Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Mainland Invasion

Local resentment towards mainland Chinese coming to Hong Kong is happening on many levels.

The first is the sheer number of mainland tourists coming to the city daily, mostly to shop. For the most part they are not in Hong Kong to learn how the city was a refuge for tens of thousands of people escaping the Communists in 1949, or how Cantonese food is about using cooking techniques to enhance the natural flavours of ingredients, or how Chinese traditions have been practiced uninterrupted for hundreds of years.

They are here to invade luxury brand stores and snap up handbags, clothing and shoes because the Hong Kong dollar is weaker than the renminbi and also there is no luxury tax like there is in China. In effect, things here are practically 30 percent less. And they're real.

And then there are the parallel traders who cross the border everyday, several times a day to buy everyday goods to bring back because they can be sold for a profit. They are snapping up milk powder for babies, cosmetics, toothpaste, shampoo, and more recently boxes of chocolates and cookies for the upcoming Chinese New Year.

The third level are the mainland mothers, who up until a few months ago came over the border up to nine months pregnant to give birth to children in Hong Kong to take advantage of the social benefits here, including subsidized health care and free primary education. It also gives mainland families a chance to have more than one child as the one born in Hong Kong is not considered a Chinese citizen.

However, this arrangement has created a number of social problems for the parents and the children. Usually the mother is in Hong Kong with the child, or the boy or girl is being raised by elderly relatives and they can barely make ends meet depending on monthly government handouts. Another scenario is the child crosses the border to go to school everyday and many are falling behind academically.

The next level up are wealthy mainlanders, those who can afford to buy flats or work here. Based on appearance they are can be difficult to spot, as they wear name brand labels and carry the most fashionable handbags... until they open their mouths. Some have even go to school in Hong Kong and can speak Cantonese as well. Many of these young people are getting good jobs here, mainly because of their language skills and connections.

But perhaps their ultimate goal here is integration into to infiltrate Hong Kong and not necessarily making the city into a more Chinese one.

I just found out today that after a mainland Chinese becomes a permanent resident after living in Hong Kong for seven years, they have the option of changing their name on their Hong Kong Identity Card to have a Cantonese spelling than a pinyin one.

Why is this even allowed?

That in effect means they are changing their names, just because they have become a permanent resident of Hong Kong.

By changing the spellings of their names into Cantonese ones, they will then fully integrate into infiltrate Hong Kong.

It is because of pinyin names that The New York Times and Bloomberg were able to track down and verify mainlanders who had business interests and assets in Hong Kong and were connected to Premier Wen Jiabao and incoming President Xi Jinping respectively.

In a handful of cases, the names were changed, but through more paper work, were able to be traced.

Nevertheless we are simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by the fact that the Hong Kong Immigration Department invites mainlanders to have the option of changing the spelling of their names after living here for seven years.

Surely this is akin to creating a new identity for oneself in Hong Kong?

The feeling of mainlanders living in Hong Kong reminds me of the 1983 television miniseries "V", where "The Visitors" from outer space come to Earth and these aliens look very much like humans...

Does anyone else get the same feeling?

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Selling Canned Fresh Air in Beijing

The latest must-have in China -- canned fresh air
The air in Beijing continues to be foul -- literally.

Today's air quality was so bad that over a dozen flights out of Beijing Capital International Airport were cancelled. The US embassy's air quality readings were at 336 and "hazardous" at 1pm; children and the elderly were advised to stay indoors.

This is the third consecutive day that the toxic air has hovered around the Chinese capital, reducing visibility to only 300 metres.

But we are amused to see one man poking fun at the environmental mess -- by selling canned fresh air.

Multimillionaire Chen Guangbiao, 44, who made money from the recycling business and is a well-known philanthropist, was handing out the soft drink-sized cans of air, apparently from as far as Xinjiang.

"I want to tell mayors, county chiefs and heads of big companies: don't just chase GDP growth, don't chase the biggest profits at the expense of our children and grandchildren and at the cost of sacrificing our ecological environment," Chen said.

"I go outside, walk for about 20 minutes, and my throat hurts and I feel dizzy," he told reporters in an interview on a Beijing sidewalk.

He handed out the green and orange cans of "Fresh Air" with a caricature of himself on it with the tagline, "Chen Guangbiao is a good man". Another sentence below says, "Be a good person, have a good heart, do good things."

This is not the first time Chen has done such a publicity stunt. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he showered victims with 100 RMB notes and last year demolished a Mercedes Benz and gave away 5,000 bicycles to encourage more people to bike than drive.

"People say I am high profile or love to stage a show, but I don't think those who seek 'stability' and a low profile can do much for social progress," Chen said. "I am confident about what I do and I dare to put it under sunlight."

He admits the canned air is tongue-in-cheek, but says it's a way to educate people about the importance of environmental protection.

While Chen handed out the canned fresh air for free today, they are selling for 5 RMB ($0.80) with proceeds going to poor regions in China and places of historic revolutionary importance.

He says he has sold 8 million cans in the last 10 days.

We have to admit Chen's idea is refreshing to say the least, bringing some levity to a heavy, if not depressing issue.

The Chinese government knows air quality is a mess, but probably has no idea where to begin. However it needs to do something now or things are only going to get worse.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Pressuring the Whistle-Blower

Beijing-based independent investigative journalist Zhu Ruifeng
The whistle-blower who released sex tapes of Chinese officials was grilled by Chongqing police in Beijing yesterday for seven hours.

Independent investigative journalist Zhu Ruifeng's most famous catch was that of Lei Zhengfu, the 57-year-old district party chief in Chongqing who was caught on tape having sex with his then 18-year-old mistress. Ten other officials have lost their jobs.

Lei was fired a few days later when his identity was confirmed from the screenshots uploaded online.

Zhu claimed he had more tapes of other officials, which may have prompted the Chongqing authorities to come to Beijing perhaps in the hopes of preempting him from releasing more incriminating evidence.

"Two Chongqing police officers asked me to hand over all the materials I had related to the scandal. I refused because that demand was obviously part of a fishing expedition [to identify the source of the tapes]," Zhu said yesterday after leaving the police station.

He added he would release more material involving senior officials once his source independently verified the authenticity of the tapes.

Zhu's lawyer, Wang Peng, said Chonqing officials are probably concerned about what Zhu may have.

"They are worried that Zhu may keep doing this and reveal more scandals that they can't afford to keep dealing with."

On Sunday evening these police visited Zhu's home, demanding he open the door, and the standoff continued for two hours until he promised to visit the police station on Monday.

Up until now Zhu has not experienced much trouble, and coupled with the central government's order of cracking down on corrupt officials, one would have thought he would be encouraged to expose more people.

But if the harassment of Zhu is a signal of punishing whistle blowers, then the drive to crackdown on corruption in China would have been yet another blip in the attempt to reform the Party.

However Zhu seems prepared for the consequences if they do come.

He has already transferred unreleased copies of the videos to friends in the United States, which he calls "the safest place in the world".

"If something bad happens to me, I hope my friends will release those videos immediately."

While Chongqing officials are terrified of what Zhu may have, we are concerned by the rights of authorities from another city being able to come to Beijing to intimidate a Beijing resident.

What is the law on this? Or perhaps one doesn't even exist.

In any rate, we are confident Zhu will be left alone. What more can the authorities do?

And where is the central government in protecting someone like him, who is helping to catch dirty officials in the current anti-corruption campaign?

If China had an independent media and rule of law, its problems with corruption would have been dealt with ages ago.

Let's hope Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping continues his threat of catching all "flies and tigers", meaning no one, big or small, will escape punishment.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Pizzas in K-Town

The suprema pizza at Piccolo in Kennedy Town
Restaurants are either moving further west on Hong Kong island or further east to escape high rents, or at least try to start out small to see if their concept works before expanding to a bigger space.

And one neighbourhood that's benefiting from the growth of eateries is Kennedy Town -- specifically on one street called Davis Street.

Along this one small block are several places, each of them well known in their own right.

The calamari starter was a definite winner
The newest kid on the block is Bistro du Vin, but there's also the gourmet Bistronomique to the inexpensive eatery Piccolo.

We tried Piccolo yesterday and have to say we were pleased with the quality and the price point.

It's a small place and we arrived at 6pm and since we didn't make a reservation we were told to vacate the table by 7.30pm.

This was no problem since the food came quickly. We were seated right by the kitchen where we could see the massive brick oven heated with wood and the fresh pizzas constantly going in and cooked ones out.

We also liked the proscuitto pizza with rocket and parmesan
The pizzas are 11 inches and there are several different toppings on the thin crust pizza. We opted for the suprema and the proscuitto, both HK$130 each. The suprema had sliced sausages with fresh chillis, onions and mushrooms, while the proscuitto had thin slices of Parma ham on top of a regular pizza and a bunch of rocket leaves with parmesan cheese shavings on top.

The proscuitto was our favourite with the fresh flavours, while the supreme had a spicy bite from the chillis unless you carefully picked them off ahead of time.

We also enjoyed the appetisers of the warm salad with pumpkin and cherry tomatoes (HK$80) and the calamari (HK$85). We could have had a few more chunks of pumpkin in the salad, but it was nice, lightly seasoned, while the calamari had a nice batter with herbs so it was crispy and tender.

Including two lime sodas, the bill for three came to HK$635. Service was fast, attentive and nice. The server constantly refilled our small glasses with water.

The warm salad of pumpkin and cherry tomatoes
I hear that the pastas are pretty good too, including the aglio e olio (HK$110), a simple dish of spaghetti, roast garlic, chilli pepper and olive oil.

Definitely will be back for more pizza soon!

1E Davis Street
Kennedy Town
2824 3000

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Fast Becoming Extinct

The latest local tourism thing to do in Hong Kong is to check out eateries that are about to close thanks to greedy landlords jacking up rents.

On Facebook many friends are posting pictures of their visits to decades-old cha chaan tengs and noodle shops about to shutter for good.

And the most recent casualty is Lei Yuen congee shop behind Sogo in Causeway Bay that is closing after 42 years in business because rent has increased to HK$600,000 a month from HK$300,000. How many bowls of congee must they sell to make the rent?

An interesting fact is that when it opened in 1971, the rent was HK$2,000 a month. And now it is 300 times the amount.

The horrible thing is that there are other businesses willing to pay the higher rents -- but does Hong Kong need more jewellery, watch and luxury brand name shops?

Our city is fast losing its identity, its culture of local noodle shops, cha chaan tengs and bakeries.

While it's true many of the next generation is not willing to carry on the business, killing them off because of unreasonably high rents is outrageous and unacceptable. It's gentrification to the extreme.

Obviously some people are only looking at the bottom line, but we must think of what Hong Kong is and what we want it to be and how we can make it feasible for these places to survive.

And also we need affordable places to eat, unless you count Cafe de Coral as a viable local option...

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Picture of the Day: Lining Up for Laduree

Waiting in line to buy the highly-prized macarons from Paris
We can't help but be amused by the people lining up for some Parisian macarons at the opened Laduree shop in Harbour City that opened last month.

There are actually two lines -- one a few metres from the store and then one right in front of the store to prevent traffic jams in the narrow hallway.

I have yet to venture into the shop, but was lucky to try some Laduree macarons when I was in Paris -- well, at the airport.

The Hong Kong shop has the same look as the ones in Paris, and to help people decide what they want to buy while waiting in line, staff hand out mini brochures that name all 16 flavours, from vanilla to violet marshmallow and even liquorice.

The window shop display with a mountain of macarons
However, an interesting thing to note is that the macarons are not made in Hong Kong, but flown in daily from Paris.

Which begs the question, are these macarons fresh enough? One would think you would have to consume them the same day, non?

While we appreciate the company's desire to maintain quality, surely transporting them half way around the world on a daily basis will affect the taste...

But hey -- as long as there are lines out side the store, it doesn't seem to matter...

Laduree Hong Kong
Shop 3224, Level 3, Gateway Arcade
Harbour City
Tsim Sha Tsui
2175 5028

Friday, 25 January 2013

Picture of the Day: Central's Future Art Hub

The former Married Police Quarters are run down but retain architectural value
I had dinner tonight on Wyndham Street and directly across is the former Central Police Station and Married Police Quarters.

They were vacated when the station was decommissioned in 2006 and finally it was decided the compound would turn into some kind of arts hub.

We are pleased to see there is some kind of action happening on the premises, as scaffolding has gone up around one of the buildings, while there are stacks of barricades ready to be set up.

The government has given the property to the charity arm of The Jockey Club to develop and it has hired Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, the same one that designed Beijing's Bird's Nest, to redevelop the area into a combination of public, art and commercial spaces. We hope they will retain the colonial charm of these buildings as a homage to their origins.

The former Central Police Station is covered in scaffolding
There are also concerns about how the area will be managed and what kind of arts programming will be in place.

Nevertheless, we are just pleased there is some kind of movement in the property and hopefully things will move forward. With Hong Kong established as an arts capital with top auction houses selling high-end art here, surely the city should have a venue to showcase its own local talent too.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Shopping Frenzy Continues

A massive line the length of the IFC Apple store waiting for the cashier
This is a picture of the Apple Store in IFC in Central at around 9.20am today. As you can see, there is a massive line up for the cashier that runs the length of the store. At 9.20am.

As far as we know there is not particular sale going on, no new gadgets being released.

All we can surmise is that it's probably mainlanders buying gifts for Chinese New Year.

So there are those who are getting presents to impress others or hopefully gain favours for later, and then there are others trying to get low-end ones too.

We are reading in the papers that shops, particularly in Mongkok are being flooded with mainland shoppers stocking up for the Year of the Snake.

There were long lineups in front of several PrizeMart stores -- a chain known for its bargain prices. And what were they buying? Boxes of chocolates, candies and other snacks -- by the dozens.

"It's cheaper to buy in Hong Kong as the currency is weak. It's like having a 30 percent discount on every item," a visitor from Guangzhou said. "Goods we buy here in Hong Kong are also of a better quality, so they're better [than goods bought on the mainland] to give away as gifts."

The woman said her family had bought 20 boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and five tins of Kjeldsens butter cookies from a PrizeMart in Mongkok.

TWENTY boxes of Ferrero Rocher.

I usually bring back a four of five boxes of chocolate from Canada to pass out to friends and colleagues, but 20?

And mainlanders aren't just buying up sweets, but also basic goods too like milk powder. Apparently most of the overseas name brand ones are already sold out, and the stores that had a few tins left were charging almost double the suggested retail price of HK$238.

One Watsons staff member said the formula brands were sold out almost immediately after they were put on the shelves.

Apparently the milk formula companies have increased their production, with one called Friso claiming it has already doubled its milk powder supply this month compared to the same time last year. But it seems it's not enough.

Hong Kong is experiencing another locust invasion because of the run-up to the lunar new year.

But it also seems an increasing number of mainlanders are coming here from Shenzhen to make more frequent trips to buy more daily necessities and food.

While we appreciate mainlanders propping up Hong Kong's economy in the short term, the rest of us are left struggling to meet our basic needs.

How much longer Hong Kong people can withstand this is hard to say, but those who live near the border are very close to the breaking point.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Hawkish Colonel Using Animal Metaphors

Is Colonel Liu Mingfu provoking with animal-like comments?
Tensions are rising higher over who has the territorial rights over a group of small islands in the South China Sea that are known as Diaoyu in China, and Senkaku in Japan.

It's gotten to the point where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in, and China was annoyed that she took Japan's side.

Meanwhile other countries like the Philippines are miffed and want to get a piece of the property too.

Late last year things got so bad between China and Japan that riots spurred by the Chinese government exploded in the mainland. People destroyed Japanese cars, boycotted Japanese restaurants and harassed Japanese living there.

While these tensions previously came in waves and subsided, this time it has gotten so bad that some Japanese who have lived in China for many years have decided to pull out. Factory workers in Japanese car plants are losing their jobs because no one is buying Japanese vehicles.

The fervent anti-Japanese sentiment has hurt the Chinese economy, and yet it seems the government doesn't care.

And now we're seeing China has ratcheted up its bellicose words, threatening to use military action if necessary.

Previously the threats were more like paper tigers than actual provocations of war.

But now one hawkish colonel wants to make sure everyone is on the same page -- the one China's on.

"America is the global tiger and Japan is Asia's wolf and both are now madly biting China," Colonel Liu Mingfu said. "Of all the animals, Chinese people hate the wolf the most."

He added China was a peaceful nation, but would fight to the death if attacked.

Using animal metaphors to describe countries is meant to be degrading, and really is bizarre.

Can you imagine during the Cold War how the Americans would call Russia in animal terms?

It's interesting how the government allows military leaders like Liu to speak out and not even try to rein him in -- at least not yet.

Does this mean China is serious about going to war with Japan over a group of rocks which just happen to have some oil rich deposits?

Or is Beijing throwing out these comments to see how countries in the region will react?

In any event we are not impressed with Liu's statements that seem to provoke rather than mollify tensions. He seems to boast of China's military might, about the country's strategic missile and nuclear arsenal, though in the same breath saying he wasn't suggesting Beijing to use them.

Then what is he really saying and hinting?

Perhaps he is using this opportunity to bring attention to himself and hoping it'll win him brownie points with incoming President Xi Jinping.

We shall see, but in the meantime the animal metaphors bring on too many riddles which could result in further confusion.

The last thing we need is an accidental fight to break out...

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Chamber Music a la Mozart

Last night I attended a concert put on by The 4th Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival 2013 at the Academy for Performing Arts in Wan Chai.

It's a nice intimate space, though a pity more people didn't attend, so it wasn't very full.

Chamber music is written for a small group of instruments that was traditionally played in a small room or chamber, usually in someone's home.

Nowadays we watch these performances in concert halls, but unlike full orchestras, the sound from chamber music is just as amazing but on a different level.

The concert last night was entitled "Mozart: A Family Portrait", and in his opening remarks, the festival's artistic director Lin Cho-liang said he originally wanted to choose a piece written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's father, but then felt perhaps it would be better to feature one by Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, his grandson.

FX Mozart was born five months before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died, and later learned music from Antonio Salieri. This fact, pointed out by Lin, quashes Amadeus the movie's premise that Salieri wanted to murder Mozart, because why would he then teach Mozart's son?

In any event FX Mozart's piece, Grande Sonate for Violin and Piano in E Major, Op. 19 was performed by the well-known violinist Ning Feng and accompanied by Chen Sa.

My friend YTSL was very keen to watch this concert particularly for Ning performance and we waited eagerly to see what he'd play, as he is so deft with the instrument.

However, we saw no "pyrotechnics" as YTSL said disappointed afterwards, because the piece was actually quite slow and easy for Ning to play.

We speculated that perhaps Ning has such a busy touring schedule, and since performing in this festival maybe a kind of charitable gesture to Lin, Ning was not asked to do too much and play whatever he wants.

Nevertheless, the concert improved significantly with the next piece, Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, KV 448. Taiwanese pianist Wang Pei-yao walked out in a white halter top and pants, and Russian Denis Kozhukhin tied his hair back in a pony tail. He sat at the piano closest to us and whipped out his iPad, where his sheet music was, whereas Wang had the music book and a page turner.

The piece is delightful, lively and playful and both pianists had a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the music. While Kozhukhin didn't have a page turner, he apparently pointed his finger at the top left of the iPad screen to flip the page... I say apparently because I didn't see him flip every page. It was like magic!

YTSL said this isn't the first time she's seen musicians using iPads for sheet music, but it was very interesting for me to see. I wonder if this will catch on with other musicians and become the standard?

However some musicians may prefer to have their own personal markings and hence the need for paper and pencil. We shall see if more musicians prefer this way of using music.

After a 20-minute interval, we were treated to a second half that tried to have the same momentum as the two piano performance, but didn't quite meet the mark.

We enjoyed the Mozart Oboe Quartet, K 370 that was enlightening and fun. Oboist Huang Zheng was fantastic in providing a strong "vocal" performance with the cellist, violinist and viola player accompanying him.

The final piece, Mozart's String Quintet in G Minor, K 516 started slow and sombre, but in the middle of the fourth movement, the tone made a 180-degree turn and ended on a happy note.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Picture of the Day: Clear Skies

The cityscape of Admiralty and a bit of Central from the edge of Wan Chai
Tonight YTSL and I attended a concert that is part of The 4th Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival 2013 at the Academy for Performing Arts.

I'll write about the concert tomorrow, but during the intermission we were let out onto a terrace area overlooking Admiralty and Victoria Harbour.

And what a sight! The skies were so clear at 9pm.

The weather has been quite warm this winter -- today had a high of 22 degrees.

I remember shivering and being miserable this time last year with cold temperatures and grey skies...

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Bankrolling Casino Coffers

The bright lights of Macau luring gamblers to the Las Vegas of the East
For many people in Macau, the gaming industry is the most promising in terms of career prospects and salaries.

With luxury hotels constantly opening, there are non-stop opportunities for locals and foreigners who want to get in on the action.

We recently met a young South Asian ethnic Chinese woman who has lived in Macau for seven years.

Her previous job was working at The Venetian, though she adds, "Almost everyone has worked at The Venetian at one point or another. Some even go back because the company is so large that there is lots of room for promotion."

She said was in the marketing gaming department, where they had to think of new promotions and incentives for gamblers to keep coming back.

Then we asked her if she knew of gamblers who came everyday -- and I cited the example of the middle-aged woman I met on the Turbojet back to Hong Kong who admitted she came to Macau everyday to gamble.

"Oh yes," this young woman said. "There are people who come everyday. We had some VIP customers and we would keep track of them.

"One time in a meeting, someone asked, 'What happened to X customer? We haven't seen them for a while,'" she recounted. "Then someone in the meeting replied, 'Oh I just saw in the newspaper that they're in prison now.'"

She said there was another who committed suicide, and another who was murdered because he didn't pay up his debts. "You cannot imagine these are the kinds of things we talked about in the meetings."

The she proceeded to tell us about a Mr Lin, a mainlander who is the biggest VIP gambler. Apparently he spends so much at the tables that it amounts to 40 percent of all the money earned at all the Sands casinos in Macau -- including The Venetian, Sands Cotai Central and Sands Macau.

We asked if this Mr Lin was a Chinese official, but she didn't know.

He is such a big V-V-V-VIP customer that once when The Venetian wanted to change the chairs in the casinos, they asked this Mr Lin to test drive some samples out until he approved of them.

And whenever he leaves Macau, the staff at Sands casinos have been instructed not to say "Good bye" to him, but "When are you coming back, Mr Lin? Shall we book your accommodation now for your next visit here?"

And we are guessing that all the female staff who wait on him are particularly pretty, while they and the rest of the staff on standby cater to his every whim.

We wonder though, does this Mr Lin know that he probably bankrolled Sheldon Adelson's almost $150 million donation to the Republican party for the 2012 elections?

Adelson lost big time with US President Barack Obama winning a second term and coincidentally being sworn in today.

Nevertheless Adelson says he is determined to double his donations again for the 2016 election.

He better hope Mr Lin will still come to his casinos and continue to lose big...

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Culturally Fulfilling Afternoon

Visitors praying to the Great Immortal Wong at Wong Tai Sin Temple
With Chinese New Year approaching, my friend and I thought we'd observe a few rituals before welcoming the Year of the Snake on February 10.

Some make elaborate offerings in the hopes of better luck
We headed to Wong Tai Sin, the well-known temple where those keen to give offerings to the gods and pray for good fortune come here.

It was quite busy in the afternoon, but in the next few weeks it'll be even busier.

I hadn't visited the place in many years and it has since been renovated in making efficient pathways to handle large groups of people. Staff are on hand to direct traffic and there are many rules people must observe, including lighting incense before going to the main temple area to pay their respects to the gods.

As a result, there's much less smoke in the area than before, though I must admit it was pretty smoky standing there waiting for my friend as she prayed to two smaller temples on the grounds. She even bought some new clothes for the Great Immortal Wong, for whom the temple is named after. She presented it to him as an offering and it should be burned so that it will be sent to him in heaven, but to restrict the amount of smoke, it would be burned later in the day.

A special way to bless a red string in hopes of tying the knot
We passed by a fountain with bronze lotus leaves and flowers. People were throwing coins in there, even paper renminbi. Then one woman was reading the sign which read, "Don't throw any objects into the fountain". No one else seemed to have read the warning.

We also went to see the God of Marriage who has a crescent moon behind his back. Between him are a bride and groom they are holding opposite ends of a large red rope -- covered in red strings.

Those looking for a partner or a proposal from their significant other should tie a string on the rope, but not before doing a ritual involving putting your hands in a bizarre origami position with the red string between your fingers, bowing to the God of Marriage three times and telling him who you are, where you are from, and either what kind of mate you are looking for, or saying the name of your boyfriend or girlfriend in the hopes of marriage.

Water lilies at the Chi Lin Nunnery are in bloom in winter
Then you go to the bride and bow to her three times, then to the groom and bow three times before tying the string on the rope on which side you hope to find a mate.

Who knows if it really works, but we thought we'd give it a try.

Next up was the main reason we went to Wong Tai Sin -- having our questions answered by shaking a container of bamboo sticks.

We told the Great Immortal Wong our name and what question we wanted answered before shaking the container until one stick fell out. Each one has a number on it.

Then we went downstairs to where the fortune tellers were who could decipher the poetic-like fortune -- or in our case -- misfortune -- to us.

The golden Pavilion of Perfection in Nan Lian Garden
We decided not to take what he said too seriously and went to the nearby Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden in Diamond Hill for a beautiful retreat.

There's some renovations going on at the temple entrance at the moment, but inside the compound is looking great. We like the overpass leading to the garden which is still gorgeous in winter. The pine trees are pruned so that they look fluffy from a distance, while mini trees are groomed like bonsai. In the pond are massive Japanese koi, the biggest I have ever seen. They swim serenely in the water, completely unaware of us above.

Hidden behind a waterfall is a restaurant serving vegetarian dishes that is slightly expensive for afternoon tea, but a nice setting. Nearby is a small cafeteria that we popped into for a snack and drink and got there just in time before it closed. They were out of toast so we had some mock meat made of gluten instead.

The beautifully landscaped trees make for a pretty sight
We were so happy to end our afternoon on a high note, taking in the gorgeous man-made scenery that helped us escape our everyday woes temporarily.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Still No Common Ground

Protesters waving colonial Hong Kong flags in front of the Liaison Office
China doesn't understand -- some Hong Kong people just aren't into it.

And it's this lost in translation that has the Chinese government misinterpreting the feelings of young Hong Kong people as not understanding the mainland.

Apparently Beijing is "gravely concerned" that Hong Kong youth lack a sense of national identity.

"The reason why they see a problem is that polls have found that more people identified themselves as Hong Kongers instead of Chinese," said a letter written by vice-chairman Li Jianguo of the Standing Committee. "Some have even waved the old Hong Kong flag, and there was strong opposition to the introduction of national education."

More than 15 years after the handover, Beijing doesn't realize there is a huge divide.

Hong Kong is mostly made up of families who fled China because they feared the Communists coming to power. And from the sidelines they watched the political and social upheavals from the 1949 Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, saw how Mao controlled the country and ruled it on his whims.

While much has changed since then, there are still many other ills associated with China that Hong Kong people don't want to be linked with -- systemic corruption, lack of rule of law and the exponential environmental problems just to name a few.

What is there for Hong Kong people to be truly proud of China apart from athletes who win medals at the Olympics every four years?

They see mainlanders invading Hong Kong streets and stores, speaking loudly, urinating and spitting on the street, and buying up all kinds of commodities from milk powder to luxury brands, driving up rents.

Why do Hong Kong people wave the colonial flag? It's not necessarily that they want the British to come back, but they are nostalgic for what they had before.

The Chinese also have an insistence that things should be seen from its perspective without understanding others' viewpoints.

But if it wants Hong Kong to be closer to China, it has to really clean up house to show it is transparent and willing to listen.

Until that happens, people are going to continue to be distrustful of the mainland and tensions will only increase.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Stomachs Flying on Empty

Looks like it's the end of the road for hot meals on short flights around the Asia region as carriers Cathay Pacific and Dragonair try to find more ways to cut costs.

What used to be the last bastion for hot meals are now being replaced with -- drum roll please -- sandwiches.

Since January 1, Dragonair has served sandwiches for flights to Taiwan and Manila, and Cathy is already handing out sandwiches on its Taiwan flights.

A Cathay spokesperson said the sandwiches would be heated and served with juice and biscuits.

Passengers aren't expected to like the cost-cutting measures as Asians prefer eating hot meals.

So instead the airlines are trying to spin the cost-saving exercise as a benefit...

"We believe the change will enable passengers to enjoy a smooth and more relaxed journey on such a short flight as the time for serving and retrieving the meal trays will be shortened," a Dragonair spokesperson said.

Not only do sandwiches help the carriers cut costs, but also increase the chances of boosting income because the time saved from serving passengers can now be used to sell more duty-free items on board.

The Cathay spokesperson added the shortened meal time would give passengers more time to rest, particularly on red-eye flights.

In the end Cathay and Dragonair are becoming more in line with other carriers around the world that have cut meals on short-haul flights.

For example in North America, airlines don't even offer anything to eat if the flight is less than five hours, and passengers can either bring food on board or buy snacks on the plane.

It's the new reality, folks. But is this what we paid for?

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Will This Policy Speech Save Leung?

Will Hong Kong look like this in the future?
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying finally gave his first policy speech since he took office last March.

And while there were many expectations for him to deliver, he is probably hoping his initiatives will stave off the criticism and calls for him to step down, which critics have been doing for months. You can read the full address entitled "Seek Change, Maintain Stability, Serve the People with Pragmatism" here. Sounds very mainlandish, don't you think?

Also interesting to note the cover has Chinese kids running on some green grass with blue skies in the background -- and two South Asian kids too. Somewhat inclusive...

In any event the biggest priority is housing -- to make it affordable especially for young people trying to enter the market.

"Land shortage has seriously stifled our social and economic development and smothered many opportunities for people to start and expand their businesses," he said, noting some 200,000 people were on the wait list for public housing.

In his speech Leung noted many families had to move to smaller flats, or even factory buildings, while single people with low salaries were stuck in subdivided flats that are unhealthy to live in.

"As long as the housing shortage persists, we have no alternative but to restrict external demand and curb speculative activities," he added, which means many foreigners who are keen to live here long-term won't be able to buy a flat until they become permanent residents.

Leung said more land would be rezoned for housing, and new areas opened up for development, with the aim of having 67,000 units entering the market in the next three to four years. He is targeting 100,000 subsidized public housing units that will be built in five years from 2018, and another 75,000 already planned in the next five years.

Any land that is not used will be considered for housing, and unused industrial land will be re-purposed for housing as well. The big concern is building these units fast enough, as they were needed many years ago already.

"We recognize that problems stemming from property prices and rental, cage homes, cubicle apartments and sub-divided units cannot be solved overnight," he said. "But we must acknowledge these problems, understand the gravity of the situation and take the first step forward to resolve them," he said.

It is expected there will be no immediate impact of Leung's speech on the housing market, so it'll be interesting to see how buyers react.

Leung could not be too radical when it comes to the housing market as any immediate flood of housing will adversely affect property prices, and yet the demand is so great; he is in an unenviable position, but at least he has pledged to kick start the solution.

His other main issue is tackling air pollution and he has pledged HK$10 billion ($1.3 billion) in subsidies to phase out over 80,000 heavy-polluting diesel vehicles, while new emission targets are now set with those in Guangdong province. He has also said the government will consider legislation to push ocean-going vessels to switch to low sulphur diesel. Recycling is also high on the agenda, though nothing quite concrete yet.

Other highlights include Leung's pledge to set the poverty line and allocate HK$900 million to enhance facilities for the elderly.

During and after his speech, Hong Kong people took to Twitter and voiced their frustration that Leung didn't seem to do anything radical or substantive in the short term.

Are they asking for too much? Or is Leung not brave enough?

We shall see how his policies are executed and play out in the end.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Noshing on Nachos

A giant platter of nachos at Agave that is a meal in itself for two people
On the weekend my friend YTSL had a hankering for nachos.

At first she wanted to try a Tex-Mex restaurant in Sai Ying Pun, but we soon discovered on Open Rice, a website that gives restaurant listings and people's opinions of the places, that this eatery in Western was not so good, in other words not very hygienic.

So we fell back on one of her favourite places called Agave on Lockhart Road in Wan Chai.

She had warned me ahead of time that the plate of nachos was so big that it was good enough for two people, and loaded with ground meat, beans and guacamole that it was a meal in itself.

At the appointed time of around 1pm on Saturday we met up and found the place quite empty. Despite the decor's colourful attempt to bring some bright cheer to the place, the Filippino staff seemed humdrum about working there and didn't seem too keen on making customers feel welcome.

In any event I arrived first and perused the menu which featured two different nacho platters, one called Gringos (HK$118) that has tortilla chips topped with melted cheddar cheese, tomato salsa, jalapeno peppers, sour cream and cilantro; the other Machos (HK$118) where the tortilla chips are covered in beans, melted cheese, tomato salsa, serrano peppers, guacamole and cilantro.

The first of two bowls of guacamole we at with the nachos
I had decided on Machos, but when YTSL arrived, she warned the peppers were very spicy so we ordered Gringos instead.

When the massive plate arrived, it was quite impressive, but we soon discovered Gringos did not have the beans and guacamole and had to order the latter as a side dish.

It was a good snacking dish, but probably Machos would have been more nutritious with the beans. In any event after two bowls of guacamole that came to a whopping HK$96 along with a pint of beer and two glasses of lime soda, we practically demolished the giant tower of nachos.

Our bill came to HK$376 for two.

The place is also known for its margaritas and the trio of diners at the next table ordered one each. These drinks were massive -- giant bulbous glass goblets, filled with the crushed ice alcoholic drink. And for happy hour, you can get two of those for the price of one.

Needless to say, by the time 6pm rolled around, I was still very full from lunch despite doing a few errands before going home.

I probably won't be eating nachos again anytime soon, but if I do, it'll be the Machos.

93 Lockhart Road
Wan Chai
2866 3228

Monday, 14 January 2013

Police Chief and Son Caught Red Handed

Li Yali and his son won't be working for a while...
The cases of Chinese officials doing silly things and assuming they will get away with it continue to pile up.

The latest is a police chief in Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province, who is now under probation for a year and is on track to be fired and kicked out of the Communist Party after he allegedly tried to cover up his son's drunk driving case.

Li Yali's son Li Zhengyuan apparently attacked the traffic officer who pulled him over on October 13.

According to a Xinhua report, Li Zhengyuan became angry and struck the officer when he asked Li to get out of the car.

Li told the officer he forgot his driver's license and instead handed him a public security bureau entry card, perhaps to insinuate that he had guanxi and could not be touched.

When the officer asked Li why someone from the public security bureau would assault a police officer, the officer said Li's reply was, "Yes, I am beating you up. Why can't I do that?"

The incident was also filmed by a witness and when it was posted online, it got numerous hits. The video also shows other passers by and policemen refusing to let Li Zhengyuan get into his car and drive off.  In the end he was escorted by police as he walked home.

Then it was revealed that investigators found Li Yali had violated relevant regulations and abused his power in investigating his son's case, Xinhua reported.

Not only that, but Li Yali was also in trouble for selling more than 100 police posts with the help of his son since he started the job in November 2011.

Apparently it was Li Zhengyuan who asked his father to reserve some spots for his friends. This was confirmed by one of Li Zhengyuan's friends or shall we say now former friend, Liu Bo, who is head of the Yingze police station.

Liu says in a report by Xinmin Weekly to have paid millions of renminbi to Li Yali and his son for the job and also acted as a middleman to help 20 others get police jobs.

Li Yali also gave his son a police gig in 2008, which explains why Li Zhengyuan had no clue about police procedure and thought beating up an officer was intimidating enough.

The father and son are only at the municipal and provincial level. Imagine how many more abuses there must be in the rest of the country?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Warhol's 15 Minutes Eternal

Many people took pictures here, getting their 15 minutes of fame with Andy
This afternoon I got a good dose of pop art at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Hong Kong is the second Asian stop of "Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal" and it's an extensive collection of his work, some 300 pieces, from his early days as a graphic artist and illustrator to his famous works from the Factory in New York.

He died in February 1987 from complications from a gall bladder operation and so this show marks the 25th anniversary of his death.

It was very interesting to see so many young people checking out the exhibition -- many of them probably born during the 80s and later, recognizing some of the images but perhaps not understanding or knowing the pop art movement.

The museum was pretty busy today -- the exhibition spread over one floor in two rooms, and there were line ups to get into both -- though the wait wasn't too long.

However because there were so many people, I didn't have enough patience to carefully admire each piece though I did inspect each one.

Many years ago I'd seen a Warhol exhibition in Sydney and saw the replica Brillo boxes and of course Campbell Soup cans, the silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe, Mao, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy.

Warhol took many portraits of himself
Most of these were here again and it was nice to see nine Mao prints together, the background of each slightly different from the other using vigorous brushstrokes melding colours together. Sadly those attending the exhibition in Shanghai and Beijing won't be able to see the Mao works because apparently they were rejected by the Ministry of Culture. We can only imagine it's because the Great Helmsman is not depicted exactly the way the Chinese government wants him to be portrayed.

Perhaps the Ministry of Culture doesn't understand the artistic importance of Warhol choosing Mao's image to silkscreen... alas...

It was impressive to see Warhol was an accomplished artist in his own right -- there were many line drawings, pencil and ink, that reminded me of Pablo Picasso's deliberate and bold drawings. Warhol also drew shoes for a department store and quickly became known as the "shoe guy". His drawings were stylish and whimsical, particularly one with pink cherubs in various positions...

And then he began experimenting with photography and translating them into silkscreen prints, and focused on portraits. He took Polaroids because they made the images sort of monochromatic, making the person seem flatter. In the exhibition there are pictures of Sylvester Stallone, Bianca Jagger, Mick Jagger, and Truman Capote.

Warhol's iconic silkscreen print of Marilyn Monroe
There are also numerous portraits and self portraits of Warhol. Did he take them because there was no one to model for him, or was it for his own vanity? Early in his career he seemed to enjoy making fun of himself in front of the camera particularly in the photo booth ones where the lighting the camera were already set up and all he had to do was pose. But later on his self portraits seem more introspective, maybe wanting to reveal he was more than just someone exploiting commercialism for art.

Warhol's image of Marilyn Monroe came about after he heard the news that she had died at the age of 36. He took a publicity photo of her and began making a series of images in various colours that seem to evoke different moods.

Similarly when Elizabeth Taylor fell ill, Warhol used a publicity shot of her when she was younger and coloured her lips redder to make her seem more alive. In the end she outlived him.

The series of images of Jackie Kennedy on the day US President John F Kennedy was assassinated combined with her mourning at the funeral are haunting, while the silkscreen prints of the electric chair are equally unsettling, though artistic in their own right.

And the Campbell Soup cans? He apparently ate the soup everyday, claiming he liked them because they tasted the same.

What was most interesting for us in Hong Kong were the time capsules. He made 612 time capsules over two decades, where he filled cardboard boxes with letters, magazines, photographs and odd items from his life. They were sealed, marked with the date and then put away in a warehouse.

One of the 612 boxes that were Warhol's  time capsules
The one from 1982 shows his trip to Hong Kong and he kept a newspaper article about himself from the South China Morning Post, a few maps issued from the then Hong Kong Tourist Association, and various notes the Mandarin Oriental staff sent to Room 1801. One reminded him of his appointment to meet Timothy and Loletta Fok in their "castle".

One leaves the exhibition in awe of the work that he produced. It's a pity Warhol died at his prime; one wonders what he would have thought of art today and how his work has profoundly affected us.

Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal
December 16, 2012 - March 31, 2013
Hong Kong Museum of Art
10 Salisbury Road
Tsim Sha Tsui

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Treading on Dangerous Territory

This may be the year Hong Kong will have an all-out class war.

Property prices are still rising despite the government's best intentions to rein them in, while inflation is also taking a bit hit on people's wallets, leaving them with less to eat for more money and having to shell out more for decent service.

Now the Census and Statistics Department has revealed that Hong Kong people's median pay only rose about 10 percent between 2001 to 2011. In 2001, the median monthly income for men was HK$12,000 ($1,548).

But 10 years later their salary only increased to HK$13,000, a rise of only 8.3 percent, without taking inflation into account. Women's incomes went up 10 percent from HK$10,000 to HK$11,000.

Even more disappointing was that the median income for men and women aged 15-24 remained unchanged for 10 years at HK$8,000, and for women aged 25-34, their salaries remained unchanged at HK$12,000.

"This is shocking and miserable," said Labour Party chairman and lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan. "Hong Kongers' lives have not improved in a decade and have even turned worse. When the economy is prosperous, bosses offer pay rises of only 2 to 3 percent.

"But when the economy was not good, like during the SARS crisis, bosses cut their employees' pay by 20 to 30 percent."

He added the slow growth of the median income showed that the gap between the rich and poor was ever widening. In 2011, Hong Kong's Gini coefficient, that measures this gap was at 0.537, a record high. The scale is from 0 to 1, with the number moving closer to 1 indicates greater income disparity.

Associate professor of economics at Chinese University Terence Chong Tai-leung, estimates the inflation rate for the decade was about 30 percent. While inflation takes into account a range of goods, he believes the cost of food surged higher.

For example the average retail price of a 1kg top-grade chicken was HK$35.81 in 2001, but jumped to HK$83.40 in 2011.

The price for 1kg of hung sam yu or golden thread, a common type of fish, increased from HK$40.35 to HK$74.39, while 1kg of white cabbage rose from HK$9.61 to HK$15.61.

Another factor is the incredible greediness of landlords who are raising retail rents so high that cha chaan tengs, noodle shops and small grocery stores are either raising prices, serving smaller quanitities or shutting down.

Pretty soon us locals won't be able to afford anywhere for a bite to eat, hence the existence of gutter oil in some Hong Kong restaurants in order to cut costs, but to the danger of our health.

Labour Party's Lee noted that a decade ago, Hong Kong people spent about 30 percent of their monthly salary on paying their mortgage, but now it was eating up half their salary.

"Hong Kong people just don't have much money left after paying for the mortgage and food."

So what are the politicians and more importantly Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying going to do about it?

If they want to avoid a class war they need to accelerate the construction of social housing, perhaps convert old warehouses into makeshift accommodations and push the business sector to take of its employees. Maybe it means pay raises, or better benefits, but they need to feel valued.

Otherwise we are going to see more social issues emerging, as if more divorces, suicides, domestic disputes, stealing and gambling addictions are what the city needs.

Hong Kong urgently needs to become a more compassionate society.

But it isn't going to happen until someone shows us the money.

Beijing -- The Ultimate Smog City

An eerie smog-filled sky near the Worker's Stadium in Beijing
When I lived in Beijing from 2008-2010, I thought the pollution levels were quite bad many days of the year.

I did experience the notorious sand storms, but the sand was so fine that it was hard to "see" it; while some people would wrap their heads in silk scarves, the odd surgical mask seemed somewhat pointless and so I never really took precautions for my lungs.

Then there was one day where we woke up to a yellow sky, thanks to more sand blown in from Inner Mongolia.

We never really knew the extent of the pollution levels; we could only judge by seeing how blue the sky was, or if it was blue at all.

In any event the United States Embassy has an air quality monitor on top of its building and it regularly tweets the readings.

Last year the Chinese government got annoyed because the readings were completely different from its own (ie off the charts) and tried to force the Americans to take it down, but the embassy claimed it was information for its own staff and not for residents.

Today's API readings were at 728
And today the US Embassy's air monitoring system has recorded readings even beyond anything we've heard of -- 845, "Beyond Index" it tweeted.

Just a reminder: The World Health Organization guidelines says the average concentration of the smallest particles, called PM2.5, should be no more than 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

The WHO considers air to be unhealthy at 100, and at 300, children and the elderly should remain indoors. And while the US Embassy reading was over 800, the official Beijing readings reported pollution levels over 400.

What to make of the 845 reading?

Until the Chinese government seriously takes action to find a sustainable way to have the economy continue to grow but in a more environmentally conscious way, its people are continue to suffer from serious respiratory diseases and more cancer-related illnesses.

Or is that just not a concern at all?

Friday, 11 January 2013

Payback for Global Times

 Global Times' chief editor Hu Xijin penning another column
Seems like blowback is hitting the Global Times now that the incident with Southern Weekly has somewhat resolved itself.

We don't quite know the exact outcome, but the journalists are back at work at the respected paper and Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen will step down at some point.

In the meantime some celebrity supporters of the paper's journalists were given official warnings in the form of "having tea", while other activists were taken away by police.

Just before the crisis was averted, the Global Times wrote a scathing editorial Monday, claiming the incident was provoked by "external forces" and newspapers across the country were ordered to reprint it the following day, and only a few obeyed.

Now internet users and former journalists are criticizing the Global Times, saying its editorial was a blow to its credibility.

"I just find the whole thing disgraceful," said one Global Times journalist. "The editorial jeopardized our hard work to produce good stories."

Other former journalists of the paper said they found the editorial "heartbreaking". "No matter whether the editorial is an order from the top officials, it is politically motivated," one said.

Meanwhile the Global Times chief editor Hu Xijin stated on his microblog that the phrase "external forces" was not used in the editorial but in the headlines of major websites to attract attention. Regardless the former war correspondent most probably had a hand in writing the editorial, as he usually does.

The Global Times is a nationalistic paper, keen on whipping up patriotic fervor and sometimes covers sensitive issues to stir up controversy and increase readership.

This is the mandate Hu has been following or perhaps leading with the consent of higher ups.

Qiao Mu, a Beijing-based journalism professor, said Hu may have believed he could lead the discussion on the Southern Weekly saga.

But he added, "He has put himself in a disadvantaged position", hinting Hu miscalculated on trying to stir up anti-foreigner sentiment.

Internet users are teasing Hu for being the government's obedient dog, nicknaming him "frisbee Hu", an editor who will eagerly takes a positive spin on whatever the government throws him.

Ouch... or should we say, Ruff, ruff.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Frenzied Marketing to the Chinese?

The signature quilted look on the handbag is distinctive
We are amused to see how desperate luxury brands are in chasing the mainland Chinese market.

After all, its brand-conscious consumers are the ones propping up the Eurozone economy.

A local business columnist made the observation that some brands that used to be understated chic are now making their logos bigger and shinier.

A friend of mine who has worked and lived in Geneva for many years once told me that you probably would find there are more and bigger Bally stores in Hong Kong than Switzerland, the birthplace of the label famous for its women's handbags and shoes. My friend also reminded me that Asian consumers may also find designs by Bally in Europe too "low-profile" from the perspective of the size of their logos. In Asia, the bigger the logo, the more high-profile and attractive it will be. And it is not only what Chinese consumers prefer, but also Indian people, according to some luxury salespeople.

Chinese dragons embroidered on Ferragamo handbags
He cited the examples of Burberry and Salvatore Ferragamo, both of which emblazon their handbags and shoes with logos to ensure everyone else looking at the wearer will immediately know what they are wearing, and thus give a boost of self-esteem to the wearer who also has a much lighter wallet.

With Chinese New Year fast approaching, some are on shopping sprees to buy brand-name gifts for clients or bosses in the hopes of having favours returned.

As for Burberry, we can spot that signature tartan miles away...

It's a pity that Ferragamo seems to have resorted to these design/marketing tactics when many loyal customers buy their shoes for the reason that the brand is stylishly low key.

The Italian fashion house also has a handbag that is appropriately in fire engine red, with a golden dragon embroidered on the leather, as well as a scarf of the same design.

Originally launched in time for the Year of the Dragon, there is only a limited number of the handbags, but it seems they are still showing them in the boutiques which probably means not all of them are sold yet.

Microfilm poster for Cartier's Chinese romance
And then there is Cartier.

It recently launched its latest engagement ring called Destinee and accompanying it is a video promoting the theme of "True love has a colour and a name".

The French jewellery brand has created three other short movies and this is the fourth.

The story?

Set in Paris, a group of friends celebrate a wedding. The setting is romantic, held outdoors in a garden, floral arrangements abound and rose bushes. Two of the invited guests used to be a couple, but don't know the other is coming and there is an awkward moment.

The guy is a handsome young Englishman, and the girl?


She's played by Taiwanese actress Michelle Chen who recently starred in You Are the Apple of My Life.

Check it out:

We get the feeling the whole story is contrived... why an English guy when every other person is French? And why a Chinese girl who doesn't seem to have any connection with these people?

Perhaps it requires a cynic to suspend belief for seven minutes.

But we're sure the Chinese will lap it up... or will they be annoyed by what they may see as imperialist connotations of a Chinese girl marrying a laowai?

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Protest Ends in Draw

A compromise has been reached in the Southern Weekly saga, with the journalists agreeing to go back to work and it is believed the Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen who started the stand off will eventually step down.

The agreement was reached after the provincial party chief Hu Chunhua stepped in to negotiate between the parties on the condition the staff returned to work and no punishment would be meted out.

A source close to the matter added Hu implied that Tuo would eventually be removed, but he wouldn't leave immediately to save face, a usual political tactic.

Earlier the central authorities wanted to blame the incident of pushing for press freedom on "external forces", ie foreigners or overseas activists connected with blind human rights campaigner Chen Guangcheng.

A Global Times editorial said just that, trying to whip up anti-foreign fury in the hopes of directing anger elsewhere.

In fact, the central propaganda authorities ordered all media across China to reprint the fiery nationalistic editorial, but only a few obeyed.

This resulted in at least one casualty. Dai Zigeng, publisher of The Beijing News resigned after he refused to publish the government-sanctioned editorial.

According to three witnesses, Dai told his Communist Party bosses, "I now verbally submit my resignation to you," he said in the early hours of Wednesday.

It was not immediately known of they officially accepted his resignation or not.

However the editorial was published in today's paper, though buried in the back pages of the front section, and without any staff signatures.

The Beijing News is co-owned by Southern Media Group which also owns Southern Weekly.

So it seems the flare-up over press freedom has died down for now, but surely tensions will still be there between editorial and their censors.

While Tuo will slowly fade from the scene, it doesn't mean the government will not continue to control what its media outlets will say, but may have a harder time making them more complicit in its agenda.

As this incident has ended in a draw, we admire Southern Weekly's staff courage in speaking out and drawing attention to the stifling editorial conditions they work in.

What's also interesting is the government's push in recent years to make state-run media even more financially independent, pushing them to have IPOs and such. By becoming less reliant financially on the government, perhaps these media outlets will become more "free"?

We shall see.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Reformer Rises Again?

People come to watch the unveiling of Hu Yaobang's statue in Dachen island
Something interesting is happening in a coastal city in China.

A statue of former Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, has been erected in Dachen island at Taizhou in Zhejiang province, according to an article in the China Youth Daily.

The bronze statue has him looking into the distance, and the fact that it was even set up perhaps signals the government is quietly beginning to rehabilitate him politically.

Hu was known for championing reforms
He had been dismissed as Party General Secretary in 1987 after he allowed students in Beijing to hold protest marches calling for democratic reforms. The rallies erupted again after he died, culminating into the massacre in Tiananamen Square on June 4.

Before then, Hu had played a major role in leading the Communist Party out of the Cultural Revolution by rehabilitating hundreds of purged officials and starting a series of reforms and relative openness.

His son Hu Deping continues to speak out on behalf of his father, saying in November that reining in the party's unchecked power was the only way to modernize China.

According to Hong Kong media, last year Hu held talks with incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping, discussing political reforms and that Xi pledged to make changes.

However, China watchers caution not to be too optimistic.

Joseph Cheng, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said the statue did not equal to full rehabilitation.

Memorial for Hu in Tiananmen Square
"There is a bit of tolerance from the part of the leadership," he said. "This doesn't amount to a change of verdict."

Nevertheless we are intrigued by this latest development. This start could lead to finally lead to giving Hu the recognition he deserves in modern Chinese history.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Protestors 1, Management 0

The row over editorial influence at Southern Weekly has escalated into a strike with protestors gathering in front of its offices today in Guangzhou.

Reuters reported hundreds of people were there, protesting against censorship. One banner read: "We want press freedom, constitutionalism and democracy."

Demonstrations are not welcome in China and it is telling that the police did not do much if anything to break up the gathering. Perhaps the new party chief in Guangdong Hu Chunhua is anxious to show he is open and flexible to protests.

It remains to be seen if new leader Xi Jinping will wade into the controversy, thus revealing who's side he's really on.

The strike was called by editorial staff after management took over the paper's official microblog and said the New Year editorial was written by its staff and not a last-minute change by Guangdong propaganda officials. Management also blamed an editor for a mistake in the article.

Staff fired back by writing on another microblog denying management's account and announced they were striking. The letter was also signed.

"The statement [on the official microblog] does not represent the opinion of the editorial staff. It is a result of pressure applied by the authorities on the... management," the message said. "The editorial staff will fight against the falsified statement... Until the issue is resolved, we will not do any editorial work."

The Southern Weekly journalists also wrote on their own microblogs that Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, who they claimed had changed the annual New Year essay, had held meetings with management yesterday.

I last reported the journalists posted an open letter calling for an investigation into the alleged editorial interference, and since then a second petition issued by 27 academics from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan have called for Tuo's resignation.

Having worked in Chinese state media for three years, I have seen first hand how it is controlled by the propaganda department. Instructions are usually issued verbally on the phone to avoid any paper trace. These commands are typically given to the chief editors who then disseminate the orders to their underlings, again orally or in terse text messages. Staff are expected to understand the meaning and not to question the instructions; everyone must do as they are told otherwise it's quite easy to figure out who is out of line.

But Southern Weekly is an anomaly amongst Chinese state media because it is physically far from Beijing and close to Hong Kong that is has a tradition of being more critical of the government and more daring in exposing issues like corruption and breakdowns in rule of law. As a result, readers have come to value the publication and hold it up as China's closest thing to press freedom.

And so when Tuo began meddling in the paper's content and style, the staff were upset and so were the readers.

Already the paper has gained celebrity support. "Hope for a spring in this harsh winter" is what actress Li Bingbing wrote on her microblog that has 19 million followers, while another actress, Yao Chen quoted Russian Nobel laureate and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "One word of truth outweighs the whole world."

How will this controversy continue or end?

It's quite unprecedented that a demonstration was allowed to take place; now we shall see how management, and more specifically the top echelons of power respond.

How they react will determine China's direction, whether it becomes more open or closed, and it will also affect how the people react.

The ball is now in their court.