Thursday, 28 February 2013

Quote of the Day: I am also Middle Class

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah has an embarrassment of riches
Yesterday Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah gave his budget address and overall the reaction was muted as it was very similar to last year's.

Perhaps the most irritating aspect is his strategy of estimating Hong Kong will have a deficit and then instead coming up with an embarrassment of riches.

He had predicted a deficit of HK$3.4 billion but instead it turned into a whopping HK$64.9 billion. That means Hong Kong has fiscal reserves of HK$749 billion, enough to pay for 23 months of expenditures.

This is the second time he's done this. One would have thought by now he'd be better at being closer to the mark, but he seems much too conservative and sheepishly surprised by the unexpected receipts from land premiums, stamp duty, taxes and dividends.

And how does he distribute the money? He thinks he is doing the city a favour by handing out one-offs worth HK$33 billion, such as electricity subsidies (again) and income tax relief on HK$10,000 (again), more handouts for the elderly and such.

Why not do some long-term planning instead and think about the future of Hong Kong? The city seems to be doing much better fiscally compared to other countries around the world. Tsang thinks he is saving for a rainy day, but in fact he has run out of space to hide all the money.

Can we not earnestly tackle the housing problem for the poor once and for all with some effective social housing, subsidies for those with low incomes and young couples looking to buy their first home? And what about having some kind of strategy to help the elderly live out the rest of their lives comfortably since that segment of the population is increasing? And why not help young graduates with technical job training or give them grants to start something new?

But perhaps the most hilarious aspect of Tsang is his perception that he is one of us.

At the post-budget press conference, he said in Cantonese something on the lines of, "I think I regard myself as middle class, and I know how Hong Kong's middle class feel."

After a moment's pause of disbelief, reporters burst out laughing.

Sounds like someone is way off the mark in more ways than one.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Peddling Bubbly to the Chinese

Here's hoping the Chinese will drink up lots of Champagne...
The French economy is in a slump despite the constant stream of mainland Chinese shoppers flooding Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermes for luxury handbags.

And while they may like these brand names, the Chinese are also snapping up top Bordeaux wines like Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion because they are worth bragging about as long as you have the good years (which aren't cheap).

Cognac is also a favourite which is why names like Martell and Remy Martin are still having steady sales even though young Chinese prefer wine over hard liquor.

But now the French are trying to save their financial situation by trying to sell Champagne to the Chinese.

While one might think it's an easy sell -- who wouldn't pass up bottles of Louis Roederer, Perrier-Jouet, Moet et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot?

"We think China could change the champagne market in the coming years," said Charles-Armand de Belenet, head of marketing for the champagne division of Pernod Ricard.

However, so far, the Chinese aren't biting -- I mean buying -- that much.

One of the reasons is Champagne needs to be consumed after it is opened, whereas cognac can be kept over time and offered to special guests. Many also give cognac as presents during Chinese New Year.

These gifts are displayed "on a shelf, like a vase," explains Paul French, an analyst with researcher Mintel in Shanghai.

"There's a massive over-expectation about China" among makers of bubbly, he said. "Champagne is quite a hard product to push."

Some naively think the Chinese will by anything and everything -- not so. First they need to be educated about the product and then have some brand awareness before they make their consumption decisions.

Perhaps Champagne makers have been behind the ball on educating mainland Chinese consumers, or maybe the bubbly drink really doesn't pair well any regional Chinese cuisine (because of the strong flavours) except Cantonese food.

In any event, marketers should perhaps push the romantic angle of Champagne, that women really do have a lovely blush on their faces drinking a glass... or two...

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Arrogance of Entitlement

A passenger who stole wine on an Air France flight to Wuhan
One of my friends is a flight attendant and tells me lots of stories about dealing with mainland Chinese passengers.

Some of them order two drinks at once during meal times, while others demand more food after they have finished eating because they claim they are still hungry. But she believes they do this to get their money's worth.

Don't even get her started on the state of the washrooms.

Sometimes when a child pees into a plastic cup, she's asked to take it away and she has to explain to them this is unhygienic and they must dispose of it in the toilet themselves.

And so I'm not surprised hearing about the latest tale in the news.

Apparently two men on an Air France flight from Paris to Wuhan snatched around eight bottles of wine from the airline service cart and stuffed them in their bags.

Fellow passengers were so shocked and objected to their pilfering, but the men allegedly ignored them.

A Chinese woman called Wen Fei who works in Paris, sat near the two men on the flight and wrote about the incident on Weibo. She said she tried to stop them after they took at least eight bottles and stowed them in their bags -- without asking flight crew.

"I explained to them it was not OK and interpreted the flight attendants' explanation in French, but they said it was none of my business," she told a Hong Kong newspaper on Tuesday.

She said the two men shouted at her in a Wuhan accent.

"They asked me to back off if I ever wanted to leave Wuhan in one piece," Wen said. She added the pilot later interfered and asked the men to stop fighting with her.

"This kind of behaviour is demeaning for the Chinese travelling abroad," she said.

Wen managed to take a photo of one of the men that she posted on Weibo.

Her post got many comments online.

"The Chinese are always loud and jump queues to get on a flight -- even when everyone has a seat," said one.

"They are used to 'stealing' from people in China and now they start applying that habit elsewhere," said another, implying the two men may be Wuhan officials.

The outrage over this incident is far from over -- with the picture of the man, and other witnesses we shall soon find out the identities of the two men.

And mainlanders wonder why Hong Kong people don't welcome them with open arms...

Monday, 25 February 2013

Kudos to Ang Lee

Lee making his acceptance speech for Best Director at the Academy Awards
We want to wish director Ang Lee a big congratulations on Life of Pi.

He now has two Academy Awards for Best Director and now the first Asian director to have not just one, but two Oscars under his belt.

Admittedly I have not watched Life of Pi yet, but I did read the book by Canadian Yann Martel.

When I heard about the screen adaptation of the novel I was intrigued, but pleased Lee would direct it.

His imagination knows no bounds as with the case of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Who can forget the magical fighting scene between Zhang Ziyi and Chow Yun-fat in the bamboo forest?

And the mouth-watering food being prepared in the opening scenes of Eat, Drink, Man, Woman?

Life of Pi won four Oscars on Sunday night
In Life of Pi, he managed to translate the fictional tale of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger on screen thanks to CGI, but also his keen ability to coax amazing performances out of his actors. How else do you make first-time actor Suraj Sharma filming in a giant pool with a boat really look like he has to deal with a dangerous tiger?

Another aspect of Lee is that he refuses to be pegged into a certain kind of genre. He has covered such a wide range of subjects, from Jane Austen's England (Sense and Sensibility) to superheroes (Hulk), to gay relationships (Brokeback Mountain) and cross-cultural ones (The Wedding Banquet).

Lee seems keen to try an interesting project that comes his way and undeterred by challenges. Perhaps they fuel his creativity even more.

We also love his sensitivity and imagination that make his pictures so memorable.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Pre-Dawn Run

Runners at the start of the 10K last year at the Island Eastern Corridor
At 4am I woke up and got ready for the 10K race that is part of the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon 2013.

I didn't have enough sleep -- I'd only gone to bed at 11pm, but I probably would have had trouble falling asleep if I'd gone to bed earlier.

Nevertheless, the tiredness was completely wiped out by the excitement of the race.

Back in late November I was one of the 72,000 people who managed to get into the website and register for the race.

This is my first time running the race. Last year I tried to get onto the website and the system crashed. By the time I tried again, all the slots were taken.

I've run 10K before -- twice in Beijing -- so I wanted to see if I could still do it. There were 33,000 signed up to do the 10K here, separated into six heats.

In Kennedy Town it seemed the buses were not running at 5am, and taxis were few and far between. I missed one of the trams go by, thinking I'd have better luck with a taxi.

Even though it's still dark, a few elderly women were wide awake and sharing a conversation. It's interesting to see how many people are up at that hour. But perhaps in Hong Kong, it doesn't seem unusual...

Eventually I got onto a red minibus, but the driver seemed mentally unstable -- ranting about how the government is useless -- including blaming the authorities for allowing mosquitoes into his bus -- and forced us all to listen to him. So I bailed out at Sheung Wan and took the MTR to Tin Hau station.

It was still dark outside walking towards the starting line on the highway of the Island Eastern Corridor. Many people carried their smart phones and were constantly taking pictures with friends or listening to music. Already there was a contingent of people cheering, handing out drinks. One group was handing out Red Bull which didn't seem like a good idea just before a race.

Finally I made it up the ramp and it was still quite windy right by the water. It's hard to have a lively atmosphere when it's a) dark outside and b) people in nearby buildings are still sleeping so you can't play loud music.

My time slot of 6.30am started on time and with a few blasts of the horn we were off, with a makeshift grandstand waving to us as we ran by. Tons of people passed me and some even sprinting, but I just kept my pace all the way through. I just saw a sea of people in front of me, all the way far into the distance.

For the most part it was quiet except for the sound of people's hands accidentally hitting their paper bibs. Many people started to walk after the 2km and 4km points so I started to pass them. I hadn't prepared for the ramps going up and down, but I just pushed on, keeping my pace throughout. And then past the 7km mark we could see The Excelsior hotel which meant Victoria Park wasn't too far away.

However, towards the end it was annoying having more walkers than runners and having to dodge them to pass -- perhaps there should be some etiquette about walking on the side to let runners go by? There was even an elderly man who brought his bird cage along and swung it wildly! Poor bird!

I wasn't anticipating one last run up a ramp before arriving in Victoria Park. But as they say, what goes up must come down and it was nice to go downhill by the end.

I'm not quite sure of my time so far, but when I saw a guy's watch next to me it said 7.36am. Had I really run 10K in 1:06? I shall find out on Tuesday and let you know.

So far feeling good, legs are a bit like jelly, but a good run overall.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Pointing Fingers

The building where PLA Unit 61398 is located in Shanghai
In late January The New York Times reported that it was hacked, with the computer systems infiltrated and got passwords of reporters' emails, particularly those correspondents based in China.

The news outlet was not the only one -- The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg were targeted.

The Times hired Mandiant to help find the perpetrator and earlier this week the company released its findings.

In a 60-page study, Mandiant identified the People's Liberation Army's Shanghai-based Unit 61398 as the one most likely behind the cyber attacks and even pin pointed the building at the PLA unit's headquarters off Datong Road just outside Shanghai.

While Mandiant would not say for sure the attacks came from that building, there was no other explanation of why there were so many attacks from that small area.

"Either they are coming from inside Unit 61398, or the people who run the most-controlled, most-monitored internet networks in the world are clueless about thousands of people generating attacks from this one neighbourhood," said Kevin Mandia, founder and chief executive of Mandiant.

This is the first time individuals in this group have been tracked, and they are considered to be the most sophisticated of Chinese hacking groups.

Apparently Mandiant was able to watch attacks in progress, seeing the hackers steal technology blue prints, manufacturing processes, clinical trial results, pricing documents, negotiation strategies and other proprietary information. What's shocking is that they were able to get into companies' operational units, and if they wanted, they could actually control the switches if they wished.

We've known for a long time China has been behind cyber attacks, but victims would not identify exactly where in China, either to give the Middle Kingdom some face, or because they really didn't know where the source was.

And every time the Chinese government would deny it was involved, saying the China did not condone cyber attacks.

However the 60-page report outlines most probably where they located and exactly what they extracted from over 100 companies, mostly in the United States.

And this time what do the Chinese say?

"Chinese military forces have never supported any hacking activities," said Geng Yansheng, spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense. "The claim by the Mandiant company that the Chinese military engages in internet espionage has no foundation in fact." He even added China has been a victim of cyber attacks that have originated from the US, and that Mandiant had mischaracterized China's activities.

Hong Lei, spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs echoed Geng, saying cyber attacks were hard to trace because they were "often carried out internationally and are typically done so anonymously."

Excuse me? The report lays out the attacks are coming from China -- from Unit 61398 to be precise. Or is that not factual enough?

And the claim that China is a victim of cyber attacks?

Why not present the evidence to prove this?

The country is known for its weakness in innovation and yet it is sophisticated enough to hack into competitors' computer systems to steal information.

For China though, pride is at stake and will never admit to cyber espionage.

In the meantime we hope this is a serious warning to all companies to step up their security systems and avoid being a victim of Unit 61398.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Finally, A Bo Sighting

We finally have an update of disgraced former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, almost a year after the fiasco of his police chief fleeing to the United States' embassy in Chengdu.

According to a Reuters report, Bo ix refusing to cooperate with a government investigation and has staged hunger strikes in protest. At one point he was even treated in hospital.

Bo is accused of corruption, abuse of power, murder and having relations with several women. However the government still has not set up a time frame for when Bo will be put on trial let alone formally charged him.

The Reuters story says two sources close to the Bo family believe the trial would not be held until after the annual "liang hui" or the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference next month because he is not physically fit.

"He was on hunger strike twice and force fed," said one source. It was not clear how long the hunger strike lasted.

"He was not tortured, but fell ill and was taken to a hospital in Beijing for treatment," the source said.

The second source confirmed Bo was on a hunger strike and added he had refused to shave to protest what he believed was unfair treatment.

"His beard is long, chest-length," the second source said. "He refused to cooperate. He wouldn't answer questions and slammed his fist on the table and he told them they were not qualified to question him and to go away."

Bo's alleged transgressions are the most sensational since the fall of the Gang of Four after Mao Zedong's death in 1976. It seems the current government is unsure of how to deal with such a case and keen to avoid eclipsing Xi Jinping's ascent to presidency.

However the government's inaction in setting up a time frame and following rule of law in formally charging Bo has harmed the authorities' credibility, says Bao Tong, who is currently under house arrest over the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

"It's not normal, too much time has passed," he said, referring to the lack of information about the case.

If the government really was keen on showing the world it followed rule of law, then it would have followed procedure to the letter.

Instead Bo has been held in limbo and he is probably refusing to cooperate because he knows what they are doing (or in this case not doing) is illegal.

While no foreign government can really step in and demand proper legal treatment of Bo, this latest story reveals the maverick we all know well -- the man who won't go down without a fight.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Li Ka-shing Outwits the Government

Cheung Kong's Justin Chiu Kwok-hung sells out Apex Horizon hotel
Leave it to tycoon Li Ka-shing to figure out how to make legal loopholes work for him.

Earlier this week his company Cheung Kong sold all 360 units of the Apex Horizon hotel in Kwai Chung, exposing a loophole allowing a hotel to be sold in parts.

Buyers snapped up the units because they were sold as commercial properties and so they were not subjected to the stamp duty, and for non-local buyers the additional 15 percent.

As a result, units were sold at HK$5,200 ($670) per square foot, compared to over HK$8,000 per square foot in nearby flats.

While the Hong Kong government threatens to take over the site if the land lease regulations were violated, it seems the authorities are powerless to do anything to regulate the sale that is already done and dusted.

"I hope the public understands that the sales involved are not residential units... I have urged the Lands Department to look at how many hotels are eligible for partial sales," said Paul Chan Mo-po, Secretary for Development.

It was not until July 2003 that the government specified in land leases that hotels could only be sold as a whole and not piecemeal. And in this case the Kwai Chung hotel was approved before that date.

Meanwhile the executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Association James Lu Shien-hwai said the hotel's license could be breached if the rooms were occupied by buyers, using it for residential use.

And in order to monitor this, inspectors would have to make daily checks on the identity of each occupant which would be completely unfeasible. 

Cheung Kong executive director Justin Chiu Kwok-hung reminded buyers that the hotel may not allow cooking and that changing furniture would need management approval.

He added the company had spent more than a year studying the land lease and deed of mutual convenant of Apex Horizon as well as the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance on how to manage the property before putting the units up for sale.

It seems most of the buyers are looking at the units as investment or to speculate. Are people that crazy about wanting to park their money somewhere or was it too good of a deal to pass up despite the pending consequences?

We are a bit confused here -- so can buyers live in their own hotel unit? If so it seems they will not be allowed to cook or change the furniture. Or is this like a time share where they allow the hotel company to rent out the room to guests for them?

It appears this is a grey area here that needs to be resolved and the government needs to solve it quickly.

We are quite amused by how the government was caught flat-footed on this incident and that Li has outsmarted everyone yet again.

Though we have to say we are not pleased with how he treats his employees.

We heard today through someone whose friend works for Watson's that for Chinese New Year, Li-owned companies hand out lai see envelopes -- but they have nothing inside -- except for a piece of paper wishing the person a happy new year. And for the annual company dinner, staff are expected to go on stage to perform in a talent show as the firm is too cheap to hire entertainment.

No wonder Li is worth $30 billion according to Forbes...

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Cashless Gamble in Limbo

On Monday we blogged about a casino bar that seemed to have tacit government approval to open in Sanya on Hainan Island.

It was going to operate on the premise that gamblers had to buy points to put wagers and use the accumulated points to pay for accommodation or buy luxury goods including artwork.

However, Jesters is now a dud as the mainland authorities have shut down the project.

"We have shut the entertainment bar," said Chen Guangfa, deputy director of the Sanya Culture and Sports Bureau. We are investigating it and, so far, it looks like they have violated their operating regulations.

"When we approved it, the regulations and the certificate said its operations would be entertainment in nature, but inside the bar there are some games, and they've gone beyond the scope of the regulations, so we closed it down."

She did not say if the activities constituted gambling, pending the outcome of the investigation.

Owner of Jesters at the Mangrove Tree Resort Zhang Baoquan had said that the government was monitoring the concept of a cashless casino. "Our casino bar is the first in the country. The government is monitoring; it's a test," he said.

However, afterward the authorities in Sanya said they never allowed any form of gambling and shut the bar down, pending a probe by local police.

The resort is trying to spin the closure saying it was due to faulty air conditioning. "It has been closed for maintenance," said Belinda Chen, a public relations executive at Mangrove Tree.

So what's the deal? Did Zhang go ahead and open the casino bar with a cashless concept thinking officials would turn a blind eye? Or did they give him the green light but then got nervous when he started publicizing the concept behind Jesters?

Either way we're going to have to wait and see what happens to Zhang and his cashless casino -- depending on how good his guanxi is and whether Sanya officials are trying to look like they're doing their job cracking down on what they may think Communist Party leader Xi Jinping believes are inappropriate activities in light of his anti-corruption drive.

This case is definitely one to watch -- as MGM and Caesars are both looking on with interest. Why open in Sanya when you can't have casinos? Or is this an expensive marketing campaign to entice would-be gamblers to Macau and Las Vegas?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Another Victim of Rent Hikes

Hong Kong -- a beacon of opportunity for success or not?
High rents have claimed another victim in Causeway Bay.

Cheung Kee Grocery Store on 5 Canal Road East will be closing its doors after over 40 years. It sells preserved vegetables, eggs, rice, beans and soy sauce.

The owner who bought the store premises for HK$350,000 in 1975, raked in an almost 400-percent profit when the property was sold for HK$138 million in March last year.

Now the new owner needs a tenant who can pay the HK$150,000 monthly rent.

Cheung Kee Grocery's demise follows that of Lei Yuen Congee Noodles on 539 Lockhart Road, behind the Sogo department store.

The eatery had to close after more than four decades in business because the rent jumped to HK$600,000 a month. How many bowls of noodles and congee can you sell the pay the rent?

Last week my cousin's wife told me she was so sad to see it close -- it was where her parents went on dates before they got married, then took her there as a child, and then a few years ago she took her husband there too.

"All the decor in there is so old," she said with sadness. "Even the cash register is one of those push button ones -- it was there since day one even though it had rust on it."

The closure of so many old school restaurants and shops has shocked Hong Kong people, and made them nostalgic for their childhoods, for losing a piece of their local culture, but at the same time they are resigned to the reality of rising property prices.

It also reveals how complex things have become in the city, how it is practically impossible for a young budding entrepreneur to just have a good idea or the dedication to work hard.

Now the only successful entrepreneurs are the ones who used to be high-powered bankers with lots of capital or those with mummy and daddy bankrolling their ventures.

People used to believe they too could be the next Li Ka-shing, rising from nothing to become a tycoon worth $30 billion.

But nowadays it's practically impossible.

While we have mainlanders to thank for jacking up property prices, we can also blame the Hong Kong government for not fostering small businesses and local industries.

It's an ongoing refrain, but it seems no one is looking out for us little guys -- the ones who actually keep the city ticking.

We love Hong Kong, for all the opportunities and the interesting things we see... but why do others with money and power have to trample all over our dreams?

Monday, 18 February 2013

A Mighty Gamble in Sanya

We are just as curious as the next person to see how a new casino bar in Sanya, Hainan Island will work out.

It's not like casinos in Macau where winners can get huge cash payouts, but where they can win points that they can use to pay for accommodation, luxury goods, jewellery and art work at the resort.

Jesters casino bar is the brainchild of Zhang Baoquan, an art, film and property mogul, who got tacit approval from the government for this new gaming concept.

"Our casino bar is the first in the country. It's a test," Zhang said. "We are not at the stage of legalizing casino gambling, but I believe there is a big possibility that they will."

Zhang's would-be competitors are also ready to pounce as well with MGM Resorts International having opened its hotel in Sanya last year and Caesars Entertainment is set to open its hotel next year.

The casino market is huge in Macau -- making $38 billion in revenues last year, mostly from mainland gamblers. If China allows gambling on the mainland, the impact would be huge.

While Zhang is trying to create an integrated resort similar to those in Las Vegas and Singapore that includes a convention hall, 4,000 rooms and a water park, news reports describe Jesters as having a garish look with a giant roulette wheel on the ceiling and over-the-top chandeliers.

Players have to buy tickets at 500RMB ($80) each, and then make bets from 20RMB to 2,000RMB, while the VIP area is 2,000RMB to 100,000RMB.

When the players win, they can exchange the points for things such as an iPad 3G or a Rimowa suitcase.

Are people going to be interested in this type of gambling?

In a way it takes all the fun out of receiving giant wads of cash, but then again mainlanders would spend it on stuff anyway.

But imagine being forced to spend all the points in the resort -- there's only so many things you can bring home.

Our feeling is that the Chinese government will be watching this casino bar closely to see what happens.

With Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping anxious to crack down on corruption, we get the feeling he will not be endorsing gambling anytime soon, which is why Zhang's venture is so intriguing.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

A Sweet (And Fattening) New Year

Golden-wrapped chocolates that are a favourite during Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is an excuse to eat lots of treats -- but why are many of them western?

For example, when I was a child, we would get lots of round tin boxes of Kjeldsens, and for some strange reason I'd only eat the butter cookie swirls followed by the plain rectangular-shaped ones, but not those sprinkled with sugar or with small hard raisins in them.

And then we'd also get tin boxes of Sugus candies. The packaging has changed now, but way back then they were packaged together in cellophane in the same colour and the blocks were put together in the box. There were red, orange, green, yellow and blue squares. Nowadays purple seems to have replaced green.

Anyone have a reason why Kjeldsens are still popular?
We'd also get the White Rabbit candy, but they weren't so popular. And good luck trying to give them to non-Chinese kids. They would wonder if you could eat the "paper" or rice paper wrapper and would be grossed out when you explained the paper was edible.

Since then Hershey's Kiss has muscled its way into the Chinese New Year candy selection, but perhaps the biggest winner is Ferrero Rocher.

The combination of the packaging and its fantasy advertising and marketing have made it so popular in Hong Kong.

Everyone likes receiving a golden-wrapped candy and it's not too sweet with a hazelnut in there, and many Chinese like nuts. The packaging looks impressive, making them look like jewels in a gold box.

Ferrero Rocher is based in Alba, Piedmont in Italy. And so aside from white truffles, Alba is also famous for making the famous chocolates the Chinese like to give and receive during Chinese New Year -- heck pretty much anytime of the year.

Swiss chocolate maker Lindt has tried to make headway with its colourfully-wrapped chocolates, but it's the gold wrapping from Ferrero Rocher that's winning customers.
Sugus candies are popular during new year festivities

These days I'm surprised to see Kjeldesens is still popular today -- mainlanders were crossing the border to Hong Kong before the new year to snap up as many tins as they could carry back.

Do they think eating fattening Danish butter cookies is the best way to ring in the Year of the Snake? Or perhaps the currency of choice to curry favours with family and friends?

It's also interesting other candy makers haven't seen the benefits of trying to get into the Chinese market specifically for Chinese New Year.

While Hong Kong people love to try the latest things, once they catch on in popularity mainlanders aren't far behind.

And yes, gold packaging does help!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Seven Days to Go

Students decorated these inflated figures for the marathon
There's one more week to go until the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon 2013 and I'll be in it this year running the 10K.

I ran 10K before back in Beijing in 2007 and 2008 so I thought it was time to see if I can still do it. Another big motivator was being able to sign up online back in November as it took me an hour to get into the website with so many people trying to register at the same time.

Collecting running kits for the 10K run next Sunday
And now I'll be running with some 33,000 other people -- in the 10K.

I was instructed to pick up my running kit today at Victoria Park and there was a huge set up there with tents and crowd control barriers to keep queues in line.

There were lots of people there, but participants triaged into the three different races -- 10K, half marathon and marathon. From there the lines went relatively fast with groups of people going to different numbered stations, each with several volunteers putting race kits together.

We got our race bag to put our stuff in the day of the race, along with our T-shirt, bib with the time chips on them, four safety pins, our baggage tag and booklets with information.

This woman is desperately trying to prove her core is in shape
Then we were herded off to the "expo" area where the sponsors had tents, though there wasn't much interesting going on. There were long lines to see how fit people were -- isn't that a bit too late to make that assessment now? And also determine their running style, if they pronated or not. And then on stage were groups of young kids in the cheering team competition to see who were the best cheerleaders.

Off to the side was a giant inflatable "rock" for children to climb and then a bunch of inflated figures each decorated differently. They are part of the "Run for a Reason" Design Campaign. Apparently almost 1,000 students designed 400 of the 1.2m-tall figures to promote perseverance. I never knew a flaming head was a symbol of determination... while I didn't quite understand the one with fiery eyes, I liked the band aids taped on its legs with words of encouragement.

One fiery runner with band aid legs
I also don't get this "Run for a Reason" thing... when I signed up for the race, I was asked to choose my reason for running, and among the options that included for my health, one was for the environment. Why would I run for the environment?

Anyway, inside the booklet there are instructions of how to get to the venue and where our bags will be stored during the race. The records of the winners are also published and it's quite shocking to find a Hong Kong woman completed the 10K in 34 minutes! It's going to take me at least double that!

Nevertheless, there are some promotions from sponsors, like information on Physical, the gym, nutrition bars and how you can get official photographs of reaching the finish line.

But perhaps the most bizarre promotion is from Maxim's, where you can order a cake with the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon 2013 logo with your name and bib number and the race that you ran. And you could get the rectangular cake in either chocolate mousse or mango mousse. And it's HK$168 for a 1lb cake or HK$336 for 2lbs.

This kid checks out the hair of one inflated figurine...
Do I really want to eat a cake after running for my health? I don't think so...

Friday, 15 February 2013

The One To Watch: Conrad Tao

Eighteen-year-old Chinese-American Conrad Tao, pianist and composer
Tonight I went to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall to watch the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra led by new music director Jaap van Zweden.

I'd never seen him before in person so it was surprising to see a man short in stature, but he sure makes up for it in enthusiasm and passion.

He replaced Edo de Waart who'd been at the helm of the orchestra since 2004, so perhaps it was time for a change.

And van Zweden has quickly won the admiration of Hong Kong audiences, who are keen to follow his program.

Jaap van Zweden of the HKPO
Two works were performed tonight -- Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K467 and Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D.

For Mozart, van Zweden introduced a rising star, pianist and composer Conrad Tao to the stage. Only 18, the Chinese-American is a prodigy who gave his first piano recital at four and made his concerto debut four years later.

He's currently studying at Columbia University-Juillard School and studies piano at Juilliard, composition at Yale University.

For van Zweden's inaugural concert in Hong Kong as music director, Tao was commissioned by the orchestra to write Pangu. How much more can this teenager accomplish?

He came out in a black shirt, vest and pants, and when he sat at the piano he revealed some red socks, perhaps as a nod to Chinese New Year. Or were they his good luck socks?

In any event he performed magnificently, with such a delicate touch to the keys almost like a ballet dancer playing the piano with graceful hand movements. He really got into the music, but also technically brilliant at the same time.

He was so good that the audience wouldn't stop clapping even after he'd come out a few times, bowing shyly like he wasn't enjoying the spotlight. However he should -- he deserves it and should absorb the moment for what it is. But perhaps that will come with time.

Eventually he played two encores, the first a mind-blowing Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, followed by Rachmaninoff Prelude in g sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12 Allegro.

After the intermission, van Zweden was back with a very full orchestra added with some players from the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. There were two timpani players, a full percussion group as well as a harpist and more French horns, cellos, double bass, and wind instruments than usual. As a result the sound was full and resonating throughout the room.

The Maestro doesn't like to waste time between movements and actually when Tao was performing, van Zweden didn't even look once at the pianist to see if he was OK or ready. Nevertheless, the audience thoroughly enjoyed Mahler, perhaps thanks to de Waart's keen interest in the composer.

Again there was non-stop clapping, but van Zweden didn't have an encore up his sleeve...

We have to say that while the audience was appreciative of the music, many were not respectful of the musicians. A few mobile phones rang during the performance, and my friend told me a man was burping next to her most of the time. Another heard the man next to her tapping his foot and it angered the man sitting in front of him who turned around to glare at the offender! We heard him speaking Putonghua which explained everything... but still!

In any event we'll be watching out for Conrad Tao. His rising star knows no bounds.

Jaap's Mahler
February 15-16, 8pm
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K467
Mahler Symphony No. 1 in D

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Evening Dim Sum Treat

Steamed vegetables with shrimp dumplings at Tim Ho Wan
My friend YTSL likes to boast how she can get a seat at the Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan practically anytime she wants as it's so close to where she lives in North Point.

I have to admit I was quite envious as I hadn't tried the dim sum there and wasn't about to line up for over an hour in the original Mongkok location.

So when she suggested that we could go tonight since it's Valentine's Day -- and who would dare take their date to such a cheap place -- that we decided to check it out.

These steamed shrimp dumplings were crunchy and meaty
And lo and behold, while it was busy, it wasn't packed and we were able to get a table as soon as we arrived.

The tables are pretty close together to cram in as many diners as possible, so it means pushing tables in and out in order to sit inside the banquette seating against the wall. Everyone's easy going about it, because that's the culture of the restaurant.

You also have to "wash" your own bowls, chopsticks and spoons in case you don't trust the dishwasher. The other day my relatives and I wondered where this tradition came from, but if anyone has an idea of the origins of having to rinse off utensils with hot water or tea, please let me know!

Non-Chinese speakers can get an English menu to tick off which items they want and there are a few interesting observations.

Chicken feet on the left and turnip cake on the right
There is no steamed char siu bun available, only baked ones, and even then they are not the brown-coloured ones, but cream-coloured; there are rice flour rolls and you can get one with a liver filling. Also steamed seasonal vegetables is basically cabbage, which keeps costs down.

We only tried a few things on the menu, but they were all pretty good.

The har gao or steamed shrimp dumplings were great -- not too big, but filled with meaty shrimp with a thin skin. The same goes for the steamed vegetable shrimp dumplings that were excellent -- also with a thin skin that was practically see though.

Chicken feet were delicious. They weren't soggy or limp, but plump and in a sauce that was hardly oily and had peanuts soaking in them.

Another winner was the pan-fried turnip cake. Some may think it had more turnip than diced Chinese sausage, but I quite liked it that way, and again not too oily, with a thin crust on top.

Steamed rice flour rolls with liver in them!
Finally the liver rice flour roll was new for me and had a different texture inside compared to the usual shrimp or char siu.

The glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf looked popular on many tables and I hear the spare ribs are also good.

And the best part of the meal? For five dishes the bill came to HK$103.

It's a cheap and cheerful place, but is it really worthy of a Michelin star?

Tim Ho Wan, the Dim Sum Specialists
Shop B, C & D, Seaview Building
G/F, 2-8 Wharf Road
North Point

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Fact of the Day: A Dearth of Safety Deposit Boxes

Central district is filled with banks like Bank of China and HSBC
Here's an interesting fact -- there is a shortage of safety deposit boxes in some Hong Kong banks.

Apparently the situation is so severe that some financial institutions have stopped taking new customers or put them on a wait list that can take years.

Safety deposit boxes in prime locations like Central and Tsim Sha Tsui have been full for years.

And since space is at such a premium in Hong Kong, there are suggestions banks shouldn't even offer the service of safety deposit boxes since they take up so much room.

"We no longer accept applications for the biggest boxes because the queue is so long," a staff member at China Citic Bank's Central branch said, adding there were more than 100 people on the list.

"My understanding is that some banks have stopped providing safety deposit boxes at their Central branches, so quite a lot of the original customers there have flocked to us."

She said it was unlikely that those who used the large boxes to hold items like property title deeds would want to give up the boxes, she said.

Also, many Hong Kong people like to store valuable items like jewellery in these safety deposit boxes as they don't have space for safes in their own homes.

The annual charges for safety deposit boxes can range from HK$300 to HK$12,000 depending on the location and size, ranging from that of a shoe box to a mini fridge.

Even though there is a long wait list for safety deposit boxes, not many people have gone out to buy their own safes.

Perhaps people want to avoid the possibility of robberies at home and so leaving valuable things in the bank seems to be the best bet... if you can get a box.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Like Father, Like Son

With the death of North Korea's Kim Jong-il last year, we had hoped for signs of warmth and reconciliation with his successor, the young Kim Jong-un.

The new leader gave a few hints of his personality, smiling and waving to the people, hugging soldiers and at times showing off his lady friend, or is that his wife?

And then most recently there were rumours he had plastic surgery to make his facial features more like his grandfather's, the venerable Kim Il-sung.

So we were shocked to hear North Korea confirmed its third nuclear test just before noon today Hong Kong time, as the after effects detected a 4.9 magnitude earthquake in a country that is not prone to quakes.

The official KCNA news agency said the DPRK used a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously" and that the test "did not pose any negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment."

There are concerns that if confirmed, the test proves North Korea has significantly improved on its nuclear capabilities since 2009, and where and how it was able to accrue or develop a weapon of this kind.

Needless to say there has been worldwide condemnation of the test and everyone is looking to China to do something.

While Beijing said it is "resolutely opposed" to the test, the Chinese government called for "all sides to cope with this situation calmly, through talks and negotiations within the framework of the Six Party Talks to solve the problems of denuclearization."

The response was rather pathetic, unless Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping is trying to exert his influence through diplomatic channels.

Chinese state media encouraged the government to punish North Korea and one wonders if Xi will take its advice.

Former President Hu Jintao seemed for the most part to let the DPRK flex its muscles, but we will all be watching to see how Xi handles this hot potato.

Meanwhile we can only guess this test is a way for Kim Jong-un to prove himself as a leader, thought to be only 29 years old and we now know he's a smoker and has a smartphone.

His father used to threaten the region with nuclear war and China would placate him with food aid and money. Kim Jong-il's sabre rattling became more like "cry wolf", though for the most part he did get what he wanted.

We can only imagine Kim Jong-un is using the same tactic, but for what?

In any event, how China and the United States react to this latest test will give us clues on what kind of a leader we're dealing with -- a maverick or a copy of his father.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Genesis of Ping Pong Diplomacy

Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan with the silk painting
The table tennis player who initiated "ping pong diplomacy" between China and the United States has died. Zhuang Zedong was 73.

Back in 1971 during the 31st World Table Tennis Championship held in Nagoya, Japan, American Glenn Cowan had been practicing for 15 minutes with Chinese player Liang Geliang when a Japanese official came and wanted to close the training area.

Cowan looked in vain for his bus, but it had already left so a Chinese player motioned for him to go on the Chinese team bus.

Zhuang ignored warnings from his teammates to interact with the American and came up from his back seat and presented Cowan and silkscreen of the Huangshan Mountains in Hangzhou.

"Although the US government is unfriendly to China, the American people are friends of the Chinese. I give you this to mark the friendship from Chinese people to the American people," Zhuang recalled saying in an interview with Reuters in 2007.

Cowan wanted to give him something in return, but all he could find was his comb.

"I can't give you a comb. I wish I could give you something, but I can't," he said.

Zhuang was a table tennis champion in the 1960s
And when they came out of the bus, the sight of an American athlete with the Chinese got a lot of media attention.

Later Cowan gave Zhuang a T-shirt in red, white and blue with the peace sign and the words "Let It Be" at another chance meeting.

When Chairman Mao saw all the attention Zhuang and Cowan got in the media, he seized on the opportunity to invite the American team to China later that year.

"Zhuang Zedong not only knows good ping-pong, he knows good diplomacy," Mao reportedly said. This later led to US President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972.

At the time Zhuang was a three-time world champion and huge sports star in China in the 1960s.

He later became sports minister in his 30s and appointed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

However, with the death of Mao in 1976 followed by the fall of the Gang of Four, Zhuang was detained and not allowed to play table tennis.

It was not until 1985 did Zhuang emerge from internal exile and returned to Beijing.

Two years later he married a Chinese-born Japanese woman Sasaki Atsuko, and Cowan died in 2004.

It's unfortunate Zhuang was on the wrong side politically and ended up fading into the background.

However he won't be forgotten as the catalyst in bringing the two countries together, to put aside their differences and begin a diplomatic dialogue that continues to this day.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

New Year's Eve Madness

Packed to the gills at the entrance of Victoria Park's Chinese New Year fair
While the Year of the Snake is upon us, I followed a few traditions leading up to the New Year.

These toys were very popular and were sold out at this stall
Yesterday I cleaned up my flat, vacuuming and mopping the floor as well as cleaned all my clothes. I also put up fai chun or festive couplets om my door and of course got the requisite lai see ready to hand out to people, typically the staff who open the door in my apartment building and the cleaning staff at the gym I see regularly.

And since I hadn't been for many years, I thought it would be fun to check out the Chinese New Year fair at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay.

I went after dinner and the buses dropped us off way before Sogo department store which meant an extra 10 minutes' walk to get there. Closer to Victoria Park there were police everywhere, directing traffic, both cars and pedestrians, and even a few first aid stations, though those were hardly busy.
Politician Audrey Eu and her calligraphy

And once I got into the park, it was completely packed with people, and you basically could only go in one direction; going against the flow was not recommended.

It really did have a carnival-like atmosphere even though we were practically pushed forward by people behind us. Stalls were selling all kinds of things you don't need, but since many are superstitious and believe you should buy something new for the new year, many were tempted into parting with their money.

Some include giant stuffed yellow balls that were supposed to be fish balls with various facial expressions, giant stuffed rabbits and bears that would probably make good hugging companions for bedtime, or boxer shorts with snakes on them. Apparently snakes curled up and placed on one's head like a hat were popular, but I didn't see many people wearing those.

Leung Chun-ying's name upside down with his devilish face
There were also more traditional Chinese things to buy such as pinwheels to bring in fortune, or politicians showing off their calligraphy skills by writing fai chun for a small donation to their political party. We are impressed by the Civic Party's Audrey Eu Yuet-mei's calligraphy skills who held her brush at the top, making it more difficult to control, but she did a great job writing "wishing you good health" (身体健康).

She had admitted in an interview before that when she became a politician she didn't expect to have to do calligraphy, but she took lessons and actually enjoyed it very much. So that's come in handy as she didn't mind sitting outside writing almost non stop for only HK$20 per couplet.

Other political parties took the opportunity to slam Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in front of a large audience. They handed out what was supposed to be the word "fortune" upside down in red pieces of paper, but in fact it was the word "Leung" upside down and then below it a devilish looking CE.

Still many orchids for sale at the flower stalls
The flower stalls were very fragrant thanks to the narcissus that were already in bloom thanks to the warm temperatures we'd had for the past several days. Flower sellers were having a hard time selling these plants off because people don't want to buy ones that have already bloomed.

Nevertheless, orchids were very popular, and even though I'd visited the fair after 9pm, there were still tons of plants and flowers still not snapped up.

They were also selling this orange plant called solanum mammosum, which is supposed to be auspicious during Chinese New Year. You couldn't help but take a picture of the impressive tower at one stall.

A giant tower of solanum mammosum like gold
And what's a fair without food? Lots of Chinese snacks were for sale, including candied fruit on a stick as well as waffles, fresh sugar cane drinks and more western treats like candy floss and popcorn.

I only went through about one-third of the fair, but had a good taste of what was going on. It was fun to check it out and soak in the lively atmosphere.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Picture of the Day: New Year Flowers

Here's wishing everyone a Happy New Year and all the best in the Year of the Snake!


Friday, 8 February 2013

All-Star Lineup for Spring

The elaborate CCTV Spring Festival Gala is the most-watched show in China
The Spring Festival television programming in China is going to be very entertaining this year.

China Central Television will have Canadian singer Celine Dion belting out My Heart Will Go On from the 1997 -- 15 years ago -- Hollywood blockbuster Titanic.

The lineup will also probably include Mark Roswell known as Da Shan, who entertains the crowd as the laowai who can perform crosstalk, while pianist Lang Lang ma make an appearance tinkling the ivories.

Canadian Celine Dion will be performing on CCTV...
While CCTV's 2013 Spring Festival Gala is the most-watched show in the mainland every year, provincial-level broadcasters are upping the ante with their own star lineup.

For example Anhui Satellite TV will feature a performance by British singer and actress Sarah Brightman, and Shanghai-based Dragon TV has South Korean phenom Park Jae-sang or Psy to perform Gangnam Style.

As to whether he was really paid 3 million RMB ($481,140) to perform is not confirmed, but apparently that was what Psy was demanding for a 30-minute show.

Originally there were talks that he would appear on CCTV, but there was an uproar about a state broadcaster spending so much money on a foreign singer while thousands of rural children were starving. In the end both CCTV and Psy's representatives denied an agreement was reached.

So it'll be interesting to see how these foreign singers add or detract from the kitchy Chineseness of the Spring Festival shows.

... and Psy doing Gangnam Style on Shanghai's Dragon TV
The Chinese aren't sitting around the sofa rapt in attention watching the show; rather the television is on in the background and they periodically glance to see what's going on.

"For most Chinese people, it is an ingrained tradition to watch the CCTV gala on the eve of the Lunar New Year, even though the performances may not be that appealing," said professor Zhang Yifu, deputy director of Peking University's cultural research centre.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

No More Gift Ideas

There's fewer ads for gifts like Wuliangye on radio and TV
With Chinese New Year around the corner, it's not only a time to get together with family, but to also curry favour with bosses and officials.

The best way to do it? To shower them with gifts.

Cigarettes used to be the norm, but later moved onto baijiu, the fiery colourless liquor made from grain.

But everyone's doing that now, so much so that people on the receiving end sell the cartons of cigarettes and bottles of baijiu cheaply which are in turn sold at no-name corner stores.

So how do you make your gift stand out from the crowd?

It's got to be luxury branded watches, jewellery, handbags and man bags, gold coins and perhaps even rare stamps.

However, it's going to be harder to be swayed by advertising in magazines and billboards because the Chinese government is now banning radio and television stations from broadcasting ads for expensive gifts.

Such adverts "publicized incorrect values and help create a bad social ethos," said the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).

The ban follows Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping's call to strengthen the fight against corruption.

Supposedly big brands have already bought their air time for commercial slots to be aired now, so what does this mean? Can they get their money back?

Companies like baijiu maker Wuliangye Yibin routinely dominate the annual auction for advertising slots on China Central Television.

Already these baijiu producers are taking a hit after the government decreed the ban of alcohol at official military events. A bottle of the liquor can cost thousands of renminbi.

And now high-end jewellers and watchmakers are also seeing a drop in sales.

It will be particularly telling if this decree continues well after Spring Festival is over; if not, it's just a temporary warning and excessive consumption may resume.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Hardly Shuttering Black Jails

We are pleased to see 10 people were sentenced to prison for illegally detaining petitioners in a "black jail", the first we've heard of the legal system admitting the existence of these thugs.

When mainland Chinese feel wronged and believe local officials will not help or are part of the problem, the petitioners will come to Beijing in hopes of getting the attention of the central government. This practice dates back to imperial times when ordinary people could make their pleas heard by emperors by sending their petitions to the court.

However, local officials' promotions are tied to job performances and don't want blemishes on their records, which is why they hire thugs to prevent petitioners from pleading their cases. They catch them either on their way to the capital or already there and detain them in places called "black jails", a location that could be rooms in a hotel to an empty farmhouse in the outskirts of the city. The petitioners can be kept for a indefinite period of time and in some cases are badly beaten.

In yesterday's court ruling in Beijing, the 10 defendants were from Henan province, peasants aged 17 to 32, were handed sentences ranging from six months to two years for illegally detaining petitioners last year.

According to a Xinhua report, the men intercepted four petitioners on the night of April 28 where they forcefully drove them to a rented house. They were kept overnight and then sent back to Henan.

The petitioners then went back to Beijing again and reported the case to the police who then arrested the defendants on May 2.

Xinhua said the main defendant Wang Gaowei rented two houses on the outskirts of Beijing to detain petitioners from Henan. The report added the defendants were hired by a man called Fu Zhaoxin.

According to Southern Metropolis Daily, Fu was Wang's uncle and was responsible for hiring the men in the village, most of whom were from impoverished families.

Wang's father was quoted as saying his son was asked by the Yuzhou city officials to work in Beijing. "[They] said they found him a good job."

In the end Fu was not arrested nor charged for being the mastermind behind detaining the petitioners which made them outraged.

"The verdict said they had nothing to do with the local government, how can this be?" asked Jia Qiuxia, one of the petitioners.

The four petitioners were given compensation of 2,400 RMB ($385) each, but three of them said it was not enough to cover the injuries and mental anguish they suffered when they were beaten by the guards.

Jia added he did not think the illegal detention of petitioners would end despite the verdict in the court case.

"We still hear about other people being taken away."

While the court case may cause officials to think twice about detaining people illegally, the practice will probably continue since the official who hired the thugs in the first place wasn't charged at all. And it sounds like the people hired to detain petitioners don't necessarily know what they are getting themselves into as they just want to have a decent paying job.

This is just another of Beijing's ways of looking like it's dealing with the problem, but not really. If it earnestly wanted to end "black jails" and the micro economy around them, the government would have stepped in.

But this case shows the central government's inability to resolve the need to push for further legal reforms and more checks and balances in every level of government.

Freedom of the press and rule of law would have put an end to this illegal practice a long time ago, but as long as the Communist Party is in power, these two things will never change.

And so it goes...

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Henry Tang Collection up for Grabs

Tang's bottles are in pristine condition
Breaking news folks -- former financial secretary and chief secretary and failed chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen is putting part of his wine collection up for auction.

Christie's made the announcement today, calling it "The Henry Tang Collection" that will be sold over two days on March 15 and 16.

He told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the sale was for him to cull his collection and that he only had time to do this now, and boasted that the thousands of bottles up for grabs were "only a very small portion of my vast collection of wine," he was quoted as saying.

Tang even added the whole of his collection, housed in cellars around the world, could not be consumed over "multiple lifetimes", he said.

"I realized I have far too much wine, and I would never be able to consume it in a lifetime," he said of his collection in a Christie's news release. "So I have decided to present a selection of wines from my collection at auction, and provide wine lovers around the world with the opportunity to purchase great bottles and enjoy the journey. After all, the best wines are those shared."

The Christie's sale is divided into 810 lots, estimated in excess of HK$29 million.

According to the auction house, Tang's love of wine began over 30 years ago and he "spent half his life visiting vineyards all over the world and searching for ideal bottles. One of Tang's earliest and greatest loves is Burgundy and he has traveled back to the revered region many times in the past decade."

Will Burgundy fans come out to buy?
We wonder though, who in Hong Kong will buy these wines?

Granted he did amass an amazing collection, but it is tainted with his scandal of allegedly building an illegal basement in his Kowloon Tong home to house his thousands of wine bottles, along with a tasting room, fitness room and cinema.

In the end he had to fill the entire basement with cement, which is estimated to have taken 730 cubic metres of cement to fill, and as only five trucks could only access the site per day, it took up to two weeks and cost HK$300,000.

He even had the gall to blame the whole fiasco on his wife, who dutifully stood by his side and wept.

We are irked with his arrogant remark of having amassed so much wine that he can't even finish drinking it in a lifetime. When he was financial secretary, Tang halved the excise duty on wine to 40 percent in 2007, and the following year when he became chief secretary, Tang's successor John Tsang Chun-wah abolished the tax.

This explains why Tang went back and forth to Burgundy for about a decade, snapping up even more bottles of his favourite wines.

Still, we are curious as to why Tang is selling a fraction of his wine collection. It's not because he needs the money, or did he make a deal with his wife to sell some bottles so she could get some sparkling baubles as a reward for taking the political hit?

We'll be watching.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Shining the Spotlight on Domestic Abuse

Crazy English founder Li Yang and his now ex-wife American Kim Lee
An interesting divorce case has settled in Beijing with the court ordering the Chinese husband to give his American wife 12 million RMB ($1.93 million) in assets due to domestic violence. She also gets 50,000 RMB for the mental anguish she suffered during the abusive marriage, and he must also pay 100,000 RMB annually for each of his three daughters, who will be raised by their mother.

The case emerged in August 2011 when Kim Lee posted pictures on her microblog of bruises she sustained when Li Yang hit her.

"You knocked me to the floor. You sat on my back. You choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor," she wrote. She added that he only stopped after one of the daughters intervened.

A week later Li apologized to his wife and children, saying "This has caused them serious physical and mental damage."

Lee posted pictures of the bruises from domestic abuse
She filed for divorce in October. Li is the founder of Crazy English, an unorthodox learning program where students focus more on learning English orally, practically shouting slogans to gain more confidence in speaking the language.

The divorce proceedings lasted for more than a year and it shone a spotlight on domestic abuse. According to the All China Women's Federation in 2009, one-third of Chinese homes have seen domestic abuse, with 85 percent of them directed against women. The survey added most of the violence was in the rural areas, where many women expect to be hit by their husbands.

What's particularly interesting about this case is there is a foreigner involved. Lee, originally from Florida, met Li in the northern city of Jilin in June 1999 and in 2003 they tied the knot in Las Vegas.

He founded Crazy English in 1994 which was initially a hit and garnered thousands of fans who gathered in stadiums to shouting out slogans together, including "Conquer English to make China Stronger!"

But in recent years the fad waned and in particular after the allegations of wife beating, many called for a boycott of Li's programs, or were extremely disappointed their idol was accused of domestic abuse.

Li encourages a massive crowd of students to shout in English
Outside the court after the ruling, Lee was overjoyed to tears and urged mainland women to stand up for their rights. She said the divorce was "unpleasant", but said she would not stop Li from visiting the girls. "If he wishes, I can arrange for people to pick up the girls," she said.

During the legal proceedings, the court found Li had abused Lee many times, and especially the 2011 incident constituted domestic violence under Chinese martial laws and so she was awarded 50,000 RMB.

To decide who the children would live with, the judge consulted with the eldest daughter, 10-year-old Li Li who said she would prefer living with their mother. The two other daughters are six and four.

The 12 million RMB must be paid through asset division in the next three months. Lee told the court Li owned more than 20 properties in Guangzhou and Beijing, and had bank savings, stocks in five companies and owned 23 registered trademarks.

This case was very straight forward for the court to rule on, with so much evidence available, and because a foreigner and a high profile person were involved, rule of law had to be followed to the letter.

If this had been a mainland Chinese woman who went through the same thing, would she have gotten the same ruling?

We hope this case will give more women the courage to stand up and speak out when their husband hits them.

And we also hope that with the growing deficit of girls compared to boys in China, that in the future men will treat women better because only the lucky ones will have a mate.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Ralph Lauren's Fashion Statement

The Ralph Lauren flagship store will occupy two floors of Landmark Prince's
The renovations on the Ralph Lauren flagship store in Landmark Prince's are still not done after perhaps over half a year. The boutique is taking over the spot Max Mara occupied before moving into its flagship store in St George's Building.

In any event I saw a documentary about the designer on Bloomberg television, replayed from last October.

He had humble beginnings born as Ralph Lishitz to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Poland. When he was growing up he watched actors like Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. He loved their fashion sense in the movies and their classic look is what Lauren aimed for in his clothes.

It was in college when he began selling ties to fellow students and he later had his own designs that he presented to the CEO of Bloomingdales, the late Marvin Traub.

As Traub remembered before he passed away last July, the tie buyer looked at the tie collection and told Lauren he liked them, but would only take them if he put the Bloomingdales label on the back of the ties.

This was Lauren's big break -- a large order from Bloomingdales -- but the young man shut his sample case and said sorry, can't do it.

A few months later Traub contacted Lauren again because he still liked the ties and agreed they could have Lauren's label on them instead.

The ties took off and then Lauren had the gusto to tell Traub he was going to design a menswear collection. He told Charlie Rose in an interview that the clothes one wanted to buy that Cary Grant wore you could not buy. "The things I made you could not buy.. you couldn't find it. And the fact that he designed all the clothes for the 1974 film The Great Gatsby propelled Lauren to greater stardom.

It was only natural for Lauren to design for women as well, and again because very successful after Annie Hall came out in 1977, dressing Diane Keaton in what looked like effortless chic.

Lauren began starring in his own advertisements as well, and why not? He embodied what the Ralph Lauren person should look like. He wore his own clothes and so he was the one others wanted to emulate.

And of course his polo shirts with the polo rider on the horse as the logo were Lauren's bread and butter, with everyone wanting to wear this piece of clothing as a sign of having a superior status. For Lauren polo was the epitome of the kind of environment, atmosphere and association he wanted with his brand.

Traub later allowed Lauren to open his own shop within Bloomingdales, the first one to do so.

In keeping with the upper crust look, Lauren bought the Rhinelander Mansion on Madison Avenue. It was the former home of photographer Edgar de Evia and Robert Denning and Lauren transformed it into his first flagship store spending $30 million in 1986. Now the designer had become a retailer which was a new experience for him.

Traub remembers how he and his wife attended the 2pm opening and he asked Lauren how he was doing. He said he was doing OK. Traub said, "You're a retailer, you can ring off the cash register now. And the manager came back and said, we have $41,000."

"'Is that good?'" Traub remembers Lauren asking him. The Bloomingdales chief said it was.

Then he returned to his office and around 5.30pm Traub got a phone call from Lauren. "'Marvin we have $101,000 in. How's that?' and I said that's terrific. This was Ralph learning to be a retailer," Traub recalled.

However in 1987 Lauren was diagnosed with a brain tumour and at the end of his fashion show, one person remarked that they saw tears in his eyes when he came out onto the catwalk. Only a handful of people knew he was ill at the time. However when word got out, there was fear about the fate of not on the designer but also the brand.

Luckily the tumour was benign, but Lauren took that as a sign to be more relaxed, but also to live in the moment. He told Bloomberg that when he came out of the hospital, one of the first few places he visited was Central Park. He said he saw some men running in the park, sweating, and he thought he wanted to do the same too.

A few months later he was back at work and soon just as productive, if not even more. Along the way he had production, distribution and logistics issues, but Lauren was wise enough to hire experts to help him sort out the kinks.

Lauren is now 73 and doesn't seem to be slowing down much. He and his wife Ricky have three sons, the eldest Andrew, a film producer, the second, David is in his father's business and married Lauren Bush in 2011. So that makes her Mrs Lauren Lauren... huh.

The youngest, Dylan owns Dylan's Candy Bar that claims to be the biggest candy store in the world, in New York City.

We like Lauren because of his unrelenting pursuit in realizing his vision, his attention to detail and his aspiration becoming his customers' aspiration.

And no doubt once the flagship store opens in Hong Kong, we'll probably see the man himself open the door to customers who want to be a part of his world.