Saturday, 30 November 2013

Picture of the Day: A Scary Christmas

Harbour City shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui hit the jackpot this year when it brought the giant rubber duck to Hong Kong.

It easily won over fans compared to the inflated Stonehenge and excrement over at M+ in West Kowloon that is set to become the city's cultural hub.

Rubber duck paraphernalia is still sold in stores and a larger version of it went around Beijing.

However, Harbour City may have missed the boat this year in its Christmas decorations.

It banked on Disney characters set in globes, including Nemo, Alice in Wonderland, Pixie from Peter Pan and Stitch.

Perhaps the most popular one of the displays is Mike and Sulley from Monsters University to be the big winner, but it really was the minions in Despicable Me 2 that won the animation battle this year.

The hot item for Christmas at Toys "R" Us is the minion toy where you can poke their stomach and they jiggle their arms and make funny sounds. Can you imagine a child having more than one of them and constantly pushing their tummies? They would be entertained for hours...

Nevertheless, the minions were so popular in Despicable Me 2 that they may have their own movie, perhaps Harbour City will book them for next Christmas?

Friday, 29 November 2013

Escalating Tensions

China's air defense identification zone created this week
China's establishment of an air defense identification zone has not only come as a shock to everyone in the region as well as the United States, but it is also escalating quickly.

Today it sent its fighter jets into the area after US and Japanese planes flew into the zone without filing flight plans to China.

This week's sudden declaration of the area that includes the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands was made without consultation with anyone and shows that Beijing's military hawks are playing this round.

How much of a blessing they have from President Xi Jinping is unknown, but the fact that so far no one has filed flight plans with Beijing has basically meant the proverbial middle finger at China.

The first to dare China was the US, sending two unarmed B-52 bombers over the zone, with Beijing sending a warning aircraft and jet fighters into the area, tracking the American planes. South Korea has also flown through the zone.

Apparently Beijing will not resort to military action unless it detects hostile intentions, but that can be subjective and also could lead to nervous fingers on triggers, thus escalating tensions.

China is not the first to establish this zone -- in fact Japan did that in 1969 and expanded it in 2010, sending military aircraft to fly through the area without prior notification.

As a result, China is doing the same thing, with defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun saying, "We would like to ask Japan to revoke its own ADIZ first. China will then consider this request in 44 years," referring to its setting up the zone in 1969.

If this isn't a tit-for-tat, we don't know what it is. We might add here that according to Time magazine, any nation can create ADIZs and have no global legal significance, which is different from a nation's internationally recognized air space and no-fly zones. 

The fact that China has escalated the situation with constant military patrols and other countries brazenly defying Beijing's rules could lead to escalating conflicts of a military kind.

The Chinese military is keen to flex its muscles, but it seems to be doing it in a very childish way but with expensive toys.

We just worry that someone will make a mistake or there is a misunderstanding that could inadvertently lead to a bad situation.

Or Beijing's leaders are letting the military hawks blow off their steam and then will eventually corral them back into the pen.

We shall see.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Steep Fall from Grace

Happier times when Rafael Hui (centre) was chief secretary... but now bankrupt
If you file for bankruptcy in Hong Kong because you owe say, HK$75 million, then you aren't allowed to take a taxi or use a credit card.

That's the fate that has fallen on former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan, 65, who is involved in a corruption case with Sun Hung Kai Properties co-chairmen Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong and Raymond Kwok Ping-luen.

Yesterday the High Court declared Hui bankrupt for failing to repay unspecified debts to the Bank of East Asia, but he also owes money to other lenders: Hang Seng Bank, Honour Finance (a company owned by Sun Hung Kai Properties), Chong Hing Bank and Standard Chartered Bank.

Some media reports suggest the debts amount to HK$75 million, with an unconfirmed HK$60 million to BEA. One wonders what he used the money for.

Other non-benefits of being bankrupt is that you can't use credit cards, can't hire an expensive lawyer unless your family will foot the bill, and you can't live in a big house either again unless your family owns it.

We will probably eventually find out how Hong Kong's former No. 2 official got into such a deep financial hole, but in the meantime, it's public transport for Hui like the rest of us plebs.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Tang Basement Saga Ends

Henry Tang's wife Lisa Kuo is fined for the illegal basement in their home
The verdict is in -- Lisa Kuo Yu-chin, the wife of former Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen was rapped on the wrist with a HK$110,000 ($14,189) fine for building an illegal basement in their Kowloon Tong home.

She pleaded guilty to starting construction of the basement without planning approval during her trial at Kowloon City Court, and three other defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

Originally Kuo faced two charges, but when she pleaded guilty to one of the charges, prosecutors decided not to pursue the other, deciding that one was enough to demonstrate her guilt.

This brings to an end the fiasco over the basement at their home on York Road that was dubbed an "underground palace", reportedly 2,400 square feet and featured such luxurious facilities as a wine cellar, home theatre, gym and a Japanese bath.

At the time Tang was running for Chief Executive and quickly blamed his wife, saying the property was under her name and that "it was my wife's idea and I knew they were illegal. Since we were experiencing a low ebb in our marriage, I did not handle the matter swiftly. I take full responsibility for the incident".

However, many saw through his explanation and criticized the politician for blaming his wife, and eventually was punished by losing the Chief Executive position to Leung Chun-ying because of the basement and his admission of infidelity.

Speaking of which rumours of children born out of wedlock have yet to be confirmed...

In any event, Kuo could have gone to jail for the charges laid, but perhaps the court saw it really wasn't her fault.

Now that the trial is over, perhaps Tang can focus on more important things, like making amends with his wife or drinking his massive wine collection than standing on a soapbox whenever Leung makes a mistake.

We already have many critics jumping on the Chief Executive wherever he goes.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Memories of Maison Boulud

Daniel Boulud opened Maison Boulud at the SE corner of Tiananmen Square
When I first arrived in Beijing there was a lot of buzz about celebrity chef Daniel Boulud opening a restaurant on the south east corner of Tiananmen Square in time for the Olympics in 2008.

First walking into the Chi'en Men 23 compound was an interesting discovery, seeing these European-style mini mansions facing a square pond in the middle, with Maison Boulud being the most majestic one of course.

It was previously the American consulate and the chef/restaurateur did a fantastic job with the place, the large foyer with a chandelier and two white columns leading up to a white staircase, while there was wood panelling on the walls, a bookcase and by the door a side table with pictures of Boulud with American President Barack Obama and his family.

The restaurant was located in the Legation Quarter
On the right was the dining area, a large, high-ceiling area that must have held many cocktail and dinner parties. The place was transformed into a very sophisticated dining room that would have been at home in New York, with a large black and white print on the wall, as well as large mirrors on other walls, and one side looking out into a small garden space. There was banquette seating all around the room, very orderly and clean lines.

I fondly remember brunches here because they were very good value. The strategy was to order two courses, an appetizer and a main, because throughout the meal there were baked goods presented in a basket that was replenished constantly, followed by freshly baked Madeleines and then petit fours.

It was so decadent to eat gourmet in a beautiful setting and have impeccable service -- in Beijing. The first manager was Ignace Lecleir, a well-built suave Belgian who spoke to all the guests and you felt so special you already looked forward to your next visit.

The decor was sleek, chic and sophisticated -- new for Beijing
Whenever visitors came to the Chinese capital I made a point of taking them to Maison Boulud and after I left Beijing I always recommended it to people to try.

I splurged on two dinners there, one for Christmas, another for my then boyfriend's birthday. He was so thrilled to be there that he wanted us to eat the degustation menu. Needless to say I had to be rolled out of there afterwards I was so full. But it was lots of fun.

My last time there was last September when I took a local friend there for brunch. She had hardly eaten gourmet western food before so everything was new to her but she was game and tried everything put in front of her. It was neat watching her sample foods she'd never had before.

Then this past September I had the privilege of meeting Monsieur Boulud himself in Hong Kong where he presented a special dinner at Amber in the Landmark Mandarin Oriental.

The beef tartare dish at Maison Boulud
I told the affable Frenchman that I had tried Daniel in New York, the short-lived DB Bistro in Vancouver, and that I had lived in Beijing and Maison Boulud was one of my favourite restaurants there. I gushed about the decor, the food, the service... and he seemed happy to hear that.

But now I hear that Maison Boulud in Beijing will close on December 8 because of a hike in the rent, according to the executive chef, Brian Reimer.

This is the statement from the restaurant:

To The Patrons of Maison Boulud  

Allow us to thank you for the past five years and allowing us to share with you all our joy of cooking and hospitality.
Only  through you all have we have been able to experience Beijing and bring the style of Daniel Boulud to the nation's capital.

With our partner we had a very difficult decision to make about Maison Boulud and did so with much restraint. It has been and shall continue to be exciting to watch the changes of Beijing along with China as a whole. The coming months will bring many exciting new projects to our company and we look forward to sharing them with you all very soon.....

Maison Boulud a Pekin

Meeting the man himself at Amber in Hong Kong
Reimer said the decision to close was not made suddenly, as it had been under discussion for the past six months. However he says the restaurant will reappear in another incarnation somewhere in Beijing, probably something more casual.

In the meantime we will savour our memories of Maison Boulud through the incredible combination of food, service and atmosphere that made dining there unforgettable.

Au revoir, Maison Boulud.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Pleading for Extradition

Wuer Kaixi tried again unsuccessfully to get himself extradited back to China
Former Tiananmen Square activist Wuer Kaixi is desperate to see his parents in China.

He has been in exile since 1989 and made a new life for himself in Taiwan, married well and gained weight too.

The "second most-wanted man" is wanted for "conspiracy to subvert" and Wuer tried to get himself arrested and deported back to the mainland, but was foiled again today.

He flew from Taiwan to Hong Kong and was detained at Chek Lap Kok airport for several hours, hoping he would be arrested by the police and then extradited so that he could at least see his ailing parents behind bars.

"I hope to be [re]united with them while they are still alive, even if it mean the reunion would take place behind a glass wall," he said. "I am transiting from [Hong Kong] because it is my last resort," he said in a written statement.

"What I am doing now is a result of the [mainland] government's absurd act of ordering my arrest, while at the same time refusing to allow me to return."

After four hours of interrogation, immigration officers deported him back to Taiwan.

Wuer said that a denial by the Hong Kong government to help him meant they did not accept with Beijing's official position.

"If that is so," he added, "I appreciate it... and I then request the Hong Kong government to stop denying [other] Chinese dissidents the right to enter."

Wuer's lawyer Lam Yiu-keung criticized the Immigration Department for not paying attention to his client's request.

"He never requested entry and had no intention of entering Hong Kong," says Lam. "He simply wanted to convey a message to the Hong Kong government to inform the [liaison office] of his intentions."

Wuer has previously tried unsuccessfully to get himself arrested in Macau, Japan and the United States. The Chinese government does not want to let Wuer have his way even though it would probably love to have him in prison.

Interestingly in 2004 he was allowed into Hong Kong to attend the funeral of Cantopop diva Anita Mui Yim-fong, but not to pay his respects for democratic leader Szeto Wah in 2011, along with fellow dissident Wang Dan.

Perhaps the next step is for Wuer to fly directly into China and that would be unknown territory in terms of how he would be treated. Would he be willing to dare to go that far?

With the 25th anniversary of June 4 coming up next year and a lot of media attention around it, we wonder if he will pull that stunt off.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Picture of the Day: Ominous Clouds?

After seeing this picture would you believe it would pour a few hours later?
This morning was yet another beautiful day, slightly warmer temperatures making it perfect T-shirt weather.

I had a late start to the day and eventually left the flat around 2pm for a swim and then had to rush to Quarry Bay for an appointment.

Short on time I took a taxi there and managed to catch this shot why passing by Tin Hau/Fortress Hill.

I left Quarry Bay around 5.30pm and wondered if I should go shopping for some home ware, but then decided to try to beat the rush home.

At Central I got on the 18P bus to Kennedy Town and soon after the bus left the bus stop the sky suddenly became dark and it started to rain! How could the weather turn so differently from the afternoon? I was so surprised to see it pouring, and many bus passengers like me were caught without umbrellas.

By the time I arrived back in Kennedy Town the rain still refused to go away and I used a bag I was carrying as my impromptu umbrella (not really). I was pretty soaked by the time I got home.

And soon after I came home? It stopped raining.

For the past week I didn't checked the weather forecast because it was pretty much the same everyday. But now I'll have to go back to diligently looking at the website and putting an umbrella in my bag...

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Up to the Same Tricks

TVB host Nat Chan Pak-cheung hanging out with Patrick Tse Yin
Ever since Ricky Wong Wai-kay lost the bid for a free-to-air TV license for HKTV, Hong Kong people began complaining louder about the low quality of programming on TVB, even though it makes the most money.

Its rival ATV is a distant second and so the public was hoping HKTV would give TVB a run for its money -- literally.

However it was not to be, though people were still keen to make TVB work harder.

This past week TVB broadcast its 46th anniversary charity show, and before the event, flamboyant host Nat Chan Pak-cheung pledged he would crawl home on his knees if the show only had a three-point rating.

By throwing down the gauntlet, Chan inspired a campaign to boycott the annual show and track down the households that were monitored for ratings. Chan later pledged he would donate HK$3 million to charity if the ratings hit 30 points.

In the end he just squeaked by at 31 points, with an average rating of 29 points of 1.856 million viewers and a 95 percent free-TV audience share for TVB.

Does this mean the majority of Hong Kong people love bad TV?

We see TVB is creating more budget programs like the one we saw tonight.

Magic is a perennial favourite, but the TV station didn't build a special set for the show. Instead the three hosts went on location to different places in Hong Kong to get magicians to do tricks in front of passersby.

The first place was Cheung Chau where they met with a magician from the outlying island. His first trick was pointing to a fishing boat in the distance with a red T-shirt hanging on it.

From the viewer's perspective his hand covered up the boat, but then in an instant the T-shirt was not on the boat but on his body!

Another was literally making sandcastles on the beach by lifting a cloth off the sand. How he did that I had no clue.

Then the trio of hosts went to Sham Shui Po where another magician lit up light bulb tubes like light sabres without any wires, while another in Mongkok made fish balls appear in a paper bowl with curry sauce. Or how about the magician putting his hands in a tank with just one small fish and then opening his hands to release a whole school of fish?

The only bizarre one was having a pretty TVB starlet change clothes literally in seconds. She walked into one changing room and in two to three seconds wore a new outfit. Then she walked towards the camera and was covered up by a clothes rack and presto! A new set of clothing.

Towards the end she wore a dark blue dress and for the finale a white dress on top and you could see the blue dress underneath...

The show format was very similar to Cris Angel and a Taiwanese magician Lu Chen who are in restaurants or hotel lobbies doing tricks in front of live audiences, but the TVB one is set in Hong Kong.

How hard is it to copy what's already been done?

Friday, 22 November 2013

Fact of the Day: HK$7 Billion Donated in 2012

Private bank Coutts has revealed in a recent report that almost HK$7 billion was donated to charities by 47 Hong Kong philanthropists.

When converted to US dollars it's $877 million, and this compares the city to the United States ($13.96 billion), the Middle East ($727 million) and $1.18 billion from China.

Most impressive is a single donation of $257 million from 94-year-old plastics billionaire Dr Tin Ka-ping, which made nearly 30 percent of the total Hong Kong donations. His donation went to a foundation set up in 1982 to focus on education in the city and in China.

The vast majority of the Hong Kong donations when locally and to the mainland, and less than 5 percent overseas.

Coutts Institute director Mark Evans says the actual total amount of donations in the city could be even higher, as only publicly recorded donations were tallied.

The Hong Kong research was made with the partnership of Chinese University, by going through public records, charity annual reports and news stories.

Evans noted the large donations follows a worldwide trend of wealthy families setting up foundations instead of leaving large inheritances to children.

"Succession of family business empires has been a point of worry for many rich families," he said. "More and more families are thinking twice about leaving all the money to their children.

"They are worried that it could be very damaging [to the next generation]... This has become one of the bigger motivations for philanthropy."

This seems like a good solution, and one that benefits the community and society as a whole. Hong Kong needs patrons who will take the lead in solving or at least alleviating social issues because the government seems to hem and haw over minor details.

So while all this money for goodwill is amazing, who is making sure it is going to all the right places? That's what needs to be answered.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Zaijian, Mr Locke

Gary Locke with his family when they first arrived in Beijing
US Ambassador to China Gary Locke has tendered his resignation and will leave the post in January to join his family in Seattle.

He was in the job for two years and it must have been interesting for the third-generation Chinese-American to see his grandparents' homeland.

Locke quickly endeared himself to the ordinary Chinese when he was spotted flying economy class, carrying his own luggage and trying to pay his Starbucks coffee with coupons.

But his tenure quickly escalated into international news -- twice.

He endeared himself to the Chinese for being humble
The first was in November 2011 Locke visited Chongqing where he met the then party chief Bo Xilai. Three months later Bo's right hand man Wang Lijun fled to the US consulate in Chengdu and told of the story of a murder that implicated Bo and evidence of corruption in the hopes of receiving asylum in return.

In the end there wasn't enough justification for the US to take him in and this led to Bo's downfall which we saw a few months ago.

Then last May blind activist Chen Guangcheng managed to escape illegal house arrest in Shandong and fled to Beijing and sought refuge in the US Embassy.

This created a huge diplomatic crisis for the US, as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was about to arrive for scheduled talks and didn't want this incident to anger the Chinese.

At first the embassy didn't want to confirm Chen was there, but in the end said it accepted him on humanitarian grounds and medical assistance.

He will be forever remembered in helping Chen Guangcheng
Perhaps Locke's misstep was leaving Chen alone in a Beijing hospital to get his foot looked at because he broke it while escaping; as a result Chinese security stepped in, and Chen was unable to contact the embassy, nor were US diplomats able to see him. This made Chen anxious and felt abandoned, even betrayed.

In the end negotiations were made for Chen and his family to go to New York.

Some speculated that Locke is leaving because of the increasingly bad air quality in Beijing, but the consulate denies this. Nevertheless his family has already moved back to Seattle and so it would only be a matter of time before he rejoined them.

So what's next for Locke? Surely he won't be out of the headlines for long.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Blatant Switch

Stephen Chan is not only chief executive of Commercial Radio but host too
Last night as I sat down to dinner in a hotel restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui east, across from us was Stephen Chan Chi-wan, head of Commercial Radio and now morning show radio host.

He looked jovial with his dining partner as they powered through dinner and left before we did even though they sat down after us.

Nevertheless he is currently in the hot seat after he removed popular morning show talk show host Lee Wei-ling with himself and placed her in the evening slot starting on Monday.

Lee is a well-known government critic and very popular. However, there are rumours that part of the deal for Commercial Radio to renew its broadcast license in 2016 was to remove Lee from the prime-time morning show, though the station denies this.

Not only was that an outrage, but how Chan did it which is even more out of line.

Oh Monday during her debut on her evening program, Lee claimed chief executive Chan had threatened to fire her in a series of text messages if she did not accept the new position.

"At one point, he said that if I did not go to the press conference that day [announcing the change], he would have no choice but to fire me," Lee said on Monday evening during her show with co-host Elizabeth Wong Kit-wai.

However Chan said the message, which said he would "have no option but to end our contractual relationship" if she did not take the evening hosting duties, was an attempt to ensure she confirmed arrangements for a meeting and press conference.

"Briefing her on the new assignment in my office, I felt that she was comfortable accepting it -- and had agreed to attend a working meeting and a press conference scheduled for the afternoon," Chan said.

However later on Friday he could not get in touch with her and sent her a text message at 2.39pm demanding that she get back to him by 3pm. And if she did not, he texted that he would consider that she had rejected the new assignment.

"Management-wise I needed to know," Chan said. "If she was not accepting the move I would have to explain it to the media."

In the end Lee did reply 14 minutes later that she accepted the new job, but would not attend the press conference.

Chan says Lee was moved for strategic and administrative reasons (how much more vague can one get!), but Lee believes it was politically motivated.

"I do not think it would be surprising to conclude Leung Chun-ying's administration dislikes me," Lee said, adding that government officials had "warned" her to "be careful of her job".

Lee said she "lost control" after being told of the move and didn't want to attend the press conference as she was "emotionally reluctant to face my bosses" and "did not want to cry in front of the public".

While she admitted it would be "difficult" to continue as a presenter, she felt "obliged to uphold freedom of speech". "I hope the public will stand by my side," she said.

The way Chan went about the shuffling Lee around may have been a ploy to rush her into a situation where she didn't have enough time to think things through so he could still retain her for her popularity but just not have her in the prime-time slot.

Either way he did it in the most insensitive way possible -- but then again many bosses in Hong Kong can be like this in order to have their cake and and eat it too. What he did was threatening and possibly illegal. Who gives someone 21 minutes to decide whether they want to keep their job or not?

In the end Lee is now in a difficult position, but much like Ricky Wong Wai-kay, whose HKTV failed in its bid for a free-to-air TV license, she will become yet another defiant hero in the eyes of Hong Kong people.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

How Not to Respond to a Crisis

Philippine President Benigno Aquino tends to smile throughout a crisis
Last night as I was on the treadmill on the gym, I turned to BBC and watched a reporter interview Philippine President Benigno Aquino where he was on the ground at a town called Guiuan handing out supplies to victims of Typhoon Haiyan.

While he was smiling at them, all these people wanted was aid and didn't seem to care Aquino was personally handing it to them.

The reporter asked Aquino why it had taken so long for aid to get to stricken areas as people in Tacloban had complained they had not received any food or water for over a week.

His response? Aquino retorted that the journalist should instead ask the first responders in Tacloban this question.

My jaw just dropped to the floor.

He could have explained how it was really difficult to reach remote areas, that roads were destroyed or that vehicles couldn't get through, that the aid workers were doing the best they could to reach the victims and that things were now getting better.

Instead he seemed to want to shift the blame to others, that it was up to the local governments to provide aid and the national government would provide backup.


And he seemed contrite as he explained this to the journalist, smiling as he criticized some towns for not doing enough compared to others in the relief efforts. Perhaps it was because they weren't as heavily damaged, whereas others had no clue where to begin?

Today I asked some Philippine nationals in Hong Kong what they thought of Aquino's remarks last night.

One was shocked, saying the president should bear more responsibility for the situation. The Filipino added when the Hong Kong tourists were held hostage and killed on the tour bus in August 2010, Aquino should not have been smiling while he acknowledged the situation. He should have at least looked more serious in front of the cameras, he said. He wondered aloud if Aquino would be re-elected.

Another I asked said over the phone that politically she didn't know what to say, and instead she would focus on donating to the relief efforts. She seemed embarrassed by Aquino and didn't want to criticize him in front of someone who was not from the Philippines.

Aquino has also tried to play down the number of dead. A few days ago he claimed it was around 2,500, much less than the estimate of 10,000. However it is now just under 4,000 and counting.

Meanwhile China has been sneered at for its pathetic offers of aid. At first it donated a paltry sum of $100,000 which has now increased with an addition $1.64 million which compares to $20 million by the United States, $10 million from Japan including troops and supplies, and $28 million from Australia. Even Ikea gave $2.7 million, Coca-Cola pledged $2.5 million.

Hong Kong finally did its bit with $5.16 million, but not without being miserly about still expecting the Philippines to apologize about the Manilla shooting incident...

It's interesting to see how people and governments react in times of crises...

Monday, 18 November 2013

Finally a Donation

Lee Shau-kee has donated land for a Tuen Mun nursing home
Henderson Land chairman Lee Shau-kee must be really desperate to leave his legacy because he has been so persistent in wanting to donate land to Hong Kong that he finally got his wish.

Lee, 85, donated 100,000 square feet in Lam Tei in Tuen Mun to build a 2,000-bed nursing home for the elderly. Currently a car park, the space will be conveniently located next to Pok Oi Hospital. The nursing home is expected to be in operation by 2017.

While the land comes from the company, the tycoon also donated HK$107 million, the equivalent of the land price and the land premium needed to rezone the area into community use. He donated the money to Henderson Land as a personal donation.

Earlier this year Lee tried to donate land to the government to build 1,000 small flats for about HK$1 million each on farmland in Yuen Long. However the Hong Kong government rejected it, saying he should approach such non-governmental groups as the Housing Society instead. Discussions are still on going with the society.

We're still trying to figure out why this need to donate land... with the Yuen Long site, it is understood Henderson Land owned plots near the farmland he would have donated so it would have raised the property value of the area.

But here we shall find out if there are some strings attached or some trick up his sleeve, but so far, it looks pretty much above board.

Tuen Mun has a large number of elderly residents so the nursing home will be put to good use.

Maybe Lee is keen to be the anti-Lee Ka-shing?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

ABC Spells Delicious

The menu placed on the place setting at ABC Kitchen
I'd heard about a western restaurant called ABC Kitchen in Sheung Wan that was very good but had yet to try it. It's run by ex-M on the Fringe staff who lost their jobs after the restaurant had to close in 2009 after it was pushed out due to new government regulations.

The lamb shank was one of the highlights of the evening
Some of the staff wanted to continue doing similar fine dining but not have to give in to landlords and pay exorbitant rents, so they found a spot in a dai pai dong. Why not?

It's not in the Sheung Wan wet market, but a bit further west at Queen's Terrace, next to Hotel Ibis. On the first floor is a cooked food centre where ABC Kitchen rubs shoulders with restaurants serving Cantonese, Indian and Nepalese, and northern Chinese-style dumplings.

The atmosphere is noisy, with kids running around and the decor isn't much to look at, the area is relatively clean. What sets ABC apart from the others is the red and white checkered table clothes, printed menus at eat place setting and wine glasses.

So was the lobster thermidor, a special dish offered tonight
I finally got to try it out tonight as a pre-birthday dinner with my cousins and it was quite a treat.

For starters the soup of the day was chestnut soup and it was a bit thin with some croutons and a dash of olive oil on top, though it had the chestnut flavour mixed in with a few other ingredients we couldn't quite decipher.

We ordered three mains and as the staff knew we were sharing, each dish came to the table one at a time. First off was the lamb shank with beans and mashed potato. The meat literally fell off the bone and went perfectly with the dry French red wine we were drinking -- with no corkage.

A signature dish here is the roast suckling pig and rightly so
Next came the special of the day, lobster thermidor -- two halves cooked with onions, a light curry sauce and baked with cheese on top. Even better the meat had been extracted, sliced up and then placed back in the shell for easy access. The lobster was cooked perfectly and wasn't too heavy with the cheese. My cousin even mopped up the sauce with some bread.  

Our final main was another favourite -- roast suckling pig. Served with mashed potatoes and red cabbage, it was also a succulent dish, the meat very tender contrasting with the crispy skin and we made sure we finished the plate practically clean.

Perfectly executed souffle
To finish off the meal we had two desserts and the cheese platter. The latter featured three cheeses with some dried apricots, nuts, grapes and crackers. The cheeses were relatively mild and not as interesting as the desserts.

Most impressive was the Grand Marnier souffle. It was quite large and tall, while the inside was cooked through with hardly any wetness. The taste was light and airy with a bit of crunchiness from the sugar at the bottom of the ramekin.

We also loved the pavlova, meringue with a mango sorbet topped with fruits like nectarine, strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, peach and kiwi with passionfruit sauce drizzled on top. The meringue itself was quite good, though a tad too sweet, but a refreshing combination with the fresh fruits and tart passionfruit sauce.

The bill came to HK$934 ($120) for the three of us not including the wine.

Sweet and tart pavlova with fresh fruit and passionfruit sauce
I also enjoyed watching a little boy, one of the owners' son, thoroughly enjoying his pavlova. He sat on his own quietly with his small spoon and digging into his dessert, savouring it and then taking another bite. So cute.

A little boy enjoying each bite of his pavlova
ABC Kitchen
Shop 7, Food Market
1 Queen Street
Sheung Wan
9278 8227

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Picture of the Day: Kau Kee

Patient Kau Kee fans wait in line for their beef brisket fix at lunchtime
After our jaunt around the Peak we headed back to Central and made our way to The Chairman for lunch.

It's near impossible to book for dinner without waiting a month in advance, so lunch is a better option.

Anyway we arrived very early and decided to wander around the area. Just above The Chairman is Gough Street and at the top of the stairs was a very long line -- for Kau Kee (九記牛腩) which is famous for its beef brisket noodles in clear soup and its own special blend of milk tea.

But a long line?

People waited patiently -- one middle-aged local man even brought a copy of the International New York Times to read.

I've tried the beef brisket noodles and the other signature dish, curry beef noodles. While they were good, I wouldn't line up for them, but perhaps there are people who have nothing else better to do on a Saturday for lunch...

A Trip to the Peak

This morning's slightly hazy view of Hong Kong from The Peak
Today was my mom's last day in Hong Kong and because the weather has been quite clear she suggested we go up to the Peak.

After a quick breakfast we headed up by taxi and made it there just after 10am. We walked the circular route and were pleased to find the beginning of Lugard Road was relatively quiet save for a few people who seemed to be regulars on this path.

When we arrived at the clearing, we could see the air wasn't as clear as we thought, with smog deterring our view of Kowloon and beyond. Nevertheless it was better than when I took my dad up there in April.

Then we continued on our walk and could hear the construction at 27 Lugard Road where developers are converting a 97-year-old residence into a 17-room boutique hotel.

Lining the gate at the bottom of the hill below the hotel were several posters and papers in English and Chinese condemning the development that the Town Planning Board approved a few months ago.

The introduction of a boutique hotel where people either walk or jog and take their dogs for walks will be interrupted by vehicles ferrying guests to and from the hotel. The biggest argument against the hotel was safety but also the environmental impact.

But apparently the Town Planning Board ignored pleas to keep things are they are and developer Crown Empire which bought the property last year for HK$384 million also has the Butterfly and Serviced Apartment Group in its portfolio.

We were dismayed to see this happening and that vocal protests fell on deaf ears.

Further along the path we could see other homes that were either abandoned for many years or didn't seem to be kept up very well. For sale and for rent signs have been hanging on the gates of some properties for a long, long time with no takers. While the property is worth a lot there, it must be a conundrum as to what to do with it as the area is so popular with residents and tourists.

We finished our walk in just under and hour and then decided to take the Peak Tram home. We caught it just in time and when we arrived at the bottom we saw hordes of people in the queue waiting to get on.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Taiwan: Final Observations

A foggy view of the city from Taipei 101
During our trip to Taiwan, we saw lots of mainland tourists, but also Japanese as well. You could instantly tell the difference between the two because they were like night and day.

The mainlanders spoke loudly, usually wore mis-matched clothing and footwear, and carried lots of shopping bags, while the Japanese were the complete antithesis -- polite, quiet, well dressed and well traveled.

It's interesting to see how the Taiwanese have been so strongly influenced by the Japanese decades after the occupation, or it's because the Taiwanese are so desperate not to be mistaken as mainlanders.

The Taiwanese are also very polite, quiet, well-dressed, and also very honest and generous. One time our tour guide opened the lid to her lip balm in a washroom in a shopping mall and it fell and rolled out of her stall.

After she came out she asked the washroom attendant if she had seen the lid and to give it back to her. The attendant kindly said she would, and seemed to try to memorize the guide's face. This would never happen in Hong Kong -- in fact one would never bother to ask because the answer would be "No", or "Find it yourself".

Also the honesty and straight-forwardness was refreshing. It made me realize how skeptical I am when I hear about or see something in Hong Kong -- I'm always on alert wondering, "Is that true?"

But in Taiwan, there seemed to be almost no reason to be skeptical of almost anything which made me realize how typical it is for people in Hong Kong to be scammed and it is your own fault for not knowing.

Or is it because the Taiwanese do a good propaganda job on us?

For example they are so proud of the National Palace Museum, for Chiang Kai-shek's foresight in protecting the treasures from the Forbidden City. Many locals are fans of the museum and come every few months when some of the exhibits change. They are also very learned and educated people who know a lot about Chinese culture, particularly history, literature and the arts.

While they respect Chiang for establishing Taiwan after 1949, the Kuomintang practically colonized the island, resulting in the White Terror period, where anyone considered against the KMT were arrested and or killed.

However in hindsight they resented his spending two-thirds of the budget on the military because he wanted to be ready to fight China anytime to reclaim it, and only one-third on developing the island.

It was his son Chiang Ching-kuo who became Premier of the Republic of China from 1972-78 and then President of the Republic from 1978 to his death in 1988, who realized that Taiwan would lose the battle to reclaim the mainland and instead focused on building the island into what it is today.

When we visited the Culture Park of the Chiangs, I remarked to our tour guide that American General Joseph Stilwell didn't like Chiang Kai-shek and called him "Peanut" for his incompetence, a fact she did not know at all.

But back to today, where Taiwan is being led by President Ma Ying-jeou and his popularity is at an all-time low of 9.2 percent in September from 13 percent -- even lower than when Chen Shui-bian was in office -- thanks to Ma's pro-China stance. Many Taiwanese feel he is selling out Taiwan to the mainland. Not that they want Chen to return as he's in jail for corruption, but they definitely want someone representing their interests. Sound familiar?

There are other domestic issues too, as Taiwan's economy is stagnant, with nothing really stimulating it except for mainland tourism. Fresh graduates are having trouble finding jobs and property prices are sky high. Sound familiar?

The Taiwanese are also curious to see how Hong Kong is dealing with China and so they are watching with interest what happens next year with Occupy Central. While the pro-Beijing camp is trying to pre-empt the group by saying it's radical and its plan is illegal, some Occupy Central members have reached out to Taiwan for moral support.

This has really annoyed China, but in some ways, Hong Kong and Taiwan are two peas in a pod, dealing with the same dragon.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Pineapple Cake Debate

A box of SunnyHills pineapple cakes with one cake cut in half before I ate it!
Pineapple cakes (鳳梨酥) are must-buy edible souvenirs from Taiwan. They aren't delicate pastries like croissants or macarons, but from the outside look like yellow bricks which is the short crust, but inside is a thick filling of pineapple sweetened with some sugar.

However there is much discussion about whose pineapple cakes are the best because there are so many different brands, even in the airport gift shop. Before my trip to Taipei, a Hong Kong friend excitedly told me about a brand her colleague brought back from Taiwan. She could not stop talking about how good it was, and how different it tasted from other ones she had tried.

She even emailed the brand's name (SunnyHills), address and web address to me, as a sign of insistence that I had to check it out.

However, another friend who had just come back from Taipei, raved about another brand called Chia Te Bakery. She told us about the different flavoured pineapple cakes, not just the original, but also combinations of pineapple with red bean and cranberry. She added there were long lines in front of the store just to get the cakes, though it went quite quickly.

During dinner on the first day we arrived, I can't remember how it happened, but we talked with our Taiwanese hosts about pineapple cakes. Someone brought up how famed Taiwanese restaurant chain Din Tai Fung sold pineapple cakes that tasted quite good, but our hosts gave them the thumbs down.

"Those are contracted out," they said. "There's no way they could make their own cakes so they aren't good."

When I brought up Chia Te, they again immediately shook their heads and waved their hands.

"No good!" they said, adding it was only doing well because the brand was so well known, while the quality had dropped.

We were surprised to hear this because our friend is quite a foodie and knows her food.

But then they told us about a different brand that they said was the best. When I asked if they name was SunnyHills in English, they said yes. Bingo!

Our Taiwanese hosts told us that whenever companies send pineapple cakes during special occasions to their office, everyone wants to get first dibs on SunnyHills cakes. So if locals think they're good, they must really be.

They said it was so good because the pineapple they used was grown in Taiwan, whereas other producers used imported ones as there wasn't enough pineapple to go around. Interestingly SunnyHills was started about four years by IT tycoon Hsu Ming-ren, chairman of Asian Information Technology Inc.

SunnyHills uses Smooth Cayenne pineapples grown in Nantou County and Hsu has said quality local ingredients are the key to the company's success. "The filling of most pineapple cakes on the market is mixed with winter melon. But we use only Smooth Cayenne pineapple, which is sweet, but also naturally sour," he said.

His brother Hsu Sheng-ming manages the pineapple production where three years ago they used 10,000 pineapples a day, whereas the first year was only 2,000. Surely the number has doubled since.

When Hsu Ming-ren created his first batches of pineapple cakes, he gave them to his clients, the likes of Hon Hai Group chairman Terry Gou and BenQ Group chairman KY Lee -- all in the IT business -- who loved the cakes and word spread. Fast.

SunnyHills cake is a slender rectangular shape, unlike the typical ones that are more fat and stubby. Inside the filling is dark and as Hsu says, not as saccharine sweet as other pineapple cakes we've tried before, with lots of bits of pineapple in it. The pastry is more crumbly, but probably with the use of butter has a nice smooth taste.

So the next tine you go to Taipei, put SunnyHills pineapple cakes on your shopping list!

Tel: (02)27600508
Hours: 10am-8pm

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Hakka Cuisine Taiwanese Style

The heart-stopping Hakka dish of braised pork belly with pickled mustard greens
Taiwan has many Hakka (客家) or kejia, literally "guest families". They are Han Chinese who speak Hakka language and were said to migrate from northern and central China to the south.
Marinated fresh bamboo shoots
Some famous Hakka are Dr Sun Yat-sen, Soong Ching-ling, Deng Xiaoping, Lee Kuan Yew and Chow Yun-fat.

In Taiwan 15-20 percent of the population is Hakka, making them the second-largest ethnic group on the island.

As a result Taiwan has some great Hakka restaurants like the one we tried in Chungli in Taoyuan County. It's an unassuming place, the staff are relatively friendly and if the restaurant's not busy, the kitchen will churn out dishes faster than you can eat them!

Curried soft-shell crab with small cubes of potato underneath
For starters we had bamboo shoots, fresh and large, lightly marinated and crunchy, followed by half a goose and half a chicken served cold.

Fantastic braised eggplant cooked Thai style
Next came the highlight of slices of dongpo rou or braised pork belly with pickled mustard greens that were placed in steamed flat buns. It was very greasy and not good for cholesterol levels, but very tender combined with the sweetness of the meat and savoury from the pickled greens.

There was also curried soft-shell crab that was slightly spicy, the flavours delicious and the sauce was also soaked up by small potato cubes. Intriguingly the dish was served with Western-style soft slices of bread but they went well together.

An array of mushrooms in a soup with a flavourful broth
One of the vegetable dishes featured a green one whose texture was similar to a soft celery, stir-fried with mushrooms, and braised eggplant was fabulous Thai style with a bit of chilli.

My favourite was the soup that was made using various kinds of mushrooms, including button, shiitake, and ones that looked like the eroded rock sculptures at Yehliu. They were cooked in a simple yet tasty broth I had to have seconds.

Our final course was like a Chinese-style pasta dish, with short noodles about an inch in length, stir-fried with julienne carrots, spring onions and minced pork.

I have the name card but it's all in Chinese... will have to get a translation!
Stir-fried short noodles with carrots, spring onions and pork

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Taipei Day Four: Naturally Wonderful and Strange

Waves crash over rock formations that look like candles at Yehliu Geopark
This morning, our last day in Taipei, there was light rain but we pressed on to Yehliu, over an hour's drive from the city. There is Yehliu Geopark, where you can see interesting rock formations due to erosion.

Standing by the Queen's Head
The land was created by cross movements of the Philippine and Eurasian plates, and the seashore containing limestone is also affected by marine erosion and weathering.

As a result there are various areas of the park that with a bit of imagination, have led to interesting rock formations as well as fossils of urchins, also called sand dollars. 

When we arrived it was very windy with light rain. To shield us from the elements, we donned lightweight plastic yellow ponchos that made us look like aliens next to the other tourists, most of whom were mainlanders.

Before we entered the park we were obliged to watch an eight-minute video introducing the area, which is a UNESCO site. The most famous rock formation is called Queen's Head for its profile of a regal-looking woman, while others look like giant mushrooms, pieces of ginger, a pineapple bun, a sandal and even candles.

A sand dollar spotted on the ground, one of many in the park
Before I go on, we watched the video with a group of mainland tourists. Two of them (men) in the front row, one with an iPad, the other with a camera started recording the video. A female staff member told them not to record anything so they put their devices down, but only for a few seconds and then proceeded to record the rest of the video. Even their tour guide didn't say anything even though he stood near them!

The end of the video warns people not to cross the red lines marked in the park or to touch the rocks. And what do many of them do when they start wandering the park? Security guards were constantly blowing whistles and telling them not to touch the rocks… imagine having a job like that all day…

The rocks here look like giant pieces of ginger
In any event we enjoyed seeing the various natural rock sculptures that were quite a curious sight. They are located very close to the water where there are rough waves, hence the red line. Our guide told us there have been incidents where tourists have stepped over the line to get a better shot and then were washed away into the sea!

The Fairy Shoe was one of our first sightings, what looked like a giant sandal and the Queen's Head. There was a long line of mainlanders so I snuck past them off the side to take a quick shot. It was only from that particular angle that the face could be seen otherwise it looked like an ordinary rock.

The tranquil pond at Culture Park of the Chiangs
I also spotted a few sand dollars, but they weren't particularly protected – or was it because they were too small have a ring around them, as people stepped all over them on the ground.

Nevertheless it was definitely worth the visit. We did see a few cranes, but perhaps because it was so windy or we weren't in the right place that we didn't see any other birds.

After lunch we headed to Daxi township in Taoyuan County where we checked out the Culture Park of the Chiangs. When Chiang Kai-shek was in power, he liked to visit places all over Taiwan and pick the best ones for his many residences. 

Some of the hundreds of statues of Chiang Kai-shek...
And to commemorate Chiang, many places from schools to government buildings, parks and thoroughfares had busts and statues of him.

But after Chen Shui-bian came to power in 2000 ending over 50 years of Kuomintang rule, he decided Taiwan should have a fresh start and ordered all of Chiang's statues be removed.

A good number of the over 3,000 busts and statues ended up in this park, as the scenery is reminiscent of his homeland in Xikou, Zhejiang. The area is quite pleasant, with a pond full of fish, green grass and paths for visitors to walk on.

... as well as busts of the Generalissimo that line the park
But it is strange to see so many likenesses of the Generalissimo all over the place, some arranged in circles as if having discussions with himself! The other interesting thing is that they all seem to look the same, wearing the Mandarin suit with a grandfatherly smile.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Taipei Day Three: Rain Forces Alternate Plans

The wind was blowing so hard I had trouble steadying the camera to take this!
This morning there was light rain but we thought we'd press on and head to Yangmingshan (陽明山) or Mount Yangming, an hour's drive from Taipei. It's the closest cluster of mountains near the city and were formerly created by volcanoes about 2 million years ago.

Heavy fog made it impossible to visit Yuanmingshan
Our guide told us that there's still thermal energy below resulting in hot springs for visitors to soak in.

However when we got there, the wind was so intense, blowing the rain combined with heavy fog we couldn't see much and our guide was worried it wasn't safe. Just waiting for our car to turn around and pick us up, my umbrella flew open the other way, while my mom's trousers were pretty soaked.

Inside the tea house on the fourth floor of the museum
So much for Yuanmingshan. We immediately decided to go back to the National Palace Museum and check out a few more things in detail. While there were some tour groups there it wasn't as busy as when we went on Saturday afternoon.

Armed with audio guides we checked out the jade section, where the Chinese considered jade to have strong spiritual powers and we could see its progression from being a useful tool for cutting things and skinning animals, to objects revered in rituals and for decoration.

Our bowl of delicious Taiwanese beef noodle!
The carvings are so impressive, particularly the relief ones -- how did they do that? And cut perfect circles to create the bi discs?

We also saw the exhibition on snuff bottles. I didn't know that the powder inside these small elaborately decorated containers was actually high quality tobacco ground into a powder, fermented and then sealed.

And because the powder was imported from the west by missionaries, the powder didn't do so well in humidity. As a result the containers were designed with a small opening, large body and spoon-stopper.

The entrance to the National Geographic photo exhibition
Then we had lunch in the tea house on the fourth floor of the museum, an airy place with views of the area. The menu is limited but was good. The highlight was the Taiwanese beef noodle, large chunks of meat that were tender with thick wheat noodles in a flavourful broth that came with pickled vegetables and peanuts.

Perhaps the highlight of the day was checking out the photo exhibition put on by National Geographic to celebrate its 125th anniversary. My cousin recently went to Taipei and told me about it so I'm glad I was able to see it (thanks to the weather).

Looking up at Taipei 101...
National Geographic was founded in Washington DC on January 13, 1888. It describes itself as a "unique scientific educational institution" that "has been a media for the dissemination of information". Its second president Alexander Graham Bell and first full-time editor Gilbert H Grosvenor said that "pictures are the language of the magazine", and Bell gave the order to "use pictures and plenty of them".

We saw 150 stunning images from the Society's back issues, many I have not seen before, others looked a bit familiar. There were the first pictures of Tibet in 1916, the first underwater picture in 1927 and the Society sponsoring people like Jacques-Yves Cousteau, newcomer Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

There was a picture of the discovery of the Titanic by Bob Ballard in 1991 and the first American team to trek up Mount Everest in 1963 with 19 climbers and 32 sherpas.

Looking down from Taipei 101... when the fog cleared a bit
Visitors also got to read the back story about the pictures such as one of a wolf jumping from one small ice floe to another in mid air. The dramatic shot was taken by Jim Brandenburg who has taken pictures of wildlife for 20 years but thinks in that time he has only taken seven good ones!

There's a picture of a lion cub who place its paw around the back of the neck of its mother that looked so human-like, that there were a number of inquiries for a copy of the photo when it was published in 1986.

Another amazing one is of a hummingbird in flight in Panama as it collects nectar from a flower. The picture is so sharp that the viewer can clearly see the detail of the features, lots of colour and each feather had edges of gold.

The massive wind damper on the 88th floor
Steve McCurry's haunting photograph of an Afghan girl in 1984 was actually rejected at first and then a photo editor looked at it again and put it on the cover. A few years ago McCurry managed to find the same girl again, now a grown woman.

Before dinner we checked out Taipei 101, that was for six years the tallest building in the world until the Burj Khalifa in Dubai took over in 2010. Every eight floors is one section and there are eight sections that are meant to create the look of bamboo. There are 101 floors in total and it takes only 37 seconds to get up there.

The building is able to withstand earthquakes thanks to the world's largest wind damper, a massive yellow ball held up by pulleys so that if the building sways one way, the ball and pulleys counteract it in the opposite direction. So the mascot of Taipei 101 is called "Damper Baby"...

Staff hard at work making dumplings at Din Tai Fung
We had to go through a massive strange coral museum and showcases of coral jewellery before we could take the elevator to go down. It took us 45 seconds to get down, mostly due to wind resistance.

Dinner was at Din Tai Fung, conveniently located in the basement. We arrived relatively early after 6pm so we were practically able to walk in as they don't take reservations. We ordered a few items we'd never tried before, including xiaolong bao made with black truffle, another with shrimp and loofah vegetable, and a plate of stir-fried Chinese fiddleheads that were fresh and slightly crunchy.

A plate of Chinese fiddleheads that were tasty and crunchy
To end off the evening we checked out Eslite, the 24-hour bookstore and it was relatively quiet, people wandering around or sitting on the floor reading books and magazines. We are expecting more light rain tomorrow...