Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Tributary Gifts

The granddaddy who started the gift-giving trend: Stanley Ho
In imperial times, diplomatic missions and those seeking trade with China would come bearing gifts in the hopes of currying favour with the emperor. And the tradition continues to today.

And these days it can't just be frivolous presents -- they have to have deep patriotic meaning.

Casino tycoon Stanley Ho started it in 2009 when he paid $8.9 million for a bronze horse's head that was one of 12 animals in the zodiac that was supposed to be part of a water clock fountain in Yuanmingyuan, or the Summer Palace.

He preempted the Sotheby's auction of the head, that was previously owned by a Taiwanese collector and announced he was donating it to China. Ho also bought the head of the boar in a private sale and gave that to Beijing's Poly museum, which also has the head of the monkey and the ox.
Steve Wynn's gift of four 18th century vases at Wynn Macau

And then two years ago Steve Wynn followed suit with four massive 18th century porcelain vases worth $12.8 million at a Christie's auction in London. The vases will be displayed in his new Cotai resort hotel that is slated to open in a few years, but are now on show at the lobby of Wynn Macau.

He also snapped up a Chinoiserie tapestry at the sale.

"We are delighted to return works of this extraordinary quality to the city of Macau and the People's Republic of China," said Roger Thomas, executive vice president of design for Wynn Design and Development. Thomas is the main designer of all Wynn's resorts and did the actual telephone bidding for the vases.

However, both tycoons are trumped a few days ago by French billionaire Francois Pinault's donation of two more bronze animal heads that were supposedly worth $40 million in a Christie's auction in 2009.

Pinault's family runs soon-to-be-called Kering, formerly PPR that owns such luxury brands as Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Balanciaga, Saint Laurent Paris, Boucheron, Bottega Veneta and now Pomellato.

The rabbit and rat heads were previously owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge.

After Saint Laurent's death, Berge put the heads up for auction which roused controversy in China. The winning bidder was Cai Mingchao, a known Chinese collector, but refused to pay the winning bid of 15.6 million euros (about $20 million) each.

The controversial rabbit and rat heads from the Pinault family
Because Cai refused to pay, Berge was allowed to take the heads back and at the time the Frenchman declared in an interview that if China was going to exercise human rights, give Tibetans their freedom and allow the Dalai Lama back to the country, he would gladly give the heads back, but China scoffed the offer.

And then now, somehow, Pinault managed to retrieve the heads from Berge but there is no word on how much the billionaire paid him, or what kind of deal was struck.

"The family went to great efforts to retrieve these two significant treasures of China and strongly believe they belong in their rightful home," the Pinault family office said in an email statement. "The family would like to acknowledge Christie's role in facilitating this return."

Christie's is owned by Pinault's father Francois's company, Artemis SA.

China of course was none too pleased. "The Chinese side offers its high praise for this action and considers that it conforms with the spirit of relevant international cultural heritage protection treaties," said a statement on the State Administration of Cultural Heritage website.

The end result? Kering's first quarter revenue was up 3 percent to 2.4 billion euros. Luxury goods was up 6 percent with those in China up 10 percent.

We shall see how well this gift serves Pinault and Kering in the future considering luxury spending is dropping drastically in the start of the second quarter...

Monday, 29 April 2013

Clean Sweep

If officials with new brooms isn't a publicity stunt, what is it?
We cannot help but be amused by the publicity stunt by senior Hong Kong officials wanting to demonstrate they are serious about cleaning up the city.

The government just finished its three-day clean-up campaign called "Hong Kong: Our Home", where they wore white polo shirts with the Hong Kong logo on it, donned black rubber gloves and new rags to clean up parts of the city.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor cleaned the railings at the Tai Po wet market and then wandered around the stalls, handing out packets of cleaning materials, such as wet wipes and tissues, and told vendors to keep their stalls clean, particularly the ones handling poultry.

However, they were more concerned about how the government was going to help them financially because since H7N9 broke out, sales of chickens have plunged and they are running at a loss. She didn't have any answers for that.

Secretary for Financial Services & Treasury Prof KC Chan cleans up
And then yesterday Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made a surprise appearance and got down and dirty in Shek Tong Tsui market with Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung. They wiped down a recyclables collection box to raise awareness of hygiene.

"This is not a political show," Leung said. "It is for the need to raise public awareness of keeping clean, in line with what the government is doing to prevent any outbreak of bird flu."

But apparently they weren't really cleaning it -- a team of government cleaners had already gone through the market's bins, seats and staircase railings.

One can only shake their head and wonder when the Hong Kong government is going to earnestly tackle serious issues when even cleaning a garbage bin is all for show...

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Shenzhen Observations

A long row of tall  office buildings along Shennan Boulevard
I just got back from Shenzhen after spending under 24 hours there. This is the second time I've gone in two months and have to say I'm impressed by how the city centre has developed into a sophisticated area with a massive convention centre to hold fairs and is surrounded by five-star hotels such as The Ritz-Carlton and The Four Seasons opening soon.

However, city planning is much like any other large Chinese city -- huge multi-lane roads that are lined with skyscrapers, making it near impossible to cross the street thanks to the scarcity of pedestrian flyovers.

Can see the small guy above the diamond mowing the lawn?
We had to feel for the poor guy this morning who had to mow the lawn with with a hand-pushed lawnmower covering a large patch of grass in the middle of the giant road, while others had to prune the geometric-shaped bushes. One wonders if they played straws or head or tails to see who had to mow the grass.

Does this pair of lions look familiar to you?
There are a few other observations that are Hong Kong related, such as the China Merchants Bank near my hotel. Curiously the bank's entrance had a pair of western lions that seem to look very similar to the bronze ones in front of the HSBC headquarters in Central, but much, much bigger.

And then there's this sign albeit in green, but has a striking resemblance to Hong Kong's MTR sign, except for the extra line down the middle?

China's metro didn't have a logo before...
But I have to say traveling to Shenzhen via Lok Ma Chau is quite fast, efficient and the building is very modern and barring a few awkward directions for people to go, it works. Going through the Chinese passport control section took less than 10 minutes yesterday and mere minutes today. Or maybe because it's just before the three-day May holiday?

Friday, 26 April 2013

Pictures of the Day: View From the Asia Society Hong Kong Center

The view at dusk catching the last of the sunset
Just after 8pm while the nightly laser light show is on
The other day when I went to the Asia Society to listen to a talk by Micheal Meyer, I took the liberty of taking some pictures at dusk and then at night. The Asia Society building is located above Pacific Place in the former Explosives Magazine Compound that was built by the British army in the mid-19th century to prepare and store explosives.

Above from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Hall, there's the Joseph Lau Roof Garden where visitors can take in the view of the city amongst the greenery which is rare in the city unless you go all the way up to the Peak.

The only pity is that only visitors who have tickets to events at the Asia Society can enter this area making it very restricted. We hope the society will consider opening the area up to the general public so that not only can they learn more about and appreciate the heritage restoration of this building, but also get a chance to see the neat view.

Frustration Building

A large crowd gathered at Cheung Kong Center a few days ago, again today
The striking dock workers in Hong Kong are well into their fourth week and are camping out at tycoon Li Ka-shing's Cheung Kong headquarters, which is across the road from my gym.

Tonight as I left the gym, I heard loud shouts outside and when I got closer I saw a large crowd of some 250 people along the far west lane of Garden Road as they were cordoned off by scores of police linking arms with each other.

Further up the street were many more police ready to be mobilized if necessary and some ran down the hill upon orders. They tried to appeal to the protesters with bullhorns but it was useless, though the people were not rowdy; they weren't interested in listening to the police.

Instead they chanted, "Open the door!" because this afternoon Cheung Kong won an interim injunction to prevent protesters from entering the building. Earlier in the week the protesters went to the seventh floor and had a sit-in.

Li's other company Hutchison Whampoa also hit back at protesters today with its own PR campaign in this brewing war of words.

The company accused unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, the Confederation of Trade Unions and Union of Hong Kong Dock Workers of launching personal attacks on its chairman, Li, even alluding to the Cultural Revolution in creating a "class struggle".

"Lee and the CTU have been using different excuses to escalate their action. They uphold the banner of 'class struggle', twist the facts and make low and venomous insults," it said in a full-page ad in Chinese newspapers.

It said the unions' demand on a 23 percent pay increase was "extremely unreasonable" and added, "Their aim is to instigate hatred for the rich. They encourage verbal abuse to hurt and demonize Mr Li Ka-shing. They have no real intention to resolve the dispute and only mean to create trouble."

Let's see here... the average dock worker makes about HK$20,000 ($2,576) a month, about one-third of what their colleagues in Australia make and have better working hours. And Li has a net worth of $31 billion according to Forbes, making him the 8th richest man on the planet (number one in Hong Kong).

The dock jobs have been subcontracted out so many times that Li has actually been skimming off from these workers for many years. They are only asking for what they deserve plus inflation.

And so tonight after the protesters were legally kicked out of Cheung Kong, the dock workers staged an impromptu protest march tonight and they will surely continue their fight for decent pay in the days and weeks to come.

Perhaps the sad thing is that even though tonight there were people of all ages there, including many young people, the dock workers' cause is not getting the rest of the population's support to get more leverage out of Li.

The public doesn't really understand what dock workers do or sympathize with their plight. But these people play an important role in keeping Hong Kong's import/export industry flourishing, moving hundreds of thousands of containers everyday on and off ships.

Li is probably fine with waiting out the strike -- he's probably saving more money by hiring even cheaper scabs.

Which is why the protesters really need to appeal to the public's discontent with Li (recruit Elsie Tu?) and channel that energy into a massive protest that stops the city, like the one on July 1, 2003. Only then will business leaders and the government really pay attention and try to resolve the issue.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Raising a Murderous Generation?

An interesting study was reported on yesterday claiming that Hong Kong
parents were producing a generation of spoilt brats who overestimated their
abilities and may even resort to aggression to get ahead.

Annis Fung, associate professor in the department of applied social
studies, said Hong Kong children rated themselves a lot more higher than
those in the west -- so much so that they were at risk of developing
disorders that could turn them into violent offenders.

"The city is at high risk as it is producing spoiled children who are
overconfident about themselves," Fung said.

In her study she tested 9,400 students with an average age of 11 and used
an anti-social process screening device (APSD) -- a questionnaire that
detects antisocial traits.

The average level of narcissism displayed in youngsters here was 3.89 on a
14-point scale -- higher than the 2.9 for children in the United States and
2.81 in Australia.

The test measures children's self-regard and their views of the outside
world, as well as their means of achieving their desires.

Fung was worried because 16 percent of Hong Kong children displayed signs
they were aggressors or tended to bully, while similar studies in the US
showed about 10 percent of students had such a tendency. This category of
children had an APSD score of 6.23, similar to that of adolescent criminals
in the US and Canada.

"Action must be taken. We don't want murders," she said, adding such
children may try to achieve their goals without thinking of the

She added this study was the first of its kind in Hong Kong.

Registered social worker Cecilia Ng Kam-kuen said Hong Kong's outcome-based
education system encouraged children to be more selfish and "only look at
the results". Such a culture is likely to influence children and make them
more self-centered.

"Parents are giving too many things to their kids, making them feel good
about themselves," Fung said. "Such monster parents overprotect and make
children narcissistic. This can be potentially dangerous."

We are very interested in Fung's study, but she sounds quite alarmist.
While it is true the younger generation seem to be more self-centered and
narcissistic, we wouldn't come to the conclusion they would become murderers.

They may think of mischievous ways to get what they want, but there
are enough checks and balances, from parents and teachers, to school
systems, and society in general that will put enough boundaries and
instruction that these kids will quickly figure out what is right and

The crime rate here is low relatives to other countries, let alone
murder, so for Fung to come to this kind of conclusion is far fetched,
though numerically or statistically that's what the results infer.

We agree parents should not overcompensate with material things for
working long hours and instead try to spend as much quality time as
possible with their children. It's building these relationships over
time that count the most
and help guide a child in establishing his or her values.

What's interesting is Hong Kong children's overestimation of their
abilities which can also lead to extreme disappointment because they cannot
necessarily get what they want or what they expect to achieve which
can either result in them becoming extremely depressed, or thinking of
alternatives which may or may not be legal.

In any event we hope this study will make parents think more about
their child-rearing practices and if they are devoting enough time to
their brood. After all, children are the biggest investment parents
can make, and they better make sure it pays off in the end.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Lessons Learned?

In Hong Kong we are watching the updates on the rescue efforts in Sichuan are going with almost 200 dead so far and scores injured.

It's frustrating to see and read news reports of how the roads are blocked, and China doesn't have suitable helicopters to carry heavy loads -- the ones they have are more for military use.

And then there are other stories of how some buildings that were rebuilt after the May 2008 earthquake were destroyed again and found to be built with shoddy materials.

Meanwhile residents in remote areas are complaining they still have not received any aid in the past four days and are fast running out of food and supplies.

Has the Chinese government not learned anything from the disaster almost five years on?

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has pledged the city will donate HK$100 million but pro-democracy lawmakers have vetoed the plan on the grounds that most of the HK$10 billion donation in 2008 was frittered away by Sichuan government officials and fear the same will happen again.

They would rather the money go directly to charity groups, but perhaps for diplomacy reasons Leung would like to donate to the government. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor hoped the issue would not affect relations between Hong Kong and the mainland and hinted the pro-democracy camp was making a mountain of a molehill. She chided them for wanting some kind of accountability, saying the Sichuan government was not going to set up a special monitoring system just for the Hong Kong donation.

For the government it's a political gesture, but for those concerned, it's trying to make sure the money goes to the right place.

And they have every right to question where donations are going after the Chinese Red Cross had its reputation tarnished in 2011 when it was discovered a young woman who called herself Guo Mei posted online photos of herself with luxury handbags including Hermes. She claimed to be general manager of the China Red Cross commerce department.

There were also revelations that Red Cross officials held an extravagant banquet costing 10,000 RMB. As a result donations to the charity were down 60 percent that year.

The caution this time around will hit China hard, but in particular its victims.

One can't help but wonder if the Chinese government learned from what happened in 2008 and tried to come up with some better rescue strategies and protocol. Premier Li Keqiang continued Wen Jiabao's style of meeting victims and supposedly directing rescuers to save whoever they can -- and why would they not? Saying the obvious seems so redundant when more could be done with logistics.

We know Sichuan is prone to earthquakes, so the local and central governments should have had more supplies and perhaps more emergency stations in place. They should know where all the remote areas are and figure out the best ways to reach them because time is of the essence.

Relative to five years ago, the number of casualties is much smaller, but really the government should have had better emergency plans in place after 2008.

Everyone is going to be scrutinizing the local and central governments even more now and so they better be on their best behaviour...

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Documenting Beijing's Disappearing Hutongs

Author Michael Meyer next to the word "chai" which means "destroy"
Tonight the Asia Society hosted author and journalist Michael Meyer to give a talk about his book, The Last Days of Old Beijing.

In one hour he gave a quick but concise encapsulation of how he got to China, and why he wrote a book about Beijing's hutongs or alleyways that are fast disappearing.

He's obviously given this talk many times before, but he doesn't bore of it -- and instead he injects a lot of life and detail that makes his experiences easy to relate to.

In 1995, Meyer joined the Peace Corps and being a Spanish teacher, he expected to be posted to a Latin American country. Instead they suggested a whole bunch of other countries and places, including Vladiovostok, but he rejected them all.

Eventually they told him it was China or nothing and added this was not Club Med, but the Peace Corps. So he accepted and in three weeks got rid of his apartment, car and other worldly possessions and moved to Sichuan for two years.

He admits he didn't have much to do there but since he was tall he was asked to play basketball for the college he was at and they apparently won every single game because he was the point guard. He also taught English and learned Chinese.

In 1997 he moved to Beijing and discovered 25 percent of the capital was supposedly under protection. But he later discovered these included places like Zhongnanhai, where the senior leaders live, Jingshan Park, across from the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. Basically these were not places people actually lived in.

And he started noticing neighbourhoods, ones he enjoyed wandering around in, were being demolished, and thought he should write a book about it. This was in 2005. So he thought the best way to research the book was to actually live in a hutong.

Meyer found a place in Dazhalan or Dashilar in colloquial Beijing accent, and he details all the hurdles (including humorous ones) he went through to not only find a place that was yet to be demolished, but also get the neighbourhood police to agree to a laowai or foreigner -- the first one -- to live in a hutong.

What's also interesting that Meyer points out is that where he lived could be traced back to maps from 1757. And he is quick to also say that living in a hutong is not a romantic experience at all. That's because hutongs are small courtyard houses, there is hardly any privacy, but more importantly, there is only one cold water tap for nearby residents to use, no heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer and worst of all -- having to go down the street to the public washroom -- with squat toilets.

Despite the living conditions, Meyer enjoyed the thriving community right at his doorstep. On the main lane, there would be lots of street vendors selling everything from food to everyday goods. One of his friends observed you could get everything here except open-heart surgery. And the elderly liked it because they had a dense social network to help them with anything.

Little Liu and her father who keeps racing pigeons
And so Meyer began profiling many people in his neighbourhood, such as his best student's father, who was a night watchman at Tiananmen Square, but also kept racing pigeons, his neighbour, an elderly widow, a family that had a small noodle shop, and a man who collected recyclable material like cardboard, cans and plastic bottles.

However, the districts became cut off from funding for social services and in a bid to fund them themselves, they came up with the idea of demolishing dilapidated homes, move the residents elsewhere and sell the land to developers or at least get a cut. This accelerated after 2001 when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Games.

He explains that once people agree to move out of their homes, the money is transferred into their bank accounts and they must get out immediately because it will be demolished that day before anyone can have any regrets. Interestingly Meyer notes one of his colleagues who lived in the hutong since her childhood didn't have fond memories of the home itself, but of the trees just outside where she and her grandmother used to collect the leaves and seeds.

The end result is Qianmen -- or the tourist version of it, complete with stores like H&M, Zara and Starbucks. It looks like, as Meyer says, a Disneyland version of the place, devoid of much character, and people just pass through the place because they can't afford what's in the shops.

And so Meyer also talks to Zhang Xin, head of SOHO China, a developer about how she feel about demolishing a neighbourhood and then creating a pathetic fake version of it.

Yanshou Jie, the street outside where Meyer lived
She explains it could be worse -- that's because for the Qianmen project, she had to deal with 36 different officials and plans, and having to cater to their whims, such as the shape of the birdcage lamps along the street. The minutiae of what she had to deal with made it seem amazing the project was even completed.

Today where Meyer used to live is still an empty lot to the left of Qianmen, while to the right it's filled with fast-food places like KFC.

He still comes back periodically to update his book that came out in 2008, and now there will be a Chinese version of the book that will be published in the mainland -- there is already a version available in Hong Kong and Taiwan. However the mainland Chinese one has a few edits thanks to censors, but only six paragraphs were cut, much to the relief of Meyer.

He's not nostalgic about the hutongs per se, but wants to raise awareness of their history and culture, and why they cannot be easily preserved, as they are made of straw, wood, mud and pig's blood.

It's a constantly evolving story which has applications elsewhere, as these hutongs can also be a model for communities elsewhere in the world; which is why Meyer's book has interested city planners particularly in San Francisco, as they are keen on creating the convenience and communal aspects of hutongs that are found in Beijing.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Where's Li's Conscience?

Striking dock workers descend on Cheung Kong building demanding Li pay up
Last night my 90 year-old great aunt was ranting about tycoon Li Ka-shing.

The dock workers strike is entering its fourth week and yesterday my great aunt saw the television pictures of the strikers descending on Li's home in Shouson Hill and demanding their pay, and even their children chanted, "Grandpa Ka-shing where are you? Pay us!"

"He [Li] has no heart! How can he not pay seeing those children! He's in such a good mood that he even went golfing," my great aunt said. "He earns billions of dollars! How can he not pay them! Doesn't he have enough money? He can't take it to the next world with him!"

While she doesn't understand the complexities of the issue, how the jobs on the docks are all contracted out -- many to shell companies owned by Li -- and as a result he is skimming more off the workers -- makes this a very complex issue to solve.

I tried to explain that Li had done nothing illegal so he wasn't going to resolve the matter anytime soon.

She continued to rant again, saying how he was trying to keep all his money for his family, and how they might have influenced him not to give in to the strikers.

In any event, she has a fellow ranter.

Political veteran Elsie Tu did not name Li, but it was clear who her angry remarks were directed at.

"I think shame on you. Why should have [billions of dollars] when the poor can't even buy meat for their children's food?" she said. "How could you have [billions of dollars] and still want more? The dockers are getting so little and their conditions are disgraceful."

Tu will turn 100 on June 2 and having lived in Hong Kong since 1951, she is concerned about the ever widening income gap.

"I have a horrible feeling it's going down again. I think things are getting worse now. It makes me so angry," she said.

"We have some rich men who have a conscience. The elderly people in Hong Kong are not getting what they need. Some elderly people can manage, but there are others who are getting HK$1,000-something a month, now it's going to be HK$2,000. That's better, but even that -- where do you have the money to pay the rent?" asked Tu.

Needless to say Li is public enemy number one at the moment. At the Cheung Kong building where his office is, some striking dock workers have set up camp in front of the building with lots of placards denouncing him, demanding more pay and such.

University students have also joined in, making this a mini Occupy Central movement, continuing the refrain of despising the 1 percent.

In front of the building is a giant cut out of Li's head, fashioned with devil's horns and fanged teeth, sucking the blood and money out of everyone in the city.

So much for Hong Kong's "Superman"...

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Trying to Turn Ambition to $$$

At the gym I watched a BBC documentary as part of the series My Country: All About My Friends.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to watch the entire 50-minute show, but it profiled 31-year-old Liu Wei, a very ambitious young man in Shanghai, whose only drive is to make money - loads of it. Everyday.

He looks older than 31, as he only sleeps four hours a day and claims it's enough otherwise he doesn't have time to make more money, and like practically every other mainland Chinese man, he smokes.

He lives with his girlfriend, a 21-year-old, who lives like a kept woman, but her patience for him is thinning fast because he's hardly around to spend time with her. When the interviewer asks her if Liu has ever bought anything for her, she says, "No... I buy it myself. He gives me the credit card."

Then we meet Liu's parents. He bought them a noodle shop, and instead of enjoying their retirement, the elderly couple wake up everyday in the wee hours to buy produce and get their shop ready for customers. We watch them lift very heavy pots and at dawn the lights aren't turned on as his mother washes trays.

His mom claims Liu doesn't respect them, and doesn't even call. He will periodically drop by the shop, but only when he can stand listening to his mother berate him.

She tells him to make sure he eats breakfast every morning, but he claims he doesn't have enough time, nor does he eat lunch and so dinner is their main meal.

Liu seems like a hot shot, but he only acts it -- he works for a kind of travel agency, trying to make money off business tour groups by taking them to three- or four-star hotel restaurants but charging them five-star prices.

He thinks he's very clever, creating a fancy-looking brochure, but in reality it's the only thing he can do to make money for his company. Profit margins are thin and the pressure's on from other competition.

Liu loses a big client at work and then he and his girlfriend have a fight about the meaning of their relationship. She claims she was stupid to be with him, and adds he was smart to take her.

Then one day without telling anyone, she buys a flat, and the couple have to figure out how to finance it, even though they'd been talking about buying one in the next two years...

The documentary clearly shows the drive of some young people in China -- Liu seems keen to live like the rich and wants that dream desperately, but at what cost?

It also seems like Liu wants to distance himself from his parents, keeping them busy so that they don't have time to nag him more often, and so that he doesn't have to financially take care of them at the moment. But the shop isn't exactly a money maker, but to Liu every bit counts.

Perhaps he will burn out in the next few years and then realize that money isn't everything, but more importantly, making money -- lots of it -- isn't a game everyone can play...

Public Service Announcement: Wash Your Hands!

The Centre for Health Protection shows how to wash your hands (and wrists too!)
We're seeing lots of government billboards and advertising promoting hand washing with the threat of H7N9 coming to Hong Kong.

And with the upcoming May holiday for mainlanders, there are fears there may be some visiting the city who could be infected and possibly transmit the virus to the main population.

The Hong Kong government is stepping up measures, carefully scrutinizing people's temperatures at all border checkpoints and the airport.

But also greater awareness here would help too.

I notice a number of people in the office and in public washrooms like shopping malls, who do not wash their hands with soap! How hard is it to wash your hands with soap considering you're already rinsing your hands with water!

There are now 101 confirmed cases of H7N9 and 20 deaths, all in China. Many of them are located in eastern China, and in general the cases and fatalities are people over 60; children who were infected are managing to battle the virus successfully.

What's also intriguing is that half of the cases had no contact with poultry, so how did they get infected?

In the meantime we can only be vigilant and wash our hands. My only gripe about these advertisements is that they do not explicitly spell out when people should wash their hands.

Even better would be for all public toilets to have signs reminding people to wash their hands with soap!

The best way to get them is to shame them...

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Picture of the Day: Scan N' Shop

Check out the goods for sale at this Pricerite "store" at Admiralty MTR station
After coming out of the turnstiles at the Admiralty MTR station, there's a giant wall-sized ad for Pricerite, a homeware store that sells everything from light bulbs to bed linens, cleaning supplies and home appliances.

Choose a garbage can (or more) by scanning the QR code
There's a few items featured, such as shelving, garbage cans, tissue paper, toilet paper, and pots and pans. Next to each item is a QR code.

People are encouraged to scan the QR codes of the items they want, pay for them, presumably on credit cards and then the goods will be delivered to them.

I'd heard about this being done in South Korea two years ago. Here's the video:

With Hong Kong people being very busy too, we'll probably see more of these "stores" in the MTR soon...

Friday, 19 April 2013

Picture of the Day: Shape of Things to Come?

The only way is up... with this building on the east side of the Chinese capital
This is a picture of the new headquarters for the People's Daily, the Communist Party's main propaganda machine.

What does it look like to you?

The 150-metre-tall building is located in the central business district and was designed by Zhou Qi, a professor of architecture at Southeast University in Jiangsu. It is expected to be completed in May 2014.

In an interview with Modern Express, Zhou explained his design was inspired by the ancient Chinese philosophy of "round sky and square earth", with the top part being cylindrical while the bottom part is more square.

Meanwhile the elongated spherical form is designed to appear like the Chinese character for "people" or ren from a bird's eye view.

"Our [team's] way of expression is kind of extreme, different from the culture of moderation that Chinese people are accustomed to," Zhou said.

He and his team won the project bid in 2009, but after the plans were publicized, the public had a field day poking fun at it.

Some say the building looks like a steel-framed penguin, a giant juicer, an electric iron, a chamber pot and even an aircraft carrier. Some have said it looks like "the Gherkin" in London or Dubai's Burj Al Arab.

But we have to say it definitely looks phallic...

Even more amusing is that others think this new building, which is only blocks away from the Rem Koolhaas-designed China Central Television headquarters nicknamed "big underpants" will be a good match. "After five years, CCTV will never feel alone," one commented online.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Taken for a Ride

Was a story of Xi Jinping taking a Beijing taxi a propaganda stunt gone wrong?
This morning I saw a story reported by Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao that was heating up mainland Chinese cyberspace -- President Xi Jinping took an incognito ride in a taxi cab in Beijing from Gulou Da Jie to the Diaoyutai Hotel.

The taxi driver, Guo Xin, 46, started chatting with the two men in the back seat and at first didn't look closely to see who his passengers were.

Then Guo got onto the topic of pollution and one of the men responded that the government was determined to deal with the problem, but that it would take time, as the most advanced economies in the world had to struggle with pollution. The passenger added people should also take note of social progress, such as higher life expectancy among Chinese people.

Surprised by such remarks, it was at a traffic light that Guo turned around to see who the speaker was. "Has anyone ever said that you look like General Secretary Xi?"

The man replied, "You are the first taxi driver to recognize me."

So-called taxi driver Guo Xin showing off Xi's calligraphy...
At the end of the ride, the cab fare was 27 RMB, and Guo was handed 30 RMB and told to keep the change. He apparently even got a saying written by Xi that said, "Best wishes" on the back of the taxi receipt. The story even had pictures of the taxi driver, the taxi receipt and even a map of the route they took.

Many internet users in China thought this was a fantastic story, how it demonstrated Xi was a man of the people.

But now we are informed the story was fake!!!

Ta Kung Pao is now apologizing for the false account of the taxi ride, even though it was the hottest topic on China's internet today.

"We deeply regret it," said the newspaper. "We should not have allowed an error in our work to lead to such incorrect news. We sincerely apologize to our readers."

What is intriguing is that before announcing the story was fake, Xinhua apparently confirmed the story, even checking with Beijing's traffic authorities and Ta Kung Pao before also publishing it.

But now the story has been deleted from practically all the news websites in China, making one wonder why the story was made up in the first place. The "ride" allegedly took place on March 1, before Xi was confirmed as president, and then why report it seven weeks afterwards?

It all seemed very strange, but still enough of a heart-warming story for the lack of timeliness to be forgiven.

Nevertheless, the news that the story is fake will probably heighten skeptics to be even more critical of the news coming out from China...

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Taking Extreme Avian Flu Precautions

The latest fatalities from H7N9 now total 16 with 77 confirmed cases, all on the mainland -- none yet in Hong Kong.

I had stopped eating chicken in Hong Kong over a week ago but this fear is unfounded. We asked our microbiologist relative if it was OK to eat a chicken infected with avian flu and he said as long it was cooked it was fine.

The only concern is going to a restaurant where someone handles the raw infected chicken and then say washes the dishes or handles other food.

So in Hong Kong we are safe for now...

Tonight another relative told us how China is seriously handling potential cases of H7N9. A few days ago her friend's friend flew back from Shanghai to Hong Kong, but she had a slight temperature of over 38 degrees.

When airport officials did a reading and found she had the temperature they immediately confined her in a room and asked her to fill out lots of forms, detailing where she'd been, what she'd done, if she'd touched any animals, and such. They even took a mug shot of her just in case someone else had the same name as her.

They tried to persuade her not to fly back but to stay behind in a hospital, but she insisted on going home to be treated.

So they complied but not before allowing all the passengers board before her and at the last minute escorting her on the plane and having her sit in the front row -- with no one else. The other passengers didn't dare use the same washroom as her, which made her feel awkwardly special.

When the plane landed in Hong Kong, the flight attendant explained she would be escorted off the plane even though she said she was fine. Ditto with the wheelchair waiting for her.

In the airport she was again sent to a room where she had to fill out many forms again, asking for similar information. They even asked her if she wanted to be admitted to hospital or if they could call her family doctor to inform him of his patient having a slight temperature.

Then in the days following she was called everyday to check up on her and temperature.

So while she expected Hong Kong to take all kinds of precautions, she was surprised but also impressed Shanghai did the same, considering it was a foreigner flying home and not entering the country.

While it seems both Hong Kong and Shanghai are following the same protocols, are they sharing the information? That's the key question. But it is interesting to see the degree to which the mainland is taking this seriously.

On a related side note -- does anyone else find it strange that the cases seem to be popping up in pairs?

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Snapping Up Passion Investments

This playful panther with a large sapphire is one of many pieces in demand
Now that nouveau riche mainlanders have their apartments and cars, the next items to purchase are fine art, wine, watches and jewellery.

According to a report by the Hurun Research Institute and Industrial Bank, 56 percent of mainland millionaires in US dollar terms are parking their wealth in so-called passion investments.

"The understanding of fortune has changed dramatically in the past decade," said Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman and chief researcher of the institute. "The rich Chinese are now taking a global view in dealing with their fortunes and assets."

The report said the number of millionaires in China has increased 4 percent last year to 2.8 million, growing at the slowest pace in four years because of the economic slowdown and increasing concentration of wealth.

Based on a survey of 1,219 mainland millionaires, the report said 76 percent invested in properties, while 65 percent in stocks. Both these percentages are the lowest in four years.

Previously mainland millionaires invested in property to combat inflation and beat the pathetic interest rates in banks.

But nowadays they are investing more in art, and not exclusively the works of Chinese artists. I've heard anecdotes of rich Chinese businessmen who have put Picassos and Impressionists up in their offices and find Caucasians immediately take them more seriously when they see what's hanging on the wall.

According to research firm Artprice, the value of art auctioned in China in 2011 accounted for 42 percent of the world's total that year.

Sound like the Japanese in the 1980s?

And it's not only art mainlanders are buying, but also fine wines, snapping up top Bordeaux names and even vineyards.

Jewellery is also another hot property. I recently talked to the head of the high jewellery division of a top French luxury jeweller who observed not just mainland Chinese, but Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore were also wealthy clientele.

"Those coming from oil-producing countries are very rich," he said. So that included the Middle East, Russia and South America.

He adds that while they are rich, they become even richer because they have the capital to buy things relatively cheaper that will appreciate in value with time, and jewellery is one of those investments.

In the case of this luxury brand, some clients buy pieces worth several million Hong Kong dollars after only looking at the sketch. And since this brand usually does very well at auction, gaining some 25 to 30 percent in value after holding on to it for 10 to 15 years, what's not to like?

While this Frenchman is keen to promote the brand's jewellery pieces like works of art due to the craftsmanship of the artisans who have decades of experience cutting and polishing gems, do the buyers really care? In the end they are looking for ways to increase their return on investment.

In other words, finding ways to make themselves even more obscenely wealthier than they are now...

Monday, 15 April 2013

Working Poor Plunging into Despair

We've already read about one in five people in Hong Kong categorized as the working poor.

Not only is this shocking, but their hard lives eking out a living have psychological and physical impacts on their health.

And 20 percent of those with low incomes in Hong Kong, living on less than HK$10,000 ($1,228)  a month are more likely to suffer from excessive anxiety because of inflation and their situation will likely get worse as prices increase.

That rate is three times that of those on high incomes, according to a study of 5,000 people by the Mood Disorders Centre of Chinese University.

The poll was conducted in the last quarter of 2011 and monitored for a year for inflation trends. Researchers observed a link between inflation and mental health.

If the condition is displayed for at least six months, it is called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), with symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, irritability and difficulty concentrating.

"I've woken in the middle of the night with my heart beating wildly and had to be taken to hospital," said a woman diagnosed with the disorder in 2009. Her son supports them both on his HK$10,000 a month salary.

She worried most about rising food costs. "I often go to the wet market or grocery store and leave without buying anything because it's all too expensive," she says, adding she had not eaten meat in years and only bought discounted fruit that was almost rotting.

When there is high inflation, people's incomes do not usually keep up with rising food costs, resulting in the deprivation of food, goods and services, and deteriorating quality of life that leads to stress and mental health issues.

"Those with household incomes of less than HK$10,000 are the most likely to suffer from GAD," explained Professor Lee Sing, director of the Mood Disorders Centre at Chinese University.

The survey found 84 percent of people in Hong Kong are affected by inflation to varying degrees. But those who responded that inflation "significantly affected" them have a 4.4 times higher prevalence of GAD than those who did not.

Inflation hit a peak in 2011 at 5.3 percent, compared to 2 percent in 2006. Currently it is at 4.4 percent according to official figures. Between 2006 and 2011, the city saw 50,000 new diagnoses of GAD in the adult population.

For low income people with GAD, the biggest concern is the rising cost of food, while higher income people, like those making over HK$60,000 a month with the disorder were more worried about diminished savings.

"Inflation is much more than just statistics," said Lee. "It has an immense impact on people's everyday lives. Without timely help, anxiety will worsen and make people more susceptible to developing ... depression and suicidal behaviour."

It's hard to encourage low-income earners to be optimistic because it is difficult to get out of their situation. "There's nothing [the poor] can do," says Law Ka-chung, chief economist at Communications Bank. "They can move away from Hong Kong, but things are getting quite expensive on the mainland. If they stay, they can't expect the government to help them much."

We hope this study rings alarm bells for the Hong Kong government. The working poor really need access to social services, more subsidies or financial aid just to get by. This situation of literal survival is shocking to hear in such a wealthy city. It is time for the authorities to really help those in need, otherwise social issues are going to spiral downwards even further.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Picture of the Day: Street Food

Egg waffles at a street stall where we at the batch on the far right. Yum...
When I first lived in Hong Kong in the mid-90s there was the odd portable food stall in Central or along the Mid-Levels escalator selling snacks like stinky tofu, egg waffles and puddings.

However the Hong Kong government started shooing them away in the name of hygiene and they have completely disappeared from Central.

But today we took a tram to North Point to check out what was going on there and one of our first stops was to this street stall selling egg waffles.

Eating this snack brings back childhood memories to my older relatives, the smell, look, taste and even the yellow parchment paper bag haven't changed.

I used to love eating these egg waffles too, but then health consciousness kicked in and I have not eaten these in years.

They still do taste the same, though a bit on the sweet side. They're definitely comfort food, good to the last bubble.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Picture of the Day: Suited Up Pandas

Does China's future really involve a panda in a western suit?
We caught sight of this poster at Hong Kong International Airport and were taken aback by the image.

While it's appropriate for Chengdu to adopt the panda as its mascot, perhaps we're not quite used to seeing pandas wearing western suits.

Or is it because we're so used to China describing its way of doing things with "Chinese characteristics" that it's seems strange to see a panda with "western characteristics"?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Two Corrupt Fish to Fry

Liu Zhijun -- Corrupt senior official and alleged philanderer... who knew?
It's game over for two senior Chinese officials this week who were charged with taking bribes and abusing power.

One's a super big fish, the other not so big, but still -- what they amassed in their corrupt ways is mind boggling.

The small fish is the party boss of a university in Mianyang city, one of the areas badly hit in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Mianyang Normal University party boss Su Zhixian was charged with taking bribes worth nearly 11 million RMB ($1.78 million) that he claimed was for quake reconstruction and other projects.

So far Su has surrendered 20 million RMB after he was put under investigation by the top anti-corruption agency in Sichuan in September.

When he goes on trial in the next few weeks, Su will be the first top official to be prosecuted in relation to corruption regarding reconstruction after the 8.0-magnitude Sichuan earthquake that hit on May 12, 2008. Over 87,000 people died, and hundreds of thousands injured.

Su is accused of taking kickbacks after payments for projects were made. "One contractor of a project complained that he had to pay 10,000 RMB for Su's signature on each invoice. Altogether he paid Su 120,000 RMB for a dozen invoices," said a source for the prosecution.

He also exaggerated the scale of destruction on the university campus to claim an inflated reconstruction budget of 1.2 billion RMB. The local education department initially approved 700 million RMB, but in the end only gave 400 million RMB.

Three of Su's allies were also arrested and investigated.

Not only did Su take lots of money, he apparently had his daughter help him launder money under a company registered in Beijing. Police were suspicious of this woman and later discovered her connection with Su and decided to investigate him.

So if you thought Su was a pretty big fish to fry, Liu Zhijun was much bigger.

He was the former railways minister who was very powerful in this post, and his legacy was constructing the high-speed trains that are now zooming around the country, though at lower speeds than earlier boasted because it was later found the rails are of substandard material.

In any event, Liu has been charged with taking bribes worth 60 million RMB linked to rail construction projects. He is expected to be handed the death penalty because under mainland law, that is the punishment for accepting bribes over 100,000 RMB.

He allegedly accepted 40 million RMB from Shanxi businesswoman Ding Shumiao in return for winning bids worth 3 billion RMB for the high-speed railway.

But what's even juicier is that she allegedly arranged for Liu to have sex with young women, particularly the stars from the popular TV series Dream of the Red Chamber, in which her firm had a stake.

Liu is already pleading for his life to his lawyers. "He wanted me to guarantee that he would escape a death penalty, which of course I could not," his lawyer Gao Zicheng said.

Liu's wife is also trying to defend her husband, saying he was a good man who came home for dinner every night.

"His wife said he seldom went out [for social engagements] at night, and, on the evening he was detained, he was at home rather than in some entertainment venue, as had been reported," another lawyer Qi Xiaohong said.

However, the hard-hitting magazine Caixin reported in February 2011 that Liu was discovered with two prostitutes in a five-star hotel in Nanjing.

Probably during office hours?

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Taking on the Rainbow Cause

Gigi Chao makes a bold statement on the cover
One of Hong Kong's leading society magazines has a striking photo of a young woman wearing a tuxedo jacket that goes down to there with nothing underneath and promotional posters that say "Chao Bella!"

It's Gigi Chao, the daughter of tycoon Cecil Chao Tze-tsung. And ever since her father announced last September he would pay a suitor HK$500 million to marry his lesbian daughter, she's been making statements of her own.

While she was forced out of the closet, we are proud to see 33-year-old Gigi is speaking out and has become one of the biggest names promoting LGBT rights in Hong Kong.

"I had to get over the shock of suddenly being thrown out of the closet, but I realized it was an opportunity to set a good example," she said. "Hong Kong is horrible at accepting and welcoming diversity. There's a lot of discrimination against people who are different, because they make people feel scared and uncomfortable."

Cecil Chao made the gob-smacking pledge that made Gigi famous overnight around the world, after she and her long-time partner Sean Eav tied the knot in a civil ceremony in France. Gigi has tried to tell her father to withdraw the offer, but he has ignored her request and so she still receives tons of marriage proposals everyday, much to her disappointment.

She has tried to deftly handle the fiasco, explaining to the media that it's her father's way of expressing his love for her, but surely inside she must be very frustrated.

Nevertheless, she is embracing her sexual identity openly these days, as a core member of the gay rights group Big Love Alliance along with lawmaker Cyd Ho Sau-lan and openly gay singers Anthony Wong Yiu-ming and Denise Ho Wan-sze. They are lobbying the government to pass anti-discrimination legislation for sexual minorities.

What concerns Gigi the most is that society will not progress unless people are willing to confront issues such as this. "If the government can provide a safer environment for LGBT people with anti-discrimination legislation, fewer people would have to live a double life," she said. "It would be the beginning of an open society."

Then she also taken a jab at the social circles she's in. "Hong Kong 'high society' is generous when it comes to donating to charity, but it is meaningless to give blindly without getting involved," she said.

While Gigi says she still gets on with her parents and is the executive director of her father's company, she hopes they will finally accept her and her partner having children. "Right now they can't imagine having grandchildren from two gay daughters -- but having children is what I want."

Who says the rich don't have a purpose in life?

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Zao Wou-ki: A Colourful Life (1920-2013)

Abstract artist Zao Wou-ki who merged Chinese and Western styles together
The great Chinese-French painter Zao Wou-ki has died at the age of 93 in Switzerland.

He was the highest-selling living painter earlier this week when his diptych 10.03.83 sold for HK$37 million ($4.77 million) at a Sotheby's auction.

Zao was was born in Beijing in 1920 into a cultivated family and learned how to appreciate art from his grandfather who had a passion for calligraphy. And so Zao learned calligraphy when he was a child and then painting at the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou from 1935 to 1941.

Seven years later he and his wife Lan Lan, a composer, moved to Paris to escape the Communists and there Zao gained praise from the likes of Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso. Zao was also influenced by Paul Klee and Alberto Giancometti.

Their young son Zhao Jialing, lived with his parents in China. By the mid 1950s, Zao and his wife divorced and in 1957 he traveled to New Jersey to visit his brother Chao Wu-wai. It was here Zao learned more about the Pop Art movement, though he didn't really understand the reason behind it.

Nevertheless, Zao had his first solo exhibition in New York in 1959. His works are described as abstract, large pieces full of vibrant colours that seem to create something new. He has said he was influenced by Henri Matisse, Picasso and Paul Cezanne.

Zao's works are often in large formats, in diptychs and triptychs, and he usually names the paintings on the date he finishes them.

His personal life had ups and downs. After he left the United States he went to Tokyo and then Hong Kong where he met his future second wife, the actress Zhu Ying who already had two children.

She herself became a sculptress who received critical praise, but then committed suicide at the height of her career.

In 1964 Zao became a French citizen and only returned to China once in 1972. There is no mention yet in the media when he married his third wife Francoise Marquet, but she and Zao's son were locked in a legal battle over guardianship of the artist.

Marquet, a former curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, moved Zao to Switzerland, claiming it was better for his health, but Zhao contends it was her way of controlling his father's assets a personal collection of works worth millions of euros.

It was last month that Zao's son won the legal victory, with the appointment of two legal guardians to carry out an inventory of the artist's possessions.

And then on Tuesday, against the wishes of Zhao, but with Marquet's consent -- to stop Zao's treatment and allow him to die. He had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease and had been hospitalized twice in March.

His works seem intense and foreboding, dramatic and energetic.

He once said: "What is abstract for you is real for me."

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Separating Fact from Fraud

Here in Hong Kong we are watching the news about the spread of the latest avian flu strain, H7N9 on the mainland.

We've pretty much stopped eating chicken and some people have already stocked up on surgical face masks.

The latest is that eight people have died so far, 28 infected in China.

However, in Hong Kong there is no trust in these numbers and people immediately believe they are under reported; they think the numbers are more accurate if they are multiplied by 10 or 100.

It's a scary thought, but very possible.

In any event, it's interesting to read the Jiangsu police bureau has posted on its Sino Weibo microblogging account a warning to the public that they should pay attention to possible avian-flu frauds.

"Please be aware of the following seven frauds related to the H7N9 virus infection. Report to police if you find anything suspicious," it said.

The seven scams are:

1. School staff demanding "hospital bills" from parents after claiming their children had been infected with the virus and quarantined;

2. Senior education officials asking schools to order and pay for "virus prevention manuals";

3. Health staff stealing belongings from people after ordering them to undergo physical check-ups for the flu;

4. Charity fundraisers asking for flue prevention donations;

5. Drug manufacturers selling fake medicines and charging deposits;

6. Government representatives selling fake anti-flu medicines to pharmacies;

7. Health product sales representatives offering incentives to individuals to persuade their organizations to buy flu prevention products.

For people outside of China, reading this would leave them flabbergasted that schemers would actually use avian flu to try to make a quick profit. Don't they have any morals? one would probably ask.

Having lived in Beijing I'm not surprised, but disappointed to hear that after what mainlanders have gone through in recent years, particularly food scares like milk powder, pork and chicken that they now have to worry about being tricked when they are concerned about their health.

One would think people would have the common sense to ignore most if not all these scams; but Chinese citizens don't have much critical thinking skills to be able to judge whether they are being duped or not.

We hope people aren't falling for them and are glad the police are warning them. However, there are surely many more scams out there and they need to be on alert!!!

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Next Generation's Hard Knock Life

Is Hong Kong a city of opportunities or oppression for young people?
Yesterday when I returned to Hong Kong from Danang, I caught a taxi home from the Airport Express in Central. When we were approaching my destination, the taxi driver started talking to me, asking me where I went on my trip and I explained Vietnam was nice, though the staff not so bright.

Then he started saying how he'd like to have a holiday. Originally he and his family were thinking of going to Taiwan for a few days for eating, but the plane tickets during Easter holidays were very expensive. Then he added that his son would be graduating in May so they would wait until then for a break.

He then began his worried rant, saying his son was 22 years old and wondered if he would be able to get a job. "He studied management, but I don't know if he's good enough to get a job."

I tried to be diplomatic and said that if he worked hard, he would be fine. But this was not enough to placate him.

"Kids these days are very lazy. They don't want to work hard. All they want to do is stay in school longer to delay working. I started working when I was 17 years old until now -- I'm 61 and going to retire soon," he said.

He took out his wallet and showed me a small passport picture of his son, a young guy with spiky hair.

"I'm from a different generation where we had no choice but to work hard," he said with some resignation. "I don't know how  he's going to survive."

There are some young people who are keen to succeed and eager to work hard, but there are a number of the next generation who don't look like they want to carve out a career for themselves let alone find a job.

Granted these days it's getting harder, with more graduates flooding the market, starting salaries are still low 10 years later and even finding a decent first job is hard. Many are stuck in retail jobs from working on convenience stores to fast food joints, manning information desks in shopping malls or doing really menial work that doesn't require a university degree.

But by the same token, you have to start somewhere...

That taxi driver isn't the only parent worrying. How did these parents, who have worked so hard in their lives, raise children who have become indifferent to finding their own career path?

Is it because their offspring saw how hard their parents worked that it turned them off? Or they felt that hard work doesn't necessarily pay off? Or is it because their parents indulged them because of guilt and so they don't see the need to work hard?

In any event it is worrying to see many of the younger generation not interested in working hard or being ambitious because that is what has built Hong Kong to what it is.

In the meantime these hard-working parents need to tone down their expectations -- their children already know what is expected of them and don't need the constant reminders. And the kids need to buckle down and find a job because that's part of life whether they like it or not.

I am very grateful for being able to quickly find a career I learned on the job and has fulfilled my life in many ways. If I was a young person today I would probably be just as daunted by the employment situation. But I would still be determined to find a job just to start and hopefully move on to better things, step by step.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Media Monitoring the Vietnamese Way

It's interesting to see how media control in China and Vietnam are similar and yet different as well.

While China bans people from logging on to social media like Facebook and Twitter, I had no problems doing that in Vietnam.

China seems to be inching to greater press freedom depending on the issue -- however in Vietnam, journalists are pretty much free to write whatever they want -- as long as they don't criticize the government.

This is an unspoken, but understood rule that can never be defied.

A local told us about a friend of his, a journalist who could not stand what he felt was a repressive environment and so he immigrated to Australia.

From there he set up a publication that began denouncing the Vietnamese Communist government from overseas.

When he became a naturalized Australian he had to give up his Vietnamese citizenship and so he applied for a visa to visit his family back home.

But when he went to the Vietnamese embassy, they warned him that while they could issue him a visa, once he landed in Vietnam, he could be shot.

He didn't dare return and has since moved to the United States...

Like China, Vietnam likes to censor things the old fashioned way.

For example the tit-for-tat over the disputed islands in the South China Sea are called Paracel or Xisha Islands, and China, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim ownership of them.

And if there are any reports that are not correct in the government's eyes are promptly examined and then cut out with scissors or ripped out.

A recently opened hotel in Vietnam had 2,000 brochures printed, and officials actually opened the boxes and examined each one to make sure they were all correct. If not a black marker would have been used.

When I was at Danang Airport this morning, I was on Gmail chat with a friend in Hong Kong. We didn't say anything contentious, but after a while, on his side, there was a message saying, "This chat is no longer off the record", which freaked him out and insisted we log off right away.

The funny thing is, I never received any notice, but he did.

It was pretty obvious we were being monitored... so perhaps it's a good thing they haven't figured out a more stealthy way of doing it like the Chinese...

Saturday, 6 April 2013

To Vietnam, With Patience

From the pool looking out onto the beach that touches the South China Sea
Things in Vietnam are done on Vietnam time.

We're staying at an internationally-branded resort 50km from Danang in central Vietnam, and we have to wonder if the poor service is because that's the way the people are, or they have not been trained properly.

Overall the staff are very nice people, they smile and say hello. Most of them know some basic English, but if a request is beyond their responsibilities, they don't know what to do and either ignore the request or may try to find someone who has better English.

This morning we got a wake up call at 5.30am -- 24 hours ahead of schedule. We wonder if it's the girl who called that was very anxious to make sure we got up, or the young man who discussed the wake up call with us and then wrote down the time wrong.

We also wonder if the driver was also up at this ungodly hour as well as the person who was supposed to prepare a breakfast box for us to eat in the car on the way to the airport.

Then today just before lunch, we requested a Vietnamese meal and a phone call was made to the restaurant we were going to eat at.

But when we got there, drinks were ordered and served, but then nothing else happened. We waited and waited... until our host asked the server and through her body language we could tell she knew nothing about our special request...

The foreign executive chef had to come out and apologize, saying someone had dropped the ball... but minutes later the food did arrive and we were too hungry to admire the food and take photographs.

In the end we ate very quickly thanks to the chef hustling the troops. But typically eating here is a long-drawn out affair. What would take an hour and a half or two hours in Hong Kong takes at least two and a half hours here. The service is really that slow, not only front of house, but in the kitchen as well.

There's a cultural gap in understanding foreign guests expect things quicker because they are not used to waiting for things. Granted it's a resort where guests are supposed to relax, but surely we should not have to wait so long for dishes to be cleared and utensils set up?

This afternoon we went to the spa and there were seven of us who were booked for treatments. However, when two of us arrived, the spa staff insisted we had to share a room even though we asked twice not to...

Other than that the massage was excellent, but at the end we were wiped down with a lukewarm cloth...

So in some cases things have to be completely spelled out, others it's because of a lack common sense.

Also many of the staff carry smart phones and seem to be looking at them -- even when they're on duty...

Nevertheless, these are small but vital details that can be improved upon.

Vietnam is very much like China, where things we think are obvious are not something they have picked up while growing up or their trainers have assumed understanding.

It will take time for Vietnam to develop further -- which is why the patience of Job is required.

Eventually the pay off will be big, but it'll be a while yet...

Friday, 5 April 2013

Avian Flu Fears Hit Hong Kong

Hong Kong has its first suspected case of avian flu, a new strain called H7N9 after a girl showed flu-like symptoms after coming to contact with birds in Shanghai.

So far six people in China have died of avian flu, from 16 cases that apparently started in Shanghai and spread to Jiangsu province, Nanjing, Zhejiang, and Anhui. The latest fatality was a 64-year-old farmer from Huzhou, Zhejiang.

A few days ago Hong Kong was already on a heightened state of alert, though at the time Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man advised the public to be vigilant, but not scared.

However, with this girl's case, the city is going to step up measures, particularly in monitoring poultry and taking people's temperatures in the airport and border.

It is frightening to hear about this new strain and how we have to be careful about where we go and what we eat.

Already the poultry industry in Hong Kong was hurt by previous avian flu outbreaks over the years and now another one will make things difficult for poultry farmers yet again.

But also one has to wonder what Beijing is doing to monitor the situation, if at all. Much like the milk powder scandal in 2008, nothing substantial has been done since then to tackle the serious issue of how milk is collected and then processed and packaged.

It's also scary to hear it took Chinese officials a while to confirm the avian flu cases because they weren't sure... where is the education and expertise? Perhaps the government also had a hand in covering up the news and only wanting to release information if it was indeed positive...

Time is of the essence here; while the Chinese government has improved significantly in terms of dealing with these kinds of health issues, it still needs to speed up its response because lives are at stake, not to mention the economy.

And also education. This is my repeated refrain -- the Chinese public need to be educated on basic hygiene -- not just that you should wash your hands with soap, but why this is necessary.

Then there needs to be education and regulation on how people rear and keep chickens in China so that we can keep better track of them. It's just like the 16,000 pigs floating in the Huangpu River in Shanghai; because there is no regulation, officials still haven't figured out where exactly they came from and how they ended up in the river.

In the meantime Hong Kong people will probably think twice about going to China on leisure trips now, as well as eating chicken for a while because they come from across the border (unless you eat at a French restaurant and have chicken from Bresse).

I say we promote eating turkey instead -- it's imported, has much more protein and tastes better too!