Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Succulent Seafood @ Steelhead

Looking at the open kitchen and the artwork above it with a fishing theme
I have a former classmate who lives in Seattle and I asked her what recommendations she had for restaurants downtown.

One she has visited and enjoyed is Steelhead Diner at Pike Place Market and so after our first day of shopping we headed there for a late dinner.

A half pint of the Kilt Lifter ruby ale
It's a block up from the touristy seafood market and it's next to Rachel's Ginger Beer that is known for making handcrafted ginger beers using natural ingredients.

The diner itself really does look like a diner with booth seating and old school formica tables, though the ceilings are very high. And the restaurant has a fly fishing theme, as the logo is a fly -- used by anglers to catch fish, while there are some of the real thing put together in plexiglass boxes.

The theme also hints the restaurant focuses mainly on local seafood, being steps away from the fresh seafood market, while there are a few meat dishes to keep carnivores happy.

In keeping with the local theme, the diner also has some craft beers on tap and I ordered a half pint of The Pike Brewing Company's Kilt Lifter ruby ale. It really does have a lovely ruby gem-like hue and as the waitress sold it to me, takes quite balanced with a slight taste of smokiness.

With that, we started our dinner with dungeness crab and bay shrimp tater tots ($9), featuring the crab and shrimp meat mixed in with mashed potatoes and deep fried then garnished with roast red peppers and cilantro. There was a lovely seafood taste from each bite, thanks to the meatiness of the seafood.

Delicious crab and shrimp tater tots
Another winner was the Alaskan razor clam chowder ($10 bowl), a white chowder with apple smoked bacon and flavoured with the delicious smelling truffle oil.

I ordered the Pike Place cioppino ($25) that was a massive bowl choc full of plump Mediterranean mussels, massive though slightly overcooked Gulf shrimp, perfectly cooked fin fish and large sweet clams in a spicy tomato broth with torchio pasta and diced potato.

It was quite overwhelming for one person to finish, but it was so delicious -- savouring the succulent seafood, and enjoying the flavourful broth -- that I soon realized I would finish the dish (minus some pasta). The cioppino definitely hit the spot.

The very large but satisfying cioppino with local seafood
We also enjoyed the steamed Totten Inlet mussels a la Vercruz ($15), again featuring the juicy mussels with some spiciness from the Spanish chorizo, and more fresh flavours from the basil, white wine and dried tomatoes.

The jumbo lump Dungeness crab cake ($17) were really large and thick, almost all made of crab meat and panfried for a slight crunch.

If that wasn't enough, we were intrigued by the peppermint cheesecake ($10) for dessert. It's actually a subtly flavoured mini cheesecake with a chocolate cookie crust topped with finely chopped candy cane cake bark and whipped cream.

It tasted more of the mintiness from the candy cane which made it more refreshing in a way to balance out what many perceive is the heaviness of cheesecake. I could only manage eat one bite, while my two companions couldn't stop eating the delicious dessert and cleaned up the plate.

The peppermint cheesecake on a plate decorated with flies!
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit here and fondly remember our lip-smacking dishes...

Steelhead Diner
95 Pine Street, Suite 17
Seattle, WA
(206) 625 0129

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Flocking with the Chinese

I just returned from an overnight trip to Seattle with some good friends where we shopped, ate, and saw a few sights.

Yesterday morning we headed out early to avoid long waits at the Peace Arch border crossing, but many others had the same idea as us. However we were lucky with a relatively short wait and we were soon on our way.

Our first stop was at Seattle Premium Outlets which features many brand names such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, Swarovski, DKNY, Michael Kors, Coach and Kate Spade.

What was most interesting about this indoor/outdoor outlet was that periodically there would be announcements broadcast in Putonghua, welcoming visitors to the outlet to shop. The message was not translated into English or in any other language.

And pretty much everywhere you looked, there were mainlanders in many of the stores. The vast majority of customers in Burberry were from China because the clothing and accessories here were priced at over $100, from blouses to handbags to raincoats.

At Lacoste a somewhat stylish Chinese woman made her son or nephew do all the simultaneous translation for her, asking about polo shirts with the ubiquitous crocodile logo.

Then about 20 minutes later I saw them again at Tumi, where she and her friends were interested in buying some suitcases, where they were served by a young Chinese American man who didn't speak Mandarin.

Again the son or nephew had to translate again, and they would ask such inane questions as, "Is Tumi one of the best luggage brands?"

What else can the sales person say?

Perhaps the funniest part of visiting this outlet was bumping into my good friend from Hong Kong. I knew she was in Vancouver for the holidays but had no idea she would be in Seattle too!

Seattle Premium Outlets
10600 Quil Ceda Boulevard
Tualip, WA 98271
(360) 654 3000

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Cash Debacle

Stopping traffic to pick up free cash on the road on December 24
There are still reports about people returning the cash they picked up in Wan Chai when HK$15.23 million in HK$500 and HK$1,000 notes fell out of a security van on Christmas Eve.

Three people were arrested so far (and then released on bail), and 41 people have returned HK$6.4 million, just over one-third of the money missing.

Some HK$15.23 million in cash spilled out onto the road
Police have warned that people must hand back the money otherwise they will be committing theft.

Barrister and lawmaker Alan Leong Kah-kit added: "If the persons who have taken cash from the scene volunteer to surrender it to the police in a short period of time, it is less likely for the police to charge them with theft as it may be harder to build a case."

The security van was carrying HK$270 million for Bank of China when three plastic boxes carrying HK$17.5 million each fell onto Gloucester Road.

Lots of people stopped their cars on the busy street to pick up the cash and flee, with a report of one woman grabbing several bundles of cash before disappearing into the crowd.

Police managed to recover some cash on the scene
It's funny the security guards who were sitting in the front of the vehicle didn't even notice the door was open or that the money was missing until they got to Kowloon... they probably don't have their jobs anymore, but why does Hong Kong seem to have only one security company?

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Some of the mouth-watering sushi that Jiro Ono presents in the documentary
Another documentary I watched on the plane was Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

It was made in 2011 by David Gelb, and follows then 85-year-old Jiro Ono, who is considered to be the world's best sushi master, the first to receive three Michelin stars, and Japan has declared him a national treasure.

The octogenarian may look elderly, but he is still deftly making sushi, being a strict task master to his eldest son and apprentices, and constantly trying to perfect his sushi. He claims that he even dreams about it, and hence the title.

However, it is a tall order for his eldest son, 50-year-old Yoshikazu, who many think should be allowed to take over the restaurant called Sukiyabashi Jiro, but Jiro wants to keep going until he is physically unable to.

Jiro watches elder son Yoshikazu make sushi
Meanwhile the younger son, Takashi was given the opportunity to open another branch in Roppongi Hills, because traditionally it is the older son who inherits the restaurant, but how can he when his father is still making what many consider as the finest sushi in the world?

We find out about Jiro through a well-known Japanese food writer, how his sushi is out of this world. And we meet a former apprentice who knew he had no hope of being promoted further and opened his own place.

Jiro himself opens up, candidly talking about his father being a wayward man, not being there when he grew up, and how Jiro fell in love with making sushi and has continuously learned about the culinary craft. For him it is not about being innovative, but constantly improving on what he has done or known before.

For example a live octopus is massaged for 45 minutes to ensure the meat is as tender as possible at the last moment, and how Jiro observes his diners if they are left handed (like himself) or right handed, and how fast they eat, and their reactions to the taste of the sushi.

Interestingly Jiro did not want his sons to go to university and insisted they follow him into the business whether they liked it or not. They seem to have accepted this fate, and in particular viewers can see Yoshizaku is trying his best to follow in his father's footsteps because this is tradition; he admits he wished he was a race car driver or a pilot in his younger years, but knows this is the best route for him.

Jiro's restaurant is the first sushi place with 3 Michelin stars
Others speculate if he can even replicate his father's talent, but one may not know until he really has to step up to the plate.

The documentary hardly talks about Jiro's wife and one wonders if it is because she refused to be on camera or Gelb didn't think she was relevant to the story. However there is a nice scene of Jiro visiting his childhood classmates and they candidly joke around about how Jiro was such a mischievous boy, and how he has turned out into such a serious yet passionate chef.

Jiro really is an artisan to loves his work so much that he thinks about it all the time. Most of us these days want to shut off thinking about work, but for him this is his lifestyle, this is how he believes he will improve.

The film also visits Tsukji, the famed fish market where buyers head there in the early morning hours to buy tuna. The older son talks about how fish stocks are depleting and blames it on cheaper sushi places boosting demand for tuna that he observes is getting more expensive.

Jiro says he dreams about sushi a lot
Many friends had asked me if I had watched this film and I hadn't, but now I understand why they love this documentary so much. There are also mouth-watering scenes of them preparing sushi in such a loving way, one can't help but want to appreciate the food.

A friend recently went to Sukiyabashi Jiro and tried the now 89-year-old's food and said it was an amazing experience. My other friends seem tempted, but also worried Jiro will scrutinize them when they eat and worst still, make them eat fast since the sushi must be consumed as soon as it is placed on their plates.

The alternative is to visit his son's restaurant instead, though other Japanese foodies claim any sushi place is already very good, why pay over $300 for a 20-minute meal?

The debate continues and now I understand what all the fuss is about!

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Directed by David Gelb

Candid Look at Aprey

Interested in a silver gorilla safe? It'll set you back £55,000
On the flight back to Vancouver, I watched a few documentaries, one of them called "Inside Asprey: Luxury by Royal Appointment".

It was released in July this year and goes behind the scenes of what it is like working for the luxury brand that is one of the oldest (1781) and prestigious jewellers that was given the royal warrant by Queen Victoria 200 years ago.

The boutique has been in the same location on New Bond Street in London for 160 years, which is actually situated within five Georgian townhouses connected by a glass canopy and stylish renovations by Sir Norman Foster.

Samuel L Jackson checks out some cufflinks
While the staff act prim and proper with sharp suits and dresses, the objects in the shop range from classic to the bizarre, like a cool silver cocktail shaker shaped like a rocket and a glittering £4.6 million yellow diamond ring to the giant solid silver safe shaped like a gorilla for £55,000.

And by the way someone who bought one of these is Hollywood actor Samuel L Jackson and he just so happens to be in town to "borrow" some cufflinks for an appearance he's making in London.

We watch him look at a few things with his wife, but only comes for the cufflinks.

Meanwhile the visual merchandising director comes up with an idea to boost sales -- create a line of 41 exclusive crocodile skin bags with details on the hardware covered in pave diamonds or solid gold from £30,000 each. He expects them to be sold within a month.

The designs of these handbags scream "nouveaux riche" rather than understated sophistication. And surprise, surprise -- hardly any of them are sold, despite arranging afternoon teas in a private room where Laduree macarons and pastries are presented on silverware and no customers show up.

Some of the gaudy handbags
The sales team gets anxious and manage rustle up a few Middle Eastern women to buy a few bags, and finally a Saudi princess requests a shopping spree in the store after hours and snaps up a dozen of them in one go.

Phew. Glad to hear the gaudy bags are gone.

Another story is jewellery director Justine Carmody who has created a new jewellery line called Chaos that features a spray of colourful stones delicately linked together as a necklace and matching earrings.

After she finishes a detailed drawing, she carefully selects the stones before handing them to the jewellery who takes a strip of platinum and puts it through a machine to make it thinner and thinner to make the necklace. He also has to make the individual claws too to hold each of the stones.

For the jeweller, it's all in a day's work, though his pieces are owned by the likes of the Queen, Prince Charles, the Beckhams and Elton John. "It's not the nicest job," he says. "But it keeps the bills at bay."

His female colleague explains her mother was a hairdresser and the young woman was determined not to follow in the same footsteps. For her making jewellery is definitely a step up, though she admits she doesn't care much for the sparkling stones.

This contrasts so well with what is happening downstairs as sales staff persuade customers, particularly a mother and daughter to buy an expensive necklace for the young woman's 21st birthday.

One of the top jewellers at Asprey working on the Chaos piece
As one TV reviewer bemoaned, "Inside Asprey: Luxury by Royal Appointment" is a disappointment because there aren't any compelling characters, or is it because they are English and too polite to be brash? And perhaps Jackson was conscious of the camera following him and didn't want to show off what he may have wanted to buy?

For one Japanese businessman, being able to buy something at Asprey meant that he had "made it" and has come back several times to build up his watch collection, and impressing his new (and young) wife.

Nevertheless the documentary is a pretty candid look at Asprey, from sales staff trying to guess how much money a potential customer would spend in the boutique, to craftsmen keeping tradition alive, though one of the former silversmith is now the building maintenance staff.

In the end it's a business -- one of enticing people to buy things they really don't need but end up coughing up the money to do so.

And then next documentary I watched?

One on why we consume so much!

One interesting fact was that about 10, 15 years ago we used to buy 33 pieces of clothing. Now it's about double that.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Blaming the Past

Chen Zuo'er blames a former Hong Kong Governor for the colony's fall
On Christmas Day, 1941, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese.

Technically the attack violated international law because the Japanese did not declare war on the British empire.

And then the Hong Kong garrison was made up of local troops, as well as those from Britain, Canada and India.

The Canadian soldiers were ill-equipped and unfamiliar with the lay of the land, but did the best they could in resisting the Japanese.

HK Governor Sir Mark Aitchison Young
In the end the allied forces were outnumbered (52,000 Japanese versus 14,000 allied) and then Hong Kong Governor Sir Mark Aitchison Young surrendered in person to the Japanese headquarters which was at the Peninsula Hotel at the time.

He was initially held in the hotel, and later became a prisoner of war in Stanley. He was subsequently transferred to POW camps in Shanghai, Taiwan, Japan and one near the Chinese-Mongolian border.

But now over 70 years later, Chen Zuo'er, a former deputy director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office says Aitchison was responsible for the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese.

"The British army lost Kowloon and the New Territories in only 16 days. Governor Mark Aitchison Young hid on Hong Kong Island because he was afraid to die," Chen said.

How does Chen know what Aitchison Young was thinking at the time?

It's his petty way of getting back at the UK for trying to hold China accountable for its part of the bargain in the Sino-British Joint Declaration during the Umbrella Movement protests.

China says Britain has no rights over Hong Kong after 1997
Last month a group of British lawmakers were barred from entering Hong Kong on a fact-finding mission related to the joint declaration.

And so Chen twisted wartime history to hit back at the UK by saying, "How then could the British claim they have the right to monitor Hong Kong?"

He said that after Britain handed back Hong Kong to China, it has completed its historic mission, though the agreement retains its "important meaning and vitality".

However the allied forces were outnumbered four to one -- how could it even beat the Japanese? And in fact, the Japanese aggression enabled the Communists led by Mao Zedong to attack the Kuomintang.

So should Chen really be blaming Aitchison Young for this moment of history?

Perhaps he should read up on his history first before blaming others... Needlessly complaining about the past doesn't necessarily repair things in the future...

Justice Done

Lin Jun was a university student in Montreal when he was murdered in 2012
Lin Diran received a bitter sweet Christmas present yesterday.

His son Lin Jun's killer was convicted of first degree murder in Montreal and will be behind bars for 25 years without parole.

The horrific crime took place in 2012 when Luka Magnotta lured 33-year-old Lin to his apartment, murdered him, did indecent acts with the body, dismembered the body and disposed of the body parts by mailing some of them to two Vancouver addresses as well as members of parliament including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Luka Magnotta (centre) was sentenced to 25 years in prison
Magnotta, 32, tried to plead he had schizophrenia that caused him to kill, claiming his father had the illness and so did he, but after eight days of deliberation, the jury did not believe the porn star's supposed mental illness was the reason why he callously murdered Lin.

It was an excruciating wait for Lin Diran, but in the end the jury decided the facts of the case all pointed to Magnotta's obsessive desire for attention, videotaping the murder and putting it online, and that it was premeditated, and that he was not schizophrenic at all.

A key piece of evidence was Magnotta's email to a British journalist six months prior to the murder, saying he planned to kill a human and make a movie out of it.

After the verdict was read out, the prosecutor read out Lin Diran's statement.

"The night Lin Jun died, parts of many other people died in one way or another. His mother, his sister and me, his friends... in one night, we lost a lifetime of hope," the statement read.

Lin Jun's parents: his father Lin Diran attended the trial
"I had come to see your trial system to see justice done, and I leave satisfied that you have not let my son down."

Lin Diran had come to Canada to attend the trial which must have been an eye-opening experience for him. He also probably learned more about his son's life in Montreal, how he enjoyed living abroad, and became more comfortable as a gay man, something he may have hidden from his family.

However, Lin Jun's life as an undergraduate student at Concordia University was cut short by an egotistical man who thought nothing of others except that they were for him to determine their fates. After the murder Magnottta fled Montreal to Europe and watched on social media as the authorities tried to catch up with him. Eventually he was recognized by someone in a cafe and was arrested.

It is a relief that this sensational case is over, though Lin Jun will never come back to his family. We hope that this verdict will bring some comfort to them, knowing their son's killer is being punished severely for his heinous crime for a long time.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Relaxing Hydrotherapy

Looking down on the various baths in Scandinave Spa on a snowy day
I'm in Vancouver for the holidays and a very good friend of mine arranged for us to go to Whistler today to try Scandinave Spa there. On Yelp many rave about it and we were about to find out why.

We left Vancouver around 9am and managed to arrive at the spa at 10.20am. I hadn't gone up to Whistler since the mid 1990s so it was a surprise for me to see how developed the ski mecca has become, particularly after the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The Sea to Sky Highway has improved significantly, with stretches widened with two lanes, or straightened and not as winding and treacherous as before.

As we approached Whistler, light rain became snow and the area became a winter wonderland with evergreen trees covered in white.

Lots of fog spread around Whistler to create a moody feel
We turned off to Spruce Grove Way and continued up a winding path to the spa. When we arrived, there was a line up! A line up at a spa which seemed unusual.

Once it was our turn to check in for the outdoor bath access (CAD$58), we were given two large towels and key locks and told the changing rooms were downstairs. The biggest rule here is silence! Everyone is instructed to leave their mobile phones behind in the lockers and not to talk, though many spoke in hushed tones during our visit.

After changing into bathing suits, we wrapped up in towels and headed outside to the baths. I didn't bring any flip flops -- and was surprised the spa didn't provide any footwear, but just as well. Walking barefoot outside wasn't too cold -- or was it because we didn't have too far to go?

First stop was the steam eucalyptus steam room. It's circular and amphitheatre style with three layers of seating with the strong smell of eucalyptus to keep people awake.

Since we arrived soon after it opened, the steam room was jam packed with people, but they eventually left. After about 10 minutes we were sweating and needed to get out of the heat. We headed to the cold pool with the water set at 17 degrees. What a shock to the system! I didn't stay in there long!

A modern fireplace and nice tree ornament
Our next stop was the warm relaxation pool, where we felt like those Japanese snow monkeys that hang out in the hot spring baths, as snow was still falling on us, albeit lightly.

Probably my favourite place was the solarium, though there wasn't much sun here, but it was warm. We sat in recliners and listened to new age music; I couldn't help but close my eyes and nap for a bit, though on our second round, some men were actually snoring!

We did the process all over again and this time I plunged into the cold pool -- interestingly we were cold but not freezing, perhaps because our body temperatures were hot from being in the steam room and then back into the jacuzzi.

Needless to say we were thoroughly relaxed. Was it that we were in a beautiful setting? Everyone keeping quiet and focused on having a relaxing time? Or because we were soaking to the point of becoming like prunes?

After a few hours here, we showered and then put our clothes on again. My only gripe was the changing room didn't seem spa-like -- more like a gym, and even then the floor wasn't very clean, which makes a difference when you aren't wearing flip flops... If this was my gym in Hong Kong, the floor would be free of dust bunnies for sure!

We sat in the lobby for about 15 minutes, drinking some cold(!) water of lemon and cucumber, a few glasses to replenish our systems before heading out for a very late lunch at 3pm.

If just going to the outdoor baths was relaxing, imagine pairing it with a massage too!

Scandinave Spa
8010 Mons Road
(604) 935 2424

Monday, 22 December 2014

More Official Drama

Rafael Hui has gone to prison for seven years for bribery
Ah the mighty have fallen and continue to fall.

Today former Hong Kong chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan was jailed for seven and a half years and pay back HK$11.182 million (the amount of bribes he was guilty of taking), while former co-chairman of SHKP Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong was sentenced to five years and a HK$500,000 fine for corruption and bribery.

These sentences seem awfully light for shaking the public's faith in the Hong Kong government, along with a HK$500,000 fine? That's chump change for Kwok. Was that the maximum sentence Justice Andrew Macrae could give both convicted defendants?

Interesting that Hui even asked his former boss ex-chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to write a referral letter pleading for Hui to get a lighter sentence considering all the good things he'd done for the city.

Hu Jintao's right-hand man, Ling Jihua now being probed
Surely everything Hui did as a civil servant prior to working for the Kwok brothers was completely wiped out by this scandal?

In any event, attention has now turned across the border with the announcement by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection that Hu Jintao's former aide Ling Jihua will be investigated for "suspected serious disciplinary violations", which usually refers to corruption.

He will be the next tiger Chinese President Xi Jinping bags, after Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Ling was on his way climbing up the ladder of power when his son screwed it up for him on the night of March 19, 2012.

Ling Gu was in a fatal car accident when his Ferrari crashed into a wall on Beijing's North Fourth Ring Road before crushing a barrier on the other side of the road. Ling Gu was not fully dressed, nor were his two female companions, a lurid detail that has stuck with this story.

The wreckage of Ling Gu's Ferrari after a horrific crash
Ling requested the investigation into the accident not be handled by local police, but by the Central Guard Bureau, which oversees security of top leaders. This was his way of attempting to cover up the situation.

Pictures of the accident were put online by witnesses, but were soon deleted.

Then Ling got then chairman of state-run China National Petroleum Corporation Jiang Jiemin to pay tens of millions of yuan in compensation to the two women's families to keep quiet.

But the two large money transfers resulted in an investigation into the company as well as the link to Ling.

He was supposed to have been fast-tracked to become a member of the Politburo, but instead was transferred to a horizontal position as minister of the United Work Front, a mostly symbolic job.

However his time in purgatory was not enough -- even his open letters publicly praising Xi last week did not redeem him from being investigated.

Now it will be interesting to see what other things they uncover about Ling, particularly how his son was able to afford a Ferrari and maybe what did happen that night two years ago.

There are reports that Ling was a workaholic, but perhaps that was just a ruse to keep others from noticing what he managed to siphon off financially along the way.

How much did Hu know? And will he be a tiger Xi wants on his mantlepiece as well?

The drama unfolding here in real time is much more fascinating than anything TVB can cook up...

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The (Quiet) China Invasion

Get more news from the motherland right on your doorstep!
State-owned China Daily is flexing its soft power by having its weekend edition distributed in the Saturday paper of the Vancouver Sun, and probably every other newspaper across the country in the Postmedia Network.

In the December 12 edition, there's a message to readers in the top right corner explaining the North America edition of China Daily will be renamed Canada Edition, and that it will be printed in Vancouver.

A letter to readers about China Daily
It goes on to say there will be interviews with Canadian politicians, heads of think tanks, academics and experts on the China-Canada relationship. And there will be profiles of Chinese businesses in Canada, and vice versa. In other words, stories on people who have positive things to say about the Chinese mainland...

Funnily enough it finishes the letter with "Most of all, we want you to enjoy this publication".

Flipping through it, there are lots of soft news stories, like how the Four Seasons Beijing is one of the top hotels in the Chinese capital, complete with a picture of the hotel's general manager receiving an award from the Canadian Consul-General.

It's the perfect platform for politicians and controversial figures to get their message across without the reporter fact checking their statements, and for the government -- oops I mean the paper -- to "report" on what Beijing thinks of Canada.

We wonder how much China Daily is paying to have its paper distributed within a relatively legitimate newspaper. But with print dying a slow death, The Vancouver Sun as well as the mighty Washington Post and has periodic China Daily supplements in The New York Times to supplement its income.

You can't really blame them for being willing accomplices, but at the same time, it is a sneaky way to literally get into potential readers' homes and present another view of China that is thinly-veiled propaganda...

Macau's Reversal of Fortune?

Chief Executive Fernando Chui and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a toast
Today Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the 15th anniversary of the handover of Macau back to the motherland, but it may also signal the end of its free-wheeling days.

In his speech, Xi called on the Macanese government to find "greater courage and wisdom" to "strengthen and improve regulation and supervision over the gaming industry".

Seems the President is expanding his anti-corruption campaign to Macau, but is Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on the best person to deal with this? He doesn't seem to have a good grip on how discontented the Macanese are with his leadership, or rather his lack of authority.

Chui now has to come up with a concrete plan to shift Macau's economic model from one that currently sees more than 85 percent of taxes coming from casinos. When asked how he would go about doing this, he responded the government would "undertake a review" of the casino industry in spring of next year, ie the earliest would be after Chinese New Year.

Macau's dependency on gambling will have to change
In the last few weeks, Macau's casino takings have sharply fallen due to the anti-corruption campaign as well as the economic slowdown on the mainland.

China will also launch a crackdown on the flow of illicit funds through casinos, overseen by the Ministry of Public Security. This also means VIP junket operators, who bring in high rollers and arrange financial credit for them, will be closely monitored.

Many gamblers transfer funds through their UnionPay ATM and credit cards, and the security  ministry's Economic Crimes Investigation Bureau will be watching for suspicious transactions...

Xi also mentioned resisting "foreign interference", which could mean targeting specific casino operators who may have angered Beijing. Wonder who is on this hit list?

In the meantime, can someone please explain to Xi that it's not the casino operators' fault, but his own citizens who have this incredible urge to gamble?

These casino operators have tried desperately to diversify entertainment with shopping and shows, but mainland visitors aren't interested in fine dining restaurants, historic landmarks or entertainment -- they just want to have fun by throwing down wads of cash on the slim chance of winning big.

The other big question is, casino operators are currently spending millions building their next phases to incorporate more entertainment as well as gambling tables. Can they afford to have mainland visitors drop to a trickle?

Xi's edict also reveals Chui has not been an effective leader at all -- something the Macanese have known all along. But is Chui the man to fix things with an iron fist? Issues like housing and transportation are crying out for attention, but the government has been too busy counting money to tackle these problems.

Perhaps one good thing that may come out of Xi's anti-corruption campaign in Macau will be that the city will be cleared out of mainlanders and then Hong Kong people can enjoy it again without having to fight the crowds!

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Hui's Fall from Grace

Rafael Hui was found guilty of bribery thanks to his materialistic longings
It seems former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan was addicted to the high life and thought of himself as a discerning consumer even though his salary wasn't enough to pay for his lavish tastes.

The 131-day trial of Hui, and Sun Hung Kai Properties co-chairmen and brothers Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong and Raymond Kwok Ping-luen is over, with Hui and Thomas Kwok found guilty of bribery.

Somehow Raymond Kwok was acquitted on all four charges against him and walked free.

It basically boils down to Hui acquiring hyper materialistic tastes and not being able to live on a budget, and supposedly succumbed to bribes from the Kwok brothers to maintain his lavish lifestyle.

Thomas Kwok was also convicted of bribery
In court it was revealed Hui liked to spend money traveling to Europe and Japan to attend exclusive operatic performances, once dropping HK$150,000 to stay in London's Dorchester Hotel.

He also spent HK$2 million at one music store for several years, and had no qualms going on a HK$200,000 shopping spree in one store on CDs and vinyl records. At that time his annual income was HK$4.6 million.

But after then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was re-elected in 2007, Hui became a non-official executive council member and his salary dropped to HK$105,000 a month. However he continued to withdraw HK$1 million a month using overdraft facilities, and on his credit card bills he would only pay the minimum amount.

"Basically I did not have any savings. I spent almost everything I had," Hui said on the first day of his testimony.

Is that supposed to be considered a badge of honour? For a financial secretary to not pay off his credit card bills every month is shocking not to mention spending way beyond his means.

The writing was on the wall for Hui when the ICAC charged him with bribery and misconduct in office in July 2012; then creditors came calling, including Hang Seng Bank, Standard Chartered, and even Honour Finance, a subsidiary of SHKP.

As a result, Hui declared bankruptcy in November last year, not being able to repay Bank of East Asia. There were media reports he racked up debts of up to almost HK$75 million.

Not only was he a carefree spender, but also apparently a philanderer, cheating on his wife of more than 40 years.

"In 2008, I gave some money to a female friend in Shanghai," he confessed in court. "I do not recall the exact amount -- but I think at least HK$7 million or HK$8 million... some of which for purchasing properties, some for investments."

If this isn't a massive fall from grace, I don't know what is.

It will be interesting to see what sentence the judge metes out for Hui, as he will hardly be able to pay off his debts. What punishment would be suitable for someone like this?

While this trial is over, all eyes are now on Tsang, who has been very low key in the last few years. After he was caught on a yacht hanging out with tycoons, the former chief executive may be the next one in the dock.

How many other senior civil servants took advantage of their positions too? If the Hong Kong government wants to regain any kind of credibility, especially post-Occupy, surely it needs to clean up house too...

Friday, 19 December 2014

More Youth Rants

There are some young people in Hong Kong who are working hard to try to get ahead somehow in the ever-increasing rat race for low pay and fewer benefits.

But it's at least it's an attempt at an honest living... which is why they were out on the streets for 79 days.

And then there are those who think they are entitled to good salaries despite not having paid their dues.

I heard of one young man who worked in communications and would have to attend work-related functions in the evening and so he thought he was entitled to come into work late the next morning; this also applied to when he played badminton in the evenings on his own time.

And then in another job he called the office to say he was late because he fell down the stairs, but when he arrived, he didn't have much trouble walking. A week later he claimed to be delayed because his grandmother fell down the stairs too -- he really did say that.

In the four months since he's had this latest job he's had six "sick days" or incidents related to family emergencies. A bit excessive, no?

In his almost three years of working after graduation he's had at least four jobs, barely able to stay in one job for at least a year.

And then there is another story, involving a student studying his Masters in communications and interning at a hotel.

He was supposed to work there for three months and because it's Christmas, he was assigned to prepare the labels on the hampers to be distributed to the various journalists who have covered the hotel in the past year.

However, he did not complete the task properly and had to stay behind -- along with his boss and her subordinate -- past dinnertime.

At around 9pm, his mother called and then he duly passed the phone to his supervisor. The mother angrily asked why her son was not allowed to go home as everyone was waiting for him at the dinner table.

Was it because it was someone's birthday? His grandmother? Father? Or a specific special occasion?

No, it was the usual family dinner.

The boss explained her son had not completed the task properly and so he had to stay behind to finish it.

But the mother would not have any of it and demanded her son be dismissed from his work duties. What kind of hotel is this, forcing her son to stay at work so late?

She allowed the student to go home, but that meant she and her subordinate had to finish the work he couldn't complete and they stayed behind even later.

The next day the young man came back and said he would not intern a the hotel anymore. The supervisor asked if this was his decision or his mother's. He shyly answered it was half-half.

These are only two examples, but they give an indication of what some young people in Hong Kong are like. Ones who feel entitled or have parents sheltering them will not succeed in life despite their supposed advantages.

It is disappointing and frightening to know this is what the next generation will be like. How will they ever learn? One is just waiting to be fired or find another job before he gets shafted, the other hiding behind his mummy because he can't do things efficiently and properly, or thinks that someone studying for his Masters should not have to print out labels.

Every job has mundane aspects to it, and regardless they must be completed properly and efficiently.

Those who think they can avoid these necessary steps will have an even harder road to success...

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Innocent Observation?

The picture of a student's letter to Xi Jinping
Seems like the the topic of the Chinese president's weight is off limits when it comes to the censors.

A nine-year-old schoolboy from Henan wrote an essay suggesting Xi Jinping should shed some pounds and it went viral after his father thought it was amusing and posted a picture of it on his WeChat.

It was soon picked up by the media, but then word came down from the propaganda department to take down any reference to it.

The innocent letter by Niu Ziru was addressed to "Xi Dada", a close term for an older man, and started off talking about the space industry.

"The United States and Russia -- even the European Union and India -- are all planning to land on Mars. Let's hurry up," Niu wrote.

Then he changed the topic to something he thought was a "lighter subject" by saying, "Xi Dada, you could lose some weight. [You] don't have to look as slim as [US President Barack] Obama. It's all right to look like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."

The Zhengzhou Evening News ran a story on the letter, but then it and other news outlets scrubbed the story from their online editions.

What's wrong with an innocent suggestion as that? He's only concerned for Xi's health...

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Picture of the Day: More Yellow Pride

A new banner appeared on Victoria Peak today
The Occupy/Umbrella Movement may be over, but some people are trying hard to keep the momentum going.

Last Saturday more yellow banners magically appeared. One on Lion Rock Hill said, "CY Leung step down", and the other on Devil's Peak read, "I want true universal suffrage".

And earlier today another giant banner was placed on Victoria Peak this time with the words, "Don't forget the original goal", referring to the protest for universal suffrage that lasted 79 days.

YTSL will probably have the answer, but how many more peaks can these mysterious climbers put banners on?

We love how they execute this with stealth and undetected, but will they be stopped eventually?

Nevertheless we appreciate these stunts that continue to give the Umbrella Movement some attention so that it does not fade from protesters' minds and in particular the Hong Kong government.

We can't wait to see what banner is hung up next...!

Monday, 15 December 2014

Moaning About Housing (Again)

Cheung Kong's Mont Vert development in Tai Po is not selling like hot cakes
Occupy is over for now, but grumbling about property prices is not.

Tonight a friend told us about looking at flats for investment in Happy Valley. She saw a studio that was 210 square feet. For how much? I guessed right -- HK$3 million.

She said it was so tiny, with only a small counter space for a "kitchen", if you can call it that. There would only be room for a hot plate and maybe a fridge.

If the place was rented out, the landlord could get HK$10,000 a month.

Flats here are less than 200 sq ft, and not near public transport
She said that it was good for people who wanted to move out of their parents' place to have their own space -- but only 210 sq ft?! Why waste the money for that! Might as well grin and bear it with the parental units and save the HK$10K and perhaps go on short trips more often instead.

Anyway -- this ties into the latest news with Mont Vert, Cheung Kong's development in Tai Po that is selling its microflats that are 180 sq ft.

A female reporter checked out the space and when she stretched out her arms, they almost reached the width of the room. Of course there was only enough room for a bed and perhaps a wardrobe.

The cost of flats these size? HK$1.59 million to HK$1.65 million.

Would a first-time homeowner really put down their hard-earned money on such a tiny space to live in?

Its location near Chinese tombs hardly makes it desirable!
The other factor holding back buyers is that the flats are located near large traditional Chinese tombs, which is not good for fung shui reasons.

Oh but wait -- how about buying three microflats together and making them into one big flat of 540 sq ft for HK$7 million?

Prices like these are outrageous to say the least, not to mention the psychological effects of living in such tiny spaces.

This is one of the reasons why we went out and occupied the streets!

Obviously no one is listening or cares to listen...

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Umbrella Movement's Last Stand

The numerous rows of paper umbrellas strung together at Causeway Bay
Some friends from Beijing arrived in Hong Kong the day Admiralty was cleared, so I made sure they had a chance to see the small occupation of Yee Wo Street in Causeway Bay before it is cleared out tomorrow morning.

A tent filled with hopeful messages
It is definitely a shadow of its former self in the beginning of the movement, but many of the elements are still there -- tents, paper umbrellas, slogans, people silk screening T-shirts, political discussions, handing out leaflets and the odd shouts of "We want true universal suffrage!" that got a smattering of applause.

My friends were thrilled to be able to have just a sample of what it was like because from their eyes as visitors, it seemed the polar opposite of the Hong Kong they are familiar with -- capitalist, corporate, shopping, shopping, shopping and more shopping.

It seems strange that Causeway Bay would be the last to go, but perhaps it was causing the least nuisance of the three sites. Nevertheless, the tram company will be relieved to finally be able to use the tracks, parts of which may have rusted, and people can get their lives back to some kind of normality.

I'm still processing the fact that Admiralty is now given way to traffic; yesterday we passed by the area in a taxi and saw workers scrubbing what used to be the Lennon Wall clean... the only traces of the movement left are some of the chalk drawings on the dividers, but rain will wash those out eventually.

A doll with a threatening message?
At dinner my friends and I discussed the impact of the movement... we agreed that it had set the foundation for more pro-democracy activities, but to what end? We couldn't figure that out. But one gave examples that people thought apartheid would continue in our lifetime, but in the end there was peaceful reconciliation, and people thought the Berlin wall would stand forever, but that was knocked down 25 years ago.

He was basically saying these things happen when we least expect it. The Umbrella Movement certainly exploded for us and we ran with it the best we could -- for 75 days.

And with the demise of Causeway Bay tomorrow, the movement will be snuffed out for now. But all is not lost. There is talk now of continuing protests through paying taxes and rents for public housing in amounts of HK$689 or $6.89...

How many people will actually do this will be interesting as it's not illegal according to Franklen Choi Kin-shing, a community college lecturer in social science.

These balloons say it all...
"The unrepresentative government has no right to collect taxes from the people," Choi said, but people should pay using tricks rather than default on the bill altogether.

"This would bring pressure on civil servants, but all sorts of non-cooperation movements inevitably do that," he said, adding the idea had been circulating among Occupy protesters in the past month.

So good bye for now, and see how the Umbrella Movement takes on another form.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Fact of the Day: Jack Ma's Uber Loaded

China's one-time English teacher is now Asia's richest man
Move over Li Ka-shing -- Alibaba's Jack Ma is now Asia's richest man.

Rather than be sore about the news, the Hong Kong tycoon was happy to see someone else take top spot, a place Li had occupied since 2012 according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index.

"I am nothing but happy when young people from China do well," said the 86-year-old Li through a spokeswoman. A spokesman from Alibaba refused to comment on Ma's net worth.

According to the Bloomberg ranking, Ma has a fortune of $28.6 billion and his personal worth is $28.3 billion, after his company went public in September, and has surged 54 percent since.

Another interesting fact is that Alibaba's $259 billion market capitalization makes it larger than Amazon and eBay combined.

"The billionaires in China are growing their wealth faster because China's economy is still developing, with plenty of room for growth," said Francis Ying, an analyst with Yuanta Research.

That means Ma's wealth will be expanding much more in the coming future, so he may be Asia's richest man for a while...

Friday, 12 December 2014

Words from Behind Bars

2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo smuggled a message out of jail
Chinese Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo will be spending his fifth year in prison this year come December 25.

But he doesn't want others to worry about him, that he is relatively healthy and would rather people pay more attention to other Chinese activists in jail.

"The aura around me is enough already. I hope the world can pay more attention to other victims who are not well known, or not known at all," he said in a message that was apparently smuggled out of jail and somehow sent to dissident Liao Yiwu, who lives in exile in Germany.

Liao posted the message on Facebook on Thursday and did not elaborate on how he received the message from Liu, who is serving an 11-year jail sentence for inciting state subversion.

Liao would only say he received the message on Tuesday through channels in China and that it was the first time he heard from Liu in more than six years.

"My eyes are suddenly moist," Liao said on Facebook.

Liu's wife, Liu Xia can visit her husband in jail once a month, though their meetings are closely monitored. She has become more depressed and physically weak because she is so isolated even from her family, whom she can only have dinner with once a week.

The jailed activist's message adds he is doing well and has been reading and thinking.

"Through my studies, I have become even more convinced that I have no personal enemies," Liu said.

He may be languishing in jail, but he wants to tell the world he's surviving.

And hopefully those are the words Liu Xia needs to know to gather the strength to carry on.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A New Normal

A last look at Admiralty two nights ago...
Just after 9pm tonight, Harcourt Road which was occupied for 75 days was finally cleared for vehicles to go back on it.

I was out all day and didn't get a chance to catch the play-by-play of the removal of the barricades and arrests of over 200 people, including Cantopop star Denise Ho and several pan-Democrat politicians like Martin Lee Chu-ming and Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, Next Media chairman Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, as well as Federation of Students' Alex Chow Yong-kang.

Earlier this evening the area was quickly cleaned up...
So now I see these pictures of the area that used to be a place I, YTSL and some friends hung out almost every weekend is now back to being an overpass.

It's so strange to see it return to what it was before, but sadly in time we will get used to it. However we will always have fond memories of what it was like for over two months.

What's next is the logical question and everyone hopes that occupying the area for 75 days is not in vain. Some protesters were distraught last night, wondering if what they had been doing for 10 weeks was all for nothing.

Vehicles are back on the road again like nothing happened...
It's definitely not. It may seem like the protesters have given up, but really they have voiced their opinions to the Hong Kong government and Beijing.

It really is up to both to engage with Hong Kong people, particularly the young ones who have identified themselves so closely to this movement.

So the ball is still in their court and we await their reply.

If not -- We Will Be Back.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Praising Macau Over Hong Kong

Li Gang praises Macau for adhering to "one country, two systems"
In the run-up to the 15th anniversary of Macau's handover back to China on December 20, Chinese government officials are praising the former Portuguese colony as a role model for basic, law, fully adhering to the principle of "one country, two systems".

Last week it was Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee who said this, and yesterday it was Li Gang, Beijing's liaison office director for Macau.

Li also urged the SAR not to rely so much on gambling and diversify its entertainment offerings to visitors.

"The whole community adheres to, supports, learns and promotes Basic Law," Li said. He added Macau was a place where "anyone who says the Basic Law is not good will be [as despised as] a rat on the street"... People in Macau thank the central government and thank the Basic Law."

Macau CE Fernando Chui was re-elected without challenge
Talk about putting words in people's mouths...

But also the platitudes are a strong hint that Beijing is not happy with Hong Kong's Occupy/Umbrella Movement, where civil disobedience is being played out (though they will be cleared out tomorrow morning).

Is this China's way of praising the younger brother for being obedient to shame the older rebellious one?

If you ask the protesters, especially the younger ones, they really don't care.

And it is ironic that Beijing is praising a small city that makes the vast majority of its revenues from one of the vices communists despise.

Also, this year has been one of the rowdiest to date with a number of protests in Macau over wages and in particular people's dissatisfaction with Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on's leadership.

Protests this May forced Chui to do a U-turn on his proposal
In May he had tried to pass a bill in the legislature that would give former chief executives a stipend of 70 percent of their monthly salary as long as they were unemployed. It would also grant them immunity from criminal charges.

Retired ministers would get a one-off payment of up to 30 percent of their monthly wage for every year of service.

But a massive protest, the largest since the handover in 1999 forced Chui to scrap the idea two days after he proposed it.

So it seems both Chui and Hong Kong's Leung Chun-ying are just as oblivious to reality in their hometowns, though Macau hasn't staged an Occupy protest yet...