Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Hardly Setting the Record Straight

Hunan party chief Zhou Qiang maybe wishing he could eat his words
The investigation into activist Li Wangyang's death becomes more outrageous by the day.

Now Zhou Qiang, the party secretary of Hunan province has spoken out confirming Li committed suicide on June 6.

"The fact that Li committed suicide is crystal clear with verified evidence," he told visiting Hong Kong reporters.

He confirms an official report released July 12 stating that Li had torn a strip from a bed sheet which he used to hang himself from the window while his roommate slept, even though his feet were on the ground and the 62-year-old was physically fragile, deaf and blind.

Zhou said the Public Security Bureau in Hunan sought the help of Cong Bin, a vice-chairman of the Chinese Forensic Medicine Association, as well as other experts.

They led an investigation based on the findings of four pathologists from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, who authorities claimed, conducted an autopsy on Li on June 8.

"With the assistance of other experts specializing in criminal investigation, forensic medication and legal science, and after a conscientious and careful investigation in accordance with mainland law, Cong concluded that Li killed himself," said Zhou, who trained as a legal professional at college.

However activist Hu Jia questioned Zhou statements, saying he "defended an investigation that was neither credible nor reliable".

"Those experts might give truly professional opinions in common criminal cases, but in such a high profile, political case as Li's their role is to help ensure the credibility of government is not damaged," said Hu.

He is supported by Liu Weiguo, a lawyer from Shandong province who sent an open letter to China's top legislature seeking a new investigation into the circumstances of how Li died.

"The investigation was not complete and some key parts were missed. The professional qualifications of the experts involved doesn't necessarily mean the investigation was authoritative," Liu said.

To add weight to his statement, Zhou added none of Hunan's 71 million citizens had any suspicion about the results of the investigation, adding that even Li's relatives, including his younger sister, all accepted the conclusion.

But Hu said Zhou did not acknowledge that Li's family and friends who were likely to challenge the investigation were muzzled.

One of Li's close friends, Zhu Chengzhi had disappeared and it is believed he is in detention awaiting criminal investigation, while other supporters are under house arrest and is sister had lost contact with other activists.

It's interesting to see Zhou try to put an end to this fiasco once and for all, but the weight of his words and stature don't mean much when one looks at how Li's case has been handled, cremating him so quickly and not allowing an independent investigation or autopsy.

Zhou's credibility is riding on how Li's case is handled as he is considered a rising star tipped for further promotion in the upcoming 18th national congress this fall. The bungling of Li's death has led to ridicule of Zhou and he has also side-stepped questions on how this will affect his political career.

It's all too plain to see a lot has gone wrong with Li's case and nothing done to rectify the situation, nor to release his relatives and supporters.

This only shows the government's inability to take responsibility for its actions and face up to the truth.

The fact that Zhou said that it was "crystal clear" that Li committed suicide is so ludicrous it leaves us exasperated.

Trying to cover up the death of a deaf and blind man whose hands shook only reveals how much the authorities feared this helpless man.

While Li may be physically gone, he still continues to haunt the government.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Hong Kongers March Against Brainwashing

Children and their parents braved the heat to protest
The Hong Kong government is inadvertently encouraging its citizens to get fit -- by participating in protest marches every weekends.

Yesterday afternoon was the latest one with somewhere between 32,000 (police estimate) and 90,000 (organizers' estimate) people were out in force to show their opposition to the government's national education program.

Traffic was halted from Central to Wan Chai in the late afternoon, even beyond when transportation officials believed the protest would be over, which means the larger turnout figure is more likely. I waited for a bus at the Bank of China building in Central going westbound, but traffic eastbound had ground to a halt for a while already. Trams were pretty much emptied out while truck drivers opened their doors and read newspapers.

While this was a minor nuisance, the people were protesting for a good cause.

A group of students called Scholarism joined the National Education Parents Concern Group and the Professional Teachers' Union in stating they would not join a government proposal to set up a committee to examine how the subject would be taught in schools.

While the idea is typically bureaucratic, it's also because the issue is so divisive that you're either for national education or not.

Organizers expected 10,000 people, about nine-fold showed up
Many believe the national education program is a way to brainwash the future generation. Critics already have proof thanks to a textbook called the Beijing Consensus Handbook published by the National Education Services Centre that says the Communist Party is "united" and "selfless", and saying the US-type of democracy is "inefficient".

This is the same company that was given HK$70 million over six years with another company, both run by Yeung Chiu-chung, a Beijing loyalist and Hong Kong deputy to the National People's congress.

Many feel the fact that the government is instituting national education is wrong mostly because it is an agenda set by the mainland to impose its version of history and culture to young minds.

As Hong Kong is a relatively free city, how would sensitive issues, particularly June 4, 1989 be treated?

Meanwhile the Hong Kong government denies the new courses will mimic "patriotic education" teaching in China. "Brainwashing is against Hong Kong's core values. We would not support or accept that," said Education Secretary Eddie Ng on Saturday.

However, if the government does not accept brainwashing, why don't Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and other senior officials take the lead and publicly make comments about June 4, political dissidents on the mainland and other social issues in public?

Then that would give us all a very good idea of where Hong Kong stood on national education.

But the fact Tsang's administration and now Leung's are silent only says too much about their stance of the subject.

Hence the need to speak out.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Creative Book Art

A 24-foot high work of a woman and her cat

 The other day I was in Times Square in Causeway Bay and the atrium on the second floor had an interesting exhibition -- art pieces made of books.

They are the artwork of Mike Stilkey who has entitled the exhibition "Full of Smiles and Soft Attentions".

Fun piece of a bear playing the guitar on the grass
The biggest piece is a portrait of a sophisticated skinny woman holding her cartoonish-looking pink cat complete with bow tie in her left arm. Or is he a stuffed animal?

It's so interesting to see the colourful compilation of the books that were then painted over. Imagine trying to collect that many books to deliberately paint on!

But there's more.

The exhibition features more book "statues", whimsical images of more cats with flamboyant whiskers, an elephant in a suit wading in the ocean, while a bear sits on the grass and plays the guitar.

One of my favourite pieces is a glass "tank" with a pile of books painted like a shark in the water. It immediately brings to mind Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Instead of a real shark, the painted one does just fine and in fact Stilkey should make a cheeky comment that no animals were harmed during the artistic process.

A painted shark in a tank... what does it remind you of?
In Stilkey's exhibition biography, it explains the Los Angeles native not only paints on books, but also album covers, vintage papers and book pages. He also uses a variety of ink, coloured pencil, paint and lacquer.

His work is described as alternatively whimsical and melancholy, evoking the styles of a range of artists including illustrator Edward Gorey and Egon Schiele, an expressionist.

Full of Smiles and Soft Attentions
Until August 5
Times Square
Causeway Bay

Saturday, 28 July 2012

It's London's Turn

The Queen stole the show at the Opening Ceremonies with corgis in tow
I didn't wake up at 4am Hong Kong time to see the Opening Ceremonies live in London, but from the bits I've read and seen on television later, it was a definite contrast from Beijing four years ago.

Director Danny Boyle did not have the same budget to play with as Zhang Yimou, and instead of a grandiose spectacle, Boyle opted to give a more intimate portrait of the country and even made fun of itself.

People are still talking about the scene where James Bond picks up the Queen at Buckingham Palace and they parachute from a helicopter into the stadium. Can you imagine Jackie Chan doing the equivalent with President Hu Jintao?

And Mr Bean performing Chariots of Fire, but then has a dream sequence of running on the beach and then realizes the song is over, only to hit the last note making a farting noise. Only in the UK.

Meanwhile Beijing was only too keen to make sure the prettiest girl lip synched a song that another girl sang instead, but wasn't deemed "flawless".

Its presentation four years ago was about group precision, that no one stood out from the crowd and everything had to be perfect. It showcased China's economic rise and while the ceremony was awe-inspiring, it invoked more fear than friendliness, power than optimism.

Boyle got the participation of many stars to take part, from JK Rowling reading from JM Barrie encouraging children to dream, and David Bowie, to David Beckham making a flashy appearance on a speedboat.

Many people seemed to groan about Paul McCartney coming out of a box and performing the last bit of the show, but were impressed to have the Sex Pistols play God Save the Queen.

In one scene about workers building London, the mainland Chinese who watched the ceremonies were surprised to see ordinary people captured in the show -- while the migrant labourers who built the Olympic venues were not recognized at all for their efforts in the Beijing event.

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei had nothing but praise for Boyle's show.

Beijing's Olympics were very grand -- they were trying to throw a party for the world, but the hosts didn't enjoy it. The government didn't care about people's feelings because it was trying to create an image.

In London, they really turned the ceremony into a party -- they are proud of themselves and respect where they come from, from the industrial revolution to now. I never saw an event before that had such a density of information about events and stories and literature and music; about folktales and movies.

London can breathe a sigh of relief that its introduction to the world was a huge success.

Meanwhile, China has already won the first gold medal of the Games in the women's 10m rifle.

Four years ago it won 100 medals, 51 of which were gold, the most of any other country.

Now that it's not a host country, the pressure is probably off, but surely the Chinese are there to win not lose, which misses out on founder of the International Olympic Committee Pierre de Coubertain's belief of the Games: "The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well".

Friday, 27 July 2012

Continuing to Fight for the Truth

After several days of criticism, the Beijing government has revised its number of dead from the heavy storm to 77, more than double the original number of 37.

At a press conference last night, the authorities said at least 77 victims were counted, with 65 civilians, including an eight-month-old baby, and the other five were officials.

Most of the bodies were found in the outskirts of the city in Fangshan, which was hard hit by the heavy rainstorm, and others in Chaoyang and Dongcheng districts, both of which I've lived in, making it hard to fathom what happened to these victims.

Residents were still scathing in their opinions of how the government handled the natural disaster.

"Seventy-seven people died in a rainstorm in a metropolis -- a host city of the Olympic Games. Can you believe it?" said Sina Weibo user Dazuihouye.

Others wanted officials to apologize and take responsibility. "Will the government lower the flag at half mast for the dead?" asked another microblog user under the name Wangwengang.

Meanwhile Chinese state media were trying hard to find out the truth, but many obstacles were thrown in their way.

A press conference was held on Wednesday and there was intense speculation the government would announce a higher death toll. Apparently a CCTV reporter had seen a spokesman's prepared speech with the number of dead at 61, but in the end the official never mentioned it.

After this media briefing, more than 30 reporters from Beijing-based media outlets were invited "to have tea", until about 2am with Lu Wei, the capital's deputy mayor and propaganda chief.

"To have tea" is a euphemism to be summoned for questioning. Lu apparently explained to the media the authorities were still identifying bodies, so perhaps in this case there were no interrogations but the government was stalling for time so that the reporters would not be able to have time to write their stories by deadline.

What's interesting is that even the People's Daily was annoyed at the authorities for not updating the number of dead. In its commentary, it lambasted the decision not to give the latest figures. "The public's concern about the deaths and injuries will not fade [until] accurate figures are released," it said.

And then in the case of Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly, eight pages dedicated to storm reporting were pulled at the last minute after seven reporters travelled more than 2,000 kilometres to report on the disaster.

In addition, the paper was not allowed to publish a full-page obituary for more than 20 victims -- only for the five civil servants who died.

So the other victims -- innocent victims -- don't deserve to be remembered in any way?

This is some of the worst behaviour of Chinese officials dictating how Chinese state media should report on emergency situations.

With no documentation of the dead, there can be no demand for retribution.

Which only leaves victims' families and critics seething with even more anger.

The farce of manufactured reality continues to grow.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Charged with Murder

Gu Kailai (left) has been charged with intentional homicide
The suspense is over -- for now.

Gu Kailai, wife of disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai has been charged with intentional homicide for the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Zhao Xiaojun, who was employed by the family, was also handed the same charge.

Originally officials claimed Heywood's death was due to excessive drinking and his family accepted the explanation though his close friends doubted this.

It was police chief Wang Lijun who discovered the link to Gu and that Heywood had died of alcohol poisoning. He apparently told Bo about this connection, but was dismissed, which made Wang fear for his life and led to his overnight visit to the American Consulate in Chengdu.

Wang had hoped for asylum, but this was not granted though he was given protection by Beijing security officials to go to the capital to answer for his actions.

This led to Bo's astounding political downfall.

What's interesting to note is that Bo is not implicated in the murder -- so does this mean he is "safe" politically?

Also the charges were filed by the Hefei Municipal Procuratorate in Anhui province, not Beijing or Chongqing.

The charges also claim that Gu and Zhao murdered Heywood because of "a conflict over economic interests", adding she committed the crime to protect her son, Bo Guagua.

She may claim it was Heywood's greed that forced her to do away with him, but really he was allegedly helping her funnel millions of dollars out of the country for the family.

No trial date has been set yet, but we are all anxious to see if the media will be allowed to cover it. We are also interested to hear what Zhao has to say for his actions, if he will claim he was ordered by Gu to help her.

Things are only going to get more interesting from here.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Stark Reality in the Aftermath

How coincidental that Hong Kong and Beijing are both cleaning up from messes caused by storms.

I'm continuing to hear first-person accounts of being stuck on planes on the tarmac because although the plane has landed, no airport crew would help them get off the aircraft for several hours. They were not given any water or food until people complained nor did they turn on the entertainment system for passengers to pass the time more easily.

On the other side were planes trying to take off, but stuck on the runway because conditions were so adverse that eventually they returned to the gate and asked people to go home and come back the next day.

Then there are news reports that commuters were stuck in KCR stations because of trees that had fallen along the track, breaking cables. While staff said they did all they could to help people get home, some people complained there was a lack of information and shuttle buses, the latter probably because it was considered dangerous to drive outside in Typhoon 10 weather conditions.

As a result it meant some people had to sleep overnight in the stations because they could not afford extra-expensive taxis, or brave the weather and make it home by foot, completely drenched.

The MTR Corporation needs to be held accountable for the mess in dealing with this emergency situation, particularly now as it is requesting to raise its fares in this tough economic climate.

Surely more people are going to object when they feel its emergency services are not adequate.

Meanwhile as Beijing continues to clean up from the mess, criticism has not backed down, particularly online.

Many questioned the number of dead at 37, saying it could be higher, as well as more than seven missing.

Today Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong and his deputy formally resigned from their positions in order to take on new ones that had been planned months ago.

Guo will become Beijing's party secretary, while Ji Lin is said to take up a position as head of the city's Political and Legal Committee.

But before Guo left office, the government tried to pacify public anger by showing him visiting hard-hit Fangshan at 11pm Monday evening.

Chinese state media had extensive coverage of Guo talking to victims at midnight and ordered local officials to accurately report the number of deaths and release information about the disaster in a timely manner.

He was also shown giving donations to victims and their families, adding the Beijing government had ordered all cadres to follow suit. He even added people should write to him if they had problems.

However people online mocked Guo's staged appearance, while others wondered if officials read any of the criticism posted online.

But then again they may not have had a chance to read anything as government censors were busy deleting not only criticism of how officials handled the disaster but also horrible personal accounts during the flooding.

There were many heart-warming stories of people opening up their homes and businesses to people stranded by the adverse weather, or even went out in dangerous conditions in their cars to ferry people to the airport.

Many others complained about how the government was more concerned about shiny new buildings than Soviet-style drainage systems dating back from some 60 years ago.

For the most part people were tired of hearing the propaganda and not believing anything officials were saying.

Perhaps the most ironic statement comes from Wang Hui, Beijing city government spokeswoman. Her previous claim to fame was moderating all Beijing Olympics press conferences so she's one connected woman keen to appear professional.

"Doing the inspection work is not easy," she said. "Do believe us that we will speak the truth."

Does she mean the truth according to the Beijing government or the real truth?

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Picture of the Day: Olympic Countdown

Langham Place's countdown clock
At Langham Place in Mongkok, the shopping mall is getting into the Olympic spirit with a countdown clock.

Of course it was Beijing that made these clocks a common sight around the capital over four years ago. Vancouver's mayor, who would later host the winter Olympics in 2010 was so impressed by them that he was only able to get one countdown clock placed in a prominent spot downtown.

The one at Langham is a clock and torch in one featuring the Olympics colours. It standsin the middle of a mini track with cut-out figures of different countries running around it.

Is there Olympic spirit in Hong Kong?

The city is bringing a pretty decent-sized team, competing in such events as cycling, badminton, athletics, fencing, gymnastics, judo, rowing, and swimming. Some are Hong Kong born, others originally from the mainland.

People still remember when Lee Lai-shan won gold in Atlanta in 1996 for sailing, and two silvers for table tennis from Ko Lai-chak and Li Ching in Athens.

The only problem is us trying to watch the games for free on television because iCable a subscriber-based broadcaster has the rights in Hong Kong.

Australia carrying the torch along the "track"
This seems to go against the International Olympic Committee's mandate of allowing as many people to view the Games as possible. But then again the IOC is all about money, and liked iCable's HK$120 million bid to become the official broadcaster.

Talks are still ongoing between iCable and ATV and TVB to broadcast 200 hours of the Games on free television, but with it starting only days away, it seems like a race against time.

We can only hope. 加油!

Blown Over

Hong Kong felt the brunt of Typhoon Vicente when it passed by the city last night.

The Hong Kong Observatory raised the signal to Number 10 at around 1am and one could hear the wind howling outside and rain hitting the windows. There were also lightning strikes, creating a dramatic night.

It was the strongest storm to hit the city in a decade with winds measuring up to 140km/h.

This morning the damage could be seen, thankfully none too serious, with lots of tree branches strewn across sidewalks and roads, a few damaged street lamps and large-scale banners. Miraculously many of the bamboo scaffolding seemed to have stayed in place, a testament to those workers who are well trained in their jobs.

Some friends reported flooding in their flats and one even had chairs missing from his balcony!

Nevertheless there were many frustrated commuters last night, as the observatory didn't raise the Number 8 signal until 5:40pm, knowing this was when most people would get off work soon.

While it gave a two-hour advance warning of the possibility of raising the Number 8 signal, public transportation was a mess, with huge lines for buses and mini buses, commuters having to wait for almost 10 trains before getting on the MTR.

"I think employers should let their employees go home ever earlier if there is a typhoon," said Ng Hing-man, 34. "There should be a law because it gets so crowded."

Perhaps the city needs to think more clearly about how to logistically get people home as quickly as possible, and maybe employers should let people go earlier.

This is about safety, not profits.

Meanwhile this morning after the signal went down to Number 3 at 10:10am, there were massive lines for buses at Kennedy Town.

And once the buses arrived, they were packed to the gills at their second stop and could not take anymore people in subsequent stops. Must have been a heck of a commute today.

We will be experiencing rough weather for the next few days, but thankfully the worst is over for now...

Monday, 23 July 2012

Depriving a Child of a Future

A year ago we read about a young girl who lost her parents but she survived the horrific Wenzhou high-speed train crash.

Xiang Weiyi, nicknamed "Yiyi", was the last person to be pulled alive from the July 23 wreckage which left 40 people dead and nearly 200 injured.

Now three-and-a-half years old, Yiyi should be entering kindergarten -- except no school will accept her because of her injured leg from the crash.

"They said she is still not completely recovered," said Xiang Yuyu, her father's younger brother. "They asked if she fell down, who should accept the responsibility? It's hard to identify who should be responsible," he said.

Xiang said Yiyi can walk, run and jump, though not as quickly or as smoothly as other children. Her left ankle is weak and she cannot stamp her heel. When she walks, her left foot splays outwards.

"But Yiyi's condition won't affect her studies or ability to fit into kindergarten," her uncle said.

Xiang keeps microblog called "Little Weiyi". In one posting he said she has six small schoolbags and that every time she passes a kindergarten, she says, "Look uncle, here's a kindergarten."

He wrote that she is envious of the children playing happily and added if she could be enrolled she would be able to have a normal childhood.

Yiyi made headlines last year when she was rescued more than 20 hours after the train collision. She suffered extensive internal injuries and her left leg was severely injured and later became gangrenous.

She had at least five operations in Wenzhou before being transferred to Shanghai's Xinhua Hospital, a major pediatric centre. She is currently there receiving rehabilitation treatment, while her grandparents take care of her in an apartment they have rented nearby.

Apparently the little girl has not asked about her parents and had "a bit of a shadow in her mind" but he refused to elaborate on what that meant.

Nevertheless we are outraged to hear that no kindergarten will accept this precious little girl.

She survived a deadly train crash, pulled through many surgeries and lost her parents and yet no institution wants to educate her?

If this happened in North America, schools with the means would be falling over each other to offer a place for this special child.

The reasoning they give about her leg is ridiculous -- her physical ailment is her own burden and she will deal with it. She is eager to learn and go to school like other children so why not let her?

Or is China still obsessed with perfection, much like the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where a pretty girl in a red dress named Lin Miaoke captured the world's attention singing Ode to the Motherland and later it was found out she was lip syncing to the voice of Yang Peiyi because she wasn't as "flawless" as Lin?

Give Yiyi a chance. It is not her fault she lost her parents -- and in fact since the government is to blame for the accident as officials were sacked -- it should take on the responsibility of looking after her future and that includes her education.

It is the least the government should do for her.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Flooding Chaos in Beijing

People trying to wade through the flooded streets of Beijing
For the most part it doesn't rain much in Beijing.

But when it does, the entire capital is paralyzed mainly because there are hardly any drainage systems in place.

As a results roads are flooded with water and cars gingerly make their way along the roads, unsure of how to navigate through a few inches of water.

So I can imagine Beijing is slowly getting back to normal, having experienced the heaviest rainfall in 60 years, killing at least 37 people.

The deluge began on Saturday afternoon and continued late into the night.

And because the runways were flooded, the planes could not take off, cancelling 500 flights and stranding some 80,000 passengers at Beijing Capital International Airport.

On average the city received 170mm of rainfall, though Fangshan district got 460mm, according to Xinhua news agency. It added 14,500 people had to be evacuated from outlying areas.

Interestingly the subway was working fine, though with heavier passenger traffic as people abandoned their cars and buses to use this mode of transport to get home.

While some complained on Sina Weibo or the Chinese version of Twitter that the government should have prepared ahead of time with pumps and other facilities, what could the city do anyway?

It all goes back to infrastructure, and if there is no proper drainage system in place, where would you pump the water to anyway?

However if Beijing is going to experience more rainfall -- due to climate change? -- then it better start thinking about fixing up its drainage system now.

While today the skies cleared up, the Beijing municipal website is forecasting more storms and heavy rains which means umbrella sales are going to do big business.

The upside is that the air quality in the Chinese capital hasn't been better probably since the Summer Games in 2008.

Might be a good time to take a few extra deep breaths...

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Other Side of Macau

The lit-up skyline of Macau hides the great divide behind the scenes
I have just come back after spending almost 24 hours in Macau.

The glittering hotels all aim to whisk you away from all your stress and enjoy your time in the former Portuguese enclave.

All the staff smile broadly and you get even more of an ego boost when they remember your name.

The rooms are stylishly decorated -- and in some cases are much bigger than your shoebox flat in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile restaurant menus entice you to forget about your goal to lose weight or eat healthier and instead indulge in foods you wouldn't normally order.

But there's another side to Macau, those who live and work there who tell a different story.

At the spa I went to for a treatment, my therapist was Balinese.

She said she'd been at the hotel for over a year and previous to that she was in Sanya, Hainan for three years so she knew a bit of Putonghua.

When asked which city she preferred, she immediately replied Macau because the city had more of the foods she liked to eat.

However, on her days off she hardly went out and stayed in her room.

"When I go out, I have to carry my passport because there are many Indonesians who find a way to get to Macau illegally," she explained. "My colleagues laugh at me because the police always come up to me to ask to see my passport and then they see my work visa and tell me to be careful because there are some undesirable people around, I know who they are referring to."

It's probably because of this hassle that she prefers not to go out, but also perhaps she is trying to save as much as possible for her family back home near Ubud.

Her husband drives buses for tourist groups, while her 16-year-old daughter will graduate from high school next year.

"I want her to go to university, but she wants to go overseas," the therapist said.

Then she hinted she would try to help her daughter get into the hotel industry, working in departments like housekeeping.

She added there were lots of Indonesians and Balinese working in Macau and Hong Kong, particularly after the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 that practically killed the tourism industry, forcing many to go overseas for employment.

Nevertheless, while she is happy to work here and the hotel provides a dormitory for the staff, there doesn't seem to be any transportation provided as it's 20 minutes away by foot. And certainly in the summer months she'd be drenched by the time she arrived at the hotel.

This is in stark contrast to the guests of the hotel who don't even need to break into a sweat as a minivan whisks them to the ferry terminal or a taxi takes them to their desired destination.

And speaking of taxis, we chatted with one cab driver as he drove us from the Westin hotel at Hac Sa beach back to the main island.

We passed by what looked like 32 towers of flats being built and asked him what they were for.

"That's subsidized housing," he explained. "For those with low incomes. When the casino licenses opened up [in 2002], property prices increased more than 10-fold, or even more than that," he said. "So if you didn't buy a home then, you can't afford one now."

I asked him if he owned his own place and he said yes, otherwise he'd be a poor tenant eking out a living.

We drove past more developments including the construction site of the University of Macau and an amusement park that is supposed to rival Ocean Park. "They are building a hotel for that park," he said.

When I remarked there were too many hotel rooms in Macau, he said that in fact there weren't enough.

"Whenever there are holidays, the hotels are all booked up, including the ones that are HK$3,000 to HK$4,000 a night," he replied. "It's those mainlanders. They don't care how much money they spend. Of all the customers buying name-brand goods, it's the mainland Chinese."

Then he talked about one man he ferried around in his taxi. He apparently wore sunglasses that were HK$80,000 that were from Germany, and the thing about them was that if you threw them on the floor they wouldn't break or scratch.

Apparently this rich mainlander had his own illegal gambling den and lost some HK$2 million at the tables in Macau and didn't seem to mind his big loss. "They have too much money so they don't care," the taxi driver said.

"Then they should give some to us," I remarked and he agreed.

So while we like the quick relaxing getaway to Macau, it's hard not to forget those who toil hard to pamper us.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Still Fighting for the Have Nots

Remember Elsie Tu (杜葉錫恩)?

She's still very much alive and kicking at 99 years old.

Many may remember her as a social activist, former elected member of the Urban Council and former Legco member.

Her passion to help the underprivileged comes from her missionary days in China and when the Communists came to power she went to Hong Kong in 1951.

And so it was refreshing to hear from Tu with a scathing letter to the editor that was published today. She does not name names, but we all know who they are.

We are reading more now about tycoons who believe their wealth is their divine inheritance, and high-ranking civil servants, never content with what they earn.

It makes me angry when I read of their arrogance. They have no conscience when it comes to those who suffer from their greed, while they throw a few crumbs to the hungry, and care nothing for the degrading circumstances in which hardworking people live.

The sole concern of those who consider themselves to be part of this aristocracy is money, which they treasure for the enjoyment of their heirs.

The starving children, the elderly driven to scavenging on the streets, young couples unable to take out a mortgage for a small flat -- all these result from the greed of the tycoons who stoop to any means to raise the price of land and the cost of transport, utilities and food.

Some are tainted by corruption and corruption is now the curse of mankind.

I am old now, and often wonder how some old people manage to live without enough money to buy the little comforts that the elderly need.

Often they are left alone to suffer in pain.

Some survive on barely enough to keep them alive. But the tycoons say, "We must ensure that our wealth is passed down to our own family."

"Shame on you," I say.

Hear hear!!

Arrested for Buying an Imaginary Bank

It was bound to catch up with him eventually.

A tycoon from Wenzhou has been arrested after making false claims he bought an American bank.

Lin Chunping, 42, was formally detained in Zhejiang on Wednesday for allegedly issuing and using fake documents to avoid paying more tax.

He allegedly issued several hundred million yuan in fake value-added tax invoices last year to companies in Guangzhou, Shanghai and 20 other provinces and cities.

Through these fake invoices he was able to claim tens of millions of yuan in tax deductions, according to the People's Daily website.

Also prosecutors found Lin had a trading firm that bought more than 100 fabricated tariff certificates, using them to claim about 100 million RMB in tax rebates.

But perhaps the bigger scam was claiming to have bought the "85-year-old Atlantic Bank of America in Delaware" for $60 million.

What a steal -- except there is no such bank in the United States.

When the announcement of the bank purchase was made, he was hailed by the local government as a role model and even made him a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

But when state media figured it out, Lin fled Wenzhou in May but was caught a month later.

Five others arrested include a senior manager of Lin's companies, his finance manager, two account clerks and a middleman.

Lin's scam might further unravel to reveal an even bigger paper trail. Apparently Lin told investigators that he had trouble meeting interest payments on bank loans and underground lenders last year so he started selling fake invoices to make quick money.

While his 71-day membership to the CPPCC has been cancelled, Lin may face life imprisonment and a fine of up to 500,000RMB if found guilty.

So the lesson is -- if you lie, don't make up a story about buying an American bank.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Picture of the Day: Abercrombie & Fitch

Finally some lights on at Pedder Building
Shanghai Tang got kicked out of the Pedder Building in October last year and has since found new premises nearby on Duddell Street, but it's hardly the wonderful location it had for 17 years on Pedder Street across from The Landmark.

However it wasn't able to pay the more than 100 percent increase in rent, unlike Abercrombie & Fitch who was willing to shell out HK$7 million ($902,585) a month.

And now after several months of renovations, I passed by the place tonight and there are some chandeliers put up, illuminating the two upper floors.

Does this mean the trendy American retailer is finally going to open its doors and try to sell as many T-shirts and jeans as possible to make rent?

Last year the company probably thought it was a good time to enter the Hong Kong and China market.

But with the mainland's economy screeching to a halt, A&F might be wondering if it had its timing was right...

Anticipating Linsanity

Jeremy Lin is moving on to Houston with a pit stop in Hong Kong
Linsanity is coming to Hong Kong.

Just after the New York Knicks passed over renewing Jeremy Lin's contract, making him free to take the Houston Rockets' $25 million, three-year offer, the phenom is coming here next month.

However the main reason isn't to shoot hoops... but to talk about how he became who he is, thanks to a higher being.

He will be here to be tell the "Story behind Linsanity" at the Hong Kong Mandarin Bible Church meeting at AsiaWorld Expo on August 26 -- a Sunday, of course.

It is a mainly Mandarin-speaking church, but Lin will be making his speech in English with simultaneous Cantonese and later in Mandarin.

Perhaps he will influence some of his die-hard fans to turn to God for inspiration?

He is well known for attributing his success to his Christian faith and open about his religion.

If he does manage to get some converts, perhaps he can consider a career in the church after his days in the NBA are over?

"I think one of the most rewarding experiences in life is to see people come to Christ and make lifestyle changes," he said in an interview in 2010. "When that happens, you definitely see God behind it... I'm really thankful that God is changing somebody, or sometimes he's changing me. To see that transformation brings me a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment. I definitely want to do something in ministry down the road, maybe as a pastor if that's where God leads."

In the meantime Hong Kong will be gearing up to welcome its favourite point guard and Houston Rocket.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Factually-Flawed Argument

A painting depicting Mao Zedong with Norman Bethune
Talk about trying to stand out from the crowd.

A Canadian politician is criticizing his own government's decision to spend $2.5 million on a new visitor centre that honours Canadian doctor and Communist supporter Norman Bethune.

Calgary Tory MP Rob Anders says the Harper government should not be spending taxpayer dollars to fund Bethune House in Gravenhurst, Ontario, saying the Canadian doctor supported Mao Zedong's regime that he claims killed millions of people.

A portrait of the Canadian doctor
"This is a fellow who was a fan and serves as a memorial for the support of Mao Zedong who was the largest murderer in human history having killed about 80 million people," Anders said in an interview on CBC Radio's As It Happens.

I'm not the only person who is not a fan of the Communist Party of China or Mao Zedong or Norman Bethune for that matter," he continued. "So I think there's a lot of people out there that think it's pretty questionable, spurious that taxpayer money is being used to support something like this. When you consider that even [former Prime Minister and diplomat] Lester Pearson who has his grave site in Wakefield, Quebec it's not particularly grandly cared for and yet we're spending millions on this fellow who lionized the biggest mass murderer in history."

Anders goes on to say it's actually the Chinese who have the biggest problem coming to terms with Mao, listing such grievances as the one-child policy, forced abortions, persecution of the Falun Gong, suppression of freedom of speech in Hong Kong...

It's a pity the interviewer didn't know much about Chinese history to point out that Bethune helped the Communists through treating the wounded in the Sino-Japanese war in 1938.

He performed battlefield surgical operations on war casualties and trained doctors and nurses. But a year later he died of infection when he accidentally cut his finger while operating on a soldier.

Bethune contracted septicaemia or blood poisoning and died of his wounds on November 12, 1939. That's a full decade before Mao came to power.

Bethune performing battlefield surgery in China
It was then that Mao began his political purges and millions of people suffered. There are still discrepancies over the numbers of victims in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but regardless, Bethune was not there to "lionize" Mao.

In any event Bethune House is popular with Chinese tourists and business delegations because Bai Qiuen (白求恩) is revered by mainlanders for his contribution towards the Communist cause, and is written about in every student's textbook. He is Canada's best known ambassador, with Mark Rowswell or Dashan (大山) a close second.

Perhaps Anders should get his facts straight before he makes such outrageous comments in public, because what he is saying is an embarrassment -- not just as a politician, but as a Canadian.

And it also shows we outside of China should know a bit about modern Chinese history to better understand the country and its people.

Anyways, shouldn't Prime Minister Stephen Harper step in now and punish his own MP for not being in line with the government?

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Beginning of the End of Occupy Central

The Occupy Central site under the HSBC headquarters
New York's Occupy movement disintegrated many months ago, but the one in Hong Kong is still going strong -- unless the courts decide otherwise.

The ragtag group has set up a bunch of tents, discarded couches, bookshelves, tables and chairs in the passageway under the HSBC headquarters in Central.

They have been there since October without the bank's consent and now the place is attracting homeless people and garbage; the activists are too busy working their day jobs to really "occupy" the place.

HSBC could have easily kicked out these people a long time ago, but was patient enough to wait until now to do it through the courts.

Yesterday the local court gave the Occupy Central participants two weeks to file their defense after HSBC filed to remove them through legal action.

The bank named the first of four defendants as "occupiers of the ground floor of 1 Queen's Road Central", while the other three include Mui Kai-ming, brother of late Cantonese pop singer Anita Mui Yim-fong and self-employed financial analyst Ho Yiu-sing.

The area is the bank's private property, but was designated a public space in agreement with the government in 1983.

It is the perfect place for an occupation since the place is already sheltered from the elements by the bank. However, the site has become more like a garbage dump with junk accumulated there for no good reason really.

The group originally had outrageous claims of getting rid of capitalism completely, losing the original meaning of getting the 1 percent to be more accountable for their actions.

The occupation will probably not end peacefully, with activists clinging onto their plastic tents as they are handcuffed by police... or will they give up and just pack up and go home to avoid their day in court?

We shall see.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Indoctrinating Hong Kongers

Beijing wants Hong Kong to be more Chinese
The debate over national education in Hong Kong continues to simmer with more ammunition against it when it was discovered last week that the government gave HK$72 million ($9.28 million) to two companies led by a Beijing loyalist educator to produce the education materials.

The Education Bureau confirmed that since 2007 it had given HK$12 million annually to the National Education Services Centre and National Education Centre, both led by Yeung Yiu-chung who is an educator and Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress.

And what do these educational materials say? They basically praise one-party rule, saying multi-party politics could "victimize" people, while concentrated political power could create a "selfless" government that brings stability.

There is probably hardly any talk about June 4, 1989, or if there is any coverage, it most possibly glosses over the watershed incident.

Sound familiar?

Thankfully Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim has already said that the materials are "problematic" and should not be used, while Yeung thinks the pronouncements are unjustified.

"The criticisms were unfair. Everyone must be able to have their own opinions," he said. 'We believe teachers can decide how the materials can be used."

But why is the government handing over HK$72 million in six years to these two companies in the first place, that are run by the same person?

Shouldn't we be having a proper debate about what the national education should be, in particular the content before even giving money to companies to generate content?

Then Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen promised Beijing that Hong Kong would enhance students' understanding of China through this national education.

However we need to have an open and honest discussion about what national education is, and what future generations need to know about the history of Hong Kong and China and both the good and bad. History is not one sided, but Yeung seems to think so.

Then there are teachers complaining that this national education course would overlap what is already being taught in liberal studies, Chinese history and Chinese language.

One teacher, Ng Mei-lan has criticized the manual put out by the National Education Services Centre and National Education Centre, saying it was hardly balanced.

"It cannot present both sides to allow students to develop multi-dimensional opinions," Ng said, who teaches English and used to teach liberal studies.

And then there is the issue of vague ways to assess the students' progress in the course that is hardly constructive as it relies on self-review and assessments by parents, teachers, individuals and groups outside the school.

She hoped the students would be smart enough to see through the aim of the syllabus.

"You will only be brainwashed if you are willing to be brainwashed," she said. "If students have their own thoughts and analysis, they cannot be easily brainwashed."

Perhaps the national education course should be renamed as Critical Thinking 101.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Caught Double Dipping

The Leung Chun-ying government is two weeks old and already one if its ministers has quit.

Mak Chai-kwong was development minister up until Friday when he was arrested by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) for abusing housing perks in the 1980s.

Turns out he and assistant director of highways Tsang King-man bought flats on the same day in the same building called City Garden in North Point, one floor above each other. It is not clear if they used a housing loan available to civil servants to purchase these homes.

Then they allegedly rented out their flats to each other, and each applied for a housing allowance, a civil service benefit.

This supposed double dipping is obviously against the rules, but it doesn't seem there were any checks and balances in place at the time to make sure everyone did not abuse the benefits.

Apparently many who were in the civil service knew about this loophole and so Mak and Tsang are not the only ones who violated the rules.

My great aunt remembers her husband who taught in a government school in Yuen Long many decades ago was eligible for a cigarette allowance.

He was chided for not taking advantage of the extra money because he did not smoke.

"This is how civil servants are encouraged to do corruption," my sagely great aunt said. "It's not about taking advantage of the system -- it's worrying that others are benefiting more than you are."

Yesterday Mak apologized to the public about creating such a fiasco and did not want to say anymore because he may be charged and then probably be tried in court.

If he is found guilty he could be fined HK$500,000 and seven years in jail. But probably the worse punishment is that he and Tsang could lose their pensions, and in Mak's case that's 37 years of working in the civil service.

No wonder people are keen to get into the civil service... but surely now with all these scandals coming out the good days are over?

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Fickle Parisian Weather

Blue skies at the Arc de Triomphe
The weather in Paris is so... unpredictable.

The temperature hovers around the mid-20s and the weather report says there could be showers.

How could that be when there are blue skies in the morning?

This is what happened on my second full day in Paris.

One of many who were completely soaked by the rain
At the Arc de Triomphe and down Champs Elysees, the skies were a brilliant blue and the odd wisp of cloud as if painted by Claude Monet.

But later in the afternoon after I'd finished walking along Boulevard Haussman and checked out Au Printemps and Galeries LaFayette, the grey clouds came out of nowhere and unleashed a torrential rain.

I had just emerged from Uniqlo (more expensive than Hong Kong) which recently opened to see it was pouring rain and whipped out my umbrella wondering if I should wait or continue walking.

As I stood around, I saw unfortunately souls who were completely soaked to the bone. This is a reminder not to wear light coloured clothes when it pours.

A rainbow appears by early evening
The water ran everywhere; the sewer system seemed almost non existent or could not cope with the sudden downpour.

But then after about 15 minutes, the torrent soon became light showers and then eventually gone.

The rest of the day was fantastic -- and included this pretty rainbow.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Flying Over Alsace

Apologies for jumping around from Alsace to Paris and back to the wine-making region, but I have one more short story.

Alsace is a region that has many small quaint-looking villages relatively close together and surrounded by large patches of vineyards.

We got to see this for ourselves when we went up on a 15-minute helicopter ride of the area.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Lavatory Business

Pink toilet paper printed on the wall
Having walked around Paris for more than three days, there are some washroom tips to pass on.

The Louvre is wonderful as there are many pit stops in the massive museum. Musee d'Orsay only has a few, but then again it's relatively small. Petit Palais's restrooms are hard to find, but definitely has one in its cafe at the back and downstairs.

However, when you're walking along Boulevard Haussman and think you can use the loo at Au Printemps department store, you might want to hold it.

That's because on the first floor there is a washroom -- but you must pay 1.50 euros ($1.83) to use it.

When I found the place, there was a short line up and the woman at the reception -- yes there is a reception area -- was alternatively collecting the money and cleaning the stalls. Sounds totally unhygienic doesn't it?

Nevertheless once you pay the 1.50 euros, savour every moment in your stall.

In my case, one of the walls was covered in either a wallpaper or painted with stacks of pink toilet paper and above the toilet were little decorations and reading material behind a glass case (which
hardly made it useful).

This is what you get for 1.50 euros
So I took my time and then my business done, I walked out to use the tap to wash my hands and leave.

I was pretty annoyed at having to shell out for the privilege of using the loo, but when you gotta go...

Later that afternoon I arrived at Place Vendome, where high-end jewellers Chaumet and Van Cleef & Arpels first opened their boutiques and the Ritz Hotel are located.

In the middle of the square is the Vendome Column featuring Napoleon on top. It was modelled after Trajan's column to mark Napoleon's victory in Austerlitz in which he gained a new bride, the Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria after he divorced Josephine because could not bear him any children.

In any event, Napoleon is standing with a laurel wreath around his head and holding a sword in his right hand and a globe with the statue of Victory in his left.

I only dared to window shop at the jewellery boutiques and besides, they seemed to be doing a brisk business with customers inside.

The stylishly marbled loo at the Ritz Hotel
However I wandered into the Ritz Hotel to take a look.

It's sad to remember this was the last place Princess Diana was at before she was killed in the fatal car accident almost 15 years ago.

The hotel is a bit cramped, but very elegant. Perhaps cozy is the best word.

There's a narrow hallway and there's a discreet icon of a woman's silhouette indicating a washroom!

I pushed the door open and was impressed to find a sophisticated powder room in a semi-circular format with three rooms furnished with pink marble.

What a pretty and clean loo! And even better, it was free.

Parisian Sweet Treats

The charming window display at Laduree
There are too many tempting sweet things to eat in Paris, from the little cakes and pastries to pain au chocolat...

But my favourite at the moment are macarons.

Apparently this is the proper name for them, not to be confused with coconut macaroons which are small cakes made with ground almond and dessicated coconut.

Laduree was established in 1862 for fashionable Parisians
Perhaps I like macarons because they have shells made from meringue, a combination of egg whites and sugar that must be carefully prepared to ensure success.

And Paris has a few confectionary places that do excellent macarons, and I tried two of the more famous places, Fauchon and Laduree.

The latter is the queen of macarons since it has been around since 1862. The store and restaurant on Champs Elysees are undergoing a renovation now and so a pop-up store on the sidewalk is doing its best to serve eager customers (ie tourists) who patiently wait in line. But it has many other locations around town including the basement of the Louvre complex and the airport.

Apparently Laduree sells some 15,000 macarons everyday which is a pretty amazing feat. And perhaps the vast majority of the consumers are not French.

It was Pierre Desfontaines, the second cousin of the Laduree founder Louis Ernest Laduree who came up with the idea of putting two meringue shells and joining them together with ganache filling in the early 20th century.

The pistachio, peppermint and Ghana chocolate macarons
I bought three to try -- Creme de menthe or peppermint flavour, Ghana chocolate, and a relatively new one called "incroyable" or "incredible", featuring two pistachio-flavoured shells and the filling is almond marshmallow. The last one has a nice texture, though the filling is not as intense in flavour as the first two. Nevertheless the macarons are very good, but the meringue shell is on the crumbly, crispy side.

The company also has a range of non-edible merchandise, particularly having a partnership with Hello Kitty. There are 15-euro notebooks with covers featuring colourful macarons with the infamous feline head, and even boxes to hold macarons with Hello Kitty's face on them.

Meanwhile Fauchon also does some good macarons, and I tried blackberry or cassis, caramel and chocolate praline in a bronze colour. The fillings were intense in flavour and not as crumbly as Laduree's. However the selection of flavours is smaller, but perhaps easier to decide which ones to try, non?

Caramel, cassis or blackberry and chocolate praline macarons
Too bad Hong Kong's humidity is so high, particularly in summer otherwise I'd bring some more back home to sample.

Oh well -- perhaps best to savour and remember in Paris.

Laduree Champs Elysees
75, avenue des Champs Elysees
75008 Paris
+33 (0) 1 40 75 08 75

24-26 Place de la Madeleine
Paris 8eme
+33 (0) 1 70 39 38 00

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Pretty Art, Provocative Art

The Grand Palais taken from the window at the Petit Palais
Near the obelisk are the Grand Palais and Petit Palais. A friend on Facebook encouraged me to check out the Petit Palais and it was a nice surprise to visit. Even better it was free admission!

The two are located across from each other, and while it is smaller in size, the Petit Palais is just as grand and ornate, particularly the entrance.

The grand foyer of the Petit Palais
It is a museum housing an interesting mix of paintings and sculptures, furniture and paintings from the Renaissance and medieval periods. Many of the paintings were depictions of daily life which gave good insight into the time they were made. One in particular that stood out was Newborn, where in a bare room, a wife sits up on the bed resting and watches as her husband who does some kind of manual labour, sits on the edge holding their newborn baby gingerly in his hands and smiles proudly.

There are some well-known artists displayed here too, like Pierre Bonnard, Mary Cassatt, Auguste Renoir and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Claude Monet's Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt was a highlight, featuring a grey-blue sky illuminated by a brilliant orange sun going down and its reflection is in the river.

The museum also has several sculptures dotted around the place, and one beautiful one was Antoine Bourdelle's Penelope made of bronze, dated 1909. While it's in an ancient Greek pose, the proportion is such that it focuses more on the lower half of her body, in particular the drapery of her dress. The piece looks very modern, on the verge of being Cubist.

A very ornate Petit Palais, across from the Grand Palais
Also interesting were pieces near the foyer, such as this gorgeous Mosque-style lamp from Joseph Brocard (1831-1896) made of enamel and gold. There was also a statue of a woman from the early 20th century holding a leash tied to a small monkey, reminding me of footage I saw of Misia and her friends who also played with a pet simian at Musee d'Orsay.

Following the theme there was also an elaborate clock by Jean Moisy and on the base were an orchestra of monkeys wearing outfits a la Madame Pompadour and playing instruments. How bizarre!

Nevertheless the pieces of furniture were very beautiful, with inlaid wood and other materials as well as carvings.

Another highlight of the place is the garden at the back and a small cafe where you can enjoy the view as you have lunch. I did just that, having a sandwich and fruit salad.

A statue of a woman with her pet monkey
Then it was off to the other side where I saw a giant poster advertising an exhibition on photographer Helmut Newton that was held over until July 30.

After paying 11 euros (the Louvre was 10 euros, Musee d'Orsay 9 euros), it was disappointing to find it was a small show and featured mostly his earlier works from the 1960s and 1970s. I am more familiar with his work from the 1990s in Vogue magazine.

In any event there were some interesting tidbits about him I didn't know:

He was born Helmut Neustadtler in Berlin in 1938 and escaped the persecution of the Nazis. He somehow made his way to Singapore where he worked for the Singapore Straits Times. Wonder what kind of photography he was doing there!

Then two years later he moved to Australia where he served in the Australian army and in 1946 became a naturalized citizen and changed his name to Helmut Newton.

A few months before his death in 2004, Newton was quoted by Newsweek as saying:

More simians dressed up a la Madame Pompadour on a clock
"Some people's photography is an art. Mine is not. If they happen to be exhibited in a gallery or museum, that's fine. But that's not why I do them. I'm a gun for hire."

His wife June made a rambling documentary, following him around as he did photo shoots or in a bathrobe in hotel rooms, talking on the phone to editors about taking on assignments.

At one point he says on the phone that his rate is $10,000 and then in another scene says directly to the camera that he's just made $10,000 and is going to buy June some jewellery.

Pretty obnoxious.

But it was more interesting watching him working on his photo shoots and explaining why he arranged the shot in a certain way.

Monet's Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt
One of the models shown a few times is Cindy Crawford and in one scene she's in a bathing suit and heels, walking down the stairs in a deliberate way. He said that he liked looking at her muscles and the shape of her legs as she did that.

He also liked to nap in the afternoons before a shoot and the image of the photograph would usually come into his head then. He was so specific about the shoot that he'd only take about six shots which drove editors crazy because they were expecting a whole roll of film. But he wanted to make sure he was in total control of the shots.

And his photographs are provocative.

Penelope by Antoine Bourdelle
In one from Vogue France 1968, a model wearing a fur coat stands next to a bear on its hind legs. In another called Evi the Cop 1997, there are two shots of the same woman in the same pose -- one where she is fully clothed as a policewoman, the next only wearing her police shirt and shoes.

There are large-scale photos showing several models walking together in a studio with clothes on, then without.

"The 'big nudes' began in 1980 and were inspired by police identity photos of German terrorists," said Newton in 2003. "I intentionally made 21 of these images until 1993."

He also took portraits of famous people, such as Yves St Laurent, Princess Caroline, Prince Albert and Princess Stephanie of Monaco, David Lee Roth, Salvador Dali, Catherine Deneuve and Andy Warhol.

In the documentary he is seen shooting Luciano Pavarotti, and after the session is over, the opera star turns the tables on Newton and makes him take his shirt off as he shoots the photographer.

A poster of Helmut Newton's exhibition
There are also some eerie photographs of mannequins -- very realistic ones -- in provocative poses dressed up in lingerie in a variety of settings.

Each picture tells a story -- some kind of fantasy that involves sexuality and identity.

Newton seems intent on getting some kind of reaction from the viewer, be it disgust, shock or satisfaction.

And even 50 years later his images continue to provoke, so he must be pleased with his accomplishments.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Strolling Down Champs Elysees

The Arc de Triomphe
With the main sights on my to-do list completed, it was time for a relatively leisurely jaunt through Paris on my last full day in the City of Lights.

Le Depart de 1792 or La Marseillaise
I started off at the Arc de Triomphe and again was pleased the metro system is so efficient and the exits take you right to the tourist spots.

When I emerged from the metro, the arch was a block away and I wondered how to get there when I saw an underpass nearby. In the tunnel there was a long lineup -- to get into the Arc de Triomphe and climb up to see the sights.

Again having been up the Eiffel Tower, going up the arch seemed redundant and felt I had more to do than wait in line. However the perspective from this point would be interesting as the place was originally known as Place de l'Etoile because a dozen streets emanate from it like a star.

The arch is beautiful, with its floral detailing on the ceiling and walls. The tribute to Napoleon's soldiers is extraordinary and successive leaders have used this monument to commemorate their generals in battle. In the middle lies the grave of the unknown soldier from World War I with the eternal flame and flowers around it.

Outside the Louis Vuitton boutique
What was also striking were the four main sculptures on each of the sides. They are titled: Le Depart de 1792 otherwise known as La Marseillaise by Francois Rude; Le Triomphe de 1810 by Jean-Pierre Cortot; La Resistance de 1814; and La Paix de 1815, both by Antoine Etex.

While Emperor Napoleon commissioned the arch in 1806 after his victory in Austerlitz, it wasn't completed until 1836 under the reign of King Louis-Philippe.

From there I walked east down Champs Elysees and passed by some famous restaurants including L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire's Pierre.

Pierre's menu seemed very exotic including langoustines with the foam of steamed dim sum? Wondered what that smelled like -- with enoki, radish and turnips with rice vinegar. Sounds intriguing.

And yes this is also where all the high-end fashion brands are situated. I walked into Louis Vuitton and was very surprised to see no line up outside nor the swarms of mainland Chinese I had read about months before who are all .

The original Guerlain store on Champs Elysees
Instead the situation inside was very civilized and people from Americans to Japanese were eager to buy wallets and bags. The store is designed such that you go up an escalator to the third floor and must wind your way back down through women's wear, men's wear, jewellery, and other accessories before making it back to the ground floor. Very clever.

However I was surprised not to find any historical links with the brand to the founder, but perhaps people come here to shop, not to look at a museum.

I saw a Marriott hotel and it seemed like some VIPs were in there with two rows of young people in uniform and adults dressed up in some kind of military parade gear. Perhaps US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? I'd seen her on the television news in the morning while eating breakfast as she was in Paris to discuss the situation in Syria.

However, after waiting for some time and not really knowing who we were waiting to come out, I gave up and looked around Sephora next door. When I came out, the crowd was still there, waiting.

Waiting for some VIPs to come out of the Marriott hotel
Also next to the hotel is Guerlain and I'm surprised to see Michelle Yeoh is the brand's new ambassador. However she's a good fit as she speaks perfect English, very stylish and can communicate the essence of Guerlain to Asia. It's heartening to see confidence in more mature women, but honestly could you see someone like Zhang Ziyi or Fan Bingbing pitching the brand?

Then further down the street there are the likes of Lacoste, Zara and Benetton.

By the time I reached the obelisk, which was originally from the tomb of Ramses III in Luxor, Champs Elysees seemed somewhat underwhelming. Nevertheless, an interesting fact is tat where the obelisk stands is where the guillotine was, and where Louis XVI was beheaded in January 1793.

The obelisk where the guillotine used to be
His last words?

"May my blood bring happiness to France".

Words to ruminate on...