Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Chinese Moonshine

Three different bottles of baijiu primed for consumption
Rice wine or baijiu is a nasty drink. The strong alcohol content already hits your nose before your lips touch the small glass. And when you drink it, the liquor burns your throat as it goes down. If you have too much of it, your face immediately turns bright read and your head starts throbbing.

Whoever created this fiery concoction and made it a must-have beverage at gatherings must have had internal organs made of steel.

In any event, the baijiu industry has taken a hit now that higher Communist Party officials have decreed that banquet costs have to be cut down to avoid criticisms from the public, tired of them lavishly spending taxpayer dollars.

But how to keep the liquor flowing with visiting officials and other VIPs when baijiu is a must-have on the table?

in the small town of Baishun in Guangdong (population 12,600), the solution is simple -- brew its own rice wine.

Baijiu is a must-have beverage at official banquets
"It's not just cutting costs, but also healthier," one official was quoted as saying in the Southern Rural Daily.

The pressure to cut costs comes as perceived extravagance and corruption are the biggest grievances average Chinese have about officials in the local and provincial levels.

As a result some cities like Wenzhou have not only cut down on liquor, but on expensive brands of spirits, as well as banned shark's fin on the menu at official banquets.

But they haven't gone to the lengths that officials in Baishun have in making their own brew.

The Southern Rural Daily article doesn't explain how the town makes its own rice wine, but basically rice and yeast are mixed together and fermented for a period of time before it turns into a colourless spirit.

One Baishun official was quoted as saying the town consumes about 100 jin (a jin is half a litre) of alcohol a month during official banquets. "When leaders come, we drink close to 20 jin," he said. "When the village and town cadres come, we can't not drink."

The unnamed official even offered rough calculations, explaining that after buying rice, firewood and other costs, the town's rice wine or mijiu costs around 5 RMB ($0.80) per jin. Commercially-made baijiu which has a higher alcohol content and aged for many years can cost several hundred to up to 1,000 RMB a bottle.

However, he did not say where the money saved fro making their own baijiu was used for... which makes one wonder if the officials are setting up their own rudimentary capitalist venture of selling their own moonshine...

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Money Solves Most Problems... Or Does It?

Ah the life of the rich in Hong Kong.

Last night a friend told me that he drove to a club for lunch and parked the car in the parking lot. And then a car approached the spot next to him -- scratching his car along the way with a horrible sound.

The elderly driver thought nothing of the noise nor felt that he'd sideswiped my friend's car and walked away.

So my friend followed after him and said, "Excuse me sir, but can you see what you did to my car?"

At first he didn't hear my friend who had to call out again to get his attention.

Then the elderly man walked back to the car and looked at the scratch. He remarked hadn't heard anything, but nonchalantly passed on his business card and told my friend to bill him for the repairs and walked off.

The man seems to lack any kind of remorse -- or maybe he does this all the time and doesn't want to admit he shouldn't be driving?

Today in the news is another but more amusing car story involving another wealthy family.

A 16-year-old took his father's company car out for a joyride only to crash it into a parked taxi in Pokfulam.

While the accident was serious, it's surprising to discover Fahim Khan committed the offense and pleaded guilty in court last week -- all without his family's knowledge.

It was only when he was due to be sentenced did his family's lawyers appear and ask for a postponement of the sentencing to have more time to submit evidence.

His new defense lawyer, veteran barrister Andrew Bruce said, "He's 16. Do you remember when you were 16?... He was feeling depressed [and] in love with a girl who lives in another country, and he did a really stupid thing."

Khan's father, Ikram Khan is founder and managing director of the Shun Shing Group, an international trading and investment company with offices in China, Southeast Asia and India.

Fahim is a student at West Island School and at his first hearing last Thursday he was represented by a duty lawyer he had found through the government's Free Legal Advice Scheme.

He didn't tell his family that he was standing trial and pleaded guilty to charges of careless driving, taking a car without authority and driving without a license or third-party insurance.

But at his second hearing yesterday, Fahim had his family's lawyers with him and the magistrate rescheduled the sentencing hearing to November 19 and ordered psychiatric and probation reports.

He also extended Fahim's bail, adding that the defendant could not drive any vehicle during that period.

"I might ask for a community service report or a background report [but] I am prepared to explore other sentencing options," the magistrate said.

Another lawyer who spoke on behalf of the family said, "It is unfortunate that we were brought in at this late stage."

Wouldn't we all love to be a fly on the wall to overhear when Fahim finally fessed up to his parents?

Monday, 29 October 2012

Picture of the Day: Central Government Complex

Called "The Door", this building dwarfs people
Yesterday I took the 43X bus that goes from Kennedy Town to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. I'd never taken that bus before but thought it should pass by Admiralty where I needed to get off.

So I thought I'd get on and see what the route was like.

There's more greenery up there than expected
One of the stops was at the Dr Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park which is next to the sports centre where I hear there's a fantastic public pool for swimmers.

And then the bus continues along the waterfront and stops right at the new central government complex that houses the Legislative Council. It's a towering thing that is an upside down U-shape so that it feels like doesn't hog the harbour view, but because of its hulking size it does.

We feel so tiny next to it that it's the same experience as standing next to government buildings on the mainland.

Perhaps architect Rocco Yim got some inspiration from Beijing in making us feel small and insignificant even though our tax dollars built it?

Unfortunately I was rushing to lunch otherwise I would have wandered around a bit more and taken more photographs.

But here are some for you to look at and check out the view from the overpass looking towards Central.

On the overpass looking over to Central
Civil servants there really have an awesome view.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Paper Tiger Threats

This afternoon I went to the supermarket to pick up a few things for dinner.

It was 5pm so everyone else was in the store as well and there was a massive line at the cashier.

Behind me was a mainland Chinese woman with her earphones on, talking in Putonghua to someone on the phone.

She was talking about The New York Times story and bits and pieces of information in the article, how Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's mother had investments in Ping An Insurance and how his son set up many companies, his wife gained handsomely from her foothold in the jewellery industry.

So many people are talking about it and now Wen's family has hit out against the newspaper with a letter from two lawyers saying the story was "untrue".

In a rare statement from Chinese leaders, the letter written by Bai Tao and Wang Weidong was published in the South China Morning Post today.

It first claims that "the so-called 'hidden riches' of Wen Jiabao's family members in The New York Times' report does not exist", and that the premier's mother has never owned any property or income other than her pension. However reporter David Barboza did find her name and her ID card number as an investor in Ping An Insurance and her investments were worth $120 million in 2007.

The letter also says that Wen played no part in any of the family members' business dealings and that these were their own activities. The New York Times story does not refute this at all and many times clearly states there was no evidence to prove Wen had any direct hand nor was his name found in any of the public records Barboza sifted through.

The lawyers also say none of the family members engaged in illegal business activities and the article does not say they are.

While the letter ends with a threat of following up with legal action, there isn't much they can do as all the information gathered was publicly available, and the NYT continues to stand by its story.

I believe the score is now 2-0 for the NYT...

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Premier Wen is Harmonized

Poor Premier Wen Jiabao. He is person non grata in his own country when it comes to cyberspace.

Hours after The New York Times published its story on how his family have amassed some $2.7 billion through various investments, the Chinese censors went ahead and blocked not only the NYT website, but also many words related to the article.

When a word or phrase is blocked, it's considered to be "harmonized" (和谐) or he(2)xie(2).

According to China Digital Times, this is the list of words blocked by Sina Weibo:                             

- New York Times (纽约时报)
- Twist Times (扭腰时报): “Twist” (扭腰 niǔyāo, as in the dance) sounds similar to New York (纽约 Niǔyuē).
- NY
- New York Times
- New York SB (纽约SB): SB is the pinyin abbreviation for “Times” (时报 shíbào).
- 2.7 billion (27亿): The minimum amount of controlled assets (in U.S. dollars) held by Wen’s relatives, according the the New York Times.
- Wen + assets (温+财产)
- Wen + wealth (温+财富)
- Wen + prime minister (温+总理)
- Wen + family (温+家族)
- Wen treasure (温宝)
- Wen clan (温氏)
- Wen Party (温党)
- Wen Emperor (温帝)
- movie star (影帝)
- Yang Zhiyun (杨志云): Wen’s mother
- Duan Weihong (段伟红): Founder of Taihong, the company which served as the vehicle for Wen’s relatives’ shares in Ping An Insurance.
- Daimengde (戴梦得): Wen’s wife Zhang Beili’s jewelry company.
- Wen + diamond queen (温+钻石女王): Zhang has earned the nickname “diamond queen” for her role in the industry.
- Lady Wen (温夫人)
- Wen Yunsong (温云松): Wen’s son.
- Crown Prince Wen (温太子)
- Young Master Wen (温少爷)
- Zheng Jianyuan (郑建源): Wen Yunsong’s alias according to online rumor.
- China Satellite Communications Corporation (中国卫通): Wen Yunsong is currently chairman.
- New Horizon Capital (新天域资本公司): Wen Yunsong is one of the founders.
- Excellence Science and Technology (创优科技): Company founded by Wen Yunsong.
- Zhang Beili (张培莉): Wen's wife
- Wen Jiahong (温家宏): Wen's brother
- Grandpa Wen (温爷爷): One of Wen’s nicknames, earned for his public appearances with ordinary people.
- Prime Minister Wen (温相)
Any bets on how long these words will be blocked for?

Friday, 26 October 2012

Wen's Family Wealth Exposed

One wonders how Wen is going to wriggle his way out of this
The Chinese government is furious to find The New York Times has published an expose on Premier Wen Jiabao's family and how they have financially benefited from his position.

It's a long story you can read here, and it details the many relatives including his 90-year-old mother who have made substantial gains worth $2.7 billion from public records between 1992-2012.

There was lots of research into companies and sometimes family members were not directly named but through layers of partnerships in various companies. The premier's name was not found in any documents.

Of course the main players -- Wen's wife Zhang Beili, son Winston Wen Yunsong, son-in-law and daughter -- did not comment for the article except for his daughter-in-law who claimed stories about Winston Wen were false and that he wasn't as active in business anymore.

In any event China's Foreign Ministry commented today on the story saying, "Some reports smear China and have ulterior motives," said spokesman Hong Lei.

The report confirms long-time rumours about Wen's family wealth, though it's not certain he knew the extent of the amount gained through his political standing. He is known to have been disgusted at how they benefited from him, and according to the article, at one point wanted to divorce his wife because she took advantage of his position.

That's because Wen is keen to set his legacy as "Grandpa Wen", the personable leader who rushed to disaster scenes to comfort victims and often met with laobaixing or common people. He also wants to be remembered as a reformer, warning officials to keep their wealth in check, but now it seems his own family cannot hide it much longer, causing him to lose much face.

Many believe the anonymous sources criticizing Wen and his family were former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai's allies, hoping to get a last dig at the Premier before the 18th National People's Congress set to start November 8 in Beijing.

The publication of the story coincides with Bo being expelled from his post as a deputy of the National People's Congress, thus paving the way for him to lose immunity and be taken to court on various charges including abuse of power, bribe-taking and improper relations with women.

Currently top leaders cannot be charged of anything unless they are first stripped of their positions and membership to the Communist Party of China.

No wonder they and their families take advantage of this immunity and position to get as much as they can take.

It's interesting how The New York Times reporters and in particular David Barboza took advantage of the sharp rift within party ranks over what to do with Bo to get more information about Wen.

This clearly indicates there are deep divisions within the Party and people are not happy with how Bo's fate has changed so dramatically compared to this past spring.

The ironic thing is that Wen and Bo's families have both amassed great wealth, but did it in different ways. However, Bo's wife Gu Kailai was caught having murdered Briton Neil Heywood which unraveled the web of their wealth mostly transferred overseas which led to his downfall.

Nevertheless we applaud the NYT for this investigative piece and hope the punishment it gets from China is swift and not too damaging.

Bloomberg has already paid the price for uncovering the massive wealth of Vice President Xi Jinping's family with this story. Not only was the website blocked, but practically all state companies refused to buy Bloomberg's terminals to get up-to-date financial information or mysteriously cancelled meetings with Bloomberg staff at the last minute.

Foreign media know the price of doing investigative journalism in China. And they felt the story weighed too much in favour of the public's need-to-know to publish it.

We thank them for their hard work and hope they continue to uncover more untold riches by other officials' families.

In this way we hope the Chinese government will be forced to reform its ways because since state media is gagged, who else dares to speak out?

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Ai Rankles the Censors (Yet Again)

Ai Weiwei and his posse doing the Gangnam Style dance
Now that I think about it, why didn't Ai Weiwei think of it first?

The other day I blogged about K-Pop star Psy and his Gangnam Style dance that has everyone -- even the United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon learning a few moves.

And then today I saw Ai's version of the video and calls it "Caonima" (草泥馬), which literally means "grass mud horse", but is really a crude insult, where you can find it explained here.

The 55-year-old Ai looks a bit weighty in the video and canvassed his staff to take part in the video of them prancing around in his courtyard.

"We only filmed for a bit over 10 minutes but we used a whole day to edit, and eventually put it online at midnight [Wednesday]," Ai told Reuters.

"After we had uploaded it, a few hours later... we found that a lot of people, tens of thousands, had already watched it. Now, in China, it has already been totally removed, deleted entirely, and you can't see it in China," Ai said.

He felt this was unfair, saying this was a grass-roots expression of individualism that should be allowed on the mainland.

"Overall, we feel that every person has the right to express themselves, and this right of expression is fundamentally linked to our happiness and even our existence," Ai said.

"When a society constantly demands that everyone should abandon this right, then the society becomes a society without creativity. It can never become a happy society."

The video itself is not quite worth watching for 4 minutes and 15 seconds, but it's amusing enough to see Ai doing the quasi-Gangnam Style dance.

Maybe Psy should go over there to give him proper lessons.

In the meantime, should we be surprised the Chinese government is not amused, particularly now in the countdown to the 18th National People's Congress?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Nocturnal Shopping in Causeway Bay

Shopping in Causeway Bay may get even later...
Hong Kong people can be pragmatic -- they do what they have to do to get things done, put food on the table or pay the rent.

And these days those with businesses in Causeway Bay that signed on for outrageous rents last year are trying to make up the difference with the economic downturn by keeping their business open longer hours.

While Taiwanese book store Eslite in the new mall Hysan Place had already planned to be open until 2am from Thursdays to Sundays and the eve of public holidays, it still closes at 11pm from Monday to Wednesday.

Nearby is the flashy Forever 21 that has a giant screen above the store presenting bizarre vignettes of young women discovering funky fashion styles. The retailer is probably feeling the pain after agreeing to rent the space for HK$11 million a month. It now opens until 2am seven days a week.

And while Wellcome supermarket in Causeway Bay is open 24 hours and has customers in the wee hours, the upscale supermarket Jason in Hysan Place is open everyday until midnight.

This indicates people in Causeway Bay are night owl shoppers or they know this is the place to go for late-night shopping.

And now developers are looking into building "Ginza-style" commercial projects where stores and services can be open for 24 hours.

Already The Sharp, which is being built at 11-13 Russell Street and apparently already has the reputation of having the most expensive retail strip in the world, is going to have round-the-clock management service and even air conditioning can be controlled individually by tenants.

"The building design is suitable for occupiers to stay open for 24 hours a day if they wish," said a spokeswoman.

The space in The Sharp is already selling at HK$30,000 ($3,870) per square foot, or starting at HK$48 million.

If these Ginza-style places really do take off with people coming in at all hours of the day, then we really have become a society that doesn't rest, or our long working hours prevent us from doing or buying things in the evenings.

I would also feel sorry for the employees who would have to work these crazy hours. I've done the early morning and overnight shifts myself and know how much it screws up people's schedules, sleep patterns and overall health.

Some would argue that in the current economic situation, having a job is better than none at all, and others would say the city has become more convenient because services are offered at all hours.

I understand the economic benefits and the convenience, but long-term we're making people work odd hours to satisfy our whims?

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Gangnam Style Riding to HK

Psy's horse-riding dance has millions of fans
Hong Kong is going nuts over the news that South Korean pop sensation Psy will be coming here on November 30 for the Mnet Asian Music Awards at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai.

Psy, whose real name is Park Jae-sang, became an internet hit thanks to his style of dance that involves jumping around in a suit and waving his arms as if riding a horse. He says the point of Gangnam style is to "dress classy and act cheesy".

His video and single Gangnam Style has been a hit all over the world, and he's made TV appearances teaching Britney Spears how to dance in her platform heels on Ellen DeGeneres' show and gave New York a wake-up call with a live performance at Rockefeller Plaza on the Today Show.

And now with his upcoming visit to Hong Kong, concert organizers and shopping malls are trying to hire him for promotional events here. One industry insider said it could cost up to $700,000 -- yes in US dollars -- to hire Psy to appear for 30 minutes in a show in a mall.

He seems very charming and his relatively good English will get him far, as he studied for four years at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

So we shall see what happens next month as Gangnam Style fever grows in Hong Kong.

Maybe he can swing by Beijing and teach soon-to-be President Xi Jinping a few dance moves too.

Now that would be a show stopper.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Still Defending Bo

An open letter written by leftists ardently support Bo Xilai
Former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai's supporters have not given up their fight yet.

Today an open letter signed by more than 700 academics and former officials was published on a left-wing Chinese-language website called Red China.

In it, the signatories asked parliament not to expel Bo from the Communist Party of China, saying that the move was legally questionable and politically motivated.

By stripping Bo of his membership, he will lose his immunity to prosecution, resulting in formal charges against him.

"What is the reason provided for expelling Bo Xilai? Please investigate the facts and the evidence," the letter said. "Please announce to the people evidence that Bo Xilai will be able to defend himself in accordance with the law."

This group of leftists is small but vocal, though not many people on the mainland can access the Red China site, and neither was the open letter reported in Chinese state media.

Nevertheless, there are some prominent people who have signed the letter, including Li Chengrui, former director of the National Bureau of Statistics and is now a law professor at Peking University.

Meanwhile another signatory, Chengdu resident Li Longhua attached his name to the letter, telling BBC Chinese Service "because I want China's legal system to be fair. I believe that the way Bo Xilai's case has been dealt with has seriously violated China's own legal procedures. I do not consider myself to be a leftist or rightist. What i just want is for... the country to have more democracy and freedom. I have never supported Bo Xilai before."

It's interesting Li signed the letter in the hopes of having rule of law followed, but the ironic thing is that Bo didn't follow legal procedures himself when he launched his "strike black" campaign to break up triads in Chongqing.

He threw a lot of people in jail, and while some tried to get legal representation from Beijing, those lawyers were threatened for defending the alleged crime bosses.

So while Bo's supporters are trying to make a last-ditch plea for him, it seems for the most part his fate is pretty much sealed even though it appears highly politically motivated.

The public would have appreciated an open and transparent trial of not only Bo but his wife Gu Kailai and former police chief Wang Lijun, but it seems the government was too worried the verdicts would not turn out as planned and so the trials were not only rushed, but the scope was limited too.

If the government wants to continue to legitimize its leadership of the country, it must adhere to its rule of law and not manipulate verdicts to its own liking.

Otherwise the disillusionment is just going to fester.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

China's Labour Woes Worsen

Workers quickly filling orders at a Foxconn plant
In the last few days James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly has been posting pictures and commentary on his blog on his recent visit to Foxconn in Shenzhen.

His photos depict an extremely large campus that is like a town where the factory is the main place of employment surrounded by auxiliary services such as canteens, health clinics, entertainment (ie empty swimming pool, internet cafe), counselling and stores.

Fallows did point out the netting that are a flimsy bid to stop the numerous suicides at the man Foxconn plants, but on the whole the factory line looks very clean and orderly. The dorms at this factory don't look too bad though spartan -- four to a room and the bunk bed is on top with a closet and desk below. He added that the assembly-line workers are six to eight in a room, which indicates Fallows was shown the nicer areas.

However he did not indicate whether sleeping patterns in these dorms had changed -- previously many workers complained they did not know anyone else in their dorms and each had different shifts which led to lack of sleep and furthered people's feelings of isolation.

Nevertheless, Fallows' visit coincides with an investigative report by China Labour Watch stating that the Henan provincial government put pressure on vocational schools and local authorities to supply labour to Foxconn in order to cope with its high turnover rate and the recent release of the iPhone 5.

As a result students are pulled out of their studies and placed in the assembly lines -- some as young as 14. Some state media reports say the use of underage labour was acknowledged by Foxconn and that these students work 12 hours a day.

Also, students at Yantai Engineering and Technology College had an "internship program" with Foxconn, but they actually had to work in the factory. The students said they had no choice -- they were told that they needed the experience in order to graduate. About 60 students from the college were allegedly under 16.

"They said they were forced to work by their teachers," said Li Qiang, founder of CLW in an earlier interview. "They don't want to work there -- they want to learn. But if they don't work, they are told they will not graduate, because it is a very busy time with the new iPhone coming, and Foxconn does not have enough workers without the students."

Provincial and local governments are complicit in rounding up cheap labour in order to fulfill GDP results.

The ploy of getting students to do adult factory work is outrageous, but somehow coming from China seems almost expected which is even worse.

Stanley Lubman who writes a column for the Wall Street Journal adds that there are other creative ways to get manpower, including dispatch labour.

Apparently there are some 60 million such dispatch workers -- or one-fifth of China's urban labour force -- who are hired by employment companies to work in factories like Foxconn.

These dispatch workers only have a contract with the employment agency and not the factory and are treated worse than those hired directly by the factory. These dispatch workers are as it sounds -- temporary and used when needed, and earn very little overtime pay or have any severance.

Why does China persist in exploiting its own people? Does Beijing think its labour supply is limitless?

Indeed on my first day at work in Beijing, I had lunch with my bosses and one of them was proud to say labour from the countryside was limitless.

Well, there are a growing number of news reports that work shortages are happening especially in southern China, where workers are fed up with poor conditions and pay.

And couple that with a major drop in the younger population due to the one-child policy, it's a recipe for disaster in terms of having enough people working on the assembly lines.

While China may blame the rest of the world for wanting labour intensive high-tech products, it only has itself to blame for not respecting its own citizens.

This ongoing refrain of cheap labour has to end. As I've noted before, China does not have enough jobs for educated people.

And hence the factories continue to churn out exhausted workers day in, day out.

Should we be surprised the Foxconn workers in Taiyuan were rioting last month?

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Mainlanders Still Buying

Many years ago it used to be the Hong Kong dollar was much higher than the Renminbi (RMB).

But as China's economy powered ahead for 30 years, the RMB has surpassed the Hong Kong dollar, at HK$1.23 for 1 RMB.

Even though the mainland economy has softened this year, its currency is still so strong.

So while the mainland Chinese coming to Hong Kong to shop aren't as rabid and carefree with their newly-found wealth (depending on how they acquired it), they are still shopping up a storm here.

An interesting observation is the purchase of the iPhone 5.

Apparently the 32G phones are all sold out; that's because if mainlanders are buying an iPhone 5 for a friend, then they'll get the 16G, but if they are buying for their boss or someone senior in the company as a gift, they have to get the 64G one.

That just leave the 32G one for the local market and now there's a waiting list to get that particular iPhone because 64G is over the top.

Tracking their spending habits at name brands is also a clue.

Last night I walked down Canton Road and there were no lines at Louis Vuitton, but a lengthy one at Chanel and a relatively short one at Hermes.

The reason?

Louis Vuitton is so pedestrian now -- everyone has an LV bag -- so the next step up is Chanel, and then ultimately Hermes.

Watch and jewellery stores are complaining of slow sales too, but it seems mainland customers are more discerning about what they buy now instead of recklessly spending money like there's no tomorrow.

And then there are those who are just focused on buying everyday necessities such as shampoo, milk powder and cosmetics because they know it's not fake.

Will it ever end?

Not as long as the RMB continues to rise and we Hong Kongers become the poorer cousins who have the flash but no cash.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Pictures of the Day: The Tao of Laughter

Shopping mall Harbour City is constantly looking for ways to draw customers in.

This time it has brought in Chinese artist Yue Minjun's large sculptures in front of the entrance by the Star Ferry.

These five sculptures have the Beijing-based Yue's signature laughing look, in various poses, or stages of laughing, probably out loud. They're pretty much naked, very muscular and only wearing some briefs.

The Tao of Laughter was inspired by Laozi's 6th century classical text on Taoism, known as Tao Te Ching.

When people are faced with problems, some either give up or avoid the situation altogether.

However, Laozi suggests all problems can be solved with laughter, so that they disappear without pain or heartache.

Through these sculptures, Yue hides the sad, bad or even dangerous feelings behind each smile.

Indeed many people enjoyed the pieces, taking pictures of them by imitating their facial expressions.

Yue's work is always good for a laugh.

The Tao of Laughter
Until October 23
Forecourt, Ocean Terminal

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Why HK Needs Sex Education

My cousin's wife is a social worker in Hong Kong and she has told me many stories of young girls found on the streets who have run away from their parents because of unstable or difficult situations at home.

These runaways then fall into even worse situations, many times dabbling in drugs and alcohol and/or getting pregnant and no where to go.

Some are as young as 12.

Usually they are picked up on the street by police as these girls should be in school. Then it's up to my cousin's wife to assess them and bring them to a women's only institution where they can stay only for a few months before figuring out what they should do.

She comes across cases like these many times a month. And her stories collaborate with a letter to the editor today from Alia Eyres, chief executive officer of Mother's Choice, a non profit that helps young pregnant women in the city.

Eyres states that while there were 760 births by women under the age of 19 in Hong Kong in 2009, Mother's Choice receives almost 3,000 calls annually to its hotline.

She explains many of the young women who are counselled by Mother's Choice are under 25, many of them are 16 or younger -- and many of the teenagers have faced crisis pregnancy many times.

Recent research from Bain & Company reveals there are over 7,000 crisis pregnancies each year in Hong Kong says Eyres, and the majority are unwed mothers under the age of 25.

To her this indicates there is not enough sex education in Hong Kong, and the Bain & Company research confirms this, saying "More than 40 percent of local schools do not receive sex education from a qualified third-party provider, and in-house provision is sorely inadequate".

Eyres adds "Many of the teenagers who seek help from Mother's Choice have never discussed sex or relationships with their parents."

While some young women go on to abort the fetus, others carry to full term and later give up the child for adoption.

That was the case of the baby girl my colleague adopted last year through Mother's Choice.

During the legal transfer of guardianship of the baby to my colleague and her husband in court, they received a detailed letter from the 19-year-old birth mother who was not present.

She explained she came from a broken family and was left to her own devices.

Then she got pregnant and wanted to keep the baby.

When the baby was born, she was thrilled at the prospects of motherhood, but after a few days realized she could not look after the baby, who needed so many more resources than she could provide on her own.

As a result she gave the baby up and hoped her daughter would forgive her for giving her up for adoption, but thought it was the best option for her daughter.

My colleague became emotional when she read the letter which came with a baby blanket.

She has already put these two items away for safe keeping and intend to give it to her daughter when she is old enough to understand.

Thankfully there is a happy ending to this story, but there are many more cases -- everyday in fact -- of girls in Hong Kong getting pregnant.

While it's not a social story that's exploding like the imminent surge in seniors in the city, the issue of teen pregnancies should not be swept under the carpet.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Chao Keen on Movie Stardom

Chao is waiting to hear from movie producers on a film about Gigi
The other day I wrote about Cecil Chao Sze-tsung and his bid to pay HK$500 million to a suitor who would marry his lesbian daughter Gigi even though she is married to her partner Sean Eav.

And soon after his public plea hit the media, there was news that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was interested in making a movie about it, tentatively called The Lesbian for Paramount Pictures through his Four By Two Films Company.

However, Chao has yet to hear from the producers.

"Why don't they contact me? I can give them some good information," the 76-year-old old a local newspaper. "I'd be pleased to help them, but make me a good person in the film. I will co-operate with them, anything they want," he said.

He even added he would welcome the crew to film at his 20,000-square-foot mansion Villa Cecil in Pok Fu Lam.

"They might as well do it in a nice way," Chao said. "It's going to be [humorous]... but in a good person, not a bad person."

Baron Cohen's publicist Matt Labov confirmed the plan to do the movie, but would not reveal much else or if they would be contacting Chao.

Chao said he had received some 20,000 applications interested in meeting Gigi.

"I looked up 100 of them and passed them to Gigi. I don't have the time to interview 20,000 of them," he said. "it's up to Gigi to sort it out. What's the point of me choosing anybody? It's a waste of my life if that's not Gigi's choice."

However his 33-year-old daughter has already made up her mind, having described Eav as "the wind in my sails" and that "you can call her my wife".

One wonders if Chao really gets the situation or he's just trying to get more publicity for himself?

Lai Quits Taiwan

 Lai leaves Taiwan after being denied a cable TV license
I haven't written much about publisher Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, who had a successful 11-year run in the print media business in Taiwan.

However, he has now decided to pull out of the island after selling all of his newspaper and magazine holdings in Taiwan for NT$17.6 billion (HK$4.64 billion) to a consortium led by entrepreneur Jeffrey Koo, who has teamed up with Formosa Plastics Group president Wang Wen-yuan and a Singapore private equity fund.

Koo is the eldest son of banking mogul and Chinatrust Financial Holding chairman Koo Len-song.

Lai told his staff yesterday, "I won't be back." He said Taiwan had democracy, and he did not believe it could not have a free press.

Nevertheless he was stymied from being unable to obtain government approval to operate a cable-television business in Taiwan.

"The Taiwan government won't let Jimmy Lai into cable," said his assistant Mark Simon. "Jimmy crossed every stream and climbed every mountain to get a license."

So what next for Lai?

There's speculation he is looking at opportunities in the United States and Europe.

Actually the US could be a good battle ground for him to go head-to-head with Chinese state media setting up shop there.

It would be interesting to see the different Chinese views of North America.

In the meantime can Taiwan Apple Daily, Taiwan Sharp Daily and Taiwan Next Media Bundle survive without Lai at the helm?

That will be the test of how free Taiwan's media really is.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Defining Poverty in Hong Kong

Many poor seniors taken on menial jobs to make ends meet
Hong Kong does not have a comprehensive plan on how to tackle poverty.

Part of the problem is that it does not have an official poverty line and so there is no exact number.

This makes it convenient for the government to claim whatever number it deems suitable for the situation.

However NGOs are saying there are many more who are unaccounted for and are falling through the cracks.

They believe an additional 700,000 aren't getting the welfare assistance they need.

Currently some 450,000 to 460,000 are identified by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service as living in poverty because they receive payments from Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), but social welfare groups believe they only make up 40 percent of the total poor in the city. They say the total should be 1.15 million.

"If they are not on the dole, there is next to nothing between the poor and the stone-cold hard floor," said Hong Kong Oxfam's director general Stephen Fisher.

The council defines living in poverty as half the median monthly household income, meaning HK$3,500 ($452) for one person, HK$13,250 for a family of four.

While officially establishing the poverty line would be a good start, it does not necessarily encompass the various shades of poverty in the city.

"A poverty threshold is a headline measure -- it's an objective measurement based on income statistics," said Fisher. "It's a practical and straightforward way of identifying who is poor."

He admitted governments do not like setting this poverty line because it is an easy way for stakeholders, in particular legislators, social groups and the media to easily monitor the government on how effective it was in dealing with poverty issues through black-and-white numbers.

Chua Hoi-wai is a policy advocacy and social enterprise business director for the Council of Social Service. He explained there were many different situations of poverty in Hong Kong which results in a discrepancy in numbers. The council says the number of elderly poor is increasing, now at about 288,000, while the government claims 153,900 receive CSSA.

"You have elderly people who have no income, but maybe own an old decrepit property and this may keep them from receiving welfare, even though they are barely hanging on," explains Fisher.

Others decline welfare because that would mean their children were not taking care of them. As a result many seniors resort to menial jobs like collecting cardboard and aluminum cans for a few extra dollars.

Fisher believes locals, especially seniors, have a strong sense of dignity and do not want to ask for help despite inflation and rising property prices.

"There needs to be a range of social safety nets before relying on long-term social welfare; like low income supplements, negative income tax and family allowances," he said.

"We need to work against poverty -- not just by giving money, but by helping poorer people from having to rely on permanent welfare. This is what it means to eradicate poverty."

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has pledged to help the poor and hopefully his administration will set the poverty line soon with the input of social welfare groups. That way they can start to build a comprehensive long-term plan to help those in need and more importantly get them out of poverty through a variety of services because just giving handouts exacerbates the problem.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Rethinking Hong Kong's Economy

With rents coming down maybe entrepreneurialism will thrive again
Landlords who were raking it in these past few years are now seeing their cash cows starting to dry up.

This past "golden week" holiday resulted in disappointing sales, which has caused tenants to ask landlords for a break in rent.

Sales of jewellery, watches and expensive gifts -- typically the most popular items mainlanders buy in Hong Kong -- fell 3.4 percent in value in August compared to last year.

The decline was the sharpest of all retail items and this was the first drop in retail since July 2009.

"Spending by mainland visitors is lower due to the weak mainland economy and also a change in their shopping habits," said Joe Lin, senior director of retail services at property consultancy CBRE.

The decline in the amount and value that mainland shoppers bought has forced retailers to bring their projected sales down to earth and also landlords to rethink the exorbitant rents.

"I think we will now see a return to more realistic rentals," Lin said.

"For example, a landlord who wanted HK$6 million a month for his shop cut it to HK$4.8 million because of a lack of interest," he said. "Now it is on the market at HK$4.5 million -- but even that is higher than going rents in the area of about HK$3 million."

Simon Lo Wing-fai, director of the research and advisory department at Colliers International said retailers were no longer willing to pay premium rents as they had to cut budgets.

Hong Kong may also be losing its lustre as the number one place for mainlanders to shop.

"Many mainlanders like to follow a trend," he added. "Previously, there was a trend to go shopping in Hong Kong, which was seen as a status symbol. Now mainlanders have more choice and the latest trend is to go shopping in Europe or Korea."

And while Hong Kong has depended on the tourism industry to bring in dollars, not much of it actually benefits the local economy. While local landlords collect rent, the vast majority of the money goes to foreign brands -- and the remaining amount is for the low staff wages.

So in the end tourism doesn't really benefit our economy. Hong Kong really needs to think of other creative ideas to stimulate the city's growth.

But because rents are so high, entrepreneurialism is too high of a risk here and so everyone ends up investing in property and stocks.

How is that sustainable?

Hopefully retail rents will fall back to levels where budding entrepreneurs can take a chance again because it's sad seeing mom-and-pop shops fast disappearing.

We need new local businesses to replace them otherwise Hong Kong will not be a city for us but for tourists who may or may not come here anymore.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Money Can't Buy Everything

Gigi Chao married Sean Eav in Paris several months ago
Property and shipping tycoon Cecil Chao Sze-tsung is having a hard time coming to grips to the fact that his daughter Gigi is gay.

That's because the 76-year-old billionaire playboy has had a long string of women and can't understand why his 33-year-old daughter isn't straight.

He was shocked to discover she married her partner of eight years, Sean Eav in Paris five months ago.

Instead of blessing the union, late last month Chao publicly offered HK$500 million to any man who could win her heart.

This resulted in a deluge of some 200 proposals, while the number of people who follow her on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube jumped by 1,500.

"People are contacting me on Facebook, by email, on Twitter. It's ridiculous. I can't sort out the serious proposals from the half-hearted ones. I can't make head or tail of it," she told The Daily Telegraph. Some prospective suitors apparently sent her nude photographs.

While Gigi is an executive director of her father's company, she also runs Haut Monde Talent, a marketing, pubic relations, and luxury accessories company.

Cecil Chao can't quite accept daughter Gigi is gay
The latest now is that Chao was interviewed by ABC News 20/20 in which he said he hoped she would become straight naturally.

He claimed he accepted Gig's "gay tendencies", but hinted he wanted her to "reconsider her choice".

"I'm not saying that she's not okay to be gay. I mean it's her own choice and her own tendency, but she should make sure she knows what she wants. Maybe what she wants today is different to what she wants in the future."

While Gigi has stated she has no plans to break up with her partner, she is probably very tempted to throw back those words at Chao who has never married but has had a long string of beautiful women by his side.

The closest he ever came to be committed to someone was when he was with American-Vietnamese model Terri Holladay and they had a son, Roman. However she found out they were not "married" in a legal sense and they split up in 1995.

What's most impressive about this whole thing is how Gigi is handling this public incident between her and her father. She's very diplomatic and says she's close to her father, but if they were, why would he be trying to make her straight, and offering to pay a lot of money for it?

In this case, father does not know best.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Fatal Beauty

When I meet women who are from Hong Kong, many of them look very closely at my face and exclaim that I have good skin.

They ask me for my beauty secrets and many are disappointed when I tell them I drink lots of water, exercise regularly and don't drink coffee, tea or soft drinks.

They were expecting I'd tell them about a miracle product that I use and hoping to get their hands on it.

One time I met two women from a cosmetics line, their faces completely made up so I was assuming they'd try to hard sell some products to me.

Instead they thought my skin was fine with just some cover up in some areas and filled in my eyebrows.

However there are women in the city who are willing to do just about anything to beautify themselves, even if it costs thousands of dollars.

But the results can be fatal as we are seeing in DR Beauty Centre chain where one 46-year-old woman has died and three others were infected with a superbug after undergoing a procedure that's normally reserved for cancer patients.

The procedure involves drawing blood from the person, then it is processed to harvest "cytokine-induced killer cells" or CIK found in white blood cells. The CIK cells are multiplied in a culture solution in a laboratory and then injected back into the patient along with their own blood after two weeks.

The centre claimed this treatment helped beautify the skin, but founder Dr Stephen Chow Heung-wing admitted there was no evidence the treatment was effective.

Each woman paid HK$50,000 for this procedure, including Chow's sister who is one of those still in hospital.

While the government is conducting a review of this case, many medical practitioners and people within the beauty industry are calling for regulations as currently beauty clinics can claim just about anything in their advertisements which are plastered all over the city.

At the same time consumers must learn not to be gullible when it comes to beauty treatments -- many of them may not necessarily result in the promised benefits.

When a treatment involves extracting blood and it's not in a hospital or doctor's office, it's shocking to find consumers didn't think this was alarming until this incident.

More education must be done so that consumers will know what to expect when they visit these beauty centres.

In the meantime I'm sticking to my tried and tested regimen -- water, exercise and sleep.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Pictures of the Day: Views from Pacific Place

Looking westwards to Central from Admiralty
Looking at the view to Kowloon with a reflection of Central
I can never tire of Hong Kong's skyline.

One of the cheapest ways to enjoy it is from the Star Ferry crossing from the Kowloon side to Hong Kong Island.

The next best spot is probably on The Peak.

But these are the usual angles.

Things get more interesting when you see the city from different positions.

Tonight I went to Cafe Gray Deluxe for dinner. It's located on the 49th floor of The Upper House, next to the Marriott Hong Kong in Admiralty.

While the view we got looked out onto Victoria Harbour, we could also look eastwards to Wan Chai and Causeway Bay.

Looking down at the city from 49 floors up
But it was the view below that was most fascinating -- watching the traffic whizz by on roads snaking around buildings, oblivious to us above.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Clinching the World's Highest Honour

Nobel Prize winner in Literature Mo Yan
We are ecstatic to hear writer Mo Yan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

There was speculation Japanese author Haruki Murakami would clinch the prestigious prize, but not long after Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel in 2010 did Mo become the third ethnic Chinese to win, but the first not jailed or exiled.

When Mo was contacted earlier today, Peter Englund, secretary of the Swedish Academy reported "he said he was overjoyed and scared". Apparently Mo was with his father when he received the call.

In citing the award, the academy said: "Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition."

Mo Yan, which is a pen name "don't speak" for Guan Moye, is the son of farmers born in 1955 and during the Cultural Revolution he left school to work on a farm and later a factory.

In 1976 when the Cultural Revolution ended, he joined the People's Liberation Army and began to study literature and write.

Five years later his first short story was published in a literary journal.

"In his writing Mo Yan draws on his youthful experiences and on settings in the province of his birth," the Nobel biography said, referring to his 1987 novel called Red Sorghum in 1993 that was later made into a movie by director Zhang Yimou.

The Garlic Ballads was published in English in 1995 and other works "have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society."

His other works include Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996), Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (2006) and Sandalwood Death that will be published in English in 2013. His latest work Wa in Chinese (2009) "illuminates the consequences of China's imposition of a single-child policy."

It's interesting to note Chinese state media are proudly announcing the news of Mo's win, thus indicating the government's approval of him. One wonders how much adulation he will get.

But also -- will the government use Mo as way to show the world that China's soft power now has Nobel recognition? Will a senior government official insist on accompanying Mo to the award ceremonies in Stockholm?

We shall see.

In the meantime kudos to Mo and to one of his many longtime translators Howard Goldblatt for helping to bring Mo's work to a much wider audience outside of China.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Fighting to Keep Airing HK Voices

Albert Cheng King-hon (middle) at his radio station
Albert Cheng King-hon is still trying desperately to hold onto his Digital Broadcasting Corporation after trying to to secure funding only a month after it officially launched.

The radio station was supposed to go off the air today at 5pm, but the talk show host said he was going to try to keep broadcasts going for another week.

The shut down was due to occur because shareholders were unable to decide on the station's funding after a pro-Beijing investor Wong Cho-bau said he would no longer invest in the company. He had originally promised to put in HK$50 million.

Chief Executive and board member Morris Ho Kwok-fai, Cheng and Ronald Arculli had proposed to buy Wong's 50 percent stake at a discount or sell theirs under the same terms, but not everyone agreed on the proposal and no counter offers were made.

Cheng (left) is trying to get more funding for DBC
In addition, the station has yet to pay the HK$2 million in salaries to staff members and it is believed the station won't get aid from the Labour Department.

Ho said a total of HK$3.8 million had been spent on the station's annual license fee and some shareholders including David Li Kwok-po and Arthur Li Kwok-cheung had yet to pay up.

Cheng believes that since the station has paid for its license fee that the government should help out, in particular mediating in this dispute.

But it has been silent on the matter, and Cheng suggested that perhaps the government was relieved to have one less critic on the air.

Hopefully Cheng can keep DBC broadcasting. As one caller to the radio show said, "Today it's DBC. Will newspapers or other media face the same fate," he asked, adding that there was now less room for the public to express their opinion.

Some may not like Cheng for his views, but his voice represents a number of people in Hong Kong.

And with Beijing constantly hovering over us, we need more avenues to express our opinions, DBC being one of them.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Cross Border Grumbles

Today the MTR is enforcing its weight restrictions on large baggage to 32 kilograms.

This is one of the ways Hong Kong is trying to make it more difficult for parallel importers from the mainland, who come to the city buying up goods and causing havoc in train stations, particularly those near the border, such as Sheung Shui, Lo Wo, Fanling and Lok Ma Chau.

From now on people carrying large bags have to go through the wide luggage gates and then have their bags weighed.

If they go over the 32kg limit will be asked to use another form of transportation or be fined HK$2,000. And if they refuse to have their bags weighed, they could even be refused on the trains.

Previously people could carry a single piece of luggage up to 170 square centimetres with no weight limit.

And as expected parallel importers are not happy.

"I will keep coming," one Shenzhen man said. "The station will definitely be crowded tomorrow with many people waiting in line to have their baggage weighted. Let's see how many staff are needed."

The new restrictions are definitely cutting into these importers' efficiency.

Before 64 cans of milk powder could fit into a 170 sq cm bag, but now with the new weight limits, only 35 can be carried onto trains.

Also 12 packs of boxed drinks could be brought into the KCR station previously but now only four.

This means that these human mules are going to have to make even more trips than they did before, which isn't really tackling the problem.

Some are trying to circumvent the system by having vehicles ready to carry goods across the border or storing items in residential flats to make more trips later.

As stated before, the Chinese government should be fining its own citizens who do not pay import duties on these goods. And multiple-entry permits should not be interpreted as being allowed to cross the border into Hong Kong more than once a day.

How difficult is that to enforce?

It seems Beijing doesn't care and would rather leave it to Hong Kong to deal with the mess instead.

Or is everyone too busy with the upcoming leadership handover to bother?

Monday, 8 October 2012

Fact of the Day: Auction Numbers

The Eagle and the Pine Tree
It's auction season in Hong Kong again and in the last few days top auction houses here are pulling in record amounts.

One of the latest entries is China Guardian and it raked in a whopping HK$354 million, more than three times the estimated HK$120 million. For sale were about 300 Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

The highlight was Zhang Daqian's Album of Mountains and Rivers that went under the hammer for HK$46 million, almost double the pre-sale estimate.

And then Xu Beihong's The Eagle and the Pine Tree completed in 1936 went for HK$21.275 million.

Meanwhile Sotheby's also set a record with HK$191.712 million for 20th century Chinese art and HK$117.189 million for Contemporary Asian art despite having one of its paintings also by Zhang pulled out at the last minute because of issue over its ownership.

While the amount of money bid by buyers is eye popping -- which makes you wonder where the money came from -- the most interesting part will be when the buyers actually pay up.

There have been a number of stories of buyers making outlandish bids but not showing the money afterwards.

Both auction houses are tooting their own horns about the amazing sales numbers, giving the impression the art market is as buoyant as ever, it's settling the accounts that really matters.

And that's when I'll believe those are record amounts.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Souped-Up Gentrification of Tseung Kwan O

The glamerous foyer of the Crowne Plaza
On Friday I checked out a new hotel in Tseung Kwan O.

It's out in Kowloon East and thanks to the MTR it has become quite convenient to get there both from Kowloon and the New Territories and Hong Kong Island from North Point.

The fascinating thing about TKO -- which some people call it now -- is that the place covers four different MTR stations -- Tseung Kwan O, Po Lam, Hang Hau, Tiu King Leng. Even Central can't boast that.

Apparently some 400,000 people live in this area which is reclaimed land.

The first time I visited this area was over 15 years ago and I remember it as only being accessible by bus and it was hilly, and the only buildings were warehouses and housing estates. Now the place is completely gentrified with tall blocks of apartments crowded next to each other.

And now it has a spanking new Crowne Plaza Hong Kong Kowloon East, which claims to be a five-star hotel right next to the MTR station.

But in TKO?

The hotel itself is nice enough, with lots of marble (apparently a signature of Sun Hung Kai buildings) in the foyer and elevator areas. There's a fine-dining Italian restaurant on the 47th floor that overlooks the neighbourhood, while a Chinese restaurant and buffet occupy the lower floors. Was particularly impressed with the Chinese restaurant with modern decor featuring goldfish and mountains using simple lines and different textures on the walls.

Next door is the Holiday Inn Express that's set to open in the middle of this month. The bottom half will be for hotel rooms, including restaurants that are contracted out, while the top floors will be Vega Suites offering serviced apartments.

How much are these flats?

For just under 400 square feet, it's a jaw-dropping HK$16,000 ($2,064) a month.

This is not a hip area like Central or Mid-Levels. This is Tseung Kwan O. Even a serviced apartment in Sai Ying Pun in Western is HK$14,000 for about the same size.

And you don't get much for HK$16,000 -- the kitchenette only has a hotplate and a small fridge.

Will there really be people willing to pay that much?

Apparently management things so. With so many people living in the neighbourhood, surely there will be overseas relatives who will need a place to stay, or visiting executives whose offices are in Kowloon Bay or Kwun Tong, which are only a few stops away by MTR.

There will also be MICE facilities so there will be definitely enough room for large groups to stay.

While it's intriguing to see branded hotels going further out into the boonies, can they really justifying charging that much?

We shall see as customers vote with their wallets...

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Thinner Wallets

Retailers are bummed this year as mainlanders coming to Hong Kong for the National Day holiday aren't shopping up a storm like they used to.

Things were already looking bad in August, according to figures from the Census and Statistics Department.

Sales in August only rose 4.5 percent in value year-on-year to HK$35.8 billion, while the sales volume increased 3.2 percent.

The value of retail sales just went up 3.9 percent in July and 4.5 percent in August, while the number of tourists from China surged 28 percent year-on-year from the two months.

"I think the figures are shocking," said Hong Kong Retail Management Association chairwoman Caroline Mak Siu-king.

Sales of jewellery, watches, clocks and valuable gifts -- popular items mainlanders usually buy here -- dropped 3.4 percent in value in August.

Mak said name brand clothing and watches had seen an even larger plunge in sales, probably due to the slowdown in the Chinese economy, resulting in visitors spending less.

And with this year's eight-day national day holiday coming to a close, mainlanders were spending less in Hong Kong, partly because of the economy, but also because of tensions with locals.

Stanley Lam Tung-hing, general manager of four Oriental Watch outlets, reported sales dropped 10 percent compared to last year. And purchases over HK$300,000 fell at least 30 percent.

"We're seeing a 12 to 13 percent drop in customers too and I think this is due to the economic slowdown in the mainland," he said.

Now customers came into the shop and had a budget of about HK$50,000 compared with HK$60,000 last year.

With the slowdown in China directly affecting Hong Kong, perhaps the silver lining will be the eventually drop in the property market, particularly retail rents which have gone through the roof.

Do we really need more watch and jewellery stores when the main customers aren't the ones living in Hong Kong?

Friday, 5 October 2012

Culinary Finesse

Stone fruit panzanella was a good start to the meal
One of Vancouver's top restaurants is Hawksworth in the Hotel Georgia complex downtown.

The Parma hame came with burrata cheese and tomatoes
Previously in the kitchen at West in South Granville, David Hawksworth has refined his cooking style and blossomed with the opening of his own restaurant over a year ago.

And then he met Hong Kong socialite and restaurateur Bonnie Gokson, who brought him to Hong Kong to show off his culinary chops at SEVVA this past spring.

He impressed many diners there including myself with his playful combination of flavours artfully decorated on the plate.

Yellowfin tuna ceviche was a delightful appetizer
Most memorable was the vivid green pea risotto and truffle, and the roasted sablefish with dungeness crab and pea tendrils.

So when I was back in Vancouver I had to try his dishes in his own place.

The restaurant is very sophisticated, but not snobbish, lots of smartly-dressed waiters walking briskly through the dining areas. We liked the chandelier in the middle of the room we were in, and impressed by the large walk-in cellar filled with the brim with bottles.

Before our meal began we were not given a bread basket, but an amuse bouche of heirloom tomatoes, burrata cheese, parma ham and cubes of crispy polenta. It was a pretty hearty portion and could have been an appetiser in itself.

The Yarrow Meadows duck breast accompanied with figs
Then came our starters, the stone fruit panzanella ($14) was a beautiful mix of greens in a light vinaigrette. The dish had a kick thanks to the thin slices of jalapeno mixed with the greens, minted pea, charred fennel and piave.

Another favourite was the yellowfin tuna ceviche ($17) that was very refreshing and came with avocado, crispy amaranth, pecans and cilantro. The chunks of tuna were smooth sleek pieces that practically melted in the mouth.

Finally the cioppino ($17) or fish stew was a hearty soup that included such ingredients as dungeness crab, Manila clams and crispy bread for texture.

As we waited for our mains we watched the atmosphere of the other tables around us. Some were vacated and then replaced by new diners, a table of women laughed gregariously enjoying their Friday evening.

A main course of slow cooked rack of pork
The mains were more culinary pieces of art. A new addition to the menu is the Yarrow Meadows duck breast ($38) with endives, figs and jus. The layer of fat between the skin and meat was practically negligible, very tender and juicy. However the accompanying celeriac duck confit press seemed out of place and too salty.

Meanwhile the slow cooked rack of pork ($34) was also delicious, accompanied by a bed of polenta, fennel sausage and charred apricots, a good complement to the meat.

Finally the grilled sturgeon ($32) was a lighter fare, hidden beneath wedges of summer squash, puffed saffron and mint.

Grilled sturgeon with summer squash, puffed saffron and mint
Practically sated already, we also decided to try the chocolate fondant ($10) for dessert that looked like a gourmet chocolate bar with a crumble base and a silky smooth intensely-flavoured chocolate mousse on top. It came with some light meringue chips, orange sorbet and hazelnuts.

Service for the most part was fantastic, our server not too far away from us at all times and as soon as any diner got up, the wait staff always assumed (correctly) he or she needed guidance to the washrooms. It's this anticipation and the knowledgeable staff that makes the entire dining experience so memorable and enjoyable.

Hawksworth is definitely doing some good things here and hopefully he'll be doing this for a long time yet.

Chocolate fondant with orange sorbet, meringue and hazelnuts
801 West Georgia Street
(604) 673 7000