Saturday, 28 February 2015

Picture of the Day: Major Ground Work

The entrance to the Main Wing are blocked off and abandoned...
Last Sunday I walked along Lower Albert Road and I was shocked to see the Central Government Officers... being redeveloped.

While the main structures like the West and East wings are still in tact for now, the ground they are standing on is being redeveloped. After the offices here were abandoned after civil servants moved into the spanking new government offices at Tamar in 2010, the office buildings below Government House are empty and sad-looking.

The Main Wing looks particularly sad, where the media used to cover senior government leaders coming in and leaving this complex on a daily basis, and now it's cordoned off, though the Communist Party insignia is still there...

What's going on here on the West Wing property?
Apparently the site is being fixed up for the Justice Department to move into the Central and East wings.

The government had planned to knock down the West Wing (and build yet another shopping mall) but local activists protested this. They argued that taxpayer dollars were used to buy and develop this land, so the government cannot do whatever it wants, and architecturally these buildings have heritage value, so there was talk of preserving them.

Where are we at now with these buildings? Perhaps they can be developed like PMQ, though how the building will be used is another issue. The business model at PMQ isn't quite working, though everyone likes the cool open spaces here.

In the meantime, we will try to scrutinize this property -- our property -- more often to see what's going on...

Friday, 27 February 2015

Wandering Sheung Wan and Taiping Shan

Clever frontage for a bar hidden behind this "shop" supposedly selling chops
Last Sunday after a delicious dim sum in Sai Ying Pun, some relatives and I walked around the Sheung Wan and Taiping Shan area.

Several piggies lined up with roast ducks too!
We saw a mix of old and new which juxtapose so well together, making Hong Kong a unique place to live in. As we walked along the start of Hollywood Road from the west, we saw a pine of pig carcasses hanging in a row on steel hooks.

One relative, who was visiting had to get a picture and I encouraged her to walk inside. The middle-aged men standing or sitting around invited us to come in, but warned the floor was slippery thanks to all the pig lard on the floor! Hanging above the carcasses were roast ducks too!

A cheerful mandarin tree plant
After climbing up hills and steps, we arrived in Taiping Shan. One deceptive shop front is Mrs Pound, or Pong Tai Tai in Chinese. In front is a display of all kinds of chops and rectangular-shaped stones that can be carved with Chinese characters.

But in fact this "shop" is a front for a bar inside -- if you can figure out how to get in. The hint is to press one of the buttons in the glass display...

Further along I spotted a cute mandarin orange tree plant in a small pot holder by a store front. What a wonderful way to liven up a space!

We also spotted a new restaurant that opened, and had a hand written sign apologizing for the slow service because of Chinese New Year. It looked cozy inside with an international menu. It may be a spot we come back to try.

An artistic homage to Dr Sun Yat-sen
Finally along Bridges Street, a wonderful colourful mosaic featuring Dr Sun Yat-sen in the top left corner and various buildings and street scenes of Hong Kong during the early 20th century.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Wang Sicong considers himself "tall, rich and handsome"... is he?
On Valentine's Day, the son of China's second-richest man told the media that his top criteria for finding a girlfriend was that she had to be "buxom".

The 26-year-old Wang Sicong was educated overseas from grade one and when he came back to China, his father, Wang Jianlin appointed him director of Dalian Wanda Group, a property and entertainment empire, without having any particular job description or responsibilities. The younger Wang is also chairman of a private investment firm called Prometheus Capital and runs a gaming company.

But he is best known for making outrageous comments on social media, usually verbal jousts at other fuerdai or second-generation wealthy elite. In 2013 he got into an argument with Wang Xiaofei, the son of celebrity chef Zhang Lan, accusing Wang of "impersonating a fuerdai" and being a "fake hipster" because his mother had retained her seat on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference despite renouncing her Chinese citizenship.


Father Wang Jianlin went on TV to defend his son's antics
Wang Sicong also considers himself a "gaofushuai", or literally "tall, rich and handsome"; he also likes to point out he is different from "diaosi", a self-mocking term referring to young men of humble backgrounds and low incomes.

Basically he's a spoiled brat to the nth degree.

In the days following his Valentine's Day remarks, Xinhua skewered the younger Wang, saying he was "breaching the bottom line of morals". It also said he was spreading "undesirable obsessions with money, sex and violence".

After Xinhua slammed Wang, he claimed what he said about women was a joke and couldn't believe that people took it seriously.

But his father has taken the criticism to heart and last night went on state television to publicly defend his son.

Wang Jianlin said his son had spent many years studying overseas and had gotten into the habit of speaking whatever was on his mind.

"He is smart. He went overseas to study at grade one and he has a Western-style of thinking. Maybe after spending five or eight years in China, he will truly become Chinese."

Will the younger Wang ever truly become Chinese after having studied abroad since he was six years old? This is naive thinking on the father's part. To believe that his son can have a Western education but without the other cultural aspects that go with living in the West is wishful thinking.

And for the father to denounce the West for casting is son astray is outrageous -- if his son was brought up with good family values and manners, this entire incident would not have erupted.

According to Wang Jianlin's friends, his biggest regret in life is not having more children. "My wife didn't want to have more when we were young, and now it's too late," he apparently once said...

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Tsang Consistently Off the Mark

John Tsang (middle) answers questions from the media after his speech
Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah delivered his much anticipated budget speech today.

His consistency continues by being his trademark very fiscally conservative and completely missing the mark in projecting the budget surplus.

Critics must be tired of hearing themselves repeat their refrain of Tsang not doing enough for the poor and the elderly, and this year the financial secretary totally underestimated the budget surplus again -- six times more than his projected HK$9.1 billion. How he gets this wrong every time makes people wonder if he is really qualified for his job.

In any event, he finished his speech by recalling the "social bickering" of the past year by saying, " in recent years seem to have impacted on the system and common values. This is a huge concern to me".

Then he says Hong Kong ranks in the top tier globally in terms of economic success. "However, behind and beyond material fulfillment, the people of this city, our younger generations in particular, are hungering for spiritual contentment. This is what a mature society should manifest, and this is a change that needs to be addressed and dealt with. Nonetheless, conflicts should be resolved through conversation rather than confrontation, and this is the point that we must all come to terms with."

Interesting he makes this observation post-Occupy and acknowledges young people want more than just material things. He also says these conflicts should be resolved through conversation, not confrontation. Does he have any bright ideas on doing that?

But then he says it is up to the younger generations to not only enjoy the good fruits planted by their predecessors, but also work hard for tomorrow's harvest.

"I hope that they will continue to sow the seeds, plough the land and plant the trees so their future generations can enjoy the fruits of their labour. Our vision is to make this city a better place with a brighter future for everyone where our legend lives on."

Right... How can they sow their seeds for a better future, if young people cannot afford a place of their own, get decent-paying jobs and so on? If the government loosened its purse strings a bit more, it could offer more loans to first-time homeowners who can easily pay a mortgage, but don't have enough for down payments. This is the biggest hurdle most young people -- singletons, couples and young families -- are facing at the moment.

Tsang totally missed the mark on helping them get their roots planted in Hong Kong... so much for the abundant harvest he was hoping for...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Going Under Cover

A La Perla boutique in Beijing selling lingerie that have become hot in  China
What do basements and lingerie have in common?

They are the new must-haves in China's "new normal".

With Chinese President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive continuing with no end in sight, people are spending their dollars literally underground -- as inconspicuously as possible.

The word these days is that rich businessmen and officials are digging basements in their homes, or if they already have one, to renovate it to become their new playroom or dining area to host guests.

An illegal basement caused neighbouring homes to collapse
That's because there's a new campaign encouraging regular folk to take pictures of those who seem to be dining beyond their means in the hopes of identifying and tracking them down. But with a basement, the uber rich can still have their abalone and shark's fin without prying eyes condemning them for their lavish tastes.

Come to think of it, former Hong Kong chief executive contender Henry Tang Ying-yen was probably onto something when he -- oops we mean his wife -- designed a massive basement under their Kowloon Tong home to include a wine-tasting room, cinema, changing room and a gym...

That led to the beginning of the end of Tang's chances to become Hong Kong's top dog. He can comiserate with a Chinese businessman and city legislator in Beijing who got into trouble late last month when he was building an illegal basement 18 metres deep that caused his neighbours' houses to collapse.
Henry Tang and his wife Lisa Kuo faced scrutiny

Major boo-boo.

Not only did the construction workers not have a permit, but also no project supervisor or even architectural plans. The neighbours are now homeless.

Meanwhile the anti-corruption campaign has also resulted in consumers shunning luxury brand outerwear and instead focusing on what they're wearing underneath.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting strong sales for $300 bras and other underwear. Previously people would not shell out for items others would not be able to see, but now lingerie is a hot commodity. High-end brand La Perla saw a 42 percent jump in sales last year in its stores in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and recently the brand opened a shop for men selling $200 silk boxers and $3,000 silk robes.

Expensive lingerie is the new bling...
Young women who have worked for a few years don't mind splashing out for expensive underwear -- perhaps finding it sexy to wear something luxurious underneath that no one else knows about?

Looks like everyone's going underground or underneath to hide their wealth -- above board or ill-gotten.

Perhaps we'll soon be seeing bras studded with diamonds, or boxers in gold thread soon?

Monday, 23 February 2015

Hong Kong's Oscar Mention

Common (left) and John Legend make passionate acceptance speeches
In Hong Kong the Academy Awards are broadcast in the morning our time until around 1pm. We have the television on in the office to catch the odd speech or interesting musical number -- like Lady Gaga doing an amazing imitation of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

But when Common and John Legend came up to the stage to pick up the Oscar for best original song for "Glory" from the film Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement, our jaws dropped.

Common started off by saying:

First off, I'd like to thank God that lives in us all. Recently, John and I got to go to Selma and perform "Glory" on the same bridge that Dr King and the people of the civil rights movement marched on 50 years ago. This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now is a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression, to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope. Welded with compassion. And elevated by love for all human beings.

There was an immediate flurry of tweets on Twitter, thanking @common for the shout out to Hong Kong.

"Tears welled up in my eyes," said Edward Chin, founder of a group of banking and finance professionals in Hong Kong that supported the protests. He was touched to know the protesters' efforts were recognized elsewhere. "We haven't achieved much yet, but Hong Kong people still have dreams... We know that it will be a prolonged fight but we will have true democracy one day."

Avery Ng, the vice-chairman of the League of Social Democrats who was among those arrested and then released for his participation in the 79-day protest said he was "deeply moved" by the speech.

"I watched Selma a few weeks ago. I couldn't help but feel a powerful emotional connection with the people in Selma 50 years ago. They remind us that we still have much oppression to endure before we can see the road of freedom," he said.

Legend took to the microphone and added these words:

Thank you. Nina Simone said it's an artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the voting rights, the act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on. God bless.

Needless to say the leadership in Beijing are probably infuriated to see that the Hong Kong protests did resonate with people in the west, and that the movie may inspire them to continue their fight for universal suffrage.

Speaking of which -- the other day another brilliant yellow banner with the words "I want true universal suffrage" was unfurled on Lion Rock again, a testament that the Umbrella Movement refuses to die!

And now will the movement gain momentum again with its new theme song, "Glory"?

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Decadent Celebration

The memorable Monkfish liver dish that started the kaiseki at RyuGin
About a month ago I bumped into Hideaki Sato, chef de cuisine at RyuGin in Elements. He told me in a few months he was leaving the restaurant he helped earn two Michelin stars.

So YTSL and I decided to celebrate Chinese New Year with a splurge by dining here one more time.

The weather has been unseasonably warm so when we arrived on the 101st floor of International Commerce Centre or ICC, it was pretty foggy outside which was a pity, but not unusual!

Delicate flavours in the chawanmushi dish with sea urchin
Nevertheless, we were looking forward to having a memorable meal -- for over HK$2,000 ($258)! -- and for the most part the kaiseki lived up to its billing.

To start off the meal, we had Monkfish liver or ankimo from Hokkaido, that for some more discerning palates is even better than foie gras and I have to agree.

It was presented in cubes with spring onion in mustard and miso sauce, garnished with thin slices of radish and orange zest. The flavour of the akimo was delicate yet full of rich foie gras-like flavour that wasn't heavy, and had a smooth texture.

This was followed by another favourite dish, hot egg custard topped with yuba, or tofu skin, and sea urchin. YTSL savoured the uni and wished she could have had more! The yuba added another texture to the smooth-tasting chawanmushi, and of course the sea urchin gave the dish a depth of flavour with its taste of the sea.

Fantastic slow-cooked abalone with radish sauce
We also enjoyed the next dish that was presented in a bowl covered with a giant abalone shell. Inside was simmered abalone, sliced horizontally and topped with grated radish sauce that perfectly complemented the seafood.

The texture of the abalone was unlike Cantonese braised abalone. Here it was like a thick meaty mushroom, but with that distinctive abalone taste that wasn't covered in a thick sauce.

Next came the charcoal grilled amadai in a broth with leek and winter turnip. We were advised to drink the soup first, which seemed a bit bland, but had a comforting taste, before eating the fish, that was overcooked.

Now halfway through the meal we were given a long plate with four different sashimi and the wooden plank the small dishes were presented on was decorated with a landscape of sea and mountains in salt!

Signature charcoal grilled Alfonsino topped with roasted rice
On the far left were two slices of flounder that were not very flavourful, but then they were followed by thin slices of geoduck that I haven't had much of a chance to eat since it's so expensive. But it was wonderful to be able to taste the fresh crunchiness. Next were small firefly squid that you popped into your mouth and didn't need any soy sauce because it had lots of flavour packed inside. Finally the yellowtail that is now in season was delicious.

Then we moved onto one of RyuGin's signature dishes, the charcoal grilled Alfonsino covered with roasted rice. We had this same dish when the restaurant opened in Hong Kong about three years ago, and this time it was accompanied with a light teriyaki sauce that seemed a bit redundant, as the fish was cooked perfectly, the smooth taste of the fish contrasting with the crispiness of the roasted rice on top. Nevertheless, we savoured each bite.

The Japanese onsen tamago with marbled wagyu beef
Another favourite of the evening was the wagyu ribeye sukiyaki with onsen tamago. Thin slices of the prized marbled beef were placed in a bowl with some onions, leek and radish and a Japanese slow-cooked egg. When we poked the egg, a brilliant orange yolk burst out, and mixed together with the beef was a double protein dose that was divine. The egg white was silky soft and contrasted with the crunchy semi-cooked onion slices and pickled radish.

If that wasn't enough -- I was practically full at this point -- the main event came, Matsubagani crab, with a small dollop of the crab roe on top, on a bed of shiitake mushroom rice. Unfortunately the crab was also on the bland side despite the large chunk we were given, while the rice was delicate and hearty.

We had two desserts, the first one the signature hot and cold one. For the lunar new year, the flavour this time was mandarin orange, and we were presented a small bowl with one shiny golden orb with a small mint leaf on top.

Our mandarin orange dessert before it was smashed!
We had to break open the "fruit" to find very cold -- minus 196-degree powder packed inside before the server gave us two spoonfuls of 99-degree mandarin jam that we had to mix together with some pop rocks. The effect was very audible! We could hear the pop rocks zinging away in each others' mouths, while the hot and cold mandarin dessert was lots of fun to eat. However we both agreed we preferred the signature strawberry dessert we ate the first time.

Nevertheless, the second dessert was also delightful. After breaking a gorgeous perfect globe-shaped meringue shell that was light and crunchy, underneath was some almond ice cream with slightly sweet red beans and chopped strawberries. It was another play of textures and tastes in the mouth.

Another gorgeous dessert covered by a meringue shell
Overall we were very satisfied with the dinner, save for the few disappointing dishes. Service was impeccable and attentive. We came relatively early at 7pm, with the last table seated around 8.15pm. The outfits patrons wore ranged from hoodies to studded platform heels!

In a way RyuGin is one of those places where you can only go once because the dishes are not traditional kaiseki and are a memorable surprise. Also the dessert is so unforgetable the first time to be topped by successive ones.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the dining experience, and wish chef Sato all the best in his new endeavours!

101/F, ICC, 1 Austin Road West
2302 0222

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Picture of the Day: Sheep in Stitches

A very big sheep knitting a giant red scarf at Elements
I just came back from dinner at Elements in Kowloon Station and the mall has a cute sheep theme -- no goats!

In one area, there's a gigantic sheep, and its body is a massive ball of yarn, and it is knitting a red scarf perhaps?

And then in another section of the mall there is a flock of sheep, and some of them are decorated with colourful knits. One in particular features crochet outfit of pink flowers and green leaves on its body -- complete with ankle bracelets too!

One sheep looking pretty in pink crochet flowers
The knitted hat on its head makes it look like a grandma sheep.

It's fun seeing how designers come up with different decorations each year. Thank goodness there's 12 animals for Chinese New Year to keep it fresh compared to say Christmas!

Friday, 20 February 2015

All in the Interpretation

Lau Wong-fat shaking the container for a fortune stick to come out
This being the second day of Chinese New Year is when a government representative goes to Che Kung Temple in Sha Tin to draw a fortune stick for Hong Kong.

Every year since 2004 it's been Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat, after home affairs bureau chief Patrick Ho Chi-ping drew the number 83, one of the worst omens, and after that SARS hit the city that resulted in the deaths of 299 people.

Apparently when the British were in power, they "fixed" the sticks so that every year was a good fortune...

But why is Lau doing it every year? Can't they mix it up? Or does he keep drawing it until he gets a bad fortune stick?

In any event this year Lau picked the number 20 which is considered "neutral". The stick is chosen by getting a container filled with fortune sticks, 96 of them, where 35 are good, 44 are neutral and 17 are bad. The person has to shake the container at an angle until one fortune stick comes out.

Last year Lau also picked an average fortune. It was advised that the government listen to the people in the Year of the Horse to avoid misfortune and chaos. Look what happened in the end!

But this year, the fortune was interpreted that it was the people should not be greedy and be practical. When looking at it from a political point of view, fortune tellers were hinting Hong Kong people should accept the government's political reform package. In other words, elections where one person, one vote, will have two to three candidates who are vetted by Beijing.

How would you interpret the fortune that literally says this: "In the morning there's colourful make-up and coiffure in cloud-shaped coils; and jade and pearl ornaments made the brocade look silvery. Yet 'form is emptiness and emptiness is form', that was [goddess of mercy] Guanyin's reminder for the mortals."

From those poetic words we can see how it advises people not to be greedy, but why should it be related to political reform? How about it being aimed at landlords demanding sky high rents and even worse, property developers who are charging almost HK$20,000 per square foot for a less than 300 sq ft flat near Sham Shui Po?

Shouldn't they be the ones tempering their expectations?

The average Hong Kong person has already had their hopes sunk in the past year. All they are focusing on is getting a decent-paying job to pay the rent and if they're lucky a mortgage. They are hardly aiming for the Moon these days. Why take risks when you're beaten down?

Again this demonstrates Hong Kong government officials are still completely out of touch with what's going on street level -- they are sitting too high in the sky to see the gritty reality of life in the city.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Be Like Sheep

An idyllic Chinese New Year garden party at Government House
In his Chinese New Year video message, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said that last year was a tumultuous one, and suggested that perhaps the city's residents should emulate this year's animal in the Chinese zodiac.

"Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts, he said. "In the coming year, I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep's character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong's future," he said.

So the wolf is telling his flock to be more docile and obedient...

Was this a deliberate message or was the metaphor completely lost on him?

Leung Chai-yan continues to create headaches for her dad
While he may be hoping for a relatively trouble-free year in 2015, so far many of his headaches have stemmed from his daughter Leung Chai-yan who has show business aspirations and keen on gaining any attention for herself at the expense of her dad's leadership image.

Officials in Beijing must be smacking their heads with their hands watching the family drama unfold on the sidelines.

For Hong Kong residents this is very amusing, though it's interesting to point out no student activists or pro-democracy leaders are taking advantage of this to smear Leung.

When Leung released the video, he was quick to point out that the children in the video were not paid actors, and that they had "language impairments".

In his message, the wolf tells the people to be like sheep...
But many were quick to point out the wolf and sheep metaphor, which also brings to mind the 2004 Chinese novel Wolf Totem by Lu Jianmin (pen name Jiang Rong), who suggests people should not be sheep who blindly follow others and instead become wolves with free spirits to survive.

Perhaps Hong Kong people should take a page out of Wolf Totem and unleash their independent streaks. Maybe sales of Lufsig will pick up again?

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Traditions Continue

A plum blossom tree at Citibank Tower in Central
I just came back from my relatives' place for the New Year Eve dinner. We had hot pot and there was way too much food to eat. Practically all of the ingredients were choice ones, particularly the mushrooms and vegetables, and loved the Chiu Chow fish balls that were succulent and tasty.

We were continuing the tradition of the matriarch of the family who passed away a few months ago; she always made sure we had tong yuan or sweet dumplings on New Year's Eve, but we were so full, that I passed the time by helping them get ready for the Year of the Goat/Sheep/Ram.

Dessert of tong yuan ready to be eaten
There's been hot debate about which animal it should be, as in Chinese 羊 can mean all three. However, a leading Chinese linguist in Hong Kong says it should be goat, since it was a highly prized animal... I digress...

In the hours following dinner we cleaned the dining chairs and replaced the cushions, prepared the candy tray, and arranged flower in a vase that has been used for years at this time.

We also put up her picture on the wall, a new one with her together with her husband so we could remember them on a daily basis.

Then finally after 11pm we cooked some sweet dumplings (mine filled with peanut paste) before I went home.

It was nice to see my relatives wanting to continue traditions they had grown up with, though the grandson added a few subversive New Year couplets featuring a caricature Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying with the words telling him to step down.

Check out the design inside the crest
He also bought two cushions from the Lunar New Year Flower Market at Victoria Park that featured the design of the Hong Kong passport, and in the crest there was a yellow umbrella and a yellow ribbon and the water bottle that looks like a tear gas canister that says "Made in Admiralty"...

Let's see what the Year of the Goat brings...

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Pictures of the Day: Politics at the Fair

A parody on police banners used during the protests
Tonight after a big hotpot dinner, YTSL and I decided to walk it off by going to Victoria Park again.

Victoria Park was packed with people tonight
She'd seen some people posting pictures of new things she didn't see the first time around on Saturday afternoon and wanted to check them out in person. I had missed a few things myself so we headed over there.

However, after we got out of the MTR station at Causeway Bay, the sidewalks were packed with people and it took us a while to get to Victoria Park. And once we entered the first lane on the far left, we were stuck in there inching along.

It was mostly the political parties that caught our eye. The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions unfurled a red banner similar to those the Hong Kong Police did during the protests that read: "Keep Charging or No Discount", while the Civic Party had a picture of Lion Rock and the words "I want true universal suffrage" above.

Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella...
Below on the ground was a cardboard cutout of an orange garbage can where people could pose for pictures to be like Lau Kong-wah, the undersecretary for constitutional and mainland affairs who was lampooned for being silent during the debate between the student protest leaders and government officials.

They also had a cardboard cutout of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was mechanically holding up his right hand with a yellow umbrella and around his neck wearing D7689, in a satirical reference to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

At the booth for the League of Social Democrats, Leung Kwok-hung who doesn't have long hair anymore, was selling all kinds of protest items like T-shirts, and above him was a caricature of CY being put into what looked like a spittoon by a yellow umbrella.

Leung Chun-ying told to step down (into a spittoon!)
A lot of people took pictures or had a good laugh looking at the caricatures, but did many people buy anything related to the Umbrella Movement? We only saw some people buy some yellow umbrella stickers, but other than that, it sadly seems the momentum of that moment in time has evaporated -- or is it because they feel none of these political parties represent them?

Monday, 16 February 2015

Reversal of Fortune?

Steve Wynn unveils four Qing Dynasty vases with then CE Edmund Ho
In July 2011, casino magnate Steve Wynn purchased four rare porcelain baluster vases from the Qing Dynasty at Christie's auction in London for $12.8 million, several times more than the pre-sale estimate.

He has said that he is committed to returning Chinese treasures back to China, and this quartet of vases was donated to the Macau Special Administrative Region, where they are in a permanent collection of the Cultural Affairs Bureau's Macao Museum.

Looking back, the PR stunt seems to have been Wynn's attempt at cultivating guanxi with the mainland in the hopes it would lead to even better business in the future.

Stanley Ho with the horse's head he bought at auction in 2007
That's what Stanley Ho did too when he repatriated two animal heads that were looted from the Summer Palace in the 1800s. Ho purchased the boar's head in 2003 from a New York collector and donated it to China, and again the horse's head in 2007 from a private collection in Taiwan.

But having spent millions of dollars, what has come of it?

Instead of hoping for the investment -- oops repatriation of treasures -- to pay off, things have gone south in a really bad way.

Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to wage his battle against corruption and has not only settled his sights on gambling tables in Macau -- but worldwide.

"Some foreign countries see our nation as an enormous market, as we have investigated a series of cases," said Hua Jingfeng, a deputy bureau chief at the Ministry of Public Security. "A fair number of neighbouring countries have casinos, as they have set up offices in China to attract and drum up interest from Chinese citizens to go abroad and gamble. This will also be an area that we will crack down on."

Can we hear the pin drop in Macau, Manila, Singapore and Las Vegas?

Not only is the Chinese government cracking down on gamblers, but also the casinos trying to promote themselves. The authorities will make it harder for these "resorts" to advertise from billboards to print and even text messages.

Construction continues at Wynn Palace, phase two at Cotai
There will also be further restrictions on visa requirements, and the flow of money will be tracked by officials through UnionPay, the only domestic credit card in China.

Gambling revenues in Macau have dropped for the first time since foreign operators were allowed into the former Portuguese colony in 2002. In December alone gaming revenues plunged 30 percent.

The anti-corruption crackdown has scared the high rollers, who depended on junkets to not only get them to Macau, but also supply a steady stream of credit. Some 16 percent of junket operators shut down last year, some carrying debts.

Did Wynn know this was coming? If there were any signs, he didn't see them at all.

"China remains a big question mark. We have more questions than answers," he admitted during a conference call earlier this month. "Thousands of our Macau employees are anticipating promotion and a better life because of Wynn Palace... We have learned in the last 12 years to behave in China, and that is to listen carefully to what the leadership says and to conform with the program as we are their guest," Wynn said. "We wait for an announcement from the government with baited breath... What we are seeing in China is an entrenchment."

Wynn could only say that he hoped "our ambitions to grow in Macau will continue to develop".

Does that sound like cautious optimism or completely blindsided?

So much for the vases and the animal heads. Millions of dollars do not buy security.

While the big gamblers are barely trickling in these days, casino operators in Macau are now wondering if their $23 billion investment in their second phases to expand gambling tables and entertainment options will pay off now...

Sunday, 15 February 2015

HK Police Censoring the Net?

Did you know in Hong Kong that the police can make requests to delete online posts in the city?

While some should be taken down, such as "obscene articles, phishing websites, and accessing a computer with criminal/dishonest intent", there is an uncomfortable surge in the number of requests since the Occupy protests in late September.

In 2011, there were 12 requests, 23 the following year, 30 in 2013 and 29 until September last year. When Occupy began until February this year, there were 101 requests alone.

There are concerns these police requests to take down posts are aimed at political activists, after a 23-year-old man was arrested on charges of "criminal/dishonest intent" in October after posting on an online thread about protest plans.

Jennifer Zhang, a researcher with the Hong Kong Transparency Report at the University of Hong Kong finds the jump in numbers concerning.

"It's highly possible that police are abusing their law enforcement power to conduct online censorship. There is a great lack of transparency here. In fact, according to a few forums I've been talking to, police often 'order' them to take down users' posts by phone or email," she said.

When questioned in the Legislative Council about this, the Hong Kong government defended the police's actions, saying "the existing mechanism functions effectively".

Only when lawmaker Charles Mok, who represents the information technology functional constituency did the police give the number of 101 requests by the police to take down online posts. This compares to the total of 65 requests from 2011 to 2013.

"It is a controversial area of law enforcement," says Zhang. "There has to be a balance between criminal prevention and freedom of speech, and that decision should not be made by the police alone."

However, when Mok requested an independent body scrutinize the process, the government declined.

He says there is a need for transparency and public scrutiny to allay the public's fears of privacy concerns.

The police have also requested online user information, such as emails and IP addresses. There were 4,234 such cases last year.

"Again, there's no clear legal regulation, independent oversight or user notification in place," Zhang said.

She says the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance is very vague when it comes to protecting user privacy, thus allowing the police to request information from service providers for very simple and general "criminal prevention" purposes.

With the growing number of requests to delete posts online, one can only imagine that soon Hong Kong may have its own army of censors trolling the internet for anything remotely subversive. And it could also signal the rise of the city's version of wumao or "50-Cent Party", who are hired by the Chinese government to comment favourably about Beijing. Surely they won't get 50 mao, or 50 cents for each comment?

That just means that talk is cheap.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Sales Pitch

A giant boat load of orchid plants for only HK$13,888
It's that time of year again -- the Lunar New Year flower market at Victoria Park. The madness began yesterday and I decided to check it out tonight with a friend.

Poking fun at the police banners used during the protests
While we entered from the Causeway Bay entrance, we didn't take the conventional route of going from the far left row to the other end, and instead headed to the middle in a bid to avoid massive crowds at the beginning.

We saw the usual stuffed toys, from sheep and Hello Kittys, to emojis and even pillows shaped like giant lollipops. There were a few Umbrella Movement-themed stalls, one with voice balloons that said: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one" quoting John Lennon, and yellow umbrella-shaped  balloons.

One stall had a yellow banner that read: "Merchant warning: You are in Lunar New Year Fair. You may be approached", and the people manning the stall were selling water bottles that looked like tear gas canisters.

Check out Regina Leung and her tank!
The Democratic Party didn't have a large supply of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying-themed toilet paper and tissues on hand, but instead had face towels with his caricature on it looking wolf-like. They also had a cardboard tank with lobster claws on it and Leung's wife Regina in her military-like outfit as commander-in-chief of the Hong Kong Army Cadets. She even has a Hitler-like moustache...

And while there were lots of stalls selling flowers, mostly orchids, there was one selling potted cabbage -- sang choi which has the same meaning as prosperity. So maybe it would be good to grow one of these at home -- have fresh salad and hopefully the money will be rolling in too?

However we got sucked into one stall when we saw the guy handing out free stuff -- was it really free? First it was cloths for household cleaning, and then these plastic hooks that can hold up to 4kg of stuff. My friend and I got those hooks and were hoping to get our hands on those cloths.

But wait! There's more! The sales guy whipped out a chopping knife and showed us how sharp it was and told us each of us could have one -- and if you did, raise your hand! Of course we did.

Lots of cabbage for those wanting a richer Year of the Sheep!
He was very chatty and kept making us repeat the company name, that these products would be available from March 15, and that we were not allowed to sell these, but to try for ourselves and tell our friends about it. Would we do that? Yes! Who wants to try them? We do!

But that's not all! There's also a shaver that you add shaving cream to and it doesn't make a mess, and you can even clean it by dunking it in a container of water! And even the wire for charging it can be put in the water too even if it's plugged in! Very crazy.

By this time, my right foot went numb from standing there listening to him go on and on and telling us he would give us all these things, and at the same time teasing and cajoling us, making us repeat his words over and over. Was he going to give us the stuff or not?

Only 12 people would be able to get all these things -- including a cutting board too -- but wait -- it's not free. Would you pay HK$1 for it? How about HK$10? HK$100?

Some yellow umbrella balloons hanging around
In the end it turned out people had to pay HK$500 for the whole lot and there were many takers -- even a few who had already whipped out the money because they had been told the total value of all the items was under HK$2,000.

We had stood around for almost an hour... and left empty handed. But boy was he a good talker.

By this point we were exhausted and so we didn't finish the rest of the stalls and instead headed to the flower stalls so that I could buy my consolation prize of a pot of orchids...

Friday, 13 February 2015

Where's HK's Press Freedom?

Press freedom in colours from yellow: satisfactory to black: difficult situation
As if Hong Kong needed further indication that its media landscape is deteriorating, Reporters Without Borders has released its annual report with the city dropping to its lowest ever position since the rankings came out in 2002.

Hong Kong is now at 70th place in terms of press freedom, compared to 61st last year, and 58th in 2013.

In 2002 the city was ranked 18th, and then plunge to 56th the following year.

The international media watchdog cited some events in the past year that were cause for concern, including the knife attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to, suspicions that Beijing had a hand in the sudden closure of pro-democracy website House News, and accusations that there was self-censorship in the media on covering the Umbrella Movement protests.

For some perspective, China was ranked 176th of 180 countries, also its lowest ranking since it began, while Taiwan was at 51st place, and Japan 61st.

Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Sham Yee-lan blamed the Leung Chun-ying administration. "The government has shown no respect to the press. Our officials now like to write blogs, instead of hosting proper press conferences, to discuss public policy issues," she said.

Press freedom is measured by the degree of freedom reporters, media and netizens enjoy and the efforts made by governments to ensure respect for this freedom.

Hong Kong is the tiny orange dot next to China...
The index is compiled using information compiled from questionnaires sent to partner organizations around the world as well as local journalists, researchers and human rights activists.

In an overall statement, the group said: "Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.

"Two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed for the 2015 index performed less well than in the previous year," it said.

Finland topped the list for the fifth year in the row, followed by Norway and Denmark. In last place was the African nation of Eritrea, then North Korea and Turkmenistan in Central Asia. The United States was ranked 49th, down three places.

Hong Kong's ranking is utterly disappointing, but not surprising. The biggest concern is what will be done about the situation, and sadly probably not much, given the current climate of Beijing taking a keener interest in Hong Kong affairs following the Occupy protests.

It's a sad state of affairs when reporters have to find out the latest government news on websites, eerily replicating what's done in China (particularly on Friday afternoons), and there is little opportunity for reporters to engage with officials and hold them accountable for their statements or actions.

When journalists cannot do their jobs, then how can the public find out what's really going on? They too are distrustful of the government. This lack of information only exacerbates tensions between the authorities and the people, resulting in further disillusionment.

Does this mean another Umbrella Movement brewing as we speak?

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Worst of Hong Kong

Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih
I can understand it can be uncomfortable having a stranger live in your home to be a domestic helper. They quickly come to know your personal habits -- many of which colleagues and good friends would never recognize.

The deal is that these maids must clean your home and cook meals for you, do your laundry and whatever else, from looking after children, tending to elderly parents, to running errands and whatever else you may need help with.

There are usually language issues, and cultural ones too that are only cleared up through trial and error.

And in return they get a small cupboard-sized room with a bed, only to be let out once a week, and a paltry monthly salary for the number of hours they work.

Indonesian domestic helpers calling for justice for Erwiana
The least employers could do is be courteous to these domestic helpers -- they are after all helping the family function more efficiently to a degree. And there are many people who treat their maids well.

But why are there some people who insist on treating their employees worse than animals?

Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was vindicated on Tuesday after her former employer was convicted of assaulting her and another Indonesian maid.

Erwiana was beaten constantly, knocked out on one occasion and had a metal tube from a vacuum cleaner inserted in her mouth. On top of that employer Law Wan-tung refused to pay her the monthly salary agreed in the contract.

Law was found guilty of 18 or the 20 charges and must pay Erwiana HK$28,000 ($3,611) in back pay. The 44-year-old employer has yet to be sentenced.

However there are other documented horror stories.

A husband and wife were jailed in 2013 for torturing their Indonesian maid for two years. They whipped her with a bicycle chain and once attacked her with a paper cutter after she refused to cut her hair. They even tied her to a chair when they were away and every night before going to bed. The maid testified she had to go to the garbage bins to scavenge for food.

In another case in 2000, another Indonesian helper had her neck burned by her employer, who was found guilty and jailed for 22 months.

There are many other horrific stories. What is going on here?

Why do Hong Kong people feel they have the right to mistreat another human being so badly?

While there are groups that assist domestic helpers, saying Indonesian maids don't have strong English language skills and aren't as well educated as Filippinas to find help, shouldn't there be checks and balances to ensure that employers are treating their employees well?

Granted there are only about 50 cases of abuse each year, that's 50 too many.

Mistreatment needs to end now -- not just the abuse, but the prejudice against these women who have sacrificed much to leave their families and come to an unfamiliar place to live and work in the same place day in and day out.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Veering Off Script

Is Leung Chai-yan a star in the making? She already has the starlet looks...
The saga of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's daughter Leung Chai-yan continues, much to the delight of local media and others out to dig up dirt on him.

The latest is that the 23-year-old is set to star in a big screen romantic comedy that has been "tailor-made" for her".

However, she did not show up at the press conference last night to initiate her move from law studies to show business.

The film's director Wynn Lau Chun-fai claimed earlier that Leung would show up, but then later said she fell ill.

"She was already on the way, but suddenly felt very sick and could not walk at all," Lau said during the press conference.

Leung with her dad each having a Mister Softee ice cream
We wonder how this could be possible except for extreme stage fright, or eating something bad a few hours earlier...

Nevertheless, reports are that Leung signed a contract a month ago that would pay her a six-figure salary, and that filming would start in early March for the HK$10 million film scheduled to be released in June.

But Lau was coy about the film's title, only saying it was "confidential".

Leung is to play the role of a social worker, and her co-star is Don Li Yat-long, who will be a magazine reporter. While the two will be lovers in the movie, it has not been decided if kissing will be involved, and the story will not involve her father.

How can a movie be believable if the pair don't even kiss on screen?

Thirty-three-year-old Li seems to be completely in the dark about the film because he only found out yesterday his co-star would be Leung. "I won't feel embarrassed because of her father's identity," Li said.

Of course reporters asked the Chief Executive's Office for a comment on Leung's move to the big screen, but there was none.

We can only imagine there's lots of hang-wringing going on in the CEO's office, wondering how to contain this on-going reality drama that isn't going according to Leung Chun-ying's script...

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Old School Feast

Lin Heung Tea House is decorated with birdcages and fake birds in them
Tonight I had a taste of some traditional Chinese dishes at the famous Lin Heung Tea House on Wellington Street. My relatives invited me to come along and as the restaurant is known for serving large portions, the more the merrier.

The (large and) healthful pig lung soup!
Our reservation was for 8.15pm and the place was bustling, with every table occupied. There are bird cages hung around with fake birds in them; makes you wonder why they bother, but perhaps they think empty ones are even more depressing?

No one seemed to notice and preferred focusing on their dining companions and of course the food.

Lin Heung is known for preparing dishes that many other places in town don't make any more, mostly because they are labour intensive, not because they are expensive ingredients.

We started off with the pig lung soup that was served in a giant tureen -- so large that nine of us almost had three bowls each. This soup is tedious to prepare, mostly because the lung needs to be cleaned thoroughly before it is put in the soup otherwise it spoils the taste.

The fried crispy chicken was quickly devoured...
The soup also has lots of ground almond, making it milky white, with lots powdery residue, and enhances the taste, along with lean pork. The lung was cut into chunks and dipped in soy sauce had a soft texture.

It's said that drinking this soup helps get rid of coughs, or any respiratory ailments, so we made sure we each had an extra bowl.

Next came deep-fried chicken and it had a gorgeous dark crispy skin, juicy meat underneath. This was no lean bird either, with lots of meat that was very tender.

Another highlight dish was braised pork knuckle that arrived in a massive deep platter, with large chunks of lotus root. The pork knuckle was chopped into large pieces and quite a bit to chew on, but we all loved the sauce and started thinking of how it could be used in leftovers as a sauce with noodles, and adding dried tofu to it to soak up the flavour.

Another excellent dish of pork knuckle with lotus root
This dish was impossible to finish and luckily relatives brought some food containers to take the rest home.

The stir-fried glutinous rice was very good too, just the right stickiness and softness, and included chopped lap cheung, mushrooms dried shrimps topped with stringy fried egg and scallions.

Another highlight was a very large, relatively flat fish that was smoked with tea leaves and served with mayonnaise. Fish this large are hard to find in the markets these days and so this was a treat.

The server removes the bones of the tea-smoked fish
It was cooked perfectly, and had the lingering smoky flavour. It was a big portion, but since it was so good, we managed to polish it off literally from head to tail.

There were also two vegetable dishes, one of pea shoots with Chinese ham, another of Chinese cabbage braised with mushrooms and goose webs.

Finally it was time for dessert, the restaurant's signature baked pudding -- sago with lotus seed paste, that came out more runny than thick. It was very much on the sweet side, but the taste was comforting and old school.

By the time we waddled out at 10pm more than half the place had already cleared out. Another memorable meal sitting comfortably in our stomachs!

Baked sago pudding with lotus seed paste inside
Lin Heung Tea House
160-164 Wellington Street
2544 4556