Monday, 31 December 2012

New Year Surprise

Recently released on YouTube, there's a four-minute, 12-second video showing three men encountering a security guard at the ground floor of an apartment building.

He asks who they are looking for and they boldly say Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

The guard firmly says, "No, no that's not possible", but one of the three replies, "Who are you to say it's not possible" and then they push their way past him before climbing up the stairs and meeting a simultaneously frightened and excited Liu Xia.

They continue to climb several flights of stairs until they finally reach her apartment, which has wooden paneling on the walls.

The three? Hu Jia, himself an AIDS activist, Xu Youyu and Hao Jian.

Liu, dressed in a jacket and hat, hugs one of them before whispering into his ear, terrified her words will be picked up by the video recording. "You have to go, or they will come and bring trouble," she said, worrying not only about punishment on the brave trio, but also retribution against her for having these guests unwanted by the Chinese government.

She has been under house arrest since Liu Xiabo won the Nobel Peace prize in 2010, cutting her off from her family and friends, the authorities constantly watching her and limiting her freedom as well as communications. She can only see her parents once a week and is allowed out only to get groceries, but not without being followed.

Her house arrest is almost as bad her husband's prison sentence.

A month ago two Associated Press journalists were able to visit her, and now three activists barged their way in.

Does this mean security overseeing Liu Xia has slacked off for a reason? Or are people becoming more determined and cunning in getting past guards to see her?

We shall see if Liu faces any punishment for this latest visit.

In any event we hope these people's ability to visit her is a signal that perhaps the authorities are loosening its grip over her and will eventually let her be.

What the government is doing is completely illegal and with these visits recorded and dispersed online, it shames the authorities in its outrageous and insecure behaviour.

We hope that in 2013 the mainland Chinese will move a few steps closer to the truth. They have every right to know what is really going on their authoritarian home.

True Air Quality Readings

January 1 will see the start of a new year, new resolutions and regulations in place.

On Tuesday, 74 mainland cities will begin issuing real-time air quality updates which will make it much harder for local officials to manipulate data when it comes to China's worsening air pollution.

Hourly readings will be made and will report on three more pollutants than currently are, including ozone and smog-causing fine particles, and increase standards for other pollutants: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and large particulate matter.

The changes in reporting air quality were announced by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which said data collected from 496 monitoring sites would be available online and on smartphone apps.

While the steps towards greater transparency is great, environmental experts say the public will start to see a huge discrepancy between reports now and January 1 onwards.

They warn that with the higher standards, there will be a sudden decline in air quality ratings in many cities and it'll be harder for officials to declare a blue-sky day when the air is considered good.

In an interesting admission, Zhao Hualin, the ministry's director of pollution prevention said recently that about 70 percent of mainland cities would fail to meet the new standard for PM2.5 -- microscopic airborne particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter. PM2.5 particles can cause serious health risks because they can enter the bloodstream and stay deep in the lungs.

So while there may be greater transparency, what is the point of giving more readings when governments are not explicitly told to fix their air pollution problems? The initiative seems rather half-baked. So while it's good to finally give the public the true readings of the air, what are local authorities going to do about it?

But there are still some loopholes with more frequent readings -- Zhu Jianping, the ministry's deputy director of monitoring, told the Southern Weekly that some municipal governments had purposely distorted their readings to make their air quality readings appear worse so that they could get pollution treatment funding from Beijing.

Hopefully the media will follow up on these particular cities to see if any efforts are made to reduce pollution. Or perhaps we could assume the funding may end up on the casino tables in Macau?

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Hardly Antique

The entrance to the Chi Lin Nunnery (taken in December 2008)
One of my favourite recommendations to tourists to Hong Kong is the Chi Lin Nunnery in Diamond Hill.

It's a quiet respite from the busyness of the city, gently encouraging its visitors to slow down, relax and take in the amazing Tang-dynasty architecture and the beautiful Nan Lian Garden across the street.

One can't help but be in awe of the Buddhist temple that was made without a single nail and have some kind of inner reflection, or at least slow down and look around.

A detail of the roof tiles
However, we're quite shocked to find that the Hong Kong government has recommended the nunnery as a Unesco world heritage site when it's only 14 years old.

Apparently local officials bypassed the Antiquities Advisory Board and endorsed the application for mainland counterparts to evaluate the site and hopefully put the nunnery on its list of Chinese sites to propose to Unesco.

Historian and board adviser Ko Tim-keung said he had been surprised to read about the national heritage list in a newspaper. "I could never imagine that this 14-year-old building, a fake antiquity, could represent Hong Kong. There are other sites in the city that deserve the status a lot more."

Meanwhile, Grace Lui Kit-yuk, deputy secretary for development, said it "would not be a bad thing" if the nunnery won a place on the UN agency's heritage list.

"Icomos China has accepted the submission," she said, referring to the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which helps Beijing vet applications from provinces and compiles the list of proposed sites. "This shows that we didn't make a rash or wrong decision in supporting them."

The koi-filled ponds are inspiring pools for self-reflection
But Antiquities board member Tracy Lu Lie-dan worries the choice of the nunnery will have used up Hong Kong's quota of sites, as Beijing allows each province or region to recommend one or only a few sites on the national list.

Lu believes the chances of Unesco choosing the nunnery is very slim. "A world heritage site must be the best monument from a place, which deserves the government's utmost effort to preserve for future generations. Just whose heritage is this?"

The fact that the government didn't bother to ask the Antiquities board for its opinion on proposing the nunnery as a possible Unesco heritage site application means it probably knew it would not get the green light and childishly went ahead and pitched it to Beijing.

It really is a silly recommendation -- while it is an old-looking building, the temple was built in 1998!

The nunnery helps visitors escape the hectic life of Hong Kong
This also illustrates the keenness of Hong Kong officials to placate Beijing, but foolishly picking a building that has yet to accumulate enough historical value.

The nunnery is hardly on par with the Silk Road (of which Kashgar is being destroyed as we speak), or say the Forbidden City.

Some people have some explaining to do. And it better be good.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Greasy Possibility

Apple Daily broke the story about gutter oil in Hong Kong
Many people I meet ask me about the big news in Hong Kong, but they already now about it from Chinese media in Vancouver.

Top of mind? Gutter oil.

They hear reports about used cooking oil that is collected from restaurants and then purified and resold at a much cheaper price.

While we appreciate the idea of recycling, gutter oil contains carcinogens created in the combustion process and so it should not be used again.

When I was living in Beijing a few years ago, I already read and heard stories about cases of gutter oil in China. The basic rule of thumb was to avoid places that sold dishes very cheap.

And perhaps it was only a matter of time before gutter oil came to Hong Kong; rising commercial rents have forced restaurateurs to cut corners and the quality of oil may be an alternative solution for some.

Apparently there is a way to test gutter oil -- if you drop a garlic clove into some hot oil and it turns red, then it's not oil you want to be enjoying.

If you're eating in a restaurant? If the dish should have garlic in it and cannot be found, then perhaps the oil is suspect...

In any event Apple Daily in Hong Kong was the first to expose the alleged use of gutter oil in the city, raising people's fears since the vast majority of the population eat out.

In an attempt to allay fears, Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man reported test samples were taken from 13 restaurants that apparently used gutter oil processed from a factory in Kwai Chung.

The Food and Environment Hygiene Department raided the unlicensed factory, which, according to local media reports, has been in operation for 10 years. The company apparently sold the reprocessed oil for one-third of the market price of regular cooking oil.

In the end the FEHD found that of the 39 gutter oil samples, four from the Kwai Chung plant were found to be carcinogenic.

So while the Hong Kong government is trying to assuage residents' fears, it hasn't work well.

There are reports some restaurants are experiencing a 90 percent drop in business, perhaps the victims of rumours that their eatery uses gutter oil.

We would like to think Hong Kong restaurants would not use gutter oil, but with ever-rising commercial rents and profit margins getting thinner and thinner, the possibility should not be underestimated.

The government really needs to step up its inspection of tens of thousands of dining establishments, big and small to get customer confidence back; eating out is a big contributor to Hong Kong's economy.

Or perhaps it's good to know more people are cooking their own food. But knowing Hong Kong people, that won't last too long...

Friday, 28 December 2012

Shark Attack!

It happened on December 18 but only now has the video surfaced -- a shark tank on the first floor of the Shanghai Orient Shopping Center burst for no apparent reason which left 15 people injured.

Here's the video:

Of the injured eight were customers and the rest were shop assistants and security staff. Most suffered minor cuts and bruises from the broken glass, though one man in his 30s had his leg broken from the falling glass.

While the aquarium was made of acrylic glass 15 centimetres thick, it is believed the frames holding the tank together wore out which may have led to the tank bursting.

Unfortunately the three sharks in the tank, around 30cm to 40cm in length, died after they were exposed to the elements. The tank also housed some turtles that also died.

The quote of the day? "We will not build an aquarium again in the future," said Chen Yongping, an official with the store's management.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Taste of Montreal

Lean Montreal smoked meat with dark rye, fries and coleslaw
When visiting Montreal, one has to try the famous smoked meat sandwiches. My cousin, who was studying there over a dozen years ago, took me to Schwartz's.

I remember there was a line up outside just to get in and we got some sandwiches for me to eat on the train back to Toronto. The rye bread was generously spread with mustard and the warm smoked meat was wonderful comfort food, just casually placed in a brown paper bag.

And here in Vancouver people can get pretty good Montreal smoked meat sandwiches at Dunn's Famous in the downtown area on Seymour Street.

We went there today for lunch after some Boxing Day shopping and were surprised it wasn't very busy, though there was a slow stream of people coming in either to eat in or take out.

The place has a diner atmosphere with large booths, dark interior and it doubles as a pub with a bar area and large television screens playing the sports channel and the Food Network.

The menu has all kinds of comfort food, from hamburgers to hotdogs, all-day breakfast, pastas, salads and even poutine -- the heart-clogging French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds.
A quirky chalk drawing of the restaurant

But we were there for the Montreal smoked meat sandwiches.

The restaurant literature explains that it was established in 1927 by Meyer Dunn. The smoked meat is a whole double A beef brisket brined for seven days, dry smoked for 12 hours and steamed for three hours until tender just before serving.

The super sandwich for $11.99 has 6oz of smoked meat the restaurant promises is hand sliced according to your preference of either lean, medium or fat, and on your choice of rye bread (light or dark) with mustard. It comes with Dunn's coleslaw, a dill pickle and French fries with the skin on.

Alternatively the fries can be substituted with the soup of the day or a house salad at no extra charge, while for a bit more, one can have Caesar salad, onion rings, seafood chowder, or poutine.

Once the order arrives at the table, one wonders -- can I finish it? The smoked meat is piled high between two slices of bread which looks daunting, but once you bite into it, it's hearty and wonderful comfort food.

Being more health conscious, we ordered the lean meat and it wasn't too oily, though the tart coleslaw would have helped cut the grease.

In the end we did manage to finish pretty much the whole thing minus a few fries.

And we weren't hungry again until we ate dinner...

Dunn's Famous
827 Seymour Street (at Robson)
604 682 8938

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Social Pledge

Back in Vancouver for the holidays, I've been reading the newspaper and in the last few days, many pages were devoted to charity.

This is not the kind of philanthropy where a donor writes a cheque and that's the end of it.

It's profiles of people, young and old getting out into less privileged communities and spending their time, knowledge and know-how to help make these places better.

There are teenagers volunteering to help elementary school students struggling with English and mathematics. The teens are given training on phonetics and teaching before pairing up with students to help them on their reading, writing and math.

Another is the Adopt A School program which started last year when an inner-city teacher wrote a letter to the local newspaper detailing how her students were struggling to learn because they didn't have basic school supplies, let alone enough food to eat everyday. The newspaper pitched in to help highlight not only this school but many others that were in need and encouraged philanthropists to take on their individual causes.

The latest article talked about a family whose father is an investment banker and his son goes to the top private school for boys in Vancouver. They adopted a school by helping to donate and raise money to help provide a new children's playground. The son acknowledges he comes from a privileged background, but doing these acts of charity makes him realize he should help others in his community. I would also like to add the family is not Caucasian, but South Asian.

Then there's a social entrepreneur who owns a butcher shop and three restaurants, a gallery and clothing store who has teamed up with a high-profile fundraiser to raise enough money to feed 1,000 down-and-out people in the Downtown Eastside for a year. They figure they need about $750,000 and he says they should raise the money first because if they just rely on grants and donations throughout the year they are not going to be focused on their main goal of feeding people.

He also hires people who have difficulty entering the work force or have a physical disability or mental illness, which proves he not only talks the talk, but walks the walk too.

What struck me most was the genuine interest in helping others.

One would be hard-pressed to find the same can-do attitude in Hong Kong.

As one of my parents' friends observed on a recent annual trip to Hong Kong, he was struck by how unfriendly wait staff and taxi drivers were, that even "please" and "thank you" went unnoticed.

"Everyone is just concerned about survival," he remarked, saying people in the city were obsessed with making money. With property prices constantly rising out of reach of first-time home owners and depressed salaries, he believes Hong Kong people, particularly the young ones are having a very tough time.

He also added an astute comment that the influx of mainlanders into the city has had a psychological impact on Hong Kong people.

It used to be that Hong Kong people were the rich, sophisticated cousins to their country bumpkin cousins to the north.

But now it is the reverse, with mainlanders snapping up designer handbags, milk powder, flats and just about anything else they believe is authentic, while Hong Kong people are forced to serve them. This sudden wealth has shocked locals and it has shaken locals to the core; they are no longer in control of their destiny -- it is their rich cousins who determine their economic fates.

All these pressures have added up, making Hong Kong people pretty much depressed and pessimistic, and pretty much in survival mode.

As a result there is no interest in helping others but themselves.

The Hong Kong government coffers are so rich and yet the authorities are too miserly to release some to bring more comfort to the elderly and support to the working poor.

And so it's where NGO's must step in and do the dirty work.

It's great companies and corporations step up in Hong Kong when it comes to fundraising because they can boast about their corporate social responsibility achievements in their annual reports.

But it's not enough to just write a cheque. They must do more and actually go into the communities see their money put to use. Then they can see for themselves how broken Hong Kong's social system is and hopefully advocate for change. The poor cannot do that on their own and the NGOs feel like they are broken records, repeating the same laundry list of things to fix, over and over again.

Hong Kong must change and become a more compassionate city. Almost 10 years ago was SARS and the impact that had on the city was a more caring one.

Where did it go?

It's time to bring it back. And I hope to do my small share in 2013.

Will you?

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Brilliant Christmas

The Dancing Lights at Livingstone Lake in VanDusen Garden
VanDusen Botanical Garden is a gorgeous place in the summer months, but to keep visitors coming particularly in the winter, the Festival of Lights is definitely a draw and I finally checked out this Vancouver institution this evening.

The new reception area with its undulating wooden roof
For this year it is held from December 7 to January 1 from 4.30pm to 9pm every evening, weather permitting. Admission is $14.25 for adults, $10.50 for seniors and youth (13-18 years), $7.75 for children.

As it's Christmas Eve here (well it's technically Christmas now that it's midnight that I'm writing this) and the weather held up, many people came out to the garden to see the amazing display of lights.

While streams of people arrived, the line went quickly thanks to five cashiers on hand to help sort out tickets quickly; apparently two years ago when my parents went there was only one cashier which made the line painfully slow.

Reflection of the colourful Christmas lights
Also the reception area is newly built with a wonderfully undulating wood roof that's warm and inviting, as well as very apt for a place that's about nature.

Once we were through that building we were inundated with thousands upon thousands of lights in various colours and shapes. There were lights wrapped around bushes and trees, while metal conical trees were created in some places. We were also impressed with the plastic tulips which were in fact plastic water bottles cut into petals and lights stuck where the screw top used to be. That's a lot of plastic tulips, but a good use of plastic!

Then every half hour there was the Dancing Lights on Livingstone Lake, which is actually a pond with an island where lights on bushes and trees burst into colours synchronized with the music which was very neat.

Plastic water bottles turned into brightly-lit tulips
The garden is normally divided into sections, and for the Festival of Lights there were sections like Gingerbread Wood, Sparkling Spruce, Gnome Home, and Lovers' Lookout... which perhaps had some mistletoe around?

There was also the Make-A-Wish Grotto, where for a small donation, visitors can make a wish and then light a candle.

And to keep visitors warm and sated, there were stations periodically placed in the garden offering foods like waffles, hot chocolate and pop corn and soup, or visit the cafeteria or the garden's restaurant called Truffles Cafe.

Apparently the staff already start preparing for the Festival of Lights during Canadian Thanksgiving in mid October, checking the tens of thousands of lights they have to make sure they are working properly and then carefully decorate the gardens.

Christmas trees strung with lights with a colorful background
"This is a more complicated job than you might imagine," says garden director Harry Jongerden. "As a botanic garden, our plants are precious to us, so it takes knowledgeable gardening staff to delicately string the lights without damaging any thing. The weeks and hours of hard work are worth it when you see the joy the show gives our guests."

We definitely appreciate it, and just before Christmas, everyone was in a jovial mood and of course taking lots of pictures.

How can you resist?

Festival of Lights
December 7, 2012 - January 1, 2013
VanDusen Botanical Gardens
5251 Oak Street

Monday, 24 December 2012

Time To Buy?

Pssst! Want to buy some cheap property in China?

According to a recent newspaper article, there seems to be the beginning of a massive fire sale of apartments in provinces like Guangdong and Jiangsu, and there is speculation it's government officials trying to shed as much evidence of their graft and corruption as possible.

The Oriental Post reports there is a sudden flood of second-hand flats on the market with officials trying to sell multiple properties through intermediaries.

Real estate agents are receiving numerous text messages, such as "Eight sets of hard-to-find flats, owner selling all at once, high-quality government resources," the paper reported.

"What's strange is that these government people are anxious enough to call us requesting an urgent search for intermediaries to help sell their property holdings," said a Jiangsu property manager from a financial advisory who was quoted under the pseudonym Yang Zhi.

The report reiterated this was only the "tip of the iceberg", hinting there was a high chance of more asset sales by worried government officials in the future.

The sudden dumping of properties is the result of incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping's pledge to crack down on corruption and perhaps this time his promise really means business.

Previously there would be periodic corruption drives that were targeted in specific cities and villages and after certain officials were caught -- perhaps due to a falling out with someone with better guanxi than them -- it would be business as usual again.

For decades it seemed that since everyone else was gaining from their position, it would be silly not to join the club. And with no proper checks and balances, who would notice?

But this time around, it appears officials are taking the heed about shedding their ill-gotten gains before they get caught. Also the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection is aiming to reform and strengthen laws on assets disclosure and properties declaration among all levels of officials.

Everyone is still waiting for Premier Wen Jiabao to reveal all since the extensive report in the New York Times; while he claims he is willing to disclose his assets, the Party would perhaps rather he not volunteer until the rest of its house is in order.

So for those citizens who may be yearning to finally get into the property market, now might be the time to jump in. With the flood of property available on the market and the need to get rid of them as soon as possible, it will be a buyers' market.

What will be even more interesting would be to see how outrageously decorated some of these places are, revealing the nouveaux riche garish tastes of officials.

We can't wait to check them out.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Menacing Firewall

China likes to boast it has some 600 million internet users
When I lived in Beijing, I did not have access to Facebook, my blog, Youtube or Twitter for three years.

That's because they were blocked from entering the Great Firewall, which the Chinese government erected to protect its citizens from what it considers to be dangerous, salacious or subversive. Its definition of these three things can change at any time, depending on which direction the wind blows.

Why block Youtube? Because there are videos of the Dalai Lama and other content not deemed suitable for China's "netizens", and in the case of blocking Facebook and Twitter, it was more a move of blocking its competition to give time to Chinese programmers to create its own version of these two popular social media sites so these sites first. And then when enough time had passed, Facebook was finally allowed to enter the China market, but by then it was hoped netizens would not be interested in joining the real thing.

The only way to jump over the Great Firewall is through using virtual private networks or VPN. The local ones were pretty much useless -- after entering them through a cryptic password, I would be able to get onto the Facebook site, but then when I tried to sign in, it would never load up the new page or go to "This Page Not Found".

And so to covertly pass Chinese internet censors, web surfers, mostly expats, would buy the services of foreign VPN, which allows them to post their tweets on Twitter, get information from blocked sites and check emails.

For many companies it is also the only way they can safely do business in China, for example conduct financial transactions and more importantly prevent Chinese companies and the government from getting access to confidential information.

However, in recent days China has stepped up its Great Firewall protection, making it harder for VPNs to get access to the unfiltered World Wide Web.

The Global Times newspaper, associated with People's Daily, confirmed the firewall had been "upgraded", but also warned unregistered foreign VPNs were operating illegally.

In commenting about the latest development, Chinese ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, told the BBC that there was a "misconception about the internet and development in China."

"In fact, the Chinese are very much open in terms of the internet," he said. "In fact, we have the most number of internet users in China today."

China has an estimated 600 million internet users.

May we interrupt to point out that Liu may be referring to how the Chinese like to go online, but this does not necessarily mean they have open access to the internet.

And the most number of internet users? Perhaps its because China has the largest population in the world?

Nevertheless, the tightening of internet controls in China is making it harder for international companies to do business in the country, according to Josh Ong, China editor of the technology monitoring site The Next Web.

"A lot of companies have a general policy that they must use their own proxy network in order to transfer data, especially into and out of China," he said. "So you are looking at banks or e-commerce companies, anyone who is transferring very sensitive information, a lot of them use corporate VPNs."

Ong suggested the latest move could be linked to the recent leadership change in the Chinese Communist Party.

"It is certainly possible that some of it is just a general flexing of might, kind of coming in with a strong arm to really show who's in control," he said. "But there is definitely something intentional happening when these VPN services are being restricted."

Many expats and China watchers see this development as a bad sign not only for VPN users but for China as well.

Bill Bishop wrote on DealBook in November that China's management of the internet "has not been encouraging for those who want to believe the leadership will push reforms."

I have lived in Beijing since 2005, and these have been the most draconian few days of internet restrictions I have experienced," he wrote. "Indiscriminate blocking of major parts of the global internet is not going to help China in its quest to internationalize the renminbi and make it a reserve currency," Bishop writes. "Internet controls at the level of the last few days may also deter foreign firms from moving their regional headquarters to China."

Meanwhile Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times bureau in Beijing tweeted last month: "Note to Chinese censors: If you pull our vpns [sic], main Asia news bureaus will have to move to Tokyo. Not good for China."

But does the Chinese government really care?

It probably would gladly get rid of foreign journalists from its country so that the government has a better control of the media.

So we hope all foreign journalists in China will be even more determined to get the news out of the country because we need them there more than ever to tell us what is really going on.

Perhaps there are determined programmers out there keen to figure out a way to break down the Great Firewall?

Friday, 21 December 2012

Cozy Eats

Medina Cafe on Beatty Street
A good friend wanted to try out a restaurant in downtown Vancouver today so we headed out to meet for lunch there.

It's called Medina and is located on Beatty Street, near the Stadium/Chinatown Skytrain station.

Last Christmas my brother and I passed by the place before because we took a picture of the sign: "Life is too short for bad coffee," something very apt for him.

Steelhead on quinoa with beans, tomatoes and arugula
I arrived around 12.15pm and already there was a lineup. Someone in the line told me to put my name down on the list so I went in and saw several names before mine as the cafe doesn't take reservations. The sad part about waiting for a table is having to wait outside. In the cold.

But we were lucky and some of the parties ahead of us didn't show up and after about 10 minutes we were shown to a table -- near the door.

While the place is cozy, holding about 30 people, having the door constantly opening and closing made our dining experience on the chilly side.

However the food pretty much made up for the inconvenience.

The menu is Mediterranean in influence with items like hummus, tabouleh, halloumi cheese, tagine, and spicy lamb meatballs, but there are also breakfast items like frittata, cassoulet, and paella.

Lamb and beef meatballs with roasted vegetables
Medina is also known for its gourmet coffees and some people drop by here for take out java. There are lattes with flavours like lavender and raspberry, mochas with white chocolate pistachio and rosewater, and matcha latte. There is also a small selection of boutique ales and a small selection of wines for this easy-going restaurant.

For mains my friend ordered les boulettes ($14), which is a dish of spicy Moroccan lamb and beef meatballs, roasted vegetables like eggplant and courgettes in a hearty tomato sauce topped with fresh cherry tomatoes. It also came with a side dish of thick foccaccia with a hummus that tasted more like a thick tzatziki sauce.

Meanwhile I had tait saisonniere ($16), featuring fillet of panfried steelhead on a bed of quinoa with roasted squash, some crunchy chips in it, slices of avocado, garnished with arugula, beans and roasted tomato.

A cozy restaurant seating about 30 diners
The steelhead was perfectly cooked, but the cold quinoa was unexpected and took some getting used to as well as the chips within it. Nevertheless it was delicious, light but filling.

I had to try one of the waffles and ordered one with milk chocolate lavender ($4.15). The waffle topped with icing sugar is relatively small, but it's a good portion for dessert and comes with a small dish of the warm chocolate sauce. The lavender is definitely a top note, the first flavour that hits your mouth before the thick oozing milk chocolate that isn't too rich. With so many waffles stacked near the restaurant window, our dessert was probably reheated so it wasn't particularly crunchy, and is more an accompaniment to the sauce than the other way around.

With a chai latte, the bill came to $42 for two not including tips. Interestingly the bill was carefully split for us by the wait staff in case we had wanted separate checks.

Brunch is available on the weekends, while breakfast and lunch are served during the week.

We enjoyed the vibe here, casual, friendly but just a tad too chilly by the door.

Waffle with the delicious milk chocolate lavender sauce
556 Beatty Street
604 879 3114

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hardly the End of the World

It looks like the much hyped end of the world didn't happen today Hong Kong time.

As far as I can tell it's pretty much business as usual.

Many believed December 21 was the end of the Mayan calendar and a number of people in China bought into it. There was a prediction that on Friday the world would descend into three days of complete darkness because the sun, moon and stars would suddenly be extinguished. This rumour led to many residents in Sichuan to buy candles and timber -- so much so that it resulted in a candle shortage in the province.

The panic led to the emergence of Doomsday groups who were trying to spread the word about the end of the world, but one group in particular believed that it also marked the end of the Great Red Dragon, a euphemism for the Communist Party of China.

That of course alarmed the regime so much that the authorities arrested over 800 people associated with the Church of Almighty God sect, branding the group as "an evil cult" for claiming that God had returned to earth as a woman and adopted the Doomsday legend.

In a public notice, provincial security officials described Almighty God as a criminal gang responsible for spreading social panic, preaching heresies and breaking up families. "It is a social cancer and a plague on humankind," it said.

Sounds like language they have also used to describe the Falun Gong...

Anyway we are also amused to see how some Chinese have capitalized on the Doomsday prediction by selling survival kits and even space in a cataclysm-proof sphere made of fibreglass that has enough supplies for nine people to last a few months.

There are other companies that are more light hearted in offering their employees a Doomsday "vacation" day. Perhaps it's a nice gesture to allow staff to enjoy their last day on earth not in the office.

And in Hong Kong, Aqua Restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui was trying to make money out of the scare over the end of the world by offering a lavish six-course dinner for HK$2,112.12 per person. Why not eat to the end in style?

Nevertheless, the hype has an upside.

Feng shui master James Lee Shing-chak says December 21 is a particularly auspicious day.

"It is a day with an abundance of sun and rainwater to nourish the earth, which means farmers see it as a good day for yielding harvests, and couples see today as a good day to get married on," he said.

Which is why 119 couples got married in Hong Kong today, but it's about the average for a Friday according to the Immigration Department.

So who misinterpreted the Mayan calendar that began in 3,114 BC?

The fact that the Chinese authorities arrested so many people connected with the Almighty God sect and there could be many other followers of other sects that also promote the Doomsday theme clearly illustrates the Party's lack of transparency which leads to others having wild imaginations. The government also doesn't promote critical thinking in its people, thus leading to them believing in almost anything they hear or read.

So in a way it's the government's own fault for the emergence of these bogus groups. People are looking for some kind of spiritual guidance and find nothing from the Party. And so they turn to other religions, but because of their inability to discern right from wrong, some are led astray into weird sects that are irrational.

But then again if they survive to December 22 they may wonder why there wasn't an end to the world.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Ultimate Sick Leave

Hongkong Post's Central Post Office that is also open on Sundays
There are some employees who are clock watchers -- people who make sure they arrive and leave work exactly on time so that the company doesn't gain any extra effort of time from them.

And then there are those who try to get as much out of the company as they can. For example, when I worked in Beijing, the company allowed us two days of sick leave per month, one of my colleagues was "sick" two Fridays a month...

But perhaps Tang Lai-kit was the biggest scammer of us all -- but is now paying the price.

The 40-year-old Tang was sentenced to 26 months in jail for using fake doctor's notes to get 635 rest days over four years.

He also claimed HK$217,381 in sick leave allowance.

The judge felt Tang's motives were premeditated which is why he was given a long prison term.

And where did he work? He was a contract worker at Hongkong Post based in the Central post office.

He started these fake sick claims in 2009 when he used a counterfeit medical certificate to claim a day off.

And then Tang did injury his finger on the job and legitimately received three days off, but then he claimed to suffer from an anxiety disorder.

At the time he earned HK$335 a day for sorting and weighing mail as well as other manual work.

He must have thought it was such a good scam that he kept doing it and doing it and doing it... for 635 sick days.

Finally Hongkong Post became suspicious after Tang took so much sick leave. It's strange that no one alerted management about his "illness", but perhaps it speaks to the possibility that either the company was too bureaucratic to notice or he was not someone people noticed because he was a contract worker.

In any event the post office alerted the Medical Council which advised it to take the case to the authorities.

Then ICAC took up the case and launched an investigation and in Tang's flat in Wong Chuk Hang, officers found more than 900 blank doctors' notes with the names of Dr Lee Kuen and Dr Lam Tak-wa. They also found two fake doctors' stamps.

Tang admitted he bought the fake doctors' notes on Taobao, the Chinese version of eBay and then forged the signatures.

One wonders if the ICAC is going to follow up on those behind selling the fake doctor notes and who else has bought them.

But on the other hand the vast majority of Hong Kong people are so busy they don't even have time to take sick leave.

Other than Tang, we'd like to take this opportunity to salute the staff at Hongkong Post.

Those at Central post office are even working on Sundays, capitalizing on the opportunity to help mostly domestic workers on their only day off to mail packages back home, or other customers who don't have time during the week to send mail.

Only in Hong Kong.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

HK Fare Before You Fly

Noodles with shrimp topped with shrimp roe at Tsui Wah
I don't go to Hong Kong International Airport often, but I seem to find many of the eateries coming and going, which makes me wonder if they don't offer decent fare or the menu doesn't appeal to travelers. It's a tall order because the clientele are truly international and it's hard to know exactly what they want to eat.

For groups of people Crystal Jade on the arrival level is a good option, and I've even indulged in deep-fried chicken at Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits with a friend who was hankering for the heart-stopping food. But it's perhaps a serious misnomer because there was no spinach -- no vegetables in any case -- to be seen here.

Food at Starbucks is not very satisfying unless java is a food group, and McDonald's hardly hits the spot.

The menu seems to look like those in other Tsui Wah outlets
In any event, the other day I was early for my flight because it was delayed and I wanted a quick bite to eat.

So I was surprised to find my default dining option of Maxim's was closed for renovations, but across from there was Peak Lookout even though it was no where near Victoria Peak.

The menu seemed to feature lots of Western and Asian snack items -- including poutine -- but the dishes were much more expensive than what I had in mind.

And lo and behold, next door was a new Tsui Wah Restaurant cha chaan teng and I walked in.

As the space is perched on the second floor close to the undulating roof of the airport, the eatery takes on the theme of an outdoor dining area complete with metal chairs, lamp posts and eclectically-chosen tiled floors.

I don't know the regular menu well, but the airport outlet seemed to have most of the dishes available.

My order of XO sauce with noodles, shrimp and shrimp roe came relatively quickly and was relatively satisfying. The noodles were mixed with soy sauce and the shrimp were crunchy; the only complaint would be only one stalk of choi sum.

An airy atmosphere that inspires an outdoor cafe
Another minor fault was the iced lemon tea was heavy on the ice and it was a muddy-looking drink which is usually the case in cha chaan tengs that don't have separate kettles for tea and milk tea.

Oh and be sure to bring enough cash or enough money on our Octopus card.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Mao Won't be in China

Silkscreen portraits of Mao Tse-tung by Andy Warhol
One of the biggest art exhibitions in Asia that started yesterday at the Hong Kong Museum of Art and will travel for 26 months is called "Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal".

The show which marks the 25th anniversary of the pop artist's death, features over 300 paintings, photographs and films that include iconic images of Campbell Soup cans, Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

Portraits of Mao Tse-tung are also synonymous with Warhol and are included in the exhibition, but the Chinese government doesn't seem to agree.

The 10 paintings of the Chinese leader were rejected by the Ministry of Culture and won't be shown in the Shanghai and Beijing legs of the exhibition.

"They said the Maos won't work," said Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, at the Hong Kong opening. "This is disappointing because his imagery is so mainstream in Chinese contemporary art."

The show has already visited Singapore with some 175,000 people going through the exhibition, and the Hong Kong Museum of Art is extending its hours in anticipation of a lot of art fans checking out the Warhol works.

We can't help but be amused by the Chinese government's decision not to include Mao in a major international art exhibition when it it shown in the mainland.

While there is a simmering debate about how much of Mao's writings should continue to influence the Communist Party of China, his portrait still hangs above the Tiananmen Gate leading to the Forbidden City.

What is wrong with the Chinese seeing or perhaps discovering for the first time how the leader of modern China influenced an American artist in creating his signature style?

Are Chinese officials afraid there is some kind of subversive message in the art work? Or they think Mao doesn't belong in an American art exhibition?

In any event we pity those in China who will have 10 less pieces of art to see that are so connected with Warhol and the pop art movement.

What's also interesting is that this development was not covered in Chinese state media, which makes one wonder if those visiting the Beijing and Shanghai exhibitions will even notice or know the Mao paintings won't be there.

Censorship is still alive and well in China...

Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal
Hong Kong Museum of Art
December 16, 2012 - March 31, 2013

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Enough Drama Already

Festive lights are up in Victoria Harbour... but no cheer for Leung Chun-ying
Can we end the drama over Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying having illegal structures in his homes?

This morning the legislative panel to discuss Leung's illegal structures had to be cancelled because not enough members showed up.

Apparently lawmakers called in with flimsy excuses, from panel chairman Lau Wong-fat and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee having sore throats to Michael Tien Puk-sun saying he didn't receive a reminder from Legco because his mobile phone wasn't working.

Uh huh.

People Power's Albert Chan Wai-yip, who arrived on time for the meeting believed the pro-establishment members didn't show up to avoid bringing further embarrassment to Leung before he goes to Beijing on Thursday.

The pan-democrats must be annoyed at losing another opportunity at finding more chances to grill Leung, but enough is enough.

He has been dogged by the scandal over illegal structures in his several properties ever since he took office.

Yes, he has illegal structures in his homes, but these are minor transgressions compared to Henry Tang Ying-yen's massive basement that he blamed on his wife.

While the democrats are calling for Leung's head, they seem to forget the other alternative at the time was Tang. Can we please keep in mind that Leung was the far better choice of the two?

So can we finally let Leung focus on governing Hong Kong?

And why not concentrate efforts on criticizing his administration for asking Beijing for an interpretation Hong Kong's residency laws.

We wanted someone who would stand up for the rights of Hong Kong and instead he's asking the Final Court of Appeal to tell us who the city should determine as residents, including foreign domestic workers and children born of mainland parents.

Shouldn't we instead have a court case to challenge the Basic Law and from there let our highly-respected judges help us interpret what Hong Kong's residency laws are?

This sets a bad precedent for Hong Kong, and we hope this will be the last time.

We are not children; we are a mature society with rule of law, something China doesn't have.

Surely we can figure out how to solve this issue on our own?

Hong Kong's Great Divide

The newly established Commission on Poverty is finally starting to discuss what the city's poverty line should be. It's a long time coming since former Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen didn't seem to acknowledge there are impoverished families here.

It will be calculated as half the media household income and is by no means a black-and-white way of deciding who's poor and who's not; it will find out how impoverished families are getting by and what kinds of services they need.

Nelson Chow Wing-sun, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and an expert in social security, welfare and poverty said, "To think that having a poverty line is going to define everything and tell us everything about the poor is wrong. A poverty line actually doesn't measure poverty. It only tells us about income disparity."

According to the Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong's Gini Coefficient that measures income disparity was 0.475 last year, the same as in 2006, but up from 0.470 in 2001. The closer the number is to 1, the greater the income disparity. When it is between 0.4 and 0.5, there is a significant income gap.

Next door on the mainland, the Chinese government refused to release the Gini Coefficient at the beginning of this year -- the 11th straight year --  on the excuse that it doesn't have accurate data. The real reason is probably that the number is so high that it could be politically destabilizing.

Chow says in the last seven years, the numbers of poor in Hong Kong are increasing, and it's not just the elderly, but also young people as well.

He said under the Tsang administration, social policies were stagnant, leading to even greater problems for the underprivileged.

For the elderly, inflation is the culprit, but also many didn't save enough money and are reluctant to ask for welfare.

Then there are the working poor who are struggling to make ends meet with children to raise. Stephen Fisher directory general of Oxfam Hong Kong says this group of people needs some kind of allowance from the government to help these families survive.

Nevertheless, Chow is most concerned about a new social class -- poor young people.

While they may have a decent education, they cannot find a decent-paying job and are left doing work in the service industry like working in convenient stores, restaurants or retail.

"Tsang created a whole class of new poor: the young," Chow said. "The middle class is sliding back into poverty, and we now have a new generation that is on the margin of poverty."

He explains one-third of the 3.7 million workforce earn between HK$10,000 and HK$20,000 ($1,290-$2,580) a month, and 60 percent of the people on these low incomes are under 35 years old. Even after working for 10 years, some are still making less than HK$20,000 a month. This is even though they have gone through post-secondary education.

"Imagine parents working hard to put a child through university in the hope of a better future," Chow said. "In the end, the child earns [less than HK$20,000]. Job diversity is so narrow in Hong Kong. No wonder young people have become frustrated and angry. They feel stuck. There is no social mobility, no hope."

Professor Joe Leung Cho-bun, Chow's colleague at HKU says it's not a good sign when many of the working poor are young people.

"The 'ageing population dilemma' has crowded the government's minds, and we've forgotten that apart from caring for the retiring baby boomer generation, we need to help the next generation," Leung said. The city's lack of industries and employment outside of development and finance-related fields are stifling the future of Hong Kong, he warned. Leung said the government needed to help "make work pay", so that a full-time job would actually cover rent and daily expenses and sustain a family.

How did Hong Kong become like this?

I also have to wonder if it is the younger generation having apathy towards work and having a career.

More than one public relations person working in hotels has told me how difficult it is to find not only a qualified person in Hong Kong, but someone willing to put in long hard hours. In the department I work in, the youngest member, a woman who is in her late 20s has decided to quit her job after over two years for "a break" even though she didn't seem particularly hard working, nor motivated to move up the ladder.

Is it because these people were the first generation reared by mostly Philippine maids and so they are spoiled in their upbringing? Is it because they feel the world should revolve around them and they should be able to choose what their working hours are instead of being dictated by office policy? They also seem much more insular, used to communicating online instead of face-to-face, making it harder for their older colleagues to deal with this different work ethic.

And not having had learned the concept of work throughout their younger years like those in the West who had summer jobs, entering the work force for young Hong Kong people can be a culture shock.

In any event, this is a sad state of affairs in Hong Kong. How can one be optimistic about the future if young people see no light at the end of the tunnel?

But by the same token they too need to work hard to gain more experience and then leverage that into a better job.

We need to accept there is a big problem and have to start tackling it. The solution will not come tomorrow; it is a work in progress. But the more we delay it, things will only get worse.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Why Did They Do It?

Everyone is in shock today after the fatal shooting of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut. The media is already trying to piece together what happened, with allegations that the killer, 20-year-old Adam Lanza had a personality disorder and was autistic.

Not only did he kill children between the ages of six and 10, but also seven adults, including his mother and then committed suicide.

This horrific massacre has led to many calling for some kind of gun control in the United States and we hope US President Barack Obama will have the courage to take on this issue and make his country safer for everyone.

The incident comes days after a shooting in a shopping mall in Oregon and the mass shooting in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado in July where suspect James Eagan Holmes set off tear gas during the screening of The Dark Knight Rises before shooting 12 people dead and injuring 58 others.

What is also shocking is that half way around the world in China, a man stabbed 22 children and an adult in a primary school just as students arrived for class today.

The attacker, Min Yingjun, 36, wounded the children in Chengping village in Henan province in Central China. While two children were seriously wounded, most of the others were not badly injured, but are most probably in shock and and will have psychological scars from the incident.

This is not the first time school children have been attacked in schools: two years ago one man nearly killed 20 students and wounded 50, while the most recent one occurred in August when a man broke into a middle school in Nanchang and stabbed two students before fleeing the scene.

Most of the perpetrators have had a history of mental illness who are unable or unwilling to resolve personal disputes, or unable to adjust to China's fast pace of development, leaving them behind economically and socially.

It also reveals how China's healthcare system is unable to properly care for the mentally ill, and people's inability to recognize the problem and treat it as soon as possible.

There is relatively strict gun control in China (you must be connected to the military to acquire weapons) which is why so many attackers grab the kitchen knife as the best alternative.

While there is wall-to-wall coverage of the Newtown shooting, there is barely any mention of the stabbings in Chinese state media.

Some say China does this deliberately to avoid copy-cat killers, whereas in the United States almost all information is considered news to disseminate to the public.

In any event we wonder in both instances how the children will cope with what they have experienced today and how their lives will be profoundly shaped by the respective incidents.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Jackie Chan's Bizarre Rant

The movie poster promoting Jackie Chan's latest film, CZ2012
Hong Kong people are outraged that action star Jackie Chan believes local people's right to demonstrate should be limited.

In an interview with Southern People Weekly that was published on Tuesday, Chan said: "Hong Kong has become a city of protest. The whole world used to say it was South Korea. It is now Hong Kong.

"People scold China's leaders or anything else they like, and protest against everything. The authorities should stipulate what issues people can protest over and on what issues it is not allowed."

This is the second time Chan has made controversial comments about restricting freedoms in his hometown.

The last time was in April 2009 when he was at the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan, and said Chinese people needed to be controlled.

At the time he was asked about mainland controls on filmmaking and he replied: "I don't know whether it is better to have freedom or to have no freedom. With too much freedom, it can get very chaotic. It could end up like in Taiwan."

He also said he believed that "Chinese people need to be controlled, otherwise they will do whatever they want".

Chan later said his remarks were taken out of context and twisted.

The media couldn't reach him last night to clarify his comments this time.

And so many people complained about the Rush Hour star's statements.

Leung Man-to, a Hong Kong-based cultural critic who writes columns for mainland publications, said Chan's remarks were prejudiced and could lead to even greater misunderstanding between Hong Kong and the mainland.

"Chan doesn't bother to understand why some Hong Kong people choose to take to the streets. He just tends to think that whatever the government does is correct," Leung said.

Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, chairwoman of the Civic Party was shocked by what Chan said.

"I think it's a shame for the movie industry, because the freedom of expression is fundamental to his line of business," she said. "Just as the government cannot lay down rules on what movies can be made and what can't, he ought to appreciate that there should be no restrictions on which protests can be held and which cannot, as long as they comply with the law."

Meanwhile political scientist Dixon Sing Ming from the University of Science and Technology said, "It seems that Chan is almost detached from the daily lives of the people of Hong Kong."

And Dr Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University added Chan's remarks reflected his ignorance. "It is a simple fact that we have the freedom of expression, and it is already accepted as a baseline of a civilized society."

We think Chan is spending too much time on the mainland these days, and is perhaps currying favour with Hong Kong's masters. Maybe it's because he has a new film coming out called CZ12 or Armour of God III: Chinese Zodiac, in which he reprises his role as a treasure hunter called Asian Hawk who is trying to repatriate the 12 bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac that were stolen from the Old Summer Palace during the Second Opium War.

This storyline about the Chinese being wronged by foreign devils is perpetuated by Chan helping the Chinese government once again bring attention to the plight of the bronze heads and how they should be returned to the rightful owner.

We've already had the case of Cai Mingchao who had the winning bid at Christie's for Yves Saint Laurent and partner Pierre Berge's two animal heads, but Cai refused to pay up the $40 million out of political protest.

As a result the sale was botched and Berge kept the rabbit and rat heads.

So we wonder if Chan is trying to stir up controversy just before his movie comes out and hopes that leads to increased interest in the bronze heads.

Far-fetched perhaps, but when something strange comes out of Chan's mouth, anything's possible.

Once Hong Kong's darling Hollywood export, he will probably become the city's black sheep.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Bing Thom's Homecoming

The Xiqu Centre in West Kowloon will look like a lantern and curtain opening
As part of the West Kowloon arts hub development, there is going to be a Chinese opera venue called the Xiqu Centre and we're pleased to discover it will be designed by Vancouver architect Bing Thom and Hong Kong's Ronald Lu & Partners.

We are less enthused about the HK$2.7 billion price tag, but we know Thom, of Bing Thom Architects will deliver an excellent design with great acoustics.

It will be the first building to be completed in the West Kowloon Cultural District and due to open in 2016.

The shape of the building will be that of a lantern, following the similar idea of Thom's design for the shopping mall called Aberdeen Centre in Richmond. The Xiqu Centre would also look like an opening theatre curtain, a key element of Chinese opera.

Vancouver architect Bing Thom
The 72-year-old Thom explained the design would elevate the stage, creating room for a courtyard and that it would be user friendly for both performers and the audience.

Traditionally the life of opera performers was nomadic, and he sought to meet their needs.

"The dressing room to artists is home away from home, so the comfort of the room is important as is their journey from the dressing room to the edge of the stage, before they step on the stage," Thom said. "Their performance will be affected if they do not feel relaxed."

In the design, Thom ensured the corridors were wider and there were bigger doors to accommodate artists wearing costumes like helmets and flags, and ensure the solemnity of the performers is maintained.

"The audience should be sitting flat and looking straight across the stage or you will foreshorten the body [of the actors]."

The centre will have elevators so that the elderly can reach the two theatres easily.

"The seating area will have fewer stairs. A wider space between rows has also been designed," he said.

Thom hoped the contemporary design would appeal to young people and inspire better productions.

The Hong Kong-born, Canadian-raised architect has good experience in designing for the performing arts.

One of his crown achievements is The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

The interior of The Chan Centre at UBC in Vancouver
It is a 1,200-seat concert hall that has Thom's hallmark design elements of lots of wood and cement in a minimalist design that is warm and inviting. The concert hall is actually cello-shaped to ensure the even distribution of sound throughout the performance space and also the audience can also have a consistent sound experience no matter where they are sitting.

We also appreciate the small attention to detail Thom made at The Chan Centre -- with regards to the women's washrooms.

He made sure there were more stalls and also that the sinks were separated from the mirrors so that there was a more efficient flow of people in and out of the washroom area so that everyone would have enough time for the loo.

In any event, Thom must be pleased to finally have a project here in Hong Kong going back to his roots.

During the civil war in the 1940s, Thom's mother decided to take her son and emigrate to Canada -- where his father was born.

"It [the connection with Hong Kong] made me try much harder... can one really try to create a building that will represent the spirit of this city and the potential this city has?", he said, adding that Hong Kong was a city that welcomed refugees and always survived hardship.

When it comes to Vancouver, Thom speaks passionately about the city and how he'd like to see it blossom.

We hope he will adopt the same passion with Hong Kong and inspire more vision of how we should develop this city.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Picture of the Day: Cryptic Message

Is there a meaning behind this message that we can't understand?
Hong Kong is so commercial with luxury brands everywhere you look that it's hard to get into the true spirit of Christmas.

And so we were intrigued to see this message from Le Petit Prince, a character created by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

The book of the same name is quite philosophical, making interesting observations about life and human nature.

For example, a fox says to the little prince: "On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux," which is translated as, "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye."

Profound stuff, right?

However, this Christmas message, plastered on the walkway between Standard Chartered Bank and Prince's Building and sponsored by Hang Lung Properties is really bizarre: "Is Earth's Xmas?"

And then we see in light gray script that it was designed by Michael Lau.

We wonder if Michael has actually read the book or is trying to be so deep that it is beyond our comprehension?

Monday, 10 December 2012

Caught with their Pants Down

Xinjiang police chief Qi Fang is the latest official sacked for having mistresses
Now that the Chinese central government has vowed to crack down further on corruption, there seems to be a non-stop parade of disgraced officials exposed, with the latest one caught with his pants down.

This time it is a police chief in Xinjiang who was sacked after being accused of keeping twin sisters from a dancing troupe as mistresses. What are the chances of a man being able to find twin sisters as his modern-day concubines?

Qi Fang was head of the Public Security Bureau in Usu and was removed on Saturday from the Tacheng government which administers Usu.

The online post on the news portal alleged that the 31-year-old twins were employed by the PSB five months after Qi was promoted to police chief in June last year. One was made vice-captain of special operations, while the other was assistant police officer in the traffic department.

While there was no mention of them having any previous work experience with the police, we will probably assume they had none. Wonder what kind of assignments the vice-captain of special operations had to carry out?

The post also claimed Qi rented a luxury apartment in a posh area that was paid for by the bureau. How did he manage to swing that?

"An initial investigation... found that what internet users claimed was partially true," Tacheng officials told Xinhua. "The investigation is ongoing."

Chongqing official Lei Zhengfu was sacked late last month
We wonder what other misdeeds the former police chief has done...

Perhaps it's better to confess now than let others unravel the misdeeds for you...

However we are most amused by the story of Chongqing district-party secretary Lei Zhengfu who was caught on fuzzy camera phone having sex with his 18-year-old mistress.

Needless to say he was sacked too after his identity was verified. He is now being investigated for party discipline infractions and graft.

What is it with Chinese men and their mistresses?

One article in Foreign Policy suggests that perhaps mistresses can be used against officials in stamping out corruption, much like fighting fire with fire.

In the case of Lei, his mistress was a set up by a construction company that presented her as a gift in return for lucrative government contracts.

And here is the reason why he lost his job...
And to ensure they would get the jobs, she was instructed to secretly record the sexual encounters as a means of blackmailing him.

So if more of these videos surface, perhaps officials will be more wary of keeping ernai and end the practice that dates back thousands of years?

And the People's Republic of China claims it is so much more progressive than it was in Imperial times...

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Santa's Deal with the Jockey Club

We were surprised to discover that Santa Claus relocated his headquarters to Hong Kong last year so that he can be closer to the Pearl River Delta where the vast majority of his toys are manufactured.

That's according to CBRE, the commercial real estate services company with offices here.

As Mr Claus is "the world's leading toy distributor," the man in the red suit had to find a way to store his "global distribution mechanisms" which is a euphemism for reindeer.

So CBRE came up with a creative solution -- have the four-legged creatures housed in the Hong Kong Jockey Club stables.

The catch is that the reindeer have to race with the horses 11 months of the year...

Check it out:

Have you seen a big jolly man with a long white beard hanging around the city? He must find it unbearable during the hot humid summer...

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Canada's Contentious Oil Sale to China

Ever since notorious fugitive Lai Changxing was promised to return to China from Canada where he lived for over 10 years, relations between the two countries have gotten close.

Really close.

Soon afterwards Canada was finally granted the coveted Approved Destination Status (ADS) in 2009 where mainland tourists are allowed to travel in groups to approved countries for leisure. Previously it was only supposed to be for business-related or education reasons.

And now Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has approved the $15.1 billion takeover of Nexen by CNOOC. It is the largest takeover ever by a Chinese company, according to data from Bloomberg.

The state-owned company now has a stake in Canada's largest oil sands' project.

As the sale was a contentious issue, the decision was delayed from July until yesterday and no doubt there are many who feel Harper has sold out the country's natural resources to another country, the Chinese no less, who accounted for half of the world's oil consumption growth last year.

Whatever happened to energy security issues?

However, we have to appreciate Harper's perspective on this; he was definitely between a rock and a hard place.

Approving the sale has led to critics accusing him of selling out, while not approving it would have been perceived as a slight by the Chinese who would be annoyed after its good will in recent years; nowadays it's all about the economy, not human rights. And Harper is keen to make sure the Canadian economy still looks good on his watch.

It seems like he wasn't too keen on giving the deal the green light as well as another selling Progress Energy Resources to Petroliam Nasional for $5.2 billion, Harper said Canada would not approve state-owned companies taking interests in any more oil-sands projects, except in "exceptional circumstances."

In any event, we wonder if China really needs all that oil these days.

I read a story yesterday in The Atlantic about General Electric investing $800 million to re-establish its factory compound in Appliance Park in Louisville Kentucky. The company realized that outsourcing to places like China was not economically feasible anymore, not to mention the high chances of having intellectual property stolen as well as the issue of quality control.

GE found that it could manufacture household appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers with fewer components and would look better and have fewer glitches because there was communication between the designers and the factory line workers. Not only that, they could even make it cheaper and delivery time would be shorter because there would be no need to ship the product over.

Another muscle company, Apple is also thinking the same. Of course not every single product will be manufactured in the United States, nor will every component be domestically made. But a good chunk will be produced back in America which will definitely boost employment and probably even kick start innovation in a bigger way.

This means less business for China as the world's factory which translates into less energy used.

So does China still really need all that oil?

Friday, 7 December 2012

Nobel Dichotomy

Mo Yan refuses to be drawn into commenting further about Liu Xiaobo
On the eve of the awards ceremony for the Nobel prizes, Mo Yan, China's first Nobel winner in literature was defensive about not wanting to comment about Liu Xiaobo.

"I have already issued my opinion about this matter," Mo said in a news conference in Stockholm. "I have said this prize is for literature, not politics."

Back in October when Mo's name was announced, he had said that he hoped Liu Xiaobo would be released soon.

But now he was terse and combative.

"I am sure you know what I said that day [in October]. Why do you want me to repeat that? Time is precious," he said.

It seems Mo must have received instructions not to comment on Liu at all unless he too wanted to suffer reprisals. Already dissidents and other writers have said Mo is unworthy of the prize because he has shied away from campaigning for Liu's release.

Meanwhile AP reporters managed to avoid detection and knocked on Liu's wife's apartment door in Beijing.

The toll of being under house arrest for the past two years has physically and emotionally drained her as evidenced by her trembling uncontrollably and crying.

Liu's wife suffers physical and emotional strain in house arrest
She said her situation of being confined in her flat without the internet and and outside phone line was painfully surreal and in stark contrast to the national celebration of Mo's win.

"We live in such an absurd place," she said. "It is so absurd. I felt I was a person emotionally prepared to respond to the consequences of Liu Xiaobo winning the prize. But... I really never imagined that after he won, I would not be able to leave my home. This is too absurd. I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this."

Once a month she is taken to see her husband in prison, but it will be unclear whether this will be stopped after this unprecedented interview.

She was denied visits for more than a year when she saw him two days after the Nobel Peace prize win and said he had dedicated the award to those who had died in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

Liu has already four years in prison for an 11-year sentence for subversion for writing and disseminating Charter 08, a manifesto calling for multiparty elections and greater democracy in China.

The Nobel committee awarded him the prize for his two decades of non-violent struggle for civil rights.

Liu Xia is paying a heavy price for her husband's actions. She is only allowed out once a week to buy groceries and visit her parents. She says Liu knows about her detention. "He understands more or less. I told him: 'I am going through what you are going through almost'."

When she met the reporters at the door, she put her hands to her head and asked several times, "How did you manage to come up? How did you manage?"

Apparently around lunchtime, the guards who watch over Liu 24-hours a day at the main entrance of her building, had left their post.

According to the reporters, Liu Xia is in bad physical shape, appearing frail and explained she had a back injury that often keeps her confined to her bed.

Liu has served four of his 11-year sentence for subversion
Others have not forgotten Liu Xiaobo. One hundred and thirty-four Nobel laureates and Chinese activists have signed two separate letters to incoming President Xi Jinping asking him to release Liu.

The Nobel laureates included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and US writer Toni Morrison, while the Chinese activists included outspoken legal scholar He Weifang, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and AIDS activist Hu Jia.

The world will not forget Liu Xiaobo, no matter how hard the Chinese government tries to make him and his wife disappear from headlines.

We are trying to be optimistic about Xi and his determination to make reforms -- perhaps releasing Liu is one item on his to-do list.