Monday, 30 September 2013

Where'd the Officials Go?

Premier Li Keqiang was a no-show at the Shanghai free-trade zone opening
This is strange. While Shanghai's much-heralded free-trade zone opened officially yesterday, there were no senior officials on hand to cut the metaphorical ribbon.

Premier Li Keqiang, who personally fought for this zone as part of his ambitious economic reforms, was not there. Neither was Vice-Premier Wang Yang or central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan.

It must have been very strange for attendees, and particularly the media covering the event, to not have one top official to bless the opening of the zone.

What's the deal?

In July Li faced open opposition from conservative financial regulators. He apparently lost his temper at one closed-door cabinet session. When he was told of continued opposition to his plans, Li apparently slammed his fist on the table in frustration.

And then there was the "are they or aren't they" going to make Twitter and Facebook available in this free-trade zone. At first it was reported the ban on these social media sites would be lifted, and then denied by a report by People's Daily, and then that report was withdrawn.

Yesterday there was no explicit mention except that telecommunication firms can apply to the cabinet for special permission to offer certain services that may not be in line with current local regulations.


We are beginning to wonder if this Shanghai free-trade zone will work, and if so, how long it will last, as indications are, not everyone is on board with this project.

Perhaps Hong Kong really has nothing to worry about.

In the meantime may we suggest to Li that pounding fists on the table doesn't help the situation...

Sunday, 29 September 2013

An Unjust End

Qiang Qiang's painting of him and his dad
Many in China are feeling sorrow and anger for Zhang Jing, the 39-year-old widow of Xia Junfeng, who was executed this week for killing two chengguan or urban administrative and law enforcement bureau.

The chengguan are meant to ensure municipal bylaws are followed, mostly cracking down on street vendors. However the chengguan do not seem properly trained, nor do they have much education. In short, they are basically thugs working for the city.

Then there is Xia, who lost his job in a government-run factory and resorted to grilling kebabs and sausages on the street in Shenyang, Liaoning province in northeastern China, and by the way is pianist Lang Lang's hometown.

Xia was just trying to make a living for him and his young family -- though unlicensed -- when two chengguan approached him 2009 and beat him up. They then took him to an interrogation room where he stabbed them with a small knife, killing both.

In court Xia claimed he was provoked by the chengguan and killed them in self defense. However he was convicted in 2009 and it was not until earlier this week the death sentence was upheld, shocking everyone despite a very public campaign to at least give him a lesser sentence.

Xia Junfeng testifying in court for killing two chengguan
He and his wife had hoped for a last minute reprieve, but in the end Zhang only had half an hour to see her husband for the last time, and they weren't even allowed to take a picture.

Xia was executed by lethal injection and then soon after Zhang was given a bag containing her husband's ashes.

Their son is now 13 and is artistic, creating a number of paintings that visually describe his state of mind, which has resulted in even more sympathy for the family. Many have come to buy the works, and even a hardcover collection of his art has been sold out.

Many sympathizers have bought Qiang Qiang's paintings
Influential Taiwanese singer, actress and writer Annie Yi has adopted the boy Qiang Qiang as her godson and has pledged to financially support his education. She is an avid microblogger who has some 14 million followers in Sina Weibo.

Many are comparing Xia's case with that of Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai's wife, who was convicted of killing Briton Neil Heywood. She pleaded guilty to pre-meditated murder and got a suspended death sentence, so why should Xia be put to death?

The family in happier times
Legal experts have commented on the case saying the prosecution's arguments had many holes, including contradictory statements and lack of witnesses.

Wang Jianxun, a professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, said the verdict amounted to "legal regression".

"The legal system clearly has taken the side of the urban management," Wang said. "This is an unjust verdict."

Some think Xia's case may spark China's Arab Spring, but unfortunately there isn't enough momentum to channel the frustration to the next level. Sadly this is yet another unjust case that has been dealt with and left by the wayside.

We hope Zhang and her son will find the strength to move on and rebuild their lives in the memory of Xia.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Picture of the Day: Name That Building

The giant golden disc that will be forever known as "the copper coin"
After the debacle of the massive garden on the rooftop of a Beijing apartment building, we now have the case of a massive building in Guangzhou shaped like a giant disc, and it ain't pretty.

The 33-storey building cost 1 billion yuan to build and it was designed by Joseph Dipasquale, an adjunct professor at the Polytechnic of Milan, and the chairman of AM Progetti, an architectural firm based in Milan with offices in China.

According to the Yangcheng Evening News, the original design called for blue glass for the external walls, but the colour was deemed too outdated for Guangzhou and instead a gold hue was chosen, making the building look like a copper coin.

As a result many of the residents have dubbed the office building as "the copper coin", while others liken it to a giant caramel doughnut -- with a hole 47 metres wide.

However that's not the official name of the building.

There was a contest to name it, with the winner awarded 100,000 yuan. The winning entry? "Guangzhou Yuan Building".


It's like the Rem Koolhaas-designed futuristic CCTV building in Beijing that is affectionately known as "big underpants".

But at least it's a better name.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Is Shanghai Friends with Facebook?

Shanghai's free-trade zone will open this weekend -- should HK be scared?
Will it or won't it?

We're still trying to figure out if the Chinese government will make social media sites Twitter and Facebook available in Shanghai's free-trade zone which is set to open this weekend.

Under the leadership of Premier Li Keqiang, Beijing is creating a Hong Kong-like free-trade zone in Shanghai, making it the biggest economic experiment since Shenzhen, and there is a lot of debate as to whether or not it will eclipse Hong Kong, and when.

The goal is to attract foreign investment to the zone, making it easier for foreign companies to transfer money to the area and convert it into renminbi -- but there are concerns that they won't be able to get the money out just as easily.

To add some gravitas to the free-trade zone, tycoon Li Ka-shing weighed in, saying the zone will have a bigger and quicker impact on Hong Kong than most people imagine.

"It has different aspects, including financial services. When the yuan is fully convertible, it will benefit the development of Shanghai," he said.

Ah yes, the key words are "fully convertible".

When will that happen? Not any time soon, as the Chinese government likes to keep a firm grip on the yuan and tweaking it -- we didn't say manipulating it -- as they please.

So, while Hong Kong's "Superman" is warning Hong Kong not to be complacent, the yuan ain't going to be fully convertible anytime soon.

And what about Facebook and Twitter?

A Hong Kong paper reported from a reliable source these social media sites would be freed up in the zone, making it more "foreigner-friendly". But then this was quashed by a People's Daily report, where officials said the report was "incorrect". However this story was deleted from the People's Daily website.

What's the deal then? No word yet.

Regardless, does having Facebook and Twitter in this zone make them the deal maker in enticing foreign investment in Shanghai?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Spoiled Convicted Offender

All in on the act -- Meng Ge, Li Shuangjiang and son Li Tianyi performing
It seems some spoiled children of China's super rich don't seem to learn from their mistakes.

Today the son of two celebrity singers for the Chinese military was convicted of rape and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Li Guanfeng, (previously known as Li Tianyi), 17, and four defendants met an 18-year-old woman surnamed Yang in a Beijing bar on February 17 and coerced her into a hotel room where they beat and sexually assaulted her.

Although Li pleaded not guilty in the trial last month saying he was drunk at the time, the court said he was the ringleader. Because he was a minor at the time, Li was sentenced to 10 years, while one of the other defendants is an adult and pleaded not guilty, was handed a 12-year sentence.

Sentences for rape in China usually range from three to 10 years, but in severe cases, such as gang rapes and causing serious injury or death can result in life in prison or even death.

Everyone in China was watching this case because Li is the son of Li Shuangjiang and Meng Ge, who usually perform for the People's Liberation Army and in television galas. The public wanted to see what kind of treatment Li would get because privileged people seem to get special treatment in the courts.

People close to Li's family spread information about the victim and the owner of the bar to the media before the trial to discredit Yang's testimony, while Meng said before the verdict that the court should consider Yang was a bar girl -- which the court said later her profession had "no direct relationship" to the charges.

In the end Li received a severe sentence, as the court said he was the main culprit, as Li grabbed the woman's arm, dragged her into the hotel and was caught on the hotel surveillance camera hitting her head and face in the elevator.

The court then said Li demanded that she take off her clothes and when she refused, he slapped and kicked her, and then stripped off her clothes with another defendant. It said Li was the first to force sex on the woman.

Li's defense was that he was so drunk at the time that he passed out and so he could not remember details of the incident.

Despite his weak defense his family will appeal.

Where does Li get the idea that he thinks he can get away with anything even though he was caught once before?

In 2011 the then 15-year-old without a driver's license got behind the wheel of a BMW with no license plates when a couple's car blocked his way coming out of a driveway in a residential area in Beijing. Li and another young man who drove an Audi both got out of their cars and assaulted the couple, while they told shocked bystanders, "Don't you dare call 110 [tell the police]."

Li was sentenced to a year detention for his road rage.

Maybe this time he will get the message? And perhaps his doting parents should stop meddling and realize they contributed to his out-of-control behaviour?

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Feminine Touch to Shakespeare's Shrew

Shakespeare's Globe's all-female cast performing The Taming of the Shew
I just came back from watching the first of five shows of Shakespeare's Globe performing The Taming of the Shrew at the Lyric Theatre at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

In Shakespeare's day, all the women's parts were performed by men. But in this version, they were all female actors, which in the beginning threw my friend and I into a loop.

However it all fits in the theme of disguise and trying to figure out the real from the fake, though adding another layer to it with women playing men.

Here too the actors sing and play musical instruments, from the guitar to the trombone, accordion and saxophone to break up scenes or add a bit of levity.
Katherina and her husband Petruchio on their wedding day

I have to admit it was fun watching women portray men -- Petruchio, who demands the petulant Katherina be his wife, is very aggressive and struts with an egotistic air, while the servant Tranio pretends to be his master Lucentio and is puckish and hip, a guy who boasts much more than he could deliver.

The humour was shown by both physical actions and how they interpreted the lines, making it fun and fresh. However we have to say it was strange seeing two women kiss on stage -- even though they were playing a man and a woman...

I last studied the play in high school and so I had forgotten how Petruchio "tames" Katherina in such a demeaning way. Not only does he prevent her from eating and sleeping, but from cleaning after having fallen off her horse in the mud. He demands that she follow what he says, that if he sees the sun, it is the sun even if it is not -- and if he changes his mind, she is to accept that.

As a woman it was hard to watch, particularly at the end when Katherina instructs her sister and Hortensio's wife how the woman should be subservient and obey her master because he is the one who looks after her... one has to wonder if this is still relevant today?

Katherina is covered in mud after falling off her horse
Her speech ends the play on a serious note, but then as the saxophonist, the woman playing Katherina comes out again on stage on her own playing the instrument to a lively song that the others later come out and perform. It was a strange ending, though one could see the director wanting to end the show on a high note so to speak.

Nevertheless, all the actors were very strong in their roles, not missing a beat and bringing laughs from physical comedy to verbal puns. The fact that they had to sing and play musical instruments demonstrated how demanding their roles were, though the latter was not their forte.

A fun (though long evening) that started at 7.30pm and ended after 10pm.

The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare's Globe
September 25-29
Lyric Theatre
The Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The People's Bookstore

Inside the People's Recreation Community in Causeway Bay
In Causeway Bay mainland tourists get their shopping fix at Sogo, Times Square, Gucci, Uniqlo, Sasa, i.t, Louis Vuitton and Chanel.

But they head to People's Recreation Community on Russell Street. One would think it's the last place mainlanders would like to go to because there are Chinese revolutionary posters on the walls, with Mao's quotations, mugs with the Great Helmsman's face, making it all very kitsch.

However it's where mainlanders get their banned books.

The owner Paul Tang started off selling simplified Chinese books in 2002 and he says because of its location, mainland customers started coming to his store.

The convenient location makes it popular for mainland visitors
When they started asking him for banned books, he immediately realized he had a business opportunity. "Now more than 95 percent of the titles we carry are banned in China," he says. "They are mostly about politics, sex, feng shui and religion."

He also says 95 percent of his customers are mainlanders, 30-50 years old. What's really interesting is that Tang has identified his customers by their consumer habits.

"Some men in suits will come up with an assistant. When they find something, they pass the book to their assistants without looking at them," Tang says. "They'll just walk out when they're done and leave the assistants to pay. Those are usually government officials."

It seems amusing, but they really don't want to be caught dead purchasing the books themselves, but the books they buy are now practically required reading, Tang says. "Many political books are about the lives of higher-level government officials, and naturally they want to know more about their boss. We know because some of them can't resist chatting with us."

Too funny.

The decoration in the bookstore is very kitsch
Even better, Tang adds, is that not only books about Zhao Ziyang and Deng Xiaoping are popular, but books on sex positions in particular. "They'll slip one or two into a pile of political titles -- some say it's for a friend's wedding."

Uh huh.

Tang says his business will keep going as long as there are banned books in China. "The interesting thing is most people are aware of how corrupt the government is. But they can't beat the system. They play along."

People's Recreation Community
1/F, 18 Russell Street
Causeway Bay

Monday, 23 September 2013

An Even Bigger Income Gap

We still don't know exactly where the money comes from, but we now know that "grey income" totalled 6.2 trillion yuan in 2011, accounting for 12 percent of China's GDP.

The results were released by the National Economic Research Institute in Beijing and published in Caixin magazine on Monday.

The study surveyed 5,300 households in 18 provinces and 66 cities. It found most of this money, from undocumented sources, was held by only a few people, where the urban rich make almost 21 times the poorest people -- an income gap which is many times more than the official figure of 8.6 times.

It also estimated that the per capita income of China's richest 10 percent in urban areas last year had an income of 188,000 yuan, 3.2 times the official number.

"Grey income", which is also known as hidden income, can come from various sources, from outright bribery, to under the table transactions, and gifts, say from parents to teachers.

So much for sporting a super expensive watch many times your salary, or ditto that Chanel bag... which is perhaps why the super rich are now preferring subtle hints of luxury than large designer logos that instantly label them as nouveaux riche.

What's really interesting is how people were willing to be interviewed for the survey, and what this small sample size tells us about the financial situation in China. The study is backed by the China Reform Foundation, an institution affiliated with the National Development and Reform Commission.

Wang Xiaolu is the senior researcher who led the study and has said in previous interviews that official figures were determined by those who volunteered information.

However, these studies compared alleged consumption with legitimate income, where researchers used a sophisticated algorithm to calculate the gap between income and consumption.

As a result this shows the Gini coefficient, which reveals income disparity, is much higher in China than the 0.5 figure released by the National Bureau of Statistics in January. The number 0 reflects perfect equality, while 1 is perfect inequality. A reading above 0.4 is considered a serious warning sign.

Seems like the Chinese government is fudging its numbers again, or is in complete denial about the ginormous income gap that seems to be getting bigger and bigger. Since these figures are somewhat government endorsed, what does this say about the Chinese leadership in its bid to crackdown on corruption as well as the beneficiaries of this "grey income"?

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The End of Bo's Chapter?

Bo Xilai stands before the judge to hear the verdict and sentence
The guilty verdict for former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai was not unexpected -- but the life sentence took China watchers off guard.

This morning at 10am the presiding judge Wang Xuguang read out the verdict that Bo was guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He was also stripped of his political rights, thus effectively eliminating any chances of a come back.

The court found him guilty of embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power. It rejected his defense that his confession to crimes were extracted through illegal means such as torture and interrogation.

His argument that his wife Gu Kailai's testimony was inadmissible due to mental illness was rejected, as well as his testifying that he did not abuse his power to cover up Gu's murder of Briton Neil Heywood.

Some believe Bo's feisty performance in court coupled with his insistence on pleading not guilty resulted in his heavy sentence. He plans to appeal, but following previous cases, appeals do not necessarily result in a lighter sentence.

The only small victory Bo had was that prosecution could not prove bribes of 1.34 million yuan, that were apparently flight tickets for Bo's son Guagua by businessman Xu Ming.

Bo will now spend his days in Qincheng Prison in Beijing, where his fellow inmates include his former police chief Wang Lijun, and disgraced railways minister Liu Zhijun. Gu is serving her suspended death sentence (life in prison) at Yancheng Prison in Hebei province, north of Beijing.

While Bo won't have to wear a prison uniform, he will have a diet of milk for breakfast; a soup and two dishes for lunch and dinner, and live in a 20 square metre (about 200 square feet) cell with an individual toilet.

The court ordered that Bo's financial assets be seized -- well the ones in China, which means his son Guagua won't be coming back home anytime soon and will probably live the rest of his life in exile. It's a strange predicament having your parents, who were so powerful, now in prison for the rest of their lives. Will he and his older half brother Li Wangzhi make amends?

That is probably the next chapter in the Bo dynasty...

Typhoon Usagi Passing Hong Kong

Severe Typhoon Usagi made landfall over two hours ago in Shanwei, Guangdong, about 140km east of Hong Kong.

Right now I hear lots of wind howling outside, and in the elevator shaft.

As this typhoon is expected to be the worst in over 30 years, people got ready for Usagi, clearing out supermarket shelves and made a dash for the wet markets this morning.

Saturday night at Wellcome supermarket, it was very telling what was most important for Hong Kong people to stock up on. It wasn't water, milk, eggs, fruit or soft drinks, but bread.

The entire bread section was wiped out, and I should have taken a picture as proof.

But it's good to know Hong Kong people have their priorities in order.

For the most part the roads and public transportation were not busy, many people either out of town because of the Mid-Autumn Festival, or staying at home, worried that the Typhoon 8 signal would be raised in the afternoon.

I was planning to go watch a documentary about the Three Gorges Dam at the Hong Kong Film Archive in Sai Wan Ho this afternoon, but when I got there, there was a notice saying all screenings today were cancelled!

So I went back home, stopping off at my usual place to buy walnuts and almonds before heading back. By then it was 5.40pm and the wind was already blowing hard, forcing me to close my umbrella.

We are expecting Usagi to hang around until early morning before it heads further into Guangdong.

Why do typhoons always hit a) on the weekend and b) overnight so we have to work the next day?

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Leather Craftsman for a Day

Folds were made inside with the small silver tool on the left
This afternoon I went to a company-organized workshop to learn how to make a cardholder out of leather.

The leather pieces were held together with double-sided tape
There were two shades of leather to choose from -- a tan colour and chocolate brown. I was forewarned the latter was a thicker leather and harder to work with, but it was the shade that appealed to me so I decided to grin and bear it.

All the pieces were cut out for us, though we had to make two folds in the long piece by scraping the fold on the inside of the leather with a small tool.

And then to hold the other pieces in place, typically you should use glue, but since this was a one-day workshop we used two-sided tape instead.

We made holes using a small fork and a hammer... hard work!
Once that was done, now came the hard part. With a mini pointed fork, we made holes along the edge of the cardholder by hammering it into the leather. We made lots of banging noises and it was pretty tough pushing through all the layers of leather. It was tiring to say the least! But it was good to get our aggression out.

Now came the really hard part. After choosing which thick thread to use and threading it through two needles at each end, we now had to sew the leather pieces together. We were taught to poke the needles on each side through the hole and pull the thread all the way to make stitches. This was why it was important to make good holes with the fork earlier...

Then we had to stitch the leather together using two needles
Needless to say this task not only called for strength in the fingers, but also digits that were made of steel. We poked ourselves many times, some fellow participants howling in pain with some blood surfacing too. I was not immune either and at one point even broke my needle as I tried to wriggle it through the hole using pliers. I got another needle and re-threaded the existing thread and plodded along.

I finally finished after three hours! The instructor helped with the final stitch and then cut the thread and used a lighter to melt the waxy thread together. I also embossed my initials on the inside.

My completed cardholder with embossed initials!
It wasn't after we were finishing the cardholder that the instructor told us our company's business cards were too big to fit in the cardholder! Oh well... my Octopus card fits nicely in it though...

Friday, 20 September 2013

Typhoon Talk

NASA's picture of Super Typhoon Usagi that could hit close to Hong Kong
All the talk in Hong Kong is about Super Typhoon Usagi possibly making landfall very close to the city on Sunday.

Meteorologists are saying Usagi could be the most powerful storm this year. Typhoon expert professor Johnny Chan Chung-leung, dean of the School of Energy and Environment at City University of Hong Kong, said Usagi could be just as powerful as typhoon Megi in 2010.

Currently it is on track to pass between Taiwan and the Philippines, and if Usagi doesn't hit a landmass before heading to Hong Kong, it could be one powerful storm hitting the city.

The Hong Kong Observatory's path prediction
Which is why everyone is constantly checking the weather observatory website to see if there are any changes in the prediction of Usagi's path.

But what they really want to know is, will it still hit on Sunday evening, or is it possible for it to come on Monday instead so people don't have to go to work?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Pictures of the Day: Mid-Autumn Festival

A hot pot lantern with a tiny but round moon in the distance!
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! 中秋节快乐!

The weather in Hong Kong has cooled in the last few days and with Mid-Autumn Festival here, the drop in humidity with some wind have been very welcome.

A reflection of the water bottle dome lit with LED lights
For today, companies must let their employees off early so that they can have the traditional dinner with their families and eat mooncakes.

So YTSL and I took the opportunity to have an early dinner and then head to Victoria Park where the main Mid-Autumn Festival event on Hong Kong Island is held for the public.

Inside was like a curtain creatively lit by water bottle lights
We arrived from Tin Hau station and immediately saw a giant dome made of plastic water containers lit with LED lights and got into the massive lineup. Luckily it went quite quickly -- just over half an hour, walking through the snaking queue until we got into the dome.

A traditional puppet show that's now mechanized
The shell itself is made of those giant water cooler containers and then inside there's thousands of water bottles also with small LED lights in them. They were like a curtain of water bottles which makes for an interesting low-cost design. Apparently the water bottles will be recycled after this event is over.

After our short tour of the dome we wandered around a bit -- or more like waded through a sea of people, everyone constantly taking pictures everywhere, making it hard to dodge and move.

There was a row of stands with businesses selling everything from drinks to cotton candy, dried squid, and even cha chaan teng chain restaurant Tsui Wah selling toast and its signature milk tea in a bottle.

One of the better-looking lanterns on display
We also saw some traditional crafts, including puppets, but these were automated.

However we weren't very impressed with the lantern selection this year. It seemed like the theme was food, and so there was a giant hot pot, a bamboo steamer with dim sum in it, a massive skewer with fish balls on it, and egg waffles too. Yawn Lame.

After that we were pretty much wiped out from having to deal with the crowds. You can only take so much before you just want to go home! Nevertheless we were pleased the weather held up nicely, the big round moon poking through the clouds periodically, because Typhoon Usagi may visit us on Sunday...

Fish balls and egg waffles... hmm...

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Just End to a Two-Year Nightmare

Justice was served today for an Indonesian domestic helper who suffered horrific torture and slave-like conditions by her employers.

Tai Chi-wai, 42 was sentenced to three years and three months in jail, while his wife Catherine Au Yuk-shan, 41, was handed a five and a half year jail sentence.

The trial which lasted several days gripped the city as the domestic helper Kartika Puspitasari, 30, testified about how she was beaten and forced to do undignified things for two years.

Kartika told of when she first arrived in October 2010, Au threw away all her clothes and forced her to wear over sized old clothes, but no underwear or bras. She also told of how Au cut off all her hair and brandished a box cutter, threatening to kill her if she let her hair grow back. Then the employer slashed her forearm and wrist with the blade, the scars still visible.

The domestic helper testified she worked seven days a week with no holiday or pay, and was forced to sleep in the kitchen. And then Au beat her often, using wire hangers, shoes, and a bicycle chain, and even scalded her face with a hot iron.

That's not all -- Kartika said in court that from June 27 to July 1 last year, before the family went on holiday to Thailand, Tai tied her legs to a chair and her hands behind her back. She testified that he left no food or water for her and literally sat there for five days until her employers came back.

The couple's defense? They claimed Kartika's injuries were self inflicted and that her claims were "ridiculous".

In giving his verdict, Judge So Wai-tak described the couple as "cruel" and "vicious", and that they had damaged Hong Kong's reputation as a safe place to work. He said that a doctor's testimony showed that Kartika could not have intentionally hurt herself because of where the marks were on her body.

According to media reports, Au and Tai were calm when the sentence was read out, and apparently were prepared for jail; they already contacted the Social Welfare Department to look after their three children ranging in age from five to 11.

Hong Kong started importing domestic helpers in the late 1970s which made it easier for women to go to work in order to contribute to a two-income household. They first came from the Philippines and more now from Indonesia.

While the monthly income they earn here is good compared to what they can earn back in their home countries, doing domestic work and looking after children and the elderly is physically demanding, and for many it's demeaning, as some have university degrees.

The majority seem get along with their employers, some have very happy relationships with their families, while Kartika's case is the other extreme as a two-year brutal physical and psychological nightmare.

This case shows how few checks and balances there are when it comes to Hong Kong families hiring domestic helpers. Since she lives with the family, the domestic helper has no choice but to live with the family and try to tolerate the situation.

Domestic helper support groups are now calling for the government to allow option of domestic helpers living with their employers so that they are not on call 24 hours a day, and also it will make it easier for them to report abuses to the police.

It will be interesting to see how the government reacts to this case and if it leads to further guidelines on how domestic helpers should be treated in Hong Kong. It cannot turn a deaf ear to these workers who make a significant contribution to the city's economy and community.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Last Meal

A colourful scallop tartare in a watermelon and cherry tomato consumme
Tonight my cousins and I went to TBLS, a private kitchen on Hollywood Road in Central.

The six-course tasting menu was fantastic, themed on Latin flavours.

Slightly spicy gazpacho soup with a hearty chorizo sandwich
We started with an amuse bouche presented in a small glass jar of deep-fried salted cod on mashed potato, followed by the first course called "soup and sandwich" -- the soup was a yellow gazpacho with ancho chilli panna cotta and Parmesan froth, accompanied by a homemade Mexican style chorizo sandwich with pickled watermelon skin.

The subtle spiciness in the soup was perfect and refreshing, the sandwich meaty and had complex flavours heightened by the watermelon. We were intrigued by what was to come next.

Again we were not disappointed, with slices of braised octopus on a bed of squid ink rice that also had a hint of spiciness from the fresh chillis.

Braised octopus on a bed of squid ink rice
The next dish pulled back from rich flavours to something more delicate. The scallop tartare was topped with a cilantro sorbet with two banana chips, sitting in a colourful watermelon and cherry tomato consumme. Very refreshing, savoury and sweet, crunchy and soft.

Berkshire bacon with guacamole (under the salad)
We were most impressed with the main of Berkshire bacon, a big square chunk that was braised and then the top was fried for a bit of crunchiness, topped with thin slices of pig ears, dressed with black bean puree and next to it a "salad" of guacamole. Perfect pairing and the bacon was delicious, fatty and meaty, practically melting in the mouth. The guacamole creamy from the avocado.

Just before our desserts we had a palate cleanser of sangria sorbet. Straight forward and yummy, which made us wonder why no one else had done this before...

Then our first dessert called chocolate bar -- chocolate mousse on a bed of cookie crust, topped with olive oil powder and surrounded by a creamy olive oil sauce. Very chocolately but not too sweet either, balanced with some sea salt.

The chocolate bar with olive oil sauce and powder on top
We also loved the second treat, a kind of macaron ice cream sandwich, made with salted dulce de leche ice cream and coconut cream.

Mmm mmm good.

But sadly this is the last menu the private kitchen is serving until the end of next month. It sounds like it's the same Hong Kong story of landlords being greedy and jacking up the rent.

Chef-owner Que Vinh Dang also says he wants to take a break and perhaps do some other food-related things instead.

Salted dulce de leche ice cream in between macaron shells
So we're sad to see TBLS close, but we are lucky to have finally tried it and the last menu. We hope to see chef Que out there again soon, creating new concepts for the Hong Kong food scene.

7/F, 31 Hollywood Road
2544 3433

Monday, 16 September 2013

Tourism Folly

Leung wants Hong Kong to do an even better job catering to mainland tourists
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying thinks the city should be doing more to capitalize on mainland tourism.

He said this after meeting Guangdong Governor Zhu  Xiaodan during a conference on cross-border cooperation in Hong Kong.

"As we recognize the contribution made by tourism to Hong Kong's economy, we should actively study how to expand our capacity so that the pressure brought about by tourists can be reduced in some districts," Leung observed.

Because of the negative aspects of mainland tourism in Hong Kong, the central government did not expand the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS) that started 10 years ago and according to the Tourism Board, over 100 million have come to the city.

Some are calling for a cap on the number of mainland visitors to Hong Kong, which has resulted in rents rising and closed many local businesses.

Is the mainland tourism market the only thing Leung can think of to boost Hong Kong's economy? That's what his predecessor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen thought and now we have the current situation.

The city has already done a lot to cater to the mainland market. Practically everyone in retail speaks Putonghua now, all the hotels, particularly the five-star ones are filled with mainland tourists, and they are eating up all the shark fin and abalone here.

They are buying up luxury goods and electronic gadgets and occupying Disneyland and Ocean Park. What more is there to do or buy in Hong Kong?

Some districts are busier than others because they are easier for mainlanders to get to... how difficult is that to figure out? They aren't going to go all the way to Sheung Wan to buy milk powder when they can get it in Sheung Shui.

But more importantly, why does the government think we need to further depend on the mainland tourism market?

We should be focusing more on innovation and creating or developing industries here than catering to people many despise...

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Fin-ally Progress on the Shark Front

Hundreds of shark fins drying on a rooftop in Hong Kong's Western district
Finally! The Hong Kong government is finally moving with the times and on Friday decided to stop serving shark fin to show the authorities are "determined to take the lead and set a good example on this front", a government statement said.

It adds the initiative goes "beyond the minimum expectation laid down" in the United Nations treaty that governs the shark fin trade. The ban also applies to blue fin tuna and black sea moss, or fat choy.

"The exclusion of these... items from official menus is a start and also serves as an example of raising public education and awareness on sustainability," a government spokesman said in a press release.

The ban is the result of years of lobbying by conservation groups, who say up to 50 percent of the shark fin trade goes through Hong Kong. Scientists believe some 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins.

Many Chinese do not know that once the fin is harvested, it will not grow back, and when the finless shark is thrown back into the water, it does a long painful death because it cannot swim properly without its fin.

The infamous shark fin soup
However there is now growing awareness in Hong Kong, with wedding couples insisting on not serving shark fin at their banquets, while airline carriers are shamed if they carry it as cargo. Meanwhile in China the ongoing clamp down on luxurious official dining has resulted in the plunge of shark fin orders from restaurants.

China actually took the lead on sharks fin before Hong Kong -- announcing last year that shark fin would be taken off official banquet menus, though it is believed it will take three years to really take hold.

Nevertheless, the mainland beat Hong Kong on this one, but rather late than never.

With regards to sea moss, we are surprised to hear the over-harvesting of the algae has led to desertification in part of northern China. So much for eating something that was considered a lucky food particularly during Chinese New Year and also supposedly good for colonic health.

In addition to the ban, Hong Kong officials are expected to take the lead and not even eat shark fin when served to them at non-government functions.

With this ban sharks can breathe a bit easier and hopefully their populations will grow again and continue to play a role in the sustainability of ocean life.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Real Lives of China's Paramedics

A scene from Emergency Room, a documentary by Zhou Hao
The Chinese Documentary Film Festival 2013 started last week and runs until September 28. It's been going for six years and this year features the largest program to date. I didn't know much about the festival until YTSL told me about it and we caught a documentary last night at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.

It's called Emergency Room by Zhou Hao made this year. At first viewers don't quite understand what is going on because there is no narrator. We literally follow paramedics in ambulances as they go from one call to another.

Here's the trailer:

One of the first calls is to a small lane and the paramedics, wearing white lab coats, have to carry their equipment to find a young man who has fallen from a low-rise apartment block.

But he is already dead by the time they arrive. After a quick assessment, one of the paramedics say that although the deceased was a drug user as evidenced by the needle points all over his arms, the man succumbed from his injuries from the fall.

The paramedics want the police at the scene to sign a paper proving they did attend to the scene, but the undercover police refuse to do so, as they admit to chasing the man and he jumped trying to avoid them. As a result the police are worried about being blamed for his death.

And so we get a peek into the life of paramedics, the people they attend to, how hospitals work in Guangzhou and the overall health system.

Paramedics only make money when they successfully collect someone and take them to the hospital and are paid by the patient themselves or family and friends.

However, when they ask the patients they bring to the hospital to contact their family or friends, many of them say they don't have any. One man is stabbed after a fight with a fellow factory worker. He is brought in but claims to have no friends, and yet doesn't want to tell his family where he is because he doesn't want to be seen as a failure. He starts to cry thinking of his predicament of being fired yet again.

Another is a drug user who wanders aimlessly in hospital clothes and yet claims to be looking for his sister, saying his father is in prison, his mother disappeared. One paramedic has to look after him and is annoyed that the original hospital won't take him -- this prevents the paramedic from going out on other calls, and thus earning more money.

But he takes his responsibility seriously and looks after the addict the best he can under the circumstances, much like baby sitting a petulant child.

There are a few cases of drinking too much alcohol. When the paramedics arrive, the groom-to-be has died from excessive drinking. They try to jump start his heart using a defibrillator many times, but he is long gone.

Meanwhile the grooms' friends are in a state of shock, wailing and kneeling in front of his body as the paramedics go through the motions even though they know he is dead.

Then there's another case of drinking too much but this time the guy is lucky, after he is given an injection inducing him to urinate. The young man even boasts that he usually drinks even more than tonight and how drinks with really high alcohol content leave his mouth feeling really dry. Really?

We also meet a woman who is apparently pregnant but passed out from an overdose because she had a fight with her husband after discovering he was having an affair. An acquaintance brings her into the hospital but then has to find the woman's parents to pay for the hospital fees, to no avail.

The woman comes to and smokes in the hallway, admitting she is pregnant. She claimed she wanted to kill herself and then staggers off.

Documentary filmmaker Zhou Hao
Meanwhile we watch some trainee nurses practicing for their exams, while full-time nurses complain about how men don't want to go out with nurses because they work long shifts.

The documentary shows how sad people's lives are -- migrants who come to the city alone and hardly have any friends they could depend on to help them, others in depressing situations, and then those who are drug addicts whose families have deserted them and turn to hospitals for help.

It also demonstrates how the paramedics only have time to deal with symptoms and nothing is being done to address underlying social problems.

What is even more impressive is how this film was made -- with a digital camera -- and the paramedics are willing to be so candid. Periodically the cameraman -- probably the director -- asks them questions to further explain things or talk about their livelihood, but for the most part the camera watches them, with some amusing results.

Hao was previously a trained photographer working in state media before he switched to documentaries in 2001. His best known work is Senior Year, about the dreaded annual gaokao or university entrance exams, while Using follows a drug dealer.

Emergency Room is a snapshot of what is going on in Guangzhou -- but could easily be a picture of every other city in China. We hope Zhou continues to make these kinds of documentaries to show us what is really going on in the mainland -- warts and all.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Playing into Occupy Central's Hands?

Zhang Xiaoming, director of Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong
Looks like Beijing is forcing Occupy Central's hand by declaring the public will not be allowed to nominate candidates for Hong Kong's next leadership race in 2017.

Zhang Xiaoming, director of the liaison office wrote in an open letter published yesterday, ruling out a "civic nomination" of allowing candidates to run for the top job if they had a certain proportion of voters' nominations.

He said a provision in the city's mini-constitution requires candidates to be chosen by a "broadly representative nominating committee".

"The electoral method for the chief executive has to comply with the Basic Law," Zhang wrote. "Article 45 of the Basic Law states that nomination is by a broadly representative nominating committee... there is no other option. Civil nomination has neglected the requirements stated in the Basic Law," Zhang said.

He was responding to democrat Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit, who proposed that having the public nominate candidates does not go against the Basic Law.

It all hinges on how "broadly representative nominating committee" is interpreted. In Zhang's case, it's the existing format, whereas Leong sees "broadly" as a much wider base.

We are wondering how Beijing's latest decision is going to work, considering it has promised to allow Hong Kong people to vote in 2017, yet no outline has been given.

Zhang's statement only plays further into Occupy Central's plans to go ahead with civil disobedience.

The Chinese government doesn't want to be seen as negotiating with Benny Tai, one of the founders of Occupy Central, but at the same time it leaves the group no choice but to press ahead.

Beijing will just continue its stubborn stance and may think Occupy Central will give up its cause; but it will not work. If Hong Kong was in China, the government would have already quashed Occupy Central and thrown the likes of Tai into detention and not heard of for months until finally he would be charged with subversion, convicted, then thrown in jail together with Liu Xiaobo.

But this is Hong Kong, and so Beijing better think carefully about how it deals with the city and its people. China's knee-jerk bullying will not go down well in Hong Kong -- it will only make Hong Kong people more determined to fight for their rights.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Two Solitudes Need Bridging

We are hearing more anecdotal stories of young Hong Kong people who refuse or hate to work in China.

Recently we heard from a professor in biomedical engineering that as part of their program, students need to complete an internship. The vast majority refuse to intern in factories across the border producing medical equipment even though the professor believes this is a career path with a good potential.

He told us one of the factory owners called him to say his student complained about the living conditions and working in the factory, so the prof went up to Dongguan to see for himself.

When he inspected the factory and the dormitory, the prof thought everything was fine, just the student was just complaining too much.

Last night we heard a similar story, but this time it was a full-time employee of a marketing company also in Dongguan. His family lives in Tuen Mun so every morning he would be picked up in a car with dual license plates that drove him across the border to work and in the evenings take him back home.

As the only son he seems to be extremely spoiled and refused to live in Dongguan even though it would not be as much of a waste of time commuting. His reasoning to his fiancee was that Dongguan was dangerous.

Dangerous? For a guy?

I explained to his fiancee that I had lived in Beijing by myself for three years and know less Chinese than her but survived.

She herself had only been to the Chinese capital once -- when she was very young when she went with her family and stayed at her grandfather's friend's place. It turns out her grandfather had lived there for a time, studying French.

Then she recounted the first and only time she was there, they visited the Forbidden City, but the washrooms there were horrific, as the toilets were flushed only periodically by washroom attendants with buckets of water.

Seems like that experience scarred for life and never wanted to go back there.

And it seems like many other Hong Kong Chinese young people want nothing to do with the mainland. They are in total denial.

But the fact is Hong Kong is a part of China and it is vital for them to understand the country because let's face it, the city's biggest customer is China. The vast majority of our tourists are from there, we are doing more and more business with mainland companies and by 2047 we will be fully integrated into China whether we like it or not.

Which is why I urge everyone to go to China for a year to look around, and to see with their own eyes how the people live and work and understand their mindset.

For example, why do their children urinate in the MTR? Because those, particularly from rural areas, don't use diapers and they just literally go wherever they are. They were not brought up to believe this was wrong or there was another way to do it.

We are judging them with western values. Yes urinating in public is a hygiene issue, but that is what they have done for generations and never thought anything of it.

I am not a "panda hugger", but advocate understanding and the best way to do that is to go see the real China, beyond the striking skyscrapers and massive highways, sleek subways and Ferraris, and meet the real people. See where they live and work, understand why they are the way they are because of the politics and culture of the place.

From living in China for a year, Hong Kong people will have a greater appreciation for where they live, but also hopefully accept mainlanders for who they are and try to not only better cater to their needs, but also try to subtly educate them into becoming more refined and more responsible citizens not only in China, but the world.

Does that sound naive? It may sound grandiose, but really, it's as they saying goes: "Walk a mile in someone else's shoes before you try to judge their journey".

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Monogamous Man Behind Ashley Madison

The lipstick-covered Noel Biderman
As the man behind Ashley Madison, Noel Biderman bills himself as the "most hated man on the internet", with pictures of him wearing open collar shirts, with lipstick kisses all over his face and surrounded by leggy models not wearing much. That's because Ashley Madison is a dating website primarily for married or attached men or women looking for some action on the side.
Even before the founder and CEO arrived in Hong Kong for the city's launch of Ashley Madison, church groups and family value organisations upset about Biderman's website harming the family as a social institution.

"Without trying to moralise, [the website founder] is treating something as serious as marriage very casually," said Reverend Lawrence Lee, the Chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong. "Family life and fidelity in marriage are essential for the well-being of our society. If you weaken that foundation it is harmful to society."

Meanwhile Mayte Yeung Kit-wah of religious group The Society for Truth and Light said extra-marital affairs should not be encouraged.

"Not only will it lead to the unforgettable damage in marriage by which trust and commitment will be destroyed, it will also jeopardise the relationship between spouses and also with their children," she said. "Broken families have become a major problem in western societies and gradually in Hong Kong and the cost is always borne by society as a whole."

According to the Census and Statistics Department, the divorce rate in 1991 was only 1.1 people divorced per 1,000 people, but in 2011, it jumped to 2.8 people per 1,000.

However, Biderman is an old hand at brushing off the criticisms.

The Simpsons' take on Ashley Madison called Sassy Madison
"People had affairs in every country before Ashley Madison arrived," he says. "But they had them in the workplace or within their circle of friends – which is much more destructive. We don't want to convince anyone to cheat, but we can tell them how to have the perfect affair. And that means not only finding the right partner, but also not getting caught."

Hong Kong is Ashley Madison's 30th country, with over 20 million members. In the first week 82,669 people signed up, of which 31,415 are women. The profiles include not only the age, status and which district they lived in, but also what they were interested in, ranging from sex talk to fetishes and "lots of stamina". Curiously, the users' photographs had the option of adding a mask over their eyes that seems unattractive than beguiling.

By way of starting the interview in a suite in the Peninsula Hong Kong, Biderman's handlers invited journalists to watch a 30-second commercial. Viewers are meant to feel like voyeurs spying on a couple in the throes of passion under the covers through a green-coloured lens, in an attempt to entice people to sign up at Ashley Madison.

"By the time we explain what we want to do, we find it easier to just do it ourselves," explains the Canadian entrepreneur, of the company's advertising.

While the images may look amateurish, Biderman is serious about his business.

"Infidelity is universal. It plays out the same way everywhere. That's why I'm building a global dating company," he says, sitting back comfortably in a dusty pink shirt, white jeans, and blue suede shoes. The 42-year-old has a few grey hairs, but looks slimmer than his appearance in the ads.

"People have affairs and they go to singles dating sites when they shouldn't. There are lots of like-minded adults looking to cheat and that's what Ashley Madison is for," he says plainly. Having had so much media coverage, Biderman feels comfortable despite the barrage of criticisms over the morality of his website – in fact he welcomes the attention.

His idea for Ashley Madison came about when he worked as a sports attorney for Interperformances Inc, one of Europe and North America's largest sports management firms. He managed 45 athletes around the world and saw first hand the infidelities they dabbled in.

"Professional athletes play in different countries and they're 10,000 kilometres from home. They're in a high stress profession, and they have lots of fans, fan-dom. So there's lots of temptation. It's like putting a plate of cookies in front of you and you think you can resist them but it's an overestimation. This happens to politicians, athletes and celebrities. They are surrounded by fans. Infidelity is part of the professional sports landscape."

Tiger Woods comes to mind, and Biderman added Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain to the list. "Athletes, CEOs and politicians are type A personalities, people who are risk takers and have power and influence which makes them tend to cheat. At some level we are unsure about our relationship or are curious about cheating."

He recalls getting a phone call in the middle of the night from one of his basketball players in Milan saying his wife back home missed him and wanted to fly over to meet him. "But my Italian wife won't like that", Biderman recalls him saying.

The athlete had just tied the knot with an Italian woman and as the manager, Biderman had to scramble to annul the marriage, pay the woman off, make sure she had a pregnancy test – a massive headache that made him think there must be a better, more discreet way to cheat.

Biderman began researching statistics on affairs and found over one-third of users of internet dating sites are not single and so he concluded they are a community of their own. In order to make it a level playing field, he made Ashley Madison geared towards women. 

"Men are predisposed to cheating, whereas women are penalised, in that it is beyond the scarlet letter and stoning them," he says. "When a woman joins a dating site, she meets a man, and he seems perfect but then he disappears and she finds out he's married. It's close to a sexual assault."

He's also done his research on Hong Kong – considering it a separate market from the mainland. 

"It has a unique culture and different regulatory body," he says, though he freely admits the Hong Kong site is a springboard to China. "I see hundreds of thousands of hits from China," he says. "They're doing it either virally or they somehow hear about the most talked about dot-com. It's in the mainstream media, like Bloomberg, CNN, CNBC so it's made its way into the vernacular."

And when The Simpsons spoofs your own commercial, you know you've become mainstream. In one of the episodes, Marge Simpson thinks she is ordering a cake from Dolly Madison but mistakenly logs onto Sassy Madison, enticing her to cheat on Homer. "We are the Kleenex of cheating," he says proudly.

"Cheating is in our DNA," Biderman has been quoted as saying, and in the case of women, he says they enter affairs not just for sexual reasons. "They were once objects of desire, taken on dates, given flowers, but then 10 years later there's no conversation, only grunting," he says. 

He says cheating nowadays is on another level, where one's history of which websites they have visited are the equivalent to digital lipstick. Biderman says with Ashley Madison, users log onto the site and use the messaging system there and so no personal email addresses are exchanged.

Ashley Madison works on a credit model, where men pay HK$360 for 100 credits to contact 20 women. "Infidelity is transient," explains Biderman. "Some say they'll give it three months, or the site must be broken. Or on Monday they will think it's time to do something. They can pay as they play."

Biderman explains when people must pay to make contact with others, it forces quality. "A guy can blast 1,000 women, but he isn't going to get any responses. When it's targeted, the women get the invitation they want."

In setting the price in Hong Kong, Biderman says users can be price sensitive. "In Switzerland and Japan it's higher than average, but in Columbia it's lower, and we need to do something about the number of users there," he said. "We look at the CPI index, the price of things when we set the prices."

He also looks closely at the statistics – that men at the age of 39 are more predisposed to having an affair, much like buying fancy cars or women having plastic surgery. Men also tend to cheat three to four years into the marriage when their wives are pregnant.

Universities of Duke, Michigan and California at Irvine are partnering with Ashley Madison to mine the data to examine trends in infidelity, with over 25,000 users self-publishing why they are having an affair and sending hundreds of thousands of messages a day.

Biderman and his wife Amanda
"We've found that when Asian women want to join our site, 95 per cent send messages to non-Asian men because they are looking for something different in their marriages," Biderman says. "Sex is the human condition and monogamy is set up to fail."

This coming from the man who has been married for 11 years to his wife Amanda with two children, a boy and girl.

"My wife is my biggest cheerleader. When I said, 'Honey I want to start a cheating website' she said, 'Yeah, OK', and I explained why and how, she said, 'How can I help?'"

In fact, Biderman says, working on Ashley Madison has helped him be more faithful since he deals with infidelity everyday on the job. While he says his children are too young to know exactly what he does, but claims he will be honest with them. "I think they will judge me for the dad I am."