache for Chinese officials.

As both Leung and Henry Tang Ying-yen are both hit with scandals that for the latter seems completely irreparable thanks to his extra-marital dalliances and illegally-built basement, how to vote on March 25?

Granted Hong Kong people are not allowed to vote -- only a selection committee of 1,200 have that privilege, and there are concerns this group, mostly made of tycoons, will choose the one who best suits their interests. For them Tang is easily malleable, and since he was also born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he would definitely be supportive of the business sector.

However, the vast majority of the Hong Kong public have an intense dislike of Tang for his upper class upbringing that has made him completely oblivious to the massive wage gap, the lack of job opportunities for young people, rising rents and property prices to serve in their best interests.

Leung is the next viable alternative, but with this latest scandal rocking his party, we will have to wait and see what the public thinks, but in the meantime he is the people's choice, but is he to be trusted?

Some think he has ulterior motives, others, particularly the tycoons do not like him because he holds no allegiance to them.

How should the Election Committee vote? Or more importantly, how will Beijing instruct the members to vote?

If Tang is elected, surely there will be an immediate massive protest in the streets of Hong Kong; and if Leung wins, what kind of administration are we going to have for the next five years?

Unfortunately pan-democrat Albert Ho Chun-yan is hardly a viable contender even though he is slowly gaining popularity points.

There are concerns the election less than two weeks from now will result in no sure winner as there may be a number of blank votes which is not a result Beijing wants to have.

So much for Beijing wanting to control the election as much as possible -- this time has clearly revealed the system is seriously flawed and that Hong Kong people should be able to vote.

They want someone who represents their interests, not Beijing's. They want someone who has the long-term vision of what Hong Kong should be and how to get there.

For almost 15 years we have had two leaders who have kowtowed and obeyed Beijing's requests that have led to poor decisions that lack any foresight except to gain brownie points from the mainland.

Perhaps it's time Beijing listened to what the people want and let them decide who should lead Hong Kong.

In the meantime it's been a fascinating race to watch from the sidelines. No scriptwriter could come up with such storylines that surprise almost on a daily basis.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Sick Healthcare System

This weekend I've been visiting an elderly relative in hospital, Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Jordan.

It's quite a large complex and it's impressive seeing hordes of people constantly flowing in and out of the healthcare institution.

However, as an observer it's plain to see the hospital is flooded with patients and not enough qualified staff to go around.

My relative was sent by ambulance to emergency Thursday morning, but it wasn't until late afternoon she was formally admitted. She was lying on a gurney in the hallway. Later she was moved into a large room with several patients. She was placed under the television so she felt everyone was watching her, making her self-conscious and worried.

Then she was moved again to another floor where I have seen her twice. In a western hospital at most there would be six patients crammed in there, but here there were eight.

There's no room for visitors to sit and visiting times are only from 5pm to 8pm daily. If there are too many people around the bed, the nurse may shoo them away to a waiting area that hardly has enough seats for everyone.

While patients complain the hospital food is bad, their family members bring lots of food in and the nurses don't seem to care what it is, only recording on the chart what the patient says he or she has eaten.

Hardly any nurses make the rounds, only darting furtively in and out -- and I never saw a doctor come into the room.

To make my relative feel more comfortable, we are applying to have her placed in a type 2 ward where there are only two to a room and visiting hours are extended; but of course these are only available when the bed is free.

In the meantime it seems patients have to rely on the care of loved ones to ensure they are eating and even cleaned properly. There are no nurses or healthcare staff who make sure these elderly patients get up and move around at all on a regular basis.

These are my impressions for the past two days, and they are enough to make me determined not to get sick in Hong Kong.

You'll get the healthcare, but be basically neglected.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Picture of the Day: The Star Ferry

The Star Ferry leaving for Central
Ah Hong Kong's iconic Star Ferry.

We are still upset the ferry terminal moved from its great location next to the Central Post Office in 2006 to make way for reclamation purposes and that construction is still going on.

The ferry terminal is now a further 15-minute walk to where the outlying ferries are. As a result we think twice about taking the pleasant boat ride over because sometimes the walk alone to the ferry in Central puts us off and we'd rather just go across by MTR.

Nevertheless, when the conditions are right, we always enjoy the Star Ferry ride as it hums across Victoria Harbour, seemingly oblivious to the flashy skyscrapers.

It just chugs along, ferrying us across between Tsim Sha Tsui and Central or Wan Chai.

Hope this tradition continues to stay in Hong Kong, to remind us of what life was like even less than half a century ago when this was the only way to get across the harbour.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Airing Out the Data on Pollution

The Pearl River Delta region is leading the way in China with regards to publishing air pollution data regularly.

Yesterday the government websites of Hong Kong and Guangdong province published key particle readings from the country's largest network for air-quality detection, made up of 31 stations.

Professor Chen Zunrong, who studies the environment at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou hailed the announcement as a significant move towards transparency.

"It is a major step forward in promoting transparency of government information that will help the public understand the truth about air pollution," he said.

Hourly and 24-hour average readings of fine particles including those of fine particles from 17 stations in the delta region and 14 in Hong Kong can be viewed on the websites of the Guangdong Environment Protection Bureau and Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department.

Hong Kong already publishes the levels of pollutants such as ozone and nitrogen oxide.

Chen believes this initiative from the Pearl River Delta area will force the rest of the country to give out their readings and in turn be a motivation to cut back in air pollution.

Beijing became the first to publish readings in January, but there was a lot of criticism because the data only came from one monitoring station so it was widely seen as incomplete and ineffectively giving a true picture of the serious smog issue.

While mainland Chinese environmentalists felt this was a historic step forward, critics in Hong Kong felt the city should do more.

Helen Choy Shuk-yee of the Clean Air Network was pleased about the release of the data, but was concerned about the lax standards on fine particles not being introduced until 2014.

She said currently none of the 14 monitoring stations in Hong Kong exceeded the proposed standard of 75 micrograms on a 24-hour period.

If standards were set at World Health Organization standards which is at 25 micrograms, up to six stations, including those in Causeway Bay, Mongkok and Central would fail.

Nevertheless, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Department said yesterday's fine particle concentration was within normal range. Perhaps that was because there was light rain yesterday?

She even added there was a 17 percent drop in the fine particle level between 2005 to 2011. How does she explain the significant rise in asthma cases in children and cancer rates then?

There are more vehicles in Hong Kong than before, along with buses and trucks. There was a trial to try out hybrid buses a few months back. What happened with that, or has that environmental initiative died already?

Why is it so hard to get the Hong Kong government to move forward on environmental issues? To it, the task seems utterly impossible whereas the rest of us are keen to clear the air for ourselves and our future.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

A Step Towards Legal Fairness

China is getting one thing right.

Today it abandoned plans to make it legal to "disappear" what it feels are criminals or critics of the state.

There were fears that if this legislation was passed, it would give the authorities no need to justify holding people without letting their family and friends know where they were.

One of the most recent and best-known examples was artist and activist Ai Weiwei last year who was detained in an unknown location for over two months and held without charge. He was finally released in June after his family didn't know where he was.

"The removal of the disappearance clause is a victory for legal reformers in China and a defeat of the security apparatus' attempt to further cement its power," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"If they hold you in a police station or prison, it's not good. But it's still very different from being kidnapped in the middle of the night, and put in a guesthouse somewhere and kept there for months."

There are currently three ways to detain suspects before their trial -- formal arrest, detention and residential surveillance at home or other places.

Critics say the last option is the least formal because suspects are held in places like guesthouses or hotels where the police may feel like they have free rein to inflict torture, whereas the first two are formal areas and families know their loved ones are held there.

The final draft of the amended law says the authorities must inform family members the suspect is being held under residential surveillance in an undisclosed location within 24 hours regardless of the alleged crime.

The original clause stipulated this as well, but waived it in cases of terrorism, or national security, when notifying the family could "obstruct the investigation".

Chen Guangzhong, chairman of the China Legal Society who has followed legal amendments closely, said the removal of this clause was "big progress".

"I think this is a good sign, it shows our legislative bodies -- when integrating China's actual situation into their laws -- can also listen to other, different ideas. That type of progress is not at all easy," he said.

However, in cases of detentions, which are different from residential surveillance, police do not need to notify the family within 24 hours when it comes to terrorism or national security cases.

Nevertheless, while the change is good, it will only be proven so when implemented.

"It is too soon to tell whether this will be the case," Bequelin said. "For years the Public Security has routinely ignored, with almost complete impunity, the procedural protections that were already in the law."

We shall see if Beijing is sincere about implementing this new change -- and more importantly -- that all law enforcement agencies and authorities know about it.

While we are cautiously optimistic, it's no good promising things on paper and yet things are still the same.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Quote of the Day: Henry Tang's Gift of the Gab

Henry Tang Ying-yen in happier times
Hong Kong Chief Executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen still wouldn't confirm if he fathered an illegitimate child, but gave this answer:

"I won't comment on anything that involves an innocent third person," when asked on RTHK. "I don't want the third person to be harmed by others."

That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

He added: "My behavioural problems in the past have left me with lifelong regrets."

Perhaps he will also regret this reply?

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Fact of the Day: Public Security Trumps Defense

The 11th National People's Congress is underway in Beijing and there is a lot of intrigue about body language, who meets who, what is said and how it should all be interpreted.

On Sunday it was all about what to make of Vice President Xi Jinping shaking the hands of those who support Hong Kong Chief Executive candidate Leung Chun-ying before pressing the flesh with those in Henry Tang Ying-yen's camp.

And then all eyes were on Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai and how he would be treated by senior officials; no definitive conclusion can be made yet.

Yesterday Premier Wen Jiabao gave his annual work report. The main point was that the government has set this year's economic growth target to 7.5 percent, the first drop in eight years. However, many are interpreting this as a good sign, so that China can focus more on sustainable development and also decrease output with the economic instability in Europe and the United States.

Another announcement he made was that central and local government spending on domestic security was set at 701.8 billion RMB ($111.4 billion), compared with 629.3 billion RMB in 2011 when it grew by 13.8 percent.

The interesting part about this whopping figure is that it is much larger than the defense budget which is at 670.3 billion RMB ($106.4 billion).

Wen said the government must "effectively defuse various types of conflicts, risks and dangers; prevent isolated problems from growing into major ones, and promote social harmony and stability."

He was hinting of the problems in restive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang, but also hundreds of thousands of riots that erupt in the country.

When a government spends more money on "public security" than on national defense, this clearly illustrates how scared the Chinese government is of its own people.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Is Lei Feng Still Relevant?

An iconic image of Lei Feng when he was in the PLA
The Communist Party of China is reviving Lei Feng as a model citizen for the Chinese to emulate.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of "Learning from Lei Feng Day" where people can stop and remember the selfless young man who served his country.

After he died on March 5, 1962, the Chinese government promoted him as a patriotic individual was born into a poor peasant family in Changsha, Hunan province. When he was seven years old Lei Feng became an orphan and was cared for by the government. Three years later he was enrolled at a primary school.

Apparently he came to school early everyday to clean the classroom to prepare for lessons and after six years of education he became a farmer. According to the story he also contributed to many work units.

When he became 20 he joined the People's Liberation Army. He was only 1.6 metres tall, just shy of the minimum height limit, but nevertheless had good work performance and was stationed in Fushun, Liaoning province. He was also made a party member.

In the army he was said to wash his comrades' clothes and given them free haircuts, as well as given away money and possessions to people in need. And when he traveled by train, he would give his seat to elderly people and help stewards clean up.

Sound too good to be true?

Today many young people in particular question whether Lei Feng is still relevant in today's world.

One Chinese state media outlet stated: "The post-1970s generation learned from Lei Feng, the post-1980s generation revolted against Lei Feng, and the post-1990s generation has forgotten about Lei Feng."

However the Propaganda Department has been quietly bringing back Lei Feng in the last few months that culminated into The Complete Works of Lei Feng that was published in a massive 200,000 Chinese character-long anthology on February 23.

So as the government keeps trying to push Lei Feng as an altruistic example of a good person, the public find it hard to swallow seeing as the state is hardy a selfless body, with its officials perceived as corrupt and selfish.

The more Beijing cultivates an image of him, the more unbelievable it becomes.

Perhaps the most tragic part of this story is that Lei Feng died at the tender age of 22 when a telegraph pole fell on him thanks to a reversing truck he was directing.

So while he was selfless, Lei Feng wasn't that bright.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Peddling Tradition

The poster for the latest commercial by Cartier
Cartier unveils its latest advertising campaign in the form of a three and a half minute commercial today that was shown in movie theatres and TV channels today.

Called L'Odyssee de Cartier, it's a lavish production, that was filmed on location in Prague, Paris, Italy and Spain.

The main character of course is the jewellery house's icon, the panther.

Using the sleek, fast animal originated from artistic director Jeanne Toussaint, whose nickname was "La panthere".

In the ad the panther breaks out from its bejewelled shell and travels the world while recounting Cartier's 165-year history.

The panther and the dragon face to face in China
What's interesting is that one of the animal's first destinations is China, where it comes face-to-face with a computer-generated gold dragon. The Chinese-style mythical animal then flies over the Chinese landscape and morphs into the Great Wall.

While the scene is an obvious homage to China, but also a hope to expand its markets there, Cartier also tries to prove its legitimacy, saying the brand already began creating dragon designs in the 1920s when Louis Cartier designed the Bestiaire line.

Another scene includes a fantastical one featuring the "tutti fruitti" collection, where the jewellery pieces feature the blue, green and red stones. The panther wanders through a Mughal-inspired room where crocodiles are covered in gemstones as well as flamingos.

There is also the introduction of the Tank watch and how it was commissioned by Albert Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator pioneer. He wanted to make it easier to look at his wristwatch so Cartier put the watch on leather straps to fasten around his wrist.

The commercial is so loaded with historical context that it's a pity it gets lost when viewing it without any previous explanation.

Nevertheless, it's a fitting encapsulation of what Cartier has achieved in the past.

So what has it done today?

In any event here's the commercial:

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Desperate to be Thin

A women models a pair of skinny shorts -- but is she for real?
Many Hong Kong young women are obsessed about their figures.

They perceive that thin is pretty and will go to great lengths to become stick-thin.

Some will skip meals, others eat only salads or even resort to "diet pills" and gimmicks that claim to help people lose weight.

One of them entails adding a kind of powder to water and drinking it a few times a day to make one go to the bathroom more often. The product claims it has bacteria in there to clean out one's system so that the bloated feeling will disappear and thus be reflected in the waistline.

This desire to be thin has resulted in nearly 40 percent of young women 20 to 29 years old in the city to be underweight. This proportion has doubled in the past 15 years and the consequences can lead to them being more at risk of osteoporosis, according to a study by a Queen Mary Hospital doctor.

Dr Annie Kung Wai-chee used the World Health Organization's classification of body mass index (BMI) calculated by dividing a patient's weight by their height squared. An index of 18.5 to 22.9 is normal. However one in four Hong Kong young women had a BMI lower than 18.5.

And this could lead to a higher change of developing osteoporosis as the women's bone tissue decreased as well as bone density over time.

"When a female is in puberty and she tries to control her body weight by eating less, she can't get enough calcium and vitamins to sustain bone growth," Kung said.

Other possible contributors include low body weight, smoking and too little calcium in the diet. Osteoporosis can also lead to height loss and stooped body posture.

Kung described a 19-year-old whose weight was 36.3kg and her BMI was 14. When the young woman slipped on a wet floor, she broke her leg.

At the time the teenager ate twice a day and only dry food. After four years of treatment she now weighs 41kg but is still underweight.

Part of this obsession particularly in Hong Kong is due to the materialistic culture and constantly being exposed to images of thin models on advertising billboards, in magazines and television. They also don't seem to realize that many of the images of women they see are photo-shopped to the point where they don't look natural anymore.

There is very little knowledge about proper diets as well as the importance of exercising in Hong Kong. Many still believe lifting even the lightest dumbbells will result in large manly muscles which is physiologically impossible.

This kind of basic health information is so critical and yet parents, schools and senior officials seem more concerned about top grades than physical and psychological well being.

Friday, 2 March 2012

A Blast from the Desert

Tinariwen at home in the Sahara Desert
I just came back from a concert performed by Tinariwen, a band based in the Sahara Desert in northern Mali.

They are a group of Tourareg-Berber musicians and formed Tinariwen in 1979 in the refugee camps in Libya and then returned to Mali in the mid-1990s.

And last month they won a Grammy for Best New World Music.

Just before the concert began the audience heard how the band members live in the desert and it takes them at least two days to get to the airport by jeep and bus. For us urbanites this kind of commuting is so far removed from what we know that it made us appreciate their coming to Hong Kong even more.

Performing at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
And to add to the complications, fighting between warring factions has broken out in northern Mali so two band members, founder and guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and singer-guitarist Elaga Al Hamid could not safely get out of the area.

Nevertheless, the band managed to round up two former members of the band to play for us at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The six-member group including a female singer, came on stage wearing their silk-cotton robes complete with headdress. In the Concert Hall they were trying to recreate an intimate musical session in the desert under the stars.

Once they began to play, you couldn't help but clap, tap your toes or bob your head to the music. The beats were strong and the music lyrical. Many of the songs were about their war-torn experiences and their yearning for freedom.

After every song, one of the singer-guitarists would say, "Ca va? Is OK?"

Yes! It was more than OK -- it was fantastic. And every time he asked us, we had to laugh.

The female singer had very strong vocals and was a wonderful dancer who swayed beautifully with the music. She attempted to say "thank you" in Cantonese and we appreciated the effort.

In the end the 90-minute show was extended to almost 120 and afterwards as we were walking out, we practically rubbed shoulders with some of the band members who came out to sign autographs. We thanked them and told them the music was fantastic in French. One of my friends wanted to swoon.

Two band members waiting to sign autographs for fans
All the CDs were sold out already so people snapped up records -- yes vinyl folks -- at HK$200 a piece. Then people lined up to get them autographed by Tinariwen and take pictures of them.

What a night. I am just blown away by the great lengths they go to to travel around -- and they have played in all kinds of cities and music festivals. And yet they are very much at home in the desert, drinking tea made from a small campfire and living relatively simple lives.

From their music they are spreading awareness of their people's plight and their call for freedom.