Saturday, 31 May 2014

Potentially Deadly Air

A picture of smog from March 2010 and clear skies in June later that year
Now we know the air in Hong Kong is bad -- not as bad as China -- but pretty bad relative to the United States.

Scientists who have studied air samples around China and Hong Kong have found 10 to 20 times more fine metallic particles than the US.

While Hong Kong's PM2.5 levels are lower than most cities on the mainland, it has a higher concentration of health-threatening trace metals. These include zinc and chromium that can cause a range of problems from premature aging to cancer.

Higher concentrations of airborne trace metals can even damage human DNA, thus endangering the genetics in future generations.

The scientists say that without greater environmental regulations, high trace metal levels could become a public health crisis.

Li Weijun, a professor of environmental science at Shandong University has studied nearly every part of China, from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia to Hong Kong's Victoria Peak, collecting samples and examining them. They probably have one of the largest data banks of airborne particles in China.

"Damage to health caused by fine particles is not only determined by the quantity of particles, but also what type they are," he said. "Trace metals are the nastiest things in the air that can damage your health."

With regards to Hong Kong, the PM2.5 pollution, Li believes it could have come from power plants and factories in the Pearl River Delta.

"As long as you have a large number of factories in your neighbourhood, you will have the problem. But even the most advanced technology cannot remove these extremely small particles," he said.

Li published a research paper in the academic journal Environmental Science and Technology last year. In it, his team found 105 micrograms of iron per litre of water in cloud on Mount Tai in Shandong province and 90mcg on Mount Lu in Jiangxi province. At Mount Elden in Arizona, the reading was only 5.6mcg.

In terms of zinc concentrations, 200-250mcg were found on the two Chinese mountains, and none on Mount Elden.

The other metals or hazardous elements in China's air include copper, magnesium, lithium, nickel, cobalt, arsenic and selenium. When mixed with water, zinc can enter human cells via the bloodstream or tissue.

Through oxygen, zinc can damage the structure of DNA in cells and this is irreversible.

Is this not shocking enough for anyone living in China and Asia?

In Hong Kong we always knew the "fog" was smog and then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said there was nothing we could do about the air pollution across the border.

But now we know what we're breathing in is potentially dangerous, particularly for babies and young children.

What is the Hong Kong government going to do about this now? The onus is now in Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing and the under secretary Christine Loh Kung-wai to really do something about the air quality here.

Top expats are leaving the city in search of cities with cleaner air for themselves and their families because it's priceless.

We thank Li for this report as it confirms what we already know, but in much greater and scarier detail.

He must also be praised for his extensive research. It wouldn't be surprising to hear if the Chinese government tried to bar him from publishing this work because of its explosive consequences.

Mainlanders are already wary of air quality in China and this report gives further evidence that the country has sacrificed the environment and its people for GDP growth.

We need more people like Li to shake things up and make governments realize that change needs to start now.

Friday, 30 May 2014

The MTR's Domino Effect

Seems like the MTR's expansion projects are spiraling out of control
The MTR is in everyone's bad books now.

First it was the delay of the high-speed line to Shenzhen and Guangzhou, then the Sha Tin to Central link, next the extension of the Kwun Tong Line, then the South Island Line and now they are saying on the West Island Line too.

Officials are saying the Sai Ying Pun station is having problems and may not meet the December opening. Apparently there are problems with one of the exits and so the entire line will be delayed until the first quarter of next year or temporarily omit the stop.

The latest development has critics wondering if the MTR has bitten off more than it can handle, and then on top of that, the chronic labour shortage and unpredictable weather that apparently caused some of these delays in the first place.

For most people it's about the bottom line -- how much more are these large infrastructure projects going to cost and who's going to have to pay for it? But more importantly how much longer do we have to wait for these lines to fully open?

The construction of at least three apartment complexes are being built now in Kennedy Town and two in particular are banking on the MTR opening by the end of the year. Already the buses are heaving during the morning rush hour. How can they handle several thousand more residents in six months or less?

MTR officials claim they know what they're doing, but with this domino effect on these five projects, it seems like things are unravelling... Interestingly not a peep from MTR CEO Jay Walder these days...

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Not Quite Progressive

About two weeks ago a young American male colleague remarked how sexist Hong Kong is.

Coming from San Francisco, he is shocked at how women are treated here, how local men look down on them and the preconceptions they have of the fairer sex.

To verify his point, there's a report out today from Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang that there are mostly small and mid-sized companies that have made serious breaches with the law.

One shocking case is of an investment company that required all of its female staff to give blood samples for DNA testing after menstrual blood stains were left in the women's washroom.

There is no indication in the news story of how much of a mess was left, but is such a witch hunt necessary?

YTSL expressed frustration to me recently when she went to a restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui and ordered a dry martini, only to be warned by the waiter that the drink "might be too strong" for her.

Knowing her, she probably gave him a dirty look, but to assume that she wouldn't be able to handle the drink is condescending to say the least.

It's really amusing the preconceived ideas Hong Kong men in particular have of women -- how they are supposed to be delicate pretty things with long hair, big eyes and skinny legs -- and need to be supported by a man physically and financially. And then they get thrown off when they meet a woman who is more than capable of looking after herself.

They are immediately intimidated and perhaps wonder if they are lesbians!

Which explains to a certain degree why there are so many more single women in Hong Kong than men, who pursue women who depend on them.

So much for women's lib in Hong Kong...

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Hardly Tempting

The crystal clear waters of Karakul Lake in Xinjiang is a tourist spot
After a spate of deadly violence including last week's suicide bombings in an open-air street market in Urumqi that killed 39 and injured 94, the regional government is trying to convince tourists to come back to Xinjiang.

Would 500 yuan ($80) tempt you to go?

That's the amount the regional authorities are willing to give each domestic tourist who visits the restive region. According to China Radio International the number of tourists has plunged by 40 percent compared to last year.

"Many tourists went skiing and skating in Xinjiang during the winter. But since the deadly knife attack in Kunming in March, many have postponed their tour to Xinjiang," said Inam Nesirdi, the region's tourism chief.

Another draw is the Taklamakan Desert but will tourists come?
The government is moving quickly to secure the area, with 55 people convicted of terrorism, separatism and murder and were earlier paraded in a sports stadium. Three of them were sentenced to death. Meanwhile, police arrested five members of a group allegedly planning a bomb attack in the region.

Last Sunday, Beijing announced a one-year anti-terrorism campaign with Xinjiang singled out as the "main battlefield".

It will be interesting to see if this campaign really is effective in rooting out what the government claims are terrorists and if the region will be safer. Will it only take one year?

But in the meantime as much as I would love to visit Xinjiang, as I have been told about the gorgeous Karakul Lake and the Taklamakan Desert, the fantastic rustic food and warm people, being awarded 500 yuan for my bravery isn't quite enough to entice me to venture in such a volatile area unfortunately...

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Sensitive Audience

Many mainland tourists come to Hong Kong to shop, but how many is enough?
In Hong Kong everyone likes to complain, but no one wants to do anything and bear the consequences.

This time it's the numbers of mainland tourists in Hong Kong that topped 40 million last year.

After hearing about the erupted tensions in the media, protests and numerous letters to the editor, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has floated a trial balloon of perhaps cutting the number of mainland visitors by 20 percent.

The effect was immediate, with shares of retailers and property developers taking a hit.

But this is just an idea, folks, as Leung reiterated. It is not actual policy yet! The fine print has yet to be worked out, if this cut is going to be realized.

Many are calling for the government to only allow permit holders to come into Hong Kong once a day, which would effectively cut the number of parallel day traders by an estimate of about 25 percent and the volume of products they buy, mostly in places like Sheung Shui.

A number of locals have protested about "locusts" in the city
These people are not bona fide tourists, as they don't stay overnight nor visit any attractions. For these day traders, it's all about fulfilling demand for "real products" -- across the border.

But groups like the Hong Kong Retail Management Association warned that cutting the number of visitors would affect the job security of the 267,000 sales work force; it instead encouraged the government to build more shopping malls to ease congestion in other shopping districts. This would take at least two to three years and with the labour shortage in the construction industry maybe four to five years?

Some retailers like Prince Jewellery & Watch completely depend on mainland business, with its chief executive Jimmy Tang citing 90 percent of its customers are from China. Is it really true that almost all of its customers are mainlanders? Where do locals buy jewellery now?

This knee-jerk reaction to Leung's proposal is ridiculous and shows how sensitive people are. They don't want so many mainlanders in Hong Kong, but if the number of mainland tourists is cut, they worry about their livelihoods.

So what does Hong Kong want? It can't have it both ways.

Leung is trying to show that he's listening to the people, and yet the stock market reacts negatively to his intentions.

Just shows Hong Kong is a tough crowd. Nothing pleases them and yet they sit there and complain about the situation.

No wonder Beijing thinks Hong Kong people are like little children...

Monday, 26 May 2014

Earth Calling Macanese Officials

Young Macanese crossing their arms in protest against the retirement bill
If you think Hong Kong's government is completely out of touch with reality, take a look at Macau's -- which is on another planet.

Yesterday some 20,000 Macanese hit the streets to protest against a bill that would have given generous retirement packages to the city's outgoing chief executive and top officials.

The bill proposed that when Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on steps down, he should receive 70 percent of his 270,000 pataca monthly salary until he gets a new job. He would also be granted immunity from criminal charges during his time in office.

Meanwhile retiring top officials would receive a one-off payment, with those having a civil service background receiving 14 percent of their salary times how many months they served. Non-civil servants would receive 30 percent.

In addition to this, outgoing top officials would get 70 percent of their monthly salaries as they are banned from taking up any private sector jobs for at least a year after leaving office.

Some 20,000 people took to the streets to voice their opinion
No wonder tens of thousands of people turned out and it's actually surprising there weren't more -- or maybe they had to work in the hotels and casinos?

Nevertheless the government has listened and is considering pushing back the bill to the sub-committee for further scrutiny as it was expected to pass in the legislature today.

"I support the bill, but I agree that there is room for improvement," said pro-establishment lawmaker Chan Meng-kam. "Macau residents have been holding different views towards the bill and as a lawmaker, I have the responsibility to call on the legislature to study it again," said Chan.

Quite hilarious that Chan admits he supports the bill but feels obligated to have it looked over after constituents complain...

We understand that Macau is rolling in the dough and has so much of it that the government gives out annual handouts to every resident. That's fine. But for top officials to ingratiate themselves with even more money than they would need post-retirement?

It's downright outrageous. More obscene is giving the chief executive immunity from prosecution. What has he done? Saved the world?

We expect the bill to be either shelved or severely toned down. Public money could be better spent for affordable housing for those who are priced out of the market in Macau. And what about granting more work visas to foreigners so that small and medium-sized companies can function?

And we thought the Hong Kong government was inept!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Why Waste Water?

Have you signed up at the Water Supplies Department website?
Finally the Hong Kong government is starting to urge its residents to save water.

Our beloved Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po wrote on his blog in Chinese, encouraging the public to get into the habit of using less water to prepare for "the unpredictable future" in the global supply of fresh water.

He said the city cannot rely solely on exploring other sources of fresh water without residents cutting back on their usage.

Currently each resident in Hong Kong uses an average of 130 litres of fresh water every day, higher than other major cities in the world, including Singapore and London.

"We would need to develop more water resources while cutting our water consumption so that we can be in a better position to tackle any uncertainties that may arise in the future," he wrote.

We're wondering how much water Chan and his family uses
He was referring to the shrinking global supply of fresh water due to world population growth, economic development and climate change.

Chan said the Water Supplies Department is exploring new sources of fresh water supply, such as desalination, extension of the seawater for flushing supply system, sewage recycling and rainwater harvesting. But the government also needs residents to decrease the amount of water they use.

Each Hong Konger use 90 litres of flushing water every day, which adds up to a whopping 3.3 million litres -- do we really go to the toilet that often? It's enough to fill the main pool at the Victoria Park Swimming Pool Complex 1,100 times, Chan wrote.

"To adjust our daily habit in water usage does not mean we will go back to the days when water supply was restricted," he wrote. "Water saving can be easy without sacrificing the quality of life."

Some of his tips for a family of four:

Avoid leaving the water running when saving and brushing teeth (save 26 litres);

Soak fruit and vegetables instead of rinsing them under running water (save 14 litres);

Spend a minute less in the shower (save 10 litres).

There's more tips here from the Water Supplies Department.

While Chan is keen to get people on board, the government isn't doing enough to really push people -- force them -- to rethink their habits.

For example there's ads on the bus telling people to join the "Let's Save 10L Water" campaign, and it shows a couple sitting by the laptop to register, but not having them show how to save water -- like the above tips Chan talked about. The government should be literally demonstrating to people how to curb water usage and why it is necessary, otherwise they think this is just another lame public service announcement.

What about forcing all public washrooms to have signs telling people to save water? And while we're at it to use only one paper towel? A friendly reminder like that can hopefully get people to think about the amount of water they are using and try to cut down.

The government really needs to step up the urgency of the issue because we all need to use less water. It should also be charging restaurants and companies for using far more water than we do.

Even if we are willing to pay top dollar for water (which I doubt, but if push comes to shove...), we should still conserve this precious resource.

What would be fun is monitoring Chan's water usage and see how much his family uses each month...

Saturday, 24 May 2014

HK's Noonday Gun

The Noonday Gun wrapped in blue tarp for tomorrow...
After weeks of rain -- and very hard at times -- it was a shock to see blue skies today. In the morning the Hong Kong Observatory warned there would be showers and I dutifully packed a small umbrella, but it was hardly necessary.

Fantastic blue skies and looking over onto a construction site
Following lunch with YTSL consisting of ramen, gyoza, tofu and beer in Causeway Bay, we checked out the path to the Noonday Gun, in front of The Excelsior Hong Kong.

There's a sign at the parkade that instructs visitors where to go: down some stairs and along a hallway that's also occupied by large green pipes that seem to be carrying seawater for the hotel... for flushing toilets perhaps?

In any event on the other side we found the Noonday Gun wrapped up in a tarp and a fantastic view of blue skies and white fluffy clouds.

The firing of the Noonday Gun is done by Jardine Matheson and the reason why is as follows:
Green tanks carrying seawater along the path

While the land is owned by Jardine's, in the 1860s its private militia would fire a gun salute to welcome a Jardine taipan's arrival by sea.

A senior British naval officer was new to Hong Kong and unfamiliar with the practice and found this annoying, as such salutes were only reserved for government officials and senior officers of the armed services.

As a penalty, Jardine's was ordered to fire the gun every day at noon, in perpetuity.

There was an interruption of firing the gun during the Japanese occupation from 1941 when the Japanese dismantled the gun and was subsequently lost. After the British regained Hong Kong in 1945, the Royal Navy gave Jardine a new six-pound gun and then two years later it was back in operation.

However, the geography in this area is literally changing with several construction cranes poking through the sky working on an underground freeway from Central.

A panoramic shot of the area
They've been there for a while and we imagine will be there for some time yet... The only constant in Hong Kong is change...

Friday, 23 May 2014

Encircling the Tiger

When tycoon Liu Han is handed the death sentence he claims he was framed
The circle around former security czar Zhou Yongkang is tightening after a mainland mining tycoon with links to him was sentenced to death today for leading a mafia-style gang.

At the brief hearing in Xianning, Hubei province, Liu Han, 48, erupted into anger, yelling, "I've been framed" and "I've been wronged" to the court before being taken away.

Liu was found guilty of 13 charges, including murder, running casinos, and illegally selling firearms. His younger brother Liu Wei, also known as Liu Yong, was also given the death sentence.

Zhou Yongkang has not been seen for many months
Zhou allegedly used to ask Liu Han to look after his son, Zhou Bin, who had at least two business dealings with Liu.

Seems Liu and his brother did really well in amassing his wealth, as the court ordered the two brothers' personal assets to be confiscated. Liu's company, Hanlong, was a conglomerate that had interests in sectors ranging from energy to real estate.

The company was fined 300 million yuan in 1997 for financial crimes, including using fake information to obtain bank loans.

Liu Han denied the charges against him during the 17-day trial. His brother claimed police tortured him to extract a confession.

"The police beat me every day when I was detained in Beijing," Liu Wei was quoted as saying. "They said if I don't make the confessions, then they will arrest my wife and child."

Liu Han said he would forgive his brother for anything wrong he had done. "We will still be brothers for the next life," he said.

Liu Han in happier days in control of a conglomerate
Doesn't that sound like the perfect line for a movie about these brothers? Who wouldn't want to know how they amassed their riches and allegedly mixed with a powerful official and then was screwed in the end?

Meanwhile some following the case believe that because Liu received so much attention, it will be difficult for Zhou to have a fair trial. Did Liu even have a fair hearing?

The verdict shows Chinese President Xi Jinping is making sure anyone related to Zhou will be punished one way or another. Is it a legitimate anti-corruption campaign or a political axe to grind?

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Urumqi Under Attack

The scene of the open-air market moments after the explosions in Urumqi
This morning Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang was rocked by a deadly attack that killed 31 and many more injured.

It happened around 7.50am when people in cars crashed through metal barriers and drove into shoppers and setting off explosives.

The vehicles crashed head-on and then one of them exploded. Xinhua says there were up to 12 blasts in total.

The assailants targeted an open-air market that is frequented by Han Chinese, and very few Ughurs there, which makes investigators believe the perpetrators were possibly radical Uighurs, though no one has taken responsibility yet.

It is the single bloodiest attack in recent years, compared to the 2009 riots which lasted several days and resulted in 200 deaths.

While Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to severely punish the terrorists and spare no effort to maintain stability, this latest attack follows the railway station bomb attack late last month when three people were killed, including two attacks, and 79 injured.

The spate of violence in Xinjiang escalated exponentially today, which underscores the desperation of some Uighurs who are resorting violence to voice their anger and frustration at the Communist government.

We've gone over that palpable indignation many times and don't want to sound like a broken record.

But obviously the attackers are still not happy with how Xi has handled the restive region.

The Central government needs to move quickly and have greater understanding of the conflicts there, that repression does not stability make.

This is the strongest signal yet to force the government to completely revamp its policy there and become more inclusive in a multicultural way. And no, ethnic dancing on the stage at the CCTV Spring Gala is hardly a sign of inclusiveness...

If Xi misses this chance of thoughtfully dealing with the issues head-on, Xinjiang will continue to be headache (and bloody mess) for whoever is in power. Is that worth the risk?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Picture of the Day: Creative Commute

How would you like to catch some z's in the MTR like this?
Before, MTR employees had to deal with tense standoffs with mainland children urinating in train carriages. But now they're finding more stranger things happening.

On Monday night along the Island Line, a man strung a hammock across two posts and slept in it.

A passenger called an MTR employee at North Point at 11.30pm and the man left shortly after the staff member intervened.

MTR Staff General Association chairman Wong Yuen-wood said it was common to see drunk people lying on train floors or passengers in strange costumes, "but setting up a hammock -- I have never seen this," he said.

It's so bizarre, but at the same time, it's kind of funny no one thought of it until now. Or has he been doing this for a while?

Nevertheless, it's an interesting statement about how we don't get enough sleep, and also how a bit of creativity adds a bit of fun to one's commute...

What will we find next in the MTR?! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Blame Game

Trying to get onto the train during rush hour at Admiralty MTR station
A Hong Kong government adviser is trying his hand at spin doctoring and make it look like local workers, not mainland tourists, are to blame for overcrowding in MTR trains.

Executive councillor Cheung Chi-kong says it's due to the city's record number of workers. "People complain that mainland travellers are making our traffic very busy. But the major reason is that the number of employees [in Hong Kong] has risen by more than 100,000 over the past two years," he said.

Cheung added those who blame mainland tourists for the crowded trains were reaching the "wrong conclusion".

The MTR is pretty much packed during peak hours
Hong Kong's unemployment rate is at 3.1 percent because to pay for rent, mortgages, food on the table and so on, we all need to earn an income somehow... but still the MTR was never this packed before.

According to government documents, during peak morning hours, the East Rail and Tseung Kwan O lines are at full capacity, while the West Rail is at 99 percent, and Tsuen Wan lines at 98 percent. Island and Kwun Tong lines are at more than 90 percent capacity.

The government has urged the MTR to reintroduce concessions for travel before peak hours to ease congestion. Or maybe the company is too busy trying to figure out why there are so many delays in its infrastructure projects that it can't focus on overcrowding at the moment.

However, Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said Cheung was ignoring the fact that the increased number of people moving around the city was because of the individual visit scheme.

Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Greg So Kam-leung has projected 70 million visitors by 2017, 100 million in 2023.

He made an insensitive comment demonstrating how out of touch he was with what's really going on underground by saying, "Some passengers may not be able to board the MTR and would have to wait for the next train." When was the last time he took the MTR during rush hour, or ever?

While Wu said many workers did travel south to work, the impact of visitors cannot be ignored.

"It's the common mindset of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's supporters," Wu said. "They think mainland visitors bring only benefits to Hong Kong,"

Cheung's comments are not going to fly with Hong Kong people. Mainland tourists want to save as much money as possible for shopping which means taking public transport and the MTR is the number one choice to zip around the city.

Perhaps he'd like to revise his reasons why MTR trains are so overcrowded these days?

Monday, 19 May 2014

Poorly Made in China

Very interesting read on manufacturing in China
A friend of mine lent me a book he thought I'd be interested in reading and he was definitely right. Called Poorly Made in China: An Insider's Account of the China Production Game by Paul Midler, it follows his time working in South China with both American companies and Chinese manufacturers.

The book is a fast read, mostly because it is clearly written and has good analogies to help layman readers understand the Chinese way of doing business, and more particularly, their mindset.

As an American fluent in Putonghua, Midler acts as the middleman in many business deals and has seen how they play out. One of the examples he gives throughout the book is Johnson Carter getting King Chemical to produce soap products to sell to retailers in the United States.

It's interesting to see the process from the beginning, how Johnson Carter thinks it is getting a good deal, having its products made in China, but little does the representative, Bernie know how the Chinese mind thinks. That is, things aren't always as they seem.

And for Midler it's an eye-opener to see how factories work -- how they really make their money.

In the beginning the manufacturer appears to bend over backwards to get the client, but once contracts are secured and production begins, the scheming begins. Clients wonder how manufacturers make money, but through patience and time they do, as paramount leader Deng Xiaoping once suggested, "crossing the river by feeling the stones".

Author Paul Midler who gives some insight into China
The manufacturers gently poke and push and prod their clients to see where their weaknesses are and from there begin to figure out how to take advantage of them. In some cases it's lower quality packaging or even the content of the soap for Johnson Carter is diluted -- but only if it's noticed.

It's this cutting corners that led to food safety scandals, like the melamine scandal in pet food in 2007 Midler talked about, but he didn't go into the even bigger controversy the following year when thousands of babies and children being sick and at least six died from melamine found in milk powder.

Some manufacturers feign ignorance, while others must have known what they were doing, but not necessarily what the health risks would be. This is China's biggest dilemma -- where a number of people and companies put profits before morality.

Even now six years after the melamine milk scandal, food quality cannot be guaranteed, which is why Hong Kong is the destination of choice for mainlanders to buy food products they deem to be safe.

Midler also gives examples of foreigners who think they can be successful by replicating what they've done elsewhere, or that they have no sense that mutual trust and benefit don't exist in China. In both cases they fail miserably.

At the end of the book he hints that when the Most Favored Nation status for China was debated in Congress, the Clinton administration should not have delinked economic and political reforms; Midler believes that if the United States held out for greater reforms, things may have been much different than they are today.

And so we are now stuck with the situation we are in now, where China and the US need each other desperately with no end in sight.

Reading this book made me think twice about all the products I use, particularly shampoo and soap, and wonder if it's legit, because in the end it's the consumers who bear the consequences of bad manufacturing in China... Scary thought!

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Art Basel 2014 Roundup

In brilliant technicolour, it's Kyoung Tack Hong's Pens. Really.

This afternoon I had just over two hours to check out the last day of Art Basel at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Roy Lichtenstein's artwork on a 1977 BMW 320i
And because of the rain, many people thought it was the perfect way to spend a stormy weekend and so it was quite crowded which was a bummer. However it's a fair not a museum so getting prospective, potential and budding buyers in is more important than crowd control...

In any event the fair overall seemed to be about the same as last year, mostly pieces that intended to shock for photographic purposes (and were Instagrammed or Facebooked right away), while others demanded quiet contemplation or an extra moment to pause and reflect.

Ron Arad's squashed Beetle...
I'd heard from colleagues that the top floor had better art pieces than the main floor so I headed up there first. Outside the hall was a Roy Lichtenstein take on a 1977 320i. Every year BMW brings out a new car and it's fun and gets people thinking about art beyond a canvas.

But we saw another one -- smashed up against the wall at Ben Brown Fine Arts. Called Pressed Flower White by Ron Arad, it seemed very sad to see the vehicle squshed flat, much like flower pressing... the vehicular equivalent...

A Korean artist who caught my attention was Kwang Young Chun with the work Aggregation 14 - AP018 (Dream 5). From a distance the colours are fantastic, warm and bright, undulating and combining. Up close, they're actually Korean mulberry paper that's been made into small bundles and some how woven together or placed together to create texture as well. It's mind-numbing looking at it for too long, mainly wondering how long it took the artist to put it all together!

Detail of Wang Young Chun's intricate work
Fiona Hall's Fleet features some creative takes on sardine tins... kind of makes you think twice about what's in there the next time you buy them in the grocery store. Another fun one is Doug Aitken's fortune. It's a round photograph with broken fortune cookies and in the foreground is a fortune that says: "We need to talk/email me". These pieces are fun, but not really thought- provoking.

However I was blown away by New Zealand photographer Brian Brake's pictures of China in 1957, which was supposedly cut off from the world. He was one of a few foreign photographers allowed into the country, partly because American photographers could not get China visas. As a result his photographs were in high demand.

Variations of sardine tins by Fiona Hall
His photographs of Chairman Mao Zedong up close give an interesting look at the leader in candid and formal moments, from lavish banquets and speeches to private meetings with Soviet officials.

There is a wonderful picture of Zhou Enlai visiting the Soviet Union and he crouches down and his smiling with his arms outstretched to a little child. We don't know how the child responded but we can tell this is Zhou's effort at soft power.

Other striking images are those of the Forbidden City during that time. It must have been in its original state and not at all what it is today, parts repainted and renovated but they claim it is restored... These are fantastic documents of what the palace looked like.
Brian Brake's China in the 1950s

There are also photos of Hong Kong, many taken in Aberdeen of the fishing boats and the fishermen and their families. You don't see that anymore!

Brake was a member of Magnum Photos and shot for magazines like Life, Look, Paris Match and Illustrated. While it's great to know his photos can be seen at Koru Contemporary Art in Aberdeen, the prints are so expensive ($11,000!). My favourite picture is from the Chinese National Museum looking onto Tiananmen Square with the sun's rays creating a brilliant light and dark shadows.

He also photographed Pablo Picasso and is known for his series called Monsoon in India.

Kids were also getting into art at the fair. There were some giant sails hoisted into the air, the canvas filled with blue waves by Chinese artist Xu Qu. And sitting on the floor were children drawing Conquer. Others were led by a guide holding onto a string and trying to identify things he asked them to find in certain galleries.

The Ping-Pong Go-Round was a fun artistic distraction
There was also a giant --and round -- table tennis setup. Players could be inside the circle or outside of it which was great for kids and adults. Called Ping-Pong Go-Round, it was created by Singaporean artist Lee Wen.

So after all that walking and looking at art, one would get tired, no? Or dead?!

There was a piece of art on the floor, featuring a statue of the artist himself lying face down on the floor! Titled The Death of Marat by He Xiangyu, it was quite hilarious watching people's reactions to it. They knelt down to examine the "body" and of course took the obligatory pictures. The shoes are a dead giveaway that the man is a mainlander!

Is a dead man art? Visitors suss him out
Thanks for the memories and see you next year, Art Basel!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Rising Star

Lio Kuok-man welding the baton
We're thrilled to hear a local conductor will be joining the Philadelphia Orchestra as assistant conductor starting in the 2014-2015 season.

Macanese Lio Kuok-man is 32 years old and a graduate of the Hong Kong Arts Academy in Wan Chai.

"It has been my dream to work with the Philadelphia Orchestra ever since I first heard their live performance in Hong Kong when I was a student," he said.

Lio is also an accomplished piano soloist
The American orchestra is a prestigious one that belongs to an elite group that includes that of New York, Cleveland, Boston and Chicago. The Philadelphia Orchestra was also the first to visit China in 1973.

Meanwhile according to the Hong Kong Philharmonic website, Lio is not only a conductor, but also piano soloist and chamber musician.

Lio graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music with a double major in conducting and harpsichord, and before that did a master's degree in piano performance at Julliard School.

Since then Lio has performed with the who's who of musical greats from James Levine and Christoph Eschenbach, Charles Dutoit and Pinchas Zukerman.

Seems like the only way is up for Lio and we look forward to watching him perform someday...

Friday, 16 May 2014

Picture of the Day: Bishop's House

A bird's eye view of Bishop's House on Ice House Street and Lower Albert Rd
Last night I had dinner at Spanish restaurant FoFo by el Willy and it was a fantastic meal with fresh seafood, roast lamb shoulder, full of complex flavours and hearty tastes, washed down with Spanish beer.

Afterwards we went upstairs to the rooftop and since there was a break in the weather, groups of people clustered around for drinks and tapas.

Looking down below we saw Bishop's House on Ice House Street.

Now a Grade 1 Historic building, the house dates back to 1843 and was the residence of the Anglican Archbishop of Hong Kong. Construction of the building was completed in 1848.

From our bird's eye view the complex looks quite large, and was completely renovated and modernized from 1967-68. One would think it would be due for another update!

Nevertheless we wondered if anyone was using the building anymore and if we could go in to take a look...

Thursday, 15 May 2014

A Brilliant Storyteller Gone

Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul took his own life at 36
I don't watch many movies but prefer documentaries and absolutely loved Searching for Sugar Man last year.

It was an interesting story about two South African journalists trying to track down American musician Sixto Rodriguez who somehow disappeared, but gained popularity in South Africa.

The documentary won an Oscar last year, the first Swedish film to win an Academy Award since Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander in 1984.

Bendjelloul helped revive Sixto Rodriguez's career, now 71
Not only did it win lots of accolades including audience and special jury awards at the Sundance Film Festival, but also helped revive Rodriguez's career, now 71.

So it was shocking to discover that the director of the film, Malik Bendjelloul, 36. committed suicide on Tuesday in Stockholm.

Initial reports said the director was found dead, and later his brother Johar said, "I can confirm my brother has taken his own life and that he had been depressed for a short period of time. Life is not always so easy... it's the worst. I don't know how to handle it."

Sony Pictures Classics, the film's distributor released a statement: "Much like Rodriguez himself, Malik was a genuine person who chased the world for stories to tell. He didn't chase fame, fortune or awards, although those accolades still found him as many others recognized his storytelling."

Bendjelloul had experience doing documentaries, having done ones for TV on Elton John, Rod Stewart and Bjork.

The young director accepting the Academy Award last year
He also worked as a reporter for Sweden's public broadcaster SVT and then resigned in order to backpack around the world. It was when he traveled did he find out about Rodriguez and got the idea for Searching for Sugar Man.

However it took Bendjelloul four years to make the film. When the film was 90 percent done, having edited it for three years, the main sponsor withdrew support. Having used all his savings and borrowed money from friends, he stopped working on the movie just to make ends meet.

In the end he finally completed the film by shooting the final parts with his smartphone and doing his own animation that is in the documentary.

After the Oscar win, Bendjelloul went on a safari and was apparently working on his next film about a man who communicates with elephants.

That would have been another amazing story... but no more.

Swedish film critic Hynek Pallas, who accompanied Bendjelloul to the Oscars, described him as a modest, but determined man.

The documentary received numerous international accolades
"He was an incredibly talented storyteller," Pallas wrote. "He had the strength of a marathon runner, to work on his film for so many years and sometimes without money, then you have a goal."

We may never know why Bendjelloul decided to end it all, and it is so sad to have such great talent gone. But we are grateful he told us about Rodriguez with such passion.

Bendjelloul was a true artist, staying focused on his goal despite the adverse challenges he faced. When you watch Searching for Sugar Man, you can see it was a labour of love, and also it was too good a story to resist not telling.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Quote of the Day: Rachel Cartland

Rachel Cartland hopes for progressive change in the electoral system
Rachel Cartland was a career civil servant, retiring in 2006 after 34 years in public service. She used the fairytale Sleeping Beauty as a metaphor, saying she hoped Hong Kong would wake up from "17 years of bad dreams" since the handover, and that a "saner" political system was the only way forward.

She was assistant director of social welfare until 2006. Cartland said when Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, "the good godmother came forward and heaped up gifts", such as rule of law.
Cartland's memoir as a civil servant

"[But] the evil godmother, or perhaps she was merely being foolish, came and laid on top of the pile, the most stupid, ridiculous political system and constitution that any community in the world has tried and been forced to operate under.

"Every single member of the Legislative Council stands always poised, ready to form the disloyal opposition to a chief executive who is specifically not allowed to have a political party of his own.

"That Legislative Council is formed party from functional constituencies, some of which are as bad as the rotten boroughs that tainted 19th-century England, with tiny electorates with their own agenda, [while] the geographical constituencies... are elected by a very odd proportional representation system, which is actually skewed in such a way as to ensure that more radical candidates have a very high chance of being elected.

"My own belief is that [problems] could be sorted out more easily in a saner system. Hong Kong is now teetering on the edge of ungovernability and the reason is the political system."

There was a public consultation on reform that ended this month, but there wasn't much consensus. Even the pan-democrats are split as to how candidates should be nominated and elected.

Cartland urged officials to "come up with an electoral system that will work" and to persuade Beijing and Hong Kong people to "live with it".

We like that Cartland has made tough criticisms of what is going on with Hong Kong. She is correct to say the city has become less and less governable with so many contradictions and the way the system works does not benefit anyone.

However is she not aware that Hong Kong officials aren't even able to think of a good electoral system, and that they instead anxiously wait for Beijing's instructions?

It has been that way since July 1, 1997 and has gotten progressively more pro-Beijing. For example today the Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim warned that students be aware of the consequences of taking part in the Occupy Central movement that he dubbed as "illegal".

The government should not be calling this civil disobedience movement "illegal", and thow can teachers be blamed if their students participate? Maybe their parents want them to join them? The veiled threats seem petty and weak.

If the government wants to avoid Occupy Central happening, then why not have talks with the organizers and see what kind of middle ground can be established? That was the whole point of the movement, to force the government's hand, but it refuses to be drawn into the discussions, perhaps on the orders of Beijing.

So where is Hong Kong headed now? It doesn't seem Cartland's wish of the city waking up from its 17 years of bad dreams will be over anytime soon...

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Remembering the Dead... with Gratitude?

People file past a school that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008
Yesterday marked the sixth anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake that killed 88,000 people.

There are still questions as to why 5,300 of the dead were students killed in schools that were shoddily built and no answers even now.

Activist Tan Zuoren who tried to find answers for the families was finally released in March after spending five years in jail for investigating the deaths of the students. Artist Ai Weiwei was beaten up by police when he tried to attend Tan's trial. Later Ai's brain swelled and he had to have emergency surgery in Germany.

His latest project involves pictures of flowers online to remember the students killed, with the slogan, "Respect Life, Never Forget".

One of his installations I saw at the Hong Kong Art Fair before it became Art Basel HK was an enclosed space all in black with white sheets of paper posted on the inside. It was a long list of names of the students who died, their age, sex and perhaps they liked to draw or play music. It was chilling looking at those thousands of names.

But now six years on it seems the government wants people to move on, or it is really insensitive to people's feelings.

This year at the epicentre of the quake in Yingxiu township in Wenchuan county, locals were invited to a "festival of gratitude" that was organized by a government-backed institute. Events included a dance by the ethnic Qiang and a beauty contest "to express the area's gratitude for the aid it has received since the quake".

How can anyone who lost a loved one in the earthquake even begin to enjoy a "festival of gratitude" that features dancing and a beauty pageant? Perhaps a corruption scandal will come out of it later...

And last month it was discovered that food meant to be for the victims six years ago were found rotting in a storeroom in a village office along with bundles of clothes and other supplies.

Residents complained of a smell and then when county officials found the source of the odour, they found half-filled sacks of rotting rice, instant noodles and expired bottles of water.

The villagers apparently took videos of officials hurriedly trying to get rid of the stuff until only grains of rice were left.

Village official Guo Fangping was suspended after trying to cover up the cache, but surely he should have been sacked?

Ji Shenghui, the party secretary of Santai county claimed the food had already expired in 2008 but did not explain why they had not been disposed of. As for the rotting rice, he claimed that was for the villagers for Spring Festival, but they were soaked during transport and left in the storage room. Again, why weren't they disposed of?

Meanwhile Wenchuan has had six million tourists visit the area in 2013, generating 2.6 billion yuan for the county. But does that really help the victims' families?

As lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan says: "The earthquake was a natural disaster, but we still have to ask if the deaths of more than 5,000 students was related to a man-made disaster?"

The government is still silent on this, and will be for many years to come.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Xinhua's Travel Tips

Some mainland tourists behaving badly on Hong Kong streets...
The Chinese state media agency Xinhua has now waded into the tourism fiasco with a list of do's and don'ts for mainland visitors to Hong Kong.

They are:

- Keep clear of roads and avoid blocking paths
- Speak softly
- Refrain from bumping or pushing people
- Refrain from yelling to people from afar
- Treat service staff politely
- Refrain from haggling prices down too far

- Eat or drink in the MTR
- Smoke in a no-smoking zone
- Litter or spit on the ground
- Cross the road when there's a red man
- Ride in the first-class train carriage without paying
- Forget to wear your seatbelts in a taxi

Interestingly the article does mention the Mongkok incident where a couple's child was doing some bathroom business on a busy street and two locals filmed the incident, but Xinhua does not say explicitly that mainlanders should not urinate in public.

In the hopes of providing some context, the article adds: "Hong Kongers have a strong sense of self -- they don't like to inconvenience, impede or affect others with their actions."

This observation gives an idea of what mainlanders think of Hong Kong people. But it's not really about a strong sense of self -- it's about making things efficient for everyone because we're all in a hurry, whereas mainlanders take their time with everything. When I lived in Beijing, my colleagues would comment that I walked so fast or I completed tasks so quickly...

And then Xinhua adds: "And while visiting someone's place, one must learn to adhere to that place's rules -- it is a kind of respect for Hong Kong and also to protect mainland tourists themselves."

This advice should be heeded not only in Hong Kong, but anywhere mainlanders travel to. They should not expect the red carpet treatment everywhere they go and to show some humbleness or interest in the foreign countries they are visiting. Isn't that what traveling is about?

Now that this list of tips is out, how many will really adhere to them?

We shall find out in the next few weeks and months...

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Meditation on Change

Looking towards Central with the Asia Society in front
Before the Watermark screening at the Asian Society, we were given the opportunity to check out the latest exhibition, "It Begins With Metamorphosis: Xu Bing".

It is his first solo show and I didn't know much about this mainland-born artist who is known for his prints.

Looking out at Admiralty and Tsim Sha Tsui in the background
There weren't many pieces shown, but most interesting was a animation sequence he created using Chinese calligraphy and ink drawings to illustrate the meanings. For example he had the Chinese words for army and then showed soldiers and weapons within the characters.

He should consider using this format to create videos to teach people Chinese characters! It was fun and memorable. At the end credits, big thanks was given to the Robert H.N. Ho Family foundation, a Hong Kong link to this show.

Apparently the exhibition was inspired by smell, when Xu was in the United States and smelled a tobacco leaf. He then started researching about how it was grown, its links with the US and slavery, and his father's cancer.

There is an over-sized book with the pages made from tobacco leaves and printed words on it.

Silkworms crawling around on a book!
Off to the side is another book, but smaller, and on top of the pages are live silkworms hanging out and slowly covering the pages with their silk strands. At first I didn't know what to think -- it seemed so strange and disconcerting, but there they were, making no effort to escape and didn't chew on the pages either. Maybe they had been fed mulberry leaves earlier...

He also does copies of certain pages from The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, but this doesn't seem particularly interesting.

Finally there's an installation that perhaps recreates Xu's office with computer screens and lots of graphics taped on the wall, exploring all kinds of symbols to see which ones are the most easily understandable or graphically pleasing, it's hard to tell.

Overall the show didn't seem to have a main point, or perhaps the explanations didn't help tie everything together into the meaning of metamorphosis. Some of the individual pieces were interesting, but seemed disparate from the others.

After watching Watermark I wandered outside around the center a bit and took some pictures of the moody skyline from this vantage point.

Buddha head by Zhang Huan on the rooftop garden
It Begins With Metamorphosis: Xu Bing
Until August 31
Asia Society Hong Kong Center
9 Justice Drive

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Our Relationship with Water

Colorado River Delta #2 shows water from the ocean trying to reach the river
Just came back from the Asia Society where I watched a screening of Watermark by Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal. The duo had collaborated on Manufactured Landscapes where Burtynsky was the subject taking photographs of China and exploring where all our goods had come from.

The documentary received raved reviews, and thrust Burtynsky's name out into the global limelight. I'd never heard of him myself until that I watched that film and am glad it introduced me to his images that are terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Xiaolangdi Dam #1, spewing out water from the Yellow River
His large-scale photographs show the immense scale of things, but also minute detail because his pictures are so sharp. For me his keen interest in what is happening in China and his amazing access to construction projects from dams to shipyards are fascinating, giving us viewers an insight into places we have never been to or never will go to.

In 2006 Burtynsky was working on a project on oil, how we extract it, what we use it for, how it impacts our environment. Then he happened to be in Australia when the droughts were happening and the photographers he was with at the time were photojournalists covering the impact of the droughts on farmers.

He explained that once water disappeared from their land or access to water was gone, that was the end of their livelihood on the land. The land couldn't be sold either and some farmers committed suicide. Seeing these things happen made Burtynsky think about water and our relationship to it.

Then two years later National Geographic contacted him, asking if he was interested in photographing on the subject of water in California. He did a year of research and then 10 months on and off of taking pictures there.

He showed the images of Baichwal and they thought they could be the basis of their next film.

Xiluodu Dam #1 that is six times larger than the Hoover
It starts with the mighty Yellow River in China, roaring as it comes down, the water coming out in clumps looking like the outstretched forelegs of a lion. And then this image is immediately contrasted with a parched barren riverbed in Mexico.

Watermark examines our relationship with water, as Burtynsky says, how we use it, abuse it, how we relate to it spiritually or for entertainment. They did a lot of research to figure out the best way to tell vignettes about water, but also avoiding cliched images and trying to find those that viewers would have little or no opportunity to see.

Thus we visit the construction of the Xiluodu, the biggest arched dam in the world that is six times larger than the Hoover. We also go to Greenland and talk to scientists about why they study the ice thousands of metres deep. And we see the horrific environmental effects of tanneries in Bangladesh, and 30 million people descending on the Ganges River in the hopes that their sins will be washed away.

Pivot Irrigation #11, in High Plains, Texas Panhandle
We also visit an abalone farm off the coast of Fujian province, and the pristine watersheds in British Columbia and learn about the lives of the people there, and how bizarre area in California, where everyone has a waterfront property.

To get the scale, the filmmakers used helicopters, cessnas, and more importantly remote helicopters, basically drones to photograph and film many sequences and the effects add not only to the poetic nature of the film, but also make us realize how small we are.

Burtynsky explains that 70 percent of the world's water is used for agriculture and 70 percent of that is used to grow the food for the animals we eat. Other statistics he had was that Canada has 32 percent of the world's fresh water, while China only has 8 percent. The mainland used to have 50,000 rivers, but now only 25,000, and many of them you can't even dip your hand in them, they're so contaminated.

Rice Terraces #2 in Western Yunnan province
He and Baichwal hope Watermark will get people to think about water the next time they drink some, turn on the tap, have a shower, jump into a swimming pool. We have to be careful with this precious resource.

I plan to see his exhibition at Sundaram Tagore Gallery soon, and have a chance to see Burtynsky's arresting images up close.

Edward Burtynsky: Water
Until June 21, 2014
Sundaram Tagore Gallery
57-59 Hollywood Road